Monthly Archives: March 2012

Next Drinking About Museums: Boston – April 26th!

Flickr image by Mr Kael

Greetings all,

Courtesy of Ms Jenna Fleming & Co., we’ll be visiting the Museum of Fine Arts for the April edition of Drinking About Museums: Boston. Given their commitments and the Museums and the Web 2012 conference, we won’t be convening until later in the month. But, good things come to those who wait. I’ll post a start time, what the potential program might be, and where we will adjourn to after. Keep an eye open for #drinkingaboutmuseums posts, and hopefully we’ll see you on the 26th!



Anatomy of a Twitter conversation

Anatomy of Twitter conversation

I often find myself having conversation with younger colleagues who don’t “get” Twitter.  So I post a selection of my Twitter feed from the past 24 hours as an example of the kind of interesting work that can be done via Twitter that I’ve never seen done in any other communication medium.  Especially not one where I was in my pajamas having breakfast throughout most of it.

I have done some violence to the chronology in order to keep threads separate, and I’m sure I’ve missed a few posts. This is the bulk of the conversation, though.

Somebody posts a provocative question.

Hey #musetech folk… Are we terrible at talking about what we do, and why it’s important? That’s the conclusion here:

Comments follow:

@shineslike after reading that I suspect many people don’t realise they’re dealing w technologists because we aren’t the dweebs they imagine

@shineslike but it doesn’t help that museums in the UK are probably losing tech-speaking staff to the cuts

@shineslike OTOH there are so many misconceptions alongside the interesting points I wouldn’t know where to start…

@mia_out That’s true, though even more reason to advocate for their value.

@shineslike breaking conversations out of the bubble has been a theme for years, shame progress is so slow!

A need is identified:

@mia_out The timing might be right for it to happen now? I think it’s becoming a personal mission…

@shineslike IIRC, non-MA members can’t comment on their posts, but as the MA doesn’t do digital, we don’t join and our voices are missing…

@shineslike all that said, museums I’ve worked with appreciate what tech can do for them, even if mostly as marketing…

@shineslike hard to say, people might be turning back to old certainties in response to pressure now? Will keep trying but it’s getting old

@shineslike @mia_out There is a def. need for ppl who can nurture these conversations outside of the bubble. Not a bad personal mission…

@erodley can we embed tech-savvy people in generic museum conferences? Though surely that happens already, digital is everywhere?

@mia_out inside instigators? Yes, it’s a q. of getting the right ppl together for the right sessions. Gotta get at conf. organizers.

@erodley as in, we don’t need to do PR for our tech work; we need museums to understand how digital changes the world they work in

@erodley though realised that’s aiming at wrong level; tech is used throughout museums, but getting it embeded in strategy is what counts

@mia_out @erodley This is what’s important. It’s not “look at this shiny project”, it’s “the world’s changed. This is what it means for you”

@mia_out Agreed. PR isn’t needed, access and examples are for the ppl who decide what their museums do.

Somebody has a concrete idea:

@erodley @mia_out isn’t that an AAM session in the making? 2013?

@sebchan @mia_out that was my thought.

@sebchan @erodley if only US museum conferences weren’t so difficult at the moment! But I could suggest good people from UK for it

@mia_out @sebchan @shineslike I s actually thinking MuseumNext as a venue, too. Needs a format…

@erodley @mia_out @sebchan @shineslike Sounds like it has possibilities, let us know if you need help…

@erodley @shineslike @mia_out Reminds me of a convo at the SIG lunch: once an idea’s mainstream at MCN, it’s time to take it to AAM, etc.

@erodley @mia_out @shineslike i think we’re actually after a more generalist event aren’t we? or maybe a Getty Leadership related thing?

@erodley @sebchan @mia_out These are also my plans (but obvs in Oz).

@sebchan @mia_out @shineslike what’s a generalist event in Europe? Here, it’d be AAM. Getty’s possible, and has leadership focus…

@mia_out @sebchan @shineslike I s actually thinking MuseumNext as a venue, too. Needs a format…

@erodley @mia_out @shineslike there’s always ICOM . . .

@sebchan @mia_out @shineslike I was waiting for someone to say the dreaded acronym…

@erodley @sebchan @shineslike MA conference in the UK (have put in a proposal on strategy for it), maybe wider Arts ones?

@erodley @sebchan @mia_out Museums Assoc UK has #museums2020 as their focus this year. Tech issues *should* be on the agenda.

