#MCN50 Voices: Keir Winesmith & Ed Rodley

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.

Keir Winesmith, a current board member of MCN, sat down with Ed Rodley, former MCN board member and Secretary of the Board. Keir is the Head of Web and Digital Platforms at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Ed is the Associate Director of Integrated Media at the Peabody Essex Museum. Their video conversation touched on the ethics of linked open data, the social justice challenges of databases, and the ways to help improve data access.

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#MCN50 Voices: It’s All Personal—Robin Dowden & Scott Sayre

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.

Robin Dowden is an independent consultant working at the intersection of technology and museums. From 1997–2015 she worked at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis as the Director of Technology and New Media Initiatives. Prior to joining the Walker, Dowden was the Collections Systems and Web Site Manager at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Scott Sayre is the Chief Information Officer at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York. From 2002–2014 he was a Principal and co-owner of Sandbox Studios, a Minneapolis-based museum media production and consulting company. Prior to working independently, Scott was the founder and Director of the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s Interactive Media Group from 1993–2002.

In this interview Scott Sayre and Robin Dowden talk about how their friendship, spanning 20 years, began with their work, and an MCN conference. Read to the end to get their 10 Maxims of advice for happy career in Museum Tech!

Robin Dowden, Kris Wetterlund, and Scott Sayre began working together in musetech 20 years ago in Minnesota. Robin is now Kris and Scott’s neighbor in Corning, NY.

 

First encounters and a commitment to collaboration

 

Robin Dowden (RD): I remember watching you give a presentation about interactive media at MiA [Minneapolis Institute of Arts]. You were wearing a vest, your signature look (are you ok with me saying that?). I swear it was an MCN conference because I didn’t attend anything else at the time. I was thinking “He’s smart. I want to get to know him.” I make a habit of surrounding myself with smart people. Then in the spring of ’97, I was considering the move to Minneapolis and Steve Dietz brought me to your house as part of my introductory tour. Typical Steve, he got lost in your neighborhood. When we finally got to your house, I remember standing in the living room and seeing Kris [Wetterlund] in the kitchen, cooking with a friend. And again I thought, “I like these people.” It was comfortable. It was the Midwest in the best of senses. A good vibe.

 

Scott Sayre (SS): I can’t recall our first meeting but Steve was definitely the linchpin. Steve and I started working together on the precursors and ideas behind ArtsConnectEd (ACE), which created the opportunity to bring you on board. Steve had recently been hired by the Walker [Art Center] to build the new media program.

 

RD: Remind me again how that partnership was formed?

 

SS: The state of Minnesota had this new technology investment money. It was there for the asking, and Steve came to me and said “let’s do something.” I was already working with Kris to digitize MiA slide sets and we [education and digital media] were beginning to explore distributing curriculum resources online. We knew any proposal had to have an education bent to it. We started talking about digitizing the MiA and Walker collections, making them available for educational use, really targeting the K-12 audience. It wasn’t something the Walker or Steve was particularly interested in doing but he saw it as good justification for the investment, and thought he could build creatively off the investment, which he went on to do. It was a good foundation for a lot of things, primarily because digitizing collections wasn’t really happening.

 

RD: One of the great things about that partnership was the two institutions had some different objectives; your emphasis on K-12 and Steve was really interested in the Internet as a medium for art making. Together you forced one another to broaden your scope. In the same way Walker and MiA, in combining their digital assets, were acknowledging neither institution individually could tell a complete story of art. The partnership produced a better whole.

 

SS: I think that’s true. Some of the commissioned ACE projects were a hybrid of what Steve and I were trying to do. Steve was like “let’s get these designers and artists to do a project using the resources but it will have an educational application.” Those were the higher-level projects that lived on top of the ACE content. It was just a good opportunity to play with some of those ideas. Bringing you to the table with a good understanding of how to deal with massive amounts of collection information was a skill I didn’t have, my staff didn’t have. The digitized collections were the foundation of a lot of what would happen.

 

RD: One of the things that’s interesting about that idea, how the partnership was formed, was this sense from the beginning, that it wasn’t going to be a complete replication of expertise within each institution. MiA was going to have the lead in certain areas, Walker in others. There was even talk at one point about shared digitization resources [staffing, equipment]. That feeds into the whole emphasis on collaboration, which has been super strong in most of the work I’ve done and a lot of stuff you’ve done.

 

SS: That project really got me more interested in seeing some of the opportunities around collaboration, like the idea of us going to Microsoft and getting a good deal on licenses. Microsoft’s probably a pretty easy target nowadays for nonprofit support, but when we got that incredibly high-end imaging software, I don’t think either institution could have afforded it, or even justified the vendor giving us a good price on it. But coming together really made the case. Then there was shared hosting environment. There were a lot of gains there.

RD: Just before I left the Walker, all the shared stuff was finally completely abandoned. The Cloud changes everything in so many ways, but the idea that we would have shared rackspace in a colocation facility ended in 2015, nearly 20 years later.

 

SS: It’s really easy to have sour grapes over a lot of the things that have been discontinued, allowed to fail, or not respected. But at the same time, there’s no question that a lot of the work we did set the foundation for where both institutions are now, independent of those specific projects. We were able to fund digitizing and setting standards for collections online, build integrated data sets, and a lot of stuff that’s just taken for granted now. I think the whole justification for shared access to educational resources, still a great idea, wasn’t something either institution’s education department nor director saw as a priority. It was really something that came out of the digital areas. It was good enough to get the money, and then the institutions were really happy when we had millions of dollars to spend on digital projects. To a certain degree the political climate, other than in the digital departments, hasn’t really changed because it was always a bit of a struggle to get the rest of the organization to buy into these ideas.

 

RD: Well, you know, it’s like everything. You just need to convince them that it’s their idea and then suddenly it’s golden.

 

 

How did we get in this field anyway?

 

SS: Well, in 8th grade when I was a lost cause in life, the guidance counselor who ran the photo club dragged me in to set up the dark room, and that’s where my interest in media started. From that point forward, I was really engaged with photography. I started working on yearbook, learning about graphic arts, and decided I wanted to pursue something like visual communications. I went on to get my undergraduate degree in visual communications technology from Bowling Green. When I graduated, I was not enamored with the idea of working in advertising—which even back then I thought was kind of the evil empire. I wanted to apply that knowledge to something different. I saw education and training as the place to do that.

I followed that path through my Master’s and PhD and at the same time started to learn more about kinds of informal education, using it in places like museums, which at that point in time wasn’t characterized or understood as such. I loved museums, particularly science museums, but the idea of working in a science museum wasn’t panning out. I was working at an academic technology research center, doing work with interactive technologies and got assigned to a project to produce a documentary about how those were being used in public spaces. I knew MiA had an interactive videodisk kiosk, and while documenting that work was asked by an MiA Visitor Services person if I knew anything about this kind of stuff because they were looking to hire a director of digital media. It took a while to actually land the job but it was a match made in heaven to a certain degree. It was the first job like that in the US, maybe even the world, to form a public-focused digital media team in an art museum.

 

RD: I’ve never heard you talk about advertising and visual communications, which is interesting to me because I too was a bit lost in high school but unfortunately didn’t have anybody to guide me. Visual communications and graphic design was never apparent as a “thing.” My interests were viewed as more language-based, and I was directed toward journalism programs, and within that, advertising. I was at the University of Nebraska, writing copy for Mrs. Smith’s frozen fruit pies, and thinking, you know, this isn’t really anything I want to do. At the same time, I was taking art history as a humanities requirement and it was just suddenly like, wow! I love this stuff! It was the combination of art and history which I was always interested in.

SS: Now that you say this, this might actually be the first time that I thought about this, I believe part of the reason I didn’t go the path you went was I always struggled with writing and reading. I also felt socially awkward, like a lot of kids, and so photography for me was a good way of communicating, not having to use words but being able to do it a different way. Then when I started to learn about multi-image, video, and other forms of visual communication, that became a channel for me. I think part of the reason I ended up at Bowling Green and studying Visual Communications was the fact that I was looking for something that didn’t focus solely on written words.

