Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Technology as a Means for Engagement

Posted on behalf of Heather Barto, student, Masters in Museum Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University
As a new student in the museum studies program at Johns Hopkins University, I was fortunate enough to attend the March 16 DC Art Science Evening Rendezvous.  This was an exceptionally educational and informative discussion from a diverse group of panelists.  Currently studying technology in museums with JD Talasek, I was interested in technology as a means for engagement and also as medium for artists. 
The Coral Reef Project was such an effective and productive use of technology to engage the community. I was able to view the exhibit and found it impactful from an art and environmental standpoint. How have other museums or community involvement projects used social media to engage participants as well as provide awareness?  Has this project effected the museum's planning for future exhibits? The institution and the participants found value in the project, can these groups be utilized again for future exhibitions?

I also thought that Alberto Gaitán's use of technology in multimedia art was an interesting way to involve social media. How has his work on "Remembrancer" changed his view of social media? How has it changed other artists' views? His pieces are a reflection of technology's integration into art and our daily lives. How can social media be used in the future to convey such powerful statements through art?  


  1. Posted on behalf of Jennifer Lindsay:

    Thanks for your comments, Heather – using information-rich websites and social networking to connect with viewers, visitors, members and volunteers is the norm today with non-profit institutions and community groups. As with individuals, the patterns and preferences of this use differ from one institution to another and one project to another. It is good to think carefully about what types of technology can best enhance your project or message and reach the audience you hope to engage.

    As I mentioned, we used the National Museum of Natural History's existing website as a hub for sharing information about the global history of the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef project (, and about ocean ecology ( We also developed two social networking groups specifically to engage the community in making coral for the Smithsonian Community Reef -- one on Flickr, an open photo-sharing website the Museum was already using regularly, and one on Ravelry, a free members only site for knitters and crocheters. The websites and Internet groups supporting the project were inter-linked to make it easy for visitors to move back and forth between them to get specific information about the project (guidelines, deadlines, calendar of events), as well as general information about corals and the threats to their habitat. Group members fostered the community spirit by sharing information and photos generously online. But a very important aspect of the outreach was the hands-on, face-to-face activities like special lectures featuring the project's co-founder Margaret Wertheim of the Institute For Figuring, free workshops in local yarn shops and community groups, and crochet sessions in the Museum that included access to collections and educational programs on coral. By making the hands-on and virtual aspects of the project closely support each other, we made the rich content of the project accessible to both local and geographically remote participants.

    The success of the Institute For Figuring's Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef project at the National Museum of Natural History will likely shape public programming at the Museum in a variety of ways. Look for more creative efforts to engage the community in future projects, as well as for more exhibitions that explore the connections between art and science -- like the upcoming exhibition this fall of the work of Smithsonian Artist Research Fellow, Shih Chieh Huang.

    As for the community of crocheters involved in the Smithsonian Community Reef project, a number have become docents for the Museum. I hope the positive experience of hosting the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef project and building a community reef will spark opportunities for future partnerships between the Museum and the community. Outside the Museum, the project has inspired at least one local legacy project -- the N Street Village Junk Art Garden Project. For more information on this project please visit Submissions of your junk art garden sculptures are due Friday, April 22!

  2. This link is to a slide show report from the Pew Research Center called Museums and the Web: Grounding Digital Information Trends. It was presented at the Museums and the Web conference in Philly (April 6-9, 2011).

    The report contains some very interesting information as to the trends of who is accessing information on the web – age, race, etc. – and how they are accessing it.

  3. Hi Heather, thanks for your comments and questions.

    Remembrancer was realized twice, once in 2007 and then at the end of 2009. Both times, it used industrial and personal blogs' RSS streams to collect data and R2009 used Twitter on top of that. So, you see, it looked to social media as its search space. Although a relatively new term in popular vernacular, social media has been around ever since the Internet reached widely outside academia and, as is the case with all new technologies, it was adopted by artists almost immediately. For references from the mid-1990s see

    The advent of the nearly instantaneous feedback loops that Twitter, Facebook, et al. have made possible, has opened up the possibilities in the already existing performative art practices over social media. One example of performance that was previously impossible without social media, is "No Fun" by art pranksters Eva & Franco Mattes (see See

    The topic of technology adoption in art is ancient. As JD pointed out in his introduction, even language is a technology, and its use for art is prehistoric. Whether you're blowing paint against a cave wall or pushing pixels with gestural controllers on a display, you are using technology. It has been said that when a new technological advance emerges, it is first used by the military and by artists. That is because human expression is constantly in search of higher fidelity. On top of that, new technologies, as they extend us as individual and collective humans, yield new insights about the human condition, insights that can only be expressed using a new articulation.

    Lastly, I'll mention something that is a profound new trend and affects your field: locative and pervasive technologies. For example, augmented reality (AR) applications are making their way around galleries, museums and public spaces used in works of art as well as for educational and commercial initiatives. Their integration with social media holds great promise to profoundly transform how we interact with the cultural environment. You can count on artists and writers (e.g., see Spook Country by William Gibson) to be working among forefront of its possibilities. (See "Here, Not There"

    Good luck with your studies!

  4. Thank you for your response. I truly enjoy your work and point of view. Your post helps put things in perspective for me. I look forward to looking into the locative and pervasive technologies in more depth. I have already read about some examples and look forward to seeing them in museums (and visiting the MCASD exhibit). I look forward to my continued studies and appreciate your insight.

  5. Jennifer, thank you for the follow up. It is great to see that these community events for the crocheters were also used for teaching events about Coral and the messages of the project.

    Did other institutions find this project so successful? Were you able to measure its success through social media channels as well?

    Thanks for the link to the the N Street Village Junk Art Garden Project, I look forward to checking it out.

  6. Heather,

    Thanks for your continued interest. After reviewing the statistics that are available about other satellite reef projects on the Institute For Figuring’s (IFF) website -- -- it appears that the Smithsonian Community Reef involved more participants (over 800) than any other satellite reef to date. It is my understanding that the Melbourne Reef engaged more than 500 participants, and the Latvian Reef, more than 600 participants; most of the other community-constructed satellite reefs involved around 100 or more participants. I do not know whether other communities tracked the number of submissions they received, but from comparing the photos available it appears that the Smithsonian’s display of nearly 4000 pieces is the largest to date. The Wertheim sisters claim that the community reefs are growing in size, so it may not be the largest for long!

    I am not familiar with statistics about how many visitors the IFF's Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef Exhibition has attracted in other venues, but the National Museum of Natural History is, I believe, the most heavily visited museum in the United States, with more than 7 million visitors per year, or an average of about 20,000 visitors per day, subject to seasonal fluctuations. Although the exact number of visitors to the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef Exhibition at the National Museum of Natural History is unknown, there is the potential for an extraordinary number of visitors to see the display and be inspired by its core conservation message.

    As far as measuring the success of the local reef-making effort through social networking, the Museum's Flickr group for the Smithsonian Community Reef has more members than any other Flickr group hosted by the National Museum of Natural History. The Ravelry group for the Smithsonian Community Reef now has over 380 members and continues to grow. It's clear that social networking helped us to connect to a geographically diverse population because group members hail from more than 25 states and 3 countries.

    Do check out the Luther Place Memorial Church and N Street Village Community Junk Art Garden – their website already shows images of several exciting submissions. I am very proud that participation in the IFF's Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef Exhibition at the National Museum of Natural History inspired these local contributors to the Smithsonian Community Reef to develop a conservation-based community project of their own.