As someone whose interests, skills, and even job title (Manager of Digital Learning) sit squarely between two areas of museum work—education and technology—I think pretty much nonstop about the relationship between the two. This year, I had the great fortune to be able to attend the 2015 Museums and the Web conference (MW or #MW2015) in Chicago, IL, and think out loud with hundreds of leaders, practitioners, and students passionate about museum technology.
I am active in the Museum Education Division of the National Art Education Association (NAEA) and usually attend the NAEA convention, but this year I was excited to step away from my home base of museum education and into the world of digital. I was not disappointed: I found my tech nerd people (you should have heard the nostalgic sigh when someone showed a GIF of old-school Hyperlapse in action).
However, this is not a post about digital nerdery, so if you understood not a word of that previous sentence, don’t be scared. From here on out, this is my attempt to bridge the areas of digital and education in museums. Here are some of my key takeaways from the MW2015 Conference.
Twitter is a magical thing
One of the best things I ever did for my career was sign up for Twitter, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to become more involved in the field. It has helped me make deep and vast connections with colleagues I never would have encountered otherwise, from all over the museum field and into art history, academia, and K-12 learning. I now use Twitter as my primary source for museum, art, and tech news; as a place to share resources; to talk about issues in the field; and to store my thoughts during conferences. At MW2015, I was finally able to meet many of my “Twitter colleagues” in person. As someone who’s more introverted, it made approaching someone I’d never met before much easier when I could lead with “I’ve followed you on Twitter forever!” and pick up a conversation where we left off online. I could see the same being true for a student or emerging professional.
And, not gonna lie, it’s both fun and weird to be recognized from Twitter when you’re at a conference. It’s like your own little celebrity moment when you introduce yourself to someone and they exclaim, “Oh! I follow you on Twitter and was hoping I’d meet you!” (Insert blushing emoji here.)
Museum technologists publish—and therefore legitimize the “musetech” field
Museum technologists publish. This topic has been bubbling up both at this year’s NAEA (read Dana Carlisle Kletchka’s speech here) and among the museum educators present at MW2015.
At Museums and the Web, presenters can host professional forums and workshops, but they can also present papers. For paper presentations, you write and submit a formal paper that goes beyond “show and tell” of a project and focuses on theory and practice. At the conference, you’re bundled into a session with two other author-practitioners who wrote on similar topics, and the three of you share key points. These engaging talks give technologists the opportunity to formally publish in their field, a boon for their institution and impressive internally to senior staff. Wrapping publishing into a conference also opens doors for emerging professionals and students to participate in the organization more deeply.
But more than that, it legitimizes museum technology. Emily Lytle-Painter used that turn of phrase when I mentioned how impressed I was with the publishing arm of the conference, and it was an “a-ha!” moment for me. Publishing in this quantity and with such dedication—plus offering the papers online, for free, for anyone to read—helps the museum field at large see how important tech is, because it connects theory with practice.
Michelle Grohe (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum) and I are thinking about how to adapt this to the field of museum education, and I am hoping to have some ideas to pilot this summer. So stay tuned, and please feel free to get in touch with me if you’re interested in this topic.
We need to be better at translating and advocating for our work
One of my coworkers told me about a moment in the Linked Open Data session where the speakers were asked to do an “elevator pitch,” as if to their director or board, about the benefits of linked open data. Afterward, the audience was asked to raise their hand if they were convinced. Just one person did–in a room of nearly a hundred.
When my coworker—one of our fantastic IT (information technology) staff—told me this anecdote, we had a great discussion about the topic of translating what we do for non-technical staff. One of my biggest pet peeves about the museum field as a whole is that we use specialized language that visitors don’t understand. On top of that, we often use our own content-area words that our colleagues might not understand—curators use art history terminology, educators use teacher-speak, and digital has a host of terms drawn from tech. It’s so easy to forget that others might not know our vocabulary, and few of us are brave enough to ask our peers what the heck a mandala, parking lot, or API is.
Educators are great at knowing our audience on tours; let’s apply that to our own institutions by explaining what we mean when talking to our colleagues, as well as not being afraid to ask coworkers to define their terms. Another tool is metaphor, which Tracey Berg-Fulton suggested at the conference—she “translates” by using art history examples to explain tech to curators, and puts curator needs into tech speak for IT. When we translate what we mean, we gain powerful allies and advocates.
We grapple with the same issues—so let’s collaborate more!
There were countless themes and issues that surfaced during Museums and the Web. Technologists such as Peter Samis (SFMOMA) are thinking about storytelling in the digital sphere. We’re grappling with focusing on process vs. the object, as evidenced by a talk on museum makerspaces by Desi Gonzalez, which in turn sparked a sideline Twitter debate about visitor motivation. Developing projects that aligned with institutional mission came up again and again—as a guidepost, as a tool for advocacy, as a way to develop buy-in from colleagues. And we’re struggling with how to define impact and evaluate digital projects—how do we avoid “anecdata” (anecdotal non-data) and really dig deep into showing change?
I’m sure that more than one of these topics resonated with you as a museum educator–so it’s no surprise that I think we should collaborate more internally, cross-departmentally. The museum technologists leading the deepest organizational change and the most impactful projects are those who have strong collaborations cross-departmentally. So if you’re not already, reach across the aisle of your museum and foster relationships with your tech folks–then we can innovate together rather than separately!
It doesn’t have to be a huge, scary endeavor: start small. Have coffee with one of your museum’s digital/IT staff to learn a bit more about his or her job, and let them know what you do. Don’t be afraid to ask questions—your genuine curiosity will go a long way. Find existing projects that you might be able to support, and share what you’re working on. See if there’s a cross-departmental meeting like a Technology Team you could join, or invite your new IT pal to join in an education meeting.
Digital leaders are often museum change leaders
Finally, one of the biggest threads of the conference was about how change is affecting our institutions (you can track lots of different conversations at #MWChange). You’ll notice that “digital” wasn’t in that sentence, but it seems to me that organizational change is, at many institutions, being spearheaded by digital staff. I think this is because digital projects are often catalysts that force museum staff to rethink business as usual. Keir Winesmith (SFMOMA), Michael Parry (Powerhouse Museum, Sydney), Dafydd James (National Museum Wales, UK), Seb Chan, and Aaron Cope (both from Cooper-Hewitt) all led sessions that focused on or touched on institutional change as a result of digital projects. I highly recommend checking out Keir, Michael, and Dafydd’s excellent slides.
Their stories all rang true with one of my favorite books on change and leadership, Leading Change by John Kotter. Kotter proposes eight stages of organizational change, and asserts that it’s a long-term process that requires deep buy-in from all areas and levels. His theory resonates deeply with the change strategies put forth at MW2015. Both Kotter’s book and the papers written by these presenters (here and here) are well worth a read for those of us thinking about deep change in our institution and in the field at large.
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I’m sure you’ll find that there’s lots of overlap between our work as museum educators and the work of our colleagues in technology. After a week with some wonderful museum technologists at Museums and the Web, I guarantee that there is a lot we can learn from each other to invigorate our practice and better serve our visitors.
PS: I also had the pleasure of presenting at the conference with educators Hillary Cook (Art Institute of Chicago) and Barry Joseph (American Museum of Natural History), organized by Sofie Anderson (Antenna Labs)! We talked about digital in teen programs, and you can read more about our session on Barry’s blog.
Featured header image: A shot of the closing reception at the beautiful (and massive) Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Photo by the author.