 

RD: When I started taking art history classes, I’d never been in an art museum. It was a field I’d never heard of and one that I changed everything for—colleges, my major, it really opened up the world for me. Between undergrad and grad school, I went on my grand tour, working my way through Europe’s museums. I attended grad school at UC Davis, did an internship at the Crocker in Sacramento, worked in the gallery on campus, and then summer of 1981 landed an internship at the National Gallery of Art.

 

SS: There were so many paths you could have taken. How did you end up specializing in museum informatics?

 

RD: Happy coincidence. I get the internship at the National Gallery, I’m planning to go to USC in the fall to do another Masters in museum studies, I’m a week out from completing the Gallery internship and was offered an opportunity to stay. The National Gallery’s Board had basically issued a mandate to perform annual collection inventories using a computerized information system.  My internship was in the prints and drawings department which had the largest holdings. The Rosenwald collection, the core of the Gallery’s prints and drawings collection, had just been transferred to Washington. I was on the verge of leaving and here was this special project that included completing the integration of the Rosenwald collection and creating electronic records for over 100,000 works of art. I spent the next three years cataloguing prints, drawings, rare books, and developing standards and systems for recording the information, all on an IBM Mainframe that practically filled the lower level of the East Building. In the mid ‘80s I found myself at a crossroads: was I going to pursue this work as a career or go back into something that felt more curatorial, which was where I thought I was originally headed. There were opportunities in a burgeoning informatics field that needed people who could be a bridge between the technologists and content specialists, and I fit it pretty well.


I also got really excited about the application of art information beyond collections management. I would lead the development of the Gallery’s first collections management system, followed by their first website. We were relatively late among big institutions going online but when we did so in 1997, it included a searchable catalog of the entire collection. Nobody was doing that. I was pretty proud of that. But then I saw a future that looked like a hamster on a wheel: the website would be followed by a reengineering of the collections management system, and I didn’t want to do that, again. Enter Steve and the Walker.

 

SS: When did you start to see the value of your work was beyond inventory, something of greater historic, scholarly, and public value?

RD: Pretty early. You know we’ve talked about this in a different context. Recently I’ve become more interested in bird watching and ornithology again, an interest I had in the early 1980s that coincided with my first years in Washington—anyway, this will make sense in a minute. I was hanging out with people working for EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), BLM (Bureau of Land Management), Forest Service, and if you weren’t saving the spotted owl or protecting the environment, your life was meaningless. And I was really questioning, what am I doing? Where is the value? The notion that there was a bigger idea, purpose, was being formulated. I wanted to do something that felt like more than yes, all the beans are counted.

 

SS: It’s interesting, we might have talked about this before as well, but I’ve always struggled with the ephemeral nature of the work we do. There are projects that both of us have worked on that don’t exist anymore.  And at the same time, artifacts of that work, everything from workflows and standards to the actual digitized assets, will go through many iterations into the future, hopefully, but have long-term lasting value. You have to disconnect yourself at a certain point because you get your feelings hurt by the short life span of some of the things you put a lot of effort into, at least the cover image of them, is gone.

 

RD: It’s taken my entire career to understand the importance of the process. The product is important but the way we would get there, the byproducts of that final thing that does feel very ephemeral, those the pieces that have longevity.

 

SS: A lot of the relationships were generated across departments. I think digital has been a tremendous driver of internal collaboration and getting people to actually talk about where they have shared values and objectives. Like you said, I think byproducts is a really good word. Digital has been such an incredible driver for changing the way institutions and individuals think about themselves.

 

Importance of MCN

RD: I think we can connect that emphasis on collaboration back to MCN and the things that have mattered there. For me, it was a lot of relationship building.

 

SS: How did you first get involved in MCN?

 

RD: At the Gallery in the 1980s. It was a very different conference then, really hosted by the local museums, particularly in Washington. I saw a picture recently of people going through the MCN archives, and there was a man I hadn’t seen in forever, David Bridge! David, Mary Case, Jane Sledge, so many people I haven’t thought of in years. At the time, I thought the most interesting work was being done by the Canadian Heritage Information Network. It was beginning of some of my friendships in Canada that, like ours, have endured to this day. I was on the MCN board from 1996–2001, a commitment that overlapped NGA and Walker. In 2001, I was program co-chair for the conference “Real Life: Virtual Experiences, New Connections for Museum Visitors.” The conference was a collaboration with CIMI (Consortium for the Computer Interchange of Museum Information). Angela Spinazze was my co-chair, another important friendship born from work. We invited multiple plenary speakers from outside the membership—that was a new model—and then 9/11 happened. It was amazing the conference took place.

 

You had a different path to MCN, first embracing AAM and their Media and Technology Committee. That was a whole new group of characters.

 

SS: In all honesty, my early relationship with MCN was more awkward because I was involved with AAM and their Media and Technology Committee. AAM was struggling with its relationship with MCN. MCN had always had a place on the floor there, served a certain role, and I think AAM wanted it to either become part of AAM or go away. Meanwhile, Peter Samis, who was at SFMOMA, and I were trying to breathe some new life into the Media and Technology Committee, which was completely media focused—films, slide presentations, some video—there was nothing digital, nothing interactive. It was the early pre-web days of ICHIM. I was involved with those groups because in my mind, it was sexier than what MCN was doing, which was focused on collections management, infrastructure, and IT. I mean the world has changed so many times. Then I became very disenchanted with Museums & the Web, seeing it as a heavily-curated commercial entity that didn’t always have the community’s best interests at heart. MCN today is such a different organization, it’s like MCN version 3.0.

RD: We’ve both been through multiple versions of these organizations. MCN has been reinvented numerous times, and almost gone under on more than one occasion.

 

SS: I feel like one organization starts to outshine the other based on a gap or a need that is not being filled. MCN was missing when digital media really became a sexy thing. MCN was hesitant to get into that and suffered because of it. Unfortunately, it’s now to a point where MCN doesn’t deal much with IT, and that’s now the gap.

 

RD: The evolution of these organizations always comes with some down moments. But when doing their best work, they are responding to the needs of the community. I would agree with you, given the summit we organized last year around e-commerce, there just isn’t a place for some of those big systems conversations right now. At the same time, we can and do argue that digital technology is everything. The compartmentalization of all this stuff is problematic. So, it will change yet again.

 

SS: All true, and yet though all of it, the relationships continue. On a personal level, you, Kris and I have developed a close relationship in part because we share a deep concern about these areas. As much as we try to not talk about work all the time, we often find ourselves gravitating to it and then, at the same time, we found that we have a lot of other shared interests, like food, gardening, and …

 

RD: … chicken coops!

The chicken coop that Robin built on her property with the help of Scott and Kris.

 

 

SS: … living out in the country. These things, that seem very divergent in some ways, have brought us all together even more.

 

RD: And now we’re wishing MCN a happy voyage into its next 50 years, and us as well, as we set up camp in Corning, NY. How about ending with a little advice for a happy career in museum tech?

 

Robin and Scott’s 10 Maxims (+1)

  1. Collaborate with sister institutions.
  2. Colleagues can become your best friends, if you’re lucky.
  3. Be generous.
  4. Healthy competition is a good thing.
  5. Learn from past initiatives. It’s likely your idea has been tried before: do it better!
  6. If your developer says it’s impossible, give him a day before charting a new course.
  7. Make him in the last sentence her.
  8. The impossible often seems attainable after a good night’s sleep.
  9. The work you do in museums will be among the best experiences of your life.
  10. The contribution is not the headstone but the life that went with it.
  11. Don’t eat green grass on an empty stomach (really applies to cats).

 

 

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Got Audio?

By Christine Murray, 

Sr. Creative Strategist & Executive Producer, Antenna

 

“The Listening Lounge” at MCN is going to be a drop-in chill space much like a “Silent Disco,” but with comfy chairs, a quiet vibe, and curated playlists. MCN participants can enter at any time between sessions, meetings, or just when they need to take a break, close their eyes and open their ears. It’s being organized by Earprint Immersive and Antenna International.

