Category Archives: Reviews

Playing With the Past, Part Two: Magic Circles and Interaction Alibis

The previous post tried to posit a set of characteristics of good cultural experiences. It’s a personal, idiosyncratic, and obviously incomplete list, but I meant it to serve as the beginning of the answer to the question of what gaming can teach us about making better cultural heritage experiences. Given what we know about play, games, and learning, what can we pull out of the mass of research? For me, the two biggest tools I’ve come across are the concepts of the magic circle and the interaction alibi. These (and so much more) were introduced to me at the Alibis for Interaction masterclass and subsequent conversations with Johanna Koljonen. I wrote about this previously, and still consider it the best one day professional development event I’ve been to in years. It’s mind-expanding and genre-crossing in so many good ways. For me, it connected ideas that I’d associated only with game design to a larger realm of practice. These ideas have caused me to reframe a lot of what I thought I knew about museum experience design, and their potential in the heritage sector is vast, and as yet largely untapped methinks. So, what are they and who uses them well?

Magic Circles

I’ve referred to the magic circle a few times, but I’ve held off defining it until now.  The term goes back to Huizinga’s book Homo Ludens where he uses the words “magic circle” in a list of special places where play occurs.

“All play moves and has its being within a play-ground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course. Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the “consecrated spot” cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground. The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc., are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. Forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.”

– Huizinga 1938

It owes its current vogue though to Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, who wrote “To play a game means entering into a magic circle, or perhaps creating one as a game begins.” In their 2003 book, Rules of Play: Fundamentals of Game Design. Since then, it’s become a foundational concept of game design, and has its own sub-literature devoted to critiquing or defending the idea. What Salen and Zimmerman meant by “magic circle” was the idea that it is a boundary. On the outside is the world, and on the inside is the game. And when players cross that threshold, the rules change, norms change, and people’s roles and behaviors change. What is verboten or discouraged in the world can become acceptable inside the magic circle. The stereotypical quiet, meek person who turns into a cutthroat poker player is just one example of how play redefines the rules, or at least establishes a different set while the play is occurring.

What Koljonen and others showed me at Alibis was that the Magic Circle could be useful to heritage professionals as a way to see the visitor experience holistically. In the diagram below, even though the magic circle is in the center, the visitor’s journey starts long before they get to the magic circle of the thing you’re designing for them. Their journey is rooted in the larger cultural context of wherever they are and their particular personal experience. Along the way, they’ve picked up expectations about what is going to happen when they enter that magic circle. It is very easy to spend all of one’s time deciding what to do with visitors when they arrive at the entrance to your thing, but by then, they are already a long way into their journey, and you’ve lost opportunities to influence them.

Breaking Out-final

Johanna Koljonen’s diagram of the user experience of the magic circle.

When a person enters the magic circle, they change, and become “a player”. This role play involves explicit and implicit acceptance of new norms, rules, and relationships. The participants have agency that allows the experience to transform them. There are social affordances designed into the experience through rules, suggestions, and the physical environment. And most importantly, the thing that happens inside the magic circle is well defined. Have you ever accidentally played a game? Me neither. Have you ever wandered from one part of a museum to another and realized belatedly that you’ve entered another exhibition? Me too.

After they leave the circle, the person begins to reflect on it, and build their story about what happened, and turning it into a memory of the event. While I’ve been part of my share of projects that attempted to expand or deepen visitors pre- and post-visit engagement, the magic circle makes the whole journey seem more amenable to design than I ever thought it was. And it’s as applicable to the security line at the airport as it is to a game, or a cultural heritage site.

What might this look like at a museum? I am reminded of a conversation I had with Ben Gammon back when dinosaurs ruled the Earth (or maybe it was the mid ’90s). Anyway, the Science Museum, London’s leadership commissioned a study to explore how visitors navigated to get from one gallery to another. Their interest was in the galleries, but what they found was that of the two hours the average visitor spent “in the museum”, 60% of that time was spent just getting around, getting lost, going to eat or pee, visiting the shop. And the part the staff had focused tremendous effort into creating was the remaining 40%. They realized that they needed to expand the scope of what the visitor experience was and devote the same kind of effort to the 60% that had been going into the 40%.

Interaction Alibis


The classic example of an interaction alibi: Twister. By Flickr user oks20i CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Interaction Alibi: A rule, object, or change of state that allows a human to interact. This idea is central to designing for participation.  An alibi might be a role, a rule, a narrative, a game, a mask, an instruction, an introduction. An interaction alibi helps you understand what you’re expected to do, feel safe trying something new, and trust that the outcome will be worth your time.

