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Archive for December, 2015

This follows Part One of DC/NYC: an epic museum tour which talked about my visits to the National Cryptologic Museum, The Renwick Gallery and the National Museum of Natural History (featuring instagram uses in a museum, a great use of augmented reality and brilliant docents) and Part Two in New York, with visits to the Cooper Hewitt, Met MediaLab and the American Museum of Natural History (robots! games! the Pen!). This is the final post (I promise).

The New York Hall of Science: Connected Worlds, hands on everything

science themed mini golf at the New York Hall of Science

more mini golf in museums pls

On Friday I dragged my family in a post Thanksgiving blow-out haze to the New York Hall of Science at Corona Park in Queens. I don’t think they were pleased about the hour long journey from Brooklyn, but ended up having fun playing with all the hands-on exhibits about various aspects of science. I LOVED their demonstration of cosmic rays zipping through a cloud chamber before your eyes. And I also loved the idea of science themed mini golf. The interactives may not all be the most technologically advanced, but they got you involved, and genuinely helped you understand things.

Learning about Cosmic Rays

Learning about Cosmic Rays

The main reason for going there, though, was to see the Connected Worlds game/installation about keeping an ecosystem in balance. If you are picturing something on a screen, or even a touchtable, think again. This is COLOSSAL. See the picture below. It has two vast screens around a central circular area. Between the screens is a tall screen depicting a waterfall, which then runs as a stream across the floor. Players can interact with what’s happening on the screen by making hand gestures, or moving logs around on the floor which translates into planting seeds to grow plants and move the water to where it needs to be. It appeared to get more advanced as the game, played in half hour sessions, goes on (I didn’t get a go, we didn’t have time to wait).

Getting briefed at Connected Worlds

Getting briefed at Connected Worlds

It is absolutely spectacular, make no mistake. Visitors, nearly all of whom appeared to be family groups with young kids when I was there, seemed to pick it up easily and were clearly absorbed by the interactions. It is like nothing else I have seen in a museum before, I don’t think. It’s really beautiful, and seems to work, technically, very well. The only dampener was my slight suspicion that visitors weren’t necessarily getting the most possible out of the experience. It’s meant to be about keeping the world in balance, yet I didn’t see people outside of family groups working together much.

I also didn’t get the sense that people were getting the nuances of what was happening, or making informed decisions (rather than just playing around), and given the young age of many participants, fair enough perhaps. However, I wondered if more hands on facilitation and scaffolding of the experience might make it even more powerful. For example, pointing out things that were happening to the whole group, or setting shorter term goals, adding drama, turning it into a story, etc. 

Visitors playing with Connected Worlds

Visitors playing with Connected Worlds

To be fair, I was an outside observer, and only watched one round, so maybe that does happen at other times, or maybe I just wasn’t picking up on it. In this BoingBoing article Zack Gage, who consulted on the app , does say “My biggest pushes were for ensuring that the takeaways for children were experiential (to be unpacked later with educators/family members/friends) rather than a set of point-by-point facts or statistics” which I am very much down with in general.

However, it does sometimes feel like museums assume all digital should just stand alone as an experience, when it can actually really benefit from good facilitation and a bit of direction.

The Brooklyn Museum (and Morbid Anatomy, briefly): getting answers to the questions you want to ask in a museum.

I’m almost there! We paid a visit to the fabulous Morbid Anatomy museum, with its current wax work exhibition and nice cafe and shop full of things to covet (taxidermy I wished I could afford, or have a house big enough for). And then, finally, on my last day, we went to the Brooklyn Museum. It’s a great collection, with really good interpretation, I thought. Very accessible, very clear. It’s currently running a lovely show on Coney Island, definitely worth going to see.

