The Rise of The Culture of Making and Hacking

Flickr by photosfing/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Flickr by photosfing/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This post is cross-posted from the #svegliamuseo blog

Over the last years, there has been a growing interest for open-ended experiences and activities that ask audiences to create new tools to add on the museum experience and/or to manipulate approaches and collections. In some cases they are planned activities, such as the Tinkering sessions started by the Exploratorium (@Exploratorium – more info on Tinkering here) and “exported”, among others, at the Museum of Science and Technology in Milan (@Museoscienza),  but there is also a growing number of “pop-up” events, hackathons and experimental programs that, in some way, wants to turn inside out Museum’s traditional methodologies.

Although the term “hacking” often has a negative connotation, referring to breaching private information or disrupting systems, museums hack events ask people to do just the opposite. In a short span of time participants, which can be regular museum visitors as well as artists, designers or other not museum-y professionals, are asked to build something from scratch or to experiment with digital and non-digital tools.

Hacking the conventions, not the rules

The Walter Art Museum (@Walters_museum), in Baltimore, recently organized Art Bytes, a hackathon where technology and creative communities work together to build programs and applications inspired by art or to add to the museum experience. Arrived at its second edition, the hackathon hosted teams of developers to program a variety of mobile and web apps starting from the APIs that the museum made available for them. Five different teams were declared winners and received $1,000 in prize money each.

Luce Foundation Center for American Art - Flickr by clio1789/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Luce Foundation Center for American Art – Flickr by clio1789/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Smithsonian American Art Museum recently hosted an hackathon as well, to reflect upon how digital tools can make the Luce Foundation, the museum’s visible storage, more accessible to visitors. The Museum currently provides ten computer kiosks in the space to explore the 3000 artworks that are preserved in the facility. However, as it often happens, the kiosks and the experience they offer are outdated. A group of developers, programmers, and designers was invited to think about new possibilities and generate new concepts for the digital interpretation of the space. You can have detailed information about how it went here.

Museomix is an event that started in France and was recently hosted by the Ironbridge Gorge Museum, UK. Museomix brings together digital, fabricators, designers and got them to “remix” contents and approaches of the museums by using digital and traditional resources. Although museum professionals were involved in the process, Museomix is about throwing people together from different backgrounds and skills and letting them dream big. As explained by the founder Mar Dixon, the museum is the space we are using (although it could be a library or any public space).  The idea is to provide a sandbox with a whole bunch of different toys and letting them decide what to do with it.

A different example comes from Italy with Digital Invasions @Digitalinvasions, an organization that brings together groups of people that are passionate about art, culture and heritage, and send them on missions to “invade” cultural sites with their cameras and smartphones, all over the country. In this case, videos and pictures are taken and shared on social media to generate awareness and appreciation of culture through this form of “mass promotion”.

Group Hack at the Met - Museum Hack
Group Hack at the Met – Museum Hack

There is also one example of hackers that play with one of the most traditional tools for meaning making in museums: the audio tour. Museum Hack (@MuseumHack) doesn’t use digital but rather creates “un-highlights museum adventure” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The company organizes and delivers guided tours, unaffiliated with the Met, designed to be highly interactive, subversive, fun, non-traditional and recounting exciting, mysterious and sometimes crazy stories about lesser-known objects. This is an ambitious goal as the Met has more than two million works in its collection and the average visitor is likely to just pass by most of them, looking for the well-known masterpieces instead and focusing on finding his/her way in the huge building. The result is a new and fascinating perspective on the Met’s collection and a “humanization” of the art and of the very concept of a guided tour. Open and friendly rather than academic and “religiously silent”. You can read more about my experience with Museum Hack here.

Metropolitan Museum of Art - Digital Underground blog
Metropolitan Museum of Art – Digital Underground blog

Another example from the Met (@metmuseum), this time an official one, is the Media Lab. It explores ways new technology can affect the museum experience for staff and visitors, as well as in galleries, classrooms, and online. Last summer, a 3D scanning and printing event hosted twenty-five digital artists and programmers that spent two days photographing Museum objects and converting the images into 3D models.  A lot of debate was generated on Twitter about if and how these digital “mash-ups” outraged the “sacrality” of the art. Check out the whole debate on Twitter here and some considerations by Suse Cairns on Museum Geek here.

Open VS Accessible museum

Open for business - Flickr by tinou bao/CC BY 2.0
Open for business – Flickr by tinou bao/CC BY 2.0

All these examples play with concept of the “open museum”. However, open is kind of a buzzword that is often confused. Provide multiple “entry points” to the meanings of collections, fitting the diversity of ways through which visitors learn and consume contents, turns the museum into a really happy and accessible place. While being open rather means unlocking collections and researches for visitors to use and re-use, without limitations.

