Thursday 5 May 2016

WCMT Acquittal Draft: Digital Innovation

The campaign to complete my acquittal for the funding I received from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust for my research trip around American museums last year continues. It struck me that rather than release it all as one big fat PDF I might try posting drafts of sections here, for any feedback that might be forthcoming. The first post looked at visible storage, the second at membership programmes. This third is focused on digital innovation.

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

1.1 Introduction

In 2016 the Museums and the Web conference - the major annual international event for museum professionals, academics, consultants and vendors working in the digital facet of museum operations - celebrated its 20th anniversary. While coverage of digital innovation in museums often still has a breathless tone (It's not your grandfather's museum) for practitioners, this is now a well established field with a distinct whakapapa of milestone projects and leading thinkers.

Every interaction with a museum I had on my trip was mediated in some way by digital technology, whether that was reserving my online entrance ticket for The Broad, downloading the National Gallery of Art's app in advance of my visit, using Mia's exploratory touchscreen interface in their galleries, or simply searching online to figure out transport options prior to my visit.

One of the frequently expressed concerns regarding the introduction of digital technology into gallery displays is that touchscreens or interactives will distract the visitor from the unique selling point of museums: the actual object. Equally, current thinking in digital teams is around how technology can be used to enhance social experiences at museums, rather than isolate the user. The phrase 'heads-up experiences' has emerged to described the use of technology to promote close looking and social visiting, as opposed to 'heads-down', implying a visit spent looking at screens and not objects.

Another theme in conversations about the layering of digital experiences into the museum is discussion of the 'visitor journey', divided at a high level into pre-visit (researching the museum, its collections and exhibitions, identifying programmes and items of interest) on site (experiencing the museum, from ticketing all the way through to the gift shop) and post-visit (follow-up research or visiting an web-enabled record of your visit).

The O, the digital visitor guide to MONA (the Museum of Old and New Art) in Hobart, launched in 2011, has become an exemplar of heads-up technology and innovative post-visit experience that promotes unusually high levels of follow-up engagement by visitors. As part of the ticketing process, every visitor is given an iPod Touch on entry to the museum, which is loaded with the O software (an iOS app developed by Art Processors). The O takes the place of interpretation at the museum (which, famously, does not have labels for the artworks on display). As the visitor moves around the museum they can see images and details for works 'near them' on the O and choose which to access more information around. Following MONA's pointedly irreverent tone, visitors are offered choices of 'Art Wank' (curatorial descriptions), 'Ideas' (talking points, quotes, provocative statements), 'Media' (short interviews with artists) and 'Gonzo' (the voice of the museum's founder, collector David Walsh).

Using the O, visitors can 'Love' or 'Hate' artworks on display, and see how other visitors ranked the same objects. In addition, by entering their email address the visitor can retrieve the details of their visit after leaving the museum by logging into MONA's website, at which time they can see a visualisation of the paths they took through the museum and retrieve the information about artworks. It is notable that MONA has not put its collection online for general web visitors: only by logging in, following a physical visit, can a person explore the collection and the information and interviews aggregated in the O. As Seb Chan has noted, this is the prerogative of a museum that is privately owned and operated, but does not fit with the public mandate of most art museums. (Chan, 2011) On the other hand, this does make the post-visit experience an exclusive one, which is of a piece with MONA's branding of itself as an art pilgrimage experience.

In this report, I am focusing on two flagship projects, the Cooper Hewitt's 'Pen' (the signature development of their recent three-year overhaul of the museum's building, visitor experience and technology platform) and the Brooklyn Museum's 'Ask app', an in-gallery app that enables real-time conversations between visitors and staff. Both museums are in New York, both projects were funded through the philanthropic programme Bloomberg Connects, and both were lead by practitioners who have strong track records of digital innovation, and whose profuse analysis and publishing on their work over the past ten or more years has formed a significant portion of the shared body of knowledge built by digital museum professionals. At the same time, the Pen and the Ask app also emerge from very specific museum missions and philosophies around visitor experience.

