Tag Archives: CODE|WORDS

Useful Dialectics, Part Five: Culture vs. Values

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Values. CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user Nichole Burrows

Values
Museums love to talk about their values. A quick Google search of “museum values” will turn up a long list of worthy-sounding concepts like Cooperation, Courage, Determination, Generosity, Integrity, Optimism, Positive Approach, Respect, Self-Discipline, Teamwork, Trust, Sacrifice, Volunteerism and many, many more.  Over the past twenty years or so, “values” has crept into the sanctum sanctorum of museum master planning. You can’t be a self-respecting museum without a values statement. It’s even part of the American Alliance of Museums how-to guide for developing mission statements. According to AAM, mission is purpose; vision is future; and values are beliefs.”  If you’ve ever doubted the power of standards, just go Google how many museums in the U.S. use this Mission-Vision-Values formulation.

This is part of the problem I have with values. They’re easy to copy, write and forget.  Jeanne Vergeront wrote an excellent dissection of museum values statements that concludes, “If values are to be authentic and effective, effort, tested [emphasis mine] beliefs, and even sacrifice are required. That doesn’t seem to be too much to expect of the beliefs for a museum that wants to matter or, perhaps, to be indispensable.” And yet…

Every values statement I’ve looked at fails to give staff any guide for how to embody them. Maybe it’s the archaeologist in me, but the clear gap between the lived realities of museum employees and the grand pronouncements of the vision and values statements seems to cry out for the equivalent of a middle-range theory to fill that ideological/philosophical gap. The size of that gap is clearly stated in the photo from Jan Gunnarson’s presentation at Alibis for Interaction 2016. He neatly summed up the trouble with values statements for me. “Values have a tendency to be bullshit. Translating them into a culture, actually acting on those values, is the really challenging part.” Or, as a good friend once said, “You can say the truth, but sometimes you can’t live it.” Like Gunnarson, I believe that culture is the manifestation of values, and that as a field, we need to spend a lot more effort manifesting.

Gunnarson

“Values have a tendency to be bullshit.” – Jan Gunnarson

Culture
The famous Peter Drucker line, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” is a mainstay of business school teaching for a reason. Substitute “mission statement” or “values” and the line still holds true. Many museums have great-sounding visions and missions, but workplace cultures that do little to deliver those values and mostly maintain the traditional way of being a museum. Harking back to the post on design vs tradition, it’s hard to evolve without reflecting on why we do what we do, and evaluate it’s efficacy constantly, and do something differently if we’re not getting closer to our goals.

This reflecting in action and reflecting on action goes back not only to Schön, but all the way back to Dewey and his conception of intelligent action. Dewey called it dogma rather than tradition, but the idea is similar, the unquestioned assumptions that have authority over our actions. For Gillie Bolton, reflective practice requires us practitioners to pay “critical attention to the practical values and theories which inform everyday actions, by examining practice reflectively and reflexively. This leads to developmental insight”. Does how you spend your workdays reflect the values of your organization. If so, how? If not, why?

Building a digital culture

“A digital culture will get you through a time without a digital strategy much more than a digital strategy will get you through a time without a digital culture”

–  Nick Poole

Since my current position is in digital media, I tend to focus on all things digital. Hence the fixation on digital transformation as a desirable outcome for museums. All the digitally-inspired examples I use are not meant to indicate that what I’m talking about only applies to the digital realm. Insert your own specific interests and I think you’ll see that the examples still hold up. Let me know if they don’t.

For me, having goals like “digital transformation” and values like “digitally literate” aren’t sufficient in and of themselves. Figuring out how we concretely act on those values, is the part requiring conscious effort and labor. Janet Carding, in her CODE|WORDS essay on change, wroteI think that we won’t create museums that are appropriate for the digital age without changing our organizational cultures and how we work.” Our culture, the manifestation of those values, is everywhere; in our org charts, how we hold our meetings, the schema behind our repositories, our labels.

