Category Archives: Professional Development

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.

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.

The importance of side projects

CC BY NC SA 2.0 image by Flickr user contemplative imaging

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of editing for friends and colleagues. And loving it. After years of being on the other end of the chain, now I’m the one trying crawl inside others’ minds and help them say what they meant and not what they wrote. It’s instructive, and very rewarding. And it has very little to do with my day job. Like this blog. Or Drinking About Museums. Or CODE|WORDS. But I think they are more than just outlets for excess creative energy. They’re essential to staying happy and productive.

One of my favorite moments from MCN 2013 was Tina Roth Eisenberg’s keynote address. Tina didn’t talk at all about running a design agency, which is her profession. Instead she talked about all the other things she’s done in the shadows of that, and how they’ve been crucial to her success and more importantly her well-being. Her side projects at that point included the massively-popular Swiss Miss design blog, the Tattly temporary tattoo company, and a coworking space. They’ve been opportunities to experiment, to grow, and become both a better designer and boss.

The museum space is full of salutary examples of side projects. The first one I became aware of was Beck Tench’s Experimonth. Go take a look and you’ll see how she took an idea and grew it into a community and a way to connect to a larger world of ideas than she might’ve run into in North Carolina. And then there is the Twitter-breaking might of Mar Dixon, She of the many hashtags: #MuseumSelfie, #CultureTheme, #AskaCurator. Talk about becoming a global force! Probably my favorite museum-y side project to date has been Suse Cairns’ and Jeff Inscho’s Museopunks podcast. Their conceit of finding the most interesting museum people and recording long interviews with them around broad themes made for great listening and gave them the opportunity to talk to people they might not otherwise ever meet. I was glad to see that Jeff has started another side venture, Tin Can Telephone, and look forward to seeing how it unfolds.

For me, my side projects have been a place to be new things. Five years ago, I would’ve laughed at the suggestions I might become one of the those people who host meetups. Keep a blog going for years? Not likely. I’m more fickle than that. And somehow this thing keeps on. Side projects have allowed me to stretch in different ways. Musetrain, my first joint side project, was also my first experience with the weirdness of online discourse. Bruce Wyman thought it’d be interesting to take inspiration from the Cluetrain Manifesto, and make a museum version. So, Bruce recruited Seb Chan and I to get on the train. We decided to be anonymous, so as not influence people. And that anonymity sparked more debate than any of the points in the manifesto. It was an education in unintended outcomes. Cluetrain has gotten an update recently. Maybe we’ll pick Musetrain up again and see what has withstood the test of time.

CODE|WORDS update
It was just about a year ago that Suse Cairns, Rob Stein and I started talking about an experiment in online discourse and publishing, that eventually became the CODE|WORDS collection on Medium. With the launch of Bridget McKenzie’s “Towards a Sociocratic Museum”, eight of the planned twelve essays have been published, and the project is in the home stretch. Merete Sanderhoff will soon add a great essay on connecting open museum collections with schools. Emily Lytle-Painter is writing about the care and feeding of visitors as more than just disembodied brains. Janet Carding will also be writing from a museum director’s perspective.

It has been a great privilege to work with such an outstanding group of writers and thinkers. The project has had its shares of hiccups, to be sure, but in the end, I hope it’ll turn out to be a useful resource for the field. And maybe we’ll see if we can’t turn it into a book. It has already taught me a lot about the challenges of getting geographically dispersed groups to coalesce. I’ve turned out to be more tenacious than I thought. I’ve discovered that I actually kinda like editing smart people’s work.

Not bad for a side project.

Highlights from MCN 2014

I’ve been meaning to write up a recap of my experience at MCN 2014 for some time, but am only now getting around to unearthing my notes and pictures.

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I was one of the conference program co-chairs, along with Morgan Holzer from NYPL, and had spent the better part of 2014 getting ready for this party to start. And one of the biggest takeaways I had was that I find it harder to be in the moment when I’ve had a hand in setting up the program. Like the host at a party worrying if the guests are having a good time, I spent a lot of time shuttling back and forth between sessions, poking into workshops, and constantly taking the pulse of the conference to see if there was anything that needed doing. And it felt good to have care of the event in that way, but it was very different than just being there as an attendee. In many ways, this was the perfect bookend to my visit to MW 2012, when I didn’t go to any sessions and just sat in the lobby of the conference hotel for a day. So, what was the 30,000 foot view like?

