Social media + the shifting pace of museum discourse

Ed Rodley has just started the coolest museum blogging project I’ve come across lately. He is asking the museum/blog community to imagine making a museum from scratch.

I thought it would be a fun thought experiment to build a new museum, one with no baggage, no legacy systems, no entrenched staff of Generation ___ who need to understand ____.  If you were going to build a museum in 2012, what would it look like? How would it be organized? Who would work there and what would their work lives be like? Want to play along?

The first post is only a few hours old, but already it is bringing to the surface some interesting questions. If somehow you read my blog and don’t already follow Ed’s, I suggest you head over there right now.

This concept of co-building or co-creating an idea-museum together in this way really brings home to me just how powerful social media can be for encouraging really engaged discourse that can reshape our sector in a very fast and dynamic way. Right now, after reading Ed’s post, all I want to do is think about my first steps in making a museum. Those questions and ideas are sure to stick with me for days at the least, and likely much longer. And in response, I am participating in Ed’s discussions, and additionally starting my own over here. And all it takes is a few more people doing the same, and the entire discourse of the field starts to shift.

In the pre-Internet days, new ideas must have taken so much longer to filter through and be engaged with. Print media and conferences would still have allowed new ideas to flourish, but the call-and-response must surely have taken more time. I am curious about what that meant for museums, then, and the way the sector was reshaped through conversation.

The theme for INTERCOM 2012 is #museumchallenges. The brief starts with this statement:

Museums have always operated in times of change, yet the challenges and pace of change over the last five years has been unprecedented. Globalisation, environmental issues and climate change, relationships with Indigenous and creator communities, diversity of audiences, different employee mindsets, new skill sets, new media and technologies and the global financial crisis, have placed increasing pressure on the ways museums are managed and led.

I wonder if it’s not so much that the pace of change has altered, but the pace at which that change is communicated internationally via blogs, Twitter, video-streaming etc. Is it simply that the discourse can now shift within a matter of days, whereas previously it would have taken far longer? Is social media then creating an illusion of unprecedented change, or is it in fact a contributor to that change? And do you think a new museum theorist could be truly impactful on the sector these days without participating in social media?

Social media has been implicated in political revolutions. To what extent do you think it is playing a role in museum revolutions?

7 thoughts on “Social media + the shifting pace of museum discourse

  1. Hi, I do agree that the pace of discussion about museums and their future has sped up enormously, especially for those on social media. But there’s the rub. I am writing from the perspective of someone who has been in the field for many years and who sees that her contemporaries(who are senior administrators, museum management consultants, etc) are not yet involved to any great extent in social media. So,in answer to your question about whether a new museum theorist could be truly impactful on the sector without participating in social media, I would say – in the short term, yes, because so many of the people managing the money and making the long range plans for museums are still not on social media, so they are listening to others using traditional forms of communication and influence. The discussions on social media, which I find extremely interesting, innovative, and incredibly fast paced – are to my mind going on among very creative and dedicated people who are (mostly) not yet in a position to direct and implement change. But in the long term, I think those who use and understand social media and its possible impacts will become more influential, and museum authorities who remain ignorant of the power of social media do so at their peril.

    1. Gretchen, thank you for your reply. I wonder now, in reading your comment, whether the active discussions taking place on social media are simply the pitching ground for ideas. Ideas that have a real stickiness to them are then built upon and refined before finally making their way into the mainstream. The pace of the discourse at this end of the field is in part because of the responsiveness of social media, then, but also because people are testing out ideas that may or may not take.

      Realistically, then, senior administrators etc probably don’t need to be a part of this conversation, because they want the ideas that have filtered up from this melting pot. In some ways, then, this speaks to Matt’s comment too. Maybe it’s actually useful for many of those in charge of the strategic direction of the museum to stay slightly removed from the active conversation at the periphery, so that they aren’t distracted by mere flutters whilst trying to work on long-term strategic plans. What do you think?

      1. Hi, Suse, probably timewise senior administrators don’t need to be on social media constantly, but they should certainly have a key assistant who is following the flow of ideas on Twitter and on key museum blogs and feeding that information to them. Additionally, I think senior administrators do need to be on social media selectively – maybe they follow just one museum blog and only check Twitter once a day and follow just a few people. I say this becauseI think without actually having a Twitter account and following a blog or two it is difficult to know first hand the impact and the viral nature of social media. I don’t think it can really be explained; it has to be experienced. I’ve written more about this on Museum Commons where I think many of my readers are in my demographic.

