Monday, November 16, 2009

Sometimes the magic works -- museums in Second Life

Visiting a not-so-great museum build in second life: the amphitheater in the Exploratorium sim. And yes, it is big enough to hold five times as many avatars as can actually fit in a sim at once. Wtf?

Having worked for a number of rl museums in the course of my rl career, I enjoy thinking about the potential for museums to utilize the Second Life platform. Sadly, while the thinking about the possibilities is lots of fun, actually looking at the experiments that museums carry out in SL tends to be much less pleasant. In fact, with some notable exceptions, SL museum projects usually just irritate the fuck out out of me.

But hey, you know me, ever the eternal goddam optimist, I thought I would do a search on “museum” tonight and see what turned up. And what came through actually proved to be pretty interesting in a number of ways.

Before I go any further, I want to remind you that as a rule, I am not going to write about people I utterly loathe or projects that simply blow. So if you don’t see a build get covered on this blog, it is either because I think the work itself is a total mass of petrified dog turds on dry white toast, or I think the people responsible for the build are peckerheads of epic proportions. Or it could be that I just haven’t heard about the build and haven't gotten around to seeing it yet. With that in mind, I might as well ask you right now to let me know if you have any suggestions for something you think I should look at. I'll be happy to check them out and if they are in fact just oozing with awesome goodness, you'll get to see me extol the virtues of said virtual exhibit or museum on this here ridiculous blog.

Anyhow, the first thing I noticed was that when I did a search for “museum” the top thing on the list of results was “Virtual Bucharest" with over 30K in traffic. Okey-doke, so I made a mental note to go look at that sometime. Never been to Romania, who knows, it could be cool. Then I started moving down the list looking to see if there were any projects by real life museums represented in the search results. Finally, at number 40, I finally found something that rang a bell -- a build presented by the Exploratorium, a well-known, hands-on science museum in San Francisco.

Now mind you, I generally hate science museums unless they have really, mega-cool shit, like in Chicago at the Museum of Science and Industry. But the museums that offer nothing more than a glorified science fair exhibit of turn-the-crank and light-the-lightbulb bullshit that is supposed to foster a new generation of kiddies who are hopped up about someday being scientists--that crap pretty much bores me shitless and/or makes me insufferably grumpy.

Well, the Exploratorium is sort like the grandaddy of that kind of museum, and whoopity-doo they got a very large area in SL. Not really my cup of tea, but I figured, what the hell, I’ll go look--maybe they fired up their imaginations and did something really out-of-the-box.

Well...they didn't. But I gotta tell you, it was...not terrible.

Ok, I'll admit I didn’t like it. I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t think it did a very good job of teaching anything of significance. But I didn’t hate it. And I wanted to talk about this build because I think its creators made a noble effort that mostly fails because they made the mistake that is most commonly made by rl museums in SL.

Instead of breaking new ground, the Exploratorium folks made what was essentially a virtual version of what they do in real life: a disjointed series of more or less unrelated push-the-button-and-something-happens kind of experience that might teach you something about...oh...stuff. The biggest difference between the SL Exploratorium and the real-life one was that unlike in the actual bricks and mortar museum, most of the virtual exhibits seemed to be working and did not have little "out of order” signs hung on them. That was kind of nice. And mind you, I really didn’t think the thing sucked. The main thing that was disappointing was that they really weren’t using the technology of the platform to do something genuinely innovative. It was their same old shtick, just made from pixels instead of laminate and rubber tubing and hose clamps. The other thing about it I should mention was that it was completely empty--I had the entire place to myself, which wasn’t surprising considering that its traffic was only 646.

An exhibit in the Exploratorium build--it teaches us that "gee it's a long way from the sun to Earth." Or something.

Even though my head was starting to hurt at that point, I decided to take a stab at one more build off that list of search results, and hoo-boy, am I glad I did.

The thing I decided to check out was a place slightly higher up on the list (1658 in traffic) called the “Primtings Museum.” I thought hey, that sounds different, so just for shits and giggles I popped over there. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it is in fact an innovative and unique use of the technology to accomplish something that would not have been terribly practical in a bricks and mortar context. The organizers of the Primtings museum have invited SL artists such as AM Radio, to take real-life two-dimensional paintings by famous artists such as Dali, Van Gogh, David, and others, and translate them into three-dimensional presentations.

It was pretty much in the realm of fuckin’ awesome.

But sometimes, the magic works! Standing inside the 3-D interpretation of Van Gogh's "Vincent's Room," by SL artist Dekka Raymaker.

The build is the brainchild of Ina Centaur, an SL arts-entrepreneur, who describes the project on her blog thusly:

“Primtings Museum is a sim-sized “prim’ed paintings” gallery. Famous paintings in RL are interpreted by SL artists in a variety of ways via prims into 3d paintings. Built to “feel” like a RL museum, where visitors can take their time to explore and “stumble upon” an exhibit, visitors can also quickly “teleport” to a particular primting via’s search-able web directory of all primtings. Artists may also submit their primting for consideration as an exhibit in the museum. We will be exploring some notable Primtings in the interactive part of the tour.”

