Tag Archives: process

That Which Is Lost

One of the follow up conversations I had at MCN2015 was with Jeff Inscho about our Content session. It was a wide-ranging one, touching on repositories, the Museum full stack, and more. In my notes, I wrote the quote “Content – That Which is Lost” which was one of the definitions that came out of our session. It’s stuck with me since.

The “digital dark age” is a thing that lots of important people are worrying about.

Google boss warns of ‘forgotten century’ with email and photos at risk

Will Future Historians Consider These Days The Digital Dark Ages?

The digital black hole: will it delete your memories?

You get the idea. It’s a problem. I’ve been thinking a lot about digital ecosystems in museums, and how good they are at some things while being really terrible at others. Ironically, the thing that most digital ecosystems suck at most is preservation, followed closely by findability. This is a huge problem, one that will hobble not only us, but our successors and the posterity we supposedly hope to enrich by saving and interpreting all this stuff we steward. Here’s an illustrative example of what I’m talking about:

 

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New England Habitats

One of the last exhibitions I worked on at the Museum of Science was a renovation project. The New England Habitats hall is a diorama hall built in phases from the 1950s to the early 1960s. Some of the old-timers I worked with when I first started there in the ‘80s had worked on creating them, and they remain a central, unchanging feature of the museum. They were reinterpreted in the early ‘90s by the illustrious Betty Davidson, as part of her seminal research on making accessible, multisensory exhibits. The book that resulted, New Dimensions for Traditional Dioramas, is still relevant.  By 2010, they were in need of another renovation, and I was charged with updating the content and exhibits. My first job was to understand what the original creators had been trying to do and how Betty et al had tried to modernize it. So, off to the Exhibits archives I went looking for what I could find.

For the ’90s renovation, that consisted mainly of Betty’s personal project file, some 3.5in floppies, and a couple of Syquest or Bernoulli cartridges that probably held large (for the time) graphics files. It was pretty skimpy, and missing all the email correspondence aside from those Betty printed out for some reason. A tremendous amount of sleuthing and DIY computer forensics allowed me to extract label copy from old Word and Pagemaker files.

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New England Habitats 

For the original construction, back in the paper days, there were bulging file folders for each diorama, sometimes multiple folders (“Deer diorama” AND “Whitetail Deer”) with probably a couple of linear feet of files which covered everything: meeting notes, internal memos (some pretty intense), incoming and outgoing correspondence, plans, drafts of labels with edits. Along the way, I discovered things that had been lost over the years, like the fact that the dioramas were modeled on real locations in New England, not idealized environments as was more typical of the period. The photo research was all there, in piles of curling B&W prints. I could tell you exactly how much it cost to procure the beavers for the beaver diorama, because the trapper’s bill was there, complete with a description of how he dynamited their dam to get them and the lucky bonus that one of the beavers was pregnant, so the Museum got some bonus specimens. Different times. There was also the account of the poor staff member who had to drive a cooler full of rapidly thawing frozen beavers corpses from Vermont to the taxidermist’s studio in New York on one of the hottest days of the year that was obviously written solely for internal use. I could smell cigarette smoke clinging to papers that had sat on desks for too long. Everybody smoked then. A little more digging turned up originals of the transparencies used in the backlit labels, and other goodies from the stat camera. It was a treasure trove that let me climb inside my predecessors’ minds and understand what they were trying to do.

 

In the end, I knew more about what happened sixty years ago than what happened less than twenty years ago. And it was all because we hadn’t figured out how to save digital information in a way that made it findable and searchable, or anywhere near as easy to use as a manilla folder full of papers. This is not a problem exclusive to the MOS. When I first started at PEM and was snooping around to see what kind of 18th century firearms we had (as one does) I rapidly found out that the CMS’s records were pretty sparse in some areas, and if I really wanted to find out about older parts of the collection I should consult the card catalogue. The card catalogue. And I know that versions of this scenario play out at cultural organizations all over.

We have lost control of our stuff

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Look familiar?  “Messy Desktop” CC-BY-NC 2.0 image by Flickr user Dean Shareski

The proliferation of digital platforms and information has outpaced our ability to corral it and make it usefully findable. In place of the old hanging folder, a container that could hold anything you could cram into it, we now have information scattered across devices and platforms, mostly uninterchangeable and unsearchable. As a test case, I looked at a typical week’s worth of digital content and platforms I interacted with last week, and it consisted of:

  • Emails, chats (corporate Gmail account)
  • Google calendar events
  • Texts (personal phone)
  • Twitter (tweets, and DMs)
  • MS Office docs (.doc, .docx, .xls, .xlsx, .ppt, .pptx)
  • Google docs & sheets
  • PDFs
  • Video (various formats and FCP and AE projects)
  • Audio files (.mp3, .wav, .aiff)
  • Corporate network (five different servers, with varying access permissions)
  • Basecamp messages, tasks, calendars (some turned into email, some not)
  • Slack notifications
  • Image files (All over the map: mostly .jpgs, many taken on the phone and uploaded to Dropbox, then spread across emails, work computer directories, network directories, Basecamp, and SM.
  • Other SM content (Instagram posts, FB updates, and to a lesser extent LinkedIn and Foursquare)

In other words, it’s a mess. And I’ve already made clear my feeling about keyword searching in a previous post, so don’t get me started.

Please note that I am not advocating that we forsake digital technologies and return to paper. Are we clear on that? Good. Let’s move on…

What might we do?