We are now collecting audio samples from all sectors of our community to include in the Listening Lounge. We’re looking for all variety of audio – a great podcast episode, a binaural experiment, a sonic landscape, an immersive soundwalk, a piece of original music inspired by a painting, a really compelling first-person interview, a battle-scene re-creation – you name it! We want to showcase all the great work being made out there.

Just fill out the Listening Lounge_Submission form and upload it with your audio file (more than one is ok) to this location:  https://www.dropbox.com/sh/1du4v2bccjupix3/AADXP-PhLZd9YtNIDhUPDMBma?dl=0

We’ll be accepting submissions until November 1st.
Thank you!
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Check the Classifieds…

By Eric Johnson

 

As readers can probably tell from earlier posts by other members of this committee, mining old #musetech job listings is really a lot of fun.

My task has been to scour the last 50 years of New York Times classified listings, pulling together job ads for positions advertising some kind of use of technology in museums. As an aside, there’s some real historical and cultural anthropology to be done in old classifieds sections.

It’s notable how many ads–ads in general, not #musetech ads–in the 1960s and 1970s simply looked for “college grads” who would then be connected to a whole host of jobs. Apparently it was enough that they went to college. “Attractive people” were regularly sought to fill certain positions. “Fee Paid” was a common notation. Often employers sought a “Gal/Man Friday” and asked “No phone calls please.” I was tickled to see one non-technical museum executive assistant job listing seeking a “right arm to director” for whom “[p]oise and personality are vital to interface with art experts and artists. Average skills fine.” I mean, who needs skills, really?

Here are some highlights of the search:

January 4, 1970, pg. 267

This is the earliest job ad I’ve found combining museums and computers:

In case you can’t read it well, here’s the main info:

Financial Analyst . . .
Metropolitan Museum Of Art

Accounting background for work in expanding Treasurer’s office. Awareness of computer application helpful. Produce special financial studies of Museum activities.

Mail resume to Manager of Personnel . . .

I find myself wondering: what computer application (or application of computers) do they mean?

January 12, 1975, pg. 300

This position at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was found under the heading “Data Processing”:

Computer Operations Supervisor

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is seeking an individual to direct the daily operations of its new data processing facility. Requires 3-4 years data center experience, including 1-2 years computer room supervisor responsibility on an IBM 360 DOS disk/tape system. Experience with data entry and quality control essential. Salary $14,000-$15,000 plus 4 weeks vacation & excellent benefits.

If you’re curious what an IBM 360 DOS disk/tape system looks like, here you are:

By ArnoldReinhold – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47096462

 

And just to get a sense for that salary, according to the U.S. Inflation Calculator, a $14,000 – 15,000 salary range in 1975 translates to a $63,889.70 – $68,453.25 range today.

 

September 17, 1989, pg. W23

The Cooper-Hewitt Museum found themselves in need of a Museum Registration Clerk:

Registrar’s office seeks technician exp’d in collections mgmt. Candidate creates & maintains computerized accessioning program, reviews insurance coverage & loan program for incoming & outgoing objects. Serves as timekeeper for dept & provides gentle technical & clerical support. Previous exp w/IBM PC & PS/Multimate & dBase III+ an advantage. Familiarity w/dec arts or design & foreign language helpful. 3 yrs exp req’d. Education may be substituted for exp. Sal $19,993. Send resume . . .

Multimate, for the uninitiated—and I count myself among them—is an office word processing software. Here’s a great review of it from the May 4, 1987, edition of InfoWorld magazine. And dBase III+ is a database management system for standalone microcomputers (consider it the Microsoft Access of its day).

June 6, 1993, pg. W7

Listing their needs under “computer” in the classified jobs section, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum used their ad to list a couple of openings for people talented with technology:

The Museum presents an exciting opportunity to combine the worlds of international art museums & leading edge computer technologies. We have a growing PC/Network environment of 200 PC’s and 250 users.

PC SUPPORT SPECIALIST

Serve as liaison with users and user groups for technical support and project advice; research, purchase, install and troubleshoot hardware/software; and work on small and large systems projects.

Requires intimate familiarity with PC’s, DOS, WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3; a love for troubleshooting & problem solving; detail orientation; excellent oral & written skills for dealing with staff of all levels; and an eagerness & quickness to learn. BA degree, Mac, Windows, Memory Management, and Novell a plus.

FINANCIAL SYSTEMS ANALYST

Maintain, modify and support existing financial systems: accounting, ticketing, point of sale, and merchandising. Systems are multi-user, based on DOS/Novell, and developed by outside vendors in various languages. Duties include designing/implementing hardware & software enhancements; troubleshooting; maintaining security; providing technical support; and acting as liaison with vendors & user group leaders.

Requires experience supporting complex, mission-critical database systems; familiarity with PC’s and DOS; excellent oral and written skills; and quickness to learn & juggle numerous large-scale systems. Financial systems, project management and Novell experience a plus.

This is the year I graduated from college, so the need for desktop support familiar with DOS, WordPerfect, and Lotus 1-2-3 is all too resonant. I like that both positions welcomed Novell experience, Novell being an earlier leader in computer networking. I also appreciate that the financial systems analyst position specifically refers to working with outside vendors, an indication of an important new skill set for technologists.  But Memory Management?  That was a new term to me–but thanks to Sean Blinn, we may have a handle on it.  Check out this article for a fantastic trip down memory lane through the state of computing–including memory management–in 1991.

August 8, 1999, pg. W13

The Brooklyn Museum of Art needed an Information Systems Manager:

Brooklyn Museum of Art seeks exp professional to develop & manage IS/IT dept; establish standards of hardware (PC & MAC), software & network operating systems (Novell, Windows NT); Y2k review; deal w/vendors; support major museum systems/databases & provide training & support to staff. Degreed, exp w/systems admin & knowledge of applications & operating systems read. Please FAX cvr ltr w/resume to . . .

Novell is still going strong, but Windows NT shows up. But the thing that made this ad stand out to me is the need to manage “Y2k review.” Many of us may remember that the IT world was very unsure about what would happen when computer clocks rolled to the year 2000 (the “Y2K bug”), so they threw a lot of resources at it all to make sure systems didn’t crash. The actual day came and went without major system failures, but that might well have been because of conscientious actions from people like this museum IS Manager.

One thing that stands out about viewing positions over time, as the earlier posts in this series have indicated, is the increasing specialization both of the positions themselves and of the software/hardware with which they will interact.  Another, as Sarah Outhwaite noted, is how the technology for submitting résumés changes as we work through the ads: first mail, then fax, then on to mail/fax/email.

 

Now the links to application websites are included.

What’s going to stand out about your job description in a decade or three? What are the skills that are timeless and which ones are only “here and now,” an artifact of being employed in 2017 (as opposed to 2067)?

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MCN50 Voices: Chris Alexander & Marty Spellerberg

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.

 

In this post Chris Alexander and Marty Spellerberg, who have never met, share stories about projects they have worked on, and museums they have worked in, and consider museum technology’s past, present and future.

 

Chris Alexander (left) and Marty Spellerberg

 

Chris:  We didn’t know one another before this, and we’ve been paired together. So, maybe we should start out by introducing ourselves.

Marty:  My name is Marty Spellerberg and I am an independent designer and developer based out of Austin, Texas.

Chris:  And I am Chris Alexander and I reside in San Jose, California. I just finished a fixed term contract at the Cantor Art Center at Stanford University and I think the word will be out by the time this goes live that I have just accepted a position with Gallery Systems as an account manager.

Marty:  My first MCN, though I had heard about it previously, was Minneapolis 2015. And it was great, I loved it.

Chris:  The first one I went to was Chicago in 2007. I was fortunate enough to get one of the scholarships that was offered at the time, so that helped to pay for it, which was great. And I got to write a blog post about it afterwards, which was kind of fun. It’s always been a great bunch of people and always very informative and very focused on certain topics.

Looking Back

Marty:  Did you enter the field through museums, or did you enter it through technology, or always both?

