Misconceptions about museum technologists

Last week I left the safe confines of museumgeek, and entered the wilds of the Internet, when the UK Museums Association republished my post Can a technologist get ahead in museums? on their site.

I was a little scared about ceding control over the post, and allowing it to sit without the context of my other writing (particularly as it was not written specifically for that purpose). However, there is often discussion within museum tech circles about the dangers of merely talking to ourselves, so I grit my teeth and let it loose.

The post has been live for little while now, but it was the second comment that immediately grabbed my attention. I’ll post it in full, so you have the context, though the emphasis is mine.

Of course museums and museum leaders should engage with new technology and digital media, but this is not going to lead anyone to a holy grail. It is a medium not a message, and useful though the web and social media may be they will not guide anyone to run a great museum. I suspect the ultimate aim of museum technologists is to run everything virtually. You could digitise everything, keep it on a cloud, dispose of the real stuff, close the museum down and tweet all day to your virtual friends. How relevant is that? Well at least it wouldn’t cost anything, so it might catch on. But wait a minute…aren’t museums supposed to be looking after and presenting collections and getting people engaged with real things or is that just too tediously old fashioned for the twitter generation? I hope there never are career paths for museum technologists who love their i-pads more than their collections.
Oliver (MA Member), 21.03.2012, 18:19

Now, it turns out that what motivated this comment was (at least in part) a lack of familiarity with the terminology, and the lack of clarity of what a museum technologist actually is (nb – can we come up with a better term to describe someone who deals with – or even thinks about – the implications and applications of technology in a museum context?).

However, even if it was written to provoke, Oliver’s response reveals insight into what could be legitimate fears for some people working in museums – that museum technologists (however they are conceived) have no respect for the ‘real thing’.

Maybe such people have happened across Seb’s post advocating for born digital collections, or my own questioning about whether museums should still consider the physical space as the most important one, and assumed that by arguing for digital we were simultaneously arguing against the physical. I don’t know anyone in this field who would honestly advocate getting rid of collections (do I?). If anything, there is a general desire to make museums more – more useful, more connected, more relevant.

But what if we aren’t communicating that? What if there is a sense from those who aren’t part of our discussions that technology (and technologists) actually presents a threat to collections specifically, and museums more generally? What if the greatest common misconception about museum technologists is that the long tail consequences of what we do and advocate for leads to the end of the museum itself?

Obviously I am overplaying this a little bit. It’s likely that Oliver is an outlier, and that his expressed views are more extreme than his real ones. But it still provokes the questions: as a museum technologist, what misconceptions have you faced? Have you been confronted by attitudes like Oliver’s, or struggled to communicate with more traditional staff because they misunderstood your motivations? And if so, what did you do about it?

***Bonus points to anyone who can give me a better term to use than ‘museum technologists’, because it’s likely that at least part of the problem is a semantic one.