afternoon, thoughts

The Small Museum V2

Last weekend, I joined in the fun at the BBC HomeLab Kitchen held at the MozFest 2015 event at Ravensbourne in Greenwich. I was invited by Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, who was programming the kitchen. She asked if I would construct a “last minute museum” to reflect what had happened in the preceding two days, where last minute was just that, revealing the museum display (and its ideas) to a group at around 5pm on the Sunday to whoever was there, and with prosecco. (Prosecco is excellent presentation bait, by the way.)

All in all, I found the experience of attending and participating in an event to record and report on it good fun and a bit odd. I participated in a couple of the workshops on the Saturday, and listened to what I think was the best session on Sunday – a panel with an architect, a professor and a designer discussing kitchen design and its place in constructing female reality.

Here’s what the space looked like:

Mozfest Homelab Kitchen

Mozfest Homelab Kitchen

Themes for the Last Minute Good Home Kitchen Museum

1. Technology vs Reality

It was especially clear from a couple of the workshops that what’s technically possible with an arduino, a pliable api and a willing participant is often a long way from the reality of the kitchen as a space.

Mozfest Homelab Kitchen

The kitchens I know and love are often a bit of a mess, full of steam and delicious smells, covered in dishes at their cooking heights, and perhaps most importantly, where people congregate, especially at parties. Yet the kitchens we see in work like Corning’s A Day Made of Glass shows a pristine environment that evokes a similar sense as a building that’s designed to never be lived in. The glass/chrome/clean/clinical tech thing just doesn’t gel with a real kitchen. For me, at least.

It was here that I invoked the power of Julia Child, as my talisman of woman expert, a powerful cook, and fully in charge of her domain. I drew upon her kitchen design, now part of the Smithsonian’s collection, as a direct and deliberate design made literally just to fit her. The distance from there to a day made of glass is great.

Anab Jain, a designer and panellist on day two, suggested to the group that we need to look across cultures and families to understand the flow and rhythms of a kitchen and design for it accordingly. She spoke of the dearth of communal food preparation, and its replacement by fast food and isolation.

It also struck me that this XYZ vs. Reality theme is echoed in the work we did at The Small Museum V1, on our day working with Nandi, the lonely steed of Shiva. We made an installation to try to reveal how Nandi lives in the real world (surrounded by people, food, smoke, prayers, colour, flowers, food), and contrast that with his position in the British Museum, in a stark cold blue room off The Great Court.

2. Woman as audience of kitchen

Active male, passive female

Active male, passive female

I knew as soon as Alex approached me that I wanted to incorporate kitchen infomercials somehow. You know the ones, where women are struggling at the start of the commercial with some simple or mundane task like putting utensils away, only to be saved by characters like Chef Tony and his amazing widget. Every infomerical I watched has a woman “host” quite passively listening to a male chef or other saviour who’s here to rescue here from her inability to operate her kitchen.

Julia Child’s strength and excellence was also a useful contrast to this dynamic, and I found this excellent picture of her holding a huge fish and smiling.

Julia Child and Fish

There’s a lot more to this than just that. This idea that women are often the audience to technological wizardry bears further thought.

And now, The Small Museum V2 lives in a single manila folder, this blog post, and two separate Flickr accounts (mine and Peter’s). There may also be other photographs of it (because I saw people take some), but I have no idea where they might be. I incorporated some quotes I gathered as I witnessed the event, and I had collected lots of workshop detritus, including the “Buddhist Carpenter’s Co-operative” emblem. I also kept back a plate and fork (and a bit of cake) from Saturday’s afternoon tea. I’d stashed it away, and popped a sign up that asked it not be removed, but on Sunday, it was gone! (Either that’s my first museum theft, or someone just did a good job of cleaning up overnight.)

Here’s what the display ended up being, a lot of paper and printouts and sticky tape and post-its and sharpie labels, laid out on a table in the space:


The final museum display

Along with Alexandra, the event was hosted by Peter Bihr and we were also joined by Marcel and Harm from The Incredible Machine, who co-wrote the new IoT Design Manifesto. The museum more or less culminated in a point of view, which was to suggest one addition to the manifesto, given the thinking and absorbing of the ethically centered conversations from the previous two days: to keep liberating women as we continue to develop IoT and other technologies.

