The Ethics Reader | March 24, 2023

What a month for museum ethics it has been! The Met has been the focus of several news articles after the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published an article linking more than 1,000 antiquities in the Met’s collection to traffickers. The ICIJ has been focused on collecting practices at the Met (and several other museums) for close to two years, following the revelations of the Pandora Papers. Earlier pieces examined the links between the deceased, indicted art trafficker Douglas Latchford and US Museums, including the Denver Art Museum (who, earlier this month announced they were removing the name of Latchford’s associate – and former DAM Board member – Emma Bunker from its Arts of Asia gallery, and returning financial gifts received from the Bunker family in support of its capital campaign).

One quote in the ICIJ investigation into the Met’s practices that caught my attention detailed some concerning historical context:

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art opened in 1880, long after its counterparts in Paris and London. The museum started out with a purchase of 174 paintings, placing it far from the scale of France’s palatial Louvre’s galleries already holding thousands of works, many inherited from the nation’s colonial exploits.

Even in the 1960s, the largest museum in North America was still playing catch-up. The Met’s leadership aggressively sought major acquisitions and took a casual approach to, and even at times embraced, antiquities smuggling as a mainstay of the museum’s sourcing.

Under its then director, Thomas Hoving, the Met embarked on a buying spree in an effort to build out an antiquities collection that could match rivals in London and Paris. Over the following decades, the institution filled its halls and warehouses with treasures from Greece, Italy, Egypt, India, Cambodia and beyond. “Not a single decade of any civilization that took root on earth is not represented by some worthy piece,” Hoving later wrote of the results of work he had begun. “The Met has it all.”

Woodman, Spencer, Malia Politzer, Delphine Reuter, and Namrata Sharma. “‘The Stuff Was Illegally Dug up’: New York’s Met Museum Sees Reputation Erode over Collection Practices.” The Guardian, March 20, 2023, sec. Culture.

The quote almost perfectly rhymes with this fascinating interview from July 2022 with Matthew Bogdanos, the head of the New York Antiquities Theft Task Force:

And there’s an emerging market that is, of all the trends, the most troubling: the Gulf states. Objects, mosaics, extraordinary reliefs that used to come the normal route—either to London or to New York—out of the Middle East, out of Iraq and Syria and Turkey and Lebanon and Egypt, are now stopping and disappearing in the UAE and Dubai, Qatar and Kuwait. And that is disturbing. 

When people said, “Oh, wow, it’s so great, the Louvre Abu Dhabi. It’s so amazing that they’re bringing culture to the people.” And my first thought was, no, that’s just another market. You know how the Getty was first founded? In the ‘60s, they had to acquire quickly to catch up because everyone else—well, they wanted to be a major world player. But all these major world museums had been in business hundreds of years. So in order to catch up—I mean, it’s well documented—they had to cut a lot of corners, right? Well, I don’t know why people think the Louvre Abu Dhabi would be any different. They’ve got to catch up. 

There’s only one way to catch up.

Petersen, Anne Helen. “Inside the Mind-Boggling World of the Antiquities Theft Task Force.” Substack newsletter. Culture Study (blog), July 17, 2022.

It’s a troubling take… Meanwhile, reframing the impact of illicit trade of cultural property, Sophiline Cheam-Shapiro has written about their experience of being asked to leave the Met when dancing a prayer to Cambodian antiquities within the galleries. Cheam-Shapiro writes:

Whenever I visit museums around the world that house Khmer antiquities, I pray to the gods and ancestors that inhabit them. Sometimes I simply put my hands together and chant. Other times I move. This is my tradition. It is an essential part of my identity and my relationship to these objects.

…About two minutes into my brief dance, a member of the museum’s security team approached me and stated that I wasn’t allowed to dance there without permission. He also instructed me to put on my shoes. Now, I knew that the museum would be unhappy if it understood what I was praying for. But in that trancelike state, I was unprepared to be interrupted. In fact, in my over 40 years of dancing, no one has ever told me to stop.

