“My dear Henry Junior”

On writing to the audience
In my years of working in museums I’ve gotten quite a few letters from members of the public looking for information. They run the gamut from students doing school projects to complaints and praise about exhibitions to downright strange. I’ve gotten letters from elderly shut-ins, prisoners, and folks looking for confirmation for their elaborately described theories about aliens in Egypt or the Knights Templar. I try to respond to all but the most bizarre, but especially those written by children. The impact of personal contact may impossible to quantify, but it keeps me grounded. You never know what acts are going to make a difference.

One of the other things I love about working in museums is the endlessly fascinating stuff you find in the course of research. I recently rediscovered one of my all time favorites. It is a letter written in 1920 by George A. Reisner, a famous Egyptologist to the nine year old son of a friend. And since the Universe seems to have a sense of humor, that young American boy who was interested in ancient Egypt was called Henry Junior, just like Indiana Jones.

Like Indy, he also didn’t go by his given name. Seventy years later, I had the honor of working with him briefly, mounting a retrospective exhibition of his career, a career as illustrious and as dangerous as Indy’s, though with fewer supernatural entanglements. I didn’t encounter this letter until after Henry Bradford Washburn, Jr., “Brad” to the world, had left the museum he had founded, some twenty years after he officially retired. I don’t know what effect it had on him and his career choices, but looking at his life’s work, it’s hard to imagine that this letter didn’t play a part in luring Brad out into the wide wild world.

So, without further ado,


 Harvard Camp,
Pyramids P.O., Cairo.
April 22, 1920.

My dear Henry Junior,

You will pardon my not answering your letter sooner.  It came to me at Gebel Barkal in the Sudan when I was struggling so hard to get “some curios” for the Boston Museum that I had to chuck all my private letters in a heap to be answered when I got back to the Pyramids Camp.  Day before yesterday, I arrived here after a four days trip from about a thousand miles up the Nile and after resting yesterday I am now clearing up the heap of letters I brought down with me.

I wish I could be of some help to you in your plans for making a pyramid; but antiquities nowadays are very hard to get and difficult to send to America.  Moreover I have none of my own.  You see there have been so many funny stories told about archaeologists who had private collections or who let their families have private collections and I hate so to be laughed at that I never dared own any antiquities.  However I will send a note of your needs to an American acquaintance of mine in Cairo and will ask him if he can help you. His name is Mr. Blanchard.  I do not know whether he can do anything, but if he can he will.

If you want to see what the pyramids look like from the doorway of my office where I am writing this note, you go to the Boston Museum, ask for Mr. Story and request him to show you the painting of my camp by Mr. J. Lindon Smith.  It is a very good picture indeed which Mr. Lindon Smith gave me for a present and it is now in my office in the museum in Boston.

I will tell you something about camels.  You sit on a very curious saddle made of crossed pieces of wood with a leather seat and a sheepskin with the wool on thrown over the whole.  It is not very comfortable.  There are no stirrups in real camel saddle but only a piece of wood like a chair leg which sticks up in front of the saddle and you wind one leg around that pi and put the other leg over it to hold it fast.  That keeps you from falling off.  You do not fall off when the camel trots but on a long journey when the camel only walks people go to sleep and then perhaps they wake up on the ground with a jolt.  A camel is not a very nice beast for he hates everybody and everything and never seems happy except when he is free of all harness and gingerly picking leaves off a thorn bush with his long leathery lips.  The Arabs say if you let a camel put his nose in your tent, he will bring the rest of himself in and lie down on your bed.  So beware of camels.  And when you draw one always make a line across his legs so that he can not come alive and annoy you. That is magic and magic as old as the pyramids.  I dare say your father will tell you there is no magic but then he has always lived in a house.  Nowadays people who live in houses never find out about magic.  That is why I do not like living in a house myself.  It is too lonely.

