Inspiration Archives - Sandpit

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I work for a company called Sandpit in Melbourne, Australia and we work on a variety of projects at the intersection of creativity and technology. My job title is content strategist which covers a lot of things, but one of those things is asking questions of the things we make. My background (and foreground) is in script writing, I write speculative fiction and am obsessed with exploring and writing about queer, feminist futures. That’s my bias, and it’s worth stating that I have one, because no one is neutral. 

At Sandpit, we’ve been playing with a Machine Learning (ML) model called GPT-2, which is designed to respond to a piece of input text by predicting the next most likely word, and the next and the next and so on, creating pages and pages of text if requested. It’s sort of like predictive text on your phone, only smarter and a lot more powerful. 

GPT-2 was built by OpenAI and then, as their name suggests, open sourced; ripe for the playing. GPT-2 is one of the most powerful open sourced ML models available and because of that, Open AI released it in instalments. A far less powerful version came first, accompanied by an ethical paper expressing their deep concern about the potential malicious uses of such a tool. And there are many.  

Most ML models aren’t very good at mimicking human writing or speech, they’re clumsy and easily detectable. The first version of GPT-2, operating at a fraction of the current model’s strength, was similarly clumsy, often to very comedic effect. Here’s an example:

Prompt: What is the meaning of pants?

GPT-2: Why is it sometimes necessary for a dog to wear trousers? It wasn’t the only problem we found. Other, more frequent complains we’d encountered were ‘it is hard to breathe and the dog is squishy in his pant. When does a puppy get to wear pants?”

The full version of GPT-2, however, is very good at mimicking human writing.  You can feed it the same prompt an infinite number of times and every time it will give you a different response, and unlike most ML tools which are ‘task specific’ and can write in one very particular style, GPT-2 is a jack of all trades. It can detect a wide range of text types from whatever it is fed and give you back something in the same form. That means it can be used to write a lot of different things, including news articles, obituaries, troll posts, dating app bios, recipes, dialogue, diary entries, etc. For example:

Prompt: Dear diary,

GPT-2: “I really enjoyed a recent trip to the countryside and I'm thinking of going back for a long weekend for Christmas. I'm hoping to go with a few friends. It was lovely to get away for a few days. I'm just missing my mum and sister so much.”

It’s not hard to imagine how such a tool could be used to create fake news, create thousands of undetectable fake users, eventually replace email or phone customer service people get the idea. However, what Sandpit and Google’s Creative Lab have been working toward, is creating tools that harness GPT-2’s power for good.  

Together we’ve developed Playground and Telescope, tools that use GPT-2 to generate creative ideas about fictional characters with the aim of helping writers overcome writer’s block. It can be a real challenge to shift the thinking to what positive use cases might be for something that was announced as frightening from the get go, but this is definitely one of them, and in line with Open AI’s own optimistic intended uses. Playground and Telescope are not tools for fixing things or replacing existing labour, they’re creative, elastic, and importantly; they don’t ask that you accept GPT-2’s output on face value but rather encourage you to interrogate it within your own writing. 

Being a fiction writer myself, I decided to try them out using a character I’m currently working on. The character is called Nim and they’re non-binary. I fed Playground a paragraph about Nim describing them as a genius computer programmer using they/them pronouns. But when I hit the button, it fed me back a paragraph about ‘him’. Curious. I tried again and again but repeatedly GPT-2 didn’t recognise that my character had gender neutral pronouns and, in the absence of me offering binary pronouns, decided Nim was male. I was instantly wary. 

“Nim Sheer is a lanky man of average height, with short, curly hair and a large belly. His attire consists of a white flannel shirt, green cardigan and sandals.”

Was GPT-2 doing this because it didn’t recognise gender neutral pronouns? Did it assume the masculine to be neutral and universal? Or was it because I had said the character was a computer programmer? Maybe it was something else that I didn’t even know about. 

The deal with ML models is that they have to be fed an enormous amount of data – in the case of the full version of GPT-2, “45 million outbound links from Reddit”. That’s an awful lot of data. OpenAI are keen to point out that the data is not from Reddit itself, but rather from links that are popular with Reddit users. They also made a point of excluding subreddits with “sexually explicit or otherwise offensive content”. I wonder who got to define ‘offensive’? Regardless, articles are automatically curated by Reddit users being interested in them, or as Jeff Wu from OpenAI jokes “all the work was done by people on Reddit upvoting posts.” So who are these faceless labourers? 

The Reddit audience is predominantly young white men*, which means that the majority of people upvoting these posts represent a very particular slice of humanity. There’s just no way this isn’t having an impact on how GPT-2 thinks and speaks. Just as I am biased, so too is GPT-2 through the interests of its teachers. I decided to do some testing to see what biases GPT-2 might have lurking under the surface.

I used Playground and honed in on a feature where you can feed it a character’s name and a short description and it will generate information on that character’s appearance or personality. I asked it about Nim, my non-binary computer programmer and it repeatedly described their appearance as some variation of the following:

“Nim Sheer is a brilliant young man. With dark tousled hair, he has an interesting air to him. He speaks softly and with precision.”

So, I tried taking out the bit about Nim being a computer programmer and without this job, started getting these sorts of results:

“Nim Sheer is a small, young, Asian actress. She is very lovely, she's very beautiful. She's very, very, very beautiful.”


I should note that my results are of course subjective, but I did try and test each prompt about ten times and I’m speaking in each instance to whatever the majority was. 

