In Conversations - Transcript for "Prototyping Places: The Museum"
by Deborah Turnbull on 22 MAY 2011
A recorded interview on Prototyping Places
Matthew Connell and Deborah Turnbull
Friday 10 December 2010 @ 11:16am
Transcribed 13 December 2010 @ 10:30am
Edited Transcript © New Media Curation 2010
Deborah Turnbull (DT): In the context of the book chapter that we’re writing [it] has suggested that we...dialogue or conversation around our chapter theme, that it might help flush out the more interesting parts of our task which is curating Beta_space inside the museum.
The first question I want to ask you is how your task as a curator of computers is different or unique to curators of other objects?
Matthew Connell (MC): ...It became apparent to me when I came into the museum and became a curator of computers and mathematics (my official title)...I had to come to terms with the notion of material culture, the museum being an objects-centred culture, and the notion of material culture being at the basis of a lot of what we do. Now that idea is that material culture or objects represent the values of the culture that produced and used these objects and that we can then provide access to those values and beliefs through exhibition or our interpretation of those objects.
When I looked at the artefacts that I was then going to be the custodian of, I was immediately conscious that…there was something missing. Now most of the objects in our collection were the boxes of computers, some had screens, some had teletypes, but they were essentially central processing units, memory devices, peripherals that go with a computing system, that’s if they were bigger systems. These were what I inherited when I got here and then we brought in smaller machines like personal computers and devices that had computers embedded in them. In all cases, I knew that I really only had half a computer in each case...
DT: Because it’s [the object that is] collectable.
MC: That’s right, so we were collecting the hardware and when people talk about the inside of a computer...this I also inherited, there was a discussion about looking into the inside of the computer, people were looking in the back of the electronics and taking the casing off and thinking that this was the inside of the machine. I was conscious that there is an extent to which the hardware of the computers is sort of arbitrary; the real essence of a computer isn’t an object. In fact, I’m not even sure what it is, what’s a programme, and where is it? …Because we had media that contained software; there were discs, there were tapes, there were cards, there were even printouts of source code, but are they the software? They were sort of…
DT: They were the materials…
MC: The material representation of it, yes. So I had this problem in being a curator of computing that the 'stuff' and the object of my collecting was half stuff, half something else…
DT: As yet unidentifiable to you…
MC: That’s right, and providing access to the box I didn’t feel was right either...
DT: Perhaps we should go on to the second question which is how was this problem, the problem of showing the whole computer, met by becoming involved with Beta_space?
MC: The issue came up before we came to Beta_space, because we did a big exhibition called Universal Machines: Computers and Connections where we took down an exhibition where we had defined computers as electronic programmable calculating devices...which was intensely unsatisfying to me, and yet very much of its time [the 1980s]. There was also a lot of stuff about showing the insides of computers as a machine, where I knew that the inside of a computer was really in through the screen, particularly by that time as most of them had screens by then. And, to understand computing you didn’t really get much from looking at the box...not [entirely] devoid of cultural signifiers, but the real stuff of computing is around the interaction [with] the machine. By then it was, and it’s always really been about the interaction with the machine.
DT: It’s a design quandary as well, isn’t it? Interaction with the machine?
MC: Yes, so the other thing is when we did the [new] exhibition, there was an imperative within the museum to talk about this new technology which was redefining who we were in effect. Living as we are in an information age, we’re saying that this technology, this information technology is emblematic of who we are in this particular time….[the] information age. And I was very interested in how going back to the basics of material culture, how this technology reflected the values and beliefs of the producing and using culture.
DT: Did you want people to be able to touch [the objects]…?
MC: I wanted people to be able to play…
DT: …and experience?
MC: …and experience; people wanted to do new things too. The rapid rate of change within information technology and the extreme rapid rate of obsolescence made it very difficult for us. The traditional exhibition medium, is a slow medium. It takes 2 years to conceive and build a big new long term gallery.
DT: [Before we] lead into the third question...which is how has the way that the BSpace project evolved… let’s just focus back on how Bspace helped you to address this problem of showing the stuff [within a museum context that is typically slow moving, when obsolescence is an issue]?
MC: We wanted to show ‘the stuff,’ we wanted to bring in new material, we wanted to rise above the rapid obsolescence problem without having to buy in new technologies and set them up, try to make them available, and [make them] work. Our strategy for that was to try and find partnerships in universities…where we would have access to late prototype research equipment.
