Author Archives: Ed Rodley

On Unhelpful Analogies

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Temple of Saturn, CC-BY 2.0 image by Anthony M. fr Wikimedia Commons

In all the hubbub around changing practices in museums, a constant trope has been the tension between two camps. On the one hand are those “traditionalists” who value museums as places of quiet contemplation, aesthetic refinement, and sober, solitary experience. On the other are those “progressives” who want museums to be active, social spaces; welcoming, inclusive to diverse viewpoints and vibrant centers of their communities. I have written about this before, and you can go here and here or here to read more for more.

Often this tension gets reduced to a stark dichotomy. It’s either this or that, and for one side to “win” the other side has to “lose”, so the stakes are high. The very soul of the museum endeavor is at stake if you listen to the most strident, most visible partisans of either side. I am not terribly swayed by a lot of the arguments traditionalists raise to support their position. I find many of them to be sneeringly condescending, ahistorical, and full of thinly-veiled elitism masquerading as “concern.” On the other hand, a lot of the arguments for new, progressive practices have the stink of desperation clinging to them. “If we don’t ______, we’ll be irrelevant! The Millennials! What about the Millennials?” What’s a poor practitioner to do? First, I think it’s helpful to look at some of the dominant mental models we use in describing museums, and in particular the dialectical opposites that get used to frame the debate.

The Temple and the Forum 

In 2007 Les Harrison identified two dominant models in the struggle over what museums should be: the temple, an institution for the projection and protection of official culture, and the forum, its populist, marketplace counterpart. This model has gained wide visibility, and often gets used informally as almost a given. What is interesting to note in this analogy is that the primary function of a Roman temple is reduced to an apparatus of state control and the spiritual function completely ignored. Likewise, the Forum’s many explicitly state-organized and controlled functions are omitted to highlight the popular.

The Cathedral and the Bazaar 

Another model gaining currency plays off a software development analogy originally written by Eric Raymond in 2001 to describe the two dominant models for how software should be developed: the Cathedral, in which source code is made available with each software release, but code developed between releases is restricted to an exclusive group of software developers, and the Bazaar, in which the code is developed over the Internet in view of the public and open to any interested party. In the museum interpretation of this, the Cathedral is governed by the clergy and closed to the people, whereas the Bazaar is an open public space, non-hierarchical and accessible to all. The Cathedral is reduced to an organizational structure where a closed hierarchy controls the means of production (to get a little Marxist) and releases it when and if they feel like it. The spiritual aspect of the Cathedral is unmentioned. Interestingly, Raymond played a large role in popularizing the use of “open” over “free software”, which Richard Stallman problematized thus, “Free software is a political movement; open source is a development model.”

The trouble with models

Models are useful because of what they leave out. That’s what allows you to focus on the feature that is being modeled. But that’s also their weakness. So, while the centrally-controlled/ hierarchical vs democratic/populist comparison has merit, it is worth noting that in both examples what is left out is that a spiritual model is opposed to a market-driven driven one, and capitalism replaces religion. I would argue that when cultural commentators refer to Art museums as “secular temples” or “temples of culture”, they are not referring exclusively to the authoritarian aspect of traditional art museum practice. There is always language that invokes the magical, the sublime, and, yes, even the spiritual. Yet how often do we practitioners acknowledge that in our work? It is a foundational element of the cultural sea we swim in, but it goes largely unacknowledged and unexamined.

 

The culture wars

If you’ve read my blog for any period of time, you’ve doubtless witnessed the occasions where I find myself scratching my head at what cultural commentators have to say about museums in very public forums. Philip Kennicott, Judith Dobrzynski, Ellen Gamerman, the list goes on and on…

Another salvo was fired earlier in the week. Tiffany Jenkins, a regular commentator to the Scotsman and other papers, wrote a blog post titled “Who Owns Culture?” for the Oxford University Press blog. She’s also written a book “Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums – And Why They Should Stay There” which promises to be a full-throated defense of the status quo of 20th century Western museum philosophy. I won’t bore you with a synopsis of her post. Read it yourselves.

