In early 2019, experience designer Ed Rodley asked the hivemind what they saw as the biggest issues facing ppl who make museum experiences in 2019? The answer from Jay Rounds, E. Desmond Lee Professor of Museum Studies emeritus at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, was “A surfeit of virtues.” Rounds proposed that “There are so many demands for what an exhibit ought to be or do, or how it should be made, that they can paralyze us. Many of these demands seem virtuous in isolation, but some are in conflict with others, and it is impossible to do all of them at once and end up with an exhibit worth visiting. But we have no overarching principle for prioritizing among them, and thus we become so dedicated to being virtuous that we forget how to be good.”
In this episode, Museopunks explores this idea of the surfeit of virtues with both Rodley and Rounds, and discovers a moment of paradigmatic change in museums within the USA.
Ed Rodley is an experience designer who has worked in museums for over twenty-five years. He is currently the Associate Director of Integrated Media at the Peabody Essex Museum. He manages a wide range of media projects, with an emphasis on temporary exhibitions and the reinterpretation and reinstallation of PEM’s collections. Incorporating emerging digital technologies into museum practice has been a theme throughout his career, and he is passionate about the potential of digital technologies to create a more open, democratic world.
Jay Rounds is the E. Desmond Lee Professor of Museum Studies emeritus at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. He began his museum career in 1982 as Technology Curator of the California Science Center, and served for five years as Executive Director of the Los Angeles Conservancy. From 1997 to 2014 Rounds served as the founding director of the Graduate Program in Museum Studies at UMSL, and as Founders Professor of Museum Studies from 2014-2017. He has written and lectured extensively on American museums, and served as a board member of the National Association for Museum Exhibition and as editor of the Association’s journal, Exhibitionist. He also served as a member of the editorial board of Curator: The Museum Journal. Upon retirement, Rounds was honored with the Distinguished Career Award by the Association of Midwest Museums. Now in active retirement, Dr. Rounds consults on museum projects, advises graduates of the UMSL Museum Studies program, and continues a major research project on the history of American museums.
Suggested Reading (via Jay Rounds)
Jay Rounds. Creativity: Are Things Getting Better or Are Things Getting Worse? Exhibitionist 25(1): 112-117. (2006)
The Best of Practices, the Worst of Times. In K. McLean and C. McEver, eds. cAre We There Yet? Conversations about Best Practices in Science Exhibition Development. San Francisco: The Exploratorium. Pp. 5-10. (2004)
Museopunks is presented by the American Alliance of Museums.
Graphic Design of the Museopunks logo is by Selena Robleto.
Suse Anderson: Good day and welcome to Museopunks. The podcast for the progressive museum. My name is Suse Anderson and I am going to be your host for today’s show, but in a lovely joyous moment I am joined by a cohost for this lovely episode. So, Ed Rodley is an experienced designer who has worked in museums for over 25 years. He is currently the associate director of integrated media at the Peabody Essex Museum. He manages a wide range of media projects with an emphasis on temporary exhibitions and the reinterpretation and re-installation of PEMs Collections. Incorporated emerging digital technologies into museum practice has been a theme throughout his career, and he’s passionate about the potential of digital technologies to create a more open democratic world.
Ed Rodley, welcome to Museopunks.
Ed Rodley: Thanks for having me, Suse.
Suse: Oh my goodness it’s so lovely to have you. You are one of the people who has, for me, been kind of a loadstar throughout my entire foray into the museum technology world. You have directed me and steered me into many good things, and good places, and we’ve worked together on a couple of projects, but today I really brought you in, I was captured by a project or a thought project really that you started doing at the start of this year. Which was Museum Challenges 2019. Can you explain what Museum Challenges is?
Ed: Oh, dear. Let’s see. We’ll go back to November to start with. I had the realization on a very long overnight plane trip that I was not sleeping through that everything that I had been going to in terms of workshops and conferences and summits and other things in museums we’re all hovering around the same cluster of ideas of challenges in terms of getting visitors to be interested in and engaged with, and involved with museum experiences. And so feveredly we started writing stuff down and realized that I would need to write a book to be able to handle all of this stuff because it was just so much going on. You know when you have one of those flow of experiences and suddenly everything in your universe just kind of realigns itself and, “Oh, this goes with that and this fits there too.”
