Tag Archives: vision

On Big Ideas

Hmm, another strangely personal post…

In between wishing I was at NDF2012 in New Zealand and InterComm2012 in Sydney, I got to hang out with some old friends and wound up talking about some of the same themes I think about in a professional context.  So, since it kept getting in the way of the other things I should be writing, here it is.   

Over the Thanksgiving Day weekend I had the rare privilege of spending the evening with some of my oldest friends, people I’ve known since high school and kept hold of over the years. It was full of wonderful moments, like realizing that my daughter is now the age we were when we first became friends, and how marvelous it is to have people around who knew you when you were just starting out on this whole “being a grown-up” adventure.   It was also interesting to realize that we were still having the “What do I want to be when I grow up?” conversation.  Only now, we weren’t talking about colleges and majors, but about half-built careers and new directions.

Partway through the night, when there were just three of us left, my friend asked us if he could share something very confidential, with that look that says he was serious. We of course said yes, and he told us his big secret; he had a Big Idea, something that could be his life’s work if he could figure out how to get his brain around it, which he hadn’t been able to do. He hoped that by finally telling somebody about it, we might be able to help him figure out A) was this even really a Big Idea, or was it just a silly, unattainable dream, and if it was, B) how to figure out how to move forward. The resulting conversation brought together a lot of ideas that have been appearing over the past few months here and at conferences about personal professional development and agency. As I’ve written in previous posts, personal learning networks are something in which I’m very interested. Part of that interest comes from being involved in a number of strategic projects that require all kinds of skills I used to consider being outside my core competencies as an exhibit developer. Part of the interest comes from finally getting a better handle on exactly the same question, “What do I want to be when I grow up?”

Four hours later, we realized it was time to head our separate ways and far from answering his question, we’d just replaced his huge, nebulous concern with a legion of specific concerns. But everyone was smiling and energized by the conversation, and I look forward to seeing how he synthesizes what we discussed into a plan of action.

The context

My friend is a budding humanities scholar and had found that rarest of academic treasures; the important question that nobody seems to have asked yet. I obviously won’t go into details, but he had realized that there was an unanswered question that was global in scope and impact and he was trying to figure out whether he needed to apply to a PhD program so he could work on this problem. He was very concerned about not sharing the question for fear of someone stealing it. As he saw it, his prize was an academic book on the subject, and the problem was how to do the staggering amount of research necessary to tackle the question without giving away what the question was until he was ready to publish. And of course the ever-present American concern of how to manage the debt load of higher education. It was a tough knot to unravel.

So, like good friends do, we questioned his framing of his problem and spent hours hammering on the same themes I often seem to cover at work these days; going back to first principles and asking the hard questions like; “What does success look like to you?” “What role do you see yourself playing in this endeavor?” “Who is the audience for the work, and is the vehicle (an academic book) the right one to reach them?” What we were really doing was help him articulate a career plan/personal learning program, and it’s a good exercise to undertake.

Here are some of the highlights of that conversation that, I think, are broadly applicable whether you’re an EMP, a mid-career type, or even a senior manager.

Find the right people to help you figure out what’s the real story

My friend had only one image of what working on his dream looked like; get a PhD, have to teach somewhere and work on his Big Idea as part of the package of being an academic. As described his problem to us, we immediately saw trouble with this; the kinds of skills and expertise he’d need to really tackle his Big Question were not likely to be what he’d get from a PhD. Most of what he described as being essential to the project involved normalizing and analyzing mountains of scattered quantitative data, and trying to draw research from another field into his field. Really interesting, cross-cutting research requiring a diverse array of skills, and a lot of grunt work. But the only model he had was that of his professors, who were at least a generation older, with the corresponding skill sets. His problem, as he saw it, was one thing. The minute he had to put it into words and describe it to us, it became clear to all of us that his problem was a very different one. Years of internal dialogue hadn’t gotten him as far as four hours and a couple of rounds of drinks had with two friends. I’ve had this same thing happen to me a couple of times over the past year, and both times my big nebulous problem turned into a very different-looking list of specific problems that were individually tractable enough to allow me to make progress.

What role do you want to play in the story of your life?

