Can institutions be empathetic?

In recent years, there has been a growing call for museums to be “empathetic” as a solution to a raft of problems. Mike Murawski links empathy and social impact (something he also spoke about at MuseumNext), Robert J. Weisberg draws diversity into the discussion, and the Empathetic Museum group argues that museums are impossible without an inner core of institutional empathy, or “the intention of the museum to be, and be perceived as, deeply connected with its community.” There is even a new book aimed at fostering empathy through museums. But, as much as I love the values embodied in the Empathetic Museum Maturity Model, this is a concept I struggle with.

Institutions have certain characteristics that define what they are and how they behave. They regulate behaviour and actions by offering systematic solution to social problems. As structures, they provide mechanisms for action related to social problems that require organisation or regulation. In many ways, this is why institutions are so critical for the perpetuation of cultures–through their “traditions, constituencies, structures, human and material resources, stories, values and goals,” they enable the mission and the work to go on despite shifts in internal and external environments. These same characteristics constrain institutional change, and make it difficult for individuals to significantly influence the institution. They also run counter to empathetic action, which requires individual approaches. nikhil trivedi and I have been grappling with this in our correspondence on museums and structural change.

This is an obvious problem when we’re talking about entrenched oppression. Institutions allow for dominant cultures to prevail and reassert itself through time without direct influence. nikhil makes an important observation when he writes, “Although institutions may be designed not to respond to individual cases, they have always impacted individual people. Often in significant ways.” This is obviously true, and yet, it runs counter to my understanding of how institutions behave. Take, for instance, this comment from Susan Edwards:

our very organizational structure prohibits diversity, and that in order to embrace true diversity we have to change our organizations at their core. The aspects of traditional organizational culture (not just in museums) that prohibit diversity include things like the lack of value in collaboration (i.e. democratic participation), a culture of secrecy, siloed departments, and micromanagement and hierarchical structures. These structures are designed to keep the powerful insiders in control, and to devalue the contributions of the outsiders.

The gordian knot of these forces, of these traditions and politics, and the relationship of power to these questions should not be ignored in discussions about empathy, but they’re often left unaddressed.

There is also a question of who we have empathy for? Weisberg writes:

I don’t want to beat the drum (better than a dead horse) of empathy, but … shit, who am I kidding? It’s ALL about empathy, now. We have to get out from under our desks and walk in the shoes of colleagues we have marginalized (and start with the parts of the museum staff — often non-white — who have felt the brunt of job actions, and not the curator who feels threatened by tech-driven disintermediation), the audiences whom we haven’t made feel welcome in our institutions, and yes, even the Trump voter about whom we’ve read so much but never seem to have met outside of awkward family gatherings.

How can we be empathetic for everyone, all at once? Different audiences need different–sometimes explicitly clashing–things. To serve one well often means deciding not to serve another with the same fervor. We can, of course, make decisions to change who our institutions are serving and how, but doing so means, amongst other things, redistributing resources away from existing projects, and potentially, away from existing audiences (and donors!). To draw in new constituents means being willing to lose some of the existing ones whose needs will necessarily not be looked after as well as they were. It means making a decision that a new audience with new needs should be prioritised over an older audience with known needs and relationships. That can be worrisome for institutions that lack faith in their own reproducibility. Institutions are invested in their own survival, so when we talk about changing them, it is important to talk honestly about the complexity of reallocating resources (time, finances, etc.) away from existing projects and priorities, particularly if those resources are aimed towards new (otherwise known as unknown or unproven) audience.

Changing institutions is hard and important work. But museums do not exist in a vacuum. Their practices and habits, their structures all link to the other institutions they interact with, such as the art market, education systems, governments, and funding bodies. It comes from their histories. It is embedded in their institutional body language. To make lasting change has to mean working on the systems themselves, and not merely on the culture of the institution. Richard Sandell’s paper on social inclusion, the museum, and the dynamics of sectoral change is useful reading on this topic.

Weisberg recently wrote:

If museums want empathy to really take hold, there’s no short cut to addressing diversity within the institution.

