For the Record: How Times have Changed for Museum Registrars

By Sheila Carey

 

The MCN job description history team has been mining #musetech jobs over the last 50 years to learn about the evolution of our field. In this post, we’re on the island of registrarial positions. I’m looking at how the registrar’s job has changed over MCN’s lifetime, and in this post I’ll be using “registrar” and “collections management positions” interchangeably. I didn’t dive through archives, although I did dust off a few old (paper!) publications in the hunt for descriptions of registrarial jobs in the past with an emphasis on jobs from the 1960’s through the 1990’s.

A history of the Canadian National Museum of Science and Technology lists the responsibilities of the registrar in 1968 as: responsibility for all loans of artifacts, incoming and outgoing, arranging for transportation, as well as responsibility for creating, maintaining, and preserving the collections records. In 1968, a newly hired registrar drafted a worksheet to help curators document their acquisitions so that they could be fully catalogued in the form of an acquisition record form. In the 1970s a longer and more elaborate worksheet was created with expanded information about the acquisition along with qualitative information about the item’s geographical area and period of use.

This cataloguing work gained new importance in 1972 with the creation of the National Inventory Programme, which later became the Canadian Heritage Information Network, a federal initiative intended to create a computer-based inventory of Canadian cultural and scientific collections. This was a centralized inventory with a few terminals in larger Canadian museums. While the system was digital, there was still emphasis on printing reports and creating new catalogue cards and cross-reference cards. In some museums, registrars were dealing with paper and digital records. A 1978 article about the National Inventory Programme system described the “speed afforded through modern technology allowing a fine-arts record to be displayed in a specially designed format on the screen. A print of this record may be ordered on paper or card stock.” So, the jobs were changing, but the way of working was still very much paper-based. It’s a bit amusing to see the somewhat awed description and one can’t help wondering just how speedy it actually was!

One of the National Inventories Programme Univac 90/30 mainframe computers (Photos from the Canadian Heritage Information Network).

 

According to a brochure, memory sizes for this model ranged from a minimum of 32,768 bytes to a maximum of 262,144 bytes

 

Vucom Terminal (Photo from the Canadian Heritage Information Network)

 

A 1979 publication by the Canadian Museums Association described the primary duties and responsibilities as: compilation of clear and accurate records, accessions, carrying out limited research for documentation, recording gifts, loans and bequests, planning and supervising location and movement of objects in the collection or those borrowed, and assuming responsibility for insurance and contractual matters regarding the collection. Still in a paper world, the list also refers to classification cards, category and cross-reference cards along with maintenance of an accession book. The suggested qualifications included formal training in records management, a rudimentary level of museum studies training and effective written communication skills. No reference was made to computer training. Another 1979 research publication “Profile of a Museum Registrar” was written with the aim of providing helpful data toward the development of materials and methods for the training and education of museum registrars. The authors surveyed registrars and museum directors about the preferred setting, course content, and faculty for professional training. Regarding technology, some registrars commented that they had very little exposure to theory or application of computers, and several registrars commented that a critical lack was that they did not know how to type! However, in topics selected for study, “Cataloging by Computer’ was relatively low in order of preference along with “Film and Videotape Production” and “Importing/Exporting.”

A decade later, as shown in the first post of this series, the National Museum of American Art posted a job in the “developing field of museum work,” an internship with an Art History or Information Management background to “work on a new on-line database of the museum’s collection.” Duties involved interpreting and reconfiguring data. The word “data” had entered museum collection jobs, and collections jobs were becoming more frequently automated. With desktop computers becoming more common, the pace of change was accelerating.

A 1993 classified ad from the Detroit Institute for the Arts in the Office of the Registrar was quite a bit heavier on some more specialized skills as well as “computer literacy,” something not required a decade prior, but required everywhere now. As Sean Blinn points out, it’s a skill that is expected these days.

In the 90s, collections managers had new challenges to deal with when faced with the World Wide Web. Not only had they had to transition from paper records to electronic, but these records were also beginning to be shared online! Records that had been developed for internal record-keeping were suddenly being exposed to the eyes of the public, and new issues related to putting images online would arise as well. This is still a topic of discussion in some museums where they may not be keen to expose their research-focused records and related images.  Undaunted, registrars have faced these challenges and now records are not only online, but increasingly being made available in open formats.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access on Github: https://github.com/metmuseum/openaccess

 

As Sarah Outhwaite’s post noted, registrars may have been the pioneers for modern tech-savvy museum staff. In MCN’s lifespan, collection records have come out of their cabinets onto computers and into the public space.

Are you a registrar?  How have these technological changes impacted your job and what new jobs might support initiatives in which you’re involved?  What do you think will happen next?

 

Sources:

Canadian Museums Association. A Guide to Museum Positions: Including a Statement on the Ethical Behaviour of Museum Professionals, 1979.

Getting Things Done: 1967 – 1981. Building a National Museum of Science and Technology

https://ingeniumcanada.org/scitech/doc/content/cstm/content-getting-things-done.pdf

Hoachlander, Marjorie E., Profile of a Museum Registrar, Academy for Educational Development,  Washington, D.C., 1979.

Homulos, Peter S. “The Canadian National Inventory Programme.” Museum Vol. XXX, 3 / 4 1978.

http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0012/001272/127275eo.pdf

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#MCN50 Voices: Darren Milligan & Marla Misunas

This year MCN celebrates its 50th anniversary. Just as MCN has established a network of established and emerging professionals, #MCN50 Voices brings members together, old and new, near and far.

 

Darren Milligan is a Senior Digital Strategist at the Smithsonian’s Center for Learning and Digital Access and the current Secretary of MCN’s Board of Directors Executive Committee. Marla Misunas is a former MCN President and board member currently working as the Collections Information Manager at SFMOMA and an Adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins University. They discussed the highs and lows of MCN’s organizational structure, what it’s like to make a commitment to serve on the board, and shared an exciting vision for MCN’s future. Also, they really want go to London.

 

Darren: So, shall we start off by introducing ourselves and how we are connected with MCN?

 

Marla: I’m a long-time MCNer; my first conference was in San Diego in 1995. I founded the California SIG, which lasted from 1999-2014; was on the Board 1999-2005, and was President from 2005-2007. Since I termed out I’ve been enjoying watching the organization grow and change, with better and better conferences, and broader diversity in speakers, conference attendees, and membership. I’ve worked in museum technology on the database side for twenty-five years. In the early days, MCN was really the only way to connect with people who knew what I was talking about, who had the same concerns.

 

Darren: For the past twelve years I have led digital initiatives for the Smithsonian’s “central” office of education, once called the Center for Education and Museum Studies, and now the Center for Learning and Digital Access. My MCN connection began in 2010, in Austin. While it was not my first conference, it was my first time speaking at a professional conference and I was absolutely terrified. For some reason, I had pictured myself on a giant stage, cowering behind a podium, in front of hundreds of my peers digging for the holes in my argument. I found the opposite, of course, a room with a few dozen encouraging and curious friends and colleagues. I have attended almost every year since and continue to revel in the warmth and generosity of the community that MCN supports. This past year, I was fortunate enough to join the Board and am serving on the Executive Committee as Secretary.

 

Darren: Marla, when you first joined the Board in the mid 90s, what made you want to sign up? Was there a pet project you wanted to accomplish, and did it happen?

 

Marla: The real answer to this question is Leslie Johnston (currently the Director of Digital Preservation at the National Archives). She was on the Board when I attended MCN in 1995. I shared a cab to the airport with her post-conference, and I was so impressed with her ideas and her commitment, that I thought being on the Board of MCN was probably the coolest thing I could ever do.

Although I didn’t have a specific pet project, my goal has always been to de-mystify museum technology and make it easier for people who consider themselves “non-techie” to understand, and to participate in. Making sure there was a wide variety of skill levels represented in the conference programs was always important for me.

But my mission on the Board was to put MCN in the black. When I joined, we were suffering from extremely low finances, due to a disastrous situation with a conference hotel. The other Board members, President Chuck Patch, and I vowed that MCN wasn’t going down on our watch! The conference I chaired that first year actually made money for MCN for the first time since anyone could remember.