I started noticing that the difference between these descriptions was more than just the pronouns. When GPT-2 thought my character was a woman, it would describe ‘her’ appearance using sentences like:

“a well-dressed and sexy model. She has a very slim figure and a full, round face with a large nose.” 

However, when GPT-2 thought my character was male, it would describe ‘his’ appearance using sentences like: 

“A tall, handsome black man in a long suit who wears large glasses and a dark suit jacket. NECK LENGTH: 9-3/4 in.” 

Neck length aside, I noticed a tendency to sexualise the ‘women’ characters, focusing on their bodies, whereas with men, GPT-2 would be more inclined to tell me about their clothing and interests. 

The conversation around machine learning bias and digital technology bias in general has been happening for quite some time, and I’m simply standing on the shoulders of giants and dropping in my two cents, but I think It’s a conversation we should all be participating in. We, as consumers of technology, often fall into the trap of thinking of digital products as somehow ‘neutral’ or ‘universal’ when they are most definitely not. They can be racist, sexist, and every other form of bias and discrimination under the sun. 

I spoke to some of the writers Google’s Creative Lab had commissioned in partnership with Melbourne’s Digital Writers Festival to trial Playground and Telescope, and they were using the tools in an aware way; inserting text into their writing in intentionally jarring chunks or using it purely to spur the next thought when they ran dry. Because, at the end of the day, as a writing tool, it really does help you stretch your thinking into weird and wonderful places. 

In an ideal world, the tools of the future would give users full agency over their engagement through declaring their biases. They would be upfront and transparent so that when we use them we don’t slip into replicating the tired and narrow ideas of the past. GPT-2 does not declare its bias in so many words, but the information is out there if you go looking for it. It’s an imperfect tool, but a fascinating one that can lead you to ideas, characters and worlds that you might never be able to reach on your own, and as a writer, that’s pretty exciting. 

Prompt: Do you have anything else to say?

GPT-2: Well, just to say thank you very much.


Thank you to Libby Young, Khalid Warsame and Roslyn Helper for sharing their thoughts with me so generously and helping me expand these ideas together.  

Incase you were wondering why the article has such an unusual title, it was chosen by GPT-2.

Prompt: What should I call my article about you?

GPT-2: The first name you want to give it would be "Mysterious Universe" or "What's So Special About You?" I prefer Mysterious Universe. 

* This Reddit data is from 2016 and the articles scraped from Reddit for GPT-2 cut off at the end of 2017.

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.


Daniel Körner.

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.

Admission: $25

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

IMG_2204 3.39.46 pm

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.


Starting point.

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



The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is really, really big. Despite the interior, and entire viewing experience feeling relatively compact the building and its collection are massive. Due to its ongoing popularity as a destination, last year SFMOMA opened its new Snøhetta designed expansion, essentially doubling the size of the building. This included new approaches and outlooks for the building. Actually, what’s cool about the old and new parts of the building is the clear line on all floors where you can see the join. Built to kind pop out in the case of an earthquake (touch wood), once you know about it you don’t really want to stand on it. On one level there are two small windows in the join that were added well into construction by the team creating the interactive audio tour led by Head of Web and Digital Platforms, Keir Winesmith who takes me on a whizz around the building. I totally love the idea that the digital engagemant team had the opportunity to affect the bricks and mortar to such great effect. Actually, there are some really great additions straddling the digital and physical that have arrived in the building under Keir’s tenure. On the third floor are a suite of installs that complement the photography collection. Two extremely large flatscreen sit side by side with accompanying pedestals for operation. By turning one large mechanical dial on a pedestal you can scroll through photographic content and with the other larger dial you can drill in deeper to particular points of interest – I dug into some partiucalry harrowing panoramas of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake which devastated the city. This level has been really beautifully designed with a bar/bench that extends from the cafe and hugs its way around the room. Also here is a collaboration between Keir’s team and Adobe – Self Composed Image, a kind of play on the selfie where you can use a camera and a digital table top that creates soft mattes from whatever you place on it and mixes it with a photo of your self from an incorporated camera. Once you’re happy with your creation a thermal printer prints out a low res image (which is really nice in itself). The print out is also combined with a URL and a unique ID which you can use to access and share a hi res version of the image.


Self Composed Image.

But what I’m really keen to try on this visit is the much-touted audio tour. Developed in collaboration with fellow San Franciscans Detour the app pledges a truly hand free experience with an immersive soundscape and audible wayfinding that responds to your position in the gallery. And goes what? It totally works! You can select from a series of audio tours to be taken on. I initially selected ‘German To Me’ – an “immersive walking tour” led by German-American radio producer Luisa Beck in an unashamedly This American Life-esque walk through many of SFMOMA’s works by German artists including Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke who were grappling to come to terms with the aftermath of WW2 and an extremely problematic national identity. Beck gently guides us through the works and ponders her own identity while pulling in interviews with her German speaking mother, grandmother and young cousin. The soundscape gently underscores her comments as Beck effectively guides you from room to room with her voiceover. The voice over itself, on a technical level is “floating” on top of the score in that she tells you where to go next and, as the soundscape plays out you find your own way in your own time. Soundscape gradually changes as you move and the voiceover automatically kicks back in when you’re in the right spot. This worked seamlessly. The directions have an additional, if unintentional effect of putting you slightly on edge – you don’t want to miss anything or get it wrong. This results in a slightly heightened presence of being which really opened me up to her voice, where I was standing in space and the things she was telling me to look at. There’s even a cool functionality that allows you to sync your audio with your fellow travellers, creating a more communal experience. This whole experience was so well conceived and quite moving without overpowering the artworks themselves.

