Creative Commons Copyright by David Woo

Archivist as Juggler

When taking the rigorous and insightful course Administration and Use of Archival Materials with archivists Eric Fair and Chatham Ewing at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign,  I never realized how many decisions and difficult decisions at that were required from an archivist. The difficulties and choices that must be made throughout the entire archival process were far greater than I had realized. Decisions requiring appraising a collection, what items will be retained and what will be discarded, what will be digitized and what will end up as primary materials in boxes, how to handle donor’s materials, what level of preservation can one go with each artifact, what formats to retain if in old electronic formats, how to arrange and why, when overwhelmed by quantity of product, does one focus more on archiving with greater quality less or archive more with less quality and descriptive material? Seeing the numerous conundrums faced by archivists raised their esteem in my eyes.  This continual decision-making process is witnessed throughout the round of archival tenets of practice such as:

  1. Appraisal and Selection
  2. Acquisitions and Accessioning
  3. Arrangement
  4. Description
  5. Preservation

and

  1. Security and Disaster Planning
  2. Access, Legal Issues, Reference, and Outreach
  3. Digital Records
  4. Management

Archivist Judith Schwarz elucidated on another juggling pin in the archivist’s balancing act – that of balancing access versus personal confidentiality in her article from The Journal of American History called “The Archivist’s Balancing Act:  Helping Researchers While Protecting Individual Privacy.”

Synopsis:

My fellow archival classmate Allison Sutton wrote an excellent synopsis on this article and raised some questions:

Schwartz presented an interesting and detailed account of this very important issue in the archival world. ‘Weighing issues of privacy while trying to meet the access and informational needs of researchers is one of the most difficult balancing acts that archivists perform in carrying out their professional duties.’ A balancing act indeed! And I was thinking, perhaps this is THE single most challenging of all the duties of an archivist.

There were three activities pinpointed in the article which were noted being vital to the creation of a historical record. The first mentioned, is donation by an institution or individual. In some cases the institution, individual or individual’s family places restrictions upon access to documents, chooses to destroy or not turn over materials belonging to the collection, making it incomplete. They have a desire to protect that outweighs their desire to make the materials accessible. Schwartz discussed how common it is to have a portion of a collection restricted for a long number of years. A second activity mentioned was research conducted by scholars whose only ‘motive is to examine all the documents that may bear on their topics.’ And, the third activity Schwartz listed was collecting materials that document history of a region, profession of social class, movement, racial, ethnic, religious or sexual community. Collectors, according to Schwartz are motivated by their ‘desire to affirm the groups’ identity and convince others of its legitimacy by enshrining its past…’

Schwartz relied on her varied roles and experiences as archivist, researcher, but focused , I think, more on her role as a researcher in taking a stand. Not necessarily a bad thing as we all learned a lot through her detailed accounts in pursuit of a portion of women’s history, lesbianism, which is not always documented and archived appropriately. The scenarios of the incidents of archival documents being withheld by Mount Holyoke, the American Communist Party and the sons of a lesbian mother, provided a vivid view of these very real situations archivist are facing today–just as they have in the past.

From Fritz Lang's classic silent masterpiece "Metropolis"

In the end, I wondered whether Schwartz could have provided more information to support her claim that there was something (seemingly in her view) problematic about groups/individuals who are collectors of items for the sole purpose of documenting a group’s identity. How else would any of us know about their existence? I was quite pleased, however, with the guidance she provided to archivists concerning how to deal with unwilling donors and how to approach processing materials that may otherwise be overlooked, ignored, or destroyed. She put forth a very strong plea stating “when documents have been collected, process and index them fully, as anything you value” and urged archivists to “name the unnameable as much as is historically accurate from the evidence before you.” One of the most striking statements Schwartz offered and, one that completely captures the reason this issue is so challenging, was when she quoted Joan Nestle, a founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives – ‘…the most important thing I can tell you is that ‘to preserve is to give life, but in the very act of preservation we can destroy a life.’

Thoughts…

Schwartz mentioned many scenarios of restricted access to or totally forgotten (maybe hidden) materials in decades gone by. What of today? There are still demands for access to documents.

To symbolize demand. From Fritz Lang's classic silent masterpiece "Metropolis"

Supply or Demand? Are archivists to assume that a demand will be made as times are changing? To assume that the views which people/institutions currently have on access to certain (private, controversial, embarrassing, potentially damaging) information will change? Or, as Schwartz suggests, archivists are the ones who should supply the materials which will help researchers to write fuller histories; providing the processed collections will be a way to ensure that the stories are written. What do you think?”

I was immediately struck by Lesbian Herstory Archives founder Joan Nestle’s quote:

“To preserve is to give life, but in the very act of preservation we can destroy a life.”

Preservation is a core tenet of the archival profession.  It what is often called to do.  Often the nature of archives bring history and people from history back to life or to think in another way we become enlivened by it and continues on with us in our historical and collective memory.  Yet, it can destroy a individual, family, donor, or even institutional “life” by allowing access to personal as well as not-so-savory records.

Schwartz enumerates on some examples of opposition to the release of personal information to researchers, particularly in regards to lesbian archives (as that is her speciality):

1. Institutional Opposition: The love letters between former college president Mary Emma Wooley and her partner Jeannette Marks, and Mt. Holyoke’s opposition to their release (late 70’s).

Rose Elizabeth Cleveland, President Grover Cleveland's sister

Evangeline Marrs Simpson, widower and soon-to-be bishop's wife

2. Institutional Opposition: “The Box-Ten Affair”that constituted the love letters exchanged between the President’s sister Rose Elizabeth Cleveland and a soon-to-be bishop’s wife Evangeline Marrs Simpson.  The Minnesota Historical Society was opposed to their release and during a contentious time where the tenth box went “missing.”

Margaret Sanger, birth control activist

Dr. Marie Equi

3. Family Opposition: Margaret Sanger’s Papers included loved letters written to her in 1916 by a known lesbian Dr. Marie Equi, yet no evidence available that Sanger was gay.  Despite pressure for permission to release those letters, the legal control of the papers were held by Sanger’s sons who stated “There are several aspects of my mother’s life which my brother and I are unwilling to have explored.”

4. Individual Opposition:

The most compelling of all the cases listed in the issues of opening up archives that contain personal or unfriendly information is that of a lesbian to the inclusion of her couple of letters in the Lesbian Herstory Archives.  Written in the early 1960s, the creator was distressed that her and any of the women’s letters written to the Daughters of Bilitis (the first-state lesbian group in the United States) should be given individual permission and that she wanted to have her letters destroyed.  I found it interesting that Schwartz was so surprised that a possible lesbian would not want to be part of a lesbian archives.  It intrigued me that an archivist could think that all gays or all lesbians or anyone who communicated with the organizations would all collectively want to be included.  Whether it is an issue of wanting to be outed or not, or just simply desiring privacy for letters that were sent does not matter.  I could feel for this woman when she felt that her individual privacy was being invaded – she never requested to be part of the archival collection.  Schwartz notes that the “donor is not the enemy.”  However, though she sees it more as a means to help the woman come out and deal with her own “self-hatred,”  I do not think the archivist needs to necessarily be a political activist and therapist or even interpreter, but I do think the archivist does need to balance between individual privacy vs. collective memory.  Are her two letters so important to the “collective memory” to disturb or destroy her personal life.

Possible solutions:

Some keys to assisting in this balancing act lie in setting provisions of release, such as release and access after death, after 25 or 50 years.  Another Judith Schwartz mentions is the LHA’s protocol of allowing donors and individuals write their own accessibility proviso.  This is a valuable protocol and collection policy activity that archivists can offer to  donors, and even to those  individuals, such as this unnamed woman, who was not a donor but (I think that is a very, very, very important fact to think about) a unknowing individual whose letters were donated by the institution.

More Work, More Issues, More Access

More access demand, more time. From Fritz Lang's classic silent masterpiece "Metropolis"

This, of course, increases the already enormous workload and responsibilities of archivists.  One would think that the archival practice is solely the land of handling exotic and extraordinary works, without the bewilderment of legal issues of ownership, confidentiality, access, rights, and much more.  Indeed, we are in a time where there is a greater demand by researchers and the public to access to anything, including to archival records.  This will likely influence and increase the issues on the archivist’s table as to what to release and when.  Archivists have been known to be custodians of our collective historical memory.  Now, they are additionally compelled to be access providers to the public.  It is surely the world of “more, more, more” that is also driving into the heart of the archival community in an age where the personal and the public quickly merge into one another in our modern age.  Indeed, the challenge is great to balance access and privacy.

Museum Magazine, American Association of Museums

Ok, I guess the title of my posting might say something.  From our readings, I just learned another acronym that will add to the many acronyms I’ve learned over the course of 1 year in University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign GSLIS (“Graduate School of Library and Information Science” – another acronym!).  That is MIP – Museum Information Professional.  It kind of has the cache of an MVP but more nifty and short – MIP…

Some of us are already in museums, some of us want to work in museums, and some of us are just wanting to develop ourselves broadly.  Well, I don’t work in a museum though as a kid, I dreamt of living in a museum – in particular the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s section of French Decorative Arts with its fine furnishing with its gilded beds (the dream was to have free use of the museum all night and sleep there in fine style. Of course, I had the same dream of sleeping over at Macy’s New York).  My dad’s museum inoculation of me started at the age of a toddler.  I thought all families spend their time in museums, don’t they?

Of course, as an adult, when I attempted to even “volunteer” at a museum, because to be hired was like a .0000000001 % chance since the museums were so tight in budgets, I realized, at least from my perspective, this is a tough market and I might just have to accept never working in a museum at all.  My volunteer experience to several un-named Southern California museums was quite eye-opening.  I didn’t realize a museum volunteer was equivalent to an ancient Roman slave.  I have to say I didn’t realize what a racket it was, i.e. you are sooooo lucky to work in a museum at all, you should be glad to swab the decks, and while you are at it, you are in charge of grant writing because we can’t afford to hire anyone.  If I was lucky to get in, maybe I’d be happy with a 17,000 or even more fantastic, 22,000 salary a year.  I think from what I understand, that salary would qualify me for poverty level and Medicaid benefits (since they also don’t want to pay you any health insurance because they can’t afford it).

