I have been going through old papers, as I occasionally do, and came across an internal memo from 2006 discussing museum use of emerging technology. Its really a summary of research we were doing at the time to see what was starting to trend, and what might have staying power. Of course, technology has changed since then and the ways museums are using it has too. But in the day-to-day its easy to lose track of how far we have come. Most of the talk is about how far we still need to go. And fair enough - the world doesn't stand still around us and it can seem like no matter how fast we move we can't keep up. But its also useful to take a minute and reflect on what has changed, and how much more nimble we are compared with 5 years ago. After all, in the lifespan of technology 5 years is old age. And also to appreciate the continuity of issues despite this rapidly changing external environment.
So jump into the time machine with me and travel back to 2006. A few important projects were just starting to be recognized as breaking new ground:
The first was launched by renegade media teacher David Gilbert from Marymount Manhatten College who had just created Artmobs, almost by accident. It started as a class project in how to use ipod technology by producing reviews of artworks at MOMA. In the end Artmobs published "tours" produced by the general public, and made them available for download via itunes. In April 2006 they were getting thousands of hits a week on their site.
David Gilbert described Artmobs as "a way for anyone to curate their own little corner of MOMA." And what was so revolutionary about this project was that even after it was established, no one really understood how you could make and distribute audio tours without institutional approval. This was a breakthrough which forced the question of audience participation and collaboration. In this case, technology really led the way on social change.
Very quickly SFMOMA realized the potential of producing material for the ipod and tweaked Gilbert's idea into an open call competition for high quality podcasts. These were more official guides than what Artmobs did because they had to meet certain criteria, had much more polish, and overall higher production values. But they were still visitor contributed. Today we would say "crowdsourced". Winning entries were selected by a jury and were featured in monthly SFMOMA Artcast installments. The winner also received a one-year membership to SFMOMA.
SFMOMA also produced their own podcasts working with Antenna Audio and visitors who had one of these on their ipod could get a discount on admissions.
At the same time, technology innovators were already working on projects from outside museums.
- Guide by Cell was producing audio guides for cell phones, and had already determined that cell phones were not the best technology to use in hands-on museum settings like the Exploratorium.
- Liberty Science Center was also in the process of launching a phone and mp3 audio tour which would allow visitors to call into a phone number printed on labels in one gallery to hear more detailed information about the exhibit.
- Ideum was already making ipod Vodcasts which plays video on the screen on an ipod, or on your computer through itunes.
- And those flash mobs? Well they had already been invented also, just under a different name. A company called Improv Everywhere ("we cause scenes") was a serious and very silly organization which had already sponsored 50 events between 2001 and 2006. These included a hilarious synchronized swimming in Washington Square Park event (the water is 6" deep) and another where people were invited to download Michael Jackson's Thriller to their ipod, then hang out anonymously in Central Park in NYC until noon. At the sound of a klaxon everyone was supposed to start the soundtrack and start walking like a zombie. Over 200 people participated. The only problem was the music was silent but imagine if you had been there what you would have thought!
In every case the assumption was to rely on visitors' own devices. There was a sense that the technology visitors were carrying in their pockets were the right platforms to be delivering content on - the beginning of a shift away from those audio tour wands and toward acceptance of people seemingly on the phone in the Museum.
The big questions of what content, by whom, and how it interacts with the exhibits are the same questions we are asking today. Ipods were, at the time, uniquely portable devices and that made them particularly attractive. The landscape has become more diverse and advances in technology make it possible to download content at the Museum, or for visitors to share content with other visitors in a way we couldn't 5 years ago. So if anything it is more complex to answer these questions today than it used to be. Peter Samis and Stephanie Pau wrote a paper at the time exploring their Artcast series as a case study and their analysis still resonates.
Here are some of the issues we flagged as important at the time. All of which are still at the core of successful media integration today:
- Podcasts can be automatically updated via an aggregator so the power of this is as a subscription based relationship rather than just a one-time download.
- Technology is driving visitors' expectations about inclusion of multiple voices (including their own) and an ability to customize museum experiences.
- The relationship between museums and their audience goes in both directions - from the Museum out to the visitor, and from the visitor in to the Museum.
- The voice of our communication with audiences is changing - less formal and more discussion-oriented, more diverse and inclusive - but what does this mean for production values? This question is relevant to physical exhibits as well as digital elements.
- Podcasting, like audio tours, are not likely to be major revenue generators.
- How do you support older technology and still make your content work on the most up-to-date devices?
So much has changed but the core questions are the same. As Samis writes in the case study on the SFMOMA project "iPods are a vector for injecting art ideas into the daily lives of people at home or on-the-go. The opposite is also true: iPods are a way of bringing voices from the community into the Museum."
Replace "iPod" with any other technology channel we have access to today and the thought still resonates.