Author Archives: Ed Rodley

Prima Facie: Collections

Ed Rodley:

More small goodness from the Small Museum, who are taking a very different approach from the “Making a Museum from Scratch” approach I started with back in 2012.

Originally posted on The Small Museum:

So far, we’ve talked about ethics.


Collections management

Developing a collections management policy; Acquisition and accessioning; Deaccessioning and disposals; Numbering and marking of objects in the collection; Loans condition reports; Collections storage; Handling and moving collections; Photography; Insurance; Public access to collections; Display and exhibition galleries and rooms; Research of collections.

Harriet: fgdfg

George: We were truly liberated by two things: 1) having a very small collection of ten objects, and 2) having those objects be facsimiles of existing things from another institution. The small collection let us not be distracted by having to deal with a giant collections management issue right off the bat. Having a starting position of 200,000 archaeological artifacts, as suggested by Ed Rodley in his 2012 Making a museum from scratch: Part One blogpost just immediately puts you underwater, and perhaps unable to consider questions other than what to do with those dusty, unclassified…

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The digital and the superorganic

Roof ladder CC BY 2.0 image from Flickr user Georgios Karamanis

Climbing the ladder of complexity

OK, OK… I may have wandered a bit far afield in trying to say the digital realm had more in common with the faerie realm than you might think, but my reasoning and analogizing began rationally enough, and I’ll try to reconstruct it for my sake and yours. I do appreciate all the folks who are starting work on their “digital faerie realm strategies” though. I look forward to reading them!

We tend to try to yoke the digital realm to the physical world as though the two are equal and opposing and discrete; a yin and a yang. “The Digital” as its often bandied about, is an amorphous entity whose geography is imposible to fathom. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a geography, though, nor that its not an entity with its own borders. I think we just make the mistake of trying to describe in terms that aren’t suited to its level of complexity. To understand the dimensions of the digital realm and our attempts to define its bounds, we have climb the ladder of complexity and figure out what to do when it bifurcates while you’re climbing it.

The Superorganic

That last paragraph was a little dense, so let me invoke the early 20th century American anthropoloigst Afred Kroeber and his concept of the superorganic to hopefully explain what I’m trying to grasp. The superorganic is another way of describing –– and understanding –– culture or the socio-cultural system.

Afred Kroeber, 1876-1960.  In addition to everything he accomplished in a long career, he was also Ursula K. Le Guin's father, which might explain something about her ability to write about cultures so fluidly and believably. Image from https://sites.google.com/site/qmccrary/bibliography. Couldn’t find any license info...

Afred Kroeber, 1876-1960.   Image from  https://sites.google.com/site/qmccrary/bibliography. Couldn’t find any license info…

The reason I think Kroeber has something to add to this conversation is that he was attempting to convince his peers that they couldn’t understand culture just by studying human behavior, because culture operated at a level of complexity beyond that of the constituent elements, namely us.

To explain this, he used the image of a ladder of complexity. At the bottom you have the inorganic, the physical universe, and all the atoms of everything. At the next level you have the organic, which comprises all living things. All plants and animals are built out of inorganic elements like carbon. But the organic is more than just the sum of all its inorganic parts. You can’t combine the exact same quantity of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and other elements that comprise a wombat and get a wombat. And if you separate that wombat into it’s constituent molecules, it will not longer be organic. And no amount of knowledge of the chemistry and physics of how atoms and molecules interact will explain how a wombat behaves, how it powers itself, and reproduces. The organic, seen as a system, operates at a higher level of complexity than the inorganic elements which comprise it. It transcends the inorganic.

At the next level beyond the organic you have what Kroeber called “The Superorganic”, which comprises human culture and society.  Human beings are organic systems. You can study wombats and rats and ameboae and learn things about humans. But humans have developed ways to communicate with each other that are so complex and sophisticated that we have evolved communities and societies which are held together by symbols and behaviors, not biology or genetics. No amount of biological knowledge will explain why societies operates the way they do. Things like trends in fashion just cannot be understood by looking at the people who make and consume fashion. It operates at the superorganic level.

The superorganic is the sea we swim in, and therefore difficult for us to see from our vantage point, since it is everywhere and nowhere in our default frame of reference. It manifests as what Émile Durkheim called “social facts” and defined as any way of acting that could exert influence over an individual, or act as an external constraint on them. Social facts like fashion apply generally over the whole of a given society while having independent existences of their own. Culture itself is akin to a living thing, comprised of human beings, but operating at a higher level of complexity than the organic. There are strong parallels, therefore, between the ways that the inorganic and organic relate, and the ways the organic and the superorganic relate.

