Tag Archives: PEM

That Which Is Lost

One of the follow up conversations I had at MCN2015 was with Jeff Inscho about our Content session. It was a wide-ranging one, touching on repositories, the Museum full stack, and more. In my notes, I wrote the quote “Content – That Which is Lost” which was one of the definitions that came out of our session. It’s stuck with me since.

The “digital dark age” is a thing that lots of important people are worrying about.

Google boss warns of ‘forgotten century’ with email and photos at risk

Will Future Historians Consider These Days The Digital Dark Ages?

The digital black hole: will it delete your memories?

You get the idea. It’s a problem. I’ve been thinking a lot about digital ecosystems in museums, and how good they are at some things while being really terrible at others. Ironically, the thing that most digital ecosystems suck at most is preservation, followed closely by findability. This is a huge problem, one that will hobble not only us, but our successors and the posterity we supposedly hope to enrich by saving and interpreting all this stuff we steward. Here’s an illustrative example of what I’m talking about:



New England Habitats

One of the last exhibitions I worked on at the Museum of Science was a renovation project. The New England Habitats hall is a diorama hall built in phases from the 1950s to the early 1960s. Some of the old-timers I worked with when I first started there in the ‘80s had worked on creating them, and they remain a central, unchanging feature of the museum. They were reinterpreted in the early ‘90s by the illustrious Betty Davidson, as part of her seminal research on making accessible, multisensory exhibits. The book that resulted, New Dimensions for Traditional Dioramas, is still relevant.  By 2010, they were in need of another renovation, and I was charged with updating the content and exhibits. My first job was to understand what the original creators had been trying to do and how Betty et al had tried to modernize it. So, off to the Exhibits archives I went looking for what I could find.

For the ’90s renovation, that consisted mainly of Betty’s personal project file, some 3.5in floppies, and a couple of Syquest or Bernoulli cartridges that probably held large (for the time) graphics files. It was pretty skimpy, and missing all the email correspondence aside from those Betty printed out for some reason. A tremendous amount of sleuthing and DIY computer forensics allowed me to extract label copy from old Word and Pagemaker files.


New England Habitats 

For the original construction, back in the paper days, there were bulging file folders for each diorama, sometimes multiple folders (“Deer diorama” AND “Whitetail Deer”) with probably a couple of linear feet of files which covered everything: meeting notes, internal memos (some pretty intense), incoming and outgoing correspondence, plans, drafts of labels with edits. Along the way, I discovered things that had been lost over the years, like the fact that the dioramas were modeled on real locations in New England, not idealized environments as was more typical of the period. The photo research was all there, in piles of curling B&W prints. I could tell you exactly how much it cost to procure the beavers for the beaver diorama, because the trapper’s bill was there, complete with a description of how he dynamited their dam to get them and the lucky bonus that one of the beavers was pregnant, so the Museum got some bonus specimens. Different times. There was also the account of the poor staff member who had to drive a cooler full of rapidly thawing frozen beavers corpses from Vermont to the taxidermist’s studio in New York on one of the hottest days of the year that was obviously written solely for internal use. I could smell cigarette smoke clinging to papers that had sat on desks for too long. Everybody smoked then. A little more digging turned up originals of the transparencies used in the backlit labels, and other goodies from the stat camera. It was a treasure trove that let me climb inside my predecessors’ minds and understand what they were trying to do.


In the end, I knew more about what happened sixty years ago than what happened less than twenty years ago. And it was all because we hadn’t figured out how to save digital information in a way that made it findable and searchable, or anywhere near as easy to use as a manilla folder full of papers. This is not a problem exclusive to the MOS. When I first started at PEM and was snooping around to see what kind of 18th century firearms we had (as one does) I rapidly found out that the CMS’s records were pretty sparse in some areas, and if I really wanted to find out about older parts of the collection I should consult the card catalogue. The card catalogue. And I know that versions of this scenario play out at cultural organizations all over.

We have lost control of our stuff

15087804540_b1e7427592_k copy

Look familiar?  “Messy Desktop” CC-BY-NC 2.0 image by Flickr user Dean Shareski

The proliferation of digital platforms and information has outpaced our ability to corral it and make it usefully findable. In place of the old hanging folder, a container that could hold anything you could cram into it, we now have information scattered across devices and platforms, mostly uninterchangeable and unsearchable. As a test case, I looked at a typical week’s worth of digital content and platforms I interacted with last week, and it consisted of:

  • Emails, chats (corporate Gmail account)
  • Google calendar events
  • Texts (personal phone)
  • Twitter (tweets, and DMs)
  • MS Office docs (.doc, .docx, .xls, .xlsx, .ppt, .pptx)
  • Google docs & sheets
  • PDFs
  • Video (various formats and FCP and AE projects)
  • Audio files (.mp3, .wav, .aiff)
  • Corporate network (five different servers, with varying access permissions)
  • Basecamp messages, tasks, calendars (some turned into email, some not)
  • Slack notifications
  • Image files (All over the map: mostly .jpgs, many taken on the phone and uploaded to Dropbox, then spread across emails, work computer directories, network directories, Basecamp, and SM.
  • Other SM content (Instagram posts, FB updates, and to a lesser extent LinkedIn and Foursquare)

In other words, it’s a mess. And I’ve already made clear my feeling about keyword searching in a previous post, so don’t get me started.

