CultureTech
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Atrium Ceiling, The Met Cloisters | 📸 Christopher Vicini

"Innovation is saying no to 1000 things." —Steve Jobs

Innovation is one of those words that gets thrown around way too much. But it's not just a buzzword — it's a survival tactic that is becoming more and more crucial, especially in the arts. Some may say that the arts don't have the same relentless focus on innovation like insurance, banking or payments; but I'd counter that argument by pointing to the incredibly innovative technologies and collaborative marketplaces we have seen emerge in music, film, books (e.g. streaming, e-book readers, self publishing platforms, etc). …


A series of permanent collection images from various museums, eventually eclipsed by “No Image Available” icons
A series of permanent collection images from various museums, eventually eclipsed by “No Image Available” icons
Sally King McBride, 2020

Précis: As museums close their physical spaces due to the mandate of social distancing, their digital collections take on unprecedented importance: sustaining their audience engagement, enabling ongoing scholarship, and inspiring all of us to #museumfromhome. Might the full digitization of a museum’s permanent collection be a worthy priority going forward? — a means of virtual art conservation and future-proofing the collection.

“We are only as valuable as the information we keep.” So noted Elizabeth Gorayeb, Executive Director of the Wildenstein Plattner Institute in a compelling keynote delivered on March 5, 2020 — just a few days before New York City declared a State of Emergency. Her words, which kicked off a day-long conference entitled “Digitization and the State-of-the-(Art)World,” would take on a much weightier context the following week, when museums across the country shuttered to visitors, and the movement to #museumfromhome emerged for art-lovers everywhere. …


If records cannot be accessed or shared online, the very mission of the museum is at risk ⚠️

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Artwork: Christopher Vicini

Just before the White House announced “15 Days to Slow the Spread,” museums across the country announced temporary closures to protect their staff and the public from the coronavirus. Large and medium sized museums from The Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Seattle Art Museum pledged to pay staff during the closure. By March 18th, The New York Times reported The Met’s projection of closure through July; and a $100 million dollar shortfall due to lost revenue — nearly one third of their annual operating budget. Prior to the virus, The Met projected a $3 to $4 million dollar annual loss. …


Pushing through what stops most from trying something new: overthinking and feeling awkward

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Rowel Spur ca. 1400, French or Spanish, Catalonia from The Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Collection

I like to experiment with open access art, and a few years ago, created an Instagram account with the intention of following only museums. I live in a small area outside of Seattle, and it’s unlikely that I’ll actually visit all the museums I follow, but the account gives me a window into inspirational art, exhibitions and creative projects from more than one thousand museums.

In the last two weeks hashtags #visitfromhome and #museumfromhome started coming up across museums with greater frequency. For museum professionals that are posting, it’s a way to document how they’re approaching the museum now that they’re working at home. I was moved and impressed to see museums like the Peabody Essex and the Exploratorium in San Francisco posting about donating masks to hospitals. …


How do we win the tug of war with time?

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This Egyptian wall painting from the wall of Tomb 15 at Beni Hassan appears to depict toss jugglers. Illustration from “Illustrerad verldshistoria” by Ernst Wallis et al, 1875

Have you ever noticed how calm circus jugglers look; as if they wouldn’t even notice if a ball dropped? Maybe it’s the same for entrepreneurs. Each one of the tasks at hand is important: which one to spend time on when? Where and when NOT to spend our time, at least at that particular moment? Startup leaders have varying tasks dividing up the days, weeks and months as they work to get a business off the ground. Business & technology strategy, investor pitching, technology development, talent recruiting and managing- all are central. And so much of our time must be spent cultivating, selling to and learning from customers? …


When museums add transparency to ownership records and the copyright determination process, they can reduce risk — and increase confidence in the creative re-use of art by the public.

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Edgar Degas, Frieze of Dancers, c.1895 | Cleveland Museum of Art Open Access Collection

If you’re developing a publication or an image based product, but you’re not confident about how to confirm whether a work of art is in the public domain, frankly it’s easier to just stay away from using art entirely.

Museums including the Barnes Foundation, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Cleveland Museum of Art work hard to provide free re-use of public domain works in their collections. However, for the person who wants to re-use the work, the fine print says determination is at the risk of the person who deploys the materials.

“Copyright is really hard, and sometimes you just need someone to say, it’s going to be okay.” …


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.

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.


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Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

Much has been proven and documented about museums being trusted as brands and as sources of information; surpassing the media, governments, NGO’s, and other traditionally trusted institutions. It makes logical sense: museums, along with libraries, are the world’s leading record keepers. They track the history of human achievement through collection, curation, preservation, annotation, access to and protection of creative expression, which we all value as human beings.

And yet, some people working in the museum world, along with benefactors and art collectors express self-doubt about cultural heritage institutions. Are we keeping up with technology? Are we adapting quickly enough? Are we doing enough to advance our record keeping? How do we strike the right balance between providing access to collections and control over ownership rights, appropriate use, and proper attribution? Is our data as accurate as it should be? For some, this self-doubt leads to a lack of self-respect for museums themselves. This may be acceptable if you work at a museum, are on a museum board, volunteer or donate; you are already supporting the important mission of cultural heritage. …


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A few years ago, I was browsing an art gallery on Cape Cod and started to talk with the artist/proprietor of the gallery. I asked her if she knew any artists whose work had been used without their permission. She laughed and said she knew few artists who had NOT had images of their work stolen and used without their permission. She went on to tell me a harrowing tale of suing over one of her own works, which had been misappropriated, only to hear from a judge in court that she had no proof of copyright (even though he didn’t doubt her assertion that she had actually painted the work in question). The judge explained that without verifiable record of copyright, there was little she could do to assert her ownership rights and protect the use of her art. …

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