Monthly Archives: January 2012

Boston Museum Tech meetup 2/2, 7PM

Come join us for Drinking About Museums, Boston

Drinks by Flickr user The Vault DFW

Our next meetup will be this Thursday, February 2nd, at 7PM. As we have for the past few months, the meetup will be at the Cambridge Brewing Company in Kendall Square, Cambridge. I’ll be there a bit before 7 and I think I’ll even reserve a big table, so check your calendars and let me know! Our topic is new rationales for digital interactives.

And in solidarity with our peeps in Denver and DC, I’m going to use the #drinkingaboutmuseums BOS hashtag from now on, so update your filters.

New Media Consortium retreat – Day Two

Here’s the final part of my impressions of the Future of Education retreat held by the New Media Consortium in rainy Austin, TX.  The first part can be found here.

The final day of the retreat felt different to me, more intense. After a giddy first day of throwing ideas around and throwing them up on the wall, the tasks of synthesizing, identifying and ranking metatrends was more of a slog. Our brains were tired, and it’s hard work. The discussions and statements got more heated, especially when people felt that their idea might not get heard before it was too late. By the end, I was worried that we might get bogged down and not finish our task, but Larry Johnson, Lev Gonick, and David Sibbet are great cat herders and never seemed to tire of reminding us one more time to stay on topic. Great facilitation is like gold, and credit for getting any usable result from the event will rest firmly with them in my mind.

from Britt Watwood's "Learning In a Flat World" blog

I came into the event still processing one of the small group discussions I’d had yesterday about the dueling dyads of Vision & Leadership and Desire & Will and how they should inform one’s work. Discovering your passion and deciding what is to be done are big issues, or maybe Big Issues. There’s still more to unpack there.

In one of the morning small groups (I’ve lost track of how many I was in overall. It was a lot, though.) we were charged with identifying metatrends. The conversation turned, as it did so many times, to how resistant academics were to the perceived loss of their privileged position as “authorities”. It occurred to me that I’ve had this conversation countless times in the past several months now. The “they” changes (directors/curators/academics), but they’re always the people not in the room. I wonder what they say about us at their conferences?

In the course of this, we touched on visitors/students ongoing need or desire to have ways to make sense of the superabundance of information that’s now available. I think you can view the whole app phenomenon as a manifestation of this desire, the move away from surfing around to get what you want to having an app that just gives you a tiny slice – a snack as opposed to a smorgasbord. People still want and value guidance, they just want “a guide on their side instead of a sage on the stage,” as Zoë Rose put it.

How many buzzwords has the museum sector given to popular culture? The only one I can think of is curation; the act of finding and gathering objects and information to tell stories. Do a web search on “curate” and you’ll find all kinds of thing being curated that have nothing to do with museum practice. It must be galling to many curators to have their highly-specialized craft abstracted to the point that you can now curate your clothes, your music, and, worst of all – content, whatever that is. I choose to look upon this as a mark of esteem that people value this skill so much that they want to identify what they do with what curators do. I’m working on being more of a “glass half full kind” of guy this year.

I also see it as our great opportunity in this emergent era of digital plenty. We may not be Google, or Apple, or Wikipedia, or ______, but if there is one thing we know better than anyone else, it’s curation and we already have the people and the repositories of information to tell the important stories, the universal ones, the ones that last. I think it’s no longer a question of technology or budget. What museums need to do to be the kinds of institutions that are vibrant and relevant to rising generations is essentially a question of vision and leadership, desire and will.

Final thoughts
As one of the last to leave to event, I had plenty of time to think about what I learned from the retreat to take forward with me.  I was rueing the fact that I didn’t get to spend more time talking to Liz Neely about careers. Seb Chan and I started talking about the lack of magic in science museum exhibits and how to capture more of that. Zoë Rose and I both work for large institutions that use the term “learning journey” and struggle to understand exactly what that means. And the list goes on… I decided that the sign of a good professional event is that it generates more dialogue than there is time to finish. I can’t wait to continue these talks online and off, and see where they lead.

A much-enjoyed beer afterwards

Themes from the NMC retreat

The New Media Consortium’s Horizon Report 10th Anniversary retreat has been going full swing all day and night, and I’m exhausted. All this thinking and trying to take on the abundant inspiration coming at us from all sides has been hard work.  Just check out the Twitter feed at #NMChz to get a flavor of the torrent.  I tried to live tweet a bit, but the conversations were too stimulating, and I decided it was more important to be present than to capture it.  Luckily for us all, there are several hundred tweets, videos going up already and all will be catalogued and served on the NMC site.