SFMOMA – interior (click to explore)

Once this tour was completed I opted for something quite different – a tour called ‘The Insider’ by novelist Eli Horowitz. This is a factious tour intended to bring the gallery to life with an invisible and entirely made up layer. It introduced a character who allegedly is stuck in the gallery and is unable (or unwilling) to leave, using cultural objects as his morning mirror or workout apparatus. The whole thing is quite silly and not nearly as effective as my previous tour. Despite this, the technology works brilliantly and I did have some laugh out loud moments as the voice implied al the people around me were in some sort conspiracy against me. This gives you a sense of how far you could go with such an experience, becoming a rich artwork in itself.

I finished my day at SFMOMA taking in some of the many Richard Serra pieces in the gallery which, despite being harsh, elemental and industrial objects are like seeing an old friend in what was a really satisfying experience and almost worth my whole trip to San Francisco.



Day one in San Francisco took me to the Exploratorium – a massive complex out in on Pier 15 which is dedicated to exploring the world through science. Founded in 1969 by physicist Frank Oppenheimer (probably most notoriously known for his work on the Manhattan Project) it’s got a huge name for itself for its many tactile, interactive displays that despite have a strong focus on physics, really get you to have fun with many forms of science. In fact, a lot of grown ups I’ve met on this trip have lit up like little kids when I tell them I’m going to the Exploratorium.

The Exploratorium – interior (click to explore)

It moved into its current location from its previous venue at the Palace of Fine Arts in 2013 and is a really fun, chaotic, noisy converted pier/warehouse that, on my visit a least had a million screaming kids – and not in the annoying way the little monsters back at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago were, no these kids were actually having fun with the exhibits, not just trying to destroy them. I meet Program Director Claire Pillsbury who proudly takes me on a spin around the museum. First stop, and arguably the best part of this facility is the workshop. Claire talks me through a bit of their process dealing with the wear and tear of many of the house-made interactives. When Oppenheimer first established the museum it was done on an absolute shoestring with much of the equipment donated from private and government science labs. The workshop is no exception with lathes, welding equipment and routers looking more like they would have been tools in the Manhattan Project’s lab back in the 1940s.


Donated relic of a spot welder.

The workshop itself is separated from the rest of the museum via a very low wall or fence which means that visitors can easily see inside and the work that Exploratorium staff do. I’m totally jealous about the fact that they can rapidly prototype their interactives then wheel them through the gate and onto the museum floor to start user testing straight away. I’m even more jealous about the fact that so long as they have safety clearance, staff members can use any of the tools available, even if they need to fix their kitchen cabinets (so long as they don’t get in the way of the real work).


Looking down in to the workshop.

Also nice is that the New Media team is also well embedded in the workshop. This works brilliantly as the interactive they build inevitably have to sit with larger constructs that are welded, machined or hammered together. There is also row upon row of spare parts in boxes for the interactives (they always buy in duplicate). The boxes have very excellent names like “Electric Flame”, “Electrical Ballet” and “Cloud Chamber”.


Always buy in duplicate.

Further up Claire takes me some of the new spaces and an outside space featuring a bunch of elliptical objects Claire points out as a bit of a prototyping failure. The objects themselves look exactly like surfboards and the kids respond accordingly, jumping on them and pretending to paddle or standing up and leaning around, putting very obvious strain on the bolts that feather them to the floor. Claire informs me, however that these are not intended to be surf boards at all but rather a kind of sun dial. She laughs. The Exploratorium is really well known for doing physical engagement brilliantly. “Even we get it wrong sometimes.” she says.


The "surf boards".

Oppenheimer put this institution together on the smell of an oily rag and it shows in such a wonderful way. This is one big museum with one even bigger heart. They’ve also got a really cool shop.

The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago


As I approach the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago I am struck my its austerity, a huge, grey monument in the northern part of downtown. Despite this, it’s also currently covered in a large octopus decal promoting an about to open Takashi Murakami show. The austerity of the outside however doesn’t prepare you for the sheer amount of activity that is going on inside. The MCA is undergoing some huge changes at the moment, a large part of which is under the auspices of the very excellent Susan Chun, Chief Content Officer who meets me in the foyer for a look around a chat. I’m always slightly confused by the titles given to many of the people I meet in the USA as Susan’s remit stretches far beyond content. Several exhibitions are being installed at the moment which Susan knows intimately as she tells me of the ins and outs of their installation. Susan is a brilliantly enthusiastic person and she takes me to several unexpected levels of the building for a look around after pushing multiple buttons in the elevator due to her distracted enthusiasm.

On the top floor is a Riot Grrrls show, not actually about the 90s feminist grunge movement its name would suggest but of ten pioneering contemporary female artists whose work has pushed the envelope and has influenced a new generation of artists. There’s something in the energy and hubris of these works though that does evoke the aesthetic of the exhibition’s namesake.

The Murakami exhibition is also being installed up here on the top floor and we stoop down to see one of the most challenging works to install – a huge papier mâché, unwieldy stalactite that has been roughly covered with aerosols graffiti by the artist up until the proviso day. It is this manic energy that seems to purvey the entire building and Susan herself.


Looking up the fairly spectacular stairwell.

