In continuing celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Museum Computer Network, Rob Stein and Lisa Worley spent some time by phone reconnecting and reminiscing about their own specific introductions to the museum technology field.
Lisa Worley is the Director of Material Culture at the Historic Ford Estates and Rob Stein is the Executive Vice President and Chief Program Officer at the American Alliance of Museums. While they don’t know each other well, Rob and Lisa have crossed paths in museums a number of times, including during the 2015 “Reimagining the Museum” conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Did you always want to work in museums?
Rob: Remember those career aptitude tests you used to take in High School? Well, mine predicted that I’d either make a great priest… or an engineer. Of the two—engineering seemed to be a much more likely profession! More specifically, I was fascinated by astronomy and wanted to be an astronaut, so I entered University of Illinois to study aeronautical engineering. While there, I spent a lot of time in the computer lab for my classes. With this being the early ‘90s and Illinois being the home for the first web browser, this was a fascinating time to learn about technology. Eventually, I changed my major to computer science and began to explore how 3D computer graphics and virtual reality could tell stories about science. My first job was as a Scientific Visualization programmer and I worked to represent simulations of severe storms, supernova, and various kinds of fluid dynamics problems.
I continued to work in academia throughout the first decade of my career. I think I expected that it would be much more collaborative and to have much more direct impact on the public than I found it to. After working on a number of projects with museums, I became enamored with the public impact and collegiality I found there, so I left my job in academia and joined the Indianapolis Museum of Art as a software developer.
Over the next decade, I experienced a lot of great things and met thousands of talented people through museums. I’m so glad I made the change and can’t imagine working in any other field.
Lisa: I’ve always loved history. I took AP history courses in high school, and studied history in college. Of course, I assumed this would lead to a career as a teacher, but I discovered the museum field while getting my BA at the University of Arizona. I took a class in the Anthropology department where I learned to give tours to K-12 students through the Arizona State Museum. It was a game changer for me. I went on to study public history in graduate school, and I learned about architecture, decorative arts, furniture, textiles, and costumes. I loved historic homes, so I chose to focus my career working at historic sites. I love the stories you can tell in homes! After grad school, I ended up in Texas—the last place I ever thought I’d be. My initial plan was to get a few years of experience under my belt at a 1911 historic house museum then move back to Colorado, but life happened and I spent 18 years as a Texan.
What’s your connection to MCN? How’d you get connected with the museum technology community?
Lisa: I’m a big fan of professional development and networking having attended conferences through AAM, AASLH, ALHFAM, and the Texas Association of Museums. Before the Austin conference, I’d never really heard of MCN. I saw the call for volunteers and jumped at the chance to learn something new. I was only there for one day – but it was an eye opening experience.
As you move along in your career, its seems that so many other conferences have less and less new for you to learn. MCN was a fresh set of thinking and topics to explore. With MCN, I usually come home with REALLY big ideas, which is not something that I’ve found in other (or more familiar) conferences. MCN seems just unfamiliar enough that my brain can think the really big ideas.
Rob: This reminds me of a concept I first heard from Koven Smith I think. The “adjacent possible” is a concept from evolutionary biology that I’ve been thinking about recently. The idea goes like this—If you took all the possible combinations of amino acids found in nature, the combinatorial number is absolutely enormous. But when we observe nature, we actually only find organisms and compounds that comprise a relatively small amount of real estate when compared to the universe of possible combinations. Because of the way that evolution works, new mutations are always expanding into those permutations directly adjacent to their current form. Expanding into the adjacent possible—so to speak.
I kind of feel that our careers, and the museum field are kind of like this. Very rarely do we seize upon ideas or actions that are entirely disconnected and “random”. It’s much more likely that we evolve our thinking and practice into the adjacent possibilities that no one has tried yet. That’s why conferences or friends who stretch our thinking into new, but not wholly unfamiliar territory, can help provoke our thinking and innovation in useful ways. The adjacent possible!
Lisa: In some ways, this collaborative way that the MCN community works together seems like a bit of new thinking for museums. My experience from working in a smaller museum is that we often see ourselves competing with the “big” museums. The collaborative experiences at MCN seem to have become prevalent for us only recently. Is that because collaboration like this isn’t as readily apparent at the more traditional museum conferences? Or are these competitive instincts present more on a local basis? Big vs. Small museums in the same town? But, networking and building relationships, like those at MCN and at other conferences seems to be key to moving beyond that.
On the change in MCN conferences over the years
Rob: My first MCN conference was in 2006 in Pasadena. At that time, MCN tended to focus a bit more on IT and technology practice. Over time, I think MCN, and this part of the museum field has slowly becoming more broad in its thinking about digital working as a whole. There continues to be more discussion about museum strategies, process, and impacts. We don’t seem to have very many sessions on how to configure your Cisco router anymore. It’s still important to do that work, but the conversations at museum technology conferences have become more about museum work as a whole.
Lisa: I agree. I remember coming home from my first MCN conference with a list of technical terms (jargon) that I had to Google. I like that now, the discussions at MCN have been moving towards the outcomes for the visitors.
On sharing a conference experience together in Buenos Aires and how a global context for museum work impacted our thinking:
Lisa: It was really eye-opening to understand more about the cultures that other museums are operating in. Some of the realities in global museum communities would never have occurred to me from a US perspective on museums.
What’s the line between propaganda and history? Some of the Latin American museums were talking about how the government should sponsor museums on specific topics (such as State sponsored violence), but my first thought was “would the government ever give difficult topics the justice that they deserve?”
Rob: The conference in South America made me think more about my own museum experience in the US. Latin American museums are dealing with many of the same issues we are here in the States, but more acutely and more out in the open. Budget crunches, political corruption, remaining relevant to their communities, financial inequalities, etc… In the US, we are dealing with these issues daily now. I feel that we have a lot to learn from our Latin American colleagues, who have been achieving great successes with these issues, but many times working from a different perspective. The “adjacent possible” at work again!
3 Pieces of Advice
In thinking about advice they might give to people who are new(er) to the MCN community, Rob and Lisa came up with a few ideas that might be helpful.
- We’re all in this together: Avoid saying “that’s not my job.” It’s not about you or me—it’s about giving the people who come to us an amazing experience.
- Always be open to learning new things: Always be reading and exploring beyond your capacity. I love knowing what’s going on in the field—what cool things other organizations are doing. And, really, you never know how often a crazy idea that seems disconnected actually becomes connected sometime later on.
- Be Flexible: What we do in museums is terribly important, but lives are NOT on the line. We need to put what we do in perspective. Treat each other well and *really* think about what’s important. Pick your battles—it’s too hard to fight all of them at the same time. I’ve learned my way is not the only way, or the only right way. Just keep your eyes on the final outcome.
- Give more than you take: The artists Jim Hodges used this as a title for a retrospective of his art that we exhibited at the Dallas Museum of Art in 2015. I really stood out to me as a great way to be successful in museums and in life. The times in my career when I’ve made this a priority have been among my most successful as well.
- Always be exploring: I find that giving myself permission to have side projects that interest me has been a key to maintaining creativity, connection, engagement to the larger world (both personally and professionally). Sometimes we feel guilty about taking time to explore things like this, but I’ve found that I’m often most productive plowing through the hardest parts of my “real work” when I’ve got an engaging distraction too!
- Prioritize: There are too many good things to do in the world. When we’re trying to do them all at the same time, we’ll never get anything accomplished. Be ruthless in deprioritizing the good things in favor of your best next steps. From there, you can be certain that you’re actually moving forward and not just spinning your wheels.