Thursday, 11 February 2016

The engagement era - and the artist's place within it

As I continue pecking my way through my WCMT research report (see the drafts on open collections and museum memberships) I find myself repeatedly wrestling with the ideas of 'engagement' and 'experience', two words that are constantly in use in contemporary museum speak but which I still find very floppy in their definition.

One framework that I've found really useful as I try to organise my thoughts about what characterises the urgent issues and highest priority activities in art museums today is that advanced by Seph Rodney. In a recent piece on Hyperallergic, Rodney traces a progression from the final decades of the 19th century and first two decades of the 20th century, when museums focused on 'centralization, specialization, and classification of a collection' and any benefits gained by visitors were largely a by-product of that concentration , to a post WWI era where visitor education becomes the main cause of the museum, meaning that by the end of the 20th century 'one could have expected to enter a museum to have an explicitly educational experience, that is, the success of the visit would have been defined largely by how effectively information was transferred to the visitor, largely through didactic texts.'

Over the past 25 years, Rodney argues, political and economic changes have created a new era of the visitor as 'consumer', and a environment in museums where 'personalisation' has succeeded 'education':
Now, in the 21st century, with the inauguration of a new museology, and the engulfing of the civic culture by capitalism with its handmaidens, consumerism and heightened competition, museums have begun to recognize that in order to survive they must cultivate new and repeat visitors. Three key means of accomplishing this is first, recognizing visitors’ capacity to make meaning for themselves; two, partnering with them to discover what they personally want from the museum; and lastly, mobilizing the museum’s resources to meet these needs. These tasks can be met by, among other things, new curatorial strategies through which museums partner with visitors to develop activities and events: co-curation projects, and crowdsourcing exhibition content.
The hallmark of this new museum is the interactive and participatory activities that have emerged over the past quarter-century in exhibition design, but underlying these is 'an institutional recognition of the visitor as an independent maker of meaning who uses the museum in a variety of ways to fulfill particular, individual needs and desires.' You can read a longer version of Rodney's argument - which is the basis of his recent Ph.D thesis - on the CultureCom website.

I don't think we can deny that there *has* been a change in thinking. Here's a pretty specious piece of evidence based on Google's ngram viewer:

Instances of the phrase 'visitor engagement' in the Google Books corpus, 1950-2008

Rodney's way of looking at 'engagement' and 'experience' is informed by the study of changes in museum philosophy, as well as governmental cultural policy and shifts in marketing trends. Another trend emerging in museums' internal understanding of themselves and their relationship to visitors is that advanced by Jon Alexander of the New Citizenship Project, who has worked with a number of media companies and art museums, including the Baltimore Museum of Art. Alexander is promulgating a shift from thinking of the visitor (or individual, beyond their visiting potential) as consumer to the visitor as citizen: less about targeting individuals through a better understanding of their personal needs and wants, more about appealing to them as people who wish to be better participants in their society.

The #CitizenShift, as the New Citizenship Project terms the 'emerging era of the citizen' maps reasonably well to Rodney's 'collections > education > engagement' model, as this 'quick concepts' diagram from their publication shows:

One of the reasons why I find the words 'engagement' and 'experience' so hard to grapple with is that I instinctively conflate them with the theories and practices of the contemporary internet and web worlds that I professionally came of age in. The practice of user experience design underpins the way I approach working in a museum: as Wikipedia defines it, 'the process of enhancing user satisfaction by improving the usability, accessibility, and pleasure provided in the interaction between the user and the product'. Previously applied to the relationship between user and hardware/software, those practices can be expanded out over any interaction between the individual and the physical world. The strong emphasis upon accessibility and usability - which were 'inclusive' before that word became on-trend in wider discourse - in particular maps well to today's museum.

I find it natural, therefore, to see the changes over the past 25 years in museums as being at the very least influenced by the rise of the internet; not just the way that the web has amplified the voice and abilities of the individual, but also the theorising of the internet. And the most outwardly-visible changes in museum in this period - the introduction of digital interactives, the uptake of social media, the free wifi networks, the adoption of all things 'crowd' - have indeed looked very internetty. Let's zip back almost exactly five years, for example, to an interview with Thomas Campbell, who had by this time been running the Metropolitan Museum for three years. Much is made of the difference in style between Campbell and his predecessor, Philippe de Montebello:
The difference was certainly evident in a recent interview in the director’s office, where Mr. de Montebello used to preside with baronial aplomb behind his desk. Mr. Campbell instead pulled up a chair around a conference table and talked with boyish enthusiasm not just about art but also about the kinds of things that increasingly accompany it in 21st-century museums. The Met has created its first app, to accompany the guitar show. It is embarking on the daunting task of wiring its huge building for Wi-Fi, he said, so that patrons will eventually be able to read and watch videos about art museumwide on their phones and tablet computers. And it is venturing as never before into the rapidly evolving field of what museum administrators call “visitor engagement”: a social science aimed at trying to reach every patron, from the first-timer to the seasoned scholar.
Such ambitions for the Met might not sound revolutionary, especially after the kinds of grand expansions and acquisitions that more than doubled the museum’s size during the de Montebello years, leaving little room for his successor to start putting his stamp on the place. 
But in two wide-ranging interviews over the last month Mr. Campbell said that he did not see it that way and that he viewed the museum’s next frontier to be less physical than philosophical and virtual: a change in the Met’s tone and public face, making it a more open and understandable museum, largely by thoroughly rethinking the way it uses technology.
“It’s not sexy and glamorous, like building a new wing,” he said, “but I think it’s a fundamental part of our responsibility to our audience.” 
If you'd like to see an apoplectic hot-take on this interview, check out Charlie Finch's reaction from the time on Artnet, and his screech that Campbell is about to 'trap, fold and mutilate every poor soul who arrives with something called "Visitor Engagement".' Today, the Met has come from behind to be doing some of the most innovative online work in the world.

Most leaders in museums today (I hope) have figured out that touchscreens and Snapchat ≠ 'engagement', but rather that it's the shift in thinking that characterises the new museum. This is a point that people like Seb Chan are particularly good at articulating. In his end of year post for 2015, Chan wrote:
Digital transformation is really about something else that often isn’t openly talked about – transforming audiences. Sure, we might change work practices along the way, but really digital transformation efforts are really in the service of visitors wherever they might be. In that sense, ‘digital transformation’ follows in the footsteps of the education-led museology of the 1990s.
Here we see again that shift from 'education' to 'engagement'. (It struck me just now that we can throw in another 'e': 'empowerment'. Such a fortuitous vowel.) Recently Suse Cairns took this point by Chan (and Rodney's piece above) for a walk in a post titled 'Transforming audiences, transforming museums'. Cairns picks up on a distinctive theme of Chan's piece: what 'audience transformation' means in the American museum sector, where the funding and oversight of museums comes largely from private individuals and philanthropic or corporate supporters. Thinking about contemporary audience development, she also cites Rob Stein:
Now that museums are beginning to have the tools and expertise at their disposal to monitor, track, record, and analyze all the various ways that the public benefits from their work, the real task begins to redesign the process and program of museums and to embed impact-driven data collection into every aspect of our efforts.
Cairns identifies this as the "crux of this digital transformation/audience transformation question. As we can measure our audiences in new ways, we expect to be able to measure how we impact and affect them, in order to respond to them differently."

One way I have been trying to re-phrase 'engagement' inside my head (and 'experience' to, because all museums are and have always been designed as experiences) is as 'visitor-led': as in, we have moved from being educationally-driven (you will learn about this and that and come out better for it) to being 'visitor-led' (how can we better understand you and meet your expectations so you enjoy your time here?). Another way is to think of museums as switching from an impersonal omniscient narrator to a first person point of view, where the visitor is constantly asked to bring their own history and context to their museum encounter. Museums still tell a story through their arrangement of spaces and objects and accompanying interpretative devices: however our assumptions of, and responses to, our visitors' desires have changed.

