Recap: Robert Stein’s Keynote at National Museum Publishing Seminar


Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read our own. - John Locke

Robert Stein, EVP and Chief Program Officer at the American Alliance of Museums, gave the keynote at the National Museum Publishing Seminar 2016. Neoteric Design had a sponsor table there, and I was looking forward to learning as much as I could over the course of the three days.

Robert's talk, “Knowledge and the Future of Museum Publishing,” asked us to think about the future of publishing as a discussion about knowledge. What would a future museum of knowledge look like? We naturally use architectural metaphors about knowledge: we talk of building upon what we know, of achieving “higher” levels of knowledge. How would we effectively contribute to the museum of knowledge? What kind of framework would support it? 

Why we can’t have nice things

Thinking about knowledge and its creation is particularly relevant in today’s fast, distracted, short attention span world. We have at our fingertips more information than ever before—and yet, we spend it on cat videos, Facebook updates, and 140 character tweets. Robert points us to a Pew research project on research teams. When we compare researchers to teenagers today, they have fundamentally different cognitive skills and methods of doing research. While teenagers have “digitally native” skills in finding information, Pew’s research showed their ability to assess quality and accuracy, or recognize bias, was poorly developed. 

We have, thanks to the Internet, mobile devices, etc., trained ourselves to the attention span less than a goldfish. 

We have always been modern and it has often scared us

This failure to convert the sea of information that we’re immersed in into knowledge that we can use, driven by technological advancement which only speeds up the problem, is not a new concern. 

xkcd has a marvelous comic on The Pace of Modern Life, and Robert points us to a humorous quote from Tom Standage in the New York Times, Social Networking in the 1600s

Among the first to sound the alarm, in 1677, was Anthony Wood, an Oxford academic. “Why doth solid and serious learning decline, and few or none follow it now in the University?” he asked. “Answer: Because of Coffea Houses, where they spend all their time.

Maybe velcro can fix this

So, as long as we’ve been modern, we’ve worried about this. The challenge remains, for us as publishers and contributors to the future of knowledge: what transforms mere information into usable knowledge?  What’s the “Visual Velcro” that can make an idea stick?  Robert highlights four: 

Topic modeling

A body information and facts can be literally drawn out in various ways—and dynamic information graphics over complex data sets have become useful ways of seeing trends in data. There’s some wonderful examples in the D3.js gallery of data driven documents

Topic modeling is another “visualization” method, and here, Robert points us to the BBC’s ontologies

The BBC produces a plethora of rich and diverse content about the things that matter to our audiences. Linked Data gives us an opportunity to connect content together through those topics. We use ontologies to describe the world around us, content the BBC creates, and the management, storage and sharing of these data within the Linked Data Platform.

Impact measures

By this, I saw parallels to Agile and Lean Startup from the software development world: learn faster by increasing your publishing cycle and collecting feedback. The Phoenix Art Museum has had success in this, running day-long design sprints to create a series of printed visitor “I’m Here” guides

“Overall, the sprint method allowed us to be more iterative. We’ve since used the method for other projects. We found it refreshing, productive, and a welcome alternative to putting a project on a calendar and chipping away at it for months. Our team collectively built something, and the process ultimately made the team stronger.” 

Experience design

Everyone remembers a good story. Experience design can help us rethink information, content, and topics, and generate narratives that use storytelling that’s relevant to our audience’s experiences. 

Contextual publishing

Here, Robert really pushes the audience—what, he asks, would collaborative storytelling look like? How can we release our prized control over narrative structure to our readers? Or to an algorithm?  He points us to video games as examples of non linear, collaborative narratives. 

Non puoi insegnare niente a un uomo. Puoi solo aiutarlo a scoprire ciò che ha dentro di sé (Galileo)

You cannot teach a man anything, you can only help find it within himself.

I have been studying Italian as an adult learner. Interestingly, studying a language exactly parallels the transformation of information into knowledge: you are swimming in information—words, grammar, and rules; you must create some structure to retain it, relate it, and use it. Gabriel Wyner’s Fluent Forever language learning program has, in various ways, used all the techniques mentioned above. A focus on sound and mouth structure, the use of categorization and frequency tables to contextualize vocabulary lists, an emphasis on storytelling and vocabulary acquisition, and smart repetition and feedback are all hallmarks of his successful program. Grazie Gabriel!

What would a future museum of knowledge look like?

In the end, the future museum is here already. Museums are institutions of knowledge. By considering these “visual velcro” techniques of engaging audiences with content in relevant ways, we can continue to grow our knowledge in the face of the challenges of modernity.