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!)

Blogging is not like riding a bike

This week, I assigned blogging projects to students in both my new classes at GWU, tasking them to start weekly writing about the issues they encounter during the course. I feel happy about instilling a regular writing practice as core to professional development.

But I also feel hypocritical, since it’s some years since I maintained my blog, or other writing practice. museum geek used to be my primary space for thinking through issues and questions I was grappling with, but lately when I try to post, I get hung up in draft, and never make it public. There are a few pieces I’ve worked on for some weeks that I keep holding off on surfacing.

I don’t know when or why I lost my nerve. I think some of it is just writer’s rust. It might be a lack of focus. Although there were times when I felt overwhelmed with possibilities during the PhD, I always had a series of lodestar questions that kept me from straying too far from my core concerns. Since I finished, I’ve lost that singular focus.

So I’m going to try to rediscover my focus and my voice by committing to a regular blogging practice again. If my students are expected to blog, then I should do it too. I don’t know where my focus will land. It’s likely to continue to include museums and technology, but it might also drift into the land of teaching, or float off in other directions. I’m not going to put too many expectations on myself, and I hope you’ll forgive me for the time it takes to rediscover my blogging legs.

Blogging is not like a bicycle after all… sometimes you do forget how to do it.

Farewell BMA, Hello GWU!

Today marks 808 days since I moved to the USA to join the staff at The Baltimore Museum of Art. It was by far one of the best things I’ve ever done. Living in Baltimore and working at the BMA has expanded my perspectives–personal and professional–and highlighted the limitations of my prior experiences, which were ultimately pretty narrow. While a lot of what I understood about museums and their social role was on the right track, I now have a more nuanced understanding about the complexities and financial and structural constraints of these institutions. But I also have a lot of questions, and have not carved out nearly enough time to address them.

With that in mind, I’m pleased to announce that from next week, I will be an Assistant Professor in the Museum Studies Program at The George Washington University. In my new role, I will teach graduate-level classes focused on museums and technology. I am super excited about the opportunity to return to research and teaching, and to again participate in the discourse about contemporary museums.

Of course, this new role means that I am no longer at the BMA. I’ll miss it. The staff there are smart and dedicated, and I learned so much from collaborating with colleagues across the institution. One of my greatest joys was working closely with Visitor Services–an enthusiastic team of emerging professionals, whom have shown consistent initiative and intelligence in helping create better experiences for our visitors. Additionally, the BMA is entering an exciting time, with a new director coming on board next week. During the brief interactions I’ve had with him, I’ve become confident that under his direction this is a museum to watch, and I cannot wait to see how the institution continues to develop.

For now, however, my focus will turn towards educating our sector’s emerging and future professionals. Which prompts a question: what do you most want emerging professionals to understand about technology, and its impact on museums?

I can’t wait to hear from you.

PS: To mark my speedy trip through Australia, I’m having an impromptu Sydney-based #drinkingaboutmuseums tomorrow night, 6pm August 10, at Rabbit Hole. We’re also hosting a #drinkingaboutmuseums in Baltimore on August 23 at Brew House No. 16. If you’re in either city, drop by! It would be great to meet up to talk museums and more.

The long hello.

Last week marked nine months since I moved to the USA, and in that time I have barely written. It seems an age since my blog was a critical part of my museum practice. But why?

I’d long wondered whether my move into an institution full time would impact my work, and the obvious takeaway from my drop in writing would be that it has. But I’m not sure that’s the correct answer. While for three years, this was my space for making connections, and participating in an international conversation about museums, it was mostly a place where I could ask questions and think through problems. And somewhere along the way – probably as I wrapped the writing of my dissertation – I ran out of questions.

I was concentrating on trying to resolve lines of thought rather than opening up new ones; consolidating ideas rather than expanding them. Then, intellectually tired and emotionally exhausted from a series of major life changes, my curiosity faded away.

This was distressing. Since joining the museum sector, my curiosity had become the thing I valued most about myself, and now it was lost to me. Fortunately, this seems to have been temporary. As winter breaks here in Baltimore, I am discovering new energy and new questions for the first time in what feels like a very long time. The process of renewal that comes as the snow thaws is not just to the land, it seems.

My renewed desire to investigate the world, and issues facing museums now, has been helped by being Program Chair of the Museum Computer Network conference for 2015, alongside the wonderful Ed Rodley and Morgan Holzer. The last several weeks have been filled with great discussion between members of the Program Committee on the question of theme (and man, am I excited about what we’ve come up with), and it turns out that talking to smart people about interesting topics is a great way to remind yourself of your own mission and reason for being in a sector.

So this is a “hello world” from Baltimore. I am not going to promise that I will dive back into blogging as before. But if all goes well, if the sun brings me new questions along with new energy, I’m hoping that I can explore all those topics I once loved – and some new ones – with you.

