Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Press Here: Breaking the Fourth Wall in Children's Books... and Museums?

You open a children's book. You see a yellow dot. The text says "Press the yellow dot and turn the page."

Suddenly there are two yellow dots. You follow the text. You press some more. You turn the page. More dots appear. You rub the dots. They change color. You shake the book. The dots move around. You clap. The dots get bigger.

Either I'm really sleep-deprived, or Press Here is the most brilliant interactive children's book ever. Let's be clear: there are no pushbuttons or popups or electronics built into this book. Author Herve Tullet uses the most basic children's book materials (pages, words, and images) to create a responsive, dynamic adventure. Press Here is a "normal" book that uses book-ish tools--pacing, spatial arrangement of images on the page, text as instruction--to break the fourth wall and create an interactive experience.

I was thinking of Press Here when I heard about the new children's book This is a Book Without Pictures. B.J. Novak's book uses the basic structure of reading aloud to subject the reader (presumably an adult) to proclaim ridiculous things about him/herself. The text points out that, "Everything the book says, the person reading the book has to say." Said person goes on read every absurd word aloud, fighting with the book, pleading to stop reading the book, casting asides to the audience that he is NOT actually a robot monkey even though the book says he is. Hilarity ensues.

Press Here and This is a Book Without Pictures each break the fourth wall of book-reading in ingenious ways. They recall other artistic work that breaks fourth walls--classically in theater, and more recently in new media projects. (For an adult version of Press Here, enjoy Ze Frank's classic optical illusion.)

This makes me wonder: how do we break the fourth wall in museums? How do we use the essential tools of museum-ness to disrupt, surprise, and delight people?

One part of me thinks this is an impossible question. Museums already engage people with multiple senses, in multiple dimensions. Visitors are already immersed in the experience because of its engaging nature. Maybe there is no fourth wall at all.

But then I think about institutions like the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which uses the essential tools of museum presentation to subvert expectations about expertise and content. I think about all the dioramas that we are stuck outside of--and all the clunky add-ons we offer to distract people from the existence of those glass panes. I think of overbuilt animatronics, intended to suggest the vitality of artifacts but instead reminding us how deep the uncanny valley is between life and death. And I think of brilliant people in other mediums--authors like Herve Tullet, artists like Ze Frank--who are breaking walls we didn't even know existed.

So I wonder: where is our fourth wall?
Who will break it in some beautiful, simple way?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

What's Your $12,720 Idea for New Ways of Engaging with Audiences?

Imagine an institution with a commitment to rigor, depth, and delight in the exploration of contemporary culture.
Imagine a prize competition to develop new experimental approaches to engaging audiences.
Imagine these two together.

The Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona (CCCB) has just launched a new biennial Cultural Innovation International Prize. The theme this year is "audiences." They are soliciting project proposals for innovative forms of audience engagement. The strongest proposals will be wholly original and theoretically grounded. The winner will receive 10,000 euro ($12,720 ish) and the potential to mount their project at the CCCB. Proposals are due by February 5, 2015. Full set of rules (in English) here.

CCCB is an incredible institution. They present gorgeous, challenging exhibitions. They host festivals that combine brunch with electronic music. They do research on literature, media, engagement, and serendipity. One of my favorite exhibition experiences ever was their moody, academic exhibition Through Labyrinths. It was itself a labyrinth. It built Borges and Eco in 3D. It was math. It was mystery. It was killer.

So you can imagine how honored I was when I was asked to be a member of the jury for this Cultural Innovation prize.

I asked the organizers at CCCB Lab about the choice of the word "Audiences" to describe the theme of the prize in English. In Spanish, they are using the word "Publico," which refers more broadly to public/s.

I'm personally more interested in how we engage with "publics" as opposed to "audiences." My colleagues in Barcelona suggested that in a European context, "audience" is less confusing. But she encouraged me (and you, if interested in applying) to substitute "public" if preferred.

Here is how they describe the challenge:
What do we refer to when we talk about audience/s in cultural centres, museums and similar spaces today? What does this concept mean at a time when the boundaries between the physical and virtual space are blurring, intermingling, or disappearing? Has there been a change in the traditional paradigm by which audiences followed, and at most participated in – always in a secondary role –, the projects organised by cultural centres and museums? What new models are currently being used in this field? What are the real needs of these new audiences? Are cultural centres and museums meeting them? What innovations could they implement to fulfill their mission? What changes are needed to face the challenge of audience/s in the next few years?
As a juror, I'm not open to discussing particular project ideas. But I would love to see proposals that:
  • translate forms of research or engagement from non-cultural fields into the cultural sphere
  • attempt something that is impossible to imagine working today, but could provide a glimpse of one of many possible futures
  • explore strangers, social bridging, and publics apart and together
  • position experimentation not around its level of innovation or risk but its potential outcomes
  • explore the history of what it meant to be an audience or a public in the arts hundreds of years ago
  • imagine the long future of what it might mean hundreds of years from now
  • play in the tricksy sandbox of people's "wants" and "needs"
  • take full advantage of the depth, rigor, and experimentation of CCCB as a host
I can't wait to see what you dream up.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

From Multicultural to Intercultural: Evolution or Spectrum of Engagement?

