My guest today in this episode is Seb Chan, Chief Experience Officer at ACMI - the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne - championing human centred design approaches across the museum. Prior to ACMI, Seb led the digital renewal and transformation of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York (2011–15) and the Powerhouse Museum’s pioneering work in open access, mass collaboration and digital experience during the 2000s. He’s also Adjunct Professor, School of Media and Communications, in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT.
In this episode we talk about Seb’s work, but also some of the history of interactive media that informs our views and understanding of where the state of the art is today.
- Seb on Medium
- Seb’s site, Fresh and New
- Most of which is now a newsletter
- Seb on LinkedIn
- Seb on Twitter
- Looking Backwards to Go Forwards
- The Robin Sloan piece Seb mentions
- The backstory on the Cooper Hewitt interactivity
Note: This transcript is machine-generated and may contain some errors.
Andy Polaine 00:10
Welcome to Power of Ten, a podcast about design operating at many levels zooming out from thoughtful detail through to organisational transformation, head on to changes in society and the world. My name is Andy Polaine. I’m a service design and innovation consultant, coach, trainer and writer.
museums. And I think you quote, someone is talking about, you know, in the 1970s saying, is this stuff going to be still playable in the in the 2000s? You know, and it was incredibly fraught, because, you know, whose machine went in the museum? Was it, you know, did the machine was it part of the artwork? Or was it just the CD ROM in our case, and all that kind of stuff? And of course, it runs at different speeds, and then the things break and all that. Can you maybe I know, it’s it’s quite long article, it’s very worth reading. I’ll put it in the show notes. But, you know, what was the what was the kind of thinking behind that? And what’s the sort of through line of of that piece?
Seb Chan 04:44
Yeah, look, I guess it pulled on a number of threads that I think had started to look under gravel during the during COVID. And I think this sort of period, particularly in the museum sector, being somewhere somewhere between it and Not for profit and government supported Senator, depending on what part of the world you’re in, the memory of museum practice really lives on in the staff who I’ve retained. And over the last year and a half, two years, we’ve had a lot of people leaving the field, particularly in the US, and the UK and Europe less so in Australia. And with them goes a huge amount of knowledge and a huge amount of context that begins to explain some of the reasons why that nonprofit technology or technology and design in the not for profit space is so fraught, and I think, I like to tie it back also to the way that museums now need to be collecting and preserving things that, like your CD ROM art, or, you know, we have here at Melbourne, the archives of Stella, and we have a new commission, the works that we’ve commissioned in the last couple of kind of years for virtual reality works, AR works AI, generative documentaries works that are that arrive on a on a lacy orange drive, that’s going to last five years. And that is the word. And that hard kind of drive needs much more active preservation practices, then a painting or sculpture. And so there’s that digital preservation piece, but then this practice piece, and so a lot of the history of technologies in museums has been poorly preserved. And also, a lot of the things that I and my teams built at the powerhouse in the early 2000s have been lost, or you know, running very old versions of Flash and the original, the original files are gone, or director, these sorts of things. But as soon as you get to social web, and all of this sort of network culture piece, from the mid kind of 2000s onwards, even prison watch watch kind of you preserve is even more fraught, because it’s the social context that matters more. And we’re going through this around Video Game Preservation at the moment as well. But you know, sort of lots of things in it. And I guess, I’d seen a lot of people coming back to address some of the fundamental challenges in museum technology and not for profit technology, which is, how is it maintained? And how do we grow things on top of the things we’ve built, when most of the financing for it is project based. So you’ll get a grant for three years. And after three years, the grant ends, and the project sort of leaves in this sort of stasis, stasis, and then it sort of fades away, and all the memory around that’s lost, it’s probably poorly documented, all of those things. So the last decade of my team’s work have really been about in both New York and here in Melbourne, has been about building different infrastructure. And I like to sort of think about it as we tried to build gardens of technology now to support an ecosystem, but builds in that sense of it needs gardeners from the very, very beginning. So it’s not so maintenance is part of it by design. And I think that plays out a lot in government tech to you know, I think it’s challenging, but it’s museum space is weird, because it’s this hybrid of it’s, it’s not, you know, when people talk about service kind of design in the museum and and users in the museum, museum experience isn’t a transactional experience, which shouldn’t be a transactional experience. So some of the some of the practices that you might apply from other design fields, or sub sort of disciplines don’t neatly match,
Andy Polaine 08:48
Well in a service design perspective, and I guess the, the front stage is actually the most sort of ephemeral thing, right? It’s just a kind of your any any exhibit or an exhibition is only a kind of a brief sort of poking through of the backstage work that museums do. You know, I mean, and and famous, the evenness of natural history museums, there are kind of drawers of fossils that no one’s seen. And you still get these kinds of stories that come out of someone’s kind of digging around a drawer that hadn’t been open for, you know, 50 years and discovered something. Yeah, you know, it’s interesting hearing you speaking, for two reasons. One, there’s like a kind of museum ops. I don’t know if that’s a thing, but it sounds like kind of part of what you’re talking about. You know, it’s museum ops, has it been coined that phrase in that way already?