So, I spent most of December working on an idea for what the book should be about, and at the beginning of January I casually lobbed out into the twitter-sphere just the question to do a little bit of ground truthing. What are other people think are the big challenges up ahead for museums in 2019? And I did not expect both the number and range of responses that I got, nor the amount of passion that was in some of these responses. I mean, it really hit a nerve with people and I got a couple hundred responses in the course of two days, and of course none of them were any of the things that I was thinking of so it was a very useful exercise.
Suse: So, let’s talk about some of the responses you got and then talk about what you had been thinking were the challenges and whether that’s shifted. What kind of responses did you get?
Ed: Oh boy, they were all over the map. If you name any kind of issue that could potentially impact museums it was represented. Everything from climate change to white supremacy, to decolonization, inclusion and equity work to paying staff living wages, dealing with the chronic overwork in the sector, outdated organizational structures. Let’s see, what else? The idea that the field tends to reinvent the wheel all the time. It was an amazing assortment of responses, and some of them … One of the reasons I still love Twitter so much despite all of the bad things that happen on Twitter is when you have these opportunities to have people who would otherwise never interact with each other riffing on each other’s ideas, and so there were lots of sub-threads that cascaded down from this original tweet of people engaging with each other on all kinds of issues.
The Australians are always well represented in these things for reasons that I still can’t quite understand, but there was lots of talk about 21st century urbanizational structures versus traditional museum structures and how we think about the way we do our work. Cool, cool stuff that I would never have come across otherwise on my own.
Suse: Ed, I find it very difficult that there’s anything you wouldn’t have come across on your own because you tend to do a lot of this wide-ranging thinking yourself, but where had your thoughts been before you started asking other people for their thoughts?
Ed: I had been at an event in Greece looking at using emotion in museum experiences as a way to engage people with cultural heritage, and as I said, on the ride home from that event I realized that everything I’d been to in the last two, two and a half years all boiled down to four elements. Story-telling, immersion, games and gamification, play, fun, what have you. That whole constellation of ideas and, oh, emotion. And, usually whenever I was at one of those events they would name check at least two of the others. So the story-telling event would talk about emotion as well as immersion, and the immersion event would talk about emotion and gamification, and the gaming event would talk about story-telling and realizing there was just this huge thicket of concepts that people keep bringing up and over, and over, and over again.
Museums need to do a better job of blank. Making things more immersive, doing better in different kinds of story-telling. So I started writing this stuff down on the plane and thinking, “Oh, this is a really long blog post. Oh, this is like three really long blog posts.” Then finally getting to the point of like, “There is no blog post that can do this justice. This has to be something much longer that I can spend more time doing the research.” And so none of the responses that I got back from the twitter-sphere had anything to do with experience design. People, they wanted to wrestle with much bigger projects.
Suse: You’ve got these two constellations of ideas now that you’re working with. One which is the constellation of ideas that sounds like it’s going to be the basis of a book, and one which is the constellation of ideas around museum challenges. Are the two related or are they almost two separate port streams?
Ed: At the moment, as of last night at around 6PM I think they are currently separate though related themes operating on slightly different levels, and hopefully they will remain that way because I’ve been trying very hard to narrow down the focus as much as possible to make this a thing that can actually get done in a reasonable period of time. I don’t want to still be working on this in 15 years. So, I think the larger challenges that came up on Twitter are certainly the environment that surrounds any kind of museum experience development, but I don’t think that’s the stuff that I’m going to try to solve. I’m going to let somebody else write that book.
Suse: Yeah, and in fact, I think the heart of our episode today may be someone who is working on at least some of that problem.
Ed: Oh, I hope so.
Suse: Yeah, so let’s talk a little bit about one specific answer that you’ve got to the blog. Do you want to tell me what piqued your interest about this answer?
Ed: Sure, so something that happens not infrequently with me being professionally active on social media is that I will publish something in one realm and I will get responses back in a completely different one. So there are people who, you know, they just don’t do Twitter. They don’t read blogs but somehow something I wrote or said gets to them and they find their own way to get back to me. So a couple of days after the blog post I got an email that said, “Jay Rounds.” I was like, “Why is Jay Rounds emailing me?”
And his response to my question what were the biggest challenges for museums in 2019 was this beautiful gem-like little email that just said, A surfeit of virtues.” And then he went on to explain what he meant about museums trying so hard to be all things to all people that they don’t manage to be good at doing any of them, and it just went through me like a spear. I was like, “Oh, that’s, yeah that’s …” he put his finger on something so I asked him if it would be okay to put it on the blog so other people could respond to it, and then we started having a conversation, and then you and I were having a separate conversation and I said, “Oh, boy. It would be great to get Jay on the air talking about this cause he’s so smart, and he has thought so long about change in the museum field.”
