Photo from the Flickr Commons (Field Museum Library)
I’m relatively new to museums. Apart from a short intermezzo in an ecomuseum, the last year has been my only year within the walls of a museum. I do new media and technology. We do a lot of innovation. This is what I learned last year.
- Work together
There’s a lot of one man armies doing great work on new media and innovation in museums. Innovation isn’t a one man show, though. It’s a team effort. I’ve had the good fortune to be part of a team led by visionary people. However, even if you’re the only one paid to do new media and technology, try to work together with others as much as possible. To do so:
- Do internal advocacy
Odds are most of your coworkers know little about new media. That doesn’t mean they don’t like to know. Talk about what you’re doing, make them enthusiastic. I didn’t always do it, last year, and that was among my biggest mistakes. I learned the lesson and now I do workshops, regular mailings and I spent quite some face time explaining people what I’m doing. All the energy I put into internal advocacy comes back to me in – at least – twofold.
- Curatorial staff is not conservative, per se
Especially the last months I’ve closely worked together with our curatorial staff. I asked their input and tried to talk with them as much as possible. Listen to their needs and use their expertise. The result: almost daily they contact me with relevant information they find online, great ideas for projects and pilots and useful questions. And they’re about semantic web and augmented reality, not “how do I make text bold”.
- Innovation is done by people, not by technology
Whatever relevant project or installation I can think of can be made. Technologically. In everything I’ve been working on (and this includes all my prior experiences) the only scarce resource have been enthusiastic people. Enthusiastic, not skilled. Skills can be taught quickly. I treasure the many endlessly enthusiastic people around me.
- For-profit is not a dirty word, at least not always
I’ve discovered that, more than in most other sectors I’ve worked in, there’s a group of really good entrepreneurs in the cultural sector. They’re out to make profit, but don’t mind to share their knowledge and networks without asking anything in return. I don’t want to play favourites and will thank them in person. The lesson: don’t run away from businessmen immediately.
- Work together (2)
Without the many (young,) enthusiastic people from other institutions I’ve met and spent quality time with, I wouldn’t have learnt what I did. Our new networks have been of incredible value to me. Think outside of your institution’s walls and work together with people in similar positions elsewhere. Build the networks yourself, if there aren’t any.
- Host activities
As most of us working on new media, technology and innovation are struggling with the same challenges, why not host useful activities yourself? I’ve done workshops and unconference sessions to discover the answers to difficult questions. There’s no better way to move forward. And the best thing is: others learn from it as well. Don’t wait for a conference session or other institution to deal with your challenge: take the initiative yourself!
- Use conferences to talk, not to listen
Which brings me to conferences. I’ve had the opportunity to visit quite some of them. MuseumNext in Newcastle, DISH in Rotterdam, MW2010 in Denver and some 3 KJOs in Amsterdam. They had one thing in common: the plenary presentations were little useful. Most inspiration and ideas came from the conversations with people at the conference. A conference brings great people together, but it’s up to you to talk with these people and organise dinners or sessions with them to really learn a thing or two.
- Talk about challenges, not best-practice
Presentations are often not that useful, as they tend to give best-practices. They are about specific challenges solved by specific institutions in a very specific situation. Inspirational, but there are so many more challenges. When I talk with people, I’ve learnt to stay away from best-practices and address real challenges I face. Sharing a challenge makes it easier to solve it.
- Take some time off
On an average I’ve worked 67 hours a week. Add 10-15 hours of travel and 20+ hours of reading blogs, books and papers and at times there was little more I did than new media and technology. I love it and will continue doing so, but I realise that the enormous challenges we face might be better dealt with when the mind is empty and clear, the body full of energy.
This last lesson might be one to focus on next year. Because I’ll be continuing. Of course. I think to work on new media and technology in museums might be one of the most interesting places to work right now.