16 January 2015 // Thoughts

The Art of Breaking Down Barriers Part 2: The New Curators

Welcome back to my 2014 review of design trends. While yesterday we looked at examples of museum’s crowdsourcing content, today we’ll visit with some museums that are actually letting their visitors create content. Let’s begin by defining Folksonomy, which is a relatively new term used to describe user-generated descriptions of art.

One of the earliest examples of folksonomy is the Steve Museum, which is a program where groups of museums post their collections online and invite the public to create new searchable keywords, or socially tag, each piece. Once the Museum’s staff approves these descriptive words, they become part of the collection’s database. This program has not only created databases with more intuitive searching, but has also increased the public’s access and appreciation of each museum’s collection. So, it’s a win-win.

Audio guides are other great examples of folksonomy. For example, Audio Tour Hack is a group that creates alternative soundtracks to traditional museum audio tours, in order to redefine the way people see art and their surroundings. Their first exhibit was at the Guggenheim in New York, where they re-interpreted the modern artwork of artist John Chamberlain. Given the collection’s use of bended metal, Art Tour Hack re-interpreted the exhibit as a collection developed by Decepticons (the bad guys of the Transformers cartoon and movies), celebrating their destruction of the good guy Autobots. Their next target was New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), where they developed the MoMA Unadulterated audio tour, which is an official audio tour created by kids. Each piece of art is analyzed by children aged 3-10, as they share their unique perspectives on such things as composition, the art’s deeper meaning, and why some art just looks weird.

Creating Content

One very ambitious project is asking the public to build a museum, digital brick by digital brick, as London’s British Museum is currently being recreated in the video game Minecraft. For those unfamiliar with Minecraft, it is basically a video game version of LEGO, where users can create and navigate their own worlds, or recreated worlds, in a digital universe. For example, the Minecraft community recently worked together to create all the key places from Game of Thrones. It’s a very popular game, so much so that it was purchased by Microsoft this past September for $2.6 billion. The British Museum project is part of the institution’s Museum of the Future Scheme, which aims to expand the Museum’s appeal. The Museum posted details of the project on social media site Reddit, asking for volunteers to get involved, and they received a flood of responses from Minecraft fans around the world. The hope is that the project serves as an effective educational tool for a younger demographic, while attracting them to the Museum.

Back in the US, History Colorado literally took to the streets to gain inspiration for their next project, as they gathered ideas and artifacts for a proposed exhibit on the homeless. Recently, their Assistant Curator James Peterson walked through Downtown Denver hunting for artifacts, especially the signs homeless people display asking for help. For example, Peterson met with a homeless man named Jeff Goldberg and gave him $20 for the sign and his story. The Museum then displayed all of their collected artifacts, such as 30 cardboard signs, at an event for young professionals, and asked visitors for their reactions, including what the word “home” means to them. All of this is part of History Colorado’s new approach to building exhibitions by involving the public. The feedback gathered during this process is being used to help the Museum decide what projects will move forward and how each exhibit will be designed and developed.

The Portland Art Museum also reached out to the public to help create an exhibit called Object Stories. The Museum invited visitors to record their own narratives about personal projects that they brought in – whether a piece of clothing, a toy, or a family heirloom. The program was developed to attract new audiences by demystifying the Museum, making it more accessible, welcoming, and meaningful to a greater diversity of communities, all while highlighting the inherent relationship between people and things. During the exhibition’s run, over one thousand people from the area, most of whom had never set foot in the Museum before, participated as storytellers in the project.

Online Crowdsourcing

Museums might also take inspiration from online crowd-sourced exhibitions. Two of my favorite online exhibitions in recent years include the Johnny Cash Project and The Burning House. The Johnny Cash project is a global collective art project, where guests work together to create an ever-changing music video. Guests visit the website and are invited to draw upon a single frame of film. The work is then combined with art form participants around the world, to create a haunting music video for Cash’s last-recorded song, “Ain’t No Grave”.

Another online exhibition is The Burning House. Featured on Tumblr and Facebook, the exhibit asks a simple question:

If your house was burning, what would you bring with you?

The user-submitted photos offer a power insight into what different people determine is practical, valuable and sentimental.

So, we’ve seen how role barriers are being dissolved, and a lot of that has only been achievable through our use of technology. But how do we break down physical barriers?