Meanwhile, another simultaneous thread is going on about issues:

@erodley @mia_out @sebchan having tried to nurture museum science outside the bubble, getting traction for new topics at confs is hard. 1/2

@elyw @sebchan @erodley maybe it could be about showcasing impact of good digital design in projects presented? But again means valuing it

@erodley @mia_out @sebchan and you can run the risk of looking like a sideshow. But agree that it’s worth trying. 2/2

@elyw @erodley @mia_out @sebchan Nothing worth doing is easy anyways, I say!

@mia_out @sebchan @erodley @RyanD How to introduce concept of technology as something more than adjunct to exhibitions?

@mia_out @sebchan @erodley @RyanD: question posed by@NickPoole1 how to change the physical situated idiom of museum?:

@mia_out @elyw @erodley don’t think project showcases work. Needs to be examples of bigger transformative work. But probably chicken/egg.

The limits of Twitter start to irk:

@sebchan @erodley @elyw I was thinking more of pointing out impact of digital in other projects – hard to explain in 100 ch

@mia_out @sebchan @elyw @shineslike How about we move this somewhere amenable to long form writing? I can cut-n-paste it into a blogpost…

@erodley @mia_out @elyw @shineslike sure. just not a wiki.

@erodley @mia_out @elyw @shineslike shared googledoc?

And so the Twitter portion ends, for now. 

Out of nowhere, a group of people on three continents converges on a point of shared interest, self-organize, and find a place to work on that interest.

I like Twitter.

How leaders lead

I’m finally going to get off this current kick about leadership and vision… right after this post.  The past month has been so fruitful that I’ve generated piles of references that all bear on our work and I want to get some of the most germane out to you so I can move on.  Some of the most interesting reading I’ve done in the past couple weeks has all revolved around the qualities of good (and bad) leadership.

It’s not about you
Janet Carding from the ROM (@janetcarding) posted this tasty little tidbit from Scott Eblin (@Scotteblin) about one of my favorite attributes of a good leader; the ability to let go. Going from being the brutally competent doer of deeds to being the leader of a tribe of doers is a tricky adjustment that I’ve seen talented people mess up. Eblin, an executive coach, says,

 “To grow as a leader, you have to let go of being the go-to person and pick up the profile of being the person who builds a team of go-to people.

How do you do that? Here are some ideas.

  •  Allow and encourage your team to become an expert in the things in which you’ve been an expert.
  •  Raise your comfort level for letting go of what you’ve been doing and your team’s for picking up responsibilities by establishing regular check points.
  •  Coach your team to come up with its own way of doing things rather than giving your team the answers.”

This relates back to my earlier posts on leadership, because this ability to let go I think has everything to do with having a vision that’s bigger than yourself. When a leader has vision, it’s too big for any one person to implement, so letting go becomes a necessity if the vision is to be advanced.  This is how vision propagates. It’s big enough that there is room for lots of people to explore it’s corners, find out new things about it, and feed those findings back into the work of the whole tribe. And when I think about the people I consider to be exemplary leaders, one trait they all share is their pride in discussing what their staff are up to, rather than what they’re up to.

All three of these tips apply to pretty much anyone doing experience development work, regardless of your position in the organizational chart. “Relax, let go, and be a fluid communicator.” Is pretty sound advice for anyone doing exhibition development, as I wrote about before. As someone responsible for content development, I am acutely aware of the delicate balance necessary to encourage other team members to explore the content themselves, rather than having me be the only conduit. It’s easy to fall into being too controlling or too lax, but the results are so much better when you can bring the rest of the team along with you.

Talk, talk, talk
The Guardian recently ran a profile of Performances Birmingham, the charity that runs Birmingham’s Town Hall & Symphony Hall, and some of their practices that they’ve developed to keep a large staff feeling informed and empowered to do the work of the institution. They are:

  • Tell everybody the same thing
  • Give your team a voice
  • Never say nothing
  • Encourage creativity
  • Have fun on the job

The whole article is worth a read, so look at the specific examples they cite.  How well does your organization do in these five areas? Aside from “Have fun on the job” , all of these qualities would organically arise in a setting where a leader with vision, like the one described above, is working.  One can only let go by being an efficient and frequent communicator and a responsive listener. A shared vision encourages everybody in the room to be creative.  And the result of that, I’d argue, is workplace that is fun, without the need for mandated, official fun.

