Life Experience(s). An Interview with Eli Kuslansky
Eli Kuslansky is a principal of Unified Field, an interactive media and experience design company dedicated to leveraging media, art, design and technology to reveal the unseen. I was pleased that Eli was able to share some of his thoughts with ExhibiTricks readers in the interview below.
What’s your educational background?
I have a BFA from Cooper Union where I majored in photography, sculpture, installations and art history. The rest is life experience.
What got you interested in Museums?
I’ve always been fascinated by art, history, science and 19th century sailing ships. My first job was at the South Street Seaport, where I worked as a model builder, exhibit designer and curator. I also did appraisals for Sotheby’s Parke Benet and Christies.
I was then one of the restoration directors at the Texas Seaport Museum in Galveston, Texas. I worked in Piraeus, Greece restoring the “Elissa”, a 19th century sailing vessel, including hand carving its figurehead. Later I worked in architectural and architectural woodworking firms, in an exhibition fabrication firm, and as a designer, cabinetmaker and CAD draftsman.
For three years I was the director of technology for Ralph Appelbaum Associates where I worked on the Holocaust Museum, the Dinosaur Hall at the American Museum of Natural History, the Natural History Museum of Penang and many others.
|Elissa, the Official Tall Ship of Texas, Galveston Historical Foundation|
How does working with technology to create exhibits inform your design process?
Part of the reason I started Unified Field with Marla Supnick is that when I was at Ralph Appelbaum, I saw the opportunity through the use of digital media and technology to enhance the visitor’s experiences. While at RAA, I developed a networked model for a 4th generation museum that laid the groundwork for legible cities.
As designers, technology allows us to connect experts' tacit knowledge and passion to visitors’ personal narratives and to rapidly try out designs and test their engineering without risk to the institution. Technology has the flexibility to address different learning styles and cognitive models. It extends the display of collections, helps creates community and cross-generational conversations. Adding the dimensions of social media and personalized content allows us to design experiences that are participatory, active and collaborative.
Tell us a little bit about how your “non-museum” skills/activities inform your museum work?
I am an artist, museum consultant, maritime curator, technologist, chef and musician. From each of these experiences I get different points of views and inspirations. As an artist I am constantly experimenting with creating provocative visual experiences. I am a fanatical reader and life long learner, always exploring a variety of sources and topics. From crewing on a 19th century sailing ship I experienced the power of team, as at sea you depend upon each other for survival. Being a chef teaches me consistency in execution, the small nuances that results in excellence, and the multi-sensual experience of food.
What are some of your favorite online resources for people interested in finding out more about the use of technology in museums?
Many of the online resources we look at are from outside the field. We continually post our inspirations and commentary on the Unified Field blog.
Here are a few of the sites I look at:
ECSITE Open Places
European Smart Cities
Ideas in Food
Science Gallery Dublin
SENSEable City Lab, MIT
Spatial Information Design Lab
The Museum of the Future
Things that Think
What advice would you have for fellow museum professionals, especially those from smaller museums, in thinking about the best ways to leverage technology in their work?
Most museums realize the potential for technology in areas such as supporting the visit, creating ways to engaging audiences and enhancing visitor’s appreciation of the content, programs and collections. Technology is also used to expand outreach programs, to build communities and strategic partnerships.
Although some museums haves concerns about technology such as keeping up with current technology, being evergreen and maintaining it, there are many proven technologies and processes for integrating media and technology into the museum experience. There are many case studies that illustrate how museums, both large and small, have addressed these concerns and reaped the attending benefits.
Without exception, we find that when media and technology design is at the beginning of concept design the end product is superior. This contemporary design process allows for complete integration of the media into the experience, and rules out unwanted surprises.
Another effective way for museums to leverage technology is to develop experiences that are ambient and transparent in ways that don’t create thematic and historical anomalies in the galleries. One way to do this is by using natural user interfaces. The rationale is that as human beings we experience our world in more expansive ways than “pictures under glass”. There is a great blog post on the topic from an ex-Apple user interface designer.
For small museums with budget restrictions, limited resources or limited internal knowledge, I recommend working with a consortium or partnerships with other museums and/or outside partners. For example, partnering with universities or corporations who support your mission. This opens the possibility for new funding, strategic and content partnerships, and for building internal knowledge and resources. Partnerships can help distribute the risks and costs while sharing audiences. The Children’s Museum in Pittsburgh has such a relationship with the Carnegie Mellon University.
What do you think is the “next frontier” for museums?
There are three major frontiers: the future audience, the evolving smart city, and new technologies for connecting people, content, knowledge and places.
Rapid demographic, philanthropic, generational and technological changes are impacting museums. One of these changes is Generation Z, true digital natives and the future audience. According to Don Marinelli, who founded the Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center with the late Randy Pausch, Generation Z is experientially focused, has an altered perception of reality that is alternative, augmented, corporeal and virtual and sees little relevance in traditional institutions. This is a challenge as well as an opportunity for museums.
Another frontier is the evolving big data landscape. Big data has a tremendous strategic importance for museums as it can help them fulfill their most ambitious goals. Cultural institutions can use big data for improve operations, better services, visitor’s experiences and to help them establish an important role in the evolving legible city. To give you a sense of the scale this past year alone 850 million people visited cultural centers in the United States, while generating personal and institutional data. We are at a tipping point where cultural associations could create the infrastructure and channels for museums to leverage their big data and offer the experiences that visitors expect.
