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.
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.