An interview by Diana Fehr / May 2023
In 2012, he co-founded a (now-discontinued) blog on the relationship between print and digital museum publishing, though he found it more interesting to write about the practice of being digital, and still human, in museum work. That writing morphed into an eponymous blog in 2015, which became Museum Human in 2019. He was active in the Museum Computer Network (MCN) and their annual conference from 2013 to 2018 as a presenter, program committee member, and co-chair of the 2017 and 2018 programs. Out of the many connections he made with MCN, he co-authored a book, Change at Work: Not Just Surviving but Thriving with Seema Rao. In 2019 he presented at the first DigiTrans workshop, in Dortmund, Germany, on digital literacy in the cultural sector. Starting in 2020, he contributed articles and live discussions to the community Museums as Progress. He also wrote a couple of articles on tech in museum workplaces for Jing Culture & Commerce (now Jing Culture & Crypto). In late 2022, like many others, he moved his social media activity from Twitter to Mastodon. Follow him there @firstname.lastname@example.org. He lives in New York City with his wife.
Diana Fehr: Today, we have the pleasure of speaking with Robert, the founder of Museum Human, a platform that explores various topics within the museum field and beyond. Robert can you tell us more about your journey in the museum field?
Robert J Weisberg: Thank you for having me. Yes, I’ve been in the museum field for quite a while now. My journey is actually fairly straightforward. I attended Williams College in Massachusetts, which has a strong reputation in the arts. Many individuals who have studied there ended up in the museum sector. Although it’s known for its liberal arts program, Williams also has a small graduate Art History program, which attracts students interested in museum careers. Unlike most of my peers in museums who pursued art history or art studio work, I majored in political science and had a keen interest in journalism during my time at Williams. In fact, I even was editor-in-chief of the school’s weekly paper and found a sense of belonging within that group.
However, upon graduating, I found myself entering the job market during a newspaper recession in the early 90s. By then newspapers were cutting back on their newsrooms and relying more on freelancers. So, I took a job in what we would now call a startup. I worked for a magazine company that published advertorial magazines targeted to students interested in medical schools and residency programs. My role involved production work, which I had experience with from my time at the school newspaper.
One day, I stumbled upon an ad in the classified section of the New York Times. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s publishing department was planning to start desktop publishing and was seeking someone with those skills. Despite my lack of formal art history education, I decided to give it a try and went for a couple of interviews. To my surprise, I got the job. I consider myself incredibly fortunate because The Met was just beginning to explore digital production processes internally. They had yet to fully grasp the potential of computers and digital tools in book production. This gave me ample room to grow and contribute to the evolving role, working on the technological aspects and doing what we now call job crafting.
It was within this environment that I became part of the highly successful art book publishing program at The Met. Since the mid-1960s, the museum has been producing around 25 to 30 books per year. It’s a program that generates millions of dollars annually for the museum, proving that it’s not merely a vanity project but a genuinely successful endeavor. This allowed me to further develop my position and contribute to the growth and success of the program.
Diana Fehr: That’s truly fascinating. It seems like you had a fortunate opportunity to contribute to the transformation of the publishing department at The Met.
Robert J Weisberg: Yes, when I joined The Met’s publishing department, they were just starting to embrace desktop publishing and incorporating computers into their book production and typesetting processes. I found myself in a unique position with my publishing background, allowing me to maintain an insider-outsider perspective. That eventually brought me closer to the activities and happenings in the galleries, making me feel more connected to the museum’s overall atmosphere.
At that time, there was still a learning curve and a certain level of uncertainty about how these digital tools would reshape the workflow. My role involved exploring and implementing new technologies to facilitate a more efficient and digital production process. I had the opportunity to introduce and experiment with various software and tools that aided in typesetting, design, and layout. We gradually transitioned from traditional methods to digital workflows, enabling us to streamline processes, roles, and responsibilities.
I also got in the habit of going around to different areas of the museum and finding out what they were up to, what tools they used, and what they were willing to share (and what I could share). I learned, sometimes the hard way, about how one could go about making change without stirring up too much trouble. Institutions are often conservative regarding change which biases workers to lean away from new things. I called that “the hater bell curve” in an early post, which my (then-small number of) readers seemed to enjoy.
Over the years, I’ve worked on art books, labels, and large print exhibition text booklets. Over a decade ago, I got to work on a new project, MetPublications, that put almost all of The Met’s publications going back to 1964 online; MetPubs is still going and I’m still involved. All of this work has given me the opportunity to explore different areas within the museum and adapt to changing circumstances and made me consider not only the role of technology in books and labels but also its impact on all of these different aspects of museum work.
Diana Fehr: Could you tell us more about these transitions and how they influenced your perspective on museum communication and accessibility?
