Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Reading list, 6 October 2020

 The joy of a week off - time to read ...

On brands

That quickly-iconic Bloomberg piece on the "identikit formula of business model, look and feel, and tone of voice" of direct-to-customer start-up brands, Welcome to Your Bland New World

Complimented by Sarah Drumm's What does a made-for-TikTok brand look like?

On public monuments

While the Mellon Foundation has pledged US$250M over the coming five years to reimagine, create & reposition public monuments, Andry Filatov, a Russian billionaire who "owns Art Russe, a London-based foundation that aims to develop a 'greater understanding of Soviet and Russian cultural contributions' outside Russia" is keen to buy them and ship them to Russia for new lives. Alternatively, on Hyperallergic Jillian McManemin writes about her creation of the Toppled Monuments Archive, to preserve these examples in one place.

On deaccessioning

Much discussion over the last week or so as the idea is floated that London's Royal Academy could sell a Michelangelo marble sculpture to bolster its failing finances and protect jobs; meanwhile the American Association of Art Museum Directors has loosened its deaccessioning guidance in response to the pandemic, seeing the Brooklyn Museum send 12 works to auction to support collection care and the Baltimore Museum of Art release three works to advance equity programmes.

Art, heritage and slavery in Britain

232 items in the British parliamentary collection are shown to have links with the slave trade, including "189 pieces depict[ing] 24 people who had ties to the slave trade and 40 depict[ing] 14 people who were abolitionists", after an inquiry launched in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. Meanwhile the British National Trust has released a report showing "93 places, roughly one third of all of its properties, that it says were built, benefited from or connected to the spoils of slavery and colonialism". Not everyone wants to acknowledge those facts

Cast your mind back about six weeks and you see the National Trust taking another pummelling, reminiscent of RNZ's plans for a youth music channel, over leaked documents outlining a "flex" to their traditional mansion offer, with more diverse and engaging audience focus: responses included National Trust restructuring plans are ‘one of the most damaging assaults on art historical expertise ever seen in the UK’ in the Art Newspaper.

A critical eye on fashion history

I love Vanessa Friedman's reporting on fashion for the New York Times. In The Incredible Whiteness of the Museum Fashion Collection Friedman takes on the absence of Black designers from the leading international fashion museum collections, including a pretty devastating analysis of the Met Museum's Costume Institute online presence. 

Just for the sake of it

Anne Helen Petersen on clergy burn-out: "Many religious leaders are working 21st century jobs with 20th century skills. We’re still getting trained and formed for a version of church/life that doesn’t exist anymore."

Haley Nahman on Emily Ratajkowski’s viral essay (a writer I've never encountered before, on a person who I don't relate to, writing about choice-feminism)

Mandy Brown on re-reading, especially for this quote from Donna Harkness which beautifully expresses something we in museums know to be imperative:
The British sociologist Marilyn Strathern … taught me that “it matters what ideas we use to think other ideas (with).” ... It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots; what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.

Monday, 20 July 2020

Reading list, 19 July 2020

If you click one link, make it this: Statistics New Zealand is consulting on proposed changes to the statistical standard for sex and the statistical standard for gender identity. There is a lot of information there but the survey itself provides enough context with each question for you to choose your responses. Responses close on 13 August. 

A fascinating and deeply sad tweet thread by art crime professor Erin L Thompson, about the Ahnighito Meteorite, in the American Museum of Natural History, exported from Greenland by a white explorer, Robert Peary, and accompanied with 6 Inughuit, including a 7 year-old named Minik and his widowed father.

Curator and art historian Dr Kelli Morgan has recently resigned from Newfields (the Indianapolis Museum of Art that was), describing the workplace as toxic and failing people of colour: late last month she published an essay, To Bear Witness: Real Talk about White Supremacy in Art Museums Today. The essay - though not targeted at Newfields - sits alongside this article by Aaron Green for Artnet, ‘We Were Tired of Asking’: Why Open Letters Have Become Many Activists’ Tool of Choice for Exposing Racism at Museums.

To listen - Alice Procter on RNZ with Kim Hill, talking about colonial looting and problematic museum collections, off the back of her recent book The Whole Picture: the colonial story of the art in our museums and why we need to talk about it.

As the statue debates play out throughout colonised countries what happened in Bristol over the last few weeks really made me think: The day Bristol dumped its hated slave trader in the docks and a nation began to search its soul (when the statue of Edward Colston was toppled); 'Hope flows through this statue': Marc Quinn on replacing Colston with Jen Reid, a Black Lives Matter protester (Quinn whips up and guerilla installs a replacement statue); Black Lives Matter sculpture of Jen Reid removed from Colston plinth (the mayor sends the sculpture to a museum).

