A Whole New Audio Guide

I recently visited the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, and it gave me a renewed hope in the audio guide. Instead of relying on the visitor to hit pause and play as they moved around the museum or punch in numbers, the audio guide plays the audio for whatever it’s in range of. The ranges of the exhibition modules are tightly controlled, and I never accidently picked up music of the Congo while watching native dances of Ghana. It was such a simple innovation that I assume relied something basic like an RFID, but it made the audio guide experience feel natural and seamlessly integrated into the experience.

I think it especially worked so well because exhibit modules looped primary source musical materials that synced with a video. Interpretationwas written on wall text.

So I’m wondering, has anyone seen this technology used with a traditional guided experience or interprative material?

Originally posted at http://hastac.org/blogs/sarahreusche/2012/01/31/whole-new-audio-guide


I think the world is ready for a better Breakers

In the age of  conspicuous spending, class inequality, and super-finances, why should we spend $20 dollars to see and be told the 19th century equivalent?

I recently visited The Breakers, Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s “summer cottage” in Newport, Rhode Island. The Newport Preservation Society interprets lavish opulence of the site as a portal into The Gilded Age.  Interpretation focused primarily on architecture, the social function of the house, daily life of the extravagantly wealthy during the Gilded Age, and the Vanderbilt legacy. The tour content is upfront about the over-the-top nature of the architecture, décor and lifestyles of the people there, but was certainly not on the verge of a new social history critique.

The tour tells the story of Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s wealth and spending, beginning with his grandfather’s railroad and shipping empire, which he inherited and ran. Optional audio clips about servant life, including first person interviews, give  perspective to the Breakers. The enormous staff was an integral part of The Breakers, and the Vanderbilts’ opulent lifestyle was entirely dependent on their work.

The visit is guided entirely by audio tour.  Unfortunately, audio guides create an inherently antisocial museum-going experience. Most visitors seemed to have come in groups, but were all individually focused on their own audio guide and lagging behind friends listening to different points in the audio guide. Visitors were hesitant to interrupt a friend’s experience to reflect on and discuss the material.

So the Breakers presents the lives of some of the wealthiest people of their time, and the workers who maintained the lavish environs of their mansion. This is a strong dichotomy, and a space (literal or metaphorical) for visitor dialogue would have greatly enhanced the experience. The mansion should be activated as a space to discuss America’s contentious claim to being a place of upward economic mobility,  rather than just an opportunity for voyeurism.

A label of a different color.

I wrote this label as an assignment in a class that looks to widen the audience of the art museum. I chose to write a label for Vincent Van Gogh’s “View of Auvers-sur-Oise” (1890). I suggest you bring it with you next time you visit the RISD Museum!


Vincent Van Gogh

“View of Auvers-sur-Oise” 1890

 Van Gogh settled in Auvers-sur-Oise to be closer to the support of his physician, and his brother, Theo. The landscape, sunlight, and colors of the country offered the artist additional respite from mental illness. In a letter to his brother Van Gogh wrote, “Well, the truth is, we can only make our pictures speak”. So what does this painting say to you with its canvas that peaks through the dry brush strokes? Its wheat fields a strong yellow, only in contrast to the undiluted colors above it? Or that it was painted during a period of personal struggles? 

Executive Summary: The 1970 UNESCO Convention

Executive Summary for Art Museum Professionals Concerning:

1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 


The UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property was passed in 1970 by a general conference of which the United States was a part. In 1983, President Reagan signed the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act, which implements the UNESCO 1970 Convention in the US with additions that adjust the Convention to US law and infrastructure. The Convention aims to prohibit and prevent the illicit import, export and transfer of cultural property because such trade is one of the leading causes of the loss cultural heritage

What is protected?

