Let’s imagine that Henry Rollins has become the director of a major art museum. It’s his job to synthesize the diverse demands of curators, trustees, donors, support staff, and patrons into the coherent mission of an historically-rooted institution (let’s put some n.b. on that word institution):
Social Media Coordinator: I want to retweet some interesting responses to a current exhibition, but the artist’s living heirs might get angry.
Henry Rollins: Don’t think about it, do it.
Curator: I want to mount an exhibition and publish a catalogue. There’s a certain way I want to do it, but to satisfy the expectations of my professional peers and the fancies of the involved donors and collectors, I’ll have to make some compromises. By the way, I need 36 months and $400,000.
Henry Rollins: Don’t lie about it, do it.
Publications department: We hired a great designer who came up with a beautiful, challenging cover for an upcoming catalogue, but we’re worried it won’t sell.
Henry Rollins: Don’t talk about it, do it.
Museum patron: I want to share photos from my trip to the museum on Instagram.
Henry Rollins: There’s a law about it, but who cares—do it, do it.
These are all common scenarios in the museum world. The responses to the first three, as Henry Rollins gave them, are unfamiliar and laughably improbably to anyone who’s actually worked in a museum. The last one, though, is different—the museum-going public typically has no interaction with museum directors, and if they did, the museum director’s response would be neither unfamiliar nor improbable—it would be irrelevant. (Henry’s response is completely honest, though.) The public participates in this sort of creation and sharing in museums everyday, without anyone’s official approval.
This is the reality in which Dan Sinker approached the theme of this year’s National Museum Publishing Seminar, “The Voice of the Museum”, in his opening keynote talk at the MCA Chicago on Friday night. Everyone seems to have accepted that “publishing” encompasses much more than books alone, and, to a lesser extent, that the issue at hand is not even paper books vs. digital books (“That battle is over.” —Dan Sinker). The NMPS schedule of events mentions “the array of departments that now find themselves serving as ‘publisher’ for the museum.” Publications, Web, Social Media, Marketing, Public Affairs: these or similarly-named departments all publish content and contribute to “the voice of [their] museum[s]“.
This is true, but Dan’s talk suggested the insufficiency of even this somewhat-expanded definition. First off, let’s discard the idea that the goal of publishing is a perfect product that will live forever in the archives of the world. Dan calls for an end to “preciousness” (remember—this is a dude who told a story by tweeting a few hundred jokes and then published it as a book almost as an afterthought). Experimentation should be our output. The final product is only the outcome of the experimentation. If you’re not making something, you don’t matter. Focusing on producing—making—allows you to skip dwelling on a failure and resting on your laurels in the wake of a success.
Next, let’s forget the illusion of control over an “institutional voice” and embrace the chorus. As a parallel concept, let’s examine the publishing power of all those voices. What’s more important, an institution’s Flickr page or an institution’s Instagram hashtag? (No judgments on Flickr’s fading relevance.) How about a blog vs. a traditional publications program vs. a twitter feed? These these all have different uses and can’t even be directly compared, and I’m not trying to suggest any new hierarchy. These are just questions Dan Sinker rightly wants us to consider during a moment when so many things are being dismantled, awaiting a new structure.
So let me get back to Henry Rollins, my proxy embodiment for the punk ethos he helped invent. This is a man whose output and impact on the world can’t be evaluated song by song, even though musician is probably the first thing on his resume (if he has one, which, let’s be honest, why would he). Each song and all those hardcore matinees slowly built a movement, an open-to-all way of life, much larger than any of its discernible parts or participants. No one was in charge, and its output was never diffused by an approval process. It was about making and doing. In the fictional exchanges above, everyone has the best of intentions—to advance the mission of the museum. Dan Sinker would ask, though—who’s most effective? Quickest? Truest?
Think about that, as well as these last quick thoughts (my takeaways): don’t assume the status quo can’t be changed and improved; collaborate, don’t control; try something, then try something else; continually look for what works.