Tag Archives: Rob Stein

CODE│WORDS: An experiment in online discourse and publishing

by Ed Rodley

CC BY-SA 2.0 image by Flickr user djandyw.com

CC BY-SA 2.0 image by Flickr user djandyw.com

So, another long silence. February was the month of the endless head cold, and tons of stuff going on at Peabody Essex Museum.  The March shows will be opening soon! But, I haven’t been completely idle.  There have been secret plans afoot, which are finally cooked enough to announce. The big one is an experiment in online discourse and publishing that Rob Stein, Suse Cairns, and I have been discussing for a couple of months.  Let me tell you a bit about it, and see if it sounds interesting to you.

Background
As you already know, 2013 was a pretty fruitful year for museum blog conversations. I was very grateful for both the quantity and quality of the discourse that happened, and how much of it seems to have influenced discourse in the broader museum community. Conference sessions and other publications continue to flow out of conversations that started as blog posts. By default, these tended to be reactionary, driven by current affairs and mass media. To step it up a notch for 2014, here’s an idea for an experiment that might do just that, and possibly pay further dividends down the road.

Suse Cairns (she of museum geek and Museopunks) and I have been talking about collaborating on a book for some time, once her PhD work wound down.  Both of us are interested in the intersection of the digital and museums and figured we’d find fertile ground there, but we hadn’t really gotten much further than that.  Late last year, Rob Stein wrote a comment to a Dallas newspaper article about visitors and smartphones that Suse and I both thought deserved a wider audience, so I asked him to consider reworking it as a guest post on my blog. However, Rob being Rob, he had a larger vision than just a one-off blog post.

“How about this instead?” he asked us,  “What if a group of museum blogs tackled a set of interrelated issues at the same time, with an eye toward some kind of publication being the final product? The process itself would be an interesting experiment, and the outcome – some hopefully substantial discourse and new knowledge – could be a real benefit to the field.” The basic idea was to strategically identify some interesting issues, divide up the issues among a group of collaborators, and  then tackle them sequentially, developing them simultaneously and collaboratively, so that we could heavily cross-link between them to create a more coherent narrative than the usual call and response of blogging. To this, we added the idea of using the blog posts *and* their associated commentary as the basis for revised essays that could be collected and published as an edited volume later. The conversations around the initial posts would thus become part of the final essays.

So we had a bunch of Google hangouts to hash out what this strange hybrid might look like and how it should function. Here’s what we came up with.

I stink at getting Hangout screenshots.

I stink at getting Hangout screenshots.

The project in a nutshell

CODE | WORDS as we originally conceived it comprises three primary phases:

  • Phase I is an open, online discussion via a shared Google document, where we set up the initial parameters for discussion, topics, and framework for the project.

  • Phase II will be a focussed blogging project in April-May 2014, which will initially be located on Medium and later archived. During a six-week period, 12 authors will post 2,000 word essays on related topics we chose in Phase I. You, the interested public, will discuss these essays and help the authors reflect on the issues they raise. In addition, a number of selected respondents will write 1,000 word responses to the initial essay. We think this approach will allow the project both depth and considered commentary, as well as responsiveness and the capacity to adapt the discussion to new questions that arise.

  • Finally, Phase III will (hopefully) include a published book that draws together the ideas from the blog posts and commentary, and develops them into formal, considered essays.

This will doubtless change somewhat, once we get down to sorting out the details with the authors, but at this point, this is what we think is going to happen.

How it came about:

We needed first and foremost to identify commentators/ thinkers willing and able to participate in a kinda strange-sounding nameless project. It was clear it needed a codename, because they make everything cooler! Thus was born CODE│WORDS : Technology and theory in the museum (working title). We wanted people who might challenge us and each other, and bring different ways of looking at things, whether from different countries, or different types of museums. We looked through our Twitter feeds and LinkedIn connections and quickly assembled a list of people we thought would bring a variety of interesting perspectives to the project, and we asked them. Stunningly enough, virtually everyone we asked said yes and the CODE | WORDS crew grew to include:

  • Seb Chan, Smithsonian Institution, USA  @sebchan
  • Susan Chun, Cultural Heritage Consulting, USA  @schun
  • Mike Edson, Smithsonian Institution, USA @mpedson
  • Beth Harris, Khan Academy, USA  @bethrharris
  • Courtney Johnston, Dowse Art Museum, NZ  @auchmill
  • Sarah Kenderdine, National Institute for Experimental Arts, COFA, UNSW, HK/AUS
  • Luis Marcelo Mendes, Museum Consultant, BR  @lumamendes
  • Mike Murawski, Portland Art Museum, USA  @murawski27
  • Nick Poole, Collections Trust, UK  @nickpoole1
  • John Russick, Chicago History Museum, USA
  • Merete Sanderhoff, Statens Museum for Kunst, DK @msanderhoff
  • Koven Smith, Kinetic Museums, USA @5easypieces
  • Thomas Soderqvist, Medical Musieon, DK @museionist
  • Beck Tench, Museum of Life and Science, USA @10ch
  • Marthe de Vette, Van Gogh Museum, NL
  • Bruce Wyman, Museum Consultant, USA  @bwyman
  • Steven Zucker, Khan Academy, USA  @drszucker

We wanted to collaboratively identify a series of topics around the impacts of digital technologies on museums that are most interesting to us, most useful for the development of the field, and/or most in need of poking at. That’s where we are right now, sorting out which topics to tackle.

Originally, we thought we’d use people’s existing blogs to make use of their built-in audiences, but for the sake of continuity and critical mass, we decided to try out Medium as our platform. Their commenting feature is kinda interesting in that it lets you pick a paragraph to attach your comment to, rather than just tacking it onto the end of a 2,000 word post. I’ve been meaning to give Medium a whirl for awhile, and am looking forward to seeing how it works out.

The next step in the coming weeks is to collaboratively work on topics in such a way that they naturally build on each other and can be heavily cross-linked. We do this already, but in a more reactionary manner. This experiment would be an opportunity to be more strategic about it, and hopefully more successful in building a larger hypernarrative.

We want to create an online community of interest on Medium around these essays and try to practice being as inclusive as possible. One of the benefits of Medium is that other authors can write their own posts and tag them so that they can hopefully join the scrum. Our current plan is to launch in April, and to release 12 essays over a six week period, to keep interest as high as possible and hopefully build a community of commentators who would respond to more than just one essay – or even contribute their own. That’s where you come in, gentle readers, so strap in and get ready for a few tons of museumy goodness to drop on you soon. Seriously, though. The success of this experiment depends on us engaging as broad as community as possible to join us in the work. Otherwise it’s just another edited volumeWe want you to share your expertise, your ideas, your experiences with us, and a global audience of interested peers. If you have never written a blog post before, or just want to dip your toe into a digital discussion, this could be a great way to start and test the waters.

Obviously, we want to document the process and results, if this model winds up having any utility. A logical place to disseminate finding will be at conferences. A bunch of us will be at Museums and the Web and AAM, and I’ll be trying to convene groups to hang out during the conferences. Stay tuned and let me know if you’ll be in Baltimore or Seattle. On our current timeline, we’ll be done with the initial essays by June, so MCN in November should be a good distance from which to look back on the process and reflect on lessons learned for the initial phases.

Once we have finished the initial round of essays, their authors will take them and the commentary they engendered, and use both to write new essays. Rob, Suse, and I will try to convince a publisher to release the resulting collection as a digital/physical publication. If you represent a publisher and want to talk more about CODE | WORDS, email me! 

If all goes well, then we’ll celebrate doing something cool and useful.

Once we’re ready to go, we’ll announce the URL and let the games begin! So stay tuned!

Making a museum from scratch: Part Six

Summer is a traditionally busy season here. We’ve opened a new prototype gallery to test out components for a computer animation exhibition we’re working on, as well as a half-dozen other projects all chugging along. And my lovely and talented wife and I are going to Australia for vacation in a few short weeks! Which is a long way of saying that I’ve had little time to do more writing.

This post has been cooking for a long time and on the heels of what we talked about in Part Five provides a way to think about how to get from Square One to opening a new museum. I may go a bit wild with an extended music analogy, but bear with me, OK?

