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Museums and the Web

An annual conference exploring the social, cultural, design, technological, economic, and organizational issues of culture, science and heritage on-line.

Shapeshifting - Transformations in Native American Art

People's Choice:
3 votes




Peabody Essex Museum


In house with Kasey Cole




 Visitors viewing the word cloud in the galleries. It is also available online.PEM Shapeshifting word cloud: Visitors viewing the word cloud in the galleries. It is also available online.This submission may be an exception to the rule for MW exhibition sites since it was designed first and foremost as an in-gallery experience, but I think that is what makes it so interesting. The web version of the interactive supports the goals of the exhibition by extending the conversation outside of the museum, inviting web visitors to participage in the dialogue.

The exhibition Shapeshifting offers an exciting new orientation for understanding Native creativity and art making. Its four organizing themes, Changing, Knowing, Locating, and Voicing, address touchstones in Native art over time: artistic evolution, worldview, identity, and politics. The 74 works in the exhibition were selected to demonstrate a range of artistic expression, culture, time, and media. One of the goals of the show is to encourage visitors to rethink their preconceived notions about Native American art. Some works in the show may surprise and delight visitors, while others may trigger complex emotions and encourage reflection.

 PEM Shapeshifting online experiencePEM Shapeshifting online experienceThe Shapeshifting interactive and online experience encourages visitors to contribute to a dialogue on four key works in the exhibition.  In the physical exhibition, prior to entering the four themed galleries, visitors encounter a large, dynamic word cloud projection depicting words drawn from a range of responses to Native American art—the curator’s, the catalogue’s authors, the artists themselves, web users, and museum visitors. This word cloud, which is also viewable online, constantly changes based on user-generated responses, moving from the institutional/curatorial voice when the exhibition opened, to a melding of the institutional voice and comments from physical and virtual visitors over the course of the exhibition.

VIsitors on iPad kiosksVIsitors on iPad kiosksBoth online and at iPad stations adjacent to artwork in the four themed galleries, visitors can watch short videos of artists whose work explores specific themes, and then answer a question related to each object. The questions were designed to trigger an immediate response, induce grappling, motivate authentic expression, let visitors draw from personal experience, encourage deeper looking at the objects, and produce answers that are interesting to read and respond to.

 The words from responses are then added to a content management system (WordPress) and may later be displayed in the word cloud, in the Explore other viewpoints sections on the in gallery iPads and here on the museum website on the online version of the interactive, and the summative display in the show’s final gallery.


Users submit comments and then have the opportunity to view a time stamped archive of comments left by previous visitors. Museum staff moderate the comments for appropriate language and most importantly to ensure that the responses answer the question asked and contribute to the dialogue. 

 The summative experience, near the exit of the last gallery, features a 50 in. plasma screen that displays the best comments from each of the iPad stations. When moderating, museum staff have the ability to rank the comments so that the most compelling are included on the display. Both in gallery and online comments are included on the display, allowing online visitors an opportunity to leave their mark on the physical exhibition.

By including the content from the interactive on our website, we hope to extend these multi-directional conversations between artist and visitor, the museum and the visitor, visitor and artwork, visitor and visitor, out into a broader web audience. This will allow visitors to make post visit comments and encourage those who may never step foot in the galleries to join the conversation. The design of the web interactive has been modified to replicate the physical museum and iPad experience as best as possible.

 All video was shot and edited in-house and created specifically for this project (with trips to Providence, New York, Santa Fe, and Paguate, NM). The videos are short, to the point, very compelling, and serve as the backbone for the entire interactive experience. All of the videos are captioned.

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