April 9-12, 2008
Montréal, Québec, Canada

Who Has The Responsibility For Saying What We See? Mashing up Museum, Artist, and Visitor Voices, On-site and On-line

Peter Samis, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, USA


What is the Museum’s role in giving voice to the objects it presents? A recent exhibition of Scandinavian artist Olafur Eliasson provided an opportunity to test one institution’s internal tolerance for multi-vocal popular response. Eliasson explicitly states that his immersive environments are set-ups for engagement, and that the viewer completes the work. With that in mind, the SFMOMA Interactive Educational Technologies (IET) team produced an interactive kiosk / Web site that offered background commentary and footage of the artist discussing his philosophy and studio practice, but stopped short of describing individual works in detail. That role was left to the visitors, each of whom, it was theorized, would have a personal experience of the various works in the show. What would come of this kaleidoscopic perspective?

There were technical as well as philosophical hurdles to overcome – notably, mashing up a static Pachyderm presentation with a customized WordPress blog - but the emphasis in this paper will be on implications for interpretive practice, and the opportunity opened up by Web 2.0 technologies to a) get to know our visitors better, and b) come to know the artworks we display differently through the prism of visitor interpretations. What is lost by allowing the museum’s message to become more “diffuse?” What are the limits of this democracy of voices? Are there specific strategies that elicit and give shape to more compelling content for readers, and greater insights for the visitors who contribute to the conversation? These and other issues that have arisen over the course of this first SFMOMA blog experiment - running from September 2007 through February 2008 - are discussed.

Keywords: user-generated content, Olafur Eliasson, interpretation, museum authority, visitor voices, Pachyderm, blog

1. Objects, People, Places – and Experiential Spaces

Objecthood doesn’t have a place in the world if there’s not an individual person making use of that object… I of course don’t think my work is about my work. I think my work is about you. (Olafur Eliasson, 2007)

Artist Olafur Eliasson is by no means the first person to emphasize the importance of one’s own senses as they engage with an artwork or outside stimulus. Psychologists, philosophers, neuroscientists, Marcel Duchamp, and yes, even museum professionals have spent a great deal of time thinking about what happens when visitors encounter an object or environment that activates their senses. Stephen Weil’s breakthrough formulation came in the late 1990s, when he advocated that museums retool their objectives from “being about something to being for somebody” (Weil 1999). In that light, Eliasson’s approach might be viewed as an extreme case of art’s project in general: “The work itself I often refer to as a machine, or a phenomenon-maker, but without an individual person it doesn’t really do much” (Eliasson, 2007). The same can be said of the Mona Lisa.

A corollary to this emphasis on the individual’s subjective response is a rejection of any flattening of museum messages to a single authority voice. How can we pretend to stand in for the variety of inflections, the prismatic range of perceptions our visitors may have, each with a personal, specific background, aptitudes, and entrance narrative? Of course, most interpretive discourse is not written with the intention of flattening or reducing an artwork’s meaning – on the contrary, the hope is to open the visitor up to a deeper art experience. But inevitably, one field – typically art history – is privileged, and other perspectives are demoted by their conspicuous omission. The net effect can be a disempowering of the visitors’ own real-time gaze and embodied sensations.

All of these issues were put to the test in the exhibition Take your time: Olafur Eliasson, presented at SFMOMA from September 8, 2007 through February 24, 2008, in conjunction with another smaller but no less spectacular Eliasson show titled Your tempo. Your tempo, presented in the Museum’s second floor Architecture and Design galleries, closed on January 13, 2008. It focused on Eliasson’s BMW H2R art car commission, an “ice car” dubbed ‘Your mobile expectations’ that was enclosed in a walk-in freezer. In fact, both exhibitions consisted not of paintings or sculptures per se, but rather a series of immersive, perception-enhancing environments (Fig’s 1 – 3). Some used altered light sources (mono-frequency sodium vapor lamps in Room for one colour; a computer-controlled timed immersion in the spectrum in 360º Room for all colours); others employed lenses, mirrors or dichroic glass to deconstruct our normal visual field and return it to us in altered forms (Yellow vs. purple, Sunset kaleidoscope, One-way colour tunnel, etc.); and in still others, water in a descending spray or reflected pool created stunning tactile and visual effects designed to be experienced as an individual and in a group (Beauty and Notion motion).