All the drivers above either come out forces surrounding the museum - new technology, new cultural policies, new marketing tactics - or from museology itself. What I think much of this discussion about the new museum experience and visitor engagement often leaves out is the influence of changes in artistic practice.

Let's look again at Seb Chan paragraph cited above, this time with the final sentence appended:
Digital transformation is really about something else that often isn’t openly talked about – transforming audiences. Sure, we might change work practices along the way, but really digital transformation efforts are really in the service of visitors wherever they might be. In that sense, ‘digital transformation’ follows in the footsteps of the education-led museology of the 1990s. You can sense this in Nicholas Serota’s recently published “commonwealth of ideas” speech about a new Tate.
Serota's speech (printed in The Art Newspaper) identifies a 'profound shift in the expectations and behaviour of audiences in museums' initiated yes, by digital transformation, but also by shifts in artistic practice. He opens by reflecting on unexpected visitor behaviour in installations in the Tate's Turbine Hall:
For me, this first became evident in the response to Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project installation in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in 2003. People took over the space and used it as an arena for their own experience, so that the work gained an unanticipated performative aspect. Similar unprogrammed responses were prompted by Carsten Höller’s Test Site in 2006 and by Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth in 2007. 
In his essay from last year 'After the white cube' Hal Foster tracks some of the issues I'm grappling with here: the adaptive cycle (or arms race) between museum architecture and artistic practice, the 'activation' of the viewer, the society of spectacle. When we survey visitors on what they'd like to see more of at The Dowse, one of the things they cite are experiential or participatory exhibitions we have staged in the past, such as those by Peter Robinson in 2013/14 and Scott Eady in 2011/12. The appeal of these exhibitions is strong and - in those one of those phrases you never want to be documented using - they tick so many boxes. Families love them, funders love them, the media love them, and they photograph so damn well. In fact, you can sit at your desk and draw up just the perfect exhibition for your gallery, that will have all the necessary elements of hands-on interaction and Instagram appeal, and then lament the fact there's no artist you know making exactly that thing so you can just programme it in.

Which is not to demean those artists who are working in a manner that invites, or needs, participation from the viewer. But we're working in an era where it's increasingly hard to differentiate experience design from artwork. (And maybe we don't need to - and maybe I'm retrograde for thinking we do - but I still think it matters.) The Rain Room sits squarely in the middle of this conundrum - exhibited at leading art museums around the world, described as an 'immersive environment', but somehow not quite art to my mind. Glade's 'Museum of Feelings' - which coopts the experiential museum visit to sell scented candles - squats malevolently at the fringes. And then there's the 20 works developed by the 400-member Japanese technology-art collective teamLab for Pace's new Art+Technology program at Menlo Park. As Pace president Marc Glimcher said himself of first seeing teamLab's work:
I was like, ‘This is not art,’ and realized I was having an authentic art experience,” he says. “It’s something that we have to open up what our definition of art is, so I had my own conversion experience.”
Unusually for a dealer gallery presentation, you have to buy tickets to see what this actually is.

Serota says in that piece above that the future of museums is being driven by 'a combination of curatorial vision, artistic innovation and the demands of audiences'. At this point, are we dealing with artist-led experience, or visitor-led design? I can't answer that question - and I'm not even sure I'm asking the right one. So I'd love to see some pieces of writing that track the hand-in-hand development of participatory art practices and the museological interest in visitor experience: the co-creation, so to speak. I'm sure they're already out there, so please, send them my way.


Seph Rodney, 'The evolution of the museum visit, from privilege to personalized experience ', Hyperallergic , 22 January 2016

Seph Rodney, 'How museum visitors became consumers', CultureCom, 28 August 2015

'This is the #CitizenShift', The New Citizenship Project, (undated)

Seb Chan, 'Since we last spoke: Rounding up 2015', Fresh + New(er,) 10 January 2016

Robin Kennedy, 'The Met's plans for virtual expansion', New York Times, 12 February 2011

Suse Cairns, 'Transforming audiences, transforming museums', Museum Geek, 27 January 2016,

Nicholas Serota, 'The 21st museum is a commonwealth of ideas', The Art Newspaper, 5 January 2016

Hal Foster, 'Beyond the white cube', London Review of Books, 15 March 2015,

Julie Baumgardner, 'A Very Different Kind of Immersive Art Installation', The New York Times Style Magazine', 4 February 2016

Monday, 8 February 2016


One of the most puzzling conversations I had while I was visiting museums in the States was at the MuseumNext conference in Indianapolis.

I was really lucky at that conference to intersect with Frith Williams from Te Papa (who was in America at the same time on a Fulbright). After two weeks of intense travelling and observing it was wonderful to spend time with someone who knew my local context and could help me process all the things I'd seen and heard.

At the drinks after one of the days of the conference, Frith and I got talking to two local post-grad Museum Studies students, who were volunteering at the event. They were agreeing vociferously with one of the speakers (I forget which) about the need to reach out to millennials (or whatever we want to call the current college-age population). I didn't dispute that we can't use "the same old channels" to reach this audience*, but it was when we pushed these two young women that things got interesting. They didn't read print newspapers or watch broadcast tv. But nor did they use Facebook, Twitter, or visit the websites of local museums. At this point Frith and I were quite puzzled - how did they track the world around them and talk to their friends? Well - mostly by texting, apparently.

I was kind of dismayed by this conversation. The marketing/comms side of me was dismayed by the narrowing of access points to these young viewers. How can you tell people about something they might enjoy - or something you've tried to make for them - if you can't reach them? And partly because two post-grad students who want to work in museums and live in the most vibrant museum country in the world were somehow proud of the fact that museums couldn't reach them - and unconcerned that they weren't being at all active about seeking information about what was happening at their local cultural institutions.

I was reminded of that conversation and my mixed feelings by this article by Felicity Duncan on The Conversation. She mixes anecdotal observational of her students (studying comms and social media) with recent research releases and writes:
Today, however, the newest data increasingly support the idea that young people are actually transitioning out of using what we might term broadcast social media – like Facebook and Twitter – and switching instead to using narrowcast tools – like Messenger or Snapchat. Instead of posting generic and sanitized updates for all to see, they are sharing their transient goofy selfies and blow-by-blow descriptions of class with only their closest friends.
Duncan concludes (by way of a rather strange segue into how this is scarier for parents because they can't monitor their kids):
The great promise of social media was that they would create a powerful and open public sphere, in which ideas could spread and networks of political action could form. If it is true that the young are turning aside from these platforms, and spending most of their time with messaging apps that connect only those who are already connected, the political promise of social media may never be realized.

*I would love to get some real research into how different age, geographic and cultural groups do and do not find out about arts events in their locations and nationally. I know in Lower Hutt, for example, that readership of the local print newspaper is still very high, and I wonder if that is reflected around the country, or varies region by region and age group by age group.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Reading List, 6 February 2016 (Waitangi Day)

Make some coffee and settle in with Andy Horwitz's 'Who Should Pay for the Arts in America?' in The Atlantic:
The fact that minority and community-based groups are “plagued by chronic financial difficulties” is undisputed. But what isn’t being acknowledged is that these difficulties are the result of systemic economic inequality. It should come as no surprise that people in minority, disenfranchised, and rural communities don’t usually have access to millionaires and billionaires who they can cultivate as donors. Nor should it shock that these organizations will suffer if the public-funding system that was helping them build capacity, gain cultural legitimacy, and become sustainable is decimated.
Shorter: an interview with Alistair Hudson, director of MIMA (Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art) on his idea of the 'useful' contemporary art museum.

Recursive reading lists: the reading list for the American Museums and Race conference.

A quite amazing project from the New York Times, who are releasing unpublished images with in-depth coverage for Black History Month.