Chris:  I was working at the San Jose Museum of Art. I started on the installation crew as a part-time person on call, and then did membership for two years, got my feet in some database stuff there. I missed being around the art, so I applied for an assistant registrar position and did that for three years.

I went back to college, got a Web design certification and right around that time, the museum was challenged by the director, Dan Keegan, to create an iPod tour. That was when they had the scroll wheel iPods. And so the education department was kind of like, “What the heck? How are we going to do that?”

I had known about this notes-only mode on the scroll wheel iPod, which was also called ‘museum mode.’ And I said, “Hey, well, I think I might be able to help you guys out.”

Marty:  This is like a set of tracks but there’s no audio?

Chris:  You were basically creating these really small HTML text files that go on the iPod. You’re scrolling up and down these, almost like mini webpages without images, but there’s hyperlinks and you can hyperlink to an audio file. You can hyperlink to a video file. You can hyperlink to photos. So you’re kind of in control of steering a visitor in a certain type of direction using these notes. And you can link the notes together. It was kind of challenging creating a user interface just out of text.

Because I really enjoyed creating the content and the interface (and because I was getting my certification in Web design), I proposed a position to the director, “Hey, what do you think about a manager of interactive technology position who looks at the website and manages that, but also creates these audio tours and mobile tours?”

He was like, “That’s great. Let’s do it.” So I basically wrote my own job description, which was really awesome.

Marty:  Doing websites has basically been the only job I’ve had in my life! I got into it as a teenager, when the Web was just coming up. We were a bunch of kids who were interested in art and here was this new medium that anyone could publish to. After college I started working for galleries and art collectives, and moved through the ranks of arts organizations until I found myself in museums.

When I arrived at the Art Gallery of Ontario, they’d had a website for many years, maybe a decade. But the institution’s relationship to it was changing. It was going from being this thing that was maybe a bit to the side, to something that was central to everybody’s concerns. And the way that was directly expressed in technology was the adoption of a content management system. Instead of submitting changes through a central person who maintained the site, the responsibility was distributed throughout the organization. Everybody in their own department had the responsibility of making sure that the their programs were represented. And the role of the Web department changed from being these people who you’d send your Word docs to, to people who were trying to introduce new features or architectural changes.

Chris:  When the iPhone came out, that changed everything as well. It really was a disruptive device within the museum field because, you think about companies like Antenna Audio and Acoustiguide, and their whole business model was based on the rental of audio devices within museums. And suddenly, museums were able to create their own mobile tours. Apple had these great tools too like GarageBand and iMovie or Final Cut to create content internally, which kind of negated the need to have a company create it for you. I mean if you’re the experts on your own collection, it just changed the whole field.

Marty: The iPhone also motivated change in the relationship to photography. Back in 2007 “no photography” was the baseline policy, and it was so hard to have those conversations about “well, can we open it up?” Now it seems like the whole mode has changed. It’s not only about allowing photography, it’s about encouraging photography and encouraging discussion on social media, premised on photography.

Chris:  Absolutely. I know there are some museums that will focus on a specific exhibition to make it more social media friendly. You think about Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Room, where it seems like there’s just tons of people taking photographs in that place and posting them. It’s great.

Marty:  I have friends, non-museum people, who said, “We have to go to Houston and take Infinity Room selfies.” So we did a day trip, just for that. They were motivated by the social cachet of that of having that experience, and broadcasting having that experience.

I remember when there was no such thing as “social media.” There were “social networks,” and at the Art Gallery of Ontario we had a group called “online communities.” It was an informal meeting group that came about first, then evolved into social media, and into a dedicated position.

It seems like, at this moment, it’s a lot about getting into the apps that people are already spending their time in, the social properties. They set the aesthetic boundaries of what’s possible, so you give up a lot of control. But it’s a new audience too, of people who wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to that artist or exhibition.

Chris:  I think once museums started realizing that their physical walls weren’t a boundary anymore, websites really started getting beefed up and you look at a lot of the collections on the web now, like The Met, for example, and like the Rijksmuseum, with open access to their collection, where you can basically download high resolution images and do whatever you want with them.

Marty:  One thing about the technology, we haven’t touched on, but maybe we should, with you going to TMS (The Museum System, Gallery System’s Collections Management Software), is the digitization of – would you call it back office? Stewardship of the collection is a core foundational piece of what a museum is, and technology like TMS has had a transformative effect on that work.

Curators can now search each other’s collections, to know what other people have. They’re able organize loans in a way that wouldn’t have been possible without computers, without the Internet. The entirety of the scholarship has been impacted, and I’m sure this has had an effect on the scope of exhibitions. Even though the technology is not front and center to the visitor, it’s boosting what’s possible.

Chris:  Yeah, and I still think there’s even a lot more room to grow on the back end database side. We’re making it easier to tap into APIs for use in galleries or with the website or whatever other technology is going to come down the road.

Marty:  One thing that I didn’t really know about museums before I got in was the relationship of museums to their members. I always thought of museums as facing the general public, and they do, but being in museums you learn about how trustees and volunteers and all these groups are very committed to the museum, and the museum is very committed to them. It was a surprise to me how much support goes into the membership programs and the trustees, and the amount of technology that we have to support them.

 

Looking Forward

Chris:  I’m still trying to figure out virtual reality and how that’s going to come into play. One of the things that I’ve thought about as a great use for virtual reality is for exhibition archiving. You have a curator that spends years on an exhibition and then it’s only up for three months. How do you give that experience to future generations? You could be a researcher and go to a museum and experience their virtual reality of this exhibition that was there 20 years prior, which I think would be pretty cool. You’ve got to think too that it could also become a vehicle for designing exhibitions. Virtual reality could also give the curator the tools they need to layout an exhibition before the exhibition even goes up, to problem solve certain things.

Marty:  Not to mention when artists start designing them, and when curators start picking up projects from artists that are virtual or augmented.

This maybe will be the kind of thing that we’ll look back on 50 years from now and laugh, but I have a pet theory that exhibition designers will become the new web designers. That in the augmented-reality future, everybody will be an exhibition designer, because in our field we spend a lot of time thinking about how to pair information about objects with the objects themselves, and how to present it spatially. Even going back to your example of using the iPods, and how to create an experience that’s unobtrusive and adds to the appreciation of an objects without getting in the way.

You know, just thinking about the next 50 years, something I think our sector could really look to is the webzine A List Apart.

Chris:  A List Apart was like major in the shift with Web standards. It was kind of like the go-to place, you know, 10 years ago.

Marty:  Totally. I don’t know if they’ve had a blockbuster like this in a while, but “Responsive Design” was an article on A List Apart. Now we all do responsive design, and it’s called that because that’s the title of the article. And now they do chapbooks, which are essentially required reading. I would love an easy-to-digest publication in the museum technology space that has that amount of influence. Just putting that out there!

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#MCN50 Voices: Leslie Johnston and Miranda Kerr

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.

 

Leslie Johnston, Director of Digital Preservation U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), and Miranda Kerr, Manager of Digital Learning, Learning Programs, John G. Shedd Aquarium, conversed over Twitter on a variety of topics including career paths, MCN, silly moments at work, and #LOLCats. For more of the conversation, explore the storify.

 

Leslie Johnston (left), and Miranda Kerr

 

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Technologist-in-Chief: When Digital Reaches Museum Leadership

By Desi Gonzalez

 

As digital technologies have come to permeate contemporary culture, social life, and workplaces, museums have increasingly recognized their value. This is nowhere better illustrated than when #musetech reaches museum leadership. In 2014, the Peabody Essex Museum’s Ed Rodley noticed an increase in technology-related C-level positions, sharing that “it was heartening to see another colleague who combines a passion for museums with a deep understanding of digital technologies climb into the senior management ranks.”

 

Oh, the C-suite life: just like their private sector counterparts, many major museums have top-ranking executives whose titles generally start with the word “chief” and end in “officer.” The MCN Job History research team has been digging into 50 years of technology jobs at cultural institutions in order to understand the professionalization of our field. So far, we’ve notice a shift from focusing on data processing to user experience, reflected on how technological advancements are reflected in job descriptions, and investigated how one role central to museums—registration—has evolved due to the emergence of computers. Along the way, I’ve been interested in examining when technologists entered senior management in order to examine what that means about a museum’s commitment to digital technologies.

