Oral History of Museum Computing: Silvia Filippini Fantoni
This oral history of museum computing is provided by Silvia Filippini Fantoni, and was recorded on the 12th of April, 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/l51ziBwrR48.
I’m actually a historian by training, so I really love histories… history and stories, and so I’m, I’m very grateful to be asked to be part of this.
My experience in museums and really museums and technology was the first thing I did in museums, so I would say, my experience in museums actually started completely randomly. I was on a completely different path. I had my B.A. and M.A. in history, and I wanted to do a Ph.D. in history of international relations and looking at, you know, the history of international relations, and I had applied for Ph.D. in the United States, and I got accepted, but not a full scholarship, which made it very complicated for me, as a European, to be able to afford doing a Ph.D. at Boston University, and only on a half a scholarship, and so I had a sort of a crisis of like, “What am I going to do with my life?” I had a clear vision and a clear path, and one evening I followed reluctantly, a friend to a party. And it was, I was living in the Netherlands at the time, and he was coming, came from Berlin, and he was a friend of mine from the year before, and he said, “Let’s go to a party. There will be people that you know here from, from last year.”
And there was a girl, her name is Alana, and she was working, she was doing a project, managing the summer school at the Maastricht University, and she said to me, “There is a new institute there, the Maastricht McLuhan Institute, and they’re looking for researchers to do research in technology and different areas of like, life, and including culture.” And she knew I was, I studied history, and she knew that I had take an exam of like archives, library and, and museum, even though that wasn’t my focus, and so she thought, maybe, you know, I told her that I was kind of thinking about my life and what to do, and she said, “Why don’t you apply?” And so, I did.
And I got the research project, was a six-month research project. And they wanted somebody who was looking into museums, in particular, and the way technology was helping in museums. And we were in year 2001, 2002, so it was still kind of early days, in the sense of, you know, there were websites, but they were not very complicated, and technology was used, but not in a very complicated way, so, they gave me carte blanche, and I had to come up with a topic, and I had to come with a, come up with sort of a plan to do some research on that topic for the next six months, and I did.
I sort of went around, and saw a lot of museums, read a lot of books, I talked to different people, and I sort of got really excited about this, this idea of museums. It’s like, it’s like the history, which is what my love is for, but I can apply it. Like, it can be more… like I can have direct contact with humans, and create products that will teach them about history or art or science, without like having to actually teach them, and I can see what their response is, if they like it, if they don’t like it, so I really, really thought this is actually a better fit for me, because I’m definitely a social person. And that kind of human contact was a little bit missing from my career as a researcher that I wanted in history. So, I thought, maybe this is a better fit. And so, I went back to school I got an M.A. in museum studies and a Ph.D. at Sorbonne University, and in the meanwhile, I felt I needed to work. You know, I didn’t just want to study this from a theoretical perspective, so I did internship and projects. I was at the Louvre, I was at the Getty. I did a project for the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and you know, so I was kind of working and studying at the same time, because I felt that the two things just needed to happen at the same time. I didn’t want to be one of those museum persons that didn’t have any actual experiences in museums, and there are many, so, I just didn’t want to do that, and so that’s sort of how I our entered the museum world.
And my topic, the topic of my research was really technology, and so, particularly with my Ph.D., and Paul knows it, I have been looking at the way technology could be used to personalize the visitor experience, instead of like, having the same content for everybody, how you can adapt the content, based on what people are interested in, and who they are, and it’s kind of a marketing tool, but it’s also an interpretive tool at times, so it could be used for both purposes.
And I looked at various projects, particularly at the Getty, The Getty Guide, and at Tate, they had a bookmarking feature on their multimedia guide, and so I was able to analyze how these projects did, who used them, how people used them, and if the personalization really added value to the experience or not, so that was my, my Ph.D. research. And at the same time, I was working in all these different museums. I did an internship at the Louvre, an internship at the Getty, I did the individual projects, I worked for Antenna Audio, which was a company that was working for museums, I worked for Cogapp, which was a company that was working for museums. I did a project at the British Museum for a couple of years, and then I ended up in Indianapolis, North Carolina Museum of Art, and now at the Newark Museum of Art, and… progressively, I moved away from technology, ironically, so, while I started with technology, now I kind of oversee education, interpretation and community engagements. I have a much wider role that doesn’t only involve technology, but that’s how I originally started.
