Reflections on joining a community

I’m in the lobby of a hotel in Portland, Oregon, as delegates for Museums and the Web 2013 start arriving. It’s two years since I first attended this conference; the first conference I had ever been to in my life and a major career catalyst for me. Sitting here, I naturally find myself reflecting on the changes that have happened in my life since I first came into this community. I’ve often described the sensation as “finding my tribe” but, to be honest, at that point the museum tech community wasn’t my tribe. I didn’t share the language or get the jokes. I hadn’t met anyone in the sector, so I stood on the edges of a community and looked in.

That this situation has changed so significantly in such a short period of time often leaves me wondering what it was that allowed me – an outsider – to find myself and a place within this sector. What is it that makes a community and gives it meaning? And how do newcomers find their way into a community? In 1986, David W. McMillan and David M. Chavis George proposed a definition of community that included the following characteristics:

The first element is membership. Membership is the feeling of belonging or of sharing a sense of personal relatedness. The second element is influence, a sense of mattering, of making a difference to a group and of the group mattering to its members. The third element is   reinforcement: integration and fulfillment of needs. This is the feeling that members’ needs will be met by the resources received through their membership in the group. The last element is shared emotional connection, the commitment and belief that members have shared and will share history,  common places, time together, and similar experiences.

This seems like a pretty usable definition, except that I didn’t have any of these characteristics when I first came along. I didn’t feel like I had membership in the group, although I quickly became interested in becoming a member. Nor did I have influence or shared emotional connections. What I did have, however, was the good fortune of meeting people who both implicitly and explicitly invited me to become part of their discussions.

The implicit invitations could be as simple as allowing me to sit at a table with people whom I hadn’t met although they had long-standing and existing relationships; the openness of people to have a conversation and share something of themselves and their thoughts with me. The explicit invitations came from people like Koven Smith, who invited me to be part of his panel on the point of museum websites at MCN2011. I became a member of the group because I was invited by existing members to join their conversations, and given the opportunity to learn and contribute. In so doing, I started to have an understanding of the shared language and became to have an emotional connection that started to tie strongly to the community.

But inviting one person to be part of a conversation or a community isn’t particularly hard. The community borders can stretch and morph as small groups enter and exit whilst still maintaining their stability; the shared conventions and language. But is it possible to invite a significant number of new people to join an existing community and still keep a sense of internal congruity? Or, in other words, is it possible to grow a community at scale or even to have community at scale? I’m not sure that it is, but I think it’s an interesting problem for museums to be thinking about. Are museums naturally limited in the size and scope of their communities – those who have an intimate relationship with the institution and the people who are associated with it?

I’d love to know your thoughts. When have you joined a community, and what made that possible? And do you think it’s possible for large numbers of people to join a community in a short period of time, or does that threaten the self-defining nature of the community itself?

Why should I believe anything you tell me, you nameless and faceless institution?!?

I had the exceptional good fortune at MCN2011 of coming away with dozens of unanswered questions, and more than a handful of lovely people with whom to try to figure out the answers. My hands have barely left my keyboard in the last couple of weeks, as I’ve tried to capture ideas, exchange emails and make possible some of the grander schemes of world domination that have surfaced. But in doing so, I have alas neglected this poor little blog space.

So, to pick up from where I last left off, with a summary of the emergent issues that captivated me at MCN2011, I’ve decided to start with an exploration on the issue of authority on museum websites. It’s something that Claire Ross has also just written about, in her blog on MCN takeaways – although my discussion will take a somewhat different tack to hers. Claire writes:

This Panel took an interesting perspective to the authority question, asking how we should be building museum websites to gain and maintain authority online, something they argued that museums haven’t really earned in the online space yet, rather relying on the automatic ingrained authority physical museums have built up. But really can physical museum authority transmit in a digital space? And more importantly should it? That’s something I really came away with. Surely participation, dialogue and engagement with visitors breaks down the authority barrier to enable museums and visitors to work together to create an engaging online experience? Rather than a transmission of authority? So should museum websites be authoritarian at all? Right enough of a rant on that.

But here’s what I want to know… Can an institution even be an authority?

An individual can be an expert. An individual can be an authority. But I don’t know that a museum can be an authority on anything. Museums can be authoritative, sure, and point someone in the right direction (like the new Walker site seems to do pretty beautifully). But I am not going to believe something just because “the Tate” told me it was right. There is no accountability there. A blog post on the Tate site could have been written by a work experience kid who happens to be good with words and Google. Even collections information, unless it has a specific author’s name attached to it, gives me nothing I can particularly trust and believe in really (particularly in instances where there is no sense of how, when and by whom changes have been made to the collection record).

In a museum exhibition, I suppose there is a level of trust that the museum display has been created by someone who is an expert in the field. If someone got a job as a curator, I am hoping that they have some level of knowledge/expertise. Within this space, there can be room for intuitive judgement, for creating relationships between things based on experience and instinct.