 

Focusing on the construction “chief blank officer,” I mined sources such as Museums and the Web, MCN archives, LinkedIn, newspaper job postings, and museum annual reports and press releases to compile a growing list of C-level roles in museum. (Feel free to suggestion any I’ve missed!) Of course, museums hire technologists in senior management roles with other job title formulations—prefixes include “deputy directors,” “associate director,” and “vice president”—but I chose to compare similar terms for the purpose of my research.

 

It’s been about 20 years or so that technologists have joined senior ranks and began to report directly to museum directors. The Guggenheim Foundation and the Cleveland Museum of Art hired their first chief information officers in 1996 and 1999, respectively; the Museum of Modern Art has had a CIO since at least 2001. The term chief technology officer was the next wave. The Metropolitan Museum of Art had a CTO as early as 2000, the Walters Art Museum hired one in 2008, and the Seattle Art Museum is currently searching for its first CTO with the goal of using technology to “amplify the museum’s mission and improve business operations.”

 

Both CIO and CTO positions tend to be more about providing a service: they generally house the information technology team and thinking about internal systems and platforms. (Of course, this isn’t always the case: Jane Alexander, in her role as CIO at CMA since 2010, has been at the helm of ARTLENS, one of the most ambitious suites of visitor-facing technology experiences.) More recently, we’ve seen the rise of the chief digital officer in museums: at the American Museum of Natural History in 2008, charged with leading “digital strategy formulation and implementation”; at the Minneapolis Institute of Art since at least in 2011; and the high-profile appointment of Sree Sreenivasan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2013, among others. (Cincinnati Museum Center announced the creation of a CDO role to oversee a technology vision for a consortium of cultural institutions just this year.)

 

These roles focus more on the external experience of digital technologies; in some institutions, the more traditional IT department is separate from the CDO’s purview. The emergence of the chief digital officer role in cultural institutions signals a move from viewing technology as something that supports the information systems and digitization to a more visitor- and audience-centered focus. Douglas Hegley, writing about his role as CDO at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, described how his division encompasses everything from digital collection management and information systems to software development and interactive media. For his museum, digital “is both service-oriented (reactive) and strategically-aligned (proactive).”

 

In 2015, Seb Chan was appointed the Australian Centre for the Moving Image’s first chief experience officer; a year later, Shelley Bernstein took on the same title at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Bernstein describes her main responsibility as “ put[ting] a leash on digital and, instead, shift[ing] the focus to better experiences regardless of how they are implemented.” Or, as Seb Chan put it, “What if the museum experience meant people wanted to put their phones away?” While they both come from technology backgrounds, they’re now thinking about museums in a post-digital way. What their #musetech backgrounds bring is a digital mindset, a design-thinking approach, and an appreciation for well-architected systems, but their final products do not necessarily have to involve technology—making them the perfect candidates to break down internal silos across the organizational chart.  

 

Currently, the Baltimore Museum of Art seeks a chief innovation officer—perhaps the first museum to hold such a post. The job seems to be hybrid of a chief communications officer and a chief digital officer, providing a vision for “digital and traditional marketing channels” via “imaginative and innovative approaches.” The advent of leadership roles in experience and innovation signals two things to me: first, that museums are catching onto the rhetoric of innovation and user experience permeating our culture today, and secondly, that many museums are adopting a visitor-first philosophy.

I turned to Google Ngram Viewer, which searches the frequency of words or phrases within Google Book’s corpus, as a way to get a sense of how #musetech leadership roles might reflect. Mining Google’s massive repository of books published between 1800 and 2008, an Ngram search serves as an approximation of a term’s importance within the zeitgeist overtime. Three “chiefs” turn out to be chief: information, technology, and innovation. The first two roles—“chief information officer” and “chief technology officer”—have long been present at major museums.

 

Like Ed Rodley, I am thrilled to witness technologists enter the ranks of upper museum management. As digital technologies become embedded in our everyday lives, it seems fitting that museums are creating senior positions—like CDOs and CXOs—that move beyond technical systems and contribute to a larger museum vision. Technology has historically been an unlikely path to leadership, but museum directors are increasingly recognizing the value of having digital experience as part of senior staff.

 

However, as digital continues to gain prominence in cultural institutions, I urge the museum technology community in particular and museum leadership in general to remember that the race to the top hasn’t been such a positive story for all. It’s no secret that museum directorships remain overwhelmingly white and male compared to overall staff demographics. How might we #musetech folks continue to celebrate the rise of our peers into senior ranks while working towards more diverse representation.

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MCN50 Digital Experience at MCN2017

Planning a 50th birthday takes time. We began planning MCN’s 50th almost 2 years ago but things really started to move forward when Susan Edwards and Marla Misunas agreed to join forces as co-chairs of the MCN50 Planning Committee early last year.

For the past 18 months, Susan and Marla have meticulously planned a myriad of ways to pay tribute to MCN’s first 50 years. Enrolling and directing an army of 40+ volunteers from our community, Marla organized a dive into MCN’s archives kept at the Smithsonian Archives in Washington, D.C. From the trove of boxes, Susan and Marla developed a series of sub-projects that together provide an overview of MCN’s first 50 years, including a Timeline of MCN and a history of Job Descriptions, and the incredibly successful community project called “MCN50 Voices” conceived by Susan.

To help us put this narrative together, CultureConnect graciously offered to provide their platform to us, pro bono, to create an “MCN50 Digital Experience” that you’ll be able to enjoy during the conference on touch table hardware generously provided courtesy of Ideum. Recapping this process, is a short interview with Susan, Marla, Samantha Diamond and Seema Rao.

MCN50 Digital Experience image

Eric: Hi Susan and Marla. So we’ve been planning for MCN’s 50th since mid 2016. What were the initial goals you set for yourselves as you began that process?

Susan: When we first met, Carolyn Royston, the incoming President of MCN, told us that she really wanted to activate the MCN community for the entire year leading up to the 2017 annual conference. She saw the anniversary as an opportunity to extend the amazing energy and community of the conference. Early on, we set the following goals for the anniversary year:

  • Recognize past accomplishments, past and current leaders and volunteers
  • Celebrate the MCN community, the organization’s mission and how it’s helped shape the thinking around the possibilities of technology in museums over the past 50 years
  • Reinforce how MCN remains a future-looking organization
  • Re-dedicate the next 50 years to its core mission and continue to remain relevant to future generations of museum technologists

With these goals in hand, we then reached out to the community. We invited a few long-time MCNers to have some conversations with us. We called these folks our ‘brain trust’ and it was really from those folks that some of the great ideas for the MCN50 program were born. From our conversations with our “brain trust,” we defined 3 key areas of focus: the history of the organization, professional development, and “in real life” meetings.

Eric: So tell us about the key programs that came out of the MCN50 planning effort this past year?

Susan: Unearthing the archival materials and history of MCN was one of the most straightforward things to do for the anniversary. Huge kudos go to Marla and the team that spent several days at the Smithsonian Archives in Washington, D.C. looking through the organization’s papers. That was a huge event to organize. At the New Orleans conference, we also had several volunteers reach out to us with interest in putting together a timeline of the organization and digitizing documents.

As I recall, the idea for the job descriptions project came out of a conversation I had with Eric Johnson at one of the conferences about using data from historical job descriptions to dive into the history of the types of roles in our profession. Eric was really excited about the idea, so we tapped him to lead the project to do this research and report out.

The idea for Voices came out of a desire to create a professional development moment during MCN50. The original idea was to pair people with a lot of experience in the field with more junior people. I had an idea that a mentor-mentee-ish conversation, recorded as an interview, would be useful to others in the field. It turned out that we did have many pairs like this. But we also had many pairs of very good friends interviewing one another, which provides a wonderful peek into the camaraderie and community of the field, and demonstrates the role of MCN in this community. The response on this one project has been so incredible. So many amazing conversations and insights. I have learned so much from everyone.

