Extending the museum narrative

A very quick thought. A friend linked me to a post on Seth Godin’s marketing blog today, and although that post didn’t particularly resonate with me, another one did. In Extending the Narrative, Godin discusses the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.

The socialite walks into the ski shop and buys a $3000 ski jacket she’ll wear once. Why? Not because she’ll stay warmer in it more than a different jacket, but because that’s what someone like her does. It’s part of her story. In fact, it’s easier for her to buy the jacket than it is to change her story.

There might be lessons in this for the discussions we’ve been having lately in museum tech circles about building digital practices into museums at a strategic level… maybe most museums haven’t been building digital in at a strategic level because doing so would threaten their story (ie that museums are about their ‘stuff’). Digital potentially challenges museum authority. It raises questions about why museums do certain things, and those questions are not necessarily easy or comfortable to answer. It is easier to embrace digital at arms length than to really examine what it means at a foundational level for museums, because doing so potentially means changing the narrative of museums.

Godin continues:

It’s painful to even consider giving up the narrative we use to navigate our life. We vividly remember the last time we made an investment that didn’t match our self-story, or the last time we went to the ‘wrong’ restaurant or acted the ‘wrong’ way in a sales call. No, that’s too risky, especially now, in this economy.

So we play it safe and go back to our story.

The truth though, is that doing what you’ve been doing is going to get you what you’ve been getting. If the narrative is getting in the way, if the archetypes you’ve been modeling and the worldview you’ve been nursing no longer match the culture, the economy or your goals, something’s got to give.

It’s something to think about.

8 thoughts on “Extending the museum narrative

  1. If the discussion at the end of the day situates ‘digital’ as a threat to anything, then you’re setting up the wrong equation. Digital is a great enabler in many, many different forms.

    The change isn’t so much the story of museums, but rather the story of visitors and how they’ve changed.

    Begin to think of digital as the way to connect our organizations with this new breed of visitor. There’s no threat to museum authority — if anything, it extends the voice and role of museums even further, they just need to be relevant.

    Here, let’s rewind thirteen years and take a look at the Cluetrain Manifesto, http://www.cluetrain.com/. It is *still* incredibly relevant and frames much of what digital could and should be doing.

  2. Agreed that museum authority is not threatened by digital, and in fact that digital provides real opportunities for building authority in a new context. However, that is not necessarily what the historical narrative of museums would suggest, in which expertise and metanarratives were the source of authority. (I think I expressed this poorly above.) In fact, it is things like the Cluetrain Manifesto that bring those historical narratives of how/why a museum gains authority into question.

    And you are right that the story of visitors, that the narrative of society in fact, has changed. Increased connection alters our expectations of connection and participation etc. So what I am interested in is how the museum takes this into account. How does the museum narrative change, or need to change, to exist in this new context?

  3. Thinking this through further on the ride home, I think my post was both premature (my thoughts responsive, and not yet fully formed), and probably too abstract. But since it was just ‘something to think about’, it’s surely ok that I’ve been doing just that.

    So now I’m wondering if the stories that different museums write about themselves impact upon their digital strategies. Like, does a very community-focussed museum find it easier to invite other voices, because their ‘narrative’ is that they are the centre for that community and therefore need to capture their stories?

    And where do museums write their stories about themselves? In their mission statements, maybe? Certainly that would be their public narrative about themselves.

    The Art Newspaper’s ‘Sixty museums in search of a purpose’ by András Szántó could be useful here. After documenting an Art Basel Conversation examining changing museum missions, Szántó writes:
    “Slowly but surely, it seems museums are handing over some authority to their audiences. The fuzzy, all-over-the-place rhetoric may be masking this transition. It’s possible that museums are trading in one set of self-definitions, involving absolutes and excellence, for another, stressing audience orientation, inclusiveness and interactivity. ”

    Maybe this is how museums do change their narratives, by changing their missions and self-definitions?

    Help me keep thinking this through.

    1. I think using a blog to work out your thinking is the best reason to blog. What did Mia say, “Writing it down makes me do my thinking properly.” or something like that? Keep at it!

      As one who has been with one institution for longer than I can believe (25+yrs) I have witnessed firsthand the effect of that institutional narrative and how it shapes culture. It’s behind the lament of old-timers the world over who remind you “Things were different then…” What they’re usually saying is that they preferred that narrative to the current one. That narrative doesn’t necessarily come from the top, but it comes from someone.

  4. Part of the problem (in my limited experience) is that there seem to be different stories that different parts of the museum tell themselves. Some members of the museum staff see the museum as a fixture of the community and their mission is to engage with and enhance that community. Some members of the museum are like library professionals, their personal narrative is that they share knowledge with the rest of the world as their primary goal. Others see themselves as experts or gatekeepers whose personal narrative is to shape the overall narrative of their particular domain based on their greater-than-average understanding of the source material.

    Some of these narratives are compatible with the direction museums need to move in. Others aren’t even compatible with each other. Before we can examine our narrative, I think we have to decide which one we want to believe in.

    1. Yes, Matt. I think that’s it. My intuitive response, when I read Godin’s post, was that there is an internal inconsistency between the values/narratives of different people who work in the sector. I initially ascribed that difference to one drawn down the line of tech (or maybe of progressives vs traditionalists), but it’s probably far more nuanced than that, because each different area working within museums will have their own narrative about the value of their work and why it’s important, and each different person within those areas will have a slightly different view again.

      So I started this post at a very meta level, talking ‘museums’. But it’s probably addressing something that is focussed to each individual.

      I wonder if this is actually what makes museums so interesting (and quite complicated), is that idea that the different individual motivations between different people *and* different areas hold of the museum can be so radically different. Which is also maybe where leadership becomes important, because if a leader has a strong narrative (or vision) for the museum, then at least staff can begin to work towards something that is internally consistent.

  5. Interesting observation and a particular conundrum for museums. The role of a museum is inherently conservative. Not in a political sense, but quite literally–we conserve and preserve. So far, much of the tech/digital changes we’ve seen has come through marketing. However, museums in general haven’t really found the right fit for digital/social media change that addresses how we can use technology to further our museological role as conservators, educators, and preservationists.

    Art museums use apps–but those apps aren’t much different than what used to go up on the gallery walls–image and textual analysis. Science centers have taken the hands on experiments in their ed rooms and turned these into interactive apps, but the concept is fundamentally the same as before. When will we allow crowdsourcing to co-exist with the authoritative voice of the curated exhibit? At what resolution will the art image be equal to that of the original–and will that change the need to see/display the original? Will historic sites ever figure out how to combine interpreter led tours with mobile multi-media?

  6. Ed, your point that institutional narrative is not necessarily written by the leadership is an interesting one, as is M.A. Lord’s observation that the museum is inherently conservative due to its role as a conserving institution. So to some extent, what we have, then is multiple layers of museum narrative. We have the meta-narrative, the historical museum narrative of what a museum-as-concept is; we then also have the institutional narrative, in which individual museums define their own roles (which might be related to a leader’s vision, but isn’t necessarily); and then finally, there are the individual narratives within the museum, in which people situate their own jobs and identities.

    So rewriting these narratives as the cultural context changes is hugely complex. How does a museum maintain its identity whilst taking on different roles, or acting differently within a social context?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s