This year MCN celebrates its 50th anniversary. Just as MCN has established a network of established and emerging professionals, #MCN50 Voices brings members together, old and new, near and far.
Douglas Hegley (L) & Rob Lancefield (R)
A former psychologist and a sometimes-ethnomusicologist walk into an MCN conference-hotel bar.
The former psychologist says, “Hello, how are you today?”
The sometimes-ethnomusicologist answers, “Well, context is everything.”
Psychologist: “Wait, are you saying that before we can attempt to reach conclusions, we need to explore and understand potential underlying forces? And also how meaning itself might be conveyed—and may often be misconstrued—whether by perception or cognition?”
Ethnomusicologist: “You sound like a psychologist! Yes, that makes sense to me. I tend to think first, though, of how useful it can be to explore and try to understand the cultural contexts, and other contextual factors, that affect how people make meaning from their experiences.”
Psychologist: “Ah, yes, context and meaning and experiences—You know, it’s beginning to sound like we should work in museums.”
Ethnomusicologist: “Now you’re playing my tune!”
Okay, so that conversation never actually happened, but anyone who’s met former MCN Presidents Douglas Hegley and Rob Lancefield knows that it could have. Warning: It can be risky to listen in on their often jump-cut conversations, and this installment of #MCN50 Voices is no exception. You never know where it’s going to end up; but if you’re willing to step off that edge for awhile, read on.
Who are these guys and what are they doing in museums?
Douglas: So Rob, let’s start with introductions. Who are you? Where are you? What do you do?
Rob: I’m Rob Lancefield. I lead (and do) digital work at the Davison Art Center, Wesleyan University, where my job titles are Manager of Museum Information Services and Registrar of Collections. The “Manager” role includes designing, implementing, and managing digital services and resources (collections data, images, etc.) in ways that serve our mission. When it comes to people who report to me (mostly grant-funded digitization staff), I think of my role as hiring, training, leading, supporting—not so much “managing” as bringing together a team who can understand what our aims are and how best to accomplish them with my strategic guidance and removal of obstacles. Alongside working with collections data and images, this is one of my favorite roles; and my approach to it is based in part on leadership models I first heard about via MCN. And you, Douglas? I’ll note here that it is most definitely “Douglas,” not “Doug.”
Douglas: Thank you Rob! Yes, because Douglas is a name, and dug is a verb, and one in the past tense at that. But I digress. I’m the Chief Digital Officer at Mia—the Minneapolis Institute of Art—where I’ve been for a little over six years. Before that, I spent fourteen incredible years working at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. At both organizations, I’ve been deeply involved with digital transformation: that is, helping these world-class institutions that are steeped in history and tradition find paths to be even more successful in our current, digital-forward world. It’s been both a great challenge and a highly rewarding experience. Before I got involved with museums, I was on my way to becoming a psychotherapist, so I represent the “former psychologist” in the corny joke above. The truth is that I never actually expected to work in digital technology, let alone museums—and yet somehow in hindsight it all makes sense. I was one of those early adopters when desktop computing came about. I bought one of the first-generation IBM PCs, you know, the ones with no hard drive, just dual floppies. I could see the potential of personal computing to help me and others get things done faster and better. I’ve brought that attitude and spirit to the work I’ve done in museums, along with my commitment to helping people. What about you? Did you see museums on your career track, Rob? How did you get onto this crazy rollercoaster anyway?
Rob: Via what looked like a sidestep and then led to a new professional world! In pre-museum life I was a musician, recording engineer, music copyist/typesetter, photographer—freelance work that often involved both the arts and technology. I went back to school for graduate work in ethnomusicology (the study of music in/as culture), and partway through that I was invited to apply for a museum job. I agonized over a two-year commitment, which now makes me laugh. I’ve worked for 23 years here at Wesleyan University’s Davison Art Center, which has quite a significant collection of more than 25,000 prints and photographs, and where there have always been new things to accomplish as digital tools, platforms, and community practices evolve.
Paths to MCN, trajectories within MCN
Douglas: Let’s move on to the Museum Computer Network. Rob, when did you first encounter MCN, and what is your history with the organization?
Rob: I first heard about MCN in 1995, when I’d been a museum person for just a year, was the only digitally oriented person under our roof, and was starting to design an in-house collection database system (things were different back then, and that was actually our best path at the time, crazy as it sounds now!). With the invaluable support of my supervisor, I made it to San Diego for MCN 1995—where I discovered that I wasn’t doing digital museum work in a vacuum, but could be part of a geographically distributed community of welcoming people working on related things in related ways. “What?! NO WAY! Cool.” It was a wonderful moment. I haven’t missed an MCN conference since.
