Wednesday, October 06, 2021

Are Museums a Cult?

 Yesterday I gave a talk about if museums are cults for Museum Computer Network. I’ll put my notes at the end of this blog post. The talk had come out of a Twitter thread, as too often happens to me. I’d been sitting in a meeting, listening to people discuss if the labels should match the wall color, and I was feeling very strongly on the subject. And, I couldn’t help but laugh at myself. How had I come to this point in my life? I’d drank the Kool-aid, I suspect.

But like so many of us, it’s truly wearing off. I’m still pretty hyped about labels, but more and more I see that I’ve long missed the forest for the trees. I’ve gone astray a bit. I’ve forgotten that these little arguments might keep me from making real change. So, why do I get caught up in those little things? Well, first the system is set up that way. So much of our field spend 1010% of our time on exhibitions. The roller coaster of work and energy is so exhausting that we can’t even begin to think about systematic change.

Second, we might not be asking ourselves the right questions. It’s not just if this label is the best, but also is this whole thing working. I once asked, and only just recently, do we need to do exhibitions? It was really just a thought question. And, everyone in the room looked at me like I’d sprouted an extra head. We then talked through the idea. We decided yes to exhibitions to offer audiences new art and new ideas, but maybe we could have a schedule that was humane to staff.

In the end, this is what will help us improve life in the cult of museums. Thinking hard about why we do these things and then finding out what really matters.


Are Museums a Cult? (the numbers corresponded to the timer on the Ignite)


This talk starts with a pre-test.

Put your hand up. Answer the following questions about your museum with a yes or no. Put a finger down for each yes.

Do some People claim to have a special corner on the truth? 

Are you told not to question leadership?

Do people speak dismissively about those who aren’t “museum people”? 

Are finances transparent? 

Are there special requirements to get ahead? 


If you answered yes to most of these questions, you might have a problem. These are the same questions they ask people who might be in a harmful group or cult. 


There were a few months this year where I thought I can’t have one more scathing museum article about someone I know in the times. I ached for my friends. I ached for my field. And, I felt impotent and lost. 


I got to museum bc I loved art. I loved the ideas around art and I loved sharing those ideas. I figured everyone here was the same—excited to share. Then, I got into museum work. I found that people were only excited with sharing if they could control every aspect of learning. Sharing with parameters is not true sharing. 


It was disheartening. I realized the field often preferences things to people. Given the capitalistic matrix we live in, I shouldn’t have been surprised. But I was. I was also saddened. 


And I wasn’t alone in my disillusionment. Everyone I knew was wondering if they were in a field that was problematic. We went into this field for good. And we were wondering, if somehow, our idealism blinded us. If we were on the side of the good. 


I started wondering was 2020 the great cataclysm of our field. The standoff wasn’t quite as dramatic as Jonestown or Waco. But, those big cult combustions have one thing in common with the museum reckoning of 2020. 

9 and 10

Stepping back a min, What is a cult? The term is somewhat problematic, but in this context, it’s a useful thought tool. Cults are groups that highly control their adherents to maintain the power of the group leaders. Outside voices are minimized so they status quo can be maintained. Change is avoided by squashing dissent. Ideas are vetted through the cults thoughts, and so not critically considered thoroughly. 


Much of the premises of our field are buoyed by excluding ourselves from the world, just like in cults. We work in echo chambers. We vet our plans amongst ourselves. We try to make the best museum experiences without really questioning if the museum experience is the best option. 


As a field, we’re in a crisis. Why? Because of the system. It’s trained us, not unlike a cult, to question only enough to keep the system going. It requires sacrifice from most people, and certainly doesn’t sacrifice for Us. 


The system sucks. The system gives a few people great tax breaks by giving a few more people the chance to do scholarship. It’s a system reinforcing scarcity. And like all hierarchical systems, it needs a whole lot of other people to get less, and have less say. 


Basically the system has been supported by the idea of special power. But this system has not led to universal successes. It’s seen declines in visitors. This system that once lauded a special few educating masses is no longer doing that. The investment isn’t worth it, without change. 

15, 16, 17

We must deprogram ourselves together. What does this mean? 

Deprogramming ourselves means we need to question why we do everything. We need to be critical about every aspect of our work, and no one person can be the final answer. Sure you studied that artwork but you won’t even look the cleaner in the eye, so you don’t get to be the final say on the interpretation. Sure you tell a great tale of dinosaurs in a science journal, but you don’t understand business, you will need to honor someone else’s ideas.Sure you are a fancy person from Europe with a design degree, but you don’t shop at Jewel or CVS, you can’t be the only voice in messaging for our audiences. 


Deprogramming means not centering all power in singular leaders. It means not giving in to whims of curators. It means honoring those whose knowledge comes from interacting with people (rather than books). It means standing up to donors. It means looking at our budgets critically, and reassessing who gets money.


More voices means more success. More shared decision-making mean better decisions. More honesty means more trust. 


It means leaving the cult of the past and moving to an open new future. 

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Six Things I Learned from the Pandemic

The start of a fiscal year for me holds the same promise as new day planners and brand-new shoes, and at the same time, the trepidation of blank pages and wide-open stages. I love the idea of planning and doing great things, but there is also the fact that you must plan and do great things.

This start of a fiscal year, though, is quite different than previous ones, I’d suggest. We’re a bit like the tiny mammals looking out onto the land after the destruction of the dinosaurs. Life did go on, of course, and in fact proliferated, as evidenced by me sitting here typing this mediocre metaphor. I use it though, because so many of us feel the field has been smashed. There is no denying our field has seen cataclysmic change. And we need to be honest about how many people are not in the field right now, due to this change. I’m like a lot of lifelong museum pros, achy and exhausted, excited and hopeful, nervous and jaded. All the feelings are in there, rattling around my brain.

