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.
This conversation between Paige Dansinger, Founding Director of Better World Museum, and Suse Anderson, Assistant Professor, Museum Studies at George Washington University, explores the role of insider/outsiders in the MCN community.
Suse Anderson and Paige Dansinger
Suse Anderson: Paige, hello! It is so great to join you for this MCN Voices conversation to mark fifty years of MCN. Let’s start with a super simple question: when did you attend your first MCN conference? How did you end up there?
Paige Dansinger: Suse, hello! How fun, thank you. MCN 2012 (Seattle) was the first event that exposed me to other museum professionals working with creative tech. It was also the first time that I used the iPad to draw presenters, as well as the mock-trial with Google Art. I tweeted the drawings in live time and found it was a good way to meet new people & make friends. I was using an html-drawing program I had just designed to draw images of art history inspired by the game Draw Something, which I was using to draw art history. Today I have drawn over 3000 MuseumDraw images from art history on my mobile, and currently draw cultural heritage sites and art history in museums using TiltBrush to create collections in Virtual Reality.
Before attending MCN, I had worked at MInneapolis Institute of the Arts (2005–12) as an art history graduate student curatorial intern in Decorative Arts/Gallery of Jewish Art & Culture, a volunteer assistant to the Main Registrar of Collections, and then as an educator in Public Programs. I had bold ideas about using technology and was not able to find the peer support that I was seeking during the early days of museum tech adaptation. I took a risk and stepped aside from the museum to devote my time to using mobile tech in creative ways.
By joining MCN, I discovered a new, like-minded, museum community that I hoped would let me find some professional encouragement and acceptance, a tribe, a sense of place, and work opportunities where I might develop new technology and use more creative ideas. It has been all that and more in many ways. Along the way, I’ve also learned that sometimes success can look like failure, and perhaps they are interdependent, but more on this later…
Suse, how did you find MCN, and when was your first conference?
Suse: Finding MCN was mostly a happy accident. In 2011, I attended my first Museums and the Web conference. I’d never been to a conference before, and made the mistake of staying some blocks from the conference hotel. With slim chances of meeting people organically, I started following the conference hashtag on Twitter, and noticed that a few people were going to drinks sponsored by the “Museum Computer Network”. I didn’t know what that meant, but hoped that no one would turn me away if I rocked up. And of course, no one did. Many of the people I met that night—like Liz Neely and nikhil trivedi—continue to be valued collaborators and friends.
MCN was soon to become a much bigger influence in my life. Following an unconference session at MW2011, Koven Smith asked me to join a panel he was putting together for MCN2011 in Atlanta examining the point of museum websites. I had no funding, and no obvious way to attend, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to participate, so I said yes, and decided to figure out the “how” later. I concurrently applied for a conference scholarship and a quick response grant from my local government in New South Wales, Australia, and was lucky enough to receive both. That started my relationship with MCN, which has continued to develop in ways I could not have imagined. In 2012–14, I was a member of the conference Program Committee, stepping up to Co-Chair for 2015-16. In 2013, Jeffrey Inscho and I recorded a series of live Museopunks podcast episodes at MCN in Montreal. In 2016, I joined the MCN Board. This year, I’m Vice-President/President-Elect of the organisation. It’s incredible to look back to my first MCN, only six years ago, and think about the impact that the organization has had on my professional development—and my life. I was so new to the museum sector when I first attended the conference, I didn’t imagine that involvement in the #musetech community could take me down a route that would bring me to live in the USA, and change so much of my life. The opportunities I’ve had to develop my thinking and skills through MCN and its community have been irreplaceable.
I’m intrigued by your closing comment, about how sometimes success has looked like failure. What do you mean by that?
Paige: Wow, Suse, I am so impressed and inspired with your journey. This organization has been fantastically important and helpful to me too along the way. I want to thank a long list of MCN members and institutions that have supported my MuseumDraw activities as One-Day Digital Artist Residencies over Twitter and Periscope, to being a live special guest to draw, present, and teach at many museums – all of which I feel so thankful for!
I recently founded Better World Museum in a old, deserted shopping mall-turned corporate headquarters. It’s not a place where people are seeking culture. I’m working on learning to be relevant to this non-traditional museum audience and learn financial sustainability. With Don Undeen’s help, during #MCN2014 in Minneapolis, I held an UnConference called Museum in a Mall?
(Suse, you actually came to the space for the MCN After-Party when it was new and first called Mpls Center for Digital Art. Now it’s located in a new space downstairs with the new name.)
