Do museum staff have the right to be offline?

There have been a number of interesting and important discussions taking place around the ‘Net in the follow up to Museum and the Web, and hopefully over the coming week or two we’ll get to explore a few of them. One post that I keep coming back to, however, is Koven Smith’s Leave tech in the conversation, in which he writes:

Technology (or, as I’ve said before, the set of practices and materials we currently define as “technology”) is the lingua franca of the world in which we now live. Museums resist acknowledging this at their peril. Any moment in which a curator/educator/director/CFO/whomever is allowed to continue to be ignorant of how a given pervasive technology works is just pushing your institution’s adaptation further down that timeline. Any method of working in which ignorance is allowed to persist is one that is, frankly, suicidal for institutions that are trying to figure out what their place is in this new world.

Not long after reading Koven’s post, I came across a post by Kate Carruthers, meditating on organisational changes surrounding technology, in which she asks about workers and their right to be offline in the new technological environment. It is with this question in mind that I want to address Koven’s post.

If we accept Koven’s proposition that technology is the lingua franca of the world in which we now live, and that a failure to accept this and act accordingly is suicidal, two questions emerge. The first is about institutions and whether they have the right to be offline. For me, this seems pretty clear cut. Not every institution in the world needs to be, or even should be, online. Small, specialist (volunteer-run) museums with a limited and clearly defined local audience may gain little-to-nothing from being online. For some of these museums, the cost in resources to be online will be far more than the benefit of doing so… joining a project like the Museum Metadata Exchange might be enough to satisfy the urge to digitally document the museum’s collection. The choice not to be online might threaten the longevity of that institution, but in some cases that might be ok and even appropriate (do all museums have the right or need to live on indefinitely?).*

But what about the people who work within institutions? Do museum employees have a right to be offline? Can they refuse to participate in an institution’s online engagement? Should they be able to? In Carruther’s case, she was thinking through the implications of our 24×7 social media culture, but I wonder if the question doesn’t extend beyond this into issues of digital engagement more generally. Can a curator refuse to participate in blogging? Can someone who has chosen not to participate in social media in their personal life similarly opt-out at work? Conversely, can an institution force someone to start a social media account if they have chosen not to do so previously for personal reasons?

Vickie Riley, a commenter on Koven’s post, writes:

I don’t know how it works in other museums but in mine, the curator calls the shots. I don’t. For me to expect that he’s going to embrace what I do is a bit naive.

I genuinely don’t know what I think about this. On one hand, if (for instance) a museum educator’s job description did not explicitly indicate that they would need to hold or develop digital skills, then surely they are absolutely at liberty to refuse to do online work (maybe by passing it off to another staff member?). But equally, the context of museum work has changed and is changing. Failure to engage online can impact not only the individual and their own career prospects, but also the museum’s ability to innovate and stay relevant online, and therefore an individual’s refusal to take part in online engagement could have greater implications than simply the personal. So, do museum employees have the right to be offline?

In the comments of Koven’s post, he writes:

…a big part of the problem is that many museum position descriptions haven’t evolved with the times. There are exceptions to this, obviously, but I can’t think of many curatorial job postings that begin with “please send a resume and link to your personal blog.” I fear that until this changes, we continue to send the signal that it’s okay to not speak this language.

This seems to be at the crux of the issue. As noted in the 2010 NCM Horizon Report – Museum Edition, audience expectations of museums online are changing, particularly with regard to “online access to services and information.” In the musetech world, too, our expectations of other staff and the way they should be engaging are also changing. But these desires are not necessarily being reflected in institutional position descriptions. And if those job descriptions are not specifically asking for applicants to be digitally competent, is it fair for those of us working in museum technology to expect that they will take on such duties? Realistically, it’s probably not. But how do we move forward from this?

Do you think that museum staff whose job descriptions did not specifically call for digital skills should have the right to stay offline? Have digital competencies started to become a core requirement of jobs at your institution? Do you think they should be? For which positions?

*(nb, I wonder whether this becomes any less clear cut if the question is whether public institutions have the right to be offline?)

20 thoughts on “Do museum staff have the right to be offline?

  1. I’m going to argue that technology is the red herring here. *Everyone* on staff should be working towards the betterment of the organization. For some, that’ll be creating new scholarly work, for others, that’ll be improving the visitor experience. To each, their own skills, with a constant awareness that the broader your skills are to the organization with one or two deep specializations, the more valuable you are to the organization.