While we may never have exactly the same confluence of events that caused the field-wide problems in 2020, it doesn’t mean we can’t learn. Finding some growth can help us, if nothing else, feel like it wasn’t all for naught.

As we pick up the pieces, which ones shall we keep?

1.       Working fast is not bad: Museums take 5 years to plan an exhibition. These long-time lines encourage deep research and careful publication. There is value in allowing time for ideas. But we learned that short timelines have different value. They can help museum respond to current moments. They can also allow museums to be freed of having to do a catalog or having to create deep content on the web. Balancing both could give museums the best of both approaches.

2.       Digital is an audience: Many museum leaders see digital as basically a way to entice people to see the real thing, in their mind. In a museum culture that so often wants to see itself apart from plebian concerns, I find this model of digital amusingly transactional. It’s not unlike the way stores do product placements with influencers to get you to purchase a product.  In 2020, many people did digital as an end itself. They didn’t think of it as subsidiary to a visit. And guess what, they gained new audiences. Those audiences may never visit. That’s okay.

3.       ‘That’s not how we do it’ is made up: Museum norms have been built up over decades. We don’t do many things, just because we don’t do them. We don’t show community art in our galleries, because we’re a museum. We don’t let people draw from the collection, because we’re a museum. We don’t give away art supplies, because we’re a museum. In this year, in order to stay viable, museums across the country did many of these things we just don’t do. And the field not only survived but thrived. Which norms can we eschew?

4.       Many hands: Many museums had to pivot and spin and get real dizzy this year. Some of us figured out spreading out the work, and the authority, made these fast changes easier. Leaders who limped to the finish line with a shred of sanity likely found ways to share authority. I’m truly thrilled when colleagues solve things and drop me off the email chains. My job isn’t to manage every action; it’s to ensure everyone’s actions are in keeping with our strategy.

5.       Work is about Outcomes: I do not care where and when my team does their work. It doesn’t matter if they’re on their desk, in Greenland, or on the moon. As long as they show up at events and meetings, and the work gets done, why should I determine their work process? Each human is different. Expecting people to all work the same is based on our historical labor frameworks, born of the industrial revolution. Innovation won’t occur by setting up systems based on old ways of thinking.  

6.       Community is not just a buzzword: Community is coded language and usually racially and socio-economically fraught. Museum professionals often used it when they couldn’t say the qualifiers they are thinking. But, in 2020, it became all the people we’d like to connect with. It became an imperative instead of smoke screen. Museums became vaccination spaces, food banks, and tutoring sites. Museums became the community spaces they’d been claiming to be all these years. It’s this last lesson which could be the foundation for a better field. Will we actually make this happen? 

Have more ideas? Share your lessons with me on Twitter @artlust. And now for something completely different:

Do’s in Museums ##museummoment##internationalmuseumday##museumtok##museumtiktok

♬ original sound - Akron Art Museum

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Six things I learned about museum work from our three months on TikTok

My team and I have wanted to do TikTok since 2019. We launched into the platform, finally, in February of 2021. This weekend marked our three-month anniversary. In that time, we had 1.5 million views and 112 K likes. We are definitely still a small museum account with only one thousand followers, but we have the seventh and eight most viewed #museumtok videos. (Also, you can watch TikToks on your browser if you can't get yourself to download the app.)


##duet with @anouarchelabi_ ##arttiktok##arthistorytiktok##learnontiktok##museumtok

♬ SugarCrash! - ElyOtto

Here are my reflections of our time:

1.     Don’t let the bureaucracy be the enemy of the joy: In some Clubhouse talk in January, Mar Dixon mentioned that administrator often muck things up. (As an administrator, I decided, well, I don’t want to be a stereotype ;>) Her comment really points to the fear of risk in museum. We often really want to get it perfect before putting it out there. I get the impetus, honestly. Our stakes can feel higher. We have fewer resources and no R&D departments. People might visit us once in a lifetime. But, what if you ignore those stakes? You focus instead not on the negative, but the possibilities. Then you become centered on plenty and action.

2.     Lose control: Much of this last year of museum work has been adding content to platforms. Museums are pretty used to controlling all the variables to retain their norms. When we left our galleries for Facebook, et al, we had to break out of our norms. Opening this up was good for us, or can be, if we take some of those lessons back to the galleries. The biggest lesson has been that the lack of control can be freeing. When you share your content to anyone, anyone can engage.

3.     No one cares about us: Tiktok is a watchers market for content. The two biggest #ArtHistorytiktok accounts are run by, perhaps, grad students. I imagine showing those videos to curators I’ve known. There would certainly be apoplexy and disgust about the approach and the content. But guess what? No one cares about museum. A museum account won’t get more views than a random person, because largely institutional authority has no weight in that platform. This lack of power is actually freeing. You aren’t bound my our field hang-ups.  For creators, this can be a bit of a balancing act; to be like them but keep our core competency (of research-based content). But, if you can manage it, the rewards are great.

4.     Adapt: So often, before this year, I saw museums trying to plop museum content on digital to match their desires, rather than the users needs or the platform’s norms. In this year, I’ve seen so many organizations truly catch up with the times and adapt. For example, on Tiktok, dueting others is a common norm. We used that to do art appreciation, and then link to collection objects. Historically, we’d have started with the collection object. It was a different way from our norm, but we decided to be flexible. It definitely increased our views considerably. The algorithms are no joke, so this transformation was essential to success. But, now we’ve shown ourselves we can adapt. So, where else in our field can we use this knowledge.  

