How do you learn to tell stories worth experiencing?

Today I just have a single question: how do people who work in museums learn to tell good stories?

Below is an excerpt from Seb Chan’s breathtaking interview with Mike Jones (if you haven’t yet read it yet, you should – and also check out Jasper Visser’s latest post on digital storytelling). Mike says:

A story is not just a collection of things or a sequence of events. In this I think breaking down some distinctions between Story, Plot and Narration is very useful.

The framework I like to use, borrowed form numerous scholars in the field over centuries, is that Plot is a sequence of Events, Narration is how those events are Told and Story is what the Viewer experiences through the combination of the Plot being Told in a certain way… or in other words Plot + Narration = a Story Experience in the mind of the Audience.

Once we engage with this idea we can get away from the vacuous notion that ‘everything is a story’ and actually focus on bringing to bear the mechanics and craft to generate an engaging story experience – dramatic questions, a cause and effect chain, a distinct voice in the ‘telling’ of the story, clear point-of-view, characters who are flawed and have desires and obstacles – a story that’s worth experiencing.

How do people who work in museums (curators, exhibit designers, marketers, digital content creators, everyone) learn to tell good stories? Where do they learn that art? Is it taught in school? If you took museum studies, was there a course on story development like a filmmaker or writer might take? Or is the craft handed down, curator to curator? If it isn’t taught formally, should it be?

What do you think? Where do museum story-tellers learn the mechanics and craft of story-telling to tell worthwhile and compelling stories in museums?

A Museum Genome Project?

Superquick post. I just noticed that Jasper Visser has written about the blurring of boundaries between things; between art fairs and libraries, between shops, restaurants and galleries. The delineations between institutions or organisations once seemingly quite distinct are becoming less so. Or, as Jasper puts it, “The label becomes less important.”

As much as we’ve relied on art or museum classifications to tell us about the things in our collections, as institutions we also rely on classifications to tell us about ourselves and each other. Are we an art museum, or a small museum, or a zoo with only the lesser pandas? Are we a museum, or a library, or a librarymuseum? What relationship does a shop located in an airport that sells goods from the Met have to a museum?

Maybe museums, too, need a classification system more attenuated to nuance, like The Art Genome Project. Could we have a Museum Genome Project; in which all our institutions were assessed according to different characteristics or “genes” so that we could better understand how they relate to one another, and to other like institutions (imagine including the whole GLAM sector)? Genes could be created for factors including size, collecting or non-collecting, live animals or not, and so on. The relationships between a museum with books and a library with objects could probably be far more clearly demonstrated than simply with the labels “museum” or “library”. Taking such an approach to the labelling of museums (rather than just their objects) could provide an interesting and highly descriptive imprint of the sector, and the relationships different institutions have with each other. That knowledge could then be used to develop appropriate standards and best practices; or to correctly advocating for the needs of the sector.

What do you think? Do you think a Museum Genome Project would be a useful way to understand the sector, and the complex ways in which different institutions relate to, or differ from, one another? Could this be a useful approach for tackling sector-wide problems, like advocacy, or developing appropriate standards and best practices? And what would the essential genes include?

P.S. – In case you didn’t notice, my imagination has been captured by The Art Genome Project. Fortunately Matthew Israel is going to be at MCN2012, and I am very much looking forward to picking his brain there.

How could anyone think this little guy was less then a Panda?

Reprogramming the Art Museum @ AGNSW

This week has been quite a rush. On Monday and Tuesday, I attended a great symposium run by a new research group at COFA. The symposium was on the topic Reprogramming the Art Museum, and really emphasised strategies for engagement in museums. It featured fabulous keynote speakers Adam Lerner (MCA Denver), Dominic Willsdon (SFMOMA), Lawrence Rinder (Berkeley Art Museum) and Justine McLisky (National Portrait Gallery, UK). There were also some shorter papers presented, including a wonderful presentation by Elizabeth Mead from MONA on the effect of bringing an outsider’s voice into the art museum (I am officially a massive fangirl of Mead’s following the presentation – must get to MONA soon).

