It was not accidental that I sought employment in a museum as an undergraduate student in 1993. My passion for art history and studio art left me thirsting for engagement beyond merely reading the printed word.
The Michael C. Carlos Museum, located on the quad of Emory University in Atlanta, is an encyclopedic museum with an emphasis on Ancient Egyptian, African and pre-Colombian art, and with dogged determination in my first undergraduate semester at Emory University, I knocked on the front door and landed a student position in the Exhibition Design department of the Carlos Museum. I wanted to work with my professors to help install exhibitions that they curated, I wanted to find light for the artworks they selected, create pedestals to view selected artworks in new contexts and juxtapositions that they were never originally intended to be seen. The position, which I pursued in all four years of my undergraduate work, fired my philosophical interest in understanding ways that visitors interact with original works of art, and how museums can increase the richness of that experience.
The director of the Michael C. Carlos Museum at that time was an early adopter of technology in museums named Maxwell Anderson. As a pioneering director, he offered opportunities for student assistants such as myself to experiment with software such as Virtus, an early 3D modeling program that allowed scale renderings of gallery spaces in virtual reality, and one of the first university-licensed version of PhotoShop to explore methods of altering images. My museum colleagues at the time acknowledged that while other industries were adopting new technologies at a more rapid pace, museums tended to operate in dog years, and the year 1993 was still largely considered pre-Web. ‘The Information Super Highway’ had just become a buzzword, and I saw how some museum staff viewed technology as an early threat to primary experiences and actual encounters, somehow positioning an online visit as possibly more engaging or more important than an actual encounter in the museum’s galleries. Museums had gradually began to see the web as a place to publish online versions of their colorful brochures by the time I graduated college, but initially resisted placing objects online. I saw how the potential of how a ‘bricks-and-mortar’ experience could be augmented by a technological or online experience had yet to be fully realized. As of early 2012, Max Anderson, as well as another incredible museum rockstar named Rob Stein, are now both at the Dallas Museum of Art. Our field is eagerly awaiting to see what happens over there next!
The Education department had begun basic prototypes for a virtual docent program in collaboration with Georgia State University when I started working at the Carlos Museum. Early versions offered visitor access to virtual docents of varying backgrounds, ages and perspectives. The visitor could then select how they would like to experience a virtual tour of artworks on view in the museum’s galleries. The virtual docents were played by actors, but represented a far more diverse demographic than the actual docents trained by the museum. I was inspired by the potential of a meditated experience to enhance a museum visitor’s experience of an original work of art, and became curious about how far museums would reach in getting over their fear of embracing new technologies. Would some museum staff really believe that the web could steal its soul?
Just before starting in a graduate program at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1998, I learned of a new initiative at the Whitney Museum of American Art of a museum-based online resource for a major exhibition survey of American art from 1900-2000, organized in two parts. The show was called Art of this Century Exhibition. Under the stewardship of the director at that time, Maxwell Anderson, the Whitney Museum allocated large amounts of funding to develop an online resource for museum visitors. The initiative was funded by Intel, who also donated ten Pentium III PCs for public access in the museum’s fourth floor trustee room. The website was developed by web boutique firm FunnyGarbage, featured streaming audio and video and a sophisticated timeline navigation. My role was to act as the human interface between the technology and the visitor, inviting museum visitors in to experience the website either before or after they entered the galleries. Unsurprisingly, it was the museum docents that expressed the most fear about Intel’s presence, and genuinely believed that they were going to be replaced by a browser window.
Back in those days, Intel Corporation was also interested in testing some of the earliest handheld devices using infra-red beams to read frequencies in the galleries to access work-specific content. I spent Saturdays working with families to conduct focus groups with young children, doling out cumbersome prototypes of pocket PCs with streaming video and audio. Visitors were asked to walk through the galleries and encounter an interactive multi-media experience, such as featuring video footage of founding director Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney stepping out of a carriage in grainy black and white film shot in the 1920s. The screen would then go blank and say, “Now, please look at the artwork.” I would watch young and adult audiences alike suddenly break from their reverie, as their movie-watching experience was interrupted by a prompt to actually look at the painting hanging in the gallery. I began thinking about the various ways that new media experiences that could usurp the power of an original work of art, simply by introducing an obtrusive device. I wondered about how mediated experiences could actually encourage careful looking in the galleries, and started developing theories about how some of the learning could happen beyond the limitation of a website or a handheld device.
