Museums and the Web

An annual conference exploring the social, cultural, design, technological, economic, and organizational issues of culture, science and heritage on-line.

Interloper Report

Wow! I just returned from MW2012 and I'm still buzzing. I'm a museum educator, and not particularly savvy about things digital (thus do I post this here, not having a blog myself...). But I knew about Museums and the Web from colleagues, and because San Diego is close-by (I'm at the Getty in LA), this year seemed a good time to finally go. I'm glad I did. Not only did I discover much about things beyond my field, I learned a lot about things inside it. Issues of interpretation and experience, visitor engagement, the broader social role of museums, and other topics close to the heart of museum educators were explored in ways wonderfully refreshing, vital, and new.  What a delight! And what a conundrum. Why here? Maybe it's just that the field of museum digital media (is that a field?) attracts really bright and creative people. Maybe, too, it's that the pace of change in digital media means that you are constantly needing to think and rethink the why's and wherefore's of what you do. As new technologies bring new opportunities, so do they put pressure on taken-for-granted values, assumed constraints, and existing theoretical paradigms. If your tools are constantly evolving, your thinking about how best to use those tools - your meta-thinking - must constantly evolve as well. For digital media specialists, that means you are deeply involved with questions that are not necessarily digital at all, but common to all of us interested in how museums work for visitors (whatever that work, and wherever it "takes place"). It struck me, after participating in Erica Gangsei's wonderful session on SFMOMA's ArtGameLab, that no one batted an eye at the fact that the Lab's games were all on paper, or "analog" as Erica put it. Granted, some had extensions to the web, but still you get my point: the session "made sense" at MW2012 because it explored issues of visitor engagement, and it didn't matter that the digital aspect was all but incidental. If digital media started as a tech-y outpost in the corner of the museum, it's now - to judge from MW2012 - a whole lot more. Well, I had two big take-aways from this experience. The first is obvious enough. If you all are taking up "my" issues in such novel and forward-looking ways, if indeed you are interrogating "my" taken-for-granteds in ways that are critical and constructive, then I'd better start paying attention. In short (and on the soap box), it made me feel that museum education needs to embrace digital media and the opportunities it presents for extending and enriching the work we do; and that it needs to embrace, in earnest, the ways in which digital media challenges us to think differently. We need to be part of your conversation. The second take-away is in some ways the same, though from another perspective. My one true moment of interloping, or so it felt, was during an unconference session on where digital media sat in the museum org chart and how best to advocate for digital media in an institutional context. In course of the session, someone referred to themselves (or a colleague, I can't remember now) as a "digital evangelist." Since I heard this phrase at least two other times at the conference, my guess is that it is just short-hand for someone who is a particularly strong advocate for digital media. That's great. But I wonder if it doesn't also betray a sense of feeling isolated institutionally, of being alone in believing in the value of digital media, and of needing to take on a role that is more or less that of a missionary among the heathen. I'm sure each of these is true in some way! But taken together they probably don't provide a good road map to the future. A different map was suggested by another participant in the session, a young fellow (who may also have been an interloper, but from curatorial) who described an org chart that had digital media specialists distributed among museum departments rather than forming their own discrete department. This integrative approach really struck a chord for me, because it suggests that digital media activity need not be something different from any other activity in the museum -- curatorial activities or educational activities, etc., can be or become digital and still be what they are. If this points a way forward, it is toward a future in which we are all digital media specialists, regardless of the particular work we do in the museum. I don't mean to say that we will all be able to do what you do, at least not exactly. I mean instead that digital media will be one of the ways (probably the most important and powerful way)in which we all do "our" work in the museum. That seems like a pretty good future, and I feel like I began to glimpse it in the unexpected breadth and scope of the conversation at Museums and the Web. The only thing missing were the educators and curators and designers and other museum colleagues whose worlds of activity you all are already engaging and transforming in such fundamental ways. Perhaps the next step is to bring them to the table? With thanks for a great experience, and a sense of renewed hope!

rainermack's picture

I've been thinking about Nancy's invitation to suggest concrete steps toward involving other museum practitioners in MW. I know others are thinking about this as well (it's so great to see how much interest the idea has generated - I can see that the MW community is truly "open source"!). Anyway, here is one thought...

I came to MW2012 on my own initiative and out of my own interest (as did my colleague, Getty curator Peter Bjorn Kerber, and I'm sure others). Maybe a place to start is for MW regulars to seek out such "digital allies" in curatorial, education, design, etc. departments and invite them to attend MW2013 as their partner. Kind of a Sadie Hawkins approach. There could be a forum at the conference for partners to meet and share what they are learning/discovering and how it might or might not translate back at their home institutions. This could generate networks of digital allies in various museum roles who could continue the conversation post-conference, and support each other in advancing digital media work in their particular outposts. If your partner can't make it to the conference because of money/schedule/theirowndepartment'swarpedpriorities, they could follow from afar via twitter (#digitalally), live stream, or...? (Actually this would probably be the majority given how tight budgets are these maybe this part of the idea needs bolstering.)

This approach focuses mostly on building relationships, extending networks, and bridging (intertwining) different disciplinary conversations.


angeleta's picture

What an interesting discussion, I was also new tho the MW and I would mlike to propose for the next one to have sessions where same issues, like vistor experience or design of content generated sites, or educational games all thatbdigital or not were evaluated by the Museums themselves and whether the different proffessions were involved in that and how. Evaluation is a tool to be shared by all since it serves the interest of all and measures success on different levels. i thought the last seesion of the failed projects could be a way to go!
Thakns again for a very inspiring conference to all.

Alexandra Angeletaki, Norway

gramirez's picture

Thank you for your post Rainer. I too was new to the MW conference and am also in Education – I knew I couldn’t be the only one. I completely share your feelings. I’ve never had so much to share with colleagues after a conference. There were so many parallels to what museum educators struggle with when designing engaging programs I can’t stop thinking about it. My position as Digital Media Manager in the Education Department is very new for our museum, and you are not alone, the term Digital Evangelist also resonated with me. On the flight home I was trying to guess how long it would take our museum to get past the internal hurdles of a Digital Media Strategy presented by a tireless Digital Evangelist to finally begin to focus on the needs and expectations of our visitors.

George Ramirez
Manager of Digital Media
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

jikpeter's picture

Thanks for this fantastic post. It was my first MW, and I think I'm hooked, just as you have been!

I wanted to mention that I also sat in the digital strategy unconference session and it just keeps popping up in the post-conference conversation. It was the highlight of my conference experience, and it seemed to be a quite an "aha" moment for others as well. I hope we can continue to discuss digital strategy holistically, as we no longer have to prove to others at our organizations that technology is worthwhile. We now have to figure out how to organize and integrate our efforts, since everyone wants a piece of it. We're the cool kids now!

Thanks again.

Jill Farley
Web Specialist
Chicago Architecture Foundation

NancyProctor's picture

What a moving and insightful testimonial to the value of MW! I know I'm not exactly objective, but as an attendee for the past decade or so, I found my response resonated with your experience of the conference and community.

I'd really like to work on your final challenge: bring the educators, curators, designers and others to the table who may otherwise feel excluded from MW - or, more to the point, that digital media in general is irrelevant to their work. Let's stay in touch, and please let me know if you envision any concrete steps that could help make our dream come true!

All the best,