Innovation, The Mission, and The Business: Frameworks for Institutional Success at Museum Tech Conference #MCN2016

#MCN2016

Every November since 1967, a homegrown conference called MCN has brought together professionals at the intersection of museums and technology in an American city to discuss digital transformation. This year, MCN took place in New Orleans, Louisiana under the theme “The Human-Centered Museum”.

I have been working in the sector for over three years and have had the privilege to attend the conference for the third time. Over this short time, I have seen the sector and the conference grow dramatically. This post captures my rough takeaways from this year’s conference.

Disclaimer: I attended 14 of over 150 sessions. I was one of over 600 attendees. By no means do I attempt to speak for the entire experience of MCN. Views are my own.

Wordcloud of Conference Session Titles via Tagul

What does a successful institution look like?

The conference started with a keynote presentation by Catherine Bracy, the Director of Community Organizing at Code for America, who focused on the public’s waning trust in institutions in the 21st century, and how we could regain our place in society. She argued that public trust has been lost because of a failure of elites to manage our institutions effectively and fairly, and also because institutions “just don’t work for us anymore.” Most poignantly, Bracy argues that the organizational structures for governing institutions must change in order to keep up with technological change, and particularly, must begin to take on a networked structure that mirrors that of the Internet, where power is decentralized. She illustrated her point in discussing how political campaigns have changed in recent decades in order to stay relevant and reach people.

via MCN on YouTube

If the museum tech sector were a political system, I’d like to think the two parties running for office would be The Mission and The Business. Unlike with our current Presidential race, both parties rose to the occasion at the conference, offering perspectives that were at times in sharp contrast.

“The Business Party” hammered on the growing urgency for museums to stay relevant by adopting for-profit sectors’ best practices for organizational culture and audience engagement. This argument included tips and tricks for developing effective digital strategies, utilizing metrics to measure success, leveraging sexy new technologies, and optimizing operations through workflow efficiencies and modern business practices. One of my favorite sessions in this vein was Ryan Dodge’s “EPIC CONTENT: How to Build Content that Has an Impact.” Dodge pointed out that online, museums are in direct competition with media and publishing companies like Discovery and National Geographic, but museums have an edge over these companies in that they can leverage their collections, the most supreme content in the world. Perhaps one of the most memorable quotes of the entire conference is Dodge’s charge, “We should be experts in the ‘Wonder Business.’ We need to think about how we can blow people’s minds on a regular basis.”

“The Mission Party,” on the other hand, argued that the lack of trust in institutions is a direct reflection of the erosion of our museums’ civic responsibilities and the potential extinction of social spaces unburdened by consumerism. One session led by independent writer and researcher Seph Rodney directly articulated the point. Rodney utilized decades of a large art museum’s annual reports to trace how its business practices increasingly shape the visitor’s role as a cultural consumer rather than a cultural explorer. He suggested that even if museums are not overtly selling products, their adoption of strategies and tactics from for-profit sectors compels visitors to behave like consumers rather than explorers, researchers, or students. Because museum missions have always been focused on collecting, preserving, and studying objects, as well as educating, engaging, and sharing with the public, the rise of for-profit approaches could be a more insidious reason that museums contend with questions of relevance. This is probably not to say that a stodgy, didactic approach more effectively reaches the public, but perhaps that we need to be cautious about the implications in chasing the consumer model, and in contrast, actively carve out space for robust public discourse and participation.

Museum visitor interacts with a piece by Felix Gonzalez Torres

Unlike with the Presidential election, I’m undecided on this one; I see merit on both sides and don’t believe that our efforts need be mutually exclusive. There was really only one point in which I was shocked at the extent to which The Business side had gone, and that was in speaking with Brendan Ciecko, Founder and CEO of Cuseum, who spoke on the panel “Museums & Incubators / Accelerators.” I missed the session, but Ciecko told me that the panel discussed how New Zealand’s Te Papa Museum had invested in a startup, and the debate turned to the ethics of how museums spend taxpayers’ money. Ciecko argues that museums are already making financial investments that support all kinds of industries that run counter to their mission. Fair point, and one worth further research and consideration.

So what does a new museum do in this kind of culture clash and struggle to stay relevant? I was encouraged by the bright presence of new faces, colleagues from the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). I have admired how this museum engages with the public since reading about the novel way in which it amassed its collection, “Antiques Roadshow” style. In a session called “The Intersections of Social Media, Race, and Social Justice for Programming,” Diedre Cross and Lanae Spruce shared how they used online and IRL spaces to facilitate dialogs and actions around #museumsrespondtoferguson, putting community engagement at the fore of their programming, and enabling more individuals in and outside of the organization to push the agenda. I look forward to seeing how the NMAAHC will continue to lead discussions on how to authentically honor its civic responsibilities, use modern best practices and tools, and stay relevant.

How do museums innovate, what is the impact, and what is the toll on the institution?

Innovation is a reoccurring theme at MCN, and this year was no different with the word itself appearing in five session titles. It has been important to me to clarify what we mean when we refer to innovation — there is the lowercase ‘innovation,’ which essentially means making radical improvements; and there is Innovation with a capital “I”, which refers to cutting edge technological disruptions that advance what is possible globally. With respect to our sector, therein lies the difference between taking the risk of chasing the latest shiny, new technology, versus focusing on improving the organization’s practices based on its own challenges and strengths. To help clarify, this year, I began hearing the term, “Sustainable Innovation,” which at first sounded like an oxymoron to me. But a quick read of the program tells us that we are almost always referring to the brand of innovation that enables us to continuously and sustainably improve our practices — this marks an evolution in our thinking.

I went in to the conference with one thing on my mind: should we be leveraging flashy technology to dazzle visitors and court the press, thereby reaching more people? Or, should we be utilizing stable, predictable technologies that enable original storytelling, thereby investing in a more sustainable reputation for quality? Different institutions have different capacities for risk and innovation. We should all be looking for the edge of this risk capacity and working from there, as museums have an incredible opportunity and responsibility to engage the public in more moving and imaginative ways. For example, most would agree that it is great for our society to be reading about museums in Wired Magazine, as was the case when SFMoMA and Detour launched their new visitor experience in the spring.

Wired Magazine, May 5, 2016

However, after some experience in the sector, I have seen just how difficult it is to sustain the effort required to support new and risky technologies, particularly when the excitement about the technology overshadows the necessary discussion about whether the technology has contributed meaningfully to the visitor experience. Excitement about a particular technology is inherently short-lived, and is often followed by a rapid reduction in support, which undermines the original investment.

In order to support a reputable visitor experience, visitor-facing technology should be lean, adaptable, cheap, and easy to maintain, leaving more resources for public programming and evergreen content production. It is these latter areas where a museum builds its long-term reputation with the public. When faced with the need to improve public outreach, we may do well to resist adoption of inventive, new, visitor-facing technologies and instead pour those resources into better utilizing social media and third party channels for distribution, and making improvements to accessibility, SEO, and localization of content.

In museums, robust data has always been the ground zero of innovation. If innovation is a top priority for an institution, it seems critical to facilitate open access to collection data to directly enable creative modes of engagement with the institution. This topic was addressed on a number of panels at #MCN2016 including one called, “Beyond Open Access: Creating Culture By, With, and For the Public.” I was inspired by Merete Sanderhoff’s presentation in particular, in which she argues that improving access to the collection is the right thing to do because the museum does not own cultural heritage. The Statens Museum for Kunst, from where Sanderhoff hails, actually includes the following line in their Image Rights Policy, “Let Your Imaginations Run Wild!”

An interesting twist on this conversation emerged over Twitter, when Alli Burness pointed out, “I feel like the recent closure of labs (and questions about their sustainability and impact) fits in here somewhere…” Indeed, should a lab within an institution function to improve innovation within institutions or facilitate innovation outside of the institution? What is the relationship between labs and their institutions and audiences? Or, in Don Undeen’s words, “How do we maximize positive impact of our collection in the world?”

***

Overall #MCN2016 demonstrated how museums and institutions must balance strategy and culture, decentralize authority, and create space for their audiences to drive the agenda, all in order to succeed in the 21st century.