Oral History of Museum Computing: Seb Chan
This oral history of museum computing is provided by Seb Chan, and was recorded on the 4th of March, 2021, by Paul Marty and Kathy Jones. It is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license (CC-BY), which allows for unrestricted reuse provided that appropriate credit is given to the original source. For the recording of this oral history, please see https://youtu.be/cFBtz_qB4OY.
Okay, well, I guess, you know, I didn’t really ever intend to work in either IT or museums really, and I kind of fell into both. I’d been doing IT stuff for a long time previously, just in other parts of my life. I actually trained as a social worker and [as] a social researcher, and did a lot of music stuff and still do music stuff but I ended up in a job as I was doing my Ph.D. at the University of New South Wales. I never finished that, but one of the jobs I was that I ended up in IT support for the university library there.
And you know, I think working within the library at that time, this was in 1999, I ended up, well, I think I started there actually maybe a year or so before that, anyway… 1999, Y2K is coming around and all of the rest, and so I was working on the university’s Y2K project, and then, a job came up at the Powerhouse, the Powerhouse Museum, and someone said, “Why don’t you apply for that?”
And I got that job because their Y2K consultant [had done something terrible] and had to be walked off the premises, and they needed to hire someone really fast so I started at the Powerhouse in May, 1999. And a couple of years later, I was talking to the IT manager, Mitra Bhar, she was really amazing and really awesome, and Mitra was saying, “You know, Seb, you were like the third or fourth person on our list. You were not the top person we wanted to hire. No one else wanted it!” and I was like, “Great, thanks!” [Laughing] But you know, I’ve done a bunch of stuff since then there, so I felt Okay about that, but it was interesting [and highlights just how much luck is a factor in a career].
So I ended up by luck in the IT department at the Powerhouse as the IT Project Manager responsible for their Y2K Project and, of course, you know Y2K ends up sort of fizzling out, but that’s probably, although you could never really know for sure, because of the good work that was done and [type] of audits that were done. And I guess, you know, around that time, I was also doing a lot of writing for videogame magazines doing reviews and for the various computing magazines around Australia, I was a columnist and writing about [technology]. Tim Hart was the Director of Knowledge and Information Management there at the time, and Tim was Mitra’s boss, so, the IT Manager reported to Tim, and Sarah Kenderdine were doing this big Olympic Games project because Sydney hosted the Olympics in 2000, and when the Y2K project stuff was done, Tim realized I was doing all this stuff with 3D graphics cards and videogames at the time were… you needed to buy these expensive separate graphics, [specialist] graphics cards for [computers], you still do now — it’s bizarre that’s come back [around] to this, but anyway. So I was writing things for various magazines, “how to build a gaming rig”, and all this sort of stuff, and reviewing games and doing stuff with 3D graphics cards in a sort of hobbyist-enthusiast-specialist way and Tim was like, “Hey! You should come and work on this because we’re really struggling with getting the output of these of the 3D virtual Olympia we’re building to work properly. You know stuff about video games. Come and work on this! It’ll be fun and you know, I know that you do all this other creative stuff and going around doing the IT system administrator things, maybe you want to do this as well.”
I’m like, “Yeah, totally! Sure.” Because, you know, fixing people’s network problems and rolling out the new batch of leased desktop computers and stuff was, you know, a little… It was fine, but it wasn’t that exciting. Mitra also knew I was doing a lot of stuff with the Web too, so… Anyway, I worked on that that with Sarah and Tim, and then I went to the ACM01: Beyond Cyberspace conference (2001) with Sarah as her roadie. She was doing a presentation there on the virtual heritage piece that she’d built, a 3D model of Olympia, which involved going to Olympia [in Greece] and scanning the sites… She was working with a photographer back then who was making 3D stitched panoramas, spherical panoramas and using these Photoshop widgets to do that by hand – which we now do on our [smart]phones and it’s like, “We used to do that by hand, and it used to take these people weeks!” It was crazy, and then you had to use this a Java plugin to make it work in the browser. […]
So, I go to ACM01 with Sarah, and then Sarah, and then Tim ended up getting a job at Melbourne Museum and moving to Melbourne, and Sarah moved from the Powerhouse with him to Melbourne a couple of months later. Then Kevin Sumption became Director of Knowledge and Information Management… I think this was probably about 2003 then, or maybe 2002, anyway, between Tim and Kevin, there was this money that had come up through the State Government for new digital projects. These things occasionally occur down here [in Australia]…
The Powerhouse had this music lab, and electronic music lessons teaching kids how to use MIDI. And so [because of my background in electronic music], I ended up helping the music lab, the Soundhouse, move from MIDI to computer[-based production], sampling and all sorts of other stuff. And then – this is all a bit out of [temporal] sequence – then we applied for these grants, both to do a Virtual Powerhouse and to do a music social network thing… and we got the money and built [the projects] in 2003-04, there was Virtual Powerhouse and then there was Soundbyte an educational social network for the creation and sharing of electronic music that was both in the museum and out in schools. This is all before most of the other things that were going on [in collaborative online music production], but post-Napster, of course, so it was an interesting [time in digital music].
Those [web] sites completely failed for various reasons – they were built in Flash – also, they were just ahead of their time in many ways, and I think one of the interesting things around both those projects were that the Virtual Powerhouse project started off this notion of “how do you work with collections at scale?”. So that started to ask me, and some of the other colleagues I was working with, [how might we] create ways of connecting the [back office enterprise] collection management system directly to the Web and [new] public interfaces, something which at the Powerhouse hadn’t been done before. The SoundByte project helped us commission from one of my friends, [Kenny Sabir] who was an electronic musician and also programmer, a [real-time] networked sequencer. This is a decade before those things became even thought about in other places, I think. This was a piece of software that you download from the museum site that was called DASE [Distributed Audio Sequence Engine] and it was like network gaming, but for music creation, so it was peer-to-peer music sequencing.
