The latest on next week’s Drinking About Museums: Boston are here!
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I spent my last weekend before vacation at Princeton University, taking part in the Museum Computer Network’s Board of Directors Strategy Retreat. It was long, it was painful, it sucked at times, and it was great!
A problem that the Board had been grappling with for some time was that we were feeling a bit unfocused, yet too busy with our jobs to really tackle any of the endemic, intractable problems that any long-lived organization faces. It’s a classic work problem; busyness preventing the concentrated effort required to replace busyness with targeted action. Our regular board calls are always full of agenda items, and our twice yearly meetings are great at surfacing issues, but not at digging into them. So we made the decision to convene an extraordinary board retreat at a location as convenient as possible for as many directors as possible and lock ourselves in a room until we’d come out with a revised vision for the organization, a list of programs we’d like to see MCN undertake in the next three years, and a series of roadmaps that would help us drive the three top priorities forward. A daunting list!
Here are some takeaways from the event.
Hard stuff can be fun
What I took away from the retreat was that it’s good to feel stretched. The exercise was a classic example of Seymour Papert’s idea of hard fun. While we were at it, we were operating near the limits of our ability. Managing to do the job created a particular type of hard fun that Nicole Lazzarro called fiero, “triumphing over adversity”. The joy of successfully taking on the hard work and making progress against it is intoxicating. Nietzsche defined happiness as “The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome.”
Carolyn Royston, the Treasurer of MCN and a stellar facilitator, agreed to take on the formal role of facilitator for the retreat, and it was central to our success to have someone who was only looking at the goals for the event, setting the agenda, keeping us honest, reminding us to be respectful of each other, and encouraging us to keep at it. Too often, I’ve been in meetings and groups where its not clear who’s taking care of the meeting. Carolyn also made it quite clear to us that she could not and would not participate in the event, even though she’s an integral part of the group, because she knew we’d need someone dedicated to the task at hand, not another voice trying to participate. That was a big sacrifice for her, because she’s passionate about the work we do and going it better.
The Executive Committee also took it’s role in shaping the conversation very seriously and was able to be a united front, even when things got messy. We all at various times were called on to jump in and lead a conversation, do a job that suddenly needed to be done, and help facilitate when the discussions got hot and heavy. Each morning we got up stupidly early, so we could go over what we wanted to do that day, and assign roles. Even that little bit of extra effort paid off handsomely. It would’ve been easy to lay the burden entirely on the shoulders of our facilitator, but having the job distributed among five people made it much more doable.
Having the right people in the room
We had previously surveyed a number of past presidents of the organization about our plans, and asked two of them to join us to provide their experience. The fact that they were willing to give up a weekend was impressive. They were able to provide the kind of institutional memory that is always bleeding out of volunteer-run organizations, and we needed it several times when we got lost in our own particular circumstances. Rob Lancefield in particular, a long-time MCN member, was great at having a long duration view and helping us contextualize what we doing. There was no other way we could have known the things they did, so bringing them along essential.
Working smart, and small
With such a huge pile of work and a large group (15) it would’ve been unwieldy to try to do all our work in one large discussion. Carolyn did a great job of using the whole group to set agendas, surface issues, and then divided us up to work on pieces in parallel. We would then reconvene to comment on the work of the small groups and refine, argue, and add.
Acknowledging that it’s hard and sucks sometimes is important
One thing I’m surprised by is how many people equate hard with bad. Throughout the weekend, Carolyn reminded the group constantly about the difficulty of trying to do what we were doing. “Why wallow in it?” you might ask. I think it’s important to recognize the difficulty of what you’re doing, and communicate that. Especially when it feels like it’s not working out, having that validation that “This is hard, and its going to be harder, but you can do it.” can make the difference between people buckling down and giving up. It also makes getting it easier to acknowledge the accomplishment of getting through it.
Taking the work seriously and taking yourself seriously aren’t the same thing
If you were wondering what fiero looks like in a professional context, I present Exhibit A. Stay tuned for details about what we’ve got in store. 2017 will be MCN’s 50th anniversary, and the Jubilee Year is going to be great!
One of the best parts of the event was that Don Undeen (he of the MCN Ignite talk) was demoing a 3D Systems Sense 3D scanner. This inexpensive IR-based scanner (think Kinect you can brandish) is relatively new and Don was testing one with the Hack Day crew.
