Archives & Museum Informatics
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Published: March 1999.
Telling Stories: Procedural Authorship and
Extracting Meaning from Museum
Steve Dietz, Walker Art Center, USA
The Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the
Jacquard loom weaves flowers and trees.
--Ada Lovelace, 1834
You want to write a song but first you have to invent a piano.
--Toni Dove, 1998
From the Library of Alexandria to the World Wide Web
It has been suggested that the pigeon holes for the vast collection
of papyrus scrolls at the library of Alexandria were a technical
innovation that greatly facilitated access to the library's holdings.
(Canfora, 1990) Ever since, cultural heritage institutions and
their collections management software vendors have been attempting
to wrestle under control the information they know about their
collections. Generally, however, museum automation systems, computer-based
and otherwise, have been as much for the management of resources
as access to them. It is only with the rise of the World Wide
Web that, arguably, a new emphasis on public access to museum
informational resources has arisen. Inevitably, as a field, we
have begun to succeed in providing the public access to much of
the information we as managers have spent the last 20 plus years
automating--that is, making "machine readable." The
question is, in part, is this the information the public is looking
for and, in part, how can we make it compelling.
In 1997, just as projects such as The Thinker (http://www.thinker.org)
and the National Gallery of Art's (Washington, DC) powerful Leonardo
system (http://www.nga.gov/search/) were coming online, at the
first Museums & the Web conference, the panel "Accessing
Museum Collections Over the Web" (http://www.archimuse.com/mw97/mw97wed.htm#13)
was raising important questions about the value to the user of
all this effort.
Not surprisingly, the Web, despite its inadequacies and the need
for museums to rethink their information practices, was seen as
critical to the success of providing access to museum information
integrated across knowledge domains, telling educational stories,
and creating dynamic and compelling interactive exhibitions.
Jim Blackaby and Beth Sandore focused on "practical approaches
to data organization and access," using work at the U.S.
Memorial Holocaust Museum and the Oregon Historical Society to
demonstrate how "you could put your fingers on all of the
information about a specific topic in a museum, regardless of
whether it was drawn from the objects collection, exhibit catalogues,
the library's holdings, or the prints and slides collection."
Kevin Donovan gave an impassioned plea that "Simply providing
the public with access to data is insufficient to satisfy the
goal of public education." Museums, at least in their databased,
public outreach efforts, need to kick the object-centered habit.
To achieve on-line Public Learning as I have described it museums
need to offer enriched, value-added content that supplements label
copy and object records with well-told stories that captivate
and enlighten. . . . museum information systems must evolve from
object-centric collection management systems to context capable
content management systems. (http://www.archimuse.com/mw97/speak/donovan.htm)
Howard Besser treated us to a mini-history of museum information
systems and how they differed from interactive exhibition systems:
Historically, most museum automation efforts have been driven
by the need for record-keeping and inventory control, and have
resulted in collection management systems. A smaller set of automation
efforts has centered in museum education departments, and has
focused on interactive exhibits. The vendors, software, tools,
and platforms for computers used in collection management have
been very different from those in interactive exhibition. (http://www.archimuse.com/mw97/speak/besser.htm)
Today, as even a cursory scan of the 1999 Museums & the Web
conference program (http://www.archimuse.com/mw99/sessions/index.html)
shows, there are countless remarkable efforts to yoke databased
museum information to web-based outreach programs. Are we there,
then? Can users put their fingers on all the information they
want? Are we telling stories that matter? Are we creating compelling,
The answer is yes, there are some provocative models, and no,
it will be impossible to implement them on a universal scale as
they are currently constructed.
From the Collection to the Library to the Archive:
Arguably, we are furthest along in the arena of integrated information
access. A joint project between the Walker Art Center and The
Minneapolis Institute of Arts, ArtsConnectEd (http://www.artsconnected.org)
is indicative of the direction and state of such efforts.
