21st Century Museums — Part Two

Published:  February 19, 2013
Heath Killen
21st Century Museums — Part Two

Seb Chan knows a thing or two about museums. He is currently the Director of Digital & Emerging Media at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, prior to which he led the Digital, Social and Emerging Technologies department at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. At the Powerhouse he oversaw the implementation of Open Access and Creative Commons licensing policies and countless digital projects exploring new ways for visitors and citizens to engage and contribute to the Powerhouse’s collection and beyond. He has also worked as a consultant for museums and libraries around the world helping them develop strategies to deal with rapid technological change.

In his new role Seb continues to explore the possibilities at the intersection of technology, collections, and communities- and you can take a peek behind the scenes at some of this activity via the Cooper-Hewitt Labs blog or Fresh & New, Seb’s personal blog. Yesterday we spoke with Seb about the history of museums, curation in the 21st century, and where things are headed next for some of our major international cultural institutions. Today we’re taking a closer look at Seb’s work with digital collections, open data, and other innovations that are paving the way for the future of museums.

The Cooper–Hewitt, National Design Museum have been progressively digitizing their entire collection, which amounts to over 200,000 objects - some of which date back to the Han Dynasty (200 B.C.). They aim to have the full collection completed by 2015.

60% of the museum collection metadata has been made available for public access via GitHub, under a Creative Commons Zero (CC0) dedication. For more information visit — http://www.cooperhewitt.org/collections/data

You’ve described a driving force behind the new Cooper-Hewitt digital collection as the need to be “not on the web but of the web”. What does that mean exactly?
For a long time museums have felt that they needed to be ‘on the web’ – as if having a website, and then a web presence, was enough. But increasingly we are realising that the web has changed the expectations of a museum, and the very space they inhabit in our culture.

When we talk of ‘being of the web’, we mean that we want our museum and its content to take full use of all the affordances of the web – inter-connectedness, share-ability, openness, and highly social. In some ways ‘being of the web’ allows us to more quickly prototype and think about the consequences of being a museum when the fields we collect, preserve and exhibit – design – are also rapidly changing. For example, we’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what it might mean to collect not just ‘born-digital objects’ like CAD drawings or archives, but also what it might mean to ‘collect’ the interface design of a social network.

This is happening because of our unique situation. We’re closed until 2014 whilst the building – Andrew Carnegie’s old mansion – undergoes major renovation and the museum uses the opportunity to re-imagine itself.

During this period we are purposely being promiscuous with our content. We’ve been opening up our metadata for free public access and reuse, and we’ve been partnering with many organisations to spread our speciality collections and knowledge far and wide. On the collection-side there has been the metadata release through GitHub, and work with Google Art Project and Art.sy. Elsewhere we’ve had digital content partnerships with Behance, Lanyrd and Ushahidi – speciality additions to the now traditional operations Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter . On the exhibitions–side we have shows travelling everywhere from Portland to Paris. And we have events happening across many different venues in New York.

Much like the web itself, the museum’s activities are becoming more decentralised and dispersed – and I’m hopeful that when our building reopens we will continue this sort of ‘web-like’ approach.

Developed by Aaron Straup Cope and the Cooper-Hewitt Labs team, this new tool allows users to browse the museums digital collection by colour.

An example of the colour search results page.

How do physical and digital collections work together?
They should work together – but I think we are still trying to figure out how to do this well. When I was in Taipei in 2008 I remember a visit to the National Palace Museum which is full of treasures from Chinese history. It is a fantastic museum and the Taiwanese have made enormous strides forward in digitisation with vast repositories of high resolution 3D imaging. But, there I was looking at a vase in a showcase and right beside it was the 3D digital version of the same vase. It was a nice demonstration of what was possible but it also made no sense at all – was I supposed to look at the vase or the screen with the vase on it? Neither felt satisfactory once they were juxtaposed.

And of course, the digital is becoming physical and we’re already seeing the seeds of 3D printing starting to emerge in museums. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and others have done 3D scanning and printing hackathons, and the opportunities for museum education are enormous, not to mention the ‘museum replica’ business.

Do you believe there is a difference in the way that we appreciate and understand an object in a physical and virtual context?
If there isn’t a clear difference then its game over! Each has its affordances and I think museums need to be very clear as to what the physical experience is and what it offers. And, most importantly, deliver on that promise.

I was really excited to visit MONA in Tasmania as I think they’ve got the closest, thus far, towards differentiating the physical and virtual experiences. They’ve managed to design the whole visit experience end-to-end which is something you only really see theme parks attempting to do – whilst focus. I also really liked the approach taken by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London for their climate change-themed exhibition, High Arctic, that was designed by United Visual Artists. In that exhibition there were no objects and no text panels – instead an immersive sculpture garden with sound and spoken word, and UV torches given to visitors to reveal and interact with the space.

There’s an enormous opportunity for museums to really focus in on what makes the physical experience of objects unique and that’s what we’re aiming to do with the new Cooper-Hewitt. In my mind, a design museum needs to be able explain how objects are made and why they have been designed in particular ways.