5.     Enjoy: Our social team started with watching many videos. Teenagers playing music on upturned bowls, parents acting like fools, cats chasing dogs—we were there for all of it. We laughed and laughed in meetings, where my team tried to explain much of pop culture. After a year of loss, we really needed the good feelings. I can’t say we’re experts on this. Many museums are killing it on Tiktok, but that wasn’t the point. We could message each other about our successes and missteps.

6.     Make Mistakes Over and Over: Tiktok values authenticity. Polished videos don’t get better traction than mediocre ones. It forces us to really rethink the value of the polish we use everywhere. In one of our videos, I said, “the blue is really blue.” I’m actually a credentialed art historian. I could have been a bit more articulate. But, honestly, that video wouldn’t have done as well. Many of our mistakes were really just tests. We are trying content and then trying new content. We’re letting the stakes me low and therefore the gains can be high.

Should your museum do Tiktok? I honestly couldn’t tell you. We could do it, because we had the capacity and the desire. We wanted this for ourselves. What instead you should think is, what is something that will help us continue to push our desires forward? What is something that will increase joy and success for my team after this terrible time? What is something that will show our visitors that we’ve grown? What is something that puts a bit more good out into the world? For us, one of those things was Tiktok.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Why do we keep working in museums?

I’ve been asking myself this question for months. I read this post by Jeremy Munro, and it hit me hard. I wanted to share it with all of you.


First off, I want to say that the following is meant to be inspirational – I personally make myself feel better about my life by putting everything 10,000 feet in the air.

TL;DR A lot of really shitty people hate museums and hate that museums would even attempt social justice therefore museums are okay, maybe.

With how negative and cynical many museum professionals (especially myself) sound about museums on Twitter and in other professional spaces the question that follows is:

“Why do you keep choosing to work in museums since you think they are so awful/bad/whatever?”

For what it’s worth I think the subtext of this question is great. It is well documented that most jobs in museums pay poorly. Even jobs like HR, finance, administration, or security often pay less than their private sector or public sector counterparts.

Gainful, full time museum employment is also notoriously difficult and competitive.

Due to those two facts, it’s fair to say that for many of us it isn’t *just* that we need a job in order to make rent.

Thus the reason we stick around must be something else. Something so powerful that we put up with the low wages, job insecurity, poor benefits, toxic culture that is often racist, sexist, ableist, or homophobic, and generally dedicating ourselves to institutions run for and by rich (white) people who might enjoy art and think museums a public good with their right hand, but with their left don’t live up to those values and actively participate in the wholesale grift that is the contemporary art market where value as investment is prioritized over anything else.

This question was rolling around Twitter the other day and I wanted to square my own desire to leave the field with my desire to stick it out. I often talk with my partner about how museums are bad, which, as a sentiment, people in my life often struggle with. “I like museums, they’re fun” they say and that’s an absolutely legitimate and correct sentiment.

There’s an extent to which the problems of museums are the problem of any industry, we know how the sausage is made. However, being aware of the problems of A Thing That Exists is actually the ultimate sign of a healthy relationship to it. People are very aware of the rabid fandoms around various mainstream geek culture, things like Star Wars or Marvel movies for example. Often extreme fans of these media properties refuse to tolerate any serious critique. This emotional response is a sign of an unhealthy relationship to cultural production.

Cultural production, that is, music, art, media, anything created by people that people are into is at its best when people can accept that they love that thing so much, that it means so much to them that they are willing to pick it apart, that they are willing to hold two (or more) thoughts at once.

  1. I like this thing it is good
  2. This thing has issues, nothing is perfect and in fact by examining those aspects I can relate to it better

I do not mean to say our parents, partners, or friends have an unhealthy relationship to museums. I do not think most people in our lives or most people in society relate to museums in a rabid fanbase kind of way. However, I think most museum professionals consciously or subconsciously draw strength from:

“Museums or cultural heritage organizations have all kinds of problems and I stick around because I know they can be better. This is my role in making a better world.”

This passion that cultural heritage workers bring has been taken advantage of for decades and is the source of low wages and poor working conditions. Many people in power tell us only the passionate need apply. However, our passion, aka “how much we give a shit” is also our greatest weapon.

Museums and culture more broadly are valuable tools that human beings have to resist oppression, to endure through tough times, and to flip the table back on oppressors when we have the advantage and ability.

I was struck today while reading an interview with Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch at how the notion of a grandson of a southern sharecropper founding a museum on the National Mall dedicated to the story of African-Americans would be absolutely anathema to every inveterate racist that has ever lived or continues to draw breath. The National Museum of African American History & Culture is only a few miles from the former home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee (the site of Arlington Cemetery if you didn’t know). In several directions only a few miles away hundreds of thousands of people fought, bled, and died horribly over the question of would slavery (and the domination of a landed aristocratic white elite) last. In a different sense this was a war about who gets to be not just American, but viewed as human.

Image of Google Maps showing the proximity of the National Museum of African American History & Culture and the former home of Confederate General Robert E. Lee

Hundreds of thousands of slaves fought their own part in that war, whether explicitly as soldiers or impressed laborers. Many rebelled against their masters and put the plantation house to flame. Many others endured as resistance. Now, there is a museum that tells that story and thousands of others on the National Mall. Lonnie Bunch said “The Mall is where America comes to learn what it means to be an American” and I *think* museums broadly seek to do this but for humanity.

In so many ways what it means to be American or even human, explicitly, is awful, whether it’s the continued attempted genocide of Indigenous peoples, systematic oppression of African-Americans, or any other terrible things people are responsible for nationally and internationally. That might be what America *is* and it’s easy (and I am guilty of this most days) to think of the National Mall as a site that “cleans up” the American Image.