Figure 1: ArtsConnectEd, an integrated information access joint project
between the Walker Art Center and The Minneapolis Institute of
Arts, with a particular emphasis on use in the K-12 classroom
by teachers and students. (http://www.artsconnected.org)
Contrary to Donovan's assertion that collection management systems
needed to become more comprehensive MIA and Walker separated information
management from access. We take periodic dumps of the information
in our various managements systems, "scrub" the data,
and put it into an Inquery database. This allows users to find
information about a specific topic in either or both museums,
regardless of whether it was drawn from the objects collection,
exhibit catalogues, the library's holdings, or the archives.
The system is quite powerful and includes over 100,000 collection,
library, and archive records from both institutions, more than
1,000 dynamically zoomable object images, hundreds of hours of
audio and video, numerous curriculum units, and interactive hypermedia
modules. Perhaps most usefully, any search provides related items
that the searcher may not have thought to ask for.
Figure 2: Search Deluxe allows users to specify the scope and type of search results. The results identify related items that
are not necessarily part of the initial search result set.
While the search engine is only one part of ArtsConnectEd--there
are also extensive interfaces to synthetic classroom materials--after
three full days in the Dayton-Hudson usability lab at two different
stages of the project, we are forced to recognize that there is
strong corroboration that the information we are providing--i.e.
the information we have created over the past 20 years--is not
always what the user is looking for. As one participant who had
successfully completed one of the usability scenarios put it,
"where's the information." He didn't recognize what
the museum collection database had to say about an object as something
of interest to him.
Donovan succinctly states what many art museums in particular
do not like to admit:
as any paleontologist who has walked into a gallery of Trecento
Italian paintings can tell you, or any art historian who has been
confronted with a display case filled with geological samples
knows, objects do not give up the richness of their history, context,
and meaning easily. Museums need to wrap layers of interpretation
around the bare fact of an object before the public can begin
to grasp its significance. The same holds true for the information
we offer on-line to our publics.
Simply providing users an object's creation date, creator name,
medium, and so on is not enough, even if the information has been
culled from different domains at different institutions. For many
users, we need to provide a richer environment, a more compelling
From Categories to Stories
While object-centeredness may be good from a museum collection
point of view, Donovan argues that it is not the best way to engage
Instead of leading with the object, lead with the story of
the culture, historical context, important people and places,
and their importance. Tell engaging stories with objects woven
through them. Do so via entertaining, prescribed paths that both
lead the user lightly by the hand and encourage curiosity, exploration
This approach of animating the museum experience and museum objects
with a narrative structured is echoed by the eminent information
architect and exhibition designer Ralph Appelbaum (1996), who
designed the magnificent installations for the American Museum
of Natural History and the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum:
In our recent work for the American Museum of Natural History
and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, we have experimented
with ways to activate the total experience of communication goals.
We look for architectural and environmental metaphors for the
key pedagogical concepts behind an exhibition, so that space traditionally
left neutral is given voice. This approach casts a broader informational
net to engage the receptiveness of different visitors. We feel
the results are seen in people's sense of immersion, attention
span, and enhanced memory of their experience, provoking them
to discuss the exhibit with others and engage in activities such
as reading more on the subject, visiting related sites, or becoming
more involved with the museum.
As one example of an online story-context, Donovan cites the Monticello
Web site (http://www.monticello.org/index. html), which allows
the visitor to follow a day in the life of Thomas Jefferson. This
narrative may be particularly powerful because it replicates our
internal diurnal clock. The day-in-the-life narrative is, in fact,
fascinating and providing a quotidian context for the use of Jefferson's
writing desk probably does mean a lot more than most people than
the straight collection database record that probably exists
Figure 3: A day in the life of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello.
Nevertheless, I do question how far one can actually explore
with just a pre-determined narrative, which remains largely textual
and which the visitor reads more than she participates in. Perhaps
more significantly, it presents, basically, a single point of
view. Presumably, Jefferson's slaves had a different idea of a
day at Monticello. As James J. O'Donnell (1998) writes:
The author is already an endangered species and rightly so.
The notion that authoritative discourse comes with a single monologic
voice thrives on the written artifact. Both oral discourse . .
