25 Apr

Technology and Decolonization

Museums feel like they have always been here, like the sky and the seas. But, while the sun has always come up, museums are not a natural phenomenon. They are much more recent, younger than many countries. Museums have their foundations in the Enlightenment and colonialism, two interrelated historic situations. Museums grow from the European impulse to possess the rest of the world.

The idea that museums haven’t been here since the dawn of civilization might be jarring. Museums give off an air of the ahistorical. Gatekeeping is at peak levels in museums. Academic knowledge, a system that trains people to replicate existing knowledge-making processes, is the chief sources of power for staff. Organizations present singular, authoritative narratives in clinical settings. The whole system of museums has society fooled. Think of the oft-quoted idea that museums are the most trusted source of knowledge in our society. Why? Because museums don’t show fissures and uncertainty. Newspapers are responsive, and as such, show their processes; people understand them to be socially-constructed and biased. Museums are certainly biased (#museumsarenotneutral, right), but our systems obfuscate this for visitors.

This field-bias to ignore the constructed-nature of our work makes thinking about decolonization challenging for many. The first step to truly decolonize our work is to admit we are colonial institutions. What does that mean? Stepping back, colonialism is classically defined as the occupation of one nation by another. Colonization, however, is not solely about land. It’s about the transformation of culture and the ways of thinking due to the state of being subjugated by another society. By the time Columbus sailed the ocean blue, our global consciousness had already been irrevocably transformed due to European “expansion”. Therefore, decolonization isn’t just about places or things—it’s about ideas and thought-processes.  As a society, we can’t return to the pre-colonial ways of thinking. There is no going back, because Pandora’s box has been opened and time machines don’t exist. Instead, we need to work to create new systems of thinking that no longer centers colonial meaning-making.

What does this mean for museums? Well, it means that decolonizing isn’t going to be just about returning objects to their original nations. Sometimes this is the right answer. There are situations where objects were taken under duress, sacrifices to the colonial machine. Stolen objects should be returned. Other objects migrated to the West (N. America or Europe) in the way that people have traveled. In our mixed-up world, those objects are as hybrid as human immigrants, between and betwixt. Returning those objects isn’t the answer. What is? Rethinking those objects.

First, and foremost, this requires including voices of the people who are the real authority. For museums, this giving interpretative power to people who are not curators, and admitting having cultural ownership of an object/ idea is more important than a PhD. This move requires changing our systems and rethinking the centers of power. Given knowledge is our power base, this move requires fundamental change. But, also, transforming our means of knowledge creation will improve our content, and therefore, is in line with our missions.

These new voices will help us see our many blinders. Think, for example, about one of the most common norms in encyclopedic collections. Anonymous is a word used in labels when the artist is unknown. Most of the collection objects have unknown artists, but anonymous is commonly only used for objects made in the west in the modern era. Excluding the word anonymous might seem innocuous. But, in effect, it negates the humanity of artists before the modern era.

Technology is in a particularly good position to counteract colonization. Museum technologists work on projects that overlap siloes. They are used to ceding power to outside sources, like vendors or artists. And, technology is very often used in layers means, i.e. not make a physical change to exhibitions. For example, AR is already being used by artists to confront colonialism, and this would be an exceptional way for museums to cede power to outside voices to decolonize galleries. How? I developed a framework and wrote a whole paper about the topic. Give it a read if you want full details.

In short, technology is a collaborative and connective function in museums. It is perfectly poised to serve as a convener and conduit for decolonization. Leading decolonization in museums would have a lasting positive impact on the field.

17 Apr

#OMA2019 Recap : Boards, Front of House, and Conversation Burnout

The Ohio Museums Association had its 2019 conference in Akron this week. I was at the conference as a board member of OMA, eager to hear what we can do for our constituents.

