City Symphony

The Arts section of this past Sunday’s Boston Globe brought me an article by Jeremy Eichler about composer Tod Machover and his newest commission, A Toronto Symphony. If you’re not familiar with Machover’s work, he has spent his career developing technology that pushes the boundaries of both music making and music composition, and he currently directs the Opera of the Future group at MIT.

For A Toronto Symphony Machover asked Torontonians to collaborate with him in creating a piece that would truly capture their experience of the city. As Eichler writes, “He wanted to write a symphony not for the city of Toronto by with the city of Toronto, a piece of music that would ultimately be about Toronto in a way that was granular, participatory, and reflective of an urban landscape in all of its component parts.” There’s an excellent 22-minute video at the ideacity website of Machover explaining the Toronto project when it launched. The symphony has eight parts:

  1. OVERTURE: the city wakes
  2. CITY SOUNDS: based on crowd-sourced, recorded sounds of Toronto (listen to some of these sounds via Soundcloud here and here)
  3. CITY STORIES: people’s stories of the city, made into music and woven together
  4. IMAGINING THE CITY: “a memory of Toronto when one is far far away”
  5. IN THE CITY: a collage of on-the-ground moments throughout the city’s neighborhoods
  6. CITY SOARING: the birds-eye view of Toronto
  7. TORONTO DANCES: “a big dance party, a kind of ‘Song to Toronto'”
  8. THE CITY SLEEPS: rocking the city to sleep

Machover posted a series of calls for various forms of participation on the project website, took part in local festivals, and worked with school children, musicians, and individuals from all over the city, not only to identify what Toronto sounds like but also to shape the actual musical composition. His team from MIT developed a group of new applications (best accessed via Google Chrome), including Media Scores, Constellation, and City Soaring, that allow people to play around with and modify Machover’s core Toronto composition using graphic tools–colors, shapes, lines–such that no musical training is necessary to participate. I spent a little time with these tools today and particularly liked Constellation. It felt like a glorious experiment in synesthesia.

In the Globe article Machover makes this point about the collaborative nature of A Toronto Symphony: “If it feels in the end like basically my piece no matter what, or like a mash-up of other people’s stuff that I facilitated, I think that would be less satisfying. But if it’s something that couldn’t have been made without each other, it will feel really good.” This project, and this quote, speak volumes to me about the current work of city museums. I want them to be like Tod Machover: using their expertise to bring out the best in each of us and illuminate our collective experience of the city; doing it through participation, interdisciplinary learning, and new tools that help us see the city in a different light.

The piece debuts with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on March 9 in Roy Thomson Hall as part of the New Creations Festival. Put it on your calendar. Meanwhile, apparently two other cities have already approached Machover about further city symphony collaborations. Maybe one of them is yours?

Objects in the Wild

I am traveling in Italy at the moment, and earlier this week I had an opportunity to visit the new Museum of the History of Bologna, which opened in January of this year. It’s housed in the former palace of the Pepoli family, and it’s part of a larger project, Genus Bononiae, initiated by the Carisbo Foundation to restore and link together eight cultural sites in Bologna. The Museum of the History of Bologna is a particularly interesting city museum for several reasons, one of which is that it’s a distinct departure from the “museo civico” model found in so many Italian cities. At some point I need to write a proper blog post about my experience there. But as is often the case when I visit for the first time a museum I really like, the seed of a new idea is planted in my head and I feel compelled to spend my post sharing that instead.

The idea I had in Bologna was sparked by a gallery at the city museum called “Your Museum” (pictured above). Its goal is to involve Bologna residents by inviting them to bring their own objects to be exhibited in the museum. Massimo Negri, the museum’s scientific director (i.e. chief content developer), told me he had originally hoped this gallery would be much bigger, with a system where people could bring in their objects and on the spot have them added to the display. Unfortunately, due to space and logistical constraints, he had to settle for the iteration I saw.