So [DASE] was kind of amazing but, of course, the museum had no idea how to promote it, and all those things, so it “withered on the vine,” but it was good notion of how the museum might work with other creative people to bring some of those ideas into the world and to distribute them. Anyway, both those sites died. There’s little shriveled shells of them on the Internet Archive because they were made in Flash, and they weren’t captured properly. The archival memory of [those projects] is actually pretty low, but there was some pretty cool things in that stuff and I think Soundbyte, in many ways, was the better of the two projects, but Virtual Museum informed a lot of the future work that would happen, mostly because it was a really heavy duty way of, [manually] choosing 200 things from the Powerhouse Collection as “representative of the whole collection”. And through the work that went into doing that, we quickly realized you need to make a lot more of that available, and it was through the failure of that product project that it gave us the impetus to have to think about “could we make everything [in the collection] available?” And then, of course, over the next couple of years, by 2006, we had.
We’d also done some projects like Electronic Swatch Book, which was a very early use of social tagging, around the same time as the STEVE [social tagging in art museums] project was spinning up [in North America]… By this time I was [in a wider role as] manager of what was called ‘Web Services’ – Mitra Barr, the IT Manager, moved on to [work at] the State Government’s Education Department, and her last decree in the Powerhouse was to move me out of the IT team and create a new unit, which was [a combination] of digital and Web, which was really quite important. She said something to Kevin, [Sumption] like “You know, I’m doing this because I don’t think we want Seb’s stuff to be stuck in the IT team,” which was very good, and it was an acknowledgement that there was a space [for technology] that wasn’t IT, [and it also wasn’t in the] different department that did [science centre-style] interactive experiences on the floor at the Powerhouse.
[We] ended up in this situation where there was this weird competition between the Interactive Department, which had a very science center model, a lot of stuff made in Macromedia Director and who also made physical and mechanical stuff, and the new, emerging digital, but “not that sort of interactive stuff” on the Web. At the Powerhouse we had that Interactive team who reported into the Exhibitions group; the IT team that reported into the Operations group; and then, the Web group that was my group that reported to the Knowledge Management director – and that was separate but connected to Curatorial more than it was to Exhibitions.
Anyway, that institutional positioning was really valuable because [the Web] also wasn’t with Marketing, so it had this sort of different space to grow and different way to explore different ideas. Then Electronic Swatch Book comes about. That really came out of speaking with the curators, and the Curator of Fashion and Textiles, Glynis Jones, was showing us these [old] swatch books – these books in the collection that had fabric swatches in them. She was trying to figure out how to reduce the pressure on those because always students from the fashion courses near us would come in and request access to them, and of course they’re super fragile, and we were like, “Why don’t we just digitize them, and then give away images of the swatches, because they’re looking for patterns? They’re looking to be inspired.”
And, of course, those books were not catalogued by page, there were catalogued as a book. So you have [a lot of] books on a shelf and maybe 5,000 swatches in them, and what we needed was a way of someone finding a particular pattern.
Giv Parvaneh, who was in working with me as a programmer, he then subsequently left Powerhouse, went to the V&A, then went to California, ran a bunch of startups, I think, is still in the startup scene in California, but anyway. Giv was looking at Etsy one morning, and says, “Seb, we should do this thing where people can tag those patterns just by what they reckon they’re called. We should do that,” and, “Oh, we should do this search by color thing, too.” So I said “Yeah, we totally should, because then we can [have users] browse these by color.” He spun a prototype up very quickly, a very simple method of sampling, breaking up the images into a grid of 16 squares, and then sampling the most prominent color from each of them, and then creating an average of that, which was creating a [kind of] extra metadata, so, all of these individual photos had this additional metadata so the color metadata that was programmatically generated, I didn’t even want to call it ‘computer vision’ — it really wasn’t, it was very simple, but effective.
So, we made a little tool that did that, and then we were using the social tagging from the users to allow people to search by like “plaid” or “gingham” and things like that. And that happened before we put the Powerhouse Collection on the Web. It was really quite useful as a way of gauging how, and building an institutional tolerance, for folksonomies, with the curators directly, so that was popular. This was also around the time Flickr was spinning up.
George Oates was speaking at Web Directions, which is a big [annual] Web conference in Sydney. I’d spoken there previously, and knew the people who ran it. John Allsopp, the guy who was running it, and Maxine Sherrin are like, “You need to meet George.” So George came over to the Powerhouse and was talking with us and talking about how [Flickr] were using tagging, and all this other stuff, and then [the next year] Museums and the Web was in San Francisco, and then Aaron [Straupe Cope] and George [also] came to that, and Powerhouse was there, and I was there presenting all the work we’d done on the open collection, and then the [Flickr] Commons comes up, you know, all that sort of stuff, so it was this a [fortuitous] small network of people.
One of the really important things in the Powerhouse was that very early on, both Tim [Hart] and Kevin [Sumption] had realized, and I think this was through Museums and the Web, and ICHIM, too yeah, that David [Bearman] and Jennifer [Trant] used to run, that through that and through that work in the 1990s – and Kevin was running AMOL [Australian Museums On Line] before at the Powerhouse as well, which was ‘the museum aggregator’ across Australia, which turned into a thing called CAN [Collections Australia Network] that was one of my group’s projects later on – I think through that, then there was a big realization institutionally that travel, particularly from Australia was absolutely important and you would probably sacrifice other things before you cut the travel budget – I think that distilling that that really important thing of being in a far away place, but with senior staff who realized that travel was really important for projects and project success, and or sort of fed this notion of meeting with peers and learning from others and being much more open, which then really informed the strategies that I’ve done since with my teams and what I’ve done subsequently, that everything, all the work, has been about trying to push things out, rather than just serve the needs of the institution in a very localized way.
