What is the Museum full stack?

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

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

So I tweeted my question into the ether,

and lo! Answers returned.

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

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

Cooper Hewitt’s stack

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

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

Mitchell Whitelaw

Cooper Hewitt’s stack, image by Katie Shelly

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

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

Objects, Experiences, People

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

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

Monolithic systems break badly

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

Loose connections

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

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


The power of attention

Frites, mayo & beer. It's that good!

Frites, mayo & beer. It’s that good!

I’ve recently returned from a week in the Netherlands, filming for Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen. We (the curator, our manager of AV production, and me) went over with a long list of video footage we needed to capture, and capture it we did. It was amazing. Interviewing Theo and shadowing him around was a real thrill. Holland in the Spring? ‘nuf said. Subsisting largely on cheese, butter, and beer and frites for a week? Yum… But what is rising up in me as one of the real benefits of travelling thousands of miles was the freedom it gave me to focus on one thing, to pay deep attention.

With layovers and hanging around in airport times, I had almost half a work week to do with as I pleased. Certainly some of that time was spent logisitically, worrying about schedules, playing around with interview questions, weighing options in case Plan A didn’t pan out. But that still left hours and hours to just think about the project, and doodle, storyboard, and imagine in a way that I often find it hard to do at work. And with the time difference, real-time communication with home wasn’t really practical. I had the gift of being undistracted by all the other priorities that fill workdays.

It was also a great bonding experience for those of us on the trip because we got to spend all day, every day, talking about the project, and riffing off each other’s ideas and observations. And the filming we did gave us hours and hours of time with the artist, listening to him describe his process, point of view, and outlook on life. By the end, we’d had hours of conversation about the pieces we’d come to shoot video for, and about the exhibition. I can see it now, in much more detail than I could before. I’ve written before about the way one refines one’s mental picture of a project as it progresses, and this trip was very crystallizing. And ultimately useful to the whole project team. We have both broadened and deepened our shared vision of what the show can be. And that took time.

Chip and I spent a lot of time on opposite sides of the camera.

Chip and I spent a lot of time on opposite sides of the camera.

Were we agile?

When something goes really well, I’m always interested in trying to analyze it and find things I can apply more broadly. I’ve also been reading about Agile software development, and I started to see commonalities between what worked in the Netherlands and Agile methods. I’ve long stood on the sidelines about translating methodoliges designed for software development and transplanting them in different arenas. The Agile methodology is the posterchild for this. I imagine you’ll hear it many time on the museum tech conference circuit if you haven’t already. I’m a hype skeptic, and I’m OK with that. Ask me about gamiification (ack!) if you need an example. But behind hype there is usually a kernel of truth, and Agile’s kernel (I think) is that it makes you devote attention to one task. If you’re a complete Agile newbie, go check out the Wikipedia entry for a good intro. In a nutshell, Agile is supposed to privilege:

  • Individuals and interactions over Processes and tools
  • Working software over Comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over Contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over Following a plan

In looking back over the week, I am starting to see how Agile methodologies could be applied to non-software development projects. Our morning breakfasts were essentially daily stand-up meetings where we discussed yesterday, laid out today, and looked forward to tomorrow as best as we could see. We shot whatever we thought we might need or want, even if it wasn’t on our list of things we needed. Our written descriptions for what we were doing and why did not preclude us from altering course during a shoot when new ideas presented themselves, and the videos will be better for it. As opportunities arose, we took them. Our customer was an active participant throughout the process, as was the artist, and their contributions and continuous feedback were crucial. It all sounds kinda Agile… Go figure.

Looking back, I can see that my approach to product development has always been more adaptive than predictive. So maybe it’s time to really dig in a bit more and see what esle Agile holds that might be useful.

Anybody else out there using any Agile methodolgies in museum work, especially outside of software development?

Prima Facie: Collections

Ed Rodley:

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

Originally posted on The Small Museum:

So far, we’ve talked about ethics.

Collections management

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

Harriet: fgdfg

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

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The digital and the superorganic

Roof ladder CC BY 2.0 image from Flickr user Georgios Karamanis

Climbing the ladder of complexity

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

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

The Superorganic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The superorganic and the digital

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

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

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

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

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

Digital is an adjective. What’s the noun?

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

What would you use?

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

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

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

What We Talk About When We Talk About Digital

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On (not) writing

Epictetus pondering writing. PD image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so it goes.