Wednesday 30 December 2015

Growing on me

A friend sent me a link just before Christmas to something I'd missed earlier this year - the NYT 'walkthrough' of Matisse's cut-outs at MOMA.

I'd be hesitant to call this an 'interactive' (even if they do) as there's no interaction beyond being able to horizontally scroll forwards and backwards. (I instinctively tried to click images a few times, to get zoomable versions or more information). As you move along, the info panels quietly update, in the manner of encountering a wall text as you enter a new gallery in the exhibition (I would've actually liked more of a cue that the text was updating so as to notice it more quickly - also, they're rather long on the lyricism and short on the fact).

At first, I really disliked the flattened approach. I've always enjoyed the art of laying out an exhibition in a three-dimensional space, the use of sightlines to lead you through the experience, the way works hung on intermediary walls can be part of more than one grouping. These full-frontal composite photos flatten out the viewing experience, and really do emphasise the nature of 'scrolling'. The one photo that does give you the sense of a built space instead of a flat page - above - is the weakest point in the experience. I wonder how it would (or wouldn't?) work for sculptural objects?

And yet, as I spent time with it, it grew on me. As my friend observed, it's far more enjoyable than that ghastly Google Street View zooming-around-galleries thing, which I dislike using (though I appreciate what the project's done in terms of loosening digital constraints). And I became quite fond of the intentionally unsmoothed photo composites, the places where walls and floors didn't line up.

And then I realised that fondness stems from years of enjoying encounters with Peter McLeavey's composite photos (modelled here by Robert Leonard and Jacqueline Fraser in 1986).

Sunday 27 December 2015

Summer school

I was trying to explain the other day to a wrestling friend who came by the house whilst I was sitting on the floor, tapping away on my laptop, surrounded by old issues of Art New Zealand, just why it is I spend a decent portion of my free time editing Wikipedia.

After just saying that I was a nerd, I explained that just like jiu jitsu is, for me, about the pleasure of exercising physical skill (on occasion - most of the time it's about aspiring to exercising physical skill whilst having my head sat on), working on Wikipedia is a way of exercising my mental skills - a combination of my body of knowledge and my abilities as a researcher and writer, combined with a sense of satisfaction about fixing things on the internet. I guess it's kind of become my thing.

Over my summer break I've set myself the task of trying to improve the coverage of New Zealand women art historians and curators, feminist art, and key exhibitions. It involves a lot of old school research, and my god, do I wish Spiral and Antic and Broadsheet had been digitised already - and that Art New Zealand  was more fully available online and with better search functionality. It's also struck me that we're immensely reliant on obituaries to pull together and publish narratives of professional lives - try making a career history out of what you can find online about Priscilla Pitts or Paula Savage or Jenny Harper, for example.

Anyway. So far I've created pages on Tina Barton, Jill Trevelyan, Rhana Devenport, the exhibition Alter / Image and artist Allie Eagle. I've also added more detail to pages on the exhibition Bottled Ocean and the entry for Ngahuia Te Awekotuku (and myriad other bits and pieces as I fall over articles of relevance). Today's target might be improving the entry on Cheryll Sotheran.

(Current stats: 71 pages created, 230 pages edited, 1326 edits)

Saturday 26 December 2015

Reading list, 26 December 2015

Most of my reading this week was offline, research done using catalogues and journals for my summer Wikipedia project (god, what I wouldn't give for Art New Zealand and Midwest to be fully digitised). But I squeezed in a few things.

Jerry's Saltz's lengthy piece on public art and cultural programming in New York. I don't always understand what Saltz is asking *for*, as opposed to railing *against*, but it's always mind-widening to read a decent piece by him.

Pantograph Punch's summary of Auckland exhibitions to 2015, about half of which I agree with and about three-quarters of which I saw. I wish Wellington had this depth of coverage, but 2015 has really reinforced for me the gravitational pull of Auckland, and the difference that sheer population scale makes to an art scene.

A long NYT interview from earlier this year with Jenny Diski. Diski was such an important part of my 20s. I'm gonna miss her when she's gone.

This WSJ infographic (and accompanying blog post) on measuring success across genres. It made me feel ... inarticulately uneasy.

This articulate and insightful interview of Kushana Bush by Megan Dunn. More of these next year please, Pantograph Punch.

And I guess we needed something Christmas themed: Vogue nails it with 'Why Museum Gift Shops Are Actually a Christmas Miracle'

Tuesday 22 December 2015

Actually, the labels were really bloody good

I should just stop following links through to Judith Dobrzynski's blog on the ArtJournal platform, because they almost inevitably leave me feeling scratchy and combative. There's a mendacious 'gotcha!' tone to many of her posts, an in-the-know way of writing that I often find mean-spirited.

But this post lambasting the labels in the touring Heatherwick Studios exhibition currently on show at the Cooper Hewitt annoyed me so much I felt I needed to write something. Here's what Dobrzynski had to say:
There’s little questions that some museums have dumbed down their labels of late. Granted, people seem to know less and less about art, even as museum attendance seems to be growing. (That may be because there’s so much more to know and to learn about art, what with more museums showing increasingly broad and diverse offerings). For prime evidence of the dumbing down, though, look no further than the Copper Hewitt Museum in Manhattan. I was there a week ago to view Provocations: The Architecture and Design of Heatherwick Studio. Heatherwick’s work is original, innovative and fascinating. But neither the show nor the labels do him justice. 
We’ll stick to the labels here, which are framed as questions. Probably meant to be engaging, to involve viewers, they instead are condescending. The museum feels like a kindergarten.
Now, there's a point here that I agree with. As the offer and the audience at art museums gets broader and broader (and contemporary art continues to become less and less figurative, and an audience's familiarity with Western religious stories, literature and classical subjects can be less and less taken for granted) it *is* becoming harder to write labels that will offer something of value to every visitor. This is why we see museums offering layers of interpretation, often through digital supplements, to try to offer an entry point to an unfamiliar visitor and a new idea to a familiar one.

But I saw Provocations earlier this year, and was actually delighted by the labels. I thought they did a marvellous job of demonstrating to a lay audience how the studio approaches a project - and what makes them unique. Each label starts with the central design problem, posed as a question, and then explicates what the studio settled on as a solution or answer. They captured the playful spirit of the studio's work, and the sense of social engagement I saw in the images and maquettes.

In fact, I thought the labels were so good that I took shitty memory-jogging photos of them:

New London bus



Hereford Community Centre (unrealised)

'Spun' chair

And here's the text for the Zip Bag:
How can you make objects out of long pieces of zipper? 
Discovering as a student that it was possible to buy a 656-foot-long roll of continuous zipper, Heatherwick began researching ways to use this material to make three-dimensional objects. The studio produced various bags, vessels, and even a dress before approaching Longchamp, the French handbag company, about collaborating. The resulting design incorporates strips of fabric between the toothed edges of the zipper so that the bag could double its size when unzipped. The Longchamp Zip Bag, which began as an experiment in 1993, was retailed worldwide in 2004 and became a bestseller.
You can see for yourself though, as the Cooper Hewitt has posted all the projects with all their labels online

Design and architecture shows are the genre of museum display that I struggle most with - the Gehry exhibition I saw at LACMA, for example, was just a sea of plywood and different shades cardboard, which was exhausting on the eyes and hard to imagine as shapes in space. The Heatherwick exhibition in contrast was a joy, from the interactive project at the start that let you print out pieces of tickertape to carry around with you, to the cunning modular display that makes it a good touring show (curated by Cooper Hewitt's Brooke Hodge, the exhibition was organised by the Nasher Sculpture Center and also showed at the Hammer Museum in LA).