Give my salâms to your father,
Your sincerely,
[Signed] G. A. Reisner


The power of passion

"Portrait of George Andrew Reisner" by Unknown - The World's Work, 1922: Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -

“Portrait of George Andrew Reisner” by Unknown – The World’s Work, 1922: Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

The letter is obviously written in response to a lost letter from Henry Junior asking about help on building his own pyramid, getting some trinkets, and camels. I am enchanted by Reisner’s response because he doesn’t try to push archaeology at the boy, but makes abundantly clear the joy of living a life doing what he relished. I love this letter so much! It is so obviously written for a child, but without any of the condescension you might expect to find, particularly from a busy, industrious field archaeologist like Reisner, who by 1920 had been Director of the Harvard/Museum of Fine Arts Expedition excavating in the great necropolis of Giza for twenty years, a position he held until his death in 1942.

The letter is a perfect example of the sentiment voiced in a quote often attributed to the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry,

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

It’s a little master class in communicating with a lay audience. In one page, the letter paints a moving portrait of the rigors of life in the field. It frames a thorny ethical issue in terms a nine year old could grasp without being polemic or doctrinaire. Reisner’s description of the Arab saying about camels explains without passing judgement or engaging in cultural comparison. And the end of the letter, where one of the pioneers of scientific field archaeology, a man noted for his intellectual rigor and carefulness, talks about magic and the loneliness of living in houses? It still kills me every time I read it. The colleagues at the MFA who first showed me the letter told me that Reisner was still remembered for the fact that though he was curator of Egyptology for decades he would go years without ever setting foot in the Museum, let alone his office.

I like to imagine the 53 year old Reisner, by then a stout, solid looking academic, sitting in his office in Giza. He’s smoking his pipe, thumping away on his manual typewriter, looking out the door at the enormous blocks at the base of the pyramid, trying to think of the right things to write. What will speak to a young boy? How to answer his request for trinkets in a way that impresses upon him the issues surrounding the antiquities trade? How to capture the joy of doing what you love without sounding too preachy (Henry Sr. was dean of the Episcopal Theological School)?

And he types, and puffs, and types more until he’s at the bottom of the page, signs it and adds it to the pile of outgoing correspondence. And probably forgets about it. And sometime later, a child in Cambridge who’s probably never seen a camel reads the letter. And keeps it, eventually giving it to the museum Reisner worked so long for. I don’t know if Henry Junior ever did go ask for Mr. Story to show him the painting of Harvard Camp, but I’d like to think he did, and saw the office with the empty desk and unused chair and remembered how people who lived in houses forgot about magic.


Back in the beginning of 2014, Rob Stein, Suse Cairns, and I had a series of conversations about blogging, conference presentations, the future, and other things I’m forgetting. The outcome of those talks was an online publishing experiment we decided to call CODE | WORDS. Our dream was pretty straightforward. Could we improve on the models of online and offline discourse we all engaged in? Was there some better way to generate substantive discourse that was better than the blog model of long comment chains, and was faster and more collaborative than the traditional “go sit down in silence and write your article” model of publishing?

You can go to Medium and read the results for yourself. We didn’t hit all our goals, but we did help give birth to thought-provoking essays that might not have been written otherwise. It’s some of the work I’m most proud of in my career. And, as a bonus, one of our hopes – that working in the open would provide greater benefit to the field than other methods – has borne fruit.

Reprogram: We’re big in Brazil!


Luis Mendes, one of the core CODE | WORDS conspirators and one of the most consistent cheerleaders during the long slog to get the essays published, has been busy in his native Brazil to collect and publish new thinking about museums. To that end, he started a program called Reprogram, which aims to investigate “the changes in museums around the world from a collection of essays, articles and lectures transcripts of some of the most influential museum thinkers of our time. It is a collaborative effort of shared content and publishing made possible by crowdfunding.” He crowdfunded the publication of the first volume of the series, Communication, branding and culture in a new era of museums, available in Portuguese and English, and used many of the CODE | WORDS essays in the second volume, Technology, innovation and culture in a new era of museums. It’s quite humbling to share the contents page with people like Cory Doctorow, Nina Simon, Jane Finnis, Koven Smith, and other great practitioners. Both PDFs are worth the download.

CODE | WORDS: the book!

