Friday, 30 October 2015

Museums and the Web and National Digital Forum 2015 talk notes

The following are my notes for talks given in October at Museums and the Web Asia in Melbourne, and the National Digital Forum in Wellington.

The talks were my first attempt to synthesise the experiences, thoughts and conversations I had during my recent research trip I took around seven cities in the States, looking at how museums are reaching visitors using digital technology. The trip was generously funded by a Winston Churchill Fellowship, with assistance from Hutt City Council, the core funders of The Dowse Art Museum.

As first attempts, the talk I gave at MWA ran overtime, and I had to skip a few sections at the end. The talk at NDF had a shorter time slot and I trimmed the presentation quite severely as a result. These notes are an amalgam of the two talks, with the addition of some musing on museum stores that didn't make it into either presentation. I'm also adding in some links to extra material that gives more context to the three key experiences that I'm focusing on here: the Pen at the Cooper Hewitt, the Ask App at Brooklyn Museum, and the DMA Friends programme at the Dallas Museum of Art.

I also had time to read an unusual amount while I was travelling. This post brings together some of the articles, reports and presentations behind my thinking.

The talk was originally titled (in abstracts submitted pre-trip), From Podcasts to The Pen: digital adventures in the United States, but for the purposes of this recording, let's call it:

Some context, three experiences, three observations, a concern, two ideas, a tangent, and some thoughts on a museum lead by the values of the web


Every year, there is a new hotness in our sector. Right now, it's the Pen at the Cooper Hewitt battling it out with the Ask App at Brooklyn Museum, while we also watch to see how the newly opened Broad in LA does, modelling its visitor service experience on the Apple store aesthetic.

The year before that it as the O at MONA and their no-marketing marketing approach facing off against the DMA in Dallas introducing free entry and the Friends programme; before that, Cleveland's wall, the Walker's homepage, Brooklyn's posse, the IMA's Artbabble and dashboard.

The main point of the trip was to try for myself, as a visitor, some of the much-publicised digital projects emanating from US museums. After flirting with all these entities online, now I was going to go and meet them face to face, right where they live.

I Can Break Anything

When I used to do user testing, my least favourite participants were the people who pride themselves on being able to "break anything" and therefore take the most perverse approach imaginable to the task at hand.

The day I arrived in the States the Wall Street Journal published an article by Lee Rosenbaum - a veteran art reporter who also enjoys playing insider baseball - titled The Brave New Museum Sputters Into Life, detailing a trip around a number of museums on a mission very similar to my own.

Rosenbaum wrote:
Surprised by my disappointing experiences with the digital gizmos that others had praised, I could only conclude that some of the proponents hadn’t spent much time using them and observing how others were using them. Intended to inform and delight, these innovations are often unintuitive, inadequately explained, or exasperatingly dysfunctional.
To which my retort is: you aren't a real visitor. Relatively few of the people who visit our places are museum-visiting experts. Fewer still would describe themselves as art experts. Even fewer are visiting with the explicit purpose of critique.


So. I am not your normal visitor.

First up: I am not from around here. I purposefully visited cities - Dallas, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Indianapolis and I'll count Brooklyn in here too - that are not on the international tourist museum map. I picked museums that have a emphasis, like The Dowse, on repeat attendance by local residents.

And I am a professional. I was doing what I call a 'View Source' visit. On many of my visits to art galleries, I am so focused on observing floor staff, signage, lighting, hanging fixtures and such like that I sometimes have to remind myself that I'm actually there to look at the art.

I tried really hard on my trip to use these products with optimism and some joy in my heart, rather than being the mendacious mystery shopper.

So I hope you will take my experiences and observations with the honesty and self-acknowledged limitations with which I offer them.

DMA Friends, Dallas Museum of Art

After moving to the Dallas Museum of Art three years ago, director Max Anderson and his head of technology Rob Stein, who followed him from the Indianapolis Museum of Art, introduced free entry to the museum and a new free entry level of membership called the DMA Friends.

The programme has three general aims:
  • to promote the gallery to non-visitors
  • to increase engagement and repeat visitation
  • and to use the data gathered from tracking members of the programme to inform museum operations.
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The best background I've heard on the Friends programme is this Museopunks interview with Max Anderson

This article also gives a good brief overview of the project, as does this press release announcing 100,000 Friends. 

A series of Museums and the Web presentations document the project:
Anderson recently announced his resignation from the DMA; the section 'Indianapolis and Dallas' in this earlier blog post brings together a series of articles about the reversal of free entry at the IMA after Anderson's departure. 
_ _ _ _ _ _ _

On the first day that I visited the DMA I watched front of house staff greet visitors to the museum and sell them on the Friends programme. People were remarkably happy to listen to the sales pitch, and I wonder if that’s partly because Texans are very polite, and partly because people still aren’t used to the idea of getting into a major museum without paying.

After lurking for a while I took the plunge and signed up myself. It was quickly clear that the programme was not about international visitors like me.

The system asks for your postcode – a key part of the tracking information, which is used to understand where visitors come from, and can be used to for targeting marketing and outreach. However, there’s no option for international visitors and instead the staffer used the work around he had developed – signing me up under the DMA’s postcode.

We also went through a screen where I was encouraged to choose and avatar. At this point the nice man said to me that I could skip this, because “they” had put in avatars for some purpose that hadn’t been realised, and he didn’t understand why they didn’t just take it out.

The way the programme works for the visitor is that you gather points in order to access rewards. In a city where everyone drives, the first objective is to gather enough points to get your parking at the museum redeemed. The nice man at entered a few cheat codes for me that bumped me immediately up to being up to get a free ruler from the shop.

So, signed up, I started exploring the galleries. 

You gain points in several ways. Each gallery has a sign at its entrance with a code. You text the code to the programme, and it racks up points. You don’t actually have to enter the gallery or engage with the art, and correspondingly, this is a low point activity.

This was where it was reinforced to me that the programme was not for people like me. I stayed on my New Zealand data plan while travelling, and texting to international numbers costs me. Instead, I had to note down each of the codes, and then return to the kiosks in the museum lobby, log in to my account, and add them all manually. 

It was just as well that this was a low value activity though. Because I was there to see the art, I missed most of the gallery entrance codes, which were surprisingly small and discreet. (So discreet, I totally forgot to take a photo.) I was following sightlines into exhibitions, rather than looking at the doorways as I went through them. I also tended to use the stairs that slip you between floors in the museum rather than the formal entries to the galleries, so tracking of my progress through the galleries would have been very inconclusive.

The other main activity that the DMA was offering on the day was a Faves scavenger hunt. I’m going to be frank – I hate scavenger hunts. 