In contrast to the Heatherwick labels (condescending to the point of insulting, Dobrzynski concludes) she approvingly cites a 2010 newspaper interview with John Baldessari:
“I don’t think you really have to spoon feed the viewer,” he explained. “You just have to give them something to hang on to and they can begin to unravel it themselves. It’s kind of like reading a detective story, you get a clue, you follow that.”
And I honestly can't see where she finds the distance between that commonplace idea and the Heatherwick labels.

Sunday 20 December 2015

On the radio - special edition

Many thanks to Lynn Freeman from Standing Room Only on RNZ National, who let me come in and talk about the digital innovations I saw at the Brooklyn Museum and Cooper Hewitt this year, making fulfilling the requirements of my Winston Churchill Fellowship that little bit easier.

Saturday 19 December 2015

Reading list, 19 December 2015

This week I read:

Vu Le's (of 'Non-Profit With Balls') post Hey, you want nonprofits to act more like businesses? Then treat us like businesses.

This excerpt from Ruth Bernard Yeazell's Picture Titles: How and Why Western Paintings Acquired Their Names which draws on Gombrich's observation that titling of artworks became more common when the mobility of artworks (a painting's likelihood of being moved from one location to another, from one audience to another) grew.

Nina Simon's prep piece for a twitter live-chat about donations/giving and cultural organisations. Nina's observations about how moving into a fundraising role has made her think more about her own giving are fascinating. She also points to the elephant in the room:
I became more and more aware of the screwed-up societal inequities that make philanthropy possible. One of the ways we redistribute wealth in an inequitable society is by asking rich people to voluntarily donate. And then we celebrate their generosity, rarely questioning why they had the capacity to give in the first place. Especially in the arts, research shows an alarming imbalance in what kinds of organizations have access to grants and donations. Our system of philanthropy often reinforces the inequity that it theoretically has the power to disrupt.
This lengthy interview with Seb Chan (who joined ACMI this year as Chief Experience Officer) about the evolution of his career - a gem for understanding how 'digital' has evolved in museums this century.

Russell Davies breaking down a panel discussion on the future of the BBC (sounds dry, is actually fascinating and, well - depressing).

The NYT on the appointment of Nancy Spector (ex-Guggenheim) as chief curator at the Brooklyn Museum, an institution of which I'm extremely.

Something old, but new: this week we digitised the Bone Stone Shell catalogue at work, so it's now available online to download and read.

Wednesday 16 December 2015

On the radio

Today on the radio I talked about two stories coming out of Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands (including this one about removing racially charged terms from the online information about artworks) and shows to see around the country over Christmas

Necessary Distraction: A Painting Show - Auckland Art Gallery

Sister Corita's Summer of Love - Govett-Brewster Art Gallery

Julian Dashper & Friends - City Gallery Wellington

New Zealand Photography Collected - Te Papa

Seraphine Pick: White Noise - The Dowse Art Museum

Christchurch Art Gallery re-opens 19 December

Jae Hoon Lee: Stranger in a Strange Land - Dunedin Public Art Gallery

Saturday 12 December 2015

Reading list, 12 December 2015

What I've been reading this week ...

This NYT feature on 'female artists now in their 70s, 80s and 90s we should have known about decades ago' floated across the transom this week, recalling for me Brooklyn Museum's work in 2010 writing Wikipedia entries rather than a catalogue for their exhibition of the work of female Pop artists, a project which in turn inspired the Wikipedia project we did at The Dowse in 2014/15, and my own ongoing editing work.

Last weekend I talked to some people about the massive changes in scale faced by libraries and museums as they go from trying to collect and preserve a physical world to trying to collect and preserve a digital world. This article in The Atlantic by Adrienne Lafrance tells the story of one piece of PulitzerPrize-winning journalism and its journey on to, off of, and back onto, the web.

Eric Rodley's write-up of MCN in Minneapolis reminded me again of the fact that this is the conference I am saddest to have not yet attended. The quality of content is one thing, but the creation of a community is another even greater achievement. I have mentally ticketed his recommendation of Liz Ogpu's keynote for summer watching.

John Herman's piece ''Access Panic'' for The Awl, on the media's role after the problem of people's access to information has been solved. Still digesting this, but *fascinating*.

In a project titled 'Adjustment of Colonial Terminology', the Rijksmuseum is reviewing the titles and descriptions of artworks in its collection, and removing or changing racially-charged terms such as 'Negro' and 'Hottentot'. Apparently staff recently reported on the project at a conference - I'd love to know how it was received.

This week I was interviewed by MBIE and MCH as preliminary research for a review of the Copyright Act. When asked what the challenges are facing the arts sector, one of the key things I identified was the shrivelling mainstream media coverage of the arts. At the same time when newspaper publishers in particular seem to be in a race to the bottom that's paved with clickbait, we as consumers are becoming increasingly good at filtering out 'irrelevant' news. Galleries once relied on arts sections in newspapers to put exhibitions and artists in front of browsers who might be interested even when they thought they weren't: no matter how much we boost posts on Facebook, we can't replicate the value of good newspaper presence. Which is all a long way of saying that this review of John Stackhouse's Mass Disruption: Thirty Years on the Front Lines of a Media Revolution makes a number of similar points.

Thursday 10 December 2015

First they take 'curate' away from us ...

... and now it's 'museum' that's been filched by the marketers for their own nefarious practices.*^ The American media has been awash (where 'awash' means 'four articles I have read') with commentary on Glade's Museum of Feelings. From the official listing:

This holiday season, Glade® invites consumers to explore their emotions at The Museum of Feelings, an interactive experience built to showcase the beautiful connection between scent and emotion. Visitors will be taken on a sensory journey through the Museum, where Glade® fragrances act as the muse to inspire visitors to explore their emotions.

A series of five interactive light, sound and scent installation rooms lead the visitor to the gift store, where they can purchase Glade's new scented candle range.

The emotional tone of the commentary quivers between bemused and scathing. From the Village Voice:
Housed in a pulsating cube nestled between a luxury mall and a yacht harbor (just blocks from noted tourist attraction Ground Zero), this paean to...what, really?... is a confusing mix of ambient advertising and immersive art. ... 
The cube’s exterior changes color based on the mood of New York City, which (according to a press release put out by Glade® parent company SC Johnson) is determined by “the sentiment of conversations by New Yorkers on Twitter, coupled with local news and trends including the weather, stock exchange fluctuations and flight delays”. Evidently rage stroke coupled with crippling panic attack is a vibrant teal that undulates into fuschia.
From the NYT:
At the end of the exhibit, Ms. Santoro and Ms. Borghini, who work nearby, were shuffled through a gift store. There were no negative emotions on sale, perhaps because it might be difficult to sell a $9 envy-themed scented candle. 
The two friends were asked to stand in front of a large camera and take a selfie, which was then evaluated and tagged with an emotion. It took a few tries, but in the end, the machine returned its assessment: “Indifferent.”
Jared Keller in the Smithsonian Magazine undertakes a scholarly investigation of the marketing ploy. His headline, Fear and Loathing at the Museum of Feelings, might give you a hint of how that pans out:
Without some level of pedagogical logic and civic intent, is it simply an entertaining art installation, regardless of who foots the bill for its construction? In the eyes of historians like Ward, the Museum of Feelings represents a “clever attempt to conflate itself with something respectable.” 
To Ward, it’s indicative of a larger trend in American culture: a tendency to crowdsource art and culture, to turn things to the masses, in lieu of the careful (if elitist) curation of scholars and academics that imparts museums with the knowledge and sensibility that makes them worthy stewards of the title.“Instead of rationality and pedagogy, we’re getting something closer to a carnival,” says Ward. “There’s no demonstrably larger social significance running through a place like the [Museum of Feelings] … so why are they pretending it’s something it isn’t?”
Gotta love that 'simply an entertaining art installation': clearly, Jared has never tried and failed with a family-focused art exhibition. At the same time there's an effort in the article to untangle where corporate and philanthropic support of a museum meshes with the integrity of its programming.

