I’ve developed a pretty thick skin over the years and have a real appreciation for a diversity of opinions. I have always worked hard in my role at the IMA to encourage and draw out folks who think differently than I do. That’s why I was not very bothered by Nina Simon’s initial comments about the IMA during last year’s plenary session of the Museums and the Web conference held here in Indianapolis. Nor was I particularly inclined to answer what seemed to be a rather snarky blog article that Nina wrote entitled Avoiding the Participatory Ghetto which was featured on her Museum 2.0 blog. I was glad that Linda Duke, our Director of Education, answered some of the charges in the comments to that post, but again decided to hold my tongue. With essentially a reprint of that blog article appearing in the most recent issue of AAM’s Museum Magazine under the title “Bait and Switch”, I feel that not responding at this point would communicate that I don’t care about what Nina is saying when in fact, I really do.
What most disturbs me about Nina’s argument is the clear lack of background work she put into crafting what amounts to a pretty scathing opinion of the IMA. It seems from Nina’s comments that she is basing her views on a single visit to our galleries during a conference reception. I have no way of knowing how many of those 3 hours Nina spent in our exhibitions and galleries, but it seems that she didn’t bother to ask any staff members of the IMA about efforts we might be making to engage our visitors on-site and around the city. Aside from a brief two minute encounter in the conference hall after her comments, Nina failed to probe in any depth about what (if any) strategy their might be behind our efforts on-site.
Experience and Engagement
In case you haven’t noticed, Art Museums are frequently considered to be the “stuffier”, less “engaging” older brothers to our sibling science, technology, and “experience” museums. Nina draws at least some of her professional experience from this field, so perhaps we should cut her a little slack for missing a crucial challenge faced by art museums.
Many experiences in art museums can tend to be more subjective… more personal… deeply moving but indeed sometimes less factual than in other types of museums. This isn’t denying that an understanding of the underlying contexts and histories of these works is important. Just that this knowledge is a means to an end. Facilitating and encouraging these types of experiences is a primary challenge in creating engaging experiences inside art museums. Balancing engaging exhibits with a gallery aesthetic which still supports and encourages individual interpretation is not an easy problem to solve.
Perhaps the lack of 10 year old kiosks and flashy interpretive signage makes it appear that we are not attempting to engage our audiences?
There still remains an outstanding debate in my mind regarding whether or not even well designed “experiences” in art museums offer an appreciably better connection to works of art than more unobtrusive offerings of information which allow audiences to pick-and-choose their own experiences with works of art. Apart from leading audiences by a nose-ring through what they should think/experience there must be a place for a clean, open and personal interpretation of our collections. These are questions we’re wrestling with here at the IMA as I’m sure many of you are in your own institutions. Why rush to an answer before we’ve studied our own audiences and local needs?
Missing the Mark
Maybe Nina missed the chance to talk to Tiffany Leason – who was also at the conference reception – about the Viewing Project . A three year grant funded initiative, the Viewing Project is designed to experiment with ways of engaging visitors with works from the IMA’s permanent collection. In addition, this project seeks to measure and evaluate this visitor engagement in ways that can lead to concrete answers about these issues. Rather than guessing haphazardly about what kinds of exhibits might make a difference, we’re attempting to really study our particular circumstance and unique audience here in Indianapolis.
I would have loved to point Nina towards some of our New Media team (most of whom are named Daniel) who could share about some pretty innovative ways we are engaging audiences in ways that allow them to self select their participation.
One of the Dans could have shared about project we did in association with an Egyptian Art exhibit which made use of Flickr both in the galleries and on the streets of Indy. The project, called “Your Afterlife”, asked scads of people from around the museum and city about what they would take with them into the happily-ever-after which resulted in some really funny, interesting, and touching results.
Or Dan might have shared some of the work we did creating visualizations from CAT scan data of one of the mummies in the show. Visitors could take a peak under the wraps both in the galleries near the display or online at home.
Yet another Dan might have talk to Nina about “Project IMA” a project we hosted featuring 16 local designers, which engaged the designers and the community in fashion designs presented in conjunction with an exhibition called “Breaking The Mode”. The project culminated in a runway show inside the museum and some awesome video which is still really popular on ArtBabble.
Our last Dan may have taken Nina over to the Davis LAB where for over three years now we’ve been experimenting with bringing our online-efforts into the galleries for guests to experience and engage with. Sponsored by several donors who really care about how technology can be used to enhance the museum experience, the Davis LAB has hosted a wide array of experiences. In 2006, I built a multi-user physical interface for visitors to explore the IMA’s collection using camera tracking and advanced computer graphics algorithms. This experience ran in the space for over two years and we tracked hundreds of thousands of users using the interface to explore art from our collection.
