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April 30, 2015

A UN museum?

I got to spend yesterday with an awesome group of about twenty people at the United Nations, brainstorming what a UN museum might look like. This was under the auspices of the UN Live project which (I believe) last week was endorsed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Some of the people at the meeting
Some of us

Although it was a free-ranging discussion from many points of view, there seemed to be general implicit agreement about a few points. (What the UN Live group does with this discussion is up to them, of course.)

Security Council
Where we did not meet

First, there was no apparent interest in constructing a museum that takes telling the UN’s story as its focus. Rather, the discussion was entirely about ways in which the values of the UN could be furthered by enabling people to connect with one another around the world.

Second, No one even considered the possibility that it might be only a physical museum. Physical elements were part of many of the ideas, but primarily to enable online services.

Here are some of the ideas that I particularly liked, starting (how rude!) with mine.

I stole it directly from a Knight Foundation proposal by my friend Nate Hill at Chattanooga Public Library. He proposed setting up 4K displays in a few libraries that have gigabit connections, to enable local residents to interact with one another. At the meeting yesterday I suggested (crediting Nate, but probably too fast for anyone to hear me, so I’m clear, right?) that the Museum be distributed via “magic mirrors” – Net-connected video monitors – that connect citizens globally. These would go into libraries and other safe spaces where there can be facilitators. (We’re all local people, so we need help talking globally.) Where possible, there might be two screens so that people can see themselves and the group they’re talking with. (For some reason, I like the idea of the monitors being circular. More like portals.)

These magic mirrors would be a platform for activities to be invented. For example:

  • Kids could play together. Virtual Jenga? Keep a virtual ball afloat? (Assume Kinect-like sensors.) Collaborative virtual jigsaw puzzle of a photo of one of their home towns? Or maybe each group is working collaboratively on one puzzle, but each team’s pieces are part of the image of the other’s team’s home. A simple mirror imitation game where each kid mimics the other’s movements? It’s a platform, so it’d be open to far better ideas than these.

  • Kids could create together. Collaborative drawing? Collaborative crazy machines a la Rube Goldberg?

  • Real-time, video AMAs: “We’re Iranian parents. AUA [ask us anything] at 10am EDT.”

  • Listings for other activities, including those proposed below.

Someone suggested that the UN create pop-up museums by bringing in a shipping container stocked with media tools. (Technically, a plop-down museum, it seems to me.) The local community would be invited to tell its story, perhaps in 100 images (borrowing the British Museum’s “A History of the World in 100 Objects”), or perhaps by providing a StoryCorps-style recording booth. Or send the kids out with video cameras. (There might have to be someone who could help with the media.) The community would be able to tell its story to the world. The world could react and interact. (These containers could contain magic mirrors.)

Another idea: Facilitate local people coming together virtually to share solutions to common problems, building on the multiple and admirable efforts to do this already.

Another idea: One group pointed out that museums typically face backwards in time. So suppose the UN museum instead constructed itself in real time as significant events occurred. E.g., as an earthquake disaster unrolls, the UN Museum would track it live, presenting its consequences intimately to the world, recording it for posterity, and facilitating relief efforts.

There was general agreement, I believe, that all of the UN Museum’s content should be openly available through APIs.

There were many, many more ideas, many of which I find exciting. I don’t know if any of the ideas discussed are going to make it past the cool-way-to-spend-an-afternoon phase, but I am thrilled by the general prospect of a UN Museum that takes as its mission not just the curation of artifacts that tell a story but advancing the UN’s mission by connecting people globally around common concerns, shared interests, and a desire to help and delight one another.

Now go ahead and be cynical and snarky.


June 17, 2012

Amsterdam in three museums

I love Amsterdam so much. I know the residents have their complaints — including that tourists love it too much — but it is such a physically beautiful city, and so full of life. So, I’m very happy to have 2 days here between jobs.

Over the past 1.5 days, I have done nothing but walk, so long as you include walking through museums as walking.

My first walk brought me to the Van Gogh museum first, but on a Saturday afternoon the line stretched down the block, so I went to the Rijksmuseum instead. This is, of course, the grand museum of Amsterdam, but it has reduced and concentrated its exhibitions while it undergoes what feels like 30 years of renovation. Your €14 gets you into about a dozen rooms of works by Dutch masters. Despite the intensity of the art, and the fact that I generally get tired after about a dozen rooms in a museum, it felt a bit small.

