MIT Museum’s Big Bang Data, A Traveling Exhibition
Introduction: Project Description
On exhibit through March of 2018 at the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts is the traveling exhibition Big Bang Data. It “explores the intersections of culture, technology, and society in the digital age” (Big Bang Data). More simply stated, it looks at how we create, visualize and use trillions of data points that reside in the global data cloud to inform and shape our lives. It is a clever blending of scientific data analysis and a series of playful art installations that explore our data-driven world. The experience unfolds through a sequence of thematic zones, each honing in on specific areas of data visualization and offering relevant connections for visitors through environmental installations, interpretive copy, graphics, objects, interactive digital media, oral histories, audio, and art. As a whole it offers inroads for engagement and meaning-making around an abstract topic—data creation, utilization and visualization—with a varying degree of effectiveness.
An Unconventional Exhibition
Placing data at the center of an exhibition narrative is an unusual content focus making for an unconventional exhibition. It is a broad topic, somewhat intangible, and constantly changing and evolving. It is not a narrative that most visitors are likely thinking about. This creates a challenge in bridging the gap between those curating the content and the visiting public. Curators are deeply steeped in it while the visitors are not. As Nina Simon states in the Art of Relevance: “There are two kinds of people in the world of relevance: outsiders and insiders. Insiders are in the room. They know it, love it, protect it. Outsiders don’t know your doors exist. They are uninterested, unsure, unwelcome. If you want new people to come inside, you need to open new doors—doors that speak to outsiders—and welcome them in” (Simon, 49). Big Bang Data opens the doors and expands its relevancy by engaging visitors in thinking about how each of us personally add data through our cultural and social digital interactions, what we can learn from data, and how our private data points can be used to surveil or, profile us.
Critical Assessment: What works, what does not.
It works! Art in the context of scienc
Set in a science exhibition at a science museum is art installed as part of Big Bang Data. At the MIT Museum, this works. It opens relevancy doors for some visitors and broadens the appeal to a larger audience. In “Visualizing Data,” one of the thematic zones, is an artful installation. It consists of a series of globes, each illuminated to cast an etherial, magical glow. Printed on the globes are different graphical expressions of data about different topics. These included, in part: total number of billionaires per country, which countries have remained free of war/conflict since World War II, the total population behind bars. The art installation created by the globes was the engaging medium—the hook for visitors—that made conveying the associated content easier. The content was then visualized through the graphics on the globes, fed in small, digestible morsels that did not overwhelm but instead, left visitors looking for more. Unfortunate was the lack of forethought in planning the location of the text and key to the globes and the design of passageways too narrow for many and which certainly might challenge the laws of accessibility.
It works! Seeing ourselves in the story: relevancy
Big Bang Data is making excellent strides to engage guests in an abstract topic. Visiting with my college-going son, we began our visit unclear as to the intellectual underpinning of the exhibition yet, we ended the visit with clarity. More importantly, we saw ourselves in the content—from how we are part of a society obsessively quantifying ourselves on social media to how that same data is utilized to envision the future. Thematic zones were arranged around provocative topics, adding to the allure of the narrative.
A simple and static display of one man’s yearly “annual report” was surprisingly engaging. There was no opportunity for interactivity, just a look at the printed reports that visualized the quantification of one man’s life. The relevancy door was opened again. As visitors read how far the author walked, how many countries he travelled, hours he slept it is easy to become curious about what that visualization of our own lives might look like.
Other opportunities for engagement were created around similarly benign data. Quirky data collection tools like cat-tracking GPS devices to fit-bits and even electronic diet forks that monitor the number of bites one takes, are the real-life examples of the nearly constant data collection which often goes on unknowingly. It engages each of us in a consideration of how our unwitting uploads to social media reveal what we are thinking and doing which in turn, reveals our life’s patterns to readers of our data diaries.
Broken exhibits, complex content, minimal visitor comforts: a recipe for what does not work
Interactive touch screens dominate some exhibit zones yet, most are broken—a notorious frustration for guests. The functioning touch screens are very complex and uses text in a writing style that is far different from wall text, written at a higher reading level, and leaves guests feeling it was over their head. Gail Gregg aptly noted that writing above visitors’ comfort level is problematic: “visitors who feel bored, overwhelmed, confused, or stupid are unlikely to return” (Your Labels Make Me Feel Stupid). While exhibit wall text was engaging and easy to understand, the divergence in how language is used—in both a written and spoken form—within the digital media creates a real problem. Beverly Serrell, the well-regarded guru of interpretive text, should have been heeded: “writing clearly does not mean writing simplistically, but it does mean writing for people who are not experts in the subject” (Serrell 95). Similarly, Ingrid Schaffner says: “Labels have the potential of art itself, to be sensual, smart, and experiential” (Wall Text). Integrating the approach of both Serrell and Schaffner in all forms of communication would have increased the visitor access to the content.
Throughout the exhibition interactivity is limited. There are few places to connect or touch the content. Environmental immersion provides a sense of emotional interactivity but, hands-on manipulation of data did not exist. There is no place to leave a piece of oneself in the exhibition through a visualization of personal data; this could easily have added to the narrative.
Circulation spaces are narrow and the elbow room between exhibits non-existent. Very few places for sitting is offered. Audio is available as a part of looping media but other options for hearing impaired were not available. There are no accommodations for vision impaired guests. Layered learning was at a minimum and although there was a clear differentiation between label copy and touchscreen copy in reading level, the delta was huge.
How this might have changed the museum, its reputation, or its audience?
While blending art and science is not a revolutionary concept, this interplay is not common at the MIT Museum. It is easy to assume that this intersection of art, culture, technology and science is broadening its audience in correlation to this broadened content. This might change its’ reputation. Ahead is the challenge to keep the new audience coming back.
Conclusion: What are the lessons for the field?
Big Bang Data hit the relevancy nail on the head. Nina Simon, in The Art of Relevance, shares: “Relevance is a key that unlocks meaning. It opens doors to experiences that matter to us, surprise us, and bring value into our lives” (Simon, 25). Linking the narrative and all of its content to our human behaviors made the abstract accessible. It personalized the exhibition.
Mix up the content silos
Cross the content boundaries. In Big Bang Data, art, science, history and sociology are blended. It took a highly intellectual content area and made an exhibit experience out of it. As Andrea Jones of Peak Experience Lab wrote: “Today’s audiences crave unique EXPERIENCES that have the ability to do much more than inform” (7 Reasons Why).
Remember Best Practices
Big Bang Data is an engaging and innovative project tackling unconventional content and creating relevancy and audience engagement to make sophisticated content accessible. It connects guests to the unseen and makes is visible while offering historical introspection. However, designers let their guard down when they made mistakes we know not to make: using A/V hardware that breaks, showcasing content that is overly complex, offering minimal visitor comforts, and providing limited interactivity.
“Big Bang Data”. MIT Museum, https://mitmuseum.mit.edu/bigbangdata. Accessed
November 1, 2017.
Serrell, Beverly. Exhibit Labels. AltaMira Press. 95.
“7 Reasons Why Museums Should Share More Experiences Less Information”. Peak Experience Lab, http://www.peakexperiencelab.com/blog/2017/3/24/7-reasons-why-museums- should-share-more-experiences-less-information. Accessed November 1, 2017.
Simon, Nina. The Art of Relevance. Museum 2.0. 2016. 49.
“Wall Text”. Ingrid Schaffner, https://ingridschaffner.com/?s=wall+text. Accessed November 4, 2017.
“Your Labels Make Me Feel Stupid”. Art News, http://www.artnews.com/2010/07/01/your- labels-make-me-feel-stupid/. Accessed November 1, 2017.