In this new digital age, the future is analogue

How can an 80-year-old institution persistently drive cultural innovation? It’s an interesting question, and one that Glenn Lowry, longtime director of the Museum of Modern Art, addressed in his recent lecture at the National Gallery of Australia. I don’t claim to have a solution, but I do want to draw attention to what I regard as an error, or oversight, in Lowry’s (and others’!) thinking – which I believe could clarify the problem, at least for the foreseeable future.

Lowry impressed the audience – myself included – with his enthusiastic embrace of technology for maintaining MoMA’s edginess.

Glenn Lowry in front of a screen illustrating the ways in which MoMA is 'doing digital'

And he secured my full attention with this next slide, on principles for working in the context of an increasingly complex and unpredictable world.

Glenn Lowry in front of a screen displaying a set of principles for the network age

The principles are borrowed from a presentation by Joi Ito, MIT Media Lab director. They are inspired by the fact that the modern industrial way of being in the world no longer works. Now that the means of production and distribution are accessible to almost anyone, the process – of business, culture and so on – is much more complex and difficult to control. How to adapt to these new circumstances is not yet clear but we do know that our survival depends on radical adaptation.

So we’re starting to revise our mental models of how the world works. Lowry talked about this shift with reference to two diagrams of the genealogy of modern art. First, he presented this 1936 diagram of cubism and abstract art, made by MoMA’s first director, Alfred Barr:

Glenn Lowry showing a slide on cubism and abstract art

He contrasted that with a diagram produced for MoMA’s 2012 exhibition, Inventing Abstraction:

Glenn Lowry presenting a slide showing the network diagram MoMA  made for its 2012 exhibition, Inventing Abstraction

In 1936, the mental model was was a linear and hierarchical genealogy; by 2012, it had become a dynamic, interconnected network. And the network model is useful because it accommodates complexity and cultivates lateral thinking.

It’s not that networks are new – the map is not the territory, right? The same artists were the subject of both diagrams; ecosystems and social systems have always operated through complex clouds of relationships; and – this is an obvious but critical point – there have always been peoples for whom the modern western scientific industrial model of the world is foreign and highly fraught (to say the least).

So what’s going on now is not an update of our mental models to fit a new world order. Rather, we’re having to let go of aspects of our customary (modern western) thinking in order to recognise the eternal fact of our network-connected reality. In this sense what’s happening now is a reversion to a pre-industrial epistemology, to a mental model that preceded and will supersede – at least in part – logical, binary oppositional thinking.

The troubling part – and this is the point to which I objected in Lowry’s talk – is that we conflate digital technologies with network thinking, and misidentify the outmoded model as analogical.

Wrong, wrong, wrong! Computers are built on binary logic; they are the quintessentially logical outcome of reductive, logical, binary oppositional, linear, hierarchical, mechanistic, modernist thought. Yes, they have levelled up, lately, so that our interfaces to them can now show an interactive web of connections; they have become adept at mapping networks. But in this, they are serving our aspiration for technology to transcend digital, to return us to our natural analogical milieux.

The excitement of 3D printing and the thriving maker movement are testament to this yearning for a futuristic analogue, but it’s more than that. Another clue is in the fact that for Lowry and for the thousands of New Yorkers who flocked to it, a standout MoMA exhibition was Marina Abramović’s The artist is present, where every day for the duration of the exhibition, anyone could go and sit with her, in silence. Abramović’s work is about the space between herself and the visitor, the dynamic, continuous gradient, the common ground, the humanity – it is precisely, I would argue, about the analogue.

We don’t need to learn to think digitally; we need to find ways to harness digital technologies in the service of enriching our analogical (interconnected, poetic, holistic, three-dimensional) experience of the world. That’s one way to describe my mission in making this game of analogy. And it seems like an ample agenda for any modern art museum keen to stay edgy in the next century.


Here’s how I tried to express these ideas right after the lecture, in two tweets.

Augmented reality for teaching and learning

I brought home a few thought-thread treasures from today’s ARcamp on augmented reality and education. So, I’m sharing. But first, a photo of the AR frenzy that marked the beginning of the event.

