Tag Archives: teamwork

playing around in 3D, & being an active learner

by Ed Rodley
I was in New York a couple of weeks ago to go see a couple of plays, Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart in Pinter and Becket. Heaven! I was also in town on a day that there was a Hack Day at the Metropolitan Museum, so after a serendipitous tweet from Neal Stimler, I made my way up to the Upper East Side and spent a few enjoyable hours in the Met, playing around w 3D, scanning things, meeting new people and having a blast.
Neal Stimler and DH Unicorn in their native habitat at the Met offices.

Neal Stimler and DH Unicorn in their native habitat at the Met offices.

 I got a chance to see how the Met is embodying the kinds of change that so many museums (mine included) are contemplating and came away invigorated by their enterpreneurial, almost start-up like culture. Such a change from just a few years ago.
The Sense handheld 3D scanner

The Sense handheld 3D scanner

One of the best parts of the event was that Don Undeen (he of the MCN Ignite talk) was demoing a 3D Systems Sense 3D scanner. This inexpensive IR-based scanner (think Kinect you can brandish) is relatively new and Don was testing one with the Hack Day crew. 

Yours truly. Not bad quality...

Yours truly. Not bad quality…

I got scanned at a crazy drunken angle. How, I don’t know. I was sitting up straight, still as a statue, as Don worked his way around me. I think when he was cropping the scan afterwards, he solidified the scan by filling in the bottom at that rakish angle.
Scanning party. Don's holding the laptop as I walk around the statue, trying to get a clean capture.

Scanning party. Don’s holding the laptop as I walk around the statue, trying to get a clean capture.

Getting to try the Sense out on the halls was a highlight of the trip. It kinda reminded me of Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence.  Thinking of the scanner as a spraycan and “painting” up and down across the surface to be scanned seemed to give the best results.  Strangely, it also worked better the less you tried to be thorough. Loose, big gestures seemed to generate better scans than small, careful ones.  The technology is interesting, but I don’t know how much better the results were from simpler, photographic methods like 123DCatch. I couldn’t tell from looking at the screen. The mesh size seemed comparable and the software was challenging. Every scan we attempted ended with the scanner losing tracking on the object it was pointed at. My sense is that the developers were trying so hard to make a consumer product that they went overboard on what the software was doing in the background to let you focus on scanning.

Even though my scanning experience wasn’t 100% successful, I felt like the learning experience was. We were a group of self-selected learners, teaching each other and learning together as fast as we could, and we scaffolded each other into greater knowledge in a way that probably would’ve taken a lot longer if we’d each done it individually.

Learning as a team sport

Last week, some colleagues and I spent a lunch hour watching SkillShare videos on 3D printing together as we brainstorm new kinds of digital programming we might offer visitors in the future. The course content wasn’t new to me. I’ve poked around into most of it before over the past few years. What was new, and I think too-often-overlooked, was the benefit of doing it in a group. We could all have sat at our desks and agreed to watch the videos before our next meeting, but being in the same room at the same time doing the same thing made the experience much more fruitful and educational for all of us.

The four of us all had different levels of familiarity with software, hardware, jargon, and trends. Just knowing that information will be useful moving forward. We clarified points for each other, repeated bits that somebody needed repeated, offered our our insights into our experiences with these technologies and riffed off each other as we went from video to video. The progress we made individually and as a team was much more than I think we would’ve made alone. And the ideas we came up with were exciting, too! The next meeting will hopefully be even more productive now that we’ve tasted success. Figuring out how to hold onto that momentum will be the hard part, once schedules start filling up again.

Making space to be active learners

I blogged about this topic a couple of years ago, and the same holds true now. Making time to take time to learn is an ever more important factor to sustaining a highly-productive, creative enterprise.

How do you carve out the time to keep your skill set fresh?

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

Introduction
So here is part two of my review of Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One. If you’re just joining us, check out Part One of my review here. It has important introductory material you should have in mind as you read.

The Collection Wall

Visitors using the Collections Wall

For me, the Collection Wall was the centerpiece of the Gallery One experience. A continuous 40-foot long multi-touch screen (that’s 150 Christie MicroTiles for you hardware dorks) visually displaying images of over 3,000 works of art at CMA, the Wall is an impressive piece of technology, but it’s more. The effect of standing before it as the collection slowly slides by and regroups itself around themes is a visual exclamation of bounty. “Look at all that’s here for you to explore!” it practically shouts. And I know the amount of work contained in just providing decent images and descriptive text for 3,000+ objects. I hope they can use this experience to really generate a kick-ass CMS full of data and metadata, because let’s face it, many of our institutions have a long way to go to provide the kind of experience one gets at the Collections Wall.

