Tag Archives: museums

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.

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!


I’m very excited to dive into and (in honour of the British Museum’s current exhibition Defining Beautyto see what beauty I discover.

There’s a lot of Greek sculpture in the exhibition so I’m starting with Made of marble.

I’ve found Made of ?, there are 5,811 things made of ?.

1,998 things are Made of human bone???

1,004 things are Made of coconut!

677 of papier mâché.

493 of donkey skin… it gets weirder and weirder…

Made of fish tooth (26 things), bear tooth (25 things), sheep tooth (24 things). Where are the hen’s teeth? Brilliant, just found chicken eggshell (24 things).

Whoops I skipped right past marble, back to page 1, a monumental 10,178 marble objects.

This marble Venus is rather beautiful, resting her left foot on the head of a swan.


Following the Depicted Aphrodite/Venus thread there are, unsurprisingly, lots more depictions of Venus, 3,446 in total. But surprisingly (for me) the depictions are mostly on paper (1,367 of them). And mostly from Italy.

Here are a couple of the Venus/Paper/Italy beauties:
Venus drying her left foot, with Cupid
Venus pulling a thorn from her left foot, with a rabbit

What’s with her left foot?

Anyway, I seem to have gone down a rabbit hole of Italian C16th engravings.

Back to Greek stuff…via Subject: Classical Deity

Nice. Pots and sculptures that’s what I’m after…

I recognise these guys, they are pretty beautiful, and they’ve been on tour with the Body Beautiful exhibition to the US and Australia.


Another Venus, from the photo it looks like she’s tucked away in some storeroom. The Place information is blank, so it doesn’t look like she’s on display. Maybe she got some limelight in the exhibition…


I haven’t had a huge amount of luck finding objects that are actually in the show. One facet called Appeared in exhibition: Human Body in Greek Art has a lot of the biggies that I know appear in Defining Beauty (Discobolus, Ajax, Westmacott Athelete). But some others like Lely’s Venus, Illissos, Dionysos are missing from that facet. Perhaps if the database was used consistently then you would be able to find the complete set through the Appeared in exhibition facet.

What’s so brilliant about is there is cool, surprising, and beautiful stuff whichever way you turn.

It is a very freeing experience.

You don’t have need to have any knowledge of the collection before diving in. And even if you have a bit of prior knowledge (I worked with the collection for nearly 10 years as part of the digital team), it makes you realise how many more objects there are to discover.

A beautiful new way of exploring the awesome collection of the British Museum.

This is a post from one of my brilliant advisors, Eliza Gregory, about a fantastic project she’s created with another of my advisors, Ingrid Voorendt to celebrate domestic creativity. It’s so simple you know it must be good.

What are you able to build with your blocks?
Castles and palaces, temples and docks.

Let the sofa be mountains, the carpet be sea.
There I’ll establish a city for me.

–       Robert Louis Stevenson, Block City, 1913     

There is a wonderful version of that poem, illustrated by Ashley Wolff and published in 1992, that I often read to my daughter. Whenever I think of this project, I picture that first line—What are you able to build with a box?

The Box Project is an artwork and experience I created to bring parents and children together while playing and thinking about play, at a museum.

The Lowdown

The Box Project gathers a bunch of used bike and refrigerator boxes into a large space at a museum, and then turns the public loose on them with instructions to play. There is an aspect of it that focuses on parenting and creativity, and providing resources to parents of young children about how we can nurture creativity in our kids. And there’s an aspect of it that turns the normal museum-audience relationship on its head, and lets the audience be the artists while the museum becomes the audience.


The first iteration of the project took place at the Portland Art Museum last June (2014). Ingrid Voorendt, who helped me design and execute this project, and I rented a U-Haul truck and drove around Portland scavenging boxes that were unusually large. We wanted to be giving people the opportunity to do something very normal—altering a cardboard box as a way to play with your child—but on a grander scale, so that it felt a little bit exciting. The museum had given us a ballroom to stage the project in, which was spectacular, and Ingrid works in performance, so she knew how to leverage that to truly make a spectacle.


We got the room all set up. We had piles and piles of boxes, and we had tools of various kinds tied on ribbons so they could hang around people’s necks. (Nothing like bringing a bunch of giant box-cutters into a room full of toddlers—we were really nervous about that! But participants did a superb job of keeping everything under control.) During the day we had specifically advertised the project for parents, and we had parenting expert Nancy Gnass, who teaches at San Francisco City College, come up to lead some discussions and provide information about parenting and creativity.

And then, over about eight hours, we basically just built a magnificent, fantastical, weirdo cardboard world.

And the museum listened

For adults, the workshop made people feel as though the museum were listening to them, for maybe the first time. Their creativity was important, not just other people’s creativity. The project seemed to make people feel satisfied and valued in a way they don’t normally, because they came in and stayed for a long time and really got into making things, and what they produced was totally incredible.

