The peculiar joys of not attending the conference you’re at

I just came back from Museums and the Web 2012 because the Museum Computer Network scheduled its Board of Directors meeting the day before the conference. For a variety of reasons I couldn’t extend my stay in San Diego, but I had a nice comfy seat in the lobby to watch the first day of MW2012 unfold around me.

This was not entirely how I woulod’ve chosen for things to unfold. MW has been my favorite conference for years, and the learning I’ve done there and the friends I’ve made form the core of my professional practice. It is a deep, deep well for anyone interested in the intersection of museums and technology.

So, for those of us following the #mw2012 tweets, here’s a view from the chair in the back of the lobby by the windows.

The old digital debates seem to be over

It feels like we’ve finally hit an inflection point in the past year where the larger forces of technological change have so radically reshaped society, that many of the tired old museum/tech tropes have been rendered moot. I don’t think the “my (curator/director/boss) doesn’t get it” meme will go away, but I feel like we’ve now come far enough to stop worrying. Whether or not you think Wikipedia is a good idea (I do), your visitors are using it in your museum right now. Worried about people “stealing” images of your collection? NGA just published 20,000 open access images from its collections. Every personal electronic device seems to include a camera now, so the old blanket prohibitions on photography I reckon will soon go the way of the ashtray as typical museum furniture. And more to the point, why on Earth would any museum not want people to be able to access their content?

To bastardize Bob Dylan, “The times they aren’t a changin” The times have already changed. How we respond to that change becomes the question. And I was amazed at how much more thought was being given to this communication problem. Most of the conversations I took part in revolved around this idea articulated awhile ago about talking outside the bubble. How do we make the case that digital modalities for interacting with audiences are core to what museums will be about? “How do they become part of the soul of the new museum?” was the dominant meme, whereas in years past, there was often a technology-specific buzz, like RFID, mobiles, QR codes, iSomethings…

The digital discourse has matured to the point where both the hype and hysteria can be acknowledged and set aside in favor of more productive topics, like how to communicate our vision and passion to the profession at large. And that’s a topic I find infinitely more interesting.

Tending one’s garden

Late in the last century, Xavier Perrot slipped me a note during a panel presentation we were on in Paris. “Il faut cultiver notre jardin.” it read.  “We should cultivate our own garden.” It’s how Voltaire’s Candide ends, after suffering all the indignities the world can heap on him. He gave it to me as a response to a statement I had made about websites, like gardens, never being “done” the way an exhibition is. They require constant tending. Websites are never done, only abandoned, or killed.  The Voltaire quote also has the connotation of not trying to solve all the world’s problems, but to mind that patch that is yours. You can’t do it all, or even most of what needs to be done, so it’s important to ask those hard framing questions like, “What can I do right now? How will doing that lay a foundation so that I can do better tomorrow?”

Professional networks are much like websites, in that both require regular nourishment. Despite the best intentions, I never managed to keep in touch with Xavier. He died of cancer a few years back – far too soon. I never acted on the desire to continue the discussion we started in Paris, and now it’s too late. Not being tied to a conference program meant that I could concentrate on connecting with the people I most wanted to see.

Three highlights

Hanging out with Suse Cairns (@shineslike) was at the top of my list. museum geek is one of the best museum blogs out there. I had the feeling we were going to be friends, and after about five minutes it was hard to remember that we hadn’t known each other for years. You know when you meet someone and realize they’re one of your tribe? Yeah, like that…

Attending my first Museum Computer Network Board meeting inspired a bit of trepidation, but it turned out to be the most exciting, exhausting mental labor I’ve done in awhile. After five hours of talking about strategy and the future of the organization, I was completely spent. And I’d happily do it again. Brainstorming with that might insightful thinkers (masterfully facilitated by Eric Longo) was like eating a 12-course meal – filling and infinitely varied. Stay tuned for exciting things! And don’t foreget to register for the conference! Check out the program here and propose something.  I hope to see you there!

Despite her frantic schedule as one of the conference co-chairs,  I managed to squeeze in a long breakfast with Nancy Proctor(@nancyproctor) to discuss all manner of interesting possible collaborations, which I always enjoy. It was enriching and to top it all off I finally got to meet her and Titus’ daughter,  Pearl! She may be the world’s youngest museum Tweeter (@pandapearl) but I find she offers a refreshing new perspective on things. And watching Nancy take time out of trying get a conference off the ground to play peek a boo was magical.

Paying it forward never goes out of style

One of my favorite things about MW and MCN are they are both full of wicked smart, generous practitioners, who are particularly good at being welcoming to newbies of all stripes. Conference-going can be an essential part of starting a career, And it can really suck if you don’t know how to do it, as Nina Simon and I both blogged about awhile back.

Jan Crocker took me to my first conference, back in the late 1980s. It was AAM or ASTC and I was petrified. She seemed to know everybody, and everybody knew her. And I was her awkward shadow. Through her, I met pretty much everybody active in the field at the time. In three days, she’d shown me the landscape, my place in it, and a personal impressions of the major players. And she probably didn’t even know she was doing it. She was just maintaining her personal professional network.

One of the many, many things I learned from Jan was the importance of paying things forward. If you’ve received any wisdom or guidance that has helped, you should feel obliged to share what you’ve learned and keep propagating it. If the museum profession is any more humane than it was in 1970, it’s because of all the Jans out there, mentoring, sharing, seeking talent and nuturing it so it can grow.

This year, I encouraged her to apply for a scholarship to MW and she got it! I not only learned about paying it forward, but actually got to pay it back and introduce her to some of the many people she should know.


Hi Jan!

What do you wanna be when you grow up?

The most personally enriching theme of my time in San Diego was having the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” conversation with several people all at different points on their career trajectory.  Careers are funny things. They twist and turn and go in unexpected directions. Or not.  It was remarkably clarifying to talk about career hopes and plans with a broad range of people, emerging professionals as well as more established ones, colleagues making dramatic course corrections, and those folks I look up to as model museum people, the kind of professional I want to be when I grow up.

It’s not the sort of conversation I’d have with just anybody, but it came up more than once, and having to verbalize things that I tend to just think about was good practice. Things that hard to say are often the ones that need the most examination, and conversation is a great way to expose them to the light and really look at them.

It’s an exciting time in the field, full of potential and interesting work to be done.  I feel fortunate to be in a position to take part in it. And I suppose the sign of any good conference is that you come home with a bigger perspective on what’s important, examples of what the field is up to, inspirations for your own work and career, and personal connections with people who nourish you. Even though I didn’t go, MW2012 certainly delivered on all those counts.

I’m still sorry I waited too long to find some way to work with Xavier. The rest of you on my “I wanna work with you!” list are on notice. I don’t intend to let that happen again. Have a good conference!



  1. Thank you, Ed. You bring tears to my eyes. I love having become the student to your teacher! The best reward ever is to hear how highly regarded you are by the people in the MW field.


  2. Ed, thanks so much for capturing so much of our discussion here in this post. I loved reading it. Meeting you this week was an absolute highlight in one of the most intellectually engaging weeks of my life (one of my tribe, indeed!).

    I cannot wait to hear further about the movements of the MCN Board. I am very interested to see how things develop from here. And speaking of MCN, I am already looking forward to November when we can hopefully catch up, and spend more time thinking out loud.

    BTW – thanks for posting to Nina’s old post. I hadn’t read it in a while, and it was a useful account to look at in light of our own discussions.


    1. Til November! I am very excited to see how the discussion develops between now and then. MuseumNext will be an interesting event to follow (from afar, alas!) to see how ideas hatched in San Diego mature.

      Non sequiter: Wanna propose a session on museum blogs with me? I think it might be interesting to examine this phenomenon we both find so valuable.


  3. Sounds good. I do have one other proposal that I am looking to put in, but I was only going to chair it and not actually talk on it, so that should be fine.


  4. Ed,
    @murawski27 here. Great post, and I always love your blog. And after following and reading everyone’s thoughts & reflections from MW2012, I can’t wait to attend my first MW in Portland next year. You’ve got me hooked (and technology has become central to my work at the Saint Louis Art Museum as well as my growth as a museum professional in general). I can say that I have probably grown more in the few months of having a museum blog ( than I have in previous several years of unrequited ideating. And blogs like yours, Museum Geek, and others allow these conversations to be happening all the time — not just when we’re sitting together at conferences. I’m so interested in how online communities of practice can form through blogs and online interaction (sometimes richer than in-person connections, no?).
    My faves from your post about MW2012 are probably “digital debate is over” (you’re either breathing or you’re not), “paying it forward” (so much is about these relationships and support networks we build, including meeting colleague’s families), and “what do you wanna be when you grow up?” (I’m thinking about that one all the time, too — not sure when I will grow up, though).
    Thanks for the refreshingly honest thoughts about or field, and I hope to be a newbie at MW2013 (and to stay in touch via the blogosphere).


    1. Welcome to the party, Mike! You might want to think about coming to MCN in November, too. We’re submitting a museum blogging session proposal that would probably appeal to you. And MCN’s a great value for the money. Come to think of it, I’d better post a reminder that the submission deadline is tomorrow…


  5. Thanks! I wish I could go to MCN this fall (my budget is telling me “no,” unfortunately). But I am planning on attending Museums & the Web next year, which I am very excited about. I’m also attending the Inclusive Museum/ICOM conference this summer in Barbados, which has some interesting international sessions on technology (I’ll definitely be blogging from Barbados, providing museum musings from the beach … ummm, I mean conference hotel).
    I look forward to hearing about your MCN session (with Suse Cairns?). Should be excellent!


    1. I wouldn’t give up on MCN quite yet if I were you. It should be good, though ICOM in Barbados sounds good too! Suse and I have put in a proposal on blogging with some stellar speakers! Fingers crossed!


  6. Mike, just to chime in here, it is so nice to hear that you’ve “grown more in the few months of having a museum blog ( than… in previous several years of unrequited ideating.” This is exactly how I feel! I am still quite new to the museum and technology sector, but actually committing to think through issues in public regularly makes me have to engage so much more with the issues. It absolutely changes the way you approach the subject matter, and so I am not surprised to hear that actually committing words to screen has impacted upon your personal growth. It’s much like what Ed talks about above, in mentioning those tricky “what do you want to be when you grow up?” conversations… actually having to speak your private thoughts out loud makes you really have to work out what you think and where you stand.

    If you can make it to MCN at all (you could apply for an MCN scholarship!), it would be great to see you there. But if not, MW2013 sounds like an excellent conference to shoot for!


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