Thursday 15 October 2015

A reading list, for #MWA2015 and #NDFNZ

And ... it's done. My research trip round the States, Museums and the Web Asia, and the annual National Digital Forum. Nine cities, close to 40 museums and galleries, and three conference presentations.

I've also been doing a ton of reading that circulates around the things that I was seeing and talking about while I travelled. (Between now and the end of the weekend I hope to throw my conference notes up here to start sharing some of this info.) Here's a list of links, mostly as an aide-mémoire to myself ...

Nina Simon - Fighting for Inclusion

Nina's notes from her keynote at the MuseumNext conference in Indianapolis, which I managed to fit into my trip. Nina ad-libbed or extended around these published notes a lot in her talk (which you can watch here), and one of the simplest and most powerful things she said was that their philosophy at Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History for their history work is that "People make history": that when people leave the museum, they should have the feeling inside themselves that they are an active participant in making history, and have the ability to bring about social change.

"People make history". Such a simple expression of this idea, but a great way for us to think about our work on refreshing Petone Settlers Museum.

If You Can't See It, Don't Say It

This guide to exhibition label writing was referenced in a internal report on exhibition didactics sent to me by an American colleague which unfortunately I can't share. I read *a lot* of labels on my trip and recorded some of the best and worst. The main point I've taken away from my early skim of this guide is that the wall label should always give you cause to look back at the art work again. Such a basic point, but so important to keep in mind.

One of the ideas that popped into my head yesterday at NDF is that we should try doing all of our writing and editing of wall text standing up, so we really remember what it's like to be reading them as a visitor.

Museums as 21st Century Databases

From David Newbury at the Innovation Studio at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. I need to learn more about their work, but this line from this post really resonated with me when I read it during the NDF conference.

We treat our collections not as objects stored on a shelf, but rather as the physical embodiment of a vast repository of data describing our cultures and our histories. 

Data thinking and practices are seeping out through the whole of museum practice. In the States I saw art museums in particular placing an enormous emphasis on collecting data on visitors and using that for all sorts of decision-making and activities. At the same time data metaphors and visualisations are permeating how we think about collections (the quote above kind of smushes metadata into the actual object, which is a sentence that makes much more sense when I say it to myself with hand gestures than when I type it out here).

See also George Oates' & Good, Form & Spectacle's work on, an independent exploration of the British Museum's catalogue that is focused less on discovering collection items and more on trying to get a feeling for how the collection has been formed over time.

MOMA R&D Salon

The salon is back. At MOMA, curator Paola Antonelli holds a regular invitation-only salon which is an opportunity to assemble a group of speakers and a 'curated' audience to discuss a topic she is interested in learning more about. I was lucky enough to score an invite to the most recent, which was on gender fluidity and diversity as represented (or not) in the museum. That one is not online yet, but the back-catalogue is, at the link above. An amazing resource of ideas, speakers, and readings.

JW Anderson: ‘The minute your brand can be predicted, you’ve got a problem’

An interview with the designer who's recently taken over the fashion brand Loewe. This was the quote that caught my eye

The off-white colour he chose for [Loewe's] redesigned packaging was based on Portland stone, the material used for the British Museum and the UN HQ in New York, a reference he chose because he “wants to make Loewe about culture. I want the stores to be public landmarks, where you see things you might see in a museum, I want that credibility.” 

And my god, do I envy him having the bravery to do this

“When I started at Loewe, I took a year out before we did a collection, because I felt we needed to work out all the fundamentals. The pencils, the door handles, the style of the press release, the stone of the buildings, the choice of photographer. All of these questions had to be asked, because ultimately, you need to make people forget what the brand looked like before, and get them to believe that the brand was always like this.”

One of my most impactful (yeah, words are hard right now) stops in the States was the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. Apart from one bum note from a snappish gallery attendant, it was the most consistent and cohesive visit I had, where everything - from the art to the shop, the exhibition design to the mosaics and sunflowers outside the buildings, the new restaurant to the way they present their philosophy on the entrance to their main gallery - told and retold the story of the art they are there to represent and the stance they take on it.

Simon Wardley on pioneers, settlers and town planners

Seb Chan brought this up during his excellent panel discussion with Janet Carding and Tim Hart at Museums and the Web Asia in Melbourne last week (tweet-length take-out from Seb: 'What you needed a developer for five years ago, today you can do with a credit card' - online tools are a commodity now).

In particular, Seb flashed up this graphic (click to see it properly)

Inside my head there's a connection with Gartner's hype cycle for new technologies, but my brain is too tired right now to fashion those links into words.

The problem with The Broad is the collection itself

Dear lord, the number of articles I read about The Broad while I was in America. Philip Kennicott's prose is a tad purple for my taste but this observation strongly shaped my visit to the new Whitney and to The Broad

But even more striking than the contrast with the Gehry building is the Broad’s subtle argument with much of recent museum design. The prevailing theology of many public buildings today, including too many museums, is about erasing the line between the city and the structure, so that one feels the excitement of urban energy ever present, even while looking at art. The most salient example is the new Whitney Museum in New York, which makes love to Manhattan so eagerly that one can’t help but gape at the city’s promiscuous ubiquity.

