Category Archives: Thinking tools

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…

On doing the hard stuff

I spent my last weekend before vacation at Princeton University, taking part in the Museum Computer Network’s Board of Directors Strategy Retreat. It was long, it was painful, it sucked at times, and it was great!

Both signs were apt.

Both signs were apt.

A problem that the Board had been grappling with for some time was that we were feeling a bit unfocused, yet too busy with our jobs to really tackle any of the endemic, intractable problems that any long-lived organization faces. It’s a classic work problem; busyness preventing the concentrated effort required to replace busyness with targeted action. Our regular board calls are always full of agenda items, and our twice yearly meetings are great at surfacing issues, but not at digging into them. So we made the decision to convene an extraordinary board retreat at a location as convenient as possible for as  many directors as possible and lock ourselves in a room until we’d come out with a revised vision for the organization, a list of programs we’d like to see MCN undertake in the next three years, and a series of roadmaps that would help us drive the three top priorities forward. A daunting list!

Here are some takeaways from the event.

Hard stuff can be fun
What I took away from the retreat was that it’s good to feel stretched. The exercise was a classic example of Seymour Papert’s idea of hard fun. While we were at it, we were operating near the limits of our ability. Managing to do the job created a particular type of hard fun that Nicole Lazzarro called fiero, “triumphing over adversity”. The joy of successfully taking on the hard work and making progress against it is intoxicating. Nietzsche defined happiness as “The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome.”

Friday, 10:30 PM. Catching up.

Friday, Midnight. Catching up.

Facilitation matters

Carolyn Royston, the Treasurer of MCN and a stellar facilitator, agreed to take on the formal role of facilitator for the retreat, and it was central to our success to have someone who was only looking at the goals for the event, setting the agenda, keeping us honest, reminding us to be respectful of each other, and encouraging us to keep at it. Too often, I’ve been in meetings and groups where its not clear who’s taking care of the meeting. Carolyn also made it quite clear to us that she could not and would not participate in the event, even though she’s an integral part of the group, because she knew we’d need someone dedicated to the task at hand, not another voice trying to participate. That was a big sacrifice for her, because she’s passionate about the work we do and going it better.

Saturday, 7AM. The Executive Committee plots out the day.

Saturday, 7AM. The Executive Committee plots out the day.

The Executive Committee also took it’s role in shaping the conversation very seriously and was able to be a united front, even when things got messy. We all at various times were called on to jump in and lead a conversation, do a job that suddenly needed to be done, and help facilitate when the discussions got hot and heavy. Each morning we got up stupidly early, so we could go over what we wanted to do that day, and assign roles. Even that little bit of extra effort paid off handsomely. It would’ve been easy to lay the burden entirely on the shoulders of our facilitator, but having the job distributed among five people made it much more doable.

Having the right people in the room

We had previously surveyed a number of past presidents of the organization about our plans, and asked two of them to join us to provide their experience. The fact that they were willing to give up a weekend was impressive. They were able to provide the kind of institutional memory that is always bleeding out of volunteer-run organizations, and we needed it several times when we got lost in our own particular circumstances. Rob Lancefield in particular, a long-time MCN member, was great at having a long duration view and helping us contextualize what we doing. There was no other way we could have known the things they did, so bringing them along essential.

Saturday, 9AM. All brightened and bushy-tailed and ready to work.

Saturday, 9AM. Two ex-Presidents, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and ready to work.

Working smart, and small
With such a huge pile of work and a large group (15) it would’ve been unwieldy to try to do all our work in one large discussion. Carolyn did a great job of using the whole group to set agendas, surface issues, and then divided us up to work on pieces in parallel. We would then reconvene to comment on the work of the small groups and refine, argue, and add.

Saturday, Noon. Breaking down big problems into manageable pieces.

Saturday, Noon. Breaking down big problems into manageable pieces.

Working in small groups and then coming together to discuss really helps.

Working in small groups and then coming together to discuss really helps.

Acknowledging that it’s hard and sucks sometimes is important
One thing I’m surprised by is how many people equate hard with bad. Throughout the weekend, Carolyn reminded the group constantly about the difficulty of trying to do what we were doing. “Why wallow in it?” you might ask. I think it’s important to recognize the difficulty of what you’re doing, and communicate that. Especially when it feels like it’s not working out, having that validation that “This is hard, and its going to be harder, but you can do it.” can make the difference between people buckling down and giving up. It also makes getting it easier to acknowledge the accomplishment of getting through it.

Sunday afternoon. Hitting that point in Day 2 when the wheels feel like they're coming off.

Sunday afternoon. Hitting that point in Day 2 when the wheels feel like they’re coming off.

Sunday 2 PM. Pulling it together in the end. From chaos, order emerges.

Sunday 2 PM. Pulling it together in the end. From chaos, order emerges.