Cheam-Shapiro, Sophiline. “Met Museum Kicked Me Out for Praying to My Ancestral Gods.” Hyperallergic, March 21, 2023.

Cheam-Shapiro’s piece reminded me of this recent incident at the Portland Art Museum, in which an Indigenous woman was asked to remove her traditional woven baby carrier while visiting an exhibition of Native American art, since it violated the museum’s “no backpacks” policy, showing the continued tension between museum policies and the needs of different publics to be treated with dignity and respect when accessing cultural collections The museum has since said that it will change its visitor policies regarding baby carriers.

Finally, an update on a couple of pieces that I linked to last monthLisa Korneichuk’s great piece addressing “misnomer geography” asked why US museums continue to label Ukrainian artists as “Russian”…  An answer of sorts came last week in a NYTimes piece, which described how museums have started to relabel works in their collections to better reflect their Ukrainian roots. And ProPublica continues to publish important pieces addressing the repatriation of Native American remains under NAGPRA, like this one, which looks at the commitments that dozens of museums and universities have made since the series started. For better or worse, it seems that the work of investigative journalists has perhaps become an essential part of museum accountability…

Thanks for joining me for this month’s Ethics Reader. Have you noticed other ethical conversations around the sector this month? I’d love to hear what you’ve been thinking about.

Reflections on teaching museum digital practice in 2019

When I was early in my teaching career at GWU, I had a conversation with Cait Reizman  about her belief that students need to be able to leave a museum studies program with something tangible that they could share with future employers. The comment stayed with me, and since that time I’ve thought about how best to realise that aim. I initially asked students to blog, since public writing had been so beneficial to my own career. But recently, I’ve become less comfortable with requiring students take on the risk of public writing without the benefit of prior review. This fall, I tackled the problem differently.

Inspired by the Humanizing the Digital: Unproceedings from the MCN 2018 Conference book project, which my co-editors and I produced in less than four months after the MCN conference last year, my students in Museums and Digital Technology took on an ambitious project. Together, we created a digital publication about the state of digital practice in museums in 2019. Each student was responsible for creating one 3,500-4,000-word piece of writing that dives deeply into a specific research area related to the overall topic of museums and digital technology. Student projects could synthesize current readings and practice around a broad area, or dive deeper into a single technology or case study related to the theme of digital practice and its impact on the museum. Students would then work with a small group of peer reviewers to develop their ideas and writing alongside regular feedback from me. The finished publication is built on Quire, the open source multiformat publishing platform created by the Getty. Each student was responsible for defining and researching their topic and writing their paper, then I, working closely with Greg Albers, Digital Publication Manager at the Getty, was responsible for compiling the final book.

The intent was that that students would gain a broad overview into the issues related to technology in museums today via weekly lectures and discussions; a deep engagement with a topic of personal or professional interest through a research project; experience in a collaborative creative environment through the peer review process; and practical skills in Markdown language. At the end of the semester, each student would have a published piece to share with peers, colleagues and friends. From my perspective, this has been a hugely successful approach to teaching on museum digital practice. As the semester matured, I found students bringing their own research into class discussions with depth and maturity. Additionally, multiple students reached out to museum professionals from around the sector to find out more about specific projects they were working on, growing their insights beyond those that I could provide and enabling professional networking.

I am so proud of what my students have produced in what was ultimately a ten-week period from initial proposal through to publication. Their essays are thoughtful and interesting, with varied topics such as empathy and technology in Holocaust museums, shifting paradigms in visitor participation (which focusses on user-generated content), social media and crisis communications, social media collecting practices in museums, collections management policies and procedures for Time-Based Media and many more.  The flexibility of Quire’s format enabled experimentation in writing style, form and content. Students embedded gifs, Sketchfab mockups and JSON files in their papers. Some essays were personal and others took a more formal tone. 