Robert J Weisberg: After working primarily on art books for around 15 to 20 years, I transitioned to working on labels. Shifting from long-term book projects to shorter-term label projects was a significant adjustment. Books and labels also have very different roles. Additionally, I inherited a project involving large print exhibition text booklets. These booklets were designed to enhance accessibility for visitors who faced challenges in getting close to the labels, such as those with low vision or mobility issues. This responsibility made me highly attentive to the importance of accessibility and the need to effectively communicate with diverse visitors. Moreover, this booklet project represented a typical museum endeavor that required collaboration across multiple departments.
So over time, my role expanded beyond production and encompassed the larger museum context and I found myself in the middle of many different processes and flows of information, bridging various groups within the institution. This led to involvement in discussions surrounding digital publishing and the integration of technology into different areas of audience engagement and visitorship.
This work in print and digital prompted me to think about the broader implications of data in a museum, extending beyond the object database and visitor records. This perspective pushed me to explore the role of technology in both internal and external aspects of the institution.
Diana Fehr: Is that why you also take us on a weekly journey to different and important museum topics with the Museum Human blog?
Robert J Weisberg: Yes. A few years before Museum Human, I worked on an information-sharing website with several other museum publishing professionals about digital publishing in museums, with the goal of expanding the understanding of digital practices beyond just digital departments. That blog aimed to bridge the gap between print and digital, recognizing that both mediums can benefit from each other’s techniques and approaches.
Over time, the focus of that blog expanded to cover a wide range of topics beyond digital publishing, including technology, organizational culture, and the role of museums in society. I was posting so regularly on these topics that I eventually started my own site in 2015.
So my aim now with the Museum Human blog is to foster communication and expand the dialogue within the museum community and to inspire a more democratic and humane approach to museums. Through the blog, I delve into various topics and share insights based on my experiences working in different areas of the museum. By exploring these different aspects, I aim to break down barriers and demystify certain roles and processes within museums.
The blog seeks to challenge jargon—though I’ve used plenty of it myself over the years!—and explore its implications for museum workers and institutions, as well as the broader world of workplaces and society. It aims to dissect complex issues, embrace paradoxes, and engage in open conversations that allow for diverse perspectives and the possibility of changing one’s viewpoint.
By discussing these topics and sharing insights, I aim to create a space for meaningful conversations, offer a unique voice that challenges conventional thinking, and provide a source of inspiration and reflection for museum professionals and beyond. In short, the Museum Human blog aims to contribute to a more inclusive and collaborative museum sector, where knowledge is shared, ideas are explored, and the voices of all stakeholders are heard.
Diana Fehr: Let’s delve into your exploration of different subjects, starting with sustainability, the commoditization hierarchy, and AI. What motivates you to explore these diverse topics?
Robert J Weisberg: I find these topics to be highly related and interconnected with the museum field and workplace culture in general. Take sustainability, for example. One of the key insights I gained during my conversation with Caitlin Southwick of Ki Culture is that sustainability extends beyond just environmental concerns to cultural sustainability and workplace well-being. When individuals are burnt out and overwhelmed, they lack the capacity to care about the environment or to address workplace issues such as diversity and decolonization in the museum sector. Therefore, I see sustainability as encompassing a broader scope and it’s important to tackle these topics together.
Whenever I come across a topic that inspires me, I examine its relevance to the museum field. I consider how it connects to the broader discussions and conversations that need to take place within museums. I focus on the aspects that affect individuals as citizens of their institutions and workplaces. Sometimes, this may involve addressing immediate concerns like activity levels and wages.
However, even if a topic doesn’t appear to directly impact individuals at first, it may affect them in the long run. This can manifest in issues like burnout or the need to respond to public inquiries regarding exhibitions and object provenance. So my aim is to build a broader understanding of the conversations that museum workers need to be having and the importance of considering diverse topics within the field.
Diana Fehr: That’s an interesting perspective and approach. You mentioned a generational shift within the museum field, with younger generations more willing to question toxic workplace cultures. Could you elaborate on this shift and its implications?
Robert J Weisberg: Certainly. In the past, workplace culture was often accepted as the norm, and employees didn’t voice their concerns or question the status quo. However, millennials and Gen Z are changing that. They are more willing to have open conversations about workplace culture, question existing norms, and demand a voice in decision-making processes. They are more vocal about their needs and are quick to identify toxic cultures that don’t align with their values. They view workplace culture as part of the larger societal culture and understand the importance of diversity and inclusion. So these conversations are crucial for driving change and addressing the diverse needs of museum workers. And this shift challenges museums to embrace transparency and inclusivity, and to involve a wider range of voices in decision-making processes.
Diana Fehr: It’s fascinating how generational changes have influenced these shifts in workplace dynamics. You’ve highlighted the importance of these topics for young professionals in the museum field. Can you expand on why you believe these subjects are crucial for them?
