Continuing the conversation about museums and curating the digital world

Curating has become an accidental obsession of mine in the last few months. I’m not a curator. I’ve never been a curator. But lately I find myself thinking (and talking) about curation often; paticularly about whether museums should be curating the digital world, and what that process might look like. This obviously picks up from the paper that Danny Birchall and I wrote for Museums and the Web earlier this year, but it’s a discussion with a lot more juice in it yet.

In response to that session, Koven Smith wondered whether “digital curation” is emerging as another or new curatorial discipline, one that ‘deals with “objects” that are neither unique or scarce. It has its own practices, as does film curation or arms & armor curation (to use two random examples)…’ Yet in another post he continues, asking if ‘the fact that the raw “stuff” of digital curation is not in any way scarce (or unique) eliminates the need for specialized people (i.e., “curators” in the traditional sense) to do the work of curation.’ (Emphasis mine.)

I don’t think it does, but it’s an interesting question. Does it matter if the ‘stuff’ that is being curated in a digital sense is nonrivalrous? What exactly should museums be looking to curate from the plethora of stuff online? Is it just that which relates directly to the existing collection? Or should the goal be broader than that? If museums were to invest time and resources in curating the digital world, what are the unique features that doing so would have in a museum context? Should it be for long or short-term purposes? Timely or timeless? What sensibilities would be involved? And how could museums use a curatorial mindset to connect their collections and objects, their exhibitions, their missions to online conversations happening beyond their walls?

For me, the answer to that final question is the reason all these other questions are worth asking. This is about how museums connect their content, their information, their stories to that which is happening elsewhere; and is about bringing those rich discussions happening elsewhere into contact with our stuff. It’s not just about output; about feeding what we have into the world. It’s about connection.

The Tate’s Digital Strategy starts with a short provocation from Nicholas Serota:

The future of the museum may be rooted in the buildings they occupy but it will address audiences across the world – a place where people across the world will have a conversation. Those institutions which take up this notion fastest and furthest will be the ones which have the authority in the future … the growing challenge is to … encourage curatorial teams to work in the online world as much as they do in the galleries.
Sir Nicholas Serota 20091

If Serota is right, if the growing challenge is to encourage curatorial teams to work in the online world as much as they do in the galleries, then I think these questions will continue to emerge within the sector. Is there a role for museums to curate the digital world, as Danny and I have proposed there could be? And if so, what should or could that job look like? And what skills would a curator of the digital need to have? Would they need to be able to write code, or just to locate and contextualise relevent content, whether produced inside or outside the museum? Is this the natural extension of a social media or a web manager’s role, or is it something different altogether?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…

One of my favourite moments at Museums and the Web 2013 was the closing plenary. Being invited to talk about museums and immersive theatre (well, really about Sleep No More) with Seb Chan, Ed Rodley and Diane Borger, producer of Sleep No More was kind of incredible. As a group, Seb, Ed and I had been trying to have a conversation about that topic for months (we had squeezed in a Google hangout previously), so to get the opportunity to delve more deeply into the issues was golden. It was also a fairly significant moment to be a part of; when a closing plenary of a museum conference that is ostensibly about the web has very little to do with technology or the Internet at all.

I’ve long been more interested in the implications of technology – in what it actually allows you to do, or how it allows you to rethink and solve problems in new ways – than in the technology itself. It’s one reason why I really interested in the DMA Friends program that Rob Stein and Bruce Wyman gave a paper on whilst at MW2013. DMA Friends is a new kind of membership program for the Dallas Museum of Art that let’s anyone sign on to become a member or Friend of the museum for free. It’s inception coincided with a move towards making admission to the Museum free as well, and has been accompanied by other changes at the Museum, like ensuring that floor staff act more like guides than guards (more on this in coming posts).

As Friends sign up or move around the Museum, they have the opportunity to collect and log codes for places they’ve been, activities they’ve done, or events they’ve attended, earning points that grant them access to specific rewards. So the visitors get a gift back from the museum for their visit (like free parking or a discount in the museum shop). It also means that the DMA is collecting quite granular information about specific guests; about what they are interested in, where they come from, and how often they attend the museum. This offers great potential for understanding your museum’s audience profile, particularly when you start to link it to programs and interests.

But it’s also interesting in terms of the possibilities for personalising communications and even programs to particular individuals who are regular – or irregular – guests of the museum. As Rob and Bruce note in their paper (emphasis added):

visitors can claim a variety of rewards created by the DMA to say “thank you” for participating with the museum. These rewards include traditional membership benefits, such as free parking and special exhibition tickets, as well as special and boutique rewards like behind-the-scenes access to staff and areas of the museum not generally seen by the public. One of the underlying goals of the program is to create long-term relationships with visitors while offering them value and benefits tailored to their experience and engagement with the museum. This long-term connection and repeat participation is seen as key to establishing the hoped-for relevance of the museum in the lives of visitors.

So what does this have to do with Sleep No More and immersive theatre? Well, I’m in New York for a few days this week, and so  I’m going back to see/experience SNM for the second time. Two days ago, the day after I booked my ticket, I received this email communicae:

DEAREST-
AS FATE WOULD HAVE IT, I AM HOSTING A DINNER PARTY ON THE NIGHT 
OF YOUR STAY AT THE MCKITTRICK HOTEL, AND I WOULD BE HONOURED TO HAVE THE 
PLEASURE OF YOUR COMPANY. WE ARE CELEBRATING THE ARRIVAL OF A VERY 
SPECIAL GUEST WHOM I WOULD LIKE YOU TO MEET.