This shows you a Monet in the galleries with a Faves prompt on it. The DMA is enormous. I would have spent nearly four hours walking through it and I know I skipped a couple of ancient culture galleries. By calling them out for the Friends participants, these bright red cues were the only spots in acres of gallery space that were identified as important to the visitor. 

A code for a Fave object earned you more points, but required no extra engagement on your part. 

As I experienced it, the DMA Friends programme requires only modest effort from the visitor, and evoked correspondingly low engagement. The incentives – especially free parking – I can see being conducive towards encouraging people to visit more often. And of course I am now receiving a weekly email from the DMA encouraging me to visit more, spend more, and consider donating.

The Pen, Cooper Hewitt

Next up on my trip was the Cooper Hewitt in New York, and their new Pen. 
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

The Pen is the key to the Cooper Hewitt's new door, as this 'new experience' section of their website explains. This video explains how to use the pen (let's call it three-quarters intuitive). 

The Pen received a lot of media attention before and after launch. Here's The Atlantic in January this year. 

The team behind the Pen, led by Seb Chan, communicated the development and intention of the tool extensively. Here's the 2015 Museums and the Web presentation Strategies against architecture: interactive media and transformative technology at Cooper Hewitt. The project is thoroughly documented on the Cooper Hewitt Labs blog. For example:
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Unlike the DMA Friends, where the programme is promoted but not a requirement for free entry, the Pen is given to every visitor at the Cooper Hewitt as part of the ticketing project. Every visitor receives a well-honed patter that takes the FOH staff member about 40 seconds to deliver, explaining how they can use the pen during and after their visit.

The pen has two ends: one that you press to an icon on the object labels to ‘collect’ them and then ‘download’ them onto interactive tables, and one that you use to play on the tables.

I loved the pen as an object. The act of pressing the pen to labels brought an extremely pleasant tactile and physical element to my visit which is usually lacking in galleries. I got to use my body (even to a small degree) in a way I don't normally, and the tool was unique and special to that place, not like reusing the device I use ubiquitously in the rest of my life.

Where the pen became a little pesky when I was trying juggle using it, my phone to take photos, and my notebook and pen to make notes about my visit – but once again – not your normal visitor. 

It was when looking at a collection show about the different elements of design that I was really struck by the underlying power of what Seb Chan and his team at the Cooper Hewitt have made. 
This is a bad photo taken through a perspex case of an early 20th century bracelet and a early 21st century piece of medical technology used in shoulder reconstruction surgery. The two objects seem very unrelated.

When I read the label though, another layer was revealed to me. The labels includes the tags assigned into the collection database to each item. In the case of the implant, the first two words as aesthetic descriptors: ‘lace-like’, ‘snowflake’. Everyone who’s worked in an art gallery has seen a bit of dumb database curating – we’ll do a show with all the works with fish in them. This was database curating on a very different level.

That moment changed my perspective on the exhibition. A group of things that are ‘blue’ was suddenly a different thing, a much smarter display that indicated to me the underlying power of the souped-up collection database.

During my visit I came to perceive the Pen as the most recent point on a design continuum that stretched from the beautiful historic home the museum is housed in, out through its collections, and up to the contemporary visitor experience. This slightly shitty photo summarises that. I’m standing in the carved teak library, an original part of the building and a glorious bit of craft. In the distance is an Issey Miyake dress. Between me and the dress are two people using the pen on one of the interactive tables. It’s design across the centuries, objects made to be used and enjoyed by humans, design history in action.

Of course, nothing is perfect, I know the team openly acknowledges that touring exhibition pose a problem.

The wonderful Heatherwick Studios touring show is displayed as a series of pods devoted to individual projects: the integration of the pen is limited to panels attached to the walls around the galleries where you could ‘collect’ the various displays. This breaks the user experience pattern set by the rest of the museum, and given that the panels are modest to the point of invisibility, in these spaces I didn’t see anyone else except me – dutiful expert visitor – using their pen.

I also felt that the design interactives on the tables undermined the beautiful insights about design I had had earlier. This observation is also coloured by working with designers over the years. On the tables you can design certain objects (lamps, chairs) by selecting the form and materials and then sketching lines. As you can see above, I chose a lamp and concrete and with two intersecting lines made an elegant form. I felt that an interactive where drawing two shaky lines could design a perfect concrete lamp undersells the true difficulty of the design process.

The very last place I visited was the hands-on design exploration studio on the ground floor of the museum, tucked through a doorway after the tables that I used above. On walking into the room (which was powerfully air-conditioned, and empty) I realised my haptic needs had been met already on my visit. I didn't want to twist cellophane and hessian around wire armatures to make lightshades because I'd already done things like that. I wonder though if this is a #NotNormal experience: the room probably works great for education visits.

I also have to admit to being one of those people who never visited their URL after their visit. I flirted with the idea of doing it for the sake of completeness, but I decided to to stay true to my visitor inclinations. Instead, my online relationship with the Cooper Hewitt continues through all its usual 'micro-touches' we’ve established with each other. I follow the Labs blog and Twitter account, and several staff and ex-staff on social media. Again, this is #NotNormal, but think of the 16,500 people who follow Thomas Campbell on Instagram - these micro-touches are for me are a much more compelling part of my life than a URL.

Ask app, Brooklyn Museum

The Brooklyn Museum was the last of my three major experiences on my trip.
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Start off your exploration of the Ask app with Nina Simon's interview with Shelley Bernstein and Sara Devine, and follow up with Shelley's recent MuseumNext presentation.

As with the Pen (both projects, it's worth noting, are funded through Bloomberg Connect) the Ask app is part of a wider restructuring of the physical visitor experience. One change by the time of my visit: the mobile desks at which the Ask responders sit had been moved out of the lobby, and into a non-visitor space. I feel this is a real loss in terms of both advertising the app to visitors and to making a statement about the aims of transparency and connection.

Brooklyn Museum staff have been thoroughly documenting the project on the BM's Technology blog; everything from hiring the respondents to using Agile to testing the beacons.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

As I progressed from the DMA to the Cooper Hewitt to Brooklyn, the demands each product placed on me grew: at the same time, the engagement I experienced increased.

Unlike the DMA, where you sign-up on site, and the Cooper Hewitt where every visitor is given a pen, the Ask app is not integrated into the entry process. You download it in advance, or notice a sign in the building promoting you to do so. Uptake is currently low – one or two percent of visitors, I think.

The app lets you live message a group of trained staff with questions as you travel around the museum. They can pinpoint you using beacons, or you can signal your location through text and photos.

