In this instalment of the MCN50 Voices series, Elissa Frankle and Max Evjen discuss what how they rely on others, work/life balance, being a “cheptic,” and of course, karaoke. Max and Elissa met through the greater Twitter/conference conglomerate that is Museums and the Web and both have jobs that are multifaceted.
Max is an assistant professor of arts and cultural management and museum studies at Michigan State University (MSU), does site-specific theatre for the MSU Theatre, AND is Exhibitions Technology Specialist at the MSU Museum.
Elissa is a senior user experience researcher at Ad Hoc LLC. Until June 2017, she was the museum experience and education specialist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), the role on which much of this interview is based. Elissa is always a museum person even when she isn’t working for one.
Through a months-long exchange of emails, Elissa and Max discovered that they share a lot more than awesome curly hair and a general love of museums. Their professional lives are shaped by connection to people—mentors, colleagues, visitors, family—and they keep fresh as technologists by learning from peers and luminaries in the field. Being educators affects how they think about technology: through the medium of technology, they remain facilitators, listening to, learning from, and responding to the needs of their audiences. This even holds up for MCN Karaoke, where they’re interested in delighting the audience, and their favorite emojis, which are based in celebrating the person with whom they’re communicating.
Elissa would like to thank Max for being patient with her as she took weeks to respond to emails, got caught up in wedding planning and job hunting, and read her long, introspective responses. Max would like to let Elissa off the hook, since we are all busy! Happy birthday, MCN—we can’t wait to see you in November!
Where we come from
Describe your personal job history/trajectory in less than 10 words.
Elissa: Museums! But what? Education? Social? Digital media? Visitor experience—ahhhhhh.
Max: Theatre, app development, coffee, higher ed admin, museums, museums & teaching (some experiences commensurate).
If you weren’t working in the museum field, where would you be working?
Elissa:here are a few things I could see myself doing. The part of me that is looking outside museums right now is looking at doing service design full time for other public spaces, like airports and hospitals. I really want to help people’s physical needs become quieter so that they can do what they actually need to do in a space. There’s so much need there! And it feels so obvious, but so few people and firms are doing it. Another part of me would probably be working in the space industry or building boats—before college washed me out of mathematics, I had dreams of being an engineer. My fiancé also thinks I’d be a good speechwriter! The last woman he dated before we met was Hillary Clinton’s speechwriter during the ’08 campaign, who went on to be Michelle Obama’s speechwriter (yes, she wrote “when they go low, we go high”). They remain good friends, and when I started looking for new jobs, he linked us up right away. So many roads not taken.
Max: I would likely be developing theatrical productions about science. I used to have a company called Redshift Productions that facilitated collaboration among scientists and artists to create performances. In the course of working on those projects—some with museums—I began to be very interested in museums, and in how the work that I had been doing was in creating informal science learning experiences. I decided I would do that with museums, and now I have an appointment in the Michigan State University Department of Theatre and at the MSU Museum, so I get to do both these days!
On being a museum tech person
Who is one person you rely on to help you do your job? What do they do to help you?
Max: Teresa Goforth (Exhibitions Manager at the MSU Museum) and I have productive lunches about once a month, somewhere off MSU’s campus, so we can do more high-level thinking away from the constraints of what happens at the Museum. I find these occasions very valuable as a way to course correct or to refine thoughts toward another aspect of the work that we do.
Elissa: Lunches are the best thing for mentorship and friend-tor-ship. David McKenzie (now at Ford’s Theatre) and I worked together at the Jewish Historical Society of greater Washington, D.C., and seven years ago we started having lunch together about once a month to talk about our jobs. (On the day of the DC earthquake, I missed all of the excitement because I was biking back across the Mall from lunch with him and didn’t feel it!) When I’ve struggled with problems in, at, or with my job, he’s always been a ready counselor. As our jobs have circled back around to be more similar, we’ve grappled together with a lot of the same difficulties and helped each other work through them. For the first time in seven years, we’re finally working together again—our respective citizen history initiatives are feeding one another, and I’m advising an IMLS-funded project he’s helping lead at Ford’s.
How has your understanding of technology in museums changed over time?