On the monuments debate - The Art Newspaper has started pulling together decades of commentary on public sculpture.

Sunday, 12 July 2020

Reading list, 12 July 2020

Gosh - 2 months between posts. I think that probably says a lot about my post-lockdown focus, and the fact this weekend was the first in weeks where I've had time to sit down, clear my feedreader, and actually read some of the articles backed up in in ....

Swiss artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp - an important feature of the French avant-garde and Dada movement - is being brought to prominence by some major players, as this NYT article describes. She worked across abstraction and applied art, from colour-schemes for architectural plans to sculptures and paintings. Part of the newly focused attention comes from a Hauser & Wirth exhibition, and I'm sure that's part of mega-galleries moving their attention to older or dead women artists with a substantial back catalogue to be presented. I'm taking by Sheila Hicks' comment at the end of the article:

Taeuber-Arp’s complicated legacy is exactly what appeals to contemporary artists like Sheila Hicks, who is known for her sculptural textiles and counts herself as a Taeuber-Arp fan. 
But Ms. Hicks — who is based in Paris, a foreigner in the city as Taeuber-Arp was — has her own take on the gender politics of the past. 
“Her husband had a powerful personality, and it was a free ride into the inner circle,” Ms. Hicks said. “She wouldn’t have had that without him.” She added, “It was a challenge to live in those times and achieve her goals.” 
“I hope they don’t make her out to be a tragic figure,” Ms. Hicks said of “Living Abstraction.” 
“I love the agility of this person who was multitalented, and who was partnered with this super-popular guy,” she said. “It was a win-win.” 
Major American philanthropic organisation the Mellon Foundation is re-focusing all its funding towards social justice outcomes.

Australian museum authority (worker? leader? observer? and good friend) Michael Parry on the NSW government's decision to retain the MAAS (Powerhouse Museum) location at Ultimo and also move ahead with its Parramatta development.

Two fascinating podcasts I've listened to whilst out running in the freezing cold dark nights we're currently enjoying: Stuff's CEO and new owner Sinead Boucher on The Fold (I'm particularly interested in their new focus on public trust and accompanying coverage of the reduction on clickbait they're publishing) and activist Julia Whaipooti on the Brazen podcast

A New Yorker interview with American-born, Berlin-based philosopher Susan Neiman about how Germany has faced its Nazi heritage through politics, education, high and popular culture and actions of redress and compensation, and how the United States might address its own racist heritage.

Two pieces I really benefitted from reading on E-Tangata recently: In defence of call-out culture by Khylee Quince, and Only a global movement can eradicate racism, an interview between Moana Maniapoto and Angela Yvonne Davis.

Vu Le's Non-Profit AF is one of sites (like E-Tangata) that I prioritise right now. This article really opened my eyes: Have nonprofit and philanthropy become the “white moderate” that Dr. King warned us about?

And finally - I'm not sure when this happened by I'm just delighted to see The Dowse Art Museum collection (getting) online.

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Reading list, 17 May 2020


Pitt River Museum curator Dan Hicks ponders the future of museums for Artnet. More interesting though is the piece he links to by Meta Knol, director of the Museum De LakenhaI in the Netherlands, reflecting on last year's celebration of the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt's birth and the fact that the blockbuster exhibitions of the kind organised for the event are simply not sustainable.

At the moment, I meet online fortnightly with the National Librarian, National Archivist and CE of Ngā Taonga; meet fortnightly with the directors of the eight metro museums and galleries; meet every few weeks with other CEs of organisations monitored by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage; meet weekly or fortnightly with the board of Arts Wellington, the pan-artform membership organisation;  and listen in on a weekly call with directors of galleries of all sizes all over the country. It's more concentrated and open sector engagement than I've ever had, and it makes me interested in this article about the 200 New York arts leaders who are tuning in for a daily call.

It's interesting to see how festivals are adapting to reach audiences online. Here's a reflection from Now Play This, a festival of experimental game design, who just moved their event online and tried to maintain the sense of participation and interaction while doing so. Meanwhile, the Hay Festival is moving online (much of the programme is streaming for free, just ... on BST).

Tangentially Covid-related

Jill Lepore's history of Sesame Street for The New Yorker echoes the rapid establishment of the MOE's two educational tv channels: "Educational shows for kids responded to two conditions: the scarcity of preschools and the abundance of televisions".

Not Covid-related at all

A terrific interview with writer N.K. Jemesin

Fine art director: meet Fanny Pereire, who sources and organises art collections for tv shows and movies (fantasy job, after naming nail polish colours).