A familiar sight for a select few. A typical view of images in a CMS (In this case, TMS). Image from http://www.gallerysystems.com/sites/default/files/screenshots/2012/english/display.png

Closeup of the Collections Wall

The Collection Wall is meant to be an introductory experience to visiting the rest of the museum, and a lot of functionalities (or lack thereof) flow from this decision. At the Wall, you can look at art, grab pieces that pique your interest and drag them to you, see other objects with similar metadata (time period, medium, locale…) and many of the things you can do looking through any other image database. What makes the Collection Wall a bit different is that interfaces with CMA’s ArtLens app to allow you to save images you like, construct your own tour of the museum, or take someone’s else’s. You can borrow iPads from the museum, or bring your own and set them on a stand in front of the Wall, which, through the magic of RFID tags (make sure to ask for one if you bring your own iPad) will glow blue when it detects your device and will sync up any objects you flick downwards towards your iPad and show you what you’ve gathered. When you pick up your iPad, it’s got your objects already on it, and your device will tell you which galleries they’re in.

Their user scenario seems solid enough. Visitor comes to Gallery One first, checks out iPad, looks at Collection Wall to find interesting objects, gathers some, maybe assembles a tour or chooses an existing one, and then goes off into the museum with their personalized map. I, of course, wanted to try something different. I saw an image of a flintlock pistol go by, and thought, “Ooh, I wonder if they’ve got more flintlocks?” (good thesis topics never leave you). So I grabbed it and tried to wring more information out of it. The options for browsing similar items were for serendipitous browsing, not real searching. I didn’t want to see other things from Italy, or from 1620, so I tried Arms and armor. Still too broad. Grr. Was there a search feature? No. So I ended up stepping several paces back from the wall and visually scanning for other flintlocks. I did manage to find a couple and dragged them (one quite a distance!) over to my area and flicked them down to my iPad.

And here’s a classic design dilemma. If your goal is to make an experience that will propel people into the museum, then leaving out a search function makes sense. You don’t want them spending precious time in front of a wall of screens. The obvious solution is to limit the number of functions one can perform at the Wall. But, what if the experience is so compelling that visitors want to do more than the system is designed to do? I don’t know which way I’d go if it were up to me. As a visitor, I felt a little disappointed that I couldn’t use the Wall as a way to learn more.

ArtLens app

I will admit I started out predisposed against the ArtLens app before I even landed in Cleveland. When it first came out, I was one of those people who read the reports on Gallery One and knew I needed to take a look. So I went and downloaded the ArtLens app from the iTunes store. The ArtLens app was a normal sized download, so I waited for it, and then I launched it, only to find that it needed “resources” to run and it would be twenty minutes (!) before it downloaded all the images, etc… it needed. Grr.

Later that day, I finally explored the app and poked around at it, but it became very clear that the app was designed solely to aid you on a visit to the physical museum. Most of the main features like Near You Now, Scanning, and Today, meant nothing to me in Boston. The other two Tours, and Favorites at least rewarded my poking around with beautiful images, but they were still completely site-specific. It was one of those moments when it was clear that the app was not made for the likes of me.

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The combination of the Lenses, the Collection Wall and ArtLens are supposed to provide visitors with a set of experiences that help them learn how to “do” a visit to CMA. The integration between ArtLens and the Wall was therefore an important piece to get right since the ArtLens was the only piece of the Gallery One experience that could be carried out of the gallery and into the rest of the museum. I was particularly interested to see how well the two components worked with each other and how well the ArtLens worked out in the wild, since location-finding in museums is still one of those issues that still hasn’t been solved well. Or had it?

The Collection Wall/ArtLens interface. When you place an active iPad on a station, it glows blue. Any objects you flick down, get saved to your device.

