Oral History of Museum Computing: Douglas Hegley
This is Oral History of Museum Computing is provided by Douglas Hegley, and was recorded on the 17th of May, 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/9KXFFgw-CAM.
I think my almost 25-year now career in museums and technology spans this kind of arc from the early days of sort of personal technology and the shift and transformation of I.T. operations into now this 21st Century kind of digital transformation piece too. So, they, it comes after Sam Quigley, but it’s sort of interesting how it builds on that. And I, just for context, my father’s a high school art teacher for his entire career, so I grew up going to museums, particularly art museums, and never imagined working in one. Love them, but it wasn’t a career option for me.
I dabbled around in undergrad, eventually became a psychology major, and during my last two years of undergraduate, this was actually at the University of Wisconsin in the early ‘80s, I worked in the schizophrenia lab at the university, and I got myself betwixt the psychologists and some very early sort of UX programmers. We were doing some research, looking into psychosis proneness, and we were using semantic priming, which is almost like Freud’s old word association test, but we had a little computer interface that would pixelate the letters of a word, so as, as people were reading words on the screen, the words get less and less clear. And they, the psychologists were trying to talk to the programmers about the pace at which this would happen or how to adjust it, but they couldn’t speak the programming language. They just could not communicate. And I found myself in the middle of this, and it became this interesting niche for me because I was curious about programming.
I wasn’t a programmer, but I had a sister who was, so I could always turn to her for help. And then I understood the psychologists – what they were actually asking for, so I spent about a year kind of in that space, never imagining this would lead to a career in museums and technology I think someday. Because I went off and I did pediatrics research, and then my first son was born. I was kind of like not sure what to do with my career next. And I was leaning toward conflict resolution. I thought I would get a job in conflict resolution, so of course I ended up in museums and digital, right? So how do those two come together? [Laughs.] It’s kind of fascinating.
It was the Met, and they were having some trouble with resistance to the change, right, they were trying to roll out desktop computing. There were computers at the Met. They’d had a mainframe for years, and the whole Museum Computer Network started with folks from the Met and MoMA and other places, trying to connect mainframes and share some old very clunky records. And, of course, as you know, that didn’t work, but the networking between the technology staff was great, and so MCN was born.
So the Met had computing, but computing I think was seen as a niche. It was seen as something done in the basement by people with a very specific kind of job. They ran the payroll, they took care of retail inventory. And you know, what they did was complicated and sort of mysterious. So why on earth would we, professional staff, curators, conservators, scientists, educators, administrators, why would we ever need this clunky computer on our desk? And, you know, the I.T. dep—which wasn’t, of course, called the I.T. department in the ‘90s, it was called Systems and Computer Services, right, and it had grown out of the old card punch functionality, but those guys — all guys, right – all, all with their office in the basement, on the evenings and weekends were going around and moving people’s books and papers off the desktop, and plopping down a computer and then leaving it there. No real announcement. No follow up. No training, and no one to call if you didn’t know how to use it, or if it broke. So these are the Ph.D. level professional staff, right, and of course they were being treated without respect, so you know, as is human nature, they went back without respect, and these computers ended up in a hallway, on the floor, a couple of them in the dumpster. And this is 1997. A desktop PC from IBM was not a cheap investment, right? I mean, even a nice laptop these days, you can get for hundreds of dollars, but in those days, it was thousands of dollars to buy a desktop computer.
But you’ll remember, they were big and heavy and had those deep CRT monitors took a lot of desktop space. And I heard about this, and I went to chat with the, the Chief Systems Officer who offered me a job on the spot, I think, because I was talking about listening and communication and the need to support people who’d never used technology before. Because even in those interstitial years and I’d been going to grad school, doing pediatrics research, I was an early adopter, right, I had a desktop PC in 1993. I’d upgraded it myself over the years. You guys will remember that great dot matrix printer, that dial up modem, and man, I was connected. I had my CompuServe account in 1993. Like, you know, I was kind of doing it. I was a fan, I was never a programmer or a technologist. But I was like, a user, maybe you could claim even a “power user.”
