Oral History of Museum Computing: Andrea Ledesma
This oral history of museum computing is provided by Andrea Ledesma, and was recorded on the 2nd 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/SV2i2Tzl4W0.
Okay, so, I’m Andrea Ledesma. I have been working with museum technology since, what, 2010, 2011 now, which kind of feels weird to say. In previous conversations talking about how I got into this space, I kind of describe it as a straight shot into nerdom. In the third grade, I remember convincing my entire class not to go see “Spy Kids” together, but that we all had to go to the Tech museum in downtown San Jose because that was the spot to be, and I won, and it was a great field trip. That said, so, I studied history at Virginia Tech, and there as, I think, many history majors or folks who studied humanities are like, “Well, what do I do with this work?” And sort of finding myself realizing that like, museums are our space, that people who aren’t just curators and aren’t just people who have a doctorate can work in, and that like, the discipline is very like, diverse, I think, which is sort of the intent of this project, right.
So, my first year of college, I was figuring out like, “Well, what does that mean, then, to work at a museum?” Like, do I want to do education? Which I think was appealing to a point, because I, at that point, kind of wanted to be a teacher, reminding myself of like “oh, so many of my teachers had inspired me to get into this field.” Do I want to be a curator? What does that mean? Curator with a capital C was really scary to me, but it was really cool the same time.
So, I ended up getting an internship with the National Archives in D.C., and I was placed with their, essentially, their social media and education team. And, looking back on it, it was really wild project because I knew I wanted to work with visitors, I wanted to work with, like, the Internet and technology, I said as much in my interview, because they were like also hiring for those internships and, at the time, the National Archives had a traveling Civil War exhibition, it was the sesquicentennial (I still don’t know how to spell that, but I can pronounce that). And, at the end of that exhibition there was like a podium where you could tweet at the exhibition something that you wanted to know more about or something that you learned, and then that would respond. And lo and behold, that Twitter account responding was me, the intern, watching the Twitter feed, and it was sort of sitting there, like a Mechanical Turk of like, “Oh, this fun fact about this particular battle? Yes, I have a spreadsheet of responses and I will go in and respond for you.”
And so, it was a little bit of that, it was of course monitoring responses and sort of like, I guess what I would now kind of call sentiment analysis, of like, Oh well, this is very clear that a whole bus full of middle schoolers just passed through the exhibition, and they saw something that they could type on, and they sent whatever… “I was here. High school – whatever.” And then like, questions that people were asking, and how often they’d be asked, and like, new questions that people had, so it was one piece of it. We also kept up like a Wiki. I don’t really know where that lives now. Kind of, yeah, but yeah, we kept up a Wiki that we would just sort of update with information as the sesquicentennial moved forward, and then the other piece of that internship, Tumblr was still a really big thing then. This was before Yahoo bought it out, and the exhibition was on food history, and we were pulling pieces from the National Archives online collections like photos, and basically just scheduling and generating posts for like National Ice Cream Day or a lot, a lot of apple pie around the Fourth of July. I do remember that, like we got like the “interns’ tour” of the exhibition so that we could know what to send out on Tumblr, and they were talking to us about the smell in the exhibition, because it smelled like chocolate chip cookies. And how for a little while, the exhibition developers were like, “Well, should it smell like chocolate chip cookies, or should it sound like apple pie?” And chocolate chip cookies won out.
So that was a really great summer, and you think, as you do, as an intern in D.C. during the summer, like, we went to all the exhibitions and all the different museums, and like, talked to other folks. That was really fun and like, that was kind of when like, “Oh. No, I do actually like working with museum technology, because I love the Internet, I love museums, I love working with people,” and it was just this perfect amalgamation of all that. So, after the National Archives, then I actually spent some time at my university’s library and archives, helping them catalog and digitize cookbooks. When not in a museum, I love cooking, so that was a perfect thing for me. I realize working with, with special collections was not my groove, though I did love actually like, logging things like, “Hey, this would do really great online,” or like, “put this in the exhibition,” so that’s sort of like, I worked that way out of my system.
