29 May 2012, 18:36

Culture goes online, tries to stay relevant

Culture goes online, tries to stay relevant
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     How about a little culture. Well, first of all, there's this website called "Moscow Culture" - moskultura.ru. This is the web portal run by the Moscow Culture Department. Apart from being a typical website of a typical department that has typical news and typical upcoming events, there are a few novelties.

     How about a little culture. Well, first of all, there's this website called "Moscow Culture" - moskultura.ru. This is the web portal run by the Moscow Culture Department. Apart from being a typical website of a typical department that has typical news and typical upcoming events, there are a few novelties. For instance, check out their "services" section. What kind of service can a culture department offer? Well, you kind find a book you're looking for with their unified database across Moscow state-owned libraries. In other words, you're looking for a book. Instead of trying out several libraries to see if they have it, you log in to the Moscow Culture portal and look it up there. I haven't tried look for really obscure books, but I did try it out and it seemed to do its job. Then there's a more interesting feature - exhibit search. You can input keywords for various exhibits and find a museum which has them. Good for scholars of particular fields, I guess. The third operational 'service' is a virtual tour engine. Currently there are three tours: "Moscow, 20th Century", "Memory of Generations" and something that I'm not quite sure about - "Provisions Stores". I'm not quite sure about the latter as the description for the tour is simply copied from "Moscow, 20th Century" - the latter apparently is a tour dedicated to Moscow and Muscovites of the previous century. So what do these tours look like? Well, first of all, you have to download them. Now that's a hassle. In a world where everything is streaming and built-in and accessible through browsers, downloading a 'virtual tour' seems outdated. Well, okay. So I downloaded the tours anyway - their size is between 25 and -90 megabytes each, by the way. The files are archived executables with no documentation whatsoever. One of the archives - "Memory of Generations" failed to unpack even if when I downloaded it several times. My guess is that the file is broken on their server. Well, okay. At this point, I was already a bit disheartened. But maybe the actual tours will be awesome,  - that's what I told myself. Nope, they weren't. Frankly, if I made something like that I would be embarrassed to show it to the public. One tour is inside some building with a few photos, household articles, mannequins in period clothing, even cars - items associated with XX century, in other words. Once you open the executable, the application launches a 3D engine and the user can either walk or fly around using keyboard and mouse. Unfortunately, no explanation of controls is provided so I had to guess what icon or button does what. Some exhibits have a "question mark" floating beside them - clicking them will provide a little back story. Other  exhibits have absolutely no identification so you have to guess what you're looking at. The room in which you walk or float around is quite small, but mostly has nothing of interest. And that's one of the tours that I managed to open - "Moscow, XXth Century". The other one, "Provisions Stores", is basically, a virtual representation of part of downtown Moscow with "invisible walls". You can walk and fly around a part of an empty city, but if try to venture out you will be stuck. The streets are rendered beyond the accessible area, but not too far - they disappear in white oblivion. Really, it looks more like a work in progress than something that could be shown to the public. It also has a 'real mode' - you can switch to panoramic views of the same street shot in real life, looking like they've been lifted directly from Google or Yandex Street View. I assume the buildings near which one can walk or float are the "Provision Stores" - but seeing as how you cannot enter them and there is no information available on them from within the virtual tour engine, assuming is all I can do. So there's that. I have no idea what compelled the Culture Department to put their name on these pieces of unfinished software - seriously, linking these virtual tours with 'Culture' seems like a travesty. I left their website sad and embarrassed for my city. But thankfully, online presence of Moscow culture is not limited to the department website.