The thing I really want you to do is read Courtney Johnston’s reflection on it. Johnston, the Directory of the Dowse Art Museum in New Zealand, and a pretty bright star in my personal pantheon of museum thinkers, gives a deeply thoughtful response to, and rejection of Jenkins’ arguments that is eloquent, passionate, and so free of the vitriol that is my usual first response to arrogance masquerading as concern. Reading what smart people with different viewpoints have to say is a pillar of my professional practice. Museums, as public institutions (whether they’re publicly or privately operated) have to be able to engage with the larger discourses happening in society. That doesn’t make it easy to hear, and doing it respectfully and honestly, ain’t easy. It’s far easier to mock, eg. most of the Internet. Johnston’s post is a wonderful example of how grown-ups do it.

Stop reading this now and read Courtney’s post, OK? Here’s the link again. Go now. These are important, indeed foundational issues, and how we respond will shape museum practice in the coming century. Thanks!

A Series of Epistolary Romances (the CODE|WORDS experiment continues)

Suse has a writeup of our latest CODE|WORDS experiment: “A Series of Epistolary Romances “

museum geek

Late last week, we quietly announced that CODE|WORDS–the experiment in online discourse that Ed Rodley, Rob Stein, and I kicked off in 2014–is back. It has a new format and a new set of instigators, plus new authors and new topics. I’m happy to see its return.

When we started CODE|WORDS, our aims were to pilot a new approach to the creation of theory ‘in public’ through the use of online, collaborative platforms, with a print publication to follow. We hoped the project would offer considered commentary as well as responsive dialogue, but the format we chose enabled less discourse than intended.

Which brings us toA Series of Epistolary Romances... Our second CODE|WORDS experiment is designed to privilege the discursive, conversational element that the original project was unable to generate. Each month, a new pair of authors will correspond about a topic related to museums for a series…

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That Which Is Lost

One of the follow up conversations I had at MCN2015 was with Jeff Inscho about our Content session. It was a wide-ranging one, touching on repositories, the Museum full stack, and more. In my notes, I wrote the quote “Content – That Which is Lost” which was one of the definitions that came out of our session. It’s stuck with me since.

The “digital dark age” is a thing that lots of important people are worrying about.

Google boss warns of ‘forgotten century’ with email and photos at risk

Will Future Historians Consider These Days The Digital Dark Ages?

The digital black hole: will it delete your memories?

You get the idea. It’s a problem. I’ve been thinking a lot about digital ecosystems in museums, and how good they are at some things while being really terrible at others. Ironically, the thing that most digital ecosystems suck at most is preservation, followed closely by findability. This is a huge problem, one that will hobble not only us, but our successors and the posterity we supposedly hope to enrich by saving and interpreting all this stuff we steward. Here’s an illustrative example of what I’m talking about:

 

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New England Habitats

One of the last exhibitions I worked on at the Museum of Science was a renovation project. The New England Habitats hall is a diorama hall built in phases from the 1950s to the early 1960s. Some of the old-timers I worked with when I first started there in the ‘80s had worked on creating them, and they remain a central, unchanging feature of the museum. They were reinterpreted in the early ‘90s by the illustrious Betty Davidson, as part of her seminal research on making accessible, multisensory exhibits. The book that resulted, New Dimensions for Traditional Dioramas, is still relevant.  By 2010, they were in need of another renovation, and I was charged with updating the content and exhibits. My first job was to understand what the original creators had been trying to do and how Betty et al had tried to modernize it. So, off to the Exhibits archives I went looking for what I could find.

For the ’90s renovation, that consisted mainly of Betty’s personal project file, some 3.5in floppies, and a couple of Syquest or Bernoulli cartridges that probably held large (for the time) graphics files. It was pretty skimpy, and missing all the email correspondence aside from those Betty printed out for some reason. A tremendous amount of sleuthing and DIY computer forensics allowed me to extract label copy from old Word and Pagemaker files.

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New England Habitats 

For the original construction, back in the paper days, there were bulging file folders for each diorama, sometimes multiple folders (“Deer diorama” AND “Whitetail Deer”) with probably a couple of linear feet of files which covered everything: meeting notes, internal memos (some pretty intense), incoming and outgoing correspondence, plans, drafts of labels with edits. Along the way, I discovered things that had been lost over the years, like the fact that the dioramas were modeled on real locations in New England, not idealized environments as was more typical of the period. The photo research was all there, in piles of curling B&W prints. I could tell you exactly how much it cost to procure the beavers for the beaver diorama, because the trapper’s bill was there, complete with a description of how he dynamited their dam to get them and the lucky bonus that one of the beavers was pregnant, so the Museum got some bonus specimens. Different times. There was also the account of the poor staff member who had to drive a cooler full of rapidly thawing frozen beavers corpses from Vermont to the taxidermist’s studio in New York on one of the hottest days of the year that was obviously written solely for internal use. I could smell cigarette smoke clinging to papers that had sat on desks for too long. Everybody smoked then. A little more digging turned up originals of the transparencies used in the backlit labels, and other goodies from the stat camera. It was a treasure trove that let me climb inside my predecessors’ minds and understand what they were trying to do.

