Survey results: issues facing museum technologists

In August 2010 I asked museum technologists to take a survey designed to help me understand and communicate the challenges faced by other museum technologists (as reported in 'What would you change about your workplace? A survey for museum technologists', and as promised, I'm sharing the results (a little later than intended, but various galleries and my dissertation have been keeping me busy).

There were 79 responses in total, (49 complete responses, the rest were partial).  According to SurveyGizmo's reporting the survey had responses from 10 countries.  The vast majority were from the UK (36%) and the US (49%), possibly reflecting the UK and US focus of the email lists where I publicised the survey.  Respondents were based in a wide range of art, history, science, local authority/government, university and specialist museums (in almost any combination you can think of) and had a variety of roles, including content, technical, project managers and managerial titles.  As reported originally, for the purposes of the survey I defined 'museum technologist' as someone who has expertise and/or significant experience in the museum sector and with the application or development of new technologies.

I've done my own coding work on the results, which I could also share, but I suspect there's more value in the raw results.  I'm also sharing the results to the first two questions as CSV files (compatible with most applications) so you can download and analyse the data: CSV: As a museum technologist, what are the three most frustrating things about your job?, CSV: List any solutions for each of the problems you listed above.  Please note that the data in these files is alphabetised by row, so you should not correlate responses by row number.

My thanks to the people who took the time to respond – I hope there's some value for you in this sampling of the challenges and joys of digital work in museums.  I'd love to hear from you if you use the results, either in a comment or via email.

Question 1: As a museum technologist, what are the three most frustrating things about your job?

First response box:

An institutional culture that values curatorial opinion over the expertise of technologists
Bad management
Becoming impossible to do new work AND maintain existing sites.
Bureaucracy
Central ICT department not being supportive
Colleagues who think of things digital as somehow separate and of lesser importance
Committees
Convincing administration of the value of new technology
Difficulty accessing social networking sites/FTP/etc through Council systems
Funding (lack of)
Going over the same ground again and again
I spend a lot of time doing non-tech work, or helping people with basic IT issues
IT department not implementing effective change management and training.
IT dept walls
IT infrastructure – restrictions and problems
Image rights
Institutional IT provision
Justifying new technologies
Lack of Resources (People)
Lack of clear copyright procedure hampers the greatest ideas
Lack of committment reuslting in long drawn out meetings that never go anywhere
Lack of communication
Lack of decision making from senior management at early stages in the project
Lack of interest in updating technology
Lack of planning
Lack of power to influence major decision making
Lack of resources for web tools/infrastructure
Lack of understanding of what we (as technologists) are trying to achieve
Lack of updated skills in co-workers
Lukewarm funding
Overcoming bureaucracy and overly cautious policy to try new technologies in a timely manner
Pace of sign off
People assuming I know everything about every technology
Senior managment attitudes
Trying to encourage change for the greater good
Unreasonable objectives
Varying age of equipment
Working within IT limitations
Working within existing budgets
bureaucratic oversight
clarity & simplicity of goals
data migration
dfdf
fear of change
getting buy in from people who don't understand the technology
imprecise demands
insufficient staff resources
lack of communication between team members
lack of vision
lengh of time from concept to implementation (it is too long)
mmmm
no $$ for training
not being included early enough in planning processes
not enough time
reactionary IT managers
too many stakeholders and a very conservative attitude to sign off
unrealistic expectations
Getting the management of the museum to take the web seriously and use it themselves to try to understand it
The decentralized culture of our Museum. Each department is doing their own thing, which makes it difficult to access needs, plan for improvements, allocate resources and staff efficiently.
The little understanding colleagues have of the challenges faced (e.g. building a professional website is doable in 1 week with a 300€ budget)
Lack of understanding of digital audiences, trends, issues and technologies by those commissioning digital projects (I call it 'and then it needs a website' syndrome
The organizational structure of the museum. The IT Department should be for networking, desktop support and infrastructure but instead they end up being the ones who call the shots about applications and systems.
Integrating our technologies and ideas into the museum's IT infrastructure e.g. wireless hubs, installing software, updating software etc.

