Author Archives: Marilyn Russell, Curator of Education

Wrapping up Oh Snap!


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Oh Snap! combined 13 new photographs from our collection with nearly 1,500 photo submissions from the public.

Wrap Party, Lytro Workshop, and more—Saturday, May 4
First things first—submissions for Oh Snap! Your Take on our Photographs are now closed, but we are excited to celebrate the thoughtful and creative collaboration of the hundreds of participants in the project. Don’t miss the three closing events for Oh Snap!, with a special focus on new photographic technology. A Lytro workshop gives you the chance to try out a whole new kind of camera in our galleries. A public talk with industry insiders from Lytro and GigaPan examines how these new technologies will change the way we take pictures in the future. And at the wrap party you can see all the photos in the exhibition, share your views on our feedback wall, and get your own copy of the  poster showing details from the works sent in by you (below). We hope to see you all there! The exhibition will still be on view in the Forum Gallery through May 12, but as the end of the project nears, it’s a good time to think back on how it all came together.

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The limited-edition Oh Snap! poster (36.75 x 24 inches). ORDER

Process
“If you’re not innovating you’re stagnating” asserted Jeff DeGraf, founder and guru at the Innovatrium, a consulting firm/think tank in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Jeff was speaking to small teams of staff members from six American art museums, including Carnegie Museum of Art and the Warhol that had signed on for an 8-month project to explore what’s working and what’s not in art museums with the goal of injecting a spirit of innovation and experimentation into our organizations. Practically speaking, we all had our sights set on devising new ways of staying relevant to our communities, especially to our younger visitors. Oh Snap! is the most recent manifestation of the ongoing soul-searching and fresh thinking inspired by our Innovatrium experience. We’re feeling pretty good about how the project has turned out.

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The Oh Snap! cross-departmental team brainstorming names for the project—sometimes you just have to get up on a table to get it done.

While Oh Snap! presents 13 works of art—all recently added to the museum’s photography collection—framed and hung on the walls of the museum’s Forum Gallery, the relationship to a traditional exhibition pretty much ends there. We’re calling it a “collaborative photography project,” and collaborative it is. The 13 photographs from the museum’s collection were selected by a cross-departmental team with the explicit goal of motivating the public to send to us photographs that are somehow inspired by one of the museum’s works. As new photographs came in from the public, we printed and hung them in the gallery next to the related museum work. Visitors could view the museum’s Oh Snap! selections either in the gallery or on the project’s website.

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Working on the gallery model to figure out the best way to accommodate submissions from the public.

Opening a gallery that was purposefully “unfinished” was an entirely new experience for us and signaled a new relationship we’re interested in pursuing with our audience, one in which our expertise comes together with the public’s curiosity and imagination to leave all of us a bit richer for the experience. We’re also recognizing that visitors increasingly are not limited to only those who come through our physical doors. As our physical gallery walls have changed over the past two months, our digital “gallery” has grown and changed as well. Photographs were only accepted through the website, making the web a crucial element in the project. When a submission made its way onto the wall, the sender received an email with a free pass to come see it. Submissions have been sent from locations remarkably distant from Pittsburgh, including Peru, Taiwan, France, Germany, and Finland. The project is helping us explore how Carnegie Museum of Art might build relationships through our collection and the ideas it inspires to individuals who might never have the opportunity to be our physical visitors.

Read Jeffrey Inscho’s Oh Snap! overview on Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 blog.

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Education staff reviewed all submissions as they came in, printing and posting them directly in the gallery.

Response
Two months ago we had a nearly empty gallery and have watched Oh Snap! take shape a little bit each day—growing and transforming thanks to public participation. So the first question of the project—would anyone find it compelling enough to send us their photographs—has been answered with nearly 1,500 submissions. But beyond seeing a full gallery, we are even more rewarded by what’s happening in the gallery and what participants are saying (quotes from the gallery comment book):

  • “Being able to contribute to an exhibition was thrilling. I hope the Carnegie will do many more things like this! Overall, I think the project is Brilliant!”
  • “I think it’s a great way to get the community engaged in what it means to make a photograph art.”
  • “I love seeing the public’s perspective on these photographs.”
  • “Brings art into our lives and our lives into art.”
  • “I could spend all day here but I won’t ‘cause I’m going home to look for something I can submit.”

