Monday, October 03, 2011

What Are the Most Important Problems in Our Field?

I'm working on a keynote address for next week's Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums conference in Baltimore. The speech is in memory of Stephen Weil, one of the giants of contemporary American museum thinking--a radical in a bowtie who strove to "make museums matter."

As I think about what can and might make museums matter today, I keep rereading a speech by Richard Hamming, a mathematician who made major research contributions to the fields of computer science and information technology. In 1986, Hamming made an incredible speech, "You and Your Research," about the question of what makes some scientists achieve great things and others, not so much. The crux of his argument is this: make sure you are working on the most important problems in your field. He explains:
If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely you'll do important work. It's perfectly obvious. Great scientists have thought through, in a careful way, a number of important problems in their field, and they keep an eye on wondering how to attack them. Let me warn you, `important problem' must be phrased carefully. The three outstanding problems in physics, in a certain sense, were never worked on while I was at Bell Labs. By important I mean guaranteed a Nobel Prize and any sum of money you want to mention. We didn't work on (1) time travel, (2) teleportation, and (3) antigravity. They are not important problems because we do not have an attack. It's not the consequence that makes a problem important, it is that you have a reasonable attack. That is what makes a problem important. When I say that most scientists don't work on important problems, I mean it in that sense. The average scientist, so far as I can make out, spends almost all his time working on problems which he believes will not be important and he also doesn't believe that they will lead to important problems.
This last sentence, I fear, describes the average worker, not just the average scientist. Most of us spend most of our time working on problems that are not important. That's somewhat reasonable--we all have to make payroll and run our programs and keep things going. My bigger concern is that when we DO make time for the bigger picture, the problems we choose to tackle are not the most important ones.

What are the most important problems in the cultural sector? The two hot problems seem to be:
  1. finding new business models to sustain funding and support operations
  2. making offerings relevant and appealing to shifting audiences
These topics may flood the blogosphere and conference circuit, but I don't think they're ultimately the most important. These problems are fundamentally self-serving; they come from the root question "how can we survive?" These questions could just as easily apply to any struggling industry (postal service, cigarettes) as to cultural institutions.

I suspect there are other problems we can work on that are more about culture and learning and less about institutional survival. When we think about "making museums matter," the important parts are the "making" and the "mattering"--not the museums. The goal is not to justify museums' existence but to make them as useful as possible.

So what are the important problems we need to tackle to become more meaningful institutions? I'm trying to mull a few for this talk next week, and I'd love your thoughts on what you see as the most important problems in our field. Here's what I've come up with:
  1. How can we make cultural knowledge--content, context, and experience--as widely, freely, and equitably accessible as possible?
  2. How can our institutions and programs improve quality of life for individuals and communities?
  3. How should we structure our institutions and funding programs to do 1 and 2?
What would you add to this list?
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