This week in Akron I was reminded of the phrase: All politics is local. Ohio is populous state, classically purple in elections, and historically split politically even in non-election years. People on the coasts might imagine our counties chock full of corn and cows, but my Ohio is one of old steels mills and Big Medicine. We are a state, in effect, that encapsulates much of the complexity that makes our nation great already and maddeningly polarized. I also found a space where Ohio museum professionals could talk to people dealing with the same problems, often with the same audiences or donors. I found local solutions to local problems. Now, while a national conference can be incredibly helpful, I was struck by the power of the local professional community (and while I love Ohio, I am sure all of the state conferences have this vibe). When we talk about the costs of conference travel, and that is a topic for another day, you might also look locally for affordable resources near you.

Center the Right Story: The keynote was given by Sean Kelly of the incomparable Eastern State Penitentiary. He gave a wonderful talk about his organization. I was particularly struck by the way he shared failure and growth in his organization. In reflecting on his talk, I kept thinking about how space is a form of communicating relative importance. When something is central to the organization’s goals, it is given physical space. Kelly mentioned that he noticed in the 1990s and early 2000s the artwork installations dealing with the issues of incarceration were often on the outskirts of the physical space. He realized this was a loss, as he said, mass incarceration is the great civil rights travesty of our era. As such, they centered that story and gave it physical space. (I will note Kelly wins with me, as he kept discussing the staff who did the work of the organization, rather than himself).

Boards: Kelly also gave an interesting talk about leadership. He used a rapid voting system to gauge people’s ideas about change and which groups might be reticent. He then led an interesting discussion about these issues. The topic of boards loomed large. As one director of a historic home mentioned, the challenge can be as a leader predicting what will set off the board. Another discussant mentioned how one board member at an institution put a stop to an important program for fear of looking political. These kinds of stories highlight an important challenge of boards. There is often a great deal of actual power, rather than advisory potential, exerted by boards, with those 15 people, say, having more power individually than most staff. This power struggle can be disappointing for staff, stuck working at the whim of the board. Of course, good boards aren’t able to exert such power, but that requires a strong director. One discussant mentioned that under a good director, we might be scared of the board, but they can be a great resource.

Woes of the Front of House Staff: Kelly also mentioned his surprise at the ways his Front of House staff was reticent to change when the organization changed its interpretation strategy. Kelly also mentioned that he should have realized this challenge and been proactive. Where boards can enact change, FOH staff is often suspect to the forces of change with little agency. They are often underpaid and might need to work many jobs to be able to afford to work in the museum. They are also stuck in dealing with the greatest ire of visitors. It’s a tough job to be FOH. Supporting them goes a long way in improving the visitor experience. I was most interested in a conversation about the burnout vibes staff feels when visitors hoping to push a political agenda argue with staff. Kelly mentioned his staff follows the idea of empathetic listening. His staff doesn’t shut down hard conversations. Another person shared how hard these kinds of situations can be on her staff, who are often being harangued by visitors completely unperturbed with the burden of historical facts. We didn’t come to a solution to the issue of how to support staff in this situation. (and if the staff should be able to shut down conversations based on alternative facts/ or people’s interpretive truths.)

Salary transparency: Michelle Epps of the National Emerging Museum Professionals Network spoke passionately about her organization’s desire to improve working conditions in part by pushing organizations to publish salaries of job openings. The move to salary transparency is huge for the field. It allows people to potentially entering the field to understand salary. Employers are saved interviewing people who can’t afford to move for certain salaries. Of course, it also exposes the low salaries of some parts of the field and the inequity within other parts. But even that can be good for the field, potentially improving salaries in the long run.

Diversity isn’t a Trend: Diversity was an interesting thread through the conversations. Salary is a diversity issue, for example. When entry-level salary ranges are low, applicants will likely come from higher income brackets that can help buoy low earnings. Diversity was also part of some of the Front of House conversations. FOH is often one of the most diverse workforces in the sector (especially guards). These employees are often part-time and are offered fewer self-care supports than full-time staff. Finally, many people were struggling with how their organizations and constituents understand diversity. Diversity isn’t about looking a certain way. Adding one person of color, say, won’t check the box of diversity. It’s about systemic change where the organization and its staff act and think a different way

06 Apr

#MW19 Reflections: Data and Diversity and Field Death

Girl Surrounded by Technology objects

Before I go into my notes from Museums and the Web Boston, I want to thank the home committee who was seriously on their game. Everyone around the area was so welcoming and giving with their time and ideas. They created such a wonderful vibe.

