1. Assumption, Attention,
Museums and the Web Asia Melbourne, 2015
This presentation is being given on the lands of the Kulin Nation and I wish to acknowledge them as Traditional Owners.
I would also like to pay my respects to their Elders, past and present, and the Elders from other communities who may be
Thank you Elly, and Tim for inviting me to come, and Creative Victoria for sponsoring the journey. It’s lovely to be in
Melbourne, and I’ve enjoyed the conference very much.
7. 2014 —
All of that experience has culminated in a new design ﬁrm I’ve set up this year in London.
You’re only young once, and I’m not young anymore, so I decided to get my act together.
It’s called Good, Form & Spectacle. That URL there will direct you to all the projects I’ll talk about in a bit, so make a note of
it, then sit back, and relax. But not too much.
9. My current business plan is a bit Robin Hood-y.
I specialise in making exploratory interfaces to large content collections, so I’m working with clients doing that, but…
I’m working hard to construct the company along three lines: R&D, Tools and Products, and Client projects.
A lot of what we’re doing now is the sort of noodling that Courtney described in her session this morning, and it’s really fun. I
encourage you to try it!
I’ll show you a bit of the work we’re doing later on.
11. What is museum
Today, I’d like to talk to you about assumptions we make, attention we give, and how thinking through articulation of our
collections can prove useful.
It’s my contention that we’re still echoing the origins of kunstkammern that emerged in the 16th Century in online
experiences, where everything you’ve collected is displayed, and what people can see online is proportional to your
institutional status. And that’s even after about 50 years of computing in the sector.
The good thing is, displaying everything is fertile ground for a designer like me, and you’ll see that in a couple of our projects
in a bit.
12. In a digital context, we’re still looking for great ways to show curatorial, or even editorial depth at scale.
Many interfaces to cultural collections today either force you to search, or overwhelm you with explanation, instead of
Showing The Things, and letting you explore.
13. I’d like you to carry with you a concept called The Speed Burden, developed by landscape designer and urbanist, Steve
14. Florence vs
These are overhead shots of old Florence, and Atlanta today. People and horses move slowly, and Florence is designed for
this. The streets are tight and cars must drive slowly there. But, as speed of vehicles increases, so does the need for space,
basically to allow those vehicles to turn without an accident.
The Duomo basically ﬁts inside that spaghetti bit in Atlanta.
15. Florence vs
This concept feels like a nice metaphor to how we operate online today, particularly in the case of current design thinking
around cultural catalogues. Search is the dominant paradigm, but I don’t think that’s how humans operate in a cultural
context as their default. I think it’s much more about wandering, and we’re still not doing that well.
Museums are so good at helping people wander in physical spaces, but we’re just not there yet online.
16. “It’s terribly
important to get as
much stuff out as
–Roy Strong, 1972
The other introductory idea is that openness and sharing and all that is not a new idea. That’s what it’s been about since the
great kunstkammern days in the 1500s. Perhaps now though, expectations have changed about what should be available to
who, and when and how. As Seb alluded to yesterday, the public wants their museums back.
This is Roy Strong, who was a very young director of the National Portrait Gallery, and then the V&A in London. He’s an
interesting character who things well about what museum means, and even 40 years ago, was advocating openness.
I was happy to take the chance to reﬂect a bit on what I’ve seen as change since my early work in the cultural sector. I
started this work in 2008 in developing The Commons on Flickr. That year was fascinating, because I spoke to people
working in museums, libraries and archives all over the world, who were all taking tentative steps into the public web.
1. We can’t share that.
2. We can make money!
3. If we put this on the internet, we have to control
what people say about it.
Talk about each one.
I’m not sure if these have gone away just yet, but they’ve certainly transformed.
1. Screen = Touch screen
2. I can get anything on the internet.
3. People know what they’re looking for.
4. This is only for researchers.
5. Make sure they steal our version.
6. We should outsource our authority.
It’s hard to write a list of present assumptions… I’m sure if I asked each of you what you assume about working with the
web, I’d get 200 diﬀerent answers.
These are just a short list of assumptions I’m poking at. They’re the ones I ﬁnd a bit contradictory, and interesting.
