Sneak Peek! New Media issue of Exhibitionist Journal

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Each jam-packed issue of Exhibitionist contains articles on exhibition development, theory and practice, book reviews, exhibition critiques, and nuts and bolts advice. The Fall 2013 issue will be of particular interest to you, dear readers, because it focuses on new mediahow emerging technologies are making museums more mobile, personal, global, customized, compact, and widespread all at once. I contributed two pieces to the issue and I’m thrilled to share the otherwise-only-available-in-print articles with you here.

(Full disclosure: I serve on the Editorial Advisory Board for the Exhibitionist journal, a volunteer position for which I receive no compensation.)

The first is part of regular feature of the journal called Exhibition Studies which focuses on important questions in museum studies. My piece, “Learning and Sharing Expertise with Social Media,” suggests ways that faculty, students, and museum professionals alike can use social media to open up access to expertise, participate in dialogue, and enhance learning throughout the field.

The second is a “Glossary of New Media Terms,” which I co-authored with Ellen Snyder-Grenier. An evolving vocabulary is developing along with new technology and we developed this list—which includes everything from APIs to Virtual Reality—with readers new to the language of the digital world in mind. It is most useful as a companion to the full issue, which highlights the myriad uses of digital technology in today’s museum exhibitions.

I also highly recommend this fantastic article about using mobile technologies to foster meaningful visitor engagement (and not just deliver more content): “Catching Our Breath: Assessing Digital Technologies for Meaningful Engagement,” by Stacey Mann, Jennifer Moses and Matthew Fisher. This piece and two other articles are available for free digital preview on the Exhibitionist website and will be featured in a series of Twitter chats (hosted by moi) with the authors in early 2014.  Stay tuned to @namexhibitions for details.

The new media issue also features thought-provoking reviews of Gallery One at the Cleveland Museum of Art, a case study on the Newseum’s display of unfiltered user-generated content, cutting-edge examples of virtual reality in archaeology exhibitions, and a useful social media review (in place of the journal’s regular book review) by the fabulous Kate Haley Goldman. If any of these topics pique your interest, I encourage you to consider subscribing today. Upcoming issues will focus on: Exhibitions as Intentionally Designed Spaces; and Teaching/Learning about Exhibit Design and Development (including 3D and digital).

Happy reading!

Note: These articles first appeared in Exhibitionist (Fall 2013) Vol.32.2 and are reproduced with permission.

Ignite MCN – Blogging is dead. Long live the museum blog!

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A few weeks ago I checked something off my bucket list: get up in front of a theatre full of your brilliant colleagues and attempt to be more entertaining than the beer in their hands and the long lost pals they just reconnected with at the bar while simultaneously prodding a few serious thoughts out of their brains all the while remembering what you’re supposed to say in the brief-as-a-Beatles-song 5 minutes you have to race your words alongside slides that automatically advance every 15 seconds. In other words, I gave an Ignite talk.

I don’t know what it is about giving an Ignite talk but it is anxiety-inducing, mortifying, and thrilling all at once. And it was the kickoff to the 2013 Museum Computer Network conference so we were expected to knock it out of the park.

I spent a lot of time trying to memorize my bits—which included practicing on the plane ride with a copy of my slide notes and an iPhone recording. My visuals were all based on popular memes and, unfortunately, I forgot to print the notes WITH the visuals so I was forced to draw them while in transit. This is the sad result. (Can you guess which one is Grumpy Cat? Pepper-spraying cop? Y U No guy?)


In the end my efforts were all a bit of a waste in comparison to the magical wonder that is Don Undeen’s one-act play featuring a mask-wielding hacker, a pipe-smoking curator, and the undeniably reasonable (and lovable!) Digital Humanities Unicorn. Watch that performance, and several other incredible Ignite talks, right after mine (which starts at 15:03).