This was the product I had to push myself hardest to use. I don’t find on many visits that I naturally have more questions about the art on display. Where the DMA Friends was about picking up breadcrumbs and the Pen was a ‘oh-that’s-interesting-press-press-press’ interaction, to get started with the Ask app I had to think of a question that was worth asking, that hadn’t already been answered by the exhibition labels. I found this strikingly difficult.

My first question was a slightly frustrating experience. I had a very specific question about a particular Gerrit Rietveld chair, and who would have access to buy it. What I was asking was ‘Was this on the general market or did you have to know the designer to get one?’. The answer the Ask team sent me though, in a series of small chunks, gave me context about the chair, the fact that the general public wasn’t interested in avant garde design, and only in the fourth message told me that actually no, only the artist’s mates every got hold of one of these chairs.

I was intrigued by how the app grew on me though. I found that I was generating more questions than usual, and instead of shelving them like I usually do, I asked them.

I also felt like I struck up a rapport with the Ask responder, and I started sending through observations rather than questions. I almost felt like I was visiting with a friend and having discussions in the galleries, rather than having a solitary experience.

Not everything was perfect, of course. The Brooklyn Museum has these odd elevator lobby spaces where they install sculptural works, and they feel like liminal spaces rather than art spaces. 

I almost – bad professional - genuinely thought I could touch on particular sculpture, so I shot that question through to Ask – and didn’t get a reply for another 10 minutes, by which time I was several hundred metres further into the floor. As there is very little seating in the museum's galleries, it was difficult to pause and wait for an answer.

Shelley Bernstein at the Museum acknowledges that one of the areas they need to work on are the question prompts scattered through the galleries to encourage uptake and use of the app.

Where I found myself asking very detailed questions, and a recent blog post from the museum detailed a three-hour long exchange on the symbolism and use of the colour blue in art through the centuries, the question prompts tacked onto cases and walls were dumbed down in comparison to the traditional object labels they were juxtaposed with.

Like the DMA faves, the signs grab your eye, but the tone is the opposite of the experience, and felt patronising or try-hard. They undersold the deep engagement the Ask app delivers.

Another distinctive feature of the Ask app is that when you leave the museum, your conversation disappears. I didn’t even notice this, and when I was alerted to it, I felt like it made sense: that’s how conversations work in real life. Others I’ve talked to want to be able to access this information after their visit. And it is worth noting that the museum is storing and analysing your conversations – even when you don’t have access to them.

So, which is best?

This is the ultimate wrong question. At a fundamental level, there is no point comparing what these three institutions have done. You can compare any number of factors and not come to an answer, because each has been developed in response to a very different question: How can we widen our visitor profile? How can we communicate design in its fullest sense? How can we help people thinking curiously about art?

What I do have though is a few broad observations that developed along my trip.

Observation 1: Global to Local

Where five or ten years ago we were all talking about reaching the whole wide world through the web, today art museums especially are trending from global to local. From thinking about serving the whole world, the focus has shifted to the physical visitor. 

This has happened most clearly at Brooklyn Museum. In April last year Shelley announced a change of focus to the physical visitor, which meant quitting platforms such as Flickr, HistoryPin, FourSquare. A few months later the Posse and the two tagging games were shut down. 

This decision – and the development of the Ask app – was shaped by their observation that earlier digital community engagement projects had been most deeply used by people who lived within 5 miles of the museum. 

At Museums and the Web Asia last week in Melbourne, there was some discomfort about the idea of valuing the in-gallery visitor over the online visitor, and of even drawing a distinction between the two modes and/or groups.

I have a lot of sympathy for this position. 80% of my funding comes from Council, which means from the 45,000 rate-paying households in Lower Hutt. Effectively, each of those households is paying for an annual membership to my museums, and my first duty has to be towards creating value for them from that enforced donation. 

However. I often talk about 1st degree and 2nd degree effects for rate-payers. There are the experiences and benefits they can gain from using the museums as visitors. But there are also the benefits that accrue to ratepayers when their city it is the home of a respected and well-known cultural institution, through venue hire, tourism, media coverage, and that intangible but very real sense of pride.

Observation 2: Digital as USP

That leads to my second observation. Traditionally, a museum’s brand has been built on buildings, collections, and exhibition programmes. 

Something that really struck me on my trip – perhaps because I was looking for it, rather than because it is new – is that digital is definitely the newest way of branding an institution. And unlike buildings, exhibitions programmes, and collections, a new digital brand can be forged relatively rapidly. 

DMA’s digital brand is about a commitment to inclusion – widening their audience beyond the country club that previously felt at home in the museum. 

Cooper Hewitt's brand says that design is an integral part of being human, and each of us has a designer inside us. 

The Brooklyn Museum’s brand says that people are intelligent and curious about art and warrant personal responses to their curiosity. And these brands are being heavily communicated out through messages to members, funders, stakeholders, residents, and the general public.

There is a distinct danger though of your digital brand being, or becoming, disassociated from your physical experience. 

My clearest experience of this was visiting the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. A few years ago we had Nate Solas from the web team at the Walker give a keynote at NDF on the Walker’s website redevelopment, which was carried out on a philosophy of unusual generosity and outward-looking-ness, and with the aim of supporting the local art community as well as positioning the museum internationally. I found their way of thinking inspirational, and have tried to follow it in the way we behave online at The Dowse.

Alongside the web redevelopment ran the Open Field programme, where as grassy area in front of the building, intended for a building extension that hadn’t been realised, was turned into a community-focused performance and activity space, hosting everything from yoga classes to internet cat video festivals.

Following all this made me feel really close to the Walker, despite never having visited. And so when I rolled up two weeks ago, I had incredibly high expectations. 

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s a beautiful building with really interesting gallery spaces, gorgeous lighting, a great collection, stylish wayfinding. But there was none of that generosity and freshness I felt online. And the biggest surprise was that Open Field had been stopped, most of the staff involved had moved on, and the physical space was literally being dug up in front of my eyes.

One of the greatest attractions of the web is the speed of change and the emphasis on experimentation. We on the web side often joke about museum-time, and the glacial pace of change. Perhaps though we need to think about how we make enduring digital change, where the values of our work can be sustained, even if the forms it takes are constantly evolving.

Observation 3: Web merging with Visitor Services

A third trend that struck me as I travelled from museum to museum was the increasing merger of web teams and visitor services.

Sometimes this was taking a very concrete form: at the Baltimore Museum of Art, for example, Suse Cairns, their digital content coordinator, has just been put in charge of their visitor services team, bringing together the management of online and physical visitor experience.

