What were your takeaways from MCN2012?

My brain is full. The last week has been crazy, between MCN2012, a flying visit to NYC to catch up with Seb Chan and see Sleep No More, and my first day as a museumgeek-in-reSIdence with the lovely Sarah Banks and a whole swathe of interesting people and projects at the National Museum of Natural History. Combine this all with jetlag, and the experience has been intense and strangely immersive. I keep hoping that I will have a moment to pause and reflect, but instead find myself sucked into the next activity having barely failed to process the previous one.

But since so many of these opportunities have opened up because of this blog, I also feel strange about any possibility about neglecting it whilst I am in the midst of these travels. So this is a post to kick off the discussion, and to try to reflect on the first of these connected adventures, which was MCN2012.

This felt like a very different MCN for me this year, in large part due to my level of involvement with the program. Between giving an Ignite talk, speaking on one panel and chairing two others, I very much felt like I was constantly on the run to somewhere. This was great in a lot of ways, and led to lots of interesting conversations with people I’d never met (including a number of museumgeek readers!). But the disadvantage is that I’m sure there was a lot going on at the conference that I simply didn’t get to be a part of, because my mind was elsewhere. I know I missed some great sessions and conversations, and that there were themes that surfaced for others at the conference that were different to those I picked up on.

So I want to know what you got out of it, if you attended. What were your conference highlights? Which sessions should I look up first when the videos from the event go live? What themes did you notice, which really resonated with your work or conference? What are the issues that you’d like to see discussed more often, or the discussions that you’d like to continue to have into the future?

You can play along if you were stuck in the office, or following along from home too. Did you see any strange Tweets that you’d love to know more about, or hear any ideas that you’d want expanded upon?

My hope is that by tapping into the great brain’s trust of people who were either at the conference, or watching from afar, I can find out what I missed, but also that we can start to connect some of the ideas that were surfacing in parallel sessions or discussions elsewhere. In the meantime, I’ll try to find some time and headspace to start making sense of my own impressions this week (and potentially to mash them up with what I’ve been thinking about in the days since).

But until that time, I’d really love to know what stuck with you at MCN2012.

writing about talking + talking about writing

I’ve been thinking about blogging and social media lately; about what it means to ‘grow up’ professionally in public, and about what the indiscriminate opportunity to publish – open to anyone, but grasped by relatively few – is doing to our professional dialogue. The longer I think about these issues, the less certain are my conclusions.

Andrew Sullivan, a veteran of the art form, writes of blogging this way:

This form of instant and global self-publishing, made possible by technology widely available only for the past decade or so, allows for no retroactive editing (apart from fixing minor typos or small glitches) and removes from the act of writing any considered or lengthy review. It is the spontaneous expression of instant thought—impermanent beyond even the ephemera of daily journalism. It is accountable in immediate and unavoidable ways to readers and other bloggers, and linked via hypertext to continuously multiplying references and sources. Unlike any single piece of print journalism, its borders are extremely porous and its truth inherently transitory. The consequences of this for the act of writing are still sinking in.

The consequences for museums, and museum professionals too, are also still uncertain. In his post, entitled Why I blog, Sullivan further proposes that “…the key to understanding a blog is to realize that it’s a broadcast, not a publication. If it stops moving, it dies. If it stops paddling, it sinks.” But if this is a broadcast medium, it lingers like a publication. What are the consequences of this for our profession, or for those individuals who choose to engage in this space regularly? Although there are some museum blogs that have been around for years, it is a form still in its nascency.

In November, I have two opportunities to reflect on these questions. The first is in a panel on blogging at MCN2012 with Ed Rodley, Eric Seigel and Mike Murawski, which will consider blogging from both a personal and institutional perspective. We’ll ask what it means “to learn in public, and be an active and consistently open communicator? Where does blogging fit into an institutional, professional and personal identity? How do you manage multiple online identities? How do you deal with the inevitable public criticism and negative reactions to your work? What impact has blogging made on your career and life more generally?”

