I’m stuck in them midst of rewrites to my thesis and too preoccupied to write much. But in spite of this I’ve had two competing ideas banging round in my head for the past week, and it seems they might be related. How does transformation occur? What are the prerequisites necessary for a person or an institution to embrace new ways? I have four suggestions; Vision, Desire, Attitude, and Focus.
As part of the Museum Computer Network’s Program Committee, I’ve been part of some fascinating discussions about what the theme of this year’s conference should be. A constant theme has been the idea of “change” and museums’ response to it. This sense that museums should be doing something they’re not is persistent and I think a bit off the mark.
Change ain’t necessarily a good thing
My beef with “change” as the term to define our discourse about the future is that change is value-neutral. The people who embrace it think of it as a positive thing, but to the rest of the world, that connotation is not obvious. Doing our job better or in some new medium obviously is a change. But death is a change, as is going bankrupt, getting fired, or becoming irrelevant. So, what is it that change agents mean when they say “change”? Is it evolution, moving from one adaptation to an environment to a newer, hopefully better adaptation to a new environment? I tend to think it is a desire to embrace the possibilities offered by new modalities, with the related desire to express our enduring values in new ways as well as in the traditional ones.
Seeing new ways forward
One way that change could express itself is in rethinknig our notion of temporality. There’s a great article Allison Arieff wrote for the New York Times blog called “It’s Time to Rethink ‘Temporary’” that focuses on “temporary” architecture, but is easily applicable to museums with very little alteration. Liz Neely pointed out that if you change “buildings” to “museums” in the following quote, you get a pretty powerful statement about another way museums might act in this century.
“Kronenburg made a compelling argument that the experimentation inherent in such structures challenges preconceived notions about what buildings can and should be. The strategy of temporality, he explained, ‘adapts to unpredictable demands, provides more for less, and encourages innovation.’”
Embracing impermanence is one way we might approach our work differently. There are obviously many more examples. But in order for any of them to be more than just “change” – doing something different – they need to be deliberate. In order to know how to adapt, you need to first understand what’s going on, and second, what you value – what are those things that you will carry forward with you. Then you can embrace whatever new methods you choose and do it deliberately.
Bushwhacking your desire path
The future is unknown territory so how do you see a way forward, institutionally or personally, knowing it’ll follow an unpredictable path? In my post on the New Media Consortium retreat I mentioned Susan Metros’ Six minute talk on leadership and career paths. Check it out here. All of the videos are worth watching.
What I found valuable about her talk was her advice us to think about leadership not in abstract terms but in very concrete ones. She encouraged us to ask two questions, “What do you value?” and “What influences you?” and find answers to those questions. Knowing these things gives you the ability to look at the lay of the land with its constructed paths, and see where you want to go and how you might plot a straighter course to it and blaze a trail or bushwhack your way to it. The question becomes how to learn to see not only what’s there, but what’s not there that might be desirable, and then to embrace that.
As I was thinking about those two questions, it became clear that one thing that absolutely influences me is my professional network. While I was turning this question of change over in my head, two people I am often influenced by posted about eerily similar topics. Both of them expressed, in their own ways, many of the traits and attitudes I value.
The attitudes of innovators
Jasper Visser just put out an interesting post on the attitudes of innovative people and organizations, and it’s worth reading and seeing how you and your institution stack up. He ends with the following;
“Even if you don’t want to be at the forefront of your industry (all the time), your organisation and its people need to have the right attitude towards changes in the environment, such as a new social network suddenly popping up.”
And what are some of those attitudes? His beginning list includes:
- Readiness to experiment. Even though not always actively innovating an entire industry, they are at least regularly trying new things and testing ideas.
- Sharing. Almost all keep blogs or write regular guest posts about their work, and talk about it at conferences, opening up their work to constructive criticism.
- Changing partnerships. Working together with completely different partners on different projects ensures a constant stream of fresh ideas.
- Great people. Quite often the great stuff happens when a number of great people get together, “great” meaning people who are open to ideas of others, passionate and full of creativity and energy.
- Focus on the customer. Every single great museum focused at least as much on the experience of the visitor, reaching and engaging them, as on their collection or stories.”
What does it take to be that person?
Lynda Kelly was apparently having a stimulating time at the “21st Century Learning in Natural History Settings” conference in D.C. because she wrote about her concept of a “guerilla-in-residence” - a more appealing vision of what we used to hear referred to as “change agents”. She posited a list of qualities, which include;
a guerilla-in-residence should:
- Ask “Where’s the data?”
- Have evidence-based discussions
- Ask lots of questions
- Look at absurdities
- Hang on like a dog with a bone, be tenacious
- Look for opportunities to mentor.
- Be able to both follow and lead
- Surround oneself with young people or positive people!
- Show respect – be a thanker, get back to others
The full list is worth the read. It’s short.
The Internet is an incurable condition
So how does this relate to digital media? Janet Carding pointed me at a piece Alexandra Samuel wrote for The Atlantic recently called “’Plug In Better’: A Manifesto” that states that “The trick isn’t to unplug from our devices — it’s to unplug from the distractions, information overload, and trash that make us unhappy.”
I wrote earlier about dealing with cognitive loads, and her article is dead on. Particualrly where it comes to new media and how museums respond to it, we seem to still be very fear-based. Most of the people I encounter react to technological change, and grudgingly. What I like about Samuel’s article is that she proposes four attitudes to adopt to counter this and approach the digital not from a place of fear. Her main advice is to unplug from four things;
- Fear of Missing Out,
- Information overload,
- The shallows.
You’ll have to read the whole thing to see her reasoning, but it’s worth it. Her statement at the end is pretty brilliant.
“The Internet is an incurable condition — but we can’t recognize that as good news until we find a way to treat the various aches and pains of life online.
“We plug back in because this new online world offers extraordinary opportunities for creation, discovery, and connection. We plug back in because we don’t actually want to escape the online world: We want to help create it.”
Which brought back around to a quote used to keep taped to my monitor from Mihaly Csikszentmihályi, “Creating culture is always more rewarding than consuming it.” And how do we create that new world? Vision, Desire, Attitude, and Focus.