In another example, I met with six people at the DMA from Rob Stein’s team, and four or five of them recounted the same story. When director Max Anderson arrived at the museum three years ago, gallery attendants were there solely to protect the art, and were actively discouraged from making eye contact or talking with visitors. If a visitor had a question in a gallery, they were to be conducted to the front desk where a qualified person could deal with them.

Nick Poole tweeted this while I was travelling, and the sentiment really resonated with what I was observing. The DMA – like many other US museums – is starting on a backfoot when trying to create a more inclusive and welcoming visitor experience. There’s no way an app can fix that visitor experience on its own.

In fact, by the time I got to the end of my trip, my conclusion was that most museums should be ditching these visitor-focused apps and instead investing in more training, more empowerment, and more autonomy for their visitor services staff. Sadly though, it’s a damn sight easier to get funding for a new app than to pay your front of house staff more.

The other thing I observed was the energy going into studying visitor behaviour, and especially that of members. The DMA Friends programme taps this. At Museums and the Web Asia Diana Pan from MOMA demonstrated the data they’re collecting on their members and the decisions they’re making using it. Mia in Minneapolis is preparing to roll out a major programme around free membership which will collect information about visit frequency, event attendance, shopping and donation habits.

In the States, the word ‘leveraging’ is uttered in conjunction with the word ‘engagement’ much more frequently than it is down here. But in an environment of decreasing public funding, and not-increasing business support, the move towards digitally tracking our visitors so we can study their behaviour is coming to us all. The choice in front of us will be whether our use of this data tilts in favour of creating value for our visitors or for ourselves.

[This is where my NDF talk finished.]

A concern: moonshots

One of the side effects of this shift from global to local is that on my trip I encountered much less talk about moonshots - about big hairy projects that seek to explore the places where museums and everything else blend.

I think partly this was because many of the people I was meeting with were in a heavy implementation phase of their work.

I'm sure many of you will be familiar with the metaphor of the design squiggle - the heady period of ideas, exploration, big claims and false starts you go through before you settle on and refine your final direction. I feel like as a sector we are in a refinement and implementation period, not a design period. Small innovations and tools are piling up on top of each other, but they're not dramatically changing the landscape in even the ways putting our collections online, or adopting social media, did.

I think we need to carve out more space for basic research, that kind of focused noodling around that isn't measured by practicality or applicability, but that opens us to opportunities and big changes. I don't know how we do this, but I do believe it is the responsibility of our national and large institutions, who have the staff resources to make this possible, to be explicitly promoting new, outward looking thinking and activities that might not have an immediately discernible application.

[NB: the presentations I saw coming from science and natural history museums at Museums and the Web seemed more in the mode of moonshots. Maybe it's art museums in particular who seem to be at this stage, or maybe this is just selection bias on my part. I'd love to hear of any projects out there you feel to be moonshots.]

An idea: Doing more with less

[This is possibly where I started slicing sections out of my Museums and the Web talk as I raced towards the end of my presenting time.]

This is at the other end of the spectrum from moon shots: I want to make a call for digital developments focused on improving our productivity.

We have all had quite enough of this phrase, but it's not going away. I know in my own case my annual budget is remaining static at best year on year, and I fully expect to this year be asked to find between 5 and 10 percent savings, while at the same time being expected to increase visitor numbers and do things bigger brighter things.

All of us have invested in being more visitor focused and making our institutions more diverse and accessible. 

How many of us have applied this same level of energy to understanding where the pain points and wasted effort lie in the way we work, and seeking to address this?

I have two modest suggestions for where we can start, both to do with collections management. 

The first is digitising our loan processes. Art museums constantly circulate collection items between ourselves, and the process is frustratingly paper-based and slow. In the age of the API, surely we can band together, pool our pennies, and make something that could largely automate this process, and free up our time for more valuable work?

My second is centralised rights clearance with artists. In a country the size of New Zealand, with an artistic population the size of ours – or even you guys, Australia – it is ridiculous that we are all individually trying to obtain and maintain rights information. We could save so much time and hassle if we could all just cede a little control, and develop a centralised system and either a dedicated or a distributed staff of collection managers and registrars from larger organisations.

An idea: An app for the attendants

One of the many, many, many articles I read about The Broad while I was travelling, one that stood out in particular talked about how their gallery attendants have been trained about the art on display, are allowed to wear their own clothes – as long as they’re fully dressed in black – and how many are art students or teachers. 

The writer stated:
The Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia., may be the only other art museum that has attempted to train staffers to fully fulfill the seemingly contradictory functions of keeping the art safe while making viewers feel comfortably at home with it.
I think this is such a dumb dichotomy, but in American museums it is very real. So I want to return to that merger of web and visitor services.

This is a 1991 work by American artist Fred Wilson, currently on view in the new Whitney’s inaugural exhibition. Four headless black mannequins wear the uniforms of the time of security guards at the Met, the Jewish Museum, MOMA, and the Whitney.

Wilson himself worked as a museums guard when he was at university. His work talks about how guards are expected to be anonymous, inconspicuous, to be visible and invisible all at once. Here the guards are the centre of our attention – and yet they can’t look back at us. And they are black, as were the vast majority of the people I saw in the States employed in this entry level, low paying, and largely unempowered role.

I spent a summer working the floor at Te Papa in Wellington and the two weeks training I received there was both the more intensive induction I’ve experienced in a role, and the most diverse team I have ever been part of. Many of the visitor-fronting apps and digital developments we’re seeing today would be rendered redundant if we paid and trained our front of house staff better. 

So – seeing as digital developments are relatively easy to fund, compared to recruitment and staff salaries – could we make an app that empowers our gallery attendants? That gamifies their experience, rather than that of the visitor, a way of recording when and where they talk to visitors, and about what, and then allowing the data that is collected to be used to understand where visitors spend their time, what their questions are about, when different parts of our buildings are used and why – visitor research carried out by every staff member on the floor.

A tangent

This has little to do with my talk's topic, but a lot to do with what I observed on my trip. 

Earlier this year at the Public Galleries Summit in Bendigo, someone said some simple things that completely changed my perspective on museum stores.

Richard Harding, a consultant for museum shops, said two things that really snapped to the grid for me.

First, he pointed out that few people who come to our museums are expert museum-visitors, but most are expert shoppers. The museum store is where they can orient themselves, but also where they will judge your efforts in a much more knowing way than your wayfinding, your lighting, or your interpretation.

Second, a person who is visiting you on purpose – who has researched their trip and is making an effort to come see you – will often visit the store to build their anticipation. And then at the end of the visit – assuming it has gone well – they go back to the store, looking to tie a bow around their experience.

My visit to the States really underlined this for me. The best stores I saw – Mia in Minneapolis, and the American Visionary Art Museum – did more than offer things you'd like to buy. They communicated the personality of the museum, its collections and exhibitions, its community or celebrity connections, the things it valued. 

