What Can We Learn from Digital Artists’ Projects in Museums?

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Innovation and experimentation in museums has been a growing topic of conversation of late, and an increasing number of organisations have gone down the path of taking risks and developing new kinds of projects that push the boundaries.  As part of this shift in museums, more and more institutions are working with artists in new ways that go far beyond simply placing their works on the walls.  New collaborative projects that consider the roles of art, artists, and visitors from a fresh perspective are becoming more common. More museums are inviting artists to bring their creative artistic practice to focus on museum collections and on creating new participatory and immersive experiences that actively engage visitors and, in many cases, also interrogate the role of the museum.

While you do hear stories about these types of projects meeting some resistance from within the museum for seeming to be trivial, ‘arty-farty’ or without intellectual content, in my opinion more often than not these collaborative creative projects largely succeed in transforming museums into spaces of curiosity, experience, collaboration, risk-taking, and creativity.

This post looks at the process of working on Decoded 1914-18 as part of the umbrella Wor Life project at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

Between October 2014 and February 2015 Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums and Newcastle University Institute for Creative Arts Practice came together to explore some of the issues and questions surrounding experimental digital art projects in museums, thinking about public practice as well as working with digital artists.  The final project – Decoded 1914-18 produced a programme of AV installations and events that explored the First World War and its effect on those living in Tyne & Wear. Seven artists took inspiration from Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM) collections to create artworks and performances which examined and interpreted Tyne and Wear in the First World War in innovative ways. It was a fantastic process and I learnt a lot, and I have well and truly been bitten by the power of AV for visitor engagement.

In an excellent blog post entitled “Do We Need Artists in Art Museums?”, Annelisa Stephan states:

“Inviting artists into the institution … has ramifications far beyond any individual project. Including artists means taking risks and ceding control; it means changing how museum staff work together; and it even means shifting what a museum is, from a space for art to a space of art.”

This is very much something I would agree with after working on the Decoded 1914-18 project.

So here is what I learnt about working with digital artists in museum spaces during Decoded 1914-18:

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Before I started at Durham University I held the position of the Assistant Digital Officer at TWAM, my role was to work with the Digital Coordinator (the excellent John Coburn) to deliver a programme of digital projects that would innovate digital access to TWAM’s collections and increase public engagement.   Decoded1914-18 was one such project.

 

1. Museums Need to Embrace Risk

Working with digital artists to create visitor engaging projects inside the museum is fundamentally different from, and more challenging than, simply commissioning works of art. It means working collaboratively and bringing artists and creative practitioners into the organisation, and equally involves bringing museums in to the risk-taking of the creative process.

The aim of Decoded 1914-18 was to invite a fresh perspective to discover and reimagine stories and material from museum collections.  The project focused on creative arts practice where museum collections, artists and innovative digital practice merge to create a new kind of digital audiovisual experience.  This collaborative innovative creative practice fundamentally disrupts the way in which museums interact with, and provide for, visitors.   This was no mean feat. Not only did we have an aspirational project to deliver but we were also trying to do it with a difficult and challenging subject matter (the impact of the First World War on the North East), across a range of TWAM venues. It was a risk – and to TWAM’s credit, one it was willing to take. Rob Stein in 2012 suggested that creating a culture in museums that embraces risk is a prerequisite to allow significant innovation to take hold.  A certain amount of risk is always associated with digital projects because they are ‘new,’ ‘innovative’ and ‘cool,’ but there are uncertainties about how much risk is too much risk. How far can the boundaries be pushed with one project and how much tolerance does the museum have? These are questions that all museums are now facing and questions which Decoded1914  tried to tackle in a relatively short amount of time and budget.

 

2. Artists Disrupt the Institutional Voice

One of the most dramatic effect of digital artists’ interventions in museum spaces is to disrupt the institution’s voice, content and collections so they can be seen, reimagined and presented from a new perspective. This can transform the museum from a place of information and authority to one of experience, engagement and curiosity.

For example, one of the Decoded artworks took place in the basement museum store of the Discovery Museum, completely changing the space from a working museum collection store not normally open to the public to an immersive art experience.  This was challenging and involved a lot of risk management but the final artwork was well worth the oodles of risk assessments.  Including artists in the exhibition process means taking risks and letting go of authority, and challenging staff working practices. All good things in my book.