THIS WILL BE AN INTIMATE AFFAIR - VERY FEW GUESTS WILL BE GUARANTEED A 
SEAT AT THE TABLE.

Now I don’t know whether every guest who had registered to see Sleep No More tonight received this email, or whether a little flag went up in the SNM database next to my name/email address that noted that I had been to the performance before and therefore would be a likely candidate for this kind of upselling experience. But either way, it suckered me in (let’s call my attendance “research”), and I don’t think it would have had I not already engaged with the performance. I don’t think it would have mattered to me that I would get to go to an “intimate gathering in an undisclosed area of the hotel that a majority of guests will not have the opportunity to experience” if I had not already explored the hotel; if I didn’t already have stories of the event to share that I would enjoy adding to.

And this is one of the things that I think is hugely interesting about DMA Friends, and this approach to membership. Information is power. Getting to know your guests, to learn their attendance patterns and what they like, and then being able to offer them something special based on those preferences, offers some unique possibilities about how you can engage with your most engaged. About turning fans into superfans.

I spent last week at the DMA, so I have much more to write on this topic. But when we think about what museums can learn from immersive theatre, one simple thing might be that theatrical performances generally require bookings, and that gives you a little opportunity to learn something about your audience, and that creates opportunities of its own. It’s interesting to think of ways in which museums can do the same.

What do you think?

A trailing spouse? Has being partnered affected your museum career choices?

When I was a mere kitten of five years old, my family relocated to Papua New Guinea. My dad had received an interesting job opportunity, so he, my mum and I all moved to the tropics and spent several years negotiating life in another culture.

This was one of a few moves that we made when I was growing up; all of them for my father’s work. Although both my parents became high-achievers in their respective fields, it was my father’s opportunities that drove us around the country and overseas. His career was more established, and we followed on. It was not until my dad retired that my mother really had opportunities to pursue her own career ambitions, but once she did, her career soared.

Within the museum sector, cross-institutional (or even cross-country) relocation for work appears to be strongly tied to advancement, particularly at the upper echelons. While it might just be a skip from institution to institution (if you’re lucky enough to live in a city with multiple cultural institutions), oftentimes progress seems to require more significant jumps than just across town. Indeed, the first two commenters on a 2011 Center for the Future of Museums post about landing a job in the museum of the future both observe how important it is to be willing to move in order to find work in the sector.

Why is this? Is it just that so many employers within the sector are small museums that might have only a handful of staff positions? In my home town, I would guess that there are less than 30 full time positions within the scattering of museums, so the opportunities for growth are fairly few and far between. Moving town to find a full time position makes sense, because openings are rare and are highly fought over. I’ve often seen internal applicants for those scarce jobs passed over for those with experience at outside institutions. This is an understandable choice; external applicants will bring with them different experiences and knowledge from those already contained in-house within the institution, but one that can be challenging for people located where there are few other opportunities for growth.

If moving to find work isn’t absolutely imperative, it seems particularly common in high achievers. Victoria Turner, in a 2002 paper on The Factors Affecting Women’s Success in Museum Careers, writes that:

The career paths of high profile men and women in museums and related fields show much variety: some have worked their way through one institution; others have moved between many high profile organizations; others started in small museums and moved on to larger ones; others began their careers in different sectors (Who’s Who 2001).

But what happens when the choice to move for work isn’t yours to make alone? In the same paper, Turner explicates that (emphasis mine):

with limited jobs available, and no clear career progression, museum employees often find it necessary to move around the country in order to advance their career. This is clearly complicated where a family is involved, for employees of either sex (Carmichael 2001), but as women are still often considered as secondary earners, it will often be more difficult for them to institute a move, a major factor inhibiting women’s career progression (Kolb in Taylor 1984).

Is this one reason (amongst many) why there remains significant disparity between high female employment in the arts and comparatively low representation at the top? As an older post on psychologytoday.com indicates that (emphasis mine):

Of those people who moved for work in 1993, a scant 17 percent were women–and only 10 percent of them were married… A recent poll of unemployed executives showed that men are three times as likely to pick up and move for a new position than women.

These statistics are old, and not specific to the sector, but a clear gap still seems present between men and women on the question of moving for career advancement. We work in a sector filled with women where progression, or even getting a job to begin with, can be tied strongly to the possibility of going elsewhere, a situation that seems – on the surface at least – disadvantageous to those same women. So what’s a girl to do? Is it possible to progress, to make an impact, to grow without acquiescing to pressures to go elsewhere? Does living in a highly connected world change the playing field at all, or will cross-institutional advancement still trump? And what is our obsession with hiring those with reputations and experiences gained elsewhere? Do such practices ensure better hires, or just ones that sell better to boards and funders?

It’s worth noting that this isn’t just a women’s problem however. Even if they’re in the minority of those who initiate moves, women are not the only ones who become ‘trailing spouses’, and partner dissatisfaction on the part of either sex can have a major impact upon the success of a relocation for work. In a NYTimes article on the question of trailing spouses and dual career couples, it is noted that:

According to the 1999 Global Relocation Trends Survey conducted by Windham International GMAC and the National Foreign Trade Council, almost half of all spouses accompanying expatriates had jobs before moving abroad. Of that number, only 11 percent were employed during the assignment. The same survey lists partner dissatisfaction as the most common reason for an assignment to fail, although the exact cause of that dissatisfaction is not spelled out.