But the third thing I figured out was this. Much of that deep engagement – long looking, discussion between people, evaluating what you've seen and how you felt about it - naturally occurs in shops. Shopping is for many a social experience, and for most of us a way of testing how our identity is reflected in or measures up against the external world. IIn Baltimore, Nancy Proctor passed on to me an insight from Jon AlexanderWe are moving from a consumer culture to a participatory culture: from giving the customer what they ask for, to wrapping an experience around what we have to offer. What if we were to pave the cowpaths, and start looking at our shops spaces as the best-placed sites for enhancing participation and a sense of connection? 

The Dowse's store operates on a very small scale, and is stocked and managed by our front of house team leader, in about ten hours a week max. But we're steadily introducing new ideas for stock and presentation, and using the POS system data to evaluate them, trying to draw a closer connection between the collection, exhibitions and the shop, and the overall message: the beauty of the handmade object, and every visitor's ability to support people who make art. We hope to present on this topic more fully at next year's joint Museums Aotearoa / Museums Australia conference in Auckland. 

In conclusion

I come to museum leadership from the web, and the web is where I learned my working life values.

My inspiration for the way I work comes not from an artist, great museum director, or figure in the humanities. Instead it comes from Tim O'Reilly, publisher of tech books, open web advocate, and populariser of the terms 'open source' and 'web 2.0'.

For O'Reilly, the key to business success is 'creating more value than you capture'. I didn't really understand that until I saw this paragraph in a presentation he gave in 2009 at a Twitter bootcamp
The secret of social media is that it’s not about you, your product, or your story. It’s about how you can add value to the communities that happen to include you. If you want to make a positive impact, forget about what you can get out of social media, and start thinking about what you can contribute. Not surprisingly, the more value you create for your community, the more value they will create for you.
I have boiled that down to this ... 
It’s about how you can add value to the communities that happen to include you. Not surprisingly, the more value you create for your community, the more value they will create for you.
I believe that those of us who have come of age as museum tech professionals have a unique set of values and approaches to our work that can form the bedrock of the modern museum. 

Creating value together

The things we hold dear fit seamlessly into the modern museum. I don't believe in sitting around debating how we can be relevant in the 21st century. No one else exists to do the jobs we do. People want to experience what we make, people want to make it with us, people trust and value us. 

So my final question is this: how do you create value? How could you create more? If it's not about digital, if it's all about value - what can you do? What can we all do together?

Thank you

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

If a painting was hung in the woods ....

Theodor Adorno has, improbably, swept across my consciousness three times in the past week.

The first was in Sebastian Smee's recent piece for the Boston GlobeHow do we keep museums vital in today’s world?, which came through on my Twitter transom. In the vein of 'not your grandparents' museum', Smee deploys Adorno's essay 'Valéry Proust Museum' (published in the 1955 collection Prisms) in his first two paragraphs, using it as the shaping force for his lengthy thought piece on how museums can keep the flickering connection between an artwork and its viewer alive:
I love museums. I go to them a lot. They are living, breathing institutions, which happen to thrive in New England’s special habitat. We are lucky. 
But from time to time, like anyone, I succumb to impatience and frustration. The German philosopher Theodor Adorno described the feeling exactly: One arrives at the museum, he wrote, and before long, “one does not know why one has come — in search of culture or enjoyment, in fulfillment of an obligation, in obedience to a convention. Fatigue and barbarism converge.”
Smee's essay is quite interesting (I mean, in this day and age, seeing the thinking of the Frankfurt School filling up column inches) but ultimately prevaricates: he concludes that museums must change to remain relevant (that word again) but they must also maintain their sacred, aloof nature - quite how, Smee never says, nor does he approvingly point to a museum who, to his mind, is getting it right.

Adorno popped up again when I was listening to one of my new favourite podcasts, Switched on Pop. As the two presenters dissect what makes a catchy song catchy, Adorno's now unpopular opinions on contemporary music were cited in the discussion on the shock of the new; from Stravinsky to Skrillex, artists keep putting forth work that our collectives eyes and ears take time to catch up with.

And then when I was fooling around with the new link aggregator I tripped over Hal Foster's 'After the White Cube' published earlier this year in the LRB, where Foster, as he asks what art museums are for these days, also pulls 'Valéry Proust Museum' out of its 60-year slumber:
‘Museum and mausoleum are connected by more than phonetic association,’ Adorno wrote in 1953 in ‘Valéry Proust Museum’. ‘Museums are like the family sepulchres of works of art. They testify to the neutralisation of culture.’ Adorno ascribes this view to Valéry: it is the view of the artist in the studio, who can only regard the museum as a place of ‘reification’ and ‘chaos’. Adorno assigns the alternative position to Proust, who begins where Valéry stops, with ‘the afterlife of the work’, which Proust sees from the vantage point of the spectator in the museum. For the idealist viewer à la Proust, the museum perfects the studio: it is a spiritual realm where the material messiness of artistic production is distilled away, where, in his words, ‘the rooms, in their sober abstinence from all decorative detail, symbolise the inner spaces into which the artist withdraws to create the work.’ Rather than a site of reification, the museum for Proust is a medium of animation.
So, I finally dug the essay out. I'm a poor reader of theory these days, but it seems to me that in the essay Adorno puts into opposition two unrelated (in that the writers were not intending to take each other on) opinions. Valéry rails against the death of the artwork, sliced away from the messiness of life and the enlivening hand of the artist (Valéry is responding, Adorno writes, to the Louvre of his own time, already a generation past when Adorno is writing); Proust muses prettily in the third volume of À la recherche du temps perdu on the sacred space of the museum, where the noise of the world is muted and contemplation is the aim and reward.

Adorno places Valéry as the irate elitist and Proust as the happy amateur - one is maddened by what is lost, one is pleased just to have a few nice moments. My reading of Adorno is that he actually advocates an interesting third path (it's a little hard to tell because the only copy I can access online might be chopped off before the actual conclusion). He writes:
The museums will not be shut, nor would it even be desirable to shut them. The natural-history collections of the spirit have actually transformed works of art into hieroglyphics of history and brought them new content while the old one shrivelled up. No conception of pure art, borrowed from the past and yet inadequate to it, can be offered to offset this fact. No one knew this better than Valéry, who broke off his reflections because of it. Yet museums certainly emphatically demand something of the observer, just as every work of art does. For the flaneur, in whose shadow Proust walked, is also a thing of the past, and it is no longer possible to stroll through museums letting oneself be delighted here and there. The only relation to art that can be sanctioned in a reality that stands under constant threat of catastrophe is one that treats works of art with the same deadly seriousness that characterises the world today. The evil Valéry diagnoses can be avoided only by one who leaves his naïveté outside along with his cane and his umbrella, who knows exactly what he wants, picks out two or three paintings, and concentrates on them as fixedly as if they really were idols.
It's the activity of the visitor that I appreciate here. (It's the classist and gendered overtones that I'm less keen on.) Earlier in the essay Adorno writes, against Proust's romanticism, 'The work is neither a reflection of the soul nor the embodiment of a Platonic Idea. It is not pure Being but rather a "force field" between subject and object.' If a painting was hung in the woods ....