She takes me down into the bowels of the building to meet the digital team who by the look of the amount of work visualised on every spare space of wall in the office are very busy people indeed. Addressing what they have identified as a major problem in many punters not actually having any idea what the building they work in is, they are prototyping a huge neon-looking LED sign to adorn the front of the building. They have paper prototypes up  on the wall and a 1:1 functioning section of the display they proudly cart around the building. This is all part of a fairly significant upgrade that is happening to the building including a whole new entry foyer and restaurant called Marisol (after the Warhol protege Marisol Escobar who sadly died in 2016) headed up by rockstar Chicago chef Jason Hammel. It’s totally cool to see Susan’s team of people working on all of this stuff together at the same time from interior deign of the front desk, to the LED signage down to the way the menus will be printed and how it will all work online. Susan tells me how proud she is of the team and how unusual it is to be able to achieve all of this in house for what would otherwise require an external studio to do.


The new foyer (under construction).

The team is also currently engaged in a project called Coyote which has the ambitious plan on creating quite lengthy alt text for every image that the museum has. This will finally create an accessible experience for vision impaired visitors to the website but is also data that could manifest in countless other forms.

After spending a couple of hours at the gallery we all head back to Susan’s apartment, right on Lake Michigan in a huge apartment complex that was pointed out to me on the previous day’s architectural tour. Apparently the City had instigated a law that meant no buildings could be erected on land east of Lake Shore drive, reserving the land for citizens. The developers of this building however identified the fact that it was reclaimed land fill, not land on its own – a sneaky legal Do-si-do which allowed this spectacular building to happen. The loophole apparently was closed immediately after its construction. Up in Susan’s apartment with incredible views of the city and the lake she does a speech which everyone settles down listen to in which she thanks three of us present for visiting form overseas. The sincerity with which this whole ritual occurs is not something that happens back home and that everyone takes seriously but with a lot of joy. More speeches back in Australia I say. Cheers!

Admission: Suggested admission – $12.

Digital engagement: Hands down the most clever, unusual and easy to use website I’ve experienced. Exhibitions speak for themselves and need little else.

Architectural Boat Tour


On the recommendation of several friends and colleagues, I found my way down to the Chicago River and got my self on a boat tour that takes in the (largely modernist) architectural wonders of Chicago. Operator Wendella claims to be the original purveyor of such an experience so I look for their logo and jump on one of their boats. John, our illustrious tour guide initially informs us that the site where we are docked would have been completely desolate after the devastating Great Chicago Fire of 1871 – allegedly started in a barn on the outskirts of town belonging to one Catherine O’Leary whose cow seems to have kicked over a lamp. John also makes note of one of several cantilevered bascule bridges nearby that stretch the main branch of the Chicago River and its two main tributaries to the north and south.


John – really going for it.

In fact, the City of Chicago’s Y shaped logo actually pays its homage to this north/south fork in the river that forms a Y shape in the centre of town. But this tour is less about the river and more about the buildings.

Chicago was once home to the master modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – affectionately abbreviated to Mies for those in the architectural know. Mies taught at the nearby University of Chicago and had several proteges who either continued his iconic, unadorned style or openly rebelled against it. This is no more evident than the nearby Seagram building, designed by Mies and easily identified by its clean lines and airy lobby which is right next to the Mies student Bertrand Goldberg designed Marina City whose curvy exterior expresses its architect’s insistence that architecture, like the natural world should not contain right angles. This building went up 5 years before Mies’ death and I’m sure would still have tim turning in his grave if not posthumously scowling.


Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building.

We continue down the river for a good 70 minutes and John, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the city’s buildings does not shut up for the entire trip. Impressive. Seriously, this is an incredibly informative and very fun thing to do with an afternoon and adds to some of my favourite experiences on this trip that were mediated by a real person sharing their knowledge in their own idiosyncratic way. I now know a lot more about the history of Chicago with the added bonus that my feet aren’t additionally sore.

By the way, as it turns out the cow never really started the fire and was exonerated by the City of Chicago many years after Catherine O’Leary’s death.

Admission: $35.50

Digital engagement: Was nearly running late so used the website to prebook my tickets. Didn’t give me a success screen and email took some time to come through which caused a bit of panic.

Jane Addams Hull House


The Jane Addams Hull House is a historical building and museum on campus at the University of Chicago which was once home to the social reformer and first female American Nobel Prize laureate Jane Addams. Addams was sociologists and pioneer of womens and immigrants rights in early 20th century America and founded the house in 1889 as a community centre and social experiment for inclusion. By 1911 the complex had grown to eleven buildings which housed philosophers, artists and academics along with immigrants and the needy in a kind of commune promoting the social betterment of its inhabitants. Hull House is all that exists now amongst the 1970s University of Chicago campus but is a beautiful and historic piece of late 19th century American architecture. Now a museum it is charged with maintaining Addams’ legacy for social innovation and inclusivity. A permanent exhibition houses many artefacts and ephemera from the time of Addams and her colleagues as well as a series of commissioned artworks and revolving exhibitions.

Upstairs on my visit was an exhibition called States of Incarceration which is a travelling show that opened in 2016 in New York City that explores the thorny issue of the history and future of mass incarceration in the United States.

Also downstairs was a clever installation in a windowed, octagonal antechamber. The installation has sound recording sourced from the archives that illustrate the late 19th century atmosphere of Hull House’s surrounds. The installation artist had cleverly attached transducers to the windows and wooden frames of the room to bring to the sound to life. The effect was as if the sound was coming from nowhere and everywhere all at once without the point source that a small speaker would provide. Super nice.


Antechamber with transducers.

Admission: Free

Digital engagement: Bits and pieces including a series of wall mounted iPads and iPod touches in kiosk mode for the AV content in the exhibition upstairs. Nothing permanent in the building.