Group of people with phones and tablets poised to access AR content from printed images

Each image on the wall has a micro video story attached to it

1. Magic / technology
From the ever-compelling Rob Manson, I learned that this idea can be attributed to Arthur C. Clarke, and is in fact known as his third law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

2. Unconventional unease
In various discussions with campers, it became clear that one of the things currently hampering the creation of and access to augmented reality media is that as yet we lack a lexicon and conventions for user interfaces. Channels, auras, triggers, markers – the words are intelligible but what they mean in this context is far less so. And the interfaces… let’s just say that they demand much persistence and forgiveness on the part of the user.

3. How can AR be dialogic?
One recurring theme throughout the whole-group discussion was the idea that the greatest challenge for educators is figuring out how to make AR media that is not monologic or reductive but which is open-ended, dialogic, generative. Yes!

I got to thinking about this challenge in terms of a continuum from broadcast to generative media – and then put that idea with the real–virtual continuum (also shared by Rob) and came up with this map-thing:

map of augmented reality media on a twelve-part grid

A map of media with ideas about what’s in each sector

It deploys the two continua (what a great word that is!) as perpendicular axes to form a twelve-part grid. In each of the spaces they create, I’ve put some initial ideas about what happens there. They are subject to evolution. Ideas welcome 🙂

Augmented reality is the two horizontal strips in the middle. Currently, most AR media would fit in the two central sectors. To the right of that are where good educators want their teaching materials to be.

4. Things we could do!
In discussion with Stephen Barrass, two cracker ideas for AR projects at or with the Museum emerged. The first one is even generative.

  • sound augmentation to pages of Oscar’s sketchbook. We have some replicas of the sketchbook for using in programs for visiting students, and they are wonderful. Stephen’s sound design students could create some creative responses in association with the Ngunnawal Centre. Given that Queensland state government bought a few copies of the replica as well – for their work with young Indigenous students – this idea holds much collaborative promise.
  • an AR trail of the highest-rated resemblances created as part of the Museum’s iPad game, Sembl. In the game, players take photographs of objects on display in order to create a resemblance to another object (or objects) already on the gameboard. It would be simple to create a trail to display the game-generated resemblance to visitors as they approached one of the resembled objects. It would be an interesting way to browse the Museum and / or to kickstart some Sembl thinking.

Thanks so much to the INSPIRE gang for hosting the event and may the morrow be productive and fun.

Dialogic learning in museum space

Ten years ago, some museums began to articulate their mission in terms of a dialogue with communities. In practice, that dialogue occurred mostly in the context of education and public programs; exhibitions tended to maintain a detached, authoritative voice.

As a significant site of informal and social learning, how can museum exhibitions also be dialogic?

poster for the exhibition 'Captive lives: Looking for Tambo and his companions'

This question was central to my PhD research, and I’m revisiting it since an article I wrote in 2001 was recently republished in Ethos, the journal of the Social Education Victoria. In it, I explore the possibility of self-reflexive museum exhibitions – approaches and techniques by which curators and designers can engage visitors in history but also in its making. Specifically, I describe a model exhibition (‘Captive lives: Looking for Tambo and his companions’), and offer suggestions for how the Australian War Memorial could engage visitors more actively in the process of making that site meaningful.

Since it is now much more common for museums to deploy technologies for co-creation, or indeed, to use high- or low-tech means to be participatory – in the parlance popularised by Nina Simon, I am surprised that this article remains so relevant. Is it that exhibition curators and designers – those at the heart of museum representational practice – yet resist the dialogic tum?

If you fancy a slightly longer-than-bloggable read, here’s the a scan of the printed article (PDF 2mb).

Stone head at the Australian War Memorial

Stone head at the Australian War Memorial

Sembl praxis: identify sameness, explore difference

As part of his ‘Mining the museum’ installation at Maryland Historical Society in 1992–93, artist Fred Wilson placed a set of shackles in a display case with fine silverware and titled it Metalwork. Pow. United by the metal of their fabrication, the racially-divided, hierarchical histories of these objects dramatically distances them:

Who served the silver? And who could have made the silver objects in apprenticeship situations? And […] whose labour could produce the wealth that produced the silver?