This week Te Papa launched Kōrero takatāpui ki Aotearoa: LGBTQI+ histories of Aotearoa New Zealand, a new section of our website, dedicated to queer objects, artworks, and stories in Te Papa’s collections and  the rich histories of Aotearoa New Zealand’s LGBTQI+ communities and icons.

Catch-up therapy

This two-parter between Harriet Lerner and Brené Brown on how and why to apologise, despite all its Americanisms, taught me a lot this week.

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Mentoring suggestions: helpful resources for people managing (and being human in the workplace)

 I'm having the most amazing and humbling response to my offer to open up some mentoring spaces, and I know I'm not going to be able to spend time with all the people who have submitted their interest.

The podcast I wish someone had given me when I started managing people

Manager Tools "Basics". Listen to them on 1.5 time. Prepare to roll your eyes at some of the episodes and the need to reinforce beyond-basics like "have one-on-one meetings". But the episodes on feedback have completely reshaped my approach to this and I wish wish wish I'd heard them years ago.

The book I wish someone had given me when I started managing people

Lara Hogan's Resilient Management. Like the podcast above, it's written for the tech world, but I thoroughly recommend at least downloading the trial chapter from the link and giving that a read. It took me until last year (when Lara presented at Webstock) to see how the forming / storming / norming / performing model she uses could help me understand what the hell was going on with teams I'm working with, and to think about how people's essential needs (status, security, novelty) shape their reactions to change and challenge in the workplace. Well written and blessedly short.

The blog I wish someone had shown me when I started managing people

Leadership Freak. Middle-aged American man warning. The frequency may wear on you. But every couple of posts he makes a point that really really helps me. Like this recent one about accountability.

The podcast that made me feel better about finding everything so hard right now

Am I the last woman leader in the English-speaking world to learn about Brené Brown? Seems like it. I can't stand her author interviews on her new podcast, but these two short episodes really helped me get some perspective on what's been going on with me over the last few weeks:

Anxiety, Calm + Over/Under-Functioning (I'm a classic over-performer in response to stress and this podcast helped me step outside myself and understand how I was behaving)

On tough first times (We are doing so many new things, in new ways, in a situation of great ambiguity. It's not surprising we're feeling snappy, knee-jerky, and stressed.)

The podcast that helps me find my empathy

Esther Perel has been one of the best things in my lockdown experience. Her insight, charm and brutality make such a unique and listenable package. I binged on her couple's therapy podcast and haven't listened to all the episodes of her more recent 'How's Work' but I've listened to the following two episodes twice. In them, Perel explores the idea of the 'relational dowry' we bring into the workplace,

Prologue (an introduction to the idea of a 'relational dowry'; needs for identity at work; power relationships in the workplace; stability and growth)

Special Episode: Esther Perel and Adam Grant of Worklife (In which organisational psychologist Adam Grant tests and debates Esther's approach with her)

Monday, 4 May 2020

An experiment: want to try me on as a mentor?

I'm fortunate during this challenging time to be working with a great mentor. Her particular skill lies in giving me space to talk, then reflecting back to me in such a way that I can see where I'm placing too much emphasis, and not enough emphasis. She is also - at this time particularly - a great sanity check, a kind of Warrant of Fitness assessment when I feel in peril of going off the rails.

This is my first formal mentoring relationship. I've been lucky in my career to have started off in a university department (Victoria's School of Art History) that was filled with great exemplars, and then to have worked in larger organisations (like National Library and Te Papa) where I have had access to more experienced, highly skilled people who have been generous with their time and attention. I've been lucky too to work in a city like Wellington, with loads of arts organisations and smart people who I get to learn from.

So in the spirit of giving back, I'd like to offer myself up as a mentor.* I've done loads of informal coaching, but usually with people I work with. This is my first chance to extend that out to people I don't already know well.

My plan is to offer up to 4 people a trial hour-long session during this period where most of us are working from home. We'll book a video-conference session, get to know each other a bit, talk about what's top of mind for you, and see what we have to offer each other. Afterwards, we'll see whether there's value in continuing to meet longer term.

The areas where I think I can offer the most value:
  • Leading during the pandemic
  • Adjusting to people management roles
  • Taking care of yourself as a leader / people manager
  • Career changes, development and goals
The public cultural sector is my home base and site of most experience so I'd like to work with people who are in (or trying to get into) that zone. I should be upfront and say I respond best to optimistic, proactive people who are looking to grow.

If you're interested, please fill out the short form below by Saturday 9 May. I'll review applications (please let there be applications!!) over the weekend, and set up sessions starting the week of 11 May.