 

In the end, I knew more about what happened sixty years ago than what happened less than twenty years ago. And it was all because we hadn’t figured out how to save digital information in a way that made it findable and searchable, or anywhere near as easy to use as a manilla folder full of papers. This is not a problem exclusive to the MOS. When I first started at PEM and was snooping around to see what kind of 18th century firearms we had (as one does) I rapidly found out that the CMS’s records were pretty sparse in some areas, and if I really wanted to find out about older parts of the collection I should consult the card catalogue. The card catalogue. And I know that versions of this scenario play out at cultural organizations all over.

We have lost control of our stuff

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Look familiar?  “Messy Desktop” CC-BY-NC 2.0 image by Flickr user Dean Shareski

The proliferation of digital platforms and information has outpaced our ability to corral it and make it usefully findable. In place of the old hanging folder, a container that could hold anything you could cram into it, we now have information scattered across devices and platforms, mostly uninterchangeable and unsearchable. As a test case, I looked at a typical week’s worth of digital content and platforms I interacted with last week, and it consisted of:

  • Emails, chats (corporate Gmail account)
  • Google calendar events
  • Texts (personal phone)
  • Twitter (tweets, and DMs)
  • MS Office docs (.doc, .docx, .xls, .xlsx, .ppt, .pptx)
  • Google docs & sheets
  • PDFs
  • Video (various formats and FCP and AE projects)
  • Audio files (.mp3, .wav, .aiff)
  • Corporate network (five different servers, with varying access permissions)
  • Basecamp messages, tasks, calendars (some turned into email, some not)
  • Slack notifications
  • Image files (All over the map: mostly .jpgs, many taken on the phone and uploaded to Dropbox, then spread across emails, work computer directories, network directories, Basecamp, and SM.
  • Other SM content (Instagram posts, FB updates, and to a lesser extent LinkedIn and Foursquare)

In other words, it’s a mess. And I’ve already made clear my feeling about keyword searching in a previous post, so don’t get me started.

Please note that I am not advocating that we forsake digital technologies and return to paper. Are we clear on that? Good. Let’s move on…

What might we do?

The obvious solution is a repository, the museum equivalent of the “single source of truth” that software companies enshrine. But those sources only cover the codebase. If you were a future archaeologist trying to understand how 21st century software companies operated, you’d not find correspondence or financials in the repo. So how to create a digital version of the hanging folder that is as useful and possesses a generous enough interface to allow mere mortals to query it and find gold? That is a big question. Anybody out there having success?

From the PEM blog: Ghost hunting in Cuba with Magda

Obligatory shot of crew with recording equipment to prove we were working...

Obligatory shot of crew with recording equipment to prove we were working…

In the run up to the opening of our Alchemy of the Soul exhibition, I posted a short travelogue on the museum blog of our August trip to Cuba to film artist Maria Magdalena Campos Pons.


“Traveling with an artist means that every experience, every encounter is potential grist for their creative mill. And when that artist is Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons (Magda), and you’re accompanying her to the tiny hamlet in Cuba where she grew up, the effect is magnified enormously.”

Read more… 

MCN 2015: Bottling the Magic

I’m finally far enough away from the event to try to make sense of my experience of the 48th Museum Computer Network conference in Minneapolis. The tl:dr version is “Holy shit! What a great time!” (pardon the language). It was an exhausting week, full of so many deeply thoughtful presentations and smart smart people that I felt a bit like a hamster on a wheel, trying to make sure I got to at least say “Hello!” to all the people I wanted to talk to or meet. I lost my voice for almost a week afterwards.