Conference Highlights

If you want a quick promo for the conference, check out this snazzy highlight video.

For the Record…

MCN has been getting more and more into capturing and disseminating video of presentations and I actually find myself going back to them in ways I didn’t think I would a couple of years ago. The MCN YouTube channel is worth a visit. Papers rarely capture the performative aspects of a public reading, slide decks are usually woefully incomplete, and neither capture the dialogue that occurs. So I’m glad that the investment in video continues to grow and hope you find it useful to your work.

Ignite on-site

The first night Ignite talks have become one of the cornerstones of the MCN conference. They deliver a jolt of energy to the proceedings that is hard to beat. The format is a tough one, and the hardy souls who volunteer to do it are inspirations to us all. Normally, we’ve had to go off-site to find a venue that is set up with a stage, the right AV system, booze, and the ability to accommodate a couple hundred people. Luckily, this year we didn’t have to pile into buses and go to a bar.  One of the most unusual features of the Fairmont Dallas hotel as a conference venue was the Venetian Room. Think early 1970s glitz, and you’ve got it.

The Venetian Room, courtesy of Fairmont Hotels

The Venetian Room, courtesy of Fairmont Hotels

Robert Goulet was the first performer to grace the stage, Sonny and Cher played there, Ike and Tina Turner, etc. And it was right in the building!

The curtain on the Venetian Room stage. Swanky!

The curtain on the Venetian Room stage. Swanky!

So swanky, I bought a tux to go with it.

So swanky, I bought a tux to go with it.

Two presentations really stood out for me. Max Anderson, the director of the Dallas Museum of Art (you should follow him on Twitter if you don’t already) delivered a no-holds-barred talk on how art museum directors think. It was full of insight into the issues directors are faced with, and especially cutting in regard to how they view digital technologies and staff who want to innovate. If you’ve wondered “What does my director really think about?” check it out.

Greb Albers from the Getty had the unenviable job of batting cleanup (going last for you non-baseball fans) and not only gave a great performance, but gave the conference it’s first (and most inspirational) meme. For the rest of the conference, I heard people exhorting each other to “be tugboats”. Watch the talk, you’ll get it.

The Keynote

 Lance Weiler, filmaker, writer, teacher, and incredibly promiscuous collaborator gave a great, provoking keynote on storytelling and technology, drawn almost entirely from his own impressive body of work. If you haven’t seen works like Bear 71, you really should. Incredible stuff. The whole talk is worth a watch.

One of the most interesting parts of his talk was the “Five Times Why” exercise he made all 400 people do. Everyone was given cards, pencils and told to find a partner they didn’t know. They would then ask them the question “Why are you here?” five times, record each answer and then write a summary of why that person had come. Then they’d switch roles. It was a great ice breaker! As an unintended bonus, we collected all the cards and spent part of the last day coding the responses. Some very interesting insights will help us with next year’s conference.

The Layer of Chaos and the joy of HOMAGO

One of the things I like most about museum technology events is that they tend to be HOMAGO kinds of affairs.If you’re not familiar with the term, HOMAGO stands for Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, and is an experiential learning theory expounded by Mimi Ito, and popular in digital media and learning circles. It’s social, peer-oriented, and interest-driven. HOMAGO is generally used in youth experience contexts to describe the ways they make sense out of the constantly evolving sea of new ways to be and create that digital media present. I think that same spirit underlies both the formal *and* informal making opportunities that MCN provides to attendees. Our demographic may be a bit older, but the phenomenon feels the same to me.

The energy in the workshops was great to see. People learned to use microontrollers and sensors and actually make physical stuff.

The Arduino workshop

The Arduino workshop

The conference workshops certainly had that spirit, but the Layer of Chaos, MCN’s three year-old collaboration with New Mexico Highlands University and the Parachute Factory makerspace, really embodies that spirit and runs with it. Part artist residency, part drop-in program, part adult fun night, the Layer of Chaos has it all. Great peer-to-peer opportunities to engage with new technologies, lots of alcohol-aided socializing, and can-do experimentation that is a great creative lubricant. I can’t wait to see what they come up with for Minneapolis this November. This year’s theme, the MuseTech Shipwreck, was partly my fault, so I got the task of welcoming attendees to the opening of the Layer of Chaos. There were interactive light and sound installations, an visitor-operated barrel of rum (you had to hit a target with retrofitted light guns fr old consoles) and a dancing skeleton made from a pico projector, ultrasonic humidifier and a bunch of drinking straws.