Seb Chan 09:31
To a degree, yeah. And I think what museum ops means has also technologized for one of a better word that the museum operations technology is just part of the infrastructure. Now, it is the building.
Andy Polaine 09:44
Yeah, that’s the thing you also read in your article before any Medium post with us. technology used to be optional in museums. And in fact, it used to be so optional. It was a bit of a pain in the ass to even kind of get it in writing. Basic stuff like that went to the power outlet or kind of Network. Yeah, yeah, you know, but the regular listeners will know that my heart was singing as you were talking about gardens and ecosystems, because it’s my, my big kind of metaphor that I love. And the thing I often talk about with services, and this is exactly this is the landscaped gardens, that you’re working on something or putting something together that will outlive you. And it’s a humbling thought, certainly some of the stuff that even the tech, you know, some of the stuff that you’re you’re working on now, you know, if the museum is doing its job properly, it’s going to be around for the next 50 or 100 years. And that’s kind of, you know, impossible timescale to imagine in the days of, you know, what is it kind of yearly software, platform, os upgrades, and all the rest of it? You know, and I remember a while ago, and it’s actually because someone was interested in was because I was sort of slightly involved in this world, but also because someone was interested in trying to get Auntie rom two rounds of art CD ROM that kind of gets launched mine a group of us our careers, I still keep an old laptop around, because I got an old Mac laptop that runs RS eight, I think, and it’s, it still runs on there, and I can still plug it into a projector if it has VGA, and otherwise can’t run that anymore. But at some point, those all those things have moving parts, and they will fall apart. And I I don’t know if this has yet been resolved. But at the time, there was a big kind of debate around sort of curation and preservation almost that those two kind of things in in opposition to each other or intention in that you do you run something on an emulator? And is that then the authentic real experience? Because you’re not really do you need to have an old 644 80 monitor to watch it on, because that’s actually how it was experienced? And of course, then the other thing with things like CD ROMs, as they ran differently on everyone’s machines anyway. So you know, what is the authentic experiences of Walter Benjamin, I think coming in, is all that stuff still an issue? Or is it of less so now?
Seb Chan 12:00
It’s changing. I think, you know, when I was at the Cooper Hewitt for the Smithsonian, my team and I collected the data visualisation from bloom interactive planetarium. So it was one of the first apps on kind of the iPad, it was using the iPad as a visualizer, for your music collection as a series of planetary systems. And it was a beautiful metaphor for many things. But of course, by the time we came around to collecting it for the design museum, you know, this, this notion was, well, what is it it doesn’t run on the latest version of iOS. So it’s already defunct. And then we worked with Tom McCartan, and Ben to kind of serve me and others who were part of limits kind of the time. And the Smithsonian actually, the software was watch watch was acquired. And then we open kind of sourced the software with Bloom to release it for preservation purposes. And in that process, it was really about saying what we were collecting wasn’t the instance of it as an app from 2010. It was the idea. And the idea of interactive data visualisation, as a nested series of solar system, planet and Moon with orbits that have differing lengths, could be ported to other contexts. And that’s what was interesting about it. So the software preservation piece was about preserving the GitHub repository. And then that would then be in the future ported. So two years ago, now, one and a half, two years ago, a software developer in Sydney discovered this of all places, and ported it to the latest version of iOS, because it was open source. And now that’s part of the preservation has been lived through the open sourcing of that. The flip side of that is we’re involved in two Australian Research Council linkage projects in in Melbourne now with Swinburne University, and others. One of them is on preserving video games, Australian via games of the 1990. So that era just before mass scale networked video games play so these were still solitary pieces a bit like the ante rom works. So emulation and emulation as a service, so can we provide access to these games for research purposes, and experiential purposes with emulation? How much fidelity do they have to the in quotes the originals? But also then what is the what’s been the influence and cultural practices around those and the second one is around Australian media archives. So the archives of Deluxe media out in Sydney experimental and that there’s amazing Australian media that that is sitting in these different collections, private and public collections that needs ways