When I was President, we were able to institute a new website, put on some successful conferences, and create a strategic plan.

 

Darren: So incredible! I remember, when we met during the 2017 MCN Archives Dive here at the Smithsonian how shocked I was to hear how the organization really had teetered on the edge; how, more than once, it had really come so close to disappearing. The Board finds itself in a similar, if not so precarious (luckily) situation now. Stemming from your intervention, the conference continues to be the activity that sustains the organization, but we are always in danger of relying too much on the conference for survival. We are working obsessively right now to find a way to ensure the organization can survive without absolute reliance on that event.

I should back up: I decided to join the Board as many of my most cherished colleagues here at the Smithsonian had previously served and I had learned what an incredible opportunity it had been for them to meet new people, grow professionally, and give back to the organization that had helped their own skills (and careers) develop. What an incredible opportunity to work alongside colleagues, peers, and frankly GLAM-crushes! I am happy now to be part of this group and help it become even stronger.

For me, as well, there really wasn’t a specific project that I came in hoping to achieve. Actually, right now the Board and the organization are at a really healthy moment. We have our first full time Executive Director, and we continue to professionalize many of the aspects of managing this non-profit. I am currently working, alongside other members of the Executive Team, on researching and developing that new approach to sustaining the organization. We are exploring a wide variety of membership offerings that we are all very excited to start sharing (soon) with everyone.

 

Marla: From your perspective as a new member, what are the top issues facing the Board?

 

Darren: I think the Board and the organization are in a moment of evolution, which is extremely exciting. Budget is always an issue and we are working to see if we can successfully transform MCN into a true membership organization. This will help. We too are at a time of growth, which is exciting, but also dangerous, as an organization that successfully served the needs of a few hundred might not be the same type of organization that can serve five hundred or more. We are working to figure that out. How to not spoil the uniqueness and community vibe of MCN when that community expands is what is very important to the Board right now.

 

Marla: If you were asking me this, I’d say, the budget, membership, and whether or not to charge for MCN-L (the listserv). OK, maybe sort of kidding about the last one. But it came up a lot.

From the 2006 membership survey, top three, in order: online collections access, digital asset management systems, and digital preservation.

 

Marla: I think we can probably both answer this one. Why should someone run for the Board, and what advice do we have for future Board members?

 

Marla: Running for and serving on the Board is a great feather in anyone’s cap. It’s great for your own professional development, and helps you build your network of colleagues that will most likely persist throughout your career.

To future Board members, I’d say, go in with both eyes open. Be sure you’re ready for the level of commitment that’s going to be asked of you. The more you put into your service on the Board, the more you’ll get out of it—it will be frustrating, but it’ll also be satisfying and fun.

 

Darren: I couldn’t agree more. It is an incredible opportunity for professional development; a glimpse inside the management of a non-profit, and an incredible way to connect with those outside your museum. But this is a working Board, so it’s not just your brilliant insights that the organization needs, but your week upon week of time and effort. It is worth it in the end, though.

 

Darren: I think we should both weigh in on this one too! If we could plan an MCN conference in any city, which one would it be, and why? (Are you listening MCN Conference Committee?)

 

Marla: I would love to plan a conference in London. Not only is London an amazing museum city, but the UK museum community has done a lot of great things in terms of organization, standards, technology, you name it. A London location would also attract larger numbers of European museum professionals, which is always a huge boost for the conference in terms of the variety of attendees and the institutions they represent. We could partner with someone like the Museums Computer Group. I’d sign up for that.

 

Darren: I love the idea of London! Connecting with the MCG group, incredible museums and universities, and tapping into the digital museum folks there would be a great bridge and perhaps help to grow the international attendance at future US-based conferences. You’ve got my vote!

I was at a meeting in Monterey this year, at a conference facility called Asilomar. It was built in the early twentieth century as a scout camp, all lodgy—perched right on the edge of the ocean. Everyone attending that event stayed onsite in one of their lodge-like buildings, shared meals together in a communal dining hall, etc. The whole time, I was wishing all my MCN family could be there in a similar situation. Trapped, perhaps, but so super concentrated. It would be interesting…

 

Marla: I love Asilomar and the beach there. It would be a great place for a conference! The concentrated togetherness would be great for team building.

 

Marla: Where do you see MCN in ten years? What differences do you predict, or will the organization be mostly the same?

 

Darren: It will be interesting to see where an organization developed to support technologists within museums evolves as those responsibilities become even further integrated into the roles of all museum professionals, right?

 

Marla: I predict a solid, robust organization that’s composed of the same caliber of innovative, smart, and generous people that we have at present. I’m excited at the possibilities of greater involvement by members scattered all over the world.

 

Darren: Am I sensing an interest in your responses to internationalize the organization more? I have to agree with you. As we strive to become “more than just a conference,” I hope our brand and what we offer to our members is not seen as a U.S. offering, but rather the organization can be one that supports a global cohort of change makers and technologists.

 

Darren: What do you think MCN does really well? In what area(s) do you think MCN has the most room for improvement?

 

Marla: MCN does a great job with conferences, and MCN’s greatest asset is its people. The people at the conferences, the people on the listserv, MCN’s Board and committees, and the MCN staff are all passionate about museum work, and about sharing their successes and near misses. MCNers are generous with their time and valuable experience, especially when it comes to helping colleagues figure out the latest puzzle.

In my experience, one of the areas for improvement is in keeping track of MCN’s own history and accomplishments. We have always been a forward-looking organization, but that has meant while we are achieving the next big thing, the big things we did last year get lost and forgotten.

MCN’s organizational archives are held at the Smithsonian archives, and some of us have been working with that material. I hope we can surface more of our history, and sustain it. In the past we’ve had trouble with continuity, so I hope we can improve on that.

 

Darren: Sounds to me like the Board might want to consider an historian role, someone to make sure, on a year by year basis, that we maintain our records and ensure that, 50 years from now, those who come after us, aren’t struggling, as we did, to put together the pieces of the organization’s history.

 

Proudest MCN moment so far?

Marla: I had quite a few proudest moments associated with MCN, and it’s hard to pick just one.

So here are my top three:

 

3. Pasadena, 2006. I probably never stopped grinning for the entire conference in Pasadena.

I was so proud to address the crowd as MCN’s president, do all the thank-yous, and introduce Ken Hamma, our keynote speaker. I’d been very involved in planning that conference, and seeing it come to fruition was a fabulous thing.

2. Taipei, 2007, inaugurating the Taiwan chapter of MCN, on national TV in Taiwan. We were there while a huge national digitization conference was happening, and we were treated like royalty. It was the one and only time I’ve ever been on TV, anywhere. Establishing this alliance with our colleagues in Taiwan was not only groundbreaking and exciting, but we made some good friends there, too.

1. Las Vegas, 2003, chairing the annual conference. The program was outstanding and attendance was too. But hosting the conference reception at the Liberace Museum (since closed), complete with Will Collins, a wonderful, piano-playing Liberace tribute artist, was absolutely the best. The pictures from that party remain my favorites of all the MCN reception photos. Will was resplendent in Liberace’s capes and rings, and we had a blast with him.

 

Darren: I think my proudest moment might be yet to come. I am so looking forward to being in Pittsburgh in November to celebrate the 50th anniversary. On top of its usual firehouse of inspiration and wisdom, it’s just going to be a weeklong party, a great time to reflect on how museums have changed and how all of our careers have been created and evolved over the past decades. See you there, Marla, right?

 

Marla: Wouldn’t miss it!

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MCN 2017 Scholars look forward to Pittsburgh!

Our #MCN2017 Scholars are looking forward to the conference in Pittsburgh, get to know them below and find out what they are looking to learn about this year.

Ben Fast

Headshot of MCN 2017 Scholar Ben Fast

How did you learn about MCN?
I heard about MCN through Twitter first, but only really paid attention to it when two long-distance colleagues of mine got involved.  Luc Desmarais was an MCN Scholar in 2016 and Mairin Kerr was involved with the program committee.  I signed up for the program committee and was planning on attending but got a job on the other side of Canada so had to pull out.  I’m very glad to be back in 2017!