Hospitality

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I’ve never experienced a city so welcoming as the Twin Cities. When we were visiting in March trying to sort of out the conference program, we were continually impressed with the collegial generosity of our peers. People bent over backwards to help us, to the extent that we had more offers for venues for evening events than we had nights available to have events. Things that were usually issues, like transport, turned into unexpected gifts like the Minnesota Transportation Museum sending us antique busses from their collection to shuttle attendees back and forth to our evening events. The afternoon workshop that Bruce Wyman, Kate Haley-Goldman, and I ran at Science Museum of Minnesota, was scheduled to conclude with a roundtable discussion with SMM staff about their experience design process. Instead of offering us a couple of volunteers, they turned out their offices and brought over a dozen senior staff to the table to share their philosophy and hear what we had to say about our experiences in the galleries. Way to stay classy, SMM. MIA staff volunteered in large numbers to help ensure the conference ran smoothly. In addition to hosting the major evening event, MIA’s director, Kaywin Feldman, was part of two sessions to discuss Agile leadership and 21st century business models for museums. The Twin Cities were engaged!

The Importance of Culture

Ask anyone who’s been to MCN what makes it different than other conferences, and I’d wager that you’ll get answers that have a lot do with the community being friendly and welcoming. That is because of the people who attend, but it’s also the product of a lot of thought and work on the part of MCN. Culture is important and MCN does a great job of both signaling what their culture is, and making it easy to take part. This year, a new Friendly Space policy was announced that covered the whole conference, and agreeing to abide by it was part of the registration process. The conference organizers and MCN Board were all briefed on how to respond if something came to their attention. This wasn’t in response to an unpleasant event, but a proactive step, and a first in the museum sector, to my knowledge. And it shows a level of care and attention that several people commented on to me during the conference. People like to feel like they’re being looked after.

The crowd at the Pourhouse was great!

The crowd at the Pourhouse was great!

I won’t go into too many details about Ignite, other than to say it ruled, because you can watch them yourselves. Here’s the list. There is no better way to kick off a conference than a high-energy, rapid-fire event like Ignite. Kate Haley Goldman described it as “culture norming” and I think it’s an apt description. If you’re a first timer trying to understand what you’ve gotten yourself into by coming to MCN, then Ignite will show you. MCN’s vision of itself as “a welcoming and candid community of professionals passionate about empowering museums to address challenges and embrace opportunities within the evolving digital landscape” is really evident during the Ignite talks. Go watch.

Bravery and Action

A part of that passion was a strong desire to address social justice issues. There seemed to be a real undercurrent of bravery at the conference. People were putting themselves out there in necessary, uncomfortable ways. The list of people asking hard questions and speaking their truths to power included (but is by no means limited to) Nikhil Trivedi’s and Sina Bahram’s Ignite talks, Adrianne Russell and Porchia Moore’s session on Making the Invisible Visible: Museums & Cultural Agency, and Liz Filardi’s, Brinker Ferguson’s, and Emily Lyle-Painter’s homegrown #MuseWomen mentorship program.  These acts took real guts and their willingness to call out their community (us) to do more and do it better deserves both our praise and action. Respect.

Empathy and Action

Liz Ogbu

Liz Ogbu

I’m not usually a fan of conference keynotes, and had in fact spoken out in favor of ditching the keynote at MCN 2016, only the day before Liz Ogbu got up to talk to us about her work as an architect and designer whose career is built around creating social impact through design. Again, you can watch it for yourselves, so I won’t bore you with details, other than a few tidbits. Her discussion of empathy, how it differs from sympathy, and how vital it is to any kind of work with a social dimension really struck home to me. Her ability to couple deep, thoughtful deliberate design with real, specific outcomes (meaning she not only talks about stuff, but actually does stuff and makes things that people can use) was really inspiring. Check it out. It’s an hour you won’t regret.

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Digital and I

Nice photo of my Ignite talk by Miranda Kerr.

Nice photo of my Ignite talk by Miranda Kerr.

I spent a lot of the conference proper talking about buzzwords. My Ignite talk, available here, was all about the word “digital” and all the ways it gets (mis)used. The one session I presented at was an all-star roundup about buzzwords organized by Jennifer Foley of Cleveland Museum of Art, which included Mr. Jeff Inscho of the Warhol and me. We took on three big buzzwords; engagement, content, and digital, and how they are used and whether they might not be replaced in certain contexts. It was a raucous, energetic event where we broke into groups and took turns trying to define these three terms. The results can be found here for digital, content, and engagement. Good times…

See all y’all in New Orleans next year! #MCN2016!

The MCN2015 Program Co-chairs: Suse

The MCN2015 Program Co-chairs: Suse Cairns, Morgan Holzer, and some guy

“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 that combines the two. 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.