Oral History of Museum Computing: Bruce Wyman
This oral history of museum computing is provided by Bruce Wyman, and was recorded on the 8th of February, 2021, by Paul Marty and Kathy Jones. It is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license (CC-BY), which allows for unrestricted reuse provided that appropriate credit is given to the original source. For the recording of this oral history, please see https://youtu.be/DRSOS9nwdds.
I went to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. I grew up outside of the D.C. area primarily. But the important thing about Case was, I was there from 1986 to 1990, and I left without finally getting my degree, so, I’m one of those people that that does not have a degree and somehow persevered in the field despite that, with a huge chip on my shoulder undoubtedly, but nonetheless, I have accepted it at long last.
One of the things that we did at Case was in the late ‘80s. We decided to network everybody’s dorm room. And I led that from the student side of the equation, right, I was part of the senior team that was doing the decision making, students and, and kind of doing the early planning. We ran fiber to everybody’s dorm room in 1988. And, in fact, my original computer, an SE 30, had a fiberboard in the, the additional slot that’s there. So, I’ve been on the Internet continuously since 1987 with an email address that still works since then, and so you know, this idea of, of what technology could be, and I guess it was, I guess it was still the NSF.net then was really kind of pivotal about like, “Hey, you can change a lot of stuff and there’s a lot of things that will happen over this,” and, and our premise at Case was one day over these wires we’ll have both data and telephony and video, right, anticipating a lot of stuff in the future that at the time was a long shot, but turned out to be prescient and actually reasonably accurate. Obviously, we didn’t, we didn’t set up the account such that we’d all be famously rich by now, which would have been the other smart thing to do, but hindsight, is always 2030. Right.
So when I when I left school, I went to Boston. I had a good friend who went to MIT and I started volunteering at the New England Aquarium because I’d had a veterinary background, when I was in high school, I was, I was always kind of a science nerd with a biology background, a science background, and a bunch of eclectic stuff, and also some design stuff. I helped a friend start a computer company in Cleveland and did all the design work for, for the work we did there. When I was at the New England Aquarium, I started off doing marine mammal research. I was part of the rescue and rehab program. I dealt with stranded seals, whales, dolphins. I did thousands of necropsies on animals and, and even still in my resume I put, I have that I can flense whales because that’s, you know, if everybody’s looking for all things being equal, you want the unique outlier of your skills, and frankly, in meetings that you have, that skill is really kind of the, the “drop the mic” moment.
But, it was a good time to be at the New England Aquarium. We collaborated with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and Marine Biological Laboratories, and in 1994, they had a nascent web presence, right. I mean, it was months after stuff had started and David [Remsen]… I’m going to butcher his name. I can’t think of it at the moment, but they had started setting up stuff to, to have their materials and research be online, right, with what the web is going to be at that point and, and I’d spent a summer, a couple of summers, down there doing work, originally doing… we’re touching up thousands of old slides getting rid of dust and scratches, and cleaning those up for publication, right, and, and for being online, frankly, right, a precursor to every museum wanting to have a collections online, you know, we had some experience of it.
And then in 1995, the Aquarium itself decided that it wanted to… Well, I because I was president of the volunteer association at the time, and I was volunteering anywhere from… and this is an important part to know about getting into museums, is my work at the New England Aquarium initially for those, those, those first five years was all volunteer, and I volunteered anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 hours a year, at the Aquarium which, as you quickly do the math, is more than a full-time position.
Because I go on standings, right, and so, if you’re on a standing for like 24 hours at a time for four days, that’s really 96 hours of volunteer, right, so it’s, it’s easy to add up, but you know, I had a, I worked at Mass General Hospital third shift and pediatric micro chemistry on the weekends to pay for my volunteering habit at a museum because my premise was that, you know, if you succeed in life by being in the right place at the right time, I didn’t know when those would be, but I could be in the right place a hell of a lot of the time, and that’s how it worked out.
With the volunteer program I was sort of [with the] Trustees for the Aquarium because, as the head of volunteer program and good friends with our President of the time, Jerry Schubel, and he and I started noodling about doing a website for the Aquarium and we launched the first one on October, October 13, a Friday, because I’m you know I like to have ominous occasions. Friday the 13th in 1995 was the launch of the Aquarium website that I had put together and had built from scratch. And then, you know, things progressed from there, because I had the design background, they started paying me for the work I was doing. I eventually became part of the core exhibits team and oversaw the uses of technology in the public spaces, and we were going through an expansion at the time on Central Wharf in Boston.
I spent another five years at the Aquarium, and went to an MIT Media Lab spin off called Nearlife, where we invented technologies to do interactive environments and experiences. We were doing, we did work with Nickelodeon at the time to kind of combine things that you would do online with, with live cable stream and have interstitials that kids were creating in a moment appear a few minutes later online or on TV. We did exhibits for places like The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. We did Net World, which has a mixed history, but there was some innovative stuff in that where we did 30-foot-long walls that were giant touch screens or with multiple people can use the same time, and we, we just … because it didn’t exist, you just write the vision-sensing systems that do that, right.
So, so early on, I had this very deep look behind the curtain of how technology could work, and then, how you apply that in a very simplified way for the average person to experience, right, and all of that ends up having been a premise for: One, how do you talk to people that don’t know anything about technology about what experience can be? Abstracting them away from the “how it’s done” to the “what should be done”, right, and how you experienced that. And then, frankly, how to be scrappy about it? And, as you point out, when I went to Denver in 2004 for another expansion, we were adding about 300,000 square feet. And I promise that I’ll breathe at some point so anybody else can speak.
But that was with an idea of where we were adding another building, we were… While the Denver Art Museum was known for good, progressive educational experiences for visitors, we realized technology can be a part of that, and so I was a guy who was kind of brought on to like, dream up stuff and make it interesting and good and relevant, and with enough of the eclectic background that I had, I was able to play this role where we augmented experiences, right, we didn’t replace stuff that was going on, but rather, you know, I was the sort of person because of the exhibit background could interpret what we were doing and figure out what are some of the nice embellishments that we can do with technology, and again I brought with me somebody that had worked with me back in at Nearlife, Aubrey Francois, to be the head of I.T., and then also primarily to do software development because Aubrey was incredibly good at that. We had a good long relationship that, you know, that I might wave my arms, he understands in a good way to interpret that via code about what that should be and what that means, and we both have kind of a snobby approach about quality of experience that meant that on a skeleton budget with three people, we are able to invent all of the stuff for an entire museum.
Which, like you know, Seb, and Aaron, and Micah on Cooper Hewitt when they re-did stuff with the Pen a couple years ago, it’s, it’s really a team of three, and then you know, a broader supporting cast of staff. But yeah, that was kind of the start in the field and, and having strong opinions early on, which, I think I’m known for, but I think the secret part of that is I love to change my mind too, right, I mean, I just want to have a strong opinion because I’d rather have somebody flex around that and say, you know, explain to me why I’m wrong, not in a condescending way would be ideal, but, I like to change my mind about stuff, right, I like to, I like to hear things be different than what I perceive them to be. So, I’ll stop there for a second but I can keep going.
[Marty]: Well, I mean. We definitely want you to keep going, but I just wanted to mention… I threw this in the chat. You were talking about Woods Hole, right. I have a very old friend from high school who’s been working at Woods Hole for years. It’s Joe Futrelle. You don’t happen … didn’t ever cross paths with them, did you?
No, no, and the shitty thing is – and apologies for swearing on your, on your recording – is that I know, I have to admit, you know at 52, some of the early experiences 30 years ago are, are dim in my memory, so he may have been somebody that… so, I may have known him one time, but it maybe looks vaguely familiar, but, I cannot picture a face, or who, that is.
