Gifting Ideas: Enter Through the Gift Shop

I spent the weekend with a bunch of wonderful and creative people at metaLAB's Enter Through the Giftshop workshop. We were encouraged to document the process throughout the weekend, so I wanted to take a moment to reflect on it and document it here, too. The goal of the weekend was to rapid prototype a gift that we could give to a particular museum (or to humanity as a whole). 

Outside the gift shop, museums, libraries, and other kinds of collections invite appreciation more often than participation. What can people do to make these collections their own—to lure them into the public, beyond the granite walls and bronze doors of storied institutions?

With the tools of social media, mobile devices, markers, and construction paper, how can we get objects in different places talking to one another—and to address issues of vital interest to audiences beyond the ones these collections typically serve?

I was interested in part because I like spending time in museums myself, especially when I travel. I've also been trying to getting back in touch with my humanities background recently. I've been thinking a lot about technology criticism as it relates to cultural, literary, and artistic criticism that runs parallel with museum institutions. I'm very glad I joined.

Some of my most engaging museum experiences have been sparked by having a particular goal in mind when attending. I am reminded of an undergrad course with Gordon Teskey where we wrote about one object after spending an extended amount of time with it in the Sackler. There is a special purposefulness when going through the museum with some objective, not just to walk through, but to actively filtering and consciously curating your own time in the space. That's what I loved so much about the set up of the weekend.

The first day was devoted to spending the afternoon in a particular museum. I ended up in the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard. We each walked in with a set of four prompt cards that had been generated that morning to inspire and provoke our museum experience. These served as a really interesting lens for focusing our attention in new ways that carried through the rest of the weekend.

I had the particular pleasure of working through an idea that started with cards I had, developed as a theme in our message to carry on our work the following day, and really integrated into the thing we ended up prototyping. The thread ran through the weekend, and through the project itself, and I was surprised to discover the cohesion that emerged from the process that was otherwise very open ended.

Our project spawned out of a few sets of prompts, in particular. One card prompted me to spend time going back and forth between two objects. I had decided that this in itself was an act of curation, because the card didn't tell me what relationship the two objects should have with each other, and so I had to choose something myself. At first I started off with an object that was compelling, just kind of a gut, aesthetic reaction. I walked around the rest of the museum with that in mind, and then decided what to go back to at the end, and then decided what to pair it with. I spent more time with the objects around it and became really interested in the dualism in the wildly diverse designs in the Moche vessel exhibit. The dualism explained in the exhibit documentation sparked my imagination, and I was excited to find this similar posture and style across these two vessels, one a slave and one a warrior. The objects were not placed next to each other in the exhibit, but in thinking through my prompt, I was motivated to document my own comparison in an Instagram photo that put them side by side.

The other prompt that deeply inspired our prototype was a card that asked to count all the birds in the museum. Kristen Orr had done this in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and tallied upwards of 140+ birds there. She described how interesting that experience was of following this one thread throughout all the work, especially in such an eclectic and diverse collection with little context for the objects on display. She also brought in her own experience of rearranging collections by color when they are otherwise curated taxonomically. We liked the idea that curation in museum contexts are all about choices, but we wanted to be able to layer on other individualized, subjective choices that could guide and focus a personal experience.

The thing that inspired our project came out of something at the MIT Museum. In the first afternoon, we had reconvened to talk about our museum experience and share what we learned and reflect on what we liked. One of my partners described the "Please Empty Your Pockets" airport security scanner installation, and began to describe how he had used his camera to scan the scanner. I nodded vigorously as he described it and jumped to say that I had done the same thing. The next day I found someone else who had done it as well. I really wanted there to be an easy way for the museum to collect those interactions. All it would take in this case is a hashtag to collect the videos on YouTube to gather a pattern in the subjective interaction instincts we all had shared at the same exhibit.

All of these elements led to the idea that we wanted to work on something to enable an experience of self-curation, or DIY curation as a lens for the subjective experience of the museum-goer. We ended up proposing something that would be both a gift to the museum goer and a gift to the museum itself. We targeted the gift towards the Peabody, because of the fraught relationship with subjectivity in Ethnology collections and their dated displays as a way of introducing the subjectivity of the museum goers.

Our proposal was MYSEUM, a mobile app designed to record and integrate your personal museum experience. We want to capture and expose the documentation that people already naturally do when they visit and collate it both for personal use and for exposing it back to the museum and to other museum goers. We wanted to build the platform to integrate things like YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, tagging, note taking apps, audio, etc. to not only capture what you are already sharing, but to pull it together in a personal inspiration board or scrapbook of the experience. Museum goers will take notes and record elements they want to keep from their visits, including impressions and reflections on what the encounter inspired. The app might come with prompts like our museum cards to spark a particular kind of open-ended experience for self-curation.

Should the gift be accepted, we would like to use the personal curated experiences to present an installation that shares the subjective museum experience collectively to inspire other visitors, perhaps something like a grid view of text, images, and video. And at the end of a visit, the app would output either a print out or an archived report of the visit so that you could take it with you and have a record of the experience. We likened this to print outs to the roller coaster images that are take home souvenirs of the experience, linking it back to the gift shop theme. 

Walking away from the weekend, my most interesting takeaways had to do with the prototyping and collaboration process. I'm not always gung-ho for group activities, but I was so impressed with how wonderfully the interactions were run, and how productive and creative the brainstorming was. That is due in part to the organizers, especially Tim Maly, and in part because of the wonderful group of people the event attracted to participate. In the second day we were given a lot of leeway in how our groups operated in the design iteration process, so we did a lot of figuring out what was going to work for us as we went along. Throughout the weekend, we were encouraged to document things, so we did a lot with cards and brainstorming and organizing and selecting and culling. All of that was pinned up to the wall as we presented to the larger group after, so we ended up talking a bit about our collaborative process. 

Brainstorming cards organized and thematically categorized after with blue cards - one step in the design process.

Brainstorming cards organized and thematically categorized after with blue cards - one step in the design process.

I was also really pleased when other groups revealed similar ideas in common with our process. At least three other group's proposals directly engaged with themes and implemented elements we had talked about  but had edited out in the process of refining and specifying our prototype. Ideas we had wanted to pursue still had a life of their own outside our group, even though we couldn't pursue them all in focusing back on our "self-curation" prompt. It really was a "great minds" moment to see all these parallel tracks running together.

I also had a lot of fun shifting modes this weekend. As a writer and a critic I'm often operating at a meta level, commenting on things around me and thinking about what they mean. This weekend was a unique opportunity for me to spend time doing something creative, if not in actually building the thing we prototyped, but in building an idea together.