My favourite piece is probably Dayna Evans for The Awl, kind of a Lena Dunham meets art review:
From the tiny screens of my computer and phone, art looks mostly dull, flat, and familiar, especially when it arrives via jpeg or tinyletter or Tumblr scroll. Only a few weeks before I first heard about the Museum of Feelings, I had ordered a new Rizzoli art book called Feelings: Soft Art, a collection of works by contemporary artists that explore the evocative emotions drawn out by visual art. In many ways, this book is drastically different from what the Museum of Feelings attempts to accomplish—which is, make millennials think Glade airspray is trendy and aware and worthy of use—but in some ways, it is not. When Cat and I tried to figure out how it was we even came to learn about the pop-up museum, we both realized that a lot of our more “arty” friends had said they were attending the Facebook event. It spread virally. We trusted those people’s tastes, so we decided to go. We never really thought to check if it was worthy of praise, or even exactly what it was. 
This is the same principle by which the casual museum attendee learns to namedrop Cézanne and Miró. MoMA is just as much sponsored content as the Museum of Feelings—they’re just sponsored by different power structures.
(Like the Village Voice, Evans identifies the James Turrell / Hotline Bling overtones to the installation's aesthetic, the ubiquity of which is possibly now even further emphasised by Pantone's 2016 Colour of the Year.)

It's all a long way away from Charles Simic's William and Cynthia, which I quoted from three years ago in a presentation where I talked about what I imagined when I thought about a museum of emotions:

Says she'll take him to the Museum
of Dead Ideas and Emotions.
Wonders that he hasn't been there yet.
Says it looks like a Federal courthouse
With its many steps and massive columns.

Apparently not many people go there
On such drizzly gray afternoons.
Says even she gets afraid
In the large exhibition halls
With monstrous ideas in glass cases,
Naked emotions on stone pedestals
In classically provocative poses.

Says she doesn't understand why he claims
All that reminds him of a country fair.
Admits there's a lot of old dust
And the daylight is the color of sepia,
Just like this picture postcard
With its two lovers chastely embracing
Against a painted cardboard sunset.

After all this reading, I remain curious about one question. How strong was the pull of that word 'museum'? Was it the selfies on Instagram that got New York's 20-somethings queueing for this experience, or does the word hold some special magic? I'd like to think the latter, in which case I am sure we will survive Glade's assault upon our ramparts, and live to fight in the culture wars on yet another day.

*I mostly joke here. Some of my best friends work in comms and marketing. Hell, I work in comms and marketing, and we're all shameless.
^Also, as I was discussing on Twitter tonight, 'curate' is arguably better understood now than it was before it was co-opted for everything from wardrobes to playlists to friend groups. Prior to that, who could've told you that curating has something to do with making informed selections and publicly presenting them?

Wednesday 9 December 2015

Some things change

About once a month I have a mental (or online) rant over the museums-are-changing-for-the-worse meme (dumbing down, too much technology, not enough technology whatevs).

Sometimes its valuable to be reminded of how long-seated some of the 'democratising' efforts at our museums and galleries are. Last week this Art New Zealand article about the opening of the Manawatu Art Gallery in 1977 was floating around The Dowse.

Apart from the fact that the build cost less than half a million and that the gallery had only three full-time staff (director Luit Bieringa, Exhibitions Officer Margaret Taylor and secretary Esme Robinson - the writer does note that the MAG had a similar amount of floor space to Auckland Art Gallery, then operating with the princely total of over 20 staff) it's interesting how much the opening displays mirror how the sector still launches today.

Perhaps one difference is the incorporation of craft, much more a feature of the 1950s-1970s era than the 1980s-2000s:
Entering the first gallery space there was a display of weaving and large photo panels, featuring potters at work. In the floor area a loom and two potter wheels plus tables of clay stood to be used in demonstrations.
However, the next section of the install is exactly the kind of experience that would be tweeted heavily for its innovation today:
The gallery opposite was enclosed in a darkened space set up for a TOUCH exhibition. Participants were blindfolded on entry and felt their way along a predetermined path of specially laid carpet. They slowly handled and touched a diverse range of functional, decorative and art objects.
The largest space was dedicated to "contemporary New Zealand painters who had different approaches to their art" (Toss Woollaston, Ray Thorburn, Don Driver, Gretchen Albrecht, Brent Wong, Pat Hanly and Philip Trusttum - not quite the diversity you'd expect today, but interesting for the figures who are left out: McCahon and Walters in particular). A further downstairs space "revealed a bizarre array of hands: skeleton and X-ray hands, wax hands, photographs and other visual material related to hand imagery" - the wunderkammer aesthetic never dies.

It's upstairs where things get gritty though. Climb past the awesome Ian Scott from their collection to discover the mezzanine gallery, where:
... the more vanguard art was shown: a Bruce Barber video tape Hand Game for Artists, Politicians and Solipsists, plus photo pieces, mail art and other contemporary works. In the lecture/film room, Brian McNeill's specially commissioned synchronised tape and slide presentation was shown to curious and aghast audiences. No doubt the title Hand Erotic Moves Divine lured many people to see a technically superb work. Films related to hands also screened, making the entire Show of Hands an exhausting journey through many different approaches and attitudes to art.
This article was written two years before I was born, and yet I recognise everything in it. Right to the last two paragraphs:
At the official opening ceremony on Sunday, 3 July, where politicians stood up and took credit for everything they did not do, Brian Ellwood, the Mayor of Palmerston North, stated a very important principle - this gallery was able to be designed and operated so successfully because of his principle of non-interference. As a local body politician he let the art professionals get on with their job. Such a statement drew much applause from the audience, especially from those in the art world who were suffering, or have suffered, such harassing political interference. David Taylor justly received a rousing ovation as the architect who made the building happen, though he was shyly hiding in the crowd. 
The product of Brian Ellwood's 'non-interference' policy in Palmerston North is the best designed gallery space in New Zealand; and an exhibitions and cultural programme that far outstrips the gallery's meagre budget in terms of imagination and scope.

Monday 7 December 2015

Call for proposals - Tauhere

Tauhere | Connections* is a new journal in the New Zealand museum sector, initiated by the Emerging Museum Professionals group, which is in turn supported by Museums Aotearoa (of which I am in turn a board member. Turtles all the way down.)

