Crowdfunding, hype & the Goddamn Tesla Museum

There must have been a collective intake of breathe from museum professionals around the world last month when Matthew Inman from The Oatmeal put the call out to build a Goddamn Tesla Museum, inviting donations and support via Indiegogo.  The crowdfunding project has now raised more than $1.2million, with the city of New York promising to match $850,000 of that money. Imagine that. More than 30,000 people have pledged money towards an as-yet-nonexistent museum/science centre. Science! Nerds! Money for a museum! How totally rock and roll.

Despite the attention that has come to it since Inman’s involvement, the project isn’t a new one. The Tesla Science Center (formerly known as the Friends of Science East, Inc.) has been formally active since February 14, 1996, so although the Tesla Science Center has now come to the fore with the crowdfunding project, it has not simply appeared out of thin air. This has been a long-burning campaign that has just undergone a radical shift in prominence. From being a pet-project and passion for the TSC, something that must at times have seemed no more than a pipe dream, the Tesla Science Center now holds potential to be real. What a colossal shift in the course of a month.

The shift in attention, prominence, and possibility brings with it all kinds of interesting questions. First, let’s assume that the FSE does acquire the property (there are other bidders, like Milka Kresoja). What then? Are the Board of Directors for the TSC in a position to capitalise upon their sudden rush of funds and support? Is the museum actually feasible? And how will those thousands of people who have contributed to the project feel when it starts to move from months into years before the Tesla Museum becomes real?

This is one of the as-yet-untested aspects of such a big crowd-funding project; can a project built on hype and excitement, which invites emotional and economic investment (some of it significant) from people all over the world, continue to hold attention, to live up to its own build up? Or is there an inevitable backlash when projects change, adapt, or even fail?

Back before I dedicated myself to solving the many mysteries of museums, I worked in the music industry, so hype is something I have a fairly keen interest in. I have watched indie bands pick up buzz as early adopters gathered around and invested in them; knowing that they were in on something secret and special; a band with the compelling allure of potential. Once that buzz starts, capitalising upon it relies on timing and maintaining momentum. A band full of potential that waits too long to impress and live up to their early promise may all too soon be written off as a casualty on the hunt for the next big thing. Hype, buzz, potential – whatever word you want to use for it – can be all too fleeting, particularly if the return on investment is a long time coming.

Marketing company Gartner uses hype cycles to help characterise what happens following the introduction of new technologies. The hype cycle follows five phases, being a trigger in which “Early proof-of-concept stories and media interest trigger significant publicity. Often no usable products exist and commercial viability is unproven”; a peak of inflated expectations; a trough of disillusionment, when “interest wanes as experiments and implementations fail to deliver… Investments continue only if the surviving providers improve their products to the satisfaction of early adopters”; a slope of enlightenment; and finally a plateau of productivity, in which “Criteria for assessing provider viability are more clearly defined. The technology’s broad market applicability and relevance are clearly paying off.” Although the methodology is intended for technology adoption, such a cycle can likely also apply to this situation.

Gartner Hype Cycle

It is in this space that the Goddamn Tesla Project will prove to be an interesting test case. Mark Walhimer estimates that it takes between 5 and 10 years to start a museum, but if comments on The Oatmeal’s post like this one –  “Good luck Matthew! This Goddamned Tesla Museum needs to happen. RIGHT MEOW!!!!” – give any indication, then the slow-burn from now to then might indeed cause supporters of the project to fall into the trough of disillusionment.

On the Indiegogo fundraising site, it is acknowledged that:

Even if we raise the full amount and end up with $1.7 million, this isn’t enough to build an actual museum / science center. But it will effectively put the property into the right hands so it can eventually be renovated into something fitting for one of the greatest inventors of our time.

Similarly, on The Oatmeal’s FAQs about the project, Matthew Inman has written:

If this is a success, can you build a museum right away? What happens next?
The property the laboratory is on is a bit of mess. It needs to be cleaned up, restored, and there’s a ton of work to be done to actually turn this into something worthy of Tesla’s legacy. The money we’re raising is simply to secure the property so no one can ever mess with it and guarantee that it’s a historic site. It opens up years and years of time to figure out how to build a proper Nikola Tesla museum.
However, I would love to have some kind of Nikola Tesla festival on the property on July 10th of 2013 (Nikola Tesla Day), and have some kind of zany Tesla-coil-BBQ-cookout.

The short-term goal of a Tesla Festival may be enough to satisfy those who have invested in the project to see it as being worthwhile. Such an event would give a sense of culmination and momentum; both important for capitalising upon early hype and potential. But we aren’t likely to get real perspective on whether crowdfunding a museum from scratch can prove to be a rewarding model for either the museum or its funders for many years. In this way, the Goddamn Tesla Museum is likely to prove an interesting test case. It might be here that some real questions around museum innovation can be answered.

What do you think? Can interest in a project like this one be sustained over time, or is it inevitable that those enthusiastic geeks the world over will become disillusioned as the Museum takes years to move from idea to actuality?

How is the world different because your museum is online?

“How do we measure for epiphany?” Rob Stein’s question from MCN2011 haunts me.

Measurement is on my mind. As a theorist, I don’t tend naturally towards the quantifiable. Neither do museums in some ways. Much of the value of museums is other-than-economic, and not easily measurable. But we live in a society that demands success in quantifiable packaging. We really need a Wondermeter, but since we don’t have one finding the right questions to ask, the right things to measure becomes critical.

It occurs to me, then, that changing the conversation on online collections or museum websites (or anything that we know is important) will demand that we have the right metrics; metrics that funders or board members can make sense of in order to benchmark new ways of thinking about digital against other priorities; metrics that alter the way we think about what we do, and why.