Max: I have come to realize that by the time we deploy technologies for visitor experience, the tech, while it looks new, is already old. One example is a touchscreen application that we installed in the museum. While it looks new and it is an engaging experience, we had to use a display that is full HD, not the newer 4K technology, because the application does not work well with 4K displays. The rate of change in tech is so fast that we can’t catch up, especially when in a smaller organization with a limited budget.
Elissa: My understanding of technology hasn’t necessarily changed, but rather been sharpened. One of my colleagues at USHMM talks about good technologists as “cheptics”: we have to be cheerleaders to the technology-phobic, and skeptics to those who think technology is a magic bullet. In grad school, my instructors Dana Allen-Greil and Carrie Kotcho were really great about honing this middle ground with us. I’ve also dug way in on letting the content and audience lead to the right technology; I’ve built this one into my muscle memory. The biggest change has probably been on apps: I drank the shiny-object Kool-Aid early in my career, but now it would take an awful lot of convincing for me to say there’s a good museum app out there, or a good reason for one. I may have gone too far on this, and hope to come back to some better middle ground. Apps aren’t evil! They’ve just been used for evil, or at least for not-very-good, non-visitor-oriented, donor-driven, egotistical projects, in the past. We can do better.
How do you stay up to date with your tech skills? Does your job provide support for ongoing professional development?
Elissa: I stay up to date with my tech skills by learning from colleagues and reading blogs. My job at USHMM doesn’t require a lot of tech, outside of some writing for social media and the extent to which UX (user experience) research is a tech skill. I keep the latter up to date by spending a lot of time with visitors, testing out new protocols all the time, and being willing to fail quickly, learn, and try again. The visitors have always been my best teachers. The USHMM does provide for professional development, generally one conference a year, and I sent myself to two additional conferences this spring for my own professional growth: Interaction 17 and the Information Architecture Summit.
Max: I also stay up to date from colleagues and blogs. I find conferences like MCN and Museums and the Web indispensable for staying current not just about technology, but about the people working with technology. I also serve on the steering committee for the Digital Humanities (DH) program at Michigan State University and they hold a number of training sessions for varying technologies for use in the DH field, and much of that applies to what I do in the Museum.
What’s your go-to place to procrastinate on the internet?
Max: Twitter, Twitter, and more Twitter. Sometimes Facebook.
Elissa: Also all about the Twitterz, with the recent addition of sites about whatever wedding planning task we’re working on during a given week. (This week it’s ketubahs and invitations, so lots of time on ketubah.com and Minted.)
Advice to the newbies
What are three pieces of advice you’d give to someone starting out in the field?
- Every job is somewhere on the continuum between leadership and management. We lead for change, we manage for consistency. Since it is a continuum, that means that even if your role is closer to the management end, you still need to produce change. So look for the opportunities where that can happen and back up your efforts with data.
- Everything in a museum is education, marketing, public relations, and development. Learn a little about each of those areas, even if you are going into collections management or you really want to be a registrar. Your job is related to each of those areas, and it is your responsibility to figure out how.
- Figure out the things you really like to do, and do those. I’m a big fan of Gallup’s Strengthsfinder program, which focuses on turning “signature themes” (things that you are already good at, that energize you) into strengths. Focus on those things, and manage the things that don’t energize you.
- Don’t sell yourself short. I’ve been reading so many draft cover letters from emerging museum professionals where the applicants sell themselves short, almost seeming embarrassed about the skills they bring to the table. If you’re not excited about what you’re able to do and what you know, how can you get a stranger excited about you? Work with a partner, friend, or mentor. Discuss your work and your passions, and have their descriptions of what you do sing out even if you’re not feeling it. Sometimes we can be our own worst critics, and it helps to have someone outside the situation—outside your own head—remind you how cool you are.
- Get yourself out into the community. This might mean joining Twitter and participating in #museumedchat, going to a #drinkingaboutmuseums event, or attending a conference. Rule #1 applies here too: hold on to what excites you and bring that enthusiasm with you when you go. By and large, the museum tech community is a family of equals who were all in your shoes once and want you to succeed. Try not to be cowed by “superstars”—we’re all human, after all, and everyone is making it up as we go.
- Show your relevance to the rest of the museum. Max, I loved the idea that every job in the museum is related to every other job! The mirror of that advice is to figure out how to talk about your job in a way that shows its relevance to the whole museum. How does your work relate to the mission? How do you support collections, for instance, and how can collections support you? It’s so important to build connections around the museum, and the clearer you can be about what you do and why it matters, the easier those connections will be.