So for me to think about working with other professionals, just like I did as an undergrad, who didn’t really get it, but sort of needed someone in between to help. I saw that as a potential for me, and it was helping to resolve conflict. I thought I’d stick around for two or three years. This is, you know, 1997. Honestly I thought I’d be gone. Because in those first couple of years, what did we do, right? We, we created a help desk, we hired customer service people. And I purposely hired for diversity, right, for age diversity, for gender diversity, racial backgrounds, so that we had this nice mixed group of enthusiastic, you know, different ages, but all of whom had some kind of liberal arts background, and they kind of adored the curators and the conservators and scientists, so they were they communicated a lot of respect and enthusiasm as “it’s a privilege for me to sit here and help you learn how to use a mouse” kind of thing, right.
If either of you ever tried to train users back in those days, people would pick up a mouse and put it on the screen to try to figure out what it did, you know, they just didn’t know. They were inexperienced. And, rather than have them feel ashamed about it, or like they’re doing something wrong, or they’re being forced, I tried to create an operation that was supportive and helpful. And then, with the blessing of Phillippe de Montebello, to my surprise, who was the very imperious Director at The Met, he allowed me to form something that he named, the Computer Liaison Group, the CLG, which still exists today, so that was born in 1998. It’s still in place at The Met. Every department at the Met, and there are 70-odd departments, has a representative to this group, but the early days of the CLG was me at a podium, being thrown virtual tomatoes at, right. This is, this is me standing up in front of this group of all these people and saying, “Whatever has happened, it’s all my fault. I’m to blame. Come to me. We’re going to fix this for you.”
And I’ve said this in public speaking engagements previously, like, what was the plan? Okay, the plan was listen, to understand what the problem was, acknowledge that it was frustrating and it was a problem, say that you were going to do something about it, and then do it. Which is, right, like making scrambled eggs, right? This isn’t that complicated, but when you’re building, when you’re repairing broken trust, when you’re dealing with stressful situations, classic conflict resolution strategy, right, we sort of like, we’re going to get in this with you. “You’re going to blame us and be angry. Take all your anger out on us, that’s okay. We just know that you need help. It’s not personal.”
And so we shifted that culture really drastically in about two years, and you know, it’s 1999 and I’m thinking, “I’m gonna go do bigger conflicts in other arenas. It’ll be great.” And then, Y2K, right? Like, “what are we going to do about Y2K? Oh my God, all the computers will fail. It’s going to be a disaster.” So we hire, I was tasked with project managing how we would walk up to that problem, hiring an en– couple of engineers — looking at the situation, and as I’m sure, a lot of people recall, we were able to upgrade almost everything, and the few systems that were legacy that we couldn’t upgrade we just reset them. I can’t remember what it was. There was some date like 1972 or something where, if you just set them to that date, then the calendar would match 2000 and everything was fine. It ended up being a great big nothingburger, but it was an interesting adventure to go through with a museum, where people really nervous about the whole thing. “You made us use computers and now they’re all going to break!” It was really fascinating. You put in the chat “January 1, 1970.” If you set it to that date… so we got a couple of old like environmental control systems that were happy that it was 1970, no problem.
After Y2K, then it was “Douglas, there’s some photographers who want to use digital cameras, and then there’s the ‘not over my dead body’ film people. Do you think you could help?” Got in the middle of that, enjoyed that. The years are ticking by. “Douglas, can you come to the photo studio?” “What’s wrong now?” “Well, here’s our problem…” Open the closet door, there’s 10,000 CDs and DVDs with digital images on them. “We can’t find anything. We don’t know… look like. There must be a system out there.” “Yes, it’s called digital asset management, so okay. Let’s go do that.” And it just, kind of… these things rolled on and on.
And through it all, my career kept moving away from hardcore I.T. I kept hiring managers and handing that off to them, and moving more and more toward digital, which would be more about content production and audience engagement, and really thinking about the mission of the institution rather than the infrastructure change management process. So eventually, we built a digital department, and that was difficult because digital had been, you know, popping up in multiple departments, because they needed it, right. Education, marketing, fundraising, I.T. I had my own sort of, one of my teams, as a kind of little digital team that was working on creating some of the functionality of the website, but then some of the functionality sat in retail, and some of it sat in fundraising and, you know, we saw a need to centralize all of this staff. But anytime that you’re taking stuff from another department, you aren’t always making friends, so it was yet another sort of conflict-laden process.