Beyond the #selfie: Connecting teens and art through social media

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Tweeting, Tumbling, snapping photos–how can we turn typical teen behaviors in the museum into meaningful learning experiences? At the National Gallery of Art, thousands of middle and high school students visit each year. Most are not pre-registered, do not participate in formal educational programs such as tours, and are set loose on their own to explore the museum. To reach and engage this audience, the Gallery created a printed guide to the permanent collection (called #atNGA) that encourages looking carefully at works of art, making connections between art and life, exploring art as historical and cultural expression, and reflecting on the creative spirit. What makes this guide different is that each work of art is paired with a social media prompt such as: take and share a photo (via Instagram), craft a text response (via Twitter), or ponder a question with a friend. By explicitly inviting and helping to shape teens’ social media interactions with the Gallery, we hope to turn what might otherwise be a frivolous encounter into a learning experience. This presentation will share the results of our evaluation research and discuss the broader challenges and opportunities of connecting with teens via social media.

Engaging Audiences with Collections via Social Media

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You know best the unique stories your collections have to tell and work hard to preserve those collections for future generations. But how do you take collections care activities from “behind the scenes” to front and center, engaging and educating the public? This was the central question addressed by a four-part series of webinars for small museums and libraries on the topic of collections care outreach. The series was hosted by  Heritage Preservation‘s Connecting to Collections Online Community.

My session focused on the strategic use of social media for outreach related to collections. I talked about how to set goals, select the right  platforms for your  audience, create compelling content, and evaluate success. I showed examples of how organizations can leverage tools such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Tumblr, and Google Hangouts to connect with today’s audiences and engage them in meaningful conversations about collections.

I also suggested the following key questions to consider when developing a social media strategy:

  1. Why are you using social media? What do you hope to achieve?
  2. Who are your target audiences? (Tip: “Everyone” is not a useful audience segment.)
  3. What content can you use to connect with and engage audiences? What existing assets can be repurposed? What new content needs to be created?
  4. What do you want to sound like? (Tip: Try creating a list of contrasting values that illustrate the tonal qualities you want to use as guidelines. For example, “friendly, not cutesy” or “clever, not snarky.”)
  5. What does success mean for you? How might you find evidence of success?

The presentation deck is chock full of great examples from museums and libraries—from the Brooklyn Historical Society to the Shakespeare Library. Take a peek at the slides below or watch the webinar recording on the Connecting to Collections website for the full experience.

Have you seen other great examples of social media being deployed by cultural institutions to connect with audiences about the care and appreciation of collections? Please share in the comments.


Meet a Museum Blogger

Meet a Museum Blogger: Me!


I’m thrilled to be the latest writer featured in the “Meet a Museum Blogger” series on Jamie Glavic’s Museum Minute blog. In it, I give some background on why I started this blog, and how grateful I am to the online community of museum professionals for sharing your thoughts, experiences, and opinions in a public forum. Thank you for reading and for being a part of this effort!

My blog is called Engaging Museums, which conveys both my intention to help museums be engaging places for the public but also my belief that museum professionals must do the hard work of engaging our institutions in challenging discussions about the future of museums if we are to remain relevant.

Take a look at the piece to find out which Engaging Museums post is the most read by lovely readers like you, which museum-related blogs are on my must-read list, and a peek inside my not-so-secret Daily Squee side project.

While you’re on the Museum Minute blog, I recommend taking a look at the inspiring blogger profiles of Ed Rodley, Jasper Visser, Adrianne Russell, Paul Orselli, and Mar Dixon. And if you’ve been thinking about starting your own blog, here are my thoughts on the subject:

. . . the more we are free and open with our experiences, lessons learned, and perspectives on the issues that we face, the more we move the field as a whole forward. So if you’ve been thinking about starting a blog but aren’t sure what you’d write about or are concerned because you won’t have regular weekly content, I’m here to tell you: JUST DO IT.

Thanks again to Jamie for featuring this blog in her series!

Natural History Museum London by Flickr user kevandotorg

Opinion: The guy who wrote “Why I hate museums” is not lazy, uncultured, vapid, or unintelligent


Museums SHOULD be about enlightenment, inspiration, or quiet reflection.

Museums should NOT be about fun and entertainment.

