Tag Archives: Nancy Proctor

Unpacking MW2014 – Part One

by Ed Rodley

March has been a busy month at work, and when that hasn’t been occupying my attention, CODE | WORDS has. Think lots and lots of phone calls, Google Hangouts, and collaborative editing of documents. It was therefore a wonderful break to escape to Baltimore for a few days for the Museum Computer Network board meeting and Museums and the Web 2014. 
MW2014

Museums and the Web 2014 has ended, and I am so glad I was able to attend! The sessions were excellent, the conversation lively, and I came away feeling energized and excited about what the coming year holds for us. There was so much going on that my attempt to unpack it in a nice, brief post failed before it even left outline form in my notebook. So, I’m going to have to spread it out based on the themes that emerged for me.

Comings…

After you’ve been in the business awhile, one of the reasons to go to conferences is to see who’s moved in, who’s moved up and who’s moved along. And there was plenty of two of the three. Which is both encouraging and discouraging.

Given the price tag of conferences these days, it is always a pleasure to see younger colleagues, and particularly students coming and participating. I had some great conversations and inevitably, a lot of “What should I do?” talks with people. Some of the things I found myself saying over and over again included the following observations.

  • I think Museum Studies certificate/degrees continue to become less of a differentiating variable, and more of a box to tick. The resumes I see will almost all have some kind of museum studies credential on them, so if you’re looking to stand out from a crowded field, that will only save you from the initial cull. All of the resumes I’ve seen in the past few months that really caught my attention had something else in them; a concentration in media studies, design courses, education, etc… Don’t get me wrong, I think Museum Studies credentials have merit, but I don’t think they’re enough to get you into the field. And if you’re just embarking on your career, getting in is all that matters, right? I’m also not suggesting getting even more degrees. Just look at your courses, and your peers’ courses and find that thing that’s  going to make you stand out.
  • It’s nobody’s job to get you unstuck other than you. Can’t break into the sector? Can’t move on? Difficult boss? Visionless administration? Chronic understaffing/budgeting/resources? Whatever the problem, in the end, it comes down to you. Seeking outside advice and counsel is a great tool to helping you get clear about your goals, but it’s no substitute.
  • Stop thinking about where you want to work, and think about who you want to work with instead.  Given the peculiarly public-facing nature of digital projects and products and the small size of the community, it’s relatively easy to look at interesting, innovative work and figure out who made it. They also move around, so if you focus on the museum instead of the person, you run the risk of applying somewhere where someone innovative used to work. Do your homework. Find examples of work that speak to you, figure out who made it, and find out where they are. Go to the conferences. I know they’re expensive, but most of them offer scholarships and/or volunteer discounts. Find them and ask them about their work. Very few people I know hate to be asked about the work they’ve done. It’s a great conversation starter.

It was a lovely pre-conference gift to hear in January that Nancy Proctor had been appointed Deputy Director for Digital Experience at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Nancy has been a friend and colleague for many years and it was heartening to see another colleague who combines a passion for museums with a deep understanding of digital technologies climb into the senior management ranks. I look forward to seeing what she’ll do in the coming years. There’s a lot to look forward to. The number of C-level positions like Nancy’s being created seems to be going up every year. And the pool of candidates is full of some of the brightest, most committed, thoroughgoing professionals you could ask for.

…and Goings

I only worry that the growth rate of CDO-type positions won’t match the rate of colleagues leaving the field. Some flux is inevitable in a workforce, but this year has been particularly turbulent, and mostly flowing out of the field and not so much in. A couple has turned into more than a handful very rapidly.  I joked with someone that in a few year’s time, I’d find myself sitting alone at the bar at MCN or MW if things don’t change. It wasn’t a very pleasant picture. And I don’t know what to do, other than hope at this point.

That’s a bit of a downer, I realize, but one of the wonderful things about conferences is that they crystallize things. You start to see big pictures arise out of lots of little things. Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes not. But I’d always rather have specific fears than vague ones. The next post will be peppier and look at all the energy around grass-roots museum advocacy. There’ll be invasions, clubs, and drinking!

Review: Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One – Part One

The Collection Wall at Gallery One

If you are interested in the intersection of museums and digital technologies, then you’ve probably already heard about the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One, which opened last December to tremendous acclaim and fanfare. It’s not often that art museums get a slick infographic review in Fast Company like Gallery One. Years in the making, and at a cost of ten million dollars, Gallery One is a glimpse at what 21st museums might look like, provided one can get to Cleveland.

Here’s a nice promotional piece the museum did. It gives you a good sense of the place.

Sounds kinda awesome, right? But does it live up to the hype? One of the problems with complex digital projects with manifold outcomes is that it’s impossible to appreciate or assess them unless you’re there in the flesh. Getting to Cleveland isn’t easy, and making a special trip is hard in these days of tight travel budgets. What’s a person to do?