Managing well, rather than just managing
Eric Jackson had a very popular post on Fortbes recently that looked why people leave big companies. As an employee of a large institution (and someone who’s watched “Office Space”) I can resonate with most of these.

  1. Big Company Bureaucracy.
  2. Failing to Find a Project for the Talent that Ignites Their Passion.
  3. Poor Annual Performance Reviews.
  4. No Discussion around Career Development. (I’ve written about this before… 
  5. Shifting Whims/Strategic Priorities.
  6. Lack of Accountability and/or telling them how to do their Jobs.
  7. Top Talent likes other Top Talent.
  8. The Missing Vision Thing.
  9. Lack of Open-Mindedness.
  10. Who’s the Boss?

 The explanations of the reasons are well worth looking at, though they might be somewhat dispiriting if you’re working somewhere where these things are happening. You’ve been warned. The reason I include them in an otherwise upbeat post is because Erika Anderson followed up on this list with a further summation that boils that list down to one reason; “Top talent leave an organization when they’re badly managed and the organization is confusing and uninspiring.”  Her recipe for how to address these failings is interesting. Her two ways to keep talent are;

 “1) Create an organization where those who manage others are hired for their ability to manage well, supported to get even better at managing, and held accountable and rewarded for doing so.

2) Then be clear about what you’re trying to accomplish as an organization – not only in terms of financial goals, but in a more three-dimensional way. What’s your purpose; what do you aspire to bring to the world? What kind of a culture do you want to create in order to do that?  What will the organization look, feel and sound like if you’re embodying that mission and culture?  How will you measure success?  And then, once you’ve clarified your hoped-for future, consistently focus on keeping that vision top of mind and working together to achieve it.”

It’s really that simple. Not easy, but simple. Managing well takes work on the part of the institution, and it takes someone to articulate a vision.

The bigger picture
So how does this tie back into all the fascinating discussions taking place around digital technologies, technologists, and new media literacy and professional development? I think Rob Stein’s presentation at the Salzburg Global Seminar and his follow up, “Is Your Community Better Off Because it has a Museum?” are good refreshers on the bigger issues that these current debates reside within.

What is the value proposition of your institution? Can you answer why your community/ies are better off because of you? There are many ways new media and new technologies can help deliver value, but they all require you to A) have a clear idea of that value, and B) be structured in such a way that you can deliver.

Related Links:

Scott Eblin, “Want to grow as a leader? Let go of being the ‘go-to person”

Nick Loveland, The Guardian, “Arts organisations need to engage their own staff as well as their audiences”

Eric Jackson, Forbes, “Top Ten Reasons Why Large Companies Fail To Keep Their Best Talent”

Erika Anderson, Forbes, “Why Top Talent Leaves: Top 10 Reasons Boiled Down to 1”

Rob Stein, “The Challenges and Opportunities of Participatory Culture for Museums and Libraries” parts I and II,

Rob Stein, “Is Your Community Better Off Because it has a Museum?”

Next Drinking About Museums: Boston – coming in April!

Flickr image by Mr Kael

Hey friends and colleagues,

The March meetup at the Peabody Essex Museum went so well, we’re going to try that format again! This month, we’ll be visiting the Museum of Fine Arts, as guests of the inimitable Jenna Fleming and her rock star staff. We’re still trying to nail down an exact date and a place to convene after our visit, but I’m hoping it’ll be in that first week of April before the lucky ones departs for Museums and the Web 2012 and abandon us. Keep your schedules supple, stay tuned to #drinkingaboutmuseums, and hopefully we’ll have a date and place to announce early next week.



Looking for leadership is a wicked problem

Identifying the kinds of leaders who will push the museum sector into new kinds of technologically mediated experiences is not a technology problem, it’s a cultural problem – a wicked problem – that can’t be planned away, or addressed by a white paper. The way to address it is to make new kinds of museum experiences, with new people at the table, along with current practitioners and museum leaders. And the people who will make them will have something bigger to say than just “We should use these new digital technologies! They’re great!” Their vision and message will naturally encompass these tools, and older, more traditional ones.

Looking for leaders who “get” new technologies is what social scientists call a “wicked problem.” I first ran into the term at the New Media Consortium retreat, and it has stayed in my brain, and not just because it sounds mellifluous to my New England ears. It is a useful way to look at a lot of things going on in the field.

