Professional development in museums

Note: This is a revision of an earlier version of this post.

As an adjunct professor in John F. Kennedy University’s graduate program in museum studies, professional development is frequently at the front of my mind.

By “professional development,” I mean helping students and emerging museum professionals become more thoughtful museum thinkers and makers. I’m talking about learning to think more critically and creatively about both one’s niche within the museum world and the larger system of the museum (or museums). Much of the writing on museum theory and practice can contribute, of course, to professional development, but no number of how-to articles or books contextualizing contemporary museum exhibitions and programming is sufficient in itself.

The difference between learning how to do something in a museum context and developing oneself professionally within the museum field is frequently vast. It’s the difference between reading an article on how to grow tomatoes (and subsequently planting tomatoes) and reading a book like Food Not Lawns and planning a suburban or urban garden that recycles resources via a system of ponds, swales, compost heaps, and seed preservation.

The most effective professional development takes place within systems and networks.  In my experience, the best professional development frequently happens spontaneously, in the form of “a learning community assembling itself on the fly.” I borrow this phrase from Gardner Campbell’s talk for the University Continuing Education Association’s 2009 conference.  Campbell emphasized the importance of catching a thought and pushing it along via conversations and networks–in Gardner’s example, by tweeting  and retweeting on Twitter. “It’s a very playful way to interact,” Campbell said. “It’s purposeful, too. And you can’t control it. You shouldn’t try to shape it too narrowly. There are other things we can do for that. The term paper is not going away. The research project is not going away. . . Pushing the thought along actually lends a kind of vividness, a kind of energy, a sense of shared purpose to whatever you’re doing in a learning situation. It’s quite remarkable.”

I’m a bit embarrassed that I haven’t directly addressed this topic in previously in a blog post. I spend 40+ hours a week in the University of California, Davis, teaching center, trying to get faculty to be, in my mentor Jon Wagner’s phrase, more thoughtful about teaching undergraduates. I also help graduate students be more effective instructors, and I’ve founded a professional development consultancy. In short: I “do” professional development. I also teach museum studies graduate students, inculcating them into the field via an introductory history and theory seminar and by overseeing their master’s theses. I have quite a bit of experience and expertise in what works and what doesn’t in professional development in academic and nonprofit contexts; I’ve just never synthesized those experiences in writing.

In this post, I’m going to look at some best practices in professional development as well as look at the learning communities that are sprouting organically or intentionally from various social media platforms.  By looking at these phenomena, I’m confident we can plot a more deliberate course–and yet one customized for each individual–for the professional development of our students, our colleagues, and ourselves.

Seven best practices in professional development

1. Professional development must be anchored to learning objectives.  Professional development is not about “training” or just being polished and well-informed.  A professional within the museum field is someone who can demonstrate knowledge of the field, yes, but also someone who is an experienced and open-minded learner, someone who

  • cultivates broad networks within and across institutions,
  • communicates well verbally or in writing,
  • is a savvy and generous collaborator,
  • exhibits an extraordinary degree of resourcefulness, and
  • balances critical and creative thinking.

The challenge comes when we try to specify the desired outcomes of these objectives, when we translate them into behavioral objectives on a professional development plan.  These behavioral objectives will vary depending on the individual’s interests, institutional needs, and the size, focus, and scope of the museum.

For example, specific and measurable learning objectives in a year-long professional development plan as stated by an emerging museum professional who is in education at a small textiles museum but who has an interest in moving into curation at some point in the future might include:

  • Determine which research emphases textiles are in demand (either at her museum or in the field more broadly), pick one, and read at least six books and exhibition catalogs, as well as multiple recent journal articles, on those textiles and the cultures producing them.
  • Contact relevant journal editors and volunteer to write reviews of recent books of interest.
  • Establish a collegial, and preferably a mentoring, relationship with an expert textile cleaner or restorer.
  • Start a blog that educates laypeople about specific textiles’ origins, significance, and/or conservation.  Curate a resource page of links to, and a bibliography of, materials on the subject.
  • Attend a museum conference that textiles specialists are likely to attend.
  • Join relevant associations or research groups in the museum field or textile industry.
  • Research undergraduate courses and/or graduate programs that offer hands-on experience with textiles.

