On remaking the world.

I have a long-standing and deeply held belief that if the world doesn’t fit you, you can either choose to remake yourself, or remake the world. The first choice sounds easier, but seems to me to be far less satisfying. The second choice can appear hard, but isn’t. If you want a job that doesn’t exist yet, find a way to start doing it, do it well, and eventually someone will probably pay you for it. Almost every job I’ve ever had, and certainly all of the interesting ones, have come not with a job description, but with just doing (usually for free, at the start). And thus the world is remade a little; the boundaries are redrawn to fit what they didn’t before. There is no reason to accept that the way things are is the way they can, should, or will be.

This week I’ve been reading Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World: How disruptive imagination creates culture, a book Seb Chan recommended me some time ago and one that fits quite perfectly with my view that the world is there to be remade. It’s a lovely book and an interesting read about the creatures in myth and life who do not fit within the existing social structures and who therefore find ways to move and change those structures (aside: it’s providing some inspiration for my IgniteMCN talk next week).

Of particular note is Hyde’s discussion about the nature of those social structures, and the communities that make and preserve them. He writes (pg 216-217):

For a human community to make its world shapely is one thing; to preserve the shape is quite another, especially if, as it always the case, the shape is to some degree arbitrary and if the shaping requires exclusion and the excluded are hungry. So along with shapeliness comes a set of rules meant to preserve the design. “Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not blaspheme. Do not gamble. Do not pick things up in the street. Behave yourself. You should be ashamed…”

There is an act of shaping, of drawing boundaries between what is in and out (always at play in museums, in the acts of curation and collection); but then there is also an act of reinforcement and preservation. It is not enough to draw demarcation lines; they must be solidified in rules and conventions. This is how a community recognises itself as ‘community’ in order that it can function rightly in the world it has created.

Last week, Elizabeth Merritt wrote a post discussing the defining characteristics of visionaries versus futurists, which I find interesting in this context. In it, she enunciated a role for the Center of the Future of Museums in helping “museum practioners, as a field, describe [a] shared vision of the preferred future, and figure out how we can use our combined resources to make it so.” One step towards this “shared vision” (ie, the mutual shaping of a world by a community) was to invite museums to take a Pledge of Excellence, through which the shape is reinforced. The process is two step. The first is the creation of a world; the second is it’s preservation. (I do not in any way mean to suggest that those who do not take the pledge would be excluded from the community.)

Meanwhile on the other side of the world, fifty “young cultural leaders from around the world” are meeting in Salzburg this week to further develop their leadership skills. One of their tasks is articulating the instrumental and intrinsic values of the arts. The intention is that they create a shared vision around the creation and communication of value, but in light of Hyde’s discussion, I wonder whether any such vision can be maintained across a broad-spanning group of people from differing countries and cultures. Will a week together be long enough to establish the rules that would allow for the shape to be preserved? Crafting a vision is only the first stage in the process, and in terms of stability, its result might be more yurt than citadel (somewhere lovely to stop during a transition, but without the fundamental structures necessary to bunker down in for an extended stay).

In context of these musings, I’m now given to thinking about the paradoxes of creating rules for a society, and of breaking those same rules; about how worlds are shaped and maintained so that changes have more fundamental or radical impact than being merely superficial. It’s not just making a job that accommodates your own unique talents; it’s setting up that position as critical, so that if you leave, someone else then steps into the role. It’s not simply coming up with beautiful aphorisms about the changes you want in the world, but truly drawing, undrawing and redrawing the boundaries in a way that’s simultaneously disruptive and sustainable.

One aspect of Elizabeth’s post that I found intriguing was the embedding of notions of a “shared vision” into a discussion about visionaries (many of whom would be the very kinds of tricksters and trouble-makers who erode the boundaries of existing and established shared visions). It makes me wonder whether shared visions and visionaries are almost antithetical, or whether it is a visionary (singular) that creates the space for a vision (shared). Can the young leaders in Salzburg, many of whom must have come to attention because they stand out rather than fitting in, craft a joint vision when they each bring their own priorities and perspectives to the group, or instead will their individual visions be the more robust vehicle for change? And in either case, can they establish something lasting that has fundamental impact?

Finally, what does all this mean for museums in an age of disruption, particularly when there is call for change, innovation and building cultures of experimentation. Is it possible to create a culture where the established rules embrace the voices of dissent consistently? I cannot imagine it is. So what are the systems we need to establish that make room for both the drawing and enforcing of boundaries in order to create that a vision has enough strength and structure to be foundational, whilst still enabling those same boundaries to be undrawn and redrawn when they no longer serve their purposes?

