Guest Posts

Guest Post: Don Wildman and a Mystery of a Museum Show

History explorer and museum enthusiast Don Wildman hosts Travel Channel's "Mysteries at the Museum."

By Don Wildman

For the last five television seasons I’ve hosted Mysteries at the Museum on Travel Channel, a show that takes its audience on a weekly odyssey deep into the archives of American museums. In each episode, we learn from curators and experts about the historical significance of an array of remarkable artifacts. For a museum lover like me, hosting this series is nothing less than a dream job.

I was raised just outside of Philadelphia, a city famous for its esteemed museum culture, with places like the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Barnes Foundation, Mutter Museum, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The place is cram-packed with institutions. Not to mention, you can hardly turn a corner on the street without walking into a major moment of our nation’s heritage. Philly instilled in me a deep appreciation of the past as it affects our present—and museums, of course, were central to this experience. So imagine, decades later, when I was tapped to host a show about museums. Amazing!

It has been a lucky passage for me. For my entire life, I’ve been a happy outsider when visiting museums—paying my admission fee, bending the metal tag onto my collar, and strolling purposefully through galleries. I’m still an outsider but having met so many museum pros in my work, my appreciation of the business of exhibition has soared. It’s like anything, I suppose—restaurants, theater, certainly television. Whenever you get to peek behind the curtain and see the humanity at work, it’s a reality check. But in the case of museum management, I’ve been only astonished by the passion and intelligence involved in telling the stories of collections. From near or far, it’s a really smart business to examine.

Travel Channel's "Mysteries at the Museum" crew sets up to film the next segment.

We do our own kind of curatorship on the show. At least, I like to think of it this way. Mysteries at the Museum is about artifacts, five or six different ones in each episode. Our production team of around thirty-five researchers, editors, and producers (and one host!) finds the artifacts and develops the segments. But any museum curator knows an artifact is basically just an object if you don’t have the story behind it. So we have to vet each artifact considered on the series for the quality of its tale. Does it have a mystery? Do we care about the characters involved? Is there a takeaway for the audience? What’s the “huh?!” factor? That final criterion probably has more to do with the show’s success than any other element. If we’ve done our job right, we’ve made each artifact’s story relevant to a modern audience and provided a revelation, large or small.

Before Mysteries at the Museum, I was a down-in-the-muck action guy on Off Limits, another Travel Channel series that climbed me through the gnarliest spaces of our nation’s infrastructure, discussing history and engineering. How did Boston clean up its filthy harbor? Well, let’s rappel into a disgusting sewage interceptor and find out! It wasn’t enough to stand and point at a Colorado gold mine and say “whoa.” I had to dynamite a mountainside. You see, it’s modern TV; you can’t host it if you’re not willing to be punished for it. So much of life now involves this “do or die” immediacy. For better or worse, we are no longer a society that stands back and watches—and the same certainly holds true for museums. Those strolling minions are expecting more.

Props on the set of Travel Channel's "Mysteries at the Museum."

It was the remote that changed television. In museums, I suppose, it’s the competition. There are more than 17,500 museums in America containing over a billion artifacts. But the fact that people visit US museums some 850 million times every year represents a rather rich potential. On Mysteries at the Museum, we eagerly dive into it every week, trusting that what makes people watch our show is the same curiosity that takes them so many times to so many museums. At heart, people want to learn. And people want to look at stuff.

This year, Travel Channel spun off another series called Monumental Mysteries in which I get to tell the stories behind iconic American monuments. Many of our same team work on both shows. But Mysteries at the Museum is the original and a true gratification for all involved.  In today’s television marketplace, a series with the word museum in the title is a pretty rare commodity—one that makes us very proud indeed.

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For the past few years, Don Wildman has held one of the museum world’s dream jobs: host of Mysteries at the Museum, which airs on Thursdays at 9pm ET/PT on Travel Channel. To prepare for the fifth season, which premieres this Thursday, August 15, check out Don’s most shocking museum mysteries here.

Development, Guest Posts

Guest Post: Hope for the American Folk Art Museum?

Photo by S. Diddy via Flickr.

By Erin Wurzel

The American Folk Art Museum originally opened in 1963 in a rented floor of a townhouse at 49 W. 53rd Street. Nearly 40 years later, after calling several other spots home, the museum would settle just a few doors down from its birth place, at 45 W. 53rd. This move would set off 10 fraught years of declining admissions and reluctant donations before culminating in a stand-off with one of the ‘Big Five’ museums over its own fate.

