Category Archives: museums

Better ways to win: MCN2016 and the Presidential election

First, let me say that the Museum Computer Network’s 2016 conference was one of the most amazing I have ever attended. I arrived carrying the weight of some significant personal and professional exhaustion, and MCN, as it always does, revived me. My happy place the last two weeks has been mentally returning a New Orleans courtyard on the last day of the conference, drinking wine and listening to a band play obscure Oliver Nelson tunes while sharing laughter with some of my favorite people in the world.

I was glad for the recharge, because then the election happened.

I won’t belabor how awful this election was for me and for so many around me; that has been done more meaningfully elsewhere. What I will say is that thinking about my work in museums (bear with me here) has helped me to process the election somehow. MCN is the election in miniature–the issues played out at a macro level lately in Europe and America are also playing out at a micro level in each of our museums. To attend MCN is to see the most progressive thought in museums on full display. To return to your museum after MCN is often, sadly, to see that thought destroyed in a million different ways. Attending MCN and then getting back to work is like an East Coast liberal watching the election results and suddenly remembering that Texas gets to vote, too.

Don’t get me wrong; I am absolutely committed to so much of what MCN stands for. As Johanna Koljonen so beautifully said, design is the opposite of tradition. We come to MCN to design the present and future of museums and I remain absolutely committed to doing that. However, this election now has me questioning whether the ways I approach that work are the right ones. Have I become so convinced of the rightness and justness of what we do that I’m not realizing that Texas gets to vote, too? Am I so focused on being right that I’ve stopped being smart? Are there better ways to win, even when I’m losing?

Two things have become clear to me since the election. The first is that having a person whose politics and policies I respected at the top made me complacent. That complacency caused me to underestimate how fragile the support for those policies were, and how quickly that support could decay. The second, related, revelation is that the left had effectively stopped doing the work–we pinned all of our hopes and dreams on having the right person at the top. We vote only in the Presidential elections, and not in the midterms. We are barely even aware of the local politics that ultimately determine so much of the shape of the place in which we live. We have stopped trying to create and sustain a political movement that can survive without support from the very top.

Compare this to the modern American conservative movement, which had it’s coming-out party with the (supposedly) disastrous Goldwater candidacy in 1964. Everyone predicted that the conservative movement was finished after that election, but they kept on organizing. That movement had less to do with having the right person at the top and more with having the right people everywhere. Conservatives put people into school board elections, into housing committees, into redistricting committees. Conservatives vote in midterm elections. Conservatives vote for a set of values, more than they do for a particular person. All this has allowed the movement to outlast multiple real and predicted catastrophes. I don’t mean to imply here that I side with conservative principles (I don’t), but I do have a lot of respect for the method by which the movement has remained a force in US politics, even through lean years like the post-Watergate 70s. I think those of us trying to effect change in museums can learn a lot here.

So think about this at your museum: where do you spend your capital? Are you building a movement, or are you just trying to sway your director? Spoilers: for most of us, it’s the second one. This is a problem because museums are dictatorships. They may be benign dictatorships, but museum staff usually derive no material benefits from the success or failure of an institution, nor do they have any say in who gets to be director. All that work you’ve done swaying that sympathetic director with the Instagram account? It’s out the window when the board decides to bring in someone with “more business experience.” The support for the progressive agenda you began implementing after coming home from MCN suddenly looks very fragile. If you have to win the election to win the day, you’ve already lost.

I’ve never thought about sustaining innovation and change at museums as being a coalition-building activity, but that’s basically what it has to be. For our work to outlast a given manager or director, we have to put in the work. We have to figure out the museum equivalent of getting our people on the school boards. We have to get at least a couple of our words into the mission statement. Get the right words into job descriptions. Have a say in the interns you bring on. We have to vote in the midterms. Getting your director on board” is a nice-but-not-essential part of the process.

But we also have to be honest with ourselves about not reinforcing the dictatorship further down in the org chart. I was frustrated at the (apparent) arbitrariness of the decision-making above me early on in my career, but once I was suddenly in a position to make decisions unilaterally, I embraced that power. I became that which I beheld, but I figured it was okay because my cause was just. However, the (possible) rightness of my ends didn’t make the autocratic nature of the means any more right. My actions encouraged others to rally around me to make change happen rather than to take individual responsibility for that change. That’s not the right way to build a ground game, but everything about the autocratic culture in museums encourages us to work this way. We question it only when the results aren’t the ones we want.

I think there’s a lot more to say here, and I haven’t even gotten into the snowflake model of organization that Catherine Bracy talked about in her MCN2016 keynote, which might hold some of the answers for us. But it’s almost Thanksgiving, and I need to go do other things for a while. Let’s keep talking. I’m not sure if anything I wrote above makes any damn sense, but it at least helped me to think through some of these things. Hopefully it did for you, too. Catch up with y’all again soon.



More on relevance, and that Joe Wos article

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

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.

The museum as skeuomorph

(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.


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 The museum as skeuomorph

Defining “digital”

(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 Defining “digital”

The irrelevance of relevance

“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 The irrelevance of relevance

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 Sorting out how I feel about Gallery One

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?

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

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.