Art Institute of Chicago


Founded in 1879 the Art Institute of Chicago is a deceptively massive institution perched right in the thick of things right next to Lake Michigan. I say deceptive because the entry foyer is fairly small considering the epic scale of the collection including show-pony rockstar works like Whistler’s Mother and American Gothic. I also have to note here that of all the places I’ve visited, in terms of their digital tools, UX and VX they are getting it really right here and led to one of the most easily accessible, straightforward visitor experiences I’ve had on this trip. I got in the door just in time before a million other gallery goers came in behind me and got through the ticket line pretty quickly. Above our heads in the line were a series of flat screen that welcomed visitors and gave basic information. They also informed the crowds that American Gothic today, unfortunately was not at home and was on tour in Europe. Nice move as a piece of forewarning before I slightly pricey ticket is purchased. The screen also promoted the Art Institute of Chicago’s app which I downloaded via their speedy, free wifi which blessedly didn’t take me through an annoying captive portal process where I had to agree to unseen T&Cs. I obtained my ticket from yet another surly front of house person, checked my bag and skipped out on getting an audio tour device. The app, it seemed allowed me to punch in the same numbers that I would on one of these $7 devices.

Once in, I hung a right to have a quick look at the very lovely Ryerson and Burnham Libraries which are accessible and have a modest collection of books available to the public. Back in the foyer I once again opt for an audio tour led experience for my visit. The app itself has the most successful wayfinding I’ve experienced on this trip with maps it somehow fairly effectively managed to triangulate my position on, as well as what floor I had made my way to. Objects on the tour appear as large markers, greyed out if they are actually on another floor. This is a little tricky to get your head around but once you’re used to it makes plenty of sense.

Ryerson and Burnham Libraries – interior (click to explore)

The tour takes me past about 20 of the museum’s “best of” objects including a really impressive amount of antiquities from Ancient Rome, Greece and limited parts of Asia and the Islamic world. I’ve never seen this amount of Etruscan objects on display in one place whose mysterious culture I’m a bit of a nerdy fan of. The tour takes me past many more priceless objects with succinct audio from curators and staff and soundbites from the artist where available. This is all punctuated by really sparing use of music which helps massively with the immersion but without getting in the way of the interpretation of the objects. I only struggle at one point to figure out the map where it looks like I would have to fly out of a window and back in to get to my desired location. I ask for help from another young and surly member of staff who informs me that I’d be better of catching a Pokemon with the app rather than finding an artwork. I found this interesting as for me it was quite successful in what it sets out to achieve. Goes to show how problematic app driven experiences are, even when they’re doing the best job they can at it.

Art Institute of Chicago – interior (click to explore)

Interestingly, there is no desperate wanting of my email address from any of these tools and I leave actually really amped at the invisibility and effectiveness of the Art Institute of Chicago’s digital tools.

Admission: $35 – cheaper if you’re a Chicagoan.

Digital engagement: Lots of stuff – see above.

A note on Chicago

Coming from New York City Chicago feels like it has voluminous amounts of space. The streets are wide, the Airbnbs are big and they really want you to eat hot dogs. Museums are also a million miles apart, unlike the comparative museum jam that is the Upper East Side. Feet are literally bleeding now. Not kidding. I get on the subway, stroll past Anish Kapoor's 'Cloud Gate' and find myself at...

The Shedd Aquarium


Perched right on Lake Michigan, the Shedd Aquarium is a 1930s gem of a building. This octagonal construction is, for the most part what a more modest early 20th century aquarium would have been – kind of like an alive, aquatic version of New York’s Natural History Museum, the aquarium displays various tanks complete with marine life and identifying labels showing you where the critters come from.

The Shedd Aquarium – interior (click to explore)

Each of these displays fan out from a central “Caribbean reef” which on my visit had the added delight of a real scuba diving cleaner!



Towards the back of the building is a 1991 built “Oceanarium” which contains the more dubiously held specimens including dolphins, otters, penguins and, in a tank that honestly didn’t feel nearly big enough, several beluga whales (I counted four). Although seeing these creatures in the flesh is exhilarating, particularly via the subterranean viewing windows I spent most of the morning trying to gauge where on the spectrum of intelligent marine life I draw the line when it comes to cruel captivity. The beluga exhibit, unfortunately strode over that line.


Beluga exhibit.

Coming back up to the grand level I was struck by the chaos that had developed up here during my time below. What was probably way too many school groups had now invaded the aquarium with much shouting and banging on glass. I nearly came to the rescue of a jurassic looking snapping turtle who was being harangued by four teenage boys with a penchant for whacking glass surfaces. In the middle of all of this was a large, open topped, shallow pool where several creatures were available for petting. Standing in a gap in the middle of the tank was a man with a crackly microphone whose apparent vocation was to loudly chastise over-boisterous marine life petting. Couple this with the sheer enthusiasm that school children were flocking to the tank and the whole effect was one of utter chaos. My moral radar also in alert mode, I felt quite unsettled by the whole experience, despite it being vaguely hysterical.


Microphone man trying to control chaos.

It was super lovely to see some of the small creatures including Puranas, moray eels, said snapping turtle and several puffer fish who always seemed to be hiding in the picture. I’ve certainly seen animals held in worse conditions before so if you’re the sort of person who can look past that this is a beautiful gem of an institution in a historic building that modern, large scale aquariums should be envious of.


Puffer fish.

Admission: $30.95 for basic access (no show)

Digital engagement: Several military grade touch screens with content that didn’t further augment printed panels. Kiosk mode seems to have eluded aquarium staff at several stations unless they actually wanted us to see the Windows Vista controls.

