Making Things for People to Do Things with Things We’re Preserving For Them

Museums are great storehouses of knowledge, and, importantly, things. They are also, when they are at their best – curiosity engines. Many have and continue to be radically reshaped by the opening up that the internet has brought with it. Seb Chan will talk about his work over the last decade in helping different types of museum transform and reimagine their possibilities through visitor-centric, technology-enhanced design interventions.

Seb is the Chief Experience Officer, ACMI

museums are democratic spaces

museums are curiosity machines

Museums should not be places you get sent to on excursions to learn a bunch of facts, it should be a place you discover something you didn’t know you wanted to know.

As the world changes, museums have had to catch up. The Smithsonian acquired an app and part of that was releasing the source code on github. How do the physical spaces evolve to reflect this? At most, 0.5% of its collection could be shown in the building at any given time.

Also Michelle Obama noted at the Whitney opening in 2015, that most museums are not inclusive. People do not feel welcome, it is not a place for them.

So at the Cooper Hewitt they made a magic wand! They gave everyone a pen, which was funcational and symbolic. It would communicate that design is for doing, not just for looking at. The pen could then connect the museum to its original purpose to inform, educate, let people copy, remix and create new things.

They did some trial designs and also found lots of unanticipated issues, eg. how to keep the pens clean? New Yorkers are really particular about things being clean! Plus battery life was a really big problem.

A key thing about the pen was the ability to use it without looking at it, rather than staring at a phone instead of the collection you’re supposed to be there to enjoy.

In the first year they collected 4 million new pieces of data, the API for the system is also public, users can choose to download or delete information about their visit, they can download copies of things they created at the museum. It is all anonymous to respect privacy.

Seb moved to ACMI in 2015; it’s actually one of the most visited museums in Australia. It has films, but also other digital things like games. So what is the purpose of a museum when all its objects might be more comfortably experienced at home from your couch?

ACMI has particular challenges…

  • it takes quite a while to view a video compared with the average ~20 seconds people look at a painting.
  • People don’t like you to talk in a movie, so how does it work to have cinemas in the museum where people talk to each other?
  • How do they work with rights holders – if you want a visitor to be able to download what they saw earlier in the day?
  • What is the atomic particle of a video work? A frame? Can you do something with that? They created an app that searched subtitles (from torrents!) and showed the relevant frame, creating a keyword-searchable image database of movies.
  • What interface best reveals the connections between media – eg. a film that refernces a video game.

What do we want in and from a museum? Seb is keen to continue a dialogue.