Many museums are now interested in public participation, and they have been experimenting with the best ways to do it; Your Museum in Bologna is one example. At the same time, we also acknowledge that the museum collections we have inherited, formed in previous centuries, were assembled haphazardly, with major gaps in the stories they can tell. They leave out large groups of people and do not adequately represent the breadth of our history and culture. In short, the objects that have made their way into our museum collections represent only a tiny fraction of our entire material heritage. I’ve been thinking about these challenges a lot recently, as have many of you, I’m sure. I’ve also been thinking a lot about my recent visit to the Museu da Maré, a community museum in a favela in Rio de Janeiro. Museu da Maré has a much more flexible collections policy than museums are normally used to: a member of the community can donate an object to the museum and then, if later he or she wants it back, the museum gives it back. Community members might also technically give the museum an object but still keep it in their home. I have heard that the District Six Museum in Cape Town, South Africa has a similar policy. Mix all of these concepts together and you end up with my Idea du Jour:

Can a city museum catalog the material life of its city without actually acquiring and owning it? Imagine a zoo that collects animals from the wild and puts them together in cages. Currently, our museums are like zoos. Now imagine a biologist who tracks and studies animals, but never takes them out of the wild. We have sophisticated RFID tags and we have extensive object database software. Why not conduct a material culture census, or inventory, of a city, but not actually collect anything?

This may seem like a lot of work for nothing. I would have said that too five years ago, but the museum landscape has changed enough that I think we could start to see the potential. There are so many opportunities here for public participation. Residents can catalog their own objects, with or without the help of a curator. People can “like” the objects they are particularly drawn to, or contribute additional information about objects posted by other people. Curators can put out a call for certain gaps in the “collection” that need to be filled. But perhaps also a resident can recommend that her neighbor’s object be added to the collection because it has a great story. And perhaps if an object gets many, many likes, it is then recommended for physical acquisition by the museum (subject to the owner’s approval, of course), a kind of crowdsourced method of determining which artifacts are most important to preserve, combined with some gentle community pressure for public ownership of them. Individuals could also recommend a neighbor’s object for exhibition at the museum, and so on. The role of the museum curator, then, is to highlight really interesting objects, monitor and improve accuracy, draw connections, and start conversations.

Because, as you know, I am obsessed with geotagging objects, I think it would be great to have a mapping component where you can see all these objects existing out in real space, out in “the wild,” across the city. Although that may present a security risk that could serve as a deterrent to community members. If people know you have special things in your home then maybe they want to steal them. (And who knows what other practical considerations this idea raises since I’m really just thinking it off the top of my head.) On the other hand, many objects no longer live in the place where they had the most geographic meaning, so the tags on the map don’t necessarily have to represent current location, just location of meaning. Also, it would be easy enough to hide the identity of object owners so that only the museum has personal contact information.

But wouldn’t it be interesting to see what happens when the material culture of a place is collectively exposed in this way, regardless of whether it is owned privately or publicly? Would it make us rethink what cultural heritage means, and perhaps assume a different kind of shared responsibility? I wonder if anyone out there has already experimented with this concept–if so chime in and let me know. Otherwise, let’s make it happen somewhere as a pilot project.


As the London Olympics draw to a close, I want to call attention to a lovely project by Museum of London (partnering with the University of Westminster). It’s called #CitizenCurators and it aims to document the life of everyday London residents during the Olympic Games. The museum appointed 18 official citizen curators, chosen to be representative of the makeup of the city. But also, anyone who tweeted with the hashtag #CitizenCurator will have their tweets archived by the museum. An edited version of each day’s tweets are posted on Storify.

I browsed the tweets and found a mixture of interesting scenes captured on the street (like the lovely Jamaica fan above), Olympic material culture (like these Union Jack hijabs; the coordinators specifically asked citizen curators to document objects), reports on Londoners’ experiences watching events or trying to get tickets, and snarky comments or complaints from a local point of view (“Wenlock pens people. Pens. How? Why? What have we done to deserve this?”).

