What We Talk about When We Talk about Museum Tech: MCN 2014

I wrote last year about my first Museum Computer Network annual conference, so I won’t reiterate my enjoyment and sense of wonder at this positive, upbeat, forward-thinking event. 

I participated in two panels last month in Dallas at MCN 2014, which, just as last year, was filled with the kind of people who make you hopeful for the future of museums and their ability to reach audiences who are changing  every day, both individually and in the aggregate. The first panel I was involved in, “Strategic and Smart Upstart? The State of Today’s Museum Digital Publication,” was organized by Kris Thayer and Diane Richard of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and covered how Adobe’s Digital Publishing Suite can be used to make enhanced art publications. Kris and Diane have created a beautiful digital magazine called Verso, which you should absolutely check out. (They wrote about Verso in Beyond the Printed Page back in the spring.) Since the Met hasn’t proceeded as far with its own pilot project in DPS, I spoke more about the experience of winning stakeholders over to a new type of publication, one ally at a time.

I also organized a panel called “User Experience: Towards a Grand Unified Theory of Museum Content.” Apart from the title’s megalomania and getting the first name of Jorge Luis Borges wrong on a slide, I think the panel went very well. The three speakers all provided very interesting takes on the way that museums talk about themselves, their missions, and their relationship to ideas and scholarship:

  • Corey Pressman, Anthropologist/Strategist (what a title!) at Metal Toad Media in Portland, Ore., toured the long history of ideas and scholarship and how museums turn these notions into the stuff that visitor experience is made of.
  • Jennifer Foley, Director of Interpretation at the Cleveland Museum of Art, delved into the language by which museums describe that stuff. What to even call it? Content? [Too corporate, Family-Feud-X-noise here] Ideas? Stories? [Jennifer pointed out that one antonym of "story" is "truth." Try telling your curators that their scholarship is the opposite of truth!] Narratives? [snore] Even her job title, Interpretation, is a word that the Met doesn’t use. Language itself is very much part of the discussion inside the museum.
  • Kimon Keramidas, Assistant Professor and Director of the Digital Media Lab at the Bard Graduate Center showed how digital tools can enliven curatorial research as well as gallery and visitor experience, giving examples of current and upcoming shows at the BGC.

Something about this year’s conference made a particular impression on me. One of the most well-attended panels was “How to Be an Agent of Change,” moderated by Allegra Burnette (formerly of the Museum of Modern Art and now Principal Analyst at Forrester Research) and featuring Douglas Hegley (Director of Technology at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts), Nik Honeysett (Director of the Balboa Park Online Collaborative), Carolyn Royston (a consultant who was until recently the Head of Digital at Imperial War Museums), and Charlotte Sexton (also a consultant, formerly Head of Digital at The National Gallery, London, as well as a past president of MCN). The panel was a who’s who of people who’ve engaged with and inside museums on the highest levels where technology meets scholarship and audience.

The discussion was very much about how one goes about working inside the institution to make change—and not just digital thingies—happen. If these are the “superheroes” of the museum content field, Douglas made the point that there are no true superheroes, no battles, no fights even, because when there’s a battle and someone wins, someone else loses—and it’s the museum that’s supposed to win, not one department or staff member. Institutions need frameworks and the maturity to handle the radical change that technology can bring to museums, both within and without.

Dealing with adversity

Dealing with adversity, or museum tech career advice?

The audience was transfixed, with plenty of questions that represented the frustration that technophiles and -phobes alike feel every day as they try to advance a seemingly innocuous and obvious agenda in the face of opposition. Is it all just about staying positive, banging your head into the nearest available wall, and then smiling and brushing brick dust off your forehead? Some of the advice both during the panel and in concurrent tweets suggested having a shared sense of mission, routing around failure, not waiting until everything is “ready,” and, most of all, “having the courage to be bold.”

While these slogans could all be the material of inspirational posters, the vibe in the room was dead serious—change is supposed to be hard. As Allegra said, we have to focus on helping museum visitors, not on being in our silos. People loved this panel, and though I’ve only been to two MCNs, this was one of the first and best attempts I’ve seen to focus on career arcs within the hybridized field of museum technology, where every museum is doing it a little bit (or a lot) differently, where one museum’s fear of change is another museum’s race to the future. To quote Oliver Twist, may I have some more?