A 1999/2000 survey by the accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers of 270 European employers found that almost two thirds listed the spouse or partner’s career as a barrier to mobility. The authors of the study also noted that “factors rated least highly by companies when selecting people for assignments such as partner adaptability and dual career management are the most likely to be the cause of failed assignments.”

I’m really interested in how this attachment to movement impacts our sector, and those who work within it. What have your experiences been?

Have you moved for work, or conversely, been prevented from progression (directly or indirectly) because you haven’t done so? What impact has your choice made upon your career, or your family? Why did you make that choice? And if you haven’t been able to move, have you found other tactics to enable career progression?

When failing isn’t awesome (or, notes on pain)

A couple of years ago, in the pre-PhD days, I was learning to mountain bike. This sport was not a natural fit for me. I have an easy propensity towards adrenalin, and rocketing down a hill at pace with trees lunging at me and lumps in the ground rearing up to try to catch my wheels was not ideal. But I dig nature, I enjoy cycling, and I wanted to give it a go.

One day, I was trying to master a particularly challenging creek crossing when my wheel landed in a hole and threw me over. Unfortunately I continued to hold onto the handlebars as I sailed over them, which meant that my landing on rocks was borne almost entirely by my chest, and I fractured my sternum. This was ok. I have worn injuries before (and no doubt will again). The pain wasn’t that bad, and it healed within a few weeks or months. But it did hurt. And it became one major bump on a journey which led to me hanging up the mountain bike and returning almost exclusively to road cycling.

I failed a lot during my tenure as a mountain bike rider. Some of those failures led to growth. I would try going over a particular obstacle or part of the trail over and again until I got it right. But oftentimes when I did so, my body would come away battered and bruised. Continued falls left my confidence shaken. My body would tense up in anticipation of the pain, leading to further distress and ensuring that I actually failed more often. Almost daily I would push my limits, come up wanting, and have to live with the scars and pain of that experience. Some of them linger still, years on. And eventually I gave the sport away.

Failing has become something of a fetish of late. It feels that I cannot turn anywhere without someone extolling the virtues of having permission to fail. And you know what, I get it. But unless your experiences of failure are radically different to my own, it’s not something I can really imagine lining up for time and time again, permission or no. Because failure hurts.

The pain can be physical, as it so often was for me when mountain biking. It can be emotional, too. It can lodge itself at the base of your stomach and grip your intestines in a vice. Following my most significant personal failures, I have wanted to disappear; to delete myself from the pages of people’s memories and reemerge an anonymous tabula rasa. As Margery Eldredge Howell put it, “There’s dignity in suffering, nobility in pain, but failure is a salted wound that burns and burns again.”

Institutional failure also brings pain. The costs of choosing to invest in the wrong thing or of making a public misstep can be significant. Mike Edson published an interesting discussion about skunkworks and scale recently. Among the many useful observations is this one:

How we do work inside organizations, the choices we make about how to invest and cultivate the talents and energy of our colleagues and community, has a huge and direct impact on people’s lives and careers. Project failures can be instructive, sometimes, but I’ve seen people fired, disgraced, and passed over for promotion when initiatives fail. I’ve seen talented employees leave the museum industry in frustration, and I’ve seen the public good diminished when organizations squander resources and produce something small and OK when they could have delivered something solid, huge, and great.

Although we might wish that there was no sting in failure, it does have consequences. They might just be ego repercussions when, humiliated and vulnerable, you have to face colleagues or loved ones after you’ve screwed up. Or they might be bigger than that. But if what you’re trying to achieve means something, then the failure will mean something too.

In her great piece on the downside of the startup failure craze, Lydia DePillis proposes that de-stigmatising the practice of failure is “a pre-emptive psychological defense mechanism” against a startup failure boom. As we see museum culture being infused by tech culture, it is little surprise to discover a similar attitude in museums, and in many ways it is positive. Innovation does indeed require risk, and risk carries with it an almost inherent possibility of failure. Woe betide the institution that fears failure so much as to fall into a state of permanent inertia. But museums are institutions that have, always, an eye to longevity and the future, and failure is rarely consequence-free.

I think that when people seek institutions that embrace failure, they are looking to reduce the sting, that personal pain of getting things wrong. Yet I’ve never known that pain to go away in situations that matter.

I have learned in my life to come back from my failures. I will never forget my first big fail, nor many of the subsequent missteps. Each has taught me something. But they have also hurt. Though the pain has dulled with time, I still carry it. And it is hard to face into the wind and open yourself up to criticism, to failure, to pain. It is even harder to do it when you’re already bruised and tired; when your confidence has been shaken. Or at least, it is for me.

I’d love to know about your experiences with failure, professional or otherwise. Do you agree that failure hurts? Have you had to pick yourself up again after a serious failure, and start again? How did you deal with the fallout?

In algorithms we trust.

And so Netflix has gone through several different algorithms over the years… They’re using Pragmatic Chaos now. Pragmatic Chaos is, like all of Netflix algorithms, trying to do the same thing. It’s trying to get a grasp on you, on the firmware inside the human skull, so that it can recommend what movie you might want to watch next — which is a very, very difficult problem. But the difficulty of the problem and the fact that we don’t really quite have it down, it doesn’t take away from the effects Pragmatic Chaos has. Pragmatic Chaos, like all Netflix algorithms, determines, in the end, 60 percent of what movies end up being rented. So one piece of code with one idea about you is responsible for 60 percent of those movies.