CW_3Drendered_grande-2While Luis was busy in Brazil, we approached publishers with CODE | WORDS and found in MuseumsEtc a kindred spirit in Graeme Farnell. Despite the questions, concerns, and requirements we threw at him, he never ceased to be an enthusiastic partner. The result is a Creative Commons licensed book, that contains the original essays, with some revised essays, a forward by Seb Chan, and more! I was glad for the chance to rewrite my essay, which I felt never quite got where I wanted it to go. That’s a bonus benefit of the physical book, and speaking of benefits, we will soon have a special ordering link that will send part of the proceeds of book purchases to the Museum Computer Network Scholarship fund. How cool is that? When I get the URL, I’ll post the link!

And there’s more CODE | WORDS news coming, but that’ll have to be a post of its own.

#MCN2015 recap: What does ‘digital’ mean to you?


MCN2015 was incredible. One of those life-changing, affirming, provoking sorts of days-long affairs that left me hoarse for a week after. No, really. I talked so much in Minneapolis I lost my voice for several days. There’s much unpacking to do, but first I have a promise to fulfill…

Buzzwords: Content, Digital, Engagement
Jennifer Foley, Director of Interpretation, Cleveland Museum of Art, Jeffrey Inscho, Innovation Studio, Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, and I ran a session called “‘Content’ and its discontents” which investigated questions and issues around the language we use when communicating our work. The panel also examined why talking through the semantics of what we do is more than just semantics, but has real impact on the meaningful subject matter museums create. Specifically, we looked at three rampant buzzwords; content, engagement, and digital.

Given my obvious fixation on the word “digital”, I led the breakouts on coming up with answers to the question, “What does ‘digital’ mean to you?” The 40-odd museum professionals at the session generated a ton of answers and engendered some great conversation. The results covered several sheets of butcher’s paper, and we promised we’d get them typed up and posted for participants to see.

The digital list in process, courtesy of Alli Burness via Twitter

Thanks to my intern, the marvelous Meike Gourley, the ‘digital’ sheets are transcribed and legible. It’s also worth looking at the results of Jeff’s “content” group, and Jennifer’s “engagement” group, to see how differently the three words resonated with people who use them all the time. Discussion follows the list below.

Opposing Binaries
Accessible / Inaccessible
elitist / Populist
invisible / displayable
proprietary / shareable
Superficial / authentic
un/ sustainable
“The Future” / “Legacy”
Permanent/ Temporary
Isolating / Connected
impossibly small / large
Schrödinger’s cat
Human – made / automatically

only for the KIDS
Community Building
narcissistic and selfish
white male

needs a device
seductive and shiny
“when you don’t know what else to call it”
DIGITAL (not real)
not real
exposing/ vulnerable
not for a museum
confusing (still)
things that can break

Mutable / Mute-able
the sea we swim in
forever changing
Engaging Content
easier to implement

Organized, a system
it is a medium
(The internet)
i Pads and screens
computer environment
video and rich media

Other definitions
not printed
the last thing
duplicating print
anything on a computer
Anything technological

So what does it mean?

Well, a lot, it seems! It was fascinating to see how schizophrenic and polarizing the answers to the question were. The number of answers that contradicted other answers is pretty telling. It will be interesting to see how it stacks up against “content” and “engagement”.

What things strike you about this list?

UPDATE: Here’s Jennifer’s take on the session and “engagement”. Go read it!

Tracing the contours of digital transformation, Part Three

In Part One of this series, I laid out what I see as one of the biggest challenges facing museums in the early 21st century; how to transform themselves into postdigital museums. In Part Two,  we looked at what the MIT/Deloitte report  discovered that digitally mature organizations have in common. Getting there, though, is another thing. What we need is a good roadmap that can help us get from here to there. We’ll look at a couple more reports in this post, and then get into the wicked problem of trying to synthesize.

Putting the pieces together

CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user Kevin Dooley

A recent McKinsey Digital Labs report called “Six building blocks for creating a high-performing digital enterprise” covers similar ground to the MIT/Deloitte report, and is focused on providing executives with a structure to frame digital transformation efforts.

“Since digital touches so many parts of an organization, any large digital program requires unprecedented coordination of people, processes, and technologies.”

