Category Archives: Theory

Dialogues About Useful Dialectics

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Detail from title page of Galileo’s Dialogue, by Giovanni Battista Landini, Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

MCN2017 is less than a month away, and I’m in crunch mode trying to finish preparing from my two sessions. If you’re going to be in Pittsburgh, check out Breaking Out of the Rut and the MCN Green Room. If you can’t join us in person, you should follow along via Twitter using the session hashtags, #MCN2017-W23 and #MCN2017-Green Room. For the Breaking out of the Rut session, I’ve been thinking about a series of dialectics I keep running into in my thinking about transformational strategies and how we structure work. The latest series of posts were a way for me to cut down my bloated slide deck to just the hard shiny nuggets, and thus far it’s helped crystalize my thinking. Blogging has always been an incredibly useful tool to force me to do my thinking right. It’s also been invaluable in hearing from colleagues I’d never encounter otherwise. Your thoughts, critiques and insights are a real gift. As an example, I’ve had some interesting side conversations about the first posts that all offer interesting overlaps with the dialectics I’ve been studying.

What Would Piaget Say?

The first one was pointed out to me by Susan Spero, who left a very insightful observation about the change vs transformation dialectic, and how it related to Piaget’s distinction between assimilation and accommodation in learners. Like change (as I framed it) assimilation involves us remaining mostly the same with the addition a new bit of knowledge. Accommodation, for Piaget, is an admission and understanding that we have changed, not unlike transformation. The metacoginitive aspect of it, understanding and recognizing that it happened, is almost as essential as it happening.

Interestingly, for Piaget (and Susan) this means assimilation is the norm, and accommodation the occasional. Does the same apply for change and transformation? Is finite small innovation the norm and sweeping reimagination always the exception? I would say yes, but I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or a similarity. Thoughts?

The Big Picture

Bob Beatty’s new book, “An AASLH Guide to Making Public History” (and 30% off if you use the discount code RLFANDF30) is coming out in a few weeks and he has been thinking about the change vs transformation dialectic at the largest scales, institutionally and for the field as a whole. If you’re interested in seeing how transformation plays out in historical organizations, then it’s worth checking out. Aside from calling change “very much weak tea” which is about the worst thing this Irish-American boy can imagine, he said that in his experience, it was the transformational strategies that scaled best from the individual to the departmental to the institutional level.

One key factor he has seen repeatedly in the success of these strategies is strong, committed leadership. He singled out Nina Simon’s work at the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz as an example of a transformation not only of an institution, but also its leader. Bob is particularly inspired by how Nina very publicly grapples with the issues of change and transformation of her own thinking and her institution. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know I already hold Nina in pretty high esteem. If you’re not familiar with her work, and want an example of what it looks like to practice being a leader in public, then her Museum 2.0 blog  is essential reading.

Growth Mindsets

Carter Gillies saw clear parallels between the design vs tradition dialectic (particularly the reflective vs non-reflective practice mindset) with psychologist Carol Dweck’s theory of fixed vs growth mindsets. Maria Popova provides a good primer on Dweck’s work at Brain Pickings.

Carter was particularly struck by the parallels between how people with fixed and growth mindsets face challenges. People with a fixed mindset tend to view failure as an indictment of themselves while people with a growth mindset see failure as an opportunity to learn and improve. He saw a probable connection between being fixed in one way of thinking (tradition) and between the design process (growth).

What similarities/overlaps/synergies have you noticed? Don’t be shy!

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Useful Dialectics, Part Three – Hierarchy vs. Network

“The shift from hierarchical organizational structures to networked ones is the dominant theme of the current era.”

– Catherine Bracy

In the first post in this series, I explored the differences between change and transformation. In the last post, I made some claims about design and tradition, and tried to drag some experience design principles into thinking about designing workflows; designing how we design. It was really a call for more reflective practice. In this post, I want to explore the current tension between ways of thinking about power relationships; the established hierarchical model, versus the emergent network model.

Hierarchy

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The original hierarchy. Detail from “The Assumption of the Virgin” by Francesco Botticini. Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons

We should always be disposed to believe that that which appears white is really black, if the hierarchy of the Church so decides.”

