Ignite talk - Chad Wenard

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media type="youtube" key="Z0ee9-0ltbg" width="560" height="315" Video: “Burning Questions” by Chad Weinard, an Ignite talk for the Openlab Workshop Unconference, December 1, 2015, in Crystal City, VA. Published on Jun 27, 2016

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Chad Weinard, Burning Questions


Thank you everybody my name is Chad Weinard, and this is an opinionated love letter to museums:

Museums. Museums. I adore you. We need to talk about your assumptions. I walk your hallowed halls, enthralled. I’ve surfed your sites. Touched your screens. You stole my heart…but we need to talk…

Gentle Muse — eum, Sometimes you assume nobody even cares about your collections. You dally with fleeting exhibitions. Your curators while their time with someone else’s Monet, or Tut.

It’s your collection that sets you apart. You keep what we would run back to save, in the fire, or flood, or war. Tell the stories that help us make personal connections to the collection.

Sweet museum, don’t assume this. You try so hard to please, films, dining, concerts, insisting everyone comes to you. Partner with your friends. Go to their place once in a while. What we need most from you… is a great museum.

Museum mausoleum, it’s just morbid wordplay. (It’s true though: You do write tombstones for your collection, may they rest in storage.) You once kept every mention in curatorial files. Not so much now, what with Internet and emails.

But what if your collections are alive like never before, in a digital space? Let’s follow the trails of museum objects, like fireflies dancing through a digital meadow, and let’s record their movement as part of their ongoing story.

But you’re too busy for such flights of fancy. First the website, then the online collection, social media, all on top of a busy calendar. Of course you’re too busy. First, stop doing something old. Then try something new.

Museums, You are terrified of copyright. He who shall not be named. Copyright (and I’m talking about Voldemort here), copyright, VAGA, ARS, fear, uncertainty, doubt. Museums don’t even talk about it amongst themselves: “How much did we pay to put the Picasso on the rack card? How much did you?”

If copyright is Voldemort, then Fair Use is your Patronus, your shield. Summon it often. Wear your educational mission proudly. What if museums had a platform to share what they paid in rights fees, and when they invoked their Patronus, fair use?

Museums, why oh why does collections management software cast such a spell? How long will we wrestle data out of closed, proprietary systems? It’s not black magic. It’s a relational database. But it may require an exorcism.

Museum technologists are under the spell too. We assume registrars would never change. How about an open system of the web, on the web, made for sharing? And let’s add value to the collection data: Computer vision, color palette, face recognition, analytics… All in reach for the smallest institutions.

Museums, you kill me. Collections software isn’t the only sacred cow. Every department has its own software system, and most of them don’t talk. [Law] says that organizational silos get baked into software design.

What if we pull a [Conway], and affect organizational change through software? Use a generic mission as a guide: connect people to collections. On the left, people, on the right, collections, in the middle — that’s where we post and archive all the ways the museum makes connections. Software structured for museum missions.

It makes sense. You need to sell tickets But you’re missing an opportunity. Social is immediate and ephemeral, but its real value is long-term relationship, connecting with the collection.

For-profit marketers recognize that social’s no good at selling. To them it’s about “content marketing.” Businesses are hiring teams of writers, editors, and experts in order to create content that generates goodwill. Museums have those teams already.

Museums, I still love you, but you are so sick of me by now. Go ahead, stick me in a separate digital department, in the basement. Soon, you’ll need digital throughout. Most staff already work with a computer, you know, doing computery things. They need better tools and processes.

Yes! Digital isn’t a fad. You can’t wait it out, hoping things will go back to normal. I’d only quibble with the timing. Digital is the NOW. Even if there is no technology in your galleries, your audience has changed. They are digital.

So What Can a Technologist Do About Museums? (I need to give a shout out to Brett Victor, [wrote an essay along these lines about global warming].) Technologists want to change the world for the better, and I think they can do that by helping museums.

Together, we should provide a resource that answers these questions: What are open problems in the field? (Not just the solutions, problems.) Who’s working on which projects? What are the fringe ideas? (These, are the fringe ideas) Let’s share in-progress project information to jumpstart innovation and get more people involved.

Let's get to work.

Thank you.