I’d like to change this slightly. There is no short cut to addressing diversity within the institution. There is no short cut to addressing diversity deliberately and thoughtfully, and persistently. Although I am aligned with many of the goals of those seeking to push a model of an empathetic museum, I worry that when we make institutional change a question of empathy, it becomes something we can ignore it because acts as a value choice, and fails to critical address and face into the complexities and challenges of institutions.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do these ideas about institutional empathy resonate with you, as they do with so many? If so, how do you think about that concept, and how does it drive your work in museums?


Understanding this moment: The tension between professionalism and participation

For more than a decade, there has been an increasing push towards participatory practices in museums, in part with the eye to democratizing the museum. It is proposed that participatory practices can make our institutions more open to diverse visitors; that through their use we can invite in more voices who might not otherwise have the opportunity to speak in or shape the institution. As such, whether they are contributory, collaborative, or co-creative in nature, participatory practices are often framed within rhetorics of empowerment and involvement, diversity and democracy. They are, as Henry Jenkins, Mizuko Ito, danah boyd (p184) propose, “defined in opposition to structures of institutionalized power.”

At the same time as this press toward participation has been gaining momentum, there have been increasingly vocal conversations about institutional diversity, equity, and work practices within the sector. This is not surprising given the asymmetry in museum staffing profiles, which sees only 28% of art museum staff in the USA as coming from minority backgrounds, with most in security, facilities, finance, and human resources. Only 4% of curators, educators, conservators, and directors are African American and 3% are Hispanic. There are ongoing questions about who has the right and capacity to speak in and for institutions, both to and for the public, and within internal conversations.

It’s not just the racial disparities found in staff representations that are the source of angst, however. As Laura Crossley noted in a recent #museumhour Tweet up, “Museums sector has one of the most overqualified underpaid workforces.” One factor impacting this might be the growing professionalisation of the sector, beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, which has brought greater complexity and specialisation of roles (p.417) to positions and training. This also relates to the question of unpaid internships. Rightly or wrongly, there are certain paths to museum jobs that are considered more legitimate than others. This is often observed as a preventative factor for diversification, by narrowing the pathways into museum jobs, and into leadership roles. As AAM notes on, “a growing number of advocates is calling for changes to ensure that all candidates, not just those of ample means, can have access to jobs in our field.” These are issues that groups such as The Incluseum,  #MuseumWorkersSpeak, The Empathetic Museum, and Museum Hue have been addressing, alongside AAM and other professional organisations.

While these concurrent trends within the sector might seem unrelated, I’m wondering whether they are connected. The movement towards participatory practices within museums–practices that invite co-creation and non-expert voices–seems to act as a kind of counterpoint to the limited diversity within the sector. If this is the case, could this push towards participatory practices actually help sustain a closed sector, whereby limited but public participation acts as a band-aid solution to a deeper and more complex problem? In other words, does an embrace of participation seem to allow museums off the hook for changing their board and staff profiles in more meaningful and ongoing ways?

Participatory practices can also drive questions about exploitation and unpaid labor, which further complicates the questions about museums and volunteer labor (see also Alli Hartley’s insightful comment about this issue). And all of this brings up questions about institutional legitimacy, and again ask museums to address the question of who has the right to speak, and when, and in what circumstances. Last week, I read Seth C. Lewis’ 2012 paper, The Tension Between Professional Control and Open Participation, which addresses the kinds of boundary work that journalists do in response to new media and online participatory practices. He writes:

If professions, by definition, have jurisdiction to govern a body of knowledge and the practice of that expertise, with a normative interest in doing ‘good work’ for society that transcends a corporate imperative – then threats to the profession are primarily struggles over boundaries: about the rhetorical and material delimitations of insiders and outsiders, of what counts as ethical practice, and so on. These are questions, ultimately, of control, and of professions’ capacity for flexing and legitimizing that control to fulfill their normative functions.

His piece prompted me to think further about the boundary work that takes place within the museum profession, and how normative institutional structures are maintained or challenged.** Institutions frequently operate in ways that negate the threats to their normal and normative functioning. They co-opt and incorporate outside perspectives and bring them into the institutional fold in order to prevent external threats–but they don’t necessarily change or alter their core practices, values, and professional habits in response. Is that what is also happening within our institutions? And if that is the case, can we as a sector work to ensure that participatory practices are not merely a stop-gap solution to diversity, but actually drive more fundamental change within our institutions?