They posit six major building blocks to becoming a high-performing digital enterprise:

Strategy and innovation
“The best digital strategies don’t rely on past analyses, but instead start fresh and carve out a vision based on where they believe value is likely to shift over the next three to five years.”

The customer decision journey
“With so much data available, companies can become much more precise in their outreach to customers. By combining deep data analysis and ethnographic research, digital leaders can identify high-value microsegments… Understanding how these customers make decisions… allows digital leaders to tailor their approaches.”

Process automation
“Digitizing processes has less to do with technology and more with how companies approach development… This is more than just automating an existing process. Becoming digital often requires reinventing the entire business process to cut out steps altogether or reduce the number of documents required.”

“Successful incumbents become agile by simplifying. They let structure follow strategy and align the organization around their customer objectives with a focus on fast, project-based structures owned by working groups comprising different sets of expertise, from research to marketing to finance.”

“[T]oday’s fluid marketplace requires technology that can drive innovation, automation, and personalization much more quickly. So, the best are moving to a two-speed IT model that enables rapid development of customer-facing programs while evolving core systems designed for stability and high-quality data management more slowly.”

Data and analytics
“Companies that make extensive use of customer analytics see a 126 percent profit improvement over competitors. [They] are adept at deciding which data to use…, focusing the analytics on delivering on goals with clear and useful insights, and having the right capabilities and processes in place act on them. That requires people with the right kinds of skills—particularly “translators” who can articulate business goals and use cases with respect to analytics requirements and turn data output into business insights.”

Notice that “technology” is near the bottom of the list.

Getting there (more) quickly

“Speed lights 2” CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user jones hanopol

The second recent McKinsey Digital Labs report is titled “Finding the speed to innovate” and provides some good advice on getting from here to there. Though aimed specifically at software companies, many of the lessons apply to museums, especially as they become more and more digitally influenced. Like the MIT/Deloitte report, the McKinsey authors agree that digital transformation is not about technology. As they see it, digital transformation is “a change program requiring an updated culture”.

Their key advices to companies are:

  1. Be clear about the change, and set high aspirations.
  2. Create incentives that are aligned with business outcomes.
  3. Create a ‘single team’ mind-set.
  4. Build a continuous-improvement and data-driven culture.
  5. Build the right capabilities.

Sure, all of those are pretty self-evident, standard “don’t do dumb things” consultant speak. What resonated for me in the report was the stages they identified that organizations go through on their way to becoming digitally transformed.

“In our experience, the companies that are implementing these… approaches most successfully have… adopted a more deliberate approach… —simplify, scale, and sustain—as well as the cultural changes required to reap the most value from these lean approaches.”

Stage 1: Simplify

“Companies need to create a “single source of truth” for all software: one repository for storing, versioning, and tracking all source code. The mainline version of code can then be accessed quickly and reliably.”

Ah, the “single source of truth”! Here we are back at the idea in my Museum Full Stack post; the notion that digital repositories need to be central to the core operation of the business, or in museums’ case, not just a repository accessible only to highly-trained specialists.

Stage 2: Scale

“It can be a long and expensive task to scale up and build out fully automated IT systems that have a mix of modern and legacy technologies. Focusing on the highest-value automation opportunities is the most productive way forward.”

Getting past the one-off model of innovation (“Let’s make an app!” “VR!”) and looking at innovating at scale the way the Brooklyn Museum, Cooper Hewitt, and others have been doing requires a ton of support of all stripes; financial, administrative, spiritual. 

Stage 3: Sustain

“While companies can often gear up to change their software-development processes in one big burst, this all-hands-on-deck approach is rarely sustainable—hence the appeal of continuous delivery. However, the pursuit of continuous delivery needs to be easy for staffers to follow and ingrained in the culture to maintain its value.”

This may be the biggest pain point for museums of the three stages. The notion of continuous delivery (lots of small releases all the time, instead of “all hands on deck” make something ginormous once in a while, model) is what my startup guy, Scrumaster brother would call an “anti pattern”. Creating a sustainable business model that encourages a postdigital workflow will be no mean feat, but I’m confident can be done. 

