Monthly Archives: April 2012

For those of you not at AAM, this discussion is worthy of your attention, especially the comments.

museum geek

There are a couple of questions that have started nagging at me when I look at museum websites, and particularly when I look at online collections. With the American Association of Museums annual meeting on in the States this week, it seemed like a good time to start asking them.

Are museum collections actually as important as we often say they are? I cannot count the number of times I have heard someone in a museum argue that the most important thing about the museum is its collection – and why wouldn’t they? Each museum’s collection is unique. It is here that museums can differentiate themselves. A local art museum can collect works of national and local importance, and use each to speak of its place in a community. A history museum can define its very purpose by those objects that it has acquired.

Even more than this, as Steven…

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Drinking About Museums: Boston – April recap and May date!

Greetings, friends and collaegues!

Another fabulous Drinking About Museums: Boston event happened last night. A group of about sixteen convened at the Museum of Fine Arts, where the marvelous Ms Jenna Fleming put together a great and informative presentation on the evaluation of the interactives in their  Behind the Scenes galleries in the Art of the Americas Wing.  Many thanks to Jenna and Lynn and all the MFA crew!

Jenna and Lynn with the paper prototype of their multitouch exhibit

Everybody loves visitor research results!

Afterwards, we adjourned to Church where, more folks joined us, shop was talked and plans hatched! Thanks to all of you who ventured out on a blustery night.

While we were there, plans were laid for the next few meetups.  Next month, we will be meeting at the Museum of Science, Boston, where Beth Amtmann and crew will demo some of the prototypes under construction for the Museum’s Upcoming Hall of Human Life exhibition.  Afterwards, we will adjourn across the street to Lingo for refreshments. So mark your calendars now:

May 10th, 5PM
Museum of Science, Boston, 1 Science Park, Boston, MA 02114
drinks following at Lingo, 15 Monsignor O’Brien Hwy, Cambridge, MA 02141

June and July look like they’re going to be at the Children’s Museum and the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park. Details to follow.

Drinking About Museums: Boston – April 26th, 6PM @ Church

Flickr image by Mr Kael

Hola comrades,

Sorry for the lateness of the reminder, but here it is. This month, we’ll be visiting the Museum of Fine Arts for the next Drinking About Museums: Boston. This month we have a new location: Church, at 69 Kilmarnock St, Boston, MA 02215
(617) 236-7600. See the map below for more.  Jenna says there is a lot nearby that might have free parking in the evenings. Call Church to check.

For those you who can skip out of work a little early, we’ll be meeting Ms Fleming and Co. in the Behind the Scenes gallery on the 1st floor of the Art of the Americas Wing, to try out some of their work and hear a little about the results of the evaluations of the spaces. She’ll be there at 4:15, and you’ll have to get yourselves into the Museum. We’ll plan on being over at Church a little before 6, so join us for some or all.



UPDATE:: If you have questions or get lost, DM me at @erodley

Two new apps on old topics

Two of my favorite museum apps of late aren’t groundbreaking in the sense that they cover new topics or modes of interactions. In fact, they’re downright old-fashioned in terms of their content, if you can wrap your mind around the idea of an old-fashioned app. I like many things about these apps, but the reason I wanted to share them was that they both a stellar job of doing that thing that museums talk a lot about, but rarely manage to do; namely repackage existing content and design a new experience for a new medium (in this case, the iPad) that is both true to the original and feels like a custom-made iPad app, and not a retread of something that was probably cooler in the original.

1) Minds of Modern Mathematics
by IBM and the Eames Office

In 1961, IBM and the iconic designers Charles and Ray Eames presented “Mathematica: A World of Numbers… and Beyond” to the new California Museum of Science and Industry. It was the first of many exhibitions the Eames would create for IBM, and Mathematica would become so well-known that IBM would eventually create additional copies that were starring attractions at several U.S. science centers over the next five decades.

Five years after the opening of the Mathematica exhibit, IBM and Eames created “Men of Modern Mathematics” an enormous timeline of mathematical and scientific history. Copies of this timeline were added to Mathematica and posters were perennial favorites of museum shops and math department offices for years.

The Mathematica exhibit at the Museum of Science, Boston from Flickr user davepatten

To celebrate Ray Eames’ centenary, Eames Office and IBM again joined forces to take the content in the timeline and make an app out of it. The result is “Minds of Modern Mathematics” which is billed as a multimedia exploration of the history of mathematics

The timeline. It's busy, yo!

The Eames, perhaps best known to designers for their chairs and to dorks for “The Powers of Ten” film they made, were instrumental in creating the mid 20th century American aesthetic, partly for their willingness to engage in any medium they fancied; architecture, interior design, furniture, filmmaking, museum exhibitions, etc…

The surviving Mathematica exhibitions are practically artifacts themselves, living embodiments of the Eames’ design mind. They were also masters of content development, as this app makes clear.  If you’ve ever stood in front of one of the “Men of Modern Mathematics” timelines, you can appreciate why its so hard to make a good timeline. They take a (literally) gigantic amount of historical content and somehow make it all tell the story they want. It’s a hypertextual experience in physical form. Your eye can skip and jump from node to node, backwards, forwards, up, and down, as you explore math and its connections to everything going on between 1000-1950.