The ASK app in action

The ASK app in action

The work related reason for going was the ASK app, which allows you to ask questions of curators in real time. What a great idea, I’d thought, will it work? It did, with the patient Elizabeth answering my questions about the museum, its patrons, things I couldn’t find, and the collections itself. The answers were rapid, and pitched at a useful level, including links out to other resources. My family got in the habit of coming up to me to fire off questions for the app, and definitely benefited from having this helpful resource.

It is super simple to use, fitting the maxim that a good app should do one thing well. I just wish it saved the answers so I could still see them, as it seems to have removed the content now I’m out of the building.

The team have been blogging the development experience on the Brooklyn Museum website, and it’s well worth a read.

So, that was my East Coast USA #musetech experience. If you got this far, thank you for reading, I hope it was useful. Clearly, I still managed to miss many hundreds of other museums in those two cities (including the Tenement Museum in NYC, which people kept telling me about, and the Newseum in DC, which was also recommended for its use of interactives).

I guess I’ll just have to go back.

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This follows Part One of DC/NYC: an epic museum tour which talked about my visits to  the National Cryptologic Museum, The Renwick Gallery and the National Museum of Natural History (featuring instagram uses in a museum, a great use of augmented reality and brilliant docents). (Part Three, the final part, on the New York Hall of Science and Brooklyn Museum, now live).

By Tuesday 24th November I had moved on to New York, staying in Brooklyn with family. Since my Frankly, Green + Webb colleague Laura was staying not far from New York, she and I took the chance to meet and spend the day visiting the Cooper Hewitt (the Smithsonian Design Museum) and trying out their Pen and other interactives, and then on to see the Met’s MediaLab. The next day I went to take a look around the American Museum of Natural History.

Cooper Hewitt: collecting, immersion and serendipitous browsing

So first to the very grand environs of the Cooper Hewitt museum, previously the Carnegie Mansion, to try out the Pen we had heard so much about (and see the collection, of course). In case you’ve missed all the discussion about it, it’s a tool to encourage visitors to be more active in the space, collecting and saving objects to view later. In some ways I guess it formalises the existing visitor habit of collecting objects by photographing them and takes it a few steps further.

picture of the pen being used with the design tool

Using the Pen to design a very impractical table

The pen itself is very nice to use, chunky but comfortable, simple to operate. It works as a large stylus at one end, and has a collecting tool at the other which you can use on object labels (with an RFID chip in them) to add them to your collection. There are large interactive tables throughout the galleries that feature a design tool (make your own chair, building, or thing), ways of browsing the collection (object pictures drift past like sushi on a conveyor belt and you can grab them to get more details, or search via related tags), and ways of pulling up what you have collected so far. After the visit you can also see your collection on the website.

picture of group using full body gestures to browse the collection

Using full body gestures to browse the collection

The staff are there to give some orientation, one of whom gave us an extra steer in using the design tool that was really helpful. I enjoyed playing with this feature (but wasn’t quite sure where to go with it once I’d messed around with it a bit, I wonder how this could be extended?). Laura and I both spend quite some time browsing objects on the big table, it’s a nice way of just seeing what grabs you and following that down a rabbit hole. You can also browse the collection by just drawing a shape, which then searches for something else with the same shape (elsewhere you can also do this on a big screen with gestures – see pic). A nice playful interaction.

It didn’t occur to me whilst there to collect objects in the cases to look up more information on them whilst there. This would probably have been useful at the time to answer questions I had about some objects. I wonder if there are ways to get at more interpretation by doing that, e.g. a glossary of terms or something. It feels like there is potential to do even more with the pen, so am keen to see how that develops.

For me, the standout was the Immersion Room, which was an experience I could have spend hours in, probably. It is linked to the wallpaper collection, something I have a particular interest in anyway, and allows you project designs from the collection up onto the wall, browse around related designs and listen to experts talking about them. Rather brilliantly, you can also design your own, which is then tiled and projected on to the wall. I made a rather slapdash effort, so being immersed in that was possibly a bit of a trial for everyone else in the room, but I bet some visitors have done some really beautiful things for it (and no doubt, some very crude things, but you can’t stop human nature). My post-visit collection from the Cooper Hewitt is here.

