On my final day in the USA and still on an East Coast body clock, I get up super early, jump on a Caltrain and make my way down to the tricky-to-get-to San Jose for a visit to…
The Tech Museum of Innovation
Founded in its currently location in 1998 by women’s volunteering association, the Junior League of Palo Alto, the Tech is a very 90s domed building charged with displaying and discussing new and emerging technology. It is split across three huge levels themed around four main subjects – life tech, innovation, exploration and communication. They obviously cater massively to school groups. I enter off the central Plaza de César Chávez in the clean and very Californian-looking San Jose and am struck instantly by the shop and an IMAX, no immediate sign of a museum let alone a ticket desk. I eventually find it tucked behind the merchandise and fork out the 25 bucks for a ticket. I follow a corridor around and am met with an escalator going up and an escalator going down. Armed with no more information I head down.
Inside the Tech has a cornucopia of interactive displays explaining the technology that they house and, to be honest are largely pretty cool. Down on the bottom floor theres exhibits from NASA, earthquake detection and warning systems, networking system and body sensing devices. The first exhibit I encounter, where you manipulate the expressed emotions on a deconstructed Furby-like thingy, however has a small scanning device attached to it, encouraging me to scan my “Tech Tag”. I look around the room and can’t immediately see where I might source such a thing. The exhibit unfortunately doesn’t operate without one so I move on. It isn’t until three or four exhibits later that, in exacerbation I check my ticket for a clue. As it turns out, my ticket is my “Tech Tag’. I scan the barcode on my ticket and the exhibits come to life. The object of the game here is to essentially log in to each exhibit to collect a record of your experience. It’s interesting seeing this done with a simple barcode that comes printed on your ticket – devices like The Pen at Cooper Hewitt require custom hardware to achieve a similar thing.
Tech Tag call to action.
Upstairs there’s a robot arm whizzing around at terrifying speed picking up building blocks with letters on them. A quick scan of my ticket on a nearby display and I can enter my name which the robot arm then spells out with the blocks. A gentleman next to me looks on and asks where my name is from. Explaining to him that it is German he smiles broadly and says “Aaaaah. Sehr gut!”. I go to explain my nationality but miss my opportunity as he wanders off with a satisfied look on his face.
Later in the day I check my “Tech Tag” activity and am bummed to see that it only logged one of my interactions. This is a bummer because otherwise this is a great, cost effective solution to a problem solved more often by costly infrastructure.
Digital engagement: Nice idea to use barcode on ticket to log my interactions, however it didn’t work. Additional content available via the CloudGuide app which serves content from countless museums and sites around the world from the one, fairly basic app.
Detour Guided Walking Tour – The Castro
Californian startup Detour, who built the very excellent app I experienced yesterday at SFMOMA serve up a multitude of city walking tours via their generic Detour app, with an essentially identical UI to the SFMOMA app. I’ve heard great things about the content on the toured so got in touch with a couple of friends living in San Francisco and headed to the Castro to see what they had to offer. Nestled in the Eureka Valley, the Castro District was one of the first gay districts of the United States and had played host to countless cultural immigrants from around the country (and the world) and has been the platform for celebration and protest in fierce defence of it LGBTQI residents and comrades. It was the home and protest vehicle of photo shop owner, city supervisor and activist Harvey Milk who is the feature character of Detour’s audio tour narrated by Milk’s protege and friend, the charismatic Cleve Jones. The Detour app proudly promotes Jones as being played by Emile Hirsch in the Hollywood film ‘Milk’.
We download the app from the apartment using wifi (handy for the traveller without great access to mobile data), and jump in an Uber to the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Elementary School where the app has instructed us to begin our journey. My friend Scott has already paid for this tour so all three of us use the very cool sync feature to connect our devices to his to start our journey. Jones’ voice is immediately warm and welcoming as he describes, still with a sense of wonder and achievement that this elementary school was and still is named in honour of a gay man. Milk fought heavily, eventually with his own life for inclusivity, particularly for the right of gay men and lesbian women to be employed as teachers.
Jones takes us on a meandering wander through “his neighbourhood” of the Castro, up and down hills and stairs, pointing out various buildings which held meaning either to his experience of being here initially in the 70s or to places relevant to the gay rights movement. At times he stops to say hello to someone who he playfully includes into the tour. There’s something truly wonderful about hearing his voice in-situ as he wanders around – like we’re there with him. I was bummed that a cat he refers to who “owns” a particular staircase was not present on this sunny day. Heading back down the hill he evokes the time in the 70s of his arrival here and the other refugees here with him, particularly those escaping homophobia in the Bible belt.
View from the top of the stairs.
The tour takes a particularly harrowing turn as we enter the AIDS epidemic of the early eighties. At one point Jones points out some stained glass windows on a hospice building where many of his friends died only to abort the story and asks us to rapidly move on. This is where I started losing it.
There are some awkward moments where Jones asks us to enter buldings, such as Harvey’s bar to look at a particular picture on the wall. With tears rolling down my face and navigating between patrons, a waiter asks me if I need to be seated. With a group of diners staring at me I rapidly exit the building and opt for looking through a window.
This is all so well done but absolutely devastating. Earlier on Jones refers to the Twin Peaks Tavern, a Castro stalwarts bar that in his youth he referred to as “the glass coffin” due to its greying inhabitants of ageing gay men (he ended up being a regular here later in life). I followed suit and had a very, very large martini to calm my nerves at the end of my walk.
The Twin Peaks Tavern – purveyors of much needed martinis.
Admission: $7.99 to unlock the tour on the Detour app.
Digital admission: It all is.
This was really upsetting but, in the end the perfect way to end what has been a slightly crazy voyage through the USA that has left me slightly wiser, very much more knowledgable and seriously questioning my future choice of comfortable footwear.
And the Oscars go to...
Best overall experience: Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Best exhibition design: National September 11 Memorial & Museum
Best bog standard visitor experience and digital engagement that just works: The Art Institute of Chicago
Best app: SFMOMA
Best website: The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
Most emotional experience: The Castro walking tour/The Museum of Jurassic Technology
Best gem: National Cryptologic Museum
Wooden spoon: Psychiatry: An Industry of Death