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Colleagues in Museum Automation: Introducing the MCN Job Description History Project

By Desi Gonzalez

 

Screen shot from Spectra journal vol. 19 no. 1, 1992

From Spectra journal vol. 19 no. 1, 1992

 

This year, we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of MCN. In other words, it’s been fifty years since a group of individuals galvanized around changes in technology and cultural institutions to form this loose field we call #musetech. A community of practitioners came together with the aims of sharing knowledge, developing best practices, and building toward common goals. Or, as an issue of Spectra journal put it a few decades later: MCN aimed to connect “colleagues in museum automation.”

Over the past few months, a scrappy team of researchers have been mining #musetech job history past and present to uncover the emergence and evolution of our field. Our team—consisting of Sean Blinn, Zejun Cai, Sheila Carey, Eric Johnson, Matt Morgan, Sarah Outhwaite, and Nicole Riesenberger—has been digging into archives, scraping annual report data, and dredging up old job postings.

 

Image from Spectra journal, vol. 16, no. 2, 1989

“Unique opportunity in developing field of museum work”: or, when museums provided more generous and equitable internship stipends. From Spectra journal, vol. 16, no. 2, 1989

 

Through these efforts, we’ve made some fascinating discoveries: patterns in how we discuss technology-related jobs in the cultural sector, technologies that have risen—and fallen—in popularity, and the introduction of digital into senior-level roles. But perhaps equally meaningful are the questions that have arisen along the way. What is a “museum technology” job, anyway? Which departments and roles do we consider to fall within the realm of what we today call “digital”? To put it another way: what are the boundaries of our field? Today, we take for granted that virtually every staff members has a computer; but as Rachel Allen recently reminded us in an #MCN50 Voices post, when the Smithsonian installed its first three Wang computer terminals in 1982, staff members had to sign up for time slots to share these cutting edge tools. As technology shifts from new to ubiquitous, so does the focus of our field.

 

Image of a Wang 2200 Basic Computer

Wang 2200 Basic Computer – Public domain image of Wang computer: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Wang2200.jpg

 

Over the next few weeks, team members will be sharing their findings and reflections on the MCN blog. Our writings will cover a variety of themes and methodologies: We’ll share the most amusing job listings out there, discuss how trends in the larger technological zeitgeist are reflected in museum roles, and provide visualizations that illuminate the change and continuity in our field. We’re excited to mine the past with you, and we hope that these insights might inform the next fifty years of MCN and the role of digital in cultural institutions.

 

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#MCN50 Voices: “The Outsiders”

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.

This conversation between Paige Dansinger, Founding Director of Better World Museum, and Suse Anderson, Assistant Professor, Museum Studies at George Washington University, explores the role of insider/outsiders in the MCN community.  

 

Suse Anderson and Paige Dansinger

 

Suse Anderson: Paige, hello! It is so great to join you for this MCN Voices conversation to mark fifty years of MCN. Let’s start with a super simple question: when did you attend your first MCN conference? How did you end up there?

Paige Dansinger: Suse, hello! How fun, thank you. MCN 2012 (Seattle) was the first event that exposed me to other museum professionals working with creative tech. It was also the first time that I used the iPad to draw presenters, as well as the mock-trial with Google Art. I tweeted the drawings in live time and found it was a good way to meet new people & make friends. I was using an html-drawing program I had just designed to draw images of art history inspired by the game Draw Something, which I was using to draw art history. Today I have drawn over 3000 MuseumDraw images from art history on my mobile, and currently draw cultural heritage sites and art history in museums using TiltBrush to create collections in Virtual Reality.

Before attending MCN, I had worked at MInneapolis Institute of the Arts (2005–12) as an art history graduate student curatorial intern in Decorative Arts/Gallery of Jewish Art & Culture, a volunteer assistant to the Main Registrar of Collections, and then as an educator in Public Programs. I had bold ideas about using technology and was not able to find the peer support that I was seeking during the early days of museum tech adaptation. I took a risk and stepped aside from the museum to devote my time to using mobile tech in creative ways.

By joining MCN, I discovered a new, like-minded, museum community that I hoped would let me find some professional encouragement and acceptance, a tribe, a sense of place, and work opportunities where I might develop new technology and use more creative ideas. It has been all that and more in many ways. Along the way, I’ve also learned that sometimes success can look like failure, and perhaps they are interdependent, but more on this later…

 

Suse, how did you find MCN, and when was your first conference?

Suse: Finding MCN was mostly a happy accident. In 2011, I attended my first Museums and the Web conference. I’d never been to a conference before, and made the mistake of staying some blocks from the conference hotel. With slim chances of meeting people organically, I started following the conference hashtag on Twitter, and noticed that a few people were going to drinks sponsored by the “Museum Computer Network”. I didn’t know what that meant, but hoped that no one would turn me away if I rocked up. And of course, no one did. Many of the people I met that night—like Liz Neely and nikhil trivedi—continue to be valued collaborators and friends.

MCN was soon to become a much bigger influence in my life. Following an unconference session at MW2011, Koven Smith asked me to join a panel he was putting together for MCN2011 in Atlanta examining the point of museum websites. I had no funding, and no obvious way to attend, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to participate, so I said yes, and decided to figure out the “how” later. I concurrently applied for a conference scholarship and a quick response grant from my local government in New South Wales, Australia, and was lucky enough to receive both. That started my relationship with MCN, which has continued to develop in ways I could not have imagined. In 2012–14, I was a member of the conference Program Committee, stepping up to Co-Chair for 2015-16. In 2013, Jeffrey Inscho and I recorded a series of live Museopunks podcast episodes at MCN in Montreal. In 2016, I joined the MCN Board. This year, I’m Vice-President/President-Elect of the organisation. It’s incredible to look back to my first MCN, only six years ago, and think about the impact that the organization has had on my professional development—and my life. I was so new to the museum sector when I first attended the conference, I didn’t imagine that involvement in the #musetech community could take me down a route that would bring me to live in the USA, and change so much of my life. The opportunities I’ve had to develop my thinking and skills through MCN and its community have been irreplaceable.

 

I’m intrigued by your closing comment, about how sometimes success has looked like failure. What do you mean by that?

Paige: Wow, Suse, I am so impressed and inspired with your journey. This organization has been fantastically important and helpful to me too along the way. I want to thank a long list of MCN members and institutions that have supported my MuseumDraw activities as One-Day Digital Artist Residencies over Twitter and Periscope, to being a live special guest to draw, present, and teach at many museums – all of which I feel so thankful for!

I recently founded Better World Museum in a old, deserted shopping mall-turned corporate headquarters. It’s not a place where people are seeking culture. I’m working on learning to be relevant to this non-traditional museum audience and learn financial sustainability. With Don Undeen’s help, during #MCN2014 in Minneapolis, I held an UnConference called Museum in a Mall?

(Suse, you actually came to the space for the MCN After-Party when it was new and first called Mpls Center for Digital Art. Now it’s located in a new space downstairs with the new name.)

Founding a museum is going OK… Audiences are participating, community partnerships are flowing, and the work that happens there is is more relevant to immediate, local, and global audiences daily. Visitors participate in painting, creating digital art, or drawing in VR. Our current focus is the Garden One Project–an Edible Indoor Public Garden Lab–plus a VR Garden ReMix in TiltBrush, and Public Garden Mural Walls for public participatory painting available at the museum at all times. I risked welcoming a 12 year old to be Director of Sciences, the subject of my case study at MCN2017.

I really do love what I do… However, although I am facilitating participatory public art and creating community partnerships, it can be very isolating. I feel like I am on the outside, because I’m working so hard at many things at once, not in any specific institution, and doing things in this art-space that’s in an often desolate mall… I sometimes wonder what I’m doing: How will I support myself and make this work? Am I just isolating myself in an selfish art bubble or really doing something that is making a better community, or larger change? Will I be able to work with museums locally and globally to create and share meaningful art and museum experiences by trying new things and taking risks with creative technology and participatory public art?

Vulnerable questions can be helpful because I am forced to innovate how I am to solve, answer, or confront each issue and learn to rise stronger from each challenge. Funding would completely help, as lack of it is the only time I feel like a failure. As a result, I often wake up and apply for “real jobs in real museums”…and then I remember that I have one, and it is real, and then I get back to my work.

Suse: Wow, Paige. It is humbling to hear about your journey to create a museum for a better world. What do you think you’ve learned about other aspects of museum practice from creating your own private museum? I’m sure some of the concerns you’ve got are quite different, but other aspects, like how to be meaningful in someone’s day, ring true to some of the challenges of other types of museums.

Do you think that the need for connection and community is a big part of the reason why MCN continues to be so valuable for you? Is that what keeps you coming back? And what do you think the role at MCN is for outliers, outsiders, and other atypical museum professionals? I have my own suspicions that outsiders have an important role to play in reflecting back on the sector with an informed distance, but I’d love to hear what you think.

Paige: Suse, I can’t speak for all others, but I think the important role of outliers, outsiders, and other atypical museum professionals is to be risk-takers that push new models of museums—

fearlessly experimenting with new technology, creating new types of practice and leadership; the connection-makers in the crossroads, bringing together diverse, underserved, local artists’ voices; and the rainbow-bridge builders making pathways for the public to participate and feel included in communities. Outliers have pioneer spirits, living in a do-or-die mode where any idea may be scrapped or passionately followed with little damage to others, or the time larger institutions often require, As an outlier, there is nobody to say NO, or question one’s perceived good ideas. Unchallenged, they evolve dependant on public response. Ideas must are relevant or they die. Failure must be welcomed as a best friend of the outlier, because it is consistently there pushing for a better outcome.

I don’t know if Better World Museum will be a sustainable place or live as a temporary pop-up, or morph into a Virtual Reality Museum. I do know that the more partnerships, artists, and new voices welcomed creates more opportunities to make what is meaningful for one, possibly into meaning for thousands, potentially millions and that is why outliers, others, and atypical museum professionals, have an important role from outside the traditional box.

 

Suse, do you see new models in academia for outliers, others, and atypical museum scholarship, and educational exploration forming which depart from traditional models? Is technology helping those new models impact larger audiences?

Suse: I think that there is always the possibility for new models, although, like museums, traditional structures in academia can be constraining. When new models do emerge, it’s not necessarily going to be from individuals, but in response to new needs, the affordances of technologies, and new economic, social, and political conditions. That said, while there will always be space for alternate types of scholarship and education, there is also a place for those established institutions that give structure to the perpetuation of knowledge and culture. As much as I like to question and think critically about museums, I believe in them, too. There is just as much a place for the behemoth on the hill, filled with precious objects, as there is for the Better World Museum, seeking to make a connection with people in an old deserted mall.