[Marty]: Well, and exactly right, the only thing I know about what he does there now is that he leads on the team that does the artificial intelligence for the visual recognition of the images they get off the ocean floor to identify what…
Oh that’s good, yeah. Well, it’s interesting, right? So, I mean one of the one of the projects I’ve worked on at Near Life, We had partnered with PGAV, which is a, um, firm out of St. Louis, Missouri, and they’re known for doing theme parks, right. They, they do a lot of the Busch Gardens work, especially there and in Southern Virginia, but they were brought on to do the Georgia Aquarium. They did the master planning and design of all that, and as you’ll recall…
You know, the Georgia Aquarium is a little bit unique in that it’s not like other aquariums. It is, it is much more theme park-y, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. I think there’s actually a lot of good stuff to take away from theme parks that museums can learn from in terms of experience and cohesiveness and completeness of what that is. Right, I mean you go to Disney and you spend your money all day there. You don’t regret spending the money all day. You’ve had a good experience, and yet, you know, I recognize for many museum people, the idea of a theme park is anathema to the quality of what a museum should be.
But we worked in the Georgia Aquarium. One of the, one of the projects we had at one point, it was, I guess it was a $300 million project when we first started and, and we cut out a bunch of stuff and it whittled down to 200 million, but we were doing, we were doing, we were doing vision sensing of creatures that were in the tank, right. That we could we could do some sort of overlay, you know some sort of Pepper’s Ghost effect on the interior, interior tanks. The camera sensing at the time, because we’ve had a bunch of that vision sensing work that we had done previously, you know, we could do basic image recognition of things and, you know, the, the thing, and there’s a project I’d worked on when I was still at the New England Aquarium where the visual recognition of things is, is tricky.
We, we did an exhibit about late Victorian cichlids, before I left the aquarium and typically the picture rails you have in many aquaria at that time were just photographs, right, and the problem is people are not good at identifying this crappy photograph with that fish that’s moving, right. It’s, it’s a little bit of a tricky bit, so we ended up doing watercolors of all the things that were in the exhibit. And recognition shot up dramatically, right, and, and, the thing is because you’re kind of highlighting like beautiful features in that fish and kind of, you know, broader details which become much easier to recognize like the quick flash of color, or the pattern that you see, or something like that and you know the one of the ways that uh, I’ll send you a separate video, but, at the time, based on those watercolors, I did a series of morphing animations between… there’s a progenitor cichlid that lived about 20,000 years ago in Lake Victoria, and there are now a couple of hundred different speciations as a result of that, and I have a more, I did a simple app in the aquarium where, if you choose a kind of feeding strategy and where it’s located in the, in the aquatic column, you know, what did what did this progenitor cichlid morph into, and this evolved version of that, right, as a way to try and understand see some of that. Which is oddly an echo to — hold on for a second, my phone is chatting me up for no good reason, um — which ironically echoes the experience of why I got into museums in the first place. I’m going to ramble all over the place, so if either of you need me to stop, please wave wildly or I’ll just keep going, apparently. I’m in a chatty mood today, lucky you.
The reason I got involved in museums is, I grew up, I grew up in in the D.C. area primarily and would go to the Smithsonian all the time, because I’m that kind of a dork. And National Air and Space [Museum], I was there for the opening in the late ‘70s, and there was an interactive that used to hang, or the original, or that sat near where the original enterprise model hung in the galleries. It was, it was a brain-dead, simple interactive. It was a, it was a grid of buttons. I think there were nine, and one axis was “size of planet”, the other one was “environment”, you know land, sea, or air. And you just press the button at the corresponding intersection of those things, and you’d see on a screen in front of you a visualization, a NASA artist rendering of the kind of creature that that might inhabit that. It is, you know it’s a series of nine images and, and I’ve talked to Vicky Portway since then, and I actually have some of those original assets that were using it, you know it’s just run off of a video display player, you know the height of technology at the time, but, but the thing that was compelling about it, and I would have been about ten when I first encountered this, is I recognized that I thought about it when I wasn’t there, right, and, and it was those permutations that kind of sat in the back of my mind and I recognize that, you know if years later, when I thought about the things that had influenced me, that I thought so much about that, and thought about what it meant and how to apply that and that made me think about other things and learn other things. That that kind of inspiring moment of really simple engagement is compelling! I’d love to do that, for the rest of my life and that’s what that is, frankly, why I started doing museum work was thinking back to stuff like that, and you know, of course, having a lifelong love of museums in the first place.
But all that to say — hey, vision sensing, which is where I guess I started, we did some of that we were going to do the Georgia Aquarium, we ended up axing it because of budget limitations, but totally there with you and is the sort of thing that even when I was talking to, um, I did some work with Think Design last year on the redesign of the Shedd Aquarium. We were doing some, some places that we have identified as places doing image recognition for fish identification. There was some discussion about if we can do RFID tags to sense things that are specifically going by, but there’s a limitation in the water column of how far you can sense that…
Oh, I guess that would be the one other thing I’d say is that I’ve also had enough of a technical background that I understand weird limitations of technology, so I understood you know, like when we were inventing in Denver infrared touch tables, you know, we were doing the research of the different infrared spectrum, outsourcing LEDs from remote places in China, we sampled those things, I mean, I made the PCBs that we used to embed around the, around the edges of stuff, so I mean knowing a little bit of technology goes a long way to be able to suss out whether something is bullshit or not, and that filter has been uniquely useful again and again. I’ll breathe again now, sorry.
[Jones]: It’s great, Bruce.
I’m just supposed to rant to you that’s what this was is that.
[Jones]: Is that right? Yeah.
[Marty]: If you want, of course, yeah. I have a question. Were you putting the RFID chips in the fishes? Do they like that?
Yeah, no, no. It’s, it’s, it’s not atypical right? I mean, on animals they’re called bit tags, and, in fact, if you have a pet, almost certainly it has a bit tag between its shoulder blades. It’s the same sort of deal we started doing that, at the aquarium probably… let me think about it, if this is actually known for a moment, we probably would have started doing some of the animals around 2000. [Marty holds up his cat] Oh yeah, they’re… yeah. They’re small little tags that you just, they, they sit in an oversized syringe. It’s a quick process to inject it in there, especially, like your cat. I’m pointing to one of my cats now. There’s enough subcutaneous tissue that there’s a big void there that… where it causes no problem just to float in there for years and years.
You can do that with fish and it’s a fast way, if you have like, say a school of like 50 Tang and you’re trying to actually track treatments over time, you know which fish, you have actually treated. Or if this, this abrasion that you’ve now observed on this fish, you can I make sure it’s, it’s the actual one that you think it is, using a bit tag. The other cool thing is that not a lot of people know about is that ultrasounds work, really, really well in water. You can do you can do something for a very long distance away and get a real read on it. It is like dolphin acoustics and echolocation that, that they do, but, uh, because water is such so sound transmissible, it works phenomenally well underwater and so like you know when you jelly up your stomach well, maybe not you, Paul, but, you know, when you’re looking at internal organs, you know that’s effectively what you’re doing is you’re just adding a bunch of water medium for the sound wave to travel through. Anyway, okay. Well, this is not where I expected this to go…
[Marty]: So that, that was that was great. I also love what you were saying about, about Denver and, and understanding enough about the technology so that you can call bullshit on people in the right situation.
Yeah, yeah. The tricky thing there was, um, it was great. So, Denver started in 2004 and, as you recognize in our field that’s a relatively early point for technology and that. And even more so right, I mean in those days, and probably for another five years after that, technology was the back ghetto of – wow, that’s, that’s poor phrasing these days — was the, the poor underserved community in the museum field. And in fact, most places that anybody’s doing technology was, it was web-based because that’s where you could get away with it. That I was actually screwing around in the exhibit spaces was really unusual.
And, and I remember going into my first meeting with the curators early on, and you know, I just came into the room, because I was, you know, the, the weird hire that a lot of people didn’t understand, and you know, had been advocated by the Trustee team and some outside advisors that came in and said, like, “I’m the guy who’s here to replace a bunch of your weird art on the walls with like screens and stuff and actually doing technology that will be effective,” and right, every curator was like, “Uhhhhh…” Right? And, and I’m bullshitting, right, I mean it’s, it’s a joke for me, right, and I said, “No, not really that’s not where I am, but I just want to get that out of the way,” right?
