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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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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MCN50 Voices: Diane Zorich & Richard Rinehart

Our latest instalment of MCN50 Voices pairs two past MCN presidents, Diane Zorich and Richard Rinehart. They each talk about the role of MCN in their early careers, and discuss the history of museums, current challenges in the field, and imagine what a museum they would design would look like.

Diane Zorich headshot

Diane is Director of the Digitization Program Office at the Smithsonian Institution. Prior to taking this position, she spent over twenty years consulting for cultural heritage institutions and nonprofit professional organizations, working on projects in the areas of information management and policy, digital humanities, intellectual property/open access, and digital strategies and assessments. In her early museum career she wrangled with Unix kernels and soldered her own cables. The internet and wifi set her free.

 

 

Richard Rinehart headshot

Richard is Director and Chief Curator of the Samek Art Museum at Bucknell University. He has served as Digital Media Director & Adjunct Curator at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and as curator at New Langton Arts and for the San Jose Arts Commission. He has lead NEA and NEH-funded national research projects on new media, art, preservation, and museums. He has recently published a book with MIT Press on preserving digital culture, co- authored with Jon Ippolito – Re-Collection: Art, New Media, & Social Memory (http://re-collection.net)

 

How did you come to work in museums? Was it your early passion or did you come to it later?

Diane: I trace my interest directly to Margaret Mead. I read her work “Coming of Age in Samoa” when I was 14 years old and her description of adolescence in a Samoan village was totally opposite of what my friends and I were experiencing (i.e., extreme angst fueled by raging hormones pent up in an all-girl Catholic high school). I later discovered that Mead was an anthropologist working at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. I started reading more of her work, following her in the press (she was one of anthropology’s first “public intellectuals”) and became more enamored with the notion of being a “museum anthropologist.” I studied anthropology in college and graduate school, and my first museum job was in an anthropology museum (Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology). Unfortunately (or fortuitously?), I wasn’t hired as an anthropologist—I was hired to run the museum’s computer systems and databases.

 

Richard: Museums were not an early passion, but art was. I was drawing from age 0, and then continuously. We didn’t have museums in the small rural town that I grew up in, but I regularly poured over the public library’s vintage 60s-era Time-Life art books by way of proxy. I eventually went to art school and college and was planning to move to the city and become an artist but knew that I would need a day job. I figured that working in the art world would make my work hours more relevant to my passion for art and so I kept my eyes open for a job in a museum. I eventually found one, starting off by managing the museum’s computer systems and website, and my ongoing interest in everything digital/art/museum began there.

 

How and when did you first get involved with MCN? How did that involvement impact your career? Have remained involved in MCN? If not, why not?

Diane: When I started my job at the Peabody Museum I was introduced by a colleague to Ron Kley, who was the executive director of MCN. He was based in Maine and was trying to organize an MCN conference in Boston. I was thrilled to find out about the organization—it was the mid-1980s and I was feeling professionally isolated—there weren’t many people working with computers in museums at this time. I offered to help Ron with local arrangements, and gave my first ever paper at the MCN 1986 conference in Boston that year. That meeting was pivotal for me: I had found my museum tribe. Afterwards, several meeting attendees decided to keep the momentum of the conference going, at least locally. We met periodically as a local “museum computer users” group with the regrettable name of BAMCUG (Boston Area Museum Computer Users Group).

I have been an MCN member ever since. I upped my level of participation in the 90s when I served on the Board (as member, VP, and President) and as conference program chair for the 1993 MCN Seattle conference. I have attended every conference (except when I was 8 months pregnant and advised not to travel…). I recently “re-upped” my participation in the first MCN50 Archive Dive, which was a great history lesson and drove home how important it is to view an organization over time—to see its struggles, its successes. MCN history has been a real roller coaster ride.

 

Richard: Following on my above answer, in the early 1990s I was working at that rare intersection of museums and technology so my ears were tuned to anything in the field that was related. Additionally, I was in the SF Bay Area where digital technologies were quickly spreading into every area of life. When I learned about MCN, I was eager to meet others who were similarly professionally caught up in this historic moment and from whom I came to learn. My involvement with MCN (as member and later board member and president) was instrumental. It was through MCN, and museums working together on a national scale, that I put together a picture of how technology was going to impact museums (and in my case, the broader art world) in ways far beyond me setting up our museum’s DNS server. We worked on projects like developing new shared metadata standards that showed me how much museums can accomplish when working together.

I am sad to say that I’ve not remained in close touch with MCN. That’s not due to any lack of interest or fondness, but rather that my career has since taken several turns, first to curating and now to directing an academic museum. In both of these turns, my responsibilities broadened out beyond the digital aspects of my museum, requiring me to spend my time on more traditional aspects of museum work such as collection management policies, overtime payroll, and too infrequently, curating. My time spent with MCN was formative and continues to influence my work.

 

What are two of the darkest secrets in the museum world? The ones that no one talks about.

Diane: This might be a career-ending question, but here it goes. The first is how gullible we are to trends of the moment. I don’t know if we are worse than other sectors in this regard, but few of us call them out when we see them taking hold, and even fewer of us question them before we jump on board. The second is that we have benefitted more than we acknowledge from the subtle exploitation of our staff. Our field attracts bright, hard-working professionals and then pays them a sub-optimal wage. $30K/year jobs that require Master’s degrees +3 years’ experience? Part-time jobs that have full-time duties? Unpaid internships? Women (still) paid less than men for the same job? There is a real long-term cost to organizations that have institutionalized these practices: loss of talent, lack of diversity, diminished creativity, not to mention the hit on morale and the need for a living wage.

 

Richard: One of the darkest secrets is our shared institutional history. Much of the modern museum traces back to the European Wunderkammer and cabinets of wonder that were indeed Enlightenment era vehicles of intellectual curiosity about the empirical world. But, through a darker lens, they were also treasure troves of plundered booty and monuments to Europe’s colonialization of the world. This history is not so secret, but we don’t often talk about how many of our current institutional attitudes and practices are still influenced by these beginnings. For instance, why do certain artifacts (even using this term is loaded) end up in anthropology museums while others end up in art museums? And should it come as a surprise that museums still struggle to prove our relevance to historically disenfranchised audiences that we spent centuries depicting as the “Other”? We’ve come a long way, but we have far to go.