Figure 1

Fig. 1: Room for one colour, the entrance gallery to the exhibition Take your time: Olafur Eliasson at SFMOMA. Mono-frequency sodium vapor lamps changed perception to gray-scale as visitors stepped off the elevators.

Figure 2

Fig. 2: Olafur Eliasson, One-way colour tunnel. The facets of glass in this prismatic passage changed color as you walked by them; walking in the opposite direction they appeared to be shades of black and gray. Photo: aqui-ali.

Figure 3

Fig. 3: Olafur Eliasson, Notion motion. Eliasson’s spaces are inherently social. In this case, the group shares responsibility for triggering the phenomenon. By stepping on protruding floorboards in a deck, visitors cause an upward rippling of light and shadow patterns projected from a water surface behind the scrim.

2. Roles, Risks, and Rewards

Who has the responsibility for seeing what we see? …Is it about sameness? …Or is it about differences? Is it about suggesting that every time you take a step you see something different? (Olafur Eliasson, 2007)

Was there a role, then, for interpreters in the presentation of these catalytic objects? What was the risk if we didn’t intervene? What if we did? In our conversations with the artist in Germany, he made clear that he was aware of the risk that his works would be enjoyed merely as spectacle, unexamined entertainment akin to a Disney experience. “The thing is,” he said, “I don’t think we should be afraid of doing something very beautiful, and very engaging, and very somehow seducing, emotionally very challenging. I think it’s worthwhile taking up the – kind of the blurred area between something seductive and… something more rigorous.” That said, his expressed goal was to promote “criticality,” which he defined as “introspective sensing – meaning that you are both sensing, but you are also able to… evaluate the nature of what – the construction of what you’re sensing.” How then, we asked, in an exhibition environment devoid of wall texts or interpretive affordances, did he hope to promote self-awareness, this stepping back from an unreflective immersion in the stimuli of his show? “By virtue of the communicative effort laying in the hands of the museum, essentially, one should make sure that the spectacle doesn’t take over,” was his reply.

The challenge we took on then: to express Eliasson’s own emphasis on critical self-observation, and to find a way to invite visitors to report their personal perceptions in hopes that the act of committing them to writing would stimulate introspection and reflection. We further hoped that the sum and diversity of these responses would evoke a larger, more collective representation of these two exhibitions in a way that no one person – or museum – could hope to convey alone.

3. If You Build It…

With this in mind, the SFMOMA Interactive Educational Technologies (IET) team engaged in our own critical reflection about the processes we use to develop interpretive resources. Past productions - Making Sense of Modern Art, Matthew Barney: DRAWING RESTRAINT, Voices & Images of California Art: Robert Bechtle, etc. (all available at multimedia/features/) have been characterized by a mix of:

  • museum-scripted narrative text
  • video clips of the artists themselves
  • video or audio clips of art historians or curators
  • complementary images (either documentary or of related artworks)
  • primary source documents.

Taken together, these provide context for the works on view. While we may hope for these resources to be received in an open-ended and suggestive – rather than a prescriptive – way, we have to concede that to an outside viewer, when these programs are published by the Museum, they come across as a “museum” or “authority” voice.

How to avoid this pre-emptive strike against visitor experience? How to foreground the idea that the exhibition’s meanings are the sum total of myriad individual sensibilities moving through these gallery environments, each space designed as a “device for the experience of reality” in the visitors' own time? How to evoke the multiple facets of this populist prism?

