Tag Archives: NMC

Things I loved about MCN 2013

Montreal Panorama Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

Nov 24th, YUL-> BOS

I am strangely energized and exhausted, yawning and unable to stop writing. I’ve got just enough money left to get home and hopefully enough juice in the iPad and phone to keep writing this. It seems my resources and energy were just enough to get me through five incredibly fruitful days. Such are the perils of attending the Museum Computer Network conference. If you’re looking for the place where museums, innovation and creativity collide, it seems to be the place to go.

I have been trying to tie up the third part of a series of posts on “issues” that are not the real issue. Part One dealt with “immersion” and Part Two with “experience” and “participation”. The last part of Tilting at Windmills is gonig to deal with picture taking in museums, selfies as likes, and photos as signs of affection and affiliation. But I’m all MCN right now, and there’s a lot to digest and share, so the selfies will have to wait.

The coming year
My first order of business was the annual meeting of the MCN Board of Dircetors, which welcomed aboard a crop of new faces that’s a veritable Who’s Who of digital museum pros. Heady company to keep and a dynamite group of thinkers and doers. Generally I think it’s next to impossible to get anything creative done in groups of more than six, but this bunch of seventeen is an exception. The strategy for the coming year was laid out, issues identified, and volunteers recruited to tackle them with remarkable ease and real thoughtful debate. It was grueling work, but boy was I proud to see how much we got done in our half day together.

MCN's 2014 strategy appears, one Post-It at a time...

MCN’s 2014 strategy appears, one Post-It at a time…

Stay tuned for details in the next few months of MCN’s plans for the year, like the next incarnation of our MCNPro professional development series. Also, I seem to have volunteered to become the conference co-chair for next year in Dallas, with Morgan Holzer. Eep!

Having overcomitted myself (again), I didn’t attend any of the workshops and spent the day polishing my talks, and having long, intense conversations. My first conference event was getting to the Ignite talks, an innovation introudced last year which has quickly become an anchor of the whole conference. If you’re not familiar with the format, look here. It’s short, it requires precision, and you can’t screw up and go back – in short you’re presenting without a net. It’s a sign of how supportive the community is that this kind of event would

Not taking yourself too seriously
One thing I love about the MCN community and the museum digital tribe in general is their ability to ability to take the work seriously without taking themselves seriously. It’s a subtle, but crucial distinction to maintaining a positive, creative output, and it’s often easy to confuse the two. Not here, though. The opening night of Ignite talks, The Herbie Hancock Layer of Chaos, and the official MCN Karaoke night all contribute to a loose, irreverent vibe that makes MCN unlike other conferences.

Don Undeen introduces Suse Cairns to the Digital Humanities Unicorn, official meme of MCN 2013.

Don Undeen introduces Suse Cairns to the Digital Humanities Unicorn, official meme of MCN 2013. Yes, DH Unicorn is wearing Google Glass. Duh…

Ignite talks
Once again, the conference got off to roaring start, thanks to Koven Smith’s work assembling a disparate group of Ignite talks that ranged from farcical to poignant. Watch them all, but particularly Tim Svenonius’s “Hunting, Gathering and Recollecting”, Douglas Hegley’s “Technology: WTF!” and Simone Wicha’s “Does Performance Matter?”. I’m particularly glad to see more senior museum leaders like Simone attending MCN and sharing their insights on our shared endeavor. It gives me hope for our future as a profession. The rock and roll atmosphere, the performative aspect of watching your colleagues, and obvious passion and hard work that speakers put into their presentations is a perfect appetizer for the coming days.

Keynote
Tina Roth Eisenberg, graphic designer and the person behind the Swiss Miss design blog, delivered an amazingly inspiring, funny keynote that was a great opening paean to the power of not being stuck doing one thing. The noted graphic designer spent no time talking about her “main” business, instead telling us about the co-working space she started, her designer temporary tattoo shop, and the importance of having confetti drawers and dress up clothes at work. I totally wanted to quit my job, move to New York and work for Tina by the time she was done.

Video, video, video
After the experience of videoing select sessions last year, we decided to record every session this year, and the results are impressive, I think. MCN’s YouTube video channel is turning into a meaty repository of good thinking. Another great addition to the archive was addition of Museopunks to the mix.  This podcast series, started by Suse Cairns and Jeffrey Inscho, has quickly become a great place to eavesdrop on fascinating discussions about current issues in museums. Check it out. They ran a series of special episodes throughout the conference and these were videoed as well.