A later panel, “Strategic Planning for Digital Success,” featured Douglas along with Anne Bennett (CIO of the Toledo Museum of Art), Richard Cherry (Deputy Director of The Broad Art Foundation), and Mike Osswald (Vice President for Experience Innovation at Hanson Inc.). This was also a packed house and provided a useful continuation of the Agent of Change panel, and I also felt a relationship to the User Experience panel I had organized: these internal discussions can become the very thing they’re talking about. It’s not about technology but about thinking about technology, or maybe thinking about thinking about technology. It’s planning all the way down. If your institution can’t properly have these discussions, you’re not going to get very far with new initiatives.

But what makes MCN special is that the planning always leads to something. Director of Digital Adaptation at the Blanton Museum of Art Koven Smith‘s tweet about how a minimum viable product isn’t a shortcut, it’s how you get a test ready for testing, is an important reminder that we have to get things done. “I don’t believe in failing often. I believe in building products that will test hypotheses,” he wrote. There’s a heavy presence of perfectionism in museum culture because its internal essence—scholarship—has to be as perfect as possible. Yet perfection isn’t what technology, with its agility and endless iteration, is about (a perfect technology is usually a recipe for dystopian sci-fi), and neither is visitor experience, with its constant tweaks and feedback loops and audiences moving on to the next platform to the alarm of museum directors. (Speaking of, the conference started off with its usual ignite session featuring several speakers, one of whom was Dallas Art Museum director Max Anderson. He told the room that it was progress leading to crowds and buzz and not big tech words and gadgets that got directors’ approval. “Help solve the museum’s problems using digital platforms,” he said.)

Is this tech perfect enough for you?

Is this tech perfect enough for you?

There’s a certain openness to failure at MCN because it gets us closer to success, and if that sounds like a recipe for getting fired, it’s more about being able to quickly turn challenges into lessons and then even more quickly into the next plan, in a cost-effective and no-bodies-strewn-about kind of way.

So if I do have a takeaway, it’s that we have to learn to look at ourselves and our institutions while also at the same time acting upon what we’ve learned. Considering what museums are up against today, it’s not supposed to be easy. 

And, of course, Because Karaoke …

Somewhere outside of Dallas …

Somewhere outside of Dallas …

The future of digital publishing is …

Web books, html5 books, web apps, open ebooks—whatever you call them, I am a proponent of these approaches to digital publishing and I’ve been happy to see they are gaining support in other places as well. Still, the big question remains: What do they look like, and how might we make them?

At the Museum Computer Network conference this year, I and two other panelists sought some answers for the field. After a quick overview of digital publishing today, we broke the session into three parts: I spoke about Git, GitHub (09:50) and open source software as an ad hoc and distributed approach to digital publication; Curtis Fletcher spoke about Scalar (29:57) as one of the leading examples of the packaged, open authoring and publishing platforms available today; and to demonstrate the possibilities of fully customized from-scratch web publications, Avery Swartz spoke about the rapidly growing collection of online books at the heart of the Art Canada Institute (54:36). The full audio synched with the slides is embedded below and available on YouTube.

I say at some point in the talk that I enjoyed putting these panels together to learn about the panelists’ projects for myself, as much as for the audience to do so. And that was definitely the case here. Some standout points for me were that Scalar includes built-in direct connections to a number of different image repositories, including the Getty’s collection, from which authors can import images directly and with complete metadata and caption information while also still maintaining a link to the original source (!); and I loved that Avery shared that even only a few years into the ACI project, they’d already had some lessons learned including a preference for responsive web design and the value of more extensive user testing.

All in all a very positive session, a good sign of things to come, and a great opportunity to learn more about what’s going on in digital publishing and some of the people making it happen!

Re: Another tool that might be worth looking into

I often write emails answering digital publishing questions and offering advice. And almost as often, I think I should just copy the email right onto the blog and share it with everyone. So, today I did.

Hi ______,

Good seeing you at MCN and I’m glad we got a chance to chat a little. I thought of one other tool that would be worth looking into. It’s called in5 and is an extension for InDesign that lets you export directly to HTML5, and it uses the same InDesign interactivity tools you would use to create a DPS publication. With the HTML5 export, you can post to the web, and, with the additional use of an open source tool called Baker, you can easily convert from HTML5 into a DPS-like app for iOS and Android.

There is a cost for the tool, but it’s modest. The creator of in5, Justin Putney, has written for the blog here. He is a very nice guy and could probably be hired to help on your publication if you’d want technical assistance. Or would certainly be able to point you to someone with experience using the tool.

