Being the Mentor – Ditch Digital Guru or Manager Titles

Last week, I needed a vacation from the vacation (to Germany to visit close friends and England to attend the MuseumNext conference). My Inbox was a disaster and the meetings mounted up because people were preparing to be out of the office this week because of the American holiday, Fourth of July. The crazy whirlwind that is my full-time job, being a parent, and a museum fanatic/lurker, prevented me from writing a post summarizing my recent MuseumNext conference take-aways. The additional time did give me some breathing room to (procrastinate) think through what I would post and why. One theme resonated throughout the MuseumNext conference: Everyone wanted to be or have a digital guru and no one seemed to want one person to be the digital commanding force. Let me explain.

The conference kicked off with a bang as Koven Smith delivered some hard truths about “becoming authentically digital.” Though the conference audience may have been museum professionals, Koven’s recommendation to accelerate taking digital out of job titles to get get more people thinking about and taking an active role in digital work and integration, applies to any industry at the moment. This was my favorite line from the keynote:

“In the same way that DDD used to mean “automatic awesome” for audiophiles, “digital” for museums means sweet motherlodes of engagement and young people. We’re finally getting digital. Let’s roll out that blog, and wait for carloads of teenagers to arrive on our doorsteps. That’s the way this works, right?”

I will not duplicate Koven’s post and try to define digital. It is all semantics and how the definition does or does not align with your organization’s culture. I have struggled for years determining if ‘social media,’ ‘community management,’ and now ‘digital’ belong in my job title. To get through the front door, you feel like you should be using those descriptors, and then, when you are past the guard, the title description becomes a straight jacket. I have said many times publicly, that my goal is to work myself out of a job. The role of community manager belongs to every member of the organization, just as ‘digital’ is (as Koven describes) “a methodology that could be adopted by anyone inside  the organization.” In a follow-up session at MuseumNext, Tijana Tasich, Digital Production Lead at Tate, echoed many of Koven’s recommendations about eliminating the need for a separate digital department, and suggested we recruit digital leaders to act as guides of how the organization can apply digital experience and authority.

Let’s go one step further and recommend the grooming or hiring of digital mentors. There is also a lot of baggage that is attached to the word, ‘mentor,’ so allow me to define mentor as one of the archetypes of Joseph Campbell’s, Hero’s Journey, described by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey as:

“In the anatomy of the human psyche, Mentors represent the Self, the god within us, the aspect of personality that is connected with all things…Mentor figures, whether encountered in dreams, fairy takes, myths, or screenplays, stand for the hero’s highest aspirations…Mentors are often former heroes who have survived life’s early trials and are now passing on the gift of knowledge and wisdom.”

In the journey to ‘becoming authentically digital,’ the hero is the collective organization. The function of the mentor is to teach or train the hero for upcoming challenges and bestows an important gift to the hero to be earned and used at the appropriate time during the journey.  Just as there are many types of heroes, there are many types of mentors, willingly or unwillingly, teaching in spite of their own tragically flawed selves. Both the hero and the mentor are called to serve and neither can ignore the call to adventure.

“Although the Hero’s Journey often finds the Mentor appearing in Act One, the placement of a mentor in a story is a practical consideration. A character may be needed at any point who knows the ropes, has the map to the unknown country, or can give the hero key information at the right time. Mentors may show up early in a story, or wait in the wings until needed at the critical moment in Act Two or Act Three.” Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey

We must prepare ourselves and our organizations to be able to become and / or receive these guides. To become authentic, we have to understand ourselves, worts and all. Taking ‘digital’ out of a job title will not accelerate the needed thinking to embody a digital methodology. Museums…organizations…are in need of digital mentors who can provide motivation, inspiration, guidance, training, and gifts for the journey. Now, when you frame the job description in this way, many of the self-proclaimed digital gurus, directors, and managers become irrelevant.

Big data is not just for big museums

Over the past year, I have been researching how museums can use big data to improve the visitor experience. Tonight, I will present my research at the Harvard Extension School Thesis Symposium. The following is the abstract of my thesis published in April:

Building upon the three visitor experience contexts identified by museum researchers John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking, this thesis identifies the possible integration points, where common data exists, and how to relate the data despite an institution’s original or legacy non-relational databases. By identifying the integration points between personal, sociocultural and physical databases, museums may alter the collection of visitor information and the data sets of museum objects and people to access and analyze this data alongside each other to determine actionable insights to improve the visitor’s museum experience. The methodology outlined in this thesis may be applied to an individual museum and potential networks of museums linked by geography or specialty.

Not all elements and metrics identifying the museum experience will be relevant for each museum. Cultural institutions need to map the visitor experience and align the touch points with the appropriate contexts. Museums have the opportunity to combine visitor information with artifact information to create a rich base of knowledge that could positively inform exhibit design, marketing efforts, and interactive visitor experiences that span multiple touch points in and outside of the physical museum space. The way to take advantage of this opportunity is to change visitor information collection processes and database design and allow employees across the museum to access this data. This will help them understand how context and empathy can be added to data so the organization can make better business decisions reflecting the needs, challenges and desires of their community at the intersection of personal, sociocultural, and physical contexts.

Over the next several months, I will be expanding my thesis topic, sharing my research, and exploring the concepts I was not able to publish in my thesis. The interactive experience is the holy grail for cultural institutions and is achievable. Think big, act small.

