Wonder Woman: Superhero Art Historian


Aside from earning $103.3 million during opening weekend in North America, being the highest grossing film directed by a woman, and earning 93% positive reviews on review site Rotten Tomatoes, Wonder Woman and its main character Diana Prince stand out for another reason.

Wonder Woman is joining my list of fictional-movie-and-television-characters-who-work-in-museums-or-have-art-history-degrees-which-only-tangentially-relate-to-the-main-narrative (phew, that’s a mouthful!).  As the movie begins, we see Diana entering a stunning office in The Louvre surrounded by ancient arms and armor, receiving an archival photograph.  It’s assumed that she is now part of their curatorial team, making her possibly the world’s only superhero art historian.  


Back to this list… who’s on it? 

  • Diana Prince, Wonder Woman: Previously visiting lecturer on Greco-Roman mythology at Gateway City Museum of Antiquities, currently works in the Louvre’s antiquities department.
  • Dr. Zoidberg, FuturamaDespite being the medical doctor for Planet Express, admits that his doctorate is in art history (S6E05).
  • Mandy Hampton, The West WingEarned a bachelor’s in art history prior to becoming a political consultant for the Bartlet administration (S1E02).
  • John Smith, Mr. & Mrs. Smith: Majored in art history at Notre Dame University.
  • Charlotte York, Sex and the City: Majored in art history at Smith College, worked as a New York city gallerist through season 4.
  • Blanche Devereaux, The Golden Girls: Museum assistant at a Miami art museum.
  • Ross Geller, Friends: Paleontologist at the Museum of Prehistoric History, which is  supposed to be the American Museum of Natural History.
  • Hannah, Made of Honor: Director of Acquisitions, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Okay, my list is only eight characters long. But that is eight characters that have reputations for being smart and they’re tied together by academic major and/or career.

Art historians for blog

More interestingly, these backgrounds are mentioned as “throwaway” lines or occasional side plots and having little or nothing to do with the main narrative.  Yet, we real-life museum workers get excited and see it as an exciting nod to our profession.  

Is it chosen because our profession is unknown and mysterious? 

Considered exciting?Diana

Held to a higher moral standard?

Makes one seem really smart?

Are we just… cool?

For every line of dialogue that’s cut, why do these lines stay in?

How many more characters are also art historians and museologists but the dialogue gets cut before the final production?

There are, of course, also movies and television shows in which the main plot revolves around a museum or art historians:

  • Night at the Museum’s Larry Daley is a security guard at the American Museum of Natural History; the movie trilogy bring him to the Smithsonian and British Museum.
  • The DaVinci Code’s Jacques Saunière is a Louvre curator who is murdered, prompting Robert Langdon to solve the mystery of his death.
  • Mona Lisa Smile’s Katherine Ann Watson teaches “History of Art” at Wellesley college.

But in each of these, the art history or museology plot is critical to the story. Then there are the movies about archaeologists and museologists who are actual real people doing real things, but I digress. 

Going back to the original list of fictional-movie-and-television-characters-who-work-in-museums-or-have-art-history-degrees-which-only-tangentially-relate-to-the-main-narrative, my musings don’t have much of a conclusion as much as a wink back at the directors who wink at us.  We notice. We get excited. And I hope that by making our profession the everyday life of demigods, futuristic medical doctors, political operatives, and spies, art history and museum work maintain a positive reputation. 

Have some more movie-and-television art historians and museologists to share? Comment below or tweet @ me!



Priyanka Chopra looked very familiar during the Golden Globes Red Carpet, but it wasn’t because I had seen her in a recent movie.  Her gown’s detailed geometric patterns woven into golden-yellow brocade and low neckline, coupled with her dark hair and raised arm, transformed her clearly into Adele Bauer-Bloch.

When Janelle Monae appeared in a stark white fluffy skirt with black dots of varying sizes, I saw the energy of Yayoi Kasuma’s Pumpkin.  The dark blue gown with orange accents on Caitrion Ambalfe vibrated with the same intensity as a Mark Rothko in the same colors.  Thick black graffiti danced across Heidi Klum enveloped in what must have been a Keith Haring.  


I started to live-tweet these comparisons, again, but this time, I used a new hashtag.  With another tweet, I proposed #AwardShowsSoMuseum, received multiple positive replies, and continued….


Stay tuned for subsequent award shows and look for #AwardShowsSoMuseum on Twitter!


Memorial Museum for an Octopus Attack? A Lesson in Trust (and humor)

Trust is fraught with risk.

Trust is important when web users assess knowledge claims online because we risk believing facts that are simply not true.  As Judith Simon explains, the web is an “enormous conglomeration of epistemic content of varying quality” so knowledge is not a validation of facts but “a success term labeling epistemic content that has survived critical scrutiny from multiple agents and satisfies communal standards”.

