Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Fish, Museums, and Neuroscience

As a biologist, I'm familiar with the “edge effect”—the increase in biodiversity that occurs at the boundary of two habitats, such as forest and field. As a museum person, I believe in the power of the metaphorical application of this concept to our field. Inviting professionals from diverse backgrounds, with deep expertise developed outside museums, can result in an explosion of ideas and discovery. This week's guest post by Tedi Asher describes one such collision: Tedi is a PhD. neuroscientist recently recruited by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA. Let the experiments begin!

Dr. Tedi Asher.
Photo credit Kathy Tarantola
I’ve recently found myself a fish out of water, a neuroscientist working in an art museum.

Before you run down the avenue of assumption, let me clarify that I have no background in art or museum studies. Sure, I liked to draw as a kid. Sure, my family is full of artists. Sure, I grew up in a suburb of Washington, D.C. and spent many of my childhood weekends visiting the Smithsonian as well as smaller private galleries that dot the city. But that, my friends, is where my experience with art ends.
Yet, here I find myself employed by an art museum. Let me explain….

Throughout my life I have been highly attuned to the emotional experiences of others. I always wondered why and how we experience emotions as we do. I began a formal investigation of these questions with the inception of my neuro-scientific career in 2003, when I began working in the neurobiology laboratory at my college, where I studied learning and memory in the common fruit fly.

I later went on to pursue a doctoral degree in neuroscience, during which I investigated the neurobiological underpinnings of aggressive behavior in mice. While fulfilling, fun, and illuminating, these laboratory-based experiences kept me at a distance from object of my curiosity…human emotion.

So, when I serendipitously stumbled upon an ad from an art museum looking to hire a neuroscientist I jumped at the opportunity. After all, where else, but at art museums, can one witness such breadth and depth of emotional experience?

This is why I accepted the position of Neuroscience Researcher at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, MA this past spring. PEM’s mission is to create transformative experiences. Simple enough. Or is it? It turns out to be a rather complicated business; one which Dan Monroe, PEM’s Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Director and CEO, feels is best approached by gaining insight into how the human brain processes the physical world that comprises our external reality, and in doing so, inspires the emotions that constitute our internal milieu. You can learn more on Monroe’s thoughts about this from this recent New York Times story.

I have been tasked with investigating how our brains are wired to appreciate art and how we can use such knowledge to inform exhibition design. What, you might be wondering, does that even mean?! Well, folks, after about a month on the job, I have some ideas to share with you.

Brain specimen with work from the PEM collection (see
note at end of post.)
The ABCs

I started with the basics: the biology of vision. Our visual system is empowered to detect brightness, color, motion, contrast…the list goes on, but you get the idea. In short, we appear to have a very powerful capacity to see. But, we must bear in mind that what we see, and how we feel about what we see, is a product of neurons in different parts of our brains talking to one another. Therefore, the way that these circuits are wired greatly impacts our visual and visuo-emotional perception.

Take, as an example, the sense of vibration or motion we experience when looking at a design composed of two colors of different hues (what we think of as color) but equal luminance (brightness). Color and luminance are processed by two different neural pathways in the brain: the "what" pathway assigns objects an identity (e.g. this is a chair) and can detect color. The "where" pathway assigns objects positions in space (e.g. the chair is next to the table), but cannot detect color, only luminance. When looking at an image where both colors have the same luminance, the "where" pathway cannot differentiate between the colors and therefore can’t assign them a position within the image, which results in the sense of motion and instability that we experience.

The idea, then, is that perhaps we can use such insight into the structure and function of our visual system to design exhibitions that generate a strong emotional response.

The XYZs

There are many “higher order” processes that are relevant to exhibition design: How are our attentional resources allocated in museums? When mixing media in an exhibit (e.g. auditory plus visual stimuli), which modality will most effectively impact our emotional reaction? How do we best absorb new information that will stay with us long after we have walked out the front door of the museum?