[Marty]: A quick comment about, if you want to, I’d be interested in hearing some of your thoughts about some of the bookmarking work at the, at the, at the Getty, and some of the, some of the stuff that happened there. I’m sure I’ve told you this before, but you know, for the record, I still remember David Bearman at the 2007 Museums and the Web conference, saying that your paper on bookmarking was the best paper of the entire conference, and, you know, when you turned the whole world on its head there. I’d love to hear some of those stories there.
[Laughing.] Yes, so the bookmarking story is kind of an interesting one, because I think it was a main, main ways in which museums were kind of implementing this idea of personalizing the visitor experience. I think that there were other approaches, but they were a lot more experimental, and those were the one that kind of were more consistently applied across different platforms, so you would find them in, on websites, like, for instance, the Louvre website allows you to book, to bookmark certain areas of the site and then access it again. You would find it on, on multiple mobile projects [holding up smartphone] where you would be able to bookmark some information during your visit and retrieve it after the visit. And you would find it on a kiosk like the Getty Guide, where you would be able to bookmark certain information and access it after the visit online, so it was kind of interesting how we had been more consistent in the form of personalization, it was something that was more consistently applied by museums. And the results were kind of interesting because it wasn’t, I don’t think it was a, with the exception of a couple of projects, that were done in a certain way, and including some that have been more recent than the time that I did my Ph.D., and I want to give the example of … it wasn’t a museum. There’s a museum in San Jose called The Tech, and they were able, they had RFID bracelets that they gave to, to people, and they could kind of bookmark different sites of the experiences, and they have a decent, they had a decent rate of usage, as well as returns.
So some people would keep the bracelet for the subsequent visit, and, more recently, I would say the Cooper Hewitt and Seb Chan’s example of the pen, but I think that these were examples in which the idea of bookmarking was really built into the narrative of what the experience was. So every visitor that would come in would be given the bracelet, given the pen. There was somebody who explained to them how to use it, there were signs everywhere to kind of facilitated that, and provided that idea that, “Oh, you can use it,” and so I think that that’s what made it successful. The other installation… sorry — the other use of this technology was, was maybe more gadgety or less kind of well-integrated into the experience. [It] was more of an afterthought, or something that wasn’t really pushed or promoted, and, and it resulted in not much of a use.
Part of it is, you know, I want to give the example, I think some people that use it, they use it more out of curiosity, to see what it would do more than just really wanting to invest more time. And I think that’s the challenge. I think that one of the things that I have learned and it’s something that I always remind my colleagues, even now, when you go into other contexts, that people are interested in engaging your experience, then, and then… then and there at the museum, and then, anything that’s sort of like build content for later, it’s really not as successful unless that content is sort of something like a photo of you, or a video of you there, doing something that it’s kind of fun and playful that you can retrieve and share with your friends and family. But deep content is not something that people are really that interested unless it’s in the context of like a school trip, in which case, then the teacher works with the kids to create sort of a follow up experience and go back to the content that they had saved. But for the general visitors, unless the content that you’re saving is something that’s really fun and playful that you can share with your family, it’s more like a souvenir of your experience than that there is a value to retrieve it. If it’s more content, I I haven’t seen a lot of that sort of participation and level of engagement, and that was like, one of the main conclusions that I had, you know, that I reached with my Ph.D., and there was also the technology was not always like, it was a little bit clunky, depending on kind of the system that was used or implemented. So I think that, you know, that was more or less the conclusion that I had reached. Of course, the world has evolved, and now we have these devices that we carry with us all the time [holds up smartphone].
So, you know, the idea of bookmarking I’m not sure that makes complete sense when you can kind of take photos of things, and kind of use your computer, [holds up smartphone again] so your personal computer, meaning the phone, as, as kind of a way to sort of you know, collect what you’re interested in, but yeah. That was a little bit what my, what my experience and what my research with these projects kind of brought to and led to as a conclusion.
[Marty]: But it’s also a good connection. We also spoke with Seb Chan. That must been a few weeks ago, and he is, have you seen his latest?
I have not seen it. I heard of it at Museum Next, but everybody was talking about it, but I missed his presentation, so… but I heard, I heard of it.
[Marty]: It looks pretty cool. He’s calling it the Lens. It’s a little, little round … it’s, and you can take it home with you, but it’s got RFID chips in it, so as you go around the museum, you basically tap at the things that you’re interested in that collects it as you go… Where should we go next? What do you, what do you want to talk about next, because you‘ve done really cool interactive exhibit work I know you’ve done at North Carolina and Newark and of course, all the work at IMA Labs, and…
Yeah, I mean, I have to say that I’ve had the pleasure, or the fortune in a way to kind of work on the three main aspects of what technology… how technology supports the visitor experience. I mean, technology supports museums in more ways than that, but, my focus has always been on the visitor experience side of it more than sort of the back end or the database side of things, which may be something else I worked on websites and mobile technology, as well as a more recently, a lot, I would say a lot less in those two areas, and a lot more with like creating experiences.