So like, maybe not libraries for myself, but after that, I actually then interned for and then eventually contracted with the Newseum, which unfortunately is no a longer thing. The Newseum in D.C. I worked in their broadcasting department. The Director then was Paul Sparrow, and it was described to me as like, “if it goes on a screen, it goes through that department.” Which was really interesting to think about, sort of then figuring out like Okay well, what does technology mean to a museum?
At that point, right, I had mostly social media experience, but at the Newseum, the way it was structured, or at least the way I saw it as an intern, from its structural perspective, that particular department was working with a lot of like the media and movie pieces that went through the exhibition, as well as a lot of the interactives. I remember one of my co-workers in that space had a big touch table in his cube, and he would always just sort of like tinker with it. It was really interesting too, because so many of the staff, at least in the broadcasting department, came from news media, so one, not hearing or not seeing anyone in the office, just hearing them coming around the corner, like, “Oh, you’ve definitely been on the news. Like, you just have a voice for the news or radio.” But it definitely took a different approach to it, in terms of like thinking about how to pre- produce and produce the sort of media. They drew a lot from their broadcasting background. The museum itself dealt with the news, the First Amendment and news media, so sometimes they had like first, first-person accounts of it, and were able to sort of pull on the, those experiences to create what that department did for the museum.
So, I spent a lot of my time like, cutting my teeth, one could say, in museum technology with the Newseum, and then unfortunately, that is no longer a thing. So, I’m not quite sure where all of that media lives. I think it might still be with the First Amendment Foundation. But after interning, and then eventually contracting with the Newseum, I then went on to be a historian for con- for historical consulting agency for a little while, before eventually going back to grad school at Brown, and there I studied public humanities is the degree. And I sort of fashioned along with some other folks in the university as like digital public humanities, where we really just thought about like, well what, what ways might technology innovate, how it is we study history, culture and connect with each other and build and augment community?
And then, after Brown, or with Brown, then I worked with some folks at the Tenement Museum and the Digital Public Library of America, sort of doing the same sort of exploratory work, and thinking about again, content creation and product development in a museum space. And now, lo and behold, since 2017, I have been working at the Field Museum. First as a Digital Content Coordinator, and now I’m a Digital Product Specialist, so I work with their web and digital engagement team to build and manage web products. Things that fall into our wheelhouse for the museum include the website, FieldMuseum.org, which I’m the Product Manager for, as well as our blog, and our social channels which Twitter is one of our most popular ones. SUE the T. Rex has their own Twitter account, Instagram, Facebook, all of that, and as 2020 taught us, the definition of digital products that are relevant to a museum are very slippery. So, other things that have fallen into my plate are the Message Máximo chatbot, digital wayfinding, and really, who knows. It’s only just the start of Q2 and 2021, so we’ll see what she has in store.
[Marty]: A quick question. If I tweet at SUE the T. Rex, who answers back?
Ah, SUE the T. Rex, of course! [All laugh.]
[Jones]: Andrea, I assigned some news articles about the dinosaur to my museums and technology class this week, and some of the students that actually had the experience, and were trying to have responses come back in Spanish, and there was one that said, “I may be from Argentina, but I can’t reply to you in Spanish yet,” so, I thought that was really great preparation for the future.