A general principle can be distilled from this. Perhaps: In the very moment we identify a similarity between two objects, we recognise their difference. In other words, the process of drawing two things together creates an equal opposite force that draws attention to their natural distance. So the act of seeking resemblance – consistency, or patterns – simultaneously renders visible the inconsistencies, the structures and textures of our social world. And the greater the conceptual distance between the two likened objects, the more interesting the likening – and the greater the understanding to be found.

This simultaneous pulling together and springing apart of the sociophysical world interests me, and I’ve been thinking about it in relation to Sembl, where the challenge of the game is to identify a way in which a given object is related – surprisingly or humorously or otherwise interestingly – to another object.

What constitutes ‘interesting’ is of course difficult to define and depends to a large degree on the particular players playing. But if the natural conceptual distance between the two related objects is great, the relationship is more likely to be interesting – perhaps because it enables you to think about something in a new way. That’s what made Wilson’s juxtaposition of shackles with silver tableware interesting, and powerful.

Composite image of a branding iron and a breastplate given to an Aboriginal man

In the same vein, the Sembl players who linked the above branding iron to the breastplate – because both are tools for labeling bodies – cast new light on the colonial practice of giving metal breastplates to Aboriginal people.

My (big!) point here is: Hipbone games and Sembl alike can create a safe space for people to explore differences. When identified, similarities form bridges across and clarify difference. Attending to relatedness in this way inspires understanding; and opens a channel toward reconciliation.

Collaborative, intergenerational, play-based learning about history

At THATCamp Canberra, I hosted a session on designing a dedicated digitally-enhanced physical space for collaborative, intergenerational, play-based learning about history (yes, it was ambitious!). I am finally getting down to documenting it.

How I thought it might work

In the lead-up to the camp, I had put a lot of thought into the issues, but I had consciously resisted planning the session in any detail. I genuinely wanted to facilitate rather than lead. I did consider splitting people into small groups for part of the time, but decided against it because the numbers seemed not to warrant it. (Didn’t realise at that point that people would continue to wander in throughout the session so by the end, it was quite a large group.) Ultimately, for better or worse (!) I resisted imposing any real structure on the session and instead surrendered to hosting an engaging discussion of possibilities in terms of both form and content, and inscribing  it with as much clarity as I could on a whiteboard.

What actually happened

You can probably guess that we didn’t go so far as to devise a single, clear plan for a game-space. But we had a great chat, which I will try to represent here. What follows is a transcription / translation / slight elaboration of the whiteboard notes.

Do what can’t be done elsewhere

  • in museum space, draw on the authentic, interesting objects
  • invite peer collaboration (note that teenagers in particular prefer to relate to known others rather than strangers)
  • encourage social interaction with strangers in a safe place

Pedagogy / structure / approach

  • use real-world physics (in digital designs) for improving literacy about how the world works
  • draw on imagination
  • welcome failure
  • involve the bodies of participants, not just the minds, index fingers, eyes
  • provide a loop structure: Context –> Challenge –> Feedback –> (Joy made this point after the sesh)

Elements of the experience

  • include a preparatory / warmup / contextualising activity
  • establish rules for local interaction but leave space for emergent collective behaviour
  • if the activity is individual, then build in a moment of sharing at the end
  • enable people to make / build / create something
  • build in different levels – a progression of experience, with rewards for completing each stage
  • provide a takeaway – go home and log in for… / or a physical memento


  • solo or collaborative
  • multi-layered approach (so it works for short, shallow or prolongued, in-depth engagement)
  • engaging for young children (7 and up), teenagers, parents and grandparents


  • wifi
  • motion-sensors
  • ‘glass wall’ for being visible from the outside / online
  • RFID
  • etc


  • an interactive augmented-reality RPG (role-play game) with historical characters, props; visitors inhabit a character, choose clothes; re-enact a historical scene of their choice (time, place, indoor, outdoor);
  • integrate user-generated media
  • ‘customisable avatar – discovery’ – I can’t recall what this means!
  • interactive video
  • mission-based games versus play-based games – there was a leaning toward the latter as less reductive / prescriptive
  • a whole room full of buttons and levers and motion-sensors that you could explore in a completely freeform way, either alone or in collaboration – this idea was imagined in a (beautifully sun-drenched) post-session chat with Mitchell and Geoff

Models / inspirations

While we spoke, Michael drove a web-connected laptop so we could look at possible models or inspirations for this space:

What now?