Upon reflection, making this last minute museum was a lot like the early stages of designing something. It was a bunch of listening and collecting, and then re-presenting what I’d heard synthesised into some strong concepts. Roll on, V3!

morning, v2

The Small Museum V2: An Improvisation

Today I’ll be at the Mozilla Festival, part of a thread called BBC HomeLab Kitchen, run by Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino and Peter Bihr. There’s more to look at about the thread at Ostensibly, the thread is about tech and the home, how the Internet of Things could impact the home, some future casting about “a new vision for the home in the 21st century”.

Alex asked me to stage a “last minute museum” to round out the weekend, so I attended yesterday, and look forward to today. I’ve already begun collecting some artefacts of the event itself, but am also interested in the theme Alex cracked open yesterday in her Q&A with Rocio Rodtjer, of Women As Audience of Kitchen Tech. This morning’s session – She’s in the kitchen: Why women should contribute to smart kitchen development – should be interesting too. Rodtjer’s point that the kitchen is a public space has got me thinking of all my Kate Millett and Gloria Steinem again.

I can’t stop thinking about how women are portrayed in kitchen-related infomercials. Clearly hopeless, forgetting how to use a draw full of utensils, thank god for Gadget Wizard, etc.

Some material I’ve gathered so far includes:

  • Artefacts from Saturday’s sessions (more today, presumably)
  • A copy of the IoT Design Manifesto V1. Wondering if it’s appropriate for a museum to suggest an update.
  • Photos of Julia Child’s kitchen, and one of her holding a giant fish
  • A bunch of imagery from infomercials where a woman is listening to a man talk about some new thing
  • A small set of kitchen photos from Flickr Commons, including one captioned with “A spontaneous family snapshot capturing the delight of being a woman in the kitchen cooking the family meal.”
  • Hannah Höch’s 1919 photomontage Cut With the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany
  • Press coverage for Nigella Lawson being choked in public by her then-husband

I’m exploring how to manipulate the audience. I guess this is The Small Museum V2!

afternoon, morning, reading

Music To My Ears

(I should say first that I haven’t forgotten about our Prima Facie write-ups for The Small Museum V1. I really didn’t think through how much effort it would be to take on the format we chose. Perhaps I’ll change it a bit so I can write about everything that’s left before the memory fades!)

I’ve been trying to find examples of Asian museums doing open data-y work because I’m giving a keynote at Museums and The Web Asia in Melbourne this year, and want to build some background. (If you know of any, please let me know!) There I was, futzing about looking over Google results for “china open access museum”. Sort of a ludicrous search in some ways, but, it helped me find the amazing Museological Review, a journal out of the University of Leicester. I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t heard of. I’m sure you have. If you haven’t, go and read it immediately.

As I was browsing past issues, I stumbled on Do It Yourself (DIY) Museums: Study on Small Museums in Estonia and the People Behind Them by Liisi Taimre (PDF). It’s an article about the author’s interviews with the people running (and often funding) their own small museums in the Harju County region of Estonia. Three main notable points emerged for me:

1. The creation of new museums in Estonia was connected to the emerging national identity. 

“Many of today’s small museums were founded in the 1980s. It was a time when the Soviet Union began to collapse and for the first time in 50 years people had the possibility to speak publicly about their past and heritage and interpret it freely. All over the country, different kinds of village societies, heritage organisations and museums were formed… The second wave of small museums and other local institutions began to emerge in 2000. It can be seen as a sign of the developing citizen society.”

2. Small museums are special because they allow personal contact.

The presentation of one’s personal worldview is a good starting point for making contact with a visitor. In DIY museums the head of the museum, curator, collection manager, guide and warden is often the same person. As real enthusiasts, they love explaining how their exhibitions are compiled, how their museum functions and telling additional stories about the exhibition.

(We definitely witnessed this at The Small Museum V1 in Somerset House. It was great fun.)

3. I’ve discovered Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, and her essay, The Museum – a Refuge for Utopian Thought (PDF)

It’s possibly unnatural how well this essay is resonating with me. It’s exciting to gradually discover the academic and intellectual thinking about what museum means, and a lot of the points she raises about utopian thinking, art and museum sit in the centre of what I want to be making.