Expression of interest form

*In the spirit of disclosure, one of the things my mentor suggested in my last session with her was to carve myself out time to do things I find restorative and joyful. As an endlessly curious person, immersing myself in people's professional lives and ambitions is one of my happiest things. So, if this is an opportunity you're interested in, know you're doing me a favour by pursuing it.

Oh, also! If you don't know who I am: I'm Courtney Johnston, Tumu Whakarae | Chief Executive of Te Papa, you can read a bit about my background & experience on our website or in this recent interview.

Saturday, 2 May 2020

Reading list, 2 May 2020

This week is brought to you by .... the return of espresso coffee

Full Covid

Are you the only person in my network not to have read and recommended this NYT article by chef and restaurant owner Gabrielle Hamilton? Here you go then: My Restaurant Was My Life for 20 Years. Does the World Need It Anymore?

And then follow it up with The Gray Market's art-focused riff: Knives Out: Why Chef Gabrielle Hamilton's Reckoning Offers an Important Example for Gallery Owners

Hard as times are everywhere, museums and galleries that receive public funding are more secure at this time than those that don't. American and European estimates vary, but some counts say 1 in 10 museums will not survive the current lockdowns and following economic depressions. Nina Siegal for the NYT: Many Museums Won’t Survive the Virus. How Do You Close One Down?

I've been really enjoying Duncan Grieve of The Spinoff's series: The winners and losers of NZ’s post-lockdown economy (and how the losers might win too)

An interesting view from Gina Fairley of Australia's Artshub: The frontline pressure points are different for the regional arts sector

Be a pal

Now is an excellent time to support the arts organisations you believe in. Verb Wellington has launched a members campaign; the Pantograph Punch's is coming soon.

Also, if you've indulged in the reappearance of real coffee this week, don't forget cafes are doing it hard and you can help them bridge this time by buying vouchers for future spending.

Not Covid

I've not watched the show, read the book, nor practiced the method, but I remain kinda fascinated by Marie Kondo. Fast Company's Elizabeth Segran trailed Kondo as she moves into workplace coaching, and looks at the business partnership between her, her husband, and their growing network of coaches.

Level 3 means looooooong walks to blow off steam and find some space outside my living room - and opportunity to continue some pretty earnest self-development podcast listening. This week it was Worklife with Adam Grant, an organisational psychologist, including The Problem with All Stars (best advice - how to focus on amplifying those around you); Authenticity is a Double-Edged Sword (being you at work shouldn't be a selfish act); and When strength becomes weakness (we all have strengths - knowing when and how hard to apply them is key). All comes down to self-reflection and self-management really.

Saturday, 25 April 2020

Reading list, 25 April 2020

Covid, of course

A beautifully imagined and written piece by Rebekah White in New Zealand Geographic, 'Our New Future', a non-sensational take on what the coming months could look like, in the scenarios of a second outbreak, or where the virus is contained or eliminated.

American museum consultant Dan Spock (a very considered person) thinks through the Post-Coronavirus Museum

From the Art Newspaper'There is no fast track back to normal': museums confront economic fallout of the pandemic - follow this overview up with the indepth podcast, with long interviews with Frances Morris (Tate), Dan Weiss (The Met) and Philip Tinari (UCCA Center for Contemporary Art Beijing).

Not Covid specifically, but interesting data

The Mapping Museum research project based at Birkbeck University of London looked at the explosion of museums in the UK in the second half of the 20th century, and sought to document and analyse how the sector changed between 1960 and 2020. Their website has a variety of articles and research reports, including the just released Mapping Museums 1960–2020: A report on the data which includes the top-line finding "758 museums have closed, which is 18.7% of the total number of museums open since 1960. The assumption that museums survive and that they keep collections for posterity is misplaced."

Not Covid, just heartbreaking

Letters reveal postnatal crisis of Barbara Hepworth - from the Observer, I've read this story about four times and each time it just wrecks me. Don't read it if you're not feeling resilient.

Not Covid, just nostalgia

Midwest - a brief but brightly burning publication coming out of the John McCormack / Robert Leonard Govett-Brewster - has been scanned and put online by the gallery (except one issue, waiting for John to have access to his storage post-lockdown)

Sunday, 19 April 2020

Reading list, 19 April 2020

Covid-19, of course

New NZ thinktank Koi Tū's paper on the questions the pandemic should be prompting us to ask for the future. And The Great Reset: What Will (Need to) Change after the Crisis? from a House of Beautiful Business Living Room Session (whatever that is?). Long pieces I'll come back to post the Monday announcement, I reckon. 