1, 2 - public expectations around interaction and availability
3, 4 - “from a user point of view”
5, 6 - angst
20. 4. This is only for researchers.
I’m lucky that I get to work across lots of diﬀerent institutions, and it’s surprising how often you hear a defence of a shit
interface described as “it’s for researchers”.
When my godson turned 5, I gave him a present. It looked a bit like this ruby, and it was so big it hardly ﬁtted in his hand. I
got it at the V&A shop.
Today, some seven years later, he has a huge rock collection, and is really interested in geology. I just got him the ruby
because his name is Ruben, but it blossomed into a research interest for him.
Stop saying ‘this is just for researchers’. Even researchers appreciate good design, but apart from that, surely you want to
encourage exploration by audiences who could become interested in further research? To encourage porto-researchers?
(That’s a bigger audience, isn’t it?)
21. We should
I wanted to pull this one out singly too, because it’s surprised me.
It’s prevalent in library land, to pay sometimes quite exorbitant fees to external parties to purchase metadata records, and
even to improve metadata using external authorities.
We’re seeing increasing use of normal humans to perform metadata creation and clean-up tasks, which is good and should
keep going. There’s just a little niggle in my mind about using these big metadata clearinghouses all the time, because, in
addition to propagating errors like a virus, it also gives away control. I asked to the lead cataloguer at a big library in London
when was the last time she’d written an original catalogue record, and she couldn’t remember.
22. Make sure they steal our version. This is a really interesting change, to me. It’s an acknowledgement of the nature of the
web, and that people reuse, remix and steal stuﬀ all the time.
Taco Dibbits, Rijksmuseum
“With the internet, it’s so diﬃcult to control your copyright or use of images that we decided we’d rather people use a very
good high-resolution image of the ‘Milkmaid’ from the Rijksmuseum rather than using a very bad reproduction.”
23. The Princess from the Land of Porcelain, James McNeill Whistler, 1863-1865.
Sara Stierch has started a Tumblr that collects crappy reproductions, “art with an identity problem”.
The original is held at the Freer-Sackler in DC.
24. Unprecedented Access
But! Wow. Look how much more we can all see online now. I’ve officially lost count of the photos in the Commons on Flickr, or the number of institutions who’ve now put
their metadata online or are now sharing images… all the numbers of things are in the millions and billions and that’s fantastic. Precedents are getting old now, and it’s
26. I mean, look at the wonderful botanical detail. Just wow.
Nice to see they mowed the lawn in 1592.
I’ve also been wondering about how human attention has changed in the last 8 years, and I think it has, a lot.
You might be familiar with Linda Stone’s theory of Continuous Partial Attention. She’s a writer and researcher and coined the
phrase as early as 1998. It’s the idea that we all work on a variety of little things at once. Deep dives are diﬃcult. I know I
struggle to read long things on the web, and even on paper these days, to my detriment I’m sure.
28. But, we give our attention to lots of things, even if it’s in little bits. And lots of us do.
Facebook reported a billion users in a single day in August.
But here’s the crazy part. As this article from February this year stated, loads of people who use Facebook don’t even realise
they’re on the internet (or that there’s more to see than Facebook).
(Have you got your Facebook page up yet?) :)
36. I’ve been following Kim Kardashian on Instagram with about 46 million of my fellow humans for the past month or so, and I
think it’s making me dumber.
I’ll be stopping this basic research after the conference.
46 million humans tune into her photostream for a moment here, a moment there, and she’s carved a brand and
manipulated the intimate medium of instragram to make her watchers feel like they’re her friend.
37. This is a photo taken just before the new iphone came out last month. It’s lots of mostly men queuing in line to buy as many
phones as they can aﬀord.
It’s really weird how Apple has entirely captured our attention. When I lived in San Francisco, just about everyone I know
would drop everything to watch whatever Keynote was happening. Mac lovers have all been trained — me included — to
buy their expensive shit, and make Apple one of the most valuable companies on the planet.
38. Timo Arnall
And yet, our attention often looks like this.