The following are some of the ideas a and inspirations that I have to get out of my head before I can go to bed and rest up for tomorrow.

Notable quotes:

Lev Gonick started with an Eleanor Roosevelt quote that she saw her mission being, “to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the  comfortable.” This appeals to the troublemaker in me no end!

David Sibbet said,

“You need communities, but you need leaders, too.”

Øystein Johannessen said,

“To innovate, you need a solid base of knowledge.”

U.S. Army War College coined the term VUCA (VUCA=Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) to describe the present and its since spread into teaching strategic leadership and other areas. It’s a VUCA world. And getting more so all the time.

Susan Metros, talking about leadership, asked us to think about “What do you value?” and “What influences you?” and find answers to those questions. She then recommended three books:

  • Edward de Bono, Lateral Thinking
  • Amos Rappaport, House Form & Culture
  • Mary Catherine Bateson, Composing a Life

Look at the lay of the land and where you want to go and bushwhack your “desire path” to it.

A desire path is the term used by architects to describe those dirt paths that people wear into lawns because the paths the architects put down go in funny directions, so people just cut across the lawn to get to their destination, creating these unofficial paths.

Marsha Semmel, talking about informal education, stating that the big challenges are; Recognition, Research, Resources, Leadership, and “radical” collaborations. Yes, ma’am!

Some general themes that arose for me:

Living in Uncertainty
I love the idea of the VUCA world. It meshes with a lot of things happening in other discussions about museums. Rob Stein has been talking about the same idea at least since the last Tate Handheld conference. The MCN 2012 Program Committee has been wrestling with how to define this issue and how we should respond to it

The “L” word came up a lot today in almost every discussion, and it was both comforting and distressing to see how much people felt that they had really limited agency to affect transformation. Leadership was needed, and of course, the people who needed to display it weren’t in the room. In museum settings, this would usually involve complaining about curators or directors “Not getting it” whatever the “it” was. After today, and hearing about the challenges my colleagues in formal education face, I will try very hard never to complain about lack of leadership. Our afternoon discussion group had a great discussion about leadership and vision and how neither of these are the exclusive domain of those in charge. Shifting all of the onus of leadership onto the leaders is a self-defeating proposition, and one that lets practitioners off the hook.  It’s certainly easier for established leaders to exercise them, but we all have some ability to lead and look ahead, if we choose to exercise those abilities.

How surprising that learning should be a theme, right? Not very, but hearing it applied to us, instead of the “audience” or “students” was very heartening to me. I’ve been thinking a lot about what lifelong learning means for practitioners, and the idea that as educators we need to learn about the things we expect/predict/guess are going to be important to our audiences is critical. How will we need to transform our work environments and processes to make this kind of learning a natural part of the culture?

Communities of Interest
The whole day was a great example of the powers of communities of interest as opposed to communities of practice which is how we usually assemble. We employed this methodology in a project we worked on a couple of years ago, and it helped us conceive of how to work with outside and why in new and better ways. See Gerhard Fischer’s works, like “Communities of Interest: Learning through the Interaction of Multiple Knowledge Systems”  

Can’t wait for tomorrow!

iBooks Author and publishing

By now, you’ve probably heard that Apple announced a major new education initiative last week. They’re gunning for textbook publishers now, and to make creating content for the iBooks store easy, they’re giving away a free app, iBooks Author, to help you make next-generation interactive publications. Sounds great, right? Like an answer to the questions I posed in my post about digital publishing a while back. Until people read the EULA.

Boy, did the shit hit the fan then. The EULA has buried in it two interesting pieces. The first says that if you aren’t charging for your work, you can do distribute it as you see fit. The one that raised howls says, “If you charge a fee for any book or other work you generate using this software (a “Work”), you may only sell or distribute such Work through Apple…” In other words, if you use this tool, you can only sell the products you make through Apple.  Dan Wineman called it “unprecedented audacity.” And he was one of the least vitriolic.  The LA Times produced a slightly more-nuancced piece, quoting some of the pro and anti iBooks Author pieces.  And to complete the pile-on, even Microsoft was able to take a few shots at Apple via Twitter. A rocky start.

What I find interesting is that the fact that you can use their free tool to make rich media experiences and give them away without paying Apple hasn’t really elicited much comment. Perhaps because most folks aren’t in the business of giving away content the way museums are. Would you use iBooks Author to make an interactive publication?