An alibi is an excuse to perform an act and an action of some kind without fear of the consequences without fear of social punishment. If you as a experience designer want somebody to try something new, or do something scary like interacting with people don’t know, giving them an alibi is an explicit way of giving them permission to be someone else. Getting tangled up in knots with other people is usually frowned on, but if you’re playing Twister, then it’s expected and the transgression of invading someone else’s personal space is forgiven because it’s part of the game. Interaction alibis are a way of overcoming the embarrassment that keeps adult humans from acting in ways that might draw unwanted attention to them. Screaming is generally frowned upon public behavior, but if you’re at a music festival or sporting event, it’s understood to be OK and you can scream til you’re hoarse. Demonstrating how bad a singer you are? Not OK, unless you’re at a karaoke bar where everybody is doing it. Thank goodness…


Greg and me, leaving it all on the floor at karaoke. CC BY 4.0

So alibis are an important tool to provoke playfulness – especially among adults who have been socialized out of playing. Sebastian Deterding explains in “Alibis for Adult Play,” “…the most obvious motivation for play—autotelic enjoyment— also sits in most direct tension with adult identity. To account for their play, adults therefore regularly resort to alibis, motivational accounts that deflect negative inference from their play behavior to their character. Adults account for play as serving their adult responsibilities”. I’ve seen this countless times, particularly at science centers, where adults will excuse their playing with the exhibits as something they did to help the children they were with. Or at Sleep No More, where the masks they give guests anonymize them and make the audience seem (and feel) like ghosts. With all the freedom that entails, for good or ill.


Souvenirs of Sleep No More. CC-BY 4.0

And to bring this back to playing, the interaction alibi can be playing. By adopting a playful or gameful mindset and experience design approach, we can create that alibi that gives people permission to do something they mightn’t do otherwise. And it’s I think an important distinction here that you enable people to do something theywant. This is not about manipulating people to do something they don’t want. There’s enough of that in the world, thank you very much, and we don’t need to play along (pun intended).

To sum up, play helps perceive things from alternative angles and in different light. It helps us engage with our surroundings in a new way as we perceive and break norms and routines. In a playful state of mind, we can not only see the adventures that surround us, but we feel safe, possibly even too safe, to take that plunge. Play and games serve as an alibi: as they are perceived as being somehow less, we can get away with more. And finally, playing together we can create new and surprising social worlds that, as long as we all keep playing along, are as real as any other world.

– Stenros 2015

So in the context of an art museum, let’s say, what kind of alibis could you make to help create the kind of space where people feel that their presence is welcomed and they feel confident that if they look at something they don’t understand, they can approach it with curiosity and openness, instead of “the art museum pose”. The best example I know of is still the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, Tasmania. I visited MONA several years ago when it first opened, but I’ve yet to see it’s equal since. The alibi that the museum’s creator provides is a complete lack of wall text, and a mobile content delivery device to every visitor that asks you whether you love, hate, or feel nothing about any object you inquire about.

Magic circles and alibis in practice – immersive theatre and Nordic larp

The final posts in this series will look at challenges and opportunities around cultural heritage organizations working with game designers. First, though, I want to expand the idea of “game designer” to include add two very different new kinds of “play” that really excel at creating magic circles and providing clear alibis for interaction: immersive theatre and the Nordic variety of live action role play, or larp.

Immersive Theatre

As opposed to traditional theatre, with players on stage and an audience in their seats, immersive theater is a performance form that emphasizes the importance of a specific designed space that both the cast and audience inhabit. Stephen Eckert’s piece in Contemporary Performanceis a great starting place to learn more about it. Immersive theatre creates lush, tactile sensual environments that become both the setting for group experience and diverse individual audience experiences. No longer confined to seat, the audience is free to explore the space of the performance, players and audience mingling and often interacting. Immersive theatre creates a story world where the performance of the actors, though central, is not the only means of conveying the narrative. Sets contain hints and clues, bits of backstory, and additional information that can profoundly influence a given audience member’s understanding of the performance. It is both social and deeply intimate. Punchdrunk UK’s Sleep No More is the poster child for the form, but is only one example of a growing trend. In a world where so much of what we do is mediated through flat pieces of clear glass, immersive theatre offers an opportunity for audiences to exist in their bodies in actual locations and encounter expansive, multi sensory, and visceral stimuli.

Nordic Larp

Live action role playing, or larping, like so much else that use the words “role playing”, traces its origins back to creation of the Dungeons and Dragons role playing game in 1974 and its successors like Vampire: The Masquerade. In the Nordic regions, with their long tradition of community-supported self-programming youth groups, a new kind of role play grew and expanded, taking the idea of players taking on roles and collaboratively creating a fiction together, and fusing it with the social, community-based experience of summer camp. In Nordic larp there is no audience, only players. As Stenros and Montola explain, “Larps are created for a first person audience, for players relating to the fictional world from the first person perspective of a fictional character. As such, they are almost impossible to truly comprehend from the outside, looking in.” Their massive 2010 book Nordic Larp presents highlights from the first fifteen years of Nordic Larp, and tries to impose some kind of order on what is at best a loose coalition of mostly like-minded communities of players.

