Don’t Forget the Small Museums

By Kelli Huggins, Visitor Experience Coordinator, Catskill Center

I am an accidental museum tech person. As a career small museum/non-profit employee, I have often found myself taking on social media, online exhibits, and other basic technology projects by default. They’ve never been the main part of my job, however, just something I ended up doing out of curiosity or being the only one willing to try. That’s why I was so excited to be one of the 2018 MCN scholarship recipients. It was a chance to pick up some new skills and talk shop with real experts. And I learned a lot. Most importantly, I learned how much I don’t know.

Now, I am going to boldly, unashamedly profess my own ignorance in this blog post in the hopes that it will help other small museum employees, and also MCN as it goes forward with its crucial efforts to increase diversity and access in the museum tech world. When I got the MCN program schedule, there were session descriptions I flat out didn’t understand. I actually had to Google some of the acronyms, like UX or IIIF or DAM.

When it came to choosing sessions, I tried of course to choose those I felt best met my personal and institutional goals, but I also sought sessions that I knew would be over my head. You can’t learn if you don’t toss yourself in the deep end, right? That’s why I went to sessions on VR (and hey, I didn’t even have to Google that acronym to know that it meant virtual reality. Though, in fairness, I didn’t fully understand the difference between VR and AR before MCN, so this is the tiniest, most humble of brags). Even though I might not have understood every technical part of the presentation, I’m now introduced to the conversation. If my institution ever wanted to explore VR, now, at the very least, I’d know some people to ask for advice.

Of course, I left MCN with plenty of practical takeaways, too, like how we can better explore digital storytelling through podcasts and virtual tours or ways to track social media analytics. But, I maintain, the most important thing for me was getting thrown into a more specialized conversations.

And you were all so, so very kind to a novice like me. Thank you for that. That’s why I’d love to see MCN actively work to get more small museum professionals at the conference (and I mean really small museums, like under 3 total staff members small). There are a whole lot of people like me out there who desperately want to learn this stuff, but just haven’t had the opportunity. People for whom keeping up with the latest tech literature takes a backseat to leading 400 4th graders through a site on a field trip or fixing a sink.

This wouldn’t be a one-sided relationship, either– small museum people have a lot to teach, as well! Small museums can serve as a kind of research and development lab because there is often less bureaucracy and red tape to cut through to get project approval. That’s exactly what my co-presenters, Max Evjen, Shelby Merlino, and Sammy Kay Smith, and I discovered in our research for our panel on Twitter museum mascots. Innovation is happening at these small sites because staff are given a lot of autonomy to experiment.

I don’t have answers for how to achieve any of this. As with everything, it probably mostly comes down to money. Small museums often don’t have the funds to send employees to conferences like this. That’s why the scholarship was so vital to me this year, my first MCN. I’m not sure next year if I will be able to secure the funds to return, even though I want to. In the meantime, I look forward to taking advantage of the benefits of my MCN membership, asking questions in the SIGs I’ve joined, and telling other small museum people about these opportunities and what I’ve learned.