Tuesday, December 03, 2019

A Decade of Museums and Museum Work

I love alternative history novels. You know, like if this didn’t happen how would the world have gone. I was thinking I’d do a few alternative histories of museums for the first post of the last month of the decade. But I couldn’t get there. As I imagined a world without the many museum tech projects of the decade, I felt inherently sad about the imagining away the successes that friends and colleagues have enjoying. As I imagined a world without Nina Simon’s Participatory Museum, I felt sad about all the visitors whose voices (and post-it note comments) that weren’t honored. I tried to picture an alternative with AleiaBrown and Adrianne Russell’s #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson and LaTonya S. Autry and Mike Murawski’s #MuseumsarenotNeutral. I tried to picture a time before Jen Oleniczak Brown's museum improv company, Engaging Educator, as well as the aforementioned Jen, Mike Murawski, as well as Rachel Ropeik, and PJ Gubatina Policarpio's GalleryThrowdowns. I tried to picture a time when we were okay with only having a sliver of American society walking in our doors. And, well, the whole exercise was depressing.

The last decade has offered us enormous growth in the field. The idea of interactives in the galleries (alongside collections) are now not novel or very controversial. Museum workers other than curators are gaining power, often rising to directors of major museums. People are seeing that collection knowledge should be shared in ways that center the visitor instead of the museum. And, yet, there is so much to do. So, this month, I thought we’d take stock, good and bad, and then look forward to the next decade.