Inclusion, engagement, openness
The Board has spent a lot of time over the past year talking about inclusion, and broadening participation in the organization. It was gratifying to see all the ways that played out at the conference.  We were able to offer more scholarships than ever, thanks to sponsorship from Google. Twelve professionals who wouldn’t have made it otherwise were able to attend and that’s worth celebrating. The speed networking event, sort like of like speed dating for professionals, was great fun and a chance to meet people you might not otherwise talk to. Next year, I think it should move to earlier in the conference so you can benefit more from it. I also spent some great time with the chairs of the Special Interest Groups (SIGs), who for years have quietly nurtured their own smaller MCN communities. The Board and the SIG chairs have been working more closely together and the fruits of that could be seen in the creation of three new SIGs right there at the conference.

The power of asking people
Last year I convened a Directors’ Roundtable at MCN as a way to bring new voices into our conversations.  When I proposed it, I was fearful of how much work it was going to be to get busy museum directors to come. It was a bit of shock to find out that it wasn’t really all that hard.  Most of the directors I asked, said either, “I can’t make it at that time, but thanks!” or “Hmm, sounds interesting! OK.” The reason they weren’t at the conference was that they’d never been asked and nobody had ever explained the value proposition to them.  This year, one of the sessions I organized was on immersion, and Robin White Owen and I tried the same tack.  We asked filmmakers, game designers, theatre people, and curators to come talk about what they thought of immersion in their medium.  And again, most of the people we talked to said yes, or no because they couldn’t afford the trip. Despite a couple of last-minute surprises with people not being able to come, it was a great session and a fascinating discussion I wouldn’t get to have at work.  Here’s the video. 

Conferences as classrooms
One practice I’ve developed over the years is to treat conference sessions like classes I want to take that don’t (yet) exist. I identify the topic I’m interested in, and the people I’d like to learn from, and try to figure out how to get them to teach me about their subject.  This year, I was particularly interested in issues of openness and authority around museum digital content, so I put together a session with people who’d already been through successful open projects. I got to take advantage of the combined wisdom of Ryan Dodge, Heidi Quicksilver, and Merete Sanderhoff in one fell swoop. And, as so often happens, Merete taught me a lesson in being the kind of professional I aspire to be. After tentatively agreeing to come, she realized she couldn’t make it. Too many deadlines, too little money. So, she offered to record a video presentation of what she would’ve talked about, and even agreed to be available via Skype during the session if I wanted. In other words, all of the work of presenting, and almost none of the benefit of being at the conference. And her presentation was a high-quality, real video production, not just her sitting at her computer. Generosity is a hallmark of this community , but even for us, this was humbling. Thanks, Merete!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wHPtamoTOc

Being present at the birth of something good
Keeping with the “open” theme, I also emceed a session on “Defining Open Authority” put together by the inimitable Lori Phillips. It was a great of theory and practice, both big picture and very detailed. Lori continues to refine her ideas around “Open Authority” and has put enough of a framework around it to make it a useful tool for anyone considering issues around intellectual access to museum content. Porchia Moore problematized the very definition of authority as it pertains to minorities, and Elizabeth Bollwerk and Jeffrey Inscho added a pile of great case studies of how these concepts actually play out in real museums with real people. It felt a lot like the beginning of something bigger than a conference presentation, and judging from the Q&A afterwards, the audience felt similarly.  I look froward to seeing what happens next. Here’s Lori’s slides. When I find the video, I’ll post that, too.

The sign of a good session: the speakers table is rockin' with folks asking more questions.

The end of a good session: the speakers table is rockin’ with folks asking more questions.

Looking forward:
Dallas 2014 is going to have it’s work cut out for it, and Morgan and I already started the discussions about the program before the conference even ended.  I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback on how we might improve the conference next year!

See you at next year's MCN mega metaselfie?

See you at next year’s MCN mega metaselfie?

BTW, that’s Jeffry Inscho behind me.  Have you read his reflection on MCN2013? “On Professional Spirit Animals” speaks my mind when it comes to how MCN feels to me.

Digital skills and staff development

Making a museum from scratch: Part Seven
After my long Australian interlude, I bet you thought I’d given up on my little thought experiment. But, no! For better or worse, it still resonates with me, and I keep encountering people and examples and issues that bear on it. So, without further ado…

Making a “born digital” organization now
The posts on making our imaginary museum thus far have focused on the organization, but as Mary Case pointed out in Part Six, a “born digital” museum (one that is organized from the ground up to take advantage of digital technologies and the Internet to carry out its mission) will need a staff that is able to come to work every day and live out the mission of a radically transparent organization, with all the uncertainty that any new workflow embodies. These people will also have to incorporate engagement and outreach activities that are now usually relegated to specialists. The who and the how of hiring and growing a staff who are able to work with these technologies, engage with the audience, and keep their skill sets fresh in the face of the day-to-day realities of getting work done is an issue that the field as a whole hasn’t made much headway in tackling. Oonagh Murphy tweeted as much not too long ago that the biggest issue in our field is a digital skills shortage in the cultural sector. This theme is amplified by survey data, too. In the New Media Consortium’s report, “The Technology Outlook for STEM+ Education 2012-2017”, which will be released next week, two of their top three challenges for STEM+ education (and museums by extension) are:

  • Digital media literacy continues its rise in importance as a key skill in every discipline and profession.
  • The demand for personalized learning is not adequately supported by current technology or practices.