I’ve found that I can do more for or within the museum sector by standing on its edges, and lovingly poking at it than I can when I’m deeply immersed in a single institution. I think that’s true of many of those who are part of the MCN community, but not museum professionals in the sense of working in and for a specific museum. The broader museum ecosystem is made up of so many types of constituents–from the consultants who work with multiple institutions to the academics who study museums, from the vendors who try to solve problems through the creation of museum-centric products to the students who are asking important questions–and each of these people has a role to play in making a robust sector. Without these insider/outsiders, we’d lose a valuable mechanism for looking back in at ourselves, and considering questions from multiple angles. But vice versa, without those who work solidly and consistently within these great institutions, there would be no one committed to the hard work done of making something wonderful from within, and no one developing the expertise specific to a particular institution or collection that pushes boundaries. I think that’s why I continue to find a sense of professional identity from involvement with MCN. It is a space where people from across the spectrum of museums (and interest in digital and/or progressive practice) meet. And that’s a pretty great place to be.

Here’s to the next fifty years! Happy birthday, MCN.

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#MCN50 Voices: Mara Kurlandsky and Seema Rao

Mara Kurlandsky, Project Coordinator for Digital Engagement, National Museum of Women in the Arts, and Seema Rao, Principal, Brilliant Idea Studio have been sending hundreds of emails to each other as ⅔ of the MCN50 Voices committee. They took a break from their committee work to share their ideas on a broad range of subjects including coffee, museums, technology, and shoes.

Seema Rao head shot  Mara Kurlandshy head shot

Seema Rao and Mara Kurlandsky

 

What do you do when you feel burned out to energize?

Seema: I love reading. It is the one thing that always transports me away from stress and into a new world. And, while a voracious reader, I am not at all picky. In one week, I will be deep in a mystery, vampire romance, nobel prize winning fiction work, and a young audiences one.

Mara: Honestly, I love a good nap. A 45 minute snooze after hitting a wall usually sets me back on course. And even though it takes some effort to get myself out the door, going for a jog and listening to music is a great way to get my brain to turn off for a while.

 

What is the best part of your job?

Seema: I am loving start my own company, because the world is my own oyster. I can make of this what I will. And, the best part is all of the planning and dreaming.

Mara: I work in a beautiful building full of rad, passionate, feminist art lovers. It’s what college-age Mara would have dreamed of! I also appreciate the possibilities of my job: we’re a small digital team with big dreams. If you have an idea, can figure out how to do it with few resources, and you’re willing to put the time in, it’s usually encouraged.

 

What part of your job bums you out?

Seema: Starting anything new requires fearlessness and fear. The fear (and the associated anxiety, uncertainty, stress, and exhaustion) are easily the worst part of my gig. But, without fear, I would not feel as alive :>

Mara: Though I enjoy the freedom I mentioned, I do wish we had a bigger team, more resources, more time, etc. I have to figure a lot of new things out, which is satisfying but very time-consuming. The pace of institutional change on a lot of things is also slow. That’s a pretty common museum problem but it’s hard not to get frustrated sometimes.

 

Do you prefer salty or sweet? Mountains or beaches? Coffee or Tea?

Mara: Yes. Yes. Coffee.

Seema: Definitely with you. More is more. Though, I have come to love coffee and tea equally.

 

What type of music has been on heavy rotation at home?

Seema: I have been playing songs that I know the words to because I am preparing for my MCN50 Ignite. Turns out I know the words to an ecclectic mix: Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, Spandau Ballet, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Morrissey.

Mara: A Ukrainian friend of mine turned me onto a band called DakhaBrakha that I’ve really been enjoying. They refer to themselves as “ethnic chaos,” which is pretty apt. I also just came back from vacation in Hawaii and I’m #sorrynotsorry that the Moana soundtrack has been on a lot. I can’t help that Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius!

 

What is your favorite museum experience?

Seema: When I was 16, I was in New York with a friend. I wandered into the gallery with the Robert Campin, Merode Altarpiece. It was just me and the art. Lord knows where the guard was. My friends had gone to look for unicorns. And, there I was staring into the most amazing thing I had ever seen a human make. I vividly remember looking, and failing to find, brushstrokes. I can still remember thinking that it was so small and yet so monumental. From that moment, I wanted so badly to work in museum.

Mara: I went backpacking for around 7 months post-college to Australia, New Zealand, and Southeast Asia. I dragged my travel buddy to pretty much every museum we came across (she hit the wall at the Vietnamese museum of trade ceramics). Many of my favorites were in New Zealand: the way they could skillfully interpret and honor the history and culture of a bi-national, settler/indigenous country was so inspiring. Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museum in Wellington, blew my mind and solidified my decision to go to grad school for Museum Studies. There was this amazing interactive touch table that let you explore and remix music from different Pacific Islands that I spent a long time with—perhaps that was #musetech foreshadowing.

 

What makes working in technology challenging?

Mara: Besides the obvious answer that technology is constantly changing, it’s also everywhere, in every nook and cranny of an institution. Almost every job has some kind of digital component so it can hard to define the boundaries of what your role is as the “digital person”—where your job ends and someone else’s begins.

Seema: I totally agree. There is no end or beginning. And, it’s not just in the way that people’s jobs breakdown. It is also where your work and your life breakdown. I mean, Twitter is one of those things that overlaps life, work, hobbies, politics.

 

What made you participate in MCN50?

Mara: This will be my third MCN and since it’s had such an enormous influence on my relatively new career as a museum tech person, I just really wanted to be a part of making this year great. I thought I’d volunteer to help out with the MCN50 Voices project so I could put my organizing skills to use and interact with people I admire in the field. How much time could it possibly take up, I asked myself?

Seema: I know. I admit that, when I told Susan I had time to help, I didn’t quite understand the commitment. But, I did it to meet new people, and I certainly have. I have been compiling headshots, for example, and it has been a great way to put faces to new names. And, reading all the interviews has helped me explore parts of the field that I knew nothing about.

 

Blue sky question: what would you like to see in museum technology; money is no object?

Mara: You said money was no object, so I’m extending that to “physics is no object” either: museum teleporting! Despite all the advances in technology, online collections, the promise of VR, etc. I still want to visit museums in person. There are so many amazing places and collections in the world, and the average person will only ever get to experience a fraction of them. You should be able to teleport to the Rijksmuseum, or the Louvre, or back to Te Papa on the weekends.

Seema: Oh! I am so with you. I would love to be in some sort of museum travel circuit. But, you mentioned VR. If money was no object, I would love to make ARs that transport people the past of objects. I have a great imagination, and I certainly don’t have the ability to imagine all the pasts of any collection object. But, technology sure could help change that. And, with the past come alive, collections could become much more relevant to a broader audience.

Mara: That’s a way better answer—can we make this happen?? It makes me think of the James Michener book, The Source, where each chapter is a story from a different layer of one archeological site. That would be so cool.

 

Do you wear shoes when you sit at your desk?

Mara: ….No. And it used to annoy an old co-worker to no end when I would pop over to her desk sans shoes to ask a quick question. Shoes are overrated.

Seema: Me neither! Can’t think with shoes on.

Mara: Can we declare MCN2017 a shoe-optional event?

Seema: DONE!

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#MCN50 Voices: Susan Wamsley & Richard Urban

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.

 

Richard Urban head shot

Susan Wamsley head shot

 

 

 

 

 

In this interview, Susan Wamsley and Richard Urban discuss how they got into the field of Digital Asset Management (DAM) and take a deep dive into the mechanics of DAMS, how and why you save what, and the future considerations about saving so much data. Susan is the Digital Asset Manager at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.  Prior to the Guggenheim, she served as Manager of Corporate Image Archives for STV and Corporate ImageLibrarian for Parsons Brinckerhoff.Richard is the Digital Asset Manager & Strategist at the Corning Museum of Glass.  Richard has served as an Assistant Professor, a research assistant with the IMLS Digital Collections & Content Project (IMLS DCC), and Project Coordinator for the Colorado Digitization Program.

 

 

Richard: How did you end up in your position being a digital asset manager? What was the path that led you here?

Susan: When I moved to New York to go to graduate school in art history, I got a part-time job working in the photo archive for a civil engineering firm. That was still in the days of prints and duplicating 35mm slides, putting them in the slide carousels, and shipping them off to someone giving a presentation in another city. Eventually we went through a major digitization project.  We slowly worked our way from the “Best 500 photos” website to reinventing the wheel with an in-house DAM, then we purchased software and finally developed a DAM for the entire company, which was global. There was a lot of on-the-job training as technology and expectations advanced. When the Digital Asset Manager position opened at the Guggenheim, it was really a nice fit because my professional experience has been organizing collections and DAMs and of course my education is in art history.

Richard: How long have you been with the Guggenheim?

Susan: It will be three years this fall.

 

Richard: I’m just coming up on six months here [at the Corning Museum of Glass]. It still feels very new.

Susan: What was your trajectory getting into DAM?

Richard: I started out as a history museum person. My early career was in historical societies.  But my 5th grade teacher sent me to computer camp in the days of TRS-80s.  I never thought of computers as a career.  Instead I became the humanities person who knew how to make computers do things.  I was working on an exhibition at the Historical Society of Delaware and originally we were going to do some photocopy binders that people could flip through.  We decide to try going digital using touch screens and we developed an intranet web server that fed the kiosks. I did all the digitization for the project and what now seems like really rudimentary HTML templates for it.  From there I went on to another historical society and did some digitization projects and eventually ended up in Colorado to work on a statewide digitization project.  Then I went back to school for long time to focus on metadata and digital library development. That’s been my interest and that’s what led me to being in this position where I get to use what I learned in graduate school along with my experience with digitization projects. This position neatly ties it all together.

Susan: I feel like metadata is my whole life. I’m sure you do too. Trying to make things uniform and simple, yet detailed enough that you can drill down.

Susan: How do you feel about the push to have automated tagging or crowdsourcing or artificial intelligence? Like tagging everything that looks like a face as a “face”?

Richard: I’m interested in applying that here. It’s a question of how much time you want to spend manually tagging things. I think there’s the idea of being cyborg: what I’d like from AI is the ability to extend my capabilities as a human to efficiently and effectively tag stuff. Go find the things you think has a face in it, but let me use some more judgement..is this a really face, is it really this person?

Susan: I feel like there’s so much room for going back and fixing so many things, so I don’t know if it’s a real time saver.  That’s a perfect way to describe the move toward that. A little bit of each.