And I spent a lot of the first year that I was there working with curators to work through what the technology was and why we would do some of this stuff and making it exceptionally clear that — and this is true — I don’t care about technology that much, right, I care that it’s used well, right, but that it exists or not exist. If it if it is better to do something on a piece of paper or a bit of laminate card, I would rather do that because it is so much more cost effective, frequently to do it that way.
And back then, the investment was in hardware. I would argue that these days, hardware is not the expensive thing, it’s actually good software capability and people that are good software developers, but, but, we went through a couple of like the modern, modern and contemporary installations. There is a — I should be careful — there is a piece by an artist that would frequently crash that to the untrained eye looks like a screensaver of stuff moving around in a space that was projected onto the floor.
And, and the dilemma was when, you know, why did it keep crashing? Aubrey and I, you know, we got the computer, we, the software code was on it, was written in Java, Aubrey was able to decompile it, quickly understand like, oh, it’s an old version of Java. It just doesn’t do any good garbage collection so you’re just running out of memory at some point, and you know, we, we talked to the curator like, “Well, we can fix this. We can rewrite it and do the same thing, right, or you know, update this to do the same thing.” Or, you know, we had to point out to her, the dilemma is, is, if we got a new computer as well, it’s going to run so much faster because it’s tied to the clock speed of the machine, the original version. And so we had this long discussion with the curator and, eventually, you know with her permission, we reached out to the artist because I genuinely questioned, like, maybe part of the experience is that it’s supposed to crash, right, and that certainly having – I minored in art history, I should say as well, which adds other nuance to it — I’ve seen plenty of artist statements over the time about you know the interpretation, so…. that or maybe it is supposed to get faster on better equipment, right. Do we need to artificially slow it down and, and you know, the end result is when we reached out to the artist’s studio, and they’re like, “Oh, no. If you could just fix it and make it work, that’d be great.”
Right? Which is fine, but the curators, you know, had this idea, like, “I cared enough about the other stuff that I shouldn’t care about in order to make it match what it should be as opposed to what I thought it should be”, right? And so, you know a lot of the initial years there was building of that sort of validation. So by the time we left, we weren’t the ones initiating technology stuff. It was people coming to us, like, so we had this idea for this thing, and we’re like, “Yeah, we can do that!” Right, and, and which was the right dynamic to eventually get to, which was rewarding in its own way.
[Marty]: Like I just put in the chat, and this is absolutely fascinating, to me: changing the code is changing the art, right?
That’s great! Yes, that’s exactly right. Yeah, yeah, um, yeah, and… but, but it was so great, to get the email back like, “Oh no, just fix it. That would be great,” was, was perfect. Yeah, so. What else would you like to know just keep going? Random shit?
[Marty]: Or, I mean this is, this is going great. We’re getting just fantastic stories! As you, as you go through your, go through your life, right… and again I mean, this this what we’re seeing here is these things that are happening behind the scenes that the visitors don’t know about, the curators don’t know about, the artist may not even know about, right?
Well, yeah. I mean Denver was good, too, because then, when we started working with artists, we would, we would work with them to evolve their experience, based on what our capabilities were, right? I mean, many artists, they’re kind of coming in and saying, “Here’s my site-specific installation. Contact me if you need anything different.”
We had one artist, in particular… yeah, I know it’s long enough, I should be able to say these things… Jennifer Steincamp was commissioned to do a site-specific installation in the new building. The new building, the Hamilton Building, is characterized by dynamically sloping walls. I consider it to be architecturally honest. Like, if you ever look at it from the outside, that is what it is like on the inside, and much of the … much of the concern of the rest of the world before we ever opened was like, “Oh my God, you have weird walls! How will you ever deal with art on that?” And, and Dan Cole, who was the head of Museum Exhibit Design of the time, and also came out of an aquarium background, ironically, he was responsible for a bunch of this stuff, and he and I, for the most part, in collaboration with the Director, Lewis Sharp, if we decided that we would do something, it just took the three of us to kind of, say, like, “Okay, we’ll do that,” and it would happen, right. We didn’t, we didn’t have a huge, cumbersome process which, which, given the timeline for a lot of stuff, worked out well. But, you know, at some point, we recognized like, yeah, the diagonal sloping walls are not the horrible nightmare that people think they are, right. I mean, we just kind of worked with it, and accepted it.
Then, at some point when I was projecting stuff on walls, as you learn to embrace it. Like, yeah, so this slopes off at a weird angle. That is part of this environment, and I just accept it, right? I wasn’t like I need to correct it and make it square again. It’s like no, it does… and so you know if I was shooting video that would appear on that wall, I would think about that angling and the distortion of it before we ever shot the video, to make sure, think about how things lined up.
In this instance, Jennifer had been working from architectural drawings of that wall and what it should be, and her work is, um, it’s usually a, it’s usually a 3D rendering stuff in the physical space and it’s an early form of projection mapping, would be the easiest way to think about it. And there’s been a lot of variety to her works, so I don’t mean to pigeonhole it in any way like that. The dilemma is, is, that at the time, she would pre-render all those things to fit the geometry of a given space. And when we did the installation a couple weeks before opening, it turns out that one of the interior walls had moved by maybe four or six inches. And we had this hard, and it just barely clipped the bottom of her work where the projectors are hung, and the print and the projectors were on the railing system that we’d had because we talked about making sure the lighting system could support these, you know, huge projectors that we may install from time to time, and having mounts for those. It was at the limit of what it could do, and we had a, we had a sincere conversation and full credit to her for asking the impossible thing right up right off the bat because I applaud that. She asked if we could move the interior wall. The answer, the answer was no.
You know, it was going to stay where it was, but [that’s] not unreasonable, but it was interesting, because then Aubrey and I started thinking about her problem because, you know, she would need very precise measurements of the new geometry and then be able to pre-render that in Adobe After Effects and/or Premiere. And, and, do the work and because Aubrey and I had done a bunch of weird stuff over time, you know, to us is like, well, why don’t we give you…? We can create an OpenGL window that that can just be easily distorted in 3D space. And so, you know, instead of like projecting onto the canvas, you know you’re projecting onto this object, and, you know, as you might know, then it just became a case of like, and we’ll throw, you know, a dozen control points around it and then we’re just suddenly like matching the edges of that that OpenGL geometry into the physical constraints of the space.
And so, you know, rather than her spending another week on distorting and testing and trying it again and see if it’s right or wrong, you know, we just we just wrote a software application that would be was the viewport for that stuff, and we can dynamically change it. And then that became like the tool that we used every other time, as we did projections elsewhere in the museum, to make sure that we could always match it to geometry. And, in fact, because the geometry of that building was so unusual, I frequently like to, like treat planes as the things that are sheared off in space, and have unusual shapes and match that, because it makes that sudden geometry really compelling, that it works in that way. And that was the secret thing in Denver that every time we did something, it was it was never a one-off project. I always did it as we were building a way of building the infrastructure that we would use in later products, even to the point of the first six months we were there, there is an exhibit about how the building was built and we did a bunch of video work in it, and we wrote the video players, rather, just like putting up a QuickTime window. We did some modifications of the video players that we’d want to run, that then served as the basis for what anytime we played video for the next eight years — six years – was, was part of the, the software that we’d use, and so it was always this long-term, incremental art and having early projects kind of do these incremental needs, right?
So at some point, it became like, “Okay, do I have a way to deliver video? Can I distort that video? Can I do weird effects to that video? I need a way to deliver audio. I need a way for people to be able to touch stuff. I want them to be able to touch the screen. I want them to be able to touch the floor. I want them to touch a wall.” And you keep building up the sensing technologies around that sort of stuff, so that at some point, you have a pretty strong compendium of tools in the toolbox that you can use to kind of almost do anything.