I now spend my workdays combing the scientific literature that address questions like these, which is fascinating. Better yet is bringing my findings into meetings with other PEM staff and applying the data to an exhibition, inspiring novel approaches to presenting works of art. These highly creative individuals latch onto neuroscientific findings and run with them in ways that I could never envision.
Finally, this new opportunity has allowed me to return to my childhood pursuit of comprehending the origins and dynamics of human emotion. I hope you’ll come along on this journey with us here at PEM.

To learn more about the Barr Foundation grant that funds my position and about PEM’s decision to hire a neuroscientist, see this recent front page story from the Boston Globe and this recent post on PEM’s blog, Connected.

Visitor in PEM gallery. Photo credit Allison White.
Dr. Tedi Asher is Neuroscience Researcher at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. The position — which marks a first for an art museum — supports PEM’s neuroscience initiative and is made possible through a generous grant from the Barr Foundation. Dr. Asher earned her Ph.D. from Harvard Medical School’s Biological and Biomedical Sciences program and has spent the last 12 years gaining experience in a wide range of fields, including neuroscience and psychology. At PEM, she will synthesize neuroscience research findings and make recommendations on how museums can enhance and enrich the visitor experience.

1) Image juxtaposed with brain specimen: Olivia Parker (American, b. 1941) The Murderer's Brain, 1996, printed 1980 Inkjet print 21 x 35 inches (53.34 x 88.9 cm) Peabody Essex Museum, Museum purchase with partial funds from Susan and Appy Chandler, 2014 2014.28.10

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Making of ¡NUEVOlution!: collaboration, ambiguity and a willingness to fail

This week’s guest post documents the benefits of an agile approach to exhibit development. Staff from the Levine Museum of the New South—Kate Baillon (VP Exhibitions 2007 - 2017), Kamille Bostick (VP Education 2015 – 2017), Janeen Bryant (VP Education 2007 – 2015),  and Oliver Merino (Latino New South Coordinator)—share their experiences developing the highly lauded exhibit ¡NUEVOlution! Latinos and the New South.  Their story illustrates how remaining open to input can help museums to “fail forward” to success. For more on incorporating productive risk taking and failure into your operations, check out CFM’s latest forecasting report, TrendsWatch 2017

October 2015. 
The fifth grader looked up at the large map of the U.S. and distracted her class as they read snapshots of Census data. “It smells like paint in here,” she said.

That wasn’t exactly the reaction we wanted from visitors to the ¡NUEVOlution! Latinos and the New South exhibit, but it was fitting. Levine Museum had spent a month mounting the exhibition, nearly three years developing the content and processes that informed it, and several years before that honing the concept. But even though the exhibit had been up for more than a month and had received more than a thousand visitors, it did smell like paint, because exhibit staff had still been adding touches. Installation hadn’t fallen behind. Instead, it had continued to grow thanks to our willingness to listen to community input.

Just prior to the opening of the exhibit, the team added a participatory sculpture, reconfigured spaces so they were more intimate, and adapted and revised interactives based upon community feedback.  
Courtesy Rodrigo Dorfman

¡NUEVOlution! developed out of multiple rounds of community input in conjunction with our curatorial team and Darcie Fohrman. In order to tell a complex, changing and current history, exhibit designers, developers and staff knew they could not and should not handle the story alone nor could they accept a single approach. 

In the past 25 years, the Southeast emerged as America’s fastest-growing “immigrant gateway,” with Latino population in many cities going from barely 1% to 10% or more.  Such rapid change has brought both stresses and opportunities—not only for communities but for the future of cultural institutions. As AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums has pointed out, by 2040, whites will no longer be the US’s majority racial/ethnic group – but currently only about 1 in 10 core museum visitors are people of color.   

Each of these factors and the larger questions they raised compelled the Museum to take a critical look at what was driving change in Charlotte. In 2010, we had mounted the exhibit Changing Places which looked at demographic change in the Southeast, but subsequently recognized that the key lever in Charlotte was the impact of Latinos on the region. 

