More on relevance, and that Joe Wos article

Judging museums against the ephemeral tastes of the hyper-present tense.

Another day, another remarkably uninformed, poorly-sourced, my-perspective-is-universal op-ed about museums, this one from “pop-culture correspondent” Joe Wos in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (hat tip to the ever-vigilant Jeffrey Inscho for pointing me to this). Sure, this article is intended to be provocative (it’s titled “Death of the Art Museum?” fer Chrissakes), but the arrogance, self-absorption, and short-sightedness of it are worth responding to, if for no other reason than that it’s kind of fun to do so. We’re usually assaulted by people telling us museums suck because they’re no longer the pristine temples of contemplation of art critics’ faulty memories; it’s fun to have someone telling us that museums suck because they’re excessively pristine and contemplative.

So it goes. I’ll leave it to others to fact-check the article—Jo Ellen Parker’s response is particularly pointed—while I focus in on the one bit that always gets me. It is this idea of museums’ so-called “irrelevance” in these carayzee technology-addled times in which we live. Bah. I’ve said this before, but relevance is a terrible measure of importance and/or impact. It means nothing without further definition.

The best take-down of the “relevance” argument comes from Chuck Klosterman, who I quote liberally here so I don’t have to try to re-write that which is already perfect. Here Klosterman is talking about bands, but just substitute “museums” and it all holds together:

“As a rule, people who classify art as ‘irrelevant’ are trying to position themselves above the entity; it’s a way of pretending they’re more in step with contemporary culture than the artist himself, which is mostly a way of saying they can’t find a tangible reason for disliking what something intends to embody. Moreover, the whole argument is self-defeating: If you classify something as “irrelevant,” you’re (obviously) using it as a unit of comparison agains whatever is “relevant,” so it (obviously) does have meaning and merit. Truly irrelevant art wouldn’t even be part of the conversation.”

“Judging the value of any band against the ephemeral tastes of the hyper-present tense always misinterprets its actual significance. Moreover, any act lauded as “especially relevant” (and any critic preoccupied with hunting whomever that’s supposed to be) is almost guaranteed to have a limited career, simply because so much of their alleged value is tied to an ephemeral modernity they only embody by chance.”

–Chuck Klosterman, “ABBA 1, World 0″ in Eating the Dinosaur (Simon & Schuster, 2009).

Beautiful. Look, there are few people as critical of accepted museum practice as I, so I’m not going so far as to say that museums will always be valued by their communities regardless of what they do. But what Klosterman is saying here, and what I think we all should always keep in mind, is that as museums we have to play the long game, reaching for adjacent possibilities rather than just going all in on whatever the latest thing is.

My comment to the FCC on Net Neutrality and the museum community

Go do this now.

Hey, kids. I don’t do this on kovenjsmith dot com very often, but this is really, really important. The FCC has extended the deadline to comment on its proposed regulations on ending Net Neutrality (or as John Oliver puts it so well, “preventing cable company f*ckery“) to July 18th.

In all the discussions on this, I’ve so rarely seen the museum/non-profit perspective presented–it is extremely important that you add your voice to this discussion, even if you just add a few words. If you’re unclear on this issue, Titus Bicknell addresses it from the museum perspective really succinctly in the “Net Neutrality” episode of Museopunks. Please, please, please–go now and tell the FCC to stop the madness.

Here’s the comment I sent:

I am Koven J. Smith, consultant for museums and former Director of Technology at the Denver Art Museum and manager of digital initiatives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. As someone who has experienced firsthand the direct benefits that an open internet conveys on resource-poor institutions like museums, I implore you to re-consider this destructive course of action.

Much of the discussion around the proposed FCC regulations has focused on the deleterious impact they would have on startup businesses and other emerging profit-based entities, but the effects of the proposed regulations on the museum community are potentially even more devastating. Galleries, libraries, archives, and museums collectively form the cultural backbone of the United States. Without them, a significant portion of the United States’ cultural memory would cease to exist. In fighting with for-profit media and entertainment companies for attention and dollars, cultural institutions have but one competitive advantage: the richness of the content they produce.

The proposed regulations, which would almost certainly ensure that all but the largest cultural institutions remain in the internet “slow lane,” would effectively remove that competitive advantage. Companies and institutions that are able to pay to give their content preferred access to ISP subscribers will win. Galleries, libraries, archives, and museums will lose.

This will have the unfortunate effect of gradually destroying these cultural institutions. The ability of an institution to generate attention via online channels and the financial health of that institution are tightly coupled. The proposed regulations would not only affect cultural institutions’ online presences, they would, over time, lead to closure after closure.

Please reconsider the proposed regulations, and keep the internet open. Thank you.

In NYC (and the East Coast) August 4 – 8

Hire me, yo!

Hey, Kids! Just letting you all know that I’m going to be in NYC from August 4th through the 8th without much to do. Would you like me to work with you on something while I’m there? I think that would probably be fun.  I’m happy to do whatever–think through problems with you, do some quick-and-dirty information modeling, review your IMLS grant application, whatever. My rates are reasonable. I’ll be potentially mobile during that time, so if you’d like me to work with you in Philly, DC, Baltimore, Boston, or whatever, I’m happy to do that also. Pretty much anywhere that’s an easy train ride from NYC is eligible for this one-time offer.