Art Basel director Marc Spiegler's 'Ten questions all gallerists should be asking themselves now' for The Art Newspaper. Sample: although the goal of most successful artists used to be a MoMA retrospective at 50, many artists today focus on a career patterned on that of a football player or supermodel. Many young guns monetise their market moment, not trusting the art world to support them all the way to that MoMA show.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

On visibility and invisibility

Over the weekend I started listening to a new podcast, For Colored Nerds, beginning with this long interview with Kimberly Drew, who started the Black Contemporary Artists tumblr and now works in social media for the Met.

The podcast starts slowly with some well-trodden observations about the changes wrought by social media. (I've read that post and sat in that conference room and given that interview answer myself far too many times to be able to engage with that topic with anything more than weariness.)

It got interesting, to me, when Drew started talking about why she founded the Tumblr account. She had interned in the office of Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum, while at university and that had opened her eyes to the world of black contemporary art. She started the tumblr as a place to store and share her own process of seeking out black artists. When it comes to platform of choice, Blogger was the past and Instagram didn't exist. As she says in the podcast, she wasn't aware of other channels where this was happening, so she struck out on her own: she would learn of an artist, search tumblr for them, repost images if they were available, and create original posts if they were not.

The fact that Drew took her content from across the internet and then shot it out through this channel (which with time became very influential) speaks to the fact that the documentation was out there - she just wasn't able to see it. And to her mind - validly - if it was visible on Tumblr then wasn't visible to the 'creatives'. It was when I started thinking about this that I reflected on the fact that we have to make art and artists visible over and over and over again. A show or a catalogue or a newspaper article or a Wikipedia page is not enough. For example, I have no idea what's going on in Tumblr. I tried to use it - unsuccessfully - years ago, and it is totally invisible to me (and most of the search-based internet as well, as like Pinterest, it doesn't flag up well on Google). I consider myself reasonably well schooled in the art world / social media intersection, but this is the dark web for me.

In fact, Drew came to my attention via the Lenny newsletter, which is a channel I don't enjoy, exactly, but follow because it brings to me a worldview (a particular brand of young, successful, motivated American women with a concern for social justice and fashion and twee illustration) that I don't pick up in my other sources. (Or possibly filter out of them: I really am not a fan of twee illustrations.) I have started listening to the For Colored Nerds podcast - and the About Race podcast - for a similar reason. All the podcasts I listen to are hosted by white (almost all straight) Americans. Most make an effort to bring in more diverse guests, especially when talking about topics like the current #OscarsSoWhite debate, but the podcasts hosted by people of colour, speaking to people of colour, and locating 'white people' as 'other', helps me see things that are invisible to me.

And I appreciate the Tusk website, run by a small group of early career New Zealand arts workers, in much the same vein. Through their eyes I am seeing my field afresh, and palpably noticing some of the changing concerns between me, in my mid 30s and fairly advanced in my career, and them, in their 20s and finding their strides. Through Tusk I'm seeing the social justice motivations of this generation - and also the playfulness, the ability to move between different timbres, that I find to be quite different from the irony of Gen X, which I tried to emulate but never quite felt part of. (Poor little old me - not quite Gen X, not quite Millenial, most accurately categorised by the notion of Generation Jordan Catalano.)

Monday, 1 February 2016

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Reading list, 30 January 2016

Over the long weekend I was pondering the shortlived journals of the 1980s and 1990s - Ascent, Midwest, Antic, And, Parallax - and that brought me to Thomasin Sleigh's detailed assessment of Art New Zealand; from 2013 but still very good reading. (N.B. Has anyone done a concerted piece of research on those journals? I'd like to read one.)

The history of art from the nineteenth century to the 1960s is above all a history of objects, but since the 1960s, thinking of Lucy Lippard’s landmark book The Dematerialization of Art, we also have a history of non-objects. And we have Michel Serres’ theory of the quasi-object, an object which only gains significance when interacted with. And now, living in the Anthropocene, we know that everything is interdependent, and that leads us to a history of hyper-objects, as Timothy Morton calls them.

Elvia Wilk talks to Hans Ulrich Obrist about outing the archive - a brief complement to last week's annoying Quartz article.

Hyperallergic summarises a recent report from Larry's List and Arton on private museums around the world - includes a link to the original report.

On Artnet - a truly disturbing rundown of Getty Images' 'Creative in Focus' report on trends in stock photography (and consumer wants, needs, and triggerable desires). Read it but be prepared to feel icky.

And in 'Transforming Audiences, Transforming Museums', Suse Cairns summarises and points to a number of fascinating pieces of writing on the 'experience' based, 'engagement' led museum: two words I'm trying to nut out at the moment.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Snake boyfriends and more

If you've ever questioned the value of releasing images of artworks that are in the public domain, you should probably look at Mallory Ortberg's art columns for The Toast, fuelled by Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 25 January 2016

WCMT Acquittal Draft: Membership programmes

I'm currently attacking, chunk by chunk, my acquittal for the funding I received from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust for my research trip around American museums last year. It struck me that rather than release it all as one big fat PDF I might try posting drafts of sections here, for any feedback that might be forthcoming. This first post looked at one of my four research areas, visible storage. This second post is on another of those four topics, membership programmes.

I should emphasise that this really is a *draft* and changes to the final document are inevitable.

1.1. Introduction

Museum membership programmes have two main objectives: to generate an unrestricted source of revenue for the museum, and to create a core group of supporters who will attend exhibitions and events, spread the word about the museum's activities, and hopefully come to further contribute to the museum through donations and bequests. Membership levels are generally tiered: at the lowest levels, membership is generally seen as a direct exchange for benefits (free or discounted exhibition entry, parking, merchandise etc) and the cost of acquiring and servicing members usually takes up a significant portion of the revenue generated; at higher levels, the revenue often outweighs the benefits received, and membership is seen as a form of philanthropy.

Museums are increasingly concerned about how to attract new members, and are not seeing younger visitors transition into becoming members in the way their predecessors did. Research has been conducted into 'millennials' attitudes towards museum membership, and shows changing priorities: while free admission is still the highest priority, younger generations are less interested in exclusive access or perks, and are increasingly interested in showing their support for social causes. (Dilenschneider 2012, 2015).

Like many museum directors, I am interested in new approaches to museum membership programmes. Without doubt, the most discussed project in this area in the past three years has been the Dallas Museum of Art's Friends programme. On this trip I both wanted to meet with staff at the museum to learn about how the programme had been implemented and evaluated, and to have the experience of signing up as a member and visiting the museum as a Friend myself.

1.2 Museum memberships in the internet age

My own observation is that over the past ten years, with museum's rapid adoption of social media platforms, the concepts of loyalty, friendship and access have changed. Museums now regularly share online the kinds of stories and insights that were once the purview of a museum member on a behind the scenes tour. People follow museums online that may be nowhere near their geographical location, enjoying a sense of connection and support that may never translate into a physical visit.

The Brooklyn Museum's 1st Fans programme was an early experiment in museum membership in the online world. The programme, which ran from 2009 to 2012, was designed to appeal to two groups who did not buy traditional museum memberships: regular attendees of their Target First Saturdays (free admission days) and for online fans of the museum. Often described as a 'social media membership', the programme offered access to private channels on Flickr, Twitter and Facebook, where exclusive content was shared, and physical meet-up events at the museum, for $20 a year. The creators, Will Cary (Memberships Manager 2008-2010) and Shelley Bernstein (Vice Director of Digital Engagement & Technology), saw the programme as a way of offering a form of membership that was not about buying cheaper access to the museum, but about a deeper relationship with the museum and greater two-way interaction.

This thinking was very much in the air in 2008 (when the programme was conceived), when museums were moving rapidly into the area of online community management (following the lead of early champions such as photo-sharing site Flickr) and the use of social media to, for the first time, offer large-scale personalised two-way communication between the museum and its audiences. The programme, while loved by its participants, stalled in its growth and moreover did not transition members from this 'beginner' level to higher tiers of membership, a development path that is key to generating the revenue that is, after all, part of the reason for having membership programmes. The programme was shut down in mid 2012.