On the third “frontier”, there are many interesting technologies that can expand the connectedness of the museum experience. This include gesture interfaces, cloud services, image based social media, augmented reality, tagging systems, and interconnected media experiences both inside and outside the museum. Augmented reality can expand the context of collections for visitors by connecting the physical collections with its information and interpretation according to learning style. Other technologies worth tracking are opt in tagging systems for digital way finding, data collection, and expanding beyond the museum’s walls.
Accurate gesture based technologies such as Leap Motion, real-time data visualizations, near field communication, new type of mobile appsand indoors tracking systems like iBeacon, are helping museums be the next frontier in experience design. As Alan Kay said “the best way to predict the future is to invent it”.
|NextGen Science Center Model|
Aside from the ones we worked on, there are many exhibits and museums I truly admire. Here are a just a few. The Children’s Museum in Pittsburgh is wonderful for its adventurous, quirky and brilliantly unique experiences. I especially like their Waterplay room as it is ambient, witty and offers opportunities for kids and their parents to get really wet. I also like that they are starting to experiment with embedded technologies that merge physical and virtual experiences.
The BMW Museum in Munich, Germany incorporates elegant and magical use of media that appears behind frosted surfaces with mesmerizing animated stainless steel ball sculpture. The Alexander McQueen show at the Met was surprising, brilliantly curated and fascinating. Others include the Renzo Piano’s design for The Centre Cultural Tjibaou and the Constitution of Culture in New Caledonia. I also liked the Google's Web Lab at London's Science Museum.
Olafur Eliasson’s "The Weather Project" at the Tate and his 'Your Rainbow Panorama', a permanent elevated structure that provides a 360º view of the city of Arhus, Denmark are brilliant. I like the Tech Museum in San Jose for their forward thinking. For a classic science museum I like the Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci in Milano. I also like the BIG Maritime Museum in Denmark. I could go on and on.
Can you talk a little about some of your current projects?
We have a wide range of projects from museum interactive exhibits, digital branding environments, digital way finding and tagging systems, narrowcast networks, large-scale real-time displays, websites and mobile apps. A sample of our current projects include interactive gaming visualizations for Liberty Science Center’s upcoming Beyond Rubik’s Cube exhibit; data visualization display and universal digital messaging system for the new Foster + Partnership designed Yale School of Management building; programming the interactive experiences and technology for the upcoming Franklin Institute’s Brain exhibit; multi-channel media installations on innovation and achievement for GE’s Crotonville Executive Learning Center and an interactive patient education tool for a major hospital system that will transform their doctor patient communications.
|GE American Competitiveness Exhibition, Mellon Auditorium, Washington DC|
If money were no object, what would your “dream” exhibit project be?
We don’t take projects we don’t believe in so in many ways we are already developing our dream projects. We would like work on a new science center model that builds the 21st century skills that we all need for a thriving economy and that makes smart use of big data, visualization, gaming, tagging systems, digital fabrication and digital media convergence labs. We would love to transform an entire city as a legible city model for the future. In the art realm we have several concepts in development for a 3D light emitting diode array art installation.
|LED Installation concept for the State Historical Society of North Dakota|
How can “intelligent objects” or interfaces between physical objects and digital objects be used in museums?
At the moment museums are using “intelligent objects” as RFID tags for personalization and connecting to their websites and fiducial markers as physical interfaces on touch tables. Another technology museums are using is the Arduino boards with the Processing software language in place of computers.
There are a lot of other cool things museums can do with “intelligent objects”. There are interesting uses of transparent screens with image recognition to overlay media on views of physical objects. Wi-Fi enabled technologies like accelerometers, or transcoders can be embedded inside of an object, to create experiences that connect physical activities to virtual gauges and visualizations.
Some off the cuff ideas for children’s museums are intelligent objects that can be carried from room to room to change the environment, imagery or even lighting or air currents. They can be used to update classic exhibits by adding intelligent “blocks” and toys to water tables with different types of embedded sensors to measure water temperature, flow and wave patterns and send them through a Wi-Fi connection to real-time read out. For other museums interfaces between physical objects and digital objects can help them create programs that create stronger links to outside events.
|Sony Wonder Technology Lab, Music Maker multitouch table|
What might North American museums learn from the “Smart Cities” concept or the European “Places” program?
In North America museums and science centers are attraction-base leisure-time venues that are repositories of culture and learning overlaid with educational activities. In Europe similar institutions are more embedded in the culture and community. I think in this way European museums are both ahead and behind North American museums. As pointed out in Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place, North American culture suffers from the lack of the third place, a neutral environment that is neither home nor work and a place to connect with people in community and relax. In France they have cafes, in England pubs and so on.
This is relevant because museums and science centers are experimenting with being the third good place as a community resource in addition to their traditional roles in society. Smart Cities and the Places program allows access to these new roles for cultural centers. Unlike the neutral journalistic approach that some American institutions take, the Places program is a three-way conversation between science, policymakers and society. Through it European institutions take on an advocacy role.
What North American museums might learn from the “Smart Cities” concept or the European “Places” program are which models to experiment with to find out what would work best for American institutions and society. This is especially true for science centers as “contemporary societies rely on science and technology for economic growth, political stability, social well-being and progress.
Whatever we think, like or dislike about big data and smart cities with their promises and threats, big data and smart cities are happening now and happening fast. This is really an exciting time as there are many opportunities for museums across the world to explore.
Thanks again to Eli Kuslansky for sharing his insights with ExhibiTricks readers! To find out more about Eli's work, check out the Unified Field website.
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