Frankly, I’m a bit sick of these blanket pronouncements, from both sides of the aisle. While CNN’s opinion piece “Why I Hate Museums” laments how boring museums are, the New York Times bit “High Culture Goes Hands-On” rails against not just people having fun in museums but even people having a shred of “engagement” in museums.  You can see more examples of black and white arguments about what museums should and shouldn’t be (and what “good” and “bad” visitors are) in the comments on the CNN article and in letters to the NYTimes editor.

Let’s meet halfway

Well, I for one think museums and their visitors exist in a much more fluid realm. We all—the people who work in museums and the people who visit—need to do a better job of meeting halfway. Clearly James Durston writes from the perspective of someone who thinks museums are important and wants them to succeed—he’s just disappointed that they aren’t living up to their potential.

Calling the author lazy, uncultured, vapid, or unintelligent is wildly unproductive, not to mention rude. Surely every person who has failed to be wowed in a museum is not categorically any of those things.

A little introspection on the part of people who love museums just as they are is required.

What (and how much) we say is important

Let’s talk a little bit about bringing museums to life, something Durston mentions more than once in an attempt to get at what might make museums more compelling. One way of doing this is through telling captivating stories. We’ve all had moments in life when someone’s narrative enthralled us. What is it that museums can do to make this style of conveying information more commonplace? I agree with Durston that “tombstone” labels with maker, date, and place of origin are inadequate for nearly all visitors.

Flickr image by Marshall Astor

Flickr image by Marshall Astor

On the other hand (and as one commenter pointed out) too much text (or audio or video) is off-putting to many visitors, who can feel overloaded or impatient with reading, particularly when they are visiting in a social group (which many museum visitors do). Museums know this from studying their visitors, observing their behaviors, and (yes!) asking them what they want. We know that some people like to be told why something is important; others at least want some better clues so they can connect the dots themselves.

Durston references today’s tough economic realities but chaffs at the idea of museums using funding problems as an excuse to bore people, especially since his taxpayer dollars seemingly support said dull experiences. At a minimum, nearly all museums have the budget to do some rewriting of their labels in order to provide more paths for engagement with objects. Here are ten excellent label writing tips from the V&A. Good label writing is truly an art, just as good storytelling is, but there are some great tidbits in these guidelines, such as:

We should be looking at the approach used in journalism, in which the ‘hook’ or the most important point comes first


Most visitors have no idea what ‘trope’ or ‘iconography’ mean.

On being welcoming and being open

Successful museum visits require give and take. Museums need to give visitors not just more information but more information that is shared in a compelling way and sounds like the voice of a human being, including that oft-avoided element: emotion. In return, visitors will get the most out of their visits when they are willing to take some time with an object, think about its history/beauty/innovativeness, make connections between this object and our lives today, and offer their own thoughts and feelings on the subject. Involving the body (beyond shuffling along from object to object) can help too. When is the last time you mimicked the pose of a sculpture in an art gallery?

Strike a Pose - CMA. Image credit Idiom Interactive

Strike a Pose, Cleveland Museum of Art. Photo credit: Idiom Interactive

The technology-supported museum interactive pictured above is a lovely example of encouraging kinetic engagement. But such technology can be expensive or hard to maintain. A written or verbal prompt plus a visitor’s own camera can also do the trick (but first museums have to stop yelling at people for taking photos!). Museums must also create platforms for visitors to ask questions, share their experiences and opinions, and interact as fully as possible (and yes, of course, while protecting the artifacts for future generations). In exchange, visitors who are otherwise bored by museums (*ahem*) might be surprised by how much they enjoy the experience when they are willing to give a little too.

The thing about “WOW!” is…

Think of a time when you discovered something. Remember that “wow!” sensation you experienced? It probably didn’t come from simply watching or listening to someone explain something or try to entertain you. It probably came from active participation in a process of discovery; perhaps something that involved multiple senses?

In his response to the New York Times piece, the ever-eloquent Ed Rodley reminisces about a visit he once made to a meteorite collection, in which the person leading the tour:

picked up a vial with some meteorite fragments in it and said, “Want to know what another world smells like?” Um, yes? I can’t remember anything else about that visit, but just writing about that moment triggered a strong memory of it. I smelled another world once.

