‘Maintaining’ the Future of Museums
Gathered notes and images from a talk at MuseumNext, NYC. When there was a call for ideas on the future of museums, I couldn’t help myself. What better place to talk about infrastructure than an innovation conference? Thanks to Jim and all at MuseumNext for inviting me. TL;DR Let’s stop with the shiny projects. Let’s take the best of museum culture and the best of innovation culture, and get to work innovating on infrastructure.
Hi, I’m Chad. I’m a museum technologist.
We’re speeding toward the future of museums, aren’t we? Here at MuseumNext, we’ve seen AR, VR, data visualizations, touch screens, yoga robots, amazing digital experiences. We’ve seen new models of engagement, new approaches to working and staffing.
It’s the last presentation of the day, you’ve seen innovation after innovation, and it’s my turn to wrap up the keynote by showing you just…
One. more. thing. (Part of me has always wanted to stand in front of this slide.) Yep, This is the time for the final reveal. That Steve Jobs moment where you think maybe you’ve seen it all and it can’t get any better, but you’re not quite sure…and BOOM.
The presenter shows the shiniest, most drool-worthy innovation that will solve all your museum problems. and make you look beautiful. the problem is it doesn’t always work, and it’s not always practical.
It’s the Big Shiny Museum Project. It’s got separate funding, a separate timeline, and it’s separated from core systems. It may have its own marketing plan, but not always a maintenance plan. It takes a lot of time and money! It’s exciting, at least for awhile. (This is where I should say hello Local Projects! I can’t believe Jim put my talk right after yours! I love your work. It’s shiny but it’s an example of shiny done right. More on that later.)
I’m a technologist. I feel the excitement for new technology. I’ve built my share of shiny projects, and believe me I’ve got ideas for more. (I found this stock photo when I searched for “future museum” by the way.)
I’m also a museumist. I started in art museums. In the curatorial department. I believe physical objects are powerful. I appreciate the unique role of museums to keep objects forever, and to share them in new ways. This is Roxie Laybourne, she was a feather identification expert at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, and she was amazing.
As a museum person I also know the feeling of being inspired by a conference, then going back to the office, opening up the work computer and seeing something like this…
Gah! This is not a museum-specific system, but most museums use something like it, for collections management, or finance, or membership, or a CRM.
Museum technology infrastructure is bad. Everything is harder than it should be. It’s demoralizing.
As a museum technologist I see through a hybrid lens. The museum of the future needs innovation in infrastructure. It needs cutting edge tools, with long-term vision. It needs agile maintainers. Museums need technology to help us reach out, make connections, tell stories, keep and fix things.
Let’s take a quick trip in the wayback machine. As we think about the museum of the future, it may help to look back and see where we’ve been. We’ve been trying to imagine the future of museums for awhile.
In 1967, a group of New York City museums got together to build a physical network to share collection data. A Museum Computer Network. This was a brilliant idea. The Holy Grail. It still hasn’t happened.
While the physical network failed, the network of people thrived. Today it’s a a vibrant community of museum technologists, social managers, change-makers, rabble rousers, working to change museums from the inside out. (And here they are at karaoke at a conference.)
My part started 20 years ago. I was doing art history and dabbling in interaction design. Or maybe the other way around. I wasn’t sure which. I made a Dada-inspired interface based on this Duchamp, it was loud and maddening to use. This was in Macromedia Director. Then Flash. Then it died.
Fast forward to 2008, the iPhone was new. I took my first digital role at a museum, merging two passions, curatorial and technology. I made up my title. I built websites, collection sites, blogs, mobile, in-gallery, managed social media. It was a lot.
While we’re at it, here’s my desk in 2014, in sunny San Diego. I was Director of Digital Media at the Balboa Park Online Collaborative, a nonprofit tech firm dedicated to museums.
And here’s my workspace at the Williams College Museum of Art. I think museum workspaces are an infrastructure in their own right. I once did a project collecting Desk Portraits from museum people.
As an aside, this a single-serving podcast I recorded with Jason Alderman — we talked with museum technologists about infrastructure and the future. It’s a fair bit of complaining, but it shapes this conversation as well.
What did we get right over the last 10 years? Which ideas stood the test of time?
- We bet on the web. Global scale, open standards. (Mostly.) It was a good bet.
- We saw the importance of mobile. It changed the way users act, think and feel. It affected gallery policies, exhibition design, digital content, website design, platform choices, etc. We may have gotten too excited about apps for awhile. Sometimes you need to try and fail.
- The hard work of digitization started way before, but it paid off in a big way in the last 10 years. You’ll never wish you hadn’t digitized something. A digitized collection has life even while stored away.
- Social. Museums jumped on board, some quicker than others, to a new way of making connections between people and collections. (This is a sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum, apparently messaging a friend.)
- Digital Mindset. Museum technologists made progress opening museums to new ideas, new approaches, new audiences, new capacities and spaces.
Where did our vision of the future fall short?
