Digital Storytelling: A Way of Demystifying not just Art, but the Museum

I was not aware that LACMA was working on web-based videos as a way of communicating stories about their artwork, exhibitions and directors. It was interesting to see that this medium is being used not just for documentary style videos, but to conduct interviews and offer a close-up look of some of the museum’s new initiatives.

When thinking about a museum’s digital presence, I first expect it to have a comprehensive and well-designed website. Apart from museums, I judge organizations, schools and other institutions based off their webpage. A poorly designed website or one that is not user friendly is almost as bad as turning in a bad resume- first impressions are so important and I am not likely to put in more effort to find information if the simplest things e.g. contact information, opening hours are difficult to locate.

It would also be great for museums to have a social media presence that seeks to engage us with in-the-moment news. Apart from just promoting their events and exhibitions, museums as an educational institution have the authority and power to be responsive to current events. For instance, several artists have produced works referencing the Black Lives Matter movement, and a museum could tweet or make a post about a previous or upcoming artist who would be featured as part of that movement. This ensures the institution itself is not viewed as being politicized, while still promoting the works of artists.

It would also be helpful if museums were somehow able to track the visitors at respective exhibits, and notify past visitors of similar/ related exhibitions that might pique their interest. This will encourage return visits and sustain audience engagement, rather than have visitors seek out exhibitions and events solely through their own research.

I did not have access to any classes on Coursera, but I found a TedX video titled “The Problem with Modern Art” by Tomas Gonzalez Cueto. He is not the most engaging speaker, but the subject matter is unique (something I would watch from start to finish) in that it was critical of museums and the construct of modern art. Members of the general public already have a perception of modern art as being disconnected from reality, abstract and difficult to comprehend, and museums do little to address this lack of understanding for the art. Perhaps addressing this elephant in the room by creating videos that directly acknowledge some of the misconceptions and pressing questions the public has about art (rather than just assuming everyone who watches the video should be an art enthusiast) will help people relate to it better. The institution itself is seen as uptight and some level of self-deprecating humor might be well-received by museum goers, and make the content produced by museums seem less dry and intimidating.

Finally, I looked up the trailer for the ballet documentary “First Position” since I have heard a lot about it but not actually watched it. The trailer does a good job of incorporating personal stories into a greater narrative, and provides insight on the less well-known and hardly publicized lives of professional ballet dancers. I would encourage this digital storytelling approach as it gives viewers the perception that they are being let on a “sneak peek” or exclusive “behind the scenes” video of what museums do. When people can relate to and have a better understanding of the institutions that are creating content, I think it naturally makes them more curious of the museum’s exhibitions.

Engineering Art Discovery Systems: Artsy vs “Five Every Day”

I really enjoyed Liam Andrew, Desi Gonzalez and Kurt Fendt’s article on “Playful Engineering: Designing and Building Art Discovery Systems”, which explores ways to “engineer the discovery of art” i.e. use technology to attract users to artwork, encourage a sustained relationship with art, and to help users gain a better understanding of the cultural community of Boston. I am by no means a developer or coder, but this article helped to explain some very technical concepts involved in the building of technological platforms and interfaces, which in turn helped me build on my own technical vocabulary. For a digital humanist, it is especially important to understand the technology being used in order to effectively apply and evaluate its usage in the art world.

The authors make an interesting comparison between content-based and collaborative filtering systems using Artbot’s discovery engine as an example. The latter takes on a “social approach”, which offer recommendation based on users’ behavior e.g. Amazon and Netflix. However, a drawback of this system is that it limits rather than expands a customer’s purview. While this might not seem particularly harmful in an ecommerce setting, the term “filter bubble” coined by Eli Pariser in 2011 speaks to the way in which modeling systems to fit a user’s behavior “isolates users from content that might differ from his or her viewpoints”. This algorithmic filtering leads to biased data and information narrowly skewed to enhance confirmation bias.

In contrast, content-based systems “look to the properties of the items themselves, rather than the users, for recommendation signals”. This seems more common in a museum setting, where “object and subject taxonomies built into the museum’s collection management systems” are relied upon to assist a user’s exploration. For instance, one can browse a museum’s collection by searching genre tags such as “Asian art” and “Roman art”. However, “generating and maintaining a taxonomy” is time intensive and dependent on the precision and dedication of the tagger. The worry is therefore that rigid classifications do not accurately represent a work of art, and do not allow for “happy accidents in the discovery process”, or serendipity.

In order to combat the drawbacks of each of these methods, Ethan Zuckerman recommends building digital tools that “infuse serendipity and a diversity of voices”. Specifically, the authors suggest building systems that allow for a hybrid of automation and curation. For instance, computers could perform preliminary web scraping and parsing, but developers need to constantly review their code and the information that results from data gathering in order to present it in a sensible and user-oriented way. This enables nuances to shine through recommendation apps such as Artsy, while saving time and energy on individual research and compilation.

