#MCN2016 and the way forward

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I started to write this on the plane heading home from New Orleans, but didn’t finish before the events of this week. I was planning to work on it on Wednesday but woke up feeling like these, maybe, weren’t the most important things to be thinking about. But then I read Rob Weisberg’s Medium post about the conference—and especially his thoughts on the same topic at the beginning—and decided to take a page and some inspiration from his book. The community, the work, our practice, the empathy and support that we have for each other in the MCN family is, I think, even more important now.

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***

Now that I’m back home, #MCN2016 is starting to pass into the rear view mirror, though it is very much still on my mind. One thing about being on the planning end of a conference is that your relationship to the conference is a bit different. I found myself thinking about some things differently (did the schedule turn out as we’d hoped? Do people seem to be enjoying things? Did we describe things clearly?), or thinking about things that I might not have thought about at all in previous years. This was my sixth MCN, and while every MCN is its own thing with its own flavor and experience, this one, for me, was a very different– and very special–experience.

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It was really fantastic to see so many of the things we’d talked about and planned come to fruition (and there are many contributors to that we, from the program committee to the board, the SIGs, and the indefatigable conference managers. And, of course, the two amazing women with whom I had the privilege of co-chairing the program—Suse Cairns and Trish Oxford). One of the first discussions we had with each other as co-chairs, and then had with the entire program committee, was the question of whether we needed to have a theme for the conference, and if so, what should it be. There was, initially, a broad sense that maybe themes weren’t all that useful—that the sessions and themes of conferences didn’t always line up, that it was only rarely a major factor in whether someone decided to attend or present at a conference. A turning point in that discussion came when one program committee member piped up to say that the theme, and its applicability to their work, may not be a key factor in their deciding to go to a conference, but it was a key factor in how they made an argument to their supervisor and their institution for supporting their attendance. We started thinking differently about the theme—if this is something that helps people attend then what could we do to help them to make that case?

Trish suggested that the program committee write haikus about MCN as a starting point. The resulting poems were funny, silly, poignant, and thought-provoking, and they eventually led to the discussion that sparked the resulting theme: The Human-Centered Museum. It may be that I was over-attuned to it, having been a part of the process that got us to the theme, but I felt like I could see the theme everywhere in the conference—not just in the sessions and the topics that people were talking about, but in everyone’s interactions with each other.

One aspect of this year’s conference that I found most interesting was the appearance of Chatham House Rule in multiple sessions. (You can read more about Chatham House Rule here, but the short of it is that sessions under the umbrella of the Rule are safe spaces where the specific details—names, institutions, identifying features of a story—are not shared outside the room). I hadn’t encountered this at previous conferences—I may have just not participated in sessions that happened—but it was part of a fair number of sessions this time around. For me, this felt like a noticeable shift. Conferences are a great place to talk about our achievements—and we need spaces in which to do this. Being able to share about wins with colleagues is positive in so many ways. I can’t count the number of times that listening to a panel talking about the amazing projects they are working on sent me off in a frenzy of inspiration, thirsty to set my own ideas into motion. And having a place to be able to crow a bit about things that worked out is another kind of inspiration—hey, we did this!—that can keep you pursuing the next step.

And in between those sessions about wins and achievements and next steps for projects we have all had those more private sessions over dinner or drinks or sitting on the hallway floor with those friends and colleagues you only get to see once or twice a year, who work in museums (but maybe not your museum), who give you that safe space to talk about the things that don’t make it to the panel presentation: setbacks, failures, stresses, worries. And those conversations are often just as inspiring as the ones that send you into a creative frenzy. These are both part of professional (and personal) self care.

To have so many sessions conducted in the safety of Chatham House Rule to me is the most human-centered approach to the Human-Centered Museum. We all have wins. We all have failures. We all need to be able to talk about both. We all need a space to talk about what we’re scared of, what hurts us, what inspires us, what excites us, what infuriates us, what makes us feel impotent, what makes us feel empowered—without fear. Being able to do this acknowledges that our institutions are not just abstract entities, but are made of up individuals, of people, of humans, and that our community of practice can provide support for all of the individuals that make up that community—when we soar, when we stall, when we crash—not only in those private moments with friends, but with our community in conference sessions is something that I felt most proud of this year.