But what if you could rate those movies before they get made? Wouldn’t that be handy? Well, a few data scientists from the U.K. are in Hollywood, and they have “story algorithms” — a company called Epagogix. And you can run your script through there, and they can tell you, quantifiably, that that’s a 30 million dollar movie or a 200 million dollar movie. And the thing is, is that this isn’t Google. This isn’t information. These aren’t financial stats; this is culture. And what you see here, or what you don’t really see normally, is that these are the physics of culture. And if these algorithms, like the algorithms on Wall Street, just crashed one day and went awry, how would we know? What would it look like?

[Transcript of How algorithms shape our worldI]

When Pythagoras discovered that “things are numbers and numbers are things,” he forged a connection between the material world and mathematics. His insight “that there is something about the real world that is intelligible in mathematical terms, and perhaps only in mathematical terms,” was, according to Charles Van Doren, “one of the great advances in the history of human thought.” (p35) Are we at a similar precipice with culture and information, when algorithms shape our world and culture? When non-human actors can significantly impact upon the information we receive, and the choices we make? And if so, what does that mean for museums, for culture, for the way we understand our world?

This is a question I sometimes find myself grappling with, although I’m not sure I have any answers. The more I learn, the less it seems I know. But I’d like to take a couple of minutes to consider one aspect of the relationship between the algorithm and the museum, being the question of authority.

In 2009, Clay Shirky wrote a speculative post on the idea of algorithmic authority, in which he proposed that algorithms are increasingly treated as authoritative and, indeed, that the nature of authority itself is up for grabs. He writes:

Algorithmic authority is the decision to regard as authoritative an unmanaged process of extracting value from diverse, untrustworthy sources, without any human standing beside the result saying “Trust this because you trust me.” This model of authority differs from personal or institutional authority, and has, I think, three critical characteristics.

These characteristics are, firstly, that algorithmic authority “takes in material from multiple sources, which sources themselves are not universally vetted for their trustworthiness, and it combines those sources in a way that doesn’t rely on any human manager to sign off on the results before they are published”; that the algorithm “produces good results” which people consequently come to trust; and that, following these two processes, people learn that not only does the algorithm produce good results, the results are also trusted by others in their group. At that point, Shirky argues, the algorithm has transitioned to being authoritative.

Although I’ve previously touched on the idea of algorithmic curating, I’d never explicitly considered its relationship to authority and trust, so I decided to look a little deeper into these issues. Were there any commonalities between the type of authority and trust held by and in museums, and that held in algorithms?

Philosopher Judith Simon refers to Shirky’s post in an article considering trust and knowledge on the Web in relation to Wikipedia. She argues that people trust in Wikipedia’s openness and transparency, rather than in the individual authors. She writes “that the reason why people trust the content of Wikipedia is that they trust the processes of Wikipedia. It is a form of procedural trust, not a trust in persons.”

I think this procedural trust is also what we put in the algorithm. Blogger Adrian Chan puts it this way:

The algorithm generally may invoke the authority of data, information sourcing, math, and scientific technique. Those are claims on authority based in the faith we put in science (actually, math, and specifically, probabilities). That’s the authority of the algorithm — not of any one algorithmic suggestion in particular, but of the algorithmic operation in general.

We do not necessarily trust in the particularities; we trust the processes. Is the trust that people have in museums similarly procedural? Do we trust in the process of museum work, rather than in the individual results or in the people who work in museums?

There are a myriad of assumptions that we make about people working in museums; that they are well trained and professional; that they are experts in their particular domain. We implicitly trust the people, then, and the work that they do. However, in many cases, such as when we visit an exhibit, we don’t know who the specific people are who worked on the exhibition. We don’t necessarily know who the curator was, or who wrote the exhibition text. The lack of visibility inherent in many current museum processes obscures the individual and their work. The museum qua museum, therefore, acts as a mechanism for credibility because it purports to bring the best people together; because the people who work within are known to be trained professionals who use scientific methods, regardless of whether we know specifically who they are or what their particular training is. Ergo, the trust we have in the museum must also be a form of procedural trust. (Amy Whitaker concurs, “Institutional trust is founded on process, on the belief that there are proper channels and decision-making mechanisms and an absence of conflict of interest.” p32)

Shirky also speaks to the social element involved in authority. He explains:

Authority… performs a dual function; looking to authorities is a way of increasing the likelihood of being right, and of reducing the penalty for being wrong. An authoritative source isn’t just a source you trust; it’s a source you and other members of your reference group trust together. This is the non-lawyer’s version of “due diligence”; it’s impossible to be right all the time, but it’s much better to be wrong on good authority than otherwise, because if you’re wrong on good authority, it’s not your fault.

Authority isn’t just derived from whether we can trust a source of information, but additionally whether we can be confident in passing that information along and putting our name to the fact that we made a judgement on its trustworthiness. We shortcut the process of personal judgement using known systems that are likely to give us accurate and trustworthy results; results we can share in good faith. We trust museums because museums are perceived to be trustworthy.

Do the film companies that run their scripts through Epagogix’s algorithms do so because it helps them shortcut the process of personal judgement too? Can algorithms provide better insight, or just safer insight? Eli Pariser says this of Netflix’s algorithms:

The problem with [the algorithm] is that while it’s very good at predicting what movies you’ll like — generally it’s under one star off — it’s conservative. It would rather be right and show you a movie that you’ll rate a four, than show you a movie that has a 50% chance of being a five and a 50% chance of being a one. Human curators are often more likely to take these kinds of risks.