On a less ominous note; 90% of museum collections are not on view in the galleries, but are hidden away in the vaults in collections storage. This figure is common knowledge among museum professionals, but far less known among the public and it is relevant because it means that 90% of the world’s shared material heritage is, by necessity, hidden away with only its image reflected in online databases.

 

What is one of the biggest failed projects you worked on? And what did you learn from that?

Diane: I spent a large part of my career consulting, and the one thing consultants hate more than anything else is to see their reports sit on the proverbial shelf. One of my projects that “got shelved” was a huge metadata analysis effort that was well received when completed. But it never was acted on because the institution did not have the resources to do so, the leadership to push for those resources, and the buy-in from grassroots staff about the value of the project to their own work. The lesson for me here was that there are times when important projects should not go forward if the pieces needed further down the line are not in place or on the drawing board. Those pieces will not fall into place on their own. Inertia is a powerful force.

 

Richard: I had the pleasure of piloting one of the first museum handheld interactive multimedia gallery guides. At that time, there had been museum audio guides, but most of them were tape-based, audio-only with no images and minimal interaction. The hardware we used for this pilot project was the Apple Newton, a large and, by today’s standards, unwieldy device with black and white graphics and an untested interface. At this time also, very few people had smart-phones, so a handheld interactive device was alien to most and this is the main reason the project failed. We were too far ahead of our audience, asking too much of them to learn a whole new interface while they were trying to look at art.

Museums can, and sometimes should be, centers for innovative research, but this project taught me the value in making sure to bring our audiences along for the ride.

 

Do you think it is possible and /or desirable for museums to be neutral spaces?

Diane: Nope and nope. I think they can try to be safe spaces, but neutral? No. And why would they want to be? How can you make an impact if you don’t take a stand? Museums are research and educational institutions. Why would they position themselves as such then not incorporate their research and educational viewpoints in their public programs?

 

Richard: No to both. Earlier, I cited the museum’s history as a tool of colonialism and that history remains etched in our historic collections and in some of our basic and unquestioned practices. So, even the default spaces and unselfconscious practices of museums have been shaped by historic forces and specific agendas. Any museum presentation that purports to avoid social implications becomes an echo chamber for the voices of history and a monument to the culturally dominant status quo.

Museums may offer aesthetic experiences and present exhibitions that do not focus on the explicitly didactic or political, but the best ones do so in ways that are self-aware, critical, and honest about the museum’s own position and stakes.

 

If you had a billion dollars to fund a museum what would that museum be? What would it collect? Who would it serve? What would it be like to visit?

Diane: It wouldn’t be a museum in a conventional sense, but it would incorporate collections into experiences. I envision it as a mash-up of a library program and a literary genre. The first is based on a local public library program that was tailored to families going on summer vacation. The library selected books, movies, and games to take on your trip. But the selections weren’t random. They were specific to the place you were visiting and the age and interest of you and your kids. The second is the “Choose Your Own Adventure” literary works that let you select the outcome of a story: you start from one common point, but you pick out the path to the end.

So how do I see these two things playing out in my billion-dollar museum? “Visitors” would select or identify an interest—muscle cars, women artists from the 16th century, video games, Amazonian reptiles, the birth of jazz, you name it—and would be assigned an expert in that area who would personally tailor a learning experience for the visitors that includes objects/specimens/materials, real and virtual, that you could participate in, work with, touch, experiment with, etc. The expert would engage you throughout the process to see what particular areas drew out your excitement and curiosity (where you would want to explore more or differently), then help create a further pathway of exploration driven by your interests.

If done right, this kind of experience would be so immersive that it could be life-changing. If you were interested in reptiles (as many kids are) for example, you might start with exploring reptile specimens in a collection or at a zoo, and then wind up on a collecting field trip in the Amazon. Of course, with a program like this you would go through that billion dollars in no time. The burn rate would be huge.

 

Richard: I have always been drawn to speculative museums; museums that might or should or will be. Speculative museums, like speculative fiction, offer a way to reflect back on real museums in ways that are both critical and aspirational. My speculative museum would build upon historical precedents.

For instance, writer Jorge Luis Borges imagined an infinite library that contained every possible text. I would love to create a museum of one manuscript. This manuscript is re-generated anew each day by an algorithm randomly combining words. Like a thousand monkeys at typewriters for eternity, eventually the museum would produce the same story by Borges, and book by Octavia Butler, and every other text written and not yet written. I would make the copyright of each museum-generated text public domain.

Artist Sameer Farooq has imagined “Improbable Archives.” I would likewise borrow from his ideas to create speculative mini-museums: the Museum of the Ephemeral, the Museum of the Abandoned, the Museum of the Already Disappeared, The Museum of Boredom and Gaps, the Museum of Internal Images. Just imagining how to make these museums excites the imagination.

In a more tangible direction, the Museum of Jurassic Technology, in Culver City, California, is a real/speculative museum, seamlessly blending historic fact and fiction to create cognitive dissonance that results in a sense of wonder. My museum would borrow from all of these and it would serve critics, children, and dreamers.

 

What are the top 3 challenges in your institution now?

Diane: Resources (money, people, facilities), and the lack of agility that comes with working in a large organization. That’s two—or four—depending how you count.

 

Richard: Making exhibitions of contemporary art that engage academic audiences and issues also relevant to the surrounding rural American community and vice versa.

With a small staff performing all the functions of a larger museum, finding time to maintain academic rigor and professional standards in everything we do.

Finding ways to balance the time-tested efficacy of professional museum standards with our mission to innovate and experiment in an academic context.

 

What are the top three challenges in museums now?

Diane: Relevance has got to be one. We may say we are more relevant than ever, but wishing doesn’t make it so. I know surveys continually show that museums are among the most trusted of organizations. But is that enough? I don’t think that being trusted is the same as being relevant.

Then there is the moral sense that we always must “do more with less.” We have elevated this to a virtue when it really means we are spending a lot of time and energy just trying to survive. We don’t ask, “Is the ‘more’ we are doing better’? Would we do better if we did less, and did it well?”

The third big issue is lack of staff diversity at all levels (but particularly in senior administrative ranks), at our conferences and meetings, and in our audiences. Which, of course, circles us back to relevance.

 

Richard: Undoing our problematic institutional past and bringing in historically underrepresented voices; not just as casual visitors, but also as stakeholders, as staff, as artists.

Making the case that museums remain (even more) relevant in a fractured social and political landscape. That science, history, and yes, even art matters to a society made up of individuals of diverse backgrounds and passions.

