In algorithms we trust.

And so Netflix has gone through several different algorithms over the years… They’re using Pragmatic Chaos now. Pragmatic Chaos is, like all of Netflix algorithms, trying to do the same thing. It’s trying to get a grasp on you, on the firmware inside the human skull, so that it can recommend what movie you might want to watch next — which is a very, very difficult problem. But the difficulty of the problem and the fact that we don’t really quite have it down, it doesn’t take away from the effects Pragmatic Chaos has. Pragmatic Chaos, like all Netflix algorithms, determines, in the end, 60 percent of what movies end up being rented. So one piece of code with one idea about you is responsible for 60 percent of those movies.

But what if you could rate those movies before they get made? Wouldn’t that be handy? Well, a few data scientists from the U.K. are in Hollywood, and they have “story algorithms” — a company called Epagogix. And you can run your script through there, and they can tell you, quantifiably, that that’s a 30 million dollar movie or a 200 million dollar movie. And the thing is, is that this isn’t Google. This isn’t information. These aren’t financial stats; this is culture. And what you see here, or what you don’t really see normally, is that these are the physics of culture. And if these algorithms, like the algorithms on Wall Street, just crashed one day and went awry, how would we know? What would it look like?

[Transcript of How algorithms shape our worldI]

When Pythagoras discovered that “things are numbers and numbers are things,” he forged a connection between the material world and mathematics. His insight “that there is something about the real world that is intelligible in mathematical terms, and perhaps only in mathematical terms,” was, according to Charles Van Doren, “one of the great advances in the history of human thought.” (p35) Are we at a similar precipice with culture and information, when algorithms shape our world and culture? When non-human actors can significantly impact upon the information we receive, and the choices we make? And if so, what does that mean for museums, for culture, for the way we understand our world?

This is a question I sometimes find myself grappling with, although I’m not sure I have any answers. The more I learn, the less it seems I know. But I’d like to take a couple of minutes to consider one aspect of the relationship between the algorithm and the museum, being the question of authority.

In 2009, Clay Shirky wrote a speculative post on the idea of algorithmic authority, in which he proposed that algorithms are increasingly treated as authoritative and, indeed, that the nature of authority itself is up for grabs. He writes:

Algorithmic authority is the decision to regard as authoritative an unmanaged process of extracting value from diverse, untrustworthy sources, without any human standing beside the result saying “Trust this because you trust me.” This model of authority differs from personal or institutional authority, and has, I think, three critical characteristics.

These characteristics are, firstly, that algorithmic authority “takes in material from multiple sources, which sources themselves are not universally vetted for their trustworthiness, and it combines those sources in a way that doesn’t rely on any human manager to sign off on the results before they are published”; that the algorithm “produces good results” which people consequently come to trust; and that, following these two processes, people learn that not only does the algorithm produce good results, the results are also trusted by others in their group. At that point, Shirky argues, the algorithm has transitioned to being authoritative.

Although I’ve previously touched on the idea of algorithmic curating, I’d never explicitly considered its relationship to authority and trust, so I decided to look a little deeper into these issues. Were there any commonalities between the type of authority and trust held by and in museums, and that held in algorithms?

Philosopher Judith Simon refers to Shirky’s post in an article considering trust and knowledge on the Web in relation to Wikipedia. She argues that people trust in Wikipedia’s openness and transparency, rather than in the individual authors. She writes “that the reason why people trust the content of Wikipedia is that they trust the processes of Wikipedia. It is a form of procedural trust, not a trust in persons.”

I think this procedural trust is also what we put in the algorithm. Blogger Adrian Chan puts it this way:

The algorithm generally may invoke the authority of data, information sourcing, math, and scientific technique. Those are claims on authority based in the faith we put in science (actually, math, and specifically, probabilities). That’s the authority of the algorithm — not of any one algorithmic suggestion in particular, but of the algorithmic operation in general.

We do not necessarily trust in the particularities; we trust the processes. Is the trust that people have in museums similarly procedural? Do we trust in the process of museum work, rather than in the individual results or in the people who work in museums?

There are a myriad of assumptions that we make about people working in museums; that they are well trained and professional; that they are experts in their particular domain. We implicitly trust the people, then, and the work that they do. However, in many cases, such as when we visit an exhibit, we don’t know who the specific people are who worked on the exhibition. We don’t necessarily know who the curator was, or who wrote the exhibition text. The lack of visibility inherent in many current museum processes obscures the individual and their work. The museum qua museum, therefore, acts as a mechanism for credibility because it purports to bring the best people together; because the people who work within are known to be trained professionals who use scientific methods, regardless of whether we know specifically who they are or what their particular training is. Ergo, the trust we have in the museum must also be a form of procedural trust. (Amy Whitaker concurs, “Institutional trust is founded on process, on the belief that there are proper channels and decision-making mechanisms and an absence of conflict of interest.” p32)

Shirky also speaks to the social element involved in authority. He explains:

Authority… performs a dual function; looking to authorities is a way of increasing the likelihood of being right, and of reducing the penalty for being wrong. An authoritative source isn’t just a source you trust; it’s a source you and other members of your reference group trust together. This is the non-lawyer’s version of “due diligence”; it’s impossible to be right all the time, but it’s much better to be wrong on good authority than otherwise, because if you’re wrong on good authority, it’s not your fault.

Authority isn’t just derived from whether we can trust a source of information, but additionally whether we can be confident in passing that information along and putting our name to the fact that we made a judgement on its trustworthiness. We shortcut the process of personal judgement using known systems that are likely to give us accurate and trustworthy results; results we can share in good faith. We trust museums because museums are perceived to be trustworthy.

