MW2012 + breaking musetech conversations out of the bubble

The other day, when following up on the responses to misconceptions about museum technologists, I happened upon on a 2009 post by Nina Simon regarding what she termed the ‘participatory ghetto’. She wrote (emphasis mine):

…In most museums, technologists are still seen as service providers, not experience developers. They live in well-defined (and self-protected) silos. There are stereotypes flying in many directions—that curators won’t give up authority, that technologists don’t respect traditional museum practice, that educators are too preachy, that marketers just want to get more live bodies in the door.

How are we going to bridge this divide? Many of the technologists I met at Museums and the Web never go to regional or national museum conferences. When I asked why, people said, “no one there understand what we’re doing,” or “it just reminds me of how far behind the rest of this field is.” I understand the desire to learn from and spend time with people in your part of the field, but I was surprised at the extent to which people had no interest in cross-industry discussions. I’m teaching a graduate course at University of Washington right now on social technology and museums. Four of my students were at Museums and the Web. None are attending AAM (the American Association of Museums). They don’t see it as relevant to their future careers. This worries me.

We need to do a lot more talking across the aisle, working hard to adapt our specialized vocabularies to a common discussion about institutional mission and change.

So after attending MW three years ago, Simon’s takeaway was that people in musetech had no interest in cross-industry discussions. This is precisely opposite the sentiment I’ve been picking up on lately, as right now this question seems to be at the heart of what many musetech people are interested in. How do we bridge the divide and communicate the value of what we do to the museum community more broadly?

In the comments on misconceptions about museum technologists, Bruce Wyman offered this thought:

Technologists need to leave their home turf and talk to other disciplines in their language and with their needs in mind. They need to show understand of the goals and how to improve those *specific* core needs not only through technology but also the overall program.

This could be an interesting unconference discussion for Museums and the Web 2012 (this week!). What can we – as individuals and a sector – do right now to start bridging the divide between musetech and the rest of the museum?

I’d really love to explore this idea whilst at the conference this week, so if you are at MW2012, come and find me. I am giving a demonstration on Saturday (although I am demonstrating a conceptual art piece, so there isn’t all that much to see… this means it’s a good opportunity to work through the ideas behind the project, and seeing where such conversations might lead.). Otherwise I am likely to be around where ever there is karaoke or good conversation.

How can we break museum technology conversations out of the bubble? How can we as musetech professionals become better translators, and better speak the language that others in the field are using?

I’d love your thoughts.

3 thoughts on “MW2012 + breaking musetech conversations out of the bubble

  1. Hi Suse-

    I would love to meet you at Museums and the Web (I’m part of one of the Wednesday workshops on metrics), and will try and drop by your conceptual art demonstration if it’s not too close to my departure flight.

    I think that the Nina Simon quote from above highlights a hugely important point, “In most museums, technologists are still seen as service providers, not experience developers.” One thing that I’ve found working in an Archives versus a museum is that there are fewer traditional types of museum hierarchies about who can create content. First of all, since we don’t create physical exhibitions in our space, that means that the web is the main place for our Archives to showcase content. Our Web and New Media team is in charge of developing interesting content, and we work directly with the subject matter experts–our archivists and historians–to do so. I think because none of us are the traditional content makers in museums (typically an archivist is there to help others do their research, not necessarily to do their own), my particular organization has been open to technologists leading the way with content creation.

    I also think that as part of a younger (i.e. 20-something) group of museum employees coming up in the field, I’ve noticed more and more young museum folks, like me, have both curatorial backgrounds and strong web/technology comfort. As the curatorial world and the web/tech world come closer and closer together in this way, I think “techies” will be more inclined and more respected as content creators and “experience developers.”

    1. This is really interesting to hear. I am sure you are right about the way things will develop as well. To some extent, I sometimes wonder if the questions I spend time asking and thinking about are just things that are/will happen naturally through time and necessity. And really, that probably is the case. But then, museums are a funny mix of tradition and progression, and it’s likely the tension between the two that leads to the very interesting questions.

      Having said that, I’m curious about what messages people will take home from MW. Will it be the easy-to-quantify examples of how different institutions are using tech, or the broader discussions that we are having in the field? Ideally it will be both, but papers like Rob Stein’s blow up your digital strategy pique my interest in these things.

      Meanwhile, I would love to meet up! Tweet me and we’ll make sure to find a time.

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