Anyway, so there’s lots of stuff going on [too] – Web redesigns, and probably by the time I left Powerhouse, there were 50 different projects that had their own microsites and [web] pages and it was just symptomatic of the way that things got funded and you know, I think it was good, because lots of stuff got done, but it was [also] difficult. A lot of people who worked on those teams, went off to other things and ran other groups, and have realized that this is a challenge of ‘how do you institutionalize the good stuff and change the core operations’? And I think that’s very difficult when it’s incremental and project based, and so work like the Cooper Hewitt and all this work here in Melbourne at ACMI [Australian Centre for the Moving Image] – this last decade, for me – is about the institutionalizing of the previous decade [of work], so rather than taking a projects approach – can you rebuild the entire museum around the notion of ‘building-in’ technology and innovation, of constant iteration of insight and learning? And of course, that’s run alongside a huge visitor and user focus…
Then you get to the Cooper Hewitt-era, and we ended up making physical devices again and those physical devices are a nightmare, because they involve [building with] atoms as well as code. That atoms piece has opened up a lot of new interesting opportunities, making physical devices, and now here [at ACMI], making devices that are recyclable – what we’ve just launched here in Melbourne with the ACMI Lens is a fully recyclable, take-home device – that sense of the ‘physicality of stuff’ opening up new opportunities, but bringing much more complexity and this has come at a time when screens have proliferated [across our lives] and all of that. I don’t know if Aaron [Cope] told you the story of the Cooper Hewitt Pen and going to Spain. Did Aaron talk about going to Spain and the manufacturing in Taiwan?
Okay. So you know the Pen, when we were kicking around the idea [of ‘taking the collection home’] with Local Projects, Jake Barton was working [on the planning] for the museum. Local Projects were working in the concept phase as a subcontract of Diller Scofidio + Renfro who were appointed as the museum designers, the architects for the design. This is just before [then Cooper Hewitt director] Bill Moggridge died unexpectedly. When I [arrived at Cooper Hewitt] Bill had just kicked off the redevelopment but had not appointed anyone [to be the designers]. Diller Scofido + Renfro were selected as the architects, and Bill came to me and and said, “We want to appoint a firm to do the interaction design, the interactive stuff that you’ve been talking about, Seb. DSR has recommended this firm,” who actually would have been really good. I’d been at a conference with Jake, very early on in Local Projects’ history when I went to the Netherlands for a week to work on this [National Museum project], and I was, “Look, we should get a couple of other people to bid for this, because it might be a given, we’ve gone with DSR, we want to have someone that’s not going to be as bound to the architecture as their preferred consultant might be.” If you have the interaction people reporting to the architect, the architect always dominates. Because of the structure [of building projects]. Local Projects won the bid and were paired with the DS+R.
DS+R was responsible for presenting the overall [initial] concept to the museum. Jake rings me up the night before [the big presentation] and said, “Seb, you know, we’ve got this crazy idea. I don’t know if DS+R is even going to present it, so I just wanted to run you through it first.” I said, “What is it?” He’s like, “Well, what if we have pen for like visitors to get?” I was like, “Yeah, that’s great. That’s really genius. Let’s make it happen. And if DS+R doesn’t let you present that, I am actually going to ask in that meeting tomorrow, “I’ve heard this rumor about this thing called a pen. What is that? Tell us about it, Jake.”
So DS+R, to their credit, let them present it, and everybody loved it, and it was really interesting but, but then of course it was just an [stock] image on the [presentation] screen of a stylus, like one you bought off the shelf, which of course, is nothing like actually making it, and you know, as per the Museums and the Web paper [published in 2015], a year out from the opening of the museum [in 2013], we still had no way of making the freakin’ thing.
So, Aaron [Cope] and I and a bunch of others with the [then] Director, Caroline Baumann – she’d pulled a lot of strings and had pulled in the Chief Marketing, CMO of General Electric (GE) who was on the Board, Beth Comstock. Caroline Baumann rings her up and goes, “Look, Seb and Aaron and the team want to get some time with GE’s product designers because you guys do this all the time.” So she’s like, “Yeah sure. Sure, we’ll just fly everybody in and we’ll do a meeting and you would get a couple of days,” like fantastic, great, cool.
And, of course, that generates more noise and more chaos, but it was good, and we realized at that point, this is really hard, and it was way beyond you know what Jake and Local Projects really knew about too. They were excited about it, too. We’d reached out through a couple of the Kickstarter projects that were [also] doing styluses at that point, and said, “Can get the unit cost down on this and can we put a chip in it and stuff?” And they’re like, “Yeah, maybe.” [But it wasn’t looking good].
Anyway, so, then we ended up working with this strategy firm in New York [Undercurrent], that has also now folded, but was very into that intersection of product, and tech, and network tech. And we found a firm in Spain [Sistelnetworks], who manufactured something that was very similar, called V-wand. It was used in health care to register patients from [patients’] little [RFID] wristbands. We [also] also looked at wristbands. Funny story about those, I don’t know if Aaron has told you this, but wristbands – so we were sitting around going, “You know those Slap Bands that kids had, where you slap it, it sticks on you? Could we do that? You know, we could put a chip in that it would be really easy.”
I talked about some of the ticketing systems that I’d seen at Science Museums and the Powerhouse had experimented with in the past – those NFC wristbands that you get at [music] festivals now. The [Disney] Magic Band was also a thing, of course, too. So the Slap Bands felt cheap, and we’re digging around that, and actually DS+R’s Rick Scofidio was “Yeah, we should just do that, that seems pretty good.” And Jake’s going, “Yeah, it’s not gonna be very good, because its not a pen, but yeah, ‘Okay, whatever’.”