Making a museum should be like making an album
In one of the many side conversations I’ve been having about this topic, Suse Cairns made a great analogy that ties up a lot of the pieces we’ve brought up into a neat ball.  It turns out she was a music promoter in a past life, and in the midst of a chat about things one might do before opening, she said,

“[T]he physical museum should almost be like a band who finally releases an album after a lead up filled with playing live, releasing singles and extensive radio play. The album becomes the culmination of something that started much earlier, not just for the staff, but also for the community around it.”

When I read this, I have to admit it knocked me back in my seat.  I grew up with a theatre-based approach in temporary exhibitions. Keeping it all in a locked room until opening was practically de rigeur. As were long meetings about ticket prices and ticket sales, neither of which are good for the soul if they become the only things you talk about.

Treating a museum like an album feels right on many levels because it acknowledges all the distribution channels necessary to create a passionate audience, a fanbase, even!  The musicians I know live to make live to make music, whether it’s around the kitchen table, on stage somewhere, or in the studio. I know they love to have people buy their albums, but the music’s the thing, and an album is just one distribution channel. What if we got off the exhibition-centric thinking we tend to engage in, and looked at a more holistic and transparent model of building an audience of passionate visitors?

The album approach is by it’s very nature pretty transparent. You need to be out in front of an audience to build the momentum and support to fund going into the studio. Taking the show on the road also gives you many chances to show your audience what you’re working on, what’s new. You try out out half-finished songs and do covers. Your audience also tells you what they like and what they want to hear, which are important things to listen for when you’re thinking about what goes on the album. By the time you’re ready to lay down tracks, you’ve (hopefully) crafted a story your audience knows before they ever see or hear the album, and that’s useful and important.

Playing live – Getting out in front of the public
Back in Part One of this series, Jasper Visser proposed loading bits of the collection on a truck and driving it downtown to let the public rummage around in it to see what pieces appealed to them. Aside from the obvious preservation issues, there is something to be said for taking our as-yet-unbuilt museum out onto the streets.

Pop up exhibits and programs
Having a museum with no building may sound pretty daunting, but others have faced the same situation and come to the same conclusion – go where the audience is. While the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam was closed for renovations, their team developed augmented reality apps that let you “place” their artworks in the real world using augmented reality technologies. They went to music festivals, and other places where the audience already was and brought the Stedelijk experience to the people.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) recently announced they will be closing their building for two and a half years while they renovate. Instead of treating this like a vacation they are using the closure as a reason to “to experiment with new ideas, engage in dialogue with a range of cultural partners, and create innovative ways for audiences to experience the museum’s collection.

A new unbuilt museum is a perfect opportunity for collaborating with any number of constituencies, from the neighbors to local colleges and universities, peer institutions, designers and architects and more. When everything is still just an idea is the perfect time to cast one’s net widely. Disruptive ideas are less disruptive early, and our staff should be able to fold audience input into their evolving plans more easily than would once architects and shop drawings are involved. And, as Paula Bray suggested in a post I referenced in Part Five, these sorts of activities not only bring the audience into the planning process in appropriate ways, but also give them insight into our process and a bit of ownership – both useful traits in people you aim to serve and ask for support.

So what might we perform?

Releasing singles – Providing a steady supply of your product
Having committed to making a new kind of museum, one problem we’ll have to address head on is audience expectations. It’s all well and good to have noble intentions, but if the audience doesn’t understand what’s expected of them, we’re in deep, deep trouble. Getting them to the point where they are able to engage with us and our content is going to require some careful scaffolding, providing enough structure so that visitors can focus on doing what they want to. Trevor Owens just posted one of the most lucid descriptions of scaffolding that I’ve come across, “Software as Scaffolding and Motivation and Meaning: The How and Why of Crowdsourcing” It’s well worth reading in it’s entirety, even if you’re not a digital humanities sort.

What kinds of singles could we release?
Thinking about how we might ensure a steady supply of products to our audience led me into looking at exhibition philosophies. It turns out this has been a good month for manifestos.

Medical Museion, Denmark
Last year, Ken Arnold and Thomas Söderqvist published an interesting manifesto that I only discovered while pondering the Musetrain (see below) manifesto. It’s only got seventeen points, but they’re provocative and worth considering. I pulled out a few that seemed very relevant for what we’re up to. As you read them, think of each as a potential experiment, “If we were going to try making something that expressed this idea, what might it look like?”