Still, there are many stunners there. I am a sucker for Rembrandt, so I was happy. In fact, I’ve found that I’m gotten more and more awestruck by painting as I’ve gotten older. I think that’s due in part to my not feeling shallow for being moved by technique. I used to think that admiring a painter’s technique is like admiring a violinist because she plays real fast. Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations awakened me to Bach (re-awakened me, perhaps) which I grew to love both for Bach’s moving outside of the form to express himself and for Gould’s ability to do the same because of his unbelievable virtuosity. These notes, so difficult to conceive together, so impossible to play that way! I’ve come to think that technique is not a trick played on art. (Open Source Goldberg Variations here.)

And Rembrandt’s technique is so stunning. I am one of those guys who peers up close and then steps back and then steps forward again. (Yes, I try to stay out of people’s way.) I like to see how it looked to the artist and how the artist had to imagine how it would look to the viewer. I spent a good amount of time in the Rijksmuseum in front of Rembrandt’s portrait of Maria Trip admiring how he painted the lace and the dozens of pearls. He does pearls so well! But then I’d step back to see that slightly uncomfortable face. Is she someone who struggles with trying to look natural, or does she just not have a lot of naturalness to express? And then: How the hell did he paint that?

I was surprised to find myself spending a long time in front of the Wedding portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix von der Laen. It’s by Frans Hals, an artist I usually don’t respond to. But I was pretty much overcome by it. The newlyweds are relaxing in front of some treees and bushes, with the formal building and fountain in the distance. She’s got her arm on his shoulder and he’s leaning back with one hand in his shirt (symbolizing fidelity, the notes say). They are so clearly in love, yet still two distinct people. And of the two, she’s got the clearest view of the situation — and the situation is going to be full of happy mischief.

(Thank you, Rijksmuseum, for posting the paintings online.)

I then went to Rembrandt’s House. I was there with my family 10-15 years ago when it was undergoing renovation, and I was a little disappointed in how it came out. The first time I was there, in the 1970s, I remember having a strong sense of the size of the house. The renovation removes the sense of the house’s original boundaries, although the stairs remain damn narrow. For 10€ you can see the reconstructed kitchen (which is interesting in a diorama sort of way), demonstrations of how he printed etchings and how he mixed paint, lots of contemporary paintings, and a room full of his exquisite, tiny etchings.

This morning I went back to the Van Gogh museum. It opens at 10am on Sundays, and by 10:30am there was already a short line. The entrance fee is 14€. I have to say that I was a little disappointed, although it was still well worth the visit. Most of the iconic Van Gogh’s are in other collections, although you’ll certainly find some here. I’d guess that about half of the pictures are not by Van Gogh; some provide interesting context (the precursors section was helpful) and some are in special exhibits that don’t have too much to do with Van Gogh; the current exhibit is on the Symbolists, which the museum interprets quite broadly.

There are some very early drawings and paintings where you see Van Gogh mastering technique the way a future master would. And I enjoyed as well the Parisian paintings, from before Van Gogh left for Arles. There’s a painting that is composed like a Dutch landscape, except the earth-based portion is of Paris rendered almost like the undergrowth he was painting towards the end of his sanity.

There are fewer in the familiar Starry Night style where you wonder what the hell drug he was on, but that’s ok with me since I tend to prefer the ones where the brushstroke reveal more about the subject than about Van Gogh’s subjective state. And there are some gorgeous ones. As seems especially the case with Van Gogh, the reproductions can utterly suppress the beauty of the originals, so I was startled to see how rich the sky is in The Yellow House. It gives such a sense of a small yellow building sitting in an infinitely deep universe. (My idiosyncratic reaction was: Heidegger was right, at least for this painting: Earth and world, gods and mortals, all at their intersection.) (Thank you. Van Gogh Museum, for not only posting your paintings, but letting us zoom in on them.)

Some of the non-Van Gogh works are also pretty great. I loved a Monet vista of Monaco from a turn in the road, and a hilarious Mondrian sun-over-the-sea painting that the legend says he intended not to be ridiculous but to capture some Theosophical truth.

Anyway, it was well worth going to. But do try to find a time when it isn’t jam-packed; it was often hard to get to see the paintings instead of the backs of the heads of other visitors.

Damn tourists!


November 19, 2011

[avignon] Google’s Cultural Institute

Steve Crossan, head of the Cultural Institute in Paris, is demo-ing Google’s super spiffy swirling virtual bookcase. The Cultural Institute was set up in April. It’s a group of engineers. They’re building tools and services for the cultural sector, to help people get to online content in an emotionally engaging way.

One pilot project: Dead Sea Scrolls online, searchable and zoomable. Another the WebGL Bookcase.

