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2010 December 2
by Sheila

I started writing a post about the chasm between museum ed and museum tech, because this fall I participated in a few museum-related meetings/conferences: Museum Computer Network conference, DC Area Mobile Meetups, and the Summit on Digital Tools for Museum Education. Each set of discussions revolved around similar issues: incorporating emerging technologies into museums for delivering content, engaging visitors in thinking about museum collections in new ways, teaching a variety of thinking skills, and expanding object and exhibition interpretation beyond traditional labels and highlights tours. In these conversations, I also listened to many people say that they feel like outsiders when it comes to content creation or when it comes to tech.

As I have been pondering if specialization and department infrastructure are undermining museums’ ability to innovate, Koven Smith posed a question today on Twitter:

“What things do museums do *exclusively* because of tradition? If you were building a museum from scratch, what would you do differently?”
Read more on Koven’s blog.

One response brought me back to this half-written blog post:
@museums365: “The separation between curators and educators is bunk.”
Yes! Understanding content and audiences is equally important and there should be much more fluidity between these traditionally separated departments within most museums.

Recognizing and fostering specialized knowledge and experience is very important (in fact I overwhelmingly support folks get degrees in a discipline rather than a professional degree), but institutional structures really segregate education, curatorial, exhibit design, and IT activities. This separation, that leads to competition for budget money and staffing, can make collaborative projects across all departments challenging — particularly digital initiatives. Meanwhile, visitors do not care about departments, they just want to see cool stuff and enjoy new experiences uniquely offered by museums.

Is it plausible to imagine museum staff working in teams, for physical and virtual experiences, that include educators, curators, registrars, technologists, and public relations folks? Most museums have an educational component to their mission, but often ed departments stand apart from the content-creation in the museum itself which very often continues with web presence. And then in other museums the web presence is controlled by PR and marketing who may not know much about the content. Or, there is very little web presence outside of an online brochure and no one has a plan.

Working collaboratively is no easy task, but some good work is happening in digital humanities across institutions. There are some examples of successful collaborative digital archives, such as the Center for Jewish History, Art Babble, and the Bracero History Archive. [Drawing upon experiences from building and designing this project, the team at CHNM put together a guide on building collaborative archives for others seeking to build similar projects.]

Cross-institutional collaborative digital projects also challenge us to think differently about the structures that keep objects–relating to someone as famous as George Washington or those who have mostly been forgotten such as Bracero guest workers–separated in an online environment because they are held in different physical collections with different levels of access. The expectations of virtual visitors and researchers are changing, and people want to discover as many sources as possible in one place.

As museums, libraries, and archives share more online and have begun considering the concept of a “knowledge Commons” including open access and metadata sharing initiatives (see planning work on Smithsonian Commons), are there models for museums’ institutional structure that can also facilitate commons creation? Must institutions change first in order for a digital commons to actually become a reality?

Granted, if all museums used one metadata schema and generated APIs from their CMS’s, perhaps no institutional change would necessary and virtual data sharing could happen relatively easily. Currently, this is not the case, but I think it is a good time to ask questions about institutional structure. I may not have good answers, but I have observed some projects that serve as models for successful quick and intense collaboration, such as the One Week, One Tool experiment that built the Anthologize plugin for WordPress, and the code rushes like dev/fort‘s Spacelog for Apollo 13, and other NASA missions.

Why did these projects work? At One Week, participants committed to working on one project only for one week where they were allowed to step outside of their daily work roles to work with different people, and all team members worked together as peers. (See Effie Kapsalis’s redux presentation on the process). Is it possible to create similar environments for museum staff where curators, educators, developers, and others work together on a project-driven team that serve museums’ missions and fulfill their roles as cultural/curiosity hubs within their communities?

If we weren’t bound by the traditions of museum practice and of museum institutional structures, could we run museums that rely on staff teams rather than existing departments that not only work towards fulfilling institutional missions but also towards broader goals of contributing and sharing in a knowledge commons?

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