Museums and the Web 2013 thoughts

Museums and the Web 2013 in Portland Oregon was an action-packed few days of intense conversations and great food for thought.

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Portland food trucks. You just can’t go wrong.

Danny Birchall and Susan Edwards have both written great summaries of their experiences at the conference and I recommend both. It’s always fascinating to see how varied people’s experiences of the same event can be, and also how some of the same idea wind up poking through everyone’s sessions.

 Games, gamification, and play in museums

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know I’m not a huge fan of gamification (ack!). The series of posts I wrote last year have continued to be perennially popular, no doubt due to high frequency of buzzword usage in them. Start here if you want to read them.  The gaming session led by Bruce Wyman, Sharna Jackson and Kate Haley-Goldman was a delight to be in. The speakers know games, make them, study them, and they were able to turn a critical eye to the current popularity of slapping badges and leaderboards on anything and everything and separate some wheat from the gamified (ack!) chaff. I was glad to hear people highlight the distinctions between games and gamified (ack!) activities and play, and the back and forth between the audience and the speakers was high-energy and high-quality. This talk was a great grounding for Rob Stein’s excellent update on DMA’s new free membership program, DMAFriends, which seems to be a very successful application of game mechanics to a traditional museum loyalty program.  More on that later…

 Immersion and affection, or relationship-building

One of the great joys of these events is the extent to which we don’t talk about technology. For me, one of the persistent themes of the conference was connecting with our audiences on an emotional level.  Larry Friedlander’s opening plenary, When the Rare Becomes Commonplace: Challenges for Museums in a Digital Age, started off quoting Psalms and Shakepeare before launching into emotional appeals to connect with people in meaningful ways. You should watch it. Dana Mitroff Silvers led off her session on design thinking by saying that a design thinker’s first task is not to understand, but to empathize with who they’re designing for.  There’s also a website now for design thinking in museums. Luis Mendes, in his brilliant lightning talk, wondered why there were so many books on anger management but none on what he called affection management. His thesis about the centrality of relationships and building structures to grow them often referenced digital technologies as tools to achieve this, but only as tools. “I do believe these are the days of miracles and wonders, and the signs are popping up everywhere.” Yes, indeed!

This drumbeat of emotional appeals echoed a number of conversations I had about immersive theater throughout the conference. I’ve written about Sleep No More before and alternative models of exhibition development, and I’m no nearer to clarity than I was when I started, but other people are wrestling with the same concepts, which is heartening. And my major a ha moment of the conference came after talking to Suse Cairns about her experience of SNM, which involved stalking an actor, getting dragged off into a secret chamber, unmasked and stuffed in a closet while having poetry spoken to her. It also involved being given a gift – a locket she brought with her to the conference as a token of her experience. I won’t try to do her story justice, suffice it to say that it was deeply meaningful to her and connected her to the action and actors in a way I didn’t experience.  And that allowed me to see that I’d been focusing on the wrong part of immersive theater – the immersion – when what was powerful was the emotional connection and the immersion was just a mechanic for encouraging that.

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Suse’s locket. The paper is full of seeds. Ask her about it.

Ending with a bang 

I was part of the closing plenary on immersive theater with Seb Chan and Suse Cairns (heaven!) along with Diane Borger, producer of Sleep No More, who joined us via videochat from locked-down Boston, which was another theme of the conference I won’t get into here. Seb did a great job of drawing parallels between how a theatrical event like SNM gets created and big museum traveling exhibitions. It was interesting to compare the per square foot costs of both and how long each took to recoup their initial investment. Sleep No More won. Hmm…

Also, all three panelists, as well as many in the audience had a common experience of having a hard time getting into SNM.  This idea of having to work hard to get into something seems kinda crazy and the opposite of how museums function, but I can’t help wonder if building that kind of anticipation has value in our work. Must ponder…

All in all, an hour was went by way too quickly, and I don’t think we did more than launch the opening volley in what I hope will be a much longer, more fruitful conversation. I love the way this cohort is willing to look outside the field for inspiration while retaining a critical eye, and I hope by next year one of you will have something interesting to report on.

What was your experience of the conference, locally or remotely? Were there themes that arose for you? I’d love to hear about them!


  1. Hi Ed,
    To be honest, I haven’t had time to ponder my experience of MW2013 since I got back, but what resonates with me from your description above is the focus on relationships and creating emotional connections. Surely what DMA is trying to do is find a more successful way to create relationships using gamification techniques. Luis Mendez’ sees digital tools as vehicles for building emotional connections. Suse’s experience of SNM gave her a personal connection.

    I attended a conference in NYC last fall at The Met on accessibility and museums. One of the themes I took away from it was how museums need to personalize the experiences they offer to all visitors. I wrote about it (in a rare blog post) here:

    There’s been talk at different times about using recommendation software to connect with visitors, alerting them to things that are related to their interests. That might not create an emotional experience but it could create a lasting friendship. Interestingly keeps me informed when artwork by artists I’ve expressed interest in becomes available. (Not that I’m in a position to buy any of it!) They didn’t even use software, they just asked me to fill out a form indicating what I was interested in. Many museums do the same thing but then, what do they do with the info? I’ve never found out.

    Anyway, just food for thought. I hope I haven’t derailed the conversation!


    1. You’re right, of course, Robin. It all comes down to relationships. The moment of moments for me was when Rob was discussing giving a prize to DMA’s most frequent visitor, and everything they knew about him. To know that much about your audience was mind-bendingly impressive.


  2. Hello Ed–
    Sleep No More was a powerful experience for me as well; I thought long and deep about both theater and museum experiences after attending a few years back. Out of the many parallels between the two, your panel highlighted the connection between SNM and blockbuster exhibits in how scarcity and difficulty in attending an event increase our anticipation. I wonder if it’s a subtle throw-back to the idea of museum experiences as exclusive experience.
    What was most powerful to me at SNM was the sense of immersion in the narrative, an attribute we seek in museum experiences but a very high bar to set.
    There are many other attributes to ponder (Museums as houses of the authentic mimicking SNM, which is perfection of the faux) but the question of how immersive or narrative driven our institutions can be is the one that has stayed with me.


    1. Yeah, is exclusivity necessarily a bad thing? Not every event can appeal to every audience, but I certainly learned to think in terms of delivering experiences that could reach the broadest audience. Oh, but it’s a slippery slope from there to old-school elitism. Must tread carefully…

      The immersion in a narrative occupies a lot of my thinking these days, surrounded by historic homes as I am here in Salem. I’m going to try to get Diane and some of the SNM folks up here over the summer to help brainstorm ways to construct immersive narratives with some of the same emotional power of their works.


  3. Hi Ed,
    I’m glad to hear that MW2013 was successful! I still need to check out more summaries of the sessions, but I did want to add a comment about a new technology that also spurred some immersive thoughts. The new Microsoft IllumiRoom promises to make your own living room gaming experience more immersive ( The fully projected image enhances the gamer’s experience, but I’m wondering how it affects the experience of others in the space and if the experience of a bystander can also be enhanced by seeing the whole space affected by the game action. This thought was also paired with Suse’s SNM story and the theme that has developed since your original SNM post, that meaningful immersive experiences are so deeply personal that they also involve isolation. Isolation was one of the goals of SNM that seems to have worked for some, but the question I’m mulling over is can we have meaningful, emotionally connected immersive experiences that are also social? When visitors come to a museum to spend time with others in their group, are we going to actually take away from their experience by trying to provide a personalized (and ultimately potentially isolating) immersive experience?


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