different ways of accessing them and the technology to access them is almost as fragile as the works themselves. And it does raise that question of what is the work and what is the purpose of the work. So I think we started in the field to move away from the notion of buy up all the Sony Trinitron monitors while you could because this is only the authentic work, if it’s running on a Trinitron monitor, we’ve moved away from that and hardware preservation to is a fool’s errand. At the end of the time, there will be a time where a Commodore 64 just will not work anymore, that they’re very stable. And people, you know, people make music from the sedge chips. But really, you know, do you really need the original one there. But there are some things about the interfaces that I think interesting, I think, Nick Montfort from MIT did this really interesting piece on the Commodore 64. And that’s he came and spoke at the power house. And, you know, when I was there, when we were doing an exhibition on the 1980s, and Nick came out, and he was saying, There’s something very specific about the Commodore 64 physical keyboard, that is different in kind of the emulator. So you had those little characters on the keyboard that you hold down the Commodore key? Was that expect them to Yeah, yeah. And you got those little things. And you don’t see those when you use the keyboard of any other computer on an emulator. So there are some of those graphical tricks that you can’t easily see how they are done. And I think that’s that that really, for me spoke to what are the specificities of the physical things versus what is done in software? And I think that’s so teasing out the affordances of the originals, is something that people who are curating and preserving this sort of stuff is starting to really look at. So what are the specific? The specificity of the mediums, I guess? Yeah. So the CC core is a medium and interface, not just, it’s a platform. It’s more than that.
Andy Polaine 16:54
Yeah. I mean, we had this thing, you know, what is it? I guess I was thinking was a bank to you know, those art pieces? I think it’s is it boy, so who did the kind of artists breath in a balloon as a piece of Oh, yeah.
Seb Chan 17:06
Oh, what’s a lots of conceptual art to like, like, what is the work?
Andy Polaine 17:11
So yeah, that’s a conceptual Yeah, yeah. And so you ended up kind of looking at the piece of work. And it’s obviously it’s now a kind of dried up old latex balloon in a kind of glass vitrine, and there’s no artists breath left in there anywhere stuff. And there’s a conceptual art books. And I wonder if there’s a, I guess, there’s a sort of similarity, then, which was really looking at is the idea, you know, and it’s kind of not terribly interesting, looking at the original, I think the thing for talking, as you know, as somebody who’s involved in making an art piece back then. And we, when we made Antion, one of the things we were spent a lot of time on was trying to get more colour out of the range out of the computer than we did. So for those kids who don’t remember, computers used to have you spent eight bit or 16 bit yourself to 56 colours, or you have 1000s of colours. And we used to make a thing called a clap to colour lookup table, so that you could say, okay, out of all of those, you could change the range of those colours, you still only had those kind of 1000s of colours, a lot of time working on that stuff. And switching between eight and 16 bit. And because it was, you know, all about some memory efficiencies, and all that kind of stuff. And one of the, the upshots of that was when we switched between Bitmap graphics and QuickTime movies, we had a little deal called X objects in director that used to change the colour depth of the monitor. And of course, the monitor used to flash as we did it, that was, that was a bug. And so what we did was decided what we’re going to kind of lean into that we had a kind of folder full of these little sound hits, stuff, we’d got off got sound libraries, like enough orchestra stabs, or kind of smashing sounds or explosions, whatever. So when it made that noise, when it did the switch, the monitor colour switch, it looked like it was intended, because we’ve made it sound. And what I’ve noticed is it crashes emulators, because they’re not kind of set up to kind of think that way. So it’s this weird thing, which was a, an accident of the medium at the time, or a limitation of the meeting at that time that we turned into kind of part of the work only really to hide the problem, that sort of then became actually part of the experience, which now doesn’t work anymore, you know, and I don’t know, you know, my, the me from back then that kind of 20 Something me would say, Oh, God, if it can run on a kind of larger monitor in kind of billions of dollars to do it, you know, that’s exactly what we want. But the me now it’s kind of looks back on that stuff. And it’s definitely is part of the it’s part of the work, right. It’s part of the charm I was gonna say, but that’s a bit twitchy, but I actually think it’s part of the it’s part of capturing what it was at the time. I think that is a crucial bit.