Fractal Blues CC BY-NC_ND 2.0 image by Flickr user Fábio Pinheiro

The superorganic and the digital

What both Kroeber and Durkheim warn us against doing is anthropomorphizing human culture, because while it may have a life of its own, that life does not resemble a human life as much as it does an amoeba’s. And in describing the digital realm, I find that all too ofteen we fall back on analogies that operate on a level of complexity below the digital’s, and that’s why so many of these analogies get tired quickly. The digital realm on Earth now comprises not only most of the cultures of the planet, which are themselves constantly at odds with one another in the physical world, but increasingly, machines. There are more things on the Internet than there are people, and these things are constantly talking to one another and acting on each other. And us.

I recognize that you could take the view that the digital realm as it pertains to our experience of it might be described as just another human society, one that is geographically dispersed and embodied differently, via devices. The way most people experience the digital realm may not be that different from the way indigenous peoples exist in both their birth culture and the majority culture of their locality. But it feels different to me. There is something that makes that analogy feel as unhelpful as the digital/physical dialectic.

This digital realm, like the superorganic, operates at a higher level of complexity than the organic. This begs the question of whether the digital is a higher level of complexity than even the superorganic. I’m not sure. At this point, I feel that the digital is at least on a different branch of the ladder of complexity than the superorganic. What the Venn diagram looks like that includes both is beyond me.

NB: I am all too aware that I spent the whole previous post trying to problematize our use of the noun phrase “the digital” as a descriptor, and then spent most of this post using “the superorganic” as a way of understanding how we might more fruitfully look at the digital realm. In my defense, I can only offer up this trivia. Though Kroeber’s famous essay is titled “The Superorganic”, nowhere in the actual text does he use those words. I must assume that he felt as I do and couldn’t bring himself to do it more than once.

BONUS TRIVIA! In addition to everything he accomplished in a long career, Kroeber was also author Ursula K. Le Guin’s father, which might explain something about her ability to write about cultures so fluidly and believably. You’re welcome.

Digital is an adjective. What’s the noun?

One of the issues I have with “digital” is that it’s an adjective. When I hear “digital”, I expect something to come after it. Digital media, digital humanities, digital assets – all these make sense to me because the modifier works to clarify what you’re referring to. Talking about digital as a noun phrase may seem helpful, but I am beginning to feel more and more that we do ourselves a disservice by failing to define the thing it’s supposed to be modifying. Talking about “Digital” or “the Digital” is just backing away from defining it. I don’t know what the best way to fill in that phrase is, though I’ve been using the “digital realm” when I’m speaking broadly about digital computer technologies.

What would you use?

Another issue I have with “digital” used as a noun phrase is that digital is never exclusively digital (at least until they can jack directly into our brains, and even then it’ll be electrochemical, not electronic). Our experience of it is always mediated though its physical expression; a screen, a sensor, a sound. We talk about it like it has some independent existence divorced of the constraints of ordinary meatspace. The reality is that intreracting with digital information requires meatspace, because that’s where we live. It’s all around us right now, flying through the air, through our bodies, like cosmic rays. All those phone calls, texts, emails, cat videos make their way back and forth all the time, unseen and unknown, until we encounter a device that can let us access the digital realm.

“Realm” has lots of connotations of physicality, geography, and identity that are also useful. In many ways, I wonder whether a better analogy to understand the digital realm would be to think of it as the new “Faerie kingdom”? Like the faerie realm of European folklore, the digital realm lies superimposed on the mundane, physical world. It has entrances and exits all over the landscape that allow entry into a landscape where time flows differently, populated by strange beings, some benign, some not. Some things exist simultaneously in both, and the digital interpenetrates the physical at potentially every location.

I don’t know where this is going, the latent anthropologist in me can’t help but wonder what students of folklore like Sir James Frazer or Robert Graves would’ve made of the digital realm.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Digital

Empty Seats CC-BY-SA 2.0 image by Flickr user Benson Kua

Empty Seats
CC-BY-SA 2.0 image by Flickr user Benson Kua

So I’m missing Museums and the Web, wondering about MuseumNext, and planning for MCN. So. Much. Conference.

