MCN50 Voices: Dana Mitroff Silvers & Susan Edwards

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

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

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

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

 

Susan:  

So the first question I have is:

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

 

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

Your turn! How about you?

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

 

Next question,

How did you get involved with technology in museums?

 

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

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

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

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

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

How about you?

Susan:

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

How did you end up as a design thinking expert?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Who were my peers at the time?

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

Where did I look for inspiration?

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

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

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

I’ll answer the question about peers, too.

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

 

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

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

 

Dana:

1) Basic, hand-coded HTML

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

2) Basic Principles of User Experience Design and Usability

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

3) Networking + MuseTech Community

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

 

How about you?

 

Susan:

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

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

1) Flexibility and eagerness to learn

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

2) Translator

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

3) Project Management

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

 

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

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

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