Second response box:

"shiny new toy" syndrom
Assortment of operating systems
Bureaucracy
Changing priorites
Enforcing efficient use of storage space (delete your DUPES!)
Excessive review cycles
Gaining buy-in from overworked staff who need to contribute to tech project
Getting curators to take the web seriously and want to use it
Having other people re-invent things I invented 10 years ago
Institutional IT provision
Institutional blindness to the outside world (i.e., "nobody actually trusts Wikipedia")
Interdepartmental Workflow
Internal "Ownership" of information
Justifying the expense/time of trialling and sharing new ideas
Lack of Finance
Lack of appreciation for the amount of work involved
Lack of funding
Lack of medium/long term visions
Lack of shared museum assets (inter and intra)
Lack of understanding of digital media by senior executives
Lack of understanding of my role at more senior levels and by my peers
Non-existent budgets
Ph.D syndrome.
Some staff negativity about integrating new technologies
Stodgy curators
Tempering desire with reality
Time to just 'play' with new technologies
Too many egos
Too many people involved
Too many tasks seen as top-priority without enough support to get them done.
Understaffed and underfunded
Unwillingness to try small cheap ideas (on the understanding that if they don't work you stop)
Upper management not grasping value of online outreach
Working in isolation
board and execs who are focused on shiny objects, not mission
dealing with the ramifications of technology decisions made by non-technical employees
entrenched views on how things should be done
funding and management structures that lead to short term, siloed thinking
inability to ack quickly and be flexible (cumbesome review process ties up projects)
inablility of coworker to understand projects
institutional resources
lack of staff time or positions alotted to technology (two minds are better than one)
mmm
no say over even how our web page is designed
not enough money
poor instructions
sparse training
tendency for time to get sucked into general office work
unprofessionalism
unreasonable expectations
unwillingness to fund projects
Lack of understanding in the wider museum of the work that we do and the potentials of technologies in learning.
People in museum administration often know less about technologies than their counterpart in the private sector.
Lack of training offered on national scale for those who are beyond beginner level with technology but not an expert
Not having admin rights to my computer and not being allowed to connect my own laptop to the work network
The expectation of a high-impact web presence without making the appropriate content available (in time)
Never knowing what others departments are doing, but still being expected to "fix" whatever when it goes down.
The little commitment others (even people asked/hired to do so) have towards social media, even after tons of workshops.
Turf wars – different staff not working toward a consensus; arguments are recycled and nothing is ever finalized
redundancy–for example, entering metadata for an image from an external source and entering it into our DAM
Funding is spread unevenly. New galleries might come with big pots of money but it's much harder to fund work on existing sites and sections.
Lack of IT understanding by other staff in the museum and in some cases a negative attitude to putting stuff online

Third response box:

"non-profit" pay and no insurance
Always defending my position to condescending curators
Assortment of learning curves among staff
Balancing the demands of day to day tasks with the desire to expand IT use
Bending commercial products to our own needs.
Communication barriers
Conflicting messages about the purpose of online – is it to generate income or provide access?
Cross departmental walls
Cultural stigmatism
Curators/educators living in the dark ages!
Difficulty finding funding/support for less visible tech projects (content architecture, etc.)
Division between web/curatorial/education/etc.
Everyone is scared
Explaining complex systems to co-workers with limited tech background
Getting "sign off"
Hard to sell technology (APIs, etc) to staff who just want their event on the homepage.
Institutional IT provision
Keeping up with web science/standards
Lack of by in by senior management
Lack of change management at institutions
Lack of communication
Lack of professional development
Lack of support
Little allowance to "try out" tech tools/software/web
No time to experiment and try out new things
Projects never finished
Reliance on external consultants
Secret stakeholders appearing late in the production cycle
Software provider lack of focus on end users and Web
That every bit of the organisation has to be involved in every project
Too much dependence on content producers, e.g. curators, gallery authors, education staff
Trying to get other colleagues involved in technology!
Willingness of colleague tech adoption
capacity of organizations to take leaps of faith
dealing with art historians
defining projects in terms of ROI
frequent interruptions during thought-intensive work
lack of adminstrative support in the way of $$
lack of forward planning
misunderstanding of implications
mmm
not enough focus on early prototyping before the tech comes in
not enough staff
not enough staff and too many things to do…
not enough time
passive/aggressive behavior
resistance to new technologies on the basis of their perceived danger/risk
strong aversion to risk-taking, which hampers innovation
supporting software that was incorrectly chose (e.g. retrofitting a CMS to act as a DAMS)
user incompetence
wide range knowledgement needed
Magical thinking about technology: somehow hoping projects will be cheap and cutting edge with few resources devoted to them
There's a web/multimedia team, but all the exhibition design is outsourced, so it's difficult to mount integrated digital projects (that work both online and onsite)
disconnects between depts in larger museums, that make it hard to get all those who could contribute to and benefit from digital projects really engaged
Irrational fear of open source; irrational fears concerning access to collection information and even low-res images.
The fact that doing "online stuff" means you have to solve every problem related to technology ("My iPhone doesn't synch my music, help!")
Convincing staff to use project results (this is true for some staff in key positions. Other staff happy to use the results)
my department uses a DAM system, but others outside my department won't use it but want access to the content archived there

