8 Questions with Peter Samis

This interview is part of our “Thought Leader” series, where we get inside the heads of the best and brightest in the museum & technology world. 

Peter Samis
Associate Curator, Interpretation
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

In 1993, Peter served as art historian/content expert for the first CD-ROM on modern art, and then spearheaded the first implementation of multimedia PDAs in an art museum for SFMOMA’s 2002 Points of Departure exhibition. He has served on the board of the New Media Consortium (www.nmc.org), as adjunct professor at the University of Lugano, and on the governing councils of two museum-focused collaborative initiatives: Pachyderm 2.0 (www.pachyderm.org) and ArtBabble (www.artbabble.org). He has recently received a Kress grant to research best practices in museum interpretation–both analog and digital.

TourSphere: What was a stand-out museum/exhibit that caught your interest this year?

Samis: “Death Matters” at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. A visually arresting cross-cultural presentation of rituals, objects, and meaning-making about end of life (and after). It included a riveting set of large scale B&W portraits of individuals before and after their death by Walter Schels and Beate Lakotta, video of a “sky burial” in Tibet, folk coffins shaped like limos, and an array of Bill Viola-like portrait format plasma displays which, when touched, spoke to you casually about various spiritual traditions’ understanding of the afterlife.

TourSphere: What was the coolest use of technology you saw in a museum in 2011?

Samis: Quite possibly the self-portraiture station at the Oakland Museum of California. Situated in the gallery alongside a wall of portraits from the collection, many of them historic, it enables the visitor to sit down, look in a gridded mirror and use his or her finger on a touchscreen to make a self-portrait. You can also look through a gallery of self-portraits—many of them quite accomplished—made by those who visited before you, and if you like you can see any of them re-constructed stroke by stroke. Finally, a rotating array of these visitor-made portraits is included among the painted and drawn collection works in two cleverly disguised frames on the wall beside you.

TourSphere: Did your museum do something this year (or have something coming soon) that you’re proud of?

Samis: We presented mobile interpretation for the vast majority of shows in 2011 on all floors. We also contracted with an outside vendor to provide devices and distribution for a major blockbuster show, The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant Garde. We would never have been able to meet public demand with our small, 200-iPod Touch fleet and our usual distribution staff.

TourSphere: Is there an app or a technology that has changed the way you do things – or made your job easier this year?

Samis: Scrivener. I’m writing a book on best practices in museum interpretation and Scrivener allows me to create the outline and fill it in progressively with notes, essays, word docs, images and links, then re-arrange the parts as I would a mind map.

TourSphere: Apple or Android?

Samis: For myself, Apple. For the public, both. Web app, anyone?

TourSphere: If you had to sum up what you think the theme for museums in 2012 will be in one word, what would your prediction be?

Samis: Participation. Engagement. (I know that’s two.)

TourSphere: What do you see as the biggest challenge for museums in the coming years?

Samis: Connecting an increasingly speedy media culture with the stillness of objects.

TourSphere: Is there something you are passionate about in the museum world that you’d like to wax philosophical about or rant about?

Samis: Finding intelligent ways to democratize meaning-making. The fear of “dumbing down” squelches many visitor-focused initiatives. (We also have a fear of large, readable type. And a fear of looking something less than hyper-intelligent. We have so many fears…)

Thanks, Peter! You’re the man. Follow Peter and his work at the SFMOMA at:

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