The Art Maps project and its research questions has coincided with a wider transition at Tate from audience interaction being a marginal activity to one that is informing much of our thinking about the future of the organisation.
The museum of the future is not just a place where objects related to cultural heritage are cared for and displayed. It is not just a place where the stories of these objects and their significance is presented. It is a place where visitors (real and virtual) can interact with those objects and those stories, with the museum’s staff, and with each other. Through these activities, the museum of the future is a platform where new ideas and meanings are generated, exchanged and preserved.
At the heart of the Art Maps project is an exploration of this vision of the future museum. Throughout the project we have been considering the kinds of ideas and meanings – both personal and art historical – audiences might generate around artworks and geographical locations. Furthermore, we have been exploring how to help generate, collect and share these ideas and meanings with others. Exploring these areas is critical to the museum sector as they have implications for the kinds of experiences (real and digital) that we will need to create in the future and for the associated technology and interface design.
With this in mind, it seems timely to consider some of the impacts that Art Maps has had, and is having, on our thinking.
Scaffolded and unscaffolded experiences
Through design, workshops and testing, Art Maps has sought to explore the extent to which the generation of audience content needs to be or should be open ended and the extent to which it should be a scripted or scaffolded experience. The early workshops were very successful and were a scaffolded experience, with instruction sent live by members of the Art Maps team. This success left us wondering how we could scale this experience to larger audiences through some form of automation. It seems very likely that this is something that will inform our thinking at Tate in the coming years.
For less scaffolded experiences we trailed a kiosk at Tate Britain where visitors interacted with Art Maps without human intervention and developed the forthcoming crowdsourcing website. We are hoping that in addition to the the-thing-depicted-is-at-this-location factual responses there will also be this-reminds-me-of personal responses, showing that less scaffolded experiences can lead to creative and personal content. The final outputs of this aspect of the project have yet to be seen and will doubtless inform our future work.
Use of third-party platforms
As with a number of other audience participation projects at Tate, Art Maps integration with and use of social media platforms has been successful. We have previously used Flickr (several times), MySpace, Instagram, Tumblr and other platforms to work with user-generated content. We have built our own platforms such as the Ai Weiwei interactive screens at Tate Modern, and also taken hybrid approaches that used both.
The advantages of using third-party platforms are clear: audiences are already active on these platforms, they know the platform’s tools and features, there is no need for Tate to invest in complex software development, and there is frequently little or no financial cost. However, it is necessary to work within the constraints (both functional and legal) of the chosen platform.
The early Art Maps workshop with the public successfully used Posterous, a microblogging platform with strong multimedia capabilities, although navigating the site by a chosen user was less than ideal.
We are also developing a dedicated Art Maps website, based on the open source Wordpress platform where the crowdsourcing aspect of the website will take place, not least because there is no platform available for this component of the project which would not involve a prohibitive amount of copyright clearance to illustrate the artworks on a third-party website. In addition to giving us greater control of the experience we will also have complete control over the copyright licence provided by the contributor of the content, which will be an increasingly important consideration for work in this area moving forward.
Preservation of audience generated content
Museums have robust policies, software systems, hardware and off-site backups for their digital assets such as digitised collections, which are the product of substantial investments.
Through Art Maps we have been considering where digitised user generated content is preserved and maintained. Museums are now generating a new category of asset that needs to be cared for. In a zine, which I edited with Sarah Hromack from the Whitney Museum of American Art for a session at the the 2013 Museums and the Web Conference, I published a short provocation text in which I suggested that user-generated content associated with the collection should be stored in the museum’s collection management system (the system heart of a museum’s IT infrastructure). I was only half joking. I think something along these lines is going to be required.
Since the Art Maps workshop, Posterous has closed down. All content generated through the workshop is no longer publicly available. Art Maps has reminded us again that longevity of digital platforms is the exception rather than the norm (Anyone remember Geocities?).
If the museum of the future is a platform where ideas and meanings are generated and exchanged, digital technologies will likely be key to enabling this. Art Maps is showing us that there are complex issues that need further investigation and new research: use of third-party platforms can be successful but short lived; judging the right level of user experience scaffolding is not trivial; and critically, preservation and sustainability of the resulting content will need addressing both technologically and legally.