And then we did a bit of digging about Slap Bands, because we all asked ‘why are they so hard to find [these days]’? [It turned out] they were banned in New York schools in the late 1990s because kids were taking off the wrapping and using them as weapons to cut each other!
So we found the V-Wand [from Sistelnetworks]. The V-Wand was ugly as hell, but the company seemed legit, so we reached out to them with the designs from GE and said, “Look, would you manufacture a new one of these for us? It doesn’t need memory, it just needs to do this. We’ll pay you this amount of money, what do you reckon? Can you get it done in the time and the cost?” And they’re like, “We can probably do that.” So we did that, and they had to work with their manufacturers in Taiwan, and we’ve got this great video of the pens being made in Taiwan in 2014. It’s frickin’ great.
There was a furious rush trying to get these pens manufactured and, of course, making [only] 3,000 devices is not commercially viable really for anybody. I think it’s actually very challenging. The unit cost of them was $200-ish, which actually was pretty good, and then, of course, the problem becomes batteries, AA batteries, and there were so many meetings where we were talking about “what’s the battery life, and how long are they going to last?” And we managed to get the battery life down to, I think 28 days, we had this sort of limit of we can’t make it less than that because you got 3,000 pens on the floor…
How are staff going to replace the batteries in [the Pens] less than every month? If it’s every month, it’s manageable, but imagine taking, unscrewing each Pen with the secure cap because you have to design the Pen so [visiting] kids can’t get the batteries out. There was things like, “Well, what if the kids unscrew the top of the thing and swallow it?” And all the overhead of Smithsonian risk assessment is intense, you know? “What if someone whacks someone with a, with a Pen? They’re heavy, and you know, what if, what if, Sammy hits Johnny with one of these, and pokes an eye out?”
It’s like, Oh my God, people! This is why these things are hard, but also this is institutions getting in their own way, you know? It’s madness! Anyway, so we’re doing all this stuff, and then the Pen arrives, and of course it doesn’t have batteries [already] in it. So, there’s this great photo that’s been floating around on social media for a while of all the curators and all of the Cooper Hewitt staff – of which there weren’t that many actually, in the grand scheme of things – it’s about a third the size of Powerhouse Museum staff – putting batteries in these Pens. This is an effort, but it was totally worth it, and was really good for the institutional brand and all of that, but really at the end of the day, the Pen was a distraction.
The Pen was a fancy thing that got a lot of press and worked actually pretty well. But the real innovation there was bringing all that stuff together and giving it muscles, which I don’t think it’s really exercised since. I think that’s one of the real unfortunate legacies of the Cooper Hewitt is that Director left for reasons, and also the key staff left for reasons as well. But once all that happens, the institutional memory – once you have a certain critical mass of people leave – it becomes very hard to carry on the work that’s been done, and [new] people come in and don’t want to carry it on then, because they don’t see [why], [and] they lack a curiosity for those stories [of why].
I think it’s interesting the real challenges that it showed, but it also showed that a small institution in terms of staff can actually do quite radical things that radically reshaped who comes to it and its brand positioning. If what was an effectively a ‘well designed novelty’, but a novelty that had a really serious underpinning to it, and really good design behind it? Everything that could have possibly gone wrong with that project did: a Director dying, funder challenges, you know, all the kind of complexities in manufacturing troubles with… when you have manufactured the thing, the labels not reading because DS+R had made all the physical [structural] work of the [museum] labels [out of] metal, not realizing that the NFC [works with a magnetic field] and that having a metal label isn’t going to cut it, so we had to get shielding that sat between the label and the NFC tag underneath it.
All this additional stuff that, again in hindsight, you would have picked up. Nowadays, I would… The very first thing when I moved to Melbourne, I was, “well, now I know things with coordination knowing technology, knowing the specifics of the tech better. We can do this much better, much faster, and we can set the project up in a way that the architecture layer, the experience layer, and all of those things are designed so that they actually complement each other rather than work against each other.”
I think that’s just the nature of the tech too.
I mean that’s the other thing I’ve learned is that there’s no perfect way to do any of this, and if you’re doing stuff at the edge of what’s possible, then stuff’s going to go wrong, and you just need to build that contingency in so it’s Okay. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing. But I think organizations have to feel comfortable that if you’re doing new exciting stuff, there is no road map or plan, you have a direction you’re heading and things can things can and will go wrong. And it’s your ability to adjust course as a result of that that’s key.
The procurement practices of institutions really work very hard against that, and I think a lot of the work that I was doing behind the scenes around that, and also the [ACMI] project here in Melbourne has been working with lawyers. Even some of the stuff at Cooper Hewitt around the digital preservation work and the open sourcing of Planetary, the work that Aaron [Cope] and I acquired for the Collection, amongst many other things, or some other things that we acquired, was really work with [Smithsonian] General Counsel getting them to be confident and find solutions, rather than raise all the risks – again, one of the greatest and most useful things that Lauryn Guttenplan, who was the Chief Counsel for the Smithsonian (I think she still is) – one of the first things she said to me, before I’d asked very difficult stuff about copyright was, “Seb, don’t ask me questions you don’t want to know the answer for. Ask me questions that I need to find a solution to help you get to ‘yes’ on.” – “Tell me what you want to do, don’t ask me whether I think you should do it.” [Laugh] It was a really useful thing, and I’ve used that lesson since. Every time we talk to legal advice here in Melbourne too, we’re like “Okay, we want to do this, how do we make this within the bounds of the law, rather than. ‘is it legal?’” That’s been very successful. I think that this is ‘risk appetite’ and developing a risk appetite, and being comfortable with that risk appetite rather than just risk assessment being about mitigating all the possible risks, it’s like, how much appetite have we got for risk? “Okay, we don’t have any appetite around people getting hurt, but we do have an appetite around systems being down for 24 hours. That’s Okay if it helps us do better stuff”. Or we do have tolerance for having less [technical] support for weird things because the weird things are what makes things interesting, or less human resource for that, or whatever, you know. Whatever it is so that risk appetite piece has being really key, and so anyway, with Lauryn, you know, we’re trying to work through this notion of acquiring Planetary, and she was, “Fine. Isn’t that just an acquisition?” We’re like, “Well, you know, it’s a piece of software.” And she’s like, “Okay, so what are you acquiring? Okay, you’re acquiring the software. Oh, but Seb, you want to give it away? What do you mean? You’re open sourcing it. Okay, well that should be alright. Do the people who made it own all the bits of it?” “Well, not really, because it’s made up of [code] libraries that are also open source, in part.” “Oh, can they declare ownership of that?” “Well, no, because they’re open source libraries.” “Okay, so let’s…” So again, you know, working through this other challenges around trying to get to “can we do it?”, and we did, of course, and it was interesting and it was interesting as a model.
