Museums and the Paradox of Learning

Museums and the Paradox of Learning

10 min read

Museums, teach your people well … 

I just returned from Dortmund, Germany, where I presented at the first DigiTrans workshop on agile and digital literacy in the cultural sector. I'll have a more detailed post about this workshop next week; this week, I want to discuss learning as a key supporting mindset of a cultural sector workplace.

The title of this post is based on the title of Robert R. Janes's excellent book Museums and the Paradox of Change. Museums have been trying to figure out the learning thing for decades, at least. Unfortunately, the term "learning" usually refers to the learning of the visitors—how much should they be expected to know before they enter? How much should they be asked to learn when they're inside? What about after they leave?

These questions might be better asked of museums' staff. Or better yet, what are these institutions doing to keep their people's skills current and forward-looking?

Ready, set, learn! I mean, how is this supposed to be learning? (Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash) [Description man standing in front of people sitting beside table with laptop computers]

I've written before about digital skills for museum staff, and how museums risked leaving a whole generation of staff behind in the rush to some unmeasurable digital literacy. I'm wondering, however, if I got it backwards, or maybe sideways—that the problem isn't a lack of training, but the culture surrounding the training, or even just the idea of training.

Yes, there are management programs and leadership retreats which only top, select staff get to attend. It would be fantastic if those were opened up to all staff in the interests of true transparency. Some institutions have tuition reimbursement programs for staff to get advanced degrees in related fields.

However, the culture problem runs deeper—staff are forced into boxes of the workplace skills the institution believes its people should learn. Filling out communication-style or conflict-resolution surveys and then discussing them in small groups is fine—but like all skills, these need practice and encouragement to be effective.

Even worse, some staff get away with not learning, claiming, "we just want to do the jobs we were trained, and hired, to do!" Everyone else picks up on this, that in-house classes are transactional and performative for some, and that brings down the meaning of the whole enterprise.

The institution needs to value curiosity, which is at the heart of true learning. Without it, museums are being left behind.

Learning is change

Janes in the Museums and the Paradox of Change was writing about a transformative re-organization he led at the Glenbow Museum (now just Glenbow) in Calgary, Alberta, in the mid-1990s. This book is a document of change management, from the inside, with a fair amount of additional commentary from staff at the time (staff were not allowed to comment for the 2012 third edition) and some essays from outside museum professionals, almost like a DVD of additional commentary.

I won't get into the twisting course of the changes at Glenbow—you can imagine the mistakes which were made, the wailing and gnashing of teeth, the successes and failures, and the backsliding after Janes left. I'm more interested in what Janes has to say about learning.

Janes uses the expression "learning organization." (Another book which uses this term is the excellent Systems Thinking in Museums, edited by Yuha Jung and Ann Rowson Love). It's a hopeful phrase. Here's excerpts from the intro, featuring a list from the late cultural anthropologist Michael M. Ames:

15) The most important variable in planned change is learning from experience and from the people involved. 16) A changing organization must therefore be a learning organization, one is which employees are committed to learning on a continuing basis.” (Ames in Janes, p. 5)

But learning comes from meaning:

“In the absence of opportunities to acquire personal meaning, learning does not occur.” (Ames in Janes, p. 8)

And, as the book moves into its main section, we read that learning requires commitment from the organization to train its people:

Training is an essential component of org change (Janes, p. 47)

So we have the link between training and meaning and learning and changing. And then the kicker:

“… being a learning organization is really a perpetual process of becoming …” (Janes, p. 95).

Oh, the B word.

Learning is Good (right?)

Is there a business case for learning on the job? That might require a deeper sense of just what we mean by learning, at least in a work context.

I think the problem here is not so much with what we think of learning as much as what we think of as expertise, again in a professional context. In the case of museums and other cultural institutions—not to single these out, you could substitute any highly-specialized field—many staff come into the institution fully-formed, hired and ready to collect and exhibit and publish) Beyond research in their specialty, what more is there to know? Especially when there are other people in the institution doing all that other work.

We don't even know what a thought is, nevermind how the brain leads to mind. (Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash) [Description: an image of a brain which various bright lines, against a dark wall with text like a museum text panel)

Though progressive, highly-educated white elites tell stories about curiosity and the importance of a well-rounded liberal arts education, beyond that is a strong belief in all-important rules, ideas, and knowledge which the select learn. John Kay describes this in his short and interesting book Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly. For all our interest in broadening ourselves, we worship the sublime greats (he mentions David Beckham and Garry Kasparov, you could add in LeBron James or Elon Musk), the geniuses. The fact that we don't know just what genius is, never mind what a thought is, doesn't matter. There's one big idea and we have to find it—or just let the Einsteins get on with it.

But the bigger point that Kay makes in Obliquity is that, not only is life full of contradictions, but people are as well. And I'm not talking about personality quirks as much as the many-faceted nature of knowledge. The point of learning, one might say, is to learn how much there is left to learn, and how much we don't know. As you learn more, you will realize that you were wrong and even ignorant in the past. Can leaders admit that? (Kay believes that FDR could, as he tried many different approaches to getting the US through the Great Depression, while Churchill, whose record apart from the sole act of willing England to stay in World War II, could not—an interesting take on mid-20th-century history.)

Learning is social

So if learning doesn't elevate the individual and their unique knowledge, then we should see learning as something essentially social. Learning is sharing (and sharing is caring). Darren Peacock, in his chapter in Museums and the Paradox of Change, cites conversations as the cornerstone activity of growth. True exchanges of views, expertise, and information is what will get change done, not the lone hero CEO with the traditional measures of nonprofit management. Learning can't be done in alone or in a vacuum—and the small group exercises in professional development classes are no substitute for real collaboration.