The LAB has also hosted virtual reality displays, a variety of interactive kiosks, a recreation of ancient Rome which allowed users to navigate through a unique system of interlinked panoramas in addition to many other efforts. All of these experiences are always available to visitors in the museum and online and are designed to leverage their experiences here at the IMA.
Now the Davis LAB plays host to ArtBabble and encourages connections with the IMA’s blogs and online communities. We find that users engage with the content in new and different ways in the galleries and that we receive a large number of comments from physical visitors from within the space. Mind you, we are encouraging this online/onsite engagement while preserving – for the moment – an open, clean interpretive experience in many of the galleries.
I do think that mobile content deployments offer some intriguing options for user experiences in our galleries. These platforms can preserve an aesthetic which supports personal connection, while offering unobtrusive ways for visitors to explore deeper connections to works of art on their own devices and at their own pace. As such, we’ve started work on a new software system for mobile tours which can connect to our back-end content management practices and drive experiences on multiple content platforms including kiosks, phones, and web-browsers.
The project is called TAP and you can expect to see it “in the wild” sometime this fall in connection with our Sacred Spain exhibition. Beyond serving just ourselves in this endeavor, we’ve been working with a collaboration of like-minded folks on some possible meta-data standards for mobile tours and platform architectures that can work for lots of different museums. An early version of this spec (TourML – pronounced turmoil) can be seen in action in the Dallas Museum of Art’s new mobile tour. You can read more about our progress on the Museum Mobile Wiki, follow the effort on twitter (#mtogo) or watch this space for more info.
It’s worth taking a bit of time to talk about how innovation happens within museums. This is a question I get asked a lot these days and, as such, I’ve thought a good bit about it. I think it’s fair to say that we all seek after innovation in what we do. At times it seems to be ephemeral… a gossamer to be grasped at. Other times, you find yourself standing right in the middle of it without knowing how you arrived. I can honestly say that during the last three years, the IMA has truly been the most innovative organization I’ve ever been a part of. (This includes several major research universities, and the supercomputing center that invented the first web browser.) If there’s one thing I’ve learned about innovation, it’s that it never occurs in a vacuum. Certainly Max Anderson’s strong leadership and risk-tolerant style play a significant role here, and I’d like to think that our web team has had some pretty interesting ideas over the years. The truth, however, is that the innovation others have identified in the IMA’s technology and online efforts is only a leading indicator of true institutional innovation and change happening just under the surface.
Those of you working in larger organizations know how difficult it is to push forward initiatives without comprehensive and wide ranging support from your colleagues. Likewise, almost everything you see online has its roots in the support, efforts and beliefs of dozens of professionals from every department around the IMA. Who is it, do you think, that populates the Dashboard with statistics? Who’s responsible for the underpinnings of deaccessioning on the web? Who is it that co-creates, consults, connects and supports the videos on ArtBabble? Many of these folks have worked in art museums for decades and have devoted significant portions of their careers to advancing the arts in a non-profit setting. To have their support and collaboration has truly been one of the great honors of coming to the IMA.
It should not be surprising, therefore, that the first-fruits of innovation can most easily be seen online. Bricks, mortar and people’s opinions take significantly longer to change than our websites do. We plan our exhibitions years into the future. Planning for a building expansion can approach the decade mark. Even our educational programs are planned at least a year out.
There are very few efforts in museums which move at the pace and timescale of the internet and social media. But like the buds on a tree, the innovation you see online is propped up by an ecosystem of support throughout the IMA which allows it to succeed at all. I wish each of you could take the time to understand the institutional change we have been experiencing here at the IMA. As it stands however, the most evident and easily accessible proof of this transformation is visible online. Over the coming years, I’m extremely confident that this change will pay ongoing dividends for our visitors.
Finally, I don’t mean to be overly harsh with Nina. She is a brilliant professional who brings a lot of value to our profession in her writing and contributions to the field. I do take exception, in this case, to a poorly informed series of articles.
Nina says on her blog that, “I believe that every museum can grow its audience as long as it is willing to grow with that audience by taking risks, trying new things, and communicating openly.” In my opinion, I think that the IMA has been an example of these very things over the past few years and has contributed significantly to the community of museums. I’m not asking for any special treatment or exemption from criticism. On the contrary, what I’d like most is the chance for a little conversation on the topic. So… if something we’re doing strikes you wrong or seems out of place… all you’ve got to do is ask a few questions. You can find me most easily here on the blog, or on twitter (@rjstein)