Archive for March, 2011

Museum Life: Shout Out Brooklyn!

March 6, 2011 Leave a comment

The Brooklyn Museum

Today I am thinking about new approaches to visitor input informing museum content and am intrigued by The Brooklyn Museum project launched this month entitled Split Second: Indian Paintings. From now until April 14th you can go to the Museum’s website and choose the paintings you would like to see installed at the gallery this summer.  Per the site, “inspired by the book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell, this online experiment and resulting installation will explore how our initial reaction to a work of art is affected by what we know, what we’re asked, and what we’re told about the object in question”.

After you self-identify for age, sex and level of subject matter expertise, you are shown pairs of paintings and asked to choose which one you find more “intriguing”.  What makes this challenging is that your decision must be made in four seconds. Next you are asked to write a few words and then you are given unlimited time to choose again with accompanying text. Try it by clicking here. Go ahead… I’ll wait.

So…. what did you think? I found the first part of the process difficult. The site even kicked me out and told me I was too slow in my choices. After 20 some years working in museums it seemed wrong not to analyze and apply something more than my initial visual reaction to a choice. But ultimately it was liberating and exactly what this walkabout project of mine needed. It took me back to the time when I could simply say I liked an image for no reason other than I responded to it. No words or theories ar academic justification required. I ended up enjoying that first section more than the others. Having direct input made me feel invested in the project as I will definitely check  back to see if my selections make it into the show.

This is the second such process designed by Shelley Bernstein, Chief of Technology.  The first,  Click! A Crowd-Curated Exhibition debuted in 2008 and gave website visitors the role of curator by reviewing photographs submitted by the public and selecting the pieces that were later exhibited. In addition, the website summarizes the Top 10 photos compared in each category and the 25 that received the most comments. In total 3,344 evaluators cast 410,089 evaluations of 389 photos submitted.

Brooklyn has also had the public help decide museum programming via the website. People were invited last summer to nominate musicians, DJs, films and books to be featured at a Target sponsored First Saturday event.  Making this happen required program and IT staff to collaborate to ensure the website programming could accomplish what was needed to collect votes and get feedback.

Diving deeper into the Museum’s website, you can see that back in 2007 the Museum had a visitor video competition asking people to document  a First Saturday event. The winner was “Mr. Cool”:

The Brooklyn Museum is inviting us as visitors to interact via the web in every way available. They are everywhere in the social online world — Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare, Flikr, YouTube, My Space, iTunesU and they led the way in establishing institutional blogging.  But the staff at this museum is not just sending content out, they are asking for us to return it, even to assist in creating what is presented in the galleries.  They are blurring previous roles in the field and using technology with more consistent content than I have yet to find anywhere else.  Shout Out Brooklyn!


Museum Life: Retail Therapy

March 5, 2011 Leave a comment

American Folk Art Museum in NYC- Image by artist Jim Shores

If you visit museums you have surely succumbed to the presence of retail and plunked down your cash for a tangible reminder of your visit. On behalf of museums everywhere– thanks! My first paid position in a museum was as a Store Buyer and Manager. Now at mid-career I know it was the best introduction to the daily elements of museum work possible from budget creation and management to educational design and visitor service.

There are as many approaches to retail as there are museums, and you will find varied levels of  commitment to mission and adherence to the professional code of ethics that should govern the non-profit operations. The Museum Store Association was founded in 1955 and serves as the professional organization for those involved in the “cultural commerce industry”.  Having attended quite a few MSA conferences, I respect these professionals that often provide significant operating funds to institutions and are responsible for high levels of visitor interaction. “Exiting through the gift shop” is usually the last contact a visitor has with staff and can make or break return visits and ongoing support by patrons.

My philosophy is to treat the Store as part of educational outreach in addition to a profitable enterprise. In each museum I have worked, the Store staff have been trained as educators, and are expected to be the ambassadors for every area of the operation. Those who do it well combine knowledge of collections and program content with customer service abilities to present a consistent message and image for the institution.

Below are some of my personal favorites that combine educational message with creative product choices. Enjoy!

The American Folk Art Museum in New York City. The two shops in the Museum never disappoint for unique items beautifully designed with just enough humor to make the shopping experience a pleasure to be shared. Be ready for good old-fashioned mail order if you can’t visit. Definitely work the effort!

The British Museum in London. The vast collection provides endless possibilities for product, They have some of the best publications in the business as well as jewelry based on designs from around the world.

New Afghanistan exhibition catalog from The British Museum

The Field Museum in Chicago. A museum that combines history, natural history, sciences and art in scholarly and popular ways has a Store that does the same.

The Heard Museum in Phoenix. Because of the decades old relationships with artists and a commitment to authenticity in the Native American art market, The Heard is a trusted place to find jewelry, art, music and books. The world-famous indian Art Market is this weekend, at which you can meet the artisans behind the pieces you buy while immersing yourself in performances and food!