The Dallas Museum of Art's Friends membership programme could be seen as an evolution of this thinking about what membership looks like in an online world. Where Brooklyn Museum took its model from community management, the web zeitgeist of its time, the DMA's is informed by our contemporary focus on data collection and data mining.

In late 2012, the DMA announced they about to reinstate free general admission to the museum. This in itself was not innovative: approximately one third of American art museums have free admission (although this is most common in organisations located in universities). In the same announcement though the museum announced a new, free level of museum membership, the 'Friends', that would allow participants to collect points that could later been converted into their choice of rewards. At the time of the announcement director Maxwell L. Anderson stated that "“Nobody has ever done this. ... We’re going to build a model for museum engagement that we believe every other museum like us will want to have.” (Granberry 2012)

Anderson has long argued that museum admissions bring only a tiny fraction of museum's earned revenue (2%-5%) while presenting a significant financial and social barrier to attendance, especially to non-traditional audiences. (it is worth noting that the DMA received a US$9 million donation to fund free admission, and to facilitate the digitisation of the permanent collection. As director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art Anderson reinstated free admission with the ambition of removing barriers to access; the Friends programme was the next iteration of this aspiration to expand and diversify museum attendance.

While this was not the message of early announcements, the Friends programme quickly became framed by the museum and by commentators as an exchange of data for access. Within a year, arts commentator Tyler Green described it as a successful "data-for-free-admission deal". (Green 2014) In this way, DMA Friends trades upon our growing comfort with (or resignation to) sharing a little bit of information about ourselves in return for access or convenience: handing over our email address for a discount, using Facebook to create an account on another website, accepting cookies on a newspaper's website. Deliberately or unwittingly, we are accessing the bounty of the internet seemingly for free, but really at the cost of the sharing of information about our age, gender, location, interests, shopping history, and more.

1.3 DMA Friends programme - objectives, implementation, and philosophy

The Friends programme has three main aims:

  • to promote the museum to non-visitors
  • to increase engagement and repeat visitation
  • to use the data gathered from tracking members of the programme to inform museum operations.

When the DMA made its double announcement, Anderson was quoted as saying "“When somebody from South Dallas walks up to the front desk, and the person behind the counter says, ‘Welcome to the DMA – are you members?’ What are they hearing? It’s like walking into a country club. It freaks you out. It’s exclusionary. I want everybody to feel they belong here, so I want everybody to be a member.'" (Granberry 2012)

Like all museums, the DMA is seeking to become more relevant to its community, and to attract an audience that more accurately reflects the population that surrounds it than the statistically-typical white, older, more educated, usually female museum visitor. Since the 1970s the museum world has been seeking to break down barriers to access - physical, financial and perceptual - through education, outreach, programming and partnerships. However, the perception of the museum as a place that "not for people like me" amongst non-white, lower income people is still strong. The dual announcement was an opportunity for the museum to reach out to non-visitors with a striking new offer, and to engage with every visitor as they entered the museum in a new way.

In a 2014 presentation, the DMA stated "The DMA staff’s top priority is to increase the number of Friends who come back to the Museum tracked by the program." (Stein and Wyman 2014) Offering free admission enables people to make more frequent, shorter and ad hoc visits, rather than seeing visiting as an investment. While museum such as the Met, the Guggenheim and MOMA are tourist icons and draw a high proportion of visitors from domestic and international tourism, museums in most American (and other) cities are serving an audience largely living within driving distance. This is not to dismiss the important role museums play in promoting the reputation of a city and attracting visitors nationally and internationally, but at the same time, driving an increase in repeat visitation from local is an important goal for museums that want to be valued and valuable civic assets.

Placing an engagement layer over free general admission targets the DMA's goal of increased repeat visitation and engagement. In a 2013 paper, Rob Stein (then Deputy Director at the DMA) and museums consultant Bruce Wyman noted the urgent need for museums to "embrace the culture of participation" and respond to contemporary society's desire to be co-creators of the experiences we encounter, rather than passive consumers. (Stein and Wyman, 2013) They noted that despite significant effort from curators, interpreters and designers to construct defined and engaging exhibition layouts, self-directed visitors often "graze" their ways through museums, not necessarily consuming texts and objects in the order museum staff thought that would be experienced and understood. At the same time, Stein and Wyman noted that people's learning is better and their experience more satisfying when they feel they have actively participated in the museum's offering.

The visitor-facing aspect of the Friends programme therefore seek to create multiple pathways for people to engage with and enjoy the museum. Once a visitor is signed up for the programme (handing over their name, contact details and postcode), they have access to the Friend's 'digital engagement platform'. The platform uses a bespoke digital badging system, and a model familiar to any user of an incentive system: by completing certain activities, the visitor collects points, that can then be redeemed for a reward of their choice. Points are collected by the participant collecting short numerical codes as they visit the museum, either by texting them with their phone, or entering them on kiosks on the ground floor.

These activities take both long-term and one-off forms. A scavenger hunt may be run on a single evening, for example, with visitors solving clues, identifying paintings and gaining points. On the long term side, each gallery entrance in the museum has a code affixed to it denoting the exhibition inside: visitors can gain points by uploading these codes. Other 'challenges' are also available, such as gaining points by signing up a friend as a new Friend on your visit. On this level, the Friends operates within the mode of 'gamification' - the application of elements of game playing (for example, point scoring and unlocking levels) to other areas of activity, including the physical world. Gamification techniques have been adopted by many museums in efforts to make their exhibition "stickier" and provide opportunities for deeper participation.

These kinds of activities are not innovative in themselves. The true innovation behind the Friends programme is the linking of these activities to large-scale data collection about individual visitors, which the museum can then analyse. As Anderson said in a 2014 interview, "We’re trying to incentivize people to represent what they’re doing, where they’re going, and how they’re spending their time." (Tozzi 2014)

In a 2014 paper, Stein and Wyman noted:
"In the first year, nearly 50,000 individuals have joined the program, with a running average of 900 new friends per week, primarily from a local audience. Becoming a DMA Friend requires direct on-site enrollment and connection to Museum staff, making the enrollment statistics an important measure of local adoption. The Museum has awarded over 343,000 badges for participation during the launch year and has given away nearly 12,000 rewards connected to points earned in the program. 
In addition to providing a means for the staff of the Museum to structure and measure its performance for generating engagement, the DMA Friends program also generates copious amounts of data about the behavior of individuals as they connect with the Museum’s collections and programs. Truly one of the few big data problems in the museum-space, the Friends program generates more than 21.8 million discrete fields of data annually."
This data not only allows the museum to measure what events and exhibitions Friends members attend, when, and how often (on the assumption Friends are diligently gathering points as they visit): the museum can also associate this visitation data with the postcode information collected at sign-up.

On my visit, Rob Stein showed me the visualisations he can perform with this data, contrasting the visitor patterns they are collecting with Census data. This allows them to generate insights such as understanding which neighbourhoods they are serving, over-serving and under-serving. An insight like this might see the museum draw back on marketing that is reaching a community of high visitors in order to reach a community of lower visitors, or experiment with new programmes to attract new audiences and then measure their success through the Friends data. By using the Census data as a proxy, the DMA can also extrapolate an estimate of the demographics (age, ethnicity, education and income) of their visitors at a scale inconceivable from traditional face to face, phone or online surveying.

In a podcast interview, Anderson noted that the data available through the Friends project lent itself to a more rigorous evaluation of the audience appeal of the museum's programming than ever before. (Inscho, Cairns and Anderson, 2014) However, the use of the data extends beyond internal review, and into fundraising. In mid 2015 Anderson noted that the data the museum was collecting was far more valuable than the lost revenue from admission charges. Or in a specific example from 2014:
"... we have 10,000 corporations headquartered in the Dallas area, we’re about to embark on a robust new recruitment drive around corporate membership. For the first time, we’re going to be literate about who their potential customers are and whom we’re serving. Obviously, we’d never divulge individual data, but now we can say to corporate philanthropy executives, ‘This is whom we’re reaching, and here’s how it’s relevant to you.’" (Green, 2014)

1.4 DMA Friends - my experience

The DMA's architectural footprint is very large - it spans a full city block, and the ground floor has three entrances located at the south (focused on car parking), west (adjacent to the Nasher Sculpture Center) and north (towards the city centre).