I would refine the Secretary’s quote a tad. The National Mall and museums or cultural heritage institutions writ large are where we learn about what America or human civilization has done, but more importantly what it could be.

The very existence of sites like the Vietnam Memorial, National Museum of African American History & Culture, Holocaust Museum, and many others around this country is a testament to the continued dream of a better world. They are bulwarks and continued rebellion against any ideology which seeks to divide who is and isn’t human in order to conquer and oppress.

Again, to be absolutely clear, museums very rarely hit these high minded ideals, at least actively. Many museums perpetuate violence against marginalized people everyday. 

But I console myself that a lot of hateful and power hungry people look at many of our institutions and hate that they exist. They hate that people like us work in them, especially for our colleagues who have a different skin color than mine. The very survival ideology that says a better world – for everyone – is possible is a threat and culture has always been the razor edged sword in the hand of the oppressed and marginalized.

Our victory is our work. Our testament is our attempt. Our gospel (meant in the classic sense of “the good news”) is the lives we lead.

I stick around in museums because this is what I do. I am one person in a long long line of people tasked with transmuting the culture of what came before and that work has NEVER been clean, easy, or ethical. Yet, the attempts matter and the next time I wake up and don’t want to do my job and think that basically everything museums do is irrelevant or in the interest of the rich and powerful I’m going to remind myself that we, the museum professionals and concerned public are the thorn in their lions paw and only we can remove the thorn because we put it there in the first place.

I’ll close with a quote, it’s from a really weird thing. Don’t Be a Sucker! is a short educational film produced by the U.S. War Department in 1943 and re-released in 1947. It’s a very strange film as it is profoundly radical for something produced by a U.S. Government agency.

“You see, we human beings are not born with prejudices. Always they are made for us, made by someone who wants something. Remember, somebody’s going to get something out of it, and it isn’t going to be you.”

In the Civil War most of the wealthy planter class survived the war and regained their status once Reconstruction ended. Many generals like Robert E. Lee or Nathan Bedford Forrest (the first leader of the Ku Klux Klan) lived out their lives to old age. 

The young men who fought to defend the institution of slavery and white supremacy died in various locations, but mostly they died in what is now a fairly short drive from the National Mall. Many of these men were also inveterate racists and should not be lionized in the slightest, but all white supremacy gave them was a battlefield amputation or a mass grave, likely somewhere in Virginia or Maryland.

The paramount mission for us, as museum professionals is to enlist the public in using culture to fight the good fight against the forces that wish to divide us, pit us against one another through white supremacy and capitalism, and constantly tell us a better world is *not* possible.

If you made it this far, thank you for indulging in me being On One.

Written by:

Jeremy Munro aka Porchrates on twitter dot com. I work in museums doing collection database management, digitization, DAMS stuff, and more. Like many museum professionals I wear many hats, sometimes comfortable, sometimes they’re cheap birthday hats where the string digs into your chin.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Reflections on 2020

Learning from challenges is one of the hardest things for me. I can’t help but wallow in my mistakes and relive my frustrations. So, if you’re not quite ready to learn from 2020, that’s fine. Also, if you have quite got it into your mind to think about The After, that’s okay. But here are some of my reflections from this year in museum work:

Camp Life: I came to camping late and through my children. What I thought of as dirty and cold often turned out to be that way. But, also, it was fun to put whole potatoes in roaring fires and eat wild blackberries. Much of this year has been a bit like camping. We did many of the things we did before, but with many fewer resources. Some of those things were about as much fun as going to the bathroom in the woods, but others were as magical as sleeping on the beach under a forest of stars. We probably won’t entirely be able to assess the latter. It will only come to us later.

Grief: My most significant take away from this year is that grief in the professional sphere is real. I’ve had plenty of personal work problems, as anyone would. But those were localized. The widespread national loss we’ve felt as a field is enormous. The long-term ramifications of this year on museums will transform the field.  

When People Show You Who They Are, Believe Them: When we experience fear and loss in our personal lives, we also got to experience people acting like themselves. This was not also welcome. Some people came through their worst work experience by making it worse for others. Others didn’t. I appreciate the latter.

We’ve been hurt: I asked people for their museum trigger words. Wow, did I get a response. Many of the words were ones that we’d used and overused. Community anyone? We’d denuded these words to fit our agendas. We’d transformed their meaning to fit our context. We’d said them and meant something else. But, mostly in that enormous, edifying thread, we’d not done right by ourselves. By not saying what we meant or using language to mask our intentions, we’d decreased our ability to do good.

We’re Careworn: In that thread, too, I noticed how part of the reason we felt triggered by language was that we cared. People took advantage of our desire to do the work we cared about. We got little out of our care; many were too low on the rung (or not in curatorial) to get credit, and most of us were underpaid.

Change is Possible: We were change and risk adverse, until we couldn’t be any more. For example, we like subtle signs until it was life or death. And it didn’t kill us to add more signs. That should be a sign that many of the things we were dragging our feet on, we’re worth it. 

The Future: I’ve not been so exhausted about thinking about the future since I was a senior in high school. It’s uncertain, and it feels out of my control. Like with college admissions, I did have some control over my grades and my essay, so I was partly in control. I just had to admit that to myself. Similarly, our future is somewhat in our control.  I’ve been thinking a lot about 2006, one-half decade after 9/11. If you asked me in 2001 where we’d be, I’d have no idea what exact changes would come out of that transformative moment in society.

