Week 8: Museum Websites and Digital Storytelling

I really enjoyed the videos from LACMA’s website. In fact, before this assignment I actually didn’t know there were such videos, despite having visited the website quite a few times previously.

I liked how there were different types of videos – some entertaining, some informational, and some educational. The one that especially appealed to me was the Past Exhibitions: New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic, 1919–1933. Watching this video felt like I was given a private tour about modern German art. The curator did a great job narrating the historical facts and tying them in with interpretations of the artworks. I also liked the camerawork: it switched from the curator to paintings on the wall, to zoomed-in shots of the paintings, really shaping the storytelling presentation and making it feel real and dynamic.

Some educational videos, like on Khan Academy are very useful. I especially like that website for learning about math and sciences. That format, however, would not be appropriate for discussing objects and artworks, I think, because it’s too static.

There are many factors to consider when making a digital storytelling project about an object, and I think the way it should be done and presenting will vary based on the object, or at least type of object. For example, for smaller, cultural objects such as masks, pots, vases, plates, mini-statues, etc. – I would expect a lot of close-up shots of the actual object. Also, I would expect some images or clips showing how that object is used in its natural context. Also, given that today we can also have 3-D representations, it could be interesting to integrate a clip of the 3-D interaction with the object if there is any interesting detail to reveal that is not observable using basic videocamera. For larger objects and/or presentations, I would also expect shots of the curator, or other visitors in order to understand the scale of it.

Week 7: How to get visitor feedback on digital interactives

Coming from a communications and business oriented background, the reading that caught my eye was “When to ask and when to shut up: How to get visitor feedback on digital interactives.” Just two weeks ago in Management class, we learned about proper ways of hypothesis testing and interviewing customers. Interestingly, this article resonates with the methods I learned in that course, and actually goes deeper. There are four major ways to learn customer insights: interview, surveys, observations, and usability testing. The last one is the focus of this article.


Usability testing in particular can be very effective in helping assess how a museum’s digital gadget is accepted by the users. This is important because when users have bad experiences with digital tools, they themselves often don’t know why they’re struggling, this is where usability testing brings makers and users together, helping work out the problems. In order to conduct a proper usability test, one must first recruit proper participants. Of course, it’s possible to ask some museum visitors while they explore the gallery on a given day, however, that participant sample will not be representative of your target segment. Thus, it’s better to pre-select participants, inviting them to the institution for the specific purpose of testing the interface. Next, it’s important to give people tasks because when people use digital tools it is usually to accomplish something. For example, the article says “if you are concerned that the map does not distinguish between the first and second floors – the participant to find an object on the second floor while on the first floor.”

The next step is knowing how to guide the user’s experience smoothly without incorporating your own biases in the questions you ask. Here one must be very careful and patient, and really focus on wording open-ended questions that allow the users to do the talking as much as possible to describe their experiences. It is highly unlikely that they will know the source of a frustration if they encounter a problem during use. Thus, as you have them talk through what they do, see, feel, and want, and knowing your digital tool’s feature, you’ll be able to better realize the source of the problem.

The specific examples provided in this article were quite fascinating to read through. For instance, how should you guide a user who gets stuck when using your tool? Giving “hints” is obviously wrong, as is constantly asking “What’s the problem?” Instead, the author of this article suggests to take the screen away for a few moments and ask the user what was on the screen. This will give insight into what things were easy to find vs. hard to find for the user.

Finally, after usability data has been gathered, it’s important to evaluate it relative to all other participants, trying to find common trends and discovering whether some features were really problems or just inconveniences. This process will help prioritize the digital tool’s design iterations.

In conclusion, I’d say that this article definitely provided a much more in-depth and detailed review of usability testing than my management textbook!

Week 5: Museums in the Online Environment

The common theme in all three of this week’s articles the discussion of experiencing objects online through media versus seeing and experiencing them in person. The main distinction between experiencing an object being present at the museum  and viewing an object online is that sense of wonder and resonance – that sense of transcendence and insight you experience when you truly analyze something on a deeper level and learn to appreciate it.

Personally, I don’t frequent museums often, unless the exhibit features something I am already interested in, or something that piques my interest. But how is this interest generated, on a large scale, for the big audience? And what is the role and impact of the Internet? The approach that I think is very smart and effective is the Met’s idea to reveal the upcoming Charles Le Brun collection exhibit in a playful and curious manner by emphasizing the process of taking the paintings to restoration, instead of posting direct pictures of the objects themselves. This strategy really reminds me of the concept of “Gamification” I learned about in my Management class (I’m not permitted to upload the actual article I read for class, but here is another one available online that describes it pretty well). The approach basically holds that in order to be successful in retaining their customers and attracting new ones, brands should “game-ify” their products, meaning they need to have a certain aspect that catches their users’ attention, and keeps them interested, coming back, and wanting more. Brands and companies thus develop clever marketing and promotional campaigns and create ways for consumers to engage with their new products before they even come out.