In this section I also reflect on ideas about brand-building through digital activities, and my experience of a dissonance between an online and physical visit as expressed through my long-term online relationship with the Walker Art Center.

1.2 Ask app - Brooklyn Museum 

Background and objectives

The goal of the Ask app and associated work programme is to 'create a dynamic and responsive museum that fosters dialogue and sparks conversation between staff and all Museum visitors'. (Bernstein 2014)

The Ask app is designed to encourage visitors to ask questions about what they're looking at. Available on both iOS and Android platforms, people download the app, which is locked until they are on the museum premises.

On entering the museum the app 'wakes up'. Visitors can then submit questions using an interface that is familiar for people who text or use chat or messaging services, including uploading images. Specially trained staff receive and answer the questions: enquiries and answers are added to a database which complements existing documentation of the collections, and shared regularly with curators, to build a staff-wide understanding of what is piquing visitors' curiosity, or what they may not be getting from existing signage and interpretation.

The team working on the Ask app have three goals:
  • Fostering a personal connection with visitors and creating opportunities to talk about art 
  • Encouraging visitors to look more closely at art, and explore more art as a result 
  • Use data gained through the app to inform decisions about how art is displayed, thus using visitor data to drive institutional change. 
The Ask app is part of a larger project reviewing the visitor experience of the Brooklyn Museum, including a redesign of their entry lobby and visitor reception to improve visitor flow and quickly orient visitors to the museum.

My experience of the Ask App

Unlike the Cooper Hewitt, where every visitor is given one of the pens as part of their museum entry, and the Dallas Museum of Art Friends programme, where roving ground floor visitor staff promote the programme to people as they enter the museum, the Ask app is built into the entry or ticketing process at Brooklyn Museum. Visitors must either already be aware of the app (through word of mouth or the website) or notice small signage placed around the museum. Staff are aware of this limitation, and see it significantly influencing the current low uptake (about 2% of visitors were using the app at the time of my visit).

To begin with on my visit, using the Ask app did not come naturally. Your first use requires you to think up a question that is not already answered by your pre-existing knowledge, or by the very good interpretation already provided in the galleries.

My first question was a slightly frustrating experience. I had a very specific question about a particular Gerrit Rietveld chair that was part of a design display. I wanted to know who would have access to buy it. What I was trying to understand was ‘Was this chair sold on the general market or did you have to know the designer to get one?’. The answer the Ask team sent me though, in a series of small chunks, gave me context about the chair, the fact that the general public wasn’t interested in avant garde design, and only in the fourth message told me that actually no, only the artist’s acquaintances acquired the chairs.

However, I was intrigued by how quickly the app grew on me. I found that I was generating more questions in response to the answers I was receiving, and this questioning behaviour persisted as I moved from gallery to gallery. I also felt like I struck up a rapport with the Ask responder, who expressed their own enjoyment of artworks I was sending through, and mentioned works by the same artist in other museums. At one point I found myself sending through observations rather than questions: I almost felt like I was visiting with a friend and having discussions in the galleries, rather than having a solitary experience.

On some occasions the time lag between my question and a response meant that the answer came through after I was finished with the part of the museum I had asked the question in. This was particularly the case when I asked a questions about whether a sculpture in a lobby space was allowed to be touched: the reply arrived ten minutes after I had moved on from the lobby, and therefore well after the use case was closed. As there is very little seating in the museum's galleries, it was difficult to find a place to pause my visit and wait for an answer.

The Ask app-branded question prompts placed on objects throughout the museum were a weak point in the experience. These are designed to prompt curiosity about the app amongst those who have not downloaded it, and use amongst those who have. The signage is large and more flamboyantly designed than the regular object labels used throughout the museum, but unfortunately the level and tone of the questions used feels babyish in comparison to the traditional object labels they were juxtaposed with. The analogy I would draw is to the interpretation technique of placing information panels targeted adults and children in the same exhibition: the traditional labels felt like the adult version, whereas the Ask labels felt like the kiddie prompt - in strong opposition to the target market of repeat visitors who are becoming more and more engaged with the museum's offerings.

