Can a technologist get ahead in museums?

Susan Cairns, 21.03.2012
To be relevant, museum leaders must engage with technology
A couple of weeks ago, The Art Newspaper published an article on how to get ahead in US museums.

The article addressed the increasing call within the museum sector for curators to take on management positions, focusing on the New York-based Center for Curatorial Leadership.

It mentions fears of a leadership crisis occurring in the field in the US, with 60 or so museum directors expected to retire by 2019.

But I think the leadership crisis in museums might be bigger than this.

It’s not merely about those museum leaders who might retire, but whether those coming through to replace them (and also those who are not slated for retirement) have an understanding of the emergent technological landscape in order to lead confidently in this arena.

Ed Rodley recently posted on digital interactivity, new media literacy and skills development, and some of what he wrote is pertinent in this discussion.

He wrote: "Professional development is essential in new media, because most of us learned nothing about it. If you graduated from university with a museum studies degree five years ago, you wouldn’t have learned about Twitter. YouTube was a new thing and Facebook was moving out of colleges into the wild.

"If you graduated 10 years ago, social media in general would be an alien thing. If you’re a late Cretaceous dinosaur like me, computers were a novelty, and if you’re older, say an early Jurassic dinosaur like many museum directors, computers in general are something that happened after formal schooling."

The implications of what this means for museum leadership as both museums and technology move forward are fascinating.

If we have museum directors who understand museums but do not understand (and commit firmly to) the altered technological landscape, how can museums possibly adapt to changing expectations?

A natural answer that I could offer up to this problem would be to seek leaders within the museum technology field (something I would love to be seriously considered – I know some people who would be amazing leaders).

However, I don’t think that idea is quite as simple as I would like it to be.

The museum sits, as we know, on a cusp between its nineteenth century beginnings, in which knowledge was made through expertise, vetting and reduction, and its twenty-first century present, in which knowledge is becoming networked, open and created by experts and non-experts alike.

The philosophical differences between these two approaches are significant, and as much as I love the idea of a museum built for agility and responsiveness, it cannot be ignored that museums are somewhat change averse.

The Art Newspaper article finishes with this statement: "Change is not what happens naturally in the museum world; the Met is a risk-averse institution and for good reason. That is how it built its reputation as one of the world’s great museums."

If museums are risk adverse, and museum technologists are (often) those who advocate change, then putting a museum technologist at the helm of a museum might be considered somewhat risky by those doing the hiring.

I admit in writing this, I am assuming that leaders from museum technology would drive museums forwards towards a particular philosophical direction – and that might not be entirely true.

Still, this is an important issue to consider, if only because we need to think about career paths for museum technologists (how can we attract and keep good people if there is no real opportunity for career development in the field?).

But beyond this, of course, there are questions about how museums will be able to continue to be relevant (and in fact, become more so) if leadership in the field does not engage with the issues that the changing technological landscape is bringing to the field.

Susan Cairns is author of Museum Geek
, a blog exploring museums, technology and ideas


Sort by: Most recent - Most liked
MA Member
27.03.2012, 08:38
Well that's interesting in itself. But it's surely important that museum people of all kinds open up and communicate better rather than muttering amongst themselves. One of the great ironies about the web is that it can actually confine discussion to specialist areas and common interests rather than opening them up to the global village.
I'm going to a free one day museum conference in Oxford tomorrow organised by the subject specialist network for science and industry collections called Science and Industry Collections at the Crossroads. I've no idea how many people will be there or what the outcomes might be, but I hope enough interested people will come and contribute and be inspired to go off and put ideas into action. The problem is, I only found out about it myself through one of the organisers, I haven't seen it mentioned in the MA Journal or the website so I worry that it could turn out to be a self selecting little group talking amongst themselves. I hope not, because however much discussion museum technologists might get through online, there is a lot more enjoyment to be had out of actually meeting people and having real conversations!
27.03.2012, 03:16
Ha, and to complicate this whole trans-atlantic discussion, I am actually an Australian... it's just that so many of the most active discussions I've had in the field apply to those in the States, and because they are often whom I end up talking to, that was the original 'pitch' of the discussion.