Luckily for us, the wonderful folks at Museums and the Web put together a special event of a kind that I hope the field will see more of. Nancy Proctor dubbed it a “Deep Dive”, a focused presentation/workshop/group happening on one groundbreaking project. For information on the program, look at the agenda. It was a thorough, comprehensive look at the project inside and out, from the perspective of the creators, leavened with my own experience of it, along with fifty colleagues from around the world. The Deep Dive was in a word, perfect. I can’t wait for the next one!

What follows is my experience of the event and of Gallery One. As you read it, I’d like you to do me a favor, OK? I thought some parts of Gallery One were amazing, and some parts less so. As you read on (assuming you *do* read on) keep the following in mind.

Cleveland Museum of Art has undertaken one of those rare projects that are truly transformative. The scale of their ambition was huge as was their appetite for taking chances, and for that they are to be congratulated. The work that they’ve done on Gallery One will influence the institution and the field for years.

Any critical comments I express should be viewed in that context of appreciation. As one of my fellow attendees said, “We could on for hours about how we might change this or that, but it’s all nibbling around the edges.” You may agree or disagree with their philosophy, but Cleveland Museum of Art has made a bold statement about the role of digital media in 21st century museum practice that is well worth a look.

The view from Gallery One into CMA’s new atrium.

The ideas behind Gallery One

As part of a major building and renovation project, in which CMA reinstalled and reinterpreted the entire permanent collection in new and renovated gallery spaces, they also decided to undertake a project to explore a couple of questions regarding digital technologies and museums: How can we use interpretive technology to engage visitors actively in new kinds of experiences with works of art? and, What are the best strategies for integrating technology into the project of visitor engagement? At it’s best, Gallery One provides solid answers to these questions. Whether these questions are the most appropriate to ask I’ll get to later.

As Jane Alexander laid out in her paper from Museums and the Web 2013, Gallery One’s project goals were as follows:

Create a nexus of interpretation, learning, and audience development

 Build audiences—including families, youth, school groups, and occasional visitors—by providing a fun and engaging environment for visitors with all levels of knowledge about art

Highlight featured artworks in a visitor-centered and -layered interpretive manner, thereby bringing those artworks to the Greater Cleveland community and the world.

Propel visitors into the primary galleries with greater enthusiasm, understanding, and excitement about the collection

Develop and galvanize visitor interest, bringing visitors back to the museum again and again

These goals are pretty interesting. Audience building, interest building, concentrating a lot of effort in one space. Lots of emphasis on affect. Gallery One has some pretty tall goals, and what isn’t called out in the goals is that Gallery One is the one designated spot where this experimentation is taking place. The rest of the museum, newly rehung, operates much as it did before. For the technology enthusiasts, and those who worry about this stuff ruining everything, Gallery One would seem to offer something of value – tremendous experimentation and a classic art museum experience, all in the same museum! So let’s take a walk through the gallery and look at what’s inside.

The pieces that comprise Gallery One

The Beacon

The Beacon is a large dynamic display that welcomes visitors to Gallery One. Paired with a great Chuck Close, it gives you a visual statement about Gallery One’s importance.

The pairing of one the museum’s star contemporary works with a big display that mixes preprogrammed content with visitor images from the interactives in the gallery tells you that the space is not to be missed. One of the things I loved most about Gallery One was the extent to which CMA put the best objects they had in the space. As I found out in one of the workshops, this was the result of intense collaboration between the Gallery One Team and the curators

Studio Play

Increasing their family audience was a goal of the project and Studio Play is placed right up at the front of Gallery One, a big welcoming separate space for young children and families to explore art. The activities run the gamut from low-tech (pads of paper and crayons) to multiuser, multitouch displays.

Drawing stations with different activities. Appealing, no?

Kids search the collection by drawing in Studio Play. Photo courtesy of Local Projects

Pretend play tents and stage

I especially liked the searching by drawing activity above. When you drew on the screen, the application did some mighty fast pattern matching to find an image in the collection that used that shape. Draw a curve, and you’d see that curve superimposed over the edge of a Persian bowl, or in the design of a tapestry. Trying to find a pattern that could stump the computer (not that I’d ever use an application in a manner it wasn’t designed for…) would result in your drawing getting simplified until it could be matched to an image. It was fast, it was rewarding.

There was also a head-to-head matching game where you and one other person looked at four images from the collection. The narration prompted you to find all the pictures that had a cat, or fruit, or a tree, and as you matched them, you’d get progressively harder challenges. The tone seemed appropriate, the scaffolding solid for young children, and most of all, it required you to study the images to progress. I really liked the choice of images in the game. Not all were obvious at first, and you had to really look sometimes to find the detail that was relevant.

