If there is a hot technology in museums right now, it is virtual reality–a technology sometimes credited as being the “ultimate empathy machine.” But can VR live up to the hype for museums? What happens when VR technologies are used to recreate or invoke traumatic experiences? What kinds of scaffolding do museums need to provide when preparing a visitor for these kinds of embodied experiences? And how can museums use VR promote representation and inclusion?
In this special two-part episode of Museopunks, Suse and special guest co-host Desi Gonzales, explore the realities of working with the virtual. In part one, Michael Haley Goldman speaks on the prototyping being done at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to experiment with VR, while Kai Frazier discusses the work she is doing with her VR start-up CuratedXKai to provide inclusive opportunities and increased exposure in cultural settings for people of colour.
In part two, we take a deep dive into Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s academy-award winning virtual reality installation CARNE y ARENA with VR film-maker Paisley Smith.
Desi writes, researches, and makes things at the intersection of art and technology. Her most recent position was leading digital engagement at the Andy Warhol Museum. Before that, she designed educational tech at La Victoria Lab in Peru, developed interpretive experiences at the Museum of Modern Art, and managed a kids website at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Her writing has been featured in publications including Art in America, Art Papers, Indiewire, and The Brooklyn Rail.
Connect w/Desi on Twitter
Michael Haley Goldman
Michael is Director of the Future Projects in the Levine Institute for Holocaust Education at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Future Projects is a small, collaborative team designed to research, prototype, and explore emerging technologies that can transform Holocaust memorialization and education.
Connect w/Michael on Twitter
Kai is a historian, and innovative educator passionate about utilizing technology to provide inclusive opportunities and increased exposure in cultural settings for people of color.
Before creating her virtual reality startup, Curated x Kai, she worked with several museums including the U.S Holocaust Memorial Museum & the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. Kai is now a fellow in Facebook’s 2018 Oculus Launch Pad which provides virtual reality creators from underrepresented backgrounds resources to ensure diversity of thought in the VR ecosystem.
Connect w/Kai on Twitter
Paisley is a Canadian filmmaker & virtual reality creator based in Los Angeles and Vancouver. Smith is the creator of Homestay, a personal VR documentary produced by the NFB Interactive Studio with Jam3. Homestay was selected for the IDFA DocLab2017. She is the recipient of the 2018 Sundance Institute and Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Fellowship for her forthcoming work Unceded Territories: VR a collaboration with acclaimed artist and VR pioneer Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, with support from Creative British Columbia. In addition, Paisley is a visiting artist at the University of Southern Interactive Media Division’s Mobile & Environmental Media Lab. Smith holds an MFA from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. She is an admin of the thriving Women in VR/AR Facebook group, with over 10,000 members of the emerging technology community.
Connect w/Paisley on Twitter
When the Headset Comes Off: VR at Museums in 2017
Into Iñárritu: How CARNE y ARENA sets the bar for how VR should be experienced (and how to push it even further!)
For My Son
Curated x Kai
Prototype # 1 – Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
From Empathetic Understanding to Engaged Witnessing: Encountering Trauma in the Holocaust Classroom
To learn more about integrating Virtual Reality into museum experiences, register for “Immersion in Museums: AR, VR or Just Plain R?”, an Alliance convening to be held September 6-7, 2018, hosted by the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Museopunks is presented by the American Alliance of Museums.
Graphic Design of the Museopunks logo is by Selena Robleto.
Read the Transcript
Suse Anderson: Good day. And welcome to Museopunks, the podcast for the progressive museum. My name is Suse and in this episode I am joined by a special guest co-host, Desi González. Desi, welcome to Museopunks.
Desi Gonzalez: Hi. It’s great to be here.
Suse: It is so, so great to have you here. Now, you and I have known each other for a couple of years and I have been following your work and your interest in writing and thinking for some time. But before we get into that and why we’re working together on this particular episode, which is focused on virtual reality or VR experiences in museums.
Suse: You’re going through something of a career and life change, which meant the bio that I had prepared before this episode is no longer going to be sufficient to describe what’s happening in your world. So, I thought it might be nice for you to just introduce yourself.
Desi: Yeah. Totally. I have about a week left as the manager of digital engagement at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And that’s a week left at the time of this recording. Probably not at the time that people will listen to this.
Suse: Probably not.
Desi: At which point I am moving to Austin, Texas with my partner, who is starting graduate school. In my move there I’m planning to consult with cultural institutions and non-profits and kind of the run of experience design and digital strategy. We’re still interested in staying in the cultural space. In my past I’ve had other gigs kind of on a trajectory towards kind of marrying digital and art together, art and technology.
Desi: I spent some time in Lima, Peru working on educational technology. Worked in interpretation at the Museum of Modern Art and my very first digital project was managing a kid’s website at the Whitney Museum in New York. So it’s been really great to be so lucky to work with such wonderful cultural institutions.
Suse: Yeah. Absolutely. I think it is that marrying of technology, but also art and art thinking that is one of the things that so got me interested in you and your work way back when. I can’t even remember exactly when we first actually met, but I remember following along the writing you’ve been doing and the thinking you’ve been doing for some years.
Suse: It was actually one of those pieces, a piece about VR experiences in museums that you had written for Art in America, which is what inspired me to want to talk to you and have you as a co-host for this episode. So, can you talk a little bit about what you were writing about and thinking about in that piece in Art in America? But also, why VR has become this topic of such interest? Why it really is the hot topic in museum technology at the moment?
Desi: Sure. Yeah. So that piece, my editor at Art in America asked me if I was interested in kind of examining … It was the end of the year, end of 2017, asked me to examine an aspect of technology that museums or cultural institutions were really talking about. I wanted to write about virtual reality because it’s been a topic that keeps coming up over and over again at least at the museum technology conferences, if not kinds of wider museum conversation.