Finally, our desire to bring people together at moments and places outside of the annual conference manifested as birthday parties for MCN. About once a month since January, there has been a party in a city somewhere with local museum professionals who have been enjoying cake and toasting to MCN.

Marla: I have been a little obsessed with MCN’s history for years. When I was president, I spent a lot of time in the SFMOMA archives, going through the director’s papers (SFMOMA joined MCN in 1968), going through old Spectra issues for an MCN presentation about job descriptions, and going through a ton of material we had in the museum’s library for the MCN history article Richard Urban and I wrote back then.

It’s always been a goal of mine to turn the spotlight on MCN’s history in a more enduring way so future MCNers can learn about what came before, and the really wonderful accomplishments of so many amazing people in MCN’s past. When planning the anniversary came up, I knew I had to be involved. Most people didn’t know that the official MCN archive is housed at the Smithsonian Archives. The idea of going through so much original historic material to prepare for MCN50 was very exciting.

Among our goals for the two Smithsonian Archive dives (January and July) were to fill out the collection of scanned MCN conference programs and Spectra issues, find significant events in MCN history, and to hopefully find some intriguing surprises along the way.

The time spent at the Archives was really a delight, with stacks of boxes, piles and piles of documents, “aha!” moments, and funny moments (David Vance’s voluminous correspondence and dry sense of humor); working closely with some great people from MCN’s past and future.

The dives could not have happened without the hard work of Charles Zange, MCNer who works at the Smithsonian Archives, and David Bridge, an early MCN member and long time Smithsonian Archives staff member. David knows more about MCN than anyone else I know, and can get his hands on it, too.

The timeline came about as a natural way of sharing the historical information we found. MCN timeliners, led by Richard Urban and Andrea Ledesma, used the archive materials and other resources, to create two timelines–one is a higher level, broader approach, and the other is more detailed for the dedicated MCN history enthusiast.

MCN50 Digital Experience image

Eric: So Samantha, you’re the founder and CEO of CultureConnect, an award-winning producer of digital interactives for museums.

Samantha: Yes! CultureConnect helps museums create beautiful and meaningful digital experiences for their visitors. We’re unique in that we offer a comprehensive platform solution that publishes a full suite of mobile and in-gallery interactives. I’m also a bit nerdy when it comes to user research and user testing so we do that in our services practice too.

Eric: CultureConnect has been supporting the MCN annual conference since 2014. Last year, you developed the New Orleans City Guide, and this year, you generously offered to lend your platform to produce the “MCN50 Digital Experience” that will be available for attendees during MCN2017. What inspired you to do this? Why is this important for you to do as a vendor?

Samantha: 50 years is a long time (laughs) so it’s impressive, first of all, that MCN has endured. Technology evolves so quickly, we have a sense of “history” looking back less than a decade – it’s extraordinary that MCN has thrived for five decades. MCN’s founding members were early adopters in many ways! We wanted to be a part of this celebration.

With this much history to share and so many personal stories to tell, I thought a great way to bring this to life would be with the sort of digital interactives we already use in the galleries. A mini in-gallery interactive, if you will. The touchscreen experience offers two parts – MCN Voices showcases the people that make up this community while the Timeline gives historical meaning.

Susan, Marla, Seema and the whole MCN50 team did an amazing job rallying member contributions and digging through archives – the digital component provides an organized, centralized point of discovery.

The MCN community has always been welcoming and collaborative which has meant a lot to me and my team at CultureConnect. So, it was our pleasure to offer up our platform to create and publish this MCN50 Digital Experience.

Eric: Hi Seema, given your expertise developing content, you’ve generously taken on the lead in helping us put together the content for the “MCN50 Digital Experience”. Can you tell us about some of the choices you made to try to capture 50 years in a short digital experience?

Seema: The MCN volunteers had been working for months to capture the last 50 wonderful years of this organization for months before I joined the team. They had been focused on two big facets: understanding the organization through its people (MCN Voices) and capturing snapshots of the organization over time (MCN Timeline).

By the time this exciting opportunity for a CultureConnect App came up, both of these teams were swimming in content. Even I, myself, as a member of the committee couldn’t get through all the content that was produced. There was just too much. It was like having too much of a good thing. So, my goal was to try to create a framework that showcased a taste of the content, like giving the conference goers the best slice of the pie. Now, everyone has their own appetites, so the challenge was also to find a way to give enough that everyone could find their ideal slice of the content.

With the help of careful planning, and the filtering tools within the CultureConnect infrastructure, my hope is that everyone will be able to dip into some of this rich content. Our goal though is that, after people go to what is appealing, they then find something unexpected.

Eric: Can you give us an example?

Seema: Sure! For the Voices content for example, you might be interested in Museums and Technology. But, once you read a few quotes by the best and brightest amongst us, you could easily move into ideas about career paths or the supportive environment of the MCN community. In the timeline team, you will find that something as simple as a new database is really the beginning of a new way of thinking of collections.

In other words, as you wander through the app, you will hopefully be able to see an ecosystem of ideas and events in a way that is engaging but not overwhelming. For me, this is exactly what MCN is–immersive, thought-provoking, supportive, and safe. Hopefully, the app evokes that same sensibility.

 

I’m really looking forward to delving into the “MCN50 Digital Experience”, and I hope that those of you who will be joining us in Pittsburgh next month for MCN 2017 will get an opportunity to interact with 50 years of MCN at a glance. And make sure to thank everyone who’s been involved in making this project possible. Happy birthday MCN!

 

Eric Longo

Executive Director

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#MCN50 Voices: Douglas Hegley & Rob Lancefield

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.

 

 

Douglas Hegley (L) & Rob Lancefield (R)

 

A former psychologist and a sometimes-ethnomusicologist walk into an MCN conference-hotel bar.

The former psychologist says, “Hello, how are you today?”

The sometimes-ethnomusicologist answers, “Well, context is everything.”

Psychologist: “Wait, are you saying that before we can attempt to reach conclusions, we need to explore and understand potential underlying forces? And also how meaning itself might be conveyed—and may often be misconstrued—whether by perception or cognition?”

Ethnomusicologist: “You sound like a psychologist! Yes, that makes sense to me. I tend to think first, though, of how useful it can be to explore and try to understand the cultural contexts, and other contextual factors, that affect how people make meaning from their experiences.”

Psychologist: “Ah, yes, context and meaning and experiences—You know, it’s beginning to sound like we should work in museums.”

Ethnomusicologist: “Now you’re playing my tune!”

Okay, so that conversation never actually happened, but anyone who’s met former MCN Presidents Douglas Hegley and Rob Lancefield knows that it could have. Warning: It can be risky to listen in on their often jump-cut conversations, and this installment of #MCN50 Voices is no exception. You never know where it’s going to end up; but if you’re willing to step off that edge for awhile, read on.

 

Who are these guys and what are they doing in museums?

Douglas: So Rob, let’s start with introductions. Who are you? Where are you? What do you do?

Rob: I’m Rob Lancefield. I lead (and do) digital work at the Davison Art Center, Wesleyan University, where my job titles are Manager of Museum Information Services and Registrar of Collections. The “Manager” role includes designing, implementing, and managing digital services and resources (collections data, images, etc.) in ways that serve our mission. When it comes to people who report to me (mostly grant-funded digitization staff), I think of my role as hiring, training, leading, supporting—not so much “managing” as bringing together a team who can understand what our aims are and how best to accomplish them with my strategic guidance and removal of obstacles. Alongside working with collections data and images, this is one of my favorite roles; and my approach to it is based in part on leadership models I first heard about via MCN. And you, Douglas? I’ll note here that it is most definitely “Douglas,” not “Doug.”