Realizing that the window to submit proposals to MCN was fast drawing closed, I decided the time had come to dare an Ignite talk. One of the my personal highlights of the conference, these short presentations are no walk in the park. You’ve got five minutes, and 20 slides. The slides automatically advance every fifteen seconds, and there’s no do-over if you get lost. It’s work to pull off a good one. But a good one is great, and a great one is sublime! And having survived doing a Moth-style storytelling session at AAM last year, I figured it was high time to step up submit something.

But what to talk about? Ignite-style talks are great for pithy provocations more than lengthy discourse; short stories rather than novels. A tweet from Seb Chan had been stuck in my head for the past couple of days.

And since he was sad, and I was thinking of Ignite talks as short stories, the two ideas turned into a Raymond Carver story and I wrote down “What We Talk About When We Talk About Digital.” Unpacking that title is going to take some time, and it’s unclear where it’s going to end up, but that’s why I started blogging. I’m quite excited too!

The idea
What I told MCN I’d do is present a freewheeling meditation on how we frame the problem/challenge/opportunity of “digital”, and how those frames can limit us. I’ll poke at the tensions and conflicting definitions we use for “digital” and wander into the anthropological to posit that in these days of an Internet of Things (where there are more things talking teach other on the Internet than there are people) Alfred Kroeber’s idea of the Superorganic might be applicable to the digital realm.

I know I want to build off my CODE|WORDS essay on the virtues of promiscuity, in parts. That’s a whole ‘nother topic, which I’ll have to explore. It’s one of my favorite pieces of writing I’ve done in a long time, but it’s not quite there. That was one of the points of CODE|WORDS; to be faster, looser, and more discursive and less worried about polish. That said, it’s only about 80% of what I think it should be.

The meat of the piece will be to problematize the way we talk about “open” instead of “free”, “content” instead of “objects and ideas”, and “engagement” instead of “relationships between people”. There’ll be more as I explore the idea, but that’s what I’ve got for now. Hopefully, you’ll help me fill in the missing bits?

On (not) writing

Epictetus pondering writing. PD image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
George Orwell, “Why I Write”

 My previous post had a long and tortured gestation period. Though the events in it occurred in early December, it took me two months to actually commit them to paper and then ASCII.  After an initial burst of enthusiasm, where words and images poured out into several incoherent piles, I lost my momentum. It was unfocused, meandering, self-serving, and close enough to my work that “Will publishing this be a career limiting move?” became a real concern. It was easier to just sit on it and stew. Luckily, a friend reminded me of a couple important things about writing that I often forget.

The greater Boston area has also been subjected to more snow than I’ve ever seen in my lifetime – 100 inches/250cm – and snow is still possible until April. In a one month period, my wife Jennifer and our sons missed six days of school due to snow. At the end of this enforced togetherness, we decided it would be a good idea to escape for the weekend. Luckily, we had made plans to visit our friend Anne in New York. We spent a couple of very refreshing days out of our routine. And we talked a lot about writing.

My wife teaches high school English, and Anne teaches English and writing at Fordham. She is also the editor of the new annotated version of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, part of The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Virginia Woolf. We talked about reading books, writing books, thinking about writing, teaching writing, and the silliness inherent in the process of getting writing turned into publications.

“You have to write to write. Right?”
Once you’ve written something that’s been published, it seems that people feel compelled to tell you that they, too, have aspirations to write. There’s an idea for a play, a partial manuscript of a novel, or pieces of what will become a memoir, just as soon as… And there it usually ends; before the actual writing is finished. Anne was talking about a person whose unfinished memoir was a regular topic of conversation. We chuckled over how easy it is to forget that talking about it was no substitute for doing it. Then she said, “You have to write to write. Right?” And those words lodged in my brain and banged around inside my head for days. Thinking about it, worrying about it, planning it, don’t help if you don’t actually sit down and do it.

I often get asked how I manage to write and work and the answer usually never satisfies the asker. I’ve written about this here and here and here, and Anne’s answer is still true. You have to write to write. Nina Simon wrote a moving piece at the end of last year about her struggles with how blogging not only never seems to get easier, but that the discourse that her writing generates seems to be declining over time. Fewer comments, less learning for her. And therein lies an important dynamic. Personally, I think if you’re writing for anybody other than yourself, it’ll be a hard, ultimately unsatisying slog. Mia Ridge once said to me “Writing makes me do my thinking properly.” and I have found that to be true so many times over that it’s hard now to even contemplate not writing as part of my practice. I am certainly not immune to the endorphic kick of watching blog stats and getting the gift of an unexpected gem of a comment. But they are icing on the cake, not the cake itself. Writing is a reflective practice. I learn as much in the writing process as I do in the research.