Suse: And that’s where we are.
Ed: In the middle of a paradigmatic crisis.
Suse: In the middle of a paradigmatic crisis indeed.
Suse: Yes, absolutely. So let’s go to our discussion with Jay. For those who are not familiar Jay Rounds is the E. Desmond Lee Professor of Museum Studies emeritus at the University of Missouri-St Louis. We have an extended bio from him I’m just a second so you can find out more about what he’s done, but the short answer is Jay is someone who has been thinking very hard about museums for a long time, and he has some wisdom to throw at us.
Ed: Can’t wait.
Ed: So today we’re very excited to have as our guest, Jay Rounds. He’s the E. Desmond Lee Professor of Museum Studies emeritus at the University of Missouri-St Louis and he began his museum career in 1982 as technology curator of the California Science Center and served for five years as executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy. From 1997 to 2014 he served as the founding director of the graduate program in museum studies at UMSL, and as founders professor of museum studies from 2014 to 2017. He has written and lectured extensively on American museums and served as a board member of the national association for museum exhibition, and as editor of the association’s journal, my favorite journal, The Exhibitionist.
He has also served as a member of the editorial board of curator, The Museum Journal. Now retired Rounds was honored with the distinguished career award by the association of Midwest museums and he consults on museum projects, advises graduates of the UNSL museum studies program and continues a major research project on the history of American museums and today he’s joining us.
Jay, thank you very much for joining us.
Jay Rounds: Well, thank you. I’m very honored by the invitation.
Ed: Jay, we talked earlier this year about the challenges facing the museum field and your response really resonated with me. You said that to your thinking museums biggest challenge was a “surfeit of virtues”. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Jay: Sure. There are a number of different ways to think about it or at least there are different aspects of it, and probably the basic one is just that people have too much to do working in museums now. We’re all, everybody seems to be complaining about overwork and I think you expressed it very well in your description of it as being constantly adding but never subtracting. So it seems like we just have a huge number of demands on what we should do as the proper way to do exhibitions or whatever it is that we think of that we’re trying to do. A good example of this I think is a list from the book Reinventing the Museum which is a list of what I would consider to be virtues called on the list institutional values for the reinvented museum, and there are 52, 52 of them.
So if we wanted it to realize all of those values for the new reinvented museum we’d be able to devote a week a year to working on each one of them which wouldn’t leave much time for other things as well. I think that it’s actually, I would say there are 53 because I would say that the 53rd one is the making of a list of institutional values [crosstalk 00:14:30] realized. Okay, so one meaning it’s simply that we all have too much on our plate, but I’m always interested in the why questions about this. We’ve always been working in a world where there is a lot more that we could be doing than anybody has time to do. So to me the underlying question is why now do we seem to be always adding but not having that ability to be subtracting anything? What is it that we’re missing that would give us a rule that we can use to decide what things we are going to attend to and the things that we can safely ignore without getting attacked by somebody for having ignored them?
So the whole idea of the surfeit of virtues comes back to the problem that normally when we say, “How do we …” When we have more things that we could be doing than we have time to do we use some kind of a rule to make distinction of the things that we will do, and the things that we won’t do. But we don’t seem to have that now in the field now.
Suse: I find this very interesting. You’re talking about additive change without subtractive change and you mentioned that you’re very interested in the why behind things, but what has prompted this kind of mission creep? Is it reflective of broader changes within society at the moment? Or is it something specific to museums and the way they’re dealing with change?
Jay: Both I think. Some of it is ideas creeping into museums from other aspects of society, and some of it is specific to museums. I think one of the, well, to me the basic diagnostic problem behind this is that I feel that museums as a field have lost their sense of identity. We have as people like Harold Stramstead (?) [inaudible 00:17:08] said a couple of decades ago that the word museum no longer has the power to refer to any class of institutions that have any kind of common identity, and we used to have a sense that if you ask people, “What’s a museum?” People would have been able to give you a good answer 40 or 50 years ago. Now we don’t seem to have a good answer for that, and the sense of identity is what gives us the basis, the rule for making decisions about the things that belong to us, and the things that belong to someone else. Where did that come from? Where are we going with that?