A newsy post: On coming to America and projects new and old.

Today has been my last Wednesday in Australia in the foreseeable future. On Sunday, I pack up my life and move to Baltimore, MD, to join Nancy Proctor as the Digital Content Manager at the Baltimore Museum of Art. I am on the cusp of some of the greatest change in my life, and I could not be more excited about the opportunity to explore a new city, a new country, a new museum, a new collection, and a new job. It is a moment I have dreamed of, and I cannot wait to get my teeth stuck into the challenges and adventures – particularly with the Museum itself going through some hugely interesting changes at present. A century old this year, it is undergoing a $28 million renovation, and is rethinking how visitors experience the BMA’s world-class collection, which makes this a brilliant time to leap across an ocean and join the Museum.

What makes the opportunity even better is its timing, which comes just as I’m putting the finishing touches on my dissertation – to be handed in within weeks. This means that my arrival in B’More will coincide with renewed opportunity for exploration, rather than introspection. I can move out of the all-consuming period of writing that has marked the last several months, and into a more exploratory, questioning, learning phase again.

This bodes well for blogging, since museum geek is, for me, a space for exactly those things. It has never been about complete ideas, but rather for examining tensions and unknowns. This is perhaps one reason writing became so hard when the focus of my work was on pulling ideas into a finished shape; into closing off avenues rather than opening them up…

It also bodes well for side projects, and I am so excited about a couple of the ones that I’ve had simmering away for several months. Probably the two most exciting are CODE | WORDS: Technology and theory in the museum – An experiment in online publishing and discourse and Museopunks, the podcast that Jeffrey Inscho and I create together.

If you haven’t yet heard of it, CODE | WORDS is an experimental discursive publishing project that gathers a diverse group of leading thinkers and practitioners to explore emerging issues concerning the nature of museums in light of the dramatic and ongoing impact of digital technologies on society. It’s something that Ed Rodley, Rob Stein and I have been working on for a little while (see Ed’s posts here and here), but with the publication of Michael Edson’s beautiful, provocative opening essay, it has finally become real. You should go and read what he has written. It is sinply wonderful.

What excites me most about CODE | WORDS is that we’re hoping that folk who might not normally blog or write about museums regularly, but who still think about them and want to try out or make public some thoughts on the subject, will contribute to the discussion – bringing new perspectives, new thinkers, new voices. If you think that might be you, feel free to drop me a line and I’m happy to help run through any ideas you have.

The other project that I continue to be excited about is Museopunks, which Jeff and I have been running for just over a year now. Every episode continues to help me learn something new, and from the feedback we’ve been getting, that goes for listeners too. If you haven’t checked into the show for a while, then I recommend you listen to the current episode, which is with Titus Bicknell on the complex and hugely important issue of net neutrality. This is a big one that could impact museums all over the world in the delivery of online content. While you’re thinking about the topic, check into the Museums and the Web discussion on the subject too.

In April, Museopunks was honoured to receive a Best of the Web Award in the category of Museum Professional at Museums and the Web. It meant a lot to us to receive this recognition, and it was great inspiration to continue to delve into the types of questions that have driven our work over this past year. But of course, Museopunks is nothing without the community that supports it, including guests on the show, listeners, and those who get in contact with ideas, thoughts, and feedback. So, thank you to all of you! It is a rare and wonderful gift to be able to have such discussions in a context that allows us to share them more broadly with the profession and the world.

All right! That’s enough of a round-up of the big things happening in my (professional) world. Next time I drop into the blog, it will probably be from my new home in the USA. Very cool. Then I get to start working out what it means to blog from inside an institution, rather than outside… and that, my friends, could be a whole new type of exploration…

Catch you on the flipside!

PS – Sydney, I’m going to be having a few farewell drinks on Saturday 24 May at the Arthouse Hotel, from 8pm. It’ll be my last unofficial #drinkingaboutmuseums in Australia for a while, so you should come and join me if you can.

Openness, creativity, and reflections on my PhD process

In recent weeks, I’ve made a major shift to my PhD process. After 2.5 years of exploration, I’ve moved into a period of consolidation. In other words, I’ve started writing in a far more formal capacity, with the hope of finishing my dissertation early next year.

Following this change in approach, there has been a certain fallowness here on the blog. I have struggled to find inspiration of the kind that has come so easily until now. It has been harder to pull myself out of the PhD in order to write on tangential subjects. It is not exactly that I am lacking in ideas. It is just that all of those ideas now seem to weave in and out of my other writing, and I don’t know exactly how to parse each into their own space.