Please note that I am not advocating that we forsake digital technologies and return to paper. Are we clear on that? Good. Let’s move on…

What might we do?

The obvious solution is a repository, the museum equivalent of the “single source of truth” that software companies enshrine. But those sources only cover the codebase. If you were a future archaeologist trying to understand how 21st century software companies operated, you’d not find correspondence or financials in the repo. So how to create a digital version of the hanging folder that is as useful and possesses a generous enough interface to allow mere mortals to query it and find gold? That is a big question. Anybody out there having success?

From the PEM blog: Ghost hunting in Cuba with Magda

Obligatory shot of crew with recording equipment to prove we were working...

Obligatory shot of crew with recording equipment to prove we were working…

In the run up to the opening of our Alchemy of the Soul exhibition, I posted a short travelogue on the museum blog of our August trip to Cuba to film artist Maria Magdalena Campos Pons.

“Traveling with an artist means that every experience, every encounter is potential grist for their creative mill. And when that artist is Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons (Magda), and you’re accompanying her to the tiny hamlet in Cuba where she grew up, the effect is magnified enormously.”

Read more… 

Drinking About Museums: Boston – March recap

Despite unusually seasonal weather, a brave group made its way north to Salem for our March Drinking About Museum: Boston meetup, at the Peabody Essex Museum.

Double-sided drum, circa 1890 from "Shapeshifting" exhibition

2012 continues to be a growth year for our merry band.  Jim Olson, Director of Integrated Media at PEM, certainly raised the bar for what our meetings could be, by giving us a presentation on PEM’s exhibition development process, the strategy behind the digital interactives in “Shapeshifting” *and* a guided tour of the show, focused on the new media elements. I’ll have to go back to really take in the show. What I saw was remarkable, and you should consider checking it out, especially the exhibition website.

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Afterwards, we repaired to the Salem Beer Works for drinks and socializing. It was good to see new faces and new museums represented, and totally worth the moderately treacherous drive home in the snow.

One of the highlights of the evening was the opportunity to learn what PEM was up to, get a peek at their design process and strategy, and then see the final products in situ.  Several people thought it added tremendous value to the event and was worth trying to make a more regular feature.  My question to you is, “What institutions would you like to try to see and learn from?”

Some suggestions included:

Who else should we add to our wish list?

As always, I found it very stimulating, and I got as much out of the event as anybody else. Stay tuned for the announcement of our April meeting, which will hopefully be in Boston, and less of a commute for most of us.

A Tale of Two Exhibits: “It was the best of times…” Part Two

Have you ever had one of those days when amazing things unexpectedly happen and make you remember why you go to work every day?  Tuesday was one of those days for me.  I had two very different, very magical experiences in two very different museums.

#2) Charles Sandison, Figurehead
Peabody Essex Museum

After tearing ourselves away from the de Cordova and Halsey Burgund’s Scapes mobile app, and dropping Nancy Proctor off at the Peabody Essex Museum, Sandy Goldberg and I decided to take a quick spin around the museum. Our host suggested we check out their new Chinese exhibition and an interactive installation in the East India Marine Hall.  Sandy was interested in the Chinese stuff, and I’m a sucker for anything maritime, so we agreed to try both.  The Chinese exhibition was big and impressive, but what grabbed us both was the crazy light show we encountered in Charles Sandison’s hacking of the East India Marine Hall.

Peabody Essex has a history of mixing and matching contemporary art with their historical collections in interesting ways, so I didn’t know what to expect. East India Marine Hall is the oldest part of the museum complex, dating back to 1799 or so, and is an artifact in its own right. Think high ceilings, bright, light walls, a restrained orgy of Neoclassical ornament, dark oil paintings, nautical goodies, and cabinets of curiosities from foreign ports and you’ll have an idea of the room. Or at least an idea of what the hall looked like before Sandison set up Figurehead.

We made our way through the intervening galleries and as we approached I knew something was up.  The hall was dark, as in all the lights were out. Playing over every surface of the room were swirling dancing projections of words, helices of pixels, clouds of pixels, rivers of pixels.  We entered the nearly-empty room and were immersed in a storm of movement.  I’m probably dating myself but I had same feeling of stepping onto an empty dance floor while the disco ball filled the school cafeteria with lights.  Only Sandison used a lot of projectors and some serious computing power.