On the first day that I visited the museums I spent some time observing at the north and west entrances. I was immediately struck by the friendliness of the visitor host staff, and their engagement with visitors, greeting them as they entered, ascertaining if they were already members of the Friends, and moving quickly into a sales pitch that was practiced but not robotic if the person was not already signed up.

I was also struck by the visitors' willingness to hear the sales pitch out. This was my first visit to Texas and the state certainly lived up to its reputation for politeness. It was interesting to contrast the speed and precision with which the explanation for The Pen was delivered in New York to the leisurely and conversational manner of the Friends pitch.

This point should not be notable, but one of the visitor hosts I encountered greeting people on the ground floor on my visit used a wheelchair. This is the first time I have seen a front of house staffer with an obvious mobility restriction in a major museum. This gave me a very positive early impression of the DMA and its commitment to supporting staff.

After observing for about thirty minutes I went to sign up myself. The pitch I was given was focused on the transactional benefits I could receive (such as quickly gathering sufficient points to reimburse my parking costs - in a city dominated by cars, this is the most appealing short term reward for visitors and likely the key motivator to participant in code-collecting on an average visit).

The host walked me through the sign-up process on a touch screen. I was asked for my email address, phone number and birthdate. The first stumbling block was when I was asked for my postcode. There is no option to enter another country or international postcode and so the host did what he always did in these situations: used the DMA's own postcode. The museum will need to control for this in their data analysis.

The second stumbling block was the screen which asked me to select an avatar. This is a feature which has not been developed (I expect it is in place for future social/sharing developments) and the host explained to me "That doesn't do anything, they had something planned but it didn't work. I don't know why they don't remove it". When I pressed him gently on this he shrugged it off, saying "I'm just a lowly staff member": it was clear he felt like he could not influence the presentation of the tool he was promoting. His manner was warm and helpful throughout, and this was not delivered as a complaint, but more as a Well, what can you do about folks? observation.

The host explained the rewards system and quickly completed a couple of simple challenges for me, meaning that on my visit I could undertake a smaller number of activities myself and still gather enough points to redeem them for a reward that felt meaningful. doesn't feel like he can influence product but explains and promotes it well.

At this point I moved into the galleries. There were two main ways to gain points on the day I visited: by collecting codes from the entrances to galleries, and by collecting codes from specific artworks that were part of a Favourites scavenger hunt.

Collecting gallery codes is the simplest activity. As they are located at the entrance to the gallery, you do not actually have to enter the space or engage with the exhibits in order to earn the code. This could affect the accuracy of the data, as the assumption is that when a visitor enters a gallery code they do so in good faith (showing that they have visited that exhibit) rather than simply to rack up points. This is a low point activity however: the system is organised so as to reward more effortful engagements with higher rewards.

As I began moving around the galleries it became clear to me that the Friends engagement platform is not targeted to international visitors like me, who remained on their original data plan. The simplest way to gather codes is by texting them to the Friends platform: however, because I would be charged for each text, I had to instead note the codes down and then return to the kiosks on the ground floor and manually upload them. This interfered noticeably with what should've been a low-friction interaction.

I also found the gallery codes to be remarkably discreet in terms of design and placement, and I often missed them when walking into a gallery, as I was following the sightlines into the displays 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.

As part of my visit I also took part in the Faves scavenger hunt. I found that the design of this interaction was quite the opposite of the gallery codes. The DMA is an extremely large building, with four floors and a great number of galleries. Most are painted in muted hues, with equally muted label design. The labels that pick out Fave artworks however are large and bright red - immediately eye-catching when you enter a gallery and visually sweep it. The effect was to draw you to these specific works at the cost of all other works in the same space. The labels carried a code to be entered into the Friends platform to gain points: again, no further interaction or engagement was sought

As I experienced it, the DMA Friends programme requires only modest effort from the visitor, and evoked correspondingly low engagement. As a non-local, one-off visitor it added very little to my experience, and in fact the scavenger-hunt design pattern probably more disrupted than enriched my experience.

However, as a professional observer, I appreciated this. The programme is emphatically designed to increase repeat visitation by local people, and the activities and rewards are geared towards this. If the design had worked for me - a non-target visitor - I expect the experience for the target audience would be less compelling.

One thing I - perhaps naively - did not expect from the programme was to start receiving weekly emails from the museum with news about coming exhibitions and events, donation appeals and special offers. As a non-committed one-off visitor, these emails tend to be deleted immediately, unopened.

Overall visitor experience

Two observations really struck me as I reflected on my visit to the DMA.

The first was that the Friends platform really felt of a piece with the overall ground floor visitor orientation. The tone of communication and the design of the larger challenges (such as bringing friends with you to the museum) was aligned to the overall communication to visitors. Visiting guidelines at the museum, for example, emphasise "doing things right" rather than "don't do this" and are posted as very large signage on the inside doors of elevators. The building has very good wifi, and the ground floor's main feature (aside from the cafe) is an interactive creativity centre that is strongly appealing to adults as well as children. While the upper three floors are 'standard museum layout', the ground floor provides a coherent and friendly orientating experience that I think would be appealing to people who are new to, and possibly unsure about, visiting museums, and to family groups.

The second thing was the friendliness and engagement of the visitor hosts. I interviewed eight staff members in my time at the DMA and of these six told me - without prompting - that the most dramatic change in Anderson's time at the museum was the way visitor hosts roles were defined.

Barbie Barber, the head of visitor services, described this as a transformation from security culture to a hospitality culture. Staff who had previously been hired and trained to perform a security role - and explicitly discouraged from interacting with visitors - were now trained to think of themselves as hosts. Job descriptions were rewritten, with the mission put at the top, and training on the mission was instated.

New ongoing training was instituted: visitor hosts now attend training every Friday morning from staff throughout the museum. Visitor host staff can now take on training roles themselves, and a previously missing element of career progression has been built into the role. Visitor host staff have also been given more authority: for example, the complaint form has been removed, and visitor hosts encouraged to resolve problems on the spot themselves or take responsibility for following complaints up.

In a 2014 presentation, Rob Stein and Bruce Wyman emphasised the importance of this transformation:
"Believing that the ultimate success of an engagement platform in museums rests on the positive interactions visitors have with museum staff, the DMA chose to reorient its staff in anticipation of the program. This internal realignment is one of the most critical factors in the program’s success to date. 
To start, an existing force of gallery attendants were relocated from the Security department to the Visitor Services department and retrained to focus on hospitality. A warm and sincere welcome is the first interaction a visitor should have with the Museum. The newly minted Visitor Services Attendants embraced the change warmly and grew to see it as their primary role to ensure that the entire city of Dallas would feel a part of the Museum when they arrived. Additionally, small teams of Visitor Services Attendants were redeployed to act as ambassadors for the DMA Friends program. Their goals were to inform new visitors—asking them to join if interested—and welcome return visitors with a smile. Team members began to challenge themselves to hone their “pitch” for DMA Friends and used simple graphs and charts to track their progress each day and week. The positive competition proved infectious and resulted in significant gains seen in new DMA Friends recruitment that continues to this day." (Stein and Wyman, 2014)

1.5 Future rollouts 

In 2013 the DMA, together with partners from the Denver Art Museum, Grace Museum (Abilene, Texas), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Mia), was awarded a National Leadership Grant for US$450,000 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to pilot a version of the Friends software in each of the partner museums.

