A plenary session for the 2013 Museums and the Web Conference in Portland, OR. Together with Rich Cherry from Museums and the Web, this presentation explores responses to a set of questions about what it means to work in museums in the areas of technology, media and the web.
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In the first two posts of this series we examined some of the challenges and opportunities for museums and libraries in an era of participatory culture, and also highlighted a few of the more pressing questionsthat popped up in discussion among colleagues during a recent meeting at the Salzburg Global Seminar.
In a gathering that could ostensibly have been about how technology and social media have changed the landscape of museum practice, I was so thrilled to find that almost all of our discussion focused on how museums and libraries can make significant and lasting changes in our local communities. Working in a museum, I’ve taken that as my context, but many of these issues have important corollaries in libraries as well.
Perhaps the most useful change in my own thinking is an understanding that the era of participatory culture is not a new thing, but rather – enhanced by recent trends in technology – one that has its roots in the very reasons why museums exist in the first place. While technology, social media, and mobile adoption influence the ways that we engage museum audiences and the expectations they bring into the museum, an attitude that invites participation has the potential to transform individual and community experiences that enhance the public value of the work we do.
Why is your community better off because it has a museum?
I’m challenged by the courage and convictions of colleagues I met in Salzburg, who take a commitment to their local community very seriously. Whether helping neighbors recover from devastating storms in the Philippines, reaching out to the homeless and poor communities in Sao Paulo, or bringing libraries to rural Kenya on the backs of camels, I found myself inspired to think about how a museum in Indianapolis can learn from such tangible demonstrations of public value.
In his book “Making Museums Matter,” Stephen Weil talked about a mandate for museums to demonstrate real value within our communities:
“Why is your community better off because it has a museum? [The answer] must necessarily be something more than, because otherwise it wouldn’t. Museums matter only to the extent that they are perceived to provide the communities they serve something of value beyond their own mere existence.”
This topic surfaced repeatedly during the conversations about participatory culture in Salzburg. The consensus among the group coalesced in an assertion that museums have an inherent mission to deliver public value driven by a universal right to cultural access.
It is clear to me that although museums have long enjoyed a privileged place in the public’s confidence, societal and economic changes, as well as the public’s expectation of museums, have significantly augmented the landscape of public value. New questions about what constitutes public value and who sees the benefits of that value need to be considered seriously by those museums that want to see real impact from their effort. Lest we think that the value of museums is secure, the nascent ”occupy museums” movement reminds us that a growing frustration exists with the way museums think about their role in society.
The real test for public value is not what the museum says it is, but rather the value attributed to us by our communities and stakeholders. Simply declaring that the museum is valuable isn’t a substitute for actually demonstrating that value on a consistent basis.
At the heart of the issue is the museum community’s willingness to take a harsh look in the mirror and ask hard questions about whether or not we actually do a good job of bringing value to our constituents. In my opinion, a more wholehearted embrace of participatory culture may be the tonic we need to really delve into the ways that museums can change their current practice. To realize the benefits of participatory culture will require an openness to welcome new opinions about the museum.
Serhan Ada, from Istanbul Bilgi University had a wonderful way of framing the difference. He notes that,“Participation occurs when someone welcomed as a guest feels as though they have become a host.” Are visitors to your museum truly guests in this sense? Perhaps the benefits of participatory culture are most easily witnessed with such a shared sense of ownership.
In part I of this series, we collected a number of great responses about the challenges and opportunities for museums to consider in light of the rise of participatory culture. This post, follows up on several of those ideas and connects to the ongoing discussions occurring at the Salzburg Global Seminar this week.
Having completed the first full day of the Salzburg Global Seminar – discussing the role of museums and libraries in an era of participatory culture – I’m now fully convinced about why such gatherings are so important to the future relevance and impact of our libraries and museums. Comprising individuals from 24 countries and a variety of professional backgrounds, the group has spent its first days considering the evolving impact that participatory culture is having on our practice, and at times returning to the very first principles of what it means to be a library or museum.
For those of you who are interested in the excellent and continuing discussion happening in Salzburg, you should go to check out the excellent work by Michael Stephens on his blog “Tame the Web”. Michael has some great coverage of the proceedings and brings a valuable perspective from libraries to the conversation.
For my part, I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight three questions that, as a museum professional, stood out to me as being important for us to fully flesh out as we consider what museums might become in the next decade.
With the hustle and bustle of life and meetings swirling around us all, it’s a rare occasion that we get to step outside of that pace and reflect on “big issues.” Contemplating an approach for the challenges that face museums given the changes in popular culture can make the difference between an organization that significantly impacts its community for good, and those that simply succeed at keeping the doors open. Given the economic challenges many museums are encountering, keeping the doors open is – in and of itself – a challenge. I’m a firm believer that times of challenge can be the best possible times to seize the opportunities at hand and make big changes.
I’m grateful for an opportunity to join a small group of museum and library experts in Salzburg next week for a meeting at the Salzburg Global Seminar entitled, “Libraries and Museums in an Era of Participatory Culture.” I’ve agreed to participate and blog about my experiences from my perspective as a museum executive and a technologist. I thought that in the spirit of “participatory culture,” I could ask a number of my friends and colleagues their opinions about the biggest challenges facing museums and libraries today. I’ll bring those ideas and insights to Salzburg with me and represent those thoughts in the discussions there. Please feel free to join the discussion on Twitter (#museumchallenges) or post your thoughts in the comments here.
The responses I’ve received via email and twitter have been pretty amazing! Several of my colleagues pointed out that museums are still adjusting to a perceived shift in our relationships with visitors. Museums want to engage visitors and provide a variety of deep experiences, but don’t quite know how to sustain those efforts over a long period of time.
Shelley Bernstein, Chief of Technology from the Brooklyn Museum of Art asks the critical questions about how museums can build consistency in their efforts of engagement.
“How do we create engaging experiences consistently, so that visitors feel participation is part of the overall culture of the institution? I’ve seen a lot of one-offs, where there’s a burst of activity around one single project, but the challenge is creating a consistency so that valued participation is always part of the museum experience. In addition, these projects too often just exist online and not within the walls of the institution when people visit. The challenge is creating an overall experience that works both online and off and one that consistently allows visitors to participate in meaningful ways.”
Rich Cherry, Director of the Balboa Park Online Collaborative, points out that this goal of engagement and interaction with visitors both online and in the gallery carries with it some different expectations from public audiences and funding agencies that make planning for sustainability more difficult on the museum.
“Museums are in a difficult transition phase because of changing media consumption. While young audiences are consuming social media and online content, older audiences are making that transition more slowly. Unlike past shifts in media, this one is more interactive and limits the ability to simply re-purpose content. This creates unique staffing and budgetary issues that are compounded by the recent economic downturn. Funders are pushing museums to engage these new audience behaviors while not recognizing that a significant audience does not use these new methods and [museums] must support a dual track for some time to come.”
Nina Simon, Executive Director of the Museum of Art and History Santa Cruz, makes the point in her book about The Participatory Museum that,
“Participatory projects are like gardens; they require continual tending and cultivation. They may not demand as much capital spending and pre-launch planning as traditional museum projects, but they require ongoing management once they are open to participants. This means shifting a larger percentage of project budgets towards operation, maintenance, and facilitation staff.”
In addition to this fact, when I asked Nina what she saw as the challenges for museums seeking to embrace a participatory culture, she raised an important issue about museums’ strategy for funding these initiatives. Nina asks, “How do [museums] use participatory techniques to support more diverse and equitable use of our resources (as opposed to providing more for the people we already serve well)?”