This was an Ignite talk (a 5-minute, 15 seconds-per-slide, auto-advancing, terrifying tightrope of a presentation meant to provoke and inspire) given at the Openlab Workshop in Washington, D.C. The unconference and convening were focused on advancing technology and accelerating change for galleries, libraries, archives and museums. (Fun!)

Concrete ideas are highlighted and annotations added.

Originally this was “Question Assumptions” but it became something a bit different.

This is an opinionated love letter to museums.

Museums. Museums. I adore you.
I walk your hallowed halls, enthralled.
I’ve surfed your sites.
Touched your screens.
You stole my heart…but we need to talk…about your assumptions.

Gentle Muse — eum,
Sometimes you assume nobody even cares about your collections.
You dally with fleeting exhibitions.
Your curators while their time with someone else’s Monet, or Tut.


It’s your collection that sets you apart.
You keep what we would run back to save, from the fire, or flood, or war.
Tell the stories that help us make personal connections to the collection.

Sweet museum, don’t assume this.
You try so hard to please, films, dining, concerts,
insisting everyone comes to you.
Partner with your friends. Go to their place once in a while.
What we need most from you… is a great museum.

An ongoing conversation at Openlab was “can museums change the world?” Specifically, should they tackle the most pressing needs. I think each should address the issues they’re best positioned to address. Some museums are in no position to tackle poverty, for instance. They should support others in their community who can. One pressing need is culture and access to culture, now and in the future.

Museum mausoleum, this is just morbid wordplay.
(It’s true though: You do write tombstones for your collection,
may it rest in storage.)
You once kept every mention in curatorial files.
Not so much now, what with the email and the internets.

Hinting at digital preservation here — the shift to digital (email correspondence and documentation, particularly), without thoughtful electronic archiving, means some museums no longer keep track of the life of an object like they used to.

Spencer Black credit

But what if your collections are alive like never before, in a digital space?
Let’s follow the trails of museum objects,
like fireflies dancing through a digital meadow,
and let’s record their movement as part of their ongoing story.

There is great work being done in the library sector on archiving social media mentions and connecting them to collections — thus tracking the digital lives of collection objects.

I know, you’re too busy for such flights of fancy.
First the website, then the online collection, social media,
all on top of a busy calendar.
Of course you’re too busy.
First, stop doing something old. Then try something new.

Museums, You are terrified of copyright.
He who shall not be named.
VAGA, ARS, fear, uncertainty, doubt.
Museums don’t even talk about it amongst themselves:
“How much did we pay to put the Picasso on the rack card?
How much did you?”

If copyright is Voldemort, then Fair Use is your Patronus, your shield. Summon it often.
Wear your educational mission proudly.
What if museums had a platform to share what they paid in rights fees, and when they invoked their Patronus, fair use?

This is something an Openlab, or AAM, could host. Like a Glassdoor initiative, but to make rights and reproduction more transparent.

Museums, why oh why does collections management software cast such a spell?
How long will we wrestle data out of closed, proprietary systems?
It’s not black magic. It’s a relational database.
But it may require an exorcism.

Museum technologists are under the spell too.
We assume registrars would never change.
How about an open system of the web, on the web, made for sharing?
And let’s add value to the collection data: Computer vision, color palette, face recognition, analytics…
All in reach for the smallest institutions.

This was the subject of a Google Hangout last summer, with rabble-rousing technologists, content experts and registrars. Collections management would only get solved, it seems, at an Openlabs level.

Museums, you kill me.
Collections software isn’t the only sacred cow.
Every department has its own software system, and most of them don’t talk.
Conway’s Law says that organizational silos get baked into software design.

What if we pull a reverse Conway,
and affect organizational change through software?
Use a generic mission as a guide: connect people to collections.
On the left, people, on the right, collections, in the middle — that’s where we post and archive all the ways the museum makes connections.
Software structured for museum missions.

I’m still intrigued by this idea. It’s a true “content management system” for a museum — beyond a web CMS, or collections, or a DAMS that’s only image and video — that contains all types of museum content/activities. Each bit would be tagged to the collection and/or to people. This idea grew from a conversation on “The Museum Full Stack” with Ed Rodley, Jeff Inscho, Bryan Kennedy and Koven Smith.

Really? I know. You need to sell tickets and such.
But social doesn’t work for it, and you’re missing an opportunity.
Social is immediate and ephemeral, but its real value is long-term relationship, connecting with the collection.

sources: topbottom

For-profit marketers recognize that social’s no good at selling.
To them it’s about “content marketing.”
Businesses are hiring teams of writers, editors, and experts in order to create content that generates goodwill.
Museums have those teams already, and should be leading the way.

Museums, I still love you, but you are so sick of me by now.
Go ahead, stick me in a separate digital department. In the basement.
Soon, you’ll need digital throughout. Most staff already work with a computer, you know, doing computery things.
They need better tools and process.

Yes! You’re right there.
Digital isn’t a fad.
You can’t wait it out, hoping things will go back to normal.
I’d only quibble with the timing.
Digital is the NOW.
Even if there is no technology in your galleries, your audience has changed.
And that’s an opportunity.


So What Can a Technologist Do About Museums?
(I need to give a shout out to Brett Victor, who wrote an essay along these lines about global warming.)
Technologists want to change the world for the better, and I think they can do that by helping museums.

Global warming was a meme at the Openlab Workshop. In some cases it stood in for how GLAMS can address the world’s most pressing problems. I’m interested in how we can channel the interest of technologists who want to change the world. They can devote themselves to global warming. They can also apply their skills to cultural heritage.

Together, we should provide a resource that answers these questions:
What are open problems in the field? (Not just the solutions.)
Who’s working on which projects?
What are the fringe ideas? (These, I’m sure)
Let’s share in-progress project information to jumpstart innovation and get more people involved.