It’s so important that the Museum of London, as collector and preserver of the city’s history, chose to turn its Olympic attention to everyday residents. So often the city archives of such major events contain a whitewashed, top-down version of history. But this project represents a turn to a much more participatory and granulated historical record.

I’m reminded of the coda to the last chapter of Carol Kammen’s On Doing Local History. She writes about the importance of documenting your place in the present, while it is still fresh. Kammen suggests a more analog methodology, mind you, but the spirit is the same as #citizencurators. She includes a three-page list of phenomena one might want to document, and enlist other locals in documenting, about their city or town. Here are a few of my favorites: local signs of the change of seasons; routines of place: rush hours, quiet times; those out of sight: who is not seen; and what sits at the curb for the garbage collector. Expect to see more like this in the years to come.

Cidade Maravilhosa

I’m heading to Rio de Janeiro in two weeks to participate in the International Conference on Museums of Cities, hosted by the The Historical Museum of the City of Rio and Rio’s Municipal Secretary for Culture, in partnership with ICOM Brazil and CAMOC. The conference is an opportunity to talk with colleagues from Brazil and elsewhere (Turkey, Greece, Denmark, and the UK) about the role of city museums in 21st-century cities, and also to generate some new ideas for Rio’s city museum specifically.

The organizers have put together a packed schedule of presentations and discussions, and I’m looking forward to an intense week of thinking and sharing. Since I know there are some South American folks who read this blog regularly, I want to make sure you know that it’s not too late to make your plans to attend this conference; registration is open until Friday, August 17.

My own talk is titled The Living City: Trends in Urban Curation. Rio by all accounts is definitely a living city, and I can’t wait to explore it for the first time.

An outdoor exhibition about the Berlin Wall, Alexanderplatz, Berlin. Could we go one further and not even put the objects in cases?

You know how I’m obsessed with geotagging objects, right? We lost a lot of meaning when we separated artifacts from their places of origin in order to assemble our museum collections—especially in the case of our local history collections—and geotagging gives us a chance to get some of that meaning back. I preach about this concept to anyone who will listen, and I’ve even played around with pinning some objects from New-York Historical Society‘s collection to the Google Map in historypin (until historypin told me to stop because they want people to stick to photographs).

This evening I had a conversation with Chris Chelberg, a library science grad student I met back in May at THATCamp Museums NYC. We were following up on a session Chris led at THATCamp about disruption theory, Clayton Christensen’s argument from the business world that the real threat to established companies comes not from their conventional competitors—the companies selling the same product they are—but from products brand new to the market that offer a “good enough” solution to fill the consumer need at a much cheaper price. At first these new products are so shoddy that the established companies don’t pay any attention to them, but eventually they improve to the point where they take off, and by then it’s too late to do anything about it. Christensen cites a number of real world examples, the most interesting of which (to me at least) is that online degree programs like University of Phoenix have the potential to disrupt universities like Harvard and Yale: online learning might seem like no match for such prestigious schools now, but it’s getting more and more sophisticated with time, and it fills the need for a credential at a fraction of the cost. If disruption theory is new to you and you want to get caught up, you can read Christensen’s books, or I recommend this short and sweet New Yorker article by Larissa MacFarquhar.

Chris and I were talking about potential disruptions to museums; can we anticipate them and how they will affect our work? One of the big challenges museums face is the burden of caring for their collections. This is an essential function of museums, mind you, but it is so expensive that it leaves us particularly vulnerable to disruptions from cheaper, more flexible sources. We talked about the things that museums think are poor quality but that the general public often thinks are good enough, and cheaper: popular historical fiction, video games, anything labeled edutainment. Community-curated exhibitions. Pop-up projects. Reproductions.