Anyway. Back to the journal. Tauhere is envisioned as a space for newer museum professionals to share their thinking and research. The first issue, edited by Tamara Patten and Rebecca Keenan, will be launched at next year's joint Museums Aotearoa / Museums Australia conference in Auckland. If you're a newer member of the sector, this will be a great way to get your name in front of a lot of senior managers (and your peers too, of course, but let's think strategically about career development here.)

The theme of the issue is the same as that of the conference: Facing the Future: Local, Global and Pacific Possibilities. The overarching theme is Hāngaitanga|Relevance and the sub-themes are Custodianship; Place; Knowledge; Practice.

Submissions can take all kinds of forms, and are due by Friday 26 February 2016.  A PDF of the call for papers here, as that web link above is not going to last forever.

If you're thinking about sending something in and would like to workshop an idea, I'd be very happy to help. You can find me on Twitter or leave a comment on this post.

Saturday 5 December 2015

Reading list 5 December 2015

This past week I've:

Followed Matt Webb's Twitter poem Like to Continue (at least, until this)

Tried to mentally draw some connections between Bethany Nowviskie's 2013 lecture (pointed to by Tom Armitage) that unpacks William Morris's famous quote 'you can’t have art without resistance in the material' in light of digital technology and this article about a Indiegogo project to produce 3D printed versions of famous paintings for blind people.

Looked to the NYT's 100 Notable Books of 2015 for Christmas reading (it's December, y'all! We've nearly made it through another year.)

Read Lenny's interview with Kimberly Drew, online outreach manager for the Met, and realised she's basically living what would've been my mid-20s dream if my mid 20s had happened this decade, not last.

(Drew also runs the Black Contemporary Art tumblr - and her story makes a good pendant to the NYT piece Black Artists and the March Into the Museum by Randy Kennedy)

Read Maureen Dowd's lengthy NYT piece 'The Women of Hollywood Speak Out' and wondered if its been the same for women in the art and business worlds here in Aotearoa.

Saved Lara Strongman's oral history of the past five years at Christchurch Art Gallery for a more leisurely reading opportunity.

Nearly died over this Reddit BJJ thread on names for a new gym, deservedly won by Derek Zoolander Center For People Who Can't Jiu-Jitsu Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Grappling Stuff Good Too.

Friday 4 December 2015

Art of Empire

In the second-to-most-recent episode of 'Empire', Lucious Lyon leads a pop star's minder/agent out of his living room (creating time for the star to get to know his R&B starlet son better) by uttering the immortal line "Would you like to see my new Mickalene Thomas?".

The use of visual art in the world-building of Empire is one of the show's main appeals for me. Art often features as a metaphorical element in tv and movies, but never have I seen it used so consistently and with such a sense of political statement.

Apart from a key Klimt in an early scene in Season One (which Cookie writes off as ugly), a hazy Monet in the Empire offices and a portentous copy of van Gogh's Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette used to underline a twist in Lucious's story arc, most of the artists are contemporary black Americans, from Kara Walker to Jean-Michel Basquiat, to prominent and repeated use of Kehinde Wiley, to younger and newer artists like Ebony G. Patterson.

I'm far from being the only person fascinated by it. This New Yorker article by Antwaun Sargent describes how Lee Daniels, the show's creator, works with set decorator Caroline Perzan and galleries, museums and artists to select and secure the work for the show:
“We choose pieces that match the taste of the Lyons and the world they live in—sometimes it’s over the top, but most times it’s classy and my definition of ghetto fabulous,” Daniels told me. His view seems to reflect a yearning to open the artworks up to an entirely new language for interpretation. For example, Wiley’s 2007 oil-on-canvas painting “Officer of the Hussars,” which hangs in the Detroit Institute of Arts, shows a young male straddling a horse, with a sword in hand. The painting plays with the aesthetics of race, power, and masculinity, as does much of Wiley’s work. Hakeem Lyon  is the youngest member of the family, and one plot line follows his attempts to be more than just a rapper; the “Hussars” replica hangs in Hakeem’s living room. 
In this video interview for Time, Wiley describes how Daniels approached him to have his work reproduced on the show: "He didn’t know if it was going to be the biggest car wreck or the biggest success," Wiley said. "And I said, 'Sure.'"

Earlier this year though Hyperallergic gave the best breakdown of how art is used on the show, in an article by John Sherman titled 'How the Identity Politics of ‘Empire’ Play Out on Its Walls':
Not 10 minutes into the pilot episode of Fox’s TV drama Empire, Kehinde Wiley’s bright yellow portrait “Prince Albert, Prince Consort of Queen Victoria” looms into view above the dining room table where the men of the Lyon family are gathered: Lucious Lyon and his three sons, Andre, Jamal, and Hakeem, the scions of Empire Records. The portrait’s subject, a young Jamaican man, appears like a fourth son, looking on attentively from his frame, a prince among princes.
And it includes a point that totally escaped me at the time:
In contrast, Andre, Lucious’s eldest son, lives with his blonde, white wife in a townhouse full of dull landscape paintings and a color palette that runs from eggshell to ecru. Andre Lyon is an outsider within the family, having finished an Ivy League MBA instead of a chart-topping album. In their first meeting after Cookie’s release from prison, she asks Andre frankly, “Why’d you marry that white girl?” The spaces he occupies are cold and dull, with none of the color of Wiley or Savoie, further distancing him from the rest of his family.
Andre and Rhonda (the 'blonde, white wife') have, of course, just moved into a new mansion on Long Island, bought for them by Lucious, who is overwhelmed by the fact they are about to produce his first grandchild (still surprised that pregnancy hasn't turned out to be faked, personally). Now that Andre has found both God and his way back into the Lyon pride, will his art take a step upwards too?

Thursday 3 December 2015

Oh, humbug

Every so often I read something very well meaning and my initial response is 'Oh, dear lord, no', and then I feel like a right dick.

My most recent of these was this article in the Telegraph about a start-up's proposal (and Indiegogo campaign) to make 3D printable models of famous paintings to assist vision-impaired people to experiencing the artworks.

I applaud the urge - increasing access to art for a group who obviously finds visual art (and the touch-free way it is delivered in museums) incredibly hard to engage with. The Brooklyn Museum, for example, has made great use of 3D printed replicas of collection items as part of their sensory tours. Riah King-Wall recently wrote up a range of museum offerings in New Zealand for people with various disabilities.

But I'm kind of mystified as to why the company has chosen to run their campaign on the basis of a painting and not one of any number of equally famous sculptures. The 3D printed version of the Mona Lisa gives only the most generic indication of what might be happening in this work, which has enabled it to exert such cultural power - and completely ignores the landscape which forms such a significant element of the whole. How does the material of the printed object -  the key piece of sensory information - relate in any way to the painted surface. And how can colour and perspective be conveyed?

The Unseen Art company's own promotional video of a woman handling the 3D print captures my question. While she notes that the object has aroused her curiosity, she also says "I’d like to have a guide here to tell me what is it that is so special about this." Going back to the Brooklyn Museum's sensory tours, a model of a sculpture is used as one of a number of props designed to recreate the original artwork in the participants' minds - all bound together by the words of the educator leading the session.

I don't mean to just lay into this idea, because it obviously comes from a very good place. But I do question the pedagogy and the relevance of it. In the sector, people are still trying to find ways that 3D printing technology might yet fit in ... I just don't think displays of printed-out paintings are going to be it. (Then again, Rembrandt Remastered exists, so I'm clearly not a great judge of anything.)