Well, there’s a lot going on. Something I’ve been writing a book about for some time so try to give you the short version here. A key thing is that the idea that crept into the museum field from organizational economics by way of Steven Weil. A man who I greatly admired, liked a great deal. He was guest in my home, was very good to my students, but I don’t agree with everything he did, and one of the things that I really disagree with was his famous line about a museum can never be its own excuse for being. My own attitude is that a museum that’s not its own excuse for being isn’t worthy of the name. Well, what he meant by that or what that was tied up with was the idea that museums can only take value from outside themselves, that the value … He said that the museum is just a neutral tool. It has no value in itself. Its only value is from the outcomes, the positive intended outcomes that it creates outside of itself in the broader society.
So essentially that was an attack on the idea of the museum having an identity, having an intrinsic value as a public good in society. As being something special, something worth having. I still believe in that. I still believe that it does, but what this concept of the museum cannot be its own excuse for being implied was that the only value we can have is from the value of the social issues external to the museum itself that we try to serve. So once you start doing that you’ve got all these virtues out there in society and you don’t have a rule for which ones belong to the museum, and which don’t. So we get constantly, every time somebody points out, “Here is another social issue.” Another social problem that a museum has to address. That keeps getting added, and added and usually if we would feel like we have too many things to do that we would try to use a rule about what are the ones with the least value? Stop doing those and only do the ones with the highest value, but virtues in society are hard to rank that way. They’re all virtuous, and so-
Ed: Yeah, who decides.
Jay: We worry that … Yeah. Somebody is going to call us for ignoring any one of those so we feel like we have to serve them all.
Ed: We’re in a time of crisis. I think it would not be overstating it, but it’s not the first one, right? So I think according to your reckoning this is no less than our third major paradigmatic shift in recent history?
Jay: If you define recent as the last 220 years or so.
Ed: Yeah, that’s pretty recent.
Jay: Yes, that’s true. We see periodically that museums go through this paradigmatic cycle just like other organizations, and if we look back in time and we see a big change happening in museums – first in the 1780s with Charles Wilson Peale’s Philadelphia museum being the paradigmatic exemplar of a new type of museum that had distinctive differences than anything that was being done in Europe before. That model was dominant in the United States through most of the century, but by the 1870s we start to see it being disrespected and people trying to come up with ways to change, but while they are very careful about saying they’re not like that told museum. They’re something new. They don’t really figure out what the new museum is going to be until the late 1890s when the new paradigm starts to form.
Again, that new paradigm becomes dominant in the field right up until the late 20th century when we start to go back into another period of paradigm crisis, another period of change, but one of the critical things to recognize about that cycle is that you don’t simply stop believing in the old paradigm and invent a new one at some point. It’s been said that the hard part in changing any organization lies not in getting new ideas, but in getting rid of the old ones. You have to go through a long process of getting rid of the old ones and particular kinds of things appear in that process of how you get rid of the old paradigm that are typical not just with museums but all organizations in this time.
One of those is as technological ambiguity develops and becomes stronger and stronger certain things happen such as the desertification of expertise. A gradual loss of faith in the idea of the paradigm because in a cycle with, you know, the professional class that rules a system like this does so because it’s the carrier of the core technology of the paradigm, and if you start to lose faith in the core technology you start to lose faith in the professional class, and their grip on the system starts to fade and other groups then try to start staking their own claim for why they should have the leadership in a new paradigm.
You also get a proliferation of competing ideas about what the new paradigm should be, about what in our case museums should really be doing and that’s really where that surfeit of virtues is coming from. The paradigm provides you with the definition of what the organizational system, the field is there for. What it is supposed to do and so it gives you the basis for saying what’s inside and what’s outside the boundaries of your normal operations, but when you lose the old paradigm and you don’t yet have a new paradigm in place you get huge number of competing kinds of values, and that in business this is called the technology cycle. A good case study of it is in the development of the automobile industry.
So in the early days of developing automobiles at the turn of the 20th century there were hundreds of different manufacturers of cars, and they were using a huge variety of different types of technologies. Some were making internal combustion engines, others were making steam engines, or electric cars. There were different steering systems, different transmission systems, different startering systems, all of this. So if you learn to use one, one type of car, didn’t guarantee that you’d be able to drive another manufacturer’s type of car, but as the new paradigm starts to form and the gasoline engine becomes the standard, then you start to narrow the range of options. Each new technology that’s adopted into this, like the electric starter, the transmission systems. Each one of these comes to dominate the field and as it dominates it squeezes out all of the other contenders.
So the process of forming the new paradigm is one of starting from a kind of chaotic proliferation of competing possibilities, and narrowing that down into a kind of uniformity that enables the production to improve enormously, that standardizes the interface system for the drivers, that just reduces the variety in a system and as once the paradigm is formed then the emphasis switches away from the competition over which system to use to competition and becoming more and more efficient at producing a relatively standardized product.
Suse: So, Jay, that makes me wonder then. Thinking through this idea of this surfeit of virtues and it’s relationship to paradigmatic change, are we then at a point of necessary overcrowding of ideas in order for there to be a group rethinking about what a museum is and what it needs to be for society, but that this is almost something that will correct itself. That we will start figuring out what ideas we can let go of as we move forward. Is that how a paradigm change resolves?
Jay: The formation of a new paradigm is a process of emergence. It’s a creative act because you eventually get to a point in all the arguing over all of these things where the field is frozen because there are all these conflicting values. It’s not a question of just power or anything like that. It’s a question that you cannot do all of the things that you’re being told to do on purchase because there are too many of them but also because a lot of them are in conflict with one another, and it puts you in a point where it just seems impossible that these conflicts could ever get resolved, but what happens then is a creative act that comes out of the field and that is inherently surprising that shows you a way of thinking about how all of these conflicts can actually be resolved in a new of thinking about the field.
It’s not just a slow process of incremental change. It’s not like making the Grand Canyon, it’s not like Darwinian evolution. It’s this sudden emergence at a point in time where everybody’s become so tired of the endless conflict that enough people will climb on board with the new idea for it to become the new dominant technology and then you have to go through a long process of refining the implications of that. It’s not a fully fleshed out technology when it first appears, but it has the foundations that people will agree on and change their concept of what’s the work we need to do now to figure out the details of this?
So, that surprising quality of it means that you can’t really predict what it’s going to be. I don’t have any prediction but I think in the process that we’re going through what we do is progressively define the problem set that a new integrating concept, a new paradigm would have to solve simultaneously in order to become dominant.
Suse: Jay, will we recognize the change once it’s happened? How do we know when we’re through it?
Jay: Yeah, how do you know when you’re through it? Well, some people don’t. In scientific paradigm’s which are probably the most logical of any of the processes that the types of organizations go through these things. Thomas Kuhn said that when a new paradigm emerges and starts to dominate the field that the process of establishing the new paradigm only ends when all the old guys die off.
Suse: Oh, dear.
Jay: Yeah, that there’s some people who are not going to make the shift, but they become increasingly isolated as people who buy-in to the new paradigm rush to it in part because it seems like it now offers a way that we can get back to productive work. It sets the problem that we know what we can do to make our mark to help develop all this, and so you’ll always have the people sniping and as Kuhn said, they will have to die off before you’re there, but most people will recognize a powerful new idea when it comes, but to be realistic take a look how long did it take for Darwin’s theory of natural selection to become established. He had to wait around for Agassiz to die off. All that along the way but there in a very short time a major revolution in which his concept of evolution started to sweep over not only the field of biology but all kinds of other fields as well.
Ed: So one thing this makes me think of, Jay, is the number of articles and books about museums that have come out in the last 20 years that all follow the format of the blank museum. Are these attempts at coming up with new paradigms for the participatory museum, the inclusive museum, the reflective museum, the convivial museum, fill in the blank.
Jay: Yeah, everybody wants to advertise their ideas, the paradigm and they’re perfectly free to do that but it doesn’t become a paradigm because somebody said it is. It has to actually gain the traction in the field before it gets that, but we only get to that point through the competition of ideas that have been spawned. One of the realistic factors in this is that working during one of these periods of paradigm crisis is not all that pleasant. You don’t really have a way that you can go to work, sit down and know what the job is and just get to doing this because somebody else has a different idea, lots of other people have different ideas. Somebody will attack anything you do. It starts to become an act of major bravery to open up any exhibition at all.
So, one of the things that a paradigm does for us is that it defines what it makes sense to do, what you’re going to do when you arrive at work in the morning and that you know that the other people around you will agree that what you’re doing is a good thing, and that it’s contributing to the welfare of the whole as social value and all that. So it becomes, they’re just a lot of problematic aspects of being in this. It’s easier to do a job and find it gratifying when you do have a solid paradigm in a field. On the other hand, there is during a period of paradigm crisis incredible opportunity out there if you can rise to it.
