Let the tech take the strain

Let the tech take the strain

So yesterday I pit the Brooklyn Museum up against the mighty Cooper Hewitt. And what a day it was. First impressions of the Brookyn Museum were a little negative, their outside space is lovely, but the signs told me what wasn’t allowed, the fountain wasn’t accessible even when it’s as hot as the surface of the sun and a lovely growing for art project was imprisoned behind a fence.

But then I saw that families had gathered along with a special educational needs group and just the odd tourist type so I didn’t feel too much of an outsider. And when we stepped in the first experience is their Boombox exhibition, which pumps music across the foyer with the most amazing tinkered boomboxes you have ever seen. And I fell in love instantly.

Couple this with a ‘pay what you want’ ethos, friendly staff and a ground floor curated in a wonderful way, and I was pretty happy. The central room has grouped pieces together in three ways – by people, by places and by things. And they have used soft background images on the walls to give context to each. So rather than your brain overheat and switch off after the 9th oil painting in a row, you are kept cognitively agile as you keep returning to why these things are together. And it continues in the amazing African art collection. Items are grouped into 2 or 3 things that are connected, here there is Qur’anic writing board from Sudan and a 3 headed figure from DRC both linking into virtue. And there is a space where you can create connections between pieces as well, using chalkboards and images from the collection. Upstairs is more traditional and I couldn’t help but snap a pick of what must be the worlds oldest maths book. Up again to see Agitprop! And it was good to see space devoted to a very local debate about gentrification in Brooklyn. I then debated whether I would go into the sports photography exhibition as it’s not really my cup of tea. But I did, and it was gorgeous. Yet again, being brave paid off, disrupting my routine paid off. It works for individuals as well as organisations! But I haven’t even got round to the tech part yet. When you get in, and connect to the free wifi, you can download the app ASK the Brooklyn Museum. Then, when you have a question about any of the art you encounter, a team of experts downstairs will jump on it and use their knowledge, plus their growing wiki, to get you an answer. I watched them at work and was blown away by the resource that would give – a collection of the questions prompted by your collection. So that could in theory give insights into the relevance of your pieces, your interpretation, your experiences. Even no questions would tell you heaps about that area of the exhibition.

I then took a stroll over the Brooklyn bridge… (And nearly melted into the water)

And it was onto my next stop, the Cooper Hewitt with the infamous ‘pen’. The building is intimidating, very grand but very beautiful. I am ashamed to admit how long it took me to find the entrance. I then waited to gain entry which takes a while as the spiel as to how to use the pen is fairly long. But it is very exciting to use – once you get the hang of it, there is a definite technique! 

The exhibitions are exciting and diverse and having the ability to ‘collect’ the ones you really like with the pen is great. Then there are large multi touch screens where you can collect other objects or look at your collection and try your hand at using that as inspiration to design your own items. My snail inspired hat would make Philip Treacy smile I think. So there is a lot to like and the Pixar experience was great – very high quality paper and pens to try your own designs. But there was something lacking – only one person was truly friendly and helpful to me. Most staff appeared to be guarding the collection against us awful people, children were told to sit properly on stools and generally I felt watched and like an unwelcome guest. All this on top of me failing to make a connection with anyone there after weeks of trying difference avenues. It’s sad that something that could be so good, just didn’t quite make it.

But back to the tech involved. In both cases it didn’t have to be tech. But for the Ask app, maybe it’s easier to ask your phone rather than a person, after all we spend our whole lives asking Google now. And does getting your answer so easily reward diversified curiosity rather than the deeper epistemic curiosity we seek to inspire?

And the pen allows and rewards the use of the collection for inspiration. But the stylus is a little clumsy to use so it could be just a finger on the touchscreen or even paper and pencils and a scanner. In this case the pen has taken over the customer service role, which it doesn’t do very well. 

So I guess it should be people first, tech later… Go to the Brooklyn Museum if you have the chance, it’s amazing.

When 2+2=5 or blue or b flat

So as the rain beats down here in NYC and the thunder crashes, I have time to reflect back upon my last few days. Saturday was taken up with conference, with stand out sessions discussing museums working towards positive change and social justice. Big powerful subject. I was fascinated to hear about the way the Detroit Institute of Art was working, they claimed that they weren’t really carrying out any visitor research, but the case study they gave of the front end evaluation conducted before hosting a female Iranian photographer was incredible. They formed relationships with all the relevant community partners and opened up a conversation about their thoughts and concerns. They quickly picked up on some potential problems with how more ‘traditional’ audiences could interpret the art and then turned the whole gallery plan on its head in order to address the concerns and comments of all sides. So you could say there was no formal research, but conversations conducted with such sensitivity and with the willingness to change an entrenched curatorial practice because of those conversations – that is more powerful for me.