When I think about how I conceive of the online museum collection and its potential role in the broader information ecosystem, it doesn’t make sense to me if success is measured simply by numbers of object records online or visits to the website. That doesn’t tell us anything about whether new knowledge is being created using the collection, or how the collection records are meaningful beyond the museum – and I think those are much more interesting questions. As Jasper Visser put it:

I recently realised that we, cultural institutions, are using the wrong metrics to measure our online success, because we’re measuring just that: generic success. We’re using statistics and software that is perfectly fine when you’re selling Cokes, but might not be ideal for culture, heritage and the arts.

There are some important general questions that should be asked when considering digital success and metrics (Clairey Ross’ post following Seb’s MW2011 web metrics course is a great starting place here). But I’m going to imagine some new metrics, ones that measure the things I think are *really* important, beyond the basics. You might not agree with me that these are the right things to measure. That’s great. What is?

1. What new innovations, knowledge, and digital inventions have come from people using your collection/information?
Patrick Hussey recently considered how crowdfunding is changing culture, and asked “Is it possible that crowdfunding is telling us something rather profound – that the most important and popular form of creativity at this point in history is not ‘useless’ art, but digital invention?” It’s a question that recalls to me one of the conclusions that Koven drew from his unconference session on online collections at MW2012, that “The after-market for collections data may be the most important one.” What if making possible digital invention and new collection-driven discovery was the point of museum collections? How would we measure that? Would the right metric be measuring how many new inventions/innovations have come from people utilising collection data, or what new knowledge had come of it? And if that was a metric, would that change the way your museum acted? Would you run more hack days to encourage innovation around the collection? Would you make sure your data was available as an API? Would you change your image licensing allow image downloads for non-commercial and academic use as the UK National Portrait Gallery have just done?

2. How does your collection link to the broader information ecology?
If we were to start thinking of the online museum collection as a living historical document rather than a mere catalogue, one in which we can discover things about our collections that we’ve never known before, what would indicate success? Would we measure how many Wikipedia entries lead back to the collection? How many external links lead out from the collection to authoritative sources? As Nate Solas has reminded us previously, authority online is conferred by linking to the right sources and places, by making the information that people need and want findable and available. You only have to look at the Walker’s website to see how they are making use of this kind of thinking. What could we measure to encourage more of this?

3. How is the world different because your collection, your museum is online?
Ok, this one is getting more towards the esoteric end of things, but go with me. Maxwell Anderson, in You Get What You Measure writes of answering the question “how is the world different because your museum exists?” It would be interesting to try to find measurements that answer the question “how is the world different because your collection is online?” If we cannot find ways to answer that, maybe we aren’t really having an impact at all? In which case, why bother? Of course, this isn’t something that is easily quantifiable (I told you, I’m a theorist not an evaluator), but I’d love to find new ways to measure the real importance of a museum’s online presence, of its impact as an educational institution, and the impact of the online collection. As Jasper puts it, our significance, not just our success.

I want museums and collections to be meaningful, online and offline. I think they are; or should be; or can be. But maybe they aren’t yet as meaningful as they will be. It’s not quite measuring for epiphany, but maybe it’s not that far from it.

What do you think? Am I completely wrong with my imagined new metrics? What would be better? What crazy things would you want to measure, and how would you do it? Feel free to talk about your own area of fascination, right across the institution. Don’t just limit yourself to mine.

BTW – there are some good general posts about museum metrics that have recently surfaced. Worth reading too.

The Museum of Museum Practice

Following my last post, it might come as a surprise to readers that I don’t actually play the “if I had a museum of my own, I’d…” game very often. I am too early in my career, and still have too much to learn to imagine balancing the complexities of museum management with emerging and pressing issues. My dreams are more coloured by hopes of working in certain institutions, with particular people, or on great projects. (An aside, if you haven’t read Robert Connolly’s great comments on that post yet, go back and do so – lots to think about there.)

But after Paul Rowe Tweeted that he “would love to see a museum exhibition about duplicates – multiple accessions of (almost) the same thing” because “There’s stories behind why multiple copies were collected and what use the duplicates have” I felt the need to share Luke Dearnley’s awesome idea for a museum that I would love to have as my very own, because it is one that captures my own imagination. Ready?

The Museum of Museum Practice

(I know, I know… the suspense would have been greater if I hadn’t titled the post with the name.) For Dearnley, the Museum of Museum Practice would be a place where the bad habits of old museums could be conserved and documented for us to learn from, as well as a space for documenting newer and better practices. Rock and roll.

As a museumgeek, the idea of having a Museum of Museum Practice excites me more than it should. Imagine the exhibitions, which could absolutely be about duplicates; about the how and why one museum has acquired multiple accessions of (almost) the same thing. As Rowe, building upon his earlier Tweet with a post on the museum of duplicate things, writes:

I would love to see a museum exhibition about duplicates. An exhibition could relate the stories behind the multiple copies, shedding light on one element of museum practice. 100 specimens of the same butterfly may have arisen from research into the distribution or variations of that insect. Multiple copies of a similar domestic vase may have been acquired before the museum established a clear collecting policy. One object may be a sacrificial item used for school children to handle on visits, while other examples are more carefully conserved in the storage room. The museum may even manufacture reproductions, particularly for display or education purposes. It’s at times like this that Calvin’s Duplicator would come in handy.

Such fun! An object could be displayed alongside all of the didactic information that has accompanied it in previous exhibitions (if only they had been kept and preserved), and the audience could learn about how the interpretation had changed, how curatorial language has evolved, and even how different technologies had been used (great to have an object accompanied by an early audioguide).

The museum could have displays about displays (a diorama of dioramas?!?), and curators and registrars would have to examine and critique their own work, simultaneously historians and museum professionals. (Yes I know, it’s all getting very meta.) Programming could include public restorations of objects, or open discussions about the ethics of repatriation. Exhibits could at times be subversive (as I gather those in the Museum of Jurassic Technology are), and knowingly self-referential.

But think what we would learn about our own sector, and what insights might be provoked, had we a museum with an exploration of museum practice at the heart of its mission. Ideally the MoMP would be a teaching and research institution, with strong ties to the local museum community. How well might students learn about the changes that have taken place in the sector, and how much better equipped to deal with change when it impacts upon their own museum? How useful (and hopefully interesting) for the broader community to learn more about the behind-the-scenes decision-making that takes place within the museum?