Richard: It seems like it’s come a long way in the last couple of years.  I’m excited because many of the assets we’re looking at bringing into the new system are just piles of files in folders of somewhat descriptive names.  Any way we can automatically improve them will be a time saver.

Susan: How long have you been a member of MCN?

Richard: I attended my first MCN after I started at the Colorado Digitization Program, the meeting in Toronto (2002).  I was just reading Chuck Patch’s comment about how people got involved in MCN and that’s my story: I went to more than three meetings and I opened my mouth one too many times,  Before I knew it, I was on the board  from 2004-2010. But then I went away to do my PhD and did the academic thing for a while.  On my limited student income, there wasn’t incentive to come to MCN because there wasn’t a publication.  But I’m really looking forward rejoining the community and coming back to Pittsburgh this year.

Susan: My first MCN was just two years ago, in Minneapolis. I hadn’t worked in museums before I worked at the Guggenheim. It was new to me and I am so impressed with the amount of information sharing that people who work in museums are willing to do. Just talking out issues, or helping other people “oh we fixed it this this way,” that kind of thing.  I think MCN is invaluable for that.  There is also the networking and meeting people who do similar things to what you do.  I think DAM touches all parts of the museum, so just getting to see the capabilities it could have, the effect it could have on other departments. It’s one of the reasons I’ve really jumped in and gotten involved. It is such a great resource.

Richard: It’s been fascinating to watch how things have waxed and waned.  Some of the other interviews have talked about the struggles that MCN has been though. When I was in library school the social networking things were new. I was able to set up some of the first social media accounts for MCN.  Until recently I was still an admin on the Facebook group and it was really rewarding to see how busy it’s been in the last year or two.  There’s such an energy behind what’s going on at MCN now, that’s  is another reason I’m excited to get back.

Susan: To me it’s a really vibrant group and I’m glad to be here at this time.

Richard: What roles are you playing at MCN now?

Susan: I’m the chair of the DAM SIG.  Which I guess had languished and been dissolved at some point.  In 2015, in Minneapolis I was talking with my friend Julie who was then working at the Met and she said, “Let’s just resurrect this thing and get it going.”  She’s right that there needs to be one, it is such a critical part of museum life these days.  You’re supplying all the visual content for everything that happens from the marketing to research.  When she left the Met, I ran for the chair position and my co-chair is Jen Sellar at MOMA–she’s fantastic.  It’s really nice to keep this going and see what a busy Basecamp group we have. Everyone is always ready to answer questions and be helpful.

 

Richard: It has been so helpful having that group there as I’m making way way into the DAM world. Thanks for getting it started again!

Susan: Like I said, it was really Julie Shean’s brainchild to get this going again. I hadn’t even realized there were SIGs, I was brand new to the whole thing. I’m happy to forge ahead with this and make it as exciting as possible. One thing I’d like to do is have more crossover with other SIGs. So I’m doing something with the IT SIG in July, doing a presentation with them.  For instance, I don’t know a lot about the technical side. I can figure out some of it, but it would be nice to know how IT and DAM managers can work together more efficiently.

Richard: It’s also thinking about the new things becoming available, we’re looking forward is having conversations about how how our DAM, once it’s setup and configured, can be driving content on the website, and re-thinking all of that. So talking to people outside of the DAM SIG should be part of that.

Susan: Yeah, I feel like our DAM should be far more integrated in our museum ecosystem, because it’s not really connected at all.  People go to it and download information to use it in other places rather than feeding directly.   Those are definitely things I’d like to explore more.  To get people’s advice when they’ve done it, what to do and not to do – that’s invaluable.

Susan: What software do you use?

Richard: We have been using MediaBin since about 2010, but we are in the process of migrating that all to Piction. We’re just in the early phases of our Piction implementation…Part of that is also the investment we’re making in the underlying  IT infrastructure.

Susan: We use Mediabeacon. When I arrived, it wasn’t being used to its fullest capacity and we are three versions behind.  So, some of the nicer user interface issues that we’re used to now with other programs aren’t there.  We’re upgrading this summer and I’m hoping everyone will be happy with it.  We’ve also amping up the processing power of the hardware and then we can bring in faceted searching which will be a big plus.

Richard: What do you think the biggest challenge for you going forward is going to be?

Susan: There are two things looming on my horizon.  One of which is integrating with other systems. Integrating with TMS or just feeding other systems like our website.  And also video, which is being produced here more and more. We have performances in our theater, Marketing is making video, artist interviews, we have archived video being digitized. So we have it coming from lots of different places with lots of different uses. Some of it is not going to need to be seen frequently; some of it needs to be seen in a final form, but not the b-roll… What do you save? Where do you put it? Where do we store it?  Especially now that we’re getting in large HD files.  Just trying to figure out the storage, processing, accessing, future archival purposes, that whole thing.  We’re getting it worked out among the departments that are involved but that is a big challenge.

Richard: That is all part of our Piction migration. We have a new storage array and we hope to bring all of our video into it.  We recently put a policy in place about what we’re keeping because it was growing so fast that it was outstripping our ability to keep up with it.  We’re now doing a great deal of live streaming. I don’t know how much you know the Corning Museum of Glass, but we do live glassblowing demos and bring in lots of guest artists.  We’ll do these live feeds and we might have 500 people watching online and more that want to come back and watch it later. So we need to manage all of those.

Susan: What size file do you have for a half hour demonstration?

Richard: Some of them can be more than an hour long depending on the complexity of the piece.  We’re averaging about fifty gigabytes per hour of streaming.  There is something like 30 terabytes of unmanaged video that needs to be brought under control, with very little metadata with it.  That’s a lot of work.  Forget the still image AI, I want the video AI!

Susan: And then there’s the other dimension of adding transcripts and syncing captions, and how you edit pieces out. We have so many things on our wish list that it’s overwhelming. Besides the file size which is staggering in some cases.

Richard: I’m curious…do you have a collections policy for what goes into the DAM vs. what goes somewhere else?

Susan: We don’t have it codified policy about that.  Once I was out with a bunch of other DAM people and we were talking about this and I was accused of being a “radical inclusionist,” because I believe you should put as much in there as possible. There are of course some departments who are real packrats who want every last thing.  There’s a certain amount of editing you can do for anything. But in general, storage is relatively cheap, let’s put it in there and organize it because I don’t want people hanging onto little pockets of things individually, which defeats the whole purpose of having a DAMS.  I encourage people to put as much in there as they want. I’m happy to help them organize photos and get things in there and not have them keep stashes at their desk.

Richard: The storage is coming out of someone’s pocket,  it might as well be organized and not duplicative.

Susan: Right, it’s probably going to sit on a network drive or a hard drive.  There will be ten versions of something we have in the DAM anyway.  Let’s try to organize it and bring it all together and have people look in one location.  And also part of the DAMS’s usefulness is the institutional knowledge that it has.  If there’s a photograph you’re not supposed to use I believe it should be in there with that information.  Don’t make it available to download, but it should be there so people can find it easily so they know they can’t use it for whatever reason and should use another one.  I think it is important to have as much information as possible, good and bad, in there. Not bad information, but information that’s useful for why you can and can’t use things. Because eventually the people who know this information move on.

Richard: Things could be worse here, things are mostly pretty well managed.  But I think..”what’s beyond the digital asset management into the digital preservation/data curation steps?”  I think once we’re beyond this setup, these are some questions we’re going to be asking.  Not only in terms of the policy and what should we keep, but how do we actually sustain it into the future.

Susan: Do you manage documents in your DAM or is it just photography?

Richard: Right now it is mainly photography and there are some PDFs that have slipped in there.  One of the things we’re looking at once we’re beyond our initial implementation phases is whether there are kinds of documents we want to put in.  For example, one of the things that does go in now are things like conservation reports that are associated with images.  Should we store other data coming out of conservation instruments? We use X-ray fluorescence to look at the composition of glass: Where do we put that data?  We also have model releases or headshots of artists with rights and licenses.  Right now it is in a shared drive and some of it is accessible through our collection management system.

Susan: We have a similar situation. We do have some model releases that are in there and some reports. I’m not that familiar with what is fully covered in our collection management system so if in doubt, I’ll keep documents with the photos. I’d love to integrate those two systems. That’s on my agenda eventually.

Richard: From the get-go we’re integrating with our collection management system. So the records will stay up to date. That’s a nice feature of what we can do with Piction.

Susan: How big is your collection?

Richard: We have two main collections. There is the object collection where there’s 60,000 objects.  But we also have have the Rakow Research Library where there is 100,000 items which when you turn them into digital asset becomes the majority of what’s in the DAM.  There are approximately half a million assets in the DAM, many of which are digitized pages of books.

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What does MCN mean to you?

Images in a collage from MCN 2016

As we look back on 50 years of MCN—and prepare for the future—it’s the perfect time to reflect on the question, “What does MCN mean to me?” So tell us! Whether you found this community four months, four years, or even four decades ago…what does MCN mean to you?

You might have noticed the ongoing MCN Voices blog series, featuring community members from all areas of the field and at all levels of their careers as they talk about what it means to be in the world of museum technology, and how they got there. Even as more of these interviews continue to roll out onto the blog, we know that there are many more voices with many more thoughts to share.

Head to Twitter and pitch in your view of MCN, thank a community member, or make a new connection. Tag @MuseumCN and #MCN50, and join in.

 

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#MCN50 Voices: Suzanne Quigley & Bill Weinstein

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 interview, Suzanne Quigley and Bill Weinstein discuss fortuitous paths into museum technology work, early collection digitization and that time that everyone shook Bill Clinton’s hand several times at an MCN conference. Bill is the Director of Information and Interpretive Technologies at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Suzanne is the Director of Art & Artifact Services, an arts consulting company. Prior to that, Suzanne was the Head Registrar at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

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#MCN50 Voices: Eleanor E. Fink & Dara Lohnes-Davies

In this instalment of our MCN50 Voice project, Dara Lohnes-Davies, the University of Wyoming Art Museum, Collections Manager interviews Eleanor E. Fink, past MCN Board Member and collections database pioneer.