I’m super eager to work through these questions with smarter and more experienced heads than mine, particularly at a conference like MCN. I loved MCN last year, and with the program for MCN2012 looking great, I cannot wait to head back to the USA.  The conference is kicking off with an Ignite session to pop the mood into “stimulating” from the start. MCN2012 will also be a chance to catch up with so many museumers who challenge me, and to follow up in person with some of my favourite museumgeek guest bloggers like Janet Carding, Liz Neely and Matthew Israel. I’m feeling inspired already.

I will also be reflecting on social media as a disruptive force in museum discourse at INTERCOM2012 in Sydney. INTERCOM is  ICOM’s International Committee for Management, which “focuses on ideas, issues and practices relating to the management of museums, within an international context.” The 2012 conference has #museumchallenges as its theme, which recalls Rob Stein’s discussions from 2011 (I wonder how the conversation will have altered in a year). The INTERCOM program looks great, and I’m looking forward to learning what museum directors and speakers from around the world see as being the greatest immediate and long-term challenges facing museums now (plus, Jasper will be here!). How different are the concerns of museum professionals in China, Finland or Colombia from my own? And what can we learn from their experiences?

No doubt I’ll pick up lots of new insights to share with those playing at home, too.

Are you attending MCN2012 or INTERCOM2012? Do you think that social media has impacted your work or profile as a museum professional? How do you feel about its influence on your own career, or the sector at large?

BTW – Mar Dixon is conducting her second annual survey on social media and the cultural sector. You should fill it out.

Initial takeaways from Museums Australia 2012

Museums Australia 2012 is wrapping up today with a day targeted at regional, remote and community museums, which I will only get to a little of due to flight times. However, I wanted to write up my experiences of the rest of the conference, which has been hugely interesting. Of particular use was the opportunity to meet people from small, medium and large museums and galleries within Australia; to talk to directors, academics, curators, students, museum marketers, web and digital project managers, business developers and many more, all in the one place. Such close connection with people right across the sector, at all levels, is a rare and precious thing.

The parallel sessions often had multiple strands of talks that I wanted to attend, in large part because of this diversity. There were discussions relevant to my own areas of focus, but also ones that provided very interesting context to other work.

My personal highlights from the program included:

  • Assoc Prof Joanna Mendolsson’s fascinating presentation on changes in leadership AGNSW in the 1970s, which had interesting resonance with what I’ve been reading lately about the LA MOCA situation.
  • the session I chaired with Jareen Summerville, Cath Styles and Angela Casey, Jonny Brownbill, and Nicolaas Earnshaw, which provided fascinating insight into mobile and social media, and their complexities. We had time for a great discussion about some of the nuance of physical (and digital) situational complexities; technology and education, and much more.
  • In an excellent session on developments on exhibition practice, presentations from Georgia Rouette on the experiences of exhibition designers in Australia partnered with Jennifer Blunden’s cool work on meaning and language in exhibition text, Regan Forrest’s consideration of design factors in visitor experiences, whilst Janet Mack and Penny Grist spoke to permanency in permanent exhibitions.
  • the keynote presentations, particularly from Dr Catherine Hughes (Atlanta History Center), Nigel Sutton, and Michael Mills on museum theatre (with free massages!), and Victor Steffenson from Mulong Productions on living and connected knowledge.
  • Keynotes from museum directors Roy Clare (Auckland War Memorial Museum) and Dr Robin Hirst (Museum Victoria) both provided interesting context to the work and thinking happening in the sector from a leadership level.
  • Holly Schulte giving a really fascinating overview about the nuance and complexity around releasing old police photographs from the Police Museum forensic photography archive (like what happens if someone’s grandfather turns up online, and they didn’t know he had a criminal record?).
  • Dr Dennis Stevenson spoke about living collections and DNA taxonomic testing (really cool innovations in science)
  • In a great session on art collections as a resource, Assoc Prof Alison Inglis spoke about museums and historiography of Australian colonial art, while my old university lecturer Lisa Slade spoke about contemporary art and the colonial archive.
  • Joe Coleman sang my song, speaking on open collections.
  • A visit to the incredible Museum of Economic Botany.
  • #drinkingaboutmuseums with a whole pile of newly met colleagues

Even in that snapgrab of highlights (there are many more I could talk to), there is a sense of the depth and also diversity of presentations here at MASA2012. This is something you cannot get in the same way with a niche and targeted conference, which shows why it is so important to have both kinds of event.