Museum Magazine, American Association of Museums

I also noticed it was quite a clique and very insider.  I really needed to be a friend of the friend of the curator or at least relative would make a big difference.  Now, understand, I am talking about some museums in Southern California.  This one museum I “labored” for paid ONE person, yes ONE person, contractually (not a hire) to do all their exhibits and particularly their special exhibits from the British Museum, and other high-toned big international museums.  One un-named Latin museum I interviewed wanting me to do registrar work, front desk, tours, exhibit support, grant writing, and hold events…. for free.  I was always told, why it is a privilege to work in a museum and you are giving back.  What I didn’t realize was that there was actually a waiting list for this “slave” position.  This also included doing errands and getting lunch for upper staff.

Yes, you could say I was disillusioned.  However, I have been inspired by our Museum Informatics class, by my fellow students, and my fellow students who work in museums, by GSLIS grads who work in museums, and by the growth of technology within museums and the merging of some elements of LAMs.

Paul Marty (r) with fellow museum informatics superheros Richard Urban and Michael Twidale at Museums and the Web Conference 2007.

Paul F. Marty produced an informative article for MIP wannabes: So You Want to Work in a Museum…  Guiding the Careers of Future Museum Information Professionals.  He starts off with the question we all might ask “How do I become an information professional in a museum?” Based on interviews of professionals, he elaborated on 5 key factors that influence LIS graduates to succeed as MIPs:

The 5 Key Factors

1.  The MIP will benefit by having expertise or credentials in a background domain or discipline relevant to the museum where he or she works.

My Question:  Do I need to get an MA or more desired a PhD in Art History?  What if I want to work in botanical gardens, do I need to get an advanced degree in Botany?  How about Film Archives?

2.  The MIP will benefit by having expertise or credentials in library and information science relevant to the museum where he or she works.

My Question:  What additional LIS credentials are most museums looking for?  Do I need to specialize or get further education training in collections, archives, metadata, digital curation or preservation, web 2.0 and website development, cataloging, application development, instruction design, etc.?

3.  The MIP will benefit by having expertise or credentials relevant to the museum he or she works.

My Question:  Is it worth getting or certificate, or even further, a master’s in Museum Studies?  How can you take courses on curatorship, collections management, learning museum culture, and registrar duties?  There is a quote from a study participant:  You cannot work in a museum unless you understand the museum culture.”  Ok, so how can you learn this if you can’t get into a museum.  How can you learn what is the museum culture?

4.  The MIP will benefit by having prior experience working in a museum.

My Response:  Duh!  So, the age-old problem – have to have a job to get a job.

5.  The MIP will benefit by having the ability to learn new skills and face new challenges on the job.

My Response:  Ok, I understand that.  I will need a museum job to get that experience.  Darn!

I would love to hear from  MIPs  that have had some experience in museums to give their advice and their perspective on how to become an MIP, how to become employable for a museum, and how to become indoctrinated into a museum culture.

I wanna be an MIP!  Hmmm, I don’t think I should put that in my cover letter… a little too blatant.

I stumbled upon, as one serendipitously does on the Internet, a wonderful find of a cultural heritage museum with compelling, evocative, and wonderful interactive resources: the Tenement Museum.

The American Immigrant
Its mission to preserve, discover, and convey the storied history of the American immigrant from the late 19th and early 20th century (as well as 21st century programs) resonates with me personally.  My father, an Italian/Polish Jew, arrived in America after WWII from war-torn Italy on a boat like many millions of immigrants to Ellis Island in NYC.  He never forgot that ride and how he cried as a little boy at the site of the Statue of Liberty while entering the harbor and his entry onto Ellis Island.  Here’s a picture of Michele Roberto Heliczer (my father) grinning on the ship upon his arrival to the United States.

So many immigrants came into Ellis Island, poured into the bowels of New York City, with so many poignant and colorful stories.  So fitting was it to house the museum in a 1863 tenement apartment building in Manhattan’s Lower East Side (97 Orchard Street).

The Tenement Museum and its Digital Artists in Residence Program
Interestingly, the Tenement Museum supports an initiative that is called the Digital Artists in Residence Program(DARP), sponsoring online development about historical and contemporary immigration.  DARP has been instrumental in creating some highly successful online interactive resources such as “We are Multicolored” (Making Your Own Flag) and “Five Songs for the Five Points” (Mix a FolkSong.)   I believe the Tenement Museum’s digital mission and integration is shown in how compelling these seemingly simple interactive resources are.  I was impressed by them.  These interactives do not seem to be for a particular age group (thought it does seem for a youngish crowd, with Webcomics seemingly more fitting for the age group) as it is offered as a “Play” option for all visitors to the Tenement Museum.  I like that because often the kid games are supposed to be just for kids and we adults need that interactive fun too!

The three innovative interactive resources covered are:
1) We are Multicolored (Make a Flag)
2) Five Songs for Five Points (Make a Folksong)
3) Immigrant Game: From Ellis Island to Orchard Street with Victoria Confino

Interactive Resource #1: We are Multicolored (Make A Flag)
This is very akin to the wonder inherently seen in Prof. Twidale’s showings of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s World Beach Project and Design Your Own Arts & Crafts Tile.  Users create their own custom flags from a mashup of three selected countries, comment on it and the flag and commentary becomes a record and piece of art for the global “superflag” community of 40,000.  The screen below shows the Superflag – each little square represents a user’s custom flag.  The square I clicked on brought up this user’s particular flag.

“We are Multicolored” also provides an innovative offering called “Symbolism.”  If you click this page, you can identify, group and compare flags by shape, symbol, color, and meaning.

You’ll find interesting groupings of flags such as when I picked flags that stressed a color signifying “land fertility,” often these countries were poor or rural-based. The color “green” also can mean something quite different in one country than another.  Here Ireland’s green means the “Gaelic tradition” (and here I thought it was for leprechauns…)

Here is how one creates your own flag.  First, you are given three choices:
1) Where is your home? United States
2) What other country has affected you? Mexico
3) Where have you dreamed of going? Ireland

It is difficult to be limited to three –  if one has multiple homes, if more than one country has affected you (I’m a mix of Italian, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Scottish, German and Mexican – so that’s a stew), and if you’ve dreamed about traveling the globe.

Then with the 3 flags that come up, you can create your own flag – with options to break up the shapes (loved that one), rotating, and bringing to front and back. Once finished, you can comment on your flag and add it to the Superflag.  It now becomes part of the global project and a statement of individuality.  This is a lot of fun and addicting.

Interactive Resource #2: Five Songs for the Five Points (Mix a Folksong)
This is a wonderfully addicting soundmap (Flash technology) that allows you to mix and create your own urban folksong.  To create your own music from the sounds of the Lower East Side, you can explore and pick different sounds one hears in this area from the map by clicking and dragging the white circles to the colored sound spots on the map.

These colored sound spots represent different categories: field recordings (train, birds, hydrant, men working, manhole cover steam), spoken word, music, and folk songs.  You make your composition by mixing these five tracks, and can adjust the layering of the sounds through volume.  You can also save your mix.  Having grown up in New York City and exposed to the Lower East Side, I can completely relate to the complexity of sounds heard in the urban environment – trains, vendors selling, a musician on the corner, men working, birds and honking horns, voices, and more.  This is a beautiful, succinct capturing of this phenomenon and thus captures the spirit of NYC’s Lower East Side and the color of the immigrant experience.  This is something one can get immersed and lost in.

Interactive Resource #3: Immigration Game

This is a quite enjoyable interactive experience that allows you to become immersed in the identity of a 12-year old boy or girl from Europe and experience the travel and transition to America.  Called From Ellis Island to Orchard Street with Victoria Confino, the tour provides a friendly “immigrant” guide from 1916 (who’s been there and knows the ropes).  This is quite clever and inventive.  Victoria offers advice such as when going on the ship, bring food because the ship food is either horrible or very little and when arriving to Ellis Island, forewarns you of a shoe pick used to pull on the lower eyelids for examination and not to be scared of what they are doing.  If only immigrants could have had her help with these to-do’s and not-do’s before going on the voyage! Here is Victoria Confino:

In an old-fashioned movie theater, an old black and white movie plays, setting the scene of 1916 and identifies your journey as an immigrant.

The journey comprises:
1. Creating an immigrant passport
2. Picking your belongings
3. Going on the voyage
4. Passing inspection at Ellis Island
5. Making choices and experiences in new life in Lower East Side

1.  Immigrant Passport
In choosing my character, I decide to go for a boy, name him Guiseppe Fiorentino from Italy.  It would have been nice to perhaps had more choices from different countries but it was still fine.  I also would have liked to have seen the passport stamped with a sound effect.  Once you input these items, these are handwritten on the online passport including the “date of departure.”  One of the nice features of the system is that there is a visual progress map on the bottom to see where you are, what you are doing, and where you are going.  That visual progress map now contains the photo of Guiseppe, making it more personalized.  Following the red old-fashioned pointing hands is also very well done for navigation.

2. “What will you bring?” is a powerful and poignant exercise.
In this activity, you can only select three items to pack and take with you on your journey.  First, to think you are only allotted three items to take with you from your homeland to a strange country…

This was tough because food and bedding seemed to be critical.  I was hoping Guiseppe had someone with him so I counted on that and picked clothing, shoes, and a toy.  I know my father could bring one of the few items and it was an Italian Dumbo stuffed toy that he held onto for dear life.  It was his trusted companion, and one of the first experiences in entering America was the authorities taking his toy away – nasty!  Here’s Guiseppe’s belongings:

What would you bring?

3. Going on the Voyage
This shows a visual of the ship leaving Europe and arriving to New York City.  Here, Victoria offers that insider information and tells of her experience crossing over.  This is one spot I would have liked to have seen some historical images of immigrants on the ships and what the conditions were like (as shown as in activity – “Passing Inspection at Ellis Island’).

4.  Passing Inspection at Ellis Island
In this exercise, one gets the sense of what it must have been like getting to Ellis Island, the thrill, and then the fear, confusion and overwhelm of the health inspection.  Again, Victoria gives you helpful advice of exactly what to encounter in the entire process.  In addition, images of immigrants entering Ellis Island are intermingled in this space.  You are even asked some questions to see if you’ll pass the inspection.  One interesting idea would have been if you had failed the inspection, what would have happened?

5. Making Choices and Experiences in New Life in Lower East Side
You’ve made it into America and now what is your life going to be like, what are you going to do, where are you going to live, and what experiences will you have?  You enter into “Welcome to the Lower East Side” that has some visuals of your new neighborhood.  Here again, we are placed within a tenement apartment with Victoria describing it and what is is like.  The apartment works as a interactive visual map and you can select numerous choices – such as food experiences, jobs, etc.  This is the place of “enculturation.”