Two tendencies, in particular, make us reflect on how the idea of becoming “open”, might be the right one: on one hand, the democratization that the Internet introduced, on the other, the rise of digital platforms that support it. On the Web, everybody can be an artist, a writer, a photographer, a film-maker and so on. There are tons of free and open source platforms out there that integrate the creation, the promotion and the diffusion of contents in this sense. For example, iMovie (for film and commercials), 1,2,3D Catch (3d scanning), WordPress (blogging), Google SketchUP (rudimental 3d sketches), GarageBand (music), Pixton (comics) or iBooks Author (ebooks).

These tendencies are happening while over 2 billion people online are potential creators or consumers of messages, researchers of meaning, brilliant ideas and fascinating stories. Museums, as institutions in the service of society and its development (ICOM) , can be the centers from which these ideas spread, are manipulated, diffused and networked, in the service of society and its development.

What is sure is that conventions are openings: there is no longer standing in front of the object to observe it. The concept of hacking can span from jazzing up the religious silence of a docent tour, to “expanding” the points of view we can look an object from and gathering a squad of culture-geeks to catch and share their personal impressions or reinvent the museum by bringing a fresh look to it. And the stuff that comes out from this “godzilla culture creation machine”, whether is an instagrammed David or a steam-punk version of the Monalisa, doesn’t want to be new art nor breaks collections free from the expertise of curators and researchers. This “new stuff” is there to remind us that making is just another way of looking.



Museums and the Web Florence 2014: thoughts and takeaways

In two thousand years, our descendants will arrange cases full of our artifacts from this dawn of digital history. They will wonder about the curators and historians and archivists who were their progenitors. The professionals who, more than anyone else, had it in their power to understand what it meant for, what potential it had. You can choose how history remembers you. Whether you served a future history in which our informational roads were used to conquer and control us. Or to give us the freedom to communicate and collaborate to our enduring and universal benefit.

With these words Cory Doctorow opened MWF2014 (read the speech here).
Apparently, we are in an era in which the future is being decided. Now more than ever, museums, which have always been about the past, seem to have a crucial role in defining the future of information, knowledge, identity and memory.
Museums professionals are like an army of superheroes here, defining strategies and kicking off revolutionary changes, as long as they have plugs available to recharge their devices.

What follows is a list of things that I liked and disliked about MWF2014.

Being open is a plus, not a less

Funny thing about MWF2014: it corresponded with MFW2014 (Milan Fashion Week 2014). If you followed the hashtag MWF2014 you certainly stumbled upon statements about Prada’s new collection or Dolce&Gabbana’s astonishing new accessories from people that misspelled the hashtag. A rather puzzling experience when you are seriously focused on museums stuff.
For MWF 2014, “open” is the new black.
Open as in an interchange process among the institution and its surroundings, the city, the community. Open as museums can reach out to their audiences through their digital tentacles, becoming part of the daily life, integrated and relevant. Open to the extent that nobody can’t tell you that you can’t instagram the hell out of the Primavera.

As pointed out by Laura Longo, future audiences will be more and more different, coming from many places and backgrounds. Pre-digital natives, digital natives and mobile born: three generations are now out there, accessing and consuming contents in new ways. Museums need to adapt their communication strategies accordingly. And new technologies, paired with open and fPluto__Revolve_in_Peace_by_violayouree access to collections and researches, allow us to unveil stories and create connections that audiences could not experience otherwise.
While Cory Doctorow highlights how archives and DRM go together like rare book collections and flamethrowers, I wonder to what extent concerns on copyrights status of collections is what really prevents museums to be open. Resistances are more about a certain mind-set rather than a bunch of legal issues. Museums keep things and have done so for ever. Like Pluto, they may feel that they are being demoted: from elitist keepers of knowledge and priceless collections, to some real life version of Wikipedia set in a very old building.
What happens if a museum can no longer talk about art because art is everywhere anyway? Probably museums would become places that make us talk about art instead.
In the meantime, let’s ask Pluto for his therapist’s number.

The end of the “faceless audience” era.

Evaluation is more and more embedded in the natural cycle of a project. We have seen it in many of those presented at MWF2014. But what do we do with the data that we gather? Evaluation should provide institutions with the coordinates necessary to pursue relevancy and sustainability of experiences and products. As Nancy Proctor pointed out, we have this bad habit of building things and expect people to come, evaluation should make museums stop assuming what visitors might want and expect. Acknowledging audience’s diversity in terms of interests, abilities and preferences in consuming contents, is the first step in the creation of museums that are truly accessible.

The Dallas Art Museum is interested in metrics such as repeat visits, diverse participation, increased affinity, ability to motivate action. Through a rewarding strategy, visitors can earn points and truly take part in the museum’s activities according to their interests. DMA Friends doesn’t talk to an indistinct mass of visitors, but engage every single participant through personalization and relevancy of the experience. Take a look at the numbers here.

