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The Twitter in Mind.

A post the other day on Eye Level, rather subtly announced that the Lunder Center is now using Twitter.  You probably know that Eye Level is a blog produced by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and that it focuses a lot on the work that is done at Lunder Center, which as far as I know, is the first and only conservation department that functions as a permanent museum exhibit (instead of being tucked away in the museum, conservators are at work and on view behind floor-to-ceiling glass walls ).  But maybe you don’t know about Twitter: it’s a web site to which you send text messages from your cell phone (called “tweets”) that are then displayed for everyone to see.  You can “follow” your friend’s tweets (or a museum artifact’s in this case) to know what they are doing and thinking.

Here’s the link to Lunder’s Twitter Site.  I’ve been following them since I first saw that blog post; I also follow a few other people: one of my brothers, a friend, an artist, and so on.  I’ve never posted anything to my Twitter account, but I do update my “status” on my Facebook account somewhat frequently, which is a lot like using Twitter.  Who knows why it so compelling to let my “friends” know what I’m up to, but I do it.

I hope by this point you’re asking yourself why the Lunder Center (or anyone) is tweeting or updating their facebook status.  Because that’s what I’ve been asking myself recently.  Why are we interested in doing this?  Are we deepening the way we communicate; or is the way we are communicating, searching, reading, and surfing on the internet changing us?  In the end I think this is the more interesting question: how is technology changing the way we think?

With Linda’s post last week and then Damon Darlin’s article, Technology Doesn’t Dumb Us Down. It Frees Our Minds in the NYT, which was a response to Nicholas Carr’s Atlantic Monthly article Is Google Making Us Stupid?, I’ve been kicking these thoughts around recently.

Of course, I don’t really have any answers, and I trust you weren’t expecting them from me.  To pair all of this down to a sentence or two: I don’t think technology is making us stupid, and, well, I really don’t think it’s making us any smarter.  But I am thrilled to be at this moment when technology is opening doors that were previously closed, showing us into parts of the museum (and every other part of society) that were previously off limits, and allowing us to collaborative work together on projects that are greater than each individual.

Listen to Clay Shirky at the 2008 Web 2.0 Expo talk about “waking up from the collective bender” we’ve been having on our free time and you’ll know what I mean.  I for one agree with him about the idea of “carving out a bit of the cognitive surplus” and putting it to good use.  And of course agree that it’s better to do something rather than to do nothing with “free time” (one of his arguments I find a bit tough: that playing World of Warcraft is more productive than watching a sitcom like The Office).

So, maybe this is why I’m so interested in following museum projects with Twitter, or why I’m willing blog for the IMA, read other conservation blogs, work on Wikipedia projects, or fool with Facebook (mind you I really don’t mess with any of these things while I’m here at the IMA, I’m just too busy with the “work” work I do. Honestly, that’s the truth.  I do all that stuff at home, on my free time.). I’m willing to do it because it’s doing something not nothing.  (Another side note here, the other weekend I made an application in Facebook that allows you to send art conservation tools to your friends – because they may need them.  I’ll let you be judge if this is doing something or doing nothing.)

I remember sometime ago when Tyler Green over at Modern Art Notes announced  that he was on Facebook, but then said “Not sure what I’ll do with it, but I’m open to suggestions.”  (Yes, he’s on also Twitter .)   Yeah, “open to suggestions.”  Me too.  I think that’s a big difference: it seems everyone and everything is now open for suggestions or discussion, or is just plain open. This is a change in thinking.  I think this proves that technology has the potential to free our minds, not make us more stupid.

I feel a need to bring this back to art conservation because, in the end, that’s what I do and what I’m nominally supposed to be writing about.  Using technology to talk about conservation or work on conservation projects has plenty of positives.  And doing it in an open way has the potential to get more people involved and make the work that we are doing in the museum more accessible.  Do I think using Twitter to let you have up-to-the-minute updates on what the conservators are doing on projects is a good idea?  I don’t know, and I don’t think I’ll be up for answering that anytime soon (unless, of course, the Nugget Factory decides to pony up the money to cover my cell phone data plan to let me experiment with it).

Finally, then, I’d like to take this post in a slightly different but related direction and end with another question: how does all of this technology and accessibility change our understanding of and interest in art?  I’m fairly certain that all of the art in the IMA’s collection has nothing to do with you sitting at home looking at a computer screen; you have to come here to see it.  Because I work in conservation, I’m reminded on a daily basis that art is a physical thing: it has dimension, occupies space, and in some ways is living a life here at the IMA.  A flat, glowing screen can’t relay this kind of information; art must be viewed and experienced in person.

Here’s my attempt to reduce this to a tweet: “Richard McCoy is unsure how technology influences viewing art.”