While I would typically be talking about trust in online communities, let’s go on a different and more thrilling adventure…

The Octopus

This past month, a new museum was advertised in New York City – the Staten Island Ferry Disaster Memorial Museum – which tells the story of 400 victims who died when a giant octopus attacked a Staten Island Ferry boat, on Nov. 22, 1963 – an event overshadowed by the assassination of JFK that same day. 

The corresponding brochure looked real and the person who showed it to me had found it at a tourist location.

“Eye witness accounts describe “large tentacles” which “pulled” the ferry beneath the surface…. The Staten Island Ferry Disaster Museum hopes to correct this oversight by preserving the memory of those lost in this tragedy and educating the public about the truth behind the only known giant octopus-ferry-attack in the tri-state area.”

I was immediately hooked on solving this mystery.  How had I never heard of this small museum or seen the Battery Park monument commemorating the tragedy?

When we trust information, we are taking responsibility for believing and granting authority to the evidence.  Remembering my research advocating epistemological vigilance, I was still suspicious that this place didn’t exist for the following reasons:unnamed

  • While the brochure said the museum was inside Snug Harbor Cultural Center, the address placed the museum right outside of the property.
  • Calls to the listed number did not lead to a person or voicemail.
  • Listed Twitter account was unavailable.
  • A statue appeared in Battery Park that I had never seen before.

I sent a tweet out, tagging #itweetmuseums and tagged some of the most informed museum people I know in New York. But, they hadn’t been there either – another telling clue that the museum couldn’t exist!  

One day later, the NYPost picked up the story, followed by Gothamist and Mashable, which included my Tweets in their story.  I was right to doubt the brochure’s integrity, predictability, and benevolence and while I didn’t denounce the museum as a lie, I was suspect to it all.


We now know that the story is entirely fictitious – There was never an octopus in the harbor and it surely didn’t grab a ferry.

Uncertainty and vulnerability within the trustor and trustee relationship make it hard to weigh options and to calculate possibilities.  People have to determine if others have integrity (righteous behavior), predictability (adhering to promises) and benevolence (expectation of doing good) and then must make an informed decision as whether to trust the parties.

Is it the fault of the tourists who have been actually going to Staten Island wanting to see the museum?  Have they been informed enough to calculate risk and integrity?  Is it fair to expect tourists to know this is a joke? Would they have reason to speculate?

While us real museologists may have had nothing to do with this, its important to remember how much gravitas the term “museum”  has.  Tourists – for better or worse – take our museum marketing at face value.  

Gotta visit ’em all – PokemonGo in Museums

Have you seen more people than usual staring at their phones in your museum? That is because “PokemonGo” was released this weekend. It quickly claimed the number one place in the app store and will soon surpass Twitter in daily active users by capturing the attention of two coveted demographics – children with cellphones and millennials craving 90s nostalgia.

Dodrio at the Metropolitan Museum’s American Wing

PokemonGo’s tagline has remained the same as the prior GameBoy iterations.  You still want to  “catch ‘em all”, only this time it’s not limited to the virtual world inside the Gameboy.  It is the right time and place for this game: advancements in geolocation (which people increasingly find commonplace) and mobile phones (already in our pockets, no bulky awkward GoogleGlass this time!) mean Pokemon live in our world through augmented reality.  With a GPS overlay, the app knows where you are as you walk around real streets and will buzz when you get near a Pokemon.  This is where museums come in – the virtual monsters are in public places, as detailed in Pokemon’s March press release, which explains, “Explore cities and towns around where you live and even around the globe to capture as many Pokémon as you can…. Also look for PokéStops located at interesting places, such as public art installations, historical markers, and monuments, where you can collect more Poké Balls and other items. 

To determine the location of the Pokemon, the PokeStops, and PokeGyms, it appears that PokemonGo is running from two databases.  The first would be the database of locations they used for Ingress, Niantic’s last game which was conceptually similar.  The second is the Historical Marker database, which keeps track of local points of interest in the United States.  On the plus side, this is how most towns have Pokestops.  But on the negative side, some of the historical markers were put into the Ingress databases years ago, and the sites may no longer be public.

Our museums, similarly, want to “catch” these difficult to reach children and millennials and attract them to the museum.  We’ve seen previous attempts to attract these groups with varying success – how many childrens’ activity days, young member parties, and hands-on scavenger hunts have you seen? We recruit participants for teen and young adult councils, organize internal task forces for brainstorming sessions, hire external consultants, and conduct focus groups, all to determine the best way to grab the attention of these demographics.  Museums repeatedly make claims that we are competing with Netflix and YouTube and a host of other entertainment, so when new visitors spend a weekend walking through our doors to play a game we didn’t devise, how can we capitalize on that?  Yes, you read that right: there are visitors who have walked in our doors this weekend, just to find Pokemon!