Desi: Then it’s coming up at these conferences because it’s also a big topic across industries. So, virtual reality, which is where you wear a headset usually that totally occludes your vision and you’re transported to kind of a different world. The devices often respond to your movement, so you’re moving around that space in this new world. You can often interact with objects. It’s something that’s been around for a long time, at least since the ’80s and thinkers and technologists have imagined it for even longer.
Desi: But virtual reality has in recent years, really it’s been making kind of a comeback and a big splash because the technology has become affordable, affordable for both consumers and artists and developers and people who just want to play around with it. It’s become much more affordable for them to try it out. Of course, it’s not in everyone’s hands. It’s not like the way that we all have TV sets or we all have mobile phones in our pockets, but we’re getting closer to there.
Desi: In recent years we’ve seen from really big productions of virtual reality that requires a really specialized headset and you might have to download software, you’re tethered to a computer to use it, all the way to Mobile VR experiences. So where you can take your own phone and put it in something like a Google cardboard headset and experience it right at home. So, this proliferation of virtual reality that we’re seeing, I think there’s a lot of hype and people just trying to figure out what is this medium and what can we do with it, how can it be used, not just for games, but also for industry and for art and all sorts of things. And museums are also wondering what that means for us. How we can use it to accomplish our missions.
Suse: Yes. Absolutely. We have actually three amazing guests to break this down. For those who are regular listeners to this show, you will know that we often explore an issue with two guests, but when Desi and I were talking about this episode, there were really a couple of different aspects that we wanted to explore. We wanted to explore what this is from a museum perspective. We wanted to explore what it is if you’re an institution who wants to play with these technologies, but who doesn’t necessarily have huge resources. And we also were really thinking about things like the embodied experience, of what we need to do to create spaces. To create the right sensory environment for people who are going into these virtual reality spaces often for the first time.
Suse: So that has led this to a slightly experimental mood for this episode because we’re going to do it as a two part episode. We have some really interesting guests, many of whom … In fact, I think, Desi, you really came through with recommendations on who should be in this episode. So in part one we’re going to be talking to Michael Haley Goldman, who is at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, about the prototyping work they have been doing with VR.
Suse: As well as talking to Kai, who has her own VR startup called Curated by Kai. And Kai is a former museum worker and is an historian, who’s actually doing VR work to try and think about inclusion and representation and taking museum experiences and cultural experiences at school kids, which is amazing. Do you want to kick us off and introduce part two and tell us who we’ll hear in part two of the episode?
Desi: Yeah. In part two we’re going to talk to someone who’s a practitioner in the VR world, an artist named Paisley Smith, who has her own practice, but she’s really in … well talking a little bit about her perspective as a VR filmmaker and what that language means to her, but we actually really just take a deep dive into another work by Alejandro Iñárritu, who is a director who released his Academy Award-winning virtual reality installation Carne y Arena.
Desi: It’s been on view in Los Angeles and other places around the world and has really kind of changed the game in terms of virtual reality experiences. So she’s going to give us a really deep dive into that and by looking at that one installation or exhibition, we kind of understand the ins and outs of what it means to present a virtual reality work in a cultural institution.
Suse: Yeah. Absolutely. Desi, your perspectives on this so invaluable. I know this in advance because we’ve already done these interviews and I know the questions you ask, but I am really excited to explore this with you and I think we might as well just get into the discussions.
Desi: Great. Let’s do it.
Suse: Michael Haley Goldman is director of future projects in the Levine Institute for Holocaust Education at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Future Projects is a small collaborative team designed to research, prototype and explore emerging technologies that can transform Holocaust memorialization and education. Michael, welcome to Museopunks.
Michael Haley Goldman: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.
Suse: It’s so great to have you here. So we’re talking about VR, virtual reality, today. It has become one of the trending topics in museum technology conferences and conversations. After years of being sort of a tantalizing possibility, we’re now seeing more and more museums starting to adopt this. But before we really get into talking about its potential and its challenges for museums, can you talk a little bit about how the Holocaust Memorial Museum has been using VR and why the museum was drawn to it in the first place?
Michael: I think it’s a really good question, partially because when you say the VR and Holocaust Museums, it’s not something that is an automatic assumption for a lot of people. I think I should say that we’ve been experimenting on kind of anything in the range of virtual environment, including VR, very much on trying it to understand how it fits into our institution.
Michael: We haven’t made massive investments in it yet. We haven’t tried to take it to a huge number of people. We really have been trying to pick small projects that help us understand how this emerging, more affordable, more readily available, more well-known technology can fit into the kind of things we do. One example is we’ve been doing some 360 with the public. We are doing some more immersive spaces with the public, but all in a very, very small fraction of the people we work with to really improve our understanding.
Desi: When you say you’re doing 360 and more immersive spaces, can you maybe describe it so our listener gets an understanding of what that might be like, if they were to wear a headset or experience that themselves?
Michael: Yes. So 360 video, we’ve been using phone-based virtual reality. This is, in this case, Samsung headsets using Samsung phones. And we’ve been working with the public to watch a video shot in full 360, full surround video that ties into one of our small exhibits that’s been opened for some time. There’s a museum exhibit that talks about Syria right now and when we have the staffing to make it available to the public, this short video that we did not create ourselves, is something that kind of follows up as part of that exhibit experience.
Michael: So for most people, they would come out of the main exhibit space, they would be offered the opportunity to see this film and staff would help them get into the small headset where they would watch about a five and a half minute film about the story of a particular Syrian refugee.
Suse: It’s interesting that you mention stuff helping them get into the headset. I think it’s likely for a number of your visitors, this will be their first experience with VR. So what are the things that you do in terms of introducing them to medium? What kind of scaffolding do you provide for that experience?
Michael: It’s a really good question and for many people, and we’ve been doing this for probably over a year on and off as we’ve had staffing available, it’s still the first experience in the headset for a lot of the people we talk to. It’s a little bit of an anecdotal evidence because we don’t ask everybody, but we’re not finding as many people being more familiar with the technology as we expected.