It seemed important not simply to decamp and abandon our role altogether. First of all, it was key to communicate the artist’s emphasis on criticality, “sensing ourselves sensing” or “seeing ourselves seeing.” Secondly, we were convinced Web 2.0 does not just mean the cult of the amateur. It means opening up expert voices to a broader dialogue, one that includes non-experts… or people who bring other forms of expertise to bear. So for this, our first foray into written (vs. podcast) Web 2.0 experimentation, we decided to create an on-site kiosk / on-line Web site that mashed up a Flas presentation about Eliasson's philosphy and studi practice, authored in Pachyderm with a custom-designed blog or comment-space inviting our visitors to "share their experience" of the specific artworks in the show (Figs. 4a and 4b). [Pachyderm is a Web-based authoring and publishing software originally developed by SFMOMA and used to publish most of the programs listed at the SFMOMA url - and recast as an Open Source platform under an IMLS-funded grant to the New Media Consortium (NMC). For more information, see] After all, each person is the expert about his or her own experience.

Figure 4a

Fig 4a: Home page for SFMOMA’s Olafur Eliasson interactive feature The design unites content screens authored in Pachyderm (above) and blog pages adapted using the WordPress engine (linked to the footer).

Figure 4b

Fig 4b: On rollover, the “Share your experience…” footer reveals thumbnails of twelve works in the show.

The Pachyderm feature consisted of four Flash screens with texts, stills, and videos that offered background on Eliasson’s project, while the blog was constructed as a set of twelve static Web pages hosted at Because the Pachyderm feature was to function as the front door to the blog, we gave the WordPress pages a drastic CSS-makeover to make the union of the two technologies appear seamless (Figures 5 and 6). The blog "entries" were placed non-hierarchically in a row, rather than the chronological cascade found in most blogs. In effect, the image of the artwork and its title were the sole initial post on each page; visitors on-site or on-line were invited to contribute their own reflections about it using the blog’s comments function. [Other un-bloglike characteristics were the absence of an RSS feed or external links. See Simon 2007.]

Figure 5

Fig 5: One of the four museum-authored content screens about the show

Figure 6

Fig 6: One of twelve artwork-specific visitor comment pages

4. …They Will Come. Now What Will They Say?

The pages were empty receptacles, but for an image. Fortunately, and relatively quickly, the comments began to trickle in, and our wager – to solicit feedback by artwork rather than at a more generalized exhibition-wide level – seemed to be paying off, as visitors chose to comment, and to comment differently, on their experiences of specific works. As time went on, the most popular pages – the ones for Your mobile expectations, Beauty, and 360º Room for all colours – displayed between forty and sixty comments streaming in a long column, documenting visitor reactions from the exhibition’s opening after Labor Day through the New Year’s holiday.

That said, many in the museum were underwhelmed by what they read. In fact, when perused in a continuous stream, there was, as the French say, à boire et à manger – a real mixed bag ranging from one word exclamations like “Cool!” and “Awesome!” to short disquisitions on the multiple levels of perception elicited by contact with a work. It was all there, unedited – almost completely unexpurgated. [A handful of comments were removed, most completely unrelated to the topic. That said, we did apply moderation tools and WordPress’s akismet spam filters to the blog just in case. Judging from this experiment, in the future, moderation might not be necessary.]

 And it was messy. Here, as an example, are the first three comments from Beauty (Fig 7):

Beauty really lives up to its name. Be sure to walk all the way into the space to see the ethereal rainbow-like effect. If you just poke your head in the room, all you see is a curtain of water, and you’re totally missing the piece. (Nossaile Rufalo)

WALK//OBSERVE…The three muses seem dancing in front of me in a ray of light//rainbow//iris//a fourth muse//ghosts//life//a journey through the mist…IMAGINE…WALK THROUGH BEAUTY. ENTER YOUR IMAGINATION. (Alex Merk)

There is a rainbow projected on water. It is simple yet beautiful. You can walk through the water. You get wet. It’s nice. (O. Mitigawa)

[Note: All comments are from the SFMOMA Web site Olafur Eliasson, Archived Jan. 2, 2008. The references in this article are drawn principally from comments culled between Sept. 6, 2007 and January 2, 2008. A new, pared back version of the blog was re-launched in mid-January as a Phase Two experiment. The results of that test are not available as of this writing.]