We worked it out. We built a digital department and then, you know, things got a little strange at The Met and we’re not going to talk about that. People can go read the news accounts of, you know, internal difficulties and some inappropriate relationships between the Director and staff. I did not get caught up in that. What I did get caught up in was the sort of general politics of being angry about this digital department, and seeing it as sort of an offshoot of the approach that the Director was taking. And lots of pressure to do some flipping around of leadership there. So I was out, and I was not super happy about it, but I understood, and sort of put feelers out and you know, almost as soon as I put feelers out, I got a call from Kaywin Feldman, who’s now the Director of the National Gallery of Art in D.C. who is terrific. And who I’d met, you know, on the conference circuit. I’d seen her speak publicly. I was very impressed by her, about maybe coming and helping in Minneapolis. And I’ll tell you honestly I thought she was talking about a consulting gig. We had a complete mismatch in communication. And she was sort of like, “How soon, how soon can you come out?” And I was like, “I could come next week, if you want. How long do you want me to stay?” And she’s like, “Ummm, this is a job.” I was like, “Oh sorry. Let’s start over.” [Laughs.]
I went through a series of interviews, and was lucky to join the executive team in Minneapolis. That was… and I spent nine years at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. We accomplished a lot there. We really shifted the paradigm again toward audience engagement. There had not been a digital team that had really been built there. There was a small I.T. group that was not succeeding. There was some video production crew who kind of did their own thing, and seemed unsupervisable. There was a pretty good photo studio and imaging department run by Dan Dennehy. I, you know, I’ve known Dan from again, sort of conferences and other things over the years, and looking forward to working with him, so it was a kind of a patchwork quilt. And really needed to be, needed strategic leadership, and again, needed some diversity. Sort of like all white men departments again, right, this problem that, of not really having a vision about being intentional about team building, really applying more classic systems thinking, right. So like, you would never imagine that you can build a car by having 1,000 of the same parts and just assembling them. Somehow you’d end up with a car, right, you need different sized parts for different parts of the task. If you really going to have a high functioning system, it needs a lot of different things in it. And that’s true of people and departments. And I was able to grow what became known as the Media and Technology Division. Ultimately, we had seven departments working really well together. The museum itself nearly doubled annual attendance during the time that I was there. I’m not going to take credit for that. It was really a team approach, and in fact I think I’m often uncomfortable talking about myself anyway. I think for me, I’m a firm believer in, in real collaboration, in, in, you know, there’s something called the host leadership, and I’m kind of a big fan, and try to practice host leadership. And host leadership is… I think it’s also really resonates with my background in psychology, in particular clinical psychology. The host is actually trying to create an environment in which others will shine, right, but the host is also in that environment, so it’s, it’s not people talk about service leadership, you know. And I think service leadership is fine, and the idea is that you know the, the troops eat first kind of thing. And I completely get that. It’s about sacrifice and, and supporting others, but it has a passive piece that I think isn’t true in my leadership style, which is about being in the mix, but being the one who’s sort of crafting the environment, making the invitations, keeping the dialogue flowing, as it were. So you’re making interventions as a part of the group, and yet you’re in a leadership position, but you’re not stamping authority. It’s always more about participation and joining and collaborating. And that’s the way I’ve tried to approach this throughout my career, and I think it’s, it’s helped me hire and retain some really terrific people who could otherwise be highly compensated to go work somewhere else, right. Because the environment can be a lot of fun. I’ve been talking about this a lot lately in my current position back at The Met, but always trying to find the joy, right, always trying to find the happiness, the, this sort of incredibly awesome experience is to be able to work to help these amazing organizations with their incredible collections move into an entirely new paradigm of interacting with a public. A paradigm that they’re ill-prepared for, coming out of every traditional, hierarchical, colonial mindset and model to a 21st Century audience-first, visitor-centered, equity-based kind of approach.