But the information I get online, I want to be accurate – not accurate within a context. I want to be able to use it for my purpose (whatever that may be) – and so authority becomes more important in a different way.

In our panel, Koven raised the authority issue because he wanted to know how he should be building his museum websites. It’s a really significant question, but authority in an information context comes from more than just SEO and a trustworthy visual space and design. I want to know where the information came from. I want to know who entered in, and when, and why there has been a change in interpretation. If a collection object is re-dated, I want to know what prompted that change in associated information. I want to know who made that call, and why.

Until that happens, I don’t know whether our collections online will be truly authoritative. As some of my own research at the Powerhouse Museum shows, even curators don’t necessarily trust online collections records to be accurate. And if we don’t trust in our own information online, why should anyone else?


***nb obviously institutions have a name, but I’m sure you get my point.

Initial takeaways from MCN2011

I wrote this post on the plane on the way home from MCN2011, trying to wrangle some sense from the myriad of stimulating and interesting conversations and sessions. It captures my first takeaways from the conference, and is something I will no doubt expand on in coming weeks.

This was a very interesting conference. Much of the focus of the sessions and the conversations I participated in seemed to be really about the broad frameworks and implications of the work that is happening in the museum tech field, which was fascinating and useful. I got an incredible amount out of attending, and am already starting to think about how to get back next year.

So what kinds of issues and questions emerged from MCN? Here’s a brief summary of some of the big ones I came away with:

Authority, inclusion and visual language/design choices
In our panel on What’s the Point of a Museum Website?, Koven raised the issue of museum authority online. He wanted to know how we should be visually building our websites to gain and maintain authority online, something he argues that we haven’t really earned in this space (gambling instead on the fact that our offline presence confers us with automatic authority online).

Having said that, I think the issue is bigger than this. Our sector spends a significant amount of time and energy trying to find ways of making what we do inclusive and participatory. It’s one of the findings of the potential benefits of folksonomies and social tagging – to invite and acknowledge other voices. However, if the visual language (and actual language) we use online is one aimed at gaining authority (as might be expected, since this is still an important issue), then maybe that goes against any claim to inclusion. The austere appearance of our buildings is the same thing that makes them at times foreboding to those not comfortable in those spaces… if we design our websites to be authoritative, do we not risk the same thing in the digital space? How can we resolve these seeming contradictions in intention?

Communicating what we do better
Another issue that emerged for me particularly was a growing sense that for all the great work happening in our sector, we often seem to do a poor job of communicating the benefits of it to those outside our immediate community. Therefore, I want to know what big (or small) issues that the museum tech sector needs to become better at communicating to those outside our immediate community? How can we create a compelling framework/language for communicating the value of what we do to funders/directors/curators etc?

New funding opportunities? New models for museum websites?
What new funding opportunities might be available for museum technology projects if we can change the language/reshape the argument? If we can demonstrate our value beyond the financial in more effective ways, will there be new ways for attracting support for what we do?

Similarly, are there new funding models that we could consider for the online space? In the discussion of one session, Nate Solas asked what would happen if we made all of our images available for free, but put a price on interpretation. It’s an interesting idea, and makes me start wondering further on what other new models we could investigate. I recently raved about my love for Bjork’s Biophilia app, which was released a few weeks ago. The app, which accompanies her latest album, brings with it depth, games, essays and ultimately, new discovery. It is super easy to get music for free online with so many file sharing sites. What is not so possible is gaining access to this same experience without paying for it – and it’s the first app I’ve really spent money on. What can museums learn from these sorts of creative solutions to content and context?

Digital conservation/preservation
This is one that came up in the Horizon Report (launched at MCN2011). How can we ensure that works of art that utilise technology (esp ones that might only function on a particular piece of equipment/OS etc) can be preserved? Can we create and set some industry standards for this practice, which individual institutions can then adapt to their own needs? How can we start ensuring that there are conservators adequately trained in both the ethical and technical issues that this will involve? And how can we do it fast, since we are already losing works to the ravages of time and obsolescence?

Career path development and longevity.
This question emerged out of some more personal discussions than actually out of conference sessions, but it is still a very significant issue. How can we create succession lines, and better opportunities for career development so that we don’t lose the best people in our field?

Museum content on external sites
How can we capture and archive our “museum” content that lives offsite, on platforms like Facebook? Is it problematic that so much interpretative content exists in spaces that we cannot necessarily harvest?

Crowdsourcing and exclusivity
In the History Museums are Not Art Museums. Discuss session, one crowdsourced history project was discussed in which people were asked to transcribe old documents. Before being able to transcribe, they were asked to join the site, and were given a short questionnaire that included a question that asked why the person wanted to contribute. It was estimated that 75% of contributors wrote a significant piece on why they deserved to be allowed to contribute to the transcription. It makes me wonder if there isn’t some value in actually raising barriers to entry in some cases of crowdsourcing, particularly when the quality of the work is important. I might be wrong on this, but there is something like the idea of “I would never want to be a member of a club that would have me as a member” is playing in my head here. Maybe sometimes communities want a sense of exclusivity that the easy access of the web takes away? I haven’t thought this through fully yet, but it’s something that I want to explore further.

