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?

On curatorial voice and the web

Well, this is going to be an interesting week. Although I have only been in San Diego for Museums and the Web 2012 for about 24 hours now, I have already had more stimulating conversations than in recent months put together. Where time allows, I will shoot to capture a few of these emerging ideas as they come (although time to digest might be hard to come by until the conference ends).

So, first up. I’ve had a couple of parallel discussions with Dafydd James from the National Museum of Wales, and with Ed Rodley (finally, we meet!), about the importance of voice and pitch for different audiences, and it got me thinking of what we are asking of curators (amongst others) when we want them to blog/make public their research or make it open and accessible.

My PhD writing is very different from my blog writing. It is far more dry, academic and formal. The tone and the content are both different, because I am writing for a different audience. Similarly, my early misgivings about the Museums Association UK republishing Can a technologist get ahead in museums? was because the writing had been done for the context of museumgeek, and not for a broader and more general audience. In each case, I am tailoring my pitch to the people I expect to be reading my work.

Frequently curators, and other researchers, are used to writing for a very specific group of other researchers (ie research papers, formal publications). Much as we in the musetech community know each other and speak using particular terminology etc, so do they. This community of passion has a shared understanding of context, and a shared vocabulary, and can talk to the nuance and detail of an issue, because they all have a broad understanding of that issue.

However, when we ask curators to write for the web, we are asking them to write for a completely different audience – and an undefined one at that. The type of language to use, the expectation of existing knowledge – all that is gone. Instead, there is an expectation that the curator can instantly repitch their work, but without a particular focus. Of course, most curators are competent writers, and the change in voice might not prove a problem, but it does likely require additional work and different approach.

Even beyond this, however, by having to simplify their work into a pitch that can be more broadly understood, the nuance of the issue, too, is at risk of being lost, and that changes the nature of the discussion. Maybe some curators could even gently harbour a concern of actually eroding some of their professional standing and reputation by publishing work that is generalist, rather than specialised. (This point is entirely speculative, but it’s something to consider.)

This simplifying of content does already occur in the context of museum exhibition text, but because it is often limited by space, it is also expected to by short and simplistic. The expectation is already pre-set, and this writing exists in the clear context of the exhibition. The open nature of online research is different.

This also threatens the idea we often hear in musetech conversations that we simply need better workloads and content management systems. It’s not so simple as just ‘producing content’ and making that content available, because all content requires repurposing for audience.

When, in my last post, I spoke about breaking musetech conversations out of the bubble, my closing question was How can we as musetech professionals become better translators, and better speak the language that others in the field are using? The question is at least in part about pitch. How can we repitch our conversations so that they are meaningful outside our own bubble? It strikes me that when we argue for curators etc to engage online, we are expecting that they will do the same. But it’s a lot easier to talk to those who already understand your subject than those who don’t, and maybe that adds a layer of complexity.

What do you think? Do you think that this idea of reframing content adds complexity to the question of curatorial voice online? Or, if you are a curator, do you feel there is an expectation to publish different online than you would offline?