Right now, museums that do not embrace technology and technologically-driven solutions are often perceived to be risk averse, because doing so challenges existing practice. I wonder whether, with time, it will be those institutions that choose not to make choices driven by data that will become perceived as the risk-takers? This is a profession that is tied so strongly to notions of connoisseurship; what relationship will the museum have with the algorithm (internally, or external algorithms like those that drive Google and other sites)? I don’t have any answers yet, but I think it’s worth considering that museums no longer just share authority with the user-generated world; authority is also being shared with an algorithmically-shaped one.

What do you think?

Tell her she’s dreaming (or why my dangerous idea might never be more than fantasy)

All right. It’s time to get real.

My last post was pretty idealistic. It painted what I’d love to see for the sector in coming years – a confident, collaborative, energised sector. A sector that works together, in order to build something bigger and stronger than any individual institution can. Sounds great, right?! And while there might be some countries where this vision can come true (maybe your country already has this?), for the most part, I suspect its nothing more than a pipe dream in many cases. But why? This post is an attempt to answer the question Lori Phillips asks, when she writes:

I think what you’re describing is an environment of increased charitability and transparency between institutions; an environment in which we brag on one another’s successes more and act like competitive silos less… It’s a win, win, win. So why aren’t we doing more of it?

Why aren’t we doing more of it? Here are some of the reasons I can think of. No doubt there are many more too – let’s work out what they are.

Funding models, incentives, and the zero-sum game
Museums are competitive. They fight each other for funds, for audiences, for kudos. I don’t know if there are any countries in the world where financial resources for museums are effectively unlimited, and if they exist, they certainly aren’t common. Whether the main funding pool for museums in your country is private or public, chances are that there are lots of competitors for a pool that always seems a little smaller than it needs to be – particularly if it has been shrinking. Such limitations on resources creates the impression that museums are playing a zero-sum game. And it’s not just with money either. Access to other things is often limited (or perceived to be) too, such regional or state-wide tourism support (read Robert Connolly’s discussion on this issue here). So even when museums don’t seem to be in direct competition for a single audience, for instance, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t competing.

If there is only limited access to resources, to a pie that will be sliced up between museums within a particular geographic area, there is a great disincentive to being too proactive in your support of another organisation. What if doing so means that they get more of the pie than you do?! Why should we boast of the success of others? No doubt the divergent sizes/priorities between institutions comes into play here too. (As an aside, I think the perception of a zero-sum game around resources is also a reason why internal institutional silos are so often hard to break down.)

Seb Chan’s observations on the US system from his first year in NYC are telling. He writes:

The primary funding model (private philanthropists, foundations and big endowments) isn’t conducive to broad collaboration or ‘national-scale‘ efforts. Instead it entrenches institutional competition and counterproductive secrecy. A lot of wheels get reinvented unnecessarily.

My idealism aside, funding models and limited resources can create very real barriers to sharing, openness, and collaboration. What real incentive does a museum have to share its own resources (including time, knowledge, or staff) with another museum – or the whole sector – unless collaboration is linked to grants and funding or enabled by infrastructure organisations like the Collections Trust? Basically, unless collaboration is incentivised and simplified, there isn’t necessarily a persuasive business case for adopting it as a practice. Why help the ‘competition’?

Intellectual property
So this is an aspect of transparency that I hadn’t really thought about until recently, but it’s a big one and a real barrier to the open sharing that I often hear people wistfully call for. People are protective of their ideas. They don’t want them “stolen” by releasing them too early, as might be required in a truly collaborative setting. This is something that Maxwell Anderson discusses when asked his thoughts on people being transparent with their thought-processes in the question/response section of this talk on museums and internet-based transparency (about 1:14:00). Here, possibly the most vocal advocate for museum transparency hesitates, which says something significant.

There is something scary about sharing ideas – even with friends, sometimes – when you aren’t yet ready to act on them or share them more widely. I know that it’s something I haven’t yet overcome, and I’ve been thinking in public for 20 months. It is much more scary making them available to a competitor. Getting to a place where institutions feel comfortable sharing their ideas when still in conceptual stages, and trusting that doing so won’t lead to exploitation, is still probably a long way off. It may never happen.

Time
I was somewhat surprised at INTERCOM 2012 when I heard more than one museum director mention that the real resource shortage in their museum was not in money, but was instead in “days in the year, and space.” Time and available space are two of the biggest things that prevent museums achieving all that they might want to. And guess what? Collaboration takes time out of the day, and long-term strategies take time (as in, years). And in both cases, that means that working collaboratively is harder to prioritise, particularly when we are talking about sector-level collaboration that could take a number of years to achieve real results for the sector. The short-term time demands quite naturally end up taking precedence over longer-term idealism.

Sometimes it’s personal.
We all know of times when museum directors compete against one another for reasons that have very little to do with their institutions, and everything to do with their own personal histories and temperaments. It’s not glamorous, but it happens. Collaboration, working together and sharing resources occurs for all kinds of reasons. But it is less likely to happen when there are personal clashes between the people who can make the collaboration possible. And as we know, there is a strong link between the personal and the political.

Culture
Most institutions that I know of don’t have an internal culture of collaboration. There are all kinds of reasons for this, but if we can’t even get people collaborating when they are located in the one building, how can we create a cross-sector culture of collaboration?

Ownership of change
One of the emergent questions that came up many times at INTERCOM in November asked what cumulative or collective impact museums can, should, and do have? How can museums work to ensure their collective impact was greater than their institutional impacts? It was a question that seemed to be universally accepted as important, but we didn’t really spend any time looking for answers. I think that one reason for this was because no one person took ownership of this as a problem. We all agreed this was important, but it was seen as a sector-wide problem, rather than being “my” problem.