Both of these I see being among the biggest challenges in the museum sector as a whole right now.  Not only is digital literacy becoming ever more important, but the capacity for museum professionals to adequately increase their literacy is woefully inadequate.

Gretchen Jennings has started a series of posts on the challenges facing museum educators in the 21st century, particularly in regards to our relationship with formal education. You’ll recognize many of the challenges she lays out,

“In order to integrate into exhibitions and other museum offerings the kind of intrinsic, joyful, and self-motivated engagement that Garcia extols, educators are going to have to create interpretive plans, become experts in current learning theory as it relates to participatory experiences, understand and use social media effectively, and gain expertise in communicating effectively the links between design and interpretation.  Educators need to devote at least as much time to honing these skills as they do on activities that support the schools.  And, as Garcia states, all of us need to become much more articulate in communicating what makes our museums unique and important in their own right in the spectrum of experiences we call education.”

Spend as much time in professional development and outreach as in supporting  formal Ed.? That’s a tall order, but it’s one I completely agree with.

One common solution I hear to the skills gap is that this is a generational problem and once the “digital natives” come into their own throughout the workplace, most of our problems will cease to exist because they “get” digital media, having grown up with it. The trouble with that narrative, of course, is it’s overly simplistic, and it serves to turn what I see as an attitudinal issue into a generational one. Even the bright young things who get all of 2012’s technology don’t necessarily have the skills for 2015’s technologies or 2020’s. Without reshaping the workplace to account for that ongoing professional development need, hiring the rising generation is just kicking the can down the road a few years.

And it fails to account for innovations currently underway. MONA is groundbreaking on several levels. The Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz? They’re trying very different models and they’re doing it now, not someday in the future. I am reminded of Serge Bramly’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci, where he imagines the artist telling us, “Open your eyes. You have only to see things clearly to understand.” One thing this experiment has shown me is that the digital literacy issue not an insurmountable problem. It’s just a hard one.

So what are some ways our museum might differ from current ones?

Engagement is important enough to be everybody’s job
The first thing that popped into my head as I was considering how our museum might differ from traditional museums were the outreach activities that such a museum would conduct in a more evenly distributed way than we currently do. Jasper Visser wrote a brilliant post a few months back that unpacks ideas of engagement and outreach that rally speak to me. I’ll paraphrase him and recommend you read the whole post yourselves.

“There’s a subtle but important different between providing good engaging online content and actually reaching people with it.

Engagement is about designing projects that turn occasional passers-by into enthusiasts willing to go that extra mile for you. Engagement is done, usually, within the safety of your institution’s building, website or social media presence.

Outreach is about designing strategies that reach people wholly unknown to you and connect them with your institution. Outreach increases the number of people you can later engage. Outreach is done, usually, outside of the comfort zone of your institution’s building, website or social media presence.

Every successful digital strategy combines engagement and outreach activities. Outreach connects with people and invites them to come by, and engagement turns them into enthusiasts. Both require different methodologies, different tools and especially a different mindset, though.”

“If you build, they will come.” is not a successful engagement strategy, though it does seem to motivate a lot of museum online efforts. That audience focus is the crucial ingredient that takes our scholarship and authority and unites them with people. Nina Simon‘s comment on the post is illustrative, and provides field data as well.

“When my museum started creating unusual events–new forms of engagement–we knew that we were woefully lacking in the ability to do effective outreach around these projects… So for the first year, we had a rule: every new program had to have a partner organization that was strictly about outreach. We would partner with media outlets, social groups, and advocacy groups to ensure that while we were busy developing terrific programming, they were busy reaching out to their people to get them to come… It’s a good model for us as a small institution with no marketing budget to speak of.”

There’s a pretty easy way to overcome the first hurdle in doing anything new; we can build it, but will anybody come? For an institution committed to radical transparency, finding the right outreach partners should be a byproduct of just doing the day’s work, right? If you’re out there in the digital weeds, you’re much more likely to bump into opportunities.

Well before any programming can happen in the space, our engagement and outreach efforts should be an integral part of the daily workflow.  Last year, I asked a question about dealing with cognitive loads, and got four posts worth of fascinating responses from the field. In the fourth part, people I think very highly of shared their strategies for keeping abreast of developments in the field. All of them involved making learning part of the day, not a “when you have free time” activity, but a required part of the workday. And these people aren’t exactly slackers.