Another distinctive feature of the Ask app is that when you leave the museum, the content of your conversation disappears from the app, which is effectively wiped clean and rendered inactive until your next visit. This is a feature that divides opinion amongst practitioners I have spoken to. On my visit I did not notice that this happened, and when it was brought to my attention, it felt natural to me: like any conversation had in a museum, you couldn't take it with you. Others who I talked about the app with wanted to be able to refer back to their conversations, or share them with other people, and were frustrated that (a) they could not do so and (b) they weren't aware of this until it was too late. While I was unconcerned with losing my conversation, I do think that having it disappear without warning violates an unwritten rule of internet good faith, that the content you create on a site should remain available to you unless you are explicitly told otherwise.

From an initially stiff beginning, by the end of my visit I found that my engagement with the museum had been deepened by the experience of using the Ask app. It was not so much that I learned new information I may not have been able to search out for myself, had I been sufficiently curious: it was because the inquiring part of my brain was lit up by using the app, and I found myself generating an unusual number of questions.

1.3 The Pen - Cooper Hewitt Design Museum

Background and objectives

The Cooper Hewitt reopened in late 2014 after a major renovation of its heritage building, and a rebranding exercise. Alongside the physical redevelopment, the museum rebuilt its technology and digital offers to support its new take on its role as a design museum, rapidly digitising their collection, integrating new ticketing and customer relationship management software, building a new digital interface for their collection, and launching new digital experiences for on-site visitors, specifically a series of interactive tables, the Immersion Room, and the 'Pen'.

After initially investigating using a version of MONA's O platform, the Cooper Hewitt decided to create their own experience. The museum's key concepts for integrating media and technology into the visitor experience were:
  • Give visitors explicit permission to play 
  • Make interactive experiences social and multi-player and allow people to learn by watching 
  • Ensure a ‘look up’ experience 
  • Be ubiquitous, a ‘default’ operating mode for the institution 
  • Work in conjunction with the web and offer a “persistence of visit”
Working with a number of hardware, software and design companies, the Cooper Hewitt created a range of experiences, from the Immersion Room (where visitors digitally explore the museum's large wallpaper collection then design their own wallpapers, which are digitally projected into the room they are standing in) to a Process Lab (a hands-on exploratory space) to interactive tables that allow for collection browsing and simple design exercises.

Uniting all these experiences is the Pen, a piece of custom-made hardware shaped somewhat like a stylus that allows the visitor to interact with the different digital experiences of the museum, and 'collect' information about the items that are on display. All the visitor's interactions are available to them after their visit via a personalised URL; the museum is concurrently collecting and analysing data from the Pen to better understand visitor behaviour (e.g. length of stay, under-visited galleries, items that are frequently or infrequently 'collected').

My experience of the Pen

Unlike the DMA Friends, where the programme is promoted but not a requirement for free entry, and the Ask app, which depends on visitors self-initiating a download, the Pen is given to every visitor at the Cooper Hewitt as part of the ticketing project. Every visitor receives a well-honed patter that takes the staff member about 40 seconds to deliver, explaining how they can use the pen during and after their visit. You can see in this piece of visitor experience design the observations Chan made in 2011 of MONA:
"I was very impressed by the ‘technology concierge’ skills of the ticketing staff – they run you through the basics of the App and the hardware as they sell you your ticket and set you off on your way. Sitting beside the cash register is a graphic clearly explaining each of the main interface screens of the O as well. I’ve never seen this level of ‘scaffolding’ happen in other museums and the deftness with which visitors are set off on their way quickly is a testament to their staff training (and acceptance amongst these staff of the value of the O itself)." (Chan, 2011; emphasis the author's)
I loved the Pen as an object. It is like an oversized, enjoyably rubbery crayon in the hand, with sufficient weight to feel useful, not flimsy. The act of pressing the pen to labels brought an pleasant tactile and physical element to my visit which is usually lacking in galleries. I also enjoyed using a device that was unique to the building I was in, rather than borrowing an iPod or using my own phone. It brought a level of specialness to the experience, and subtly emphasised the museum's entire ethos: the history of human innovation and adaption as expressed through design.