Objects in the museum could be both genuine, and created. Artists and guest curators could be engaged to interpret the work of museums, pulling to mind Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum, and Andy Warhol’s Raid the Icebox. The museum could run a regular museologist-in-residence program, and be a testing ground for prototyping new ideas. It could be thoroughly experimental, all the whilst documenting that which has often been slow to change.

In some ways, all museums are museums of museum practice (particularly those that only rarely update their procedures or exhibitions), but rarely are they consciously so. Through collecting and preserving the practices of museums past and present, the museum of museum practice could help us prototype and develop practices for the future.

What do you think? What would you want to see in the Museum of Museum Practice? What would the Curator of curation unearth? What kind of registration practice should the Registrars adopt? And how to document changes to process when they occur?

Are we engaged yet? What happens after the pledge is made?

Just about everyone I know in this sector seems to have harboured some fantasy of having his or her own museum; of doing things differently. Some want a small rebel museum (easier for experimentation); some want to take charge of a bigger space for really radical change (which brings to mind Jasper Visser’s recent post on big ships versus speedboats). I am curious as to why this is. Is it simply a question of ambition? Does everyone want to be “the guy” (instead of “the guy the guy counts on”)? I don’t quite think that’s it. Is it that the engaged sections of the sector are full of entrepreneurs-in-museum clothing who love the institution of the museum, but grate against its limitations? Is it simply because, like imagining what you’re going to be when you grow up, it gives a focus for crafting a vision of the future?

I suspect one factor is the very fact that we (and by we I mean anyone who thinks seriously on the question of the museum, and what its purpose is and how it should best fulfill that purpose) are so engaged with the problem. On some level, all engagement brings with it a promise or a pledge for further action. It is a gearing up in readiness for something further. And so when museum professionals engage so seriously in regular and ongoing rumination about the questions of what a museum should be doing, and how, and for whom, the next natural step is to want to do something with that engagement; to fulfill the pledge that was made upon immersion in the subject. To take the ideas and tentative solutions being dreamed up and discussed on blogs and in Tweets everywhere and test them out.

That’s not always possible (although pilot projects and the like can provide some opportunity for discovering whether an idea had real legs, or was merely a beautiful fiction). Acting upon the urge to make serious change can be difficult until you control a budget and a staff; until you have your own department or museum. And so people dream of having a museum of their very own and think about what they would do differently; about how they would start a museum from scratch, conceive of a kinetic museum or re-imagine museums. Some of these conversations are simply fun. Some are great intellectual forays that get the mental juices flowing in an entirely pleasurable way. But some, no doubt, come from a sense of powerless and frustration at a perceived need for change, without having the mechanisms to do anything about it.

It makes me wonder whether the same is true of museum audiences. Once they are engaged, do they too have an urge for something more? Once a museum has put time into courting a visitor and getting them engaged, does the museum then consider how to make good on its pledge for further action? I am sure that the best museums do, although I often have the impression that the discussion finishes at “engagement” rather than being about a lifelong relationship. Is there a level of frustration, then, when someone is engaged and committed if the relationship stalls? Sue Bell Yank recently farewelled MOCA’s Engagement Party, asking in the title of the post if she could “have her ring back?”, and I think her post is a useful metaphor for considering how we deal with museum audiences once they have coyly batted their eyelashes at our proposals, and said yes.

If you make an effort to engage someone, whether for a speaking engagement or a marriage, there is an expectation that accompanies the pledge. And if the  relationship doesn’t meet those expectations, there can arise a frustration that can lead to disengagement, to breaking off future involvement. And I wonder if that is a problem that confronts this sector in both professional and public circles. If a great museum professional’s commitment and ideas aren’t recognised, they will probably stop giving them. If a visitor (or user) cannot see validity in their input or ongoing relationship with the museum, they probably will stop committing to it. How can we make sure that neither of those outcomes happen? How can museums make sure that engaged staff continue to feel that their contributions are valid, even if they are not always practical? How can we help visitors feel appreciated, even if they are just lurkers in our physical and digital spaces?

Dating and courtship might be the first steps in a new relationship, but engagement isn’t the last. So often it seems that our discussions end at that point, but I’m not sure that’s where they should stop. How can we utilise the investment (whether of time, money, or emotion) that someone has made into our exhibitions, museums, programs, or their own careers, to ensure that the relationship continues to be fulfilling?

Does your (current) museum see engagement as being the goal, or just a stage in a longer relationship? And have you ever harboured your own fantasy of having a museum of your very own? If so, what would you do differently?

Guest post: What can Museums learn from nonprofit leadership?

This post is written by Janet Carding, Director and CEO, Royal Ontario Museum, who very generously offered to share some core takeaways from attending a Harvard Business School executive course on Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management. Although the focus of museumgeek is ostensibly technology and its impact on museums, questions of change, strategy, and complexity intersect with any discussion that occurs in this space, as does the subject of museum leadership. Janet’s insight as a museum director, then, is one that I am sure all readers will benefit from.

Janet Carding
Director & CEO, Royal Ontario Museum

When you are leading a museum you get lots of advice from all different directions. Some of it is lobbying about specific issues. It often ignores the complexity of running a mission-driven organization, which serves many different audiences with limited resources. And whilst there are mountains of management texts for business leaders, very few of them spend much time on the nonprofit sector. So I felt very fortunate this year to secure a place on the week-long Harvard Business School course for non-profit leaders called Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management. There were around 140 Directors and CEOs in Cambridge, MA for the course, and I was one of only a dozen from the cultural sector. For me one of the main draws of the course was a chance to hear more about the challenges CEOs from charities, independent schools, development agencies and non-profit health care providers were facing now, and how they were adapting to deal with them.