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One of the things about being on the organizing end of things is that I wasn’t able to attend nearly as many sessions as I would have liked. Of the sessions I was able to attend there were several that really made an impact on my thinking, and that I will be thinking about for a long time to come. All were led by amazing people that I am grateful to count as friends and co-conspirators (in so many ways).

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Feeling like this captures Rob perfectly

Picture by Essie Lash

I had the pleasure of chairing Rob Weisberg’s session, It Doesn’t Have to be Toxic: When Empathy is your Workplace Secret Weapon.  (You can read Rob’s own round up of MCN here). Rob took on workplace toxicity by walking us all through his last three years of changing the process by which labels get created at his institution. For many of us who work in museums just the word labels prompts waves and waves of anxiety, so to hear someone describe the slow, long game process of shifting workplace culture through the medium of the label process was kind of like listening to someone describe making a working time machine: it’s possible within the boundaries of the laws of physics, but doesn’t seem like something that could actually happen in real life. This project is one that Rob has been working on for as long as I’ve known him, and I’ve heard him talk about bits and pieces of it over the years (including in our recent letter series for CODE WORDS), but this was the first time I’d heard it laid out, step by step, with a big picture outcome. It was amazing. There were so many aspects of this talk that I appreciated, starting first and foremost with honesty. He was clear about this not being a single-action solution. He was clear about it being a long process. He was clear about it not being all unicorns and rainbows. He was clear about it being hard work.

But it is work so worth doing. We will have setbacks and we will screw up and we won’t necessarily get to the dream place that we imagine, but one of the most important things I got from it was that even in situations where we feel impotent and unable to fix the problem, we can always change our piece of it. For a talk about a process that lots of people in museums experience as powerlessness it was amazing how empowering it felt.

Rob also led an unconference session about museum blogging, which was a great push for me to remember to get back to this blogging thing. Also, he brought beignets.

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***

Self-care and improving the workplace culture were themes of many of the sessions this year. One session on this theme that really stood out for me was Sustaining Innovation: Tips and Techniques to Keep Momentum in your Organization. Emily Lytle-Painter, Douglas Hegley, Jeffrey Inscho, Annelisa Stephan, and Greg Albers led this active discussion session with breakouts during which a very packed room of museum professionals shared ideas about how to deal with burnout, toxicity, and roadblocks. There were some wonderful ideas that came out in the discussion. One of my favorites from a member of the group I was sitting in: make a point to compliment the work of at least one colleague in your institution every day. I love the idea of this as a daily goal and the way that it turns your attention to the positive things that happen around us all the time.

***

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Trish Oxford’s panel on vulnerability in museums– The Power of Vulnerability in Museums –is another session that will be sticking with me for years to come. Trish started with a video that laid out why vulnerability is so, so hard in professional life. (And life in general, really).

We often talk about empathy in museums, but we rarely talk about vulnerability. Empathy is an active practice, and is an incredibly important part of our work in museums, but it is also something that we practice with control. It is a conscious process and practice, but it is one where we often set the parameters and hold the reigns. Vulnerability is a practice that requires us to relinquish control, and to trust that those to whom we leave ourselves open will be kind, will be generous, and will be empathetic toward us.

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The panel was set up with a game structure—questions were assigned to each of the panelists to answer throughout the session, and audience members joined into the discussion. The discussants were brave and open—vulnerable—in their sharing. You can read about the structure and the question on Trish’s blog post about the panel here.  In her list of questions there were three that really jumped out for me, and which I plan to bring into my thinking and practice at the museum. Two are related:

  • How has shame gotten in the way of change?
  • What does shame look like in museum work?

Shame is a driver of so many of the choices we make. How do we create environments in which mistakes and shame are decoupled?

  • How has silence been used as a solution to a problem in your experience?