How do you balance the value of honoring specific multicultural practices and bridging them to build new connections?

At the Inclusive Museum conference this summer, Dr. Rick West introduced this question through a tale of two museums.

He described the National Museum of the American Indian--where he was founding director--as a multicultural institution, celebrating the diversity of Native peoples throughout the Americas. He envisions The Autry--his current gig--as an intercultural institution, telling all the stories of the American West. Rick explained intercultural work as an opportunity for museums to evolve beyond multiculturalism. To actively weave together cultures across differences instead of accentuating the distinctions among them.

This was the first time I'd heard the term intercultural. Researching further, I found this helpful set of definitions and diagrams:
  • In multicultural communities, we live alongside each other.
  • In cross-cultural communities, there is some reaching across boundaries.
  • In intercultural communities, there is comprehensive mutuality, reciprocity, and equality. 
These definitions present a clear bias towards interculturality as the "best" form of interaction. As someone who strives and works for social bridging (a form of intercultural practice), I'm drawn to that.

But I also appreciate the complexity and interdependence of these constructs--especially in cultural institutions. Working in an intercultural way means focusing on the relations among people. That can come at the cost of celebrating and learning about distinctive cultural practices.

For example, consider an ethnographic museum. Is it better to organize the content by cultural group or by theme?

Organizing content by cultural group immerses visitors in distinct artifacts, artwork, historical context, and people. It helps visitors get a sense of the diversity and differences among us. It can showcase the glory of a particular place or practice. It could be useful in a world of rapidly changing demographics and culture.

Organizing by theme immerses visitors in an idea common to humans around the world. It builds empathy and common ground. It could be useful in a world of multi-racial, multi-migratory people.

I have experienced extraordinary ethnographic museums of both kinds. Glorious exhibitions that immersed me in the intricacies of diversity. Powerful exhibitions that presented intersections that I never would have linked.

I think of the Museum of World Cultures (Gothenberg, Sweden) as an institution that masterfully explores both types. They organize many exhibitions about cultural groups (e.g. Wiphala, about a flag of a medicine man in the Andes mountains). But they also present exhibitions like Destination X, a thematic exploration of forced and voluntary international travel and migration.

Similarly, I've experienced performing arts organizations that do both well: projects that showcase the extraordinary specificity of a cultural experience or practice, and projects that present many diverse artists around a shared theme.

At my museum, we have a mission that explicitly pushes us to intercultural practice. But it's not obvious to me that this should be a field-wide strategy. I question whether cultural institutions should "evolve" from multicultural to intercultural practice, or whether these are just different approaches on a spectrum.

At its best, a multicultural institution honors the diversity of cultural practice.
At its worst, a multicultural institution tokenizes different cultures with siloed projects.

At its best, an intercultural institution draws unexpected connections to bring us together across difference.
At its worst, it wallows in relativism, using cultural artifacts as dots in invented constellations.

So what's best?

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Is it Real? Artwork, Authenticity... and Cognitive Science

A farmer says he has had the same ax his whole life--he only changed the handle three times and head two times. Does he have the same ax?

This question launches Howard Mansfield's fascinating book about historic restoration, The Same Ax, Twice. Mansfield explores the sanctity and lineage of historic sites, from Japanese Shinto shrines (completely rebuilt 61 times in 1300 years), to igloos (rebuilt annually, oldest documented human dwelling), to the USS Constitution (80-90% rebuilt since it first sailed). 

He argues that these relics are stronger because of their reconstruction. As he puts it: 
So, does that farmer have the same ax? Yes. His ax is an igloo, and a Shinto shrine. He possesses the same ax even more than a neighboring farmer who may have never repaired his own ax. To remake a thing correctly is to discover its essence.
How does this question play out in museums? At the 2013 American Alliance of Museums annual conference, a group of exhibition designers explored authenticity in a session called Is it Real? Who Cares? They explored a huge range of museum objects and grey areas of "realness." They arbitrated replicas, reproductions, models, and props... and the context that enhances or detracts from the perception of authenticity.

While many of their examples came from history and natural science, one of my favorite examples is from art. There are three portraits of George Washington shown at the top of this post: the famous painting by Gilbert Stuart, a copy of it also painted by Gilbert Stuart, and a copy of it painted by his daughter Jane. 