Rob Stein wanted to know if there was a way to measure for epiphany? Or, do our online metrics measure the right things? And if not, what are the right things, and how can we measure for them?

Following on from that, are we doing enough to provoke epiphanies, rather than just trying to teach people things? This is something I am definitely going to explore at a later stage, but it seems to me there is a particular value in things that don’t have easy answers or ready conclusions. These are the subjects we dwell on, that stick in our minds (or at least in mine). These are the things that we keep coming back to. So why do we, in museums, feel that we have to teach (ie, to provide answers)? Maybe we would be far more compelling if, like the art and objects we display, we asked more unanswerable questions. What if we again became philosophical centres, rather than centres for education. In the History Museums session, there was considerable talk about equipping people with the means to conduct historical research. What if the emphasis of museums becomes less about education, and more about enabling people to think critically through issues – without providing the answers? This is probably something that already happens, particularly in the best museum spaces, but it does seem like a critical issue that could be addressed particularly well in the offline space.

The museum website of the future?
Does the museum website of the future become as critical and central to the museum purpose and mission as the physical building itself? What happens when we start thinking about our data as a collection of digital objects to be curated? Does the position of digital knowledge curator become as essential as that of object curator? Can we reconcieve our online collections data in new ways that can be more beneficial to both museums, and society more generally?

…Ok, I think that is enough to get started. I am obviously going to continue to flesh out and develop these ideas in the coming few weeks, so stay tuned to this blog if you want to gain some insight into the nuance of the discussions that I had whilst at the conference.

In the mean time, thanks to everyone who was a part of my MCN experience. It was absolutely incredible, and I cannot believe what an interesting, supportive and warm community I have become a part of. Special thanks to the ever-amazing and provocative Koven Smith for inviting me to be a part of his panel, and to the MCN scholarship committee and ArtsNSW for their support in making it possible.

I leave you with pandas.

Aren’t they the cutest?

Funding found for MCN2011 – WAHOOOOOOO!

All the way back in July I wrote a post about my attempts to find funding to get to MCN2011… at that point I had no money (PhDs are not super conducive to international travel twice in one year), and really didn’t hold out much hope for getting there. But since Koven Smith had asked me to be a part of his panel asking What’s the Point of Museum Websites? I knew I had to find a way.

I applied for both the MCN2011 Conference Scholarship and for an ArtsNSW Quick Response Grant. I also entered an art prize that had a first prize of a $1500 travelling scholarship.

A month or so ago I found out that I got the MCN Scholarship. Then I won the art prize. Suddenly it looked like MCN might be possible (although I was still going to be eating pretty cheaply).

Well about two hours ago, I found out that I have also been awarded the ArtsNSW Quick Response grant, which will give me $3000 to travel to the States to attend the conference – and also visit Washington or Colorado (maybe both!) to visit museums there.

I could not be more excited, or more humbled by the wonderful opportunities that this year has brought. There are lots of other exciting things coming up as well, which my next blog post will discuss (including a new Museum Professionals Networking group in Newcastle that I’m starting up, and three conferences in two weeks)… but right now, I just wanted to say thanks to ArtsNSW, MCN and everyone else that has invested in me. I cannot wait to meet so many of the amazing people I’ve connected with lately online, and to catch up with others that I met at MW2011.

I’ll keep you all posted on plans.

Finding funding for MCN2011

Regular readers will know that I’m volunteering with the MCN marketing committee in the lead up to the 2011 conference. The conference is on in Atlanta, GA 16-19 November – and I am mad keen to get along for a couple of reasons. The main one is because Koven Smith has asked me to be a panellist on his panel asking “What’s the point of a museum website?“, which will pick up where his Ignite Smithsonian speech left off. This is an awesome discussion, and I can’t believe I’ve been asked to be part of it. Having said that, being a poor PhD student whose already been to the States once this year, my ability to attend is going to rely on more than just wishing.

To that end, I’ve put in an application for one of the MCN2011 scholarships, of which there are 15 (plus a further 4 scholarship funded by Kress Foundation and THATCamp). The closing date is next Monday, 1 August and full details are available on the website. I must confess I’m a little bit torn between wanting to promote them as is my role as vollie, and wanting to minimise competition so I actually get one. Ha.

I’m also applying for an ArtsNSW quick response grant, which is funding “available for professional individuals, groups and small- to medium-sized organisations who have received an unexpected invitation to participate in a recognised national or international arts and cultural event/activity.” I’ve never applied for a grant before, so I’m not sure how I’ll go with that… but hopefully they will recognise that this is a pretty awesome and unexpected opportunity and will give me enough to cover the flights over. My fingers are firmly crossed.

It’s all a bit exciting even at this stage… but it will be much more so if I can actually secure funding in order to make it over to the conference. I’ve had a sneak peak at the program, and it looks great. I’ll post more about it once the program goes live (which shouldn’t be too far away now).