Similarly, I don’t have the foresight for what 2025 will be like. I’d be careful not to say your guess is as good as mine. Once you feel ready, you should start making not only educated guesses but also educated actions.

In the dead of winter of this terrible year, this is the moment to start creating your hopes for the future. You can put into place small changes. You can combine forces with others to put in place larger ripples. You can improve yourself. You can start planning for the better. 

Said, differently, the future can be the one we collectively make. It won't get better anytime soon. But soon is when we need to act to make it better. 

One change, I’d love is more collaboration. For example, I have an idea that we have all this great content we produced this year. I bet together we could come up with something, like an online course, to meet the needs of people in what will be a long winter. Interested? Join me. (

What are your biggest takeaways from 2020? Also, would love to hear your favorite blog posts (from other blogs) about museums from 2020, so I can give them a shout out. 

Friday, December 11, 2020

Games Games Games

 Museums have used games to engage visitors for decades. From full on role playing games to scavenger hunts, games can be digital or analog. Barry Joseph and I chatted games this week.

SR: I came to games before I came to museums. My grandmother cheated at Candyland and uno. :) Games, I think, have a nice Venn diagram of overlap between museum lovers. There are many game lovers who don’t know they could love museums, and so it’s a great way to encourage new visitors. We have scores of games at work and we were a big part of the hastag #museumgames. We also run an annual game program, called GameFest Akron. I love thinking we're getting new museum lovers through games. How did you get into museum games?

BJ: I love that you knew your grandmother was cheating at Candyland (and that she felt she had to!). Did you know at the time or was that something you realized later, and how did that affect how you thought about games and play?

In any case, when I was a kid, growing up on Long Island, the newly opened Hall of Gems and Minerals at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) was like a mysterious dark cave for my sister and I to explore, ever on a hunt for gems. As a teenager, asserting my independence, my friends and I would take in the train to catch late night showings of Laser Floyd in their Rose planetarium. In my twenties, the museum became quite literally a giant board game in scavenger hunts I designed for my friends (next time you go to their dinosaurs look down at your feet - the floor tiles turn the room into a perfect life-sized boardgame). And now, as a father, the museum has become a place where my children can now experience the same wonders, using our cellphones to take extreme close-ups of exhibits and challenge each other to find the original. 

Which is all just a long way of saying I have ALWAYS treated museums as a game, as a remarkable set of resources for engaging with the world in a playful way. As Bernie De Koven (of blessed memory) once said, “The Path that is best for you is the Path that keeps the best of you in play.” And I have always found museums to be one of those places that keeps the best of me in play. 

SR: What’s the hardest part of making a game for museums?

BJ: Let me flip that around, first. So: What’s the easiest part of making games for a museum? I was fortunate enough to spend a good portion of my six years at AMNH designing games. Games about gut microbiology. Games about pterosaurs. Games about killer snails. Games about the Sixth Extinction, the global food chain, lyme disease, and so much more. There was so much low hanging fruit, it was never hard to find the next scientific system that could be gamified through adapting it as the core mechanic within a digital or physical game. So players got to learn by doing in a social context. 

Okay, so the hardest part? The production system at the museum was not designed to make consumable games. Yes, the department responsible for the web site for kids, Ology, often included simple games, and the exhibitions department designed awesome digital interactives for our special exhibits (which often incorporated game mechanics), but by and large no one was tasked with thinking about the explosion of interest we have seen in the past decade in both tabletop and mobile gaming, and how we as an institution might address that need. So yes, I was able to finagle this, and chat up that person, and get someone to pay for a few thousand card decks, and get them into the store at the end of an exhibit. But there was just no pipeline in place to support each of these efforts and integrate them into the museum product and promotion system. So the hardest part is when it’s not seen as aligned with the strategic vision.  

SR: My favorite part of game design is playtesting. I love when people are enjoying my games. And it is truly edifying, and humbling, when you find your game is more complicated than it needs to be. What’s your favorite part? 

BJ: Most games I have designed through museums have been in partnership - with professional game designers, with high school students, with scientists (and other content experts), and with digital developers (that AR component of the pterosaurs card game was amazing). So for me, the best part is the collaboration - getting to put our minds together and see what incredible experiences we can create for others. That, and not knowing what the game will be like until it’s published. The iterative design process, especially with games, means you can hold on to a set of learning objectives over the course of a development process, but you have to be open to everything else changing along the way. Collaborating with others to look into the abyss of the unknown and have faith in each other, and the process, and to emerge on the other side with something wondrous - you can’t beat that. The game itself then becomes a document of that relationship (for those in the know). 

SR: My favorite games are board games, I think. I love all the collateral you create to make the experience. We have a free downloadable tile game of building your own museum that makes me pretty happy. But, I will say, I also love a game with a story. In an old job, with a colleague, we made a zombie game for museums. It’s hard to describe, but man it was fun to play. How about you?

BJ: What’s my favorite type of game? Forgive me, as I am going to tackle this sideways, as your answer brought up a different question for me: am I a ludologist or a narratologist? While for many the divide has now been bridged - turns out it’s not so binary - but for many years people argued that what made games special is their gamey-ness, the things it allows people to do; meanwhile, others focused on the unique ways games can be used to tell a story. I am big on the story - that’s why I love the new legacy games, like Pandemic Legacy, which uses an evolving board game to tell a rich and engaging story; but that story is mostly told through the ways our range of actions change over time (so back to ludology). In the end the best game to me is one which supports you and I to be the best we can be and together create a story together (the story of the game we just played). (So this is all just going back to Bernie again, and everything he and his colleagues taught me as a little kid in gym class playing New Games).