Museums can create more fertile ground for the process of discovery by asking provocative questions, offering up the transformative power of objects, and providing experiences that visitors can’t get anywhere else. But visitors must also come with the energy and interest in actively participating. (Yes, you want to smell another world!)

For those who simply want to view and reflect, you’ve already got “Vase: Iran; circa 15th century.” For everyone else, let’s work TOGETHER to make museums a little more “wow.”

Isolated Striated Cube Photo Credit: Natural History Museum London by Flickr user kevandotorg

A fictional artist and The Monster at the End of This Book!


This is the second in a series of posts about my experience as a student in the MoMA-led MOOC “Art and Inquiry.” Looking forward to hearing your thoughts! If you are also a student in the course, I encourage you to respond via the Coursera forum.

Practice Developing Open-Ended Questions

After a review of different kinds of questions and their role in inquiry-based learning, we were encouraged to try the technique for ourselves. Here are the instructions we received (I encourage you to try it out, even if you aren’t taking the course!).

Browse through MoMA’s online Collection and choose an image. Research some information about the work of art using and/or other online sources. Respond to these questions:

* What drew you to this work of art?
* What information were you able to find out about this work?
* If you were to teach with this work, what aspects would you like to introduce to your students?

My selection: The Bricks by Reena Spaulings (2006)

Reena SpaulingsThe Bricks, 2006
Synthetic polymer paint on canvas
Museum of Modern Art

What drew you to this work of art?

The work first caught my eye because it reminded me of the Little Golden Book, The Monster at the End of This Book, in which Grover (of Sesame Street) puts up all kinds of barriers (including a brick wall) in an attempt to warn the reader about a ferocious creature she will encounter if she continues to turn the page.

**Spoiler Alert**
If hate to spoil the plot for those of you who haven’t read it but the monster at the end of the book turns out to be Grover himself. He is very embarrassed to have caused such a fuss.
/**Spoiler Alert**

This canvas (and the book) depicts items that we think of as heavy and made to withstand the elements. Brick walls are impenetrable, stubborn, heavy obstacles; conversing with someone who is “like speaking to a brick wall” is a frustrating, cold experience. We say that difficult, emotional things hit us “like a ton of bricks.” In the 21st century, we discuss the binaries of “bricks and mortar” versus the virtual; sometimes the institution is seen as solid and timeless, other times the phrase is used to refer to an outmoded way of being in an increasingly digital world.

Both the book and this work of art are also playful with this heavy subject matter. It is easy enough to turn a page in a book, despite a depiction of onerous bricks. Similarly, the draping of the canvas makes the bricks appear lightweight, flimsy, and most certainly faux.

In addition to the visual appeal and sense of familiarity of the work itself, I was also drawn to the female name of the artist (I have a background in feminist theory). A quick glance at the MoMA description for the object intrigued me even more… “Reena Spaulings is a fictional artist and art dealer and literary persona. Under her name, several artists conceived and executed this painting, which features a crudely rendered brick–and–mortar pattern.” I was hooked and wanted to learn more!

What information were you able to find out about this work?

The work is housed in the Paintings and Sculpture department but is classified by MoMA as a painting, though it does not strike the viewer as as a typical painting. The brick pattern is painted on both sides of on an unstretched canvas and the work is displayed three dimensionally. It is versatile and “can be displayed in a number of ways: folded, open, lying on the floor, draped over objects, hung as backdrop, or in a combination of these options, as seen here.” The canvas itself is forty by eight feet, a massive size which doesn’t translate well through the small thumbnail images found on the Web.

I was not surprised to learn that the brick pattern was inspired by the Lower East Side of New York, as brick always reminds me first and foremost of a East Coast urban areas. Manhattan is the location of the Reena Spaulings gallery.

2005 New York Times review refers to the work as part of a “suite of handmade flags, each the same size, each of different design, none exactly commanding a salute.”  This is the only reference I found that referred to the work as a flag, a concept which adds an interesting dimension to the work and how it is displayed. I would love to find a photo of the series together to get a better sense of its original display context.

