iBeacons in the darkness and why museums mean so much to this storyteller

My daughter at the Seattle Art Museum

I don’t know how it happened. In my transition from TV journalist to independent media maker, to now educator and public convener I became a museum guy.

After all, aren’t museums those quaint, high maintenance, heavy infrastructure monoliths of centuries gone by? Why look up from our screens when all in creation is available at a swipe? That’s exactly what the BBC wondered in 2009 when it challenged the head of the British Museum to justify his institution’s very existence in the digital age. His response — “A History of the World in 100 Objects” — was a remarkable demonstration of how digital could revitalize a community’s relationship with physical objects as content.

That symbiosis of trusted institution, existing high value assets and digital engagement helps explain why:

– I just served as a director of the Pacific Science Center.

– twenty of my on-camera interviews reside within the Bezos Center for Innovation at the Museum of History and Industry.

– last week I was a keynote speaker at the annual conference of the American Alliance of Museums

– next week I’m conducting a “My Favorite Things” tour for the Seattle Art Museum’s quarterly REMIX after-hours party

Screenshot 2014-05-19 22.12.26

It’s also why I arranged a marriage between the Science Center and startup Artifact Technologies (which I also advise), featured by tech news site GeekWire:

Tucked away in one corner of the popular Tropical Butterfly House at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center is a small blue device that promises to change how visitors experience the exhibit, improve how the Science Center engages with its visitors and — if one Seattle startup has its way — enhance the way we experience the world.
It’s a beacon: an off-the-shelf, Bluetooth-enabled device that connects wirelessly with a smartphone app called Mixby, created by Seattle-based startup Artifact Technologies.

The app uses the beacon to confirm the visitor’s proximity to the Butterfly House and unlock a “mosaic” of interactive content inside the app, including videos and photos related to the exhibit.

In many ways, the technology is only unleashing the stories and content that already lie within the walls of the museum. In one fell swoop, with the Mixby app and “beacon” geolocation technology, the Science Center gets easy access into the mobile world, even as it finds a refreshing way to re-engage its million-plus annual visitors who arrive, devices in hand. I’ll be employing the same platform during my Seattle Art Museum REMIX tour next week. Those who choose to take my tour will receive a content mosaic on their device that not only highlights the works of art that I had selected, but also will include supporting media that should provide more context about my talk long after they’ve left the building.

Beacons are best known, so far, for their applications in stores, with Apple using beacons to help provide notifications to its retail customers when they’re standing in front of a particular product, for example. But Artifact is trying a different approach with Mixby (pronounced mix-bee) — developing a platform that can be used in conjunction with beacons, in a wide variety of venues, to deliver location-based interactive content via smartphones.

Mixby finding dinosaurs at the Pacific Science Center
Meanwhile, on the other end of the country, the Metropolitan Museum of Art just provided free (non-commercial) access to 400,000 high resolution images from its collection. Although the Met’s CEO was the one on the press release saying, “I am delighted that digital technology can open the doors to this trove of images from our encyclopedic collection,” I’m sure its first Chief Digital Officer, my old friend and master of online engagement Sree Sreenivasan, had something to do with it.
Breathlessness about technology and community aside, why do museums really mean so much to me? It just may be in the blood. After all, my mother was a librarian at that very same British Museum so long ago when she came across the name “Hanson” in a book and pledged to name her firstborn as such. And though I have yet to take my son Hendrix to his namesake-inspired Experience Music Project, he loves two things: public transportation and museums. He got both last weekend when we went on a bus and train odyssey to the Museum of Glass in Tacoma. If you have robust broadband speeds, watch the above video that I shot on a Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4 in UHD 4k resolution (remarkably, I was able to edit the video on my 2013 Macbook Air without a hiccup, finally surrendering and using Final Cut Pro X for the first time).
Click here for the six objects I featured on the “My Favorite Things” tour at the Seattle Art Museum.
And if you’re an iOS user, download the free Mixby app, navigate to the Seattle Art Museum and find my content mosaic.