Taking the work seriously and taking yourself seriously aren’t the same thing

If you were wondering what fiero looks like in a professional context, I present Exhibit A. Stay tuned for details about what we’ve got in store. 2017 will be MCN’s 50th anniversary, and the Jubilee Year is going to be great!

Feeling giddy with excitement that we did it! This is my kind of Board of Directors.

Feeling giddy with excitement that we did it! This is my kind of Board.

Representing abundance in collections

Janet Carding and I have been talking about her upcoming CODE|WORDS essay on change management in the digital era, and one painful truth she points out is that she still goes to events where museum leaders talk about putting their collections online and making them available to search, a full generation after this problem was first solved. And that solution – search – is itself hugely problematic, for me, and others, I think, largely because of how stingy we are in how we provide access to those collections.

CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user Paul Lowry

CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user Paul Lowry

Once upon a time, when you wanted to find out something, you’d go to the library and look in a card catalogue for a topic or a title. Once you got a number, you’d go wander the aisles or stacks, looking at book spines for the right number. Maybe you’d find what you were looking for. Maybe you wouldn’t. But in either case, you’d encounter a ton of information on the way that would give you both a sense of what you were looking for and what information surrounded it.

Fast forward to 2015 and how have we advanced in our ability to present vast sums of knowledge?





Bit of a let down, isn’t it?

Hold the idea of being in the library stacks and then look at the blank search box, revealing nothing, mocking your ignorance, coyly withholding its treasures and forcing you to figure out what magic formula will get it to show you the goods. As Mitchell Whitelaw points out in his excellent article “Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections”

“Decades of digitisation have made a wealth of digital cultural material available online. Yet search — the dominant interface to these collections — is incapable of representing this abundance. Search is ungenerous: it withholds information, and demands a query.”

I expressed a strong opinion on this in my CODE|WORDS essay “The Virtues of Promiscuity”

“Let’s be clear that what I’m talking about is not “Let’s put the collection online” by making a database with a web interface. Access is important, but a web portal is an oracular cave, dark and mysterious. You go into the dark place, ask your question, and the Sibyl answers. Hopefully, it makes sense. Sometimes, it’s a very detailed answer, sometimes not. But the seeker never has the ability to appreciate the collection as a whole, or to interrogate it in any ways other than those chosen by the architects of the CMS and the portal. And they’re black holes to indexers. Google, Yahoo! and Baidu have no way of knowing what lies beyond your search box, and in a world where findability equals existence, this is death. Actually it’s worse, it’s annihilation — being made into nothing. Not a great strategy for proving relevance.”

The really frustrating thing is that the problem with search has been recognized as a problem pretty much since the beginning. At the very first Museums and the Web conference in 1997(!), in “The Best of Intentions: Public Access, the Web & the Evolution of Museum Automation”, Kevin Donovan wrote,

“The search interface approach employs the frightful blank search field method of providing access to data. This method reproduces the most inscrutable characteristics of database technology, a technology so daunting that even within museums only those deliberate souls whose jobs depend on it, collections managers and registrars, will use it.”

We’re talking 1997 Web 1.0 days, when there was no Facebook, no Twitter, and Netscape Navigator had a 62% market share compared to Internet Explorer’s 35% (over half of whom were using IE3 on Windows 95 machines). Even then, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, search was unsatisfying and problematic.

So, what are alternatives?

I’m sure (I hope?) that there are museum collections that can be explored in more generous ways than search. If you know of any, send me a link, eh? Here are two examples I know of, though both are long in the tooth now.

The Visual Thesaurus is an interactive dictionary and thesaurus, based on the Thinkmap architecture. It was all the rage around the turn of the millennium. I recall owning a copy of it on floppy disk. Luckily, the web version continues to this day. It’s a great tool for exploring the relationships between words and their meanings. It allows you to drift from word to word and concept to concept, all while showing you the landscape around the object of your study. It’s a great tool, and had obvious museum applications from the get-go. Thinkmap and the Experience Music Project presented “Artifact as Inspiration: Using existing collections and management systems to inform and create new narrative structures” at MW2001. It’s still relevant, 14 years later. I tried a couple of times to get projects off the ground using Thinkmap, but with no luck.

Planetary is an example of both visualization and of evolving museum practice. It was a great iPad app for visualizing your iTunes music library that employed a novel conceit: it used a planetary system metaphor for displaying metadata. Artists were stars, albums were planets, tracks were moons. It was a very different take on looking at your music, and the visuals were amazing. Here’s a look.

An interesting postscript to Planetary’s short life was that it was the first digital object the Cooper Hewitt collected, in 2013. “Planetary: Collecting and Preserving code as a living object” raises a number of issues about ways of visualizing abundance.  I added some commentary at the time, too.