This would seem to take us closer to Foster's conclusion ('viewers are not so passive that they have to be activated, and artworks are not so dead that they have to be animated, and, if designed and programmed intelligently, museums can allow for both entertainment and contemplation, and promote some understanding along the way.') than Smee's ('Great art is powerful. You can say it is empowering, and indeed it can be. But it can also be destabilizing, alarming, confronting, confusing — just like life. It should be offered for contemplation as an end in itself.'). Maybe more talk about force fields would be a good thing.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Pretty and smart

CyArk 3-D scan historic and heritage sites as an act of preservation. And they have simply one of the best About pages I've ever seen. When it tells you to scroll: do it.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Rooms within rooms

At the risk of sounding like a complete innocent, one of the things that surprised me in some of the larger American art museums was the display of entire rooms - like the 23 period rooms at Brooklyn Museum. I was also kind of gobsmacked by the Clowes Pavilion inside the IMA in Indianapolis (although I couldn't for the life of me at the time figure out what it was, and none of the floor staff could tell me) - and thrilled to see in the flesh Mark Dion's mythmaking around the period room idea at Mia.

It's not like I hadn't seen these kinds of full-scale installations before (in Philadelphia. for example - or even Michael Parekowhai in Brisbane). It was more travelling around the country and seeing this motif - which doesn't really appear so much in New Zealand art museums - being repeated in city after city.

Which is a long way of saying that I do hope Brooklyn Museum puts this postmodern room by Michael Graves on display sometime.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Label, label, on the wall

This - from LACMA - was one of my favourite wall labels from my trip. Something about the proportion of real estate given to institutional wrangling compared to the art work really caught my fancy.

Did you know wall labels as we know them were introduced in the 1830s by Gustav Friedrich Waagen, the first director of the Royal Museum in Berlin? Or that titles for artworks became common only with the advent of the art market and public museum in the 18th century?

Me neither. Probably should've, really. But now you can read all about it in this piece by Jill Sterrett, Director of Collections at SFMOMA. The article also contains a handy visual breakdown of the properties of a wall label (which is in itself a direct argument for telling the stories, not just providing the tombstone data).

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Thing one; thing two

I clicked this link expecting to find another daft article about that daft 'Renoir Sucks' meme (I so can't keep up with that one).

And then I was completely surprised by an elegant and engrossing discussion of the idea of a good painting having 'plot' and 'an 'emotional situation': the thing depicted, and  what is behind the thing depicted. (Obviously, pre-mid-20th century Western art lends itself best to this analysis). And the idea of the way a thing is painted as the way that emotion is conveyed.
You see Lucian Freud’s 1995 painting “Benefits Supervisor Sleeping,” for instance, and your mind reads the light coming into your eyes as naked woman on a couch. But you’re also clearly, undeniably, looking at a nest of brushstrokes, which your mind works at untangling. You think, look at how this painter arranged oily rock and plant material on cotton canvas to mimic flesh. You relish the trickery of it, the duality of it being so evidently heavy paint but so much like a roll of skin. The phenomenon of two things happening at once collapses time. I think this is what makes people addicted to good painting.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

On the radio

Today on the radio I talked about my recent trip to the States, with a particular focus on some of the amazing museum architecture I saw, from the Kimball in Fort Worth to the Broad in LA. Some images are available on the RNZ website.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015


Not only is this a fascinating article about why something that seems totally un-revolutionary (removing tipping and raising food prices so hospo workers can be properly compensated) is actually really difficult, but I also really love the page design: a large lede that summarises and offers quicklinks to each section of the the article. It's a fantastically controlled piece of writing and while I don't know what I'd use it for, I like it.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Collections Online

On Friday we launched our project to put The Dowse's collection online, with a kick-off meeting with our development partner Sons & Co. It's really exciting, after years of working on interfaces for large, diverse online collections, to have a chance to work on something that's as tightly scoped (about 3,500 objects, nearly all post WWII, nearly all New Zealand) and as warm and human as our collection.

The timing was perfect, coming off the back of Museums and the Web Asia in Melbourne and National Digital Forum in Wellington.  At the conference in Melbourne I was able to catch up with Mitchell Whitelaw and his work on generous interfaces; as he writes in the abstract of a recent paper
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.
At NDF several of us from The Dowse were able to listen to George Oates of Good, Form & Spectacle keynote 'Assumptions, Attention, Articulation' on the changes (and not-changes) between the late 2000s and today when it comes to the web, and the way we do - and could - present our collections online. George's keynote was GREAT and you should definitely take the time to watch it.

At the kick-off meeting we bounced around a lot of ideas, from hot-or-not (don't worry, it won't happen) to browse by colour, material, acquisition date, donor/lender, and emotion. We talked about other sources of information we could wrap around the objects in our collections to tell the fuller story of the artists who made them, including Wikipedia and Te Ara, and a couple of other ideas we'll keep up our sleeves for now :)

I think of what George and Mitchell do as 'alt interfaces', and although that undersells the intellectual rigour, it captures some of the sense of personality and opinion I think they bring to this work (more so than the vast majority of institutions are capable of.  I talked at the meeting about various projects by both Mitchell and George.

Mitchell's work has been about how digitised collections can be presented without the demand of the search box - the requirement that you have a research question before you can enter ...

Australian Prints and Printmaking - browse by decade

Experimental interface to the Macaulay Collection of biodiversity audio and video recording

The Nolan Explorer (commissioned by Canberra Museum and Gallery)

The Queenslander (State Library of Victoria)

George's work at Good, Form & Spectacle grows out of her work from the past seven or eight years, with Flickr, Stamen, and the Internet Archive. It has a bit more humour perhaps than Mitchell's work, and she is following a strong process of prototyping near (or close to) museums and collections.

Have a good sift around in the experiments GFNS undertook for the Wellcome Collection. This project introduced George's use of the term 'fat head' to balance the 'long tail' - the fat head is the place where adding editorial can add a lot of interest and value.

The V&A Spelunker is a guerilla interface to this massive collection. I'm crazy about the Date Graph section, which starts to give you a feel for the way the collection has grown over time.