Searching “PokemonGo” and “Museum” on Twitter has dozens of people posting about visiting a local museum, often for the first time.  Most of these people have even entered the museum and walked around the exhibitions.  In large museums, Pokemon will “live” in one wing, so players are on the look out for each other to provide helpful hints  (There are multiple stories online today about people becoming real life friends through Pokemon quests.  Sherry Turkle, what do you have to say to that?).  But, there are also museums where people are just sitting in the parking lot and not venturing inside.  At one small museum, nine people were observed sitting in the parking lot playing PokemonGo, none of whom entered the museum.  And by sheer irony, this institution’s curatorial theme is fairly “nerdy”, which would likely interest the people playing the game.


It might be a challenge to pull these people away from their game, but if we museum professionals want to do community outreach, figure out what interests non-visitors, and then engage them in the world’s greatest treasures, we need to figure out how, quickly.  Some museums have advertised on Twitter and Facebook that there are Pokemon onsite.  Others have mentioned that visitors can have Pokemon battles with the staff.  Crystal Bridges has blogged about PokemonGo, posting images of their Pokemon next to art work (Pikachu is appropriately next to a Dan Flavin).  And outside of the museum-world, commercial spaces are also capitalizing on these new visitors, from indie clothing shops inviting people to catch Pokemon and browse their goods to multiple NBA teams depicting Pokemon playing with team members (which reminds me of SpaceJam).  An example of a non-museum person using a cultural site in a brilliant way was the Facebook event to walk together through the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens (near the Opera House), which attracted one thousand people and inspired the hashtag #PokeGoWalk.  Imagine if the Gardens had officially hosted the event. What can the value-add be if the event was institutionally hosted?  Could distributing discount admission tickets to a future visit increase repeat visitation?  Advertise classes? Encourage visitors to download the museum’s app?

IMG_6444One opportunity within the app is an in-game purchase called “Lure” to get Pokemon (and in turn visitors) to arrive at a specific Pokestop for 30 minute intervals.  This seems to be the only way to make your museum a destination, however limiting, since one can not request that a specific site becomes a Pokestop or PokeGym*.  Therefore, if your site is already a Pokestop, you’re in luck; if its not a Pokestop, you can’t drop a Lure.  Between providing free wifi (just wait until the players get their cellphone bills this month!) and Lures, visitors really are attracted to these sites.  Wait there for a few minutes with the app on, and your phone will buzz that a Pokemon has arrived.  So how does one get a Lure?  Buy one for 100 coins or 8 Lures for 680 coins (100 coins cost $.99, 550 coins for $4.99, etc).  They can be purchased and designated to a site by anyone (institution or player) that wants the Pokemon to come to them.  Then, the Lure will appear in your location on the GPS map, as a pink hotspot.  As you can see in this image, my avatar is standing at a Pokestop that has a Lure (the pink petals).  The blue hotspots are Pokestops (which turn pink when you “touch” them) and there is a PokeGym at the crossroad of Times Square, NYC.  CEO John Hanke is already planning upgrades, including customizable functions for Pokestops and PokeGyms, including the possibility of sponsored locations, although no timetable has been set.

We might not have built this app, but the people have come.

* As of July 14 (4 days after this post was initially published), PokemonGo has enabled requests for Pokestops and Pokegyms on their website.  Now, any tourist or cultural attraction that was not included in the release can make a request by providing contact information, rationale, and exact location for review by the Niantic business development team.  Regarding sponsored locations, it is being reported that McDonalds will be the first partnership.  

Reposted on MuseumHack.

What promise do we make to visitors?

AAM2016’s theme was heavy – “Power, influence and responsibility” – and widely interpreted.  Among two of the most notable talks were Kaywin Feldman’s elegant polemic on being “too young and too female” for a directorship position (her presentation was literally met by audience cheers) and David Rubenstein ’s affirmation that he puts historic documents he owns on view for the American public to see. But short of wielding power and influence at their levels, the rest of us also have a responsibility to museum visitors.

While my presentation about a selfie app (made in partnership between the Milwaukee Art Museum and Antenna) may seem more fun than serious, there is an element of gravitas when we empower our visitors to be content creators.  The museum has the power to focus visitor’s attention of specific works of art and their stories – in this case, the portrait miniatures whose identities have been lost to time.  Our influence emboldens present day visitors to become active participants in and have visual “conversations” with the museum, by making selfies.  And it’s our responsibility to create the tools that enable this to be possible.  I’ve related these ideas and the selfie generation app to Clay Shirky’s concept of the “Plausible Promise” which explains that participation comes when there are specific goals, tools to achieve those goals and opportunities for sharing and success.  In my opinion, the responsibility that we collectively make to every visitor (in the gallery and online) should be that they will learn and experience something extraordinary and that we will provide the tools to do that – be it an app, an activity, or the ability to see the world’s greatest treasures.

