Koven Smith and Liz Filardi discuss innovation at museums large and small
Koven J. Smith is the Director of Digital Adaptation at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas, Austin. Prior to the Blanton, Koven served in various digital roles at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Denver Art Museum, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
Liz Filardi is Senior Product Manager for The Collections at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. She has worked at The Met for four years, and holds an M.F.A. in Design and Technology from Parsons School of Design at The New School.
Koven and Liz caught up over a few weeks in May on MCN’s Slack project. The following interview is from the chat log, edited for readability.
Explore their conversation which ranges from museum culture to food service and everything in between. Some of the key topics are: museum culture, small museums vs. big museums, disruption, focusing on product, on digital staffing, on commercial vs. not-for-profit tech, and outtakes & non sequiturs.
On museum culture:
The Met’s Slack project is open to anyone in the organization, so we have to remind folks periodically to not post anything in the #general channel that they wouldn’t say in the staff cafeteria. You remember the staff cafeteria, don’t you?
Is Carva still making sandwiches? That dude was awesome.
I don’t know! But I recently noticed a sign in the cafeteria that read something like, “As of 2003, no smoking is permitted.” Did people smoke in the cafeteria when you were here!?
No, but monocles and top hats were still required dress for gentlemen when I arrived in 2005. It was a strange time.
As someone who had always planned on being in museums, did you go straight to The Met first? Where do you think you’d go if/when you leave the Met?
The Met is my first museum job. But one summer when I was in grad school, I was the Social Media Intern at the New Museum. It was before institutions had figured out social media, and I basically set up their accounts and made some recommendations on how they might want to approach it.
I was absolutely hooked—I loved the prospect of encouraging institutions to develop more authenticity, trust and rapport, both with their staff and with audiences, in a totally new way. After I got my M.F.A., I made websites and did motion graphics as a freelancer, and then became a Producer for a boutique digital agency and really enjoyed it.
I think as much about going to other verticals as I do about going to other museums eventually. At the moment, I’m pretty happy at The Met. Great opportunities continue to arise. I have always told myself that I would leave when it got boring. Fortunately, it has always been challenging and interesting, and it has always felt worthwhile. The problem space is very meaty.
Did you feel culture shock going from a large museum like The Met to Denver (and then to the Blanton)?
I don’t know if I’d describe it as shock as much as pleasant surprise at how much I was able to accomplish in shorter amounts of time. I was so accustomed to anything museum tech-related taking years of cajoling to accomplish, that to just get to work without having to be too devious about it was pretty liberating. I was worried about leaving The Met, though, because it’s the top of the heap, right? What other museum job could possibly be better? It seems silly to me now, but I was more conscious at the time of what it would look like to colleagues to leave a museum like The Met for anywhere else.
Really? I think there is such a righteous opportunity at smaller museums! It’s like a completely different animal! I would relish the chance to work at a small museum some day. I could imagine that it’s easier to show your impact at a small museum, whereas, when you’re in a large team with interdependencies with lots of other teams, you have to sort of explain what you did a lot more. At a small museum, when you take a risk, it is your risk, and you have to work through it.
That’s definitely true. One thing that appealed to me at the Blanton was that the distance between having an idea and executing it was so short. The risk is greater, as I don’t have a huge team around me to mitigate failure (or capitalize on success, for that matter) when it happens, but it also means the opportunity for impact is much greater.
Liz, part of our conversation on Friday got me thinking about “disruption,” which is a thing we say all the time without thinking about what it really implies, beyond just “the work is different now.” I want to see if we could get at a good definition of that word.
For me, disruption at a museum implies that either (or both) the product or the process are now unknown. I feel like disruption is essentially the measure of the distance between what museum staff think the product/process is and what the public wants it to be.
That is exactly what happened in the aughts and early teens with social media and mobile devices. All of a sudden, if you weren’t in these spaces, you were irrelevant. For folks working in museums, that came as a shock: how could we be irrelevant if we are making evergreen content about a world class collection!?