This is a photograph by my friend, Timo Arnall. He’s been documenting and studying “People Looking At Their Phones” for
about 10 years… It’s well worth a look. And they’re great subjects, because they don’t know you’re looking at you. Their
attention is ﬁxed, even though it may be continuously distributed across a whole bunch of services and tasks.
Even though there are a bunch of us tethered to our devices these days, there are also incredible, human things happening
39. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 UN Women
On the 14th of April last year, 276 schoolgirls were kidnapped from Government Secondary School, Chibok by Boko Haram
terrorists in Nigeria. 57 escaped, and 219 are still missing.
527 days ago.
Girls at the Federal Government Girls College (FGGC) in the town of Abaji, Nigeria, ﬂash the hashtag that has gone viral
around the world, urging the return of the girls abducted last month from another Federal Government Girls College in
Chibok. Photo: UN Women/Mariam Kamara - See more at: http://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2014/5/ed-visits-
42. Sky Ladder, Cai Guo-Qiang
“In June, Cai ignited Sky Ladder in his home town of Quanzhou in Fujian. In addition to looking lovely as it rose over Huiyu
Islet—a traditional ﬁshing village far from the kinds of structures rising so high elsewhere in China—Sky Ladder also served
as a birthday present for Cai’s 100-year-old grandmother.”
Attention today feels like this a bit.
43. Cai Guo-Qiang - Drawing with Gunpowder - The Artist's Studio - MOCAtv
Cai Guo-Qiang is a favourite artist of mine. When I saw his ladder, I poked deeper to see what other stuﬀ I could ﬁnd, and
saw that he’d done some kind of residency at the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA.
47. “Show that Modern Family episode with Edward Norton…”
We were in the magic round room at the Melbourne Museum last night and I recalled this part in the most recent Apple
Keynote, where Apple TV was being demoed.
Note the complete lack of user interface elements on the screen… the search interface is vocal.
49. I like watching how
people move in
But it can also be super fast, but it’s not like search.
I sat in the same spot, a small room in a big museum in London, and I witnessed two young women stride into the space —
completely miss the HOLY THORN RELIQUARY CONTAINING A THORN THAT MAY HAVE PIERCED JESUS’S BROW —
whip out their phones in tandem, and take simultaneous photos of the ﬁrst big shiny thing in the space.
Their eyes had moved on to the next possible shot before they’d even taken the ﬁrst shot. It was a weird and funny.
50. This is Barbara Hepworth, a famous British sculptor. Apart from her work being lovely, and often designed to be outside in a
particular place, I like the way she thinks about interaction with it.
“Sculpture communicates an immediate sense of life - you can feel the pulse of it. It is perceived, above all, by the sense of
touch, which is our earliest sensation”
51. “At its best, Hepworth’s work is like an invigorating walk by the sea. What a shame, then, that Tate has trapped her
sculptures in airless vitrines”
52. It’s that idea fo search vs wonder, for me.
These were a couple of drawings I made as I prepared the talk. The top left is the pervasive paradigm for using cultural stuﬀ
online. It’s a search, retrieve, go back, try again type of thing.
The recognition of, and design for, things that are part of a network, is much more native to the web, and a method that
humans handle well, I think.
Are we still broadcasting?
Web 2.0 data is alive
Recognition, literacy, comprehension, manipulation, creativity
We’re still looking for the transformations from information to experience, knowing to feeling, things to stories.
Now I’d like to share with you the work that my ﬁrm has been making this year. Broadly speaking, I’ve been exploring the
idea of articulation.
TIME CHECK - 30 mins to go?
One kind of articulation is about good pronounciation, how well you can say the sounds that make words.
58. Therapists work at building…. wait… let me just calm that diagram down a bit.
There’s another kind of articulation which relates to adding features or joints to a body so it can move in more directions… I
like this too, as a device to think with in terms of moving through a cultural collection.
How many pivots can we give an object to interconnect it? How can you articulate your collections?
62. Sawada Laboratory
As I was researching this idea, I came across this weird-ass speech robot that was too weird not to share.
Oddly, it also represents where we are - basic, obvious, and how far we can move forward in this space, I think.
