What We Talk about When We Talk about Museum Tech: MCN 2014

[This text was downloaded from an archive of the now-defunct site "Beyond the Printed Page," which I started with Liz Neey, Greg Albers, and Amy Parkolap Weber after the National Museum Publishing Seminar in Chicago in 2012. I'm leaving out any hyperlinks because many of them are broken. Sadly there's no good archive of this post on the Wayback Machine.]

I wrote last year about my first Museum Computer Network annual conference, so I won't reiterate my enjoyment and sense of wonder at this positive, upbeat, forward-thinking event.

I participated in two panels last month in Dallas at MCN 2014, which, just as last year, was filled with the kind of people who make you hopeful for the future of museums and their ability to reach audiences who are changing every day, both individually and in the aggregate. The first panel I was involved in, "Strategic and Smart Upstart? The State of Today's Museum Digital Publication," was organized by Kris Thayer and Diane Richard of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and covered how Adobe's Digital Publishing Suite can be used to make enhanced art publications. Kris and Diane have created a beautiful digital magazine called Verso, which you should absolutely check out. (They wrote about Verso in Beyond the Printed Page back in the spring.) Since the Met hasn't proceeded as far with its own pilot project in DPS, I spoke more about the experience of winning stakeholders over to a new type of publication, one ally at a time.

I also organized a panel called "User Experience: Towards a Grand Unified Theory of Museum Content." Apart from the title's megalomania and getting the first name of Jorge Luis Borges wrong on a slide, I think the panel went very well. The three speakers all provided very interesting takes on the way that museums talk about themselves, their missions, and their relationship to ideas and scholarship:

  • Corey Pressman, Anthropologist/Strategist (what a title!) at Metal Toad Media in Portland, Ore., toured the long history of ideas and scholarship and how museums turn these notions into the stuff that visitor experience is made of.
  • Jennifer Foley, Director of Interpretation at the Cleveland Museum of Art, delved into the language by which museums describe that stuff. What to even call it? Content? [Too corporate, Family-Feud-X-noise here] Ideas? Stories? [Jennifer pointed out that one antonym of "story" is "truth." Try telling your curators that their scholarship is the opposite of truth!] Narratives? [snore] Even her job title, Interpretation, is a word that the Met doesn't use. Language itself is very much part of the discussion inside the museum.
  • Kimon Keramidas, Assistant Professor and Director of the Digital Media Lab at the Bard Graduate Center showed how digital tools can enliven curatorial research as well as gallery and visitor experience, giving examples of current and upcoming shows at the BGC.

Something about this year's conference made a particular impression on me. One of the most well-attended panels was "How to Be an Agent of Change," moderated by Allegra Burnette (formerly of the Museum of Modern Art and now Principal Analyst at Forrester Research) and featuring Douglas Hegley (Director of Technology at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts), Nik Honeysett (Director of the Balboa Park Online Collaborative), Carolyn Royston (a consultant who was until recently the Head of Digital at Imperial War Museums), and Charlotte Sexton (also a consultant, formerly Head of Digital at The National Gallery, London, as well as a past president of MCN). The panel was a who's who of people who've engaged with and inside museums on the highest levels where technology meets scholarship and audience.

The discussion was very much about how one goes about working inside the institution to make change—and not just digital thingies—happen. If these are the "superheroes" of the museum content field, Douglas made the point that there are no true superheroes, no battles, no fights even, because when there's a battle and someone wins, someone else loses—and it's the museum that's supposed to win, not one department or staff member. Institutions need frameworks and the maturity to handle the radical change that technology can bring to museums, both within and without.

The audience was transfixed, with plenty of questions that represented the frustration that technophiles and -phobes alike feel every day as they try to advance a seemingly innocuous and obvious agenda in the face of opposition. Is it all just about staying positive, banging your head into the nearest available wall, and then smiling and brushing brick dust off your forehead? Some of the advice both during the panel and in concurrent tweets suggested having a shared sense of mission, routing around failure, not waiting until everything is "ready," and, most of all, "having the courage to be bold."

While these slogans could all be the material of inspirational posters, the vibe in the room was dead serious—change is supposed to be hard. As Allegra said, we have to focus on helping museum visitors, not on being in our silos. People loved this panel, and though I've only been to two MCNs, this was one of the first and best attempts I've seen to focus on career arcs within the hybridized field of museum technology, where every museum is doing it a little bit (or a lot) differently, where one museum's fear of change is another museum's race to the future. To quote Oliver Twist, may I have some more?

A later panel, "Strategic Planning for Digital Success," featured Douglas along with Anne Bennett (CIO of the Toledo Museum of Art), Richard Cherry (Deputy Director of The Broad Art Foundation), and Mike Osswald (Vice President for Experience Innovation at Hanson Inc.). This was also a packed house and provided a useful continuation of the Agent of Change panel, and I also felt a relationship to the User Experience panel I had organized: these internal discussions can become the very thing they're talking about. It's not about technology but about thinking about technology, or maybe thinking about thinking about technology. It's planning all the way down. If your institution can't properly have these discussions, you're not going to get very far with new initiatives.

But what makes MCN special is that the planning always leads to something. Director of Digital Adaptation at the Blanton Museum of Art Koven Smith's tweet about how a minimum viable product isn't a shortcut, it's how you get a test ready for testing, is an important reminder that we have to get things done. "I don’t believe in failing often. I believe in building products that will test hypotheses," he wrote. There's a heavy presence of perfectionism in museum culture because its internal essence—scholarship—has to be as perfect as possible. Yet perfection isn't what technology, with its agility and endless iteration, is about (a perfect technology is usually a recipe for dystopian sci-fi), and neither is visitor experience, with its constant tweaks and feedback loops and audiences moving on to the next platform to the alarm of museum directors. (Speaking of, the conference started off with its usual ignite session featuring several speakers, one of whom was Dallas Art Museum director Max Anderson. He told the room that it was progress leading to crowds and buzz and not big tech words and gadgets that got directors' approval. "Help solve the museum's problems using digital platforms," he said.)

There's a certain openness to failure at MCN because it gets us closer to success, and if that sounds like a recipe for getting fired, it's more about being able to quickly turn challenges into lessons and then even more quickly into the next plan, in a cost-effective and no-bodies-strewn-about kind of way.

So if I do have a takeaway, it's that we have to learn to look at ourselves and our institutions while also at the same time acting upon what we've learned. Considering what museums are up against today, it's not supposed to be easy.