Daniel Ben-Horin, who ran Techsoup Global’s Contributor’s Summit, has some interesting thoughts on what does make collaboration possible. He writes:

There are a variety of necessary ingredients, of course. There has to be enough complementarily; identical actors compete more than collaborate. There has to be participant ownership coming in. There has to be dynamic facilitation. There has to be proactive documentation to establish a clear record of commitments. There has to be follow-up.

Mainly, though, there has to be a commitment to the need to take action toward impact… and to do so together (because we can’t get there separately).

Complementarily, participant ownership, dynamic facilitation, proactive documentation of commitments, follow-up, and commitment to the need to take action toward impact. Collaboration doesn’t just happen. It takes invested individuals who own the problem and see it through, because they absolutely believe that it needs a bigger solution than what could be achieved in isolation. And without that, all efforts likely come to naught.

These are some of the reasons why I think we don’t collaborate more as a sector, although I am sure there are plenty of others. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Are there additional barriers? Are these insurmountable? Realistically, without incentives to collaborate, without compelling evidence that the current system is actually broken rather than just less-than-ideal (and I’m not sure we have that), it’s unlikely to change. Is that ok?

What do you think? Do limited resources create a zero-sum game for museums? Will collaboration within the sector always remain the ideal, but only rarely the reality? If not, what needs to change?

My dangerous idea about museums 2013: the greatest threats to museums come from within

Around this time 2011, I wrote a post that asked for your dangerous idea about museums. As the new year looms large on the horizon (mere hours away), I thought I would revisit the question and include my own current dangerous thinking; this is a culmination of a year of thoughts and discussion.

The greatest threats to museums come from within.
I read a lot of literature on museums, from books to blogs and much in-between. Amongst the less nuanced discussions, two worrisome threads often emerge. The first follows a woe-is-me, the sky is falling in, line, in which the swift and immediate downfall of museums seems imminent (unless the museum is seriously “rethought”). The second paints a picture of the museum as an institution that can not only change the world, but save it from itself, as if without the museum we would all be doomed. Together, these threads create a kind of pessimistic Messiah complex that leaches both confidence and realism from the sector. And it is this lack of confidence, this lack of perspective, that I think is the biggest long-term threat to our sector, beyond funding cuts, or changing audience structures, or technology. (This is not to ignore the very real short-term threats, of course, that do threaten jobs and leave individual museums uncertain about their own immediate futures.)

When an individual lacks confidence, he or she can feel powerless, voiceless, unable to affect change. Such absence of power can ensure that an individual has “less access to material, social, and cultural resources and [is] more subject to social threats and punishments.” (Power, Approach, and Inhibition 269. See also Ed Rodley’s recent post). How reminiscent is this of our sector? How many people within our sector feel powerless and at the mercy of museum leaders whose own agendas may or may not match those of their employees; or at the mercy of funders whose priorities so often seem distant from the museum’s? How many great people are lost to disillusionment when their ideas and talents go wasted; when they have vision for the future, but only limited capacity to act upon that vision and make change?

In a 2008 speech you should read, on strategies for achieving change in museums, David Fleming spoke of the way in which a lack of confidence leads to “an inability to tackle the huge agenda necessary to bring about change. Outsiders – funding bodies, politicians, business – sense this lack of confidence and remain disengaged. And so the museum is isolated.” This is what I find to be one of the critical problems facing our sector. When we are not confident as a sector, when we do not project a vision for the future that promises bright things, it becomes harder to persuade outsiders that museums are a good or worthwhile investment. What reward do they get for investing in us? Why should they choose museums over any one of the many other competing and worthy causes in need of support? Much like in the stock or property markets, when confidence disappears, so too do the investors.

There is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy that comes with confidence and energy. Those people, those sectors that are energetic and optimistic bring with them other people similarly enthused who also invest their energy and passion until the whole sector is imbued with a life beyond just its work. It’s an energy I feel now at conferences like MCN. But to counter that, when a sector is lacklustre, the best and brightest will find it harder to settle down and stay within it. They leave for pastures where their energy and vision is greeted with reciprocal opportunity to make change; to use their talents and forge something wonderful.

It’s not just funders and politicians either. Our audiences feels it too. When a museum is confident in its vision, in its mission and values, then it defeats the institutional aimlessness that plague so many of our institutions. It isn’t just the staff that have a sense of enfranchisement then. Visitors, too, are attracted to the energy and want to be part of it. Success begets success. Confidence begets confidence. Audiences beget audiences.

So this is what I envision for the museum sector of my future; the sector where I want to work. I see a supple yet robust sector. A confident sector. An energetic sector. But also a sector with a realistic understanding of its place in society, and the ways in which museums really can make a difference and benefit society. It is a long term vision of course; and an idealistic one. It is not to ignore the short-term and real threats, those that do endanger jobs right now. But it is something that I hope we can achieve with time.

To achieve this, we need to work together. Our sector may be composed of individual institutions, each with different goals, aims, and capabilities. We may compete with one another, absolutely. But we are stronger as individual museums when we are strong as a sector. We have more power to achieve change as a sector than any single institution does alone. So we need to think and act as a sector. We need sector-wide strategies and vision, much like the Museums Association UK are striving for with their Museums 2020 exercise, and we need to invest in sector organisations like Museums Australia. But we cannot leave this up to sector organisations or museum directors (although of course they must be involved). It should be all of us. Because it is our sector. And if we do not take ownership of it together, no one else will.

