A participatory museum sector? On discussion, debate and transparency.

All right, fair warning. This is a long post.

The annual Museums Australia conference was held in Canberra in mid-May, and covered a range of topics under the broad banner How museums work: people, industry and nation. I had an interesting conference, in part because I was invited to be a speaker in a plenary session on Shaping the Future of Museums. In it, Dr Patrick Greene, David Arnold (NMA), and I all responded to a presentation from Dr Stefan Hajkowicz, Director CSIRO Futures, in which he spelled out six megatrends expected to change the way we live. The session framed much of the conference for me and opened up many conversations about the future of the sector.

For the remainder of the conference, I purposely sat in on sessions outside my usual comfort zone to get the broadest possible insight. There was lots of useful content (the sessions on the public value of museums, and the business of money were unmissable), with many of the discussions pivoting around common themes; about the importance of collaboration; about how we identify and solve the problems that actually matter; about how we enable career development and training right across the sector; and about the benefits that co-creation engenders for all participants.

As the conference went along, it became apparent to me just how much the questions facing the sector mimic those being played out in our institutions themselves, particularly around questions of participation and collaboration. How does the museum sector become more participatory and allow people right across the sector – regardless of their formal position – contribute to the solving of the problems facing the sector? How to come to terms with the tension between allowing new voices in, whilst simultaneously speaking with a singular voice in order to ensure clarity of communication and vision? How to transition from closed conversations to open ones?

Many of these tensions were readily apparent in an article on the price of climate control and environmental sustainability in Australian museums in The Australian, in which Michaela Boland notes that:

…the structure of the three-day conference — which featured keynote addresses from AGNSW director Michael Brand, West Kowloon Cultural District chief executive Michael Lynch and new Australian War Memorial director Brendan Nelson — did not lend itself to much actual debate. The overall impression was that Australia’s museum industry seems blithely unaware of its own significance and potential.

Not scheduled for discussion… were many issues concerning the industry, among them Australian museums acquiring items from dealers of questionable reputation, the propriety of museum curators writing catalogue notes for art auction houses and complaints by the auction houses that cultural-heritage rules are stymieing sales of Aboriginal art.

In the days before the conference got under way, meetings were held by the Council of Australasian Museum Directors, Museums Australia and the National Cultural Heritage Committee, where these topics were discussed behind closed doors.

One senior figure tells The Australian museum directors think it is unwise to discuss sensitive issues publicly; another says the institutions are scared to air their dirty laundry lest they fall foul of government funders.

Here a journalist writing for national paper picks apart the conference for being closed and failing to have space for debate, concluding that the sector was “blithely unaware of its own significance and potential” as a result. This rankled me a little, because I disagree that a lack of debate indicates a lack of awareness. Instead, I think it’s indicative of real tensions around the problems of if and how a sector can open up to become more participatory and inclusive, whilst still maintaining the capacity to speak to really important issues with a single voice – tensions I see replicated in discussions about institutional voice in an age of social media.

Social media has made it theoretically possible for everyone to have a public voice in any conversation, whether they have relevant knowledge or not. It makes publishing easy, which means that it is very much an “opt-in” activity. But does the reality that every voice can be heard mean that they all should be, or  are some voices and opinions worth more than others? Does every topic need to be open to debate, or are there some we should just trust to the experts?

Late last year, Matt Popke wrote an excellent comment about institutional voice that is valuable here:

It could be that we need to dramatically alter our institutional voice altogether. Instead of focusing on The Museum we could shift more attention to the individual members of the museum team. As more start blogging and otherwise directly engaging people through social media they’re going to become more visible within the organization anyway. As we pull back the curtain more on our internal processes, we’re going to expose more of those people who are individually making our organizational choices. As these people become more visible, their personalities and individual values will start to take the fore more and more in relation to our institutional identity.

When that transition happens there won’t need to be an institutional position on political issues anymore, just the positions of the various individuals within the institution. It will be their choice how visible they want their opinions to be (to a point, it’s becoming less certain how much anybody gets to choose their degree of publicness anymore). The organization simply won’t have the same kind of monolithic “voice” anymore.

I think the more we allow this process to take hold and be visible within our organizations, the easier it will be to draw the public into the discussion and convince them that they actually have some influence over what we do (and the more they actually will have some influence over what we do). We talk a lot about participatory engagement these days, but we have to change internally a lot before that participation will reach any kind of critical mass.

These ideas are picked up by Mairin Kerr in a discussion on digital protectionism in museums. In considering “Why are there gatekeepers?”, Kerr asks:

…do we really need an institutional voice? Or is this us holding onto the past – the single authoritative voice and idea that an institution must stand united for something. Why not show that there are divisions? Why do we need a strong message? Why can’t the message be diversity? Aren’t we supposed to be encouraging multiple voices and perspectives in the new age of museums?