Getting to try the Sense out on the halls was a highlight of the trip. It kinda reminded me of Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence. Thinking of the scanner as a spraycan and “painting” up and down across the surface to be scanned seemed to give the best results. Strangely, it also worked better the less you tried to be thorough. Loose, big gestures seemed to generate better scans than small, careful ones. The technology is interesting, but I don’t know how much better the results were from simpler, photographic methods like 123DCatch. I couldn’t tell from looking at the screen. The mesh size seemed comparable and the software was challenging. Every scan we attempted ended with the scanner losing tracking on the object it was pointed at. My sense is that the developers were trying so hard to make a consumer product that they went overboard on what the software was doing in the background to let you focus on scanning.
Even though my scanning experience wasn’t 100% successful, I felt like the learning experience was. We were a group of self-selected learners, teaching each other and learning together as fast as we could, and we scaffolded each other into greater knowledge in a way that probably would’ve taken a lot longer if we’d each done it individually.
Learning as a team sport
Last week, some colleagues and I spent a lunch hour watching SkillShare videos on 3D printing together as we brainstorm new kinds of digital programming we might offer visitors in the future. The course content wasn’t new to me. I’ve poked around into most of it before over the past few years. What was new, and I think too-often-overlooked, was the benefit of doing it in a group. We could all have sat at our desks and agreed to watch the videos before our next meeting, but being in the same room at the same time doing the same thing made the experience much more fruitful and educational for all of us.
The four of us all had different levels of familiarity with software, hardware, jargon, and trends. Just knowing that information will be useful moving forward. We clarified points for each other, repeated bits that somebody needed repeated, offered our our insights into our experiences with these technologies and riffed off each other as we went from video to video. The progress we made individually and as a team was much more than I think we would’ve made alone. And the ideas we came up with were exciting, too! The next meeting will hopefully be even more productive now that we’ve tasted success. Figuring out how to hold onto that momentum will be the hard part, once schedules start filling up again.
Making space to be active learners
I blogged about this topic a couple of years ago, and the same holds true now. Making time to take time to learn is an ever more important factor to sustaining a highly-productive, creative enterprise.
by Ed Rodley
Despite the bitter temperatures and a nagging cold on my part, Drinking About Museums happened last Wednesday, and seemed to be enjoyed by the 20-odd people who attended. A lot of new faces were there! At one point, we had three (!) evaluators in the room at the same time. The Hong Kong was as hospitable as ever, and it was after 10 before the last two people took themselves home. It was also Museum Selfie day around the world and our small contribution to the event was this:
I put the strong arm on a bunch of people to sign up for February’s event. We’ll be trying out the Museums Showoff format again, and response has been gratifying. There are only a couple of slots left, so get your name in if you’re dying to show off in front of your colleagues. The signup form is here:
See you February 19th!
Nov 24th, YUL-> BOS
I am strangely energized and exhausted, yawning and unable to stop writing. I’ve got just enough money left to get home and hopefully enough juice in the iPad and phone to keep writing this. It seems my resources and energy were just enough to get me through five incredibly fruitful days. Such are the perils of attending the Museum Computer Network conference. If you’re looking for the place where museums, innovation and creativity collide, it seems to be the place to go.
I have been trying to tie up the third part of a series of posts on “issues” that are not the real issue. Part One dealt with “immersion” and Part Two with “experience” and “participation”. The last part of Tilting at Windmills is gonig to deal with picture taking in museums, selfies as likes, and photos as signs of affection and affiliation. But I’m all MCN right now, and there’s a lot to digest and share, so the selfies will have to wait.
The coming year
My first order of business was the annual meeting of the MCN Board of Dircetors, which welcomed aboard a crop of new faces that’s a veritable Who’s Who of digital museum pros. Heady company to keep and a dynamite group of thinkers and doers. Generally I think it’s next to impossible to get anything creative done in groups of more than six, but this bunch of seventeen is an exception. The strategy for the coming year was laid out, issues identified, and volunteers recruited to tackle them with remarkable ease and real thoughtful debate. It was grueling work, but boy was I proud to see how much we got done in our half day together.
Stay tuned for details in the next few months of MCN’s plans for the year, like the next incarnation of our MCNPro professional development series. Also, I seem to have volunteered to become the conference co-chair for next year in Dallas, with Morgan Holzer. Eep!
