Musetech at cruising altitude

Some further thoughts after MW18 on the contraction of the musetech sector and what that might mean for the immediate future of our work. May 16, 2018

Seamus MurrayTWA Flight Center, Color and cropping by Koven J. Smith, CC BY-NC 2.0
This is something of a continuation from a previous post on this topic; I recommend you read that post first if you haven’t already.

My previous post about contraction in the musetech sector touched off some further interesting conversation both in person at MW and over Twitter. As the conversation grew, another question started to emerge for me: is it possible that attrition/churn in the musetech sector simply the natural result of an era of work coming to a close? And if that is the case, are a lot of people leaving the museum technology sector because the very nature of the work is changing?

Cruising altitude

I had a great and all-too-brief conversation during MW with Ross Parry and Jon Pratty in which we started poking at this a bit. The three of us started to wonder if, taken as a whole, the sector is shifting from “launch” to “cruising altitude.” I think there’s something to this. For 15+ years, we’ve been in “build first, sort out the details later” (sort of the non-profit version of “move fast and break things”) mode. There was a certain necessity to this; it takes an immense amount of thrust simply to get the rocket off the launch pad. Museum technology was a discipline largely built from scratch within an environment that was often actively hostile to it (I can still remember conversations with museum colleagues about how “no one will ever use Wikipedia”). Perhaps it just wasn’t the best time for nuance.

But I think that’s changing. Museums are now at a point where most of what they need, technology-wise, is achievable. There are fewer and fewer impossible problems to solve, so we’re starting to increasingly train our focus on the details. You could see that reflected in the types of projects that were being presented this year at MW—fewer big splashy new ideas, and more refinements of what has come before. This looks and feels like cruising altitude to me.

When thought about this way, the sudden spike in personnel churn (if not outright contraction) we’ve seen in the last year or two starts to make a little more sense. Perhaps this is simply the inevitable result of museums valuing different types of expertise than they did even a few years ago. Perhaps we’re in the middle of a shift in which museums are valuing settlers and town planners more than they are pioneers.

The next cycle of musetech

So let’s think through what this next cycle for a moment. If we accept that the very nature of museum technology might be shifting, then what kinds of questions might then define it during and after that shift takes place?

My feeling is that a museum’s digital output will be defined less by its capacity or audacity than by the choices it makes. It’s less the what and more the how. For instance, what does your museum communicate, from an ethical standpoint, by publicly deciding not to use Facebook? What does it say when it prioritizes open-source collaboration across the field over bespoke proprietary solutions? What does it say when your institution prioritizes accessible design over flashy interfaces? I feel like these are the kinds of questions that are going to govern our work in the next cycle (and that many who are far more progressive than me have already been thinking about for years).

Old habits die hard

I wonder if the museum sector as a whole has already implicitly come to realize this in a way that I, as a museum technologist, have not yet. Are we building projects that would have been better suited for the last cycle than this one? And does that at least partially explain why so many of us are so miserable?

It certainly seemed that way to me at MW this year. I have always had a hard time getting excited about virtual reality, but even more than usual, the emphasis on it at this year’s MW seemed really out-of-step to me. VR was presented as The Next Big Technology That’s Gonna Change Everything You Know About Everything You Know, but I think the only reason we’re thinking about it that way is because we’re so used to evaluating new technology on those terms. Musetech is still defined by building, not maintaining, so it makes sense that VR would appeal to us. It feels like building. It gets us excited. Old habits die hard.

Self-righteousness is another habit that dies hard. As builders in a sector that was often hostile to the kind of work we do, we’ve become accustomed to knowing what’s right for so long that we might not be able to admit we’re wrong. For such a long time, I’ve been so convinced of the rightness of museum technology work that I’ve pushed ahead on initiatives that I knew were right for the field, even if they were low/nonexistent priorities for my directors. I think this is true for a lot of us. The most common refrain at musetech conferences for years has been “my museum doesn’t understand me.”

But, if I continue to use VR as an example, I wonder if museums have already moved to a more evolved understanding of the role of musetech than we have. I know if right now I were to go to my director and propose a big VR project, her response would most likely be “we need to get Spanish translations working on the website” or “we need to have more updated content on the mobile app.” And she would be right. Our directors may have come to a better understanding of what the next cycle of musetech work needs to be than we have.

The tension between us clinging to an old definition of our work and our directors embracing a new one could be an explanation for why so many of us in musetech are feeling burned out, unappreciated, or just plain miserable right now. Maybe we’re simply focusing on doing the wrong things.

And so…

I think we are shifting into a different era, in which different things will be valued than were in the last one. One in which steering the craft is more important than getting it off the launch pad. I’m sad to see so many of my colleagues go, but I’m also excited about who’s coming after them. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to let go of my own love of pioneering to properly play nicely in a world that needs settlers, but I guess I’ll just have to wait and see on that. Cruising might be kind of fun, you know?

Of possible further interest: