Tuesday, December 31, 2019

What will our future be like?

Have you ever tossed a coin? I had a friend’s Dad who was a big proponent of this form of adjudication. He’d toss it up in the air. Like a film, time slowed. I watched the coin turn and turn as it flew. Quick hands clasped and then covered the coin. Finally, the reveal and the answer. Head! (or Tails!). He never did it for anything that matter, because middle schoolers rarely allowed Dad’s to decide anything important. But I still remember watching the coin, and wondering, and waiting. In some ways, that’s what the end of 2019 was for me. I’d poured through the various comments on the questions I asked for your predictions of the next decade. But the responses depressed me. Really bummed me out, depressed me. As Susan Spero reminded us, in 2029, our current 12-year-olds would be graduating from college. What would our field be like for them as they go into the work force? Though when I read Susan’s tweet, I did wonder how many people at 22 can get hired at a museum in anything but a part-time job. Think about that. My first reaction was that in ten years we’d still expect graduate degrees to do entry level jobs. Not a very optimistic look at the future of our field. I’m not alone with a jaded attitude toward our future. When polled, many people thought working in the field would feel much the same.
I think the general mood in the field is ambivalence. There are moments of hope, like the work of MASS Action, and then plenty of problems like the Marciano Foundation's closure. There is plenty of good and plenty of bad, and we don't know if as a field we should call heads. The path we take is not completely our choice; though we all have more choice than we might imagine. In trying to make sense of everyone's tweets, I decided to do some preparatory reading. Dear readers, I value you all, but I rarely read 1 book let alone two as source reading for a post. :> First, I read The Optimist's Telescope by Bina Venkataraman, a book about the challenges of predicting the future. In essence, the book said our present grounds so wholly as to bias our predictions of the future. I moved on to The Drunkard's Walk by Leonard Mlodinow, which basically tells me chance is as likely a force in our life as choice. I'm not sure either book helped me write the post, but they did remind me I can only be wrong in the predictions I offer. So what will our future look like? If we toss heads, we'll end up with a landscape very similar to what we have. Many predict there will be more museums:
We'll still be enamored with technology:
We might toss the coin, though, and win. I asked us what our most ardent wish for the field would be. That offered so many positive and exciting possibilities for our future. Mimosa Shah shared her ideas of an inclusive field:
And, many people who took the poll thought our audiences would be more diverse:
This diversity doesn't mean more of everything though. Our leaders have learned to prioritize. We do less better, as Matt Tarr and Susan Edwards suggest:
In short we move from lip service to action, as Scott Stulen suggests:
How do we do this? First, museums start repositioning themselves:

And, they have the money to make these positive changes: The thing I realized as I read those books about the future and how choice and chance interact is tomorrow is always the future. Tomorrow at work you can make choices that make the field a bit better. Every day, you have the opportunity to pivot this field toward equity. Every person in every organization can choose to try to change things. I'm not talking change-maker level stress. I just mean the little choices. You can try to explain your reasons for your choices. You can listen to other people's reasons. You can choose to reply to your staff member's emails. You can choose to smile at your colleagues. You can choose to find ways to create the middle ground. We are all working on the future of this field, every day. As Mar Dixon reminded me, we've been building this future for the last decade: We are the future. It's not up to one giant coin toss. Our future is a million little actions. Our best intentions are useless, but our so-so actions are everything. Any action toward good moves this ship toward a future I want to see. We are charting our course every day. I want to be going toward a positive future. With all of steering this ship, I am optimistic we can get there.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019


In the waning days of the decade, I’ve been inviting everyone to take stock of and make predications for museums. The first few posts of the month have been focused on the decade we’ve all just experienced, and next week, I’ll share everyone’s thoughts about the future.

Today, though, I thought I’d tell you about an exercise I’ve been doing. It started one late evening when my partner was watching something. I’d been reading a novel, only turning an eye to the show periodically. Two episodes in and I was woefully lost with the narrative and even worse off with the characters. Instead of berating him with my queries about the characters, I started spitballing about museums. He’d done his time in various museum departments over the years. He had ample room to counter my bold statements about museums. (Good ideas rarely come fully-formed from one person.) I grabbed my computer, and as he watched fire-fights and interpersonal intrigue, I penned a long look back on what I’ve learned about museums over the last two years.

