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Is Your Community Better Off Because it has a Museum? Final Thoughts About Participatory Culture (part III)

In the first two posts of this series we examined some of the challenges and opportunities for museums and libraries in an era of participatory culture, and also highlighted a few of the more pressing questions that popped up in discussion among colleagues during a recent meeting at the Salzburg Global Seminar.

In a gathering that could ostensibly have been about how technology and social media have changed the landscape of museum practice, I was so thrilled to find that almost all of our discussion focused on how museums and libraries can make significant and lasting changes in our local communities. Working in a museum, I’ve taken that as my context, but many of these issues have important corollaries in libraries as well.

Perhaps the most useful change in my own thinking is an understanding that the era of participatory culture is not a new thing, but rather – enhanced by recent trends in technology – one that has its roots in the very reasons why museums exist in the first place.  While technology, social media, and mobile adoption influence the ways that we engage museum audiences and the expectations they bring into the museum, an attitude that invites participation has the potential to transform individual and community experiences that enhance the public value of the work we do.

Why is your community better off because it has a museum?

I’m challenged by the courage and convictions of colleagues I met in Salzburg, who take a commitment to their local community very seriously. Whether helping neighbors recover from devastating storms in the Philippines, reaching out to the homeless and poor communities in Sao Paulo, or bringing libraries to rural Kenya on the backs of camels, I found myself inspired to think about how a museum in Indianapolis can learn from such tangible demonstrations of public value.

In his book “Making Museums Matter,” Stephen Weil talked about a mandate for museums to demonstrate real value within our communities:

“Why is your community better off because it has a museum? [The answer] must necessarily be something more than, because otherwise it wouldn’t. Museums matter only to the extent that they are perceived to provide the communities they serve something of value beyond their own mere existence.”

The Occupy Museums protests demonstrate a growing frustration with the way museums see their role in today's society

This topic surfaced repeatedly during the conversations about participatory culture in Salzburg. The consensus among the group coalesced in an assertion that museums have an inherent mission to deliver public value driven by a universal right to cultural access.

It is clear to me that although museums have long enjoyed a privileged place in the public’s confidence, societal and economic changes, as well as the public’s expectation of museums, have significantly augmented the landscape of public value.  New questions about what constitutes public value and who sees the benefits of that value need to be considered seriously by those museums that want to see real impact from their effort. Lest we think that the value of museums is secure, the nascent “occupy museums” movement reminds us that a growing frustration exists with the way museums think about their role in society.

The real test for public value is not what the museum says it is, but rather the value attributed to us by our communities and stakeholders. Simply declaring that the museum is valuable isn’t a substitute for actually demonstrating that value on a consistent basis.

At the heart of the issue is the museum community’s willingness to take a harsh look in the mirror and ask hard questions about whether or not we actually do a good job of bringing value to our constituents. In my opinion, a more wholehearted embrace of participatory culture may be the tonic we need to really delve into the ways that museums can change their current practice.  To realize the benefits of participatory culture will require an openness to welcome new opinions about the museum.

Serhan Ada, from Istanbul Bilgi University had a wonderful way of framing the difference. He notes that, “Participation occurs when someone welcomed as a guest feels as though they have become a host.” Are visitors to your museum truly guests in this sense? Perhaps the benefits of participatory culture are most easily witnessed with such a shared sense of ownership.

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The Challenges and Opportunities of Participatory Culture for Museums and Libraries (part II)

In part I of this series, we collected a number of great responses about the challenges and opportunities for museums to consider in light of the rise of participatory culture. This post, follows up on several of those ideas and connects to the ongoing discussions occurring at the Salzburg Global Seminar this week.


The view from our meeting room. An amazing setting to think about the future of libraries and museums.

Having completed the first full day of the Salzburg Global Seminar – discussing the role of museums and libraries in an era of participatory culture – I’m now fully convinced about why such gatherings are so important to the future relevance and impact of our libraries and museums.  Comprising individuals from 24 countries and a variety of professional backgrounds, the group has spent its first days considering the evolving impact that participatory culture is having on our practice, and at times returning to the very first principles of what it means to be a library or museum.

