Monthly Archives: October 2011

Small mysteries

The Colby Room

In one of those odd twists of history that are not uncommon in museums, the Museum of Science, Boston displays a period room.  The former game room of Colonel Francis Thompson Colby boasts an impressive collection of trophies from four decades of big game hunting, and souvenirs of his travels on at least four continents.  We are in the process of installing a new vestibule, so visitors can actually enter the room, and in the process have uncovered a little surprise.

The room is fronted by a pair of “elephant doors”, a not-uncommon sight in East African buildings. These doors are said to have come from the palace of the Sultan of Witu.   The 12-foot high, four-inch thick doors are studded with brass bosses which are supposed to deter elephants from butting the doors in with their heads. When the doors were taken down to be rehung, we noticed a small inscription carved at the top of the central pillar, which had been in the shadows for decades.  Here is the inscription:

And here are the transcriptions:

Any Arabic scholars out there?

For the curious, Witu is a village in eastern Kenya, north of Mombasa, not far from the port of Lamu. It was formerly an independent sultanate in the late 19th century, and was a British protectorate from 1893 to 1923.  Judging from the Lion and Unicorn above the door, I’d say the doors also date to somewhere between 1893-1923.


Lori Phillips (follow her: @HstryQT) kindly spread the word amongst the Wikipedians, and got one response already:



Anyone else?

One year and counting…

It just dawned on me that I’ve been actively blogging for a year now. It is difficult to believe. It still feels so new. But, the server stats say otherwise. So Happy Blogday to “Thinking about exhibits”!

So, here’s a question for you.  I’ve been thinking about digging into the stats to see what kinds of posts seemed to be the most useful to people.  But I figured I could go all old school and actually ask you as well.  What posts/themes/subjects have you found the most useful to you? What things haven’t I covered that seem like shocking oversights.  I keep meaning to post a series on the exhibit development practice, but they keep getting bumped by more topical items. Part of me wonders if that’s my subconscious telling me “That’d be boring.” Part of me knows that my subconscious can be an obnoxious baby sometimes and I should ignore it.  So, tell me what you’d like to see more of and I’ll try to oblige.


Review: “Degas and the Nude” multimedia guide

La Toilette. Edgar Degas, 1884-86

Last week, some colleagues and I went to the MFA to see their “Degas and the Nude” show and to try out the multimedia guide MFA produced for the show. Sandy Goldberg, who developed the content for the tour, has waxed poetic about it for months. Phil Getchell, MFA’s outgoing head of IT,  told me it was “quite good.” He’s from Maine, and prone to understatement.  So, off we went.  The exhibition is stunning. If you’re looking for a straight up review of the exhibition itself, try the Boston Globe, the New Yorker, or Wall Street Journal.  But I was really more interested in the opportunity to see what a good, traditional mobile tour experience is like in the post Acoustiguide/Antenna world. And it looks pretty good!

First, a bit of prehistory. As part of their expansion last year, MFA rolled out what I think is still the world’s-largest homegrown multimedia tour. When the Art of the Americas wing opened, there was a fleet of 700 iPod Touch players  running a 150+ stop tour of the Art of the Americas and the permanent collections, built on top of IMA’s open-source TAP platform.  MFA contracted with Vienna-based NOUS-Guide for launching the tour, but have kept a remarkably large chunk of the work in-house.

The NOUS-Guide iPod cover

Since then, they’ve been steadily adding to it, and launching smaller tours for special exhibitions. All this with a pretty small staff, and some long-time outside collaborators. “Degas and the Nude” is the latest tour to launch and it seems that largely “going it alone” has not hurt MFA at all, quite the contrary. They seem to be more proof that you can produce mobile tours that look just as slick as the bespoke ones, using open source tools and (mostly) in-house expertise.

An aside about celebrity narrators in the new media age
The immediate impetus for my visit was all the buzz in the Twittersphere surrounding the launch of the tour generated by the tour’s narrator, Boston-based singer/songwriter Amanda Palmer. A former figure model, and living statue/busker herself, Palmer was an inspired choice for a “celebrity” narrator for an exhibition of images of nude women, and something of a bold move for an institution like the MFA. Palmer’s work with The Dresden Dolls, Evelyn Evelyn, and her solo career, is nothing if not edgy. (Disclaimer: I’m a fan, verging on fanboy. She’s an amazing performer.) Check out the Dresden Doll’s Coin-Operated Boy, and Amanda Palmer & The Young Punx’ Map of Tasmania (totally NSFW) for an idea.

