Can a technologist get ahead in museums?

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.

20 thoughts on “Can a technologist get ahead in museums?

  1. Museums certainly are slow-moving institutions, by design–we hate to break or damage things. But maybe the place to start thinking about overcoming risk-aversion is not the Met, it’s at the community-based level where cultural institutions might be more willing to take a chance on putting a technologist at the helm. A little design acumen could go a long way making their environments safer for collections and more welcoming to visitors. That’s what we’re banking on in New Mexico anyway.

  2. Hmm..this is interesting. I like the resources you’re sharing, but are you sure that leadership by museum technologists is something to be hesitated? I’m completely on the other side of this argument, thinking rather, that they’re a necessity! Instead of utsourcing work that needs to be designed with technology in mind to vendors and organizations that don’t know your work, practice, or community I think museums need to be thinking actively about how to design everything they put out to the public, and leaders need to be technologically proficient to help steer that conversation in the right directions. Museum leaders should be aware of design mechanisms to be sure that high-quality outputs can be achieved, and be aware of the value of prototype testing to make sure the outcomes they think will matter, actually validate their communities. I recently read a book titled ‘Museums at Play’ which illustrates some 50 examples of highly motivational resources and interactive play exhibits that brought 2 fold and beyond participation to museums in ways that have never been achieved before. Things like that – bringing in such wild, uncensored participation are what will help museums thrive and move forward despite what you and Mimi have both pointed out as “change-resistance.” I think technologists are – maybe by default -more accepting of change because they’ve seen the ebb and flow of web platforms, browsers, computing languages, and vastly changing technologies in the last several years. Change to that direction might be difficult – but it’s essential because our communities are demanding it: web interaction has allowed them (for the first time in history) to be a part of the decision-making process, because we finally see where they are active (social media platforms), what they are saying, and how they feel about our programs and services. In my opinion, leaders, then, need to understand and embody the web, its multifaceted existence, and embrace the challenges and the victories that follow. If those who understand it have just graduated, as Ed Rodley suggests, then maybe it’s worthwhile to consider younger leadership. No?

  3. I’m not sure I know any pure technologists in museums who I’d want to be running them!

    Those who are commonly seen in the museum world as technologists and are in senior positions – beyond technology roles (CTO/CIO/IT Managers etc) – have diverse backgrounds. Almost all have done significant study in the humanities, and only a few have formally studied engineering or computer science. I’d wager that they’d say, too, that it has been their humanities backgrounds that have made them successful in applying technologies to their museums.

    As fas as risk aversion goes, there has been a major shift in ‘who runs museums’ as managerialism crept in over the past few decades and that can’t be discounted.

  4. Now, this is excellent feedback, and very thought-provoking. From the discussions happening here and on Twitter, I wonder if I haven’t asked the wrong questions – and if the better ones wouldn’t be:
    1. How can we ensure career development for museum technologists?
    2. What are the qualities of good leadership in museums today? Are they the same things they’ve always been? Who is equipped to lead into the C21st?

    The above post is the culmination of lots of conversations with people over the past six months or so, where those two themes kept surfacing, but they probably are separate issues.

    And Mimi – you’re right… it is smaller institutions that probably can be more flexible/open to leadership coming from different places professionally. The Met was just a handy example to use.

    1. These are definitely different questions.

      #1 needs clearer definition – who are these ‘museum technologists’? The career paths for those in IT roles vs those in content roles that happens to be delivered over the web are going to be very different. In fact those in IT roles will probably leave the sector to advance their careers (and perhaps should).

      #2 the nature of leadership is dependent upon the culture it is in, the funding environment, the social pressures etc. The leadership required by European museums is very different to that required by museums in the USA, let alone those in China, or South America. Museum leadership is also not the same as that required by corporations, or, necessarily, activist non-profits.

  5. I think that part of the problem is a semantic one and it stems from terms like “technologist”. The technology isn’t the issue. It’s the culture emerging from the widespread adoption of new technologies. What we need isn’t a technologist, it’s an interpreter.

    If you were suddenly put in charge of a museum in a foreign nation where no one speaks your native language (slim odds, I know) you wouldn’t hire a linguist to help you lead your museum. You don’t need an engineer to lead your museum into the 21st century either.

    You need someone who understands the cultural changes that are happening now. We frequently think of this as a “technologist” role because the big cultural changes we face right now are all technologically driven. For the first decade or so of the internet-enabled culture we relied on technologists to serve this role because they were the pioneers of this new territory. They were the only people who had any prior experience with what was happening to all of us. But we’re getting to a point now where more and more people are at home in this new territory without having an in depth technical understanding of it.

    What we need in museums, more than technologists leading the show, is young talent. The younger you are the more likely you are to be comfortable in our changing culture. The problem with “technologists”, especially the ones that label themselves as such, is that they tend to have a very narrow focus. They understand the tech. They understand what the tech can do. But they very frequently don’t understand people as well as the leader of a cultural organization needs to. You need someone who understands everything that museum leaders have understood in the past and is a native to this new territory we find ourselves in. We need young museumers and leadership that is open to ideas from outside the traditional hierarchy.

    Don’t get me wrong, we need technologists too. We need people who understand the tech, and those technologists, being sources of expertise, should have some influence in their organizations. But I don’t think that most technologists would really be suited for museum-wide leadership. Most technologists would try to push change forward too quickly (I’m talking about people like me, your mileage may vary), forgetting that not only is the museum still behind the cutting edge, most of the audience hasn’t caught up to their ideas yet either. It’s important to remember that what we consider new technology today will be sewn into the fabric of our everyday lives tomorrow. It’s not the tech we need an understanding of, but the effects of that tech on our culture. We don’t need engineers, scientists and startup CEOs to lead us. We need a bridge between us and the next generation of museums and museum goers. The technologist is just one possible answer to that question.