I was first drawn in behind the scenes as the Standards SIG Chair, when Richard Rinehart was leaving that role and persuaded me to step up. A few years later, having been encouraged by Rick, Susan Patterson, and Sam Quigley to run, I was elected to the Board. That was in 2002, right when it was discovered that MCN was facing an internal existential crisis (now there’s a story for the bar, dear readers). Interesting times. During both of my three-year terms on the Board, I wore too many hats to list, and then was elected President for 2008–2009, just in time to face an external threat: the trough of the Great Recession. While dealing with the day-to-day, I tried to focus my leadership on community, transparency, and sustainability. These three things struck me as key forward-looking values as well as immediately critical factors—along with an extremely smart and dedicated Board, plus the financial reserves we’d built up since 2002—in MCN’s ability to weather the global financial crisis and keep moving forward. So, my Board service was “in with an internal crisis, out with an external one.” Lots of interesting challenges, and MCN continues to thrive and evolve nowadays with successive cohorts of leaders. Hurray!
Setting aside formal roles, though, the real core of my engagement with MCN is the rich web of relationships it’s enabled over more than twenty years, with people I think of as both long-valued colleagues and old friends, and with newly-met fellow MCNers each year. But speaking of old friends: Douglas, did we first meet at MCN 2004 in Minneapolis, long before you moved there?
Douglas: Ironically, yes. That was my first time attending the conference. I had been requesting to go earlier, but my then-boss would not approve my travel. I managed to get to the 2004 conference by convincing that person to come along too. It was a great experience, I was guided by my outstanding colleague Susan Chun, and I got to meet and connect with several people who would have a strong influence on me: you, Sam Quigley, Diane Zorich, Chuck Patch, Len Steinbach, Holly Witchey, Bill Weinstein, Max Anderson, and the list goes on! I have to agree with you that while the content of the conference sessions was informative, what was truly transformative for me was the network of professionals into which I had suddenly tapped. People were smart, supportive, and welcoming. I loved it!
It wasn’t long before I was proposing sessions year after year. One that got accepted and stands out for me took place at the 2006 MCN conference in Pasadena. I gave a presentation on a project that I had co-led, but which had frankly been a failure. The atmosphere of MCN enabled me to talk about getting things wrong; in fact, I believe that talking about failures is in many ways even more important than boasting about successes. If there is one thing that a professional network can really do for anyone, it is to let us know where the land mines are located. Sharing mis-steps and failures helps everyone avoid repeating the same mistakes and wasting time and resources.
Rob: And after you had given a few presentations, we persuaded you to take on an official role with the organization, right?
Douglas: Yes, I was honored and excited to be nominated and then elected by the members to join the MCN Board in the fall of 2008—under your Presidency. Joining the organization in a formal role enabled me not only to benefit from your experience and counsel, but also to really get to know so many of my colleagues. And it all started from just talking together!
Rob: I’m glad I could be useful, and I love those kinds of informal onboarding conversations.
Douglas: Me too. As the years flowed past, it was so helpful to me to establish a rhythm of annual conferences and monthly Board meetings. I haven’t missed an MCN conference in a long time. In 2011, I moved into the role of President, just as you had three years prior—another honor. I endeavored to continue the work of those before me to professionalize and modernize both MCN and our cultural heritage sector. Over those years and since that time, you and I have had many conversations about the history of MCN and the potential futures on the organization’s horizon. I’m curious: How do you think MCN has evolved over the years?
MCN’s evolving scope and influence
Rob: For one thing, based on the long curve of our time with MCN, I’m struck by how less-strictly “technical” topics have come to be an explicit focus of more of our conference program content than they usually were in the past. This underlies some of the growing importance I believe each of us feels MCN has, both as a professional organization and in its wider impact on the field. These topics include strategy, project management, and so on, as well as “soft skills” (I’m not a big fan of that term, but the interpersonal competencies it references are critical), and in the most recent years, diversity, inclusion, social justice, and related topics. Many of the people who do and lead digital work in museums now conceive of what we do as being concerned at least as much with these things as with more stereotypically “techie” stuff like hardware, software, data, media production, and so on. Those things remain essential tools, but they were never the ultimate point, and MCN’s expanding scope reflects that. It’s been a real transformation.
Douglas: I think we’ve seen that MCN—as a professional service organization—has responded to and perhaps even helped to lead that evolution, not just in terms of the focus of the annual conference, but also in providing a professional network for staff who wrestle with these issues on a daily basis.
