Is the museum technology sector shrinking?

As more and more people leave the field, some thoughts about where musetech is now and where it might be going. April 19, 2018

I’m at Museums and the Web 2018 as I write this, and a lot of people who used to be at this conference aren’t at this conference. I don’t have numbers on this, but qualitatively, it sure feels like the musetech sector is shrinking, with 2018 being a particularly brutal year so far for departures. A lot of us at this conference are all asking the same question: why is this happening?

There are certainly a lot of immediately personal reasons for a lot of the departures, and the usual culprits (overwork, inadequate pay/recognition/development opportunities, etc.) are certainly present, but the numbers of people leaving, and the prominence of their roles, leads me to wonder if there’s something more systemic going on. Is there something happening generally at the sector level that’s influencing the decisions of individuals to leave?

Was the expansion temporary?

My first thought was that perhaps this is just natural. The story of musetech over the last ten years has been a story of constant expansion; more new digital roles being hired, more (and larger) digital teams. I think many of us probably assumed that this expansion would continue indefinitely. Perhaps this is not the case. Perhaps that expansion was just a temporary one that was necessary to get us to where we are now, and now that we’ve arrived at our destination, so to speak, we’re shedding staff.

I think there’s some support for this even just as I look around at the kinds of projects we’re showing at MW this year. VR has come up, as it always does, as the Next Big Tech Thing, and we’re looking at it Very Seriously, mostly out of a learned habit of hunting for big transformational projects. But VR remains a fantasy for all but the largest of museums, and so the scope of the projects that we’re really working on is much smaller. We’re focusing on the details. We made a big push, and now we’re starting to focus on the backlog of debt that we took on during that period. That’s important, necessary work, but maybe it’s not work that requires huge teams to accomplish.

Designing the future, but not maintaining it

While it is possible that the sector’s expansion is/was temporary, I don’t think that it entirely explains the acceleration of departures from the sector. Here at MW this week, the stories I’ve heard have been much more about burnout and unreasonable expectations than anything else. It would be one thing if only some of us were suffering under the burden of unreasonable expectations from our directors/staffs/boards, but again, it feels more systemic than that. Why might this be?

Duane Degler from Design for Context wondered if maybe we have not managed expectations in an environment in which we’re now simply tasked with maintaining a lot more than we once were. His thought was that, in effect, we’ve trained our directors to expect a certain amount and velocity of new product development, but haven’t tempered that expectation with the understanding that a greater percentage of our time must now be spent simply maintaining products we’ve already built.

I think there’s a lot to this. It feels like we spent the last ten years preparing for the future from a technical standpoint, but not from a maintenance standpoint. We love designing the future, but are less interested in (or maybe even capable of) maintaining it.

The centralized model: good for efficiency, bad for retention?

The big push in museum digital over the last decade has been towards increased centralization: pulling disparate digital roles from around the institution into a centralized digital/interp team. The thinking was that a centralized team could develop more, and more efficiently, than a distributed group of people with different bosses.

My gut still tells me that this is probably the right way to go, particularly for large orgs, but this acceleration towards centralization has also been accompanied by an acceleration in the number of people leaving the field. I’m not saying that a distributed model is necessarily better from a functional/structural standpoint, but I wonder if it’s better from a staff retention standpoint. Are tech employees taken better care of when they sit in Education, or Registration, than they are when they’re in Digital Media? Is it easier for a registrar, for instance, to justify one very high salary on her team than it is for a digital director to justify an entire team’s worth of those people?

The other issue with the centralized model is that it makes it much easier to see how much digital is “costing” the museum. This showed up during the recent budget controversy at the Met, where the “spent too much on digital” narrative showed up in article after article. The Met was not spending much more on digital staff at that point than it had been before; it was just that centralizing the digital staff now meant that those salaries were all together in one line item, and therefore easier to see. I don’t know that decentralization is necessarily a better approach structurally, but I wonder if it might be better for the long-term health of the musetech sector and retention of its best people.

There’s so much more to think about here, but I’ll leave it at this for now. I’m sure we’ll all keep churning through this over the next few years, and maybe we’ll start to sort it all out. We’ll see.

Of possible further interest: