Tag Archives: design

Opportunities for collaboration: building storyworlds


Wine & Cheese by Jordan Johnson. Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0

So, I’m not in Iceland as I’d planned to be. A cracked cockpit windshield, several hours of waiting, and a determinedly cheerful, “Flight cancelled! Come back tomorrow, and we’ll have it fixed!” were one way to spend a Wednesday night. Finishing up this post seemed like another way to make lemonade out of a real lemon of a night. So, let’s wind this series up with a look at a few of the ways that heritage and gaming complement each other, like a nice pairing of wine and cheese, two great tastes that taste great together!

UPDATE: So, after spending several posts problematizing and defining and reframing the question of how cultural heritage professionals and game designers could work together, I’m finally to the good part; exploring avenues for collaboration. This was going to be one elegant wrap up and call to action, but I’m tired, and there’s too much out there to squeeze into one post. So stay tuned as I look at storyworlds, community building, transgression and gardening! First up, storyworlds!

Creating storyworlds

One kind of game that has become very popular in the past few years has been games that feature large, persistent worlds that are inhabited by thousands or millions of players. These games have large overarching narratives that propel the action, and serve as the background for individual players to have their own stories play out.

Chris Crawford’s definition of a game as “a world in which a story occurs and that players are free to move through this bounded space and time and encounter pieces of a story, or follow a story arc”, has clear parallels to what museums do, and could do better. A good storyworld is by nature immersive. It is also decidedly non-linear, which museum exhibitions have to be. It is narrative, without being proscriptive. There is a premise, and (at least) one plot unfolds over the course of the narrative. They may intertwine, double back, and perform other gymnastics, but they are there continuously throughout the experience.

Exploring a storyworld is also a deeply constructivist endeavor. You put together elements as you navigate the storyspace, and your edifice of knowledge will look different than anyone else’s. This was at least half the fun of Myst. I’d decide that everything we’d learned meant one thing, and my wife would often have constructed a completely different narrative. A big part of the fun of our playing the game was the dialogic interaction we’d have about what was going on while we were playing.

Most of all, the new kinds of game storyworlds allow visitors to have both a social experience, and a personal experience, without the technological backflips we try to do to encourage them to “personalize” experiences. Sleep No More is a great theatre example. The audience decides where they want to go, and can follow the action, follow a particular character, or just wander randomly through the story.

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New games have moved straight into history as their storyworlds. Kingdom Come: Deliverance seems to squarely be aiming at the question “What must it have been like to be alive at a particular point in history?”  that motivates so much of the interpretation that cultural heritage sites try to provide.


Assassin’s Creed: Origins

Assassin’s Creed: Origins uses Ptolemaic Egypt as more of a backdrop for the fantasy of the game narrative, but what a backdrop! And in an interesting development, after building all these detailed set pieces, requiring the hiring of actual historians to advise Ubisoft, they decided the some players might just want to explore the world, without the fighting and undead mayhem of the main game, so they built 75 (!) tours of different parts of ancient Egypt.


Assassin’s Creed: Origin Discovery Tours

But, wait! There’s more! Daniel Pett (formerly of the British Museum) raised an interesting point on Twitter. What might Ubisoft have been able to make if they had access to the assets of museums that hold Egyptian collections, like the kinds of 3D models Pett had been creating at the BM.

It’s only a matter of time, because Assassin’s Creed: Origins already includes museum assets, thanks to the Met’s Open Access policy.

When I get back from Iceland, we’ll look at community building. Unless the plane still isn’t fixed…


Playing with Cultural Heritage: references


My interest in play, games, and cultural heritage is longstanding. Longtime readers of this blog will remember a series of posts I wrote about gamification and my discomfort with the way it is applied to museum experiences. More recently, Peabody Essex Museum has been developing the PlayTime exhibition, an exploration of the role of play in contemporary art.

Working on that has provided amazing opportunities to meet game developers, theorists, and experience designers of all stripes. I wrote an article for the UX Blog called Being Teachable that detailed some of the learnings I took away from attending Alibis for Interaction in Malmö and Clash of Realities 2016 in Köln. The companion digital publication for PlayTime contains dozens of essays, interviews, videos, and games that expand on the themes of the exhibition.


Screenshot of the PlayTime publication landing page.

Gamification and Iceland

It is therefore really exciting to have been invited to give the keynote at a seminar next month in Reykjavik called “Let’s Play With Heritage – Seminar & Think Tank on Gamification and Heritage”. It is part of the Connected Culture and Natural Heritage in a Northern Environment (CINE) project, a collaborative digital heritage project between 9 partners and 10 associated partners from Norway, Iceland, Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland. CINE aims to transform people’s experiences of outdoor heritage sites through technology, building on the idea of “museums without walls”.

