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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.”

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 (

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.

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.

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.

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). Available, last consulted January 25, 2007.

DeRoux, K. (1998b). Basic Techniques for Making and Mounting Exhibit Labels. Alaska State Museum, Bulletin no. 6 (fall). Available, 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), available, 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 at

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.”

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.


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.


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!


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.

Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum is an incredible resource, another jewel provided in our Museum Informatics course.  She writes on her Museum 2.0 blog how she wrote this book on a public wiki (reminds me of our use of the wiki in class), how she vetted public editors, though she found most participants were only involved during the formative parts of the book.  She practiced what she preached about participation: “So when people contributed, I always felt that they were helping me, supporting the project, sharing an insight or critique for me to use.”

I focused on reading Chapter 1:  Principles of Participation.  In this write-up, I’ve sprinkled numerous quotes from Nina Simon because they are so good and they speak for themselves.  I couldn’t believe what excellent advice and information was jam-packed in just one chapter.  Of course, some of these chapters are length (45+ pages), so she also offers the option to purchase the book.

She brings up the fact that sometimes museums want to just create any participatory activity or application, yet can run afoul by making a poorly-designed participatory experience.  She highlights a poor one immediately in the first paragraph:

A Poor Participatory Design:  An Anonymous Chicago Museum

“I’m in Chicago with my family, visiting a museum.  We’re checking out the final exhibit – a comment station where visitors can make their own videos in response to the exhibition.  I’m flipping through videos that visitors have made about freedom, and there are REALLY, REALLY BAD.

The videos fall into 2 categories:

  1. Person stares at camera and mumbles something incomprehensible.
  2. Group of teens, overflowing with enthusiasm, “express themselves” via shout-outs and walk-ons.”

Results: Unsuccessful.

Why unsuccessful:  Museum only issued mandate to create without providing “scaffolding.”

Simon offers the wonderful quote from Orson Welles which puts it aptly: “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.”

Now, let me compare this to an example she gives of a good participatory design…

A Good Participatory Design:  Denver Art Museum – 2009 “Side Trip” Gallery for The Psychedelic Experience Exhibit

In the exhibition space highlighting psychedelic rock music posters, visitors were encouraged to make their own rock music posters in the Side Trip gallery:

“Rather than giving people blank sheets of paper and markers (and reaching a narrow audience of self-motivated creators)… visitors were offered clipboards with transparencies attached.  There were stacks of graphics – cut-out reproductions from real rock posters on display… could place under transparencies to rearrange and remix into poster designs of their own choosing.”  Posters took approximately 25 minutes to create.When completed, the visitor gave to a staffer who made a composite by copying it on color printer.  Then, the visitor was given the final poster and provided with option to post a copy in the gallery.

Results:  Out of 90,000 attendees, 37,000 posters were created.  That verges to nearly 45% participation from total number of attendees!

Why successful:  Visitors didn’t have to start with a blank slate.  They were provided “scaffolding.”


Nina Simon stresses the critical importance of scaffolding to participatory design.  We have seen in class the example of a good one in the Victoria and Albert Museums “Make an Arts and Crafts Title.”  We don’t have to create from a blank slate.

What exactly is scaffolding?  Simon elaborates on this and its formation from “instructional scaffolding” with its roots in education and contemorary learning theory.

Some good quotes about scaffolding:

  1. Instructional Scaffolding is where “educators or educational material provides supportive resources, tasks and guidance upon which learners can build their confidence and abilities.”
  2. “The best participatory experience are not wide open.  They are scaffolded to help people feel comfortable engagin the the activity.”
  3. Example of an open-ended, non-scaffolded experience: “What if I walked up to you on the street and asked you to make a video about your ideas of justice in the next three minutes?  Does that sound like a fun and rewarding casual activity to you?”
  4. An open-ended, non-scaffolded experience can “feel daunting to would-be participants.”

Another juicy gem is her presentation of the 5 stages of social participation…

The 5 Stages of Social Participation (from Me to We):

Stage 1:  Individual Consumes Content

Stage 2: Individual Interacts with Content

Stage 3: Individual Interactions are Networked in Aggregate

Stage 4: Individual Interactions are Networked for Social Use

Stage 5: Individuals Engage with Each Other Socially

Simon applies these 5 stages wonderfully in the case study of the successful incorporation of all 5 stages in Nike’s product Nike+, a combined iPod/Shoe product to track one’s running.  It is too good to highlight and I’d suggest if you have the time to read it.  It illustrates the five stages and is directly applicable to designing the participatory museum experience.

Other good gems from this article is how she describes how YouTube is a successful participatory experience and the real reason it is successful, that encourages “diverse forms of participation.”

These diverse forms of participation are elaborated in her discussion of what participation looks like:

1. Creators

2. Critics

3. Collectors

4. Joiners

5. Spectators

6. Inactives

What is quite fascinating is that only .16% of YouTube visitors upload a video and only .2% of Flickr visitors post a photo.  Wow!  She stresses that although the quantity of creators are small, participation (and why social media, YouTube, Flickr, etc. are popular) and mini-creation takes place in the form of collectors, joiners, critics, and even spectators.

Attribution: Simon, Nina. The Participatory Museum. Santa Cruz: Museum 2.0, 2010.

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