Digital interactivity, new media literacy, and museum staff

The Future is coming, photo by Flickr user h.koppdelaney

I’ve been thinking about digital interactives lately.  The Horizon Report: 2011 Museum Edition is full of technologies poised to alter our practice. The New Media Consortium Future of Education retreat is coming up in a week or so. At our next Boston Museum Tech meetup we’re going to drink and talk about the point of digital experiences.  The Program Committee for the Museum Computer Network 2012 conference is beginning its work. And Suse Cairns has been writing some thought-provoking posts over at her blog about the physical and virtual.  All good fodder for thinking ways of interacting with visitors using digital technologies.

But what I’ve most been struck by is a comment Seb Chan made in response to Suse’s question about whether museums should treat the physical space as the most important one. It’s buried down in the replies, so read the whole thing. He writes,

“The problem is not so much whether museums ‘should’ but whether they are structurally organised and resourced to be able to”

This rang in my head like a gong. These technologies are nothing without people able to create and deploy them, and institutions organized in ways that allow them to be utilized effectively. These issues aren’t technology issues per se, they’re institutional culture issues, and require a different kind of solution than the kinds I’d been thinking of. My default thinking usually runs something along the lines of, “What do I need so I can do the kind of work I want to do?” A bit selfish, and short-sighted, but I’m working on it. 😉

Professional development is essential in new media, because most of us learned nothing about it. If you graduated from university with a museum studies degree five years ago, you wouldn’t have learned about Twitter. Youtube was a new thing and Facebook was moving out of colleges into the wild. If you graduated ten years ago, social media in general would be an alien thing. If you’re a late Cretaceous dinosaur like me, computers were a novelty, and if you’re older, say an early Jurassic dinosaur like many museum directors, computers in general are something that happened after formal schooling.

So how can we hope to incorporate these tools in meaningful ways in our work? I think this might be one of the pillars that 2012 rests on for me. Coming up with a response to this will require real change of the painful, exhilarating sort. What do you do to bring in new ideas and workflows?


  1. Hi Ed…great post and great blogs! I think we met in 2010 when you spoke with a group of Pepperdine Ed.D students about knowledge creation within exhibit building. What really stuck with me from our talk was the saturation of the Museum Studies field, and how interdisciplinary studies were being replaced by hyperspecialization, to the point that you had to turn down people with graduate degrees in Museum Studies for internships that ten years prior you would have felt were below the status of a 20 year old college student. Thank you for taking the time that day…it was a great tour and an insightful discussion.

    I had a talk with Nina Simon a while back about the inertia of museums, and a recent discussion with a LACMA curator who lamented the fragmentation of the various curators at the museum. When most people look upon tech with fear, how can we get museums to coalesce around delivering content through various online platforms? Are the symptoms of a lack of authentic interactive digital materials part of a much larger problem? Professional development is vital, but if it’s done before an organizational focus shift, there will be no footholds for the new material to gain traction.


  2. Hey Rolin,
    Like you, I think the problem is a larger one, and one that isn’t about technology per se. It’s about what it means to be educated. It used to be that going to college was sufficient learning to carry a professional through an entire career. It doesn’t look like that model is going to work in the current century, but most museums i know aren’t really equipped to be the kind of learning organizations that they’ll need to be. So change will need to happen. Whether that comes from the top or the bottom, I’m not sure of. I think both cases might work depending on the institution.


  3. Glad to have read this post as this is something I spend a lot of time thinking about. I’m a member of generation wired–part of one of the first college classes to get on facebook, when it was college-only; watch more on youtube than on tv; and am constantly plugged into the latest app/social media obsession. I’m also a recent art history grad (MA) and navigating the museum world and my place within it. I’ve held fellowships in the past in museums, always on the curatorial end, but would love to see more digital media/social media integration into museums. The museums I’ve worked in haven’t quite gotten a handle on it — should digital media be under a marketing department’s responsibilities? Education and programming? Is there a place for it in curatorial? But thinking of digital media in these terms is part of the problem — trying to divide the task of figuring out digital media into neat department responsibilities just isn’t going to work. What I would LOVE to see is a digital innovation lab within a larger museum, where smart, digital natives and seasoned museum experts could experiment and integrate digital media into museum practices in new ways. As it stands, many museums know they have to get onto the digital bandwagon, but aren’t sure how yet, and haven’t made a commitment to getting further along in the process besides asking someone in PR to tweet every now and again. If we’re going to go further than this (and I think we should), museum culture has to be okay with taking some risks. Not an easy task, but giving room for growth and experimentation to a small group within the larger, more traditional museum structure is one way to do it. It’s a model that has worked in large, corporate institutions in the past, and one worth investigating for museums as well. (ie: Nordstrom’s Innovation Lab, which operates as an innovative startup within a large corporation. More here:


    1. Right on, Ximena!

      Part of the problem as I see it is that digital media is still thought of as a thing, rather than a platform for doing what we do. You should check out Koven Smith’s post on a kinetic museum at In the comments, Matt Popke brings up the idea of “dangerous experimentation in moderation” which is akin to what you’re looking for more of. People are stating to get it. I think of places like IMA Labs, the Walker Art Center, and now Cooper-Hewitt, who are all pushing boundaries within the larger context of traditional bricks-and-mortar museums. It takes some looking, but they’re there.


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