– Saint Ignatius

Hierarchy is an interesting word, and oft-maligned, I imagine because of the word’s religious origins. In the overwhelmingly secular West, anything smacking of religiosity is suspect, and “hierarchy”, “the sacred order of things”, originally applied in Catholic doctrine to the heavenly order of angels who oversaw all of God’s creation. Over time, the term has literally been been brought down to Earth to mean any entrenched system where people are ranked according to authority or power or status. The apparatus of control is very clear and explicit, and the relative positions of actors in a hierarchy is apparent to both. That can be a real boon to efficiency, in that it saves time. In the same way that traditions can short circuit the need for negotiation, “Why do we do things this way?”, a hierarchy makes it really clear who’s in charge. In this system, increasing one’s power is tied inextricably to increasing one’s rank in the hierarchy.

The downside of any hierarchy of course, is that the people most often deeply invested in preserving it are also the people who have the most agency and power. Paired with strong traditions, a strong hierarchy can be almost impossible to influence, let alone change, or transform.  James McAnally summed it up nicely in his Hyperallergic essay, “A Call for a Collective Reexamination of Our Art Institutions, “When dismantling a hierarchy, those with real power always want to settle for plucking out a brick when it’s the foundation at fault, something in the water that was mixed in with the cement.”  

So how to tangle productively with hierarchies to effect improvement in our museums?

Network

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Detail of a map of the Internet in 2005, by The Opte Project, CC BY 2.5 image, via Wikimedia Commons

The most important thing to bear in mind is how the ground has shifted under us. Traditional hierarchies, like everything else, have been profoundly affected by the advent of the digital era and the transformations it has wrought. We are now connected through networks of networks, and it has changed how we can organize. This was effectively described at MCN 2016 by the keynote speaker, Catherine Bracy, a former Obama campaign official in charge of the massive online efforts to elect and re-elect Barack Obama. It was a galvanizing speech, coming on the cusp of the presidential election and it seems even more prescient now. After bleakly detailing the American public’s waning trust in institutions in the 21st century, she called the root cause a failure of the elites (i.e., us) to manage our institutions effectively and fairly.

Her discussion of how modern political campaigns have evolved from hierarchical models to more distributed, “snowflake” structures that push authority out to edges, both mirrors the modern Internet, and gave hope to many in the audience who work in 20th  (or 19th, or even 18th) century hierarchies. The Obama campaigns ability to use a network organizational model allowed to scale rapidly and effectively, without the need for a strong central hierarchy making all the decisions. Bracy’s description of the online campaigns reminded me of how online communities operate nowadays. Power resides in the density of connections at a given node, not the level of that node in a hierarchy. In “The Wealth of Networks”, Yochai Benkler describes how different power dynamics are in a networked environment, using the example of Linux inventor Linus Torvald’s relationship with the network of developers working on Linux,

“Torvalds’s authority is persuasive, not legal or technical, and certainly not determinative. He can do nothing except persuade others to prevent them from developing anything they want and add it to their kernel, or to distribute that alternative version of the kernel. There is nothing he can do to prevent the entire community of users, or some subsection of it, from rejecting his judgment about what ought to be included in the kernel. Anyone is legally free to do as they please. So these projects are based on a hierarchy of meritocratic respect, on social norms, and, to a great extent, on the mutual recognition by most players in this game that it is to everybody’s advantage to have someone overlay a peer review system with some leadership.” 

It is interesting to note that the distributed community of Linux developers is both a network in some ways, and a hierarchy in others. I imagine the Obama campaigns also had features of hierarchy alongside their networked structure. Maybe the shift is not so much networks supplanting hierarchies. Maybe it’s more a case of networks cohabiting alongside hierarchies.

The idea that museums can (and should) be thinking more like networks is already a decade old.  For me, my understanding of museums as networks rests on two influential papers. The first is Nancy Proctor’s “The Museum as Distributed Network”. Proctor, one of the most relentlessly curious intellects I’ve encountered, has been advocating a network model for years. For her,

“Notions of authority and hierarchy are not very helpful in describing relationships and processes that work together more like mash-ups than pronouncements. Truth, rather than being disseminated outwards from a center point, is discovered in its intersections and interstices, through the (sometimes surprising) juxtapositions that can happen when experiences are assembled collaboratively along the many-branched paths of a rhizome. In the museum as distributed network, content and experience creation resembles atoms coming together and reforming on new platforms to create new molecules, or ‘choose your own ending’ adventure stories.”

