Brad Dunn, Web and Digital Communications Director, Field Museum (@badunn) and Gavin Mallory, Production Director at Cogapp (@Gavin_Mallory ) met for the first time doing this interview. They found common ground on doing meaningful work; where museums should be taking digital; their career paths, beer, and Patrick Stewart.
Background and Current Job
Brad: We have similar backgrounds, don’t we? What was your background before you got into museums, and then what led you to getting into museums?
Gavin: I’ve been at Cogapp since January 2006 and I’m now our Production Director.
Before that, I was a teacher in Japan for a couple of years, teaching English and before that, I worked in London, in Soho for a post-production house, film and advertising. I always wanted to work in TV and film so studied media at college and at university.
While I was living and working in London, I had access to some of the greatest museums in the world. I used to swing by those on my lunch break, and visit at weekends. That was where I developed a real love for museums and for art.
I took that with me to Japan where I discovered Yayoi Kusama (before she was cool!) and I’ve continued to nurture that passion through my work here at Cogapp, where we primarily work with museums, and art galleries, and cultural institutions creating digital products. It’s a marriage of all the things that I really enjoy.
Yayoi Kusama exhibit, Matsumoto Art Museum, 2005
Gavin: Tell us about your background.
Brad: I started as a sound engineer in theater. My first internship was on the national tour of the Phantom of the Opera. Then I worked at a big theater festival in South Carolina called Spoleto festival and then on to Lion King pre-Broadway for a bit.
Those were my very formative experiences, but the other thing that came out of it was, I worked with all these amazing artists, like Phillip Glass, Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, some big operas. I worked with Patrick Stewart once for a week. All of that was great, but then the one thing I realized was that I’m basically going to be underneath a stage or crawling through a ceiling, dressed in all black for my entire life. I also was really interested in the storytelling aspect. I would get in trouble for not getting my work done because I was always trying to sit near the director and listen in and learn that part of things.
When I started out, I think I was doing work that wasn’t that interesting. Over time, I got better and better clients, until I was working with big cultural organizations and doing some meaningful work.
I had started this small company with a friend, and our positioning statement was literally, “Experiential and interactive design for cultural institutions.” Then I got a call from The Field Museum asking if I was interested in this new position they created and I said “no,” like a dum-dum, because I had worked so hard to get my company off the ground. Then I told my friend. He said to stop being dumb and go get the job. I called the museum back here and got very lucky.
Gavin: Are you and the friend you started the company with still friends?
Brad: Yeah, yeah, very good friend, actually.
Gavin: The phrase that you used just now that really jumped out was, “You’ve got more clients, and then you got to do more meaningful work.” It’s interesting to hear that being one of your drivers to do work that is meaningful and that matters in some way. That’s definitely a thing that drives me.
Brad: Then, tell me a little about what you’re doing right now at Cogapp?
Gavin: I am currently working with the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, and we are working to put their collection online. They’re a really interesting organization, because it’s a one-artist museum. They have somewhere in the region of 95% of his entire life’s output. They’ve pretty much got everything, including sketches, and diaries, and his record collection, the whole lot.
We’ve done a lot of online collections and archives over the years for the National Portrait Gallery, Yiddish Book Center and going back further previous versions of the Met’s and MOMA’s. The Clyfford Still Museum Online Collection is the first I’ve been involved with that is a one-artist collection, which actually changes things more than perhaps I’d anticipated. That’s been really interesting.
As a client, they’ve been really wonderful. You said that working with your friends, the only way you can do it is to be friendly enough that you can be completely honest with each other without taking it personally, and certainly that reflects the best projects I’ve worked on: working with people in the museum I get on really well with, but crucially that we can be direct and open with each other.
I’m working with education director, Sarah Wambold at Clyfford Still, and we have that kind of a relationship. The major project I worked on before that was for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Same deal there. I was working closely with Heidi Quicksilver, who’s currently their interim vice president of technology, and she’s the same. We can hang out, we can have a beer, we can have a chat, but then when we do work, we can be honest and direct with each other.
