Tag Archives: IMLS

On distributed museums


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

The Public as Producer
by Desi Gonzalez

Understanding the Distributed Museum: Mapping the Spaces of Museology in Contemporary Culture
Susana Bautista and Anne Balsamo

The Museum as Distributed Network
by Nancy Proctor

“The ‘reflexive museum’ – opening the door to behind the scenes”, Te Ara – Journal of Museums Aotearoa, vol 33 (1 & 2)
by Philip Schorch

Museum Design 2034: The Distributed Museum
Future of Museums blog

The Participatory Museum and Distributed Curatorial Expertise
by Thomas Söderqvist

Understanding the Distributed Museum: Mapping the Spaces of Museology in Contemporary Culture
by Susana Smith Bautista and Anne Balsamo

The Digitized Museum
by Brian Droitcour, William S. Smith

“Murder your darlings”, and the importance of rewriting

This Friday I got a fat manilla envelope from IMLS. We had submitted a proposal for the IMLS’ National Leadership Grant program, and hadn’t made the cut. Disappointing, but not unexpected.  Competition was fierce this year, and we’d never applied before, so there was no institutional knowledge base to draw on.  I am super-excited that Rob Stein and Co. at IMA got some serious funding for TAP and TourML.

The envelope contained the reviewers’ comments on the proposal along with the “Dear John” letter explaining IMLS’s budget and criteria for rating proposals.  I didn’t have much time, but I skimmed them, trying to glean what I could. Going through anonymous comments on your work can be painful, especially when it’s a rejected piece, but it’s a great learning experience. It made me realize I needed to go back and reread the proposal before I went through the reviewers comments more thoroughly.

What happened?
This proposal was for a project I’ve been working on, in fits and starts, since January 2006. It’s been fleshed out several times, rejiggered a few times, and tweaked to appeal to different audiences enough times that I have trouble sometimes remembering which version of the project I’m currently in. As I skimmed the proposal before leaving work, it became clear to me that next time I was going to have to start from scratch and rewrite the entire thing.Why? I didn’t sketch enough for one. It also suffered form a bad case of cut and paste syndrome, combined with loving my darlings too much for my own good.

Months ago I wrote a post on the importance of sketching, rapidly producing coarse-grained representations of your thinking.  If you’re a designer, you draw sketches, if you’re a writer, you write what I call “sketches” for lack of a better term. The point is that you make them, you make them right then in response to the situation that created the need for a sketch, and that the expectation is that the sketch is just a first approximation of something much more detailed, later. It’s hard for me to do, and I have to keep at myself to keep doing it, and not get hung up on making it “better” than it needs to be. Looking at my proposal, I think it suffered from not being sketched first. I took an existing document and reworked it, and then reworked it again, and again, but I never put it aside, sketched a fresh new proposal out and filled it back in with detail from older versions.

Kate Haley-Goldman talked about her methods for searching for inspiration in my series of posts on cognitive load. One of the things she said that I immediately recognized as truth was that taking ideas and rewriting them yourself is a way of making them your own, of internalizing something so you can find out what you can do with it. I think with this proposal, I hadn’t done enough rewriting, and instead monkeyed around with what was already there. This is ironic, given that one of my few rules of label writing is,

“The more you monkey with it, the more it sucks.”

The tyranny of Word
The trouble is that word processing makes it a lot easier to monkey, and rewriting is still every bit as hard as ever.  The tyranny of Word and cut and paste mean you have to be a lot more vigilant about flow and tone. Whole chunks of documents can move around!  If you’re doing something like writing a proposal for one funder and then writing another proposal on the same topic for another funder, the temptation to cut and paste is overwhelming. For me, I think it has a lot to do with preferring to work with text I think is “good enough” rather than rough, first draft-y text. It’s a syndrome Anne Lamott covered beautifully in “Bird by Bird”. She has a whole chapter called “Shitty First Drafts” that almost made me cry with laughter the first time I read it. She writes so eloquently about the feelings of unworthiness, the self-doubt and loathing that plague me when I read first drafts of my own writing.  It might be time to reread that book again.

Murder your darlings
Another problem I think the proposal suffered from was that it wasn’t tightly enough focused on what the funder wanted because I was too attached to ideas and chunks of writing that were important to me. As Orwell would have said, I got too attached to my own ego to make the document adequately serve the purpose it was intended for. Almost a century ago, Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch wrote  in “On The Art of Writing”,  “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.” Faulkner later shortened this to “In writing, you must kill your darlings.”  What they mean is not that you must not write things you like or love, but that you must be extra suspicious of them and be willing to expunge them when they don’t serve the purpose of the text.  This is why God created editors and first readers.  When you love a piece of writing, it’s hard to be critical of it. Grant proposals, with their straightjacket page limits and rigid format, are no place for deathless prose for the sake of deathless prose. They are place where your writing should be clear as glass, so that the ideas are immediately apparent by the reviewers who will decide its fate.

Live and learn, right?