The pen became pesky when I was trying juggle using it, using my phone to take photos, and using my notebook and pen to make notes about my visit - especially as the museum is very small, and has little seating or break-out space.

As I moved through the Making Design exhibitions on the second floor, the fundamental underlying changes to the way the museum approaches objects became clear to me. Making Design is a rotating collection exhibition, using groupings of collection items to explore five key elements of design: line, form, texture, pattern, and color. Some of these are straightforward (such as a grouping of blue objects) but others were more complex. I was particularly struck by a pairing in one case of an early 20th century bracelet and a early 21st century piece of medical technology used in shoulder reconstruction surgery. The two objects seem very unrelated, but when I read the label, another layer was revealed to me. The labels includes the tags assigned into the collection database to each item. In the case of the implant, the first two words as aesthetic descriptors: ‘lace-like’, ‘snowflake’. Suddenly, a piece of medical technology was being presented simultaneously for its use value, and for its aesthetic qualities. This was eloquently but subtly suggested by the display, by the interpretation, and by the Cooper Hewitt's emphasis on actively making sense of objects as part of our visit.

During my visit I came to perceive the Pen as the most recent point on a design continuum that stretched from the beautiful historic home the museum is housed in, out through its collections, and right up into the contemporary visitor experience. This moment crystallised for me in the first floor collection galleries. I was standing in the mansion's original library, handcarved from teak in the 19th century: through the door of the gallery I could see an Issey Miyake dress from around the turn of the century on display. Between me and the dress were two young women, using the Pen on one of the interactive tables. In that moment I experienced design across the centuries: design history in action.

The topmost floor of the Cooper Hewitt was given over to a touring exhibition showcasing the work of Heatherwick Studios. The integration of the Pen into an exhibition sourced from outside the museum, not made up of objects existing in its collection database, is still an issue being worked through by the Cooper Hewitt. The show is displayed as a series of modules or pods devoted to individual projects: the integration of the pen is limited to panels attached to the walls around the galleries where you could ‘collect’ the various displays. This breaks the user experience pattern set by the rest of the museum, and given that the panels are modest to the point of invisibility, in these spaces I didn’t see anyone else except me - dutiful expert visitor - using their Pen.

I was also disappointed by the design interactives on the ground floor tables. On the tables you can design certain objects (lamps, chairs, etc) by selecting the form and materials and then sketching lines. I chose a lamp and concrete and with two intersecting lines made an elegant form. Compared to the intelligence and empathy with which the work of designers is displayed throughout the museum, I felt this particular interactive undersold the true complexity of the design process.

The very last place I visited was the hands-on design exploration studio on the ground floor of the museum, tucked through a doorway after the tables that I used above. On walking into the room I realised my haptic needs had already been met on my visit. I didn't want to twist cellophane and hessian around wire armatures to make lightshades because I'd already done things like that. I assume however that the room is extremely well-suited to group use and education visits: the exhibition galleries themselves would quickly feel crowded if visitors were sharing the space with school groups.

I also have to admit to being one of those people who never visited their URL after their visit. I flirted with the idea of doing it for the sake of completeness, but I decided to to stay true to my visitor inclinations. Instead, my online relationship with the Cooper Hewitt continues not through a formal 'post-visit' experience, but by what I think of as the 'micro-touches' I have established with the museum. I follow the Labs blog and Twitter account, and several staff and ex-staff on social media. Physically visiting the museum has given greater depth to this sustained digital interaction.

1.4 Innovation and sustainability

Traditionally, a museum’s brand has been built on buildings, collections, 'rockstar' staff, and exhibition programmes.

