The other side of “the tech skills divide”

Making a museum from scratch: Part Eight

So my last post on digital skills struck a nerve with a few people. The biggest takeaway for me was one of Matt Popke’s insightful comments. He pointed out that there are in fact two simultaneous skills divides and that while we in the profession tend to talk a lot about getting the museum field in general more digitally literate, we never talk about how to let people in digital media postions (most of whom come into museums via their trade, be it software development, web design, hardware, project management, or what have you) get up to speed on museum skills.  It was one of the those moments when you suddenly see the elephant in the room and realize its been there awhile.

What makes the divide so much more unfortunate, as Matt points out, is that techies are, by and large, inclined to be self-starters and active learners. The Web is full of tutorials, podcasts, and courseware that they use to keep their skills up to date, and learn new ones. Why is it that there is so little out there about museum work that isn’t part of a Masters’ program course of study that people who are already working full-time just won’t be likely to do? (And, yes, I do know that there are certificate programs out there. I think my point still stands, though.)

Moving from closed to open practice

At least part of the reason is that museums tend to be very closed about their practice. And moving from that “Should I share this” mindset, to a more open, “Is there a reason not to share this?” mindset is another one of those “tech” issues that really isn’t a technology issue when you scratch the surface. And it’s not an issue of “us” being more accommodating to “them”. Being more transparent should be a personal imperative, because it’s a great way to improve one’s own work. We all need to adopt a more open mindset towards our own learning. We don’t know everything, and we should all be open to learning new skills and modes of doing our jobs. So adding digital skills to our existing museum work seems like an incremental improvement. However looking at it from the other direction is very different. “Museum work” is a disparate stew of professions and jobs. The list of things we do that someone coming in from the outside might want to know about – curation, education, conservation, exhibition, administration, marketing, development – is long indeed. Where would one even begin? Is it too much of a hydra to even try to tackle?

I don’t think so. The more I thought about it, the more I thought about the importance of being open about one’s own practice. Being able to share not only what you do, but your process, is an invaluable tool for a reflective practitioner. For me, that’s one of the main personal benefits of blogging. The mere act of writing down what I do concretizes it in a way that no amount of thinking does. Documenting your work, sharing it and reflecting on it, are essential ingredients to improving. It is something we should all be doing more of, and the more we do it, the more we increase the resources available to the Matts of the museum world. And if it sounds like too much work, consider this. The Harvard Graduate School of Education has run a program for many years called Making Learning Visible which seeks to understand how to create and sustain cultures of learning in public schools through documentation and group learning. And if you think you’re too busy, go shadow a classroom teacher around for a day. If they can do it, we certainly can.

So, here’s my question for you:
If you’re a digital media person, and you’ve been in museums awhile, what are the things you’ve learned the hard way that you wish somebody had told you?

If you’re a digital media person, and you’re new to museums, what are the things that you wish you had a better grip on? Imagine you’re looking at MCN’s shiny new professional development program, MCNPro, and you saw a webinar listed that covered _______. What is that blank that would make you say, “I want to take that!”?

And, last but not least, if you’re a non-digital media person, what are the things you wish the digital media folks at your museum “got” that they never seem to?

I look forward to your replies!

Additional Resources:

The chorus of voices suggesting museums think about education as something more than what the Education department does is growing daily.  Here’s just a few from the recent past:

Nina Simon has a great post on Khan Academy and free choice learning that has some really insightful commentary from Beth Harris and Steve Zucker of Khan Academy (and formerly of MoMA) 

Gretchen Jennings posted a wonderfully incendiary question on Museum Commons about whether museums identify too much with formal education at the expense of exploring other skills and disciplines to do their work. Though aimed directly at museum educators, I’d say it is food for thought for all of us. Check out the comments in particular.

Erin Branham at Edgital, a new blog positioning itself “at the edge of museum education and digital media”, has some easy ways for educators to get into the action. 

Kajsa Hartig in Sweden is actually working with two universities to examine digital literacy in the heritage sector and what kinds of skills the rising generation of heritage professionals should have as they enter the workforce.