Making the case for the public as an essential component of museums. Today even privately held museums educate the public and steward collections on behalf of the public of posterity, but museums were not always conceived of as public assets and there’s no guarantee that through shifting public attitudes and new funding models, we will not go back on that aspirational model.

Museums have collectively met challenges spanning centuries, continents, and cultures and I believe we can do so again.

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MCN50 Voices: Seema Rao interviews Sam Quigley

D. Samuel Quigley, Director, the Lyman Allyn Art Museum and former President of MCN, shares his memories of conferences past and the museum technology today with Seema Rao, Principal, Brilliant Idea Studio.

Sam started his career at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and became curator of musical instruments and associate curator of European decorative arts and sculpture. Moving into administration first at the Harvard University Art Museums and then at the Art Institute of Chicago, Sam was at the forefront of museum technology, a point underscored by his election to MCN president in 2003-05.

After nearly 20 years of working at the intersection of museum education and technology, Seema began a consulting firm to help other museums with content and strategy around digital projects.

 

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#MCN50 Voices: Trilce Navarette & Bert Degenhart Drenth

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.

Trilce Navarette, an Amsterdam-based digital heritage researcher, and Bert Degenhart Drenth, Chief Technical Officer of the Axiell Group, interviewed each other for this post and discussed living in the Netherlands, early Apple computers, falling in love with museums, and why this year’s MCN will be extra special.

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MCN50 Voices: Elissa Frankle & Max Evjen

In this instalment of the MCN50 Voices series, Elissa Frankle and Max Evjen discuss what how they rely on others, work/life balance, being a “cheptic,” and of course, karaoke. Max and Elissa met through the greater Twitter/conference conglomerate that is Museums and the Web and both have jobs that are multifaceted.

 

Elissa Frankle headshot    Max Evjen headshot  

 

Max is an assistant professor of arts and cultural management and museum studies at Michigan State University (MSU), does site-specific theatre for the MSU Theatre, AND is Exhibitions Technology Specialist at the MSU Museum.

Elissa is a senior user experience researcher at Ad Hoc LLC. Until June 2017, she was the museum experience and education specialist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), the role on which much of this interview is based.  Elissa is always a museum person even when she isn’t working for one.

Through a months-long exchange of emails, Elissa and Max discovered that they share a lot more than awesome curly hair and a general love of museums. Their professional lives are shaped by connection to people—mentors, colleagues, visitors, family—and they keep fresh as technologists by learning from peers and luminaries in the field. Being educators affects how they think about technology: through the medium of technology, they remain facilitators, listening to, learning from, and responding to the needs of their audiences. This even holds up for MCN Karaoke, where they’re interested in delighting the audience, and their favorite emojis, which are based in celebrating the person with whom they’re communicating.

Elissa would like to thank Max for being patient with her as she took weeks to respond to emails, got caught up in wedding planning and job hunting, and read her long, introspective responses. Max would like to let Elissa off the hook, since we are all busy! Happy birthday, MCN—we can’t wait to see you in November!

 

Where we come from

Describe your personal job history/trajectory in less than 10 words.

Elissa: Museums! But what? Education? Social? Digital media? Visitor experienceahhhhhh.

Max: Theatre, app development, coffee, higher ed admin, museums, museums & teaching (some experiences commensurate).

If you weren’t working in the museum field, where would you be working?

Elissa:here are a few things I could see myself doing. The part of me that is looking outside museums right now is looking at doing service design full time for other public spaces, like airports and hospitals. I really want to help people’s physical needs become quieter so that they can do what they actually need to do in a space. There’s so much need there! And it feels so obvious, but so few people and firms are doing it. Another part of me would  probably be working in the space industry or building boatsbefore college washed me out of mathematics, I had dreams of being an engineer. My fiancé also thinks I’d be a good speechwriter! The last woman he dated before we met was Hillary Clinton’s speechwriter during the ’08 campaign, who went on to be Michelle Obama’s speechwriter (yes, she wrote “when they go low, we go high”). They remain good friends, and when I started looking for new jobs, he linked us up right away. So many roads not taken.

Max: I would likely be developing theatrical productions about science. I used to have a company called Redshift Productions that facilitated collaboration among scientists and artists to create performances. In the course of working on those projects—some with museums—I began to be very interested in museums, and in how the work that I had been doing was in creating informal science learning experiences. I decided I would do that with museums, and now I have an appointment in the Michigan State University Department of Theatre and at the MSU Museum, so I get to do both these days!

 

On being a museum tech person

Who is one person you rely on to help you do your job? What do they do to help you?

Max: Teresa Goforth (Exhibitions Manager at the MSU Museum) and I have productive lunches about once a month, somewhere off MSU’s campus, so we can do more high-level thinking away from the constraints of what happens at the Museum. I find these occasions very valuable as a way to course correct or to refine thoughts toward another aspect of the work that we do.

Elissa: Lunches are the best thing for mentorship and friend-tor-ship. David McKenzie (now at Ford’s Theatre) and I worked together at the Jewish Historical Society of greater Washington, D.C., and seven years ago we started having lunch together about once a month to talk about our jobs. (On the day of the DC earthquake, I missed all of the excitement because I was biking back across the Mall from lunch with him and didn’t feel it!) When I’ve struggled with problems in, at, or with my job, he’s always been a ready counselor. As our jobs have circled back around to be more similar, we’ve grappled together with a lot of the same difficulties and helped each other work through them. For the first time in seven years, we’re finally working together again—our respective citizen history initiatives are feeding one another, and I’m advising an IMLS-funded project he’s helping lead at Ford’s.

How has your understanding of technology in museums changed over time?

Max: I have come to realize that by the time we deploy technologies for visitor experience, the tech, while it looks new, is already old. One example is a touchscreen application that we installed in the museum. While it looks new and it is an engaging experience, we had to use a display that is full HD, not the newer 4K technology, because the application does not work well with 4K displays. The rate of change in tech is so fast that we can’t catch up, especially when in a smaller organization with a limited budget.

