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We’re happy to announce our latest project, for the newly-opened Postal Museum in Clerkenwell! The new museum opened late July, and included a new Discovery Room, a brilliant public space where you can access archival objects directly, upon request. We were tasked with making the first instalment of an interactive table to help people browse around the collections, and hopefully be prompted to ask an archivist a question, or delve a little deeper.

Discovery Room

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Part of the new building is this new public space you can visit, and ask to see original materials (as well as browse the digital collection and use our swanky new touch table). You need to allow a bit of time for things to be retrieved from the stores, but, why not give it a try? It’s upstairs on the first floor, and free!

Two Collections to Start

The Postal Museum has a huge trove of all sorts of visual materials, from the obvious philately collections, to letters, to maps, to posters, to photography. For this first stage, they wanted us to show the core collection of the museum, the R. M. Phillips Collection (which tracks the history of the UK postage stamp in unparalleled and thorough detail), and a selection of Post Office: Photograph Library, mostly around post and war, but with some vehicles and interiors too. We’ve tried to keep in mind that it would be nice to incorporate more collections over time too, once the new building has settled in a bit.

We used a metadata export from the museum’s CALM database, served up images using IIIF, served with Cantaloupe, through a Ruby app.

I’ve done a bad job of getting nice images of the actual UI, so will endeavour to update this post with some once I have my act together!

Seeing Things Big

We knew we wanted to take full advantage of the affordances of a lovely big screen and simple touch gestures. Rather than crowding the interface with lots of niggly controls, we wanted the brilliant imagery to take centre stage. Even as we were getting to know the R. M. Phillips Collection, we just kept zooming in all the time to see the lovely details, so wanted to help others do that too.

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This is where we ended up, the view when you’re looking at a single thing, really zoomed in:

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Collaborators

This was our first collaboration with Buckley Williams, and we sincerely hope it wasn’t the last! Thank you, Nat & Dan.

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A favourite part of the collaboration (apart from the consistently snappy outfits and extreme talent) was our placeholder image, which we used on the table so we could proceed with the UI as we loaded all the whopper images… it’s one of those ones that you know won’t slip through.

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DateRanger

As you may be aware, we try to always look for small utilities we think other people might be able to use, like the marcxml-to-postgres slurper, or the dimension-drawer, and we’ve found another one, called DateRanger. Nat has posted separately about this, so if you’re interested in why the heck dates are so hard in cultural collections, maybe head over there for a look.

This is a post by Nat Buckley, of Buckley Williams, our recent collaborators on the new Postal Museum Touch Table project.

As humans we find it easy to quickly read a variety of date formats and almost instantly understand what they represent. We can glance at dates written as “23rd Jan 1894”, “Jan-Mar 1856”, “c. 1960” or “1945-1949” and we know how big the date range is and how accurate it might be. These are just a few examples of dates formats we found in the Postal Museum collections.

To work with those dates effectively in our software we needed to find a way to parse them and represent them in a single format. There are many software libraries designed for translating between standardised date formats (eg. ones used by different countries), but parsing formats commonly used in archives is a slightly less popular problem to solve. Archives tend not to have an enforced, fixed way of writing down dates, so there can be a surprising variety of notations. This isn’t a bad thing — it gives the archivists the flexibility they need to represent their knowledge about the objects under their care. Each collection might have its own quirks.

Some smaller software libraries do take on a challenge of parsing dates from more natural, human-readable formats, but we decided to devise our own way. We had a very specific set of formats and couldn’t find an existing solution that could deal with all of them easily.

I wrote DateRanger, a Ruby library which takes in those formats and translates them into a data structure which represents the start and end of the date range. It makes it straightforward to understand the accuracy of the date — the wider the range, the less accurate or specific the date was to begin with. We’d love to see contributions from anyone interested in expanding how many formats DateRanger can work with.

I used automated tests to build up the code in stages, starting from parsing really simple dates, and culminating at testing even obscure format combinations that we didn’t quite encounter in our data sample. The tests-first approach meant I managed to notice and catch some pretty confusing bugs really early on.

We used DateRanger on the Postal Museum touch table, to help us determine where on the timeline to place the collection records. We did, however, use the original date formats from the archive to display to the viewer. After all, those are already perfectly human-readable.

Photograph of Rousseau installed at MoMA

Installation photograph from The Museum Collection of Painting and Sculpture exhibition, held 20 June 1945 to 13 February 1946

On September 7, 2016, The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York cracked open a new repository on the code repository service, Github. In addition to the release of their popular collection dataset, the museum also made the unprecedented decision to share the exhibition history of the museum (from 1929 to 1989), which also included a ton of archival material like press releases, installation photographs, and catalogues. You can see the official version on moma.org.

