Go on, ASK Brooklyn Museum!

The Brooklyn Museum is an excellent place to cool off on a scorching Saturday afternoon, unless you can be at the beach. But the beach doesn’t have the ASK Brooklyn Museum app and I wanted to try that out, especially after having an interesting conversation about the app with Seb Chan and Micah Walter.


Once I downloaded and opened the app in the lobby, (a quick and trouble free operation) I wandered into the Double Take: African Innovations gallery, preferring to stay away from the madding crowds upstairs in The Rise of Sneaker Culture exhibition.
ASK Brooklyn Museum home screen



Knowing very little about African Art, I wasn’t at all sure what would interest me enough to ask any questions but literally every object, whether contemporary or historical was magnetically attractive in one way or another.

Eventually I came across this copper plaque from 16th or 17th century Nigeria, depicting a Portuguese trader with his European style dress, flowing beard and mustache.


Portuguese Trader by Nigerian artist 16th or 17th CDetail of a Portuguese Trader by a Nigerian artist, 16th or 17th C

The African artist had seen his nose as sharp, and curved. I became curious to compare how the Nigerian artist saw the Portuguese with how Japanese artists depicted them after they arrived in southern Japan in the 16th century. (Remember Shogun?) I snapped a picture of the plaque in the app and sent it to the ASK team, as requested, then texted my question.

The answer came back almost immediately, from Stephanie, who texted:

My question in the ASK app



Then before I knew it, another text arrived from her:

Additional response from the ASK team









I used the link to see what the sculpture looked like and wandered around again until I found the Horn Blower, meanwhile stopping to admire several other dramatic and mysterious masks and figures. Here’s the Horn Blower with a kilt decorated with the faces of Portuguese men. You can see the faces, though not very well.

The Horn Blower, Nigerian 16th or 17th C

Close up of kilt with Portuguese faces



Then, because there’s an area where visitors can touch samples of different types of cloth from Nigeria, Mali, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and a few other countries I texted Stephanie to see if she knew what kind of cloth the Horn Blower’s kilt would have been made of. She didn’t, and unfortunately the app doesn’t save our conversation for very long so I’m not able to go back and show you how gracious her answer was.


I’m 100% sure that if I hadn’t had the opportunity to ask these questions through the app I wouldn’t have thought of them at all. For me the opportunity became kind of a responsibility. The app inspired me to look more thoughtfully at the works, and to come up with some not so obvious questions that I wanted answers to.

I know I’m not your typical museum visitor, but the visitor experiences that Shelly Bernstein, the Brooklyn Museum’s Vice Director of Digital Engagement & Technology, and Sara Devine, Manager of Audience Engagement & Interpretive Materials reported in their recent interview with Nina Simon at Museum 2.0, were very similar to mine.

“We were heartened when early testers told us they felt like they were looking more closely at works of art in order to figure out what questions to ask. They put down the device often, and they would circle back to a work to look again after getting an answer—all things we verified in watching their behavior, too. “

In that interview Nina notes that many museums position staff or volunteers in the galleries with Ask Me buttons, but usually visitors don’t ask. I’ve certainly seen these friendly people but would never stop to ask them about the art.

Why not? Why does the app work, while real people don’t? My first thought is because I don’t want to get trapped in a conversation with a real person, but it’s easier to dismiss or terminate a text chat.

Was using the ASK app an enjoyable experience? Did it make looking at the art more enjoyable – did I get more out of the experience? The answer is yes and yes. I think it’s going to set a new standard of expectation for visitors. I’m looking forward to going back and using the app again, with a friend so we can share our questions and answers.

You can find out a lot more about the development of the ASK app on the Brooklyn Museum’s blog.

I’d love to know what your experiences with the ASK app have been, so let’s compare notes!

After I wrote this we posted it to Linked In and several people did add their comments here.



What Does it Take to Get a Conversation Going?

