by Michela Sarzotti*
For the exhibition Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects, on view at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) from July 24 through November 7, 2011, Senior Curator Paola Antonelli and Curatorial Assistant Kate Carmody selected nearly 200 projects centered on interaction in an effort to explore how the need for engagement and interface in communication is overtaking form and function in contemporary design.
Talk to Me questioned how different technological innovations are transforming the way we live: objects communicate with us and in turn can help us communicate with others. The ‘file rouge’ of this dialogue was delineated across six thematic sections: objects, bodies, life, city, worlds, double entendre. Works were grouped in each category according to the identity of the speaker in a given situation: a machine, a person, a social network, etc. Through that classification, visitors came into contact with works that ranged from an actual subway ticket machine used by millions of people every day, to inspired guerilla projects like the prosthesis for smiles designed to help anyone who feels socially awkward; from a device which updates cloistered nuns on current issues to pray for, to a version of the Rubik’s Cube inscribed with Braille symbols intended for the visually impaired.
There were works centered on utility and information-sharing, which involve direct interaction such as interfaces, information systems, video games, and communication devices. But there were also projects that establish an emotional, sensual, or intellectual connection with their users, like Tweenbot, the tiny robot whose movements depend on the kindness of strangers. Finally, some pieces may have been more commonly understood as fine art, like the Menstruation Machine and Crowbot Jenny by Sputniko!, an engineer, designer and pop singer, or the Analog Digital Clock by Maarten Baas, already part of MoMA’s collection.
Concepts, prototypes, and real, industrially produced objects: what do all those works have in common? According to Antonelli, each of them provides an original response to the phenomenon of pancommunication, that is to say “everything and everybody conveying content and meaning in all possible combinations, from one-on-one to everything-on-everybody. [The exhibition] thrives on this important late-twentieth-century development in the culture of design, which can be described as a shift from the centrality of function to that of meaning, and on the twenty-first-century focus on the need to communicate in order to exist.”
The idea of ‘interactivity’ has been associated with digital media since as early as the 1960’s, when Theodor Nelson defined it as one of the hypertext’s fundamental features. In order to stress this concept, everything in the exhibition design of Talk To Me made clear reference to the digital world: from the use of a pixel font for labels and wall graphics, to the architectural elements which comprised of an explosion of the graphic theme in the three-dimensional space of the museum galleries.
As the main theme of the exhibition emphasized, interaction is something that this generation has come to expect in all aspects of life. Accordingly, the layout strongly encouraged the audience to interact with the exhibit. A few labels scattered around the show reminded visitors that “digital technology can enhance your experience of the exhibition” and invited them to deepen their engagement with the projects by using QR technology and sharing their opinions on Twitter. New York Times’ art critic Karen Rosenberg remarked: “[Talk to Me] “is one of the smartest design shows in years – by which I mean that it’s intelligent but also that it’s made for the texting, tweeting, social-networking, app-downloading, smartphone-wielding museumgoer.” In fact, the curators added Quick Response tags to the labels of exhibits inside the show: swiping each tag with a QR-reading application on a smart phone or computer, you reached a special section of Talk to Me’s web site, where you could find additional information about the selected project, as well as related multimedia files. This simple action led you from merely staring at exhibit pieces and reading insufficient captions, to exploring videos about the origins of those pieces and finding out how the many parts of the exhibition were interconnected.
Introducing QR tags, the curators of Talk to Me responded to criticism expressed by Christina Cogdell, curator of MoMA’s recent Design and the Elastic Mind,who considered traditional didactic labels insufficient for adequate comprehension of such complex exhibits. As museum audiences have grown wider and more variegated during the last few decades, hyperlinks meet the needs of a public equipped with more expertise or curiosity. That is to say, they guarantee a customized access to knowledge, without interfering with the exhibition design by an overwhelming presence of data. As innovative and useful as it may have been, interaction provided by QR technology still belongs to the consolidated category of human-computer relations. The qualitative leap took place when people posted the links from the QR codes to their Facebook pages and embedded them in emails to friends, or when they used the hashtags written on each label to tweet their comments about the objects on display. Personal opinions contributed to create a dialogue among followers all around the world, and the stream appeared on the exhibition web site too, increasing informational content. Despite the use of the same communication technology, this time, in both cases, the interaction between human and computer was merely functional to another interaction, between human and human. Therefore, we can argue that the introduction of social media in the exhibition design broadened interaction to a new level in which visitors interact not only with the exhibit but with each other.
