#MCN50 Voices: Essie Lash & Angelica Aboulhosn

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

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

Angelica Aboulhosn and Essie Lash

 

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

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

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

 

On Social Media & Technology

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

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

Which social network can you be found on most often?

AA: Twitter.

EL: Same.

What are the apps you can’t live without?

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


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

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

 

On Work and Career

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

 

On Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

On #MCN50

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

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

On Inspiration

Where do you go to stay inspired?

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

What’s in heavy rotation on your Spotify?

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

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

Describe your personal aesthetic in three words.

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

AA: Clean, spritely, and Seinfeldian.

What’s on your reading list?

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

What’s your top local food spot?

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

EL: In NYC, probably Dimes.

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

By Sean Blinn

 

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

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

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

Here is one example, a job listing from 1993:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image source

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

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

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

Sources:

The Pony Express: History and Myth

American Museum of Natural History: 2015 Annual Report

American Museum of Natural History: Annual Report Archives

 

For further reading:

Computer History Museum’s Timeline of Computer History

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

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MCN50 Voices: Jane Alexander & Nik Honeysett

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

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

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

 

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Mapping islands: Visualizing a job history dataset

By Sarah Outhwaite

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DATA GEEK NOTE:

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

 

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MCN50 Voices: Dana Mitroff Silvers & Susan Edwards

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

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

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

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

 

Susan:  

So the first question I have is:

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

 

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

Your turn! How about you?

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

 

Next question,

How did you get involved with technology in museums?

 

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

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

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

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

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

How about you?

Susan:

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

How did you end up as a design thinking expert?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Who were my peers at the time?

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

Where did I look for inspiration?

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

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

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

I’ll answer the question about peers, too.

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

 

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

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

 

Dana:

1) Basic, hand-coded HTML

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

2) Basic Principles of User Experience Design and Usability

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

3) Networking + MuseTech Community

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

 

How about you?

 

Susan:

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

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

1) Flexibility and eagerness to learn

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

2) Translator

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

3) Project Management

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

 

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

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

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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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