While ambitious, the new building—designed by architecture duo Tod Williams and Billie Tsein—has attracted varied opinions since it opened in December of 2001. Many complained the seemingly ample 30,000 square feet were laid out too vertically, and that the space was confusing, full of narrow halls and stairwells, with galleries too small to adequately display art. A single skylight on the top floor allowed for light through each of the floors. The rooms were cramped, some said. Others claimed it allowed for a more intimate experience with the art, in direct contrast to the stark, large rooms common in most museums. The space allowed for 500 of the some 5,000 objects in its collection to be displayed. And then there was the façade, a striking and angular 85-foot-high bronze arrangement that seemed better suited for a corporate office building, a long slit up the middle of the Tombasil—a white bronze alloy which required assembly in a foundry, and that when poured directly onto concrete caused “tiny explosions”—but curiously lacking any signage. The building was interesting and certainly even beautiful, winning Williams and Tsein multiple awards, including the 2003 New York City American Institute of Architects Design Award, and the 2001 Municipal Art Society Masterwork Award; it just wasn’t an effective art museum.

Photo by Lauren Manning via Flickr.

Its proximity to the Museum of Modern Art—the buildings sit next to one another—was initially expected to produce an increased level of attendance. In fact, before opening, there were estimates the museum at its new site would attract upwards of 250,00 visitors a year within four years; by 2011 it was averaging just 160,000. No small sum, but still far from what was needed to keep the museum solvent. During renovations to MoMA between 2002 and 2004, most of West 53rd street was closed off, limiting attendance to the American Folk Art Museum.

Meanwhile, the museum stopped publishing Folk Art Magazine, cut its staff from 50 to 12, and shrunk its budget to just $7 million, down from $10 million in 2009. Then came the recession, when generous donations to cultural institutions were not exactly a priority. Further personnel issues arose when AFAM’s contemporary curator, Brooke Davis Anderson, left in 2010 to become the Deputy Director of Curatorial Planning at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Then, in 2011, the museum’s former chairman and board president from 1977 and 1999, Ralph O. Esmerian, was found guilty of fraud and sentenced to six years in jail. Though he had originally promised his personal collection of folk art to the museum, in 2008 his most famous piece—a version of Edward Hicks’s painting “A Peaceable Kingdom”—was sold at auction; Esmerian had used the painting as collateral against a debt he owed.

In 2000, the museum had raised $6 million to help finance the new building; after 10 years and a $4 million deficit, it brought in a little over half that amount. Defaulting on the $32 million loan owed to the city’s Trust for Cultural Resources two years prior, the museum closed its doors in July of 2011 and moved operations back to the lobby space opposite Lincoln Center, a space just one sixth the size of its home on West 53rd. There were talks of absorbing the collection into the Smithsonian Institution and having part of the collection displayed at the Brooklyn Museum. AMAF’s senior curator, Stacy C. Hollander, has said, “Neither [institution] would fulfill the function of a stand-alone folk art museum.” Regardless, the dissolution of the collection in its current state would require dual approval from both the New York State attorney general’s office and the State Department of Education.

Following the AFAM’s closure in 2011, New York Magazine writer Jerry Saltz wrote almost clairvoyantly, “Really, [they] should just sell its building to MoMA. MoMA could then either tear it down and build something new, or transform it into offices.” And that’s precisely what happened. Although the building might have had its critics, there was no shortage of backlash following MoMA’s announcement of its plans to raze the Folk Art Museum in April. Where would the art go? How would it fit into the greater catalog of MoMAs existing collections? Why would one museum want to demolish another? An outsider establishment, sure. But a fellow museum?

Photo by Bruce Berrien via Flickr.

In an open letter from the Architectural League of New York, 35 architects co-signed the following statement:

“The Architectural League calls on the Museum of Modern Art to reconsider its decision to demolish the American Folk Art Museum. The Museum of Modern Art…should provide more information about why it considers it necessary to tear down this significant work of contemporary architecture. The public has a substantial and legitimate interest in this decision, and the Museum of Modern Art has not yet offered a compelling justification for the cultural and environmental waste of destroying this much-admired, highly distinctive twelve-year-old building.”