MoMA asked Good, Form & Spectacle to make a spelunker to showcase this data, and we were thrilled to oblige.

Voila!   http://spelunker.moma.org

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First Steps

As with all our previous spelunkers, the first step we usually take is to map out a basic plan for the information and how you’ll move around in it. This is often a basic List -> Item pattern, where List can be made up from any of the main data elements. In the case of MoMA, that was Exhibitions, Roles, People/Orgs, and Departments. From each list view, you can move to a single instance of that type of thing, and from that single instance, back out into others, like from an exhibition to the year it happened, or to an artist in that exhibition. (We also get a Python project running on Heroku, and pop our own first commits on Github.)

The main reason we enjoyed making the MoMA Exhibition Spelunker so much was because the data was of a different nature to a collection dataset. As well as listing each exhibition over that period, the data also shows all the people who were involved, both the artists, but also, interestingly, museum staff and other collaborators. We’ve looked a little at how metadata can represent institutional dynamics with Week 1 of the What’s in the Library? project with Wellcome Library, but this was altogether more fine-grained. Who are the actors in this institution? Can  you see their influence?

First Impressions

So, once we have the basic List -> Item scaffold in place, it’s really a matter of trying to answer the questions that come up for us as we poke around all the corners of the data. One of the first simple visuals we added as the basic timeline, to show quickly and clearly what happened, and when.

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Straight away, even a simple graphic like this asks questions. What’s that peak in World War II? Why the dip in the 50s? Why was 1978 such a full year?

It’s important to say at this point that a lot of what I’ll write next about what I discovered in the MoMA Spelunker is pure conjecture and presumption, based on looking at this data quite a lot. It may not be true, at all. (See Open Data, Assumptions and Naïvety below.) 

The Museum & People Dynamics

We don’t often get to see or know the dynamics and politics that go on within the walls of a museum. It can be such a designed space, all about the art or objects, that often the people who made an exhibition come true are almost entirely invisible. It was a real pleasure to work on this data from MoMA specifically because it isn’t about the art, but about the people. When we first began the project, I was keen to be able to show the art, but that desire was quickly supplanted by interest in, and display of, who was doing what.

One of the visualisations we made was about directors of departments, how long they were directors, and in some cases, showing where people went as they moved around the museum, in some cases in careers spanning 40 years. You can see in this screenshot what we can highlight a single individual as they move around too, so you can see who skipped where and when, like John Elderfield

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It was bordering on titillating to imagine who might have worked together and how such long term tenures really did shape the museum as it is today. But, it’s also crystal clear that a little map like this can reveal nothing about why people moved around. You’ll need to look in the Archives to learn those stories.

MoMA Characters Emerge

I was enjoying the way that showing this kind of data over time helps you spot blobs and trends and gaps in the data. I was interested to try to uncover whether we could show who the key staff were that really got MoMA off the ground in the early years. By taking a role – Curator – and drawing it over time, you can see quickly see who was kicking things off, in this case, the founding director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., curated 36 exhibitions, and worked there for about 40 years.

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Something interesting happens when you change how that list is sorted. We can show the same data, but order by who curated the most exhibitions, to get a really different picture that shows the curators who’ve worked on the most exhibitions, and how much they made in any given year. It’s there that you start to notice the effort of curators like William S. Lieberman, who led three different departments over his career, or Dorothy C. Miller, who worked at the museum for about 30 years, and was head of the Department of Painting and Sculpture for a relatively short time, too. Did they work together? Did they like each other?

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We liked this “most appearances” view much more, so set that as the default.

This list view is cool too, when you’re looking at artists. There’s a lot of info squished into that single list view, and the overall impression is mostly that MoMA has an incredible collection full of heavyweights (and very good relationships with collectors and other museums), and shares it with the world a lot! Here are the most exhibited artists in the 1929-1989 data… could you infer Jasper Johns blasted on to the scene at some point there?

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One small design thing I introduced was to show a small  symbol in big lists of people, so you could spot women quickly. This revealed a little gap in the data, where gender isn’t always noted. Since perfect is the enemy of good, rather than remove the feature, I’m trying to help by slowly making additions/corrections to a copy of the data, which MoMA is welcome to. (Want to help?)