If you’re interested in having me work with you on something for a day or two, just give me a shout: koven@kineticmuseums.com. Thanks!

The museum as skeuomorph

"We hope you enjoy your virtual visit to our museum."

(This is an excerpt from a keynote address I gave at MuseumNext 2014 called “Becoming Authentically Digital.” The first excerpt was posted last week.)

Let’s go back to Microsoft’s definition of “authentically digital” from the previous post:

“Instead of looking to the real world to inform our design metaphors, this principle embraces the limitless capacity of innovation that is found in a digital landscape. Instead of awkwardly trying to tie digital assets to their real life counterparts, we embrace the power of our medium.”

Finding a definition for “digital” helps us to get a little closer to re-structuring our organizations in a way that enables us to speak this language more natively. However, we also have to understand a little better what authenticity means in the digital domain. It’s a word, much like “digital,” that we think we understand but for which we don’t really have a sound, functional definition.

Skeuomorphs

For the Metro design team, the idea of being “authentically digital” meant to remove those aspects of their interface design that were “fake” or “superfluous.” For them, being authentically digital means removing what they refer to as “skeuomorphic design constructs.” My favorite definition of skeuomorphism comes from  over at Smashing Magazine:

“[Skeuomorphs are] design elements based on symbols borrowed from the real world, for the sole purpose of making an interface look familiar to the user…they are also relics of another time, relics that tie an interface to static real-life objects that are incompatible with the fluidity and dynamism of digital interfaces.”

Why is skeuomorphism important to us? Because pretty much museums’ entire approach to working in the digital domain has been based on skeuomorphism. Continue reading

Defining “digital”

You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.

(This is an excerpt from a keynote address I gave at MuseumNext 2014 called “Becoming Authentically Digital. I’ll probably post more of that talk later when I get a chance.)

To thrive in the 21st Century, it’s not enough for museums to “do” digital work. We have to think about our organizations and our work in an entirely different way. We can continue on our current trajectory–a path towards slow death paved with blockbuster exhibitions, or we can realize the potential that the web has opened up for us. We need to finally become authentically digital. Continue reading

The irrelevance of relevance

Your MOM is relevant.

“In order to be relevant, we have to do X.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this spoken in conversations with/in museums, with X being replaced by almost anything: “teach to Common Core standards,” “have a mobile app,” “use Facebook,” “be participatory,” or whatever. Sometimes, X isn’t even part of the statement: “We simply have to be more relevant.” Museums are obsessed with being relevant. Or, at the very least, we’re terrified of being irrelevant.

But what do we mean by ‘relevance’? I’ve been trying to figure this out, and the more I think about it, the more I’m confused. It’s a word has very little meaning without context (what aspect of a museum needs to be relevant? and relevant to whom? in what way?), and without that context, it doesn’t lead to obvious action. It feels like we currently use it to justify just about any course of action, which effectively makes it meaningless as a justification for any course of action. Continue reading

Sorting out how I feel about Gallery One

I was just re-reading Micah Walter’s thoughtful summary of MW2014 this morning, and a section of it stuck out to me on this reading that hadn’t before. Micah, as is his way, says something that is simultaneously self-evident and revelatory:

On the one hand you have a room full of technology nerds—really smart people capable of building just about any technology based experience you can imagine. On the other, those same people seem to be obsessed with making tech invisible—pushing back to the point where they question using tech at every chance they get.

I left a comment there saying, in effect, that I think this might be due to years of museum technologists having their hearts broken–we almost reflexively now say that, of course, content is king and it’s not about the technology and all of that. It’s almost like we’re ashamed of technology.

Which is weird, because Gallery One exists. And it seems like all of us museum technologists are going crazy over it. Continue reading

Have museums always been “authoritative?”

(Cross-posted from my Kinetic Museums Tumblr)

This guy looks pretty authoritative to me. From the Flickr Commons.

This guy looks pretty authoritative to me. From the Flickr Commons.

I’ve written about the concept of authority in museums here before, and it’s something I’m still grappling with. “Authority” is a word that we in museums use all the time without, I think, really knowing 1) if it’s something our public truly values or 2) if it even exists.

It would be interesting to do some research into the history of the use of the words “authority” and “authoritative” in museum discourse. It seems that at the close of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, as museums entered a pretty severe identity crisis, we increasingly reached for the concept of “authority” as justification for our existence. I’d be curious to know if “authority” as a concept appears regularly in the literature in the pre-web days. Did we care about being “authoritative” before it conveniently became a thing that we and only we possess? I’m sure there’s someone out there who’s done a lot more research on this than me (which, um, wouldn’t be hard). I’d love to know more.

But more and more I’m bothered by this concept of “authority” in the way we use it. I kind of like the word trust more. Partially because trust is something you have to earn, whereas it seems like authority is something we feel that we’re owed as institutions, and I don’t think that’s healthy.

Why are we so tired?

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.

Turn and face the strange changes

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.