Digital interactivity, new media literacy, and museum staff

The Future is coming, photo by Flickr user h.koppdelaney

I’ve been thinking about digital interactives lately.  The Horizon Report: 2011 Museum Edition is full of technologies poised to alter our practice. The New Media Consortium Future of Education retreat is coming up in a week or so. At our next Boston Museum Tech meetup we’re going to drink and talk about the point of digital experiences.  The Program Committee for the Museum Computer Network 2012 conference is beginning its work. And Suse Cairns has been writing some thought-provoking posts over at her blog about the physical and virtual.  All good fodder for thinking ways of interacting with visitors using digital technologies.

But what I’ve most been struck by is a comment Seb Chan made in response to Suse’s question about whether museums should treat the physical space as the most important one. It’s buried down in the replies, so read the whole thing. He writes,

“The problem is not so much whether museums ‘should’ but whether they are structurally organised and resourced to be able to”

This rang in my head like a gong. These technologies are nothing without people able to create and deploy them, and institutions organized in ways that allow them to be utilized effectively. These issues aren’t technology issues per se, they’re institutional culture issues, and require a different kind of solution than the kinds I’d been thinking of. My default thinking usually runs something along the lines of, “What do I need so I can do the kind of work I want to do?” A bit selfish, and short-sighted, but I’m working on it. 😉

Professional development is essential in new media, because most of us learned nothing about it. If you graduated from university with a museum studies degree five years ago, you wouldn’t have learned about Twitter. Youtube was a new thing and Facebook was moving out of colleges into the wild. If you graduated ten years ago, social media in general would be an alien thing. If you’re a late Cretaceous dinosaur like me, computers were a novelty, and if you’re older, say an early Jurassic dinosaur like many museum directors, computers in general are something that happened after formal schooling.

So how can we hope to incorporate these tools in meaningful ways in our work? I think this might be one of the pillars that 2012 rests on for me. Coming up with a response to this will require real change of the painful, exhilarating sort. What do you do to bring in new ideas and workflows?

next Boston Museum Tech Meetup, 2/2 7PM at CBC

Happy New Year folks! 2012 is upon us, so let’s celebrate with drinks and good cheer!

Drinks by Flickr user The Vault DFW

Our next meetup will be on Thursday, February 2nd, at 7PM.  As we have for the past few months, the meetup will be at the  Cambridge Brewing Company in Kendall Square, Cambridge.  I’ll be there a bit before 7PM. If enough people commit, I think I’ll even reserve a big table, so check your calendars and let me know!

The topic is “digital interactives”
This month, I also have an ulterior motive. I want your brains. And the brains of anybody else from your institutions you want to bring along. Seb Chan from the Cooper-Hewitt and I have been talking about new rationales for digital interactives and I’m interested in exploring why people do computer interactives.  We’d like to come up with a definition for digital interactivity that isn’t stuck in the 1990s, as I admit my default model is… We are hoping to do something at Museums and the Web akin to Koven Smith’s awesome “What’s the point of museum websites?” unconference session, and then present at MCN on the topic, so this would foundational research for us. What do you say? Wanna drink and discuss and make kiosk jokes?


Reviews: museum game apps

I got a lovely email last week from the people working with the Tate to announce their newest game app, “Race Against Time.” As I was downloading it, I remembered that Dave Schaller had sent me a link to Eduweb’s latest game app “Moon Walking”. Must be time to tackle games again.

This past Summer I wrote a series of four posts on gaming and museums.  It covered interactivity, the qualities of good interactives, games and play, and finally “gamification” the process of applying game principles to non-game activities.  Now, there’s a growing crop of museum games you can try out to see what’s possible.

Apps as ways to fill interstitial time
Somebody wise said the killer apps for mobiles is that they are a way to kill time while waiting for the bus – those down times that occur while we’re between places, or waiting for something to happen are a great time to engage an audience. Three of these games fit that bill.

Race Against Time

Tate’s latest game, possesses the same irreverent spirit that animates Tate Trumps, their first game.  In it, you play the part of a color-collecting chameleon, out to save the world from having all its colors sucked up by Dr. Greyscale.  Along the way, you traverse 12 decades of modern art in the background.

Race Against Time is a classic sidescroller (think “Mario Brothers”) where you gobble up color while avoiding perils and enemies. The concept is pretty simple “Don’t get killed.” I will confess I’ve been unable to get past the Fauvists before getting killed.  You can play the game anywhere, and there’s no benefit I can see to playing it in the Tate.