Yeah, there’s, there’s, there’s a stupid amount of behind the scenes work, and R&D that Aubrey and I just put in in off hours because it’s the sort of thing that we enjoyed, right? I mean, you know, the idea that in 2006, we, right, I mean the, the initial big touchscreen-y sort of stuff was based on infrared stuff and, and there’s a paper we’d seen out of… maybe it was an Ars Electronica paper or somewhere else, about a, you know, shooting in infrared LEDs on the edge of a piece of glass or plex, and then wherever you touch that, it reflects down to a camera below, right? FTIR – frustrated transmission of infrared? Yeah, that actually may be the right acronym. But, based on that, you know, we built a prototype, you know, a month later, and then you know, did it for real in a traveling exhibition between the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and Denver. And built massive touchscreen tables when they did not exist commercially at the time.
So now, the downside of that was… um, yeah, right? The real pain point is when they went to Atlanta, they have halogen lighting there, and we had developed all of our work under fluorescents in our office, and so it turns out that, um, the very specific wavelengths of IR that we were looking at because IR happens in a couple of different ranges and, depending on what you want to do… um, their halogen, halogen lights did not work with our code, and it was this hard press of, of you know, when we were on site installing, of like a 72-hour coding stretch of Aubrey and I kind of puzzling through, you know, what are the, what are the cameras actually seeing? How do we distort that geometry? How do we think about it? What are the thresholding that we have? Right? Are we capturing when somebody puts our arm over the table? Are we capturing part of their, their sleeve that’s against the table as part of the reflection? How do we determine the regularity of the shape of their hand versus a finger point and decide, okay, when it’s round enough? Accommodate wet and cold weather if you’re wearing gloves? Right? There’s a bunch of weird stuff that goes into what seems like a really straightforward, “I see a bright spot in a camera.”
Yeah, that bright spot is tricky to do. We ended up coming up with a way that it worked, but our dilemma was that it became sensitive enough that as finger oils built up on the surface, it would begin to interfere with the with the touch sensing after maybe an hour, and so the lousy solution in Atlanta was, um, you needed to have staff clean the tables about every two hours to clean them down and, and keep it working, they would reset just fine, but it was, you know, it was it was fairly harrowing. And every time that you have a piece of technology … and because I’m kind of nutty, right? — if technology is down in an exhibit, that is, I think the worst experience of technology. Unless you’re not a technology advocate, and then, in which case, you know, your case has been proven passively for you.
But it’s there’s, always this weird struggle of like how to make this stuff work and how to make it look like it’s working for everybody, without knowing what it takes to make that work, right?
Yeah, I have no idea where we started and why I ended up there, but yeah.
[Marty]: it’s a bit like a magic trick, right, so… I wanted to go back to something you said earlier about the, the relationship, you have with the Director that… there, you’re talking about, I mean, prototyping, iterative design, and the long-term use — these aren’t just one-off projects. That requires a mindset of a buy-in from your admin, right? How do you get that to work?
Yeah, so, so Lew Sharp, Lewis Sharp. We got it, we got, right, so I originally reported to the Director for number of years at the Denver Art Museum. We reached a gentleman’s agreement after a certain point, because we had weekly meetings and I would talk through what’s going on, and, and Lewis finally confessed to me that he understood very little of it. Right? He had, he had a handful of Trustees, and because I had a technology advisory group that was made up of external people from the museum, you know, they would just tell him, like, “No, this guy knows what he’s doing. He’s great. Keep supporting it.” And Lewis just finally at some point is like, “So, we can stop covering that. I just trust you at this point. Do what you need to do and it’s right. And, you know, do great things for us,” which, which, in a weird way for something that’s motivated like me is even higher pressure, right? Because it’s like, I actually do want to do good stuff and I don’t want you to care about the details, I just want you to care that it gets done.
And, in fact, you know, every place that I’ve worked at since then, there’s been a truth to that, right? I was at Second Story Interactive for some years… When I first came to Portland — that was why I came here — as part of the, the senior team there as Director of Creative Development and the point that we always tried to reach with every one of our clients was not to necessarily nitpick how it’s being done…. and there’s, there’s a difference between engagement with your, your clients, right? Or as a client, you know, the engagement with your vendor, and how stuff is being done. I heartily encourage that all the time. I’m not trying to dismiss that. But, at some point, you also want the trust to be there, right? So if you make some decisions, and you can explain why and that you’ve been able to validate that over time, that you’re not stupid, frankly, and that you’re making stuff with their best intentions and best intent at heart.
And that still characterizes the work that I do these days, right, I mean more recently I worked on the opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, a $300 million project in Winnipeg, where — and I guess that’s about five years ago, at this point — but, you know, that was overseeing all of the media production that was done for the 90-odd interactives, and managing them — nine different firms that we had doing that — overseeing the AV integration of the space. Working with Sina Bahram the time to do all the accessibility, which at that time, was far beyond what almost any other place had done, with ASL QSL Codex Sign language, English, French and a bunch of other assistive audio experiences as well.
It’s always going to be the case, at some point, that the projects are big and complex enough that you need to build that validation in in what you do and how you do it, and the decisions that you make. Heck, even in, even in Dallas, right, I had, I’d worked with Rob Stein when he was Deputy Director there to help create the DMA Friends program, which was kind of this new approach to what a loyalty and membership program could look like. And we made a bunch of kind of snap decisions that Max Anderson, who was the director of the time, you know, at the end, he’s like, “Just do what makes it right.” You understand, you know, kind of our premise about how we’re doing this and how to, how to gamify the experiences in a way, that felt good. And he knew that we were over-analyzing the data to find the flaws in our own work, right. We didn’t need somebody else to do that, right, I mean. And in fact, I remember there’s a point where Rob and I recognized that for an experience that’s trying to measure the engagement of people in the spaces, you know we’d have them check in on a mobile app as a way to kind of register that they were there. Yeah, within a month or two, we realized, oh, that’s just attendance. That’s not really engagement, nor does that give you depth of engagement, even if we can capture attendance two or three times to see like, you know, what’s the duration? That’s still not quite the same, right? And, and that in hindsight, is kind of one of the flaws and I don’t know that there was a better way to do that, other than you know, at some point, physical observation of people is really some of the end result that you need to do but, there are times that you have to … there’s, there’s an inherent skepticism that you need to learn about the things that you do, and be willing to kind of suffer through that and acknowledge it, that makes the things that you do then actually good and compelling, right, and there have been many cases like that, over and over. I’ll even rewind and go back to the Aquarium. Probably going to spend most of my concentration on the first half of my career, we did these, um, — Oh, this is a great project! This is, this is, this is, I was so glad to have this humiliating experience early in my career…
We were working with a robotics team over at MIT that was keen to do some stuff that you could do in an exhibit, and so we had this, we were going to do, in the new expansion, which never happened, we were going to have a Fiddler crab exhibit and Fiddler crabs are little crabs that have one claw that’s bigger than another, and they signal to each other by waving this claw. Sometimes it’s a threat, sometimes it’s recognition, what have you. And so, as a prototype, and probably, for, I don’t know, $10,000 or $20,000, which even, I guess, that’s still real money, but you know, it, at the time, it was like they used their own research money, so it wasn’t like out of our pocket. They spent some real money on developing a prototype that, that had a little embedded camera. And the idea was eventually we’d, you’d have a robotic Fiddler crab that could go into the exhibit. You could watch it there, and signal to other creatures, right, and see if they wave back to you, right? And we did a prototype of this and it moved around it, it, you know it wasn’t perfect, but it moved a little bit, and you can see some stuff and that was, that was amazing! I mean, it was so cool to see the thing work, and actually have Fiddler crabs wave back at you.
