10 Thoughts from Museum Computer Network 2015 Conference

My favorite museum technology conference covered data, publishing, "friend-tor-ing," and starting little insurrections.

10 Thoughts from Museum Computer Network 2015 Conference

This was my third straight year attending the MCN conference, and the changes even over that short time have been palpable. I went for an extra day, for a pre-conference workshop on Design Thinking and tour, and though it made the conference long, I recommend it at least once. Bookmark this page of videos of conference sessions on YouTube, as more are added regularly, and check out the #MCN2015 hashtag on Twitter for lots of great thoughts from during and after the confab.)

Here are 10 thoughts:

  1. The Amazon-i-fication of the museum content workplace? "Customer service" isn't something those of us in museum curatorial and editorial fields hear very much, but we shouldn't look askance at our colleagues in merchandising and visitor services who do. Panels on improving audience engagement and visitor experience quickly invoked the idea of customer service as the key to uniting all museum staff in a common goal. Museum workers who are used to thinking of "audience" as something that other departments deal with might be in for a surprise over the next few years. It was hard not to think of the New York Times/Amazon kerfuffle, even if the fear of a relentless customer service workplace—in departments that traditionally don't deal face-to-face with visitors—was never directly invoked.
  2. What does the data mean? We now have a LOT of data on audience engagement with our institutions. More is pouring in. The two questions I have are, 1) have we already decided what we're going to do, and 2) how are we going to share it with our colleagues? If we share too much, are we going to feel that we've become data-driven robots? Too little, and our decisions become arbitrary. I don't envy my colleagues who have to wade through the data on a regular basis.
  3. "Digital, we have a problem." I heard of a couple of instances where print-raised publication editors were being asked to work on born-digital projects. The project leads designed primarily-digital workflows that assumed editing would take place in the digital content platform or API, but the editor refused to work that way, often leading to difficult and time-consuming export and re-import paths. This is not to point fingers at editors or digital content developers, but just to point out that there's still a Mars/Venus gap in even conceiving how digital content is made editorially ready for publication.
  4. Professional development and mentoring are growing. A profoundly positive development has been the increased attention paid to issues that affect entry- and mid-level museum staff. MCN has always been strong in panels on overall digital strategy, but sometimes these institution-wide discussions can be abstract to the staff dealing with issues on the ground. A mentoring-for-women sidebar group and a workshop/panel on mentoring revealed people wanting to be both mentors and mentees. The whole conference just seemed ready to help staff at all levels better relate to the digital decisions being made by directors and boards of trustees, and sometimes speaking to people outside your institution gives you key perspective. (I'll take credit for saying in the panel that mentoring lets you know that you're not crazy.)
  5. You say you want an insurrection. Sure, we all love it when our directors become progressive utopians. Chances are, that's not happening. So what do you do when the awesome, inspiring suggestions of a conference like MCN wilt in the harsh light of your specific office situation? You might, it was suggested, start a little insurrection—quietly seek out colleagues, see what you have in common, brainstorm and workshop a bit, and then take a manifesto to the highest levels. If that sounds a little risky and scary, well, duh.
  6. Post digital. It can be tiring to keep calling anything post-..., but at MCN you'll find it a given that everything is digital. You can read on the Met's website a blog post by Chief Digital Officer Sree Sreenivasan and Deputy Chief of Digital Loic Tallon (also President of MCN) the preparations for a post-digital world, where everything we do is so imbued with digital that it's pointless to try to separate it out of our work processes. We're moving beyond silos to a digital ecosystem, and digital titles and departmental monikers are becoming less important than staff-wide digital literacy. That doesn't mean that print is going away, but that the debate about print versus digital is so 2011. As the Art Institute of Chicago's Lauren Makholm said during a panel on digital publishing, "Our digital workflow is our print workflow."
  7. Speaking of spreading skill sets. A fascinating panel on fundraising was well-attended and implied that more staff are becoming concerned with pitching their projects not just to their bosses, but to development departments. I'm sure the idea of content-producing staff contacting development departments and fundraisers will keep department heads up at night, but it's a sure sign that more of us are learning how the business works and what keeps our projects operating. (It's not only love.)
  8. Design Thinking is going mainstream. I describe DT in another post on this blog but the enthusiastic and well-attended workshop on Design Thinking run by cultural organization consultant Dana Mitroff Silvers and the Hammer Museum's Associate Director, Digital Content, Susan Edwards made it clear how deep the desire to better relate to (dare I say "serve"?) our audiences has spread throughout our institutions. Terms change, and "Design Thinking" may not be the lingo much longer, but it's unlikely we'll turn our backs on empathy as a tool for better working with visitors and—my personal obsession—our colleagues.
  9. Social justice in the museum. Design Thinking is also helping the creative community serve communities in need around the world. The inspiring keynote by architect and environmental design consultant and professor Liz Ogbu (find her on LinkedIn or Twitter, or Google her, you can read about her for hours) came the morning after a powerful ignite presentation titled Towards an Anti-Oppression Museum Manifesto by Nikhil Trivedi. What are museums's responsibility when movements like #BlackLivesMatter are questioning majority society, which very much includes our museums?
  10. From the Department of Shameless Plugs, my own presentation on a pilot project for a digital version of the Met's quarterly Bulletin was too many slides in too few minutes, but the questions from the audience were helpful for any product developer, and not just the expected "How do you measure success?" but "What will do you do if you fail?" My response, which surprised even me: "We'll try again, because I'm relentlessly naively optimistic. (Coming to a LinkedIn page near you.)

    Two other points I want to make: first, when proposing a project to your higher-ups, think of the colleagues who'll have to spend time working on what you've created (I count at least three in my own department, I can't apologize enough for the work for which they didn't volunteer). I call these unfunded time mandates. And, second, remember that technology is less important than relationships. Tech is ephemeral; audiences and your colleagues shouldn't be.