So we usually try to describe it in a pretty short introduction of what they will see and remind them very, very intentionally to look around them. We were really surprised when we started doing this, how many people would not think to turn around and look behind them in 360 film, even though they had the headset on. So there’s a reminder of the fact that things will be all around them, above them, behind them, below them and that it’s a full experience in that they should look around.
Also because this is the film-based VR 360, it’s not something that they can move around in. We found with younger audiences that they do want to move and trying to keep them seated and safe, is something else we try to prepare them for. That is something that we don’t always succeed in, but we’ve been managing to keep people mostly seated during the experience.
Desi: That’s really interesting. I think there are two levels in which you can talk about visitor reactions and response. On the one hand, some museums are thinking about virtual reality and just kind of if it’s someone’s first time experience virtual reality, how they respond to this new medium? But then also getting a little bit deeper, how do you respond to this particular experience or that story being told through an immersive medium. I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit about how visitors have responded to the experiences that you’ve … for example the short video on Syrian refugees, how they’ve responded to that experience and if and how you might be evaluating what’s successful.
Michael: The evaluating is an important part of this and we’ve gone through a variety of different stages, of very informal observation, through some more kind of formal questions and surveys. We haven’t really hit the numbers that I’d want to say anything is really conclusive for any of the questions we’ve been asking and it’s been a bit more of an experiment for us to try to figure out how to dig into the questions that I would like.
Michael: There’s been overwhelmingly a lot of interest, a lot of recognition of things going on and surprisingly, at least from my perspective, deep conversations when we’ve had the time and staff to ask people to talk a lot more about it afterwards. So when we have people coming in, one of the audiences that picks up on this is are high school students. They’re definitely a group that will gravitate towards these headsets when they’re available within the museum. With often very little thought, as far as I can tell, as to what they might be seeing in it.
Michael: From a perspective of somebody who works in Holocaust and genocide content, the idea that you’re in the Holocaust Museum and you’re willing to put something on your face not knowing what you’re going to see is kind of shocking, but-
Michael: Only a few times I had one very, very articulate teen stop and say, “Wait, is this going to be something upsetting?” Which is a great question as you’re coming into something like this, but despite that, even when you don’t expect a lot from the audience that’s picking these things up and watching this video, you’ll have some really thoughtful comments and then really some thoughtful conversations with people afterwards when you get the chance.
So again, this is very anecdotal, but you do get that full range of people who come out of it and definitely I’ve had people burst into tears. I’ve had people who react with a very sincere question that we really don’t know how to answer always, is what can I do about this? Those kinds of reactions definitely come out of the experience, but what we haven’t been able to do in our research so far is really dig into the question of what is the role of novelty in this technology in terms of people’s reaction and what is the role that this film would have if it’s totally flat.
This is a well-made film. We were very lucky the filmmakers were willing to license that to us. It’s a set of filmmakers that we already had a relationship with and they were going back to do this film and started the conversations with us before they made it and they did a really great job with it. They’re good filmmakers. They did a really great job. What would this be like as a 2D, as a flat D and how would that compare in terms of the reactions we’re getting? We don’t really know for sure, even though we’ve tried to test that in a variety of ways.
Suse: Yes. It’s one of the things I’ve been thinking about. Your story of the teenagers who would just put on the headset without even thinking about the content really reminds me a lot of how museums have often been with new technologies. For instance when apps would come around. You know, there was sort of advertising that we have an app, without saying what the content was that you would be getting from the app and why that mattered.
And it really makes me wonder why VR storytelling, why does it become a relevant or useful vehicle for telling particular stories, as opposed to a film or some other form of media. It sounds like that’s one of the things you’re trying to figure out at the Holocaust Museum, but do you have a sense of … Are you trying to use this technology to tell different types of stories or are you more interested in using the technology to see what it can do?
Michael: So I have the luxury of the way that our group is set up in the museum. That we can push without knowing the answer to what this technology is good for. Which doesn’t mean we didn’t have our own theories about what the technology was good for, but part of our job within this institution is to say, “Okay, VR is something that is out there, that people are excited about. What does that mean for us and what are the real affordances and strengths of the technology that we might build into future programs that the institution will do before the institution really gets ready to do that in a big way.”
So we have a little bit of luxury, but from our point of view the question we were asking were really about presence in space. I think one of the terms you don’t hear enough of when people are talking about virtual technologies, is that it’s very spatial. It’s very much an experience in a place. It’s place-based, which is not something that you hear as much about, but I think it’s really vital to the kinds of stories that can work within this space.
That creates other problems for us as an institution, in terms of the history and content that we work with, but the other experience we’ve done have been often around ideas of spatialized sound, sometimes projected, room-sized spaces, kind of like caves, but not quite. So when we were using 360 it was really about presence in space. Those were the questions that we were asking along with some of the other experiments we were doing.
And as we’ve kind of evolved past that question to thinking about other things, the idea of … it’s evolved into a question about role, really is that you have play a different role, I think, within these spatialized experiences, than you play within a role of watching, like you do with 2D video and other kinds of experiences.
Desi: That’s really fascinating and I really like the way that you’re talking about the affordances of … the experience of the space taking you to a different space, but in many ways museums are already immersive environments. Are you thinking about that? Kind of the way that visitor goes from your museum space to another space, say Syria, or to a refugee camp or to elsewhere. Is that something that’s part of what your team is thinking about?
Michael: Absolutely. I think one of the big partners for these projects has been our excellent exhibitions team here at the museum. They were able to bring in, and we played a very small role in it, but that was really their work, to bring in a project that is not ours, that was created by an outside institution, called The Portals.
And this was a project that I include in a lot of our conversations around virtual reality. It’s really a simple concept where they constructed what’s more or less a shipping container inside the museum. The shipping container includes more or less video conferencing technology, but they try to mask it. They try to make sure everybody is life size and the space that you create within the shipping container is very neutral and minimizes the sense of screens that you’re watching.