CINE map

CINE partner map

A really interesting project, and a whole new group of colleagues to meet!

My talk, “The Future of Playing with the Past: New Opportunities in Interpreting Cultural Heritage” will draw on examples from across the cultural heritage sector to explore what online games, live action role play, and immersive theater have to offer heritage professionals looking to engage 21st century audiences.

In the course of working on my slides, I’ve been re-reading older works, and reading everything new I can get my hands on that touches on the subjects. This post will be the repository for the raw materials for the talk. If you’re interested in gaming, play, and museums, you might some useful links. If you have any that I haven’t listed here, let me know! Ditto for examples of useful cultural heritage experiences that are play-based, gameful, or even…gamified.

My posts on games, play, and gamification

What can museums learn about immersive theater?

On immersion, theatre, and museums

Australia: Game Masters review and DAM: Melbourne

Reviews: museum game apps

Gaming the museum – separating fad from function – Part four of four!

Gaming the museum – separating fad from function – Part three of ?

Gaming the museum – separating fad from function – Part two of ?

Gaming the museum – separating fad from function – Part one of ?

Case studies

National Museum of Finland Offers Virtual Time Travel

Visitors can step into the world of Finland in 1863 with the power of virtual reality. With the opening of the new VR exhibit, visitors to the museum will be able to step back in time to the year 1863 by donning a VR headset and walking inside R. W. Ekman’s painting ‘The Opening of he Diet 1863 by Alexander II’.

Discovery Tour by Assassin’s Creed: Ancient Egypt Q&A

Discovery Tour by Assassin’s Creed: Ancient Egypt as a free title update for Assassin’s Creed Origins. The Discovery Tour is an educational experience that allows players to free-roam Ancient Egypt to learn more about its history. We sat down with the developers of this unique experience to answer frequently asked questions.

Gamifying the Museum with NYU Game Center Graduate Students

This Spring, the American Museum of Natural History and the NYU Game Center partnered to create a classroom-in-residence at the Museum for a course entitled “Designing for Museums.”

Kingdom Come: Deliverance review in progress: This realistic Skyrim rival is a true role-playing game

Kingdom Come: Deliverance is essentially an Elder Scrolls-style RPG made “realistic.” Abandoning the fantasy lands of most sword-and-board stories, Kingdom Come instead builds a tale around Bohemia, the region of modern-day Czech Republic and, as of the 1400s, the Kingdom within the Holy Roman Empire.


Screenshot from Kingdom Come. You’ll get a healthy does of 15th century European history.

What am I missing…?


Bogost, I. (2011). Persuasive Games: Exploitationware. Retrieved from https://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/134735/persuasive_games_exploitationware.php

Brumann, C. (2014). Heritage agnosticism: A third path for the study of cultural heritage. Social Anthropology, 22(2), 173–188. 

Bujari, A., Ciman, M., Gaggi, O., & Palazzi, C. E. (2017). Using gamification to discover cultural heritage locations from geo-tagged photos. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 21(2), 235–252. 

Deterding, S. (2017). Outside the Box: Toward an Ecology of Gaming Enjoyment. Retrieved from https://www.slideshare.net/dings/outside-the-box-toward-an-ecology-of-gaming-enjoyment

Deterding, S. (2017). Alibis for Adult Play: A Goffmanian Account of Escaping Embarrassment in Adult Play. Games and Culture, 1–20. 

Deterding, S. (2010). Pawned. Gamification and its Discontents. In Playful 2010. Retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/dings/pawned-gamification-and-its-discontents

Deterding, S. (2011). Meaningful Play. Getting “Gamification” Right. In Google Tech Talk, January 24, 2011. Retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/dings/meaningful-play-getting-gamification-right

Deterding, S. (2011). Don’t Play Games With Me! Promises and Pitfalls of Gameful Design. In webdirections @media, London, May 27, 2011. Retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/dings/dont-play-games-with-me-promises-and-pitfalls-of-gameful-design

Findlay, K., & Alberts, K. (2011). Gamification: What It Is and What It’s Not. In ESOMAR 2011, Amsterdam. Amsterdam.

Flagg, B. N., & Holland, I. (2013). Summative Evaluation of PlanetMania Mobile App in Maryland Science Center’ s Life Beyond Earth Exhibit

Gregory, J. (2015). Connecting with the past through social media: The Beautiful buildings and cool places Perth has lost Facebook group. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 21(1), 22–45. 