The Field Museum of Natural History


The Field Museum was founded in 1893 to display objects at the World’s Columbian Exposition. Originally funded by merchant Marshall Field, the sprawling neo Classical building sprung up in its current location in 1921.

The Field Museum – interior (click to explore)

I’d encountered a lot of talk about the Field Museum on this trip and was surprised to see how wanting it was for an update. That being said, it is known as being one of the world’s premier museums largely due to the scale of its collection, the scientific work it conducts and its education programs. Only problem is, as a visitor you don’t really get to see it. Part of the exorbitant ticket price included access to one of three exhibitions or a film. I opted for “Specimens”, an exhibition documenting the collecting process of the museum. At several points, this exhibition alluded to the millions of objects held in the collection which only made it more frustrating that I couldn’t see it all. A perspex model of the building tantalisingly displays a basement, spilling out of the bounds of the surface level building which hides all the treasures. The fact that the number of items in the collection is constantly mentioned exacerbates my frustration as I wander around this huge and, on the bottom floor at least, largely empty building.

There is a huge opportunity here for the museum to lean less on traditional museum interpretation and to find new ways to give visitors access to the scale of the collection and the research that is being undertaken. At various points in the building, science labs are exposed where you can see scientists busy at work with countless specimens. More of this, I say!


Scientists at work.

On the ground level there is a very comprehensive collection of taxidermy however having been to the Natural History Museum in New York City recently, I had seen very artfully created dioramas and taxidermy. These, unfortunately don’t stack up which did, on the other hand make me treasure my experience in New York City even more.

Very impressive, though is “Sue” the T Rex in the main hall, a very rare specimen which is 90% authentic. She’s an excellent welcome and farewell to this grand old building.



Admission: $22 including only one exhibition. Can cost up to $36 for AAA.

Digital engagement: Basic app relies on QR codes attached to a sparse amount of exhibits.

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum


In terms of the king of museum experiences, I’d kind of been saving the best for last. The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum is one of New York City’s three Smithsonian and was initially charged with giving a space to the “Arts of Decoration”. It has been kicking around since 1896 but was handed over to the Smithsonian in 1967. Before that it had been established and run by the three granddaughters of wealthy industrialist Peter Cooper – I feel like I’ve typed the phrase “wealthy industrialist” a million times on this trip.

Housed in the Andrew Carnegie mansion on the Upper East Side’s Museum Mile (not far from the Guggenheim) these days it is home to 198,255 objects and has a remit that covers all areas of design, from the 2 dimensional to furniture, jewellery, models and even a Rolls Royce that once belonged to the Beatles. The mansion itself is a really serene getaway from the honking traffic of the Upper East Side. In terms of Cooper Hewitt’s place amongst other Smithsonians, it’s like the slightly cooler older sister. You can tell on approach, the old iron gate has the Cooper Hewitt’s cleanly designed logo boldly attached to it – even their treatment of the slightly dated Smithsonian logo is simplified to a more pleasing silhouette. Inside the gate and past the now ubiquitous security guard a huge courtyard reveals itself around a central green plus a terrace draped in wisteria. I do a sheepish lap around the building, unable to find the front door. This may actually be the only thing Cooper Hewitt struggles with. I head through the cafe, through the very well stocked gift shop and into the entry foyer. It’s here that I see the front door (of course, covered in scaffolding) but confusingly placed down a side street on the north side of the building, not incredibly obvious given the likely approach by tourists from the south. Okay, I’m splitting hairs slightly but I had to find something I could pick apart, right?

The Cooper Hewitt – interior (click to explore)

The whole visitor experience for the Cooper Hewitt is excellently thought out. Once you arrive at the front desk the noticeably non-museum-ie and more design-ie front of house people greet you and hand over The Pen. *Queue triumphal music* Developed by a team under the auspices of ACMI’s Seb Chan, The Pen facilitates one of the most awesome museum going experiences I’ve ever had. Probably five or six times bugger than a usual pen, the Cooper Hewitt’s device is a custom digital object that allows you to interact with with and save your experiences of the collection during your visit. As the front of house staff inform you, The Pen is a stylus that allows you to interact with various exhibits but also allows you to save particular objects that you are fond with. By inverting The Pen and tapping its stub to specially deigned icons on exhibits’ didactic panels, an NFC tag embedded in the panel register with the device. This functions a bit like a real world shopping cart where you collect your favourite objects.


The Pen in action.

At various points in the museum you are confronted with a large touch table. Using the stylus end of The Pen you can scribble on the table. The table then calculates a vector from your scribble and presents an object from the collection that approximates it. Form there you can save the object to your account or move on to design your own. Using nodes and vectors you may then design your own three dimensional object which, again you may save. Also using the touch table you can take a look at all the objects you have already saved to your account.


Touch table.

All of this adds up to a great visitor experience where you are not constantly gazing down at a screen and are rather wielding a screenless object that is at once unobtrusive but by the same token your magic key to access  the collection.

Post experience, you enter a unique ID printed on your tickets create an account and see your collection of objects of interest, gathered during your visit. On my visit, objects from the new exhibition “The Jazz Age” featured heavily with its physically bam!-chk!-bam!-looking objects. I also had several from sections from the collection by Ellen DeGeneres. Go figure.

This was a total treat and to date is winning by far for an overall brilliantly conceived visitor experience.

Admission: 18 clams. Bargain.

Digital engagement: See above.

