Last November, I wrote about the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum's new initiative to create—with help from a federal grant—a custom database of viewsheds that will eventually be used for interactive experiences related to the artist's life and work. I learned then that the project was one of what will be an evolving commitment to integrating technology into the museum's artistic mission.
At the end of January, the museum welcomed its new digital curator, Liz Neely, as part of a "commitment to technological innovations." Neely will oversee expansion into interactive, multimedia and immersive mediums for fans, visitors and scholars of the seminal modernist painter.
Neely's background and training includes curatorial, education and technological pursuits; prior to coming to O'Keeffe, she was the senior director of integrated content at the American Alliance of Museums in Washington, DC.
She also has been influenced in her thinking about integrating technology into museum programs by her participation in the maker movement. In a 2013 Ted Talk on "inventing fabulation," Neely persuasively discussed the creative value of imagining and making things, even if those things might seem "ridiculous." The pathway began when Neely, for fun, attended a workshop that trained participants in part to use Arduino (an open-source electronics platform) and began imagining and trying to make things herself.
In Neely's case, her invention was a Twitter dress that sang bird songs and flapped its wings when someone tweeted at her. (Neely also made a second dress for the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, currently on display in Winnipeg Canada, which lights up in various iterations in response to the hashtags #equality, #reconciliation and #environment).
Part of Neely's takeaway from engaging with the maker community was that the act of making can be transformational in unexpected ways for the creator, and she brings that philosophy to designing museum programming.
"What I've really always been interested in is designing experiences," Neely says, "whether that's online or through content." The O'Keeffe, she notes, has "lots of physical space," creating multiple opportunities "to get people involved." That involvement certainly includes considering interactive and immersive experiences, but Neely also emphasizes the potential to provide creative opportunities for museum audiences. "So it's about designing experiences or programs that allow people to see the world differently and have that aha moment … that's what it did for me when I started making … there are a lot of different ways to see the world differently, and it's really important to imagine different pathways for your life. That's what museums and creativity to do."
The maker community also emphasizes collaboration. Neely, when she set upon making her Twitter dress, didn't know how to make a dress, let alone make one that interacted with social media. She learned with help from others (including her father, who has an electronics background). This collaborative spirit guides museum culture as well, she says. Historically, she notes, art museums have operated more as "storehouses and caretakers of the world's collections," but have evolved to incorporate more of the interactive elements traditionally associated with children's and science museums.
"The benefit that we have is that we're a community of museums," she says. "Museums aren't in competition with one another … we can work as a community of professionals [and] we're learning about how we can use experience design."
Experience design encompasses such ventures as education programs that incorporate 3D printing and just-fun-for-everyone immersive virtual reality.
Neely says the future interactive projects will be targeted both at visitors to the museum and O'Keeffe's home and studio in Abiquiu as well as online users. A long-term goal, she says, is creating and connecting a databank that makes available the myriad vast resources connected to O'Keeffe's work and her life—from her letters to her paintbrushes—"so we can design experiences and experiment with things." The museum also recently hired a new curator of education and interpretation, Katrina Stacy, with whom Neely will be working on new public initiatives.
Certainly, the vast material available related to O'Keeffe's work and life provides numerous possibilities to engage people.
"She was such an interesting multifaceted person," Neely notes, "so the question as a museum is: How do we tell the story?" The ultimate goal, she says, is to "connect people with those storylines. We're not interested in technology for technology's sake, but in thinking about how we get across these points of interest. A lot of people who come here, the first time you see some of these things, it is transformative…and you can let your mind wander."
And from there, anything can happen.