This change in my writing habit has prompted me to reflect on my creativity, and its relationship to openness. From my amateur reading of psychology papers, I know that openness to experience is one of the Big Five personality traits, and that there has been a correlation found between openness and creativity. But what I hadn’t realised is that there are interesting qualifications to that correlation. One of them, as discussed in Kaufman and Sternberg (p121) is that:

‘creative behavior was highest if very open participants were given tasks that were open and somewhat undefined. In other words, highly open people are not creative in all work environments. They are most creative when the situation and task is ambiguous and not well defined.’

People high in openness are more creative in unstructured environments. The kind of writing and thinking that takes place when in an exploratory phase of research and open to new ideas is different from that which occurs when trying to close down avenues, and stabilise an argument. The shift in my PhD working process is forcing me to push some of my ideas, to develop those that are or were only lightly sketched in my mind. There is a sense of maturation, both in my ideas, and in my self-concept of what it means to be a researcher. But there has also been a drop in my externalising of problems. I have been looking in more, and out less.

The process of the PhD has involved much more personal change than I imagined from the outset. Research necessarily involves a lot of time spent inside your own head. There are many times that it’s just you and the screen, and nothing else to distract from that reality. There have been times when I’ve noticed my thinking patterns changing; when I’ve discovered a greater capacity for focus than I’d once had, or learned to have faith in my capacity to be creative. There have been times when I have felt so entirely at sea I never imagined making it back to land. I am sure there will be many more such times between now and the end.

This blog has given me a much-needed sense of connection to the ‘outside’ many times. As I move further into this next phase of research, I am going to try to remember that, in order to keep producing and pushing myself here. In the meantime, a short note of thanks to all of you who read, who comment, who participate. It matters more than you’d likely suspect.

As my blogging diverges in this more personal direction for a moment, I’d love to know if you’ve ever taken on a project (research or otherwise) that changed you. What was it, and what did you learn in the process?

Social obligation, crowdsourcing, and an experimental lecture

When I was asked to give a lecture on professional arts practice and technology at short notice a couple of weeks ago, I decided to use the opportunity to get a little experimental in my approach. This occurred in two ways. The first was that I reached out to my networks on Twitter, asked for your help here on the blog, and contacted a few specific individuals in the Australian arts community with whom I had a relationship, in order to seek ideas and content that I might not think of. The second was by playing with the lecture format itself in order to move out of transmission mode and take a more discursive approach.

So what worked and what didn’t? The crowdsourcing process was interesting. It yielded many useful responses and results which broadened my perspectives and highlighted issues relevant to the students that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise thought of, like Kim’s comment about the cross-over between marketing and IP. I was introduced to new artists too, and received links for useful resources which I was able to pass along to the students. So that was great.

Not all responses were equal, of course. Those links and connections that came from Twitter tended to be shallower and at times less useful than those I received from other sources. The most useful were, in general, those responses that came from people whose specific contributions I sought out. This aligns with what the Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research New England found when they conducted their own remixing/crowdsourcing projects last year. In the first project they ran, which “consisted first in creating a novel piece of content, an image, to serve as a creative seed and then ask specific people, using plain old e-mail, to turn it into something else, i.e., to remix it,” worthwhile responses came from more than half their targetted crowd. A subsequent project was executed using a mailing list and Facebook group, but failed to attract participants and good responses. In this second project, the message was not personalised, and there were many strangers in the groups. From this, the Collective proposed that the factors of success for the first project were that it utilised “pre-existing personal relationships”, had “well-crafted, personalized tasks directed at specific individuals, compared to the diffusion of responsibilities”, and that these tasks were more detailed than the messages to the broader group. I think my experience reflects something similar.

But crowdsourcing my lecture also led to something of a social dilemma. In the odd case where I received results that were not useful in the context of this particular lecture could I ignore them, or did I owe those people who had contributed the respect of using their links or ideas regardless? The act of reaching out asking for help and receiving it, both from people I knew and from strangers, left me to confront questions around social obligation and reciprocity. It became apparent to me quite quickly that asking for help was not value-free. While it might be appropriate to simply thank someone who’d replied to my Tweeted call for help and fold their response into my written document for the students, doing the same with a longer response on the blog felt insufficient to acknowledge the time and effort that had gone into helping me out. I felt particularly obliged to make good use of the contributions that art writer Sharne Wolff, MCA Curatorial Assistant Kelly McDonald, artist and technoevangelist Fee Plumley, and artist and curator Todd Fuller gave, since I had sought them out in person. These invisible social elements of participation became apparent to me through this process in ways they hadn’t previously.

The variety of responses that I received from this approach was, in part, what led to the experiment with lecture delivery. With only an hour with all the students in a single room, it feel like I had too little time to cover a topic as massive as “art, technology, and professional practice” in any real depth, so I wanted to get the students thinking and talking about the pros and cons of being online as an artist, and the impact such choices could have on their careers. I started with ten minutes or so giving a general lay of the land about some ways that artists were using the Internet in their work and what some of the issues were, and then opened up the floor to conversation, maintaining faith that I would be able to live-mix in examples from the responses I’d received from the crowdsourcing experiment.