These are important questions. But it’s also important to think about why the unidirectional and opaque “institutional voice” was dominant for so long. I don’t think it was just because that was what the technology enabled. There is real power in having a singular message that is communicated clearly. Consistency of message is critical in showing people what you stand for and enabling them to understand it. While experts can get into hugely nuanced discussions about a topic, based on a shared vocabulary and deep knowledge, most people won’t have the prior learning to engage with the ideas at such a level, and in those cases, clarity is important.

So how do we resolve this paradox? As an insider, I want more opportunities for discussion and debate. I want to be able to take ownership of these issues and make them my own; to feel like I can play a role in shaping the sector. But I also value the power that comes from clarity of vision. Is is possible to have both nuance and simplicity? What happens if the museum directors quoted above are right, and talking about these issues openly makes us vulnerable to political attack? Is that a price worth paying?

Maybe what we’re really looking for – both within our institutions and within the sector – is a kind of “cohesive multivocality” (thanks Ed Rodley!), which allows for multiple perspectives, but all with a shared mission and ultimate goals. And if that’s the case, what are the steps we need to take to enable such a thing to exist?

What do you think?

9 thoughts on “A participatory museum sector? On discussion, debate and transparency.

  1. Thnx for this Suse – I’m wondering how many people actually went to the conference to start with given the dates and the cost? These conferences have been hit and miss for years and I’m also wondering whether it seemed to be any better (sorry to seem negative but MA hasn’t exactly been industry-leading over the years and, as you say above, it has tended to be individuals leading debates and discussions in our field rather than our industry body…).

    I feel that AAM has done a reasonable job of re-branding themselves and their conferences (and the associated social media streams) have improved enormously. There is an excellent discussion around industry leadership (with a focus on AAM vs ICOM) in Volume 27, No. 2 issue of Museum Management and Curatorship (http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/rmmc20/27/2#.UaVx7NIweSo)

    1. Hi Lynda. I think that the numbers were actually up for the conference this year, which might have had to do with the new format (which I found to be quite successful, particularly with the inclusion of paper-and-response sessions that let one person present a longer and more in-depth paper on something, followed by prepared remarks by a couple of other people), but certainly also helped to have the CAMD meeting and the education day held at the same time.

      What I found really interesting this year was how open to new ideas MA/the sector felt. Now I don’t know whether that was just my experience, but the idea of finding platforms for debate and discussion didn’t seem to be unwanted. In fact, I think there are lots of people who were there who would absolutely be encouraging that. Now, that’s not to say that the mechanisms are there yet, but the willingness seems to be. So the next stage will be looking at how to include those different voices and continue to encourage conversation, but I would already say there feels like progress being made in this direction.

      I agree with you that AAM seems to have done well with their rebranding (even if the logo caused some consternation at the start). And thanks for the link to the ICOM vs AAM debate. It’s been a while since I read it and might be useful in this context.

  2. This discussion about ‘institutional voice’ reminds me of that oft-seen disclaimer on Twitter bios “tweets are my own views and do not represent my employer”. Plenty of other people have written about the silliness of doing this, so I won’t repeat it here. But it underscores a broader point – “Institutions” are expected to speak with one monolithic voice and any diversity or dissent will not be tolerated.

    Now of course institutions have multiple stakeholders and have to sometimes navigate tricky political terrain. I get that. But why do we have to assume that all an institution’s employees are mindlessly reciting the company mantra, both on and off company time?

    I think it would help debate if we were able to speak up as individuals, separated from the particular politics of any institution we may currently be employed by. An institutional voice may emerge, but it needs to separate from individual voices which may be supportive, dissentive or just devils-advocate provocative.

    I should add that I have a personal beef here – I was (mis)quoted in an article published after the MA conference, which quoted me not by name but as a “representative” of the museum where I happen to be based at the moment. I’m no such thing and I don’t think I should be assumed to be, especially in the context of an off-the-cuff remark made in a general audience discussion. Now, I was able to quickly diffuse the situation when I got home but I wonder if a less experienced person would have been frightened into silence in future conferences if they had had a similar thing happen to them.

    Having said that, if we are going to speak up as individuals, we have to remember that people develop and change their minds over time too. We don’t want to end up with a situation where people are beating us over the head with decade-old blog posts and tweets . . .

    1. Regan, I completely agree! How we have discussion and debate in these kinds of semi-public places – particularly in an age of Twitter and (yes) blogs – becomes really complex, particularly when, as you say, conversations that seemed limited to the room whilst you were having them get carried out well beyond them. On one hand, the beauty of social media is that it enables the connection of what happens “in the room” to a much broader conversation. On the other, that is precisely what changes the power structure somewhat.

      There is an excellent discussion on socially mediated publicness, in which Nancy K. Baym & danah boyd demonstrate how social media crumples the boundaries between public and private space

      As people communicate publically through social media, they become more aware of themselves relative to visible and imagined audiences and more aware of the larger publics to which they belong and which they seek to create. They negotiate collapsed contexts, continuously shifting power dynamics, and an open-ended time frame. Through discussing the personal, mundane, and everyday, people negotiate a sense of public place and help new publics—both wanted and unwanted—to coalesce. Socially-mediated publicness may be a source of support and empowerment while simultaneously posing conflict and risk.