What are you looking forward to most at the conference?
I’m looking forward to the networking and informal conversations most.  I love meeting new people doing similar work to me and seeing how our paths/jobs/projects can overlap.  There are so many amazing projects to learn from, and people are always so passionate about them while at conferences.  The sessions are a close second for me, though.  I am particularly interested in the variety of types of sessions at this year’s conference, from the very formal to the rather informal.  It will be cool to see how they work and how people learn differently in them.  There were so many great topics that I had trouble choosing what I wanted to attend!

How do you feel about being an MCN scholar?
I am very excited to be an MCN Scholar, though also a bit nervous.  My project seems quite different than my co-presenters, and I hope it is of interest to them.  I am excited for the chance to bring some Canadian flavour to the conference and show off what’s happening north of the border while learning from and meeting so many great international and American delegates.  Since we only have 5 minutes, I’m sure it will be all over in the blink of an eye!

This year MCN turns 50. How do you feel about being part of the 50th anniversary? What’s something you’d like to explore with MCN in the future?
I am very happy to be involved with MCN during the 50th anniversary conference.  Any big milestone presents good opportunities for looking back at where we’ve come from and looking forward to where we’re going.  The museum field is advancing rapidly and MCN presents a good place for exploring the absolute forefront of that advance.  The delegates, presenters, and host venues are all inspirational and will be the basis of those next 50 years.  I’m excited to see how MCN leads the museum field into a new era of technology and digital work environments – it will be a great ride!

What are you looking to share with the MCN community?
I am looking to share my passion for museums with the MCN community!  Coming from a museums association, my take on digital projects and impacts on museums may be from a more arms-length perspective, but I also see it from an industry-wide perspective.  My location also provides a good small museum perspective that may not come across in the big high-visibility projects normally represented at these big conferences, so I hope my questions about feasible implementation and realistic expectations will challenge some in the community and spark discussions about digital across the entire museum sector.

 

Karen Vidangos

Headshot of MCN 2017 Scholar Karen Vidangos

How did you learn about MCN?
I learned about MCN through Suse Anderson who was my social media professor in graduate school at GWU.
What are you looking forward to most at the conference?
Meeting everyone! I have made so many wonderful online connections since starting A Latina in Museums so it will be amazing to finally meet some of these great people in person. I’m also excited to hear, learn, and be inspired by all the professionals in the field speaking on digital engagement.

How do you feel about being an MCN scholar?
I was excited when I found out that I would be an MCN Scholar. I’m at the beginning of my career and it has certainly marked a turning point where I realized that what I am doing is meaningful to more than just myself. A Latina in Museums was meant to be a personal endeavor but being able to share it with the MCN community as a scholar will be the first time I speak on it to a group and I will certainly cherish that opportunity.

This year MCN turns 50. How do you feel about being part of the 50th anniversary?
I think it is an exciting time to be a new member of the MCN community. I came at the right moment when so many voices in our field are looking back at the past 50 years and having important discussions on what it means to challenge ourselves in a quickly evolving digital world (#MCNVoices). I’m glad to be part of it.

What’s something you’d like to explore with MCN in the future?
In the future I’d like to explore the data on what we know about social media use to discuss how to have a more inclusive and diverse digital presence for our growing, diverse audiences. According to the Pew Research Center, Hispanics lead the general population in social media use but yet too little is done to reach them in our museums.

What are you looking to share with the MCN community?
I’m looking to share my enthusiasm about diversity and how we can all learn to be more intersectional in the digital world of museums. I have so much to learn from this wonderful community and I look forward to making my contributions as well!

 

Samantha Norling

Headshot of MCN 2017 Scholar Sami Norling

How did you learn about MCN?
I first learned about MCN from my colleagues at the Indianapolis Museum of Art who regularly shared interesting things that they had learned about during the annual meeting or in their regular involvement in SIGs. As a trained archivist, I had always been actively involved in archival professional organizations, but I saw that there were many conversations happening and ideas being shared within the MCN community that had implications across LAM fields, particularly for me as an archivist within a museum.

What are you looking forward to most at the conference?
For the last few years, I’ve been following the development of a LAM Interoperability SIG, hoping to get involved in a meaningful way with this emerging group. I enjoyed listening to the LAM Interoperability session recording that was made available after the conference last year, but I am really looking forward to the chance to attend related meetings and sessions, and to make connections and get more involved with members of the MCN community with similar interests in data operability between LAMs (consider this an invitation to reach out to me in Pittsburgh if you share this interest too!).

How do you feel about being an MCN scholar?
I was beyond excited to find out that I was selected to be an MCN scholar this year. For full disclosure, I have to admit that this was my third (and almost certainly final) attempt at becoming a scholar. As the IMA’s archivist for three years until transitioning to my new role as digital collections manager, I was given financial support to attend one archives conference per year by the museum, as many of my colleagues were also funded to attend their specialty-specific conferences. I hoped that through the MCN scholarship program I could attend the annual meeting and get involved in the community, finding ways to show the value to both the IMA and the MCN community in supporting opportunities for cross-pollination between traditionally separated specialties.

This year MCN turns 50. How do you feel about being part of the 50th anniversary? What’s something you’d like to explore with MCN in the future?
At the same time that MCN is turning 50 and celebrating this important year in its history, I also find myself in the middle of a huge transition period for my career, moving from archives to a more interdisciplinary role managing digital collections, broadly defined, at the IMA. Because of this, it feels very fitting that I begin what I hope will be a very long, very active membership with MCN. Though I am no longer an archivist by title, I hope that I can find ways to work with MCN to continue to blur the lines of library, archives, and museum professionals and make MCN the go-to conference and community for a broad range of cultural heritage professionals to share and create innovations in digital practice.

What are you looking to share with the MCN community?
During the MCN scholar lightning talks, I will be presenting “A Crash Course in the American Art Collaborative Data Pipeline” about my experience completely remodeling and generating the IMA’s contribution to the AAC linked data set in the last months of a nearly two-years-long project. Apart from that presentation, I hope to bring my experiences and perspectives as an archivist-turned-data-manager to broader linked data conversations happing both at the annual meeting and in other MCN communication channels throughout the other 360 days of the year. I’m particularly interested in finding ways that linked data might facilitate better integration between archival description and museum cataloging practices, with the goal of opening new avenues for exploration of the history and context of museum collections.

 

Courtney Titus

Headshot of MCN 2017 Scholar Courtney TitusHow did you learn about MCN?
A colleague told me about the conference. She attended a previous one and raved about the great information she received and the openness of the people who attended.

What are you looking forward to most at the conference?
I’m looking forward to learning as much as I can from other conference attendees about the ways their museums are using technology, common challenges they face with implementing projects, and how they address these challenges.

How do you feel about being an MCN scholar?
I feel honored and appreciative to be selected as a scholar. As a newcomer to the field, I know this conference will provide an excellent opportunity for learning, discussing new ideas, and building connections with the best in the field.

This year MCN turns 50. How do you feel about being part of the 50th anniversary? What’s something you’d like to explore with MCN in the future?
I am excited to be a part of this huge milestone for MCN. Their longevity is a testament to the significant impact they’ve had on advancing the field and I look forward to contributing to this amazing community. I would like to explore innovations museums can use to reach audiences that are very interested in art but may feel intimidated by it due to a lack of fluency in art history and related subjects.

What are you looking to share with the MCN community?
I am looking forward to sharing the successes and challenges a small museum experienced when implementing its first sustainable technology project.

 

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#MCN50 Voices: Essie Lash & Angelica Aboulhosn

This year MCN celebrates its 50th anniversary. Just as MCN has established a network of established and emerging professionals, #MCN50 Voices brings members together, old and new, near and far.

Angelica Aboulhosn, public affairs specialist at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, speaks with Essie Lash, Marketing Manager, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, about a broad range of issues from the way that technology plays itself out in marketing and communication to what’s on the Spotify playlist right now.

