Do museum staff have the right to be offline?

Posted on April 24, 2012

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There have been a number of interesting and important discussions taking place around the ‘Net in the follow up to Museum and the Web, and hopefully over the coming week or two we’ll get to explore a few of them. One post that I keep coming back to, however, is Koven Smith’s Leave tech in the conversation, in which he writes:

Technology (or, as I’ve said before, the set of practices and materials we currently define as “technology”) is the lingua franca of the world in which we now live. Museums resist acknowledging this at their peril. Any moment in which a curator/educator/director/CFO/whomever is allowed to continue to be ignorant of how a given pervasive technology works is just pushing your institution’s adaptation further down that timeline. Any method of working in which ignorance is allowed to persist is one that is, frankly, suicidal for institutions that are trying to figure out what their place is in this new world.

Not long after reading Koven’s post, I came across a post by Kate Carruthers, meditating on organisational changes surrounding technology, in which she asks about workers and their right to be offline in the new technological environment. It is with this question in mind that I want to address Koven’s post.

If we accept Koven’s proposition that technology is the lingua franca of the world in which we now live, and that a failure to accept this and act accordingly is suicidal, two questions emerge. The first is about institutions and whether they have the right to be offline. For me, this seems pretty clear cut. Not every institution in the world needs to be, or even should be, online. Small, specialist (volunteer-run) museums with a limited and clearly defined local audience may gain little-to-nothing from being online. For some of these museums, the cost in resources to be online will be far more than the benefit of doing so… joining a project like the Museum Metadata Exchange might be enough to satisfy the urge to digitally document the museum’s collection. The choice not to be online might threaten the longevity of that institution, but in some cases that might be ok and even appropriate (do all museums have the right or need to live on indefinitely?).*

But what about the people who work within institutions? Do museum employees have a right to be offline? Can they refuse to participate in an institution’s online engagement? Should they be able to? In Carruther’s case, she was thinking through the implications of our 24×7 social media culture, but I wonder if the question doesn’t extend beyond this into issues of digital engagement more generally. Can a curator refuse to participate in blogging? Can someone who has chosen not to participate in social media in their personal life similarly opt-out at work? Conversely, can an institution force someone to start a social media account if they have chosen not to do so previously for personal reasons?

Vickie Riley, a commenter on Koven’s post, writes:

I don’t know how it works in other museums but in mine, the curator calls the shots. I don’t. For me to expect that he’s going to embrace what I do is a bit naive.

I genuinely don’t know what I think about this. On one hand, if (for instance) a museum educator’s job description did not explicitly indicate that they would need to hold or develop digital skills, then surely they are absolutely at liberty to refuse to do online work (maybe by passing it off to another staff member?). But equally, the context of museum work has changed and is changing. Failure to engage online can impact not only the individual and their own career prospects, but also the museum’s ability to innovate and stay relevant online, and therefore an individual’s refusal to take part in online engagement could have greater implications than simply the personal. So, do museum employees have the right to be offline?

In the comments of Koven’s post, he writes:

…a big part of the problem is that many museum position descriptions haven’t evolved with the times. There are exceptions to this, obviously, but I can’t think of many curatorial job postings that begin with “please send a resume and link to your personal blog.” I fear that until this changes, we continue to send the signal that it’s okay to not speak this language.

This seems to be at the crux of the issue. As noted in the 2010 NCM Horizon Report – Museum Edition, audience expectations of museums online are changing, particularly with regard to “online access to services and information.” In the musetech world, too, our expectations of other staff and the way they should be engaging are also changing. But these desires are not necessarily being reflected in institutional position descriptions. And if those job descriptions are not specifically asking for applicants to be digitally competent, is it fair for those of us working in museum technology to expect that they will take on such duties? Realistically, it’s probably not. But how do we move forward from this?

Do you think that museum staff whose job descriptions did not specifically call for digital skills should have the right to stay offline? Have digital competencies started to become a core requirement of jobs at your institution? Do you think they should be? For which positions?

*(nb, I wonder whether this becomes any less clear cut if the question is whether public institutions have the right to be offline?)