The following is a talk I gave at the Museum Computer Network conference in Montréal on November 23, 2013. It was part of a panel called Defining Open Authority in the Museum.
Hi. My name is Jeffrey Inscho and I guess my part of this session is to show how Open Authority can or can’t impact museum practice. Earlier this year, my museum – Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA – dove in headfirst with our first foray in open authority: a co-creative photography project we affectionately called Oh Snap! Your Take on Our Photographs.
Notice I said “project” and not “exhibition.” We’ll get back to that.
Before we get into the details of this particular project, I think it’s important to begin with a bit of institutional context. The image you’re looking at now is from 1896. In it you can see artworks being delivered to the museum via horse-drawn wagons. I think this image says a lot about our institution. On one hand, it’s just that: an institution. And not only that, it’s one with more than a century of institutional tradition – processes, workflows and operations that have been ingrained into the fabric of the place. I don’t think CMOA is alone in this respect, and I’m not speculating on whether this is good or bad. It’s a fact and I’m annotating it as an accepted truth.
On the other hand, my museum also has aspirations of achieving relevance in the lives of non-traditional museum-goers (READ: “millennials,” that highly-coveted holy grail of demography). Part of this means operating in sync with – not in competition against – the fast-moving world around us. Reimagining our programming so it resonates with people on their terms and on their turf. That’s where open authority comes in for us.
In the fall of 2012 – almost exactly one year ago, come to think of it – we were presented with an interesting challenge by our director. A slot was made available in our Forum Gallery for an open-ended experiment. The goals and specifications set forth for us were this:
- Create an experience where visitors would engage with real artworks in a personally meaningful way. We had to use collection objects; This was an insistence of our director.
- Make new connections to our target demographic (20- to 40-year-old), particularly by connecting real-word & online experiences.
- Open up the museum to true dialog with the public and have that public actively impact content/display in the gallery.
- Be clear that this was not an exhibition in the traditional sense, but that it was an experimental project.
And with those four directives in hand, a cross-departmental, cross-hierarchical group of colleagues were off to the races.
The working group tasked with making this project happen was diverse and broad. It included not only technologists like myself, but also museum educators, editors, art handlers, curatorial assistants and representatives from our registrar’s office. We met regularly over the course of approximately six months to wrestle around with our ideas, explore the adjacent possibilities, pursue what we thought were invigorating concepts and ultimately refine those concepts into a cohesive and full-featured project.
On the other side of all this ideation, we emerged with a concept we were all very excited about. The premise for our proposal was this:
- We would utilize 13 recent acquisitions from our photography department as the launch pad for the project. Decisions about which works would be made democratically by the working group and we would display these objects in the gallery.
- We would invite visitors to respond to these artworks in a visual or photographic capacity – via their smartphones or computers. We would use these responses and feedback to inform the presentation in the gallery during the run.
- We would make every attempt to bridge the digital and physical components of the project, from event programming to the submission experience. It was important to us that this project have real-world impact.
- And finally, we would be institutionally okay if this project flopped. We were aware it was a substantial risk and we were (somewhat) cool with that.
All of this sounds super lofty and conceptual and full of museum-speak. We realized that for this project to succeed, we needed to accurately and effectively communicate the concept to our audience. Strike that, our co-creators. Our partners.
We settled on a short and memorable name: Oh Snap! We employed bold colors and fonts in the graphic design. We made it as easy as possible for people to participate. We threw a fabulous launch party (This image comes from a light painting photo booth at the event).
And like most tech startups, we made a video trailer. It’s two minutes long, and quite funny, so I’ll show it now.
I would be remiss if, at one of the museum sector’s largest technology conferences, I didn’t touch on the underlying technology that supported this level of interaction.
We built a responsive website that served as both the project archive, but also as the submission vehicle. This was mainly an accessibility decision, but it also had budget implications because CMOA had the skill set to develop internally. Once we realized that the major mobile OS’s were loostening up to allow mobile browsers to access camera rolls, it was a no brainer. No app needed.
The rest was akin to a digital Rube Goldberg experiment. We daisy-chained several 3rd party services to facilitate the submission queue, approval process, website upload and participant notifications. Wufoo fed into Dropbox fed into IFTTT fed into WordPress fed into Mailchimp. A lot of variables were at play and I’m frankly surprised it worked.
But it did and the result was a participatory, open authority-infused project that blurred the digital and the physical. I’ll walk you through some installation shots now.
I guess you’re probably interested in the results and how we determined whether or not the Oh Snap project was a success.
During the 2 ½ months of the project, we received a total of 1,264 submissions. All of them, except for one, made it onto the walls of the gallery and the website. Some of them are really great. You should definitely have a look for yourself. They’re all archived on the project website: ohsnap.cmoa.org.
41% of all participants fell into our target age demographic of between 20 – 40 years old. That was by far the largest demo group, so I think we were successful in reaching the ever-elusive millennials.
The lion’s share of submissions came from the western Pennsylvania and tri-state area, but we did receive a good number of submissions from Europe, South America and Asia.
We gave all participants (via email) a free pass to the museum to come see their work in our galleries. Approximately ten percent of those passes came back to us. That may seem low, but when compared to the average return rate of 3%, we were very happy with that percentage.
I’ll leave you with this image. It’s one of many hand-written notes from visitors we received during the project. Validation like this was important to both the Oh Snap working group as well as the museum, and it went a long way in affirming to us that we made something that meant something – not only to us, but to a community of participants who actively partnered with us to make the thing happen. We couldn’t have done it without the community.
Thanks for listening. Everything I showed and said today can be found on my site at this link, and if you have questions please do holler on Twitter or email. Thanks!