When it came to using the ArtLens in the museum, I had no luck. The signal dropped on me almost immediately and despite my unauthorized fiddling with the device, I couldn’t get it back. Having walked a good ways into the building, I gave up on it, and toted the iPad around while I enjoyed the art. Upon returning, a group of us sat down (collapsed?) at the cafe for a final chat and found that for one person the Wifi had worked fine. She was delighted with the experience and happily told us about her adventures “scanning” objects and ideas for how she’d improve on it. The second person at the table had had intermittent signal losses, but had managed to restart the device and find the network again. I, as you know,  had a total failure of the device, and couldn’t add much to the conversation, other than the observation that if three seasoned professionals who weren’t afraid to try anything and everything could have such wildly different experiences of the device, what must it be like for a visitor who happens to have a hard time?

In short, I’m still not sold on any Wifi-based location finding system.

The Workshops

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Looking back on the two days I spent at the MW Deep Dive, the most important lessons I took away from the workshop have less to do with the products of the Gallery One project and more to do with the process CMA had to develop in order to get the work done. It’s here that I think the format of the “Deep Dive” really shone. I’d seen CMA’s conference presentations, read the paper. And even if I’d gone to Gallery One on my own, I don’t think I’d have gotten as much out of it as I did during the workshop. Having all the key staff there, exploring their process and learning, and having the finished product right there to explore was an ideal way to really wrap my brain around what CMA had tried to do.

The day we arrived, we started out at the museum for an informal welcome and then a couple of hours to explore on our own. It was good to start off approaching it more like a visitor than a professional, and watching your colleagues and friends trying to make sense of an experience is always entertaining! We talked, wandered around, and poked at everything we could see. Dinner that night was full of debate as we compared notes and tried to put ourselves in the heads of CMA’s staff.

The next morning, there were a series of six workshops focusing on everything from immersive exeriences to staffing, to content management. And like good workshops, they were mostly discussion and not so much presentation. The attendees had tons of questions, and the CMA staff, who represented a variety of education, interpretation, curatorial, and technology perspectives, managed to answer most of those questions.

Everyone I met, from the Director on down, was able to talk knowledgeably about the project. It was clear how much of a museum-wide endeavor Gallery One was, and that may be it’s greatest accomplishment.

Creating a set of digital experiences with the depth and breadth of Gallery One required CMA’s educators and curators (and collections managers, and contractors, and visitor services folks, and…) to work together in ways that they hadn’t before. The team had to articulate a vision of how they wanted visitors to experience a visit to CMA, and then design exhibits to encourage that kind of participation. You can agree or disagree with whether those goals were the most important, but it was abundantly clear to me that they came up with goals that had broad consensus in the museum and then stuck to them. And having worked on projects that had clear goals and ones that didn’t, I can’t overstate how much better the former is. When you have goals that a) everybody can understand/articulate, and b) everybody can get behind (even unwillingly) then seemingly impossible hurdles can be overcome, like restarting the design process when the project seemed to be heading in the wrong direction, or getting multiple curators to assign highlight works from their collections to a crazy experimental gallery instead of putting them in the permanent galleries.

One of the curators in the immersive experiences workshop said something about how rewarding it was to be part of an inclusive process. Curators often tend to be cast “the other” when  we talk about new technologies and methodologies, but as I noted last year at Museums and the Web, we seem to have passed that inflection point, where incorporating digital is no longer a question of “Should we?” but “How should we?” Looking back on the Gallery One process, he said that not only  can you expect collaborative cooperation from most curators, but that you should expect it. There will be holdouts in every institution, of course.

Gallery One awaits!

Conclusion

So that’s my very unscientific, very personal experience of a great project and a great professional development event.  Getting a project as massive as Gallery One launched on time, on budget, and on target is a feat worthy of our admiration and respect. Some parts of it worked really well for me. Others seemed more problematic, and one just didn’t work. But that’s what happens when you’re ambitious. You try things, see what works, fix what doesn’t, and move on. CMA is already working on the next version of the ArtLens app, and I look forward to seeing what the next iteration of Gallery One looks like. CMA have firmly established themselves as a forward-looking institution, out ahead of the pack. And with Gallery One, they’ve set a pretty high bar for what will count as a “big, ambitious digital project” from now on.

You should go.

Other observations

Some other jottings from my notebook that didn’t find their way into these posts:

  • If you put touchscreens in a gallery with artworks, will people touch the art more? Yes. Better plan for it.
  • Listening to visitor research helped CMA avoid telling stories only the staff were interested in, like the history of CMA and its collections.
  • Developing  Gallery One really highlighted how much visitors want to know “the basics” about objects; the who, what, when, and where.
  • The chief curator said that a benefit he hadn’t anticipated about Gallery One was that it was now possible to know which objects visitors were most interested in by looking at which ones got “favorited” the most. It had become his habit to check in on the stats to see which objects were most popular with compared his own list of favorites.
  • Jane Alexander said that one of the most important decisions she made was hiring an AV integrator at the beginning of the project whose job was “to tell them how much ‘yes’ was going to cost.” Smart.