The humiliating part was we had an Educator there that then cut out some pieces of paper, and had a paperclip, and made a little paper claw, and waved it at the edge of the tank, and the other crabs waved back just as much. And, you know, for a buck-fifty in materials versus, you know, $20- or $30,000, that was the right call, right, and that was like that first point of like, yeah, maybe technology is not always the best approach for this, despite how glittery and beautiful, it can be. And even though I can rationalize, like, well yeah the crab-eye point of view is the important thing, like, yeah, it didn’t matter. It just isn’t a thing that needed to exist, right? And that and that kind of humility and kind of learning early on, always look for the inexpensive not-tech solution has been true over and over again.
[Marty]: I’m also thinking about it from the audience perspective…
[Marty]: If you’re controlling a little robot crab, you’re looking one degree removed if you’re waving, you know, yourself, right.
Well, I don’t know. You know, it depends it’s great … I’m actually going to do all this. It depends how, how close you press your face to the screen, right?
[Marty]: At the tank, right, yeah.
Right now and then, so the… you know, the the thing anybody would say these days, like, “Oh, you put on a pair of goggles?” And I’m like, “No, that’s awful.” But yes, right, there’s even, there’s even the modern equivalent, which, okay, so one of the things I found incredibly useful — actually even being able to apply that scenario now and know the modern solution would be is… the thing I stress more oft—well, I’m sure there are plenty of things I stress, and I stress about, the thing I tell people frequently is I went them to describe verbs of interaction to me, not nouns of interaction. And that has been incredibly good, because the thing I often get asked about is: How do you… how do you make this experience, you know… age proof? Right? How will it, weather over 10 years or 20 years? It’s like, if you thought about what the verbs of interaction are, those statements are always true. Like, “I want to see what crabs see.” Or “I want to wave at crabs.” Right? Those, it doesn’t matter what the technology is that does that. There are any number of different ways to do it. And in that case, a paper thing is the right thing to do. Or, if I want to see, maybe it’s… I look at a screen or I put on a pair of VR goggles or what have you. The technology can change as long as you know what the verbs are. Right? So the nouns, the nouns become immaterial and, and once you realize that, it becomes so much easier to imagine what a lot of these experiences are and how they evolve over time. And that some of the assets that you create now, and infrastructure, how those serve those things going into the future, right. So when you start think about like everything has an API, right, and so whether it be your collections or it’s a database or there’s someplace that it’s not that it’s not you know stuck in some closed environment that you always have some sort of flexibility to be able to do stuff with it, right? Yeah, that’s been, that’s … that was an incredibly useful lesson early on to learn.
[Marty]: It’s something that I also talk about a lot of my graduate students right — don’t get so hung up on the technology, because the technology comes and goes, you want to look at those skills, the verbs that are transferable right.
That’s exactly right yeah. And it’s interesting, too because, because then… I’m going back to… This may or may not happen. There was a project, when I was working with Thinc last year, Tom Hennes’ group out of New York, Thinc…
We had done brainstorming around experiences of sharks for two aquarium projects that they were working on. And, and again it goes back to this idea about, okay, what’s, what’s the verb in our interaction? Because then, it led to a technology solution. And the thing that’s interesting about sharks is they detect their environment in multiple ways. They do this low-level automatic stuff which is kind of, you know, “Where am I in the ocean? Which direction am I headed?”
There is a series of… of… They have the equivalent of lateral lines… I can’t think of what the organs are called at the moment because I haven’t thought about this for probably nine or ten months, um, which kind of does medium-range sensing. Like, gives them a sense of … like, it’s almost like crude sonar, right? Like, so it gives them underwater trainer – am I going around to see him out, and things like that.
And then, and then, I think the third thing they have is very short-range electrical impulses, which they feel around the perimeter of their face. And in this series of organelles that are there, and it’s interesting to see the thresholding from a very biological point of view, right? And I can get deep and wonky about this because of work I did 25 years ago at Mass Eye and Ear Infirmary about hearing research in cetaceans, where things really do come full circle! Or, or you learn your bag of tricks early on and just keep applying them over and over and think you’re very smart! Either one could be true. I don’t want to, I don’t want to go into that here. But, they have these three different ranges of sensing. And the thing is there’s no direct equivalent for us to experience that. We don’t, we don’t we use different senses to do that. And then, for sharks, it ends up being kind of overlapping sense of the same thing, right? It’s, it’s the same organelles on their body that… they give them different perceptions of this … and, and what it is to “see” as a shark is very different than what we see and experience.
And the solution we end up coming up, coming up with was… And we, you know, we haven’t, we didn’t get into prototyping, I don’t know if it will, because both projects kind of went sideways a little bit because of the pandemic, is, we came up with a haptic interface that you can rest your arm on, and it would be like a grid of little, little buzzy sensors, right? And, and you know some of the questions are like: What’s the discrete recognition that you have on your arm of being able to tell those different things apart?
But you know, assuming that you have a grid that’s, that’s good enough and feels rich and rich enough, and you can set your arms in it, you can do a couple of different things, and so, the equivalent of — what’s that low level sensing of kind of general magnetic stuff is kind of this deep rumble and kind of the longer wave of period, and you can do kind of like, let me do a slight pressure in different regions to kind of give you a sense of what’s off over there. You can then do kind of a more intermediate pressure that gives you this sense of the, the local surroundings and then you can do a quick little tickles for those electrical impulses. And there’s actually a reasonable facsimile to say like, “Okay, when I think about what the verbs of those things are, it turns out that I can use the same technology in slightly different ways, and probably the same interface that that’s how we can get really close to what a shark experiences without ever being a shark.”
And the interesting part is then I went through the full thing with both curatorial, with curatorial staff at both places, is this scientifically accurate, right? Because I was — the other thing is — I don’t want to create stuff that’s bullshit, right? I mean… or, or what’s the tradeoff, right? Is it close enough to accurate that, that it’s, it’s truthful and you’re not just making shit up for somebody, in a way. You know, pretend that this is the right experience because it’s, it’s like: Well, if you can do the real thing, I would go for the real thing, and that ends up being a completely right experience. I would love to see that happen, right? There’s, there’s some real, there’s some … because it is electromechanical that there is going to be a frailness to it that’s really going to be interesting to see if it gets prototyped, and then, and frankly, you know: How does it work through clothing versus directly on skin? You know, do you have the same discrete recognition on your forearm or not? Is your forearm really the best place or shouldn’t really be like let me put my hands or something because my fingertips are actually much more sensitive than my forearm, but that’s, you know, I don’t have the same kind of array capability, but, you know these all end up being the same kinds of problems, right? How do you abstract the thing into what the experience is, and what’s the technology that can solve it?
[Marty]: And you about those electrical impulses on the arm and everything I have a….
Well, to be fair, it is not electrical impulses. You’re going to get an equivalent of that, right, for the shark it’s electrical, right, so I’m not going to sit there and shock you. Let’s, let’s, let’s be cautious there.
[Marty]: I was just wondering about a friend mine who’s a professor of electrical engineering at Drexel, and runs a STEAM lab there, and one of the projects is a clothing that has circuits into it, and I wonder if you could do use some of that kind of technology for this.
For sure. [Pondering that idea] Yeah, almost certainly, right. I mean, that the question was is you need something that’s built into a surface and then there’s the secondary nature which, at the time was not important, but it’s incredibly important now about cleaning that, so people can use it as a shared thing. And then you know when ideally, I don’t know, the answer is yes, almost certainly in some way, it could be. It’s interesting to think through the permutations of: Okay, what are the, what are the things you got to work around in the same way that in, you know, with that table project, we had to learn about, oh right, halogen lights are not the same as incandescent lights, are not the same as the sun, are not the same as fluorescent lights, right? And even though intellectually, we may know that, until you experience it, it’s like, “Oh, because the camera sees it like this. Crap!”