And you know, I think that you know, when it comes to kind of that aspect of using technology as a way to engage audiences on site in a kind of experience, I think that to me, when I look at the way technology has affected museums and changed museums, that’s what I see the most kind of interesting change in the last few years. If I look at websites now and websites ten years ago, they… there is a different approach in the sense of the information architecture is more simplified, the design is different, but ultimately kind of the same elements and the same functionalities are the same. And I’m sort of seeing the same thing with mobile technology, where I saw the most changes is really in experiences in the galleries.
I think that 10 years ago, 15 years ago, the, the focus was very heavily on content, you know, provide — using technology as a way to provide access to more content around the artwork, the objects, of the stories that we were we were telling. And we’ve moved from that, and we’re moving more away from that idea to creating kind of experiences that are more, you know, immersive and playful, and there’s maybe less heavy content, but it’s more about going back to what you just wrote in the chat right now, which is go back to the idea of creating memories.
You want to create an experience that people can remember and save and share that has some learning elements to it, but it’s not heavy content, it’s actually something that will check the boxes and connect with some key idea that you want to communicate, but will, will be experienced through multiple senses, and in a playful way. And I think that that’s where I’ve seen the biggest, the biggest and most interesting changes in the past few years, when it comes to the use of technology. And I think that the work that I’ve done at the IMA, starting at the IMA really, with this idea of creating, you know, immersive spaces and use the technology as a way to, you know, to create moments of play, whether it’s like, whether with a car exhibition, and then we sort of said, “Okay. You know, we need to give them all content about the cars, or do we need to give the kids a moment to build and design their own car in a fun and playful way where they can teach that we can learn to then design choices will impact the performance of the car and the cost of the car.” So, they still learn about kind of design, but in a more playful way, and so we created this experience, for instance, that and were designing your own car and learning from the choices you made, how that impacts costs, fuel efficiency, and speed, for instance. And that was great. Like, a lot of the kids that attended the exhibition with their parents played the game, lots of useful conversations.
And another thing I was talking about immersion, for instance, immersion is a great way nowadays to kind of connect to people, and I think one of the greatest experience and, believe it or not, I have developed that experience in every single one of the last three museums that I’ve worked in different capacities, but, so everybody has an Audubon collection in an American museum, so we, we created this experience, first at the IMA for an exhibition, then at NCMA for the permanent collection, and now in Newark, where we bring to life the World of Audubon. We use higher resolution images of his work. We scan them and animate them into a … and put them into a kind of a world, which is the world that these animals, these birds originally were found by Audubon, a world that no longer exists now, because of you know, climate change, pollution, and there’s all affected … some of these animals, some of these birds are no longer here, and the world that they lived in is no longer the same. And we bring it to life and immerse people in this reality, where they can hear the sound of these birds, see them want fly around them in a kind of swamp like or forest like environment. And, and then we create a long lasting memory.
We used the, you know, in this case is technology to sort of recreate an experience that people cannot have nowadays, because that world doesn’t exist anymore, and these are the kinds of projects that people will respond, you know, well to. Another project that I did before coming here, at the NCMA, was for Frida Kahlo. You know, a real part of understanding Frida Kahlo is understanding role that Casa Azul, Blue House, had in her life and that, in her and her husband’s life, as well as in the life of cultural life in Mexico City, because Frida’s family was a was a family that played a key role in the cultural scene in the city. And this house was a place where people would, cultural representative of the cultural sector with reunite, politicians as well, and so we wanted to create an experience that sort of recreated metaphorically Casa Azul. And we brought it to life through projections and sounds and, and animation that surrounded people and the 360 environment and that’s a great way to, to kind of use technology and, and to immerse people in a world that otherwise they wouldn’t be able to… Same with O’Keeffe.