Today, digital is definitely the newest way of branding an institution. This can be seen in increasing amounts of media coverage for digital strategies and philanthropic support for digital initiatives. And unlike buildings, exhibitions programmes, and collections, a new digital brand can be forged relatively rapidly.

I felt that each of the museums whose technology efforts I focused on made a strong brand statement through the values and objectives that drove their projects. The DMA’s digital brand is about a commitment to inclusion – widening their audience beyond the country club that previously felt at home in the museum. Cooper Hewitt's brand says that design is an integral part of being human, and each of us has a designer inside us. The Brooklyn Museum’s brand says that people are intelligent and curious about art and warrant personal responses to their curiosity. All these brand statements are being communicated out through messages to members, funders, stakeholders, residents, and the general public.

I have come to feel however that there is a distinct danger though of your digital brand being, or becoming, disassociated from your physical experience.

My clearest experience of this was visiting the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. In 2012 then Walker Senior New Media Developer Nate Solas was invited to keynote at the annual National Digital Forum conference on the museum's recently redeveloped website, which was being held up as an international exemplar at the time. The Walker’s website redevelopment was carried out with a philosophy of unusual generosity and external focus, and with the aim of supporting the local art community as well as positioning the museum internationally. This was exemplified by the homepage of the website becoming a newshub for art stories from all over the world, connecting their audience in with the global and local arts world. This reinforced the brand of the Walker, as a node in the international art media environment. I found their way of thinking inspirational, and have tried to follow it in the way we behave online at The Dowse.

Alongside the web redevelopment ran the Open Field programme, where a large undeveloped grass area in front of the museum, intended for a building extension that hadn’t been realised, was turned into a community-focused performance and activity space, hosting everything from yoga classes to internet cat video festivals.

The conjunction of the newsy, outward-looking website and the innovative, welcoming Open Field programme (which attracted significant internet attention) created a really strong brand awareness for the Walker with me. I felt very connected to the museum, despite never having visited. This left me with very high expectations when I finally visited the museum.

The Walker has famously innovative architecture and a blue-chip art collection. The wayfinding and graphic design throughout the museum was slick and sharp. But as a visitor to the physical museum, I experienced none of the generosity and freshness I felt online. And the biggest surprise was that Open Field programme had been stopped, most of the staff involved had moved on, and the physical space was literally being dug up, to be turned into a sculpture garden. Many of the staff who led both the Open Field programming and the digital development have moved on to other museums, or to the private sector.

One of the greatest attractions of the web is the speed of change and the emphasis on experimentation. Museums are known for 'being in it for the long haul' and thus having a sometimes glacial pace of change, a persona that can be in conflict with the joyous nature of change in web development. My visit to the Walker left me thinking about how we need to think about how we make enduring digital change, where the values of our work can be sustained, even if the forms it takes are constantly evolving.

1.5 Conclusion

Shelley Bernstein and Seb Chan have both been inspirations to me in my museum career, and I count myself fortunate to have known and learned from them both for nearly ten years now. The museum sector is extremely lucky to have two such innovative, proactive and dedicated professionals, who are committed not only to creating the very best experiences within and for their own institutions, but sharing their knowledge freely with the whole community.

The digital projects at Brooklyn Museum and the Cooper Hewitt, though very different in their outcomes, are the same in their intent: encouraging visitors to actively make sense of what they are looking at, by asking questions and organising objects.

What unites the Ask app and the Pen is a focus on the on-site, 'eyes-up' experience. Moving past the bogeyman of digital technology being a distraction from the museum object, the focus is now on giving the visitor reason to look more closely, for longer.

My overall assessment is that the focus of digital technology in American museums at the current time is 'on-site' over 'online': this can also be detected and new and recently renovated museums like The Broad in Los Angeles and SFMOMA in San Francisco, where audio tours and location-aware 'eyes-up' digital experiences have been heavily promoted as part of the opening media push.