This last one elicited the most interesting conversation. Right now, reproductions are no match for the real thing, and museums hold tight to the notion that authenticity is their trump card. I firmly believe this myself; In fact I wrote about authentic objects in History News last year. But maybe it’s just that reproductions are no match for the real thing yet. Is it possible that in 5-10 years they will be good enough? Are you following what’s happening with 3-D printers these days?

What Chris and I came up with is that maybe 3-D printing, as it evolves, can finally address some of the major access challenges museums have been grappling with for years. So we put everything in glass cases because we don’t want visitors handling and stealing our precious artifacts. But who cares what happens to the 3-D reproductions? Let them get breathed on and licked and caressed to death, Velveteen Rabbit-style. Put them in a room without climate control; heck, put them outside.

Which leads me back to geotagging. I would love to see a city museum take 100 of its most significant objects, partner with a 3-D printer manufacturer (or better yet, as Chris suggested, crowd-source it to the local maker community), and then install these 3-D reproductions out on the streets, where the original [authentic] objects came from. What would we learn from such an experiment? Could we own the disruption? Let me know if you want to find out.

This week while visiting friends in Maine I had an opportunity to explore this lovely little library on Hancock Point, a peninsula that juts out from the mainland, just across Frenchman Bay from Mt Desert Island and Bar Harbor. It’s the kind of place where you wave at every car that passes you on the road, and you borrow from your neighbor when you’re out of sugar because getting to the grocery store feels like a production. The library is only open in the summer when the population of Hancock Point swells significantly, mostly with folks whose families have been vacationing there for generations.

The summer season isn’t in full swing yet; I observed some of the library’s particulars myself and then my friends filled in other details. The building has the scale and feel of a house. In fact, a summer librarian lives on the 2nd floor and cooks her meals in a kitchen just off the main reading room, which has a fireplace. The library offers wi-fi (still relatively hard to come by on the Point) so it’s not unusual on a sunny day to see folks sprawled out along the porch, checking their email. There’s a bulletin board by the front door, which serves as a convenient place for community messages. There’s a story hour for kids. There’s an awesome climbing tree in the front yard. There are historic photographs of the Point on the walls. And, of course, there are the books, with emphasis on the kinds of stuff you want to read in the summer; from what I could tell, the two wings, which supplement the main reading room, are dedicated to mystery novels and children’s books, respectively.

The Hancock Point Library struck me as the kind of place that works for its community: appropriate in scale, an authentic place, a 3rd place. I was telling my colleague Linda Norris about it in our weekly Skype meeting, and she made an interesting comment: why is it that so many libraries seem to have found ways to meet larger community needs (besides just the books), and so many museums have not? Libraries offer internet access, meeting space, a copy machine, a free cozy place to hang out, extended hours (the Hancock Historical Society is open 4 hours a week in the summer, compared with the library’s 20+), and so much more. There are multiple reasons to visit a library, not just one.

I’m a big fan of the Project for Public Spaces’ simple but compelling Power of 10 rule. I’ve written about the Power of 10 before on CityStories, and I also refer to it regularly when I give talks about city museums. To quote my previous blog post:

The idea is that to make a really great public place that is used regularly and cherished by many people, it needs to have at least 10 different amenities working in concert, not just one or two. And then a neighborhood needs 10 different great public places–not just one or two–to be a great neighborhood. And a city needs 10 different great neighborhoods, and so on.

In the past when I have applied the Power of 10 to museums, it has been in the context of providing at least 10 amazing objects in each exhibition or at least 10 great programs on the calendar—in other words, in relation to the core work of interpreting the collection and educating the public. But when Linda and I were talking today it occurred to both of us that the Power of 10 might also apply to the kind of amenities that museums, as public spaces, could provide for their communities, above and beyond the core collection and programming. And that in general, maybe part of our problem in trying to carve out the role of museums in 21st-century society is that we aren’t meeting a Power of 10.