So, it’s an exciting time in a lot of the ways but it’s not a comfortable time, but I don’t think there’s any way we can avoid that. We have to go through the process. It is part of the reality but I think if we become more conscious of it one of the things that this enables us to do, and I’m referring now specifically to museums, is to avoid falling into the trap of seeing everything that we want to critique as being evidence that the concept of the museum itself is corrupt, is faulty, is responsible for all of the problem kinds of areas. Museums are unique types of institution. They have a unique role that persists across the paradigm shifts, but for the most part they’re not unique at all. They’re an organization and they’re just like other organizations, and they go through the same kinds of problems during a paradigm shift and the tensions that revolve around that as do any other type of organization that’s in the same situation.
So, one of the things that I am eager to get into people’s minds is to make that separation. Understand what is going on in the field that can be attributed to the “museumness” of museums and what has to be attributed simply to the basic problems of organizing concerted action that involves cooperation of a large number of people. And that shows the same symptoms, the same processes no matter what the job is that’s being done. So, when we make that separation it gives a tool for distinguishing when we say that there are things that need to be fixed, but some of them have to do with the fact that it’s a museum. Most of them have to do with just the fact that it’s an organization.
Ed: Yeah, that’s an interesting distinction. So much of my career has been, or has had those moments of wondering, “Is this really a museum problem or is this just a people organizing problem?” And I think as a field we tend to be so inward looking that being able to make that separation, like how do you build that capacity in people?
Jay: Well, everybody could do what I do. Go to the Stanford Business School and do a post-doc in organizational theory. You have to understand museums as organizations. You have to learn how to look at them and you have to look outside of our own literature. You commented before about the vast expansion in the literature on museums and museum studies recently. Well, that’s one of the symptoms of a paradigm crisis. Thomas Kuhn in the Structure of Scientific Revolutions said that the explicit attention to theory is symptomatic of a period of paradigm crisis. You would think that a good healthy paradigm everybody would be sitting around talking about theory. No, you don’t need to if you’ve got the healthy paradigm because it’s answered the fundamental, theoretical questions. You don’t have to argue over those fundamentals. You just have to sit down and implement.
Ed: Saves a lot of time.
Jay: Yeah, and thinking about that when I was first doing my studies of the prisons and museums and that is I did a study in which I collected all of the references to museums, exhibitions, prisons, reformatories, all that through the 19th and to the early 20th century around 1920 to 1930, and I graphed all this and in both fields you see the exact thing. You see a fairly steady number of articles being published about museums and about prisons through most of the 19th century and particularly flat if you correct it for the number of new journals it started publishing. So it’s a steady number until you hit to about 1870 and all of a sudden there’s a rapid increase that peaks by around 1910/1915 when there is vastly more articles being written about both, and then after 1915/1920 it drops back down to very close to the volume that you were seeing published before then.
So, because it was a period of paradigm crisis there were more arguments, there were more different positions, there were more things being written about it. Once we’d settled into a new paradigm then that wasn’t necessary anymore and the numbers go down again. Well, one of the other things that struck me about it because I read all those things. I read and I have to say that was, for the most part, really boring but there were the excitement of seeing the patterns develop everything, but one of the things that struck me always reading all the stuff is I’m reading the same stuff over, and over, and over again. And why did they have to say that so often? Well, it crystalized for me one time when I ran across a quotation that was probably the only thing Richard Nixon ever said that I agreed with. Nixon said when you’re sitting and writing a speech and you’re writing down the same words that you’ve said so many times that it makes you feel like if you say it one more time you’re going to puke, that that’s when people finally get the message. Establishing that new paradigm, we have to hear it over, and over, and over again.
Suse: So, Jay, within your own teaching and writing have you noticed different pressures as you become more aware of this paradigmatic crisis? Or have you seen a shift in the field even within very recent times? Within the last decade or so.
Ed: Yeah, good question.
Jay: What do you think, Ed?
Ed: Oh, I’m going to leave this to the museum studies people to talk about.
Jay: I think that there are some shifts taking place, again some opening up like one of the things I spent a lot of time over the years arguing about outcome-based evaluation which to me was one of the many names of the devil because it created an imbalance of things which have to explain and I’ve written a lot about it so you may have read some of that stuff, but I think it created an imbalance in the relationship between the museum and the visitor, and so if I see a shift I’d think that it is moving toward an idea that centers visitors more in the museum but not in the way that’s usually written about. I see a lot of stuff about the visitor-centered museum which I don’t agree with because to my mind they seem to represent the conviction that we need to go study visitors in order to become better at getting them to do what we want them to do.