In 2012, Levine Museum of the New South launched the LATINO NEW SOUTH Project.  As a first step in the five-year initiative, Levine Museum invited the Atlanta History Center and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute to join in a “learning network” to explore the Latino experience in the southeastern U.S.  Because Latino immigration is transforming the entire South, including our three cities, it made sense to have partners in several parts of the South to understand the historical change. We believed that museums could play a vital role in the work, and that sharing information between institutions would help each of our organizations find effective strategies to truly engage Latino partners. 

In Cornell University professor Michael Jones-Correa’s 2011 study "All Immigration is Local," he observed that efforts are underway in almost every city to address immigrant integration, – full and meaningful participation in community life –  but there is little trading of information between cities.  

Our curiosity, and willingness to share in the learning process led us to successfully apply for a MetLife-funded Innovation Lab for Museums grant, administered by CFM, which completely shaped how the NUEVOlution! exhibit came together. Guided by EmcArts, the Lab called for “half-baked” ideas and we went in with questions, not answers. Questions informed the project, questions informed the sessions, and questions informed questions. We asked about what we didn’t know. Using what we learned, we decided to create an exhibit, and we approached the exhibition process the same way. The entire creation was to be a process—intentionally self-reflective around the ideas that emerged.

We developed ¡NUEVOlution! using feedback loops and rapid prototyping. Community feedback informed story selection and interactive development --even the logo and exhibit title were crowd sourced. Daring to learn something new, apply it, try it out on key stakeholders and then listen to what they had to say. Really listen. We did not just say “thanks for your input” and continue on down the original path, but were willing to stop and take in what we heard and try to make it real. For example community input directed us to make the exhibit more experiential than originally conceived. Another key component was flattening the traditional hierarchical structure of exhibit development. In the development of content and design elements, all feedback was considered and weighed equally. Topics were explored and developed with sustained community groups and their feedback was incorporated at every stage of exhibit creation; all staff were asked to weigh in and give their feedback - either in group settings, or via email or direct communications with the exhibit team.  Throughout the process, we checked for resonance with our audience, and did not just depend upon a topic’s relevance or top down direction. This meant that the exhibit had relevance, community buy-in and the audience awareness of the project was building from each of the feedback sessions. We had created community ambassadors for the project. 

Using this model resulted in several “big ideas” that successively changed the exhibit’s focus and required the redesign of sections and content before arriving at the final version of the exhibit. One of our early visions for the exhibit, “New South Revolutions” put the Latino impact in the context of a new wave of influencers following the sharecroppers, mill owners and boomtown builders in the preceding decades. There were three different versions of this exhibit vision with one being highly youth-focused. Another “big idea” for this exhibit centered on the concept of home and creating a sense of home. Each time we tested and tried out what the exhibit could be –its stories, its activities—we realized something more. The story was more than just a chronological shift, and yes, it was about home, but was bigger. We needed to think about identity and place-making. 

A few months before the exhibit opened, a final feedback session revealed that many people wanted to make sure there was more nuance to the stories told in the exhibit. It was important that immigration was a part of the collection of stories, but it was not THE story, they wanted to ensure that the stories shown were not just stories of struggle but also of successes. They also desired a focus on language, race, and ethnicity. Because of this session, the Museum added sections “Leading in the Mainstream” and “Origins” and new interactives.

Courtesy Rodrigo Dorfman

To create an exhibit like ¡NUEVOlution!, museum staff had to put aside our egos and cultivate a real willingness to listen and engage differently. The process required us to develop a tolerance for ambiguity, the messiness of authentic  collaboration, openness to failure and the need to recreate based upon feedback. But the final product—wet paint and all—was immensely better due to this iterative approach to exhibit development.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Philanthropy in the Age of Scale: MacArthur Foundation 100&Change

 Last year the MacArthur Foundation launched 100&Change—a competition for a $100 million grant to fund a single proposal to make measurable progress toward solving a significant problem. They invited proposals to address any critical issue, and indeed the submissions ranged from health to education and environmental sustainability.

