Sculptural Frieze of the Met Museum Roof recedes towards the Philip Johnson-designed apartment building on Fifth Avenue
Sculptural Frieze of the Met Museum Roof recedes towards the Philip Johnson-designed apartment building on Fifth Avenue
Photo Sally McBride, 2017.

Working Fast and Slow: Efficiency and the Museum

Adapting to the pace of the digital age will require an acceleration in the work culture of most museums. How can they preserve the necessarily slow rhythm of scholarship while adopting the fast pace of the contemporary professional environment?

Working fast and slow, a riff on Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), which outlined two systems for how humans are driven to think: System 1: fast, emotional, intuitive — the fight or flight instinct; System 2: slow: deliberative, logical. It occurred to me to train this bifurcated lens on the work culture within today’s museums: working, fast and slow. Fast: the institutional need for swift, nimble, revenue-generating activity, more prevalent today than ever. Slow: the curatorial preference for lengthy lead-times and generous pacing in its pursuit of preeminent programming.

Fast and slow. Often, these characteristics divide generally by museum department. The administrative branch of the institution comprises revenue-seeking teams — Buildings, Development, Digital, Membership, Events, Finance — whose work tends to move more quickly, and whose personnel often comes out of (or indeed defects to) the corporate sector. On the other hand, curators are the pinnacle of any museum’s workforce: equal parts scholar, teacher, translator, employing a singular focus on the works of art. In theory, the rest of the museum staff is in service to this shared mission, and by result — to the curators themselves.

A tension can therefore arise between the administrative side and the curatorial. The former is at the mercy of the Board of Trustees to balance the budget and devise new sources of revenue. The latter adheres to its core mission of cultivating a compelling exhibition program, maintaining the permanent collection, and hopefully, acquiring new and relevant works of art.

This tension comes to light in an amusing scene in the film “The First Monday in May,” in which Vogue Editor-in-Chief (and Met Trustee) Anna Wintour consults with some of the museum staff in the days before the Costume Institute Ball. Pointing to a Louis Comfort Tiffany architectural loggia she wants moved before the event, she scoffs, “is this art?” The museum employees, slightly dumb-founded, grin apprehensively. This event will, after all, bring in enough funding for that entire year’s program within the department.

At its best, Slow allows the institution to operate at the height of its scholarly capacity — and importantly, to enable a workforce who often prizes collegiality above compensation, to thrive. At its worst, it breeds the inefficiency and complacency that causes the institution to fall behind the rest of the working world, and to fall back on stale models of philanthropy. In the process, museums can experience considerable brain drain, when talent goes searching for a swifter professional pace, and better pay. Lori Byrd-McDevitt notes the recent exodus of social media managers, in part a result of the potential culture clash between innovative, smartphone-sporting millennials and the staid institutions they’re charged with promoting.

At its best, Fast ensures the financial health of the institution, as well as efficiency within the employee ranks. The process of fundraising for exhibitions and capital projects, putting on a successful corporate event, or opening museum doors to the local community, represent peak performance for this side of the institution. One hopes that these goals can be achieved while maintaining the mission-critical need for scholarly rigor and professional patience. Overall, it’s a mutual dependency one side to another: working fast and slow.

Scott Belsky experienced a taste of this phenomenon first-hand. In his appearance on Tim Ferriss’ podcast, the entrepreneur, author, investor, and Chief Product Officer at Adobe, described the experience of attending his first Board Meeting at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum — an established institution under the umbrella of the Smithsonian, located on the so-called “Museum Mile” of upper Fifth Avenue. By contrast to the numerous start-ups Scott has been involved in, he noted the museum “just moves slowly, in some ways, because that’s how it sustained for so long.” Turning to his mentor and fellow board member John Maeda after their first shared Board meeting, Scott noted he didn’t they accomplished very much in those few hours. Maeda’s reply? “You know, Scott, all of these cool start-ups and things that you’re so excited about doing and building and founding, they won’t be around in 100 years. But this will, and it has been. And sometimes in life you find something where all you can do is add a brick. And that has an incredible impact to something that will be around forever.”

Belsky’s presence on the Cooper Hewitt Board is merely one indication of the museum field’s widespread adoption of and affinity for technology. Everything from ticketing to project management is handled digitally, yet there are still certain workflows that lag behind, and still certain staff members that won’t as readily adapt.

The right technology will be the next brick applied to the museum foundation, bridging the gap between fast and slow. Cloud-based platforms for various workflows — from image licensing to collections management — can benefit the institutions and their employees in a number of ways:

1) Those who already work fast will be aided by more efficient technology, helping them avoid what Google’s Will Koffel has called “cut and paste disease.” (Harvard i-lab, Startup Secrets, 2014)

2) Curatorial staff who jump on board with new time-saving platforms will be afforded more time to pursue their research.

3) Technology can streamline workflows between the two factions of the institution, allowing for common language and consolidated process — and taking staff out of the relentless cycle (and charged emotional terrain) of email.

“Familiarity breeds liking,” Kahneman notes, and technology’s presence in the museum work environment will only become more familiar.

Written by

Partnerships + Communications @CultureTech, formerly @metmuseum. (Practicing artist at sallykingmcbride.com)

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