The immersion room

Immersed in wallpaper

The Met Media Lab: robots and other fun stuff (envy)

3D printing in the MediaLab

3D printing in the MediaLab

In the afternoon we went to meet Elena Villaespesa, who used to work with me at Tate doing clever things with analytics, and is now Digital Media Analyst at the Met. We also met Marco Castro Cosio, head of the MediaLab, who gave us a tour. They have all the fun toys – a robotic arm, telepresence robot (which has been used at some events, I think they said, so that people can attend at a distance), a 3D printer (which had been used to recreate a museum object in sugar, though no-one had had a nibble yet) and were also doing some nice stuff with projection mapping to show the true colours of an Egyptian tomb. Thank you to Marco and Elena for showing us around!

Will definitely be keeping an eye on the Met MediaLab blog in future. Apparently they are not alone, Labs seem to be quite the thing these days (h/t Lindsey).

The American Museum of Natural History: games, more robots, Opulent Oceans.

The next day I met Barry Joseph, Associate Director for Digital Learning at the American Museum of Natural History (or AMNH). I was particularly keen to hear about their work with games, and loved the fact that they had been working on card games such as this one, Gutsy. Card games and the like could be such a perfect fit for so many museums, and you can sell them in the shop, they make a nice gift. Win/win. Anyway, Barry gave me a tour of their new Microrangers game , an impressive piece of tech that combines AR, minigams and a kind of treasurehunt around the gallery. It just launched officially this week.

He too has a telepresence robot, and kindly gave me a demo. They had used it to bring voices into the gallery, e.g. Canadian First Nation curators based elsewhere being able to interact with visitors. Tate has done the After Dark project with similar robots, but has anyone else in the UK? I like the potential, and the way that both the Met and AMNH were using them. Very interesting, thank you to Barry for taking the time to meet!

Octopus from Opulent Oceans. So lovely

Octopus from Opulent Oceans. So lovely

Also at AMNH was the very shiny and interactive Secret World Inside You, and the utterly gorgeous little Opulent Oceans exhibit of sea life themed artwork. From my twitter page, you might guess that I’m already in love with Ernst Haeckel’s work, so I was very excited to find so many other artists who had done beautiful work in this area. The latter is also collected in this book and ah, it’s Christmas coming up. So, you know…

(Part Three now live, with visits to see Connected Worlds at the New York Hall of Science and Ask at the Brooklyn Museum)

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I came back this week from 10 days in the States where I visiting my brother and sister-in-law, who recently moved to Brooklyn, with my parents for Thanksgiving. By pure coincidence, my Frankly, Green + Webb colleague Laura was also on the East Coast of the US at the same time visiting family. I took the chance to see a ton of museums (ten! in total), meet up with Laura, and also meet some interesting museum folk working in digital. 

Ten is a lot of museums to cover, so I’ve split the posts up. Here are my experiences in Washington DC at the National Cryptologic Museum, The Renwick Gallery and the National Museum of Natural History. It was my first trip to Washington and my goodness, it doesn’t do its museums and monuments by halves (they are all SO BIG, and the Mall? Almost overwhelming).

The National Cryptologic Museum (NSA): the power of a great docent tour

The first museum trip was out of D.C. a bit, to the NSA’s Cryptologic Museum, a quirky history of code-breaking next door to the NSA’s site about 45 minutes drive from the centre of D.C. The museum itself has a few recent additions to bring some of the tech and the story of cryptology up to date a little, but most of it doesn’t appear to have been changed for quite some time. It could have therefore been quite dry, especially with such a complex subject matter, but their greatest assets are their brilliant docents, who bring the objects to life.