100&Change exemplifies the rise of high-impact philanthropy, as funders increasingly are inclined to make “big bets” that result in transformative change rather than being satisfied with incremental progress.

In February MacArthur announced the eight semi-finalists and now they’ve release a public, searchable database of nearly 1900 proposals submitted to 100&Change. This database provides a fascinating overview of who applied, what problems they chose to address and how. Studying these proposals can help museum people think about how their own work can create solutions that are (to quote MacArthur) “radically different in scope, scale and complexity.”

I want to give a shout out to three museums I found in the database that were bold enough to apply. (There may be others—I found these through key word searches--let me know if you find any I missed.)

The San Diego Zoo tackled extinction, proposing to save critically endangered species of animals and plants by scaling up the world’s largest cryopreserved collection of living gametes and seeds  (San Diego Zoo’s Our Frozen Zoo® and Seed Bank).

The Chicago Botanic Garden pitched a plan to strengthen global food security by cultivating the use of symbiotic soil microbes that enhance crop plant tolerance to drought. In contrast to the development and sale of (patented) drought resistant cultivars by big agricultural businesses, this approach would create low cost, sustainable solutions controlled by local farmers.

The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (Drexel University) framed many of the big problems facing humanity (climate change, water and food security, loss of biodiversity) as part of a larger “Failure to use knowledge to address the ongoing disconnect between human and natural systems at a time when humans are revealed as the dominant species impacting the planet.” They proposed to tackle this meta-problem with a meta-solution: building a network of academic institutions and problem-solving practitioners to create a paradigm shift in societal problem solving.

May I lead a (digital) standing ovation to these institutions for envisioning how their museums can help solve urgent, global, intractable challenges.

MacArthur isn’t simply abandoning the proposals that didn’t make the final eight. They are refining the indexing and organization of the proposal database, creating a system that links related proposals, and may help match them to potential funders. The judges also provided feedback to all applicants. You may remember the Alliance entered the competition (I blogged about it here), with a plan to meet a significant portion of America’s need for equitable, high-quality early childhood education through incubating museum-based programs. We didn’t make the cut, but the feedback we received was very encouraging. One reviewer wrote “This is a stand-out proposal and the best of my batch -- it is bold, innovative and highly leveraged. I love everything about it [including] the use of existing museums as new vectors for achieving ECE outcomes.” Those reviews have fortified our resolve to refine the idea and continue to pursue funding.

MacArthur has announced its intention to repeat 100&Change every three years. I encourage you to start thinking now about how your museum could play a significant role in solving an important problem of our time. Please share your ideas with your colleagues and with me, here on the blog or over on Museum Junction. Together we can incubate ideas for how museums can lead in an Age of Scale

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Build it and will they come? Co-working considerations for Museums

Tui Te Hau
At the AAM annual meeting, I hope to see you at the session I’ll be moderating on the emerging trend of museums running business incubators and co-working spaces (Sunday, May 7, 4 pm). One of the newest of these enterprises is Mahuki, an innovation accelerator run by Te Papa, New Zealand’s national museum. Mahuki won’t be represented on our panel, but in today’s guest post Tui Te Hau, general manager of Te Papa’s Innovation Hub, offers some advice for museums considering starting their own co-working or incubator space. And Tui knows whereof she speaks, having headed up Wellington’s Fashion HQ business accelerator and establishing Lightning Lab, New Zealand’s business acceleration program. (Her longer bio is well worth reading.) You can still register to join us in St. Louis. 

Museums and galleries with spare space have an opportunity to enter the co-working realm and provide office facilities for businesses and others in their community.  The benefits include revenue from rents and other charges, leveraging physical space and co-location with entrepreneurs that creates energy, excitement and momentu

m in your organization.  Co-working takes more than just providing the space and you can increase your chances of success and save yourself big headaches with a little forward planning. 