Another: Memory of a Nation. In 2012 they’re focusing on bringing together archival content with personal testimony.

They’re also developing a physical space. In a virtual world, what shall one do with a physical space to explore culture? The space will be opening in April-May 2012.

Steve introduces Amit Sood to talk about the Google Art Project. He was working on Android, but spent his 20% time (“on Saturdays and Sundays” :) on a collaborative project with 17 great museums. It launched on Feb 1. It’s trying to give an idea of how to enjoy the museums and art in a different way.

He points out that it does not look like a Google page. He goes to a Brueggel at the Met. He zooms in extremely tight (brushstroke close) and very easily, without obvious latency. The “gigapixel” zoom is crazy good. There’s an info panel with plenty of info, including multi-media. You can also do a street view through the museum. (Not all the paintings are at the gigapixel level.) You can add artworks to your personal collections, and annotate it, including sharing details. (The details can always be zoomed back out.) You can share your collections on any social medium.

Why did Google do the project? It started out of passion, not out of corporate strategy. But after they launched, it got a lot of internal support. The four person team was multicultural. Access to info is critical, he says. He grew up in India, where simply walking into a museum was not a real possibility. He reminds us how lucky we are. That was his personal motivation. Other team members did it in order to create new audiences. How can we reduce the snob factor of museums? Finally, because it’s an immersive experience.

25M people have visited. 100,000 collections. Version 2 is coming.

Q: Will you open archives of unplayed music? And can artists create their own gigapixel images?

A: We’re working with archives.

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June 14, 2011

Linked Open Data take-aways

I just wrote up an informal trip report in the form of “take aways” from the LOD-LAM conference I attended a cople of weeks ago. Here is a lightly edited version.


Because it was an unconference, it was too participatory to enable us to take systematic notes. I did, however, interview a number of attendees, and have posted the videos on the Library Innovation Lab blog site. I actually have a few more yet to post. In addition, during the course of one of the sessions (on “Explaining LOD-LAM”), a few of us began constructing a FAQ.

Here’s some of what I took away from the conference.

– There is considerable momentum around linked open data, starting with the sciences where there is particular research value in compiling huge data sets. Many libraries are joining in.

– LOD for libraries will enable a very fluid aggregation of information from multiple types of sources around any particular object. E.g., a page about a Hogarth illustration (or about Hogarth, or about 18th century London, etc.) could quite easily aggregate information from any data set that knows something about that illustration or about topics linked to that illustration. This information could be used to build a page or to do research.

– Making data and metadata available as LOD enables maximal re-use by others.

– Doing so requires expertise, but should be less massively difficult than supporting many other standards.

– For the foreseeable future, this will be something libraries do in addition to supporting more traditional data standards; it will be an additional expense and effort.

– Although there is continuing debate about exactly which license to use when publishing library data sets, it seems that usually putting any form of license on the data other than a public domain waiver of licenses is likely to be (a) futile and (b) so difficult to deal with that it will inhibit re-use of the data, depriving it of value. (See the 4-star license proposal that came out of this conference.)

– The key point of resistance against LOD among libraries, archives and museums is the justified fear that once the data is released into the world, the curating institutions can no longer ensure that the metadata about an object is correct; the users of LOD might pick up a false attribution, inaccurate description, etc. This is a genuine risk, since LOD permits irresponsible use of data. The risk can be mitigated but not removed.


June 8, 2011

MacKenzie Smith on open licenses for metadata

MacKenzie Smith of MIT and Creative Commons talks about the new 4-star rating system for open licenses for metadata from cultural institutions:

The draft is up on the LOD-LAM site.

Here are some comments on the system from open access guru Peter Suber.


March 27, 2009

Long-tail museum

Jeff Gates posts about how the Smithsonian American Art Museum is facing the fact that it’s a long-tail phenomenon:

Our Web statistics showed that the number of visitors to our top ten sections paled when compared with the total number of visitors for all other pages, even though only a few people viewed each page. The challenge: how could we make it easier for our online visitors to find things of interest even if that information is buried deep in our site?

He continues:

Museums are changing. Like many other organizations, our hierarchical structure has historically disseminated information from our experts to our visitors. The envisioned twenty-first-century model, however, is more level. Instead of a one-way presentation, our online visitors are often interested in having a conversation with our curators and content providers. In response, many of us at American Art have been looking for ways to engage our public by designing applications that promote dialogue. By encouraging user-generated content and by distributing our assets beyond our own Web site and out across the Internet, we hope to make our content easier to find. In doing so, we are trying to fulfill our long tail strategy. In order to succeed we will need to approach our jobs differently.