SR: while I think games are great for museums, it can be incredibly helpful for museum pros to work with others to hone their skills. What are some of the skills that you think help folks design games? 

BJ: Being able to look at something in the world and translate it into a system - identifying its core components and tracing how they interact. And being able to reference games not just from our nostalgic memory (like your memory of your grandmother cheating at Candyland) but critically - as one might see a recent movie and recognize a particular shot is an homage to Citizen Kane - so one’s work can draw upon past precedent but then make it into something new. Also, familiarity with game design techniques, and tools, and exercises, and processes. Then there’s design thinking - lots of design thinking. And most importantly, not being afraid to have fun. 

SR: Over the years, I’ve made all sorts of games, but also taught others to make games. I hadn’t quite thought of it how you just said that, being able to translate something into a system. Often I notice people want to make a game but they don’t quite get that. Like puzzles, people often think of them as games. We make a lot of puzzles at work, and I enjoy making them, but they’re not games. Another Venn diagram here, games can use puzzles but not all puzzles are games. Being able to make an enjoyable game is a lot easier when you have help learning the rules, as it were. You’re working on something that feels like a gift to museum educators and their patrons. Tell us about it.

BJ: That is sweet of you to frame it like that. During this holiday season, I do feel a bit like it’s offering a gift to museum educators around the country. But all credit is due to Games for Change, as I’m just a hired hand to spread their ludological word. 

Games for Change is looking for innovative museum educators to sign up for their new initiative: Game Plan. Funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and General Motors, Game Plan is a new professional development program, designed for our current era of social distancing, to raise museum capacity for using games and game-like learning within youth programming. Along with a modest stipend, Game Plan will provide curriculum, online training, a supportive community, and the opportunity for museum youth to compete in a nation-wide game design challenge themed on the idea of resiliency. 

If someone wants to apply they can fill out this interest form:, read this FAQ, or contact Barry on LinkedIn (or on Twitter at @MMMooshme). 

Author Bio: Barry Joseph is founder of Barry Joseph Consulting, a driving force at both the strategic and the tactical level in digital engagement, youth development and digital learning. For a dozen years, at Global Kids (a NYC-based after school organization) then for six years at the American Museum of Natural History, Barry oversaw the strategy, design, and implementation of a slate of over 100 youth courses that applied the latest technology to engage youth to develop their skills and passions through youth media productions and design practices. He has also worked for over a decade with museums to innovate visitor-facing experiences through iterative design, with a particular focus on prototyping and evaluating cutting-edge visitor-facing experiences. Most recently, as VP of Digital Experience at the Girl Scouts of the USA, he used tools of user experience (UX) and customer experience (CX) to make complexity accessible, supporting the development of a seamless digital customer experience that increased retention and drove new membership. Barry has taught thousands of NYC youth and facilitated over a thousand hours of youth programming, including as troop leader of his daughter’s Girl Scout Troop. His first book, Seltzertopia, came out in 2018, and he often writes about digital engagement on his blog @mmmooshme

Wednesday, December 09, 2020

Looking Back at the Last 10 Years of Social

 In the last week of my senior year of high school, my homeroom teacher pulled out a box and set it on her desk. She looked at the class and said, “These are the letters you wrote yourself your first day of Freshman year.” She passed them out and the sound of shredding and crinkling paper filled the air. I hesitantly opened mine and began to read. It was clear that I grew, I matured, I metamorphosed into something very different in those four years, but more than anything I wanted to go back and tell that girl what to do differently. As I come upon my decade anniversary of managing social media I have a few things to tell the Kaytee from ten years ago. 

Speak up.

I recently saw a tweet from a social media manager that said, “So much of the work we do in social never gets seen (and that can be a good thing). Half of this job is talking people out of bad ideas.” [Tweet url:] 

I like to think social media managers have their hands on the pulse of society. We see and hear the conversations that play out across platforms and between audiences. Early in my career, I would hear bad ideas or be asked to share something I knew could potentially have backlash, and while I did make suggestions, I didn’t truly speak up and say, “Hey! This is a really bad thing and I don’t think we should promote it, or share it, or say it!” 

Over the years I have developed the ability to communicate those “gut checks” and voice it in a way that can sometimes lead to change. Secondly, I’ve learned to speak up for those that aren’t in the room. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have asked myself, are the people who should be part of this conversation here? Are their voices being heard? I’ve learned to do that and not only has it made the content we create better, but it’s also led to policy and structural change within our organization.

Find your community. 

Early on in my career, I was barely treading above water in a sea of social media. I spent years thinking I was the only one who felt the way I did. It wasn’t until I started to attend conferences, follow other people in my field on Twitter, and join online groups that I realized I wasn’t alone. It was like one day I looked up and here came a life raft filled with some of the brightest, funniest, and most helpful people I have met in my life and they pulled me from the water. 

It can be hard to ask for help, especially when you aren’t sure what you’re asking. Don’t be afraid to ask even the simplest of questions, because chances are someone else has experienced it and wants to help. 

You never stop learning. 

You blink and there is a new social media platform. You take a breath and there is a new tool. You take one step forward and you’re somehow five steps behind. Digital communications and social media are constantly changing environments, and at times you will feel like you’re running through an obstacle course. You may get knocked down a couple of times, but you will get right back up. For many, like myself, you will learn graphic design, copywriting, video editing, branding, digital advertising, video production, and so much more. You will be a one-person band that will lead to an outstanding and memorable portfolio filled with some of your best work. 

Give yourself grace. 