From NiemanLab: The coronavirus traffic bump to news sites is pretty much over already (American, of course, I'm not sure where NZ is at. Check out the most recent episode of The Fold in which The Spinoff editor Duncan Grieve pondered the Covid-19 impact on the media on March 27, a monologue that still holds up)

Covid-19 and magical thinking defence mechanisms

Moving beyond the content-frenzy: Andrew McIntyre of audience research company MHM in the first of three articles about becoming more audience-focused post-Covid

McIntyre links to this interesting piece by Nicholas Berger, The Forgotten Art of Assembly Or, Why Theatre Makers Should Stop Making: "These immediate, ad hoc, digital projects highlight not a resiliency, but a deep fear. The coronavirus has exposed us all, desperately afraid of being alone."

Let's zoom out on that one. This week I was sent this article by a friend, Why Are You Panic-Working? Try This Instead by organisational psychologist Gianpiero Petriglieri. He gives a psychological framework for this productivity response, the "manic defense", outlined by Donald Winnicott in the early 20th century. Petriglieri writes:

Like all defenses, the obsession with staying productive is a source of dubious comfort. It sustains the pretense that if we work hard enough, we can hold onto the world we once knew. 
It shields us from feeling powerless in the face of events, but it comes at a high price. It costs us our connection to reality, to our experience, and to others. We become incapable of appraising the situation, acknowledging our feelings about it, and being present to others. We become numb. Eventually, we fall apart because we have tried too hard to keep ourselves together.

How we respond when placed under pressure is something I've been intrigued about ever since I drove my car over a small cliff as a teenager (long background story) and never more so than this past month. Call me late to the party (like, arriving a solid 10 years after it started) but I've just started listening to Brené Brown's podcast 'Unlocking Us'. The episode on anxiety, and people's tendency to either over or under-perform when placed under pressure is full of commonsense and good reminders, and links well to Petriglieri's article. 

Covid as a springboard for writing about new cultural artefacts

Using Barbie to stage mini-protests: I usually hate art gallery stunts, this is genius. "That's not art it's Victorian porn!' – how one small Barbie doll took on the art world", Nancy Langham-Hooper's interview with Sarah Williamson, creator of ArtActivistBarbie.

Simon Wilson reviews Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light, (paywalled) asking what we can learn from Thomas Cromwell's life and times to apply to our current moment: "Power, wielded successfully, is about matching ambition to circumstance. Doing what you can, knowing how to play the long game but also seize the moment. You can't just do what you want. You have to do it so it works."

Not at all Covid

A 2019 piece from The New York Times by Caity Weaver, on the office design of the company that runs a bunch of America's mall food chains.

Also from the Times: Sarah Miller's lengthy analysis you didn't know you needed of Claire Danes' character's attachment to cross-body bags in Homeland.

Bonus reading fest

This massive New York Times T Magazine's 2020 Culture Issue. I particularly enjoyed the article about butch and stud lesbian style / identity. 

Monday, 13 April 2020

Reading list, 13 April 2020

Cultural sector

Colleen Dilenschneider is releasing regular updates to the (American) audience surveys about appetite to return to cultural organisations after lock-down

The National Library of New Zealand on how they're documenting online life during Covid-19

The best piece I've read so far on abruptly moving to working with remote teams, by Mandy Brown

This Happy Museum piece is good - How might museums help us navigate beyond our current crisis? - but actually I really liked how they presented it as a Twitter thread

From Mass Action: How Are We [Museums] Centering Equity in this Time?


This (short) reframing of the idea of "accountability" in the workplace has really helped me deal with a word I usually find to be weaponised.

This tweet thread from whoever @LewSOS is (apologies Lew) is really interesting. The observation is that we are all getting much the same data right now, but the speed at which you can form and announce an opinion based on that data, compared to the speed at which you can form and announce an implementation plan based on that data, are quite different.

Three reasons why Jacinda Ardern’s coronavirus response has been a masterclass in crisis leadership: direction-giving, meaning-making and empathy.

Deloitte's think piece: thrive scenarios for resilient leaders - different ways the world might come out of Covid-19 (more or less trust in government, technology, other people ...)


I keep returning to this piece by Emma Pattee in the New York TimesThe Difference Between Worry, Stress and Anxiety

Every couple of days I also contemplate this graphic (which I can't find an original source for):

With a lot more walking in my life, I'm doing a lot more podcast listening nowadays, including RNZ's Coronavirus podcast (I enjoy their focused approach) but most especially How's Work? with Esther Perel, from Gimlet Media (the workplace counselling podcast you didn't know you needed in your life).