One of the many features of Nordic that interest me is the way the form has developed to tackle incredibly diverse and delicate subjects, which Stenros and Montola directly attribute to the power of the alibi, “the playful nature of humour, theatre and games lends a social alibi for pushing the boundaries of what is tolerated.” Recreate a Norwegian fishing village in 1942 to play out life under the German occupation? Sure. Use a decommissioned submarine as the setting for a Battlestar Galactica-esque science fiction larp? Already done.  Larp designers have explored what it would be like live through the events in Hamlet, the aftermath of a nuclear attack in a shelter, the early days of the AIDS crisis, and the plight of refugees. There is a fearlessness to Nordic larp that I find appealing. It’s lack of commercial viability is an asset, as Stenros and Montola point out, “this commitment to expert amateurism allows authors to realize their visions without compromises, freely tackling mature themes and adult content… without concerns of offending the mainstream, and themes such as political apathy, heteronormativity and immigration policy can be addressed without watering them down.”

Immersive theatre and larp both ask a lot more of participants than the traditional heritage tour, and may seem like media that have little to offer cultural heritage, but I think they both offer unusual ways to bring together interested people to interact with a narrative in powerful ways. And added to the rich stew of thinking, design, and products coming out of the gaming industry, there’s a lot to look at with a critical but hopeful eye.

To wrap up, we’ll look at some of the challenges and opportunities of collaboration between cultural heritage and gaming.

12 March 2018 UPDATE: Mea culpa time. I neglected to properly credit Johanna Koljonen for her crucial work on magic circles and interaction alibis. I’ve gone back and pointed out that debt. I’ll also take this opportunity to formally thank Lizzie Stark for recommending the Alibis event in the first place. So much reading and learning has happened as a result of one pretty casual conversation. 

Dialogues About Useful Dialectics

Detail from title page of Galileo’s Dialogue, by Giovanni Battista Landini, Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

MCN2017 is less than a month away, and I’m in crunch mode trying to finish preparing from my two sessions. If you’re going to be in Pittsburgh, check out Breaking Out of the Rut and the MCN Green Room. If you can’t join us in person, you should follow along via Twitter using the session hashtags, #MCN2017-W23 and #MCN2017-Green Room. For the Breaking out of the Rut session, I’ve been thinking about a series of dialectics I keep running into in my thinking about transformational strategies and how we structure work. The latest series of posts were a way for me to cut down my bloated slide deck to just the hard shiny nuggets, and thus far it’s helped crystalize my thinking. Blogging has always been an incredibly useful tool to force me to do my thinking right. It’s also been invaluable in hearing from colleagues I’d never encounter otherwise. Your thoughts, critiques and insights are a real gift. As an example, I’ve had some interesting side conversations about the first posts that all offer interesting overlaps with the dialectics I’ve been studying.

What Would Piaget Say?

The first one was pointed out to me by Susan Spero, who left a very insightful observation about the change vs transformation dialectic, and how it related to Piaget’s distinction between assimilation and accommodation in learners. Like change (as I framed it) assimilation involves us remaining mostly the same with the addition a new bit of knowledge. Accommodation, for Piaget, is an admission and understanding that we have changed, not unlike transformation. The metacoginitive aspect of it, understanding and recognizing that it happened, is almost as essential as it happening.

Interestingly, for Piaget (and Susan) this means assimilation is the norm, and accommodation the occasional. Does the same apply for change and transformation? Is finite small innovation the norm and sweeping reimagination always the exception? I would say yes, but I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or a similarity. Thoughts?

The Big Picture

Bob Beatty’s new book, “An AASLH Guide to Making Public History” (and 30% off if you use the discount code RLFANDF30) is coming out in a few weeks and he has been thinking about the change vs transformation dialectic at the largest scales, institutionally and for the field as a whole. If you’re interested in seeing how transformation plays out in historical organizations, then it’s worth checking out. Aside from calling change “very much weak tea” which is about the worst thing this Irish-American boy can imagine, he said that in his experience, it was the transformational strategies that scaled best from the individual to the departmental to the institutional level.

One key factor he has seen repeatedly in the success of these strategies is strong, committed leadership. He singled out Nina Simon’s work at the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz as an example of a transformation not only of an institution, but also its leader. Bob is particularly inspired by how Nina very publicly grapples with the issues of change and transformation of her own thinking and her institution. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know I already hold Nina in pretty high esteem. If you’re not familiar with her work, and want an example of what it looks like to practice being a leader in public, then her Museum 2.0 blog  is essential reading.

