Saturday, 27 April 2019

Reading list, 27 April 2019 / different from usual edition

I spent much of Easter writing a preface for a forthcoming book that I will share more information about here when I can (it's really, really good though).

As part of writing the preface, I spent a good deal of time of thinking about how the development of the contemporary web - as tool and ethos - has tracked alongside the development of the contemporary visitor-focused museum. As the web has afforded new communication and social abilities, it's also created new metaphor - myths, in Roland Barthes' term - that shape the way we view and describe the world.

The text that first articulated this for me was actually from 1998, when the web was still in quite a restricted state. It's an address given by Neil Postman, an American cultural theorist and educator, to a group of theologians and religious leaders in Denver. It's called 'Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change' (I suspect this talk was given often, and tailored to this group) and it's about patterns you can see playing out in society with each introduction of a major new piece of technology.

Postman's third Thing is the argument that embedded within every technology is one or more ideas that we may not consciously grasp, but which have massive potential to influence us. He writes:
The third idea, then, is that every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards. This idea is the sum and substance of what the great Catholic prophet, Marshall McLuhan meant when he coined the famous sentence, “The medium is the message.”
Writing my preface, I did that thing where you get so off track that you've basically started a PhD thesis, all because you're desperately trying to cram that one perfect quote into your text. I was trying to make an argument about how web / digital development and technology has seeped over from tools to mental frameworks.

Eventually I discarded the quote but kept some of the thinking. But in pulling my train of thought together, I revisited some really influential pieces of writing that illustrate this timeline I was seeing inside my head:

Richard MacManus writing at the launch of the influential tech blog Read Write Web, about what that phrase means in terms of a new era of the web where the tools of publishing are embedded in the medium, and newly available to 'ordinary' people. The metaphor comes from computer science - something that is read / write can be displayed (read) and modified (written to). There is something powerful in that metaphor that speaks to me about the way a generation of experience designers in museums started to create interactive museum displays - not just buttons that people could push, but new techniques to elicit opinion and contributions from the public. Still a really enjoyable short read.

Tim O'Reilly's What is Web 2.0 - the codification of the design patterns and business models he and his collaborators saw as characterising the tech companies who survived then thrived after the 2001 dot-com bubble burst. It is both a group of technical processes and approaches (constant deployment, web as platform) and conceptual approaches ('harnessing the collective intelligence'). So much of the exciting museum work I saw when I first got involved in the web in 2006 at the National Library of New Zealand was enabled and inspired by this moment. It seems almost cheesy now, but holy shit - remember when Web 2.0 was new and changing the world?

Alexis Madrigal, The Weird Thing About Today's Internet, his comeback article for The Atlantic and a reflection on his 10 years covering technology, starting as a writer for Wired in pre-GFC 2007. I'd read this 2017 article sometime around when I was first approached to write this preface, and I pasted this paragraph into the Google doc I fired up to start collecting ideas:
But then in June of 2007, the iPhone came out. Thirteen months later, Apple’s App Store debuted. Suddenly, the most expedient and enjoyable way to do something was often tapping an individual icon on a screen. As smartphones took off, the amount of time that people spent on the truly open web began to dwindle. ... The great cathedrals of that time, nearly impossible projects like Wikipedia that worked and worked well, have all stagnated.
I felt that shift in play when I went to the States in 2015 on a Churchill scholarship, visiting museums renowned for their digital leadership. I noted then a move from the big projects of 5-7 years ago, which were driven by those ideas of the open web, universal access, all people contributing knowledge on an equal footing, to the new hot experiences, designed to enrich the physical visit. The 21st century web had driven the first round of innovation, and the smartphone & widespread wifi the second, but I couldn't help but feel there was some evolution in ethos as well (partly, I suspect, from the funders and granters, who might have been starting to question the value of reaching a global audience, and becoming easier to convince on projects that were about value for the exclusive, on-site visitor. However, I also see the natural curiosity of digital leaders playing out in this change: minds adapting to and making use of each tech advance in the museum. Chicken and egg stuff really).

This 20-something year history sits within a wider context of the successive eras of thinking about the social purpose of museums, as articulated by Seph Rodney here. It's not surprising then that I had to spin my wheels through about three days of writing what was basically the outline of a thesis before I could relinquish enough of my treasured quotes and observations to get down to the guts of the piece. I'm not going to tell you how the preface ends, because that will give it all away. But I'm really looking forward to sharing that book with you.