That is awesome. I’d say that that very question defined a lot of questionable museum behavior between 2005 and 2015.
But the irrelevant part was not the content, per se. Even the best content had little value if people could not tolerate the user experience, which, at the time, was predominantly that of websites designed for desktop computers and never tested on mobile devices. It was difficult for the sector to face that people were experiencing content via many other streams—content platforms and social channels, responsive websites, apps. There may have been a slight denial or arrogance that said that people should be so devoted to the preservation of culture, history, and art, that they are willing to traverse terrible user experiences in order to feel the euphoria of the most excellent content in the world.
I sense a little sarcasm there, and I totally approve of that. But for sure, I remember being at The Met during the “nobody will want to use Wikipedia because it is not written by experts” days. Thinking that Wikipedia might win out was, if you can imagine, a controversial opinion then.
I can totally imagine that. And that feeling was perhaps compounded by the very understandable shock of realizing the staggering cost of pivoting strategy to build up these new user experiences.
So disruption occurred because people were suddenly, unforgivingly not interested in visiting desktop-only websites, and museum workers thought maybe they ought to. The lesson is that the vehicle for any content or audience-engagement experience, the product, has to be nimble and adaptable.
Oh, that’s very interesting. I think we’re defining “product” slightly differently. For me, “product” refers more to the sum total output of a museum: exhibitions, social media, education, catalogues, etc. I think a museum could be really dedicated to social media but still have a “product” that is not in confluence with public expectation.
So, what does a museum do when the public doesn’t want the product it’s selling anymore? For many museums, the answer to that question is always “improve the product.” For many of us doing tech/digital/education in museums, it’s “make a different product that people actually want.”
In other words, when the public doesn’t want the museum experience, some of us believe the imperative response is to improve that “product” by presenting better and better exhibitions, for example. But for those of us in technology or audience-focused departments, we would approach the same situation by saying, “OK, let’s come up with something else entirely. Target Audience, you say you don’t want a traditional museum exhibition, and that you want a date night. Ok, we will create that experience.” Is that what you mean?
Yeah, pretty much. I want to be clear, though–I think both “improve the product” and “redefine the product” are perfectly appropriate responses to disruption. It’s just important to recognize what kind of disruption you’re dealing with.
But certainly, it is less likely that people will be in favor of redefining the product if they believe that the function of the museum is exclusively to preserve art, history, and culture, as this is not so much about making products for public consumption.
I believe the debate between the two approaches is at the heart of how we define mission-serving activities, and that the very debate itself is vital to both our ability to deliver a product that people want and to preserve art, history, and culture.
I think that’s exactly right.
On digital staff(ing):
This leads me to your very position! Tell me more about the role of Director of Digital Adaptation. How did that title come about? How are you all adapting? Is there a “mission complete” state associated with your role, whereby once you achieve it, your role disappears?
I worked as a contractor for the Blanton for about six months before I came on full-time, so I was working with Simone, our director, to figure out exactly what the approach to quote-unquote digital should be at the Blanton given its staffing, resources, size, goals, etc. “Director of Digital Adaptation” as a title evolved out of that discussion, because Simone and I realized that for digital initiatives to work at the Blanton, they’d have to be the kinds of things that could be gradually integrated into ongoing staff practice over time.
I have long felt that as long as the rest of the museum world puts “digital” in a box and debates whether it is worth the trouble, there will be missed opportunities to revolutionize the rest of the museum departments, and the Digital departments of every museum will continue to be internally perceived as threatening.
I think that’s true. Digital practice in museums has moved from “helpful” to “threatening” for more traditional museum roles in a short amount of time. I think that’s because tech was, for a long time, about doing mostly “normal” museum things better (that collections database will replace the card catalog!), but now it’s more about changing the very nature of those “normal” things. And that can definitely be seen by some as threatening.
On commercial vs. not-for-profit tech:
[After a somewhat lengthy conversation about why we haven’t yet colonized the Moon and Koven’s confession to growing up as an “EPCOT kid”, we got to this.]