1. Exhibitions should be research-led, not a form of dissemination
Curators should use exhibitions to find things out (for themselves and for their visitors) and not just regurgitate what is already known.

The idea of question-driven exhibitions (or products of any kind) is very alluring, and deeply transparent. My experience in years of evaluating exhibitions is that museum visitors find it very exciting to be part of something where the outcome is unknown.

6. Jealously guard a place for mystery and wonder
Deliberately include some exhibits about which less, rather than more, is known – curious exhibits that just cannot completely be accounted for. Visitors should leave exhibitions wanting to find out more.

This totally resonates with Seb’s Sleep No More post (which I will stop referencing if I ever find a better example) in which he quotes one of the creators of the piece saying “explanation is the killer of wonderment”. He sums up, “What if we designed exhibitions to have the same ‘dense, cinematic detail’ that Punch Drunk’s productions have? (And trusted visitors to respect and engage with them appropriately through scaffolding the entry experience?)

What if we designed our exhibitions to hold things back from some visitors? And to purposefully make some elements of an exhibition ‘in-accessible’ to all?

10. Celebrate the ephemeral quality of exhibitions
Like good pieces of theatre, they gain much of their energy by being around for a limited time and then disappearing. The fact that they are time-limited gives their makers a degree of freedom to experiment and be daring. Grasp it!

There’s that theatre metaphor again. It’s hard to escape.

15. Remember that visitors ultimately make their own exhibitions

Some visitors might not be interested in reading what the curators write, while others might not look at many objects. Some will be interested in aspects of a topic that the curators might not have come across.

Constructivists unite!

16. Make exhibitions the jumping off place for further engagement
Good exhibitions are the point of departure for a longer relationship. The value of exhibitions should only partly be judged by analysing how many people come, how long they spent in a show and what they think of it. On this basis alone, most exhibitions are foolishly expensive ventures, particularly in these cash-strapped times.

Word.

The other fascinating idea the Medical Museion have put forth is a short post on “The Trickster Museum” as the genius (in the Classical sense of a spirit) that informs their work. They say,

“Tricksters are characterized by cunning intelligence (metis in ancient Greek) that thrives in a changing world with no regularity. It is not the rational deliberation of Apollo, but the spur-of-the-moment artfulness of Odysseus. It is a form of intelligence that favours action over contemplation.”

What kind of genius informs your museum’s work?

Musetrain – We have some suggestions…
One of the most interesting and mysterious events of the past month has been the appearance of Musetrain. This anonymous manifesto and Twitter account purport to be from a group of museum professionals who have been around the block a few times. They contend that “while the soul of the museum is a constant, the ways in which museums and their staff need to engage has to emerge in new forms.“

To this end, they have produced a list of a 100-odd statements (in the style of the ClueTrain manifesto) that are well worth reading. The list is too long to post here, but some of their suggestions align with the issues that I’ve been trying to unpack in this series of posts and amplify that the others listed above have also been grappling with. Just to pick a few…

Aim to be a place of delight and wonderment.
Again with the wonder!

Stop settling for “best practices.” They are “acceptable practices” at best.
Ha!

The museum experience isn’t onsite, offsite, or online. It is all of these things together.
Amen. I think the promise of making a museum from scratch is as an exemplar of what this might look like.

Create frameworks that let visitors do more with your collections and ideas than you can imagine.

Every time you create a destination (a website, an app, a publication, an exhibition), build it on top of a service and use it as an example of what’s possible.

Services should be aimed at incredibly broad audiences, destinations can be aimed at narrow audiences.
These three suggestions are a good way to think about the collection and its uses, and how to keep the destinations and the collection continually in contact. The idea that every product of the museum is tied to a service that increases access to the collection is pretty powerful.

Understand the the difference between authoritarian and authoritive. The former is suicide, the latter is relevance.

Museums demonstrate authority through engagement.
I’ve lost track of how many people have taken up this cry since I first heard Rob Stein talk about it. I like this formulation of it because it focuses on how to demonstrate authority, rather than engaging in hand wringing over our perceived loss of authority. The focus on engagement, too!

Extensive radio play – Getting your message out
Getting the word out will be critical to the success of this project. We will initially have very little to show people; a vision and some stuff.  Making our message clear enough to be memorable, and restating it in every conceivable medium will help us ensure that when the building is finally ready, people will know what we’re about and why. Two museums have been very inspirational to me in this regard, even though one of them never happened.

