"Making dreams reality since 1975."

Seriously, I'm worried about us.

Now that I’m on the second leg of my “Drinking About Museums Listening Tour,” (ha!) a few themes are starting to emerge as I talk to museum professionals around the country (and soon, the world!), and I wanted to note them down before I forget.

First, the good news. It’s clear that, as far as technology goes, we’re not fighting the same battles that we were even a couple of years ago. Technologists that I’ve spoken to seem to not have to fight as hard to convince their directors/curators/educators/whomever that a given technology project is important. We still have to fight for resources (and strategic integration of technology efforts is still a problem, but that’s another post), but at least the conceptual battle seems to have been won, or at least is tilting in favor of more innovation on the technology side. I think this is a good thing.

And now, the bad news. In conversation after conversation, I’m astonished at how tired everyone seems. Almost every single person I’ve spoken to, from across disciplines and institutions, complains of overwork. This isn’t the normal, everyday “we’re being worked like crazy” complaints of the non-profit worker, but rather a “we’re working 12-hour days every day now and still can’t even come close to keeping up with the work” sort of complaint. And that worries me.

Almost universally, it seems that museums are expanding their (exhibition/publishing/web/etc.) programs, and asking more out of their staffers, but are not addressing, over the long term, how that  level of increased activity will be supported. It also doesn’t seem that increasing institutional capacity is being addressed in a structural way; workers are simply being asked to do more, in the same way they already are, rather than being given an opportunity to step back and determine whether there might be more efficient ways of achieving the same goals. The phrase I keep hearing is, “there’s no longer any time to be thoughtful about my work at all.”

This worries me quite a bit–it seems to me that museums are buying their current successes on credit. Staff can be asked to work flat-out occasionally, but to ask that day in, day out, all year round, is ultimately suicidal. New York, LA, and London can count on a steady supply of people to replace the ones that burn out and leave, but smaller cities do not have that luxury. This leads to a significant structural problem in the museum sector that will be really hard to fix.

I feel like there’s a lot more to say about this, but I’m interested to hear from you. Am I overstating the case? And are there museums out there that are addressing structural problems and increasing efficiency? I’d be interested to hear about creative solutions to this problem.

Look, there's a picture of my son in this post!

Yes, that's a Miles Davis onesie.

Yes, that’s a Miles Davis onesie he’s wearing.

Hey, everybody! Well, it’s time to make it official–I am leaving the Denver Art Museum at the end of this month. It’s been a great three years here, and I’m immensely proud of having been able to be a part of the DAM for such a critical time in its history.

Never fear, I plan on staying in the museum community, so you can count on more half-baked theories and poorly-thought-out rants in the future (maybe even more than usual!). I’m planning on spending a lot more time with my four-month-old (that’s him over there on the left), and doing a little work for myself before I go wherever I’m going next.

To that end…for the first time in over ten years, I’m unattached to a specific institution, which is liberating and sorta weird all at the same time. So, I’m feeling like I should take advantage of this. Do you want me to come out to your museum and work on things with you? Let me know. My rates are reasonable (and typically involve beer). You will find me easy to work with, and totally willing to show you lots of pictures of my son (that’s him up above there) with very little prodding.

Peace out, y’all. See you soon, with a different business card.

 

 

In which I yell for a bit, then I get over it.

Like many people in the museum community, I was both amused and angered by the recent(ish) article from the Guardian with the bull-to-a-red-flag title ”Dear Museums, the Time Is Right To Embrace Mobile.” Amused because the central premise of the article is almost objectively wrong, and angered by the condescending tone the article strikes. Part of my issue with the article was that for all its criticism, it offered precisely no prescriptive instructions for how to deal with this supposed “problem”–it didn’t even bother to knock down the straw man it had set up. And there’s a reason for that–the museum space is an extremely difficult one for mobile. It’s easy for anyone to say “museums should have mobile stuff going on!” It’s much, much harder to articulate exactly what that mobile “stuff” should be.

Look, I’m glad that people outside the museum space are finally recognizing the value of mobile (probably because it’s a kajillion-dollar-a-year industry, I suppose; it used to just be about the music, man). But it was hard for me to not read this article and see a bunch of Johnny-come-latelies mashing up the giant abstractions of “museums” and “mobile” and finding nothing more than a new market to exploit. As Nancy Proctor points out in her thoughtful response to the article, we’ve been working in this space for a loooooong time, and that experience has (hopefully) taught us that introducing mobile devices into museums doesn’t always equal automatic win. What I hope we have come out of the last few years with, though, is a far more nuanced understanding of what success with mobile applications in museums might look like. Continue reading »

In which I don't complain about stuff, for once.

It’s sorta hard to believe that I’ve somehow never posted about #drinkingaboutmuseums here. I chalk that up to me forgetting that I have a blog for months at a time. At any rate, I was inspired by Ed Rodley’s now-not-so-recent post “On Drinking About Museums,” and thought that it would be a good time to lay out my thinking about the events generally, and the mechanics of our Denver event specifically.

Aaaanyway…

What is it?

