Category Archives: New Media

Useful Dialectics, Part One – Transformation vs. Change

 

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Wading by bus, Iceland CC-BY SA 3.0 image by Wikimedia users Chmee2/Valtamer

I’m very excited for MCN2017 in November! The intellectual thrill of beating a session into shape with friends old and new is like a drink of cool water on a hot day. I’ve been thinking a lot about my part of the “Breaking Out of the Rut” session I’m part of, along with Ariana French, Kevin Conley and Frith Williams! We’ll be talking about our experiences of how to introduce and grow innovative thinking within organizations, and if our Skype calls are any indication, it’s going to ROCK! We’ve got four organizations at very different places in their journey towards digital maturity, all trying to make the best work we can.

One of things I’ve been struck by over the past year, has been the way conflicting pairs of ideas keep cropping up in my thinking and discussions whenever the subject of digital transformation comes up. So, I want to unpack five of these a bit more so I can finish my presentation and move on to the next thing. I’d love to know what your experience has been with these concepts.

Change

“Doing things differently involves a high degree of discomfort, which is why most of us prefer not to.”
 – Marcia Tucker, the New Museum

I wrote about digital transformation strategies a while ago in a series of posts, and have been reading extensively about it ever since. There are few words I run into more frequently in my reading than “transformation” and “change”. It feels like every other article I see in the business press has latched onto the idea of transformation as the next big thing for business. And in museums, “change” is omnipresent, particularly in the tried-and-true usage of “change agent” to describe anybody whose job it is to come into a museum and stir things up. The last couple of job descriptions I’ve been sent use both, just to be safe.

Though they both can mean something similar, I’ve come to believe that behind “change” and “transformation” are very different motivations. Though I used to be firmly in the change camp , I don’t feel that way any more, fro two reasons. First, in my experience, “change” is often treated like a discrete, time-bounded process; one that is begun, carried out, and completed at the end. It’s  a temporary state. You change, and afterwards you have changed. I don’t think we’re ever done adapting. “Change” is not something to be gotten through, like a river to be forded, which is my second problem with change. The standard model of change assumes a static endpoint one can visualize. On that far shore lies the Promised Land, and all we have to do is get there. And on the far shore we’re still recognizably us, and therefore mostly unchanged. That’s not what I’m after.

Transformation

Transformational strategies recognize that there is no far shore. The goal should not be to transplant our existing organizations in the new context, but to create continuously evolving, learning institutions that become whatever they need to become to address their missions. I don’t know what that looks like, and that’s not just alright, that’s the point of the kind of transformation that museums will need to undertake to fully participate in the modern world. The challenge I see is how to apply the same rigor we apply to our topic research to our internal organization and work processes. Since attending Alibis for Interaction last year, I’ve been interested in applying experience design principles to workflows and finding all the designable surfaces in the organization, and thoughtfully building on them to meet the needs of the people. Like any disruption, it will be uncomfortable. Which brings us back to that quote I started with. “Doing things differently involves a high degree of discomfort, which is why most of us prefer not to.”

Next up: Part Two: Design vs. tradition

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Inside Out

I spent the weekend in New York City in February, battling a cold and attending the Versions 2017 conference at the New Museum. Hats off to Julia Kaganskiy and the crew that assembled such an impressive array of speakers working in VR. I’ll recap that event another time, because I’ve been thinking about something else that happened on that trip.

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Pierre Chareau at the Jewish Museum. I loved the aesthetic of having everything positioned on faux backdrops

While we were there, we went to the Pierre Chareau exhibition at the Jewish Museum. It’s a small show, comprised mainly of furniture pieces designed by the French architect/interior designer. While I went there specifically to see how they used VR headsets in the exhibition, I was more intrigued by some of the presentation choices made by the exhibition designers and how they do (or don’t) increase visitors’ appreciation of the topic.

Hide and seek

Chareau was a hard show to navigate. I never once felt that I’d built a mental map of the layout, even after I’d finished. It was an intentional choice, too. The exhibition is a typical black box space, and the designers used hanging white curved partitions that look like photographers’ cycs to frame many of the furniture objects, and block your view of them as you walk through the gallery. On the backs of these are projections of silhouettes of people engaging in everyday domestic activities; a woman brushing her hair at a mirror, a man writing at a desk. When you get to the other side of the partition, you can see the actual furniture and (hopefully) realize that it is the same as the objects in the “shadows”.  The shadow effect bugged me a bit at first, since they aren’t really shadows; the walls are solid and opaque. Since it’s hard to see the projection and the actual furniture at the same time, it took me a couple of times to confirm that it was actually corresponding to the specific objects on the other side, and not just being evocative. The “shadow” effect grew on me, though, since it injected a human presence into what could have been a very clinical, impersonal space. The maze-like quality never grew on me.