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic. Do you think there is a relationship between the embrace of participatory practices, and the bigger questions of diverse representation within museums? If so, how does that impact our institutions?

**This is something nikhil trivedi and I have been trying to make sense of in the latest CODE|WORDS experiment, which deals with structural change in museums.

Making a conference (+ a book club!)

The MCN conference is only a couple of weeks away now, and I’m finally starting to relax and enjoy the run up to the event. The program is off to the printers, the timetable is locked down, and we’re putting on the finishing touches. This is the second year that I’ve been a Program Co-Chair, and it’s the last that I’ll have this level of involvement. Last year we implemented a two-year cycle for Program Co-Chairs that includes recruitment, training, and handing over the reins for the conference, so although I’ve loved working on the Program, it’s almost time for me to let it go. My current Co-Chairs––Jennifer Foley and Trish Oxford––will now take it over and shape its next iteration.

The conference team has achieved a lot over the last couple of years, and I wanted to share a few of the things I’m most proud of. In 2015, we affirmed our commitment to ensuring a positive and constructive experience for all participants with the introduction of our Friendly Space Policy. We also worked to better integrate networking throughout the program so that people had plenty of informal time as well as session-based learning opportunities. That conference was our biggest MCN, and it was a great pleasure to work with my then Co-Chairs Ed Rodley and Morgan Holzer making it come to life.

This year, we wanted to increase transparency about how the conference is put together, and improve communication with speakers–both of which I think we’ve achieved. We’ve asked all speakers to help us improve the accessibility of the conference by being mindful of accessibility when creating presentations. We’re also trying to be more thoughtful about scaffolding the experience for for first time attendees. In any given year, up to 50% of the people at MCN are new to the conference, so we’re offering a first timer’s orientation to help newbies have a great experience. If this is your first MCN, make sure you join Elissa Frankle for her wonderful, creative introduction to MCN. She’s taking your questions now to tailor her content to your needs. Our scholars now have a voice at the conference, too, with all 15 presenting lightning talks on their work.

I think our theme this year, which is focussed on the human-centered museum, has prompted some really interesting sessions this year (props to the Program Committee for that). Some that I’m most excited about are: The Intersections of Social Media, Race, and Social Justice for ProgrammingMuseums & Incubators / AcceleratorsTrue Stories: Learning from Storytellers Inside and Outside the Museum FieldSleep Stories at Wellcome Collection: manifesting digitally submitted stories through an embroidered quilt and translating that back onlineCreating Anti-Oppressive Spaces On-line; and, of course, our keynote with Catherine Bracy, a pioneer in civic technology and digital democracy who has led organizations such as Code for America and the TechEquity Collaborative. Check out our big ideas playlist to get excited.

Finally, I’m thrilled that we’ve been able to partner with the Cultural Heritage and Social Change Summit, which will be held in NOLA immediately after MCN. The aim of the Summit is to promote movement building across the cultural heritage sector. Our hope is that it continues the work and conversations we start at MCN. It will definitely be worth sticking around for.

We’ve had an amazing group of people working on the conference over the past couple of years, so if you see or meet any of them, please make sure you thank them for their hard work. Something as complicated as MCN doesn’t come together overnight, and it’s taken a lot of people many, many hours to pull it off. I am so grateful to all the people who’ve worked and volunteered to make it real. Y’all rock.

PS: Ed and I are running an informal book club at MCN. You’ve still got time to join us, so pick up a copy of Post Critical Museology: Theory and Practice in the Art Museum, dip into its goodness, and meet us at there to discuss. We’d love to see you there!

Living (and learning) with social media

When I applied to join the faculty at GWU this year, I spent a lot of time working on my statement of teaching philosophy. I hadn’t written anything like this before, and wanted to make sure that my approach to teaching was informed, and appropriate to the types of subjects I’d be teaching. One of the pedagogic approaches I was most interested in was connected learning, which utilises digital media and online networks to enable personalised and integrated teaching.