Seb Chan 19:45
Yeah, instead of pointing at the limitations that you were working with, C 64. And rest are interrupts and all, you know, all those things. And I’d say music too. I mean, a lot of these sort of things. I map back to you So I guess at my age too, we look nostalgic ly back at, you know, the great raves of years past? What what does it mean to recapture that? And how does that performance and that experiential piece get imprinted on memory? And how does how does it use it? I mean, what is the Museum of a great nightclub? Like, you know, I mean, you know, or Jamaican sound systems or whatever you want to do, like, how do you capture that, but you cannot, it’s the same as capturing a theatre performance is something different when you see it on a recording or stream and we’ve seen this in COVID to the medium. There’s a transformation. I think it’s an interesting one that is one of those things that I like to poke at, you know, I think that’s, that’s one of the luxuries of working in the museum space is that ability to play with all this stuff, but also have a public you know, there’s their public interface, which is, it’s very exciting.
Andy Polaine 21:04
I think, you know, there’s a serious I think it’s an Apple TV thing I shoot from Mark Ronson called watch the sound and he’s sort of going, oh, yeah, it’s really, really good. And there’s a bit where he’s going a bit about synthesisers, each one to like synthesisers, reverb, distortion, and kind of different things, we started with auto tune, which kind of slightly changed my opinion of Otter too much. But the synthesiser one, of course, you know, you get that thing, we’ve been pulling out this old synth, and that they still use because they’re just there. Because exactly everything you say, it’s got something about the sound of it, and the controls of it. And it’s you know, it literally is the circuitry inside it plus the way you can control it with the the particular physical interface of it, that is still not matched by you know, obviously, there are digital plugins that exactly kind of duplicate the sound, but kind of don’t duplicate the the sort of anomalies, I guess, or the performing on it with a kind of physical thing. And I guess there is kind of some similarities there. But I felt that one of the, do you see it as part of the job of the museum to bring that part forward? You said this thing about the you know, the technology is like a kind of transformation? And there’s a transformation that goes on with the technology, the sort of viewing technology transforms that kind of content? Medium is the Message right? And is there is that part of the museum’s mandate? Do you see or to make that thing we will consume so much media, we will consume so much stuff without really thinking about how it is transformed through by the whatever device we’re looking at it on? Is it part of the kind of goal of say, Acme to say, hey, you know, this, this process is going on? You might not be, you know, aware of it, and this is what it means.
Seb Chan 22:46
Yes, certainly, for me, it’s very important. I mean, you know, all the museums, but you know, I’m interested in the notion of everything as as a as a designed object of experience I’m, I’m very interested in, in the design of media. So. So process of making is something that that the museum really focuses on now. And I’m also very interested. And then this has different plays out in different ways with different exhibitions and how other people think about things. But I am very interested personally in drawing attention to how how you as a museum goer might be transformed by what you have seen. And so you go and look at it or play it if it’s a video game, with a different eye and hand later on. So if if we do if we show you a great video game that you play in an exhibition, and you might know that video game, that might be your favourite video game, I would really hope that you go back and there’s something we have done that’s made you go, Oh, I didn’t really notice that the controller is a really huge part of this. And this has been pointed out to me or whatever sort of having a criticality to both production and consumption. And I think peeling back that layer of the otter and I think that’s very, for me being very important, both in the Smithsonian context and power design. Museums design is a team sport pilots a team activity, you know, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, all that stuff, but also now working in media that, you know, the otter in film is, you know, it’s like, I want to deconstruct that I wanted like, Yeah, this is like everyone else in the credits. That’s what I that’s what I love about you as a viewer now, and I think that you as a viewer or you are a participant so much in this particularly, particularly from mobile Alondra onwards right so there’s sort of sense of even the mass you know, Disney Marvel Cinematic Universe is is a massively designed experience and content and everything is designed so that you as a viewer, or participant even right down to like the you know, Little name drops the little, what I would say a sample spotting sort of after credits sequence, it’s all there for you to be part of the making of the bigger story, which is actually what that cinematic universe is, has been designed to be. So I’m kind of really interested in that sort of narrative design and peeling back that both from a cultural sense, but also an economic and a sort of critical sense to have like, what does that do to how narratives become normalised and how politics gets transformed by how economics gets transformed by it, and how also, we end up in a culture where it’s this sort of fan battle of opinions, which is sort of plays out in politics in terrible ways now is seeing sort of ridiculousness. And yes, it says sort of how all these things fit together. So I’m really interested in it, sort of from that sociological viewpoint, too, and sort of political economy of media, putting that out on the table more. And of course, you can’t do a QA upfront that in an exhibition ever, because it’s sort of like, You’re killing my great things, I just want to come and enjoy this. Yes, you will enjoy this. And by the way, you will, through great design of an exhibition and the interactive experiences, particularly start to leave that museum experience questioning stuff. And