This is going to be a long post on love. If you’re feeling a bit jaded, or just not in the mood, you may want to come back another time when you’re more open. You have been warned…
The thing I love about conferences is the way they surface themes and trends that may lie bubbling in the minds of colleagues all over the world. Put a critical mass of people in an anonymous hotel and suddenly; magic happens! For those of us interested in museums and digital technologies, we are doubly blessed, because of this weird dynamic where we have two intensely dynamic, fruitful international conferences that happen six months apart; Museums and the Web (MW) in the Spring, and the Museum Computer Network (MCN) conference in the Fall. Ideas that arise in one venue often get expressed in the other in a kind of virtuous circle of innovation that I’m not sure would work if there were only one conference or the other and there was a year-long gestation cycle.
Months ago, a group of us had a long talk about strategy and leadership over Twitter and then a shared Google doc which bore some wonderful fruit. The two main strands of that discussion involved broadening the voices in our discussions of how digital technologies can advance our practice, and figuring out ways to provide professional development around digital technologies, so more people are able to participate. At the Museums and the Web conference, which I only sort kinda went to, a lot of these ideas reappeared and got processed. This was timely beyond belief, because the MCN Board of Directors was starting to consider major new initiatives like MCNPro, as well as more low-hanging fruit, like “should we suck up the not-inconsiderable expense of videotaping all the sessions, and livestreaming select ones to maximize their impact?” I love that feeling of flow, when everything seems to build on everything else and new understandings rise up. I also love the way MCN commits to translating that into action, and follows through.
The professional development part seemed to be well in hand, so I decided to focus on bringing new voices to the table. If you’ve ever been to one of these conferences, you quickly find out that there are two major tribes of people who don’t attend: curators and senior managers. And common conversational tropes are, “I’d love to try ____, but our curator would never go for it.”, and “if only my director would ____, we could ____” What would a group of directors have to say about our pet issues? What kinds of questions would an audience at MCN want to ask? So I started sending out emails.
And you know what? Nobody said “Get lost! I’m busy.” Janet Carding had never been to MCN and thought it would be good to see what it was about, and agreed to come with only the vaguest assurance from me that there’d be some useful role she could play. Eric had been once and thought the idea was important enough that he invited Dan Spock, who said yes immediately, and *then* asked for details. Brian Ferriso agreed, even though he had just about enough free time to drive up from Portland, attend the session and drive back. Even the people who declined, declined for solid reasons, Stephanie Stebich, who was flying to New York for a dinner event, even offered to Skype in if we needed her. Thus was the Directors Roundtable put together. It was my first inkling that the tribe of unconcerned, aloof “Directors” might be more of a mental construct we create to disenfranchise ourselves than a reality. By the time our session ended, that idea had been pretty well destroyed.
I don’t know about you, but I am *not* one of those people who can participate in an event and live-tweet it, or even take decent notes. As the moderator, I was focused so much on the time, the mood of the speakers and the room, whether anybody sneaking out due to boredom, etc… that I didn’t have a chance to really process everything that came up. I can’t wait for the video to get posted so I can relive it. I’ll post a transcript too, because I think there are are cite-able pieces of wisdom in there. For now, though, here are some of the moments that stuck out for me.
Everybody reports to somebody
I’ve known this intellectually for years, but hearing museum directors talk about how they have to manage up just like the rest of us was instructive.
It’s not just somebody else’s job to understand your museum’s finances
Money and the lack thereof is such a sore spot. The panel was pretty clear, though, that nobody has unrestricted income sitting around any more. The notion that directors hoard piles of money that they don’t bestow on new initiatives was roundly dismissed. The money that does exist is usually restricted in some way, so everything boils down to making the case for why something has strategic value to the museum. If you can’t make that case, chances are good that it’ll never happen. And who’s job is that? Anybody who wants to get something done. Coalition-building, horizontal management, and just getting together to discuss how to do things better came up repeatedly. And none of these things require a huge budget and much, if any, managerial buy-in.
“Technology is part of what we do; it’s not an add-on.” RE: Science/Tech museums . . . how to make this true of ALL museums? #MCN2012dir
It’s not just somebody else’s job to understand your museum’s mission
One of the most unexpected moments of the session was delivered by Eric Siegel, who said that one of his most intractable problems was getting his staff to actually communicate up. People come to him and say, “I’ve got a great idea!” to which he would respond, “Great! Write it up and send it to me!” and that will all too often be the end of the story. Anything less than an unqualified “Let’s do it!” from him would seem to be received as a “No.” And to drive home his point that this is a common problem he offered up his services to anyone in the audience who had a great idea they needed or wanted feedback on how to turn into something actionable. He gave out his email address and promised to respond with comments in short order. And he bet the audience that his inbox would not overflow. And Dan Spock joined the offer. Two museum directors at your beck and call to give you personalized feedback. What an offer! And the silence that followed it was deep and complete. You could almost hear the crickets chirping. It was exactly the kind of dialogue that couldn’t happen inside our community of practice. I love being challenged like that! I’ll have to ask Eric if he’s gotten many responses. And, yes, I’m working on my idea to send him. And, no, I haven’t sent it to him yet. Go figure…
Eric Siegel reiterates the importance of integrating/incorporating more people into strategic thinking at high levels. #MCN2012dir
Leadership is about creating disruption, management is about avoiding disruption
Janet talked at length about the joys of working at a large, encyclopedic museum where you can’t even assume that people have ever met, let alone worked together. I was struck by a remark she made about expecting something to be transformative being unrealistic unless it was intentionally transformative. Doing something new and expecting things to change is not how things change. And that’s where leadership comes in. Good leaders disrupt the status quo, and work to create a new normal. Janet’s example involved launching ROM’s latest website and how it is being built to democratize staff access. Everyone will be able to blog or tweet, without moderation or asking someone in IT to post something for them. The product is the same – a new website. But the kind of product ROM is making is much more likely to be a model for the field, because it was designed to be disruptive.
“Museums have a built-in public face. Let’s use it correctly.” Janet Carding #MCN2012dir
And as a delicious little bon bon after that, Janet said she obviously couldn’t expect her staff to blog if she didn’t, so she guessed she was going to have to learn. That’s what leadership looks like. The whole panel demonstrated that same quality at one point or another. To say it was inspiring doesn’t do it justice. I learned a ton just from being in the room.
Listening to @JanetCarding talk is like hearing lightbulbs pop all over the place. Totally inspirational. #MCN2012dir
The “us vs them” mentality is a natural one, and conferences, even ones as diverse as MCN tend to be tribal. Sometimes, it’s wonderful, like when a newcomer realizes that they’ve found their tribe and that there are others out sharing their passions and concerns. Lots of hugging happens at the beginnings of these conferences, which I’ve never seen at AAM.
That said, tribalism is a way to downplay one’s own ability to affect change. Which was part of the reason to have this discussion in the first place.
“We need to be GREAT listeners. Much better than we are.” #MCN2012dir