There’s a value of this exhibition that extends beyond the exhibition itself. We’re accustomed to the notion that people are enfranchised in the democratic process. We’re not accustomed to the idea that they are enfranchised in the cultural process. This is a really unique experiment. Things like this are far and few between.No, these are neither the words of a self-important curator nor a well-spoken museum director. They are the words of a contributing editor at Wired Magazine, Jeff Howe, and he’s talking about Click!, the crowd-curated photo exhibition now open at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Why is a leading technologist paying such loving lip service to a photo exhibition? Because Click! isn’t a standard exhibition. As Shelley Bernstein, organizer of the show, puts it, “it’s a conceptual idea put on the wall.” It’s a research project about crowd-based decision-making—one so well-executed and interesting that Jeff Howe can’t help but get excited.
Click! is an exhibition of photos that were submitted by open call and judged by individuals over the Web in an experiment following the collective intelligence model set forth by James Surowiecki in his book The Wisdom of Crowds. In keeping with James’ model, the judging process was highly designed to mitigate influence (people could not view other votes or comments, vote more than once, or skip to specific images), respect the artists (judges used a sliding scale instead of quantifiable ratings, artists could choose to be anonymous on the web, in the museum, or both), and capture diversity (judges were asked to self-identify by geography and art expertise).
I’ve written at length about what excites me about Click! It is a substantive research contribution by the museum to the social technology field at large. As James comments in the attached podcast (scroll down), Shelley’s team did something that he thought was “too hard” to do in his work—tackle the effect of crowds on the subjective question of art evaluation. The research is now very understandably portrayed on the Click! website, where you can explore the results in a variety of ways (and if you get confused, there’s a webcast tour to guide you).
Click is not just a clever use of technology—it’s an original use of technology. To people like James and Jeff Howe, it’s a new data set in their work on crowd-sourcing and collective intelligence. To the museum world, it’s a new attempt to merge people, the web, and a physical exhibition. Shelley’s team created new rules for every step, from the attribution options during the open call to the way the photos were sized and hung to represent the data set.
You may not think it’s pretty. One of the most challenging moments in the podcast is when contemporary art curator Eugenie Tsai says, “[Click!]’s about data, and making the data visual. It’s not really a photography show in the way I would curate a photography show.” Shelley and Eugenie are both explicit about the fact that Brooklyn made decisions in favor of the research and against the most beautiful exposition of the art. All the photos were printed with the same process, and their sizes were determined by the judging process, not aesthetic preferences. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post commented that the resulting show is not that visually impressive, but they are comparing Click! to photo exhibitions, which Shelley and Eugenie would deem inappropriate. It would be more correct to compare it to data visualizations like tag clouds or spark charts.
And that’s a really interesting element of this whole story. Click! isn’t just a research project; it’s a deliberate attempt by the museum to present something and say, “don’t judge this as art.” Not everybody believes or wants to hear that. I asked Shelley if she received any negative feedback from the artists about their work being treated like data rather than art. There was rousing debate about the validity of the crowd-curated model on the blog before the opening, but Shelley said that for the most part people got it because her team was so open with the artists throughout the process. And as one woman comments in the podcast, for her, the thrill was about having her photo in the museum. There is dynamic tension between what the museum wants to present and what participants, visitors, and reporters want to experience.
And that’s a good thing. It’s proof that Click! is not a popularity contest made to "give the people what they want". As with any good museum exhibition, Click! was designed and created by staff to challenge, educate, and add value to patrons’ lives. On the podcast, Eugenie Tsai reacts with surprise to the fact that online evaluators spent an average of 22 seconds on each image. She thinks of that as incredibly long, both compared to her own curatorial process and to the standard museum visitor (who spends an average of 6 seconds on each piece of art). Click! produced a new kind of visitor behavior. As in the Exploratorium’s experiments in active prolonged engagement, Click! designers devised new models that connected visitors with exhibits in a different way. Not necessarily better, but different and new.
A wise poet once said to me: the only way to get any better is to change. We have to do these experiments, explore the different and new, if we ever hope to get better at what we do. Click! may not be the future of museum exhibitions. But it’s the best thing we have so far to help us get there.
Please go to the Click! website and see the results for yourself. Please listen to this amazing 52 minute recording of the discussion among Shelley Bernstein, James Surowiecki, Jeff Howe, and Eugenie Tsai. You can also download the audio here and listen to it in the subway and fist pump at the good parts.
If 52 minutes sounds daunting, here are some highlights to jump to:
- On Implementation: Concise, useful information from Shelley about the specific choices they made “to come up with a formula that was good to show the data and also respectful to the artists,” (starts at minute 25) and to hang the show as data, not art (43 and 48).
- On the Role of the Curator: Eugenie Tsai talks about the range of curatorial options and expands on the concept that “museums should be looking for new ways to organize exhibitions” (min 19).
- On Value to the Field: Jeff and James discuss how this reflects something “very different than the kind of collective problem solving or endeavors that you see on the web.” (min 32)
You have set a model for doing this—research! It’s a research project! You are setting an example for museums to go out and find out what people think, and for curators it’s a teachable moment … I see you doing research, presentation, and education on so many levels, and it’s really an exciting project that is a true foundational experience for future exhibitions.