World War II and The Responsive Museum

defenseflyer008Something that piqued my curiosity almost immediately was about how the museum operated in World War II, 1939-1945. They were exhibiting a lot, and browsing 1942 and 1943 in particular, there were clearly lots of exhibitions related to the war.

I first noticed the annual exhibitions called Useful Objects of American Design under $10.00 that opened in 1939, and repeated for a few years thereafter. I found myself wondering if this was austerity-related, but then realised I didn’t know the equivalent of $10 in today’s money! Nevertheless…

Then I noticed several others that were much more specific to war, starting to emerge in 1940 and many more in 1942/1943, and beyond, like War Comes to the People: A Story Written With The LensNational Defense Poster CompetitionArt in War: OEM Purchases from a National CompetitionWartime HousingRoad to VictoryCamouflage for Civilian DefenseUnited Hemisphere Poster CompetitionThe Museum and the WarNational War Poster CompetitionArt Education in WartimeWar Caricatures by Hoffmeister and PeelAirways to PeaceMagazine Cover Competition: Women in Necessary Civilian Employment, and more.

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Airways to Peace (and a cool interactive dymaxion globe!)

With a little further digging beyond our dataset, I quickly discovered that “numerous exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art were produced in collaboration with the United States government,” as it continued to exhibit the very best in modern art, including Starry Night, which MoMA acquired in 1941, and exhibited soon after.

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I simply don’t know how data like ours could possibly show that Victor D’Amico chaired the Committee on Art in American Education and Society, which established as “art education’s answer to Fascism and its contempt for creative art. We hope to mobilise the art educators and students of America, combining all their art efforts, large and small, throughout the nation to work for victory.” It’s just one or two steps away from his basic data, and you always have to stop making new columns in data at some point, don’t you?

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The committee worked throughout the year to keep art on the educational agenda. There’s a lot more background about the museum and the war available in this archival finding aid online: The Museum and the War Effort: Artistic Freedom and Reporting for “The Cause”. (It’s worth a read.)

I have to say it makes me wonder how and if museums in the USA (and elsewhere) are mobilising to produce a “vast program of art activity” in this way to combat the 45th president. Ahem. In any case, I actually removed a bunch of other “this was interesting” and “I enjoyed this” links and stuff. You can find your own way!

What did the critics say?

NATURE and social satire are the themes of two current shows here. Both are important and well worth seeing.

Jacob Deschin, on Elliott Erwitt: Improbable Photographs

Remember mashups? When publicly accessible code-level interfaces (or APIs) became a thing back in the day, the fantasy was that all manner of mashups could be made to combine and recombine data from all over into compelling new presentations.

One of our early ideas for this spelunker was to try to bring in content from the fabulous New York Times archive, a treasure trove of history around New York City and its surrounds from 1851 to the present. We knew that The New York Times regularly reviews events and exhibitions at MoMA, so it was simple step to try to combine that with the MoMA exhibition data. Luckily, too, the MoMA team had already done a lot of the work to connect exhibitions to articles, which was hugely helpful.

Could we show what The New York Times critics said about MoMA through the twentieth century? Yes! Critics such as Edward Alden Jewell, who was watching from the start in 1929, or Jacob Deschin, who often wrote about photography exhibitions from the late 1940s to the late 1960s, also form part of the fabric of the exhibition history at MoMA.

(Note that you can’t see full articles unless you’re a subscriber. We can show first paragraphs, which is a start.)

Open Data, Assumptions & Naïvety

This work for MoMA has been interestingly different from previous spelunkers we’ve made. In other projects, we’ve made exploratory interfaces into object-level metadata, which is (arguably) simply factual, representing objects and their attributes. While there may be errors or omissions in this kind of metadata, each object is as well-described as possible. Sometimes, viewing this data in the aggregate can bring insights — like seeing instantly that prints form the largest group of things by type at the Victoria & Albert Museum — but there’s really not much ‘colour’ to it.

Part of the provocation of the spelunker concept is to challenge the notion that people know what they’re looking for when they encounter a new museum’s collection, and I’m wondering if that could be extended to museum datasets. It seems to me that “drawing” this data makes it easier  to hypothesise about and ask questions of than examining a big .CSV file. You follow your instincts or an image that appeals or a person you recognise or a theme you’re into, and, I think, start to form your own opinions pretty quickly. The challenge is that this metadata can be quite rich, but, at least in our experience so far, also pretty superficial, so the picture that’s drawn for you is just a surface view. Perhaps though, it’s like a physical exhibition where you don’t read any labels (or there aren’t any), and you’re left to make your own judgements, some of which may be wrong, but all are personal.