It did all make me think though - we have no art form that appeals specifically to the sense of touch. Visual art for sight, music for hearing, food and drink (I'd happily argue that they've been raised to an art form) for smell and taste. Dance may be kinaesthetically pleasing and you may feel a physical empathy with the dancer, but it is not exploiting the sense of touch. Fashion is more about visual effect than sensual experience. Interesting.

Tuesday 1 December 2015

Trying to figure out what "my practice" might look like.

There's been an inevitable attack of the doldrums over the past month as I've returned to normal life after my trip to the States and two weeks re-immersing myself in all things museum-web at Museums and the Web Asia and the National Digital Forum.

I took five weeks off work (or off normal work, at least), and that is the longest break I've had since leaving university. What I didn't appreciate until I got back into the office was how, away from the everyday nudging of people and projects and issues that makes up running an organisation, and away from the always being on that I feel as a director, this extra level of smart opened up inside my head. I was able to see and learn and question and observe and absorb and draw connections with an intensity my real-life brain doesn't seem to have the capacity to do.

I've really struggled with this through November. It feels like the salt has come out of my working life: the good bits haven't shone as brightly as they usually do and the bad bits have been suckier than normal.

In an attempt to hold on to that intellectual excitement of September and October I've been spending more time here on my blog, trying to think through and articulate my responses to the things I see as I canvas my sector every day on the internet. I've also been making a quiet effort to foster opportunities for newer members of the museum sector, especially those who are writing and publishing online - because that's how I got my break.

Last week I attended the Auckland Museum medals ceremony, where senior researchers are honoured for their contributions. One of the awardees was Anthony Wright, long-term director of the Canterbury Museum but even longer-term botanist (a fact of which I was shamefully unaware). He began his botany career at Auckland Museum and has contributed over 16,000 specimens to its collections. After the awards I had dinner with Ian Griffin, director of Otago Museum. In addition to running the museum, Ian is an incredibly prolific science communicator and astro-photographer, and the soon-to-be-opened Planetarium at Otago Museum has been driven by his passion, knowledge and intellectual output.

That really go me thinking. These guys are running two of our biggest cultural institutions, but are still finding time to do what they got into this business for: Science. Actively undertaking research and adding to a corpus of knowledge and being part of their community.

I got my first team leader role in my late 20s and ever since then I've felt like I've drifted further and further away from the things I am good at: my equivalent of making things by hand. It's not astronomy or botany, but my ability to gather and wrestle and interpret and create an experience from information and imagery is something I really treasure - and something I feel I only get to do these days in a rushed or prosaic manner. I badly miss the pleasure of sitting down for an afternoon and just doing something I am good at.

This in turn got me thinking - what does my practice look like? Those abilities found their best expression in my work on web and social media projects when I was working at the National Library, and on a project with Chris McDowall a couple of years ago which has now gone offline. I've never been a curator, a designer, a writer or editor - I've been a coraller, a synthesiser, a presenter. And it's harder to do those things (or at least in my own experience it is) without an external impetus. I really miss my old project work these days, and the clarity and satisfaction of tasks like the extra-curricular editing jobs I used to take on.

So it's time to pull out of this silly little nosedive and snap this problem to the grid. Instead of treating this blog and my Wikipedia editing as extras that I just carry on out of habit, or things that I do when I should be doing other, more important things, I'm going to try thinking about them as my practice. My contribution to a body of knowledge and a community. I'm 29 posts away from 1,500 entries on this site and have made over 1,100 contributions to Wikipedia. If I think of these posts and edits as specimens or astro-photos, maybe I'll start feeling more convinced in myself of the value of what I put out into the world.

And I'm keen to support others who are trying to make things too. If there's something I can help you with, I'd love to hear from you.

Monday 30 November 2015

Hello Barbie

One of the things I was most excited to try on my research trip to the States was the Brooklyn Museum's Ask app, their flagship digital product designed to encourage deeper looking and questioning from their visitors while they are in the museum. (Read about the ongoing development of Ask; see my MWA and NDF talk notes on using the Ask app.)

I thought the Ask app would be hard to use, because I'm often a fairly incurious visitor. I either know what I'm looking at, and am therefore processing my take on it (as a result of years of reviewing), or - if I'm not familiar with what I'm seeing - I'll read the labels and, if they're insufficient, I'll get interested instead of the professional problem of interpretation rather than questions about the objects. At first with the Ask app I had to push myself to find questions to ask the support team through the app that weren't already answered by the information presented in the display or by my own general knowledge.

Once I got into the swing of it though it I was surprised by how quickly I struck up what felt like a rapport with the person on the other end of the app. I started submitting observations rather than questions. I wanted to develop - not exactly a friendship, exactly, but a connection that would make the unidentifiable person on the other end of the phone feel like I was more than just some normal visitor.

I knew quite a lot about the app going in, so I was always aware the a real live person - well versed in the Museum's collection and with access to a growing database of answers to queries from visitors just like me - was on the other end.  However I've heard or read (but can't source it at the moment) that it has taken many people three or four exchanges to figure out it's a real person on the end of the line (the growing opposite of many online help services and corporate accounts, which are increasingly automated).

So this was the kind of stuff floating around in my head when I settled into my wait at the airport in Indianapolis with the NYT magazine and its lead article 'Barbie Wants to Get to Know Your Child', in which James Vhalos observed user testing sessions for Mattel's latest product, 'Hello Barbie'.

The toy has just been released for pre-sale. From the product info:
Using WiFi and speech recognition technology, Hello Barbie™ doll can interact uniquely with each child by holding conversations, playing games, sharing stories and even telling jokes. 
It's a whole new way to interact with Barbie®. 
She's ready to discuss anything in an outfit that blends trendy and techie for a cool look. 
Use is simple after set up -- push the doll's belt buckle to start a conversation, and release to hear her respond. 
More than 8,000 lines of recorded content means countless hours of fun! 
Just like a real friend, Hello Barbie™ doll listens and remembers the user's likes and dislikes, giving everyone their own unique experience.
Observing an early testing session, Vhalos recounts:
Hello Barbie is by far the most advanced to date in a new generation of A.I. toys whose makers share the aspiration of Geppetto: to persuade children that their toys are alive — or, at any rate, are something more than inanimate. At Ariana’s product-testing session, which took place in May at Mattel’s Imagination Center in El Segundo, Calif., near Los Angeles, Barbie asked her whether she would like to do randomly selected jobs, like being a scuba instructor or a hot-air-balloon pilot. Then they played a goofy chef game, in which Ariana told a mixed-up Barbie which ingredients went with which recipes — pepperoni with the pizza, marshmallows with the s’mores. "It’s really fun to cook with you," Ariana said. 
At one point, Barbie’s voice got serious. ‘‘I was wondering if I could get your advice on something,’’ Barbie asked. The doll explained that she and her friend Teresa had argued and weren’t speaking. ‘‘I really miss her, but I don’t know what to say to her now,’’ Barbie said. ‘‘What should I do?’’ 
"Say ‘I’m sorry,’" Ariana replied. 
"You’re right. I should apologize," Barbie said. "I’m not mad anymore. I just want to be friends again."
I was so struck by this interchange. This wasn't just canned dialogue about favourite colours or girl power platitudes. This was a serious conversation about how people should treat one another, with the child being asked to give an adult advice. (Do kids still see their Barbies as adult stand-ins, rather than peers? I certainly did. After all, Barbie has an adult body, a job, and an income that gives her consumer power.)

