Technologist-in-Chief: When Digital Reaches Museum Leadership

By Desi Gonzalez


As digital technologies have come to permeate contemporary culture, social life, and workplaces, museums have increasingly recognized their value. This is nowhere better illustrated than when #musetech reaches museum leadership. In 2014, the Peabody Essex Museum’s Ed Rodley noticed an increase in technology-related C-level positions, sharing that “it was heartening to see another colleague who combines a passion for museums with a deep understanding of digital technologies climb into the senior management ranks.”


Oh, the C-suite life: just like their private sector counterparts, many major museums have top-ranking executives whose titles generally start with the word “chief” and end in “officer.” The MCN Job History research team has been digging into 50 years of technology jobs at cultural institutions in order to understand the professionalization of our field. So far, we’ve notice a shift from focusing on data processing to user experience, reflected on how technological advancements are reflected in job descriptions, and investigated how one role central to museums—registration—has evolved due to the emergence of computers. Along the way, I’ve been interested in examining when technologists entered senior management in order to examine what that means about a museum’s commitment to digital technologies.


Focusing on the construction “chief blank officer,” I mined sources such as Museums and the Web, MCN archives, LinkedIn, newspaper job postings, and museum annual reports and press releases to compile a growing list of C-level roles in museum. (Feel free to suggestion any I’ve missed!) Of course, museums hire technologists in senior management roles with other job title formulations—prefixes include “deputy directors,” “associate director,” and “vice president”—but I chose to compare similar terms for the purpose of my research.


It’s been about 20 years or so that technologists have joined senior ranks and began to report directly to museum directors. The Guggenheim Foundation and the Cleveland Museum of Art hired their first chief information officers in 1996 and 1999, respectively; the Museum of Modern Art has had a CIO since at least 2001. The term chief technology officer was the next wave. The Metropolitan Museum of Art had a CTO as early as 2000, the Walters Art Museum hired one in 2008, and the Seattle Art Museum is currently searching for its first CTO with the goal of using technology to “amplify the museum’s mission and improve business operations.”


Both CIO and CTO positions tend to be more about providing a service: they generally house the information technology team and thinking about internal systems and platforms. (Of course, this isn’t always the case: Jane Alexander, in her role as CIO at CMA since 2010, has been at the helm of ARTLENS, one of the most ambitious suites of visitor-facing technology experiences.) More recently, we’ve seen the rise of the chief digital officer in museums: at the American Museum of Natural History in 2008, charged with leading “digital strategy formulation and implementation”; at the Minneapolis Institute of Art since at least in 2011; and the high-profile appointment of Sree Sreenivasan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2013, among others. (Cincinnati Museum Center announced the creation of a CDO role to oversee a technology vision for a consortium of cultural institutions just this year.)


These roles focus more on the external experience of digital technologies; in some institutions, the more traditional IT department is separate from the CDO’s purview. The emergence of the chief digital officer role in cultural institutions signals a move from viewing technology as something that supports the information systems and digitization to a more visitor- and audience-centered focus. Douglas Hegley, writing about his role as CDO at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, described how his division encompasses everything from digital collection management and information systems to software development and interactive media. For his museum, digital “is both service-oriented (reactive) and strategically-aligned (proactive).”


In 2015, Seb Chan was appointed the Australian Centre for the Moving Image’s first chief experience officer; a year later, Shelley Bernstein took on the same title at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Bernstein describes her main responsibility as “ put[ting] a leash on digital and, instead, shift[ing] the focus to better experiences regardless of how they are implemented.” Or, as Seb Chan put it, “What if the museum experience meant people wanted to put their phones away?” While they both come from technology backgrounds, they’re now thinking about museums in a post-digital way. What their #musetech backgrounds bring is a digital mindset, a design-thinking approach, and an appreciation for well-architected systems, but their final products do not necessarily have to involve technology—making them the perfect candidates to break down internal silos across the organizational chart.  


Currently, the Baltimore Museum of Art seeks a chief innovation officer—perhaps the first museum to hold such a post. The job seems to be hybrid of a chief communications officer and a chief digital officer, providing a vision for “digital and traditional marketing channels” via “imaginative and innovative approaches.” The advent of leadership roles in experience and innovation signals two things to me: first, that museums are catching onto the rhetoric of innovation and user experience permeating our culture today, and secondly, that many museums are adopting a visitor-first philosophy.

I turned to Google Ngram Viewer, which searches the frequency of words or phrases within Google Book’s corpus, as a way to get a sense of how #musetech leadership roles might reflect. Mining Google’s massive repository of books published between 1800 and 2008, an Ngram search serves as an approximation of a term’s importance within the zeitgeist overtime. Three “chiefs” turn out to be chief: information, technology, and innovation. The first two roles—“chief information officer” and “chief technology officer”—have long been present at major museums.


Like Ed Rodley, I am thrilled to witness technologists enter the ranks of upper museum management. As digital technologies become embedded in our everyday lives, it seems fitting that museums are creating senior positions—like CDOs and CXOs—that move beyond technical systems and contribute to a larger museum vision. Technology has historically been an unlikely path to leadership, but museum directors are increasingly recognizing the value of having digital experience as part of senior staff.


However, as digital continues to gain prominence in cultural institutions, I urge the museum technology community in particular and museum leadership in general to remember that the race to the top hasn’t been such a positive story for all. It’s no secret that museum directorships remain overwhelmingly white and male compared to overall staff demographics. How might we #musetech folks continue to celebrate the rise of our peers into senior ranks while working towards more diverse representation.