this is aaronland

it's like trying to make a grilled cheese sandwich in a toaster

The logical conclusion of the services economy is a museum

Recently, Micah Walter wrote on Twitter:

Thinking about a typical “tech stack” for a small to mid-size museum or similar cultural org. What’s the minimum off the shelf/cloud based infrastructure to run an org? (thread)

To which I replied:

@davidnunez @micahwalter @morphogencc the “minimum stack” is staff but no one wants to believe that so the sector continues to chase ponies

A short back and forth followed, involving a handful of people, until David Nuñez said:

@morphogencc @thisisaaronland @micahwalter I'll just say it. I'd rather a museum double the income of all the front of house teammates vs. hire an expensive in-house digital team. Go spend some time looking at museum digital team org charts and the stuff that would be better served by outside providers is quite obvious.

And I replied:

@davidnunez @morphogencc @micahwalter this is a good example of how and why twitter is an awful medium for discussing complex issues so I will write about these things elsewhere / I will only say that the sector is culturally indisposed to changes that might offset its financial challenges –

Like a lot of people in 2019, I continue to question whether or not to participate with Twitter anymore. I still post things here and there but I have stopped trying to use it for the purpose of "conversation" despite the company's best efforts to market itself as a platform for that sort of thing.

The demands of squeezing meaning in to 140, or even 280, characters typically require the use of short-hand, figures of speech and tricks of the eye (so to speak). At their very best these linguistic gymnastics can be akin to poetry. At their worst they serve as unintended landmines of allusion, sheering comments of their nuance and transforming genuine misunderstanding and honest negligence in to hostility and malice. We have a hard enough time creating understanding with the benefit of whole paragraphs and essays, and books even, so it should come as no surprise that complex arguments reduced to elevator pitches (see what I did there?) become the cause of unwanted conflict.

Take for example my claim that "...the (museum) sector continues to chase ponies" or the title of this blog post. Both are hyperbole and the latter is factually untrue. The title of this blog post is taken from a talk I've been threatening to do for years now and is a deliberate provocation. It is meant to draw attention to a problem that while not as dire as the title suggests is still real and should be of concern to the cultural heritage sector. The thrust of the argument is that the trend in museums has been to do less and less in-house save writing the contracts we use to hire and manage the third parties that do the actual work necessary for a museum to operate.

Which brings me back to David's tweet. He makes two points:

  1. I'd rather a museum double the income of all the front of house teammates vs. hire an expensive in-house digital team.
  2. Go spend some time looking at museum digital team org charts and the stuff that would be better served by outside providers is quite obvious.

I'd like to address them in reverse order. First, are museums better served by outside providers than in-house digital teams? There are a few different ways to look at this question.

Have teams dedicated to technology and the digital inside of museums, having been given a wide berth and substantial budgets over the last decade, lived up to their promise? I think it's pretty clear that when you average out all the efforts of the last ten years, including the successes, the answer is: No. That's not something anyone wants to hear but it's important to be clear-eyed and honest when we reflect on past work in order to see where all the good intentions failed in the face of operational realities.

The cultural heritage sector raised and spent a lot of money for digital intiatives and there isn't much left to show for it. Few projects are still standing and if they are survive mostly on life-support or benign neglect. The number of people who have outright left the cultural heritage sector as a result of their experiences working on those projects is discouraging. I don't however think that it is necessarily an indictment of in-house digital teams, per se.

For starters, most teams could barely be considered large enough to form a quorum. Of all the teams that were started only a handful had enough people to work effectively and, put bluntly, they should have built proverbial rocket-ships given all the resources and freedom they were given. They did not.


Worse, many let all the good will they were afforded slip away through their actions, or inaction because of overpromising and underdelivering, and everyone else has suffered the consequences of their failures. I have my own personal list of suspects in this regard but I think it's important to understand that when I say they I am speaking collectively of anyone who has said the words digital and museum together in a sentence anytime in the last ten years. I count myself among those who did. We all did this, together.

The reason the failures of those few teams with sufficient, or even just adequate, resources is important is that it's not as though the organizational dynamics and challenges of cultural heritage institutions have changed much in the interim. Getting anything done in a museum is hard enough as it is so imagine trying to navigate those realities and do the digital with insufficient resources and skeleton crews while those with the means to be doing better... didn't.

I choose to believe that the mistakes made were genuine. I choose to believe that everyone was trying their best, with good intentions and honest motive. I don't think that should shield us from what is ultimately a pretty damning retrospective of our efforts. We can and should do better but let's acknowledge that this work has been made harder by our failures.

