A year of sharing and caring

Michael Edson at Sharing is Caring 2011.
Photo: Lars Lundqvist, CC-BY-NC-SA

This blogpost is by Michael Edson, Director of Web and New Media Strategy at the Smithsonian Institution who keynoted last year’s Sharing is Caring and made a fervent call to the museum community to go boldly into the present. Michael tweets at @mpedson

When I first heard about the 2011 Sharing is Caring seminar, I wasn’t quite sure what to think. Most conference titles are simple and descriptive, designed to make it easy to know what they are about, and to make it easy for bosses to say “yes, you may go.” But… Sharing is Caring? I know that the Danes are a hyggelig bunch, but I wondered what was going on there in Copenhagen. Maybe something was getting lost in translation?

But over the course of the last year, through working with the conference organizers and many of the speakers and participants, I’ve developed an immense respect for the power and wisdom of these words and the ideals they promote,

  • sharing, as a deeply moral impulse to take the knowledge, beauty, and secrets that we know are there, locked within our organizations, and make them available to every person on earth
  • and caring, as a manifestation of our collective duty to ensure that everyone in society has access to the full spectrum of ideas, experiences, and resources that they need to live happy and successful lives

The word caring, in particular, is complex and filled with potential. Beneath its soft exterior lies a sharp and forceful challenge: caring is not part of our normal workplace vocabulary, but it should be, as we’re all ultimately in the business of creating a better society. When we make the word “caring” more present in our organizations it becomes a powerful way to connect old ways of working (maximize profit or efficiency, workers as replaceable cogs, audiences as passive consumers) with the next frontier of work: building equity and civic value through openness, transparency, generosity, and community. The word “caring” can be used like a keyword, a sigil, or a token (in the gaming sense) that allows us to step outside our old organizational habits and think bigger thoughts about what we should be accomplishing together.

Husk, det er din kulturarv. Brug Den. (It’s your culture. Use it.)

And society really needs us to accomplish great things right now. The work of heritage organizations is desperately important: more so today than it has ever been. The economic, cultural, and environmental instability of the present moment and the looming prospect of accelerating change makes it likely that we will live the rest of our lives in an epoch of dramatic and continuous upheaval. The ideas, habits, and institutions we developed in the 20th century were very good at bringing us to this tense and uncertain moment, but they will not be sufficient to carry us safely forward.  It is only by creating more shared experience and dialog in our communities, developing more insight and innovation, improving access to our past, and celebrating the deep satisfaction of artistic creation and culture that we will be able to build the habits and wisdom necessary chart a path forward. Who will help these changes happen?

This is our mission in society—and we can
succeed at it, but not alone

We will. This is the mission of heritage organizations in society—and we can succeed at it, but not alone. A few more people reading our books, visiting our museums, or looking at our online collections won’t be enough. Making our institutions bigger and more glamorous won’t be enough. We have a lot of brilliant colleagues but anything we do by ourselves or for ourselves won’t be big enough, smart enough, or fast enough to make a difference because ultimately it’s not our institutions that matter. What matters is millions and millions of citizens wrestling with big ideas, engaging in personal discovery, making new things, and sharing with one another. Maybe, if we’re honest and humble and we dedicate ourselves to supporting these civic outcomes we will also see millions and millions of citizens using our institutions every day as a common resource that they care about, contribute to, and love as their own.

Reading the Sharing is Caring 2012 conference blog and program fills me with hope. When Sarah Giersing from the Copenhagen City Museum talks about sharing authority; when Peter Leth from Creative Commons shows what teachers can do with open resources (and when Metete Sanderhoff from the National Gallery of Denmark tells them “It’s your museum: use it”);  when Jasper Visser talks about “sharing as an attitude”; when Lene Krogh Jeppesen and the team at @skattefar shows us how government can listen to citizens; and through the example of Shelley Bernstein’s pioneering work at the Brooklyn Museum and the work of all the Sharing is Caring 2012 speakers, I can see a future in which institutions and the public work side-by-side to build a better future, sharing and caring together as equals.

The Sharing is Caring 2012 conference will inspire me on December 12. Colleagues from all over the world will be watching you in Copenhagen and cheering you on. We are thankful to this year’s speakers and participants, the organizing committee, and the Association of Danish Museums for exploring and celebrating these ideas.

The 2011 Sharing is Caring seminar

Other posts related to “Sharing is Caring”

8 comments to “A year of sharing and caring”
  1. Thank you, Michael, for that inspiring post – and for your equally inspiring presentation in 2011. Your enthusiasm is contagious. However, although I fully agree with your view on the importance of “take the knowledge, beauty, and secrets that we know are there, locked within our organizations, and make them available to every person on earth” and “our collective duty to ensure that everyone in society has access to the full spectrum of ideas, experiences, and resources that they need to live happy and successful lives”, I cannot help but feel a little scepticism. Something about the rhetoric, the title “Sharing is Caring” especially, simply rubs me the wrong way.

