Asking (and answering) the Big Questions

Well, it’s been a heady couple of weeks!  I got an invite from Neal Stimler to submit a video response to a crowdsourced presentation he’s making at MCN 2011 titled “Philosophical Leadership Needed for the Future: Digital Humanities Scholars in Museums”.  He’s soliciting answers to three questions:

Question 1:
How can museums advance beyond the continuation of traditional practices utilizing digital tools to a new mode of interpretation that seeks to understand the meanings of collections and scholarship in a new media culture?

Question 2:
What is required of museums to establish digital humanities research centers within the framework of existing institutions?

Question 3:
Why might interdisciplinary and non-traditional scholars from outside the established professional ranks make the best leaders needed for inspired change in the philosophical directions of museums?

Q1 is pretty important stuff. How do we move beyond using new tools to do old tasks, and come to grips with what it means to be a museum in the new media world? Q2 did nothing for me, and I question the wording of Q3 as being pretty leading.  I still haven’t formulated my response, but there’s still time. You’ve got til Nov. 3rd.

While this was percolating, I almost simultaneously read Nina Simon’s post on “What are the Most Important Problems in our Field?” and got an email from Rob Stein asking me to respond to “The Challenges and Opportunities of Participatory Culture” for the Salzburg Global Seminar.  He also started a hashtag, #museumchallenges, to capture the wisdom of the hive mind.  Rather than start yet another discussion of this, I highly recommend you check out both posts. The questions they ask are different, but complimentary, and the quality of the comments on each are great! There’s about a year’s worth of learning contained in there!

Two things that struck me were Nina’s invoking of mathematician Richard Hamming, who said

“If you do not work on an important problem, it’s unlikely you’ll do important work…  It’s not the consequence that makes a problem important, it is that you have a reasonable attack. That is what makes a problem important. When I say that most scientists don’t work on important problems, I mean it in that sense. The average scientist, so far as I can make out, spends almost all his time working on problems which he believes will not be important and he also doesn’t believe that they will lead to important problems.”

and Nancy Proctor’s response to Rob, which ended,

“I think we need to be very suspicious of the fetishization of the new in this period where there is a constant stream of shiny new toys to dazzle us with the promise of starting over in a Brave New World. Let’s make sure we don’t deceive ourselves, like Columbus discovering America, but rather undertake the much harder, less sexy, but ultimately more sustainable task of radically restructuring our museums and practices even as we work within those very institutions.”

The two comments neatly form the horns of a dilemma that plagues many of us who have been in museum work for any length of time — how to discern what matters from what’s getting all the attention. Something I’ve been wrestling with myself has been trying to define what are the problems that most deserve my attention at work, and whether I can attack them, and if so, how. Just getting them down on paper and trying to tease out whether I have any way to address them is a fascinating exercise.  It can be so easy to fall into the trap of fixating on problems that are beyond your control that it’s easy to lose sight of those that maybe can be solved.

Go visit Rob and Nina and share your light with us! We certainly need all the help we can get.

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2 responses to “Asking (and answering) the Big Questions

  1. Pingback: Careers and jobs | Thinking about exhibits

  2. Pingback: On Big Ideas | Thinking about museums

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