What I glean from these three reports is that A) There’s a lot of overlap, which gives me confidence that what they’re reporting actually exists and isn’t just consultant-ese, and B) The culture shift needed for a museum to become postdigital will not be easy or trivial.

And then…?

Aurora bridge CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user Ryan Healy

Getting from the comfortable here-and-now to the as-yet-unknown is scary, no doubt. It’ll be all too easy to go wrong, make costly mistakes, or not get all the way there.  In my experience, the vast majority of museums, even those that are at the forefront of doing things differently and experimenting with digital technologies still do so from a position of protecting and privileging the status quo, and fencing off “digital” as a way of managing the turmoil it can cause, and frankly, as a way of kicking the can down the road a little further. This is a classic example of wanting to delay having your pain, and I fear that it will have consequences down the road for museums that do so.

So now that we have lots of ideas of what the end state and phasing might look like, next we’ll take a look at what a digital transformation plan might look like.

Tracing the contours of digital transformation, Part Two

In Part One of this series, I laid out what I see as one of the biggest challenges facing museums in the early 21st century; how to transform themselves into postdigital museums. In this post, I’m going to highlight two recent reports that go a long way towards helping us identify how that transformation might occur, and what are the hallmarks of successful efforts.

Digital Transformation Isn’t Really About Technology 

What’s at the core of transformation? CC-BY 3.0 image by Flickr user James Lee

MIT’s Sloan School and Deloitte recently published a report called, “Strategy, not Technology, Drives Digital Transformation: Becoming a Digitally Mature Enterprise”. If you’re interested in that kind of management study, it’s well worth the read; detailed and non-proscriptive. What really caught my eye when I first read it was the header for the introduction, “Digital Transformation Isn’t Really About Technology”. That pretty much sums up my belief about “digital” in general. I often find myself in the position of being asked a “digital technology” question, and saying something along the lines of “What you’re asking is not that technically challenging. It’s a question of ________ (Select one: time/money/staff resources/strategy/priority)”.

MIT and Deloitte surveyed of 4,800 organizations recently about their state of digital adoption and adaptation. One of their key findings was that digitally maturing organizations are “more comfortable taking risks than their less digitally mature peers. To make their organizations less risk averse, business leaders have to embrace failure as a prerequisite for success. They must also address the likelihood that employees may be just as risk averse as their managers and will need support to become bolder.” This, you may realize, is not an inherently “digital” trait, it’s a mindset. Which fits in with all the other main findings of the report. In fact, the report’s main conclusion was that digital transformation has a lot less to do with technologies than it does with strategy and mindset.

“The strength of digital technologies … doesn’t lie in the technologies individually. Instead, it stems from how companies integrate them to transform their businesses and how they work.”

In other words, the companies best able to stand the discomfort of “doing things differently” as Tucker said, are the ones best poised to benefit from digital technologies. So rather than dive into discussions about how to fix the museum’s website, I’d like us to aim higher and not think of these digital products in isolation just yet. The more fruitful and potentially more transformative discussion we could have is about the mission, vision, and goals. Digital is a dimension of all of these, and can be integral to how we think about everything, if we can be open to re-examining all our workflows and products. They’re all already digitally-influenced, you just might not notice it right now.

Thus far, I’ve yammered, I’ve invoked authorities, I’ve engaged in anecdote. But what is digital transformation?

Briefly put, I’d say that digital transformation is a reflective design process that will result in us becoming what Parry calls a “postdigital museum”; one where digital technology has become so permeated into everyday activities that we no longer reflect upon or feel challenged by its “digital” character. 

Digital transformation is the process by which we get past the old physical/digital dialectic and let the activities and affordances of each realm enrich the other. This is an important point, and one that tends to lost in the polemics that are written by both reactionaries and progressives. A postdigital museum isn’t one where “digital” has triumphed over “physical”. I happen to reject that binary and the dialectical relationship that it fosters. It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. One doesn’t doesn’t engulf the other; instead they are joined in ways that ubiquitous computing pioneer Mark Weiser called “beautifully seamed” where the connections between each are both apparent and transparent. Beautiful seams in an object or process make evident the process of their manufacture, and invite the user (in this you, you museum professional!) to both appreciate the object and feel empowered to reach in and reconfigure it to suit their evolving needs and wants. Too much of what we do in the digital realm today is magical, hidden in black boxes and tended by priests who speak arcane tongues. Magic is, well, magical, but I’d prefer to build a beautifully seamed workplace full of tools and processes appropriate for the task at hand and train staff to use those tools in the ways that they deem best, not the software or hardware developers.