Rob: Yes. And I know we agree that many of the people who make up the MCN community have been focused on so-called soft skills and social interactions for some time—often not in on-program ways, but in the conversations, connections, and follow-up correspondence that spin off from the conference, year after year after year.
Douglas: Of course you know that my point of view will always focus primarily on people—as a former psychologist, I am a firm believer in what people can accomplish when the circumstances are right. I think you and I have imagined out loud that we could almost see changing the name, from Museum Computer Network to something like Museum Community Network. Of course it’s not the name that really matters, it’s who we are and what we represent that counts.
I think that our community is made up of museum professionals who are generally forward-thinking and proactive. Because of the strength of the interpersonal relationships among those in our network, we know and trust one another. That foundation of trust then allows us to tackle the really hard topics together—whether that’s the challenges of digital or the difficult work of change-writ-large: workplace culture, leadership, inclusion, equity, and the role of museums within the traditionally dominant western culture. I’m not surprised at all that our community is ready and willing to face up to these issues, and probably at a faster pace and earlier moment than many of our home organizations.
Rob: That foundation of trust is essential. And this importance of working environment, of social environment, applies across museums and in professional communities like MCN. In both kinds of organizations, it’s crucial to establish and grow a culture where people can do great things. And in MCN, it’s been wonderful to see discussions of how to foster this, as they expand out from informal conversations to on-program engagement—shepherding these topics out from the shadows of conference-hotel bars and onto the dais. This is especially valuable for newcomers, who may not yet know their fellow conference participants who are having those private conversations, but can easily find and attend a public session as a kind of discovery path. In this and related ways, MCN is helping to advance the broader field of museum practice, and not just in regard to “digital stuff.” This risks sounding a little cheerlead-y, but there’s truth in it.
Douglas: I think we would readily admit that the two of us are big fans of MCN, and that the organization has had a profound impact on us, both professionally and personally. So I’m not surprised that either of us might sound like cheerleaders! As the organization continues to evolve from its focus on deeper technology—after all, MCN was born from techies trying to actually network their respective mainframe computers together—to people and the so-called “soft skills,” it does put MCN at what is perhaps a crossroads or inflection point. Do you think there are any potential downsides to these changes to MCN over time?
Rob: If this were a hard shift away from MCN’s long-time set of technical topics and toward another, it would be—to use the technical term—bad. It’s critically important for MCN to continue to be a place for people whose interests are fundamentally technological, not only people more focused on organizational culture. This core part of the “traditional” MCN crowd brings huge value to our community; and as a key space for those conversations, which help participants advance that work in their home institutions, MCN advances the field in highly important ways. I don’t see this as a hard binary choice, but a valuable kind of expansion—not an “OR,” but an “AND,” like an overlapping Venn diagram, with some MCN topics and community members focused on technical matters and some more on “people matters.” And as each of those discussions plays out, what might seem to be a surprising number of “technical” or “people” topics end up engaging deeply with both.
Douglas: I totally agree. I have always seen technology as foundational—it’s necessary and essential, which makes it important and strategic. But technology itself was never the goal. We use technology to get things done, and for museums that includes running a modern business and delighting customers. I believe it’s important to find a balance—to have enough focus on technology to keep us all on our toes, and to have enough focus on people to support us all in our efforts to make our sector the best one in which to work, for everybody.
Community-building, professional development, mentoring
Rob: Yes. Finding that balance in MCN’s work, and opening paths for people to find their way to their own versions of it, is a big part of how MCN helps the community and the field. People encounter MCN at different points in different career trajectories. Some have a solid technical background but are new to the museum sector (and possibly to nonprofits of any sort), some have worked in museums for years but are suddenly engaging with digital transformation and need more technical knowledge, and some are new to our intersecting professional worlds in both of those ways. Whatever the mix, there are people in MCN who enjoy helping people find their way into that intersection, and helping them gain a sense of balance once they’re there.
Douglas: For me, MCN and its members and leaders have been my most important professional mentors. That mentoring has been informal most of the time, but also formal at times. I’ve been able to approach colleagues and benefit from a one-to-one conversation about my own career and choices I’ve made. I am also serving as an official MCN mentor this year, in the first cohort of that program, so I feel like I’m giving back at least a little. Although I will readily admit that I have learned a lot from my mentee as well. Emerging professionals in our field have much to teach us old dogs—I just hope we can continue to learn.
Leadership and organizational culture
Rob: So, Douglas. One of our favorite hotel-bar topics is teasing out specific aspects of organizational culture and leadership models, often in regard to how they play out in particular moments or patterns of interaction between people who work in museums (no names, no foul!). You’ve been one of the key people who bring leadership models into the MCN community, in presentations as well as off-the-record conversations. I’ve learned a lot about those models from you and from resources you’ve recommended. How do you see them functioning in regard to MCN, in its formal program and otherwise? How are they helping MCN move the field forward?
