rethinking museum technology

If you follow me on Twitter, undoubtedly you were subjected to treated to a barrage of posts in early November. That was when I attended the Museum Computer Network Conference in Seattle, Washington.

From the dance floor: Seattle Art Museum's Remix. Personal photo by Adrianne Russell.

From the dance floor @ Seattle Art Museum’s Remix. Personal photo by Adrianne Russell.

As a first-timer, I wasn’t sure what was in store. My hope was to find meaningful discussions about technology and its applications in museum settings, meet new people, eat really great food and visit fantastic museums. Thankfully, it was all that I expected and more.

I’m encouraged by the fact that it’s taken a while to wrap my head around everything. Allowing time to reflect on experiences and absorb information is something that can be sorely lacking for museum professionals. We’re constantly planning the next program or exhibition or tech project with little pause for introspection or analysis. To be honest, it drives me a bit buggy. Having more than a few minutes to delve deeply into anything related to museum work is a much-appreciated luxury.

The conference theme was “The Museum Unbound: Shifting Perspectives, Evolving Spaces, Disruptive Technologies.” I alternately celebrate and bemoan the rapid pace of evolving technology, so it’s no wonder that these developments are routinely a source of consternation and fascination for those involved in museum work. Love it or hate it, you have to admit that technology consistently redefines what it means to be a museum.

Holland, Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, 1952 audio guide 8 photo Holland, Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, 1952 audio guide 8. Photo by Loic Tallon via flickr.

Holland, Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, 1952 audio guide 8. CC photo by Loic Tallon via flickr.

Museums grappling with technology is nothing new. From 1950s wireless transistor radio audio guides to today’s mobile devices equipped with RFID tags to custom-design visits, museums have always used technology to share collections, increase education, and enhance visitor experiences.

I imagine that the work was as frustrating, challenging, exciting, and exhilarating in the past as it is today. At the MCN Conference, that was very apparent as we oohed and ahhed over tech-based projects and programs while commiserating over the difficulties of finding institutional support (financial and philosophical) for them. From those sessions sprung conversations about expertise and ownership, power dynamics, woefully underpaid staff, participatory design, and communication. Key questions arose: Why is this important? Who are we to dictate what matters? Who says we know best?

Full house for "Google on Trial: Is the Google Art Project Good?" session. Personal photo by Adrianne Russell.

Full house for “Google on Trial: Is the Google Art Project Good?” session. Personal photo by Adrianne Russell.

Museum workers are amazingly passionate and that was definitely on display (museum pun totally intended). Overall, the general feeling seemed to be that technology was one of the most effective ways to flatten institutional hierarchies and bring collections off dusty storage shelves and into the light. That’s undoubtedly noble work. I admire it greatly. I do it professionally.

But sometime around the second day of the conference, it occurred to me: This stuff only has value because we say so. Think about it. Someone’s collection of Bazooka Joe bubblegum comics or Pez dispensers may mean more to them than anything owned by a museum. Yet we (meaning museum folk) are infuriated when people glance at our painstakingly curated, interpreted, and designed exhibition with its fancy tech trimmings and collectively say, “Meh.” To us, it’s the glorious culmination of many sleepless nights, endless meetings, and gallons of blood, sweat, and tears. To everyone else, it’s simply a beautifully wrapped box with nothing meaningful inside.

I had many takeaways from the conference, but as I consider my own work here’s what keeps resonating in my head: We have a choice–either waste time and money on technology that tells people why museums are important to us, or use those tools to facilitate discovery of how museums can be important to them.

In other words: Don’t use technology to show off a huge budget or your latest vanity project. Don’t use technology to keep up with the Joneses or score early-adopter bragging rights. Use it to tell stories. Use it to create magic. Use it to make people care.

10 years, 20 countries, 100 thought leaders

For the next two days, I’m in Central Texas for New Media Consortium‘s The Future of Education: The Horizon Project Retreat.

Since 2002, NMC has brought hundreds of technologists, educators, college and university faculty, museum professionals and corporate representatives together to examine how emerging technologies impact informal and formal learning in the K-12, higher education and museum sectors.  The findings are discussed openly and then freely shared through the resulting reports.

I eagerly read the Horizon Report: 2010 Museum Edition and immediately shared it with my co-workers. It was exciting because the report provided scholarly substantiation for many of the technology-based initiatives the Education Department was trying to establish and served as validation for the forward-thinking programs already in progress.

When the call for Advisory Board members for the 2011 report went out, I gave it a shot. So much time passed between applying and notification that I assumed it just wasn’t in the cards for me. Needless to say, I was thrilled to receive an invitation to serve.

Contributing to the 2011 Museum Edition of the Horizon Report was an unforgettable experience and I’m honored to be part of the collaborative community that has arisen from ten years of helping educators “facilitate global collaboration and encourage smarter discovery and dissemination of emerging learning approaches.”

I’ll try to tweet as much as I’m able but you can follow the conversation on #NMChz. Britt Watwood provided a quick wrap-up of tonight’s opening session (I’m still in awe of how David Sibbet’s visual mapping brought our conversation to life.)

talent round-up day


Highlighting nonprofit organizations and individuals doing stellar work!

  •  In June 2011, No More Homeless Pets Kansas City and Animal Haven, organizations dedicated to animal welfare, merged to become Heartland Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  By combining resources, Heartland SPCA is better equipped to handle the needs of a large population and provide affordable veterinary services (my cat was examined and fully vaccinated for $35!).  Nonprofits with complimentary missions should seek collaboration, but the reduction of nonprofits with nearly identical missions is a model worth following.
  • Nonprofit Technology Network will broadcast its August 29, 2011 “Nonprofit Cloud Computing Summit: Using the Cloud to Meet Your Message” workshop from San Francisco via free livestream (RSVP required).  Kudos to NTEN for providing professional development on the cheap!
  •  Setting a high-profile example of mining its staff for gold (commonly known as promoting from within), The Art Institute of Chicago recently selected Douglas Druick as its new President and Director.   Druick has logged 26 years with the museum, formerly chaired two curatorial departments and has been holding it down as the interim director since James Cuno controversially jumped to The Getty in June.  While it’s not surprising that the 132-year-old museum is sticking with the traditional (and arguably outmoded) Curator-to-Director model of museum leadership, it is encouraging to see that dedication, loyalty and hard work in the field has its rewards.