Cultural property are religious or secular objects deemed by the state of particular significance or importance to “archaeology, prehistory, history, literature, art or science” (1970 UNESCO Convention, 1)

Cultural property eligible for protection is:

  1. Created by individuals or collectives who are nationals of the State.
  2. Created by foreigners or stateless persons within the territory if the work concerns the State
  3. Found within the territory
  4. Collected in the territory by researchers
  5. Subject of free exchange with authorization of authorities of the State
  6. Received as a gift with authorization of authorities of the State

Objects protected under the convention that would appear in art museum collections include:

“(b) property relating to history, including the history of science and technology and military and social history, to the life of national leaders, thinkers, scientists and artists and to events of national importance;

(c) products of archaeological excavations (including regular and clandestine) or of archaeological discoveries;

(d) elements of artistic or historical monuments or archaeological sites which have been dismembered; […]

(g) property of artistic interest, such as:

(i) pictures, paintings and drawings produced entirely by hand on any support and in any material (excluding industrial designs and manufactured articles decorated by hand);

(ii) original works of statuary art and sculpture in any material; (iii) original engravings, prints and lithographs; (iv) original artistic assemblages and montages in any material” (1970 UNESCO convention, 1-2)

How does the convention affect an art museum?

One of the clauses of the convention asks that museums and institutions of participating States uphold the Convention. This will require museums do the following:

1. Return illicitly acquired objects to their countries of origin

2. Cooperate with officials in creating and maintaining an inventory of cultural property

3. Abide by established rules for those who interact with the cultural property trade

4. Give visibility to cases of disappeared cultural property

In return, States participating in the convention should promote organizations that protect and preserve cultural heritage, such as the art museum. UNESCO also offers its support in the form of information, education, consultation, and coordination.

Online collections at the Art Institute of Chicago: What is to be done?

Museums often only have a fraction of their collections on display to the public at any one time, normally due to the constraints of exhibition space and conservation issues. As institutions that care for collections so that they may share them with the public, keeping the majority of their collections out of public view goes against their mission. The Internet has offered a solution to this dilemma by allowing museums to digitize their collections and put them online. While at first online collections seem to be a good solution to allow democratic access to all, they have many pitfalls. A close look at the Art Institute of Chicago’s online collections reveals what works, and what doesn’t.

Navigation through overarching categories, then through eras, mediums, or highlights of the collection, allows visitors of the site to easily browse the collections without having to know exactly what they are looking for. Also, the amount of the collection that is online is not too large to be approachable. Unfortunately, the thumbnails of works are reduced to the size of the complimenting block of object information text. If they were larger, they would have enough detail for someone to browse the collections clicking to learn more about what appeals to them visually, and important factor in looking at art.

Once a work is selected, it opens a page with a high-resolution image of the work that may or may not come with interpretive text. Writing thoughtful text for thousands of images will surely take time for the Institute to do, but it really is important for online collection. The curious person that browses and clicks through an online collection would certainly appreciate the opportunity to learn more about the works that intrigue them.

Asian and Indian Art of the Americas lack photographs for about 15% of the online works, and African lacks photographs for more like 80% of the online works. Without photographs or interpretive texts, these sections are only useful for helping someone decide what objects they’d like to see on their next visit. Even then it is only useful to someone who already knows about and is interested in a stamp for Adinkra textile or a Dogon house post.

The best entryway into the museum’s online collection is through its Themes section. These themes include Children, Mythology, and Portraits. Selecting a theme presents works that address it from a diverse chronology and geography. When works are presented individual eras and geographic areas, the cohesive style that holds them together is what stands out. But the Themes section of the AIC’s online collections naturally invite the viewer to see how differs artists across schools and styles approach common subjects and forms in a way that is rarely presented in the museum’s display of permanent collections.

Digitizing is expensive and time consuming. There are still major gaps in the online collection, and likely will be for years. A full online collection with text and images for all works would certainly be a useful tool. But considering the sheer amount of man-hours it would take to complete, and how unapproachable such a massive catalogue would be, I would suggest that using those resources to create really thoughtful online versions of temporary exhibitions and continue developing collection themes that would better fulfill a museum’s mission with what capital is available. Online exhibitions extend the impact of temporary exhibition by making their material available to more people for longer, and make use of interpretation already being done. Meanwhile developing more themes would allow for online visitors to compare and contrast works from allover the museums encyclopedic collection that would normally not be juxtaposed, and invite them to think critically about the functions art serves and how art can achieve those functions.