Toys are being launched that let kids build authentic relationships with an AI-driven personality. Robot tours of museums are already an accepted thing. Apps are being designed to give solo visitors a friend on the other end of the line. How long until Museum Docent Barbie is launched for your kids' visit needs?

(You can also, if you like, start to freak out about this newer, more powerful version of the nanny-cam, a toy that collects and parses the conversations your child thinks are between her and her friend.)

Saturday 28 November 2015

Reading List: 28 November 2015

I'm going to try putting together a weekly digest of the stuff I've been reading - partly as an aide-mémoire, and partly because others might find it interesting ...

A friend pointed me to this long Slate piece on the aftermath of the Sony data-hacks, and what it was like for employees in the company in the year following.

Tusk has launched a series on the concept of access in museums - here's Riah King-Wall's piece on supporting disability access.

On a linked topic - Over the Net calls out the overblown claims for open storage at The Broad (the only disappointing part of this exquisite new museum)

Duncan Greive's Anatomy of a Corporate Disaster is great reading, especially if you find gossip journalism distasteful.

Huffington Post writes up the Rijksmuseum's new campaign urging visitors to sketch rather than take photos, to encourage deeper slower looking.

Matariki Williams review Wellington Museum's new install 'The Attic', with an interesting focus on the display of clothing.

Chloe Cull's outstanding essay on Merata Mita for the Enjoy 'Love Feminisms' journal

Paul Daley's Encounters exhibition: a stunning but troubling collection of colonial plunder for the Guardian is a lengthy and thoughtful piece on the political, cultural, and museological questions around the National Museum of Australia's current exhibition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander taonga from the British Museum.

Quotes from My So-Called Life (I may as well be honest about my reading habits. My So-Called Life was transformative tv and is my generational marker.)

Monday 23 November 2015

Points in time

The Cooper Hewitt has just released a new feature on its collection site - a timeline of significant dates in an object's history (when it was made, acquired, exhibited and digitised).

The new feature was inspired by the timeline used by the New York Public Library (scroll to the bottom of the page), but differs in two ways.

First, they use different metadata. NYPL shows the birth and death dates of the maker, along with the creation and digitisation dates for the object. Cooper Hewitt doesn't have the maker info (as far as I can tell) but includes exhibition data and more finely differentiates the method of acquisition (donation, bequest, purchase).

Second, instead of a legend, Cooper Hewitt is (characteristically) using emoji to convey the timeline events.

The screenshot above shows the emoji version of the timeline and a plain text equivalent for accessibility purposes. As Sam Brenner writes in a blog post about the new timeline
The thought process for the second issue (use of color) went like this: 
Color will be useless so we will have to use shapes as well. But then we’ll need a legend because color or shape don’t have anything to do with timeline events like “date created” or “date exhibited.” But legends are a bummer — so old media! Maybe we could use symbols instead? Maybe we could use EMOJI?!?!? 
Beyond the fact that their symbolic nature transcends the “map a color to an idea” style of legend, emojis further a second goal that we have with the collections site, which is to “avoid feeling like a database.” They allow for novelty, comfort and humor to be injected into the digital world as quickly as typing a letter on a keyboard.
I am an old person and so I prefer the text version (though once I figure all the emoji out I do see that I'll be able to scan a timeline with much more rapid understanding than the coloured diamonds of NYPL). Over all, as with the Date Graph on the V&A Spelunker, I'm enjoying the new ways that are seeping through for museums to show something of the life stories of their collections online.

Saturday 21 November 2015

Bridges, not barriers

One of the things that really struck me on my trip to the States was the segregation between customer service staff and security staff at large American museums. In some cases, the customer services staff are museum employees, while the security guards are from an external firm. The customer services staff at the front desk are friendly, engaging, empowered to talk to visitors: the security guards are silent forms, doing their best to be invisible whilst also being watchful.

As this article about The Broad makes clear, the divisions between the two sets of staff can be very strong, and there's vested interest in keeping the roles separate:
But 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. To him, it's a way for museums to cut costs by folding separate security and visitor service functions into one. "I'm opposed to doing that," Layne said. "It can be a distraction from the primary mission" of protecting the art.
What bullshit.

Anyway. I started thinking about that again this week when I read this article in the Dallas Morning News about Nasher Sculpture Center guard Patricia Ann Jackson. Now, Jackson sounds like a really great asset for the museum:
Everyone’s a critic. The phrase is not typically meant as a compliment, but for those of us who do the job professionally, it’s not only a badge of honor, but a goal. Building an engaged public is one of our chief responsibilities, and we need all the help we can get.  
At the Nasher Sculpture Center, that help comes from an unlikely source, Patricia Ann Jackson, a native Dallasite who has worked as a guard at the museum for the last three years, mostly in the lower-level gallery, where she has gained a devoted following for her considerable charm and perspicacious, if idiosyncratic, commentary.  
 “If you come into a room and I’m the guard, I should be able to tell you something about the pieces that are in the room, and not just be a piece in the room,” says Jackson, 46.
But the overall tone of the article - which when I read it made it feel like Jackson was being presented almost like a talking dog, a strange and entertaining anomaly - made me feel really uncomfortable. Maybe it's just because my experience in New Zealand has been so different. In the three museums where I've worked FOH, and here at The Dowse, the expectation has always been that you will be engaged, and in turn be engaging. That this is where the job satisfaction is, in a role that otherwise involves a lot of standing around and telling people (a) not to touch that and (b) the toilets are down that flight of stairs and to the left. That American museums are only just coming around to the idea of the people on the floor with the visitors being there to act as a bridge, and not a barrier, astounds me.

Thursday 19 November 2015

Come for the arm bar, stay for an idea about layout options for an annotated anthology

In the wake of the demise of Grantland I've been dipping in and out of this extra-long piece on the history of Brazilian jiu jitsu, as told through the whakapapa of the highly influential originating Gracie family.

As well as the content, I've been very much enjoying the interaction design. The screen is split into two panels: one large right-hand panel for the body of the essay, and the slimmer left hand panel for a collection of assists for the reader.

The default setting is that the chapters of the essay are presented on the left, so you can see where you're at and jump around. The space is also available to add extra context without losing your place. For example, the Gracie family is large and complex. Every time a family member is mentioned, their name is hyperlinked to a family tree, which appears in the left-hand panel. Rolling over the name brings up the family tree in the place of the chapter list, so you can quickly situate them.

Likewise, here's an instructional that gives you a visual for a hallmark submission, the arm bar, that can be called up while you're reading.

It struck me this morning in the shower (everyone's best idea-generating zone, right?) that this format would play beautifully for a art historical texts, especially monographs and anthologies. Take this piece in an old Auckland Art Gallery Quarterly on McCahon's Here I give thanks to Mondrian.

The writer, Peter Tomory, also references several other works in the Gallery's collection: Takaka Night and Day, On Building Bridges, Waterfall, and the wider Gate series. Providing information and images about those works by calling on the McCahon database, letting you read the original text in its original layout and also call up the extra information as you wished to engage with it, could add a lot of value to the reading experience.

Visual footnoting and annotation is nothing new, of course. But I don't stay on top of digital art publishing, so you are simply being subjected to my belated thoughts on this topic - while also being given an opportunity to leave this all behind and click through to an engrossing piece of sports journalism.   