Light relief

The social media phenomena of people recreating portraits in their own homes has been pretty great, but I truly applaud my friend (and cultural sector champion Glen Barnes) for this one:

Thursday, 12 March 2020

Preface for "The Digital Future of Museums: Conversations and Provocations"

I was very touched, and honoured, to be invited by Suse Anderson and Keir Winesmith last year to write a preface for their book The Digital Future of Museums: Conversations and Provocations (Routledge, 2020).

Keir and Suse are two of my favourite Australians, two of my favourite Australian - American (and in Keir's case, back in Australia again) transplants, two of my favourite digital museum people, and two of my valued friends formed through years of association with the National Digital Forum. I've benefited for more than a decade now from their incredible generosity of thought, and the way they take a show-your-workings approach to going about their research and mahi, opening that up for all interested people.

The Digital Future of Museums: Conversations and Provocations is made up of facilitated conversations between pairs of thinkers and (mostly museum) practitioners. Starting from the swathing changes wrought by the widespread adoption of digital technology in society and in museums, as the blurb states, the book "offers provocations and reflections about effective practice that will help prepare today’s museums for tomorrow, culminating in a set of competing possible visions for the future of the museum sector."

The book includes 12 conversations, between people including Seph Rodney & Robert J. Stein, LaToya Devezin & Barbara Makuati-Afitu, Shelley Bernstein & Seb Chan, and Tony Butler & Lori Fogarty. Throughout, Suse and Keir add their own prompts, and two pieces that frame the conversations.

I've read the whole thing, and it is illuminating, personalised, striking in its cultural differences, and powerful in its quality of thinking. I couldn't recommend it to you more.

Preface to The Digital Future of Museums: Conversations and Provocations

The distinguishing characteristic of the people leading practice in the development of 'digital' in museums is, I believe, that they are given to both action and theory, with a healthy side in activism. Many other industries and occupations combine a strong theoretical aspect with hands-on practice, but I see something unique in the way people who work on the web create, theorise, and connect, perhaps because the mechanism we connect through is also the stuff we create with.

The Digital Future of Museums: Conversations and Provocations is, for me, a book about thinking. It's a book that brings into conversation a group of thinkers who characteristically do their thinking in public. The body of knowledge captured in these conversations has grown largely through the mechanisms of conferences, blogs and social media; indeed, it is through these channels that Keir Winesmith and Suse Anderson first encountered many of the contributors. As Seb Chan observes in his conversation with Shelley Bernstein, when Keir asks why both have such a commitment to working "in the open":
For me it's about working in public. I grew up with the web, and this notion of ‘viewing source code’ has infused my philosophy around lots of things. That we all get better if we share information, and we bring the other generations along with us. And it is about transparency and openness as a differentiator, too. I found that early on at Powerhouse. It was a way of creating an international network of peers and peer institutions that we could bounce ideas off and share information with.
Research, experimentation, documentation and reflection: by talking not only about what they are doing, but how and why they are doing it, and what they have learned from doing it - at an unprecedented volume, unhampered by the publishing schedules or peer review of academic journals - these thinkers have shaped the discourse around museums in a new, powerful and rapid way. Moreover, this discourse has been shaped by interactivity from the outset: blogs were made to be commented on and hyperlinked; wikis to be edited; social media posts to be shared and replied to. This is one of the reasons the interview format adopted in The Digital Future of Museums serves its contributors and its readers so well: it supports the collaborative development of ideas fostered by the best online engagements, as well as humour, respectful disagreement, and new insights.

This ethos of thinking in public is fueled by tremendous generosity, another characteristic of this community. It is also an approach that takes advantage of the democratising effects of the internet. In this new paradigm it's not the brand name of the institution you're affiliated to but the quality of your contribution that matters. As Seb also observes, this has been particularly important for those of us working in or alongside cultural institutions beyond the traditional centres of power and attention. In the first wave of museum/digital practice, it was the voices of those people working outside the dominant centres of geographical and institutional power that had new power to be heard. Today, it's voices from beyond the dominant cultures - communities that have traditionally been marginalised, silenced or spoken for by the museum - that are at the forefront of changing museum practice.

The Digital Future of Museums is also a book about museums as generators and conduits of thinking. Seph Rodney identifies in his conversation with Robert Stein that museums play an important role in "having us think about our thinking, publicly". Museums reflect and shape the perspectives of nations, societies, communities and individuals about their histories, their cultures, their politics, biases, and view of the future. By driving a museum's intellectual agenda funders, management, and staff create the stories and imagery that inform (or confirm, or challenge) how a society thinks about itself. This is why museums are not, and can never be, neutral. It is also why they are such exciting and meaningful - and occasionally hazardous - places to work.