Yeah, and I can get into this now, or in a bit, but that was actually something that my team and I were really trying to figure out with this particular product. Máximo is a dinosaur… Máximo at the Field Museum is a cast, touchable cast of the world’s, of the largest dinosaur ever discovered, right, and the persona that the Field Museum has built up for this particular dinosaur highlights the fossil’s Argentinian roots, so we’re like, “Oh, if we made a note that his name is Máximo, should he not also respond in Spanish?” But I think it was as much a question of like, resource allocation, right, like developing a conversational chatbot in English is and was like a wild project that I’m so glad we got to do. But doing that then in Spanish is also very different, right, because it’s not just translating those responses, but it’s a lot of thinking about like, “Well, how would one ask this question in Spanish? What, are the topics going to be mapped the same? On what interest might have Spanish-speaking audience or community bring to this particular product?” And faced with like limited resources and acknowledging the limits of our own expertise, we decided to lead first with English, evaluate the performance of that, of the English predominant product, and then think about how, then we could build out in Spanish, right. I think we have contingency plans from like, B to Z for how that could work, based on how resources might come. But yeah, Katherine, that’s exactly kind of it. Like, we don’t really want to say, like “Error 404. Response not found.” But like thinking about like, Okay, we kind of have to keep up the show, and be kind about it right.
[Marty]: So, where did the idea for that chatbot come from?
Um, kind of out of like multiple minds on our team, if you… very tactically, as many things are. There is a very generous gift that came to the museum that interested us to promote this particular new specimen fossil, right and knowing that we wanted to do something digital with it, the ask fell down to our team, and we just talked about SUE the T. Rex, but there were really early conversations where it’s like, “Well, you know, if the, if the brief is here’s a pot of money to really activate this dinosaur, let’s put them on Twitter. People love a dinosaur on Twitter.” And we’re also like, yeah but you know that’s a path that’s well worn. SUE is such a big personality. Lightning has only, strikes… how many times, right? So then we started thinking like, “Well, how else might someone want to interact with a dinosaur?” The chatbot came up pretty early, just as like, what if we did this? This was right around the time right that SFMOMA was in the news a lot with its Send Me SFMOMA app. Chatbots, especially at that point, were like, “Ooh, A.I. chatbots, XR. Like, what might we present to a museum?” And just thinking about like, what haven’t we done yet? And what can we experiment with? And I’m lucky that like, our team also takes an approach where it’s like, it’s, “Okay, if we fail. Honestly, like if we don’t fail, we’re doing something wrong. We’re not taking enough risks,” right. So between the gift, others on my team specifically like Brad Dunn, Katharine Uhrich, and Caitlin Kearney and myself, like, “Okay, chatbot, how could this work?”
So, from there, we then went to our Audience Insights and Research team, basically with the question that like, “Hey. We want to do a chatbot. We don’t know if audiences are into it. How can we figure this out? Right, like can you, can you help us survey some folks about how they might want to learn about Máximo, or interact with Máximo if presented the opportunity?” So, like in this particular survey, we did ask about things too, like, at that time we had the Brain Scoop YouTube Channel. It’s pretty active. So we asked like, “Do you want to see videos about Máximo? Would you want to see Máximo on Instagram?”
And we put it there as like Facebook Messenger, which I think was, was a mistake in some ways, because you kind of leave the audience to think about a particular platform and, especially, one as like, fraught as Facebook. You hear Facebook and alarms… like, “Oh, I deleted my account. Why would I do that?” Or like, “Oh, in Messenger, I like talking to people, but I don’t always use Facebook Messenger,” right, so the chatbot in that framework actually ranked pretty low. But because we recognize the, the sort of rest in that in national survey, we kind of just meant like, “We’ll go for it. We’re just going to try it.” Like, “Chatbot we haven’t done yet. It would be really interesting for our team to do. We have the resources, we have this persona that we can build out.” So we took it and ran, right. So, so much of the work of that chatbot went into understanding like, “Okay, if people … if this might not be people’s first choice, what do they want to know, so that we can at least build a product in a framework that might not be familiar, or even exciting to some folks, that gives them a story or information that they do find meaningful, that they do find useful.”