Like Bracy, Proctor’s conception of the network model privileges relationships over status, particularly outward relationships.  Note that she refers to the network as a rhizome. This will be important in a little while.

The second essay, “Understanding the Distributed Museum: Mapping the Spaces of Museology in Contemporary Culture”, by Susana Bautista and Anne Balsamo, laid in a lot of theoretical underpinning for understanding how non-hierarchical organizations operate and why. They posit the transition from place to space being a metaphor for understanding the museum-as-network.

“It is undergoing yet another transformation from an early place-based cultural institution to a more dispersed (post)modern space. As sociologist Michel de Certeau argues, the concept of place has been used by the dominant orders to organize and control society through urban planning and architecture. Space, on the other hand, is constructed by people through the practice of living and walking. Place implies stability, “an instantaneous configuration of positions,” while space considers “vectors of direction, velocities, and time variables. Thus space is composed of intersections of mobile elements” (de Certeau,117). As de Certeau asserts: “space is a practiced place” (117).”

Again, going from “places” to “spaces” involves a lot of interpersonal communication. It’s an idea that’s certainly got appeal. Thinking about organizations as networks rather than hierarchies is widespread in the business community and has been making it’s way into museums. Patrick Greene’s discussion of Museum Victoria’s new org structure explicitly describes the museum as “the networked museum” and applies Lipnack’s and Stamps’ idea of a networked organization as one where “independent people and groups act as independent nodes, link across boundaries, to work together for a common purpose; it has multiple leaders, lots of voluntary links and interacting levels.” So the future is here, it’s just been unevenly applied thus far.

I still wasn’t entirely sure I bought the “networks will eat hierarchies” idea, even though I agree with almost everything I’ve read or heard about the power of networks. This blog post titled “Frankenstacks and Rhizomes” by Venkatesh Rao neatly summed up why my network/hierarchy dialectic was unsatisfying to me. It turns out there is a better dialectic; rhizome vs arboresence!

Rhizome vs arboresence

R&A

Left, Ginger root. CC BY-SA 3.0 image by Frank C. Müller, via Wikimedia Commons. Right, Onion. CC0 Public Domain image by Rajesh Misra

 

Here are some of Rao’s points about rhizomes and arboresences:

  1. Consider the difference between an onion and a piece of ginger. The ginger root is the motif for what philosophers call a rhizome. The onion for what they call an arborescence.
  2. With an onion, you can always tell which way is up, and can distinguish horizontal sections apart from vertical sections easily by visual inspection.
    With a piece of ginger, there is no clear absolute orientation around an up, and no clear distinction between horizontal and vertical.
  3. According to the linked Wikipedia entry (worth reading), a rhizome “allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation.”
  4. If you tend to use the cliched “hierarchies versus networks” metaphor for talking about old versus new IT, you would do well to shift to the rhizomatic/arborescent distinction.
  5. Both onions and ginger roots show some signs of both hierarchical structure and network-like internal connections.
  6. The difference is that one has no default orientation, direction of change, or defining internal symmetries. Rhizomes are disorderly and messy in architectural terms.

Numbers 4 and 5, of course, leapt out at me. Interestingly, Rao’s example is focused much more on platforms and products that on people. I don’t know if that makes a difference, but it does stand out for me. And he’s far from the only one interested in the rhizome metaphor. Nancy Proctor has been advocating for a rhizomatic mindset for at least 10 years. Rhizome.org is also a response to this realization. Maybe I’m just prone to wanting to sidestep either/or situations, but there is a utility to the rhizomatic approach that addresses most of my concerns with “the network will save us” philosophies. I never understood why Nancy was so insistent about the rhizome analogy until now. As Sansa Stark said, “I’m a slow learner, it’s true. But I learn.” 

Next Up: Literacy vs. fluency

Useful Dialectics, Part Two – Design vs. Tradition

“The opposite of design is tradition.”

– Johanna Koljonen

Jean Le Tavernier, "Portrait of Jean Miélot." Public domain image from Wikimedia user Leinad-Z~commonswiki

Doing it the old fashioned way.