You don’t understand O’Keefe until you see the world that she lived in. She lived in these beautiful places in New Mexico. Her two houses there, and you know and, and she used that imagery very much into her work, but you don’t realize that until you see what her house looked like inside and outside and around her house. So, for, for an exhibition of O’Keefe, we sent people there, filmed in 360, recreated this in this environment, and then we overlapped the image of the work of art on to the images of the spaces around her and the details of the house, so that people understood how that the environment influenced her work. And the kind of comments that I received from people were like, “This experience brought it home for me. I get it! I get O’Keefe right now. I didn’t get her before, but now I understand her.” And then we over-imposed a voiceover of O’Keefe. She gave an interview talking about New Mexico, so we took some excerpts that were relevant to what we were showing, and so this kind of combination of sound, of visual, and then the overlaying of the artwork really sort of brought home on for a lot of people. So these are kind of some of the great ways in which you can create those memories. You create those souvenirs of the experience, people will take out their phone and take a photo, and then, I know, and then they will remember that experience, and will remember what they learned as part of it, and that’s where technology is more powerful, in my opinion.
[Marty]: One of the things that we’ve heard from some of the other interviews we’ve done is this transition from technology to provide infrastructure, right, plugging in the wires, and the hardware, and all this, to technology to provide content, and what a big shift that was for people in the ‘80s and the ‘90s. And you’re talking about, yeah, another big philosophical shift, from providing content to providing an experience. And, and Kathy, you just missed a couple of really great examples of some of the projects Silvia has worked on to, to shape that kind of experience. And, you know, I’m torn between asking you to tell more examples like that, and, or… but also asking you to talk about the, the kind of… how do you how do you encourage that kind of philosophy in the museums in which you’ve worked?
Well, I can, I can ask — but I can answer both if you want to. I think that… and so, a couple more examples, and I think I want to update it to 2020 in a way, given that you know we live in a in a year that has caused us to re– you know, do a lot of new things, so I think another example of immersion that sort of is a result of the fact that we don’t have access to physical spaces, right [laughs] um, but where technology can really help is that at the Newark Museum of Art, where I currently work, we have an historic property. It’s a Victorian mansion from the sort of late 19th Century, and it’s inaccessible, and it will continue to be, even if we open the museum in a few months, that, because it’s so narrow, the space will still be closed to the public for a few more months after that, so how do we allow people to visit this, you know, beyond, you know, the 360 renderings that we can do today, which is again, another great kind of aspect of it.
And so we created a game, so it’s at the same time immersion and, at the end, as well as playfulness and participation. So we created an escape room and set it virtually in that in this, in this house. You know, people can navigate from one room to another. They have four different rooms, even though the house is bigger we kind of limited to the four main rooms on the main floor. They need to sort, solve the puzzle within each room to be able to, to move to the next one, until they get to the last one, where they kind of solve the mystery, and then they have a common moment. They come all back together, so then another quiz, and then they managed to escape that place or not. Some people managed to do it, some people don’t. So, we divide people in groups and we have about you know, 45 minutes to an hour, but it’s really fun and playful.
And people seem to really enjoy it and we offer it as a public program. And every once in a while, as well as a kind of a corporate sort of experience, so companies that are looking for things to do with their staff and sort of, you know, flex their sort of creative and work collaborative muscles, they can kind of do this, book this experience. And so it’s a fundraiser. It’s sort of a source of funding for the museum, but also a great way to kind of take, use technology as a way to create a playful, immersive experience that connects people with the history of the house and the history of the museum, because the story is really around, you know, the house was owned by the Valentine family, who were making beer in Newark at the time, so it’s really all about finding the recipe, stealing the recipe, the beer recipe of the Valentine family for a competitor. And then, you know, there’s also a moral dilemma at the end. We ask people if they want to give the recipe to the competitors or not. So they have to kind of choose whether they want to go that route or not. So again, this is another example of a fun and playful experience. Like, how do we convince, you know, how do we build a sort of consensus around, you know, moving from content to experience?
I have to say that they’re very different responses, depending to where I work. So not, not in some places, and I have to say, the Newark Museum of Art, it’s been super easy. I think that, you know, museums, other departments are very much on board with this idea. We have developed an engagement framework. We have developed an interpretive framework that it’s really based on this idea of immersion and participation and play at the core of what we do. And then there has been buy-in from all the different partners, from designers to curators to, to you know, marketing, you know to development, so, it’s not been a problem in certain places, and other places, has been more difficult, I think that it very much depends also on leadership, and what their thoughts and vision are about this. So, if they are on board, and it, definitely, there’s more consensus and it’s easier to kind of convince people around that. But, honestly, the best results that I can get is seeing how successful when you actually get to implement one of these experiences, how successful it is, and how people respond.
So the secret is really, create a room for creating an experience first. Evaluate the heck out of it. And that means during the development, to make sure that the experience is as positive as you can have it, as well as, you know, after, when it’s done, and look at the data. Like, I can tell you that for us, in North Carolina, for instance, O’Keefe was a catalyst. We did it. It was very successful. People said that it was the best part of the exhibition. And that it made it easier than to build consensus around implementing another experience afterwards.