Shelly Bernstein at the Brooklyn Museum, wrote a blog post on Oct 4th, in response to Ed Rothstein’s fairly disparaging article “From Picassos to Sarcophagi, Guided by Phone Apps”,in The New York Times, three days earlier, about museum smart phone apps. She defended her museum’s efforts to date, and the efforts of all museums, to bring their content into this all important environment, the mobile landscape. I completely support the arguments she made.

Toward the end of the piece Rothstein dismissed the BklynMuse app’s capacity to allow visitors to leave comments about artworks for other visitors to find, saying “The various votes for “likes” in the museum are equally unilluminating. The result is a kind of scarcely literate cybergraffiti that does nothing to help reach a deeper understanding of the works or reveal their artistic traditions or cultural significance.”

It’s true that Likes and one word tags are not all that illuminating. I’m reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article, Small Change about social media and revolutions. Pressing the Like button next to an object is easy. It takes a higher level of commitment and interest to write a quick comment about an object, and an even higher level to write a thoughtful comment.

I left a low level comment about a little Figure from the Nicobar Islands via  BklnMuse when they launched the mobile web version back in March. I wrote about my experience in this blog post, expressing excitement about the possibility of being able enter into a dialogue with other visitors and even the curator, about works of art that I love for one reason or another.

But, six months later I see that I’m the only person who left a comment, even though the little figure has been Favorited by four other people. Why did they Favorite him? Do they see what I see? What else do they see? Why has no one else chimed in? Did they not really care enough to comment?

Rothstein’s article got me thinking. How do you prime the pump to get that conversation started? How do you get people to say something that inspires a response? And how do you keep them coming back?

Could one of the curatorial staff have responded? Obviously curators can’t be responding to every comment. But – what about docents or volunteers? Could this be part of their job description?

I know I’d be more likely to leave comments if I thought that someone would read them and respond. No one wants to be lonely.

When SFMOMA created a blog for their Olafur Eliasson show visitors to the show left lots of advice for others about how and what to see. Part of the allure was the time sensitive nature of the exhibition – it was temporary and therefore it was an event.

Perhaps featuring certain objects for a specific period of time – turning them into an event based experience – would generate some action, and interaction.

What are other successful examples?

Use BklynMuse!

I think this is a very exciting time for museums who are willing to be experimental. Yesterday I whiled away an hour in the Brooklyn Museum‘s galleries, trying out a new version of BklynMuse, to access their online collection, on their newly upgraded mobile website.

Here’s how it works: once you’ve joined their public wi-fi network, you stand in front of an object, type in its number on your phone and, presto! you can pull up the image, “like” it, a la Facebook, leave your own comment, see other visitors’ comments and learn more about it from experts.

You can also play Gallery Tag, where you collect points for every item you tag, and extra points for doing this on more than one floor.

I wanted to try out BklynMuse  because I was curious to see how disruptive the social media activity would be to my experience. Normally when I go to a museum it’s to see a specific show, or just wander with a friend through the galleries. I couldn’t really imagine wanting to interact on my phone.

There’s a piece that I’ve always loved in the Arts of the Pacific Islands gallery, so I went there first. Here he is, a little figure from the Nicobar Islands.

To me he looks like kind of a crazy, happy guy, and maybe he’s surfing.

I typed in his number and, to my surprise, this is where it got to be fun. Thanks to BklynMuse I saw right away that five other people have also “liked” the Nicobar Island man so I know I’m not the only one. I happily left a comment, and am eager to see what future visitors think of him,  and how that might give me fresh ways of looking at him.

I tried the tagging game too, and racked up 25 points, which put me in 3rd place! BklynMuse just launched this week so very few people are using it yet. Gallery Tag reminded me of a home made version of FourSquare.

What’s unique about BklynMuse is that it’s entirely visitor driven. It’s not a tour or guide to the collection designed by Brooklyn Museum. It’s a vehicle for visitors who are motivated to feed their curiosity about particular artworks; it encourages them to voice their reactions to the works, and validates what they have to say by publishing their comments.

Tagging too can have its serious purpose; even as a kid just playing a game, you have to look at the object you’ve chosen, look at the tags that are offered, think about which is most appropriate, and if there isn’t one, create a new one to use. It’s empowering in its way!