It is not too big a claim to say that the week was one of the most intense learning periods of my life, and I am only now really starting to process what we discussed and think about how it applies to the ROM. But there were many areas that are very relevant for museums and other cultural institutions, and I’m very happy to share and have others help me reflect through this guest blog!  I’ll just pick three highlights from the many that I could choose.

Firstly, every lecture and discussion flagged the importance of a clear theory of change. On our first full day Professor Dutch Leonard, one of the course leaders said, think about exactly what you are trying to accomplish, and be clear about how what you do brings about what you are looking to achieve.  I think museums often dance around these questions, perhaps because in the past the role of museums wasn’t questioned so much. Now I think we are all trying to answer the question, “what are we trying to accomplish?” If the answer to that question is framed in terms of impact, then the next questions we should ask are about the activities, outputs and outcomes that are required to have that impact. This kind of logic model was used again and again during the week at HBS. (See this Kellogg Foundation guide that usefully outlines the theory of change, and logic models.) While conversations about outcomes are not new in museums, I feel we still spend a lot of time talking about what we do rather than what change we are trying to make, and when we are asked to measure success, it sometimes exposes gaps between the programs we create and the claims we make.

Next, many of the case studies we reviewed looked at the array of different pressures that our various stakeholders put on nonprofits, and in those circumstances how hard it was to avoid fragmentation, and forge alignment of your different activities. Allen Grossman talked about the importance of managing upstream (your funders, donors and those who buy from you), and reinforced that a clear theory of change was a starting point that then led to performance measures, not just to demonstrate to funders, but so that you know if your organization is succeeding. He also spoke about the importance of building leadership capacity, and of creating cultures where measuring impact was seen as important. It feels to me that performance measures are often seen in museums as hurdles imposed by funders, rather than important tools for us to use in assessing our own success. Similarly, while we are places of learning for our visitors and users, we often reduce our own professional development, and don’t invest in the capacity building and culture changes Grossman flagged as important.

The third highlight came courtesy of Frances Frei, whose lecture was something of a revelation for the whole group.  Based on her new book Uncommon Service Frances explained that her research had shown that, in order to succeed in customer service, organizations had to trade off being excellent at some things, with being bad at others. She convinced us that the alternative was not to be excellent at everything, but exhausted mediocracy. What a lovely expression! Again and again I hear from colleagues that the reality of working in a museum is not what they thought was the potential, and so that phrase, “exhausted mediocracy” really resonated with me.  It is tough to consider being bad at some things when you are a public service, but I think her approach is spot on, and would encourage you to look at her research. How do you choose where to be bad, and where excellent? Frances suggests you ask your audience what is important to them, and concentrate on being excellent in the areas that they say matter most.

Now you might be reading this blog and think, well none of these ideas are exactly new, and I would agree, but I think the clarity the HBS faculty brought to the points they made, coupled with a chance to consider them when away from the messy reality of day-to-day life in the museum made them very powerful. The net effect for me was one of validation. They provided an evidence base through their research for issues that, in less focused form, many of us spend a lot of time talking about, but aren’t always sure how to start changing.  This week gave me a lot of material, in a very concentrated form, which I think will help those conversations.

Some think museums and galleries need to more business-like, but in many ways after this course I think we instead need to be better nonprofits, say clearly why we make the world a better place, work closely with our users, and demonstrate the impact we make.

My thanks to the HBS Club of Toronto who, with the support of KPMG, awarded me a scholarship to attend this course.
My thanks also to Suse for the opportunity to do this guest blog, and for her interest and enthusiasm for all things museum!

This post will be republished on the Royal Ontario Museum website.

What can museums learn from the Register Citizen Open Newsroom Project?

A couple of articles popped into my feed today about US Digital First Media‘s announcement that they were creating a national curation team to

track, collect and distribute curated news in order for newsrooms to focus on local reporting. “Providing context to everything we curate is vital to providing a comprehensive news report,” said digital projects editor Mandy Jenkins. “It’s our responsibility to bring these stories to each of our local markets.”

Steve Buttry, Director of Community Engagement & Social Media at Digital First, has written a long and interesting post on news curation techniques, types and tips that’s worth reading for insight on the approaches of news organisation to curation. But after reading these two posts, I wanted to investigate a little further. I stumbled upon the Register Citizen Open Newsroom Project and its Newsroom Cafe. Now this makes for fascinating reading. The Newsroom Cafe is based in Torrington, Connecticut and it offers more than just food and drink… There are no walls between the cafe area and the newsroom, and “readers are invited to find the reporter that writes about their community or area of interest – or editors – and talk about concerns, ideas, questions.”

There are a number of strategies that the project employs, like allowing public debate of internal policies, fact checking programs, partnerships with other media and non-media organisations, and digital first reporting, that give useful pause for thought for museum organisations tackling the problems of the integration of digital and non-digital. In addition, the Newsroom Cafe offers a community media lab with a full-time community engagement editor. They also make a space for an artist-of-the-month program(!), featuring the work of local artists in the cafe space itself, while the most popular feature of the Cafe has been public access to the newspaper’s archives from their 134 year history – both of which are things that should catch the attention of museum people.

In addition, the Register Citizen holds their daily story meetings at a table on the edge of the cafe, and the community is allowed to sit in, listen or even participate. This is where it gets really interesting.

Video of the meetings is also live-streamed on RegisterCitizen.Com, and we use a live chat to allow readers to watch from home and type in a question or comment in real time. Those words are displayed on a large monitor above the conference table, so editors and readers can interact and respond to people tuning in from afar.

…A funny thing happened after we moved into the “open newsroom” last December. We stopped having “editorial board meetings,” at least in the traditional sense where an outside organization or politician meets behind closed doors with a committee of editors, reporters and the publisher. We were still getting requests, but when we did, we made sure the industry association or special interest in question knew how we do things now. We’ll meet with you, but it will be in public, our readers will be invited to attend and participate, and we’ll be live-streaming it on the web. For the most part, after that became clear, the party requesting the editorial board meeting said “No thanks.” Others, including Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, embraced it, and the public’s involvement, by all accounts, improved and advanced the discussion. An exciting opportunity has emerged for us to create a new kind of editorial board process.