I think in dealing with the online environment and presentation, museums can learn a lot by looking at how other industries are dealing with “the possibilities of the Net” in order to achieve their goals. But, in making strategic decisions, the most important thing for each museum to consider is its “value proposition” (another business concept, which I think really fits here) – in other words – what is the mission that the museum is trying to accomplish? what impact does it want to have on society with what it has to offer?

The Met’s strategy will obviously not work for all museums, not to mention for all exhibits. The Brooklyn Museum, as discussed in Anan’s article, for example, found that creating games and public engagement platforms online did not end up generating the “global reach” they were aiming for. Instead, they re-assesed their role, goals, and possibilities  and used the technology to maximize their engagement with the current visitors, which turned out to be a more effective use of the technology.

As the director of the Brooklyn Museum reflected on their approach “It exemplified a means of enhancing the local, physical experience of art and of the museum’s collection, as opposed to a way of taking the museum to the wider world”.

In the end, I guess my point is that the question of whether or not to the Internet as a tool for creating digital collections, or promoting upcoming exhibits, or creating deep conversations – is a subjective one, that each institution should answer by considering its role and mission within our global society: “Digital “is not the holy grail…It’s a layer.” 


Week 4: Cataloging Cultural Objects

The Cataloging Cultural Objects (CCO) guide reading covered key questions and issues of the cataloging process. First off, it’s important to understand that cataloging means to describe what the object is, who made it, where it was made, how it was made, the materials of which it was made, and what it is about. In order to achieve this, a cataloger needs to create metadata for the original data. The metadata of a painting, for example, would be the name of the author, the date it was made, the country of origin, the mearialsu and colors used, etc., while the data would be the painting itself. Viewers of galleries, and objects in general want to know this information in order to understand the object and to evaluate its significance and how they feel about it.

Thus, the cataloger is in a pretty important position of classifying and presenting the information about objects. According to this week’s reading, the cataloger must first decide what exactly he or she is cataloging: is it an original work or an image? Then, it’s also very important to establish relationships between various bits of information and to link the metadata to appropriate authority sources. With intrinsic linking, it makes it easier for viewers to search for and locate related works. The same goes for linking to authority sources, but authority sources additionally give more credibility and context to the work.

It’s noteworthy to consider that since a majority of museums are federally founded, the cataloging process will be dictated by those institutions. The reading discussed that there are many complications and nuances about creating minimal descriptions. It said: the specificity and exhaustivity of a catalogue may depend on the time, knowledge, and expertise of catalogers, the database structure and information system design, end-user needs and expectations, and long-established institutional practice.”

This discussion reminds me of Duarte & Belarde-Lewis’s article “Imagining Creating Spaces for Indigenous Ontologies,” which talked about ontologies and institutional versus community archives. And although the cataloger does not exactly have the “power to name” the objects, the role still gives authority to establish knowledge about those objects.

With this in mind, we, as consumers of this object metadata and information, must be a little critical of what is recorded about the object. It is quite realistic that certain facts and information about objects, especially cultural objects will be considered “not important enough” and be left out. Yet, even more often I would guess is the case of the sources that catalogers use in order to gather and code information about those cultural objects. For, cultural objects tend to have deeply rooted history that is closely intertwined with the people of whose culture they come from. And, we also know that traditional institutions and archives tend to create their own ontologies, representations, definitions, descriptions, and interpretations of objects, and neglect to give proper credit to the communities and the people’s stories that the cultural objects specifically belong to.



Week 3: 120kMoMA – A data visualization study

Out of all the readings assigned for this week, the one I was most impressed by was Helen D. Wall’s “120kMoMA – A data visualization study of the MoMA collection dataset.” This article reminded me of our own digital projects we completed in DH 101 last quarter. The author did a great job not only presenting and explaining her visualizations, but also explaining her methodology and the questions and issues she faced along the way.

Wall said she got her data from MoMA’s open collection data available on GitHub. (This is an example of how the public uses open cultural data online posted by the museums).

Right off, Wall stated the purpose and importance of her independent digital project saying that by analyzing the dataset from a new perspective, examining features in a different way, by creating new categories and groupings, we can gain new insights about not only the artworks and the artists, but also about the institution which houses these artworks.

I think here it’s important to mention the concept of an “ontology,” which is basically how you interpret and categorize data. So, given the same data, different people can have different ontologies for that information, and thus, emphasize different properties and relationships of that dataset. Here, with the MoMA collection and Helen Wall’s project, it’s clear that the way Wall chose to organize the artists and the artworks is different from how MoMA had it.

After presenting several visualizations on artistbio, department, classification, creditline, and dimensions, Wall discussed the problem with categorizing these artworks. For instance, she brings the example of Frank Stella’s Kastura (1979) and Giufà, la luna, i ladri e le guardie (1984), both of which include oil paint and aluminum, yet the first one is classified by MoMA as a painting, and the second work is classified as a sculpture. Thus, Wall’s argument is that now especially with the increasing contributions of modern art styles, perhaps it’s no longer accurate to use the medium of an artwork as anchor for classifying a work as any particular type of art.