Further Resources

CMA YouTube video:
Transforming the Museum Experience: GALLERY ONE

Transforming the Art Museum Experience: Gallery One
Jane Alexander, USA , Jake Barton, USA, Caroline Goeser, USA
http://mw2013.museumsandtheweb.com/paper/transforming-the-art-museum-experience-gallery-one-2/
The paper of record on the project, delivered at the Museums and the Web 2013 conference.

Blending Art, Technology, & Interpretation: Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One & ArtLens
Caroline Goeser
http://artmuseumteaching.com/2013/04/15/blending-art-technology-interpretation-cleveland-museum-of-arts-gallery-one-artlens/
An excellent overview of the team’s approach to using digital technologies as integrative interpretive tools to drive active experiences with art in the Gallery.

Download the ArtLens app from the iTunes store. https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/artlens/id580839935?mt=8

Storify of #mwatcma tweets
These provide a neat running commentary of how the event was progressing.

Dana Allen-Greil’s took notes in a Google Doc of what impressed her during the workshops. Maybe you should add your notes to it. My notes are all here…

On leaving and arriving

The junk in the bottom of the desk.

The junk in the bottom of the desk.

A long silence on the old blog. It is a well-known fact that an idle blog is a dead one, but this has been more of a medically induced coma.  It’s not that I’ve been lazy, just preoccupied.

I submitted my resignation on Wednesday and am leaving the Museum of Science, some thirty-odd years after I first walked through the doors as a very junior Junior Volunteer. And the planning, worrying and waiting that accompanies leaving an institution after so long has consumed most of my brainpower. It’s exciting, scary, and very odd to think of myself going somewhere different every day. Grad school feels like a walk in the park compared to the prospect of diving into a new job, and a completely new culture. But, dive I will.

I have accepted the job of Associate Director of Integrated Media at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, and for the next four years will be managing a wide range of media projects projects for their temporary exhibitions *and* preparing for the 2017 reopening of the museum, which will entail 175,000 square feet of new exhibit space and a complete reinstallation of the collection! They don’t lack for ambition at PEM, and that’s exciting! My interest in the intersection of the digital and museums is pretty obvious if you’re reading this blog for more than the first time, and my position at PEM will be a great opportunity to turn ideas into practice. A trifle overwhelming right now, but invigorating.

Which doesn’t make leaving any easier. When you’re engaged in project-based work, there’s never a good time to leave other than at the end of a project, and like so many other colleagues, I rarely work on only one project at a time any more. So I’ll be leaving loose ends that my coworkers and friends will have to tie up. That’s a hard thing to come to terms with, but that’s the reality of it. I won’t see the final version of that interactive. I won’t be at the opening of that exhibition. I will have not any stake in who the Museum hires to fill vacant positions, including mine.

Time to mount up and move on.

And arriving

I’ll be at Museums and Web representing my my new employer, so if you’re in Portland, do come by and say, “Hi!” I’ve been going to MW since the late 90s and always gotten something out of the experience. I’m really looking forward to going in my new role, to see the conference with a fresh perspective and different questions and hopes for what I can learn there. It’ll be fun to be an oldish newbie.

Which brings me to my first question for you:

What resources would you recommend I check out, as a freshly-minted art museum professional, to get a start on understanding the state of art museum educational theory and practice? 

Anything is fair game; books, articles, websites, people, places outside the field worth looking at, etc… I know it’s a broad question, but it’s intentionally so. I’m in the divergent phase of my research and I like to throw the net wide and gather as many data as I can.  There’ll be time later to process and converge. For now, I’m hungry and I hope you’ll feed me. And don’t limit yourself to technology. As an example, I’d been dabbling a bit in Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) at the Museum of Science and wondering how they might apply in a science museum context.

I’m also an experiential learner, and like to immerse myself in places. I’ve always got a list of museums I’m dying to go visit, but I’d like to ask one more question of you:

Which art museums are on your top ten list of institutions doing interesting work?

