Gallery One and visible technology

Thinking about the very visible technology of Cleveland Museum of Art's Gallery One in an era where most musetech is about making the tech invisible. May 1, 2014

New York Times

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I was just re-reading Micah Walter’s thoughtful summary of MW2014 this morning, and a section of it stuck out to me on this reading that hadn’t before. Micah, as is his way, says something that is simultaneously self-evident and revelatory:

On the one hand you have a room full of technology nerds—really smart people capable of building just about any technology based experience you can imagine. On the other, those same people seem to be obsessed with making tech invisible—pushing back to the point where they question using tech at every chance they get.

I left a comment there saying, in effect, that I think this might be due to years of museum technologists having their hearts broken; we almost reflexively now say that, of course, content is king and it’s not about the technology and all of that. It’s almost like we’re ashamed of technology.

Which is weird, because Gallery One exists. And it seems like all of us museum technologists are going crazy over it.

It’s so strange to me. Here’s a project that puts technology at the very top of the museum experience stack and that, in so many ways, defies everything that we otherwise say we believe about putting content before technology. Gallery One is an experience that clearly exists because of the technology. I don’t think you could make a case that anything in or about the Museum compels this particular kind of experience to exist. It exists because a particular donor wanted technology in there.

Which is kind of awesome, right? Or at least it should be? I feel that in some sense, Gallery One is the project for which I’ve been waiting; the project that really demonstrates what the museum experience could be when un-shackled from the constraints of centuries of museum tradition. I’ve been trying for a while to figure out what a so-called “authentically digital” form of curatorial work might look like, and here’s a possible example.

And yet I struggle with Gallery One. I think, even though I agree with Micah that it’s a little strange how much we try to push technology to the margins of our work, there’s a part of me that still kind of feels that’s the right perspective to take. Gallery One is such an exceptional project (in almost every conceivable definition of that term) that I struggle to learn very much from it. Its scope and scale are so huge that it almost feels avant-garde; it jumped so far ahead of the curve that most museums won’t be able to contemplate doing anything remotely like it for years.

I guess maybe this is the heart of it (forgive me; I’m trying to solve this question in my mind as I write). I often think of Miles Davis when I think about the work that technologists do in museums. Miles was always cutting-edge, but never avant-garde. He was always pushing forward, but he rarely did so without including all that had come before, and rarely did he move more than a single step ahead (shades of the adjacent possible ). I think maybe this is the thing with me. I’m always looking for the thing that’s one step ahead of where we are; the thing that comes naturally and organically out of what we’re already doing, and I don’t think Gallery One does that. That’s not to say that it shouldn’t have been done; our field is so much richer now that Gallery One exists. It just might not be a thing that I ever try to do myself.