      Your last paragraph is critical. If we do actually want the debate, then we need to know it’s safe to participate in it.

  3. I think the idea that there ever was a monolithic institutional voice to any museum is a little odd. Given how many people experience a museum with so many different levels of access and interactions with so many different staff members, including volunteers, I don’t think it was ever true that any museum managed to be terribly coherent in their “message” or “voice”. I think we like to think that we’re “on message”, but the big lesson of the last 10 years of my career has been that our audiences truly do form their own perceptions of the insitutions that we work for because they have always had (more so now than ever before, but always true) the ability to interact with a museum in an incredibly wide variety of ways. Think of how your own perception of a particular instituion is formed – you visit and it’s one thing. You speak to a staff member and it becomes another. You attend an event and it becomes another. You approach it for research, it changes again, you volunteer there – different yet again. We have always had a multiplicity of voices and our attempts at an an “institutional voice” have always been doomed. Yet we cling to the idea that the institutional voice exists, whether it is something we value or despise – what I’m curious to know is… why?

    1. Erin, Mia Ridge sent through a similar response to me on Twitter. I suppose there are a couple of things happening here. In museums (exhibitions, online collection documentation) it is necessarily noted who actually wrote the “authoritative text” most of the time. Most extended captions don’t have the curator’s name on them, for example. But of course, when an individual gives a talk or lecture, when they write an article for an academic journal etc, they do so under their own name.

      So on one hand, there is absolutely a plethora of individual voices that emanate from the institution. But there is also an anonymous “institutional voice”, which isn’t the identifiable voice of someone specific. It’s opaque and unidirectional, singular and anonymous. (This reminds me of some of the discussion when the musetrain manifesto came out last year** – particularly Nina Simon’s comment that “It seems a bit strange to advocate for multi-vocal authenticity behind what could be considered an “institutional voice.””)

      I don’t know that it’s established that the institutional voice is necessarily problematic, particularly for museum visitors (is anyone outside the sector complaining that they don’t know who individually wrote the text on the museum walls?). But I wonder whether one thing that’s at stake in these discussions might be the right of people right across the institution or sector to speak as themselves and be identified as such; to get recognition for their individual contributions and work?

      Not sure. Just trying to work through the discussion.

      **so, ah, whatever happened to those guys? It all started with such promise, and then, nothing.

  4. If we’re talking about gallery labels, etc. it’s not as if who wrote them is entirely mysterious. It’s generally pretty easy to find out who the curator of a show or a particular collection area (in the case of PC galleries) is, and exhibition teams are usually listed by name in the catalogue. Those who are interested can find out if they want, who is behind the insitutional voice. Plus, when a label has gone through curators, educators, designers, editors and the director – the result is so collaborative it’s hard to pick apart. What I think people find problematic about the “institutional voice” is its utter lack of personality – at least I know that’s what bugs me about the final result of most labels. They’re dry, academic, passive voice – but this is a writing issue more than anything else. We have a tendency to edit ourselves into lifelessness and thus the great debate has always been – who are we writing for? The problem though is that we’rv always had to write for an incredibly broad audience, from scholars to 5 year olds, in a very small space, a 75 word label or even a 75 page catalogue. But now, the vista opening before us via technology is that we can actually create more specific voices for each of those audiences. Instead of creating a family brochure aimed at the under 12 set, we can have an @ROMkids twitter feed. Instead of worrying that we’re not being scholarly enough in our labels, we can write a more general public catalogue and publish the scholarly research behind it on academia.edu. Basically, I think the issue now is that our multiplicity of voices is getting louder and requiring more constant management – one family print piece every 3 years is WAY different than a daily twitter feed, with a different workload and a different workflow. What seems to be overwhelming these days is trying to figure out that shift – how do we 1) choose which venue to send these many voices through and 2) how do we manage the change in time spent on maintaining open channels of communication with different audiences versus what we have traditionally spent our time on.

    There’s no doubt that when it comes to museums’ decision making process and institutional priorities (the real ones, not just the idealized ones stated in our missions), we desperately need more transparency – not just to the public, but frequently internally within the museum itself as well. And digital tools are ideal for this – I’d be ever so happy if the powers that be in my institution would just post on our yammer feed from time to time about what they’re working on. Everyone seems to fear showing our imperfections to the world – that we do indeed have many, many moments where we are not polished, perfected, and press-ready. That’s a paradigm shift we haven’t absorbed and it has to do with self-consciousness. Museums are such fascinatingly wacky, weird places full of half-baked occurances that the public really enjoys hearing about and commenting on (I know this from working in smaller communities where, purely by personal association, these things make their way out of the museum and into public conversation). Honestly, we just need to stop taking ourselves so seriously and acting as if the world will stop spinning if we have a bit of a sense of humor about our foibles. People, who also have foibles and thus can identify, would feel much closer to us that way too.

    And my day is now complete because I got use the word ‘foibles’ twice!

Leave a Reply to Dr Lynda Kelly (@lyndakelly61) Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s