Tag Archives: Melbourne 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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Review: “Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia” at Melbourne Museum

Nothing like a stimulating conversation to work up an appetite! After our interesting conversation at the Melbourne Museum, Simon Sherrin and Ely Wallis took us out to lunch at one of Fitzroy’s more singular establishments.

Helpful warning in the women’s room at Naked For Satan

After a glorious meal at Naked For Satan Jennifer and I headed back to the Melbourne Museum to catch the “Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia” exhibition from the British Museum. There’s nothing like a good archaeology show to finish off a meal!

The visit didn’t start well.  The friendly young man hawking the audio guides caught my eye and I figured I’d get one, just for the sake of research. Then I read the sign – 20 stops, $7 dollars. 20 stops? Total? Despite my long involvement with museum audiotours and multimedia tours I passed on the Mesopotamia audio guide. I just couldn’t bring myself to pay the money. Then as we entered the gallery, there was the old “camera with the line through it” sign. No photography? Still? Even without a flash? Sigh… Things improved markedly from that point.

What I liked

The themes
The exhibition’s themes of cities, time and writing was an interesting organizing scheme that tied together 3,000 years of history pretty well. Not your typical curatorial layout, and introduced by a large multimedia projection that did a good job of soundlessly laying out all the themes.  And it wasn’t an introductory video with a talking head. So far, so good.

The objects
The objects didn’t disappoint either. The British Museum’s Mesopotamian collections are unrivalled and the 170 objects they’d sent were an impressive mix from Sumer, Assyria and Babylon. And the show displays them in the best modern Western style; dark rooms, puddles of lights tightly focused on objects in jewel-like settings. In glass cases too, which are so much nicer to look through than plexi. Nothing says class like glass! It was also impressive that the organizers were willing to include reproductions of objects they didn’t have, like the stele of Hammurabi‘s Code (from Paris), and the Ishtar Gate from Babylon (from Berlin), as well as replicas of important objects that were not part of the British Museum’s share of the original partage agreement.

Large-format print of the Ishtar Gate. Made locally, I think…

Throughout the exhibition, the media pieces were brilliant. The show featured several large narrative friezes, which had rows of figures depicting battles, hunts and other features of royal life. Next to each of these, lifesize projections sequentially played out the action so you could understand how to read the story in order. Wordless, clever, and superbly effective at getting visitors to pay attention to the object afterwards.

The experts
The scholarship on display was also engaging. The curator interviews and videos were short and meaty, and focused on curators in their natural habitats; taking tablets out of cabinets, making clay impressions in a workroom, and telling you to get really close to objects to see the workmanship.

What I didn’t like

Sound
The show used a lot of ambient to provide atmosphere. For a travelling exhibiiton, this makes a certain amount of sense. Sets and other “thematic” elements are expensive to travel. A dark room with a good soundscape can equal instant atmosphere. Most of the time in this show, I didn’t like the ambient sound. In several places, one heards loads of voices talking in unintelligible languages (Sumerian? Akkadian? who knows…) and more than once the volume of the sound effects felt intrusive to me.

Translation and the lack thereof
Sometimes they translated writings, sometimes they didn’t. Objects covered in writing that aren’t translated make me nuts, especially when one of the themes of the show is writing.  I know the organizers of the exhibition know what is on all the tablets and seals they chose to include, and I can’t imagine the contents didn’t influence their decision. I’ll never know, though. Urg.

The way things used to be done
Most, if not all of the objects in the show were excavated in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the era of the big digs, with hordes of local workers laying bare entire sites. I would’ve liked to see a bit more attention given to the way museum’s used to pursue archaeology in the developing world. Partage agreements, once the rule in the 19th and early 20th centuries, were entered into by excavators and host countries and basically divided the finds, sort of a formalized versions of “One for you, one for me…”  I already knew enough to find it interesting, but I wondered how many visitors coming to the experience with no background.

The section on the archaeologists was interesting, though I thought the profiles a bit perfunctory and lacking in critical depth. Layard did important work, to be sure. He also left gigantic holes in important sites that are still visible over a century later. Not exactly the model of scientific archaeology. Agatha Christie was married to Max Mallowan and worked with him in the field. Interesting? Yes. Worth more than a label? Hmm…

The situation today
The modern history of the area gets very short shrift – a couple of labels and a big photo –  which, given the endmeic looting that has engulfed the region in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, feels more than a little cowardly. 45 centuries worth of history are in jeopardy, our common cultural patrimony, and that should be worth a bit of space. The sites descried in the exhibition are the same ones in this article from AAM about the current situation in Iraq.  It’s not a pretty picture, but it’s part of the same story of these sites.

In summary
When I step back and look at the whole experience, it was a great show. Well-laid out, well-interpreted, and full of great objects and stories that the developers managed to bring to life in novel and captivating ways. And if that’s not enough for you, my lovely and talented wife loved it, too. As someone who gets museum fatigue very easily, her enthusiastic response to the show is high praise indeed.