Douglas: Thank you Rob! Yes, because Douglas is a name, and dug is a verb, and one in the past tense at that. But I digress. I’m the Chief Digital Officer at Mia—the Minneapolis Institute of Art—where I’ve been for a little over six years. Before that, I spent fourteen incredible years working at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. At both organizations, I’ve been deeply involved with digital transformation: that is, helping these world-class institutions that are steeped in history and tradition find paths to be even more successful in our current, digital-forward world. It’s been both a great challenge and a highly rewarding experience. Before I got involved with museums, I was on my way to becoming a psychotherapist, so I represent the “former psychologist” in the corny joke above. The truth is that I never actually expected to work in digital technology, let alone museums—and yet somehow in hindsight it all makes sense. I was one of those early adopters when desktop computing came about. I bought one of the first-generation IBM PCs, you know, the ones with no hard drive, just dual floppies. I could see the potential of personal computing to help me and others get things done faster and better. I’ve brought that attitude and spirit to the work I’ve done in museums, along with my commitment to helping people. What about you? Did you see museums on your career track, Rob? How did you get onto this crazy rollercoaster anyway?

Rob: Via what looked like a sidestep and then led to a new professional world! In pre-museum life I was a musician, recording engineer, music copyist/typesetter, photographer—freelance work that often involved both the arts and technology. I went back to school for graduate work in ethnomusicology (the study of music in/as culture), and partway through that I was invited to apply for a museum job. I agonized over a two-year commitment, which now makes me laugh. I’ve worked for 23 years here at Wesleyan University’s Davison Art Center, which has quite a significant collection of more than 25,000 prints and photographs, and where there have always been new things to accomplish as digital tools, platforms, and community practices evolve.

 

Paths to MCN, trajectories within MCN

Douglas: Let’s move on to the Museum Computer Network. Rob, when did you first encounter MCN, and what is your history with the organization?

Rob: I first heard about MCN in 1995, when I’d been a museum person for just a year, was the only digitally oriented person under our roof, and was starting to design an in-house collection database system (things were different back then, and that was actually our best path at the time, crazy as it sounds now!). With the invaluable support of my supervisor, I made it to San Diego for MCN 1995—where I discovered that I wasn’t doing digital museum work in a vacuum, but could be part of a geographically distributed community of welcoming people working on related things in related ways. “What?! NO WAY! Cool.” It was a wonderful moment. I haven’t missed an MCN conference since.

I was first drawn in behind the scenes as the Standards SIG Chair, when Richard Rinehart was leaving that role and persuaded me to step up. A few years later, having been encouraged by Rick, Susan Patterson, and Sam Quigley to run, I was elected to the Board. That was in 2002, right when it was discovered that MCN was facing an internal existential crisis (now there’s a story for the bar, dear readers). Interesting times. During both of my three-year terms on the Board, I wore too many hats to list, and then was elected President for 2008–2009, just in time to face an external threat: the trough of the Great Recession. While dealing with the day-to-day, I tried to focus my leadership on community, transparency, and sustainability. These three things struck me as key forward-looking values as well as immediately critical factors—along with an extremely smart and dedicated Board, plus the financial reserves we’d built up since 2002—in MCN’s ability to weather the global financial crisis and keep moving forward. So, my Board service was “in with an internal crisis, out with an external one.” Lots of interesting challenges, and MCN continues to thrive and evolve nowadays with successive cohorts of leaders. Hurray!

Setting aside formal roles, though, the real core of my engagement with MCN is the rich web of relationships it’s enabled over more than twenty years, with people I think of as both long-valued colleagues and old friends, and with newly-met fellow MCNers each year. But speaking of old friends: Douglas, did we first meet at MCN 2004 in Minneapolis, long before you moved there?

Douglas: Ironically, yes. That was my first time attending the conference. I had been requesting to go earlier, but my then-boss would not approve my travel. I managed to get to the 2004 conference by convincing that person to come along too. It was a great experience, I was guided by my outstanding colleague Susan Chun, and I got to meet and connect with several people who would have a strong influence on me: you, Sam Quigley, Diane Zorich, Chuck Patch, Len Steinbach, Holly Witchey, Bill Weinstein, Max Anderson, and the list goes on! I have to agree with you that while the content of the conference sessions was informative, what was truly transformative for me was the network of professionals into which I had suddenly tapped. People were smart, supportive, and welcoming. I loved it!

It wasn’t long before I was proposing sessions year after year. One that got accepted and stands out for me took place at the 2006 MCN conference in Pasadena. I gave a presentation on a project that I had co-led, but which had frankly been a failure. The atmosphere of MCN enabled me to talk about getting things wrong; in fact, I believe that talking about failures is in many ways even more important than boasting about successes. If there is one thing that a professional network can really do for anyone, it is to let us know where the land mines are located. Sharing mis-steps and failures helps everyone avoid repeating the same mistakes and wasting time and resources.

Rob: And after you had given a few presentations, we persuaded you to take on an official role with the organization, right?

Douglas:  Yes, I was honored and excited to be nominated and then elected by the members to join the MCN Board in the fall of 2008—under your Presidency. Joining the organization in a formal role enabled me not only to benefit from your experience and counsel, but also to really get to know so many of my colleagues. And it all started from just talking together!

Rob: I’m glad I could be useful, and I love those kinds of informal onboarding conversations.

Douglas: Me too. As the years flowed past, it was so helpful to me to establish a rhythm of annual conferences and monthly Board meetings. I haven’t missed an MCN conference in a long time. In 2011, I moved into the role of President, just as you had three years prior—another honor. I endeavored to continue the work of those before me to professionalize and modernize both MCN and our cultural heritage sector. Over those years and since that time, you and I have had many conversations about the history of MCN and the potential futures on the organization’s horizon. I’m curious: How do you think MCN has evolved over the years?

 

MCN’s evolving scope and influence

Rob: For one thing, based on the long curve of our time with MCN, I’m struck by how less-strictly “technical” topics have come to be an explicit focus of more of our conference program content than they usually were in the past. This underlies some of the growing importance I believe each of us feels MCN has, both as a professional organization and in its wider impact on the field. These topics include strategy, project management, and so on, as well as “soft skills” (I’m not a big fan of that term, but the interpersonal competencies it references are critical), and in the most recent years, diversity, inclusion, social justice, and related topics. Many of the people who do and lead digital work in museums now conceive of what we do as being concerned at least as much with these things as with more stereotypically “techie” stuff like hardware, software, data, media production, and so on. Those things remain essential tools, but they were never the ultimate point, and MCN’s expanding scope reflects that. It’s been a real transformation.

Douglas: I think we’ve seen that MCN—as a professional service organization—has responded to and perhaps even helped to lead that evolution, not just in terms of the focus of the annual conference, but also in providing a professional network for staff who wrestle with these issues on a daily basis.

Rob: Yes. And I know we agree that many of the people who make up the MCN community have been focused on so-called soft skills and social interactions for some time—often not in on-program ways, but in the conversations, connections, and follow-up correspondence that spin off from the conference, year after year after year.

Douglas: Of course you know that my point of view will always focus primarily on people—as a former psychologist, I am a firm believer in what people can accomplish when the circumstances are right. I think you and I have imagined out loud that we could almost see changing the name, from Museum Computer Network to something like Museum Community Network. Of course it’s not the name that really matters, it’s who we are and what we represent that counts.

I think that our community is made up of museum professionals who are generally forward-thinking and proactive. Because of the strength of the interpersonal relationships among those in our network, we know and trust one another. That foundation of trust then allows us to tackle the really hard topics together—whether that’s the challenges of digital or the difficult work of change-writ-large: workplace culture, leadership, inclusion, equity, and the role of museums within the traditionally dominant western culture. I’m not surprised at all that our community is ready and willing to face up to these issues, and probably at a faster pace and earlier moment than many of our home organizations.

Rob: That foundation of trust is essential. And this importance of working environment, of social environment, applies across museums and in professional communities like MCN. In both kinds of organizations, it’s crucial to establish and grow a culture where people can do great things. And in MCN, it’s been wonderful to see discussions of how to foster this, as they expand out from informal conversations to on-program engagement—shepherding these topics out from the shadows of conference-hotel bars and onto the dais. This is especially valuable for newcomers, who may not yet know their fellow conference participants who are having those private conversations, but can easily find and attend a public session as a kind of discovery path. In this and related ways, MCN is helping to advance the broader field of museum practice, and not just in regard to “digital stuff.” This risks sounding a little cheerlead-y, but there’s truth in it.