“It’ll practically write itself!”
The other quote is unfortunately mine, and came up when Anne brought up an idea for New Yorker article exploring a famous children’s book’s connection with Modernist writing. It was such a tight, hard idea, I could see the outlines of the piece just listening to her describe her research. And that’s when I said one of those things one should never say to a writer, “It’ll practically write itself!” I burbled. Unfortunately, it never does write itself, does it? It remains unformed until the writer writes it.

She was a good sport about it, naturally, but I was struck by just how enervating that phrase sounds. What was meant to be an affirmation, a “That’s a brilliant idea! It’ll be great!”, instead sounded like a negation of the sweat she was going to have to pour into the work. I had this immediate flashback to working on my Master’s thesis and hearing my advisor time and again tell me, “It’s only a Master’s thesis” whenever I was at a place where it seemed like more work was necessary to flesh out an idea or argument. He meant it as encouragement to finish the work and not let the topic get away from me. But when you’re writing the hardest thing you’ve ever attempted, having someone tell you “That’s not so hard.” doesn’t make the work any easier. Writing is hard work, but that’s no reason to avoid it.

All in all, it was a great trip! Good friends, good food, and good to escape for a bit. Even if it was -25 in Manhattan. Once we were all back in the work/school routine, I kept remembering these two quotes. I’d look at my mess of Art Basel notes, my #museumsresppondtoferguson notes, pictures, and all the other raw materials I habitually gather, and thought “Well, it’s not going to write itself! You have to write to write. Right?” And out it came. I wrote and wrote, and edited and edited. Ideas coalesced, some died. In the end, it’s reads pretty well. It feels true to my experience, and it (hopefully) doesn’t say anything I didn’t want to say.

And so it goes.

Issue: Museums and Social Change

Strandbeest at night

Strandbeest at night

The last three months have been a real emotional roller coaster ride for me in regards to how museums as civic institutions can play a useful role in the larger discussions playing out in the world. This was brought on by two colliding events: Art Basel Miami Beach and  #museumsrespondtoferguson.

[Ferguson protest in downtown St. Louis CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user velo_city]

Ferguson protest in downtown St. Louis
CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user velo_city

Art Basel Miami Beach

I was at Miami as part of the team from the Peabody Essex Museum that was staffing the U.S. debut exhibition of Dutch kinetic sculptor Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests, put on in conjunction with Audemars Piguet, the luxury watch manufacturer. I’ve been a fan of Theo’s work for years, and the opportunity to work with him, and to see Strandbeests in their native environment was astonishing. Check them out here or here. They’re even better in person, trust me. I’ve watched pretty much all the videos by now.

I was part of the team interpreting the beests, so I spent four lonnnnng days outside, pushing beests around, and answering questions from a neverending stream of visitors to the exhibition. I don’t get to spend a lot time in the galleries these days and the charge I got out of working with visitors was tonic for the soul. Being “on” all day and into the night was both invigorating and exhausting. I’d get back to the hotel after twelve or fourteen hours, fall into bed, and pass out. And do it all over again the next day. I felt deeply connected to that core museum practice of sharing knowledge and experience with people and helping people make new meaning out of life.

It was also a privilege to be around so many people who loved what they did. I love museum work, unironically and unapologetically. Theo Jansen’s love of his work is immediately obvious and infectious. If you watch any of his interviews, you’ll get a pretty good idea of the man and his unique outlook. And he is totally invested in his art project. Bill Morrison, the filmmaker behind Decasia and The Great Flood, was there shooting Theo for the New York Times, and we got the chance to hang out, which was bonus fun! Check out his video of the event. Our partners from AP were the same. These are serious watch folks, and their love of their subject was palpable. The unexpected highlight of the Fair for me was watching an AP watchmaker disassemble one of their movements and show us just how much attention to detail went into every microscopic piece of their work, even the pieces that the wearer will never see. Being surrounded by other people doing what they love is intoxicating.

A master watchmaker at work is a thing to behold!

A master watchmaker at work is a thing to behold!

 The conspicuous consumption!

So, on the one hand, I felt very engaged in the museum pursuit on a primal level. Work, love, person to person interaction, meaning-making; I was in the zone. And then I’d look around at the Veyron parked in front of the hotel, flanked by a Ferarri and Lambo, while a Bentley went past. I had to look up Veyron too, btw. Jillian Steinhauer from Hyperallergic summed up the dissonace perfectly in this post.  Go read it.

