Arts and the New York Times

 

I’ll admit, I slacked in my museum visiting duties this week. I haven’t made it to a museum or a gallery because of a variety of reasons, but that’s my fault. So today I want to talk about the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times. Now I’m not talking about the online newspaper, which I love looking at on an almost daily basis. I’m talking about the hard copy of the Sunday paper, what I grew up flipping through in hopes of finding the comic section while my parents read the real news.

In much the same way that I love reading from a real book and flipping physical pages, there is something in me that loves a news print and the way that the ink stains your fingers a little. That’s why when my friend picked up a copy of the New York Times today I instantly tore into the arts and leisure section. What I found, however, frustrated me as a former Art History major.
This Sunday’s Arts and Leisure section was a whopping 22 pages long, five full pages of which were ads for TV programs, theater shows, and music performances. That’s not including all of the ads that take up the extra space on a page with short articles. More frustrating for me was the actual lack of discussion on art. Of the remaining 17 pages, only one full page and a small column article focused on the fine arts. Every other article discusses theater, television shows, and music.

The full page article on art was about Anthony Hernandez, a photographer based in LA who recently became the subject of a retrospective at the San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art. While much of the article discusses Hernandez’s art (as it should), what I found most interesting was SFMoMA’s decision to faze out their Photography specific galleries and begin to incorporate that media with painting and sculpture. This is a bold move within the art history (and perhaps even museum world) because photography has always been seen as an art form not quite on the same level as painters and sculptors. Photography was always so drastically different from painting and sculpture that it was never seen as appropriate to combine the medium.

I have never visited SFMoMA but I would absolutely love to see how their collection and display techniques change as they begin to blend photography into the rest of their collection. If done right, this decision could really enhance the art discussion that photography tends to capture the world as it actually is. It offers another dimension to the dialog of art at any given time and will be a huge asset in the understanding of modern art.

But back to the original purpose of this blog post, as interesting as this article was and it’s implications. I was highly disappointed by NYT’s lack of discussion on visual art. I had to flip to the last page of the section to find the article on Hernandez. I understand there is so much more offered online, and maybe this was just an odd week, but I want at least a slightly more equal use of print among the arts. The NYT discusses art all over the country (and there are definitely more than just two artists worth noting this week), so why is there really only one page devoted to such a discussion? Maybe next week will be different, but I, like so many millennials, will probably just look online.

The Downside to Admitting to Being a Museum Studies Student

Since moving to DC I’ve made it my goal to see as many museums as possible. Generally speaking, I’ve seen around 1 museum a week which isn’t too bad because it keeps me in touch with the museum culture here without burning out. What I have begun to notice, however, is that many of the museums I’ve visited recently have been a “typical” museum. They look like a classical building, meaning Greco-Roman influence, and inside the galleries are what you would find in any museum anywhere in the world. This isn’t a jab at DC museums, at least the Smithsonian’s, because these are 19th century structures and it’s always difficult to break with what has become the museum standard (especially in the nation’s capital city). But I have started to crave something innovative and different from that “typical” museum visit.

This is why I was so excited when I got the opportunity to visit Forced From Home this past Wednesday for my class on Museum History and Theory. This visit was entirely unexpected and in many ways that made it all the more exciting. The original plan was to see a few exhibitions inside the National Museum of American History and dissect what museum practices and innovations we had just read about were taking place. Instead of heading inside to the museum, my professor mentioned that she had heard of this exhibition being put on by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and had snagged 10 tickets for noon that day. Unfortunately this meant that about five students in the class wouldn’t be able to see Forced From Home that day and would have to stick to the original plan. I had heard about Forced From Home from one of my classmates in my Digital Technology class and instantly jumped at the chance to see how it played out on the National Mall.

Forced From Home follows the path that refugees, internally displaced people, and those seeking asylum must travel to reach a MSF facility. It’s an exhibition that is traveling to five cities over the course of 2016 and definitely worth checking out if it’s in your area. Unlike most traveling exhibitions, this one is outside and, for the most part, uncovered. I was lucky that it was a beautiful day when I had my experience there, but our tour guide did say that they still give tours when the weather isn’t so great. I can only imagine how drastically different that visit must be from my own.