The obvious solution is a repository, the museum equivalent of the “single source of truth” that software companies enshrine. But those sources only cover the codebase. If you were a future archaeologist trying to understand how 21st century software companies operated, you’d not find correspondence or financials in the repo. So how to create a digital version of the hanging folder that is as useful and possesses a generous enough interface to allow mere mortals to query it and find gold? That is a big question. Anybody out there having success?

Tracing the contours of digital transformation, Part Two

In Part One of this series, I laid out what I see as one of the biggest challenges facing museums in the early 21st century; how to transform themselves into postdigital museums. In this post, I’m going to highlight two recent reports that go a long way towards helping us identify how that transformation might occur, and what are the hallmarks of successful efforts.

Digital Transformation Isn’t Really About Technology 

What’s at the core of transformation? CC-BY 3.0 image by Flickr user James Lee

MIT’s Sloan School and Deloitte recently published a report called, “Strategy, not Technology, Drives Digital Transformation: Becoming a Digitally Mature Enterprise”. If you’re interested in that kind of management study, it’s well worth the read; detailed and non-proscriptive. What really caught my eye when I first read it was the header for the introduction, “Digital Transformation Isn’t Really About Technology”. That pretty much sums up my belief about “digital” in general. I often find myself in the position of being asked a “digital technology” question, and saying something along the lines of “What you’re asking is not that technically challenging. It’s a question of ________ (Select one: time/money/staff resources/strategy/priority)”.

MIT and Deloitte surveyed of 4,800 organizations recently about their state of digital adoption and adaptation. One of their key findings was that digitally maturing organizations are “more comfortable taking risks than their less digitally mature peers. To make their organizations less risk averse, business leaders have to embrace failure as a prerequisite for success. They must also address the likelihood that employees may be just as risk averse as their managers and will need support to become bolder.” This, you may realize, is not an inherently “digital” trait, it’s a mindset. Which fits in with all the other main findings of the report. In fact, the report’s main conclusion was that digital transformation has a lot less to do with technologies than it does with strategy and mindset.

“The strength of digital technologies … doesn’t lie in the technologies individually. Instead, it stems from how companies integrate them to transform their businesses and how they work.”

In other words, the companies best able to stand the discomfort of “doing things differently” as Tucker said, are the ones best poised to benefit from digital technologies. So rather than dive into discussions about how to fix the museum’s website, I’d like us to aim higher and not think of these digital products in isolation just yet. The more fruitful and potentially more transformative discussion we could have is about the mission, vision, and goals. Digital is a dimension of all of these, and can be integral to how we think about everything, if we can be open to re-examining all our workflows and products. They’re all already digitally-influenced, you just might not notice it right now.

Thus far, I’ve yammered, I’ve invoked authorities, I’ve engaged in anecdote. But what is digital transformation?

Briefly put, I’d say that digital transformation is a reflective design process that will result in us becoming what Parry calls a “postdigital museum”; one where digital technology has become so permeated into everyday activities that we no longer reflect upon or feel challenged by its “digital” character. 

Digital transformation is the process by which we get past the old physical/digital dialectic and let the activities and affordances of each realm enrich the other. This is an important point, and one that tends to lost in the polemics that are written by both reactionaries and progressives. A postdigital museum isn’t one where “digital” has triumphed over “physical”. I happen to reject that binary and the dialectical relationship that it fosters. It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. One doesn’t doesn’t engulf the other; instead they are joined in ways that ubiquitous computing pioneer Mark Weiser called “beautifully seamed” where the connections between each are both apparent and transparent. Beautiful seams in an object or process make evident the process of their manufacture, and invite the user (in this you, you museum professional!) to both appreciate the object and feel empowered to reach in and reconfigure it to suit their evolving needs and wants. Too much of what we do in the digital realm today is magical, hidden in black boxes and tended by priests who speak arcane tongues. Magic is, well, magical, but I’d prefer to build a beautifully seamed workplace full of tools and processes appropriate for the task at hand and train staff to use those tools in the ways that they deem best, not the software or hardware developers.

So let’s look at some of the hallmarks of digitally mature organizations MIT/Deloitte found and see what we can take away and apply specifically to museums.

The hallmarks of digitally mature organizations

CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user M.G. Kafkas

One of the advantages of not being on the bleeding edge of innovation is the ability to learn from those who’ve gone ahead. We have the benefit of building on the work done by other museums and businesses. The MIT report offer us a clearer view of the contours of how a digitally transformed museum might operate. The study authors tried to understand what were the characteristics that separated more “digitally mature” businesses from less mature ones.  In broad strokes, some of the common characteristics of these organizations are the following:

1. Digital strategy drives digital maturity.

Digitally mature businesses have a clear and coherent digital strategy.

2. The power of a digital transformation strategy lies in its scope and objectives.

Digital strategies in the most mature organizations are developed with an eye on transforming the business, not on specific technologies that are perceived as being de rigeur to be “cutting edge”.

3. Maturing digital organizations build skills to realize the strategy.

Digitally mature businesses provide employees with needed skills.

4. Employees want to work for digital leaders.

Employees will be on the lookout for the best digital opportunities. Digitally mature businesses will do a better job of attracting and retaining the kind of employees they will need to mature further.

5. Taking risks becomes a cultural norm.

Digitally mature businesses are more comfortable taking risks and embrace failure as a prerequisite for success.

6. The digital agenda is led from the top.

Employees in digitally mature businesses are highly confident in their leaders’ digital fluency – the ability to articulate the value of digital technologies to the organization’s future. They don’t need to be technologists themselves.