63. In a digital space, I think the experience of exploring a catalogue is still adhering to this display cabinet mentality. Still feels
like loads of things in boxes or shelves; like stuﬀ in isolation.
What a great opportunity!
64. So it’s a return to this challenge of Kunstkammer vs Curatorial depth…
74. Date Created Date Acquired
Null / Not Known
No acquisition date.
Interesting how visuals like this are potentially very useful to staﬀ inside the museum.
75. This is Grayson Perry, a British Turner Prize-winning artist. He made a brilliant exhibition at the British Museum called The
Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. As well as showing objects from the BM collection, he made several pieces himself,
including this tapestry you see behind him.
His work is irreverant, beautiful, and slowly made. He thinks interestingly about the art world, and is well worth a look.
But, in the catalogue, he said his:
76. “The relationship
between my personal
themes and obsessions
and the vastness of
world culture as
represented by the
British Museum is like
a narrow pilgrimage
trail across an infinite
“The relationship between my personal themes and obsessions and the vastness of world culture as represented by the
British Museum is like a narrow pilgrimage trail across an inﬁnite plane.”
Search vs Wayﬁnding
Image of the City
Paths, Nodes, Landmarks
How do we create an Image of a Catalogue?
77. Two Way Street
This is a project we made using the British Museum catalogue (sadly after Mr Perry made his exhibition - it might have been
A second visualisation, which also reacts to the list of stuﬀ it’s displaying.
The spots tell you proportions of types of things that make up this group of objects.
So in this case, you can tell at a glance that most of the things from South Iraq in the collection is clay tablets, and about a
quarter of it was collected in 1883.
90. I’m in south India, looking at Garuda!
91. Isabel is a Curator in the Prints & Drawings department @BritishMuseum, who I’ve now met through twoway.st.
Externally produced digital reﬂection.
Useful to staﬀ who operate with the collections every day.
93. Sir Henry Wellcome (1853 – 1936) was an American-British pharmaceutical entrepreneur. He founded the pharmaceutical
company Burroughs Wellcome & Company with his colleague Silas Burroughs in 1880, which is one of the four large
companies to eventually merge to form GlaxoSmithKline. In addition, he left a large amount of capital for charitable work in
his will, which was used to form the Wellcome Trust, one of the world's largest medical charities. He was a keen collector of
They introduced the selling of medicine in tablet form to England under the 1884 trademark "Tabloid". Previously, medicines
had been sold mostly as powders or liquids. Burroughs and Wellcome also introduced direct marketing to doctors, giving
them free samples.
In this box, folders numbered with a number beginning with 7 are numbered with videodisc frame numbers.
To ﬁnd the catalogue number, look up the 7… number in the catalogue (don’t enter the ﬁnal i) then look there for the
catalogue number (probably beginning with the numeral 2) !
95. Week 1
Scope of the Catalogue
Show the THING (and not its record)
Context, Context, Context
97. We explicitly set up the project as a series of loose sketches. It was exciting that Jenn and her team at the Wellcome was
open to, and excited about working in public too.
So, you can have a poke around all of this at your leisure, including the 60 or so blog posts we wrote on the project blog as
98. So, Week 1.
In the first week, it was our job to show the scope of the catalogue. We got a dump of MARC XML and tried to figure out its size and shape, somewhat naively.
It was apparent that the Wellcome folk weren’t really sure of these sorts of totals for things, or at least, they were figures that aren’t normally reported on.
We were the first to report on how many actually digitised things existed.
99. This was one of the first visualisations we drew. It’s a map of all the MARC fields we found in the data – 184 of them. We’ve shaded them based on how
many records have a value in each field, where black is most used. It was a very quick indication for us of “data coverage” – we were looking for some kind
of blunt measure of data quality, thinking that “presence of data” is a good one.
100. Here’s the second visualisation, which shows in more detail which MARC fields are populated.
101. And the third, which shows, for any one MARC field, the distribution of values within it.
102. The bottom one there, “The Long Tail”, is Organization and Arrangement of Materials, field 351.
103. Mess begins to reveal itself.
(Actually, this wasn’t mess… It was the collision of two classiﬁcation systems: Library of Congress Subject Headings, and the Medical Subject Headings or
104. For each of the subjects, we showed an individual row for each MaRC record, and highlighted diﬀerent record types - library, archive, art. I was looking for
insights into “completeness” or quality of records, or patterns that could indicate diﬀerent human cataloguers.