Question 2: List any solutions for each of the problems you listed above

First response box:

$$ for training would be easy to get
Better IT training and also digital awareness training for all staff
Better investment
Better organisational understanding of the importance of project management
Better qualified staff – training
Circumnavigating IT when they sya can't do and supporting it all ourselves.
Cloud based
Creative use of budgets – taking parts from several budgets to make a whole
Education
Fewer and smaller
Focusing on the benefits of the new technology when presenting changes to staff
Good management
Greater funding support for equipment
Hiring further staff
IT managers who are less about security and NO and more about innovation
Improve communication by removing large egos
Keeping to meeting agendas and ensuring people involved are enthusiastic about the project
Long term strategy agreed at top levels to ringfence time and money for non-project based work
Lots of demonstrations
Make responsibilities of depts clearer
Meetings, Meetings, Meetings
More independence from IT
More staff!
Much clearer policy on approach to copyright, possibly by museums supporting one another
New, professionally trained management
Sack the lot of them and start again
Strict procedures and continuously stressing how things work and how they don't.
The acknowledgement at senior levels of competence and experience further down the scale
Training in Project Management
Upgrade technology to a consistent level
Willingness to learn
come up with your own
educate administration, show them how other museums are taking advantage, find funding
fundraising
no foreseeable increase in staffing, so no luck here
none in sight
planning
solutions that we have found or solutions we wish for? The questions is confusing.
steel myself to do it once more in a way that means they can't forget it
umm..if I had a solution I'd be rich :)
Adjust the expectations by explaining the process more in depth and always provide more conservative time estimates, and times that by 150%
We are now submitting a business case to our IT department for us to have access to these sites. Hopefully this will be widened in the future as Council's become more aware of the essential part technology plays in museums.
reallocation of institutional resources to recognise changing technological and social environment
Having highly-placed technologists who are trusted by the museum involved in projects at an early state can help significantly to teach the institution the value of technological expertise.
Advocate your work to anyone who will listen, get involved in projects from the beginning – and try not to let technology lead, only support good ideas
Rethinking contracting policies–especially for Web 2.0 services that are free–and approval processes
Look to private sector technology vendors for workflow and project management techniques and tools or hire consultants (voices from outside are often heard louder than those inside).

Second response box:

$$ we are given we do not always get
Allowing staff to make their own decisions
Cost effective training or events or 'buddying up' to share expertise and experiences
Crossover training
Don't tell, stay away from committees until you have something (good) to show
Encouraging positive comment and activity from outside
Establish an agreed level of autonomy and freedom for web projects
Fix to IT issues that take up so much of my time!
Fundraising specifically for technology as an ongoing need–not just project by project
Involvement of Technologists before design
More educated staff about abilities and weaknesses of technology
More funding and resources for projects
More rewarding work environment
More tech-savvy upper management (happened recently)
More training being offered via bodies such as Museums Galleries Scotland
More trust in teams
New, professionally developed board
Outside normzl dept relationships
Priorities either need coherent justification or to be realigned.
Reassigning permissions
Recruit more staff and do more work in house
Remove large egos
Request more specificity and detail
Speaking to people to explain the complexity and time necessary for project?
Streamlining Project Management
The creation of roles at a senior level with understanding of technology
Training for staff
Trying to get a pot on our web page for e-learning which displays and advocates our work.
agreement on acceptable standards for public facing databases
occasionally half-successful compartmentalization of time spent on specialized and general work
question assumptions
shoot the current managers
sponsorships
strong compromise with staff training
technology being an embedded part of the work, like education
would require a wholesale change in Museum culture – not likely to happen quickly
institution-wide training in Word, PowerPoint, Excel etc AND in newer more interesting tools for presentations (eg Prezi), data visualisation (ManyEyes, Wordle) etc
Increase levels of digital literacy through out organisation and sector by training, workshops and promotion
Write in the importance of technology projects to accomplishing the mission in strategic planning and grant documents and form interdepartmental teams of people to address technology issues and raise technology's profile and comfort level within the institutional culture.
make sure to 'copyright' my own inventions and publicise them before anyone else needs to re-invent them
Show them that colleagues in their field are using the same technology, once they're willing to listen, show how the results will help them, then make participation as easy as possible for them.
If, for every bit of unfounded, unresearched opinion, the technologist can counter with facts about how people actually behave in the world outside the museum, over (large stretches of) time this problem can be gradually allayed.
Presenting the case for how technology can do certain things really well and how it is best find the better fit than to force technology to be what it isn't
Our institution could benefit from professional training on effective communication, but it's not in the budget.
Organising lunches and other team activities to continuously explain and inspire people about new and social media