These movements interest me for a number of reasons. For one thing, as a participatory location, The Newsroom Cafe starts to draw together the news room with its community in a far more immediate way. Rather than simply seeking community involvement online, the local community is drawn into the process even in the physical space but integrates that with digital processes.

The transparency and openness of the process has also changed the dynamics of editorial, in a way that seems to have upended previous practice. What would it be like to hold a curatorial or exhibition meeting in the museum cafe, when anyone could join in? Or, what would happen if museums opened up about the evolution of knowledge that occurs around their collections, and allowed the public into that process? Such a question recalls to me a paper by Bruno Latour on the revision of knowledge. He asks

does it distract visitors to know that there were paleontologists fighting one another, that fossils had a market value, that reconstitutions have been modified so often, that we “don’t know for sure”, or, as another label [in the NY Museum of Natural History exhibit A Textbook Case Revisited] states, “While it’s intriguing to speculate about the physiology of long extinct animals we cannot test these ideas conclusively”? The more fossils there are, we feel the more interesting, lively, sturdy, realistic, and provable are our representations of them; how come we would feel less certain, less sturdy, less realistic about the same representations when they multiply? When their equipment is visible? When the assembly of paleontologists is made visible?

It’s here, in the idea of opening up about the changes in museum knowledge, that I think museum transparency could really come into its own. But examples like the Newsroom Cafe further demonstrates the eroding demarcation of roles that were once more easily differentiated. The news becomes situated in space and time, becomes woven into the community. The digital and “real” have joined more seamlessly there, and such moves make it less easy to know what is to be the role of the museum, and what is the role of, well, some other organisation in the connected age. Boundaries are eroding, and while the material culture role of museums seems unthreatened, the experiential, educational and knowledge roles might be up for grabs. Even shopping centres are getting in on the act, taking on the Internet by stressing experience. Such movements could still have implications for museums, which is why I think we need to be looking to these kinds of projects to learn if and how they work.

What do you think about the Register Citizen Open Project? How would you feel if the public was allowed to sit in on exhibition or curatorial meetings? Do you think that museums should make visible the revisions in their knowledge? Let me know.

Let them eat cake. Revolutions + museum innovation.

During the last couple of weeks, it seems that everything I read is converging on a single topic: revolution. Whether reading about the structure of scientific revolutions (Thomas Kuhn), a social history of knowledge (Peter Burke), technological revolutions and techno-economic paradigms (Carlota Perez) or Rob Stein’s recent piece on technology as a catalyst for change in museums, discussions about the metamorphosis from one paradigm to another keep surfacing.

Kuhn’s book is the oldest of these texts, and within its pages he explores the way revolutions in normal science occur. Such normal science is the science that occurs when a scientific community has defined the legitimate problems and methods of a research field, colouring the way they see and understand the problems (and necessary solutions) of that field. The field has a foundation. However:

Sometimes a normal problem, one that ought to be solvable by known rules and procedures, resists the reiterated onslaught of the ablest members of the group within whose competence it falls… And when it does – when, that is, the profession can no longer evade anomalies that subvert the existing tradition of scientific practice – then begin the extraordinary investigations that lead the profession at least to a new set of commitments, a new basis for the practice of science. (p5, 6)

Such scientific revolutions are “the tradition-shattering complements to the tradition-bound activity of normal science.” (p6) They are what happens when a new theory disrupts prior theory and requires a complete reevaluation of accepted knowledge.

We are seeing this same type of change mimicked across the board right now, from news and media, government, retail, academia and publishing, just to name a few. The Internet motivates tradition-shattering examination of the what, how and why of so much previously accepted normal business. It cannot be simple solved by known rules and procedures. Simply adapting offline business to the online world does not work, as we’ve seen recently with the changes to news organisations. Instead each professional community is being forced to re-evaluate its traditional problems, rethink familiar entities and displace the old network of theory. (Kuhn, 7)

Such a paradigm shift is challenging, to say the least, because it involves letting go of the old without necessarily having a clear confidence in the success of the new. We are starting to have a sense of some of the things that don’t work, without necessarily knowing what does. No wonder there is such resistance from those within these sectors, from the old guard – those who have a vested interest in the success of the old system, which they have played a part in creating and enforcing hitherto. No wonder we are seeing such increasing emphasis on innovation, and the freedom to fail.

Perez discusses the shape and interconnectedness of innovation, and its impact on markets.

New technology systems not only modify the business space, but also the institutional context and even the culture in which they occur (as disposable plastics did in the past and the internet does now). New rules and regulations are likely to be required, as well as specialised training, norms and other institutional facilitators (sometimes replacing the established ones). These in turn tend to have very strong feedback effects upon the technologies, shaping and guiding the direction they take within the range of the possible.

Maturity is reached when the innovative possibilities of the system begin to wane and the corresponding markets to saturate. The key point here is that individual technologies are not introduced in isolation. They enter into a changing context that strongly influences their potential and is already shaped by previous innovations in the system.

Again, this is something we are seeing right now. Initially, museums could deal with new technologies almost as an adjunct to the ‘real’ work of the museum. It was an add-on, something akin to marketing in a different space. But we are moving beyond that now, because the institutional context and culture of the museum are also starting to change. We are starting to rethink the basic assumptions upon which museum practice has been built (what does it mean to be authoritative in a world that values transparency over opaqueness?)