The app manages to capture the feeling of that experience, while rendering it in a format suitable for the iPad, which takes advantage of the affordances of the iPad in a way think Ray and Charles would’ve enjoyed. Each person or event on the timeline has both text and images and links to more information on the web.  The app changes the user interface depending on whether you’re in landscape or portrait orientation, a la Biblion. And best of all, it collects in one place the short films the Eames made for the exhibition on one screen. The Math Peep Shows are classics of educational media. Concepts like scaling and size, exponents, and other mathematical esoterica are explained and explored in a decidedly whimsical fashion.

The Timeline of "Minds of Modern Mathematics"

Leibniz’s biography. Note the Wikipedia links.

The Eames’ Math Peep Shows, in all their 1960s glory!

Get “Minds of Modern Mathematics” at the iTunes Store

And for extra credit, here’s Ice Cube, celebrating the Eames’ contribution to architecture. Watch it. You won’t be disappointed.


2) Color Uncovered
by the Exploratorium

Any app that instructs you to drip water on your iPad is OK by me! “Color Uncovered” delivers an app (though they call it an “interactive book” that captures the Exploratorium’s signature style of science experimentation in an incredibly polished and well-designed package.

The Exploratorium description of how an iPad screen works. Priceless.

The Exploratorium is justly famous for their style of exhibition design. Their Cookbook series of books have provided ideas and inspiration for countless science educators and museum builder the world over. And if you’ve ever used an Exploratorium exhibit, this book will feel immediately familiar. Each page starts with a color phenomenon and then unpack that phenomenon using essays, simple interactives or video to make their point.

One of the interactives that require you to use a real world prop.

Get “Color Uncovered” at the iTunes Store

So what do these apps do well?

Both these apps do a great job of taking existing content and delivering it in a new way through the new medium of an Internet-connected tablet. Although both of these apps contain content that already existed, neither is just a repackaging or “repurposing” of existing assets. Each app stands on it’s own as a satisfying tablet experience. That’s the lesson I’ve taken away from playing with both apps. Having great content is not the key. Great content helps, but it’s not enough to guarantee a successful experience, nor is simply copying the original, successful format. Careful design is what makes these apps both feel so pleasurable to use. Writing this has already gotten me thinking about what similar kinds of experiences we’ve got that could be translated in a similar fashion.

The peculiar joys of not attending the conference you’re at

I just came back from Museums and the Web 2012 because the Museum Computer Network scheduled its Board of Directors meeting the day before the conference. For a variety of reasons I couldn’t extend my stay in San Diego, but I had a nice comfy seat in the lobby to watch the first day of MW2012 unfold around me.

This was not entirely how I woulod’ve chosen for things to unfold. MW has been my favorite conference for years, and the learning I’ve done there and the friends I’ve made form the core of my professional practice. It is a deep, deep well for anyone interested in the intersection of museums and technology.

So, for those of us following the #mw2012 tweets, here’s a view from the chair in the back of the lobby by the windows.

The old digital debates seem to be over

It feels like we’ve finally hit an inflection point in the past year where the larger forces of technological change have so radically reshaped society, that many of the tired old museum/tech tropes have been rendered moot. I don’t think the “my (curator/director/boss) doesn’t get it” meme will go away, but I feel like we’ve now come far enough to stop worrying. Whether or not you think Wikipedia is a good idea (I do), your visitors are using it in your museum right now. Worried about people “stealing” images of your collection? NGA just published 20,000 open access images from its collections. Every personal electronic device seems to include a camera now, so the old blanket prohibitions on photography I reckon will soon go the way of the ashtray as typical museum furniture. And more to the point, why on Earth would any museum not want people to be able to access their content?

To bastardize Bob Dylan, “The times they aren’t a changin” The times have already changed. How we respond to that change becomes the question. And I was amazed at how much more thought was being given to this communication problem. Most of the conversations I took part in revolved around this idea articulated awhile ago about talking outside the bubble. How do we make the case that digital modalities for interacting with audiences are core to what museums will be about? “How do they become part of the soul of the new museum?” was the dominant meme, whereas in years past, there was often a technology-specific buzz, like RFID, mobiles, QR codes, iSomethings…

The digital discourse has matured to the point where both the hype and hysteria can be acknowledged and set aside in favor of more productive topics, like how to communicate our vision and passion to the profession at large. And that’s a topic I find infinitely more interesting.

Tending one’s garden

Late in the last century, Xavier Perrot slipped me a note during a panel presentation we were on in Paris. “Il faut cultiver notre jardin.” it read.  “We should cultivate our own garden.” It’s how Voltaire’s Candide ends, after suffering all the indignities the world can heap on him. He gave it to me as a response to a statement I had made about websites, like gardens, never being “done” the way an exhibition is. They require constant tending. Websites are never done, only abandoned, or killed.  The Voltaire quote also has the connotation of not trying to solve all the world’s problems, but to mind that patch that is yours. You can’t do it all, or even most of what needs to be done, so it’s important to ask those hard framing questions like, “What can I do right now? How will doing that lay a foundation so that I can do better tomorrow?”