But as with all of these kinds of conferences, it was the opportunity to talk to, exchange ideas with, and learn from, engaged and engaging members of the profession that was the most valuable; and it’s the stuff you can only get from being in the room. From being a member, and coming to the conference. From listening to the stories and experiences of others (and only not in the sessions); from finding those like you, and different from you. I genuinely think attending conferences in this sector has been my most valuable professional development tool, whether a museum tech conference, or MASA2012.

It has been an incredibly rewarding week. It has also been a difficult one; posting as I did yesterday. Although not intended to be disrespectful, the post certainly didn’t make clear the respect I do have for the experience and knowledge of people working in the sector, and for the huge amount of work that goes into this kind of network and event. Rather, it was a post motivated by sudden realisation of my own visibility in an incredibly deep, diverse and complex environment; and my grappling with my own inadequacy to speak to what really matters.

But it was also motivated by a real sense of realisation of the vitality and importance of Museums Australia, which I hadn’t had before I attended. This was a catalysing event for opening my eyes to its purpose as a critical mechanism within the museum sector in Australia. MA brings together all the diverse voices, each with different needs and concerns, into a single place to share ideas, talk and learn. Our whole sector is strengthened by its presence, but because it is a member organisation, it is necessarily strengthened by ours.

So if you had a similarly rewarding conference experience to my own, why not:

1. Go home and share what you’ve learned with colleagues
Have a brown-bag lunch session with others from your museum, and share your highlights from the conference with other people. Bring the news of the conference home with you, so that others are aware of the conversations that started and continued here in Adelaide. Spread the news about why attending the conference is a great idea.

2. Recruit a new member
Bring someone new into the organisation. Invite an emerging museum professional or more experienced colleague who isn’t already a member and get them to (re)connect to the organisation.

3. Register your interest for #MA2013.

4. Put in a proposal for #MA2013.
The theme of the conference next year is How museums work:  people, industry and nation. The call for abstracts opens next week, so it’s a great opportunity to continue the conversation. Why not find some other people with interesting stories to tell, and connect to put together a whole session? I have already heard cool ideas for sessions for next year; I look forward to seeing how these initial ideas develop by May next year.

5. Email someone you met at the conference.
Given that some of the best things about this kind of thing are the people you meet, make sure you follow up with at least one of the people you connected with at the conference in the coming week.

6. Join in the conversation on Facebook or Twitter.

7. Identify one thing you want to act on after the conference (could be an idea, or a connection with someone new), and follow it through.
This was a great piece of advice given to me during the week. After taking in so much information at a conference like this, it can be hard to distil everything down. Rather than trying to do everything, or act on all the great ideas that you will have absorbed, find one. And follow through on it in your own institution, or your own career.

What about you? What were your highlights? What will you take home with you from Museums Australia 2012?

Thank you to all those who worked so hard on this conference, and on putting together a program that I really enjoyed. As I mentioned in my previous post, I have gained so much new appreciation for the complexity of our sector from being here, including questions about stratification of museum funding. I look forward to seeing how those conversations develop over the coming months before MA2013.

Dispatch from Museums Australia Conference 2012

I am writing to you from a quiet dawn moment of sleeplessness whilst at the Museums Australia Conference in Adelaide, South Australia.

This is my first mainstream museum conference, and also my first Australian museum conference. Until now, I have been closeted safely within the confines of the museum technology community, and have been more exposed to American museumers and the stories of their experiences than those of my local sector.

Attending has been eye opening and challenging on different levels. I am learning a lot, and becoming very aware of some major gaps in my  knowledge about the sector in Australia. It has only really whilst being here that I’ve really started to consider the complexity of the funding structure that includes federal, state and local government organisations. Despite an awareness on some level that there were these different levels of support with different concerns and mandates, it had not really hit home how much that stratafication shapes what is possible and achievable within the sector. It is something I will have to think much further on.