And I think what I think I’m seeing more of is a shift toward saying to understand the visitor we have to understand what they’re up to. How they make use of the museum for their own purposes. Maybe I just like to think that that shift is there because I’ve written things saying that and I think I’m getting resonance out of, but yeah, going back a series of articles starting in 2004 I started this line of argument and the first article that I wrote about it, “Strategies for the curiosity-driven museum visitor” has now gotten, I think it’s 157 citations. The next one was “Doing identity work in museums”. That’s gotten over 200 citations which in some fields wouldn’t be very many but in museum studies it’s still pretty good, and as I look through the things using that I think I’m seeing more and more of the ideas that are moving away from the idea of the museum as a servant of society attempting to change people so that they become better citizens of the society. When I started in the field I had had I feel that Koolaid I was in a science museum. I thought, “OK, we’re there to teach people science because everybody’s growing up in a world that’s dominated by science and so they need to become junior scientists in order to cope with it.”
But as I actually started observing people in the museum, paying attention to what they were doing, talking with them and that my perception of it changed a great deal. I became convinced that a visitor is … It wasn’t like the impression that you got from a lot of the literature during that early period of my career which agreed that, and it would seem to be saying that there is something about crossing the threshold of a museum that makes people stupid. That things have to be explained to them. They have to be taught to do things which in the rest of their lives they’re perfectly competent at doing. So, I tried to move to the question of if we really understood why the visitors are there, what their motivations are for being there and how they’re using the museum in the light of those motivations we’d find out that they were actually very good at making use of the museum, but that what they were using it for was not the same thing as what we understood that we were creating the exhibits for.
So, for instance that first article, the “Strategies for the curiosity-driven museum visitor” started round from a basic question that people were asking that said, “Why do people go to all the trouble of coming to a museum and then failing to use the museum in a way that they would get the maximum learning benefit out of it? Why do people only look at 20 to 40% of what’s in the exhibit instead of looking at it all thoroughly because we wouldn’t have put everything in there if we didn’t believe that it was something that they really needed to know?” So my first big shift was thinking, was changing the question from how do we get people to learn what they really need to know? To recognizing that most of what we do in museums and most of the way visitation is done is not about leaning things that we need to know, but about learning things that we don’t need to know. If you look at your museum and you ask yourself seriously, “How much of what it would be possible to learn in this museum do people really need to know if we think about needing to know as having a use that they can put this knowledge to?”
And I don’t see that much. I see lots of stuff that’s good to know. That’s interesting to know. So I started in that article I asked the question of, “if we say that people are here to maximize the total interest value of their visit to an exhibit…” I showed that in fact the ping pong 20 to 40% styles of visitation actually had the capacity to optimize the total interest value to the individual visitor-
Suse: Jay, on that. If someone wants to read these articles or to find more about this work, because I think there’s a lot of really rich, dense stuff in this work. I was in fact reading a few of these pieces again myself today in preparation for our discussion. Where can they find this work? Or where can they find more about what you’ve been doing and how to follow up and contact you?
Jay: First of all I would recommend for the particular one that we’ve been talking about, the three articles in that series. There are also articles that are about organizational processes using in their organizational theory literature to apply to museums and I can provide you with a list of four or five articles.
Suse: That would be great.
Jay: On that. And yeah, people who want to contact me. You have my email address. Feel free to post that on the site and I’d be delighted to hear from anybody who wants to talk about it.
Suse: Jay, that is fantastic. Well, thank you so, so much for this fascinating discussion around really paradigmatic change within museums and where we’re sitting at this moment, in this moment perhaps of crisis. It has been absolutely fascinating.
Ed: Yeah, it has been wonderful to think about the churn that we’re living through right now in terms of being necessary and not just something you have to fight your way through. I’m actually feeling a little bit optimistic.
Jay: Yes, we’ve been in the same position before and we’ve come out on the other side with a new idea.
Suse: Jay Rounds, thank you so much for having that conversation. Ed, was it everything you hoped it would be?
Ed: Oh, that and more. I wasn’t expecting to come out of the conversation actually feeling a little bit hopeful but one of the things I appreciate so much about Jay is the breadth and depth of the research he’s done over the years. So being able to put this in the context of, “Yeah, we’re having a paradigmatic crisis again like we have a couple times before and yeah, it sucks to live through it but we will and something will come out the other end.” And particularly, his pointing out that this is actually also a time of creative freedom. Like if you were thinking about what museums could be now is the time to start trying to pursue that vision because somebody has to.