This presentation was accompanied by me explaining each slide and providing a narrative to tie it all together.  So if you want to know more, reply in the comments or give me a shout on Twitter.

And finally, a big thanks to my fellow panelists who presented their academic take on selfie culture (Jeff Bowen of University of Houston-Clear Lake Art Gallery), a case study on a pointillism selfie photo booth (Brooke Rosenblatt of Phillips Collection and the Freer|Sackler), and a case study on the Dali selfie kiosk (Kathy Greif of The Dalí Museum).

Matchmaking MetGala with the Online Collections

I was passively following E!RedCarpet‘s broadcast of the Met Gala for Manus x Machina, until Kim Kardashian appeared on screen.  While she embodied the futuristic theme, the bust of her dress looked suspiciously like the silver seashells at the museum.  I quickly googled them.  Soon, I was live tweeting the Red Carpet.  Kim, Katy, and Zendaya were undoubtably dressed as the Met’s collection.


Some were harder to match than others and I started spending more time looking through the online collections.  What was the most unique characteristic of the celebrity outfit? What searchable term should be entered into the collection’s database? Would the metadata yield a viable comparison?


Some comparisons were obvious (Alicia Vikander/French Costume Armor), while other comparisons were a total surprise, yet near perfect nonetheless (Kate Bosworth/Turkish Shield).  Digging through the fashion collection for a Kendall equivalent yielded nothing, until I switched to American Modernism (Georgia O’Keeffe).


As I was dashing virtually across the grand stairwell of the Met, though the Greek and Roman Halls and into the period rooms, following link after link, I made discoveries in the collection.  Did you know they have a collection of tassels? Or snake skin hats?

My best find was, of course, for Beyonce.  Our “Queen Bey” has truly embodied a piece of Serves porcelain.  The color matches well and her arms are the elephant trunks.  It is undeniable.


This pursuit was a ton of fun.  I crossed the world of art in a few short hours drawing inspiration from various geographies, jumping through time and space.  Museum staff may not know when our online collections will be of use, nor how the public will draw upon them.  But it happens – serendipitously.

So a big thanks to the Met website for enabling an evening of educational fun, and another big thanks to some important retweets from a Met Curator (James Doyle), the American Alliance of Museums, and even an art critic (Lee Rosenbaum).


Your move Anna.



Wikipedia in the “Scale” of Online Museum Publishing

During last weekend’s Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon (which I attended at MoMA) the Editors’ Tutorial presentation stated “all materials in Wikipedia must be attributed to a reliable, published source.”  What exactly makes a source reliable, the audience asked? The editors’ team conferred and decided gallery websites weren’t objective enough, resources the Museum was providing would be a good start, and if contributors weren’t sure about a source, they could ask one of the museum staff members for help.

Since I’ve been looking at the differences between museum-created-publications and museum-sanctioned-publications, this raised questions. Is a museum-sponsored edit-a-thon article “museum-created”, “museum-sanctioned”, both or neither?  How does directly involving museum staff members alter the nature of the articles, if at all?

Orit Gat, (who was also a speaker at the Art+Feminism event) defines museum-created-publications by dividing them into two categories: the first category perpetuates the institution’s mission through published formal research and the second category has a separate, complimentary identity as a behind-the-scenes look at the institution.  Of those two, museum staff contributing to Wikipedia would be more similar to the first category, since the contributing staff are amalgamating published, formal research. But contributing to a non-museum website using materials from the official MoMA library seemed different.  Is it another category?  Lori Byrd Phillips addressed this by coining the phrase open authority. “Opening up authority,” she explains, “within a global platform can increase points of view and establish a more complete representation of knowledge.” Her example of Wikipedia is as follows:

“In fact, the Wikipedia articles themselves can be viewed as a sort of authority in flux, where the best version of the moment is presented for view while details are continually negotiated behind the scenes. In this temple it is understood that no narrative is definitive, neutrality is the goal but bias is inherent, and interpretation is continuously improved through an abundance of perspectives.”

In relation to Gat’s groupings, does open authority fit within the categories of museum publishing or is it separate?  Thinking about the Art+Feminism Edit-a-thon, when museum staffers contributed to a Wikipedia entry, is that article a type of museum publication? What about an article that had staff and non-staff contributions? Or an article written during the edit-a-thon that used the museum’s published resources, but didn’t involve their staff? Does a staff member have the responsibility to drive the museum’s mission on a non-museum platform, if Wikipedia is a type of museum publishing?

Not sure what I think of it yet, but it circles back to my main question: How is the museum identifying and behaving in web culture?