Linda and I spent a little time talking about cheap and easy ways to increase the number of services and amenities museums provide. Installing a wi-fi router with a guest login, if you haven’t already done so, is a no-brainer—it’s incredibly cheap and easy. A lot of us have cafes, definitely a plus one. Most museums have meeting rooms; only some of us make it available for everyone to use. Do you have enough outdoor space to host a farmer’s market one day a week? A great place for people to walk their dogs? And what else could we come up with if we got creative? For example, the library at the Massachusetts College of Art has a hedgehog in residence this summer, and he’s bringing in lots of extra MassArt community members (it turns out adorable furry creatures are an amenity).

This concept seems particularly applicable to rural communities like Hancock Point, where the museum or historic house may be one of a small group of public places, along with perhaps a town hall, post office, library, or general store. But I think you can make just as strong a case for city museums serving the public to the power of 10. City museums ignore the contemporary city and the daily life and needs of city residents at their peril. So host the community forums, the political debates, the clubs and support groups, the blood drive, and the polling place. Ask local food trucks to park outside your door on nice days. Tap into the skillshare movement. Put some comfy couches in your lobby. Come up with more than one reason to let the city in so you stand at its heart, not on its periphery.

There has certainly been plenty of ruminating on how museums can better serve their communities, and on museums as 3rd places. But the Power of 10 has gotten a lot less attention in our field. So I throw it out there once more in this new light, in case it helps us see the way forward more clearly.

I’m excited to share a new project that’s in the works. Along with Linda Norris (of Uncataloged Museum and Pickle Project fame) I am writing a book about Museums & Creative Practice. Today we are launching a fledgling project website that you can access here.

I’ve been interested in this topic for years now. I believe strongly that museums across the field are in need of an enormous infusion of creativity. We tend to think creativity is only the concern of contemporary art museums when in reality it should matter deeply to all of us. We also tend to think it’s the purview of exhibition designers when in reality creativity, and creative problem-solving, is equally important for visitor services, education, administration, development—every department of the museum.

As I travel from city to city trying to figure out what makes a great city museum, I am struck by how large a role creativity plays in successful institutions, and I have been thinking a lot about how city museums can be more creative. In fact I gave a paper on this topic at the CAMOC/ICOM conference in Shanghai in 2010. I have also been making creativity a priority in the material culture course I teach in the Tufts Museum Studies program. I don’t want to send my students out into the field to develop the same old exhibitions and programs we’ve been doing for years; instead I want to empower them to find interesting, compelling, surprising new ways of presenting objects to the public. This book project is a natural next step for me in exploring creativity’s impact on museums more broadly and more deeply.

There’s a wealth of new literature on the import role creativity plays in the economy and in society at large. Linda and I think it’s time someone applies that literature to museums. We have been following and admiring each other’s work for several years now, and I can’t think of a better partner for this project. We’re envisioning a practical, nuts-and-bolts kind of book that provides our colleagues with the tools they need to make their museums, and themselves, more creative.

We’re just at the beginning stages; we don’t even have a publisher lined up yet. But it’s important to us that we involve our colleagues from day one so we can write a book that’s genuinely useful to them. As we begin our research and draft our book proposal, we’ve developed a quick survey that you can take here, and you can also make comments/suggestions either on this post or at the Museums & Creative Practice website.

Lastly, we’ll both be at the American Association of Museums conference in Minneapolis next week (yes, this year’s conference theme is “Creative Community”) and we are hoping to talk there with as many colleagues as possible about this project. We’re holding two informal Museums & Creative Practice meet-ups:

  • Monday, April 30, 12:30-2:00. Grab a takeaway lunch and meet us at the cafe seating in the lobby of the convention center, near Dunn Bros Coffee
  • Tuesday, May 1, 6:00-7:30. Join us for a drinks and discussion at The Local, 931 Nicollet Mall, a few blocks north of the convention center. The reservation is under Rainey; we’ll be at “Arthur’s Table.”

I don’t yet know where this project will lead, but wherever it goes I’m looking forward to it. I hope you are too.

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