Tag 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.



What’s the point of a museum website?

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 What’s the point of a museum website?

Building a museum from scratch

I posed a quick question on Twitter this morning (or this afternoon, for those of you east of the Rocky Mountains) that I feel needs a bit more clarification than I could squeeze into 140 characters, so I thought I’d log into the ol’ blog (for the first time since July) and do some old fashioned clarifyin’.

Anyway, the question I posed was this:

What things do museums do *exclusively* because of tradition? If you were building a museum from scratch, what would you do differently?
Koven J. Smith

While it’s easy to think of all kinds of things that museums could do better (and indeed, since asking this question, I’ve received a bunch of excellent replies to this effect), what I’m really trying to get at here are identifying processes that we (perhaps grudgingly) accept as givens, but that we would never enact if we were just starting from scratch today. Continue reading Building a museum from scratch

“A great place to plan your visit!”

Disclaimer: This is something that I’m still trying to figure out, so a lot of what follows is still kinda half-baked and rant-y (just your typical kovenjsmith.com post, I suppose). I welcome better-informed opinions than my own…

I often hear museum staff talk about museum websites being places for visitors to the buildings to “plan their visits” and/or to “follow up after their visits.” For some institutions, it seems that this is the primary purpose of their websites. I’m willing to be convinced if someone can show me hard data that proves otherwise, but my gut tells me that this kind of activity rarely, if ever, actually occurs in the way we so often discuss it. Continue reading “A great place to plan your visit!”

Noise vs. cultural memory

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about the cultural value of noise and chatter.

The first thing that got me thinking about this was David Bearman’s recent blog entry about the use of Twitter during the recently-concluded Museums and the Web conference. Almost nonstop Twittering from the conference participants led to the creation of a rich stream of data that was full of useful references, emotion, and nuance. There was no denying that Twitter was the star player at the conference, and that it fundamentally altered the way everyone at the conference interacted with one another. David’s post is interesting and, although admittedly written from the point of view of a (somewhat) converted skeptic, I still found myself extremely frustrated with his “list of useful tweets.” His list, in fact, removed everything from the tweet but the link contained therein, indicating that any of the contextual material or emotional content contained in the tweet itself was largely irrelevant.

The second thing that got me thinking about this was last week’s Arts, Culture, and Technology meetup here in New York, which featured an engaging presentation and conversation with SebChan from the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. Among the many excellent initiatives that Seb has overseen there, one of the most interesting is the Powerhouse’s use of the Flickr Commons as a means of both providing increased access to images of collections objects to the public, as well as harvesting information (primarily tags) from those objects for use by the museum itself.

Seb talked about the need to filter user responses when the amount of those responses becomes so overwhelming that they become just so much noise. And although I think that both Seb and David are right to filter noise when this issue is looked at expressly as a problem of mining relevant/important information from user response, I wonder if we are missing a larger issue here by focusing on that exclusively. While even a cursory skim over the visitor responses for an image like this one from the Powerhouse Museum certainly brings back a paucity of immediately useful information (thanks for the “yeah cool!” shoutout, Orsek!) I have to wonder if we’d be so quick to dismiss these kinds of responses if they were from, say 1879, versus 2009.

What I mean here is that while we might have been just as quick to dismiss this kind of commentary as useless in 1879 as we are now, that same commentary, with the addition of 130 years, suddenly acquires immense cultural/historical value. As the famous evil archaeologist Rene Belloq once said, “Look at this [watch]. It’s worthless – ten dollars from a vendor in the street. But I take it, I bury it in the sand for a thousand years, it becomes priceless.”

I find just this little change in perspective suddenly makes this information appear significantly more valuable, at least in a cultural memory sort of way, than we’ve previously thought. Just imagine if a museum were able to present, alongside the object itself, a catalog of responses to the object from the public over time. How did people respond to this print in 1930 vs. 1950 vs. 1980? Are there trends over time? Do certain terms/phrases crop up and then disappear, while others are used consistently throughout time? I personally would find that hugely fascinating.

The problem, though, is that we tend to be so focused on extracting one type of value from information obtained via public channels (“useful” links from tweets, “valuable” commentary on images) that we end up discarding what might actually be, in the long run, the most useful information, namely cultural, emotional, and historical context. In the past, we were forced by necessity to focus on only the most immediately “useful” information, because we had limited ability to capture anything else. But now that we live in the future, where storage is cheap, there’s no reason for us to hold on to apparently “useless” information as well.

Doing this, of course, puts a museum in the position of having to be a custodian of public opinion in addition to its traditional role as a custodian of culture. This opens up an entirely new area (for museums, anyway) of scholarship–the collection, curation, and maintenance of public response. The good thing is that most museums already have someone who could naturally take on this role–the “social media” consultant (usually a part of the communications/marketing department) who typically manages a museums Flickr pages, Twitter accounts, Facebook pages, and so on. I could certainly imagine an expansion of that consultant’s role (which is often now seen as primarily a marketing function) to include curating public feedback, and archiving it in a useful way for future generations. “Noise” becomes cultural memory.