Multiple voices, multiple perspectives, inclusion, all the kinds of things that can be a real challenge for stodgy older organizations, but digital, you know, digital relies on technology and at this point in my career, I’ve left that piece out right. I’m back at the Met in the role of Chief Digital Officer in charge of the very department that I helped build 11 years ago. All of the I.T. operations at the Met belong to a completely different part of the operation. The Met has a Director, and The Met has a President. And the President in essence kind of runs all the business departments in I.T. and finance, and underneath the President, the Director runs more or less the art side of it, so has digital, has education, curatorial, conservation, science, those kinds of things.
So now I’ve gone from being the person primarily responsible for I.T., which I was at Mia, to being an internal customer to I.T. which I think is a really interesting shift in paradigm. I hope I am a really good internal customer. I hope that I have empathy for what they go through, and, and the pressures that I.T. is under. But I really have to rely now on the I.T. operation, rather than lead it, and really lead digital, which is much more focused on getting all that content produced in an intentional and cogent way, getting it out to our publics, making sure that it’s accessible, making sure that it’s meaningful, making sure that it represents more than just some kind of scholarly academic expertise, sage-on-the-stage kind of perspective, and doing that at, you know, a very famous and very, very big, recognizable brand, still a nonprofit, still budget constraints still, you know, workflow and software and hardware constraints. Much more aspirational, maybe, than a lot of other organizations, and maybe rightfully so The Met is, you know, has positioned itself as a bastion of excellence for the art museum world, has a global presence during this pandemic of the past year and a half-ish. We’ve had enormous growth in online resources. We’ve seen deep interest in content that was produced up to 10 or 12 years ago, particularly content for kids and families that has always been a part of the program and always had a niche, and now is being consumed globally. And it is fascinating to see the value in having built up that catalog of content over more than a decade of work by a lot of really talented people, you know.
And I that’s why I say I don’t like to talk about myself in a way, like, I didn’t produce any of that content. I don’t hold a camera. I don’t edit audio. Like, I don’t do those things. I’m, I’m in a position of leadership which really is a position of empowerment, and I think, even going back even all those steps, back to the day of helping a curator understand why putting a computer on your desk is actually a good thing, and why a collection information management system actually isn’t just for your Cliff Notes, right. The blue sky version, the reason we’re building these systems out is they will be publicly accessible one day. And the schism between what people understood about their day-to-day work and open access in 1997, was wide, and many, many ways, my job was not necessarily to say, “Go team! You can do it. You can learn how to use a mouse.” Like, that that was more, it was more sort of foundational and needed to be taken care of by folks who had requisite skill sets to actually patiently sit with someone and teach them how to do things that they were nervous about.
My job is to try to really sell what the future would look like in a way that was both inspirational, but realistic and meaningful, and attached to what motivates people to work in an organization like an art museum, right. Why do you work in an art museum? It’s one of those really interesting questions to ask someone and sit back and listen to the answer. At some point along the way, it almost always is going to include sharing, right. So in all museums, collect and preserve, protect, right, and, and… But ultimately, you’re a warehouse if you aren’t sharing. And you’re either sharing the capacity to see what you have and/or what you know about it, you know, and/or what, you’re curious, and you have unanswered questions about it. The magic moment in the museum, and I went to museums as a toddler and I always found them magical places, but it’s that jaw-dropping, heart-stopping moment of like, “Oh, my goodness! How did this ever…? How did someone make them? What does it mean? Or Oh my God, I get it.” Right? And that and I think the second piece of that is, and they have to tell somebody, right? So, your “Mom, look at this!” kind of thing that, that experience that’s so wonderful in museums.
And it’s been an interesting couple of decades, you know, like, I never anticipated it. I love it. I love the idea of, of change through incremental, patient, supportive process, and technology has changed museums permanently, and the impact is, is wide, generally positive. I think there are examples of maybe not so positive things. And for me, it was always that, I think what always motivated me was people, whether that was the internal staff and really seeing them come around to it – to technology, to digital, to embracing it, to seeing its potential. Also the visiting public, you know, whether it was launching the first app or building a touch screen and just seeing people in awe and wonder over this kind of magical experience that was both surprising and informing at the same time. That, in there, because for me, I guess that psychology background, but it’s always about people. Somewhere at the core of everything that I want to do is about people, not necessarily about technology. Technology is a suite of tools, a suite of methods to help people accomplish their goals, learn something, whatever it may be, but it’s… I’m not an engineer and I’m not interested, not motivated by the latest, coolest technology. I want to know if that makes people connect. If it makes people interested. If it makes people curious. If it satisfies a need that people have. Now I’m, now I’m interested, and I think, like I said earlier, that comes from being a user rather than an engineer, right. My background was not building systems, but it was using them, and pushing them to the limits, trying to see what can be done, primarily with those systems to connect with people.