Keeping up to date
It seems vital that everybody be hired with the clear expectation that they are going to have to put themselves “out there” as part of working at this museum. It’s not an “additional duty”, engagement and outreach are core competencies. I see a triangle of dimensions of people’s work at our museum, there is their functional dimension (collections, web development, educator, office mgr…), their communication dimension (how are they communicating their work to the audiences) and their professional dimension (how is what they’re doing being communicated to the profession and how are they demonstrating their understanding of the current state of the art in their work). It’s a very different kind of job; one third doing, one third interacting with our communities, and one third learning/teaching. I think it could work, though. It’s not hard, it just takes commitment.

Staff would have to get used to thinking about openness, transparency and engaging with our audience right from Day One. Since this is such a radically different model than most institutions have, it would take repetition to inculcate people with these new ways of working. New staff could be introduced as they’re hired, and even provide their own short bios, as a way of personalizing the institution and preparing them for the joys of audience engagement, both physical and digital. This is not to say that every person on staff has to be an überblogger, but in the interest of radical transparency, we would subvert the current paradigm and make the default expectation be that you engage with the public unless there’s some reason for you not to. It would be nice to follow the lead of the Medical Museion in Denmark, where all staff are encouraged to contribute to the blog, and the main website is actually set up as a conversation. Their basic idea is that all staff have something of interest to someone.

Some possible examples of what this engagement might look like, courtesy of Suse Cairns:

  • A weekly blog post/video, talking about has happened/been discussed through the week? Met with the architects? Great – here are some of the issues we’re trying to grapple with when dealing with our old building. We have a space that isn’t very wifi friendly, so here are some of the solutions we’re investigating.
  • Capture the transformation of the space, and the process. Let people see the museum being built from the inside out, even as it happens.
  • Introduce people to key objects in the collection well before they can see them in the flesh, and discuss their significance, by bringing them into the colelction and by bringing the collection out in to the world.
  • Document (and make available those docs where appropriate) issues around preserving the collection as it is moved from its former home. Have you ever seen those shows about moving old houses from one side of the country to another? They are pretty interesting. No reason why moving a museum collection filled with potentially damageable stuff shouldn’t also be compelling for people to learn about/watch if the way it’s packaged is managed well.

Being transparent also becomes then an ongoing “pitch” for the institution. Its core beliefs, and the place it will fill within its communities (academic, local, professional) become evident by the actions of the staff, not just by a mission statement.

What successful engagement strategies have you encountered in your travels, or longed to see someone try?

 

Related Links:

Thinking About Museums: Making a Museum from Scratch: Part Six

http://exhibitdev.wordpress.com/2012/07/12/making-a-museum-from-scratch-part-six/

The New Media Consortium’s report, “The Technology Outlook for STEM+ Education 2012-2017”

http://www.nmc.org/

Museum Commons: Museum Educators-What Next?

http://museumcommons.blogspot.com/2012/09/museum-educators-what-next.html

The Museum of Old & New Art

http://www.mona.net.au/

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History
http://www.santacruzmah.org/

The Museum of the Future: Engagement and outreach
http://themuseumofthefuture.com/2012/04/09/engagement-and-outreach/

Thinking About Museums: Dealing with your cognitive load

http://exhibitdev.wordpress.com/2011/08/09/dealing-with-your-cognitive-load/

Medical Museion

http://www.museion.ku.dk/

How leaders lead

I’m finally going to get off this current kick about leadership and vision… right after this post.  The past month has been so fruitful that I’ve generated piles of references that all bear on our work and I want to get some of the most germane out to you so I can move on.  Some of the most interesting reading I’ve done in the past couple weeks has all revolved around the qualities of good (and bad) leadership.

It’s not about you
Janet Carding from the ROM (@janetcarding) posted this tasty little tidbit from Scott Eblin (@Scotteblin) about one of my favorite attributes of a good leader; the ability to let go. Going from being the brutally competent doer of deeds to being the leader of a tribe of doers is a tricky adjustment that I’ve seen talented people mess up. Eblin, an executive coach, says,

 “To grow as a leader, you have to let go of being the go-to person and pick up the profile of being the person who builds a team of go-to people.

How do you do that? Here are some ideas.

  •  Allow and encourage your team to become an expert in the things in which you’ve been an expert.
  •  Raise your comfort level for letting go of what you’ve been doing and your team’s for picking up responsibilities by establishing regular check points.
  •  Coach your team to come up with its own way of doing things rather than giving your team the answers.”

This relates back to my earlier posts on leadership, because this ability to let go I think has everything to do with having a vision that’s bigger than yourself. When a leader has vision, it’s too big for any one person to implement, so letting go becomes a necessity if the vision is to be advanced.  This is how vision propagates. It’s big enough that there is room for lots of people to explore it’s corners, find out new things about it, and feed those findings back into the work of the whole tribe. And when I think about the people I consider to be exemplary leaders, one trait they all share is their pride in discussing what their staff are up to, rather than what they’re up to.