Figure 7

Fig 7: A visitor stands in Olafur Eliasson’s installation, Beauty

More sophisticated comments can be found. Witness the visitor who signed in as ABLA regarding the interactive installation Notion motion (illustrated in Fig. 3):

different moments of perception. take 1: floorboards are sound that work with the waves, take 2: wait, the floorboards ARE controlling the waves, take 3: as others squeak away, all the waves intersect, take 4: others unseen impact the waves from the opposite side, take 5: can you coordinate the movement between the floorboards to get waves to bounce off each other, take 6: all that interact impact the piece

or a poster named “witl” describing One-way colour tunnel:

This tunnel is a group of experiences that you really need to be watching for. The obvious experience of “through”, but other opportunities for enlightenment happen as you ascend or descend the stairwell and you get fragments of light dancing on the walls, or from below when you see the splash of pink on the white cross beams, or the asymmetrical design on the grid, or even the footprints as people tramp across. Beautiful, amazing, wonderful! Thank you to everyone who made that possible.

Each of these visitors shows an acute sensitivity to his or her own perceptual field in relation to the artworks they describe. We in the art world appreciate this kind of precision. What we may value less are stereotypical effusions of this order:

it was the awsomes thing ever in someones life (Nick re: 360º Room for all colours)

And even less, this:

cooooooool!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (David re: Ventilator)

What are we to do with this? With ourselves? Are we just hopelessly uptight, or should we do our visitors and readers a service by curbing such unbridled expressions of enthusiasm, especially when they bring no added or original insight to the table? At this point I have no answer to this question. I am merely asking it.

To illustrate that there are many sides to this issue, let me include an alternate viewpoint from a museum colleague: “I thought blogs were about democracy of space and that was the reason for using them inside the museum, not to intimidate but to invite comments, even simple and effusive ones (which might be from 14 year olds and include 25!!!!!).”

5. Dialogue Within The Blog

Many visitors proved both articulate and opinionated about issues where no art specialization was needed. Where Eliasson’s work intersects with global warming, in the hydrogen-powered ice car Your mobile expectations (Fig. 8), a number of comments engaged environmental issues – a matter of increasing urgency in the local, national, and international consciousness:

This space takes you out of your comfort zone and creates a heightened awareness of self and your relationship to the object which you are consuming. Often you go into museums only to find everything looking so similar after several hours of being there. This room is not like all the others, and makes you highly aware of being there. The frozen form itself feels impermanent to me both in form and its material ice. One gets the feeling that it won’t last for long without an artificial environment to sustain it. I wish it could live permanently without so much energy to sustain it. (Michael Limaco)

While I was breathtakingly inspired and moved by the Take Your Time exhibition, I was frustrated by the car. It seemed such a cheap, obvious statement, not at all creative, and using a hell of a lot of power, no matter whether it came from fossil fuels or geothermals. If the artist really cared about global warming, he would have found a more appropriate way to make the statement. That said, the frozen car was beautiful – but don’t con me that it really an expression of environmental concern. (Joan Stockbridge, Your mobile expectations)

Running a giant freezer is using extra power that is increasing global warming !!!!!! (Anonymous, Your mobile expectations)

to the anonymous comment above regarding the power needed to run the freezer: if you look at what David Littlejohn says you will read: all the energy required to keep a 9600-cubic-foot refrigerator running at 14º F 24 hours a day for six months comes not from fossil fuels, but from a field of environmentally benign geysers and underground geothermal energy sources, 72 miles north of San Francisco – a very Icelandic gesture.