Costume and Textile Collection Practices at the Rhode Island School of Design

An in depth look at A World of Costume and Textiles: A Handbook of the Collection (Hay, Susan Anderson, ed. Providence, RI: Rhode Island School of Design, 1988) reveals that Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art has collected for its costume and textiles collection with the institution’s students and unique mission in mind. Part of the RISD’s mission is to train its students to “apply the principles of art to the requirements of trade and manufacture.” (Hay 9) The RISD Museum of Art is an integral part of the educational institution, as it is a resource for students to study, be inspired by, and to learn from.

In following the industry standards of museum costume and textile collecting as influenced by the substantial collections at the Metropolitan Museum, the Victoria and Albert, and the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, a portion of RISD’s collection is devoted to pivotal moments and important players in western fashion history with an emphasis on clothes made mostly for the upper class. A circa 1795 corset represents the birth of one of the most socially and politically charged items of western clothing. An 1895 Charles Frederick Worth dress and a 1955 Charles James dress reflect a current trend of collecting couture gowns and displaying them as art objects. A 1913 London and Company dress harkens to the fledgling days of the now cult-status “Liberty of London”. It is unclear whether or not the commodity appeal such items of western fashion history was considered in their collection, but A World of Costume and Textiles aptly focuses its text on the materials, construction techniques, and influence of each piece.

Unlike other important costume and textile collections that exist at the Metropolitan, the Victoria and Albert, and the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, RISD’s collection includes extensive ethnographic costumes and textiles. RISD collects ethnographic works that would never fit into the costume and textile collection like that of the Metropolitan because a 3rd Century B.C. Peruvian shaman’s mantel or the linen from a pre-1450 B.C. Egyptian mummy wrapping would seem irrelevant to the institution’s devotion to the telling of the history of fashion as understood by the west. However, in the RISD collection, the objects speak to an ancient and worldwide practice of weaving that is relevant and essential in a RISD student learning the history of fabric around the world and how to create new textiles. The collection is particularly rich in Peruvian and Egyptian textiles that represent a wide array of weaving techniques. The commonality between the collection’s samples from around the world and across millennia is that it is all of exemplary quality and condition. This gives students the opportunity to glean weaving and sewing techniques from a primary source that is of the highest quality.

Because of the RISD collection’s emphasis on costume and textile ingenuity around the world, its overarching organization scheme is by geographic area rather than chronology. This allows the museum to not be restricted to presenting a timeline of the cause and effects of fashion throughout history that because of geographic isolation, often excludes the world outside of Europe and America. The geographically wide ranging collection also gives a context of costume and textiles around the world so that the museum can collect unique pieces that reflect the impact of the interaction of cultures throughout history. For example the museum owns a late 16th- early 17th century Greek Orthodox vestment made in Bursa, Turkey. It is a rare example of figural Turkish textile, since Islamic law of the time prohibited creating representations of figures. (Hay 56) The piece represents a creative center adapting their style to that of a foreign market, a common happening in an era of increasing globalization. A circa 1775 beaded woman’s hood from the Micmac tribe is an artifact of the influence of Europeans on Native American culture. Venetian glass beads were first traded to the tribe in the 17th century by French nuns, and by 1775, beadwork was an integral part of Micmac craft. Since the beginning of the Silk Road, the global sourcing of materials for textiles has shaped the field.

The collection offers examples of the highest levels of skills and technique, pieces of exceptional condition or rarity, pivotal moments in the history of fashion, and the influence of global trade on fashion and textiles. It is well suited to the mission of the institution and the needs of the students, while keeping with current trends in costume and textile collecting. I would suggest, however, that the collection is weak in examples of clothing design that represents what the common man wears around the world and across time. Such items would be more affordable acquisitions than the rare and precious clothes for the upper class, and present an important opportunity for students to study how clothes are designed for utility, durability, and style in daily life.