Ms. Centaur also explained that the project--like some others she is involved with--is "fiscally-sponsored by sLiterary, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to furthering the arts in virtual worlds. offers a variety (from historical to modern to cozy!) of high quality inworld facilities, open to the public for events and other activities...”

You can go look at her blog, though she posts only periodically. Still it’s interesting reading for a number of reasoms, some of which we might go into at another time.

Anyhow, I really enjoyed the Primtings build. Not only can you go and interact with these art works that you have known and loved since Art History 101--and getting a new and fresh perspective on them in the process--but in many cases you also get information about the virtual artist who executed the 3-D interpretation of the 2-D work, along with a discussion of why they think that particular work is so freakin' cool, and even what kind of modeling software they used to create their version.

Ha! This is what happens when you click on the 3-D rendition of Dali's "Persistence of Memory," created by Voodoo Shilton--I think Dali would have appreciated this, being as he had a pretty wacky sense of humor.

This is what museums should be doing in SL: looking at the platform and saying, "hey, how can we do something we really couldn't do in meatspace?" And one thing that the platform is extremely good for, is the creation of three-dimensional environments and offering an immersion experience for the visitor. How bloody remarkable is it to be able to interact with a surreal Dali landscape or to sit in Edward Hopper’s famous “Nighthawks” diner?

The other remarkable thing about this project is that it that was initiated by an individual, not a real-life museum organization. But maybe that shouldn’t be surprising...too many museum people are locked into thinking about doing things a certain way. And that’s probably why so many of them are in so much fucking trouble these days.

Sitting in Edward Hopper's diner from "Nighthawks," created by Tezcatlipoca Bisiani--gotta come back with friends all dressed up in 40's clothing and see what the place feels like with more folks in it.

You can visit the Primtings museum at:


  1. I agree that SL museums ought to try to use the technology to go beyond a pale virtual imitation of what can be done in RL.

    Years ago (well, it seems like years ago, though I'm pretty sure it was in 2008), I heard about the "Nighthawks" build and had a blast in it. I would have sworn that I blogged about it at the time, but I can't find any evidence of it. I still have the pictures, though, so I might post them as part of something else.

    I also stumbled across the Dali build not so long ago (at least it seemed like the same one you showed). I had been teleported against my will to some Welcome Area, and I was amusing myself by seeing what was nearby.

    Anyway, thanks for telling us about the museum. Very cool.

  2. Yes Rhia, I think this was probably created last year, and some of the various artworks may have existed even before that, being as each piece is created by a different artist and I wouldn't be surprised if some of those folks had the idea of interpreting 2-D masterworks in 3-D form long before Ms. Centaur established this centralized location to show them.

    Sometime I would like to track her down and talk to her about and see where the inspiration for the museum came from. I also want to talk to her about her Shakespeare in SL project, which also has been around for a while.

    The fact of the matter is, other than the WWI poets build, I usually don't manage to find a cultural or historical-themed build right when it is brand spanking new. Being all wrapped up in the rp in Deadwood and Hogwarts, I generally don't find out about shit until long after it's been opened up. But arguably, sometimes there is more to say about a build when it has been around for awhile and the hype has worn off--then you get to see how much it keeps being used, how it is (or isn't) evolving, and how people have engaged with it over time.

  3. Cracking post mate - I don't get out to see museums in SL much (or RL either). I love the idea of museums but always find them one of two things - foot-achingly boring or over crowded so to have you take the hit & miss "joy" out of TPing to them is a great service. I shall give the former a wide berth (foot ache just thing about it) and head for the second - I just hope it's not full when I go :-D

  4. p.s. What's been happening in Hogwarts? Is there a post about due? :-D

  5. Hey HB,

    I have a real love-hate relationship with museums:

    I love the idea of them; I love their potential as a places to bring people from different backgrounds and points of view together, and I love how they can fire the imagination.

    I hate what actually happens in most museums: the vapid, self-indulgent, impractical crap that most museum exhibit designers crank out; the air of elitism that so many museums exude, the lack of commitment to engaging the visitors or even just making them comfortable; and the overall brain-crushing lack of imagination and creativity that is displayed by so many museum professionals.

    It's like in SL, you could have remarkable immersive experiences like a trip though a mega-sized representation of the human digestive tract, or a visit to some speculative life-sized 3-d rendering of what a permanent base on the moon might look like. You could recreate things that no longer exist, like the Colossus of Rhodes, or the Temple of Solomon....

    Yes, I know there are some decent three-dimensional "museum" immersion builds like the Frank Loyd Wright show--but content and context are slim, and above all, the builds themselves feel lifeless and sterile.

    Yes, there is some really good content in the form of the simple 2-D image-and-info exhibits like those that Caledon Library does (or like we did with our own recent Deadwood library exhibit). But those are more like adjuncts to the lively immersion environments in which they are located. I don't think they would stand very well on their own.

    I really think that Museums would do well to look at the immersion rp communities and the literary builds like the WWI poets sim or the Macbeth build in order to find some inspiration to go forth and not be boring.

    And yes you are absolutely correct. I need to do an update on life at Hogwarts.

    I'll get on that HB. You can expect something real soon.

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