Hamari, J., Koivisto, J., & Sarsa, H. (2014). Does gamification work? – A literature review of empirical studies on gamification. In Proceedings of the Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (pp. 3025–3034). 

Iyadurai, L., Blackwell, S. E., Meiser-Stedman, R., et al (2017). Preventing intrusive memories after trauma via a brief intervention involving Tetris computer game play in the emergency department: a proof-of-concept randomized controlled trial. Molecular Psychiatry, 23 (3), 674-682

Juul, J. (2016). Sailing the Endless River of Games: The case for Historical Design Patterns. Proceedings of 1st International Joint Conference of DiGRA and FDG, (Gualeni 2015), 1–15. Retrieved from http://www.jesperjuul.net/text/endlessriverofgames/

Juul, J. (2005). Half-Real. Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional. MIT Press.

Juul, J. (2017). The Art of Failure: an essay on the pain of playing video games. MIT Press.

Juul, J. (2003). The Game, the Player, the World. In Level Up. Utrecht. Retrieved from http://www.jesperjuul.net/text/gameplayerworld/

Karagiorgas, D. N., & Niemann, S. (2017). Gamification and Game-Based Learning. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 45(4), 499–519. 

Koster, R. (2012). A Theory of Fun: 10 Years Later. Retrieved from https://www.raphkoster.com/gaming/gdco12/Koster_Raph_Theory_Fun_10.pdf

Liarokapis, F., Petridis, P., Andrews, D., & de Freitas, S. (2017). Multimodal Serious Games Technologies for Cultural Heritage. In Mixed Reality and Gamification for Cultural Heritage (pp. 371–392). 

Lovell, N. (2010). The Engagement Hierarchy. Retrieved from http://whatgamesare.com/2010/12/the-engagement-hierarchy.html

Mannion, S. (2014). Augmented encounters with heritage.Digital Humanities Fall School, Venice, October 2014. Retrieved from https://www.slideshare.net/s.mannion/augmented-encounters-with-heritage

Mitchell, R., Schuster, L., & Drennan, J. (2017). Understanding how gamification influences behaviour in social marketing. Australasian Marketing Journal, 25(1), 12–19. 

Mortara, M., Catalano, C. E., Bellotti, F., Fiucci, G., Houry-Panchetti, M., & Petridis, P. (2014). Learning cultural heritage by serious games. Journal of Cultural Heritage

Nicholson, S. (2015). Peeking Behind the Locked Door: A Survey of Escape Room Facilities. Retrieved from http://scottnicholson.com/pubs/erfacwhite.pdf

Nielsen, J. K. (2015). The relevant museum: defining relevance in museological practices. Museum Management and Curatorship, 30(5), 364–378. 

Norman, D., & Lefebvre, H. (n.d.). The Game Design of Everyday Things. Kill Screen Daily. Retrieved from http://killscreendaily.com/articles/game-design-everyday-things-everyday- gaming

Owens, T. (2013). Digital Cultural Heritage and the Crowd. Curator: The Museum Journal

Ridge, M. (2011). Playing with difficult objects: game designs for crowdsourcing museum metadata. City University London.

Robertson, M. (2010). Can’t play, won’t play. Hide and Seek. Retrieved from http://www.hideandseek.net/2010/10/06/cant-play-wont-play/

Rockwell, G. M., & Kee, K. (2009). Game Studies. Retrieved from http://gamestudies.org/1102/articles/geoffrey_rockwell_kevin_kee

Sailer, M., Hense, J. U., Mayr, S. K., & Mandl, H. (2017). How gamification motivates: An experimental study of the effects of specific game design elements on psychological need satisfaction. Computers in Human Behavior, 69, 371–380. 

Stenros, J. (2015). Playfulness, Play, and Games. A Constructionist Ludology Approach.

Trammell, A., Torner, E., & Waldron, E. L. (2016). Analog Game Studies Volume 1. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Mellon: ETC Press.

Tulloch, R. (2014). Reconceptualising Gamification: Play and Pedagogy. Digital Culture & Education, 6(December), 317–333.

Weiler, L. (2015). Bridging the Physical & Digital Worlds Explorations into the wilds of a Massive Online/Offline Collaboration — 12 things to consider when building collaborative spaces. Retrieved from http://www.digitalstorytellinglab.com/bridging-the-physical-digital-worlds/

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!