After our obligatory moment of completely gobsmacked, it quickly became obvious that the lights were not just a cycling projection, but that there was some kind of intelligence directing their movement. Even with a dozen projectors throwing images around, it was still quite dark, too dark to see any of the artifacts in the room. As we turned in circles trying to take in the enormity of the whole installation, it became clear to me the streams of pixels were running along the edge of wall, as if they were following the line of the ceiling. And as I expanded my focus, I could now see that there were emergent patterns in all the pixilated swirl.  Words in archaic handwriting would become pixels, pixels would turn into a helix that stretched into rivers moving in definite patterns.  Sometimes tributaries would cascade down the walls, carefully avoiding paintings like water running downhill.  It was fascinating to watch.

One of my favorite parts of the installation was watching the pixels flowing through the clusters of paintings on the walls. They’re hung according to a 19th century aesthetic, high up, and in neat rows. While I was watching the pixels flowing between the frames and trying to imagine the programming necessary to achieve the effect, something wonderful happened.  Pixels broke off from the stream and passed over one painting and stopped at the bottom of the image, like water filling a vessel. As we watched, the light slowly “filled up” one painting, revealing it for us. Then the pixels drained away and another object was highlighted, this time a figurehead on the next wall. The artist was directing our gaze from object to object, and I suspect was trying to suggest more, but I managed to neatly avoid the lone, dark label describing the piece, so I missed all the deeper connections I might have made. You can get an idea of what I missed by reading the description at the end of this.

So what made this experience work?

1) Immersion works.  Standing inside a 1,500 sq. ft. room full of moving images on every surface hooked me. It was clear we were “inside” something, not standing in a room looking at things.  Sandison obviously studied the room and used every inch of it.  The museum even set up a little row of chairs at one end so you could let the installation wash over you.  An older couple sat there silently the whole time we were in the room, just watching and taking in the spectacle.

2) Size does matter.  It was impossible to see the whole installation at one time, so I was constantly shifting my focus, looking at this detail and that. I don’t think I got to see everything, so I’ll have to go back and look some more.

3) Being willing to do the unthinkable is powerful. Turning off the lights in one of your signature galleries and rendering some of the oldest pieces of the collection unviewable was a pretty impressive sight. It clearly conveyed the impression that PEM’s commitment to showing new work was not a half-hearted one, but a serious institutional goal. It made me take the experience more seriously, because I could only imagine the initial meeting where the curator gets up and says, “OK, we’re gonna turn off all the lights in the room and projectors are going to be the only light source…”  Wow.

What didn’t work for me?

1) Words that mean nothing mean something.  I’ve looked at a lot of 17th-19th handwriting, so I could make out the words and snippets of sentences that played across the walls, but they were too low-res to read easily.  I am a word person by trade, so I might be biased, but when I see words, I expect to be able to read them. If they’re in another language, I expect a translation. If they’re hard to read, I expect a transcription. Words exist to convey meaning, and I often get lost or unhappy when artists use them as mere decorative elements. I don’t know whether Sandison intended them to be, but I couldn’t read them most of the time, so I felt like I was missing out on part of the fun.

2) An insufficient introduction is worse than no introduction. The only label I could find was about 8 x 10 inches and told me the name of the series this work belonged to and the artist’s name. I didn’t know the piece was called Figurehead until I looked on the web.  There, I learned lots of things that would’ve enriched my experience of the piece.

Quibbles aside, it was a great experience. Unfortunately, it was also that photographs badly, being dark and constantly moving. Here’s one photo, courtesy of Sandy’s phone, to give you a sense of the space.

I’ll be going back.

[POSTSCRIPT – Jim Forrest from PEM thoughtfully sent a link to a video feature they’ve made on the making of the exhibit. It includes video that does justice to the artwork.  Check it out.]

Description of the project, cribbed from the Peabody Essex Museum site.

Charles Sandison, Figurehead

Internationally renowned for his animated digital projections, artist Charles Sandison installs a site-specific artwork created for PEM’s East India Marine Hall. Sandison will activate the words of 18th-century ship captains’ logs to create an immersive environment drawing upon the trade routes, politics, competition and voices that led to the founding of the museum and the origins of PEM’s remarkable collection. Working at the intersection of visual art and computer programming, he uses his own customized software to map trajectories around the room; the projected images respond to algorithms that guide their behavior. In Figurehead, Sandison’s algorithms draw on real-time weather data from the internet, making the installation organic and ever-evolving.

Organized by PEM’s Curator of Contemporary Art, Trevor Smith, this installation marks the first in a series of contemporary art interventions in PEM’s FreePort initiative.