Angelica Aboulhosn and Essie Lash

 

What’s your current position, and how do you describe it the family and friends on the weekends?

Angelica Aboulhosn: I’m a public affairs specialist at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. In short, I get to tell folks about the fantastic things our center is doing in the world, among them, producing the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, and a number of exceptional cultural sustainability projects across the globe. If I’m lucky, that also means access to some delectable international cuisine.

Essie Lash: I’m a Marketing Manager at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where I help to share and promote the museum’s programs and exhibitions. On one day, I might be focused on a campaign for an upcoming artist talk, and on the next, on our summer hours—every day here is different. I work closely with the Global Communications, Education, and Visitor Experience teams at the museum.

 

On Social Media & Technology

What are some spots/websites you look to for inspiration? For rejuvenation?

AA: The Smithsonian Learning Lab has always been a favorite of mine, both as a user and as an observer. One of my favorite things to do is assemble my own collections and see what others are gathering. I’m also a big fan of The Artist Project from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The web series brings together contemporary artists to reflect on traditional works and the result is something altogether extraordinary.

Which social network can you be found on most often?

AA: Twitter.

EL: Same.

What are the apps you can’t live without?

EL: Pocket—my mind is like a sieve sometimes, so that app has been a lifesaver. I feel like 50% of my day is just spent bookmarking things to come back to. Pocket lets you do that easily and tag things obsessively. I also find the Moon app, which tells you the phase of the moon and days until the next new moon, pretty great. (Shoutout to the Still Processing podcast for that one.)


You and I are both in PR/marketing and communications. I think our relationship to technology isn’t always as obvious as it may be for some others in the field—but I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.

AA: It’s a topic I was just discussing with a colleague. Whatever your title in a museum or cultural institution, digital is part and parcel of your work. From the curators researching the new and nuanced exhibitions that we enjoy to the web developers translating those experiences online, each and every one of us is thinking about bringing cultural scholarship to people who might not have the luxury of visiting our museums. Technology offers an elegant platform on which to do that.  

 

On Work and Career

What career moves and aspirations brought you to your current role?

EL: I worked for a cultural partnership for four years in Brooklyn after being in a corporate communications role. That was really when I decided that working in a museum would be a dream job. I was able to collaborate closely with the cultural institutions in central Brooklyn, and observe how they built audiences, communicated their missions, and served their communities. That was when it first clicked for me that being an effective storyteller and marketer has a role to serve outside of the corporate world.

What do you think makes working at a Smithsonian different from other museums?

AA: The Smithsonian is more than a single museum. In fact, it’s 19 museums, nine research centers, and a zoo. The Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, where I work, is one of the research centers and each and every day I meet someone new or learn something new about someone I’ve already met. Smithsonian staff are unlike others I have encountered in that they are endlessly curious about the world around them and want to explore it. Every day.

I think you and I first crossed paths when you were looking for participants in a Twitter chat. What role does museum collaboration have in your strategy and your work?

AA: Collaboration is fundamental to our work. We are always looking for ways to share our scholarship and our expertise with partner research centers and cultural institutions. In fact, this October we are co-producing “IlluminAsia: A Festival of Asian Art, Food, and Cultures,” to celebrate the reopening of the Freer|Sackler galleries.

What is your favorite aspect of your job? What do you get excited about when you wake up in the morning?

EL: My absolute favorite thing, which helps keep me inspired to work on everything I do from planning to tracking, is being in the Frank Lloyd Wright building itself (especially before the museum is open or after it’s closed to the public). This hasn’t really changed since Day 1 at the Guggenheim. My offices are actually not at the museum itself—we’re downtown in the Financial District—but I try to get uptown to work about once a week. Being in the physical galleries, either on my own or when I can watch people engaging with the exhibitions that we’re promoting, is still a total thrill.

AA: At the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, we privilege community voices. The musicians who perform on our stages, the artists who color our walls, and the master craftspeople with whom we partner are all part of a rich and expansive community. It’s something we bring to our programming, too. You’re never alone at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, for instance. Whether at a discussion stage or a live music performance, you are experience culture as part of a larger community, you are seeing children light up at the sight of a performer or people who have come to the Festival every year delight in the reunion with old friends—that sense of community is something magical.


You and I are both in PR/marketing and communications. I think our relationship to technology isn’t always as obvious as it may be for some others in the field—but I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.

AA: It’s a topic I was just discussing with a colleague. Whatever your title in a museum or cultural institution, digital is part and parcel of your work. From the curators researching the new and nuanced exhibitions that we enjoy to the web developers translating those experiences online, each and every one of us is thinking about bringing cultural scholarship to people who might not have the luxury of visiting our museums. Technology offers an elegant platform on which to do that.  

 

On Art

The subject I can’t stop talking about lately is…

EL: For lack of a better term I’m going to steal the phrase “Old Art Lady Style” from Sophie Buhai , which I recently read in Racked.  When the Georgia O’Keeffe show was up at Brooklyn Museum, I was so taken by her fashion, and how her personal style integrated with her work and her art-making process. My own style is very haphazard, so I’m in awe of anyone who can pull off a uniform look and make it their own. Anything at the intersection of fashion and art is probably up my alley.     

What’s been your favorite Guggenheim exhibition since you started at the museum? Why?

EL: I think Moholy-Nagy: Future Present has been my favorite show in the Guggenheim rotunda since I started working here, having visited the museum to see everything from Picasso Black and White to Tino Sehgal’s This Progress here over the years. I didn’t know much about László Moholy-Nagy before we started working on the exhibition, but I’m pretty enthusiastic about all things Bauhaus, and I thought it made the ramps really come alive. It also included a reconstruction of Moholy-Nagy’s “Room of the Present,” which was conceived of but never built during the artist’s lifetime. The entire exhibition displayed an optimism about technology’s capacity to improve society that I responded to (and that fits in pretty well with the mission of MCN!) The show was later on view at LACMA and the Art Institute of Chicago, which I love; sometimes I wish I could just be a traveling show groupie and hit them all.

Tell us about your favorite digital/web/social project at or beyond the Guggenheim.

EL: We have a series on social media called #FrankLloydWrightFridays where we share photos of the building alongside quotes on Friday afternoons—it’s a perfect sendoff into the weekend and consistently sees high engagement. Over the past year or so, our Digital Marketing team has featured visitor photos and quotes about their visit, which is part of our larger strategy to spotlight visitor experience in our marketing and planning. I’m also totally obsessed with SFMoMA’s #SendMeSFMoMA project, which is a pretty perfect combo: the messaging bot showcases their collection and just sparks joy and surprise in users. I think the most effective digital projects are totally addictive and fun, and I’ve gone down a pretty long rabbit hole with that one.

 

On #MCN50

Have you been following other #MCN50 stories? What have you found surprising or inspiring about the community voices that are surfacing?

AA: From the #MCN50 stories I have read, museum technologists across the globe are facing similar challenges but are addressing them with an invigorating rigor. Each and every conversation brings with it sage advice and a handful of useful recommendations for museum practitioners young and old.

On Inspiration

Where do you go to stay inspired?

EL: Love this question. Living in a city offers constant inspiration, but I definitely need to take some breaks and trips to rejuvenate. I’ve made day trips up to Beacon to just run through the Dia galleries and grab a homemade ice cream right by the train station. Within the city limits, I find Coney Island pretty inspiring and just remote enough. (I gravitate towards long train trips to points of self-reflection, apparently.)

What’s in heavy rotation on your Spotify?

EL: I’m pretty impressed by the Spotify algorithm and what they’ve done with personalization in general—my Summer Rewind list is a lot of Dire Straits, Paul Simon, and Amadou & Mariam. (My tastes haven’t changed much in about three decades, but new things get into the rotation occasionally.)

AA: I’ve always been a Gypsy Kings fan, but I’ve recently gotten into some of Argentinian singer Suni Paz’s rich and stirring music.

Describe your personal aesthetic in three words.

EL: Colorful; Active; Geometric—or: “Changes by day.”

AA: Clean, spritely, and Seinfeldian.

