Reflections on teaching museum digital practice in 2019

When I was early in my teaching career at GWU, I had a conversation with Cait Reizman  about her belief that students need to be able to leave a museum studies program with something tangible that they could share with future employers. The comment stayed with me, and since that time I’ve thought about how best to realise that aim. I initially asked students to blog, since public writing had been so beneficial to my own career. But recently, I’ve become less comfortable with requiring students take on the risk of public writing without the benefit of prior review. This fall, I tackled the problem differently.

Inspired by the Humanizing the Digital: Unproceedings from the MCN 2018 Conference book project, which my co-editors and I produced in less than four months after the MCN conference last year, my students in Museums and Digital Technology took on an ambitious project. Together, we created a digital publication about the state of digital practice in museums in 2019. Each student was responsible for creating one 3,500-4,000-word piece of writing that dives deeply into a specific research area related to the overall topic of museums and digital technology. Student projects could synthesize current readings and practice around a broad area, or dive deeper into a single technology or case study related to the theme of digital practice and its impact on the museum. Students would then work with a small group of peer reviewers to develop their ideas and writing alongside regular feedback from me. The finished publication is built on Quire, the open source multiformat publishing platform created by the Getty. Each student was responsible for defining and researching their topic and writing their paper, then I, working closely with Greg Albers, Digital Publication Manager at the Getty, was responsible for compiling the final book.

The intent was that that students would gain a broad overview into the issues related to technology in museums today via weekly lectures and discussions; a deep engagement with a topic of personal or professional interest through a research project; experience in a collaborative creative environment through the peer review process; and practical skills in Markdown language. At the end of the semester, each student would have a published piece to share with peers, colleagues and friends. From my perspective, this has been a hugely successful approach to teaching on museum digital practice. As the semester matured, I found students bringing their own research into class discussions with depth and maturity. Additionally, multiple students reached out to museum professionals from around the sector to find out more about specific projects they were working on, growing their insights beyond those that I could provide and enabling professional networking.

I am so proud of what my students have produced in what was ultimately a ten-week period from initial proposal through to publication. Their essays are thoughtful and interesting, with varied topics such as empathy and technology in Holocaust museums, shifting paradigms in visitor participation (which focusses on user-generated content), social media and crisis communications, social media collecting practices in museums, collections management policies and procedures for Time-Based Media and many more.  The flexibility of Quire’s format enabled experimentation in writing style, form and content. Students embedded gifs, Sketchfab mockups and JSON files in their papers. Some essays were personal and others took a more formal tone. 

Of course, there are some challenges with a project like this. Since this project was an experiment in the works, we were figuring out some of it as we went, so there are some inconsistencies with formatting and style. This is exacerbated by the short turnaround time from when students handed in their completed essays to our final publishing date. The tight turnarounds were also challenging for students who get sick or need to miss a deadline for some other external reason. There is, for instance, one essay still to be added to the book, which will now happen after launch. Beyond this, there are naturally gaps in my knowledge in certain areas, so there may be areas of critique that I missed or could better have supported. One possible area for future development of this approach is to seek volunteer peer-reviewers from around the sector who might be able to work with students on their essays, although that introduces other kinds of contingencies to take into account.

This was the most ambitious project I’ve taken on as a professor, and it took significantly more investment than other kinds of teaching, because I needed to be supervisor and editor to each student, as well as running weekly classes. I also needed to learn how to use Quire and become somewhat familiar with Github. But I think the results have been absolutely worth it. My long-term hope is to repeat this project each time I teach this course moving forward, so that we build up an archive of public student research over time, which can act as a marker about their ongoing and specific concerns and interest in the sector.

Thank you to Greg Albers for his generous work helping us bring this publication to life, and to each of my students for diving in wholeheartedly. If you are interested in reading the syllabus for this course in more detail or finding out about this project, get in contact with me and I’ll send it your way.

Guest post: Making the Museum Publishing Band

A couple of weeks ago, I was captivated by Liz Neely’s Tweets from the National Museum Publishing Seminar in the USA. The conference sounded really interesting, and so I asked her to do a quick write-up for museumgeek. The resulting post is much more than that. Calling in two co-authors, this post explores museum publishing through a pretty rock’n’roll perspective. Enjoy. 

Making the Museum Publishing Band

Liz Neely
, Katie Reilly and Sarah Guernsey

Quite randomly, the National Museum Publishing Seminar, held June 21-23, holds the distinction of being a band reunion of sorts for us. Back about 8 years ago, the three of us shared stages and practice spaces.