How does it work? Well first you get your entry “ticket” which is really an ID card with a country of origin and your status. I was a Refugee from Burundi. Next we sat down and were given some of the basic information about what MSF does all around the world. Our guide for this experience was a registered nurse from Canada who had been stationed over seas three times with MSF and was using her vacation time to work this exhibition. She asked our class what brought us in today, and I almost wish she hadn’t. We told her we were museum studies students and she said she would try to cater her tour to our interests. I was looking for a truly authentic experience on this visit, so having her alter her normal tour for us didn’t sound too appealing to me. And it turns out, my experience seemed largely shaped by that one admission.

After our initial discussion we moved into this 360 degree video room. The video truly brought to life what it would feel like in a variety of refugee camps around the world as well as meet people living in those camps. It was definitely a great use of technology and had the capacity to hold many more than our 11 person group. The video was about 5 minutes long and was the only video or technology piece in the entire fifty minute tour.

Once we were outside again we were asked to stand in front of pillars that had the names of the countries on our ID cards. We were then asked to go behind the pillar and grab 5 cards that represented the 5 items we would take with us. I grabbed water, clothes, shoes, blankets, and my passport. We were then told to get into a boat and hand over one of our items. This would become a theme at each of the stops on our tour.

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Plastic cards with items commonly taken by people fleeing their homes

At each stop we were told that most of the items around us were actually taken from the field and in many ways that made the experience more visceral. We saw things like life vests that weren’t suitable for open sea travel, abandoned toys, water containment systems, and a camp bathroom. The objects used throughout the exhibition were powerful because they were worn and clearly had a history beyond their placement in the exhibition.

I learned so much information about what MSF did for people, but in many ways I didn’t learn exactly what it was like for the people I was meant to identify with. I think this is because our tour guide knew we were museum studies students. Instead of treating us like normal visitors our tour guide would say “for our average visitor I like to…” and would explain how the experience would typically go rather than allowing us to participate like any other visitor. I think I felt this way because of the tour guide behind us with another group. They running around and the guide was shouting at them to hurry and hand something other whereas everything we did was calm and collected. I wanted to be experiencing a tour like that, something fully immersive.

I appreciated that our guide spoke to us as equals and tried to give us insight into how MSF thought about their tour process, but sometimes, the best way to learn about something is to just jump in head first. To spend less time explaining and more time experiencing.

One Touch Screen Too Many

 

This past Thursday my friend and I decided to visit the National Museum of the American Indian  (NMAI) with the goal of playing with as much in-gallery technology as possible. Neither of us had been to NMAI before so we weren’t sure what to expect, or even what technology would be available to us. Luckily for us, the museum was relatively empty on Thursday, perhaps due to the all-day rain or because it was the middle of the day on Thursday, but whatever the cause it meant my friend and I could take as much time with our finds as we wanted.

 

For those who haven’t visited the NMAI at all, or it’s been a while, let me refresh your memory on the layout. The visit actually begins on the fourth floor and you slowly work your way down to the final galleries on the second floor. On the fourth floor, before you even enter the first official gallery space, you encounter a massive glass case that is filled with a variety of objects, each depicting an animal in some way. In front of the cabinets are small kiosks that allow visitors to click on the picture of an object in the cabinet, learn its origin, date of creation, and material as well as zoom in on the object to see it up close.  I was immediately excited about this, hoping to gain some insight into what exactly the object meant to its perspective culture, and also to have the ability to play the first touch screen I found.

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A close up of Animal Artifact Kiosk

I have to admit, however, I was a little disappointed by these animal kiosks. More often than not, there was no explanation of the objects cultural importance. So basically all the kiosks allowed us to do was zoom in and see details. While that is valuable in its own right since some of the objects were very small, I instantly craved more information. In addition, where there were opportunities to rotate an image, I found I had a difficult time getting the touch screen to rotate the image.

 

More frustrating than the temperamental touch screen were the automated drawers in those glass cabinets. Above the drawers was a sign that read “Pull Gently to Open, Push Gently to Close.” Sounds simple enough, right? Well turns out, it was not so simple. The drawers opened easily enough, allowing my friend and I to look at some carved pipes, but after about ten seconds the drawer would automatically close, without even the slightest nudge from us. It was incredibly frustrating to have to keep reopening drawers only to get a quick look before the drawer closed itself again. I understand that from a practical standpoint, the automatically closing drawers make sense. It alleviates the problem of people continually leaving drawers open after looking at their contents, but the timing definitely needs an adjustment. In addition, not all drawers functioned like they should have. That was actually a blessing for my friend and I, but consistency is important too. If a museum is going to insist on motorized drawers, make sure all of them going work correctly.