Funnily enough, it took nearly five years for the emulation that I had bet would happen if we open sourced it, to happen. This piece of software called Planetary was written for the for the iPad, for iOS, and it was one of the early versions of iOS, and it stopped working I think about iOS 10. And the open sourcing of the code, when it was acquired was non-functional, because we were already up to iOS 11, I think – whatever was one version ahead – so the open sourced code could never be actually compiled, and work.
And it took until 2019, 2020 for it to be actually be fixed, and it was by somebody who had come across the source code because a friend of theirs had heard about it, and they happened to live in Sydney. You know it’s like, “Wow, that’s kind of hilarious!” So they’re people who knew us from the past. Someone who knew our work from the Powerhouse — one of their friends, and was like this weird small world thing. So, an Australian person had sort of rebuilt the thing that an Australian had helped the Smithsonian collect. Like, what the hell! That’s kind of weird!
It’s again, one of the things that Aaron used to always say in the office was, “Yeah, you museum, people are so impatient! You just have to have patience on stuff. You have got to let things have time to build interest and community and usage.”
Anyway, that’s a bit rambling.
So that’s some of the Cooper Hewitt stuff, and I am now here in Melbourne, again coming back to Australia, mostly because the Director pitched a really interesting rebuild, which was going to not have the problems the Cooper Hewitt had structurally, was really exciting and my kids were sort of reaching middle school age, and I was, “Eh, I don’t really want to do that in New York.” And Cooper Hewitt became… strangely difficult around my visas, so again being a “non-resident alien” was challenging and, for some reason, the Smithsonian found it very difficult to actually renew my visas for me and I was “Why am I paying for this? This is a better offer, I’m going to do it and leave.”
So I did, and coming back to Australia brought a lot of understanding of the complexities but into an institution that really didn’t really do anything with its collection – and its exhibitions and programs were certainly not about its collection. And now we’ve [ACMI has] just reopened and we have the collection right up front, and a Media Preservation Lab, we have a whole bunch of stuff going on with digital preservation now that wasn’t happening previously. All new exhibitions and stuff. We’ve done this thing called the Lens, which is really the reverse of the Pen, so instead of borrowing a device you have smart labels and you have a dumb take-home device with you, you move through the galleries with, and there’s all those things that we couldn’t do at Cooper Hewitt. The reason we didn’t put the smarts in the labels at Cooper Hewitt was because we were told there was a risk of fire if that happened – if we put electronics in the wall labels, then we would be affecting the risk of the objects, precious things catching fire from them somehow. I don’t know necessarily how that would occur, but again, risk assessments are weird.
Here in Melbourne, fortunately we didn’t have that problem, and again, so we’ve ended up with an infrastructure that is much smarter than the things visitors carry around with them. Which is good, and opens up all these new opportunities […] Having a Director and Board that has been very excited about the possibilities of tech, and a Director who’s come from the festival world, she’s been very up for risk, and she’s very open about [it]. We might do 10 things and three of them might be disastrous failures. That’s perfectly fine. “What did we learn so we don’t do that again from them? Or how do we make that a better idea?” And that [philosophy] been across everything. That has been really, really great, and, I think, with the IT teams here, everything is below the waterline. Everything that you see as a visitor – almost all the work that happens to make that seem seamless is invisible. I just spent this morning actually working with all my teams, now Marketing and Design and all those other operational teams too, Front of House and all of that around folks we know, you’ve worked with just open to building.
ACMI launched a new brand. We’re doing all this stuff, you have to make your work visible, so finding ways, taking all the stuff that I’ve done from Powerhouse days with the blogging and all of that and you have to tell people about the work you’re doing. You can’t just show what got done. You have to show how it got done, and what it achieved, because otherwise, [people] don’t realize how much work it actually was to get to where we’ve got to. So if that makes an amazing ad campaign or new trailers for the cinema, show the process, because otherwise no one knows, and in fact, that’s one of the things for the museum’s curation as well, with the whole new institutional mandate.. A manifesto around why – I would call it ‘visible transparent testable curation’.
We were in an institution that historically, because it hasn’t really done stuff with its collection, [ACMI] hasn’t had a visible opinion. It’s put stuff on, but it’s been, if you look at it from afar, like programming an art centre. The art centre has [an aura of] neutrality to it, because it hosts stuff. It’s just a host, but now, also coming out of ‘museums are not neutral’ awareness and decolonializing, and all other things that museums are doing this, notion of making your curatorial opinions visible and owned is super important, and then contestation – how do you allow people to contest them is absolutely critical, so again, applying that to all the stuff we’re doing.