We had an a really awesome intern at the time, Sarah Anderson, and one of her final projects was to help us think about questions that people might want to ask the dinosaurs, so she just like spent a day in Stanley Field Hall, the museum, the Field Museum’s like large, open space and just like, watched folks and just sort of looked at Máximo, and one of the things that she like pulled off, she’s like, “Where are his feet?” Like, the cast doesn’t really have what I would call paws — please don’t tell a paleontologist that — but, like they were missing. And then, like Caitlin Kearney on our team was like, “People always ask about the bathroom, so Máximo, because he’s so big, obviously he’s going to know where the bathrooms are. He sees everything from up there.” So, it’s like “Okay, well what if we give them fun dino facts, along with like some customer service tips, and let’s let it run?” right, and we all came to the agreement that especially with something as open-ended as like a chatbot, so much of like selling this particular product to audiences also meant managing their expectations, right. That, you know, you can talk to Máximo about where he’s from, or how he’s liking Chicago, but you might not be able to ask him everything, right, like he’s you can’t ask them like, “Do you like what I’m wearing?” But there are like little Easter eggs in there. Like “Máximo, if you were to wear a turtleneck, or if it’s winter, would you wear a turtleneck or would you wear a scarf?”
Right, so, so much of the work, again, was essentially, doing a map of all the content, and thinking about like what topics would he respond to? How would he respond to these things? How would people ask these sorts of questions? And how are they connected to each other? Like, we worked with an incredible agency, Purple Rock Scissors, who helped us a lot with that initial content mapping and content strategy, and then we brought in, brought in our savvy with the visitor experience, and Máximo as a persona, and then, of course, our subject matters [expertise] from Science and Collections right, so that when we, say, when someone asked where are Máximo’s feet, it gives an answer that is delightful and scientifically sound. And so we had our like initial set of topics, and then from there, we just kept on testing it, both with visitors in Stanley Field Hall, our own staff because, as, of course, the more questions you ask a chatbot, the more, the smarter it’ll be, which was especially important because Máximo is like a conversational chatbot versus, I guess, a customer service one, which initially, into the product, we were looking at out of the box platforms for this that mainly worked off a call and response of like, someone says “tickets,” it’ll give you the ticket link, and you upload all of those potential like FAQs essentially in there, but ours is like, “Well, how, how might have a conversation meander?” We wanted to give it a little bit more freedom to learn and to grow over time, so we ended up using Dialogflow, which I think is now owned by Google, and then doing a lot of that again, content mapping on our end, before it went live.
But when we were training it with visitors and staff, we would go in and say like, “Okay. Andrea asked what did you have for dinner?” But Paul asked, “What did you eat?” Both of those things asked about food, and both are valid questions, so we want to make sure that it goes there. One of my favorite memories from testing it, because it was always kind of like, of course, as you work with visitors, and especially if you’re helping them test or they’re helping you test something, and… or you’re surveying them, you want to make sure they know what they’re getting into. Like, “Hi. Do you have a moment today?” And I remember asking a kid, “Hi. Would you like to talk to Máximo?” and he just started yelling at him, and I’m like, “No!” Like “Yes, you can, but maybe not that way.” I love the enthusiasm! Um, so but, we found that actually been presented, which is like a weird opportunity like that, it fit, and they’re like, “Oh yeah, like, sure. Well, what do I ask it?”
And then the other surprising thing is that it didn’t… the range of topics people often ask Máximo are not as wide as we anticipated. Everyone wants to know what he eats. Everyone kind of wants to know like, “Where did you live? How long ago did you live?” We have like Easter eggs in there, again of like, the turtlenecks versus scarves, and the Jurassic Park, but, so often people didn’t hit, and then, when we once we finally saw like, “Oh, they hit it.” Like, we were so happy because we… that’s where we thought people would find like meaning of just like, “Oh, these are things that a dinosaur would respond to you.” But people, just liked the novelty of it, and that’s kind of also what we accepted about this product. I often find that maybe not as much now, that even with digital products are sort of emphasis on like retention, and like permanence, and like it has to be this like long and significant and heavy meaningful experience, which is very valid, and I can think of a number of digital experiences that have that resonant impact on me, but there is also something to be said of this like, “That was delightful. It was like a little snack of an interaction, and you know it’s kind of effervescent like that,” and it is, is it as meaningful?
I would say yes, and it’s just delivered in a very different way, and that’s also what we kind of recognize too about the platform, which is why you could both text Máximo or message him from our website… that like meet people where they are, and you recognize people’s like habits with media elsewhere and we try to bring that into our space to create something just as engaging, but perhaps with a different storyline, right. Um, so yeah, when we when we launched Máximo, people loved him, like we were like really glad to see the uptake. I think there were a number of people, especially early into the launch who like saved Máximo into their contacts, and we were finding people were coming back, so with our particular platform, we can see conversations that people have like, who sends what. There’s no personal identifying information, so I can’t say like, “Oh Paul, this is your conversation.” But we would see people are like, “Hey Máximo. I’m back. Do you remember me?” and they’re like, “Hey Máximo, I’m up late and I’m like kind of bored. What’s up?” It was like, “Oh, that’s really cute because he’s always there.” And we really played that up to the messaging like, “Máximo is the friend who will always text you back. Like, he might not have an answer for everything, but he loves to talk” and things like that. And one of the things that did surprise us that we were kind of realized, “Wow. How did we miss that?” was with so many people were asking Máximo to tell them a joke. And for all the jokes that we like tried to hide in there on the sly, like wow, we actually didn’t add a literal joke in there, so we finally got that up and running. And we heard it from our staff in like a soft launch, is like “I think you should… Máximo should tell a joke” and then we saw people hitting it like an error message, oh look we’ll get that in there. But Máximo is like kind of on autopilot right now. The beauty of it, like because it’s been trained to a particular point, and it’s there and again, because the current — as currently framed for audiences – the, the topics that are hitting are like quite narrow. It is a product that we can kind of set and forget.
We do hope to return to it eventually, but, again as many of us in the field, know that like how we prioritize and how we resource projects aren’t always in our control, but it’s been a delightful project. We still go in and see it, and actually, I should say with 2020, when the museum closed in March, so we saw sort of a, an interesting curve to usage. The first year it was live in 2019, we saw that the use of the chatbot often correlated with visitation in the museum, and more people were in the space, the more conversations we would see, which kind of made sense. We had signage there. It made for a really easy interaction, if you were either like, waiting in Stanley Field Hall, looking at other objects, besides Máximo, or just like you know hanging around, right we had also like installed new furniture in that space, so people could lounge. And we were seeing online pickup, but usually tied to like, when we would actually tweet about the product or if it went viral. Like, there was one instance where a prominent author had featured Máximo in like a Twitter thread. We saw that uptake and, of course, when SUE, the SUE Twitter account picked up, picked it up, we were okay. But then when we closed in 2020, we did see a little bit of a dip. Of course, I think everyone saw many dips in March 2020. When stores closed of course our website got a lot of traffic. As did a lot of our virtual offerings, and once we started promoting Máximo as a way to stay connected with the museum, we then figured out like, Okay, like we saw usage pick up again.
Some edits we of course pushed made sense, because at that point you could ask Máximo how to buy tickets, if he was open, when they would see him next. We didn’t do a full overhaul. I think our team is less than 10 people for all of those products. So, I think we had a lot of like wish list that we eventually did not get to it, which is a little unfortunate, but, again as built, the product proved useful for folks, even through closure. That even now, it’s what early April 2021, and we’re seeing usage numbers pick up again.
[Marty]: Well, I just jumped online to ask Máximo to tell me a joke, because I was curious to see what it would say.
Yeah, there we go.
[Marty]: It actually came back and said, “Would you like to hear a knock knock joke?” So, I said “No, I don’t want to hear a knock knock joke.” And it said “Okay, which dinosaur slept all day? What dinosaur…? And the answer is “the dinos snore.”
There we go. Yes, our team loves the dino puns.
[Marty]: But I was just so delighted to go go and see. You know, not to derail the story, because I just, I would just to keep going and talking about, about all of this, but you mentioned about the inspiration of Send Me SFMOMA. And we talked I guess about a month ago with Marla Misunas, and she talked a lot about the development of that…
[Marty]: And one of the things that she shared with that they learned so much about their collections and how other people view their collections from what people asked them through that app. So, I was… you’ve already given us some examples of this, but it just made me wonder, I mean, what what have you learned about how visitors view the Field through what they asked through this interface?
Yeah, that’s a good question. I… so you talked initially at the start of this about how this project would put a human face to museum technology. And, not to say that Máximo is human, but I did find that people really responded to a very humanesque voice, like stories and responses from the Field Museum with this product. Like, I think, so we mentioned the SUE Twitter account a number of times in the conversation, which I think is one of the many sort of allures of that account, right, is that it brings a very familiar, if not very like, jovial, sarcastic tone to somebody that is very, very dead, right. And there’s just something very joyful about that. I think museums spend so much time talking about like, how we are active community spaces that bring people together, and that is true, in many ways, but also the Field Museum is filled with literal dead things that we just sort of draw contemporary meaning from, which it is possible, the work of our exhibitions, and research, and collections department, all incredible and, of course, our exhibition, or education team, but there’s something to be said that, like this fossil cast in front of you is actually responding to the questions that you have, and hearing it straight from them, it’s just like, you kind of, you buy into the allure of it, and it’s just delightful. I think people resonated with that.
We learned a lot too about just like basic visitor services questions, and I think so many of us, again, I made a joke about like, “Where are the bathrooms?” We’re like, “Oh yeah, like maybe we should also throw in one about coat check in there, and our hours and tickets because especially like working in a museum, these are just things that you know about your space, and you have to remember that, like, you are not your audience, and like you know those sorts of system or those sorts of logistics to navigate aren’t always easy, so you always want to make it easy for people to come into your space.
Beyond that though, we think we just learned a lot about how it is we converse with visitors and people online in general. Again, our assumptions of what everything people might want to know, versus what they actually asked, was a good reminder to me of like, sometimes you don’t need to overthink it and you don’t need to overcomplicate it, and sometimes the simplest answer is the most impactful one. I would gladly tell Máximo that. We’ll see how the topics grow out, but like, knowing as simple as something, as simple as like, “What would you want to eat?” was just like very reassuring to me again, it doesn’t always have to be as, as finessed or engineered as we think it to be initially.
[Marty]: I was also really excited to hear the examples you were giving about the sort of the user experience research that went into creating this, this chatbot. And this is a theme that’s come up in a lot of these, these histories that we’ve, we’ve captured as well, and I was hearing you tell the story. I feel like there’s like a sweep here between the work you were doing as an intern in D.C. to what you’re doing now, and I don’t know if it, you know, over a 10- or 11-year period of it seems that way to you, but over that time period, how have you seen this, you know this focus on the user experience change in museum technology?
I think it has been… so the focus on the user experience I think has been consistent in the, in the work that I’ve done in the positions that I’ve held, and I very much appreciate that, if anything, I think how we think about who the user is, and what that experience can or needs to be has changed over time. Many thanks to actually MCN helping me sort of figure that out, because I wouldn’t say… [if] you talked to me in 2010, I wouldn’t necessarily talk about what I was doing as the user experience, I would actually be very one, very quick to say that, like, Oh, I’m basically like putting information out there. Like I’m a loud speaker. The user is the person I respond to any particular way, but then like talk to me now, and it’s, of course, like once you’ve got to start with: What do they want to know, and how are they going to want to know that? Right. So, I guess it’s that, that shift from like talking to your audience to talking with them, actually listening to them because there’s one thing to get their feedback, and there’s another thing to like, hear it, internalize it, amplify it, and then actually do something with it, right.
