I recently took a walk across the park from American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), where I work, to our sibling museum founded on the other side of Central Park, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. For the first time, I got to go behind the scenes and visit their MediaLab, run by Marco Castro Cosio. After the tour, I met with both Marco and Neal Stimler, digital asset specialist in Collection Information. Both work together in the museum’s centralized Digital Department. I spoke with them about the Met MediaLab and what roles it plays spreading digital innovation throughout the museum. We talked about edible 3D objects and telepresence robots, cats, Minecraft, hip-hop, and the importance of digital innovation spaces within museums.
Marco, please introduce yourself.
Marco: Hi, my name is Marco Castro Cosio. I am manager of the MediaLab here at the Met. I have a background in art and technology, coming out of ITP at NYU. I was working as a curator and artist before coming to The Met and also worked at the Queens Museum as a teaching artist and as visitor experience manager at the museum.
Neal: I am a Neal Stimler, digital asset specialist in Collections Information at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I started my career as a print art historian working on
German Expressionist prints and American art between the two World Wars. Responding to the critical importance of digital technologies, I shifted my professional practice to become an interdisciplinary technologist and creative strategist. I now work on helping to digitize the museum’s collections through workflow design, policy, strategy and wearable technology. I’m a collaborator and friend of the Met MediaLab.
Thank you both for joining us today to talk about media labs in museums. Let’s start by talking about the MediaLab here The Met. What is its history?
Marco: Met MediaLab was started approximately three years ago and was run by Don Undeen. MediaLab is an innovation R&D hub for the museum. We invite staff and outside agents — startup companies, research institutes, universities, creative technologists, artists and scientists — to experiment with emerging technologies within the museum context.
We started with a 3D printing hackathon, where creative technologists and artists were invited to scan the collection and create models that people could download and remix to make collections of their own. After the 3D hackathon, we started looking further into different emerging technologies.
Why does the museum need something like this?
Marco: It helps us look at what the museum of the future might be looking like in 15 to 25 years. We need to increase the diversity in the museum, which means not only including people with a variety of backgrounds, but also having different points of view. We want to make a porous connection between the museum and the arts, technology and sciences communities.
How many people work in the department with you?
Marco: It’s a two-person group. I am working with different researchers, volunteers and interns. Right now we have six research volunteers who come and explore different technologies and how we can apply them to the museum context. They explore how we can help solve museum problems and we also help them in their practice. We also have two high school interns.
I think we have created a safe space, like a very porous walled garden, where people can come and experiment with different technologies. We are thought of as a resource where people can explore different ideas.
Please share some examples of projects that have “left the garden”?
Marco: Coloring the Temple was a project where two interns, Maria Paula Saba and Matt Felsen, worked with a fellow in the Department of Egyptian Art to simulate the original colors on the Temple of Dendur through projection mapping.
What’s the Temple of Dendur?
Neal: The Temple of Dendur is an architectural monument in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was a gift from Egypt to the United States and was supported in its journey to the museum by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. A wing in the museum was built just for it.
What was it that digital brought to the temple experience?
Marco: It helped staff, researchers and interns reflect on the temple’s context, on the role that colors and pigments played in the original construction of the temple. The project was a thoughtful collaborative investigation that lead the museum to consider how digital technologies could be further utilized for interpretation and preservation.
Tell us more about other MediaLab projects.
There’s Meow Met, created by former intern and MediaLab volunteer, Emily McAllister. Meow Met is a Chrome extension that you install on your Chrome browser. Every time you open a new browser tab, a new wallpaper appears with an image from the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and it can link back to the image on the website. The project has been very popular on the Internet, including features in Buzzfeed, Hyperallergic and Slate. And, it also helped us show cats throughout history and have people understand how cat obsession is not a new thing in the Internet age; people have have been obsessed with cats through the ages.
The Hip-Hop Project was done by Regina Flores Mir while she was an intern at the Met MediaLab. She was also working with a community of high school students in Jamaica, Queens and mentioned to the students that she was working at The Met. The students suggested, “they didn’t know what The Met was and it’s probably a boring museum.” She was trying to find a way to get them engaged with the collection. So, she decided, inspired by The Met’s Artist Project, to use hip-hop lyrics from the Genius API and match them to artworks in collection. Visit the project website at www.rappersdelight.nyc and read press coverage in Motherboard, Fast Company’s Co.Exist and HypeBeast.