So let’s look at some of the hallmarks of digitally mature organizations MIT/Deloitte found and see what we can take away and apply specifically to museums.

The hallmarks of digitally mature organizations

CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user M.G. Kafkas

One of the advantages of not being on the bleeding edge of innovation is the ability to learn from those who’ve gone ahead. We have the benefit of building on the work done by other museums and businesses. The MIT report offer us a clearer view of the contours of how a digitally transformed museum might operate. The study authors tried to understand what were the characteristics that separated more “digitally mature” businesses from less mature ones.  In broad strokes, some of the common characteristics of these organizations are the following:

1. Digital strategy drives digital maturity.

Digitally mature businesses have a clear and coherent digital strategy.

2. The power of a digital transformation strategy lies in its scope and objectives.

Digital strategies in the most mature organizations are developed with an eye on transforming the business, not on specific technologies that are perceived as being de rigeur to be “cutting edge”.

3. Maturing digital organizations build skills to realize the strategy.

Digitally mature businesses provide employees with needed skills.

4. Employees want to work for digital leaders.

Employees will be on the lookout for the best digital opportunities. Digitally mature businesses will do a better job of attracting and retaining the kind of employees they will need to mature further.

5. Taking risks becomes a cultural norm.

Digitally mature businesses are more comfortable taking risks and embrace failure as a prerequisite for success.

6. The digital agenda is led from the top.

Employees in digitally mature businesses are highly confident in their leaders’ digital fluency – the ability to articulate the value of digital technologies to the organization’s future. They don’t need to be technologists themselves.

Digital maturity is the product of strategy, culture and leadership.”

Questions to ask yourself about your institution

Getting from here (predigital) to there (postdigital) is quite a challenge. It’s not an insurmountable one, and as I’ve said above, it’s not really a technical one. The MIT/Deloitte puts it very nicely, “Digital maturity is the product of strategy, culture and leadership.” And to help get there, they pose three questions that get a t the heart of transformative strategy as opposed to a typical strategy.

1. Does our organization have a digital strategy that goes beyond implementing technologies? 

Digital strategies at maturing organizations go beyond the technologies themselves. They target improvements in innovation, decision making and, ultimately, transforming how the business works.

2. Does our organization culture foster digital initiatives? 

Many organizations will have to change their cultural mindsets to increase collaboration and encourage risk taking. Business leaders should also address whether different digital technologies or approaches can help bring about that change. They must also understand what aspects of the current culture could spur greater digital transformation progress.

3. Is our organization confident in its leadership’s digital fluency? 

Although leaders don’t need to be technology wizards, they must understand what can be accomplished at the intersection of business and technology. They should also be prepared to lead the way in conceptualizing how technology can transform the business.

The trends affecting digital strategy

CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user GotCredit

The discussions found three key trends that will impact digital strategy going forward as well as the leadership approaches and cultures needed to support them.

1. Greater integration between online and offline experiences 

“Digital strategies will need to address the increasingly blurred distinction between the online and offline worlds.” The report authors use the Metropolitan Museum of Art as an example, specifically their goal to create compelling online experiences that induce people to visit the museum and then stay connected through social and mobile. To that example, I’d add The Dallas Museum of Art and first and foremost, the Cooper Hewitt, whose devotion to tying all their experiences to their information repositories is admirable.

2. Data will be more tightly infused into processes 

“Organizational cultures must be primed to embrace analytics and the use of data in decision making and processes. In last year’s social business report, we found that socially mature organizations integrate social data into decisions and operations.”

3. Business models will reach their sell-by dates more quickly 

“The onus is on leaders to stay ahead of the curve for their industries’ evolving business models.”

[next up: Having looked at hallmarks, we’ll look at roadmaps; how to get from her to there, according to the consultants.]