MC: … we went to a number of places, found people who were interested, and brought in examples of works in virtual 3D environments, 3D television, robotics, artificial intelligence-based chat-bot machines. The…idea was that as [researchers] progressed their research, we would get the next version of what they produced. But, there were issues there. [Of] all of those projects...a number of them done for the opening exhibition...none of them ultimately delivered the next generation of research... and for a number of reasons. One thing [that became] know[n] is that there is actually a mis-match between the museum’s objectives and a research environment’s objectives...Part of the problem is that researchers build things out of sticky tape and love it when things go wrong because then they can all leap in…
DT: <laughs>…and fix it!
MC:…and analyse what went wrong and there’s half a dozen PhD students who can’t wait for something to go wrong. In a museum environment, the general public, by and large, don’t accept…and can’t work with...a system [that] breaks down…
DT: This is an interesting point because the point where it’s ok to fail or it’s ok for something to break because we learn something...is a big part of Beta_space, it’s a big part of any experimental space, but Beta_Space in particular inside the museum because it’s managed to function now in its capacity for 6 years… [So] you’re saying then that when these two environments came together, they’re opposite, but they are coming together in terms of Beta_space. How did it [this evlove]…?
MC: What Beta_space had to offer more than previous [research initiatives], which broke down because ultimately they lacked value for their university department…and they lacked value because what they originally wanted from the partnership was to have their work in public, and that worked, but it only worked for about 6 months…
DT: Yes…and then it became…
MC: …there. It became just [present] and it became a maintenance issue. And research departments aren’t always spectacularly stable <laughing> it’s often based on grant money, people graduate and leave…too, government grants are subject to shifting research agendas from the research councils.
So all that buys into it and [this preliminary research model] came undone. But at the most basic level, there wasn’t enough value in what we had on display in the museum for those people [the researchers] to keep returning…and that was because in a lot of instances they had hoped to start doing some evaluation of their work in a public space. But none of them, ...physicists or scientists or engineers...understood the move within the research field towards evaluation as a means of judging the value of a piece of research rather than peer review. None of them really had any evaluation techniques, none of them really knew how to set up evaluation criteria for their research let alone how to then somehow extract that from the public. Some of them tried to do a little bit of it, but they were not used to it.
When Beta_space was conceived with Ernest Edmonds, I was initially uncertain. Basically I alerted Ernest to... what I know to be the problems. And he said, well let’s go through them one at a time and see how we can address them. And that’s what we did.
DT: Can you name them…?
1) The works that come in have to be far enough along in their development that they’re not broken…and don’t need constant supervision.
2) They have to be fairly simple, there can’t be a huge amount of instruction required for their operation [or] engagement with the program.
3) The people who bring them in, the researchers, need to recognize that the museum is not a research laboratory. They need to understand the culture …and the environment in which they were operating. So there was a need for them to know that we had to do a certain kind of presentation, and they had to understand that there were rules we needed to abide by, safety standards we needed to abide by…
DT: …but also operational standards…
MC:...yes and operational standards because we were doing a huge number of other projects…For instance, it was difficult for some people to realize that if something did break down, the museum workshop were not ready to put down their tools and run and fix an artist’s work up.
DT: So those were the issues that you [two] identified?
MC:…that was [some] of the issues, also
4) I knew and Ernest agreed, that the museum might need to bend as well, that internally how research is conducted and… [it’s] imperatives are not something that was recognized internally within the museum. So that was something that we had to establish; [each] organization had to show and demonstrate an understanding of the other. Internally we had to bend a bit to know that we were dealing with experimental works that might [require]…a bit of leeway. We couldn’t schedule things 6-12 months in advance, which is what people like to do in the museum. There needed to be flexibility in our ability to work, but we designed the space and the operation to work that way.
Also, the security demands normally placed on visitors needed to be relaxed in some way to accommodate the Beta_space people. This didn’t happen overnight. It had to be something we started [a] process on. [Initially] I had to field complaints and issues and smooth things out until people got used to you guys…
DT: And how long do you think that took…[did it happen] within the first 2 years?
MC:… I noticed early that security people…knew about the Beta_space people and all you had to do [to come into the museum] was say that you were with Beta_space…there was a level of accommodation that this was a program within the museum, it was maverick, in some respects it was a nuisance, [again largely because] the schedule wasn’t set a year in advance <laughs>…
DT: …well, we tried <laughs>, but it was ever-evolving. So you’ve already started answering the 3rd question which is how Beta_space started to change the culture in the museum, but what about how it might have changed the way you approach your own practice? In terms of how you’re talking about the objects and what’s inside them or what they inherently embody, how did Beta_space…interrupt what you were doing, present a new method or possibility, an answer to this problem you were already having? So that it changed your own practice…has this happened yet?