2. Conversations are essential to professional development. If you’re working at a small museum, you may find yourself without many people to talk to about what you’re working on. So, for example, if you’re a museum educator who is looking to find more thoughtful methods to interpret a new exhibition, you should be talking to someone who has interpreted an exhibit in a way that intrigued or inspired you, and engaging with the teachers who will be bringing their students to the museum. These aren’t just sound practices in exhibition interpretation; they’re opportunities for you to learn more about what’s going on in other museums and what teachers feel their students aren’t able to get from a traditional classroom experience.

3. Effective professional development stimulates more creative and critical thinking
.  By critical thinking, I mean analytical thinking, the ability to break down a scenario or information into its constituent parts and immerse oneself in studying and critiquing the details. By creative thinking, I mean synthesizing information from diverse sources to create something new and interesting. That means, of course, that the best professional development opportunities offer specific case studies for participants to study and address as well as particular problems for them to solve.

4. Professional development allows individuals to create their own networks by introducing them to network nodes in their areas of interest.  A node is someone who is well-connected in their field or across disciplines or genres of museum participation. We all know people like this in our own workplaces, the people with 500 Facebook friends or 2,000 authentic followers on Twitter. These nodes draw on the expertise of their networks with a simple query via Twitter, blog, or e-mail, and connect individuals with one another.

5. The best professional development has both online and face-to-face components. Professional development is local and national and international. Museums should pool resources and collaborate with other institutions in their region for the mutual improvement of their staff members. We see this beginning to happen with the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership’s formation of the Balboa Park Learning Institute. Here’s a description of the project from the IMLS website:

The Balboa Park Cultural Partnership, a collaborative organization comprising 24 diverse museums and cultural institutions in San Diego, will establish the Balboa Park Learning Institute (BPLI).  Over the three year project period, BPLI will design a professional development program targeted to the 2,500 professional staff members, 500 trustees, and 7,000 volunteer staff members in the park’s museums.  As BPLI expands, the classes will be made available to museum colleagues and volunteers outside the park. BPLI will develop and present 66 workshops to build knowledge and skills in core museum competencies. Professional evaluation and assessment throughout the
project will prioritize learning needs and refine program delivery techniques. Three symposia will also be offered, bringing together
staff and volunteers from park institutions and beyond to learn about and discuss best practices in museum management and leadership.

Workshops and symposia should emphasize not just content coverage but conversations and connection. These connections and conversations can continue in an online forum, either one specifically set up to further the conversations started at the specific event or a more common tool like Twitter or Flickr.

The platform you choose is important. For example, in my experience, people aren’t going to contribute to a wiki set up for a one-time event, but they might visit a site that aggregates filtered content from their individual Twitter streams or blog feeds. (Select and promote a hashtag (e.g. #aam09) that people can use in their tweets or a tag to use in Flickr and on blogs.) If you have an ongoing project, a group blog or wiki (see, for example, the Smithsonian’s Web and New Media Strategy wiki) might be a better place for everyone to contribute. Or, you might partner with a forum like Museum Professionals to expand the learning that takes place at your professional development events beyond your institution(s) and encourage your participants to engage with professionals from outside your institution.

6. Professional development should be viral.
In addition to finding a space for conversations to take place via forums, photo streams, or microblogging, arange in advance with museum blogs to have your staff write about your professional development event in guest posts on others’ blogs. In this way diverse but informed voices can join the conversation.

Similarly, if you missed a conference–say, the American Association of Museums conference or Museums and the Web–be sure to search Twitter for the appropriate hashtag, for example the 2009 AAM hashtag, #aam09. In such conference microblogging streams, you’ll find a wealth of information about what’s going on at the conference, links to conference content, and discussions taking place among attendees–which you should feel free to join in, even if you aren’t at the conference. Many times I’ve been at conferences where the conversations were enriched by people “attending” remotely via Twitter.

7. The best professional development makes space for evaluation. Let’s look back at our hypothetical emerging museum textiles professional in #1.  How shall we go about evaluating the professional’s success in meeting her objectives?  Measuring collegiality, for example, is difficult.  This is a huge topic to address here, but you can expect to see it addressed in a future log post or in one of my museum professional development newsletters.

Ready for more professional development recommendations? Part II of this post, which will focus on social media, is coming soon.