Indeed, we are the only ones who can do this. We cannot rely on funders, politicians or audiences to invest in us unless we give them good reason to do so. So we need to be enthusiastic. We need to talk about our success, and share our passions.

We need to talk about the great work that other people in the sector are doing too. It cannot simply be an act of self-promotion. If there is someone doing better stuff than you are, tell the world. Make it public. Send your visitors over to their institution or their website. Get the word out! There is something in the air that positively crackles when you’re around people who are so passionate about something that they cannot keep quiet about it, so every single museum that crackles with energy is another museum that strengthens the sector.

We all win when we work together to build a strong sector. We win when we do good work that excites us, individually and as institutions; so excited that we cannot stop talking about it. We win when we get other people talking too. When we make them take notice and feel that they need to be part of the groundswell; as if the sector has so much potential that if they aren’t part of it, they are sure to miss out.

This is what I believe. We, as a sector, are in a hugely opportune place right now. We are incredibly well connected to one another, and to ideas from within and external to our own profession. A real energy has started emanating at many of the conferences I’ve attended. We drink about museums together, we talk, we share, and we work. Social media, conferences, and the generosity of the people who work within the sector make it ever easier to forge strong relationships beyond the walls of our institutions, and hopefully also within them, and to share knowledge and vision with one another. Indeed, they also ensure that there are more ways than ever to speak to our audiences and communities, to invite them to be a part of our vision too. And this all gives us a strong position to build from.

By any criteria, I am still just an emerging professional. I also don’t work for a single institution, and so when I look forward to my career, I can only think at a “sector” level, rather than an institutional one. No doubt with time my optimism may be blunted, as has happened to so many before me. But I know in my heart that the health of the sector is as much my responsibility as any director’s. And that is my dangerous idea.

Welcome to 2013. I hope to see you there.

What do you think? Do you have your own dangerous ideas, or thoughts about how my own might come to fruition? How can we strengthen the sector, and build confidence both within and external to it? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Too much success?

At MCN2012, I chaired an interesting session call from Proposal to Pay-Off: Three museums get it done. In it, Morgan Holzer, Rob Lancefield and Dylan Kinnett spoke about how a project at their museum moves from being merely an idea to actually getting up and running. The session unearthed all kinds of interesting questions about the decision making process in institutions of different sizes, and with different amounts of control invested in the hands of the individual. But one thing we didn’t talk about that I think is very interesting is success, and what happens when if a project is too successful.

I’ve been thinking about this question for a while, because success isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be. Even the sort of success that so many people dream of, like rock-stardom, comes with downsides, as this interview with Australian musician Wally de Backer (better known as Gotye, of Somebody that I used to know fame) suggests:

De Backer isn’t given to hyperbole but admits things have gone ”a bit crazy” of late. ”There’s been plenty of demand everywhere for more tickets, more shows,” he says. ”We’d arranged 30 or 40 shows then just about every single venue started to get upgraded. It’s a blessing and a curse.” He readily admits he’d rather be in a studio making music than out on the road. He gets a buzz when he plays a good gig but the carousel of hotel rooms, tour buses, sound checks and interviews wears him down. He usually hits the wall three weeks in when he reads the schedule and realises there are two months to go. ”It’s so boring and repetitive,” he sighs. ‘‘This is not what I dreamt of, this is not the payoff I expected.

That nebulous thing that we all seem to want but don’t always get around to defining in advance (gosh, even defining metrics for success after the fact is a challenge), doesn’t always come with the payoffs we expect. It’s complicated, and can lead to repercussions that have impact beyond what was hoped for. Excess success can be particularly problematic if you aren’t prepared for it, or if you find yourself unable to innovate and adapt to changing circumstances because of it.

Could your museum cope if one or more of your projects was successful beyond normal? What if you started to get unexpectedly big numbers through the door? Would that impact the experience of seeing the exhibitions, or being in the space? Would you need to hire new staff members to cope? Would your budget handle that? Your processes?

What about web success? If you came up with a digital strategy that was wildly successful and suddenly went viral, could your staff cope with the increased or changed workload? There are a couple of slides from a presentation that Andrew Lewis and Rich Barrett-Small gave at the UK Museums on the Web conference recently that particularly resonated with me when thinking about this topic. As slide number 27 says “A moment’s creative inspiration today is a week of pain next year.” (The slides that follow it also paint a useful picture of the realities of start-up culture versus the longevity required for museums.)

We talk a lot about “success” for and in museums, and that’s good. It’s important to want to be successful. But I think we all really only want and plan for success within a very narrow band of measurement, and indeed actually rely on some level of failure (what if all your grant approvals came back with all the money you had requested?). Things don’t always work out as planned, and it’s worth remembering that sometimes the repercussions of success can be as difficult to manage as those of epic failure (and maybe even more so… I think we are far better prepared mentally for things working out worse than we expected, than better).

What do you think? Could your team or your museum cope with epic success, rather than epic failure? Have you ever had to deal with a program or project that was successful far beyond what you had planned for? What were the repercussions of that success? And how did that change your approach to future projects?

NB – I originally took a different approach to this subject, and one that was not fully thought through. I rewrote following a useful Tweet about some aspects of my original post that I hadn’t considered.

The Political Museum Professional

Well, my 2012 world tour of museum conferences is over. After three conferences in three countries in four weeks, plus time at the Smithsonian and visiting plenty of museums, I have aeons of raw mental material for processing and synthesis. But as I begin doing so, I thought I’d start at the end rather than the beginning, with thoughts inspired by the excellent keynote that David Fleming, CEO National Museums of Liverpool, gave at INTERCOM 2012.