Professional networks are much like websites, in that both require regular nourishment. Despite the best intentions, I never managed to keep in touch with Xavier. He died of cancer a few years back – far too soon. I never acted on the desire to continue the discussion we started in Paris, and now it’s too late. Not being tied to a conference program meant that I could concentrate on connecting with the people I most wanted to see.

Three highlights

Hanging out with Suse Cairns (@shineslike) was at the top of my list. museum geek is one of the best museum blogs out there. I had the feeling we were going to be friends, and after about five minutes it was hard to remember that we hadn’t known each other for years. You know when you meet someone and realize they’re one of your tribe? Yeah, like that…

Attending my first Museum Computer Network Board meeting inspired a bit of trepidation, but it turned out to be the most exciting, exhausting mental labor I’ve done in awhile. After five hours of talking about strategy and the future of the organization, I was completely spent. And I’d happily do it again. Brainstorming with that might insightful thinkers (masterfully facilitated by Eric Longo) was like eating a 12-course meal – filling and infinitely varied. Stay tuned for exciting things! And don’t foreget to register for the conference! Check out the program here and propose something.  I hope to see you there!

Despite her frantic schedule as one of the conference co-chairs,  I managed to squeeze in a long breakfast with Nancy Proctor(@nancyproctor) to discuss all manner of interesting possible collaborations, which I always enjoy. It was enriching and to top it all off I finally got to meet her and Titus’ daughter,  Pearl! She may be the world’s youngest museum Tweeter (@pandapearl) but I find she offers a refreshing new perspective on things. And watching Nancy take time out of trying get a conference off the ground to play peek a boo was magical.

Paying it forward never goes out of style

One of my favorite things about MW and MCN are they are both full of wicked smart, generous practitioners, who are particularly good at being welcoming to newbies of all stripes. Conference-going can be an essential part of starting a career, And it can really suck if you don’t know how to do it, as Nina Simon and I both blogged about awhile back.

Jan Crocker took me to my first conference, back in the late 1980s. It was AAM or ASTC and I was petrified. She seemed to know everybody, and everybody knew her. And I was her awkward shadow. Through her, I met pretty much everybody active in the field at the time. In three days, she’d shown me the landscape, my place in it, and a personal impressions of the major players. And she probably didn’t even know she was doing it. She was just maintaining her personal professional network.

One of the many, many things I learned from Jan was the importance of paying things forward. If you’ve received any wisdom or guidance that has helped, you should feel obliged to share what you’ve learned and keep propagating it. If the museum profession is any more humane than it was in 1970, it’s because of all the Jans out there, mentoring, sharing, seeking talent and nuturing it so it can grow.

This year, I encouraged her to apply for a scholarship to MW and she got it! I not only learned about paying it forward, but actually got to pay it back and introduce her to some of the many people she should know.


Hi Jan!

What do you wanna be when you grow up?

The most personally enriching theme of my time in San Diego was having the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” conversation with several people all at different points on their career trajectory.  Careers are funny things. They twist and turn and go in unexpected directions. Or not.  It was remarkably clarifying to talk about career hopes and plans with a broad range of people, emerging professionals as well as more established ones, colleagues making dramatic course corrections, and those folks I look up to as model museum people, the kind of professional I want to be when I grow up.

It’s not the sort of conversation I’d have with just anybody, but it came up more than once, and having to verbalize things that I tend to just think about was good practice. Things that hard to say are often the ones that need the most examination, and conversation is a great way to expose them to the light and really look at them.

It’s an exciting time in the field, full of potential and interesting work to be done.  I feel fortunate to be in a position to take part in it. And I suppose the sign of any good conference is that you come home with a bigger perspective on what’s important, examples of what the field is up to, inspirations for your own work and career, and personal connections with people who nourish you. Even though I didn’t go, MW2012 certainly delivered on all those counts.

I’m still sorry I waited too long to find some way to work with Xavier. The rest of you on my “I wanna work with you!” list are on notice. I don’t intend to let that happen again. Have a good conference!


What do you get/not get from professional memberships?

Another frantic Friday, trying to get a bunch of things done in anticipation of heading off to San Diego for the Museum Computer Network board meeting before Museums and the Web 2012.

Something I’ve been thinking a lot about since joining the board has been what benefit one receives from joining a professional organization. I’ve joined several; AAM, NAME, ICOM, ASTC, MW, and now MCN. I remember joining a couple out of a sense of obligation to the field, but most I joined to get the discount on conference registration fees. I monitor a few listservs, follow their blogs, etc… and that’s about it. And I wonder what else could organizations like MCN and others be doing to provide value to the field beyond hosting a yearly conference?

So my question to you is, “What value do you get from your professional memberships, and what do you wish you could get that you currently don’t?”