Conclusion:
The Immigrant Game is a very enjoyable, profound, cogent, and  visceral interactive experience that I think should be widely emulated.  It brings history to life, makes the museum a real space, brings the visitor inside the experience as if an immigrant walking in his/her shoes.  Though perhaps it could be modified in a few minor areas (might be nice to include at end real images or short stories of say your possible immigrant neighbors that live at 97 Orchard or perhaps as another possible interactive activity), it really is a superb, first-class offering that truly honors American immigrants and makes palatable and real to us their immigrant experience.  Kudos, Tenement Museum.

Ready for your first ride in Second Life?

A Second Life Field Trip

I was quite looking forward to our Museum Informatics class that was going to be completely held within the Second Life space – it would be a virtual school trip.  I hadn’t been this excited since I went on a school trip to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.  To prepare, we were told we had to sign up for a Second Life account, create our personified avatar that we operated as in their virtual space, and practice in the Second Life.

Second Life’s Wild Wild West

Once I had built my avatar and entered into Second Life’s public intro spaces, I was exceptionally naive to what would be taking place in those spaces… and to me!  I’m just an innocent lamb in virtual space and I had come to the virtual slaughter so to speak.

Some Second Life areas felt like being in the "Wild, Wild West" of a Star Wars Cantina.

I was appalled that in the SL Intro area there were an extraordinary amount of XXX avatars, activities and experiences that I was assaulted with.  When I was in the intro training area in SL, I thought I was in an orgy setting – avatars were picking each other up, exchanging XXX comments and activities, and I was propositioned and accosted several times – this in the introductory learning SL space!  Needless to say, even though virtual,  I felt fear and disgust. From what I learned in class, SL is an ADULT community, with all its connotations.

I wonder if there are any papers (or guides) on the preparation of the “assault” one can experience in the virtual space.  Our ever-faithful Teaching Assistant Ingbert Floyd even spoke about being “assaulted” by virtual drive-by shootings.  Egads!  All I wanted to do was to go into LAM (Libraries, Archives and Museums) environments that in the physical world you don’t have to worry about being propositioned, attacked, or even bothered.  I mean, has anyone really been cornered by a lout in front of the Mona Lisa, whispering, “How about coming over to my Second Life pad?” or chased by a gang of virtual hoodlums in the British Museum?  I tend to go to LAMs to get away from the intrusion of our crazy world.

So, here the rub… We want to extend the LAM experience but can the LAM experience be now distorted in the virtual world by social assault and improprieties.  I understand that one can set ratings such as G or PG to Second Life sites, but my question is, if one can do that, will it stop it?  There are no virtual security guards protecting us virtual visitors from virtual nasties.

This brought up interesting issues – in a library or museum setting, none of these XXX and violent activities would take place, but in the virtual world – it’s the Wild West.  I’m not a prude but if I go into a library or museum, I’m not interested in prostitution or XXX activities happening there.  Aren’t libraries and museums third spaces where these activities are not allowed?  If anyone can comment on this further and what SL spaces are “safe” and if there are SL libraries that are set up for safety, I’d appreciate it.It’s a point to think about and address.

Our Much Needed Tour Guide

We truly needed a guide during our 2-hour SL museum class tour experience.  Graduate student and SL impresario Richard Urban was a life-saver and he highlighted key places to look and investigate – thanks to him a few of us got to explore the planets in our solar system.  Comparing it to real life, it was more like taking a group of 1st or 2nd graders on a field trip – pure chaos and organized fun.

Second Life Wayfinding Exhaustion?

Copyright by Chia Ying Yang (http://www.flickr.com/photos/enixii/)

Everyone roamed around, the guide attempted to gather us together but some of us (me!) were uncontrollable or lost our way, and I spent most of the time bouncing walls, swimming in the ocean, flying, and navigating versus learning from the objects.  Nicolleta Di Plas and Paolo Paolini observe this in their Museums and the Web 2003 paper “The SEE Experience: Edutainment in ED Virtual Worlds.”  They state that “interest wanes from enthusiastic beginnings… the attention curve drops sharply as the users find the space either too difficult to naviagate or not satisfyingly engaging” and success relates directly to the ability to “hold a critical mass of users in real time.”

Well, I was literally exhausted from all the navigation, “teleporting,” wayfinding, etc.  Again, I was a newbie.  It was also very fascinating to see all my classmates’ sub-personalities through their avatars and avatar names.  I actually met a couple of twins of my avatar.  I have to say, it felt a lot safer and conducive being in an organized class group in SL.  I think tour guides and organized groups are an excellent idea (as in real museum spaces) to introducing visitors to the virtual museum (that means real people as guides still!).

Does and should Second Life emulate the Real World?

The Matrix vs. the Real World?

It is really amazing what worlds and LAMs have been created in Second Life.  For me, though, I still need to feel that I am in a virtual world that feels somewhat real, and it still feels too artificial for me.  I’m sure this will continue to develop.  Blass, Gobbo and Paolini discuss how important creating a virtual presence is in their Museums and the Web paper 2005 “3D Worlds and Cultural Heritage: Realism vs. Virtual Presence.

Their findings related in how to make a virtual presence effective include the following.

  1. Understanding how a real place is or was.
  2. Conveying the emotion of being in a real place.
  3. Creating the illusion of being in a fantasy place.
  4. Creating an immaterial situation.

And they highlight that a virtual presence is not truly achieved by “reproducing a virtual copy of a real-life place, but rather by focusing on what goes on in the situation, and trying to put users in the pest position to feel part of the situation.”

Urban, Twidale and Marty write how Second Life is not the real world in “A Second Life for your Museum: The Use of 3D Collaborative Virtual Environments by Museums” (Museums and the Web 2007), and that “what is intutive in the real-world does not always translate into SL settings.”  I think that helps to define “reality” needs in a virtual world – which are real indeed.

Background:

A museum informatics user test was performed with the volunteer assistance of Margaret Herndon, a 50 year old professional manager who frequents local prestigious museums with her husband, is a general user of the Internet (ex: shopping regularly online and reading news) and only uses museum websites in a cursory fashion, such as to obtain physical site visitation information. The museum website chosen for this usability test was from the Norton Simon Museum located in Pasadena, California (http://www.nortonsimon.org/). This is a museum that she frequents on occasion but doesn’t use the website.

4372366342_41733dbbc6_o.png

Eight user tasks were presented and the tester recorded each of these tasks by paper, by watching, and by using the recording software Jing.

1. “Can you provide me with hours to the museum, and tell me when it is closed or if there are any free days to get in?”

2. “Can you find any information about any works of Vincent van Gogh?”

3. “Can you tell me what the current traveling shows going on are today, the temporary collections?”

4. “If you wanted to purchase an item from the current featured exhibition of Ingres, how would you do this online?”

5. “From the website, can you tell me who is Norton Simon, why is the collection so important and what the mission and vision of the museum is? What makes the Norton Simon Museum so special? With only using the website, can you elaborate on that?”

6. “Can you locate a floor map for the Norton Simon Museum and tell me where I can find the Asian collection?”

7. “Are there any materials, any guides online to the current exhibits, particularly ‘Portraits After Ingres’?”

8. “Can you locate a piece of art by its material, specifically sculpture? Can you find the European sculpture in the Norton and then locate any sculptures by the modernist Barbara Hepworth?”

User Task One:
“Can you provide me with hours to the museum, and tell me when it is closed or if there are any free days to get in?”

Margaret took a cursory look over the home page and couldn’t locate anything about hours. Looking at the navigation bar, she thinks it has to be under “Visit” or “Information.”

Margaret: “I don’t see hours. There’s something called visitor information.”

She selects “Visitor Information” under “Visit” since it looked like a likely option through her process of elimination. The subject finds what’s required of the task regarding hours but struggles with the next part.

Margaret: “Here are the hours. It is closed on Tuesday. That’s peculiar – normally museums are closed on Monday. This is very hard to read. It is very small and hard for my eyes. I can’t find free time information.”

She continues to scroll up and down and finding it hard to read as she squints. It begins to fatigue her. Finally, she finds text under “Admission Prices,” detailing that first Fridays of the month are free.

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Fig 1.  Visitor Information

Observation: The subject wanted to first find that information on the home page. When she could not, she started first by looking at the main navigation bar. The main navigation bar was relied on heavily throughout the test. I agreed with Margaret that is was a bit hidden to not have the words “Hours and Admission” listed since in that same “Visit’ dropdown, “Directions and Parking ” is clearly listed.

She comments: “Anything can go in Visitor Information. Then they should just have one page for all that information.”

Even though Margaret found the hours and admission information from the “Visit” navigation bar, she did not see a section called “Visit” on the home page – even though this was where she wanted to first look. This information is tucked in the lower-right hand corner of the page and is very hidden from view. Interestingly, it lists “Hours” here but not in the dropdown as Margaret had suggested that should have been better worded. Also, this selection takes you to the same “Visitor Information” page from the navigation bar. So, even the “Hours” designation on the home page should be “Hours and Admission.” This is an example of a user showing how even the most basic museum request need of “hours and admission” can be unnecessarily veiled.

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Fig 2.  Hidden Visit Option on Home Page

User Task Two:
“Can you find any information about any works of Vincent van Gogh?”

Margaret: “Assume under collections, different choices, European, I guess I could pick European Art 19th century. Well, now it takes me to ‘Highlights’ and no images look like van Gogh. Here’s ‘More Highlights’ and I see a screen of small image icons. It’s 21 pages. This will take a long time. I’m tired.” [Shoulders droop.]

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Fig 3.  Looking for van Gogh in European Art 19th Century

Margaret: “So, ways to find van Gogh. There’s ‘Advanced Search.’

Oh, here can type by artist. No results found? That is strange. Well, you can look under artist on this page – browse by and nothing listed.

[User tried to search under Monet and see the function worked. Finds Monet, so looks troubled. Margaret still can’t believe there is way to find van Gogh on here.] It’s not showing van Gogh and went under artist and 19th century and don’t want to go back there.”

“I know his work ‘Mulberry Tree’ is there. I can go by title ‘Mulberry Tree.’ Here it is. That’s strange. They have van Gogh and one of the special things about Norton Simon is they have a number of van Goghs, which is very unusual. I don’t know where else to look. Under gallery, there’s a picture of his paintings. ‘Browse by Gallery’ just gives ‘Exhibitions.’ I don’t know [dejected.] I just have to go to the museum to see the van Goghs.” User gives up.

