Guest post: Making the Museum Publishing Band

A couple of weeks ago, I was captivated by Liz Neely’s Tweets from the National Museum Publishing Seminar in the USA. The conference sounded really interesting, and so I asked her to do a quick write-up for museumgeek. The resulting post is much more than that. Calling in two co-authors, this post explores museum publishing through a pretty rock’n’roll perspective. Enjoy. 

Making the Museum Publishing Band

Liz Neely
, Katie Reilly and Sarah Guernsey

Quite randomly, the National Museum Publishing Seminar, held June 21-23, holds the distinction of being a band reunion of sorts for us. Back about 8 years ago, the three of us shared stages and practice spaces.

We all worked at the Art Institute of Chicago—Liz in technology and Katie and Sarah in Publications—but we rarely actually worked together. In that large museum and at that time, our worlds infrequently overlapped. But as a band, we were particularly collaborative—we all wrote songs, we all sang, and there isn’t a tune that doesn’t have harmonies or some kind of backing vocal. One of us would bring a song to the group and we would all start tinkering with the idea, adding parts, experimenting, iterating, reviewing and building the song. We had to be comfortable accepting and responding to critique. We made songs; we booked shows; we made T-shirts and burned CDs—we never practiced enough, but we created something together that we loved. In the best of cases, the song transcended the sum of our individual parts. These songs, this accumulation of voices, formed the identity of the band.

Katie, Sarah and Liz, circa 2004.

Seeing each other again at the MPS got each of us thinking about the band again, not just nostalgically, but because in some odd sense it captured the spirit of this year’s conference. The theme was “The Voice of the Museum,” and both the roster of attendees and the agenda reflected that the profession of museum publishing is changing profoundly. No longer a forum only for professionals in publishing departments and their distributors, the conference encompassed digital and social media interlopers (bringing Katie, Sarah, and Liz together at a conference for the first time). Centered around a wider dialogue about publishing as a key and central feature to a museum’s identity formation, the gathering recognized the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of our work.

Some museums have already implemented this wider definition of publishing by centralizing efforts among various publishing silos, such as the Walker, or by centralizing budgets with cross-departmental committees, such as MoMA. Paul Schmelzer, Web Editor at the Walker, stated, “the Walker is one voice comprised of many.” In thinking about ‘voice’ as a concept, it’s important to recognize that each individual ‘voice’ is not a static set variable. This is what keeps our institutions evolving and alive—but also why strong vision and leadership remains paramount in keeping efforts moving in the same direction. Both Schmelzer and, in a later panel, Kristi McGuire from the U of C Press emphasized a move from using digital communications strictly for promotion to creating a content model that emphasizes and supports the institution’s personality. McGuire reported that since transitioning from a publicity-focused blog to something more editorial, the traffic has tripled.

How do we harness each person’s contribution to create amazing publications across all platforms? As the definition of publishing gets wider and the channels more complicated, we must harness the contributions of a larger set of talents and expertise in a truly collaborative manner. Robert Weisberg called for a “content launch instead of a book launch” to set up communication early in the planning process among publishing, digital media, marketing, and distribution stakeholders. Stakeholders need to build from the strengths of other collaborators. Publishers should iterate and be experimental like a technologist while developing an appetite for risk. Dan Sinker, the keynote speaker at the conference, who has has built a career at the intersection of a DIY punk aesthetic and technological savvy, particularly spoke to this need. He noted that so many developers and tech people he meets nowadays he discovers he knew back in the ’90s punk scene—making music, publishing zines, setting up record labels. They were people who made things that were ephemeral and constantly evolving yet important and rich. Technologists could learn from the organized workflow planning  and strategizing that publishers have honed. Kara Kirk pointed out that publications departments should be comfortable slowing things down appropriately. “Everyone wants to have their foot on the gas, but it’s not fun to not have brakes.”

The emerging role of the ‘publishing technologist’ is analogous to that of the editor.  Kate Steinmann defined the editor role with the following keywords “Ally, Advisor, Mentor, Magician, Meddler, Diplomat.” These are the qualities that a technologist also needs to take on in collaboratively helping the author best reach his or her vision. Editors, for their part, need to embrace an iterative approach to publishing, to balance their deeply rooted desire for perfection—for authoritativeness—with the realities and opportunities of new media.

We’d like to suggest that we approach museum publishing strategy as a collaborative creative process. Should we start a publishing band at the museum? How big is the band and what instruments do we need? Depending on the project, do stakeholders play collaborative vs. supporting roles? Are there project leads? Do we have enough roadies, sound guys, and photographers to pull it off? Do we want to attain the rough-hewn simplicity of the Ramones or insist on the polish of Steely Dan? Instead of viewing new challenges and uncertain roles with anxiety, can we see it as writing a new song?

