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The Challenges of Curating a Digital Museum: an Interview with Michael Berto

The Zium Museum has been out for a little over a week now, and it’s been a project I have kept coming back to over the past days. You might be familiar with the project as a player (it’s free and you should try it out) or you may have heard about it from our recommendations last week. Zium was a labor of love by nearly 40 artists but was spearheaded by Michael Berto who took the time to answer some questions about just what the Zium Museum is, why it exists, and how it came about.

Who are you and why have you built the Zium Museum?

Hello, my name is Michael Berto and I'm a writer, composer and game maker, and by what I put in the 'occupation' box in the patient form at my new dentists office, I'm an "Artist."

Why I built The Zium Museum? Well, I adore museums and the gallery experience irl. I lived in London for six month many years ago, and while I was there, I visited The Tate Modern gallery at least once a week - My favourite piece in the entire gallery, was Salvador Dali's 'The Metamorphosis of Narcissus' and every time I visited, I made a bee-line right to that painting as my first stop. I felt like the gallery was very much a safe haven in the city, it really impacted me.

When I started making games, there was always this notion of 're-creating that feeling' somehow. It was with games like Gone Home and The Stanley Parable that felt very much like that to me, existing in a space that felt contained and with a natural internal feel-logic. As well as the work of Pippin Barr, who has also made several 'gallery-centric' game-experiences.

This brings me to Pippin, whom is very much the other side of the coin to my impetus in making The Zium. I can't quite recall why I first emailed Pippin, outside of probably just blabbing about how much of a fan of his I was, and how influential his games were to me. I pitched Pippin an idea to make a kind of 'Sound Museum' based around the ethos of his 'The Stolen Art Gallery' and his 'v r 3' works. The conversation evolved into talking about virtual interactive museums, the philosophy of making them, and it was in these conversations, where I mentioned the loose idea of 'making a gallery filled with other people’s 3D models.' I made a couple prototypes, and bounced them off Pippin over the next few months, and although those pieces were completely empty, and very different in form that the final Zium gallery, there was nothing but constructive positivity from Pippin.

Another pillar to the inception was that I wanted something like The Zium Museum to exist. I follow a number of artists and game makers on social media, and always found their sharing of their '3D models' and 'Works in Progress' amazingly inspirational and wonderful. I kept having a thought like 'oooh, I would love to hold that 3D model in my hands' - and so, when it became apparent I was going to make this thing, that's where I started. Contacting all these artists I had admired from afar, asking if they might like to put their 3D Models (of which many never see a game/project and exist only in a blender render) into a virtual gallery, where people could walk around and interact with their works. There was a very positive round of enthusiasm and feedback, as well as affording me an excuse to connect with all these artists I had admired for so long, so it was in that momentum of positivity and enthusiasm that got the ball rolling.

The building in-game is built just like a real museum with stairs, exhibits, and atria. Why did you choose to ground the area in reality rather than going more fantastical?

Early on there were a few key conversations with people/studios like Studio Oleomingus and Turnfollow that revolved around allowing the 'gallery' space to be designed in a 'game-design-y' way. I wanted to source the architecture and level design as if it were just another submission. I really loved this idea.

I began to felt pretty strongly about the gallery not feeling too alienating, so not to detract from the work displayed inside the walls. It became apparent early on that I wanted to put a lot of work in the Zium, so it felt more natural to not make it feel too much like 'a game' and more like 'a simulation of an art gallery' but with the allowance of what making something in a game engine could afford, in scale, in tone and space.

I felt that I couldn't make something that felt 'real' enough to sell the whole 'gallery' feel without it looking quite amateurish. That's when I found my golden savior in an artist/game maker named Quinn Spence. Quinn hadn't made a gallery per-se but had the idea to make the Zium with an assortment of 'modular' pieces that were put together like Lego. Suddenly, I had lost my 'gallery builder' but Quinn had agreed to making me some 'Gallery Modular Pieces' and then I could wrap my head around potentially building the space myself, modularly. From there everything started to feel right. It wasn't photo-realistic, but it was beautiful, and it really felt right to go with a more 'pulled-back' style for the gallery itself. Quinn was constantly working/building new pieces/re-texturing based on what I needed, so I can genuinely not thank them enough for being apart of the process with me.