If you have that strong relationship and that strong ability to communicate, I think that’s where success comes in. I have found that the root of problems on projects is usually communication – poor communication, or lack of communication.
I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent, you asked me what were we working on. That’s a couple of examples, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Clyfford Still Museum. We also work with an organization here in the UK called Liberty, who stand up for human rights. They’re primarily a group of lawyers, but also, it’s a membership organization and a campaigning organization. We work with their digital team a lot on drumming up members and campaigning for human rights, in its broadest sense, in the UK.
Human Rights is another thing that I care about, and I care a lot more about it the more I’ve got to work with Liberty. Meaningful work. I think it all comes back to that, things that mean something on a personal level.
Finding the Right Technology
Brad: Then, that makes me think of another question. We’re drawn to this work because we like technology. I think that’s probably true about most of us who do this kind of work. I’m kind of presuming a lot, so feel free to shoot down the premise. How do you balance your fascination with technology and your desire to try new technologies, to learn new things, but also prioritize the content, the substance of the work or the client work that you’re doing?
Gavin: This is an interesting thing that really you sparked in my mind in our introductory email exchange. You said something about having a lighter touch of technology, and creating meaningful experiences.
Brad: I don’t remember exactly, but that’s something I do talk a lot about. There was this turning point for me in my life, in my early 30s, I’m 44 now, where it became all about the user. Even in the face of the client need or desire, it became all about user needs, first and foremost. When I focused in on that, I think the work I was doing improved. I think basically putting people first, and putting needs and desires first, and focusing on the substance has helped me through. I guess I projected onto you my own neuroses. It’s helped me through moments of technology fetish. It’s helped be my guiding principle, essentially, and helped the work be more meaningful. It also helped me in my career to just start saying no to a lot of things. Like, “Here’s what I’m going to do, and here’s what I’m not going to do.”
When you get on a bit in age, and you’ve got kids like I do, there is a little bit of anxiety about employment and income. What I actually found was that the more that I just focused on what it is I really wanted to do, and focused on meaningful work, and wasn’t afraid to say no to things that just weren’t a right fit, and got rid of all the fear and anxiety that I’d be missing out on an opportunity, the better my career. My career started taking all the right turns the more I focused in. I don’t have any idea if that’s at all what you were thinking of.
Gavin: No, it’s the same kind of vibe. To answer your original question, in the Cogapp context, my fields are more in user experience than in technology. When we’re having meetings, or discussions, or creative ideas, I’m often the voice of the user, and colleagues are the voice of technology. I’m relating very much to what you’re talking about.
The things that challenge me and that I have concerns about are technology for technology’s sake. For example, we’re working with Clyfford Still Museum now. He was one of the founding fathers of abstract impressionism. His paintings, particularly the later ones, are extremely abstract. We had this idea of, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we took all of his paintings, and each of them was a pixel, and it made up a brand new Clyfford Still image, and you could scroll over, and you could see all the works in it?”
Yeah, it might be fun, and it might be a cool thing for us to tell people about, but actually, is that a meaningful experience? Is that a useful way to navigate through this body of work? Is it going to be a fun experience? The value in that was all about technology and cleverness, and not actually in any real depth of engagement. I think, for me, that’s where the meaning comes in. It’s not just, “Oh, that was fun, and I scrolled around some things, and I saw a couple of pictures I liked,” but it must be deeper than that.
That’s what I’m really interested in tapping into, and something I’m trying to bring to every project I do. The challenge around deeper engagement is finding the right way to do it, and for the right audience, and defining your audience, and being able to deliver it. It’s too easy to do something superficial and think just because it’s to do with art, or just because it’s to do with a museum, then it therefore has gravitas built in. We can do a lot more with digital than we can with physical, and I’m not sure all of us – I’m not sure any of us – have pushed that as far as we need to yet, to create a different space, potentially, online, and how museums and galleries represent themselves online and digitally versus physically.
The digital and physical experience are becoming further apart. They were so intertwined, even five years ago, much more intertwined than now. But, if we can pull those things apart, then the digital aspects hold real opportunities to engage deeply, and meaningfully, and differently to the real-world experience you have in-gallery.