MC: Yes and no, it’s certainly happening and has happened. There’s 2 things [that have influenced my practice], there’s the influence of [programs like] Beta_space and there’s the influence of information technology.
DT: Right, on who?
MC: …In a way, I believe that the issues that I encountered as a new curator, because I was dealing directly with information technology, has spread from the boundaries of my curatorial jurisdiction into everybody’s field…these are issues that we face the world over, that … digital technologies are so pervasive, that the same things that are happening to me and my field are happening to everything; it’s just changed the way we understand museums.
It’s changed people’s literacy, its changed people’s expectations; we were once a museum that was renowned for it’s interactives, [based on] the Exploratorium model. But we didn’t just use them for science, we used them everywhere…as a major component in every exhibition there were interactive forms in there to help you to engage with whatever was being delivered through that exhibition. It tended to be touch-screen and button-based. A lot of them were quite didactic…and there is still a sort of residue of that…
DT: …so they still had the nature of the museum?
MC: Yes, but of course today we don’t need to go to a museum to press buttons. So the interaction, that sort of interactive is sort of, is almost quaint and dated…
DT: It could almost be in a museum.
MC: Yes, and some of our pieces are [indeed] almost museum pieces. So the nature of interaction has changed: 1) because it’s interacting with new technologies and new literacies; and 2) people don’t need to come here to do button-pressing.
Now, though, we’re interested in what interaction means in the context of a museum and where it sits in relation to the viewing of artefacts within showcases, which is an old form, some say it’s a dead form.
DT: I prefer to say it’s one form [of showcasing objects].
MC: Yes, but it’s a traditional form and one that had validity in certain cases. But we have the new audiences… that have different expectations, different literacies and they come tooled up with different devices as well. So the museum is interested in seeing how we can respond to expectations around interaction, around learning…
DT: so the museum culture has changed in response to their audience and what their audience is demanding. How has Beta_space … assisted with that?
MC: Well the question is: has the museum changed?
DT: Well, they’re trying to, but as you say, it’s slow.
MC: The museum sees the imperative to change. The museum is, as other commentators have said, like an ocean liner. As you know, ocean liners take a bit of time and space to turn around, or turn in.
DT: <laughs> that’s right…
MC: So when Dawn Casey got here, the new director, I think there were…plenty of internal discussions about where we were going and how we should respond and there were some contested areas in the museum about how we do our exhibitions, questions about how we collect and questions about curatorship generally. When Dawn came in, she was adamant that this needed to be discussed openly and with a broader community.
So we invited a number of stakeholders in from across the community, academics, government…
DT: and this was the Future Forums?
MC: Yes, people form various audience groups, and staff…came in to talk about what they thought were imperatives for the museum in light of all of these changes that not many people were refuting. The outcome of that discussion is that there was belief that the museum needed to recognize the change in our approach to interaction, that interaction needed to move away from button pressing…
MC: …and toward conversation and communication and activity.
DT: …and collaborative? Or singularly?
MC: Both are valid. There are people who, we’re happy to encourage, we’re happy for people to do things on their own and explore things on there own, but we know that some people come to the museum as a sort of social experience. We also know that people are very keen to not just receive ideas, but also to pro-offer their own thoughts and ideas; and that if new awarenesses take them or they disagree with things that are in the museum, they like the opportunity to stake a claim to their own ideas.
In many ways, as I look at it now, we’re now attempting to re-build the museum, if you like, as a place where we evoke the espoused ethos of social media. I say espoused because I’m not sure that social media…
DT: …is esteemed?
MC: …the thing [is], there’s more to social media then what it claims to offer. In some ways it delivers it, in some ways it doesn’t, and [in other ways it] delivers… things outside of what it offers; but nevertheless, what social media might offer a museum is an [openness], with an opportunity for an audience to say what they think…so that there’s less distinction between the real exhibitions and the virtual exhibitions, or what happens online and what happens on the floor here.
But we do want people to come here, we still have a floor, we still have a space, and we still have our artefacts in our collection, we have a great deal of engagement with our collection through our website and we would like to integrate that activity and allow it to extend to direct engagement with the artefacts, but also to engage in the activities that are involved with artefacts. We are a museum whose collection is sort of based around the idea of making things. We are a museum that says people are at their most human when they’re making things.
