A participatory museum sector? On discussion, debate and transparency.

All right, fair warning. This is a long post.

The annual Museums Australia conference was held in Canberra in mid-May, and covered a range of topics under the broad banner How museums work: people, industry and nation. I had an interesting conference, in part because I was invited to be a speaker in a plenary session on Shaping the Future of Museums. In it, Dr Patrick Greene, David Arnold (NMA), and I all responded to a presentation from Dr Stefan Hajkowicz, Director CSIRO Futures, in which he spelled out six megatrends expected to change the way we live. The session framed much of the conference for me and opened up many conversations about the future of the sector.

For the remainder of the conference, I purposely sat in on sessions outside my usual comfort zone to get the broadest possible insight. There was lots of useful content (the sessions on the public value of museums, and the business of money were unmissable), with many of the discussions pivoting around common themes; about the importance of collaboration; about how we identify and solve the problems that actually matter; about how we enable career development and training right across the sector; and about the benefits that co-creation engenders for all participants.

As the conference went along, it became apparent to me just how much the questions facing the sector mimic those being played out in our institutions themselves, particularly around questions of participation and collaboration. How does the museum sector become more participatory and allow people right across the sector – regardless of their formal position – contribute to the solving of the problems facing the sector? How to come to terms with the tension between allowing new voices in, whilst simultaneously speaking with a singular voice in order to ensure clarity of communication and vision? How to transition from closed conversations to open ones?

Many of these tensions were readily apparent in an article on the price of climate control and environmental sustainability in Australian museums in The Australian, in which Michaela Boland notes that:

…the structure of the three-day conference — which featured keynote addresses from AGNSW director Michael Brand, West Kowloon Cultural District chief executive Michael Lynch and new Australian War Memorial director Brendan Nelson — did not lend itself to much actual debate. The overall impression was that Australia’s museum industry seems blithely unaware of its own significance and potential.

Not scheduled for discussion… were many issues concerning the industry, among them Australian museums acquiring items from dealers of questionable reputation, the propriety of museum curators writing catalogue notes for art auction houses and complaints by the auction houses that cultural-heritage rules are stymieing sales of Aboriginal art.

In the days before the conference got under way, meetings were held by the Council of Australasian Museum Directors, Museums Australia and the National Cultural Heritage Committee, where these topics were discussed behind closed doors.

One senior figure tells The Australian museum directors think it is unwise to discuss sensitive issues publicly; another says the institutions are scared to air their dirty laundry lest they fall foul of government funders.

Here a journalist writing for national paper picks apart the conference for being closed and failing to have space for debate, concluding that the sector was “blithely unaware of its own significance and potential” as a result. This rankled me a little, because I disagree that a lack of debate indicates a lack of awareness. Instead, I think it’s indicative of real tensions around the problems of if and how a sector can open up to become more participatory and inclusive, whilst still maintaining the capacity to speak to really important issues with a single voice – tensions I see replicated in discussions about institutional voice in an age of social media.

Social media has made it theoretically possible for everyone to have a public voice in any conversation, whether they have relevant knowledge or not. It makes publishing easy, which means that it is very much an “opt-in” activity. But does the reality that every voice can be heard mean that they all should be, or  are some voices and opinions worth more than others? Does every topic need to be open to debate, or are there some we should just trust to the experts?

Late last year, Matt Popke wrote an excellent comment about institutional voice that is valuable here:

It could be that we need to dramatically alter our institutional voice altogether. Instead of focusing on The Museum we could shift more attention to the individual members of the museum team. As more start blogging and otherwise directly engaging people through social media they’re going to become more visible within the organization anyway. As we pull back the curtain more on our internal processes, we’re going to expose more of those people who are individually making our organizational choices. As these people become more visible, their personalities and individual values will start to take the fore more and more in relation to our institutional identity.

When that transition happens there won’t need to be an institutional position on political issues anymore, just the positions of the various individuals within the institution. It will be their choice how visible they want their opinions to be (to a point, it’s becoming less certain how much anybody gets to choose their degree of publicness anymore). The organization simply won’t have the same kind of monolithic “voice” anymore.

I think the more we allow this process to take hold and be visible within our organizations, the easier it will be to draw the public into the discussion and convince them that they actually have some influence over what we do (and the more they actually will have some influence over what we do). We talk a lot about participatory engagement these days, but we have to change internally a lot before that participation will reach any kind of critical mass.

These ideas are picked up by Mairin Kerr in a discussion on digital protectionism in museums. In considering “Why are there gatekeepers?”, Kerr asks:

…do we really need an institutional voice? Or is this us holding onto the past – the single authoritative voice and idea that an institution must stand united for something. Why not show that there are divisions? Why do we need a strong message? Why can’t the message be diversity? Aren’t we supposed to be encouraging multiple voices and perspectives in the new age of museums?