Saturday, 20 April 2019

Reading list, 20 April 2019

Lined up for post-deadline listening: Hrag Vartanian interviews two artist estate managers about how families should cope with a dead artist-relative's legacy.

Also on Hyperallergic: a write-up of a new transcription project from the Smithsonian, focused on female figures from 19th century art history, including the diaries of Anna Coleman Ladd, an American sculptor who made custom prosthetics for soldiers injured during the first world war.

Anne Pasternak, director of the Brooklyn Museum, has the most tricked-out office I've seen to date.

Another "must read later" - The Happy Museum project's list of tools and resources for measuring organisation's impacts on social wellbeing.

I'm sure you used to be able to download the AAM annual TrendsWatch survey for just the cost of your email address? At least you can still download the exec summary. This year's five key trends - "truth and trust, blockchain, decolonization, homelessness and housing insecurity, and self-care".

A nerdily detailed article on the review and decommissioning of minimal and conceptual artworks from the Panza collection at the Guggenheim museum.

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Reading list, 14 April 2019

One of the recent issues of The Gray Market newsletters (looking at how museums in England and the US refusing sponsorship from the Sackler Foundation, now deemed too toxic for brand association) introduced me to the concept of the Overton Window, from media theory, which describes the 'window of discourse' in which a politician can suggest policy changes (the window of discourse on military-style weapons in New Zealand, for example, has shifted dramatically following the attacks in Christchurch). When yet another article about an art museum selling collection items off to finance more diverse additions (this time the Art Gallery of Ontario) floated across the transom, it made me reflect that the window of discourse on this particular topic has shifted markedly in recent months, from radical to acceptable, possibly almost sensible (though without a concerted collective decision from the sector, still falling well short of policy).

A similar shift (and dramatic increase in publicity) has happened on the subject of repatriation from museums collections over the last couple of years. The latest piece I've read is by museum curator Chip Colwell, a letter to the editor in the NYT that talks about what museums have to gain, rather than lose, from repatriation.

Ticketed for future reading: Response to the 2018 Sarr-Savoy Report: Statement on Intellectual Property Rights and Open Access relevant to the digitization and restitution of African Cultural Heritage and associated materials

I learned a massive amount from this NYT article, which describes how 12 linked exhibitions in Spain are exploring the art of its former colony Peru (which gained independence in 1821):
“This is the first time we’re showing a painting from colonial America,” Miguel Falomir, the Prado’s director, said in a telephone interview. The Prado owns “between 15 and 20” paintings made in Spain’s former colonies, he said, but they are kept by the ethnographic Museum of the Americas. They have never been shown alongside European old masters. 
For centuries, “we’ve considered this art as second-class,” Mr. Falomir said. “That, thank God, has changed.”
Smart work at SFMOMA: Tracing the Roots of Photo Sharing, From Mail Art to Instagram

One of curator Okwui Enwezor's final interviews: “There are code words to push back against change”

Saturday, 6 April 2019

Reading list, 6 April 2019

A history of working class protest: Disrupt? Peterloo and Protest at the People’s History Museum, Manchester, via the Guardian

Farah Nayeri, 'A Museum Tackles Myths About Jews and Money' in the New York Times, on a new exhibition at the London's Jewish Museum.

Siri Hustvedt on why Duchamp's urinal should be correctly attributed to Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.

Susan Tallman's 'Painting the Beyond' for the New York Review of Books:
But the claim for af Klint as an inventor of abstract art runs into two serious problems. The first is that it doesn’t seem to match how she thought the work should function. The second is that abstraction was “invented” in the same sense that the Western Hemisphere was “discovered.” Millions of people knew about both for millennia, just not the people who counted. It is a myopia that art historians have helped sustain through their habitual “canvas or it didn’t happen” bias, but once you look beyond easel painting, it becomes clear that af Klint’s seemingly unprecedented visual language had been circulating for centuries in the diagrams, illustrations, and serial formats of books and prints.

Ela Bittencourt's review of Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s new anthology Photography after Photography: Genre, Gender, History for Hyperallergic

The Art Institute of Chicago has pulled a show of Native American pottery:
"The principal thing that we have not accomplished is to have an aligned indigenous perspective, scholarly and curatorial, with the project,” [president and director James Rondeau] said. “And I think that ultimately for us has been the crucial realization that our ability to reflect back what we were learning needed to be done in multiple voices, not just our voice."