Museums are important here, first, because those with long histories and old collections are in a good position to illuminate the history of “how intellectual work is saturated with moral, emotional and aesthetic elements at a collective, and not just biographical level.” Museums are not only instruments for the shaping of sensibility, as Tony Bennett and others have argued, but also their collections hold within them a history of sensibilities, their rise, demise, and potential for recuperation. How might an older constellation of wonder, curiosity, and intense attention animate the museum as a contemporary utopian laboratory? This is an invitation to find the utopian potential of the museum not only in the achievements of the past, but also in its history as a materialized subjunctive space. It is in the museum’s capacity to provoke and sustain speculation, reflection, retrospection, prospection, whether reasoned or dreamed, that its utopian possibilities lie.

I feel like I need to find a home for this work, a place. I’m working on it.

There’s this idea of “object as witness,” where objects can reflect some kind of evidence of the world around them. Ms. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s essay made me want to create or represent A Curious Object, one that was looking for evidence and reflections of itself, in particular, on the web. I love the challenge she leaves us with:

How does the museum, despite its best efforts to create certainty, produce unpredictability? Through fragmentation, aggregration, selection, juxtaposition, connection, contrast, excess, and confusion.

Now I’m off to read another of her essays, From Ethnology to Heritage: The Role of the Museum (PDF).


A Sense of Place

There are loads of pop-up things happening all over. Not just London, but London’s a bit different I think, because there are so many spaces here. (Actually, that’s one of the things I’m loving about the city. Just such rich variety of uses and people and things to see. London’s good for the eyes.)

A central theme of the idea of The Small Museum is that it be self-sustaining, and ideally profitable. Part of this small body being able to generate its own energy and income will come from hospitality: events, lectures, courses, and importantly, delicious cocktails 🙂 I’ve been enjoying thinking about what sorts of events I’d like to curate and host.

So… a place. It’s important that it be able to hold a museum, to be able to host events, have super fast internet, and workspace. One of the things I learned from Brewster Kahle when I worked for him at the Internet Archive was that owning property was a great security for a non-profit. Even though I just said that The Small Museum could be OK with earning money, I see that there would be stability in owning a place. But, this is London, and I’m not Brewster! So, to even consider purchasing a property, the idea would need support.

What’s interesting now though, is where might be a good spot. Even from San Francisco using the web, I could tell that Hackney Wick is an interesting, artistic neighbourhood. The more I learn about it, the more that’s obvious. The Hackney Wick Cultural Interest Group, founded in 2009, is a standout. I’ll be heading to their next fortnightly meeting to say hi. But, there are loads of people looking around that part of the city, and lots of development plans, that the community is starting to baulk at. I’ve also met with someone on the Hackney Council Regeneration Delivery Team, who had lots of helpful advice. (Thanks, Will!)

An Existing Community
There’s no doubt Hackney Wick has some history to it, and some of the local community there is generations old. Why would they give a shit about yet another new thing that doesn’t help them? The sorts of things the community is wanting are a chemist, more doctors, an ATM that doesn’t charge a fee.

Hackney Wick is also right next to the 2012 Olympic Park which was recently, and importantly, been named as “Olympicopolis,” by Boris Johnson. Slated to create 3,000 jobs with £141MM from the City Treasury, it’s also going to create yet more waves. It’s some kind of tragedy that Olympics can be so disruptive and even wasteful maybe. But, that said, I must admit to loving the idea of running a small museum and cultural meeting space in the build up to the launch of this new massive cultural endeavour in 2020.

So, I’m looking around there.

Museum as Social Resource
I’ve been chatting with my advisor, Eliza and she’s been asking me to think through great questions. I’m basically quoting her verbatim:

  1. Whom will you serve? Can they actually say they’re “for everyone” but really they only serve part of the population. Will the institution be trying to subvert this norm? How?
  2. Be thinking about demonstrating the social value of this venture more explicitly. Like how can a new small museum, network of museums, and software for museums make an impact on the basic social problems we are dealing with? i.e. if a Republican asked you Why should I fund this and not a food bank?, what would you say? I’m thinking about:
    1. the role a museum can play in a community — bringing people together, acknowledging social problems, bringing social issues to the surface, into discussion, providing a forum for public discussion, etc.
    2. the role museums play in constructing our collective narrative of personal and communal identity–THAT, for me, is where the real excitement is in working with museums as an artist. They are a very powerful engine of social status, power, acknowledgement.