One family came in and talked to me, and was very hesitant. The mom said, “We feel a little nervous about being creative in public.” And I responded by saying, “Don’t worry—there are no expectations. Just do what feels good or interesting or fun.” And I turned around, and when I turned back, a little while later, POOF! This family had made a PIANO. An exquisite, finely detailed, cardboard piano. And the younger daughter was sitting on an overturned box as the piano bench, pretending to play, with the project handouts as her sheet music. It felt like magic! And so ordinary at the same time. That tension felt interesting.


Stephanie Parrish, who facilitated the project on behalf of the Education Department at the Portland Art Museum, was interested to see the project reposition the museum as a site of production.

“The Box Project opened up a space of possibility for museum-goers of all ages,” she said. “Art museums are typically only thought of as sites of exhibition and display, but experiences like the Box Project point to the museum as also a site of production where artists and communities can meet to create something new together.

“The Box Project was refreshing in its free form arrangements, spontaneity, and creative energy which threw it into contrast with the more prescribed experiences that typically come with visiting art museums (although that is changing slowly but surely). It was a delight to see kids, parents, and young adults find their own creative outlets through the repurposing of hundreds of cardboard boxes.”


A true museum experience for young children

Creativity is like a fingerprint, and works of art as showing off different creativities, essentially, which we find satisfying to experience (that’s where we find the inspiration, the ideas, the wonder). A museum mostly relies on visual perception to let people experience those creativities, but for children–who move through the world with a developmental mandate to integrate their senses and not just use one sense at a time—not just vision, for example–it’s hard to really engage with something like a painting (DON’T TOUCH THAT. NO LICKING!), an exclusively visual representation of creativity.

The boxes, however, can be physically experienced, and each adult/parent clearly has a different approach to “the box” as a form. For kids, roaming through the cardboard creations gives them an experience much more akin to an adult’s normal museum-going experience. We could see the kids getting excited to be in boxes built by people other than their parents, and just sort of generally reacting differently to the different creativities on display.

The parenting discussions we were hoping to facilitate were around the importance of play and our understanding of it; trends in early education that are moving away from play-based models, which research shows is destructive to development; how to encourage ourselves as parents to move away from needing and wanting so much stuff for our kids; and how to build an awareness of screen time, toys tied into pre-scripted narratives like movies or tv shows, and what it actually looks and feels like to nurture creativity in your child.

Nancy Gnass gave a couple of short talks that touched on those ideas, and she curated a series of handouts that provided research and context with which to examine those ideas. You can follow along with her San Francisco City College class and find more resources about these topics via her blog:

The museum is usually a place we go to receive ideas, inspiration, and a feeling of wonder. I thought it would be interesting for a museum to work this magic around the themes of parenting and play. Those subjects are not the normal focus of larger, encyclopedic museums, but I see a lot of potential in those topics for museums to demonstrate their usefulness and relevance to the communities that surround them.

I wanted to try to leverage the museum’s ability to communicate with a large audience and provide resources to people to specifically provide parenting support to families.

The subtext here is some institutional critique within contemporary art which asks, Why do we assume museums are good for society? Are they? Whom do they serve? Whom don’t they serve? How do they control access to art? And how do they impact the way we think about—and benefit from—art, as a society? Do they separate us from art more than they connect us to it? Do they help to build a healthier, more equal society? Or not? This project is a way of both asking and experimenting with answers to some of those questions.

Next up: Building Cardboard Neighborhoods at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, March 1st, 11 am – 2 pm.

So now we are lucky enough to be activating this project again, in San Francisco, at the Asian Art Museum. Once again, we have a ballroom so we can create an epic cardboard city. Nancy Gnass will be on site to curate and vet the resources we distribute to participants. And admission is free to both the event and the museum, so families and individuals can enjoy a wander through the Asian before or after scrambling around in boxes. Hope to see you there!

Please feel free to reach out to me with questions. info [at]

As I’ve been wrapping my head around the sheer scale of this city, I thought it might be useful to make a map of the museums here. I think it’ll help me work through my gfs:visit research; to visit as many institutions as I can, in person.

I worked off the list of London museums on Wikipedia, and supplemented the data there with a few other columns, namely trying to isolate dates museums were either founded, opened, reopened, or built, and adding some specific address info and lat/lon so I could put them on a map. That meant a lot of clicking through Wikipedia, reading, and copying and pasting. It was also a nice way to get a feel for the institutions here, although I must admit, quite a lot of it was repetitive data entry late at night!

I couldn’t find dates for everything, and the dots you see are colored by the date museums opened. The grey dots mean no data. Darker red dots are older museums, to pale yellow younger.

london museum map

It’s basic to say the least, but thanks mostly to CartoDB, which is a tool you can use to make a quick visualization from a spreadheet, I can now see where they all are, which is really useful to someone new to London. Thanks as well to Tom Armitage, for some late night wrangling of postcodes into lat/lon for me. (I’m pretty sure he used the UK Postcodes API.)

If you’re interested, there’s also a CSV file in the londonmuseums repo.