By Zejun Cai
In the past few months, the MCN Job Description History team has hopped on a time machine and documented the shifting and persisting trends in #musetech jobs over the last 50 years. Tracing back to the days when people who run or visit a museum had never used an iPhone has been a fascinating process for our group, who communicate with each other purely via digital devices and platforms—a virtual team of historians, if you will. Check out our previous blog posts for a moment of inspiration or nostalgia.
I am especially interested in the new job opportunities and titles that have emerged along with changing technologies. For example, Sarah Outhwaite and I have been looking the annual reports of Seattle Art Museum (SAM) from 1967 up to the present day. In 1996, the museum hired its first Chief of Information Technology to “offer access worldwide to information about art and Seattle’s collections through state-of-the-art technology.” Since then, new job titles have emerged each year, from Web Programmer (1997-1998) to Computer Technician (1999-2000) to Digital Media Manager and Digital Production Designer (2013-2014).
In 2017 Tech Trends Annual Report published by Future Today Institute, mixed reality (P17) was identified as a key trend for nonprofit organizations. Mixed reality, or MR, is an umbrella term encompassing augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), 360-degree video, and holograms (P87). None of the MR technologies are strangers to today’s museums. At this year’s MCN alone, there will be at least three discussion sessions dedicated to these trendy technologies (Reality (doesn’t) Bite: AR vs VR, Best Practices for Creating Meaningful AR/VR Experiences and Virtual Futures: When VR is the Cost of Doing Business). However, probably all of them were alien to museums of the 1970s. During my research, I came across an article titled “Holography Takes Root in SoHo In a Museum Devoted to Future,” first published in the New York Times on December 29, 1976. The article reported on the newly opened Museum of Holography, a museum dedicated to new art and “visions of the future.” What amused me, however, was Rosemary H. Jackson, the then 29-year-old director, recounting visitors’ behaviors and the museum’s reaction to the visitors’ needs.
“We have to remember that people who come here are not familiar with holography,” she said. “We’re going to put up numbers indicating the best places to stand, because people don’t understand it. Two days ago a man came in and looked at the black cube that is projected away from the wall. He said he didn’t see anything. I told him he was standing in it. He moved back and it came floating out.”
The museum will eventually open a children’s section because parents are complaining about lifting heavy youngsters into the right viewing positions. The new institution already has a book counter and will have a library. It is open from noon to 6 P.M. Wednesdays through Sundays. Admission: $1; 50 cents for under-12’s. Telephone: 925-0526.
“Holography is moving along,” said Miss Jackson, “We already have people coming in and saying, apologetically, ‘I just have this old two-dimensional camera.”‘
This snapshot of the early days #musetech inspires our team to explore emerging #musetech job opportunities related to increasingly popular mixed reality technologies, especially VR. As Desi Gonzalez envisioned, multimedia production roles at museums might evolve into VR production, while artist-in-residence programs might involve VR game developers and designers.
At the early adoption stage of the technology, museums also need to consider new challenges posed to exhibition design and visitor services. I remember at last year’s Margaret Mead Film Festival, staff and volunteers from the American Museum of Natural History were assigned to facilitate visitors at the Virtual Reality Lounge. The museum ensured visitors’ safety by providing additional seating and assisted visitors’ viewing experience by reminding participants, especially first-timers, to “look around.” For more immersive and intense VR experience like “Real Violence” by Jordan Wolfson, featured in this year’s Whitney Biennial, museum staff needs to ensure one’s physical and emotional safety by providing clear instruction and guidance of exit points.
The 2016 NMC Horizon Report predicted that virtual reality would have a significant impact on museum education and interpretation within the next two to three years (P42-43). Indeed, we have already seen new #musetech job titles and requirements brought by mixed reality. For example, Sheila Carey has discovered that a program facilitator job posted by Canadian National Exhibition in 2016 required “advanced knowledge of technology, specifically augmented reality and virtual reality,” and a managerial role in exhibition projects at Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation, demanded experiences in “managing digital media projects such as virtual and augmented reality interactives/experiences and Apps.”
As mixed reality technology is making people’s physical and virtual reality increasingly interchangeable, at the same time, people’s relationship with MR technology is evolving. For example, we have witnessed the booming VR projects across industries. There are VR films, VR games, VR fitness, VR education, and endless possibilities for VR applications. What will the future museums look like when VR became the alternative/dominate way of experiencing the world around us? Perhaps, at one point, we may need museum historians to recreate a physical experience for us to reconnect with the primitive life.
No matter what technology a museum chose to adopt, the core of visitor-centered experience remains the same. Potential roles as VR curators or VR securities all demand understandings of the needs of museum visitors, both onsite and online. I would like to envision that the future museum professionals are accommodating to visitors who are different levels of technology adaptors: the future museums are welcoming places for different types of technologies as well as lifestyles, as depicted in the video clip below.
The clip is from The Series Has Landed, Season 1 Episode 2, Futurama. The episode aired on April 4, 1999.