What do you think about the idea of work/life balance?
Elissa: I have a lot of thoughts on work-life balance. Just as I was leaving my social media job, which I’d let become a 24/7 job and was starting to scale back, my then-boyfriend was starting what was a 24/7 job in the Obama White House. This meant we couldn’t make evening or weekend plans until the last minute and would usually have to cancel, or, that when we could make them, he’d have to step out to take a phone call or review a document. In the past few months of his post-White House job he’s been leaving for work after me, getting home before me, and taking the lead on making plans to have people over. We’ve even hosted a few game nights mid-week! A job is a job; family is forever, mental health comes first, and in the museum field nothing—except maybe a leak or, heaven forbid, fire—really counts as an emergency. Go home. Have dinner. Hug your partner. I know I don’t want any member of my future family to ever feel like they play second fiddle to my job. It’s just not that important.
Max: Work life balance is something that MSU takes very seriously, but I think we are personally responsible for ensuring that happens. It can be hard when one has a dual appointment in the University, and many do. Sometimes it seems like everyone would like you 100% of the time, even when your appointment with them is, say 50%. But that ebbs and flows. I am fortunate to be in a place that takes it seriously (there’s a work/life program at MSU in the College of Arts and Letters), but I agree with your assertion that our personal lives are more important than our professional lives, and we need to remind ourselves of that often.
What skills did you learn on the job, or wish you’d had before starting?
Max: A significant part of my job is teaching, and I learned about designing a college-level course while on the job. I’m constantly making adjustments to my courses during the semester, and after each section is done. That has informed my thinking about exhibition design, and now I’m much more comfortable with making changes while an exhibition is open than I thought I would be.
Elissa: Everything I know so far about doing UX (user experience) and VX (visitor experience) research. I really fell into service design through a totally different project, and came to realize that doing good UX or VX research combined my skills as an educator (including general fearlessness about approaching random strangers), my grad school work on evaluation, and my desire to work towards a mission through serving the public. I’ve shadowed/interviewed/interrogated our awesome UX designers at the Holocaust Museum, read loads, and gone to conferences to hone my skills, but the bulk of it has been learned day by day through trial and error on the floor.
Can you share a favorite memory from a past MCN conference? It doesn’t need to be a session, it can be a favorite social memory/funny story.
Elissa: Wrapping up our Ignite talk at MCN2015 and hearing the cheers of an amazingly supportive crowd, and feeling like I’d come home. That, or becoming best friends with Jason Alderman shortly after meeting him because we were cracking up at this painting together, and discovered that we make awesome museum buddies. I haven’t laughed that hard in a museum in a really long time.
Max: You and I were together, preparing for our session “Digital Careers at a Crossroads: Next Steps and New Paths” at MCN201. We were in a shared Google Doc, while Chad Weinard was also working on it from another location. Chad was generating an idea and e suddenly changed what he had originally written to “Managers: not understanding digital is like saying you don’t understand budgeting. It’s not an option anymore.” You and I looked up at each other in excitement, knowing that he found the perfect thing to say in that moment of the session, and we were ready to present. Merete Sanderhoff tweeted out that quote; it was liked 128 times and retweeted 69 times. Of course, Jason Alderman’s sketch note of that session was also a huge highlight.
I already know you have participated in MCN Karaoke, so what was your favorite rendition out of any time you attended?
Elissa: My favorite is the first time I sang “Like a Prayer,” which is one of my two go-tos along with Journey’s “Separate Ways.” I love doing karaoke for the first time with a new group and knocking people’s socks off—not because I’m that good, but because somehow people don’t see me as being a big karaoke person. 🙂 I had backup dancers! For songs I don’t sing, Koven Smith’s annual “Ignition (Remix)” rendition is a highlight every time, and Tim Svenonius (whose brother is a legit rock star) is another dark horse with a delicious bass voice that surprises everyone.
Max: I have found that mid- to late-80’s hair metal works really well for me. At the last MCN Karaoke, Nikhil Trivedi and I performed a rousing “Here I Go Again” by Whitesnake, the likes of which I’m not sure can be matched. 🙂