MW2013 reflections on emerging and collapsing museum roles

Well I’ve been hanging out in America for the last week with a mind full of thoughts in the aftermath of Museums and the Web 2013… and computer problems. It’s been frustrating, but it also provided the perfect excuse to upgrade my laptop after years of slow technology. Hooray! Truly, a new computer is a pleasure.

Now that I’m back online, I thought I’d start a series of quick posts on the issues that really caught my attention during the conference (a kind of belated version of what Koven Smith was doing in his live-blogging from Portland). In the meantime, if you’re feeling less patient and just want an overall summary of the themes and discussions that came out of the conference, check out the great reads by Danny Birchall, Susan Edwards and Ed Rodley.

So, theme no. 1: the fluctuation of museum jobs, and the impact that has upon the sector
On Day 2 of the conference, Rob Stein and Rich Cherry presented a plenary session that asked what is a museum technologist anyway? During the questions that followed, Liz Neely asked how many people in the room had made up their own job at some point in their career. I was surprised to see  the number of hands waved in response. It was probably close to half the room, all of whom had created a job for themselves.

As someone who has never known where I would fit within existing career paths in this sector, I was pretty excited by this. But then I started thinking further on the implications. When a job is created for someone, rather than created to fill a particular pre-identified need or purpose, then that job will be necessarily built around their individual strengths and weaknesses, maybe even more than the institution’s actual needs. So what happens when that person leaves the organisation? Does the museum then look to fill that position, or to craft another one in concert with the person who comes next into the role? I know I’ve created at least one job for myself in this sector, and it’s now something my museum will always need to have someone doing… but the opportunity came up because I identified the gap, not because they did. How often does this happen?

Sitting next to Michael Parry in one session, I had a discussion about the frequency with which museums should revisit their digital structure and strategy. Given how quickly the technological and work context change, should a museum rewrite its digital strategy and organisational chart regularly? And what are the benefits of doing so very regularly (maybe every three years) versus waiting longer; of making foundational instead incremental change? Two critical issues here become the value of adaptability vs stability, and the potential loss of corporate knowledge (not to mention staff morale… do people want to work in an environment where they position is always up to be questioned?). But it is something worth considering in the frequent discussions we have about writing a digital strategy; getting beyond the how and looking at the when.

These were just some of a series of questions that started to come up about the fluctuation of museum roles. In the session on digital curation that Danny Birchall and I were a part of, Danny looked at different curators who have influenced the sector to show just how diverse the notion of a “curator” is, even in the museum sector in order to demonstrate what museums could teach those who now seek to curate the digital world (one of these being Iris Barry, founder of the film department of the Museum of Modern Art, who herself created her own job based on her own skills and interests), while I looked at what museums could learn from some different types of curators of the digital world. In response to this session, Koven got to the heart of the matter and asked whether the discussion was indicative of the need for a new kind of role within the museum; that of the curator of the digital. Are we witnessing the birth of a new museum profession in these discussions? Do we now need someone who curates the digital world for stories and information as they relate to the collection and/or mission of the museum, in addition to more established curatorial roles?

In the unconference session that followed, Seb Chan pointed out that many museum, archive and library roles were beginning to collapse onto themselves as the differences that defined one from the next became less distinct in the digital realm. All of which makes me start to wonder just which roles within the museum will stand up as they currently are, and which other roles (like digital conservators) will begin to emerge as more and more critical in the coming years? Just how fluid is the museum’s institutional and organisational structure, anyway?

And, finally, what happens if you design yourself out of a job? There is a tension between wanting to create efficiencies and do things better, and wanting to maintain your job and an organisation’s need to employ you. Given that the positions needed in and by this sector appear to fluctuate more than I had previously imagined, I’m interested in how this tension plays out in career paths, and whether institutions can or do support those whose once-essential skills are now only peripherally useful.

This is where my relative newness to the sector starts to really get in the way, because I cannot look back at institutions and their history to know how these kinds of questions play out. But I am sure some of you can.

I’d love to hear more about your experiences and what you’ve seen in your own careers. Do the roles that museums need filled fluctuate significantly over the course of years? And what impact does that have on the museum? How often should a museum actively revisit its structure and strategy to ensure a fit for purpose?

3 thoughts on “MW2013 reflections on emerging and collapsing museum roles

  1. No one should be worried about designing themselves out of a job. If you’re the one designing the new processes and positions then likely you’re the one filling that position. If the fear of losing your job drives you to try and avoid changing your position then you’ll be the first to go when somebody else designs the new way of doing things. It’s self-defeating.

    If you aren’t the one designing the new “job”, then you might have something to worry about. But the key for individuals is the same as it is for institutions. Be flexible. Be adaptive. Be open to new ideas. The people we already have in our institution have more than just skills that makes them valuable. They have institutional memory, an understanding of our unique context and passion for what they do. If they’re even a little bit flexible any new set of skills is pretty easy to for them to acquire as needed, most of the time while on the job. Our staff members already do this all the time and have for years.

    I think the big adjustment for many people is the realization that their skills are not what makes them most valuable to us. Those who have relied solely on a specific set of skills to keep themselves employed up to this point are the ones who have the most to fear. But that was always true. We could always replace a skilled employee who has no real drive with a different, equally-skilled employee who does. It’s just more obvious now that the skill sets we’re looking for are changing. People will say, “They don’t need someone like me anymore,” as they walk out the door. But the reality is we never needed someone who couldn’t adapt. We never needed someone who relied solely on a single set of skills to be valuable. We’ve always needed people who were flexible. We’ve always been changing and we’ve always needed people who could change with us.

    Those changes are bigger at the moment, and so we focus on them. They’re momentarily more noticeable, but they’re not new. One of the things I’ve noticed since starting at the museum is how many people here started working here in a completely different position than the one they have now. And they didn’t make these big drastic changes in direction just recently. Some of them have been here for many years, and have served a multitude of roles. I don’t think technology is changing that so much as it’s just adding a new element to the already chaotic mix. It’s just one more thing to adapt to like we always have.

    1. Matt, totally agreed. Your last point, in particular, is one that I wish I’d made more clearly above. This kind of fluctuation has surely always happened, but I don’t think that was super-clear to me from the outset. I’d hear people complaining about someone who has been in a role for 15 years and who hasn’t adapted to digital (for example) because it isn’t in their position description. And when I heard this, I didn’t really think about what changes their position would have gone through in that time, and how they would have adapted.

      Jobs in this sector (probably like most sectors) are clearly changeable, but I’m not sure it really occurred to me the extent to which that was true until now.

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