Elissa: My understanding of technology hasn’t necessarily changed, but rather been sharpened. One of my colleagues at USHMM talks about good technologists as “cheptics”: we have to be cheerleaders to the technology-phobic, and skeptics to those who think technology is a magic bullet. In grad school, my instructors Dana Allen-Greil and Carrie Kotcho were really great about honing this middle ground with us. I’ve also dug way in on letting the content and audience lead to the right technology; I’ve built this one into my muscle memory. The biggest change has probably been on apps: I drank the shiny-object Kool-Aid early in my career, but now it would take an awful lot of convincing for me to say there’s a good museum app out there, or a good reason for one. I may have gone too far on this, and hope to come back to some better middle ground. Apps aren’t evil! They’ve just been used for evil, or at least for not-very-good, non-visitor-oriented, donor-driven, egotistical projects, in the past. We can do better.

How do you stay up to date with your tech skills?  Does your job provide support for ongoing professional development?

Elissa: I stay up to date with my tech skills by learning from colleagues and reading blogs. My job at USHMM doesn’t require a lot of tech, outside of some writing for social media and the extent to which UX (user experience) research is a tech skill. I keep the latter up to date by spending a lot of time with visitors, testing out new protocols all the time, and being willing to fail quickly, learn, and try again. The visitors have always been my best teachers. The USHMM does provide for professional development, generally one conference a year, and I sent myself to two additional conferences this spring for my own professional growth: Interaction 17 and the Information Architecture Summit.

Max: I also stay up to date from colleagues and blogs. I find conferences like MCN and Museums and the Web indispensable for staying current not just about technology, but about the people working with technology. I also serve on the steering committee for the Digital Humanities (DH) program at Michigan State University and they hold a number of training sessions for varying technologies for use in the DH field, and much of that applies to what I do in the Museum.

What’s your go-to place to procrastinate on the internet?

Max: Twitter, Twitter, and more Twitter. Sometimes Facebook.

Elissa: Also all about the Twitterz, with the recent addition of sites about whatever wedding planning task we’re working on during a given week. (This week it’s ketubahs and invitations, so lots of time on ketubah.com and Minted.)

 

Advice to the newbies

What are three pieces of advice you’d give to someone starting out in the field?

Max:

  1. Every job is somewhere on the continuum between leadership and management. We lead for change, we manage for consistency. Since it is a continuum, that means that even if your role is closer to the management end, you still need to produce change. So look for the opportunities where that can happen and back up your efforts with data.
  2. Everything in a museum is education, marketing, public relations, and development. Learn a little about each of those areas, even if you are going into collections management or you really want to be a registrar. Your job is related to each of those areas, and it is your responsibility to figure out how.
  3. Figure out the things you really like to do, and do those. I’m a big fan of Gallup’s Strengthsfinder program, which focuses on turning “signature themes” (things that you are already good at, that energize you) into strengths. Focus on those things, and manage the things that don’t energize you.

Elissa:

  1. Don’t sell yourself short. I’ve been reading so many draft cover letters from emerging museum professionals where the applicants sell themselves short, almost seeming embarrassed about the skills they bring to the table. If you’re not excited about what you’re able to do and what you know, how can you get a stranger excited about you? Work with a partner, friend, or mentor. Discuss your work and your passions, and have their descriptions of what you do sing out even if you’re not feeling it. Sometimes we can be our own worst critics, and it helps to have someone outside the situation—outside your own head—remind you how cool you are.
  2. Get yourself out into the community. This might mean joining Twitter and participating in #museumedchat, going to a #drinkingaboutmuseums event, or attending a conference. Rule #1 applies here too: hold on to what excites you and bring that enthusiasm with you when you go. By and large, the museum tech community is a family of equals who were all in your shoes once and want you to succeed. Try not to be cowed by “superstars”—we’re all human, after all, and everyone is making it up as we go.
  3. Show your relevance to the rest of the museum. Max, I loved the idea that every job in the museum is related to every other job! The mirror of that advice is to figure out how to talk about your job in a way that shows its relevance to the whole museum. How does your work relate to the mission? How do you support collections, for instance, and how can collections support you? It’s so important to build connections around the museum, and the clearer you can be about what you do and why it matters, the easier those connections will be.

What do you think about the idea of work/life balance?

Elissa: I have a lot of thoughts on work-life balance. Just as I was leaving my social media job, which I’d let become a 24/7 job and was starting to scale back, my then-boyfriend was starting what was a 24/7 job in the Obama White House. This meant we couldn’t make evening or weekend plans until the last minute and would usually have to cancel, or, that when we could make them, he’d have to step out to take a phone call or review a document. In the past few months of his post-White House job he’s been leaving for work after me, getting home before me, and taking the lead on making plans to have people over. We’ve even hosted a few game nights mid-week! A job is a job; family is forever, mental health comes first, and in the museum field nothing—except maybe a leak or, heaven forbid, fire—really counts as an emergency. Go home. Have dinner. Hug your partner. I know I don’t want any member of my future family to ever feel like they play second fiddle to my job. It’s just not that important.

Max: Work life balance is something that MSU takes very seriously, but I think we are personally responsible for ensuring that happens. It can be hard when one has a dual appointment in the University, and many do.  Sometimes it seems like everyone would like you 100% of the time, even when your appointment with them is, say 50%. But that ebbs and flows. I am fortunate to be in a place that takes it seriously (there’s a work/life program at MSU in the College of Arts and Letters), but I agree with your assertion that our personal lives are more important than our professional lives, and we need to remind ourselves of that often.

What skills did you learn on the job, or wish you’d had before starting?

Max: A significant part of my job is teaching, and I learned about designing a college-level course while on the job. I’m constantly making adjustments to my courses during the semester, and after each section is done. That has informed my thinking about exhibition design, and now I’m much more comfortable with making changes while an exhibition is open than I thought I would be.

Elissa: Everything I know so far about doing UX (user experience) and VX (visitor experience) research. I really fell into service design through a totally different project, and came to realize that doing good UX or VX research combined my skills as an educator (including general fearlessness about approaching random strangers), my grad school work on evaluation, and my desire to work towards a mission through serving the public. I’ve shadowed/interviewed/interrogated our awesome UX designers at the Holocaust Museum, read loads, and gone to conferences to hone my skills, but the bulk of it has been learned day by day through trial and error on the floor.

 

MCN Life

Can you share a favorite memory from a past MCN conference? It doesn’t need to be a session, it can be a favorite social memory/funny story.

Elissa: Wrapping up our Ignite talk at MCN2015 and hearing the cheers of an amazingly supportive crowd, and feeling like I’d come home. That, or becoming best friends with Jason Alderman shortly after meeting him because we were cracking up at this painting together, and discovered that we make awesome museum buddies. I haven’t laughed that hard in a museum in a really long time.