This was followed by a very entertaining final keynote by Matthew Berland of the University of Wisconsin-Madison who challenged us all to reframe the data that was collected, to look at it as an opportunity to make decisions that could change our piece of the world for good, to make lives better. Following that stirring talk I disappeared into a workshop looking at a pretty vital part of that – post visit. Although I would like to reframe that as post-experience given that it might not involve a visit to our physical building. How do we offer a continuation of the relationship? An extension of the support and scaffolding to be curious, ask questions and assimilate new information/experiences.

I’ve been pondering the old problem of whether we should offer knowledge acquisition or inspiration, and naturally the answer is both. If we need to play a role in our society rising up to modern challenges of climate change, inequality and health issues (and I would argue we do need to), then we need creative, innovative thinkers. What environment makes those thinkers? These individuals that are rich in knowledge, but with the seemingly effortless ability to mix those thoughts up and see what comes out – iPhone, Google, the Mona Lisa, the theory of natural selection, Toy Story. And yes, the ability to gather the right team around you for those ideas to flourish is another aspect.

In his book, Curious, Ian Leslie describes a T shaped knowledge, deep learning in one or two areas plus a good breadth over other areas. Those individuals are then ready for inspiration to hit and understand how to assess and use the new ideas that might flow. So we need to be eager to grab knowledge, and I would argue, eager to meet new people, with their ideas, knowledge and frame of reference. Then, like the team in Detroit, we learn together – audiences and staff alike. And then we will have more ideas to crash together and hopefully more creativity and innovation – who knows how one of those ideas might change the world. We need to keep learning that 2+2=4 so that we can start to question whether others think so, or if it always needs to be that way or just imagining something different…

PS The Lightning is still going and I’m not sure how I’m going to get dinner without arm bands so here are some other tit bits which are really important because I’ve written a lot of words. My new data viz pals will be tsk tsking 

An example of the post-visit material from the Museum of Science in Boston.

I think it’s illegal to come to the USA and not post at least one picture of food. This was a proper treat breakfast.

This is Frank – my train buddy. And as ever when I meet new people, I definitely come away feeling richer for it. 

The storm is so fierce that even I get a warning!

Building memories

Building memories

Another great keynote this morning, Catherine D’Ignazio from Emerson College who works and teaches in Civic Media and Data Visualisation. It was really exciting to hear about some of the examples of civic science (because why stop at Citizen Science!), with researcher and audience co-creating a study and looking for interesting and relevant results that can provide learning and fun and activate change. Plus an amazing example of Data Viceralisation (her version of Chris Lysy’s ‘touching the brain’) where data becomes a performance to be a part of and enjoyed. Data as experience.

And in our field we can’t ignore how important those experiences are; the memories which form are. It’s that sad time of year when my family remember my Dad’s last days and thankfully that now makes me remember the experiences we had together. One of those was at an informal learning institution in France that we pottered round, tried the exhibits and laughed when went into a show that none of us could comprehend. The photo I took that day, despite not having my Dad in it, is a powerful link back to that day and I treasure it.

I am very grateful for the experiences I am having here in Boston, how friendly everyone is, how interesting the research is, how my drawing is really coming along…

One of the sessions I went to today discussed meta cognition – thinking about thinking. So we were essentially practicing meta meta cognition, which is a little mind bending. But untwist it and bear with me, the research field showed that exhibits which included a social dimension were most likely to elicit evidence of meta cognition. Or to put it another way (and a little bit of a gross simplification), if you use an exhibit with someone, you are more likely to reflect upon some deeper aspects of what you are thinking as you do it. And that shouldn’t surprise most practitioners, because we can often see that a shared experience is richer. We train our staff to let themselves be part of the experience or gently scaffold rather than just directing it. It even made me think about watching a film alone, not something I do often, but I saw two on the plane here and it was no fun (well less fun, they were still great films) without someone to analyse it with.

Those shared experiences that our centres become the setting for, around stimulating content, are priceless. 

People Power

People Power

Well it was quite a day here in Boston, lots to mull over again. There was a dramatic start when an old man crashed his bike right in front of me. Another lady helped him up while I got his bike up. Always nice to see people ready to jump in and help!

It kicked off with the keynote by Chris Lysy – luckily I had been warned about him. So I was ready to really enjoy his cartoon slides and lighthearted yet piercing insight into our sector. He joked he was an expert visitor and went on to deftly sum up the changes we have seen in museums from What we know (words on a label), through to What we know 2.0 (let some images in to soften it) and finally we are stepping into Touching the Brain (both literally and metaphorically) with our consideration of the experience rather than knowledge transfer. His tips were quite brilliant – make your content more compelling (be it a report or interpretation) through images, a simple dashboard to give different entry points, using drawing as part of your methodology or the absolute winner PARTICIPATIVE ANALYSIS. Let your audience choose the important bits and tell you what they see.

Then we had a session looking at how the Auckland Museum has used Social Return on Investment (SROI) to measure the value of a new gallery. The take home message was ‘this is expensive and difficult so don’t enter into it lightly’. Through a rather complicated method they calculated that for every NZ$1 invested, they made back the equivalent of NZ$4.66 in created value – through learning, better employment and various other things. Trouble is, without knowing the background to the method, that number doesn’t tell a great story to me. I want to hear about the people – is that just me?