DT: That’s a marvelous way to look at things because if you [consider] design, technology, fashion and science it’s all creative.
MC: That’s right, so in the simplest ways, I think you could define us as being a museum along those lines…all museums are trying to say [this] to people…
DT: …[trying to say] we do this?
MC: …[Museums] are a place where people go to find out about how to be a human being, every museum …every art gallery has their own take on that. My own view comes from [the writings of] Neil Postman who is a Professor of Communication in the United States… it’s a compelling idea and one that I think is true. And when people come here and…look at the artefacts and objects we are, at a very, very simple level, [asking] what does it mean to be a human being? And as I said before, each museum has it’s own take on that, so…a Natural History museum tends to say we are at our most human when we tend to fit into the sort of cycle of life and taxonomy of living things, that we are essentially and expression of biology. And, I think an example that Postman uses is with a Holocaust Museum we are saying we are at our most human when we are devising ways of exterminating races or when we’re endeavoring to struggle against that.
DT: So preservation versus eradication?
MC: Yes, hmmm, but here; as a Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, our [old] moniker our older title, we’re really a museum that says we are at our most human when we’re making things.
DT: How does this relate to Beta_space do you think? [Because] Beta_space in some ways embodies what you’re trying to say, [but] in a microscopic way…
MC: The beautiful thing about Beta_space, to me, is that it is a place of experimentation. We’re a museum of design and this is a prototyping space; we’re a museum of science and this is an experimental space, it’s also a place where we invite our visitors to comment on what they see, and not everybody gets to comment at great length, but some visitors get the opportunity to say what they think and maybe in new rounds of Beta_space we’ll extend that capacity for comment.
But, [for now] it’s an experiment and our visitors get to participate in that experiment. I also think it’s a great way of re-contextualizing a museum visit because people have tended to come here with a view to pressing buttons. If their expectation of technology is that it should work flawlessly and not be difficult to use, but it’s worn out or it breaks down because it’s a fallible technological device…[we are] bringing the visitor into the experimental fold and saying “this is a prototype, we’re testing to see, to judge it’s quality and find its faults.” Then we’re hopefully creating a context in which the visitors’ expectations of perfection are lowered, but not in the sense that they become accustomed to things not working, but in a sense that its still a valuable experience, but it has a different approach to a different valuable experience. I have this hope that this change of expectations might even be a valuable lesson for their own lives.
DT: But not everybody’s going to come to the table with that approach.
MC: No, they’re not.
DT: …and in essence when something fails or something doesn’t work how somebody expected it to [and as a result they] then learn something new or something different, this might prove very challenging or frustrating for them; but that might be interesting to the researcher in terms of how they might change or grow their system. So can you think of a time or an example when this approach that we’ve just been talking about, was challenging for you or challenged you as a curator, in terms of your practice?...Because the way I was thinking about it…the heart of the matter is how Beta_space [might] provide an answer to some of the challenges that you’re facing….Can you think of a time when you were faced with one of these challenges and Beta_space assisted in providing an answer on a microscopic level? [A study] perhaps, that might assist] in terms of the museum [processes] as a whole?
MC: At a very basic level , Beta_space provided the answer to the conundrum, it was the problem for every previous research relationship; we had found out where the value lay within the museum for a research group. As long as [the researchers sought] data from [their exhibitions]…you have to have a process for getting it and it has to be valuable data. And Beta_space has had this evaluation program attached to [most] installations…a lot of it was extremely elaborate, and challenging…
DT: ....programmatic evaluation.
MC: That’s right, hence people’s PhD’s [associated with the space] were largely based on results that they got from Beta_space…It demonstrated that the proposed model for partnership, which had always been very problematic, was possible. That the potential for having a model of partnership that worked for all parties was possible. It certainly worked between the museum and UTS, and I would say for a large number of the works, it also worked for the general public. For some it didn’t, but our research results, some of them were very interesting. A lot of it was based around the fact that these were artworks and the artist’s expectation is that they were showing artworks to the general public in the same way you might do it in an art gallery, where the context for a visit to the museum at the moment isn’t the same as a visit to the art gallery.
DT: So there was that need to educate [the audience] that even though this was an artwork, we were looking at the systems, the processes, the machines, the interactivity, as well as the content.
