#MCN50 Voices: Darren Milligan & Marla Misunas

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.


Darren Milligan is a Senior Digital Strategist at the Smithsonian’s Center for Learning and Digital Access and the current Secretary of MCN’s Board of Directors Executive Committee. Marla Misunas is a former MCN President and board member currently working as the Collections Information Manager at SFMOMA and an Adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins University. They discussed the highs and lows of MCN’s organizational structure, what it’s like to make a commitment to serve on the board, and shared an exciting vision for MCN’s future. Also, they really want go to London.


Darren: So, shall we start off by introducing ourselves and how we are connected with MCN?


Marla: I’m a long-time MCNer; my first conference was in San Diego in 1995. I founded the California SIG, which lasted from 1999-2014; was on the Board 1999-2005, and was President from 2005-2007. Since I termed out I’ve been enjoying watching the organization grow and change, with better and better conferences, and broader diversity in speakers, conference attendees, and membership. I’ve worked in museum technology on the database side for twenty-five years. In the early days, MCN was really the only way to connect with people who knew what I was talking about, who had the same concerns.


Darren: For the past twelve years I have led digital initiatives for the Smithsonian’s “central” office of education, once called the Center for Education and Museum Studies, and now the Center for Learning and Digital Access. My MCN connection began in 2010, in Austin. While it was not my first conference, it was my first time speaking at a professional conference and I was absolutely terrified. For some reason, I had pictured myself on a giant stage, cowering behind a podium, in front of hundreds of my peers digging for the holes in my argument. I found the opposite, of course, a room with a few dozen encouraging and curious friends and colleagues. I have attended almost every year since and continue to revel in the warmth and generosity of the community that MCN supports. This past year, I was fortunate enough to join the Board and am serving on the Executive Committee as Secretary.


Darren: Marla, when you first joined the Board in the mid 90s, what made you want to sign up? Was there a pet project you wanted to accomplish, and did it happen?


Marla: The real answer to this question is Leslie Johnston (currently the Director of Digital Preservation at the National Archives). She was on the Board when I attended MCN in 1995. I shared a cab to the airport with her post-conference, and I was so impressed with her ideas and her commitment, that I thought being on the Board of MCN was probably the coolest thing I could ever do.

Although I didn’t have a specific pet project, my goal has always been to de-mystify museum technology and make it easier for people who consider themselves “non-techie” to understand, and to participate in. Making sure there was a wide variety of skill levels represented in the conference programs was always important for me.

But my mission on the Board was to put MCN in the black. When I joined, we were suffering from extremely low finances, due to a disastrous situation with a conference hotel. The other Board members, President Chuck Patch, and I vowed that MCN wasn’t going down on our watch! The conference I chaired that first year actually made money for MCN for the first time since anyone could remember.

When I was President, we were able to institute a new website, put on some successful conferences, and create a strategic plan.


Darren: So incredible! I remember, when we met during the 2017 MCN Archives Dive here at the Smithsonian how shocked I was to hear how the organization really had teetered on the edge; how, more than once, it had really come so close to disappearing. The Board finds itself in a similar, if not so precarious (luckily) situation now. Stemming from your intervention, the conference continues to be the activity that sustains the organization, but we are always in danger of relying too much on the conference for survival. We are working obsessively right now to find a way to ensure the organization can survive without absolute reliance on that event.

I should back up: I decided to join the Board as many of my most cherished colleagues here at the Smithsonian had previously served and I had learned what an incredible opportunity it had been for them to meet new people, grow professionally, and give back to the organization that had helped their own skills (and careers) develop. What an incredible opportunity to work alongside colleagues, peers, and frankly GLAM-crushes! I am happy now to be part of this group and help it become even stronger.

For me, as well, there really wasn’t a specific project that I came in hoping to achieve. Actually, right now the Board and the organization are at a really healthy moment. We have our first full time Executive Director, and we continue to professionalize many of the aspects of managing this non-profit. I am currently working, alongside other members of the Executive Team, on researching and developing that new approach to sustaining the organization. We are exploring a wide variety of membership offerings that we are all very excited to start sharing (soon) with everyone.


Marla: From your perspective as a new member, what are the top issues facing the Board?


Darren: I think the Board and the organization are in a moment of evolution, which is extremely exciting. Budget is always an issue and we are working to see if we can successfully transform MCN into a true membership organization. This will help. We too are at a time of growth, which is exciting, but also dangerous, as an organization that successfully served the needs of a few hundred might not be the same type of organization that can serve five hundred or more. We are working to figure that out. How to not spoil the uniqueness and community vibe of MCN when that community expands is what is very important to the Board right now.


Marla: If you were asking me this, I’d say, the budget, membership, and whether or not to charge for MCN-L (the listserv). OK, maybe sort of kidding about the last one. But it came up a lot.

From the 2006 membership survey, top three, in order: online collections access, digital asset management systems, and digital preservation.


Marla: I think we can probably both answer this one. Why should someone run for the Board, and what advice do we have for future Board members?


Marla: Running for and serving on the Board is a great feather in anyone’s cap. It’s great for your own professional development, and helps you build your network of colleagues that will most likely persist throughout your career.