On my research trip I visited Mia, where excitement about the opportunities afforded by the software, coupled with work on their customer relationship management software and a realignment of their membership programme to introduce a free entry level with benefits (a US$5-10 gift per month is encouraged; the next level begins at US$150/year).

At Mia I heard a strong focus on tracking and sharing visitors' consumer behaviour as well as as their visit behaviour. This accords well with the data presented by Diana Pan of MOMA at Museums and the Web Asia on members' shopping behaviour and the museum's action to maximise revenue. Staff at Mia were particularly interested in how visitors who signed up for free membership could be engaged in a more philanthropic mindset and moved on to a paid level of membership or encouraged to donate regularly to museum activities.

1.6 Data concerns

Over the duration of my trip, and then at the Museums and the Web Asia and National Digital Forum conferences, I became increasingly discomforted about some of the conversations I had had relating to the collection and use of visitor data. The phrase 'if you're not paying for it, you're the product' has been much bandied about the internet over the past five years, and has become increasingly familiar to those of us who use free services, such as Facebook and Twitter, with the lurking - or overt - knowledge that access to our attention is being sold to advertisers.

I am not suggesting that museums are taking a malicious or exploitative approach to data collection, or storing and using this data in anything but an honourable and secure manner. However, I am strongly swayed in my thinking about my sector's use of data by thinkers such as Cory Doctorow and Maciej Ceglowski, who have likened our current approaches to data collection and retention to the nuclear waste industry:
"We should treat personal electronic data with the same care and respect as weapons-grade plutonium - it is dangerous, long-lasting and once it has leaked there's no getting it back." (Doctorow, 2008) 
"I ... ask you to imagine data not as a pristine resource, but as a waste product, a bunch of radioactive, toxic sludge that we don’t know how to handle. 
In particular, I'd like to draw a parallel between what we're doing and nuclear energy, another technology whose beneficial uses we could never quite untangle from the harmful ones. 
A singular problem of nuclear power is that it generated deadly waste whose lifespan was far longer than the institutions we could build to guard it. Nuclear waste remains dangerous for many thousands of years. 
... The data we're collecting about people has this same odd property. Tech companies come and go, not to mention the fact that we share and sell personal data promiscuously.
information about people retains its power as long as those people are alive, and sometimes as long as their children are alive. No one knows what will become of sites like Twitter in five years or ten. But the data those sites own will retain the power to hurt for decades." (Ceglowski, 2015)

It is not difficult, in a time of falling public funding and increased competition for the philanthropic dollar, to imagine a future scenario where selling the data we collect on our visitors to third parties becomes an appealing - or necessary - scenario. I believe it behoves us, as institutions trusted for centuries now to collect, manage and preserve our society's material culture and expressions of creativity and knowledge, to apply the same forethought and ethics to the data we collect from and use on behalf of the public, and ensure we are always acting in the best interests of the people we exist to serve.

1.7 Conclusion

What impresses me about the DMA Friends programme is the rigour and ambition of the thought behind it. The programme is designed to address many of the central questions facing museums today: How do we reach out to non-visitors? How do we create engaging experiences? How do we know who is visiting us, and what they're doing? How do we provide information to current and future funders on our performance? It does this in a manner that is scalable, and that draws on many parts of the museum, from education to visitor hosts.

New Zealand is fortunate in that our publicly funded museums operate largely on the basis of free entry, meaning this barrier to access has been far less significant in our history. There is much we can learn however from American museums' approach to membership programmes, especially as they seek to move on from a transactional to an engagement model.

In the time since I returned to New Zealand, both Maxwell Anderson and Rob Stein have resigned from the DMA. The pair came to the museum together from the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) where they evolved much of the thinking that went into the DMA's programmes, including free admission and data collection. Since Anderson moved on from the IMA the decision has been to reinstate charged entry, on the basis that the draw-down on the museum's endowment was too great to sustain the loss in admissions revenue.

It has become clear to me that innovation in the digital realm is strongly driven by individual personalities and aspirations. The digital world moves swiftly - especially compared to the "museum world", which is a steady and slow-paced beast. With driving figures such as Max Anderson and Rob Stein moving on, I will be watching with interest to see whether the changes in culture and operating they introduced become embedded in the DMA's DNA, or if the institution morphs again under a new leadership team.

1.8 Further information

On the Dallas Museum of Art's Friends programme

See also

Michael Granberry, 'Dallas Museum of Art takes bold step of offering free general admission AND free memberships', The Dallas Morning News, 27 November 2012

Michael Granberry, 'DMA thrives during 2013 with free admission, new revenue', The Dallas Morning News, 27 December 2013

John Tozzi, 'Dallas Museum of Art Trades Memberships for Data', Bloomberg Business, 20 February 2014

Rob Stein and Bruce Wyman, 'Nurturing Engagement: How Technology and Business Model Alignment can Transform Visitor Participation in the Museum', paper given at Museums and the Web conference, Portland, 2014

Rob Stein and Bruce Wyman, 'Seeing the Forest and the Trees: How Engagement Analytics Can Help Museums Connect to Audiences at Scale', paper given at Museums and the Web conference, Portland, 2014

Director Maxwell Anderson interviewed by Jeffrey Inscho and Suse Cairns, 2014

'Dallas Museum of Art’s DMA Friends Program Home to 100,000 Members', press release, Dallas Museum of Art, 16 April 2015

Rob Stein, Emerald Cassidy, Jonathan Finkelstein, Andrea Fulton, Douglas Hegley, Amy Heibel, Shyam Oberoi, Kate Tinworth, and Bruce Wyman, 'Scaling up: Engagement platforms and large-scale collaboration', paper given at Museums and the Web conference, Chicago, April 2015

On free entrance, repeat visitation and membership programmes

On Brooklyn Museum's 1st Fans programme

American Museums Memberships Conference proceedings

Maxwell L. Anderson, 'Metrics of Success in Art Museums', Getty Leadership Institute, 2004

'Going Free? Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and General Admission Fees', Office of Policy and Analysis, Smithsonian Institute, April 2007

Nina Simon, '1stfans: An Audience-Specific Membership Program at the Brooklyn Museum', Museums 2.0, 12 February 2009

Julie Rega, 'Museum Membership Programs: Innovation in a Troubled Economy', MA thesis, Seton Hall University, 2011

Ford W. Bell, 'How Are Museums Supported Financially in the U.S.?', Embassy of the United States of America, March 2012

Shelley Bernstein, 'A sunset for 1st Fans', 11 May 2012

Colleen Dilenschneider, 'How Gen Y is changing museum and non-profit memberships', 30 October 2012

Lee Rosenbaum, 'Dallas Fallacy: Should Museums’ Admission Be Free?', CultureGrrl, 3 December 2012

Elizabeth Olsen, 'Looking for Ways to Groom Repeat Visitors', New York Times, 20 March 2013

Tyler Green, 'Why more art museums will be free – and soon', Modern Art Notes, 8 January 2014,

Mostafa Heddaya, 'The Price of Admission: The New Whitney and Museum Tickets in New York', Bloiun ArtInfo, 11 May 2015

Amy Langfield, 'Art museums find going free comes with a cost', Fortune, 1 June 2015

Colleen Dilenschneider, 'How Free Admission Really Affects Museum Attendance', 12 August 2015,

Colleen Dilenschneider, 'The membership benefits that millennials want from cultural organizations', 21 December 2015

'Art museums by the numbers', Association of Art Museum Directors, 7 January 2016

For concerns around data collection and retention

Coy Doctorow, 'Personal data is as hot as nuclear waste', The Guardian, 15 January 2008

Maciej Ceglowski, 'Haunted by Data', paper given at the Strata+Hadoop World conference, New York City, 1 October 2015

James Bridle, 'Big Data? No Thanks', paper given at the Through Post-Atomic Eyes conference in Toronto, October 2015, published 2 November 2015

Courtney Johnston 'Cultural institutions and the social compact', paper given at the National and State Libraries of Australasia digital citizenship conference, Wellington, 12 November 2015

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Reading list, 23 January 2016

This month, Wikipedia turned 15. Pew looks at some key stats in the current site/s and major events in its history.