Welcome to the Museum Women’s Blogosphere

(Cross-posted at BlogHer)

In recent years many museums have begun to emerge from their longtime stodginess in favor of exhibits and activities that appeal to, well, people. In the 1960s and 1970s, museums embraced more interactive exhibits–inspired, no doubt, by the success of Charles and Ray Eames’s exhibit Mathematica, which brought complex math to the masses (although not without, I noticed on my last visit to the exhibit, at least one sexist joke in the labels).

Institutions like The Exploratorium and the California Museum of Science and Industry (now the California Science Center) extended this mission with more manipulatives. Parents and kids alike enjoyed their romps through the galleries.

Fast forward to the present. Museums are embracing the Web, and now you can watch webcasts of Iron Science Teacher, go behind the scenes with the Smithsonian’s Office of Exhibits Central blog, and learn about art from the assiduously edited Eye Level, the blog of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Museum employees and aficionados are jumping into the blogosphere as well, championed in no small way by Jim Spadaccini of Ideum. Women make up a large portion of this corner of the blogosphere. It’s no wonder–women have long been the forces driving education (in art, history, and–yes–especially science) in museums, and the museum professional blogosphere is very much about sharing ideas and learning from one another.

Here’s a sampling of the best:

The Museum Detective writes about museums and interviews fascinating museum people. Don’t miss her series of blog posts on museum women (a topic so near and dear to my heart I wrote my dissertation on it).

Sheila Brennan’s blog Relaxing on the Trail also provides excellent insights into museums and collecting. I especially enjoyed her recent post on women stamp collectors.

Mª Soledad Gómez Vílchez blogs (in Spanish) at MediaMusea about the possibilities Web 2.0 holds for the cultural sector. For those who aren’t fluent in Spanish, the blogger kindly includes an “automatic translation” link to an English version.

If you read Portuguese (or have a good translation program), you should check out Ana Carvalho’s blog No Mundo Dos Museus, where Carvalho blogs about a wide range of museum topics, including conservation, exhibition documentation, registration, education, management, marketing, and tangible and intangible patrimony. She invites everyone to join in the discussion.

Among my favorite museum blogs is Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0, which addresses quite a few different topics, among them games and books, but which focuses on the ways Web 2.0 philosophies might play out in physical museums.

Into art? Visit e-artcasting. This Spanish/English blog “is a non-profit research project on sociable technologies in art museums from all over the World.”

Don’t miss Lynn Bethke’s chatty and irreverent–but still thoughtful–blog Im in Ur Museum Blogz (Readin’ n Analyzin’).

I also enjoy reading Le carnet d’Ana, which is in–you guessed it–French. I find especially insightful her posts on museums and the web.

Don’t let the fact that you’re not multilingual limit your exploration of this corner of the blogosphere. My experience in the museum blogosphere as a mostly monolingual American has been very reasonable, as most of these bloggers have been able to read and respond to my comments left in English.

Web 2.0 and Museums, from Museums and the Web

Just catching up on my Museums & the Web notes. . . Please forgive the bullets. My comments are in italics.

This session was a study in vast contrasts. I completely understand each institution’s approach to Web 2.0 technologies, but I must say the Smithsonian approach, while it may produce quality content, does not strike me as really being in the spirit of true blogging, as it lacks spontaneity and a clear personality driving it, and all comments are moderated. I’m all for team blogging, but blogging by committee disconcerts me. So while the quality of Eye Level is quite high, after seeing how it’s published, I’m not entirely convinced it’s a true blog. What defines blogging, after all–the process, the form, or both?

“New World Blogging within a Traditional Museum Setting”
Jeff Gates, Smithsonian American Art Museum

  • desired accelerated production of content
  • Q: how much time would the project take from offices outside of information services?

Goal: Engage new audiences in a dialogue about the museum’s art. Wanted to connect the museum’s Web offerings with about-to-be-reopened galleries.

The blog has continuous and searchable content aimed at multiple audiences. A long tail approach. Aimed especially at young people. Desire to cultivate new audiences pre-reopening of the museum, highlight assets of the museum with high impact at a low cost. Would highlight other programs and promote community involvement.

Chief curator Eleanor Harvey involved with blog topics.

All departments very busy pre-reopening. Blog needed to be sustained with very little help from elsewhere in the museum.

They published Eye Level internally until everyone on staff was comfortable with format and concept. This helped to overcome early skepticism.


  • propose blog post
  • writeboard
  • discussion by blog team
  • rewrite if necessary
  • editing by publications
  • final approval
  • publication

Timely posts get priority.

