From Virtual to Visceral

I wasn’t at this year’s Museums and the Web conference, but I was checking it out while I was considering applying for the 2010 meeting in Denver. (I did apply, with the hope of getting some feedback on the Virtual Vermilionville idea.) The Indianapolis Art Museum was the host institution this year, and so its director, Maxwell Anderson, gave the opening keynote speech. Anyone who’s been to such keynotes knows they can be fairly divergent in quality, but Anderson’s thoughts, especially on how the on-line realm can open the museum out to visitors and, in effect, invite them in, is a really good one, and one I hope to pursue in this work with Vermilionville.

Here’s the video:

Virtual Vermilionville

This fall the director of our premiere cultural heritage site, Vermilionville, came to me with an interest in upgrading their inventory systems. As we sketched out various possible uses of such a database, from rich inventory management (by location, by type) to ticketing and tracking of work orders related to inventory, we began to realize that the rich documentation required of such an infrastructure could be used for an entirely different purpose: to create a virtual Vermilionville that would not only allow visitors to view the facility from afar — thus allowing one of the site’s principal users, area teachers, to perform previews and follow-ups with students — but also allow the facility to expand beyond its current scope, since it would be unbounded by its physical constraints: you can only do so much with so many acres containing only so many houses with so many objects. Curation and interpretation are not so limited on-line, where houses can, in a sense, be returned to their original place and curation be addressed by multiple layers with multiple access points. E.g., a classic Cajun house can be returned to its original location, virtually, with its bayou orientation and all its accompaniments no longer simply explained as context but now as full-fledged texts to be examined in and of themselves. Such a virtual facility expansion would also allow Vermilionville to address dimensions of history that it does not currently have room to house: the role of other ethnic groups in the construction of Cajun and Creole cultures, how the changing landscape has changed the social base for these cultures, what happened before as well as after the facility’s current focus on the late nineteenth century.

Our goal is to construct the best possible infrastructure that will allow Vermilionville to continue to “build out”. What we would like to offer up is a detailed description of the facility, its mission, our vision for this project, and our initial sketches of this information architecture in hopes of getting feedback on what we have missed and where we can contribute to the ongoing enterprise of finding the best possible mix of off-line/on-line curation. We hope that such an infrastructure will not only open the village up and out but also the data as well. E.g., We’d like to see Google Earth mashups and re-interpretations of artifacts in SketchUp as well as open up the facility so that visitors can layer their own stories onto the site — we want not only to reach a new generation but in doing so we want them to seek out the older generations and discover the latter’s stories and memories for themselves.

Virtual Vermilionville

This fall the director of our premiere cultural heritage site, Vermilionville, came to me with an interest in upgrading their inventory systems. As we sketched out various possible uses of such a database, from rich inventory management (by location, by type) to ticketing and tracking of work orders related to inventory, we began to realize that the rich documentation required of such an infrastructure could be used for an entirely different purpose: to create a virtual Vermilionville that would not only allow visitors to view the facility from afar — thus allowing one of the site’s principal users, area teachers, to perform previews and follow-ups with students — but also allow the facility to expand beyond its current scope, since it would be unbounded by its physical constraints: you can only do so much with so many acres containing only so many houses with so many objects. Curation and interpretation are not so limited on-line, where houses can, in a sense, be returned to their original place and curation be addressed by multiple layers with multiple access points. E.g., a classic Cajun house can be returned to its original location, virtually, with its bayou orientation and all its accompaniments no longer simply explained as context but now as full-fledged texts to be examined in and of themselves. Such a virtual facility expansion would also allow Vermilionville to address dimensions of history that it does not currently have room to house: the role of other ethnic groups in the construction of Cajun and Creole cultures, how the changing landscape has changed the social base for these cultures, what happened before as well as after the facility’s current focus on the late nineteenth century.

Our goal is to construct the best possible infrastructure that will allow Vermilionville to continue to “build out”. What we would like to offer up is a detailed description of the facility, its mission, our vision for this project, and our initial sketches of this information architecture in hopes of getting feedback on what we have missed and where we can contribute to the ongoing enterprise of finding the best possible mix of off-line/on-line curation. We hope that such an infrastructure will not only open the village up and out but also the data as well. E.g., We’d like to see Google Earth mashups and re-interpretations of artifacts in SketchUp as well as open up the facility so that visitors can layer their own stories onto the site — we want not only to reach a new generation but in doing so we want them to seek out the older generations and discover the latter’s stories and memories for themselves.

Open Museums

In the most recent issue of [Make][make] magazine, Cory Doctorow finds himself face to face with the central contradiction of many contemporary museums: charged with spreading/sharing art and knowledge, most museums simultaneously prohibit unauthorized replications of the works in their collections. In the case of fragile artifacts, this makes sense, Doctorow notes, but in this particular instance he finds himself in a science museum. What sense then? A flash of light will do brass and stainless steel no harm.

The answer comes from a curator: the museum makes money on sales of postcards and books. Doctorow asserts that this is no answer, no respectable answer for such institutions. Two readers [take him to task][task], pointing out that the world is a bit more complex than the scene he describes. First, intellectual property is a mine field to navigate — with more mines being added every day. (If only it were more “minds.”) The second reader points out that the financial underpinnings of most museums are not so sure and the sale of such baubles and books are a necessary part of any institution’s revenue. In short, keep those post cards coming because they keep the doors open.

I think both readers make a good point, but they miss the larger point, and perhaps the bit of irony with which Doctorow writes: that’s not the way things should be. Instead, wouldn’t it be more interesting to imagine an *open museum*. I’m not entirely sure what it would look like, or even that it would succeed, and I’m pretty sure that many of the denizens of today’s museums probably won’t like what my vision looks like, but let me try it on for size.

Funnily enough, I’m going to start with an actual museum and with an actual event that happened this past weekend. UL-Lafayette, thanks to some generous local patrons, now has a state of the art [museum][muse], which has three gallery spaces, two on the first floor and one on the second. In addition to these galleries, there is a capacious, if also somewhat broken up, lobby and a second floor bookshop space which has additional display space as well as a terrific view of the [older museum][old] building designed by noted local architect, A. Hays Town.

The older museum is everything the newer one is not: it is a plantation structure with small galleries. The newer facility is spacious, for the most part. Tragically, Gallery 2 is a cave. It is cramped and because of its cramped nature it always feels like all the light being poured out of its many fixtures is simply trying to overcome a darkness that constantly threatens the visitor from every corner. It is also the gallery which they chose to house the annual senior art show, packing in both fine and graphical art exhibits of over a dozen young artists into a space that measures on a good day something like 20 by 40 feet.

This past Saturday was the opening for the show, and it was, not to be too redundant, *packed*. Despite the highly efficient HVAC unit of a modern museum and an overcast day that kept Louisiana’s subtropical sun at bay, visitors to Gallery 2 on Saturday afternoon had to move quickly through the exhibits both because the press of people was so great and because it was one way to keep air moving. Why were all those people in there? For purely parochial reasons, of course. Most of us there, I would bet, were there to see the work of either our students or our children.

[make]: http://makezine.com/
[task]” http://www.makezine.com/05/doctorow/
[muse]: http://www.thehilliard.org/
[old]: http://foundation.louisiana.edu/news/museum.html