Being there: sometimes when museums try to use new technology, and in particular when we try to use it to reach “new audiences”, we end up feeling a bit like Chance the Gardener – out of our depth, in an unfamiliar discourse, with no language in common or mutual understanding with our interlocutors.
Is it possible for museums, so often hopelessly out of touch, behind the times, irrelevant – limited by our myopic focus on what we know and shackled by the very expertise that originally gave us value in this world – to innovate?This paper is dedicated to Dixie Clough: thanks to her being there, I was able to return to work for the first time as a mother this past year.
To begin, I’d like to offer you two case studies, not from museums, but from the wider cultural sector as I often find it helps to step slightly out of the frame to get a new perspective on problems like these. The first is a “Flashmob” sponsored by the Sabadell Bank in Spain last year. 100 people from symphonic orchestra, les Vallees, the Lieder, les Amies de l’Opera and the Chorale Belles Arts Choeur participated.Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch_popup?v=GBaHPND2QJg&amp;feature=youtu.be
What is innovative about this performance in comparison, say, with a much more traditional space for performance like the Opera Garnier in Paris? Who gets to speak in each venue? Who has the power? Image: http://danse-opera.over-blog.com
I think we can argue that while the Sabadell Flashmob added new channels for distributing their message, like Youtube, and extended their reach to new venues, the structure of the relationship between institution and audience remains the same: the authority remains with the orchestra and the academy, not to mention the Bank that sponsored the event; they remain the center of the power structure.
So let’s look at another example: the virtual choir by EricWhitacre in his first performance, Lux Aurumque from 2010. He is now working on his fourth virtual choir. For more info:http://singularityhub.com/2011/04/14/crowd-sourced-choir-sings-over-internet-with-the-power-of-2000-voices-video/http://ericwhitacre.com/about Video: http://www.ted.com/talks/eric_whitacre_a_virtual_choir_2_000_voices_strong.html
Maybe Lux Aurumque proposes something a bit different: Eric Whitacre’s project is open to more people, even those outside the academy, and includes a feedback loop that is integral to the structure of the power system here, thanks to the use of Facebook to recruit the choir and Youtube to publish it.But as my colleague from NMAI, Dan Davis, remarked, music is a live, synchronous collaboration among musicians; the product grows out of a collaboration – as composer and conductor, Eric Whitacre remains at the center of the power structure here, but he does listen and empower others to “speak.”
These two examples help me envision two different kinds of innovation that I’ve begun labeling radical and revolutionary. Revolutions are cyclical: like wheels, they turn; like the “hype cycle” that has been used to describe emerging technologies, they wax and wane. The SomSabatelleflashmob may be a great marketing tool once or twice, but then the Bank needs to find a new vehicle to capture the attention of its audiences. The king is dead; long live the king.In effect, innovation is the motor that drives capitalism, which is founded on the necessity of always offering new products to ever-expanding and new markets. So innovation moves fast and gives the impression of continuous change. Photos: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hype_cycle
On the other hand, radical change is a lot slower. It grows like a roots to create a dense but subterranean network. It is probably impossible to know now if the effects of Lux Arumque and the other virtual choirs of Eric Whiteacre will last, and how they will change the people and systems of power they will touch. But if they effect a radical change, it will be a deeper and more durable one than the hype cycle of revolutionary new technologies. Photo: http://allisondawnpr.com/blog/tag/grassroots-public-relations/
And if the virtual choirs are radical, I would argue it’s probably because of Eric Whiteacre’s use of social networks to invite the world to participate in his project. Jeff Howe named this process “crowdsourcing” in 2006. Clay Shirky added in 2011 that the number of participants in a system has the potential to radically change the structures of power and relations in the system. Citing physicist Philip Anderson, “More is Different” – scale can shift discourse radically.
“The crowd” can completely upend traditional hierarchies, transforming them into much more horizontal structures – into rhizomes. This tactic of inviting in the world offers us the possibility of imagining a very different structure for the museum, as a distributed network. And if you’re interested you can see an earlier essay I wrote on this topic: Museum ID http://www.museum-id.com/idea-detail.asp?id=337
Reframing the museum as an organization that is more than its staff, doesn’t just give us access to more human resources; it also gives more legitimacy and value to the museum because it becomes more relevant.
We have described our vision for mobile at the Smithsonian as “Recruit the world” because we see this as the real transformativeopportunity of the latest generation of mobile devices. Their power and connective ability allow us to think far beyond the traditional museum or exhibition tour when we think of mobile today. http://www.elpuercoespin.com.ar/2010/07/06/inteligencia-artificial-en-busca-del-traductor-perfecto/9
Crowdsourcing is nothing new at the Smithsonian…Louise Rochon Hoover's painting, "Secretary Henry Posts DailyWeather Map in Smithsonian Building,1858." Commissioned for the Smithsonianexhibition at the Chicago Centuryof Progress Exhibition in 1933.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Megatherium_Club
Artists lead the way with new technologies…
The music sets the tone…SI has used Roundware for 3 apps so far…
So it’s fair at this point to ask, so, Nancy: that recruiting the world with mobile – how’s it going? And to speak to my existential angst about being an innovator: are they introducing truly radical change into the Smithsonian, or are they just a transient, revolutionary new technology?