Palazzo Madama works on developing its community through social media, a tool that they use to spread knowledge, interpretation and fun, but also to listen to their audiences.

Helen Pertie, researcher at the University of York, presented two papers. The first one is a study on different learning styles in museum contexts. How do we learn? Through frameworks, images or experiences. These categories of learners can be targeted and explored also through museums websites and digital tools. The second study focused on verbal descriptions of online objects for people who are visually impaired. The research started by trying to fill a gap in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines that doesn’t provide instructions on how to transcribe contents. The study also questioned a series of urban myths about verbal descriptions: for example that they are supposed to be of 8 to 6 words to be effective. By understanding what people wanted Museum Victoria was able to give guidelines to crowdsource relevant descriptions of the objects featured on their website.

Content needs to be put in

How do we use technology in museums and how do we adapt to the rapid changes of technological innovation in a sustainable way?
Another recurrent theme at MWF2014 was the concept that technology is a means to an end and not an end itself.

As Paolo Paolini, from the Politecnico of Milan, pointed out: users of mobile experiences want a seamles experience – stories they need when they need them.
This make us reflect on how, to be successful, use of technology should be invisible, without astonishing flashlights and digital tricks. In this sense, augmenting the museum’s reality through technology should help enhance the way visitors look at objects, rather than distracting them from the “real thing” by providing more stuff to look at.

A lot of questions were asked about how the use of leading technology can find a balance with the relatively slow pace museums innovate. In particular, during the session on Google Glass by Neil Stimler.
According to him, society is in a new cultural paradigm – one defined by the hybridity of our physical and digital lives. The public’s engagement with museums on social media and open access to digital content via personal mobile devices are keys to sustainability.
Google Glass and other wearable technologies are part of the immediate present – the now. Wearable technology is a fact of our world. Museums and cultural institutions can engage wearables in an effort to understand applications for their staff and public. Curiosity about the world is vital to the process of humanistic scholarship in museums. This openness applies to innovations in technology as well as new methods and means of intellectual inquiry.
(Read the interview here).

Agnes Alfandari from the Louvre, told us about the audioguide developed in partnership with Nintendo 3DS. This choice attracted young audiences that, however, remain disappointed from it as they expect the device to be paired with more “playful” contents. Studies on how different visitors approach the audio guide will inform further development of the project.

Mobile was the main topic of the Best Practice Mobile Parade. The session consisted in a number of companies selling their products, more or less explicitly. Although the audience expected something different from this session, all in all it showed the reality of things: most of the vendors don’t have the slightest idea of what the sector might need. In the current scenario, they should put far more effort in understanding the field by developing collaborations, real partnerships with museums, rather than getting institutions to buy technology as door-to-door bibles salesmen would do.

All in all, context [and content] are king. We have talked a lot about how institutions should design stories around collections to engage with audiences, especially online. But, as Cory Doctorow pointed out, a good story is the one that makes you feel the elements of a story. I believe that the creation of emotional and personal connections  is what museums should really strive for when using mobile, social media and the web (along with their power to establish two-ways conversations among visitors).

The dawn of the deads, or, wake up, museums!

An interesting article came out this week on La Stampa (in italian). As many other articles of this kind point out in Italy and abroad, museums are accused to be slow in embracing new technologies and social media (in this case Twitter).
dawn-of-the-deadBut why italian museums should embrace Twitter? Just because museums abroad do so? I believe that articles of this kind are the main problem here. In my personal experience working in press offices, I found them to be favorited by museums’ directors. Right after having read them, they immediately go to the new media department (when there’s one) saying “I want a Twitter account” (or a mobile app or a game etc.), “and I want it fast”.

Institutions feel that they have to strive in putting together resources and energies just to enter the “new media era”.
As highlighted in many sessions at MWF2014, we should always ask “why” before start using these tools. And we should start from listening and observing our audiences to determine how we can use them in meaningful ways.
As Theo Meereboer pointed out in his Masterclass, social media are at the core of your institution, you wouldn’t hire an intern to manage your collection. Investing in training and professional development is thus part of the picture here, along with the crucial role of  networks and collaborations among museums to share learnings.
The project svegliamuseo reflects upon this concept by connecting a number of international museums around the world with small italian institutions. Svegliamuseo asks the former to offer the latter with advice on how to develop a social media strategy and engage their audiences with these tools.

A bunch of hugs at the summer camp

MWF2014 has been the first international conference in Italy dealing with digital tools and practices in museums. Although extremely awesome people attended, I experienced the usual “we won’t be able to do these extremely cool things in Italy because our system sucks”. It is true, italian system sucks, big time. But as long as we keep complaining about it, things will just stay the same. I know that this sounds extremely Kumbaya. But that is what it is.

Museum Hack at the Met: challenging the traditional Museum Tour?

We LOVE museums, and we hope you do too.