I first encountered Seph’s writing in 2016, in a piece he wrote for Hyperallergic, based on his PhD research. In the essay, Seph traces a progression in museums from the late 19th century paradigm of the specialist collecting institution, to the post-Second World War paradigm of the educational institution, to the 21st century paradigm of the visitor-centred museum. In the contemporary context, personalisation has succeeded education. The visitor is no longer seen by the museum as an incidental beneficiary of its core focus on collecting and categorisation, no longer viewed as a passive recipient of authoritative curatorial knowledge, but invited to be an active participant, making their own meaning from the museum's offerings.

Seph attributes the change over the past 25 years to an intertwined set of economic, social, political and museological changes. The emergence of the new museology has placed the visitor at the centre of museum practice; cultural policies (largely in countries where museums are publicly funded) have pushed museums towards new success measures based around access and economic contribution; and the rise of the experience economy has led to the creation of museum experiences designed for consumption, according to the user/visitor's needs and desires. This framework provides a thought-provoking context in which to locate the 13 discussions that make up The Digital Future of Museums. The concerns of people leading digital change in our museums far exceed questions of what file format to use, or whether it's AR or VR we should bank on for visitor appeal. Within these conversations, we can see leading thinkers analysing in real time some of the greatest limitations and opportunities that museums as social structures and services are working through today.

Throughout the conversations, you'll notice contributors offering different versions of a similar refrain: digital isn't a technology, it's a way of working; digital isn't a technology, it's a language; digital isn't special, it's just what is. This refrain brings us to the heart of this book: the fruitful, fascinating, and fast-paced ways in which the development of contemporary digital technology has interfaced with contemporary museum thinking.

Like the earliest iteration of the museum, the internet was initially a research tool used by specialists and those with privileged access to (computing) power. When Tim Berners-Lee began development of the World Wide Web in 1989, his goal was to make the internet "a collaborative medium, a place where we can all meet and read and write".  With the launch of the Mosaic web browser in 1993, the internet went mainstream: now, anyone with an internet connection could 'surf' this massive new global resource for information and entertainment. At this point however, publishing power was still limited: the means of creating and consuming content were separated. The web, in some ways, was in the second museum paradigm: a place where those with access to the tools of publishing fed content and knowledge to those who primarily consumed without contributing back. We can map the beginnings of digitised collections to this moment, and the new ability for all museums to think massively beyond their local remit into global reach.

It was at the turn of the 21st century, with the rise of blogging and wiki platforms and the integration of publishing tools into the medium, that Berners-Lee's vision was fulfilled: the web as a two-way system, where 'ordinary' people could contribute content as easily as they accessed it. This was the read/write web: a medium capable of being displayed (read) and also modified (write). The congruence here between the new affordances of the web and the new approaches to exhibition and experience design fascinate me; all fed by people's growing expectations that their experiences and opinions warrant recognition and sharing.

In 2005 Tim O'Reilly published 'What is Web 2.0', an analysis of design patterns and business models that he saw underlying the companies that had survived the 2001 dot-com bubble burst.  The codification of Web 2.0 highlighted collaborative services, "harnessing the collective intelligence", and the power of user-generated content. This was the age of Wikipedia and Flickr; of folksonomies and tagging; of RSS and viral marketing. It's when Time magazine made its 2006 Person of the Year You, recognising the millions of individuals who were now populating the web's content, and when ideas of co-creation, co-curation and community participation went mainstream in museums.

Writing in 2017, technology commentator Alexis Madrigal observed that "Web 2.0 was not just a temporal description, but an ethos".  It was a picture of the truly open web; an almost Utopian vision of humankind working together for global betterment. "But then", writes Madrigal,
in June of 2007, the iPhone came out. Thirteen months later, Apple’s App Store debuted. Suddenly, the most expedient and enjoyable way to do something was often tapping an individual icon on a screen. As smartphones took off, the amount of time that people spent on the truly open web began to dwindle. ... The great cathedrals of that time, nearly impossible projects like Wikipedia that worked and worked well, have all stagnated. 
Madrigal's analysis matches with a feeling I developed in 2015, as I toured around museums in seven American states studying digitally-enhanced visitor experiences.  Overall, as I visited the museums leading in this space, I observed a move away from projects focused on global audiences, and a move towards personalised experiences delivered via smartphones and customised devices available onsite at the museum. While these new experiences were often rich, subtle and playful – and designed to collect information that helped institution learn more about the behaviour and motivations of physical visitors – this shift in focus from global to local seemed to be paired with a reduction in sector-wide, collaborative endeavours. I asked myself at the time if this was a natural consequence of digital leaders’ roving curiosity: that the opportunities of collaborative platforms, APIs, metadata sharing and so on had been thoroughly explored, and new ground opened up for exploration. I also quietly questioned whether museum leadership and external funders had abandoned the altruism encouraged by the open web environment, and were now more inclined to support projects where the benefits could be firmly located within the museum’s walls.

