Open Engagement Report


We conducted preliminary research regarding visitors’ encounters with, knowledge of, and responses to the museum’s Watershed model, as well as their awareness and stories of  New York’s  water resources. This information was collected using brief comment cards that were handed out at the museum in the weeks leading up to the conference.  The three main questions were: Where does your water come from?, What is your biggest question after looking at this model?, and Do you have a water story?   We used the survey of responses to identify four main aspects of the model that could be expanded upon to communicate the current state of NY’s watershed; these included:  Infrastructure (Maltby), Water Cycle and Sources (Montalto), Geography (Miss), and Connected Citizens (Moser).  We divided the session attendees into four groups and brainstormed ideas that might make the model more engaging to visitors.

This document outlines and provides a narrative detailing what each group discovered during the workshop discussions with conference goers. Water is such an important issue globally as well as for our own communities that it is essential for us to re-imagine this underutilized resource.  We hope this report to the Queens Museum will encourage ideas for revitalized use and fuller engagement with the Watershed model.



The Infrastructure Group was a lively one, driven by an intense interest in seeing the cultural and social factors surrounding the investment, construction, and maintenance of NYC’s water supply more vividly explored and communicated. While the survey had indicated a curiosity by the public in the physical stuff of the water system, the “engineering marvel” aspect, the Open Engagement group wanted to take a more political approach to the topic of infrastructure. As such, the conversation began with a critique of the watershed model.  Early questions included “where are the people in the model, and how are they impacted?” In particular, the consensus was that the complexities of the ongoing relationship between New York City and upstate communities must be part of the overall narrative, as well as the history of the watershed’s indigenous cultures. There was also an interesting discussion about the physical aspects of the model - the understanding that the barrier reinforced the flat reading of the geographic space, one without the complexities and contradictions inherent in a cultural space.  In comparing the scale and legibility of the watershed model to the Panorama of New York City, one participant noted that the large scale stymies our ability to inhabit the model, and that, in turn, undermines our sense of responsibility.  The conversation then turned to ways to address these challenges, and to take advantage of this compelling and enigmatic resource.

The first proposal discussed was to curate an ongoing series of residencies, in which artists of all disciplines would be invited to temporarily transform the watershed room. The artist would determine the conceptual approach and content of the installation, working within the loose frame of making visible the social and cultural factors that shape our water system.  The museum could have yearly themes, and select artists through a call for proposals.

A major strain of conversation was about how the model could be activated and made more interactive with digital media, therefore plugging into the technological literacy of visitors.  Video projection [potentially controlled by the visitor] on the surface of the model was suggested, as a way to communicate multiple histories and multiples readings, and to explore the past and the future of the area.  Digital strategies used to convey the palimpsest of cultural and ecological histories could also be further supported by the model itself having multiple physical layers. Ideas for this included lifting the model to reveal the geology or lost histories underneath and having discrete physical layers for different eras of human occupation. Other possible topics to explore with digital media: what future challenges the current system faces, ways to make the system function more equitably and sustainably, and the political nature of resource allocation. 

Spoken and /or filmed personal narratives by a range of people was posited as an important addition to the model; lights could show where the speaker lived or worked within the watershed.  Farmers,  storm water engineers, fisherman, urban residents, rural landowners, Native Americans, among others would tell their stories in relation to the watershed.  As an alternative to, or in addition to, still photographs, “living images” were also recommended: real time video feed would allow museum goers to see the reservoirs and their local communities, to see current water levels, and the range of activities around the reservoirs. The final discussion centered on installations that could employ senses beyond the visual to counter the ‘remoteness’ of the model, and to transform the room into a more immersive environment, such as recordings of the sound of water and having models that could be touched.

The group included an anthropologist, two visual artists, a film maker, and was facilitated by a landscape architect.  The enthusiasm of the group is such that we are meeting again in July to talk about more detailed ideas, building on this initial conversation.


  • Curate a series of artists' residencies, inviting artists of all media to create interactive installations that address the cultural and political context of the NYC watershed

  • Introduce video projection on the surface of the model to communicate multiple cultural histories, and to explore the past and the future of the area.

  • Add projection walls or a hanging element that can provide a stronger cultural context to the model.

Cultural Context

  • Create physical layers for the model to further convey the palimpsest of cultural and ecological histories. Lift the model to reveal the geology or lost histories underneath and have discrete physical layers above that show different eras of human occupation.

  • Add spoken and / or filmed personal narratives from the watershed system’s multiple stakeholders to give a sense of the complexity of the issues. Examples of people to interview include: farmers, storm water engineers, fisherman, urban residents, rural landowners, Native Americans.


  • Important that the politics of the ongoing relationship between NYC and upstate communities be legible.

  • Important that the re-working of the watershed room address the future challenges the current system faces, ways to make the system function more equitably and sustainably, and the political nature of resource allocation.

Live Data

  • Supplement [or replace] static traditional photographs with “living images” to take advantage of the power of seeing it now: real time video feed that allows museum goers to see the reservoirs and their local communities, to see current water levels, and the range of activities around the reservoirs.