During the last few years people have spent an increasing amount of time with social networking, engaging an incredible amount of information. There are reasons to believe that our plastic brain is adapting to the features of this new virtual environment. People expect to interact in the real world according to the same rules, and this is particularly true for museum exhibitions that are informational environments par excellence. Since museums have evolved from institutions devoted primarily to educational and cultural presentations into public spaces where visitors and their needs reign, the introduction of social media into museum communication was second nature. In 2006, Professor Russo and her team of researchers stated that museums worldwide were starting to use social media with innovative repercussions in relations among museums themselves, their cultural content, and their visitors.
Incorporation of aspects of the modern media within exhibition design in order to meet visitors’ tastes is not new. As early as 1991, George F. MacDonald and Stephen Alsford stated that “It is necessary to attract people whose recreational taste has been conditioned by television and movies ”, the primary media at that time. Nonetheless, the scenario brought up by social media is revolutionary in that it addresses not only how content is conveyed but how it is produced. The goal of the users is no longer entertainment but the creation of knowledge that is accessible and meaningful to them and their peers. Instead of engagement, the new “open sesame” to visitors’ satisfaction is participation. A user-centered approach is needed in order to properly design a two-way communication that supports actions taken by communities.
Talk to Me fully embraced this policy, not only allowing but strongly encouraging visitors to participate in the process of generating knowledge. Indeed, the audience is not only invited but expected to produce content while visiting the exhibition, catalyzing a cycle of sharing that potentially never ends. Acknowledging that museumgoers contribute to the generation of content implies their participation in the curatorial process. Apparently, influencing the expectations of museum visitors, social media have also started the modification of the curatorial practice.
Social Media and Curatorial Practice
According to Professor Russo, the use of social media in museum communication represents a shift in how museums “act as trusted cultural on-line networks; distribute community knowledge; and view their role as custodians of cultural content.” In 2009, however, she noted that such initiatives had not managed to initiate a change in the rules of a traditionally closed curatorial world. In the same period, several major museums around the world started an interesting experiment in which they offered their on-line communities the possibility of curating personal virtual exhibitions comprised of artworks chosen from the museums’ permanent collections. Individuals could create their own selection on the museum website and eventually share it with friends or other followers. The idea was to give museumgoers a hint of the curatorial experience while turning them into participants in a new cultural experiment. Although interesting, the activity still remained a mere exercise in style because the virtual exhibit had no significant impact on the museum’s activities outside of the individual’s amusement.
The experiment undertaken with Talk to Me belonged to another level of engagement altogether: individuals were invited to add content to a real exhibition in an open and reciprocal collaboration with museum professionals, resulting in actual audience participation in the curatorial process. In fact, the engagement of the public started before the exhibition even opened its doors. Unusual for a museum show, the curators were entirely open about the process of researching and planning the exhibits, placing all the projects that were being considered for entry on a blog as early as the winter of 2010. The design community was invited to submit suggestions and opinions regarding the projects to be included in the future exhibition, providing in exchange a virtual backstage tour through the web site itself. Inverting a long-standing trend, Ms. Antonelli and Ms. Carmody conveyed their interest in involving the general public in the curatorial process through a declaration of intent, stating that: “People are very curious to know how a show happens – and we, the curatorial team, are thirsty for feedback and suggestions. This website will keep us organized, connected (with you), and honest. After all, communication is what this show is about.”
In the end, about 20 percent of the objects in the show came from submissions to the web site. The blog is still live, as is the official exhibition website, a hub for the exhibition that features details of the 194 projects that made the final cut and that is constantly updated by the stream of tweets which continues independently even after the end of the exhibit. The blog has been a powerful instrument for the community to participate in the early stages of the show before its real opening. However, Twitter and other social media have extended the production of content to the other phases of the exhibition, namely during and after. Social networking enabled a significant shift in the way people approach museum exhibits: what was a uniquely passive cultural consumption has evolved into cultural production. According to this scenario, the Internet is no longer only a preview of reality, but also and above all an amplification of it.
In her review, Karen Rosenberg asked if the virtual life of an exhibition might supersede the real one, and hypothesizing that beyond the façade of Talk to Me, there were some questions about how museums talk to us. Quite obviously, the answer is yes. Yet, the reason must not be searched for in the use of new communication technologies. What has been changing is the process of communication itself. Museums are no longer talking to a general audience according to a traditional one-way communication scheme; nowadays, they are part of a dialogue that includes museumgoers as individuals. It seems that the traditional museum autocracy has had to accommodate the new model of democracy fostered by social media. As John Maeda pointed out, “We’re living with the people’s choice 24/7”, so, in his opinion, the right path is to “leverage the power of the people”. The role of the curator is not diminished but has simply shifted from being the one and only speaker to being the moderator of a panel, comprised of members of on-line communities. As well as a good moderator, the curator has to start the discussion, provide the direction, engage it. Indeed, his or her role is even more important now than before because it has to manage the overwhelming stream of information coming from the Internet. Social networking widened the horizon of curatorial expertise from curating objects to curating information.