At lunch time it was time for some sight seeing. First I witnessed a young girl tell a stranger how much she loved her dress. This was such a lovely thing that the well dressed woman and I discussed it at length. It’s so lovely to make connections like that. I nipped over to the Mapparium, a crazy glass globe hidden away in the Mary Baker Eddy Library. I managed to catch some of the main sights in Boston as I power walked over there, here’s one but there are more at the end for you to enjoy.

There are no pictures of the Mapparium, because you’re not allowed. But luckily for you I have been freed from creative stagnation by Kate Livingston (Expose Your Museum) and Chris. So I drew it for you:

I think that gives you an excellent feel for the whole 15 minute presentation. After that I had to dash back to the conference, a policeman couldn’t tell me where the T stop was (thus destroying one of my foundations that asking a policeman will always work). But luckily I asked a nice girl who walked me there and we chatted about our travels. Another great connection.

In the afternoon we got stuck into the tricky subject of ‘Why they don’t come’. An interesting chat generally, The Field Museum have also found that it is the encounters with their docents that are really valued. Hmm it’s that connection thing again isn’t it. And my conference highlight so far is listening to the passionate Andrea from Denver Museum of Nature and Science. If anyone is going to crack this then my guess is it will be her. So I shall be staying in touch!!

The last session was all about using common measures to design tools that could measure impacts across projects. Pretty heavy on the stats for me and it sounds like a tough slog to get something that will give rigorous data.

So today has just highlighted the power of your people – be you a shop (they are soooooo friendly here), a museum or a city. A friendly greeting, an interesting conversation, a shared story. It makes the difference.

But I shall shut up – here are the pictures I promised.


Does familiarity really breed contempt?

Does familiarity really breed contempt?

So today I felt more human after an actual nights sleep. But that made it even clearer to me how difficult it is to assimilate into a new culture – even one that is pretty similar. Firstly I popped over to the 7/11 for some water – not a tricky task you might think – but was bamboozled by every item having about 3 prices. There seemed to be a multi buy price, a price per unit and one of them I think was an actual indication of what I would be paying at the till. So while around me busy Bostonians grabbed their morning supplies, I simply stared into a fridge trying to work out the best deal when all I really wanted was a refillable bottle.
Rest assured that I eventually got cross enough to grab a bottle and finish my transaction. Then I marched confidently out of the store until I hit a crossing. 

At which point I again stopped and waited, trying to figure out which direction cars would be coming from, whether I could cross now, should I risk following the confidant locals and would I be arrested for jay walking or was that just a thing from films in the 80s???? 

So I feel like a fish out of water. Even in this incredibly diverse city, it appears that I am the only one fresh off the plane. And it made me think again about new audiences in science centres. When you don’t know how things work, how long anything will take or where anything is, there is very little brain space left for deep engagement with content. So how can we create ‘safe’ spaces where anyone can feel assured that they will be welcome and won’t be left confused on the side of a pavement (or whatever word you use for the paved bit next to a road that you can walk on)? How do you get all audiences to feel as comfortable as a member?

All of which reminded me of a talk by Emily Dawson of UCL discussing the negative experiences of minority groups visiting museums. They didn’t see anyone that looked like them, some participants worries they had broken the rules in some way with their behavior and they couldn’t read much of the interpretation or signage. For the abstract of the paper, see:


Puts my problems back into perspective anyway.

As for the rest of the day, I have attended a workshop on data visualization and started thinking about how we disseminate some of our findings. I have tried sketch noting and fun data viz:

The green stickers were votes for most obscure song choice – again, possibly another cultural quirk (although I am very proud of my prize).

But it all got me thinking, how do we begin to communicate our data not just with our own teams, but with our visitors? Especially if we start opening up to more research within the exhibition. How can we turn highly academic papers into compelling content that visitors have a personal interest in because they form the data points? I’m not sure of the answer yet, but I have some killer tips for excel graphs that I have found very exciting and I’m up for a game of PowerPoint Roulette.

So tomorrow the Visitor Studies conference starts properly and no doubt there will be more small obstacles for me to get over – not being so over excited by bagels at coffee break for one. 

Jet lagged…

Jet lagged…

So tonight I think I will have to let the pictures do the talking as I can no longer string a sensible sentence together!

I had a great time meeting Tim, Casey and Sarah at the Boston Childrens Museum, loads to think about and lots that chimed with my own thoughts. And while I talked, my ┬ánephew did the real test – apparently everything is brilliant. I’m sure they will sleep well tonight.


Then I had some nice wandering time around the city, just trying to catch up with the journey I have made, Check out the novel community garden in Tufts, I thought this was a lovely idea – wonder how much they grow?

Finally I attended my first conference workshop tonight, essentially about building evaluation capacity within modern complex organisations. I need more time to mull all that over as it was pretty full on. Currently I think it’s time for bed, night ahll!