I see two questions in this question. One is about how I can work on holding back and letting silence work as a solution in my own practice. The other is the flipside: how has silence contributed to a problem? When has silence given cover to problems?

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I also got to hear Stephen Boyd discuss institutional voice in social media practice: Institutional Voice: What Are We Trying to Say?  (full disclosure: we work together) Steve urged us to recognize that museums aren’t monoliths. They are made up of individuals with different points of view, with different voices, and that it is okay for the voice on social media to reflect those many voices.

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At work Steve uses his sailor voice.

He then raised a really important question—one that I would love to see discussed more often:

Do we always want social media interaction to translate into visiting the physical museum?

So… do we? How do the (un-discussed) assumptions about this question affect how we frame what we do, the way in which we do the work itself, and the choices that we make?

He also asked a question that I think we all need to ask in our institutions:

Do people expect the experience of the museum itself to match the social media voice?

I don’t know the answer, but it’s a really important question to ask our visitors. How might the answer affect our work? How would it change our work? How would it shift how we think about social media? About labels? About other aspects of the visit? About our visitors, full stop?

***

There were so many moments over the course of the conference that were just wonderful. The Ignite talks at the House of Blues were fantastic.

The karaoke was, as always, epic. (Huge shout out to Koven, who managed to find the best den of room karaoke in a city that appears to be 100% pure bar karaoke).

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Friends always let friends sing Black Sabbath at karaoke

We had a very fun, jam-packed first timers’ session.

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We even got to learn all about the #jiasszz.

I got to see so many incredible people whom I do not get to see nearly enough, but who rejuvenate me whenever I see them. AND I got to meet new people and make new friends, and have great conversations. So, thank you, dear friends, for being so awesome, I can’t begin to express my gratitude for having you all in my life. The MCN community is amazing. The people in this community are amazing. The support, the love, the inspiration that run through every corner of this group are important touchstones for all of us to connect with during dark days, and for all of us to share, both inside and outside of our institutions, through the work we do.

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Never Work Half Heartedly

When I started in my new position I had had great hopes for getting back into blogging more regularly.

Rather predictably, I have not been blogging more regularly. I have managed to do a few other things, but blogging has not been one of them. That said, there have been a couple of blog-worthy things to come up.

New Job, New City, New Department

All the new things! It’s a really exciting time at the Albright-Knox, and I am having a blast getting to know the collection, the institution, new colleagues, and a new city. My first week here one of my favorite contemporary artists came to give a talk, which was fantastic.

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And so far, since coming to the A-K, we’ve had several exhibitions open and close,

hosted Art Alive, a giant event in which dozens of groups create tableau vivant of works of art,

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Art Alive entry recreating Amanda Browder’s Rapunzel

and danced the night away at the annual summer fundraiser.

I’ve been getting to know the docents and have been heading out to the galleries to practice:

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And I’ve been able to put all my media development skillz straight to work, interviewing artists that have come to the A-K for exhibitions, projects, and talks.

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From an interview with Amanda Browder

We’re building a new team in the education department (complete with new job openings), and building out new programs and working on our plans for building new audiences (including trying some completely new programs).

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While it has been a pretty packed few months for me personally, it is also a hugely exciting time for the institution itself: the selection of an architect to design the A-K of the (near) future was announced.

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Shohei Shigematsu of OMA at the A-K

AAM and Interpretive Planners

In the meantime, I had the great pleasure of working again with two amazing women– Julia Forbes from the High Museum of Art and Emily Fry from Peabody Essex Museum– on annual the Interpretive Planners’ pre-conference. It’s such a fantastic group of people, and always an inspiration to see everyone.

I also got to be on a panel at AAM with fantastic folks from Detroit Institute of Art (the incomparable Swarupa Anila and Alison Jean) and the Art Gallery of Ontario (the awesome Keri Ryan).