In terms of post-visit experience, I have yet to follow any of the prompts given to me, be that the Cooper Hewitt's URL or the regular promotional emails from the DMA. Instead, I continue to follow the museums through 'micro-touches': Twitter and Instagram accounts, blog posts, conference presentations. My personal situation is so niche - a museum professional located in a country physically distant from the large centres of museum discourse and thus heavily internet-aware of international museum activity - that I do not view this as useful data. My extrapolation though is a reinforced awareness of the need for museums to be consistent in all the messaging they put out into the public realm - from apps to bus shelter posters, magazine ads to Facebook posts.

While there is steady innovation in this space, and it is exciting to see such an emphasis on enhancing the visitor's experience and their ability to connect to the works on display, there also seems to have been a shift in focus from 'global' to 'local', and a reduction in sector-wide, collaborative endeavours. It may be that as a sector we have figured out collaborative platforms, APIs, metadata sharing and so on, but I also wonder if increasingly walled garden nature of the contemporary internet (the design especially of social media sites to keep you within the application, rather than roaming the open web) and the bedding-in of digital practice as business as usual rather than experimental is seeing art museums displaying a less collaborative, more internally-focused approach to digital development than in the past decade.

1.6 Further information

Ask App

For more information on the Brooklyn Museum's Ask App project see their online documentation at BKM TECH and especially entries tagged "BloombergConnects"

Shelley Bernstein, 'Visitor Powered Technology to Create a Responsive Museum' BKM Tech, 9 September 2014,

See also:

Nina Simon, 'ASKing about art at Brooklyn Museum: Interview with Shelley Bernstein and Sara Devine'. Museums 2.0, 24 June 2015

Shelley Bernstein, 'Visitor Experience as a Catalyst for Institutional Change', presentation at Webstock, Wellington, February 2015

Shelley Bernstein, 'Exploring Ask at Brooklyn Museum', presentation at MuseumsNext, Indianapolis, September 2015 

Daniel McDermon, 'Who’s in Charge at the Brooklyn Museum? It Could Be You', New York Times, 29 April 2016,

Cooper Hewitt Pen

For an overview of the Cooper Hewitt's in-gallery digital experiences see their The New Cooper Hewitt Experience page

For more information on the Cooper Hewitt's Pen and digital transformation see their online documentation on the Cooper Hewitt Labs site , and especially entries tagged "CH3.0"

See also

Jessica Lustig, 'Mr Moggridge has mad ambition', Fast Company, 14 September 2011

Allan Chochinov, 'Caroline Baumann on Renovation and Innovation at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Set to Reopen in Ten Days', Core 77, 3 December 2014

Robinson Meyer, 'The Museum of the Future Is Here', The Atlantic, 20 January 2015

Sean O'Kane, 'The Smithsonian's design museum just got some high-tech upgrades', The Verge, 11 March 2015

Seb Chan and Aaron Cope, Strategies against architecture: interactive media and transformative technology at Cooper Hewitt, paper given at Museums and the Web conference, Chicago, April 2015

Seb Chan, 'Farewell Cooper Hewitt, Next Stop Melbourne', Fresh + New(er), 21 August 2015,

On MONA's 'O' and the post-visit experience

MONA website

Seb Chan, 'Experiencing The O at MONA', Fresh and New, 27 October 2011

Nancy Proctor, 'Love, Hate or Punt? Opinions and prevarications about MONA and its O', Curator Journal, 23 December 2011

Ed Rodley, 'Australia: MONA’s “The O” post-visit website', Thinking About Museums, 31 August 2012

Lynda Kelly, 'Visitors, apps, post-visit experiences and a re-think of digital engagement, part 1', #musdigi, 8 October 2015

Lynda Kelly, 'Visitors, apps, post-visit experiences and a re-think of digital engagement, part 2', #musdigi, 8 October 2015

Sam Brenner, 'Iterating the post-visit experience', Cooper Hewitt Labs, 3 November 2015

On the Walker Art Center


Robin Dowden and Nate Solas keynote at MuseumNext, 2012: video and slides

Seb Chan, 'The museum website as newspaper', Fresh+New(er), 3 December 2011

Open Field programme

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