American Museum of Natural History


This is another beast of a museum and one that I’ve been really desperate to visit for years. Today, I finally got my chance. Set about half way up Central Park West, it is one of the biggest museums in the world – my feet are basically bleeding now. Its huge collection starts at the big bang and essentially describes the natural world from then on through a million different forms of communication, both old and new and encompassing an impressively comprehensive collection of damn cool stuff. The museum has a huge scientific staff and sponsors expeditions around the world (and into space) all year round to enhance the collection and its insatiable thirst for knowledge. One of the founders of the museum was Teddy Roosevelt and you still see his presence throughout this monumental gem of a building, if slightly labyrinthine/rabbit warren-y.

I start my wander in one of the newest parts of the building, the Rose Center for Earth and Space and the Helibrun Cosmic Pathway. Completed in 2000 the pathway encircles a huge, planet-like sphere in the centre of the annexe, vaguely resembling The Machine in ‘Contact’, for any Carl Sagan nerds out there.

The Rose Center for Earth and Space (click to explore)

Inside the sphere is a projected sound and light show describing the Big Bang and how the Earth got to be where it is. This is all projected into a concave disk that you look down into and is very impressive and vertigo-inducing. Despite this, the whole thing is narrated by my arch-enemy Liam Neeson – who for some ungodly reason always seems to be cast the in these all-knowing, sage-like roles. Heavens knows why. Back out on the path way, you travel forward in time from the big band and see the universe, galaxy, solar system and finally earth evolve.


Starting the Helibrun Cosmic Pathway.

Down on the very lower floor there’s a jumble of cosmic phenomena including a short video presentation describing the on-going research the museum is collaborating on internationally in studying black holes and quasars.

The bulk of the rest of the museum is considerably older and containers probably what it is most famous for – the countless numbers of dioramas featuring meticulously taxidermied animals in reconstructed habitats, with extremely natural poses and beautifully quaint handpainted backdrops that give not only an incredible sense of depth but the obvious hand of a truly talented human being who assembled the thing. Which is one of the nicest things about the dioramas, they are impeccably built but still have a human, artisanal substance to them – unlike the machine constructed, “perfectly” made interpretative we are so used to seeing in museums.


One of many dioramas.

The poses of the animals are quite astonishing too – a herd of Oryx stand wide eyed and erect as if they have just noticed us and are about to bolt into the undergrowth, several birds seem like they are captured mid-flight. This all points to a museum tradition of yesteryear which is so heartbreakingly lacking in the world today.

Just when I think I can’t take any more I remember that the fourth floor is dedicated to the American Museum of Natural History’s vast dinosaur fossil collection. Many of the early digs that uncovered these amazing treasures were pioneered but he museum itself and I don’t think I’ve seen this many on this kind of scale before.


This chap welcomes you to the dino-level.

A lot of the reconstructed skeletons are accompanied by a tiny model of what the creature would have looked like with its skin on, sitting on the side.  A total treat for any dino-fan.

Admission: $22

Digital Engagement: A confounding amount of apps available for download. Most of them don’t work. The American Museum of Natural History Explorer App, though encompasses a lot of the functionality these dead apps promise and pulls it together into one well designed, clean experience. This is the first time I’ve had a successful bluetooth beacon experience. A little too successful. Even though I had confirmed that I had, in fact found the elephant herd, it kept excitedly alerting me to their proximity. A whole bunch of AR games are also embedded in the app although it seemed like I was really the only, slightly foolish looking person using it. Definitely use the app or the website to book tickets in advance and skip the queues.

New-York Historical Society


Also on Central Park West the New-York Historical Society was founded as New York’s first museum way back in 1804. Charged with exploring the history and identity of New York and, more broadly the USA as a nation, it presents as slightly more bite sized experience that its neighbouring cousin. The collection focuses mainly on the development of Manhattan while leaving the outer boroughs to the Brooklyn Historical Society across the East River. The purpose built building was completed in 1902 and forms another piece of the jigsaw in New York’s collection of treasures.

On the ground floor you can attend the museum’s “multimedia film experience”, New York Story – a sound and light show that tells a compact but fairly comprehensive story of New York since colonisation. In this case “multimedia” means projection on a whole bunch of motorised blinds that fly in and out on a stage with additional automated lighting effects. It’s a fairly straightforward trick however the content is particularly good, especially the more contemporary shots of the city in a pretty sumptuous 3:1 ratio. It actually left me wishing I’d made this first stop on my clammer through New York as, despite it being 17.5% tacky actually gives a fairly energised intro to the city.

Up on subsequent floors the New-York Historical Society has a vast and eclectic collection of artefacts and ephemera that tell the story of this city from countless perspectives. Thomas Jefferson’s original designs for several of the nation’s buildings are fascinating original objects to peruse. The top level also uses the history and evolution of the Tiffany Lamp to tell part of the story.

The brand spanking new fourth floor promises “history has a whole new story”. Many of these new exhibits comprise touch screens and flat screens hidden behind mirrors to fairly interesting effect. Together, though the collection is a bit of a hodgepodge of stuff with no particular clear narrative linking it all together.

Admission: Bit steep given the scale at $20

Digital engagement: A fun touch table on the fourth floor asks you to act out the mannerisms of early 20th century New York society. The multimedia extravaganza downstairs is fairly fun. Non-responsive website except for the fourth floor exhibit which is obviously getting the big PR pusch.


Fourth floor touch table.

