#MCN50 Voices: Chris Alexander & Marty Spellerberg

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.


In this post Chris Alexander and Marty Spellerberg, who have never met, share stories about projects they have worked on, and museums they have worked in, and consider museum technology’s past, present and future.


Chris Alexander (left) and Marty Spellerberg


Chris:  We didn’t know one another before this, and we’ve been paired together. So, maybe we should start out by introducing ourselves.

Marty:  My name is Marty Spellerberg and I am an independent designer and developer based out of Austin, Texas.

Chris:  And I am Chris Alexander and I reside in San Jose, California. I just finished a fixed term contract at the Cantor Art Center at Stanford University and I think the word will be out by the time this goes live that I have just accepted a position with Gallery Systems as an account manager.

Marty:  My first MCN, though I had heard about it previously, was Minneapolis 2015. And it was great, I loved it.

Chris:  The first one I went to was Chicago in 2007. I was fortunate enough to get one of the scholarships that was offered at the time, so that helped to pay for it, which was great. And I got to write a blog post about it afterwards, which was kind of fun. It’s always been a great bunch of people and always very informative and very focused on certain topics.

Looking Back

Marty:  Did you enter the field through museums, or did you enter it through technology, or always both?

Chris:  I was working at the San Jose Museum of Art. I started on the installation crew as a part-time person on call, and then did membership for two years, got my feet in some database stuff there. I missed being around the art, so I applied for an assistant registrar position and did that for three years.

I went back to college, got a Web design certification and right around that time, the museum was challenged by the director, Dan Keegan, to create an iPod tour. That was when they had the scroll wheel iPods. And so the education department was kind of like, “What the heck? How are we going to do that?”

I had known about this notes-only mode on the scroll wheel iPod, which was also called ‘museum mode.’ And I said, “Hey, well, I think I might be able to help you guys out.”

Marty:  This is like a set of tracks but there’s no audio?

Chris:  You were basically creating these really small HTML text files that go on the iPod. You’re scrolling up and down these, almost like mini webpages without images, but there’s hyperlinks and you can hyperlink to an audio file. You can hyperlink to a video file. You can hyperlink to photos. So you’re kind of in control of steering a visitor in a certain type of direction using these notes. And you can link the notes together. It was kind of challenging creating a user interface just out of text.

Because I really enjoyed creating the content and the interface (and because I was getting my certification in Web design), I proposed a position to the director, “Hey, what do you think about a manager of interactive technology position who looks at the website and manages that, but also creates these audio tours and mobile tours?”

He was like, “That’s great. Let’s do it.” So I basically wrote my own job description, which was really awesome.

Marty:  Doing websites has basically been the only job I’ve had in my life! I got into it as a teenager, when the Web was just coming up. We were a bunch of kids who were interested in art and here was this new medium that anyone could publish to. After college I started working for galleries and art collectives, and moved through the ranks of arts organizations until I found myself in museums.

When I arrived at the Art Gallery of Ontario, they’d had a website for many years, maybe a decade. But the institution’s relationship to it was changing. It was going from being this thing that was maybe a bit to the side, to something that was central to everybody’s concerns. And the way that was directly expressed in technology was the adoption of a content management system. Instead of submitting changes through a central person who maintained the site, the responsibility was distributed throughout the organization. Everybody in their own department had the responsibility of making sure that the their programs were represented. And the role of the Web department changed from being these people who you’d send your Word docs to, to people who were trying to introduce new features or architectural changes.

Chris:  When the iPhone came out, that changed everything as well. It really was a disruptive device within the museum field because, you think about companies like Antenna Audio and Acoustiguide, and their whole business model was based on the rental of audio devices within museums. And suddenly, museums were able to create their own mobile tours. Apple had these great tools too like GarageBand and iMovie or Final Cut to create content internally, which kind of negated the need to have a company create it for you. I mean if you’re the experts on your own collection, it just changed the whole field.

Marty: The iPhone also motivated change in the relationship to photography. Back in 2007 “no photography” was the baseline policy, and it was so hard to have those conversations about “well, can we open it up?” Now it seems like the whole mode has changed. It’s not only about allowing photography, it’s about encouraging photography and encouraging discussion on social media, premised on photography.