So, I’m going to pause there and see if you have followup questions, or if I left gaps somewhere.
[Jones]: Not gaps, but at some point, maybe you could tell us what your plans are. What’s next Douglas, on the horizon?
That question there, that question of what’s next is always an interesting one, right. I’ve been enormously terrible at predicting the future when it comes to technologies, and I think, maybe that’s because I don’t have the engineering background and don’t always see it. I’ll give you a perfect example I remember, man, it must have been somewhere in the early 2000s, someone on my staff is really excited about YouTube, right, and they’ve got a CRT monitor, and there’s a little box, about this big on the monitor and they’re watching a grainy video. And, and I just blurted something like, “No one’s ever going to watch a video on a computer. It’s just, it’ll never… this is, this is never going to be successful.”
So I always say to people never trust me when I predict the future. I’m wrong more often than I’m right. I think, let’s talk about the museum sector, in particular, because, as the museum sector continues to mature and think about, think more deeply about audience connection, rather than scrambling over the technology. Think more deeply about audience connection. There’s a couple of directions we could go. We’re being pressured by funders and trustees to, you know, follow the latest trends. And right now in May of 2021, that’s non-fungible tokens and can we make millions of dollars all of a sudden from NFTs? And it’s AR and VR and it’s, you know, that “We heard that HTC released a new version of the Vive. How many are we going to buy? What are you going to do with them?” I think a lot of times the question for me is sort of like, “For what?” Like, for like “What are the people looking for? How are we… How does this connect with what people are looking for? And is this something that’s core to our mission, or is this something that, whether it’s a passing fad, or somehow too far outside of the swim lanes that in which we’re the strongest?” are questions that are important to me. I think our future is less about… I’d like to use an analogy for this. I say, if a digital operation within a museum is a sailboat, there’s a couple of things that you need, right. You need wind in your sails, and you need a trained crew to make sure that, you know, because it’s a big sailboat. Now the trained crew, I think we can get. That’s Okay. The wind in our sails has always been problematic because that, what… instead of getting good wind in our sails, we’re often getting told there’s more islands to explore, and so we’re sort of spending our time, looping around all kinds of things. Spending money, time, resources, whether this was remember apps? Like, museums had to have apps. Every museum had to have an app, build, spend, build, spend, build, spend, people download the app, use it for six minutes and then delete it, because, you know… or they wouldn’t download it at all. And instead of paying attention to the customer, we are like competing with each other to see you can have the coolest app. It’s not the way to go. We’re circling islands instead of getting on course and heading somewhere.
Because I think we’re missing, we’ve often been missing a combination of a true North Star. Like really, what is it that we’re trying to accomplish here? As well as a really firm center of gravity. Like, so what… where do we stand? And where do we want to go? Those are the most important questions, not what is the technology? So we should understand that we, we want to go, I think, toward delighting audiences, and where we stand is in really valuing the stories and narratives that we have, and inviting additional stories and narratives to come in. And digital can do all of this. It’s not even that difficult for digital, if you set it up that way.
And that gives us some strategy, and that gives us the capacity to say, if you want to fund us, if you want to support us, we need to make sure that that funding is wind in our sails, and not more cartographic work around the tiny islands and swamps. It’s just, just not helpful to us. And so the future for digital, I think, is a greater level of empowerment and strategic alignment with the organization. Continued content development and the content development, the energy and resources for content development, are more important than the platforms, because content, when done well, will work across platforms, ultimately. We should, of course, dabble in, experiment in innovative kinds of things. Most, most art museums, at least as I’m most familiar with that field, have a little bit of money set aside. Most of us have a drone, right. Most of us have a couple of headsets laying around, most of us have imaging departments, I’m talking about the big well-funded museums have imaging departments that are doing photogrammetry, that are doing 3D scanning, that are playing around with WebXR and other kinds of models for sharing these things. We should be doing that. We shouldn’t ignore those trends, but I would never pour all my money or effort into that. I think crafting great stories is really what’s most important.