Ok, it’s pretty hard not to feel elated about comments like that! Many similar messages in the gallery comment book make it clear how appealing it is to be part of the experience. But more than just rallying the crowd, Oh Snap! has also motivated real looking, thinking, and responding to art. The project doesn’t ask for any photograph you want to send us, it invites the public to collaborate with us in interpreting—finding meaning—in specific works in our collection.

It seems that by literally “leaving room” on the gallery walls for the public’s photographs, visitors took up the challenge of seeing the museum’s works as catalysts provoking reflective thinking, inspiring comparison, and motivating action. In Oh Snap!, we actively welcomed those responses, sharing them with other visitors, and acknowledging that a museum experience is not one-directional. The project has produced a real and dynamic partnership between museum and public. That partnership inspires further impact as new visitors—whether contributors or not—linger in the gallery every day comparing museum photographs and public photographs, chatting actively with friends, speculating about connections, and marveling at the range of interpretations a single work of art might inspire.

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Charlee Brodsky, Last Smokestacks at the Homestead Works, c. 1995, gelatin silver print, Gift of the artist, 2009.29.4 © 1995 Charlee Brodsky. By permission

Charlee Brodsky’s image, Last Smokestacks at the Homestead Works is one of the photographs from the museum’s collection selected for Oh Snap!; it is now surrounded by over 170 public photographs (examples below). Several of them capitalize on the image’s powerful composition—a broad flat plane of dirt punctuated by a single vertical element directly in the center of the scene. Many of these submitted photographs achieve a similar sense of order, calm, and solitude through similar arrangements of horizontals, verticals, and measured proportion. But others take a different approach. One submitted photograph offers no visual similarities to the museum’s work but instead shows the facade of Pittsburgh’s United Steelworkers Building, perhaps calling to mind the thousands of workers who once brought life to the site, the former Homestead Steel Works plant. I hear lots of gallery visitors wondering aloud about a photograph of a limp and lifeless bird and another of a dead fish stuck in an expanse of wet sand both of which, when placed near Charlee’s quiet image, take on a sense of poignancy. Then there is the picture of the glowing ball poised in the center of a well-mowed back yard. What might that one be about? These leaps in thought and imagination show just how much room for interpretation the project allowed. Thankfully, art endures because it keeps speaking to people about its own context but also in new and personally meaningful ways.

Some Stats

Age breakdown of the nearly 600 contributors:

  • Not indicated: 7%
  • 18–24: 21%
  • 25–34: 20%
  • 35–54: 29%
  • 55–64: 14%
  • 65 and over: 8%

How contributors heard about the project:

  • From a friend: 38%
  • At the museum: 33%
  • Online: 27%
  • Print media: 2%

Art of the Post-It


P1090108Visitors getting creative at the Natural History activity station

BACKGROUND

Carnegie Museum of Art shares its historic building with Carnegie Museum of Natural History. While these are two entirely distinct museums with separate staffs, boards, and programs, for many Pittsburghers the sprawling building we occupy is simply “The Museum” where one can see paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, prints, drawings, and contemporary art installations, as well as mummies, bugs, butterflies, dinosaurs, and dioramas representing diverse aspects of the natural world (all for one price of admission!).

The Forum Gallery is an art museum space located just off the entrance lobby shared by the two museums. Typically this gallery is dedicated to small, changing exhibitions of contemporary art. Most recently, our curator of contemporary art Dan Byers installed an exhibition in this gallery of art from our permanent collection on the theme of nature that he titled Natural History, making a purposeful play on our sister institution’s name. We took this opportunity to push our interest in participatory engagement and to collaborate with our colleagues in the Museum of Natural History to address the important topic of art and science as two ways of exploring the world.