 


Eleanor Fink headshot

Eleanor E. Fink has held senior positions at the Smithsonian, J. Paul Getty Trust, and World Bank. She is one of the founding directors of the Getty Center in Los Angeles where she initially formed and headed the Getty Vocabulary Program and later became the Director of the Getty Information Institute (GII). As director, she oversaw the Getty’s flagship scholarly art history research databases, including the Census of Antique Art and Architecture Known to the Renaissance, the Bibliography of the History of Art, and the “The Getty Provenance Index (TM)”. She worked to position GII around the concept of universal access to art information and promoted national and international collaboration among institutions. The National Initiative for a Networked Cultural Heritage (NINCH), Getty Vocabularies, Categories for the description of Works of Art (CDWA), and Object ID are some the products of her leadership. Most recently, she initiated and manages the American Art Collaborative Linked Open Data Project (AAC) that brings together 14 U.S. museums interested in erasing data silos to provide seamless access on the subject of American art across museum collections. Eleanor serves on several advisory committees including the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University, the EU ViMM project, and Marie Curie Research Program on Digital Cultural Heritage (ITN-DCH). She is a former director of the Museum Computer Network and a former President of the Visual Resources Association.

Dara Lohnes-Davies headshotAs an EMP (emerging museum professional), Dara Lohnes-Davies started a new position at the University of Wyoming Art Museum as their manager of collections in late July 2017. Previously she was the photographer at the National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota, where she worked on an IMLS-funded project to digitize their founding collection and pre-1800 collection, and to establish a working database of their digital assets. She earned her MA in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester and did an eight month placement at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History working on a variety of digitization projects in the Earth Collections department. Her museum specific passion is working with databases and making the collections more accessible and preserving them through that work. Over the last few months through many emails and some phone calls, Eleanor and Dara got to know each other and discussed many ideas surrounding linked open data, digitization standards, and the climate of digitization projects, both historically and currently. A re-occurring concept was that of “network” and the weight that word carries in demonstrating how not only people are connected, but also how all of the data that is created in the museum sector connects objects to each other and the wider society as a whole. In the transcript below, Eleanor reflects on her career’s past, present, and future, guided by questions Dara drafted based off of those conversations.

 

What led you to work with technology in museums?

Discussions with scholars and the need for a system that could provide scholars with multiple ways of accessing information led me to explore technology. My early beginnings were at Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). It was known as the National Collection of Fine Arts at the time. Initially, I was hired to establish a slide library and photo archive, but my career took off during my tenure at SAAM and I became the Chief of the Office of Research Support that included responsibility and oversight for all the museum’s computerized research projects. SAAM has long been a pioneer in using information and communications technology in helping people understand the significance of American art. The Museum had initiated several national research projects covering the topics of paintings, exhibition catalogs, sculpture and photographic documents.

Right from the start, I realized that the manual systems for cataloging and indexing subject matter were one-dimensional, based on browsing catalog cards one by one. The museum had a well-established research scholars and fellows program, and when I helped the scholars find information, I discovered their interests varied considerably. Some were interested in examples from a particular period, others were interested in works of art created using a particular media or technique. But most were interested in subjects depicted, such as “women with white parasols,” “children playing games,” “still life paintings with skulls,” etc. I realized that I needed to produce something that would allow the fellows to access information from multiple points of view and interests. The museum had launched a pioneering national research project called the Inventory of American Paintings Executed Before 1914. It collected data from museums and private collections across the United States. The data was computerized at SAAM and stored on a Smithsonian mainframe. At the time, computer programming at the Smithsonian was free so I sought help from the Smithsonian’s office for central computing. They agreed to help me design a computer system that would support multiple ways of accessing information.

One of the first things I did was try to find what standards and subject headings already existed that I could use to maintain some consistency across the museum’s five research projects totaling more than 500,000 records. While librarians were well organized and had established national resources like the Name Authority Cooperative Program (NACO) that manages names for authors of books, I discovered that museums had nothing equivalent. When I set up a meeting with NACO at the Library of Congress, I suggested they include names of artists because one artist could have hundreds of works of art dispersed across the museum community. The Library of Congress felt it was not feasible at the time because it was unclear what institution would be the authority! Fast forward a year and I became the founding head of the Getty Vocabulary Program.

 

At SAAM, I ended up creating my own subject thesaurus to capture the items and themes depicted in works of art. SAAM still uses it today. However, it was not until I got to the Getty that I was able to begin work on ULAN (the Union List of Artist Names) and TGN (Thesaurus of Geographic Names) and later metadata standards like CDWA (Categories for the Description of Works of Art), which started off as the Art Information Task Force under a three-year grant from the NEH.

 

How have you been involved with the MCN historically?

I became involved with MCN in the late 1980s while I was working at SAAM. Since SAAM was so engaged in collecting data for national research projects like the Inventory of American Paintings and the nationwide Inventory of American Sculpture, etc., it occurred to me that the work of collecting data would be easier if museums used a network. Therefore, when I heard about MCN, I was interested in creating a real-life network for museums. In fact, in the 1980’s I organized a panel on creating a computer network. Speakers included Peter Homulos, Director of CHIN (Canadian Heritage Information Network) Humanities Data Dictionary, David Bearman from the Smithsonian, and William Arms who oversaw computing at Dartmouth College and also served as a consultant for the Getty Art History Information Program. My interests led to being elected to the MCN Board. It was a critical time for MCN’s future. David Vance was a life-long president of MCN with no term limit. We all respected him, but felt if MCN was to become a thriving membership organization, we should propose a rotating president position elected by the membership. I cast the deciding vote to institute the change.

 

How do you think your legacy has influenced the museum technology sector?

Years ago, the concept of accepting widely agreed upon standards was controversial within the museum and art history communities. You could say that discussions about agreeing on de facto standards was emotional and political. Therefore, I am happy to see that ULAN, TGN, CDWA, and Object ID are now used widely across the international museum community and are being built into most collection management systems. Moreover, now that the Getty Vocabularies are available as linked open data (LOD), these standards should continue serving the museum community well into the future. I think the standards have helped the museum technology sector become more effective.

 

What project(s) in your career have you been the proudest of?

There are several projects throughout my career that fit your question. Perhaps it is worth pointing out that most of my projects are pieces of a larger concept of simplifying access to information and laying the groundwork to interconnect art and cultural heritage information. All of them involved building consensus and working with diverse segments of the community. For example, CDWA resulted from a grant submitted to the NEH. For three years, I convened meetings comprised of art historians, collection managers, and computer programmers. It was important to bring the mix of expertise to the table to discuss what categories these experts felt were essential for describing works of art. The technical experts reminded us how important formatting and standards are in respect to our recommendations. It took a diverse team effort to produce a metadata standard like CDWA. Likewise, when I came up with the idea of producing Object ID, a standard that could help law enforcement agencies like Interpol and national police communicate about lost or stolen cultural property, it was a consensus building effort. First, I formed an alliance of organizations committed to working with AHIP (Art HIstory Information Project) such as UNESCO, ICOM and the Council of Europe, and then years of convening organizations to build consensus. Today Interpol, the Italian Police, and most art theft databases use Object ID. Even the US Military and ICE are using it. Of course, the Getty Vocabularies could not have been created without building consensus and engaging experts worldwide. What all these projects have in common is that they contribute toward harmonization of cultural heritage information and in that sense are building blocks toward the goal of simplifying access and eventually being able to interconnect information without data silos getting in the way.

So my vision or interest in the concept of “network” has driven me for many years. With the introduction of the Internet the idea took on new possibilities—namely with W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) protocols and standards, the network could be distributed like the world wide web itself, rather than an aggregation model where all the data resides in one place. When I became director of the Getty Information Institute, I reorganized GII around the concept of universal access to images and art information and we produced a video called the Virtual Database: Art Information on the Networks. It illustrated the value of seamlessly being able to find all the works of art associated with the creation of St. Peter’s Basilica no matter where today those works reside. We felt all the tools, and standards GII produced contributed toward achieving this concept.

Most recently, I have been working with Linked Open Data (LOD). When Rachel Allen, Deputy Director of SAAM and former MCN president, and I learned about LOD we realized that we had reached a significant turning point. The ideas we talked about a decade earlier like the virtual database now could become reality. I put together the American Art Collaborative (AAC), and it follows the format of many of my earlier projects by bringing together a diverse mix of expertise. In this case there are 14 museum partners, an advisory team, and consultants working together to establish a critical mass of LOD drawn from the collection of the 14 museums. We plan to demo how erasing data silos simplifies access and improves research. We are preparing a guide with good practices and recommendations to help the broader museum community engage in LOD. Additionally, we have created a target model that other museums can use to help simplify mapping of their data.

 

What advice do you have for people working on or seeking careers in database
management/digital access management?

Increasing interest in LOD should open up many new possibilities in respect to creating a need for additional skills, services, tools, and the rethinking of how we catalog. For example, the community would benefit from services that include mapping and/or hosting an institution’s LOD. More museum collection management staff and curators need to learn about LOD and how to produce it. Technical positions in museums should include programming skills. We need tools to simplify reconciling data so it is more consistent, and tools to help an institution learn who is using their LOD and how. Organizations like CIDOC (ICOM International Committee for Documentation) and MCN can help the community address data legacy issues and build new standards. We need more demonstrations of the value of LOD and APIs to help us access data across institutions. Implementing LOD and an ontology like the CIDOC CRM should move cataloging practices from just capturing static pieces of information (artist, title, date, etc.) to more expressive and event driven data concepts. I hope that museum training programs and universities will update their curriculums to cover these new skills and methods.

Building upon these prospects for the future, I wish I could press a reset button and launch a new
career.

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#MCN50 Voices – Brad Dunn & Gavin Mallory

Brad Dunn headshot   Gavin Mallory headshot

Brad Dunn, Web and Digital Communications Director, Field Museum (@badunn) and Gavin Mallory, Production Director at Cogapp (@Gavin_Mallory ) met for the first time doing this interview. They found common ground on doing meaningful work; where museums should be taking digital; their career paths, beer, and Patrick Stewart.

Background and Current Job

Brad: We have similar backgrounds, don’t we? What was your background before you got into museums, and then what led you to getting into museums?

Gavin: I’ve been at Cogapp since January 2006 and I’m now our Production Director.

Before that, I was a teacher in Japan for a couple of years, teaching English and before that, I worked in London, in Soho for a post-production house, film and advertising. I always wanted to work in TV and film so studied media at college and at university.

Gavin with school children

While I was living and working in London, I had access to some of the greatest museums in the world. I used to swing by those on my lunch break, and visit at weekends. That was where I developed a real love for museums and for art.

I took that with me to Japan where I discovered Yayoi Kusama (before she was cool!) and I’ve continued to nurture that passion through my work here at Cogapp, where we primarily work with museums, and art galleries, and cultural institutions creating digital products. It’s a marriage of all the things that I really enjoy.