You will see the best of people and you will see the worst of people. You will be yelled at and then get a direct message from someone saying the photo you shared is one they had never seen of their great grandfather. In the moments when you feel you’ve fallen overboard remember it’s okay to ask for help, it’s okay to turn off notifications, it’s okay to only work 40 hours or less a week, and it’s okay to talk about burnout. It’s okay to change career paths and sometimes the grass is greener on the other side. 

The truth is I am not sure if I can do this for another ten years, but I know that I am proud of what I’ve accomplished and grateful for the relationships I’ve made along the way. I’ve grown, I’ve made mistakes, but more importantly, I’ve learned from them. 

Take a deep breath... it’s going to be okay. 

Author: Kaytee Smith brings more than 10 years of digital communications and museum outreach experience to her role as Chief Content Officer at the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, where she helps tell North Carolina's story and oversees the department's editorial and content production team. 

Monday, December 07, 2020

Living through the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good Year Okay

I took months off writing. I wished I could say it was purposeful. Instead, it was like a stumble that turned into a topple. It started when I took a single morning off my long time practice of writing for ½ hour when I first woke up. I didn’t even mean to. I just didn’t do it. Like when you step on the back of your shoe, rather than untie and retie the shoe, the back of the shoe is never quite the same. Practices only need to be broken once to be compromised. 

Stopping blogging was also the beginning of my slow decline into burnout. I knew the signs, and yet, the uncompromising culture of 2020 meant there was nothing I could do, but watch it overcome me like a wave. The tsunami of burnout was taking down many people in this field. Every tweet I was reading, every meeting I was attending, everyone I knew--we were all drowning in work and worry. 

My smoldering lack of creativity and productivity went into full flame of emotional trash fire when I let some criticism get to me. Listen, it’s not that I haven’t been criticized. (And, I’d assert criticism and critique are wholly different.) In the year since I took on the awesome task of writing this blog, I’ve often been told I’m not measuring up to Nina. And, hey, she is taller. Mostly, I took that as it was--the truth. We’re different. And, that’s okay. But this year, criticism hurt in ways I hadn’t imagined. 

It’s not surprising. Everything felt amplified, personalized. You might also feel that way. It’s because in the world before the epidemic, you had work and your personal life. You might have been the person who said yes to hobbies and a social life also. Your full life was a combination of personal conditions and personal choices. This year, that fairly full life got a surprise addition--doom. I’m going to mix metaphors, as I so often do. We were like servers, balancing a tray of expensive champagne. We were doing well enough. Then the owner, a person we rarely thought of, decided to add a dozen glass Christmas ornaments, unwieldy and unpredictable, on our tray. Hard, eh? That’s a bit like the way we’ve had to take on the extra mental load of the pandemic. But, then this owner decided, it really is better for everyone if you did this serving thing on skates. (I mean, IG is full of hot chicks on skates.) That is the level up we’ve all had to do with the cultural and economic changes that resulted from the pandemic. Basically, we’re loaded up, then the load gets harder to keep in the air, and then the method of keeping it up hits a snag. We’re doing more, with less, and under harder circumstances. 

The worst thing is that our society sets us up for challenges. Before this pandemic, the world was more productivity, more success, more everything and right now. We weren’t mentally prepared for this crash, skates, glasses, and all into the wall. So we all feel bad for not doing what we did before or think we should do. 

In the weeks that I didn’t blog, I thought of the hundreds of followers of the blog and of Nina. I felt incredibly guilty. I felt like a fraud. I also went into my coping skills. I forgot about you. I ignored museum twitter. And, then the guilt came back. I wondered how I could possibly start again. I feared starting. Then I felt guilty. 

I’m telling you this because I think sharing my struggle might remind everyone their personal struggles are okay. We’re humans in a pretty inhumane society with a human rights problem.

One of my steps back was a comment from someone. They asked me why someone’s negative comment would make me question myself. I really wished I’d written down the person's name who said that. They really jogged me out of my deep hole. I realized for me critique is essential. Plenty of people tell me I’m wrong, incorrect, or plain off the mark. Those people are talking about my work. And, my work isn’t me. The people instead who use their meanness and pettiness, well, those folks shouldn’t matter to me. I mean, we’re dealing with the worst health crisis in a century. We’re looking out for a future where things could be better. I have too much to think of. And I needed to decide those haters just aren’t my priority; they can keep their negativity at their house.  

How did I get to this point where I started feeling a bit more like myself? First, I noticed I was losing it. That comment I mentioned helped. I also had to spend a bit of time thinking about my feelings. I realized that I was a sponge so sopping wet no more liquid to be absorbed. I had to wait until some of the liquid evaporated. I needed time. Then I chipped away at things. I played with ideas. I read and thought. In other words, I filled my personal reserves. Then I reached out. For me, that means, my Museum Computer Network friends. But, we all have the people it feels good to interact with. (If you need those folks, you might consider MCN.)

Then I looked ahead for the next few months. I made a goal that I would take some time away in December. Since much of my time, as a manager, is related to the time of my colleagues, I also tried to set up work to wane in December. After all, I can’t enjoy my relaxation while my colleagues are overwhelmed. My premise was that we were taxed by the constant decision-making since the rate of change was constant. So we tried to get many of our decisions made early or set up systems where we had A or B plans ready. We also canceled many meetings for this month. Another stress was a lack of time for our own labors as well as an inability to get into a personal flow.  For managers particularly, WFH has meant more meetings probably, since you can’t just run into folks. Finally, we also gave us less work. We chose to take a week off social. We decided to pick the easiest way to solve certain problems. 

Now, the choice to do less was hard for me. I like to do more. And, I’m not sure for me, I’d stick to do less year-round. Some people, like me, have a motor in their minds. Doing less feels stressful. So, I’d caution anyone from feeling bad if you read the do less/ productivity is death literature. If it isn’t you, that’s okay. But, even those who feel they need to do a lot at work, need time off. 