Sadly, I was only able to stay for one day of the conference, but I did get to see some interesting talks and got to see the amazing Sara Devine collect awards for the Brooklyn Museum’s Ask app (go Sara!). I did also get the chance to run through the Renwick exhibition of so much (justifiable) instagram fame. AND I managed to get folks out for karaoke in Chinablock– including my much-missed former crew from VMFA.

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#MCN2016– New Orleans here we come!

Meanwhile, I’ve been having a ball working on the upcoming MCN conference. I get to work with amazing co-chairs, Suse Cairns and Trish Oxford, along with all of the fantastic folks on the program committee and so many others who put so much into making the conference a reality.

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Conference schedule planning: ALL THE POST IT NOTES

We’re really excited about the program and the really incredible submissions that came in (a record number!). I’m also very excited about everything going on with the SIGs this year, and (of course) with the Educational and Interpretive Media SIG (which means I get to spend even more time with Emily Fry!). Can’t wait for New Orleans!

Lots more in the mix, and more things on the horizon. Now, I really am planning on getting some more blogging done.

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Sage advice from the Cornell Art and Architecture school on a recent trip to my alma mater

The Jar of Awesomeness, Amplified

Been a little slow on the blogging side lately. My excuse is pretty lame, too– museum life has been crazypants busy the last few months and blogging was backburnered. Writing more was one of my new year’s resolutions, but, well, it’s the end of the month, sooooo….

In addition to end of year/beginning of year usual madness, we have some big, busy projects in process, all of which I’m super excited about, but also wishing that perhaps they hadn’t all ended up scheduled at exactly the same time. (Says everyone, always)

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One new development that I am really excited about is that I am co-chairing the Program Committee for MCN2016. First of all, this co-chair gig means I get to work with two amazing women: Suse Cairns and Trish Oxford. Not only that, I get to give back to the MCN community, which has been my go-to museum world touchstone, support, and inspiration since the first time I attended in 2011. And, and, AND, because I’ve never been one for half measures, I’m also co-chairing the new MCN SIG on the block— the Educational and Interpretive Media SIG (Special Interest Group), with yet another amazing woman, Emily Fry. Stay tuned for more to come on that front, and get ready to get inspired in New Orleans in November!

After coming back from some holiday time away things got pretty hectic pretty quickly. But right in the midst of it I received a wonderful moment of inspiration that made me feel both proud and grateful. Early last year I posted about the Jar of Awesomeness. At the end of 2015 we did open the jar and read out the notes that were in there, and it was something I really enjoyed.

In August I got to go to Museum Camp, which was fantastic. The whole group worked on a large project together– the creation of a Space Deck, a deck of cards designed to help the user or player create space for themselves and others. A couple of weeks ago my very own deck arrived in the mail.

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Hooray! It’s kind of amazing how incredibly satisfying it is to have this tangible evidence of one’s efforts, and it has been acting as something of a talisman, standing on my desk and reminding me of the lessons from camp.

On an even more personal note, in opening the box I was honored to see a couple of the ideas that I’d contributed made it into the final deck. One of which was the Jar of Awesomeness.

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Even better, I saw a notification from the Museum Camp facebook group that one of my fellow campers posted a picture of the Space Deck in use. When I went to look at the picture I found a colorfully decorated jar marked with the title Jar of Awesomeness.

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Spotted in the wild! Kind of can’t beat that.

MCN2015– Content and its discontents

#MCN2015 Part one

This year at #MCN2015 I was part of a session that looked at some of the words we use in the field—words that appear over and over, but that seem to have lost (or perhaps never really had) a clear meaning. It was such a pleasure, both because I got to do this session with fantastic people whose work I admire—Jeffrey Inscho and Ed Rodley—but also because it was a really lively, interactive session and I love nothing so much as a room full of excited museum folk having at something.

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People came!

There are always sticky words in any field, but the three that really stood out when we were first talking about proposing a session were content, digital, and engagement. We gave an introduction to the issues around the semantics and slippery usages of these words in particular (and buzzwords in general), and then split into breakout groups focusing on one of the three words.