Similarly, I loved and was super-excited by Adam Lerner’s presentation on his work at MCA Denver. I think one reason I’ve been drawn to museum tech is because most technologists that I’ve met are actively thinking about/tackling questions about how to engage audiences, and how to make the museum meaningful in an online space. What I loved about Adam’s work – and really all the presenters actually – was that they were doing the same thing, but in the physical space. It made me really wonder whether what I am working towards is not necessarily museum tech, but museum engagement – online or offline, and preferably both. I think this is the reason I love Jasper Visser’s work with the Dutch Museum of National History (including the national cultural vending machine) – although much of INNL’s work happens online, their truly awesome initiatives are the ones that marry the virtual with the real.

That term engagement is an interesting one. I had a conversation with a friend recently about a philosopher he was studying, and my friend mentioned that he thought that often people think that he is smarter than he is because he has really connected with this philosopher’s work. People seemed to associate intelligence with engagement, with a passion for intellectual pursuit. Simply by choosing to really focus on and connect with an issue, my friend was going over and above what others do, and thus found that he gained significant respect for that fact. He also found that it left him a little fearful about the expectations that he had created for himself more generally… that it would no longer be ok for him to just be ‘ordinary’ in his work on this, or related subjects, because the expectations had changed.

Similarly, I think the situation is the same with museums. Creating engaging exhibitions, programs or websites is wonderful, because it brings the opportunity for an extra layer of credibility with the actual community with whom you are trying to connect. But of course, it also brings expectations. In talking to a gallery director I met at the conference, I mentioned my love for programs such as those run at MCA Denver, because they are precisely what I think museums should be seeking to do. She agreed, but with some hesitation, and then expressed a feeling that sometimes she wanted to simply be able to display art without needing to be more than that, and without the added expectation that came with starting a culture of more. I’d love to hear from any of you who have been involved with these kinds of programming choices in museums to hear about your experiences too, and whether starting a program of intentional engagement has also brought with it changed expectations. Has this been sustainable?

Overall it was a really thought-provoking two days, with lots of cumulative takeaways (although the big one for me is that this is going to be an ongoing and important issue for my own career). Hopefully will run another symposium again soon. I will definitely go along.

Thoughts on the closure of the Dutch Museum of National History

My first guest geek Jasper Visser (don’t worry – there’s another geek speak coming soon) has just announced on his blog that his museum – the Dutch Museum of National History (INNL) – will no longer operate from 1 January 2012, following the announcement of funding cuts by Netherlands’ secretary of state responsible for culture.

This is a terribly disappointing – although not entirely surprising – thing to have happened. When I first met Jasper at MW2011, I spoke to him a little bit about the INNL network – the museum website that won the Best of the Web award for innovation – and at the time, he mentioned that it was possible that his institution could close at any time. I dismissed the possibility… coming from Australia, where our politicians are generally fairly centrist in action if not always in rhetoric, I didn’t really take seriously the threat that someone might close such an interesting and innovative project for seemingly political reasons.** And yet only months later, here we are.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to Seb about the INNL and he remarked how vulnerable it was, being a national museum in a politically unstable country, and moreso being a museum without objects. And its true. After all, our very concept of what a museum is and should be is grounded in the fact that museums are the places that house objects. In Cabinets for the Curious: Looking Back at Early English Museums, Ken Arnold writes (p4) that early museums had three strategies for creating knowledge, being “the telling of stories, the use of objects, and the imposition of order upon them.” The INNL did use objects – like the National Vending Machine, or selected objects through which stories could be told – but it did not house a permanent collection. Instead, it sought to excite people about Dutch national history through stories and projects. And with concepts like “The ‘Land of What If’, a room with alternative Dutch histories”, no wonder it was vulnerable at a time when cultural institutions were threatened by politics.

Despite – and possibly because of – its short life, the INNL raises lots of questions for me about the nature of museums, and what a museum is and should be. Can a museum preserve the past without objects? Does the provenance of a museum come from the provenance of its objects, or its people?

As much as I love and am captured by the ideas behind the INNL, I wonder whether it was always going to be a time-limited project. Reading the vision of the project, I always feel inspired – but without objects, a museum of this nature can only ever be as successful as the people who are behind it, and it is likely that with time and staff changes, a sense of inertia would gain hold.

Yet the fact that it was (or appeared to be) successful during its short life should absolutely inspire those of us working in museums with exhibits to consider how we too could excite people about what we do if we didn’t have our objects to rely on – if we were forced to find new and more creative ways to tell stories.