On the whole, I thought Studio Play was an uncelebrated gem, from both the design and content viewpoints.

The Lenses

One of the Lens in the background. They’re big. Really big.

The Lenses are natural group activities, just because of their scale. And the people watching is first-rate!

Go, Marco!

I don’t know if Jim is trying hard enough.

At the various Lenses, the emphasis is on looking at the art and reacting to it, in a number of different ways. Mimicking it, using your facial expression to call up similar images, decomposing and remixing a Picasso. There is also straight-up interpretive content that guides you to look closer at images of the art.

CMA put a lot of effort into finding the right works to feature in these activities, and again, their commitment to the gallery is demonstrated in the quality of the artworks they put in the space. They seem to cover most (if not all) of the major areas CMA collects in, and the wrangling that must’ve been necessary to secure all those pieces for an experiment like Gallery One says more about the museum’s dedication to making the experience first and foremost a great art experience.

I shouldn’t quit my day job to become an artist’s model.

A sample screen from one of the Lenses.

Still Life, by Picasso

Still Life, Remixed by Ed Rodley

I thought the Lenses were impressive on many levels. The technology worked. The design was minimalist and cool. The execution of the interactives was pretty flawless. The only concern I had was this; I didn’t see many people use a Lens and then go look at the art that the Lens was interpreting. The real things were right there, but the screens were so large and set so far back (10-12′) that even six-foot tall me could only make out the tops of the statues or paintings I was exploring.

The experience of using my body to interact with the collection was novel and enjoyable. I think we could do a lot more to engage visitors kinesthetically, and this implementation was dynamite. I left wanting more after the end of the interaction. I know all those poses in Indian sculpture have meaning, and it would’ve been nice to know what they signified, and not just how close I came to matching that pose. This was a feeling I had several times in Gallery One – it was fun and memorable, but I wanted some content payoff that I often didn’t get.

This was a design trade-off the Gallery One team had to make; the more content, the longer people stay, and the less time they spend going through the rest of the museum which Gallery One is supposed to set up to enjoy more. At some point, as a developer, you have to say, “Enough.” and stick to it. I would’ve gone a little further.

It’ll be interesting to see what the evaluation of Gallery One says. I have been doing this long enough to know that I am not the audience and my wants and needs are different from those of the general public.

Next up in Part Two, The Collection Wall, the ArtLens app and more!

Australia: MONA – revolutionary, and not

One of my primary motivations for coming to Australia was to go visit the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart. It’s been a long time since a single new museum captured so much media attention. For an overview of the founding of the museums and it’s its founder, David Walsh, try here and here. Not since the Museum of Jurassic Technology (MJT) has one institution provided so much food for thought on the museum experience, just by being different. But where MJT feels like an ironic paean to museums, MONA aims to strip away the layers of practice we have developed over the years, and focus on the central aspect of visiting an art museum – having a personal experience of art.

One of the central features of this philosophy is the complete absence of labels in the museum. No labels. None. All the interpretation, and there’s a lot of it, is carried in customized iPod Touches called “the O” which are handed out to every visitor. As a veteran of exhibition audiotours, which were considered wildly successful if the pickup rate exceeded 20%, the Holy Grail was always “universal distribution” – giving every visitor a unit. Initial reviews were surprisingly positive. Solutions had been developed for the usual technical roadblocks, like interior wayfinding, and associating visitors with the digital information of their visit. Read Nancy Proctor’s and Seb Chan’s assessment of the O for details. If you’re going to be at MCN 2012 in Seattle (you *are* going, right?), the developers of The O will be sharing what they’ve learned. So MONA was interesting both for its philosophy and its inventive, ambitious use of digital media. I had previously met Mary Lijnzaad, the MONA’s numismatics curator and head of library, in Boston and decided to take her up on her offer to come and visit.

A visit to MONA
One of the hallmarks of Walsh’s endeavor seems to be attention to detail. The visitor experience begins the moment you arrive and extends past the end of your physical visit. MONA boasts its own ferry, restaurant, brewery, winery, and luxury accommodations. MONA is a destination with a museum at the center. Following Mary’s advice, we didn’t drive, but took the MONA ferry from Hobart harbor. The ticket counter at the wharf sold tickets for both the museum and the ferry. The staff was minimal and everyone seemed to do at least two jobs. A bucket of umbrellas awaited needy visitors.

Leaving Hobart Harbor with its icebreaker and sailing ships. The bottom of Mt. Wellington can be seen on most days.