On Innovation and Pushing Boundaries
Brad: You kind of hit upon a thing that’s a little bit of a pet peeve of mine, something that I desperately want the world to get better at, which is a tall order. Perhaps I’ll just shoot for museums for right now. One of my pet peeves is when we don’t have the discipline to push an idea far enough. When we settle for the technology thing that is cool or the big idea that seems cool. That’s only the beginning of it. I think sometimes change can be so hard that when people come upon an idea that excites them, that, I guess it’s the endorphin rush in that exciting moment when you have an idea or discover a new piece of technology that excites you. People begin to push forward on a thing before they’ve really thought it through. I think a lot of workplaces, not just museums, but definitely I’ve seen it in museums and here in our own museum, where we’ll push an idea through that’s not been fully baked yet.
That process of thinking a thing through and really making sure it meets up to a strategy, some people can look down upon it, because it can be so hard to get things done in museums that when people get momentum they just want to keep going. That environment is tough sometimes, because I can totally, and I think I’ve been guilty of it myself, pushing something through just to keep the momentum going, but stopping … I desire for museums to have a space to stop and have the discipline to push an idea more deeply, to think through all of the details, to evolve it, to edit things out that don’t work, like shooting a film. Edit things out, make choices, and not just push the thing through that’s not fully baked.
I think there’s a few museums doing this really well, but overall, I think that it’s a challenge, and one that we would be well-served to address. It takes courage and discipline, and not everyone’s great at it, that’s for sure.
Gavin: I completely agree, and that the kind of discipline it takes, it’s exactly what you’re saying. Edit things out, and do less things really well. Do something reasonably simple, but do it really well. I’m reminded of the SFMOMA Send Me. That’s a really simple idea, and it really works. I’m sure they had conversations where, “You could say send me, but you could also say email me, and we could do it for all these different platforms.” By cutting it right down to something that is instantly understandable, then it works, and it works really well. Have you done it, Brad?
Brad: I did. I started playing with it right away. I actually sent it to my boss, as well.
Gavin: Cool. What did you get back from it?
Brad: I said, “Send me George Washington,” I have no idea why, and I got Robert Arneson’s sculpture “A Portrait of George Muscone” from 1981. Then, I said, “Send me dinner.” I got Jackson Pollock “Guardians of the Secret” from 1943. The second one is so random, but it’s such a moment of delight that comes out of that randomness. It’s just so fun, and it doesn’t have to be so serious.
Gavin: Yeah, and I can imagine that in that moment when you get that, you say, “Well, I asked for dinner, and I got this.” That becomes your deeper engagement of trying to make that connection.
Gavin: Makes you look at that artwork in a different way to how you would if you saw it in a gallery, perhaps.
Brad: Yeah, and there’s some randomness to it. I don’t know that I would be drawn necessarily to seek out the sculpture “A Portrait of George Muscone” if I visited SFMOMA, but I am very interested in seeing this Jackson Pollock up close. It’s probably done its job. I guess what I would wonder is, how much time did they spend? Was this the original idea, and it didn’t take much tweaking, or how many changes did it go through to become this simplified? Of course, on the back end I’m sure it’s not actually that simple, the algorithm that matches up words to artwork.
Iterating and Editing
Gavin: This conversation reminds me of a project from a few years ago for the Baltimore Museum of Art, to accompany the opening of their new contemporary gallery. I flew over and did user testing of this webapp we were building. The gallery was still being built, so we printed out some works and pinned them to the wall, then had people come in and use an initial prototype on their phone.
We learnt a lot. The biggest takeaway was to cut stuff out.
The prototype was jam-packed with functionality but actually, the only things that people wanted to do was find the work, find something out about it, and the look at the art in real-life, which makes a lot of sense. All the extra functionality and mobile interactions were not augmenting the experience. They were getting in the way.
The finished product actually seems really simple. When I showed it to my wife she said “How come you had to go all the way to America to figure out that this was a good idea?” Actually, we had to go to figure out all the stuff that was the bad idea and leave us only with the really good ideas.