Filed under: Art, Conservation, New Media, Technology

13 Responses to “The Twitter in Mind.”

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    Jenny Says:

    Technology may influence viewing art by providing more prods and venues to engage it. Learning about what others experience certainly makes me more curious about what I might be missing. A “tweet” is as much an invitation as anything.

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    Allison Agsten Says:

    Hi Richard — Since you’re following museum Twitter accounts, take a look at what I’m doing for LACMA… http://twitter.com/aagsten

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    Thanks Jenny for your thoughts. I think I agree, but in the end does it drive you to come look at it in person, or just make you think about it more at your computer?

    Allison — I’m now following you too (along with the NY Times, and others).

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    Noelle Says:

    Fascinating thoughts Richard. I was just pondering some of the same ideas today when thinking about what to blog about next. I wonder at work if the online content produced really drives people to the museum, engages them online and ends there, or serves as an ever cooler marketing tools. What is the ultimate purpose? What do people really want?

  • avatar

    Hey, thanks for your note, Noelle, and adding more questions to the pile. Maybe it’s just that I’m still in my Sunday morning on-line-newspaper-reading-mode, but I really don’t have any good answers to your questions.

    I did, however, find a very interesting article in the NYT Technology Blog: In Praise of Political Tweets:
    http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/09/26/in-praise-of-political-tweets/

    Another intriguing way to use Twitter …

  • avatar
    Jeff Peachey Says:

    In light of your last question, you might be interested in Leo Marx’s “The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America” Some of it deals with the technological framing/ interpreting of art. A lot might depend on how broad of a definition of technology you choose to adopt– at the extreme end, Jacque Ellul, linking technology and technique, sees it as almost as broad and pervasive as thought itself, in “The Technological Society.”

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    Meg Says:

    I was happy to be redirected to your blog from Tyler’s. MAN shout outs are always a treat! I’m trying to determine the applicability of Twitter to marketing/communications. I’m searching for the right application for the tool. Might be interesting to track individuals in a Museum…Follow the daily activities of a conservator, visitor services representative, curator, or member of the exhibition installation team. It would certainly provide unprecedented access into how a museum operates. Problem is finding the right people willing to do it. ..

  • avatar

    Twitter has a lot of uses – to entertain, to update people on what you’re doing, to direct them to links on your site – but I most enjoy having conversations on Twitter with people I would never have met otherwise. I’m always interested in who’s following who, and from there I make new and interesting connections. It’s also interesting to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations. Twitter is also a great tool to use during conferences because you can see what everyone else is thinking and doing during the events.

  • avatar

    Richard,
    Thanks for your thoughtful questions and mention of Eye Level and the Lunder Center’s Twitter site.

    Our conservation staff use Twitter to send real time alerts when treatment or benchwork begins in the Visible Labs that may be of interest to visitors. This keeps the Museum’s Visitor Services Manager (and therefore the large group of volunteers who staff the information desks) up-to-date on what is happening. Others who are interested can also follow.

    We don’t really know much about our 60-odd Twitter followers, or why they are following us. We have started seeing an increase in visitors to the Lunder Conservation Center after tweets go out, but need to verify whether there is a direct causal link.

    We also hope Twitter will help those who can’t come to the labs stay in touch with our conservation efforts from afar. We think that the immediacy of the alerts can make for a stronger connection, but we don’t know if our short messages are hitting the mark in both content and style.

    In short, we need some research, which we hope to conduct this fall once our followers reach a critical mass, to ensure Twitter is truly meeting our staff’s and audiences’ needs, and not just another example of technology for technology’s sake.

  • avatar

    Hey, thanks to all for checking in.

    Jeff: I looked up the Marx book and it seems very interesting. I was a little bummed to see that the IMCPL (http://www.imcpl.org/) doesn’t have it, so I’ll have to get it from Amazon.

    Meg: What? You rely on MAN to get you to me? I for one thought it would be the other way around. How about a little love, Meg, and putting the IMA’s blog into your Google Reader?

    Speaking of Google Readers, welcome to mine, PastaQueen, and I’m glad we are now “following” each other on Twitter. Really, though, the more I use Twitte the more I wonder why I use it (I think I need to read Jeff’s book).

    Which brings me to Julie’s thoughtful response. Wow, I’m impressed with your somewhat scientific approach to using Twitter. I think I’m at the other end off the spectrum on this one — the less science the better. In fact, last night I figured out how to make Jott notes that go to Twitter, and then go to my facebook status. So now you can have audio on your twitter. Check it out: http://tinyurl.com/3jtzum (hit the little speaker to hear me speak).

    I have my brother, Douglas, to thank for showing me Jott. He’s also a big fan of evernote (http://www.evernote.com/), but I haven’t had a chance to mess with that. Thanks, Douglas.

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