And that’s just the introduction.

Meanwhile, the Library of Congress has expanded on its successful 15.7M views Flickr experiment and is now posting material at iTunes and YouTube.

Among the items Web surfers can expect on iTunes and YouTube are 100-year-old films from Thomas Edison’s studio, book talks with contemporary authors, early industrial films from Westinghouse factories, first-person audio accounts of life in slavery, and inside looks into the library’s holdings, including the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence and the contents of President Abraham Lincoln’s pockets on the night of his assassination.

This is all getting just too cool. Time to put the toys back on shelves behind glass


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October 26, 2008

Tweeting museum

Leslie Madsen Brooks at BlogHer writes about museums using Twitter. It’s a whole lotta links and a whole lotta love, including a link to Beth Kanter’s interview with MuseumTweets (= Amy Fox).

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June 10, 2008

Berkman lunch: Anne Balsamo on Designing Culture

Anne Balsamo from U of Southern California and the Annenberg School is giving a Berkman lunchtime talk, called “Designing Culture: The Technological Imagination at Work.” [Live blogging, paraphrasing. And Anne is talking about deep themes. So, these notes will be especially inadequate, as well as getting things wrong, missing stuff, etc.]

Her book touches on technological imagination (how we engage the materiality of the world), technological innovation, and the reworking of culture. She’s particularly interested in the importance of training the technological imagination. Her book discusses designers who explicitly consider culture throughout the design process. The book speculates about what it would take to train imaginations to create new cultural possibilities as they are at designing new technologies. This is the responsibility of educators as well as of engineers, etc.

Chapter 1 does some framing. Chapter 2 is called “Gendering the technological imagination,” extending the topic of her previous book. “Technology was always gendered. We just didn’t recognize it as such.” It draws on feminist theories of reproduction as the basis of all technologies as reproductive. Chapter 3 (“The Performance of Innovation”) draws on her time at PARC designing a museum exhibit on the future of reading. It focused on how we perform innovations, rather than discover them. Chapter 4 (“Public interactives and technological literacies”) reflects on the literacy a designer must always take into consideration when designing interactive pieces, and how interactives draw upon existing literacies and require new ones for the future. It then looks to the ethics of designing public interactives. Chapter 5 (“Working the Paradigm Shift”) is on the labor of creating this shift. It draws on Henry Jenkins and calls on people to do the hard work of shifting the paradigm. People have to learn how to engage deeply under the hood, as well as the policy work. Chapter 6 is a coda (“The Work of the Book in a Digital Age”) about why she’s writing a book in the age of the digital. The book is transmedia and includes a multimedia documentary (“Women of the World Talk Back”) she co-authored about 15 yrs ago, a Web site, and some other pieces. She also is working on a new thesaurus that maps technology as a cultural ensemble.

She talks about working the paradigm shift. We have failed to bridge C.P. Snow’s two cultures. We need to do so through practices. New participants (esp. women) and new commitments. We need to learn to be learners, not to be the smartest person in the world. And we need more collaborative teams and new spaces where people can work together on technological things. We need places that aren’t owned territorially but are places where people can come together from multiple disciplines.

She is working on a new MacArthur project. Scholarship will be distributed and networked, Macarthur understands. Part of her new grant is understanding the technology to enable this to happen. Learning is happening in distributed fashion, not in any one place. She is looking at how museums and libraries will function as part of this distributed learning environment. She’s starting with the portfolio of reading devices developed at PARC for the museum exhibit. She is looking at digital learning objects, mixed reality learning environments (body-based, gesture-based), and thinking with objects (DIY … but, Ann asks, as the digital divide mainatins, will the poor get access only to the virtual while the affluent learn how to solder, weld, saw…).

Libraries and museusm are important for presreving culture and bring it into new understandings.

She leaves us with the question: What about the future of libraries and museums?

Discussion begins, but I’m not going to try to capture all of it. Here are some random points:

Ann says that we need to be smart about our metadata, recognizing that there is always a narrative there. If we don’t think about this, the semantic web will be stupid.

Ann thinks books will continue to be printed. But libraries may be about more than lending books and CDs/DVDs. They could lend tools, toys… [Great vision!] A library is also a stage where people can perform and participate in their culture. [Tags: ]

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March 5, 2008

Cutting tools: Nothing is miscellaneous

Seb Schmoller has a really interesting post about the taxonomy of a museum of cutting-edge tools.

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