Found Horizons?

America’s quadrennial pretend-affair with soccer/fútbol came to a close this summer with the final of the World Cup. Now I’m about as close to the idealized American fan of soccer as you can be, but even I admit that America’s World Cup fascination is a bit like dating someone in the fourth grade, with passed notes and whispering classmates taking the place of ESPN: everyone gossips like you’re having a relationship with that girl/boy two rows away, but after it’s all over you realize that you never actually spoke to them.

Now we can go back to our general ignorance of American soccer and our greater level of interest in Champions League, the annual do-they-ever-stop-playing-it tournament going on every second in Europe. No sooner does one of the same handful of super-rich teams win the final, around Memorial Day, then the whole thing starts up again among the who-are-they? minnows from Cyprus and Estonia, teams with no chance.

I thought of CL when I read the New Media Consortium‘s fourth annual report on museums released in late 2013, around the time of the Museum Computer Network conference in Montréal.  The NMC has been around for twenty years and seems to have the market cornered on studying the effect of digital technologies on education-related fields and institutions. The advisory board is a who’s who of Museum Computer Network players (including a couple from the Met), and NMC editor Alex Freeman presented the latest report‘s findings in Montréal. (Alex and a couple of NMC advisory board members graciously answered a bunch of questions I had about the preparation of the report.)

I won’t quibble with or dissect the report’s findings: reports are reports, and even the best and best-intentioned ones are as much horoscope as crystal ball, providing food for thought along with entertainment. What I find interesting is the section of the report that examines two upcoming trends in each of three time frames–one year or less, two or three years, and four or five years.

Even beyond the fact that the first group will be here (and hopefully not gone) before the next report is issued, it’s a tweener set of time scales. I would have loved to see ten or twenty years out; assuming we’re not all be sucked into Ray Kurzweil’s singularity or upload ourselves into software consciousness, what will the museum a decade or two out look like? (Hint: I see lots and lots of Google Glass.)

The findings, arrived at in an MVP-award-style balloting process (no elimination tournament? not even a group stage before a knockout round?), aren’t controversial: Bring Your Own Device (now understood as “BYOD”) and Crowdsourcing are already here, Electronic Publishing and Location-based Services are just outside the door, and Natural User Interfaces and Preservation and Conservation Technologies are just starting college and will be here in four years. The term ”Electronic Publishing” itself can be controversial, a topic I’ve addressed here on the blog and continue to discuss every day in my job at the Met.

My question, therefore, is how do these topics make it out of the technology conversation and into the lifeblood of our museums? For many institutions, they already are, as museum directors are increasingly concerned by visitor experience, which is impacted by all of these items (you can think of at least four of them as relating to mobile and social media, with digital publishing closely related; only preservation and conservation can be considered mostly internal to the museum and its staff).

So then it appears that the usefulness of the Horizon report is to provide an agenda, not just for conferences, but for conversation. An appendix to the report provides a bevy of examples of the cited technologies. In all its areas of focus, the NMC sets the baseline for discussing technology. Our challenge is to get it into the hands of those outside of the museum technology realm.

The Bootstrapped Book; or, Making the Most of Your Exhibition Ephemera

In the spring of 2013, before I came to the Getty, I did a special e-book publication for the Phoenix Art Museum and their latest photography exhibition, From Above: Aerial Photography from the Center for Creative Photography. Like with museum exhibitions anywhere, in the course of creating the show an amazing trove of often disparately held materials were created: Exhibition checklists with digital images and information on each work in the show; object wall labels; introductory wall text; brochure and website text; reading lists; artist bios; and on and on. In something of a publishing experiment, I worked with curator Rebecca Senf to compile all these materials into an exhibition e-book. Because all the materials had already been created and approved, creating the e-book was more a matter of simple compilation and formatting, than of all the unique work and development that goes into a full exhibition catalogue. The whole thing took about 30 hours of work to create.

Though we certainly could have done more, keeping to our bootstrap methodology we did little in the way of additional work to market or distribute the publication. This was more about answering the question of what a super-minimal digital exhibition publication process could look like, and what use it might serve. At the least we thought it would serve as a nice, contained archive of all those ephemeral materials that usually disappear with the closing of a show like this, even in larger shows that have their own printed exhibition catalogues.