At its basest level, #drinkingaboutmuseums is an opportunity for museum people to get together and talk about their profession, over some sort of beverage. That’s pretty much it. Different cities have done it differently–the Denver group, for example, is always extremely loosely structured, while the Boston group often has formal presentations and agendas before the beering happens. Continue reading »

In which I am more confused than ever about the concept of "curation."

If you think about it, fashion may actually be THE industry that started the curation trend – we just didn’t know it at the time. How could we? “Curation” is a relatively new term, but it’s finding its way into other realms; you hear about content curation, music curation – all meaning that in some way, these industries are personalizing their offer according to your individual wants, needs and likes.

–Carrie Whitehead, Zappos Labs: The Frontier of Online Retail Is Curation 

Um…huh. So I guess that “curation” is a trend now? That the fashion industry started? Interesting. I can think of a few people I know who might have an issue with one or more of those statements.

This article (written by the Product and UX Manager at Zappos) was actually a pretty interesting read, particularly coming on the heels of seeing Suse Cairns and Danny Birchall’s “Curating the Digital World” session at MW2013. In that session (and the subsequent Salon session on the same topic), we appeared to be looking to expand the definition of “curator” and “curating” to include all sorts of possible definitions and use cases, but in this article, the definition is narrowed waaaay down. Continue reading »

In which I beat a straw man to a bloody pulp.

Just a quick post, here, because I couldn’t quite get this out in 140 characters. I want to quickly address this idea, which was re-aired during the “digital strategy” session at the recent Museums and the Web conference but which has been floating around the museum technology space for a long time, of “taking technology out of the conversation.” It’s something that I hear a lot at conferences (with variations like, “learn to speak curator” or “think like an educator/scholar/conservator/etc.”). It’s a concept that sounds great in the abstract (“technology people shouldn’t focus on the technology–they should focus on the content!”), but which over the long term creates serious institutional liabilities. Continue reading »

Another year, another Museums and the Web conference that has left me completely hoarse and unable to talk. Wooo! I had a lovely bunch of people show up for my “Blow Up Your Online Collection” impromptu unconference session, and I wanted to attempt to get a few of the ideas that came out of that session down here before I start forgetting things again.

The gist of my original proposal for the session was about focusing in on a key area of the “What’s The Point of A Museum Website?” Ignite Smithsonian talk and subsequent MCN panel session: online museum collections. If we’re all having trouble defining what the purpose of museums’ digital presences should be (though the Walker’s bad-ass–and award-winning!–new design is certainly helping to point the way), we’re having particular trouble trying to determine what role museum collections and objects serve in that space. Continue reading »

Hey, so apparently I have a blog! Who knew? At any rate, it looks like I’m going to be speaking at this year’s MuseumNext conference (travel budget permitting) in Barcelona, where I’ll be joining Nancy Proctor, Nate Solas, Robin Dowden, Hein Wils, Ferry Piekart, and lots of other museum smartsies for several days of kicking presentations and conversations. I’ll try and fill this out in greater detail later, but for now, here’s what I’m planning on talking about…
———-
How much of museums’ total overall effort is bound up in potential? How much time do museums waste defining “best practices” instead of simply moving ahead with a solution that just works? Because the museum as it exists today is still essentially built on the 19th-century model, changes in practice still tend to evolve over years, if not decades. In a culture that now evolves at web-speed, the pace of museums’ own evolution is fundamentally unsustainable, if not suicidal. Continue reading »

In which I attempt to make a point in five minutes, after having only slept for two hours.

One of the best things that came out of this year’s Museums and the Web conference in Philly was an “unconference” session I organized around re-thinking and re-imagining what museum websites could/should be. It was a great conversation, with lots of interesting viewpoints. I hope to do a longer post about this in the next few days, but for now, here’s the video of a talk I gave at Ignite Smithsonian a few days ago that tries to get at the root of the problem I’m trying to identify. Continue reading »

I’ve never done a year-end wrap-up post here at kovenjsmith.com before, but this seems better than doing real work, so here we are. A few things that I liked (or at least noted) in 2010:

  • Most important conversation I had in 2010: At Museums and the Web in Denver in April this year, Bruce Wyman had a long conversation that began with him saying, “you should really consider applying for the Director of Technology job at the Denver Art Museum.” And here we are!
    • Honorable Mention: The conversation I had with Madelyn five minutes after that, in which she said, somewhat tentatively, “yeah, I might consider moving to Colorado.”
  • Best Concert: Tune-Yards at the Bell House in Brooklyn. Holy crap! She blew us all away with just a uke, a floor tom, her voice, and a bad-ass bass player.
    • Honorable Mention: Pearl and the Beard at Union Pool for the Farm to Folks fest. If you haven’t seen these peeps yet, you need to do that right now.
    • Honorable Mention Runner Up: The True Love Always reunion show at the Rock Shop. Seeing John Lindaman on stage always makes me smile.
  • Best Moment With Madelyn: After driving three days (in separate vehicles stuffed with luggage and cats) out to Colorado, we stopped at the overlook on the Denver/Boulder Turnpike at Mile 42 to see Boulder Valley all lit up, just before driving to our new house for the first time. Yeah, that was the shit.
  • Continue reading »

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