We all worked at the Art Institute of Chicago—Liz in technology and Katie and Sarah in Publications—but we rarely actually worked together. In that large museum and at that time, our worlds infrequently overlapped. But as a band, we were particularly collaborative—we all wrote songs, we all sang, and there isn’t a tune that doesn’t have harmonies or some kind of backing vocal. One of us would bring a song to the group and we would all start tinkering with the idea, adding parts, experimenting, iterating, reviewing and building the song. We had to be comfortable accepting and responding to critique. We made songs; we booked shows; we made T-shirts and burned CDs—we never practiced enough, but we created something together that we loved. In the best of cases, the song transcended the sum of our individual parts. These songs, this accumulation of voices, formed the identity of the band.

Katie, Sarah and Liz, circa 2004.

Seeing each other again at the MPS got each of us thinking about the band again, not just nostalgically, but because in some odd sense it captured the spirit of this year’s conference. The theme was “The Voice of the Museum,” and both the roster of attendees and the agenda reflected that the profession of museum publishing is changing profoundly. No longer a forum only for professionals in publishing departments and their distributors, the conference encompassed digital and social media interlopers (bringing Katie, Sarah, and Liz together at a conference for the first time). Centered around a wider dialogue about publishing as a key and central feature to a museum’s identity formation, the gathering recognized the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of our work.

Some museums have already implemented this wider definition of publishing by centralizing efforts among various publishing silos, such as the Walker, or by centralizing budgets with cross-departmental committees, such as MoMA. Paul Schmelzer, Web Editor at the Walker, stated, “the Walker is one voice comprised of many.” In thinking about ‘voice’ as a concept, it’s important to recognize that each individual ‘voice’ is not a static set variable. This is what keeps our institutions evolving and alive—but also why strong vision and leadership remains paramount in keeping efforts moving in the same direction. Both Schmelzer and, in a later panel, Kristi McGuire from the U of C Press emphasized a move from using digital communications strictly for promotion to creating a content model that emphasizes and supports the institution’s personality. McGuire reported that since transitioning from a publicity-focused blog to something more editorial, the traffic has tripled.

How do we harness each person’s contribution to create amazing publications across all platforms? As the definition of publishing gets wider and the channels more complicated, we must harness the contributions of a larger set of talents and expertise in a truly collaborative manner. Robert Weisberg called for a “content launch instead of a book launch” to set up communication early in the planning process among publishing, digital media, marketing, and distribution stakeholders. Stakeholders need to build from the strengths of other collaborators. Publishers should iterate and be experimental like a technologist while developing an appetite for risk. Dan Sinker, the keynote speaker at the conference, who has has built a career at the intersection of a DIY punk aesthetic and technological savvy, particularly spoke to this need. He noted that so many developers and tech people he meets nowadays he discovers he knew back in the ’90s punk scene—making music, publishing zines, setting up record labels. They were people who made things that were ephemeral and constantly evolving yet important and rich. Technologists could learn from the organized workflow planning  and strategizing that publishers have honed. Kara Kirk pointed out that publications departments should be comfortable slowing things down appropriately. “Everyone wants to have their foot on the gas, but it’s not fun to not have brakes.”

The emerging role of the ‘publishing technologist’ is analogous to that of the editor.  Kate Steinmann defined the editor role with the following keywords “Ally, Advisor, Mentor, Magician, Meddler, Diplomat.” These are the qualities that a technologist also needs to take on in collaboratively helping the author best reach his or her vision. Editors, for their part, need to embrace an iterative approach to publishing, to balance their deeply rooted desire for perfection—for authoritativeness—with the realities and opportunities of new media.

We’d like to suggest that we approach museum publishing strategy as a collaborative creative process. Should we start a publishing band at the museum? How big is the band and what instruments do we need? Depending on the project, do stakeholders play collaborative vs. supporting roles? Are there project leads? Do we have enough roadies, sound guys, and photographers to pull it off? Do we want to attain the rough-hewn simplicity of the Ramones or insist on the polish of Steely Dan? Instead of viewing new challenges and uncertain roles with anxiety, can we see it as writing a new song?

Channeling Richard Holland from Bad at Sports: “Don’t be boring!” We should not continue doing things because that’s what’s always been done. There is an urgency and an opportunity to transform our processes in a way that creatively and effectively supports dialogue with our audiences across print and digital platforms. If we don’t grab a hold of it, we—both technologists and traditional publishers alike—will all be marginalized.

Visit the Museum Digital Publishing Bliki (a blog + wiki) to discuss museum publishing.

museumgeek: What do you think? Can museum publishing strategies be a collaborative creative process, as Liz, Katie and Sarah suggest? How would this idea work in your museum?