 

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Motorized Drawer at National Museum of the American Indian

Once we finally moved into the galleries, drawers and stand alone kiosks made way for giant touch screens. The first gallery space Our Universes actually did not contain any touch screens which made the space, at least for me, a little boring. I was fascinated by the different cultures and their understanding of their worlds, but moving offshoot to offshoot eventually got a little monotonous. It was in many ways more of a traditional gallery viewing experience, but because of that first taste of technology I was desiring something similar throughout the rest of the museum.

 

Much to my happiness, there were touch screens in the Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations gallery. This screen was different from the kiosks; it was a lot larger for one, and it was pushed up against a wall rather than standing free in the middle of the gallery. Instead of just presenting information like a wall text, as the kiosk did, this screen presented its information like a game. The goal of the game was to decide which culture practiced what ritual during a treaty, such as smoking a pipe, singing your name, or sharing a meal. Each ritual had a little medallion that you dragged to the right culture (American Indian, American, or Both). My friend and I had a great time deciding where each ritual went and then when we matched them all correctly, we read the details for each.

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The Rules and Rituals Touch Screen

The next in gallery technology that we encountered in the Nation to Nation gallery was another touch screen which focused on the relocation of American Indians throughout the United States. This touch screen allowed visitors to select a historical person and read their story. The stories were told through drawings like a story book and I was able to scroll across the screen to continue the story. This touch screen worked so well that my friend and I spent at least 15 minutes looking at the various stories and swiping left and right to scroll across the screen. As frustrating as the automatic drawers were, this screen was extremely user friendly and responsive which enhanced our learning experience.

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Home Screen of the Relocation Touch Screen
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The Relocation Story of John Ridge

 

 

The last gallery my friend and I explored was on the third floor and was a special exhibition titled The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire.  As I came to expect, there were two different touch screens in the exhibition. One was a game where we were supposed to run messengers along the Inka roads by drawing paths between two cities. The premise was easy enough, but I found it rather difficult to trace the path in order to send the messenger. No matter how many times I ran my finger across the roads, the screen wouldn’t recognize the path I drew. My friend, on the other hand, had no problem with the screen. For whatever reason, the screen did not seem to recognize my finger long enough to work.

 

The final screen we encountered was the largest, by far.  It was a table sized screen that displayed the ancient city of Cuzco. It was immediately enticing to play with as it’s purpose was not entirely clear, and I wanted to find out what it did. Turns out, the screen allowed me to click on different parts of the city as well as different land marks, and gain more information about them while also looking at their relationship to the rest of the city.

 

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Ancient Cuzco Touch Screen

 

While this was fun for the first few minutes, I became disenchanted pretty quickly. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the screen, it worked really well actually and was very responsive to my touch, but I think I became “touch-screened out” by this point in my visit. I had seen so many touch screens after two hours inside NMAI and although they each had a different purpose they had sort of lost their appeal. I wanted something else to do in the gallery.

 

I understand that touch screens are an easy way to engage the visitor and they offer various ways to share information. They are clearly becoming a staple in museums, and perhaps even expected at this point. I can’t help but wonder, however, if they are a cop out for museums; that they are the quick and easy answer to giving museum visitors the in-gallery technology they want. How many touch screens does it take before they loose their magic? For me it was five.

The Smelly Museum?

For my Museums and Digital Technology class, not only are we meant to keep our own blogs but we are also encouraged to read our classmates posts. I follow some of my classmates on their various blog formats and therefore I received an email saying that Erica Daudelin had updated her blog and I went to go and read it. Erica’s post this week discusses Augmented Reality at the Royal Ontario Museum, which is really cool and you should go and read about it here. Erica’s post got me thinking, however, about what else is out that that could be beneficial to a museum visit that enables visitors to contextualize works better.

 

More often than not, when I go to a museum I have this incredible urge to touch everything and that goes against all my years of museum visits and what I continually preached as a museum docent over the summer. Perhaps that’s my desire to know more about objects that are so heavily protected I can’t even see the finer details of the object. There is so much to learn about an object that cannot be understood from a distance and requires closer contact. It is one thing to look at an object and read what its purpose was but it is another entirely to hold an object, feel its weight, or even smell it.