Douglas: That’s a great question and probably worth another long discussion! This is a favorite topic of mine, so I can go on and on, but let me attempt to summarize a bit. From my perspective, museums grew out of an academic model, more or less. Very hierarchical and siloed. That wasn’t much of a problem for the first several decades of their existence. Perhaps there was a bit of disruption when education became a more central operational goal of museums in the early to mid-20th century, but most museums simply created yet another department and went happily along their siloed way.
I think two things laid the groundwork for challenging that traditional leadership model: digital transformation and changing workforce expectations. Digital was perhaps the first externally driven force that had a significant impact on all of the museum siloes. Museums are still struggling with where to “put” digital, and most tried to make it just another silo—but the very nature of technology has been to permeate every aspect of organizations and institutions. To the second point, the modern-day workforce is very different than its preceding generations. We are all knowledge workers, not drones doing repetitive tasks. And knowledge workers expect—fairly, in my opinion—to have a say in what they are focused on (initiatives) and how they do their work (methods). That attitude requires flatter, non-siloed structures and cross-functional collaboration the likes of which museums have never really seen before. Effective leadership in this environment is fundamentally different—it is no longer about being “in charge” and much more about empowerment and transparency. I see MCN as helping move us all forward in terms of organizational culture, toward lean and agile practices—an evolution that will continue to be a challenge for our sector for the next few years.
Rob: And you do a real service to the field by helping people in the MCN community discover resources for developing as leaders—for example, in this blog post you put together right after MCN 2016. Leadership connects naturally to almost endless topics, but an especially critical one is succession. I know we both think a lot about the long-haul sustainability not only of the digital resources our home institutions create, but also of the organizations we care about the most—including MCN. It’s always interesting to consider how to balance useful continuity, institutional memory, and the value of ongoing service with, to put it plainly, clearing out to make room for new leaders to do their thing and make useful change without feeling constrained by the presence of past leaders. Does this resonate with your continued involvement with MCN?
Douglas: Absolutely. I have tried to position myself as a “contributor,” rather than a “demander.” Does that make sense? I want to be a resource to MCN and to the entire community, but I don’t want to be pushing my agenda, nor do I think that my interests and needs should be something that I expect MCN to satisfy. I would prefer that MCN is a broad and collaborative body, shifting along with the needs of a wide range of people and institutions. So, what does that make me, some kind of “consultant” to MCN? Not exactly. I guess I just want to be a part of it all! Rob, how do you remain involved with MCN—if I recall, you still have official capacities with the organization even now?
Rob: It can be, shall we say, hard to break up! I’ve dialed back my involvement, but that’s a relative thing. I’m always happy to be a governance resource for things like By-Laws revisions. And some time after I left the Board, then-Treasurer Diana Folsom asked me to join the Finance Committee, and that committee has kept me aboard. I love serving on Program Committees, reading some proposals, and being part of collaboratively shaping the conference. And at the pleasure of successive MCN Presidents, year by year I’ve continued to represent MCN on the AAM Council of Affiliates, which has representatives from 27 museum organizations, and which I now chair (as they say, “if you stick around long enough…”). So, yes: eight years out from leading MCN, I’m more enmeshed than I would have foreseen; but I love helping to move our community and our field forward, while—I hope!—not encroaching in any way on space for current leaders to lead. Said an “old-timer” who’s still always on call when asked.
What now? What next?
Douglas: Isn’t it interesting to have become old-timers in MCN? It’s funny how I don’t think of myself as wizened or graying, yet I suppose both are now true! You might laugh at me, but as I’ve been thinking about my own future at MCN I’m already putting consideration into how much to step away and let others lead—I’m thinking of Shakespeare:
“More light, you knaves, and turn the tables up;
And quench the fire, the room is grown too hot.
Ah, sirrah, this unlook’d-for sport comes well.
Nay, sit, nay, sit, good cousin Capulet,
For you and I are past our dancing days.”
(Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, scene 5)
What do you say Rob, are our dancing days coming to a close?
Rob: I’d say “not yet,” but we’re also both listening and watching and trying not to step on toes or crowd the floor. If it doesn’t belabor the metaphor, sometimes the most rewarding experience is to watch a crew of more recently arrived friends take the floor and lead things in new directions, knowing that we have their backs if and as that may be useful. Corny? Maybe so, but true. And PS: I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing with you—at both of us. In a good way.
Addendum: Things we could have discussed, but we just ran out of time