. and the networked conversations that already surround us suggest
that in the dialogue of conflicting voices, a fuller representation
of the world may be found. The notion that reality itself can
be reduced to a single model universally shared is at best a useful
fiction, at worst a hallucination that will turn out to have been
dependent on the written word for its ubiquity and power
Figure 4: World Ceramics (http://www.artsmia.org/ceramics/secondary/),
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts; Through Your Eyes (http://www.walkerart.org/ace/tye/index_participants.html),
Walker Art Center.
Museums rightly strive to present authoritative information, but
this need not be limited it to a single, authorless (institutional)
point of view. And while multi-vocality is not specific to digital
media--think of Rashoman---the ability to present parallel
and even conflicting narratives is an easy task. In the ArtsConnectEd
project, for example, both Walker and MIA have created multiple-narrative
presentations. In "World Ceramics," you can choose the
point of view of an artist, an archaeologist, or a curator (http://www.artsmia.org/ceramics/secondary/).
In "Through Your Eyes" (http://www.walkerart.org/ace/tye/),
you can "tour" the Walker's varied programs through
the particular experiences of different members of the local community.
From Multi-Vocal to Hyper-Linear
Arguably, it is more natural for humans to think in associative
webs rather than in strictly linear fashion. Until the advent
of the hyperlinking capability of the World Wide Web, however,
non-linear narrative was largely the province of experimental
literature and cinema.
And whether one sees it as a vice or a virtue, museums increasingly
have to recognize that their future audience will have been brought
up on the jump cuts of MTV, the branching game worlds of Nintendo,
and the hyperlinking of the Web. In such an environment, hypertext
is a survival strategy.
Artists remain the primary expanders of hypertext narratives.
A brief sampling might include Mark Amerika's Grammatron (http://www.grammatron.com/);
Olia Lialina's My Boyfriend Came Back from the War (http://www.teleportacia.org/war/);
Melinda Burgess's Line (http://www.subtle.net/line/);
Darcey Steinke's Blindspot (http://adaweb.walkerart.org/project/blindspot/);
Judy Malloy and Cathy Marshall's, Forward Anywhere< (http://www.csdl.tamu.edu/~malloy/html/beginning.html);
and Claude Closky's Do You Want Love or Lust? (http://www.diacenter.org/closky/index.html).
In "Hypertextual Consciousness," Mark Amerika, one
of the best-known practitioners and theoreticians of hypertext
and hypermedia, posits hypertext as a kind of subversive experiential
space that also hints at auto-generation ("Writing Machine").
Hypertext, as a concept, suggests an alternative to the more
rigid, authoritarian linearity of conventional book-contained
text. In the middle of reading or viewing a hypertext . . . the
reader/participant (co-conspirator) is given a number of options
to select from so as to break away from the text-block being presently
read, thus enabling the reader/participant to immediately enter
a new writing or textual space.. . . A hypertextual viewing style
would be one where the reader/participant (co-conspirator) actively
clicks their way into new writing or textual spaces . . . . Hypertext,
as a more narratologically-minded (fictionally-generated) clickual
reading/viewing style, could be construed as kind of Writing Machine.
Figure 5: Mitchel Resnick, "Exploring Emergence,"
an active essay. (http://el.www.media.mit.edu/groups/el/projects/emergence/)
In a not dissimilar vein, Mitchel Resnick, a professor in the
Epistemology and Learning Group at the MIT Media Lab is researching
the idea of "active essays" (http://el.www.media.mit.edu/groups/
by which computers make possible a new form of narrative expression,
in which manipulable computational objects are integrated with
text, graphics, and video.
Figure 6: Julie Luckenbach and Louis Mazza, "Beuys/Logos,"
Walker Art Center (http://www.walkerart.org/beuys/hyper).
The Walker used the format of the hyperessay as its online "catalog
essay," Beuys/Logos (http://www.walkeart.org/beuys/hyper/)
for an exhibition Joseph Beuys Multiples. Written by Julie
Luckenbach and designed by Louis Mazza, this approach allows the
reader to chose what interests her the most and follow that thread,
including beyond the essay, so to speak, to other resources on
the Internet that may have no formal relation to Beuys--certainly
not to this specific exhibition--at all.
