Ed Rodley on Beests and Technology in Museums

Renegade Tours
Interviews June 26, 2020 Ed Rodley on Beests and Technology in Museums

In this series, we feature interviews with our favorite museum professionals who we think are really moving and shaking the museum world.

We recently interviewed Ed Rodley, Associate Director of Integrated Media at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM). He tells us about how to be tech-savvy in a discerning and mindful way in the galleries, and discusses the newest upcoming exhibition for PEM that takes the use of technology and media to new levels and even involves touching the art!

Museum Hack: You just returned from a trip to The Netherlands! Can you tell us a little bit about the project that you were working on about Theo Jansen and his Strandbeests? For instance, what was your role in the whole project and in bringing it to PEM in the Fall?

Ed Rodley: Our department’s job is exactly how it sounds, integrating media into the museum’s programs. Generally, every exhibition project at PEM will have one person from Integrated Media assigned to the team. This person sits in on the exhibition project team meetings during concept to help the team decide how digital media can help inform the goals of the project.

Being thoughtful when thinking about which kinds of media we want to use in an exhibition is something we pride ourselves on. We’re not unreservedly tech-fetishists, like “Oooooh, stick a screen up!”

For Strandbeest, it’s an interesting topic because Theo [Jansen] already had a large established internet fan base which is not always the case. He is a practicing contemporary artist with 23,000 videos already on YouTube. People come in from all over the world to try to find out about his stuff.

That meant we had a different challenge – to try and figure out how to not make the same existing content!  What can we add to the world that hasn’t already been seen.

Since we were working closely with the artist himself, the team realized that he is personally a very compelling figure. When you hang out with him, you become a Theo groupie.

Just putting the beests in the gallery and writing about his work process felt like a bad match – we wanted to try to do something a little bit different: We’re not going to settle for just traditional curatorial text; we’re going to let Theo tell you about Theo himself.

So we went to the Netherlands to shoot several hours of interviews with him which will manifest on monitors scattered throughout the gallery, in portrait orientation with proximity sensors.  They will each touch on various thematic ideas of the exhibitions.

It is so much easier to get Theo to emerge through video than through text.

MH:  Does this change the way the exhibition will be organized? Will there be linear plan?

ER: The exhibition will be a very open gallery plan. From very early on, we knew that this shouldn’t be a linear stage. We have a minimum of walls with multiple entrances into the gallery, so there is no way to force people to experience the gallery. Instead, this open plan asks people to make decisions rather than force decisions on them.

There will be eight beests on display comprising of seven species, including one that he is making just for us!

One of the things that is most intriguing about the show is that we are working with an artist who is very clear that the essential part of experiencing the beests is being able to see them move.  Once they move, they stop being a weird collection of pipes.

When we went down to Art Basel Miami, we had an exhibition on the beach and we spent almost a week there in a big sand lot with a bunch of the beests.  It is truly remarkable how, over and over again, people’s impression of the art changes the moment they can interact with it.  Half the people who interacted with the beests would just start to laugh!  It is absolutely essential to not have these things sitting on plinths.

Of the beests in the gallery at PEM, there will be a couple of the small beests that visitors can push around.  Also, you can touch just about all of the objects in the show.

MH: Wow! That’s so unique and also, from a museum’s perspective, concerning! How does the artist feel about this?

ER: It’s funny because the biggest concern is that people know we don’t want them to touch things in museums.  Part of the challenge is going to be getting people to re-jigger their expectations when they enter the gallery, but then re-implement their expectations when they leave the gallery.

As far as the artist is concerned, they break all the time anyway.  He has a giant wad of zip ties attached to his belt. It’s his expectation, so you go with it.

The workflow of museums don’t usually accommodate the dynamic and flowing relationship that an artist has with the art. In this exhibition, we’re trying to make that apparent.

MH: You have a pivotal role as Associate Director of Integrated Media at PEM in which you engage with PEM’s audience in a particularly high-tech and engaging way.  Can you tell us about your favorite project and how the audience reacted to it?

ER: One of my favorites is the Impressionist painting show called Impressionists on the Water. On the one hand, it’s a very traditional subject matter – what’s easier on the palate than the Impressionists?

PEM doesn’t actually collect 19th century Impressionist art.  The connection for us was through a maritime perspective. The show combined impressionist painting with ship models and placed impressionist painting within a larger maritime narrative.

One of the ideas we wanted to make explicit to the visitor is that idea of what it would be like to be painting on a boat on the water.  Some Impressionists lived on boats, some used them as floating studios, but the idea that you actually do see the world differently from the water than from the land is viscerally appealing.

Water always finds the lowest point; if you’re standing on a boat on a river, your point of view is probably two feet lower than it normally is, if not more. The way you interact with the world is literally different because your vantage point is so much lower.

We wanted to explore the idea of what it would look and feel like. So we spent a tremendous amount of effort recreating a one-to-one reconstruction of an Impressionist’s studio boat based on sketches from a French painter. It was 27 feet long and with a fully-enclosed stern cabin and when the visitor looked at the stern window, he or she would see hi-def videos of waterways on the North Shore which look similar to France.  The project implemented visual and auditory sensations. We hired a painter who could paint in the Impressionist manner and then filmed that artist painting the scene.  So we had a big projection off the stern showing the placid water scenes and a smaller canvas upon which a rear projection would show the painting as it was happening.

The boat was smack-dab in the middle of the exhibition right at the point where people might get tired. It was a place where they could sit down, work on that museum fatigue and watch the scenes unfold.  Generally with interpretive media, you are also giving the viewer a chance to slow down and reset.

MH: That is a really cool concept and demonstrates a really thoughtful way of incorporating technology into exhibitions. Do you have suggestions or advice for other museums who are looking to integrate technology in unique and dynamic ways (ie: going beyond the audio guide)?

ER: I want to problematize that question rather than answer it. I think whenever people approach a situation like using technology x in museums, they ask, ‘how do we use x, y, or z in new or interesting ways?’ Those questions aren’t as fruitful as when museums start from the viewpoint of “what are we trying to do?” and looking as broadly as possible.

When technology drives the discussion, the technology drives the answers.  Every problem looks like a nail to the hammer, but a lot of the problems aren’t nails. You wind up getting solutions that use technologies that aren’t actually addressing a problem you have.

Think back to that awful moment with the QR codes. Maybe the answer is as simple as keying your URL short so people can just throw it in.

Tech driven solutions are usually driven by people with a particular skillset. Sometimes it only takes one person who can do a certain thing.  Tech-based solutions often benefit vendors and suppliers rather than the consumers of technology.

The key is not to think about technology along the lines of having the technology that everyone else has. Museums are very heterogeneous.  If we were cinemas, it might make sense, but museums are not like that. What might be right for the Met is probably not right for 99% of the museums on the planet.

Thank you to Ed Rodley for taking the time to speak with Museum Hack’s Michelle Yee.  Visit PEM.org for more information about Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen, on view at the Peabody Essex Museum from September 19, 2015 to January 3, 2016.

written with 💖 by Museum Hack

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