For those of you who are interested in the excellent and continuing discussion happening in Salzburg, you should go to check out the excellent work by Michael Stephens on his blog “Tame the Web”. Michael has some great coverage of the proceedings and brings a valuable perspective from libraries to the conversation.

For my part, I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight three questions that, as a museum professional,  stood out to me as being important for us to fully flesh out as we consider what museums might become in the next decade.

1. How can museums aid in addressing the socio-economic consequences of a widening technology gap?

A number of participants spoke eloquently about the social and economic consequences that impact marginalized communities who lack the same easy-access to technology that many of us take for granted.  This lack of access means a lack of opportunity to engage with the cultural evolutions of content produced online and critical dialogs taking place on blogs, twitter and cultural websites. The prevalence of information access is contributing to a changing set of skills and digital media literacy that cannot be replaced by other means.  The ability to sift, process, remix, and reformulate thoughts and critical argument is – quite specifically – a new form of literacy that will increasingly determine the opportunities and inclusion afforded to the privileged.

This fact has been well documented in the literature, and for those of you eager to learn more, I would recommend reading Henry Jenkins’ work – particularly his white-paper on “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century” (PDF).

New to me, was the realization that addressing the technology gap only delays the problem until the next disruptive technology arrives.  While we don’t yet know what that technology is, it’s a safe bet that the privileged among us will have access to it before many in our local communities do.

Since museums, and art museums in particular, posses such rich collections of artifacts, media, and artistic communication, are there ways that we can use those assets to address the underlying issues of media literacy? This opportunity further reinforces the value of museums’ existing efforts to build critical thinking skills into a wide range of programming efforts. Addressing the root skills at the heart of digital media literacy can work alongside efforts to provide comprehensive digital access to begin to positively impact and bridge that gap.

2. Do museums really want to take participatory culture seriously?

After thinking about and discussing the topic for quite some time now, it’s clear to me that the opportunities afforded to us by the changing expectations of participatory culture are resulting in a series of choices that museums will need to make regarding whether or not we will embrace participatory culture as an integral part of our museums.

To be intellectually genuine, it seems that there is scarcely any middle ground.  Either the museum will determine that there is inherent value to the opinions, expertise, and efforts of their invested communities or it will not. For museums that choose to embrace a conversational engagement with their audiences about the nature, origins, and personal interpretations of their collections, what remains to be seen is how the evolution of the authoritative voice of museum experts resolves its place in the discussion.

I, for one, believe that it’s entirely consistent to wholeheartedly pursue the creation of scholarly knowledge about our collections, and at the same time welcome the diversity of interpretation brought to the museum by the general public. As a number of the contributors to part I of this article pointed out though, truly owning up to this decision will have far reaching consequences for the sustainability of these efforts in the long term.  I’m not sure that most museums really recognize how profoundly this might impact their daily operations. Time will tell.

3. Is it possible for art museums to catalyze community conversation and action to addresses issues that matter to our local and global communities?

Lastly, I’m intrigued by the possibility that art museums can begin to leverage their deep collections and the changes in participatory media to promote meaningful conversations with communities about how to deal with a variety of social challenges.

The polarizing effects of politics have destroyed any opportunity for genuine civic discourse, and the educational system is so over burdened with curricular metrics that there is a dearth of opportunity for reasonable and well considered citizens to discuss the important issues of our time with empathy and respect. Artists have certainly been a bellwether for social discourse throughout our past. Is it possible that museums might emerge as a useful venue for this kind of discussion, and at the same time reinforce the relevance of the art in our collections to the daily lives of our constituents?

This is an area that I plan on reading and studying more about myself when I return to Indianapolis. In particular, I’ll be picking up Lois Silverman’s book entitled “The Social Work of Museums”. I’m certain that I could learn a lot from many of you as well, and look forward to thinking together about whether this is a valuable role for museums to play.



