#MGAConf2018 – Day 1 (Afternoon)

Feeling challenged, inspired and encouraged after the morning’s sessions little did I know there was some serious brain-bending ideas to come.  I was looking forward to hearing from Genevieve Bell after I heard colleagues rave about her presentation at the MEET day on Monday, but I didn’t know what to expect.

Prof Genevieve Bell, ANU – Artificial Intelligence

Genevieve began by challenging our understanding of what AI is and what it means for our future in this industry.  AI is not a ‘thing’ but rather a range of technologies and fields.

AI is the steam engine of the 21st Century.

I know all about steam engines – the 19th century kind at least!

The beginning of a much larger conversation.  Not an end point.  The larger question is what will the metaphorical railway look like?  She gave us 6 areas to look at in order to develop a readiness for the arrival of the ‘train’.

  1. Recognise your delta problem – There is a moment when the people who make decisions about direction, strategy and money no longer look like the audience/visitors/clients. They often can’t see what they don’t know.  Institutions need to manage the gap between our imagined clients and who our actual clients are.  This can be addressed by data about who your audience is and how you do you reach them.  Why do people really love you? Not, why do you think they love you.
  2. Plan for Data and its discontents   Data can be anything.  Data is useful but it has challenges that need to be considered, such as: data is always retrospective: what has been, not what will be.  How do you measure who is NOT coming to your museum?
  3. Consider Autonomous Systems – Some of the data in your system will be accessed by Autonomous systems.  A system that doesn’t require humans to tell it what to do.  What humans are you imagining when you collect data and build systems?  Do you need to make the use of autonomous systems public – what data is driving the decision making of these systems?  Disclosure.
  4. Value stuff, value social – Over times things that were human interactions have been digitised.  Some things have not been done well, eg. Books (the number of digital books being produced is less than 50%).  Sometimes they have become a digital way in to a physical object (eg. Millennials buying vinyl records).  We still value the connection to each other and tangible objects.
  5. Invest in core skills – What do we need to be successful? What skills do we want to actively encourage in our employees and clients?  Critical thinking and critical questions – in our employees and to present to our clients.
  6. Have a point of view – A reminder that we don’t work in a business, we work in a social institution.  We need a healthy level of skepticism about who is selling you technological solutions.  What world view is governing the technology you are using?

Genevieve’s engaging and challenging presentation forced us to look beyond the next decade; to prepare for a future we can’t full comprehend by being critical about our data, decisions and human resources and consider how those factors will influence the way in which AI that comes in to our museums operates.

Athanasios (Arthur) Tsakonas, ATA Architects – Museums without walls

Arthur brought us back to the physical and tangible exhibition, but ones not bound by institutions.  Exhibitions that are not inside a boundary.  Free and openly accessible.

He spoke about 3 examples: Melbourne Street Art Trail, Silo Art Trail and 50 Bridges (Signapore).

Some of the questions his presentation provoked were:  Is Street Art transient commentary on the contemporary or static art installations?  Can a Museum or Gallery ever be large or small enough to be the right size for their audience?  Must they be constrained to a location?

The conversation and impact of the Silo Art Trail was particularly profound to me.    It represented bringing art out of the galleries and into the public realm.  It draws people into an area not commonly visited.  In such tiny towns visitors are naturally engaging with the community during their visit giving them the opportunity to learn more about the stories behind the murals.

Despite the three examples having many positive and exciting sides to them they also raised questions about ownership, representation and their role/purpose over time.  Should they always be contemporary or should they become permanent and even memorial?

Concurrent Session 2 – Younger and Wiser

Ellie Downing & Nathan Sentence, Ashley Tenison & Nicole O’Dowd, Dr Kristy Kokegei.

This session drew together a number of ideas about the younger generation of staff and visitors at museums.  Ellie and Nathan offered an engaging dialogue on what a millennial is with the summary being there is not a clear definition as to age or a wholly representational idea on the cultural demographic, but there are some common behaviours and values that can be considered when looking at millennials.  The values and behaviours they suggested focused around ideas of authenticity, inclusion, ethics and networks.

Ashley and Nicole spoke specifically about internships and how they can be effective for both the organisation and the intern.  They advocated for both sides working together to find the sweet spot of harmony.  This harmony, they suggested, arose from planning, communication and agreed expectations.  Interns and institutions benefited from a collaboration that balanced administrative tasks (busy work) with real tasks (projects).

Kristy’s presentation suggested the need for new models of leadership because our institutions are note geared towards embracing younger staff.  Thought leaders can be anyone, they don’t need a title.  We need to make a seat at the table for younger staff.

The discussion at the end was summarised in the statement: we can do better. There was also a general theme across the presentations that young people have qualities that are underutilised – they have ideas, drive and high ethical standards.  Their identities are imbued in their job.  As Ellie said:

If you have the money to hire a contractor you probably have the money to hire two young people who will throw their whole selves at the opportunity.

This session resonated deeply with my personal professional experience.  I am, perhaps and ‘older’ millennial, but the behaviours and attitudes Ellie and Nathan defined aligned with my own.  I have also experienced many professional frustrations about having ideas and strategies that could benefit the organisations I work for but limited opportunity to share or drive them.

My thoughts are; we are a highly desirable sector.  There is high competition for roles and leadership positions are filled (mostly) by people with vast experience and in the latter part of their career.  Leaders tend to hold positions for a longer period of time too.  This trickles down through the layers of governance to hold younger staff in low-impact and often insecure positions.  But is this the best outcome for our institutions?  

Can we rethink our models of leadership and project development so that the conceptual ideas and the drive to see them come to fruition that many young staff hold is harnessed?  Or by the time we finally get a seat at the table our energy, ideas and relevancy will have been sapped by the years we have spent locked in the depths of the current model.

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