Representing abundance in collections

Janet Carding and I have been talking about her upcoming CODE|WORDS essay on change management in the digital era, and one painful truth she points out is that she still goes to events where museum leaders talk about putting their collections online and making them available to search, a full generation after this problem was first solved. And that solution – search – is itself hugely problematic, for me, and others, I think, largely because of how stingy we are in how we provide access to those collections.

CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user Paul Lowry

CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user Paul Lowry

Once upon a time, when you wanted to find out something, you’d go to the library and look in a card catalogue for a topic or a title. Once you got a number, you’d go wander the aisles or stacks, looking at book spines for the right number. Maybe you’d find what you were looking for. Maybe you wouldn’t. But in either case, you’d encounter a ton of information on the way that would give you both a sense of what you were looking for and what information surrounded it.

Fast forward to 2015 and how have we advanced in our ability to present vast sums of knowledge?





Bit of a let down, isn’t it?

Hold the idea of being in the library stacks and then look at the blank search box, revealing nothing, mocking your ignorance, coyly withholding its treasures and forcing you to figure out what magic formula will get it to show you the goods. As Mitchell Whitelaw points out in his excellent article “Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections”

“Decades of digitisation have made a wealth of digital cultural material available online. Yet search — the dominant interface to these collections — is incapable of representing this abundance. Search is ungenerous: it withholds information, and demands a query.”

I expressed a strong opinion on this in my CODE|WORDS essay “The Virtues of Promiscuity”

“Let’s be clear that what I’m talking about is not “Let’s put the collection online” by making a database with a web interface. Access is important, but a web portal is an oracular cave, dark and mysterious. You go into the dark place, ask your question, and the Sibyl answers. Hopefully, it makes sense. Sometimes, it’s a very detailed answer, sometimes not. But the seeker never has the ability to appreciate the collection as a whole, or to interrogate it in any ways other than those chosen by the architects of the CMS and the portal. And they’re black holes to indexers. Google, Yahoo! and Baidu have no way of knowing what lies beyond your search box, and in a world where findability equals existence, this is death. Actually it’s worse, it’s annihilation — being made into nothing. Not a great strategy for proving relevance.”

The really frustrating thing is that the problem with search has been recognized as a problem pretty much since the beginning. At the very first Museums and the Web conference in 1997(!), in “The Best of Intentions: Public Access, the Web & the Evolution of Museum Automation”, Kevin Donovan wrote,

“The search interface approach employs the frightful blank search field method of providing access to data. This method reproduces the most inscrutable characteristics of database technology, a technology so daunting that even within museums only those deliberate souls whose jobs depend on it, collections managers and registrars, will use it.”

We’re talking 1997 Web 1.0 days, when there was no Facebook, no Twitter, and Netscape Navigator had a 62% market share compared to Internet Explorer’s 35% (over half of whom were using IE3 on Windows 95 machines). Even then, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, search was unsatisfying and problematic.

So, what are alternatives?

I’m sure (I hope?) that there are museum collections that can be explored in more generous ways than search. If you know of any, send me a link, eh? Here are two examples I know of, though both are long in the tooth now.

The Visual Thesaurus is an interactive dictionary and thesaurus, based on the Thinkmap architecture. It was all the rage around the turn of the millennium. I recall owning a copy of it on floppy disk. Luckily, the web version continues to this day. It’s a great tool for exploring the relationships between words and their meanings. It allows you to drift from word to word and concept to concept, all while showing you the landscape around the object of your study. It’s a great tool, and had obvious museum applications from the get-go. Thinkmap and the Experience Music Project presented “Artifact as Inspiration: Using existing collections and management systems to inform and create new narrative structures” at MW2001. It’s still relevant, 14 years later. I tried a couple of times to get projects off the ground using Thinkmap, but with no luck.

Planetary is an example of both visualization and of evolving museum practice. It was a great iPad app for visualizing your iTunes music library that employed a novel conceit: it used a planetary system metaphor for displaying metadata. Artists were stars, albums were planets, tracks were moons. It was a very different take on looking at your music, and the visuals were amazing. Here’s a look.

An interesting postscript to Planetary’s short life was that it was the first digital object the Cooper Hewitt collected, in 2013. “Planetary: Collecting and Preserving code as a living object” raises a number of issues about ways of visualizing abundance.  I added some commentary at the time, too.


Both of these models offer glimpses of how exploring museum datasets could be more interesting, more generous, and more useful to our audiences. It’s a great opportunity to innovate, because the stakes are so high. Putting our abundant resources out on the open web won’t gain us much if we don’t find ways to make them more inviting, to lure potential explorers into their depths, and to encourage the kinds of serendipitous explorations that a trip through the stacks could produce. I’ll leave you with another Whitelaw quote that says it better than I would.

