Project: Wait, What? YouTube videos, not about cats.

In the golden age of podcasts and Wikipedia, I think we can conclusively say that the internet is not just for cats anymore. (Not that we don’t love cats–Neko Atsume anyone?) The internet is a place where you can learn… anything. Want to know how a camera shutter works? You might find yourself hooked on the Slow Mo Guys. Friends of mine are now obsessed with learning to weld, having stumbled upon Michael Cthulu. And of course, podcasts like Science Friday, 99% Invisible, TED Radio Hour, and Stuff You Should Know fascinate people every week with ideas and information that they didn’t even know they didn’t know. As a society, we’re clearly unquestionably life-long learners. Which is great news for museums because, K-12 tours aside, that’s our mission.

I’ve always been fascinated by the leap of faith that podcasts and YouTube channels garner. Who’s even heard of an Olinguito but if Emily Graslie of the Brain Scoop is talking about it, 90,000 people want to watch. And as Emily proves, museums are amazing sites for these projects because we already have the content–and experts–on hand to tell amazing stories. Think of your institution. I’m sure you’ve had thousands of “Wait, what?” moments with your collections and archives. Nineteenth-century gentlemen had special mustache cups? John Singer Sargent hand-picked paintings in the MFA Boston? (That tour had over 50 people on it before I stopped counting!)

While I was at the Portland Art Museum, in Oregon, these ideas solidified into a project called Wait, what? — a prototype for a monthly webisode series.

Thanks to an incredible public programs staff and one of the best videographers and digital Man Friday’s out there, PAM’s YouTube channel had a steady stream of followers. But we weren’t producing any content exclusively for them and, as the Interpretive Media Team, we saw an opportunity.

This is what we made:


As you can tell right off the bat, we decided to devote ourselves entirely to “the weird, wacky and wonderful” about the museum. Translation: we didn’t want to tell Art History 101 stories. Smarthistory, the Met, MoMA…. they all do a fabulous job of providing that framework. So we decided to take the fringe examples and tell their stories. Which, as you can see here, still gets you to some big ideas about how to look at portraiture, mark-making, and so forth.

So that became our goal: offer up interesting, nuanced, and smart stories that offered accessible ways-in to the works on view the Portland Art Museum. Not dumbing down the content, just figuring out how to make it click for visitors. (Check out this post from years ago for more on that!)

In noodling on this more, we realized that–truly–what we were doing was creating a pre-visit resource, even for people who might not be planning a visit. Like Michael Cthulu and my friends new fascination for welding, we’re piquing people’s interest. Like welding, many potential visitors may have an abstract (maybe incorrect) idea of what’s involved. There’s some metal and it’s heated and then… smooshed? Or, for museums, I go and stand in front of paintings and say profound things?

What these videos do–especially in the second video featuring neuroscientists as guest experts, and our planned fourth video featuring an ethnomathematician–show that museums are not just for art history snobs saying profound things about the influence of so-and-so or the juxtaposition of blah and blah. Museums are for all kinds of people.

So, when you look in the background of these videos, you’ll see all kinds of people in the gallery: young, and old. You’ll get an idea of what it looks like in the museum galleries, at the ticket counter, out front. And, when you walk around corners, you’ll find paintings that are familiar and whose stories you know. (And can share to impress your parents/date/kids/friends.)

Also cats.



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