Do the film companies that run their scripts through Epagogix’s algorithms do so because it helps them shortcut the process of personal judgement too? Can algorithms provide better insight, or just safer insight? Eli Pariser says this of Netflix’s algorithms:

The problem with [the algorithm] is that while it’s very good at predicting what movies you’ll like — generally it’s under one star off — it’s conservative. It would rather be right and show you a movie that you’ll rate a four, than show you a movie that has a 50% chance of being a five and a 50% chance of being a one. Human curators are often more likely to take these kinds of risks.

Right now, museums that do not embrace technology and technologically-driven solutions are often perceived to be risk averse, because doing so challenges existing practice. I wonder whether, with time, it will be those institutions that choose not to make choices driven by data that will become perceived as the risk-takers? This is a profession that is tied so strongly to notions of connoisseurship; what relationship will the museum have with the algorithm (internally, or external algorithms like those that drive Google and other sites)? I don’t have any answers yet, but I think it’s worth considering that museums no longer just share authority with the user-generated world; authority is also being shared with an algorithmically-shaped one.

What do you think?

Too much success?

At MCN2012, I chaired an interesting session call from Proposal to Pay-Off: Three museums get it done. In it, Morgan Holzer, Rob Lancefield and Dylan Kinnett spoke about how a project at their museum moves from being merely an idea to actually getting up and running. The session unearthed all kinds of interesting questions about the decision making process in institutions of different sizes, and with different amounts of control invested in the hands of the individual. But one thing we didn’t talk about that I think is very interesting is success, and what happens when if a project is too successful.

I’ve been thinking about this question for a while, because success isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be. Even the sort of success that so many people dream of, like rock-stardom, comes with downsides, as this interview with Australian musician Wally de Backer (better known as Gotye, of Somebody that I used to know fame) suggests:

De Backer isn’t given to hyperbole but admits things have gone ”a bit crazy” of late. ”There’s been plenty of demand everywhere for more tickets, more shows,” he says. ”We’d arranged 30 or 40 shows then just about every single venue started to get upgraded. It’s a blessing and a curse.” He readily admits he’d rather be in a studio making music than out on the road. He gets a buzz when he plays a good gig but the carousel of hotel rooms, tour buses, sound checks and interviews wears him down. He usually hits the wall three weeks in when he reads the schedule and realises there are two months to go. ”It’s so boring and repetitive,” he sighs. ‘‘This is not what I dreamt of, this is not the payoff I expected.

That nebulous thing that we all seem to want but don’t always get around to defining in advance (gosh, even defining metrics for success after the fact is a challenge), doesn’t always come with the payoffs we expect. It’s complicated, and can lead to repercussions that have impact beyond what was hoped for. Excess success can be particularly problematic if you aren’t prepared for it, or if you find yourself unable to innovate and adapt to changing circumstances because of it.

Could your museum cope if one or more of your projects was successful beyond normal? What if you started to get unexpectedly big numbers through the door? Would that impact the experience of seeing the exhibitions, or being in the space? Would you need to hire new staff members to cope? Would your budget handle that? Your processes?

What about web success? If you came up with a digital strategy that was wildly successful and suddenly went viral, could your staff cope with the increased or changed workload? There are a couple of slides from a presentation that Andrew Lewis and Rich Barrett-Small gave at the UK Museums on the Web conference recently that particularly resonated with me when thinking about this topic. As slide number 27 says “A moment’s creative inspiration today is a week of pain next year.” (The slides that follow it also paint a useful picture of the realities of start-up culture versus the longevity required for museums.)

We talk a lot about “success” for and in museums, and that’s good. It’s important to want to be successful. But I think we all really only want and plan for success within a very narrow band of measurement, and indeed actually rely on some level of failure (what if all your grant approvals came back with all the money you had requested?). Things don’t always work out as planned, and it’s worth remembering that sometimes the repercussions of success can be as difficult to manage as those of epic failure (and maybe even more so… I think we are far better prepared mentally for things working out worse than we expected, than better).

What do you think? Could your team or your museum cope with epic success, rather than epic failure? Have you ever had to deal with a program or project that was successful far beyond what you had planned for? What were the repercussions of that success? And how did that change your approach to future projects?

NB – I originally took a different approach to this subject, and one that was not fully thought through. I rewrote following a useful Tweet about some aspects of my original post that I hadn’t considered.

Behavioural priming and museum visitation

Did you know that simply holding a warm cup of coffee in your hand when you meet someone can shift your perceptions of them? That you might judge someone as “having a “warmer” personality“, just because your first impression of them followed a shift in experience of physical warmth? In such cases, our understanding of that person has been primed by the physical conditions in which we encountered them; where priming is an “exposure to a stimulus influences a response to a later stimulus,” (Priming, psychology) or in which “the activation of one thought may trigger related thoughts.” (Priming, media)
(As if this isn’t a great reason to have first dates over coffee instead of alcohol…)

As spelled out in this article in the New York Times:

Psychologists say that “priming” people… is not some form of hypnotism, or even subliminal seduction; rather, it’s a demonstration of how everyday sights, smells and sounds can selectively activate goals or motives that people already have.

So I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot during the last few days. How do museums prime their audiences and visitors for the museum experience? For having their minds opened, or even for knowing what is expected of them in the museum space? How do the sights, smells and sounds a visitor encounters upon arrival at your museum (or even before then) put them into the right headspace for curiosity and exploration, or learning? What role does a museum’s website play in this?