Taking the example of a spoon, it is no longer adequate to have a spoon in glass showcase with a little bit of descriptive text beside it, or even a mobile App showing the spoon in 3D. All the ‘showing’ can be done almost as effectively through a screen and online – the interview with the designer, the story of the factory, the map of where the metals came from to make the spoon. All of that can be done anywhere nowadays and in fact most visitors will carry a mobile device in their pocket allowing them to go far deeper at a moments notice. So for me the most important thing in explaining why this particular spoon is well designed might require visitors to be able to ‘feel its balance’, and feel how it fits into their hands – whether this is done with the object itself, or via some kind of 3D printed surrogate, or with simulated haptic feedback – the physical touch is what makes it a different experience, as Walter Benjamin’s ‘aura’ can only get museums so far.

Albers Boxes was developed by Aaron Straup Cope and the Cooper-Hewitt Labs team to overcome the problem of visually displaying items in the museum collection that have not yet been digitised, and appear in search results without an image.

Inspired by colour theorist Josef Albers, Albers Boxes provide a graphic placeholder for missing images in the digital collection by way of a visual taxonomy. The outer ring of an Albers box represents the department that an object belongs to. The middle ring represents the period that an object is part of. The inner ring denotes the type of object. Hovering the mouse over a box displays a legend for each one of the colors.

What are some of the design and aesthetic considerations in developing online collections?
The real challenge is to get away from the idea of online collections as ‘views on the database’. If anything, online collections need to enable browsing and discovery – much like the experience of wandering the galleries of a museum itself. But unlike exhibition design where constraints are obvious, it is the lack of constraint and the comparatively large numbers of objects that make it a difficult design challenge.

In the early 2000s when I was thinking about these problems at Powerhouse I used to think of Amazon as a good model. I’m not so sure that it is anymore. Whilst it privileges discovery and uses recommendations to increase the size of your shopping basket, it is still predicated – as it should be – on speed and efficiency to move you through the transaction process as fast as possible and ‘close the sale’. This is not what museums should be doing – we should be actively trying to ‘get people happily lost in our systems’. About five years ago I remember talking at a conference about trying to develop a fuzziness algorithm for search that would purposely give you a fuzzy result and send you off in different directions. In some ways we’re still trying to do that.

Aesthetically, too, we can’t lose sight of the need for these experiences to be heavily visual. Online collections, having their roots in ‘library catalogues’, often are little more than structured blobs of text. And, to be honest, a lot of the ‘museum industry’ discussions around linked open data and the semantic web are just continuations of this textual focus. For scholars, I understand that text and metadata is what they need to ‘find the objects’ but projects like Google Art Project and Art.sy have started to push the sector in new ways where the images take primacy.

In our beta version, we will be doing more experiments with the images we have available – with the data release in April 2011 we whipped up a quick ‘collection wall’ demo that was just a cascade of thumbnails. It was fascinating to watch the internal reactions to the wall – suddenly it was possible to ‘browse’ visually – and this opened up a lot of new discussions around what the rest of the staff ‘wanted to be able to do’.

Of course, the big issue for going more visual is Copyright. But that has to be sorted out – because without it museums are really going to struggle. Already the ‘standard’ that most museums were using in terms of resolutions (1024px on the longest side) which used to to be fine for educational slideshows are proving to be completely inadequate with the retina displays of tablets and the enormous desktop monitors people use now.

“Collection Wall Alpha.” A visualization of the Cooper-Hewitt collection in the form of cascading thumbnails. This project was a created to demonstrate one of the many development possibilities using the musuem's metadata - freely available on github.com

What about at the back-end, is all that developed by the same team?
We’re all multi-disciplinary and its a very tight knit small crew – far smaller than the teams I was working with at Powerhouse. I’ve used a strategy that worked well at Powerhouse – to outsource only the temporary projects, and to ensure we invested in internal staff for the projects that had the biggest chance of transforming the museum itself.

So with a renewed and revitalised collection experience being so important to the new galleries and building, I felt that we should work on this as our primary in-house work – even if that meant outsourcing some exhibition and education-related online work in the short term. There’s been so much to do, and its only getting more hectic!

For the initial public alpha release, what you see is almost entirely the work of Aaron Cope. Aaron previously worked at Stamen and Flickr, and is an artist by training. He has a huge interest in maps – his PrettyMaps project was in MOMA’s Talk To Me exhibition last year – and he is part of contemporary thinking and discussions around ‘the digital’. Because Aaron is new to the museum world, I wanted to give him free reign over the first iteration of the online collection to see where he’d take it. And, as we are in the process of rebranding for our reopening it made little sense to overly design it – so he had a blank slate to see what could be done with the data and images we had – without having to feel too constrained.

Even the technology behind it is basic for the moment – PHP and MySQL – we wanted to keep it as simple as possible and it will change in the Beta version now that we have a clearer idea of what is possible with the data we have. The online collection experience will continue to evolve and it is one of several pillars supporting the new visitor experience that is being designed in conjunction with Diller + Scofidio & Renfro, and Local Projects.

DesignFile - a new Cooper-Hewitt digital initiative, which will see the publication of longform essays and books on a variety of design issues.

DesignFile books are available for iOS, Kindle and NOOK at $2.99 each. More information about current and upcoming titles is available at cooperhewitt.org/designfile


What is the future of the museum?
There won’t be a singular future. Some museums will disappear, others won’t look like the museums that you or I remember at all. I’d expect that those that can best adapt their buildings and collections to the needs of their communities will be the ones in rudest health.

Read Part One of this interview here.

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