other than that i think the piece is stunning and otherworldly. i have visited the museum 3 times so far and still want to go another 3…until i saturate myself with his amazing art…(Toni, Your mobile expectations)

…Also I have to say on first visiting this I thought about the energy cost of refrigerating this, so I guess it is through Calpine’s geo-thermal plant in N. Calif. (I’d like to know how that works within the existing power transmission network, isn’t all the power going through the same lines, whether geo-thermal or coal/oil powered?). Zorga Lina, Your mobile expectations)

In fact, the “ice car” elicited more comments than any other single artwork. To experience it, visitors had to undergo an elaborate entrance ritual - donning gray blankets, receiving a prep talk from a museum staffer, then entering into a giant, room-sized freezer kept between 4 – 6º F. The effect on skin and psyche was searing and indelible. (More on that when we discuss “Visual Velcro.”)

Figure 8

Fig 8: Blanketed visitor looks for traces of a car under the articulated steel and ice armature of Your mobile expectations: BMW H2R project

6. Evidence For Visitor Profiles

In the effort to better understand our visitors, a growing literature has developed in recent years on segmentation of museum audiences, visitor profiles and entrance narratives. Blogs may provide ample evidence for future researchers along these lines. They are in effect the free-text fields that many visitor surveys leave out – although the respondents are admittedly a self-selecting pool. Using the four-fold classification enumerated by Linett (2004), one can find evidence for each attitudinal orientation. Here, in capsule, are vivid examples of the four different visitor types Linett proposed: Culturati, Hungry Minds, Social Seekers, and Family-Focused.

1) Culturati: Highly educated, astute in their assessment of Eliasson’s process, secure in their judgment, Culturati occasionally question some of his decisions. Here’s one example:

Like so much of Olafur’s work, Your Mobile Expectations is an arresting experience. It’s helped by the suspense-building instructions and preparations before entering the walk-in freezer. The experience of the chilled environment only heightens the observer’s engagement with the object.

There is something immediately challenging about a car concealed beneath ice. For this observer it is a mixture of wonderment and absurdity: the former from the beauty of the ice sculpting and its curved lines, the latter from the fragility of an exterior that surrounds a moving vehicle. That’s the point one must presume: it’s a statement about the delicate relationship between one actions and one’s environment. (Guy Gould-Davies, Your mobile expectations)

2) Hungry Minds: Visitors who get a high from visiting a museum but are a bit insecure about their own capacity are constantly in quest of more information as their path to understanding. Here are two:

I wonder what inspired him? Ah well, I find his reflection of the environmental problems we face fantastic. (Will, Your mobile expectations)

… far more interesting than the actual room, was eavesdropping on moma-goers go on and on about it. the discovery of this comment board was particularly exciting, too. (risd, 360º Room for all colours)

In fact, there were surprisingly few comments of this kind in the blog postings. One can speculate that this lack of the typical yen for more facts and data speaks worlds for Eliasson’s success in finding a visual language that communicates holistically with his visitors. These installations impact the body directly through light, color, touch, humidity, play, and social interaction. They are haptic/kinaesthetic: when the body is immersed and the senses saturated, the mind may no longer feel as desperate to make up that deficit of meaning visitors often feel when faced with a ‘mute’ artwork on a wall. It is no longer necessary to grasp for facts to organize a story; the sensations felt in the present are fulfilling enough. Whether they lead to critical reflection of the kind Eliasson encourages is another question; but some blog entries suggest that they do.