Founding a museum is going OK… Audiences are participating, community partnerships are flowing, and the work that happens there is is more relevant to immediate, local, and global audiences daily. Visitors participate in painting, creating digital art, or drawing in VR. Our current focus is the Garden One Project–an Edible Indoor Public Garden Lab–plus a VR Garden ReMix in TiltBrush, and Public Garden Mural Walls for public participatory painting available at the museum at all times. I risked welcoming a 12 year old to be Director of Sciences, the subject of my case study at MCN2017.
I really do love what I do… However, although I am facilitating participatory public art and creating community partnerships, it can be very isolating. I feel like I am on the outside, because I’m working so hard at many things at once, not in any specific institution, and doing things in this art-space that’s in an often desolate mall… I sometimes wonder what I’m doing: How will I support myself and make this work? Am I just isolating myself in an selfish art bubble or really doing something that is making a better community, or larger change? Will I be able to work with museums locally and globally to create and share meaningful art and museum experiences by trying new things and taking risks with creative technology and participatory public art?
Vulnerable questions can be helpful because I am forced to innovate how I am to solve, answer, or confront each issue and learn to rise stronger from each challenge. Funding would completely help, as lack of it is the only time I feel like a failure. As a result, I often wake up and apply for “real jobs in real museums”…and then I remember that I have one, and it is real, and then I get back to my work.
Suse: Wow, Paige. It is humbling to hear about your journey to create a museum for a better world. What do you think you’ve learned about other aspects of museum practice from creating your own private museum? I’m sure some of the concerns you’ve got are quite different, but other aspects, like how to be meaningful in someone’s day, ring true to some of the challenges of other types of museums.
Do you think that the need for connection and community is a big part of the reason why MCN continues to be so valuable for you? Is that what keeps you coming back? And what do you think the role at MCN is for outliers, outsiders, and other atypical museum professionals? I have my own suspicions that outsiders have an important role to play in reflecting back on the sector with an informed distance, but I’d love to hear what you think.
Paige: Suse, I can’t speak for all others, but I think the important role of outliers, outsiders, and other atypical museum professionals is to be risk-takers that push new models of museums—
fearlessly experimenting with new technology, creating new types of practice and leadership; the connection-makers in the crossroads, bringing together diverse, underserved, local artists’ voices; and the rainbow-bridge builders making pathways for the public to participate and feel included in communities. Outliers have pioneer spirits, living in a do-or-die mode where any idea may be scrapped or passionately followed with little damage to others, or the time larger institutions often require, As an outlier, there is nobody to say NO, or question one’s perceived good ideas. Unchallenged, they evolve dependant on public response. Ideas must are relevant or they die. Failure must be welcomed as a best friend of the outlier, because it is consistently there pushing for a better outcome.
I don’t know if Better World Museum will be a sustainable place or live as a temporary pop-up, or morph into a Virtual Reality Museum. I do know that the more partnerships, artists, and new voices welcomed creates more opportunities to make what is meaningful for one, possibly into meaning for thousands, potentially millions and that is why outliers, others, and atypical museum professionals, have an important role from outside the traditional box.
Suse, do you see new models in academia for outliers, others, and atypical museum scholarship, and educational exploration forming which depart from traditional models? Is technology helping those new models impact larger audiences?
Suse: I think that there is always the possibility for new models, although, like museums, traditional structures in academia can be constraining. When new models do emerge, it’s not necessarily going to be from individuals, but in response to new needs, the affordances of technologies, and new economic, social, and political conditions. That said, while there will always be space for alternate types of scholarship and education, there is also a place for those established institutions that give structure to the perpetuation of knowledge and culture. As much as I like to question and think critically about museums, I believe in them, too. There is just as much a place for the behemoth on the hill, filled with precious objects, as there is for the Better World Museum, seeking to make a connection with people in an old deserted mall.
I’ve found that I can do more for or within the museum sector by standing on its edges, and lovingly poking at it than I can when I’m deeply immersed in a single institution. I think that’s true of many of those who are part of the MCN community, but not museum professionals in the sense of working in and for a specific museum. The broader museum ecosystem is made up of so many types of constituents–from the consultants who work with multiple institutions to the academics who study museums, from the vendors who try to solve problems through the creation of museum-centric products to the students who are asking important questions–and each of these people has a role to play in making a robust sector. Without these insider/outsiders, we’d lose a valuable mechanism for looking back in at ourselves, and considering questions from multiple angles. But vice versa, without those who work solidly and consistently within these great institutions, there would be no one committed to the hard work done of making something wonderful from within, and no one developing the expertise specific to a particular institution or collection that pushes boundaries. I think that’s why I continue to find a sense of professional identity from involvement with MCN. It is a space where people from across the spectrum of museums (and interest in digital and/or progressive practice) meet. And that’s a pretty great place to be.
Here’s to the next fifty years! Happy birthday, MCN.