There’s so much great thinking out there about design that it’s hard to do justice to any of them. Some of the articles that kept me company while I was writing this series didn’t necessarily find their way in, but are valuable references. You should check them out:

Johnny Holland, The Democracy of Systems Design

Matt Jones, Gardens and Zoos

Anne Galloway, Seams, Beautiful and Otherwise

ibid, Design in the Parliament of Things (pdf)

Tracing the contours of digital transformation, Part One

I’ve been thinking a lot about transformation since writing about the Museum Full Stack. It’s been a deep rabbit hole and promises to get deeper, since it is so foundational. There have been some interesting reports on organizational change, Janet Carding’s new CODE|WORDS essay on managing change, and essays on the difference between transformation and change. And the steady drumbeat of newspaper articles and opinion pieces on technology in museums. Good times…

By Hanabusa Itchō [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“The Blind Men and the Elephant” By Hanabusa Itchō [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve titled this series “Tracing the contours of digital transformation” for two reasons. Firstly, because the visceral imagery of tracing contours aptly sums up the process we’re going through:  trying to figure out what digital transformation means for museums.

Like the allegory of the blind men and the elephant, we’re groping after something big, complicated, and unknown, feeling our way around something we can’t yet articulate succinctly. Secondly, it’s a non-technical title because what I’m calling “digital” transformation is, at it’s most fundamental level, not about digital technologies, but about people, mindsets, relationships, and things. I believe that transforming our processes will deliver transformed products more effectively than the brute force method of bleeding all over a bleeding edge product in a traditionally organized institution. Delivering innovative (and even revolutionary) experiences is a lot easier to do from a position of knowing what you are (and aren’t) about.

Koven Smith, in his awesome, infamous “What’s the point of museum websites?” speech from Ignite Smithsonian, compared museum websites to Conestoga wagons, in that each were well-suited to doing their appointed task, but that times had changed and new vehicles were needed. Continuing to build the best Conestoga wagons we could isn’t going to get us there. If you insert “museum” for “museum website”, the analogy still applies. The vehicles we need are museums that have transformed both their people and processes to make use of (not bow down to, or slavishly adopt) digital technologies in every aspect of our work.

The following posts lay out some of my thinking on the subject and should give you a very clear idea of where I stand in late-2015. Hopefully, it will also spur you to share your insights, because that’s one of the ways we get there; by being more transparent in our thinking and exposing the underlying structures of our strategies, frameworks, and processes. Go check out the CMOA’s Innovation Studio if you need an example of what that looks like.

What is digital transformation?

I consider myself blessed to be working in museums during this weird transformational period when museums are starting to change from being pre-digital museums to post-digital museums. It’s a wild ride! It’s also frustrating as hell sometimes. It’s practically a museum rite of passage in some circles; expressing your frustration at your own museums’ lack of progress in digital endeavors, and I’ve can relate to that frustration. It can be hard to see the potential and watch your colleagues taking pioneering, sometimes faltering steps to enter and colonize this strange new realm. These pioneers have now been joined by a host of other museums who have made commitments to digital experimentation and exploration. You can find robots in fashion exhibitions at the Met, and innovative devices like the Pen at the Smithsonian. But as Elaine Gurian laid out in her 2010 paper, “Wanting to Be Third on Your Block”, there is value in not being on the bleeding edge, too. You get to benefit from the pioneers’ and their followers’ knowledge, and learn from their missteps. Being third also makes it easier to skip the “gazing at shiny objects” phase of fascination with new technologies that often result in cultural commentators taking museums to task. This Lee Rosenbaum piece is one of the more balanced examples of the genre.

While there are many innovators out there, there’s still plenty of work to be done to thoughtfully tackle the big issue of digital transformation – how to become what Ross Parry calls a “postdigital museum”, one that has normalized and internalized digital technologies to an extent that they permeate the whole institution and how the institution works. Electricity is critical to our operations, but nobody talks about it anymore. My goal is for us to feel the same way about “digital”.