we’ve designed that museum experience to be extremely satisfying and entertaining, and a great family day and great social moment. But you leave, we’re leaving with these spiky questions. Not so sure about us anymore. I want to like this, like I use my lens, this thing we designed for the visitor, I’ve collected these things, and I collected all the things I loved. And now I go onto the website and log into it. It’s recommending me all these things I’ve never heard of. And I’ve got to try one of those. For me, that is really when the museum succeeds, because, you know, I sometimes will often now talk about the best museums are curiosity machines, so they’re machines that generate more curiosity, so that it’s successful visit is when you are more curious at the end of it, you haven’t we haven’t satisfied you’re not seated using data, you’re not saying user needs should never be satisfied in a museum shouldn’t be generated. Yeah, that’s the sort of
Andy Polaine 27:25
thing. So you mentioned the lens. And obviously, the Cooper Hewitt, what was it actually called, I would think of it as it was called the pen. So there’s a there’s a little service design, but I didn’t do it anymore. But you could do it as a kind of workshop brief to say, you know, about libraries, mostly, but libraries and museums, actually, which was, you know, we think of these places, you know, Acme is one of them, and libraries and other have a place where some stuff is kept in within four walls, and you go there to kind of experience it. What happens if you think of it as a service that breaks out of that kind of those four walls, which of course, is what you did? So do you want to briefly kind of talk about, I guess there’s a there’s an obvious three line from the kind of the pen to the lens, but also maybe describe what they are in case no one’s heard of them. But also, you know, how’s it evolved? And and the last thing is, we can’t avoid talking about COVID. Right? Because obviously, those four walls became inaccessible. Melbourne famously has had the longest lockdown in the world, which you’re out of now. I think.
Seb Chan 28:25
Yeah. Yeah. Well, yeah. Thank goodness.
Andy Polaine 28:27
So yeah, so what was the sort of origins of that? And then how has it evolved in in Acme?
Seb Chan 28:32
Sure. So look, in 2011, I’ve moved to New York to work with Bill Moggridge. She was then director, director of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum and Bill’s sort of notion was, here’s a museum in an Upper East Side Mansion House in New York. It’s part of the Smithsonian, how can it be a National Design Museum? And we’re working with local projects, then a fledgling design studio in New York and Jake Barton, the principle of local projects was like, Well, look, you’re really interested in this sort of sense of people taking objects home with what the designers use a pen. Let’s give everybody a pen. And this was sort of a great idea. But the concept was brilliant. It was amazing. It was at that moment that all their Kickstarter projects that were booming, were physical things. So everyone’s like, Oh, I can go and manufacture stuff. And of course, 99% of those Kickstarters got financed, but then couldn’t actually deliver turns out
Andy Polaine 29:30
vertical finds too much. Manufacturing is really
Seb Chan 29:33
hard. So, you know, local projects, great idea. They worked on all the interactive elements of the museum and the screen based stuff and my team with a bunch of other people from GE and others worked on like talk this notion of like getting it manufactured and we worked with a firm in Spain to design a stylus, which actually was 100 years chips that they were actually using in an RF For i d want the day we’re using in hospitals to collect patient details from rich, rich fat. So we took that circuit board and with the product designers from GE, who the GMO of GE was on the board, and she was like, you can have two days of our product designed to go with this beautiful slick thing. It eventually got made very, very hard battery operated all of those things. And it became this service kind of design challenge of like, okay, so you’re going to have this wand in the museum, what does it do? How is it communicated to a visitor that it does, what it does, and how actually, the really important part of it was, I come to this old mansion house on the Upper East Side, and I’m given this want. And just that notion is so was so counter intuitive that it broke through, you know, it was like, yeah, like you’re a 70 year old, you’ve come to Andrew Carnegie’s old house as a historic house, you discover it to design a different Museum, and you’re given a wand, and you’re like, go do things. It’s amazing. If you’re 17, at 17, if you’re a 17 year old kid, you’re like, Wow, this is amazing, too. It’s not my phone. So if there was something about the physical design of it, that was really seductive. And it was really on brand for the new museum as a active Design Museum. It wasn’t just a Museum of Decorative Arts. And it was a museum that you did design out. And I think that was really, it just a beautiful mix of things coming together at the right sort of moment. Bloomberg Philanthropies supported all of that, which was really, you know, again, it was about pitching this bold idea, some prototypes and X executing on it in a in a service kind of design way, rather than just a singular product. People could take home the things that they saw, it opened the collection up to many, many, many more people. So coming here to Melbourne. Yeah, we’re working with a museum now that the exhibitions are about things that you have at home, it’s not like a Design Museum, where there are unique things that you probably don’t have at home, but you’re interested in, we have things that you can go and watch on Netflix later, or play on your PlayStation later, or, you know, ask someone else about so that they’re things that already exist in a universe in our cultural universe anyway, on the internet. So the lens also was a nice metaphor to again, sort of the name of the thing describes what it does a lens allows you to look look closer at the things you’re interested in. So that’s a great thing for a museum to give a visitor. And of course, you know, we worked with one of the local universities, Swinburne University, to make it recyclable. So the