After a week of attending numerous museums, speaking with museum professionals, and participating in the immersive theatrical experience Sleep No More, my first impression is that I don’t think it’s something too many museums consciously pay attention to, or at least, not effectively or at a whole-museum level. There have been exceptions, however.

I’m going to start by talking about Sleep No More – a non-museum experience, but a worthy one that has already proved inspirational to other museum professionals. For those who haven’t yet heard of it, SNM is an incredible production (a dance? A play?) loosely based around Macbeth, which takes place over five stories in a warehouse (currently) in New York. The performance and performers move into and out of spaces in the warehouse, while you as audience (masked. Silent. Anonymous.) can choose whether to follow them, or instead pull apart and play within the fully-constructed and highly compelling ‘stage’ structure. The experience is hugely personal, layered, and thoroughly involving. It’s something I will no doubt refer back to in greater detail in coming posts. However, what I want to speak to in this case is the opening moments of the event.

The SNM experience starts well before the performance itself. For me it was with conversations with those who had been, but even without those, the line of people abuzz with excitement at the doorway to the building was more than enough to raise my heart rate in anticipation of what was to come. We were soon funneled down a long, dark corridor to enter the McKittrick Hotel; consistently being primed for the evening at hand, even whilst in the act of transportation from one place to the next. Then, almost directly upon entering, the audience (participants?) were greeted by staff and issued clear directions about the rules and the expectations of the night. Attendees were directed to where they needed to be, issued with masks to preserve anonymity, and briefed by two different actors/assistants about what the night would or could entail. All of this was done in character and costume.

Within the first ten minutes of arriving at the venue, I understood what was and was not allowed; was primed for the experience at hand in a way completely consistent with the coming performance; and all whilst building momentum and expectation for what was to come. And so when I found myself in a situation completely beyond my normal range of experience, I still felt completely and reassuringly safe, and pumped for the events at hand. My curiosity was piqued, my brain switched to ‘engage’.

In contrast, entering most of the museums I visited during the previous week was followed by immediate uncertainty while I tried to get my bearings and work out a) where to go and in what order, and b) what the particular rules were of each institution (was photography allowed, or not?). There was nothing to instantly prompt me to start my experience, or provide a scaffolding upon which I could begin construction of my visit – and I’m pretty comfortable in museums in general. But still, I was directionless, unclear about what I would, should or could see, and how to best go about that process.

The exception to this was at the Newseum. In the Newseum, there were ample greeters available at the door to meet me as I entered the space. When purchasing my ticket, the front desk attendant ran me through “the best way to see the museum” starting down the escalator to the bottom floor (helpfully signposted with a big “Start visit here” type sign), and then continuing up via the lift to the top, before winding downstairs again. I was directed to exactly where I could deposit my coat, and then shown the way to the “start” of the experience.

At the bottom of the escalator, I was again greeted and asked how long my visit was, whether I would be returning the following day, and whether I wanted to see a short video on the best way to experience the museum. Once the greeter found out that I could only attend that day, and only had a couple of hours, he pointed out to me what the likely highlights were that I might be interested in, and also ran me through what else was available.

It was a completely different experience from one I’ve had in entering almost any museum, and I found it hugely helpful. The advice was not prescriptive, but it helped give me bearings and allowed me to make choices about what I was most likely to find rewarding, given the short time period I had for visitation. As a form of priming to influence a response to later stimulus, I found it highly effective.

But beyond this, I think many of my responses (which were generally very strong, and quite emotional) to the objects on display in the Newseum were similarly in response to years and years worth of priming via media exposure to them. For instance, when I came across the fallen Lenin statue in front of the photograph of the same statue being tumbled, I instantly understood what I was seeing and its significance at a very visceral level. I could immediately connect this object with the event, its emotion and its importance, and bring all of those things into alignment with my own memories of watching footage of iconic statues falling. The story of the statue and the object of the statue were both far more significant to me for the deep way which they related to my earlier exposure to stimulus than they likely would have otherwise been. Something familiar in this object, and many others at the Newseum, triggered a very strong response for me, which I am intuitively sure relates – at some level – to the repeated priming and exposure I have had to the subjects/objects prior to visitation.

Piece of Lenin Statue from Fall of Berlin Wall

A study by Laure Zago, Mark J. Fenske, Elissa Aminoff and Moshe Bar supports this idea. They write:

Prior exposure to a stimulus generally facilitates its recognition in subsequent encounters. This experience-based phenomenon, termed priming, has been studied extensively and is believed to be one of the building blocks of learning and memory (Tulving and Schacter, 1990).

If this is the case, if visitors’ exposure to a stimulus before and whilst attending a museum influences a response to later stimulus, how can museums use this to create more meaningful visitor experiences? What can museums do, both on- and offsite, to activate and trigger responses in their visitors in the exhibition space? Can museums actually use this idea of providing prior exposure to stimulus online to facilitate a more instant connection or recognition of their objects on the museum floor? And is this something that museums already do when planning their exhibitions? If so, who does it well?

What do you think?

On remaking the world.

I have a long-standing and deeply held belief that if the world doesn’t fit you, you can either choose to remake yourself, or remake the world. The first choice sounds easier, but seems to me to be far less satisfying. The second choice can appear hard, but isn’t. If you want a job that doesn’t exist yet, find a way to start doing it, do it well, and eventually someone will probably pay you for it. Almost every job I’ve ever had, and certainly all of the interesting ones, have come not with a job description, but with just doing (usually for free, at the start). And thus the world is remade a little; the boundaries are redrawn to fit what they didn’t before. There is no reason to accept that the way things are is the way they can, should, or will be.