This discussion makes me wonder about the app “Five Every Day”, which recommends five things to do in Los Angeles every day. Here is a photo (taken off Google) of its astonishingly simple interface:


The scope of the app is fairly limited since it is only curated for events in LA, and even then it is limited to five things recommended by a trusted group of curators, as opposed to using a content or collaborative system. Rather than embarking on discovery individually, we wait every day to “discover” what is happening (the recommendations change every day), offering more of a wildcard/ surprise element to the app that differs from the serendipity offered by most other apps. While there is probably some engineering that goes into their research, the possibility of having systems engineered to satisfy one’s own preferences perhaps dilutes the cultural authority that curators traditionally have. While “Five Every Day” seems to restore such power to the curator, an increasing number of technological apps even outside the art world rely on these engineering systems to create a personalized experience for users. If “Five Every Day” were to expand and cover different geographic areas, I am interested to see how they manage the consistency of their recommendations, and whether they would develop their interface and jump on the “personalization” bandwagon.

“The Art Interface” as seen through Interactive Resumes

Hromack and Giampietro’s article on “The Art Interface” makes an interesting analogy about the state of museums as they are caught transitioning into the digital world. The idea of art that is no longer an object, but an interface, signifies a transformation in the medium of art’s communication. Art must now speak through technological apparatus, which detractors say dilute the traditional museum-going experience. Further, given that digital platforms are also curated, we are perhaps one step further away from engaging with the art piece in a personal and unmediated way.

Physical aspects of an art piece such as scent, scale and perspective are arguably lost when we try to convey a museum’s collection through non-physical means. However, I think the change in medium can be accompanied by strategic thinking about how to convey information and engage users in ways uniquely catered to that medium. For instance, several software engineers and people in technical professions are being trained in UI/UX design and Human Computer Interaction, learning aspects of which are promising for aesthetically sensitive, yet functional and effective design. A good example of this would be graphic and web designers who have creatively reinterpreted a classic document- the resume. In order to make their applications stand out, developers such as Bobby Leonardi have built themselves an interactive resume.

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While these interactive sites are cool, I don’t think they replace the need for a PDF resume, especially when faced with more traditional employers. In the same way, I feel that digital interfaces and the museum experience can enhance one another, but separately can still cater to different audiences. The digital does not attempt to, and is not a replacement for the physical, so digital experiences should in some way attempt to supplement the experience of one visiting a museum. A movie interpretation of a novel should be able to stand on its own, but it is distinct from the novel itself.

Having established that digital interfaces are promising given the increasing amount of attention being accorded to engineer-designer collaboration. I agree with Cat that an institution’s presence online does not make them global, but it does make them more accessible. How they want to leverage and measure their accessibility as a gauge of their success will become easier as more possibilities emerge for infrastructure to be molded to fit institutions’ programming, administrative and outreach needs. Accompanying such changes will be the development of a vocabulary and set of metrics/ indicators to assess how well a museum is doing.

Culture as Subject and the Ontology of Digital Photography

This week’s readings encouraged us to think about the relationship between a museum, a cultural object, and the community to which it belongs. Charles Zange argues that the museum’s “ownership” of the object is an opportunity for them to showcase and educate the public about cultural artifacts. However, this does not mean that they are free to emphasize or omit certain facts at their discretion, while ignoring the richness of the community voice and their role in influencing the cultural backdrop of the object. Especially in the context of digital display and networks, where information is as easily disseminated as it is misrepresented, ignoring the conditions and means of information display would affect the object’s cultural network and therefore its “ontology”.

More so than cultural artifacts, I thought about how digital photography fit into the argument. In this age of Instagram, DSLRs and the obsession to create the perfect digital image, photographers often travel to exotic locations to take snapshots of the landscape, the people and/or the culture. However, it is not as clear to me how many actually bother to connect with the local people and understand the cultural context in which they are capturing these shots. It is easy to see how a well composed shot with the proper lighting, saturation etc would garner a lot of likes, but they might lack the perspective and the narrative behind what compelled them to capture that moment. This is a clear example in which the “risk of dual digital networks” is clearly exemplified- the information asymmetry between a digital photograph and the actual scene in a cultural community or landscape can result in a split of information with “both sides only getting one piece”.

One photographer who does do this well is an environmentalist named Chris Jordan. He travels to rural areas of the world where plastic pollution is prevalent, and uses what he knows about the environment to capture and convey the reality of the situation to others (as opposed to just taking pictures of things that look pretty). While this course discusses the importance of preserving the authenticity of man-made cultures, we have not really touched on what it means to preserve and protect our natural environment, which has a carrying capacity and ontology of its own. It’s easy to deny the reality of environmental degradation even when the facts are presented to us, but there is hope that photography as a journalistic device will be a better way to spread this message if photographers i.e. photo curators are able to reflect critically on their work on not only an opportunity for artistic expression but a means for cultural investigation and education.