      1. Excuse my brevity, I’m writing while I’ve got wifi… I think translator is a good term, and it’s something one project I’ve worked on ended up building into the structure.

        But I’d also like to point out that there’s a difference between ‘technologist’ and ‘museum technologist’ – by definition, the latter is a translator who has good knowledge of both domains. I’d written more on it a while ago:

    1. I think you’re right, Matt. This also goes to Seb’s point above, that he doesn’t know any pure technologists in museums who’d want to be running them. So it’s more about having people who are comfortable with the technology but also the other changes that are occurring in society alongside those changes than those who can necessarily do it all themselves. Because it isn’t necessarily about the technology at all, even if that is serving as a catalyst for the change.

      Another of Ed Rodley’s recent posts is probably useful here, in which he talks about the personal and institutional requirements for embracing change. His conclusion is that vision, desire, attitude and focus are what’s needed – and maybe it’s the same in this case? I know when I spent two weeks at MCA Denver last year, I had an absolute sense of Adam Lerner’s vision and focus, which was not at all technologically driven. So although I often meet people whom I think could be great leaders in museum tech circles, it’s not necessarily that they are involved in the tech side of things. It’s more than they present as having great vision, and inspire me to want to work with them and to see what they could do with a museum. And maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s the people who are already leaders that I am responding to – it’s just that I am meeting them in a particular space.

  6. My company, Plein Air Interactive does Web strategy and development for museums, and what we find is that if the leadership at an organization doesn’t spend much time in front of a computing device (which is typical) they often don’t perceive technology problems – or the innovative possibilities.

    This currently puts many museums at a disadvantage. Executive directors with many years of great museum management expeirence – but perhaps lacking in an understanding of technology – need to do their best to trust their IT staffs and consultants to bring their websites up to speed in inventive ways.

    One of the cardinal rules of web is that people spend the majority of their online time on someone else’s site. They bring certain expectations from those sites to yours. Museums must find ways to stay on par or risk eroding their audience.

  7. Rob, thanks for this comment. Very interesting points.

    I think your observation about museum leadership who don’t spend a lot of time in front of a computer is a telling one, and is mirrored across the profession (and no doubt, also other professions too). Frequently I find the people who go home and don’t switch their computers on when they get there are the same ones who have trouble accepting how many people are always connected. They might *know* that the Internet is important, but because it is not reflected in their own priorities, it’s not something that’s built into their way of thinking.

    Also Mia, thanks for linking to your definition. It’s a handy way to consider the differences between a technologist and a museum technologist.

  8. Sorry to dump a link and run, I wanted to problematise the definition of ‘technologist’, and pointing to previous writing on museum technologists as ‘double domain experts’ was the easiest way to go it while leeching wifi from a cafe…

  9. I’ve been troubled by something about this post and it’s left me unable to respond intelligibly until now. I find the whole construction of “museum technologist” a bit troubling because of its vague focus on the technology rather than the goal. Technology is a tool and we use tools to do something, not just for the sake of using a tool. So a “museum technologist” is someone who uses tools to do what? To museum? Is a video producer a museum technologist? A conservator? Both use digital technologies to do museum work, but I don’t think they are the people you or Mia refer to in your posts.

    I’d have a much easier time grokking a job title that actually described the product of a museum technologist’s work. And people might have an easier time seeing that kind of person as a museum director or leader.

    1. For me, ‘museum technologist’ isn’t so much a job title as a career summary – I’ve been a web developer, site producer, experience designer, DBA, systems analyst, etc, but it’s always been in aid of helping museums (and archaeologists) manage their data internally, and publish content or create museum experiences for the public. Most of the work I do is delivered through a screen, regardless of the type of technology that drives it, but for me the focus is always on the ‘museum’ in ‘museum technologist’; technology is the ‘how’, not the ‘what’.

  10. I have to admit when I read the Art Newspaper article you linked, I had one of those “Arrrrrghhhh!” moments because I thought surely the traditional museum leadership model had gone the way of the dinosaur. Don’t get me wrong, I have great admiration for curators but I disagree with the article’s assumption that curators have been overlooked in terms of leadership positions as that has not been my experience in the field.

    I worked in Education and a curator with very limited experience in that area was placed as our Interim Director instead of our most senior Education employee. It was quite a step up professionally and with that designation came access to leadership programs that those of us in the Education Division without curatorial experience couldn’t take advantage of.

    Traditionally, museum leaders often had curatorial backgrounds but that changed when museums decided to take a “for-profit” approach to leadership and tried molding corporate CEOs into museum heads. So it really just seems like another pendulum shift and now we’re expected to again embrace the belief that the path to a leadership position is through the curatorial department.

    To me, a museum technologist is someone who believes that technology should be integrated into everything that a museum does, from low-tech to high, without being regarded merely as an afterthought or a temporary plaything. For me, that person can come from anywhere as long as that attitude is present and be of any age. But unfortunately, those responsible for hiring decisions have a terrible view from the ivory tower and often miss the opportunity to push those people forward.

  11. Seb posted a useful article by Elaine Gurian over at Ed Rodley’s blog on Monday that is actually relevant here too.

    Gurian talks about “classicist” and “inclusionist” museums, but also addresses the individual leaders that work within these institutions. She mentions ‘change agent directors’ who are visionaries surrounded by a passionate coterie (pg 3). This idea of a director who is innovative and working passionately to explore different museum territories rings true to me when considering the questions I’ve asked above. And so maybe the answer becomes yes – that a museum technologist (however fuzzy that term is) can get ahead in museums, but only in particular types of museums. And if that’s the case, then maybe that’s exactly as it should be.


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