Some reviews of Talk to Me pointed out that not many people seemed to be holding their smart-phones up as they walked around the show. Someone noticed, with ill-concealed sarcasm, that perhaps just using own eyes and ears is still the best way to experience a museum exhibition. In fact, despite the invitation to do so, not many visitors tweeted comments, corresponding to statistics that while a large number of users may view social media sites, only a small percentage participates in a creative way. Nielsen’s research demonstrated the existence of a ‘90:9:1’ rule for new social media: 90% of users are lurkers (they read but they do not contribute); 9% of users contribute from time to time; 1% of users is responsible for most contributions and represents the creative part of on-line communities.
Given that the curator is the principal creative contributor, it is fair to ask oneself if it is worth making such an effort to enhance participation, when apparently the percentage of people willing to be involved is so low. To answer this question, it must first be stressed that the exhibition was a blockbuster; therefore, even a small percentage of participants represents a success. Second, interactivity and social media offered visitors a chance to deepen their understanding of the works, while not obliging them to. Because of the necessity to meet the needs of a wider and more varied public, guaranteeing different levels in accessing knowledge is undoubtedly one of the goals of contemporary museums. Moreover, in admitting that one’s own eyes and ears are enough to appreciate Talk to Me, people may have continued their visit lurking on-line, considering the real exhibition as only the beginning of a path of learning.
Among the non-enthusiasts of technology in museums there is another concern: how risky it can be to open the curatorial process to the public in terms of reliability of information. In other words, to what extent can the curatorial practice involve participant input without compromising museum authorship? As Talk to Me demonstrated, the risk does not exist when the curator oversees the whole design process. The truth is that there is really no choice. David Dean explains: “Museums have had to adapt to this consumer-oriented world to compete with other, so-called ‘leisure-time’ activities. Whether one agrees that leisure is a correct classification for former ‘temples of learning’ is a matter of opinion. Regardless of one’s viewpoint, museums do exist as optional elements in the majority of the population’s daily lifestyles”. 21st-century culture is centered on interaction: “I communicate, therefore I am is the defining affirmation of contemporary existence.” People expect to be involved in this process of communication, and social media are the means to do so. Hence, the answer to the opening question is that curatorial process can be influenced by the public to the extent that the museum (and specifically the curator in its stead) is able to keep the control over the streaming of information, so that museum’s authorship will not brought into question.
In conclusion, getting accustom to social media as a kind of interaction has modified how people engage in communication, forcing the traditionally closed curatorial process to consider opening to their expectations. As Talk to Me has widely demonstrated, it does not mean diminishing the importance of the role of the curator as a professional. On the contrary, their role is even more important now because, in addition to creating content and designing exhibits, their tasks have expanded to the supervision and management the stream of information that originates from the on-line communities, in order to maintain intact a museum’s reputation as a reliable and authoritative source of information.
Antonelli, Paola. Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2011.
Greenfield, Susan. “Screen culture may be changing our brains”, Australian Broadcasting Corporation The 7:30 Report, March 19, 2009.
Hsiang-Yi Liu, Alison . “Using online communities to attract museum visitors.” International Journal of Education through Art 4, no. 3 (2008): 259-274, doi: 10.1386/eta.4.3.259/1.
MacDonald, George F., and Stephen Alsford. “The Museum as Information Utility.” Museum Management and Curatorship 10, no. 3 (1991): 305-311, doi: 10.1080/09647779109515282.
Rawsthorn, Alice. MoMA Exhibit Shows How Technology Is Getting the Point Across.” The New York Times, July 17, 2011, Section C, 25. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/18/arts/moma-exhibit-shows-how-technology-is-getting-the-point-across.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=%22MoMA%20Exhibit%20Shows%20How%20Technology%20Is%20Getting%20the%20Point%20Across%22&st=cse
Rosenberg, Karen. “Art That Interacts if You Interface.” The New York Times, July 28, 2011, Section C, 22. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/29/arts/design/momas-talk-to-me-focuses-on-interface-review.html?_r=1&_r%E2%80%A6%204/4.
