WHAT HOW WHY: beginners guide to NDF

“Museums are curiosity machines” said Seb Chan, and judging by how popular this comment was on twitter, National Digital Forum attendees very much agreed. So how can this curiosity, of the staff and the visitors, be fostered? Let’s work our way through this.

The National Digital Forum by its own definition is a “network of people working together to enhance digital interaction with culture and heritage in New Zealand.” Even though I had read that a few times before, I still needed to have it translated for me, to be told explicitly just how NDF related to me by attending their recent annual conference. When I read this definition I thought of databases and digitisation and felt that the connection to my job wasn’t obvious. Having now attended my first NDF, I am pleased to tell you that I get it now! I have managed to move beyond trying to figure out what NDF is to comprehend why it exists. And it’s simple really: NDF is an enabler. It is something that makes you think laterally about how you approach interactions with culture and heritage, the digital aspect isn’t necessarily the most important component but it is what can provide freedom and innovation.

One of the lightning talks that resonated with me most was from Canterbury University PhD candidate Kara Kennedy who spoke on the kinds of digital skills that people aren’t learning as part of an arts degree. When Kennedy put up a list of helpful skills to have when entering the job market, I realised that almost all of the skills listed were things I had self-taught. This point came up again in Julia Kaganskiy’s closing keynote where she mooted a future of freelancing workers, a point that brought out the fear in me. My career thus far has been a mish-mash of short-term contracts and bouncing about from publishing to museums to public sector and back again; very little of this movement has come from my own desire for financial insecurity. However, the future is coming fast and if it is freelance, we need to adapt and the aforementioned skills will enable us to be that much more agile.

This brings me to the next point and the quote that Kaganskiy used to end her keynote: “Let’s re-envision the incubator model to foster cultural value not just capital value.” This quote also gained a lot of traction online and I’ve been thinking about how to put this into practice. It made me think that there is potential to use the incubator model to teach the aforementioned skills that are lacking, or to make the point that people can use their creative and conceptual brains to think about how to apply existing technology in their own institutions. A great example of the latter point was the Nelson Museum’s approach to the Maungatapu Murders wherein they utilised free technology, built on the staff’s personal interests and created a bespoke product. This project enabled each staff member to upskill in one of the best professional development coups I’ve ever seen. The museum staff member, Meredith Rimmer (who also works part-time elsewhere in a related digital capacity), stated that by doing it this way, the museum got many hours of free work out of staff because they were enjoying it so much. What it was, was a radical application of allowing staff agency to flourish; how often are we given the space to do this? In a personal capacity (which is very much still linked to my professional capacity), this also made me think about how to approach some of the areas that need developing in the sector: production of robust critique, spaces for Māori to write, curate and create, places for Māori to lead discussions. How can an incubator model lend itself to accelerating this potential? In the first instance, I really liked the point from Kaganskiy where she described the New Inc members as being nodes into other communities. Each time I think deeper about this, I come up with more questions, which is not a bad thing of course but definitely shows the level of consideration needed. Perhaps Mahuki Director Tui Te Hau’s model of accelerating wins and accelerating failures (leave it, move on) will work as a model too.

Which brings me to the next key point that NDF rammed home, and what our Tusk presentation was all about: just get started on stuff. Seb made a point about naming things into existence: put a name to an idea and all of a sudden it exists. This had a nice resonance with Moana Jackson’s keynote from Museums Australasia that the namer of names was the ruler of all things. In relation to this I saw a hashtag from Auckland Museum’s Nils Pokels’ that the sector has a tendency toward #toomuchhuinotenoughdoey which is so real. It’s not enough anymore that we point out the problems and talk about solutions, it is the doing that is key and it is the doing that needs to get done. In his closing address, outgoing NDF chair Matthew Oliver mentioned that as a sector we need to stop trying to prove our relevance because we know that we are relevant. Instead, what is most important is what we do with that relevance and the position we have as platforms with incomparable reach.

The project that best encompassed the what, how and why of digital interaction was Ngāi Tahu’s cultural mapping project. Takerei Norton’s kōrero was just mind-blowing for me and what was at the crux of it all was that they were driven by the why, and they didn’t wait for the technology to enable their ability to do what needed to be done. They undertook the project with such humility and drive for example, when Norton spoke on their wide use of a map by Beattie that had a lot of inaccurate information, he stated that their corrections are not intended to whakaiti the recorded mātauranga but to build on them and level up. These resources were also not seen to be the be all and end all, they were instead supplemented by the iwi mātauraka. This is agility in its purest sense, and to relate this to the kōrero from Ariana Tikao and Mark Crookston of DIA, the digital sphere has enabled a reclamation. Ariana and Mark spoke on how to better measure digitisation, in that it is more important to look at what digitisation leads to: what projects it has informed and what people it has reached. Mark made a great point in relation to this and I think it is one of the better stakes in the ground that the GLAMs can make: digitisation leads to social cohesion. What better way to illustrate that than with this quote from one of their respondents: “We have lost so much. The digital age has allowed us to reclaim some of it back.” Though I very much agree with measuring the social impact of digitisation rather than digitisation in and of itself, Takerei did make a pointed observation: he found the records because he knew they were there. If iwi don’t know about what these institutions hold then how will they know to look for them?

To end, museums, libraries, galleries and archives are all curiosity machines. We work in them because they fulfil our own personal curiosities and enable us to pass on our findings to other people. However, to tautoko Seb Chan’s point: we need to get out. We need to attend things, meet each other and feed back. The final curve to the loop is important because we stay curious by what we learn and we spark each other by passing on what we have learnt. Stay curious and pass it on. Enable others and use digital technology to your own advantage to do so.

Matariki Williams