Then, there was the Minecraft project, done by Brian Hughes, an intern from Queens College. Brian was investigating how different gaming technologies and storytelling techniques could embed the museum’s collection into people’s lives through familiar platforms. He learned Minecraft through two teenagers who came to the MediaLab. Brian created an extension for Minecraft, a physical and digital activity where people explore the galleries and then come to Minecraft to get more information.
That’s right! In face, I made a video of my son and I playing it.
So, for people walking through the MediaLab, can you describe briefly what they see?
Marco: First, we have the 3D print collection. Some of the earliest models we have were part of the hackathon previously mentioned and others are from experiments where we invited artists such as Tom Burtonwood and Isaac Budmen. As you move forward, you will see models from the Edible Met project and a 3D printing experiment with gypsum and sugar of a rosary bead in the collection. This shows how we have been exploring different aspects of the senses around the MediaLab. If you move forward, you will see the robotic arm which was part of the Costume Institute’s Charles James exhibition. It was helping to show how the dresses were built in the collection. The MediaLab may experiment with the robot arm in collaboration with the Photograph Studio for future collection digitization initiatives.
Between the two, did I see a telepresence robot?
Macro: Yes. We are partnering with the accessibility group in the Education Department on how to use telepresence robots. For example, how might people in hospitals who are bedbound come to explore the collection? More broadly, we’re seeking to understand how a telepresence robot can give people agency to explore the collection on their own, from teenagers to possibly people in juvenile detention centers.
Having walked around the room, I feel like you have only begun to explain so many of the fun things that I have seen around here today: chairs that you sit on to start playing music, objects that you pick up that initiate light interactions, objects that respond to your emotions. So much of my experience here reminds me of my time visiting the MIT MediaLab.
Marco: MIT’s MediaLab obviously is a big inspiration, in terms of how they look at the roles technology plays in community and society. And, we definitely look at what other museums, research centers and universities are doing.
Are there other museums that have spaces like yours?
Neal: A really exciting project right now is lead by Jeffrey Inscho at the Carnegie Museums in Pittsburgh; it’s the Innovation Studio. They are hosting salons, where thought leaders come to speak, working throughout their institutions to make collection data more accessible and doing fun projects to inspire their communities. The growth has been really exciting to see. There’s also the OpenLab Workshop lead by Michael Edson. Both these lab initiatives are ones to watch in the libraries, archives and museum sectors.
Do you think other museums should be developing R&D lab spaces like this or is it only for certain types of museums?
Marco: I think one very important part for the MediaLab here at The Met is that we have over 2,000 experts working in their respective fields. They are very knowledgeable. How do we give them a space for experimenting and to think outside the box? There are many people doing innovation around the museum. We just want to make sure we have a space for that innovation to flourish.
It would be great if every museum had a media lab. It doesn’t have to be called the MediaLab, but it would be a space where they can actually think out loud or actually experiment and not be afraid of failure. Not that we want to be failing all the time, but definitely how can we experiment without having it be always public? Sometimes people can be afraid of experimenting. There always has to be room for an attitude toward innovation, experimenting, and exploring new technologies.
If people want to learn more about what’s happening here, where should they go?
Neal, is there anything you’d like to add?
Neal: There is opportunity for more labs in museums, but key to that is having assets and resources you can use. It’s important for museums to structure their data and develop new content with efficiency, scalability and spreadability as priorities. Assets need to be openly accessible as much as possible, both for public for use and reuse, so that businesses, the public, students and teachers can make new culture in response to the art and history that museums are stewarding. Open access resources, such as code, data and digital assets, are key ingredients for the growth of labs in museums. There are tremendous resources available to support openness in museums including, but not limited to: Creative Commons, Digital Public Library of America, Europeana, GLAMWiki, Internet Archive, Open Knowledge Foundation, OpenGLAM and so much more!
Banner image credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo of Neal Stimler by Nathan Johnson Photography