 

3. Friction is a Good Thing

Differing perspectives create tension and friction, sometimes unpredictably so.  But tension can be incredibly good for the collaborative and creative process.  If everyone worked in the same way, it would make for a very boring world. For Decoded we worked with a range of artists and creative practitioners.  I was surprised how much friction there was on some projects, whereas others went smoothly without incident. Now I don’t mean friction in terms of disagreements, misunderstandings or negativity.  It is more of a friction in terms of approach and expectations.  There was a disconnect between museum timescales and artistic timescales.  It was really refreshing to work with varying perspectives on timescales and project management and throughout the process we learnt a lot about expectations around museum collections availability, documentation and retrieval.  Despite some difficulties the friction between artists and museums is really interesting.Our ideas were challenged, tested, and in turn better projects were produced. This is the kind of useful friction that leads to new ways of working.   It highlights the challenges of working in a museum, and particularly highlights the need for museums to evolve their understanding around public expectations of collections access in projects.  Friction pushes all staff and can innovate all areas of the museum, by engaging them in the creative process.

 

4. Adapting and Compromise

Flexibility, adaptability and accepting change became key components of the Decoded project.  The nature of creative practice means that things can change quite quickly and often, for example in terms of what is possible. As a result of such changes, there can be impacts upon such things as collections material availability, installation, and evaluation. There is therefore a need to be able to react quickly to changes to the project, by both the artist and the museum, but also to find the space to accommodate these. It is important to constantly refer back to the aims and objectives of the project, and to reflect. Both artists and museum staff need to become very good at adapting to change and adjusting the process accordingly to match that change.

 

5. Encouraging Dialogue, Provocation and Confusion

By working with digital artists to reimagine museum collections, it encourages dialogue, provocation, and confusion for staff and for visitors. Confusion is a profound tool, because it prompts museum staff and the visitors to ask questions.  Seeing museum collections through an artist perspective has really challenged my perceptions of what is possible when it comes to digital interpretation.  It has made me think beyond text and image and to look at the abstract, the immersive and the noisy.

 

6. Documentation, Documentation, Documentation

Decoded resulted in a two week temporary installation, it was ephemeral by its very nature. It’s not unusual for artists’ projects in museums to be ephemeral, which makes documenting them essential. They are full of lessons that can guide future projects inside and outside the museum, so despite the short nature of the installation, it is important to document the process and the outcomes.   For Decoded we decided to use video to document the process of the project as well as to act as a legacy for each of the Decoded artworks.  This rich video documentation serves as a archive of ideas that can be used as inspiration for future digital projects.

 

A big thank you to all the artists,TWAM and Newcastle University Institute for Creative Arts Practice, and Dominic Smith.  It was a great project!

I’d love to know what you think. What else can we learn from digital artists’ projects in museums? What have I missed? Are the learnings different with an artist in residence project compared to a collaboration for a specific theme? 

 

What is Digital Change in Museums anyway?

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Or to put another way: Do we need to understand Digital Change in Museums?

I’ve been thinking about digital change a lot lately. Change is very difficult to do, let alone manage, and what happens when you throw digital into the mix?  We continuously wonder and marvel at the possibilities digital presents, yet we seem to be constantly separating ‘digital’ out as an individual entity and therefore struggle to make sense of its impact on our lives. And if individuals find it difficult to understand, adapt and accept these digital transformations, how do cultural organisations deal with digital change?

But the more I think about digital change, the more I begin to wonder what on earth is it?  Is the term ‘digital change’ a bit of a misnomer? Is it still true are we really struggling to understand digital? Personally I feel like we are at a tipping point, where digital isn’t something separate anymore but is something which is embraced and no-one runs screaming from the building when the term is mentioned.

Today digital touches everyone and everything. It is part of everyday life – communications, retail, entertainment, education, medicine etc. So why when it comes to museums and change is it seen as something separate, and actually quite daunting?

Over the past few weeks there has been the Arts Council and Culture 24 Digital Change: seizing the opportunity online’ event at BALTIC – Centre for Contemporary Art and the Richard Dimbleby Lecture 2015 by Baroness Martha Lane Fox – both discussing the need for change when it comes to understanding technology and the internet.

But what does Digital Change actually mean to cultural organisations?  How is it defined? How is it understood?  And what is the appropriate response?

It may very well mean one thing to large national cultural institutions – “Digital as a Dimension of everything” from the Tate springs to mind and large ongoing digital transformations at the nationals are prime examples, leading Ross Parry to believe that the cultural sector is at the beginnings of being ‘Post Digital’.  But what about the smaller organisations? The museums in the regions? Are they ‘Post Digital’? Do they understand digital change?