Twoway.St, an alt interface for the British Museum collections, also makes me really happy.  Again, it gives you the beginning of an understanding of the texture of the collection, a way of browsing by travelling along the lines on which it has been assembled.

George also popped up this image in her presentation of something they're playing with - using the dimensions of objects from the collection to create sketches that indicate size, and providing a tennis ball as scale.

Finally, the delightful Small Museum project, all about 'using dumb tools bluntly', and exploring the research question What would a 21st Century cultural institution be like if it was designed today, from scratch? While not directly about online collections, you should check out the idea behind the project here and have an explore. George talks about this project extensively near the end of her NDF talk - that's the best intro.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Not your grandparents' museum

I went on a bit of a Twitter rant yesterday, spurred by two articles that turned up in my timeline in the morning:

A Look at the Museum of the Future - Wall Street Journal

Te Papa of the future - national museum or edu-tainment theme park? - DomPost

Some extracts:

The forces rocking the technology world—cheaper screens, miniaturized mechanics and increased computing power—are prompting a rich period of experimentation in exhibit design. For museums, such advancements could attract diverse visitors, lure young people and change the way audiences learn about art, science and nature. (WSJ)

[Rick] Ellis has just returned from China, where he visited the sparkly new Shanghai Natural History Museum, which opened in April. He's still fizzing with excitement at the museum's marriage of the digital and physical worlds, the way they use technology to bring historical objects to life. (DomPost)

While aimed at boosting crowds, the new technology could blur the lines between education and entertainment. As institutions focus on the thrill of new displays, some observers caution that the art and artifacts could get lost in the commotion. “It’s important that museums be responsive to audiences, but it can tip easily into making it all about the audience and maybe not pushing the audience into something outside their own experiences,” said Elizabeth Rodini, director of the museums and society program at Johns Hopkins University. (WSJ) (My emphasis)

When Ellis was appointed, Te Papa chairman Evan Williams hailed his extensive experience in digital media. It's no surprise, then, that Ellis's vision for the museum's future comes with a virtual reality filter.

The tech-centric plans will reignite the debate that has simmered since Te Papa's opening in 1998, about what a national museum should be and the fraught line between education and entertainment. (DomPost) (My emphasis)

“When we talk to museum guys, they’re very serious, they say, ‘We don’t want that goofy theme-park stuff,’” said Adam Bezark, creative director at the Bezark Company, a Los Angeles design firm. “And so we say, ‘OK, we’ll bring in our serious people.’ And it’s all the same people. A great designer is a great designer.” (WSJ)

But statements such as "Te Papa will be making learning an entertaining and playful experience" alarm museum traditionalists who argue Te Papa is already a dumbed-down, Disney-fication that obscures the magic of the objects themselves.

The Smithsonian magazine neatly summed up the competing values when it called the new Shanghai Natural History Museum "not your grandparents' museum". (DomPost)

The slant of each article suggests a tension between experts and existing visitors, who have influenced and enjoyed the "traditional" museum, and non-experts and potential visitors, who - as Rick Ellis puts it talking about the (disputed) "digital native generation" -  "see museums as boring and old".

And they made me ask a bunch of pissed-off questions. Like - do teachers angst about becoming "too entertaining"? Whose grandparents are we talking about here - a 2 year-old's? A 70 year-old's? Do we want to preserve or return to the museum of the 1960s, 1940s, 1880s? What about the huge chunk of visitors I see in the museum every day, grandparents & retired caregivers with pre-school children? How do they fit into your "digital native" generation?

In her talk at MuseumNext in Indianapolis (notes here, video here) Nina Simon of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History talked about coming to the museum three years ago, when it was financially broken and had an annual visitation of 17,000 people (in a city of ~63,000 and a county of ~270,000). Nina talked about completely overhauling programming at the museum, to achieve their goals of reaching an audience that mirrors the demographics of the city, and creating opportunities for social bridging.

In her time at the museum, Nina has been accused of dumbing down standards and shows (see this WSJ article for example, probably not coincidentally by the same writer as the article above). Her response is to frame what she is doing as 'opening up', not 'watering down'.  And she also said something I found really interesting.

The existing supporters of the museum were "karmically distressed" by the new events and exhibitions happening at the museum that weren't for them. Previously, everything was for them. Now, there are elements of the programme that aren't for them. In comparison, new visitors (62,000 last year) don't complain about or feel excluded by events taking place that they are not interested in. (Or, as either Nina said or I wrote down in response, they don't feel confident saying this, or aren't able to articulate this.)

All of this made me write this

I know very few evil museum professionals. Most people aren't setting out to make museums stupid, shallow, or sell-outs. As a public service, we need to innovate, to change, to lead, to respond, to adapt and to hold true. If we are punished for changing, we will become "your grandparents' museum", if by that you mean places that don't hold meaning today and tomorrow.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

A reading list, for #MWA2015 and #NDFNZ

And ... it's done. My research trip round the States, Museums and the Web Asia, and the annual National Digital Forum. Nine cities, close to 40 museums and galleries, and three conference presentations.

I've also been doing a ton of reading that circulates around the things that I was seeing and talking about while I travelled. (Between now and the end of the weekend I hope to throw my conference notes up here to start sharing some of this info.) Here's a list of links, mostly as an aide-mémoire to myself ...

Nina Simon - Fighting for Inclusion

Nina's notes from her keynote at the MuseumNext conference in Indianapolis, which I managed to fit into my trip. Nina ad-libbed or extended around these published notes a lot in her talk (which you can watch here), and one of the simplest and most powerful things she said was that their philosophy at Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History for their history work is that "People make history": that when people leave the museum, they should have the feeling inside themselves that they are an active participant in making history, and have the ability to bring about social change.

"People make history". Such a simple expression of this idea, but a great way for us to think about our work on refreshing Petone Settlers Museum.

If You Can't See It, Don't Say It

This guide to exhibition label writing was referenced in a internal report on exhibition didactics sent to me by an American colleague which unfortunately I can't share. I read *a lot* of labels on my trip and recorded some of the best and worst. The main point I've taken away from my early skim of this guide is that the wall label should always give you cause to look back at the art work again. Such a basic point, but so important to keep in mind.

One of the ideas that popped into my head yesterday at NDF is that we should try doing all of our writing and editing of wall text standing up, so we really remember what it's like to be reading them as a visitor.

Museums as 21st Century Databases

From David Newbury at the Innovation Studio at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. I need to learn more about their work, but this line from this post really resonated with me when I read it during the NDF conference.

We treat our collections not as objects stored on a shelf, but rather as the physical embodiment of a vast repository of data describing our cultures and our histories. 