This week I’ve been reading Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World: How disruptive imagination creates culture, a book Seb Chan recommended me some time ago and one that fits quite perfectly with my view that the world is there to be remade. It’s a lovely book and an interesting read about the creatures in myth and life who do not fit within the existing social structures and who therefore find ways to move and change those structures (aside: it’s providing some inspiration for my IgniteMCN talk next week).

Of particular note is Hyde’s discussion about the nature of those social structures, and the communities that make and preserve them. He writes (pg 216-217):

For a human community to make its world shapely is one thing; to preserve the shape is quite another, especially if, as it always the case, the shape is to some degree arbitrary and if the shaping requires exclusion and the excluded are hungry. So along with shapeliness comes a set of rules meant to preserve the design. “Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not blaspheme. Do not gamble. Do not pick things up in the street. Behave yourself. You should be ashamed…”

There is an act of shaping, of drawing boundaries between what is in and out (always at play in museums, in the acts of curation and collection); but then there is also an act of reinforcement and preservation. It is not enough to draw demarcation lines; they must be solidified in rules and conventions. This is how a community recognises itself as ‘community’ in order that it can function rightly in the world it has created.

Last week, Elizabeth Merritt wrote a post discussing the defining characteristics of visionaries versus futurists, which I find interesting in this context. In it, she enunciated a role for the Center of the Future of Museums in helping “museum practioners, as a field, describe [a] shared vision of the preferred future, and figure out how we can use our combined resources to make it so.” One step towards this “shared vision” (ie, the mutual shaping of a world by a community) was to invite museums to take a Pledge of Excellence, through which the shape is reinforced. The process is two step. The first is the creation of a world; the second is it’s preservation. (I do not in any way mean to suggest that those who do not take the pledge would be excluded from the community.)

Meanwhile on the other side of the world, fifty “young cultural leaders from around the world” are meeting in Salzburg this week to further develop their leadership skills. One of their tasks is articulating the instrumental and intrinsic values of the arts. The intention is that they create a shared vision around the creation and communication of value, but in light of Hyde’s discussion, I wonder whether any such vision can be maintained across a broad-spanning group of people from differing countries and cultures. Will a week together be long enough to establish the rules that would allow for the shape to be preserved? Crafting a vision is only the first stage in the process, and in terms of stability, its result might be more yurt than citadel (somewhere lovely to stop during a transition, but without the fundamental structures necessary to bunker down in for an extended stay).

In context of these musings, I’m now given to thinking about the paradoxes of creating rules for a society, and of breaking those same rules; about how worlds are shaped and maintained so that changes have more fundamental or radical impact than being merely superficial. It’s not just making a job that accommodates your own unique talents; it’s setting up that position as critical, so that if you leave, someone else then steps into the role. It’s not simply coming up with beautiful aphorisms about the changes you want in the world, but truly drawing, undrawing and redrawing the boundaries in a way that’s simultaneously disruptive and sustainable.

One aspect of Elizabeth’s post that I found intriguing was the embedding of notions of a “shared vision” into a discussion about visionaries (many of whom would be the very kinds of tricksters and trouble-makers who erode the boundaries of existing and established shared visions). It makes me wonder whether shared visions and visionaries are almost antithetical, or whether it is a visionary (singular) that creates the space for a vision (shared). Can the young leaders in Salzburg, many of whom must have come to attention because they stand out rather than fitting in, craft a joint vision when they each bring their own priorities and perspectives to the group, or instead will their individual visions be the more robust vehicle for change? And in either case, can they establish something lasting that has fundamental impact?

Finally, what does all this mean for museums in an age of disruption, particularly when there is call for change, innovation and building cultures of experimentation. Is it possible to create a culture where the established rules embrace the voices of dissent consistently? I cannot imagine it is. So what are the systems we need to establish that make room for both the drawing and enforcing of boundaries in order to create that a vision has enough strength and structure to be foundational, whilst still enabling those same boundaries to be undrawn and redrawn when they no longer serve their purposes?

I still have about 120 pages to go in Trickster Makes This World, and I have a feeling Hyde has an answer for me within his pages. But until I discover his take on things, I’d love your thoughts.

What do you think? How do those who wish to reshape museums disrupt existing structures (undraw boundaries) and simultaneously build and reinforce new walls (redrawing the line of demarcation)? Is it possible to create systems that make room for both?

A museum collection that never ends? Cooper-Hewitt’s new online collection

I keep getting lost.

It’s not just my newly-found geekout obsession with Geocaching either. It’s been happening on the pages of the Cooper-Hewitt collection alpha, launched last week and designed to let you lose yourself in its pages. For me, at least, it’s been working. But there’s lots at play in this collection, so I thought I’d run you through some of the elements that catch my eye and mouse-clicks.

A collection that’s “of the web”
The opening gambit that the collection makes is that it’s the first one self-proclaimed to be “of the web”, linking to (edit – and pulling in from) outside sources like Wikipedia, Freebase and other museum collections. This idea that a museum can gain authority by pointing to/sharing other useful and authoritative content is something that Koven Smith, Nate Solas and others have been talking about for sometime (the Walker being the first to take this approach to their website more generally), and it’s exciting to see it realised on a collection. Just as interesting is the way Cooper-Hewitt reaches out to its users to build the knowledge around the collection via external links, asking:

Do you have your own photos of this object? Are they online somewhere, like Flickr or Instagram? Or have you created a 3D model of one of our objects in SketchUp or Thingiverse? If so then then tag them with ch:object=18452119 and we will connect ours to yours!

