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.
Tim Svenonius is the Senior Content Strategist for Interpretive Media at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) and an artist in his spare time. Brinker Ferguson is currently a PhD candidate in Digital Heritage at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and has worked at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Cyark. In this wide-ranging conversation they discussed the benefits of working in the Bay Area, conservation work and cultural heritage repatriation, and the role of social justice in museums.
Working inside and outside the museum: San Francisco as Backdrop
Tim Svenonius (TS): San Francisco maintains a kind of dual identity, attractive for a kind of picturesque history, yet at any given moment it’s been associated with innovation, a rebellious spirit and the shaking off of conventions. So while many people are drawn to the city for its historical icons (Alcatraz, cable cars, the bridges), its true industry is always newness. In the museum field you’ve got a similarly split paradigm: people will continue to think about museums in the old ways, as grand, imposing neoclassical structures, but in fact most of the venerable museums in the U.S. have rebuilt or radically expanded to accommodate changing demands and evolving visions. We’re holding onto our legacies, yet we strive to stay relevant amid cultural shifts. And for anyone who’s working with digital technology, we are in the front seat, witnessing that seismic shift.
Brinker Ferguson (BF): Yes! And you yourself are in a really interesting position of having been in the Bay Area since the 1990s and working at SFMOMA for some time now. You have seen many changes happen both within and outside the institution. So for the museum’s reopening in 2016, how much were you and your team looking outside the museum for inspiration and how much were you looking inside, especially to the legacy of SFMOMA, for its new interpretive needs?
TS: We had to be hyper-attuned to the particulars of Bay Area audiences. It’s a very young, very tech savvy population, and the area has many rich cultural offerings. So while we paid attention to what other museums were doing, locally and globally, we also recognized our situation as unique.
A vast majority of the digital experiences in the museum were reconceived for the reopening. Technology-based experiences unfortunately have a short shelf life—they quickly become obsolete or simply cease to look fresh, so we have little choice but to continually reinvent the means to deliver our content. But the changing technology also spurs us to rethink the ways in which we can tell stories, and continually rethink what audience engagement means.
TS: And you have also been working (though a bit more recently) in the Bay Area both within more traditional institutions like the Fine Arts Museum but also outside the museum sector, with CyArk. Can you speak to the differences?
BF: Sure, I actually see more similarities than differences. What has united a lot of my professional experience has been working with conservation teams both inside the museum and then within the larger heritage field, specifically in at-risk world heritage sites. At its core, conservation is about documenting the rate of change to an object or heritage site, and from this data, making decisions on best practices to attempt to slow this rate of change. My focus over the past couple of years has been on helping conservators tell their remarkable stories through digital projects as well as the documentation/tracking side of conservation through scientific imaging and computational photography. It’s been exciting working the Bay Area because there are a lot of really smart people working in this space right now. It’s been really wonderful for example, to be able to have coffee with engineering grad students at UC schools, or Stanford or go to a product launch for huge for-profits like Autodesk or Leica Geosystems, but it’s a balance between things like open source with proprietary software (which is really scary for long-term data preservation) and sometimes conflicting agendas on what constitutes “success” especially in the tech field.
In Pursuit of Passions
BF: Tim, I know this week you are taking some very precious vacation time to work in your studio. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your artistic practice and how this might influence your creativity inside the museum (and vice-versa!)
TS: Any spare hours I can find outside of the work day I try to devote to my creative pursuits, mainly painting or drawing. I’m always seeking new inspirations and approaches, and it’s been invaluable to work in a place where I’m always near art, continually exposed to new work, and also have access to rich scholarship around it. It flows the other way too—I find that when writing about art it makes a big difference to have worked in a lot of the same media and worked through similar problems. I will often look at an artwork and think I have been there. It doesn’t mean that I reached the same conclusion or the same solution, but I often feel I can get inside of the process, whether that’s the physical making or the thought process that led to the ultimate result.
TS: And you, too, are working on a big writing project—the dissertation. How has this influenced your museum work or thinking about the museum field?