Data thinking and practices are seeping out through the whole of museum practice. In the States I saw art museums in particular placing an enormous emphasis on collecting data on visitors and using that for all sorts of decision-making and activities. At the same time data metaphors and visualisations are permeating how we think about collections (the quote above kind of smushes metadata into the actual object, which is a sentence that makes much more sense when I say it to myself with hand gestures than when I type it out here).

See also George Oates' & Good, Form & Spectacle's work on, an independent exploration of the British Museum's catalogue that is focused less on discovering collection items and more on trying to get a feeling for how the collection has been formed over time.

MOMA R&D Salon

The salon is back. At MOMA, curator Paola Antonelli holds a regular invitation-only salon which is an opportunity to assemble a group of speakers and a 'curated' audience to discuss a topic she is interested in learning more about. I was lucky enough to score an invite to the most recent, which was on gender fluidity and diversity as represented (or not) in the museum. That one is not online yet, but the back-catalogue is, at the link above. An amazing resource of ideas, speakers, and readings.

JW Anderson: ‘The minute your brand can be predicted, you’ve got a problem’

An interview with the designer who's recently taken over the fashion brand Loewe. This was the quote that caught my eye

The off-white colour he chose for [Loewe's] redesigned packaging was based on Portland stone, the material used for the British Museum and the UN HQ in New York, a reference he chose because he “wants to make Loewe about culture. I want the stores to be public landmarks, where you see things you might see in a museum, I want that credibility.” 

And my god, do I envy him having the bravery to do this

“When I started at Loewe, I took a year out before we did a collection, because I felt we needed to work out all the fundamentals. The pencils, the door handles, the style of the press release, the stone of the buildings, the choice of photographer. All of these questions had to be asked, because ultimately, you need to make people forget what the brand looked like before, and get them to believe that the brand was always like this.”

One of my most impactful (yeah, words are hard right now) stops in the States was the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. Apart from one bum note from a snappish gallery attendant, it was the most consistent and cohesive visit I had, where everything - from the art to the shop, the exhibition design to the mosaics and sunflowers outside the buildings, the new restaurant to the way they present their philosophy on the entrance to their main gallery - told and retold the story of the art they are there to represent and the stance they take on it.

Simon Wardley on pioneers, settlers and town planners

Seb Chan brought this up during his excellent panel discussion with Janet Carding and Tim Hart at Museums and the Web Asia in Melbourne last week (tweet-length take-out from Seb: 'What you needed a developer for five years ago, today you can do with a credit card' - online tools are a commodity now).

In particular, Seb flashed up this graphic (click to see it properly)

Inside my head there's a connection with Gartner's hype cycle for new technologies, but my brain is too tired right now to fashion those links into words.

The problem with The Broad is the collection itself

Dear lord, the number of articles I read about The Broad while I was in America. Philip Kennicott's prose is a tad purple for my taste but this observation strongly shaped my visit to the new Whitney and to The Broad

But even more striking than the contrast with the Gehry building is the Broad’s subtle argument with much of recent museum design. The prevailing theology of many public buildings today, including too many museums, is about erasing the line between the city and the structure, so that one feels the excitement of urban energy ever present, even while looking at art. The most salient example is the new Whitney Museum in New York, which makes love to Manhattan so eagerly that one can’t help but gape at the city’s promiscuous ubiquity.

The Broad is more inward-looking and allows for a more contemplative experience. Perhaps without intending to do so, it recaptures some of the spiritual drama of the much-maligned monumental museums of yesteryear ...

The Broad was surprisingly dainty (it was the last museum on my US trip, the end of many hours trying to do fast-yet-focused trips around ginormous encyclopaedic museums). The 'veil' in which it is wrapped is stunningly beautiful, and the effect is to very much transport you off the LA streetscape and into a clean, sharp, elevated aesthetic zone. The Whitney is a more subtle place to look at art *once you're inside it* - at The Broad the architecture is not so much distracting as compelling - it exerts more pulling power than most of the art. The Whitney looks like a battleship made of sliced-up shoeboxes with climbing apparatus festooned around its frontage, but from inside the building its a wonderful place to explore art.

The Broad doesn't want museum guards between you and the art

I was gobsmacked by this article and the assertions, opinions, and vested interests illustrated within in it. The American museum culture of front of house and security staff was the most foreign aspect of my trip, and I have all the thoughts about it.

The VSAs will wear their own clothes rather than museum-issue garb — the thinking being that self-expression, within certain professional parameters for garment lengths and contours, should be valued in an art museum. ...

The Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va., may be the only other art museum that has attempted to train staffers to fully fulfill the seemingly contradictory functions of keeping the art safe while making viewers feel comfortably at home with it. ... 

Stevan Layne, a veteran security consultant to museums and other cultural sites, is not persuaded that pleasant conversation and detailed knowledge about art should be in gallery attendants' job descriptions. ... "I'm opposed to doing that," Layne said. "It can be a distraction from the primary mission" of protecting the art.

Indianapolis and Dallas

I've been watching and listening to Maxwell Anderson's work at the IMA and then the DMA for years, and visited both institutions on my trip. Just before I came home, Anderson's resignation from the DMA was announced. The ideology and practice of entry charges vs philanthropic support of free entry, with an added layer of the benefits of memberships for museums (not just revenue, but access to people with a commitment to your organisation and data about their behaviour) was something I spent a lot of time talking about and thinking about in the states.

To immerse yourself a little:

IMA CEO's quest: artistic flourishes, but on a budget (1 Nov 2014, on the IMA's current director's plans)

IMA defends admission charge as complaints pile up (16 Dec 2014)

Max Anderson Out as Director of the Dallas Museum Art (28 Set 2015)

Maxwell Anderson Departs Dallas Museum, Returns to NYC in New Role (28 Sept 2015)

This might sound like I'm snitching on Anderson. I'm really not (and I don't know him at all). If you look back to even early in his career he has a pattern of expansion, fundraising, and increasing visitor number. The guy's  one of Simon Wardley's pioneers (as above).

On the topic of entry charges, Colleen Dilenschneider's research is salutary

How free admission really affects museum visitation (data)

Haunted by data

I bought some shoes in the weekend, and they offered me a discount programme which asked for my name, phone number, email address, physical address, and date of birth. So, short of a DNA swab or my passport data, pretty much all my vital stats.

Maciej Cegłowski's recent talk (recommended to me by Seb Chan, as above) is a purposefully un-rosy look at rapidly growing data collection practices. The link above will also take you to the video recording of Maciej's talk. We need to be bringing the points he raises into our discussion about data-driven museums.