I know, I know… It’s another stupidly broad question, but bear with me, OK? I’m new to this! ;-) If you could tell me a museum that’s on your list and what about it puts it there, I’d be grateful. As an example, my personal list includes Cleveland Museum of Art because of the philosophy behind Gallery One, as well as the technological details of implementing it. The list also includes Dallas Museum of Art for their “DMA Friends and Partners” program. Ditching paid admission and membership for an interaction-based economy is endlessly fascinating to me and I look forward to seeing how it plays out.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts and input.

The other side of “the tech skills divide”

Making a museum from scratch: Part Eight

So my last post on digital skills struck a nerve with a few people. The biggest takeaway for me was one of Matt Popke’s insightful comments. He pointed out that there are in fact two simultaneous skills divides and that while we in the profession tend to talk a lot about getting the museum field in general more digitally literate, we never talk about how to let people in digital media postions (most of whom come into museums via their trade, be it software development, web design, hardware, project management, or what have you) get up to speed on museum skills.  It was one of the those moments when you suddenly see the elephant in the room and realize its been there awhile.

What makes the divide so much more unfortunate, as Matt points out, is that techies are, by and large, inclined to be self-starters and active learners. The Web is full of tutorials, podcasts, and courseware that they use to keep their skills up to date, and learn new ones. Why is it that there is so little out there about museum work that isn’t part of a Masters’ program course of study that people who are already working full-time just won’t be likely to do? (And, yes, I do know that there are certificate programs out there. I think my point still stands, though.)

Moving from closed to open practice

At least part of the reason is that museums tend to be very closed about their practice. And moving from that “Should I share this” mindset, to a more open, “Is there a reason not to share this?” mindset is another one of those “tech” issues that really isn’t a technology issue when you scratch the surface. And it’s not an issue of “us” being more accommodating to “them”. Being more transparent should be a personal imperative, because it’s a great way to improve one’s own work. We all need to adopt a more open mindset towards our own learning. We don’t know everything, and we should all be open to learning new skills and modes of doing our jobs. So adding digital skills to our existing museum work seems like an incremental improvement. However looking at it from the other direction is very different. “Museum work” is a disparate stew of professions and jobs. The list of things we do that someone coming in from the outside might want to know about – curation, education, conservation, exhibition, administration, marketing, development – is long indeed. Where would one even begin? Is it too much of a hydra to even try to tackle?

I don’t think so. The more I thought about it, the more I thought about the importance of being open about one’s own practice. Being able to share not only what you do, but your process, is an invaluable tool for a reflective practitioner. For me, that’s one of the main personal benefits of blogging. The mere act of writing down what I do concretizes it in a way that no amount of thinking does. Documenting your work, sharing it and reflecting on it, are essential ingredients to improving. It is something we should all be doing more of, and the more we do it, the more we increase the resources available to the Matts of the museum world. And if it sounds like too much work, consider this. The Harvard Graduate School of Education has run a program for many years called Making Learning Visible http://www.pz.harvard.edu/mlv/.html which seeks to understand how to create and sustain cultures of learning in public schools through documentation and group learning. And if you think you’re too busy, go shadow a classroom teacher around for a day. If they can do it, we certainly can.

So, here’s my question for you:
If you’re a digital media person, and you’ve been in museums awhile, what are the things you’ve learned the hard way that you wish somebody had told you?

If you’re a digital media person, and you’re new to museums, what are the things that you wish you had a better grip on? Imagine you’re looking at MCN’s shiny new professional development program, MCNPro, and you saw a webinar listed that covered _______. What is that blank that would make you say, “I want to take that!”?

And, last but not least, if you’re a non-digital media person, what are the things you wish the digital media folks at your museum “got” that they never seem to?

I look forward to your replies!

Additional Resources:

The chorus of voices suggesting museums think about education as something more than what the Education department does is growing daily.  Here’s just a few from the recent past:

Nina Simon has a great post on Khan Academy and free choice learning that has some really insightful commentary from Beth Harris and Steve Zucker of Khan Academy (and formerly of MoMA)
http://museumtwo.blogspot.com/2012/10/khan-academy-and-online-free-choice.html 

Gretchen Jennings posted a wonderfully incendiary question on Museum Commons about whether museums identify too much with formal education at the expense of exploring other skills and disciplines to do their work. Though aimed directly at museum educators, I’d say it is food for thought for all of us. Check out the comments in particular.
http://museumcommons.blogspot.com/2012/09/museum-educators-what-next.html