Growth Mindsets

Carter Gillies saw clear parallels between the design vs tradition dialectic (particularly the reflective vs non-reflective practice mindset) with psychologist Carol Dweck’s theory of fixed vs growth mindsets. Maria Popova provides a good primer on Dweck’s work at Brain Pickings.

Carter was particularly struck by the parallels between how people with fixed and growth mindsets face challenges. People with a fixed mindset tend to view failure as an indictment of themselves while people with a growth mindset see failure as an opportunity to learn and improve. He saw a probable connection between being fixed in one way of thinking (tradition) and between the design process (growth).

What similarities/overlaps/synergies have you noticed? Don’t be shy!

Inside Out

I spent the weekend in New York City in February, battling a cold and attending the Versions 2017 conference at the New Museum. Hats off to Julia Kaganskiy and the crew that assembled such an impressive array of speakers working in VR. I’ll recap that event another time, because I’ve been thinking about something else that happened on that trip.

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Pierre Chareau at the Jewish Museum. I loved the aesthetic of having everything positioned on faux backdrops

While we were there, we went to the Pierre Chareau exhibition at the Jewish Museum. It’s a small show, comprised mainly of furniture pieces designed by the French architect/interior designer. While I went there specifically to see how they used VR headsets in the exhibition, I was more intrigued by some of the presentation choices made by the exhibition designers and how they do (or don’t) increase visitors’ appreciation of the topic.

Hide and seek

Chareau was a hard show to navigate. I never once felt that I’d built a mental map of the layout, even after I’d finished. It was an intentional choice, too. The exhibition is a typical black box space, and the designers used hanging white curved partitions that look like photographers’ cycs to frame many of the furniture objects, and block your view of them as you walk through the gallery. On the backs of these are projections of silhouettes of people engaging in everyday domestic activities; a woman brushing her hair at a mirror, a man writing at a desk. When you get to the other side of the partition, you can see the actual furniture and (hopefully) realize that it is the same as the objects in the “shadows”.  The shadow effect bugged me a bit at first, since they aren’t really shadows; the walls are solid and opaque. Since it’s hard to see the projection and the actual furniture at the same time, it took me a couple of times to confirm that it was actually corresponding to the specific objects on the other side, and not just being evocative. The “shadow” effect grew on me, though, since it injected a human presence into what could have been a very clinical, impersonal space. The maze-like quality never grew on me.

Embracing the theatrical

I did appreciate the outright theatricality of the design. It reminded me of wandering around through Sleep No More in some ways. The museum did a good job of concealing and revealing just enough to lead me through the space and get me to recognize that there was something on the other side of every wall, know a tiny bit about it, and still have a little “aha” moment when I got to each display. I wrote about embracing theatricality in exhibitions earlier as part of a series of posts on making a museum from scratch, and this was an effective demonstration.

Guarding the magic

I was in town for a virtual reality conference, and VR was why I was at the Jewish Museum. I’ve been interested in finding examples of VR implementations that line up with reality and don’t just discard it in favor of virtuality, and here I thought the Chareau exhibition really delivered. While I’m on the fence about the exhibition as whole, the VR exhibit really embodied the spirit of one of my favorite manifestos on making exhibitions, the Medical Museion in Copenhagen’s “A manifesto for creating science, technology and medicine exhibitions“. I’ve recommended it before and I’ll do so again, and despite the title, I believe the philosophy espoused within it is broadly applicable to museums of all stripes. Thesis 6 of the manifesto is titled, “Jealously guard a place for mystery and wonder” and suggests that we deliberately “…include some exhibits about which less, rather than more, is known – curious exhibits that just cannot completely be accounted for.”

In the center of the gallery there were four vignettes of furniture from Chareau houses, in a typically Modernist setting; monotone and empty. In front of each vignette was a stool with an attached shelf, holding a Samsung headset and a long cord. When you held up the headset and looked through it, you got magic. The same furniture in front of you was there, in the same orientation, but around it was an “evocation” (museum jargon for “We couldn’t be completely certain that this is 100% exactly the way it looked”) of the interior of the house the furniture was made to go in. This is an issue we often deal with; how close to complete fidelity do you have to get in order for something to be “museum quality”? I was glad the Jewish Museum opted to go for it and build a believable, complete VR environment. Carpets on floors, bookcases full of books, afternoon sun pouring in through banks of windows. Quite a change from a dark room on the Upper East Side!

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Me looking the ceiling or something.