Gavin with his wife at the Yayoi Kusama exhibit, Matsumoto Art Museum, 2005

Yayoi Kusama exhibit, Matsumoto Art Museum, 2005

 

Gavin: Tell us about your background.

Brad: I started as a sound engineer in theater. My first internship was on the national tour of the Phantom of the Opera. Then I worked at a big theater festival in South Carolina called Spoleto festival and then on to Lion King pre-Broadway for a bit.

Those were my very formative experiences, but the other thing that came out of it was, I worked with all these amazing artists, like Phillip Glass, Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, some big operas. I worked with Patrick Stewart once for a week. All of that was great, but then the one thing I realized was that I’m basically going to be underneath a stage or crawling through a ceiling, dressed in all black for my entire life. I also was really interested in the storytelling aspect. I would get in trouble for not getting my work done because I was always trying to sit near the director and listen in and learn that part of things.

When I went to college I got a degree in journalism with a focus on electronic media and double-majored in theater. I came to Chicago in ’99, had a pulse and so got a job in Interactive. I really loved the work. I really wasn’t a very good coder, but I did develop a foundation doing HTML and JavaScript.

When I started out, I think I was doing work that wasn’t that interesting. Over time, I got better and better clients, until I was working with big cultural organizations and doing some meaningful work.

I had started this small company with a friend, and our positioning statement was literally, “Experiential and interactive design for cultural institutions.” Then I got a call from The Field Museum asking if I was interested in this new position they created and I said “no,” like a dum-dum, because I had worked so hard to get my company off the ground. Then I told my friend. He said to stop being dumb and go get the job. I called the museum back here and got very lucky.

Gavin: Are you and the friend you started the company with still friends?

Brad: Yeah, yeah, very good friend, actually.

Gavin: The phrase that you used just now that really jumped out was, “You’ve got more clients, and then you got to do more meaningful work.” It’s interesting to hear that being one of your drivers to do work that is meaningful and that matters in some way. That’s definitely a thing that drives me.

Brad: Then, tell me a little about what you’re doing right now at Cogapp?

Gavin: I am currently working with the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, and we are working to put their collection online. They’re a really interesting organization, because it’s a one-artist museum. They have somewhere in the region of 95% of his entire life’s output. They’ve pretty much got everything, including sketches, and diaries, and his record collection, the whole lot.

We’ve done a lot of online collections and archives over the years for the National Portrait Gallery, Yiddish Book Center and going back further previous versions of the Met’s and MOMA’s. The Clyfford Still Museum Online Collection is the first I’ve been involved with that is a one-artist collection, which actually changes things more than perhaps I’d anticipated. That’s been really interesting.

As a client, they’ve been really wonderful. You said that working with your friends, the only way you can do it is to be friendly enough that you can be completely honest with each other without taking it personally, and certainly that reflects the best projects I’ve worked on: working with people in the museum I get on really well with, but crucially that we can be direct and open with each other.

I’m working with education director, Sarah Wambold at Clyfford Still, and we have that kind of a relationship. The major project I worked on before that was for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Same deal there. I was working closely with Heidi Quicksilver, who’s currently their interim vice president of technology, and she’s the same. We can hang out, we can have a beer, we can have a chat, but then when we do work, we can be honest and direct with each other.

If you have that strong relationship and that strong ability to communicate, I think that’s where success comes in. I have found that the root of problems on projects is usually communication – poor communication, or lack of communication.

I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent, you asked me what were we working on. That’s a couple of examples, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Clyfford Still Museum. We also work with an organization here in the UK called Liberty, who stand up for human rights. They’re primarily a group of lawyers, but also, it’s a membership organization and a campaigning organization. We work with their digital team a lot on drumming up members and campaigning for human rights, in its broadest sense, in the UK.

Human Rights is another thing that I care about, and I care a lot more about it the more I’ve got to work with Liberty. Meaningful work. I think it all comes back to that, things that mean something on a personal level.

 

Finding the Right Technology

Brad: Then, that makes me think of another question. We’re drawn to this work because we like technology. I think that’s probably true about most of us who do this kind of work. I’m kind of presuming a lot, so feel free to shoot down the premise. How do you balance your fascination with technology and your desire to try new technologies, to learn new things, but also prioritize the content, the substance of the work or the client work that you’re doing?

Gavin: This is an interesting thing that really you sparked in my mind in our introductory email exchange. You said something about having a lighter touch of technology, and creating meaningful experiences.

Brad: I don’t remember exactly, but that’s something I do talk a lot about. There was this turning point for me in my life, in my early 30s, I’m 44 now, where it became all about the user. Even in the face of the client need or desire, it became all about user needs, first and foremost. When I focused in on that, I think the work I was doing improved. I think basically putting people first, and putting needs and desires first, and focusing on the substance has helped me through. I guess I projected onto you my own neuroses. It’s helped me through moments of technology fetish. It’s helped be my guiding principle, essentially, and helped the work be more meaningful. It also helped me in my career to just start saying no to a lot of things. Like, “Here’s what I’m going to do, and here’s what I’m not going to do.”

When you get on a bit in age, and you’ve got kids like I do, there is a little bit of anxiety about employment and income. What I actually found was that the more that I just focused on what it is I really wanted to do, and focused on meaningful work, and wasn’t afraid to say no to things that just weren’t a right fit, and got rid of all the fear and anxiety that I’d be missing out on an opportunity, the better my career. My career started taking all the right turns the more I focused in. I don’t have any idea if that’s at all what you were thinking of.

Gavin: No, it’s the same kind of vibe. To answer your original question, in the Cogapp context, my fields are more in user experience than in technology. When we’re having meetings, or discussions, or creative ideas, I’m often the voice of the user, and colleagues are the voice of technology. I’m relating very much to what you’re talking about.

The things that challenge me and that I have concerns about are technology for technology’s sake. For example, we’re working with Clyfford Still Museum now. He was one of the founding fathers of abstract impressionism. His paintings, particularly the later ones, are extremely abstract. We had this idea of, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we took all of his paintings, and each of them was a pixel, and it made up a brand new Clyfford Still image, and you could scroll over, and you could see all the works in it?”

Yeah, it might be fun, and it might be a cool thing for us to tell people about, but actually, is that a meaningful experience? Is that a useful way to navigate through this body of work? Is it going to be a fun experience? The value in that was all about technology and cleverness, and not actually in any real depth of engagement. I think, for me, that’s where the meaning comes in. It’s not just, “Oh, that was fun, and I scrolled around some things, and I saw a couple of pictures I liked,” but it must be deeper than that.

That’s what I’m really interested in tapping into, and something I’m trying to bring to every project I do. The challenge around deeper engagement is finding the right way to do it, and for the right audience, and defining your audience, and being able to deliver it. It’s too easy to do something superficial and think just because it’s to do with art, or just because it’s to do with a museum, then it therefore has gravitas built in. We can do a lot more with digital than we can with physical, and I’m not sure all of us – I’m not sure any of us – have pushed that as far as we need to yet, to create a different space, potentially, online, and how museums and galleries represent themselves online and digitally versus physically.

The digital and physical experience are becoming further apart. They were so intertwined, even five years ago, much more intertwined than now. But, if we can pull those things apart, then the digital aspects hold real opportunities to engage deeply, and meaningfully, and differently to the real-world experience you have in-gallery.

 

On Innovation and Pushing Boundaries

Brad: You kind of hit upon a thing that’s a little bit of a pet peeve of mine, something that I desperately want the world to get better at, which is a tall order. Perhaps I’ll just shoot for museums for right now. One of my pet peeves is when we don’t have the discipline to push an idea far enough. When we settle for the technology thing that is cool or the big idea that seems cool. That’s only the beginning of it. I think sometimes change can be so hard that when people come upon an idea that excites them, that, I guess it’s the endorphin rush in that exciting moment when you have an idea or discover a new piece of technology that excites you. People begin to push forward on a thing before they’ve really thought it through. I think a lot of workplaces, not just museums, but definitely I’ve seen it in museums and here in our own museum, where we’ll push an idea through that’s not been fully baked yet.

That process of thinking a thing through and really making sure it meets up to a strategy, some people can look down upon it, because it can be so hard to get things done in museums that when people get momentum they just want to keep going. That environment is tough sometimes, because I can totally, and I think I’ve been guilty of it myself, pushing something through just to keep the momentum going, but stopping … I desire for museums to have a space to stop and have the discipline to push an idea more deeply, to think through all of the details, to evolve it, to edit things out that don’t work, like shooting a film. Edit things out, make choices, and not just push the thing through that’s not fully baked.

I think there’s a few museums doing this really well, but overall, I think that it’s a challenge, and one that we would be well-served to address. It takes courage and discipline, and not everyone’s great at it, that’s for sure.

Gavin: I completely agree, and that the kind of discipline it takes, it’s exactly what you’re saying. Edit things out, and do less things really well. Do something reasonably simple, but do it really well. I’m reminded of the SFMOMA Send Me. That’s a really simple idea, and it really works. I’m sure they had conversations where, “You could say send me, but you could also say email me, and we could do it for all these different platforms.” By cutting it right down to something that is instantly understandable, then it works, and it works really well. Have you done it, Brad?

Brad: I did. I started playing with it right away. I actually sent it to my boss, as well.

Gavin: Cool. What did you get back from it?

Brad: I said, “Send me George Washington,” I have no idea why, and I got Robert Arneson’s sculpture “A Portrait of George Muscone” from 1981. Then, I said, “Send me dinner.” I got Jackson Pollock “Guardians of the Secret” from 1943. The second one is so random, but it’s such a moment of delight that comes out of that randomness. It’s just so fun, and it doesn’t have to be so serious.

Gavin: Yeah, and I can imagine that in that moment when you get that, you say, “Well, I asked for dinner, and I got this.” That becomes your deeper engagement of trying to make that connection.

Brad: Right.

Gavin: Makes you look at that artwork in a different way to how you would if you saw it in a gallery, perhaps.

Brad: Yeah, and there’s some randomness to it. I don’t know that I would be drawn necessarily to seek out the sculpture “A Portrait of George Muscone” if I visited SFMOMA, but I am very interested in seeing this Jackson Pollock up close. It’s probably done its job. I guess what I would wonder is, how much time did they spend? Was this the original idea, and it didn’t take much tweaking, or how many changes did it go through to become this simplified? Of course, on the back end I’m sure it’s not actually that simple, the algorithm that matches up words to artwork.