The High and the Low Tech

William Gibson wrote that “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” And that was in evidence at MCN. There were the obligatory high tech devices, like the Beam telepresence robot I got to test drive around the Exhibit Hall. But there were also great examples of low tech solutions. Google Cardboard, their “turn your Android phone into a 1970s Viewmaster” was a surprisingly successful product. Even with an iPhone, I was able to enjoy most of the experience, and get a sense of the kinds of things we can expect to see from the Google Cultural Institute Lab in Paris.

Look, ma! I'm a robot!

Look, ma! I’m a robot!

Google cardboard. The advance mechanism (only works w Android phones) is just a washer and a magnet.  Genius!

Google cardboard. The advance mechanism (only works w Android phones) is just a washer and a magnet. Genius!

It’s the future in here!

The MCN 2014 Scholars. What an inspiring group!

The MCN 2014 Scholars. What an inspiring group!

 Most random moment

I was in the Exhibit Hall and turned around to see Leo, Douglas, Loic, and Don talking. Nothing unusual there, except Don was actually in France, not Dallas, and was using a telepresence robot to hang out with us. That kinda stuff happens at MCN. You should come this year. It’ll be a blast!

3 folks in Dallas, one in France

3 folks in Dallas, one in France

Childhood as a state of mind, not an age

What a Summer it has been! And how little blogging has happened. Nina Simon has said to me several times that, for her, regular blogging has been a great boon and a huge albatross around her neck. Keeping to a regular schedule is both a terrible mistress and a vital time for reflection. Without that prompt, it’s all too easy to spend no time reflecting at all. And when you fall off the blog wagon, it’s hard to get back on. So, up we go…

Gavin, talking about our Maker Lounge.

Gavin, talking about our Maker Lounge.

Earlier this Summer, my colleague Gavin Andrews and I attended a workshop on the Documentation Studio at Wheelock College—a project/venue that spun out of Harvard’s Making Learning Visible work around using Reggio Emilia-inspired documentation (a variety of media) to support learning and collaboration among educators in schools and informal settings. The goal was to look at Reggio-inspired educational practices, particularly documentation, and see how they might be applied beyond the traditional Reggio target audience of preliterate (0-5) learners.

I’ve long been interested in the Reggio Emilia model. There’s something that rings very true to me about the value of learners documenting their own learning as a way of demonstrating and crystalling that learning. My lovely and talented wife worked for many years with the folks at Project Zero at Harvard to test Reggio-inspired methods at the high school level, and in the projects she and her students undertook I could see parallels to what we were trying to do with museum audiences.

Another interesting reflection of Reggio ideas in museum thinking can be seen in Lori Phillips’ construction of open authority, particularly in the spectrum of open authority, where museums and their audiences co-create participatory interpretations. Rather than having us doing all the creating and them doing the learning, we do it together and both do both. I like the sound of that!
In addition to being the most superbly-facilitated professional development event I’ve ever experienced, it was *full* of brain food. Some of the notes from my notebook give a flavor of the event:

“Documentation is not a practice so much as a mindset – Documentation ≠ what happened. It’s your point of view of what happened.”

“Documentation is more about communication than expression.”

“How could visitors leave their own document/descripiton of their process, plus a protocol for documentation? Can it extend beyond their visit? How can they take it home/school?”

“What is the role of  the curator in this kind of interaction space?”

“How do you make documentation help w collaborative practice beyond the visit?”

Heady, tough stuff… At the end of a very fruitful half day of dicsussion and sharing with school teachers and museum educators who work with children, I asked the question I’d been aching to ask all day, “How does all this apply when your audience is not just children, but everyone?” Of course, there was no easy answer, but as I thought more about it, it occured to me that I defined childhod in my mind as a temporary state, and one that, once passed, was inaccessible thereafter. You either were a child or were not, and therefore things geared for children were somehow distinct from things designed for the rest of us. Something about this bugged me, since I knew that everyone in the room had once been a child. And it spawned a question in my mind.

What if you looked at childhood as a state of mind? 