You know, and it sounds like one of those things, right? It’s, it’s a there’s, in every part of iterative testing and experimentation, there’s always that iterative process of you’ve got to learn the things that you don’t know, or that you don’t know that you don’t know about, right? And that’s equally as important as the things that you think you do know… Wow, I sound like a Defense Secretary! There are the known unknowns and the unknown —anyway, that’s horrible. I haven’t thought about him in years. Anyway, because I so thinking of another horrible President. Okay, anyway, so that’s probably not where you want to be with this, but, the, the material study and the experimentation that ends up being critical and all of these things actually working at the end of the day because it’s it’s, even though we can design 80 percent of an experience and recognize the rest are edge cases, it’s so often the edge cases that either, one you decide: Yeah I don’t … I’m not going to worry about those, and, in fact, you have to say, at some point “I’m not going to worry about every edge case because there’s always something that’s going to …” No, it’s probably not an … it’s probably not a true aphorism, but let me go with it, that there’s not a complete statement that that you’ve got to solve every edge, case you just have to solve enough of the edge cases, and often the solving of edge cases then characterizes the rest of the experience, I find.
[Marty]: And we’re also here back to this whole iterative design this this this flexibility so that when you reach those edge cases you don’t just you don’t just panic, right?
Right, Oh, my God, yes, oh. Well, and I know this, this, this goes to the understanding how something works on a slightly technical level ends up being useful, right, so I mean, When I was at Second Story, we had worked with the High Museum of Art to do, we did a phone app, and, and one of the things that we wanted at the time is, is we wanted to do at the time is, we wanted a social media experience, where people were sharing stuff at the time they were doing right and, and the thing that we started, that I started doing, is watching people in the galleries and thinking about what were they doing anyway because the easiest behaviors to change or to modify are the behaviors that people already have, right, and despite at the time the concern about photography and museums and whether copyright was really a thing to be concerned about or not, and let’s leave that as a separate discussion — it’s not something they need to be worried about, they can just go ahead and let people use the images, it’s fine. There has never been a problem with that. Let me do that kind of fast, you know sub-tonal voice for the commercial — the thing was like, people were taking pictures of artwork and so, then it became a case like, oh, if we can do some sort of image recognition, and you know, on devices at the time that was not easily done. This would have been in … eight years ago? Ten years ago? Ten years ago? Something like that. Eleven? Nine years ago. But there were, it was hard to develop that stuff in house, right, and then have it on the device actually do that because you couldn’t build a library that, there wasn’t enough space to have, like, “Hey, all the objects in the collection!” Right? But there were a number of online services that had an API and we’ve talked a little bit about that, though we could send off a picture request to one of those and have built a library of known objects in an exhibit that it can come back and recognize what it was.
And so the way we intervene, there was that people will take photographs and we use that as a way to identify the works of art, so they could get additional stuff. So, instead of scanning a QR code, and I hate QR codes, because they are not human recognizable anyway, and you will never can convince me otherwise that they are good for people – despite that they can do a lot of things they are a shitty experience for the average user because you have no idea what they actually say or mean. They can include lots of stuff — that I wanted the thing that has meaning to be the thing, right? So take a picture of that piece of art, you got it. When we first tested it, and we’d done a prototype, we had, you know, I’ve been using images and, and, and mock ups and stuff and we had pretty good success rate when we first tested on site, there were some real problems, right. It was like if you had some weird angles, or it turns out that 3D objects are really hard because of specular highlights, materiality, lighting stuff, like that things that, right, 2D objects are a no-brainer, right, you can recognize that sort of stuff all day long, even at weird angles. But 3D objects are a nightmare because you don’t have enough reference images typically to have a machine consistently recognize, at least not at the time. And there was a real panic, because I didn’t go for the initial testing ‘cause I had to I had some family thing, stupid family…. to be involved in and, and it was known, but, you know, the person that had gone out had some real anxiety where things weren’t working, and I remember talking to the client who has known me for years because I had done that original thing with that Denver project of the tables with them, and she, she trusted me. I was able to talk her through, like “Oh, you know, probably what’s going on is this, and because of the way it’s lit, and we need to probably either do some additional image capturing to feed into the database, blah blah blah.”
None of it, none of it is stuff that I’m making up, right, she knows I’m thinking it through and figuring out how it works, but having that innate understanding of “Oh, it does this” allows us to begin to see Okay, how can we solve it, as opposed to, “Oh crap! It just doesn’t work. We don’t know what to do and we’re, you know, 80 percent of the way through the project and something that doesn’t work.” It turns out, no, we’re 80 percent of the way of the through it and it turns out that there are three objects in this exhibition that are now edge cases for us, that maybe we will not solve, right, and that would be okay. And, you know, from what was a very tense weekend, it turned out to be a very minor thing.
[Marty]: I share your, your hatred of QR codes. There’s a book if you haven’t seen it actually called “QR Codes Kill Kittens,” which is a good read. Your story reminds me… Did I ever tell you the story about what happened at MCN in 2010? We were in Austin and, and Google goggles had just come out, speaking of image recognition, and I was testing it out at the Blanton Museum of Art, and the docent got mad at me because they thought I was taking pictures of the works of art. It worked great, by the way.
Yeah. That’s… It’s interesting, right? Those are, those glasses are, unfortunately also another one of those. …To me, those are like the robotics for the crab. Like, that’s a great piece of kit, but it isn’t actually solving a need yet, right, and it’s got to go through some iteration…
[Marty]: Right, you know this wasn’t this wasn’t the glasses, but this was the image recognition app, originally called Goggle? Yeah that’s right, but you can imagine how freaked out the docents were, because I was holding my phone up to the paintings and they said, “You can’t take pictures!” And I kept saying, “I’m not taking pictures! I’m digitally scanning these works of art for image recognition purposes!” And they said, “That’s the same thing as taking pictures!” And I said, “NO!”
That’s uh, that’s a clear parsing of words, but yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, it’s funny how intent so much changes the utility of a thing…
[Marty]: Well, and the legal ramifications too, right?
Yeah. I wish, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s frustrating too the number of times that museums have self-limited themselves because of their fear of technology, right? I mean, copyright is certainly one of those cases. I remember we wrote, years ago, started the Steve.museum project where we’re doing tagging of our works, right? This has sort of been, like, well I don’t … even like three or four years before that. The animosity that was there, like, “Well what if somebody says that Manet is a Monet?” And I, you know, having been one of the authors of it, right, and it’s like, “What if they do? Is that bad?” I mean, if they get to the thing that they’re looking for, that seems okay, right? You can teach them that it’s not, but just that idea that that there was a way to embrace inaccuracy and actually turn it to your benefit and…there’s, there’s another aphorism which, which we embraced hard at Second Story is like: always take the thing that seems like the worst trait or the ugliest thing and somehow make that a core strength right, and embrace that hard. And, you know it’s interesting every time every project that has weird constraints, I actually like those more because they give you something to flex around and they force creativity as opposed to, “Do whatever you want!” It’s like, “Jesus, I don’t know. I’m going to do some crappy then.” Right? I mean, honestly give me something that that’s hard and it gets a lot more interesting.
[Marty]: My favorite paper that ever came out of the Steve.museum work was the one that showed that the general public’s use of terms barely overlapped with the curators’ use of terms. My students need to read this, see, because this is important. We need to know that, right?
Yeah, yeah that was it, yes. I remember our initial arguments, and that was a core one at length and I was the staunch advocate of, “I don’t care if the data is wrong, it’s real data. You don’t get to cherry pick your data” is the other thing.
