Ignite 2023: Matt Tarr

Dirt or "unearthing meaning as we build the future of museums using technology"

MCN 2023 Conference
November 8, 2023
World Café Live, Philadelphia


My name is Matt Tarr. I'm a white male in my very early 50s, and I was a teenage dirtbag. My teachers and principals would have said that I had wasted potential, but really I was on a low level spiritual search, digging for meaning in a world that seemed so shallow. Skateboarding, heavy metal music, Dungeons and Dragons, they had meaning.

In many ways they are the core of who I am today, but school didn't offer those. I just couldn't dig it. Still bent on finding meaning, I eventually enrolled in college, majoring in anthropology. What could be more meaningful than the study of humans and our place in the universe? I took a semester in Belize, doing archaeology, and, uh, those were nine credits, so, um, re-energized my enthusiasm.

But, I had to give up my 50 hour a week job in a sweaty kitchen, with school literally on the back burner in order to get my grades up for grad school. So I got a job. This time I called it, I called it a stupid student job. I converted Gopher sites to HTML back in 1996, way back. The tremendous potential of the World Wide Web converted my interest in the past with my interest in building the future.

And I spent the next five years building and learning every part of the technology stack. I was a builder. It was fun, I was good at it, and it seemed really meaningful for a while. And then I started to think about what I was building, not just how I was building it. What could be more meaningful than supporting a more scientifically literate voting public?

So I packed up my tech chops and I moved to New York City at the American Museum of Natural History, where I've practiced my craft for the last 23 years. But enough about me. This community is united by the dream of delivering enlightened technology strategy to the important work of the cultural sector.

Most of the time, it's the best job in the entire world, rewarding and meaningful, but it's not without its challenges. We're often asked to predict the future, to wield technology like a magic wand and solve problems without budget or requirements, or even goals. And yet still, we manage to make it meaningful.

And then there are times when we're brought in after a solution has been identified. Many of us will remember, we need an app. So we ask questions like, what are the experience goals, when can we sunset it, and then we call it a pilot and we try to salvage some meaning out of it. In other situations, we do see the future and we're the lone champions of some critical, meaningful work whose technical nature prevents it from gaining the necessary support.

And so we mutter to ourselves things like, we'll just chip away at it out of our own budget, or someday when I'm in charge. The job is to meet these demands on a playing field tilted against us by often unrealistic, incomplete, and even conflicting demands. And sometimes we still hit it out of the park, delivering transformational change that is undeniably meaningful.

And other times, regardless of our actions, it just doesn't work. Sometimes technology just sucks. No technology in my lifetime has carved a straight path to usefulness. Some of you won't even recognize these technologies, and others will share my trauma. Just a quick moment of silence for all those projects were just a little too soon.

And then, and then a quick sidebar, lest you think that I've given up on technology, I'm really bullish on LLMs for their ability to decontextualized, personalized, multilingual support in ways that I don't think humans will ever be able to do, at least until it turns us into paper clips. So while the path of technology isn't always straight, it is somewhat predictable.

The hype cycle from Gartner is one example of that, especially with my minor edition of The Graveyard of Yesterday's Tomorrows, where so many of these promising technologies end up. So what are we to do? How do we not burn out? How do we not end up in that garbage heap? By recognizing that our worth is not only in the flawless execution of massively transformative projects, sometimes it's explaining how CSS works, again.

Or it's the hours spent finding the perfect analogy between the difference between a browser cache, load balancing, CDNs, and disaster recovery. It's the coffee at midnight when the people counting system just stopped working the day before an opening.

Our value is not in magically bringing forth some glistening perfect future. It's the dirt under our fingernails. It's the risks we, the risks we endure and the rewards we accrue are not made better or worse by the technology alone. They are made better or worse by our actions, our efforts, our blood, sweat, and tears. Our value is in showing up every day to help guide our teams, our organizations, our society through the necessary changes. The inevitable challenges and the promising opportunities that lie ahead. So a toast to the dirt under your fingernails while you make meaningful things.