We’ve been members of the Brooklyn Museum since we moved here from Manhattan 20 years ago. I took my son to more Arty Facts sessions than I can recall. In 1997 I produced a big, beautiful 24 screen video wall program for the exhibition Monet and the Mediterranean, in their old, cavernous lobby. That was large cutting edge technology for its day, and the Museum used it to make the space more friendly for visitors waiting on line to see the show.

Today they’re carrying on that tradition of being out in front in using technology, with imaginative, experimental efforts in social media and mobile,  to make the Museum friendly to new audiences. As a visitor I really feel that they’re trying to give me a wonderful experience and I’m willing to try it. In the process, I learn from them and they learn from me.

Who Shot Rock ‘n’ Roll

What a great show at the Brooklyn Museum! We went yesterday before it got crowded. While the photographer’s backstories are interesting, it’s really all about the pictures, the performers, the music, and your own memories. As well as people you knew.

Just a few of the pictures that stand out: a beautiful shot by William “PoPsie” Randolph of Jimi Hendrix in a suit playing back up for Wilson Pickett; a mesmerizing photo of Radiohead; Keith Richards as a proud papa; David Bowie’s 1973 music video “Life on Mars.” Only one thing – there should have been more women in the show.

It’s up until January 31st and it’s an energizing antidote to winter.


Posted via email from mediacombo’s posterous

Museums and the Web 2008 Conference

Museums & The Web

Virtually everyone who went to MW2008 in Montreal earlier this month is already deeply committed to moving their institutions further into the social media/web 2.0 space. There were 600 or 700 people there, so for a conference it was an intimate event, and also international, with participants came from museums in Australia, Finland, Italy, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Britain, Canada, Germany, the US and 18 other countries.

Over the next few posts I’ll give you a round-up of the themes, good examples and memorable stories from the sessions I attended. If any of you were also there and have something to add, please do!

One of the themes I heard expressed most often was that you never know what knowledge visitors have about your collections until you give them an opportunity to share their comments. A terrific example of this is the Library of Congress initiative on Flickr. Several months ago they uploaded thousands of photos from their collections and have invited the public to add tags and comments. Why did they do this? Because, to quote from their Flickr page, “the identifying information that came with the original photos… can be incomplete and is even inaccurate at times. We welcome your contribution of names, descriptions, locations, tags, and also your general reactions….More words are needed to help more people find and use these pictures.” If the Library of Congress trusts ordinary people to provide worthwhile information, perhaps your institution can take advantage of this untapped knowledge source as well.

Another related theme was that visitors have a very different perspective on objects and artworks than curators do, and those view points are often refreshing and help us see things in new ways. A case in point comes from The Brooklyn Museum. In her presentation, Shelly Bernstein reaffirmed the benefits they’ve experienced from making the Museum’s collection available on multiple social sites, and from inviting the public to respond to it. Their current example of collaborating with the public is the exhibition project Click.


Inspired by the high quality of visitors’ photographs of works in their collection, and posted on Flickr, they are now organizing an exhibition of photographs of the changing face of Brooklyn, taken by the public, and then curated by the public. As their website says, “The results will be analyzed and discussed by experts in the fields of art, online communities, and crowd theory.”Read all about it here.

Another point that kept bubbling up to the surface was that “it’s better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.” Often there’s no consensus within the museum about whether to embrace any of “this web 2.0 stuff” or how to do it. In these cases a common tactic has been for an intrepid curator, web producer, marketing person, or educator on staff to just start putting videos on YouTube, or blogging, or constructing a FaceBook page and calling it an experiment – for as long as possible, under the theory that it’s easier to sell an idea once you have some results.

I’ll be posting more on some of the specific sessions – about emerging audiences, user generated content, metrics, YouTube, social tagging and a cool very user friendly programming language, so stay tuned. The conference website has all the session descriptions, speaker bios, papers and of course, blogs, so check it out.

