AQ event report: Re-thinking Museums

What kind of experiences should museums strive for in an era of user participation?

This and other questions were discussed last week, at a semi-internal AQ event on the future of museums. It was a simple evening at our office with friends, organized with little fuss - invite a guest, arrange for a few presentations, order some good food, and pull some chairs around the table.

AQ and Tokyo Art Beat had been working together on the new Tokyo Art Beat iPhone app MuPon for a few months, and we thought we’d pass the time waiting for App store approval with some deep thinking that was lighter than a meeting, more focused than lunch. As it so happens, MuPon was approved and released on the day of the event, so we started off celebrating with good champagne!

Our guest for the night was museum researcher Tomoki Hirano. He writes about museum studies on his personal blog [ja]. Hirano-san introduced his research topic “Visitor Studies: How Visitors Experience Museums” and ran us through his list of 8 Things You Shouldn’t Do in a Museum. He is currently interested in art appreciation through dialogue, which he demonstrated via a photograph by Shoji Ueda.

His presentation was followed by a discussion of:

  • Activity based museums seem more promising than passively looking at displayed art and reading plaques. But, if art appreciation through dialogue requires a museum facilitator, isn’t that simply another form of controlled experience (curation) by museums?
  • How can art appreciation be more organic, dynamic, and cross institutional?
  • What kind of role can an external entity like Tokyo Art Beat play?

Eiko, our appointed food coordinator for this event, arranged for our dinner under the grand theme of “A Thousand Years of Sushi”. Boxes of sushi from all over the country had been shipped to our office throughout the week. We sampled four different types of sushi, ranging from the fermented funazushi from the Nara Period in the 6th century, to the familiar oshizushi from the Edo Period in the 17th, which was actually the first time that vinegar was introduced to the dish.


Chikako Soda, who’s been interning with Tokyo Art Beat for the past couple of months, gave a brief introduction to MuPon. She also shared insight about “museums and IT” from attending a series of Museum Career Development Network events.

We discussed the different reactions from museums when approaching them with the idea of MuPon, and how we can use MuPon as an on-ramp to deeper conversations with museums.

Last but not least, Paul and Tomomi introduced takeaways from Nina Simon’s wonderful book, “Participatory Museums”. As recent fans of her blog, we’ve been finding her work to be very relevant to designing web services, as we’ve expanded to include mobile environments and interaction with offline experiences in the past year.

We discussed how museums can no longer be thought of simply as physical destinations to which we gather people, just as the influence of online brands is no longer contained by their official websites. If we are to use online brands as case studies for museums, what is the equivalent of the increasingly ubiquitous Facebook “like” button, and which side of that interaction does the museum belong? Is a museum a collection of content or an environment for social interactions around culture?

All in all, a great night chewing on a topic that is near and dear to our hearts. These casual, non-event events seem like a great way to share passions that normally take a back seat to the work of the day, simply because they don’t fit within a project.

Thanks to everyone that joined us!

December 6, 2010