In May of this year, MoMA backed off—at least for now. Many expect MoMA to move forward with a plan to expand and incorporate either some or all of the original building, much the same way the Met did with its American Wing, by building around it and connecting an open side of the AMAF to the existing floors of MoMA. But, construction headaches such as the floors not matching up correctly, and the bleak interior of the AMAF could deter the ‘museum within a museum’ concept.

With the bulldozers on hold for the time being, MoMA has hired New York design studio Diller Scofidio + Renfro to help find a path forward. Last week, the American Folk Art Museum received a $1.6 million grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, for a traveling exhibition across five cities in the U.S. over three years beginning with New York in 2014. The exhibit, titled “Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum” will include paintings, quilts, and other pieces from the museum’s masterworks collection.

There’s hope for the Folk Art Museum yet.

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Erin Wurzel is a writer and photographer living in Philadelphia, with dreams of picking up and moving to Paris. She has a B.A. in Journalism from Temple University. She loves Impressionism, gin cocktails, and the city of Brotherly Love. You can find her blogging about almost everything at like / want / need.

Guest Posts, The Digital Museum

Guest Post: The Perfect Game…Or Not

Photo by Ryan Somma via Flickr.

By Kellian Adams

I’ve been building location-based games for arts and culture institutions for five years now, first for SCVNGR and now for Green Door Labs and the Edventure Builder and often I’m asked the question: what would your perfect game be? My response is a standard post-modern disappointment: Every game is special in its own way. There’s no perfect game. The game depends on you! Everybody have a cupcake!

Cop-outs, I know. But, I will tell you honestly, the reason I say those disappointing, evasive things is that my perfect game would be a complete and utter flop and I pray that nobody will ever ask me to build it. It would be an epic, disastrous game.

My perfect museum game would obviously involve traveling around the world to see art, history and culture. There would have to be augmented reality, physical objects in the environment that respond to your device and, of course, internal GPS navigation. It would definitely follow a storyline with AAA art and graphics along with some costumed non-player characters and custom sculpture and clues hidden on location. There would be puzzles, lockboxes, mini-cars, hidden caverns and more cupcakes.

In short, nobody would play.

Visitors could only play this game if they had the time and money to play an epic adventure. They would have to learn how to use lots of complicated technology and as we all know, the more complicated the technology, the higher the chance that it will break.  Considering how much they would have to pay to play it in order to recoup the enormous cost of productions…players would have unrealistically high expectations about everything going perfect in this perfect game.

Photo by National Bank of Belgium via Flickr.

In fact, I think what we want to dream about isn’t really the perfect game at all. We want to dream about the perfect experience. The perfect response to a game.

“What would your perfect game experience look like? What would your users do?” Ah. Now that I can tell you without guilt. People would be working together, communicating, maybe meeting new people, feeling challenged, creative and capable, connecting with their cultural institution and internalizing the learning goals that we set forth. There would be many moments of fiero, which if you haven’t heard before, is that wonderful moment when humans have to raise their hands in the air and say “Huzzaaah!” because they’ve succeeded. We’ve seen it happen before: it happens at sports games all the time. It happens when people win something or solve a problem or when a character in a story prevails.

But, the truth is, achieving that response will be different for every single institution. You have to know yourself, know your environment, know your audience and know your resources. There is no perfect game in a bubble. The perfect game experience is one that takes its players into account.

“Murder at the Met” is a fabulous game but I do not think that it would have had the same type of success had we built the exact same game for the Boston MFA. The game is a simple web-based murder mystery. Players need to walk around the museum to discover the murderer, weapon and scene of the crime.

In the end, the user experience was just where we wanted it to be: full participation, community building, connecting to the institution. The Met’s greatest resources were their incredible educators and artists, who made a very simple game into something visually gorgeous. When it was time to play, the Met’s clever educators sent out an “invitation.” NYC teens showed up in top hats with canes, suits, corsets, netted hats, monacles!

Would Boston kids know where to get a top hat? Would they notice or care that the visual design is gorgeous? (This is Boston: the kids might worry about what programming language it was built in.) Can you get 200 Boston teens to an art museum in one night? Possibly…but I think I would design a different kind of game for kids in Boston.