Both of these models offer glimpses of how exploring museum datasets could be more interesting, more generous, and more useful to our audiences. It’s a great opportunity to innovate, because the stakes are so high. Putting our abundant resources out on the open web won’t gain us much if we don’t find ways to make them more inviting, to lure potential explorers into their depths, and to encourage the kinds of serendipitous explorations that a trip through the stacks could produce. I’ll leave you with another Whitelaw quote that says it better than I would.

The stakes here are high, because the interface plays an inescapable role in mediating digital heritage. Whether a command-line console or an immersive visualisation, these collections come to us in some specific, concrete form; and crucially, that form is constructed and contingent. It can always be otherwise. As our cultural heritage is increasingly networked and digital, the life and use of that heritage will increasingly be conditioned by the forms in which it reaches us, how it is made concrete and available both for scholars and the wider public. As argued above, search-centred conventions offer meagre representational tools; while there are promising signs of a new generosity emerging, much more is possible.


Mitchell Whitelaw
“Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections” DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly, Volume 9 Number 1, 2015

Ed Rodley
“The Virtues of Promiscuity: or, Why giving it away is the future”, CODE | WORDS: Technology and Theory in the Museum. 2014

Kevin Donovan
“The Best of Intentions: Public Access, the Web & the Evolution of Museum Automation” Museums and the Web 1997

Seb Chan
“Planetary: Collecting and Preserving code as a living object” Cooper Hewitt blog, 2013.

I’ve got a beef with “content”

Mm, mm, good!

Mm, mm, good!

Content (noun)
the substance or material dealt with in a speech, literary work, etc., as distinct from its form or style.

late Middle English: from medieval Latin contentum (plural contenta ‘things contained’), neuter past participle of continere (see contain).

Earlier in my career when I developed exhibitions, I grew to loathe the word “content”. This was unfortunate since I used it all the time in writing and speech, and later had it added to my job title. Once, a vendor pitching their mobile app development platform actually used the sentence “Just pour in your content here! We take care of the rest.” I didn’t buy their product.

It’s a classic weasel word, so generic it tells you nothing. It’s a term so flavorless that if you like stories and knowledge and stuff and ideas at all, it’ll sap the joy from you. As part of the commentary on The Andy Warhol Museum’s Digital Strategy repository on GitHub, Seb Chan said “when other industries use the term ‘content’ it means something interchangeable and of short-term value.” Jeff Inscho from the Warhol wrote, “The word doesn’t do museum missions justice and it cheapens the integrity of our subject matter.” I think they’re right. “Content” is the spackle of the digital realm; homogenous, bland, and endless. Just add as much as you need to fill any space!

What we talk about when we talk about content

So that’s my beef with a perfectly good word like content. Partly it’s what Seb and Jeff said, the term implies interchangeable stuff of little value and quality. Looking back, I also felt that “content” as a term was a way of privileging other aspects of a product over what I (and many other content creators) thought of as the meat of any project; the ideas, objects, and experiences that made our work valuable. Granted, I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder, but I just can’t shake the sense that there is something pejorative about content in the contexts we tend to use it in. You can almost see the handwaving that occurs when people talk about “content” as a way of acknowledging its existence while dismissing it so they can get onto the good stuff, be it interface, or aesthetics or hardware.

So, what’s the alternative?

Good question. I don’t think there is a one-to-one synonym that’ll allow us to a global “find and replace” of content. And that’s kind of the point. I think as an abstraction, content is just too diffuse to be useful in many of the contexts in which we use it. While I was thinking about this I went back in the Warhol’s Digital Strategy to see how they’d handled it. Sure enough, content was replaced by different phrases in different places, depending on the context. I think that’s the practice I’m probably going to pursue going forward.

Note to self: If a term is so broad that you immediately have to clarify it with examples, don’t use it.

What is the Museum full stack?

“Stacked Pebbles, Spanish Bay” CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user Christopher Chan

Following my post about Agile methodologies in museums, I wandered (as one does on the Internet) to adjacent topics. According to my Scrum Master brother, one of the anti-patterns in museums that makes Agile implementation difficult to fathom is the specialization of roles. Whereas software developers are expected to be familiar with all the layers of code that make up modern software “the full stack”, museum expertise is pretty highly differentiated. Curatorial is separate from interpretation which is separate from collections. It allows for great specialization, but makes it harder to see how all the pieces of museum work can and should fit together to make for great visitor engagement. It makes it hard to even see the digital manifestations of our work as belonging to a single stack, which makes it very hard to develop digital experiences that can take advantage of all the affordances the modern internet provides. It’s a classic wicked problem, where even trying to outline the contours of the issue is hard and changeable. But, those are the problems most worth poking at, right? So I started collecting stacks and looking for similarities, and potential applications.

So I tweeted my question into the ether,

and lo! Answers returned.

