Saturday, January 10, 2015

Thoughts on Writing a Blog

The year-end blog post, “What You Lose When You Become Embedded and a Moment of Mourning for Blog Conversations” on Nina Simon’s Museum2.0 blog was thoughtful and provocative as usual. Nina shared what has interested her about blogging and is currently happening. Blogging has served as a way to learn twice: first by writing, then by engaging with commenters. While her readers have increased, comments and conversations have decreased. Nina’s readers do engage with her posts, but often elsewhere with others. I contribute to this: I read regularly, comment sometimes, and occasionally work threads from her posts in my writing. Consequently, this very prolific and generous blogger has become less part of the lively exchanges she has created and looked forward to writing. Her post, coincidentally, seems to have prompted more comments than usual.  

Entering my fifth blogging year and mindful of Nina’s post, I’ve been reflecting on my reasons for writing Museum Notes which cluster into two areas. I blog to stretch my thinking and be helpful to museums. At its best, writing is a discipline for me that serves others. Wanting to engage significantly with readers through comments wasn’t something I imagined or expected early on. It’s probably a good thing; I don’t receive many comments on my posts. 

Exercise and consolidate my thinking. The convergence of a museum’s strategic and learning interests has been of particular interest to me for years. Areas not typically considered together, they are meaty and dynamic, separately and together. Vigilant to how they relate, I explore connections between them. Interactions between these enduring interests touch on strategic planning and educational planning; community context and public value; stakeholders and audience; learners and learning; experience, play, and exhibitions; professional practice and capacity building.

Opening up my thinking for exercise is planned (reading and research) and unplanned with conversations, museum visits, images, reflections, and walks. One way and another I stumble on fresh perspectives, emerging areas of thought, new connections, and points where I simply need to rethink. In writing and rewriting, I try for clear lines of thought, meaningful distinctions, and a better glimpse of what is worth revealing. Working to make a point sharper and more explicit, I search for the right…better, fresher, crisper … word sacrificing many words along the way. That new word often makes other thoughts seem fuzzy.  (And can I make it shorter?)

I don’t use exercise my thinking casually. The thinking required to write each of the 170 blogs has been decidedly more strenuous than I imagined. With false starts and dead ends, thinking (not to mention writing) is harder than it seems. Here the invisible but real presence of readers, museum clients, colleagues, conference presenters, authors, friendly critics, and other bloggers become partners in thinking and sustain my efforts. Rewarded when I hit the publish button, the lows and highs of writing wrestle and somehow balance out each other. 

Being helpful. Each post is not only an exercise in thinking, but also a hope that it will be helpful to others. Will this matter to a young museum professional; a group of museum founders looking for next steps; an executive director with a runaway board; a graduate student with a paper; an evaluator building staff capacity; an exhibit developer trying to frame goals; or a strategic planner wanting to rethink vision statements?

There are more dimensions to being helpful than I first realized. Being helpful can be inspirational or practical; build on the work of others or push into under-explored areas; reach into the past or project into the future. In 35+ years of working in and with museums I have experienced a wide range of situations and change. Work with many different museums gives me a sense of trends and issues that, if not “field wide,” are nevertheless shared by many museums. I encounter resources, books, local programs, special expertise, solutions to problems, efforts that haven’t worked, and valuable lessons useful to museums elsewhere.

Clues about possible topics spring from queries on LinkedIn discussions, Museum Junction, ChildMus, unfinished ideas from earlier Museum Notes, and blogs. My visits to museums also reinforce possible topics. Staff at museums across the country have similar issues (serving a wider age range) and express common frustrations (parents on cell phones). Museums have similar needs (project goals and learner outcomes); face similar challenges (a shared understanding of creativity, play and thinking); and get stuck in similar ways (adding, but not abandoning programs; valuing content over experience).

Even a good topic is not useful by itself. It requires a suitable context (connecting to what is current or enduring, like public value); relevant in different types of museums (inquiry, creativity, audiences); and applicable to museums at varying stages of development (vision, mission, and values). I frequently ask myself, “so what?” Why might this matter to what people working in museums and libraries, and to parents and educators, care about? What difference will it make to someone leading organizational change; making a case for the museum’s impact to a funder; or wanting to experiment a little? How can developing a learning framework be accessible to even small museums?  Can this idea be like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle they have been looking for?

I work to make overly-used, often tired and unchecked connections explicit; shine questions; and return complexity to what has been reduced and simplified. An added twist, even a somewhat contrary view, enters now and then as in promoting A Good Mess. I am drawn to exploring what we value for museum learners as parallel practices for museum staff: asking questions, experimenting, and taking risks. Perhaps most of all, I hope to make visible what we often overlook and undervalue: everyday moments; learners' agency; children’s strengths and futures; play, and the physical environment as a teacher and a mediator of learning.

In the long run, I have a hunch there is an exchange that occurs with readers, even though few actually comment. The exchange is more like playing it forward than a volley back-and-forth. Often I refer someone to a post that addresses a question, helps manage a board discussion, prepares them for a foray into a new area, directs them to resources, or helps writing a grant proposal–especially when IMLS grants are due. I often hear via e-mail or in conversations at conferences that a particular post has been timely. I am amazed at the growing number of readers in Ukraine, Romania, India, and Sierra Leone.

In closing, Nina, thank you for your end-of-the year blog and for your years of blogging. Thank you, readers, for your time and interest.

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