In looking through my notes and reflecting on my conversations from MW, I was struck at how much the conference was focused on big idea conversations and sessions. Instead of specific how-to sessions, many presentations were more why-to or if-to. What do I mean? Well, often sessions that show how a project occurred don’t share the raison d’etre and justifications. Of course, practical how-tos are important, particularly if putting ideas into action is your job. But, there are also benefits to sessions that consider the reasons parts of the field exist. It’s the difference between plugging something into a formula (how-to) and do the proof that the formula works (why-to). We have all been swamped enough to need to just plug into the formula and move on to the next thing. This conference feels like a mental shift, and it allowed us a group to spend the time building the proof about parts of our field.

Data, data, data: Data was the king of the conference and AI the queen and certainly the topic of many bar-time convos. Protocols and processes interwove some of these conversations. The ways that we structure data still have idiosyncratic quirks that hamper our abilities to work across organizations and fields. And, yes, some people are doing better at finding commonality. But some of the data lovers are still hitting their head against the wall. The challenge is often that data is a representation of something in the real world, and any representation of the world is filtered through the person creating the data. As Latanya Autry and Mike Murawski say, museum [data] isn’t neutral. One particularly interesting data talk about Liz Neely, and Chad Weinard really brought the issues of data being interpretive home. Liz spoke about her efforts to work across fields and their mental models. If the same idea can be cataloged differently, it shows that the catalog is mitigated by the field. Chad followed with a talk about how the changing who is doing the data production can completely change what data matters and what matters can be investigated with the data. University students will look at collections differently than scholars, for example, looking at color first instead of classification. This flexibility of thought can feel scary. It changes the concept of authority, and shakes the perceived solidity of our data, but seen differently; it helps us as a field expand knowledge processes and outputs.

Inclusion requires including people: Diversity is often a coded word. Organizations see diversity in narrow terms, adding a few different people, but maintaining the status quo in all important ways. The topic of diversity came up throughout the conference, including in my decolonization talk. People show data as a form of access, discussed social content as a form of access, considered multiple language products. But, and this a big but, I would love to see a greater focus on diversity, inclusion, access, and equity work in museum tech. Any work that connects to visitors is DEAI work. Without using that lens, the field is missing out on doing their best work for our constituents.

F’ng IIIF: OR WHY can’t we communicate: Alright, I joke about the f’ng part. There were a few IIIF talks, and then so many tweets. In thinking back on all these, this an interesting marker of the parallel train track effect in this field. The back-end folks often feel very strongly about how something works and the front end on how something feels. Both are important and connected, but in discussions, they talk past each other, their conviction impeding their ability to hear each other. So, when you say but interoperability or get into the code, you are not finding a common language. You are asking people to come to your mindset instead of finding a middle one. I find that IIIF is a topic that is particularly susceptible to this. It makes me chuckle that something predicted on crossing systems (interoperability) isn’t communicated well interpersonally. In some ways, I would love the IIIF talks next year to go the way of the data ones where I hear more people speaking about the why-tos. I find getting to the big picture is a better way to get everyone involved.

The Field: The biggest topic of the conversation wasn’t in any presentation title. Is our field imploding? Are we too depressed for our own good? Is there an epidemic of bad management? Is this work sustainable? The topic came up in many talks like Seb Chan’s talk about experience (magic keys, I tell you, magic and keys!). But, otherwise, the topic was most manifest in the halls, bars, and twitter rooms. One particular aspect of this issue was about the ways that many people feel a lack of agency to make change. Koven Smith and Emily Lytle-Painter talked on Twitter about how they felt their hands were slapped for trying to act. Many people talked about how if this field is for the future, we are stuck, bc the present looks pretty bad. I can’t put a nice spin on this topic. There was no resolution. Yet, it’s pervasiveness in the conversations at the conference should be indicative of some big issues.