Having overcomitted myself (again), I didn’t attend any of the workshops and spent the day polishing my talks, and having long, intense conversations. My first conference event was getting to the Ignite talks, an innovation introudced last year which has quickly become an anchor of the whole conference. If you’re not familiar with the format, look here. It’s short, it requires precision, and you can’t screw up and go back – in short you’re presenting without a net. It’s a sign of how supportive the community is that this kind of event would
Not taking yourself too seriously
One thing I love about the MCN community and the museum digital tribe in general is their ability to ability to take the work seriously without taking themselves seriously. It’s a subtle, but crucial distinction to maintaining a positive, creative output, and it’s often easy to confuse the two. Not here, though. The opening night of Ignite talks, The Herbie Hancock Layer of Chaos, and the official MCN Karaoke night all contribute to a loose, irreverent vibe that makes MCN unlike other conferences.
Once again, the conference got off to roaring start, thanks to Koven Smith’s work assembling a disparate group of Ignite talks that ranged from farcical to poignant. Watch them all, but particularly Tim Svenonius’s “Hunting, Gathering and Recollecting”, Douglas Hegley’s “Technology: WTF!” and Simone Wicha’s “Does Performance Matter?”. I’m particularly glad to see more senior museum leaders like Simone attending MCN and sharing their insights on our shared endeavor. It gives me hope for our future as a profession. The rock and roll atmosphere, the performative aspect of watching your colleagues, and obvious passion and hard work that speakers put into their presentations is a perfect appetizer for the coming days.
Tina Roth Eisenberg, graphic designer and the person behind the Swiss Miss design blog, delivered an amazingly inspiring, funny keynote that was a great opening paean to the power of not being stuck doing one thing. The noted graphic designer spent no time talking about her “main” business, instead telling us about the co-working space she started, her designer temporary tattoo shop, and the importance of having confetti drawers and dress up clothes at work. I totally wanted to quit my job, move to New York and work for Tina by the time she was done.
Video, video, video
After the experience of videoing select sessions last year, we decided to record every session this year, and the results are impressive, I think. MCN’s YouTube video channel is turning into a meaty repository of good thinking. Another great addition to the archive was addition of Museopunks to the mix. This podcast series, started by Suse Cairns and Jeffrey Inscho, has quickly become a great place to eavesdrop on fascinating discussions about current issues in museums. Check it out. They ran a series of special episodes throughout the conference and these were videoed as well.
Inclusion, engagement, openness
The Board has spent a lot of time over the past year talking about inclusion, and broadening participation in the organization. It was gratifying to see all the ways that played out at the conference. We were able to offer more scholarships than ever, thanks to sponsorship from Google. Twelve professionals who wouldn’t have made it otherwise were able to attend and that’s worth celebrating. The speed networking event, sort like of like speed dating for professionals, was great fun and a chance to meet people you might not otherwise talk to. Next year, I think it should move to earlier in the conference so you can benefit more from it. I also spent some great time with the chairs of the Special Interest Groups (SIGs), who for years have quietly nurtured their own smaller MCN communities. The Board and the SIG chairs have been working more closely together and the fruits of that could be seen in the creation of three new SIGs right there at the conference.
The power of asking people
Last year I convened a Directors’ Roundtable at MCN as a way to bring new voices into our conversations. When I proposed it, I was fearful of how much work it was going to be to get busy museum directors to come. It was a bit of shock to find out that it wasn’t really all that hard. Most of the directors I asked, said either, “I can’t make it at that time, but thanks!” or “Hmm, sounds interesting! OK.” The reason they weren’t at the conference was that they’d never been asked and nobody had ever explained the value proposition to them. This year, one of the sessions I organized was on immersion, and Robin White Owen and I tried the same tack. We asked filmmakers, game designers, theatre people, and curators to come talk about what they thought of immersion in their medium. And again, most of the people we talked to said yes, or no because they couldn’t afford the trip. Despite a couple of last-minute surprises with people not being able to come, it was a great session and a fascinating discussion I wouldn’t get to have at work. Here’s the video.