All three of these tips apply to pretty much anyone doing experience development work, regardless of your position in the organizational chart. “Relax, let go, and be a fluid communicator.” Is pretty sound advice for anyone doing exhibition development, as I wrote about before. As someone responsible for content development, I am acutely aware of the delicate balance necessary to encourage other team members to explore the content themselves, rather than having me be the only conduit. It’s easy to fall into being too controlling or too lax, but the results are so much better when you can bring the rest of the team along with you.

Talk, talk, talk
The Guardian recently ran a profile of Performances Birmingham, the charity that runs Birmingham’s Town Hall & Symphony Hall, and some of their practices that they’ve developed to keep a large staff feeling informed and empowered to do the work of the institution. They are:

  • Tell everybody the same thing
  • Give your team a voice
  • Never say nothing
  • Encourage creativity
  • Have fun on the job

The whole article is worth a read, so look at the specific examples they cite.  How well does your organization do in these five areas? Aside from “Have fun on the job” , all of these qualities would organically arise in a setting where a leader with vision, like the one described above, is working.  One can only let go by being an efficient and frequent communicator and a responsive listener. A shared vision encourages everybody in the room to be creative.  And the result of that, I’d argue, is workplace that is fun, without the need for mandated, official fun.

Managing well, rather than just managing
Eric Jackson had a very popular post on Fortbes recently that looked why people leave big companies. As an employee of a large institution (and someone who’s watched “Office Space”) I can resonate with most of these.

  1. Big Company Bureaucracy.
  2. Failing to Find a Project for the Talent that Ignites Their Passion.
  3. Poor Annual Performance Reviews.
  4. No Discussion around Career Development. (I’ve written about this before… 
  5. Shifting Whims/Strategic Priorities.
  6. Lack of Accountability and/or telling them how to do their Jobs.
  7. Top Talent likes other Top Talent.
  8. The Missing Vision Thing.
  9. Lack of Open-Mindedness.
  10. Who’s the Boss?

 The explanations of the reasons are well worth looking at, though they might be somewhat dispiriting if you’re working somewhere where these things are happening. You’ve been warned. The reason I include them in an otherwise upbeat post is because Erika Anderson followed up on this list with a further summation that boils that list down to one reason; “Top talent leave an organization when they’re badly managed and the organization is confusing and uninspiring.”  Her recipe for how to address these failings is interesting. Her two ways to keep talent are;

 “1) Create an organization where those who manage others are hired for their ability to manage well, supported to get even better at managing, and held accountable and rewarded for doing so.

2) Then be clear about what you’re trying to accomplish as an organization – not only in terms of financial goals, but in a more three-dimensional way. What’s your purpose; what do you aspire to bring to the world? What kind of a culture do you want to create in order to do that?  What will the organization look, feel and sound like if you’re embodying that mission and culture?  How will you measure success?  And then, once you’ve clarified your hoped-for future, consistently focus on keeping that vision top of mind and working together to achieve it.”

It’s really that simple. Not easy, but simple. Managing well takes work on the part of the institution, and it takes someone to articulate a vision.

The bigger picture
So how does this tie back into all the fascinating discussions taking place around digital technologies, technologists, and new media literacy and professional development? I think Rob Stein’s presentation at the Salzburg Global Seminar and his follow up, “Is Your Community Better Off Because it has a Museum?” are good refreshers on the bigger issues that these current debates reside within.

What is the value proposition of your institution? Can you answer why your community/ies are better off because of you? There are many ways new media and new technologies can help deliver value, but they all require you to A) have a clear idea of that value, and B) be structured in such a way that you can deliver.

Related Links:

Scott Eblin, “Want to grow as a leader? Let go of being the ‘go-to person”
http://smartblogs.com/leadership/2012/01/27/want-to-grow-as-a-leader-let-go-of-being-the-go-to-person/

Nick Loveland, The Guardian, “Arts organisations need to engage their own staff as well as their audiences”
http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2012/mar/20/arts-staff-engagement-internal-comms?CMP=twt_gu

Eric Jackson, Forbes, “Top Ten Reasons Why Large Companies Fail To Keep Their Best Talent”
http://www.forbes.com/sites/ericjackson/2011/12/14/top-ten-reasons-why-large-companies-fail-to-keep-their-best-talent/

Erika Anderson, Forbes, “Why Top Talent Leaves: Top 10 Reasons Boiled Down to 1”
http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikaandersen/2012/01/18/why-top-talent-leaves-top-10-reasons-boiled-down-to-1/

Rob Stein, “The Challenges and Opportunities of Participatory Culture for Museums and Libraries” parts I and II,
http://www.imamuseum.org/blog/2011/10/11/please-chime-in-the-challenges-and-opportunities-of-participatory-culture/
http://www.imamuseum.org/blog/2011/10/21/the-challenges-and-opportunities-of-participatory-culture-for-museums-and-libraries-part-ii/