This weekend, I asked people how they were feeling:

The overwhelming response was negative.

We’re in a terrible moment as a society. But many museums aren't meeting the needs of their teams:

If you have the chance as a manager or leader to advocate for decreases, I’d suggest it. For the number crunchers, I’d suggest a slow down across the board would lead to more work long-term. Work slowdowns can’t happen by accident though. You have to plan for them. You have to do the work ahead, sometimes, or decrease the work that needs to happen. Then you all need to commit to this. You need to discuss it. I have been talking about our “No decisions December” for months. I’ve had to keep myself from suggesting things that might be “cool” which is also management speak for time-consuming. I had to remind myself that my staff might all feel like oversoaked sponges. I've had to remind myself long-term success is better served by sanity in the short term.

2020 is the terrible, horrible, no good year for everyone. If your organization does a bit less in December and early January, I bet your patrons won’t notice. I also bet your staff will not only notice but thrive after some time away.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Centering Community (NOTES from my VEX talk)

 Recently I had the pleasure of speaking for the VEX conference. After so much deconstruction in the field this year, I wanted to focus on how we could collectively build something better after all this mess. 

Before thinking about our future, I’d advocate that we should frame the future as the “after” rather than back to normal. Our previous situation might have been a certain normal, but for many people this normal was precarity and uncertainty. In fact, many people’s positive normal created other people’s terrible normal. It’s pretty normal for Western museums, for example, display objects taken from Non-Western countries. Normal is not equivalent to best or most ethical, and our future can be something more, better than the past. Hence, I advocate for constructing an after better than our past. Some day, when this “after” is constructed, that will be our new normal. 

So, what is this after we’re creating? I invited attendees of VEX to help me think out what parts of our field we wanted to fix. The first thing they wanted to tackle, and I’d argue the essential challenge of our work, was the relationship between museums and communities. The November/ December 2020 Museum magazine had an interview with urbanist Richard Florida he says “Museums are our community gathering spaces where we explore our differences, learn from our past, and plan for our future.” A cursory look at Richard Florida’s CV indicates he’s never worked in a museum, and I suspect that’s where his optimism about museum’s comes from. 

Most museum workers have the experience of friends and family telling them how “cool” their museum jobs must be because they get to wander through the galleries all the time; most museum workers have had a moment when they realized they’ve gone days without just wandering through the galleries. Museum work is invisible to those not in the field, as are our norms. Florida’s read of museums, unfettered by the gatekeeping and field-chauvinism, as gathering places, therefore, is a useful measure of where we could go. The VEX participants took Florida’s possibility for museums one step farther. Their suggestion was to create a museum that centers the community by making the community part of the museum’s creation. 

Co-creation isn’t a fairy tale but it's a serious commitment to breaking our norms. It requires dismantling the hierarchy of knowledge inherent to our work, placing the community above curators. Donors would be challenged by a community-centered model, losing their most-favored voice status. It would require a commitment from funders and boards to transforming the stakes. But, this transformation could also ensure the long-term stability of the field. 

In getting to this future, I asked the VEX participants where we are now. The community has a hard time feeling they are part of museums, they noted, as one needs to learn how to be part of the museum. Accession numbers on labels, for example, are an example of something museum people expect but require learning for others. Most non-museum people read labels when they’re purchasing items online. Numbers in those contexts are sizes, ratings, and cost. They will use that frame to help them make sense of our labels. Many labels in galleries don’t include scale, assuming the reader can tell the size as they’re standing there. So, for visitors, this number might seem like either a rating or a value. They’re using what they know to make meaning, because we’ve presented them with nothing else to help them. We’re setting up a system where we want them to get our world with little to no orientation. We replicate this type of problem throughout our field. Why? Because we don’t even notice this is a problem.

The first step to an after is to look at the many ways we alienate and exclude visitors in our work. Many of these practices are about physical accessibility. We might choose to decrease seats for object space, for example. We could just as easily preference humans to objects in that instance. Previous precedents toward objects don’t need to stand. We can choose humans. We can decide. 

But, in making these choices, we need to be careful of our motivation. As the VEX participants noted, so much of museum work has up to now been exploitative of community. I’d wonder how much money comes into museums for community projects that stop once the grant money ends. Decreasing exploitative relationships with communities requires a transformation of funding and budgeting. Community engagement lines need to be not only folded into operational practice but also prioritized. In case you need a business argument for this, at some point, your traditional audiences will dry up if you don’t find new and younger ones. 

I asked the VEX community for the worst possible future. One participant, and sadly I forgot to write down their name, said, “othering our communities until we fall into obsolescence.” Many of our practices focus on “museums” rather than people, and we could be on the track for this future. This idea of loss of audiences as the traditional groups die really struck me after the VEX talk. Change happens to you or with you. Department stores were the norm in our country for about a century, and they’re likely to fade into the past or transform. When I was small, we went to SEARS for hammers, dishwashers, and just to browse. It was part of our life. Do museums have this central position in the life of most people? To me, this indicates they’re even more precarious if they don’t change. People might not really miss them. 

The ideal future for the VEX participants is one I really hope for: “A listening inclusive organization that learns and is responsive so as to become an expression of the community.” This future requires museums to be willing to be wrong and not be the authority on all things. Curatorial privilege will need to cede and donors will need to not be centered. Museums will instead need to be authentically welcoming. Because remember what is at stake--our whole field.

Also, if you're interested in thinking more about precarity, might I recommend a podcast: People Change Museums: Precarity.