Our exhibitions team and our committee for the prevention of genocide was using it to hook up visitors here in the museum to Syrian refugee camps in several different locations. It was a very a similar kind of issue. It’s not what we usually think of as a virtual reality, but it’s building on some of the same concepts about how does the technology create a space that you’re in.
And what was really important in that project, at least in my perspective, is that it was a neutral space where everybody voluntarily went into that space to have a conversation and it wasn’t a public conversation. So the people who created it, Shared Studios, they were interested in it being a private conversation between two people on different sides of the planet and not being something that would be politicized and not being something that would be public and on display.
If you think about that in terms of 360 film, it’s a similar issue. What I liked about the way that this particular 360 film was shot is that it put you in a position of hearing the story of someone else on their own terms, on their own turf, on their own space. So how much can you take a person out of it being them bringing somebody else into this neutral space of the museum, or not so neutral space at the museum, as the case may be, but instead giving you an opportunity to step into the storyteller space.
Suse: Michael, VR, virtual reality is often called an empathy machine. It’s linked really closely with these ideas of empathy and think that’s what you invoking as you talk about this. It’s often used to recreate or invoke somewhat traumatic experiences as a way of really immersing the audience or the participant in another person’s reality.
Now, the Holocaust Museum must be one of the most highly attuned museums to the challenges of dealing with trauma, but are there pitfalls or what are the pitfalls and the potential pitfalls of using virtual reality to address traumatic subject matter?
Michael: Absolutely. A huge question for us and really kind of at a core of what we’ve been wrestling with as we’ve been exploring this. Empathy. I’m not always convinced empathy is necessarily the right word for the way that we approach this educationally. I think some of the debate around empathy is kind of taking a step out of where some of the issues are.
I have been quoting and misquoting this great little paper by a professor of religion in California named Gubkin and it’s really a look at, without thinking about virtual reality, is what are the pitfalls of empathy as a tactic within Holocaust education. Now, one of the reasons I like this is that it’s a very approachable evaluation of the problems that empathy might bring to looking at the Holocaust and it resonates a lot with some of the internal conversations we’ve had for decades here.
Michael: One of the things that Gubkin points to is these possible problems on both sides and looking at traumatic content with empathy. Even though empathy is a normal technique as far as I understand it, for looking at religious studies. She points out that not only is there the problem of potentially minimizing the experiences of the victims in a traumatic content by using empathy as a technique. There’s also the possibility of minimizing the experiences of the students who are looking at a traumatic situation.
So to explain that a little better, the idea that if you’re looking at traumatic content you don’t want people to over empathize with for example, a Holocaust survivor, because as much as they might empathize with that survivor, they really don’t know what it feels like to be in a transport from France to Auschwitz. They don’t really know what it’s like to be in a camp and you really don’t want them minimizing that person’s real experience and real trauma by thinking that they do.
On the other side, she points out, and this is something that I hadn’t bumped into before. That she had found students that were minimizing their own experiences and comparison and she tells the kind of heartbreaking story of a student who lost a friend recently to cancer, but she was in some sense beating herself up for being upset about this, when in comparison to the suffering of Holocaust survivors, she shouldn’t be worried about this. So she was minimizing her own real life experiences by trying to empathize with that traumatic experience in a different way.
What Gubkin suggests and what resonates really well with our institution as a memorial space is this concept of engaged witnessing. That you want to be engaged but you want to serve as a witness to the trauma of others, not really take that trauma upon yourself. And witnessing is such a central part of the Holocaust memorialization, Holocaust education. It’s a very, very familiar place for us to approach some of these issues.
So as we look back at this film about Syria, one of the things that we were very fortunate in is that you were placed in this 360 film not as the person who experiences the trauma, but as the person who is really witnessing this person’s story in their own terms and from their own perspective. And that witnessing role is a really interesting role to play as you think about the way that you can talk about traumatic experiences in these kinds of environments.
Desi: That’s really fascinating. And that idea, when you’re talking about the affordance of VR, is that you place the viewer as a role more actively involved than just a viewer, but in some ways you’re still not that person who’s experiencing it, you’re an engaged witness. I really like that.
Early, at the beginning of the conversation you talked about how the future projects team hasn’t invested a whole lot of resources to VR yet in a really big way, but you’re right now thinking more R&D, what the role of VR could be for your museum. And I’m wondering, in the kind of thinking that you’ve been doing, for other institutions or folks who are thinking about dabbling with VR, what are the practical implications of bringing virtual reality to the museum? Who can do this? Is it only museums that have lots of resources? Or is it something that could be done by all kinds of institutions?
Michael: I think from an experimental level it’s really much cheaper and totally worthwhile to try things out on your own. Recognizing, fully recognizing that you’re not going to create the highly polished, film quality necessarily, that you might want for a larger audience, but I think it’s totally worthwhile to try these things out on your own. Largely for internal purposes. Largely for really understanding in a more immediate way what these kind of affordances are.
We were able to buy, and they’re even cheaper now than they were a couple years, buy an inexpensive 360 camera, send out staff that make films anyway to actually try it out. Again, this is a luxury and I am totally aware of the fact that we are in a really unusual spot internally, as not every institution feels like they have the time in the staffing for this, but I think we often miss the importance of really getting your hands dirty with these things in a way that not only you learn and that you learn with your audiences.
Audiences are totally willing to try things out, from our experience, and give you real feedback on things that are not polished, that are not the kind of thing that you’d want to be putting in front of a huge audience. So, we’ve been doing that kind of every step we can and I’m going to say it one more time, incredibly fortunate to have that opportunity here, and I know that’s not the case or not everyone feels like with the case.
The next problem of this though, is that if you can understand it, it’s how do you scale up to something that is going to be of the quality that you might be put into your exhibitions or into your web content and other areas where you are putting the money. A lot of these things are not inexpensive. The difference between us doing rough and ready prototypes to doing a full scale volumetric walk around VR experience is pretty huge.