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CHALLENGE

Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky challenged us to find a way to overcome a major practical problem with the Forum Gallery space: how to get visitors to enter a gallery that is often obscured by a large wall that blocks the light from the large lobby windows nearby. We also wanted to:

  • Inspire visitors to engage in active looking: notice, reflect, react, and respond to the works of art and to the interdisciplinary quality of the exhibition.
  • Reassert the “forum” aspect of the Forum Gallery by motivating visitors to share their own ideas and interpretations of the artwork with other visitors in physical and virtual formats. This coincides with the identification of 20- and 30-year-olds as an audience targeted for growth in attendance.

What could we put in the lobby just outside the gallery to:

  • Capture the attention of visitors and alert them to the exhibition behind the wall?
  • Offer something fun and appealing to do that required entering the exhibition?
  • Inspire visitors to look, think, and respond actively to the works on view?

SOLUTION: POST-IT NOTES? YES.

We wondered how to bring their reactions of the artworks from the gallery to the activity space in the lobby, and offer visitors some control over their interactions with the artworks. We decided to select 12 individual works of art from the exhibition, reproduce them as 2.5 x 2.5-inch post-it notes, and attach a stack of the small reproductions on the wall next to each related original work. (Who doesn’t like a mini version of something?)

postitsPost-it note reproductions of works by: Mel Bochner, Paul Thek, Katy Grannan, Beatriz Milhazes, Ed Ruscha, Valeska Soares, Fischli & Weiss, Laura Owens, James Welling, Carsten Höller, John Divola, and Florian Maier-Aichen

The post-its would be used as the source material for visitors’ creative responses, allowing them to get their hands on the images—manipulating and modifying the works into something new. The activity was facilitated by the activity station set up in the lobby just outside the gallery. There, visitors encountered a large table with a long horizontal display board featuring a call to action at the top:

coolkids_webA friendly museum educator stood near the table to greet curious visitors; offer them one of five prompt sheets, a clip board, and colored pencils; and invite them into the gallery to begin their exploration. In the gallery, visitors enjoyed the art and selected one or more post-it reproductions and “curated” their arrangement on their prompt sheets adding captions, drawings, narrative…whatever the works of art inspired.

We tested five versions of the prompt sheets—some with instructions focused to the subject of the exhibition (artists’ takes on nature), others with more open-ended instructions designed to encourage a broader range of responses. Below are some examples of the various prompt sheets and the kinds of responses we received. (You can also see more examples on our Facebook page.)

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We posted completed prompt sheets on the display board with magnets and eventually provided stars and thumbs-up magnets for visitors who preferred responding to the work of other visitors to doing one themselves. We continually posted new completed sheets on our Facebook page and encouraged visitors to post them on their personal social media pages. In addition to the display board of recently completed sheets, we collected older sheets in two large binders for visitors to flip through, and placed one in the gallery and another at the table.

Our colleagues in the Museum of Natural History were eager collaborators. Together we identified locations in their galleries that resonated with the 12 focus works in the Forum exhibition. The scientific staff wrote and installed label texts in their galleries about the works of art from their perspectives. We provided a guide to these locations for visitors at the activity table.

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Curator Dan Byers speaking at the Culture Club event for the exhibition

The exhibition was also the focus of one of our monthly Culture Club programs. After a short happy hour, Natural History museum staff joined artists and scientists from the community in lively gallery conversation about art and science with our curator and the public, and some completed activity sheets that were available at the station.

VISITOR TESTIMONIALS

Over the weeks of the exhibition, visitors jotted down comments in a notebook at the activity table. Here are some samples:

“Awesome idea, super interactive—engaging!”

“It is great to feel more of a part of the museum!”

“All the artworks should have stickies.”

“This was transformational! Thank you so much! I hope more museums do things like this. How wonderful to be able to respond to art, to peruse and then participate instead of just keeping it all inside!!”—An English teacher

“It is a very great way for kids to connect art & nature…however it was a bit difficult for a 6-year-old to understand. (She did it anyway.) How about break it down for younger children?”

“What a wonderful resource for classes.”—A University of Pittsburgh professor

“People who did the responses are older than I expected.”—A college student

“I really like the post-its. I’m surprised I haven’t seen something like this in other museums.”

