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Art is hard: how mobile can help

Posted on | April 12, 2009 | 5 Comments

Nina Simon is an innovative designer of participatory museum experiences. In addition to lecturing widely, she authors the Museum 2.0 blog, which has become a primary touchstone and resource for best practice in the museum world. What may be less well-known about Nina is her background as a performance poet and how she was inspired to get into art museums by a painting from the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum: Morris Louis’s Faces from 1959, which she saw in a touring exhibition at the Worchester Art Museum in Massachusetts.

Nina Simon with Morris Louis's Faces, 1959, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Nina Simon with Morris Louis's Faces, 1959, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

In January 2009, I got to revisit that painting and many other artworks in the American Art Museum, including an exhibition of Frank Gohlke’s photography, with Nina as we talked about our experiences and aspirations for mobile interpretation. Along the way we recalled Peter Samis‘s trope of ‘visual velcro‘ in describing how interpretation can be essential to helping visitors connect with certain artworks in particular. We talked about the power of dialogue and the conversational tone, as exemplified in the SmartHistory.org podcasts. Our views of cellphone tours and headphones got tossed around, with an idea for podcasts that can work both as gallery tours and as learning experiences beyond the museum. And we shared our enthusiasm for games and how they can bring adaptive learning experiences to museum interpretation, referencing Jane McGonigal’s talk for AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums.

Thanks to Nina, I got to look at the art museum for the first time through the revealing lens of the science museum. She pointed out that science museums often invoke their visitors as scientists or researchers, helping them make discoveries and relive in some way the subject as professionals experience it. Why, she asks, do art museums not position the visitor as an artist, curator, or art historian? How can we all – visitors and museum staff alike – give ourselves license to create and innovate within the museum experience?

Hear the podcast…

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Comments

5 Responses to “Art is hard: how mobile can help”

  1. Bruce Wyman
    April 12th, 2009 @ 6:01 pm

    Art museums feel a bit more standalone because they’re much more specifically about a collection of objects and that the objects themselves are the most important things. Science and technology centers, children’s museums, history museums, etc, all tend to be more narratively focused with objects playing supporting roles. Ironically, zoos and aquaria, I think, end up being the most closely aligned with art museums in existing primarily because of their collection, although they’ve certainly trended away from that to some degree over the last thirty years.

    Aquariums are in kind of an odd place — when they don’t focus on the objects in their collection, or compromise in some way, they lose visitors. A interesting example in the Camden Aquarium in NJ, near Philadelphia, which made a deliberate effort to focus on local species rather than crowd-pleasing reef fish and other exotics. They failed in their first incarnation because the fish of the Chesapeake tend to be bland and boring. They refocused and have done much better in the last decade. On the flip side, when an aquarium seems to cross some magical threshold of basic delivery in their collection, they can concentrate on narrative and ideas. Looking at my old alma mater, the New England Aquarium, we did an exhibit in the late 90s, Sounds of the Sea that focused entirely on underwater acoustics. There were no animals which was a radical departure for us, but the exhibit did surprisingly well at least in part because there was some great content. I also think that zoos and aquaria have played more towards narrative because they readily tap into NSF funding rather than NEA, and then consider themselves as sources of science research.

    So, back to the original question — why don’t art museums let their visitors take the lead? Because they still focus primarily on objects rather than narrative ideas and the messages about objects starts to get muddled when more people contribute to that experience. I’d further posit that art museums aren’t yet comfortable with the idea of sharing their voice of authority because of their long tradition of being the final artbiters of cultural artistic heritage — if an art museum says it’s great, it must be.In the science world, there’s not quite the same perception of value judgement on the part of the museum as opposed to presentation of ideas.

    Art museums need to evolve from that position. Science has definitely been as heavily attacked by ignorance and misunderstanding as art, but whereas as science has put itself out in the public domain for a few hundred years, art tended in a different direction insulating itself from public detraction and perpetuating a closed system. Personally, I prefer things to be open, but once you’ve been closed, it’s hard to open up. I can see how you get there.

    I think we’re in a time of change. Advances in technology have helped open up traditionally closed institutions over the last 30 years and the ways people interact with our collective experiences and knowledge. The art museums that are embracing this change are seeing success — Brooklyn’s a great example — and are finding new kinds of engagement and audiences in which they haven’t lose their role of authority If anything, they’ve amplified it.

    It’s not the same answer for every art museum, but at the very least they need to try or otherwise ultimately risk losing their relevance in a new kind of world.

  2. Nina Simon
    April 12th, 2009 @ 6:10 pm

    FYI it was the WORCESTER Art Museum, not Wooster. Thanks for sharing this, I look forward to listening to the whole thing.

  3. nancyproctor
    April 12th, 2009 @ 9:26 pm

    Oops, listening without a British ear I guess! Will fix that… thanks!

  4. Beth Harris
    April 25th, 2009 @ 8:40 pm

    Finally got around to listening to this, and aside from being sad :( that Nina didn’t know Smarthistory, I love the idea of giving the visitor instructions on the audioguide. I actually had an idea of modeling a conversation for the visitors — on an audioguide for two — and then telling them to pick a work to discuss. Could also be done in reverse of that. And you could also have recorded conversations between other visitors, and ask, “would you like to hear other people talking about this work”?

  5. MuseumMobile Wiki » BYOD & the Museum’s Interpretive Mission
    May 10th, 2009 @ 3:03 pm

    […] Think of the cellphone not as an alternate audio tour device but rather as a two-way communication tool, which is how most visitors use it, and design the interpretive content and experience accordingly. If the cellphone isn’t great at delivery a quality audio experience, it is superb at collecting visitor’s comments through voice or text message, and allowing visitors to collect and share information via SMS. (My conversation with Nina Simon on this is here.) […]

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