The stakes here are high, because the interface plays an inescapable role in mediating digital heritage. Whether a command-line console or an immersive visualisation, these collections come to us in some specific, concrete form; and crucially, that form is constructed and contingent. It can always be otherwise. As our cultural heritage is increasingly networked and digital, the life and use of that heritage will increasingly be conditioned by the forms in which it reaches us, how it is made concrete and available both for scholars and the wider public. As argued above, search-centred conventions offer meagre representational tools; while there are promising signs of a new generosity emerging, much more is possible.


Mitchell Whitelaw
“Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections” DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly, Volume 9 Number 1, 2015

Ed Rodley
“The Virtues of Promiscuity: or, Why giving it away is the future”, CODE | WORDS: Technology and Theory in the Museum. 2014

Kevin Donovan
“The Best of Intentions: Public Access, the Web & the Evolution of Museum Automation” Museums and the Web 1997

Seb Chan
“Planetary: Collecting and Preserving code as a living object” Cooper Hewitt blog, 2013.

What is the Museum full stack?

“Stacked Pebbles, Spanish Bay” CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user Christopher Chan

Following my post about Agile methodologies in museums, I wandered (as one does on the Internet) to adjacent topics. According to my Scrum Master brother, one of the anti-patterns in museums that makes Agile implementation difficult to fathom is the specialization of roles. Whereas software developers are expected to be familiar with all the layers of code that make up modern software “the full stack”, museum expertise is pretty highly differentiated. Curatorial is separate from interpretation which is separate from collections. It allows for great specialization, but makes it harder to see how all the pieces of museum work can and should fit together to make for great visitor engagement. It makes it hard to even see the digital manifestations of our work as belonging to a single stack, which makes it very hard to develop digital experiences that can take advantage of all the affordances the modern internet provides. It’s a classic wicked problem, where even trying to outline the contours of the issue is hard and changeable. But, those are the problems most worth poking at, right? So I started collecting stacks and looking for similarities, and potential applications.

So I tweeted my question into the ether,

and lo! Answers returned.

Other people are wrestling with the same or similar issues. We decided to have a higher-bandwidth conversation than Twitter allows and scheduled a time to hang out and talk. I had a great lunchtime chat the other day with colleagues in Pittsburgh (Jeff Inscho @staticmade), St. Paul (Bryan Kennedy @xbryanx), and San Diego (Chad Weinard @caw_) about the idea of the museum full stack and how and why to build it.

Part of the problem I think, is that the full stack is hard to comprehend and traditionally hasn’t even been thought of (outside of IT circles) as a data ecosystem, but rather as a series of disconnected systems, owned and operated by separate departments, with parochial concerns. Certainly my own experience with developing digital experiences reflects that. This is also partly an historical artifact. A lot of these systems probably can trace their lineages back to when they were separate, discrete systems that possessed little or no ability to interoperate. The Internet has wrecked that isolation, as it has so many other things. Time to build a new perception of the museum data ecosystem and say goodbye to the days when IT owned this piece, and that piece was Collections’ worry. The reality is much more interconnected.

Cooper Hewitt’s stack

A lot of the impetus for me starting this conversation was a post by Seb Chan about the Cooper Hewitt’ API, their stack and it’s centrality to their vision. It starts with the museum’s two “sources of truth”, the repositories of the two kinds of data that the Cooper Hewitt relies on; data about objects, and data about visitors. Go read the whole thing. It’s worth it. I immediately resonated with the graphic on several levels. We use some of the same systems, and have been wrestling with the same kinds of ideas around providing visitors with personalized experiences. I’m particularly interested in representing the abundance of information in collections, and it’s hard to do that in the dominant paradigm of “search”.

“Decades of digitisation have made a wealth of digital cultural material available online. Yet search — the dominant interface to these collections — is incapable of representing this abundance. Search is ungenerous: it withholds information, and demands a query.”

Mitchell Whitelaw

Cooper Hewitt’s stack, image by Katie Shelly

Cooper Hewitt’s approach of using the full stack approach makes it possible for them to provide visitors with multiple entry points into the collection through interactive experiences, what Mitchell Whitelaw would call more “generous interfaces”.  I find it hard to perceive any other way to do that without stepping back and looking at the full stack, seeing the forest through the trees as it were.

Here are a few of the other things that came up in our chat.