As we were fleshing out the interface to the MoMA spelunker, I found myself making all sorts of assumptions about the institutional dynamics at the museum related to who was working when, and why they might have moved around, their areas of interest or speciality, and things like that. I’d written about some of that sort of stuff on the About page, but the kind folk at MoMA archives were good enough to let me know that some of those assumptions were just plain wrong! Maybe it was more that the data we were able to display only gives you a tiny glimpse into the actual dynamics, and it’s simply a must to explore more deeply with experts or other source material. I don’t want to draw wrong conclusions, and experts in house, who live with this information day to day, surely don’t want to express things that are wrong. Of course not. I think what I’m coming around to is that these sorts of explorers help orient viewers towards questions they’d like to answer, once they’re acclimatised to the terrain. That seems good!

More broadly speaking, we’ve now made six spelunkers at G,F&S, and it’s probably about time I had a proper think about how well they’ve worked and whether they’re useful. More on that later…

The team for this project was George Oates (design, project lead), and Phil Gyford (engineering). Thanks, Phil!

We’re very pleased to have some lovely new shelves made and installed by Scott Stannard join us in our Bloomsbury studio. They’re fantastic, and now we can get all the crap off the floor and every other surface!

Here’s the pre-installation shot:

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And the evening post-installation, with weird Charlie head, and Phil working hard on our new Explorer project (more on that later).

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It’s like it’s a real office or something.

This is a blog post by Phil Gyford, who helped me make a thing. I’ve been curious about a tool called sheetsee.js for ages, and we made a site to show you the museums we visit, and it’s driven directly from a Google spreadsheet! I find myself wondering if small museums might be able to use this simple tech.


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PHIL SAID:
George has been keeping track of the museums she’s been visiting in a Google spreadsheet and wanted to make it a little more visible, useful and attractive.

Sheetsee.js looked like it might be just the thing to help. It makes it relatively easy to use data from a Google Spreadsheet to make pages containing tables, maps and charts. One of the Sheetsee.js examples, Hack Spots, was along the lines of what we wanted, which was reassuring.

Within a day we’d got a quick single-page site up on Heroku, letting us list all the museums, clicking one to display a museum and its details, including a map. Pretty good! We spent a second day refining it, making nice URLs for each visit, and filtering the table to show only the museums built, founded or opened in a particular year.

The site has barely any back-end; there’s a single PHP file and a `.htaccess` file to make URLs like /visit/23 load that one file.

Sheetsee.js uses Tabletop.js to fetch the Google Spreadsheet’s data. We run through that data and tidy up each row a little: we make some fields more readable; and add fields to show (for example) whether or not that museum has any external URLs, which helps with displaying its details. Sheetsee.js then handles displayig the table, paging the data, making it sortable, and making the filter form work.

The JavaScript listens for clicks on the museum names and then displays its details. When the data includes latitude and longitude we use Leaflet to display a Mapbox map.

Making the page work more nicely — changing the URLs for each museum and keeping the browser back/forward buttons working — involved more custom coding, which got me in a bit of a tangle, given I’m not used to making single-page, solely-JavaScript-powered sites. It seems to work, thanks in part to History.js.

Displaying the museums that were only built, founded and opened in particular years also involved going round in circles a few times, and involved more URL-fixing shenanigans and manually filtering the data before handing it over to Sheetsee.js.

All-in-all Sheetsee.js was lovely to use and it would be a great tool for creating nice views of modest amounts of data held in a Google Spreadsheet, without the complication of a database. Going beyond what it can do by default can be trickier. For example, we wanted to have the table’s filter only filter based on the contents of a particular column, but that’s not easily possible. But, otherwise, two thumbs up!

Since this commission began, there’s been a visit to MVRDV in Rotterdam, a Part I blog post, and an interview about these ideas with Annet Dekker published on the HNI website. Annet also wrote a great scene-setting post there too, about the challenge of this kind of digital archiving, with a great reading list: Bringing out subjective relationships: Relations of technics, concepts and actors in digital archives.

I must admit, it’s taken me much longer to complete this speculative commission that I’d first thought. I’m now sure answering the questions it asks could be a life’s work, and that made it a bit daunting to try to collapse the huge range of initial ideas into two blog posts (and the interview). In any case, I’d be curious and appreciative of any reactions you have to it.


New Representations of Work

One theme that’s emerged through conversation and research is that we’re missing an opportunity to do better, more relational, and richer archival representations of organisations. There is very much more available to us than the more traditional “bucket of files” which is often deemed the equivalent of an archive (when really it’s just a backup of a bucket of files.