The show ran from May 4 to September 22, 2013, and the e-book was available to anyone for free download online. There was a scannable link to it in the exhibition gallery, as well as on the exhibition website; and the curator also sent a link to her growing list of the museum and area photo supporters.

By the end of the exhibition, about 800 people downloaded the e-book. That seems like a quite respectable number to me, especially given the small amount of investment—in time or money—made in making the publication happen. And given our minimal approach, there is certainly room for growth here. More download links and signage could have been placed in other areas of the museum like the shop and information desk. A brief workshop on the e-book download and usage could have been done to educate and empower the museum’s staff and docents. Promotion of the e-book could have been further integrated into and elaborated upon in the exhibition press materials. There are many more ways I think we could have gotten that download number higher, and most are super easy and low cost.

The e-book is still available for download, and below are the rest of the download stats, unvarnished and without further analysis. Enjoy!

  • 661 downloads of the regular EPUB format
  • 295 downloads of an EPUB with larger images
  • 109 downloads of the regular MOBI (Amazon Kindle) format

Of those, about 25% were duplicates of people downloading more than one format or downloading multiple copies of the same format.

  • 1233 unique views of the download page
  • 1064 total downloads of the e-book in all formats combined
  • 798 approximate total unique downloads

From the link in the gallery:

  • 436 total hits
  • 47% iOS devices, 39% Android devices
  • Most downloads occurred on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, between the hours of 2-4pm

From the link used on the exhibition website and other scattered marketing and promotion materials:

  • 337 total hits
  • 72% direct from the exhibition website
  • 40% Windows users, 36% Apple device users

From the link used by the curator:

  • 605 total hits
  • 459 direct, primarily email
  • 83 from an article on the daily journal, Lenscratch

I  also spoke about the project at the 2013 American Alliance of Museums annual meeting in Baltimore, in a talk on Agile Publishing, which you can read more about and download here.

There’s something in the air, and it smells like open publishing

Pie In The Sky, by Luis Prado (CC BY 3.0)

Pie In The Sky designed by Luis Prado from the Noun Project (CC BY 3.0)

A number of disparate things that may be adding up:

At the IDPF’s Digital Book program at BEA at the end of May, Sanders Kleifeld, the director of publishing technology at O’Reilly Media, gave a talk on Open Source for Publishing.

The call for proposals for Books in Browsers V is now open, and the theme for this year’s conference is Advancing Open Web Standards and Digital Publishing.

Over the last couple months I’ve come across a couple open, web-based art and museum publishing projects that I hope you’ll be able to read more about here soon: The online art books of the Art Canada Institute; and a free digital magazine called Curious Quarterly from the Royal BC Museum.

And of course there’s the Off the Press conference and Digital Publishing Toolkit project I posted about here previously.

For my part, I spoke at the National Museum Publishing Seminar in June on web books and open publishing as part of a panel that looked at digital publishing from EPUB to App. I’ll also be moderating and speaking on a panel at the Museum Computer Network conference this fall in a session called The Future of Digital Publishing is GitHub.

If anyone else has been coming across other interesting open, digital publishing projects or tools lately—O’Reilly Atlas, HPUB—I’d love to hear about them. Drop me a line @geealbers, or post a comment below.

The Book That Makes More Books: The Stedelijk Museum Highlights App


As part of the Off the Press conference, Loes Sikkes, a designer at Medamo, presented a Digital Publishing Toolkit project she’s currently collaborating on with nai010 publishers and PUNTPIXEL developers. The project (still in development) is a collections app for the Stedelijk Museum, stemming from two print publications—Highlights and Reflections—which offer respectively, a broad strokes overview and in-depth essays on the museum’s collection.

The interesting thing about this app is that it rather than just being a fixed publication, it actually functions as a publications platform for its readers. Within the app, users pick out what’s most relevant and interesting to them, and then output that collected information as a single epub or pdf. In Sikkes’ design sketches for the app, there’s even a place where users can title and subtitle the book’s cover, and pick out a color for it. As she says in her talk:

“Our ambition was and is to develop a tool which allows the user to influence the composition of the content of their own digital publication. In that way the user can decide for himself how much information gets stored in his epub depending on the level of depth he desires.”