Technologies will come and go, but that super high-rez capture of a fragile work that had to go back into storage, dark storage for five years, has lasting value. And to me, that’s the sort of the foundational piece, and I think that’s definitely important. People often ask me too like, what am I excited about? New audiences. You know, the concept of multilingual is, is kind of exciting to me. Becoming even more global. But we also run up against and it’s gonna be interesting to see where artificial intelligence goes with this. I’m very intrigued by, by some of the natural language processing applications that are out there and growing. Because of multiple languages and more than just word translation, but cultural translation, right. It’s, it’s one thing to just word for word or to translate something to another language. It’s much harder to contextualize and, you know, every language has its nuances, every language has its idioms, and its ways of illustrating. Making points through analogies are very different across them. I’m no expert in this field, this is basically what I’ve been told. So it’s more than just, take our English and make it into another language. It’s make it understandable to someone from another culture. Which that’s different, and to date, I’ve only seen this really work with human intervention. Will there be a day when machine learning artificial intelligence can actually cross that gap? That’s interesting to me. I’d be excited to see developments there. There have been some experiments in museums. I think there’s a small contemporary art museum in Rio and IBM Watson unleashed its power on that museum and you can find that video. It has a lot of us intrigued, right, because it’s… Watson is basically consuming a lot of content, churning through it, and then letting people ask questions in a natural language format, and those people are folks who never visited a museum before, right. So standing in front of contemporary art and they’re talking to Watson, and the questions they ask are really interesting, the kinds of questions I asked when I was a kid in museums, and didn’t know, right. There’s nothing wrong with not knowing. Museums should be a great place for people who don’t know.
But we — especially art museums – we build these reputations like we’re a place where people already know, and I would love to break that boundary down as much as possible to make sure that museums are seen as, you, you can come to this place and know nothing, and by the time you leave, you’ll be smiling, right, and want to come back. That’s ultimately the goal, I think.
[Marty]: Well certainly, I’ll jump in and say that’s always what drove me to museums in the first place. I didn’t want to go to a museum where I already knew everything there. I was there to learn something new. Which, which takes me back… I wanted to ask more about.. you’re talking about during the pandemic, people accessing content that hadn’t been accessed for a long time. What were, what were some of the things that were really grabbing people? You mentioned international audiences too.
Yeah, so I think it was content that had a steady stream of access over time. And the content that we’re finding was quite successful was short-form video, geared toward families and children. Some of it was pretty old, and you’d see in, you know, thousands of hits, year over year and… one thing that happens with kids year over year is they get older, and other younger kids get a little older. So kids move along, and the content, sort of sits there, and it’s appropriate for a certain range, and kids move along, but because it was there and slightly buried in a website, it had kind of a steady stream of traffic.
During the pandemic, I think, I think a lot of things right, it was a horrible, scary, deadly time, a lot of anxiety and a lot of loss, whether that’s loss of human life, loss of freedoms, loss of educational opportunities, loss of access, so many of those things, you, we saw our organic web traffic, so the traffic that was being, coming through, on usually a search engine or social media links, something like that, increased exponentially. So people were on a search engine looking for things like “arts,” “kids,” “education.” The Met, as I said, has this powerful brand, so you get your search results, you scan it with your eyeballs, you’re like, “Wait, The Met has something for kids!” Click.
And so, what we’re seeing is this kind of exponential growth of people seeking and then engaging with kid or family-friendly content, even if the content wasn’t sort of au courant. I think there’s… We have some old videos about like you know simple papier mâché kinds of things, or you know, this stuff we all did when we were young. How to, how to make a sort of… take a potato and make it into a printing device. The things that are delightful and fun, maybe as content that we haven’t dusted off in a while, and sort of relied on it. And people liked it, but now you’re seeing non-English speakers globally accessing this content and really engaging with it.