There are about 30 contributors to the project listed on the gamepage. How did you coordinate so many artists?

37, I believe. The coordination was done, in a kind of accidentally efficient way, in waves.

Initially, the whole Zium experience was just going to be what 'The Prompt Atrium' is today-- A bunch of artists making 3D models based on 3 different prompts. That was really all the direction I gave for the artists, I really didn't want to be more specific than that. While I was fielding submissions, I had a similar feeling about the illustration/concept artist/painters I was seeing online that I had about 3D artists - "I love this work, and I'm building a gallery, so why not include some traditional art?"  So I did another round of submissions for 2D artists I got in touch with.

In the meanwhile, the Zium was going through many, many changes, growing and allowing for new pieces and new galleries and floors. During this time I decided to get in touch with a bunch of my new friends and reaching out to new artists to 'build their own level' for the gallery. This submission period was also a general call to everyone I had contacted to 'make anything you like, free-form, levels, models, conceptual pieces, and we'll have an 'installation' gallery'.

When I was finally ready to launch, my project file corrupted and I lost basically all the work I had done over the last few months. Luckily, everyone’s work was kept safe and backed-up well and I was able to rebuild the entire gallery from scratch. It took me about a sleepless week. I thought of the catastrophe as a blessing in disguise -- a moment of 'forced iteration', and I truly believe the Zium is far better for it. Plus, it gave many of the artists just that little more time to update or add new work.

What response did you want to elicit in the audience? What did you want to teach players?

It personally comes back to me standing in that gallery in London staring at that painting by Dali. I get very emotional thinking about that version of myself, feeling what I was feeling and seeing what I was seeing. It's the moment I stepped back from the painting, and continued to explore the gallery. That feeling. I wanted to create a place that could feel like that.  

I didn't have an edict to preach or teach anything. I made the gallery to be a collective of work in that free-spirited way that zines are. There have been other 'virtual museums' before, and there will be more in the future, but I hadn't seen something really curated in the way an irl gallery was. Since releasing the Zium I've been made aware of others working in the kind of 'virtual gallery space', namely Drew Nikonowicz,, and Gigoia Studio's absolutely breathtaking IMPRESSIONISTa and SURREALISTa pieces. Though, they're doing their own thing, and I was pleased to see that I wasn't encroaching on their individual gallery avenues. I feel we're all working in that space of 'wanting to simulate the gallery experience' in our own unique visions of what that may mean.

If there is a lesson, I suppose it arises from my belief and ethos that games and game engines have far-far greater potential outside of making an RPG or an FPS. In a kind of rude and crude analogy, character models are the marble statues of our time, even if they're a bit crude, lewd or absurd. Modelling in 3D inherently shows a visible through-line of history with what technology afforded and affords us, and the most talented artists in our modern time, stretched that technology, but it still evolved, and is evolving, and the 'art' evolves with it. It's not just the artist's personal working history, it's creative human history, which is compressed into this tiny amount of time, that we can see the evolution or artifice and technology hand in hand, and of course this extends into games as a whole.

In short, I suppose, in relation to The Zium Museum, I just wanted to prove that people want to play, and experience, and explore virtual galleries, and not just people who make games, or artist, but people who just generally enjoy art, or music, or technology (or irl Museums, as we as humans seem to generally enjoy.) The Zium Museum is not nearly a game. I mean, it is by definition, it was made in Unity, and it's on, and people play it with their computer machines. But it's more of a screensaver than a game. It's more of an bowl of grapes than it is a game. The Zium Project is an endeavor to synthesize what makes art galleries so wonderful, and important, and I suppose what I'm trying to say is just what galleries and museums in the real world are trying to say; welcome, have a look around, you're safe here, we made all this for ourselves, but we also made all this for all of you. "Check it out, ain't this whole creativity thing we humans do pretty cool?" - also I don't mean to assume, if you're an undercover extraterrestrial working as an artist on earth, I'm sure you're doing pretty great, too.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length

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i think that it's super important to boost visibility of other creators you love, and virtual museums is one of many ways to do that. i make monthly galleries myself, and i think it's something that ought to happen more often! 

i also recommend checking his solo work as well that is excellent:

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