Third response box:

(Sadly) winning awards
Admin-down promotion of tech initiative adoption
Agreement on stakeholders and sign off processes up front – and sticking to that
Be very strict with project deadlines!
Better communications from the top
Developing a Museum Service strategy for everyone to use IT – like V&A have!
Education
Ensuring that people at senior levels support digital projects
Go and do. Prototype to prove point
Good management
Hired more competent users or remove technically-involved tasks from users
I think we need new ways of demonstrating value other than £s or people through the door
Identify internal skills before commissioning outside consultants
Improved communications – more vision
Informal brown-bag lunches where ideas are pitched and potential explained.
Inventiveness!
Longer timelines, adequate staffing levels
Look for oppurtunity to learn more and implement new systems that help with the day to day work
Make it as easy as possible to use the results
Museums need to start thinking more like libraries
No idea how we can make LA central ICt departments more helpful
Outsource all IT relating to web projects
Professional development for staff
Remove large, scary egos
Smile, help them, and complain in silence.
Some inovative young blood in these roles
Technologists in upper management
Try something small as a pilot to reveal realistic benefits and pitfalls
act of God
bringing techies into the development process earlier in a new exhibit etc.
ditto
effective allocation of scarce resources
rewriting job descriptions to incorporate tech initiatives into everyday tasks
specialization
there is no solution for art historians except possibly to keep them out of museums and galleries
time-shifting certain kinds of work to early morning or evening, outside regular hours
Trying to find public outputs of infrastructure-related technology can help with this problem. The way some museums have begun using collections APIs as, in essence, a PR tool, is a good example of this approach.

Selected responses to Question 3: Any comments on this survey or on the issues raised?

Some comments were about the survey itself (and one comment asked not to be quoted, so I've played it safe and not included it) and didn't seem relevant here.

  • Would like to know what other museum staff feel, but am guessing response may be very similar
  • There is still some trepidation and lack of understanding of what it is exactly that digital technology can play in display, interpretation and education programming. Though there are strong peer networks around digital technology, somehow this doesn't get carried over into further advocacy in the sector in general. In my learning department there is some resistance to the idea of technology being used as a means in itself working across audiences, and it instead has to be tied in to other education officers programmes. The lack of space to experiment and really have some time to develop and explore is also sadly missed as we are understaffed and overstretched.
  • Not enough time, money or staff is true of most museum work, but particularly frustrating when looking at the tools used by the private sector. This imbalance may be part of the source of unreasonable expectations – we've all seen fantastic games and websites and expect that level of quality, but museums have 1/1000th of the budget of a video game studio.
  • The interdepartmental nature of many tech projects has challenged us to define under whose purview these projects should be managed.
  • In my organisation I find the lack of awareness and also lack of desire to do things online difficult to comprehend in this day and age. It is not universal, fortunately the Head of Service gets it but other managers don't. I'm fed up hearing 'if its online they won't visit' and I'm afraid I've given up trying to convince them, instead I tend to just work with the people who can see that putting stuff online can encourage visitors and enhance visits for visitors.
  • Being a federal institution, we receive funds for physical infrastructure, but rarely for technical infrastructure. I would say fear around copyright of digitized collections is a barrier as well.
  • Until the culture of an institution of my size changes at the top, it will continue to be a challenge to get anything through in a timely manner.
  • Funding and resources (staff, time, etc.) are the main roadblock to taking full advantage of the technology that's out there.
  • There needs to be a way to build a proper team within the museum structure and make silos of information available.
  • I think the frustrations I raised are exactly the reason why some of us are in the museum sector – for the challenge.
  • We are fortunate in that we have a very forward-looking Board of Trustees, a visionary CEO and a tech team that truly loves what they do. But we – like any non-profit – are always limited by money and time. We've got loads of great ideas and great talent – we just need the means and the time to be able to bring them to fruition! We have actually rewritten job descriptions to make certain things part of people's everyday workflow and that has helped. Our CEO has also made our technological initiatives (our IVC studios, our online presence, our virtual museum….) part of our strategic plan. So we are extremely fortunate in those respects!
  • I am a content creator, rather than a technie, but as my role is digital, everyone assumes I understand every code language and technological IT issue that there is. And I don't.
  • why is it that those who are not involved in our work have so much to say about how we do our work down to the last detail
  • One of the largest problems faced by IT staff in museums is the need to push the envelop of technology while working within very limited budgets. There is always a desire to build the newest and best, but a reluctance to staff and budget for the upkeep and eventual use and maintenance of the new systems. That said, working for a museum environment offers more variety and interesting projects than any for-profit job could ever provide.