Embracing the theatrical

I did appreciate the outright theatricality of the design. It reminded me of wandering around through Sleep No More in some ways. The museum did a good job of concealing and revealing just enough to lead me through the space and get me to recognize that there was something on the other side of every wall, know a tiny bit about it, and still have a little “aha” moment when I got to each display. I wrote about embracing theatricality in exhibitions earlier as part of a series of posts on making a museum from scratch, and this was an effective demonstration.

Guarding the magic

I was in town for a virtual reality conference, and VR was why I was at the Jewish Museum. I’ve been interested in finding examples of VR implementations that line up with reality and don’t just discard it in favor of virtuality, and here I thought the Chareau exhibition really delivered. While I’m on the fence about the exhibition as whole, the VR exhibit really embodied the spirit of one of my favorite manifestos on making exhibitions, the Medical Museion in Copenhagen’s “A manifesto for creating science, technology and medicine exhibitions“. I’ve recommended it before and I’ll do so again, and despite the title, I believe the philosophy espoused within it is broadly applicable to museums of all stripes. Thesis 6 of the manifesto is titled, “Jealously guard a place for mystery and wonder” and suggests that we deliberately “…include some exhibits about which less, rather than more, is known – curious exhibits that just cannot completely be accounted for.”

In the center of the gallery there were four vignettes of furniture from Chareau houses, in a typically Modernist setting; monotone and empty. In front of each vignette was a stool with an attached shelf, holding a Samsung headset and a long cord. When you held up the headset and looked through it, you got magic. The same furniture in front of you was there, in the same orientation, but around it was an “evocation” (museum jargon for “We couldn’t be completely certain that this is 100% exactly the way it looked”) of the interior of the house the furniture was made to go in. This is an issue we often deal with; how close to complete fidelity do you have to get in order for something to be “museum quality”? I was glad the Jewish Museum opted to go for it and build a believable, complete VR environment. Carpets on floors, bookcases full of books, afternoon sun pouring in through banks of windows. Quite a change from a dark room on the Upper East Side!

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Me looking the ceiling or something.

Of course, you weren’t seeing the actual furniture, you were seeing extremely high-fidelity 3D models of that furniture in a computer model of a space, but the designers went to the trouble of making sure both sets of furniture were in the same orientation, and that if you were facing the furniture, the virtual furniture was in the center of the field of view in your headset. I saw a couple of different visitors look at the furniture, look into the headset, then look back at the furniture and back at the headset before doing the usual dance of people in a VR environment, lazily spinning and looking all around.  The VR augmented the physical furniture without supplanting it, and the experience provided visitors with a tasty snack, a peek into another context that wasn’t weighted down with explanations or demonstrations.

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The stool with built-in shelf to hold the headset was a nice design element.

We had talked about doing the same kind of experience for our upcoming Ocean Liners exhibition, but abandoned the idea because of the low throughput of these kinds of headset experiences. In a small, quiet gallery it’s one thing. In a 10,000 square foot exhibition with hundreds of objects, and (hopefully) many thousands of visitors, it would be a bottleneck.

When showing isn’t telling

After the pleasure of using good VR, I was excited to learn more about Maison de Verre (The Glass House), Chareau’s most famous work. The sign on the door to an adjacent space told me that this house was unique in ways that traditional architectural models couldn’t convey. I entered, not knowing what that meant, other than I probably wasn’t going to see a physical model of the house, but something much, much cooler.

What I saw was a projection screen displaying an elevation of a house hanging in the center of the space over a floorplan and a video of a woman opening a closet playing on one wall of the space. As I tried to figure out what I should be looking at I noticed several things. The projection screen was moving towards me with an ominous jerky, creaking, sound. As it moved, a laser line on the floorpan moved as well. It dawned on me that I was seeing a cross section of the house at the position of the laser line on the floorpan. Indeed a room on the screen highlighted and a new video popped up on the opposite wall of a man looking for a book.  This continued for several minutes, with the screen lurching slowly backwards and forwards, pausing and playing a video of languorous French people moving around in side a space that “evoked” the Maison de Verre.