In my reply to David I pointed to a talk I did at Museums and the Web in 2013 about institutional voice. During that talk I said:

It's an interaction model that tries to account for the shift from the exhibition being the principle the unit of currency for an institution to the entire collection being that measure. That's not a shift that I think everyone has acknowledged or is necessarily happy about but it's hard to deny that it's happening.

I mention it because this is still a transition we are living through. An always-on and connected network means that an institution is no longer quantified by the atomic isolation of the exhibition and the exhibition catalog but rather its ambient presence and the ease with which its present can be connected to its past, not to mention everything else.

In other words: Everything a museum does is connected to everything a museum has done not just for those with institutional knowledge but for those that an institution exists to serve, namely everyone else. In other words: The old model of working which can be described as fire and forget is one that no longer matches people's expectations.

Cultural heritage institutions are not used to doing version two of a project but the ability to do so is precisely what the internet and digital technology affords. It shouldn't really come as a surprise that organizations have approached digital initiatives with the same mindset that they've brought to bear on everything else. It does, however, account for many of the challenges those digital projects have to overcome.

Most organizations are still culturally hard-wired for high-stakes projects that culminate in a big splashy reveal which buoys an institution for the time it takes to complete the next project. In this model the skills and efforts of third-party agencies to produce a complimentary digital product are a good fit. Those agencies charge a premium for their work but out of business necessity that work is predetermined and cast in stone, save for a support contract to account for minor changes or fixes. That work is rarely if ever revisited and, again out of operational necessity, not designed to be reconsidered once delivered.

Historically, institutions have been left with a digital infrastructure consisting of expensive one-offs that do not age well, almost never interoperate with one another and are ill-suited to adaptation. If you believe that the promise of these technologies is only to compliment an exhibition in the moment then it's an entirely legitimate way to operate.

I think the promise of digital technologies, and the internet, is something very different. I think what these technologies allow us is the freedom, both intellectually and importantly financially, to dampen the high-stakes nature of what a cultural heritage institution does. I think it allows the tangible ability to produce more facets and more avenues by which an institution and the public at largely might consider a topic.

The present offers us the ability to harness the databases, the publishing tools, the programming languages and networks of communities and broadcast channels that have been created, in many instances for entirely other purposes, in the service of our collections and the mandates that our institutions claim. The goals aren't new but what is new is that many of those goals are actually within reach now. That these goals are within reach does not, however, mean they are self-realizing.

The whole point of a digital team inside an institution is to do those things. Not only the big reveal but version two and then version three and so on. The purpose of a digital team inside an institution is to build and nurture the infrastructure so that each subsequent project is easier than the last or at the very least creates new challenges rather than retreading the same ground over and over again. These are precisely the sorts of things that outside agencies are not set up to do. It's not their business and no amount of wishful, or magical, thinking on the part of their clients (the cultural heritage sector) will make it so.

Infrastructure here should be understood to mean both the technological and cultural scaffolding that supports an institution. Another crucially important function of an in-house team is to be able to respond and adapt to mistaken assumptions along the way. To reduce the cost of failure, real or imagined, from being seen as catastrophic to being understood as addressable.

To make these ideas concrete consider the following:

These are all blog posts from the Cooper Hewitt Labs website. There are three really important things to note about this list:

  1. None of this work was done by me or Seb Chan even though we are the two names most often associated with Cooper Hewitt's digital efforts as part of the museum's re-opening in 2014. In fact, save for the last two posts in the list, neither of us worked at the museum when this work happened.
  2. This work was done in-house and on staff-time, all while maintaining museum operations including all the work we'd done for the re-opening. Spend some time reading what the team did and then try to imagine how much money outside firms would charge for the same effort.
  3. The digital team at Cooper Hewitt was never more than five people at any given point in time. Five people is neither small nor big in a museum context but it should give you an idea of what today's technology enables you to do.

Let me be crystal clear about something: This is how it should be. This is why you build and nurture and sustain core capacity in-house. You do it because it makes possible what was impossible, or so impractical as to seem impossible, before.

It doesn't necessarily make it easy but it does make it possible. The cultural heritage sector has an unfortunate habit of confusing easy and possible and the sooner we stop equating the two the sooner we'll all start doing better work.

Even though Seb and I were the public face of the museum's digital efforts it was never just the two of us. Micah Walter and Katie Shelley and Sam Brenner (and Pam Horn) were there through it all. They deserve more recognition for the work they did. They deserve more recognition because they, and Lisa Adang and Rachel Nackman, picked up from Seb and me when we left the museum and kept on running.