 3) Social Seekers: In Linett’s typology, Social Seekers are less concerned with the art than with making the scene: the museum as a venue for a date or an outing with friends. They, too, participate in the general ease and camaraderie of these environmental artworks which are social by their very nature:

One of the best parts is to watch the changing of colors on the faces of the people inside. If you are shy to stare at strangers, go in with a friend so you can look at each other for a while as the colors change. Very beautiful, and very different from only looking at the wall. (Darryl Ferrucci, 360º Room for all colours)

…it all brought a smile to your face and then you watch them unfold on those around you. That is the best (anne, Your mobile expectations)

4) Family-Focused: The Family-Focused visitors had a field day. This group chooses to visit the museum as one of many potential entertainment/leisure-time options with their families. Their ultimate index of success is whether or not there was a positive bonding experience:

How delightful to experience this with my 15 year old son. We had so much fun! We loved the yellow light when we got off the elevator and observing our faces and all the other museum goer’s faces transformed. The mist, the waves of water, the frozen car….fun, fun, fun!!!!! I must go back again…I’m sure I’ll have an entirely new experience! (Michele Kerr, Beauty)

I took my three-year old son he loved all of Eliasson’s stuff, but especially the 360 degree room. We sat in the middle of it for at least five minutes and just let the changing colors envelop us. This is a great exhibit for young children because it is so immersive and encourages interaction. Every piece offers a unique sense of discovery. (Oliver A., 360º Room for all colours)

the tunnel was one of those experiences that you don’t know how amazing it is untill you grow older and really love the beauty of life. my mother, after coming out, had tears in her eyes, while my nephew was amazed, and said it was like a giant kelidescope. thank you for this bonding family experience (Merry, One-way colour tunnel)

One could argue that any typology falls short in predictive value when faced with rich multi-sensory impressions works such as Eliasson’s elicit. You don’t have to be a Culturatus to have authority in this context, and the blog form serves as an open invitation to participants of all inclinations. As mentioned before, while museum visitors may not be experts about art, they are experts about their own sensations, and can be quite articulate about them. This is what in another context (Samis 2007) I have called Visual Velcro: the capacity of an artwork to hook into visitors’ cognitive structures and remain in their memory. In Eliasson’s case the ‘velcro’ is not just visual, but multi-sensory – and all the stronger. Witness this appreciative comment:

an amazing exhibit full of simply beautiful surprises. so many things to see and experience. not only are they things you can see, they are things you can feel and smell. you use all of yourself to experience his art. i loved it. (Amy, Your mobile expectations)

7. Do Artworks Have A “Velcro Coefficient”?

What else can we learn from the blog comments? Quite possibly, the density of the cognitive-emotive ‘hooks’ that each artwork in the exhibition afforded to its visitors. We have seen that in many of these works, people’s own bodies provided the matrix into which sensory impressions, emotions and reflections could weave themselves. Might the number of blog comments about each work be directly proportional to its ‘Velcro coefficient’ – the ease with which people connect to it and find it personally meaningful? If so, the results break out like this:

TIER 1 (over 40 comments as of Jan 8, 2008)

  1. Your mobile expectations (59)
  2. Beauty (43)
  3. 360º Room for all colours (41)

All of the works in the top tier are immersive, sensory rich, and social. The first two were also tactile/haptic, subjecting visitors to actual climate changes in the gallery (biting cold and falling mist, respectively). The last two were constantly changing, and evoked repeated expressions of natural wonder.

TIER 2 (over 20 comments as of Jan 8, 2008)

  1. Ventilator (29):
  2. Room for one colour (27)
  3. One-way colour tunnel (24)
  4. Notion motion (23)

Judging by page view statistics, visitors found artworks in this group equally attractive to look at, but they wrote a bit less about them. Once again, all works were either immersive and perception-altering or – as in the case of Ventilator, the swinging fan in the atrium (Fig. 9) – impinged on the visitor’s own body envelope and sense of security. The social factor was alive and well, as these environments turned viewers into altered subjects of perception, and, particularly in the case of Notion motion, accomplices in the making of a constantly changing art event.

Figure 9

Fig 9: Olafur Eliasson, Ventilator. Captured in mid-flight in SFMOMA Atrium. Visitor heads were not far below. Photo: mybluemuse

TIER 3 (less than 20 comments as of Jan 8, 2008)

These works, while each on its own would stand out in a museum collection, proved less popular as topics of discussion.