Museums and Visitors: Interacting on the Web and in the Galleries – Part 4: Using Facebook

This is Part 4 of a five part conversation with Holly Sidford. Please see the Archives to access the other parts.

Robin: Museums are putting their videos on YouTube and creating a presence for themselves on other social networking sites to cultivate new communities of viewers. An excellent example of how to do this successfully is the Brooklyn Museum.

Brooklyn Museum on Facebook

Why make the commitment to be on YouTube, FaceBook and Flickr? Because that’s where everybody else is – not only your potential visitors but also your competitors. Every other type of major entertainer / content provider – movies, games, sports teams, travel and tourism promoters, etc. – is using these vehicles for the same reason. They’re going to where people are, rather than waiting for audiences to come to them. The Warhol Museum is another example of a success story in this environment. They were so effective at creating an attractive profile on MySpace that 10,000 people wanted to become friends of the Museum, creating quite a backlog of people to respond to!

Holly: In the work we did at the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund, we learned many things, but two “rules of thumb” emerged from that experience which are especially relevant here. First, in the matter of engaging audiences, you have to start where people are. You cannot expect the uninitiated to leap in one jump to your level of knowledge and engagement. A second “rule” is that you will be more successful if you cross the river where it’s narrowest – that is, reach out first to people who are most like your current audience. That is not to say that museums shouldn’t try to diversify their audiences culturally, economically, and in other ways, but it will cost a lot less in time, money and effort to reach people who are similar to the museum’s current demographic.

The Warhol Museum on MySpace

Robin: Yes and museums can use social networking technologies to engage their current audience, and through them bring in new visitors. SFMOMA’s use of a blog for the Olafur Eliasson show, which we talked about earlier, is an effective way of doing this.

And of course social events provide some of the best opportunities for reaching out to friends of friends. But I still think one of the most compelling experiences you can have at a museum is talking to the experts – going on a curator led tour, for example. Obviously I’m not the only person who thinks this is cool because often museums offer curator led tours and conversations as a perk for higher membership options – to the people who are already on the bus, so to speak….You know, when visitors get to talk with curators, and see how their passions can breathe life into art, history and science, this greatly enhances the chances they’ll have a positive experience, and come away with new things to think about. We’ve already talked about a few examples like this.

Library of Congress flickr page

Holly: But I go back to where we started this conversation. Shouldn’t the basic motivation for a museum’s public programming be to get people to think — to engage with the strange, the unknown or maybe the very familiar, but basically to stimulate their minds? If that’s really the motivation, then shouldn’t these institutions be interested in what people are thinking as a result of their visit, isn’t that the logical next question? “Okay, we gave you our ideas, now what are your ideas?”

Robin: Yes, web 2.0 applications are all about that – encouraging people to share ideas. All of the content on Wikipedia, Flickr and YouTube, for example, comes from people contributing their expertise, opinions, experience, as well as pictures and videos. It’s experts and amateurs coming together. Del.icio.us and other sites allow people to collect and tag the web pages they’re interested in and share that with friends. FaceBook and MySpace allow users to present themselves, what they like and think, and find others with similar interests. And the museums that understand this phenomenon – the Walker Art Center, SFMOMA, the Brooklyn Museum – are inviting audiences to share their thoughts, pictures, and videos about exhibitions and events. The question is what happens as a result of all these comments? Museums are providing opportunities for people to share their thoughts, but then what? Are they taking action based on the comments? Have they figured out how to sustain an ongoing dialogue that deepens the connection and commitment to the museum? That’s definitely the next step. Our conversation concludes in Part 5: Sharing Content.

Museums and Visitors: Interacting on the Web and in the Galleries – Part 3: Using Podcasts

This is Part 3 of a five part conversation with Holly Sidford. Please see the Archives to access the other parts.

Robin: Science centers have been cultivating students for much longer than art museums have, in part because science is always part of the curriculum. Schools and art and history museums have only recently begun to see each other as natural partners.