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Fig 4.  Looking for van Gogh under a title work or in the gallery

Observation: This user task was complex and fraught with difficulty, frustration, and eventually ended without complete success. However, this was not a user error but issues with the interface and cataloging options. Since Margaret was a casual visitor to the Norton Simon, she knew that he had collected a significant amount of impressionist art, and in particular, a stunning selection of van Goghs. To not find van Gogh in the collections was not only extremely frustrating for her but an example of a serious flaw in the website. The first flaw was in the “Browse by Artist” option. This should have been an easy to find exercise since it was an alphabetical listing/choices for artists. However, when Margaret searched under “V” for van Gogh, it was not there. Those who put the alphabetical listing should note that often van Gogh is sometimes listed under “V” rather than “G.” Patrons don’t normally think of “Gogh” as last name of Vincent even though “van” is “correctly” alphabetized as a subordinate. When Margaret had to dig deeper and use the advanced search screen, she did not see the little pop-up line selection when she typed in “van Gogh” that offered a choice “Gogh, Vincent van.” It was incredibly small, in bright yellow, and was easy to miss.

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Fig 5.  The problem overseen – smart selection “Vincent van Gogh” missed and search by artist is under “Gogh” not “van”

User Task Three:
“Can you tell me what the current traveling shows going on are today, the temporary collections?”

Margaret: “Usually don’t they have them on the home page? [Exasperation, deep sigh.] There’s no home button. There’s no home button on the bottom either.”

Margaret spends a great deal of time looking in navigation bar, using the search option. Tester states to locate another option besides the browser back button. After clicking on practically everything on the page, she finds that the Norton Simon Museum logo is clickable and can go back to the home page with. New lesson is learned.

Margaret: “I didn’t realize that clicking on the museum logo would take you back to the home page. I still want my “home” selection. When I’ve used the Getty and Huntington websites, they both have a home button – because I always like to go back home so that I know where I am.”

User then completes primary task.

“I like the showing of images of the exhibitions. They have two exhibits: Rembrandt and Portraiture after Ingres. How annoying, it’s hard for me to read about them when they keep flashing images on the screen above. I liked it at first that they had the images flashing of the current shows but now they are just flashing images from the Norton Simon collection. How annoying. It’s making it difficult to read.” [Blinks, forehead creases, eyes, squint.]

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Fig 6.  “Current Exhibitions” under home page

The tester suggests there is another place to get information about the exhibits. Margaret looks in disbelief, as to say “What more? I’ve already found it.” But she obliges that “nasty” tester and continues to look.

Margaret looks under the “Exhibitions” choice on the main navigation bar. She chooses “Current Exhibitions” and it brings her to the immediate information. This subsequent task is completed with ease and swiftness.

Observation: As a tester, I tried to use words that didn’t simply say “Exhibitions,” since that would have possibly ended the task in one minute or so. Instead, I suggested other words such as “traveling show” or “temporary collections.” This caused Margaret to think a bit and think back that often museum websites post their “hot” temporary exhibits on the home page. This should have been straightforward except for three things – one, there was no home button she was used to in order to navigate to; two, it was difficult to read those exhibits when there were flashing images on the home page; and three, the tester required her to locate the information elsewhere besides the home page.

Many user studies have brought up the fact that no matter what level of Internet expertise, it is most common to go back to the home page to reorient oneself. Margaret was not able to this because she could not locate any home button or home hyperlink. This is not her problem. More experienced users realize that often the logo is what is used as a home page. However, this is not evident to several users, and really should be a choice selection no matter what. The ability to go to the home page is also the ability to reorient oneself in the searching and browsing capacity. Note the fascinating words she said: I want a home button “because I always like to go back home so that I know where I am.” This is psychologically and powerfully telling. I would suggest to the Norton Simon Museum to put a home button/home hyperlink as part of their navigation scheme based on this scenario. Also, when she did finally find the home page and saw that the current exhibits were shown as she thought on the home page, she was disturbed by the flashing images above and couldn’t read or focus enough. At first she liked it because the flashing images or “slide show” went over the current exhibits and included some text. But then the slide show started to show other images that had no context except for being in the museum. This showed how that element made her not want to stay on the home page very long and could signify that information is then missed on the home page. Lastly, she was able to determine that this information could be found under the “Exhibitions” option on the main navigation bar and thus reflected an easy option choice.

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Figure 7.   “Current Exhibitions” choice

User Task Four:
“If you wanted to purchase on the current featured exhibition of Ingres, how would you do this online?”

Margaret: “Well, normally you would go to the store to do any shopping. And I love to go to museum stores to shop. So, here’s “Store” [located on main navigation bar] and ooohh… I want to go directly to the store. They just give me choices [dropdown selection of books, DVDs, gifts, etc. then accidently clicks directly again on “Store” and it brings her in. What is not so obvious is that the toolbar looks the same as before but now they are store choices and unbeknownst to Margaret, she in a different website altogether: http://store.nortonsimon.org/] It looks like…. They don’t have any. [Moans.] Just want to search the store.”

She looks under “Books” and “Museum Publications” and gets overwhelmed by icon choices. Margaret doesn’t want to go through all the pages. [Sighs of exasperation.] She finds by accident that the site has a “Search Store” box and types in “Ingres.” She easily finds cards and a special exhibition book.

Margaret: “They should really bring out their exhibit. I don’t really like this website – shopping it. Look, it says it’s an online store. Look, I can’t go back to the museum. I want to get out of there. [Uuuuuh.] I don’t know how to go back. [Face gets read, brows arched, fuming.] I’ll just hit the back arrows. That’s annoying. Navigation bar looks the same. [Clicks by page by page and finally back to museum page.] That was nearly eight pages back. I don’t like that.”

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Figure 8.   Museum Store

Observation: Some significant items were noted in this task. First of all, Margaret is an avid shopper and spends most of her money at museum shops when at the museum. She likes to collect books and items from all the special exhibitions she attends – even if she never uses them later. It makes her feel that she has a “part” of the collection or of the “experience.” With its museum website, the Norton Simon should be targeting these eager buyers. However, Margaret’s exercise brings out some inherent defects in the store purchasing experience that could stop someone from shopping online. The three shortcomings included: 1) No home page to navigate back to the museum; 2) No visual differentiation of the navigation bar, the logo, positioning of times to tell the user that he is in a completely different website and that it is only the store site now; 3) Does not feature special exhibition and collection items on the store home page; and 4) Hides the “search store” option in same place as “search site” option and instead should be search within the body of the store site.

User Task Five:
“From the website, can you tell me who is Norton Simon, why is the collection so important and what the mission and vision of the museum is? What makes the Norton Simon Museum so special? With only using the website, can you elaborate on that?”

Margaret: “Let’s see here. I’m going back to the home page. Maybe there is something on the home page. [Finds nothing.] Where is “About?” Should be under “About.” [Looks under “Information” on main navigation bar.] Here it is. [Locates “Norton Simon Bio” on dropdown.] Why is it so special? They should really bring it out. [Looks at additional dropdown menu choice of “Museum History.”] Museum History. Doesn’t tell you anything about mission statement, Poor, very poor information. Just lots of text. They could have mentioned a quote of his here. Oh here. I’ve seen this documentary on in the museum theater. [Bottom of Norton Simon bio discusses documentary on Norton Simon with hyperlink to information on it for viewing in the physical theater space. Clicks on it but cannot be viewed online.]

It’s done by the Guggenheim. It’s very professional. They should really have this here. I should let them know.”

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Figure 9.   Hidden Jewel: Norton Simon Documentary

Observation: This was an exciting exercise with much enlightenment and new information given by the user. Here, Margaret has become a valuable resource to the Norton Simon and is actually providing solid re-design information without knowing it – simply being a good Norton Simon aficionado. First, this exercise brought up that the Norton Simon museum does not currently present or offer a mission or vision statement on the website. In addition, it is hard to gleam from all the text what the museum is all about. It would behoove them to change “Information” to “About” and in that “About” section really discuss and show the “aboutness” of this museum and its collection. Margaret noticed interesting quotes within the body of the text that she said she would have liked to see brought out. Most importantly, she recognized a crown jewel that the museum website is not using – a high-toned Guggenheim-produced 30-minute documentary that should be on the website prominently in the “About” section, giving potential visitors a great overview of Norton Simon and the collection.

User Task Six:
“Can you locate a floor map for the Norton Simon Museum and tell me where I can find the Asian collection?”

Margaret: “So, that means… [Raises voice.] I WANT THE HOME BUTTON. [Uses back button again to go to home page.] It’s not here. I think I remember… [Looks under “Visit” in main navigation bar.] There’s no floor map. [Pauses and keeps looking.] Here is something called ‘Gallery Map.’ Oh, that’s beautiful. That really should be on the front of the website. It shows what the museum looks like and what the collections are. Here it is. It is ‘South and Southeast Asian’ and it is in the lower level of the building. [User completes task in efficient manner.]

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Figure 10.   Floor Map is called “Gallery Map”

Observation: Again, we notice that terminology is an important navigation and information-seeking item. I used the term “floor map” which is common in museums. However, it took her just a bit of time as she was seeking specifically “floor map.” The name given by the Norton Simon Museum was “gallery map.” This was a bit of a mind-bender, but she selected it anyways. She was astounded not only the beauty of the map, but that it really showed visually the museum architecture, gardens, collections, layout, and mapping captured in one image. She noted that it should be used more prominently by the museum – seemed too hidden. Another fascinating piece that came out of this was again two-fold: 1) Terminology and 2) Home Page Hiding. There was actually another choice to find this map and it was located in the “Visit” section on the lower right-hand corner of the home page as “Interactive Map.” Here we see that even though Margaret suggested that the museum highlight this and put it on the home page, it had, except it didn’t highlight the map and hid it under different terminology altogether – “Interactive Map.” Through this activity, Margaret was able to identify significant flaws that took away from the excellent, interactive floor map that the website actually contained.

User Task Seven:
“Are there any materials, any guides online to the current exhibits, particularly ‘Portraits After Ingres’?”

Margaret: [Breathes heavily.] “Well, let’s see. That should be under ‘Exhibitions,’ then here ‘Current Exhibitions.’ And they have, I will go into that. Well, I don’t see anything. They give me choices – press release, podcasts, and lots of text. I don’t see anything. [Scrolls up and down, heavy breathing.] Now, what was the question again?

I don’t see guides. Maybe under ‘Information,’ under ‘Visit,’ under ‘Education?’ No. There should be something under ‘Guides.’ [Goes through each choice in navigation bar and finds a section called “Multimedia” and finds “Brochures.”]