Wednesday 18 November 2015

Love Feminisms

This morning I started working my way through Enjoy's latest journal, 'Love Feminisms', which accompanies the current show Enjoy Feminisms.  So far I've skimmed Chloe Cull's excellent-looking essay on Merata Mita and pondered Lana Lopesi and Louise Afoa's essay on Pasifika artists, performance art, and the 'perfect' body.

I really wanted to submit something when the call for proposals went out for this project, but couldn't fit it in. So I've made my own commitment. Last summer over the Christmas break I wrote Wikipedia entries for senior New Zealand women artists, people like Pauline Rhodes, Anne Noble and Christine Hellyar. This summer I'm going to focus on some of our female art historians, curators and administrators: people like Priscilla Pitts, Cheryll Sotheran, Alexa Johnston and Jenny Harper - so that, for example, the link to Harper on this stub about Luit Bieringa doesn't lead to a Two and a Half Men cast list.

Monday 16 November 2015

The rise of post-digital roles

Bar the dumb line about taxidermy, this interview for Broadsheet is the best write-up I've seen so far of Seb Chan's new role at ACMI.

Seb first blew my mind at a NDF conference sometime last decade, talking about understanding what your visitors were *really* interested in by looking at their collection searches. At the Powerhouse Museum he created a role for the web team that was more integrated, more influential, and more innovative, than any other I saw in Australasia (and most likely further afield).

At the Cooper-Hewitt, Seb not only lead the team that conceptualised and made The Pen, and the underlying infrastructure that powers the museum experience in the galleries and online - he shaped a narrative about what is unique about the thinking and goals of that museum through his communication to peers and the public.

I am so excited to see what ACMI does in the next two years, because - as Seb puts it himself in this interview - the role he has as Chief Experience Officer is 'post-digital': taking all that learning and experience he's had, and applying it across the museum as a whole.

If I think about how I communicate with my friends, over years of acquaintance, face-to-face, via text and chat and email, through multi-person threads on Twitter or simply by maintaining an awareness of what's going on with them via their Instagram photos, I see a parallel with how a museum features in the life of a regular visitor: as a poster glimpsed on the street, a casual or carefully planned visit, a purchase at the shop, a Facebook post shared. At times the relationship is closer and more intense - at others it moves into the background. When I think about Seb's role as Chief Experience Officer, I think about him creating and feeding this web of micro-touches. I very much think of my work at The Dowse in this light but frankly - Seb is smarter and more experienced and better at making the future happen than I am. I look forward to continuing to learn from him.

Sunday 15 November 2015

10 things

Normally I avoid clicking through on any post that leads off with 5 things you need to know, but the two below came from recommenders I trust.

5 things I think journalism students need to know about technology by Martin Bellam is a brief introduction into the basic tools for meeting today's online communication conventions: from cutting a gif to the influence of media law on social media. It scares me a bit - it makes me feel old - that I don't have mastery of any of the five, because I feel like communication is my wheelhouse. Maybe this Christmas break's task is to learn how to make gifs.

5 things the media does to manufacture outrage by Parker Molloy follows the construction of a moment of media outrage, from her throwaway tweet about a lipstick name at Sephora through to the backlash-to-the-backlash articles about our Age of Outrage. This too scares me a bit, because I see it playing out all day every day on my Twitter feed and I can't help lamenting this vast suck of emotional and intellectual energy. Maybe my New Year's resolution is 'No more micro-complaints'.

Friday 13 November 2015

Peter McLeavey, 1936 - 2015

I wrote this for The Dowse's blog this morning and thought I would share it here to.

It was with great sadness that we heard this morning of the death of Peter McLeavey: champion of artists, charismatic denizen of Cuba Street, man of style, and guide for countless people into the riches of New Zealand's contemporary art.

Peter has always been key figure in my art world. I bought my first work from him in 2000, the year I moved to Wellington for university. A Jacqueline Fraser work on paper, it represented a pretty significant investment for me at the time. Once a month I would walk up those iconic white stairs and hand over my cheque for $100, and every month Peter would say to me 'Are you sure you can afford this? Because if you need it more, I can wait.' I accumulated a pile of his distinctive invoices, handwritten in green ink on thin paper: at the time, I felt like being the recipient of a sample of Peter McLeavey's handwriting was as awe-inspiring as being able to take home a work by an artist who would represent us at the Venice Biennale.

Peter for me was a link into the fabled and (by the time I got here) already-distant emergence of New Zealand contemporary art: it never failed to strike me that in his small rooms he had built the careers of artists like McCahon, Walters and Woollaston, that his belief in the vital importance of this country's art was a driving force in the creation of the art world in which I was tentatively finding my footing.

Peter made me - a person who still felt like a kid off a dairy farm - feel like I could belong in this world. As I grew up, I came to admire his even-handed generosity to every person who walked into his gallery. Everyone visitor to Peter McLeavey Gallery warranted the same respectful treatment, and everyone who showed an interest would be drawn into a conversation. Sometimes you heard the stories more than once - but it was hard to tire of the tale of the afternoon in a Waitara high school (just round the corner from where I grew up) when Peter McLeavey first fell in love with the power of art.  And I know my own Peter story is hardly unique, and thousands of people will be sharing theirs at this time.

One of the team observed to me this morning that Peter led a brave life, and that it was so good to know that the stories from that life, and the role he played in the development of our contemporary culture, have been captured and celebrated before his death. Jan Bieringa and Luit Bieringa produced the documentary 'The Man in the Hat', with cinematographer Leon Narbey - that documentary is available to watch on the NZonScreen site. Jill Trevelyan's award-winning biography Peter McLeavey: The life and times of a New Zealand art dealer, published by Te Papa Press, captured Peter's charisma and charm, but also the challenges of his life. And recently Robert Leonard curated a small exhibition for City Gallery Wellington McLeavey Sat Here, which looked at how artists were involved in and responded to the living legacy of the pioneering art dealer.

Peter's death will evoke great sadness in the many circles of people who knew and loved him, but also gratitude and admiration for a life lived to the hilt. The team at The Dowse and I send all our love and support to the McLeavey family.

Aroha nui,

Thursday 12 November 2015

Feel the heft

I've written before about Good, Form and Spectacle's indie collection discovery websites. This week they released a new 'spelunker', focused on a tiny subset of the British Museum's collection, the Waddesdon Bequest.

With under 300 objects, which are a mix of medieval and Renaissance objects and 19th century fakes, it's a delightfully contained experience. Aesthetically, it's really enjoyable to see black used as the background colour (most of the objects have been photographed against a black or very dark graduated background).

You can browse by maker, material, weight (weight! I've wanted this for ages), date, and many other facets. With such a small number of objects, the real beauty is in the way you begin to build connections between objects you see frequently, seeing them linked by the hand of a maker, their materiality, their age, or their subject matter. Groupings appear and disappear, with you developing a more rounded understanding of the pieces along the way.

They've also used their code to show size comparisons, based on the international language of the tennis ball. Beside that is a nifty interactive that lets you explore by physical location in the gallery - which would lend itself really well to use inside the building as well as online.

My favourite of these sites so far. Bravo.

Cultural institutions and the social compact

These are notes for a short talk I gave as part of a panel discussion at NSLA's Linked Up, Loud and Literate: Libraries enabling digital citizenship event at the National Library of New Zealand on November 12.