105. This is an individual record. You can use every ﬁeld to look for other stuﬀ.
Linking, linking, linking…
Week 1 was about us Showing Everything. That’s a technique we’ve used in every project so far. Just draw everything you
can, and interconnect it all.
Then we moved on to Week 2: Show the Thing (and not just its record).
106. Week 2 - Show The Thing
It was great to poke at the library search logs. Seems to me to be pretty conclusive proof that most people don’t
really know what they’re looking for.
107. Lots of people seemed to know that they were looking at something related to medicine, but most of the searches
were very general. Very Florentian, if you will. Prepare to wander…
111. Week 3: Content, Context
James Gillray, satirical caricaturist and printmaker born in 1756. Lived through the birth of medicine in London, and was
particularly scathing of quackery and politics of the period.
112. We ended up collaborating with the Wellcome team to make a giant webpage that showed all sorts of stuﬀ we could ﬁnd
about James Gillray.
113. Content Scaffolding
1. About the thing
2. Themes around the thing
3. Connect to the rest of the collection
4. Connect to the rest of the web
Here’s how we structured our work…
114. Lalita, the web editor at the library, selected some themes that worked for Gillray, like Vaccination and Quackery.
Frankie and I also wrote all the copy that wasn’t from the catalogue… like,
“Around 1798, Edward Jenner made the discovery that taking pus from a cow with cow pox (yes, a cow), and injecting that
pus into a human, actually vaccinated the human against smallpox. Well, no wonder everyone thought he as a lunatic.
Look, you can see Jenner in the print below, injecting pus into a skeptical woman surrounded by cow-humans.”
We used the Google n-gram viewer to compare mentions of smallpox and vaccination in their text corpus. Though not
Wellcome-speciﬁc, it was still interesting to note what happened around 1800.
We used the Google n-gram viewer to compare mentions of smallpox and vaccination in their text corpus. Though not
Wellcome-speciﬁc, it was still interesting to note what happened around 1800. Vaccination comes into being, smallpox
118. We showed some of his contemporaries - a very rough list based on birthdates within 10 years of Gilroy…
120. What does the web know
about James Gillray?
Can objects be internetually
That cracked open another research question for Good, Form & Spectacle which we’re starting to examine in another
project about Curious Objects. What if objects look for representations or reﬂections of themselves online?
More on that in a bit.
121. Week 4: Try to scale the idea of context across the catalogue of about a million records.
137. ~80% of institutions have
less than 10 staff.
I know this is a rubbery figure, but I’d guess it’s not far off.
This is my new local library in London. What you don’t see in this photo is the two giant Bibliotecha machines that the librarian made me use to process what
I wanted to borrow. Membership was handled on his terminal, but the catalog and borrowing wasn’t.
He did admit that I could just come to the counter if I had to, or felt like a chat.
(Photo taken by me)
138. –Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett
“Treasure, Mirror, Forest, Archive”
“Let us recover the protean nature of museum in the spirit of a Renaissance idea of the museum as “the axis
through which all other structures of collection, categorizing, and knowing intersected; interweaving with words,
images, and things it provided a space common to all.” According to Paula Findlen, “the Renaissance notion of museum
deﬁned imaginary space...[and] was a methodological premise that translated itself into a wide variety of social and cultural
forms.” The many terms by which it was known are indicative of the ways in which an expansive notion of museum
“allowed it to cross and confuse the intellectual and philosophical categories of biblioteca, thesaurus, and pandechion with
visual constructs such as cornucopia and gazophylacium, and spatial constructs such as studio, casino, cabinet/gabinetto,
galleria and theatro.” The museum was a theatrum (or domus) sapientiae, a theatrum mundi, a microcosm. It was a
treasure, mirror, forest, and archive. As a physical entity, the museum might take the form of a free-standing cabinet, a
room, a building, a garden, or a book, which provided a deﬁned space for the gathering and arranging of objects and the
contemplation or study of them, whether according to a pastoral or monastic ideal. Whatever it was called and whatever
form it took, the museum was above all an idea and a set of practices.”