Of course, there are some challenges with a project like this. Since this project was an experiment in the works, we were figuring out some of it as we went, so there are some inconsistencies with formatting and style. This is exacerbated by the short turnaround time from when students handed in their completed essays to our final publishing date. The tight turnarounds were also challenging for students who get sick or need to miss a deadline for some other external reason. There is, for instance, one essay still to be added to the book, which will now happen after launch. Beyond this, there are naturally gaps in my knowledge in certain areas, so there may be areas of critique that I missed or could better have supported. One possible area for future development of this approach is to seek volunteer peer-reviewers from around the sector who might be able to work with students on their essays, although that introduces other kinds of contingencies to take into account.

This was the most ambitious project I’ve taken on as a professor, and it took significantly more investment than other kinds of teaching, because I needed to be supervisor and editor to each student, as well as running weekly classes. I also needed to learn how to use Quire and become somewhat familiar with Github. But I think the results have been absolutely worth it. My long-term hope is to repeat this project each time I teach this course moving forward, so that we build up an archive of public student research over time, which can act as a marker about their ongoing and specific concerns and interest in the sector.

Thank you to Greg Albers for his generous work helping us bring this publication to life, and to each of my students for diving in wholeheartedly. If you are interested in reading the syllabus for this course in more detail or finding out about this project, get in contact with me and I’ll send it your way.

Because they are hard… Reflections on #MCN2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VOX POPS: Crowdsourcing Museum Definition perspectives for Museopunks

As you probably know, the International Council of Museums recently proposed a new definition for museums. Although the vote on the definition was postponed, the conversations that it sparked have been valuable and provocative. On the next episode of Museopunks, we wanted to try to unpack more nuance and perspectives than we can do with any single interview, so we’re crowdsourcing some responses to the following prompts or questions.

  • Do we need a new international definition of museums?
  • How might a new definition affect the sector and/or your work within it?
  • Is this discussion important within your national setting?
  • Has the conversation changed anything for you, or is this discussion a distraction?
  • Was this the right definition?
  • What is a museum? What is your vision for museums?
  • What else should we be thinking about in this conversation?

If you want to contribute, please send me a short (1min-5min) audio recording of your perspectives. In your recording, please identify yourself as you’d like to be represented on the show, as well as noting your country and if you’re an ICOM member.

We’re doing this as a bit of a sprint, so it would be amazing if you could send me your reply by Sunday this week (October 6).

We’ll be selecting a number of responses to go on the episode, but may also release an additional track online featuring other responses if we receive too many to feature on the show. We’d love to hear from people in different parts of the world too, so if you’re somewhere that we don’t always feature via our guests, get in touch!

Teaching a new course on museum ethics

This semester, I’m teaching a new course on Museum Ethics and Values. Early in the development of this course, I reached out via Twitter for thoughts about the kind of topics the course should address. These discussions have informed the final approach, so I wanted to share and revisit them. (I didn’t include every response, but here is a sense of the range and scope…)

Museum Neutrality & Systems of Oppression


All about that money (and governance)

Employment & Wage Equity

How to act work with and through ethical dilemmas (institutionally or personally)

Other interesting questions

The final course focuses primarily on contemporary cases and discussions to consider the institutional context of ethics, with the intent of helping my students understand the state of the field today. The top-line subjects we’re discussing include:

  • What is Ethics?
  • Codes of Ethics and Professional Standards
  • Museums, Money and Power
  • Ethical Curatorial Practices
  • Deaccessioning
  • Repatriation, Restitution and Human Remains
  • Issues in Ethical Conservation
  • Decolonization, Indigenization and Legacies of Colonialism
  • Working with Communities
  • Museum Neutrality + Social Justice
  • Environmental Sustainability
  • (Some) Issues Related to Digital Practice
  • Labor Issues
  • How to negotiate ethical issues as an emerging professional

Discussions about diversity are incorporated throughout, as are conversations about power (and who has it, who doesn’t). Being the first iteration of the course, I’m sure there are gaps and areas of practice that are missing or could be more effectively discussed, but after week three of class, this feels like a good starting place. It’s worth noting that this is now a core course for all students studying Museum Studies at GW, which they will take in their first year, so that considerations about ethics and ethical practice underpin the program.