The headline of a New York Magazine review, “Who Are These People?” sums up the bewildered response I have to the idea of a fictional artist who is actually made up of a rotating array of artists, including Emily Sundblad (founder and director of the eponymous gallery). The NYMag piece explores this strange identity a bit but also calls the group to task for using the fake identity construct to avoid accountability and also get good press by, well, writing about it themselves (co-director John Kelsey writes for Artforum). The author goes so far as to call them “art pranksters.”

In a less-than-glowing 2006 review for Untitled magazine, critic Cameron Irving describes the work: “The self-consciously painted brickwork only achieves a bare semblance of recognition, as if to ape the aesthetics of a ‘community project’ and sneer at the orthodox political correctness of collaboration.” He describes the experience of the show of “ironic painting” as “irksome” and cites his concern about “the ease at which work of questionable quality can slip through panoptic structures engineered by collaborative art groups.”

Art student Philippa Ho has a less negative take on the work, as evidenced in the evocative interpretive notes she lists on her blog:

If you were to teach with this work, what aspects would you like to introduce to your students?

In my case, I am taking this course to think more about how I might use objects to generate conversation between a museum and its audiences via social media. So my “students” in this case are informal learners or simply fans of museums interested in viewing and discussing art casually. The inquiry-based method of learning seems to very much rely on a series of questions that hang well together. I am skeptical that any of the questions I pose below would work well on its own, as can easily happen when a social media post is taken out of context.

At any rate, I think there is a lot of richness to cover about the formal elements of the work, the symbolism and physicality of brick walls, and the history behind the makers of the works.

I might ask:

* What is interesting to you about the material used to make this work?

* How would you describe the role or function of brick walls in everyday life?

* How is this depiction of a brick wall the same or different from brick walls in everyday life?

* How does it feel to see a brick wall that is limp and hanging?

* Is this how you would choose to display the work?

* Are there any clues about who made the work of art?

* Why might the people who made this work have chosen to work together and under a false name?

What questions does this work raise for you? How might you lead a guided inquiry of this work, either in a gallery or online?

Are museum apps boring? Maybe, but they don’t have to be


This post was written in response to Mairin Kerr’s “Are Museums Apps Boring?” on the Edgital blog.

As someone who has spent a large part of my career thinking about online outreach and engagement, I’m especially drawn to apps that are not designed to only be used inside a museum.

For example, I’m a big fan of the Magic Tate Ball. It is clever and designed to be used anywhere and—perhaps most importantly—repeatedly.

The Smithsonian has a few apps in their large collection that give users something interesting to do. See the crowdsourcing apps (from left to right): Access American Stories (audio descriptions of objects on exhibit); Stories from Main Street (hometown stories); and The Will to Adorn, (stories about why we dress the way we do).


For me, downloading an app is a commitment and, therefore, that app should be something that becomes part of my daily life or that I turn to time and again.

For on-site museum experiences, I’d prefer to just access a mobile website for something as run-of-the-mill as an audio tour. (See my recap of the Museums Mobile Conference for more on this issue.)

I did enjoy the Romare Bearden Black Odyssey Remixes iPad app as a platform to explore the motifs and techniques of an artist on my own terms. I especially liked that I could add audio recordings and text of my choosing to truly customize my creations. Is this something I’ll use over and over again, however? Most likely not.

Science museums are doing some really interesting things with citizen science apps that are meant to be useful to the individual and the collective. Check out Leafsnap and Project Noah for two examples of apps designed to be used out in the world, giving users something to do that contributes to the field at large (in this case take photos of trees or animals to identify them but also add data about populations to a larger dataset). Like the Magic Tate Ball, these are programs that can be useful over the long haul and are designed for repeated use.

I was a fan of The Extraordinaries app (which I believe is now defunct), whose premise was making good use of those chunks of minutes people have in their day (on the bus, waiting in line, etc.) to do something useful, such as tag images from museum collections with relevant terms to help improve search. This fills the same kind of niche as Candy Crush Saga, which is easy to pick up and put down at will over and over again.