The thirty minute trip to the museum passed quickly and we soon found ourselves approaching the dock of a rust-colored slab of building at the end of a point, part fortress, part James Bond villain’s lair. We had arrived, the loudspeaker told us and at the top of the ninety-nine stairs from the dock, we would begin our visit.

Our first glimpse of MONA.

The ninenty-nine steps up

The oft-repeated marketing catchphrase is that MONA is “a subversive adult Disneyland” which like a lot of PR fluff, captures some of the emotional appeal, but not much else. MONA isn’t a theme park. It is also not a temple to secular culture the way writers like Alain de Botton have claimed museums have become. It certainly has some of those otherworldly associations; it is a destination if you approach via water ferry; the long climb up, and the descent into the hillside MONA is carved into. If MONA is any kind of temple, it’s more an oracular cave than an edifice of orthodoxy. MONA hints and whispers, it doesn’t proclaim. Nothing about a visit to MONA promotes the comforting reassurance of a traditional art museum visit. There is none of the chronological narrative of eras and cultures, movements and schools and one artist’s influence on another. All there is is you, the art, and “the O”.

Wim Delvoye’s Gothic cement mixer

Closeup

The entrance to MONA

What greeted us upon arrival was a small collection of buildings around a tennis court with strange stools scattered about on the lawn, and a life sized cement mixer truck made entirely of steel cut in elaborate Gothic patterns. In front of a low building with a funhouse mirror facade stood uniformed MONA staff directing visitors inside to get their tickets and “O” guides. MONA is free if you’re Tasmanian, so the early morning crowd was an interesting mix of a few intrepid winter tourists and locals. Upon entering, we were quickly outfitted with guides, a map, and the suggestion that we start at the bottom of the museum and work our way up – another inversion of the usual museum experience. A glass elevator and spiral staircase led down into hillside, but since we were meeting Mary in the Library, which is on the lowest level, we decided to buck the trend and start at the top. And this is what we found.

Kryptos combines cuneiform artifacts with a binary encoding of passages from the Epic of Gilgamesh

Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca, a mechanical functional analogue of the human digestive tract. It gets fed twice daily and poos at 2. The smell is quite unlike any museum odor you’ve smelled in a gallery. I’ve loved the piece from afar for a long time. It was great to see it get fed.

;

“Stool for Guard” scared the life out of me. I had the aperture cranked to get enough light, so you have to imagine turning a corner in a much darker space and seeing someone huddled in a ball against the wall, motionless. Aghh! Oh, wait. It’s art.

Adrian Spinks, MONA’s Exhibit Designer, explaining some of the details of their outdoor case. It’s hermetically sealed with a dedicated HVAC system to provide a constant microclimate year-round. An opaque blind covers the front face until a visitor approaches close enough to trigger a motion sensor, which rolls it up. It lights up at night, too. Of course.

Impressions of the experience
MONA is on one level the perfect post-modern art museum. David Walsh has decided to deconstruct the narrative of the art museum visit to it’s barest essential – looking at the art, and reacting to it emotionally. There are no labels, nothing to indicate importance, and the whole design philosophy makes it impossible to even tell what’s old and what’s new. The objects exist only in the context of the gallery and the juxtapositions between objects. Walsh doesn’t want you to come and see the highlights; he wants you to look at art and see what moves you.

MONA also explicitly wants visitors to have an opinion about the art. Friends have complained about the coarseness of boiling down the complicated relationship between viewer and art to either “love” or “hate” but I thought it served as an interesting starting point for visitors who might not feel like they knew enough to have an opinion. By making the voting so central to the experience, MONA gives all its visitors explicit permission to have an opinion. You’re allowed to love or hate (or not feel anything about) a work of art without knowing anything about it other than your personal experience of it. And for that alone, I think MONA is important.

The conceit of having no labels also worked on the whole for me. I was half ready to write it off (pun intended) as a gimmick, but I found it strangely appealing. That’s a lot to admit for someone who writes exhibit labels for a living. More than once I looked at something because I didn’t know what it was, and upon looking it up on my O, found it was something I have told myself I don’t like. The lack of information staring me in the face, combined with the powerful combinations and juxtapositions, totally worked on me. I was also free to ignore objects that didn’t appeal to me, which I would’ve felt compelled to study because of their “importance” had they been labelled. That ugly thing over there looks like a bad Picasso? Turns out it is a Picasso, and I don’t fancy it much, which is a very different way to approach than your typical museum experience.