And that second experience that was implemented, which was Frida Kahlo, then won a GLAMi Award because you know, not only was it supported internally, but people were excited about it, they submitted it, and it won, even, an award. So that’s sort of how you do it. You, you, you have to take advantage of an opportunity that came from, in our case, it came from a grant, so we were able to do it because we got some funding from a grant to do something like that. And then we were able to implement it, and when people saw, it was like, “Oh my God, this is incredible,” first of all, and second, when they looked at the evaluation results, that was a lot easier to build a consensus around doing more of that in the future.
And then, we had other museums coming to us and saying, “Hey, we saw what you did.” Present at conferences about it if you can, because other people will find it, will get interested in that idea. They will contact your museum, and your director will hear that, you know, other museums are interested, and so they’ll give you the support that that you need for the next, the next experience down, down the road. But I would say, yeah, if you can find a way to test, and to create an opportunity and then sort of use that as a catalyst for more support, and more, more changes. Does this answer your question, Paul?
[Marty]: Oh yeah, it absolutely does. And I don’t know. I could ask another question or you could keep going, whichever you would like to do.
I mean, I want to be honest, and so, not all of this is, is like you know, without its problems. You know, I worked in museums for enough time to sort of have a few very kind of scary moments, and I want to give you the honest version of one of these scary moments, for instance. So, we had… we were about to open an exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art for… it was immersive experiences, but most of the other most of these experiences were analog, except for a couple of them, and then we had this space called “Create Your Own Immersive Room,” where we used a software. We took images of our works of art from our collection, and we took a software that was developed by a company to kind of alter these images, using some kind of slider and some patterns and create kind of a kaleidoscopic rendering of the images from the collection and projected all around you, with sound mixed into, into it. And you know we… we were ready to launch. We had tested this in… like, in a separate room, months and months of testing. The computer had been on, for you know, a few days to just test everything. And the day of the press opening, the computer broke completely, completely! Like, it was gone. Like, we could not, we could not, you know… It wouldn’t work. It was– it had to be replaced. And that was a highly customized computer like, it’s not a computer that you can just go to Best Buy and purchase. It has to have special graphic cards, and special sound cards and all of that, and this is something that, you know, there was no way that could be developed, that can be put together in 24 hours, so we had to go to the press release faking it completely. So we had a, we had a… they created a sort of prototype quickly, sort of like it was a video, so people … we were, explaining to them how it would work rather than them really using it, and for the press release, it was fine, but we had like about 28 hours to kind of find a solution, because that was the opening of the exhibition, and we were, you know, I would say there was no sleeping during those two days. It was also my birthday, so I spent the day looking for computer components to build this thing together. But it was installed about 30 minutes before the opening of the exhibition, and thank God it worked!
But there have been a few of those kind of you know situations that you are completely unprepared for, and that you know that now, you have to go to buy two of everything. [Laughing.] Two of the projectors, two of the computers, so that’s something like this does not happen again. That was kind of an interesting story because the technology doesn’t always work with you. You know, so even if you test it. And I’m, you know me, so I’m all about testing. But you know, you always… there’s always some factors that you don’t take into consideration.
I want to give you another example of a fun and playful experience that we did. So we, we did an exhibition of fashion, and we tested it in advance of the exhibition, and one of the key things that we learned is that everybody wanted to try on the dresses. But you know, these were high fashion dresses. They… you know, creating a, creating another version of the dress would have created a problem because they’re people with different sizes, heights, shapes… you know, they don’t quite fit everybody. So we wanted to do it digitally. So we worked with a company who had created the software for malls where people could try on digitally their clothes. And we tested it. And we tested it for about two weeks before it opened, and we tweaked it, fixed it, like we spent hours and hours testing the thing. We open the exhibition, and it would not…. Like, all of a sudden, it would get stuck. So when people were standing in front of it, for the system ready to scan their body, to overlay the costume, it would just… it wouldn’t work. It would, it would be all crazy. And we didn’t know how.
The exhibition was open. Why it didn’t work, we couldn’t figure it out. And then we realized that, unlike during the phases that preceded the opening of the exhibition, there were a lot more people in the room, and the camera captures, captured the people that were kind of standing on the side, looking at the person taking… you know, being scanned. And the camera didn’t know who to focus on, and so all of a sudden, they were just, you know, go [waves arms in chaos, and imitates a mechanical sound]. We need to start again. We need to start again.