We’re focused a lot on process, and focused on surfacing that process, not only of the stuff that the people we work with do: artists and creators and makers and filmmakers, the game makers, TV makers, special effects, all that stuff showing how that’s done, not [just] showing the final thing, but then showing the how that was done. We also have been doing that, with our own internal work – so showing how the sausage is made in the museum to the people eating the sausage has been interesting. And you know, that comes with unexpected challenges.
I think now with PR and Comms and Marketing reporting into me too, I’m also aware that sometimes when the sausage is made, [there are] things [that] go into the sausage you might not want the person eating the sausage to know about, and that can become a big PR nightmare. So again, getting a comfort level around being an institution that shows itself, warts and all, and that’s part of the brand, I think is really been an ongoing piece of work that is […] something I’ve learned from technology projects, and I would hope my teams have too, that technology projects have sort of led the way on that stuff that is held together with sticky tape and rubber bands, and we’re showing that to everybody and that’s Okay.
I remember when, the year after I started, we hosted an exhibition, a Martin Scorsese exhibition, and there were some costumes in that, and I remember one of the curators pointing out to me on one of the tours like, “Hey Seb, you know this costume, this dress, doesn’t have a back. This suit doesn’t have a back?” I’m like, “Yeah, it’s really interesting. So the actor’s wearing that on camera, but because their own way of shooting it from the front to save money, they don’t make the rest of the costume on the back.”
And that’s like museum tech. There’s a lot of stuff where we only make what’s necessary. Same if you’re selling video games. When they make those great triple A (AAA) video games, some of those virtual worlds, they are only shells, or there’s only one side of the building because that’s all you’re ever going to see [as a player]. The virtual cameras are ever going to see the one side. What’s the repeating texture or whatever […] the space now that I do around this new museum of media, the process of media has allowed us to build an identity that’s a bit more okay with showing the tricks of the trade, in a way that perhaps an art museum in a traditional sense is still a little wary about. And also, I think, science museums too were wary of showing the tricks, and it’s “well, the visitors are interested in the tricks, they want to know how you did this.” It’s Okay. It’s not going to mean they’re not going to come.
I often tell the story of my interest in YouTube magic. Magic shows, and how stage magicians have adapted to YouTube, and all that centuries of “never tell how a trick is done” is thrown out the door because YouTube means there’s an opportunity to explain how the tricks are done because the watcher can slow it right down – sleight of hand and illusionist tricks – they can slow the frame rate right down, and you can see the card coming out of the sleeve, which you could never see at full speed. So that’s showing it, building a different audience and I think that’s been interesting, and I’ve been interested in that ‘magic’ piece, too, because it feels like technology for the last 20 years has been going through that same period that from the 1890s to the 1920s, where magic shows were our cultural way of dealing with electricity. The arrival of electricity and the consumerization of it feels very similar to that of network tech. The magic of network tech, the magicians are different, but there’s a lot of similarities. The showing [of] the magician’s process is [a] really important literacy piece for our visitors, but it is also for ourselves, you know.
[Marty]: I was just about to say that, that’s funny, just yesterday, I watched Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige.”
Oh yeah, exactly. Yes, yeah.
[Marty]: I had never seen it before, but it’s, you’re, it’s exactly what you’re talking about, right?
Exactly. That’s exactly what it is. That period of time feels like this period of time.
[Marty]: That’s a really great metaphor. And you’ve covered so many fascinating philosophical shifts as you’ve gone through this history of museum computing, and I probably don’t have time to pull on all the threads, but maybe choosing one. There’s this idea that the process is more important than the product, and that’s an important shift in that what we learn from doing this project is more important than the final thing.
Yeah, very much.
[Marty]: And if you lose what you learn… how do you keep that institutional knowledge? I mean, look what happened to the Cooper Hewitt, right? How do we, how do we, how do we encourage people to grasp that philosophical shift in museums?
I think it’s about documenting as you go, and publicly doing it. And I think that the impact of blogging for me in 2005 or ’04 or whenever, [my blog] Fresh and New starts as a departmental blog of my team, which ended up predominately being me blogging at Powerhouse, so that came with me when I left Powerhouse. Writing in public. I think Paula Bray, who was in my team at Powerhouse. She went on to run the DX Lab at State Library at New South Wales, and you can see, in their work, they publish not only blogs about their process, but they also publish the code about their process too, so that’s been really good. I think there’s a lot of ways of doing it, it’s just that building the time in to do it is very hard.
And ACMI, my teams there, I don’t think the lab’s blog has been updated since December. We’ve launched a new museum and it’s really, really hard to build that time in.One of my senior staff, Lucie Paterson is actually off today writing about six posts that will be coming out. She’s got to finish a Museums and the Web paper, painful as it is, which I’ve then got to add all my bits to, which is the whole process stuff. Again, that sort of communication of the process as you go is really important, I think that’s been key to the practice, but different teams have really struggled with that, so here in Melbourne, [we are] trying to institutionalize that with other teams. [It] has been very challenging, [for example] getting the exhibitions team to write about stuff they [do], the last post we got was actually really, really good, which was talking about the way during COVID they have adapted to ‘remote installing’ – we have a big touring exhibition program and, in fact, our Dreamworks exhibition took out the top two most visited [art] exhibitions in [the world] in 2019, [those] spots went to two venues in Brazil, which was crazy.
Our big touring shows, they have to do those all completely remotely because of COVID, so you have to take someone through how you set it up, which is hard, so they talked about that was very difficult for them to abstract themselves from the blog post as promotion.