One point we made to my friend over and over was to think about what role he wanted to play in realizing his life’s work. Did he see himself as the lone researcher, finding all the data himself and doing the hard work? Or, did he see himself as the vision keeper, marshalling his people to go out and find the data and inspiring others to pursue the Big Plan he had? Or something else? It seemed clear to the two of us hearing the story for the first time that it would be impossible for a lone researcher to accomplish the work he’d described in a lifetime, but we needed to walk through all the jobs that would be required in order for him to see it himself. Who was going to comb through archives and repositories on multiple continents for the data he’d need? Who was going to take on the serious number-crunching his project would require? If it was he, he’d need another degree just to have the chops to assemble a dataset he could query, let alone analyze. And he was able to say “No, somebody else could take that part.” and admit he didn’t really feel like getting a Stats degree, then it was easier to put down his obviously dearly-held vision that he’d do it all himself, and see himself needing to be more of an executive producer than a writer.

What does success look like to you?

My friend’s vision of success was one I could totally relate to; write the book on the subject.  It’s a great vision, but it’s quite a narrow one. As we talked, many different outcomes for his work came up, a film or films, crowdsourcing efforts to build a global network of volunteers interested in his problem, institutions that might sponsor his work, and/or take it on as part of their mission. Would any of these count as “success”? He thought they might. As he focused less on one product as the only indicator of success, the possible ways to move forward increased, pitfalls became less dangerous, and the steps he needed to take became clearer.

What do you know you don’t yet know, and how are you going to learn it?

One way to attack a wicked problem is to break it down. For my friend, figuring out how to proceed to realize his ambition would require lots of things to happen in a particular sequence. For many of those steps, he lacked specific knowledge, skills and access to the networks that would move him forward.  Though we’d dismissed getting a PhD as the only route to success, we spent a long time talking about how he could look at getting an advanced degree as a tool to validate his hypotheses for the Big Idea, gain specific skills he’d need down the road, and develop enough of an idea so that he could demonstrate how the full implementation of it might look, and put a flag in the ground, so to speak, establishing his claim on the idea. I wished at one point that I’d done the same thing when I embarked on my own Master’s program. I think it’ll help him enormously as he tries to sort out whether he needs a PhD or a Master’s degree, what schools might be more amenable to an outlier project like his, and what kinds courses he’ll need.

What are the milestones that will tell you you’re on the right track, and how must they be phased in order to bootstrap you from phase to phase?

My friend had been paralyzed by the size of the project he’d envisioned, not because he couldn’t do the work, but because he hadn’t been able to see it as a sequence of discrete steps that built upon each other to achieve his ultimate goal. Our other friend runs a very successful user interface R&D shop and was very good at taking his idea apart and turning it into a work plan. Figuring out what you need to do to get to the next step is a lot easier than trying to figure out the whole puzzle at once, and we were able to brainstorm a long list of steps, and milestones that could get him a good way down the road. Project Management 101 stuff, you might say, and you’d be right. But lots of us don’t tend to think of our careers as a project, and my experience has been that fewer still manage their careers as actively as a project manager monitors even a  simple project.

Who is your tribe? Where can you find them, and how can you start building your coalition?

This theme came up repeatedly at the MCN Directors’ Roundtable as a vital skill to possess in any museum, and I’d argue it’s probably generalizable to most fields. For the big ideas, the ones that stand a chance of having major impact, finding the people who can help you realize your goals is critical to overcoming resistance. This requires being a great communicator, and that is something worthy of attention and effort.

What questions would you ask your director about museums & digital technologies?

It’s almost time for the Museum Computer Network conference to begin and in a few short days, I’ll be on my way to Seattle.

On November 10th, I’ll be moderating a roundtable discussion with four directors, about what they see as the pressing issues for the museum field when it comes to digital technologies and what we all do. We will explore themes that emerge, and open it up to questions from the floor, and hopefully everybody will come away something useful. All the details are here.

The session is an outcome of a long Twitter conversation I blogged about months ago on the need for broadening the scope of the conversation about digital technologies, instead of just talking endlessly in our comfortable peer groups. It’s also a testament to the MCN Program Committee’s flexibility that they found a spot in the program for this session even though it grew up organically outside the session proposal mechanism.

I am very excited to sit down with group and hear what they think. I’m hoping for some lively discussion amongst the panelists and with the audience, but I’d like to include some voices from the wider world. So I have a question for you.

If you could ask a group of forward-thinking museum directors a question about the intersection of digital technologies and museum work, what would that question be?

I will be collecting responses all week, and will try to make sure they get asked in Seattle!

 

 

Australia: MONA – revolutionary, and not

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

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

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

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

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

Our first glimpse of MONA.

The ninenty-nine steps up

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

Wim Delvoye’s Gothic cement mixer

Closeup

The entrance to MONA

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

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

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

;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next up: The O