And that is something that’s a reality that is probably not going to change immediately and that I don’t think most institutions are ready to do, because I don’t know that they’ve spent the time exploring it. We are still in that debate about whether we feel like that’s the right thing for us to do next, now that we’ve done all this really interesting study and learning with audiences, whether it is the right thing for us to do next.
But you can’t take it on lightly. Not only is there the cost of production and going for the high production values, there’s the cost of running this with the public. My understanding, that institutions that have tried more spatial volumetric virtual reality in their galleries have about a 1:1 ratio, one staff person for every person who sees it. That’s a pretty big investment just in staff time and availability that institutions really need to think about if they’re going to really try to use this on site.
Suse: Yeah, absolutely. I think getting to those practicalities is really important and it does make this something worth, as you say, experimenting with, but figuring out its value to the museum and to the audience. Michael, we are almost about to wrap up here in our conversation, but one thing I’d just like to ask before you leave, what is one of the VR pieces that you’ve experienced that you found to be really powerful and effective for you and what made it so powerful?
Michael: It’s a good question, and I’ve seen a bunch of things here and there. One of the first VR experiences I saw and one of the ones that had a big impact was Giant, which is a fictional story based on a real life kind of knowledge of the war in Yugoslavia. And it’s a really simple storytelling piece where the additions to just a simple headset is really just the fact that they put base speakers underneath the stool that you’re sitting in, and so you feel the rumbles of what turned out to be artillery in the distance later on.
But what I liked about it, was that it was, again in retrospect, a very spatialized story that they were telling. It was a small family in the basement of an apartment building and you feel that space and you feel that enclosure and the story is building off of that enclosed space. So it was the first time I really started thinking, I think, of that spatial quality with this technology and started thinking about the implications of that.
Suse: Yeah. That’s great. I will see if I can find a link to that and put that in the show notes. Michael, if people do want to get in contact with you and find out a bit more about the work you’re doing in this area or just in general, how can they do so? What’s the best way?
Michael: It’s terrible, but email is still the best way and is always welcome.
Suse: That’s fantastic. Michael, thank you so, so much. This has been a fascinating discussion.
Michael: Always great to talk about and really good questions. So thanks so much for having me.
Desi: Thanks so much. It was great time chatting.
Kai Fraizer is a historian and an innovative educator passionate about utilizing technology to provide inclusive opportunities and increased exposure in cultural settings for people of color. Before creating her virtual reality startup, Curated by Kai, she worked with several museums including the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Kai is now a fellow in Facebook’s 2018 Oculus Launch Pad program which provides virtual reality creators from under-represented backgrounds, the resources to ensure diversity of thought and the VR ecosystem. Kai, we’re so excited to have you with us today because you’ve created this really interesting startup, which is aimed at bringing virtual reality into the classroom. You’re really focused on exposing students to new ideas, locations and sounds. I was wondering, just to start us off, where did that idea for Curated by Kai come from and why have you focused on VR and AR as core to the learning experience?
Kai Frazier: Sure. Well, first thank you so much for having me. How I got into Curated by Kai is just my background. So, I worked with students for about 15 years and I was a history teacher. When I worked with those students we lacked resources for older students. So, I teach 7th-12th grade. So there’s not too much for that age range to talk about history.
When I left the classroom I went to working with history museums and they weren’t too many programs geared at reaching back out to the under-served communities that could really benefit from it. So, since my students couldn’t visit museums and museums weren’t going to do outreach to my students, I decided to do it myself.
So Curated by Kai, what I do is I film the diverse and representative memorials, exhibitions, monuments in 360 and then I bring it right back to the students and we adapt it to their curriculum.
Suse: Kai, when you’re creating the VR experience for students who might not have visited a museum or cultural institution before, how do you then set the scene? I mean, do you explore the space of the museum? Do you go straight to the objects and the stories that you’re trying to tell? What is it that you do that actually brings the museum experience to life for the students?
Kai: For the students and the working of history it’s pretty much started with their own experiences and using that for a base. A lot of times, when I’m teaching history, they have no context of what’s happening and they’ve never even heard of these places or know they existed. For example, when teaching the Holocaust for my US history class, they can’t even fathom that this could happen, let alone that actually did happen. So you can’t really just start with a museum.
So what we do is we try to start with experiences, like maybe they know what it feels like to be black and brown student to be discriminated against or be boycotted against or to feel just unhappy with the way the world is going and because of the way you look or at least you have. We try to start with that and then find the connection so they have a different entry point into the exhibition and the experience.
Desi: That’s really fantastic. One of the things that I really loved when I reading about your work is for your pilot project, the VR experience that you created for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day, you return to the middle school where you used to teach to conduct user testing and I’d love to hear what’s it like when students put on that headset, when they get transported to this new world, what did you learn from user testing and what surprises you when students are using the medium?
Kai: That school was very interesting. That’s my first school that I had my first history classroom, and the challenge with that class is that these are my DREAMers, these are my undocumented students and they’ve been through a lot. With that being said, in my classroom I’m so used to teaching those students and they have no idea what I’m saying. And it’s hard when you’re dealing with that.
So when I’m working with museums and they make these beautiful exhibitions and maybe it’s not adapted or they’ve never thought about these audiences that don’t get to go to the museum, that’s an issue. So what we did is we filmed the MLK memorial in Washington DC and then I actually went back first to my school to have some of my former students, which I taught when they were in seventh grade and they were now seniors at that point, go back and record the audio to the average DREAMer.
One of my students who was just learning English and I taught her, she was from Vietnam, go through and actually say they’re speaking English, so you can hear her accent in it, and then I had one of my students from Guatemala who came here also in the sixth grade and I didn’t even realize he had just came to the country because his English was so good when I taught him. So he recorded the speech in Spanish for me.
It was nice. It wasn’t so much … When the kids put their headset on, it’s great that they’re seeing it, but the big thing for me that makes me happy is that they can understand it. So that was his imprint.
