Can a technologist get ahead in museums?

Posted on March 6, 2012

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A couple of weeks ago, The Art Newspaper published an article on How to get ahead in US museums. The article addressed the increasing call within the museum sector for curators to take on management positions, focusing on the New York-based Center for Curatorial Leadership. It mentions fears of a leadership crisis occurring in the field in the US, with 60 or so museum directors expected to retire by 2019.

But I think the leadership crisis in museums might be bigger than this. It’s not merely about those museum leaders who might retire, but whether those coming through to replace them (and also those who are not slated for retirement) have an understanding of the emergent technological landscape in order to lead confidently in this arena.

Ed Rodley recently posted on digital interactivity, new media literacy and skills development, and some of what he wrote is pertinent in this discussion. He wrote:

Professional development is essential in new media, because most of us learned nothing about it. If you graduated from university with a museum studies degree five years ago, you wouldn’t have learned about Twitter. Youtube was a new thing and Facebook was moving out of colleges into the wild. If you graduated ten years ago, social media in general would be an alien thing. If you’re a late Cretaceous dinosaur like me, computers were a novelty, and if you’re older, say an early Jurassic dinosaur like many museum directors, computers in general are something that happened after formal schooling.

The implications of what this means for museum leadership as both museums and technology move forward are fascinating. If we have museum directors who understand museums but do not understand (and commit firmly to) the altered technological landscape, how can museums possibly adapt to changing expectations?

A natural answer that I could offer up to this problem would be to seek leaders within the museum technology field (something I would love to be seriously considered – I know some people who would be amazing leaders). However, I don’t think that idea is quite as simple as I would like it to be.

The museum sits, as we know, on a cusp between its nineteenth century beginnings, in which knowledge was made through expertise, vetting and reduction, and its twenty-first century present, in which knowledge is becoming networked, open and created by experts and non-experts alike. The philosophical differences between these two approaches are significant, and as much as I love the idea of a museum built for agility and responsiveness, it cannot be ignored that museums are somewhat change averse. The Art Newspaper article finishes with this statement:

Change is not what happens naturally in the museum world; the Met is a risk-averse institution and for good reason.” That is how it built its reputation as one of the world’s great museums[.]

If museums are risk adverse, and museum technologists are (often) those who advocate change, then putting a museum technologist at the helm of a museum might be considered somewhat risky by those doing the hiring.

I admit in writing this, I am assuming that leaders from museum tech would drive museums forward towards a particular philosophical direction – and that might not be entirely true. Still, this is an important issue to consider, if only because we need to think about career paths for museum technologists (how can we attract and keep good people if there is no real opportunity for career development in the field?). But beyond this, of course, there are questions about how museums will be able to continue to be relevant (and in fact, become more so) if leadership in the field does not engage with the issues that the changing technological landscape is bringing to the field.

What do you think? How can the sector approach these questions of leadership in the changing technological landscape? And have I correctly characterised the problem, or are there issues here that I haven’t yet thought of?

*NB – I made some changes to this post after conversation with Mia Ridge on Twitter, as I think my initial version was slightly convoluted in message. I will return to some of the other issues I raised in that first version in a later discussion.