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At the far end of Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Bird Hallway is a half-sized door that has intrigued visitors for decades. Now, each time a curious passerby opens it, a hologram of a different treasure from the museum’s collection appears. The only clues to what’s behind the entryway is gold lettering that reads “Section of Mystery”—and the chirps and roars of theanimals within. This inspired door to discovery is the brainchild of the Innovation Studio, the research, design, and development laboratory at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. Founded by self-described “cultural hacktivist” Jeffrey Inscho, the Studio crafts what he calls “delightful visitor experiences” with digital know-how. In just 16 months, Inscho and the Studio team of five creative technologists have developed a number of interactive visitor experiences in partnership with colleagues from across the four Carnegie Museums. Among them: gallery guide apps and an outdoor image-taking installation, the Light Clock, inspired by Carnegie Museum of Art’s Hillman Photography Initiative. Inscho brings to these projects a unique perspective as a self-taught coder with a background in strategic marketing. “I’ve never had a formal coding class in my life,” he says. “It’s all hacking.” When Twitter launched in 2007, Inscho was directing media relations for Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory. To integrate social media into the museum experience there, he put museumgoers front and center, hacking YouTube to create a first-floor confessional where visitors were invited to broadcast live how they felt about the museum. When he joined Carnegie Museums in 2012, he carried with him that same spirit of using technology in service of museum audiences. “A hacktivist is someone who uses code for change,” says Inscho. “Our cultural institutions are some of the most important things we have as a society. I want to use my technology skills to help these institutions thrive.”
Being “digitally sophisticated” in how it reaches audiences is part of the vision of Carnegie Museums. How does the Innovation Studio’s work fit into that vision?
As an organization, we need to be mindful of technology. We don’t want to put iPads on every wall because we can. It’s weird—I’m a technologist who hates technology. When a visitor comes into one of our museums, I’d much rather keep their eyes on the art or the objects as much as possible, not head down on a screen. I want to make technology as invisible as possible. One of the ways we’re achieving this is with location awareness. For example, you can leave The Warhol’s audio guide app open in your pocket and it knows where you are. As you approach an artwork, the phone lets you know that a story is available, rather than you looking down at your phone to enter a code. There’s a concept that we float around and really subscribe to in the Studio: post-digital. Digital stuff isn’t novel anymore; it’s ubiquitous. The role of the Studio is to help transform this institution to live in harmony with the digital world.
What are some of the challenges the Studio team faces?
Carnegie Museums consists of four different museums, so we’re like a mini-Smithsonian. This is cool because it offers a commonwealth of expertise, content, and physical spaces. At the same time, it’s tough to figure out what kind of digital infrastructure we need in order to create delightful experiences in four very different museums with four very different audiences.
Why is delight so important to you?
Museums can be intimidating. You shouldn’t talk, you shouldn’t touch. You walk into a gallery and read text about why the objects are important. If we introduce delight or surprise, it turns those preconceived notions on their head. The Section of Mystery was inspired by a miniature door in the Natural History Museum. Sounds emanate from the door, but we don’t advertise it. We like the idea that it can be a secret. For people who discover it, it’s a serendipitous delightful experience, and it makes their visits that much more memorable.
How does delighting visitors fit into the larger mission of the museums?
Delight can serve as the hook for deeper learning. If you are surprised and delighted by the Section of Mystery, you might want to learn more about the Red-tailed Hawk you just saw inside it. Hopefully those who are delighted and surprised by the things the Innovation Studio creates will want to come back to the museums to discover something else.
What’s next for the Innovation Studio?
We’re fascinated with the concept of the museum as a public utility. We want people to use the museum the way they use water or electricity. Sometimes that means we need to get out of the physical structures of the museum. Currently, we’re working with the Natural History Museum to make an app called Dawn Chorus. In the wild, a bird will start singing near dawn and then another will join and another. The app will imitate this chorus, so users can wake to a growing symphony of birds impacted by BirdSafe Pittsburgh, a partnership between the Museum of Natural History and seven other local conservation organizations working to research and reduce bird-glass collisions in the city. The app is a project that gets the museum out of its walls and into the world that people operate in.
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