MCN50 Digital Experience at MCN2017

Planning a 50th birthday takes time. We began planning MCN’s 50th almost 2 years ago but things really started to move forward when Susan Edwards and Marla Misunas agreed to join forces as co-chairs of the MCN50 Planning Committee early last year.

For the past 18 months, Susan and Marla have meticulously planned a myriad of ways to pay tribute to MCN’s first 50 years. Enrolling and directing an army of 40+ volunteers from our community, Marla organized a dive into MCN’s archives kept at the Smithsonian Archives in Washington, D.C. From the trove of boxes, Susan and Marla developed a series of sub-projects that together provide an overview of MCN’s first 50 years, including a Timeline of MCN and a history of Job Descriptions, and the incredibly successful community project called “MCN50 Voices” conceived by Susan.

To help us put this narrative together, CultureConnect graciously offered to provide their platform to us, pro bono, to create an “MCN50 Digital Experience” that you’ll be able to enjoy during the conference on touch table hardware generously provided courtesy of Ideum. Recapping this process, is a short interview with Susan, Marla, Samantha Diamond and Seema Rao.

MCN50 Digital Experience image

Eric: Hi Susan and Marla. So we’ve been planning for MCN’s 50th since mid 2016. What were the initial goals you set for yourselves as you began that process?

Susan: When we first met, Carolyn Royston, the incoming President of MCN, told us that she really wanted to activate the MCN community for the entire year leading up to the 2017 annual conference. She saw the anniversary as an opportunity to extend the amazing energy and community of the conference. Early on, we set the following goals for the anniversary year:

  • Recognize past accomplishments, past and current leaders and volunteers
  • Celebrate the MCN community, the organization’s mission and how it’s helped shape the thinking around the possibilities of technology in museums over the past 50 years
  • Reinforce how MCN remains a future-looking organization
  • Re-dedicate the next 50 years to its core mission and continue to remain relevant to future generations of museum technologists

With these goals in hand, we then reached out to the community. We invited a few long-time MCNers to have some conversations with us. We called these folks our ‘brain trust’ and it was really from those folks that some of the great ideas for the MCN50 program were born. From our conversations with our “brain trust,” we defined 3 key areas of focus: the history of the organization, professional development, and “in real life” meetings.

Eric: So tell us about the key programs that came out of the MCN50 planning effort this past year?

Susan: Unearthing the archival materials and history of MCN was one of the most straightforward things to do for the anniversary. Huge kudos go to Marla and the team that spent several days at the Smithsonian Archives in Washington, D.C. looking through the organization’s papers. That was a huge event to organize. At the New Orleans conference, we also had several volunteers reach out to us with interest in putting together a timeline of the organization and digitizing documents.

As I recall, the idea for the job descriptions project came out of a conversation I had with Eric Johnson at one of the conferences about using data from historical job descriptions to dive into the history of the types of roles in our profession. Eric was really excited about the idea, so we tapped him to lead the project to do this research and report out.

The idea for Voices came out of a desire to create a professional development moment during MCN50. The original idea was to pair people with a lot of experience in the field with more junior people. I had an idea that a mentor-mentee-ish conversation, recorded as an interview, would be useful to others in the field. It turned out that we did have many pairs like this. But we also had many pairs of very good friends interviewing one another, which provides a wonderful peek into the camaraderie and community of the field, and demonstrates the role of MCN in this community. The response on this one project has been so incredible. So many amazing conversations and insights. I have learned so much from everyone.

Finally, our desire to bring people together at moments and places outside of the annual conference manifested as birthday parties for MCN. About once a month since January, there has been a party in a city somewhere with local museum professionals who have been enjoying cake and toasting to MCN.

Marla: I have been a little obsessed with MCN’s history for years. When I was president, I spent a lot of time in the SFMOMA archives, going through the director’s papers (SFMOMA joined MCN in 1968), going through old Spectra issues for an MCN presentation about job descriptions, and going through a ton of material we had in the museum’s library for the MCN history article Richard Urban and I wrote back then.

It’s always been a goal of mine to turn the spotlight on MCN’s history in a more enduring way so future MCNers can learn about what came before, and the really wonderful accomplishments of so many amazing people in MCN’s past. When planning the anniversary came up, I knew I had to be involved. Most people didn’t know that the official MCN archive is housed at the Smithsonian Archives. The idea of going through so much original historic material to prepare for MCN50 was very exciting.