Rob Stein, “Is Your Community Better Off Because it has a Museum?”
[http://rjstein.com/is-your-community-better-off-because-it-has-a-museum-final-thoughts-about-participatory-culture-part-iii/]

Looking for leadership is a wicked problem

Identifying the kinds of leaders who will push the museum sector into new kinds of technologically mediated experiences is not a technology problem, it’s a cultural problem – a wicked problem – that can’t be planned away, or addressed by a white paper. The way to address it is to make new kinds of museum experiences, with new people at the table, along with current practitioners and museum leaders. And the people who will make them will have something bigger to say than just “We should use these new digital technologies! They’re great!” Their vision and message will naturally encompass these tools, and older, more traditional ones.

Looking for leaders who “get” new technologies is what social scientists call a “wicked problem.” I first ran into the term at the New Media Consortium retreat, and it has stayed in my brain, and not just because it sounds mellifluous to my New England ears. It is a useful way to look at a lot of things going on in the field.

Aussies asking questions

As examples; Seb Chan recently posted a pithy little provocation on museums making the shift to digital collecting. I suggest you check it out, particularly the comments. I don’t know how much I agree with it, but it’s thought-provoking, particularly since he sees the problem of digital technology adoption not as a technology problem, but as a cultural problem. Integrating the digital is a messy problem, with lots of issues intertwined with it. I especially liked his construction of the ‘buildings & exhibitions vs platforms & media’ continuum, as a way to think about ways forward.

This is to me, related to Suse Cairns musings on technologists, the state of museum leadership, and what the next generation of museum leaders needs to know. Now there’s a thorny problem. I lived through the whole “We need museums to act more like businesses” era, with its attendant rush to turn directors into CEOs and rash of executives with “real-world” experience brought in to fix our systemic problems. I certainly don’t want us to do that again, only this time with technologists, whatever that term means. So how do we untangle this wicked problem? [extra credit if you can explain why the museum space is so full of interesting Australian thinkers.]

Wicked problems require different kinds of solutions

It’s worth looking at how wicked problems are dealt with. Janet Carding from ROM tweeted a link to a piece Jon Kolko wrote for the Stanford Social Innovation Review called “Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving” that defines wicked problems nicely. In short,

“A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.”

What is particularly useful to this discussion is his conception of how one deals with these problems,

“These problems can be mitigated through the process of design, which is an intellectual approach that emphasizes empathy, abductive reasoning (otherwise known as guesswork), and rapid prototyping.”

This is a design problem, not an intellectual exercise, or a philosophical debate. How do we create something that results in leaders who “get” digital technologies? Note Kolko doesn’t say one can solve wicked problems like this, rather, they are “mitigated”. When it comes to leadership and innovation, I’m not sure one can ever expect to find leaders who know everything and are up to speed on whatever the new thing is.

Empathy, guesswork, and rapid prototyping. Not a bunch of usual suspects in a conference room. Not an outside expert. Not another plan. One of my favorite moments of the NMC retreat was Larry Johnson’s line, “Our strategic planning is based on a world that no longer exists.” Amen, brother. This may be why I still quote Ted Forbes’ mantra, “Do it now. Do the best you can. Do it better tomorrow.” And now that Max Anderson and Rob Stein have joined him at the Dallas Museum of Art, I can’t wait to see what “better” looks like.

You need new people around to generate really new ideas

Mia Ridge posted a great round up from last year’s MCN conference that included a gem from Bruce Wyman, “current visitors most frequently give *incremental* ideas. You need different folk to take those great leaps forward. That’s us.” Another way of saying it I’ve often used is, “If Henry Ford had asked his customers what they wanted, none of them would’ve said ‘An automobile!’ They ask for a better horse, because that’s what they knew.” Substitute “visitors” for “customers” and you can get a sense of hard it makes it to bring digital experiences in from the cold if you treat them as a normal kind of problem.

But if you were instead to treat this lack of understanding like a wicked problem and look at other ways of addressing it? One candidate might be something like a co-creation process, a process that brings unusual suspects together with museum teams.

Be in it together

At the Museum of Science, we’re currently developing a new permanent exhibition on the nature of technology, and trying to figure out a co-creation model that will get us the kind of exhibition we wouldn’t be able to/willing to/comfortable with making by ourselves. Designing the design process is incredibly hard work, and fraught with all kinds of peril that we can all clearly see. Just the learning curve involved in getting outside parties to understand what we do could be a full-time job, but the benefits, if we get it right, should allow us to do something both new, and more connected to communities who believe in the museum.