What’s on your reading list?

EL: New York recently launched an initiative called “One Book, One New York,” which I’m very on board with. All of the nominees were either personal favorites, or have been on my list for a while. The ultimate selection, which I’ve just started, is Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi. I’m also in a book club with a bunch of museum gals, which I highly recommend as a way of establishing some structure in this crazy world.

What’s your top local food spot?

AA: In DC, Sushi Taro on 17th Street.

EL: In NYC, probably Dimes.

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The Tech It Is A-Changin’: 50 Years of #Musetech Trends

By Sean Blinn

 

In 1860, the Pony Express started running in the United States. It allowed mail to be delivered from one side of North America to the other in a couple of weeks, not several months. Though it became the stuff of legend, it actually lasted for only 18 months, driven out of business by the telegraph, the world’s first transcontinental data network. When the Pony Express went out of business, so did the jobs for horse riders delivering mail, the people who kept horses and riders moving through the country, and all of the other support functions it employed. In their place were new jobs for telegraph operators, people to lay and maintain wire, and for people to produce the electricity needed to power the network.

It wouldn’t be the last time in history that a digital solution replaced an analog predecessor. It wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last, that technological change would lead to changes in jobs and employment patterns.

Over the past few months the #MCN50 Job Description History Project has dug through as much data as we could find to understand the changing face of #musetech jobs (take a look at Sarah Outhwaite’s blog post about the challenge of finding and categorizing this data). New technologies have arrived, old ones have died out, and almost every museum job has been affected by these changes.

Here is one example, a job listing from 1993:

Image source: Spectra, vol. 21, No. 2. Fall 1993

This is a job description for a Computer Specialist in 1993, found by teammate Nicole Riesenberger. By today’s standards, this is a broad description—perhaps too broad to be seen today—for a wide-ranging set of responsibilities. Hardware, software, training, support, supplies, all in one job. Among other things, this suggests that computers and technology were things that a museum did, along with other tasks such as registration, visitor services, and exhibition design.

Or to put it another way, technology was separate. It was one museum function, but it wasn’t central to what museums did or how most museum professionals worked.

To get a broader picture across time, let’s look at a visualization showing changes in usage of technology terms in one museum’s annual reports (the American Museum of Natural History in New York), generated by teammate Sarah Outhwaite.   

Source: graphic by Sarah Outhwaite, data from American Museum of Natural History: Annual Report Archives

Note that this graphic shows the percentage of appearances among terms we searched for, not among all the words in each report. In 1975, for example, “computer” was the only one of the terms we searched for that appeared; “computer” was not 100% of the words in the annual report itself! Additionally, the number of terms in each report varied from year to year; this chart does not show the total number of references to each term in each year.

Of the terms that our team searched, the word “computer” was the most commonly used in AMNH annual reports during the first part of MCN’s 50 years. It doesn’t permanently drop below 50% of mentions until 1990 (when the job “Computer Specialist” was probably far more common than it is now). In 1997 it dropped below 10% for the first time. We can see the balance shift to much more specialized terms. Database. App. Interactive. Online.

In other words, use of a computer isn’t a specialized skill any more. Specific tasks are, such as database management, app development, and social media, to name just a few. But computers? We have reached the point where the ability to use a computer is like the ability to use a phone. It’s not a special skill, it’s expected. Do you need to use a phone? Yes! Is it something that would be listed in a #musetech job description? Not any more, because the inability to use a phone is practically inconceivable today—though making a phone call was once new enough to be the subject of training videos.

From a training video on how to make a long distance phone call. This shows how you dial. Texting was probably a significant challenge.

Occasionally, there are dead-ends. CD-ROMs were all the rage in the mid 1990s, and make a brief appearance in the AMNH annual reports. But in the long run they didn’t have much impact (though future archaeologists may date the late 1990s and early 2000s by the layer of AOL CDs found in landfills). They were the Pony Express of 20 years ago: briefly important but in the long run, a dead end, soon to be replaced by a quicker, more flexible alternative.

Image source

Of course, this pattern will continue. Disruptive technologies have always arisen and changed how humanity works. A new world-changing idea may be invented in a conversation in the halls in Pittsburgh this November at MCN2017.

Looking at the bigger picture and where we fit into our profession, computers and technology aren’t things we do, differentiated from the rest of museum work. Digital initiatives aren’t separate projects, or worse, expenses to be contained. Technology is a regular part of museum work and couldn’t be replaced any more than keeping the lights on. Museum technology will continue to evolve, and I am looking forward to hearing from whoever revisits this topic in 2067 as we celebrate MCN’s 100th birthday.

Next week, Sheila Carey will show how this change has altered one aspect of museum life and had far-reaching implications on how museums collect and use information. Stay tuned!

Sources:

The Pony Express: History and Myth

American Museum of Natural History: 2015 Annual Report

American Museum of Natural History: Annual Report Archives

 

For further reading:

Computer History Museum’s Timeline of Computer History

New-York Historical Society’s “Silicon City” exhibition

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MCNPro – User Journey Mapping

Join us on Friday, September 22 at 12pm EST for session on User Journey Mapping!

 

A user journey map is a visualization of the steps your visitors go through in engaging with the museum during the visit. This user research tool shows what happens at each stage and visualizes the experience highlighting the visitor needs, actions, emotions and pain points. Join us to learn about this user research tool and see how some organizations have implemented them to improve the visitor experience.

This MCNPro webinar was organized by the Data & Insights SIG. Chairs of the group Elena Villaespesa and Trilce Navarrete led this session about journey mapping.

 

The Speakers:

Allegra Burnette is currently an independent consultant, focused on helping organizations establish and integrate coherent, user-centered digital programs that use best practices in customer and visitor experience to grow audiences, improve experiences, and transform internal processes. Until recently, Allegra was a principal analyst on the customer experience team at Forrester Research, where she researched, wrote, and consulted on design-related topics within CX. Prior to joining Forrester in 2014, Allegra was the Creative Director of Digital Media at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, where she oversaw design and production across all interpretive technology, including the museum’s website, MoMA.org. Before working at MoMA, Allegra created and ran a media department at the renowned museum exhibition design firm Ralph Appelbaum Associates. Allegra has taught in the online graduate program at Johns Hopkins University and served as president of the board of the Museum Computer Network (MCN). She has a bachelor’s degree in art history from Dartmouth College and an MFA in museum exhibition planning and design from the University of the Arts.

Michelle Grohe is the Assistant Curator of Education & School Programs at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. She currently project manages the Gardner’s interdepartmental Visitor Experience and Digital Pilot teams, focusing on first time visitors and evaluation frameworks and tools. Working at the Gardner since 2005, Grohe has led several research initiatives around the Visual Thinking Strategies methodology, including longitudinal studies with elementary and high school partner students. She is also currently National Art Education Association (NAEA) Museum Education Division Director. Grohe has an MA in Art + Design Education from Rhode Island School of Design and a BFA in Studio Art from Millikin University.

Laura Mann has 20 years of experience developing creative and technical solutions including web, mobile, and interactive media for the cultural sector. Trained as an academic art historian, she started her career in business development with a small experimental theater company that provided audio tours to museums and historic sites. She led business development at Antenna, driving its rapid growth from innovative newcomer to market leader in mobile experiences for the cultural and heritage sector. At Mediatrope Interactive, she developed award-winning web solutions and software applications for large museum and nonprofit clients. In 2013, she joined the consultancy Frankly, Green + Webb to open the firm’s US office. Her work as a consultant in grounded in her years of hands-on experience in mobile interpretation, interactive design and digital technology. She is deeply committed to providing research, insight and design solutions that deliver real value to organizations and their audiences.

 

Download the slides here!

 

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MCN50 Voices: Jane Alexander & Nik Honeysett

This year MCN celebrates its 50th anniversary. Just as MCN has established a network of established and emerging professionals, #MCN50 Voices brings members together, old and new, near and far.

Jane Alexander and Nik Honeysett discuss their deep experiences working in museums, from the earliest touch screens in museums to Gallery One (now Art Lens) at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The wide-ranging conversation includes their thoughts on museum leadership and organizations, creativity, and the future.