This is how the Museum Hack team introduces itself. The company was founded less than one year ago by Nick Gray and includes a small number of young enthusiasts who turned their passion for the Metropolitan Museum of the Art in New York City into an “un-highlights museum adventure”.

Museum Hack delivers small group tours (about nine people maximum) unaffiliated with the MET and designed to be highly interactive, subversive, fun, non-traditional. The tour guides in the team do so by recounting exciting, mysterious and sometimes crazy stories about lesser-known objects. This is an ambitious goal as the Met has more than two million works in its collection and the average visitor is likely to just pass by most of them, looking for the well-known masterpieces instead and focusing on finding his/her way in the huge building.

Our tour started in the Great Hall at the entrance to the Museum, where everyone was given a name tag. We were asked to introduce ourselves with a “power move” and share something that we are passionate about. We were then walked through the museum galleries, making stops to observe unusual little details on grandiose paintings, comment on curious objects and discover eccentric/sexual references on works of art that we could not have imagined.

The fil rouge that seems to connect all these artifacts is the idea that humans have been humans since the dawn of time.

As the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art,  Thomas P. Campbell, points out in his Ted Talk:

Bringing people face to face with objects is a way of bringing them face to face with people across time and space, whose lives may have been very different to our own but who, like us, had hopes and dreams, frustrations and  achievements in their lives. This is a process that helps us understand better ourselves and enables us to make better decisions about where we are going. [1]

Museum Hack is in some way experimenting with this process by showing stories and bringing art closer to an every day life dimension, de-mystifying it by taking it off the pedestal for a minute. In this sense, visitors are put in front of a more “human” side of the artifacts, something they can easily relate to or laugh about, instead of something majestic that does not seem to have anything to do with them.

The tour stopped for a coffee break near the Charles Engelhard Court, were every member was asked to select a sculpture and take a picture in a funny pose beside it. The pictures were taken with a Polaroid camera and given to the visitors as a souvenir of the experience. The whole Museum Hack tour was filled with these attempts to make the group have fun and socialize, from the “power move” in the beginning, to a group Egyptian-style photos. This approach may sound intriguing and dynamic for some,  just feel awkward for others. People can be fun and willing to have fun, but they might not like to act in unreasonably funny ways in front of a group of strangers. Triggering social interaction among members of a group is something that has to be built within a solid context, with specific intentions and a slight dose of facilitation, rather than something that simply relies on people’s self-confidence and willingness to interact.

As the tour promised to be highly interactive, it is easy to wonder of what kind of interaction are we talking about. Are people in the group really engaging with each other in meaningful ways or is it just about scavenging for amusing objects?

There were actually two occasions in which the tour engaged in awesomely unconventional ways.
The first one was a 60 seconds presentation of William the Hippo, the semiofficial symbol of the Met, given by Dean; you can check it out here:

This half theatrical performance/half entertainment moment was really surprising in its simplicity as it told something curious about the museum and a piece of the collection in a style that was both unusual and familiar, since it recalled the traditional 1 minute audio tour stop so common in Museums, including the Met. It prompted people on the tour to spontaneously record it and share the stop. Through these 60 seconds we were reminded that there is so much more about an object, in terms of stories and significance, than just what it is written on its label.

The second occasion was a long stop in the Luce Center, the visible storage area of the Museum, where members of the group were asked to pair up, find a work of art that they felt close to (because of personal interest or a particular detail that trigger a particular memory), and try to make sense out of it in a meaningful way by discussing it and then presenting it to the rest of the group. This activity was really engaging and fun as we were asked to accomplish a clear task and ended up talking with a stranger about a work of art, looking for shared personal connections, interests and stories.

All in all, Museum Hack has the potential to deliver what it promises, to make people look at museums in a new way. But in order to get there, it is maybe worth reflecting more on who their audiences are and what they might expect.

As Museum Hack’s primary target audience seems to be people who don’t like museums, we wonder if this the correct way to engage people who may not visit the Met otherwise. Aren’t they risking communicating the idea that engaging and funny tours are just about looking for wild stories and nice spots to take a picture?

Ultimately, what is the “hacking” part really about – a question asked via twitter during our tour? In what way this tour can be considered different from other more “traditional” visits with the same, fundamental, curatorial approach? The Met offers live guided tours for free; are Museum Hack’s worth the not insignificant added expense (one which our group got at a significant discount thanks to the generosity of Museum Hack). People who attend a Museum Hack tour certainly see a wonderful and unexpected side of the Metropolitan Museum of the Art, but the experience itself is still largely about making stops in front of objects and listen to a story, a fact, interpretation. As Nick Gray points out, we like to break conventions in museums, not rules.

Everything considered, we can say that Museum Hack does bring a new perspective, a challenge to the notion of what we think art is, rather than a deconstruction of what we know about museum tours.