Erin Branham at Edgital, a new blog positioning itself “at the edge of museum education and digital media”, has some easy ways for educators to get into the action.
 http://www.edgital.org/2012/10/06/first-steps-to-embracing-digital-literacy-for-museum-educators/ 

Kajsa Hartig in Sweden is actually working with two universities to examine digital literacy in the heritage sector and what kinds of skills the rising generation of heritage professionals should have as they enter the workforce.
http://kajsahartig.wordpress.com/2012/09/28/digital-skills-in-the-heritage-sector/

In the same vein, there’s a wonderfully heartening post by on Art Museum Teaching about “Challenging Ourselves: Strategies to Reflect on Our Practice” It’s aimed at museum education managers, but I think anybody interested in reflective practice should give it a read.
http://artmuseumteaching.com/2012/10/06/challenging-ourselves-strategies-to-reflect-on-our-practice/

Last, but not least, Beth Harris and Steve Zucker posted “Museums and open education” at e-Literate, which is a nice blueprint for thinking about museum education in a different light, and  in general being a more open, experimental, and reflective practitioner.
http://mfeldstein.com/museums-and-open-education/

UPDATE: I forgot Oonagh Murphy’s PDF “Museums and Digital Engagement: A New York Perspective” which is a veritable Who’s Who of New Yorkers Doing Cool Things in Museums. Worth the download!
http://www.wcmt.org.uk/reports/1065_1.pdf

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/]

Opening up to new ideas

We’re in an interesting place in mobile media design for museums.  Technological issues and market penetration are finally getting to the point where we can design experiences that will reach broad segments of our audiences and deliver experiences and foster interactions that would be unthinkable in any other medium. Over the past year, tremendous efforts have been made to establish a level playing field in terms of open standards, led by Rob Stein (another person you should follow @rjstein) at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and others.  The TourML standard currently being developed offers us the promise of not only being able to get out from under the old model of designing content for specific platforms or proprietary systems, but of being able to share open content across applications and even across institutions. Heady stuff!

To generate some thinking around this, a group of us will be running a workshop at Museums and the Web 2011 in Philadelphia, called More Than Tours: radical opportunities in mobile content design and social media.  You should totally sign up! It’ll be great.  Our current lineup includes Nancy Proctor, Sandy Goldberg, Koven Smith, Halsey Burgund, Dave Schaller, and Kate Haley Goldman. If I weren’t going to be helping run it, I’d certainly attend! Here’s the blurb:

Workshop

New mobile and social media platforms have hugely expanded the ways in which museums can interact with their audiences – and even with each other! Nonetheless, museum mobile experiences still tend not to stray far from the traditional audio tour in experience and content design. This workshop is designed to get us thinking “outside the audio tour box” to devise radical new approaches to mobile experiences for museum audiences.

Led by innovative mobile practitioners and museum experience designers, the workshop will challenge us to transform the relationship with museum audiences by engaging them in doing meaningful, mission-focused work, and being true co-creators of our cultural institutions. We’ll ask how content creation might be shared with audiences and among museums; how new tools like augmented reality and location-based gaming and social media apps can expand the mobile experience beyond the museum’s walls; and what research exists and is still needed to help inform our next generation mobile decisions. Outcomes will include both new paradigms for museum mobile experiences, and concrete solutions for building them.

So here’s my question. When you hear “radical opportunities in mobile content design and social media” what springs to mind?

Breathe! Creating Is Hard Work

One of the reasons  I started this blog was so I could use it as a way to synthesize and refine my thinking about my chosen profession. A lot of it has been metacognitive, thinking about how I think. Maybe it’s because the Museum of Science spent decades developing exhibitions on teaching thinking skills. Maybe it’s my natural inclination, I don’t know. What I do know is that thinking like an exhibit developer requires certain skills and habits of mind. Just in time for the Thanksgiving long weekend, here’s the first of several posts on thinking like an exhibit developer. What do you think are the most important habits of mind an exhibit developer needs?

NOTE: I will intentionally use the words “develop” and “design” throughout to refer to the same thing, not because I think my skills qualify me to apply for exhibit designer jobs, but because making exhibits is design. Small “d” design.

Breathe! Creating Is Hard Work

Thinking like an exhibit developer is all about being prepared for the unknown and being able to make good judgments.  Thinking like an exhibit developer requires not only the ability to live with uncertainty, but to befriend it.