MONA is a total immersion experience, in a way that most museums aren’t. It delights (and sometimes assaults) all the senses. In some ways, it’s more like Sleep No More, devious, theatrical, and all-consuming. And I though I can tell you which pieces struck me the most, I am still struck more by the totality of the visit. Another way it subverts the dominant paradigm is through this revolt against highlight works. One of the pieces that generated much of the initial buzz when the museum opened was Cunts … and Other Conversations, a series of casts of the vaginas of 140 women sculptures of the vulvas of 151 women, which became so popular/controversial that Walsh removed it from display. The thought of the head of a museum removing the most popular object from display because it was distracting seems mind-boggling at first, but in Walsh’s view makes perfect sense. He didn’t want people coming just to see the object everybody said you had to see, like the mobs that fill the Louvre every day waiting their turn to look at Mona Lisa and take a photo of it. Plus he is certainly a showman and the gesture of removing it from display must have been a guaranteed free round of media stories. It also reinforces the story of MONA not being like other museums.

The customer service rocked
One way that the adult Disneyland tag does apply to MONA is in the attention to customer service that it shares with the Magic Kingdom. Our interactions with MONA’s staff were uniformly pleasant, from the ferry, to the front of house staff, to the gallery attendants. I was particularly struck with how engaged the gallery attendants were. For one installation, capacity was limited to one or two visitors at a time. The woman outside had to keep people at bay long enough to allow the visitor in the installation to have their experience. Not an easy job, but she handled it with style, flagging me down as I walked obliviously past, telling me what was inside, and giving me enough information to keep me interested until the previous visitor left. And after I was done, she wanted to know what I thought of it as I was leaving. The staff who handed out and collected our “O”s made sure we’d input our email addresses so we wouldn’t miss out on the web portion of the visit.

The building was beautiful
I’m not a fan of celebrity architect buildings in general, and museums in particular. I usually feel like the objects wind up competing with the building for your attention. MONA is a very different kind of experience. I can’t remember the last time I was in a building that appreciated it’s purpose so much. And it’s a strange building. Levels are stacked haphazardly upon each other, following the contour of the hill. Stairs lead hither and yon, and it’s easy to get turned around. But everywhere you turn, there’s something to see. And the spaces vary from dark to brightly-lit, industrial to naturalistic. MONA is always varied, but never dull. And throughout the museum, one runs into reminders of the hillside you’re inside. Big vertical slabs of exposed rock appear here and there, sensual to touch, and easy on the eye.

MONA is a very singular place, and finding generalizable lessons can be challenging. One thing is clear to me, though. After 4+ hours touring the museum, I wasn’t tired, and I wasn’t ready to leave even though our ferry was departing. Do I wish all art museums were like MONA? No. Am I glad MONA exists? Yes. Most importantly, would I go back? In a heartbeat… or after 20+ hours on a plane.

Next up: The O

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.

Replies to “Dealing with your cognitive load” – Part four of four

This is the last of four posts summarizing replies to the question I posed about how people cope with the vast amounts of information coming at them.  In the first part, I described some strategies people use for managing information intake. The second post looked at how people store information. The third covered separating inspiration from information.

Thanks to the generosity of you all, I was able to share all kinds of strategies that you can use to think about how you manage the information coming at you via the Internet. However, none of them have any value if you never have time to use them. So this last post is going to be about personal professional development and how vital it is to museum professionals in this newish century.

Make is part of the schedule

calendar from Flickr user Jeremy Toeman


The best way I’ve found to make time to learn is to not treat it like a nice thing to do if you’ve got time.  It’s important, so put it on your calendar. Kate Tinsworth says, “I do set aside every other Tues morning from 9-11 for my whole team to read. Read whatever—I read blogs and articles online, but the others read more traditional evaluation journals, mostly. That time being designated helps a lot.” At my museum, Christine Reich has the Research and Evaluation department hold regular monthly professional development meetings, and everybody in the department is in charge of running one meeting.

I spend the beginning of each work day scanning my social media feeds like Twitter and LinkedIn, and browsing my RSS feeds for interesting nuggets. Thanks to suggestions from Jasper Visser and Kate Haley Goldman, I’ve also gone back to actually looking more deeply at a very few sites I like that usually get me thinking.  I find that making it a regular part of my day helps me keep abreast of things and keep it from getting out of control. My undirected web surfing seems to have gone down since I started being more directed.  Thanks to Bruce Wyman for nudging me to give RSS another go.

This blog is also part of my regular professional development. Making myself step outside the the daily grind and trying to synthesize what I experience going on in my work and consulting projects has been a great way to keep my thinking fresh and to crystallize half-formed thoughts. It’s a blessing.

Get out and talk to people

from Flickr user elthenerd

You may recall that in Part One, Nancy Proctor surprised me by saying she prefers phone calls over email for anything substantive. Kate Haley Goldman remarked on how conversations stay with her longer than other kinds of communications. Kate Tinsworth seconded that idea, saying, “I find that much of what sticks for me still comes from those (human conversations) too… be it at a conference or other opportunities to actually meet up.” I was talking to Nina Simon about conferences recently, and when I expressed my reservations about AAM, she seemed surprised. “I love AAM, because everybody I want to talk to is there in one place. I can have breakfast with Elaine, lunch with Kathy…” After that, I started casting my mind around for other highly-efficient museum professionals (or dare I say it, “thought leaders.” No, I daren’t…) they all share that drive to have high-quality interactions.