All of these are the designable surfaces upon which managers can design new processes and ways of doing business that consciously attempt to reach up towards the values and missions of our institutions.

Conclusion

When I started on this series of posts, I was trying to understand the forces that seemed to tug at me when thinking about new projects and work. These dialectics I’d been collecting for awhile reflect the opposing forces that are always at play. If you’re designing a project to be more network-oriented, it will be less hierarchical and therefore probably create issues within your hierarchy. If you’re using a traditional model, it’ll be a challenge to try to design it differently.

When Ariana French first asked me to join her panel on “Breaking out of the Rut” I had this clear idea that there was a dimension of thinking around scoping new projects that I did half-consciously at best and wanted to be more explicit about. In addition to getting work done efficiently, there were a crop of considerations that could apply to any project to make it more reflective and productive in terms of creating what Nick Poole calls “a culture that is biased towards doing new things rather than towards the past.”

So for project managers looking to incorporate innovation into their teams, I’ve boiled down my ramblings about dialectics is into five questions you might ask yourself at the launch of any new project:

  • Should this project aim to be transformational or bring about more discrete change?
  • To what extent should this project design its own process, or use traditional ones?
  • Does this project derive its value from creating a network of actors, or as a hierarchy?
  • How should this project increase professional literacy, fluency, or both?
  • How should this project create culture that actually manifests (or creates) values we support?

I’ll try it out on the crowd at MCN and see how it goes over. Fingers crossed!

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Books!

Back in the beginning of 2014, Rob Stein, Suse Cairns, and I had a series of conversations about blogging, conference presentations, the future, and other things I’m forgetting. The outcome of those talks was an online publishing experiment we decided to call CODE | WORDS. Our dream was pretty straightforward. Could we improve on the models of online and offline discourse we all engaged in? Was there some better way to generate substantive discourse that was better than the blog model of long comment chains, and was faster and more collaborative than the traditional “go sit down in silence and write your article” model of publishing?

You can go to Medium and read the results for yourself. We didn’t hit all our goals, but we did help give birth to thought-provoking essays that might not have been written otherwise. It’s some of the work I’m most proud of in my career. And, as a bonus, one of our hopes – that working in the open would provide greater benefit to the field than other methods – has borne fruit.

Reprogram: We’re big in Brazil!

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Luis Mendes, one of the core CODE | WORDS conspirators and one of the most consistent cheerleaders during the long slog to get the essays published, has been busy in his native Brazil to collect and publish new thinking about museums. To that end, he started a program called Reprogram, which aims to investigate “the changes in museums around the world from a collection of essays, articles and lectures transcripts of some of the most influential museum thinkers of our time. It is a collaborative effort of shared content and publishing made possible by crowdfunding.” He crowdfunded the publication of the first volume of the series, Communication, branding and culture in a new era of museums, available in Portuguese and English, and used many of the CODE | WORDS essays in the second volume, Technology, innovation and culture in a new era of museums. It’s quite humbling to share the contents page with people like Cory Doctorow, Nina Simon, Jane Finnis, Koven Smith, and other great practitioners. Both PDFs are worth the download.

CODE | WORDS: the book!

CW_3Drendered_grande-2While Luis was busy in Brazil, we approached publishers with CODE | WORDS and found in MuseumsEtc a kindred spirit in Graeme Farnell. Despite the questions, concerns, and requirements we threw at him, he never ceased to be an enthusiastic partner. The result is a Creative Commons licensed book, that contains the original essays, with some revised essays, a forward by Seb Chan, and more! I was glad for the chance to rewrite my essay, which I felt never quite got where I wanted it to go. That’s a bonus benefit of the physical book, and speaking of benefits, we will soon have a special ordering link that will send part of the proceeds of book purchases to the Museum Computer Network Scholarship fund. How cool is that? When I get the URL, I’ll post the link!

And there’s more CODE | WORDS news coming, but that’ll have to be a post of its own.

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?

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.