Jane Alexander is Chief Information/Digital Officer at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Nik Honeysett is CEO of the Balboa Park Online Collaborative in San Diego.

 

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Mapping islands: Visualizing a job history dataset

By Sarah Outhwaite

 

A #musetech job has never been an easy thing to find. They only emerge when enough institutional pressure builds up to break the surface.

How #musetech jobs are formed. IntermontaneArc.png, Wikimedia Commons, remixed.

The Job Description History Project team spent this summer hunting not for one museum technology job, but for hundreds. By scraping historic records, we aim to understand the evolution of these positions over time. You can learn more about our process from Desi Gonzalez’s inaugural project post.

Our team has pulled together several collections of job titles and descriptions. But mining data is always a messy affair. The datasets we’ve amassed each have their own special inconsistencies. Sample sizes and source types fluctuate. There are conspicuous holes within the 50-year timespan. As we begin to plot these varied findings in relation to each other, how do we analyze data that defies easy comparison?

I’ll take poetic license to describe the first of several datasets that we’re analyzing for this project as “a sample of MCN-affiliated job titles.” Job titles before 2016 were drawn from the Museum Computer Network’s official archives at the Smithsonian Institution Archives. Team member Nicole Riesenberger dug into these resources and recorded job titles that were relevant to museum technology. Her sources included the journal Spectra (published from the mid-1970s to 2002), membership directories, conference speaker and attendee lists, and publications. Data from 2016 had a different source, as we were able to snag all job titles from MCN2016 conference attendees. (Consequently, 2016 boasts over ten times more job titles than any earlier year.)

This data is not a complete sample—it’s a group of islands in an ocean of missing information. We can’t directly compare our findings from one year to the next. I grappled with this uneven distribution by focusing on the moments when #musetech terminology broke the surface and appeared in job titles. First, I crunched all job titles down into individual vocabulary terms (like collection, technology, and information). Next, I charted the emergence and disappearance of these terms throughout time. In what year did web first pop up in one of these job titles? Which terms were brand new in 2016, and which disappeared after the 1990s?

For this chart, I selected a handful of the terms that shed light on trend shifts in the museum technology field. In order to be included, terms had to emerge or disappear from the dataset; they couldn’t appear in every year. Terms also needed to trend up or down over time, relative to the total number of titles analyzed on given years.

For example, the terms registrar and specialist featured contrasting trends. In 1984, fifteen out of 39 job titles included the term registrar; but only five of 589 would do so by 2016. The term specialist didn’t break the surface until 1988; yet it appeared in twenty-three job titles by 2016. Taken as statistics, these trends don’t hold water—but they do map the outlines of a story. I like to imagine the pioneering registrars of 1984 gathering new technical savvy for their institutions. These enterprising tech generalists would have paved the way for the tech specialists of 2016.

The chart also shows how job title terminology shifted toward media, content, and the creative or production process over the last twenty years. Terms like community, engagement, and social were introduced in the last ten.

More patterns begin to suggest themselves. Data processing in the ‘80s led to effective information systems in the ‘90s. Web exploration in the ‘00s set the stage for digital content expertise. The recent explosion of social media gave museums the tools to connect with individual audience members, and supported the even more recent rise of user experience as an expertise.

The further that GLAMs specialize in applications of technology, the more we’ve trended toward audience outreach. In her 2007 blog post Hierarchy of Social Participation, Nina Simon described “collective social action with content” as the highest level of museum experience design. Many of today’s freshest #musetech roles serve this goal. From networking objects, we’ve expanded to networking humans.

Nina Simon’s Hierarchy of Social Participation, 2007. Source: http://museumtwo.blogspot.ca/2007/03/hierarchy-of-social-participation.html

What #musetech will the generalists of 2017 build into new institutional expertise? Could today’s focus on digital wayfinding and building experience lead to future job titles like Visit Personalization Specialist or Gallery Intelligence Coordinator?

But even as new technology roles emerge, there are some baselines we can count on. Consider the Computerization Coordinator who went to the MCN conference in 1980, and the Digitization Coordinator who went in 2016. Museums will always need staff to convert objects into data.

At least—until the objects get smart enough to catalogue themselves.

DATA GEEK NOTE:

Some top job title terms that didn’t make it into this chart included director (total: 197), manager (total: 169), head (total: 55), coordinator (total: 46), and assistant (total: 43). If you’re interested in the ways that hierarchical terms like these have shifted in #musetech, stay tuned for our team’s upcoming blog about digital roles reaching senior management.

 

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MCN50 Voices: Dana Mitroff Silvers & Susan Edwards

For this installment of MCN50 Voices, we have Dana Mitroff SIlvers, Founder of Designing Insights and editor of the website Design Thinking for Museums, and Susan Edwards, associate director, digital content at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.

Susan and Dana can’t remember when they first met. It was at either an MCN or Museums & the Web conference about 10 years ago when Dana worked at SFMOMA and Susan was working at the Getty. Dana later started her own company and came to the Getty to do Design Thinking workshops, which Susan took part in. Susan loves design thinking, and has subsequently taught several workshops with Dana, at MCN and elsewhere. Dana is also a past president of MCN (2004–2006), and Susan was just elected to the MCN board for 2017–2020.

Susan: Hi Dana! So glad to be doing this interview with you. Even though we know each other pretty well, I hope to learn more about you, and to share your unique career experiences with the community.

Dana: Hi Susan! I’m so glad to be paired with you. I think we share many similar museum + tech career twists and turns.

 

Susan:  

So the first question I have is:

Tell me about one of your earliest fond memories of working in museums? Did that experience influence or detract from your decision to stay in museums?

 

Dana: My earliest and most rewarding experience working in a museum was as an undergraduate at USC, where I started as an unpaid intern at the USC Fisher Museum of Art (and then became an hourly student employee, helping with a variety of projects and tasks). I was new to the museum field, and the most influential aspect of my experience there was getting to know, observe, and learn from the director, Dr. Selma Holo, who has become a lifelong mentor for me. She was a role model for me and still is to this day. She showed me that a museum director can be curious, engaged, intrepid, determined, ethical, and compassionate. She was also a role model as a woman and mother in what was then a mostly white male-dominated field. She advised me as I made my graduate school decisions and charted my career, and definitely influenced my decision to work in museums. Having a strong mentor early in my museum career was critical for me.

Your turn! How about you?

Susan: Wow, that’s amazing. I forgot that you worked at the USC museum. We both have Los Angeles roots! I grew up north of L.A. and remember going to LACMA and the Norton Simon as a kid. My earliest work experience in a museum was at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). I moved to Seattle on a whim from Michigan, and had no money and only knew one person. I did not want to work in a museum—I had just left grad school in Michigan where I had been working on a PhD in art history and I was over it. I was on a mission to find career paths outside of art history, but I needed a job to pay my rent, and SAM was hiring temporary staff to sell tickets at the front door of their blockbuster Leonardo Codex exhibition. I took the job for the paycheck and was cynical going in. But once I started working I was pleasantly surprised—I loved the people, and the curiosity that permeated everything and everyone who worked there, and I loved working with the visitors. Curious to learn if I might be interested in a museum career, I volunteered to help one of the curators on Mondays. Chiyo Ishikawa was that curator. At the time she was curator of European Art (she is now Deputy Director at SAM) and taught me so much about the realities of museum work. I remember her telling me that so many people glamorize being a curator, and think it’s about doing research all day long, but it’s really not. After the temporary position, I was hired on permanently, and stayed at SAM for 4 years, working 4 or 5 different jobs, including stints in visitor services, marketing and event planning, and the curatorial department. I also did some work with the education department and a little web content development with our friend Christina DePaolo. It was definitely a whirlwind introduction to museums.

 

Next question,

How did you get involved with technology in museums?

 

Dana: That is a great question around which I have fond memories! It was all thanks to Richard Rinehart, a former MCN president and the person who introduced me to MCN.