MC: That’s right, but we were also looking at audience interaction. So when a visitor walks into the space, the phenomenology of their visit is that they’re walking from one thing to another to see what it is that’s going to grab their attention because there’s way too much to visit in a day here at the museum, so they’re tasting little bits. So what is it when they step into Beta_space? Is it a taste that they’re going to pause long enough to engage with the whole process? In a number of instances, the artists started the interaction slowly, almost imperceptibly;…[this was] a big mistake because if it wasn’t perceived quickly they would turn around and walk out again. If something didn’t happen right away our audience was inclined not to wait.
[Now] if they’d gone into an art gallery and they’d been set up to walk into an interactive environment, there was an imperative on them to work out what it was; but not here. With the exception of [the gaming works] it was very interesting [because] they had the signifier of gaming about them. [They] grabbed a particular audience, younger people in particular, who felt they knew what to do straight away and they were prepared to explore. But some things were too abstract for our [larger] audience.
DT: So they needed a recognizable attractor or … signifier to spend the time?
MC: I think at this point that in terms of understanding interaction, we need to let people know they’re interacting with something quickly because the works in Beta_space are competing with a lot of [louder] exhibitions.
DT: …You [also] recently went on a trip through North America and Europe to visit other museums to sort of “trade notes” as you said on things like collections management and exhibition processes. Now did any of these institutions stand out to you in terms of practice based research? Were any of them doing anything along the same lines?
MC: Well, they were doing things that had elements of what we had been attempting to do with Beta_space. I was [also] interested in the broader related processes which included having real science on display, [featuring] scientists, designers, and artists working in public spaces and artists interacting directly with the public, as well as the artists’ processes; so I was looking at a broader range of activities [as well]. Beta_space encompasses elements of all of those things. [There were] not many scientists on display, but there were certainly scientific practices, scientific knowledge and scientific ideas involved in the works.
I was interested in how they catered to…more informed visitors who have a direct connection to elevated levels of discussion. A bit like our Beta_space launches where the new media arts community come in and participate, listen to what the artist has to say, participate in an ongoing discussion, [and] possibly participate in an evaluation forum. So I was looking at those examples as well.
At the Science Museum in London and at the V&A [Victoria & Albert Museum] across Exhibition Road from the Science Museum; both places have approached activity-based programs in a slightly different way…In the Science museum they had the DANA centre where people would largely come along in the evening and participate…[but] in the V&A they had the Sackler Centre…a really great space where they ran workshops; curators did more in-depth studies of the work they were dealing with, and computer workshops. It was more workshop [oriented] and less show and tell, but they did have an artist-in-residence space and they had exhibitions of the artist-in-residence works and there were times when you could go and talk to the artists in residence and that was an interesting approach. The artist-in-residence program was supported through funding and the work that I saw looked interesting and the only [issue] from my perspective was that [this experimental space] was separate from the museum. The gallery was one thing and this centre was another.
DT: So the experimentation and learning took place separately from the galleries?
MC: Yes. They even acknowledged…that taking the programs out of the galleries was something that they were concerned about…and that they were looking at ways of taking the programs back into the galleries. But it did offer them a chance to do it [run programs] at night without opening up the whole museum, which they really liked.
When I went to the DANA centre, again [it] was separate from the museum. It was an alterative approach to discussing scientific issues and direct engagement with scientists but it was done outside of the museum. So it wasn’t changing the exhibition format in any way. Again they’ve had some successful programs and I’ve spoken to people who have participated and they say it’s a great program, with an opportunity to go much further than you often get to go in a museum based discussion. But, it was sitting around, talking.
Each [institution] had a centre that was separate. It was a great space, and a great program and very well conceived and very well built and they had really thought about the design well when they did it. And I think they have a successful program. I think they also benefit from just having thousands of people turn up to Exhibition Road every morning to get into the Science Museum and the V&A and the Natural History Museum because it’s London.
DT: So this is [quite] different [to Beta_space]. The next question is how is what you saw [different from] what we, what you and I, are trying to accomplish with Cyberworlds and Beta_space?
MC: I’m trying to enrich and enliven the galleries and look at an alternative form for a gallery space. We’re actually looking to make interaction a sort of primary mode of engagement in the space, rather than a support role playing second fiddle to the objects. …We’re still committed to our collection and to artefacts, and to material culture…but I would like to see more. We already have the Thinkspace here, which is like a classroom, an [educational] experience, and a workshop space that is separate from our galleries. I would rather see it brought to the middle of the galleries [and made] more public. There’s a public [following for it].
