The ASK app at the Brooklyn Museum

This article popped in my Dispatches for the Future of Museums Feed. The Brooklyn Museum launched an iOS and Android app this year that allows visitors to ask a team of art historians questions about pieces displayed in the museum in real time. According to the article, when a question is asked through the app, it takes about 45 seconds for users to get a response. The app only works in the museum and has been streamlined to keep visitors engaged with the art and not their phones. After a question is asked, you receive a notification when the answer has been posted. On an internal level, the team of art historians utilize collection database information and other reference materials to create an in-house wiki about a particular artifact. If a question stumps the team, they let the user know that an email will be sent to them addressing the question. I appreciated this aspect of transparency and honesty. The team actually admits when they don’t have a ready  answer! Evaluations of the app indicate that “Since its launch, there have been about 4,000 conversations through the app. The museum is using data pulled from those exchanges to improve collection installations and exhibition design. It expects about 1% of visitors overall to use the app.” So not only does the app engage visitors, but it facilitates internal operational improvements.


Truly “Exceptional & Extraordinary”

I found this article to be one of the most poignant I have read concerning the inclusion of diverse audience members. The article concerns the effort of eight museums in the UK to document the history of physiological differences between human beings and how those difference have evolved into cultural norms and stigmas. Supplementing the medical exhibits, four artists will accompany the exhibition to create pieces inspired by the exhibitions artifacts. According to the author, “In collaboration with experts in medical history, disability and museums – they are currently producing a series of thought provoking new commissions that examine our attitudes towards difference and aim to stimulate debate around the implications of a society that values some lives more than others.” A series of lectures and discussion panels will follow the exhibition to further enhance visitor dialogue.

Science and Public Trust

While this article does not address museums directly, with our discussions on technology and social media, I thought it pertinent. The article focuses on an initiaitive by the  American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS). The Public Face of Science is a  three-year initiative “designed to increase the public’s knowledge of science, as well as foster a greater appreciation for the work scientists do.” As technology becomes further integrated into museum exhibits and visitor experiences, how and if the public trust the technology they confront is crucial. We have recently read about the value in technological engagements with younger visitors. Younger generations seem to observe an inherent trust in technology, but what about the older generations? Just because guests utilize technology in an exhibit space, do they necessarily trust what is being presented? Are some of the facts being lost in translation? I think this article provides a context for museum professionals to evaluate public trust of technology in the museum experience.

Brazil’s “Museum of Tomorrow”: Reaching a Global Audience?

Moving past the enamoring facade of Rio de Janeiro’s new Museum of Tomorrow (the structure moves with the sun in order to fuel the solar panels), the museum has the lofty aspirations of targeting a global audience. Given that Rio will host the summer Olympics this year, the museum will certainly have the opportunity to reach a large patron base. The museum was conceived as “a futuristic science museum that looks decades ahead and was specifically designed to elicit an emotional response.” The overall purpose of the exhibits and content are to show “the effects of humans on the planet and what Earth might look like 50 or more years down the road.” I found this to be particularly interesting. The museum utilizes the exhibits to orient guests to the planet’s future. Designers created 5 exhibit sections with the guiding questions of “Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we now? Where are we headed to? And how do we want to get there?” The wording of these questions and exhibit labels are purposefully ambiguous. Any visitor can read the text and immediately identify with the climate issues presented regardless of cultural background, ethnicity, or gender. Despite the optimism the museum and the article present, there is an undertone of collateral damage. Gentrification pops up several times in the article. The author also notes that “The development project is not without controversy: It sparked the ire of some Rio residents, who claim that the building has pushed out poor citizens and was an unnecessary expenditure ahead of the 2016 Olympics.” Throughout the past two semesters we have discussed inclusion, community, and target audiences. This article seems to compound these issues. Are the designers adopting a utilitarian ideology with regard to visitorship? Are we seeing a genuine attempt by a museum to move beyond  local boundaries and expand into the global community? Or is this just another example of the poor folk being pushed out in favor of “progress?”

Imagining an Alarming Future at Brazil’s Museum of Tomorrow

The ambitious museum looks at where humankind is headed—and asks how they’ll live in a post-climate-change world

MARCH 15, 2016

A new sentry stands guard on Rio de Janeiro’s harbor: a white, beamed canopy that rises from the ground and points toward the sky—and the future. The Museum of Tomorrow‘s intricate architecture moves with the sun, morphing and changing all day long. And inside this innovative building lies something even more dynamic—a futuristic science museum that looks decades ahead and was specifically designed to elicit an emotional response.