Max: You and I were together, preparing for our session “Digital Careers at a Crossroads: Next Steps and New Paths” at MCN201. We were in a shared Google Doc, while Chad Weinard was also working on it from another location. Chad was generating an idea and e suddenly changed what he had originally written to “Managers: not understanding digital is like saying you don’t understand budgeting. It’s not an option anymore.” You and I looked up at each other in excitement, knowing that he found the perfect thing to say in that moment of the session, and we were ready to present. Merete Sanderhoff tweeted out that quote; it was liked 128 times and retweeted 69 times. Of course, Jason Alderman’s sketch note of that session was also a huge highlight.

I already know you have participated in MCN Karaoke, so what was your favorite rendition out of any time you attended?

Elissa: My favorite is the first time I sang “Like a Prayer,” which is one of my two go-tos along with Journey’s “Separate Ways.” I love doing karaoke for the first time with a new group and knocking people’s socks off—not because I’m that good, but because somehow people don’t see me as being a big karaoke person. 🙂 I had backup dancers! For songs I don’t sing, Koven Smith’s annual “Ignition (Remix)” rendition is a highlight every time, and Tim Svenonius (whose brother is a legit rock star) is another dark horse with a delicious bass voice that surprises everyone.

Max: I have found that mid- to late-80’s hair metal works really well for me. At the last MCN Karaoke, Nikhil Trivedi and I performed a rousing “Here I Go Again” by Whitesnake, the likes of which I’m not sure can be matched. 🙂

 

Just because

Favorite emoji?

Max: 

Fist Bump emoji

Elissa:

 Blushing emoji

 

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MCNVoices: Koven Smith and Liz Filardi

Koven Smith and Liz Filardi discuss innovation at museums large and small

 

  

 

Koven J. Smith is the Director of Digital Adaptation at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas, Austin. Prior to the Blanton, Koven served in various digital roles at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Denver Art Museum, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Liz Filardi is Senior Product Manager for The Collections at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. She has worked at The Met for four years, and holds an M.F.A. in Design and Technology from Parsons School of Design at The New School.

 

Koven and Liz caught up over a few weeks in May on MCN’s Slack project. The following interview is from the chat log, edited for readability.

Explore their conversation which ranges from museum culture to food service and everything in between. Some of the key topics are: museum culture, small museums vs. big museums, disruption, focusing on product, on digital staffing, on commercial vs. not-for-profit tech, and outtakes & non sequiturs.

 

On museum culture:

Liz:
The Met’s Slack project is open to anyone in the organization, so we have to remind folks periodically to not post anything in the #general channel that they wouldn’t say in the staff cafeteria. You remember the staff cafeteria, don’t you?

Koven:
Is Carva still making sandwiches? That dude was awesome.

Liz:
I don’t know! But I recently noticed a sign in the cafeteria that read something like, “As of 2003, no smoking is permitted.” Did people smoke in the cafeteria when you were here!?

Koven:
No, but monocles and top hats were still required dress for gentlemen when I arrived in 2005. It was a strange time.

As someone who had always planned on being in museums, did you go straight to The Met first? Where do you think you’d go if/when you leave the Met?

Liz:
The Met is my first museum job. But one summer when I was in grad school, I was the Social Media Intern at the New Museum. It was before institutions had figured out social media, and I basically set up their accounts and made some recommendations on how they might want to approach it.

I was absolutely hooked—I loved the prospect of encouraging institutions to develop more authenticity, trust and rapport, both with their staff and with audiences, in a totally new way. After I got my M.F.A., I made websites and did motion graphics as a freelancer, and then became a Producer for a boutique digital agency and really enjoyed it.

I think as much about going to other verticals as I do about going to other museums eventually. At the moment, I’m pretty happy at The Met. Great opportunities continue to arise. I have always told myself that I would leave when it got boring. Fortunately, it has always been challenging and interesting, and it has always felt worthwhile. The problem space is very meaty.

Did you feel culture shock going from a large museum like The Met to Denver (and then to the Blanton)?

Koven:
I don’t know if I’d describe it as shock as much as pleasant surprise at how much I was able to accomplish in shorter amounts of time. I was so accustomed to anything museum tech-related taking years of cajoling to accomplish, that to just get to work without having to be too devious about it was pretty liberating. I was worried about leaving The Met, though, because it’s the top of the heap, right? What other museum job could possibly be better? It seems silly to me now, but I was more conscious at the time of what it would look like to colleagues to leave a museum like The Met for anywhere else.

Liz:
Really? I think there is such a righteous opportunity at smaller museums! It’s like a completely different animal! I would relish the chance to work at a small museum some day. I could imagine that it’s easier to show your impact at a small museum, whereas, when you’re in a large team with interdependencies with lots of other teams, you have to sort of explain what you did a lot more. At a small museum, when you take a risk, it is your risk, and you have to work through it.

Koven:
That’s definitely true. One thing that appealed to me at the Blanton was that the distance between having an idea and executing it was so short. The risk is greater, as I don’t have a huge team around me to mitigate failure (or capitalize on success, for that matter) when it happens, but it also means the opportunity for impact is much greater.

 

On disruption:

Koven:
Liz, part of our conversation on Friday got me thinking about “disruption,” which is a thing we say all the time without thinking about what it really implies, beyond just “the work is different now.” I want to see if we could get at a good definition of that word.

For me, disruption at a museum implies that either (or both) the product or the process are now unknown. I feel like disruption is essentially the measure of the distance between what museum staff think the product/process is and what the public wants it to be.

Liz:
That is exactly what happened in the aughts and early teens with social media and mobile devices. All of a sudden, if you weren’t in these spaces, you were irrelevant. For folks working in museums, that came as a shock: how could we be irrelevant if we are making evergreen content about a world class collection!?

Koven:
That is awesome. I’d say that that very question defined a lot of questionable museum behavior between 2005 and 2015.

Liz:
But the irrelevant part was not the content, per se. Even the best content had little value if people could not tolerate the user experience, which, at the time, was predominantly that of websites designed for desktop computers and never tested on mobile devices. It was difficult for the sector to face that people were experiencing content via many other streams—content platforms and social channels, responsive websites, apps. There may have been a slight denial or arrogance that said that people should be so devoted to the preservation of culture, history, and art, that they are willing to traverse terrible user experiences in order to feel the euphoria of the most excellent content in the world.