Having her as the “voice” of a Degas exhibition seemed like it could be a wonderful juxtaposition.  She is also a fierce advocate of the power of social media, using Facebook and Twitter to carve out a successful music career free of the record label treadmill that wears down so many modern musicians. She lives and breathes online, announcing impromptu shows via tweets, crowdsourcing the funding of new albums, etc… She’s a very busy, very digital, woman. She’s also recently married to another celebrity who is a new media titan, best-selling author Neil Gaiman of Sandman, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book fame. (Disclaimer: I’m also a fan.) Between them, they have over 2 million Twitter followers and at least another half-million Facebook friends. New media celebrity looks very different from old-fashioned celebrity. And different things happen.

Working in this world means that the project got all kinds of unanticipated exposure. Months before the tour launched, a couple million people on Twitter knew Palmer was recording her narration, because she posted pictures. When she and Gaiman had their private tour of the exhibition just before the public opening, she caused a minor blizzard of Tweets when she asked if it’d be all right if she disrobed in the gallery so Gaiman could sketch her. Just another day working at the Museum, covering up security cameras and trying to look … natural? I’d give my eye teeth to have been there, just to listen in on the conversations, “She wants to what?! Here?” “Well, I suppose… Why not?”  I love the way that crazy events like this unfold so effortlessly in museum work.  I should do a collection of stories on the theme of “Bizarre Things I Have Had to Do As Part of My Museum Job.” Got any submissions? 😉

Anyway, the thing I think worth considering is that working with partners who “get” new media and social engagement means that the MFA generated more awareness of the exhibition and guide without really doing anything than a team of “social media strategists” could probably manage in a year.

And now back to our story
So Phil and Katie Packard graciously gave us the busman’s tour of MFA’s multimedia tour operations. I will never complain about the cable mess on my desk again, promise! I should’ve taken pictures of the closet with all the racks of units plugged into an array of Mac Minis. There was more USB cabling than you’d ever want to see, let alone plug in and unplug. And the kluges that come with any DIY operation, like the USB plugs that were just too big and had to have a corner shaved off with a knife, by hand, for each plug… And there are how many units in the Museum’s fleet?

As Peter Samis predicted in his Tate Handheld talk last fall, museums now have the freedom (and the work that comes with freedom) to parcel out mobile tour development in chunks, based on their capabilities and needs. MFA contracted with an outside content developer to write the script, used in-house people build the TAP-based app, worked with NOUS-Guide to get the app onto iPods and push content out as it was done, and used NOUS-Guide’s custom sleeve to protect the units. They have a mono earpiece built into a bright red lanyard that holds the unit.  It’s not as flashy as the neon yellow ones SFMOMA uses, but they’re easy to see.  Having the earpiece cable travel through a sleeve in the lanyard is a little bit of design brilliance. It keeps the cable clutter down tremendously. I didn’t get tangled in my headset once, which I think is a first.  I also found that the mono headset worked really well for letting me both listen to the tour and listen to my friends when we wanted to talk.

Snobby stereophile Ed gets his comeuppance
I will confess that when I first saw the single earpiece, I gave an internal shudder.  I came up in audiotours, mostly working with Antenna, and a high-quality, lovingly crafted stereo soundscape was a signature of their products. And I’ve remained convinced that stereo is better, most of the time. However, on the Degas tour, the lack of stereo didn’t bother me at all. If anything, I found that it made it feel as if the narrators were standing right next to me, talking into my left ear as we walked around the gallery together. I could hear just fine, even in crowded rooms, and I felt more “there” and less in my own sonic cocoon. Live and learn.