Museum of Anthropology at University of British Columbia, Vancouver. This is one of the finest shops I’ve seen anywhere, let alone on a University campus. From educational items for kids to high-end contemporary First Nations artwork, you can find unique products that are as diverse as the collections on exhibit.

Recycled exhibit banner totes- UBC Museum of Anthopology

Museum of New Mexico Foundation. This is an innovative business model in which one foundation carries out fundraising for multiple museums. This online store combines products made my New Mexico artisans in one section with pieces representative of  world cultures in another. Name a place and you’ll likely find an artist represented!

Beaded flask from Haiti- New Mexico Museum Foundation

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. SFMOMA combines an extensive book collection with gorgeous jewelry, unique household pieces and one of the best kids’ sections I’ve seen. Throw in their great logo items to carry around or wear and you can’t go wrong!

Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Hands down one of my favorite museums because of the depth of programming that corresponds to cutting edge exhibitions. The Store mixes international contemporary pieces with a nice focus on local artists and no fear of humor! They have one of my favorite museum shirts designed by their Teen Council that says “Boring and Non-Offensive“.

MN artist Amy Mueller grass & concrete jewelry- Walker Shop

Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Even if you aren’t a major Warhol fan, the products presented here use the artist’s images in such creative ways that you might just want to surround yourself with them!

I’ll stop there for this installment. More Stores to come throughout this year of museum exploration. Send me your suggestions!

Museum Life: Behind the Monkey

March 4, 2011 Leave a comment

Curious George by the Reys

My walkabout got me thinking today about a stellar museum experience I recently had, with one of the highlights being the exhibition “Curious George Saves the Day: The Art of Margret and H.A. Rey”. If you haven’t seen it and are in the Bay area, you have until March 13th to go to The Contemporary Jewish Museum in downtown San Francisco. The exhibition was organized by The Jewish Museum in New York.

I grew up adoring the stories of George and friends and those narrow escapes as he maneuvered himself through adventures. What I never knew was that he was born “Fifi” of Jewish authors who escaped for their own lives on bicycles in 1940 because of Nazi occupation in Paris.

The Reys

They traveled across France, Spain, Portugal, and Brazil before ending up in New York four months later. All the while, Margaret and H.A. wrote beautifully illustrated stories for children that  focused on friendship, bravery and escaping harm.

What this exhibition does so well is appeal to both adults and children. The story of Nazi Europe is told without diluting the fear faced by the authors, but it is balanced with design and activities that also allow visitors to also focus on over 80 pieces of original artwork, the authors’ journals, an interactive timeline and even an “Art Pack” in the form of a little suitcase that provides activities and a map for kids to use.

Visitors with different interests can see the exhibition simultaneously and understand that while the Reys were experiencing this time of escape, they used their artwork and stories to help carry them along. Their ultimate success makes this a welcome lesson of perseverance and personal choice in how we deal with traumas in our lives. Perhaps that is why Curious George is still well-loved today, not only in the books but on PBS in his own show, on DVDs and even on Facebook where he has over 240,000 followers!

I went into this exhibition simply interested in learning more about some books I loved as a child. I came out loving them even more for the story previously unknown. That’s a good day in Museum Life!

Museum Life: Replacing Human Docents?

March 3, 2011 Leave a comment

Ada & Grace

Searching with the word museum on YouTube brought me face to face with potential human docent replacements. Is it possible Museum Life of the future will rely less on people to teach, guide and interact?

There is already a robot docent in Japan that can look into your eyes to see how interested you are as well as how much you understand and will adjust content accordingly:

The Museum of Science in Boston  currently has the InterFaces project that includes virtual guides Ada and Grace named for early computing scientists Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852) and Grace Hopper (1906 – 1992). This is an ongoing collaboration with University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies funded in part by the National Science Foundation. The project includes a Living Laboratory to use visitor hypotheses and feedback to continue development of the technology. Using speech recognition and analysis these guides can answer your questions and make suggestions. Here they are with a group of kids:

The avatar look of these guides makes it clear they are virtual, but some companies are taking the next steps to use human representations such as those you see “speaking” to you on websites within physical spaces. Combining the human appearance with interactive abilities is suggested for sales situations, conferences and  yes- museums. NuMedia Innovations, Inc calls “nuV-Host” a fully interactive virtual mannequin and cites “no recurring costs for talent or staff” as a benefit.

 Here is one in action in Norway:

Will this just be another technology that enhances what people do, or could it actually replace some functions?  I would like to find more examples in place in museums and to inquire about visitor reaction as well as retention of information provided, particularly comparing age groups. It wasn’t mentioned, but saving stored data on the questions asked and areas of interest that could be reviewed and reported would be extremely useful in planning and project evaluation.