Many artists work with assistants and reproducing processes. Are the reproductions less real than the original? If done by the same hand? If done by another hand? If done by a machine?

Turns out, science has something to say on the topic. 

Cognitive scientists at Yale and University of Chicago researched how people perceive "identity continuity" of an artwork when reproduced. They conducted a simple experiment:
  • People read a story about a painting called "Dawn" created by an artist. There were different versions of the story. In some, the artist produced the original painting. In others, he instructed one of his assistants to paint it.
  • In all versions of the story, the painting was irrevocably damaged by mold. Gallerists hired another artist to reproduce it. 
When asked whether the new work was still "Dawn," about 30% of people said yes--if the artist had made the original with his own hand. If an assistant has painted it, the percentage climbed to 40%+. It was as high as 50% if the original work was commissioned for a commercial (hotel) setting. 

The researchers posit that the "personal touch" of the artist plays a key role in people's perception of an artwork's authenticity and value. By this notion, in the George Washington portrait example, Gilbert Stuart could make many copies of his own work at equal value, but his daughter's involvement dilutes its realness. That is, of course, unless you also factor in the "personal touch" of George Washington being in the room live during the portrait's creation--in which case Gilbert Stuart's own copies have diminished value as well. 

Whose soul is stamped on a work of art? On a tool? On a scientific specimen? What does it mean if we conflate realness with human essence?

If you care about authenticity, this research is pretty troubling. Sure, it shows that people value the original artist's hand in his/her work. But more than that, it shows that value is positively correlated with a perception of human touch. That perception can be faked--to both positive and negative ends. Artists embue anonymous objects with fictional narratives to increase their value. Companies buy up long-lived brands to add a human story to their wares. Spiritualists contact the dead. 

In museums, we care about both perceived authenticity and real authenticity. We want the power of the story--and the facts to back it up. This can come off as contradictory. We want visitors to come experience "the real thing" or "the real site," appealing to the spiritual notion that the personhood in the original artifact connotes a special value. At the same time, we don't always tell folks that what they are looking at is a replica, a simulation, or a similar object to the thing they think they are seeing. 

Some of the museum exhibitions that feel the most real are composite reconstructions of reality--true stories told well, with fake bits supporting the narrative. Some museum experiences can be more powerful because of the freedom that replicas afford. And when it comes to art, a forced focus on "the real thing" can mean less access to cultural artifacts. Were those plaster cast collections of the 1800s really hurting people?  

In the Is It Real? conference session, participants ranked a series of case studies of ambiguous museum artifacts from "real" to "fake," from "works" to "doesn't work." 

We live in a world where the commercialization of "fake" and "works" leads to some deceiving ends. The combination of "real" and "doesn't work" isn't a viable alternative. How do we get to "real" and "works" in the strongest way possible?

In other words: how do we remake the ax, tell the story of its reproduction, and honor its value every step of the way?

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Museum 2.0 Rerun: Inside the Design of an Amazing Museum Project to Capture People's Stories

Recently, we've been talking at our museum about techniques for capturing compelling audio/video content with visitors. It made me dig up this 2011 interview with Tina Olsen (then at the Portland Art Museum) about their extraordinary Object Stories project. They designed a participatory project that delivers a compelling end product for onsite and online visitors… and they learned some unexpected lessons along the way. Lots of inspiring and practical tips below - enjoy!

How and why did Object Stories come to be?

The project arose from a grant announcement from MetLife Foundation around community engagement and outreach. I knew I didn’t want to do something temporary—a program that would last a year or two and then go away.

In the education department, we have some key values around slowing down, conversation and participation around art, and deep looking. And so this concept of asking visitors to spend some focused time thinking about their relationships with objects and artworks really made sense to me.

Also, on a personal level, I had this really powerful experience with my mother in a Storycorps booth in Grand Central years ago that had a profound impact on me. She had revealed things I’d never known, and I kept coming back to it.

What did you end up with and how did you get there?

Our first notion was all about something mobile, something that would go out to the community. We imagined an cart at the farmer’s markets where people could record stories. But we couldn’t figure out how we were going to sustain that with our staff.

We ended up with a gallery in the museum instead. It’s in a good location, but it’s also kind of a pass-through space to other galleries. It has a recording booth that you sign up in advance to use, and you go in and tell a story about an object that is meaningful to you. The other parts of the gallery are for experiencing the stories, and for connecting with the Museum collection. We have cases with museum objects that people told stories about, with large images of those storytellers adjacent to the object, and in the middle of the gallery is a long rectangular table with touchscreens where people can access all the stories that have been recorded.

Your recording booth asks participants for audio stories plus photos of themselves with their objects. Why did you choose this format instead of video?