To future Board members, I’d say, go in with both eyes open. Be sure you’re ready for the level of commitment that’s going to be asked of you. The more you put into your service on the Board, the more you’ll get out of it—it will be frustrating, but it’ll also be satisfying and fun.


Darren: I couldn’t agree more. It is an incredible opportunity for professional development; a glimpse inside the management of a non-profit, and an incredible way to connect with those outside your museum. But this is a working Board, so it’s not just your brilliant insights that the organization needs, but your week upon week of time and effort. It is worth it in the end, though.


Darren: I think we should both weigh in on this one too! If we could plan an MCN conference in any city, which one would it be, and why? (Are you listening MCN Conference Committee?)


Marla: I would love to plan a conference in London. Not only is London an amazing museum city, but the UK museum community has done a lot of great things in terms of organization, standards, technology, you name it. A London location would also attract larger numbers of European museum professionals, which is always a huge boost for the conference in terms of the variety of attendees and the institutions they represent. We could partner with someone like the Museums Computer Group. I’d sign up for that.


Darren: I love the idea of London! Connecting with the MCG group, incredible museums and universities, and tapping into the digital museum folks there would be a great bridge and perhaps help to grow the international attendance at future US-based conferences. You’ve got my vote!

I was at a meeting in Monterey this year, at a conference facility called Asilomar. It was built in the early twentieth century as a scout camp, all lodgy—perched right on the edge of the ocean. Everyone attending that event stayed onsite in one of their lodge-like buildings, shared meals together in a communal dining hall, etc. The whole time, I was wishing all my MCN family could be there in a similar situation. Trapped, perhaps, but so super concentrated. It would be interesting…


Marla: I love Asilomar and the beach there. It would be a great place for a conference! The concentrated togetherness would be great for team building.


Marla: Where do you see MCN in ten years? What differences do you predict, or will the organization be mostly the same?


Darren: It will be interesting to see where an organization developed to support technologists within museums evolves as those responsibilities become even further integrated into the roles of all museum professionals, right?


Marla: I predict a solid, robust organization that’s composed of the same caliber of innovative, smart, and generous people that we have at present. I’m excited at the possibilities of greater involvement by members scattered all over the world.


Darren: Am I sensing an interest in your responses to internationalize the organization more? I have to agree with you. As we strive to become “more than just a conference,” I hope our brand and what we offer to our members is not seen as a U.S. offering, but rather the organization can be one that supports a global cohort of change makers and technologists.


Darren: What do you think MCN does really well? In what area(s) do you think MCN has the most room for improvement?


Marla: MCN does a great job with conferences, and MCN’s greatest asset is its people. The people at the conferences, the people on the listserv, MCN’s Board and committees, and the MCN staff are all passionate about museum work, and about sharing their successes and near misses. MCNers are generous with their time and valuable experience, especially when it comes to helping colleagues figure out the latest puzzle.

In my experience, one of the areas for improvement is in keeping track of MCN’s own history and accomplishments. We have always been a forward-looking organization, but that has meant while we are achieving the next big thing, the big things we did last year get lost and forgotten.

MCN’s organizational archives are held at the Smithsonian archives, and some of us have been working with that material. I hope we can surface more of our history, and sustain it. In the past we’ve had trouble with continuity, so I hope we can improve on that.


Darren: Sounds to me like the Board might want to consider an historian role, someone to make sure, on a year by year basis, that we maintain our records and ensure that, 50 years from now, those who come after us, aren’t struggling, as we did, to put together the pieces of the organization’s history.


Proudest MCN moment so far?

Marla: I had quite a few proudest moments associated with MCN, and it’s hard to pick just one.

So here are my top three:


3. Pasadena, 2006. I probably never stopped grinning for the entire conference in Pasadena.

I was so proud to address the crowd as MCN’s president, do all the thank-yous, and introduce Ken Hamma, our keynote speaker. I’d been very involved in planning that conference, and seeing it come to fruition was a fabulous thing.

2. Taipei, 2007, inaugurating the Taiwan chapter of MCN, on national TV in Taiwan. We were there while a huge national digitization conference was happening, and we were treated like royalty. It was the one and only time I’ve ever been on TV, anywhere. Establishing this alliance with our colleagues in Taiwan was not only groundbreaking and exciting, but we made some good friends there, too.

1. Las Vegas, 2003, chairing the annual conference. The program was outstanding and attendance was too. But hosting the conference reception at the Liberace Museum (since closed), complete with Will Collins, a wonderful, piano-playing Liberace tribute artist, was absolutely the best. The pictures from that party remain my favorites of all the MCN reception photos. Will was resplendent in Liberace’s capes and rings, and we had a blast with him.


Darren: I think my proudest moment might be yet to come. I am so looking forward to being in Pittsburgh in November to celebrate the 50th anniversary. On top of its usual firehouse of inspiration and wisdom, it’s just going to be a weeklong party, a great time to reflect on how museums have changed and how all of our careers have been created and evolved over the past decades. See you there, Marla, right?


Marla: Wouldn’t miss it!