But we agree again on the problems of the closed nature of this debate. One of the internal discussions that does occur within the museum tech sector is about this very issue, and about how poorly we communicate about what we do (including its value, ROI etc) to those who aren't familiar with the issues. As much as we have incredibly vibrant and robust discussions within the sector, those discussions are meaningless if we cannot be sharing them with the broader sector.

It's one reason I agreed to having this post re-published away from the safe context of my own blog. It doesn't matter how interesting the work and discussions are happening in the museum tech sector are if no one else is hearing.
MA Member
26.03.2012, 23:27
Oh dear, we seem to have ended up in complete agreement when it was supposed to be a controversial discussion! As you say, it may be partly a matter of trans-atlantic say tomayto and I say tomarto and all that. But I still maintain that if there are a whole lot of creative 'technologists' out there in the UK museum sector who are full of new ideas they are not being held back by risk aversion in the museum world but by their own apparent inability to network and communicate with their own colleagues. The very fact that nobody except Maurice at the MA has contributed to what has so far been an entirely private debate between the two of us is a bit sad really. It suggests to me that museum technologists are too busy having closed discussions with each other when they ought to be contributing to the wider networking of the MA, which acts as a facilitator for the whole museum sector. Is this up for debate at MA Conference in Edinburgh in November and if not why not? Doesn't anyone out there have anything to say about it?
26.03.2012, 21:51
I absolutely agree. Again, I think that we are experiencing some semantic differences in understanding between who I am thinking of as being a "technologist" and who you are - but I don't think it makes sense to put someone who is technically competent, but without management and leadership skills in charge of any museum. At the same time, I would hate for those people in this area who have those leadership skills in spades to be overlooked for leadership opportunities.

You mention the lack of creativity and imagination that limits museums... I think it is these qualities that I see in the best people working in the museum technology area. Because the technological landscape is rapidly adapting, so too do (some of) the people who work within that context.

But ultimately, I agree with all you say. Leaders and managers do need skills that are other than technological competence, in whatever area that is. And different museums require different approaches as well (for some, their risk aversion is absolutely their strength. For others, it may not be).

There are people who would be (and hopefully will be) amazing museum directors who come from the museum technology sector. But the qualities that define them are not their technological skills.
MA Member
26.03.2012, 17:47
Suse, being at best from the Jurassic period myself when it comes to new technology I will probably get jumped on for saying this, but I do find it extraordinary that museums in the UK are still making such poor use of new technology and its possibilities. But to be honest, I don't think the answer is to put techies in charge, as the Art Newspaper article seemed to be suggesting for the US if there is some sort of succession crisis coming up in the art museum world there. In a crisis the advice of engineers can be really helpful but they don't have to get the top I recall Captain Kirk would often ask Spock for his opinion but he never left Scottie in charge of the ship. It probably wouldn't have helped to turn to the chief engineer on the Titanic either.
I don't think museums are held back by being risk averse or that even if they were all the progressive ideas and advocates of change are necessarily 'technologists'. It's a bit like saying the answer to sorting out education is to make sure every child goes to a brand new high tech school and is equipped with an i-pad. Technology alone doesn't solve anything, and much as you need ideas people in any field who can think outside the box the computer geeks are not necessarily good with people, good at managing or even suitably creative. It does require a certain ingenuity to hack into government files or even devise a museum inter-active game but specialist skills in new technology are often a bit too narrow and nerdy to be the key requirement for museum leaders of the future.
It's not fear of the unknown or resistance to change that's holding museums back, or even, in many cases, a lack of money and resources. It's a lack of creativity and imagination that tends to limit what even the largest and best resourced museums do. If museum technologists want a career path to becoming a director they need to develop an appropriate level of knowledge and awareness in a wide range of other fields as well. The age of the specialist and the technocrat is over but there is plenty of room for new ideas. Unfortunately there don't seem to be many of them around in the UK museums sector at the moment.
23.03.2012, 22:44
Oliver, there are a number of reasons why I am glad to hear this feedback. When I was first approached to have this post republished on the MA website, I raised two concerns with the Editor:

"[O]bviously this piece was written with a particular audience in mind, and it possibly needs a little adapting to make it suitable for a more general museums audience. Most of my readers are at least a little bit familiar with issues associated with museum technology - yet even here, the use of the term "technologist" needed further definition. So I would probably want to work it up slightly to make my use of the term clearer for what I am imagining is still a largely non-technical audience.