I think between myself and Shelley [Bernstein] at the time [2005-2012] there was a bunch of us who were writing furiously about what we were doing, and the act of writing, the warts and all, was the promotion, but we weren’t seeing it as promotion, we were seeing it as being part of a community of people, a global community of peers. Shelley would write a post, we would read it and go, ‘Wow, we should try that!” And I know that Shelley’s team would do exactly the same, so it was this sort of really fun community competition almost, but it was a process sharing. I think that has been somewhat lost, and I would also say that, in some ways, finding technical staff who are good at writing is also something that people don’t necessarily say, but we had a developer, when I joined [ACMI] in Melbourne, the developer we had then was an amazing writer. His posts were incredible, and really beautifully written and really interesting, but he’d never been asked to write before, you know, and he was actually turned out to be a really amazing writer [who could] go off and write a book, and it was great.
I think sometimes how we communicate, and I’ve sometimes worried that we do this now by video and that’s terrible for search and other things, and again no one wants to write documentation. The documentation is important, but documentation as Aaron says to me, is not storytelling. You need documentation and storytelling. And the stories are really super important. That’s what excites me about this project. It’s the stories that matter, because the stories are the reason why you might read the documentation.
There’s a certain sense of technical literacy that people need to have, and I think that’s the other challenge for the field. As museum tech has considerably expanded to social media and content creation, there is a little bit of a risk that the technical skills are lost or not valued. I was talking to one of the firm’s we have working on Web development with us – we do a lot of Web development in house as well – and they were really stuck on a performance issue, and it got escalated to me, for some reason. I said, “this is weird, what’s happening?” and “Okay, so if I dig back into my system administration past, when I go back 20 years, have you tried this?” And they’re like, “It’s not going to work, man. That’s totally not gonna work.” They do [my solution] and the CPU usage drops 50 percent. It worked. It was better than their consultation. I’m out of the game. I don’t do that stuff anymore, but some techniques, and basic technical knowledge about how things might work. It’s important you know?
So I’m not dissing them at all, it shouldn’t be like that, but even when people go up in the organization, we need technicians. We need people with technical skill and the people who manage them also need some technical knowledge, some contextual awareness, at least. Having someone who’s been great at content or education or social media or videomaking coming in and managing a team that is responsible for technical stuff with no technical background is a risk.
[Marty]: You lived through this, and it’s the same time period that, I that I lived through, right? And it’s the same shift from, “Well, IT are those people who are plugging in computers in the back room, right?” to “IT is doing all of this online content creation and creating new experiences.” And then we’re like, “Well, wait a minute. We still need some of that tech stuff that’s back there.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah. At the same time that IT has become consumerized, so the other thing I’ve been working with my IT team for the last five years, the back of house enterprise systems team, is “You need to learn communication skills. You need to tell people what they what you’re doing, and you need to be user focused”.
And they have found that really hard. Technical people sometimes suck massively at [communication], they get in their own way, they’re like, “Oh, but if we tell the users this, they’ll go and break it.” And [on the other hand] it’s, “If you don’t [tell the users], they will route around it, and you’ll be supporting 50 things you hate.” I think everybody has the story of “Why is it much easier for me to collaborate on Google Docs than it is for me to collaborate on Word? What the hell? So I’m going to use Google Docs, but we are supposed to use Word for security?”
It’s like, “Yeah, but Google docs is better, because it works, you know,” – all that stuff, so IT has been squeezed in this.
My marketing team does all the social media stuff, and I’m trying to find a product owner for like Google Analytics, because “Guys, I used to teach people this, but I’m not going to be the person who is… I shouldn’t even be looking at this. Somebody needs to do this. You’ve all had this training now. Who is going to make the technical changes to it?”
Last week I am in [Google Analytics], doing stuff – that’s not my role, and it would be like the director of the organization moving an object on a wall in a case. I can, but I shouldn’t have to, and I guess it’s that the complexity of technical literacies that are required are broad, and institutions need to spread that literacy across them, but you got to find ways to, yeah, it’s all right, and I mean, it’s really tough.
Technology and IT are changing, but also so is everything else, we are in a period of massive change, and it’s just got more challenging with COVID across everything. It’s across our lives as well. We all have experiences of trying to help our parents figure out how to – my mum is now in her 80s and she’s still got a university email address as an emeritus professor and they change her password once every six months and it’s a nightmare, it’s really difficult. They can’t help her change it. I [live] in another state, so it’s very difficult from I have to remote[ly support her]. I have to talk to her over FaceTime and Zoom and help her figure out where to change all that stuff.
I think that complexity, that [creates] flight or flight responses – some will outsource all of that, but if you outsource it, you need somebody really technically knowledgeable so you don’t get ripped off, and you make good choices. If you outsource it, it brings a whole other set of difficulties… I talk about institutional muscles needing to be built around particular things, strategically chosen what you want to build those muscles in, but you gotta build muscles in things you’re going to exercise with. There’s no point going to workout at a gym if you’re not going to keep working out at the gym. (I hate the gym, by the way, so I’d never do that, I would go for a walk, I will continue to walk) It’s like use the, build the muscles you’re actually going to use, [and] sometimes you need help to figure out what they might be.
[Marty]: Yeah, as you say, you need to keep using the muscles as well…
You do, yes.
[Marty]: Thinking about what that says about the institutional memory, I worry that we’ve lost a decade’s worth of institutional memory.
We have. I think sector wide, we’re back in where we were at the end of the ‘90s, and lots of people have left and a lot of projects [have died]. In talking to Paula [Bray] and talking to the people like Ben [Vershbow], who used to be at New York Public Library Labs, people like that… A lot of their work has been really, really influential and important, but it never got folded into general operations, where it would have gotten supported and done – all because general operations hated the idea of having to change the legacy stuff. And so, there’s this big friction around, how do you do experimental projects that then change the core? And I think that’s where the Cooper Hewitt work was really good. We did the work and changed the core and for “reasons, problems” – too many people left. ACMI, we did the work, we changed the core, we have different things… we really focused on, the key to the experimental stuff is to always find ways to build them into what the core business [and] core operations are, and if you can’t do that, make it the new core business.