Brochures? Is that it? Why would they stick it here – under multimedia? Here it is – a brochure on ‘Portraiture after Ingres.’ [Comes up in a viewer in small size with control buttons.] Oh, how nice – you can actually view it like in a book format. [Struggles with control buttons.] Oh, you can page through it like a real book. That’s neat – it makes ‘turning pages’ sounds. Oh, I want to make it bigger – I can’t read it. [Struggles to enlarge and finally does.] Oh, this is really nice. I love it. I can read it – very lovely. Very nice – I love their literature and I can still see it here. Oh, I’d like to print it. There is no print button. At least I can see this here – very nice. Oh, darn, now how do I get out of this and go back HOME?”

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Figure 11.   This is a brochure?

Observations: This exercise brought up some frustration by the user. It was interesting to note that the strain of looking for this item caused her to forget the question and task at hand. Locating literature or materials on the current exhibits was not clear. Margaret spent a great deal of time looking at all the options she could figure out. Finally, she discovered “Brochures” under “Multimedia.” She found it confusing to find this under multimedia. This brings up an inherent discrepancy again about how to define – brochures are often thought of in a print or print online fashion and not as multimedia. However, when you use this, it is somewhat multimedia-like because it paginates, makes sounds, is graphic, etc. Perhaps, it more logically should be termed “Interactive.” Also, there are some users who will not understand what the category “Multimedia” is. However, it could be beneficial as a “catch all” for interactive, audio, and video components, but wonder if this term is outdated. This would be interesting to further test. Again, this “brochure” function should be something to bring out more in the website and is too hidden from view. It as well can work as both a promotional device to get people into see the exhibits or for reviewing the material afterwards for better absorption.

User Task Eight:
“Can you locate a piece of art by its material, specifically sculpture? Can you find the European sculpture in the Norton and then locate any sculptures by the modernist Barbara Hepworth?”

Margaret: “Ok, there is a search button but it doesn’t have advanced search. [Goes back to home.] I don’t see anything here. How about ‘Collections’? [Dropdown with choices of time periods and browse options.] AAAH. I don’t like this dropdown. Browse by Artist, Title, Object Type, Provenance… I don’t see it. Here’s Advanced Search. Well, here it gives me artist, title, type, origin? What’s that – oh, origin – that’s different places? [Selects Object Type]. Now that’s strange – I wouldn’t have thought to look this under “object type.” [This dropdown lists the material types and user locates sculpture choice.] What a strange name.  [This brings up 62 pages of small icons of all varieties of sculpture, but finding difficulty narrowing down.] This is too much to look at. What if I wanted to see certain sculptures, modern sculptures? Aaargh. I’ll go back to advanced search again under collections. Oh, I see, I can type in European under Origin and it gives me lots of choices. Oh, I see now I can search for Artist in this search. I’ll type ‘Hepworth’ and see. Oh, here she is. Here are her pieces. Oh, how nice. I really like her work. Yes, that’s very nice.” [User smiles finally, exhibits first signs of user satisfaction – perhaps because she has reached the end of this usability test.]

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Figure 12.   Collection “Advanced Search” Option

Observations: Oddly, this task produced the greatest user satisfaction and perhaps the only time I truly saw Margaret smile with contentment. I personally was surprised and thought this would be the most difficult task and one where she would throw up her hands in dismay or at least throw something at the tester. In fact, though it was difficult, she worked her way through and then located the Collection “Advanced Search” option. Here she had some good choices to narrow her selections from once she learned what those were. Once again, we look at issues of terminology. The use of “Object Type” to describe the material or form of art seems very intellectual or too “insider-like.” This threw her off immediately from the choice of “Browse by Object Type” under “Collections.” She only discovered what that meant after looking at this dropdown choice in “Advanced Search.” This exercise pleased her immensely because it allowed her to locate specific items in the collection and give her a sense of “power” and “ease” in accessing the collection.

Conclusion and Readings
In “Come on Down! A Game Show Approach to Illustrating Usability Evaluation Methods” by Michael Twidale and Paul Marty, the authors demonstrate the quality of material and insight that can be produced from quick or rapid usability testing. Though the game show testing methodology was not applied here, it still demonstrates the efficacy and profoundness of what emerges out of even simple, face-to-face user testing. Twidale and Marty comment on “the remarkable robustness of user testing and that any test is better than no test. This is demonstrated effectively in the user test with Margaret Herndon. This brief and informal user testing provided significant findings that would be highly beneficial to the Norton Simon Museum enterprise. In actuality, it would be cost-effective.

Margaret herself brought out changes that the museum should do in its website to promote itself – the hidden Guggenheim documentary on Norton Simon, the redesign of the Museum Store highlighting special exhibit items, and the observation that the “Floor Map” with too many names should be a big piece of the website. In an additional article by Twidale and Marty, “Lost in Gallery Space: A Conceptual Framework for Analyzing the Usability Flaws of Museum Web Sites,” the authors stressed the use of scenario presentations or questions, in high-speed format, to facilitate locating top-level usability flaws and patterns. A fascinating result of this user test supported their findings. In each task, particular flaws were brought to the surface quickly. Many of these were semantic-based, others were orientation-based and some were quite insightful in their blatant “errors.” One of the several usability issues mentioned by Twidale and Marty is the characteristic of “museum professional” mindset in designing websites. This is observed in controlled vocabulary lingo, such as Norton’s use of “Object Type” when Margaret was trying to find an art piece by material. Again, the authors emphasize what seems to be common sense but so terribly overlooked in seeing the value of usability and its cost-effectiveness over the expenditure on website design without it. They state succinctly that “not analyzing for usability can mean users will fail to discover and appreciate this rich content…” Through the user test, Margaret found these rich resources, such as the Interactive Floor Map, the unused Guggenheim documentary on Norton Simon, the Paginating Online Brochure, and the powerful Collection Advanced Search Screen. By performing such a fairly simple and inexpensive usability test, the corresponding results were provoking, essential, and, of course, usable.

Parry, Ross, et al., “How Shall We Label Our Exhibit Today? Applying the Principles of On-Line Publishing to an On-Site Exhibition,” in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2007: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2007. Consulted March 11, 2010. http://www.archimuse.com/mw2007/papers/parry/parry.html

The LIVE!Labels Project:

A seven-month partnership between the University of Leicester and Simulacra with three UK museums (New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, Dinosaur Gallery, and National Space Centre) resulted in the production and evaluation of a digital, wireless, editable and dynamic labeling system (with web-based authoring tool) for on-site museum exhibits called “LIVE!Labels.”  Ross Parry and Mayra Ortiz-Williams of University of Leicester and Andrew Sawyer of Simulcra presented their findings on their dynamic labeling system in this paper.

The “Enduring” Museum Label:

Imperative to the process was first to understand the historical context and heritage of labeling. The curatorial practice of creating and displaying text-based labels originated from two Renaissance European cultural traditions – the use of emblems (combining image with motto/legend) and classification (combining image and explanatory text).  With the growth of collections, came the impulse to classify.  In the Age of Enlightenment and scientific systematic order, exhibition labels were placed in museums at the end of the 17th century for “a museum had a collection, but giving order and meaning to this collection.”

The Traditional Museum Label honored in LIVE!Labels:

The over 400-year practice of exhibit labeling has been considered the primary curatorial means of communicating its exhibits to its audiences were its labels.  Textual labeling is thus a heavily studied, structured, formalized and entrenched tradition.

Ross Parry and staff respected this tradition, and instead of completely wiping out exhibit labels or turning them into touchscreens or multimedia devices, designed LIVE!Labels as simply labels placed next to or nearby exhibits.

Key Design Requirements Included:

  • Not to disrupt curatorial practice but for the label to blend in, be “powerful but polite,” be ambient with gallery environment.
  • Ability to easily modify and change labels including remote updating capability.
  • Ability to incorporate user-generated content and tags by phones, mobiles, and websites.
  • Provide remote and automatic/timed label updating.
  • Reduce cost and impact on existing IT and on printed labels.
  • Ability to modify and change labels based on time-driven.
  • The 6.4 x 10.4 slim LCD “labels,” with built-in wireless that connected to a web-based content administration system, would be placed next/near to object.

Triggers and Generators of LIVE!Labels Content:

Ross Parry and team named events as “triggers” and authors as “generators.”  Generators could be not only curators, but visitors and approved third parties.  Triggers to the system could be time-, news-, event, and visit-driven.

Four Concepts of Generated Content Could be:

  1. Contextual – new, different, changing information about the object
  2. Promotional – highlight events, services related to object
  3. Directional – direction to related objects and themes
  4. Responsive – highlight visitor responses to object

The Museum Sites Tested:

In testing the system, the team identified three museum types that would provide a range of response.  At the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, the labels were placed next to objects in their German Expressionist exhibit with updated and blog-like entries from the curator.  At the same gallery, the labels were placed next to dinosaur objects with the activity being children submitting postings of their interpretations – i.e. “curator for the day.”  Finally, at the National Space Center in Leicester, labels were used to give daily updated information on Near Earth Objects next to exhibits.

The Results:

The results from the trial were interesting and varied.  Statistics showed that 50% did not look at the labels, with only 20% reading the labels.  Only 20% could identify the labels as “live.”  Most visitors said it did not “change” their experience and almost all said it did not make the museum experience negative.  Interestingly, those in the science museums expected the labels to be touch-responsive compared to traditional art museums.

References cited in article:

Callery, B. G. and R. Thibadeau (2000). “Beyond Label Copy: Museum-Library Collaboration In The Development Of A Smart Web Exhibit”. In D. Bearman and J. Trant (eds.). Museums and the Web 2000: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, 2000. Last Consulted January 25, 2007. http://www.archimuse.com/mw2000/papers/callery/callery.html

In this study, Carnegie Mellon University Libraries, the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History participated in a joint collaboration to create a “Smart Web Exhibit” (SWE) prototype in order to provide targeted and timed information online to a varied user base. This was in response to the modern-day dilemma of the limit of collection objects that may be exhibited at one time which then limits label copy, thus reducing the museum visitor’s learning and understanding of these objects.  SWE would provide the accessibility of digitized archived material, with ability to select based on level of interest.

DeRoux, K. (1998a). Exhibit Labels, Some Basic Guidelines for Small Museums. Alaska State Museum, Bulletin no. 5 (summer). Availablehttp://www.museums.state.ak.us/Bulletin/labels1.html, last consulted January 25, 2007.