Today, the ground has shifted again. As Adriel Luis observes in his conversation with Sarah Brin, over this intervening period "museum conferences everywhere have gravitated towards the theme of social change". The sector is asking itself hard questions about impact, social change and social justice. Within this questioning, there is a growing awareness that in their efforts to decolonise themselves - to cast off their colonialist and imperialist origins - museums may fall into perpetuating a form of neo-colonialism, often in the attempt to fulfil the vision of universal knowledge they were founded upon.

Sarah Kenderdine touches on the tension between the value museums place on access to heritage and knowledge and the growing understanding of the prejudice of this attitude in her conversation with Merete Sanderhoff. Talking about the creation of high-resolution digital facsimiles of heritage objects, she notes:
Critics look at this as a kind of massive cultural appropriation or neo-colonialism that the digital has unleashed in the documentation of other cultures, under a banner of heritage at risk. It's an extraordinary moment. It's not like iconoclasm is new, but now it's in the public domain. We are able to create phenomenal amounts of digital data, but it does come with this overtone of neo-colonialism.
The same point is raised in a response signed by over 100 scholars and practitioners in intellectual property law and material and digital cultural heritage to the 2018 Sarr-Savoy Report, which recommended to the French government the restitution of African material culture from French museums to colonised countries. The response challenges the report's recommendation that all items identified for return should be systematically digitised and made available online, arguing that "the report’s recommendations, if followed, risk placing the French government in a position of returning Africa’s Material Cultural Heritage while retaining control over the generation, presentation, and stewardship of Africa’s digital cultural heritage for decades to come."

As we look to the future then, I recommend one particular chapter in this book to all readers. The conversation between LaToya Devezin and Barbara Makuati-Afitu shows, in applied practice, ways of working that could and should form the culture of museums of the future. LaToya, in her discussion of working with African American and other communities, describes a post-custodial model of museum and archival practice, where emphasis is placed not on the physical housing of the object, but the preservation of a community's culture and stories: of the institution being of service. Barbara, when asked what is required for institutions to respect and protect the stories and knowledge communities chose to share with them, replies, "It's someone fully understanding culturally and spiritually the sacredness of that knowledge that isn't ours, that isn't mine, and wanting to know how we can help - using different platforms - to ensure its safety." And when asked at the conclusion of the conversation what museums may look like in 20 years' time if they follow these practices, LaToya concludes:
We're going to have a more multidimensional viewpoint of history, and I think we can really affect social change. We'll have more diversity within our staffs, and a more enriching experience as a whole. I feel like our space will be more transformative over time, and that we can grow with each other, and maybe it will give us the space to have some of those difficult conversations to be able to foster change. If we all could participate in conversations like the conversation that we're having now, I can see it being such a beautiful and wonderful process.
The beauty of this book is being invited into these conversations in this moment. On behalf of all its readers in the future, I give my thanks to the generosity of all those who gave of their time and knowledge to create it for us.

Saturday, 11 January 2020

Reading list, 11 January 2020

Germany's parliament has approved  €41 million (pending regional co-funding) to establish a new institution in Dusseldorf to preserve, archive and publicise the nation's photographic cultural heritage

ArtNews's Biggest Art World Flops of the 2010s

Hyperallergic's 2019 Most Powerless People in the Artworld list

Michael Edson's Pantheon of Reads 2019

Cultural Competitors: What Are Likely Visitors Interested In Doing Instead? American data on likely visitors to cultural institutions shows a sharp increase in the desire to stay home on weeknights and weekends

Amanda Hess for the New York Times on the mall-as-experience: Welcome to the Era of the Post-Shopping Mall, and accompanying commentary and context from the Gray Market Weekly

Two online readers of essays related to Mana Wahine, featuring writers such as Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Leonie Pihama and texts written between 1987 and 2019. Developed with Te Kotahi Research Institute and supported by Ngā Pae o Te Māramatanga

A book recommendation - for fans of beautiful world building, Frances Hardinge knocked it out of the park again with Deeplight (and also interesting for her collaboration with the Young People's Advisory Board of the National Deaf Children's Society to create the 'sea-kissed' characters and culture)

North & South does a 30-year follow-up of a feature written in 1989 by Rosemary McLeod, of 31 women 'shaping our lives and the country's future', including Helen Clark, Suzanne Snively, Sian Elias and Hekia Parata.