Thank you my colleagues at GW, Gregory Stevens at the Institute of Museum Ethics, Ellie Miles, Jennifer Kingsley and everyone who weighed in on the initial Tweet for your thoughts. In anyone is interested in reading the syllabus in more detail, get in contact with me and I’ll send it your way.

Looking for a collaborator on Museopunks

If you’re reading this, you probably know that I host and produce a podcast called Museopunks, the podcast for the progressive museum. For the first couple of years of its life, Museopunks was a collaboration between myself and Jeffrey Inscho. It was one of the best collaborations I’ve ever worked on.

Jeffrey left the museum sector in early 2018, and since that time I’ve been trying to keep museopunks going on my own, but it’s been tough. I lack the technical chops to make great audio, and it’s harder doing the conceptual work around episodes without someone to bounce ideas off. The podcast, while relatively easy with two people, has been harder to produce by myself, and I’ve struggled to maintain a regular production schedule. So, I am officially starting the search for Museopunks’ second co-producer.

What I’m looking for: a collaborator, co-host and co-producer who is motivated by changing museums for the better – making them more welcoming, more diverse and equitable, better prepared to think about and deal with the implications of digital technologies. The podcast started in 2013 with a focus on tech, but my sense of what progressive practice in museums looks like today has grown considerably. You can get a sense of the kinds of topics I’ve been covering here.

Tech/audio production skills would be great but not necessary. What is essential is curiosity, open-mindedness, good listening skills and thoughtfulness about museum practice. For me, being a good host means making space for other voices and perspectives to shine.

The podcast is sponsored by the American Alliance of Museums, and they are super supportive of the work that we’ve been doing. Although there is a small annual honorarium, this is more a “love and glory” kind of project. That said, it’s been one of the most rewarding projects I’ve worked on and has offered so many opportunities and expanded my understanding about museums several fold.

At this stage, I’m putting feelers out for anyone who might be interested in a discussion about a collaboration. If this is you, or you know someone I should be talking to about this, please let me know or get in touch via Twitter.

BTW – This is pretty scary, because Museopunks is intimately important to me, but I want it to have the opportunity to be the best it can be going forward, so it’s time to let go a little bit and open to new possibilities.


Published on Medium: “Museums and Structural Change”

Earlier today nikhil trivedi and I wrapped our long-form letter-based conversation on museums, the nature of institutions, structural change, and oppression. The conversation, which is our contribution to A Series of Epistolary Romancesincludes thoughts sparked by the election, and considers everything from institutional reform all the way through to the abolition of current institutions. It’s been a rewarding and challenging writing project that rolled out over several weeks, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to explore these ideas with such a generous correspondent. Below is a tiny snippet of nikhil’s writing to spark your interest… 

I appreciate you asking how my experience as a developer might inform this conversation, I hadn’t considered it. Because of the rapid cycles in which software has been changing over the past few decades, largely driven by the quick pace that hardware has been changing, it’s become quite common for us to completely rewrite our systems. We take what we’ve learned, save only what makes sense to, throw everything else away and rewrite the rest. But nothing is really built from scratch anymore. Most new software relies heavily on frameworks built on top of one another over the past several decades. We plug in frameworks where it makes sense, and write the rest custom. With this model in mind, it would make sense to completely abolish institutions that just aren’t working anymore and create something new, like police, prisons, the two-party political system, and so forth. How do you think a model like this might work for institutions like museums?

You should go and check out the whole conversation (although you might want to set aside a bit of time to do so… According to Medium, it’s a 38 minute read!)

A Series of Epistolary Romances (the CODE|WORDS experiment continues)

Late last week, we quietly announced that CODE|WORDS–the experiment in online discourse that Ed Rodley, Rob Stein, and I kicked off in 2014–is back. It has a new format and a new set of instigators, plus new authors and new topics. I’m happy to see its return.

