When I was traveling back from the ICOM conference in Milan to Germany through the majestic landscape of the Alps I made an observation: While I was able to admire the calm beauty of the mountains with mansions and small farm houses I was unable to capture this silent beauty on camera. My camera, doing what it is specialized to do, captured everything that was there, including the shrubbery close to the train tracks that at times blocked the view of the landscape. I must admit that I wasn’t really aware of this shrubbery before I tried to capture the mountain view on camera.
It occurred to me that this observation in many ways reflected some of my thoughts and concerns with the large ICOM conference in Milano. There were over 40 specialized working groups, including my own, CIDOC. There were the specialists for textile collections, the specialists for glass museums, the specialists for money museums,… I know this specialization is really helpful to discuss the special issues that arise with special collections and special tasks in the museum and I love those conferences where I meet fellow specialists to swap ideas and horror stories. However, in the context of this meeting, it felt odd. Here, where all the specialists were together, there would have been room to discuss across professions about the big picture, about issues and challenges that might need a broader approach across professions. Instead, each specialized group clogged together to do their own thing. Each kept focusing on the shrubbery before their eyes instead of seeing the mountains.
Maybe it bothered me because the CIDOC group is the one that was initialized in the 1950’s to care for everything concerning information in museums. So, a rather broad approach was intended, which resounds well with the fact that documentalists and registrars are often the information hub in their institutions. Improving work-flow and gathering, structuring and providing all kinds of knowledge is natural to us. However, there we are, sitting and discussing specialized documentation frameworks and definitions while next door specialists in collections management, education or small museum administration struggle with issues we don’t know of – and where we might have ideas on how to help. On the other hand, the fresh pairs of eyes from colleagues outside our own profession could help us see if we still have the right focus on what we do or if we are missing important developments. As specialists we, like the camera, are probably focusing automatically on the shrubbery right before our eyes. However, unlike the camera, as human beings we are able to refocus on things that are farther away – but we might need someone who points us to the mountains and all the other details that are in the distance.
I wish we could have more discussions at these conferences about the most pressing issues of each profession. I know that some working groups with closely related topics are already doing this, but I’m thinking of a broader collaboration. I was glad to have the chance to talk with quite a few colleagues outside my own profession (I was especially glad to meet Linda Norris from the Uncataloged Museum in person!) and so many issues needing a common approach arose that I will touch just a few to provoke your own thoughts:
When educators are thinking about how to tell difficult stories let us think about how we can retrieve information to help them in our databases. If museums are places that focused for too long on just a small well-off part of society, chances are that our documentation is equally biased – we need help to develop methodologies to improve it. If part of our history is vanishing because we only have it on magnetic tape let us think about how we can save it – not as a task for specialized conservators but as a common task for all to think about which information should be saved first and how we can make sure that we focus on long-term stability in saving our data in the future. If Social Media has become an important branch of interaction with our communities – how can we document and use this input and how can we provide information in a way that our community can find and use it?
Let us think about how we can foster more exchange across professions – at the large conferences as well as in our own institutions.