Other people are wrestling with the same or similar issues. We decided to have a higher-bandwidth conversation than Twitter allows and scheduled a time to hang out and talk. I had a great lunchtime chat the other day with colleagues in Pittsburgh (Jeff Inscho @staticmade), St. Paul (Bryan Kennedy @xbryanx), and San Diego (Chad Weinard @caw_) about the idea of the museum full stack and how and why to build it.

Part of the problem I think, is that the full stack is hard to comprehend and traditionally hasn’t even been thought of (outside of IT circles) as a data ecosystem, but rather as a series of disconnected systems, owned and operated by separate departments, with parochial concerns. Certainly my own experience with developing digital experiences reflects that. This is also partly an historical artifact. A lot of these systems probably can trace their lineages back to when they were separate, discrete systems that possessed little or no ability to interoperate. The Internet has wrecked that isolation, as it has so many other things. Time to build a new perception of the museum data ecosystem and say goodbye to the days when IT owned this piece, and that piece was Collections’ worry. The reality is much more interconnected.

Cooper Hewitt’s stack

A lot of the impetus for me starting this conversation was a post by Seb Chan about the Cooper Hewitt’ API, their stack and it’s centrality to their vision. It starts with the museum’s two “sources of truth”, the repositories of the two kinds of data that the Cooper Hewitt relies on; data about objects, and data about visitors. Go read the whole thing. It’s worth it. I immediately resonated with the graphic on several levels. We use some of the same systems, and have been wrestling with the same kinds of ideas around providing visitors with personalized experiences. I’m particularly interested in representing the abundance of information in collections, and it’s hard to do that in the dominant paradigm of “search”.

“Decades of digitisation have made a wealth of digital cultural material available online. Yet search — the dominant interface to these collections — is incapable of representing this abundance. Search is ungenerous: it withholds information, and demands a query.”

Mitchell Whitelaw

Cooper Hewitt’s stack, image by Katie Shelly

Cooper Hewitt’s approach of using the full stack approach makes it possible for them to provide visitors with multiple entry points into the collection through interactive experiences, what Mitchell Whitelaw would call more “generous interfaces”.  I find it hard to perceive any other way to do that without stepping back and looking at the full stack, seeing the forest through the trees as it were.

Here are a few of the other things that came up in our chat.

Objects, Experiences, People

Cooper Hewitt’s stack is a great model because it’s suitably specific. Their model would not likely be your model or anybody else’s, for that matter. The systems they rely on, and the staff expertise they bring to bear are unique. So their “two sources of truth” might not be yours. As Bryan pointed at, at his museum, Science Museum of Minnesota, they are as focused on the experiences they build as they are on the objects they use to populate some of those experiences. They are fundamental to the museum’s operation and incorporate content and ideas that don’t neatly fit in either source of truth. They’re not about objects, per se. For them, the experience is a truth that needs its own source. Cooper Hewitt doesn’t, but the Rijksmuseum might classify visitors’ digital creations as a separate source of truth, related to, yet distinct from the CMS or CRM systems. You get the idea?… At its most basic, atomic level, we want to be able to store, retrieve, and connect people, objects, and experiences.

What I find powerful about looking at the full stack of software platforms and services, is that it frees you from the mental constraint of the gallery, or the webpage. When you frame is an exhibition, everything looks like a kiosk. Same for good ole’ Web 1.0. The answer is usually a microsite or a web portal.

Monolithic systems break badly

Another issue that came up was the desire in some parts (often, but not always, administration) to create monolithic systems that will take care of everything. If you’ve been around long enough, you’ve probably run into vendors whose products will take care of all your digital needs. Their systems promise to be flexible, scalable, and easy to use (usually through the use of predefined templates). All your content will be seamlessly pushed to the destination of your choice, be it the exhibit hall or the Web. And though they may perform a lot of these functions, the reality is that they more often than not A) don’t deliver, and B) wind up becoming a straightjacket as the system ages, new systems join the ecosystem, and contracts/service agreements expire. As monolithic systems age, they don’t age gracefully, and when (not if) they break, they break badly.

Loose connections

That’s another place where designing systems and services that use the full stack is useful. The real power in  looking at the entire data ecosystem is that a hierarchy of linked systems can be loosely connected through APIs, assuming your stack layers are built on and use APIs. A break in any one of these loose connections is unlikely to bring your whole ecosystem crashing down, and the fix to one piece need not require an overhaul of the whole system. A stack that relies on APIs can be much more friendly to new platforms being integrated into the stack. The downside is that creating and managing this kind of ecosystem requires staff resources that are different than the resources needed to maintain one monolithic system, or a series of unconnected ones. And museums tend to privilege depth of knowledge over breadth, even in digital roles.

To that end I tried to put together a possible statement of what PEM’s stack looks like/could look like. I invite you  take a look. Add your own stack, too if you feel so inclined. Just make a new tab in the spreadsheet.