- We treated digital projects as cyclical. Time, resources and attention ebbed and flowed. Maybe we were maniac cooks attending only to the boiling pots? Maybe it was because it was all new?
Take a website redesign, for example. Instead of continuous development, learning and then optimizing along the way, we’d build big sites and let them languish until it was painful, then start from scratch and do it again. and again. Museums still act as if maybe this time will be the last time they’ll need to redesign, this time they’ll get it right. Or maybe it will all just blow over. Digital won’t be getting less important, and change won’t be slowing down. It needs sustained attention, resources and talent.
- We took on too much, without taking away. This is the menu of my favorite diner in the Berkshires. Every sandwich is named after an actor; every summer more actors play in the festival. The entire wall is full of sandwich names. (I recommend the Nicholas Martin.) A better approach for digital work is to remove a legacy for each new initiative. Given fixed resources, when you start doing this, you need to stop doing that.
- We didn’t properly account for maintenance. Making digital things last requires work. The more digital things you support, the more time you spend on maintenance. This photo is a selfie in an error screen on a kiosk in the museum paradise of Balboa Park in San Diego.
- We ignored infrastructure. We built ornate cutting-edge applications, these poems of code, just so we wouldn’t disturb the archaic mess below. I would go in to the collections management system, get what I needed, and get out. I remember the first time I exported a museum’s collection data as a clean CSV file and imported it into a web content management system. Boom. An open, flexible collections database. (Cue heavens parting) It’s not that easy, I know. But I also wondered if it was really so hard.
I never ever imagined we’d still be using that collections management system in 2018. We should have imagined more.
Sometimes it seems that museums’ compulsion to save and conserve things extends to software systems. We’ll walk over to an old PC with an ethernet connection to an ancient server and pull up object records in a tiny window of an application designed in the late 90’s. Perhaps we’ve mistaken the software for the data in the database behind it.
Now I know if your work doesn’t affect infrastructure or organizational change, there’s a good chance it’s a one-off.
This is a user-experience photo.
So this is where we are. This is that desperate post-conference return-to-reality feeling. Easy things are hard; hard things seem impossible.
…and this is where we want to be. Easy things should be easy; hard things should be possible.
The road to get there runs through infrastructure.
(I love this sign, and I think it should always be posted on the wall.)
Museum technologists, and I think many museum people, are navigating a culture clash. Innovation Culture and Museum Culture are at odds.
- Innovation culture celebrates change, pivoting to this and that. Museums seem content to wait it out.
- Innovators will burn the past to make way for what’s next. Museum culture wants to keep the past and learn from it.
- The mantra most associated with innovation culture “Move fast and break things” is anathema to museum culture.
How do we reconcile innovation culture and museum culture? This is worth thinking about. BOTH need to change.
When I started in museum technology, I struggled against museum culture by introducing key elements from innovation culture: speed, nimbleness, experimentation, rapid prototyping, iteration, networked teams. I remember a thought experiment at the time: if you were to open a new museum with an existing collection, would you start with a digital team and add object expertise, or would you start with a traditional museum team and add digital expertise? Back then, I would have chosen to start digital. I knew how hard it was to retrofit a digital mindset onto a cultural organization. Today, it’s impossible to see innovation culture through rose-colored glasses. Museum culture needs to change, but innovation culture needs to change as well—it needs long-term thinking, more thought for how people are impacted, more inclusive and equitable practices, better business models. Museum technologists give museums important tools and processes; I wonder if museum technologists can also give innovation culture a new, long-term, humanist perspective.
One way forward is to expand our thinking around museum culture. Because this picture isn’t really all that museums need to do. That crate doesn’t want to be lost forever. Museums are about memory, not forgetting.
This is a photo of the Jencks Museum at Brown University. It was a Natural History collection with 50,000 objects, collected by Prof. John Whipple Potter Jenks. The museum was meant to be his lasting legacy. But it didn’t work out that way. In 1943 more than 80 truckloads of collection were hauled to the dump. According to Prof. Steven Lubar in a recent article, Jenks was a brilliant collector and cataloger. But he failed to connect the collection to his colleagues and audiences. That failure to connect put the collection in jeopardy.
“Curators…need to learn, from audiences and communities, new ways of knowing objects. We need to add to shared authority, the mantra of museum reform over the past decade or two, shared ways of knowing, and new ways of sharing. We need to connect as well as collect.” —Steven Lubar
Museum culture needs to expand beyond care for physical objects, and include care for the context, knowledge, and stories around objects.
Collection objects are alive. Whenever people use an object, it circulates. Digitized collections are alive even when they’re stored away. With an image and a bit of data, especially when shared on the internet, a collection object can be used. It can be in multiple places at once. Grouped, gathered, inspected. This is not a physical life, will never replace a physical encounter, but it is a useful life.
Moreover, these lives can be traced, noted, stored described in new ways using technology.
The Williams College Museum of Art is really good at using its collection. And especially in letting others use it.