Robert J Weisberg: Absolutely. I often come back to the concept of “temper” or “TMPR,” which stands for Time, Money, People, and Resources. These elements are vital in understanding how institutions treat their employees. Many museums, being non-profits, are accustomed to operating under conditions of scarcity, which affects the distribution of these resources. However, the scarcity of time is a prevalent issue in the museum field and most workplaces. Lack of time prevents individuals from participating in broader discussions about workplace culture and the museum sector as a whole. There are sector-wide groups like Museum Computer Network (I was the co-chair of their annual conference in 2017 and 2018) having these discussions.
However, even if these conversations take place, they are often followed by multiple deadlines that hinder any meaningful follow-up. Therefore, it’s crucial for young professionals to pay attention to these topics. Even if they may not seem immediately relevant, they will eventually impact aspects like burnout, public engagement, and ethical considerations. For instance, someone working in visitor experience may face questions about exhibition content and object provenance. These issues touch every aspect of museum work, and it’s essential for all professionals to engage in these conversations.
Diana Fehr: Moving beyond the internal dynamics of museums, how do you see the evolution of museums’ relationships with their communities?
Robert J Weisberg: Over time, the perception of museums’ relationships with communities has shifted. Previously, museums often approached communities as if they needed to be rescued or saved. However, this perspective is being challenged. Communities have their own strengths and contributions to offer, and museums should view them as equal partners rather than entities in need of saving. This critique has emerged from both external sources and within the museum field itself, calling for a more collaborative and inclusive approach.
Diana Fehr: You mean that museums will become hubs not only for communities and scholars but also for workers. Could you elaborate on this idea and what it means for the future of museums as workplaces?
Robert J Weisberg: I envision museums as dynamic hubs that go beyond their traditional roles. They will not only serve communities and scholars but also become spaces for workers to flow around the institution, learn different things, and master various areas of expertise. I believe that museums should embrace flexibility and become holistic ecosystems. As workplaces become more open, it is crucial for museum professionals to understand the entire institution, including front-of-house work and digital skills. For example, I recently wrote about the importance of AI (here and here, with links posts here and here), and I believe that every person working in a museum should have the opportunity to explore what AI could do for them. By giving individuals time, resources, and funding, museums can tap into the potential of intelligent systems and encourage collaborative sharing of ideas. Ultimately, the future of museums as workplaces lies in creating a flexible and fast-moving environment both internally and externally.
Diana Fehr: That’s an interesting perspective on the future of museums. However, it’s important to consider the role of museums in society as well. How do you see the evolving role of museums in relation to society’s needs?
Robert J Weisberg: There’s a conundrum when it comes to the role of museums in society. On one hand, museums strive to be places of open dialogue and communication, centered around the elements in their collections and exhibitions. However, there’s a paradox when it comes to openness and tolerance. Museums aim for open discussions, but they face the challenge of dealing with viewpoints that may be intolerant or unwilling to engage in certain conversations. Finding the balance between complete openness and the values museums uphold can be difficult. It’s important for museums to navigate these conversations and determine which values are non-negotiable. To effectively address these challenges, museums need to reflect the diversity of society as a whole and move away from narrow expertise. This may involve loosening the hierarchical structures and involving a larger number of decision-makers within the institution. In the future, I hope to see museums with a fluid and collective structure, both internally and externally, that mirrors the broader society. Given the pressing climate issues we face, adaptability and fluidity will be essential.
Diana Fehr: And where do you see yourself in this process of transition and evolution within the museum field?
Robert J Weisberg: As I reflect on my museum career, I realize that I am closer to the end than the beginning, having been in museums for 28 and a half years. Transitioning into new avenues of communication and engagement alongside the blog has been something I’ve considered. Many individuals I admire have ventured into writing their own blogs, starting Substacks, creating Discord channels, conducting video interviews, and hosting podcasts. However, for me personally, exploring these new mediums can be destabilizing. It adds an extra layer of work that I struggle to manage, which, in turn, hampers my writing process.
My goal is to strike a balance that allows me to maintain this voice while also fulfilling my responsibilities at the museum, caring for my family, and staying attuned to societal developments. So, my focus right now is on finding ways to make Museum Human sustainable and avoiding the need for extended breaks from the blog due to burnout. That is my aspiration for this year—to write consistently without the risk of falling over and to establish a business model that supports the continuation of this unique voice.
Diana Fehr: Thank you, Robert, for sharing your thoughts on your role in this transition and the sustainability of Museum Human. It’s clear that finding a balance between your passion, responsibilities, and the demands of the evolving museum field is crucial. We appreciate your time and wish you the best in achieving your goals for the future.
Images: Robert J Weisberg – Museum Human