According to Mimi Ito et al., connected learning is:

socially embedded, interest-driven, and oriented toward educational, economic, or political opportunity. [It] is realized when a young person pursues a personal interest or passion with the support of friends and caring adults, and is in turn able to link this learning and interest to academic achievement, career possibilities, or civic engagement.

Connected learning is founded on three core values: equity, full participation, and social connection. Its learning principles propose that learning should be interest-powered (enabling personalised learning pathways), peer-supported, and academically oriented, while its design principles focus on learning that is production-centered (it should involve making or doing), openly networked, and have a shared purpose (we should be working towards common goals). These ideas largely align with the values of musetech, so it made sense to bring them to the classroom when teaching on subjects related to museum digital tech and social media.

The semester is five weeks in, and already this pedagogic approach is surfacing some interesting issues. As I mentioned in my last post, I assigned weekly blogging and Twitter participation to both classes. One student recently mentioned that she found it unnerving to have interaction with a professor outside the normal bounds of in-class interactions. She was uncertain how to react when I replied to her Tweets. Other students, too, expressed some doubt about what kind of online response would be appropriate (e.g. are gifs ok?). This kind of context collapse is frequent on social media, but this feedback reminded me that there are critical social boundaries–particularly related to authority relationships–to be negotiated in connected learning contexts. Even though I was undoubtably in my student’s imagined audience for class-related Tweets, she still felt uncertain about how to interact in the semi-public online environment.

What are the implications–seen and unseen–of breaking down those boundaries? How is the performance of identity between the student and professor (especially the identities we affect in class) impacted by interaction outside the classroom? Is there a renegotiation of the power or authority relationship between the students and me, and the expectations we each have of the other? If so, how might that impact learning?

Prompting the students to work in public can be unnerving for me. As with any new course, I’m still working out what does and doesn’t work with my teaching material, and I’ve felt vulnerable having it reflected out to the world. That said, it’s fascinating to discover which ideas and examples student are connecting to in almost live-time. There is an immediacy to the feedback that I’d otherwise find hard to get, and while it can be confronting to see discussions in the classroom reflected out in the world, it’s useful, too. (It’s also lovely to have a whole new pool of thinkers to draw upon.)

I’m sure my thinking on this approach to teaching will develop. In the meantime, I’d love to hear more about your experiences with connected learning approaches to education, whether in your museum, university, or other areas. Mike Murawski has written about his experiences with connected learning, and the Peabody Essex Museum recently advertised for a connected learning developer, so I know these ideas are surfacing around the sector. Let me know what you’ve been learning.

How have you seen connected learning practices manifest? What kind of experiences and reflections have they prompted for you? 

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.

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

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

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

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

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

From Bruce:

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

To which Daniel replies:

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

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

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

#drinkingaboutmuseums Baltimore

Although I haven’t felt significantly homesickness since moving to the USA, one thing I do miss is the group of friends and colleagues who regularly used to congregate in Sydney for #drinkingaboutmuseums. In that diverse group of professionals, which ranged from emerging career folk to those in leadership positions, were likeminded souls who pushed my thinking and grew my sense of connection to–and understanding of–the sector.

Not long after moving to Baltimore, I organized a local version of the event here, but I was so new and unsettled that it remained a one-off. Until now.

Next week, #drinkingaboutmuseums will be back in Baltimore, and I cannot wait. Held all over the world, #drinkingaboutmuseums is a regular, informal gathering of museum professionals and enthusiasts that tends to take place in over drinks.

If you’re in the area, join us on Tuesday, February 16 to celebrate, connect and converse with Baltimore’s art community over drinks in an open dialogue about local and global museum landscapes, conditions and concerns, as well as recent news, actions and events.

When: Tuesday, 16 February 2016
Time: From 6pm
Where: Tír na nÓg Irish Bar & Grill
Who: You!!

Happy Hour specials include $3-5 drafts, $5 glasses of wine, $5 quick bites.

Keep an eye on the Facebook event page or follow the #drinkingaboutmuseums hashtag on Twitter for updates in the lead-up to the event. And if you haven’t been to a #drinkingaboutmuseums before, get in contact with me and I’ll send you my cell number so you can locate us.