Please Chime In: The Challenges and Opportunities of Participatory Culture

With the hustle and bustle of life and meetings swirling around us all, it’s a rare occasion that we get to step outside of that pace and reflect on “big issues.” Contemplating an approach for the challenges that face museums given the changes in popular culture can make the difference between an organization that significantly impacts its community for good, and those that simply succeed at keeping the doors open.  Given the economic challenges many museums are encountering, keeping the doors open is – in and of itself – a challenge.  I’m a firm believer that times of challenge can be the best possible times to seize the opportunities at hand and make big changes.

I’m grateful for an opportunity to join a small group of museum and library experts in Salzburg next week for a meeting at the Salzburg Global Seminar entitled, “Libraries and Museums in an Era of Participatory Culture.”  I’ve agreed to participate and blog about my experiences from my perspective as a museum executive and a technologist.  I thought that in the spirit of “participatory culture,” I could ask a number of my friends and colleagues their opinions about the biggest challenges facing museums and libraries today.  I’ll bring those ideas and insights to Salzburg with me and represent those thoughts in the discussions there.  Please feel free to join the discussion on Twitter (#museumchallenges) or post your thoughts in the comments here.

The responses I’ve received via email and twitter have been pretty amazing! Several of my colleagues pointed out that museums are still adjusting to a perceived shift in our relationships with visitors.  Museums want to engage visitors and provide a variety of deep experiences, but don’t quite know how to sustain those efforts over a long period of time.

Shelley Bernstein, Chief of Technology from the Brooklyn Museum of Art asks the critical questions about how museums can build consistency in their efforts of engagement.

“How do we create engaging experiences consistently, so that visitors feel participation is part of the overall culture of the institution?  I’ve seen a lot of one-offs, where there’s a burst of activity around one single project, but the challenge is creating a consistency so that valued participation is always part of the museum experience.  In addition, these projects too often just exist online and not within the walls of the institution when people visit. The challenge is creating an overall experience that works both online and off and one that consistently allows visitors to participate in meaningful ways.”

Rich Cherry, Director of the Balboa Park Online Collaborative, points out that this goal of engagement and interaction with visitors both online and in the gallery carries with it some different expectations from public audiences and funding agencies that make planning for sustainability more difficult on the museum.

“Museums are in a difficult transition phase because of changing media consumption.  While young audiences are consuming social media and online content, older audiences are making that transition more slowly.   Unlike past shifts in media, this one is more interactive and limits the ability to simply re-purpose content.  This creates unique staffing and budgetary issues that are compounded by the recent economic downturn.  Funders are pushing museums to engage these new audience behaviors while not recognizing that a significant audience does not use these new methods and [museums] must support a dual track for some time to come.”

Nina Simon, Executive Director of the Museum of Art and History Santa Cruz, makes the point in her book about The Participatory Museum that,

“Participatory projects are like gardens; they require continual tending and cultivation. They may not demand as much capital spending and pre-launch planning as traditional museum projects, but they require ongoing management once they are open to participants. This means shifting a larger percentage of project budgets towards operation, maintenance, and facilitation staff.”

In addition to this fact, when I asked Nina what she saw as the challenges for museums seeking to embrace a participatory culture, she raised an important issue about museums’ strategy for funding these initiatives. Nina asks, “How do [museums] use participatory techniques to support more diverse and equitable use of our resources (as opposed to providing more for the people we already serve well)?

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Seeking a Common Language for Mobile Tours

It’s been several weeks now since the first Museum Mobile Summit was held in London at the Tate Modern.  As we told you in earlier blog posts (here and here), we had a good crowd in London and made some solid progress in our critique of the initial proposed TourML standard.  Notes from that meeting are available on the Museum Mobile Wiki and are interesting to glance through.

Since the meeting, we’ve been collecting thoughts and integrating the suggestions of the group into the formalized language description of TourML.  In preparation for the next Museum Mobile Summit on Wed Oct 26 in Austin, TX, we’ve updated and reworked the TourML specification to address the results of the first meeting.

I’ll say that TourML is feeling much more complete and much more like the real-deal.  As always, we’d love a lot of comment and input from the community, and would love to hear about ways you would like to use mobile tours in your museum.  We’re already seeing a number of museums building and creating mobile tours using the early version of TourML and the vendor community has been very supportive of the effort as well.