It may seem like a no-brainer that voice communication, or even better, face to face communication, is the highest bandwidth medium we currently have, but it is surprising to me how often people (myself included) will opt for a lower-quality method of communication. Probably the best thing I’ve done in this regard has been to emcee a monthly meetup for techie museum folks in Greater Boston.  It’s a broad, open group. We get managers, developers, teachers, vendors, students.  It’s different every month thus far, and it’s like a little bit of conference-going on a Thursday night. I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you can’t find one in your area, consider it an opportunity for you to step up and make some connections.

Save things for down times

Waiting at the station from Flickr user domesticat

Another way to make more time for yourself is to be more efficient about the time you already spend on routine tasks. I am great faffer.  Ask anybody who’s ever shared an office with me. But I’m trying to be better…

When I first started talking about this idea with Nancy Proctor, she scheduled our phone call during her walk to work. She also aggregates informational meetings with colleagues into regular 2-hour “meet-ups” instead of a zillion individual meetings. Somebody at Museums and the Web 2011 said the killer app for mobiles was that they were a way to “kill time while waiting for the bus.” I don’t know who said this, though I vaguely recall it being Seb Chan. (If you know, tell me. I hate misattributing quotes).  Kate Tinsworth downloads documents to read on her tablet when she’s not doing anything.  I’m excited to look at my schedule and see what undiscovered efficiencies are lurking out there.

Take charge of your professional development

Carpe Diem by Flickr user Darcy Moore

All of the strategies listed above have one thing in common. They don’t require anything aside from your own desire to learn.  As someone who has worked in a large institution for most of my professional career, it’s easy to succumb to the mindset of waiting for permission to do anything.  This is especially true of old-school “professional development.” There are forms to be completed, signatures to be garnered, and justifications to be gathered before any learning happens.  But in the current climate, waiting for anything seems like a recipe for getting left behind.  This is particularly true in exhibits, where new media and modalities (like mobiles) are promising to shake up the status quo. And when mobiles are old hat and everybody has augmented reality, there will be something else new.

One of my favorite parts of Rob Stein’s talk at the Tate Handheld conference last Fall was his use of the image of a bridge to symbolize how we deal with new technologies in museums. We have, in the past, tended to view new disruptive technologies as obstacles to overcome. There on the other side waits a land of peace and technological harmony. All we have to do to cross that bridge is… wait for Netscape and IE to duke it out, or wait for Java to save us, or  adopt HTML 5, or pick Android or iOS or web apps… The list never ends and Rob brilliantly  demonstrated the fallacy of the bridge metaphor. The reality is that we never reach the end. There is no place of stability where we can make a leisurely, fully-informed decision. So how do you keep abreast?

There’s a great post (actually several if you poke around) from Beth Kanter on personal professional development. You could also look at Harold Jarche’s model of networked learning for more technologically-oriented ways to think about your own learning.  I like them both, because they’re well-linked and can take you to a slew of other resources.  It’s worth being serious about.  I’m on the Advisory Board for this year’s Horizon Report, Museums Edition, and of all the technologies being considered, I don’t think a single one existed when I was in college.  And even if I’d graduated five years ago, I’d still have missed a healthy proportion of them.  So even if you’re fresh out of school, your expertise is aging pretty fast. And nowadays you have to contend with a yearly crop of freshly-minted museum studies MAs, with newer skills and lower salary requirements than you. The greatest benefit I find to taking responsibility for your own development is that it gives focus to your thinking.  I find a topic I’m interested in, and suddenly I see connections to it all over the place.  It focuses my information consumption and acts like a filter to help decide what *not* to consume.  And isn’t that a relief? Yes, it is.

Thanks for sticking it out this long. The next post will be a much shorter (I promise!) one listing the changes I’ve made to my routine based on this and a recap of what tools people use and how. It should be interesting.

Replies to “Dealing with your cognitive load” – Part two of four

This is the second of four posts summarizing replies to the question I posed about how people cope with the vast amounts of information coming at them.  In the first part, I described some strategies people use for managing information intake. This post will look at how people store information. The last two posts will cover separating inspiration from information, and the importance of making time to learn.

Storing stuff

The reason to go looking for information is so that you find information. Once you’ve found it, though, how do you keep track of it, store it, or tag it so that you can retrieve it later when you want it? As a digital Cro Magnon, I can’t help feeling that I don’t really have it, unless it’s on my drive in some form, where I can access it whenever, regardless of connectivity.  Call me old-fashioned… This leads to some strange behaviors on my part.

