Australia: Melbourne Museum talk

My lovely and talented wife and I just returned from two weeks vacation in Australia, hence the quiet around here. This was our first vacation without kids in a very long time, and I was determined to actually be there while I was there, so no laptop, no work corresponding, no blogging. And yet somehow, I managed to visit more museums and have more museum conservations than I would in three business trips! Partly, this is a result of meeting so many interesting Australian museum folks online and at U.S.-based conferences. As soon as I said we were coming to Australia, a number of them said, “Are you coming to Sydney? You should come over!” and “We’re having our first Drinking about Museums: Melbourne on the 30th. You should join us!” And after deciding to fly halfway around the world, it seemed silly not to try to see as many people as possible.

The next few posts will cover events in Melbourne, Hobart, and Sydney, including three museums, two exhibition reviews, and two Drinking About Museums events!

Melbourne

Ely Wallis (@elyw) from Melbourne Museum had invited me to come over and talk about the Museum from Scratch series with staff from Museum Victoria, and about a dozen of us had a frank discussion about the issues around integrating digital technologies into current practice. The group was nicely diverse; educators, collections managers, social media managers, exhibitions types, content producers, and IT infrastructure folks; all with their own insights. For me, it was the first time I’d ever had this conversation in real time with a live audience, and it was a bit nerve-wracking.  I needn’t have worried, though. Everybody was gracious and good-humored (a theme of my stay in Australia) and the time flew by. I’m terrible at taking notes and talking at the same time, but here are some of the interesting bits I managed to capture.

A question of authority

One of best parts of getting out and talking to people is how quickly it reveals the blind spots in my thinking. Probably the best example of this happened right at the start of our talk when we got onto the subject of authority and strategies for dealing with institutional reluctance to loosen their grip on how content is created and shared. For me, working in a private non-profit science museum, “authority” has a range of connotations, most of which revolve around accuracy. In art museums, “authority” has a whole different set of connotations around connoisseurship. But I hadn’t really considered the particular difficulties of being an organ of the state, where “authority” has additional layers of meaning and the stakes of relinquishing some of that authority are correspondingly higher. The Museum Victoria folks are literally “the authorities”, and topics like biodiversity and immigration can quickly become enmeshed in national politics in a way they just wouldn’t if my museum tackled the same topics in the exact same way. This is a challenge that’s much more than a digital media issue, but it gets a lot of attention since these media are so disruptive to current practice, and particularly current control mechanisms.

One platform to rule them all?

Museum Victoria is an authority (ooh, that word again!) that manages several institutitons, including the Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, and others. In addition to the particular concerns of each museum, Museum Victoria would like to standardize their back-end systems and try to bring all the disparate services they provide together onto a common platform that can then be exported in whatever format a given project requires. The benefits of having, say, one collection management system (CMS) instead of (at least) three are obvious from an IT perspective; lower operating costs, fewer resources needed, the possibility of tighter integration across the organization. On reflection though, I’m not sure that I feel that strongly in favor of standardization.

My reasons for supporting standardization usually had to do with the inability of systems to talk to each other and export data in formats usable to other systems. The work that people have been doing around Linked Open Data in Libraries, Archives and Museums (LODLAM)  addresses a lot of those concerns, and in an interesting twist to the “authority is a problem” meme is led by a lots of state organizations. They operate under an imperative to make their information freely available, since it is in the public domain. Private sector institutions like mine tend to worry about their IP and its value and approach open data, and linked open data from that perspective. Of course there are exceptions, like IMA, which put their collection info on Github for anyone to mess about with. Eleanor Whitworth posted an interesting summary of some of the latest work going on in Melbourne that’s good reading if you’re a data geek.

Whose voice? 

Another perennial topic was institutional voice, particularly with social media. I am inherently skeptical of online personalities that purport to be the voice of an institution. Social media are meant to be personal. I know that Museum X isn’t posting, but rather some person at Museum X is posting. Even accounts that represent an institution can still indicate who’s doing the typing. And real engagement happens between people.  This is a central element of radical transparency and I think this kind of transparency is how museums will demonstrate their authority and relevance.

The expectation of interrelation

Jan Molloy (@Janpcim) touched on an important visitor expectation that we currently have a hard time with; addressing the expectation of interrelation. Visitors to museums can now reasonably expect to be accessing the Internet all the time they’re in the museum. They’re looking at Wikipedia in your museum whether or not you want them to. When they have a bad experience in the museum, it’s on your Facebook page and/or Twitter in no time. The content visitors seek in one realm, they expect to be able to find in others, or take with them.  So how to manage a seamless experience that encompasses pre and post visit online experiences with the onsite physical one?

If it’s important, advocate

It’s hard to advocate for something new when nobody understands the value of what you’re talking about. But how do you deal with people who don’t “get it”? I’m a big fan of taking some responsibility for providing professional development to your museum about digital media. It’s not an IT problem, it’s an institutional imperative. Find ways to explain what you know. Demonstrate how you use these media to connect with audience and peers. Organize an informal meeting to talk about these issues. Pick a topic of interest and invite colleagues to go out and discuss. The bar is pretty low. And the potential benefits are huge.

And lastly… Collection fishing

Kate Chmiel from Museum Victoria (@cakehelmit) turned me onto Collection Fishing on Twitter, which I can’t believe I’ve missed all this time. Scope out #collectionfishing. Nuff said.

Next up, a review of Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia at the Melbourne Museum.

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2 responses to “Australia: Melbourne Museum talk

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful post on authority and voice. I find myself struggling with that very issue and what I call the difference between a museum’s style of “appreciaton” or “interpretation”. While I find I like blending approaches and voices, it is not as clear in the minds of those museums grasping on to the authoritative voice. It catches me off guard all the time. I would like to hear from others having the same struggles in hopes that I can learn how to create in the world of authoritative museum voice teaching appreciation of objects. To me it is like lopping off most of the senses and learning styles and not my natural instinct.

  2. Pingback: Review: “Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia” at Melbourne Museum | Thinking about museums

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