Rick is now the director of the Samek Art Museum at Bucknell University, but in the mid-90s, he was the head of IT at the UC Berkeley Art Museum / Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) and I was a lowly education program assistant. Rick built the very first BAMPFA website (which was one of the earliest museum websites ever) and was digitizing artists’ archives and creating finding aids to the collection—all very radical stuff at the time.

I was developing print-based educational resources for the museum, and one day I asked Rick if we could put them online and he said, “Why not?” Everyone else thought this was a strange and terrible idea, but Rick was game, and I remember him giving me a print guide to HTML 1.0 and showing me how to code in a text editor and how to log onto the intern machine where I could use Photoshop. He basically said, “Read this and get to work.”

I stayed late every night, teaching myself HTML and building out our first web-based educational resources (which I think is still online somewhere, buried on the site, broken links and all).

After building our first online educational resources, I started to look for jobs as a “webmaster” and left the museum field for a few years to work for an educational software company in Silicon Valley where I built my technical skills and explored my newfound passion for technology and education.

How about you?

Susan:

I did not know you were connected to Richard Rinehart. Rick is one of the people who is also doing an interview for MCN50 Voices – with Diane Zorich.

My story of how I got into tech is similar to yours—I was working in curatorial at the Seattle Art Museum and just wanted to put the things I was creating online. None of the curators wanted to have anything to do with the website, and Christina De Paolo was managing the website at the time and was open to my ideas. When I left SAM, I got a job at the Getty, specifically to develop content for the website, based on my experience at SAM. At the Getty, I then taught myself about web technologies and HTML. I was also working in a full technical production team at the Getty—so I got to experience all aspects of technical and front-end web development.

 

Dana: How/why did you decide to pursue a PhD in art history?

 

Susan: It was really just an extension of my undergrad education. That’s the way I saw it anyway. I had switched majors as an undergrad late (in my 3rd year) from biochemistry to art history. So by the time I graduated, I was just getting started exploring art history and I wanted more. I had two professors who encouraged me to apply to grad schools, and I was offered a fellowship, so it was kind of a decision to just continue with my education. It was great for the first few years, but then when it came time to work on the dissertation, I was very unclear about why I was doing it. Now, when people ask my advice about going to grad school of any type, I always recommend that they not do it straight from undergrad unless they are really clear about why they are doing it. I recommend working in the real world, exploring options, so you can figure out if the degree will really help you with your career goals.

 

How did you end up as a design thinking expert?

 

Dana: I came to design thinking via the field of website usability and user experience. I introduced the first user research and usability testing initiatives at SFMOMA when the field was still emerging, and it seemed to be a no-brainer to me. The early generations of the SFMOMA site had been designed by committee in a closed room of internal staff members without any conversations or testing with visitors, which was the norm at the time. This seemed crazy to me, and I convinced my colleagues we needed to talk to end users, and I read every book I could about user research and usability and arranged pro-bono consulting from some of the early experts in the field.

After running some user research and usability initiatives around the SFMOMA website redesign (see the Museums & the Web papers: Bringing It All Together: Developing A User-Centered Search Experience On The SFMOMA Web Site and Do You Know Who Your Users Are? The Role Of Research In Redesigning sfmoma.org), I was introduced to design thinking by a former SFMOMA colleague, Susie Wise, who was one of the first staff members at the Stanford Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, also called the d.school.

Susie suggested that I enroll in the d.school’s executive education course, Design Thinking Bootcamp, and I signed up, not really knowing what I was getting into. The course was life-changing.

I was the only person from a museum—everyone else was from the corporate world and was there to explore how to improve the customer experience in their organizations.

I immediately saw how this process could apply to museums and brought it back to SFMOMA, where I started experimenting with the methods and mindsets. I met with a lot of internal resistance at first and made many mistakes as I tried to get my colleagues on board, but I kept pushing forward. I then spearheaded a partnership between SFMOMA and the d.school (Design Thinking for Visitor Engagement: Tackling One Museum’s Big Challenge through Human-centered Design) and began teaching peers at other museums the process through introductory workshops.

Eventually I decided to leave SFMOMA to start my own consulting practice, bringing design thinking to other museums. I am fortunate that there were “early adopters” in our field who were willing to explore the process with me. Some of the my earliest clients were the Getty, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, and I’ve been working with museums around the country ever since.

 

Tell me about your early experiences developing content for the Getty website. What was the climate like at the time? Who were your peers, both internally and at other museums? Where did you look for inspiration?

 

Susan: I started at the Getty in 2001. It was soon after the Getty had merged several disparate websites under one umbrella. Before this, each institute at the Getty (and probably more groups!) had created their own websites—many built by outside contractors. I think this was pretty common back then for large organizations—not having one unified site. The atmosphere was definitely one of exploration within our group and the institution, and of unification. We were still figuring out how a website might add value to the institution and to audiences online. Some of the content specialists—mostly curators, conservators, and educators—weren’t sure of the value of it. So I remember doing a lot of coaxing and begging. As for myself, I was learning a lot—I was relatively new to tech and so I was learning HTML and metadata and the nuances of writing and editing for computer screens. We didn’t have a CMS (content management system) when I arrived, so I would work with curators and educators to create content, and mock it up in Word. Then we’d pass it on to “integrators” to hand-code and upload to the site. A few years after I arrived, we got a CMS, which I remember was a big deal on so many levels, from the technical implementation to adoption by staff, creating new workflows, training, etc. It was a big deal! Nik Honeysett was heavily involved in bringing the CMS to the Getty. This was in the days before WordPress and Drupal were common (maybe WP didn’t even exist yet?) and they chose TeamSite, which is an enterprise CMS used by many big corporations. They still use it today. It’s nothing like WordPress!

Who were my peers at the time?

In my early days at the Getty, I had few peers outside the institution—I didn’t really find ‘my people’ as it were until several years into my job there. But I did learn a lot from my colleagues—I feel so fortunate to have been able to work at a place with so many amazing colleagues. I learned so much. When I finally found my footing in the musetech community, I realized that so many people who do this work are/were alone in their institutions. They are often the only person working on the website and all digital projects, and they really are hungry for a community, and also just information. I was lucky I didn’t need that early on. So I actually had to make a concerted effort to reach out to find my peers in other organizations. I realized that there is so much we can all do as a united community across the sector, and that it was irresponsible for me to not reach out and try to collaborate and share.

Where did I look for inspiration?

Early on I actually attended several non-museum conferences and gatherings. I remember going to SIGGRAPH in LA in the early 2000s, which was one of the big digital conferences. I was working on games projects at the Getty, and they had just instituted a day of ‘education’ sessions. That blew my mind. I also remember being addicted to my RSS feed. I was following a ton of blogs and news sites early on that I read through news readers—ah, the days before Twitter.

Dana: Referencing what you wrote about the early days of Content Management Systems (CMS’s), I remember when the Getty got TeamSite and what a big deal it was at the time. Yes, that was definitely before Drupal and WordPress! I was working at SFMOMA and we did not yet have a true CMS. We used Dreamweaver to manage our site (and it was excruciating), and then we had a crude, custom-built CMS developed by a local agency that was cumbersome and was barely usable by the two-person web team.

We started looking at various off-the-shelf systems and a small SFMOMA team flew down to the Getty to have Nik Honeysett and some team members demo TeamSite to us. It was a very big deal in those days to have a large-scale CMS implementation in a museum, and the Getty was leading the way!

I’ll answer the question about peers, too.

My peers at the time were those other lone wolves working alone on the website and other digital projects inside their institutions. There were so few of us that it was easy to find each other—and commiserate. I remember the climate in the early 2000s was one of skepticism and distrust towards the “digital” people. I remember having to justify—numerous times—why having full-time staff dedicated to digital was necessary. One of the executives in my museum wanted to know why we needed staff when “13 year-olds can make websites.”

 

Susan: My last question for you is one I am stealing from Max Evjen and Elissa Frankle.

What are the 3 skills you think have been most critical for your career? Did you have these from the beginning? Or did you acquire these on the job?