Digital maturity is the product of strategy, culture and leadership.”

Questions to ask yourself about your institution

Getting from here (predigital) to there (postdigital) is quite a challenge. It’s not an insurmountable one, and as I’ve said above, it’s not really a technical one. The MIT/Deloitte puts it very nicely, “Digital maturity is the product of strategy, culture and leadership.” And to help get there, they pose three questions that get a t the heart of transformative strategy as opposed to a typical strategy.

1. Does our organization have a digital strategy that goes beyond implementing technologies? 

Digital strategies at maturing organizations go beyond the technologies themselves. They target improvements in innovation, decision making and, ultimately, transforming how the business works.

2. Does our organization culture foster digital initiatives? 

Many organizations will have to change their cultural mindsets to increase collaboration and encourage risk taking. Business leaders should also address whether different digital technologies or approaches can help bring about that change. They must also understand what aspects of the current culture could spur greater digital transformation progress.

3. Is our organization confident in its leadership’s digital fluency? 

Although leaders don’t need to be technology wizards, they must understand what can be accomplished at the intersection of business and technology. They should also be prepared to lead the way in conceptualizing how technology can transform the business.

The trends affecting digital strategy

CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user GotCredit

The discussions found three key trends that will impact digital strategy going forward as well as the leadership approaches and cultures needed to support them.

1. Greater integration between online and offline experiences 

“Digital strategies will need to address the increasingly blurred distinction between the online and offline worlds.” The report authors use the Metropolitan Museum of Art as an example, specifically their goal to create compelling online experiences that induce people to visit the museum and then stay connected through social and mobile. To that example, I’d add The Dallas Museum of Art and first and foremost, the Cooper Hewitt, whose devotion to tying all their experiences to their information repositories is admirable.

2. Data will be more tightly infused into processes 

“Organizational cultures must be primed to embrace analytics and the use of data in decision making and processes. In last year’s social business report, we found that socially mature organizations integrate social data into decisions and operations.”

3. Business models will reach their sell-by dates more quickly 

“The onus is on leaders to stay ahead of the curve for their industries’ evolving business models.”

[next up: Having looked at hallmarks, we’ll look at roadmaps; how to get from her to there, according to the consultants.]

FURTHER READING

There’s so much great thinking out there about design that it’s hard to do justice to any of them. Some of the articles that kept me company while I was writing this series didn’t necessarily find their way in, but are valuable references. You should check them out:

Johnny Holland, The Democracy of Systems Design

Matt Jones, Gardens and Zoos

Anne Galloway, Seams, Beautiful and Otherwise

ibid, Design in the Parliament of Things (pdf)

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.

2015 thoughts and plans

January, full of hope and the potential of another new year! I’ve spent a lovely holiday season relaxing with my family and friends and clearing out my head. Now, once more into the breach! I promised myself I’d take a look at my blogging practice and see what role it should play in my life in 2015. Seems I wasn’t alone. Seb Chan did a nice “What I did in 2014 while I wasn’t blogging” that is impressive to say the least. That boy works! And I look forward to hearing more about every item on his list. A more common theme was introspection, mingled with worry. Regan Forrest, one of my favorite Aussie museum bloggers wrote a reflection that’ll sound familiar to anyone who’s ever blogged. And, despite the worry, followed it up with her first post of 2015, doubling down on her committment to blogging. Go, Regan! And even Nina Simon, the hardest working woman in museum blogging, wasn’t immune to the feeling that it not only doesn’t get easier, but in fact gets harder the longer you’re at it. The whole post and comment thread are great, so read it. These three posts helped me to crystallize some the ideas/plans/dreams I have swirling around in my head for 2015. Being more mindful and deliberate about my blogging, in terms of topic, cadence, and substance. Four posts a month for twelve months and better editorial oversight and planning are coming. Being more proactive about following up with conversations that are happening elsewhere. It takes time. And effort. Waiting for the “You have X new comments” email from WordPress was a lot easier. And delivered that lab rat/food pellet reward much more effectively. Giving my attention to the side projects that have nourished me as much as my primary job. CODE|WORDS will soon see it’s eighth essay published, and Musetrain, an old experiment that Bruce Wyman, Seb and I started in 2012 has reawoken. It’ll be interesting to see where that goes. So, onwards into 2015! See you there!

How To View Critics Telling You How to View Art in a Museum

The blind fingerless art critic by Flickr user Shareheads CC-BY 2.0

The blind fingerless art critic
by Flickr user Shareheads
CC-BY 2.0

I have a confession to make: art critics baffle me. Especially when they venture to make grand pronouncements about the right way to go about experiencing art in museums. So when I saw the title of Philip Kennicott’s piece in the Washington Post, titled “How to view art: Be dead serious about it, but don’t expect too much” I will confess that I died a little bit inside. “Sigh. Another ‘you people are doing it all wrong’ piece.” Just what the world needs, another art critic holding forth on the sad state of museums and museumgoing. But, though there is plenty of sneering, there’s also a lot worthy of discussion. And debate. Kennicott’s post didn’t stand alone too long before Jillian Steinhauer posted a reply at Hyperallergic, and Jen Olencziak a rebuttal at Huffington Post. So, let’s take a dive in and see if we can sift some jewels from the bile, shall we?