This is an exciting move, and I will watch with interest to see how it develops (I cannot yet find an example of an object where a user object has been incorporated in with the museum record, so I don’t know what it will actually look like in practice). This doesn’t seem to actually invite the audience voice into and onto the collection record directly (ie through comments); but it holds promise to weave in external interpretations and iterations of the museum object with the museum’s own interpretation, acting as a form of digital citation. The museum collection record can then act as anchor for discussions/interpretations around the object itself, which to me seems to be an interesting take on the idea of “authority”.

I am curious to see how people react to the invitation to link their images and interpretations of collection objects with the museum’s. Will amateur collectors share their images and knowledge about the objects, and if so, will that force more attention onto the collection itself as the centre for a bigger conversation? (An aside – the museum asks people not to steal their images, so I wonder what the implications are of providing links to other people’s own photographs of collection objects. Does this provide an interesting way to make available images of collection objects without the museum providing them itself?)

A collection that speaks using a natural tongue
While I think the inclusion of externally-derived links/information on the collection is the big move that will get museum people talking, there is much more to like in the collection alpha. One of my favourite touches is the plain-text descriptions of works (often also accompanied by images). I am totally charmed by these textual descriptions. Not only does the language seem far less confronting than traditional museum-ese, but in the cases where an image of the actual work is unavailable, this conjures up a beautiful sense of the object itself. I have a peculiar urge to create tshirts and art products from these descriptions, and hang them on my body or my walls (before photographing them and linking them back into the collection, of course). This is my current favourite.

Night scene of a skyscraper consisting of a massed cluster of low tiered sections below culminating in a monumental tower. The structure is illuminated by the city street lights below and streams of light from a chapel- like central section. A white cross is visible at the top of the tower. Pedestrians walk among silhouetted leafless trees below.
Photostat #1964-5-13

How beautiful is that? Wouldn’t you love to get 50 different people to draw or create a work of art that met this description, and see what they all looked like?

Simple design solutions
These descriptions also serve as a stand-in (as do other natty little invisible design objects) for images where they are unavailable, in a gorgeous response to the problem of digitisation and permissions, otherwise spelled out in this disclaimer:

We can’t show you any images of this object at the moment. This may be because we have not yet digitized this object or, if we do have a digitized image, we don’t hold the rights to show it publicly. We apologize for any inconvenience.

The Cooper-Hewitt has found seemingly simple design solutions to the problems that all museums are facing, of digital rights and access and the cost of massive digitisation projects.

Working with what you’ve got
What else? I think it’s great that this collection has been done as an ‘alpha’ release, a minimally viable product. I like that the eccentricities of the raw data are acknowledged. I enjoy the nomenclature used when acknowledging the “village of people” involved in making an object, and the focus on people/creators as well as objects. I love the way that the inconsistencies in data are explained, such as in the “Periods” section.

These sorts of descriptions explain why an object fits under the umbrella of a particular term, and why some of the descriptions are imprecise or less than perfect. It allows for imperfections in the data, but also acknowledges why they exist. Each period description also includes the number of objects you’ll find within it, and the percentage of the online collection that it holds, ie “American Modern — there are 531 objects made around this time which is about 0.43% of our online collection” which helps give context and proportion to the period in comparison to the larger collection.

Navigating a dozen ways, but still delightfully lost
There are nice ways of navigating this collection, which give credence to both what the museum thinks is important (ie departments), some classic parameters (countries, periods, media), and also the options for searching by people, their roles, or random. I also like being able to click on a time period, like “1900”, and getting a page that says this “We may not know what everyone in our database, did during the 1900s but we know about a few of them.”

At the moment, the display seems to be weighted towards those individuals or periods with the most number of objects, and therefore the largest percentage of the online collection, which would be a logical choice in terms of highlighting collection strengths or at least the weight of the collection. I’d be interested in whether there were future ways to weight the collection that might put emphasis on individuals in the collection who were considered to be important, but who doesn’t necessarily have a lot of objects, but right now the approach is logical.

Because there aren’t many images at the centre of the navigation, I tend to click on the most interesting or random words, and I wonder whether this is typical search behaviour or not. I will be interested to see how other people navigate this collection, and whether they get as sucked into it as I do. But so far I have indeed been wandering serendipitously.

There is much more I could write about, but I’ll leave it here. This is a very exciting step for the Cooper-Hewitt, and for online museum collections in general. I look forward to seeing how it develops and is received. Congrats to Seb, Aaron and Micah on the launch. Also, I think that both Aaron and Micah will be at MCN2012, and Aaron is a keynote at NDF2012 in New Zealand. Now is the time to swot up on questions to ask at these conferences on both sides of the world next month.

Have you had a play in the Cooper-Hewitt collection yet? What do you think?

Crowdfunding, hype & the Goddamn Tesla Museum

There must have been a collective intake of breathe from museum professionals around the world last month when Matthew Inman from The Oatmeal put the call out to build a Goddamn Tesla Museum, inviting donations and support via Indiegogo.  The crowdfunding project has now raised more than $1.2million, with the city of New York promising to match $850,000 of that money. Imagine that. More than 30,000 people have pledged money towards an as-yet-nonexistent museum/science centre. Science! Nerds! Money for a museum! How totally rock and roll.

Despite the attention that has come to it since Inman’s involvement, the project isn’t a new one. The Tesla Science Center (formerly known as the Friends of Science East, Inc.) has been formally active since February 14, 1996, so although the Tesla Science Center has now come to the fore with the crowdfunding project, it has not simply appeared out of thin air. This has been a long-burning campaign that has just undergone a radical shift in prominence. From being a pet-project and passion for the TSC, something that must at times have seemed no more than a pipe dream, the Tesla Science Center now holds potential to be real. What a colossal shift in the course of a month.