Right, I mean, you know, you asked a while ago, and then we touched on this a little bit, but it goes back to that iterative experimentation is that you’ve got to accept your bad data and parse it for what it is, because it so often gives you different insights. I’ve done a bunch of analytics works over the years. A lot of times with Kate Haley Goldman, and I’ve enjoyed collaborating with her on some of that stuff, but we did this project at CMHR, Canadian Museum for Human Rights, where we, we looked at all the ways they’re collecting data about people, because we want to try and create this comprehensive analytics program for the museum, right. How do you track this stuff? Who’s doing what? What’s getting actually used? And I remember at one point, we were, all the interactives keep track of what’s pressed, what’s touched, duration and a few other few other things, right, which, if you think of it like a web page, right, you’re clicking on that raw data about, like, hey, every touch is this, and all those interactions, that’s useful. And at some point, we’re trying to figure out, like, do people spend more time in English and French? And there’s a bunch of, we finally realized, there’s noisy data of people experimenting with it, going back and forth between English and French.
It didn’t matter what they’re actually doing, and it wasn’t they’re having problems with it, it was genuine experimentation, right. And you end up finding these, these patterns that look like they’re a signal and it’s not until you learn to question the things that you see in front of you that you realize, oh, that’s noise and I can safely ignore it. It’s not actually the pattern that I’m looking for here, and I — that’s so true in all the analytics work because in Dallas, Dallas was the DMA Friends Program, was an analytics project, right, at the core of it, and, and certainly that’s, that’s been echoed in a number of other places. Douglas Hegley did stuff at MIA that, that was leveraging that sort of approach as well.
When I was still at Denver, we, we had done a data warehousing product between all of our different business systems to try and pull up some analytics between stuff. And I find that nobody’s ever asking the right questions to begin with, right? It’s always something like, “How do we increase our revenue 10 percent? Or on what days, you know, can we charge more for something?” as generic examples, and it’s not until you spend time with the data and recognize, like, that’s not what it shows you at all, either: One, because your data demonstrate something very or, more fundamentally, you just weren’t asking the right questions, to begin with, and until you actually learn that you’re asking the wrong things, you don’t understand what the right things are. And so, you know, every organization, I can watch for the “Have they gone through the second iteration of analytics to understand what they really want?” and the same way, like, every startup wants that proof of concept, right. The thing that they don’t go for, and this is what I watch for is: “What did they do with scale?” Right, because that’s a whole different problem, and will require that whatever you solved the first time is not how you’re going to solve it in the, in the second iteration. It’s not something more of that it’s … that gets re-architected, right, and so everybody who has started to do technology projects or move stuff in house. I always look for that, and at what point did you scale it? Because if you haven’t, you’re still just a start up, but if you don’t realize you’re in that phase, you’re not doing things right for the long term, right? And understanding, where you are in that spectrum. Yeah, it’s interesting every time. I love to see the growth of stuff over time.
[Marty]: Well, one of the things that really makes me feel good about stories like this is that underscores how the museum technology community really understands and appreciates the user experience, looks at things from the user’s perspective, and works from there. Shoot, I was in a meeting here in Florida State [University] just last week where our information technology services people were talking all about “fixing the user.’ They’re not using the software right… “We need mandatory training sessions.” And I’m like, “No, you need to study what’s going on in your user experience.” They didn’t want to hear it. “Mandatory training sessions!” [laughs]
That’s right. It’s, it’s this hard balance between….and I get where that’s coming from, right, I understand the logic behind that right, even though I will agree with you: Horribly flawed, right? And if that’s where you’re coming from, maybe you ought not to be dealing with user experience — would be my real answer, right? But, but it comes from a point of preservation, and we’ve seen any number of organizations go through it, especially those that underfunded technology and basic infrastructure for years, right?
That you have ingrained a system that’s trying to service as many people that it can with, with not the resources to do it, and so you know, the, the benefit that we had in Denver is because I was overseeing all the technology, and Aubrey, and, and people worked for me… is that because I was an outlier in how I use technology personally, it meant that I had a very permissive attitude about stuff, right? That people can, you know, it wasn’t like, “Oh, you have to have a PC?” I’m like, “No, you can use whatever you want. We’ll find a way to work with you because…” because personally I’ve already done it because I refuse to kind of submit to what I think would be the most cost-efficient way to do our business, but that that flexibility is expensive, right? And, and it’s harder for some people, especially when it requires a lot of extra work and it’s hard to do, so I can appreciate where it comes from, and I think you fundamentally have to accept from the beginning that this is a pain point that you’re going to incur and, and you accept that pain point, right, that it’s a positive thing, right, and, and because your end constituencies are these people, right, the thing that that I would argue, many people in our field have learned over time, is that you can’t talk technology to other people, but rather we’ve all had to go out and be experts in other fields as well in order to be able to have the conversation. Right? I mean if I had gone to any of the curators in Denver, well – hell, any project over time — and try to explain it in my terms, there’s no point. Even Lewis and I, or, he admits he doesn’t understand technology, but I can talk to him about the experience. There’s always a point of relatability.
And, and frankly, it goes back to early learning models, right? I mean, everybody who’s in exhibits I know learns … like, Oh, not everybody learns the same way, so I’ll have different modalities for different people. There’s a… Peter Samis, years ago. I, you know, I cite him incessantly for this one paper, and he’s done so much great work and yet … and I’ve even told him, like, “I always quote you for this…” He’s like, “Okay, I did other stuff.” But, but he did have that moment. At SFMOMA, they did a, they did an exhibit on Bonnard, and, and, at the time, and this must have been like in the early 2000s, maybe midway through, like 2005, 2007, and it was trying to find what was the best delivery method of content. And they tested like four or five, six different things like audio, and audio tour, and stuff that’s on a wall at different sizes, and, and a few other things. I’m probably also horribly mischaracterizing it at this point because I’ve come to the conclusion that I wanted to have out of it. But the end result was that that it wasn’t one or two things that were best, it turned out that five things was the best to cover the range of modalities that people had in trying to find engagement and, and I’ve always accepted that since then, that, that if you go back to you know, having chunks of content, right, having those different things be able to have different expressions for them, right, different nouns of interpretation for the verb or whatever that is, that allows you to then kind of flex around that and deliver it in different ways. But I believe heavily in, in almost every instance of abstracting experience to understand, you know, what’s content, what’s delivery what’s, what’s a method for that, because I often think of technology in museums where digital, digital has been weird over the years, that, um, we used to think of in terms of the web, or it’s exhibit stuff or whatever, and even back when I was at Nearlife, back in 2000, that when we started had this idea of what we would now call transmedia properties, that we do online could appear on TV, right. That these worlds were not divorced and separate. I don’t think of any of the digital realm and museums as being divorced and separate, but they are part of a continuous spectrum and that really that a museum is about creating content, right, and, and it has multiple … and I refer to it this way. It’s like there are multiple channels of delivery, right. It could be that a publication, a book is a form of delivery of content for a curator, right. Or an exhibition is a form of delivery of content. Or a website is a form of delivery of content, your social media presence, your, your whatever apps you have decided to make, and so you begin to think about like, “Okay, let me create stuff that I can deliver through multiple channels,” and then that becomes a much more gracious acceptance of what the broader experience is at a museum.
I think the Tate had it profoundly right years ago when they used to consider online as the fifth gallery right, and that was the right way to approach it because it is part of what they are, right, that you have this building, and I am in no way denigrating a collection or a building, and I believe that a building should be every bit as amazing as a collection itself. But that digital presence that you have is as impressive, if not better known than that, for many people right and, and, it’s not to advocate like, “Oh, we have to do more digital stuff,” it’s like, “No, you need to do the digital that’s right for you.” Right? And, and, and every time that somebody has like, “Well, here’s my digital communication strategy,” I’m like, actually, you have a communication strategy first, there’s a digital component to it. In the same way that there’s an overall strategy of organization, there is a digital component in all of those pieces that you want to do, and, and that’s what needs to exist for that. And I would be … Rob Stein and I have had this argument for years. I think he’s probably over in my camp these days. I was an early advocate for a Chief Digital Officer, and he’s right that that it’s, it’s, it’s a bullshit position, and I agree with that. The problem is, is that there isn’t the expertise across the rest of the organization about what it means to do digital, in the same way that where many of us have, like, had to learn other stuff we do have a sense of what it means across a lot of stuff and having somebody that sees it across the organization ends up being critically important, and that’s what I think the role of the chief digital officer is to see the potential opportunity in an exhibit, in a publication, in whatever you do, in this, the school experience on a remote site, you know, that there is a digital component of that is always kind of being aware of. It’s not that they have to advocate or push for all the time, they need to have the awareness, to be able to create the rest of the infrastructure that supports these things, right, and recognizing how do I maximize the potential of these things that are going on here.