Kennicott’s piece benefits most from his long experience at looking at art in museums. When he talks about specific techniques and strategies he’s learned that work for him, he’s golden. All too often, though, he falls prey to the critic’s kryptonite; thinking that because he can come up with a plausible explanation based on purely on anecdotal experience and write it cleverly, it must be both true and universal. So, here are some reactions to his five tips on how to view art in a museum.

1. Take time

Untitled by Flickr user Byron Barrett CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Untitled
by Flickr user Byron Barrett
CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

“The biggest challenge when visiting an art museum is to disengage from our distracted selves.”

Getting visitors to focus on the present is a goal I’m totally in support of, though I’d rephrase Kennicott’s phrasing. I’m prone to these kinds of negative formulations, and it’s been a lifetime’s work to embrace positive ones. It may seem like splitting semantic hairs, but I think it’s important. Rather than disengaging from a negative (busyness and distraction), I’d rather encourage engagement with the here and now as the goal. It’s a lot easier to be against something than to be for something, but being for something is in the end more worthwhile.

<snark>My inner cynic also thinks that being an art critic, Kennicott might be allergic to the word “engagement”, since it’s code for some for “everything I hate that our ‘stewards of culture’ do with audiences that doesn’t encourage silent, solitary, reverential contemplation.”</ snark>

“We are addicted to devices that remind us of the presence of time, cellphones and watches among them, but cameras too, because the camera has become a crutch to memory, and memory is our only defense against the loss of time.”

Here he’s conflating two very different problems; devices demanding attention, and cameras being crutches for remembering, and therefore bad. The device bit I agree with. By all means turn off your phone, or put it on vibrate. Unless you don’t want to. <snark>Or if you’re using it to look at Wikipedia to find information the museum doesn’t tell you, which Kennicott will encourage you to do in the next section. </snark> The camera/crutch formulation deserves a bit more examination. The “ technology is eroding our ability to use our minds” is an old trope. And I mean old, like 4th century BCE old. At least. According to Plato, Socrates warned against the written word as a shallow substitute for discourse:

“this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

Plato, Phaedrus 276a

Sound familiar? You can draw a line from Kennicott back to Socrates and find versions of this concern expressed for any number of technologies that were certain to ruin humanity’s ability to function.

Photographing the Rosetta Stone by Flickr user Snapshooter46 CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Photographing the Rosetta Stone
by Flickr user Snapshooter46
CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

He goes on to say,

“The raging debate today about whether to allow the taking of pictures inside the museum usually hinges on whether the act of photographing is intrusive or disruptive to other visitors; more important, the act is fundamentally disruptive to the photographer’s experience of art, which is always fleeting.”

So, anything that isn’t looking at the art is “fundamentally disruptive”, according to Kennicott. Is it? Readers might recall an article published in Psychological Science earlier this year called “Point-and-Shoot Memories: The Influence of Taking Photos on Memory for a Museum Tour” which was used by many to support the idea that photography was bad for the photographer’s recall. Linda Henkel’s experiment generated a lot of breathless press and finger wagging when it was announced that participants who were instructed to photograph an object and then asked to recall it the next day fared worse than visitors who were instructed to look at the object and recall it.

Buried in there were two important notes that went largely unreported. One was that visitors who photographed specific details of an object had better recall than visitors who just looked. The other was Henkel’s admission that the way the experiment was constructed had an important difference from the way people actually take photographs in museums. Henkel’s subjects were told which object to photograph, not to pick an object they liked. In other words, they were extrinsically motivated, not intrinsically motivated, which is a fundamental aspect of free choice learning. I’m pretty confident there aren’t many visitors running around taking pictures of things they don’t like in museums. This difference in motivation is fundamental.

Another, “your mileage may vary” sort of issue is that of mission. If a museum’s mission is exclusively to showcase the artistic production of others, then anything that gets in the way of that appreciation could legitimately be considered an impediment. But more and more museums have taken of the additional challenge of encouraging visitors to express (and hopefully increase) their own creativity. In this kind of museum, visitor photography can be an expression of that creative impulse to be encouraged and nurtured. There’s an interesting discussion for museum directors and boards to have. Are you trying to help your visitors become more informed connoisseurs, or give them more experience of the creative process? Is it one or the other? Are the two modalities in a dialectical relationship, or can you encourage both?

Kennicott buries one zinger I particularly resonated with at the very end of this section; the negative impact of admission fees. He calls them “pernicious” because “They make visitors mentally ‘meter’ the experience, straining to get the most out of it, and thus re-inscribe it in the workaday world where time is money, and money is everything.” At moments like this, I appreciate his command of the language. And I agree completely. I’m sure most of us have seen the hurrying tourists, desperately trying to see all the highlights listed in the guide, so that they can get their “money’s worth” out of their trip. Not something we as museum professionals want to encourage, is it?

So, by all means take time, and use that time to be present in the moment, in that space. This is actually good advice for life in general, not museum going, but that’s another subject altogether.

2. Seek silence

Contemporary viewer! by Flickr user Jrm Llvr CC-BY 2.0

Contemporary viewer!
by Flickr user Jrm Llvr
CC-BY 2.0

 

“Always avoid noise, because noise isn’t just distracting, it makes us hate other people.”

One reason I have difficulty with a lot of criticism is that I wind up feeling like I know more about the critic than I ever wanted to, because so much criticism wraps personal quirks in the garb of universal truths. Noise can be annoying, sometimes. As a neuroscientist pointed out to me yesterday, the way we experience visual inputs and auditory inputs is very different. If you see something you don’t want to see, you can avert your gaze, or close your eyes. Humans have no similar way to filter out auditory inputs. Even blocking your ears is only minimally effective (and makes you look kinda silly), so a valid criticism of museums could be how poorly they design the experience for sound control. This is all, of course, assuming we’re talking only about visual arts.

