Tag Archives: process

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?

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

Separating inspiration from information

from Flickr user Matthew Wynn

This is the third 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. This post will cover separating inspiration from information, and final one will discuss the importance of making time to learn. My apologies for taking awhile to get through this. It’s been a pretty fascinating trip, though.

When I posted about cognitive load and asked for your processes and practices, I was pretty vague in how I framed my question. “Information” is a pretty opaque term. And sure enough, the responses all went over slightly different territory.  Kate Haley Goldman applied her analytical eye to my question, and replied, “If I understand you correctly Ed, you’re interested in the processes and tools that we use to manage information.  I see that as different than the tools and processes for managing research, connections, inspiration, or products of creation.  Or workflow.”  Though I was tickled at how thoroughly she’d unpacked the question, the “managing inspiration” part made me sit up and read faster.

 “Over the last few months I’ve been thinking quite a bit about separating managing information and managing inspiration.  I find Twitter to be useful in all sorts of ways, but I’ve noticed that only occasionally do I find something that makes me think for more than 5 minutes.  Or something that truly inspires me there.  The content ebbs and flows like a YouTube video of the week, and I find that the buzz of the Twittersphere fascinating and distracting, but rarely provides concepts or insights that stick with me.  So I’ve returned to reviewing a much smaller set of sites regularly with my morning coffee (and the Firefox plug-in).”

There is some big truth in what Kate says. I find Twitter to be a great sort of links to useful information, news about what’s going on, and other things. But the information is usually something of short-term importance and relevance. I’ve don’t think I’ve ever gotten a tweet that has lead to me to something truly inspirational. (I’ll have to go back through my Favorites list and double check!) One of my motivations for this whole series was to heed Thoreau’s call to “Simplify, simplify.” and be more directed and less distracted. My answer to this has been to go back and gather loads of resources into an RSS reader and try to be brutal about not even clicking links unless they seem pertinent. My less-directed web surfing has decreased and so far, it feels like a good thing.  I’m working on being more like Jasper Visser, and replacing the nagging sensation that I’m missing something with the certainty that I am missing something, and it probably doesn’t matter that much.

The part of Kate’s response that really spoke to me, though, was this,

“The inspiration pieces I manage differently, and it changes depending on the type of inspiration.  Truly inspirational researchy things I sometimes try and re-sketch in notebooks, sometimes whiteboarding, generally after talking to someone about it. … For other pieces of inspiration, primarily visual, I’ve been doing some pin boards, which seems more effective for me than bookmarks.  I’ve been experimenting a bit with photo and audio more, but nothing very advanced.”

There’s a whole new post here, and I may have to dragoon Kate into having a long conversation about her experiments. One reason this resonates with me is that all of her methods for managing inspiration are kinds of sketching, which I wrote about awhile ago.  Taking some idea, internalizing it, and re-expressing it in your own way is crucial to the creative process.   So the obvious question this raises for me, members of the great hive mind, is, “What tools do you find most useful for mentally wrestling with content?”

This idea of managing inspiration is intricately engaged with the fourth and final post, which is about taking time to learn.  None of the strategies discussed in any of these last three posts have any value if you never have time to use them.  In this current austere climate, time spent on professional development, or on anything not directly serving a current funded project, is hard to come by.  I’ll wrap up with a post on making and taking time to learn on the job, and recap what I’ve learned and some of the changes I’ve made to my routine based on your wisdom.

A letter from Gibraltar

a selection of curiosities from "Museum of Science: Then and Now"

We’ll be releasing a mobile app in the Fall to accompany a new permanent exhibition on the history of the Museum. As part of the research for that, I spent a day in the Boston Athenaeum looking through their manuscripts collections for information on the Linnaean Society of New England, a predecessor of the Museum of Science that operated from 1814-1823.  One of my favorite parts of research is when you find an object or document that so neatly encompasses an era or an idea that it practically sings.  I found two at the Athenaeum, and I wanted to share one. It starts thus,

U.S.S Washington, Gibraltar Bay, Feb 18, 1817.
Mr. Shaw,
Dear Sir,
I beg leave to recommend to your care the enclosed letter & accompanying box. The box is principally filled with specimens in nat. hist. For the Linn. Soc. but as it contains some private packages, I wish it to be opened by one of the persons to whom it is directed.