Online Exhibit Review: “Holy Russia” at Louvre.fr


Holy Russia: Russian Art from the Beginnings to Peter the Great

Produced by: The Louvre Museum

Can be found at: http://mini-site.louvre.fr/sainte-russie/index_e.html

The Louvre’s exhibition, “Holy Russia: Russian Art from the Beginnings to Peter the Great”, presents the Greek, Arab, Turkish, Mongol, Pagan and Christian influences that blend to form an iconography and style unique to Russian religious art. Originally displayed in the museum March 5 through May 24, 2010, the exhibition lives on in an online format. This online exhibition exceeds expectations by not only the information and objects once on display, but thoughtfully curating the digital space to further enhance what is being presented. The dramatic space created digitally in combination with the fact the exhibition assumes no prior knowledge of Russian sacred art or religious history suggests that the exhibition is intended for a general public.

“Holy Russia” ambitiously presents history and art from the baptism of Prince Vladimir in 988 marking the beginning of Christianity in Russia, to Peter the Great’s making of a Europeanized, “modern” Russia in the early 18th century. Each section of the online exhibit gives an account of a specific period in Russian sacred art as defined by major events or influences. Titles of the sections alone speak to the breadth of the exhibit and the complexity of Russia’s past: “Conversion”, “The First Flowering of Christianity”, “The Mongol Era”, “The Major Artistic Centers in the Middle Ages”, “The Emergence of Moscow”, “Moscow, the ‘Third Rome’”, “The ‘Time of Troubles’”, and “From Michael Romonov to Peter the Great”.
From a stone pagan idol to the first portrait in Russian history, the selection of objects is thoughtfully planned to interest a wide audience. It strategically appeals to those interested in art, craft, history, religion, and culture. Archaeological objects and historic documents attract an audience interested in history; intricate decorative objects used in sacred rites speak to the role of transcendent beauty in religion; paintings and objets d’art that are masterpieces on aesthetic grounds and can be appreciated with or without reading all of the interpretation. Yet all of the objects tell a cohesive story, both visually and in conjunction with interpretation, about the impact of a history of foreign influences on visual culture.

Layout and technical features
The interface is more easily navigable than most online exhibitions, where it is easy to find oneself lost in the site after clicking through layers of links and menus. This ease of use makes it easy for a visitor to work their way through the entire exhibit, or choose only what interests them without any frustration. The online exhibition of “Holy Russia” further succeeds because it has been digitally curated to be a unique virtual space that enhances the interpretation of the objects. Instead of feeling like simply another page on the Louvre website, it opens in a separate window with different typography, colors, and navigation than Louvre website, with the addition of subtle animation that help bring it to life. The site displays the exhibition’s title in a playful Cyrillic text – НоLу Яцssia – that sets the tone for the Russian visual culture to come. Animated flames on the title’s “y” and “i” transform the letters into an oil lamp and candle that flicker recalling the sacred spaces that the exhibition’s objects were made for, but also helping create a sacred space of its own that invites the audience to explore and reflect.

Throughout the exhibition, varying forces of religion, warring clans, and traveling people are explored in relation to Russia. However, it is unclear whether Russia is being referred to as a geographical region or a nation-state, though neither definition would be consistent throughout the time span being covered in the exhibit. Additionally, the exhibition references the importance of specific sites in Russia as areas of cultural exchange. An integrated map would have greatly enhanced the experience for a general audience unfamiliar with Russian geography beyond Saint Petersburg and Moscow, and would further enhance the notion of the flow of people and ideas into Russia.

I applaud “Holy Russia” for its thoughtful presentation of art and historic objects that represent the rich history of the cultural crossroads of Russia, and for creating an easily navigable online exhibition that feels more substantial than just another section of a website. It is an excellent introduction to both Russian art and history for beginners, while those familiar with Russia will appreciate the incredible quality and importance of the objects on display.