So that’s where the API is. I mean what the museum is great, but you have to use [APIs] internally, don’t just make them for outside people. Force everybody internally to use those at those APIs. Do everything you do in the future with it.
[Marty]: By the way, I should let you know that I still use the Cooper Hewitt collections API example when I talk about APIs in my Museum Informatics class.
Oh man, I hope, it’s still working. I think they’re going to turn it off soon because they don’t know what to do with it.
[Marty]: It’s still up. It was up last year.
That’s good, well yeah, I am worried, I mean Aaron and I are often saying, “What the hell? Yes, why would you build another one? It’s there, learn the basics because whatever you make is not going to be better.”
[Marty]: Well, and again we’re back, I think, also to philosophical shifts — talk about the 1990s. I mean there, there are some things that I think we’ve made progress in. Open access, I think we’ve come a long way in accepting that. And, and I would also argue that we’ve come, we’ve come some way in being acceptable… How am I going to phrase this? Let me try this. So in the 1990s, I remember talking to a lot of museum registrars who would say, “Oh, we’re really reluctant to put any of our information online, because we know it’s not accurate, it’s not 100% perfect.”
And we’ve changed that. That’s changed.
[Marty]: Right, so, so I’m seeing positive philosophical shifts in the people who are working in museums. But at the same time, I worry about the knowledge we’ve lost, and we’ve invested… we’ve put so much money in so many projects. With my Museum Informatics students, I tend to use Second Life as an example. You look at all the money museums put into Second Life, knowing full well that that was never going to be a long-term solution, but what you’re building is an understanding of how to work with technology like that. You’re investing in your staff.
That’s right, yeah.
[Marty]: Yeah, you’re not investing in some virtual island somewhere.
Yeah, that’s right. It’s the problem of people seeing investment in terms of product outcomes rather than process outcome. So you invest in Second Life, not for creating a world in Second Life, but from what you learn from the process of doing that, and that’s why you invest in it. But, if I’m being harsh, I don’t think many people in museums are in an environment where they are able to, or feel they’re able to talk about it like that. And you know, when I was talking to Bloomberg for the Cooper Hewitt and subsequently, they’re very aware of the huge amounts of money that they’ve funded into things, and I often said that to them. “This is a process change, it’s not about making products.” And they’re like, “Yes, exactly.” “Okay, so why does everybody who gets your money think they have to acquit it against the series of products that have been made?” And like, “We try to tell them they don’t have to do that.” But I think the people who are doing the acquittals, the staff who are running them oftentimes staff have also come out of backgrounds where they’ve been making those products and education [often it] has been – do this particular thing and then you report, how many people came, and sign it off and get your money…
It’s not like that with this. It shouldn’t be like that, but not enough people think about it or able to communicate that internally – and build alliances and coalitions around that well. And I think a lot of people being asked to do lots of jobs at once. That doesn’t give them that flex time and I would say it’s a deterioration of the networks of people that were so good in the 2000s. When I would go to MW – there would be transformational moments because of the networks that people were [part of were] really good. You go chat to people, you’d go to this session, you catch up with them, there were good mixes of people. I just don’t think it’s like that now, I really don’t. I think it’s a different mix of people. I just came off [talking at] Museum Next, it was fantastic. Now I know…
[Marty]: I heard it was amazing. Good.
Yeah, amazing. Totally amazing. Very different. Very different type of conversation, a lot of conversation about content, nothing about the pipes, processes, structures, products that that content runs on – because it’s too complicated and opaque for people. And all the old people like us, a little bit jaded. I have to say I’m [sometimes] intolerant. People know that I just have no time to talk to someone who is [not interested]. [But] I do talk to students, and I spend a lot of time [with them] actually… I remember [a museum friend] saying, “I never speak to students. Seb, that’s so annoying.” I’m like, “No, you have to speak to students! You’ve got to do it because they’re like the future.”
And she’s like, “Yeah, but…” and I’m like… and she didn’t have time, I get it, but you know, I think it’s that thing of like, it’s just the sort of contextual knowledge that you know people get over time, and if you don’t have that contextual knowledge around technology and media and all the other things that we care about, you ask dumb questions and who you’re asking them to has to be tolerant of the dumb questions, and I think in universities, training people in this… I don’t see enough people coming out with those dumb questions answered, so [that] when they come to me, they’re asking really good things. Well, they ask a few dumb things, but it’s not like an hour of dumb things. You know.
[Marty]: Yeah well, I mean part of the, part of the problem that we’re seeing in the IT programs now is that we’ve got a whole generation coming in now, for whom they, they’ve never worked behind the scenes in a computer, right?
[Marty]: They don’t even know where their files are stored.
That’s right. I’m actually giving a talk with Atlassian’s Engineering Design and Research Team. They do Jira, Confluence, Trello, and all that. I was talking to their, head of research, and she was saying – my talk’s about designing in the context – and she was “my designers here, they all think design and UX is about moving buttons around on an interface”. Not like the context of the user, sitting in a room using their thing where the buttons are, or any of that… so what they’re doing is interface design, not interaction design.
[Marty]: Well, I was gonna say there’s, there’s my, there’s one of my introductory lectures for my class! Let’s talk about the difference between interface design and the user experience, right?
That’s right, exactly. So we’ve got hyper detail, but hyper detail on the wrong things.
[Marty]: That’s right.
And that’s, I think culturally, that’s the big change, and I think technology, you know again going back to “The Prestige,” technology’s lost its magic. There is no magic in mobile devices now. There should be, there isn’t. They are magic. But like electricity, I mean “What the ****, it works! Let’s do stuff.” But for a while, it was magic, and those magic shows were amazing.