DeRoux, K. (1998b). Basic Techniques for Making and Mounting Exhibit Labels. Alaska State Museum, Bulletin no. 6 (fall). Availablehttp://www.museums.state.ak.us/Bulletin/makinglabels.html, last consulted January 25, 2007.

McKay, T. (1982). “A Hierarchy of Labels”. Exchange, a newsletter published by the Wisconsin Historical Society 24, no. 4 (July/August), availablehttp://www.wisconsinhistory.org/localhistory/articles/labels.asp, consulted January 25, 2007.

These articles referenced within “How Shall We Label Our Exhibit Today? Applying the Principles of On-Line Publishing to an On-Site Exhibition,” address the orthodoxy and practice of proper museum exhibit labeling. Parry and team reference DeRoux several times throughout the study.

Other references:

Nina Simon.  ISO Understanding:  Rethinking Art Museum Labels. Museum 2.0 Blog (March, 3, 2007).  Available athttp://museumtwo.blogspot.com/2007/03/iso-understanding-rethinking-art-museum.html

Though not referenced within the study, Nina Simon from the Participatory Museum, once again brings clarifying thought to the issues of rethinking and re-invigorating the art museum label.

She identified four key ways in which museum labels of today can be modified:

  1. Labels that instruct you where and how to look.
  2. Labels that answer the stupid questions in our heads.
  3. Labels that expose the curator’s thought process.
  4. Labels that tell contextualized stories and involve visitors.

In the Hunt Museum Design Case Study, I appreciated their design focus which was instead of showing “gee-whiz” technology, embedding that technology so that the it blended within the museum space – in particular, and I believe critical – in protecting and presenting what they called the “ethos” of the museum. I believe it is important to know what your museum is as one crafts exhibit spaces, exhibitions, technology, and events because they become extensions of the museum and carry its spirit. In the article, the authors called this also the “intimate link between the exhibition design and the actual location of the exhibition in situ in the Hunt Museum.” Here in the “Re-Tracing the Past” exhibit at the Hunt Museum in Limerick, Ireland, the team wanted to stay close and emulate not only the museum but John Hunt’s set up and study room. That was quite fascinating in their attempt to recreate John Hunt’s study room and the secret room in the created Study Room and the Room of Opinion. What was vitally stressed was understanding a museum as a “place.” Their concept of place was stressed as extending “the concept of physical space so that it encompasses not only its structural, geometrical essence, but also the dimension of its experience by human actors.”

What was also quite innovative and bright was hiding/embedding the technology within everyday objects, including 19th century ones, that created a nice interplay. The picture showing the extensive and messy technical guts behind the curtain of the hidden technology reminded me of the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. One can see by the pictures within the article that the visitors seem to be quite engaged and “comfortable” in these areas – free to explore. The ability to open and explore the “Cabinets of Curiosities” hearkened me back to our study of Wunderkammern (“Cabinets of Curiosity”). I remember visiting the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands and it had on display cabinets of items that were collected in those years of Wunderkammern – and the irresistible urge to open them and explore. At the Hunt Museum, visitors can open “Cabinets of Curiosities” without being reprimanded and hauled off by a security guard! It seems apparent from the article the exhibit was a success and I always find comments from visitors/users the most telling, such as: “getting away from the mundane textbooks,” “context merge with interactivity,” and most wonderfully, “it really brought the past into the present.”

A SELECTION OF MULTICULTURAL/WORLD CULTURE MUSEUM WEBSITES:

1. The Bowers Museum: http://www.bowers.org/

2. Penn Museum: http://www.penn.museum/

3. Mingei International Museum: http://www.mingei.org/index.php

The museum websites chosen fall into a category that can be defined as multicultural or world cultural heritage museums. Their primary focus is on cultures that are non-Western, and experiencing that diversity.

The primary museum website employed comes from the Bowers Museum located in Santa Ana, California that I have visited several times. Comparable museum websites chosen include the Mingei International Museum in San Diego, California (which I have visited) and Penn Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (which I have never visited). The Spurlock Museum would also have been an excellent choice, but did not realize this till after making my selections. However, this has provided me with the impetus to employ this exercise before going to the Spurlock Museum for the first time during Spring LEEP on-campus session.

In choosing seemingly comparable types of collections, I looked also at the various museums’ mission or about statements that they had posted on their sites. These mission and vision statements clarify their “world cultural heritage” collection positions. The mission statements were generally found under the “About” category.

However, on the Bowers website, there is no defined “About” category, but instead “Information” is used at the end of the navigational bar. This is then offered within a selection called “History and Mission” as the vision to “celebrate world cultures through their arts” and the mission to “enrich lives through the world’s finest arts and cultures. On Mingei’s website, “About the Museum” is located strategically at the end of the navigation bar. It highlights its mission in large text as “dedicated to the understanding and appreciation of ‘art of the people’ (mingei) from all cultures of the world. On Penn’s website, “About” was located outside of the navigational toolbar and in a small grouping of text selections on the upper right of the screen. In this, the Penn’s mission is stated as “the research, collections, and dissemination of knowledge, advances understanding of the world’s heritage.”

Even in this seemingly innocuous exercise of locating and defining these museums websites in order to describe their genre similarity, location and description of that information resource is different.

The following describes the use and analysis of the primary museum website of the Bowers Museum with comparisons to Mingei and Penn; with some commentary on issues of functionality, usability, and usefulness “sprinkled” throughout; and in regards to the possible usage of the websites for visit types and some discussion related to the readings that is interwoven in the commentary.

USING THE WEBSITE….
BEFORE AN ACTUAL VISIT

Generally, before making a physical visit to the museum, you usually want to see what the hours are, the location, parking and general logistics plus what’s in the collection, what’s currently on exhibit and any special events that are occurring. There is a need to know the “aboutness” of this museum, what’s in it, what could be intriguing, and how to plan to get there and visit it.

Paul Marty’s article “Museum Websites and Museum Visitors: Before and After the Museum Visit” utilized a survey about museum websites in relation to physical visits. He identified that the sites were used in a “complementary” fashion and acted as a “bridge to connect their pre-visit and post-visit activities.”

To get a sense of what the Bowers museum is and its collection, the home page has large images that transition every 5 seconds that illustrate and describe their special collections. Directly on the website and viewed in a passive way, I can see that the following special collections are being exhibited: Masks of New Guinea, Headhunter Art of the Pacific Islands, a coming exhibition of Secrets of the Silk Road, and the Gold of Troy (interestingly enough on loan from Penn Museum). I see on the home page that they have programs, you can shop, join it, and they have a special “Kidsmuseum.”

However, to dig deeper, I have to go under the selection “Art” to see their other collections, and particularly their permanent ones. The “Art” dropdown from the main navigational bar includes “Permanent Collection” with additional dropdown of “Collection Highlights, Conservation, Collection Blog, and Digital Collection” as well as “Exhibitions” with dropdown of “Current, Upcoming, Past, and Special Exhibitions.” However, when selecting exhibition options, only short amount of descriptive, with one central image and dates is provided. Once cannot see the extent of the diversity of the exhibition offerings here.

For a sense of what the permanent exhibitions are, the page “Collection Highlights” is of most value for a pre-visit overview. On one page in simple and chunked layout is a quick overview of the permanent collection. I can see quickly that it includes Native American Art, Art of the Pacific, Art of Africa, Pre-Columbian Art, South American Ethnographic Collection, Art of Asia, early American and Local Paintings, and all types of Decorative Arts.

I also take a peek at “Events” on the main navigational bar to see what other things might be happening and of interest. “Event” is strategically placed on the navigational bar after “Visit” and “Art.” The dropdown divides those choices as “General, Family, Members Only, and Calendar.” It seems like too many choices and eventually I get to the standard “Calendar” which provides a whole month with hyperlinked activities that can be clearly viewed.

Now that I have decided to visit, I select the most prominent and obvious choice “Visit” from the main navigational bar. The dropdown includes “Hours and Tickets, Direction and Parking, Book Your Event, Dining and Shopping, and Tours.” Somehow, I would prefer “Book Your Event” under Events rather than a visit choice. The hours and pricing are clearly labeled with a link to purchase tickets online. The directions and parking page needs a bit of help. It posts a Google Map that shows its location locally off the I-5 freeway. However, for those who are not locals, one doesn’t have a sense of where in Orange County the museum is situated. The page also uses large numbers that have no meaning to label location, transportation and parking information. It looks like something you have to do in sequence, and it is not. There are no additional visuals, pictures or maps for the parking and for what the museum building looks like.

The “Dining and Shopping Page” is a little strange. The picture of the restaurant is very abstract and doesn’t give a sense of the location or of people in it. The menus have to be downloaded rather than clickable. However, it is beneficial that the menus are included at all. The emphasis seems to be more on catering, renting space over individual visitors. Strangely, there is no information or pictures of the Museum Shop under this category. There is already a separate “Shop” choice in the main navigational bar that takes you to a full-bodied e-commerce store. They should drop “shopping” from the “Dining and Shopping Page.” A little disconcerting clicking throughout the various “Visit” pages is that sidebar information and buttons are offered that don’t relate to the content – such as pushing joining the museum or placing menus and advertising space rental in the museum hours location.

The oddest thing that is missing for my pre-visit preparation is that there are no floor maps, museum illustrations or actual concentrated pictures of the museum itself. This left a sort of ambiguous feeling as to what this museum is really like.

Mingei Museum: Unfortunately, the Mingei website adheres to some poor early conventions of website design – the torturous and useless intro splash screen that does nothing else but force a user to click each time before going to the site. This should go the way of the Dodo Bird. In essence, the website acts more like “brochure-ware” more than the Bowers website, yet there are two distinct additions that are better than what the Bowers offers – a more detailed collection overview and a separate collection website called “See-Mingei.org” (with the added distinction of also being saddled with a splash screen as well).

The navigation and organization of the website needs some help. The calendar choice is offered twice, under “Visit” and oddly under “Exhibitions.” The “Collections” choice on the main navigation bar gets me into a dropdown of their particular permanent collections – Mexico, India, China, Japan, Indonesia, Africa, Pre-Columbian, Middle East and American. Each collection page is filled with some representational images that are clickable. Each of these brings up its title and basic attributes. Viewing the “Exhibitions” choice under the navigation bar provides choices of current, past, future, traveling and the odd calendar choice. The “Current” page is very minimal in its information and provides a mini-list of the exhibits.

One usability element that comes up for the entire website is its propensity to use very small typeface. This is not beneficial for online viewing or for older patrons. It is perhaps used due to some design logic that small typeface means “prestigious” or “high-design.” Again, this reflects that “brochure-ware” mentality.

