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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


1. Museums Need to Embrace Risk

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

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


2. Artists Disrupt the Institutional Voice

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

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


3. Friction is a Good Thing

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


4. Adapting and Compromise

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


5. Encouraging Dialogue, Provocation and Confusion

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


6. Documentation, Documentation, Documentation

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


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

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


Creating a mini me: Playing with 3D printing

photo (13)

As part of the Digital Frontiers exhibition I have been experimenting a bit with 3D printing.  This is why working in a university is brilliant as there is so many clever people and bits of kit about who will let you have a bit of a play.

3D tech is becoming quite big in museum discussions right now, and many museums are looking to embed 3D features permanently into their museum services but there are a few challenges to do this. Check out Andrew Lewis’ from the V&A’s post about How ready is 3D for delivering museum services? And my post from bits to blogs about Crapjects.

Because 3D is emerging and is turning out to be a playfully disruptive technology I felt it was important to experiment with just what could be done relatively quickly with 3D tech for an exhibition.

A couple of months ago I had myself scanned quickly by Jan Boehm and John Hindmarch from UCL Engineering,  Virtual Environments, Imaging & Visualisation which was then printed out with Andy Hudson Smith’s (CASA) 3D printer and it produced this prototype:

3D Me!Last night Steve Gray and I had another play, this time creating an object model mesh with a Kinect.  We used a Kinect  and  the software ReconstructMe.

Microsoft’s Kinect is an awesome piece of tech.  Instead of game play you can use its Infrared sensors to do depth of field scanning!  We were trying to work out a re-usable workflow, so we could then scan everybody! We started with a desk drawer and moving the kinect around but that didn’t really cut it.  Eventually with a bit of tinkering we has success with an office swivel chair is to allow the object (aka me) to revolve slowly in front of the Kinect!

The scans produced are not faultless, but they are really very good for such simple and cheap kit.  We (I say we, but actually Steve) cleaned up the scan using free tools. Here is a scan of myself showing the problem areas. This is in MeshMixer:

3D me in MeshMixer

3D me in MeshMixer

The final result was using a mix of MeshMixer and MeshLabs and NetFabb Basic to fix gaps in the models.

3D Steve and Claire

And if you so wish, you can download and print either Steve or me, or both of us out! We added ourselves to thingyverse.  Now everyone can have a mini Claire!  since last night there’s already been 12 downloads of us! weird!

How do you see the museum experience in 20 years?

I’ve been asked some really interesting, if not really difficult questions by some  fabulous students on the MA Applied Imagination in the Creative Industries at Central St. Martins.

One of the questions is this:

How do you see the museum experience in 20 years time?

To be honest I had to think about it. and I went through a series of thoughts: “woha thats a big scary question”, “I have no idea” and “urm brilliant”.  So I tried to split it down into its component parts. What do I love about museums now? Answer: eveything (even the bad bits) What will I love about museums in the future? Answer: everything (even the bad bits).  But how to articulate that?

So I tried to break it down again.  What I love about museums, is the overall experience. the people, the ideas, the objects. everything.  So in an attempt to provide a full answer here is the waffle.

“In 20 years I see the museum as providing an experience which encourages the visitor to wonder, question, explore and make connections.  Exactly the same as museums have always done. I don’t know what the technology or interpretation and participation opportunities will be like in 20 years time, as technology and interpretation strategies are continually evolving at such a fast pace.  But I hope we will see museums challenging themselves and visitors by providing more flexible and personalised experiences which encourage interaction and discussion between visitors and between visitors and the museum”.

I’d be really interested to hear how you see the museum experience now and in 20 years? will it be different? the same? better? worse? non existent?

The wonderful Mar Dixon has already replied on the twitters: ” Still touching hearts for everyone that steps through the doors.”

I love her beautiful honesty.

Cultural QR codes in the Wild

Prompted by a comment by Mable from Aqueducks on an earlier blog post about QR codes I thought the use of QR codes in outside spaces deserved more of a dedicated post.  Mike Ellis’ recent post about QR codes discussed how they are becoming more apparent in the real world; they are in supermarkets, on public transport, in magazines and in museums.  But I haven’t really considered the use of QR codes in the wild, wet and windy real world of outside spaces. Below are three great examples of utilisng QR codes in outside spaces. I’m sure there are many many more.

Mable shared with me work she has been doing at Llangollen Canal in Chirk Bank  with using QR codes and blue tooth transmission direct to phones.  I particularly liked that they have been using Laminated QR codes as tea coasters for the ladies who do teas in the chapel hall for visitors, a brilliant idea to encourage visitors whilst they are enjoying a cup of tea to find out more information.

Mable also discussed the issues using the technology in Outdoor environments.  There is a tendency to have patchy mobile signal coverage to start with, which is the main reason why Aqueducks tried using bluetooth transmissions.

Both are affected by trees in leaf, and particularly wet trees in leaf, so that for example a blue tooth transmitter with a given range of 2 km, will not in practice give more than 100m or so, under damp summer conditions. The positives are that small laminated prints of the QR code are unobstrusive and do not need expensive panels and posts, and can be managed by our small community group with no facilities or much funding!  This sort of interpretation is relatively cheap so available for small groups.  The blue tooth transmitters allow one to target and change for specific events too.

I think Mable highlights very well the positive and negatives to using QR codes outdoors.  To be honest I hadn’t really considered the challenges to utilising QR codes in outdoor environments before.

Manchester Art Gallery have dabbled with a pilot project in 2010 using QR codes outdoors with their Decoding Art walking tour.   20 of the city’s public monuments where the artworks have had QR codes embedded into them.  The pilot project looked to provide information about the artworks instantly to mobile devices as “It’s very easy to walk past many of Manchester’s public monuments without ever spending time thinking about who or what they’re about and why they’re there.”

Once scanned the QR code links to both audio and written information about the monuments. Martin Grimes has written an excellent post about Manchester Art Galleries experiences or using QR codes outside over on the Ukoln blog. One of the issues Martin highlighted was the ongoing concerns around the fixing of the QR labels to the public monuments. Particularly listed monuments, lead to the use of temporary vinyl labels, which may not be as aesthetically pleasing but they convey the message well enough.

Spot the QR code & speech bubble

Another use of QR codes in the wild is how the Comics Grid uses them, in almost a guerrilla style. The Comic Grid wanted people to find their blog (which has a mobile version) through curiosity.  Ernesto Priego stated that he wanted to take the blog outside its comfort zone and viceversa, tagging public spaces, events, and academic conferences with the Comics Grid.  I really like the idea of guerrilla style QR codes, there is a sense of adventure to it.  The concept of taking the Comics Grid’s blog out of its comfort zone is a nice one; a QR code certainly does that by pulling the blog into the real world.

All three examples are utilising an interesting means of conveying virtual information in outside public places.  I particularly like that small community groups like Aqueducks are experimenting with QR codes as a cheap and relatively easy way of communicating information to visitors.

Cultural QR codes in the wild are really great idea in principle, but there does seem to be a lot of problems to overcome particularly with the practical constraints of affixing QR codes outside, as well as dealing with flaky mobile signals.  More experimenting to be done methinks.