Secondly, I primarily use USA institutions as my examples here, in part because they were referred to in the original article from The Art Newspaper, and in part because I am more familiar with the US system. Would these questions still ring true in the UK?"

So, it's very interesting to hear your feedback and objections in response to those very things. I didn't end up rewriting, because Patrick said he thought that the piece was fine as is, but I am not surprised by that element of your response. It is nice to know that some of your reaction against the idea of museum technologists standing at the helm of museums was in part a reaction against the unknown and unclear.

When I initially posted this, I had in mind members of a self-selecting community of people who spend a significant amount of time thinking about museums and technology, and the relationships between the two - what I would call the museum technology community. It includes web managers, interactives staff, programmers and content developers, but also theorists like myself, curators who are interested in the implications of tech, and so many more. However, the term “technologist” itself is a confusing one and may not be useful, particularly in broader discussions.

Beyond this, the very things that you raise are the same kinds of things those in this part of the sector are trying to solve. How can museums use new technology in a more integral way, particularly when so many people actually access museums online? How can we find new models for museum websites that allow them to sing in the digital domain and exploit the unique possibilities of this environment, rather than merely mimicking the physical museum structure and acting as a glorified marketing channel? What are the different affordances that each medium allows, and what does this mean for museums?

There is also a broader sense within the museum technology community (self-selecting as it is) of trying to understand the implications of what museums are doing online, and to come to grips with what we should be doing in that space. The theme of the upcoming Museum Computer Network (MCN) for 2012 reflects this. “The Museum Unbound: Shifting Perspectives, Evolving Spaces, Disruptive Technologies”, focuses on “exploring how the quickening pace of technological innovation is expanding the very definition of what it means to be a museum.”

So these are very big questions. They aren’t just about how do we engage with audiences in different ways, but what are the implications of that engagement on museums. And at least one motivation for my initial posing of the questions in my post was to consider what might occur if someone from the technology end of the sector, who is so engaged with these discussions, was to manage an institution. How might the conversations play out if they were front-and-centre of museum work?

I don’t know the answers. But I’d be interested in your thoughts.
MA Member
23.03.2012, 13:16
Suse, I think it's the terminology that's off-putting! I had never heard of a museum technologist until I read your piece and I'm still not really sure what it means. Presumably not an IT geek who works in a museum? I think the issue is to encourage museums to make more creative use of new technology as an integral part of what they do. At the moment museums in the UK are not really doing this very well. Their websites are dull and their institutional use of social media tends to be a feeble attempt at free marketing which looks a bit dumbed down and desperate. The debate that you were posting on seems to be largely about and within the US art world, and on a different plane (or do I mean planet?) to the museum sector, which has a very different culture in the UK, as the Arts Council are now discovering. Ironically, it is British museums of science, industry, transport and technology who have made the least use of new technology to develop a wider interest in their collections. Why is this?What I would love to see is museums of all kinds taking up the challenge to use new technology as a way of broadening their audiences and encouraging a new dialogue. But this should not be about investing in the virtual world and abandoning the collections they have responsibility for within four real walls. Believe me, that does happen and I'm afraid that is what computer geeks would do if they took control of the asylum! Just occasionally someone comes up with a brilliant way to combine the two things with multiple creative spin-offs. The BM's History of the World in 100 objects was one of those rare lightbulb ideas which grew into a multi-media project but was rooted in the collections of the museum and telling brilliant little stories about them. Coming back to the issue of skills that may be essential for future directors, I think we can safely assume that Neil Macgregor did not need to know anything about social media or the workings of new technology to get this going, but it would not have worked without the involvement of many people within the BM, the BBC and the wider world.
23.03.2012, 07:19
Oliver, I am so interested in your perspective and curious as to why you believe that technologists wish to get rid of objects (or 'real things'). Where did you get that impression from?