I can see this complexity emerge most readily in conversations I’ve had about the role, purpose and future of Museums Australia itself. For all is not well in the world of this sector body. There are signs that it is an institution in crisis, with dropping membership numbers and fewer attendees at the conference. On Tuesday the organisation held a meeting to discuss its future, painting a fairly grim picture about the uncertainty of the organisation’s direction, path and, more than anything, relevance.

At that meeting, I spoke up about the fact that I had barely joined the organisation myself, and had only done so for the conference. I addressed that question of relevance of this seemingly slow-moving organisation that feels (to me) so removed from the robust and valued discussions I have about the sector in other spaces. I don’t know whether it was out of place for me to speak up, but I was one of only a very small number of people in the room who appeared to be an emerging professional, and so I felt the need to do so.

What I spoke to was my experience that there doesn’t seem to be the same mechanisms for discussion, for really pulling apart what the sector is doing right now in context of the changing social and economic climate as I have experienced elsewhere – whether at the conference, or as part of the network more generally. Although I am really enjoying this conference, and getting huge benefits from the insight into different areas of the sector, and about the complexities of working within the Australian government structure, there seems to be comparatively little room for joint problem solving or actually trying to nut out what the changes in our world mean for the sector here. The conference has been largely filled with show-and-tell papers, many of which are hugely interesting, but don’t necessarily provide people with either practical skills or the space in which to think through issues confronting them with colleagues. Now, that stuff of course happens in the conversations around bars and dinners, over meals, but this lacks the robustness of debate that can happen when professionals with different experiences are plonked down with microphones and a good facilitator and actually invited to talk about real problems.

Yesterday I did what may have been a professional misstep, and what was certainly a gamble, and ditched my prepared speech in order to just talk about my concerns that we still really don’t understand the point of (many) online collections, beyond the idea of “access” (obviously picking up from Koven’s work in this area). My original talk was stronger than the one I actually presented, and would likely have made my point more eloquently… but in going freeform, there became some room for debate and discussion (and heated temperatures – my session chair did not agree with me on some issues).

A frequent concern that I carry is whether I have the right to speak up about the sector at all. What right do I have to do so? What happens if the noise I make proves to be a diversion away from the issues of real importance; a terrible nag that ignores the things that matter because I am too blinded by my own interests. We all have our own biases, and it is certainly not correct that simply being noisy about an issue means you have something meaningful to say. I ask questions about the things that I cannot or do not understand, and it’s great to get answers. But that doesn’t mean these are the things the sector should be talking about.

This is also why there need to be strong mechanisms for debate; for calling someone out on a bad idea or working out why something cannot or will not work. A comment that someone senior in the field made to me this week was that “People are terribly polite in this sector.” I think he was right. It’s actually one of the lovely and charming things about working in museums, that museum people very much do want to work for the good of the community, and they carry an awareness that causing offense unnecessarily is something to be avoided (it’s an issue people grapple with so often in exhibition curation etc). But politeness can also be a problem, surely, if it prevents people from speaking up when something is rotten in the town of Denmark.

We need more people to join in the debate, and we need to encourage the people from small institutions to speak to their challenges as well as their successes, because without it we cannot even know if we are trying to address the things that matter. It is important not to be blinded by that which is shiny and present (or easy) at the expense of that which matters.

What do you think? What are the most pressing issues facing the Australian museum and gallery sector?

I should say at this point that I am only here at MASA2012 thanks to receiving a partial bursary from the MA Museum Studies National Network.

A museumgeek-in-residence?

The cultural sector has a lot of residencies. There are writers-in-residence, artists-in-residence, and even Wikipedians-in-residence. I want to be a museologist-in-residence.

In November, I’m heading to the USA for MCN2012. It will be my fourth trip to the States in about twenty months, and I want to make the most of the opportunity of being there. What I am hoping is to find an institution willing to put me up for the week following the conference as an in-house museumgeek.

During the residency, I would ideally meet with staff from across the institution, explore the buildings and learn about the museum programming. I’d hope to get a fairly intensive introduction to a different museum, and learn more about the particular complexities it faces, sharing the insights I gain here. My reflections on the institution will feature on museumgeek for a full week (and no doubt continue to shape my thoughts after as well).