When we started CODE|WORDS, our aims were to pilot a new approach to the creation of theory ‘in public’ through the use of online, collaborative platforms, with a print publication to follow. We hoped the project would offer considered commentary as well as responsive dialogue, but the format we chose enabled less discourse than intended.

Which brings us to A Series of Epistolary Romances... Our second CODE|WORDS experiment is designed to privilege the discursive, conversational element that the original project was unable to generate. Each month, a new pair of authors will correspond about a topic related to museums for a series of weeks (or longer, if they choose). Ideally, this approach will allow us to investigate how a discussion rolls out over time, and to see how a more personal approach to correspondence impacts a dialogue. We’re also interested in learning how people play with the epistolary format. Will all posts be long form communications, or will we get videos, audio notes, or scans of postcards and letters?

Our first romance is between Bruce Wyman and Daniel Meyers, and investigates Interstitial Spaces in Museums. Already, there are wonderful moments.

From Bruce:

I had fallen in love with the early work of Imagineering and the early planning of Disneyland and Disney World. The early imagineers had made *amazing* experiences and it was all this attention to detail and thinking through what the overall experience of a thing would be. And it wasn’t just superficial treatment, but every component that would touch the visitor. I read everything I could about those design sessions and development and reveled in their tweaks and tricks to add just 10% more magic to every experience.

To which Daniel replies:

But I have to tell you, my first experiences of Disney attractions were profoundly disappointing! Perhaps it was just a failure of my imagination, but even as a youngster I found myself unable to suspend disbelief. Rather than feeling immersed in story, I was interested in understanding the mechanisms behind the silicone curtain, as a way to pass the time.

I love these personal explorations of bigger ideas related to museums and technology, and can’t wait to see how this format shifts the tone of the conversation.

Do you want to get involved with CODE | WORDS? Sign up and register interest in being one of our contributors. Think about the topics you’d like to cover, and the person you’d like to talk to, and one of our instigators will get back to you soon. 

When is a museum experience?

How do you know if you’re having a “museum experience”? As museum work spills out of the building and onto the Internet or other places and platforms beyond the walls, I’m curious about when exactly museum experiences occur. Does someone have a “museum experience” if they visit an online exhibition, like the Gallery of Lost Art – an exhibition which only exists online and for a short time? What about if they visit a museum’s Facebook page? Is that a museum experience at all, or only a Facebook experience? What is the relationship between the museum, and the experience? And how do we measure such things?

According to the OED online, to experience can be to gain “knowledge resulting from actual observation or from what one has undergone”, but it can also mean “to meet with; to feel, suffer, undergo.” Experience, therefore, is something that can be gained or had. Is it fair to suggest, then, that a museum experience is something that can be gained or had from interaction with a museum? How direct does that interaction need to be?

John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking write that:

The Museum Experience begins before the visit to the museum, includes experiences within the museum (interactions with staff and members of one’s own group, as well as with other visitors, exhibitions, interpretive materials, and programs), and continues long after the person leaves the museum. (p.33)

This continues to focus on the museum visit as being at the heart of the museum experience. The visit is viewed as the centrifugal act, around which all else pivots. But what about an individual who follows the Tate on Twitter or Facebook from another country, without any immediate or realistic intent to visit the museum? Is their experience of the museum in any way? Or is experiencing a museum’s content in a platform that does not necessarily relate to the building something other than a museum experience? In other words, is the museum the building or the brand? Is the museum the place, or the work that it does, regardless of where that work is located?

And if that same person who follows the Tate on Twitter one day wings their way across the world and makes it to the Museum? Does the possibility that someone can be engaged for years prior to actual visitation necessitate an expansion of the idea of the museum experience – and the before, during, and after visit realisation of that experience – from something short term and immediate to something much longer; to thinking about lifelong engagement?