I still have about 120 pages to go in Trickster Makes This World, and I have a feeling Hyde has an answer for me within his pages. But until I discover his take on things, I’d love your thoughts.

What do you think? How do those who wish to reshape museums disrupt existing structures (undraw boundaries) and simultaneously build and reinforce new walls (redrawing the line of demarcation)? Is it possible to create systems that make room for both?

Let them eat cake. Revolutions + museum innovation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s going on here?

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

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

Let’s play! How to block innovation in your museum?

One of the best sessions I attended at GovCamp this week was a reverse brainstorming session run by Nerida Hart on “How to block innovation”. We had to come up with the things that effectively prevent innovation in an organisation. It was great. I thought it might be a cool thought experiment to involve you in too. (It also seemed appropriate to the theme of avoiding innovation to simply take an idea from elsewhere and adapt it to my own purpose.)

So let’s play! How would you prevent your museum from being innovative? To kick off, if I wanted to block innovation I would:
– prevent social media or talking to anyone outside the institution (definitely no conferences).
– punish failure.
– not value innovation.

Since this is a game, I’m even going to offer a prize (Australian treats!) for the person who comes up with the least innovative answer (mmm… incentivising mediocrity).*

Join in! What are the best ways to prevent/block innovation and fresh thinking in (your) museums?

*NB: It’s worth noting that the winner will be chosen completely at a whim. Nothing motivates like randomness and unpredictability in reward systems.

On creative risks and PhD blogging

Nina Simon has just written a post entitled Empowering Staff to Take Creative Risks in which she asks “What are you willing to risk to pursue your dreams?” It’s a somewhat timely post for me, because I am stuck deliberating on the role of blogging for me in the PhD process.

Yesterday I drafted a new blog post which I think poses an interesting perspective on moving museum collections to the Internet. Only in its fledgling stage, the idea is probably not particularly groundbreaking – but I think it has the potential to be developed further and it could be relevant to my PhD. And suddenly I find myself stuck as to whether to put it – and other PhD thoughts – online or not.

I’ve asked my supervisors for their thoughts, as well as asking an open question on Facebook and Twitter about what academics think of the issue. The responses have been mixed. Some have said they couldn’t imagine it being a problem, some have warned against the risk that someone would steal my ideas, and one friend pointed out the possible intricacies involved with people posting ideas in comments, and how difficult attribution might be if my ideas were later informed by discussion that took place online.

And so when I read Nina Simon’s post, it made me question precisely what I am willing to risk in the pursuit of my ideas and my career. This blog has become an interesting vehicle for me. Although it has only been up and running for a few weeks, I’ve had quite a few people contact me because of it, and have started some interesting conversations as a result. It is letting me make some interesting new professional (and personal) contacts, and has helped ensure that my mind never completely switches off thinking about the field, because I’m always on the look out for something new to post about.

But until now I have never actually wanted to post thoughts that might later be important to my research. Doing so could be a risk. Someone could indeed steal my ideas without attribution. Having said that, just starting a public blog and putting my ideas – mostly half-formed and in need of work around the edges – into the blogosphere carries with it certain risks. But ultimately, I think that hiding away from criticism and the opportunity to fall flat on my face would be worse. After all, the things that appear safe in life often aren’t. Seth Godin wrote recently on ‘exceptional’ brands, and why they fail:

The problem with brand exceptionalism is that once you believe it, it’s almost impossible to innovate. Innovation involves failure, which an exceptional brand shouldn’t do, and the only reason to endure failure is to get ahead, which you don’t need to do. Because you’re exceptional.

The take home message from both Seth’s and Nina’s posts is that pursuing big things – like dreams, careers and in the case of museums, innovation – is risky, and that risks bring with them real opportunities for failure. But that it’s only by being open to failure that really interesting things happen.

Does this mean that I will upload the post I drafted yesterday? I haven’t yet decided, and will seek further advice first. Though unless anyone can give me a compelling reason not to, I probably will. If someone steals my ideas, at least that means they were worth stealing (is this a Web2.0 attitude?).

In the mean time, I’d love to hear from anyone else who is or has been in a similar situation on what they decided to do. I know that a lot of museum bloggers are also research students, so surely this is something other people have grappled with too.