Tag Archives: distributed museum

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

1024px-Francesco_Botticini_-_The_Assumption_of_the_Virgin

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

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d2/Internet_map_1024.jpg

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

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On distributed museums

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Nachschaffungszellen. CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user Maja Dumat

Museum hive event #1 is coming up!

“What’s Museumhive?” you ask? Excellent question. It’s an informal gathering of people connected with museums to explore new community-centered visions for museums. We intend to create a new hybrid structure, Museumhive, that generates socially relevant content through a series of informal, engaging meetups and Google Hangouts. Like a hive, the structure involves a community, members who come and go and take part in building the hive. Participation is wide, the barrier to entry is as low as we can make it, and there is a tangible outcome to the effort – digital publications all on the theme of “The Distributed Museum” — a museum that is distributed throughout the community.

The formula for Museumhive is pretty simple:

IRL meetup + virtual followup = 
fun & effective thought leadership.

You can learn more about the experiment at the Museumhive website and register to attend. You should also take a peek at guest speaker Nina Simon’s recent post on what constitutes good distributed museum experiences. Brad Larson, Museumhive PI, and I have been talking about this idea for a couple of years now, and I’m totally stoked to see how the kickoff event goes. It’s also encouraging to see Federal funding agencies like IMLS taking a chance on a project that at first blush might seem like a bit of an outlier. I’m a sucker for high-risk/high-reward scenarios. And figuring out a model for “the distributed museum” is a great one to tackle.

The ___________ museum

The distributed museum – one where the generative acts of the museum are decoupled from the edifice of the museum building – isn’t a new idea. Susana Bautista and Anne Balsamo described their vision of the distributed museum thus, “No longer located in a particular physical space, the museum extends its presence through virtual spaces on the web as well as in the transient spaces created through the diverse practices and technologies of mobility. The distributed museum exists ‘over’ the conceptual divides between physical and virtual, fixed and mobile.” Nancy Proctor has written about museums as distributed networks for years, highlighting their potential to be: “conversational rather than uni-directional; engaging and relevant, rather than simply didactic: and generative of content and open-ended rather than finite and closed” [Emphasis mine].  This idea of increasing agency by generating content is something Philip Schorch touches on in The ‘reflexive museum’ – opening the door to behind the scenes,“By revealing the processes leading to the definition of categories and the interpretation of identities, and by giving ‘faces’ to decisions made, the ‘reflexive museum’ can become an embodiment of democracy, which does not silence controversies but gives diversity public voices.”

I’ll confess that when Brad first pitched the idea to me, I couldn’t really grok what he was on about. I understood the concept of a distributed museum experience intellectually, but it conjured up no visuals. I’ve read Bautista and Balsamo’s works, and resonated with their injunction that “the distributed museum”, though often described as being distributed throughout digital means “is not limited to digital technology, even in the digital age.” I’ve tended to be skeptical to any of the formulations of “the __________ museum is…” that promise to fix whatever is ailing the creaky old edifice that is “the traditional museum”. There are a lot of them! The _______ museum could be connected, transformative, responsive, empathetic, participatory, reflexive, kinetic, or distributed. And I’m sure Twitter will continue to feed me more. And often, it feels like a case of curing the symptom rather than the disease. Our MCN 2016 book club book is all about that problem. Desi Gonzalez recently wrote in The Public as Producer “…when social issues are reduced to a design problem, we ignore the very real political and economic landscapes surrounding them.” A lot of what I read and hear in the field goes to great lengths to avoid situating the work we do in its deeply, intrinsically political and economic context.

Maybe I’m getting over it, though. Or the optimist in me is beating the skeptic. I’m actually becoming the skeptimist I aspire to be. I find something heartening and true in Museumhive’s focus on convening groups of interested to talk about what’s important to them, and then figure out a way to make things better. We’ll see what Wednesday night brings. I hope to see you there!

For further reading:
What Does a Great Distributed Digital Museum Experience Look Like?
Museum 2.0
by Nina Simon
http://museumtwo.blogspot.co.uk/2016/10/what-does-great-distributed-mobile.html

The Public as Producer
by Desi Gonzalez
http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/magazine/the-public-as-producer/

Understanding the Distributed Museum: Mapping the Spaces of Museology in Contemporary Culture
Susana Bautista and Anne Balsamo
http://www.museumsandtheweb.com/mw2011/papers/understanding_the_distributed_museum_mapping_t.html

The Museum as Distributed Network
by Nancy Proctor
http://www.museum-id.com/idea-detail.asp?id=337

“The ‘reflexive museum’ – opening the door to behind the scenes”, Te Ara – Journal of Museums Aotearoa, vol 33 (1 & 2)
by Philip Schorch
http://dro.deakin.edu.au/view/DU:30048374

Museum Design 2034: The Distributed Museum
Future of Museums blog
http://futureofmuseums.blogspot.com/2010/03/museum-design-2034-distributed-museum.html

The Participatory Museum and Distributed Curatorial Expertise
by Thomas Söderqvist
http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00048-009-0010-9

Understanding the Distributed Museum: Mapping the Spaces of Museology in Contemporary Culture
by Susana Smith Bautista and Anne Balsamo
http://www.annebalsamo.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/museums.pdf

The Digitized Museum
by Brian Droitcour, William S. Smith
http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/magazine/the-digitized-museum/