So we had to completely reposition the whole experience so that it would not… you know, the people that were walking by would not interfere with a camera view. And that resolved the issue, but that’s again something that we even though we did two weeks of testing, it’s something that we didn’t learn until we actually had a real life situation with like 200-300 people in the room. And then we were able to figure out what the problem was. That was a very painful week in my life. It was spent with a lot of sleepless nights. [Laughing.]
[Marty]: Well, you shouldn’t feel bad. I am reminded of the story of what happened the first time Apple demoed Facetime – not Facetime; the facial recognition software to unlock the phone — it failed completely…
[Marty]: … in front of the press, and they didn’t know why, but what had happened was, if more than 10 people try to unlock the phone, it bricks it, right. And backstage, while they were waiting to demo it, people kept walking by and looking at the phone, and the phone kept trying to unlock backstage, so when they brought it out, and it had already been bricked.
Oh, my God, that’s… the I’m glad we’re up there with Apple in the category of being unprepared. [Laughs.]
[Marty]: Well, I mean you, can’t predict any of these things, right, the real the real life situation. This is why we do testing, but even so, you can’t predict what’s going to happen in the life.
That’s why I always say that, um, there’s always a phase of remedial evaluation. That’s what we call it. Like, you know, where like the experience has launched, but it’s not finished. You know, and that’s a bigger, it’s a big step for museums, because museums traditionally have had this idea that once you open an exhibition, that it’s there. It… there’s nothing that can– Art cannot be moved. Things cannot be changed. It is what it is. And you know that’s the hardest thing to convince my colleagues about.
You know, No, actually, you still have a couple of weeks to tweak things, and if you figure out that people cannot read the sign, you’ve got to redo the sign. You have to do it without having to move the art, because you can’t, but you have to do it. And I think that that’s something that, you know, we have… there’s so much going on, and you have to move on to the next project, and there’s sometimes not enough time to sit and think through what, you know, really is this working? Is it not working? So that’s why I feel that always the first two weeks, when it’s an experience launched, you have to be there observing every time, doing a lot of research to tell you are people getting this or not? Because, because you assume that they do, and then you look at the summative evaluation, and but that’s too late, you know, at that point there’s nothing you can do so… And so that’s why, you know, the first two weeks of an experience, whatever it is, are fundamental to kind of understand that you can still do something to make it better.
[Marty]: I think Kathy, I don’t know if Kathy wants to jump in with some questions or not, but I know one of the things I’m sure Kathy mentioned earlier, is is about your time at the IMA Labs. Because it, because you know, I hear you, I hear you tell your story, you know Silvia, and I see how all of these experiences build upon everything that you’ve done over the past 20 years, right.
Yes, and I mean that the interesting thing is that I did not work for IMA Lab, actually. So there was IMA Lab was a group of people that were like the technologists, really, and they were the ones who were working for the museum, as well as for outside museums, to do projects. I actually was a… like a fully working 100 percent on the, on the, on the museum side of it, which, you know, of course, it was great. We allow — we had access to a group of people that you know, were the top of their game. They, they were developing, not only for us, but also for other people, so that you know, we could kind of do cross projects with other institutions and things like that. So from that aspect, you know, I… like my job was a little bit separate from them, and I kind of would work with them on the, on projects that were related to the museum’s because I was kind of working specifically for the museums. But yes, it was… and I got there, to be honest with you, this is interesting because Koven, that you spoke to before, you know, probably was there before and in the early stages, and then I was there when, you know, three months after I started at the museum, Max Anderson left to go to Dallas and then Rob [Stein] left pretty soon after that. So, and even though that, that even though the lab went on, I think that the …. Rob leaving, and Max leaving, kind of changed a little bit the dynamic of how the lab worked, and how much of their time could be devoted to outside museum projects versus inside museum projects. So, and for a little while there was no director, so it was kind of us figuring it out together. And so I think that you know, in a way, I think you have like three different people, so you have Koven, Rob, and I, that kind of experienced the lab in very different ways and at different stages of what it is.
But you know I think the work that they did for the museum community was incredible. I mean, like I mean ArtBabble doesn’t exist anymore, but that was one project that I still kind of had to work on a little bit before they shut it down. And I think they did like a digital catalog, the first digital content management system, you know, so it was kind of interesting. Again, these were projects that they did for a lot of organizations, not just for the museum, and we would be part of, of these projects.