Also interesting from Pew: an analysis of print and online newspaper readers in three American cities shows print-only readership is still strong, and that print-only consumption is more strongly linked to consumption of local television news.

On Quartz - an exhaustive, fascinating, but I believe flawed in many ways piece titled Museums are keeping a ton of the world’s most famous art locked away in storage. I'd like to have the opportunity to really thrash this topic out (rather than pick it apart in a one-sided blog post) as I have *many* points, including about the artists they used in their data collection (predominantly white, male, and Western); the balance between collection shows and temporary exhibitions, and the connection to audience demand; and the alternatives to 'locking the art up in the vaults' (such as building more exhibition space, or selling the works, at which point they would .... enter private collections belonging to wealthy individuals and organisations, and risk truly disappearing from public access?).

In 1929 the Field Museum commissioned a series of portrait busts and full-figure sculptures to document the 'races of mankind'. Kept largely in storage since the end of the 1960s, the museum has just placed 50 of the sculptures produced by Malvina Hoffman back on display in an exhibition that squarely faces the difficult history of these objects.

A good complement to the above piece: Tusk has been publishing some strong pieces, but this essay by Matariki Williams on the Jono Rotman show at City Gallery last year is a stand-out.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Board position open - National Digital Forum

Hooking up with the National Digital Forum has probably been the single most transformative act of my professional. As a conference convenor and a Board member, my connections and confidence grew exponentially, and the friends I made and the things I learned have helped me so much. Nearly ten years on, we're still going strong.

I ended up on the Board because Penny Carnaby, who was the CE of National Library when I was working there, shoved me into a board meeting she wasn't able to attend. I felt totally out of my depth, but Penny trusted me, and after a while I trusted myself. One thing turned into another and eventually I became a board member in my own right. Now I really appreciate her faith in me, and the way that her belief in me pushed me to prove myself.

NDF is currently calling for nominations to replace one member of the Board, due to someone standing down. I would really like to encourage people who are early in their careers but excited and knowledgable about the work NDF stands for to go for this opportunity.

To stand for the Board, as I understand it, you must be an individual member yourself and be nominated by an Institutional member. The Dowse is an Institutional member, and I have previously nominated people. I'd be delighted to support someone to have the same kind of experience I've had, so please get in touch if you'd like to talk it over.


This is a working board. You need to be ready to get stuck in with the myriad projects the Board supports and runs. It's okay if you're not sure exactly what you can contribute to the digital GLAMs sector yet, apart from enthusiasm and commitment and your time. But you do need to have the confidence to stick up your hand and offer to do something - even if you think you're "not quite ready for it" yet. I personally think the GLAMs sector has a bit of a problem with people hanging back and waiting to be asked to take on responsibility - or feeling like you need to serve your time before you can take on management or governance roles. So, you could sit down and read Sheryl Sandberg's book if you haven't already and learn why this is daft, or you can put on your big kid pants and go for it now.

Monday, 18 January 2016

WCMT Acquittal Draft: Visible Storage

I'm currently attacking, chunk by chunk, my acquittal for the funding I received from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust for my research trip around American museums last year. It struck me that rather than release it all as one big fat PDF I might try posting drafts of sections here, for any feedback that might be forthcoming. This first posting looks at one of my four research areas, visible storage.

I should emphasise that this really is a *draft* and changes to the final document are inevitable.

1.1 Introduction

Open collections, or visible storage, is a general term used to describe public displays within museums where the emphasis is placed upon access and serendipitous discovery rather than a curated, white-wall experience. Visible storage is a way of giving museum visitors a feeling of being 'behind the scenes' in the normally off-limits art collection store, and addresses the oft-heard complaint that museums only display a tiny fraction of their permanent holdings at any given time.

Visible storage displays began being introduced in the mid 1970s, as museums moved towards a more educational and audience-focused mission. In these space, objects are usually displayed in fairly functional cases and shelving, closely grouped. Objects may be minimally labelled, or described through numbering, and handbooks or database access is provided to assist the visitor to learn more: lengthy descriptive labels are rare. Objects do not tend to be moved or exchanged often, although items may be withdrawn for exhibition or loan. Small temporary display spaces may be built into the larger space, offering the opportunity to create 'focus' exhibitions on certain groups of objects with more interpretation.

Sculpture, ceramics, glass, design objects, furniture and paintings are well suited to this form of long term display. Light-sensitive materials such as textiles and watercolours are rarely displayed in this manner, as the conservation risk is too high.

In American museums, visible storage ranges from small galleries, almost like nooks (such as that at the Dallas Museum of Art displaying ceramics and glass) to large purpose-built spaces that may include space for researchers to work. It is worth noting that while these study centres are presented as 'uncurated' spaces (suggesting that the objects on display have not been selected with the same level of curatorial decision-making as objects in a normal gallery exhibition, and that the display has not been designed with the same level of aesthetic attention) there is a strong shared visual language and interpretation approach to visible storage. A virtue is made of providing only minimal labelling or interpretation, meant to encourage browsing and a visual, rather than textual, engagement with the objects. Objects are grouped by medium, size, type, or place of origin (carved wooden toys / furniture / large sculpture / metalwork) as opposed to chronologically, thematically, or by artist, as a visitor would expect in a normal exhibition. Display cases and racks are functional (glass and metal cases, or large heavy drawers) or old-fashioned (small, wooden): white plinths of the sort used in collection or temporary galleries are rarely employed. The overarching narrative is that visible storage encourages unmediated access where visitors are free to make their own observations and engage in slow, close looking: this is, of course, as conscious a curatorial and design choice as any other arrangement of objects into a gallery display.

1.2 Henry Luce Foundation support

Between 1985 and 2001 the Henry Luce Foundation, through its American Art Program, gave significant amounts of funding to four museums to create visible storage spaces.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 1985 the Met received the first Luce Foundation grant to create a visible storage center. The 16,000 square foot facility named the Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art, opened in 1988 and displays a significant portion of their American fine art and decorative art collection (over 10,000 objects). Items are grouped by material (painting, sculpture, furniture and woodwork, glass, ceramics, silver and metalwork) and within those categories by date. Light-sensitive works such as textiles and watercolours are not on view but can be seen by appointment.

New York Historical Society

The NYHS was the second recipient of a Luce Foundation grant for visible storage. In this instance, rather than fitting out a display space, the grant was used to create views into actual storage spaces, giving visual access to approximately 40,000 objects. This facility, the Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture, opened in 2000. The Center is currently undergoing an extensive renovation.

Brooklyn Museum

The Brooklyn Museum received a $10 million grant in 2001 towards a reinstallation of their permanent collection galleries displaying their American Art collection, and a visible storage center. The Luce Center for American Art is a 5,000 square foot space displaying approximately 2000 objects, from Tiffany glass to contemporary furniture, and with nearly 600 paintings on rolling racks. Space is set aside for small feature exhibitions and representative selections of Native American and Spanish colonial objects are included. Database access points are built into the space.

Smithsonian American Art Museum

SAAM received a $10 million grant to create the Luce Foundation Center in 2001; $7 million towards the development of the Center and $3 million towards an endowment to support ongoing staffing and programmes. A library within the museum's 19th century building - previously the National Patents Office - was renovated to create the Center. Approximately 3,3000 objects are spread over three levels: large sculptures on the bottom floor, and then paintings and objects in cases cases and pneumatic drawers on two mezzanine levels. Objects on display vary from portrait miniatures to Roman glass vessels to folk art paintings. The drawers make it possible to display some light sensitive materials, as they are climate controlled and only lit when opened.

The Luce Conservation Center is adjacent to the space, allowing behind-the-scenes view of conservation procedures. Study tables and some database access points are built into the space.