One surreal moment happened while I was pulling a Strandbeest across the street (with a police escort) and stopped to let a Rolls Royce convertible turn in front of me. The celebrity sightings and attendant panting of us mortals, “Serena’s coming!” “Diddy was there last night” was a constant thread. It turns out I am not immune to it at all. I overheard some pragmatic art fair advice, “Only suckers buy at the Fair! Sure, you might make the deal here, but you don’t write the check for at least a couple of weeks. Unless you’re a poser.” I didn’t hear much about contemporary art at all.

 In addition to the market thriving, it turns out that the patriarchy is alive and well. The heels! The amount of cleavage (enhanced and otherwise) and bum I saw was incredible. Granted, there was also the buff young guy on the beach in a tiny Speedo (waving a big latex dildo, btw) but the vast majority of skin on display was female, and it seemed to be on display for the well-heeled men present. At first, I was gobsmacked, then I thought “You’re just being overly provincial. Relax!”, and finally I just felt kinda dirty. I am privileged enough that I don’t have to encounter it so vividly in my daily life, but it’s still there.

And every night in my email and in the news was the drumbeat of Ferguson and Staten Island and the turmoil they engendered. As someone who’s worked their whole life in the cultural sector, and frankly was often quite smug about the social value of museum work, it was a repeated slap in the face. The armored vehicles versus unarmed protesters, the police who were to all intents and purposes indistinguishable from an army, and the systemic violence exposed for all to see.

 
“Social value, huh? How does your museum adresss this?!”
SWAT team, fully assembled CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user Jamelle Bouie

SWAT team, fully assembled
CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user Jamelle Bouie

Many of my colleagues in the field were grappling with the question of “How can/should/must museums respond to events like Ferguson if they really want to be engaged in the important cultural conversations of the day?” and it’s not an easy question to answer. The traditional avenues that museums utilize, like our national adovcacy group, weren’t much use at all. So the group decided to bypass the established routes and speak directly, as individuals affected by Ferguson and lucky enough to have the means to spread the word. Was it enough? Probably not. Was it more than might otherwise have been said? Definitely. And it wouldn’t have happened without a group of committed people taking time to organize and have hard conversations. So, I want to give much respect to Gretchen, Max, Aletheia and Rose, Mike, Aleia, Porchia, Adrianne, and all the others I’m forgetting who gave their time to create the statement. And, to be clear, I wasn’t much help at the time, aside from amplifying the message they crafted. I take no credit, but I am very grateful to have been able to be part of it.

What did the statement accomplish? AAM hasn’t come out with a forceful statement or suggestions for museums to tackle racial inequality. Thousands of museums haven’t added new exhibitions and programs to their calendars that address Ferguson. So, did the statement fail? I don’t think so. Sometimes just wrestling with the big, ugly, seemingly-intractable problems is restorative and necessary. We are so outcomes-based as a society that I think the really big problems are especially hard for us to grapple with, because it’s hard to see the direct path from here to a better world. And maybe that fixation with outcome gets in the way. I’ve come to believe that it is more important to stand up and speak up against injustice now than to have “the answer”. The conversations that led up to the statement were challenging, provoking even. And I’m glad I was challenged and provoked.

And since then, things have happened…

Grassroots organizing seems to be alive and well

One of the encouraging results of #museumsrespondtoferguson was that Aleia Brown and Adrianne Russell initiated a monthly Twitter chat on museums and race. I’m confident that there’ll be some sanctioned or unsanctioned conversations at AAM this year. Rebecca Herz wrote an excellent meditation on ethics in museum practice that touches on a lot of the same issues I’ve been grappling with. It’s well worth a look.  Separate conversations on income inequality and the high price of museum conferences have sprung up as a result of #museumsrespondtoferguson. There was a great debate recently on Twitter between current media darlings MuseumHack and a bunch of New York-based museum professionals over the high prices of their tours, and the larger issue of whether museums’ eagerness to court younger audiences really means only affluent young audiences. These are all good signs. Issues of import are being discussed in public forums instead of behind closed doors or at conference sessions attended by a few dozen of the usual suspects. The questions being raised will doubtless irritate some and offend others. And that’s not a bad thing. The museum endeavor, that direct experience with the sublime, the unbelievable, and the novel, has such tremendous potential to uplift people of all ages and inclinations that it’s worth some discomfort.

Link

I, robot

I wrote a short piece for PEM’s blog on my brief stint as a robot at MCN2014. You can find it here: I, robot.