My post began with some highlights (and lowlights about my career): 
"I’ve been alone with so many famous works of art, I’ve lost count. I’ve seen the backs and the bottoms and the insides. I’ve heard the secrets I can’t share."

And my ideas included:
1. People will give money to educate kids. But many funders won’t give money to turn on the lights. Who cares if it's hard to educate kids in pitch black galleries?

In the week or so since that post, I’ve been thinking a lot about good times. I had wanted to catalog some high points of the field and my career, as an invocation to everyone to do the same. Meditating on good is harder sometimes than bad. Seizing the moment to remind yourself of your worth can be challenging.

But, in the end, I found it hard. Not because I’ve forgotten the good. Quite to the contrary, actually. The good resides in my mind, just at the edge, its happiness bubbling up at odd times. But, the good times for me turn out not to be outcome-based. My CV and my list of happy memories don’t line up at all. I’ve written things and done things, and I’m sincerely proud of my accomplishments. But those outcomes don’t necessarily hold emotional weight as certainly fleeting, unremarkable moments. The times in the last decade that hold the greatest sway are the feelings, and most of these emotions grown from interactions with my colleagues. I wrote about it on Medium a few weeks ago. The post started like this: 
"I’ve spent twenty years in the professional world. I’d had two decades of relationships at work and in social media. Extrovert of extroverts, that translates as scores of people. So many people have come into my life, flowing in and then flowing out."

So to end this week’s post, I’d invite everyone this week to drop a note to a colleague who impacted you in the last decade. Tell them hello and thanks. Or tell them you thought of them. Or tell them a funny story. Just reconnect. The work and the outcomes, the collection and the labors, are what we do every day. But the people we’ve known are often filling in crevices with goodness and laughter. The webs of people who make work happen are integral to our everyday happiness.

Next week, for the last post of the decade, I'll share our thoughts about the future. Join the conversation about the future of the field, here, or on social media. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Worst of Museums for this Decade

Ask and you shall receive. Be careful what you wish for. These two adages were both in my mind last week when I asked people for the worst museum trends.

I wasn't surprised that the worst trends had much more pick up than best. The grass is always greener, as the adage says, or rather, we as people are usually pretty good at figuring out what we lack, what other people have, or what went wrong. Or, I should qualify that. We're often good at seeing the symptoms. The real improvement though is when you can get down to the root causes. On social media, it's hard to get into systemic issues effectively, but maybe people did start to touch on some of the big, bad issues in our field.

Brad Dunn basically summarized the overall themes of people comments. In this decade museums worst trends were in labor and tech:

The issues of work were pretty front and center for people. As I looked through the responses many of the issues were intertwined. The cats-cradle mess seemed to start on some level with professionalization. Suse Anderson spoke about the drawbacks of professionalization:
Even five or six years ago, I think many in the field would think of professionalization as being whole positive. Now, many see the downsides, including crushing student debt along large numbers of credentialed people with few open jobs. Susan Spero brought up the cost tuition rises had to the field:
Many brought up the challenges with museum studies programs, with Rich Ligner responding directly to Susan's tweet above.

The rise in professionalization spurred an increase in museum studies programs, as a way to train future professionals. Yet, the market couldn't support the many, many museum studies graduates that came out. As such, we have more supply than we had demand, and the work places used this as a chance to employe cheap labor.It's brought us to this point where we have a culture of underpaying, or not paying people at, to do professional work. I can't think of another professional field where credentialing is so varied or where portions of the work is routinely done by non-credentialed or unpaid professionals.
For my part, another challenge with museum studies programs is that there is a great deal of of variety in programs. As someone who has often hired professionals, I wouldn't say the benefit of a museum studies degree hasn't always been clear to me. I see a vast range in skills and knowledge depending on the program, and I see many qualified people who don't go to a museum studies program. This complexity highlights the complications we've created around training and hiring. There are many ways to become a museum professional and we don't have uniform measures across programs (like a standard set of board exams).

Now, I'm not exactly advocating for boards, but a comparison helps us see why regulation is important. In medicine for example, there are only a certain number of spaces allowed for residency, and it is regulated by congress. We keep ourselves near shortage of doctors and as such there is great competition for seats. We won't go down the looming problem of the lack of physicians our nation will be facing in the upcoming decades, but instead let's look at museum work. Money is the regulatory mechanism in museums. The number of open jobs is based on the amount of money museums can raise. Philanthropy is changing, with large benefactors giving way to people giving less and earned income increasing in importance. Like medicine, we, in effect, have few job openings. Unlike medicine, which graduates slightly more students than residency seats, museum studies programs graduates scores more students than spaces. This problem becomes compounded by the fact that many museum professionals get paid lower wages and therefore likely delay retirement. It's like we're running a roller coaster where few get off while we continue to allow the queue to form. It makes for sick riders and angry potential riders. IThe whole system is nauseating.