The shift in attention, prominence, and possibility brings with it all kinds of interesting questions. First, let’s assume that the FSE does acquire the property (there are other bidders, like Milka Kresoja). What then? Are the Board of Directors for the TSC in a position to capitalise upon their sudden rush of funds and support? Is the museum actually feasible? And how will those thousands of people who have contributed to the project feel when it starts to move from months into years before the Tesla Museum becomes real?

This is one of the as-yet-untested aspects of such a big crowd-funding project; can a project built on hype and excitement, which invites emotional and economic investment (some of it significant) from people all over the world, continue to hold attention, to live up to its own build up? Or is there an inevitable backlash when projects change, adapt, or even fail?

Back before I dedicated myself to solving the many mysteries of museums, I worked in the music industry, so hype is something I have a fairly keen interest in. I have watched indie bands pick up buzz as early adopters gathered around and invested in them; knowing that they were in on something secret and special; a band with the compelling allure of potential. Once that buzz starts, capitalising upon it relies on timing and maintaining momentum. A band full of potential that waits too long to impress and live up to their early promise may all too soon be written off as a casualty on the hunt for the next big thing. Hype, buzz, potential – whatever word you want to use for it – can be all too fleeting, particularly if the return on investment is a long time coming.

Marketing company Gartner uses hype cycles to help characterise what happens following the introduction of new technologies. The hype cycle follows five phases, being a trigger in which “Early proof-of-concept stories and media interest trigger significant publicity. Often no usable products exist and commercial viability is unproven”; a peak of inflated expectations; a trough of disillusionment, when “interest wanes as experiments and implementations fail to deliver… Investments continue only if the surviving providers improve their products to the satisfaction of early adopters”; a slope of enlightenment; and finally a plateau of productivity, in which “Criteria for assessing provider viability are more clearly defined. The technology’s broad market applicability and relevance are clearly paying off.” Although the methodology is intended for technology adoption, such a cycle can likely also apply to this situation.

Gartner Hype Cycle

It is in this space that the Goddamn Tesla Project will prove to be an interesting test case. Mark Walhimer estimates that it takes between 5 and 10 years to start a museum, but if comments on The Oatmeal’s post like this one –  “Good luck Matthew! This Goddamned Tesla Museum needs to happen. RIGHT MEOW!!!!” – give any indication, then the slow-burn from now to then might indeed cause supporters of the project to fall into the trough of disillusionment.

On the Indiegogo fundraising site, it is acknowledged that:

Even if we raise the full amount and end up with $1.7 million, this isn’t enough to build an actual museum / science center. But it will effectively put the property into the right hands so it can eventually be renovated into something fitting for one of the greatest inventors of our time.

Similarly, on The Oatmeal’s FAQs about the project, Matthew Inman has written:

If this is a success, can you build a museum right away? What happens next?
The property the laboratory is on is a bit of mess. It needs to be cleaned up, restored, and there’s a ton of work to be done to actually turn this into something worthy of Tesla’s legacy. The money we’re raising is simply to secure the property so no one can ever mess with it and guarantee that it’s a historic site. It opens up years and years of time to figure out how to build a proper Nikola Tesla museum.
However, I would love to have some kind of Nikola Tesla festival on the property on July 10th of 2013 (Nikola Tesla Day), and have some kind of zany Tesla-coil-BBQ-cookout.

The short-term goal of a Tesla Festival may be enough to satisfy those who have invested in the project to see it as being worthwhile. Such an event would give a sense of culmination and momentum; both important for capitalising upon early hype and potential. But we aren’t likely to get real perspective on whether crowdfunding a museum from scratch can prove to be a rewarding model for either the museum or its funders for many years. In this way, the Goddamn Tesla Museum is likely to prove an interesting test case. It might be here that some real questions around museum innovation can be answered.

What do you think? Can interest in a project like this one be sustained over time, or is it inevitable that those enthusiastic geeks the world over will become disillusioned as the Museum takes years to move from idea to actuality?

Inside/Outside: Criticising museum practice

Given the ostensible parameters and protocols of the call for contributions to this volume, I am given to imagine myself as one of a group of contributors situated “outside” a (museum) “profession” and “looking in,” as a “scholar who has written books about museums but who [is] trained and work[s] in other disciplinary areas.” In accepting the generous invitation to contribute to the collection, I am nonetheless placed, however provisionally, and according to the self-admittedly tentative nature of the editorial formatting of the volume, in a curiously dichotomous relationship to those “looking from within the profession.”

So says art historian Donald Preziosi, by way of locating his contribution to the 2006 book Museum Philosophy for the Twenty-First Century (pp74).  His statement raises interesting questions about the positioning of those who write and speak about the museum and its profession, and their space within or external to it. This is particularly the case, given that only pages before, Preziosi issued a provocation that:

There seems to have been, at least among “insiders” or museum professionals, an endemic, across-the-board abandonment of critically engaged and historically responsible attention to the fundamental questions about the functions and social and political roles of museums. The disjunction between the “external” critical and philosophical literature relating to museums, museology, and collecting and that emanating from “within” the profession is very great and growing. (pp70)

He critiques the sector as an outsider, a position he has been “placed” into, simultaneously arguing that those on the “inside” have abandoned “critically engaged and historically responsible attention to the fundamental questions about the functions and social and political roles of museums.” It seems he slays “insiders” for their lack of engagement, whilst distancing himself from such a position.