  1.  Multiple grotto (14)
  2.  Sunset kaleidoscope (10)
  3. Model Room (11)
  4. Yellow vs. purple (9)
  5. The aerial river series (Photo-grids) (5)

The photo-grids, last on the list, were most like the works art museums typically show: framed and glazed, arrayed in a regulated pattern on a white wall. Two out of five comments compared them unfavorably to Eliasson’s other works. Is this our audience begging for a new kind of art? Or better interpretive affordances for the historically static, non-immersive artworks we do show – resources that make them feel as relevant to their lives today as Eliasson’s participatory, kin-aesthetic experiences do?

8. Some Stats: New Interpretation, New Art

While there may have been doubts about the unevenness of the posts we were allowing on the blog – at times simplistic, at other times sophisticated – it appears by the usage statistics that this experiment filled a real need. The blog portion of this hybrid site drew 208,000 page views in five months – an average of almost 1,400 page views a day. Furthermore, when visitors found the blog, either on-site or on-line, they stuck with it: average visitors viewed between 8 – 10 of the twelve possible pages. In fact, the 400 comments left represent less than 2% of total blog visitors. Museum and Web visitors alike were clearly curious to see how others had responded to (or refracted) the prismatic ‘devices for experience’ that were on offer. (The exhibition itself drew 271,266 visitors in the same period of time. A study conducted in the Museum’s second-floor Koret Visitor Education Center – the sole on-site location where visitors could post comments to the blog – showed a very low threshold of awareness about the Eliasson Web feature and blog, a problem shared with the other exhibition-related educational resources.)

This study has only scratched the surface of the visitor observations the blog contained. Many of them seem to corresponded quite precisely to Eliasson’s ideal of “seeing yourself seeing.” Some started with bodily sensation, then segued into poetry, memory, and emotion:

All of a sudden, the light consumes your peripheral vision, and you feel like you are enveloped in hues of yellow, orange, blue, pink, green, purple and white. What struck me was how my body physically reacted to the changes in color. Pink and orange gave me butterflies, like I was seeing a boy I had a crush on. Whereas blue made me feel serene and reminded me of when I was scuba diving and would float weightlessly into the abyss. I let the emotions roll through me as the light entered and passed through my physical being like a drug. (kt, 360º Room for all colours)

With different lights come different dimensions. An infinity of stages in the continuum of the electro-magnetic spectrum. As we are all self centered individual and separate from each other, man is in essence, estranged at birth from other men (or women of course). It seems that our perceptions must also be infinite. The obvious, but can a perception lead to something else, something more powerful than just one individual? I feel it can. I note that the “yellow room” on the top floor, where all color is rendered to a black and white (or black and nearly orange) is like stepping into a world before color. (Anonymous, Room for one colour)

Additional themes evoked include comparisons and references to nature, science and mathematics, mass culture phenomena, and other works of art. Some write comments from within the Museum, their sensations still fresh; others compose from home with the benefit of hindsight; some turn to the blog to evoke their visit for a spouse who couldn’t come along; others declare their intention to come experience the works firsthand; and still others write from afar, expressing the regret that they won’t see what the others have described.

Finally, some comments reveal visitors in the process of forming a new definition of art:

For me the fan is by far the most engaging work at the Eliasson show. But, then it seems to come from a completely different place where the viewer is viscerally confronted and forced to consider his own immediate safety. (Kosho, Ventilator)

It is absolutely amazing how engrossing this simple installation is. The other people in the room became totally part of the art work to me. Fantastic! Unusual museum fare: Art as experience, rather than as object. (Benard Hecker, 360º Room for all colours)

One can imagine inviting an artist or guest editor to sort through the comments to make their own curated selection, giving the blog a more precise shape. What else might we do with this rich harvest of visitor voices? Might they lead to new interpretive options around the collection?

