#MCN50 Voices: Mara Kurlandsky and Seema Rao

Mara Kurlandsky, Project Coordinator for Digital Engagement, National Museum of Women in the Arts, and Seema Rao, Principal, Brilliant Idea Studio have been sending hundreds of emails to each other as ⅔ of the MCN50 Voices committee. They took a break from their committee work to share their ideas on a broad range of subjects including coffee, museums, technology, and shoes.

Seema Rao head shot  Mara Kurlandshy head shot

Seema Rao and Mara Kurlandsky


What do you do when you feel burned out to energize?

Seema: I love reading. It is the one thing that always transports me away from stress and into a new world. And, while a voracious reader, I am not at all picky. In one week, I will be deep in a mystery, vampire romance, nobel prize winning fiction work, and a young audiences one.

Mara: Honestly, I love a good nap. A 45 minute snooze after hitting a wall usually sets me back on course. And even though it takes some effort to get myself out the door, going for a jog and listening to music is a great way to get my brain to turn off for a while.


What is the best part of your job?

Seema: I am loving start my own company, because the world is my own oyster. I can make of this what I will. And, the best part is all of the planning and dreaming.

Mara: I work in a beautiful building full of rad, passionate, feminist art lovers. It’s what college-age Mara would have dreamed of! I also appreciate the possibilities of my job: we’re a small digital team with big dreams. If you have an idea, can figure out how to do it with few resources, and you’re willing to put the time in, it’s usually encouraged.


What part of your job bums you out?

Seema: Starting anything new requires fearlessness and fear. The fear (and the associated anxiety, uncertainty, stress, and exhaustion) are easily the worst part of my gig. But, without fear, I would not feel as alive :>

Mara: Though I enjoy the freedom I mentioned, I do wish we had a bigger team, more resources, more time, etc. I have to figure a lot of new things out, which is satisfying but very time-consuming. The pace of institutional change on a lot of things is also slow. That’s a pretty common museum problem but it’s hard not to get frustrated sometimes.


Do you prefer salty or sweet? Mountains or beaches? Coffee or Tea?

Mara: Yes. Yes. Coffee.

Seema: Definitely with you. More is more. Though, I have come to love coffee and tea equally.


What type of music has been on heavy rotation at home?

Seema: I have been playing songs that I know the words to because I am preparing for my MCN50 Ignite. Turns out I know the words to an ecclectic mix: Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, Spandau Ballet, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Morrissey.

Mara: A Ukrainian friend of mine turned me onto a band called DakhaBrakha that I’ve really been enjoying. They refer to themselves as “ethnic chaos,” which is pretty apt. I also just came back from vacation in Hawaii and I’m #sorrynotsorry that the Moana soundtrack has been on a lot. I can’t help that Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius!


What is your favorite museum experience?

Seema: When I was 16, I was in New York with a friend. I wandered into the gallery with the Robert Campin, Merode Altarpiece. It was just me and the art. Lord knows where the guard was. My friends had gone to look for unicorns. And, there I was staring into the most amazing thing I had ever seen a human make. I vividly remember looking, and failing to find, brushstrokes. I can still remember thinking that it was so small and yet so monumental. From that moment, I wanted so badly to work in museum.

Mara: I went backpacking for around 7 months post-college to Australia, New Zealand, and Southeast Asia. I dragged my travel buddy to pretty much every museum we came across (she hit the wall at the Vietnamese museum of trade ceramics). Many of my favorites were in New Zealand: the way they could skillfully interpret and honor the history and culture of a bi-national, settler/indigenous country was so inspiring. Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museum in Wellington, blew my mind and solidified my decision to go to grad school for Museum Studies. There was this amazing interactive touch table that let you explore and remix music from different Pacific Islands that I spent a long time with—perhaps that was #musetech foreshadowing.


What makes working in technology challenging?

Mara: Besides the obvious answer that technology is constantly changing, it’s also everywhere, in every nook and cranny of an institution. Almost every job has some kind of digital component so it can hard to define the boundaries of what your role is as the “digital person”—where your job ends and someone else’s begins.

Seema: I totally agree. There is no end or beginning. And, it’s not just in the way that people’s jobs breakdown. It is also where your work and your life breakdown. I mean, Twitter is one of those things that overlaps life, work, hobbies, politics.


What made you participate in MCN50?

Mara: This will be my third MCN and since it’s had such an enormous influence on my relatively new career as a museum tech person, I just really wanted to be a part of making this year great. I thought I’d volunteer to help out with the MCN50 Voices project so I could put my organizing skills to use and interact with people I admire in the field. How much time could it possibly take up, I asked myself?

Seema: I know. I admit that, when I told Susan I had time to help, I didn’t quite understand the commitment. But, I did it to meet new people, and I certainly have. I have been compiling headshots, for example, and it has been a great way to put faces to new names. And, reading all the interviews has helped me explore parts of the field that I knew nothing about.


Blue sky question: what would you like to see in museum technology; money is no object?

Mara: You said money was no object, so I’m extending that to “physics is no object” either: museum teleporting! Despite all the advances in technology, online collections, the promise of VR, etc. I still want to visit museums in person. There are so many amazing places and collections in the world, and the average person will only ever get to experience a fraction of them. You should be able to teleport to the Rijksmuseum, or the Louvre, or back to Te Papa on the weekends.

Seema: Oh! I am so with you. I would love to be in some sort of museum travel circuit. But, you mentioned VR. If money was no object, I would love to make ARs that transport people the past of objects. I have a great imagination, and I certainly don’t have the ability to imagine all the pasts of any collection object. But, technology sure could help change that. And, with the past come alive, collections could become much more relevant to a broader audience.

Mara: That’s a way better answer—can we make this happen?? It makes me think of the James Michener book, The Source, where each chapter is a story from a different layer of one archeological site. That would be so cool.


Do you wear shoes when you sit at your desk?

Mara: ….No. And it used to annoy an old co-worker to no end when I would pop over to her desk sans shoes to ask a quick question. Shoes are overrated.

Seema: Me neither! Can’t think with shoes on.

Mara: Can we declare MCN2017 a shoe-optional event?

Seema: DONE!