These are important questions. But it’s also important to think about why the unidirectional and opaque “institutional voice” was dominant for so long. I don’t think it was just because that was what the technology enabled. There is real power in having a singular message that is communicated clearly. Consistency of message is critical in showing people what you stand for and enabling them to understand it. While experts can get into hugely nuanced discussions about a topic, based on a shared vocabulary and deep knowledge, most people won’t have the prior learning to engage with the ideas at such a level, and in those cases, clarity is important.

So how do we resolve this paradox? As an insider, I want more opportunities for discussion and debate. I want to be able to take ownership of these issues and make them my own; to feel like I can play a role in shaping the sector. But I also value the power that comes from clarity of vision. Is is possible to have both nuance and simplicity? What happens if the museum directors quoted above are right, and talking about these issues openly makes us vulnerable to political attack? Is that a price worth paying?

Maybe what we’re really looking for – both within our institutions and within the sector – is a kind of “cohesive multivocality” (thanks Ed Rodley!), which allows for multiple perspectives, but all with a shared mission and ultimate goals. And if that’s the case, what are the steps we need to take to enable such a thing to exist?

What do you think?

What happens when geeks design museums?

I’ve started to notice a couple of interesting patterns or trends in the digital museum dialogue over the last couple of weeks and months. Just taking a quick flick around the blogs and looking at some of my favourite museum thinkers, we have Koven speaking at MuseumNext about the Kinetic Museum, and asking What if a museum’s overall practice were built outwards from its technology efforts, rather than the other way around?. Ed’s making a museum from scratch series is moving towards imagining a radically transparent museum – one in which labels might include information about who wrote them, objects might have whole histories available, or information that leads visitors back outside the walls of the museum to continue their journey beyond the physical space. And Seb has proposed that “the exhibition as a form needs to adapt. Radically. And I don’t mean into a series of public programs or events.” His great post from last week, too, considered new ways of designing exhibitions as immersive events with digital parallels.

There are two things that I find fascinating about this. The first is that this dialogue is forming a kind of dispersed ‘Koinonia’, or  collaborative thinking. Although each of us is physically removed from one another (in my case, across oceans, and for the others, at least a few hours of travel between), we are all bouncing off, and building upon, the ideas, questions and inspirations being shared by the others.

But the second reason this is interesting to me is that in each case, they we are all starting to reimagine or redesign physical museum experiences with ideas drawn from digital experiences. The museum technology conversation seems to be shifting from merely how does technology impact the business of the museum practice to how should it impact the museum building or the design of museums physically. Of course, there is precedence for these conversations with Nina Simon’s approach to exhibition design, which draws upon Web2.0 philosophies. But these new discussions seem to further explore the concept of creating the physical space of the museum upon the principles and values of the Internet.

So what are these values, and how could they apply to museum/exhibition design?

For me, the immediate ones that come to mind include transparency and openness, agility and responsiveness, customisable and personal experiences, and sharable, social and participatory interactions. Many of these ideas are ones that I’ve spoken about previously on this blog, but I’ve always focussed on how they might/should apply to museum online efforts.

Ed’s concept of radical transparency in the museum is provocative. In Too Big To Know, David Weinberger proffers that one of the basic elements of the Net experience is that “[t]he Net is a vast public space within which the exclusion of visitors or content is the exception.” (174.) He also points out the abundance of the Internet, where “there is more available to us than we ever imagined back in the days of television and physical libraries.” Taking these ideas into the physical museum space could see the size and complexity of working collection made visible and public as default, whilst still being able to distil ideas through the use of selected objects chosen for formal exhibition/display. This approach also puts a contemporary spin on the idea of curation, where the curator draws attention to the things worth seeing within the abundant content available. As I commented, the recently opened MAS | Museum Aan de Stroom in Antwerp has a visible storage area that houses about 180,000 artefacts from the collection. Imagine being able to see the entirety of a collection, as well as its details. What kind of public value might such an approach have?
(Of course, such an approach would likely have implications for cost, security etc. – there are many as-yet-unresolved issues here.)

What else? I think one of the most enduringly appealing things about the Internet is that it is highly personal and customisable. My experience online is likely very different from yours. You and I, we will read different things, and be drawn to different sites. We will even visit the same sites, but on different browsers and devices, or at different times of day. So how could a museum make an experience that put emphasis on “immersive exploration rather than a linear narrative“, as Seb has been asking? What kind of approach to exhibition design is needed to give individuals ownership over their experiences and yet still maintain connective narrative tissues to make sense of the core concepts and ideas at play?

