Inside/Outside: Criticising museum practice

Given the ostensible parameters and protocols of the call for contributions to this volume, I am given to imagine myself as one of a group of contributors situated “outside” a (museum) “profession” and “looking in,” as a “scholar who has written books about museums but who [is] trained and work[s] in other disciplinary areas.” In accepting the generous invitation to contribute to the collection, I am nonetheless placed, however provisionally, and according to the self-admittedly tentative nature of the editorial formatting of the volume, in a curiously dichotomous relationship to those “looking from within the profession.”

So says art historian Donald Preziosi, by way of locating his contribution to the 2006 book Museum Philosophy for the Twenty-First Century (pp74).  His statement raises interesting questions about the positioning of those who write and speak about the museum and its profession, and their space within or external to it. This is particularly the case, given that only pages before, Preziosi issued a provocation that:

There seems to have been, at least among “insiders” or museum professionals, an endemic, across-the-board abandonment of critically engaged and historically responsible attention to the fundamental questions about the functions and social and political roles of museums. The disjunction between the “external” critical and philosophical literature relating to museums, museology, and collecting and that emanating from “within” the profession is very great and growing. (pp70)

He critiques the sector as an outsider, a position he has been “placed” into, simultaneously arguing that those on the “inside” have abandoned “critically engaged and historically responsible attention to the fundamental questions about the functions and social and political roles of museums.” It seems he slays “insiders” for their lack of engagement, whilst distancing himself from such a position.

Is his criticism of museum professionals valid? Honestly, I don’t know. The conversations I have within the sector are often highly engaged and highly critical; in recent years there has seemingly been a noticeable turn towards theoretical and critical discourse. Yet most of the time business as usual continues (as it must). Critical reflection is a great luxury, but one often far removed from the practicalities of actual work.

Still, his ideas leave their stain on me because I can’t identify exactly where I am positioned within the sector. Before my first conference, my PhD supervisor cautioned me that as soon as I mentioned that I was an academic, I might be dismissed summarily as unable to speak to the ‘real concerns’ of the profession. And I know from discussions with now-close friends that this indeed happened (although fortunately not to such a great extent as to prevent later connection). As such, I now go out of my way to prove my credentials as a legitimate member of the museum community. I work in museums, I volunteer. My friends and colleagues, those whose ideas I respect, are museum professionals far more frequently than academics. I spend as much time working in the sector as possible, and hope that it’s enough to clean me of the taint of “outsider”.

But paradoxically, perhaps it is this very mark of difference that gives me the most freedom to criticise and speak to the philosophical concerns of the sector. Were I welded to a single institution, any criticism that I might make could be seen implicitly as a criticism of my home museum. Being outspoken under those circumstances could cut too close; creating internal tension that would make the business of getting work done much harder. Speaking out from the outside comes with a freedom rarely afforded to true insiders, because the possible costs are only personal and not institutional. (Incidentally, I also wonder if this isn’t at least part of the reason that the MuseTrain authors have chosen to stay anonymous thus far.)

This issue is on my mind now for two reasons. The first is because of a conversation I had with an old friend yesterday. He is an artist whose early work highly controversially questioned some unspoken and seemingly unquestionable ideas here in Australia. This work, which he was not “allowed” to make but did anyway (his then youthful naivety giving him a sense of bulletproofness) raised and continues to raise very significant critical questions. It also left him out in the wilderness as an artist, unshowable for a significant period of time afterwards. Now, with hindsight, he questions his own right to make the work that he did, to critique the situation in the way he did; doubts raised in part because of his outsider status from that community. His right and ability to ask questions are diminished because he is on the outside, but they are questions not being raised elsewhere or from the inside. Preziosi’s criticism of the museum profession equally rings true of my friend’s experiences as an artist.

In addition, I am starting to think more carefully on my position in this sector as the end of the PhD looms more forcefully on the horizon. Although I still have more than a year until completion, there has of late been a small chorus of people asking what I intend to do after it’s finished. Will I go into academia, or work in a museum? Where do I want to work? What do I want to do?