For instance, the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lexington (just outside of Boston) ran the famed “Soundscapes” with Hallsey Burgund’s amazing Roundware, which you may have heard Nancy Proctor speak about. One of my all-time favorite stories is how that “Soundscapes” inadvertently created a zombie apocalypse game.

Photo by Stephen Dann via Flickr.

If you haven’t seen “Soundscapes” before, it was a sound installation where you can walk around the DeCordova Sculpture Park and hear different music from a mobile device depending on where you are. You can also record your responses and hear other people’s responses along with the music. Apparently, as one kid was listening to “Soundscapes” listening to other visitors reflect on the form and feeling of the art, he decided that he was going to write a story: zombies were chasing him around the sculpture park.

Other kids, playing with the same device at later times heard his story and thought (naturally) that this was an awesome idea. They started also recording vignettes of being chased by zombies. On one hand, you had people reflecting on this beautiful art. Then there was the subtext: a group of children who had never met each other, building a storyline around the art. It just happened to involve zombies.

The user experience was the same result as “Murder at the Met:” full participation, community building, connecting to the institution. I’m sure there are a lot of Boston-area kids who really want to go back to the DeCordova Sculpture Park. Would this have happened in NYC? Could it have happened in Florida? The resources at the DeCordova were the space of the sculpture park and a handy donation of smartphones. But even more important probably were the uber-liberal MA parents and teachers who thought that zombie stories were a perfectly valid way for children to connect with fine art. It was the perfect game for Mass, but maybe not as perfect for other communities.

My last example of a game that’s perfect for just that community would be “Ghost of a Chance” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. This game required some committed participation—it wasn’t something you could complete in an hour at the museum or in 20 minutes on your phone. People built artifacts, they told stories and most importantly, they went to the museum multiple times.

The ability to allow people multiple entries to their museum for no extra cost is a serious Smithsonian asset and means they can do things that might flop in other places. Would people enjoy “Murder at the Met” or “Soundscapes” if they couldn’t complete it in one visit and had to go back (and pay admission) a second or third time? The Smithsonian used this asset to its peak advantage! Just like the Met used their top-notch artists and the DeCordova used their free and unfettered space. Did each of these places use other internal resources in their games? Absolutely, but I think these are the ones that really made their games something to remember and write about years later.

I could name a million more just in organizations that I personally work with who create simple but great game experiences for visitors just by playing to their strengths. The Joslyn Museum of Art used their connections with a local middle school to have kids build game content with “iArt for Kids by Kids”. The Quartermaster Museum in Fort Lee, VA, uses their museum games as part of soldier training. The Artlab at the Smithsonian has their teens build games to help the wayward tourists who are ALWAYS stumbling into the Artlab space. These resources were not money or talent, they were just aspects of the local communities and smart educators who knew how to best leverage these communities. The types of unique capacity and resources for each community are endless. The possibilities and ways to create that ideal experience for just your visitors are also endless.

So go forth, gamebuilders, and build the perfect experience…not the perfect game. And how to give users that perfect experience will largely depend on what you have existing right now, this moment in your own museum toolbox.

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Kellian Adams is the Co-Founder and Mastermind behind Green Door Labs, a game design consulting firm based in the Boston area. In addition to working on projects like “Murder at the Met” and “ArtLab,” she also spends some time discussing games, museums, and much more over on Twitter. Find out more about Kellian at @Museumninja.

Exhibitions, Guest Posts

Guest Post: Thoughts on Tate Britain’s New Re-Hang

Photo by Julian Stallabrass via Flickr.

By Isobel Wilson-Cleary

Last month, Tate Britain unveiled the re-hang of its permanent collection; 20 galleries showcasing the history of British art since the 16th century. Newspapers exploded with positive reviews of this “gloriously, satisfyingly reactionary” re-work of the national collection. Gone are the thematic groupings and the lengthy explanatory labels which have become synonymous with the gallery, replaced with chronology and minimal information—artist, title and date. The Tate’s website boasts the new hang as “conversational,” which, whilst certainly true, might raise a lot more questions about the nature of displays and museums than the works themselves…

Richard Dorment gives it 5 stars praising the transformation and exclaiming it as “chaos theory at work in the visual arts… art history as it used to be taught before it was hijacked by academic theorists.” True, it’s often frustrating that works of art have been obscured by academic theory, but that’s also true of public popularity (Mona Lisa anyone?).  The Independent’s review calls it a “triumph” for similar reasons, stressing how Tate Britain has now become a space where artists can be thought of in terms of themselves. Certainly, this is often overlooked but if that is all the re-hang should be, then surely it should be re-titled ‘A Walk Through British Artists.’