So it’s fascinating to me that the, the pandemic, as you hear lots of people who work anywhere around technology, talk about the acceleration. You know, they talk about the acceleration of the hybrid and remote workplace, they talk about acceleration of global brand, they talk about acceleration of access, all of these things definitely being illustrated at The Met, certainly. I think, also across the field.
Other content that’s been successful, I think I mentioned short-form video definitely. You know, if you look at our own search engine, it’s kind of historically the same – it’s people searching for artist’s names. And that’s kind of always been true in museums. There’s more misspellings, which is fascinating, right, and I think that speaks to non-English or non-English as a first language folks coming in and seeking things. Our foreign language content hits go up a little bit. We don’t have enough of it, I think, to be significant. And when we look at large investments of money in the near future, we really are thinking about cultural translations being a place we want to pour some resources. It’s a likely growth area, in terms of global audience.
The other piece that gets fascinating right…. pandemic now as we move to a post-pandemic. So many museums in the world and the Met is in this group, rely on tourist traffic for a significant proportion of revenue. I mean, there isn’t an art museum generally, in my mind it doesn’t rely on funding, either from the individual, or corporate donors, or from the government in some way. I don’t know of many art museums that live on their admission fees, but there’s a significant portion of revenue that comes from overseas, in particular, tourism. That’s gone right now. There’s none of it. So you become, you shift from this mindset of tomorrow, more planes will land at JFK, and the next day, more of those folks will be entering the building. So we’re fine, right. In some ways, you don’t really, really have to, I mean, it shouldn’t be an unpleasant experience, but you kind of don’t have to go out of your way to really help people who, you know, maybe aren’t used to the museum. It’s on their bucket list. They came. They probably won’t come back. Tomorrow there will be another plane load. They’ll come. Most people are coming in for their one, one-time trip.
Now suddenly, you have to rethink yourself. Like, “Wait a minute. If we’re going to thrive, right now, with very little to no tourism, maybe we should be really thinking about the visitors who are here today. Maybe they, maybe they should be invited to come back again. Maybe we should have things that…” you know what I mean? So that you really think more about hyperlocal. What’s great, I think psychologically, about hyperlocal, everyone sort of likes to be treated like a local. It feels more inclusive. It feels, it feels more embracing. And the cool thing about technology is that you can, you know, I know people give a lot of lip service to the concept of personalization. And frankly I think most personalized things tend not to be all that, they just give the impression of being personalized. And yet, we all get hooked, don’t we? Like, we all get… Oh, we all laugh from the email shows that I got an email from some company last week and said, “Dear insert name here,” right? And that was pretty great, right? “It really made me feel like they cared about me.”
But as we think about how we communicate with people pre-visit, post-visit, what you say to them, what you recognize, how you invite people back becomes a really… it’s a great technology and digital challenge for us right now. And The Met in particular hasn’t really been used to taking that approach, except with our highest-end donors right. Who are “high touch” individuals you work with closely. But the cool thing about customer relationship management process and software is that it can enable that kind of experience, even for the folks who aren’t your high-level donors, and taking advantage of that would be a great, great opportunity, right now. To help us engage people, invite them back, start developing some loyalty, and that, you know, that reminds me of a concept that we’ve been talking a lot at The Met the last eight months since I returned.
Digital departments in museums, for the past decade, my opinion, have been far too focused on reach. They’ve been trying to justify their existence and describe their successes with metrics that are about reach, so how many eyeballs? How many hits? How many unique sessions? “Look, we had X million last year, and we have 20 percent more this year. We’re doing great. This is wonderful. It’s really… look how successful we are.”
But that’s not the point of a museum is it? Right. I mean, I get it. Every museum talks about its visitor numbers, but if every visitor has a miserable experience, you know… right? So we talk about reach, we’re going to keep measuring reach because it’s interesting and it’s good, and when it changes suddenly, then something’s going on, you want to be curious. Like, if you’re reaching 3 million people, you know, a month and all of a sudden it doubles or it drops by half… something happened, and you want to investigate that. But I’m more interested in two other kinds of metrics: engagement metrics, and impact metrics. Engagement metrics are a little easier to talk about and envision, so it’s not just about reach. It’s also about repeat visits, or duration of visit, or page views per session, or one-time activities like sharing your contact information, or making a purchase, like, you came to our online resources, you stuck around a while and you performed some actions, right. I’m much more interested in that, because I think those are the folks who are finding it meaningful, and I want to make it meaningful. It’s not just about going viral, right. I want to find it, I want to help people find meaning in it, and engage with it, and want to engage with it.