     Are you familiar with the world-wide phenomenon "Night of Museums"? Since its inception in Berlin in 1997, the concept has become an international cultural event. During a city-wide or a national "Night of Museums" variouscultural institutions cooperate to not only remain open late into the night but also provide special entertainment. This allows museums to introduce themselves to new potential visitors, especially the trendy nightlife crowd. Each region sets its own dates - in Russia it's usually a May weekend. This was the 6th year Moscow was participating and May 19th 188 cultural venues kept their doors open to a whopping 750,000 visitors. In order to centralize all useful information for the event a special website was launched - museumnight.org. A welcome feature - map of special four routes connecting dozens of museums across town.  Another improvement over previous Museum Nights was organizers trying to tackle the human line issue that has also became a tradition of sorts.  The event's website displayed a "traffic map" of sorts, indicating the amount of people waiting to get in to various venues. This was done thanks to volunteers who constantly updated traffic status through their mobile devices. 10 museums went a step further and accepted online registrations with preferred time of visit in order to eradicate waiting time altogether.

     I've also covered one of the most famous museums of the world, the St. Petersburg - their digital exploits, that is. Earlier this spring they've launched a free iPhone app. The app includes plans of all floors of the Winter Palace, housing the majority of the exhibition as well as a digital compendium of 3 million paintings, sculptures, tapestries, pieces of jewelry and other pieces of timeless art in the collection. Images that you find particularly appealing can be saved in a special favorites section, sent through email or published to Twitter. If you're set on visiting the museum in person you can, as I've said, prepare beforehand by purchasing tickets, ordering a tour and checking up its schedule. The app itself is free, but for 1 cent short of 2 dollars you can buy digital educational courses, themed digital tours through the museum and 100 high-quality digital panoramic shots of the interiors. Not too shabby. But, unfortunately, that's nothing compared to the Smithsonian. The institution and its museums have an array of mobile apps and websites that allow museum visitors to interact as they go through an exhibit or to experience the exhibit remotely. They've also gone interactive. For instance,  the Smithsonian has released a crowdsourcing app called LeafSnap. According to the app's website, the app is the first in a series of electronic field guides being developed to demonstrate visual recognition software designed to  identify species from photographs.  Quote " Leafsnap turns users into citizen scientists, automatically sharing images, species identifications, and geo-coded stamps of species locations with a community of scientists who will use the stream of data to map and monitor the ebb and flow of flora nationwide." The website also has a neat interactive map where photos taken by users are tagged to locations - apparently, the app has also become popular in Western Europe. 

     Or take the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney Australia. It has been experimenting with new technology for a few years. What’s even better, it has been documenting their experience with new gadgets and methods of engaging the audience in special blog – so there’s nothing preventing other museums from taking from their experience. They’ve even hosted developer hack days where experimental applications have been built using their collection API. A Sydney-based Augmented Reality company called Mob Labs has also developed an AR layer of historical photography for the museum. Inside the actual museum, they’re replacing passive display screens with iPads, giving not only the benefit of offering interactive exhibits, but also resulting in closer engagement  between visitors and content – turns out smaller screens provide a more personal experience than huge cumbersome displays. They’ve also introduced QR codes placed on description signs next to exhibits. If you remember, I’ve talked about a project called QRpedia – placing QR codes across venues and linking them through a single portal to Wikipedia articles. This is basically the same – only instead of using QRcode servers and links to Wiki articles, the Powerhouse museum is using proprietary servers and information overlays, which also can be edited by users, by the way. The museum’s strategic plan can be found online. Its mentions “cross platform content delivery,” embracing “open access” and overall being an “open museum”.  This means that their real and virtual content is accessible by anyone both in-gallery and online. This also includes an open license to re-use their ideas, wherever possible. While the concept of re-usable ideas is hardly appropriate for masterpieces and historically important objects, modern art exhibits and installations can benefit from such sharing, I believe – not to mention the fact that interactivity is become an all-encompassing trend and the only way museums can stay relevant and appealing to the general populations is to make them all web 2.0, mobile-ready and interactive.

     Thus I have to admit, that apart from several positive examples such as the Night of Museums event and a few museums developing apps and virtual tours, the Russian cultural space is for the most part quite stale and stuck in the “meat-space”. While it may be interepreted by some as ‘true to the traditions’, I believe that culture should be made as appealing as possible – in other words, traditions should become exhibits, not become the way these exhibits are presented.

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