The approach seemed to work quite well in some ways, but not others. The discussion in the room was great, with many students contributing and almost all appearing to be engaged in it. We were able to cover some interesting theoretical ground, and I did have ready resources at my fingertips for most of the ideas that came up. However, while there were definitely some bright eyes and eager students – those excited to have technology on the agenda and to share their experiences with me and the class – many others seemed to lack confidence, both in regards to individual platforms like Twitter, and about digital experimentation itself, and I don’t know that my approach would have equipped them with many practical takeaways.

So would I take these approaches to either lecture delivery or lecture sourcing again? Delivery yes, but not on every topic. The approach seemed to work well for the particular subject, especially given the time restrictions, but I don’t think it would be appropriate in every situation. By opening up to a more dialogic teaching method probably also meant that it was close to impossible to have predictable outcomes, inviting the risk that important issues could be overlooked. So although it was effective for engagement, it wasn’t necessarily effective for all types of teaching or all subjects.

What about lecture crowd-sourcing? Honestly, I probably wouldn’t do it again, or not without more forethought about how to seek involvement, what sort of involvement to seek, and how to incorporate the responses that I received. I’d want to develop better feedback mechanisms or ways to acknowledge contributors because in some ways it felt like I was taking more from contributors than I could give back. Inviting participation can be great, but should ultimately benefit both parties, and I don’t think I thought enough about how it might benefit those who gave feedback.

Both parts of this experiment helped me better understand some of the complexities around participation; about the social obligations it engenders and the importance of designing such projects well in order to benefit all participants. Now that I’m on the other side of the experiment, the takeaways seem so obvious. But I suppose that is part of learning too, that it is often from doing that we gain insight.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with these sorts of projects. Have you encountered similar issues from those I came across? How have you dealt with the invisible social elements of participation?

And, of course, thank you to all those who did participate in my crowdsourcing experiment. It was appreciated.

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?

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.

A post, post travels.

I have been trying for days now to write a post that would sum up everything I took away from my travels in November, but am fast coming to the realisation that it is impossible. There were too many conversations, too many notes, too many museums. Fortunately I just (re)discovered a little impromptu video shout out that I made on my final night in Washington that at least captures some of what I was feeling at the time, which ties in perfectly to one of the takeaways that I had from the last month: that sometimes it’s important to capture the spirit of something, and not just it’s actuality.
I think this little film (despite its general sketchiness), does just that.

I’ll start trying to translate some more of what I took from travelling into blogform in the next few days. But in the meantime, this is just a little note of thank you to all those who helped me travel, and invited me into their homes and workplaces through out November. Special thanks must go to Nancy Proctor and Titus Bicknell for inviting me to stay with them whilst in DC (and additionally to Nancy for letting me shadow her at work), and Seb Chan for putting me up under his roof in NYC (and sending me to see Sleep No More).

Sarah Banks, too, deserves special mention for providing one of my most interesting afternoons at the Smithsonian, setting up meetings for me with Katja Schulz and Jen Hammock from the Encyclopedia of Life; with Maggy Benson and Robert Costello, from the Office of Education & Outreach, talking about Benson’s trip as an embedded educator in Bali, and Costello’s involvement with Smithsonian WILD!, an animal camera trapping project; and with Kelly Carnes from the Public Affairs office, who spoke to me about a cool partnership/initiative with ThirstDC (or, as one of the Tweets in the storify from the Spooktacular special edition put it, “the nerdiest drinking event ever”). Also to Mike Edson who let me pick his brain, and sit in on his meetings; and Elizabeth Merritt took me museuming, and to dinner. All of DC’s museum community need a shout-out, for making me feel entirely welcome.

Finally, thanks to the conference organisers at NDF2012 (especially Matthew Oliver, who has just signed on to take the reigns for NDF2013 too), MCN2012 (Liz Neely, Koven Smith) and INTERCOM (Lynda Kelly, Angelina Russo). And to all of the readers of museum geek who came up and introduced yourself during the various stages of my travels. It was grand to meet you!


4 November – 11 November: MCN2012 – Seattle, USA ¦ 12 November: NYC w/Seb, Sleep No More ¦ 13-17 November: museumgeek-in-reSIdence @ the Smithsonian Institution ¦ 19-23 November: NDF2012 – Wellington, NZ ¦  25-28 November: INTERCOM – Sydney, AUS

Museums visited: Seattle Art Museum, American Museum of Natural History, National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of the American Indian, Hirshhorn, National Portrait Gallery, Newseum, Spy Museum, the Phillips Collection, the National Archives, Te Papa, Wellington Museum of City & Sea, Wellington Library, Australia Museum, Nicholson Museum, Powerhouse Museum.