 

Dana:

1) Basic, hand-coded HTML

I still use hand-coded HTML today in both personal and professional settings. Learning the basics was a building block for all of my subsequent technical work. Gaining the fundamental understanding was almost like learning to speak Latin—it gave me a foundation for understanding other front-end frameworks and helped me grasp the semantics and structure of front-end coding. I did not have this skill from the beginning. I learned it on-the-job at the Berkeley Art Museum (thanks again to Richard Rinehart) and then by taking additional classes in HTML, XML, ASP (anyone remember that?), JavaScript, and CSS at San Francisco State University’s Extension Program in Multimedia Studies, one of the first of its kind.

2) Basic Principles of User Experience Design and Usability

This is another skill I learned on the job through reading books and taking evening classes. I remember taking a class in “Information Design for the Web” at San Francisco State Extension, and the Instructor showed us a new website that she said would revolutionize information design with its simplicity and interface. That site was Google, and I’ll never forget seeing it for the first time. One of the most influential books I read early on was Jakob Nielsen’s 1999 classic, “Designing Web Usability.” This book was radical at its time for codifying the principles of usability and user experience, and had a huge impact on my thinking.

3) Networking + MuseTech Community

Not sure if this is a skill or mindset and habit, but building, growing, and maintaining my network has been invaluable. Some of the peers and colleagues I met in the pre-social media days through the in-person MCN conference and through the MCN email list are still my colleagues and dear friends today, and having this network has been invaluable to me and my career. If it weren’t for my network and community, I don’t think I would have been successful leaving a museum job and starting a consulting practice, as it’s my network that has helped me grow and flourish as a consultant.

 

How about you?

 

Susan:

Those are really good skills. I started out with just getting #1 and also learned about how valuable usability is. Later on I learned how valuable networking would be and I have you, Ahree Lee and Cathy Davies to thank for showing me the world of user experience and design thinking, which also transformed the way I work ever since.

The 3 skills I would say have been most critical are:

1) Flexibility and eagerness to learn

I didn’t even know web/digital development was a career option when I was in school, and even when I started working in museums. By being flexible and open, I was able to see opportunities and take advantage of them. Flexibility is also useful in technology because things change so quickly, you have to be able to try new things out and be willing to fail sometimes. It’s also a team sport, so flexibility helps contribute to a collaborative work environment. And related to the above point about things changing so fast, you have to be able to learn new skills, tools, and processes to work in technology. I love to learn new things, and being in continual life-long learning mode is just necessary in this field. You will never be an expert because the minute you get close, the rules of the game will change. So it’s more about learning bigger concepts and overarching principles, and being able to apply those to new situations.

2) Translator

I often tell people that I am the translator between the content specialists and the computer programmers and engineers. I have talked with several others in muse tech who have similar roles as me and they have said the same thing. I think I came to the field with some of this. I was a science kid in high school and the first half of college and always loved engineering, science and computers. Then I switched to art history halfway through undergrad. Then I went to grad school for art history. So I have been able to talk to curators on a level they understand and gain their respect. And I can talk to programmers intelligently too. And I also learned a lot in transit. I learned HTML, CSS and other coding languages and concepts when I started work at the Getty, and then I went back to school for an MLIS to gain more technical knowledge as well.

3) Project Management

Technology projects require strong project managers. Some people are born project managers, many are not. And even if you are born with the organization bone, there are some specific tactics and models from formal project management frameworks that can really make things so much smoother for all on the project team. I feel like I had some natural project management abilities when I started work in museum technology. But it wasn’t until I worked with some crack project managers that I learned how to formalize the processes of a project team, and how effective this can be. My experience has been that project management in general is not a strength in museums, so any project management skill at all can rocket you to success.

 

Dana: I’m all for flexibility, “translation” skills, and project management strengths! I think those are critical attributes for anyone wanting to succeed in the field. It drives me crazy when people call these “soft skills,” as if implies that they are less valuable than “hard skills.” I think they are of utmost importance and should not be devalued or minimized.

Susan: Thanks so much for joining me for this interview, Dana! I really did learn a few new things about you. See you at the conference in Pittsburgh!

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#MCN50 Voices: Greg Albers & Susan Wigodner

 

This year MCN celebrates its 50th anniversary. Just as MCN has established a network of established and emerging professionals, #MCN50 Voices brings members together, old and new, near and far.

  

After chatting for half an hour, Susan Wigodner, Web & Digital Project Manager at The Field Museum, and Greg Albers, Digital Publications Manager at the J. Paul Getty Trust, felt like they hadn’t arrived a “formal” interview. Instead, here they offer their list of their favorite museum digital projects, tools, books, and more… (GIFs!)

 

Greg Susan
Title Digital Publications Manager, J. Paul Getty Trust Web & Digital Project Manager, The Field Museum
Project You’ve Worked On I came to the Getty at the tail end of our Virtual Library project, but it’s exactly the kind of thing I love about museums. Thinking big about serving the public. Free downloads of 300+ books? Not something most publishers can or would do. Audio tours for the 9/11 Memorial Museum. They include some pretty amazing personal stories, and I had a chance to meet many of those people (and a prep call with narrator Robert De Niro).
Open-Source Museum Project +1 to ACMI’s audio guide! →

We were excited to see that one particularly because they used Jekyll, a static site generator, and we’re using static site generators to publish online, multi-format books.

ACMI’s audio guide (Australian Centre for the Moving Image)
Museum Microsite The Art Institute of Chicago’s Linked Visions comes to mind. A nice use of D3.js, and they took advantage of open source by building off another project. Smart! It’s a little older now, but MoMA’s microsite for their 2015 Jacob Lawrence exhibition is one of my favorites.
Book You Keep at Your Office RESTful Web APIs and Publishing as Artistic Practice Content Everywhere, by Sara Wachter-Boettcher. I saw her speak a few months ago and am appreciating the perspective as we start a website redesign.
(Digital) Style Guide I’ve been looking at the web accessibility guides from 18F and Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh a lot this past year. Thankful for both. I second Greg ! And of course MailChimp’s if you haven’t checked that out already.  
Web Platform/App GitHub. (So intertwined in my work it took me a minute to realize it was a web platform/app I could cite for this!) Zapier – which lets me connect all my other favorite web platforms together! Also: Airtable.
Gif

My amazing colleague @amelialikespie, keeping me humble, Slacked this to me. If you have Slack and Giphy integration, you can make your own by typing: /giphy #echo WHATEVER WORDS YOU WANT

If I used only one social media site Twitter Instagram
Podcast On vacation road trips this summer, we’ve been listening to Brains On! with the kids. Our favorite episode? “Fart Smarts: Understanding the gas we pass”. Naturally. Startup often feels oddly relevant to my work in a 125-year-old museum.
Emoji  
Museum project I’m jealous of The New Museum’s NEW INC startup incubator. Crowdsourced visual descriptions for museum websites, like AMNH’s Project Describe. Also the Met’s born-digital map that’s being used across channels.
My best non-museum job Pottery Barn – a company that was intentional about management practices and staff development. And yes, the discount. The Container Store – great discount and working with fellow organization nerds! They also have a formalized and really ingrained company culture.
Top technical skill or tip Everyone knows about the inspector tool in browsers right? I didn’t soon enough and it was a revelation → Ctrl-click (mac) or right-click (pc) on anything in your browser window, and select “Inspect element” I recently learned how to take a full-page screenshot via the “inspect” function in Chrome and I’m really excited about it.
Pic of my phone homescreen

Default background, so sad. Also, not technically my homescreen, but the one I look at most.

Weird background is a photo taken at the Renwick Gallery’s Wonder exhibition

Weirdest thing you’ve done for a museum job Ha! I can’t compete → Dressed up in an inflatable T. rex costume for a birthday video for SUE
Favorite MCN moment That time I was shamed by a circle of six awesome #musetech nerds who simultaneously pulled out portable chargers from pockets and bags after I suggested I had to run to the room to recharge. Also, karaoke. All of the karaoke. Always. Convincing my boss, @badunn, to come to MCN 2015 in Minneapolis, and having him say “We have to bring the whole team to this next year!”

 

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