The "traditional" complaints about hypertext, of course,
are that it destabilizes our notion of narrative as being a specific
trajectory, it diminishes the authorial role, and it simply isn't
rewarding. The first two concerns, as the philosopher Wiilliam
J. Mitchell (992) suggests, are well founded:
So we must abandon the traditional conception of an art world
populated by stable, enduring, finished works and replace it with
one that recognizes continual mutation and proliferation of variants
- much as with oral epic poetry. Notions of individual authorial
responsibility for image content, authorial determination of meaning,
and authorial prestige are correspondingly diminished.
From Storytelling to Conversation
Socrates said that writing forces you to follow an argument
rather than participate in it. He hated the idea that someone
could write something down, and then go off and die, and you would
never be able to argue them back out of it. What we think is so
important about writing he thought was horrible.
Kay's Socrates story points to an important difference between
storytelling and conversation. Storytelling, while certainly influenced
by audience responses, is one way, declamatory. A good conversation,
on the other hand, is two-way, equally influenced by both parties.
As Roger Schank (1994), director of Instructional Learning Systems
at Northwestern University, and developer of "ASK" puts
--Alan Kay (1998)
ASK is a form of hypermedia based on the metaphor of having
a conversation with an expert (or a group of experts). In this
conversation, the user provides questions and the ASK system provides
the answers. In a real conversation, both participants influence
the flow of discussion. In an ASK system, the same holds true.
The user influences the flow by selecting which questions to pursue
and the ASK system influences the flow through the answers it.
Amerika's "Writing Machine," Resnick's "active
essays" (a term coined by Alan Kay), Mitchell's decentered
author, Schank's conversations all point to an important and distinctive
characteristic of digital media. This characteristic is commonly
referred to as interactivity, although in this context a better
term might be computability, the basis for procedural authorship.
From Interactivity to Responsiveness
Besser, in his 1997 panel presentation, was making a distinction
between the software for museum information management and "interactive
exhibitions." Exemplary examples of such an interactive exhibition
might be "Academic Interactive Exercise: Robert Cumming"
(http://www.moma.org/onlineprojects/cumming/index.html) or "Artwork
of the Month: Lorna Simpson, Wigs" (http://www.walkerart.org/education/aom/simpson/).
Both of these projects take advantage of the powerful capabilities
of digital media to create activity-based interactions based on
an original artwork. Neither, however, is interactive in the sense
that artist and media theoritician Simon Biggs argues for:
Both the term "navigation", and the sense in which
it used, represents a narrowing of the possibilities for interactive
media. The idea of navigation is primarily founded on a very traditional
notion of what an artwork might be. Fundamentally, the use of
this word implies work which is more or less fixed in its content,
and through which the reader can "navigate" in a non-linear
fashion. This allows the emergent illusion that the reader is
experiencing a dynamic and interactive work.
Such work however is not interactive. . . . An interactive
work is significantly different. . . . . The term interactivity
can be used to refer to those works which feature some form of
responsiveness to the reader, where that responsiveness causes
the content of the work to be altered.
Figure 7: Simon Biggs, The Great Wall of China, screenshot
Biggs's own project, The Great Wall of China (http://www.easynet.co.uk/simonbiggs/greatwall1.htm),
is a "writing machine" that is more like a musical than
written composition, and at first blush it may not seem very appropriate
for the serious world of vetted museum information. It is important
to keep in mind, however, that the apparently random texts are
responding to user input--in this case the movements of the mouse.