This is the third time I have troubled you in this way; but I have done so, presuming on your well-known disposition to aid all endeavors, however small, to advance the cause of science in our country.  What I am able to contribute to this end is certainly very inconsiderable, but “Non sunt contemnenda quasi parva, sine quibus Constare magna non possunt.” ["Those things are not to be disparaged as little, without which great things cannot come into being." - St. Jerome]

I am, Sir, respectfully, yr. obedt. servt.
Ch: Folsom.

Folsom sent a series of letters to William Shaw, the vice-president of the Linnaean Society.  The letter accompanied a large box of specimens that included Roman coins, volcanic rock from Vesuvius, marine creatures, an ostrich skeleton, a chameleon he hatched from an egg, and several pages. His explanation of his collecting is classic,

“In the large box you will find a farrago of specimens in natural history, which I have collected as I could, not without expence of patience, & occasionally of money. I fear some of them may seem hardly worth notice; but they interested me at the time of collecting them, & are connected in my mind with interesting places & circumstances.”

His letters are marvelous, written in a large bold hand, and full of the kind of details about his objects that so often get lost by the time they get into collections databases.  You can almost see him in the wardroom of the Washington, looking at his instructions on how to preserve birds, trying to eviscerate an adult ostrich in his spare time.  His crew mates must have loved him!

The objects themselves are long-gone, along with the rest of the Society’s collections, so his descriptions are all that is left. Folsom goes to great pains to explain his lack of skill. Specimens are poorly preserved, or all that was left after he tried to preserve them. But his snake wasn’t just a snake. It was one he caught climbing up the rudder in Chesapeake Bay. The ostrich was a gift to the Commodore from the Bey of Tunis, which lived aboard ship til it sickened and died, apparently from eating too much rope, “which it consumed avidly.” When he autopsied it, Folsom found its stomach completely full of scraps of rope and other tidbits. Every object possesses some personal meaning for Folsom as well as value to a new museum as specimens. At an old institution, where so many of the object have outlived all the people who were associated with their collection, it’s easy to forget that they all once possessed these narratives.

I was looking for an example of the collecting strategies employed by my distant predecessors, and came up with Lieut. Folsom, much to my delight.  But who was this intrepid benefactor, and aspiring naturalist? Some sleuthing was required.

USS Washington, from an old book

In early 1817, the USS Washington, a 74 gun ship of the line built in Portsmouth, NH, was cruising the Mediterranean as the flagship of Commodore Chauncey’s squadron. Information on Folsom was hard to come by, but luckily he had a crew mate who made quite a name for himself later. The most famous member of the Washington’s crew was a teenager from Tennessee named David Farragut, who was already a seasoned veteran at age 16, and would become Admiral of the U.S. Navy during the American Civil War, where he uttered his famous order, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

Midshipman Farragut’s  instructor (who would become his lifelong friend) was the ship’s Unitarian chaplain, Lieut. Charles Folsom.  Folsom served briefly aboard Washington before being named U.S. Consul at Tunis.  Upon leaving the ship, he secured an extended leave for his young friend to stay with him in Tunis and continue his study of mathematics, as well as French, Italian, Arabic and Turkish.

It’s tempting to imagine the chaplain and his midshipman collecting rocks on the beaches of the Bay of Naples, or catching lizards in the ruins of Carthage, but that’s a bit of a leap to make. More of Folsom’s papers are at the Mass. Historical Society, so someday I might have to dig a little more and see what other gems I might uncover. For now, I’ll hope the we can afford the license and duplication fees, so Lieut. Folsom’s letter can enjoyed by more people.

I do love this work.