Big, echoey spaces with hard walls and floors look sweet, but they make even small levels of noise problematic. We’re on the verge of opening a major video installation PEM commissioned. The amount of work we’ve done modifying acoustically “bright” galleries work for an installation that requires you to be able to hear spoken words is pretty major.

 “Too many museums have become exceptionally noisy, and in some cases that’s by design. When it comes to science and history museums, noise is often equated with visitor engagement, a sign that people are enjoying the experience.”

Where to begin with this one? I’m pretty confident that there are very few museum architects and experience designers who intentionally create noisy spaces. I would not be surprised if the number were in fact zero. An outcome of their decisions might be noisy spaces, but that’s different than intentionally doing it. This is another favorite tactic of critics, inferring intent where none exists. <snark> Maybe that’s another one of the deceptions (see #3 below) practiced on the public by museums. </snark> It’s sloppy thinking and writing.

I’ll also hazard a guess that the number of museum professionals who go into a space and say “It’s noisy, people must be engaged” is also quite small. Kennicott, like most critics, avoids mention of the real problem Nina Simon mentioned in this post on crowding. He laments the “vast and inevitably tumultuous throngs” that go to big museums to see famous art, but leaves it there.

art critics by Flickr user mesh CC-BY 2.0

art critics
by Flickr user mesh
CC-BY 2.0

“But any picture that attracts hordes of people has long since died, a victim of its own renown, its aura dissipated, its meaning lost in heaps of platitudes and cant. Say a prayer for its soul and move on.”

Umm… Yeah, OK. So art must be unpopular to some extent in order to retain its “aura”?

Nobody better tell the Louvre.

3. Study up

art critic by Flickr user NCinDC CC-BY-ND 2.0

art critic
by Flickr user NCinDC
CC-BY-ND 2.0

 

“One of the most deceptive promises made by our stewards of culture over the past half century is: You don’t need to know anything to enjoy art.”

A theme throughout this piece, and a lot of criticism posits an alternate reality where museums willfully and systemically deceive and injure the visiting public by “pandering” “surrendering” and “succumbing” to malignant forces in the larger culture. The reasons vary, though incompetence, and venality often appear as root causes. In their unbridled lust to get bodies through the doors, museums say and do anything to be popular. Like awkward teenagers, desperate to fit in and be liked, despite their unfashionableness, they make deceptive promises that ultimately do a profound disservice to the visiting public and to the art that museums allegedly steward for future generations. Note the plural. What we’re discussing here is but one of many deceptive promises. I have to wonder if Kennicott has ever shared any of his theories with a real live museum staff person.

“Our response to art is directly proportional to our knowledge of it.”

I agree with this statement, but in a way that I think undermines Kennicott’s central assertion. I have previously written at length about a visit to the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania. Read them here, here, and here, if you want more information. It’s a great place to visit if you’re at the bottom of the world. One of the conceit’s of the museum is that there are no printed labels. None. Zero. All the interpretation is carried in an iPod you are given when you enter. In the midst of a profoundly transformative visit where I was forced to look at the art, not the interpretation, I came across a smallish painting that looked like a poorly copied Picasso. I registered my dislike of the object and, on a whim, looked up it’s information only to find that it was in fact a Picasso. I had the realization that had there been a tiny tombstone label identifying the work as such, I would have unable to dislike that object as much because of the associations I already carry around about the canon of Western art. Just seeing

Picasso, Pablo
Spanish
1881-1973

would’ve colored my emotional response to the work in front of me, and Picasso’s stature in the canon would’ve influenced my feelings about that painting.

There is a place for showing, and a place for telling, and there can be an order in which they happen that allows visitors to have both the direct experience and the received wisdom, without either oppressing the other.

The pendulum, for decades lodged at one extreme, has swung towards the opposite pole, and I can understand Kennicott’s displeasure, but it’s the displeasure of the entitled, seeing others’ needs and comfort placed ahead of his own for a change.

“art is the opposite of popular entertainment, which becomes more insipid with greater familiarity.”

<snark> My sons will doubtless agree with this. Their appreciation of Pokemon never waned. No matter how many times they saw Jessie and James get flung into the sky, it was magic each time. Ditto for Thomas the Tank Engine. </snark>

“Even 10 minutes on Wikipedia can help orient you and fundamentally transform the experience.”

Sounds reasonable to me. I think Wikipedia offers a great challenge to museums. A visitor can access content about just about anything on a mobile device these days. The fact that so many do access content like Wikipedia in museums should tell experience designers something. Their content is either lacking, or not the information visitors are looking for. So, what to do? I can think of a number of strategies for addressing the problem, all of which would result in experiences that do not feature objects with tiny tombstone labels near (but not too near) them.

“If the guide spends all his or her time asking questions rather than explaining art and imparting knowledge, do not waste your time. These faux-Socratic dialogues are premised on the fallacy that all opinions about art are equally valid and that learning from authority is somehow oppressive.”

I get the feeling Kennicott’s not a fan of Visual Thinking Strategies, and that’s OK. Declaring them “faux-Socratic” and fallacies, is not. Unless he has evidence and research to back up the claim, it’s just another example of the “I came. I saw. I invented a narrative that suits my worldview.”