The Broad is more inward-looking and allows for a more contemplative experience. Perhaps without intending to do so, it recaptures some of the spiritual drama of the much-maligned monumental museums of yesteryear ...

The Broad was surprisingly dainty (it was the last museum on my US trip, the end of many hours trying to do fast-yet-focused trips around ginormous encyclopaedic museums). The 'veil' in which it is wrapped is stunningly beautiful, and the effect is to very much transport you off the LA streetscape and into a clean, sharp, elevated aesthetic zone. The Whitney is a more subtle place to look at art *once you're inside it* - at The Broad the architecture is not so much distracting as compelling - it exerts more pulling power than most of the art. The Whitney looks like a battleship made of sliced-up shoeboxes with climbing apparatus festooned around its frontage, but from inside the building its a wonderful place to explore art.

The Broad doesn't want museum guards between you and the art

I was gobsmacked by this article and the assertions, opinions, and vested interests illustrated within in it. The American museum culture of front of house and security staff was the most foreign aspect of my trip, and I have all the thoughts about it.

The VSAs will wear their own clothes rather than museum-issue garb — the thinking being that self-expression, within certain professional parameters for garment lengths and contours, should be valued in an art museum. ...

The Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va., may be the only other art museum that has attempted to train staffers to fully fulfill the seemingly contradictory functions of keeping the art safe while making viewers feel comfortably at home with it. ... 

Stevan Layne, a veteran security consultant to museums and other cultural sites, is not persuaded that pleasant conversation and detailed knowledge about art should be in gallery attendants' job descriptions. ... "I'm opposed to doing that," Layne said. "It can be a distraction from the primary mission" of protecting the art.

Indianapolis and Dallas

I've been watching and listening to Maxwell Anderson's work at the IMA and then the DMA for years, and visited both institutions on my trip. Just before I came home, Anderson's resignation from the DMA was announced. The ideology and practice of entry charges vs philanthropic support of free entry, with an added layer of the benefits of memberships for museums (not just revenue, but access to people with a commitment to your organisation and data about their behaviour) was something I spent a lot of time talking about and thinking about in the states.

To immerse yourself a little:

IMA CEO's quest: artistic flourishes, but on a budget (1 Nov 2014, on the IMA's current director's plans)

IMA defends admission charge as complaints pile up (16 Dec 2014)

Max Anderson Out as Director of the Dallas Museum Art (28 Set 2015)

Maxwell Anderson Departs Dallas Museum, Returns to NYC in New Role (28 Sept 2015)

This might sound like I'm snitching on Anderson. I'm really not (and I don't know him at all). If you look back to even early in his career he has a pattern of expansion, fundraising, and increasing visitor number. The guy's  one of Simon Wardley's pioneers (as above).

On the topic of entry charges, Colleen Dilenschneider's research is salutary

How free admission really affects museum visitation (data)

Haunted by data

I bought some shoes in the weekend, and they offered me a discount programme which asked for my name, phone number, email address, physical address, and date of birth. So, short of a DNA swab or my passport data, pretty much all my vital stats.

Maciej Cegłowski's recent talk (recommended to me by Seb Chan, as above) is a purposefully un-rosy look at rapidly growing data collection practices. The link above will also take you to the video recording of Maciej's talk. We need to be bringing the points he raises into our discussion about data-driven museums.


Mr DC said...

I'm constantly surprised we need to talk about "Museums as 21st Century Databases". For those on the 'access' (yes, now a dirty word) side it's obvious, but for some in the archival side, preservation is often the sole, ONLY, goal.

I keep having flashbacks to when I asked our archivists, "So I appreciate you aren't focussed on current access, because you have a wider focus on access continuing into the future", and the response was "No, access just isn't my concern at all, just preservation". It was about preservation for preservation's sake, not about preservation to allow future access.

Courtney Johnston said...

@Mr DC I have the occasional thought about a museum that collects items that get used - carefully! - until the end of their natural lives. Then I realise that's basically a domestic home ...

Unknown said...

I'm intimately familiar with the way that technical specialisation gets in the way of the overall goal of an organisation. "I wrote some amazing code!" "Yes, but does it solve the problem that the customer will pay us to solve?" types of conversations are awfully common, and the further you dig into the details, the more you realise how little connection there is between "what I do" and "what we do". Preservation vs Access strikes me as the same thing.

I used to say that business had it easy because there's money to let you know when you're doing it right. But it's not even that easy for business. Every for-profit company is riddled with tensions: usage vs profit, unsustainably impressive vs sustainably mediocre, retention vs growth, new customer vs existing, new product vs existing ...

Sounds like you have a "what I do" vs "what we do" gap there, Mr DC. How do you work on closing that gap in cultural institutions?