It bears repeating: This is how it should be. This is why you build and nurture and sustain core capacity in-house. You do it because it makes possible what was impossible before.

I am proud of the work that I did, personally, at Cooper Hewitt. Much has been said and written about it but one of the aspects of that work which hasn't been addressed as much was the awareness and understanding that in order for that work to be considered a success it had survive my (and Seb's) departure. In that way I am equally proud of the work we did. That is why you build and nurture and sustain core capacity in-house.

At the end of our tenure Seb and I wrote a 13, 000 word paper about our efforts at the Cooper Hewitt. In the closing remarks we said:

As a sector we have spent a couple of decades making excuses for why “digital” can’t be made core to staffing requirements and the results have ranged from unsatisfying to dismal.

The shift to a ‘post-digital’ museum where “digital [is] being naturalized within museums’ visions and articulations of themselves” (Parry, 2013) will require a significant realignment of priorities and an investment in people. The museum sector is not alone in this – private media organisations and tech companies face exactly the same challenge. Despite ‘digital people’ and ‘engineers’ being in high demand, they should not be considered an ‘overpriced indulgence’ but rather than as an integral part of the already multidisciplinary teams required to run a museum, or any other cultural institution.

The flow of digital talent from private companies to new types of public service organizations such as the Government Digital Service (UK), 18F (inside GSA) and US Digital Service, proves that there are ways, beyond salaries, to attract and retain the specialist staff required to build the types of products and services required to transform museums. In fact, we argue that museums (and other cultural institutions) offer significant intrinsic benefits and social capital that are natural talent attractors that other types of non-profits and public sector agencies lack. The barriers to changing the museum workforce in this way are not primarily financial but internal, structural and kept in place by a strong institutional inertia.

Which brings me back to David's first point that he would rather a museum double the income of all the front of house teammates vs. hire an expensive in-house digital team.

First, I wholeheartedly agree that we should double the income of front of house staff in museums.

Second, I think pitting one group of museum staff against another this way is unhelpful and points to larger structural problems about how museums are funded and how that funding gets allocated. I think it also betrays a helplessness (some might say realism) in the face of those challenges. The landscape of these challenges is uneven. It is especially acute in North America where the lack of public funding combined with the roles, functions and motives of private donors and boards often causes the whole purpose of cultural heritage institutions to be called in to question. Overall, though, the sector as a whole is long overdue for a critical accounting of how it spends its money. My own feeling is that we might do well to stop flushing it away on unnecessary and over-priced buildings but that is just one of many ways we could do better.

In 2019, digital staff is only expensive relative to other functions at a museum. When you look at the kinds of salaries the private sector will bear for that same digital staff it only serves to highlight the unfair salaries the cultural heritage sector promotes in the first place. These salaries help fuel the on-going problem of retention in the sector which makes building and sustaining long-term team-based efforts, digital or otherwise, even harder than they are to begin with.

When you consider the sum totals of money that are spent on outside contractors and especially outside technology contractors in the cultural heritage sector it remains something of a mystery how it is that we can't both raise salaries across the board and sustain in-house digital teams. If we are going to have awkward and difficult conversations about how and where resources are allocated this is where I would start.

Finally, for all that my claims about the problem of museum outsourcing may be overstated I learned recently, during a hallway conversation at MCN, that a growing number of museums have considered terminating their permanent curatorial staffs and replacing them with contract curators hired on a per-exhibition basis. This is not an entirely new phenomenon and it tracks with a broader trend in academic and cultural institutions to stop supporting tenured positions that allow staff to pursue research for its own sake.

I think the question of whether or not to outsource curatorial practice is a good opening to discuss the broader practice of outsourcing in general in the cultural heritage sector. It certainly easier for more people to relate to than the question of whether or not we should outsource digital and technology roles. This is a larger debate that we, as a community of practice, should have because I think that one risk of relentless outsourcing is that museums (and friends) will become nothing more than centers of production rather than scholarship.

If we say that our only purpose is to facilitate the assembly of content in the service of culture then it's no longer clear to me what distinguishes the cultural heritage sector from any other for-profit entertainment company. If we are unable to articulate, even to ourselves, what distinguishes our work from that produced by the private sector then maybe it really is time to admit there's nothing special about what we do. And importantly there are other people who do it — where it is pure and selfish entertainment — better than we do.