Is his criticism of museum professionals valid? Honestly, I don’t know. The conversations I have within the sector are often highly engaged and highly critical; in recent years there has seemingly been a noticeable turn towards theoretical and critical discourse. Yet most of the time business as usual continues (as it must). Critical reflection is a great luxury, but one often far removed from the practicalities of actual work.

Still, his ideas leave their stain on me because I can’t identify exactly where I am positioned within the sector. Before my first conference, my PhD supervisor cautioned me that as soon as I mentioned that I was an academic, I might be dismissed summarily as unable to speak to the ‘real concerns’ of the profession. And I know from discussions with now-close friends that this indeed happened (although fortunately not to such a great extent as to prevent later connection). As such, I now go out of my way to prove my credentials as a legitimate member of the museum community. I work in museums, I volunteer. My friends and colleagues, those whose ideas I respect, are museum professionals far more frequently than academics. I spend as much time working in the sector as possible, and hope that it’s enough to clean me of the taint of “outsider”.

But paradoxically, perhaps it is this very mark of difference that gives me the most freedom to criticise and speak to the philosophical concerns of the sector. Were I welded to a single institution, any criticism that I might make could be seen implicitly as a criticism of my home museum. Being outspoken under those circumstances could cut too close; creating internal tension that would make the business of getting work done much harder. Speaking out from the outside comes with a freedom rarely afforded to true insiders, because the possible costs are only personal and not institutional. (Incidentally, I also wonder if this isn’t at least part of the reason that the MuseTrain authors have chosen to stay anonymous thus far.)

This issue is on my mind now for two reasons. The first is because of a conversation I had with an old friend yesterday. He is an artist whose early work highly controversially questioned some unspoken and seemingly unquestionable ideas here in Australia. This work, which he was not “allowed” to make but did anyway (his then youthful naivety giving him a sense of bulletproofness) raised and continues to raise very significant critical questions. It also left him out in the wilderness as an artist, unshowable for a significant period of time afterwards. Now, with hindsight, he questions his own right to make the work that he did, to critique the situation in the way he did; doubts raised in part because of his outsider status from that community. His right and ability to ask questions are diminished because he is on the outside, but they are questions not being raised elsewhere or from the inside. Preziosi’s criticism of the museum profession equally rings true of my friend’s experiences as an artist.

In addition, I am starting to think more carefully on my position in this sector as the end of the PhD looms more forcefully on the horizon. Although I still have more than a year until completion, there has of late been a small chorus of people asking what I intend to do after it’s finished. Will I go into academia, or work in a museum? Where do I want to work? What do I want to do?

They are difficult questions to answer with any certainty or clarity of vision. Once I make a choice, particularly between working in a museum (insider) or as an academic (outsider), then I am effectively choosing to align myself in a particular direction. I am either in; or I’m out. I can speak as one of you, or I can choose a different voice altogether. It will become harder and harder to straddle the divide between the two, which is what seems to make the current space I inhabit so interesting.

Museum philosopher Hilde Hein introduces herself and her position in the sector in the preface to The Museum in Transition: A Philosophical Perspective with the inclusion of this paragraph (pp xiii):

My own experience with museum practice and with theorizing about museums has been gained through internships in museums and more than two decades of academic investigation. By following both of these avenues I hope to have found common ground between those who reflect upon museums from a cultural perspective and those who know them by working inside.

She intentionally positions herself as someone who can speak from within, and without. Is this a necessary requirement for those who do wish to consider and critique the institution as theorist? Are her reflections upon museums more or less critical as a result of this urge to bridge the divide between professional and theorist? Are they more palatable than if she did not spend time in institutions? Is it, in fact, the place of museum professionals to critique the institution, or to work towards its effective functioning?

Obviously this post comes by way of my own existential crisis career concerns, but I wonder if it doesn’t scratch at a larger and more pervasive itch. Do museums need “outsiders” to critique and provoke discussion about fundamental issues? Or can those working within the sector, or within particular institutions, ask unanswerable (and sometimes un-askable) questions and continue to function effectively on the inside? Are there people who do manage to successfully straddle the divide between insider/outsider, or is it inevitable that in a relatively short time I will have to choose?

What do you think?

On data visualisation + algorithmic curating

It’s always a great start to a day when the first two links you click inspire a flurry of fresh thought. I have been getting stuck into some PhD writing this week, and fast losing myself in the doldrums of theory. So waking this morning to a little bit of inspiration was just what I needed.

The first shot of inspiration, that woke me far more than a coffee would, was this super-cool research on What Makes Paris Look Like Paris? (on Openculture via Jasper Visser & Seb Chan). I remember as a child someone telling me that all cities had colours; that some cities were grey, and some brown. Some were blue. These dominant colours reflected the materials that had been used in construction, the fashions that had shaped the way the city was constructed, the natural resources that were available to the builders. And so I often look out at new cities as I approach them, and watch to see what colour they are. This research reminds me of that, for it analyses Google Street View imagery to look for the common visual elements of a city, like its architectural features. It turns out that not only do cities have colours, they also have distinguishing architectural features.

Imagine what kind of new information and understand lies within our collections, if similar techniques were deployed. What kind of features are common to paintings of Paris? Are there common colours used to depict Paris, or are the architectural elements captured in the research above visible? And what else can we learn about our collections through these kinds of techniques? It is easy to think of this (for me) in terms of art collections, but I am sure there is much that can be found in archeological data and other museological data. (Not that most museum data is that great, as Mia Ridge recently discovered when playing in the Cooper Hewitt datasets.)