I remember ironically, when I went to North Carolina, the website for the Education team that I oversaw in North Carolina had actually been developed by the IMA Lab, so it’s kind of interesting to see how the IMA Lab followed me in my career. And then I don’t know, once I left the IMA, I think that they had, they had the lab going for a few years. I don’t think that it exists formally anymore, right? Now I don’t think it exists anymore. I think they had to focus more internally as, you know, the situation… grants becoming less available, and other, and kind of the economic reality is what it is. But it was interesting to see how, you know, for them it was also a revenue generation, generating model, you know, for the museum, because they would kind of bring in the money to pay for the staff that could then, at the same time, work for our internal projects. So I think it was it was an interesting model, and I think that, I don’t think that… Unfortunately, reality and things change with different directors and different thoughts and different, you know, things, but I think it was an incredible initiative, and very, very ahead of its time in terms of, I think, some of the things that Seb is trying to do in Australia right now are kind of based on the, some of the ideas that kind of Rob started with IMA Lab.
[Jones]: So I’m going to use that as a little bit of a segue to go back in time, and ask you to talk about your work at Cogapp. Because we also talked to Nik recently, and it would be interesting to, again, kind of piece things together.
Again, me and Nik did not overlap, at Cogapp…
… but it’s so interesting. So I was there after he did, and actually Nik was my boss… boss’s boss when I was at the Getty. So I did a one year of a graduate internship at the Getty, and Nik was, was the head of the web, I guess, at the time. I know, and I think he had actually just moved to a new position within the Trust. And while I was there, he moved to a new position on the Trust, and then he moved on to Balboa Park, so it kind of changes, but our paths crossed at the Getty a little bit, but he was also already in transition at that time. And so, I didn’t work as much with him as I would have liked to, but I did work for the company later, after that, a few years later, I worked at a company where he had worked.
For me, the experience at Cogapp was, I have to be honest, I was there only for one year. I was missing the content side of things too much, and that’s why I wanted to go back to work for a museum. But to me, it was an incredible, invaluable experience. First of all, people there are amazing. I worked for many companies, for a few private companies, and I think that some of the best people in the business are there, so I did have a great experience.
And I learned a lot about evaluation there as well, you know, I have to say that my Ph.D. research was very much based on evaluation, so I had learned the basics and the statistical analysis aspect of things, but how you actually implement it, when you’re developing a project from beginning to end, I learned it at Cogapp. Because their philosophy was very much about “You’ve got to test. You’ve got to test. You’ve got to test.” And the tools for testing, whether it’s the wire frames, I worked mostly on websites when I was there, I did one project that was both kiosk and website components, but mostly on websites, but that you have to test, test, test — whether it’s the wire frames, the design, the information architecture, the content that you’re writing, like, you’ve got to test. And what are the tools that you have available to do that I have definitely learned there. And ten years later, I left in 2011. I’m still using some of the same approaches and philosophy that I learned, I learned there. So that is, you know…
And that was the biggest value that I brought with me at the IMA. And really, that culture of evaluation that, thank God, Max and Rob really believed in and supported me, but also, after Max and Rob, like my following managers, and you know, they did support, and, and that’s something that I really I learned in graduate school, but I really, like applied concretely there for the first time. And that, and that was… to me, that was a, that was a great experience.
And I worked on two massive projects when I was there. I was doing the website for the Met, I was one of the two project managers on the website redesign for the Met, which can you imagine, when you’re in Brighton and you’re doing a project for New York, and at a time before Zoom, and you know, could be challenging at times, but it was, it was a great learning curve for me. I learned a lot about the technology and you know all the different kind of databases that you have to connect on a website and talk to each other in order for it to work in a seamless way for the visitor, and kind of doing in the best possible ways I learned there.
And then I worked on a project for Tate Modern for Ai Weiwei. It was an exhibition on Ai Weiwei and we would have people record video and send messages to Ai Weiwei, and he would respond, and then in the middle of this, he got arrested. So talking about how to pivot a project when your main artist gets arrested, and there’s no way for you to reach him. So that was, that was interesting! But then you know it was interesting to see how the messages changed, the people left. There were not questions to him anymore, there were ways to encourage him to, to go on and believe that he will get out, and that, you know, messages of support for him, in both Chinese and English, so it was kind of interesting to see how that project pivoted because the main component of it wasn’t accessible all of a sudden, so…
Those were two of them, the projects and, and those projects both won GLAMi awards for different reasons, one for Best Collection and the other one for Best Social Media Project, I think, so that was a very, very good… for me, a very good experience.