Roles and responsibilities clearly defined for each team member. Gates is managing editor.

Initial goal: 2 posts/wk. Exceeded this goal in the first year.

Early concern: prepare for controvery

Comments are moderateed. They have developed a comments policy and are fine-tuning it.

Long term goal: Develop new story ideas.
Long term concern: Balance PR needs with good content. Eye Level is not perceived by audiences as merely a PR tool. Audiences would lose interest if that were the case.

Museum wanted to join in blogging networks, not just reach general public. 127,000 visitors to Eye Level in the first year.

Advice: Move slowly, adjust continually to monitor progress and ensure success.

Eye Level: a case study for being “both a disrupter and a diplomat” (quoting Bill Taylor, editor of Fast Company magazine)

Building an On-line Community at the Brooklyn Museum
Nicole J. Caruth and Shelley Bernstein

A very inspiring presentation!

Visitor-created content:

  • portrait photos of visitors in Sargent exhibition
  • visual/prose fragments in “brooklyn poem”
  • graffiti walls for visitors to tag in an exhibit about graffiti art—with an accompanying Flickr page and online “tagging wall” (whiteboard) for web visitors to contribute

The museum used Flickr to collect existing images of graffiti in Brooklyn neighborhoods.

Brooklyn Museum website has a community page with links to MySpace, Flickr, RSS, videos, podcasts, blogs, comment pages linked from exhibitions pages.

The Brooklyn museum doesn’t distinguish between/prioritize physical, web, or web 2.0 visitors. Wants to provide equal access for all.

Flickr pool: Brooklyn Bridge photos and art

Visitors in a web 2.0 space expect you to be there as often as they are. So:

  • respond to comments
  • post interesting content—marketing should be secondary
  • web visitors tend to moderate themselves
  • no comment moderation except for spam filter
  • invite current Flickr users to join new museum Flickr pools/groups

Flickr lets users leave testimonials. Some great (and positive!) feedback left there.

Q: Does using Flickr and MySpace cause brand confusion?
A: Most traditional visitors to website are not going to Flickr pool. It’s mostly for Flickr users who understand what the museum is doing.

Flickr is now one of the museum’s top referrers back to the museum website.

When using Flickr, be sure to provide a link back to the exhibition page.

Stop thinking, start doing: addressing barriers to web 2.0
Mike Ellis, The Science Museum, London
Brian Kelly, UKOLN, University of Bath


  • have good content and willingness to get it out there
  • are holders of lots of niche stuff: the long tail is ours!
  • have a long history of wanting users to really engage. “We’re the custodians of the long tail.”

Barriers to participation:

  • museum treacle
  • We’re quite bad at change and this is a big one.
  • We feel a need to “protect” our audiences.

Barrier #1: Why bother? Our users don’t care.
Reply: These are new audiences, new environments. Surveying current users of the museum about web 2.0 won’t work–because the point is to draw new audiences.

Barrier #2: Cultural and political stuff. Brand? Dumbing down? Reputation? “We’ve never done it like that before.”
Reply: But users understand. Effective design distinguishes “our” from “theirs.” Our repuation is at stake it we don’t participate in web 2.0.

Barrier #3: Technical. No expertise, untested. What if Yahoo! servers go down?
Reply: Identify enthusiasts and early adopters in the organization. Your servers are probably less reliable than major web portal’s. Make your tools small scale and free to minimize resource costs. The API approach to development is the future: insist on it! Manage risks, learn from mistakes (they may not happen). Build prototypes quickly, have plan for migration.

Barrier #4: Resources and cost. “We’ll need to moderate, and it’ll take an entire team working full time.” “This kit looks expensive.”
Reply: It doesn’t require as many resources as you think. We’ll-designed systems save huge amounts of time. Raising barriers to entry is extremely effective (e.g. low barrier, such as requiring an e-mail address to comment, works well). Users are (usually) pretty sensible. Plus a lot of this stuff is free—and hosted!

Barrier #5: Content, legality, context. “You just want to give it away?”
Reply: Deal early with funders and other stakeholders. People are already using your content in strange and unusual ways. If you want traffic, encourage people to “borrow” your content.

Intellectual property rights landscape is constantly changing.

Start doing: We must continue to pioneer. Funding follows “significant social movement.” If we don’t fill this space, someone else will. We need to get better at sharing our experiences.