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Jeff took on “content,” Ed took “digital” (a topic about which he had given a rousing Ignite talk the night before), and I took “engagement.” Each group switched through the three words so we could try to capture input from everyone who came to the session.

With each group I asked if people had either ideas for alternative words that could be used instead of engagement, and also asked if everyone had ideas of how to contribute to a common definition for engagement (particularly if we couldn’t find a better word to replace engagement). The convergences and divergences in the lists, rounding up three groups’ worth of contributions, are fascinating.

Alternative words seemed to be a bit more of a challenge, and for many participants they said they thought their word could be either an alternative or part of the definition of engagement—and there is a lot of overlap between the two categories. The full lists are at the bottom of the post. (For both lists I’ve kept in duplicates, indicating that more than one group came up with the same word. Words that appear on both lists are bolded).

There were some themes in the conversations that happened with each group. Connecting, immersion, action/interaction, and sharing were among the ideas that cropped up repeatedly. With one group there was an interesting point that was raised by someone whose work focuses on social media—that for her engagement was clicks, follows, views. For others in the groups, particularly those in education and interpretation, attendance was the a starting point—perhaps not really counted as engagement, which seemed to require a deeper connection than bodies in the door. Several people raised the connection between engagement and measurement or evaluation. For me, one of the most thought-provoking comments (which came up in two of the groups) was when one person said that engagement for us was seeing visitors doing what we want them to do. It was a great moment in my own processing of what the term means, how we use it, and why it is good practice to interrogate why we choose the words we choose and what we actually mean by them.

For me this was something of a continuation of some of the ideas that bubbled up in a panel I was part of at #MCN2014 in Dallas. The idea behind both discussions is really one of mindfulness. (Including reminding myself to be mindful in using slippery terms). There is no perfect word. One of the participants noted that “learning” was the word that was used all over in the place of engagement in the past, but that learning fell out of fashion and engagement fell into fashion. For me, rather than finding a perfect word, I’m trying to focus on being mindful about the words I use, and to define what I mean when I say engagement, or content, or digital. I’d love to hear what you think.

Alternative words

Attendance

Attention

Care

Changed

Collaboration

Connection with People

Conversation!

Discovery

Digital

Education

Emotional Connection

Empathize

Entertain

Exploration

Financial Support

Immersed/Immersion

Impact

Inspire

Interface

Interactivity

Investment

Involvement

Involvement

Marketing

Measurable

Membership

Participation

Participation

Participation

Reflection

Sharing

Totally Absorbing

 

Definition of Engagement

Absorbing

Action

Action

Activating the Mind

Amplified

Attendance

Attracting attention

Being Present

Being (Present)

Care

Choice

Clicks

Collaborative

Committed

Connected

Connection

Connection with people

Connecting to prior knowledge

Contributing to

Conversation

Creation

Crying

Deeper Understanding

Degree of the depth of content

Democratization

Did they do what we want?

Doing

Duration

Education

Engrossing

Feel

Financial Support

Financial Support

Flow

Focus

Follows

Fun

Guessing

Holding attention

Imaginative

Immersed

Immersive

Interacting With

Interaction

Interactivity

Interest inspiring

Interface

Interior engagement vs. exterior

Interpretation

Laughing

Learning

Listening

Making

Measurement

Nounification

Part of how we define success

Participate

Participation

Personal

Perspective shift

Relevance

Remembering

Responding to

Results

Reward

Safety

Saying

Sharing

Sharing

Sharing

Semantics matter

Signs of engagement

Social practice

Thinking

Time investment

To be absorbed in

Use

Views

Visitor vs. museum perspective

What we want the visitor to do

If you aren’t already following Ed Rodley’s blog, Thinking About Museums, you should go check out his recap of how we talk about “digital” here.

 

Do We Make “Content”?

Last month I went to Dallas (my first time in the Big D, at least out of the airport) for the annual MCN conference.