Here are my top three insights from spending a decade co-located with entrepreneurs in business incubators and accelerators –

It’s a real estate play
Co-working is a real-estate or rental business model and unless money is no issue for you, you need to create a value proposition that will attract and retain individuals and businesses to choose your space.  You also need to secure tenants who can and will pay the rent (every month and on-time)! 
The tension is that you will also want to have quality tenants that align with your brand and positioning.   Maybe it’s art-tech focused businesses in a gallery.

This means you need to determine a pricing structure and selection criteria that will enable you to run the co-working space sustainably and have the right mix of teams in order to deliver value to your organization over and above the rent you receive. 

Of course you can just run your space purely for profit and then maybe who is in the space isn’t so important.  Equally, you could run it totally altruistically and not charge (I wouldn’t though).
But here’s the other tension – the mix and quality of the existing tenants are what attracts new tenants to come be located with you versus the other cool space down the road.

The first year is generally the honeymoon period when your brand spanking new facility and your marketing enthusiasm attracts awesome teams.  Its year two and beyond where it can become a hard grind if you aren’t constantly reviewing and enriching your value proposition to attract the right mix of teams (and meet your financial targets)!

Time base your offer
My number one tip is to build in check points in your agreements with your tenants. Possibly a trial to start and then a review on a six monthly basis.  Don’t sign an open ended agreement.  You need the flexibility to be able to move people on.  Some people are just plain awful to be in a space with, others can be super awesome but aren’t paying rent, or are really messy. 

Just Co-working?
Energy and momentum is the fuel of business (that, and endless supplies of good coffee).  You need to bring energy into the space on a regular basis.  This could be through workshops, seminars, community rituals (like doing the daily crossword).   People like to co-work because of the co - the opportunity to interact with others. Other considerations include music, fit out and furniture. Don’t go too far – it’s not party central.  The culture and vibe of the place will be determined by the mix of teams you have but you are a key player.  You need to be actively thinking about this continuously. 

I would also be mindful of when you might start to operate like a business incubator and begin to provide entrepreneurial services to tenants.  This is not a bad thing to do and it is a natural way to bring in energy – it’s just that it is very resource intensive and is something you should do consciously and with a plan.  

There are a number of awesome organizations that do this for a living and you could consider partnering with someone to run your co-working space. In New Zealand we have the awesome Biz Dojo who love to share their co-working mojo with others.  There is also a lot of information online to help you.

Through co-working I’ve had the chance to work alongside a rich mix of interesting and smart people. I’ve been there at ground zero for businesses that have gone on to be superstars and I’ve had a lot of fun.  I’ve also had to have difficult conversations with people – those who don’t shower, hog the meeting rooms and had to address the rumor that people got a little more intimate than appropriate onsite after hours.  Mostly, I’ve had to manage a lot of competing expectations; “no we aren’t going to start providing organic fruit baskets every week” and “yes I love your business and you’re team really makes this place hum – but it’s not in lieu of your rent”.  For your parent company – its meeting their expectations that they are providing something that the community values and makes us all look good.   There are lots of other considerations but this will get you started.  Good luck!

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

#AAM2017 Preview: using comics to have difficult conversations in museums

Greetings! Sage here. I have had the pleasure of working with Smithsonian Exhibits designer and comic book artist Evan Keeling for the past two years. Now we've developed an amazing panel of comic artists, educators and scholars from across the country working with museums for this year's AAM Annual Meeting in St. Louis on Tuesday, May 9 from 10:30-11:45 am and two free hands-on workshops on Monday, May 8 and Tuesday, May 9 from 2-3 pm for anyone to learn concrete comic creation skills on-site and bring back to their museum. We are excited to have Evan share his experience with comics and museums at the meeting and in today's post. Please read and join us in person in St. Louis!
I have been working at the Smithsonian for more than 12 years and for that whole time I have also been a self published (and occasionally professionally published) comic book artist and writer. During that time I have co-founded the DC Conspiracy--a Washington DC metro area comic book artist and writer collective--and have produced and worked on comics ranging from far out fantasy to folk tales to history to science. I have been the sole creator I have written for other artists drawn for other writers as well as organized and edited anthologies.