“I like that the art response of an 8 y.o. and the response of a 38 y.o. are so similar.”
—A college student

“We loved the post-it sticker idea, that way we can still share the artwork at home.”
—A mom & 2 small kids

“Great exhibit….post-it notes are great for children to participate and remember.”

LEARNING

  1. The post-it activity achieved our goals of getting visitors past the wall and into the gallery in huge numbers.
  2. Visitors really looked at and responded to the art. The completed sheets reveal incredible thoughtfulness, humor, and creative invention from visitors of all ages. We had very few “throw away” results.
  3. The variety of creative responses we received reflect the myriad perspectives of visitors to our interdisciplinary institution.
  4. We needed more display space for visitors’ finished sheets and space to group completed sheets to better facilitate rating and commenting by other visitors. Although visitors of all ages participated, a special “kids’ corner” on the display board would have communicated more easily that both adults and kids were welcome to participate.
  5. Some of the prompts were more successful than others, and some people used the sheets in completely independent ways, ignoring the prompt entirely. A few didn’t even incorporate the post-its (not that this is a bad thing). The “On the Edge” activity, which encouraged visitors to extend the images on the post-its beyond the frame was by far the most  popular prompt. Many attracted to this prompt even connected separate works into a single composition. Also, a couple of the prompts were too similar, as visitors generally used them in the same way.
  6. Overwhelmingly visitors wanted a post-it reproduction of every work in the exhibition.
  7. Going forward we need better technology solutions on-site to help visitors and staff share responses as they are happening. We collected, scanned, and posted completed sheets to the museum website and Facebook page, and knowing that the sheets would be posted online was a motivator especially for 20- to 30-year-olds. We needed a way for visitors to share their work immediately on their own social media sites. Smartphone images didn’t read well given the limitations of screen size and the legibility of the artists’ writings and drawings.
  8. It would be good to have a way to gather metrics or track how (and if) visitors are sharing their creations on their own social media channels.
  9. Having the completed sheets attached to the specific artworks that motivated the visitors provides a clear context for the various interpretations and insights that will survive long after the exhibition is gone.

QUESTIONS

Overall we are happy with the results of this experiment, and we are busy thinking about some of the issues and opportunities related to this activity going forward—but we’d also love to hear from you. If you have any feedback or suggestions, please send me a note!: russellm@carnegiemuseums.org.

  • We’re curious about the sustainability of the post-its. How important is the novelty of the concept, or could we repeat this activity?
  • Would it work without full-time staff support? If we changed the public display part could we make this an activity visitors can understand on their own? Was the chance to talk with the staff member a crucial visitor engagement connection?
  • What questions or suggestions occur to you?

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A LITTLE QR CODE EXPERIMENT

One of the works from the exhibition, Mel Bochner’s Measurement: Plant (Palm), was displayed just outside the gallery entrance, close to the post-it activity table. This conceptual work consists of a live palm tree situated in front of a wall grid measuring the plant’s (gradually changing) height and width in feet. During the exhibition we noticed that visitors and staff were taking their pictures near the palm tree, ostensibly to compare their height to the palm tree. We thought this might be a good opportunity to see if visitors would be interested in sharing their photos via social media.

Just below the object label we added a separate label with a basic call to action asking visitors to post their photos on our Facebook page.

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The staff at the activity table asked visitors to share their photos. The label included the URL of our Facebook page as well as a QR code that simply led to the page to help save visitors time searching for us (in theory). While we did continue to see many people take photos of themselves and friends by the Bochner work, most did not share the photos with us online. Maybe it’s because the process required help from a friend or a nearby staff member from the activity to take a photo of the visitor? Maybe the tone or design of the label itself wasn’t noticeable or compelling enough? Maybe the QR code was a turnoff since it wasn’t really offering any additional content, and since most phones don’t even have QR scanners as a native app. In hindsight, scanning a code probably isn’t any easier than simply searching for our page or entering the URL. If we’re asking them to take the time to scan a code, there’d better be a good reason—lesson learned!

Still, we did get enough photos of visitors and some staff members to possibly beguile you with this animated gif:

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More on QR codes in museums: Nina Simon | Claire Ross and Chris Speed at MuseumNextBrooklyn Museum