Koven:
I sense a little sarcasm there, and I totally approve of that. But for sure, I remember being at The Met during the “nobody will want to use Wikipedia because it is not written by experts” days. Thinking that Wikipedia might win out was, if you can imagine, a controversial opinion then.

Liz:
I can totally imagine that. And that feeling was perhaps compounded by the very understandable shock of realizing the staggering cost of pivoting strategy to build up these new user experiences.

So disruption occurred because people were suddenly, unforgivingly not interested in visiting desktop-only websites, and museum workers thought maybe they ought to. The lesson is that the vehicle for any content or audience-engagement experience, the product, has to be nimble and adaptable.

Koven:
Oh, that’s very interesting. I think we’re defining “product” slightly differently. For me, “product” refers more to the sum total output of a museum: exhibitions, social media, education, catalogues, etc. I think a museum could be really dedicated to social media but still have a “product” that is not in confluence with public expectation.

So, what does a museum do when the public doesn’t want the product it’s selling anymore? For many museums, the answer to that question is always “improve the product.” For many of us doing tech/digital/education in museums, it’s “make a different product that people actually want.”

Liz:
In other words, when the public doesn’t want the museum experience, some of us believe the imperative response is to improve that “product” by presenting better and better exhibitions, for example. But for those of us in technology or audience-focused departments, we would approach the same situation by saying, “OK, let’s come up with something else entirely. Target Audience, you say you don’t want a traditional museum exhibition, and that you want a date night. Ok, we will create that experience.” Is that what you mean?

Koven:
Yeah, pretty much. I want to be clear, though–I think both “improve the product” and “redefine the product” are perfectly appropriate responses to disruption. It’s just important to recognize what kind of disruption you’re dealing with.

Liz:
But certainly, it is less likely that people will be in favor of redefining the product if they believe that the function of the museum is exclusively to preserve art, history, and culture, as this is not so much about making products for public consumption.

I believe the debate between the two approaches is at the heart of how we define mission-serving activities, and that the very debate itself is vital to both our ability to deliver a product that people want and to preserve art, history, and culture.

Koven:
I think that’s exactly right.

 

On digital staff(ing):

Liz:
This leads me to your very position! Tell me more about the role of Director of Digital Adaptation. How did that title come about? How are you all adapting? Is there a “mission complete” state associated with your role, whereby once you achieve it, your role disappears?

Koven:
I worked as a contractor for the Blanton for about six months before I came on full-time, so I was working with Simone, our director, to figure out exactly what the approach to quote-unquote digital should be at the Blanton given its staffing, resources, size, goals, etc. “Director of Digital Adaptation” as a title evolved out of that discussion, because Simone and I realized that for digital initiatives to work at the Blanton, they’d have to be the kinds of things that could be gradually integrated into ongoing staff practice over time.

 

Liz:
I have long felt that as long as the rest of the museum world puts “digital” in a box and debates whether it is worth the trouble, there will be missed opportunities to revolutionize the rest of the museum departments, and the Digital departments of every museum will continue to be internally perceived as threatening.

Koven:
I think that’s true. Digital practice in museums has moved from “helpful” to “threatening” for more traditional museum roles in a short amount of time. I think that’s because tech was, for a long time, about doing mostly “normal” museum things better (that collections database will replace the card catalog!), but now it’s more about changing the very nature of those “normal” things. And that can definitely be seen by some as threatening.

 

On commercial vs. not-for-profit tech:

[After a somewhat lengthy conversation about why we haven’t yet colonized the Moon and Koven’s confession to growing up as an “EPCOT kid”, we got to this.]

 

Liz:
Yesterday we briefly touched upon a topic that got us both a little riled up! Why is current technological innovation so focused on wealth hoarding and so much less focused on advancing the human race?

Koven:
I think about this a lot, partially because I see it reflected in my own museum work, too. In the earlier days of museum tech, so much of what was being done had to be built from scratch. That meant that we had to attempt to correctly identify problems/issues, and then build things that would address those problems.

In the last 10 years (or at least, post-iPhone), a lot of museum tech has transitioned to using commercial tech for everything. Don’t roll your own, because Facebook already kind of does the thing you’re trying to do. That’s not necessarily a bad thing (much of my work at the Blanton is only possible because we’re building on/with commercial tech), but it does mean that we now often frame the problems in terms of their already-known commercial solutions. That also means that non-profit tech has almost no say in what problems are defined, because there’s no margin in that.

Liz:
I thought about this while meeting with Jeff Inscho last week too, because he was telling me about the Knight Foundation grant for innovation at museums, and the work that he will be doing with the Studio. I really like the model that he’s got in place, where the Studio is a hub of organizational change for all of the institutions they serve.

When we pool resources together, there’s the opportunity to create something much more impactful, more universally applicable, something with legs, something that has the real potential to be relevant. In some ways, this opportunity characterizes the unique position of the museum technology sector: if it is worthwhile to invest in innovation in the sector without the expectation of growing wealth, we may be somewhat free to explore innovation that quantifies value in terms of human experience, not wealth.

Koven:
I like what Jeffrey’s doing at the Carnegie Studio, and I think Carnegie’s Dawn Chorus and similar types of projects have some real potential to change the conversation about the goals and meaning of tech. Being in Austin gives me an interesting perspective on that, since every year SXSW comes through and there’s very little non-profit tech represented. Then you factor in the way that Uber and Lyft spent millions of dollars here in an attempt to circumvent the law, let’s just say I’m a bit more skeptical than most about the true goals of a lot of commercial tech.

That’s why I like some of what people like Anil Dash are doing. “Dawn Chorus” feels similar to that; it’s  a demonstration of what non-profit tech can do.

Liz:
That’s a good point. Non-profit technology is always considered behind the times, but the reality is that the constraints are very different. The sector is getting smarter about where to focus resources, which is leading to more “hits” like SFMOMA’s Detour and the Pen at Cooper-Hewitt. These things are starting to feel mainstream.

It probably also helps that there has not been a mainstream technological disruption since mobile devices became explosively popular ten years ago.

Koven:
Yeah, absolutely. It’s an interesting question to think about: could the next big technological disruption actually come from the non-profit sector? Is that even possible?

Liz:
That’s an interesting question! I still wonder about sustainability, which is a success measure that commercial technology doesn’t have to answer to as much because it is protected by wealth, and yet sustainability is vital to the continued relevance of non-profits. How do we make sustainability sexy?