In the mean time, I’m not sure what Jasper plans to do – or if he will stick around in this field… He has something of the entrepreneurial/world changing spirit about him and I imagine he might want to move on. But I look forward to seeing what he turns his hand to next.

**NB: I’ve recently learned that funding has been cut for This is Not Art – an arts festival that runs annually in my home town. This year might be the first year in over a decade that it doesn’t run, and I am fairly sure that the reasons behind this are political as well… so maybe even in Aust, culture is never safe from politics.

geek speak with Jasper Visser

This is the first in a series of guest posts on museumgeek in which I’ll be asking fellow culturegeeks to share how they ended up working in museum tech.

Most people I’ve met in this sector have interesting – and divergent – backgrounds. I love hearing their stories, and thought it might be sweet to capture and share some of them. Doing so will hopefully give newcomers to the field a sense of the myriad of ways that they can break into it, and should also – over time – paint a pretty cool narrative about just who it is that museum tech attracts, and why.

Hopefully you’ll enjoy the series. We’re kicking off with a great story from Jasper Visser from the Museum of National History of the Netherlands that thoroughly captures what I was hoping to with the project. In the coming months I’ll try to get a variety of interesting people to contribute, but if there is someone you’d like to hear from, let me know and I’ll do what I can to track them down and persuade them to post.

How I got here – Jasper Visser

Jasper Visser at Museum Next 2011

Okay, so I’ve got one of the best jobs in the world. Probably the best job in the world. And when people ask me how I got this job, I usually summarize my answer as “luck”. I guess I’m lucky to be part of an ambitious team building a museum with the audacious goal to be truly innovative in every way. To be working on media and tech within this whirlwind of change, especially, is most exhilarating.

But I guess “luck” won’t do for an answer to Susan’s question of how I got to have this job.

My background is diverse. Around the age of 15 I spent entire days building video games with Klik and Play. Also, I took my first steps in web development. This was the time when frames were still totally OK and I had a blast building complex structures. Around 1997 I even built a sort of social network but gave up because I didn’t believe in the concept. If only…

Anyway, university was a drag. I studied a couple of things, but didn’t really like any of it. Only a minor in international development studies got me enthusiastic. So I worked for a while on designing workshops about energy, gender and the Millennium Development Goals for the bigger development organisations. I guess I could have would have (should have) gone to DC for the World Bank if I hadn’t spent a couple of months in the field and liked that better than air-conditioned offices.

Through a campaign for youth representative for the United Nations I met a great number of wonderful people working on social innovation. They changed my life and taught me that non-conformism is a strength, not a phase to get through (as society tends to think about it, “Ay, one day you’ll get a decent job, finish your studies and pop out 1.7 kids”). It resulted in me being rather poor for a while until I found a job as a project assistant for the social aspirations of a consultancy firm.

They introduced me to the books of Jim Collins, in particular Good to Great which has been a guiding book in my life ever since. Although it’s written for business, I think its lessons apply directly to people’s private lives as well. The book and the firm helped me to develop a view on what I want to achieve in my life. In short, I want to make a positive contribution to intercultural understanding and social innovation, using the skills I’ve been given as a connector, inspirator and (hard) worker. Whatever you want to be, if you want to live a life that’s more than just good, read Jim Collins’ book and translate it into action.

Late in 2007 life led me to Madrid, where I became a teacher of the English language and a freelance designer/web developer. Often I barely made ends meet but the experience of living abroad and truly trying to become part of another culture was wonderful. I spent almost two years in the city, becoming half Spanish and a great fan of everything from Rioja to bullfighting. Then, I moved back to the motherland and through a friend was introduced to the people working for the freshly started Museum of National History.

Job interview, enthusiasm, work. That’s how I came to work in museums and tech. It wasn’t planned, although upon leaving Spain I had put “museums” on my list as a place where I would like to work to gain experience. I added “e.g. communications” as I had no idea museums did tech. How quickly I learned… In university I used to call people with great jobs to ask how they got there. I wanted to know what I had to do. Their almost universal answer, “Grab every opportunity to learn and move forward.” I cannot but full-heartedly agree with that now.

Jasper is project manager new technology and media at the Museum of National History of the Netherlands. Together with the team he’s responsible for the new media strategy, (online) participation, community building and online communication. Jasper is passionate about connecting people with culture, society and each other and likes coffee, Spain and Lady Gaga. He writes about innovation in museums on his blog