Holly: Our culture values science, and we value the uncertainties of science. We believe that inquiring about the unknown – at least in the sciences – will produce something of value. We know that science is being made every day, and it’s “bringing good things to our lives.” We don’t have that idea about art and history. We don’t think: “There are historians out there creating history and what they make will be valuable to us,” or “There are artists out there asking questions and making us see things in new and unexpected ways and that will add essential value to my life.” In my view, the curators and the museums that do convey that sense of discovery and engaging value really stand out from the rest.

Robin: But also most people don’t see a connection between themselves and these subjects – science, history and art. And when they go out to spend their time and money they’re looking for places where they can make a connection, have fun, be entertained. And if they can’t find those things at museums they’ll go to other places, or stay home and choose from a zillion choices offered to them by Netflix, the web or TV – the phenomenon known as “cocooning.” So, what’s a museum to do?

BMA's First Saturday party

Holly: Well, look at the the Brooklyn Museum’s First Saturdays. They’ve become one of the hottest things happening that night. These events are wildly popular with people of diverse economic and cultural backgrounds. The museum has initiated “meet ups” and social networking strategies, Web 2.0, etc. They’ve developed a range of mechanisms for getting groups of young people in their 20s to think of the museum as the place to socialize. People want to have novel experiences, they want to meet their friends, they want to do things that are fun. The more museums understand that phenomenon and develop strategies to meet different cohorts’ needs, the more successful they will be. What you and I want to do is different from what our teenagers want to do, but we could both do it in a museum if that institution were sensitive to the varieties of experience that all of us want. But doing that is really tough.

Robin: But not impossible. And museums can provide experiences an opportunities that are absolutely unique. Actually, this summer the Austrian Museum of Folk Life and Folk Art in Vienna opened Museum inside out where they literally brought the work of the museum – registering, digitizing, evaluating objects from their collection – into the galleries so visitors could see what staff do, and ask questions. And they did it as an experiment to create a dialogue between experts and visitors. Like the Cantor Center show we were talking about in the Using Blog post, it’s a unique opportunity for visitors to interact with museum staff, to observe, ask, share, learn and increase their appreciation of the art and the work of the museum. Plus, it’s a reason to go there – you get to have an experience you can’t have anywhere else.

squirrel skull

The American Museum of Natural History, used to do something wonderful once or twice a year: they’d invite people to bring in bones, rocks and other stuff they’ve found and show it to a curator who would identify – hopefully – what it was. One year we brought a little skull we’d found in Quemado, NM. My son was six at the time. And he was so excited to show it to a real scientist. Of course it turned out to be a rabbit skull instead of a little dinosaur head. But it was so cool to have a conversation with an expert about something that was important to us.

Holly: Everybody wants to be in on a secret. The Austrian Museum certainly understood that. All these institutions have tremendous mysteries to share, whether it’s how you conserve a painting or prove it’s not a fake, or how you put a show together and discover connections between one artistic tradition and another. Let people in on the magic! Videotape and other media offer great ways to allow a lot of people “behind the scenes” without actually having them traipse through the Conservation Department. And why does it only have to be just one day a year? If you do it on a regular basis more people hear about it, more people get involved. You have to start where people are – and cross the river where it’s narrowest.

AFA Larry Poons video podcast

Robin: Sure – meet the curator, meet the conservator etc. Mystic Seaport has produced video podcasts like that – available for download from iTunes. Another theme is “behind the scenes in history” the story of how something really happened. For example, we recently produced a series of video podcasts for the American Federation of Arts to accompany their traveling exhibition “Color As Field: American Painting 1955-1975.” It’s at The Denver Museum of Art now. We recorded a conversation between the exhibition curator, Karen Wilkin, and the artist Larry Poons. He describes very vividly the behind the scenes relationships between the artists, critics and dealers, and as a result you get a sense of what it was like to be part of that intense ’60s art scene and you think about the paintings differently, even if you don’t get to see the show itself.

Podcasting is relatively easy to do and many museums are interested in it, so I’ll be doing two Video Podcasting Tutorials at the AAM Conference in Denver in April.