Museums Gone Viral: Chicago’s Talking Statues

Many museums struggle with maintaining a good balance of technology – enough to attract (and keep the attention of) younger crowds, but not so much that visitors who go to museums to “unplug” are unable to do so. The best solution is to give visitors options. They can sign up for the facebook and the instagram feeds; they can walk past the video touch screens. Our new series, Museums Gone Viral, brings you real ways that museums have used technology and the internet to reach a variety of visitor groups.

Chicago, well known for its plethora of outdoor art, has recently stepped up its art game. This summer, statues all over the city began to talk. People can find a statue, like that of Abraham Lincoln and Cloud Gate (the big bean), with a plaque next to it, and wave their phone over the text. They then receive a phone call “from” that statue (which shows up on the caller ID) to hear it talking to them. Anyone with access to a smartphone can engage with the usually taciturn statues. The audio covers everything from silly stories to serious monologues. The best part about the project, which will last about a year, is that it’s totally free – minus the need for a smart phone – and very community centered. The words of the statues were completely written by Chicagoans. Other local famous folks, such as producer Shonda Rhimes and actors Steve Carrell and David Schwimmer, lend their voices to the project.

The statues have been bringing together people who pass by and wonder what the big attraction is. As Colette Hiller, artistic director of the company that created the project, explains, “It’s different from an audio guide. It’s more personal; it takes you by surprise.” This is an interesting thought. The project has roughly the same format as a traditional audio guide – visitors come to an object they want to know more about, are instructed on how to access the audio, and use an electronic device to listen to information on that object. Despite that fact, the mere idea of the audio being more interesting and engaging is seen as being somehow above a regular audio guide. It brings to mind interesting audio guides completed by people like Allison Dufty, who writes fascinating audio guides for a wide variety of audiences and museums. I would be interested to hear what the talking statues project is considered, if not an audio guide.

If you are around Chicago, particularly as the holidays are coming up, head out to any number of places to get a call from the lions outside the Art Institute or the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. Let us know what you think! Is it worth the effort? Would you consider it an audio guide?

Keep your eyes open around Boston – it’s been reported that the same company who created the talking statues in Chicago are considering Boston as one of their next locations! I would love to hear the story that the ducklings in the Boston Public Garden have to tell.

Rapid Response Collecting: Not All Objects are Created Equal

Today we bring you an article by Erica Colwell, currently a Tufts student in the Museum Studies certificate program. For Museums Today: Mission and Function, the foundation course required for all Museum Studies students, students research and report on a recent topic regarding museums in the news.

In 2014, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London announced a new collecting strategy: rapid response collecting. This type of collecting involves a team of curators that “scour the streets—in a global sense—for items of interest and get them into the museum as quickly as possible.” The goal is to collect objects that are relevant to the present time, in hopes of creating an exhibition that will be updated regularly.

The curators on the rapid response team are putting a lot of thought into the objects they are bringing into the V&A’s collection. Collecting objects that represent current global culture is no easy task, in part because the scope of the collecting strategy is so broad. Some of the objects the V&A has collected via the rapid response method include the world’s first 3D-printed gun, an electronic cigarette, and Katy Perry false eyelashes.3 An eclectic array of objects, it is not immediately apparent why these items are being considered “museum worthy.” Kieran Long, the Senior Curator of Contemporary Architecture, Design and Digital at the V&A, offers the following argument for her decision to add the Katy Perry false eyelashes to the collection:

This apparently insignificant object unfolds a wide range of histories and worlds, involving several timely issues that link at a stroke the magic of Cleopatra, as played by Elizabeth Taylor in 1963, to what some would consider the darkest excesses of global consumer capitalism, encompassing theatre and performance, gender theory, images of the feminine…

While this is an impressive argument, such an argument could be made for virtually any object, because every object has a history. A curator could pick up a roll of paper towels and explain how our society has moved from the hand-made to the mass-produced, from the essential to the disposable. Not all objects are created equal.

Even though there may be no right or wrong answer to the question “what is art,” some of the objects collected via the rapid response method are more “museum-worthy” than the Katy Perry false eyelashes. The set of Christian Louboutin stilettos in different shades of nude representing the skin colors of women of different races is one such object. The shoes are art in the fashion sense (the shoes are beautiful) and the conversation-sparking sense (racial inequality is a hot-button issue for many in the world today.) The key is to have an argument that will convince visitors that viewing the object is worthwhile. In fact, getting people to talk about why one object is art and another object is not art is one of the best conversations a curator could hope to start amongst their museum’s visitors. The Louboutin set of stilettos is therefore an example of rapid response collecting done right.

While many might rejoice at a museum displaying objects that are truly current, some are wary of collecting objects in this way. I believe rapid response collecting could be a great thing, though it is possible to take it too far. Though museums cannot ignore the art and design being created today if they want to remain relevant, the arguments behind some of the objects being collected via the rapid response method are stronger than others. Since it is often the relevance of an object over time that indicates its value, collecting objects without that passage of time could mean that the choice of objects is based solely on the tastes of those curators doing the collecting.

Museums in the News

Welcome to Museums in the News. Through this column, I hope to help all of us be a little more informed and aware of the general “buzz” of the museum industry, as it is covered in mainstream news outlets. I’ll pull together a handful of stories each month, and then turn it over to you to provide comments, draw connections, and levy thoughtful critiques.
All the best,
Abigail Zhang
M.A. student, Museum Education


In Washington, the Corcoran laid to rest in peace

In Chicago, the Field Museum hosts “show and tell”

NPR tells the story of art forger Mark Landis

California National Guard closes military museum due to missing artifacts

Kudos to the staff of the Quebec Museum of Civilization

Museums in the News

Happy start to the second semester, all! This week’s featured story is an amazing new online resource for curators (and educators, and lay-folk) interested in both art and history. The V&A Museum will publish its Nazi index of Degenerate Art as a free online resource.

The V&A has the only copy of this list of some 20,000 works of art confiscated from German museums by the Nazi party between 1937 and 1938. It’s not only fascinating for those studying 20th century art or propaganda, it’s an important tool for resolving ongoing questions of provenance.

In other controversial news, the debate over MoMA’s plan to tear down the American Folk Art Museum building which has been described as both hideous and iconic continues. Hyperallergic offers a great summary of the ongoing conversation, for those looking to catch up!

Also this week: Continue reading