Titled The Political Museum, David’s speech considered museums and the myth of neutrality. One of the standout concepts was the idea that “all cultural activity is political, but some is overt and some is covert.” He argued that museums should be overt in their political positions, acknowledging the inherent politicality involved in museum work, and that they should actively take positions on and around issues.

Unsurprisingly, this was a talk I loved. It aligns with my own feelings about institutions. I want passionate museums that take strong positions on things. In fact, I’d love to see museums that riff off each other’s ideas and exhibitions fluidly, as bloggers do. Last year, when I was at the MCA Denver, they had an event called Mediocre Mud as part of their Black Sheep Fridays, which was positioned in direct reference to the Marvelous Mud exhibition on at the Denver Art Museum. What a great way to create interest within a cultural community: exhibition battles! I want museums that position themselves at the centre for debate and discussion, because that is an exceptionally interesting place to be (if, at times, risky).

But of course I respond to these ideas. I personally love discussion (it’s one reason I blog). I want rich intellectual fodder that gives me new angles through which to understand the world and the particular things that are fascinating at any moment. This is the stuff I value.

It’s not what everyone values. During the last month, I have sat in on a lot of conference sessions and meetings. I’ve had discussions with people within our sector, and external to it. I’ve heard people talk passionately, and fervently about all manner of topic. I’ve heard from lots and lots of people who want museums to change – but all in divergent directions. Those who care passionately for the environment want museums to be more politically overt in their messages and actions towards/about the environment. Those who value the object most want museums to acquire the incredible things they come across, and want to opportunity to work with those objects. Those who are progressive and naturally inclined towards innovation and agility want agile museums because such an environment will let them thrive. Those who value safety and stability at work or life want to avoid the uncertainty of change and hold onto existing practice. Those who want to be included value inclusive practices. Those who are natural peacemakers and uncomfortable with conflict try to make everyone happy, but may never take a strong stance on anything. Those for whom race or sexuality has played a definitive role in life will advocate for particular approaches to museum practice as it relates to their experiences and values. And on and on and on it goes.

This is what I’ve learned. Museum work is personal. We all have personal motivations that we bring to work; that inform our practices. At conferences, when we speak to a particular topic, we often try to move people closer to our own positions, arming them with reasons why they should shift from their place to one nearer to ours. We seek leaders and community members who value what we value, or who at least make it possible for us to pursue those values. We all want self-actualisation. We don’t all want it from work necessarily, but work is still where many of these questions come to the fore. So, museum work is always personal. And as Carol Hanisch’s 1969 feminist paper tells us, the personal is political.

With this in mind, I have a series of propositions to make:

1. All museum practice is political (although not necessarily consciously so), but some is overt and some covert.

2. Cultural change is both more possible and more achievable if you can identify individual motivations and values, and provide mechanisms to keep them in tact.
If, for instance, you are trying to get a new digital project up and running in your institution and finding yourself with little support from other staff, try to find out why; what the real cause of their concern or blockage is. Maybe it’s a fear of additional work. Maybe it’s a worry that flashy technologies in the space will overwhelm delicate works of art. Maybe an exhibition designer has a concern about that a mobile app will change visitor flows, and they don’t know how to plan for such things and therefore just need practical support or research about that. Looking to understand the personal motives/values that underlie actions can give insight into the political positions that people are taking, and can help you tackle the root of the problem. If someone is resisting change, it’s because you’ve given them no reason to change in a way that is meaningful to them. (Something we can also apply to museum visitors; if the people who you want to come to your museum aren’t, it’s because you haven’t provided them with a compelling reason to do so.)

3. Strategic concerns are often political concerns.
Museums are not just political entities in their cultural activity, but also in the way they run. Being conscious of how the political and personal intermingle is useful when seeking to convert something you personally value (like, say, digitising collections) into a strategic priority (because it will help support mission). It is all too easy for overt and covert political activity to blend in this space; being consciously aware of an institution’s (or director’s) strategic and political concerns and contexts is important in order to connect the things that you value personally to the things that are important to the institution politically.

The museum is political, as is museum practice. But it’s also personal. We fight for the things we want because they are personally valuable and meaningful to us. It’s both. When considering institutional change, or even just looking to recruit people for a project that you want to do, paying conscious attention to both the personal and political motives at stake is important.

Before I finish, I thought I’d include the final paragraph of Hanisch’s The Personal is Political here. Although it was written specific to another situation, there is still useful perspective that can be gleaned from reading.

One more thing: I think we must listen to what so-called apolitical women have to say – not so we can do a better job of organizing them but because together we are a mass movement. I think we who work full time in the movement tend to become very narrow. What is happening now is that when non-movement women disagree with us, we assume it’s because they are ‘apolitical,’ not because there might be something wrong with our thinking. Women have left the movement in droves. The obvious reasons are that we are tired of being sex slaves and doing shitwork for men whose hypocrisy is so blatant in their political stance of liberation for everybody (else). But there is really a lot more to it than that. I can’t quite articulate it yet. I think ‘apolitical’ women are not in the movement for very good reasons, and as long as we say “you have to think like us and live like us to join the charmed circle,” we will fail. What I am trying to say is that there are things in the consciousness of “apolitical” women (I find them very political) that are as valid as any political consciousness we think we have. We should figure out why many women don’t want to do action. Maybe there is something wrong with the action or something wrong with why we are doing the action or maybe the analysis of why the action is necessary is not clear in our minds.

What do you think?