DT: Do you think that works? From what you’ve seen and what you saw on your trip, you seem determined to bring that mode of engagement with the pure data or the pure research, into the public space.
MC: Certainly in moving away…from a mode audience engagement which is…of observation and having information delivered to them through their perusal of showcases, towards one of them engaging in conversations and activities with the option of turning to a narrative-based displays which are also there.
DT: Do you want them to be user-generated?
MC: Certainly, I would like…aspects to be user generated.
DT: That’s fantastic.
MC: In London where I saw these situations…there was this connection made by scientists by separately devised spaces and programs…they were successful, there was certainly lots of people there, but I am interested in what the next phase is. So when I was at Linz at the Ars Electronica centre, it’s much more of a laboratory-type space in which there are real scientists at work, employed by the Future Lab, but there’s a museum program that takes place with scientists and artists doing their work…They can go off and do it in their labs and offices if they’re writing code, but if they want to use the rapid prototyping machines then they’re doing it in public and then they will explain what they’re doing if they’ve got the time to do it.
DT: Is it expected of them to do that as part of their research or is it just if [their work] carries them that way?
MC: I think its part of the deal, I’ll have to check next Thursday when I see Matthew Gardiner again, who was the Australian artist…
DT: He’s in my show, at the Australia Council…[genart_sys | a window on digital culture]
MC: Is he?
DT: Yes, he does this amazing robotic origami.
MC: Yes [they’re] beautiful…he was doing the robotic origami [there] and using the rapid prototyping machine to create all the little bones for his flowers and taking the opportunity to explain in his fairly new German to a lot of visitors, school kids, what he was doing with the rapid prototyping machine. They had learned the context in which it was displayed, which was in what direction rapid prototyping was taking us, while waiting for his items to be created, while waiting for his little flower bones to be created…but they also had a data visualization space, they had a big 3d visualization space…that wasn’t working [wasn’t running] that day; there was a bit of experimentation going on, but it wasn’t open to the public. There’s a bio-tech lab where people bring in plants, and they clone their plants, and then … come back and see them as they grown. They’ve got their original plant and then they’ve got a genetically identical plant that they’ve created themselves. Through that process they also discuss the fact that if it wasn’t a plant, they might have [also] brought in a few cells from their pet, or if they couldn’t catch a pet, they might take something from a little brother or sister…but then in fact…in principle they could bring in some of their own cells, and this was an intro[duction] to a broader discussion of cloning.
DT: Well and the ethics of that other person [they are creating]
DT: Amazing. So a really different kind of research, but still research that was open to the public.
MC: [In terms of Beta_space] the Ars Electronica centre was to me the closest to a living laboratory, and Ars Electronica is possibly the best known electronic arts festival in the world. They built this laboratory captialising on that particular brand or that particular event being associated with Linz. They were starting to build relationships, they were funded to do their own science but they were building closer relationships to the universities in the area; and they still have their electronic arts festival.
The director [mentioned] that when they were bringing school kids through they can’t expect the school kids to participate [with] and understand the higher level artworks that are brought in by artists from all over the world…so they work at a more fundamental level [with the kids], just with the science. And there are artworks in there; so they deal with robotics, biotechnology, rapid prototyping, and data visualization. And they’ve chosen those topics as most important for the next 5 years and then they’ll be choosing new ones.
MC: They have the one advantage that they’ve started from scratch, there’s not legacy [in place].
DT: Right, so it can develop as they go, because that’s kind of similar to Beta_space as well, it was conceived of by Lizzie, Ernest and you…
MC: But in terms of changing a museum [it’s more like] 100+ years of tradition within this museum and collections based museums all over the world…
DT: So then its different, so the concept of a living laboratory as introduced to a museum, this is how Beta_space stands out from the other exhibitions [that you visited in Europe].
MC: In a way, yes it does. So it’s an example…to change the museum overnight is to…
DT: sink the ocean liner?
MC: yes, [well] to turn the ocean liner on a dime. Whereas [with] the Beta_space…we need to actually prototype these activities and know that we can do them and establish from a small one how much resource we need and how feasible some of our ideas are. And it means that if we need to resource these activities through partnership, then we need to have an effective model for partnership. Again, that’s what the Beta_space has been used for.
DT: That’s been its greatest value to the museum?