I’m hoping that this idea sounds like a good bargain for someone, somewhere. You’ll get an in-house blogger and museumgeek; I’ll get new insight and inspiration (and experience life in a different city).

I don’t have any preconceived notions about the sort of institution that I’d like to end up in or its location, so if you would be interested in playing host to your very own museumgeek-in-residence, get in touch here or find me on Twitter. I’d love to hear from you.

Let’s play! How to block innovation in your museum?

One of the best sessions I attended at GovCamp this week was a reverse brainstorming session run by Nerida Hart on “How to block innovation”. We had to come up with the things that effectively prevent innovation in an organisation. It was great. I thought it might be a cool thought experiment to involve you in too. (It also seemed appropriate to the theme of avoiding innovation to simply take an idea from elsewhere and adapt it to my own purpose.)

So let’s play! How would you prevent your museum from being innovative? To kick off, if I wanted to block innovation I would:
– prevent social media or talking to anyone outside the institution (definitely no conferences).
– punish failure.
– not value innovation.

Since this is a game, I’m even going to offer a prize (Australian treats!) for the person who comes up with the least innovative answer (mmm… incentivising mediocrity).*

Join in! What are the best ways to prevent/block innovation and fresh thinking in (your) museums?

*NB: It’s worth noting that the winner will be chosen completely at a whim. Nothing motivates like randomness and unpredictability in reward systems.

Documenting the digital strategy unconference session @ MW2012

Digital and strategy are two themes that keep emerging in all of my conversations around musetech issues at the moment, and with this morning’s great session on Digital Strategy as context, I proposed an unconference session on those questions. The basic parameters we wanted to explore were how do you act as an internal translator to others in your institution (ie advocacy and communication); how do we collaborate with internal/external stakeholders, and where does digital sit in your institution, and where should it sit?

I’m going to discuss this in more depth later, but for now I thought I’d do a very quick post that captures the documentation of the event.

The discussion on where those at MW2012 sit within their institution, and where they feel they should sit has also prompted a poll asking what department you are in. It would be great if you wanted to answer it over the next day or two before Keir Winesmith posts the results.

Thanks to all those who participated in the session, and to Erica Gangsei for being note-taker.

Museum technologists + organisational digital literacy

Just a quick post whilst sitting in the digital strategy session of MW2012. Is it the responsibility of musetech staff to help push the digital literacy of the broader institution? We often talk about the expectation that other staff in the organisation need to learn how digital works in order that they understand the value of digital, but is it our place to be teaching this? If not us, how will staff with existing low digital proficiency learn about how to negotiate the tech landscape? Do they even need to? If you want a curator to blog or participate on Twitter, digital proficiency is clearly important, but is it up to us to enable their movement into this space?

On curatorial voice and the web

Well, this is going to be an interesting week. Although I have only been in San Diego for Museums and the Web 2012 for about 24 hours now, I have already had more stimulating conversations than in recent months put together. Where time allows, I will shoot to capture a few of these emerging ideas as they come (although time to digest might be hard to come by until the conference ends).

So, first up. I’ve had a couple of parallel discussions with Dafydd James from the National Museum of Wales, and with Ed Rodley (finally, we meet!), about the importance of voice and pitch for different audiences, and it got me thinking of what we are asking of curators (amongst others) when we want them to blog/make public their research or make it open and accessible.

My PhD writing is very different from my blog writing. It is far more dry, academic and formal. The tone and the content are both different, because I am writing for a different audience. Similarly, my early misgivings about the Museums Association UK republishing Can a technologist get ahead in museums? was because the writing had been done for the context of museumgeek, and not for a broader and more general audience. In each case, I am tailoring my pitch to the people I expect to be reading my work.

Frequently curators, and other researchers, are used to writing for a very specific group of other researchers (ie research papers, formal publications). Much as we in the musetech community know each other and speak using particular terminology etc, so do they. This community of passion has a shared understanding of context, and a shared vocabulary, and can talk to the nuance and detail of an issue, because they all have a broad understanding of that issue.

