Behind the Scenes, Voices

Getty Voices: The Social Museum

Do museums need to change? If so, how do the people who work in them make that happen? This week on Getty Voices, a group of Getty colleagues immersed in different facets of arts technology, from design to education to conservation, considers how museums, and cultural heritage organizations more broadly, can innovate by working together and making change from the inside out. We want to hear from you—find us throughout the week on Twitter and Facebook.

Where do you get new ideas?

This week is Museums and the Web, the annual conference by and for people who make digital media in museums. Over four days hundreds of us, including several of us from the Getty, will descend on Portland to debate strategy, talk nuts and bolts, and ponder the big questions about how museums can matter in the digital age.

The issue of how museums matter is especially pressing for those of us who work in technology. Many arts organizations are looking to web and social media to help close the relevance gap—the gulf between the “observation and reflection” model of traditional Western museums and people’s growing desire for active, social experiences in the arts. Social media in particular is effective at countering the perception of museums as stuffy and formal and bringing museums into dialogue with audiences and with each other. But social media can’t close the gap alone, even when the people who work in social have earned a seat at the decision-making table.

One way to tackle the relevance gap, it seems to me, is for museums to become relevant to each other. This is happening more and more through collaborations among museums and other nonprofits, including several innovative ones featured at this year’s conference. ArtBabble and ARTtube, for example, co-create and co-publish videos around shared goals. The Balboa Park Online Collaborative has enabled the museums of San Diego to digitize hundreds of thousands of objects and rebuild their websites from scratch. SFMOMA recently launched a digital-curation experiment, Story Board, that takes the entire web as its raw material. These projects are part of a cultural shift to make museums more open, more social, and more experimental through the power of digital collaboration. “Museums are pushing themselves to be more democratic and incorporate a greater multiplicity of voices than ever before,” in the words of Erica Gangsei and Andrew Delaney, the team of two that made Story Board happen.

“Pushing” is a good word, because collaboration can be scary and exasperating and challenging. It forces us to do things differently and generates friction. It’s also magical, because it leads to ideas we couldn’t have imagined by ourselves. You have one piece of an answer, or one piece of a question; I might have the other piece, and just not know it until we start talking. Nina Simon has been inspiring us toward this, and showing us how to do it, for years.

This week at Museums and the Web, our Getty team is eager to connect with others who are interested in making museums more social, more democratic, and more tolerant of risk by making themselves all of those things. Using Getty Voices, on Twitter and Facebook, we’ll explore we can act more socially and collaboratively across our institutions, as well as inside them. We’ll ponder how we take risks, develop a thick skin against failure, and share the lessons of that failure. We’ll explore how we can create failure-free zones for collaboration and new ideas to take root, whether in a gallery or over pizza and beer.

As a way to get started, we’ve decided to ask and answer a few core questions about innovation and doing good work. We’ll be talking about them throughout the week on the Museums and the Web blog, revising them as we go:

  • Where do you get new ideas?
  • When do you get your best work done?
  • How do you deal with “failure”?

If you’d like to share an answer—or suggest a different question—please add your thoughts here. If you’re interested in museum tech and want to connect around these questions, please tweet us @thegetty.

To see all the tweets from the conference, which starts Thursday with pre-events on Tuesday and Wednesday (and pre-pre-events starting now), see the hastag #mw2013.

Thanks and apologies to Sarah Bailey Hogarty, Willa Koerner, and Kathryn Jaller for the title “the Social Museum,” which they originated at their MCN Presentation in fall 2012.

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      What unexpected thing have you learned by working at a museum?

      The more time you take with the art, the better. 

      The first time I saw a work by James Turrell, my eyes totally deceived me. I walked into the room (Acton, at the Indianapolis Museum of Art) and saw a gray rectangle “painting,” but I was baffled and could not figure it out—I got closer and closer until my face was pressed against the wall next to it, trying to figure out what it was. When my friend stuck her arm into the painting and revealed the illusion (a square cut into the wall and lit to look flat), my mind was blown! You got me so good, James.

      Also, always offer to take a family photo for the tourists!

      What do you wish you could tell all people about yourself, museums, or life? 

      Everyone is creative.

      Emily, Education Technologist at the Getty, July 24, 2014

      07/29/14

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