Digital experiences are sharable, and frequently participatory. But they are also agile, kinetic, and scalable from global to local, and back again. Our conversations and interactions online are not limited to our physical proximity, but they are often related to it. I chat to people all over the world on Twitter, but also make a point of meeting up with them in person when circumstances allow. There is an overlap between my digital and physical experiences, a parallelism (as Seb recently observed). So how could these parallel experiences be incorporated into museum setting? Could the museum tap into and contribute to global themes and conversations before and after the visit (online or offline), and then focus on the local and particular in the actual space? Would that be the right approach?

Matt Popke, in the comments on Seb’s mixtape post, joins in.

I just think the bar has been raised a bit in the “historical narrative” part of the equation. People live in a google age now. If you encounter something you are not familiar with you simply google it and find out whatever you want to know (or maybe you think you find it, that’s another issue entirely). People are accustomed now to having mountains of information available to them at a whim. Tiny tombstone labels on collection items or informational plaques near an exhibit just don’t satisfy like they used to.

The challenge is finding a way to incorporate *all* of the rich history and context of an item in the display of that item, or otherwise finding a way to deliver more in an exhibition than we’re used to, more context, more data, more story. We need to deliver this information in a way that feels explorative, like the audience is taking their own path through our collection and discovering their own version of the narrative. Hypertext, as a medium, is perfect for this kind of intellectual exploration when dealing with an individual. How do we create a hypertext-like experience in a physical space that multiple people can enjoy simultaneously?

There are lots of ideas here, and most of them are entirely unresolved. Still, this trend in the conversation seems to bend more and more to be broaching the divide between the physical and virtual and trying to rethink or disrupt current approaches to museum or exhibition design. Why this is happening now, I’m not sure. (And does it have implications for museum careers? Will your next exhibit designer be someone with an interest/background in tech?) But it is an interesting line of questioning to pursue.

What happens when museums begin to bring the values and ideas that are normally associated with the Internet into the physical design of the museum?

I’d love your thoughts.

geek speak with Matt Popke

As regular readers would know, I (semi-)regularly like to ask fellow culturegeeks how on earth they ended up working in museum tech. It’s not a straightforward career path for most people, and frequently involves chance and changes of direction along the way.

Today Matt Popke from the Denver Art Museum has agreed to tell his story. I first met Matt at MW2011. In fact, he was the first person I met at MW, but despite talking a number of times at the conference, our conversation remained fairly shallow. However, Matt has become one of my favourite blog commenters, and always adds thoughtful, eloquent and useful ideas to the discussion. He is certainly not the only person writing such comments – only this week a fellow museumer mentioned how impressed they were at the thought and effort that people put into the discussions here at museumgeek. But I thought this geek speak, it would be lovely to get to know Matt’s story a little better.


Matt Popke

I was one of those kids who had so many different interests when growing up it was nearly impossible to predict what I’d want to do with my life, but certain interests wound up having more pull than others. Thanks to video games, William Gibson and early Wired magazine, I somehow landed on computer science as a primary major in college. I also decided to pursue a degree in philosophy at the same time, hoping I would extend my worldview beyond my small town upbringing. In my pursuit of new ideas I ended up taking the philosophy classes that interested me rather than the courses that would actually earn me a degree, so I only graduated with the bachelor’s in computer science.

Initially, I wanted to go to grad school and research artificial intelligence, but I needed a source of income to pay my tuition. In late 1997, through random chance I got a job working for a small web design consultancy where I learned, much to my surprise, that I actually liked design a lot more than science. That shaped the rest of my career, and I have pursued design in one form or another ever since, including going back to school to study industrial design focused on interaction design.

In spite of my change in direction, I have always maintained a strong interest in the hard sciences, and I approach design with a working knowledge of the underlying craft. I think of myself as a software developer as well as a designer, and I maintain and use both sets of skills because together they are the core of my work. Web design is a hybrid occupation where success requires equal parts science, engineering and design process.

Serendipity has played a significant role in my career, and my current job is no exception. It was only through luck that I even knew the Denver Art Museum was hiring a web developer. I was freelancing at the time and was starting to get tired of working on my own. It’s too easy to become complacent or fall into the trap of habit when your only real critic is yourself. Working with a team forces you to challenge yourself and exposes you to more critique than you might get from clients or stakeholders who often don’t have the domain knowledge to challenge your ideas and suggestions. I missed the dynamic of working with other people.