These are big, abstract questions, but they relate to the need to apportion a museum’s resources in the most useful way, and to measure the impact of those resources. Does knowing whether someone is having a museum experience or not matter when measuring our impact, and when thinking about how and where to expend limited resources of time and money? Brooklyn Museum’s decision to leave many of their social media channels recently speaks to some of the challenges of maintaining a presence in many different online locations to greater and less impact, in tandem to those that are offline. So is the ultimate purpose of that engagement or energy still focussed on the physical visit, or is it about something else, and another kind of museum experience?

An article in the NYTimes this week speaks to these challenges, focussing on the experiences of the Met and Brooklyn Museum:

[The Internet] can make even the oldest-school art museum wonder: Could our collection reach the villages of China and the universities of Peru and perhaps a prison or two? Could it touch those who have no chance of entering our physical doors? Could it spread to the whole world?

This is an account about how two New York museums seized this dream — and how one of them clings to it still, while the other has found that the Internet’s true value isn’t in being everywhere but in enhancing the here.

Conceptually, these questions matter to me too. I want to try to understand what it is that makes something a museum experience, because I think that will help me better understand museums qua institutions. I still battle with questions about how much museum work is necessarily about the building and the objects, and how much about the expansion and spread of knowledge via any channels possible and necessary. Articulating what and when a museum experience is seems to offer a mechanism for thinking through that tension further.

I’d love to know what you think. What exactly is a museum experience, and how do you know when you’re having one? Is a museum experience something that can take place online, and if so, what are the necessary ingredients of such an experience? What differentiates a museum experience online from any other kind?

Do museum professionals need theory?

Last night I had terrible insomnia, and so at 3.30am picked up Pierre Bourdieu’s The Logic of Practice. Nothing like a bit of dense French sociology to help calm the active mind, right?! As I read and tried to make sense of the complex concepts at play (subconciously lamenting that it was Bourdieu beside my bed, rather than some fine romance…), I started to think about the value of this kind of scholarship for me now, as a museum professional rather than an academic.

As a PhD student, reading this kind of challenging book made sense. It was a good use of my time. I was working within an academic space, and investing in learning the bounds of that space was critical. But what about now, when I am starting out a new facet of my museum technology career as the Digital Content Manager at the Baltimore Museum of Art? Is it still beneficial to read books on sociology, cultural theory, or philosophy, when instead that time could be used to read up on new technologies and business practices? Should I still dedicate time and headspace to the kinds of academic ideas that have informed so much of my thinking until now, or instead take a more pragmatic approach? Or, in other words, now that I am a practitioner, what room or need have I of theory?

This question comes just as Rob Stein, Ed Rodley, a collection of authors, and I have invested some time into CODE | WORDS – our experimental discursive publishing project, which focusses specifically on the relationship between technology and theory in the museum. The project was started in response to a perceived gap in the developed discourse linking the subjects, and because that was something that we as a collective valued. The theoretical was understood to inform and put into context the practical, because museums are about ideas just as much as they are about objects, audiences, knowledge, and experience.

But what I’m now curious about is whether having a well-developed theory about museums actually makes someone a better practitioner. Does time spent learning and thinking about the theoretical ramifications of museum work, and of the museum qua museum, have value in the context of daily work? I have just spent 3.5 years thinking through what the transition to a pervasively networked information infrastructure might mean for museums qua knowledge institutions (how’s that for a little dissertation lingo?!), and I now have a particular sense and idea about what museums should be doing and why in this new knowledge context. But does the development of this work – this philosophical and theoretical dissection of the museum – actually help me now that I am working in the field?

I want to say yes, but that might be a defensive reaction. So instead, I’d love your input. Do you think that museum professionals benefit from having a philosophical or theoretical framework for the work that they do? Or does good work exist regardless of the theoretical underpinnings that support it? I know that I respond well to leaders who have vision for their work and their museums. Does that come from theory? Is a vision necessarily philosophical, because it relates to values and instititional missions? Or is it a different and distinct thing?

What do you think? What role does theory play in your work as a museum professional? Has it shaped your work and practice? Do you think that there is benefit for museum professionals to work from a philosophical or theoretical framework?