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It’s one of my favorite conferences, and is one that I always feel like I walk away with ideas and inspiration and thinking about lots of big questions– it’s the one where I spend the plane ride home thinking that I’m going to get home and Do All The Things! Make All The Things! Make Very Very Good Things! And then I get home and my inbox is full and there are voicemails and deadlines and maybe even a fire to put out, and I think, I will do All The Things a little later.*

This year I presented in the case study group, which was really enjoyable– there were some great conversations about what makes a trusted museum brand. I was also on a panel that was organized by Robert Weisberg from the Met (who compared his institution first to pre-revolutionary France, and then to a space ark) that was downright fun. (You can read his thoughts on this year’s MCN here). Corey Pressman gave an inspiring (and often hilarious) talk about orality’s shift into the authority of print, and the potential for opening authority as we move into a time of secondary orality. Kimon Keramidas talked about his (supercool) projects with students at the Digital Media Lab at the Bard Graduate Center. (The audio from the panel is here).

The panel touched on a lot of things that I spend a lot (I mean a lot) of time thinking about. Much of what I do professionally is “content development.” If someone had said to me when I was tied to a carrel in the library in grad school that I would grow up to develop content I would have looked at you like you’d told me I was going to find myself living out my middle years on Mars. Content development? What does that even mean?

I don’t really recall hearing the word “content” (the way it is used now) in grad school. I might have, but if I did it didn’t make an impression. It’s a word I hear all the time now, both in my professional life and outside of it, but it is a term that I find hard to pin down. What does it even mean?

The seeming ubiquity of the word doesn’t, for me, negate it’s inherent slipperiness. What does it actually point to? First and foremost, it points to its holder (“content,” after all, says up front that it is contained, which means there must be a container) while not pointing at all to its own identity. It’s stuff that goes in the thing– it’s only identifying feature being that it is held in something else. It seems to function as a placeholder for whatever we happen to be talking about at that moment. Labels, videos, software, tours, public programs, whatever. We seem to have tacitly agreed to use this catch-all word to catch all we do– and it the process it’s lost whatever meaning it might have, at some point, had.

And then we use it with visitors.

Ug. The internal/external meanings of museums’ weird nomenclature are rarely aligned. In my experience museums have extensive taxonomies so esoteric that only a select few have been initiated into the highest levels of knowledge. For visitors, much of it is just wordswordswordsthatIdon’tknow.

And who actually wants to make “content”? Content sounds like vitamins: something you don’t enjoy ingesting but do it because you’re supposed to. Who wants to listen to, watch, see, read, or make that? Content is a word that sounds desiccated. And it’s so overused that at times I think it no longer has a referent.

When I think about what we are actually doing, when I think about what I actually love finding out about and listening to, and watching, and learning about when I go to a museum (and I go to a lot of them– and not just the one where I work), it’s stories. Because we’re humans, and humans are hardwired to hear, tell, and process narratives (literally). It is how we make sense of the world; but it is also a critical way in which we derive joy from it as well. We don’t want to hear “content”; we want to hear a good yarn.

This may seem like just semantics, and it is semantics, but it isn’t only semantics. Externally, is it realistic to expect our visitors to get excited about something we call “content”? Internally, does approaching the work through the framework of “content development” have an impact on what we produce? [I would say that it does, and not for the better].

That said, I don’t have a solution for a better word. Ideas, stories, narratives, something else…. I don’t know, but would love to hear suggestions.

***

Meanwhile, I heard some fantastic panels and discussions at MCN, including a super fun panel on games with Emily Lytle-Painter of LACMA and James Collins of the Smithsonian that really had me thinking (again) about games (again) and museums (again). Our little department has several people who are gamers themselves (analog and digital) and the idea of bringing games into what we do at the museum comes up somewhat regularly. The session had lots of great advice, but was done through actually trying different things out– which is a great way to make the message stick.

I also really enjoyed a panel on museums and social media, and have been thinking ever since I left Dallas about Alli Burness‘s question: What do selfies mean?

And of course I visited the Dallas Art Museum:

Went to a honky tonk:

And had epic karaoke:

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Before heading home:

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*And over the course of the next year I usually get to Some Of The Things, which probably isn’t half bad.