A First Timer at MCN Peeks into the Future of Museums

Montreal landmark. Look closely to see lighted cross on top of Mount Royal

I had a great time at the 2013 Museum Computer Network conference in Montreal, November 20-24.   Since I began blogging and tweeting in 2011, I’ve wanted to attend MCN as well as the Museums and the Web conference–the two biggies, as far as I can tell, related to museums and new media. I leapt at the chance to revisit Montreal, a city I know well and love. It was a wonderful experience. As many of you know I’m a relative newcomer to the digital world, yet have become convinced that being literate in this area is an absolute necessity for museum professionals everywhere and at all stages of their careers.

I’m interested in the impact of new media on our culture in general and on museums in particular.  I was afraid the conference might be too tech-heavy for me, but I found a number of sessions that both increased my understanding of new media and encouraged reflection about its influence on museums and the larger society. Many of the sessions were not about “what we did” but “what we are trying,” or “what we hope will happen.”  Lots of food for thought about the future of museums.  Here are a few presentations that  I’ve continued to think about:


gnite!  An evening reception featuring a series of five-minute talks by creative thinkers–each talk engaging, innovative, and short! The speakers communicated so much that it makes you wonder why there aren’t more conference sessions like this. The link takes you to the YouTube video–worth a half hour of your time. It would be great to have more sessions like this at other conferences.

The Opening Keynotefeaturing designer and entrepreneur Tina Roth Eisenberg, also known as blogger swiss-miss. Her open and playful view of life and her habit of reflective practice have led her in a variety of directions and provide a vivid example of creative thinking and creative living that museums could well emulate.

A session on immersive experiences in museums, led by Ed Rodley, who has written a number of provocative posts on this topic at Thinking About Museums. What if we thought of all exhibitions and programs as immersive experiences? 

Project X: A presentation by Justine Chapleau, Pierre Tanguay, and Melissa Trottier, museum studies students from the University of Montreal and UQAM (Université du Québec a Montréal) on the creation of a crowd sourced series of  exhibitions of photos and other works inspired by three phrases: It reminds me of someone; It’s not important; I’m not here at the moment.  All their sites are bilingual in French and English, and the group has just created a new site called nutsandbold.ca that doesn’t have much up yet, but watch this space!

Facilitation Matters: A fascinating session on the role of facilitation in creating and nourishing online learning experiences.  Led by Michigan State University researcher Jeff Grabill, the panel reported on a study of online learning conducted by Grabill and a team from MSU in collaboration with the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, NC, and the Science Museum of Minnesota. Their approach to learning displays great respect for the learner, and reinforces the importance of human communication and interaction in online experiences.  The website they’ve created provides a resourced-filled a Toolbox for creating and sustaining learning online. 

Rapid Prototyping in Office Culture, where Cooper Hewitt Webmaster Micah Walter discussed the creative office culture that is inspiring the digital design team at Cooper Hewitt as it remakes the museum from top to bottom. Their Beta site  invites visitors to access the collection, and has a creative color coding process that is extremely engaging.  Micah has also created the Twitter persona @curatorialpoems which simply reproduces the terse descriptions curators have written for as object descriptions, e.g.”Bands of blue and white and blue and yellow weft ikat alternating with band of solid…”

Museopunks, a podcast series hosted by Suse Cairns and Jeffrey Inscho, now has 11 very interesting recorded interviews with museum/new media thought leaders.  They were able to conduct several live interviews at the conference, which participants could watch as it was live streamed into another room.  Great for listening to as you’re walking or driving.

Defining Open Authority in the Museum presented a variety of voices on the topic. I haven’t found much online that preserves the richness of the session, but if you follow the presenters you may get threads of their thinking through their tweets: @erodley; @LoriLeeByrd; @ebollwer; @StaticMade, @PorchiaMoore.  I hope to post more on this at a later date.

Some quick notes from an MCN newby but longtime conference goer:

The attendees definitely skewed younger than at many museum meetings–I’d say mostly folks in their 20’s to 40s. Very few “suits”–either literal or metaphorical. Not a lot of administrator/director types. All of this leading to an informal, friendly, and at the same time intense atmosphere.  I’m not sure if those with the power to make things happen today in museums were there in any number, or are on board with all of the new ideas being generated and discussed.  But I think these attendees are the future of museums, so attention must be paid. I sensed frustration on the part of a number of people with whom I chatted.  It’s often a struggle to introduce and sustain new media (and the “open” attitudes that go with it). Sometimes it’s a question of lack of vision, but it’s complicated by sparse resources in a time of economic uncertainty.  There was some discussion of the politics of new media in museums, but mostly on the sidelines, not so much in sessions, at least the ones I attended.  Gender was about equally divided, with many women in leadership roles in the conference organization–so nice to see. Racial/ethnic diversity another question—still an overwhelmingly white cohort of participants. Yet I sensed an openness to broadening the discussion, for example in response to Porchia Moore’s presentation on museums’ need to tap into the diversity that is already present in social media.

All in all this conference was about what museums can be as much as what they are, a perspective that is hopeful, visionary, and therefore fragile and full of risk.

Follow  #MCN2013 on Twitter, and  it will lead you to photos and links to many of these discussions. 

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