Objects, Experiences, People

Cooper Hewitt’s stack is a great model because it’s suitably specific. Their model would not likely be your model or anybody else’s, for that matter. The systems they rely on, and the staff expertise they bring to bear are unique. So their “two sources of truth” might not be yours. As Bryan pointed at, at his museum, Science Museum of Minnesota, they are as focused on the experiences they build as they are on the objects they use to populate some of those experiences. They are fundamental to the museum’s operation and incorporate content and ideas that don’t neatly fit in either source of truth. They’re not about objects, per se. For them, the experience is a truth that needs its own source. Cooper Hewitt doesn’t, but the Rijksmuseum might classify visitors’ digital creations as a separate source of truth, related to, yet distinct from the CMS or CRM systems. You get the idea?… At its most basic, atomic level, we want to be able to store, retrieve, and connect people, objects, and experiences.

What I find powerful about looking at the full stack of software platforms and services, is that it frees you from the mental constraint of the gallery, or the webpage. When you frame is an exhibition, everything looks like a kiosk. Same for good ole’ Web 1.0. The answer is usually a microsite or a web portal.

Monolithic systems break badly

Another issue that came up was the desire in some parts (often, but not always, administration) to create monolithic systems that will take care of everything. If you’ve been around long enough, you’ve probably run into vendors whose products will take care of all your digital needs. Their systems promise to be flexible, scalable, and easy to use (usually through the use of predefined templates). All your content will be seamlessly pushed to the destination of your choice, be it the exhibit hall or the Web. And though they may perform a lot of these functions, the reality is that they more often than not A) don’t deliver, and B) wind up becoming a straightjacket as the system ages, new systems join the ecosystem, and contracts/service agreements expire. As monolithic systems age, they don’t age gracefully, and when (not if) they break, they break badly.

Loose connections

That’s another place where designing systems and services that use the full stack is useful. The real power in  looking at the entire data ecosystem is that a hierarchy of linked systems can be loosely connected through APIs, assuming your stack layers are built on and use APIs. A break in any one of these loose connections is unlikely to bring your whole ecosystem crashing down, and the fix to one piece need not require an overhaul of the whole system. A stack that relies on APIs can be much more friendly to new platforms being integrated into the stack. The downside is that creating and managing this kind of ecosystem requires staff resources that are different than the resources needed to maintain one monolithic system, or a series of unconnected ones. And museums tend to privilege depth of knowledge over breadth, even in digital roles.

To that end I tried to put together a possible statement of what PEM’s stack looks like/could look like. I invite you  take a look. Add your own stack, too if you feel so inclined. Just make a new tab in the spreadsheet.


The power of attention

Frites, mayo & beer. It's that good!

Frites, mayo & beer. It’s that good!

I’ve recently returned from a week in the Netherlands, filming for Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen. We (the curator, our manager of AV production, and me) went over with a long list of video footage we needed to capture, and capture it we did. It was amazing. Interviewing Theo and shadowing him around was a real thrill. Holland in the Spring? ‘nuf said. Subsisting largely on cheese, butter, and beer and frites for a week? Yum… But what is rising up in me as one of the real benefits of travelling thousands of miles was the freedom it gave me to focus on one thing, to pay deep attention.

With layovers and hanging around in airport times, I had almost half a work week to do with as I pleased. Certainly some of that time was spent logisitically, worrying about schedules, playing around with interview questions, weighing options in case Plan A didn’t pan out. But that still left hours and hours to just think about the project, and doodle, storyboard, and imagine in a way that I often find it hard to do at work. And with the time difference, real-time communication with home wasn’t really practical. I had the gift of being undistracted by all the other priorities that fill workdays.

It was also a great bonding experience for those of us on the trip because we got to spend all day, every day, talking about the project, and riffing off each other’s ideas and observations. And the filming we did gave us hours and hours of time with the artist, listening to him describe his process, point of view, and outlook on life. By the end, we’d had hours of conversation about the pieces we’d come to shoot video for, and about the exhibition. I can see it now, in much more detail than I could before. I’ve written before about the way one refines one’s mental picture of a project as it progresses, and this trip was very crystallizing. And ultimately useful to the whole project team. We have both broadened and deepened our shared vision of what the show can be. And that took time.

Chip and I spent a lot of time on opposite sides of the camera.

Chip and I spent a lot of time on opposite sides of the camera.

Were we agile?