  • Include live data streams that elucidate the ecological and technical side of the story - to augment the more intimate personal stories.

Sensory Experience

  • Include elements / installations in the room that employ senses other than the visual to transform the room into a more immersive environment, such as recordings of the sound of water and having models that could be touched.


The model of the city of New York seems to be so appealing because visitors feel they can locate themselves and their communities within the model with its detailed representation of the city.  The watershed model is just the opposite.  There are no clear locations or boundaries and little sense of scale.   With the exaggerated elevation it becomes even more difficult to figure out the geography of the model.

The goal of our discussion was to come up with ways that visitors could experience a sense of engagement with the model.  We thought that rather than trying to give a literal interpretation of the model this would be a perfect situation to involve a variety of artists and scientists in revealing different aspects of the watershed through a mixture of metaphor, stories and virtual connection.  It seems that it may be a benefit that it currently reads as such a ‘blank’ canvas.  We considered three primary ways that artists might want to interact with the model.

The immediate context of the exhibit seems to offer opportunities.  How could the photos on the surrounding walls be replaced with a series of installations that provide a context for the model?  The possibilities seem endless from mapping the extension of the model on the surrounding floors and walls to presenting vignettes from specific places in the watershed.

We also felt that anything that could viscerally engage you with the model would be helpful—sound, touch, smell.  In particular it would be interesting to hear stories from particular places and people: upstate residents, city dwellers, scientists.

The possibilities for virtual engagement with the model also seem to provide a wealth of opportunities from projections on the model to apps to be downloaded to games that might engage the visitor.

Our primary recommendation, however, is that an ‘artist / scientist in residence’ series be established for the model so that the many complex aspects of our water system can be revealed in a variety of ways over time.


Artist / scientist residencies

  • Artists working in collaboration with scientists would do a series of projects to activate the model.

  • Work and research may be done in the space of the model or in relation to the building or in neighborhoods or upstate in the watershed.


  • Create map that extends from model on to floors and walls to give clearer siting for model

  • A series of artists’ installations that provide a context for the model.

  • Viewing scopes attached to railings that identify location on the model.

  • Color code railings to create clearer relationships. Grid similar to map coordinates.

Visceral Engagement 

  • Sounds, touch (everything is off limits, untouchable) being introduced to locate different aspects of the watershed from a street drain to the inside of a tunnel to a reservoir to a wooded stream.

  • Stories of particular people and places: a scientist, a neighborhood person in Queens, a person in an upstate village.

  • Smaller versions of the model that can be touched or have water poured on them

Virtual / Technological  Engagement 

  • Projections on the model: maps locating details of communities, of infrastructure, distinct watersheds and sub-sheds.

  • Smart phone interactions.

  • Scavenger hunt ‘games’ seeking out water related locations and information.

  • A series of 3D prints with layers of information.

Water Cycles and Sources

The goal of this breakout group was to brainstorm ways that the watershed model could be modified so as to better represent the dynamics of the actual system. That is, how could the model be modified so as to better engage the public about the intricacies of the regional water cycle, and the climate system that drives it?

The group began by discussing scale and dependency issues. One suggestion was to somehow communicate the interconnectedness of the city to the upstate watershed, by emphasizing how big of a city could be supported by *merely* the rain falling on the boundaries of New York City itself. In other words, we could attempt to communicate to the public that to be what it is, New York City is intimately dependent on the upstate water supply. Without that water, New York City would be destined to be much smaller than it actually is. At a more basic level, the group noted that simple cardinal directions (N, S, W, and E) and length scales were not shown on the map.

Along the same lines, the group noted that state boundaries are not shown, and the fact that Pennsylvania is guaranteed a certain amount of the Delaware River would be an interesting regional issue to communicate (for example with arrows pointing off the edge, showing that this piece of terrain, large as it is, is still part of an even larger whole). We also agreed that it would also be interesting to show the location and boundaries of many of the smaller water supplies for Northern NJ towns (e.g. Oradell Dam and the communities it serves). Lights that trace the pathway of a drop of rain from where it falls to where it is consumed and discharged could help to emphasize the importance of the intricate piping systems that convey water throughout the various basins on the region. These would also show how much the natural watershed boundaries have been modified by engineering.

Next the group started to discuss other regional physical realities that could be shown by projecting an image down on the map. For example, users could press a button that would shade the map differently according to population density, or annual rainfall amounts. Another button could show dynamically the movement of the Hudson River salt front through time, while also indicating the location of Poughkiepsee’s intake, and projections of where the salt front could be with various kinds of sea level rise and/or drought projections for the future.

Yet another button could show the physical boundary of New York City and its water supply at different points in time, starting from early Colonial times and ending with the present. This series would show how the city’s water supply grew in proportion to its population and spatial extent.