Suse: No, I’m really interested. Do you always, then, try to incorporate the voices of the children? I mean, you mentioned bringing their experiences in as your starting point, and I know that one of the things you try and to do is actually tailor the content that you’re creating to the students that you’re working with and to the audiences you’re working with. How important is it, that you are getting their voices, not just then at the user testing level, but also in a production context?
Kai: So getting their voices wasn’t originally planned, but I couldn’t speak Spanish and I had to find some way to do it because I can’t do it, doesn’t mean it has to stop for them. So I just started to ask people who could record and my students came to the rescue for that. So it was very nice when they hear their own voice, and even though it’s great to hear the Spanish, what I really enjoyed is hearing the English and the broken accent of my Vietnamese student and having those together to kind of paint the picture of the different voices that come together to make this journey.
For them, they were just happy to be included and then we also went to the speech and broke down the language so it was the simplest lines that we could pull out. We skipped over some lines that were maybe … needed a lot more context or were historically relevant to the time, but they couldn’t really understand … idioms and things like that don’t work when the kids just have no reference … they’re not from the country.
So we put it the simplest so they can understand it and really brought the comprehension to their level, which is rarely done for museum, and usually start at the high level, they start off with like, “In 1945, when World War II ended …” And they don’t have any context for it. So we kind of start on their level and meet them where they are.
Desi: That’s really fantastic and I love that you’re using these 360 virtual reality, reality experience to open your audiences, students in classrooms, up to museums, but you’re also incorporating them in the media making. That’s really fantastic. One critique that I feel often comes up during discussions about how museums can implement mixed reality and at their institutions, is that virtual reality and augmented reality are really expensive endeavors and I’m so drawn to your work because you’re able to bring in this new media in a hands-on and affordable way.
We see that very clearly with the way that you’re incorporating students in the media making. So, for institutions, whether it’s a museum or a classroom, that has a smaller budget and wants to experiment with 360 photo and video and VR, where would you recommend they start, both in terms of kind of financial resources, equipment, the skillsets they need et cetera.
Kai: I do classroom trainings right now because the tech only works in the classrooms if teachers know how to use it. And I give them a lot of like options to start practically using VR in their classroom. One of the simplest ones we do is a 360 video on their smart board or they’re displaying the content for their class.
So they can take a video they find off YouTube and they can … For example, we just filmed the Obama portraits. So they can take that video and they can turn around for kids. They can see all the different angles for it and that’s free. So, if they are doing headsets, we start very low cost. So, we help teachers with grant writing stuff. Here’s some terminology, here’s some websites and here are headsets that cost $10. So, here is a way that you can start at a very low cost.
But then a lot of schools, what I haven’t planned for is a lot of schools do have these very expensive budgets and that’s not what I’m used to working with. So for those school, they have lots of different options, but for the very … most of the teacher paying out their pocket for things, we try to give them free, low-cost options and then actually bringing down the content so kids understand it in their world.
Suse: Yeah. Kai, I know that you’re talking a lot about inclusion and representation, these things being at the heart of your work and really speaking to students that often don’t … they’re not spoken to, that they don’t have things in their language, that they don’t have things that are related to them in their life experiences. For museum educators who do want to use say VR technology to empower students and young adults, what are the questions that they should be asking to guide their work?
Kai: I think what’s not happening is… my thing with working with museum educators is very few of them were spending time in the classrooms or with the students. So they’re making materials based on what they think the students will like. They also don’t want to spend a lot of time asking, “Who is our audience?” Because students are not the same across the board.
So to make more inclusive materials for their VR experiences, I hope that they maybe take some time to test it. We always do like a business model and testing, where we build the whole thing and then we bring it to the audience and then we test it, but instead the way that I do my prototype testing is I get the small version out, I bring it to the school, see the feedback they have, I go back and make edits. So, I am really putting my audience first.
Desi: That’s really fascinating, the bit about a lot of people creating the technology are not in the classroom themselves, so how can they even know their users. And I’m really going to take that to heart in my own work. I’m wondering if there are examples of virtual reality, 360 video, other kinds of mixed reality that you really admire in terms of the way they’re working for an educational purpose and being inclusive as they do this? If you have anything you can point us to.
Kai: Sure. Let me think. I’ve seen a lot. I know one that I’ll mention because I think it’s in DC or is leaving DC, is it Alejandro Iñárritu… his last name I’m going to slaughter. And we went through his Carne y Arena VR experience. So I have got to still … that’s one I got to see at LACMA in LA.
Desi: I’m so jealous.
Kai: Oh really?
Desi: I’m so jealous.
Suse: Me too. I’ve been trying to get in and I haven’t been able to get into it.
Kai: I got in LA. That’s what it was. I had a friend that worked at LACMA that I’ve known since middle school and he was so kind to send me out me out a pass. Because I got to go in from then. For that one, it was very … I had a lot of mixed feelings about this one, but it’s one that does highlight a very relevant topic. It’s the way it works. If you haven’t been, is you kind of you go in to a holding room, a freezer, you take your shoes off there and you’re sitting in a room for no really amount of time waiting for a buzzer to go off, a red buzzer, an alarm to go off.
So, that already right there is nerve wracking. That’s not even the VR. That’s just sitting in the room waiting for the experience to start. Once the buzzer goes off, I remember walking into a room and I couldn’t even see the people to hand me the headsets. It’s large room, orange lights. I had to walk towards their voices. When the headset went on, it’s supposed to put you in a VR experiment of migrants crossing the southern border.
I remember it starting off with like flood lights and migrants almost passing out because they were so exhausted all around me, and the Border Patrol and guns in my face and I remember it being so intense I had to remember that my privilege is being able to take off the headphones and I had to stop right there because it was too much for me … And mind you, I worked at the Holocaust Museum at that point. And that was just extremely, extremely intense.
When it ended the situation ended with, or more experience ended with living portraits of each of the people who actually end the VR experience, because they’re real people that they animated for those … and hearing and watching their stories. And I thought that was the most powerful part to me, but when you put somebody into something that intense, my critique was they dropped you into the regular museum afterwards, with nothing.