This museum for a new generation doesn’t contain any historical artifacts or meditations on how people in the past lived and survived, aside from quick multimedia overviews of how humans came to exist on Earth. What it holds is far more important to the future world: exhibits showing the effects of humans on the planet and what Earth might look like 50 or more years down the road. Each installation incorporates scientist-outlined visions of where the planet is headed in regard to climate change, population size, lifespan, technology, biodiversity and cultural integration—and points to the possibility of a more sustainable future. The museum leads visitors on a journey through five distinct sections. Each attempts to answer a fundamental question: “Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we now? Where are we headed to? And how do we want to get there?”

It’s a complex—and interactive—journey. In Cosmos, visitors lay back to face a movie screen for a short video about Earth’s geology and evolution. In the Earth portion, they investigate three large cubes to learn about where human beings came from. The first contains an installation showing two tangled scarves dancing on wind, meant to represent matter in flux. The next cube revolves around DNA, and the last investigates culture and relationships through 1,200 images.

Then it’s time to head into Anthropocene, the centerpiece of the museum. The section focuses on the new Age of Man, modern times in which humans have flourished on—and irreparably impacted—Earth. Visitors stand in the middle of a cluster of 32-foot-high video screens that assault them from every direction with images of destruction. Statistics on how humankind has modified (and often destroyed) Earth flash by along with everything from charts that show how much energy, water and meat are consumed by humans to growing population graphs to images of buildings that spew putrid black smoke into blue skies. From there, suitably horrified guests walk on to the Tomorrows exhibit, where they can play interactive games to learn about different possibilities for the future and how their life choices could affect humanity’s survival.

The development project is not without controversy: It sparked the ire of some Rio residents, who claim that the building has pushed out poor citizens and was an unnecessary expenditure ahead of the 2016 Olympics.

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The Thomas Wolfe Memorial

The Thomas Wolfe Memorial is centrally located in the business district of Asheville, North Carolina. The site is 1.5 hours from Charlotte and roughly 3 hours from the state capitol in Raleigh.  Asheville is the county seat for Buncombe County with a total population of 247,442 reported in 2014. Twenty eight percent of the population are under 20 and thirty one percent of the population are over 55. The population is 87 percent white, 6.4 percent Hispanic, and 6.6 percent African-American. Thirty three percent of individuals 30 or older hold a bachelor or graduate degree. Buncombe County has 23 elementary schools and 17 secondary schools, including the westernmost branch of the University of North Carolina system. Overall, the education system in Buncombe County includes 25,597 students. The largest employment industries are the Buncombe County Public School system, Mission Health System and Hospital, and the Biltmore Company.

Buncombe County is primarily served by North Carolina Historic Sites and the National Park Service with over thirty sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Sites include the Biltmore Estate, Riverside Cemetery, and the Grove Park Inn. Museums located in downtown Asheville include the Asheville Art Museum, aSHEville Museum, Black Mountain College Museum, and the Asheville Pinball Museum. The Thomas Wolfe Memorial is a part of the North Carolina State Historic Sites system, employs a small staff, and maintains 6-8 volunteers. The site is funded through the 501 c3 group Friends of Thomas Wolfe, membership dues, donations, and ticket sales. The site memorializes the life of Asheville’s native son and literary icon, Thomas Wolfe. The Old Kentucky Home is the primary site structure and was the boyhood home of Thomas Wolfe.

The needs of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial are primarily internal. The museum and interpretation materials at the site are in need of updating. A dated welcoming video and text labels juxtaposing contemporary local art on display in the visitor center also create a disjointed entry to the site. A stronger staff presence could also be beneficial. On a positive note, the site has critically successful education programs, including travel trunk exhibits. Seminars and artifact demonstrations are given to school groups prior to visiting to the site to orient students with a general history of the site and Thomas Wolfe. External needs are unstated, but could certainly relate to the need of servicing the lower percentage of minority groups and a greater community involvement in Buncombe County. To meet these external needs, a broadening of the site’s historical context in the history of downtown Asheville is crucial.