DT: That sort of touches on the next question, how it stands out in terms of reaching its goals in terms of other international practice and sustaining our research queries in line with other places. So do you think we keep in line with our research practice at Beta_space? That being here’s a prototype, it’s robust enough, we’re going to evaluate it, we’re going to invite people to have a look, and then we’re going to produce a tangible outcome from that [based on evaluation], be it a published paper, a masters, a phd, a launch, a public talk…
MC: Oh I think we’ve been very consistent in that there has been quite a lot of people curating it, we’ve been very lucky with personnel; lucky with relationships between people. So it’s been based on real human relationships and there is plenty of opportunity for things like that to go pear-shaped, but it’s worked well, and it’s been remarkably consistent in that respect and it’s delivered what it’s proposed to deliver, and so for that reason it is a model for what we can do.
DT: But it’s been up and down, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing, has it? Because we were saying it’s almost more interesting when things don’t go exactly as planned…
MC: Well, we’ve learned things from those who have failed. We’ve tried to put things that are too complicated in, we’ve strained relationships by making things too complicated…
DT: …So you also went to Canada and America on your trip, and you went to the Toronto Science Centre where they have a specific interest in Beta_space. So the next question is what does Beta_space do well that makes it interesting to other institutions?
MC: One of the most ambitious projects that’s aiming in the same directions, and there’s a direct response to exactly that, engendered the need for the Future Forums here, was by the science centre in Toronto. So Kevin Von Appen is an Assoc. Director there who lead the project to do the Innovations Lab. So they are a traditional science centre, not an objects based institution, and there’s a significant difference. Nevertheless, he was not convinced that the standard array of science centre interactives, of which there’s a fairly grand suite of things, …were really engaging the public and they were really doing their job in relation to innovation. Most of them are demonstration exploration of basic scientific principle, and perhaps if you’re pulling yourself up with a pulley or you’re making waves in water, the basics are valuable and interesting, but it’s too far away from end product of innovation now to actually be encouraging innovative behavior, which is where they needed to get from their science centre; and certainly how they needed to respond to their stakeholders and people who were giving them money to exist within government policy.
So he was interested in creating a space where visitors might have the opportunity to display for themselves, if you like, innovative behavior. That was his goal. He wanted them to have an experience of creating something, and finding their own innovative capacities, ok? And so they did out a whole floor and … set it up with lots of different activities where…you could run workshops, and you could work in groups where you could do tasks that involved solving problems. There was a lot of problem solving in there. And he came and spoke to us about what he did, but while he was here, he also came and visited Ernest and came and visited Beta_space. And the reason that he was desperate to see Beta_space was that he had heard how much we were spending to run it and he wanted to know if our budget was true. He eye-balled me and said, “is this the real spend or are there hidden costs here. Are you paying staff to participate here that aren’t part of what you claim to be your budget?” and we were able to show, we were able to point to the starving curator… I think it was Lizzie at this point <laughs> to demonstrate. And the fact that the evaluation was done by students, supervised by students, and the fact that the curator was independent and a student, in fact, and that there weren’t artist fees. In fact, the time when I showed him, the artwork wasn’t working.
Beta_space was a modest arrangement which looked more so with a broken interactive installation in it and I was trying to compensate for what I thought were its obvious flaws; and he was dismissive of the need for it because he saw what it did straight away; and was particularly interested. And then [he] confessed to me that the Innovation Lab that he had built, while it was incredibly successful and had huge numbers, huge building numbers, and people really loved it, it was straining the institution because of the resource requirements; with a lot of tedious work that needed to be done in the evening to ensure it worked the next morning.
MC: So when I went to visit him they had actually closed some places because they just couldn’t….
DT: …sustain it?
MC: …they can’t sustain it, it’s unsustainable. So sustaining these spaces is an issue.
DT: It’s as important as presenting the ideas..?
MC: Yes. But there were a couple of amazing things that were in there [at the Toronto Science Centre]. They were starting to engage with artists as well and they were looking at a space because they did find that the experimental artists work was….
DT: …engaging for people? In terms….
MC: …[of] attracting people’s interest and people were interested in commenting and participating.
DT: In terms of design? And in terms of the work? And the materials?
MC: Yes, in terms of design and innovation…the works I saw were on screen, so they were still…there was an interest in the [Beta_space] model and how to frame the work, where to bring it in, how to provide context for it and how to resource its installation, its explanation and an ongoing program. And with that…
DT: We will conclude.