It was absolutely fantastic hearing ideas from everyone at the session and afterward. I’ve probably left things out and got things wrong here. I know I haven’t captured all the nuances of the conversation. Corrections and additions are of course most welcome. Leave a comment and I will incorporate it into the post.

Over time I will revisit these ideas. For now, I am letting them simmer in my subconscious.

A museum of collective vitality

What are museums for?

One answer to this question comes toward the end of Orhan Pamuk’s epic novel, The Museum of Innocence, as the anti-hero Kemal visits thousands of museums in Europe, Asia and America. He’s planning to open his own house museum in tribute to Füsun, the forbidden love of his life – he’s been collecting objects he associates with her for years, from her cigarette butts to the ceramic dogs on her family’s television set. Pondering the purpose of collecting, he comes to the simple conclusion that museums are time compressed into space.

Looking at it from the direction of visitors rather than collectors… within the space of the museum we decompress the assembled material – expand it to witness something of the flow of time – what happened, how, and what it might mean. But is knowledge and understanding the end point?

In another take on their purpose of museums, New Curator describes museums as the city’s lymph nodes, immersed in its central nervous system, providing immunity against its ills. This model suggests a purpose beyond the (co)production of knowledge and understanding. Here, museums play a role in maintaining public health and happiness.

I’d like to reconceive of the National Museum of Australia in these terms. If a city museum can contribute to a city’s vitality, then a national museum can contribute to a nation’s. And now that we have a new director keen to take the museum into the future and willing to engage with contemporary issues, it is timely to reconsider its purpose. Could it be to promote our collective health in both social and environmental terms?

What would such a museum look like? It would certainly host celebrations – of admirable qualities of people and country. But it would also work to heal historical wounds, to tend to our collective psyche and our ecology. It would enlist visitors as active collaborators in witnessing, in recognising, in empathising, and provide means for us to respond in constructive ways. In this way, the National Museum would cultivate our collective vitality.

Museum experience and participatory design

This is a paper I wrote for my digital design course.

Is it possible for museums to think about their space, or at least their digital space, in a whole-of-experience kind of way? It seems both uncommon and important. So that’s what I tried to do in this paper about digital museum experience design (PDF ~200kb). I’m especially interested in participatory design – where both the process and the resulting ‘opportunity space’ are participatory.

As is my wont, I drew a diagram for the essay. It illustrates the shift from presenting users with a finished product, to designing with their participation. It can be beneficial to involve museum visitors at every stage of the design process and indeed, beyond, as visitors can valuably contribute to meaning-making through their interactions in museum space.

Ubicomp, (museum) space and the social order

What follows is a Master of Digital Design assignment – a ‘critical response’ to five papers on the topic of ‘Ubiquitous computing and urban informatics’. It includes (bonus!) references to a few other papers too.

Mark Weiser’s 1991 vision of technology blended invisibly into environments may not have quite materialised, but as Adam Greenfield points out, today’s phones, tablets and multitouch displays bear a close resemblance to his description of tabs, pads and boards. Ubicomp is spreading in many directions, from many sources. For example in Pachube, which serves out data streams about connected environments from people around the world, we can witness a growing wave of DIY ubicomp.

We can get a strong sense of technology’s wide and deep pervasion from Dan Hill’s account of the complex mesh of data flows in an imaginary-but-realistic city. Sensors, emittors and recorders are embedded in streets and buildings and carried by people doing business, passing by and hanging around. Data flows either with or without individual intent, and either functionally or dysfunctionally – in technical, personal and social terms.