Maybe this museum could have a power tool lending library. And a fee-free ATM. And good, affordable drinks and food that the locals can enjoy. Needless to say, I don’t have the answers to these questions yet, but, I want to spend more time around there and try to say hi and get to know the people already on the ground doing great stuff. I’m very conscious of wanting to make a place that’s communal and stimulating.

Anyway. Still thinking a lot about place. And not especially wanting to do something temporary, although the pop-up dynamic might be worth playing in while we work on place-finding and funding.


What is it a museum of?

As I chat with people about the general idea, the first question I get in response is usually what is it a museum of? Given that, it’s useful for me to write down the answer, roughly anyway.

In some ways, the collection is irrelevant. What I’m interested in exploring is the mechanics of a small cultural institution, the thing itself. Yes, that means exhibitions and caring for a collection (or else is it even a museum?), but it seems to me that a lot of the tools specific to the sector are about collections management, digital asset management, and customer relationship management. By us not focussing directly on the collection, it might allow us to ask new questions and develop new tools for the more prosaic operations that small institutions perform. The research challenge here is to try to help keep small institutions alive, and an expensive piece of software that only looks after their collection isn’t the way to do that.

One friend referred me to the IMLS definition list: “Museums include, but are not limited to, aquariums, arboretums, art museums, botanical gardens, children’s/youth museums, general museums (those having two or more significant disciplines), historic houses/sites, history museums, natural history/anthropology museums, nature centers, planetariums, science/technology centers, specialized museums (limited to a single distinct subject), and zoological parks.”

To try avoid getting stuck in the collection diversity question, or perhaps at least delay attention to it, my current plan is to perhaps only have a single object in the museum, perhaps even for as long as a year. So, a collection, to be sure, but a very small one. This is for various reasons:

  1. To think long and deep about how practice can start changing to gather and collate and keep multiple descriptions and perspectives on objects, with rigour. I bet we won’t be able to resist collecting other bits and pieces along the way to help describe the First Object, but would try to keep that to a minimum.
  2. To constrain research and exploration to the set of infrastructural things small institutions need to be able to run. I’m thinking mundane things, and I want to understand all (other) aspects of small institutions, not just their collections. My hope is that the R&D we do to create the small institution and have it run well and smoothly will not be about collection stuff, but about infrastructural support with things like volunteer management and transaction management. In time, the tools we might design and build to help run our small museum might be able to be generalized for these other types of institutions. It’s almost as if the collection is irrelevant. There’s a ton of interesting work to do exploring that One Object concept.
  3. The one object is going to be something mundane. A modern day amphora, if you will. Something full of stories that lots of people are familiar with and possible even have.

As I’ve chatted to friends about the idea, more than one of them have responded with “It’s a museum of museums,” and I really like that. Another description is “a museum of metadata,” which is also growing on me.

I’ve also been really inspired by the UNESCO Handbook for Running a Museum. It was published in 2004, I think, and basically intended to be distributed around the Middle East as the war raged around it. You can see from the list of subjects that there’s a bunch of other stuff that museums need to do apart from looking after their collections:

  • The Role of Museums and the Professional Code of Ethics
  • Collections Management
  • Inventories and Documentation
  • Care and Preservation of Collections
  • Display, Exhibits and Exhibitions
  • Caring for the Visitor
  • Museum Education
  • Museum Management
  • Managing People
  • Marketing
  • Museum Security, including Disaster Preparedness
  • Illicit Traffic issues

I’ve copied the chapter headings on to my notebook so I can drill them into my brain.

Chapter Headings

So, what’s it a museum of? We’ll find out.

(I’m keeping people anonymous for now, since this site is a bit new and I haven’t asked permission to identify anyone.)

You may also be interested to listen to the Gin and Innovation #005 podcast from Strange Telemetry (George Voss and Justin Pickard talking to James Bridle about copper and museums) that I’m listening to right now, as I write this post.