But we should not forget that this is a cyclical undertaking. In looking at the social history of knowledge, Burke writes:

It is a history of the interaction between outsiders and establishments, between amateurs and professionals, intellectual entrepreneurs and intellectual rentiers. There is also interplay between innovation and routine, fluidity and fixity, ‘thawing and freezing trends’, official and unofficial knowledge. On one side we see open circles or networks, on the other institutions with fixed memberships and officially defined spheres of competence, constructing and maintaining barriers which separate them from their rivals and also from laymen and laywomen. The reader is probably tempted to side with the innovators against the supporters of tradition, but it is likely that in the long history of knowledge the two groups have played equally important roles. (p51, 52)

Right now, we in the musetech sector are the innovators, with open networks and unofficial knowledge. We are crafting the new paradigm for museums, and that bears great responsibility because we don’t yet know what works. It is all untested. But as we invest in these ideas, as we stake our intellectual capital on them, we will become more invested in their success. It will be harder for us too to let go of ideas that might not be appropriate the paradigm after our own. As Burke further iterates, “The creative, marginal and informal groups of one period regularly turn into the formal, mainstream and conservative organizations of the next generation or the next-but-one.” (p49)

In Rob Stein’s recent piece on technology as a catalyst for change in museums, he examined the shifting discourse within musetech circles, and the impact it’s having on professional practice and expectations.

In chemistry, certain reactions require the addition of a catalyst before any such magical transformation can begin. These catalysts can change a static combination of elements into a bubbling reaction that changes what was there before into something new. By extending this metaphor to museums, we can see that rapid changes in our technology-mediated culture have catalyzed dramatic shifts in museums during the past decade.

Recently, an interesting phenomenon has been taking place in museum technology circles. Conversations online and at conferences that were previously dominated by the pragmatic technical issues facing museums have been replaced by a series of discussions regarding many of the foundational challenges faced by museums today. Nuanced critical examinations about the identity of museums, their roles in society, responsibilities to serve a global public, issues of preservation, education, scholarship, primary research, and ethics have matured to the point that those same discussions are beginning to influence the strategic underpinnings of museums across the world.

What’s going on here?

We are the outsiders, the rebels, the innovators, and we have noticed cracks in the foundation. We are pushing for experimentation and trying out many new ideas in order that we can lay the new foundations upon which to construct our idea for the museum of the next generation. It is an exciting time to be working in this sector. But we should not forget that the more we invest in the ideas and assumptions that underpin our movements in this direction, the more we will become the old guard ourselves, finding it difficult when our own ideas are challenged and underwritten by the rebels and outsiders of the next generation.

It might seem premature to be thinking this way. Our ideas have not yet even taken hold. But awareness of such cycles and revolutions might lead those of us at the vanguard of change to have some greater understanding of those who work to hold museums back from change, those who have themselves invested significant amounts of their own energy and intellectual capital to craft a museum that reflected the needs and values of a previous paradigm. After all, it is usually the agitators who prevail in the end.

Provocation: Society doesn’t need museums.

This morning, Australia was greeted with the news that major media organisation Fairfax will shed 1900 staff, shift its two major newspapers from broadsheet to tabloid format, and erect paywalls around the websites of those major metropolitan dailies – all in response to decreasing ad revenue. It is expected that News Ltd. will follow suit, and make cuts in coming days.

Meanwhile, two US cities with metropolitan populations of more than a million (New Orleans and Birmingham) are about to become the first without daily newspapers. Such news heralds the latest movement in the ever-shifting media landscape as traditional broadcast organisations try to adjust to the changing information/media infrastructure.

These changes were the subject of the recent USA FCC report on the Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age. It is a long (468 pages), but interesting, read about the changing media landscape in the US, and although the media sector is in many ways different from the museum sector, there are also plenty of similarities, as some museum bloggers have recently noted. As the report captures:

It is a confusing time. Breathtaking media abundance lives side-by-side with serious shortages in reporting. Communities benefit tremendously from many innovations brought by the Internet and simultaneously suffer from the dislocations caused by the seismic changes in media markets. (7)

In a just-published assessment of the Fairfax changes, journalist Jonathan Green argues that the Internet is not to blame for the media organisation’s failure, but instead that poor revenue models were what dragged it down “Because the business is not content, not journalism; the business is selling advertising.”

Clay Shirky’s 2009 post on Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable  speaks to this. (HT to Nancy Proctor):

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

What Shirky has written here could as easily have museums as its focus. Society doesn’t need museums. What it needs is mechanisms for selecting, preserving and communicating objects and information about our past and present in order that we can better prepare for the future. To date, museums have been an important vehicle for answering that need. But it is not the institution itself that is significant – it is the purpose it seeks to fill.

Even within the sector, we can see that this is true. When Ed Rodley started his making a museum from scratch series, the first post attracted all sorts of questions about why it was that his collection needed to be a museum. As Koven put it:

just because you have a collection, you don’t necessarily have to display it. Just because you have a building, that building doesn’t necessarily have to be used to display those collections, or as a place for people to visit.

So surely the question we should be asking, as individuals, institutions and as a sector, is how do we achieve the purposes of selection, preservation and dissemination? Is it by collecting physical objects (as has historically been the case) and storing them, selectively displaying those that have particular illustrative or narrative qualities, as it has been? Or is it by investigating new models for publication, like the Walker has done, and integrating those models more closely with the physical building of the museum? Or will the approach need a completely new way of thinking through the problem?

A statement by museum scholar David Carr is of interest here. When reading, substitute the word Internet every time you see the word museum:

A museum is not about what it contains; it is about what it makes possible. It makes the user’s future conversations, thoughts, and actions possible. It makes engagements with artifacts and documents that lie beyond the museum possible. It constructs narratives that help us to locate our memories, passions, and commitments. The museum illustrates irresistible new thoughts and stimulates revisions of former thoughts. The museum invites us to reconsider how we behave and what we craft in the worlds of lived experience. The gift of a museum for every user is an appreciation of complexity, a welcoming to the open door of the unknown, the possible, the possible-to-know, and the impossible-to-know.
David Carr, “Mind as Verb,” in Museum Philosophy for the Twenty-First Century. 16. Author’s emphasis.

The environment and nature of the Internet means that it is innately set up to achieve many of the very things that Carr posits the museum seeks to accomplish. In fact, I would argue it is far better suited for making the user’s future conversations, thoughts and actions possible. The very existence of the Internet, then, raises questions about the role of the museum.