Kicked off the day early today and managed to get my way all the way downtown, over the Brooklyn bridge to Pier One where Anish Kapoor’s ‘Descention’ has been installed since the start of May. This monumental work, tucked into Brooklyn Bridge Park is typical of Kapoor is than it cleverly plays with elemental ingredients in a way that is both mesmerising and contemplative but also a big hit with the tourists. Win-win. The object in question in a circular pool, flush with a grassy knoll containing dark murky water. An unseen mechanism creates a terrifying whirlpool, rotating so powerfully that there is a chasmic vortex produced in the centre. The result is really scary, particularly with the subsonic rumble that is produced on the approach. It looks and feels a lot like someone has pulled some deep, subterranean plug and the world is being sucked away. Truck loads of fun despite it being an apocalyptic doom sculpture.

The Museum of the Moving Image


MOMI is out in Astoria, a fact that I ponder on the way out. Despite New York City becoming increasingly less Manhattan-centric, the fact that a museum of significance being relegated to the boondocks does raise a quarter of an eyebrow. In what was formerly the east coast home of Paramount Pictures, the museum has accepted visitors since the 1970s and was the only United States museum dedicated solely to motion picture arts and sciences at the time. The museum underwent a $67 million renovation in 2008 and reopened its doors in its current state in 2011. I enter through the missable mirrored doors into an expansive, clean, white foyer. It could be a relic of a set from 2001 A Space Odyssey. I purchase my ticket and am instructed to head upstairs to the galleries. Downstairs there is also a cinema but nothing screening anywhere near my time of arrival. I head up a dramatically angled white staircase and into the first cavernous room. Here, on loop they are screening Jim Henson’s ‘Time Piece’. Created by Henson in 1965 this experimental short film pays with rhythm and non-linear editing to present Henson himself as a kind of Everyman, stuck in the drudgery of the daily grind. It’s a darkly funny and quite bleak piece with the addition of Henson’s trademark sense of humour including, in this case a dancing chicken carcass/puppet. The position and space given to this exhibit is a beautifully warm welcome to MOMI’s galleries, particularly with the esteem that, I assume everyone holds Jim Henson in.

The rest of the museum is a fairly tired collection of ephemera from American movies and television including meticulously constructed set models (it was fascinating to see that drawings for The Silence of the Lambs), prosthesis, merchandise and costumes – all presented in a fairly traditional method with lengthy didactic panels. Further in, the ‘Tut’s Fever Movie Palace’ is a hastily painted, side show version of an Egyptian tomb incorporating a cinemaette that on my visit was full of school groups. Heading further upstairs a large room of arcade games from the 70s and 80s have been (for the most part) restored to the level of being functioning. Bafflingly, there is a change machine in the corner to convert your notes into coins – they’re so authentic you’ll still be paying, thank you very much. Pong was out of order.


No Pong for you.

Further along and there’s a super cool room full of television sets from the ages, the sheer number and variety of cathode ray tubes in all their wacky forms is awesome. The rest of this level is largely dedicated to the process of film making with exhibits dedicated to the process of film making from editing, a foley studio, a fun stop motion animation station and a series of three touch screens with a huge index of roles on a film shoot which you can browse, tap and supposedly read the definition of. I selected ‘second assistant director’ which crashed my machine only to hand on a blank white screen.

MOMI – interior (click to explore)

The Henson film certainly made this trip worth while but you certainly get the feeling that there is work to do at this museum. With the Australian Centre for the Moving Image having such a broad remit when it comes to the definition of ‘Moving Image’ including all forms of new and emerging digital media, MOMI is halted at a very particular point in time in both its collection and it’s mode of exhibition.

Admission: $15

Digital engagement: Shamefully unresponsive website. Largely traditional exhibition displays however some stations, such as the stop motion animation desk allow digital tools to reveal the process of film making. Beyond the stop motion desk I would wager little has evolved here since the 2011 renovation.

The New Museum


Founded in 1977 by curator and art critic Marcia Tucker, the New Museum moved into its current, airy digs in 2007. The Japanese designed refurb is an iconic landmark on its Bowery location. The New Museum has no collection of its own however is dedicated to presenting an ongoing cycle of contemporary international art. The museums presents artists who have not explicitly hit the mainstream in the careers and therefore exhibits works that are challenging and explicitly fresh. I visit on a Thursday “pay what you want” day and am instructed to head up to the fifth floor and work my way down, an idea I am slowly warming to on this trip. The lift is out so I brave the stairs which feel like they go on forever as the soaring ceilings on each floor basically equate to two levels. Working down from level 5 the New Museum presents wildly different works on a floors in both form and content from moody paintings from Lynette Yiadom-Boakye to mixed media and video work from Kaari Upson – one such video work involving a manic house inspection in Los Angeles is downright hilarious in the subject’s aggressively paranoid questioning to the vendor about whether a stucco wall is in fact made of asbestos.

The book shop rocks. You can’t find that stuff on Amazon.

New Museum – interior (click to explore)

Next door but very much part of the New Museum is NEW INC., an incubator and co-working space for individuals and small organisations working, largely commercially in the cultural sector. This is fascinating for me as it is a similar model to our home at ACMI X in Melbourne. NEW INC director Julia Kaganskiy spoke with me on the same panel in St Louis at the American Alliance of Museums conference. ACMI X has only just put its toe into the water in terms of incubating work rather than just providing a co-working space so I’m fascinated to the the diversity and apparent success in the many organisations and individuals who live here. What’s totally different is their more fast-churn, alumni model rather than lock terms tenancies such as ours. This trip has made a strong connection between NEW INC and ACMI X that we’ll continue to forge.

Admission: Usually $18, because it was Thursday evening I paid 2 bucks.

Digital engagement: Totally depends what’s showing.