That’s the museum in back with Louise Bourgeois’ Eyes in front.
Through the WALLS program, Williams students can borrow works of art from the collection to hang in their dorm room for the semester. The program fosters deep, meaningful, long-term experiences with works of art.
At the end of the semester, the student writes a personal reflection in a tiny journal that stays with the object. Each work of art carries with it a rich, qualitative account of its life, its impact on individual students. We have these digitized, transcribed.
In Object Lab, professors hang a handful of objects for their students to consider each semester. Each cluster put together for a neuroscience class, or a history seminar, or statistics, or literature, tells us something about those works of art that we never would have known. We’re working to collect and attach that new context to our collection data.
Likewise in the Rose Object Classroom, an academic curator works one-on-one with professors to use objects in their classes.
The Reading Room is an intimate public space, where we invite other community groups to host their own events and gatherings around works of art. This is a community group hosting an event about Black Lives Matter alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart).
Even internal meetings, brainstorming exhibition or program ideas, can generate new context and connections among collection objects.
WCMA Digital is a Mellon-funded infrastructure project that gathers, saves and shares collection context.
Thus far we have a complete open-access dataset, and a complete open-access image set, available for download and via an API.
Next we’re working on a web-based collection explorer to help faculty, students and others to visualize and browse the collection and all its connections.
This image visualizes the collection using our image set — it’s organized by hue top to bottom, and brightness left to right.
The dataset and image set even have their own use stories.
Computer science, stats, math, poetry , and art classes have made use of the data in the past year.
This is also the first time I’ve had a collection visualization, or really any digital project, available for sale in the shop. There’s our data viz on a postcard.
We also showcase collection data in exhibitions. We think of these as immersive data visualizations, without giant screens. This one is Accession Number, it displayed every collection object whose accession number started with 60, 61 or 62. They were presented in order as you go around the gallery, and told the story of a formative period of acquisitions. It also allowed some objects to circulate that hadn’t been seen in a very very long time.
It also told the story of collection data. We showcased our original collection ledger, the leather-bound volume where the first director scribbled entries for each object. This was our first collections management system. The data it held formed the basis for everything that came after.
The collection data also has information on those objects that were deaccessioned, or unlocated. That means lost. In the exhibition, those ghost objects were shown as absences, in their proper order.
Pink Art was our second data-driven exhibition. This was a collaboration with a computer science class. We gave five students an assignment: Using our full set of collection images, craft an algorithm to sort the collection by pinkness. The algorithms were meant to offer new perspectives on the collection. In the end each had its own approach and methodology.
We made tools to visualize the results of each algorithm, and synthesized the perspectives. This is Google Sheets as a visualization tool for the curatorial team
The result is a data-driven collection visualization using real works of art. The exhibition activated the collection in new ways, got new works of art circulating. It also sparked a fascinating conversation about the fragile, hand-craftedness of data, and the hand-craftedness of algorithms as well. More than that, the intense use of our collection data showed us where it could be improved. These exhibitions were really fun. There’s something about transforming infrastructure into superstructure that I really love, too.
Our idea is that using the collection creates new context, which we can store in collection data. The data produces new connections when we share it, and that inspires new use. The geology professor may find the perfect object to use in a class because it was used in an archeology class in the past.
Here’s a prototype visualization of the whole collection, with heavily used objects in darker purple. The cursor is hovering over a Picasso print, which has been used in 7 exhibitions.
At its core this is an infrastructure project. It’s a new datastore that’s meant to change the course of how we manage collections data, long term. The key changes are that the data is now easy to get in, and easy to get out. It’s flexible, so we can add new types of data as we go along. Instead of keyword tagging, we’re relying on use to generate context. We’ll leverage emerging technologies like computer vision to fill in the gaps. All of this will make our work in the future easier. It will make hard things possible.
Infrastructure is not just hardware and software. For us, methods and processes are at play as well. We think a lot about prototyping and co-creating.
I love the idea of the agile registrar. Agile is loved by innovation culture, but fits really well at the heart of museum culture.
An agile process allows you to make small, incremental improvements by developing and testing small ideas as you go. It goes well with a registrar’s work of constantly improving collection data over time. We pair our registrar with a developer to help scale the process across the collections database.
An aside : It’s interesting to note that Agile ideas fit the registrar’s work much better than museum digital projects. Grant funding, fixed requirements, timelines and resources all mean that digital projects are almost always waterfall processes.
What might change if we thought of the museum itself as infrastructure? Thinking in terms of infrastructure helps us focus on our unique place within culture and society, the museum as infrastructure for improved lives, for learning, enjoyment, and inspiration
(I said I’d circle back…Gallery One at the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Pen at Cooper Hewitt are shiny projects done right. In both cases, amazing creative work went into the infrastructure around them, to channel the flow of collection data and use data. )
My bright shiny idea for the future is to use technology to improve core systems. To innovate around infrastructure as well as superstructure. To imagine and build for a sustainable future.
That’s all. Thank you!