I can’t wait to see you there.

PS – A special shout out to my Visitor Services team and colleagues at the BMA who are a major part of making this event happen: Julia Nadeau, Erica Ward, Allie Linn, Ashley Pratt, Annie Fortenberry, Mercedes Lopez, and Shannon Young.

Transforming audiences, transforming museums

Digital transformation is really about something else that often isn’t openly talked about – transforming audiences.
Seb Chan

What does it mean to transform an audience? Is it a shift in the make-up of an audience, how that audience is conceived, how an audience behaves and interacts with an institution, or all three? I’ve been trying to unpack this idea a little over the last few weeks, since Seb Chan included a short discussion on the topic in his recent post rounding up 2015. Is audience development the same as audience transformation, or does it miss some critical aspect of change within the audience, and their interactions with an institution?

Philip M. Napoli’s work on audience evolution within the media sector articulates some useful perspectives. In his 2008 paper, Napoli proposed that the evolution of media technologies over time has enabled greater measurement and rationalisation of audiences, which in turn leads to changes in how an audience is perceived, measured, and responded to. As technologies change, the dynamics of consumption change, and previously unmeasurable aspects of the audience behaviour become more quantifiable and more visible. In response, the “invisible fictions” that exist about an audience and their behavioural patterns shift, and new conceptualisations of the institutionalised audience come into existence. Audience evolution, therefore, is as much about a perception of change as truly alternative dynamics of behaviour.

The relationship between digital and audience transformation, then, is as likely related to the increased capacity to measure and perceive audiences and their behaviours as it is to shifts in the dynamics of those behaviours enabled by digital technologies. It makes sense, then, that some of the most innovative museum projects we’ve seen in recent years combine audience experiences with data-collection and analysis. By seeking to make visible the behaviours of museum audiences, the fluid construct of “the audience” can destablise enough to allow alternative conceptualisations of the audience to emerge. This process of re-imagining the audience is important because, as Ian Ang notes, institutions “depend on the actual existence of the audience in very material terms.”

Napoli proposes that traditional approaches to audience measurement, such as how many people were potentially exposed to a media product (and its advertising), have been undermined by the contemporary media environment. He suggests that the shift towards engagement within the media sector is a response to improved measurement technologies, in which it became possible to question whether mere exposure to content equals effectiveness. Similarly, measuring and demonstrating engagement within the museum environment can be understood as a crucial element in demonstrating value, which has become increasingly important in context of competition for funding dollars and attention. As Rob Stein argues in his 2014 CODE | WORDS essay:

Our impassioned arguments about how museums can change lives and bring communities closer together are all well-and-good, but they mean very little to a data-driven philanthropist if we cannot bring supporting evidence with us to prove our point.

He continues:

Now that museums are beginning to have the tools and expertise at their disposal to monitor, track, record, and analyze all the various ways that the public benefits from their work, the real task begins to redesign the process and program of museums and to embed impact-driven data collection into every aspect of our efforts.

I think that this is at the crux of this digital transformation/audience transformation question. As we can measure our audiences in new ways, we expect to be able to measure how we impact and affect them, in order to respond to them differently. But this is a controversial process. Core to Napoli’s conceptualization of audience transformation is the notion that there will be stakeholder resistance and negotiation–that audience transformation is a necessarily contentious process. This will come as little surprise to any institution that has faced the question of whether to seek new audiences, which means coming up with new offerings, or to continue to invest in familiar, existing stakeholder audiences. As Seb notes:

In the US ‘transforming audiences’ is especially tricky as the culture of private funding means that for most privately funded museums the ‘actual audience’ is a handful of board members and ‘significant donors’ (foundations and corporations), not those who actually attend or use the museum and its collections as visitors. The desired outcomes of different board members of the same institution may vary widely, and at times may even be in conflict with each other – pity the poor Director who is squeezed in the middle!