We talk and we learn—best when in groups. (Photo by Antenna on Unsplash) [Description: a woman speaking to a group of people in a room with art on the wall]

If anything, the trend towards hyper-personalized learning is pushing us further in the wrong direction. Microsoft wants us to learn in AR (and we're just learning to collaborate in Teams!) since so many people in teams work, communicate, and thus by extension are available to learn on different schedules, locations, and cadences. It's like we took the lesson of meetings—a one-hour meeting of ten people might as well be a TEN-HOUR MEETING—and transposed it to learning. We've become algorithms, falling easy prey to the promise of cheaper results through technology, all while providing corporations with tons of data. It's like Scantron as Skynet.

The opposite of silos (which I've written about here) isn't hyper-personalization. Gillian Tett, in her book The Silo Effect: the Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking down Barriers, hits a lot of obvious targets but makes a compelling point that some of the best cultural opportunities from the big technology companies came about through group teaching. Bootcamps and hackathons are baked into the onboarding and socialization process at Facebook. The Metropolitan Museum of Art even partnered with Microsoft and MIT on a hackathon. I'm going to be generous and say that the data is mixed on which learning approach is best—I would imagine it depends—but collaboration at least presents opportunities for staff and visitors to share in the process of knowledge-building.

You will be tested on this. (Photo: University of Utah Teaching and Learning Technologies). [Description: a multiple-choice test sheet]

The problem? And we're right back to good old culture.

Culture Eats Learning as an Afternoon Snack

John Hagel writes about how true learning isn't necessarily a good fit in our current organizations. My friend Mimosa Shah quoted this:

"... how can we scale the efforts of these tightknit workgroups & amplify their ability to learn faster together? Well, that requires a fundamentally different culture & institutional model, shifting from our current focus on scalable efficiency to a focus on scalable learning.")
Through the door is learning. (Photo by Eugenio Mazzone on Unsplash) [Description: a wall with many books, in the middle of which is a door]

Lifelong learning, as pointed out by Hagel, is itself a buzzword. Merriam-Webster's calls a buzzword "an important-sounding usually technical word or phrase often of little meaning used chiefly to impress laymen." So how is lifelong learning technical? Well, it's certainly of little meaning if organizations offer classes but undermine it in these ways:

  1. they make it clear that "real work" always comes ahead of attending said classes
  2. They provide no time because of workload to practice or implement what's learned in classes
  3. they put managers under no obligation to press staff to practice what staff have learned (because often these lessons involve "managing up" and what manager wants to think that they need to be managed, or want to be managed?)
  4. they rush into offering classes after a bad employee engagement survey or anonymous comments to an HR/administration inbox, without asking just what's missing, what people want to learn, what would make a good curriculum for people at different levels, involving staff in that curriculum, and
  5. they have no metric to let staff or the organization to know if said classes are effective.
Don't bother me, I'm learning (Photo by Hammer & Tusk on Unsplash) [Description: man wearing a virtual reality headset]

And then, the kicker:

Of course there is one big obstacle to this goal: it takes time and energy to make enough space to collide with the unexpected, roam around the world, and gain an insider-outsider perspective. … the main thrust of educational in America today is to support specialized technical subjects, not generalist courses like liberal arts degrees, where students jump between different topics. … The people running institutions also face pressure to make these as efficient as they can by cutting out waste. Specialization and focus is considered desirable in the modern world. That makes it hard to justify time-consuming activities that do not deliver instant results, such as talking to people from other departments, rotating people across departments, or sending people out on innovation safaris. (Tett, 253-4)

It's fine to re-train tons of people in your workforce, but for what? Museums are facing staff uproar over the lack of salary transparency and the lack of a livable career path. The power imbalance in museums between staff on the curatorial side and the "support" sides doesn't help. Learning for one group might not be compatible with that for another group.

As per Ames, in Janes, there's lots of immediate downside to a learning organization:

31) Since change is continuous, a healthy organization will always exhibit a degree of chaos.” (p. 6)

We don’t understand everything about the psychological and organizational aspects of learning. But what's the alternative? There's no successful workplace improvement plan so far which hasn't included learning. Executives don’t really bring about change, they create opportunities for staff growth and learning, and the staff has to do the change, as Janes writes. Even the terms "organizational learning" or "institutional learning" can be loaded, because it seems that the emphasis is on the organization, not the people.  

That might be the scariest part for any organization—admitting they don't know how, or if, all this learning is going to work out. But uncertainty is part of the power of art, science, and history, the knowledge that we don't know everything there is to know, and by extension this applies to the entire museum sector. Museum leadership needs to address everything I listed above, providing time (which means money) and psychological safety to staff so they can be curious about what else is out there which can help them grow and then improve the organization. There are no easy answers, only really important questions.

What I'm Reading

I'm still working my way through Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline. I checked out Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism from the library, but knowing I would never finish it in fewer than 6 renewals, I bought it on Kindle. I also just started The Age of Heretics: A History of the Radical Thinkers Who Reinvented Corporate Management by Art Kleiner. I'm trying (and failing) to keep my Pocket article count under 50. And I'm close to caught up on Douglas Rushkoff's Team Human podcast and listening to Kara Swisher's Recode Decode, but I keep finding podcasts tough going—it's me, not them, I lose attention easily. I shall meditate on this further.

You May Have Noticed … 

There's a new design theme for this site—including the new name, Museum Human prominently in the upper left. This is the first redesigin since this site launched. I hope the posts are easier to read and it's easy to find past posts in several ways. There's also Disqus for comments, which for now will be moderated (just to make sure it's working). I'll continue to tweak, including adding search, soon. Please advise if any features aren't working!

Coming next week is a post on the workshop in Dortmund, Germany, I attended this past week.

I work on a bit of everything in museum content. I find human solutions to tech problems. I geek out on workflow. No, really. I learn and teach and write everything down.