 

Iterating and Editing

Gavin: This conversation reminds me of a project from a few years ago for the Baltimore Museum of Art, to accompany the opening of their new contemporary gallery. I flew over and did user testing of this webapp we were building. The gallery was still being built, so we printed out some works and pinned them to the wall, then had people come in and use an initial prototype on their phone.

We learnt a lot. The biggest takeaway was to cut stuff out.

The prototype was jam-packed with functionality but actually, the only things that people wanted to do was find the work, find something out about it, and the look at the art in real-life, which makes a lot of sense. All the extra functionality and mobile interactions were not augmenting the experience. They were getting in the way.

The finished product actually seems really simple. When I showed it to my wife she said “How come you had to go all the way to America to figure out that this was a good idea?” Actually, we had to go to figure out all the stuff that was the bad idea and leave us only with the really good ideas.

a hand holding a smartphone

BMA GoMobile

 

Career Paths

Brad: It’s almost time to wrap. I did have two things I wanted to ask. How did you make the jump from your early work in Film and TV to digital? How did that work for you?

Gavin: I made the jump really through demonstrating communication, management and UX skills rather than technical skills. So I had experience of managing projects from TV, and the teaching role lent itself well to the UX side of things.

Brad: Oh, sure.

Gavin: Is that answering your question?

Brad: Yeah, that’s perfect, because I think, I don’t know about you, but I get approached all the time about how to get started in museums. I find it interesting because a lot of younger people, including two of my staff here, have actual masters degrees in museum studies. That didn’t even exist when I was in school. My path was very different from theirs. This is something they knew they wanted to do. There’s a lot of other people that are interested in museums that don’t have the formal education.

I think people’s paths are very interesting. Mine felt so random for so long. It wasn’t until I realized there actually was something threading them all together.

Gavin: Yeah, I feel the same, I feel the same, like everything has kind of led to today.

Brad: Yeah.

Gavin: Most of the people that I work with, there’s 13 of us altogether, and the majority are developers or programmers. Of those, only a couple have studied computing at university. We’ve got an atmospheric chemist, a mathematician, a philosopher, a journalist, a sound engineer. There’s a whole bunch of different backgrounds.

I feel that’s a real positive, because people have a kind of broader view of the world, a wider breadth of experience that they can then bring to their work. Because, it’s not just programming, when you’re doing museum work like this. You’re not just churning stuff out. In order to do that thing that we’re talking about – make it meaningful – you’ve got to understand the content, and you’ve got to be able to engage with it deeply as you create, in order for then, the people that end up using it to engage deeply in that same way.

Brad: Yeah, that’s well-put. I totally believe in that — having the well-rounded life experience. It can be a bit of a challenge in some areas, because with some of these jobs the expertise is with younger people, and the jobs themselves tend to be newer, right?

Gavin: Yeah.

 

Beer

Brad: It is interesting. Then the other question I wanted to end with is, do you have a favorite beer?

Gavin: I do. I have a few favorite beers. What’s yours?

Brad: Hands down, La Fin Du Monde from Unibroue in Quebec.

Gavin: I’ve never had that.

Brad: It’s sublime. It’s amazing. I don’t know if you can get it there, but I highly recommend it.

Gavin: I’ll hunt it down. If not, then maybe we could find some in Pittsburgh.

Brad: Yeah, I bet we can.

two bottles of beer

 

Gavin: For me, it changes regularly. At the moment it’s probably one called Hophead, which is a local one by a brewery called Dark Star. They’re really close to where I live, and here in Brighton where I work. That’s very nice. There’s also a brewery even closer called the Harveys Brewery. Their pint of Best Bitter is a kind of murky, brown, flat, warm drink that I really enjoy.

Brad: I’m seeing a theme that your favorite beers are the beers closest by.

Gavin: Ha ha, yeah. I like any beer that’s close to hand.

Brad: That’s perfect. That’s probably a perfect way to wrap up. It’s been really nice to talk to you.

Gavin: Yeah, likewise. It’s been fun.

Brad: All right, Gavin, so we’ll talk soon, then.

Gavin: Talk to you soon.

 

The deleted, only partially-edited but very real beginning of the call:

(inspired by Koven Smith and Liz Filardi)

Gavin: Okay, I am currently recording.

Brad: Are you still there?

Gavin: Yeah, I’m still here. I was trying to remember how to use our telephone system, there’s a special code that you can press that records it.

Brad: I will hang tight. You’re on the call, but I don’t hear you.

Gavin: Ah, okay, you can’t hear me.

Brad: Okay, can you still hear me?

Gavin: How about now, is that better?

Brad: I just tested the video.

Gavin: Can you hear me? Because I’ve lost you. Yeah, I can’t hear you at the moment. I don’t know if you can hear me. I can hear you now.

Brad: Okay, great.

Gavin: This is going really well.

Brad: We’re off to a stupendous start here.

Gavin: I’m really pleased we’re not livestreaming this or anything, can you imagine?

Brad: It’s really amazing that we both work in digital.

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Meet the 2017 new board members!

Congratulations to our 5 newly appointed board members!

This year, 23 members of the community applied to fill five vacant seats on the MCN board. The Nominating Committee reviewed all applications against our current stated needs, as well as the strength and merit of each application, and shortlisted a slate of the five candidates it considered best suited for the role and organizational needs. The proposed selection was presented and discussed at July 2017 board meeting, followed by a vote to appoint the following five candidates as MCN Directors: Samantha Diamond, Susan Edwards, Desi Gonzalez, Mitchell Sava and Keir Winesmith (see their bios below).

Their three-year term will start this November. Please join me in congratulating them on their appointment.

We also want to extend a sincere thanks to all the other candidates who, driven by their passion for MCN and a desire to serve this community, also took the time to apply this year. Don’t let this discourage you from applying again in future years: often the choice between two candidates is timing and context. Many of our current board members applied more than once before being nominated.

So if you weren’t selected this time around, we want you to know that MCN is your community, and we encourage you to stay involved. This past year, the board has started to roll out a comprehensive Professional Development program aimed at engaging everyone member of the MCN community by providing pathways for professional growth throughout their careers in museums. There are many ways to get involved in addition to serving on the board, and we invite you to look into an opportunity that’s right for you. We are always looking for volunteers to join the Program Committee, as well as those interested in helping MCN develop inclusive practices and diversity. In many cases, a candidate’s demonstrated commitment to MCN will put them in good stead for a board role. For any questions about Professional Development opportunities, email us at ProfDev@mcn.edu.

We also want to let you know that the board appointed Elizabeth Bollwerk as Vice President/President-Elect effective November 2017. Beth was appointed to the board in 2015, and will lead as President in 2019 after Suse Anderson’s tenure as President next year.

I hope you will join us in Pittsburgh for MCN 2017, and we look forward to seeing you there.

Eric Longo
Executive Director
eric@mcn.edu

 

2017 Nominating Committee

  • Carolyn Royston, President
  • Suse Anderson, Vice President
  • Nik Honeysett, Director
  • Matt Tarr, Director
  • Eric Longo, Executive Director

Samantha Diamond

CEO, CultureConnect

Samantha is CEO of CultureConnect, an award-winning technology company delivering beautiful and meaningful digital experiences to the museum, arts, culture and heritage sector. CultureConnect has caught the attention of national press including NPR, FOX, CNBC, and Hyperallergic and produced award-winning mobile and digital experiences with clients from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the Kimbell Art Museum to the New-York Historical Society and the Marine Mammal Center.

Samantha frequently speaks and consults as an expert on technology, culture, and design. Recent industry talks include CultureSummit Abu Dhabi, American Alliance of Museums, MuseumNEXT, Museums and the Web, Museum Computer Network, and the Southeast Museum Council.

Prior to CultureConnect, Samantha was on the executive team of 20×200, a VC-backed art e-commerce startup where she helmed double-digit growth of new business and oversaw company-wide operations. Before earning an MBA at Columbia Business School, Samantha developed expertise in strategy & operations at McMaster-Carr Supply Company’s leading management development program.

Samantha studied International Relations at Tufts University and began her career in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq for the State Department, USAID, an international health NGO and KBR. Her field research on political art in the DRC was later presented at academic conferences – an early step in a life-long passion to unite the arts, culture and politics.

Susan Edwards

Associate Director, Digital Content, The Hammer Museum

Susan Edwards is a digital content producer and strategist who has worked in museums for 20 years creating digital solutions for online and on-site visitor experiences. Since 2015, Susan has been Associate Director for Digital Content at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, where she oversees the website, social media, and video production, and helps guide the museum’s digital strategy. Previously, she worked at the J. Paul Getty Trust since 2001, where she collaborated with curators, scholars, and educators to develop online digital experiences for users. These included some of the first digital games in museums, the Getty Research Institute’s first experiments with digital collaboration tools for scholars, and digital publications. Susan began her museum career at the Seattle Art Museum, where she had five jobs in four years, including visitor services manager and curatorial associate.

Susan has been active in the museum technology community for over 10 years. Between 2013 and 2017, she was a board member for the American Alliance of Museum’s Media & Technology professional network. And in 2017 she served as co-chair of MCN’s #MCN50 Planning Committee. Susan has presented and led workshops at many museum technology and games conferences over the years, and served on the editorial boards of several journals and blogs. Susan holds an MLIS from San Jose State University and an M.A. in art history from the University of Michigan.

Desi Gonzalez

Manager of digital engagement, The Andy Warhol Museum

Desi Gonzalez writes, researches, and makes things at the intersection of art and technology. She currently lives in Pittsburgh, where she leads digital engagement at the Andy Warhol Museum. Before that, she designed educational tech at La Victoria Lab in Peru, developed interpretive experiences at the Museum of Modern Art, and managed a kids website at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Gonzalez has presented internationally about her work on design, technology, and engagement in museums. Her writing has has been featured in publications including Art in America, Art Papers, Indiewire, and The Brooklyn Rail.

She holds a B.A. in art history and linguistics from Emory University and an M.S. in comparative media studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Mitchell Sava

VP of Innovation and Engagement, Museum of Life and Science

Mitch Sava is the Vice President of Innovation, Learning, and Engagement at the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science, where he has been since 2016. In this role, he helps drive the development of new services and partnerships – on and offline – for the museum to reach new audiences, create new revenue streams, and help the Museum achieve its mission of nurturing critical thinkers of all ages.

While he may be new to the world of museums, he has spent much of his career in the worlds of digital and innovation. He has over two decades of innovation experience across sectors, working with executives, social entrepreneurs, and policy-makers on how to unleash our innovative potential, and apply design thinking and digital forces to the way we live, work, and create value for others and ourselves.