    To me “Sharing is Caring” has a certain ring of something selfrighteous to it, something patronizing even. To me it sounds a little like the optimistic name of some religious endeavour – or a humanitarian aid relief project – to save the world. Nothing wrong with philanthropism, but we might be wary of the missionary aspect. Whose sense of beauty, whose heritage, whose world view is it that we – as cultural institutions – work to share? Sharing the digital version of canoncial Danish artefacts, for instance, is not gonna save the planet. Nor am I truly convinced that it will bring about more social justice. In fact, considering the global digital divide that is not going to disappear anytime soon, we are continually at risk to undertake a neo-colonial endavour by sharing our goodies and spreading our culture to the rest of the world – at least if we do not choose to do this with humility rather than pride. That’s why it is so important to me to emphasise, that sharing is also about sharing the authority – not only to handle our objects, works of art and information, but to discuss and to define what is worth saving as heritage and common knowledge.

    I am really not writing this to piss on anyone’s parade. I simply wanted to share my thoughts as I am wondering if I am the only one thinking like this? I hope we can have a productive discussion about this. Wednesday at the conference as well as virtually in the time to come.

    • Sarah, when I say that society is in desperate need, and that our institutions don’t matter – – only civic outcomes do, and that the path forward lies in humility and public service – – I am calling for heritage organizations to use the tools of openness and dialogue, the tools of the Internet, to turn away from our traditional role as oracles and broadcasters and towards our role as agents and catalysts, responsive to (in service of) the needs, intelligence, and experience of the public. I say this quite clearly and it seems that this is your point as well, just without the piss.

      Regarding your skepticism that heritage organizations can have any impact on social issues – – certainly by preaching and patronizing we won’t – – but that’s a straw man: no effort can succeed that way.

      The implicit social contract that establishes our institutions – – that funds them for hundreds of years and gives them real estate and attention and trust and tax exempt status – – is based on the bet that they do and they must have social impact: otherwise they are just tourist attractions or the hobbies of the elites. The mission of the Library of Alexandria in Egypt is to be “a center for learning, tolerance, dialogue and understanding.” The mission of the national archives of Brazil is “[To support] citizens in the defense of their rights and encourage the production of scientific and cultural knowledge.” And the mission of your own organization, the Museum of Copenhagen, is based on creating positive social outcomes.

      Society has supported these kinds of institutions for millennia because we think they are supposed to create more informed citizens, better decision makers, incubate new ideas, and contribute to the development of healthy individuals. If you don’t think these institutions can make a difference, let’s de-fund them and give the money to someone who can. Or, let’s pursue the opposite: to not share and not care – – I have certainly worked with organizations that embrace that philosophy. But that’s not enough today. Government and non-profits really have to perform their missions, brilliantly, and at scale, or we’re going to lack the wisdom and civic habits necessary to think and work our way through the challenges that are coming our way.

      In my enthusiastic and encouraging tone, I am only looking for different ways to encourage leaders, practitioners, funders, and the public to commit to a third option: to use the Internet, new media, open content, open thinking, our bricks-and-mortar spaces, and the energy of our staff and constituents in partnership, to help build strong, wise, and resilient communities – – and through that, strong institutions.

  2. Well, Michael. I never meant to say I was sceptic that museums could make difference or have a social purpose or outcome. I am simply frustrated that so often I come across museum professionals who are very enthusiastic about sharing – understood in the sense of sharing digital information with dialogical webbased tools – but never considered what they choose to share and why this stuff was there in the collections in the first place. And perhaps more importantly, never seem to give a thought to why some citizens might not be interested in this particular stuff, however dialogically we present it. I still think there is still quite a lot of patronism going around of the kind where “if only we explain to them why this is important they will benefit from it too”. But perhaps that is a straw man too, or me chasing wind mills? If so, I am glad.

    • Thanks for your follow-up comment Sarah – – well said!!!

      I agree with you, I share exactly the same concerns, which is why I’m always trying to tie our efforts and assumptions back to mission and impact. We need to work on stuff that matters.

      A closing thought: You made me remember an exchange I had with Nat Torkenton, Nick Poole and a member of the audience at the 2010 New Zealand Digital Forum.

      (I’ve edited this a little for clarity.)

      Nat Torkenton (moderator): Why do we do digitization? Why do we need it at all?

      Nick Poole: I think it starts somewhere else. I don’t think it’s a digital question. I don’t think any of these questions are really digital questions. They’re about museums, libraries, and archives, and you’ve got to ask yourself “why have we got this stuff?” Fundamentally… It’s incredibly important to an economically productive democratic society to be able to reflect on its past and look at its future—that thing—that argument that we all kind of believe in.

      Michael Edson: Is it? Give me an example? Anyone. Of how digitization and digital access have been useful. I say it all the time – – that we do this because our collections are the building blocks of our history and our culture, but are they?

      Audience member: Can I say this thing? I came from India, ten years ago. Because of digitization, a lot of information and books were available to me. It is information that people from India would never have seen… The Internet is there in India, so they have been able to see what you have… Only because of digitization has a lot of information reached third world countries, and I think it is really necessary.

      This exchange genuinely surprised me, and since then I’ve heard many others like it. As skeptical as I am about the impact of so many of our efforts, sometimes straightforward digitization and sharing really can change people’s lives.

      [From the NZ digital forum “killer questions” session, starting around 9 minutes in. http://www.r2.co.nz/20101018/ ]

  3. Both of you, thanks for these thought-provoking inputs to the debate! Sarah, I hope you’ll also raise these hard questions tomorrow at the seminar so we can discuss them and crowdsource some good guidelines to move forward. And Michael, I hope you’ll hack the discussion too from Washington DC!

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