And impact is the magic and we’re going for, right? Why do I, or I… you know, ultimately, I work in museums, because I think museums can change lives. I really do. And you know, I don’t think I’m naive in that way. I’ve kind of experienced it myself. Museums can have the kind of impact on people that opened them up. That, you know, at the same time make us maybe feel a little smaller, and a little less self-important, but also more connected to a global arc of history, and to the best of what human beings can be. The most talented, most creative, most innovative things are on display in museums. Like, look what we can do. Look at our potential. So the impact for me has to do with things that are a little bit harder to measure: empathy, narcissism or actually reducing narcissism, awe and wonder, you know, if you read anything in the field of they call it happiness psychology, right, that psychology for so many years studied disease but there’s a side to life that’s not disease. It’s joy and happiness and ecstasy. People who experience awe and wonder, actually, it has a strong impact on them as human beings. It has an impact on their other relationships, which means you’re not just impacting an individual, actually impacting the individual and their network of people. And way back when I was studying clinical psychology, one of the sort of foundational principles of clinical psychology is I’m working with an individual, but I’m actually affecting change in the world, right. Because every individual is connected to other individuals and I don’t have some kind of magical power that can change the world, but I can help this one person, and thus have a ripple effect across other people. And I think museums offer the same kind of potential.
What digital does is it gives us greater reach. We can measure engagement to see if we’re actually making any contact with people, and then where we’re making contact with people, you want to drive on what impact that is having. Like I said, a little harder to measure. Smarter people than me are working on it. I think there, there are ways that you do it that are kind of obvious, like surveys and questions, and then there are ways that you do it that are kind of more fun, when you follow up with people years later, and ask them about what they remember, you know, those kinds of things. Or we look at impact as being something more like longer-term commitment, you know. Someone signs up for a membership or subscribes to a season, or something. I feel like that that’s it’s some kind of proxy for impact. So that’s where I’m more passionate.
[Jones]: Just before you go on, do you cross-check that with your membership database or your advancement database to see who is staying for the long term?
Systematically? No. I think, a great challenge for the future to talk about, you know, where… I put it in terms of this: where do you, if you can conceptualize your many different kinds of audience motivations? And I’m more of a fan of Falk than other museum researchers. I don’t really believe that people… I don’t really believe in demographics that much as I do in sort of motivations and need states. Which means I might come to a museum alone to decompress, I might come to the museum with my children to teach and share, I might come to museum with my wife for more of a romantic evening, so I have different motivations that would drive me as an individual to come to a museum. So it’s not just about saying is this person a member? It’s also about sort of understanding why did someone engage with us? What were they seeking and did we provide that for them? And not making an assumption that they’re always seeking the same thing.
I think we can do a better job of really working with development departments, you know, advancement departments, membership departments in two ways. One to support their work, right, because they doing important work and bringing in lots of funding, but also to help them see that you can steward relationships at a lower level than you thought, lower giving level. Stewardship usually in every museum, there’s a sort of unwritten rule of what the floor is, of how much money someone is giving before you actually sort of develop a relationship with them.
But through digital tools, you can have that kind of stewardship relationship at much lower levels of giving, even with people who haven’t given anything, but are showing engagement, there’s an opportunity there to start fostering a relationship, and those relationships matter. Even beyond just money, one could easily postulate that members would tend to be more engaged with your digital content. That’s probably true. We certainly see it with you know ticketed and virtual events and things like that. Absolutely, and that’s great. I would say that members is a limited growth segment. That there are segments of audience need-states that are much more likely to experience large growth. And I think that’s a probably a smarter place to invest digital resources, than in an audience that’s unlikely to change very much, based on what you’re doing with them digitally.
Yes, it’s always about people, it’s people first and people last. There’s some digital in between, right. Some of it works well, some of it backfires, but people first, people last, and you know, if that’s, if those are the bookends, then you can sort out what happens in between.