 

Smell is something that isn’t really thought about during a museum visit but smell is so important to memory making and contextualization. I know that every time I walk by someone smoking a cigar, or I smell some butterscotch, I immediately think back to my grandfather’s old house, a place I haven’t been in fifteen years. Now think about the last time you were in a museum, was there any smell that connected you to a different time or place? The answer is most likely no, and that is because most of the objects are sitting behind glass cases. Modern museums are built to preserve the objects they house, and more often than not, they remove objects from their original context in the name of that preservation/conservation.

 

But what if someone could harness the smell of objects, preserve them, and make them reproducible in order to create a truer interaction with those objects?  Scientists such as Cecilia Bembibre at University College London are working on cataloging object smells. An online article from Atlas Obscura posted earlier this month discusses Bembibre’s work with preserving smells of “historic locations and objects around England.” The article explains just how Bembibre goes about collecting her smell samples and then runs them through both “a gas chromatographer and mass spectrometer, which [Bembibre] describes as a ‘big nose.’”  These two machines enable Bembibre to have a recipe of sorts for recreating the smell in the future.

 

While there is much about smells that is subjective, this could offer a wonderful opportunity to museums or historic sites. Being able to recreate an exact smell of an object and allow visitors to smell it while still keeping the original artifact safe could offer a new dimension to the standard museum visit. This technology could potentially also offer visitors the chance to connect on a personal level to an object in new ways. There are so many possibilities for this technology in the future, I just hope someone tries to take advantage of it.

Let’s Get Digital?

When I think about museums, I don’t typically think about all of the digital technology that creates the most memorable experience. There are so many aspects that are taken for granted when the modern visitor enters the museum, or even before they step in the door. Think about your last museum visit, any type of museum will do. How did you know when it opened? Did you look and see what the exhibitions currently were? If you needed tickets, did you buy them in advanced? Its pretty likely you checked the museum’s website for all of these questions. There is already so much information about a museum ready at your fingertips without even entering a physical building. That doesn’t even begin to cover what digital technology is at play once you arrive at the museum. Things like security, climate control, member services, audio guides, Wifi and so much more are influencing how you experience a museum.

In an increasingly digital/technological world, visitors expect a certain level of the present to be incorporated in the “old world” of museum visiting. For many, museums are meant to be a break with the everyday, a way to transport yourself to another world and time. What is the museum’s place in the 21st century if the visitor has the outside world sitting in their back pocket in the form of a cellphone?  It is not enough to come to a museum and look at objects through glass because nine times out of ten, that exact object can be seen in HD on a computer in the comfort of your own home. Museums are now tackling how to get visitors truly engaged with the objects lining its walls, even if that means bringing the outside world in.

 

My most recent experience with digital technology in the museum setting was at my last trip to the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) this past Sunday. I didn’t plan on going to the museum that day, and I definitely wasn’t planning on writing a post about its use of technology throughout the galleries but my class discussion in Museums and Digital Technology this week got me thinking about how museums are embracing, or not, the digital age. More importantly, it got me thinking about if this incorporation of digital technology really enhanced my experience at the Museum of Natural History.

Views of the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins crowded with Museum visitors.
The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins at the National Museum of Natural History

It had been a very long time since my last visit to NMNH and I wasn’t really sure what they had on display so I first check their website (linked above) to see if this was really the museum I wanted to visit that day and just how late they were open.  Already I was experiencing the museum’s first layer of digital technology and interacting with their most obvious digital presence. Upon arrival however, NMNH’s digital presence became a lot subtler.

Throughout the Hall of Human Origins, I encountered signs encouraging me to touch casts and models of different skulls and bones that were found throughout the world. Although not an obvious use of digital technology, some machine had to copy the original bones and then another machine was responsible for fabricating them into a durable material.

As I continued to wander through these galleries I came across a few touch screens that allowed visitors to learn a little more about certain subjects. These screens were not massive of widely advertised; instead they were tucked into the text panels in front of large display cases. They were there as an additional resource if a visitor wanted, but could easily be ignored or overlooked by someone breezing through a gallery.