And I think that latter piece is really what’s been exciting, especially now, um, but yeah, I think just even thinking about like how fraught a term a “user” might be because, even if you think about “user,” it’s very mechanical, it’s very clinical, like is it your audience, is it your visitor, is it your community? I like the most like semantic debates, I think there there’s tenets to both of the ways of like how we understand a “visitor” versus a “user,” and even in my own work, I tried to be very intentional with that ‘cause I think if you were to come into the museum and interact with Message Máximo, you will be different than if, you know, you’re off in California, you’re an avid like follower of the museum social stuff, and then you ask questions from there, because there’s something to be said again with the specific product of like, looking at Máximo, and asking questions, and then trying to imagine this, the experience of like standing below the largest dinosaur ever discovered, and figuring out, “Okay. What, what do I want to know about this right?”
[Marty]: Yeah, no. I agree on the issue of vocabulary as well, right they use the term “user.” You know I often try to say, “human centered design,” but then we run into a problem where we, people use the term UX, so we’ve got the U still in there and so it’s hard to balance this. You know, at the very least, I will say that, at least in academia, we’ve slowly shifted away from “human subjects research” to “human participants research.”
Right, right. Right, and even that, like there is “participant,” there’s “co-collaborator.” Anything within the last two years, you hear “co-conspirator,” which I particularly love that I like being sneaky. But again, like, I understand, like how you could pull upon each, depending on what it is you’re trying to achieve together, right. Because sometimes it’s like, oh yeah, like “I don’t need to be a co-conspirator, but like here are my notes, here like I trust you to take them and run,” right, versus “alright, let’s draw up a spreadsheet together let’s figure this out.”
[Marty]: That’s great. I was gonna ask. I was intrigued by the many internships that you’ve done and all these other places, and I was trying to figure out a question about how you how you build upon those experiences, like, what do you take from the work that you did at DPLA. How does that inform what you’re doing at the Field, that sort of thing?
Yeah, so the DPLA, the Digital Public Library of America, for me was a really great experience in how you might activate your collections. I worked with like, educators and public engagement specialists there, and I understand that the DPLA has since reorganized since I was there, in 2017, so I can’t say to their like full structure now, but, like the DPLA is an aggregator, right and like, bringing so many collections together. And a conversation you often hear in the space of digital collections like just because you put it online does not make it meaningful, does that make it intuitive. So, so much of our work then was like, “Okay, how… what’s something, what’s a way that we can bring collections pieces from disparate institutions together to tell a cohesive and meaningful story?” So I worked on a digital exhibition for them that looked at American Imperialism, right, which is like thinking about a lot of that now. So, like looking through photos and records of spaces that tell the story of America as a colonial power, and the consequences that brought on the people and the spaces that they were in, right, versus like later on, like, they’ve redesigned their site that year as well, so thinking about just very easily like, how do you search over so many things? Right like, if you wanted to find a cat. Any sort of artifact related to a cat. How might you go about that? Is it sort of making the tools easier for open search? Is it suggesting a pathway? Is it creating a tag structure that allows these pieces to be brought together? It was so much of that like I had come into the project that, into the redesign project a little later on into the phase, so I can’t speak to this like any sort of schema, but just thinking about like, how a website presents itself to lead a user to a particular experience, but also open itself up to what the user might teach like the folks behind the website. I look upon the DPLA as like really informing that approach to my work now.
[Marty]: You know, it’s funny, listening to you talk about the sort of those lessons learned there reminds me of the conversation we had with Seb Chan and he was talking about how in so many institutions, they put a focus on the product and they forget that the most important thing are the lessons that we learn from the process of building it, because those are the lessons that you can take with you to the next thing you do.
