Serendipitous and Disposable

July 1, 2010

OLD-ISH CONTENT WARNING: You are viewing a post that’s more than three years old. There’s a good chance that a lot of the following is seriously out-of-date (or at least not reflective of my current thinking on this topic). Proceed with caution.

I’m becoming more and more interested, lately, in exploring the implications of interacting with museum content outside of the museum building itself. Nancy Proctor, the head of mobile strategy for the Smithsonian, led a great unconference session on the topic at this year’s MW conference, and Chris Ubik recently postulated how the location-based app Gowalla might facilitate interesting tours outside of the museum. We’re starting to see some interesting real-world examples of this kind of thing, whether it’s home-grown stuff like Richard McCoy’s tour of public art in Indianapolis or some of the cool stuff the dudes over at Scvngr are doing. As much as I’m excited about these ideas, they are essentially using location-based services to expand the traditional museum tour model (albeit over a larger geographic area) rather than upend it. These experiences assume that the user has made a deliberate decision to interact with a museum and/or its content, and there’s an assumption that the user will follow through with that decision. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but what excites me about location-based services like Foursquare and Gowalla is that they enable us to pursue an entirely different kind of interaction model, one that substitutes serendipitous and disposable experiences for the more immersive, intentional ones that museums are accustomed to. What might this kind of experience look like? A relatively straightforward example is from the History Channel’s Foursquare profile. If you follow The History Channel, and check into a location for which it has supplied a “tip,” an interesting historical factoid will be displayed to you. So, for instance, if you check in at the Met Life building in Manhattan and you follow the History Channel, you will learn that the building was “originally called the Pan Am Building & was the largest commercial office building in the world when it opened on March 7, 1963.” It’s a short leap to imagine museum content being presented this way. A user who follows the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for instance, could check in at the Black Canyon in Colorado and be presented with this photograph and accompanying data from the Museum’s Timeline of Art History.

In essence, this approach takes content that was originally designed to be experienced as part of a museum visit (whether physical or online), and re-purposed it as a contextual/interpretive layer on a user’s experience out in the world.This approach is interesting to me for a few reasons:

  • The decision to interact and actually interacting are disconnected events. In a traditional museum experience, the visit itself follows directly from the decision to visit. Not anymore. The decision to visit (read: “follow”) a museum is now separate from the experience of interacting with that museum’s content. The interaction now only occurs when it’s most relevant.
  • The object itself is used primarily as a means of delivering information. Most online collections essentially attempt to replicate the experience of viewing an object, with a digital image as a stand-in for the real thing. In this experience, however, the experience of viewing the object is downplayed in favor of its relevance as a means of connecting one information node (location) with another (whatever information you wish to provide to the user).
  • The user has not made a deliberate choice to access museum content. This is the critical difference between this approach and a more tour-based model. The user isn’t going on a museum-curated tour of “famous painted landscape vistas” or whatever, but is instead only encountering that content serendipitously. (ed note: I might have made that word up.)
  • The actual interaction with museum content is short-lived. Once the content is viewed, the user moves on with his or her life.

All of these factors contribute significantly to a completely different type of “visit,” and an entirely different value proposition for museums (or at least art museums, in any case). In this scenario, the museum is now less an enabler of visits and more of a provider of information. The centerpiece of the museum experience–interaction with objects–is almost nonexistent, and factors that barely warrant mention on an object’s label–the location in which it was produced–are critically important. —————– And P.S., to the five of you who read this blog regularly (hi, mom!), sorry for the long gap in not posting. A lot going on these days that has prevented me from posting as (ir)regularly as I might like. Hopefully I’ll be back on a more regular schedule from here on out. As always, thanks so much for stopping by and reading!


If you enjoyed reading this, just imagine how much fun it would be to work with me! I am available for all manner of museum and non-profit digital engagements.

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January 29, 2010

}} Milton Glaser’s 1966 Bob Dylan poster, on display at the Cooper-Hewitt. Image from the Museum of Modern Art. I just came back from seeing the “Design USA: Contemporary Innovation” show at

March 2, 2009

}} Eh, just because I can’t get enough of this particular subject, I thought I’d do another quick post ’bout mobile interpretation in museums. As I was gearing up to write the Future of

February 13, 2009

}} Well, it’s been an exhausting few weeks here at kovenjsmith HQ. In addition to reading through scores of accolades over my recent interview with Paul Miller (thanks to all two of you that wrote