Stefan Stern wrote a great piece in the Harvard Business Review about co-creation and how it differs from other ways of developing new things. “Co-creators look for the rejecters, the extreme users, the hackers, and the bloggers. If they have a design or marketing background, all the better.” The article profiles one UK-based company’s methods for co-creating that are business-focused, but worth looking at. They include:

  • Have an open mind, and be creative about whom you bring in as a possible co-creator.
  • Co-creation works best when you build a strong community.
  • When you’re running co-creation workshops, don’t expect a big “a-ha” moment when the clouds part and somebody blurts out The Next Big Thing. The real art is in synthesizing all the ideas afterwards and understanding the big, unlooked-for themes that underpin them.
  • Get your top people involved in the workshops.
  • Prototype, prototype, prototype. Make your ideas real. Then break them and make them again.

The part that resonated for me personally was the importance of having top people involved. How many directors do you know who use social media tools? I can only think of three: Max Anderson, Nina Simon, and Janet Carding, and I know at least two of them used them before they were directors. How many museum directors, or even assistant/deputy/associate directors have you ever seen at a tech-themed gathering like MCN, Museums and the Web, or even tech-oriented sessions at AAM or other mainstream conferences?

This “preaching to the choir” lament is a constant refrain at conferences, but how many of us currently interested in these issues have ever invited or even discussed the issues with a leader, or said, “You should really go to ____. It’s a great conference and you’ll learn a ton.” I know have been guilty of that. The appeal of flying below the radar is tactically unquestionable, but I think in the long run it may be strategically untenable.

Have something to say

I’ve been writing a lot about vision recently, so I’ll refrain from repeating myself too much, other than to end with another provocation and a question. Alain de Botton recently had an editorial posted on the (UK) Museums Association site called, “Art museums have become pointless: they should learn from Christianity.” He doesn’t mean that museums should become mouthpieces for Christianity. Rather, he thinks museums have forgotten their message about what’s important, which is what religion excels at. He is speaking specifically about art museums, but I think his point applies to the whole sector.

“Try to imagine what would happen if modern secular museums took the example of churches more seriously. What if they too decided that art had a specific purpose – to make us a bit more sane, or slightly good or once in a while or a little wiser and kinder – and tried to use the art in their possession to prompt us to be so?”

“The challenge is to rewrite the agendas for our art museums so that collections can begin to serve the needs of psychology as effectively as, for centuries, they served those of theology. Curators should attempt to put aside their deep-seated fears of instrumentalism and once in a while co-opt works of art to an ambition of helping us to get through life.”

Part of that new agenda and ambition could be written in new ways with new technologies, but the technologies themselves aren’t much use as communication media without something worth communicating. Those leaders with something to communicate will find ways to get their message out using every channel at their disposal. I’ve written already about vision and desire, but ambition is a better word. Finding them and holding them up is the hard part, the heart of the wicked problem.

So another thing that seems like a technology issue turns into a people issue. That may be another theme for 2012. And the only thing I can see that might help unwinding some of the threads of this wicked problem is to do more open projects, do them with unusual folks, do them in broad daylight, and make sure your directors can see you, maybe even be part of the process.

Related Links:

Seb Chan – Museums making the shift to digital collecting
http://www.freshandnew.org/2012/03/museums-making-digital-shift/

Suse Cairns – Can a technologist get ahead in museums?
http://museumgeek.wordpress.com/2012/03/06/can-a-technologist-get-ahead-in-museums/

Mia Ridge – Report from ‘What’s the point of a museum website’ at MCN2011
http://openobjects.blogspot.com.au/2012/02/report-from-whats-point-of-museum.html

Stefan Stern – A Co-creation Primer
http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/02/co-creation.html

Alain de Botton – Museums Association
http://www.museumsassociation.org/community/comment/27022012-alain-de-botton-art-museums-christianity

[3/13/2012 - made minor edits for clarity and to sound a little less self-important.]

UPDATE: Rob Stein’s Museums and the Web 2012 paper is also a good read on tech and admin. Get it here.

 

UPDATE 3/22/12: Danny Birchall posted a great example of how co-creation can look in his description of developing the Wellcome Collection’s “Axon” game with neuroscientists, museum professionals and game designers.

Vision, Desire, Attitude, and Focus

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

Minot Light, Blizzard of 1978, from Flickr user cliff1066™

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

Desire path, by Flickr user Kake Pugh

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

Plugs, by Flickr user Brad.K

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,
  • Disconnection,
  • 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.

New Media Consortium retreat – Day Two

Here’s the final part of my impressions of the Future of Education retreat held by the New Media Consortium in rainy Austin, TX.  The first part can be found here.