The Walker Art Center and it’s website
I won’t join the chorus of people crowing about the Walker’s website. Go see it  and compare it to other museums’. Their mission is to be a safe place for unsafe ideas and their website gathers the best of what the web has to offer on contemporary art. Not just their content, but any content they find. In keeping with the style of this post, they’ve gotten radio play by becoming a radio station.

More constructively, I think the Walker has taken a huge step forward in modeling how museums can continue to be meaningful places to visit on the web. The willful blindness that the vast majority of museums use when it comes to “their” digital content maybe have been a viable strategy – in 2000. Designing online experiences that try corral visitors into staying within one site for all their information needs is worse than futile in 2012. Walker’s current site is a wake up call that acknowledging that the universe is bigger than your institution does not equal renouncing your claim to authority in your areas of expertise. As Nate Solas said at MuseumNext in Barcelona, “Curating the web gives us authority online.” Making your online visitors aware of what’s going on in the world and what you find valuable and relevant is another expression of transparency that I imagine will stand them in good stead in the coming years.

The Dutch Museum of National History and their experiments
It’s been just a little over a year since I read Jasper Visser’s announcement of the cancellation of the Dutch Museum of National History, a project that actually tried to create a new national museum from scratch, and got a long way down the road before it ground to a halt. Luckily for us, there is “Blueprint” – the post-mortem of the project written by Erik Schilp and Valentin Byvanck.  It’s an intriguing, engrossing look into what might have been that is at times really visionary.  Nina Simon lead an online book group around the book that unpacks a lot of the issues the book exposes. Check it out. 

There was also an earlier publication that is more germane to our discussion, “The National History Museum Stirs the Historical Imagination” This 60-page booklet was published early in the process and documented the vision for the museum and the story of what the museum was going to be about in some of the clearest prose I’ve seen for what was essentially a branding piece.  If I find a link to it, I’ll post it.

One of museum’s great successes in my opinion is the extent to which they set about living out their vision through a series of projects that all delivered examples of what a 21st century history museum could be like. There was a train car that toured the country, the National Vending Machine, which dispensed bits of the Dutch experience, and a national competition to suggest new images of the Netherlands to replace the old postcard images of windmills, dykes and tulips. The project did an excellent job of getting their message out and getting noticed and talked about.

As an example of living and working transparently, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example. You can get a very clear sense of what The National History Museum project did and thought and planned, warts and all, and I imagine the museum field will be learning from them for years to come, precisely because they were intrepid enough to be radically transparent.  They were, in essence, like one of those bands that never made it big, but played some awesome live shows that the people who saw them will talk about for a long time.

So all you museum/musicians (I know quite a few and I bet there are many more), what say you? Does this approach resonate? Is there merit to thinking of the work of making a museum more like performance, and less like product?

 

Related Links

The Stedelijk Museum

http://www.stedelijk.nl/en/

SFMOMA ANNOUNCES PLANS FOR EXTENSIVE OFF-SITE PROGRAMMING BEGINNING SUMMER 2013

http://www.sfmoma.org/about/about_news/932

Software as Scaffolding and Motivation and Meaning: The How and Why of Crowdsourcing

http://www.trevorowens.org/2012/07/software-as-scaffolding-and-motivation-and-meaning-the-how-and-why-of-crowdsourcing/

A manifesto for creating science, technology and medicine exhibitions

http://www.museion.ku.dk/2011/02/a-manifesto-for-creating-science-technology-and-medicine-exhibitions/

The Trickster Museum

http://www.museion.ku.dk/2012/06/the-trickster-museum/

MuseTrain: We have some suggestions…

http://www.musetrain.org/

Walker Art Center

http://www.walkerart.org/

Bumpy rides and dead-end streets

http://themuseumofthefuture.com/2011/07/05/bumpy-rides-and-dead-end-streets/#more-597

Blueprint, a guidebook to build your own history museum in the 21st century

http://themuseumofthefuture.com/2012/03/27/blueprint-a-guidebook-to-build-your-own-history-museum-in-the-21st-century/

Schilp, E. and V. Byvanck (2008). The National History Museum Stirs the Historical Imagination. Arnhem: National History Museum.