In the same vein, there’s a wonderfully heartening post by on Art Museum Teaching about “Challenging Ourselves: Strategies to Reflect on Our Practice” It’s aimed at museum education managers, but I think anybody interested in reflective practice should give it a read.

Last, but not least, Beth Harris and Steve Zucker posted “Museums and open education” at e-Literate, which is a nice blueprint for thinking about museum education in a different light, and  in general being a more open, experimental, and reflective practitioner.

UPDATE: I forgot Oonagh Murphy’s PDF “Museums and Digital Engagement: A New York Perspective” which is a veritable Who’s Who of New Yorkers Doing Cool Things in Museums. Worth the download!


  1. Dear Ed,

    I mis-sent this email. I work at the Walt Disney Family Museum and look forward to the day I can attend one of your Drinking About Museums events. Meantime, I’ll get back on the horse and get my email addresses straight.

    Thanks for the clear thinking and the writing.

    David Cole


    1. Thanks, David. Your museum is high on my list of Bay-area museums to visit! I’m working on an animation exhibition at the moment and your museum has come up a few times in conversation. Next time I’m out your way, I’ll stop by! In the meantime, you have a pretty vibrant group of SF museum folks already. Start your own Drinking About Museums!


  2. Very well written and I appreciate all of the resources. My experience is very much in the middle of these disciplines and I believe each type of experience is important, along with the opportunity to actually get messy and make art. The current generation was “born digital” so creating ways for content to be shared with them is important to the future of museums.


  3. What would I fill that blank with? Tough question.

    For practical purposes, a curatorial or registrar 101 would be handy for most people. I don’t think non-museumers realize just how much of a black box those departments and the tasks they perform are to most people. I also suspect those departments could benefit a lot from increased exchange and communication, but they may not always realize it (obviously, this varies from institution to institution). The more I know about what they do, the easier it will be for me to help them cross that digital divide from their end.

    What is the purpose of a museum throughout history? We talk a lot lately about the purpose of museums in our communities today. But what has been the answer to that question in the past? Not just the recent past, but as far back as anyone cares to go.


    1. Very interesting, Matt. I appreciate your input! Would it be useful to look at them in terms of how they use digital technologies in their work, or would that be forcing things? Would a straight-up, Curation/Conservation/Registration 101 methods be enough?


      1. I’m not interested in how they use technology so much as I’m interested in just what they do at all. We all know the high-level description of a curator’s job, but what do the discrete tasks look like, generally speaking? I think a big part of the problem for a lot of people who have difficulty with technology is that they’re given crappy tools for their jobs (MS Word, for instance, which is a crappy tool for any job, especially writing). Most of the time, we give people a tool, tell them they must use it, and they try to find a way to wedge it into their workflow. I think we should look at people’s jobs first, and then ask ourselves what the ideal set of tools are that could actually help those people with their jobs. Then we either find those tools or make them.

        I really think most people would adapt much more easily to the digital technology we have if the people who deployed it were more sensitive to users’ real needs rather than their perceived needs (perceived by the technologists or by the users).


  4. Great post Ed, (and sorry I didn’t come across it sooner). I’m currently re-editing a chapter I wrote a while ago on emerging forms of professional development. Open organisations are generating new forms of professional development from reflective blogs, social media networks (with colleagues from around the world), to smaller pub meet ups. In a fast moving area of museum practice, these new modes of professional development seem to offer museum professionals with more appropriate ways to learn new skills, collaborate and innovate. However they also challenge the business models of training providers who produce 12 monthly calendars of training events these often cost between £150 – £400 for a day long classroom based session in anything from social media skills, to digital strategy. It seems to me that open, collaborative, peer learning is both more effective and efficient – however the disruptive nature of these new forms of learning means that at present only those professionals already engaged in digital culture will choose to access these opportunities instead of classroom based workshops!


  5. Thanks, Oonagh! All good points, esp. the challenge to “accepted” forms of prof. PD. I’m personally hopefully that grassroots efforts like Carolyn Royston’s “Computer Club” sessions at the Imperial War Museum become more the norm. I think there’s an intersection between this and open badging efforts that could really benefit the sector, allowing people to develop skills in suitable increments and demonstrate achievement through badging.


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