And every place should be different, right. There’s going to be someplace that’s like, “We’ve done a bunch of cool exhibit stuff.” That’s great. That’s the way you’ve internalized that as part of your strategy. There may be places that [say] we do the best version of research publications, right, and you can, or you can be the Getty and do a lot of stuff for too much money, and then what have you, but I think that’s part of how things flex.
Oh it’s 11:04. Do I need to be mindful of your time? I see you just took off screen.
[Marty]: No, no. I have a cat who’s yelling at the door, right. We’re actually, we’re actually I think good because we don’t have another recording immediately after this today, but we’re mindful of your time too, and this is probably a good place to wrap up. But what I was just gonna say, I love the, the philosophy that you are articulating here, right.
You learn to say some smart stuff over 20 years, 25 years.
[Marty]: But this is the mindset that you have, as the same mindset that I’ve seen with a lot of technology, people in museums. And let me just say, as someone who’s been teaching I.T. students now for 25 years, it’s not a common mindset to see. Right, there’s something about working in in this cultural environments, as technology work that changes the way you think about it.
Oh yeah, because we’re all masochists in some way, right.
[Jones]: But Bruce, I want to say that you articulated the way to think about digital throughout the organization in a way that I mean, in a way that helps me with what I’ve been struggling to tell my students, so thank you for that. That that’s very, very good.
Thanks. Yeah, I, it is unfortunate the number of places that struggle with it. You know, the other, the other weird thing, and this is a tragedy of our field, and I’ve had this conversation with Rob and a few other people, is that the thing that we have all learned, well, there are two things here, right, There’s, there’s a cyclical nature of technology and museums, and Paul, you’re, I’m considering you part of my vanguard, of my cohort in the field. They, you know, we saw the people that came before us like Peter Samis, Scott Sayre, Len Steinbach, right? And we recognize 15 years ago where we were positing ideas, and they graciously applauded where we were in our thinking and, and, and you know, we learned later like they had been through the same experiences in a different way, right, and, and it’s now that I’m old enough and I have… I’m going to say this crassly, but I mean it, in you know, a heartwarming way, right? I stopped caring about my position on the field, right, I, you know, frankly, what I care more about is like, so what’s going on now? Who’s doing it? How can I enable that sort of stuff? My shit is not precious anymore, and I should have learned, many years ago, it was not, but, but it’s still better than anybody else’s, um, that uh, that you learn… there’s a freedom in not caring, and I mean that’s a very nice way, right, I mean that you’re not so wound up about everything that you can, you can start to let stuff go and being able to share and do other stuff and create space, right, I mean, you’ll notice that probably none of the conferences in last five years, do I make a point of presenting anymore, right, I, I have tried to give up that stage, because there are other people that, frankly, as a middle-aged white man, I’ve had plenty and I can recognize that and I wish you know other people to be able to have a spotlight, and behind the scenes, because I’m involved in some of the conferences, I try and make some of that possible. Um, but there’s a cyclical nature, right, and we even see now the projects that are happening, right, oh in fact you were here with me on the call right at the last MCN where, where, “Hey, we ought to have this database of technology projects.”
“Yeah, we should! That’d be great.” Right? Right? And Susan even mentioning…
[Marty]: That was, that was insane, Bruce. My mind just blew up.
Yeah, yeah, right, right! Susan mentioned that that that you had emailed her shortly afterwards. And I was like, I was so incensed. It was like, “Yep, that’s what we need to do.” And right, I tried to tell those guys in the end that it’s like, the problem isn’t that you don’t need the database, which is again is the noun of something, it’s you need the people to maintain it right, you should be hiring historians, which is the verb of that, right. It’s the thing that is missing, and, and, frankly, where we fall down because the first thing that when you get busy you get rid of is good communication about the stuff that you’ve done in the documentation of it, because it’s tedious and not sexy and not … and it’s time consuming, right, and, and that ends up being hard and difficult.
[Marty]: The sad thing about this, Bruce, is that at the 50th anniversary of MCN, we had we had a little one of the sessions. One of the things we talked about, we came away with the argument that MCN needs to hire an archivist. And I kind of wish that they had talked to us about that, before they put in this grant proposal, because if they use that money to hire an archivist, I think we’d be a lot better off.
I think so, right and, yeah. Right, so, so it’s, it’s, it’s funny, right, so, so I find myself like I literally from that I was like, “Oh, is this when people like Scott and Paul and Len, you know, felt like when they saw us doing the ‘We’re going to change the world now!’ ‘Okay, you do that. Enjoy your windmill over there, you know, don’t, don’t get killed,’” right.
And they were they were stupendously gracious, right, and so it’s like, the lesson to learn at this point is like, how do I be that gracious at this point? For not to tell something like, “Dude, we did that.” It’s like, “Yes, that sounds fantastic. Let me support you in that any way that I can. I have some experience that might be relevant, but your way sounds good.”
[Marty]: Exactly, And, like Kathy says in the chat, it’s cycles of forgetfulness, and we see this.
[Jones]: That’s what I’d like to call it, Bruce, because I probably have three generations of it.
Yeah right, and I think…
[Marty]: Yeah, she’s been doing it since the ‘70s. She’s up on all of us. The one thing that I keep thinking, though, and I’m curious to know if you agree with me on this, that even with these cycles, we still made slight progress forward in mindsets. Right, like, look at the open access work thats coming out of all the museums now. Nobody would have done that in the 1990s.
No, no, it’s true, right. What, what I wonder, there is, right, there’s clearly to be some upward trajectory progression of what technology is, and maybe this falls on that spectrum, right. And that’s the thing I don’t have a good handle on it.
Like, if we had known what this slope of the line was, arbitrarily — I’m making shit up — but so, but you can visualize the same thing, would they would open access have sit on — would open access have ended up on that slope, or is it a deviation from it? And I don’t know that. You know, the thing I’d always advocate is, is even if I think an idea is bad, I think more experimentation needs to happen more often in the field than it does right, we are a conservative field. And to our great detriment, and I, you know I would rather see weird stuff happen more often and even if it has lousy results or good results, it’s important because, you know, that the number of places that right now are struggling with like, “Hey, AR and VR is the thing.” “Okay, it is. You know, we should do some sort of storytelling thing.” “Yeah, we should.” There’s, there’s a, there’s a progression of, of when people ask me is, is, is this field advanced, and my answer is no. We’re still so early and then the nascent stage of what it means to do stuff, and all of these things, frankly, are still experimentations because, because our storytelling method keeps changing, right? And so what we learned, you know even three or four years ago, is different than what we may do in two or three more years.
And I think it ends up being critically important to, not to document individual products, but the things that have been learned and the techniques that have been learned because those create the longevity about how we do this field. Because this isn’t a field of technology, rather, it’s a venue of communication and how we do that sort of stuff and how we apply that stuff, and so, you know, when I go back to even you know I joke about Peter’s paper on the Bonnard thing. It’s like yeah but the multiplicity of stuff in that was actually still really useful, and so you know I can in my way I would internalize that, okay if I’m thinking about an AR experience, what are the other pieces in as part of that experience that I’m multiplying at the same time, to have these additional modes of delivery, right? If I talked Sina Bahram or Corey Timpson, right, we would have a discussion about universal design and accessibility there, it’s the same thing, right. It’s, it’s these multiple modes that overlap, the same thing, and when you start to see those patterns, it really changes how you begin to think about stuff and how you begin to articulate and architect things.