I was so disturbed and didn’t even want to talk … I don’t even want to talk about it. It’s a lot that just happened, just now. And maybe that is the artist’s attention to just have you make a personal change or maybe it was to tell others about what you saw, but I think there’s something to be said when you’re working of difficult histories, that you have to allow people the time to process what they’ve seen.
Suse: Well, that’s an interesting question. I wonder, for you, when you’re dealing with history and with histories, does VR offer you different affordances for the teaching of history, then might otherwise be available in the classroom?
Kai: For me, yes. I did tremendously … I’d never tried to recreate anything. I tried just do 360 filmings. I don’t want to alter the history, but for me, we’re talking … Actually I was rushing back from the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco because they have exhibition Divine Bodies that highlights Hinduism and Buddhism. In world history religions are a huge part of it and the trade of spreading of the religion, but for parents who don’t know that, I used to get a lot of angry phone calls about, “Why are you doing this to my kid? Why are you teaching my kids about Buddha or Christianity?”
And the kids were coming to my classroom with their parents’ preconceived notions. I remember the hardest thing to teach was Islam and my students would tell me like, “We can’t learn about Islam. My mom says it’s terrorism.” So when they don’t have a reference point from this. This is how you get like you’re crazy, racist and your people who have these no empathy because they’ve never been exposed to different people, ideas, sounds.
So example, the call to prayer for Islam. I would show my video and they would say like, “Is this the Lion King?” We talked through it about why it sounded different, but to be able to see the practice and the love that’s being exchanged and the similarities in religions and how it’s spreading over trade routes and how it grew empires, I can do that in VR. That’s very hard to do with students when they have no context.
And a lot of my students were from Mexico for example and a lot my students thought that they were Catholic and they didn’t consider themselves Christians because they had never had that conversation. So it was even hard trying to break down the fact that Catholicism falls under Christianity. This is what happens when you’re like super, super closed off and you’ve never been exposed to other things.
So VR, for me, is like as soon as I started really get into it I could see that as a way that I could let my students do their own critical thinking because they can now make their own opinions, now that they got to explore different worlds they’ve never seen.
Desi: That’s really interesting. I wanted to ask you a question from a … responding to a quote that’s on your website. It says, “How can a student aspire to an opportunity if they don’t know it exists?” And I know that you’ve … In my conversations with Suse, we’ve talked about that you talked about your struggle with whiteness at the museum sector when you worked in museums.
In the long tail of your work, how do you hope to inspire students of color to enter into museums? Do you hope to inspire students of color to enter into museums as professionals as much as you want to invite them to be visitors and audiences? Are you thinking about that?
Kai: Yes. Always. I kind of got tired of being at museum conferences and hearing the diversity talk and why aren’t more people of color there. And the reality is, students didn’t even know these jobs exist. And until we start talking at that level, nothing else matters. For example, my students, most of my students are Hispanic and they have cleaning businesses and I used to always think, when I got to the museum world, how many of my students would have loved to be a conservator if they would have been able to transfer their cleaning skills that they’ve known their whole life, add science to it, and been able to clean their own history and artifacts.
Because the biggest question I got from my black kids is, they can say, “Where am I in the history book?” And I have a few examples to show them, but they’re there. My Hispanic kids, they’re rarely there in US history. And you can look at Arizona right now and there may have banned about 85 books that show diverse histories from The Diary of Anne Frank to The Fire Next Time. You have to almost seek out and fight for the information for them.
When they don’t have the information about different jobs, what it means to preserve their history and culture, that’s how you get statistics like four percent of blacks working in art museums as professional or six percent Hispanic. And if we’re going to change that, we have to start showing them examples of people in the museums, showing them that they can do it themselves, putting them in those worlds, which is what VR does, and then giving them the tools they need to actually have a career in that. So, at the end of the day they can tell their own stories as opposed to history being his story and who was actually telling the stories in these museum.
Suse: Yeah. That’s really beautiful and really important as well. Kai, your work brings together two areas that people might think unrelated, being cutting edge technology and representation and inclusion. Why are you so interested in bridging these two areas? Why has the technology enabled you or how has it enabled you to do this really important work with representation and inclusion?
Kai: When I worked with different museums I began to get frustrated always trying to have people to think bigger and think different viewpoints in their life. Like how would this poster feel to you if nothing like this poster looks like you? Maybe this is not like an inviting site. And a lot of times people are maybe afraid if they see a black male, when a lot of my, maybe black students, if they are in a room full all white people they are nervous and they get scared.
A lot my Hispanic students had never seen a white or black person when they came to this country. So we don’t take enough time to kind of think of it from their viewpoints. To them, these jobs are just unattainable, these opportunities are unattainable and when I show resources in my classroom, they’re mostly Europeans focused viewpoints for the history. So they already don’t see themselves included in it, but they have to learn it to pass.
From my personal story, my history teacher gave me John Lewis’ book when I was in high school. And I already knew who John Lewis was, but just being able to read and go through the history and everything he went through and overcoming, I could see an example of somebody who looked like me, grew up like me and overcame it to do great things.
So I had to take the mindset of, I can keep going back and forth in museum meetings about why it’s important to have representation or marketing, I could keep going to diversity talks at museum conferences, when everybody in the room is not white, which is a problem, you’re just talking to yourself. Or I could actually just take a step out on faith and sell my house and move and just try to do it for myself.
Because at the end the day I had to realize that if I don’t do it, there’s not many people that are going to do it. And if you are working at the classroom level, you see how big of a difference it is for students to see themselves at an early age in these narratives.
Desi: That’s really fantastic. To just wrap up our conversation, one final question. Now that you’re not full-time in a museum. Now that you’re kind of in your own startup mode, startup world, what kind of different insights do you have or what are you learning looking into our institutions and our field?
