Split Second: Indian Paintings at the Brooklyn Museum of Art

Sunday, December 16, 2012
At the recent American Association of Museum's (AAM) meeting in Houston, Peter Linett talked about the importance and increasing use of participatory platforms in museums. He declares on his blog that the "participatory revolution is all around us". Beyond the valued benefits of encouraging community involvement and increasing visitor attendance, participatory practices can offer a crucial insight into the way meaning is constructed in the visual experience. It can offer cultural institutions an opportunity to study and improve their own practices of content presentation and interpretation and enhance visitor experience.
A great example of the latter was conducted at the Brooklyn Museum of Art recently. In February, the BMA launched a participatory project that gave curators an opportunity to collaborate with their online community. Based on Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, the interactive project examines the processes that shape viewers preferences and reactions. Split Second: Indian Paintings, the brainchild of Shelley Bernstein, Chief of Technology at the BMA, uses an interactive online tool in three phases to solicit feedback from participants who are invited to view various images of Indian paintings while presenting them with differing levels of information. The results of the study will be used to curate the exhibition which opens on July 13th.
In phase one, two artworks are shown side by side and viewers have four seconds to select the one they like best.

In the second phase, participants were split into groups and asked more detailed questions about the painting. These questions directed viewers to comment on specific aspects of paintings and analyze how thinking/participating affects the rating of the artwork.
In phase three of the online evaluation, the exercise is designed to determine how information produced by the museum might affect the overall rating. Are museum labels effective? Are they descriptive enough? Participants are split into three groups and are shown ten objects. Some are provided the object's caption only, others are given tags to study and the third group gets the museum's interpretative label, which is what normally accompanies artwork in most museums
Preliminary results indicated that 4,617 participants created 176,394 ratings and spent an average of 7 minutes and 32 seconds in session with the tool.
The last section is perhaps the most important in terms of studying how effectively museums are able to convey crucial information about an artwork. Interpretative texts and labels are often the subject of ongoing discussion among museum practitioners and are still a mainstay and cornerstone of curatorial practice, despite a growing need for revision given the digital revolution and the availability of so many media tools and creative designs. Another factor to consider is the rate at which information changes. Is the current text label in museums equipped to accommodate the changes that are inherent in the scholarship of that particular subject area of art history? Does the content in labels effectively speak to the needs of different audiences (Parry, Williams, Sawyer, 2007)?
Split Second is a good example of a successful participatory project that has very specific goals in sight. It applies user-generated feedback to organize and curate a small exhibition. The subject matter, Indian painting, is introduced in an accessible and engaging format. The platform is scaffolded, which means that supportive resources are provided so participants can feel comfortable while performing the activity at hand, rather than the task being open-ended which can be daunting and confusing. Effective scaffolding can be done without prescribing results (Simmons, 2010). Updates and preliminary results are also posted at frequent intervals on the museum blog to keep participants involved and users are able to provide feedback on certain aspects of the online evaluation tool.

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