Sikkes talks about the app as a tool for users’ “personalizing and filtering”, but I think the fact that they can also package and take away that collection (even if only digitally) is even more meaningful. I imagine this personal publication process will engage users with the content at a much deeper level than if they were reading a more traditional, static publication and merely skipping over the information that’s not of personal  interest. Further, the app gives users more information about the artworks than they’ll see in the app interface alone. Again from Sikkes’ talk:

“Beside basic information on artworks, extra information is offered. This could be, for example, scientific publication on the subject, an audio fragment, an interview with the artist, a lecture, or additional pictures belonging to this artwork as a starting point.”

From what I gather, the app is still in the conceptual and developmental phase, but you can watch the video and download the slides from Sikkes presentation, or read a little more about it on the Digital Publishing Toolkit blog.

Off the Press – Loes Sikkes: Highlights, ePub personalized from network cultures on Vimeo.

Every Other Summer, Somewhere in the Museum Publish-Verse …

When I wrote about my first trip to the National Museum Publishing Seminar two years ago on this site, I addressed the reasonably new task given to publishers of managing digital content without being any less of a print publisher.

Much as happened with the three times I attended Digital Book World and Tools of Change (my reviews are here for DBW 2013, TOC 2013, and the later whacking of TOC), conferences seem to have a set conversational style: even if the substance changes, it’s more like Mad Libs than Socratic debate. If at my first NMPS I was new to the conference game, wide-eyed about the discussion over print and digital while still believing it was more a matter of workflow and willpower than technology and money, this time around I was more attuned to the willingness of institutions to experiment on their own terms, to find a style of publishing that matched their sense of mission.

Greg Albers of Getty Publications detailed last week the excellent panel he moderated on digital publication technologies, and the chart he presented and ensuing demonstrations by iBook Author maven Tina Henderson, Elisa Leshowitz of DAP/Artbook, and Edyta Lewicka of Potion design, is a thorough primer on many of the options available to get content out into digital spaces.

But if Greg’s panel represents “EPUB 101,” particular approaches to creating digital publications, there was no shortage of other platforms described to audiences over the two days of meetings. Among the highlights:

  • Harvard Semitic Museum Egyptologist Peter der Manuelian in the opening keynote presented a 3D rendering, complete with cheap red/blue glasses, of the Giza plateau during its antiquity heyday, made by French company Dessault Systems.
  • Museum professionals from the Met, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, presented digital-first projects aimed at connecting directly with audiences through social and admissions programs.
  • A panel on guidebooks feating Scala Art Publishers, Smithsonian Books, and the Museum of Modern Art ran the gamut from walking tours to trade guides and a wide range of digital walkthroughs.
  • The MetGuggenheim, and MoMA detailed varied approaches to keeping backlists alive through digital means.
  • The final day’s opening Pecha Kucha (yes, folks, it’s a real thing) slammed out five presentations in a series of 400-second blitzes. I had to miss that first morning session but heard a lot of interest about the Hirshhorn’s multi-channel publication approach to their Ai Weiwei show and the Albright-Knox Gallery’s crowd-pubbed Anselm Kiefer catalogue (links to their unique takes on publishing, sadly, are hard to find).

Whew. That’s a lot of takes on digital publishing. Is that a good thing, part of the problem, solution, both, neither? Two years since my first NMPS, digital publishing possibilities are exploding, but print-raised publishers aren’t explicitly in the possibilities business, at least not according to budget-conscious, admissions-concerned, merchandising-worried museum directors. Still, many of the museums presenting, such as the try-anything Guggenheim and the data-inhaling MoMA, are out there, collecting data on what works, seeing what gets downloaded, what makes money and what draws a big collective meh. So museum publishers are moving into try-mode, it’s just that answers don’t abound. Yet. Maybe 2016 in Chicago.

For me, an interesting meta-approach came from what was probably the least publishing-focused panel, on Creative Collaboration. Lynda Hartigan from the Peabody Essex Museum, David Small of Small Design Firm, and designer and Rhode Island School of Design professor Lucinda Hitchcock discussed wide-open creative ideation that seem to be exactly of design-school and improv-comedy methods which would be laughed out of any curator-driven institution. And yet PEM is doing it in regular curator meetings–and before you say, yeah, PEM is small, the Met worked with Small Design on its massive reworking of its American Wing a few years ago. For people who think that the process is as important as the product (okay, me on this site here and here), this is the kind of panel that really makes you think. And that’s a good thing.