Slides and Pachyderms in the Museum

Some works of art are instantly accessible. Take the slides at the Tate Modern (aka the Unilever Series: Carsten Höller). You don’t need to read a label or know the title of this exhibit to connect with it. You can just experience it.

If you care to go deeper, you can consider the artists thoughts:

Carsten Höller: A slide is a sculpture that you can travel inside. However, it would be a mistake to think that you have to use the slide to make sense of it. Looking at the work from the outside is a different but equally valid experience, just as one might contemplate The Endless Column (1938) by Constantin Brancusi. From an architectural and practical perspective, the slides are one of the building’s means of transporting people, equivalent to the escalators, elevators or stairs. Slides deliver people quickly, safely and elegantly to their destinations, they’re inexpensive to construct and energy-efficient. They’re also a device for experiencing an emotional state that is a unique condition somewhere between delight and madness. It was described in the fifties by the French writer Roger Caillois as ‘a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind’.

I believe Carsten’s slide is a challenge to all museums to invite your visitors inside the art…to create opportunities for people to be transformed by their experience. And I’m thrilled to see so many museums already taking up this challenge. Look at what the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) is doing today in their Kiefer exhibit. The brilliant minds at SFMoMA know that “your interest in a work of art drops precipitously the further you move away from it, physically.” They have added learning lounges embedded in the exhibits that meet the visitors where they are…in the galleries, providing a focused gallery experience with multiple points of access.

As museums slide head first in to this creative adventure of building exhibits that are simply irresistible, I see the fabulous effects of collaboration around Pachyderm. Pachyderm is an open source authoring environment for creators of web-based and multimedia learning experiences. Some of my favorite examples:

  • SFMoMA sharing their knowledge and tools for creating online learning modules via the open source project Pachyderm
  • New Media Consortium bringing museums and higher education together to collaborate on digital media
  • The Edward and Betty Marcus Digital Education Project putting Pachyderm in the hands of so many Texas museums

Last week, at the Pachyderm Conference in Austin, I was inspired by the work that is occurring at the Seattle Art Museum (where they are preparing for an exciting reopenning), The Walters’ Integrating the Arts: Mummies, Manuscripts & Madonnas, SFMoMA and many others. Two high points for me:

  • brainstorming in the bar with Tim Svenonius and Anne Manning about how to create meaningful online learning experiences
  • hearing Peter Samis say “Video is useless without a transcript. My cardinal rule – get video transcribed immediately.

    What thrilled me most about this statement was Peter was not approaching transcription as a requirement for accessibility, he was explaining how critical a transcript was in the process of editing and pinpointing the most powerful clips from the original video. After the final edits, the addition of synchronized closed captioning is a simple step for SFMoMA. Oh, how I dearly love it when semantics and accessibility work hand-in-hand.

So, I encourage you to join me as I explore the new worlds within museums by:

I’d love to hear about your discoveries!