What would you change about your workplace? A survey for museum technologists

[Update: I've shared the data]

This week I launched a survey designed to help me understand and communicate the challenges faced by other museum technologists.

It's research for a chapter in a forthcoming book on museums on the web and social media in the first instance, but I'd left the terms and conditions fairly open as I wanted to be able to share and/or re-use the data in future – I wasn't sure if this would put people off, but I figured it was better to be upfront than to end up with great data I couldn't share.

Someone wrote to me to ask what the questions were – they didn't feel qualified to take it themselves but couldn't see all the questions without starting the survey.  I figure it'll also help with the bounce rate if I share them, so here you go:

1. As a museum technologist, what are the three most frustrating things about your job?

For this survey, I'm defining 'museum technologist' as someone who has expertise and/or significant experience in the museum sector and with the application or development of new technologies.

2. List any solutions for each of the problems you listed above

3. Any comments on this survey or on the issues raised?

4. What's your main job role? (if you don't mind it potentially being quoted)

5. Please enter your institution name and/or type (e.g. art gallery, history museum, local authority museum, science centre). (if you don't mind it potentially being quoted)

It's pretty simple – 'what are the three most frustrating things about your job' is the main question, the rest are aimed at providing just enough additional information to provide pointers to the effects of different factors. I didn't want to ask people for so much information that they'd be identifiable as I felt that might make people hold back.  I thought about saying 'things other than lack of resources/time/money' as they're pretty much a given and they're not unique to the museum sector, but I figured they're also too important too ignore.
For further context, when I posted it to the MCG and MCN lists I said:

I'm particularly interested in opportunities and problems that arise when (new) technologies meet (old) museums. … Your answers will help build a body of evidence that could help make a case for improvements in the way museums understand the issues and expertise around using technology to engage audiences, or at least help us understand what the solutions might be. And at the very least you get to vent a bit!

I'm running the survey until August 31 and my initial analysis will be completed by mid-September.  If you'd like to take the survey, or know someone who should, the address is http://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/348155/Challenges-facing-museum-technologists (or http://bit.ly/95oGtr if shorter is easier).

Finally, thanks to the person who suggested making the text boxes wider – I've done that now.

Ask a cultural heritage technologist?

I'm speaking at Open Tech 2010 (book your ticket now, only £5!) and it feels like the situation (and the mood) in the UK has changed since I first wrote my proposal and I'm not sure it suits anymore.  So I wanted to throw a few questions open to you to help me re-focus on the things that matter now:

  • what do you value about museums and technology, particularly the web, social media, open data? 
  • what do you want to know from someone working behind the scenes in museum technology?
  • what suggestions would you make if you were able to talk to museums?
  • what aren't museums asking our audiences (including our geek audiences) that we should be asking?
  • what's your favourite biscuit (or cookie)?
The title, by the way, is a play on 'ask a curator', an online event of some sort where you can ask whatever you've always wanted to ask a curator by using the hash tag #askacurator on twitter (or possibly also by commenting on a museum's blog, Facebook wall, twitter account, etc).

Join in the conversation about Wikimedia @ MW2010

[email protected] is a workshop to be held in Denver in April, just before the Museums and the Web 2010 conference.  The goal is to develop 'policies that will enable museums to better contribute to and use Wikipedia or Wikimedia Commons, and for the Wikimedia community to benefit from the expertise in museums'.