Next up: Drinking About Museums: Melbourne and “Game Masters” at the Australian Center for the Moving Image

Australia: Melbourne Museum talk

My lovely and talented wife and I just returned from two weeks vacation in Australia, hence the quiet around here. This was our first vacation without kids in a very long time, and I was determined to actually be there while I was there, so no laptop, no work corresponding, no blogging. And yet somehow, I managed to visit more museums and have more museum conservations than I would in three business trips! Partly, this is a result of meeting so many interesting Australian museum folks online and at U.S.-based conferences. As soon as I said we were coming to Australia, a number of them said, “Are you coming to Sydney? You should come over!” and “We’re having our first Drinking about Museums: Melbourne on the 30th. You should join us!” And after deciding to fly halfway around the world, it seemed silly not to try to see as many people as possible.

The next few posts will cover events in Melbourne, Hobart, and Sydney, including three museums, two exhibition reviews, and two Drinking About Museums events!

Melbourne

Ely Wallis (@elyw) from Melbourne Museum had invited me to come over and talk about the Museum from Scratch series with staff from Museum Victoria, and about a dozen of us had a frank discussion about the issues around integrating digital technologies into current practice. The group was nicely diverse; educators, collections managers, social media managers, exhibitions types, content producers, and IT infrastructure folks; all with their own insights. For me, it was the first time I’d ever had this conversation in real time with a live audience, and it was a bit nerve-wracking.  I needn’t have worried, though. Everybody was gracious and good-humored (a theme of my stay in Australia) and the time flew by. I’m terrible at taking notes and talking at the same time, but here are some of the interesting bits I managed to capture.

A question of authority

One of best parts of getting out and talking to people is how quickly it reveals the blind spots in my thinking. Probably the best example of this happened right at the start of our talk when we got onto the subject of authority and strategies for dealing with institutional reluctance to loosen their grip on how content is created and shared. For me, working in a private non-profit science museum, “authority” has a range of connotations, most of which revolve around accuracy. In art museums, “authority” has a whole different set of connotations around connoisseurship. But I hadn’t really considered the particular difficulties of being an organ of the state, where “authority” has additional layers of meaning and the stakes of relinquishing some of that authority are correspondingly higher. The Museum Victoria folks are literally “the authorities”, and topics like biodiversity and immigration can quickly become enmeshed in national politics in a way they just wouldn’t if my museum tackled the same topics in the exact same way. This is a challenge that’s much more than a digital media issue, but it gets a lot of attention since these media are so disruptive to current practice, and particularly current control mechanisms.

One platform to rule them all?

Museum Victoria is an authority (ooh, that word again!) that manages several institutitons, including the Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, and others. In addition to the particular concerns of each museum, Museum Victoria would like to standardize their back-end systems and try to bring all the disparate services they provide together onto a common platform that can then be exported in whatever format a given project requires. The benefits of having, say, one collection management system (CMS) instead of (at least) three are obvious from an IT perspective; lower operating costs, fewer resources needed, the possibility of tighter integration across the organization. On reflection though, I’m not sure that I feel that strongly in favor of standardization.

My reasons for supporting standardization usually had to do with the inability of systems to talk to each other and export data in formats usable to other systems. The work that people have been doing around Linked Open Data in Libraries, Archives and Museums (LODLAM)  addresses a lot of those concerns, and in an interesting twist to the “authority is a problem” meme is led by a lots of state organizations. They operate under an imperative to make their information freely available, since it is in the public domain. Private sector institutions like mine tend to worry about their IP and its value and approach open data, and linked open data from that perspective. Of course there are exceptions, like IMA, which put their collection info on Github for anyone to mess about with. Eleanor Whitworth posted an interesting summary of some of the latest work going on in Melbourne that’s good reading if you’re a data geek.

Whose voice? 

Another perennial topic was institutional voice, particularly with social media. I am inherently skeptical of online personalities that purport to be the voice of an institution. Social media are meant to be personal. I know that Museum X isn’t posting, but rather some person at Museum X is posting. Even accounts that represent an institution can still indicate who’s doing the typing. And real engagement happens between people.  This is a central element of radical transparency and I think this kind of transparency is how museums will demonstrate their authority and relevance.

The expectation of interrelation

Jan Molloy (@Janpcim) touched on an important visitor expectation that we currently have a hard time with; addressing the expectation of interrelation. Visitors to museums can now reasonably expect to be accessing the Internet all the time they’re in the museum. They’re looking at Wikipedia in your museum whether or not you want them to. When they have a bad experience in the museum, it’s on your Facebook page and/or Twitter in no time. The content visitors seek in one realm, they expect to be able to find in others, or take with them.  So how to manage a seamless experience that encompasses pre and post visit online experiences with the onsite physical one?

If it’s important, advocate

It’s hard to advocate for something new when nobody understands the value of what you’re talking about. But how do you deal with people who don’t “get it”? I’m a big fan of taking some responsibility for providing professional development to your museum about digital media. It’s not an IT problem, it’s an institutional imperative. Find ways to explain what you know. Demonstrate how you use these media to connect with audience and peers. Organize an informal meeting to talk about these issues. Pick a topic of interest and invite colleagues to go out and discuss. The bar is pretty low. And the potential benefits are huge.

And lastly… Collection fishing

Kate Chmiel from Museum Victoria (@cakehelmit) turned me onto Collection Fishing on Twitter, which I can’t believe I’ve missed all this time. Scope out #collectionfishing. Nuff said.

Next up, a review of Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia at the Melbourne Museum.