Conferences as classrooms
One practice I’ve developed over the years is to treat conference sessions like classes I want to take that don’t (yet) exist. I identify the topic I’m interested in, and the people I’d like to learn from, and try to figure out how to get them to teach me about their subject. This year, I was particularly interested in issues of openness and authority around museum digital content, so I put together a session with people who’d already been through successful open projects. I got to take advantage of the combined wisdom of Ryan Dodge, Heidi Quicksilver, and Merete Sanderhoff in one fell swoop. And, as so often happens, Merete taught me a lesson in being the kind of professional I aspire to be. After tentatively agreeing to come, she realized she couldn’t make it. Too many deadlines, too little money. So, she offered to record a video presentation of what she would’ve talked about, and even agreed to be available via Skype during the session if I wanted. In other words, all of the work of presenting, and almost none of the benefit of being at the conference. And her presentation was a high-quality, real video production, not just her sitting at her computer. Generosity is a hallmark of this community , but even for us, this was humbling. Thanks, Merete!
Being present at the birth of something good
Keeping with the “open” theme, I also emceed a session on “Defining Open Authority” put together by the inimitable Lori Phillips. It was a great of theory and practice, both big picture and very detailed. Lori continues to refine her ideas around “Open Authority” and has put enough of a framework around it to make it a useful tool for anyone considering issues around intellectual access to museum content. Porchia Moore problematized the very definition of authority as it pertains to minorities, and Elizabeth Bollwerk and Jeffrey Inscho added a pile of great case studies of how these concepts actually play out in real museums with real people. It felt a lot like the beginning of something bigger than a conference presentation, and judging from the Q&A afterwards, the audience felt similarly. I look froward to seeing what happens next. Here’s Lori’s slides. When I find the video, I’ll post that, too.
Dallas 2014 is going to have it’s work cut out for it, and Morgan and I already started the discussions about the program before the conference even ended. I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback on how we might improve the conference next year!
BTW, that’s Jeffry Inscho behind me. Have you read his reflection on MCN2013? “On Professional Spirit Animals” speaks my mind when it comes to how MCN feels to me.
Well, it’s on! The date’s set, the venue’s booked, and we’re planning to Show Off! Our latest Drinking About Museums experiment in participatory, informal, after-hours professional development/networking is two weeks away. Of our ten slots, we’ve already filled half! If you’ve got something you’re excited about sharing with an enthusiastic group of museum types in a laid back, casual setting, now is the time to chime in!
The roster includes:
Marc Check and Ben Wilson, who will have to speak at least 2000 millilampsons to cover all the cool things they’re working on, like location aware technologies, 3-D multi-touch interactive environments, and deconstruction interface technologies like Kinect/Leap/and other hacks. http://www.mos.org/
Catrina Hill, who will talk about museums and diversity. http://www.pem.org/
Rob Landry, who may want to extoll the virtues of Responsive Design, or putting a collection online, or how to build a mobile tour publishing app using open source tools. http://www.pleinairinteractive.com/
What do you want to show off about? Leave your name and topic below and we’ll add you to the already stellar roster below!
Drinking About Museums: Boston, the Next Generation
Museums Showoff: Boston!
Alright, boys and girls! We’ve been threatening it for awhile, and now the time has finally come. We’re upping the ante again for Drinking About Museums: Boston, and trying out a whole new format; Museums Showoff! Part poetry slam, part Ignite-style presentation, 100% museumy goodness! A rapid-fire series of 9 minute talks where your colleagues and compatriots will share what fills them with pride, captures their attention, or piques their curiosity. We’ll have ten slots and keep a couple free for walk-ons. Want to share something awesome? Email Jenn or me to secure your slot. I’ll also put up a Doodle poll in the next couple of days, so you can add yourself.
WHEN: Wednesday, September 25th at 6pm
WHERE: The lovely folks at The Hong Kong Resaurant in Harvard Square (home of the infamous Scorpion Bowl. You have been warned…) have graciously offered us an upstairs space. Such elegance and convenience! Right on the Red Line!
1238 Massachusetts Ave Cambridge, MA 02138
The Hong Kong will provide us with a microphone and monitor if you have a presentation you’d like to share. If you wanna rock it old school with no visuals, feel free. We’ll have a laptop handy, so if you bring a memory stick, we’ll get your content up on screen.
Want to know more about Museums Showoff? Check out the blog by the creators in the UK for a general idea of how they have done it.
Share the news, bring your friends and your enthusiasm, and we’ll hope to see you all there at the first US edition of Museums Showoff!