      2. Ok, I was just reading Richard Hamming’s “You and Your Research” Talk at Bellcore, 7 March 1986 – It’s about what kind of researchers go on to great research. This paragraph stood out:

        “Another trait, it took me a while to notice. I noticed the following facts about people who work with the door open or the door closed. I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don’t know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important. Now I cannot prove the cause and effect sequence because you might say, “The closed door is symbolic of a closed mind.” I don’t know. But I can say there is a pretty good correlation between those who work with the doors open and those who ultimately do important things, although people who work with doors closed often work harder. Somehow they seem to work on slightly the wrong thing – not much, but enough that they miss fame.”

        I guess we are talking about similar things – senior administrators (and everyone else) who have a closed door policy for new ideas vs. those whose minds and ideas are open and exploratory. It is probably harder to balance the open door/mind approach to social media with other work, but is important for staying informed and responsive. Yes?

      3. BTW – I like your idea of senior administrators having a key assistant who “curates” the most important social media ideas for them. It’s a brilliant and simple way to stay up-to-date with the discourse, without having to become drenched in potentially disruptive ideas.

  2. I think it’s more a matter of accountability. I’ve worked in organizations that were not terribly well-networked and it’s easy to say “I know this process isn’t ideal, but there are more important things to worry about right now. I’ll fix it tomorrow (next week, next month, next year, whatever).” When everything is visible to more people, any process that seems to lack efficacy is questioned much more often by many more people. It’s harder to ignore the little things because people keep mentioning them now. You’re less tempted to procrastinate considering these things because you just want people to get off your case about it.

    I think we’re being forced to work harder and work on more little things all at once than we’re used to (this applies to everyone, not just museums). Social media is great for communication and exchanging ideas, but it’s also turned out to be a terrible nag. Our methods for prioritizing our actions haven’t fully adapted yet. Before social media it seemed like a good idea to reactively prioritize whatever projects were in the public eye because there were never very many of those happening all at once. Now that everything is in the public eye a lot of people are starting to feel like all they do is put out little fires with no strategic planning or forethought. In some ways we feel more effective because we’re fixing things and more things than anyone has ever fixed this quickly before. But in other ways we’re getting a lot fewer of our long-term goals taken care of because we’re spending so much time reacting to what’s on facebook or twitter right now.

    I think we haven’t got used to the idea that being transparent really means showing that not everything is perfect all the time. Even though most of logically understand that, we’re still not internalizing that knowledge in an instinctive way. Part of us wants to address next what it was we were talking about last because it suddenly seems like the most important thing in the world (because people are talking about it), rather than take the long view and realize that we still have to pursue a strategic plan to be at our most effective. Our impulses are driving us to a near-panicked state while our intellect is trying to make a ten-year plan.

    We’re still trying to figure out a way to counterbalance these forces effectively.

  3. Suse, you bring up some interesting points here (as do the other commenters). I’m fascinated by the idea of “the pace at which change is communicated” or maybe even more the format through which change is communicated. Social media, blogs, and online ways of communicating are obviously faster — and I think have a much larger audience — but they have been placed low on the hierarchy of communicating to colleagues/peers and leaders in the field. Recently, I talked to a colleague who had an urgent issue she had become passionate about, and she was psyched to write an article for a peer-reviewed journal. And I said, “that’s great, but it will be more than a year until your idea surfaces, and very few will actually read it — what if you publish a shorter version on a blog, and use social media to get your message our RIGHT NOW to a wider, interested audience,” and communicate change at a faster pace. [she might be doing both — which is a step in the right direction]

    I think a lot of ideas surfacing through social media are “sticky” and much fresher because they have not been vetted or ‘made their way to the mainstream.’ And I also think that a savvy, creative, innovative museum leader/senior admin should be tapped into this side of museum thinking (there are some of them out there). There is a whole crowdsourced sensibility to the flutters out here on Twitter, blogs, and Facebook, and some really interesting and surprising stuff bubbles to the surface on an almost weekly basis.

    So when will upper management in museums embrace social media for their own professional use (not just institutional use)? I think we’ll pass this moment sometime soon … no?

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