The final day of the retreat felt different to me, more intense. After a giddy first day of throwing ideas around and throwing them up on the wall, the tasks of synthesizing, identifying and ranking metatrends was more of a slog. Our brains were tired, and it’s hard work. The discussions and statements got more heated, especially when people felt that their idea might not get heard before it was too late. By the end, I was worried that we might get bogged down and not finish our task, but Larry Johnson, Lev Gonick, and David Sibbet are great cat herders and never seemed to tire of reminding us one more time to stay on topic. Great facilitation is like gold, and credit for getting any usable result from the event will rest firmly with them in my mind.

from Britt Watwood's "Learning In a Flat World" blog

I came into the event still processing one of the small group discussions I’d had yesterday about the dueling dyads of Vision & Leadership and Desire & Will and how they should inform one’s work. Discovering your passion and deciding what is to be done are big issues, or maybe Big Issues. There’s still more to unpack there.

In one of the morning small groups (I’ve lost track of how many I was in overall. It was a lot, though.) we were charged with identifying metatrends. The conversation turned, as it did so many times, to how resistant academics were to the perceived loss of their privileged position as “authorities”. It occurred to me that I’ve had this conversation countless times in the past several months now. The “they” changes (directors/curators/academics), but they’re always the people not in the room. I wonder what they say about us at their conferences?

In the course of this, we touched on visitors/students ongoing need or desire to have ways to make sense of the superabundance of information that’s now available. I think you can view the whole app phenomenon as a manifestation of this desire, the move away from surfing around to get what you want to having an app that just gives you a tiny slice – a snack as opposed to a smorgasbord. People still want and value guidance, they just want “a guide on their side instead of a sage on the stage,” as Zoë Rose put it.

Curation
How many buzzwords has the museum sector given to popular culture? The only one I can think of is curation; the act of finding and gathering objects and information to tell stories. Do a web search on “curate” and you’ll find all kinds of thing being curated that have nothing to do with museum practice. It must be galling to many curators to have their highly-specialized craft abstracted to the point that you can now curate your clothes, your music, and, worst of all – content, whatever that is. I choose to look upon this as a mark of esteem that people value this skill so much that they want to identify what they do with what curators do. I’m working on being more of a “glass half full kind” of guy this year.

I also see it as our great opportunity in this emergent era of digital plenty. We may not be Google, or Apple, or Wikipedia, or ______, but if there is one thing we know better than anyone else, it’s curation and we already have the people and the repositories of information to tell the important stories, the universal ones, the ones that last. I think it’s no longer a question of technology or budget. What museums need to do to be the kinds of institutions that are vibrant and relevant to rising generations is essentially a question of vision and leadership, desire and will.

Final thoughts
As one of the last to leave to event, I had plenty of time to think about what I learned from the retreat to take forward with me.  I was rueing the fact that I didn’t get to spend more time talking to Liz Neely about careers. Seb Chan and I started talking about the lack of magic in science museum exhibits and how to capture more of that. Zoë Rose and I both work for large institutions that use the term “learning journey” and struggle to understand exactly what that means. And the list goes on… I decided that the sign of a good professional event is that it generates more dialogue than there is time to finish. I can’t wait to continue these talks online and off, and see where they lead.

A much-enjoyed beer afterwards

Digital interactivity, new media literacy, and museum staff

The Future is coming, photo by Flickr user h.koppdelaney

I’ve been thinking about digital interactives lately.  The Horizon Report: 2011 Museum Edition is full of technologies poised to alter our practice. The New Media Consortium Future of Education retreat is coming up in a week or so. At our next Boston Museum Tech meetup we’re going to drink and talk about the point of digital experiences.  The Program Committee for the Museum Computer Network 2012 conference is beginning its work. And Suse Cairns has been writing some thought-provoking posts over at her blog about the physical and virtual.  All good fodder for thinking ways of interacting with visitors using digital technologies.

But what I’ve most been struck by is a comment Seb Chan made in response to Suse’s question about whether museums should treat the physical space as the most important one. It’s buried down in the replies, so read the whole thing. He writes,

“The problem is not so much whether museums ‘should’ but whether they are structurally organised and resourced to be able to”

This rang in my head like a gong. These technologies are nothing without people able to create and deploy them, and institutions organized in ways that allow them to be utilized effectively. These issues aren’t technology issues per se, they’re institutional culture issues, and require a different kind of solution than the kinds I’d been thinking of. My default thinking usually runs something along the lines of, “What do I need so I can do the kind of work I want to do?” A bit selfish, and short-sighted, but I’m working on it. ;-)

Professional development is essential in new media, because most of us learned nothing about it. If you graduated from university with a museum studies degree five years ago, you wouldn’t have learned about Twitter. Youtube was a new thing and Facebook was moving out of colleges into the wild. If you graduated ten years ago, social media in general would be an alien thing. If you’re a late Cretaceous dinosaur like me, computers were a novelty, and if you’re older, say an early Jurassic dinosaur like many museum directors, computers in general are something that happened after formal schooling.

So how can we hope to incorporate these tools in meaningful ways in our work? I think this might be one of the pillars that 2012 rests on for me. Coming up with a response to this will require real change of the painful, exhilarating sort. What do you do to bring in new ideas and workflows?