One of the perennial problems with very large databases, like
The Thinker or as we hope AMICO (http://www.AMICO.net/) will become,
is that of browsing. How do you give a sense of the scope of the
collection in a way that allows for serendipity? The traditional
answer is a random slide show that has some kind of filtering
mechanisms. What if, however, there was some other kind of responsiveness
(two-way) that did not rely on either fixed categorization that
the user may or may not be familiar with or completely random
display. It is easy to imagine such navigation as being both valuable
Many other artists are working with responsive interactivity,
including: Paul Vanouse, Consensual Fantasy Engine (http://www.walkerart.org/gallery9/vanouse/)
and Persistent Data Confidante (http://www-crca.ucsd.edu/~pdc/);
Toni Dove, Artificial Changelings (http://murtaugh.www.media.mit.edu/
Rebecca Allen, Bush Soul (http://emergence.design.ucla.edu);
Jane Prophet, Technosphere (http://www.technosphere.org.uk/); David Blair, Waxweb (http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/wax/index.html);
Natalie Bookchin, Databank of the Everyday (http://jupiter.ucsd.edu/~bookchin/databank/databank1.html);
Jeffrey Shaw, Legible City (http://www.artnetweb.com/artnetweb/
Maurice Benayoun, Is God Flat? (http://www.benayoun.com/EtMoi/gb.html);
Ken Goldberg, Jester (http://shadow.ieor.berkeley.edu/humor/);
Joseph Squier, io (http://gertrude.art.uiuc.edu/ludgate/the/place/place2.html); Richard Rinehart, An Experience Base-A Boolean Typhoon (http://www.coyoteyip.com).
From the Author to Procedural Authorship
It is arguable that all artworks are interactive. Lev Manovich
(1998), for instance, argues that:
New media takes "interaction" literally, equating
it with a strictly physical interaction between a user and a
screen (by pressing a button), at the sake of psychological interaction.
The psychological process of filling in, hypothesis forming, recall
and identification--which are required for us to comprehend any
text or image at all--are erroneously equated with an objectively
existing structure of interactive links.
Procedural authorship, however, moves the author's traditional
role over, so to speak, and without the reader/interactor, there
is nothing authored except possibility. Simply put, procedural
authorship makes the rules, which the reader en(inter)acts.
One simple way to explain this idea is with Ken Perlin's Wide
World Web. (http://mrl.nyu.edu/perlin/demox/Planet.html) This
java applet produces an earth-like rendering. Every time it is
launched, the world is a bit different, but from Perlin's point
of view, every time, it's exactly what he intended. The authorship
is under the hood, so to speak, in the algorithm. The "story"
he has authored--a dynamic world--varies within appropriate parameters,
which he has determined.
Another example of procedural authorship is baseball. Baseball
is defined by both a set space and a set of rules. Every game,
hundreds of thousands of them each year, is the same--set of rules.
Yet every game is different. Each game has its own personality,
based on the interactions of the players. And while some might
call the game dull, for others it is a thrilling drama, precisely
because the outcome is never known and different every time.
From Responsive Interactivity to Interactive Narrative
To return to Manovich, not every responsive program is a narrative.
To qualify as a narrative, a cultural object has to satisfy
a number of criteria, which literary scholar Mieke Bal defines
as follows: it should contain both an actor and a narrator; it
should also consist of three distinct levels consisting of the
text, the story, and the fabula; and its "contents"
should be a "series of connected events caused or experienced
by actors. Obviously not all cultural objects are narratives.
However, in the world of new media, the word "narrative"
is often used as an all-inclusive term, to cover up the fact that
we have not yet developed a language to describe these new strange
objects. . . . Thus, a number of database records linked together
so that more than one trajectory is possible, is assumed to constitute
"interactive narrative." But to just create these trajectories
is of course not sufficient; the author also has to control the
semantics of the elements and the logic of their connection so
that the resulting object will meet the criteria of narrative
as outlined above.
Hence, Paul Vanouse's Persistent Data Confidante, while
an excellent example of procedural authorship--based on viewer
ratings, secrets in the database can either die off or mate with
other secrets and create new hybrid ones--is not a narrative,
while his Consensual Fantasy Engine is an exemplary narrative
whose trajectory is entirely determined by audience responses
to a series of questions and the corresponding responses of a
number of algorithmic "critics," which stitch together
a narrative on the fly.