A few years ago these two worlds combined when I produced a comic for the Smithsonian Digital Production Office explaining their rapid capture procedure. Inspired by that experience, I decided to see if I could develop more comics projects with the Smithsonian. Through a curator I knew at American History I was introduced to their education department and we developed a comic component to go along with their Youth Civic Engagement Program’s project about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War 2. Working with high school students brought in through American History as well as the Hirshhorn Museum’s ArtLab+ we created 7 mini comics for the educator packet that was used in advance of the youth summit on the Japanese American Incarceration. These comics can be seen here.

Now that I had a successful education comics project under my belt I began contacting other Smithsonian museums and departments to see how comic books could be used in their education and outreach. I did a project with the National Portrait Gallery for their Constitution Day event. For this project I produced mini comics about Justice Sotomayor and Thomas Jefferson and taught their education staff how to put on a mini comic-making workshop. The comics about the Japanese American incarceration had been presented at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s pop-up exhibit CrossLines: A Culture Lab, so I approached them about presenting at their next pop-up CTRL+ALT. I put together a pair of comics interpreting two of the exhibits presented at the pop-up and I held a drop-in comic making workshop through out the two-day event. I recently worked on comics for the Earth Optimism Summit and hosted a drop-in comic workshop for that 3-day event. You can see a number of my comics that I have produced at the Smithsonian here.

I always like having new examples when presenting a workshop. For the AAM conference I have  produced a mini-comic about the current Standing Rock Dakota Access protests to show how comic books can be used to talk about current difficult subjects as well as historic ones. Through my research into the protests I connected with the International Indigenous Youth Council (IIYC). This is the Native American tribal council that was formed at Standing Rock by a group of 17- to 30-year-olds who were among the very first protesters to challenge the pipeline. My work with IIYC has since grown from producing a comic for the AAM conference to a series of comics chronicling their work and struggles. The two I have completed so far are available here and I will be adding comics to it as they are completed.

Comics have been used for decades to quickly impart information. People gravitate towards visual content. Drawings as text are some of the earliest forms of writing, and symbols are used for universal communication and signs. We use comics to visually tell stories that cannot always be told through words alone. Comics help extend our museum’s reach so that viewers nationally can understand the stories we tell visually without having to come in our doors in a succinct and engaging way that is different from other web-based initiatives. They allow people to closely read and dissect the stimulating images and text, engaging visual learners similar to the ways people learn when they are in a museum and encountering an authentic object.

They are also wonderful for telling stories that can sometimes be difficult. From the civil rights movement, to police brutality, to immigration and imprisonment, comics have created an inviting visual to draw viewers into learning about things they might not have otherwise pursued learning about. For my panel at the AAM meeting, we have gathered a group of comic book professionals, educators, historians and museum professionals that all use comics as a way to engage the public and educate. "#TransformiveEd:Exploring Difficult Subjects through Comics" will take place Tuesday, May 9 at 10:30 am. 

At the meeting, I will also offer a workshop with Liz Laribee, who is pursuing her masters in library science at the University of Maryland. Liz recently completed a comic book reference guide for refugees “Amira in America” that can be seen here

The workshop will be offered in CFM's Future of Education RoadShow (booth 1839) in MuseumExpo twice:

  • Monday, May 8, 2-3 pm
  • Tuesday, May 9. 2-3 pm

In the workshops, Liz and I will go through the processes of how to use comics for education and outreach at your institution. We will also instruct you in the making of miniature comics and how they can be used in workshops to engage the public in your institution and its messages. Don’t feel intimidated if your art skills are not professional level, this workshop will be focusing on the storytelling aspects of comics and how they can be used by anyone to tell a story. So, come by and make comics with us.