Brad: It’s almost time to wrap. I did have two things I wanted to ask. How did you make the jump from your early work in Film and TV to digital? How did that work for you?
Gavin: I made the jump really through demonstrating communication, management and UX skills rather than technical skills. So I had experience of managing projects from TV, and the teaching role lent itself well to the UX side of things.
Brad: Oh, sure.
Gavin: Is that answering your question?
Brad: Yeah, that’s perfect, because I think, I don’t know about you, but I get approached all the time about how to get started in museums. I find it interesting because a lot of younger people, including two of my staff here, have actual masters degrees in museum studies. That didn’t even exist when I was in school. My path was very different from theirs. This is something they knew they wanted to do. There’s a lot of other people that are interested in museums that don’t have the formal education.
I think people’s paths are very interesting. Mine felt so random for so long. It wasn’t until I realized there actually was something threading them all together.
Gavin: Yeah, I feel the same, I feel the same, like everything has kind of led to today.
Gavin: Most of the people that I work with, there’s 13 of us altogether, and the majority are developers or programmers. Of those, only a couple have studied computing at university. We’ve got an atmospheric chemist, a mathematician, a philosopher, a journalist, a sound engineer. There’s a whole bunch of different backgrounds.
I feel that’s a real positive, because people have a kind of broader view of the world, a wider breadth of experience that they can then bring to their work. Because, it’s not just programming, when you’re doing museum work like this. You’re not just churning stuff out. In order to do that thing that we’re talking about – make it meaningful – you’ve got to understand the content, and you’ve got to be able to engage with it deeply as you create, in order for then, the people that end up using it to engage deeply in that same way.
Brad: Yeah, that’s well-put. I totally believe in that — having the well-rounded life experience. It can be a bit of a challenge in some areas, because with some of these jobs the expertise is with younger people, and the jobs themselves tend to be newer, right?
Brad: It is interesting. Then the other question I wanted to end with is, do you have a favorite beer?
Gavin: I do. I have a few favorite beers. What’s yours?
Brad: Hands down, La Fin Du Monde from Unibroue in Quebec.
Gavin: I’ve never had that.
Brad: It’s sublime. It’s amazing. I don’t know if you can get it there, but I highly recommend it.
Gavin: I’ll hunt it down. If not, then maybe we could find some in Pittsburgh.
Brad: Yeah, I bet we can.
Gavin: For me, it changes regularly. At the moment it’s probably one called Hophead, which is a local one by a brewery called Dark Star. They’re really close to where I live, and here in Brighton where I work. That’s very nice. There’s also a brewery even closer called the Harveys Brewery. Their pint of Best Bitter is a kind of murky, brown, flat, warm drink that I really enjoy.
Brad: I’m seeing a theme that your favorite beers are the beers closest by.
Gavin: Ha ha, yeah. I like any beer that’s close to hand.
Brad: That’s perfect. That’s probably a perfect way to wrap up. It’s been really nice to talk to you.
Gavin: Yeah, likewise. It’s been fun.
Brad: All right, Gavin, so we’ll talk soon, then.
Gavin: Talk to you soon.
The deleted, only partially-edited but very real beginning of the call:
(inspired by Koven Smith and Liz Filardi)
Gavin: Okay, I am currently recording.
Brad: Are you still there?
Gavin: Yeah, I’m still here. I was trying to remember how to use our telephone system, there’s a special code that you can press that records it.
Brad: I will hang tight. You’re on the call, but I don’t hear you.
Gavin: Ah, okay, you can’t hear me.
Brad: Okay, can you still hear me?
Gavin: How about now, is that better?
Brad: I just tested the video.
Gavin: Can you hear me? Because I’ve lost you. Yeah, I can’t hear you at the moment. I don’t know if you can hear me. I can hear you now.
Brad: Okay, great.
Gavin: This is going really well.
Brad: We’re off to a stupendous start here.
Gavin: I’m really pleased we’re not livestreaming this or anything, can you imagine?
Brad: It’s really amazing that we both work in digital.