In a previous life, I was art director at Stamen Design in San Francisco. When we had a design intern join us for a few months, Zoe Padgett, I wasn’t sure how to keep her busy and engaged from the outset, so I dreamt up a piece of work that could simmer away while she was with us: to visualise the company itself. In this project now, I’ve found myself returning to what she made. It feels like a new representation of corporate life, and has a particular focus on the people in the company, not necessarily the company’s output. During her internship, Zoe conducted a bunch of interviews, surveys and other chats, and painted a picture of us that we’d never seen before, even though we lived it each day.

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Zoe studied us and the studio, figuring out who we were, where we’re from, and what we liked to eat when we were in the office. One of her interview questions was ‘what is your favourite animal?’ and that resulted in one of my favourite staff lists ever.

By Zoe PadgettThe other thing I enjoyed about Zoe’s approach was that it wasn’t particularly about our projects, our output, but about us. There is (and has always been) so much more material available to us about the whole company that what it makes public, to illustrate and even explain the company dynamics.

MVRDV is a titan in the architecture world. It’s a big, successful firm that’s made hundreds of projects, many of them built, and the public facade online reflects that. It’s ultra-professional, and (interestingly) specialises in creating hyper-real aspirational imagery around its projects. One tricky part with architecture archives though, is that it’s almost never possible to collect The Thing made by architects. Inevitably they’re about process around the thing, and in fact, it’s actually quite rare that an architecture project gets built in the world, in which case it’s all process.

Today though, there’s a pretty big gap between representing the process of creation and what we often think of as the archive… The digital archive is handed over as a bucket of files, like someone dragged a backup disk onto another backup disk, so what you’re seeing is files and folders and files and folders. No sense in there of who did what when and why.

 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still interesting to look at working files. But, what I can’t know from the bucket of files in its current form is who made them, at whose request, for what stage in the project, whether the boss was happy with it, whether it reached the client, or anything like that. We can’t know that from Zoe’s Stamen Menagerie either, to be fair.

(Does this mean I want to be a social historian?)

This problem is hard, and most companies probably don’t really record this kind of information in a organised or archival way. Is there more of an opportunity than ever to witness the people involved in the creation of raw archival material? How does having a named account on a web service where you upload stuff (Dropbox, Google, Instagram, Flickr) improve potential for identity in archives? It’s no longer endless folders of IMG_3467.jpg, is it? Can we do better? How can we do better?

Actors in the Archive?

I wanted to know much more about the who, so I set about a quick study of the MVRDV actors to see if I could figure out anything about who worked there. The first piece was a bone simple survey that asked a few simple questions:

  1. What are the four most important projects at MVRDV?
  2. What’s your job title? optional
  3. What year did you start at MVRDV? optional

With the caveat that the staff probably didn’t know anything about me or this commission so why would they do the survey, we ended up with 25 responses from the company. Even in these responses, the results were as expected: respondents would probably mention the famous projects.

MVRDV Stage 1: Staff Survey, Top 4 Projects

# Project Votes %
TP261 Markthall 19 76%
TP065 Expo2000 15 60%
TP010 Villa VRPO 7 28%
TP028 Silodam 6 24%

I’ve published the raw results and some cooked views on it as a Google sheet, with permissions set to ‘anyone can comment’. I liked that because people had been asked for their Top 4, it seemed like there were quite a few personal favourites mentioned in the results too. 33 projects got a special mention in the end.

Another highlight for me was a glimmer of something that you probably wouldn’t find in a bucket of files; someone’s answer to “When did you start?” was “I don’t wanna know”.

The Soylent Archive: It’s Made of People

I’m drawn to projects that put people in the centre. Here are some of my favourite examples.

1. Hacking Rambert
You’ve probably heard of Leila Johnston, and if you haven’t, you should have a look at her work. She’s a prolific writer, thinker, and maker who’s constantly putting out incisive, original work around the collision of art and tech. Anyway, I watched with interest as she worked on her latest project called Hacking Rambert, installed as ‘digital creative in residence’ at Rambert Dance Company in London.

I looked into a lot of interesting things. Time. The building. Code. Rendering sound. Musicality. Portraits. Heat. I looked at people – especially dancers. How is it possible that most people never get really good at anything, yet other people find themselves here, doing such an extraordinary thing for a living?