They are difficult questions to answer with any certainty or clarity of vision. Once I make a choice, particularly between working in a museum (insider) or as an academic (outsider), then I am effectively choosing to align myself in a particular direction. I am either in; or I’m out. I can speak as one of you, or I can choose a different voice altogether. It will become harder and harder to straddle the divide between the two, which is what seems to make the current space I inhabit so interesting.

Museum philosopher Hilde Hein introduces herself and her position in the sector in the preface to The Museum in Transition: A Philosophical Perspective with the inclusion of this paragraph (pp xiii):

My own experience with museum practice and with theorizing about museums has been gained through internships in museums and more than two decades of academic investigation. By following both of these avenues I hope to have found common ground between those who reflect upon museums from a cultural perspective and those who know them by working inside.

She intentionally positions herself as someone who can speak from within, and without. Is this a necessary requirement for those who do wish to consider and critique the institution as theorist? Are her reflections upon museums more or less critical as a result of this urge to bridge the divide between professional and theorist? Are they more palatable than if she did not spend time in institutions? Is it, in fact, the place of museum professionals to critique the institution, or to work towards its effective functioning?

Obviously this post comes by way of my own existential crisis career concerns, but I wonder if it doesn’t scratch at a larger and more pervasive itch. Do museums need “outsiders” to critique and provoke discussion about fundamental issues? Or can those working within the sector, or within particular institutions, ask unanswerable (and sometimes un-askable) questions and continue to function effectively on the inside? Are there people who do manage to successfully straddle the divide between insider/outsider, or is it inevitable that in a relatively short time I will have to choose?

What do you think?

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?

Takeaways from THATCamp Canberra, 2011

The last few weeks have been very intense. Between attending Reprogramming the Art Museum, presenting work at the Powerhouse Museum, speaking on a panel at Critical Animals, preparing for and presenting at the Digital Culture Public Sphere, and more, I have been pretty exhausted.

Thus it was that I was in two minds about attending THATCamp Canberra. I had been looking forward to going to THATCamp for ages, ever since I first heard about the concept in relation to THATCampMCN. But by the time the event actually rolled around, I was so brain-sore that I didn’t think I would have anything left in me to contribute (and that is, after all, the point of an unconference).

But fortunately, the event was so stimulating that I didn’t need to worry. There is no way that I can write a post that sums up everything I learned however, so here are some of the highlights and takeaways that I got from attending.

The first day was bootcamp, and it brought with it an awesome opportunity to find out more about data visualization in a big double-session with Mitchell Whitelaw. I recently learned about Mitchell’s cool commonsExplorer project (with Sam Hinton), which visualizes the relationships between tags and images on Flickr Commons, so I was pretty keen for this session. Data visualisation is something that I think has a great place in relation to museum data as we move towards increased linked data, and I was super glad to have the chance to learn more about the back end of the process.

It turned out that I was entirely in over my head, because the session was pitched at people who had some basic coding experience – and I still don’t really have any. Since my post on wanting to learn to code, I have started trying to master some of the basics, teaching myself a little Ruby after borrowing a book on it from the PHM web team library. However, Mitchell’s bootcamp session was the first time I’d really had a chance to sit in a class with people going through this type of thing, and it was so cool to start to get the sense of how the thought patterns develop when actually coming up with programming. I’d heard people talk about coding as being about problem solving, but in my mind, I didn’t really understand the extent to which that was true. I’d been so conscious of my lack of programming language that I hadn’t really clicked into the fact that programming really is about using the code as a tool. It’s such an obvious takeaway, but something that I didn’t really understand until I was in that context.

I managed to hold my own for the first half of the class, when Mitchell ran us through some basic ideas in Processing, and helped us create our first data visualizations, but completely lost my way in the second half of the session. Having said that, I am more and more starting to see the value in visualization, and the session really got me thinking about new ways to use and conceptualise data.

Really basic coding, but it's a start.