He has helped establish innovation labs for government agencies, consultancies and companies, tried to reimagine the future of industries from insurance to beer, and worked with firms from pharmaceuticals to phones to avoid becoming the next “Blockbuster Video” of their industry. He has created and run initiatives to help start-ups, launched [barely successfully] a start-up of his own, and generally nudged various giant companies to act a bit more like start-ups themselves. Mitch has pushed policy with think-tanks, drafted resolutions for the UN, helped social innovators stay innovative, and designed new services with some of the most creative minds in business and the social sector. He has succeeded in various efforts, and failed in more.

Mitch holds an MPA in innovation and entrepreneurship policy from the Harvard Kennedy School, an MSc in Technology and Human Affairs from Washington University in St. Louis, and a BS in Computer Science from the College of William & Mary. He is a founding member of the Innovation Work Group, and a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Advancement of Arts, Manufacturers, and Commerce, where he led their project on “The Glory of Failure”. Mitch is an amateur winemaker, a lover of things cooked slowly, and a father often in quest of sleep.

Keir Winesmith

Head of Digital, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Keir is the Head of Web + Digital Platforms at SFMOMA and co-founder of SFMOMA Lab. He is a digital strategist, producer, writer and creative technologist who is committed to making change, and telling engaging stories, using technology. He’s led, and collaborated on, a number of award winning digital projects in Australia, Europe and the United States.

Keir hold a Ph.D. in new media, and degrees in Computer Science and Physics. He writes and speak frequently on in the intersection of digital and the arts, in particular the role of digital as an agent for organizational change. Most frequently at conferences and forums such as South by Southwest (SXSW), AIGA, Museums and the Web (MW), Nation Digital Form (NDF), and the Museum Computer Network (MCN). He, and his work, have been profiled in The NY Times, WIRED, SF Chronicle, National Public Radio, Australian Broadcasting Corporation and, most recently, the Waco Tribune.

And he loves museums.

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#MCN50 Voices – Blaire Moskowitz & Matt Morgan

Matt Morgan Headshot  Blaire Moskowitz headshot

Matt Morgan, President, Concrete Computing and Blaire Moskowitz, the Digital Interpretive Specialist at the New York Botanical Garden and a PhD Candidate in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester share their career paths, the ideal skills for success in the field, and the state of the museum technology field.

WHAT JOB DID YOU WANT AS A KID AND DID IT HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH MUSEUMS OR TECHNOLOGY?

MATT:  I wanted a lot of jobs as a kid. For a while I wanted to be a physicist, I wanted to be a teacher, and a policeman. By the time I was in high school I started thinking about computers. That was the 80s, so PCs had hit but I don’t think I understood that museums could be an actual career – that was only for special people.

BLAIRE: I wanted to be an artist and also didn’t understand that museums were careers. But I used to ask my parents to bring me to art museums all the time. So eventually I figured it out.  But I only figured it out halfway through undergrad – all of a sudden, it was “Oh, this is a career and maybe this was a better idea for me.” Then I ended up with two majors.

 

HOW HAS YOUR EDUCATION AND PAST JOBS INFLUENCED WHAT YOU DO NOW?

BLAIRE: I’m still in my education because I’m getting a Ph.D. in Museum Studies. My undergrad was a Bachelors of Fine Art which becomes surprisingly helpful when I’m writing interpretive content about art exhibitions and the artist’s use of materials.  For example, here at the New York Botanical Garden, we have a glass exhibition and I did take a semester of glassblowing. I wasn’t any good at it, I made a lot of paperweights – which are really just blobs – but writing about glassblowing now is less abstract and I can meaningfully describe the process.

MATT: Have you seen the Corning Museum of Glass’s online site with all the techniques?  It’s amazing.

BLAIRE: Yeah, that’s far beyond the blobs I made.

MATT: My education is in the sciences. A bachelors in geology and a masters in oceanography – mostly modeling, which is a lot of computers and math.  The science aspect – testing and iteration – has been huge. I have this total bee in my bonnet about how bad museums are about impact measurement. I see so much alleged data thrown up that’s not actually the most meaningful. There is such a gap in the way scientists gather and communicate quantifiable information and what we see in museums. And sometimes, that’s been really difficult for me and sometimes it hasn’t. It feels like there is so much more that we can do. It’s been a good thing and a bad thing.  Past jobs…  I started in advocacy at the Environmental Defense Fund where I built the first online advocacy and membership renewal tools in the 90s. I was basically an IT person but that’s what got me started in the digital half of my career. That was huge in getting me started.

BLAIRE: Everyone has such weird education and career paths to get to museum technology – I hadn’t come across an oceanographer yet.

MATT: Neither have I.

BLAIRE: My first full time jobs were audio tour companies, so it was working with clients in history and science and art museums and tourist attractions and observatories.  It was a lot of bouncing between institutional types. It makes working now at NYBG interesting and maybe easier, because it’s a combination of art and science and neither one has thrown me for a surprise.  But that’s still not as surprising as your background in oceanography.

 

WHAT SHOULD PEOPLE STARTING IN MUSEUMS AND THE MUSEUM TECHNOLOGY FIELD KNOW WHEN THEY START?

MATT: It’s not like you’re going to start and you’re ready to go. It changes all the time.  Things change so much and the work I do now is totally different than the work I did two years ago or ten years ago. You need to know that it’s going to change and you need to be flexible – but why else would you be in technology? I don’t think it’s a problem for people because I don’t think these are people who want to be in the exact same job for twenty years.

BLAIRE: I feel too green to answer this question entirely but it seems like a slower career than other careers. It seems like you need to bounce around a little more than other careers – the career progression is…relaxed sometimes.

MATT: I agree, though I probably I went faster than others. I worked at EDF for six years and at Brooklyn Museum for six years, so by the time I was done at the Met, I was working for 18 years.  So I wouldn’t say it’s fast, but I was general manager of the website at the Met after 13 or 14 years and I wouldn’t call that slow. The opportunities for advancement are narrow because cultural institutions don’t really value technology jobs that much on average.  I mean, staff and leadership are grateful for the technology help, but it’s not like the CTO is becoming the CEO or president. Or that there even is a CTO. There are relatively few jobs and relativity few institutions, which means there just isn’t that kind of mobility.

BLAIRE: Are we sounding pessimistic?

MATT: No, it’s honest. What I would add is that if you’re willing to move around, across the country then some of that is mitigated. I wanted to stay in New York and passed up opportunities to do that. I do OK but New York is big. But what if you want to stay in a smaller city?

 

HOW HAS TECHNOLOGY CHANGED OR NOT CHANGED IN THE WORKPLACE ENVIRONMENT?

MATT: Oh man, well I started at the Brooklyn Museum in ’99 and there wasn’t a computer on every desk, nor a real Internet connection or email.  Maybe they realized they were behind so…

BLAIRE: That’s so surprising that you’re saying that about the Brooklyn Museum because now when I think about who has done the most with creative technology, it’s often Brooklyn.

MATT: They committed to it and we got started, and they really took off with it when I left, and now it’s great. We changed everything and we changed nothing. A curator is still curating.  Once you start using email it’s not like it changes your life. All the utopian and revolutionary expectations about how everything is going to be more open is true. Things are more open and places like the Met just switched their license to CC0, cool. But by the time it happens, the revolution has passed and it doesn’t seem like that much of a revolution. In the broad scheme, the way people use those images probably didn’t change much. We might need more distance to know. It feels like between ’99 and 2011, I went from museums being really scared to put stuff online to putting everything online in 2011. That was fast in the scheme of things. But still, in between, they felt like dinosaurs.

BLAIRE: You have a longer career so there is a much more dynamic change. I graduated college in 2010 so in seven years, there has been change but much more incremental. I mean, I had a Facebook account when I walked into college.  Facebook and social media has become normalized and I think that’s the biggest change.  There is an expectation that institutions and companies are on social media, it’s expected. It’s not just a peer-to-peer platform now. But in this time span, I can’t say things like “‘we didn’t have computers with desks.”  I just have a different perspective, I think.

What I can say is that I’ve had jobs that are entirely remote, which became very normalized to me very quickly. Almost my entire job was email based and that became very normal for me, so much that my current job in a real physical office with coworkers next to me is what I’ve had to adapt to. I really like it and my coworkers are great yet it’s the little things that are the surprise – like, it’s so easy to reach them because there is no time difference and they’re literally at the desk or office next to mine.

But the technology element is so normalized to me. For my PhD, the school is in the U.K. so almost all of my interactions with my professor are Skype video or email. I go for a bit in the summer, but short of that, I rarely see fellow students and most of the interactions with my cohort is via social media.  But again, it’s so normal to me.  But even people who work in technology usually see their colleagues.  So the technology environment is so ingrained into everything for me …

MATT: But it’s in ways that haven’t really seeped into most museum environments. You usually have an office.  One critical point about GLAMS is that they have physical locations. I remember when responsive web design came out as a thing, the presumption was not just that your web design should work on all different sizes of screen, but that mobile content and desktop content would be the same. What that didn’t acknowledge is the physical location that the user might be occupying.

If you’re running a store website, they should be able to buy everything on their phone that they can buy on their computer. What’s the difference, right? But if you’re running a museum, it makes a big difference whether the person is in the museum, three blocks away, or sitting at home. Their behavior, being sensitive to their location, may actually indicate a difference in content. And that’s valid. But that’s not what early responsive web design proponents talked about because physical location is irrelevant to them. We may continue to see that going forward with respect to staff mobility and office-less organizations. It’s not just because we think offices are better. It’s because you need to be in the space, right? Being in the botanic garden is a really important part of working for you.

BLAIRE: Yeah, even if you can move a painting, you can’t easily move a tree.  But it’s a good point because I’ve been working with a location aware app and writing the content for it.

MATT: We have to decide how much we care. There is a difference seeing a tree and seeing a picture of a tree. You can try and quantify that but we don’t, mostly. We know that people care, but we don’t know how much they care. But it’s the difference between visiting and not.

 

WHAT SKILLS SERVE YOU WELL?

MATT: I have this favorite anecdote, which is about soft skills.  Basically, do you know who, among doctors, who gets sued for malpractice the most? The answer isn’t the doctors who make the most mistakes, it’s the ones who have the worst bedside manner.  It hasn’t sunk into most technologies and it hasn’t been a problem for most museum technologists – we get along and can persuade people and get things done but it’s still something you need to practice and develop.  There’s that and the ability to quantify ROI, there’s so many things that we do that just sound so great but what kind of impact are they going to have? For one of my clients I shifted from a heavier tech role to a strategic consulting role and when I used to run their projects, I would be pretty firm on two rounds of review and design—no more. The reason I do that is because the added value of the next round isn’t worth the time you spent. Staff time costs something, right? Do something else that’s more valuable. But that’s hard. It’s hard to get people to move on but if you have a few things on your plate, one is at

99% and the others at 20%, you’re going to get more value from working on the ones at 20%. Just launch it.