Aussies asking questions

As examples; Seb Chan recently posted a pithy little provocation on museums making the shift to digital collecting. I suggest you check it out, particularly the comments. I don’t know how much I agree with it, but it’s thought-provoking, particularly since he sees the problem of digital technology adoption not as a technology problem, but as a cultural problem. Integrating the digital is a messy problem, with lots of issues intertwined with it. I especially liked his construction of the ‘buildings & exhibitions vs platforms & media’ continuum, as a way to think about ways forward.

This is to me, related to Suse Cairns musings on technologists, the state of museum leadership, and what the next generation of museum leaders needs to know. Now there’s a thorny problem. I lived through the whole “We need museums to act more like businesses” era, with its attendant rush to turn directors into CEOs and rash of executives with “real-world” experience brought in to fix our systemic problems. I certainly don’t want us to do that again, only this time with technologists, whatever that term means. So how do we untangle this wicked problem? [extra credit if you can explain why the museum space is so full of interesting Australian thinkers.]

Wicked problems require different kinds of solutions

It’s worth looking at how wicked problems are dealt with. Janet Carding from ROM tweeted a link to a piece Jon Kolko wrote for the Stanford Social Innovation Review called “Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving” that defines wicked problems nicely. In short,

“A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.”

What is particularly useful to this discussion is his conception of how one deals with these problems,

“These problems can be mitigated through the process of design, which is an intellectual approach that emphasizes empathy, abductive reasoning (otherwise known as guesswork), and rapid prototyping.”

This is a design problem, not an intellectual exercise, or a philosophical debate. How do we create something that results in leaders who “get” digital technologies? Note Kolko doesn’t say one can solve wicked problems like this, rather, they are “mitigated”. When it comes to leadership and innovation, I’m not sure one can ever expect to find leaders who know everything and are up to speed on whatever the new thing is.

Empathy, guesswork, and rapid prototyping. Not a bunch of usual suspects in a conference room. Not an outside expert. Not another plan. One of my favorite moments of the NMC retreat was Larry Johnson’s line, “Our strategic planning is based on a world that no longer exists.” Amen, brother. This may be why I still quote Ted Forbes’ mantra, “Do it now. Do the best you can. Do it better tomorrow.” And now that Max Anderson and Rob Stein have joined him at the Dallas Museum of Art, I can’t wait to see what “better” looks like.

You need new people around to generate really new ideas

Mia Ridge posted a great round up from last year’s MCN conference that included a gem from Bruce Wyman, “current visitors most frequently give *incremental* ideas. You need different folk to take those great leaps forward. That’s us.” Another way of saying it I’ve often used is, “If Henry Ford had asked his customers what they wanted, none of them would’ve said ‘An automobile!’ They ask for a better horse, because that’s what they knew.” Substitute “visitors” for “customers” and you can get a sense of hard it makes it to bring digital experiences in from the cold if you treat them as a normal kind of problem.

But if you were instead to treat this lack of understanding like a wicked problem and look at other ways of addressing it? One candidate might be something like a co-creation process, a process that brings unusual suspects together with museum teams.

Be in it together

At the Museum of Science, we’re currently developing a new permanent exhibition on the nature of technology, and trying to figure out a co-creation model that will get us the kind of exhibition we wouldn’t be able to/willing to/comfortable with making by ourselves. Designing the design process is incredibly hard work, and fraught with all kinds of peril that we can all clearly see. Just the learning curve involved in getting outside parties to understand what we do could be a full-time job, but the benefits, if we get it right, should allow us to do something both new, and more connected to communities who believe in the museum.

Stefan Stern wrote a great piece in the Harvard Business Review about co-creation and how it differs from other ways of developing new things. “Co-creators look for the rejecters, the extreme users, the hackers, and the bloggers. If they have a design or marketing background, all the better.” The article profiles one UK-based company’s methods for co-creating that are business-focused, but worth looking at. They include:

  • Have an open mind, and be creative about whom you bring in as a possible co-creator.
  • Co-creation works best when you build a strong community.
  • When you’re running co-creation workshops, don’t expect a big “a-ha” moment when the clouds part and somebody blurts out The Next Big Thing. The real art is in synthesizing all the ideas afterwards and understanding the big, unlooked-for themes that underpin them.
  • Get your top people involved in the workshops.
  • Prototype, prototype, prototype. Make your ideas real. Then break them and make them again.