Museum 2.0: Blueprint Book Club Part 1: How Do You Create a Future-Thinking History Museum?

http://museumtwo.blogspot.com/2012/05/blueprint-book-club-part-1-how-do-you.html

Making a museum from scratch: Part Four

What does the mission of a radically transparent museum look like?

In Part Three of this series, I proposed that our museum be radically transparent, that we organize it around the notion that everything should be transparent unless it needs to be otherwise.  I also proposed that it invert the current pyramid of transparency of museum practice (exhibits & curation=most transparent/collections & conservation =least transparent). Both ideas I find very interesting and a little daunting and many of you seemed to agree.

In this post, I’d like to get a little more deeply into the ideas and concerns people raised about transparency and mission, and propose some ideas that will make up the mission of our imaginary museum, so we can start to work out how it might be put together.

Transparency is a way to accrue public value 

Suse Cairns provided a great quote from Megan Cook’s Delivering Public Value Through Transparency, making clear that transparency is a means to an end.

“By taking a public value perspective, the notion of pursuing transparency is assessed by identifying its value (e.g. social, political, strategic, financial, ideological, etc). The end goal is to accrue public value and transparency is the means to achieve it. That is, transparency is not an end society pursues for its own sake.”

Transparency is a way to demonstrate authenticity

Rob Stein very ably got to the root of why transparency can be a good thing, namely the desire to make our ideals and mission as obvious as possible to our audiences. He said,

“In my mind, transparency is a communications tool that is based on an organization’s commitment and desire for authenticity. That desire for authenticity demands an open disclosure of good, bad, and otherwise unknown facts about how museums work. Transparency then, is a reflection of the integrity and proficiency possessed by the museum at any moment in time.”

Let’s take a moment and unpack what’s inside this desire to be authentic. Authenticity – the state of being exactly who you say you are – is also one level of abstraction from the core of the matter. The reason for a museum to value authenticity is because what a museum does is valuable and important.  The ideals of the institution should make clear its value proposition, and therefore we want to build it in such a way that it’s processes and products are visible and comprehensible to our audiences, so that they too can see how we are delivering on our ideals and being exactly who we say we are; in other wordsauthentic.

Transparency is a way to generate social capital

This puts a heavy burden on the institution. To be radically transparent (or radically authentic, as Rob calls it) is to be willing to have most every decision weighed by our audience against our mission. Who we hire, what we exhibit, what we publish and how – all become evidence anyone can use for or against us.

So why do it? The benefit to our museum is that it helps establish our presence in the reputation economy by generating social capital. As Rob pointed out, “social capital has a direct impact on the viability and financial health of our organizations. Rather than being driven only by supply and demand, social capital is accrued by building honest relationships with a community.”  Or communities, both physical and virtual. Social capital, according to The Saguaro Seminar, refers to the collective value of all “social networks” [who people know] and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other ["norms of reciprocity"]. As institutions that depend on the philanthropy of others for their very survival, accruing social capital is a necessary first step towards viability.

Your mission, should you choose to accept

All of this goes to my initial question, “So what does a mission statement for a 21st century museum look like that takes these ideas to heart and expresses them in a radically transparent way to the staff who carry it out, and to the audiences whom the museum serves?”

Assuming, we want to seek AAM accreditation, our museum’s mission needs to embody the following:

  • The museum asserts its public service role and places education at the center of that role.
    (We exist to provide some public benefit)
  • The museum is committed to public accountability and is transparent in its mission and its operations.
    (We operate in a way that makes it easy to see how we’re fulfilling our mission. There’s that “transparent” word again!) 
  • The museum has a clear understanding of its mission and communicates why it exists and who benefits as a result of its efforts.
    (We live our mission.)
  • All aspects of the museum’s operations are integrated and focused on meeting its mission.
    (We are mission-focused.)
  • The museum’s governing authority and staff think and act strategically to acquire, develop, and allocate resources to advance the mission of the museum.
    (We are in it for the long haul.)

So, with your indulgence, I want to try to say things that would be in our imaginary museum’s mission, without getting into the chore of writing it. I think writing a generic archaeology museum’s mission is not going to be a useful exercise, and there’s a lot of ground I still want to cover.  For the sake of argument, let’s say that our museum’s mission includes (in soaring prose, of course) the following:

  • To preserve, conserve, and display the information recovered from the site (the collection).
  • To interpret the importance of site and time period in the context of world history and the present.
  • To enable scholarship, learning, and new discovery about the topic and period by making use of the collection
  • To be an asset to the community through our programs and practice (measurable because of our openness + transparency)

Back in Part One, I proposed some audiences as a way to understand how we might organize our work.  Particularly around the mission, being clear about our audiences is critical. I propose that our museum has the following three audiences:

1) The global audience
The interested layperson looking for historical/archaeological information;
Online audience, interested in facts and images about topics, and ability to ask questions of staff

The student looking for  looking for historical/archaeological information;
Online audience, interested in facts and images about topics, and ability to ask questions of staff

2) The local audience
The tourist visiting the area;
Onsite and online audience, interested in topic, how it applies to local area. Online audience wants visit-planning info and ability to buy tickets.

The local;
Onsite and online audience, interested in topic, how it applies to them. Online audience wants visit-planning info, especially events at museum, and ability to buy tickets.

3) The professional audience
The archaeologist looking for archaeological information;
Primarily an online audience, looking for information (metadata) as much as object info. Also PDFs of original docs/images. More valuable for research than interpretive texts. Also wants ability to ask questions of staff

The museum professional looking for museum-related information;
Primarily an online audience, looking for object/subject information, as well as process information. Also wants ability to ask questions of staff

It is instructive to note that all of our audiences are online, and only some of them are onsite. How will our museum meet the needs of these audiences? In the next post, I’d like to switch gears a bit and move into planning. If we were getting a museum off the ground, what would we do in the 2-3 years between starting work and opening a physical building?

I look forward to your thoughts.

••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••

Inspirational Readings

Maria Popova posted a lovely piece on the interplay of theory and practice.  “Practice is integrating theory into our systems and living from that place.”

Thought Den posted a good summary of the MuseumNext conference in Barcelona, and I am amazed at the relevance of what went on there with what we’ve been talking about here. Take a peek at “MuseumNext condensed : bright minds in Barca”

“Duende, a story about digital strategy” is a great short post from Jasper Visser on digital strategy.  I especially like the digital engagement framework he and Jim Richardson devised. Expect to see it again.

Beth Harris and Steven Zucker wrote an editorial for the (UK) Museums Association called  “Re-imagining museums: Why the Google Art Project is important for museums.” that hit precisely the same territory we’ve been covering.

In the Harvard Business Review, Bansi Nagji and Geoff Tuff proposed “A Simple Tool You Need to Manage Innovation” that looks at strategic innovation, which I think is a great way of thinking about the future in the initial planning of our museum, and ensuring that we don’t just write a slightly less-archaic prescription that our successors will chafe against.

David Roth wrote a piece for Forbes that requires little introduction, “Creating a Great Culture — Your Company’s Foundational DNA” 

Which led lastly to this piece from Harvard Business Review, “How to be happier at work.” 

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.

What are the big trends in interactive exhibits for 2012?

Journal entry by Flickr user JoelMontes

Since it’s the end of the year, I’ve been staring at my list of “things I’d like to do in 2012” and trying to turn them into a workable personal professional development plan.  In looking at all the events and places I’ve highlighted, it turns out an emergent theme in 2011 has been looking for/at trends in museums and trying to be more proactive than reactive. Between Museums and the Webthe Horizon Report and the Salzburg Global Seminar, MCN, and the daily drip of inspiration coming in from Twitter, it’s been a heady Fall.

At the same time, I ranted a very little bit about computers in museums. The upshot of this was starting to talk to Seb Chan about putting together some kind of conference presentation on new justifications for computer interactives. I had one of those flow moments, where a bunch of seemingly disparate elements all suddenly snap into alignment and seem like a coherent whole.  Maybe this could be my theme for the coming year! Studying new approaches to interactivity in museums!

Now I’m wondering if I can turn an unwieldy pile of people, places and events into a course of sorts that would push me to learn more about new ways you and your friends are using interactivity in museums.  There’s lots to learn!

Here’s my admittedly incomplete list of things that I want to know more about and incorporate into my practice. Can you add other trends or examples to the list?

What else have I left out?

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.