Exploratorium Revisited

EX photo (28)Late last year, I had the opportunity to visit the Exploratorium. I was extremely psyched to check out the exhibits after reading about the museum in Nina Simon’s book, The Participatory Museum. Unfortunately, many exhibits were closed in preparation for the transition to the new Pier 15 location. Also, I went by myself and discovered it was difficult to enjoy because many exhibits required a partner…and at that time, the location was deserted, so even if I could summon the bravery to enlist a stranger as exhibit partner, there was no one available.

I wrote about my disappointment and an Exploratorium staff member commented and encouraged me to revisit the facility when it opened on Pier 15 (check out these videos documenting the move). Not only did I revisit, but as luck would have it, I was able to return on opening day! Obviously, on opening day there was no shortage of people (and A LOT of children) experiencing the joys of the new museum. This time, I did not visit the museum alone, but wanted to share the discovery process with my super smart friend, Teresa. Did we have a blast! Oh yes, we did.

What we quickly discovered is kids were not going to wait in line to test out exhibits, so we had to jump in alongside them if we wanted to participate. We learned a thing or two watching the children explore the complex concepts with simple and creative participatory exhibits. Teresa and I spent a significant amount of time reading and deciphering the exhibit labels. The kids? They just jumped in and started experimenting! As I have gotten older, I have become more cautious and aim for perfection. The children wanted to see action and personal progress.

I could not leave the museum without visiting the store and picking up some gifts for my daughters. What I did not anticipate was buying four books and trying to cram into my carryon! I bought three books (pictured above) documenting how the new Exploratorium took shape  at its new location on Pier 15. These small books are packed with pictures and behind-the-scenes information about how this state-of-the-art institution came into being.

Here is an excerpt from Build:

It took two years to create this place – a place for our future, dynamically defined – a place for our work, emerging continually – a place from which to change the way the world learns.

As a museum studies student, it was fascinating to roam the open spaces of the new museum and see people so enamored with knowledge discovery. As an adult, the visit reminded me how fun it was to learn new things and know I do not always have the answers. Thanks to the Exploratorium for encouraging me to visit the museum again!

Mad Hatter Meets the Museum

Last Thursday, I shared the first day of school with my eight year-old daughter. While she squared her shoulders and bravely enters her third grade classroom, I attended my second graduate class. I didn’t feel as confident as the kidlette, but there is a joy in my heart that I have not experienced in a long time.

Those who I chat with on Twitter and Facebook already know I took my first Museums Studies course over the summer. I wanted to get a couple of classes under my belt and chart out a course of action (you know me, I like the illusion of control) and understand how continuous learning will blend with personal and professional life and interests before I discussed this new venture on the blog. It is now that time!

Why Museums Studies?

No, I am not going through a mid-life crisis. At least , not yet. For once, I feel like I am able to focus all of my interests and previous education into this new industry study. I was that kid who could always be found with her nose in a book and enjoyed every museum adventure. I lost myself in history. History is often written or influenced by the victor and I wanted to know the stories through the objects and artifacts of the voices of the average person of that age – those who didn’t have a voice in the spoils. I fancied that I could hear the calling of these voices asking for their stories to be told.

Life happens. Instead of taking the path of a historian and eventually moving into the museum studies realm, I went a different direction…or two or three! I became a storyteller. As a communications professional, I have learned a great deal about the discipline of storytelling and put my business strategy lessons learned into practice on the vendor and client side, but I have this nagging feeling that there is something more. I should be doing something more. Something with meaning. A bigger purpose. I am telling stories for corporations and brands, but not telling those stories of the voices or interests of cultural institutions.

Life continues. I am at a point in my life that I can revisit the dreams of my younger self and merge them with my growing list of aspirations. So, I am going back to school. I could go on a bit of a rant about why I am pursuing a degree and not just absorbing what I can on the web or through live experience. Basic answer: I want the structure and discipline of a tested program to help me open new doors of thought, experiences and relationships. I don’t know what I don’t know. I am longing to question, research and question again.

Museums are not about nostalgia. They give voice to the community of past and present. How can we learn from the past? How are we labeling, classifying, and describing current events that will shape the opinions of future generations? The community has power. The community has a voice. I want to explore how this voice resonates inside and outside the walls of a cultural institution. It is not so different than the questions and planning of other businesses across a plethora of industries. What is the common denominator? What is the root of community engagement? I don’t know, but I am going to seek answers. I hope you will join me on this adventure, share your insights and explore community in a new light.

Musings of #Muse2012

This past weekend, I was a writer. I mean, I have always considered myself a writer, but have yet to quit my day job. This past weekend, I was not surrounded by social media and marketing jargon (alright, not that much) and surrounded by creative folks of all stripes, all fueled by the same desire to share their stories. I did not suffer the Sunday blues because I was too high on Cloud 9 to be bothered with the inevitable manic Monday.

Normally, I do not tweet in such high volume at a conference because so many others in my “space” are in attendance and sharing the same tidbits. I just couldn’t contain myself at #Muse2012. This weekend, I wanted to share a glimpse into the force behind Grub Street writers to those who also consider themselves writers and do not live in the area. I have shared (and updated) a recap of the conference on Storify. Please check out the insights shared and start following this brilliant group of people.

Other than what I and others have tweeted, I wanted to share these notes:

  1. Give yourself permission to tell your story. – Anita Diamant
  2. What works for one writer does not always work for another; embrace the messiness and distill the narrative weave. – Julia Alvarez
  3. Content isn’t king…culture is. Books are the social glue that allows people to have conversations about matter of deep import because they share commonality because a writer spends 15hrs whispering in their ear. – Richard Nash
  4. Cultivate a writerly mind. – Ethan Gilsdorf
  5. The same passion you have for writing must also be applied to editing. – Ann Hood

Now, go write!