Of course, you weren’t seeing the actual furniture, you were seeing extremely high-fidelity 3D models of that furniture in a computer model of a space, but the designers went to the trouble of making sure both sets of furniture were in the same orientation, and that if you were facing the furniture, the virtual furniture was in the center of the field of view in your headset. I saw a couple of different visitors look at the furniture, look into the headset, then look back at the furniture and back at the headset before doing the usual dance of people in a VR environment, lazily spinning and looking all around.  The VR augmented the physical furniture without supplanting it, and the experience provided visitors with a tasty snack, a peek into another context that wasn’t weighted down with explanations or demonstrations.

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The stool with built-in shelf to hold the headset was a nice design element.

We had talked about doing the same kind of experience for our upcoming Ocean Liners exhibition, but abandoned the idea because of the low throughput of these kinds of headset experiences. In a small, quiet gallery it’s one thing. In a 10,000 square foot exhibition with hundreds of objects, and (hopefully) many thousands of visitors, it would be a bottleneck.

When showing isn’t telling

After the pleasure of using good VR, I was excited to learn more about Maison de Verre (The Glass House), Chareau’s most famous work. The sign on the door to an adjacent space told me that this house was unique in ways that traditional architectural models couldn’t convey. I entered, not knowing what that meant, other than I probably wasn’t going to see a physical model of the house, but something much, much cooler.

What I saw was a projection screen displaying an elevation of a house hanging in the center of the space over a floorplan and a video of a woman opening a closet playing on one wall of the space. As I tried to figure out what I should be looking at I noticed several things. The projection screen was moving towards me with an ominous jerky, creaking, sound. As it moved, a laser line on the floorpan moved as well. It dawned on me that I was seeing a cross section of the house at the position of the laser line on the floorpan. Indeed a room on the screen highlighted and a new video popped up on the opposite wall of a man looking for a book.  This continued for several minutes, with the screen lurching slowly backwards and forwards, pausing and playing a video of languorous French people moving around in side a space that “evoked” the Maison de Verre.

What didn’t work for me

I spend a fair bit of time looking at floorpans and elevations for work, so I have learned how to read them, but even with that experience it took me an unacceptably long time to realize that what I was seeing on the projection screen was essentially a CT scan through the middle of Maison de Verre. And having looked at my share of CT scans, I can confidently say that they are a tough form of visualization to get accustomed to. And I was better off than most of the people in the room with me at the time. Most people ignored the screen and the floorpan and waited patiently for the next video to appear. Which is a shame, since so much effort obviously went into building a high-fidelity 3D model of the house. It was visually pleasing to watch the building on the projection screen disappear as the vantage point shifted, but I didn’t get any sense of how the building was architecturally different, and certainly no sense of how the whole series of spaces connected and flowed into each other. I felt like I’d been promised a revelation and given a cipher instead.

As we were leaving the gallery I found the sign that told me that Diller, Scofidio, and Renfro designed the exhibition, which answered a lot of my nagging questions. I could easily see how an architecture firm could think that the public would “get” a confusing architectural way of looking at a domestic space. DSR also designed the Charles James exhibition at the Met, which had the dubious honor of being the last exhibition to actually make me mad at the designers. If you didn’t see it, it’s hard to explain, but it involved ball dresses and cameras on robot arms that supposedly gave you close up views of the dresses, but really just played canned video loops as the arms waved around the space like Ballet Robotique.

It was a fascinating show, and I was glad to have seen it. It’s one of the best uses of virtual reality in an exhibition I’ve seen, and the design choices made on the whole made what could have been a fairly dry examination of the subject an evocative, and, yes, immersive one at that.

The culture wars

If you’ve read my blog for any period of time, you’ve doubtless witnessed the occasions where I find myself scratching my head at what cultural commentators have to say about museums in very public forums. Philip Kennicott, Judith Dobrzynski, Ellen Gamerman, the list goes on and on…

Another salvo was fired earlier in the week. Tiffany Jenkins, a regular commentator to the Scotsman and other papers, wrote a blog post titled “Who Owns Culture?” for the Oxford University Press blog. She’s also written a book “Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums – And Why They Should Stay There” which promises to be a full-throated defense of the status quo of 20th century Western museum philosophy. I won’t bore you with a synopsis of her post. Read it yourselves.

The thing I really want you to do is read Courtney Johnston’s reflection on it. Johnston, the Directory of the Dowse Art Museum in New Zealand, and a pretty bright star in my personal pantheon of museum thinkers, gives a deeply thoughtful response to, and rejection of Jenkins’ arguments that is eloquent, passionate, and so free of the vitriol that is my usual first response to arrogance masquerading as concern. Reading what smart people with different viewpoints have to say is a pillar of my professional practice. Museums, as public institutions (whether they’re publicly or privately operated) have to be able to engage with the larger discourses happening in society. That doesn’t make it easy to hear, and doing it respectfully and honestly, ain’t easy. It’s far easier to mock, eg. most of the Internet. Johnston’s post is a wonderful example of how grown-ups do it.