I particularly enjoyed Johnston’s portraits of the dancers, especially in the context of the ephemeral performance. I love that she made digital captures of the dancers, and then printed them in 3D physical form, and even more so that a lot of it was very ‘lo-poly’ or low resolution. As Johnston suggests, low resolution can mean high fidelity and that’s not something traditionally witnessed in archives, I’d suggest, except maybe after years of work?

by Leila Johnston

She also published a short book about her reflections on the residency, and one phrase struck me, her conceptual prompt, “how can I ensure I’m not doing ‘interior design’ or simple illustrations of dance concept on stage etc, but show something of the authentic situation of digital and its relationship to dance, as it stands in 2016?”

Hmm… authentic situation of digital… in 2016.

2. Tracking Transcience
Is a much older piece of work, but still living, which is sort of nuts for a digital thing. Tracking Transience was started in 2002 by an artist called Hasan Elahi (who has gone on to make all sorts of brilliant things). After 9/11, Elahi got hassled a lot as he travelled, always getting bothered at borders and airports and questioned unfairly, so he did something amazing. He put his whole life online, in remarkable detail. Where he was all the time, what he ate, what he bought… the lot. So the next time he was hassled, he could point to precise evidence of his whereabouts.

In 2002, this was a radical act, and I think that level of transparency still is radical. As much as the world has turned since then, and many of us post a lot of ourselves online, it’s rare to show ourselves wholly. It’s even more rare for a company. Transparency can be threatening, but maybe if there’s a company who would be up for it, perhaps it’s MVRDV.

3. Who lives in the Wellcome Library?
A project I’ve been working on over the last ten months or so with the Wellcome Library touches on this idea of trying to find the actors in a collection system. Library websites can be really dry, and almost always rely on people knowing what they’re looking for, so we tried to directly reveal the WHO and not just the WHAT.

With our What’s in the Library? project, we looked at the data from a bird’s eye view, and were able to display the people in it. Visualising people in a dataset like this can show you a really different dynamic in the collection. Just by clicking around and exploring interconnections of people and subjects, you can learn something about who was writing what, and when.

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It’s simple, but a nice way to explore.

Who are the actors in the MVRDV performance?

Even though this commission wasn’t about making a piece of software, I did a few sketches about showing people, who they worked with, and how many of their projects ended up getting built. I wonder what data you’d need to drive a visualisation like this?

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When I began this project, I started following MVRDV on the popular web services like Facebook. I noticed an announcement that they appointed five new partners, and immediately wondered about all the things that had led to that announcement.

Then I wondering how the staff at the firm has changed over time, and who worked together a lot and formed great collaborations. Which of the lots of fresh interns made a great impression and stuck around? What might be interesting about mapping job titles and pay rates over time?

Turns out you can start to see this sort of thing, if you look, on LinkedIn. I spent an afternoon looking up everyone who listed the company in their profile, and made a note of when they started, and you can easily see the growth of the company over time:

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Start dates for MVRDV staff listed on LinkedIn

This is just a small thing I suppose. I remember on the visit to the company back in November last year wondering if I could access the more HR-related records. I’m looking for some kind of overlay of all the digital output of the company with the people that made it.

But, what about born-digital work?

It’s really hard! You must be indefatigable, and not many of us are.

  • Track and manage all external systems. In my first three months of making Good, Form & Spectacle, I’d used about 30 online services in some way.
  • Try to use a common thread across your projects, like an sequential identifier. MVRDV does this, and I’ve started to. (HNI is #011.)
  • Make plan for documenting and packaging near-past work. Teach all staff, and even better, collaborate and talk over it all together. Add this step of describing together to your workflow.
  • At some point you’ll have to attack the early projects. As a first step, you could archive at least one born-digital element for each?
  • Determine “important” projects by interview and/or data analysis (cost, profit, built/not built, staff happiness, press attention etc). This sort of analysis will be interesting for future visitors too. Even imagining that your company may be interesting enough to be poked at by a future researcher is a good thought, because it’s useful to imagine an audience for your archival narrative.
  • Assess whether old works need to be able to be re-run or just well-documented. Even though a Proper Archivist would want to truly encapsulate it, that just might not be possible. These vast software systems we see today (Facebook, etc) would require archival infrastructure the like of which has not been seen in order to be encapsulated for posterity.

A Live Archive?

Let’s just say you’ve done the hard work of going back over your work and archived it all beautifully. What might you do into the future, as you work?

Since very many of us are now using computers to do our daily work, we create and hold  dates, files, IDs, assets etc for all sorts of things as we go. This is broadly good. It’s a lot more raw material than we’ve had before, and it has some automated metadata that’s useful (instead of being ‘in the shoebox under the bed covered in dust and only brought to an archivist posthumously’).