Among our goals for the two Smithsonian Archive dives (January and July) were to fill out the collection of scanned MCN conference programs and Spectra issues, find significant events in MCN history, and to hopefully find some intriguing surprises along the way.

The time spent at the Archives was really a delight, with stacks of boxes, piles and piles of documents, “aha!” moments, and funny moments (David Vance’s voluminous correspondence and dry sense of humor); working closely with some great people from MCN’s past and future.

The dives could not have happened without the hard work of Charles Zange, MCNer who works at the Smithsonian Archives, and David Bridge, an early MCN member and long time Smithsonian Archives staff member. David knows more about MCN than anyone else I know, and can get his hands on it, too.

The timeline came about as a natural way of sharing the historical information we found. MCN timeliners, led by Richard Urban and Andrea Ledesma, used the archive materials and other resources, to create two timelines–one is a higher level, broader approach, and the other is more detailed for the dedicated MCN history enthusiast.

MCN50 Digital Experience image

Eric: So Samantha, you’re the founder and CEO of CultureConnect, an award-winning producer of digital interactives for museums.

Samantha: Yes! CultureConnect helps museums create beautiful and meaningful digital experiences for their visitors. We’re unique in that we offer a comprehensive platform solution that publishes a full suite of mobile and in-gallery interactives. I’m also a bit nerdy when it comes to user research and user testing so we do that in our services practice too.

Eric: CultureConnect has been supporting the MCN annual conference since 2014. Last year, you developed the New Orleans City Guide, and this year, you generously offered to lend your platform to produce the “MCN50 Digital Experience” that will be available for attendees during MCN2017. What inspired you to do this? Why is this important for you to do as a vendor?

Samantha: 50 years is a long time (laughs) so it’s impressive, first of all, that MCN has endured. Technology evolves so quickly, we have a sense of “history” looking back less than a decade – it’s extraordinary that MCN has thrived for five decades. MCN’s founding members were early adopters in many ways! We wanted to be a part of this celebration.

With this much history to share and so many personal stories to tell, I thought a great way to bring this to life would be with the sort of digital interactives we already use in the galleries. A mini in-gallery interactive, if you will. The touchscreen experience offers two parts – MCN Voices showcases the people that make up this community while the Timeline gives historical meaning.

Susan, Marla, Seema and the whole MCN50 team did an amazing job rallying member contributions and digging through archives – the digital component provides an organized, centralized point of discovery.

The MCN community has always been welcoming and collaborative which has meant a lot to me and my team at CultureConnect. So, it was our pleasure to offer up our platform to create and publish this MCN50 Digital Experience.

Eric: Hi Seema, given your expertise developing content, you’ve generously taken on the lead in helping us put together the content for the “MCN50 Digital Experience”. Can you tell us about some of the choices you made to try to capture 50 years in a short digital experience?

Seema: The MCN volunteers had been working for months to capture the last 50 wonderful years of this organization for months before I joined the team. They had been focused on two big facets: understanding the organization through its people (MCN Voices) and capturing snapshots of the organization over time (MCN Timeline).

By the time this exciting opportunity for a CultureConnect App came up, both of these teams were swimming in content. Even I, myself, as a member of the committee couldn’t get through all the content that was produced. There was just too much. It was like having too much of a good thing. So, my goal was to try to create a framework that showcased a taste of the content, like giving the conference goers the best slice of the pie. Now, everyone has their own appetites, so the challenge was also to find a way to give enough that everyone could find their ideal slice of the content.

With the help of careful planning, and the filtering tools within the CultureConnect infrastructure, my hope is that everyone will be able to dip into some of this rich content. Our goal though is that, after people go to what is appealing, they then find something unexpected.

Eric: Can you give us an example?

Seema: Sure! For the Voices content for example, you might be interested in Museums and Technology. But, once you read a few quotes by the best and brightest amongst us, you could easily move into ideas about career paths or the supportive environment of the MCN community. In the timeline team, you will find that something as simple as a new database is really the beginning of a new way of thinking of collections.

In other words, as you wander through the app, you will hopefully be able to see an ecosystem of ideas and events in a way that is engaging but not overwhelming. For me, this is exactly what MCN is–immersive, thought-provoking, supportive, and safe. Hopefully, the app evokes that same sensibility.


I’m really looking forward to delving into the “MCN50 Digital Experience”, and I hope that those of you who will be joining us in Pittsburgh next month for MCN 2017 will get an opportunity to interact with 50 years of MCN at a glance. And make sure to thank everyone who’s been involved in making this project possible. Happy birthday MCN!


Eric Longo

Executive Director