The rest of this week finds me in Philadelphia for the annual conference of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, but I thought I might as well report on what I'll be discussing with the Conservancy's public sites committee: at the risk of getting too self-reflexive, my topic is the Weekly Wright-up itself.
In four years of maintaining this blog, I've never mentioned the inspiration for starting it in the first place. It involves a great book about a cholera outbreak, of all things, and a visit to the Mile High City:
In 2008, I attended the American Association of Museums annual conference in Denver. Faced with the vast menu of conference session choices, I came armed with at least two needs that helped to narrow them down: 1) to find an outlet for the knowledge I had been amassing since I started at the Martin House in 2003, and 2) to utilize technology for this outlet. Thus, I gravitated to a session on interactive media, pop culture and museums given by author, blogger and lecturer Steven Johnson.
Johnson was already on my radar, having recently read his bestseller The Ghost Map, a chronicle of the 1854 cholera outbreak in London, and how the story of that tragedy interfaces with urban planning, mapping, and the rise of modern science. It's one of those books that's so well crafted and written that you don't have to work for the CDC to appreciate it. Within minutes of listening to Johnson, one of his other books - Everything Bad is Good for You - was added to my virtual pile of "reading to get to when I retire."
In applying his far-reaching intellect to the topic of museums, Johnson's central point was that, as "information spaces," museums stood to gain by embracing the Internet, interactive and social media, rather than eschewing it as a trivial distraction to audiences and insiders alike. A memorable example of "old school" thinking offered was George Will's comment that "this is progress: more sophisticated delivery of stupidity." Will's position is easy to dismiss, but I think Johnson put it best when he said "there isn't more 'idiotic teen behavior' today than there was 'back in the day,' it's just better documented via the Internet."
Ultimately, Johnson was making the common-sense point that any technology - from movable type to the Internet - is what we make of it (and how we perceive it). It (standing for blogging, gaming, streaming video, social media, etc.) doesn't inherently make us dumber; if anything, it has more potential to make us smarter, collectively, and it stands to reason that museums of all kinds would want to take advantage of such potential. I think about how much my son has learned about history and world culture from a military strategy PC game called Age of Empires. Sorry, history museums, but he still cites knowledge he's garnered from that game much more than he does any learning experience from a history museum (and we've taken him to many).
Sometimes, this is all it takes: an apparently responsible, obviously intelligent adult to say "it's OK...you can do this...they won't laugh." I scribbled "curator's blog" in my notes from Johnson's session, and the germ of the Weekly Wright-up was formed.
If you're reading this, I'm probably preaching to the choir. If so, forgive this retrospective assertion that the blog has accomplished most of what I had mused about that day in 2008: it has provided an automatic outlet to disseminate information and observations about Frank Lloyd Wright and the Martin House, and in the process, fostered a new online community. And, returning to Johnson's point, I firmly believe that establishing and maintaining the Weekly Wright-up has made me a better researcher and writer. Essentially, it's made me a better curator, and what more could you ask from a free, online tool that was just sitting there waiting to be used?