Douglas: I think we would readily admit that the two of us are big fans of MCN, and that the organization has had a profound impact on us, both professionally and personally. So I’m not surprised that either of us might sound like cheerleaders! As the organization continues to evolve from its focus on deeper technology—after all, MCN was born from techies trying to actually network their respective mainframe computers together—to people and the so-called “soft skills,” it does put MCN at what is perhaps a crossroads or inflection point. Do you think there are any potential downsides to these changes to MCN over time?

Rob: If this were a hard shift away from MCN’s long-time set of technical topics and toward another, it would be—to use the technical term—bad. It’s critically important for MCN to continue to be a place for people whose interests are fundamentally technological, not only people more focused on organizational culture. This core part of the “traditional” MCN crowd brings huge value to our community; and as a key space for those conversations, which help participants advance that work in their home institutions, MCN advances the field in highly important ways. I don’t see this as a hard binary choice, but a valuable kind of expansion—not an “OR,” but an “AND,” like an overlapping Venn diagram, with some MCN topics and community members focused on technical matters and some more on “people matters.” And as each of those discussions plays out, what might seem to be a surprising number of “technical” or “people” topics end up engaging deeply with both.

Douglas: I totally agree. I have always seen technology as foundational—it’s necessary and essential, which makes it important and strategic. But technology itself was never the goal. We use technology to get things done, and for museums that includes running a modern business and delighting customers. I believe it’s important to find a balance—to have enough focus on technology to keep us all on our toes, and to have enough focus on people to support us all in our efforts to make our sector the best one in which to work, for everybody.

 

Community-building, professional development, mentoring

Rob: Yes. Finding that balance in MCN’s work, and opening paths for people to find their way to their own versions of it, is a big part of how MCN helps the community and the field. People encounter MCN at different points in different career trajectories. Some have a solid technical background but are new to the museum sector (and possibly to nonprofits of any sort), some have worked in museums for years but are suddenly engaging with digital transformation and need more technical knowledge, and some are new to our intersecting professional worlds in both of those ways. Whatever the mix, there are people in MCN who enjoy helping people find their way into that intersection, and helping them gain a sense of balance once they’re there.

Douglas: For me, MCN and its members and leaders have been my most important professional mentors. That mentoring has been informal most of the time, but also formal at times. I’ve been able to approach colleagues and benefit from a one-to-one conversation about my own career and choices I’ve made. I am also serving as an official MCN mentor this year, in the first cohort of that program, so I feel like I’m giving back at least a little. Although I will readily admit that I have learned a lot from my mentee as well. Emerging professionals in our field have much to teach us old dogs—I just hope we can continue to learn.

Leadership and organizational culture

Rob: So, Douglas. One of our favorite hotel-bar topics is teasing out specific aspects of organizational culture and leadership models, often in regard to how they play out in particular moments or patterns of interaction between people who work in museums (no names, no foul!). You’ve been one of the key people who bring leadership models into the MCN community, in presentations as well as off-the-record conversations. I’ve learned a lot about those models from you and from resources you’ve recommended. How do you see them functioning in regard to MCN, in its formal program and otherwise? How are they helping MCN move the field forward?

Douglas: That’s a great question and probably worth another long discussion! This is a favorite topic of mine, so I can go on and on, but let me attempt to summarize a bit. From my perspective, museums grew out of an academic model, more or less. Very hierarchical and siloed. That wasn’t much of a problem for the first several decades of their existence. Perhaps there was a bit of disruption when education became a more central operational goal of museums in the early to mid-20th century, but most museums simply created yet another department and went happily along their siloed way.

I think two things laid the groundwork for challenging that traditional leadership model: digital transformation and changing workforce expectations. Digital was perhaps the first externally driven force that had a significant impact on all of the museum siloes. Museums are still struggling with where to “put” digital, and most tried to make it just another silo—but the very nature of technology has been to permeate every aspect of organizations and institutions. To the second point, the modern-day workforce is very different than its preceding generations. We are all knowledge workers, not drones doing repetitive tasks. And knowledge workers expect—fairly, in my opinion—to have a say in what they are focused on (initiatives) and how they do their work (methods). That attitude requires flatter, non-siloed structures and cross-functional collaboration the likes of which museums have never really seen before. Effective leadership in this environment is fundamentally different—it is no longer about being “in charge” and much more about empowerment and transparency. I see MCN as helping move us all forward in terms of organizational culture, toward lean and agile practices—an evolution that will continue to be a challenge for our sector for the next few years.

Rob: And you do a real service to the field by helping people in the MCN community discover resources for developing as leaders—for example, in this blog post you put together right after MCN 2016. Leadership connects naturally to almost endless topics, but an especially critical one is succession. I know we both think a lot about the long-haul sustainability not only of the digital resources our home institutions create, but also of the organizations we care about the most—including MCN. It’s always interesting to consider how to balance useful continuity, institutional memory, and the value of ongoing service with, to put it plainly, clearing out to make room for new leaders to do their thing and make useful change without feeling constrained by the presence of past leaders. Does this resonate with your continued involvement with MCN?

Douglas: Absolutely. I have tried to position myself as a “contributor,” rather than a “demander.” Does that make sense? I want to be a resource to MCN and to the entire community, but I don’t want to be pushing my agenda, nor do I think that my interests and needs should be something that I expect MCN to satisfy. I would prefer that MCN is a broad and collaborative body, shifting along with the needs of a wide range of people and institutions. So, what does that make me, some kind of “consultant” to MCN? Not exactly. I guess I just want to be a part of it all! Rob, how do you remain involved with MCN—if I recall, you still have official capacities with the organization even now?

Rob: It can be, shall we say, hard to break up! I’ve dialed back my involvement, but that’s a relative thing. I’m always happy to be a governance resource for things like By-Laws revisions. And some time after I left the Board, then-Treasurer Diana Folsom asked me to join the Finance Committee, and that committee has kept me aboard. I love serving on Program Committees, reading some proposals, and being part of collaboratively shaping the conference. And at the pleasure of successive MCN Presidents, year by year I’ve continued to represent MCN on the AAM Council of Affiliates, which has representatives from 27 museum organizations, and which I now chair (as they say, “if you stick around long enough…”). So, yes: eight years out from leading MCN, I’m more enmeshed than I would have foreseen; but I love helping to move our community and our field forward, while—I hope!—not encroaching in any way on space for current leaders to lead. Said an “old-timer” who’s still always on call when asked.

 

What now? What next?

Douglas: Isn’t it interesting to have become old-timers in MCN? It’s funny how I don’t think of myself as wizened or graying, yet I suppose both are now true! You might laugh at me, but as I’ve been thinking about my own future at MCN I’m already putting consideration into how much to step away and let others lead—I’m thinking of Shakespeare:

More light, you knaves, and turn the tables up;

And quench the fire, the room is grown too hot.

Ah, sirrah, this unlook’d-for sport comes well.

Nay, sit, nay, sit, good cousin Capulet,

For you and I are past our dancing days.”

(Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, scene 5)

What do you say Rob, are our dancing days coming to a close?

 

Rob: I’d say “not yet,” but we’re also both listening and watching and trying not to step on toes or crowd the floor. If it doesn’t belabor the metaphor, sometimes the most rewarding experience is to watch a crew of more recently arrived friends take the floor and lead things in new directions, knowing that we have their backs if and as that may be useful. Corny? Maybe so, but true. And PS: I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing with you—at both of us. In a good way.

 

Addendum: Things we could have discussed, but we just ran out of time

  • Sequential ((and nested) (and multiple)) parenthetical phrases in spoken language
  • The Spinny Bar Historical Society
  • IPAs and IBUs
  • Freud
  • Rob’s old band, an intercultural ensemble of Ghanaian and American musicians: Talking Drums
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