Storing PDFs

Reference collections from OSU Archives

I do a lot of research and often find things online that might be useful someday, but not immediately.  And the Web being a fickle medium, you can’t always rely on that article or review still being where it was six months or a year ago.  So PDFs get downloaded and sucked into my Mendeley reference manager. It’s a fabulous way to organize your documents, and generate bibliographies. And it’s got some great social features I keep meaning to use but never do… For webpages, I tend to capture local copies using Readability to strip out all the chaff and leave me the content. That then gets turned into a PDF and goes into Mendeley with the original URL so I can get back to it if needed. Kate Haley-Goldman will put research or even researchy stuff in Zotero or Endnote. If it’s more personal she keeps it in Evernote. She keeps meaning to make better use of Mendeley, but…

Storing links

"A man checks Twitter on an iPhone" by Flickr user stevegarfield

What about links? Twitter provides me with the vast majority of leads to pertinent information. I tend to favorite links that look interesting so I can circle back to them when I have time and check them out.  I also use Tweestream to archive all my tweets and give them back to me as a spreadsheet. I’ve never actually opened that archive, but knowing it’s there makes me feel better.  Tweetstream also provides you with interesting metrics on your Twitter usage which I glance at, but rarely engage deeply with. If I was in business for myself, then knowing who’s retweeting my stuff most often might seem more urgent. Kate Haley Goldman marks things she finds interesting on Twitter and on rare occasions actually goes back and looks at batches of things she’s marked, bookmarking the pieces she’ll want to see again.

Nancy Proctor loves wikis. If you’ve looked at any of her work, you’ll wind up on one her wikis. She captures the #mtogo hashtag to the MuseumMobile wiki as her way of hanging onto information of interest.  Bruce Wyman uses a third party service that listens to his Twitter feed and automatically captures any of his tweets with a URL into del.icio.us, so he has a permanent record of the things that he found interesting. And in general, his take on storing links seems to be broadly shared.

“As for general URLs and link mgmt tools (including del.icio.us), I rarely actually use them. MY general assumption is that if I need something again that it’s likely I can re-Google for it and saving links creates a cleanup headache and categorization activity that I just don’t have time for.”

Storing files

"Stored documents" by Flickr user profkaren

 

Lori Phillips, obviously more of a digital native than me, keeps a separate Google Doc for each of her main areas of research interest, where she posts her thoughts, chunks from emails, and links to blogs and articles that relate to the concept. That way she can keep everything all in one place, and also direct co-workers to it when necessary.

Kathleen Tinworth uses Dropbox for most of her personal and consulting file storage and sharing.  It’s not the most secure place, but it’s darned convenient.  My lovely and talented wife also uses Dropbox a great deal with her school teacher colleagues, both a way to share documents effectively and to get around some of the shenanigans that public school IT departments make users go through in the name of “securityiness.” I’ve used both Dropbox and Box.net for consulting jobs and am sold on their utility, especially when there are big files, like floorplans or label proofs that need to be distributed. Being me, though, I of course download everything and maintain a separate copy of everything on my hard drive. Just in case. ;-)

from the Powerhouse Museum's Flickr collection

An interesting practice that Kathleen brought up was using dication software for capturing ideas when you can’t write them down.  When I first got my iPhone I used to take voice memos while I walked to and from work.  It was great at first, but the act of going back and listening and transcribing them got to be a drag.  Kathleen uses Dragon dictation. The free iPhone app is actually pretty decent and it’s a quick way to capture things in real-time.

Storing images

by Flickr user clickykbd

Flickr. ‘Nuff said. Everyone uses it, it seems.

Next up, separating inspiration from information, and then some thoughts about making time to learn. Thanks to all of you who responded. I’m adding things to my repertoire!

Replies to “Dealing with your cognitive load” – Part one of four

The summer vacation season is almost at an end and the ramp-up into a new school year has begun. I had hoped I’d get out the follow up to my post about managing information overload ages ago, but you all are so insightful and generous with your thoughts that I’ve been sitting on a mass of really interesting replies trying to synthesize. In the end, I think I’m going to have to break this up into manageable pieces, quote a lot of you liberally, and point out the commonalities and surprises that I’ve seen arise. In broad strokes, I’ve seen four themes appear; managing information intake, storing information, separating inspiration from information, and the importance of making time to learn.

Set up systems to manage information intake
Being mindful and deliberate about how you expose yourself to the firehose of information that is the Internet is one strategy that many people employ.

