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.