However, when we ask curators to write for the web, we are asking them to write for a completely different audience – and an undefined one at that. The type of language to use, the expectation of existing knowledge – all that is gone. Instead, there is an expectation that the curator can instantly repitch their work, but without a particular focus. Of course, most curators are competent writers, and the change in voice might not prove a problem, but it does likely require additional work and different approach.

Even beyond this, however, by having to simplify their work into a pitch that can be more broadly understood, the nuance of the issue, too, is at risk of being lost, and that changes the nature of the discussion. Maybe some curators could even gently harbour a concern of actually eroding some of their professional standing and reputation by publishing work that is generalist, rather than specialised. (This point is entirely speculative, but it’s something to consider.)

This simplifying of content does already occur in the context of museum exhibition text, but because it is often limited by space, it is also expected to by short and simplistic. The expectation is already pre-set, and this writing exists in the clear context of the exhibition. The open nature of online research is different.

This also threatens the idea we often hear in musetech conversations that we simply need better workloads and content management systems. It’s not so simple as just ‘producing content’ and making that content available, because all content requires repurposing for audience.

When, in my last post, I spoke about breaking musetech conversations out of the bubble, my closing question was How can we as musetech professionals become better translators, and better speak the language that others in the field are using? The question is at least in part about pitch. How can we repitch our conversations so that they are meaningful outside our own bubble? It strikes me that when we argue for curators etc to engage online, we are expecting that they will do the same. But it’s a lot easier to talk to those who already understand your subject than those who don’t, and maybe that adds a layer of complexity.

What do you think? Do you think that this idea of reframing content adds complexity to the question of curatorial voice online? Or, if you are a curator, do you feel there is an expectation to publish different online than you would offline?

MW2012 + breaking musetech conversations out of the bubble

The other day, when following up on the responses to misconceptions about museum technologists, I happened upon on a 2009 post by Nina Simon regarding what she termed the ‘participatory ghetto’. She wrote (emphasis mine):

…In most museums, technologists are still seen as service providers, not experience developers. They live in well-defined (and self-protected) silos. There are stereotypes flying in many directions—that curators won’t give up authority, that technologists don’t respect traditional museum practice, that educators are too preachy, that marketers just want to get more live bodies in the door.

How are we going to bridge this divide? Many of the technologists I met at Museums and the Web never go to regional or national museum conferences. When I asked why, people said, “no one there understand what we’re doing,” or “it just reminds me of how far behind the rest of this field is.” I understand the desire to learn from and spend time with people in your part of the field, but I was surprised at the extent to which people had no interest in cross-industry discussions. I’m teaching a graduate course at University of Washington right now on social technology and museums. Four of my students were at Museums and the Web. None are attending AAM (the American Association of Museums). They don’t see it as relevant to their future careers. This worries me.

We need to do a lot more talking across the aisle, working hard to adapt our specialized vocabularies to a common discussion about institutional mission and change.

So after attending MW three years ago, Simon’s takeaway was that people in musetech had no interest in cross-industry discussions. This is precisely opposite the sentiment I’ve been picking up on lately, as right now this question seems to be at the heart of what many musetech people are interested in. How do we bridge the divide and communicate the value of what we do to the museum community more broadly?

In the comments on misconceptions about museum technologists, Bruce Wyman offered this thought:

Technologists need to leave their home turf and talk to other disciplines in their language and with their needs in mind. They need to show understand of the goals and how to improve those *specific* core needs not only through technology but also the overall program.

This could be an interesting unconference discussion for Museums and the Web 2012 (this week!). What can we – as individuals and a sector – do right now to start bridging the divide between musetech and the rest of the museum?

I’d really love to explore this idea whilst at the conference this week, so if you are at MW2012, come and find me. I am giving a demonstration on Saturday (although I am demonstrating a conceptual art piece, so there isn’t all that much to see… this means it’s a good opportunity to work through the ideas behind the project, and seeing where such conversations might lead.). Otherwise I am likely to be around where ever there is karaoke or good conversation.

How can we break museum technology conversations out of the bubble? How can we as musetech professionals become better translators, and better speak the language that others in the field are using?

I’d love your thoughts.