Koven:
Oh man, that’s a good question, and maybe something that we should keep thinking about as we hit MCN’s 50th. In the meantime, I just want to say how wonderful it’s been talking to you! Let’s do this again all the time!

 

Liz:
Koven, it has been so fun, and enlightening and inspiring to speak with you! Let’s definitely keep the conversation going!

 

 

Outtakes

[Our conversation produced a few bon mots that we couldn’t fit into the final narrative. So here are a few choice outtakes from our conversation while the credits roll.]

my office has no windows, but it does have an extra door. occasionally men in brown jump suits walk through it.

because blogs detract from a museum’s authority, you know? this is a true fact

i was deployed on the project as an “expert”

I’m an old bear.

stay gold, pony boy, stay gold.

We got to the moon with human computers!!! Insane!!

but also, that guy who told me not to put my feet on the desk? he sucked.

what!? that’s so tessitura

I blame Ronald Reagan

so occasionally one of us would say something like, “quiet, or you’ll get us both killed!”

:money_mouth_face:

all i know is the registrar gives us delicious baked goods when things go well

so you’re often tasked with re-engineering bad practice, but on the front end?

haha burn!

NO MERCY!

And when I came out of the bathroom, the bean bags were empty

:slightly_smiling_face:

 

You can find Koven and Liz lurking on MCN’s Slack project most days. Feel free to hit them up in the #general channel to keep the discussion going.

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#MCN50: A Conversation with Lanae Spruce and Ravon Ruffin

A Conversation with Lanae and Ravon on Creating Intentional Spaces in Museums

Ravon Ruffin​ is a D.C.-based museum consultant and creative. She received her M.A. in American Studies/Museums & Material Culture from the George Washington University, and B.S. in Anthropology from VCU. Urban sustainability, digital culture and Black Feminist discourse are the lenses through which she seeks to redefine the museum as a community space. She is interested in the acts of self-preservation social and digital media platforms inspire. She twitters @afroxmericana and grams @afroxmericana.

Lanae Spruce​ is currently the Manager of Social Media & Online Engagement at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. She is working to build the museum’s digital media presence to foster learning, creativity and shared discovery as a means to transform our understanding of the African American experience, American history, race, and modern society. She holds a master’s degree in Internet Marketing and is a curious creative interested in opportunities to connect the intersections of technology, race, social justice, and history. Follow her online @_Blackmuses

Instagram Story Transcript #MCN50

To @afroxmericana from @_BlackMuses.

Q1:​ I remember being so excited to find your blog! What inspired you to create an online space for brown girls in museums? #MCN50

A1:​ Being in academia, I was reminded everyday that people of color are often excluded from conversations on inclusion, often due to economic and racial factors that keep them from getting into the room. Later as an intern, I realized there are barriers that keep marginalized communities from even reaching the door. #MCN50

Q2:​ Is it important for marginalized people to see their stories and issues being confronted bycultural institutions in digital spaces? #MCN50

A2: ​Absolutely! Without visibility, it is hard to imagine yourself in the field. It is even more difficult to imagine yourself making an impact. Digital spaces allow people of color to explore their identities in ways that are not often reflected in history or culture at large. Cultural institutions have an obligation to their audiences. To ignore them in the digital landscape, is to do them a huge disservice. The online has become another entry into the museum, and must remain open to a multitude of stories and experiences. #MCN50

Q3:​ How can museums create intentional inclusive spaces and build community? #MCN50

A3: ​Intention is a great start. Many cultural institutions allow their privilege to go unchecked. I always say, the community must invite you in before you can determine what matters to them–not the other way around. If you have not listened to your communities needs, you’ve already excluded them from the space. It is then that you can craft programming around your museum that serves your audience. #MCN50

Q4: ​Being online all day may sometimes be exhausting, but it’s part of the job. What is your favorite recipe for self-care? #MCN50

A4: ​One of the most important aspects of self-care for me in online spaces is bringing my WHOLE self into the conversation. My Twitter bio reads “I prefer to be ratchet in institutional spaces,” as an acknowledgement of my full self. One aspect of myself does not exist without the other, and they often inform one another. My timeline is an ode to Beyonce and museum baddies. #MCN50

Q5: ​Give me a song that is the soundtrack to a typical day at work. #MCN50

A5:​ “Coconut Oil” by Lizzo. You can listen to it on our Brown Girls Museum Blog Spotify playlist after this conversation of course. But that song gets it! Between checking emails, drafting tweets, reading comments, following trends and diving into research, *pours coconut oil over entire life.* That song reminds me to check in on myself throughout the day, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s upbeat. #MCN50

To @_BlackMuses from @afroxmericana.

Q1:​ If you weren’t working in a museum, where would you be? MCN50

A1: ​Somewhere being fancy getting free lunch while sitting on my bouncy ball and petting my puppy! Yes, I’m at work. Lol. But seriously, I never thought that I’d find myself working in the museum field. It was by pure luck that I happened to land a job at the largest museum dedicated to African American history and culture in the world. I’m living a dream and honored to keep the stories of my ancestors alive through digital platforms. #MCN50

Q2: ​You are tasked with managing a social media account for a cultural institution, how have you strived to create inclusive spaces? #MCN50

A2: ​From the very beginning, I thought about how important it was to build a social media strategy that not only reflected the museum content, but celebrated that history and culture in a way that was not only authentic, but also empowering. I wanted someone to be able to see stories on our social media platforms, to not only learn about tragedies, but to be able to celebrate triumphs. One day we may tweet about the history of the “Po boy” and another we may encourage you to share memories of you and your momma tending to your kitchen with a hot comb over the stove. MCN50

Q3:​ Did you ever invent your own job or job title? #MCN50

A3: ​lol. Well, kinda. I think that I was able to show the value of social media as an engagement tool for our museum– and that later manifested into a social media department with 4 full-time staff members and is one of the largest museum social media teams. Full disclosure, I’m still hiring! Lol. But I have two interns to help us get through summer. MCN50

Q4: ​Pick one person that you rely on to help you do your job. #MCN50

A4: ​You. Duh. Seriously, it has been amazing working with you over the last year! I learned so much about art and museums and other smart stuff. I am happy that we are able to bounce ideas and think about news to do it #ForTheCulture. #MCN50

Q5: ​Tell me about presenting and attending your first MCN conference. How was it? #MCN50

A5: ​Omg. Literally, I finally felt at home! I found a space that was INTENTIONAL about making sure that i could bring my FULL self into a conference space. From the pronoun stickers on the badge, to the theme and presenters, it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had at a conference. MCN is the place that I feel comfortable discussing the both the virtues of Black Twitter and the woes of getting staff to participate in social media projects.