For me, one of the main revolutionary aspects of Web 2.0 was this idea that you could be looking at a live dataset in a webpage. Before that, everything was fixed (if updated here and there). Since then, a lot of the web and its design has become centered on liveness, or recentness. It’s possible to know in bizarre but fascinating detail who did what and when.

Look at this animation of six weeks of coding on the open-source Linux operating system:

So what could a live archive be like? What if archiving things was a moment-by-moment active task? Remember that a backup is not the same as an archive, mostly because it’s not especially described separate to its existence. Perhaps there are instant or daily uploads into it, like you’d upload to Dropbox or Google or wherever. Perhaps there’s also a daily ingest by a local institution or one you’re a member of. (So for me, that would be Islington Council Libraries and Heritage Services, or maybe even the British Museum). Perhaps it’s about drip-fed longevity instead of great globs. Perhaps a junior archivist could actually be a computer program. It might compute things about your work, a bit like Slack’s weekly updates, or the lovely, now defunct Dopplr Annual Report.

dopplr_02

When I was starting up Good, Form & Spectacle, I was fantasising about what sorts of roles I’d like to have make up the company, and archivist was hire no. 2. Therefore, I was envious when I came across an LA design studio that has created a position called Studio Mirror, whose main role is to document things, and then report back after projects are finished. What luxury!

The studio mirror is a distinct role and a job title. In our studio Luke’s role was to archive our work and reflect it back to the team in a unique way, much like the documentation of these principles. Pursued with persistence and the eye of a journalist, the Studio Mirror should capture not only WHAT is being made but HOW and by WHOM. This isn’t simply dumping files on a server but rather curating the content in a way that is compelling and consumable for the team. For example, our studio created a quarterly magazine. You can read ADQ2.1: The Launch Issue here.

There are many reasons to identify a single person to own the documentation process. First and foremost, the details of a project are easy to forget, especially when projects last several years. Archiving work is both productive and functional; a reflective studio believes that the work can always be done a little better. Finally, a well-documented project also makes it easier for new studio members to enter a project quickly and efficiently.

But perhaps the most important value for persistently documenting the collective work of a studio is that it is a sound investment in the future. The longer I work the more I have come to appreciate how people behave throughout the entire design process. Thus, the story of the product is not only how the product itself evolves, but also how the individuals and team grew while making it.

In a world which demands so much in the present, I value that at some point in the future I can look back through our quarterly magazines with a glass of whiskey in my hand, examining the process of what was made and how we made it, and think, “That was a good place to work, I learned something and we made great things.”

https://medium.com/@rhysys/no-dickheads-a-guide-to-building-happy-healthy-and-creative-teams-7e9b049fc57d#.2qjb1n672

There’s a mountain of live reporting tools to show you exactly where your devops systems are at, and the smallest changes in performance of massive systems (and small ones) like web services or data centres.

the web is covered in dashboards

These sort of things tend to show you what’s happening, and not always why, and I think that’s the tricky part and not just with born digital stuff.

I’m afraid I don’t have a mind blowing conclusion. It’s a combination of creator-awareness, small bit archival just-in-time processing, and humans to keep an eye on it all.  It’s helpful to imagine yourself leaving notes to the future, and how they might be read. I’ve enjoyed reflecting on my own work through this, and making small interventions.  I’ve started a Slack channel where I post photographs of every whiteboard before we erase it, annotated and dated, with the view to making an artefact of it at some point down the line. I’ve started writing README files for all client and project folders, about how the work came about. And one thing I’ve tried to do from the outset is write a lot about what’s happening along the way.

So what could this mean for MVRDV? There’s some thinking to do about how transparent they might like to be with Het Nieuwe Instituut. There’s an opportunity to share company machinations in very great detail, very much more than a back-up bucket of files. In order to fully do that, and fully embrace the capacity for our born digital work to generate all this metadata, there must also be spiritual confidence that this level of revelation around client correspondence, finances, HR, good times, bad times, failures and so forth must be as easily discoverable as the folder of working files for TP261, the Markthall.

If I had another twenty years to think about I might be able to figure something out. I guess the main thing is that we’re not just what we produce.