BF: Yes, attempting to wrap up this research in the next couple of months, though I am really trying to savor every drop of this time too since (at least the dissertation part) has been very exciting and rewarding! I am grateful for this time because it’s given me an opportunity to slow down and think very deeply (maybe this is similar to your artistic process) about one set of issues around one particular case study—in this instance a Maori meetinghouse at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa. The meetinghouse has been the jewel of the National Museum’s collection for 150 years, but how it got to the museum has always been questioned. A few years ago the New Zealand government formally acknowledged that it was taken without consent from its tribe (iwi) and the full ownership has now been returned to the Rongowhakaata iwi. This set in motion several important developments for the nation, museum, and the intangible and tangible redress of Maori cultural heritage.
Rather than staying quiet about losing a key item from their collection however, Te Papa is working with the iwi on long-term conservation and interpretive storytelling projects. My personal role through the PhD has been working with the museum and iwi on creating a full 3D conservation documentation record of the meetinghouse-through photogrammetry and laser scanning technologies, training Rongowhakaata iwi members on 3D imaging technologies for sustainable long-term conservation/preservation practices, and tracking and 3D imaging several ancestral carvings from the meetinghouse that ended up in collections abroad like the British Museum and National Gallery of Australia for a digital repatriation (or the repatriation of information) project that will realign the correct genealogical order of the carved ancestors, though virtually. Looking at just this one object inside the museum’s collection has opened me up to ask larger questions around issues of power, control, and cultural self-determination.
The changing roles of museums
TS: It’s a fundamentally different way of thinking about the role of a museum, when the most responsible thing that they can do in this case is to relinquish the object. Of course there is this immense conservation effort occurring as part of the repatriation.
BF: Yes, in my opinion Te Papa has been and continues to be a leader in museums and indigenous community relationships. One thing that we have talked about in the past is, what is the current role of the museum? Te Papa seeks to understand the needs of its Maori communities, from how they want to tell their stories, to what is appropriate or not appropriate in terms of sharing information as well as handling and storing objects. I think what Te Papa represents and something we are seeing in general in our field is a shift in museum practice. Historically the museum began as a type of temple for heritage objects, with its particular one-way dissemination of information. This then transitioned into the forum in the 80s and 90s where visitors began to participate and have voice within the institution. It seems to me that we are entering into a 3rd wave—we are saying ok, we have participation with our audience, but what do we do with that? How do we actually make an impact? How do we both facilitate as well as be open venues for social activism and change? Look at our keynote speaker lineup for MCN this year, it’s not focused on tech leaders but leaders who are activists and community builders in such movements as #BlackLivesMatter or #MuseumsRespondToFerguson.
BF: So…do you believe that museums need to be part of or facilitators of social change?
TS: It’s a really complex question, and maybe every museum has to come up with its own stance. First, I believe any museum occupies a specific niche within its social landscape, and has to be attuned to changes in that landscape. With the ubiquity of social media, many people in our field feel it’s crucial to bring visitor voices into institutional discourse. But how do we reconcile the democratization of information with the authority that many museums have worked for decades to establish? How does a museum tell its essential stories and also engage an open dialogue? We can look around and ask, how are museums contending with these questions, but there’s no single solution, and even the leaders in this movement are grappling with it, still figuring it out.
An early/memorable museum moment
BF: Tim, would you mind sharing one of your earliest or most memorable museum moments?
TS: I was about eight or nine when I accompanied my mother on a business trip to New York (we lived in DC) and we visited MoMA. At that time Guernica was still there—it would be returned to Spain soon after. I had known nothing about it, and I knew nothing of Picasso, and I was completely in awe—at the scale, the bold style, the brutality. The way I remember it, there was also almost no one there–so the two of us stood by ourselves silently in front of this colossal work. That felt like a really special privilege, and also like being let in on a secret.
TS: And throwing that question back at you!
BF: Sure, when I first graduated I received a modest fellowship which I used to work, or intern, in several museums around the world. One of these museums was the Belvedere in Vienna Austria. I used to get to the museum as soon as they would allow staff to enter, around 7am, put on a pair of clean socks, and creep around the galleries to be completely alone in front of the Kokoschka, Schiele, and Klimt paintings (including Klimt’s The Kiss). The security guards started to have a nickname for me “kriechende fraulein” which kind of translates to creeping girl (or creepy girl). I hope it was the first. But it was a really lovely four months of being able to stand in front of these incredible paintings and be completely overwhelmed and immersed by them–it’s something I will never forget.