One thing that separates adults from children is that children have a hard time imagining what it must be like to be an adult, whereas adults can remember what it was like when they were children. Childhood is, to some extent, available to us all. I’m sure all us former children can recall bits of what it was like when the world was newer and more mysterious, and we constantly encountered new things. So, my question to you, dear friends and colleagues is this: Could we as designers of learning experiences figure out ways to bring that state of being to the forefront and turn all our audience into children-learners? What might that look like? Any examples of people doing it already?

It’s not what you know, but what you are willing to learn

Already a dork at age 13. But, a dork in spacesuit FTW!

It’s not what you know, but what you are willing to learn

I kinda fell into museum work, which is odd, since I’d worked in museums since I was 11. I’d had a bunch of front of house positions; guard, guide, gift shop, garage; all the entry level jobs.  But despite that, I never really thought of museum work as something I’d pursue as a career. No, thanks. I was gonna go to college to be an astronaut. Instead, I dropped out my senior year, and after a brief, disastrous stint in retail, and needing to pay the rent, wound up back at the Museum, working the Information Desk. Until one day, I had the lunch that changed everything.

It was a busy day, the cafeteria was packed and there was no place to sit. I was an hourly grunt, on a timed 30 minute break, and my clock was running. I saw a coworker of mine eating with another woman I recognized as an employee, but didn’t know. She was one of the fancy office people we didn’t mingle with. They were sitting at a table with three seats, so I invited myself to their lunch and listened to the woman complain about how overworked and understaffed her department was. She worked in the Exhibits department, where they apparently made exhibits. Now I had known this intellectually, I’m sure, but it had never really sunk in til then. People got paid to make the exhibits people came to museums to look at.  Huh! So, I spent the next several months being aggressively friendly, until she hired me as her assistant. Thus began what I’d consider my Museum career.

When I started working in the Exhibits department, I was the youngest person there out of about 30 people, and I was the least educated. I was intimidated. They were smart. They had decades of experience. They were well-educated. The office people had Masters and Doctorates. The shop staff were cabinet makers, not carpenters, a distinction you would fail to make only once. And then there was me. I was very lucky, luckier than most. I had a boss who was a mentor in the truest sense of the word, though I didn’t know any better. I thought that’s what all bosses did, right? Train you up, sharpen your skills and point you at opportunities to gain new ones. I worked on big shows, based almost entirely on my bosses faith that I could do it. So I did it. But throughout it all, I had this persistent dread that I’d be found out one day. Somebody would say, “Rodley! What are *you* doing here!? You don’t belong here!” I did great stuff, worked on amazing projects, travelled the world, and still never felt worthy, because I didn’t think I knew what I was supposed to know, what everybody else already knew (I thought).

And what changed was when we started getting heavily into evaluation. Sitting in the galleries, actually watching visitors using stuff was a revelation! I didn’t know what would happen, but neither did the old timers, though some of them were sure that it was all a huge waste of time, and an affront to their expertise, cuz they knew. But we made better exhibits because of that. And the experience of being cool with not knowing was liberating. I didn’t know, but I was gonna find out. And I was learning things that my elders didn’t know for a change. I could go toe to toe with them on decisions about projects in a way I couldn’t before. Our dynamic changed. And my story of myself started to change.

The thing I wish they’d told me when I started in museums was that it’s not what you know, but what you are willing to learn that will make or break you as a professional. I thought that the old model of learning still applied, you know? You went to school, you learned stuff, and that carried you through your career until you retired. Only I watched some of the most senior people in my department, people with long, deep resumes of accomplishments, transform themselves from legends into pariahs, the folks you tried hard to work around to get something done, precisely because they weren’t willing to learn, or they thought that the pile of knowledge they’d accumulated should be sufficient. And by the time they retired, most people didn’t even know that they’d once been heroes. They’d become the people everybody hoped would retire soon. And I didn’t want to become that guy.

Being ok with not knowing, but being willing to learn is kinda scary, like those anxiety dreams where you’re at work and you’ve forgotten to wear pants, or like standing up in front of several hundred of your peers and sharing your deeply held feelings of unworthiness. But scary shouldn’t hold you back. I’ve gotten very good at telling myself “Not knowing *is* scary, always. Now get over it and do it anyway.” And I really believe that mindset is like a mental muscle; the more you exercise it, the better it gets, and the more you can do with it. That realization has become the cornerstone of my professional practice, and is largely responsible for me being where I am now, which is a place where I often don’t know what is the right thing to do and have to figure it out as I go along. And that’s OK.

It’s not what you know, but what you are willing to learn.