In sum, I do agree that many museum apps don’t live up to the full potential of the medium—they are glorified audio tours, or memory-greedy exhibition brochures. But I also think there are many other examples of museums pushing the boundaries by going beyond the museum visit. The apps I describe get at the core of what makes museums so exciting and important to society—the incredibly rich store of human history and creativity they preserve and provide access to, and their ongoing research that makes our world a better place.

It seems to me that some of the most successful museum apps do a few things well:
* meet a real need or desire in their users
* give people something meaningful or exciting to do
* take the museum’s mission and content outside of its walls
* are a result of an interesting collaboration

I personally look forward to working on mobile app projects with other interested parties who can bring a fresh perspective and enthusiasm to the table—whether that means working with artists, young people, scientists, or other people trying to improve the health and happiness of other humans. The meeting of diverse fields and perspectives often makes for the most interesting projects.

So, who’s game?

How does inquiry-based education work when learners are distributed and asynchronous?


I’ve just wrapped up week 1 of my first MOOC experience, Art and Inquiry: Museum Teaching Strategies for Your Classroomtaught by MoMA educator Lisa Mazzola on Coursera. (It is still open and I encourage you to join! It’s not too late. If you’re not entirely sure what a MOOC is, see this helpful explanation of a Massive Open Online Course from Educause.)

[Note: If you are participating in the course, you can find this same post in the Coursera forum. Would love for you to respond there.]

As a museum professional who specializes in digital engagement and a museum studies professor, I come to this course with several layers of questions related to inquiry-based learning and how it intersects with online platforms:

What are the best practices for inquiry-based learning in art museums?

After nearly a decade in a national history museum, I am fairly new to art museums and how they engage learners with works of art, as opposed to other kinds of museum objects.

What aspects of inquiry-based education translate well to digital spaces?

Should I change my approach as an educator for formal online education experiences (e.g., online university courses) vs. informal learning experiences (e.g., social media)? My professional speciality is digital outreach and engagement for museums and other nonprofits, with an emphasis on both learning and marketing outcomes. I am also an adjunct professor for the Johns Hopkins University museum studies program, which involves teaching entirely online. I’m curious to explore further how the context of the learner impacts the effectiveness of inquiry-based education . . . for example, does a Twitter follower get as much out of inquiry as a formal student?

What are the challenges that educators face in using inquiry-based methods online to engage learners that are not in the same room and are not participating at the same time?

In teaching online graduate courses, I have found the asynchronous nature makes the process of constructing knowledge together as a group more difficult than I experienced when teaching graduate students in a physical classroom.

How does observing an object digitally change the experience of observation for the learner?

How does being online affect some of the other aspects of inquiry-based learning, such as communicating with a group about one’s ideas and interpretation? As someone who designs digital museum experiences, I am especially interested in outreach projects for audiences who cannot come and see museum collections in person. How does this change the way I structure an inquiry-based experience?

How does a MOOC really work?

I’ve been reading about them for months but this is my first personal experience as a student in a MOOC.

Should museums be using MOOCs as an educational platform?

And for what audiences (e.g., adults, teens, teacher professional development, homeschool audiences)? Part of my role at a national art museum is to figure out how to leverage our expertise and resources for maximum impact. I am curious about how museum educators can bring something unique to the MOOC space and am excited to learn from the model MoMA is presenting here.

So far I have found the readings and lecture video to be quite good at addressing the first question (how can inquiry-based education work in a physical location). I highly recommend Laurel Schmidt’s “Great Teachers Don’t Take No (or Yes) for an Answer: Teaching by Asking Instead of Telling” and John Hennigar Shuh’s “Teaching Yourself to Teach With Objects” (I was able to read both in the course of two metro rides).

I look forward to noodling over some of my other burning questions with other Coursera students as we learn by doing, digitally.

Note: You can follow some of the discussion about the MOOC on Twitter using the hashtag #artinquiry.

What are your thoughts on how inquiry-based learning translates to online learning? Does it matter if the learners think of themselves as such (e.g., part of a formal class environment) or not (e.g., simply following an educational institution on social media)?

Image credit: Network visualization by Flickr user yaph