Channeling Richard Holland from Bad at Sports: “Don’t be boring!” We should not continue doing things because that’s what’s always been done. There is an urgency and an opportunity to transform our processes in a way that creatively and effectively supports dialogue with our audiences across print and digital platforms. If we don’t grab a hold of it, we—both technologists and traditional publishers alike—will all be marginalized.

Visit the Museum Digital Publishing Bliki (a blog + wiki) to discuss museum publishing.

museumgeek: What do you think? Can museum publishing strategies be a collaborative creative process, as Liz, Katie and Sarah suggest? How would this idea work in your museum? 

10 thoughts on “Guest post: Making the Museum Publishing Band

  1. I think it can (and has to) happen. But it will happen slowly. A huge step includes recognizing that the editorial role is evolving, that an editor is so much more than a wordsmith. I love this description:
    “The emerging role of the ‘publishing technologist’ is analogous to that of the editor. Kate Steinmann defined the editor role with the following keywords “Ally, Advisor, Mentor, Magician, Meddler, Diplomat.”
    It’s so true.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Susan. I also really loved Kate’s definition because it positions the editor as an essential collaborator and contributor as opposed to how it may be seen as more of a supporter role. I extend this idea into the need for a larger team of collaborators including digital media technologists. Certainly there are plenty of solo artists who hire supporting studio musicians. But, I believe museum publishing, and perhaps publishing in general, benefits from the talents of a group to best address the evolving nature of possibilities and complexities in authoring, logistics, distribution, etc. For this approach to succeed, content authors need to understand and buy into the advantages of a shared creative process.

  2. Yes, I do think it is possible. A colleague and I from CHNM proposed a session for MCN2012 to build museum-based publications–using feeds and some WP plugins, I think–that would allow GLAMs to collaborate with their communities on special topics by pulling in posts and contributions from interested parties and then make that new aggregated piece available on the museum’s site and/or elsewhere in multiple formats. We’ll see what happens.

    1. Hi Sheila,

      That sounds fascinating! I think this changing relationship between GLAMs and their communities was brilliantly reflected in the new website—with content from sources outside of the museum interacting with museum articles and ideas. In the case of the Walker, there are web editors and writers involved—so I’m curious if in your idea is more purely crowd generated?

      On the topic of creative collaboration-I also think there’s a whole angle for cross-pollinating with artists and interactive programmers especially in approaching our digital-publications. Done flawlessly, this could make for very engaging responses to museum exhibition and collection information.

      We’re finalizing the MCN list and you’ll hear from us very soon-just working out the technical logistics at this point.

      Thanks, Liz

      1. I agree with you Liz about the Walker’s site.There is no reason to ignore content and “news” created from outside of the museum if it is relevant to your community.

        I do think that if you’re going to crowdsource, you need to designate someone who takes charge. But, the institution could provide the infrastructure, in this case perhaps server space or domain name, but the editing could certainly be done with multiple authors, editors, collaborators.

        I think there are different reasons for developing these type of publications, one could be for generating conference proceedings–like for MCN–where folks post their slides, outlines, talking points on their own blog and then someone pulls in the feeds from those digital spaces into one place to aggregate those things into one PDF or ePub. Alternatively, you could do the same with artists, collectors, curators, and visitors about a specific exhibit or even following a public program. Some of these details we are working through, but we have some specific paths to follow that we are pretty sure can work.

    2. Hi Sheila,
      (This is attached to your latest comment, because it won’t let us nest further)

      I think what we’re both getting at is that we want to look at the whole spectrum of options held together by this concept of a solid content strategy–both on the macro (museum identity) level and at that of individual publishing project with its unique goals (audience, interaction, content, delivery, etc.)

      As for the crowd-sourcing example, I think in some cases the museum would provide infrastructure and other’s not. As an example of the latter, I would reference linking into the wikipedia crowd-sourced data as part of our ecosystem of content. It’s about knowing who we are, what we want to do, and how we can best accomplish it–with both resources interior and exterior to the museum. The broader we look at a project, the more interesting this all gets. 🙂

      Can’t wait to hear more about your projects!

  3. I’m excited by the changes in museum publishing. As a writer/editor, museums are often my favorite subjects but museums seem reluctant to let an “outsider” tell their stories. Changing the definition, increasing collaboration inside and out, and fully embracing the role of “meddler” can push publishing from the fringes to front-and-center.

  4. The Opening Session of the Chicago seminar posed, according to my notes, four key questions. The first of these was “What is publishing?” I think this is where we must start. In my view, we need to look at publishing as it is most broadly defined: “To make public.” If we do that, it follows that “publishing” involves all aspects of the museum world. So too, therefore, should the development of publishing strategies.

    Does this work at our museum? It is a work in progress, but yes, the concept seems to be receiving general acceptance. The direct fallout it is strongly positive: our publishing professionals are now more broadly seen as integral to the business of the museum.

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