Though I had looked for jobs for a while, I found no mention of the DAM’s opening anywhere. It was only through a friend of my girlfriend that I knew of the opening. It seemed like it would be an interesting place to work, so I applied and made it through the hiring process without really knowing what kind of work I would end up doing. I knew it had something to do with a website redesign and relaunch, but the real scope of the project(s) would not hit me until after I had started. That was almost exactly a year ago.

Museums are in the midst of an interesting transition now during which the audience is changing rapidly. It used to be that “generation gap” was a term used to describe a slightly different taste in music or clothes between children and their parents. Occasionally a generation gap signaled a new ideology or slightly evolved social attitudes regarding civil rights, but those have been more the exception than the rule. The generation gap today is characterized by children who communicate with other people in vastly different ways than their parents did, and who define themselves and their relationships with the outside world using a completely different set of assumptions and values. It might not be long before children and their parents are almost literally speaking different languages, perhaps using the same words but with completely different meaning. I often think this is already the case, where the savviest of our children today are effectively bilingual, capable of communicating with their parents but immersed in an entirely different mode of thinking which is their true native territory.

I see shades of this already in my relationship with my parents. I can’t imagine how big the gap must be for parents whose children are in their early teens today. Those kids were born in the territory I migrated to, and they have no direct experience of the culture we came from. They’ve known from the beginning that information about a thing is at least as useful and as valuable as the thing itself, and sometimes it’s more so. They’ve known their whole lives that information is infinitely copyable, infinitely shareable and impossible to contain once it’s been shared. They have completely different assumptions than the ones I was raised with, when knowledge came from limited sources and required significantly more time and resources to acquire, when the term “expert” had an implied meaning. Kids today are used to the idea of communicating asynchronously with many different people simultaneously. They have a totally different social experience than I did, when most people engaged each other one on one in synchronous exchanges and only addressed large groups if they had the resources or some kind of acclaim.

These, of course, are generalities. There is no real thing called a “generation” that you can safely and easily wall off from other generations and say, “This is a different group of people.” Part of the real challenge with our current generation gap is that it so unevenly distributed. There are kids in their teens today that match the description above, but there are just as many whose attitudes and experiences match their grandparents’ more closely than they do other kids who live only a half-hour’s drive away from them. But I talk about the “current generation” of kids anyway because it seems that’s where we’re all inevitably headed.

What purpose does a museum serve for that generation? When you possess a half-dozen different devices that can answer any question you could possibly imagine at just about any time, what function does a museum serve? What role does it play in their lives? Is it a place of quiet reflection? Is it a place to experience first hand those things you read about on a screen? Is it a place to gather with others and share those experiences? Is the museum an important piece of the fabric of that generation’s lives? Or is it just a big building filled with the physical manifestations of cultural trivia?

I don’t personally believe that museums are, or should be, trivial collections of accumulated cultural trinkets. But what I believe isn’t that relevant in the grand scheme of things. What will today’s teens think when they’re old enough to support or not support museums? What value will a collection have to them when the same information can be gathered instantly and for free from just about any place on the planet? I believe that museums will have to be places of experience. Museums will be places where people can go to experience something first-hand that they can’t get through an incredibly detailed and complete description that is always accessible. Museums need to become centers for shared experiences and not just collections of objects.

What kind of experience should museums offer? I don’t know. I have ideas, but I really don’t know what museums are going to do ten years from now. Answering that question is going to require a lot of trial and error. We’re going to have to experiment, and we’re going to have to do it very quickly and with lots of iterations. We’re going to need to be much more agile and adaptive than most of us currently are. But before we can do that successfully, we need to build a stable platform on which to create those experiments. We need a set of services that will enable us to redirect our resources quickly and efficiently in whatever direction they are needed today or tomorrow.

And right now, that’s my job. I’m building one of those platforms—the online platform for the Denver Art Museum. It’s going to take some time, but when it’s finally ready for launch, we’ll be able to experiment with it quickly and easily. Once all the core pieces are in place, we’ll be able to move them around and reconfigure them. We’ll be able to add new pieces easily and quickly, and we’ll be able to drop or abandon the pieces that aren’t working without impacting everything else. The initial launch of our new web site may not feel like we’re redesigning the wheel, but it’s only the beginning of a much longer process of constant experimentation and reinvention. The hardest part of iterative design is getting off to the right start. But it’s the most important part and, unless they’re one of the few that has already started, it’s what every department in every organization should be focusing on today.

Matt Popke is a web developer at the Denver Art Museum in Denver, Colorado. Working with a cross-departmental team, he is responsible for the design and implementation of the DAM’s online presence and services. His interests are legion but his current obsessions include games and game design (all kinds: board, card, dice, role playing, tactical miniature and videogames), applied aesthetics, procedural rhetoric, and more recently, kites.