Bio: Born and raised in Washington DC, Evan Keeling received a BFA in graphic design from the Corcoran College of Art + Design and for the last 12 years has been an exhibit specialist in graphics at Exhibits. Evan is also an accomplished illustrator who has worked with a variety of clients. He is a founding member of the DC Conspiracy, a collective of Washington, DC area comic book artists and writers and has been self-publishing comic books for print and for the web over the last five years. He recently colored the Eisner and Harvey nominated graphic novel “Captive of Friendly Cove” from Fulcrum. Teen participants in the National Museum of American History’s Youth Civic Engagement Program collaborated with Evan Keeling, and teens at the Hirshhorn Museum’s ARTLAB+, to create this series of original comics on the Japanese American experience during World War II. The comics represent oral histories from survivors of Japanese American incarceration camps. Since then He has begun other comic projects with the National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian Asian American Pacific Center, and The Smithsonian Conservation Commons.For more information please contact: @SIexhibits, @etkeeling and http://etkeeling.tumblr.com

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Get Hands-on with Virtual Reality at the AAM Annual Meeting!

Today’s conference sneak peek is from Barry Joseph, Associate Director for Digital Learning at the American Museum of Natural History. Barry previews some of the stories about digital prototyping he will share on Monday, May 8, at 8:45 am. He will be joined by John Durrant, Marco Castro and moderator Lizzie Moriarty to demystify VR content development and offer attendees the chance to get their hands on some VR tech. Nineteen exhibitors at the meeting will be offering gear or content related to Virtual and Augmented Reality. When MuseumExpo opens at 11:45 am Monday, trot on over to check out their stuff! Not registered yet? Not a problem—there’s still time.

Last fall we launched a new initiative at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City: develop recommendations for engaging visitors with modern science practices by adding digital layers to permanent halls. What this looks like on the ground is working with one of the Museum's scientists (we have over 200) and then turning their digital specimens (CT scans, genomic data, astronomical observations) into a digital asset we can port into a variety of digital tools to be tested with the public.

For example, we tried various ways of using digital astronomical data to explain the three dimensional nature of constellations. When people look up at the night sky, all the stars seem to lie in a single plane, all the same distance from Earth. In fact, stars occupy a vast three dimensional space—each a different distance from our planet. If you could change your perspective by flying off Earth to somewhere else in space, changing the distance and angle between yourself and each of the stars, you would see Orion “distort”— in other words, the 2D picture we create by drawing imaginary lines from star to star would change shape.

See how long it took me to explain that? We wanted to learn if we could use augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) to get visitors there, faster. Working with a slice of our Digital Universe database, we created a digital asset that simulates a number of constellations, like Orion. Then we tested a variety of ways for people to interact with this digital simulation of space.

1: THE TANGO EXPERIENCE: In our Hall of the Universe (HoU) Visitors viewed a virtual Orion constellation on a Tango handheld device, which they could move forward and backwards, to see the constellation’s shape/line change. Tango is like an iPad with one key difference: it knows where it sits in the space around it. This means, for AR, you can place augmentations in space and then use your Tango to walk around or (in the case of stars) amongst them.
RESULT: Failure. Visitors did not leave having learned that stars sit in a 3D space. We concluded that was in part because constellations are too abstract (the points in a constellation represent real stars but the lines between are just pretend). But what if we made the experience less abstract, something you’d notice was different if its shape changed, like your face?

Your Face in Space
2. YOUR FACE IN SPACE: It’ll take too long to explain here, but humor me and presume there’s a good reason why we have a computer app that lets you turn your face into a constellation. We took the app into the HoU and invited visitors to map points around a live image of their face, switch the star names on and off, and then rotate their perspective around the new constellation.
RESULT: Not there yet. On one hand, it seemed to work to ask visitors to use their own face as a metaphor for stars in relationship within a constellation; lowering the level of abstraction was effective. However, many visitors experienced the rotation of the constellation image as due to the constellation itself rotating (which is incorrect), not the visitor’s perspective shifting through space. What if it turned out that visitor's misunderstandings about stars in 3D space are just being reinforced when shown through a 2D medium? And what if, instead, we offered them through a 3D medium?