9. Conclusion

This summary, drawn from a partial review of a blog-in-progress, is suggestive rather than exhaustive and systematic. In fact, we really don’t know all the uses to which a blog such as this might be put. As the English are wont to say, these are “early days” in museums’ mashing up of visitor voices with our own. And much research remains to be done.

Is there a line museums will not – or should not – cross? How far will we go in accepting visitor contributions to our officially published content? This seems to be the frontier du jour, and it is playing itself out on multiple museum horizons as of this writing. (The Brooklyn Museum launched its blog for Infinite Island: Contemporary Caribbean Art ( at the same time SFMOMA launched the Eliasson site; and The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened Blog.mode: addressing fashion ( on December 18, 2007.)

How willing are we to break the proverbial fourth wall and listen in as our visitors describe what they see in our galleries and how they connect it to their lives – or fail to do so? Do we really want to know?

The museum as a commodifying temple on high is now opening its doors, and ears, to the visitors, with whom all experience must finally succeed or fail, thrive or fall on barren ground. To quote SFMOMA curator Madeleine Grynsztejn (2007):

We don’t do our best when we simply instruct. We do our best when we answer questions alongside the visitor, and ask questions alongside the visitor. And when we create a kind of conversation… We don’t do our best when we create a one-way dialogue that is assertive and one-dimensional. We do our best when we offer multiple avenues of interpretation, and when we keep a lot of room for audience response.

Could it be that in this new participatory age, the museum is the sum not of the artworks it contains, but the new experiences and ways of thinking it triggers?


Many thanks to my able collaborators on this project at SFMOMA: Tim Svenonius and Doug Sharp, who wrangled Pachyderm and WordPress into a design shaped by Dana Steffe; Tana Johnson and Stephanie Pau, who produced and wrote much of the “museum voice” content; Dana Mitroff and Andrew Delaney, who integrated this new IET adventure into the overall SFMOMA site; Madeleine Grynsztejn and Olafur Eliasson, without whose efforts, multi-facetted vision, and cooperation this project wouldn’t have even begun; to many of the above-mentioned colleagues and Letitia Carper-Long, who provided insightful feedback on this manuscript; and finally, to the intrepid visitors on-site and on-line who stepped forward and made the contributions that actually comprise the SFMOMA Eliasson blog!


Eliasson, O. and P. Samis (2007). Interview with Olafur Eliasson at his studio in Berlin, June 18 – 20, 2007. Internal transcript. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2007. Some quotes are reproduced in Seeing yourself seeing: Olafur Eliasson. Video. SFMOMA: 2007

Grynsztejn, M. and P. Samis (2007). Interview with Madeleine Grynsztejn, July 5, 2007. Internal transcript. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2007.

Linett, P. (2004). Attitudinal Segmentation: A Tool for Defining Audiences. Panel presentation at the annual meeting of the American Association of Museums. New Orleans, May 2004.

Samis, P. (2007). New Technologies as part of a Comprehensive Interpretive Plan. In H. Din and P. Hecht (Eds.), The Digital Museum: A Think Guide. Washington, D.C.: AAM, 2007. Reprinted as “Visual Velcro: Hooking the Visitor” in Museum News 86, no. 6 (November-December 2007): 57 – 62, 68 – 70. Available online at Accessed January 23, 2008.

Simon, N. (2007). “Wielding Web 2.0 Intelligently: the SFMOMA Experiment.” Museum 2.0, Monday, October 1, 2007. Accessed January 23, 2008.

Weil, S.E. (1999). “From Being About Something to Being for Somebody: the Ongoing Transformation of the American Museum.” In Daedalus, Cambridge, MA, 128:3, 229 – 258. Reprinted in Making Museums Matter. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002.

Cite as:

Samis, P., Who Has The Responsibility For Saying What We See? Mashing up Museum, Artist, and Visitor Voices, On-site and On-line, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2008: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2008. Consulted