139. International Council of Museums, UNESCO
“The preparation of this book, Running a Museum: A Practical Handbook, came about at the request of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of
the Cultural Heritage of Iraq.”
140. Studying the museum as subject, museum as medium, museum as technology (skills, methods, techniques)
148. Each day we picked an object of focus. This is Hoa Hakanan’aia. We mapped his journey from Easter Island to the British
Interesting side fact - he was acquired by the museum on the same day as the Rosetta Stone.
149. This is a volunteer, Jim, who came in on Day 2 to help out.
150. Day 4: Nandi
Steed of Shiva. Nandi sits outside temples to Shiva. In real life, he’s surrounded by energy, people, ﬂame, prayers and food.
In the museum, he’s in a cold blue corridor, solitary and completely out of context.
155. I think it was the story behind our Rameses II that cemented my interest in revealing the acquisition history at the BM. This
guy was the British Consul General to Egypt for a short while, and in that time he sold over a thousand objects at auction to
the British Museum, and proﬁted personally.
For this display, we printed out about 100 of the things he brought to England.
156. It was interesting to witness how, as we called ourselves “museum” people calmed as they entered, as if primed for
something in particular.
And the next day, Harriet (their mum) brought in a museum in a box they’d made overnight. It is The Arthur and Henry
Oh, shit. We’re going to be a museum of museums in boxes.
160. “How does the museum, despite its best eﬀorts to create certainty, produce unpredictability? Through fragmentation,
aggregration, selection, juxtaposition, connection, contrast, excess, and confusion.”
Barbara Kirshenblatt Gimblet
165. + Raspberry Pi
(or other small computer)
Here’s the idea…
For our second round prototype, we’re going to make two boxes: 1 of London statues of women, and the other of masks
from institutions around the world.
166. I wanted to show you some of our very early experiments
167. Curious about how the object itself could stimulate speciﬁc interfaces, in this case, using the Rosetta Stone replica as a
trigger to translate things.
172. We’re working on Version 2 now. Tom has been modelling statues of women in London for one box, like
173. Violette Szabo, who was a French-born English Special Operations Executive agent during the Second World War, and a
posthumous recipient of the George Cross. On her second mission into occupied France, Szabo was captured by the
German Army, interrogated and tortured, and deported to Germany where she was eventually executed at Ravensbrück
Now there’s a statue of her on the banks of the Thames in London, which we’ve scanned and will print for one box.
174. This is a tiger from the Horseman Museum in London. We’re also talking to the National Mask Museum of Korea, the
Smithsonian, Te Papa, and still need one or two others, so if you’re interested, please let me know.
175. It’s also been an interesting process to try to get original models scanned by a set of diﬀerent institutions.
So… articulation. Takes many forms so far in the young life of Good, Form & Spectacle. As we’ve seen, I’m working on very
digital things, and some new physical and digital blends. I’m very curious about the physical realm, especially given I’ve
been in software for the past 20 years.
176. Lucas Blalock
Good, Form & Spectacle is still in the Deconstruction phase and maybe for some time. Hell, maybe I'll be there forever
“Use the dumbest tools bluntly”
"If you hit something call it the target"
Use the dumbest tools bluntly - Lucas Blalock
177. Hitchcock, North by Northwest
Cinematographer’s 61 camera angles for the the crop dusting sequence.
Digital practice? My claim is that we’re still at the very beginning, and we’re defaulting to kunstkammern. (Although the vast
and magniﬁcent Atlas of Living Australia might have proved me wrong…)
Just like in the 1500s, when these cabinets started to emerge, they were often used as status symbols by princes and
wealthy men. But, importantly, they also started to become centres for research and development of new scientiﬁc ideas.
I’m excited because it feels like we’re still in the very early days, and that’s a fun space for a designer to operate.
We need more articulate speakers, and to gather new perspectives and contexts. There are 000s of languages on Earth, but
most cultural catalogues only speak one. How can we change this?
My bet is by starting very small and TALKING A LOT ABOUT IT.