Short tour with snacks
For a separate charge show, the Degas tour is pretty short, fifteen stops. Each stop lets you listen, or look at the transcript, and many have additional audio or video.  I enjoyed the videos particularly, since they focused on demonstrating processes that Degas used. I now know how a monotype is made, among other things.  I didn’t feel like  I wasn’t getting enough tour, which had me puzzled. For any tour we’ve ever evaluated in past, the main things visitors said was, “I wish there were more stops,” regardless of how many stops were on the tour. So why did fifteen seem OK to me? I think at least partly it was because the player comes with the permanent collections tour and whatever the temporary show du jour happens to be. Which is a distribution model that I like a lot. It makes the temporary show seem more part of the overall museum experience, and less a completely separate entity. And when you own the players and the means of production of new content, you can do that.

All in the family
Another aspect of the tour I appreciated was the extent to which MFA was able to keep the experience centered on Museum assets.  Almost all the other voices and faces that appeared in the tour were drawn from the MFA and its school. Listening to a figure model talk about what’s going through her head while she’s standing naked in front of a room of SFMA students made all sorts of connections between the century-old sketches I was looking at and the modern world. Watching a SFMA printmaker whip out a monotype was both illustrative in its own right, and reminded me that people still do what Degas did. It put him back into a tradition that lives on today.

So in a nutshell…
It was a great, straightforward mobile tour experience.  The script was dynamite, loaded with insights into Degas and his art that complimented the label text without repeating it. The narration was good. Palmer’s not a professional narrator, and it shows sometimes, but it worked for me. Her narration, juxtaposed with curator George Shackleford’s foray’s into the world and mind of Degas, made me feel like I was hanging with two interesting people who knew a lot more about Degas than I did. The interface worked 98% of the time. We got hung up on an audio clip that we thought must have video with it, but otherwise it performed as expected. All three of us wound up seeking out all the stops, and later as we whizzed through the American art wing, we took advantage of the fact that our players had the permanent collection on them to listen to a couple of stops.

This Wednesday, at the next Boston Museum Tech meetup, I will have to buy a drink for any of folks who worked on the tour and congratulate them.

Careers and jobs

Today has been one of those rare days when work life is just all good; intensely satisfying, full of interesting new learnings and that flow experience of everything seeming to connect to everything else I’m working on. Heady stuff.

Kinda says it all, doesn't it?

However into every life a little rain must fall.  I was marking up a colleague’s ASTC program with sessions I wish I was going to and I came across this depressing edit that says so much about the current state of the field.

So to combat this bleak little tidbit and to live up to the challenges I talked about in my recent post on asking the important questions, I thought I’d offer up a couple of encouraging tidbits I received recently.

Educator-Arts Program Manager, Boston Children’s Museum
Loren Stolow from the Boston Children’s Museum wrote me to spread the word that they are looking to offer someone “an exciting, full time with benefits, not so awful paying, museum job”.  Ideally it will be someone with experience in direct teaching in art and early childhood, and strong Boston arts community connections who could coordinate innovative, engaging, diverse shows and events.

Program Manager, Toura 
Want to get into mobile app development without being a Ruby on Rails dev or Android genius? Toura is looking for a Program Manager in NYC.  “We are looking for a superstar to join our @touramobile team.” Check out the link for the description. It could be a great start in a growing sector of the museum biz.

Check it out!

Asking (and answering) the Big Questions

Well, it’s been a heady couple of weeks!  I got an invite from Neal Stimler to submit a video response to a crowdsourced presentation he’s making at MCN 2011 titled “Philosophical Leadership Needed for the Future: Digital Humanities Scholars in Museums”.  He’s soliciting answers to three questions:

Question 1:
How can museums advance beyond the continuation of traditional practices utilizing digital tools to a new mode of interpretation that seeks to understand the meanings of collections and scholarship in a new media culture?

Question 2:
What is required of museums to establish digital humanities research centers within the framework of existing institutions?

Question 3:
Why might interdisciplinary and non-traditional scholars from outside the established professional ranks make the best leaders needed for inspired change in the philosophical directions of museums?

Q1 is pretty important stuff. How do we move beyond using new tools to do old tasks, and come to grips with what it means to be a museum in the new media world? Q2 did nothing for me, and I question the wording of Q3 as being pretty leading.  I still haven’t formulated my response, but there’s still time. You’ve got til Nov. 3rd.

