Interview with Larry Johnson on the Horizon Report 2012 Museum Edition

For ten years the New Media Consortium (“an international not-for-profit consortium dedicated to the exploration and use of new media and new technologies”) prepares a handy guide to the role of digital media and learning. Recently they have begun to dig deeper into specific communities, museums just being one of the latest. Released last month, the 2012 Horizon Report, the museum edition, followed the formats of the others: six technologies described, two expected to rise to prominence in the next year, two more within two to three years, and two final ones within four to five years. 

This year they identified mobile apps and social media as crucial for museums in 2012, augmented reality and open content in 2013 and 2014, and the Internet of Things and natural user interfaces for 2015 and beyond. The report describes these six as well as the top six emerging technology topics, followed by key trends and critical challenges. The report is introduced in this nifty video offering:

Today I invited the project’s founder and NMC’s CEO Dr. Larry Johnson to talk with us about their latest findings:

Barry: Hi Larry. Remember back in January 2006, when we first took a walk together in the virtual world of Second Life? Can you believe that was seven years ago? From your vantage point, how has the landscape of digital media and learning changed since then?

Larry: Those were heady days, when so much seemed possible with virtual worlds.  I miss all that energy in a way, but today there is a new crackle of energy, and the landscape has moved on from the notion of alternative 3D worlds to 3D printers, wearable technology, and mobile everything.  In a way, the technology has escaped the box we used to keep it in, and now is everywhere we look, even everywhere we touch.

I think the biggest difference is that our very notion of what constitutes a computer is shifting fundamentally, from something we sit in front of to something we carry, that is always with us.  We don’t have to go anywhere to plug into our social networks, they are always with us — and the network that makes it all work is largely invisible. We don’t “log on” to the Internet anymore — we just get what we need from it, in real time, almost without thinking.

Barry: So let’s turn to the report. Why did NMC start producing reports specifically on museums and how do the results of the new one differ from the first?

Larry:  We have seen a sea change in how museums approach technology since the first report came out in 2010. The technologies that were interesting then overlap in significant ways with the third musuem-specific report published in 2012. Four of the six technologies listed in the 2010 report were in some fashion in the 2012 report again, but for different reasons.  A big piece of this has been in the integration of social media with mobile devices, and how that has changed the ways we communicate and share.  The ways many museums, especially larger museums, are thinking about their audiences, their visitors, their donors — indeed all their many constituencies, is very much straining to keep up with the shifts in focus.

Barry: What do you think a museum today needs to do to stay relevant in the digital age? What sort of issues does the report identify?

Larry:   To pick just one example, a key shift in the last three years has been the ways in which an institution needs to structure its online presence.  Web is no longer enough — museum audiences also expect to engage in Facebook, Twitter, via online video, increasingly in resources like iTunesU.  Year upon year, the trend has been to diversify and tailor communications to where people are on the network.  A comprehensive digital strategy has become a critically important part of institutional effectiveness and sustainability.

Barry: Digital strategies are important, but some like Jasper Visser raise concerns about whether those will lead to or stymie innovation. He has said “most visionary ideas … were epiphanies under pressure, not the outcome of our structured process.” He wants to bring radical innovation into museums, but is concerned that bureaucratic committees processes will quash that. In developing the report did you learn anything about how museums are threading that needle?

I am not sure I share his full perspective, and offer the iPhone and indeed mobile phones in general as examples. But I do very much agree that inertia tends to make us less innovative, and we are more likely to come up with incremental ideas than revolutionary ideas, for all sort of reasons.  I also agree that structured processes are more likely to favor incremental ideas than others.

I think museums thread that needle the way all organizations do, and the eye of that needle is smaller in organizations that tend to centralize idea generation.  Where the eye is a bit larger, though, and innovation is encouraged to flourish on the ground, at the grassroots level, that is where we see ideas coming from.  Each of the projects we feature in the report has someone at the center with a good idea, others who help him or her realize it, and leadership that allows and encourages it.  All of those elements are needed, in roughly equal doses.

Barry: As a final question, the Horizon reports frame their predictions on a “one year or less”, “two to three years” and “four to five years” schedule. Has the rate of innovation adoption been consistent over time or do you see it changing – whether speeding up or slowing down? And where do you see museum’s within that frame?

We do not see the rate of innovation being something independent of any particular idea, technique, or technology, but rather completely tied to it.  For example, MOOCs have exploded on the scene in the last twelve months, moving from 4-5 years out to right here, right now in less than a year.  Augmented reality on the other hand, has been in the 2-3 year timeframe for 3 years with lots of interest, but little movement.  The reasons vary — there may not be sufficient demand, or the tools may be too hard or crude, or the interest may be almost viral — but each topic we consider makes it own way to the mainstream, either lingering, exploding, or sometimes not at all.

We see museums at the forefront of the ways technology is applied to informal learning — whether it is a fast or slow moving innovation — you can be sure museums are looking at it somewhere, thinking how it can be applied to interpretation, to learning, or to simply make culture and artifacts more accessible.

We track what museums are thinking about for one simple reason — we know that they are not just preservers of our past, they are also guardians of our future, and can be counted on to be exploring promising tools that might aid their missions, their stories, and their impact.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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