We had planned on having it be video. The proposal to Metlife was all video. Then we started working with our local design and technology firms—Ziba Design and Fashionbuddha—and in the prototyping, it became clear we had to go another way.

We partnered with the Northwest Film Center to conduct workshops with community organizations around personal object storytelling. These really informed the project, and helped get the word out about the gallery. We rigged up a video recording booth in Fashionbuddha’s studios.

We found people would go in, do their story, come out, say it was so powerful and cathartic, but then the videos would be really bad—boring, too long, unstructured. They were often visually uncomfortable to watch. And some participants were turned off by the video recording—they found it too scary, and being on camera distracted them from telling their story – especially older people.

We had this moment where we were going to sign off on design and move to fabrication, and I was really worried. We had participants who loved the experience, but the watchers were really lukewarm about the results. And we realized of course that the majority audience would be watchers, not storytellers. We invited a cross-section of artists, filmmakers, and advertisers to join us for a think tank. We all sat down and looked at the content and we said, “this is not good enough, this is not watchable enough.”

So what did you do next?

We came up with a system that was much more structured and is based on audio, not video. In the current setup, you walk into the booth, all soundproofed and carpeted, and then you sit down on a cozy bench. You can come alone or with up to three people. You face a screen, and the screen is close enough to reach out and touch without getting up. The screen prompts you, with audio and with words, and it’s in both English and Spanish, because we really wanted to reach out to the Spanish-speaking community in Portland.

First, the screen asks if you want to watch an example story. If not, it says “let’s get started.”

There are five prompts that follow, and for each, you get 45 seconds to record a response. Each of the prompts was really carefully written and tested to scaffold people to tell a great story. People don’t necessarily walk in the booth knowing how to do that. For example, the first prompt, which is about discovery, asks, “When and how did you first receive, discover, or encounter your object? What was your first feeling or impression of it? Who was there?” This prompt really gets people sharing specifics, sharing details—the things that make a story successful.

Another good example is the final question: “If you had to give it to someone, who would it be and what would you say to them?” This question really makes people focus on the meat of what’s important about their object, and it’s a natural summarizer… but in an interesting, personal way.

After you record your audio, you get to take the photos and give your story a six-word title.

We experimented with when in the process to take the photos, and it’s nice at the end—it’s a kind of reward. The recording is often very intense—people cry, it takes something out of them. Photos are fun. We prompt participants to hold the object in different ways: close to camera, pose with the object in your lap, hold your object as close to your face as possible, hold it in profile.

How do you edit the stories?

Fashionbuddha built a backend content management system where you can choose audio segments, reorder them, and choose photos. This is made to be sustainable with current staffing– while we have the ability to edit within a 45 second chunk, 99% of the time we don’t do it—we just pick the segments and photos we want to use and put them in order.

The gallery also features objects from the museum’s collection with people’s stories about them. Who are the people who record stories about museum objects?

That is more curated. The first testing we did there was very much the same as Object Stories – anyone could sign up and get involved, pick an object in the museum and tell a story about it. Those stories were, frankly, often very banal. There was an imbalance between stories with people’s own objects, with which they have profound relationships, versus museum objects that they might come see once or twice and like, but not really have a deep connection with.

So we realized we had to have an equivalence–the museum stories had to be profound too. And it couldn’t all be curators, but these storytellers had to be people who had profound relationships with museum objects. We have four stories up now: from a guard, a curator, a longtime museum lover, and an artist. In the future, I’m thinking of really mining our membership, putting out a call to them, building some programs that might help us seed and support the museum stories.

The website for the stories is beautiful. You also got some prime physical real estate for this project. How did you get the gallery?

That was really hard-won. At first, it was going to be a little booth tucked away somewhere. As the project progressed, our prototyping showed us we didn’t want a shallow experience--a photo booth where you could just drop in and do it. We wanted something where people could spend the time and focus deeply on the experience at hand. That required more space.

And it was really important to the director and to me that Object Stories connected to our mission and to our collection. That led me to feel strongly that we needed to have museum objects in the space. It couldn’t be an educational space with no works of art in it. I wanted to integrate this experience into what you do in the rest of the museum. We ended up with a very multi-departmental team, and that helped too.

The big goal is to activate your connection with objects in the rest of the museum, that Object Stories models the idea of having deep relationships with objects for any visitor who comes in.

What do you know so far about the non-participating visitors to the gallery?

I only know anecdotally. People are really entranced with the stories, browsing them on the touchscreens, and with the museum objects as well. They even spend a long time looking at this big case we put up that just features 8x10 cards with photos of people with their objects.

I was surprised at how long many visitors will spend at this case. It’s just graphics. Why would people look at that? I think it may be because people are visually included in the space, and that’s rare in an art museum. They’re very interested and maybe even moved by it.