One thing the Digital Change conference at the Baltic discussed was the fact that doing digital well is difficult. “It takes skills that cultural organisations often don’t have in-house, it costs money they don’t have and it’s hard to measure if anything is really having an impact.”  This doesn’t sound like something that has been accepted and embraced now does it?

But really should we be talking about digital change or just change?

Instead of thinking digital change perhaps we should be thinking about organisational change and how it is managed within museums. Ultimately how we think about and understand change affects our ability to anticipate, shape and direct it using digital technologies.

Within museums there is a sense of fluid, fast-moving change arising from the proliferation of digital technologies. Signs and talk of change are everywhere.  But, there’s no avoiding that museums are generally conservative, and change and innovation are often lost in translation in between the realms of bureaucracy, financial streamlining and supposed time and resource efficiency savings. This friction is clearly a frustration for those angling for change.

Perhaps we should reconsider the overemphasis on digital and of digital strategies and planning in our discussions and management of change processes within museums.  Instead, we should focus our attention and effort on the dynamic, interactive and conversational basis of organisational change.  One of the best books I’ve read about museums and change is Robert Janes’ Museums and the Paradox of Change.  It suggests understanding change is more about encouraging responsiveness and learning, not necessarily strategic planning.  If you haven’t read this book, I do recommend it.  It’s a really honest and open account of organisational change within a museum.

Once we understand organisational change processes then we can start to think about our ability to predict, shape and direct it using digital technologies.

 

HOW HARD IS IT TO 3D SCAN A LIGHTBULB? Part 2

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Can you 3D print a Lightblub?

In my last post I discussed the difficulties of scanning a light bulb.  Its transparent, and this causes quite a few problems with 3D scanning technology.

 

But we managed sort of, so now I’m going to discuss the process of turning the digital scan into a 3D printed object.

The chances are you already know all about 3D printing and the potential it offers museums in numerous ways.  If not. Liz Neely and Miriam Langer’s Museum and the Web 2013 paper Please Feel the Museum: The Emergence of 3D Printing and Scanning is a good place to start, as is the Collections Trust post are we ready for 3D printing?

The 3D scanning of a historical light bulb from the UCL Science and Engineering collection raised a number of challenges that museum face when wanting to scan their objects, but we held an rather ‘suck it and see’ attitude and wanted to test out the possibilities.  A quick and dirty action research approach as a means to understand the technological potential.

A point of note, there are really three steps to 3D printing; scanning, modelling and printing.  Due to our novice status in the 3D printing world (and the time we had available), we pretty much skipped the modelling phase.  Hindsight suggests we should haven’t done that.  The scans we produced were not faultless, but scans can be cleaned up using free tools (see my earlier post about my 3D printed head – where MeshMixer was used to fix gaps in the models).  A nice free tool is MeshMixer which has built-in tools to help identify gaps in the scanned mesh and can auto-fix these.  MeshMixer is by AutoDesk and is free to download.  http://www.meshmixer.com/download.html

The Printer:

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We used a MakerBot: Replicator 2 to print our light bulbs.  UCL CASA kindly let us experiment with their Replicator 2.  If you look carefully you should be able to see my 3D printed head in the photo.

This uses heated plastic as a raw printing material and recreates objects from the scanned mesh files using a moving nozzle which melts the plastic and repeatedly plots layers molten plastic on top of each other to form a matrix.

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3D printing is a fairly temperamental process. Because the plastic reaches incredibly high temperatures and the printer has to run for a long time it can be a dangerous to leave it unattended.  So you can spend a long time watching the printing process.  Which is fun to start off with, but it soon gets really really dull.  This light bulb took about 3 hours to print.

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The final product:

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Over all we were quite impressed with the final product. It isn’t a bad representation.  I still don’t think we can call it a replica but it definitely looks like a lightbulb.

Once we had our printed objects, we did a couple of workshops in the Grant Museum and Sidmouth Museum, and talked to lots of people about 3D printing and whether creating new objects in this way can encourage a closer inspection and deeper understanding of historical museum objects.  Overall, all the visitors we spoke to were really interested in the process of 3D printing, many had heard of it, but had not seen or more importantly held a 3D printed object in real life.  But does 3D printing create a level of deeper engagement with the original museum object?  It certainly provoked visitors to look closely at the original and the 3D printed object, but I’m not sure if a deeper understanding of the historical objects was reached.  But there is definite potential there, which we want to explore in the future.

Despite the relative rough and ready approach, we really learnt a lot, and the process provoked a lot of questions about how museums are responding to 3D printing.