When something goes really well, I’m always interested in trying to analyze it and find things I can apply more broadly. I’ve also been reading about Agile software development, and I started to see commonalities between what worked in the Netherlands and Agile methods. I’ve long stood on the sidelines about translating methodoliges designed for software development and transplanting them in different arenas. The Agile methodology is the posterchild for this. I imagine you’ll hear it many time on the museum tech conference circuit if you haven’t already. I’m a hype skeptic, and I’m OK with that. Ask me about gamiification (ack!) if you need an example. But behind hype there is usually a kernel of truth, and Agile’s kernel (I think) is that it makes you devote attention to one task. If you’re a complete Agile newbie, go check out the Wikipedia entry for a good intro. In a nutshell, Agile is supposed to privilege:

  • Individuals and interactions over Processes and tools
  • Working software over Comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over Contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over Following a plan

In looking back over the week, I am starting to see how Agile methodologies could be applied to non-software development projects. Our morning breakfasts were essentially daily stand-up meetings where we discussed yesterday, laid out today, and looked forward to tomorrow as best as we could see. We shot whatever we thought we might need or want, even if it wasn’t on our list of things we needed. Our written descriptions for what we were doing and why did not preclude us from altering course during a shoot when new ideas presented themselves, and the videos will be better for it. As opportunities arose, we took them. Our customer was an active participant throughout the process, as was the artist, and their contributions and continuous feedback were crucial. It all sounds kinda Agile… Go figure.

Looking back, I can see that my approach to product development has always been more adaptive than predictive. So maybe it’s time to really dig in a bit more and see what esle Agile holds that might be useful.

Anybody else out there using any Agile methodolgies in museum work, especially outside of software development?

CODE│WORDS: An experiment in online discourse and publishing

by Ed Rodley

CC BY-SA 2.0 image by Flickr user djandyw.com

CC BY-SA 2.0 image by Flickr user djandyw.com

So, another long silence. February was the month of the endless head cold, and tons of stuff going on at Peabody Essex Museum.  The March shows will be opening soon! But, I haven’t been completely idle.  There have been secret plans afoot, which are finally cooked enough to announce. The big one is an experiment in online discourse and publishing that Rob Stein, Suse Cairns, and I have been discussing for a couple of months.  Let me tell you a bit about it, and see if it sounds interesting to you.

As you already know, 2013 was a pretty fruitful year for museum blog conversations. I was very grateful for both the quantity and quality of the discourse that happened, and how much of it seems to have influenced discourse in the broader museum community. Conference sessions and other publications continue to flow out of conversations that started as blog posts. By default, these tended to be reactionary, driven by current affairs and mass media. To step it up a notch for 2014, here’s an idea for an experiment that might do just that, and possibly pay further dividends down the road.

Suse Cairns (she of museum geek and Museopunks) and I have been talking about collaborating on a book for some time, once her PhD work wound down.  Both of us are interested in the intersection of the digital and museums and figured we’d find fertile ground there, but we hadn’t really gotten much further than that.  Late last year, Rob Stein wrote a comment to a Dallas newspaper article about visitors and smartphones that Suse and I both thought deserved a wider audience, so I asked him to consider reworking it as a guest post on my blog. However, Rob being Rob, he had a larger vision than just a one-off blog post.

“How about this instead?” he asked us,  “What if a group of museum blogs tackled a set of interrelated issues at the same time, with an eye toward some kind of publication being the final product? The process itself would be an interesting experiment, and the outcome – some hopefully substantial discourse and new knowledge – could be a real benefit to the field.” The basic idea was to strategically identify some interesting issues, divide up the issues among a group of collaborators, and  then tackle them sequentially, developing them simultaneously and collaboratively, so that we could heavily cross-link between them to create a more coherent narrative than the usual call and response of blogging. To this, we added the idea of using the blog posts *and* their associated commentary as the basis for revised essays that could be collected and published as an edited volume later. The conversations around the initial posts would thus become part of the final essays.

So we had a bunch of Google hangouts to hash out what this strange hybrid might look like and how it should function. Here’s what we came up with.

I stink at getting Hangout screenshots.

I stink at getting Hangout screenshots.

The project in a nutshell

CODE | WORDS as we originally conceived it comprises three primary phases:

  • Phase I is an open, online discussion via a shared Google document, where we set up the initial parameters for discussion, topics, and framework for the project.

  • Phase II will be a focussed blogging project in April-May 2014, which will initially be located on Medium and later archived. During a six-week period, 12 authors will post 2,000 word essays on related topics we chose in Phase I. You, the interested public, will discuss these essays and help the authors reflect on the issues they raise. In addition, a number of selected respondents will write 1,000 word responses to the initial essay. We think this approach will allow the project both depth and considered commentary, as well as responsiveness and the capacity to adapt the discussion to new questions that arise.