If you've got stuff you want to say, you can dive right into the conversation – there's a whole bunch of conversations at http://conference.archimuse.com/forums/wikimediamw2010, including 'Legal and Business Model Barriers to Collaboration, 'Notability Criteria' and 'Metrics for Museums on Wikipedia'.

I'm going to be at the workshop and will do my best to represent any issues raised at the meeting.  I think it's particularly important that we avoid 'Feeling glum after GLAM-WIKI' if we possibly can, so I'd like to go there with a really good understanding of the possible points of resistance, clashes in organisational culture or world view, incompatible requirements or wishlists so that they can be raised and hopefully dealt with during the in-person workshop.  I'd love to hear from you if there are messages you want to pass on.

I'm also thinking about an informal meetup in London to help cultural heritage people articulate some of the issues that might help or hinder collaboration so they can be represented at the workshop – if you're a museum, gallery, archive, library or general cultural heritage bod, would that be useful for you?

Why do museums prefer Flickr Commons to Wikimedia Commons?

A conversation has sprung up on twitter about why museums prefer Flickr Commons to Wikimedia Commons after Liam Wyatt, Vice President of Wikimedia Australia posted "Flickr Commons is FULL for 2010. GLAMs, Fancy sharing with #Wikimedia commons instead?" and I responded with "has anyone done audience research into why museums prefer Flickr to Wikimedia commons?".  I've asked before because I think it's one of those issues where the points of resistance can be immensely informative.

I was struck by the speed and thoughtfulness of responses from kajsahartig, pekingspring, NickPoole1, richardmccoy and janetedavis, which suggested that the question hit a nerve.

Some of the responses included:

Kasja: Photos from collections have ended up at wikipedia without permission, that never happened with Flickr, could be one reason [and] Or museums are more benevolent when it happens at Flickr, it's seen more as individuals' actions rather than an organisations'?

Nick: Flickr lets you choose CC non-commercial licenses, whereas Wikimedia Commons needs to permit potential commercial use?

Janet: Apart fr better & clear CC licence info, like Flickr Galleries that can be made by all! [and] What I implied but didn't say before: Flickr provides online space for dialogue about and with images.

Richard: Flickr is so much easier to view and search than WM. Commons, and of course easier to upload.

Twitter can be a bit of an echo chamber at times, so I wanted to ask you all the question in a more accessible place.   So, is it true that museums prefer Flickr Commons to Wikimedia Commons, and if so, why?

[Update: Liam's new blog post addresses some of the concerns raised – this responsiveness to the issues is cheering.  (You can get more background at Wikipedia:Advice for the cultural sector and Wikipedia:Conflict of interest.)

Also, for those interested in wikimedia/wikipedia* and museums, there's going to be a workshop 'for exploring and developing policies that will enable museums to better contribute to and use Wikipedia or Wikimedia Commons, and for the Wikimedia community to benefit from the expertise in museums', [email protected], at Museums at the Web 2010. There's already a thread, 'Wikimedia Foundation projects and the museum community' with some comments.  I'd love to see the 'Incompatible recommendations' section of the GLAM-Wiki page discussed and expanded.

* I'm always tempted to write 'wiki*edia' where * could be 'm' or 'p', but then it sounds like South Park's plane-rium in my head.]

[I should really stop updating, but I found Seb Chan's post on the Powerhouse Museum blog, Why Flickr Commons? (and why Wikimedia Commons is very different) useful, and carlstr summed up a lot of the issues neatly: "One of the reasons is that Flickr is a package (view, comment search aso). WC is a archive of photos for others to use. … I think Wikipedia/Wikimedia have potential for the museum sector, but is much more complex which can be deterrent.".]

Unintentional (?) Friday funny

It's a long time since I had one of these. I can go on blaming uni assessments and work, but it gets boring.

I assume it's not intentional, but this Guardian article A world of screens and plastic has fed a cultish craving for relics of the past is hilarious, and beautifully quotable. As Linda Spurdle tweeted: 'I missed this training day! "Museum staff are trained to behave as acolytes to their objects.." prob stuck on H & S day'.

On the BBC/BM 'A History of the World': "Since this is radio, we are not allowed to see the objects, thus enhancing the status of their custodian as interceding priest. … Authenticity is essential and there must be no copies or representations – in ­MacGregor's case not so much as a ­picture." Well, you could look online.