1.3 Visits

Smithsonian American Art Museum

I first visited the Luce Foundation at SAAM in mid 2013. At the time I found the experience engaging; the eclectic mixing of objects, the lack of overt supervision which created a more intimate sense as a visitor - like browsing in someone's house while they were in another room. There was no-one to discourage photography on either visit, and the setting - wooden balustrades, large chandeliers, small staircases between floors - lends to the old-fashioned, romantic atmosphere - almost like a very good antique store.

The experience is however becoming tired. I did not notice any changes having taken place in the two years between my visits, and in fact a set of the pneumatic drawers that had were not functioning in 2013 were still out of order in 2015.

The database stations are becoming outmoded and the research space is basic. The Center was unstaffed on the weekend that I visited. While the bones are in place for a rich experience, my second visit to the space was curiously unengaging; this was a surprise to me, because my own tendencies as a visitor incline me towards galleries like this.
Brooklyn Museum The Brooklyn Museum's Luce Center for American Art is entered off the permanent galleries displaying the American Art collection - being redesigned in early 2016, these galleries displayed American art, design and craft along with Native American and Spanish colonial-era art in eight thematic displays that were highly designed, richly coloured, and mixed objects from different genres in each display.

The Luce Center had a strikingly different aesthetic. The back of the space - behind a glass wall - is devoted to painting racks, of which only the first row is visible. The rest of the space is full of tall, multi-level glass and steel cases, giving a warehouse-like atmosphere. Lighting is kept dim, and many cases have a flashlight attached to them to allow for better inspection. The objects vary greatly in size, from jewellery in drawers to large statues in their own cases. Database access is provided through screens affixed to the sides of cases with a metal chair provided. The overall effect was more dramatic and contemporary than SAAM, but the space also felt dim, cool, and not conducive to lingering, compared, for example, to recent work done at the Museum to make the foyer a more hospitable space, with comfortable seating with inbuilt device chargers.

I met with the exhibition designer who had originally worked on the construction of the space. The industrial materials were chosen to be cost-effective, but also to contrast to the curated galleries. The brief sought to communicate the sense of the wealth and diversity of the collections, and this is achieved. The lighting is in need of renewal, but this is not a priority, and hence the space is darker than intended - with the spartan furnishings, the overall effect is a space rich for exploration, but not comfortable to spend time in.

While at the Brooklyn Museum I also visited Double Take: African Innovations, a temporary display of objects from the museum's African Art collection. This is the second shorter term exhibition of this collection, undertaken during a longer term renovation of the museum's first floor galleries.

The main gallery displays nearly 40 collection items arranged in 15 pairs or small groups, each exploring subjects, themes and artistic techniques that recur throughout African history: the emphasis is on continuity and innovation. Each display encourages viewers to draw connections between the artworks they are looking at. In an adjacent gallery, a further 150 items are displayed in what the curator describes as an 'unstructured sampling': the display method is more closely packed and presented with less interpretation than the next door gallery, but is still displayed in more a a 'gallery' aesthetic than the Luce Center. Visitors are encouraged to make their own new pairings of these objects through an interactive display, and share them on social media using a hashtag.

I found this mixed display - a modernist hang, where artworks are given a great deal of space and interpretation, alongside a denser, compacted display of multiple items on a similar theme - to be the most successful of the visible storage approaches I saw on my visit. Despite coming to this gallery at the end of my seven-hour visit to the museum, I was still pulled in to both the artworks and the pairing-making activity. The contrast between overtly curated display and ostensibly random sampling gives the impression of both an experience that has been created for you as the viewer, and an experience that is handed over to you to serendipitously explore, and to respond to in a concrete way.

1.4 Recent developments in visible storage

Visible storage and digitised collections have evolved alongside each other as responses to the constraint of physical space, and museums' inability to ever properly display more than a small percentage of their holdings in curated exhibitions. While the area of digital developments is extremely well documented, there is little research or evaluation generally available on the history, trends, and visitor experience of visible storage.

The general trend for new and planned visible storage spaces is to take a more dramatic or overtly designed approach to the design of displays, contra to the earlier emphasis on evoking or replicating the functional design of actual storage spaces.

For example, the York Museums has recently opened the Centre of Ceramic Art. The museum holds Britain's most significant collection of British studio pottery, and its building was recently redeveloped to create this centre. A large number of collection items are presented in a variety of ways: the 17-metre long Wall of Pots contains over 1000 objects from the Roman era to the present day, currently organised by colour; two domestically-scaled rooms have been created to display the collection of Anthony B Shaw, mingling objects with bookshelves; and for the opening of the centre ceramicist Clare Twomey was commissioned to create Manifest: 10,000 Hours, a towering installation of 10,000 identical white slip-cast vessels.

In another example, the New York Historical Society (a previous recipient of a Luce Foundation grant for visible storage) is currently renovating its fourth floor galleries. Opening in January 2017, the renovated floor will include a gallery designed by architect Eva Jiřičná dedicated to the Tiffany lamp collection; the newly established Center for the Study of Women’s History, which will present exhibitions and public programmes along with an 'immersive multimedia film', and a  and a 're-imagined display of collection highlights' in the Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture.

An alternative approach is evinced at the newly opened Broad Museum in Los Angeles. The architectural conceit of this building, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, is of the 'vault and the veil'. The building, wrapped in a striking articulated fibreglass-enriched concrete mesh, is constructed around a large central well which forms the collection storage space. Windows are let into the public access staircase and the first floor, allowing visitors to peek into the working storage space. While convincing as a design notion, the actual visitor experience is of small apertures in out of the way locations, that do not provide large or comfortable views. The windows, let into corners on the staircase, are surprisingly easily missed and uncomfortable to linger at, as there is nowhere to lean or sit, or to avoid becoming an obstruction to other visitors' progress.

An interactive display at the Cooper Hewitt offers another alternative for mass-access to a collection, through digitisation rather than display of objects. In the immersion room, visitors can access the museum's extensive collection of wallcoverings. Using an interactive table, visitors can browse through wallpapers and project them onto the walls of the small gallery. Visitors can also use the collection items for inspiration for their own designs, which they can create on the table and project. The Immersion Room is not only popular with visitors, but a strong attractor for social media engagement, through the sharing of photos taken in the gallery. Much like the Brooklyn Museum's African art display, the room enables exploration of a large collection, visitors' own creation and then subsequent sharing; its very positive reception suggests these could be key features in future developments of such spaces.

1.5 Conclusion

Visible storage spaces tend to be heavily invested in upfront and then not updated for a considerable period of time: any area of a museum that is left unloved for too long inevitably begins to convey some sense of that neglect to visitors, like a room in a house that is never aired out.

My experiences on this research trip suggest that the 'behind the scenes' aesthetic is beginning to pall, and that "mixed-density" displays, combining the familiar aesthetics of both gallery exhibition and collection storage, with a higher level of interpretation and greater opportunity for visitor interaction, are becoming more appealing.

Visible storage is also an area of museum practice that is ripe for more research into visitors' interest, expectations, and actual experience. This is especially so in a digital age where access to a museum's holdings through technology (be that an interactive screen, table, or personal device)is becoming the default setting, at the same time that museums employ more and more design techniques to create immersive and spectacular displays in order to remain compelling in an increasingly visual and design-driven world.

1.6 Further information

Henry Luce Foundation American Art Program

Celestine Bohlen, 'Museums as Walk-In Closets; Visible Storage Opens Troves to the Public', New York Times, 8 May 2001

Elizabeth Cooper, 'Letting Some Light Into the Attic', New York Sun, 13 January 2005

Georgina Goodlander, 'Overview of the Luce Foundation Center', presentation notes, 25 November 2009

Jori Finkel, 'LACMA, Broad, other art museums work to put storage on display', Los Angeles Times, 20 July 2013

Cameron Maynard, 'Turning museums inside out with beautiful visible storage', Atlas Obscura, 24 September 2014