4. Engage memory

Art Strikes Back by Flickr user Sam Burns CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Art Strikes Back
by Flickr user Sam Burns
CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Unfortunately, unlike most things we study and debate, art is difficult to summarize and describe.”

Part of me would love to know what those easy to summarize and describe topics are. Most of my experience with experts in any field is that the more they know, the harder it is for them to summarize and describe what they do.

 

“Some museum educators, who know these things, will tell you this kind of detail doesn’t matter; they are lying. Always try to remember the name of and at least one work by an artist whom you didn’t know before walking into the museum.”

Back to the conspiracy theory and the museums actively disseminating falsehoods. Sigh… Actually, if the educators believe what they’re saying, they’re not lying. They’re expressing an opinion that conflicts with Kennicott’s. But in his mind, that is obviously the same thing.

5. Accept contradiction

We are all "YES/NO" (BY MORTEN TRAAVIK) by Flickr user Tjook CC-BY-ND 2.0

We are all “YES/NO” (BY MORTEN TRAAVIK)
by Flickr user Tjook
CC-BY-ND 2.0

“Art must have some utopian ambition, must seek to make the world better, must engage with injustice and misery; art has no other mission than to express visual ideas in its own self-sufficient language. As one art lover supposedly said to another: Monet, Manet, both are correct. “Susan Sontag once argued “against interpretation” and in favor of a more immediate, more sensual, more purely subjective response to art; but others argue, just as validly, that art is part of culture and embodies a wide range of cultural meanings and that our job is to ferret them out. Again, both are correct.”

Except he’s already made clear that agreeing with Sontag is both wrong and bad. Kennicott’s willing to give lip service to accepting the kind of contradiction, but nothing substantive.

And to tie it all in a nice neat bow, he ends with:

“Some practical advice: If you feel better about yourself when you leave a museum, you’re probably doing it all wrong.”

All those years of museum going on my part were wasted, apparently. Oh well…

Next up: A look at some of the responses to the Kennicott piece.

Natural’s Not In It

Tis the season for existential doubts, it seems, because I think I don’t believe in exhibitions anymore. A number of factors have come together recently to make me question whether the way we develop exhibitions is the way we should be developing them.

1) I’ve read a number of articles (that I maddeningly can’t lay my hands on) problematizing exhibitions as money pits and resource drains on museums, at the expense of other things. Exhibitions are slow, they are expensive, and they tend to be rigid frameworks within which it’s hard to innovate. I am working on exhibition projects at the moment that are three or fours years away from opening. One project will have taken almost a decade by the time it opens. A decade. That’s a long time. And a lot of it will be spent in testing and evaluating and making sure it addresses the formal education frameworks and standards that govern so much of what we do nowadays. And in all that measuring, I often remember the sociologist W.B. Cameron’s quote that “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

2) While cleaning my office, I found a cryptic piece of note paper covered with random words like “magic”, “storyworlds”, “metanarratives” and more. After a few minutes of deciphering, I realized it was my scrawled notes from a talk Seb Chan and I had at the bar the New Media Consortium retreat last year. We’re both been interested in why there isn’t more “magic” in science exhibitions, and by that I mean that sense of wonder and mystery, not card tricks and disappearing rabbits. I’ve been having versions of this conversation for over a year and I just can’t shake it. The brilliant folks at the Medical Museion in Denmark have in their manifesto, “Jealously guard a place for wonder and mystery” and I think it’s advice not enough of us take.

3) In part, the series of posts I’m writing on Making a Museum from Scratch flows from this same impulse, particularly the concept of a continuum of transparency, with collections being most transparent and exhibitions being least. I am certain there’s something there, and we’re missing an opportunity to engage visitors differently.

4) I recently worked on an interactive for interpreting a period room. When I wrote the first spec for the application I realized that from the visitors’ vantage point, the room looked a lot like a scene from Myst. And that brought back a flood of memories of playing the game with my lovely and talented wife when it first came out. We’d come home from our jobs, make supper and look at each other across the table afterwards, “You wanna maybe play some…?” “I get to drive this time!” and ZOOM! we’d be at the computer, ready to spend a few hours getting lost in the game world. How would one make an exhibition that prompted that same kind of response?

5) All the museums on my list of must see places are ones that don’t do traditional exhibitions. I think they are all, at their core, emotional experiences; Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul, the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, the Museum of Hunting and Nature in Paris…

This dissatisfaction with exhibitions has left me wondering what would an exhibition that’s not an exhibition look like? What’s the opposite of an exhibition?

Exhibition/Inhibition

Thanks to my Greek teacher in high school, I have an abiding love of knowing roots and meanings. The opposite of ex-hibition should be in-hibition. So I went to see what the etymology of the word might tell me. And this what the Online Etymology dictionary said:

exhibition (n.) 
early 14c., from O.Fr. exhibicion, exibicion “show, exhibition, display,” from L.L. exhibitionem (nom. exhibitio), noun of action from pp. stem of exhibere “to show, display,” lit. “to hold out,” from ex- “out” (see ex-) + habere “to hold” (see habit).

inhibition (n.) 
late 14c., “formal prohibition; interdiction of legal proceedings by authority;” also, the document setting forth such a prohibition, from O.Fr. inibicion and directly from L. inhibitionem (nom. inhibitio) “a restraining,” from pp. stem of inhibere “to hold in, hold back, keep back,” from in- “in, on” (see in- (2)) + habere “to hold” (see habit).