Kai: Unfortunately, the thing that I keep learning, that kind of breaks my heart is like I’ve learned museum’s wrong. I’m working in DC. Everything’s bureaucracy. Everything’s very difficult and we don’t take the time to elevate why are we doing this, we just keep on doing it. When I came to California, it was more of, whatever you need, you can film. Like, we want to help you. How can we help you? Let’s connect you to this museum. It may take me three months to clear a filming in DC. It would take me three hours to clear it in California.
Kai: And I see kids programs, where they’re really reaching out to communities and kids and bringing them in and meeting them where they are. I see them bringing tech in at an earlier level for kids. So it just kind of feels like museums’ done right, who are serving their community. I went to the Oakland Museum. They have Friday night at the museums, where every Friday at the Oakland Museum in California they have an outside community party.
The one I went to two weekends ago was for PRIDE and they had a group teaching the entire huge crowd how to vogue and how to dance. It was really beautiful to watch it. They had tables set up where they were playing Dominoes or talk about how in black culture Domino’s the way to like sit down, have conversations and catch up, and when they want to keep that history alive. It was like they were going through every single aspect of the culture and serving them and inviting them in a welcoming way that I saw like old Asian men voguing on the floor.
Kai: Which I would never have seen. I was like, “Look at him duck walking. This is beautiful.” But coming into DC, I will never see … Even the museum I went to on East Coast, New York, Atlanta, DC. It’s just been barriers to entry. It’s just, gatekeepers have had to find some way to manipulate around to bring the content out to students because I know they’ll benefit from it. Here it feels like they already get it. And that’s what is kind of my insight that I struggle with daily and my eyes…
My eyes water when these museums in California tell me like, “What do you need? How can we help?” And I wish that all museums would kind go there. And it doesn’t matter how much money you have. It’s just thinking about why are we doing this, why are we here today and let’s do it, let’s serve the communities and together we’ll all get better together.
Desi: That’s really fascinating. Just a follow-up question, do you think that’s a geographic thing or is it a cultural thing? Or is it that the museums in California are really influenced kind of by the industry around it?
Kai: I think that in … I know in San Francisco, Silicon Valley field over here. It just feels like they treat people … The weirdest thing moving here is that I can walk down the street and somebody regardless of how I look and how they look will stop me and say, “Hello.” And I’m so used to walking through this city and being invisible.
So, taking that I had to maneuver very differently in DC to get things accomplished. Here, they’re actually … They do outreach and everything they do from just walking up to me and saying, “Hello.” And then, “How can we help?” So I wish it was more of a proactive outreach happening. And outreach in every single level. So I feel welcome. My first museum I went to here.
One of my friends from DC who worked with me at the Holocaust Museum was visiting with me and we went to the MoAD, the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco and my eyes literally watered in the first minute there because they all just came out to say hello. I didn’t tell them I was coming. Just a, “Hey, I just wanted to look at some things.” And they were so kind and rolled out the red carpet and made sure that I had everything I needed and encouraged me to come back. I’ve just never had that ever in a museum experience.
Suse: Kai, that’s really inspirational. Although, also a little bit depressing that it was-
Kai: See, that’s how it feels. And I didn’t work in the museum. I was a visitor there. Even one of the guys, I think he’s like the director of development there, just found me on Twitter and engaged me all the time, just talks to me. So it’s not like the, you have to be important, you have to know these people to even get to this level to talk to somebody. It’s, “Hey, we want to hear different voices and we know to do that, we have to have our ears open and change our viewpoint and just be proactive.” So that has been very encouraging and I hope that that idea happens in all museums and not just here in California.
Suse: Yeah. Absolutely. Here’s to us spreading that kind of change and that kind of perspective. Kai, if people want to find you, if they’d like to find out more about Curated by Kai and the work that you’re doing or if they’d like to partner with you, what’s the best way that they can get in contact with you?
Kai: Sure. They can just go to my website. My website is www.Curatedx, the letter X, and then Kai, K-A-I. So, CuratedxKai.com.
Suse: Awesome. Kai, thank you so much for joining us here on Museopunks. It has been fascinating.
Kai: Thank you. My absolute pleasure, Suse. I appreciate it.
Desi: Thank you so much.
Suse: Awesome. Michael and Kai, both doing such interesting work. Desi, I think one of the things that you and I’ve been speaking about with this is, these sort of gaps between these big institutions that we often perceive as having the capacity to do more experimentation and then seeing something like Kai’s work, which is really getting in and trying things and making things happen without that big institutional structure.
Desi: Right. And I really love that, on the one hand Michael can think really ambitiously with his team about what they might be able to do with virtual reality, but Kai shows us that these new technologies, there are ways that we can use them for educational purposes, in a scrappier, kind of lower budget kind of way and still be experimenting and exploring within the same medium. It’s a really diverse medium, right?
Suse: Yeah. Absolutely. And I think one of the things I really liked speaking to Kai was her bringing those students in right at the user testing, but actually having them shape what the experience would become using their voices within the actual experience that she was creating. It also shows that that sense of creation doesn’t have to just be … there’s not just one right way of making VR. There’s ways to include many different voices and perspectives.
Desi: Right. Right. Definitely.
Suse: Awesome. Desi, we are going to wrap up, I think, this part one of this exploration of VR and hand over to different podcast channel and do part two, but for anyone who only tunes into the first episode of this podcast, where can they find you?
Desi: Maybe the best place to find me is on Twitter. My handle is @desigonz. D-E-S-I-G-O-N-Z. And you can also find me on my website, Gonzalez.Desi.
Suse: Awesome. Of course, I will be dropping those links in the show notes as well, as well as our bios for Desi, which will be fully updated since she will have a better sense of what is happening than when we first wrote this, and bios for all of our other guests.
Stick around if you can or tune back in and hear part two of this exploration into VR in museums. This interview that we’ve done with Paisley Smith, which will be much more of a deep dive into a single exhibition, is really worth listening to and I hope we will catch you again, but if not, Ciao.