Seeking new audiences, or to transform audiences, can be highly destabilising for institutions that rely on the concepts of the audience that they are invested in. This problem was at the crux of a discussion at MCN2015 on Museum Business Models and New Revenue Streams in the Digital EconomyThe premise of the session was that museums are “overly dependent on the largess of a dying breed of individual philanthropists and unable to demonstrate their impact and social value to younger, civic-minded audiences…” The mystery meat seems to be in the gap between the known audience and its alternatives.

Last year,  argued that the museum visitor has undergone “a subtle transformation into an autonomous consumer” in response to cultural policy (in the UK), the new museology, the onset of an experience economy, and the rise of marketing and branding as the primary methods for visitor engagement and audience development. In response, engagement in museums is now understood as a mechanism for providing meaningful–and personal–experiences. Aimee Chang, Director of Engagement, UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, proposes that audience engagement, as it relates to museums, is “a philosophical shift throughout institutions—a deep consideration of varied audiences when thinking about what museums are and do.” Of course, seeking to engage museum audiences in our work isn’t new. Museums have sought to re-envision and revolutionise their relationships with visitors for generations. But what do you do when the audiences you have and the audiences you’re seeking look different, and want different things? And how do museums allow their audiences to evolve, and evolve their own offerings in response?

I’d love to hear your thoughts about audience transformation, and the role digital plays in that process. How critical is the transformation of the museum’s own internal audiences and stakeholders within that process? And how have your own conceptions of “audience” shifted over time?

PS – If you’re interested in further unpacking ideas related to digital transformation, I’d recommended MCN’s Digital Transformations and Strategy SIG.

Invisible Architectures

Well, the MCN2015 theme has been posted, and I could not be more excited to share it with you:

MCN 2015: The Invisible Architectures of Connected Museums: Making Meaning with People, Collections, and Information
The world continues to move past the simple physical/digital dialectic towards a more nuanced matrix of architectures uniting digital and material culture. For this year’s MCN conference, we seek submissions that expand the museum experience through the marrying of the physical and the digital, the back office and the visitor, the screen and the vitrine. How will we utilize embodied, digitally responsive, and inclusive methods and approaches to build 21st-century literacies with our audiences?

One thing I love about this theme is that it asks us to think critically about the systems, structures, and rules that impact museum work. What are the existing implicit and explicit architectures and systems that dictate how we do our jobs, and impact how people experience the museum on- and offline? And (how) can increased awareness of those architectures enable us to build upon them differently?

Some of the architectures that immediately come to my mind include: our buildings (physical architectures), our organisational charts (procedural or institutional architectures), the systems created by others (funding and political systems; digital networks and social sites like Facebook that have their own rules), and broad cultural architectures. Then there are the less obvious ones, like language. Jean-Francois Noubel, for instance, explores how:

ontology (our language structures that define our relationship to the world) builds our collective self, and how these invisible architectures often maintain the collective entrapped in predictable social structures that self perpetuate via language.

He continues:

One of these (many) old ontological structures can be seen in our habit to use substantive words that express a function, a social status or state, rather than essence… [An example of this is] a user in the software world, rather than a person (shall we say some day a person interface rather than a user interface?).

How does the language we use to address visitors/users/the public change the way we think about them, or our objects? What is the essence, rather than the function of people who visit? I know many people in this sector have had conversations in recent years about what to call the people who come to the museum. Does changing what we call someone who attends the museum also change the way we think about and address them? And does that have any impact on inclusiveness and designing better experiences? We know that museum taxonomies significantly impact how we think about objects; does the same apply to other aspects of museum work?

In 2011, there was an Invisible Architectures festival in the UK, which sought to expose “layers of the city that would otherwise remain imperceptible.” What I’m hoping is that through this theme, MCN2015 will help us expose layers of the museum and museum work that would otherwise remain imperceptible, too.

There is much more in this theme that I love, and I might write a little more about it in coming weeks. The Call for Proposals will come out in early April, but until then, I’d love to talk more about these ideas, the thoughts that surfaced for me at least in the discussions that led to this theme, and how these might shape a super interesting conference.

Let me know what you think. What are some of the architectures (visible or otherwise) that impact your work? Have you made changes to the language you use to describe [users? visitors? other?], and what impact did that have?