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Considering the Digital and Networked Future of Museums

The Museum Computer Network conference in New Orleans focused on “The Human-Centered Museum” and tackled some ambitious questions.

The MCN Ignite session on November 1 at the House of Blues, New Orleans
The MCN Ignite session on November 1 at the House of Blues, New Orleans (All photos by Chris Evans and courtesy of MCN)

NEW ORLEANS — A woman on a podium at the House of Blues restaurant, bar, and concert venue steps up to the microphone to say, “I know we have a human-centric theme this year, but mine is poultry-centric, so just stick with me here.” She then describes the ways in which her colleagues who are museum technologists are, in important ways, quite similar to the backyard chickens she raises in her off time. She says that both groups are “comfortable going out on a limb,” “are free-range creatures, born to roam,” and then uses the chickens’ behavior to indicate best professional practices. “You don’t get the goods by smashing the egg; you get the goods by hatching the egg. Incubate.”

It’s the first night of the Museum Computer Network conference, this year in New Orleans, and most of the attendees in the audience for Christine Murray’s presentation: “Qualitative Analysis of Chicken Behavior and What Museum Technologists Can Learn,” sound pleased with her talk. They hoot and whistle appreciatively. This is the Ignite session that takes place on the opening night of the conference and is now in its fifth year. It is curated by Koven Smith, the Director of Digital Adaptation at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin. He tells me that each year he invites a variety of museum professionals: directors, curators, technologists, industry folks, thinkers, to make this night lively, inspired and fun.

Two of the conference program co-chairs, Jennifer Foley (with black bag) and Suse Cairns (center, in patterned dress)
Two of the conference program co-chairs, Jennifer Foley (with black bag) and Suse Cairns (center, in patterned dress)

As quirky and unexpected as Murray’s talk is, my favorite is easily the one given by David Newbury: “Linked Open Data: Worse is Better.” Throughout he discusses how across the museum field there is lots of talk about linked data being the future, but little true understanding. He admits that he does “linked data for a living and it’s weird; it’s hard and it’s complicated.” He proceeds to then explain that linked data in and of itself is not necessary to the field, and then draws a surprising parallel to art by relating that he bought a piece of art when his son was born, and now when he looks at that piece Newbury thinks of him. He says concisely: “Art is nothing important. Where it’s important is where it connects people to people and people to events and people to things. It’s a social network of objects.” I doubt a more profound thing has been said on the stage. It’s so true I imagine I must have always known this.

At the First-timers session at the start of the conference
At the First-timers session at the start of the conference
A networking session where strangers meet other strangers
A networking session where strangers meet other strangers

The rest of my time at MCN felt very much like this first night — though I cannot judge the entire conference given that I wasn’t able to stay all four days. Yet, every conversation I had was worthwhile. I met people who were analysts and registrars, coordinators of adult programs, academics, and program directors, and each one seem convinced that insights into innovations in their particular corner of the museum field were to be found in this gathering. According to the printed statement given by MCN’s president, Loic Tallon, the organization is concerned with “change-making in museums through the digital,” in order to make museums “future-proof.”

Catherine Bracy takes questions after her keynote address at MCN 2106
Catherine Bracy takes questions after her keynote address at MCN 2106

This concern with being up to date was not only expressed in terms of technology. There seemed to be a deep understanding (as was articulated by Ignite presentations) that technological creativity must be placed in the service of larger aims such as inclusion, accessibility, and the agency of visitors. The keynote address given Wednesday morning by Catherine Bracy, who led Code for America and the TechEquity Collaborative, and was also the Tech4Obama Program Manager of Obama for America, set out the challenges to museums in very clear terms. She said that the right-wing movements all around Western Europe and here in the US stem from “the sense that institutions just don’t work for us anymore,” and that the crucial epistemic shift from the 20th century to the 21st is the shift from dominant, hierarchical institutions, to networked, distributed structures. It struck me that choosing Bracy to give this talk was both enlightened and brave — her politics might have been taken as alienating to conservatives in the audience — except that the conveners seem to understand that inclusion, accessibility, and nurturing the agency of visitors are essentially questions not only of museum survival, but also of social justice.

A session on Wednesday, November 2 at MCN 2016
A session on Wednesday, November 2 at MCN 2016

The conference theme of “The Human-Centered Museum” was wide enough to encompass my own ongoing research on the personalization of the museum visit. I delivered my paper and it seems it was well received, which also made me feel grateful I had made the choice to attend. In these instances of weighing the worth of an event, comparisons are inevitable. I think back on my experience at the American Alliance of Museums meeting earlier in the year and how different the atmosphere was for me. There I felt I was surrounded by a plethora of academic agents and professional knowledge merchants. It felt like the big leagues, but also an organization that is cool in its estimation of its members. In essence the contrast can be summed up this way: the AAM made me feel that I was part of a profession, but the MCN made me feel that I was part of a community.

MCN 2016 took place in New Orleans, LA from November 1–4. It was founded in 1967, therefore next year will be its 50th anniversary. The author’s accommodations at the conference were supported by MCN.

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