Descriptions of future exhibits are very slim and non-compelling. However, the past exhibits choice brings some advantages that are lacking in its website and in comparison to the Bowers. When selecting a past exhibit, there is extensive write-up on the collection plus clickable featured objects.

After having looked at the collections and exhibits, I turn to the first choice on the main navigation bar “Visit.” It’s a bit of a mess – combining its location page in San Diego, its other museum space in Escondido, and completely out of nowhere – tours, private events, calendar and subscribe. It is a hodgepodge.

There is really only one page that works for visiting and it is the location page. Here is quite a bit of small type with location, hours, pricing and a short description of the museum with an actual photo of the museum exterior. The map choice is another hyperlink off of this page and should be a choice under “Visit.” The page is also unfortunately littered with more calendar information and numerous hyperlinks that instead should be choices off the main navigation bar. There is no floor map provided as well.

Penn Museum: Perhaps picking the Penn Museum was not a truly fair comparison – being a much larger collection, larger square space, and its position as an academic museum on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. There seems to be a greater budget and likely greater academic and global support. However, it does fit the concept of museum type examined.

There are many outstanding elements that can be seen off the home page, and already it can be seen that this website has much to offer. The home page highlights in newspaper fashion key aspects it wants to advertise. An advertisement space promotes a lecture series called “Great Discoveries of the World.” The Collection of the Americas is highlighted with text describing how the image present represents one of 400,000 objects that can be viewed online. A Youtube video is offered.

The main navigation bar consists of “Visit, Exhibits, Programs, Research, Archives, Collections, Publications, Support” and a Search box. Tabbed spaces below highlight upcoming events, news, latest press releases and new books. The dropdown selections for the main navigation are numerous. The exhibit pages give very detailed information about each as well as being populated with imagery. The collections pages are fully documented with text and have been tagged. It also offers a Flickr Gallery Highlights page, though still not populated. Its use of cloud tags can help users see what’s popular among visitors and allow them to quickly view the top items that may be of interest.

Under the “Visit” option on the main navigation bar, the items are the dropdown have been wisely chosen – “Events Calendar, Hours and Admission, Directions and Parking, Museum Map, FAQs, Accessibility, Group Discounts, Tours, Museum Shops and What’s Nearby.” Its “Visit” choices are superior to the Bowers and Mingei.

USING THE WEBSITE….
DURING A VISIT

The Bowers does not actually have computers available to use the website on location. I believe their use of technology is used more minimally in an attempt to not distract from the collection itself, and any technology used is employed such as LCD screens for events or partially lit-up or touchable transitional spaces. Therefore, it is not integrated as an element to use during the visit. However, if looking at the website, the parts of the website that could be employed might be perhaps the “Join” or “Learn” options on the navigation bar. I might be so enthused after visiting the museum that I would want all the detail on how to join, support or volunteer. However, the Bowers already has membership applications and strongly markets i.e. pushes this in both a verbal and visual campaign on-site.

I might like some learning activities related to the collection while I am there. However, there are no interactive options but some curriculum resources. Even to perhaps get more information on the artifacts does not work for on-site because their “Digital Collection” is not working or hasn’t been built yet.

Mingei Museum: There is absolutely nothing of worth off the Mingei Museum to use during the physical visit. Also, no computers are set up to be part of the museum space or work as information resources. A physical brochure would actually be of more benefit to the user than this website. Under “Education” on the main navigation bar, there are absolutely no learning resources that can be used at the visit or even prior.

Penn Museum: Since I have never been to the museum, I do not know how integrated computer access is onsite. I would assume that there may be some due to it being an academic museum and its use of some technology on its website. There are quite a number of educational resources that could be utilized while onsite. Its very extensive archive and research section could be accessed when working on a paper or report at the museum.

USING THE WEBSITE….
AFTER A VISIT

In the Marty study, 69% of those questioned would visit the museum website after visiting the actual museum. That is a huge amount. Perhaps the greatest use I would put to website use after a visit is to look more in-depth at the artifacts and collection information that I have seen. I want to know more. There are some objects and information that intrigued me and I’d like to know more. I want to see the object up-close and get a sense of it and see what I missed when I was there. I’d like to listen to the videos that were played in the exhibit theater spaces. Yet, the Bowers website lacks these critical elements.

As Paul Marty states, a key post-visit activity is the desire to see the artifacts online. Again, the “Digital Collection” is offered as a choice but has nothing in it. There are no details or extra pictures of any of the collections. There are no audio or video offerings. Additional learning options are some print-based curriculum for students or dates to return to the museum for lectures (that are frequent). This part does intrigue me as a post-visit user. Now that I have seen the collections, what interesting lectures could I attend? Movies and documentaries are also presented in the main auditorium and those may be of interest. I might want to shop online for something that reminds me of that exhibit. I’d also look at the “Events,” “Calendar” and “Home” page again to see what’s coming up that would lend me to return.

Other statistics from the Mary study regarding online resources after visiting museums reference the desire to have research materials and archives. That is non-existent here. Also important were programs, tours, special events, and current and future exhibits of which the Bowers website does an excellent job promoting and displaying. The study suggests that for both pre- and post visits, the quality of images and graphics is high. The Bowers uses visuals extensively and they are of high-quality. However, some of these are used out of context and none are used in an image collection database. Visuals of the museum space, floor plans and exterior are missing. Above all, the study suggested quality of information. The Bowers presented well-written concise summaries online but lacks any depth on its collection, artifacts and learning resources.

Mingei Museum: To reiterate the point that has been made about the Mingei website, is its use after a visit is limited to its static offering – one can view the calendar, see samplings of past exhibits and of the current one, and perhaps plan for a coming exhibit. Even shopping is awkward. The “Store” choice has a dropdown of categorized items you can purchase. However, one has to continually go to the home page to look at different categories, such as books or home décor. The store should be its own separate page.

One promising addition is a “Search” option located on each page. Where the Mingei tries to break out of brochure-ware is in its offering of its “See-Mingei” collection. Unfortunately, this operates as a separate website and is not prominently located for a user to see or access. However, the “See-Mingei” project is an attempt by the museum to offer a more interactive presentation of its objects. A global map is clickable, and if I click on the “Middle East” area, it brings up a list of object view by material. Then, these items are viewed in a slide view or clickable mode with brief descriptive text.

Penn Museum: The Penn Museum has quite a number of resources that makes it invaluable for a post-visit. Again, its research, archives and searchable collections are quite impressive. This is a “working” museum website. Its use of Web 2.0 technology, Youtube, Flickr, clouds, tagging, and the like enhances its currency and its activity usage. In addition, the Penn offers its own special online exhibits that can be visited from home. The Penn website far outstrips the Bowers and Mingei on its resourcefulness and use for post-visit activities. However, I do like the Bowers’ focus on activities and events at the museum that would draw a user back into the physical space.

USING THE WEBSITE….
POSSIBLY INSTEAD OF A VISIT OR TO WHAT EXTENT IS VISITING THE WEBSITE LIKE VISITING THE ACTUAL MUSEUM?

Though the Bowers website is beyond “brochure-ware,” and it gives a sense of the strong visuals, collection highlights, and many activities of a very active and dynamic museum, it cannot in any way replace visiting the actual museum and does not really extend itself enough for someone who will never visit. One gets a taste of the possibilities but most of the action and information is on-site. The Bowers is such an incredible resource not to be shared. Perhaps because it started out as such an intimate, “secret” museum (that has recently received national accolades by its acquisition of prestigious traveling exhibitions), it has stayed conservative in its online presence. Part of this, which I am aware of, is that there is little budget for this expense. I found out that it was literally ONE person who the Bowers has used for all their exhibition design spaces.

They pride themselves on being a learning museum with the on-site activities and its children’s museum, but it still needs to break out of the small-community mold in order to present its collection and exhibition offerings to a national and global community. It is really is a jewel of a museum and has offered incredible exhibits, and its website does not significantly convey that enough or offer these items nor space for access.

Mingei Museum: It is fair to say that the Mingei website cannot in any fashion take the place of an on-site visit. However, it does give a taste of its collection, its specific mission to be a collection of the “art of the people” (mingei), and its attempt to use an interactive collection component to present some of its international artifacts.

Penn Museum: Penn comes closest to attempting to be either a replacement for an on-site visit or at least an approximation to that in offering access, education and learning, research, online activities, and collection viewing. It’s a meaty website not for the faint-hearted or for someone just wanting to get a quick hit of information. However, the website demonstrates what museum websites should portend to be – not just means of promotion, but those “complementary” extensions of the physical space.

In Teather’s paper “A Museum is a Museum is a Museum…Or is it?: Exploring Museology and the Web,” there is the discussion of moving from “object towards information” and that “technology can help all of us see new relationships between objects.” There is also the discussion on Duncan Cameron’s classic article “The Museum: A Temple or Forum?” and the desire to move from temple to forum mode. The analysis of these multicultural museum websites demonstrate that the use of online technology can and should enhance our relationship to the artifact, which more importantly brings us to our relationship to the culture, to others, to the world and to ourselves as humans. I take issue with the separation of “temple” and “forum” for museums and this plays into online museum spaces as much as physical. It is in the museum space that one can find liminal, sacred or differentiated space that takes us out of the norm. It would be unwise to eliminate this basic essence. And it is imperative and useful to inform. I contend that museums and museum websites can be temple forums – places whereby we suspend ourselves to receive and become informed. A beautifully designed (within and without) museum website with structured and populated information and resources can act as this “temple forum” and thus act as Marty says in “complementary” fashion to the physical museum.

My museum observation took place at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California. This Orange-County based museum’s collection is primarily multi-culturally based. The museum’s vision is to “celebrate world cultures through their arts.” It also has a reputation of offering diversified special exhibits from around the world including the Terra Cotta Warriors and 3500 year old mummies from China, the Dead Sea Scrolls from Israel, Egyptian artifacts from the British Museum, treasures of Troy from the Penn Museum, and many others.

These special exhibits complement the Bowers’ permanent collection of Native American, Pacific, African, Pre-Columbian, South American, Asian, American and local art. The collections are housed in a Spanish Colonial building with courtyard. The intimate space has recently been expanded to 30,000 square feet with a modern-designed wing. A visit to the Bowers is like spending a day in different parts of the world, without having to travel afar.