Chris:  Absolutely. I know there are some museums that will focus on a specific exhibition to make it more social media friendly. You think about Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Room, where it seems like there’s just tons of people taking photographs in that place and posting them. It’s great.

Marty:  I have friends, non-museum people, who said, “We have to go to Houston and take Infinity Room selfies.” So we did a day trip, just for that. They were motivated by the social cachet of that of having that experience, and broadcasting having that experience.

I remember when there was no such thing as “social media.” There were “social networks,” and at the Art Gallery of Ontario we had a group called “online communities.” It was an informal meeting group that came about first, then evolved into social media, and into a dedicated position.

It seems like, at this moment, it’s a lot about getting into the apps that people are already spending their time in, the social properties. They set the aesthetic boundaries of what’s possible, so you give up a lot of control. But it’s a new audience too, of people who wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to that artist or exhibition.

Chris:  I think once museums started realizing that their physical walls weren’t a boundary anymore, websites really started getting beefed up and you look at a lot of the collections on the web now, like The Met, for example, and like the Rijksmuseum, with open access to their collection, where you can basically download high resolution images and do whatever you want with them.

Marty:  One thing about the technology, we haven’t touched on, but maybe we should, with you going to TMS (The Museum System, Gallery System’s Collections Management Software), is the digitization of – would you call it back office? Stewardship of the collection is a core foundational piece of what a museum is, and technology like TMS has had a transformative effect on that work.

Curators can now search each other’s collections, to know what other people have. They’re able organize loans in a way that wouldn’t have been possible without computers, without the Internet. The entirety of the scholarship has been impacted, and I’m sure this has had an effect on the scope of exhibitions. Even though the technology is not front and center to the visitor, it’s boosting what’s possible.

Chris:  Yeah, and I still think there’s even a lot more room to grow on the back end database side. We’re making it easier to tap into APIs for use in galleries or with the website or whatever other technology is going to come down the road.

Marty:  One thing that I didn’t really know about museums before I got in was the relationship of museums to their members. I always thought of museums as facing the general public, and they do, but being in museums you learn about how trustees and volunteers and all these groups are very committed to the museum, and the museum is very committed to them. It was a surprise to me how much support goes into the membership programs and the trustees, and the amount of technology that we have to support them.


Looking Forward

Chris:  I’m still trying to figure out virtual reality and how that’s going to come into play. One of the things that I’ve thought about as a great use for virtual reality is for exhibition archiving. You have a curator that spends years on an exhibition and then it’s only up for three months. How do you give that experience to future generations? You could be a researcher and go to a museum and experience their virtual reality of this exhibition that was there 20 years prior, which I think would be pretty cool. You’ve got to think too that it could also become a vehicle for designing exhibitions. Virtual reality could also give the curator the tools they need to layout an exhibition before the exhibition even goes up, to problem solve certain things.

Marty:  Not to mention when artists start designing them, and when curators start picking up projects from artists that are virtual or augmented.

This maybe will be the kind of thing that we’ll look back on 50 years from now and laugh, but I have a pet theory that exhibition designers will become the new web designers. That in the augmented-reality future, everybody will be an exhibition designer, because in our field we spend a lot of time thinking about how to pair information about objects with the objects themselves, and how to present it spatially. Even going back to your example of using the iPods, and how to create an experience that’s unobtrusive and adds to the appreciation of an objects without getting in the way.

You know, just thinking about the next 50 years, something I think our sector could really look to is the webzine A List Apart.

Chris:  A List Apart was like major in the shift with Web standards. It was kind of like the go-to place, you know, 10 years ago.

Marty:  Totally. I don’t know if they’ve had a blockbuster like this in a while, but “Responsive Design” was an article on A List Apart. Now we all do responsive design, and it’s called that because that’s the title of the article. And now they do chapbooks, which are essentially required reading. I would love an easy-to-digest publication in the museum technology space that has that amount of influence. Just putting that out there!