In the last post, I talked about the distinction between change and transformation, and how the former feels more finite and time-bound while the latter is bigger in scope and more ongoing. In this post, I want to explore and refine the dialectical relationship between design and tradition. What I mean by that is that design and tradition can be seen as the distinctions between reflective and non-reflective practice, as Donald Schön and his ilk would say.

Tradition

I would argue that one of the greatest challenges of working in an institution of any longevity is the burden of tradition, the things we do because “That’s how we do things here.” These usually unspoken ways of doing work get transmitted via a kind of social osmosis, and often at an an almost unconscious level. If you’ve ever started a job, you know what I’m talking about; those things you “just kinda pick up” as you go about learning the job. They make implementing real transformation a daunting task. The unwritten and the informal are hard to overcome precisely because of their lack of specificity and mutability.

Tradition is not exclusively the realm of the informal. Plenty of processes and workflows outlive the situations they were designed for. And even moreso than the informal, these can become pernicious because they have the weight of the institution explicitly behind them. “Our process was developed over a long period of time and has been used here for ____ years.” “We’ve used this process to develop big projects.” The difference between reflective and non-reflective practice, I think, is that the burden of designing your processes should be a never-ending one. Just because somebody else designed a process once, that doesn’t make it right for the current situation. If the only tools in the box are hammers, even though they might be high-quality, expensive ones, the temptation will be to treat every challenge like a nail.

Design

I took the quote at the top from a talk be the experience designer Johanna Koljonen. It was only one of many truth bombs she dropped that day, and in this context (reflective vs non-reflective practice) it really gets right to the heart of so much that is frustrating and broken about museum work processes. They often don’t respond to the current players and challenge. They were a response to a previous challenge that has been passed on and replicated. Obviously, not every process can be redesigned every time, but the amount of tradition we tolerate is impressive. Resisting this tendency motivates a slew of methodologies that aim to help us work smarter. That is the whole motivation behind Lean approaches; looking for places in processes where there are inefficiencies and removing or reworking them. It’s really a very formalized way of trying to encourage reflective practice.

For Johanna, challenging elements of traditions to solve a problem is a crucial part of thinking like an experience designer, which was an identity I never assumed until then. Innovation happens through making active choices, from looking at a situation and asking “What are the designable surfaces here?” and recognizing that answer is EVERYTHING. For me, this resonates strongly with Schön’s idea of reflection as knowing-in-action. 

The Magic Circle

The other part of her presentation that made a strong impact on me was her assertion that “the magic circle” idea that I previously thought of as something exclusive to game design, was in fact a broadly applicable tool to think about any kind of experience design.

magic circle

The magic circle of experience design. Do your meetings look like this?

For the deep divers, the term “magic circle” first appears in Huizinga’s “Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture”. It’s current vogue though, is due to Katie Salen’s and Eric Zimmerman’s influential 2003 book “Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals”. For them “the magic circle of a game is where the game takes place. To play a game means entering into a magic circle, or perhaps creating one as a game begins.”

The idea of the magic circle is straightforward enough. When people enter into a game, they take on a distinct role, different from their default identity; they become players. And while they are playing, they accept new rules and way of interacting with the other players and the game. In good games, that’s where the fun happens; the learning and mastery of rules, the meaningful wearing of the persona of “player”, and maybe even winning. That’s what happens inside the “magic circle” of a game. Once the game is over, the players cease being players and resume their old roles and life goes on.

Project teams and meetings can be magic circles, if you approach them as opportunities to design. Everyone comes to the table with all their expectations in tow. In the team, or meeting, they take on a role (like “You’re here because of your expertise in x, y, or z.”) and can (and should) be empowered to temporarily try on new roles and reflect in action.

“The opposite of design is tradition.” I think there’s great truth in that. For our needs, though, I’d turn it around and say, “The opposite of tradition is design” because design is the tool that is going to allow us to replace traditions with processes that serve the needs of the time.

Next up: Network vs. Hierarchy

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

On Unhelpful Analogies

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

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

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

The Temple and the Forum 

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

The Cathedral and the Bazaar 

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

The trouble with models

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

 

The culture wars

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

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

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

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

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.

Conclusion

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.

References:

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.