Looking for benchmarks and metrics of success…
Study by Santiago Ortiz, discussed in the article, Define Gender Gap? Look Up Wikipedia’s Contributor ListBy NOAM COHEN Published: January 30, 2011http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/31/business/media/31link.html?_r=2&Sue Gardner, head of Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia is undoubtedly a revolutionary platform, but it does not seem to be transforming the deep roots of millennia-old power systems that determine whose knowledge counts and becomes the go-to source.http://moebio.com/research/wikipediagender/#tv_programs&films&books&emotions&cities&sports&from_list
Don’t want to be too cynical and pessimistic, but to remind us, the would-be innovators, that if innovation is fast, change is slow (Roland Topalian).Our tools and tactics will change frequently along the long road towards the future, and we’ll need both gears: revolutionary and radical change. Sometimes using both will seem contradictory – hypocritical, even – like the feminist dilemma… We need to pay attention not only to the gears, but also to the machine we’re driving.
For our journey, the most important tool will be self-critique, to avoid drinking our own kool-aide and believing our own myths of progress. Above all, we must avoid replacing old dogmatisms and ideologies with new brands of the same thing – not fall into un-self-aware cycles of “the king is dead, long live the king!” When we try to avoid being dinosaurs in the museum by embracing innovation and technology in the museum, we risk becoming monkeys with new toys. http://www.earthweek.com/2010/ew101008/ew101008a.jpgPhoto: Mor Naaman - Flickr
Or appearing as ridiculous as poor Chance, the Gardener, to the “new audiences” we seek to connect with, using technology as he wields his remote control, hopelessly and ineffectively trying to effect change.
But of course that’s not all there is to Chance the Gardener, as the title of the film, “Being There,” hints, and technology is not just gadgetry and useless distractions, and there is also poetry in the irony and contradictions we live as we try to use new tools to rebuild the Master’s House – even while we inhabit it!Perhaps the most poetic of these ironies – or at least the one that has most occupied my mind of late – is that the bleeding edge of new mobile technologies today is somehow undoing even as it extends the last generation of revolutionary web technology. I’m speaking, of course, about location-based platforms and services. Having spent so long digitizing our collections and developing massive, multi-lingual websites in order to time-shift and reach the vast audiences who will never physically visit our museums, GPS, AR, and any number of other acronym-laden, on-demand, personalized, contextualized content and services bring us back to the very same importance of time and place that we were allegedly trying to get away from when we used digital technologies to take us beyond the museums’ walls. Now, of course, we can create spaces and special moments with those location-based technologies too; although AR is still far from inexpensive, it’s a far sight cheaper than building a physical museum. And location-based platforms like GPS make it possible for us to dream of any number of ways of curating our digital collections in new places – like repatriating the Smithsonian collections. Perhaps with these new tools we can create immersive experiences that have the power and affect of the physical encounter with the museum, its collections and exhibitions but broaden access to those experiences to in a wider array of places and times.But what will make this cool new generation of innovative technologies radical rather than just revolutionary? “Being there” Sometimes that will mean literally, physically, being there, as when we create location-based experiences – be they in the physical museum or in a new digitally-enhanced environment. But it will always mean “being there” in the sense of being genuine, sincere – not “phoning it in.” And this is the other side of the Chance the Gardner – let’s see.
Authenticity: this is the secret power that Chance the Gardener had; the magical cloak that protected him as he was thrust into the real world for the first time and the root of his appeal to those he met there. He was present in the moment and always told the truth as he saw it; he was always genuine and true to his passions. He was never self-conscious nor apologized for being a Gardener, or loving plants and tending them. Unbeknownst to himself, that innocent passion gave him tremendous power and, irony of ironies, as the film closes, the illiterate servant is being propelled to the highest political office by those who sought to tap into that power for themselves. “All you gotta be is white in America to get whatever you want” comments Louise, the African American woman who raised Chance and knew of his origins and true station in life when she sees him on TV in his new elevated role.Will museums seize the latest generation of revolutionary new technologies and wave them futilely in our audiences’ faces, as Chance did with his tv remote control in the first clip we saw, speaking “gobbeldy-gook” to them like the ignorant jack-asses we probably are? (Louise’s words again.)Or will we use them to reveal deeper truths about ourselves, our communities, and our institutions, tapping a more radical power that might just transform our museums in more miraculous ways than we can imagine…?
But one of the things that makes people love this film is that there is another way to read Chance the Gardener: as an innovator with a refreshing vision, who unwittingly gets us to look at the world with new eyes and teaches us that “life is a state of mind.” Maybe more than technology, it is this reframing of the challenges facing museums that we most urgently need.Wherever museums go, whether we’re playing the role of Chance the idiot, or Chance the spiritual gardener, I hope you will always be there too.Thank you for listening today, and for the great contributions to the field that you are already making with your time and efforts.
Being there: on innovation, revolution and radicalism in the museum
Thinking Outside the AudioTour Box From Headphones to Microphones “From we do the talking to “From interpretation towe help you do the talking.” – conversation.” – Max Anderson;Chris Anderson, Wired, Smithsonian “Gather, Steward, and Converse,” 2.0 Conference, 24 Jan 2009 The Art Newspaper, 8 June 2010
Mobile Transformations 1. “Stops” become soundtracks 2. Soundtracks are no longer linear 3. The broadcast is a conversation 4. The conversation is asynchronous 5. The body is the interface Scapes: http://wiki.museummobile.info/archives/16082 Manifesto: http://wiki.museummobile.info/archives/62 Roundware: http://roundware.org
Stories from Main Street http://storiesfrommainstreet.org/
Access American Storieshttp://www.si.edu/apps/accessamericanstories