Midway: Message from the Gyre by Chris Jordan

Practical Uses of DataViz: Identifying Trends in 800 Degrees’ Pizza of the Day

I was thrilled to see several articles on data-manipulation this week, since I am considering working on an exploration of museum data for the final project. I also had a lot of fun exploring the different examples- it was very interesting to see how one data set from the Tate could be interpreted and presented in many different ways by a single person.

Big data is a hot topic in many circles now, in part because people seem to view it as a good way of challenging the power structures and relations that exist between curators and viewers, as discussed in the Exhibitionary Complex last week. The fact that more institutions are now becoming open to sharing their data online also seems like a win for democratization of information, although it would be difficult to deny that the release also comes with questions about what kind of data they have (selectively) chosen to reveal to us, and what (if anything) they are hiding from us.

On the positive side, though, Helen Wall mentions in her data visualization study of MoMA’s online collection that having access to such data and the opportunity to explore it with visualization tools gives us a new perspective of the artworks that we would not be able to glean from simply visiting the gallery or reading catalogues. I agree that the insight we get from well-designed data visualizations changes the way we view artworks- I would even argue that it gives us more of a bird’s eye view perspective via which to identify historical trends and artist preferences that might not be as apparent when we are viewing the works individually.

Apart from the art world, where data visualizations are used primarily to reimagine information and chart historical trends, other professions have used available datasets to assess current situations and predict future trends. For instance, datasets have been used by environmentalists to conduct climate change vulnerability assessments, and by geographers to track population density. More casually, it was also used by a friend of mine who was interested in identifying trends in 800 Degrees’ Instagram phenomenon Pizza of the Day, where he attempted to predict what toppings would be put on the pizzas before they posted the picture. Although he ended up not being able to develop a model with sufficient accuracy, he was able to extract information from 800 Degrees’ account using the Instagram API to create several interesting visualizations that revealed the most frequently used toppings, and which pizza bases were most popular (by assuming that the number of likes and comments on a given photo reflected more interest in the pizza of that day). I leave you with some screenshots of his work, but if pizza is of any importance in your life, you should definitely check out the original post here for some real insight and good fun.




LACMA on Snapchat- an extension of the Exhibitionary Complex?

This week’s reading on the Exhibitionary Complex discussed the evolution of museums and its role as a public institution in a position of power to preserve heritage and educate people about it. The article reminded me of the recent appraisal LACMA received for the activity on its Snapchat account, where reporters discussed the comedic approach museum digital strategists used to engage users with their collections. Below are some of the funny snaps from their account:


To me, LACMA’s approach to publicity is an extension of the concept of the Exhibitionary Complex. This complex is one that applies not only to museums, but to social media platforms and the desire to build a digital image, reputation and history. In the same way that museums were given a newfound power to “order objects and persons into a world” (pg 98), social media and marketing strategists have immense power to create an image for, and convey information about the organizations they represent. LACMA’s use of slang and humorous references to youth culture arguably made museums more attractive to Snapchat’s young user base, and connected them with the museum’s information economy in an interesting way.


In addition, LACMA’s use of Snapchat was a tactic to debunk the myth of fine arts appreciation as time-consuming, irrelevant and inaccessible- while I enjoy visiting museums, several of my friends think it is either boring, too abstract, or something they would simply not prioritize doing on a free afternoon. This reminded me of Bennett’s commentary on the role of exhibitions and events as fulfilling “short term ideological requirements” (93). Although museums have a fixed role and a permanent collection, they are able to make the institution relevant by putting on new exhibitions (for a limited time) that speak to current trends or recent historical events. This allows museums to be part of a larger conversation going on in the area/world. Connecting this to LACMA’s use of Snapchat, I think the move was part of the institution’s recognition of trends in digital communication, and the flexibility the museum had to capitalize on such trends in spite of the traditional purpose they have.


Finally, LACMA’s Snapchat move reminded me of Barthes’ remark on the “habitual divorce of seeing and being seen” (97). In the article, Barthes describes the Eiffel Tower as the perfect example to illustrate the technology of vision- the site itself can be a site for a sight. Looking at the Eiffel Tower gives us one view, but visiting the Eiffel Tower gives us a bird’s eye view of Paris that we otherwise might not have access to. In the same way, I think that LACMA’s Snapchat account embodies this dual vision. We view museums as a site for the exercise of cultural capital, but social media strategists are using these traditional pieces to exercise their knowledge of youth slang. Attempting to caption the art so casually and unconventionally puts the art in a different light compared to what we might experience in a museum, and allows us to establish a more personal relationship with art even via our phones.