What didn’t work for me

I spend a fair bit of time looking at floorpans and elevations for work, so I have learned how to read them, but even with that experience it took me an unacceptably long time to realize that what I was seeing on the projection screen was essentially a CT scan through the middle of Maison de Verre. And having looked at my share of CT scans, I can confidently say that they are a tough form of visualization to get accustomed to. And I was better off than most of the people in the room with me at the time. Most people ignored the screen and the floorpan and waited patiently for the next video to appear. Which is a shame, since so much effort obviously went into building a high-fidelity 3D model of the house. It was visually pleasing to watch the building on the projection screen disappear as the vantage point shifted, but I didn’t get any sense of how the building was architecturally different, and certainly no sense of how the whole series of spaces connected and flowed into each other. I felt like I’d been promised a revelation and given a cipher instead.

As we were leaving the gallery I found the sign that told me that Diller, Scofidio, and Renfro designed the exhibition, which answered a lot of my nagging questions. I could easily see how an architecture firm could think that the public would “get” a confusing architectural way of looking at a domestic space. DSR also designed the Charles James exhibition at the Met, which had the dubious honor of being the last exhibition to actually make me mad at the designers. If you didn’t see it, it’s hard to explain, but it involved ball dresses and cameras on robot arms that supposedly gave you close up views of the dresses, but really just played canned video loops as the arms waved around the space like Ballet Robotique.

It was a fascinating show, and I was glad to have seen it. It’s one of the best uses of virtual reality in an exhibition I’ve seen, and the design choices made on the whole made what could have been a fairly dry examination of the subject an evocative, and, yes, immersive one at that.

Travels in November

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Contrails. CC BY-SA 3.0 image by Wikimedia Commons user Cp9asngf

November is going to be action packed! I’m not really ready for it, but c’est la vie. I’ll be doing a whirlwind tour of North America and Europe, going to three different conferences, and finally, finally, finally going to see the Louisiana Museum and learning more about how the amazing Louisiana Channel runs.

Oct 31-Nov 4,New Orleans
Museum Computer Network Conference 2016
http://conference.mcn.edu/2016/attend.cfm

This year, Bruce Wyman, Kate Haley Goldman, and I are repeating our “Experiencing the Visitor Experience” workshop on the 1st.  The inimitable Suse Cairns and I are also hosting an informal book club to discuss “Post-Critical Museology”. Time and place TBD, so check Twitter for updates. Other than that, I’m free as a bird and looking forward to attending sessions!

Nov 10, Copenhagen
Louisiana Museum
http://www.louisiana.dk/

I’m visiting the Louisiana Museum and talk to the folks at the Louisiana Channel before heading across the bridge to Malmö attend Alibis for Interaction.

Nov 11, Malmö
Alibis for Interaction 2016
http://www.alibisforinteraction.se/

Nordic LARPing anyone? Alibis for Interaction is a one-day masterclass on the craft of designing human interaction, participation and narrative experiences. Because participation can be hard. Talking to strangers is hard. Receiving attention is hard. Doing new things is hard, Even when whatever you’re being invited to do looks fun or really important issue. I’ll be doing research for a potential exhibition on play and contemporary art, and shooting some run-n-gun interviews.

Nov 12-13
Up in the air. There’s tons to see in Copenhagen. Suggestions?

Nov 13-16, Köln
Clash of Realities 2016
http://www.clashofrealities.com/2016/

At Clash of Realities, experts from the academy, science and research, economics, politics and the game industry will discuss pressing questions concerning the artistic design, technological development, and social perception of digital games, as well as the spreading of games literacy. I’ll be doing more research for a potential exhibition on play and contemporary art, and shooting more formal interviews with our intrepid videographer, Mr. Chip Van Dyke.

So if you’re in New Orleans, Copenhagen, Malmö, or Köln, hit me up and we’ll have coffee or a drink! DMing me on Twitter is probably the safest bet, email also works.

The afterlife of good ideas

I posted a piece on PEM’s blog about a project I worked on in 2013 that has been enjoying a remarkable resurgence. Check it out.

And if you need a reason to remember to blog about your work, consider that all this interest is a result of people being able to read my original blog post about the boat.

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… 

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.”

Organization
“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.”

Technology
“[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.