    To your question of social media — ask yourself the more fundamental question. Does the organization like to engage in conversations? If so, then start to push social media as part of the overall digital presence. Some will be better than others and those that naturally resonate should be the amplifiers.

    This doesn’t argue for ignorance on the other end, where we keep discussing these notions as a zero-sum conversation, that it’s either do this or nothing. Awareness? Some understanding? Yes, absolutely, because they are part of the modern culture. In the same way that I’m not worried about showing you how to use pen and paper, I’m assuming that you have a grasp of basic tools of technology.

    Here’s a real-life example: At a museum where I used to work, one of the curators was vehemently opposed to being on the all-staff mailing list. He had no interest and felt the topics were frequently irrelevant to him. Some truth perhaps, but I also refused to take him off the distribution. My argument was that it was a standard form of communication in the org and our single best method of fast, immediate information to most people. Use, year over year, was increasing for important communications. We argued at length, and he eventually brought the argument to the Director of the organization who concurred with my assessment.

    At the same time, while we clamor that people need to understand digital, I still ask how often digital-folk are making the efforts to engage to the same level as other parts of the organization. If the lingua franca of your organization is art or education or science, how long can you include that as part of a core requirement of your digital position?

    1. Thanks for this, Bruce. I think your last paragraph is really important and reflects some of what was discussed in my unconference session at MW2012, where it was suggested that digital-folk should regularly attend curator talks etc within their institution.

  2. Great post, Suse (and thanks for the blogg-y love). I think we need to be careful with lumping “digital literacy” (which I consider critical for all staff members) in with “being online” (which I consider critical for many staff members), while at the same time being similarly careful about lumping all staff in together and insisting that they work in similar ways.

    To the former concern, I would say that digital literacy is critical, regardless of the size of an institution or the scope of its program. If you’re the sole staff member at a historical society, the hours a day you spend balancing your books by hand rather than using readily available digital tools are hours that aren’t going to maintaining exhibits or doing research. So in a case like that, a lack of digital literacy creates serious inefficiencies that have little or nothing to do with actually “being online” per se.

    To the second concern, I would say that staff members whose job descriptions don’t specifically call for external communication are exempt from having to “be online” in an official capacity. Even though I run a technology department, there are several positions on my team for which online engagement is not a requirement. But just about anyone from an institution that communicates with the public needs to understand these tools. If your job is researching and writing books, you need to know how (and be willing) to blog. If your job is writing press releases, you’d better understand how Twitter works.

    1. You are absolutely right, Koven. This line of questioning really is about public facing staff. The reason I asked which positions needed to include digital is because there are many that probably still don’t – and may never. Your installation team probably doesn’t need to know how to blog, for instance (although I love the example set by the Medical Museion in Copenhagen, where every member of staff blogs

  3. Does a museum staff member have the right to be offline? It depends on how the museum positions itself.
    Is the museum’s mission to work together with their audience in their area of expertise?
    Is part of the staff member’s role is to fulfil this objective?
    Has a decision been made to do this engagement online? Perhaps the engagement could be done in some other way such as onsite meet-ups or newsletters?
    If the engagement is to be online, then individual staff member can expected to do this. Their job description and the support they are given should reflect that, and the personality and the skills of the person need to be fit for the task. I can’t see how forcing a staff member to be active online when they don’t have the right personality or skills is going to be good for anyone involved.

  4. I feel that the opposite is usually true where I work: I would love to be more involved with the social media/blogging efforts but only a select few invitations to contribute are dispersed.

    1. Take this article (and the ones preceding it here and elsewhere) and show them to your communications/marketing team. It’s one thing to not want to force people to engage with the public (and probably a good thing since people who are forced to engage with the public rarely do it very well). It’s another thing entirely to prevent people who actively want to engage with the public from doing so. Anyone who wants to share some part of the museum’s mission with others should really be given as much encouragement (and guidance if necessary) as possible.

    2. Sara, do you know why only selected people are invited to participate in social media in your institution? Is there a fear controlling the museum’s social media presence? Or does the museum want to develop specific and particular voices? It would be really interesting to discover what the thinking is behind this.

