MCN is one of two museum technology conferences that happen annually. While there are many talks and conversations diving deep into technical topics, the conference is most known for its threads on organizational culture and social transformation. Following are some of my major takeaways.
Creating space, slowing down, demonstrating our values
The tenor of the conference seemed to reflect the current social climate in the United States. There were lots of talks on taking care of ourselves while taking a stand on charged topics in the public discourse. Sessions included topics like self-care and slow change in a feminist framework and clarifying how science museums can take a public position on climate change. One speaker articulated very clearly the IRS restrictions in engaging in politics—endorsing a specific candidate is prohibited, but actions like engaging in political dialog and voter registration are indeed allowed.
The conference kicked off with a keynote address that was a conversation between two Black museum workers and activists, Dr. Aleia Brown and Adrianne Russell, and a Black journalist, Jamil Smith. Creating space for marginalized people to speak about their experiences, and privileging their voices with the opening all-conference timeslot demonstrated the core values of the conference.
Within an institution, Lanae Spruce from the National Museum of African American History & Culture talked about how their museum has a front porch, echoing common gathering spaces in Black communities. In Chicago, the steps of the MCA have been treated as a front porch in recent years. Perhaps a reflection of how they’ve created space for Black voices inside of their walls as well.
Many museums are continuing to think about how to diversify staff as a first step to inviting more diverse audiences. In the keynote, Dr. Aleia Brown talked about how museums “have a problem with over-credentialing for positions that don’t require it.” Jamil Smith went further to say fair pay is a concrete step we can take to diversify staff. “Any prestige brand becomes a prestige brand by good talent. You get good talent by paying for it—at all levels.”
A colleague echoed a suggestion I’ve heard her make in past conferences:
Everyone in the museum should work one frontline shift a year.
Lots of sessions talked about the need for transparency and how to get there. In making the business case for transparency, Douglas Hegley at Mia said “I can’t remember a time that me being radically transparent ruined an organization. Creating an environment that is safe and trusting is far more important that protecting any trade secrets.”
Jeff Steward at the Harvard Art Museum has been aggregating different metrics across the museum to gauge the overall level of access to works in their collection, including pageviews on their website, the number of edits in their Collections Management System, movements into galleries, and check-ins to study centers, photo studios and conservation labs. He advocated for “data-informed decision” vs. “data-driven decisions.”
The tone and approach we take to communicate with our publics was a common theme, particularly among people who work in social media and publishing.
“Communication is an experience not just information.”
One colleague described wanting her publications to be “like reading Teen Vogue in the dentist’s office,” referring to the magazine’s ability to take complex, multi-faceted stories and make them both skimmable and fully engaging to atypical audiences.
Speaking from his background in journalism, Jamil Smith suggested we use intellectual honesty as a gauge to measure diversity of voices. That it is a reflection of the safety that people of different backgrounds have to speak their ideas.
Overall, MCN was a strong conference that left us with lots of thoughts, ideas and questions. It’s a conference that provides space to think deeply about critical questions, and left us with concrete tools to move our ideas forward.