3rd iteration, with Hololens
3. ENTER HOLOLENS: Visitors now viewed a virtual Orion constellation (as well as three smaller constellations) through a Hololens device. (Hololens is an augmented reality headset that enables the wearer to see, and navigate, computer generated images or landscapes.) Walking back and forth, and around, visitors viewed the constellations as existing in a 3D space, with a backdrop of real stars.
RESULT: It worked! While the first iteration failed to communicate the core idea, and the second iteration was successful half the time, the Hololens version worked EVERY time. As the visitor walked around or through the constellation, the stars “moved” at different speeds, depending on their distance from the observer. But could we up the bar, designing the experience to require a visitor wearing Hololens to interact with other visitors, to make it a social experience?

Escape the Planet ( also see video, below)
4. ESCAPE THE PLANET: Over a four day design sprint, co-developed with Museum youth [BJ2] learners, we created a prototype of an escape room with an astro-theme: Escape the Planet. (Escape rooms are physical adventure games that require players to solve a series of puzzles.) One of the puzzles required a group of players to use a UV flashlight to find clues in posters that identified one particular constellation. A different player, wearing the Hololens loaded with a new version of the AR Constellation experience, had to look at the name of the closest star to Earth within that constellation (also known as its catalog number) so another player could record those digits and use them to open a padlocked case.
RESULT:  Hololens users playing Escape the Planet maintained social contact with the rest of their group, and appeared to have done so more often and with more intensity than during the first three iterations. But was this due to features of the new version of AR Constellation, or due to placing it within a game?

Iteration 5
5. STAND ALONE AR: The week after testing Escape the Planet, we took this latest version of the AR Constellation in Hololens back out into the Hall, specifically to watch how users interacted (or not) with the others within their party.
RESULT: Most visitors using the standalone AR said that wearing the Hololens did not affect the way they related with the people around them (in other words, they ignored them and focused on the AR Constellation experience). This is in stark contrast with the Escape the Planet players who not only reported a “heightened desire to cooperate” but expressed a need to share.
And so it goes. Now, a few months later, we are porting a number of our digital specimens into a holdable AR device called a Holocube. Do you think visitors would like to hold a constellation in their hand? It might be time for a new iteration...

Bonus video! Watch this group of AMNH visitors try to "Escape the Planet"

Monday, May 1, 2017

Let’s Chat About the Future in St. Louis

I love the sessions at the annual meeting but just as valuable, for me, is the chance to meet new people, reconnect with colleagues, and have so many interesting conversations that my head is swimming by the end of the day. 

This is an open invitation to snag me for a chat in St. Louis! I’d love to hear your thoughts about the future, your commentary and critique of this year’s TrendsWatch, you opinions on the challenges facing our field.

Here are some times I’m planning to hang out in the AAM Resource Center in MuseumExpo:
  • Monday, May 8, 11:45 – 1:00 pm
  • Tuesday, May 9, noon – 1:30 pm and 3-5 pm
  • Wednesday, May 10, noon – 1 pm

I’ll also be trawling several of the evening events, and would love to have a tête-à-tête with you on the bus or while schmooze while taking in the sites.
  • Sunday: Explore St. Louis Grand Center
  • Monday: Go Explore Forest Park
  • Tuesday: Groove in the Garden

All these plans are, of course, subject to last minute adjustments as I help take care of whatever needs to be done to make 4,000 attendees feel welcome.
Unfortunately, Dela won't be with us in St. Louis
As to those great sessions, I hope the posts we’ve been featuring on the Blog will help you plan your agenda. You might want to save or print Your Guide to the Future at the Annual Meeting 2017 as a cheat-sheet for some futures-oriented sessions and events.

See you in the near future!