For those technical and metadata experts in the crowd,  you can download a new version of the TourML XMLSchema or browse it from the source repository for the TAP project you can also check-out a sample instance of some valid XML for a tour.  In the rest of this blog post, I’ll detail the changes that have been made to the standard, and will enumerate the reasons for those changes and some questions that still remain for discussion at the next summit.

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Changes to IMA’s Security Program

Today is one of those days when what needs to happen is not what you would want to happen.  In an effort to manage the museum as effectively as possible we’re making some difficult changes in our security department.  We wanted to be as clear as possible about the reasons for these changes so we asked Katie Zarich, our Deputy Director of Public Affairs, to walk us through.

As we roll out a new security program, we say goodbye to 33 full-time and 23 part-time security officers whose positions have been eliminated. These individuals served with diligence and care, and they helped to keep our visitors and our artwork safe for years, and in some cases decades. Unfortunately, we were unable to meet the objectives of enhancing security at 100 Acres; responding to potentially serious incidents that arise on the IMA campus, and reducing the cost of the security program with the previous staffing model.

What is the new program?

The new model enables protection of visitors and artwork through its three distinct job functions: campus police officers; communications and monitoring specialists; and visitor assistants.

  1. A key component of the program is the campus police force made up of 14 officers. The officers, who are reserve officers of area police forces, are employees of the IMA, and they provide patrols of the campus as well as security to the museum. Their patrol cars and uniforms identify them as police officers, and their presence also will serve to deter crime. Should an incident that requires a police response occur at the IMA, we no longer need to call the police and wait for them to respond. Our campus police officers are able to take police reports and follow other police protocols.
  2. The communications and monitoring function uses an elaborate electronic surveillance system to monitor museum galleries and outdoor areas.
  3. The visitor assistants are trained ambassadors of the museum experience; they are posted throughout museum galleries and the rest of the campus. The visitor assistant staff, which is composed of students from a federally funded work study program at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), will provide enhanced customer service as they will be available to answer questions or assist visitors throughout the IMA’s 152 acres.

We also have added two Emergency Medical Technicians who are able to respond to medical needs that arise in 100 Acres or elsewhere on the campus.

Why did we implement a new security program?

  1. This summer we opened 100 Acres: The Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park. The park has been filled with visitors since opening day, and it requires an ongoing security presence.
  2. The IMA has a reputation for being a safe place. Regrettably, we’d seen some incidents that could threaten that reputation.  We’ve had numerous car break-ins, and we had been unable to curb that problem, despite increased security patrols.
  3. The security department makes up a large percentage of the IMA’s payroll, and in an effort to budget efficiently and effectively, we had to substantially reduce the cost of our security personnel budget.

This new model for the IMA’s security department was envisioned by Nick Cameron, the IMA’s Chief Operating Officer and was thoroughly vetted by IMA staff and public safety and security professionals. For several weeks, Martin Whitfield, the IMA’s Director of Security, has worked with a team to staff the new positions, and to ensure that all team members are properly trained.

As times have changed and our museum and its campus have grown, so too must our security measures.  This new program is necessary in order to better protect the 152 acre campus.  Implementing the new program was a process not undertaken lightly. We are sincerely grateful for the years of service that our security officers dedicated to the IMA, and we are providing outplacement services and other benefits to them.


About Rob

Job Title: Deputy Director for Research, Technology, and Engagement Interests: Anything related to coffee, hanging with the my fam, cooking crazy stuff, strategy games, camping / hiking / exploring, the Colts, watching TV, watching TV. Favorite Movies: Run Silent Run Deep, The Princess Bride, Gladiator, Young Frankenstein, Hunt for Red October. Favorite Music: Jazz: Dizzy, Miles, Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson, Sonny Rollins, Lee Morgan, Freddy Hubbard, Chet Baker, Charlie Parker, Ray Charles, Coltrane, early Tito Puente... Favorite Food: Gumbo!, seafood of any kind, good beer. Pets: a giant yellow lab named Tana, a pretty little kitty named Nosy. Something you should know about me: I rock at Trivial Pursuit, but can rarely remember my own cell number or zip code :-)

Rob has written 23 articles for us.