I'm usually a pretty sunny and optimistic person, but this talk as I prepared it took a decidedly bleak turn. It was actually really interesting to write and present something that wasn't exploratory or uplifting, and the resulting questions were more probing than those I usually provoke.

The quality thinking in this piece should be attributed to the cited authors: Cory Doctorow, Maciej Ceglowski and James Bridle. I just stitched it together with some observations from my recent experiences.


I recently returned from a research trip around art museums in the States, looking at, amongst other things, trends in digital development and engagement in art museum.

One strong trend is towards the collection and analysis of visitor data. This isn't through surveys or visitor-trailing, but rather by inducing people to sign up for traditional memberships (where you pay an annual fee for free access to a paid-entry museum) or for a new breed of museum membership, where you trade your data for access and benefits.

The leading exponent of this latter new membership model is the Dallas Museum of Art. Under (soon to depart) director Maxwell Anderson, over the past three years the DMA has removed entry charges and introduced a new Friends programme.

When you sign up for the programme, you give your contact details and your postcode information. In return, you are admitted to a programme where, through various activities, you can gain 'points' that can be traded in for benefits. For example, if you collect sufficient points by entering enough codes from the signs by gallery entrances, you can having your parking charges redeemed. In a city where the car is king, the free parking is a compelling offer. More points get you better access, more special and desirable rewards.

From a body of 100,000 plus Friends, the DMA is able to collect information about which galleries are visited, which programmes are attended, and which rewards are most desirable. Using the postcode information allows them to see where visitors are coming from and, by comparing this information to census data, draw conclusions about which demographics their visitors may represent - at scale.

The DMA is currently using this information to understand which communities they are reaching and not reaching, under-serving and over-serving. The more time that is invested, the more of a data-driven organisation they can become: carrying out targeted programming, marketing and community outreach activities, and measuring whether this has discernible impacts on visitor behaviour.

Now, this can be great. It is all too easy to rely on anecdotal information and your own perceptions of your audience and the success of your initiatives. It can also, I think, get a bit creepy.

We trade our data for convenience, for discounts, and for free things. Who here has bought something on Amazon? Has a Facebook account? Has a loyalty card for which you handed over your email address? We hand over our data merrily and maybe without thought for how this data is being stored, analysed, and shared.

If we look at the DMA's privacy policy, it states

We sometimes provide personal information to other providers of goods and services so that they may assist us in connection with ticket sales, event promotion, fundraising, or otherwise in connection with providing services or merchandise to you. However, we require that those providers use personal information only for that purpose, and we require our providers to provide assurances that they will appropriately protect personal information entrusted to them. 

A growing number of American museums are amping up their collection of data in order to increase engagement for the purposes of visitor acquisition, retention and conversion. One museum I met with was planning on implementing the DMA's software with a new free membership programme, with the same intent of understanding visitor demographics. They also had however a clear plan for using this information - this personalisation - for targeted marketing campaigns, and to convert visitors to shoppers, shoppers to donors: effectively, using the data to maximise revenue.

As well as giving us information to improve the relevance of our programmes, tackle inequality of access, and increase revenue generation, data can sometimes tell us things we'd rather not hear.

Colleen Dilenschneider is a consultant with a company in the States that specialises, among other things, in the application of data analysis in the non-profit sector. She writes and presents regularly on data as it relates to cultural and visitor organisations. One of her most recent blog posts crunched the data on free admission days - those monthly free days many paid-entry museums in the US run in the hopes of reducing the barriers to access for non-traditional visitors (read: those who are lower-earning, more geographically distanced, less educated and from a different racial or ethnic background to your average white middle-class middle-aged museum member).

The data shows that free admission days do not attract underserved audiences. Dilenschneider's research shows that:
  1. Admission price is not identified as the chief barrier to access
  2. Free access days attract higher earning and higher educated attendees than paid access days
  3. Free access days do not tempt non-visitors, but rather accelerate the speed at which an existing visitor revisits
  4. Cultural organisations generally don't know how to, or don't effectively, market free access days to underserved audiences but instead use their email databases, social media platforms and regular marketing outlets to tap the people they are already reaching. 
These are unsettling things for very well-meaning people to hear.

Dilenschneider's company generates these insights by buying data from many sources - the data of people just like us. They then analyse this data and sell that analysis and consultancy services back to cultural organisations - just like ours. I should note that Dilenschneider is not at all covert about this, and in fact that her company has been very generous in allowing her to share this data and information as freely as she does.

There's no escaping the fact though that companies are being built and money being made on the back of the landscape of data we are all drip feeding into.

Concern about the collection, security  and use of data - from the outing of philanders on dating sites to a former CIA director's statement "we kill people based on metadata" - are hardly new. As I was preparing for this talk though a number of presentations and articles floated across my radar that shared a common theme - the comparison of data technology to nuclear technology.

In the Guardian in 2008, Cory Doctorow wrote:

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 at that time proposed that data should be embargoed for 200 years, that anyone who touches or cares for that data over that period must be properly trained, and that businesses and government must be made to bear the costs associated with this.

At the start of October Pinboard founder Maciej Ceglowski spoke at O'Reilly Media's Big Data conference. Aiming to puncture the bubble of data enthusiasts, he painted a purposefully grim picture of data as, in his words,

not as a pristine resource, but as a waste product, a bunch of radioactive, toxic sludge that we don’t know how to handle.

Ceglowski drew an explicit link between data technology and nuclear technology, as two powerful innovations whose, in his words, "beneficial uses we could never quite untangle from the harmful ones."

Like Doctorow, Ceglowski describes the similarity between data and nuclear waste - a material that has the potential to last far longer than the institutions we build to manage it. He stated

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.

He also noted that data technology is creating a situation where people are reacting to the manipulations of big data, purposefully gaming systems, forcing an ever-evolving arms race between data collectors and data creators that creates more distance between us as humans, not more understanding.

Finally, British artist and technologist James Bridle recently wrote an essay, based on a talk at the recent Through Post-Atomic Eyes event in Toronto, that name-checked the two above pieces. Bridle has written and made work extensively about mass surveillance, and in this piece he draws a parallel between the cold war that nuclear technology locked the world into for 45 years and the potential of big data today. Even though the information we collect about human behaviour grows and grows and grows, our sympathy and empathy and connection across politics, races, religions and nations do not leap forward at the same pace.

So, what is my point? We in cultural organisations think of ourselves as the white hats and the good guys. Libraries in particular have a strong ethos of free and protected access to information. The siren call of data is strong however, and we will all soon, if we're not already, have to ask ourselves who benefits from the data we collect, and how we keep each other safe.


At the end of the presentation, someone from the audience asked how exactly we can keep people and data safe. Being no expert myself, I cited the points Ceglowski made himself:

Don't collect it! 
If you can get away with it, just don't collect it! Just like you don't worry about getting mugged if you don't have any money, your problems with data disappear if you stop collecting it.... 
If you have to collect it, don't store it! 
... You can get a lot of mileage out of ephemeral data. There's an added benefit that people will be willing to share things with you they wouldn't otherwise share, as long as they can believe you won't store it. ... 
If you have to store it, don't keep it! 
Certainly don't keep it forever. Don't sell it to Acxiom! Don't put it in Amazon glacier and forget it. 
I believe there should be a law that limits behavioral data collection to 90 days, not because I want to ruin Christmas for your children, but because I think it will give us all better data while clawing back some semblance of privacy.