      I know in some institutions, social media still probably comes with a level of uncertainty, so maybe there is a sense of trying to establish boundaries at this stage?

  5. There are some great points here and thank you Suse for the topic. My point above is simply that we are about the art first at the museum. Technology is there to support education about that art and its my job to support what the curator does. If technology doesn’t have a purpose that supports the art it shouldn’t be there. I know this is an unpopular opinion but I don’t think technology needs to be everywhere. Many folks come to a museum to get away from “a screen”. It may simply be that we in the muse tech world seem to focus on the tech part and a bit less on the muse part. That’s what I mean by meeting the curator where they are in our previous discussion on taking out/leaving tech in the conversation. Personally I’ve found I learn a lot when I stop pushing tech and I just listen to what their focus is and what their ideas are. What comes out of that dialogue is a very rewarding collaboration.

    Koven makes a great point about being careful about lumping “digital literacy” in with being online. Staff should have some understanding about technology,( that would make the Help Desk folks a lot happier too) but part of the reason why we are great at what we do, is because we hired people who excel at their specific job. It’s very similar to putting a film crew together, it’s the sum of the parts that make it work.

    I also agree with Paul, that there is a nuance to social media (that you all have mastered by the way) and not everyone has the right personality or skill set for it.

    Bruce also makes a great point in asking the fundamental question of does the organization want to engage in conversations? We have been very hesitant at the museum to engage in Social Media for several reasons many of which boil down to it’s purpose and where it falls in our never ending list of priorities but we DO engage in many other ways through events, and education.

    Thanks again Suse and the rest of you for your input on this.

  6. ” Not every institution in the world needs to be, or even should be, online. Small, specialist (volunteer-run) museums with a limited and clearly defined local audience may gain little-to-nothing from being online.”

    I disagree. Online can take many forms and every museum, especially small and specialist ones need to be online to be found. This is the basics like listing yourself in search engines, yellow pages, museum directories, tourism websites and specialist sites. It doesn’t need to mean blogging, Facebook and Twitter or any of the other high profile stuff we normally talk about. Digital literacy is just part of being in the modern world we live in.

    1. I agree with you completely. Often smaller institutions have more to gain from being online than larger institutions. Personally speaking I’ve gone out of my way a number of times to visit smaller museums because I’ve heard about them online. A local audience can only provide a finite number of visits each year, being online increases the chance of drawing interest from a wider audience.

    2. I am so glad someone chose to take up this part of the debate. I absolutely agree that small institutions can benefit hugely from being online. And you are right, probably all institutions should be findable in some basic form (as you say, search engines, yellow pages). But not all institutions need more than that, do they?

      Ryan, your point that being online increases the chance of drawing interest from a wider audience is an interesting. I wonder if that could actually be problematic for some very small institutions, who might not be set up to cope with an increase in numbers. I am obviously talking about very little institutions here, but for some, an increase in profile could also bring with it issues associated with staffing or security etc. What do you think?

  7. I am really enjoying this exchange and glad to detect a current of skepticism about the way the debate is being framed, almost like a new orthodoxy “Thou shalt be online!” Like our visitors, staff will vote with their feet: if they see a value in being digitally literate or using technology, they will. If they are conscientious employees and the museum leadership has articulated the organization’s goals and priorities such that social media or any other technology is a useful tool, then they’ll see the value. If they are not conscientious, and/or don’t see the value because the argument hasn’t been well made (or indeed if the organization’s mission requires different tools and tactics entirely), then no amount of rules or mandates for digital involvement will work. I believe in carrots and treating people with respect as a first attempt before pink slips, anyway!

    But to answer Suse’s question, the job descriptions should support the organization’s mission. Increasingly the mission will probably require digital literacy; it’s hard to imagine, but maybe not. Let’s please just not repopulate the same structure of power with different people in charge (the digerati instead of the ‘old guard’, whoever they may be): let’s change the system radically so that the change will be sustainable and not just one more in a series of coups d’état!

    1. Your last sentence is really important. And it’s important to always be mindful of that in every discussion we have and every decision we make. I don’t know how many people here have heard about the Valve Software employee handbook that somehow got out onto the web last week. It’s a pretty mind-blowing read and describes a completely hierarchy-free workplace that sounds like some kind of mythological paradise of self-directed, talented employees in charge of their own destiny (I really recommend reading it, it’s kind of inspiring.