Stop reading this now and read Courtney’s post, OK? Here’s the link again. Go now. These are important, indeed foundational issues, and how we respond will shape museum practice in the coming century. Thanks!


I, robot

I wrote a short piece for PEM’s blog on my brief stint as a robot at MCN2014. You can find it here: I, robot.

Highlights from MCN 2014

I’ve been meaning to write up a recap of my experience at MCN 2014 for some time, but am only now getting around to unearthing my notes and pictures.


I was one of the conference program co-chairs, along with Morgan Holzer from NYPL, and had spent the better part of 2014 getting ready for this party to start. And one of the biggest takeaways I had was that I find it harder to be in the moment when I’ve had a hand in setting up the program. Like the host at a party worrying if the guests are having a good time, I spent a lot of time shuttling back and forth between sessions, poking into workshops, and constantly taking the pulse of the conference to see if there was anything that needed doing. And it felt good to have care of the event in that way, but it was very different than just being there as an attendee. In many ways, this was the perfect bookend to my visit to MW 2012, when I didn’t go to any sessions and just sat in the lobby of the conference hotel for a day. So, what was the 30,000 foot view like?

Conference Highlights

If you want a quick promo for the conference, check out this snazzy highlight video.

For the Record…

MCN has been getting more and more into capturing and disseminating video of presentations and I actually find myself going back to them in ways I didn’t think I would a couple of years ago. The MCN YouTube channel is worth a visit. Papers rarely capture the performative aspects of a public reading, slide decks are usually woefully incomplete, and neither capture the dialogue that occurs. So I’m glad that the investment in video continues to grow and hope you find it useful to your work.

Ignite on-site

The first night Ignite talks have become one of the cornerstones of the MCN conference. They deliver a jolt of energy to the proceedings that is hard to beat. The format is a tough one, and the hardy souls who volunteer to do it are inspirations to us all. Normally, we’ve had to go off-site to find a venue that is set up with a stage, the right AV system, booze, and the ability to accommodate a couple hundred people. Luckily, this year we didn’t have to pile into buses and go to a bar.  One of the most unusual features of the Fairmont Dallas hotel as a conference venue was the Venetian Room. Think early 1970s glitz, and you’ve got it.

The Venetian Room, courtesy of Fairmont Hotels

The Venetian Room, courtesy of Fairmont Hotels

Robert Goulet was the first performer to grace the stage, Sonny and Cher played there, Ike and Tina Turner, etc. And it was right in the building!

The curtain on the Venetian Room stage. Swanky!

The curtain on the Venetian Room stage. Swanky!

So swanky, I bought a tux to go with it.

So swanky, I bought a tux to go with it.

Two presentations really stood out for me. Max Anderson, the director of the Dallas Museum of Art (you should follow him on Twitter if you don’t already) delivered a no-holds-barred talk on how art museum directors think. It was full of insight into the issues directors are faced with, and especially cutting in regard to how they view digital technologies and staff who want to innovate. If you’ve wondered “What does my director really think about?” check it out.

Greb Albers from the Getty had the unenviable job of batting cleanup (going last for you non-baseball fans) and not only gave a great performance, but gave the conference it’s first (and most inspirational) meme. For the rest of the conference, I heard people exhorting each other to “be tugboats”. Watch the talk, you’ll get it.

The Keynote

 Lance Weiler, filmaker, writer, teacher, and incredibly promiscuous collaborator gave a great, provoking keynote on storytelling and technology, drawn almost entirely from his own impressive body of work. If you haven’t seen works like Bear 71, you really should. Incredible stuff. The whole talk is worth a watch.

One of the most interesting parts of his talk was the “Five Times Why” exercise he made all 400 people do. Everyone was given cards, pencils and told to find a partner they didn’t know. They would then ask them the question “Why are you here?” five times, record each answer and then write a summary of why that person had come. Then they’d switch roles. It was a great ice breaker! As an unintended bonus, we collected all the cards and spent part of the last day coding the responses. Some very interesting insights will help us with next year’s conference.

The Layer of Chaos and the joy of HOMAGO

One of the things I like most about museum technology events is that they tend to be HOMAGO kinds of affairs.If you’re not familiar with the term, HOMAGO stands for Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, and is an experiential learning theory expounded by Mimi Ito, and popular in digital media and learning circles. It’s social, peer-oriented, and interest-driven. HOMAGO is generally used in youth experience contexts to describe the ways they make sense out of the constantly evolving sea of new ways to be and create that digital media present. I think that same spirit underlies both the formal *and* informal making opportunities that MCN provides to attendees. Our demographic may be a bit older, but the phenomenon feels the same to me.

The energy in the workshops was great to see. People learned to use microontrollers and sensors and actually make physical stuff.

