Thinking differently and making change

Museums are pretty strange. They exist simultaneously as a conceptual space, an actual physical place and as a kind of practice, which means there is constantly a sense of redrawing the borders of what a museum is, and why a museum is. Because the context in which museums exist is always fluctuating, museums too are subject to perpetual evolution. These interconnected elements of theory, practice and place make the museum a very interesting world in which to work, because what works for one area (say, the museum as concept) might not marry with the other elements.

Despite this, the theory of museums does have very real impact on the business of museums (if not always immediately). As our conceptual ideas of museums change, so too does museum practice (often later down the track). This is why now is such an interesting time to be working as a museum theorist, because the Internet is raising so many interesting questions about what a museum should be, and how it should conduct its business, in the age of information. New theories, new discussions are emerging, and these discussions impact on museum practice itself. It really feels like there is a chance to shape the museum of the future, through ideas. Amazing.

With this in mind, I draw your attention to Koven Smith’s latest blog post, which is also the abstract for his upcoming MuseumNext talk. The post is titled The Kinetic Museum, and in it, Koven asks:

What if a museum’s overall practice were built outwards from its technology efforts, rather than the other way around? What would a museum built from the ground up for speed and agility, rather than stability and longevity, look like?

This is a fascinating line of thinking, because it really starts to question the very foundational processes upon which museums are constructed and their appropriateness in an age of networked knowledge and endless connectivity. Rather than relying traditional models for museum practice and hoping they still suit the external context in which museums now find themselves, these sorts of questions prompt a complete rethink not only of how museums do business, but also of why and what a museum is. They are the sort of conceptual questions that could impact the physical and practical elements of the museum too. (This means they are also very important questions, given the changing state of information and knowledge – the stock and trade of museums.)

The very process of questioning these ideas in a public forum raises the possibility that the museum itself will change as a result (a question asked cannot be unasked); that it will be re-conceived in a new context. Such large-scale abstract questions remind me of an article that did the rounds recently about the mission that Steve Jobs set his first iPhone development team. Jobs

wasn’t focused on conceiving a device that would run all sorts of apps and media but instead laid out a simple mission to his team: to create the first phone people would love so much, they’d never leave the house without it.

In response to these somewhat idealised goals, Apple designed something that changed the marketplace. The article continues:

Apple’s success largely stemmed from focusing on only a handful of fundamental concepts: break the rules but do so in an exceptionally well manner, pay attention to detail and make people “think differently” about the relationship they have with their device, especially given that smartphones already existed in the market.

Questions like Koven’s, that ask us to rethink museum practice in a connected world, are so important, because they actually open the possibility that we can remake this essentially nineteenth century institution in a way that is far more suited to our time. If we were to take the fundamental elements of a museum (say, the selection, preservation and dissemination/communication of elements of the past and present for their potential future use), and be willing to discard the rest if it was not useful, I wonder how we would design a museum for today’s circumstances.

In Mia Ridge’s round-up of our MCN2011 panel, she includes a Titter quote from Bruce Wyman that “current visitors most frequently give *incremental* ideas. You need different folk to take those great leaps forward. That’s us.” The way I see it, it is through asking these questions and thinking of the practice and concept of the museum in new ways that we will make those great leaps.

What do you think? Are we asking the right questions? And if not, what questions should we be asking?

2 thoughts on “Thinking differently and making change

  1. I’m not sure we should be aiming for today’s circumstances. Today’s circumstances are a big part of why tackling these questions is so difficult, for museums and really anybody else. We’re in the midst of this big transition but we haven’t actually transitioned yet. Or in the words of William Gibson, “The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

    We talk about museums in a networked world and the conversations we should be having with a totally networked audience but neither of those things are actually here yet. The world is still getting networked and the audience exists at varying degrees of connectedness. I have a ton of ideas for how a museum should look in a networked world. I can’t even experiment with most of those ideas because the world isn’t actually that networked yet. Most of those ideas either wouldn’t work at all or would only reach a very small percentage of the actual audience.

    So right now, we have a lot of transitional ideas (QR codes, iPhone tours, AR apps). We know collections databases will one day be a key component of our networked conversations so we keep putting them online, but right now we’re not doing much with them once they’re up there. We know online communities will be essential to our success someday, but most of our audience right now is still reached through TV news spots and ads on the sides of city buses. We know that we will have to provide an information-rich in-gallery experience at some point to have any chance of getting people through the doors, but right now the hardware and bandwidth required to build those experiences just isn’t available and if it were most of our databases are too disorganized to easily integrate that data into a coherent visitor experience.

    I think the first thing we need to think differently about is not worrying so much about today’s circumstances because almost nothing that is true about our audience today will be true five years from now. Any audience-facing plans we lay in now are by necessity temporary. We need to think less about specific goals and more about building a robust set of principles and systems that support those principles.

    It’s not, “How do I put my collection online right now?”. It’s, “How do I restructure my collections management systems so that I can use that information for anything anywhere, online or off, easily and with very little development time?” We need to start thinking about the museum as a platform. That platform will still support the place we traditionally call a museum but it will also extend to support other activities, many of which we haven’t imagined yet.

    This is maybe not the best time for us to build experiences because during this transitional period just about anything we do will start to feel dated very quickly. This is, however, a great time to look at the foundations of what we do and think about how to make that foundation more robust, more flexible and more efficient. It’s a good time to examine our core processes, many of which we’ve taken for granted for a long time, and try to improve them. How do we restructure our organizations such that they become more modular and more agile? This isn’t just a technology question, though technology may play a larger role in answering this question than it has in the past.

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