Working for the private sector teaches you a lot about, you know, about the way you work, the way to work, you know, sometimes museums, there is a little bit of lack of accountability and that lack of professionalism in the way that museum people approach things. Because a lot of people work in museums because of they are, like, philosophically, that’s what they want to… they believe in, in giving back to the community, and that’s one of the ways to do it. You know, enriching the lives of people through art or through history or through science, and it’s a very sort of emotional connection, but that, which is great, because you know, I think it’s hard to work and museums, and most people are underpaid, over– you know, overworked, and so that passion is fundamental, but sometimes that passion gets in the way to, to change and gets in a way to sort of you know, understanding what the bottom line is, and what needs to be done to move on and to move forward because there’s just such an emotional attachment between the person’s values, and what and what the museum does, and the decision that it makes, and, and I think that’s, when you work in the private sector, you don’t have that. So you kind of discovered, and you can actually have a job, where it doesn’t matter where your passion and your belief is ultimately it comes down about doing the project, do it in with the time that you were allotted, and not spending too much money, and you know, there is a value to that, and I think that I have, I have… it was good for me to experience that, and to be able to bring some aspects to that, not all of it, because you can, you can get the passion out completely, but some, some aspects of that into what you do and how you work in museums, with technology, but also without technology.
[Marty:] That’s a really good point. It’s interesting. I’m just thinking if we did have a few people talk about that, that sort of role of passion and keeping people working in museum computing when they can make so much more money if they left the museum field, right, but it’s also a double-edged sword, as you say.
It is. It can be a double-edged sword, and I think you have to figure out a way where you, you keep that passion, but also instill some aspects of accountability, and sort of you know, strategy, and direction, and and how you can actually, you know, adjust your passion to serve the needs of where the institution is going, without betraying your values. I mean, it’s, it’s sort of like… it’s a very, very difficult line to, to get to, but it is possible. And I think that was a big learning for me from my experience at Cogapp. And I think, for Nik, it was very different, because Nik formerly was at Cogapp as the first part of his career, and then he moved on to work in the museum world. I had already 10 years’ experience in the museum world before I got to Cogapp, so I think it was a very… probably we learned and we took different things out of it. And because it came at a different moment in our careers.
I mean the reality is that a lot of this has happened, and I’m sure you this is not the first time that you’re going to hear this, but, by putting hours and hours and hours of work, a lot of these things… like you know, I think many of the projects that I work on — because I ultimately I love what I do, and I want to make it happen, and if I think it’s something that you know people are… it’s going to make a difference for people, I want to make it happen, no matter what. And you know, I’m not a person that — if I know if I have an idea, and if I test it and it’s not good, I’ll move on. If it’s not, like… but if I think people seem to really be into it, like, how can we make it happen? Even though we don’t have all the right opportunities, and situation or infrastructure in place.
And I want to give you the example of where I work now. I mean, I started at the Newark Museum of Art in November of 2019. Four months later, we shut down for COVID and we haven’t reopened since. Like, my museum is still closed, and has been closed for a year. And, you know, within two — and this institution does not have, did not have any infrastructure to support very much with technology when I first started. They never did any virtual programs before. You know, computer, computer … like comfort with computers and with technology and with software is very… knowledge about it is very limited within the organization. The computers are old, softwares are old, the servers are old. There was not really a head of I.T. or head of Web that could really kind of consult or help change all of that, but we still made it. We still, within two weeks from the moment we shut down the building, we still created our first virtual programs, and within nine months from that, we had like 200 virtual programs, between social media and Zoom, we had reached 95,000 people. And you know, and again, not, not really sure how, because there’s really was not a lot of background or infrastructure, but that was the catalyst in bringing a lot more changes along.
So again, now we do have a digital strategy. Now we have a web strategy. Now we have a new I.T. head that’s kind of changing all the computers and servers and all that, so, you know, and a lot of it required a lot of crazy hours. You know, I remember when I was working at the British Museum, we had like a year and a half to launch a mobile guide in 12 languages, with 250 stops, and I was working until 2 or 3 in the morning for many, many, many nights, which was the counterpart of it is that you know you could roam around certain nights in the museum and kind of really have it for your own, which was great.
But, um, but yeah it takes a lot of, a lot of you know, a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of personal time, and to do a lot of these things within situations that are not equipped necessarily for that, but once you do it, then you kind of build a consensus and build the understanding that we need to make these changes so that we can do more of these things and more easily do these things. So, I think that’s the basis of all my experiences that I have, with the exception of the IMA, which had an excellent tech team that I could work with, but everywhere else, it really… the infrastructure needed to be built, but that didn’t, that cannot stop you. You have to kind of try to do it. And then, once you do it and it’s successful, then you build a consensus for creating that infrastructure. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to do it that way.