The Arduino workshop

The Arduino workshop

The conference workshops certainly had that spirit, but the Layer of Chaos, MCN’s three year-old collaboration with New Mexico Highlands University and the Parachute Factory makerspace, really embodies that spirit and runs with it. Part artist residency, part drop-in program, part adult fun night, the Layer of Chaos has it all. Great peer-to-peer opportunities to engage with new technologies, lots of alcohol-aided socializing, and can-do experimentation that is a great creative lubricant. I can’t wait to see what they come up with for Minneapolis this November. This year’s theme, the MuseTech Shipwreck, was partly my fault, so I got the task of welcoming attendees to the opening of the Layer of Chaos. There were interactive light and sound installations, an visitor-operated barrel of rum (you had to hit a target with retrofitted light guns fr old consoles) and a dancing skeleton made from a pico projector, ultrasonic humidifier and a bunch of drinking straws.

The High and the Low Tech

William Gibson wrote that “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” And that was in evidence at MCN. There were the obligatory high tech devices, like the Beam telepresence robot I got to test drive around the Exhibit Hall. But there were also great examples of low tech solutions. Google Cardboard, their “turn your Android phone into a 1970s Viewmaster” was a surprisingly successful product. Even with an iPhone, I was able to enjoy most of the experience, and get a sense of the kinds of things we can expect to see from the Google Cultural Institute Lab in Paris.

Look, ma! I'm a robot!

Look, ma! I’m a robot!

Google cardboard. The advance mechanism (only works w Android phones) is just a washer and a magnet.  Genius!

Google cardboard. The advance mechanism (only works w Android phones) is just a washer and a magnet. Genius!

It’s the future in here!

The MCN 2014 Scholars. What an inspiring group!

The MCN 2014 Scholars. What an inspiring group!

 Most random moment

I was in the Exhibit Hall and turned around to see Leo, Douglas, Loic, and Don talking. Nothing unusual there, except Don was actually in France, not Dallas, and was using a telepresence robot to hang out with us. That kinda stuff happens at MCN. You should come this year. It’ll be a blast!

3 folks in Dallas, one in France

3 folks in Dallas, one in France

“Outsourcing” the curatorial impulse, Part Two

Curation, stuff, people, meanings. Fear of change vs fear of irrelevance. Framing debates and the need for new frames. That was Part One of this series in a nutshell. Getting through it without answering snark with more snark was more of a challenge than I expected, so what had been one really long post with a happy ending got split into two posts. For background framing of the curation/participation issue, go back and read it. It features a picture from I Can Haz Cheezeburger, so it’s worth it.

In this post, I’d like to look more at examples of work people are doing that take on issues around curation, and maybe serve as exemplars. I’ll start with some provocative thoughts that are a wonderful antidote to the pearl-clutching tone of some of the other recent articles, then we’ll finally explore two of the smallest museums that I referenced at the beginning of Part One.

Let your voice be heard!

Lolly Hopkins cheers on the Braves with megaphone. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image from Boston Public Library

Lolly Hopkins cheers on the Braves with megaphone.
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image from Boston Public Library

In response to my first post, Seb Chan from Cooper Hewitt offered another possible way forward: clearer voice, than the standard 20th century disembodied “institutional voice” that is still prevalent in the field. I’m just going to repost big chunks of it because it’s that good:

“My view is increasingly that museums need opinions, and that means that more than ever their exhibitions benefit from being opinionated. Sometimes the opinion that needs to be stated is that of those voices least frequently heard in museums (some – but not all – participatory exhibit projects might fall into this category) and well served by ‘community sourcing’, but other times it’s a need to have an upfront, loud, curatorial voice.”

I think this perceived lack of voice often afflicts participatory projects, which is why they get characterized as messy and chaotic. The Memory Jars project at the Museum of Art and History at Santa Cruz or Object Stories at Portland Art Museum I think ar egood examples of projects where visitors’ voices come through loud and clear, which may be why I like them. The perceived lack of loud curatorial voices reminded me of Max Anderson’s 2011 “The Crisis in Art History: Ten Problems, Ten Solutions” which included this gem, “One solution is for art historians and curators to devote more pages and column inches to explaining why art matters and why it should move us, and to be less patronizing about the relevance of our discipline just because the public does not see the point.” Amen, brother!

And lest you start feeling smug, I think that admonition applies to us all, not just art historians. If your audience doesn’t get what you’re doing, is it the audience’s fault, or your museum’s?