Jim Richardson at MuseumNext just argued that:

Museum leaders need to rethink digital, and look at it from a more strategic perspective, one which can really deliver on the mission of the institution and the needs of the public. Museum leaders need to recognise that a powerful website can deliver just as much as a powerful exhibition and fund the roles within the institution to produce something credible online.

Although I agree with his perspective, I don’t think it goes far enough. Digital does not just change modes of delivery. It changes the nature of the very problem that museums purport to solve. That the model we have had to date has largely worked may be more a happy accident than indicative of its superior design.

Of the Fairfax changes, Jonathan Green says:

There was a moment, maybe 10 years ago now, when a bold management at Fairfax might have picked the company up by the scruff of the neck, rationalised the staff, integrated the online and print operations, trimmed the paper size, and moved the content toward a premium mix of context and analysis.

They would have looked adventurous, bold, purposeful; they would have left the competition in their dust. But that was 10 years ago.

Now is that time for museums. We still need the things that museums do. We still need to know how to select, preserve and disseminate, whether objects or information. What we don’t need is museums. If those same needs can be met by other means (digital or otherwise), the impact on museums will be significant. I think it’s important to keep this in mind as we look to the future, particularly as we see the effects of the Internet on other traditional institutions.

What do you think? Does society need museums, or just the things that museums seek to do? And if the latter, what should that mean for museums as they approach the coming decade?

What happens when geeks design museums?

I’ve started to notice a couple of interesting patterns or trends in the digital museum dialogue over the last couple of weeks and months. Just taking a quick flick around the blogs and looking at some of my favourite museum thinkers, we have Koven speaking at MuseumNext about the Kinetic Museum, and asking What if a museum’s overall practice were built outwards from its technology efforts, rather than the other way around?. Ed’s making a museum from scratch series is moving towards imagining a radically transparent museum – one in which labels might include information about who wrote them, objects might have whole histories available, or information that leads visitors back outside the walls of the museum to continue their journey beyond the physical space. And Seb has proposed that “the exhibition as a form needs to adapt. Radically. And I don’t mean into a series of public programs or events.” His great post from last week, too, considered new ways of designing exhibitions as immersive events with digital parallels.

There are two things that I find fascinating about this. The first is that this dialogue is forming a kind of dispersed ‘Koinonia’, or  collaborative thinking. Although each of us is physically removed from one another (in my case, across oceans, and for the others, at least a few hours of travel between), we are all bouncing off, and building upon, the ideas, questions and inspirations being shared by the others.

But the second reason this is interesting to me is that in each case, they we are all starting to reimagine or redesign physical museum experiences with ideas drawn from digital experiences. The museum technology conversation seems to be shifting from merely how does technology impact the business of the museum practice to how should it impact the museum building or the design of museums physically. Of course, there is precedence for these conversations with Nina Simon’s approach to exhibition design, which draws upon Web2.0 philosophies. But these new discussions seem to further explore the concept of creating the physical space of the museum upon the principles and values of the Internet.

So what are these values, and how could they apply to museum/exhibition design?

For me, the immediate ones that come to mind include transparency and openness, agility and responsiveness, customisable and personal experiences, and sharable, social and participatory interactions. Many of these ideas are ones that I’ve spoken about previously on this blog, but I’ve always focussed on how they might/should apply to museum online efforts.

Ed’s concept of radical transparency in the museum is provocative. In Too Big To Know, David Weinberger proffers that one of the basic elements of the Net experience is that “[t]he Net is a vast public space within which the exclusion of visitors or content is the exception.” (174.) He also points out the abundance of the Internet, where “there is more available to us than we ever imagined back in the days of television and physical libraries.” Taking these ideas into the physical museum space could see the size and complexity of working collection made visible and public as default, whilst still being able to distil ideas through the use of selected objects chosen for formal exhibition/display. This approach also puts a contemporary spin on the idea of curation, where the curator draws attention to the things worth seeing within the abundant content available. As I commented, the recently opened MAS | Museum Aan de Stroom in Antwerp has a visible storage area that houses about 180,000 artefacts from the collection. Imagine being able to see the entirety of a collection, as well as its details. What kind of public value might such an approach have?
(Of course, such an approach would likely have implications for cost, security etc. – there are many as-yet-unresolved issues here.)

What else? I think one of the most enduringly appealing things about the Internet is that it is highly personal and customisable. My experience online is likely very different from yours. You and I, we will read different things, and be drawn to different sites. We will even visit the same sites, but on different browsers and devices, or at different times of day. So how could a museum make an experience that put emphasis on “immersive exploration rather than a linear narrative“, as Seb has been asking? What kind of approach to exhibition design is needed to give individuals ownership over their experiences and yet still maintain connective narrative tissues to make sense of the core concepts and ideas at play?

Digital experiences are sharable, and frequently participatory. But they are also agile, kinetic, and scalable from global to local, and back again. Our conversations and interactions online are not limited to our physical proximity, but they are often related to it. I chat to people all over the world on Twitter, but also make a point of meeting up with them in person when circumstances allow. There is an overlap between my digital and physical experiences, a parallelism (as Seb recently observed). So how could these parallel experiences be incorporated into museum setting? Could the museum tap into and contribute to global themes and conversations before and after the visit (online or offline), and then focus on the local and particular in the actual space? Would that be the right approach?

Matt Popke, in the comments on Seb’s mixtape post, joins in.

I just think the bar has been raised a bit in the “historical narrative” part of the equation. People live in a google age now. If you encounter something you are not familiar with you simply google it and find out whatever you want to know (or maybe you think you find it, that’s another issue entirely). People are accustomed now to having mountains of information available to them at a whim. Tiny tombstone labels on collection items or informational plaques near an exhibit just don’t satisfy like they used to.