Electricity CC-BY-NC image by Flickr user Mohammed Hasan

Digital transformation and the post-digital museum

There are currently two schools of thought regarding the merits and pitfalls of having “digital” be a separate entity, given its own departments, heads, and strategy documents. John Stack, formerly at the Tate and now at Science Museum, London is probably the best-known of this group. His Tate Strategy papers, like “Digital as a Dimension of Everything” have been profoundly influential. Others like Ross Parry of UCL have studied the effects of digital adaptation on museums. His paper “The End of the Beginning: Normativity in the Postdigital Museum” (paywall, bleah…) is an instant classic.

On the other hand, there are the people I think of as the Realpolitik group, who argue that as lovely as the vision of being a post-digital museum is, most of us don’t have the resources and wherewithal of the Tate. We just ain’t there yet, and need “digital” as an intermediate step until we reach the promised land and don’t need “digital” people any more. Chad Weinard’s “Digital Strategy, Museum Strategy: On needing both, for now” is probably the most succinct statement of this view. Most of the field falls somewhere in between. The field is full of Chief Digital Officers, Directors of Digital Adaptation, CIOs, CTOs, CXOs, and other change agents who have the unenviable task of trying to remake their museums and deliver transformation. And change is hard.

An illustrative story: When I was a young exhibit developer I had the privilege of having Judy Rand as my first real editor, and one of those mentors who shaped me as a professional. There are few people who have been as profoundly influential in the field of writing for museum audiences as Judy. It’s probably just as well I didn’t know that when Judy was hired to guide us through the process of developing a major international exhibition on Leonardo da Vinci. As part of that process, Judy taught me a great deal about writing in general, and label writing in particular, but the lesson that has been the most useful to me was one about the importance of establishing shared vision of the big idea of the show. She was relentless about making us be clear about what we trying to say, and any time someone would come up with vague, weasely wording that the team could agree on, she’d smack it down hard and make us go back and try again until we had come together enough to embrace a real shared vision, not just an acceptable compromise.

When we’d complain that this was painful (and complain we did), she’d say, “You can have your pain now, or you can have it later, but you can’t not have it. And the longer you put off having that pain, the worse it will be.” And over the succeeding twenty years, I’ve lived out both of those scenarios enough times to know the truth of her words. True transformation is hard, but I am convinced the alternative is worse. Marcia Tucker, the New Museum’s founding director said, “Doing things differently involves a high degree of discomfort, which is why most of us prefer not to.”

Give me discomfort now, rather than despair later.

Next up: what have we learned about digital transformation thus far…

The best-laid schemes


“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men,

Gang aft agley”

                   – Robert Burns, Tae a Moose


Two months of silence on the blog is the longest pause I’ve allowed since I started blogging. The time has flown!

Here it is, September now, and I’m looking forward to the upcoming Fall exhibition season as a welcome slowdown to the June – August period that preceded it.

Why I was so quiet over the Summer

There was an anniversary trip to Greece (we arrived on the eve of the “No” vote and left right after the government’s counteroffer. How’s that for timing?) that was marvelous. Really marvelous!

Oh, hello, Phaistos disk!

Oh, hello, Phaistos disk!

The Antikythera mechanism! The actual Antikythera mechanism!

The Antikythera mechanism! The actual Antikythera mechanism!

We moved my daughter and son into their first non-dorm apartment in North Carolina, a 2,000 mile roundtrip in the ole family minivan. There were also high school graduations, important birthdays, and more.

On the work front, I was filming in a variety of locations, and interviewed a shedload of interesting people. Talking about machine art and Strandbeests with Adam Savage was a particular favorite. Dork heaven!

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We spent a week in Cuba with Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, revisiting the landscapes of her youth that figure so prominently in her art. Talk about powerful! And hot! You can’t expect to get receipts for purchases. Or find Internet access. Or cellular networks. And as a bonus, Americans can’t access bank accounts, so everything is a cash transaction. It was advanced Adventure Business Travel, complete with unexpected disasters and loads of coping on the fly. Buy me a drink sometime and I’ll tell you more. It was amazing! If you get the opportunity to go, take it!

Obligatory Cuban car slideshow…

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Tl;dr: Time for blogging has been scarce. Until now.