A not great picture of our Cryptologic Museum docent next to a code breaking machine

A not great picture of our Cryptologic Museum docent next to a code breaking machine

We first met the docent who would become our guide at the Enigma machine, where he was showing us how to use it (they had one that was available for visitors to play with). It was the first of many experiences at the museum where I was suddenly able to understand the purpose and function of a complex object that I’ve previously struggled to grasp. This is something that digital interactives can sometimes help with, but to be honest, I’m not sure can make up for the human touch and the ability to respond to the audience in person and answer questions. Our group was hooked, and we followed our guide around the rest of the museum as he told us fascinating stories about Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Midway and the Cold War.

I learnt so much, and must admit that by the end of it I was left wondering whether more museums should concentrate their efforts on hiring as many knowledgeable and passionate docents as possible and worry less about text (or digital) interpretation. With the best will in the world, consuming information visually, by reading especially, becomes tiring and difficult before too long in a museum. But when you have an engaging human being telling you stories, well, it somehow becomes very easy to take it in.

The Renwick Gallery: instagram friendliness

Picture of artwork and person taking photo in the Renwick Gallery

Wondering and instagramming in the Renwick Gallery

On to the recently re-opened Renwick Gallery, for their fantastic Wonder exhibition of large scale art installations by nine very different artists. It’s all very photogenic, clearly something recognised by the museum who encourage photography by suggesting a hashtag and featuring a screen with an instagram feed showing visitor’s pictures. This meant that the frequently seen visitor behaviour of photographing objects and artworks was in overdrive. I was unable to stop myself too. It didn’t leave much room for quiet contemplation, but I don’t know if these pieces necessarily lent themselves to that anyway. I think that’s OK, we thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks to Brian Alpert for recommending this via twitter.

National Museum of Natural History: Skin and Bones and a standout use of AR

Next day, onto the Mall for the National Museum of Natural History (and a flying visit through the National Gallery of Art, a very grand space). The NMNH had been high up on my list to visit. Not just because I am a fan of natural history museums (the dustier and wonkier the better, IMHO) but because I’d heard Diana Marques speak about an upcoming app she was working on for them at EVA in 2013, and was intrigued. The app is Skin and Bones, and is now live. Laura and I both tried it out in separate visits.

The app was created in response to the fact that visitors can find it hard to engage with the skeletons in NMNH’s Bone Hall, since they don’t know how to interpret what they are looking at. Skin and Bones uses augmented reality (AR) to overlay animal bodies onto the skeletons or to animate them and show how they work. My highlight was the animated overlay showing how the woodpecker’s skull allows it to have a very long tongue that wraps around its brain. It’s a really really neat use of AR, appropriately used and well implemented. The only downside was that it was so great it made you want to see this for any animal in the Hall, but it’s only available for the few of the skeletons. Hopefully they’ll add more in the future, I imagine it takes a lot of work to create these.

Photograph of AR app being used with woodpecker animation

Very cool Woodpecker animation

Some other thoughts. The AR does somewhat overshadow the rest of the content, which involves activities and videos. I wonder whether people actually do those, when the AR stuff is so enticing. Also, neither Laura nor I had brought headphones, and if you don’t have headphones with you, or are sharing the device with others, you’ll need to play the audio out loud. From previous experience, many visitors are uncomfortable with this, which is why some places provide headphones, or loan out devices so that groups can have more than one (and so the experience doesn’t rely on people bringing their own, of course). I understand some visitor evaluation is forthcoming in the next year, am really keen to see it and see how it’s being used, I think it will be very interesting for anyone thinking of doing something similar.

Whilst there was a lot of signage for the app in the room, we didn’t see anyone else using Skin and Bones, or any signage for it in the rest of the Museum (though perhaps we just didn’t spot it), which seems a shame. Maybe it could be more heavily trailed elsewhere and in general marketing so that people come prepared and excited about it? Laura tried it with her kids and they also really liked it (and wanted more) so it’s a great asset, worth shouting about. If you have the chance, go check it out.

(Link to Part Two: NYC, robots, the Cooper Hewitt Pen, games)

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