27 Nov

MCN 2014 Recap: Nomenclature/ Content

There were a number of fruitful conversations about nomenclature this year at MCN. I thought I would write down some thoughts should I hope to remember them in the future. As a practitioner, I understand the desire to just get the work done rather than focus on the details of naming the work you are doing. But, conferences offer a useful juncture to break with active practice and instead focus on fruitful reflection on said practice.


One major topic was what the ideas being generated should be called. Content is a term that is field agnostic, used by marketers and museums alike. But, similarly, the backlash to the term is equally shared across fields. Angst and straight up hatred of the term interpretation was also expressed in conference hallways. There were the story folk, who felt at essence like Homer, we are but spinners of tales. Idea-men also shared their thoughts about the correct term. For all of this discussion, I wonder if the issue remains the uneasy relationship between information and delivery. We are in the midst of a point where the revolutions of delivery methods were hot and heavy in our minds. Most museum professionals remember a time when you still needed a computer to access the internet. The aged amongst us remember the zzhhhding of the dial up. (I wished a word had been coined for that sound.)

In many ways, we are still enthralled with the idea of mobile, and so it looms as large as the information being conveyed. I wonder if in the first years of the printing press people sat amazed that their books required not a single scriber’s labor. To me, the see-saw screams that content is king or that design is the point are really manifestations of our residual excitement about the media. While we might cite the printed page, we mostly refer to the actual story.

In terms of content and interpretation though, another underlying issue is about the democratization of information/ text creation. More and more museum professionals are responsible for offering visitors inroads into the collection, either through text or imagery. Videographers, digital media professionals, social media professionals, and educators all share the work of making collections accessible. This onus is one that these professionals welcome, but one that certain traditionalist might not quite want to part with. Therefore, finding the right word for our interpretative labors is a political act—one in which we are advocating for our value.

27 Nov

Remembering My Student

On the eve of Thanksgiving, I think of a boy I once knew. He was 17 years old. He was tall. He still had a baby face. He stopped smiling if you noticed. He was trying as hard as he could to look tough, to be tough. He was like lots of other kids in that way. But, in many other ways, he was just himself—goofy, empathetic.

Then one day, he became like too many American sons. He was shot down in his neighborhood. His brother was being shot, and he saved him. His honorable end was still that—an end.

So many years later, looking at Michael Brown’s face, I can’t help but think of my student. Certainly, Michael Brown’s story has many turns that were quite different. But, in both situations, a young man stood on a street and found a violent end thanks to the violent path of a bullet.

Since the announcement of the lack of an indictment, I have realized that for me this is a reminder of my student. I keep remembering the terrible feeling of looking down into that coffin, and seeing his baby face lying so peacefully there. I remember the whole community of people stuffed into that church on a desolate Cleveland street. I remember the scores of kids who testified to the great times they had. The sea of black coats all trembling quietly in the pews.

I remember feeling sick then, more sick than I feel now. Now, I feel terribly, awfully resigned. We are at a moment, half a century after the civil rights movement, where gun violence is one of the greatest public health risks in our cities. There are young African-American men, children, really, who are shot daily. The shooter’s race is sort of irrelevant to me. Our sons, our students, our friends are dying. Certainly, there are mitigating factors, drugs, poverty, education, nutrition…But, at its core, my student’s mother has had one less son to hug on Thanksgiving. He was not sick. He was living in a country that is sick with gun violence.