Now that I’m on the review and approval side for this client, I’ll make more money if the review continues forever.  And the guy who is managing the project lets it go too far which wastes their money and time. I can advise them and I have to, but with ability to look at ROI plus soft skills, to get it right, we make a lot of progress.

BLAIRE: I would say it’s to really understanding the visitors, but I’m not really sure if that’s a skill.

MATT: Empathy?

BLAIRE: Yeah, I think there is a skill to blend into the crowd of your museum and just walk around and observe. Even when I leave on the subway, I eavesdrop on conversations between people who I don’t think even know each other but start to talk amongst themselves about their experiences that day. Hearing a visitor’s passion or criticism – which had nothing to do with any app or website or any piece of technology.

MATT: That can be hard to work on but getting inspired by that is really important.

BLAIRE: Taking that and melding it with all the other input from consultants or other stakeholders – that’s probably a skill in synthesizing and balancing.

MATT: I remember once in an exhibition we had to rush kiosks into an exhibition for a stakeholder in an allocated room dedicated to the computers.  And they decided where the computers would go before knowing what they were going to do first. So I already knew that it was going to be a bad situation. So we have this last room with chairs and computers and everyone wanted to know why I didn’t include tracking, which was really because I had no money and only six weeks for the whole project. So during the exhibition, I watched that room. And you know what they were doing? Sitting in the chairs waiting for their friends to catch up. Log analysis would not have told that unfortunate story.

BLAIRE: When I worked visitor services, and I think I learned the most there because visitors will come in and tell you what they want entirely unfiltered. It’s anything- the thing they saw in their tour book that isn’t on display, asking where to take the best picture to asking which of the bathrooms is better.

 

HOW DO YOU STAY UP TO DATE WITH YOUR TECH SKILLS?

BLAIRE: Trying to use the newer technologies – my coding skills are limited, so I know just enough to follow what the programmers are doing.  It’s a lot of reading about what’s being done and reading about the possibilities.  It’s getting my hands on as much information as I can so that I can make informed recommendations and decisions.

MATT: In one position a while ago, the lead programmers decided along with me that we were going to switch to Angular for our front-end.  I didn’t know Angular and there’s no way I was going to learn that in any way that meant I could be productive with it. You can’t always be a boss and learn a new language. It’s sometimes about letting stuff go. These things change and you’ll eventually not do them. It’s more about your value and knowing what to do next.  But I do a lot of what you do; I follow tech aggregator sites and make sure I know what’s going on.

 

WHAT DO YOU READ TO KEEP UP TO DATE?

MATT: I follow Hacker News mainly, news.ycombinator.com, which is stuff from all over and helps me know what’s going on.  So I almost can’t tell you what I read because I read whatever it links to. You’re doing a lot of reading for a PhD though, right?

BLAIRE: Yeah, there is a constant inflow of Amazon orders. But it’s also a lot of reading about technology.  I think I read every book about twice – first just enough to write an outline and then again to really understand and write about the content. I’m working on my dissertation, so I select what books I read.  It’s not technical manuals, for instance, sociology of crowdsourcing – authors such as Surowiecki, Brabham, Shirky – and comparing academic information with accounts of what was happening in museums.

MATT: When one reads these things, it’s not like you have a plan and know it will help  with something specific.

BLAIRE: Yes, you just read widely and hope it helps. And I end up reading a lot that doesn’t help at all.

 

WHO HAS HELPED YOU IN YOUR CAREER?

MATT: Who hasn’t?!

BLAIRE: I’ve had a lot of people who have been really helpful.  In one job we all started in the same place, even if we were at different levels, and now we’ve all left and spread.  So we can come back and have conversations about all our new jobs and learn from each other. That’s been really interesting.  There is one person who was a superior to me and taught me to write audio tours. But now that I’m on the institutional side and he was hired to write the tour, the relationship has changed from where we started. And I’m still learning from him, but also from my superiors at my current job.

Another is my doctoral supervisor at Leicester who is helping me grow as a researcher.  We have these long, often two-hour conversations about my research, and that’s, of course, a help as well as his general professional guidance. And finally, a professor who teaches at the university I went to, but came after I graduated.  We email each other book recommendations and other industry things and I’ve been a guest speaker in her class. But since I never had her as a teacher and she hasn’t been my boss at any time, the relationship is different and I’m aware of and grateful for how my relationships in the museum technology field are changing and growing and she’s probably the best example of that.

MATT: Your nature is to think about your bosses but you can also think about employees and colleagues.  A lot of the time your growth is coming from doing your own thing, which isn’t always what you are asked to do.  And as a boss, what kind of staff do you want to have? The ones who would just go for it or the ones who would wait for instructions?  And another thing, it’s almost inevitable you become a generalist.  I became a generalist early in my career because I was manager of information systems at the Brooklyn Museum for nine years.  Learning from specialists, for instance – I’m a really good editor and a pretty good writer.  But I’m nowhere near as good as some of the professional editors I’ve worked with. And obviously computer scientists understand programming in ways that I don’t, as a mostly self-taught person. So I think that paying attention to the specialists and being able to trust them is really important.

 

TOP CHALLENGES IN THE FIELD?

MATT: I know the top one is impact measurements. Starting from what we want.  I follow startups and I don’t think every business can run like a tech startup. But their focus on driving growth is something that we’ve done in museums but has never been valued.

Growth hacking means finding out what behaviors drive growth and encouraging those behaviors. You want visitation? Figure out how to build a website that drives visitation.  Right? But we’re so loose and fuzzy on all that stuff. When I was at the New York Public Library, the online form for getting a library card was dozens of questions long.  Like, why? All we really need was an address, and even as a newbie I could make a guess that getting more people to have library cards must be strategically important to the library. We can make this a really simple form, and get more cards to more people. So I started working on why we had all those questions on the form. But there wasn’t someone, or any group, who could really tell me the answer. It was not a subject that had been investigated. It was something that developed over time, and no one ever took questions away from the form, so it just grew and grew.

It was something that happens everywhere, not just the library.  Consider the question: is it important for people to come to the library’s branches? If so, e-books are in competition with that. When I was there, NYPL was promoting both, without thinking much about how each was maybe suppressing the other. What’s more important and can you decide? Is it more important for them to get the book or to come to the library? That’s a valid question to ask and one that the library has not had frameworks for answering, but I understand, with some new execs on board, they’re doing it now.  Once you make those decisions, you can see that more people are doing a thing that’s wanted.  Every tech start up out there thrives when it handles this question and answers it properly.  And museums especially could do it.

BLAIRE: I think a challenge is not doing the same thing over and over again and thinking each time it’s novel.  It’s a problem that isn’t addressed enough. Even if it’s the first time your museum has done a project, that doesn’t mean it’s the first time the project has been done. Like a transcription project – it needs to get done, but so many are the same and each project could build on a prior project at another institution.

MATT: MCN had a project registry where you could say what you were working on. But the hardest part was adoption. How do you get people to type in their project? It’s a question of how you get started and supported.  It’s an open source problem in general; even with the best software the biggest problem is always getting people to do it.

 

WHAT WAS THE FIRST TIME YOU ATTENDED MCN AND HOW WAS THE EPERIENCE?

MATT: My first time was in Minneapolis – It was the early 2000s. I felt like a total outsider and there was no room in the conference hotel, so I stayed elsewhere. It was confusing and stressful because I felt like I had to come back to work having learned something.  Which actually impedes learning. You can’t go to a conference saying you’re going to learn a specific thing, you have to let it be what it is and gain what it is that can be gained. I wouldn’t say it sucked, but I knew I had to get used to it and it would get better.

BLAIRE: I guess I had a better experience.  Last year was the first year I went to MCN, but I had heard that this was the “fun” conference.  I’d been to other larger museum conferences but MCN was nice that everyone was in the same subset of museum work and there was always a starting point for conversation. If you didn’t know each other, you already kind of knew each other’s work. I found it to be a relatable experience.

MATT: I didn’t know anybody the first time.  I wonder if social media has helped that?

BLAIRE: Oh, yes, very much so. People vaguely knew who I was from Twitter and I also knew them from Twitter.  But then people also get totally branded for whatever the Internet knows you for…

 

HOW HAS MCN IMPACTED YOU?

MATT: It’s been huge.  I’m a participant on the MCN List and a lot of the most (and least) intelligent things I’ve said are on that list. There are probably people who know me through there.  I’ve introduced valuable stuff at MCN and it’s helped me feel influential and feel valuable. And I’ve learned a lot from it, too. It’s inspiring to know what everyone else is doing.

BLAIRE: I think it’s helped me get involved in the larger museum community – not just the New York base.  I’ve joined the program committee – maybe at some point people get used to being asked to be part of committees, but I’m at the point in my career where it’s exciting to be asked to contribute to something professionally.

 

WHAT DO YOU REALLY THINK ABOUT MUSEUM APPS?

MATT: I’m not sure how many are all that good.  The ones that tell you where you are, they don’t tell you where to go.  I’m sure there has been a good one that I haven’t seen…

BLAIRE: I tested one at a different museum and on the testing night, it told you where the food and drink was – it was really incentivized. There was a true reason to use it. The objects in this museum were great but then the users personally got food as a reward.

MATT: When it’s hard to find your way around, any help is good.  But what I would like to see is engagement for a long period of time but doesn’t mean other people are waiting. For most of us, the issue then becomes flow in the galleries. What I would like to see is something that organically adds to the experience and that’s what everyone is going for, but we aren’t there yet.

BLAIRE: I recently worked on one that used beacons and is location aware, within a mobile website. So it doesn’t involve downloading an app or making one for each type of phone. My opinion of this project is, of course, bias but when an app can be integrated into the experience that’s great. What is really lacking in museum apps is resources for group experiences.  What do you do for the person who has brought their friends and is now expected to lead the group without any prior knowledge or experience with the exhibition? What can we supply for the informal, unofficial group leader? Are there tools we can provide to help them show the group around? Or can we anticipate the questions their group will ask? If we could do this, when their friends ask them about the museum, they’ll have something to say and a level of comfort.

MATT: Instant docent.

BLAIRE: That’s what a lot of places really need.

 

 

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