I ask, because one of the basic motivations behind most museum technologists whom I know is actually to increase interest in, and access to, museum collections; to grow interest in them and urge to see them, rather than diluting that interest. Your Hockney example is a perfect case in point - that his online work grows other people's awareness of what he does, which in turn drives people into the RA to see the work in person.

And so I am curious as to where your perspective comes from.

Beyond this however, I absolutely agree that it's not about the technology. But what I do think is important is for anyone in a leadership role in museums (or any field, really) to understand the implications of the changing technological landscape on their work and the wider society. That's not to suggest that everything museums do has to change (nor should it). However, understanding the changing context *is* important in order to be able to make the right decisions, based on the potential and pitfalls available.

That doesn't mean a technologist has to be a leader. Even having those who understand the changing technological landscape on senior executives can help. But equally, it would be a shame if talented individuals who happen to work within the technology end of the sector missed out on opportunities for leadership when they might otherwise be perfectly suitable.

There is some interesting discussion about this in the comments of my original posting of this discussion
MA Member
22.03.2012, 11:07
Maurice, I may sound grumpy but the idea that new technology is our saviour and should be the driving force behind everything that museums do in the future is both daft and depressing. Social media and the web offer great opportunities for communication and learning, but at the end of the day these are just tools. If the museum sector puts all its efforts into the digital world we are in danger of losing the key feature that makes museums unique: collections of real things that are available to all and preserved for the future. People will still want that in 2020 and beyond, long after their smartphones have been superceded. The technology will keep changing, and museums need to use it, but it should not be the driver. Just look at the example of Hockney...he has used a range of technologies in his artworks over the last forty years including photographs and IT to create images but he has also gone back to traditional painting on location. You can find all his work on the web but thousands of people have queued at the RA to see it in person. There will always be a demand for that however much is digitised by the technologists.
22.03.2012, 10:18
Oh, Oliver, you do sound grumpy! I don't tweet, facebook, link-in or tumbl' (although I do blog a bit), but as I think more about Museums 2020 and the impacts museums want to have, it seems to me much of what they want to achieve can be done very effective digitally. My two teenagers learn, create, build community and communicate constantly - and it's almost all through social media and the web. Just as museums' 19C founders reached a mass audience through buildings, 21C museums can reach a mass audience virtually.
MA Member
21.03.2012, 18:19
Of course museums and museum leaders should engage with new technology and digital media, but this is not going to lead anyone to a holy grail. It is a medium not a message, and useful though the web and social media may be they will not guide anyone to run a great museum. I suspect the ultimate aim of museum technologists is to run everything virtually. You could digitise everything, keep it on a cloud, dispose of the real stuff, close the museum down and tweet all day to your virtual friends. How relevant is that? Well at least it wouldn't cost anything, so it might catch on. But wait a minute...aren't museums supposed to be looking after and presenting collections and getting people engaged with real things or is that just too tediously old fashioned for the twitter generation? I hope there never are career paths for museum technologists who love their i-pads more than their collections.
21.03.2012, 13:21
Nice post, thanks.

My company Local Projects is one of the leading firms providing technology and innovation to Museums in the US, doing the media for the 9/11 Memorial Museum, the interactive media design for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, etc., so we have some sense of this landscape, and I'm not sure if I agree with the idea that a technologist at the helm would do any institution good. In my experience, it takes an insider leader, who has the trust of the institution as a curator or administrator, mixed with the instincts and awareness that technology is crucial to make change happen. It also takes a board that is willing and able to support that technology, to make change happen. That can be from within, from dedicated staff, or from without from company's like ours. The Cleveland Museum of Art, which is a venerable conservative organization comparable to the Met, has engaged us to completely reinvent their visitor experience around new engagements that technology can offer, and while its taken a ton of counseling and education with the staff and board, they are very very excited to launch the new initiatives, which roll out end of this year. The Met and Moma are moving forth as well, It just takes leadership to be aware, a board or donors that are interested in supporting it, and then the staff and/or consultants with the expertise to make it happen.