Photo by observista via Flickr.

Armed with a skeleton of information what can really be discerned? A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it doesn’t speak them. Visuals alone cannot tell you if it’s representative of a wider trend or an example of a patron’s obscure and/or hidden desires. What about those self-made movements known at the time? A group of artists working towards a particular end, how do we make sense of these with no context?

The buzz around the re-hang felt like those who were excited already had sound art knowledge, both professionally and academically. I’m interested in the ways museums and national galleries accommodate their audience—what role they play in society—and I can’t help but feel that without prior knowledge or an active interest, I’d come away from the new hang with a lot more questions than answers. Theorizing doesn’t dispute that art objects are themselves “primary data,” it simply draws a bigger picture (pardon the pun) to understand it as one part of a whole. On their own, the images cannot account for why, as Dorment later mentions, half the 19th century is squeezed into one gallery, as if Victorians had grown tired at the very idea of commissioning, painting and buying art altogether.

After years of mediocrity—if not in actuality, then in the minds of many—it’d be great if the Tate Britain re-hang did “explode into view…like a walk through Britain itself,” but when there are so many different ways to read a work of art, surely a national collection displaying British heritage in art should guide its audience if nothing else. Art is all about making you think, and although not everything can be answered, isn’t there some sense of duty to ensure all visitors have free and easy access to this information?

If this were to happen, then, as Art History News points out, providing the finer details of some works would create an interesting narrative that would otherwise be lost. For example, instead of tacking a Van Eyck on towards the end of a gallery with no indication of his important role in the development of British portraiture, some background could illuminate his influence on his contemporaries.

Among all the positive critical response, there was finally a review that spoke of what there was, rather than what there was not, in the re-hang. In a much more muted tone, the Guardian notes that the new hang has taken a “middle course,” with short explanations widening historical and political issues. Less radical and more a new way to engage art with its audience? Maybe, but as Grumpy Art Historian asks, if the Tate’s Director, Penelope Curtis, and its Head of Displays, Chris Stephens, feel traditional methods of display are outdated why not adapt to compliment and promote newer ideas?

Photo by alh1 via Flickr.

The opportunity this shake-up has afforded hasn’t been promising so far: little information in the brochure, some sort of paid app/audio guide system and no clear means for gallery attendants to engage visitors with the tablets that have replaced their folder references. If this is the brave new world of the digital age in a museum setting, it needs a little work. It also raises some important questions: Has the information simply been transferred to digital? Will there be other ways to explore the collection, perhaps similar to the Google Art Project with hi-res close-ups? What about those who for whatever reason aren’t interested in getting involved with technology?

There’s the role of the curator to consider too. If everything is to be discovered “surfing,” this new display and the dismissal of three of the historical curatorial team last spring makes for a slightly alarming prospect. This may have more to do with the fact that over the half galleries in the re-hang are dedicated to the 20th Century—leaving the remaining half for the preceding 300 years of British art—although considering the specialisations of both Curtis and Stephens this is unsurprising. You might ponder, as Bendor Grosvenor does, what is Tate Modern for? To which my answer would be, international modern and contemporary art mostly, which is probably one of the reasons it is seen as the more suave of the two Tates.

Freedom of interpretation is essential—everyone brings their own stories to the viewing of artwork—but passing this off in the form of chronology—which is itself loaded with meaning—calling it revolutionary and suggesting that curatorial intervention has been removed is all a bit much. After all, the Tate Britain collection is much bigger than what’s on display, and we know neither the selection process or what else remains in storage. And, let’s not even mention the lack of explanation as to why the sponsorship is so distractingly prominent

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Have you been to Tate Britain’s new re-hang? What do you think? Have you visited other galleries and museums with a similar display philosophy? What works and what doesn’t? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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Currently residing in Paris, Isobel is an art history graduate with a serious case of wanderlust. Interested in cross-cultural relations, cultural heritage and the social role of museums, she’s looking forward to continuing her studies come September and getting to see the re-hang for herself. Find her on Twitter at @isobelkwc.