As I mentioned previously in our Visiting Researchers, ahoy! blog post, we were joined recently by sustainable product design graduate, Charlie Cattel-Killick. I ask for one or more blog posts from our visitors, and this is Charlie’s. It seems simpler for visiting designers to drop into the ongoing product development process in our sister company, Museum in a Box, and that’s just great. The work we do for clients at Good, Form & Spectacle is a little less steady, whereas there are always new boxes to think about and make. Thanks, Charlie – great to have you.
– George


Charlie writes:
It has taken me some time to get around to writing this post. Having now handed in all of my degree work I am pleased to say that I have finally found the time to write up my fantastic experience with the MIAB team (if you’re pressed for time those last six words will tell you all you need to know).

My name is Charles (Charlie) Cattel-Killick and I am now at the end of my three years studying Sustainable Product Design at Falmouth University in Cornwall. You may be wondering what that sustainable bit is all about but to explain it briefly, my course is really all about focusing on the important matters in life albeit environmental or as often tends to be the case in my portfolio, social.

Throughout my final year I have become fascinated with access to information and as part of that I delved in to ‘3D’ and ‘Heritage’ to explore ways in which design could be used to help increase access and experience with a particular focus on the potential educational benefits of combining the digital and physical. Whilst developing concepts for my project I got thinking about utilising 3D-printed replicas and how awesome it would be to pack mini artefacts up and let users curate their own mini museums in a box. Now I can’t exactly recall exactly how this next part went but somewhere in the process of typing in to my favourite search engine the phrase ‘museum in a box’ there in front of me in all its glory, the aptly named ‘Museum in a Box’.

At this stage, as any designer reading will be nodding and sighing in solidarity; that moment that you find your idea is already being realised by others is enough to close your sketchbook, have a coffee, build and bridge and move on with your life. But this time was different, the idea was too good to let go and so before realising what I’d done my outbox was busy sending an email off to co-founder George Oates filled with promises of biscuits and tea.

Fast forward a few weeks and I found myself in London still flabbergasted that the team had sanctioned my request to spend some time with them to find out what they’d been getting up to and in what way I could be of assistance. On reflection it must have been the promise of biscuits that did it.

I arrived in London not long after the MIAB team had moved into their swanky new digs in Bloomsbury and coming from three years in quiet, mildly inaccessible Cornwall writing this now I am still struggling to believe the British Museum is all of a minute away.

The experience started off with a great eye opener taking part in the BMs ‘Objectively Speaking’ conference which was a great chance to find out the latest in current approaches to object-based experiences of museums and in education with a chance to fire a few questions at the panels and also meet George for the first time, bonding over an apple and a sandwich.

Day two and it was time to get down to business, I was introduced to George Weyman which was an enormous relief knowing that having met two team members I still only had to remember one first name. Then came Tom Flynn which, in retrospect was actually a relief that he too was not called George, it was great to find out all about his Photogrammetry exploits as well as pick up a few pointers having just begun to explore it for myself.

The Bloomsbury studio was a hive of activity throughout and having spent a lot of time familiarising myself with this world through my design research it was a dream come true to be in what is fair to call the epicentre of the 3D/Museum/heritage world. We had multiple visitors each day, all with their own vision for how they would utilise the box and it seemed that for each person we talked to the possibilities for the product multiplied tenfold. It was great to be included in those kind of discussions from the word go, suggesting ideas whilst learning so much myself. I mainly brought to the stage my design skills working with George to develop a series of interactive cards for a prototype box that would be used as part of pitching to various organisations and to demonstrate the diversity of the product beyond 3D prints.

During my time in the studio I also worked on exploring box designs and started to think about new box ideas. A favourite was ‘Architecture in a Box’ which not only being a passion of mine but also having the stunning architecture all around and the breathtaking contents of the Sir John Soane’s Museum to draw inspiration from soon led to plenty of concept sketches. I was also lucky enough to go on a day trip with the team to Cambridge where we met and pitched to many great people, this also included a quick whip around the Fitzwilliam Museum, evidence for which I have provided in the image below.

Tom Flynn and Bum at the Fitzwilliam Museum

‘Tom discovers the perfect bum’

My final two days were spent working on a promotional video with Tom that we would include within an application for some funding, the completion of which was perfectly timed with a farewell curry shortly before my departure back home and then on to Cornwall.

I may be yet to graduate however spending time as a visiting research with Museum in a Box has by far been the best experience I have had as a designer. I am so grateful to all of the team for giving me a chance and welcoming me with such open arms. I understand George has grand plans for the visiting researcher programme so as the programme’s voluntary guinea pig I would recommend it fully… just be sure to bring the biscuits and plenty of tea.

team-and-charlie

George, Charlie, Tom @ Bloomsbury Place

Milk and one sugar (caffeine in the morning).

Charlie
😀