To take stock, let's start with the good/ better, what are ten things I’ve noticed in the field in the last decade:
  1. Social Media isn’t just Marketing’s B@tch: Twitter came about in 2006; Facebook affected an election in 2016. In between those two moments, social media grew, though I wouldn’t say matured. Social media is like cooking; its results are only as good as the ingredients used. Research suggests that effective social media isn’t just about shilling but instead about sharing valuable content. Museum social media managers have spent the decade offering the world some of the greatest forms of interpretive creativity. They are also exemplars of partnership in the field; augmenting reach and showing how big orgs can lift up smaller orgs. Giant collaborative tweetups show we like to work together. Quality examples are #SmithsonianCypher (with Lanae Spruce, leading the campaign strategy, along with the social media managers of all the Smithsonian Institutions, who wrote their own raps) and the Museum of the City of New York's #MuseumSnowballFight (with Meredith Duncan and Claire Lanier starting this good-natured battle). But every time a museum social account responded to another museum we saw this form of collaboration. This work might have seemed easy, but I assure you, being a museum social person is exhausting. The work is 24/7 and the pay can be 7/11. These folks are taking content to the biggest audiences in the field, often without the resources or support of other content creators. 
  2. Museum work is hard work: As mentioned above, social media is a burn out job partly as museums undervalue the labor of those individuals and as such understaff those roles. But those jobs aren’t the only ones that expect more for less. Museum staffers are constantly taking on more work, and getting praised for it, but not given raises. Leaders should be thinking critically about the labors of their staff and working with them to map out long-term workload. Our staff is the way collections come alive. They are also the way we will improve this field. Our teams know what it takes to do their job. Honest conversations are the beginning of more equitable museums. This decade has begun the conversation about labor. Where will it go in the next? What will happen when in the next decade the boomers retire and we've already seen many people leave the sector? 
  3. Collections are not obvious or universally understood: In this decade, the word interpretation was super fancy and important. I’m not a great fan of the term, as it has colonial and hierarchical overtones, but I’m on board for the underlying concept. Collections are not easy to “get”; our curators get PhDs to be able to understand them. We shouldn’t expect our visitors to get them with a 100-word academic chat label. We found many exciting new ways to connect visitors to collections this decade, and there is plenty of work to be done in the ensuing one. About a decade ago, I remember reading "Nuns sat here" at the Detroit Institute of Art as the title of a label for a piece of wooden convent furniture. That label, with its clarity and humor, stuck with me. It was the first time I really noticed a label being modified for the reader. Certainly, there are many more wonderful examples of labels. John Russick of the Chicago History Center runs the annual label contest for the American Alliance of Museums, and those entries are always worth reading. They show the possibilities of text in our spaces, and the ways our writers are using language to include (rather than exclude) audiences. Do you have any particular exemplars of novel forms of interpretation from this decade worth calling out? 
  4. Anecdotally, We Don’t Understand Visitors: This was also the decade of the rise of audience research. A couple centuries into having museums, we’re gotten pretty good at installing collections. We’ve just started to get good at understanding visitors—and using that knowledge to improve museums. It’s that second part that’s the challenging one. As someone who has done plenty of audience research, I’ve seen the way organizations translate findings to barely change their behaviors. Museum staffers often decide to forefront their anecdotal findings, like 'my daughter’s friends thinks', rather than the sound findings of a researcher that contradict their assumptions. (Decreasing confirmation bias will be an important growth opportunity for the next decade.) But with strong leadership, audience insights can be used to transform museums in positive ways. Was there a study that you read this decade that transformed your ideas about the field? 
  5. The next big thing turned out not to be: As the Delorean proved, there are plenty of flops in every decade. Museums put big money into all sorts of apps, screens, and other tech solutions. I’m not of the school to dismiss such experiments out of hand. I think the backlash against “one-offs” should actually be a backlash against leaders who didn’t learn lessons from those experiments and use those lessons in their future experiments. Iteration only works if you create the systems to learn from those tests. (I will also say the other issue about such experiments is that they might siphon money from operations. If done smartly, they can increase audiences, and therefore add the revenue or ability for the museum to do its mission. But, many were not done smartly.) Either way, we tried things and some of them failed. I can think of many one-offs, tech and not, that delighted me. And, delight and wonder are often values these experiments offer our field, but we don't often frame them that way. I have so many one-offs that I enjoyed. The first that comes to mind was Ryan Dodge, then at the Royal Ontario Museum, put a TRex on Tinder. What are some other examples of experiments and one-offs we should remember from this decade? 
  6. Intersectionality, Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion: Museums are starting to think about this issue. I say starting because the road to improving equity in museums is slow. We're still in the additive phase of making museums equitable. We believe if we add a marginalized person, we might not need to look at fundamental change. I suspect we'll look back at the field in 2030 to see that supposition was false. That said, projects like MIA's MassAction toolkit (creators listed here) shows real, important work is happening to make museums more equitable. The work has been brooked mostly by black women and people of color. In the last couple years, I've seen the exhaustion these labors have caused. Some white people have taken up the charge; and some have done it well. But, the work of dismantling white supremacy is for whites, as they have benefited from its systems. Where have you seen DEAI work really excel in this decade? 
  7. Social Justice and Advocacy: Museums are acknowledging their power and looking at how their work is politically charged. Sometimes this happens thanks to public outrage like when the Walker was forced to take down an artwork due to its insensitive nature. Sometimes this happens because a museum staff member stands up and says let's do this politically active installation, like the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History installation that Lauren Bentua, Nina Simon, and other colleagues did about the foster care system. What is your favorite way museums used their power for good from this decade? 
  8. Design thinking, agile, human-centered design: I like problems that can be solved in different ways, but I'm not always good at following systems. Therefore, I'm not necessarily the right person to speak eloquently about the various systemic solutions museums have employed. That said, I love that museums have figured out they should look at adjacent fields for ways to solve their problems. Design-thinking, for example, offers museums a method of including empathy in their work. My favorite adjacent field is systems thinking where you look at all the parts of the wonderful, terrible system that is any given museum. What are some ways you've seen adjacent practices that improve our work in this decade? 
  9. Outreach is often not Engaging: When I first started in the field in 2000, Outreach was a pretty common thing. Now almost two decades later, we've moved to engagement. The change, like so many, was due to good intentions. Outreach centers the museum, whereas engagement makes the museum nebulous in its position of authority. And, I will say I prefer engagement when it is centered in the community as a way of growing audiences. Some museums are doing engagement right, and I can think of a few. But what are your ideas? Who is doing engagement best? 
  10. The cost of expansion: The biggest issue, I think, this decade was money. Many people were in the throes of expansion. Raise your hand if you worked out of your trunk, learned your space was value-engineered away, or watched development turn their energy away from your department toward capital campaigns. Many, many organizations were building or living with a new building in this decade. These new spaces allowed us to get staff on capital budgets, ask for money for groundbreaking projects, and attempt new feats. They also meant we had to find new revenue streams and deal with increased operating costs. I do believe when planned for correctly "new" can be good, but that is only when administrators are thoughtful about incremental operating costs (and talk to the people associated with those costs to make their plans). Expansion costs are not like the monster under your bed; you cannot wish them away. Many organizations didn't face them before their growth, and their staff is paying for it now. But other museums are honestly thriving after their expansions. They are finding new ways to make vast spaces feel intimate. They're using the push in attendance as an engine of change. Which organizations flourished after their expansion? 
You might note that I didn't mention tech, despite the ways that tech has transformed museums in this decade. Technology has become part of the fabric of museum work. It qualifies under most of these topics. It is no longer an aside or an add-on. It is part of all elements of the museum world.

Do you have anyone I should call out next month as an examplar of these trends? Do you have a trend you'd like to add? I'll use next week as a chance to celebrate our colleagues and your ideas about the best trends of the decade. 

(Please consider passing on your ideas about exemplars of my trends or your ideas about big trends for the decade. Tag me so I can add your thoughts to this month’s summary post @artlust on twitter, @_art_lust_ on IG, & @brilliantideastudiollc on FB).