On the other hand they have not addressed the human ability to hear 12 questions at once from 30 fourth graders, and to gracefully create answers that address everyone while walking backwards and knowing you have 3 minutes left to get everyone back to the entrance so they don’t miss their bus….

It is easy for me to envision these interacting with visitors at learning stations and they could certainly help in getting more information across to more people at once. But would visitors feel they are missing anything without “real” human conversations? Would you?

Museum Life: Divine Intervention

March 2, 2011 Leave a comment

Day 5 of my project has me thinking about museum-like functions that take place in other environments. This started with a random video on the site of an installation by artist Bruce Munro at Salisbury Cathedral, 90 miles southwest of London. You might know of the Cathedral as the home of one of the best preserved copies of the Magna Carta. While I first just wanted to connect with the art and music, as I dug into my daily research I found striking similarities in how the Cathedral is run and how museums function.

First- the art installation by Munro. It ran through February and was entitled Water-Towers. The Cathedral has an ongoing program of exhibition, in fact they also collect contemporary art. This was Munro’s second installation on site, and it encouraged visitors to wander the spaces to immerse themselves in sounds and changing color seen through 16,000 plastic bottles filled with water. Munro credits the book  Gifts of Unknown Things by Lyall Watson as inspiration to create the experience as he was fascinated by the character Tia who has synesthesia,  the ability to “see” sounds in color.

The contemporary work in an ancient space seemed very museum-like to me but the similarities did not stop there.  The Cathedral website explains that the building itself is an artifact and there are four staff conservators charged with maintaining the centuries old elements such as statuary on site. It also maintains a library and archive of historical works and has an active research program.  There are ongoing classes in art making, music and history for all ages. One can make donations or become a volunteer. Guided tours for small and larger groups are available and finally, there is a restaurant and shop for visitors. Even on the administrative side you will find a mission statement, specific measurable commitments to the community and a strategic plan available for review.

How often do museum professionals and people running other destinations carrying out similar functions interact regarding their work? Museums and libraries often partner on projects, most notably through federally funded programs. IMLS lists 117 examples funded.  Nonetheless the two professions remain quite distinct.

 Are there ways we can increase communication and potential partnerships with national and international sites that carry out similar work? What examples already exist? So many questions from one little video!

Museum Life: How Bazaar

March 1, 2011 Leave a comment

Photo in NY Times of Tatiana Santo Domingo, Eugenie Niarchos & Margherita Missoni.

Spring 2011 "museumworthy" Louis Vuitton

Today I thought I was taking a break from thinking about the museum profession when browsing through the new Harper’s Bazaar Spring Fashion Issue. Instead I found museum references scattered throughout the pages including exhibition info (see below), Darryl Patterson photos of shoes deemed “museumworthy” and finally, a Missoni family photo shoot at The Museum of Everything in London.

The concept “museumworthy” has fueled scholarly and popular debate but what attributes made fashion editor Ana Maria Pimentel use that term?  Perhaps more expensive than an average shoe, attached to a famous designer name, having eclectic design elements or meant to attract attention? Does the word museum increase perceived value to the Bazaar reader? Will it make someone buy the shoe?

What else is called museumworthy? My quick Google for the night informed me that the Best of Chicago has a “museum worthy cupcake” category, artists use “museum worthy garbage”  to illustrate our consumption and CNN used the term to refer to the Guggenheim YouTube video search last year.

The Museum of Everything and a recent NY Times article about the Missoni shoot reveal more of the subjectivity involved in placing anything or anyone in a museum.  The Museum was set up by founder James Brett as “Britain’s first and only museum for the untrained, unknown and unintentional creators of our modern world”. It was a series of temporary exhibitions focused on “Outsider Art” from around the world.  The latest was the collection of Sir Peter Blake which the Missoni family saw and were drawn to as they had similar collections in their homes.  While Brett had refused other fashion shoots because he didn’t want the artifacts seen just as props, he allowed the Missionis in.  So here we have “unintentional” art as a backdrop for a very intentional fashion campaign with a family seen as worthy of the place.  This chat between Brett & Blake examines choices made for the exhibition.

When we work within an institution we (ideally) consider standards for accession and deaccession– museumworthiness–that directly support the museum mission and account for numerous factors including research and exhibition potential, artifact condition, financial and staff requirements to care for the piece in perpetuity. What we can’t measure but is often why we first work in museums is that emotional reaction to an artifact that makes us cherish it, a connection as personal as the fashion we choose.

Can’t wait for the summer issue…..

Upcoming exhibitions mentioned in Bazaar:

“Saint Laurent Rive Gauche” at the Pierre-Berge-Yves Saint Laurent Foundation in Paris 3/10-7/23

“Glenn Ligon: America at The Whitney 3/10-6/5

“Color Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delauney” at Cooper-Hewitt  3/18-6/5