Suse: Yeah, I agree. I also came out with that sense of optimism and hope, and also feeling good about the number of challenges that as you say it becomes this time for not just creative freedom, but really where ideas and visions of our institutions get to be tested, and I think that’s really important for us if we do want our sector to be as good as possible and if we do want to move forward in ways that are equitable, are inclusive, that we’re doing better than we were doing before. Now is a chance we can test that out.
Ed: Yeah, I look forward to seeing the different models that people come up with.
Suse: Yeah, I agree. I think we’re starting to see some various ones take shape but it’s interesting to think about maybe where ones might come from that are not yet taking shape.
Ed: Yeah, yeah. And that’s a good reason to get up in the morning.
Suse: I agree completely. So we just spoke about paradigmatic change and someone with the breadth of the sector and vision for the sector, but you and I have been working on a little project together with a few other collaborators that has none of that sense of longevity. It’s incredibly short and narrow in its timeframe. Do you want to explain what we’ve been doing?
Ed: Yes, we are both serial obsessives and don’t seem to know when to stop taking on extra jobs.
Suse: Oh, I know.
Ed: But we were both at the museum computer network conference in November and it was a very fulfilling intellectually stimulating event and at the end of it there was so much good stuff that happened in terms of conversation and discussion and debate that wasn’t going to get captured in any way shape or form. That a bunch of us sat down and said, “What can we do to try to grab some of this and hold on to it?” And what ended up coming out of that conversation was this idea of doing essentially an un-proceeding. Most of the work that goes into a traditional conference proceeding, you do all the work that gets published before you actually go to the conference and present the thing, and get challenged, and come away with new ideas as a result of presenting the work. So we thought, “Could we turn that on its head and get people to actually reflect on not what they’d presented but what they learned as result of presenting it and talking to other people.”
So we put out a call for proposals and we said, “We’re going to try to do this very quickly. We want to try to launch this thing in soup to nuts and be done in six months.” And we got a fair number of people to say like, “Heck yeah. I want to do this. Sign me up.” And we’re just about there.
Suse: Yep, it has been such an interesting project. This idea of the un-proceedings has led to all kinds of responses that I think we didn’t necessarily expect. We’ve had reflective pieces, we’ve had case studies, we have conversations around things that people were doing at MCN. We’ve even got an inbook-zine that we are going to try and figure out how to make work.
Ed: Good stuff. I look forward to seeing it see the light of day.
Suse: Me too. We have done this with a small band of editors and really from our call which was in December to now we’re really looking at about four months to turn around a collaborative process that had no plan at the outset. You and I have both worked on projects together often with experimental forms of publishing. Some years ago, you really drove the Code Words project which was an experimental form of publishing that took place at that time on Medium. We were trying to think about how we could really exploit the digital qualities of digital publishing to create something new and experimental and it turns out that people just did really great writing and some of our initial ideas for that didn’t actually come into play but it’s really nice to think about the flexibility that our digital tools, our collaborative tools give us for these kinds of on the side projects that neither of us should’ve taken on because we had way too many things to do anyway.
Ed Rodley: Yeah, I mean, it’s fascinating what you can do nowadays because while this has been going on I have also been awaiting the publication of a book I have a chapter in that’s going through the traditional academic publishing model where I wrote this thing in January 2018 and maybe I’ll see the book in September of 2019 I think, maybe. And this thing was born in December and we’re planning on being able to sell copies by April, and I think, mmm, “Publishing might be a little broken.”
Suse: Yeah, I mean, something about the responsiveness of this has been incredibly interesting. I also like the un-proceedings model. I like the idea of coming out with proceedings that are not done beforehand but actually in response to and reflection of a conference that happened.
Ed: Yeah, and I think looking at what the authors contributed we actually managed to get there, and people talked about what happened to them at the conference, not just what they brought with them and I hope people will find it as exciting as I found it to work on.
Suse: Yeah, Ed Rodley, thank you so, so much for joining me as guest host today. It was so lovely to have this experience working with you and to get to talk to you on Museopunks.
Ed: It was a great honor to join you as always, Suse Anderson. I look forward to seeing the whole episode.
Suse: I can’t wait. So Museopunks is presented by the American Alliance of Museums and you can find us on Twitter @Museopunks and you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or Stitcher. Until next time.
Hey, one quick thing before you go. That book project that Ed and I were just talking about, well, it’s real. It became a book. Humanizing the Digital: Unproceedings from the MCN 2018 Conference is available for sale on Amazon right now. All proceeds from the sale go to support the MCN 2019 scholarship fund.