Russo, Angelina, Jerry Watkins, Linda Kelly, and Sebastian Chan. “How will social media affect museum communication?” in [Proceedings] Nordic Digital Excellence in Museums (NODEM), Oslo, Norway, 07-09 December 2006. Oslo: Department of Media and Communication – University of Oslo, 2006. http://eprints.qut.edu.au/6067/1/6067_1.pdf.
Russo, Angelina, and Darren Peacock, “Great expectations: sustaining participation in social media spaces”, in Museums and the Web 2009, the international conference for culture and heritage on-line: proceedings of an international conference, Indianapolis, Indiana, United States, 15-18 April 2009, edited by Jennifer Trant, and David Bearman, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, 2009. http://www.archimuse.com/mw2009/papers/russo/russo.html.
Russo, Angelina, Jerry Watkins, and Susan Groundwater-Smith. “The impact of social media on informal learning in museums.” Educational Media International 46, no. 2 (2009): 153-166, doi: 10.1080/09523980902933532.
Staniszewski, Mary Anne. Power of Display: A History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art. Cambridge MASS: MIT Press, 1998.
 Paola Antonelli, Introductory Essay, http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2011/talktome/essay/
 Karen Rosenberg, “Art That Interacts if You Interface,” New York Times, July 28, 2011, Section C, 22. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/29/arts/design/momas-talk-to-me-focuses-on-interface-review.html?_r=1&_r%E2%80%A6%204/4
 Christina Cogdell, “Design and the Elastic Mind. Museum of Modern Art (Spring 2008),” Design Issue 25, no. 3 (summer 2009): 92.
 Susan Greenfield, “Screen culture may be changing our brains,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation The 7:30 Report, March 19, 2009.
 Alison Hsiang-Yi Liu, “Using online communities to attract museum visitors,” International Journal of Education through Art 4, no. 3 (2008): 259-260, doi: 10.1386/eta.4.3.259/1.
 Among artiche and publications about the topic see, for example: David K. Dean, Museum Exhibition, (London: Routledge, 1994); Irina van Aalst, and Inez Boogaarts, “From Museum to Mass Entertainment: The evolution of the role of Museums in Cities,” European Urban and Regional Studies 9, no. 3 (2002): 195-198, doi: 10.1177/096977640200900301.
 Angelina Russo, Jerry Watkins, Linda Kelly, and Sebastian Chan, “How will social media affect museum communication?” in [Proceedings] Nordic Digital Excellence in Museums (NODEM), Oslo, Norway, 07-09 December 2006 (Oslo: Department of Media and Communication – University of Oslo, 2006), http://eprints.qut.edu.au/6067/1/6067_1.pdf.
 George F. MacDonald, and Stephen Alsford, “The Museum as Information Utility,” Museum Management and Curatorship 10, no. 3 (1991): 308, doi: 10.1080/09647779109515282.
 Angelina Russo, and Darren Peacock, “Great expectations: sustaining participation in social media spaces”, in Museums and the Web 2009, the international conference for culture and heritage on-line: proceedings of an international conference, Indianapolis, Indiana, United States, 15-18 April 2009, eds. Jennifer Trant, and David Bearman (Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, 2009), http://www.archimuse.com/mw2009/papers/russo/russo.html.
 Russo et al., “How will social media affect museum communication?”, p 1.
 Angelina Russo, Jerry Watkins, and Susan Groundwater-Smith, “The impact of social media on informal learning in museums”, Educational Media International, Vol. 46 no. 2 (2009): 159, doi: 10.1080/09523980902933532.
 Paul F. Marty, “My Lost Museum: User Expectations and Motivations for Creating Personal Digital Collections on Museum Websites”, Library & Information Science Research, Vol. 33 (2011), 211-213, doi:10.1016/j.lisr.2010.11.00.
 Quoted in Linda Hales, “A Curate-Your-Own Museum Web Site”, The Washington Post, March 11, 2006, http://ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/409995768?accountid=10226
 Paul Needham, “MoMA’s’ ‘Talk to Me” Talks to Us All”, Culture, July 28, 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/28/moma-talk-to-me_n_911841.html
 Jakob Nielsen, Alertbox Participation Inequality: Encouraging More Users to Contribute, October 9, 2006, http://www.useit.com/alertbox/participation_inequality.html.
 David K. Dean, Museum Exhibition (London: Routledge, 1994), 1.
 Written on the introductory wall label (Talk to Me).
*Michela Sarzotti is a Ph.D. Student at Dipartimento IDEAS Industrial Design Ambiente Storia, Seconda Università degli Studi di Napoli, Italy.