There is some work being done in this area, of course, but I’m interested in what else we can find in our collections using these kinds of techniques. This morning, I also watched What do they have? Alternate Visualizations of Museum Collections in which Piotr Adamczyk, when he was at the Met, talks about the possibilities for new information that might be possible in collections data. During the question time, he speaks of his interest in using data to look at provenance and figure out the history of the object in order to visualise who had it, when and where. For me, this is exactly the sort of flow of information that I would find so interesting about collections. I am really interested in the power structures and power makers in any sector. When I met curator Helen Molesworth recently, I asked her what I would discover about her influence on permanent collections, were I to look across the course of her career; who and what she had collected consistently or in different institutions over her life as a curator. It was a question that floored her, because it was one no one had ever asked before. But to me, this is the interesting stuff of museums. Who are the individuals that change the shape of our collections, and indirectly then, the shape of our material wants and expectations? Who has shaped the art market by collecting the works of an individual and increasing their value for other collections? Which individuals have really changed the shape of our cultural heritage, its value and its impact? Who has championed the work of previously unknown artists, and turned them into a hot commodity?

So my other early moment of inspiration in starting the day was watching Koven Smith’s MuseumNext talk, which was just gone online. In it, Koven speaks about curators using algorithms to produce collection narratives – interpretive algorithms. Now it seems to me that this idea starts to coincide with the work being done above, whereby collection researchers and communicators working in a museum could have a focus on a whole collection, and how it relates to the rest of the world, rather than only having curators (or researchers) whose focus is on exhibitions and material culture.

When I last wrote about big data and museums, I quoted from Mia Ridge, who mentioned that there are probably lots of other people who can do great things with museum data, much more than museums can and potentially should. And I agree with that. But I also wonder if making sense of our collections at a macro level with these sorts of techniques and possibilities isn’t also something museums should be doing. I don’t know about that, but I do think it’s something to think about.

What do you think? What would you like to see visualised using museum collections? Are there new ways of looking at the work we do that technology is making possible in ways that weren’t previously available? And should this work be done within the museum, or is it just the responsibility of the museum to enable others to do it?

The Museum of Museum Practice

Following my last post, it might come as a surprise to readers that I don’t actually play the “if I had a museum of my own, I’d…” game very often. I am too early in my career, and still have too much to learn to imagine balancing the complexities of museum management with emerging and pressing issues. My dreams are more coloured by hopes of working in certain institutions, with particular people, or on great projects. (An aside, if you haven’t read Robert Connolly’s great comments on that post yet, go back and do so – lots to think about there.)

But after Paul Rowe Tweeted that he “would love to see a museum exhibition about duplicates – multiple accessions of (almost) the same thing” because “There’s stories behind why multiple copies were collected and what use the duplicates have” I felt the need to share Luke Dearnley’s awesome idea for a museum that I would love to have as my very own, because it is one that captures my own imagination. Ready?

The Museum of Museum Practice

(I know, I know… the suspense would have been greater if I hadn’t titled the post with the name.) For Dearnley, the Museum of Museum Practice would be a place where the bad habits of old museums could be conserved and documented for us to learn from, as well as a space for documenting newer and better practices. Rock and roll.

As a museumgeek, the idea of having a Museum of Museum Practice excites me more than it should. Imagine the exhibitions, which could absolutely be about duplicates; about the how and why one museum has acquired multiple accessions of (almost) the same thing. As Rowe, building upon his earlier Tweet with a post on the museum of duplicate things, writes:

I would love to see a museum exhibition about duplicates. An exhibition could relate the stories behind the multiple copies, shedding light on one element of museum practice. 100 specimens of the same butterfly may have arisen from research into the distribution or variations of that insect. Multiple copies of a similar domestic vase may have been acquired before the museum established a clear collecting policy. One object may be a sacrificial item used for school children to handle on visits, while other examples are more carefully conserved in the storage room. The museum may even manufacture reproductions, particularly for display or education purposes. It’s at times like this that Calvin’s Duplicator would come in handy.

Such fun! An object could be displayed alongside all of the didactic information that has accompanied it in previous exhibitions (if only they had been kept and preserved), and the audience could learn about how the interpretation had changed, how curatorial language has evolved, and even how different technologies had been used (great to have an object accompanied by an early audioguide).

The museum could have displays about displays (a diorama of dioramas?!?), and curators and registrars would have to examine and critique their own work, simultaneously historians and museum professionals. (Yes I know, it’s all getting very meta.) Programming could include public restorations of objects, or open discussions about the ethics of repatriation. Exhibits could at times be subversive (as I gather those in the Museum of Jurassic Technology are), and knowingly self-referential.

But think what we would learn about our own sector, and what insights might be provoked, had we a museum with an exploration of museum practice at the heart of its mission. Ideally the MoMP would be a teaching and research institution, with strong ties to the local museum community. How well might students learn about the changes that have taken place in the sector, and how much better equipped to deal with change when it impacts upon their own museum? How useful (and hopefully interesting) for the broader community to learn more about the behind-the-scenes decision-making that takes place within the museum?

Objects in the museum could be both genuine, and created. Artists and guest curators could be engaged to interpret the work of museums, pulling to mind Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum, and Andy Warhol’s Raid the Icebox. The museum could run a regular museologist-in-residence program, and be a testing ground for prototyping new ideas. It could be thoroughly experimental, all the whilst documenting that which has often been slow to change.

In some ways, all museums are museums of museum practice (particularly those that only rarely update their procedures or exhibitions), but rarely are they consciously so. Through collecting and preserving the practices of museums past and present, the museum of museum practice could help us prototype and develop practices for the future.

What do you think? What would you want to see in the Museum of Museum Practice? What would the Curator of curation unearth? What kind of registration practice should the Registrars adopt? And how to document changes to process when they occur?