Thinking about museum data rather than simply museum objects is probably one of the things that I’m starting to do a lot more in recent weeks, and I think it’s really beneficial to my PhD research. One of the sessions on Saturday at THATCamp built upon this, as it looked at visualization from a broader perspective. Some of the real benefits of visualisation were seen to be the way it could help tease out new findings from data, and create big picture perspectives. Although there was some debate over the use (from an academic perspective) of visualisation, there was a general sense that it could lead to the asking of new questions, which is always a worthy pursuit.

The other sessions that really rocked my world and got my mind cogs ticking over were the ones on “Stories in Shoeboxes” about community storytelling websites and the conditions that lead to engagement; a session that I organised on authority and control in the Internet age; and a session to follow up on the Public Sphere.

Each of these sessions led to some really interesting discussion and thoughts, although no real conclusions (which is natural, due to the complexity of the issues at stake). The session on community storytelling/history/culture websites was very interesting. We discussed the fact that communities are generally self-selecting, and so it can be difficult for outsiders to really create an appropriate online space, even with the best intentions. It was also acknowledged that there needs to be something compelling, some ‘hook’ to get communities to engage online – there has to be something in it for them. In many cases, Facebook now seems to fulfill this role for self-forming communities, so maybe we need to learn from that and create simple and engaging spaces and leave the rest to the community?

The other two sessions that I loved and had great discussions in were both sessions that I proposed. The first session, which was on authority, was inspired by my coming panel on What’s the Point of Museum Websites, coming up at MCN in only a month. This session started with a seemingly simple question: what is authority, and how do you get it? In trying to answer just this, we ended up tangled in knots. Authority can be earned with time, it is culturally contextual, it can be conferred by another with authority. It is tied up with respect, but precisely how it is earned or maintained is unclear. In some ways, authority seems able to be likened to porn, in that it might be difficult to define, but is able to be known when seen.

The most interesting question that came out of the session however, and one that has certainly left me thinking ever since, was on the authoritative nature of Google online and whether “if you can’t find something on Google, do you trust that means it’s not online?” This brings up very interesting issues around transparency and manipulation of information, and also just on how much currency we are giving to this company that has no clear reason to be trusted, except that we have learned (rightfully or wrongfully) to trust it. After all, to Google is now shorthand for searching online, which is a great responsibility for a single company, and one that had interesting implications in a conversation about authority.

Finally, on Sunday morning we had an excellent (sober, rational) conversation about the Digital Culture Public Sphere that everyone who was attending THATCamp participated in. The discussion was quite different from the roundtable events on the day itself, because there were people drawn from a wider field at THATCamp. There were very useful contributions from people who would not necessarily self-identify as being from the digital culture sector, whose knowledge and experiences were very relevant. We’ve drawn up some results and will publish them to the digiculture wiki shortly, but it was generally a good and interesting session.

THATCamp whiteboard notes from our Public Sphere session. Thanks to Cath Styles for capturing the board.
Whiteboard notes #2

Of course, the best things about something like THATCamp are the new relationships that accompany the new conversations, and I met lots of interesting people working in very different areas to me. With an emphasis on the digital humanities, this was a far more academic conference than I’d been to in many ways, with lots of other Uni-focussed people in attendance. What was missing however was ego, as everyone seemed incredibly open to new ideas and new perspectives. What was particularly beneficial to me was the openness that surrounded the conversations, that left space and headspace for playing with ideas not yet fully formed. THATCamp felt like a place for incubating ideas, not just publicising fully-formed ones. Even in the last two weeks, despite my increasing busyness and lack of formal research, I’ve really found that playing through ideas in my head and working out how to describe and discuss them with others has made a very significant impact upon my PhD thinking. Yesterday I looked over some of my existing notes, and was aware of a number of gaps that I need to work through and include that had not yet been articulated in my work. I think this has been the greatest benefit to me of THATCamp – the chance to still engage with ideas but with a little critical distance from my more formal research.

THATCamp was also a place for karaoke (woo!), which was also beneficial, although maybe in different ways.

Thanks to the generosity of the Kress Foundation and THATCamp for awarding me a THATCamp Fellowship to attend the unconference. It was a brilliant experience, and I cannot wait to attend again next year.