Because they are hard… Reflections on #MCN2019

Posted on November 14, 2019


Last week, around 500 museum digital practitioners were thrown together in a resort in San Diego for MCN 2019. This was my eighth MCN, and it was the first one since I first attended in 2011 that I had absolutely no hand in shaping. When I first went to MCN, I was both a scholarship recipient and a member of the program committee. By 2015, I was a program co-chair. In 2016, I added to my co-chair responsibilities and joined the board and the executive committee, before becoming MCN President at the end of the following year. It is no exaggeration to say that I have been intimately involved with the conference and MCN more broadly as long as I have been in the museum tech community, so it was with great joy that I was able to attend the conference as an attendee rather than a creator. I had a lovely time, and wanted to share some reflections of that experience. It’s a while since I’ve fired off the ol’ blog for some post-conference discussion, so forgive me if I’m a little rusty.

Following along from a distance via the Twitter conversations, Seb Chan commented in his newsletter (which you should subscribe to) that the conference seemed exhausting, “like a ‘Museum Support Network’ for workers struggling to keep their heads above water.” Rachel Ropiek has also noted that in written years, the “conference tone also shifted — especially in the last two years — away from all that joy toward a desperation-tinged need to support each other through difficult times.” Dana Allen-Griel put it this way…

Part of this shifting experience of the conference might be because, as Jeremy suggested, MCN seems to be torn between its identities as a tech conference (look! shiny new thing!) and “a social justice oriented conference that primarily examines museums through the lens of tech.” I think he’s giving voice to a really interesting tension. But it’s a tension that, for the first time in a while, I found hugely productive.

For me, MCN2019 was filled with people interrogating, reframing and reexamining their work and the practices of their peers within the sector in light of changing understanding about the technological, political and cultural environment. There were more questions raised than solutions offered, which might have been uncomfortable for some. However, I left MCN more optimistic than I was when I arrived, because it felt like the scale and complexity of the challenges we’re facing, as individuals and institutions, as a country and even globally, were being taken seriously, without slipping to the glib, superficial or easy response. The deep, ongoing engagement with difficult conversations, whether about machine learningwhite supremacy culture and its manifestations, the toxic hell-hole that social media has become and what that means for our communities and our staff, or about data governance, ethics and privacy, suggests that our sector is taking seriously both the daily concerns of the job and our long-term, collective responsibilities to our many communities and publics. As Nik Honeysett reminded us, “We do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Because they are hard.

Engaging with these kinds of conversations and speaking out comes at a cost (particularly for people of colour and other marginalised people who bear the burden of driving so much change in our institutions). But multiple times, I witnessed people who were clearly grappling with challenging topics speak about them. For instance, I was hugely moved in Kate Haley Goldman‘s session on How Human-Centered Design Fails Museums, in which she argued that the processes that HCD uses are fundamentally reductionist and othering, minimising the complexity of users in ways that are deeply concerning. She asked us to consider, “What are the unintended downstream effects of our work? How and where are we retraumatising people?” Kate was clearly grappling both with her own understanding of complex problems and what it might mean to question the strategies and approaches that the sector has adopted. But she was speaking out even when it was uncomfortable. And I think that, for me, was part of the point. The conversations about our complicity in algorithmic discrimination and surveillance capitalism and what we might do about it felt like an enormous leap from conversations I had only a few years ago.

Of course, it’s not just the conference that has evolved. I have changed over those years, too (haven’t we all?! America often feels like a year passes in each week). That’s one reason why Seema’s love letter to her conference friends, in which she spoke about the importance of “normalizing real emotions”, resonated with me. This year in the classroom, I have regularly tried to show my emotions to demonstrate to my students that, like them, I am a whole person for whom teaching is merely one aspect of my job (also recognising that discomfort with emotions or feelings is a characteristic of white supremacy culture). Similarly, at MCN this year, I ended up crying or on the verge of tears at least four or five times. Being emotionally open and experiencing those emotions even when it meant crying in a hallway rather than trying to keep it all together might have contributed to the way I felt in leaving San Diego.

As MCN wrapped up, Aaron Cope forward me a link to a Tweet from Deb Chachra, in which she wrote about how she was recently asked, “how I stay optimistic when I am spending my days thinking about infrastructure (and thus climate change, resilience, social justice , etc.).”

And maybe that’s what it felt like, like we were all working as if we lived in the early days of a better nation (and a better museum sector) or a distributed, slow-motion apocalypse.

A huge thank you and congratulations to everyone who worked so hard to put this conference together – particularly Andrea, Andrea and Eric.