The Thomas Wolfe memorial is adeptly situated among historical sites in Asheville to expand its visitor base and community involvement. The Old Kentucky Home is centrally located in downtown Asheville and is only one of several historic structures to survive the revitalization efforts initiated in the 1980s. As it is the only historic site in downtown Asheville to function solely as a museum and offer historical interpretation, the Thomas Wolfe Memorial holds a unique cultural currency within the greater Asheville community. In addition to functioning as a memorial to Thomas Wolfe, the site should memorialize and narrate the evolution of the Asheville business district. This can be done by expanding walking tours into surrounding neighborhoods in order to create contrast between modern and older buildings. On site, offering tours of the Old Kentucky Home driven by content relating to preservation efforts will provide a narrate for visitors in order to reinforce the contemporary value of the Old Kentucky Home.

In addition to serving as the residence for the Wolfe family in the early twentieth century, the Old Kentucky Home’s primary function was as a boarding house. Nineteen rooms were available for rent to a myriad of travelers to the Asheville area. Boarders at the Old Kentucky Home belonged to varying social, ethnic, and economic classes, which included migrant workers, business investors, industrial laborers, and seasonal tourists. With such a historically diverse economic and cultural presence already established, the Thomas Wolfe Memorial retains the resources to further include non-traditional visitors to the site. The site currently offers self-guided tours generated by mobile device applications. By creating additional self-guided tour applications narrating the historical presence of lower economic and culturally diverse groups at the site, the Thomas Wolfe Memorial will provide a sense of inclusion for all visitor demographics.

Staff and volunteers at the Thomas Wolfe Memorial already possess the tools to expand their interpretive efforts. What is needed is a dedication to implement these tools to reach the lower percentage of ethnic and economic communities in Buncombe County. In doing so, the Thomas Wolfe Memorial will be established as a North Carolina historic site catering to all audience types which will enrich the cultural value of the site for future generations.

Digital Access: An Exclusionary Tale

We have read several articles this semester about the use of digital technology in public history and here’s another! Contrasting the articles we have previously encountered, Sharon Leon cautions Public Historians in using technology to increase audience interaction. She points to those individuals still living outside the technological “web” being uncomfortable and unfamiliar with the new technological trends. Individuals living in rural areas and those unable to afford broadband internet are often alienated by the use of technology in an exhibit space. She also comments on what platform a digital interface uses. Microsoft v. Apple interfaces in particular. Overall, we need to be mindful in how we use technology and what collateral damage it can incidentally create. With our upcoming foray into the possible integration of technology in the HAl exhibit, I found this to be an enlightening article. Mrs. Leon presents issues I had never considered…we all know how technologically savvy I am.

Adapting to Labor Conditions

As we will be entering the museum job market soon, I found this article insightful. Over the past several weeks we have been discussing budgets, grants, and funding. Underlying all these issues is staff funding. If anything, this week’s reading from the “Fundraising for Small Museums” describes how critical staff are in any financial endeavors. Why then, when institutions are facing budget cuts and depressed funding, are staff salaries, hours, and benefits  first on the chopping block? One possible answer the Center for the Future of Museums offers is the over-saturation of the job market with job seeking professionals; “The laws of supply and demand in the museum labour market mean that museum sector complaints about low pay tend to fall on deaf ears.” Even in instances when museums workers go on strike, they are usually left with little recourse other than to accept lower wages and diminished hours. The article sites a 2015 strike in the UK when 400 National Gallery Assistants attempted to prevent the National Gallery from outsourcing their jobs to the private global security firm Securitas. Their goals were to secure stable pay conditions and demonstrate their values as employees. Eventually the staffers made concessions and became employees of Securitas. The strike received national news coverage and the National Gallery had to close several of their galleries to the public, tarnishing the institution’s public image and calling into question their trustworthiness.

Subsequently, in the United Kingdom, museum employees have been forced into signing ‘Zero Hours contracts’ which stipulate that staff members are employed without the guarantee of working hours. Some institutions have joined the Living Wage Foundation, but economic pressures have kept the majority of institutions from offering “Livable Wages.” There has also been a growing trend in UK museums to offer contract work for single projects. In response to fixed-term and project contracts, freelance work has been on the uptick.  The article concludes with a cautionary statement “the future for workers looks like one of less collective bargaining power, and less job security.” What I found most galling is the disregard these institutions have for their workers well-being and how that disregard is interpreted by the public. In an effort to save money, staff members become expendable, how can the public trust such an institution? How can we as future museum professionals secure the trust of the public while working in such an environment? I suppose it is not all doom and gloom, as the author reminds us to maintain “greater flexibility and independence” in our careers.