To hold out or to hold back? The minute I read this, I thought,”Oh, that’s interesting!” Revealing versus concealing is deeply involved in this, but “inhibition” is such a weird word with so many other meanings that it didn’t seem quite right as the opposite for (and antidote to) “exhibition”. When I threw all this in a document and showed it to Suse Cairns, she shared an article from Psychological Review, entitled “Power, Approach, and Inhibition” and I realized the piece that had been eluding me: power.

Power, Approach, and Inhibition
The authors start their article with a quote from Bertrand Russell, “The fundamental concept in social science is Power, in the same sense that Energy is the fundamental concept in physics . . . The laws of social dynamics are laws which can only be stated in terms of power.”

Here’s the abstract:

This article examines how power influences behavior. Elevated power is associated with increasedrewards and freedom and thereby activates approach-related tendencies. Reduced power is associated with increased threat, punishment, and social constraint and thereby activates inhibition-related tendencies. The authors derive predictions from recent theorizing about approach and inhibition and review relevant evidence. Specifically, power is associated with (a) positive affect, (b) attention to rewards, (c) automatic information processing, and (d) disinhibited behavior. In contrast, reduced power is associated with (a) negative affect; (b) attention to threat, punishment, others’ interests, and those features of the self that are relevant to others’ goals; (c) controlled information processing; and (d) inhibited social behavior. The potential moderators and consequences of these power-related behavioral patterns are discussed.

The authors’ basic argument is that people’s feeling of power in a given situation determines whether they feel like engaging (approach) or holding back (inhibition). This power influences the balance of approach and inhibition tendencies. So, elevated power activates approach-related processes, and reduced power activates inhibition-related processes.

Or as Gang of Four put it,

“Natural is not in it,
Your relations are all power,
We all have good intentions,
but all with strings attached.”

Natural’s Not in It, Gang of Four

Sounds kinda like an exhibition team, doesn’t it? We wish visitors only good things like learning, and enjoyment. But only to the extent that they are willing to do it on our terms. The power balance is entirely on the exhibition’s side.

If you can find the article, it’s an interesting read. Of the authors’ 12 propositions, several of them express things I’ve witnessed in exhibitions I’ve worked on or visited.

  • Elevated Power Increases the Experience and Expression of Positive Affect
  • Reduced Power Increases the Experience and Expression of Negative Affect
  • Elevated Power Increases the Sensitivity to Rewards
  • Reduced Power Increases the Sensitivity to Threat and Punishment
  • Elevated Power Increases the Likelihood of Approach-Related Behavior
  • Reduced Power Increases Behavioral Inhibition

So I wonder if it’s a question of empowering visitors, or is it rather a question of inhibiting ourselves more in how we exhibit, in being less strident and overt?

Shifting the balance in the power equation
Power, Approach and Inhibition made me think that maybe what I want to do is be more explicit in inhibiting the dominating power of the exhibition so that visitors have more personal agency and power within the space. I think it’s a zero-sum game so raising everybody’s power level doesn’t sound plausible to me. So how do we push the power balance further in the visitors’ favor without totally abrogating our responsibility to be accurate, honest, and authoritative? How could we inhibit the exhibition?

The first thing that popped into my mind was another tidbit from Copenhagen, “Use exhibitions to find out, not to disseminate what you already know”, which has a certain power to it. If the process of making an exhibition were itself more of a discovery process, and less of a dissemination process, that might inhibit us more, since we’d be coming from a place of uncertainty, and learning as we went along, just like we want our visitors to learn.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I kept coming back to the idea of storyworlds.

The exhibition as a storyworld?
I think one of the most obvious ways could be to treat them more like immersive narratives than as collections of discrete experiences that are thematically linked, which is what I’d argue most non-art exhibitions are nowadays. If you’ve read this blog for any time, you know I’m no booster for gamification (ack!). That said, there are valuable lessons to be learned from game theorists. Chris Crawford (I think) first proposed the notion that a game is a world in which a story occurs and that players are free to move through this bounded space and time and encounter pieces of a story, or follow a story arc. This has clear parallels to what museums do, and addresses a lot of the concerns I’ve voiced about what exhibitions lack..

This kind of storyworld is by nature immersive. There is enough to it that the player (or visitor) feels part of it, and is able to move through it in a self-directed way. It is also decidedly non-linear, which museum exhibitions have to be.

A storyworld is a narrative. There is a premise, and (at least) one plot unfolds over the course of the narrative. They may intertwine, double back, and perform other gymnastics, but they are there contiunously throughout the experience.

A storyworld is a constructivist endeavor, and therefore deeply personal. You put together the elements as you navigate the space, and your edifice of knowledge will look different than anyone else’s. This was at least half the fun of Myst. I’d decide that everything we’d learned meant one thing, and my wife would often have constructed a completely different narrative. Part of our playing the game was the dialogic interaction we’d have about what was going on.

Storyworlds allow visitors to have more of a personalized experience, without the technological backflips we try to do to encourage them to “personalize” the experience. Sleep No More is a great example of this. The audience decides where they want to go, and can follow the action, follow a particular character, or just wander randomly through the story of Macbeth.

There are probably other parallels as well, but I haven’t had the time to let this idea season. I’ve been sick for days and hope you will be able to make something of this, or point out the obvious flaws in my thinking. Or give me examples or counterexamples.