challenge with the pen was we had 3000 made and they were battery ran and you borrowed it. Yeah, the lens, you get you keep, or you take it home, is recyclable. It’s recyclable. It’s biodegradable, it’s beautiful. And that’s the sort of secret sauce here because it’s, it’s a souvenir as well. So even if you use it to collect things, and you never log into it, and it sits on your fridge, it’s a beautiful object from the museum that’s on your fridge. That’s a talking point. But like, what’s that? Oh, it’s this lens, I went to this museum of media in Melbourne. That was really amazing. So we learned a lot through those processes. And I think it’s that sort of sense of, again, as the smartphone has become so much implicated in the rest of our lives and our work, you know, the sort of sense of the museum as a space that might physically offer, you know, some sometimes use the notion from game kind of studies of the magic circle, if you step inside of the magic circle of the game. What is the superpowers you get? And the lens gives you these superpowers that you don’t get on your phone? Of course, you could do it on your phone? Of course, you could use your of course you could. But I would always say you wouldn’t, because through user research is that, you know, you might scan one or two QR codes and then someone will send you a great tic tock and you out of your QR code. Yeah, that’s the magic circle. Right? Yeah. So it’s sort of that that that philosophy, and it’s been, it’s been really successful. You know, I think we’ve been open for about 150 days now. Yeah. Between lockdowns and all the rest. People have collected more than two and a half million things in the museum. Like Like, like, That’s ridiculous.
Andy Polaine 34:44
I feel like you should probably unpack what you mean by collect stuff and take it home. Because I know we’ve been talking about and I know what you’re talking about, but maybe just how does that what’s the mechanics of that?
Seb Chan 34:53
So what’s happening there is that they are using the lens as an identifier as they move through the physical space and then touching museum labels and other sensors.
Andy Polaine 35:02
And what’s the what is the lens look like? It’s because I can see it on the circle a
Seb Chan 35:06
little bit like a CD ROM, or a DVD. But also it’s it’s modelled on in size. It’s also modelled on that. So donation of ViewMaster reels that has that nice visual language to it, and you touch it on the museum labels and other centres around the museum. And what that’s doing is obviously creating a database record that connects your unique identifier which is anonymized, we don’t know it’s you specifically until you register it, you don’t have to do. And as you move through, you are building up a diary of things you have touched, which are the things you are interested in. And as you get to the end of the exhibition, there’s an experience called the constellation, which is explicitly about using the things that you have found, collected, to connect you to 1000s of other things that aren’t machine generated, but have been curated by our curators. So you might have collected the Mad Max car, and our curators go well, we’ve connected that to the ring, the Japanese horror film The ring, and we’ve connected the ring to this great video game that you haven’t heard of yet. And you can also collect those two. And so it’s a sort of building this media library that you become personally acquainted with through your physical actions. And that was another thing we learned from the pen experience was the sort of memory piece that when you’re physically doing something with more of your body to collect things, you remember it better. It’s like writing notes by hand. And it’s that physical memory piece that sort of, again, pushing back for museum of screen culture, it’s kind of interesting that we’re using a not a not screen to do that collecting. And again, it’s, you know, points at the materiality of media, and yeah, all those sort of nice briefs you can do on this sort of stuff.
Andy Polaine 36:53
The physicality thing is a kind of interesting bit of the magic, I think, because as I understand it, with the pen used to connect to collect it, and then you got to, you’ve got to code right, when you went back. And you, you got to put it into the website. Yeah. Yeah, and I’m assuming, you know, while there was a piece, I did work with Brendan doors on something. And it was, I have to be a bit careful about what I talked about here, it was this way to kind of collect like a kind of Diary of a patient, patient suffering with a kind of cancer. And it was kind of this whole thing we kind of built. And it we kind of collected some of their kind of feelings and thinking about it. And it was interesting, this idea of kind of doing research into people’s lives, but at the same time turning into something that’s actually, you know, a really difficult moment, but it’s also kind of a beautiful thing. And one of the things that Bryn did was then you ended up with this kind of deist, because what made me think of it, but just on the screen, right, and that was sort of all your stuff, we took all the sort of, you could sketch and things and all the line marks and then his text you wrote, you end up with this kind of spiral. And then he said why he then printed these out and had like a kind of little sort of podium that you could then put these things on these discs, and you could take them off the shelf, they were the size of a minute, I’m doing this on screen, of course, no one’s gonna hit see this, they were bigger than an LP, you know, they were kind of about the size of a hubcap was something that you would take them off of the shelf, put them on this thing, and it would play that person’s record. And of course, all it was is an RFID in the back of the disc, triggering the kind of thing but there was some kind of magic there that even though you know how it works, this sense of my stuff is contained in this physical item, you know, even though it’s just, you know, a code that’s triggering, you know, in the database, and there is definitely something still, I think, quite neat. You talked about the magic circle, you know, there is something quite kind of magical about those kinds of physical digital crossovers, which I guess is kind of the centre of everything you’re doing really in the museum.