Figure 8: Paul Vanouse and Peter Weyhrauch, Consensual Fantasy
Engine, screenshot. (http://www.walkerart.org/gallery9/vanouse/)
Just because a procedurally authored projects meets the criteria
for being a narrative doesn't mean that it is good, of course.
Walter Ong (1982), however, has suggested that In the 1930s, scholars
concluded that Homer, one of the greatest storytellers of the
Western canon, probably used stock phrases according to context,
using a simple replacement strategy. And it is such a strategy
that Janet Murray, in her excellent book Hamlet On the Holodeck
(1997), concludes Vladamir Propp validated.
When he finished all the extant titles, Propp was able to summarize
all the variants of the Russian folktale in one inclusive representation.
His work suggests that satisfying stories can be generated by
substituting and rearranging formulaic units according to rules
as precise as a mathematical formula.
From Interactive Narrative to
Beyond an interest in experimenting with innovative presentation
methods, the other reason new ways of creating stories becomes
so important potentially, is hinted at in a talk by Cliff Lynch
back at the 1997 Museums & the Web conference. In a session
on "Dublin Core and Warwick Framework Metadata for the Description
and Location of Networked Information Objects" (http://www.archimuse.com/mw97/mw97tues.htm#10),
Lynch, the current executive director of the Coalition for Networked
Information, suggested that one of the dominant issues facing
institutions such as museums and libraries is the geometrically
cascading explosion of information bytes, the majority of which
will never be able to be processed by humans directly. We must
figure out systems for machine-to-machine processing and comprehension
Lynch was referring primarily to enabling search and retrieve
functions, but the need can apply equally to creating rich information
contexts, narrative stories, and responsive interactivity about
and around the objects in museum collections. We are beginning
to understand how to do this well in one-off situations, but it
is truly a Sissyphean task and for every 6-month or year-long
project completed, there are hundreds more waiting in the archives
and dozens more possibilities being acquired on a daily basis.
We will never catch up with the flow of facts to hand-knead them
into coherent information environments that open up the possibility
of increased knowledge by the user without additional tools.
Joseph Squier's new project, io (http://gertrude.art.uiuc.edu/ludgate/the/place/place2.html),
uses an interactive engine to allow user input of a limited vocabulary
to have a primitive kind of conversation and related dynamic "illustrations"--or
vice-versa. Again, it is not hard to imagine using a similar function
to understand better what people are looking for and translating
it to the way that museums manage their information--a gap that
can be very large and at times insurmountable.
Figure 9: Joseph Squier, io, screenshot. (http://gertrude.art.uiuc.edu/ludgate/the/place/place2.html)
Richard Rinehart's new project, An Experience Base-A Boolean
Typhoon (http://www.coyoteyip.com), is interesting for the
way that it flexibly structures user input to create a self-generating
database using data-multipurposing-friendly meta-language for
describing life, an emerging proto-standard, which Rinehart has
registered with the ANSI and ISO standards organizations, and
this experience base is the first testbed project exploring the
feasibility of such a language.
Figure 10: Richard Rinehart, An Experience Base-A Boolean Typhoon, screenshot. (http://www.coyoteyip.com)
Ken Goldberg et al's Jester: The On-Line Joke Recommender (http://shadow.ieor.berkeley.edu/humor/) is a collaborative
filtering project that asks you to rate a series of jokes and
then, based on your ratings, it recommends jokes "personalized"
for your sense of humor. This kind of process, collaborative filtering,
has proved successful in databases of movies, books, music, and
other matters of "taste." It is a project/process waiting
to happen at museums.
Figure 11: Ken Goldberg, Dhruv Gupta, DiGiovanni, Hiro Narita,
Jester: The On-line Joke Recommender, screenshot. (http://shadow.ieor.berkeley.edu/humor/)
Amerika, M. "HYPERTEXTUAL CONSCIOUSNESS 1.0: an exploration
into cyborg-narrators, virtual reality and the teleportation
of narrative consciousness into the electrosphere..." http://www.grammatron.com/htc1.0/
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museum's message and provoke multiple levels of response,"
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