Advocating for digital and the finite bowl problem

Reflecting on watching the MuseumNext conference. How different a conference looks when followed on twitter from another hemisphere!

As always, this post is a half-formed thought; I write to clear my head and see what others have to say. Critique nicely 😉

I see a great deal of powerful advocacy for more/better digital work in museums. But I’m uneasy about its impact. I’m not critiquing the vision; rather critiquing an underlying assumption in the method: that better advocacy will lead to more/better digital.

Anyone remember being a student at the Pizza Hut salad bar? You have a bowl, you can fill it up as full as you can, get your money’s worth (so you’re fed with cash to spare for beer text books). Using onion rings to hold another tomato worked well.

The current digi advocacy seems to be ‘we need more…’ – similar to ‘squeeze more into the salad bowl’. We’ve just been through annual budget planning. There’s not a single department in the museum who can’t make a case for needing more – to fulfill statutory and moral needs, to serve our audiences better, to generate revenue… But no-one is advocating for less money in their field. No-one is saying ‘yes, you’re right, you need it more than I do’.

Museum’s generally agree we need more digital stuff – we all want more salad in the bowl. The problem is, if you want more peppers, you have to leave out some tomatoes. Who decides, in what framework, with what benchmarks? Someone has to lose, and Museums are generally made up of nice people.

The argument I often see is looking at superfans setting up communities with youtube channels and saying ‘why can’t we do that, it’s free?’ What this misses is that management attention is also a finite bowl. The senior team’s heads only have enough space for a certain amount of salad. What should they stop focusing on?

I would love to hear thoughts on what Museums should stop doing in order to do more digital. Fewer exhibitions, less scholarship, less outreach, less conservation…? Because until that’s the discussion we are having, i think a lot of advocacy for digital activity will remain a face/off between a preacher and a wall, in which the choir is passionately singing the same chorus, but hears only echoes.

 

Conference + long plane journey = hmmm.

Two weeks on from AAM 2014, I’ve recovered from jetlag and cleared my emails. We’ve also been having a series of debriefs at work between the attendees of Museums Australia National and Victorian conferences, AAM and Remix Sydney. From these I have some pondering points…

Who’s swimming, who’s staying out of the water?

 

 

I’m now 40, and living in a new country. I’m noticing things as a cynical hack and as an ingenue. It’s an odd mix. But it’s helping me notice who is in sync with the world outside museums and who isn’t. My experience of AAM – selective, biased – was that there was a cluster watching how our world is changing (seemingly seeing it as not-my-problem) and a cluster who were swimming in the rivers of change. And this split – very crudely – into Exhibitions / Digital.

Exhibitions are big, risky, and have oodles of compliance / risk / board oversight. So the department gets headed up by someone who’s a fair distance from the cultural cascade. I don’t mean whether we go to galleries, read novels, get the trends in illustrative design – I mean the shifts in how people make and communicate meaning.

The digital people are in the river, not watching from the bank. And they seem further up too, nearer the source. They are open, generous and willing to dip under the surface, risk drowning. And to be carried along, to know that they are part of the current and moving along with it. Can’t go much faster, but really can’t go much slower either.

Exhibitions are going to change, but are the leaders of exhibitions teams (and, I include myself in this) just watching the river? It’s making me question aspects of our practice, and where my focus is at work. Which brings me to the next thing i took away…

 

Is interpretation dead?

My exhibition work has sprung from the 80s interpretation way of thinking, broadened by the move to Outcomes and Engagement. When I used to train exhibition developers, I would start by asking the question ‘why make an exhibition?’ – why not make a book? – encouraging the students to look at and use the strengths of the medium not think as a native of the book (more usually, the monograph!).

So now I’m looking at what’s happening in digital, and asking ‘why make an exhibition?’ Narrative, accuracy, relevance, social engagement – they all seem to be better suited to emerging digital platforms and activities, rather than to exhibitions. Specifically, narrative itself is moving cross-media, and a simple A >> B >> C exhibition narrative simply doesn’t cut it. (My mind is still blown by Mike Jones’ post on producing a storyworld bible at the Australian National Maritime Museum.)

What have exhibitions got that only they can do?

I’m back to social, in-real-life experiences. And I’m at authenticity and theatre more than anything else. I know they are almost contradictory. But it’s what exhibitions have that digital hasn’t (yet?). I’m right here, centimetres from the real thing. that’s amazing. And I can journey through a space that’s been created for atmosphere, tension, hidden pockets and dramatic reveals – to which I willingly succumb.

Maybe exhibitions should worry less about traditional narrative (please understand, it sticks in my throat and I want to be wrong…) and go for groups experiencing a theatrical authenticity. Owning the oxymoron might eventually offer more to our public.

 

What if we were all nicer people?

 

 

I met great people at the conference; some new to me and some IRL meets with twitter folk i’ve followed for a while. Many because of the drinkingaboutmuseums hashtag, but others because they tweeted ‘I’m at the back of the room, come and say hello’.

The spirit of caring expressed in Merete’s question and by those new river-swimmers was a contrast to what i have heard down the years from colleagues at other conferences, where they felt an undercurrent of racism, sexism, and general ‘old straight white guy privilege.’ I’m sad it’s still happening, and that I may unwittingly be a part of it.

I think we must work harder to be excellent to each other. We cannot be generous enough. It’s our business as museums and as people. There, that was easy. Always good to end a post on something obvious that no-one can argue with. Maybe I can doggy-paddle in the shallows after all.