No matter how hard you try to make people happy with cosmetic changes, like team building, as Julia Kennedy mentions, these inherent workforce issues must be solved if the field hopes to continue to evolve fruitfully. We're losing many of our mid-career professionals, and we could find ourselves in very real work force issues. As Susan Spero pointed out, a decade from now today's seventh graders will be graduating from college. What will the museum work force look like when they join our ranks?

 In this decade, instead of dealing with workforce issues head-on, we often focused on the shiny new thing. Technology was the number one worst trend in museums in people's comments. Apps, QR Codes, AR/ VR, Interactives, all our most lauded tech, got mentioned. As Dan Hicks and Paul Bowers said:

The tech became a siphon, taking away resources, and was seen an end itself:
Tech didn't support the museum in its mission to engage visitors in specific goals, like social learning:
Instead museums found themselves at the mercy of the next big thing and the whims of tech firms:
As someone with a horse in the race on museum technology, I spent a great deal of time thinking about these comments and coming to terms with them in some ways. For me, technology and labor were really two sides of the same coin.

Museums spent this decade chasing the future on behalf of the past while ignoring the present. There was so much good in tech, like open data and social media, and as Chris Alexander mentioned museums brought a great deal of technology in house. But, these positive aspects of tech was overshadowed by the pernicious aspects of technology, often swallowing whole budgets in their wake. For many museum workers it was like watching a whole family starve short one.

Likely part of the problem was fundamental to how museums only took the worst of corporate culture:

We, as a field, didn't really slay our demons, not just work force issues but real collections issues (repatriation and decolonization), and instead moved onto new efforts like technology. In doing so, we only exacerated or allowed certain problems to fester:
Without looking at our fundamental system, the whole enterprise could be up for a challenge next decade--your thoughts on that next week.

(Please consider passing your ideas about big trends for the next 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). 

Monday, December 09, 2019

Best of the Decade for Museums

Written by Seema Rao

Last month, I shared some of my thoughts about the best of museums over the last decades. (I admit some of my best included a big of the worst side of the best). This week, I'm summarizing everyone else's ideas about the best trends of the decade. I'll mention now, Kate Livingston, listed Museum Twitter as one of the best things, and I definitely thought this as I read people's responses.

Many respondents talked about a fundamental shift in museums from them to us. We transformed from transmit to recieve. This changed attitude manifested in many different ways. For example, this change included sharing our collections online. As Aron mentioned, this shift required a fundamental intellectual shift.

And, when you make that kind of shift to shared ownership you're willing to share in an open, trusting manner, as Heidi mentioned.
This shift to a more open mindset also created fundamental shifts in operations and programming. As Jeremy mentioned, many museums wanted to be social spaces and made changes to create that culture, and as Andrea mentioned, they created amenities to support this social use.

Our physical transformation was also obvious in our galleries:

Museums also looked for people where they are and how they are, rather than asking people to just receive what the museum wanted to offer. The programs and interpretation changed as a result. Rather than unidirectional from museums out, museums began co-creating with other people, transforming the traditional means of production and seat of power.
It also meant holding programs that were different from our usual MO. Rather than creating all for one content, museums starting looking at the particular needs for specific audiences. (Also, to know more about how you can be more inclusive listen to Beth's #MCNIgnite).
We admitted that our existing programs and hours don't work from most adults, who have full-time jobs and might not want to leave the office to sit in a dark lecture hall. After hours events, for example, required changing the way we did things. The transformation was worth it, as Molly mentioned.
But, these changes above required museums doing a better job of understanding their audiences and listening to them. As Matt mentioned:

Overall, museums allowed ourselves to be vulnerable. Our openness was rewarded each time someone liked our tweets, someone mentioned our interesting programs at a dinner party, and someone brought a friend to our events. We, however, have plenty of room to grow. Next week, we'll discuss the worst trends from the decade. The worker, technology, and money will feature large next week.

(Please consider passing 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). 

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).