Unlike the disembodied space of virtual worlds, ubiquitous computing works on, around and through human bodies; and in physical space, social relations are always at play. Ideally, we all have access (both read- and write-) to the data flows, as well as the ability to evade them. Ideally, we are also attentive to the affect of technology, and our interactions, on ourselves and the world around us. But real-world social space is messy. Anne Galloway warns that when technologies are invisible, so too are the power relations they replicate. The danger here is of our docile complicity in reproducing the dominant social order.

To mitigate against this risk, one of Greenfield’s ethical guidelines for UX in ubicomp settings is critical – ‘Be self-disclosing’. Seamlessness is rightly a feature, as Weiser imagined, but it must be optional, and reversible. And as with all new technologies, we must develop literacy about its use. We need to know that we have the right and the ability to ask the system to reveal itself – as well as its data.

Are there implications here for the digital design of museum space? For Foucault, museum space was heterotopia – ‘other space’ –  space that intervenes in ordinary space, and complicates our perceptions of it, illuminating and potentially contesting and inverting real-world social relations. To best serve visitors in their task of re-evaluating real-world social space, museum displays must not be seamless. They must ‘manifest their metatext’ (Lumley) precisely so that visitors can perceive the social relations implicit in both the product and process of their representation. Because of their particular role in representing ordinary space – because museum visitors are already immersed in a field of cultural technologies – the imperative for computational technology to be seamless might be greater here. If we can ignore the technology, do we gain a clearer view of social conditions? Or is it better to conceive of the technology as another layer of metatext, and therefore to render it visible?

Certainly, Weiser’s notion that ubicomp would be calm technology seems a better fit for museum spaces than the whizz-bang often associated with technology. It does not help museum visitors to be distracted by technology at the expense of their social engagement. So in museum building, exhibition and application design, that is something to note.


Foucault, Michel. Of other spaces (PDF). Diacritics: A Review of Contemporary Criticism, 16(1), 1986: 22–7. (or here’s an HTML version)

Galloway, Anne. Resonances and everyday life: Ubiquitous computing and the city (PDF), 2003.

Greenfield, Adam. All watched over by machines of loving grace: Some ethical guidelines for user experience in ubiquitous-computing settings. Boxes and Arrows, December 1, 2004.

Greenfield, Adam. Real life: Weiser FTW. Speedbird, April 16, 2010.

Haque, Usman. Pachube, patching the planet: Interview with Usman Haque. Interview by Tish Shute, January 28, 2009.

Hill, Dan. The street as platform, City of Sound, February 11, 2008.

Lumley, Robert. The Museum Time-Machine: Putting Cultures on Display. London: Routledge, 1988.

Weiser, Mark. The computer for the 21st century (PDF), Scientific American 256, no. 3, 1991: 66–75. Reprinted in IEEE Pervasive Computing, January 2002.

Not explicitly referred to (I only had 500 words!), but also informing my thinking here, were these two papers presented to the Innovative Ideas Forum at the National Library of Australia on 16 April 2010:

  • Bell, Genevieve. ‘U are happy life: Making sense of new technologies’.
  • Manson, Rob. ‘Collections are leaking into the real world’.

Into the desert – audio blog

The National Museum of Australia is exploring new territory, staking a claim in the blogosphere. It is a mission echoing its new blog’s focus – an expedition into the desert to find – amongst other things – fossils of the large marsupial lion, Thylacoleo.

Into the desert contains regular audio reports by desert archaeologist Dr Mike Smith, sent back to the Museum via satellite phone. As well as hearing about the party’s progress – including how the camels are going! – you can visually trace the path of the party via a dynamic expedition map.

I knew there used to be BIG things out there in South Australia. I had a charming paleontologist uncle who once gave my sister some little pieces of dinosaur egg. But I’d never heard of this big marsupial lion. And one thing that does not appear on the blog is a picture of the prized object of the search. So here’s a great drawing that appeared in a book published by the Australian Museum on prehistoric animals in Australia:


It was drawn by Peter Schouten, but appears here via a website on Thylacoleo.

It is good to see the Museum out there like this. I imagine there will be many followers of the mission via the blog. Pity there seems no scope for in-blog discussion. That would have been good to see, too.