An exhibit developer’s job is to create something complete and whole; an experience. A good exhibit developer needs to able to envision how to put the pieces together, to see the limited subset of pieces at hand as a complete and coherent whole.  Their initial vision is necessarily based on incomplete knowledge about smaller parts, but being able to use those to sketch in the missing bits is an essential part of exhibit development and design intelligence in general. Where someone else sees an empty gallery, a good developer sees a completed exhibition vaguely, and then more and more clearly until they have finished and made it.

Every design project is unique and requires the developers to be responsive to the work, attentive to the situation, and self-reflective as they figure out the process their particular project needs. Good exhibition design is not about finding the “right” way to do something, or coming up with the rules, or framework, or checklist that will apply to any situation and solve all potential problems. Being a good developer means being able to live with not knowing exactly what the final product is going to look like and being at peace with that truth.  Developers who make exactly what they set out to make aren’t paying attention.  They may still make something useful and beautiful, but I would argue they will never make something truly great, because that requires taking advantage of sudden opportunities, capitalizing on unexpected outcomes, and most importantly, being willing to fail quickly and fruitfully.

Making something new is hard work, and looking out into the void is often terrifying. It’s rarely dull. Making the same thing somebody else has made is easy, that’s why it happens so often. Especially in the science center field, “proven” ideas tend to proliferate like weeds. Making something new involves chance; it forces the developer to explore the unknown and create some new reality that even he or she can’t see clearly at first. Every time they begin a project, a developer will confront situations where they will have opportunities to see things they thought they knew in a new way, to learn new ways to do their work, and to resolve thorny dilemmas mindfully and straightforwardly. In other words, they will have opportunities to be creative while creating.

Exhibit development is neither a linear process nor strictly an iterative process. It is a dialectical process where the “big idea”, the current plan of work, and the specific tasks being done all influence each other continuously in a crazy feedback network.  Each new interesting fact requires the reflective developer to reassess the plan and the vision and decide whether to incorporate that fact and let it alter the vision, or keep the vision and lose the fact, or choose some other outcome. It’s a central tenet of prototyping at the Museum that, “Anything you fix usually breaks something else.” A good developer fixes and breaks and fixes and breaks. Working this way requires courage. It takes courage to avoid the simple solutions that others will take to save time or money or effort. It takes courage to challenge the prevailing understanding of the present situation and see it for oneself. It takes courage to oppose simplistic interpretations of how to solve that problem.

Dilemmas

I mentioned dilemmas above, and they need a little definition. A good exhibit developer must remember that a dilemma is not a problem in the logical sense of the word. 2x + 4= y is a problem. There are solutions, values of x and y that will solve the problem and there are values that won’t. The former are “right” and the latter are “wrong.”  Dilemmas don’t have any answer that solves every single need or want. With dilemmas, every possible outcome leads to something getting sacrificed. The developer’s job is choosing what gets sacrificed. That is the dilemma. Dilemmas are a central aspect of any design process and the place where most personal conflicts arise, because resolving dilemmas requires giving something up, and that’s hard to do, particularly when what someone is giving up is their idea or their vision of a potential future. In my experience, the hardest part of exhibit development is not deciding what the exhibition is about. The hardest part is deciding what it’s not about.

Reading back over this, I’m aware that readers may be thinking I’m a masochist from my descriptors thus far; responsibility, uncertainty, dilemma, terrifying, conflict, courage, sacrifice. Designing something new is hard and it inevitably involves pain. There are things a good developer can do to lessen the overall amount, but nobody can eliminate it entirely. Nor should one try to. Avoiding conflict may be a useful coping skill in other aspects of life, but it is the death of creativity. Judy Rand once said to me at the outset of a major exhibition project, “You can have your pain now, or you can have it later. You can’t not have it, and the longer you avoid it, the more pain you’ll have in the end.” My experiences since then have confirmed that statement over and over again.

The premise that pain is bad is false when it comes to design. Creativity thrives on tension, conflict, and pain.  Pain is necessary and beneficial to the final product. When you can resolve it gracefully, you often get startling, beautiful results. You walk around the finished product, and all the pain and conflict seem to diminish. A completed exhibition that beautifully balances experiences, meets visitors’ needs, and contains surprises is worth all the hard conversations and arduous decision-making. In fact, there’s nothing like the feeling of walking through something you helped give birth to.