INFORMATIONAL RESOURCES

Upon walking into the Bowers Museum, one notices how clearly resources and directions are labeled. The information desk is centrally and prominently located in the museum upon entrance. The information desk is huge and well staffed. Large lettering titled “Information Desk” covers the entire front of the area. Brochures regarding the exhibit, maps, and membership line the front of the desk. In addition, prices are clearly delineated on signs. Special events are displayed on a LCD screen. The flow of traffic at the information desk moves freely. There are extra people on hand to answer questions besides providing tickets. The rooms are closely placed to the information desk. Once paid, there is a docent who additionally provides you with brochures and directs you to the rooms that can be visited. Once the patron has paid and walks towards the exhibit area, there is an individual who hands out audio guides and headphones if so desired.

Signage for the galleries and the artifacts is used in an exemplary fashion. The galleries and exhibit areas are prominently titled and the labels are large enough to read, positioned with good height, separating titled information (such as name, location and date) from descriptive body of text. Walls of maps and timelines complement the entry to and the spaces between the exhibit areas. Some of these include push-button elements to light up areas of maps or touch-screens to present additional pictures and information. These were quite popular with all visitors – both young and old.

The Bowers makes great use of transitional spaces between different spaces of the collection by presenting entry wall text, map and or images that highlight what one is entering into. This provides the viewer a means to become acculturated with the next selection being shown. These transitional areas were often populated with people reading or viewing this prior to looking at the artifacts. These transitional information sources were used in a complementary fashion and were sometimes viewed longer than the artifacts. Many spent a long time reading, some gave a cursory look, and a few passed by. Most of those who passed by had their audio headsets on.

Each room have laminated guides that some visitors seemed to pick up often, which meant that the laminated guides were not available for others to look at. Mini-theaters were spaced out between the exhibits to offer timed videos on different aspects and histories of the collections. This information resource was widely used. It acted as a passive means of receiving information and at the same time gave respite and break to the patrons. Docent-led tours were provided on a frequent basis so that groups stayed comfortably small and intimate. These tours were quite popular.

WATCHING WHAT HAPPENS AND PATTERN OBSERVATION

It is not uncommon to see such a varied typology of people at a museum. This can be clearly seen in visiting the Bowers and I found the most diverse collection of people in nationalities, ethnicities, income ranges, and age groups. Once patrons pay at the information booth, they are guided to the open corridor immediately to its left. The information booth is so close to the entry corridor for the special exhibit area and so clearly labeled with standing signs and helpful docents, that no one seemed lost as to where to go. Entries to permanent exhibit rooms function as offshoots from the main corridor and, again, are clearly labeled with standing signage to direct visitors.

However, the “gold” of the Bowers is their long-running special exhibits, and the corridor is clearly designed to work as a formal introduction to it. The corridor is covered with timelines, maps, and descriptive information and images. Interestingly, these are widely used. Those over 30 years of age seem to use these the most. However, youngsters liked to push the buttons and touch the touch screens. In the center of the corridor, artifacts are placed in clear rectangular museum displays that can be viewed 360 degrees. This allowed quite a number of viewers to look at the artifacts. Commonly, couples and groups would hover over these central exhibits, spending time, while you could view other visitors in the glass from the other side. This facilitated a flow of discourse, viewing, and some semblance of social contact and eavesdropping.

The Bowers also does an excellent job of creating a very formal entry space into the main collection area. The entry is arched with large lettering above, signage of the collection, and distinctive artifacts from the collection that act as “entry guardians.” In this collection, two figures from the collection stood by the doorway, promising a level of enticement upon entry. It was interesting to note the reaction of faces upon entering in this fashion. Often, it was with faces of wonder, expectation, curiosity, and sometimes anxiousness.

There were quite a number of school groups being shown around, mixed with docents leading tours, elderly, middle-aged, and young couples, individuals and families. The couples tended to stay together. However, some of them – particularly the younger ones, tended to separate while viewing different parts of the collections. Those following the docent led tours seemed to enjoy the exhibit as the conversations were lively, questions asked, and discussion was presented in short descriptions with examples and many stories. Some children did run around but somehow it flowed fine and they oriented themselves to the artifacts that seemed the “coolest” or followed the discussion of the leader, or most commonly, talked or shared amongst themselves.

It was interesting to note that a number of teenagers and young people seemed to be sitting the most often in the exhibit spaces. Frequently, these were the ones using the audio tours, and interesting that they preferred to sit in the room from a vantage point of seeing the whole collection rather than standing in front of each artifact. Sometimes they seemed quite bored or not connected to the artifacts. Also, it was common to see those with the audio tour headsets group together and hang out around an artifact for a long time, seeming to concentrate more on the audio than the artifact. This often acted as a blocking mechanism to others wanted to view these artifacts – specifically those that could not be viewed in the round. Therefore, some visitors would flow around those blocking the exhibits and return when they opened up.

Generally, the exhibit layout for the Bowers is well done. It mixes the exhibit space with introductory and transitional spaces, artifacts viewed in the round and open air, artifacts placed in center as well as glass walled cabinets and a movement into three primary rooms, separated by different angles of display cases and display spots. In each major room, a video-viewing room is situated with long benches and low lighting, and it was filled to the brim with people. Again, the room acted as a quiet, passive, restive “TV”-viewing spot that provided straightforward, assimilable information, and a spot to rest weary bones or quiet a small family.

The Bowers also mixes the artifacts in different ways – by format, by timeline, by type, by storyline, by area, so that it does not all flow in one way. This seemed to provide dynamism for the viewing by the visitors so they wouldn’t get too bored or worn out.

The items at the end of the exhibit seemed to be punctuated by the most outstanding, interesting, or different artifacts from the collection. These seemed to act as “exclamation point” for the visitors. Many “oohs” and “aahs” could be heard and this room was the one that visitors seemed to linger around, group around, or find lost members of their group in. Eavesdropping seemed to be a common practice and was most visibly shared in the last rooms.

Strategically, the museum makes you exit in only one way – the museum store. Oddly enough, this is one of the most popular areas and children in particular found this the most exciting. The museum creates the store as an extension of the exhibit so only those items that reflect that collection are in that store. Many of the children wanted an “artifact” from the store. The store was packed and hard to move through. Some even viewed the museum store like an exhibit!

PROBLEMS OBSERVED

The main problem was observed in the primary exhibit space after entering the central area of the exhibit space. Interestingly, this space is what I would term “dead space.” This room is where people seemed tired the most, sat the most, seemed bored, took a long time, and where children didn’t seem to hang out. I think the main reason for this was that the exhibit space was very boxed in, with three walls covered in typical glass cabinets. Items stored in this exhibit space looked similar to one another without much descriptive text or differentiation. There was little flow to the room and seemed cramped. The exit space from this area was small and not very visible. Oddly, people seemed already tired upon entry to this room space – even the teenagers!

Another key problem that seems to be typical of patrons using audio tours is the “herd” mentality. Those with audio tours seemed to be cut off from other patrons and other areas of the exhibit, as if they were in a bubble. They seemed to group together, even if they didn’t know one another. A bottleneck would occur because often the audio was long and the participant would stand there, not moving, until the audio was finished. This acted as a blocking mechanism for other patrons, and most significantly, for younger and shorter viewers. Additional seating would be beneficial to act as restive spots, as well as viewing spots. Whenever benches were provided, which were too few, these were used by young and old alike. I find it interesting how often seating is overlooked as a necessity in museum space.

One other problem observed was that after visitors exited the museum store, it was often difficult to direct them to other exhibit spaces. Often the patrons seemed to head more towards the courtyard spaces, the restrooms, the restaurant, and then exit the museum altogether. What seemed obvious was that the permanent exhibits had few visitors present in those rooms.

A screenshot of the Van Gogh Letters Blog:

Peereboom, M. et al., Van Gogh’s Letters: Or How to Make the Results of 15 Years of Research Widely Accessible for Various Audiences and How to Involve Them. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2010: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2010. Consulted April 29, 2010. http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/peereboom/peereboom.html

Read more: Archives & Museum Informatics: Museums and the Web 2010: Papers: Peereboom, M. et al., Van Gogh’s Letters…http://www.archimuse.com/mw2010/papers/peereboom/peereboom.html#ixzz0mX481a7D
Under Creative Commons License: Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives

This scholarly article from the currently held Museums and the Web 2010 nicely dovetailed into my Olympia project, as the online Van Gogh Letters project played a part in my “inspirational bibliography.”

The paper addresses the 15 years of academic research by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam to the complete Vincent Van Gogh correspondence and documents that were “re-transcribed, annotated, dated, translated” and then digitized.  The collection encompasses 902 letters (819 written by Van Gogh, 83 written to him).  What makes them additionally wonderful are the sketches of his famous works that are embedded in the letters.

A cross-media strategy (in book form and on website), including mixing in new media that included a blog, an iPhone application, and a multimedia tour, the strategy was to bring access and life to Van Gogh’s letters, his world, and the man himself.

The component of the article that was most relevant to the Olympia Project was the discussion on the Van Gogh Blog and its mission to make it current and dynamic by presenting Vincent Van Gogh’s letters as blog postings to be submitted on the month and day of their original writing.  What was quite edifying was their idea of how Van Gogh would address a blog today.  Their answer: “If Van Gogh had been alive today, he would probably have been an active user of blogs and social media.  After all, he wrote very personal letters, often several a day.”  This is was exactly my thought – the critics of the Paris Salon in 1865 would have been blogging like mad, and their denunciation of Manet’s Olympia would have been viral.

The Van Gogh team used WordPress also and attempted to use as many letters with sketches to give visual appeal.  Because his letters were so long, excerpts were provided with links to the Van Gogh Letters website to read further and look at the originals at the same time.  New posts were given notice through RSS Feeds as well as Twitter and Facebook using twitterfeed.com to generate interest into other social network avenues.  The blog was successful in generating as much interest in it as the website of the Van Gogh letters.  A key lesson they learned from the process was that the blog was very time-consuming (can relate) and that a blog can attract a lot of spam (need for anti-spam plugins, Akismet).

One aspect that was not brought up in article though which I observed in visiting the blog was looking at the tag cloud.  Part of my argument or idea for my Olympia blog was that the tag cloud is telling about the discussion and ideas of Olympia.  The same can be said about the things that Van Gogh talked about the most and this I find most fascinating – the primary one being “colour.”  Now, that was very delightful for Van Gogh is not only known for his incredibly tactile brushstrokes, but for his incredible color that sweeps over you and engulfs you.  Also other primary tags were Gauguin, Millet, painting, sky and trees.  How very telling.  That alone can speak yards regarding the content of Vincent Van Gogh’s letters.

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