 

For More:

Keltner, Dacher, Deborah H. Gruenfeld, and Cameron Anderson, “Power, Approach, and Inhibition” in Psychological Review, 2003, Vol. 110, No. 2, 265–284

The other side of “the tech skills divide”

Making a museum from scratch: Part Eight

So my last post on digital skills struck a nerve with a few people. The biggest takeaway for me was one of Matt Popke’s insightful comments. He pointed out that there are in fact two simultaneous skills divides and that while we in the profession tend to talk a lot about getting the museum field in general more digitally literate, we never talk about how to let people in digital media postions (most of whom come into museums via their trade, be it software development, web design, hardware, project management, or what have you) get up to speed on museum skills.  It was one of the those moments when you suddenly see the elephant in the room and realize its been there awhile.

What makes the divide so much more unfortunate, as Matt points out, is that techies are, by and large, inclined to be self-starters and active learners. The Web is full of tutorials, podcasts, and courseware that they use to keep their skills up to date, and learn new ones. Why is it that there is so little out there about museum work that isn’t part of a Masters’ program course of study that people who are already working full-time just won’t be likely to do? (And, yes, I do know that there are certificate programs out there. I think my point still stands, though.)

Moving from closed to open practice

At least part of the reason is that museums tend to be very closed about their practice. And moving from that “Should I share this” mindset, to a more open, “Is there a reason not to share this?” mindset is another one of those “tech” issues that really isn’t a technology issue when you scratch the surface. And it’s not an issue of “us” being more accommodating to “them”. Being more transparent should be a personal imperative, because it’s a great way to improve one’s own work. We all need to adopt a more open mindset towards our own learning. We don’t know everything, and we should all be open to learning new skills and modes of doing our jobs. So adding digital skills to our existing museum work seems like an incremental improvement. However looking at it from the other direction is very different. “Museum work” is a disparate stew of professions and jobs. The list of things we do that someone coming in from the outside might want to know about – curation, education, conservation, exhibition, administration, marketing, development – is long indeed. Where would one even begin? Is it too much of a hydra to even try to tackle?

I don’t think so. The more I thought about it, the more I thought about the importance of being open about one’s own practice. Being able to share not only what you do, but your process, is an invaluable tool for a reflective practitioner. For me, that’s one of the main personal benefits of blogging. The mere act of writing down what I do concretizes it in a way that no amount of thinking does. Documenting your work, sharing it and reflecting on it, are essential ingredients to improving. It is something we should all be doing more of, and the more we do it, the more we increase the resources available to the Matts of the museum world. And if it sounds like too much work, consider this. The Harvard Graduate School of Education has run a program for many years called Making Learning Visible http://www.pz.harvard.edu/mlv/.html which seeks to understand how to create and sustain cultures of learning in public schools through documentation and group learning. And if you think you’re too busy, go shadow a classroom teacher around for a day. If they can do it, we certainly can.

So, here’s my question for you:
If you’re a digital media person, and you’ve been in museums awhile, what are the things you’ve learned the hard way that you wish somebody had told you?

If you’re a digital media person, and you’re new to museums, what are the things that you wish you had a better grip on? Imagine you’re looking at MCN’s shiny new professional development program, MCNPro, and you saw a webinar listed that covered _______. What is that blank that would make you say, “I want to take that!”?

And, last but not least, if you’re a non-digital media person, what are the things you wish the digital media folks at your museum “got” that they never seem to?

I look forward to your replies!

Additional Resources:

The chorus of voices suggesting museums think about education as something more than what the Education department does is growing daily.  Here’s just a few from the recent past:

Nina Simon has a great post on Khan Academy and free choice learning that has some really insightful commentary from Beth Harris and Steve Zucker of Khan Academy (and formerly of MoMA)
http://museumtwo.blogspot.com/2012/10/khan-academy-and-online-free-choice.html 

Gretchen Jennings posted a wonderfully incendiary question on Museum Commons about whether museums identify too much with formal education at the expense of exploring other skills and disciplines to do their work. Though aimed directly at museum educators, I’d say it is food for thought for all of us. Check out the comments in particular.
http://museumcommons.blogspot.com/2012/09/museum-educators-what-next.html

Erin Branham at Edgital, a new blog positioning itself “at the edge of museum education and digital media”, has some easy ways for educators to get into the action.
 http://www.edgital.org/2012/10/06/first-steps-to-embracing-digital-literacy-for-museum-educators/ 

Kajsa Hartig in Sweden is actually working with two universities to examine digital literacy in the heritage sector and what kinds of skills the rising generation of heritage professionals should have as they enter the workforce.
http://kajsahartig.wordpress.com/2012/09/28/digital-skills-in-the-heritage-sector/

In the same vein, there’s a wonderfully heartening post by on Art Museum Teaching about “Challenging Ourselves: Strategies to Reflect on Our Practice” It’s aimed at museum education managers, but I think anybody interested in reflective practice should give it a read.
http://artmuseumteaching.com/2012/10/06/challenging-ourselves-strategies-to-reflect-on-our-practice/

Last, but not least, Beth Harris and Steve Zucker posted “Museums and open education” at e-Literate, which is a nice blueprint for thinking about museum education in a different light, and  in general being a more open, experimental, and reflective practitioner.
http://mfeldstein.com/museums-and-open-education/

UPDATE: I forgot Oonagh Murphy’s PDF “Museums and Digital Engagement: A New York Perspective” which is a veritable Who’s Who of New Yorkers Doing Cool Things in Museums. Worth the download!
http://www.wcmt.org.uk/reports/1065_1.pdf