While I think these touch screens offer an opportunity to learn more, I found some of them frustrating to work with. More often than not, these touch screens were not very reactive and I found myself jabbing my finger at the screen in order to go to a different screen. Instead of being able to easily learn about how lions hunt in the savannah, for example, I spent most of my time figuring out where the screen thought my finger was so I could compensate and click on the information I wanted.  Perhaps that comes with being a very well-visited institution that deals with numerous visitors a week.  Machines get worn out, touch screens often need to be re-calibrated, or maybe there was something on my fingers that made it hard to recognize on the screen. Whatever it was, the interactive touch screens definitely can aid in enhancing a learning experience (if you can get past the potential frustrations).

Of all the screens and models I walked past during my visit, I never encountered a wait time to use or touch something except in the Hall of Human Origin. Right next to the 3D models of our genetic ancestors were two photo booths that allowed visitors to see what they would look like as one of our ancestors with the option to email the image to yourself after. On two monitors in between the photo booths, images of past visitors rotated on the screens with the most notable facial features super-imposed over the grinning faces of visitors. I must admit, I was curious about what I would look like as an ancient human, so I began to wait in line along with about seven other people. After 5-10 minutes, however, I hadn’t really moved in line and the intrigue had worn off so I went on my way and explored the rest of the museum.

The irony of the only place in the museum encouraging a photograph having a waiting line is not lost on me. Instead of waiting in line to get to touch an object, people are willing to line up to take a picture with what is basically a Snapchat filter. What does that say about us a visitors? The notion of “the selfie” has become so mainstream that having a photo to prove that you went somewhere, rather than just enjoying the experience of being there has altered how we interact with the world around us. Instead of trying to break with this notion of “pics or it didn’t happen” and keep the museum visit about interacting with the objects, it seems that NMNH is trying to embrace the digital age one selfie at a time.

I just can’t help but wonder what this means for the museum purists like myself. Will my preference for the object-based learning and exploration be pushed aside for the addition of photo booths and touch screens that might not work?

Here we go

Congrats on finding your way here and welcome to my first ever blog!

 

I must admit I’m not entirely sure how this how blogging thing is supposed to work, so please bear with me as I stumble through it and figure out exactly what it is I want to say. I guess we can start with the super basic first: I’m Amanda, originally from Connecticut but I’ve just moved to Washington, DC for graduate school in Museum Studies. This past May I graduated from Tufts University in Medford, MA with a degree in Art History and I couldn’t have asked for a better experience there. It was in those classes that I began thinking about museum spaces and how we, as visitors, experience that space. I have always felt comfortable in a museum, especially art museums, and over my four years at Tufts I spent countless hours wandering the galleries of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It brought me great comfort to see works of art I could easily identify and I would spout information about to anyone willing to listen. It was with visits with my more science-math focused friends, however, that really got me to realize my comfort in a museum wasn’t necessarily the norm. While I was willing to spend hours among artifacts of the past, some of my friends were fidgety after 30 minutes. This got me thinking about what made my experience in a museum so different from theirs.

Ironically, it was my experience abroad that really brought the visitor experience question into focus for me. I spent the spring of my Junior year at the University of Edinburgh in Edinburgh, Scotland and spent most of my free time wandering around the old city. On an almost daily basis, I walked past St. Giles’ Cathedral and was always impressed by its towering size and Gothic architecture. When I finally went in, it wasn’t like any church I had ever been in and I was instantly confused and intrigued. What should have been (at least in my mind) a very clear-cut cruciform church with a closed off area for the high altar and choir was incredibly open and missing a choir all together. Because of this open space I felt able to walk around freely, choosing to roam around the space as I chose to, all the while thinking about how this space got to be this way. When I visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland, I encountered a more “traditional” church plan but felt far more closed off in the space. These two visits inspired me to write my Senior Thesis on these two churches and their histories leading up to the Protestant Reformation. Both churches underwent changes, both architecturally and decoratively, that altered the way visitors experienced the space. Through this year long project, I came to realize that it is more than just the architecture that controls how we interact with a space and what we take away from a visit.

 

So to make this story a little bit longer, my Senior Thesis is what really solidified my interest in visitor experience and inspired me to apply to The George Washington University’s Masters in Museum Studies Program.  My goal with this blog is to discuss how different aspects of museums (all museums, not just art museums) create a lasting and educational experience. As a full disclosure, the first set of posts will be focusing on digital technologies within the museum world and grappling with the benefits and complications that come with a growing tech-oriented world because I’m currently taking a course on that subject. This class may have been the reason behind starting my blog, but that doesn’t mean I’ll stop as soon as this class is over.

 

Sorry, but you’re stuck with me now!