  • Finally, Phase III will (hopefully) include a published book that draws together the ideas from the blog posts and commentary, and develops them into formal, considered essays.

This will doubtless change somewhat, once we get down to sorting out the details with the authors, but at this point, this is what we think is going to happen.

How it came about:

We needed first and foremost to identify commentators/ thinkers willing and able to participate in a kinda strange-sounding nameless project. It was clear it needed a codename, because they make everything cooler! Thus was born CODE│WORDS : Technology and theory in the museum (working title). We wanted people who might challenge us and each other, and bring different ways of looking at things, whether from different countries, or different types of museums. We looked through our Twitter feeds and LinkedIn connections and quickly assembled a list of people we thought would bring a variety of interesting perspectives to the project, and we asked them. Stunningly enough, virtually everyone we asked said yes and the CODE | WORDS crew grew to include:

  • Seb Chan, Smithsonian Institution, USA  @sebchan
  • Susan Chun, Cultural Heritage Consulting, USA  @schun
  • Mike Edson, Smithsonian Institution, USA @mpedson
  • Beth Harris, Khan Academy, USA  @bethrharris
  • Courtney Johnston, Dowse Art Museum, NZ  @auchmill
  • Sarah Kenderdine, National Institute for Experimental Arts, COFA, UNSW, HK/AUS
  • Luis Marcelo Mendes, Museum Consultant, BR  @lumamendes
  • Mike Murawski, Portland Art Museum, USA  @murawski27
  • Nick Poole, Collections Trust, UK  @nickpoole1
  • John Russick, Chicago History Museum, USA
  • Merete Sanderhoff, Statens Museum for Kunst, DK @msanderhoff
  • Koven Smith, Kinetic Museums, USA @5easypieces
  • Thomas Soderqvist, Medical Musieon, DK @museionist
  • Beck Tench, Museum of Life and Science, USA @10ch
  • Marthe de Vette, Van Gogh Museum, NL
  • Bruce Wyman, Museum Consultant, USA  @bwyman
  • Steven Zucker, Khan Academy, USA  @drszucker

We wanted to collaboratively identify a series of topics around the impacts of digital technologies on museums that are most interesting to us, most useful for the development of the field, and/or most in need of poking at. That’s where we are right now, sorting out which topics to tackle.

Originally, we thought we’d use people’s existing blogs to make use of their built-in audiences, but for the sake of continuity and critical mass, we decided to try out Medium as our platform. Their commenting feature is kinda interesting in that it lets you pick a paragraph to attach your comment to, rather than just tacking it onto the end of a 2,000 word post. I’ve been meaning to give Medium a whirl for awhile, and am looking forward to seeing how it works out.

The next step in the coming weeks is to collaboratively work on topics in such a way that they naturally build on each other and can be heavily cross-linked. We do this already, but in a more reactionary manner. This experiment would be an opportunity to be more strategic about it, and hopefully more successful in building a larger hypernarrative.

We want to create an online community of interest on Medium around these essays and try to practice being as inclusive as possible. One of the benefits of Medium is that other authors can write their own posts and tag them so that they can hopefully join the scrum. Our current plan is to launch in April, and to release 12 essays over a six week period, to keep interest as high as possible and hopefully build a community of commentators who would respond to more than just one essay – or even contribute their own. That’s where you come in, gentle readers, so strap in and get ready for a few tons of museumy goodness to drop on you soon. Seriously, though. The success of this experiment depends on us engaging as broad as community as possible to join us in the work. Otherwise it’s just another edited volumeWe want you to share your expertise, your ideas, your experiences with us, and a global audience of interested peers. If you have never written a blog post before, or just want to dip your toe into a digital discussion, this could be a great way to start and test the waters.

Obviously, we want to document the process and results, if this model winds up having any utility. A logical place to disseminate finding will be at conferences. A bunch of us will be at Museums and the Web and AAM, and I’ll be trying to convene groups to hang out during the conferences. Stay tuned and let me know if you’ll be in Baltimore or Seattle. On our current timeline, we’ll be done with the initial essays by June, so MCN in November should be a good distance from which to look back on the process and reflect on lessons learned for the initial phases.

Once we have finished the initial round of essays, their authors will take them and the commentary they engendered, and use both to write new essays. Rob, Suse, and I will try to convince a publisher to release the resulting collection as a digital/physical publication. If you represent a publisher and want to talk more about CODE | WORDS, email me! 

If all goes well, then we’ll celebrate doing something cool and useful.

Once we’re ready to go, we’ll announce the URL and let the games begin! So stay tuned!