And if is to be true "[i]t does not matter if no one ever sees the shard. Most museum objects are seen only by their guardians, albeit financed by tithes from taxpayers", we'd probably better hide the 230,000 Science Museum, National Railway Museum and National Media Museum objects online. On the other hand, I do like a good 'museum as church' argument, cos if it was true the office wouldn't have bundles of excited kids on the other side of the door and it might be be quieter.

On a more serious note, whenever I come across articles like this it reminds me how far we have to go in helping people realise exactly how accessible, enjoyable, potentially challenging and just plain interesting our (your, their) museums are.

Links of interest – November 2009

I've fallen into the now-familiar trap of posting interesting links on twitter and neglecting my blog, but twitter is currently so transitory I figure it's worth collecting the links for perusal at your leisure. Sometimes I'll take advantage of the luxury of having more than 140 characters and add comments [in brackets].

And stuff I really must find time to read properly:
Finally, a tweet about an interview with me about the Cosmic Collections competition.
I really should group those tweets and replace all the shortened links with the full URLs but it's already taken a surprisingly long time to put this post together.

On 'cultural heritage technologists'

A Requirements Engingeering lecture at uni yesterday discussed 'satisfaction arguments' (a way of relating domain knowledge to the introduction of a new system in an environment), emphasising the importance of domain knowledge in understanding user and system requirements – an excellent argument for the importance of cultural heritage technologists in good project design.  The lecture was a good reminder that I've been meaning to post about 'cultural heritage technologists' for a while. In a report on April's Museums and the Web 2009, I mentioned in passing:

…I also made up a new description for myself as I needed one in a hurry for moo cards: cultural heritage technologist. I felt like a bit of a dag but then the lovely Ryan from the George Eastman House said it was also a title he'd wanted to use and that made me feel better.

I'd expanded further on it for the first Museums Pecha Kucha night in London:

Museum technologists are not merely passive participants in the online publication process. We have skills, expertise and experience that profoundly shape the delivery of services. In Jacob Nielsen's terms, we are double domain experts.  This brings responsibilities on two fronts – for us, and for the museums that employ us.

Nielsen describes 'double usability specialists' or 'double experts' as those with expertise in human-computer interaction and in the relevant domain or sector (e.g. ref).  He found that these double experts were more effective at identifying usability issues, and I've extrapolated from that to understand the role of dual expertise in specifying and developing online and desktop applications.
Commenters in the final session of MW2009 conference described the inability of museums to recognise and benefit from the expertise of their IT or web staff, instead waiting until external gurus pronounced on the way of the future – which turns out to be the same things museum staff had been saying for years.  (Sound familiar?)

So my post-MW2009 'call to arms' said "museums should recognise us (museum technologists) as double domain experts. Don’t bury us like Easter eggs in software/gardens. There’s a lot of expertise in your museum, if you just look. We can save you from mistakes you don't even know you're making. Respect our expertise – anyone can have an opinion about the web but a little knowledge is easily pushed too far".

However, I'm also very aware of our responsibilities. A rough summary might be:

Museum technologists have responsibilities too.  Don’t let recognition as a double domain expert make you arrogant or a ‘know it all’. Be humble. Listen. Try to create those moments of understanding, both yours from conversation with others, and others from conversation with you – and cherish that epiphany.  Break out of the bubble that tech jargon creates around our discussions.  Share your excitement. Explain how a new technology will benefit staff and audiences, show them why it's exciting. Respect the intelligence of others we work with, and consider it part of our job to talk to them in language they understand. Bring other departments of the museum with us instead of trying to drag them along.

Don't get carried away with idea that we are holders of truth; we need to take advantage of the knowledge and research of others. Yes, we have lots of expertise but we need to constantly refresh that by checking back with our audiences and internal stakeholders. We also need to listen to concerns and consider them seriously; to acknowledge and respect their challenges and fears.  Finally, don’t be afraid to call in peers to help with examples, moral support and documentation.

My thoughts on this are still a work in progress, and I'd love to hear what you think.  Is it useful, is it constructive?  Does a label like 'cultural heritage technologist' or 'museum technologist' help others respect your learning and expertise?  Does it matter?

[Update, April 2012: as the term has become more common, its definition has broadened.  I didn't think to include it here, but to me, a technologist ia more than just a digital producer (as important as they are) – while they don't have to be a coder, they do have a technical background. Being a coder also isn't enough to make one a technologist as it's also about a broad range of experience, ideally across analysis, implementation and support.  But enough about me – what's your definition?]