Managing that room for six days a week for several months was a crash course in museum behavior. I learned first-hand about some of the misguided assumptions that technology companies and museum staff alike held about casual museum visitors. Many visitors asked bluntly, ‘Why would I want to see the artwork online, when I can see the original here at the museum?’ Visitors did not want to use their allocated time at the museum looking at a website at the museum. If museum visitors were brave enough to actually sit down in front of the computer, it often became apparent that they were accessing the Internet for the first time. I often saw older museum visitors take the mouse off of the mousepad and point it at the screen, as if it were a television remote control. The joy I felt in assisting these older visitors become comfortable in navigating the internet inspired me to view the museum as a potential site for encounters that were beyond not just about art, but about basic social connections, and an opportunity to help someone get over their initial fears about technology.
I carried these observations with me to my graduate study at RISD, in the department of Art + Design Education. The first year was a residency program, and I interned in the RISD Museum’s education department. While writing my graduate thesis on the impact of technology on contemporary arts education, I secured a position at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York as Education Manager for New Media. At the age of 24, I was charged with the responsibility to specify the technology for a 8,200 square-foot art and technology education center called the Sackler Center for Arts Education. Over six years, I oversaw and developed site-specific programs for adults, youth, families, teachers, seniors and high school students, inspired by the museum’s exhibitions and permanent collections. The greatest achievement in those 6 years was to empower K-12 teachers in learning how to bring technology into their own classroom by using corporate grade software such as Microsoft Office in creative ways. I taught teachers to build frame-by-frame animations in PowerPoint, and Adobe PhotoShop to document their students’ process in experimental design courses. This work eventually led to a fruitful collaboration with the Department of Education in New York City to offer ongoing and extensive Professional Development courses for teachers for over three years; a partnership that has still continued after I left.
After six years at the Guggenheim, I joined the education department at The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston in 2006 to head their teen programs, first as Teen Programs Manager and now as Associate Director of Education. My role was to expand current offerings in film to include a comprehensive program in animation, sound, video, weblogging, podcasting and other types of programs for teenagers, as well as start a Regional Youth Media Art Education Consortium (rymaec.org) for K-12 teachers to encourage the use of technology. I also organized two national conferences at the ICA about the importance of art museums and contemporary art, in which teens were the primary speakers on topics that ranged from gender issues in contemporary museum education to the requirements for creating museums as safe spaces.
My most recent museum position in fall 2011 as Public Programs Manager for the BMW Guggenheim Lab in New York City was a white-knuckle ride. I pulled together over 190 public programs to run over 55 days. We had over 57,000 visitors over ten weeks. But more importantly for my practice, the experience helped me understand new possibilities for audience engagement when traditional museum barriers are removed. The space, colloquially known as an “urban laboratory, a community center and a think tank” had no walls, no entrance fee, and open hours. My objective in working with city officials and community organizers for ten weeks was to create an open platform for hands-on workshops, lectures, screenings and events. The theme for New York was “confronting comfort,” in efforts to consider what we give up and what we gain by living in cities, and also explore tensions between public and private comfort. It felt like working for a start-up and our team worked extremely hard on that project. I’ll post some of what develops in Mumbai and Berlin here in the weeks ahead.
As I bring much of this experience in working in an experimental and on-traditional museum space into my doctoral study, I will remain in New York to continue writing and thinking about how urban education can be transformed by using technology as an interpretive tool to consider the built environment in design and architecture.
It has been sixteen years since I have left the Carlos Museum, and I have since dedicated my practice in the use of technology as an interpretive tool to learn and react to works of art in several institutions. While I have largely held an interest in creating ideal scenarios that are tightly edited and structured within the context of a museum visit, and have overseen three art education technology centers in various capacities, I believe that the museum field has yet to harness the power of art, design, technology and social media. I have collected anecdotal evidence that the growth of an individual’s appreciation and personal connection with an original work of art expands in direct correlation to instances in which they find deeper connections to their everyday lives. I have concentrated my educational and professional pursuit within the intersection of education, contemporary culture, new media, and civic engagement in museums with hopes to radicalize our profession.