Seb Chan 38:58
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, it’s very important, I think, think that. And we see that also with, you know, even the way that people print photo books of their digital photos, people like that sort of has this very strong cultural urge to make physical things and physical things as memory devices is 1000s of years old. And that’s that’s really, that’s what we’re working with rather than against and I think it’s that that sort of sense of, how might you use that to also push out into a broader network public as well and to push that piece further so so you know. So people’s experience with the Museum extends far beyond their moment in the gallery itself. And the gallery is almost a trigger for a cultural change around what they’re interested in, how they choose to watch what they watch what they choose what to play, and It keeps them coming back to this notion of the museum is. The museum has opinions, and the museum is more than just a repository of stuff, because of course, it’s more than a repository of stuff. But it also should be more, as I often say, it’s more than a family day out to if it’s just a family day out. You’re competing with every public park, and every other thing in the city. And I think it’s different. Right?
Andy Polaine 40:24
Yeah. And you have a kind of different mandate as well, I guess, as well, that there is the educational part.
Seb Chan 40:29
But educational without capital? Yeah, no, I hit
Andy Polaine 40:35
that the index finger raised kind of kind of education. So how did COVID You know, affect your world? I mean, not your personally but your the world of museums, and presumably, you’re kind of plugged into a kind of wider community as well. And you talked about in a museum, some museums had digital strategies, some kind of didn’t some, at least most of them now, but you know, they’ve gone from, here’s a webpage with what’s on to here’s a webpage with what’s on and you can buy tickets to something more complex, in some cases, and sometimes knights are gonna stay that way. So, yeah, how to COVID then affect all of that did it sort of,
Seb Chan 41:14
I think it accelerated a lot of things like like, it accelerated a lot of things that were already there that were both, perhaps positive trends. So it’s this move towards figuring out what digital meant in a museum got gotten massively accelerated, like digital transformation in every other sector. The other thing that accelerated though was also a reckoning with all the other problems in museums, you know, colonialism, representation, staff, structures, all of those things. So there’s been a big shift. And I think, particularly in the US, we’ve seen a big push, finally, towards the unionisation of workers in museums, like some really significant changes, which we’ve seen in other sectors too. And just a reckoning of like, what are they for? Like, what is the museum for I think, for the, you know, certainly through my career in museums, museums have become, you know, for up until maybe 2015 2017, sort of civic, places that renewed cities. So we’ll build a new museum, because that’s going to attract the creative class and all that sort of, you know, and cultural tourism and blah, blah, blah. But that sort of didn’t address what the museum could be for. It was like, well, the museum as a could be something more, and I think the the period of COVID certainly create a lot of reflection within the sector about who are museums for and what value do they deliver, what value should they deliver? And those things, I think, a really healthy that, as I said, at the start, you know, I think we have lost a lot of amazing people from the field, who in the great resignation in the US have gone? Look, this is just not, you know, change is too slow,
Andy Polaine 42:58
because that also swept through the cultural sector as well,
Seb Chan 43:00
definitely, definitely serve certainly the sense that change is too slow and too hard. And I think, you know, we’ve, when I left New York at the end of 2015, you know, I was writing about what I’d realised there. And one of the big things I realised, when working with American museums and inside American museums was the financial structure that makes them operate is not representative of the communities who come to. So the person walking in the door is not the people financing the museum. So I’ve previously worked in Australia, where museums are financed predominantly by the state. So there is at least some sense of the citizenry have having a responsibility to this sense of a public. If an American museum, it’s usually the board that finances it, and philanthropists, and they are not the people who visit so the users of the service are not the funders of the service in any way. And sometimes they have very counter motivation.