Yesterday we briefly touched upon a topic that got us both a little riled up! Why is current technological innovation so focused on wealth hoarding and so much less focused on advancing the human race?
I think about this a lot, partially because I see it reflected in my own museum work, too. In the earlier days of museum tech, so much of what was being done had to be built from scratch. That meant that we had to attempt to correctly identify problems/issues, and then build things that would address those problems.
In the last 10 years (or at least, post-iPhone), a lot of museum tech has transitioned to using commercial tech for everything. Don’t roll your own, because Facebook already kind of does the thing you’re trying to do. That’s not necessarily a bad thing (much of my work at the Blanton is only possible because we’re building on/with commercial tech), but it does mean that we now often frame the problems in terms of their already-known commercial solutions. That also means that non-profit tech has almost no say in what problems are defined, because there’s no margin in that.
I thought about this while meeting with Jeff Inscho last week too, because he was telling me about the Knight Foundation grant for innovation at museums, and the work that he will be doing with the Studio. I really like the model that he’s got in place, where the Studio is a hub of organizational change for all of the institutions they serve.
When we pool resources together, there’s the opportunity to create something much more impactful, more universally applicable, something with legs, something that has the real potential to be relevant. In some ways, this opportunity characterizes the unique position of the museum technology sector: if it is worthwhile to invest in innovation in the sector without the expectation of growing wealth, we may be somewhat free to explore innovation that quantifies value in terms of human experience, not wealth.
I like what Jeffrey’s doing at the Carnegie Studio, and I think Carnegie’s Dawn Chorus and similar types of projects have some real potential to change the conversation about the goals and meaning of tech. Being in Austin gives me an interesting perspective on that, since every year SXSW comes through and there’s very little non-profit tech represented. Then you factor in the way that Uber and Lyft spent millions of dollars here in an attempt to circumvent the law, let’s just say I’m a bit more skeptical than most about the true goals of a lot of commercial tech.
That’s why I like some of what people like Anil Dash are doing. “Dawn Chorus” feels similar to that; it’s a demonstration of what non-profit tech can do.
That’s a good point. Non-profit technology is always considered behind the times, but the reality is that the constraints are very different. The sector is getting smarter about where to focus resources, which is leading to more “hits” like SFMOMA’s Detour and the Pen at Cooper-Hewitt. These things are starting to feel mainstream.
It probably also helps that there has not been a mainstream technological disruption since mobile devices became explosively popular ten years ago.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s an interesting question to think about: could the next big technological disruption actually come from the non-profit sector? Is that even possible?
That’s an interesting question! I still wonder about sustainability, which is a success measure that commercial technology doesn’t have to answer to as much because it is protected by wealth, and yet sustainability is vital to the continued relevance of non-profits. How do we make sustainability sexy?
Oh man, that’s a good question, and maybe something that we should keep thinking about as we hit MCN’s 50th. In the meantime, I just want to say how wonderful it’s been talking to you! Let’s do this again all the time!
Koven, it has been so fun, and enlightening and inspiring to speak with you! Let’s definitely keep the conversation going!
[Our conversation produced a few bon mots that we couldn’t fit into the final narrative. So here are a few choice outtakes from our conversation while the credits roll.]
my office has no windows, but it does have an extra door. occasionally men in brown jump suits walk through it.
because blogs detract from a museum’s authority, you know? this is a true fact
i was deployed on the project as an “expert”
I’m an old bear.
stay gold, pony boy, stay gold.
We got to the moon with human computers!!! Insane!!
but also, that guy who told me not to put my feet on the desk? he sucked.
what!? that’s so tessitura
I blame Ronald Reagan
so occasionally one of us would say something like, “quiet, or you’ll get us both killed!”
all i know is the registrar gives us delicious baked goods when things go well
so you’re often tasked with re-engineering bad practice, but on the front end?
And when I came out of the bathroom, the bean bags were empty
You can find Koven and Liz lurking on MCN’s Slack project most days. Feel free to hit them up in the #general channel to keep the discussion going.