The challenge is finding a way to incorporate *all* of the rich history and context of an item in the display of that item, or otherwise finding a way to deliver more in an exhibition than we’re used to, more context, more data, more story. We need to deliver this information in a way that feels explorative, like the audience is taking their own path through our collection and discovering their own version of the narrative. Hypertext, as a medium, is perfect for this kind of intellectual exploration when dealing with an individual. How do we create a hypertext-like experience in a physical space that multiple people can enjoy simultaneously?

There are lots of ideas here, and most of them are entirely unresolved. Still, this trend in the conversation seems to bend more and more to be broaching the divide between the physical and virtual and trying to rethink or disrupt current approaches to museum or exhibition design. Why this is happening now, I’m not sure. (And does it have implications for museum careers? Will your next exhibit designer be someone with an interest/background in tech?) But it is an interesting line of questioning to pursue.

What happens when museums begin to bring the values and ideas that are normally associated with the Internet into the physical design of the museum?

I’d love your thoughts.

Do rats chase chocolate in your museum? Thoughts on organisational habituation.

Ed Rodley’s thought experiment on making a museum from scratch has only just started, but the responses to his initial post are provocative. Almost all of them question Ed’s initial assumptions about the scope and definition of the problem. After setting some conditional ground rules for the museum (it has about 200,000 objects, you have an old building in which they can be housed, and a big enough budget to get started, but you’ll need to be judicious with hiring etc), Ed’s starting place was the collection. He asked “Who are the audiences for this material and what are their needs?”

Instead of answering this question, however, almost all of the commenters have problematised the starting place of the inquiry. Why does this need to be a museum? If it is a museum, does the building necessarily have to be used for display? What kind of baggage comes with the collection that necessarily has to be dealt with before the museum can move forward? What is the museum’s mission, and how early into the process of creating the museum does it need this to be defined? Already the exercise has really brought home to me both the complexity of starting a project like this, and just how many assumptions we carry with us about museums. It has almost certainly brought such questions home to Ed too, since his second post seeks to address many of these questions.

But while I was thinking about this, a friend linked to a fascinating if slightly old article from the New York Times that explores consumer behaviour and the ways that companies target consumers. Amongst other things, it addresses the way behaviours become habituated and ingrained:

An M.I.T. neuroscientist named Ann Graybiel told me that she and her colleagues began exploring habits more than a decade ago by putting their wired rats into a T-shaped maze with chocolate at one end. The maze was structured so that each animal was positioned behind a barrier that opened after a loud click. The first time a rat was placed in the maze, it would usually wander slowly up and down the center aisle after the barrier slid away, sniffing in corners and scratching at walls. It appeared to smell the chocolate but couldn’t figure out how to find it. There was no discernible pattern in the rat’s meanderings and no indication it was working hard to find the treat.

The probes in the rats’ heads, however, told a different story. While each animal wandered through the maze, its brain was working furiously. Every time a rat sniffed the air or scratched a wall, the neurosensors inside the animal’s head exploded with activity. As the scientists repeated the experiment, again and again, the rats eventually stopped sniffing corners and making wrong turns and began to zip through the maze with more and more speed. And within their brains, something unexpected occurred: as each rat learned how to complete the maze more quickly, its mental activity decreased. As the path became more and more automatic — as it became a habit — the rats started thinking less and less.

It seems to me that right now, all of us who are participating in Ed’s thought experiment are like the rats with overstimulated neurosensors, trying to make sense of the maze of questions and possibilities of a new museum. We know there is a reward at the end (chocolate!), but the path to that reward is anything but clear. We are scratching at the walls, and trying to work out where the edges of the maze are. We are most engaged with the puzzle and most able to find new solutions.

But if this was a real situation, it likely wouldn’t be long before our behaviours habituated, and the thinking process was short-cut. In order to progress and move forward with the business of running a museum, rather than trying to solve every puzzle that comes up along the way to building a museum from scratch, there would surely be less and less opportunity for deep thinking and questioning of assumptions. As things progress, our organisational processes and behaviours become ingrained. They require less thought and make action faster. They are known and therefore likely safe. As a survival tactic, habituating behaviours make sense.

This is also likely one reason that museums continue to be modelled on similar ideas from one to the next. Doing so means that these difficult discussions that question every assumption can be circumvented. Rather than waging a near-constant intellectual battle, the business can pick a few key questions to concentrate on, and rely on habits and experience for the rest. But this also means that the process takes less thought and the outcomes are less likely to be substantially different from those that have come before. Is this why many museums fall back to default methods for dealing with their collections and publics? Is this why it is so hard to really challenge many of the ingrained organisational habits found in museums (or any business that accompanied by a legacy of tradition)? And if so, is there an alternative that might help staff within a museum find a balance between habits and critical thought?

Nina Simon just wrote a post about building a culture of experimentation in which staff are experimenters who are “driven by the desire to try things out and see what works, to collect data, to learn from the results.” In describing what such a culture looks like, she writes:

Whenever an intern takes a prototype out on the floor, I ask her, “What might change about this project based on this test?” If she is not willing or able to articulate a potential change, it’s not a prototype—it’s just a model of a foregone conclusion. At the MAH, prototypes have to be used to test a hypothesis, or to decide among options. This becomes more and more automatic as people feel the confidence that comes with making a decision based on data instead of arbitrary soothsaying.

Essentially, it seems like what Simon is trying to encourage experimentation to become the habituated and ingrained path, rather than outlier behaviour that only occurs when a new maze needs to be mapped or puzzle solved. I wonder whether it is possible to really make critical engagement and experimentation the habituated path across an organisation? What would make that happen? Other behaviours and habits would need to be effective in their automation, so that staff could rely on them and not have to be engaged with thinking through every action (which would be simply exhausting). So is it about getting the right balance?

What do you think? How hard is it for organisations to question their own assumptions and engage with ideas that could lead to new and more effective modes of doing business? Is this why the museum tech sector is so filled with conversation, because the changing landscape has meant that our behaviours and attitudes are not yet ingrained?