Also, Adobe announced today they are discontinuing their Single Edition DPS offering. Which would mean were you to go with DPS, you’d have to sign up as a Pro or Enterprise user, which is really geared to making multiple DPS apps, and comes with potentially significant monthly and per-project costs. Adobe’s replacement for individual projects previously best suited for Single Edition is to suggest Fixed Layout EPUB (which InDesign can now export to), but honestly, to me those aren’t much more than glorified PDFs.


Times ergo sum

Is the increasing digital reality of museums any more real now that the New York Times has picked it up twice in a week?

Growing up in the DC area with New-York-born parents it was easy to think that nothing really existed until it was reported in the New York Times, or, in a stretch, Time magazine. (Yes, Millennials, it was once important.) Working in the New York museum world for the past [mumble-mumble] years only reinforced that, and maybe added “written about in The New Yorker” and “spoken about on NPR.”

So it was exciting to see that the Met, which sometimes gets the reputation of a limestone edifice, has been in the New York Times a few times recently for its ongoing digital transformation, whatever that might mean.

One story, “Museums Morph Digitally,” mentions the Met among other institutions—MoMA, the soon-to-be-reopening Cooper Hewitt and its amazing pen, the greater Smithsonian presence in DC. The article also discusses art-focused augmented-reality projects at Stanford University. There’s even a mention of Watson, the IBM computer that did really well at “Jeopardy!” (That sound you hear is a million curators rolling their eyes.) What exactly does it mean for a museum to morph?

What’s interesting is that the article cites the Met’s deputy director for collections and administration Carrie Rebora Barratt emphasizing that digital hasn’t hurt attendance or the museum experience, which can encompass those who want to use their devices and those who just want to wander through galleries. That of course is good news, though the question is, just who is that supposed to be reassuring—Luddite members or museum administrators and trustees?

The other Times story was a follow-up by the same writer, Steve Lohr, entitled “Digital Lessons from the Museum and Art World.” As if nodding extra-hard to digi-skeptics, he says, “As in most overview articles, some people interviewed were quoted in the piece and other voices were left out. The usual reason is for space and the related reason of sticking closely to the story line.”

Let’s get meta! His digital extension of a print-ish article includes two digital “voices,” those of the director of astro-visualization at the American Museum of Natural History, describing the very, very cool Digital Universe project, which uses big data to fill in a map of that biggest of data sets, the universe. (Okay, I guess the multi-verse is bigger. “It’s data all the way down,” to paraphrase.) The project was also the centerpiece of a very cool “Hack the Universe” event at AMNH last weekend (check out the hack-a-thon’s twitter feed at #hacktheuniverse). The other additional voice comes from Google’s data arts team, with a link to its Johnny Cash project. (Sounds like a good time to be a “project manager”.)

The point here isn’t that museums are doing great digital stuff (you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t believe it). It’s that perhaps this trend, years old, is finally reaching the most mainstream of the writing about the arts. The existence of tablets doesn’t scare the readers of print any longer. How many of us still provide long-distance tech support to parents trying to program their VCRs?

That this all is coming from the Times is slightly ironic, considering the role digital has had in its recent staff shakeups, including the firing/departure of executive editor Jill Abramson back in May. The “leaked” internal report on the need to improve the paper’s adoption of digital in the newsroom itself became required reading.

Museums know they’ve gone digital. What’s important to remember is that they haven’t stopped being analog. If the Times can find the point of digital among all the physical art, then we may be doing something right. If the Times acknowledges that it still has a ways to go to make digital work for something as fleeting as news, then we know we have a ways to go as well. 

PS: Hope to see you all at the Museum Computer Network in Dallas next week. I’ll be on two panels, and Beyond the Printed Page’s Greg Albers will be on one. Check it out!

Books in Browsers V: A digital publishing nerd’s heaven

Twenty-six talks lasting twenty minutes each spread over two days, Books in Browsers is scrappy, inspiring, humbling, exciting and exhausting. God, I love this conference.

I trolled the scrawls in my notebook for some highlights from this year’s edition (held October 23–24, 2014, at the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts in San Francisco) to  share with our staff here at the Getty, and have further annotated them here. Read below, on SlideShare, or download the PDF.

These were my main takeaways, and I think there are some important things in there to sink your mental teeth into, but I’ve still missed some fantastic material. The talks by James English & Leonard Richardson, from New York Public Library; Derrick Schultz, from Atavist Books and Creatavist; and Adam Hyde, from PLOS come immediately to mind. And there are certainly even more. So read the notes, check out the videos, and I’ll see you in San Francisco next year for Books in Browsers VI!

The notes were built as a live HTML file with deck.js (open source under the MIT License) and use Reenie Beanie (SIL Open Font License) from Google Fonts.