The part that resonated for me personally was the importance of having top people involved. How many directors do you know who use social media tools? I can only think of three: Max Anderson, Nina Simon, and Janet Carding, and I know at least two of them used them before they were directors. How many museum directors, or even assistant/deputy/associate directors have you ever seen at a tech-themed gathering like MCN, Museums and the Web, or even tech-oriented sessions at AAM or other mainstream conferences?

This “preaching to the choir” lament is a constant refrain at conferences, but how many of us currently interested in these issues have ever invited or even discussed the issues with a leader, or said, “You should really go to ____. It’s a great conference and you’ll learn a ton.” I know have been guilty of that. The appeal of flying below the radar is tactically unquestionable, but I think in the long run it may be strategically untenable.

Have something to say

I’ve been writing a lot about vision recently, so I’ll refrain from repeating myself too much, other than to end with another provocation and a question. Alain de Botton recently had an editorial posted on the (UK) Museums Association site called, “Art museums have become pointless: they should learn from Christianity.” He doesn’t mean that museums should become mouthpieces for Christianity. Rather, he thinks museums have forgotten their message about what’s important, which is what religion excels at. He is speaking specifically about art museums, but I think his point applies to the whole sector.

“Try to imagine what would happen if modern secular museums took the example of churches more seriously. What if they too decided that art had a specific purpose – to make us a bit more sane, or slightly good or once in a while or a little wiser and kinder – and tried to use the art in their possession to prompt us to be so?”

“The challenge is to rewrite the agendas for our art museums so that collections can begin to serve the needs of psychology as effectively as, for centuries, they served those of theology. Curators should attempt to put aside their deep-seated fears of instrumentalism and once in a while co-opt works of art to an ambition of helping us to get through life.”

Part of that new agenda and ambition could be written in new ways with new technologies, but the technologies themselves aren’t much use as communication media without something worth communicating. Those leaders with something to communicate will find ways to get their message out using every channel at their disposal. I’ve written already about vision and desire, but ambition is a better word. Finding them and holding them up is the hard part, the heart of the wicked problem.

So another thing that seems like a technology issue turns into a people issue. That may be another theme for 2012. And the only thing I can see that might help unwinding some of the threads of this wicked problem is to do more open projects, do them with unusual folks, do them in broad daylight, and make sure your directors can see you, maybe even be part of the process.

Related Links:

Seb Chan – Museums making the shift to digital collecting

Suse Cairns – Can a technologist get ahead in museums?

Mia Ridge – Report from ‘What’s the point of a museum website’ at MCN2011

Stefan Stern – A Co-creation Primer

Alain de Botton – Museums Association

[3/13/2012 – made minor edits for clarity and to sound a little less self-important.]

UPDATE: Rob Stein’s Museums and the Web 2012 paper is also a good read on tech and admin. Get it here.


UPDATE 3/22/12: Danny Birchall posted a great example of how co-creation can look in his description of developing the Wellcome Collection’s “Axon” game with neuroscientists, museum professionals and game designers.

Drinking About Museums: Boston – March recap

Despite unusually seasonal weather, a brave group made its way north to Salem for our March Drinking About Museum: Boston meetup, at the Peabody Essex Museum.

Double-sided drum, circa 1890 from "Shapeshifting" exhibition

2012 continues to be a growth year for our merry band.  Jim Olson, Director of Integrated Media at PEM, certainly raised the bar for what our meetings could be, by giving us a presentation on PEM’s exhibition development process, the strategy behind the digital interactives in “Shapeshifting” *and* a guided tour of the show, focused on the new media elements. I’ll have to go back to really take in the show. What I saw was remarkable, and you should consider checking it out, especially the exhibition website.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Afterwards, we repaired to the Salem Beer Works for drinks and socializing. It was good to see new faces and new museums represented, and totally worth the moderately treacherous drive home in the snow.

One of the highlights of the evening was the opportunity to learn what PEM was up to, get a peek at their design process and strategy, and then see the final products in situ.  Several people thought it added tremendous value to the event and was worth trying to make a more regular feature.  My question to you is, “What institutions would you like to try to see and learn from?”

Some suggestions included:

Who else should we add to our wish list?

As always, I found it very stimulating, and I got as much out of the event as anybody else. Stay tuned for the announcement of our April meeting, which will hopefully be in Boston, and less of a commute for most of us.