RSS logo from Flickr user HiMY SYeD

One clear theme that emerged was the utility of RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds for aggregating the sites that you find worth following and alerting you when they change. I gave up on RSS several years ago for reasons I don’t recall, but reading your responses, I clearly need to revisit that decision. Bruce Wyman sums up the power of aggregating content using RSS, “I follow around 500 rss feeds broken down into about 20 different categories. I certainly don’t read everything every day, but I scan a lot of it… I fought rss feeds for a long time because I *liked* visiting websites and seeing their design and having the intended experience. But, it just took a lot of time and when I’d circle back periodically I’d need to make a mental note of what I’d last read and resync myself with the new content. It just became a pain in the ass at some point. Moving to a newsreader made a huge difference.”

Jasper Visser has a simple twofold strategy to managing his information intake; namely, “RSS and letting go. I use RSS feeds to keep up with the stuff that’s really important. If – on top of that – I accidentally read twitter, scan Facebook or (even!) peek at Google+ I consider that a lucky moment. With all these social networks I trust on serendipity to take my side.

Hardly any of the myriad of updates I miss every day really mattered in the long run. I don’t have to speculate on the iPhone 5 design (nor, really, does anybody) so I made peace with twitter just scrolling along on its own. If there’s stuff I’m really missing out on over and over again, and there’s no RSS feed to fix that, I consider it a business opportunity ” Jasper’s strategy of “letting go” I find very important. It took me years to reach the point where I could accept that I would never again keep up with all the information out there on the Internet.

Email overload by Flickr user kristiewells

Email accounts for a huge percentage of the digital information coming into my computer every day, and systems for coping with the dreaded inbox are a vital tool. Bruce Wyman and I both share a longing for an old Mac mail client called Eudora. Bruce said, “I used to do a ton of automatic filtering in Eudora and save things into discrete categories of people / organizations… Eudora was *fantastic* at searching, Mail less so.” This has been one of my greatest rants against Apple’s Mail app; it’s mail filtering is clunky, and searching is sloooooowwwww. I’ve got pretty much every email I’ve received since the Museum shut down its VAX mainframe in the mid 90s, and quite a few older ones I forwarded in time. I’m a geezer, I know…

In happier days, the bother of setting up mail filters that were accurate enough to capture and route the right messages to the right folders was more than repaid by the ease with which I could look at my incoming email stream, see where the activity was, and choose where to direct my attention at any given time. I can do some of that with Mail, but with nowhere near the granularity I used to. My inbox tends to be much more cluttered now and it is a drag on my productivity to have to wade through all those messages.

My favorite response regarding email was from Nancy Proctor. I had emailed several friends with personal requests to share their thoughts and strategies, and her reply began, “To start with, I tend not to read emails this long but prefer a phone call if there is this much info to exchange (not being snarky, seriously!)” Granted, the email was 577 words long, but this was certainly not the answer I was expecting! We had a good long talk and in the end I appreciated her insistence on having a single high-bandwidth discussion rather than a series of emails. The level of engagement that direct voice communication allows, with clarifying questions and answers and the back and forth about issues I find to be almost impossible with email. This point was echoed by Kate Haley-Goldman, who said, “I’m still thinking about a Curator article that Nancy, Titus, and I were discussing over drinks in the middle of the night a few weeks back.  (Was it useful because we were talking about it in person?  Because it was an in-depth article?  The drinks?  The middle of the night? Perhaps all of the above.) Personally, I think it had everything to do with talking in person. This is the reason I go to conferences. The conversations that happen in the sessions, in the halls, in the bars; that’s where the really valuable information is exchanged.

As a postscript to the email discussion, I offer this thought on “efficiency” and its pitfalls. A vendor I worked with had this annoying habit of never responding completely to emails. I’d thoughtfully gather up and email him all my thoughts on the latest version of what he had sent me, and he’d reply to the first question and ignore the rest. If I sent him three emails, each with one question, I’d get three answers. If I was efficient and sent one email with three questions, I’d get one answer. In hindsight, it was much more efficient to confine myself to one question per email. It seemed to reduce the length of time it took to get an answer. It certainly reduced the time I spent afterwards searching the email chain for that response on file formats that was buried in that email about the home page, or was it that email about the new comps? Since then, I’ve tried, with varying degrees of success, to treat work emails more like telegrams or IMs. If she had her druthers, Nancy would ditch most of her emailing for IM.

As a result of this, I’ve downloaded NetNewsWire and started trying to tame my RSS feeds, I’ve cleaned out my inbox for the first time in months, and if trees stop falling down, I might even take another whack at making better filters in Mail.

Next up, systems for storing the stuff you find once you find it. From there, I’ll delve a bit into a brilliant point Kate Haley-Goldman made about separating inspiration from information, and wind up with thoughts about making time to learn. Thank you all for your replies!