While this was percolating, I almost simultaneously read Nina Simon’s post on “What are the Most Important Problems in our Field?” and got an email from Rob Stein asking me to respond to “The Challenges and Opportunities of Participatory Culture” for the Salzburg Global Seminar.  He also started a hashtag, #museumchallenges, to capture the wisdom of the hive mind.  Rather than start yet another discussion of this, I highly recommend you check out both posts. The questions they ask are different, but complimentary, and the quality of the comments on each are great! There’s about a year’s worth of learning contained in there!

Two things that struck me were Nina’s invoking of mathematician Richard Hamming, who said

“If you do not work on an important problem, it’s unlikely you’ll do important work…  It’s not the consequence that makes a problem important, it is that you have a reasonable attack. That is what makes a problem important. When I say that most scientists don’t work on important problems, I mean it in that sense. The average scientist, so far as I can make out, spends almost all his time working on problems which he believes will not be important and he also doesn’t believe that they will lead to important problems.”

and Nancy Proctor’s response to Rob, which ended,

“I think we need to be very suspicious of the fetishization of the new in this period where there is a constant stream of shiny new toys to dazzle us with the promise of starting over in a Brave New World. Let’s make sure we don’t deceive ourselves, like Columbus discovering America, but rather undertake the much harder, less sexy, but ultimately more sustainable task of radically restructuring our museums and practices even as we work within those very institutions.”

The two comments neatly form the horns of a dilemma that plagues many of us who have been in museum work for any length of time — how to discern what matters from what’s getting all the attention. Something I’ve been wrestling with myself has been trying to define what are the problems that most deserve my attention at work, and whether I can attack them, and if so, how. Just getting them down on paper and trying to tease out whether I have any way to address them is a fascinating exercise.  It can be so easy to fall into the trap of fixating on problems that are beyond your control that it’s easy to lose sight of those that maybe can be solved.

Go visit Rob and Nina and share your light with us! We certainly need all the help we can get.

Next Boston Museum Tech Meetup, October 19th, 7PM

Hey friends, 

The votes are in and and ran 2 to 1 in favor of Wednesday, so I’m calling it. The next meetup will be at the  Cambridge Brewing Company in Kendall Square, Cambridge on Wednesday, October 19th. I’ll be there a bit before 7PM and try to scope out a good spot. We’ll prolly be inside since this balmy weather can’t last too much longer…


Come on out and hang with your peeps.  I’ve got a question for you, too…

See ya there,

P.S. As always, forward this to your friends and colleagues you think should join us!

The New Media Consortium wants your help!

I’m on the Advisory Board for this year’s NMC Horizon Report: Museums Edition.  It’s a fabulous guidebook to what’s out there and what’s coming. As part of the final information-gathering, they’re looking for innovative examples of technologies in museums for inclusion in the report.  See the note below and let them (or me) know of any cool examples you’ve encountered.



NMC Seeks Examples for the NMC Horizon Report: 2011 Museum Edition

We are interested in learning about any kind of research, pilot programs, innovative projects, or other work happening at your museum (or ones you know of) in any of the six areas listed below.  Our goal is to help readers understand the potential impact of these technologies and their applications on teaching, learning, or creative inquiry.

Here are the six areas identified for this year’s report:

Time-to-Adoption Horizon:  One Year or Less
* Mobiles
* Tablet Computing

Time-to-Adoption Horizon:  Two to Three Years
* Augmented Reality
* Electronic Publishing

Time-to-Adoption Horizon:  Four to Five Years
* Digital Preservation
* Smart Objects

The Time-to-Adoption Horizon indicates how long the Advisory Board feels it will be until a significant number of museums are providing or using each of these technologies or approaches broadly. Of course, a number of innovative museums are already working in some of these areas, and those are the very efforts we want to highlight. Of special interest are any activities that have a significant web presence so that a URL might be included in the report.

How to Participate

If you know of examples we could include, please use the brief web form at to tell us about them. We ask for a title, a URL, and a one- or two-sentence description; you also will need to select which of the six topics your example falls under. The process takes about two minutes.

We hope to have your examples by Wednesday, October 12, but no matter what, we’d love to hear about what you are doing!  All we really need is a sentence of description and a URL — we’ll do the rest.

Thanks — and we look forward to hearing from you — and from your networks!


Larry Johnson
Chief Executive Officer

Holly Witchey
Editor and Museum Scholar in Residence


The New Media Consortium
sparking innovation, learning and creativity