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MCN History with Chuck Patch

Post by Chuck Patch, MCN President 2002-03

 

 

Fig. 1-2 MCN Archives Dive Team

When I joined a motley group of MCN regulars for the Archive Dive at the Smithsonian Institution in January of this year, I must admit that there was a huge nostalgic impulse involved. Among us, we represented something like 40 years of MCN’s 50-year history, with David Bridge, who was part of the organization in the 1970’s, and Charles Zange (who I doubt was even a glimmer in his mother’s eye when I attended my first meeting in 1986) marking the extremes of that span. Several of us were past presidents (the old joke used to be that if you attended 3 consecutive meetings, you’d be asked to join the board. Give presentations at those meetings, and you’d be elected President.)

We were brought together by the indispensable Marla Misunas, who may have single-handedly saved MCN’s bacon on several occasions. I’d heard about this archive for years, and I was curious about the early days of the institution. I’d met Everett Ellin, credited with founding MCN in 1967, when the Museum Computer Network was really imagined as a physical network. But the years between 1967 and sometime around 1974, when MCN found a home in SUNY, at Stony Brook under the leadership of David Vance, were largely a mystery to me. I really wanted to see the documentation of that 1986 meeting, when as the new systems manager at The Historic New Orleans Collection, I functioned as the errand runner for my boss, Rosanne McCaffrey, who was that year’s program chair. The 1986 meeting, I have come to realize, was a pivotal moment in the life of the organization, where it was shaking off a past that had been slipping away for years.

Fig. 3 – Page from 1968 program

Fig. 4 – Music analysis

 

The proper history of MCN is being knocked together by people who really know what they’re talking about – most notably Richard Urban and Marla Misunas (see their excellent history at http://mcn.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/HistoryofMCN.pdf.) I’m not one of those people. But as I think back to that 1986 meeting, and compare it to the subsequent history I both experienced, and found in the archive at the Smithsonian, it occurs to me that MCN has gone through several of these tipping points, where groups of passionately devoted leaders ceded to changing interests in the field just barely in time to keep the organization from sinking into irrelevancy and worse, insolvency. While I’ll probably be helpfully contradicted by more knowledgeable historians of the organization, it’s hard not come away from a read of the early letters, meeting agendas, and board reports (following the incorporation of MCN in 1972) with the sense of an organization built around the creation of a tangible asset. The Griphos system, a museum collection description system (it was still far too early to describe it as a “Collections Management” system) developed by Jack Heller was at the center of MCN’s origin story. It was essentially the great-great-great-grandmother of an Open Source museum system, except that it was written in machine code for an IBM mainframe. MCN membership was available at the institutional level only. The early get-togethers were small, and conceived of primarily as user group meetings. Sessions dealt either with theoretical issues (indexing terms for describing works of art) or cool things you could do with Griphos. And the range of cool things that were attempted were impressive. Meeting agendas, starting from the 1968 meeting at the Met, and will into the ‘70’s include sessions on archaeological description, the uses of databases for conservation documentation, the analysis of musical form, and, in a pre-graphical computer universe, the description of visual elements in museum artifacts. The themes were strikingly visionary, and as the decade progressed, it became clear to attendees that what you could do with a computer was far more interesting than what system you did it with.

Fig. 5 – Report on failure of grant

By the end of the decade, it was obvious that no institution or funding agency was very interested in Griphos itself, but plenty of people were interested in the organization, and the potential for computers in museums. It was a fact embedded in the 1972 incorporation, which essentially transformed the organization from a physical to a professional network. But as often happens, this essential fact was difficult for its founders to recognize. Plaintive accounts of failed attempts at funding appear often in the archive.

Partly from the financial pressure of its leaking budget, but also because it just seemed an obvious move, the MCN opened up to individual memberships.

The 1986 meeting was widely regarded as a turning point for the organization. Ron Kley was elected as only the second president the MCN’s history. The last of the old guard leadership from the days of Everett Ellin and Jack Heller, he succeeded David Vance, who had taken over from Heller and served as the MCN’s president so long (1971-1985) that he might as well have been the MCN.  Perhaps incorrectly, I have a lingering memory of grumbling from new upstarts at the meeting over this continuation of the old leadership. But for the first time, the meeting had an exhibitors’ “area” – one end of the modestly-sized ballroom that comfortably fit all the attendees. The handful of exhibitors included some who were marketing Collections Management Systems, some of which even ran on micro-computers, which had become the bread and butter of the meeting. The growing interest in multi-media, which had percolated for the previous decade

Fig. 6 – Spectra v3 no 4 1976

fused with this theme when Howard Besser presented his graphical T-shirt database (showing screenshots with projected 35mm slides, of course) and a baby-faced Alan Newman, from the Art Institute of Chicago, demonstrated a graphical database showing images from their collection on a Macintosh that sported a gigantic 20-megabyte external hard drive. (You practically had to shove your way through the tightly packed crowd around his table to get a look at it.) Multi-media on laser disc and CD-ROM came to dominate the meetings from the end of the 80’s until the Internet exploded in the early 90’s. Toward the end of the meeting, a panel consisting of a mix of vendors and museum professionals (another innovation) led a discussion on the future of the organization that could charitably be described as spirited, and was certainly voluble.

Fig. 7 – Image of Spectra on New Orleans

After 1986, the vendor area became a hall. Simultaneous sessions were introduced. The meetings grew in size and sophistication as MCN forged alliances with other cultural organizations, and even spun off one (CIMI). All of this is reflected in the archive by the heft of the yearly programs, which had reached over 130 pages in length by 1991.

Fig. 8 – Cover of Santa Monica Program

This wasn’t the last time the MCN had to pivot in order to survive. Having presided over one of the MCN’s occasional near-death experiences in the early 2000’s, I learned that it’s usually at the fringes of that the future shows up, but it’s really hard to tell if that session on that blue-sky thing is the future, or just another dumb alleyway. But the programs, letters, board reports (alas, hardly any photos) demonstrate that the things that the organization ultimately turned to, and thrived upon, were being discussed at the meetings years before they became vital.

 

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