      It’s a very extreme way to reorganize an organization, but it seems to be working for them. I don’t think I would recommend going that far in most museums, but it provides a lot of food for thought and certainly stands as a stark contrast to what we normally experience. I think one of the problems among the technologically literate is that we tend to assume that the tech is the solution to organizational problems. There is a strong tendency to believe that once the new systems are in place, a new workplace culture will emerge organically to replace the old one and everything will be better and happier almost automatically. We tend to think that things like Valve’s corporate culture or the Arab Spring are just natural growths of a digital age, all the while ignoring the enormous amount of planning that went into designing that company or the many years of previous history that led to those events.

      We also tend to make assumptions about what is or is not obvious to other people. “Well, of course we need a new digital asset management system to replace our broken system of shared directories on a file server,” we say. It seems obvious to us that such a tool is necessary and advantageous, but we don’t always recognize that most of the people in our organization have no idea what we’re talking about or why it’s important. If we don’t communicate that to them, the new system will end up being just as broken as the old system because the old broken habits will still be employed in its use.

      We’re not very good at explaining ourselves sometimes. We take for granted the base assumptions that drive our decisions and forget that not everyone is on the same page. If we’re not careful, we will just create a new form of broken hierarchy rather than the nearly inconceivable paradise that was very consciously designed and built at Valve. And for people who are used to those hierarchies in traditional organizations, it’s even harder to imagine what else could be created in their place. It’s only natural for them to assume that the IT dept is making some kind of power play because why would they suspect otherwise?

      In the end, it’s all about communication.

  8. There is a great conversation here about who in the museum should be online. As an educator can I say that I think the real problem here is lack of education (not about basic digital literacy but about things like twitter and blogging). I think a major obstacle for those people who aren’t online who perhaps should be is an issue of ignorance of how to use technology. It could be as simple as the twitter glossary and a few examples of when and how to use different types of social media. Technology can be very intimidating! It seems most people involved in technology are self-starters who are adept at teaching themselves skills needed to keep up with the fast pace. Perhaps others in the museum world who are used to guided learning just need a helping hand. Has anyone tried running a workshop for their museum colleagues to educate them on social media? I know it’s been argued that this isn’t tech’s job but maybe you could teach a couple people in education and we could take it from there? Or if you win over a few people (digital evangelists) in each department they may be able to educate the rest of their colleagues.

  9. I consider myself to be quite old fashioned, perhaps conservative, when it comes to curatorial and collection issues. This isn’t the position I’d thought I’d have coming through Museum Studies, expecting to be part of an exciting tech-savvy generation of curators and collection managers. I even began my career with an IT qualification before I professionally set foot in a museum. Unfortunately the responsibilities that I value most in my practice often come in conflict with online obligations.

    I really struggle these days between two competing positions, between a conservative old fashioned world that sees social media in particular as a frivolity and a new generation of communicators who see it as an essential tool.

    While ignorance of today’s technological ‘lingua franca’ is certainly a peril in the long run, I find the indifference that many colleagues display towards technology to be beneficial and even refreshing. It forces me to be clear about my relationship with it.

    1. Paul, I think the struggle between competing positions is why this is such a rich area for discussion. The changes in society are so new, we don’t yet know what they can or will mean. Even the question of whether social media is merely a frivolity isn’t an entirely silly one. They might be right. Maybe the depth of change that some of us at this end of the field imagine is not going to take place (although arguably, with its impacts on the economy, politics, interpersonal relationships, employment and so forth, the evidence is starting to stack up). But the thing is, we just don’t yet know. So the cynicism and a sort of willful blindness is absolutely understandable, and even reasonable.

      Above, Nancy mentions the way digital is becoming almost “a new orthodoxy”, and I do think we have to be careful to continue to ask questions about the why, and not just the how of technology. And we also need to make room for those divergent opinions from our own, because it’s there in the gaps between the two that the truth is likely to fall, at least in the meantime.

  10. The question might be too general. I think it’s a bit like asking if zoo staff have a right not to work with snakes–it depends on what kind of staff we’re talking about, but somebody needs to take care of the snakes. People might ask for the “right” to be offline for very different reasons–some valid and some not.

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