Interpreting the language of objects
This communication problem ties into the curation/participation dynamic. Often, the adherents of traditional practice take a dim view of interpretation of any stripe. They want straight curatorial wisdom and nothing else. “Let the objects speak for themselves” is a refrain I’ve heard more than once. And I think it’s all well and good, if your audience is an already-informed one, like say art critics, and fellow museum professionals. If the audience includes people who don’t already speak that language (be it art, or science, or history, or whatever), then not so well. Seb, in his comment,  continued,

“The big caveat being that that voice needs to be able to heard and understood by a significant proportion of the visitors to be valuable (cue “more interpretation”, “better exhibition design”, “exhibition design as coherent argument”, “audience research” etc). Curation has to be more than just ‘choosing’. When its done well, it is, and obviously so. Too often what is celebrated by those against more participatory activities in museums are opaque exhibitions with curatorial arguments obfuscated with a thick dose of International Art English.”

I agree completely. Curation as a form of sense-making requires strong interpretation. Regan Forrest published a great, short post on the language of objects [] that picked apart this question of interpretation that’s worth reading. She notes that ,

“the ‘objects are mute’ vs ‘objects speak for themselves’ debate may be missing an important nuance: perhaps objects do speak, at least some of the time, although we as visitors may not necessarily be conversant in the language any given object speaks. And if not, the object is as good as mute to us.”

I like the model of the “language of objects” being spoken with a strong voice, and interpreted for an audience who may not be fluent in that language. Unfortunately, interpretation often gets a bad reputation as “pandering”. I wrote about this almost exactly a year ago and the world hasn’t progressed far since then.  Regan Forrest and I bounced the idea back and forth across a couple of blog posts, in which she asked the question,  When does interpretation cross the line from mediation – providing a hook or a link between audiences and content – into interference: “over-interpretation”, where it’s simply getting in the way of a meaningful experience? Does this line shift depending on the audience? On the subject matter? Whether its science or its art?” Striking that balance is hard. Which made me wonder about other interesting models people are pursuing that come at curation in interesting ways.

Here are two examples that were at my famers market last weekend. One thing that unites the two is that both try to take the museum experience outside of the museum and meet visitors where they already are, and invert the model of the visit. Another is their clear, definitely opinionated curatorial stance.

The Mµseum

The Mµseum opened in 2010 in Union Square, not far from my house. Billed as the world’s smallest museum, it occupies a niche in a wall between a sub shop and a restaurant in a busy pedestrian square. Judith Krausner and Steve Pomeroy wanted a way to showcase the works of regional artists in an intimate setting that was also free of the constraints of getting into a gallery or museum space. Why not make a space where people already were, and bring the museum experience to them? Thus was born the Mµseum.

Go to their website and you’ll see their program, though truly tiny in scale, has all the hallmarks of a traditional museum endeavor, and boasts a very clear voice. Their statement about “accessibility” reads, We want art to be something that is approachable to everyone. By bringing art right up to the viewer, in an unstaffed, pressure-free environment (a place you’d be anyway, just walking down the street!), we hope to make art both physically and psychologically approachable.” They want people walking down the street to stop and see some art made by artists working in the area. Somerville, MA apparently has the largest number of working artists per capita of any municipality in the United States, so there’s no shortage of materials.

The Mobile Museum of American Artifacts

The MMoAA parked the the Union Square Farmers' Market in Somerville, MA

The MMoAA parked the the Union Square Farmers’ Market in Somerville, MA

The Mobile Museum of American Artifacts is the brainchild of Laurelin Kruse, a California-based artist and arts educator. After a brief stint at the Calder Foundation, she became fascinated by the way a single person’s life could become the focus of so many people’s work; collecting, cataloguing, conserving every little scrap, no matter how quotidian. What about the artiacts of ordinany Americans, the countless stories and lives that surround us? Who was going to find, collect *their* objects and stories? Thus was MMoAA born, and it’s curator.

After finding a suitable gallery space (a converted 1968 Cardinal camper), and kickstarting its retrofitting, Kruse set out from California, stopping along the way for brief periods of time, setting up shop, and soliciting objects and stories. By the time we met in Somerville, she’d already been across the country once, and was preparing to lay up for the winter before setting out west again.   The Museum, big enough to hold three or four adults comfortably, can be visited in a few minutes, more if you use the video booth. Though she’s collected quite a bit, the exhibition is well laid out; not too many objects, labels that tell a complete story quickly. They hint at the lives that intersected with them, and some are quite powerful; a bundle of love letters from the 1910s, found in the attic of a house, bits of soap made by a woman with her long-dead grandmother during yearly summer visits, now long past. A knife given by a junkie to the bus driver who drove him to rehab. These little narratives

The MMoAA, like the Mµseum, the Museum of Broken Relationships, and others, I think reflects the current increase in interest in curation as a democratizing force and a counter-narrative to the perceived aloofness of museums as institutions. They all say “This happened! It was important to the people involved!”, the same impulse as Kennicott’s “struggle against oblivion”.

What are other examples you’ve come across that are innovative models of modern curation?