Andy Polaine 44:00
Yeah, we were just seeing that in the with the Science Museum in the UK, where they are sponsored one of the big sponsors a shell. And there was a pair of work, because we don’t we don’t agree with you gagging us because there’s like a gagging order from the from the well a gagging order this written into the sponsorship contract tract is nothing that can disparages our industry. So you know, science museum can’t be critical of a fossil fuel company. That’s a problem.
Seb Chan 44:29
It’s a huge problem. And I think those are there are so many of those that don’t get to the level of public awareness throughout every museum that doesn’t have a strong connection with their, with their publics. And I think that’s the piece that, you know, a lot of this sort of human centred work that my teams have worked on for many years now has been about reorienting and renegotiating a social contract with the visitor. So you know, both the pen and the lens, you know, in many ways, it’s about time I think you should expect the museum to give you something more than a great day. I mean, if you come to this museum now, you should, you know, if you’re, if you’re a parent, you should, you should expect us to recommend you amazing VR games for your kids to play or yourself to play, in fact, and you should expect us to have some opinions about great television series, or terrible ones that you might watch, ironically, and why would you do that? Or you know, how things are made? Or whatever, you know, like, it’s sort of that social contract piece at the heart of that design philosophy for want of a better word, you know, sort of? It’s, yeah, it’s, it’s,
Andy Polaine 45:39
I think, I can imagine a lot of people listening, despite all of the kinds of pains and all the troubles, you just were just describing just now, it’s a, it’s also kind of really nice design space to work in, because of that kind of sense of purpose or that philosophy, you know, I cannot imagine it at least makes the difficulties in the hard work feel worthwhile. It’s very,
Seb Chan 46:01
very rewarding. And I think, you know, it’s, it’s such a privilege and a luxury really, to be able to work in the sort of work that I get to do because it’s always changing, and it isn’t purely transactional. I think it’s that sense of being able to push beyond transactions and to be able to poke at some of those things around friction, you know, a lot of what we’re trying to do is introducing friction into services, rather than designing it our services. So it’s sort of pushing back on some of the things that, you know, when I often speak to product kind of designers or, you know, others who are like, well, we’re trying to work, how did you shave milliseconds off this? Or how did you make this a very smooth process? It’s like, Well, we did this, but then we brought in this great friction, because the friction is what makes it memorable. And we make the friction, delightful friction, I guess that sort of trying to create texture and Spike Enos, you know, I
Andy Polaine 46:57
think it’s, it’s the DJ, there’s a level intentionality of kind of like, I’m going to kind of shape the the cadence and the energy and respond to that of the audit. Exactly. Hello, we’re coming Well, up to time. And we haven’t even talked about NF Ts, which I’m kind of glad about, as you know, the show’s named after their grandchild seems film power of 10. It’s all about the relative size of things in the universe. So the final question is what one small thing either exists and is kind of overlooked and underappreciated or could be redesigned. That would have an outsized or does have an outsized effect on the world?
Seb Chan 47:34
I mean, I would have to say it would be Sam, I think we under appreciate the impact of sound in space, we all feel and experience it, but we don’t understand it. In its physiological, emotional and memory sense. And I think there’s a lot in design of sound in space sort of service and product that we, we just don’t hear. And I think museums also just museums struggle with sound, we never get it right. And it’s the one thing I’m determined, gotta figure out. Well, that
Andy Polaine 48:13
was the big problem when all those meteorite installations enter the museum and there was this cacophony, and that was like, oh, yeah, that was part of the art. And yeah, and then the web happened. And as you for those of us who were in the sort of CD ROM, sort of multimedia days, and then moved over to the Web is suddenly went silent. Because the bandwidth wasn’t there.
Seb Chan 48:30
It went silent for so long. Yes, yeah. Well, look,
Andy Polaine 48:34
thank you so much for being my guest on power of 10. Where can people find you online?
Seb Chan 48:40
They can find me at fresh and kind of gnu.org. And that has links to all the other things, private, public, professional,
Andy Polaine 48:51
I’ll put it all in the show notes. Well, good luck with all the rest of it. And thank you so much for being my guest.
Seb Chan 48:56
Thanks heaps. It’s been great fun.
Andy Polaine 48:59
As I’m sure you’re aware, you’ve been listening to Power of Ten. My name is Andy Polaine. You can find me at @apolaine on Twitter, or polaine.com where you can find more episodes and sign up for my newsletter Doctor’s Note. If you like the show, please take a moment to give it a rating on iTunes. It really helps others find us. And as always get in touch. If you have any comments, feedback or suggestions for guests. All the links are in the show notes. Thanks for listening and see you next time.