The model is an opportunity to also educate viewers about a variety of meteorological and climatic conditions. Another projection could show real-time radar rainfall data, satellite “gridded” rainfall data, satellite cloud cover, or historical gaged precipitation amounts directly on the map. The latter would demonstrate differences in orographic precipitation amounts (e.g. differences in rainfall amounts based on topographic elevation). The former could help visualize the regional climatic trends (e.g. prevailing winds, differences in storm formation by season, etc), and activate the model for those interested in climate, climate change, and meteorology. Along with the real time climatic displays, the model could show the reservoir levels (posted continuously on the DEP website).

Finally, the group recommends some kind of fun “sim city” type of activity for children. For example, could the students move a laser to a point on the map and then, based on topography and pipe systems, see who would be impacted by a toxic chemicals at that location? E.g. indicating who is downstream? Or, could there be a game where you have to place a pointer at the downgradient end of the largest possible topographic watershed? Or after watching several storm fronts move through the region by projection, could a game be developed whereby viewers are asked to predict the track of other storms? These kind of interactive activities could activate the model as a means of teaching about the importance of dynamics in regional planning.


1.    Scale and Dependency Issues

a.   Communicate the interconnectedness of the city with the upstate watershed.

 i.    Simple cardinal directions (N,E,S, W) & length scales.

 ii.    State boundaries

iii.    Boundaries of smaller water supplies for Northern NJ towns

 iv.    Lights that trace pathway of a drop of rain from where it falls to where it’s consumed.

b.  How to show regional physical realities (could be shown by projecting on map)

 i.    Buttons that viewers trigger a projected image (Interactive) :

1.    Population density

2. Annual rainfall amounts

3. Movement of Hudson River salt front through time

4.  Where salt front could exist with changes in sea level rise and/ or drought projections.

5.  Physical boundary of NYC and its water supply at different points in time.

2. Educate viewers about meteorological  and climatic conditions.

a.   Projections to show: 

 i.    Real-time radar rainfall data

 ii.    Satellite “gridded” rainfall data

 iii.    Satellite cloud cover

iv.    Historicaly gaged precipitation

 v.    Real time climatic displays

 vi.    Reservoir levels

3.  Interactive Activities to activate the model as a means of teaching about the importance of dynamics in regional planning.

a.  Students move a laser along various points on the map to activate topographies, pipe systems, impact of toxic chemicals on various sites in relation to pipe systems

b.  Interactive Platforms/ Games:

 i.    Place pointer at the downgradient end of the largest possible topographic watershed.

 ii.    Viewers are asked to predict the track of potential future storms after learning about storm patterns in different regions.


The connected citizens group was investigating the ways in which we can make the watershed model and the information it imparts relevant to individuals in their personal lives. Questions we worked on included: How do we translate the intrinsic value of the watershed to daily actions, to city systems and to our local environment?

Our approach was to consider the approach from different scales. First was how can we connect in the space of the watershed model. Responses to that were heavy on multi media and encouraged bringing in sounds of water and sounds and images which would humanize the model including audio and visual of the recreation space that was created by the special watershed agreement upstate (live web camera of the space), audio stories of farmers and users of recreational space upstate. Additionally suggestions on sounds and stories of New Yorkers using water was suggested. It was repeatedly noted that the model itself lacked any indication of humans, no borders, developments, etc.

The second scale was the museum. We considered how we could link the watershed model to the space of the museum. Suggestions at this scale ranged from reproductions or interpretations of the watershed in the bathrooms and at water fountains. Playful ideas about interventions in the café around the plastic water bottles for sale were discussed as was a large scale architectural intervention which included rainwater collection and a see through wall showing the plumbing and relating it back to water usage and the watershed.

The final scale at which we discussed connecting citizens to the watershed was outside the museum. One idea was to provide water testing kits which could be used to compare water samples from collected rain water, Flushing Creek and the tap water in the museum, this was intended to highlight the unique processes which create the clean water from New York city taps.


The goal of this breakout session was, “How to get people's attention on this resource?” More specifically, how can we connect the important message contained within the model to people in a way that specifically relates to their own relationship to water.

Relate to water in the museum

  • Maps in situ - Create simplified interpretations of the maps that can be posted in the bathrooms and near water fountains.

  • See the impacts - Create a real “view” into the water system with data (how much water is used, where it is coming from) (through a mural of plumbing systems or an actual view into a wall).

Connect To Larger Region

  • Experience - Provide water testing experiences - test the water in flushing meadows creek or rainwater, compare to water tested from museum fountains

  • Human impact on map - include projections of human development/recreational areas other human based interactions related to water

Keep Going

  • Artist in residence - initiate an watershed artist in residence program to continue to expand the maps impact

Notes: There were a number of thoughts on how to “enliven” the model which went beyond the scope of the conversation and are duplicate with the other groups. They are included below.


-Audio (stories, sounds of water, theater/history, recreation, wildlife)

-Projections (flow of water human development)

-Timeline (crisis, development, history)

-Augmented reality


-Maps of watershed in bathrooms/water fountains

-Rainwater collection

-Physical ability to walk over map (to add layers of human scale/impact - cities/developments, recreational spaces)

-Evidence of water system by stripping back a wall to show plumbing etc.

-Raise system show substructure - aqueducts


-Testing water (flushing creek + tap+ bottled water)