Meanderthal is one of Smithsonian’s most appealing apps in my opinion.  It’s another dead easy app in terms of functionality; you take your picture using the phone’s camera, choose a human ancestor and presto, the images are combined to make you appear Neanderthal. You can also learn about the three early human species presented in the app, but clearly the thrill lies in having your picture morphed.

What I like about Meanderthal is that it is a great snack. It does one thing and does it very well. And you actually learn some paleontology along the way. It’s got rudimentary social features like email and Facebook sharing, and it actually uses a built-in feature of a mobile – the camera – which is still surprisingly rare in museum apps.


An app that goes a bit further in using the mobile platform’s advantages seems to be Eduweb’s augmented reality (AR) app MoonWalking. This app lets you overlay scenes from the first Moon landing over wherever you happen to be at the time. Thanks to GPS positioning, you can walk around Tranquility Base and use your mobile as a window into real-time recreations of highlights of the mission.

What I like about the concept behind this app is the potential it has for heritage sites, or anywhere out in the world where you might want to overlay digital content on what you’re looking at. A ruined castle could be restored, an archaeological site become a living settlement. And it is best done with a mobile device. How well MoonWalking works in the wild I can’t say. My iPhone is too old and my iPad doesn’t have 3G so I can’t get the app to work.

LaunchballI think Launchball actually predates mobile apps. This simple physics simulator-meets construction set game was launched as a website (how old school is that?) back in 2007 to much acclaim. It won awards at Museums and the Web and some other conference called SXSW, where it picked up Best Game and Best of Show awards. In 2009, it was released for iOS and is available for iPhone.

UPDATE: Mia Ridge clarified the development history for me. Thanks, Mia!

NOTE: Apparently, Science Museum and the game’s developer are renegotiating contracts, so the game has been taken down from the App Store temporarily.  Try the original Flash version to get a sense of it’s addictive gameplay.

What I like about Launchball is the extent to which it works as a great game, and as a museum game.  It lets you play loads of levels, but it also lets you build your own, and share your creations with the Launchball community. First and foremost, it’s a good game. Second, it does a great job of getting you to experiment and engage in the “I wonder what would happen if…” thinking that’s an essential prerequisite to learning how scientists and engineers think.

Apps as ways to encourage visitors to pay attention in the museum

All the games I’ve mentioned thus far could be done anywhere. Nothing about them requires a museum visit, though you probably would never find them unless you were at that museum and saw a sign directing you to download the app.

Tate Trumps

Tate’s most well-known app, Tate Trumps, behaves differently than the apps above. It was originally designed to work in the Gallery, and has been updated to work anywhere. Like the title says, it’s a way to play a simple version of the card game trumps, only the cards are various artworks at the Tate.

In each of the three different games that make up Tate Trumps, you pick a hand of cards that are Tate artworks, that have attributes, some mundane like “size”, and others wildly subjective like “strength”.  When you assemble a hand, the game picks a suit, and the players try to put out their highest card with that attribute. Winner gets points, player with most points at the end of seven hands wins.

Tate Trumps is a brilliant piece of work in my opinion. It has multiple modes of gameplay. You can play it alone, or with your friends. The attributes are strange enough that they got me to look at the artworks differently than I would’ve on a more typical visit. In Collector mode, you add artworks by going around the gallery, typing in ID numbers off the object labels, “collecting” the pieces you want before your opponents can get them. And it’s connection to the Tate is crystal clear. It’s a game that only Tate would’ve made.

So what can these games teach us?

As I said in my previous app review, trying to synthesize learning from such disparate experiences is a challenge, but there are some things that rise up when I look at these games.

Good games are fun.
Seems like a no-brainer, but as you know, so many “educational” games are educational first and games second (if at all). They’re really gamified (ack) interactives, and they usually suck. If it’s going to be a game, it has to be a game first.

Be in for the long haul
Tate Trumps is on version 5, and has not only fixed bugs, but added major new functionalities as time has gone on. That means the business model has to be a software development model with new version releases and point releases, not a museum exhibition, “Build it and it’s done” model.

Success has costs
I doubt anyone at Science Museum could’ve predicted that Launchball would have such a long life, and morph from being a website to being a mobile app. And whatever agreement they originally had with the developers, I bet it didn’t include this contingency.

Things you can only do with a phone make more appealing apps
Almost all of these apps use the mobile platform to do things you couldn’t do any other way. Using the camera, communication functions, GPS, etc… all make the experience more compelling because it’s obvious that you could only do this with a mobile.

What museum game apps have you played and enjoyed?