Yeah, exactly, and I think that’s… I’m a little bit of a process fiend. I very much appreciate Seb for bringing that up because I do think that again, like if your project sunsets, it’s not necessarily indicative of failure. It’s like what you learned from it, right. And oftentimes, especially like the website like it, that is continuously improving, that’s never going to be done so well, from what I find from our redesign piece to the museum, the Field Museum redesigned its website in 2018, and it’s like, hey, what are the bridges that we built to get there, and how can we cross them over and over and over again to either continue improving the website, build out a new product like Message Máximo, reposition some work with 2020, once everyone was brought online? Like that to me is really, like actually where I find a lot of value of my own work.
When I studied public humanities at Brown, so much of our conversations focused on community engagement, you know, it was like co-collaboration, or like how to like properly serve and amplify a community without like being exploitive or extractive, and like learning from those voices, right? And I think, like museum technology does a really good job of that, looking at like your visitors, and your online audiences, and what’s interesting to see now, and really meaningful to me, is that lens now turning inwards more acutely. Like people… who are your, who is your audience or who will support you within an institution to make these digital products happen? Who will support you in that process that you’ve established to build these things, but also like, who can help you improve it? Because, like maybe this is really complicated, but that there’s a more direct line we can get from point A to B.
With Message Máximo especially, I can think of so many staff in Science and Education and our Audience Insights and Research, like that, that product would not be possible, had it not been for them. Do they look at themselves as museum technologists as you and I might? I don’t think so, but they are doing that work, and I think kind of speaks to the slippery slope of what it means to do technology in museums now.
[Marty]: Well, as you say it speaks to the getting the buy-in from leadership, right. Having, having leadership that are that are willing to support, it sounds like you’re lucky you’ve got that at the Field right?
Right, right. I think so, especially with the Field Museum and my team, so my supervisor Brad Dunn, who was like also working on Message Máximo, we have a sort of same ethos of like, “Let’s just try it. Like, there’s a way to do it big time, and there’s a way to do it small. And it’s Okay to like start small and like, test and learn,” and that sort of approach I really appreciate with so much of what we do. And of course you can’t get to the big shiny product until you just start with like, maybe just the inkling of a question, or like, how will, how will folks like this? Like, is this useful or is this interesting?
[Marty]: Well, and that’s one of the nice things about looking at a historical sweep like this, is that, no matter how, no matter how worried we might be at any one particular point, right here now in the present, if you look back over the past 30, 40 years we’ve really made tremendous strides. We’ve really come a long way, right. Just in terms of the way we think about technology in museums.
[Marty]: We’re coming up to the top of the hour. We’ve heard some fantastic stories from you. Kathy, did you have any questions? Andrea, was there some other points you wanted to make?
Um, I think in terms of Message Máximo, you have the full story. I can send you some like supplemental stuff if that’s helpful, but I know like with an oral history, it’s all in this recording. I think, just to put a finer point on it, and again would echo what Seb Chan said about the value of process and documentation. I can’t really stress that enough, at least for my own practice of this, about like, you don’t know what you know until you try it. And you can’t do something new unless you know where you’ve been before. So being able to draw on not only like, Okay, past me. Past person who had worked on digital products, like how did you approach this? What did you learn? Where did you fail? Like that to me so important, like you have to be honest in your own record keeping too, but also just speaking to the testament of like the museum technology community, like we talked to the folks too at SFMOMA about Send Me SFMOMA when we were doing this. Like, how did you all define success? Like what should we watch out for? And all, sort of learning that, like we’re all trying something new together, so you put something out there, might, you might have to sunset it, but there’s a ready community of professionals in this field who are ready to catch you and be like, “Tell us what you learned.” Like, the fact that you tried that is cool. Like, let’s, let’s figure this out, and I know that’s also been continued to an MCN and like, “fail hard and fail fast”, I think, was it an ignite talk one year that was incredible. Just like, yeah, like there’s no shame and trying.
[Marty]: No. I love the point that you’re making about underscoring the importance of documentation, of record keeping, of sharing the lessons learned and needing to have a professional community with whom you can you can share that. Do you have an internal process at the Field? Like, I don’t know, a blog or something where you keep all of this?
Yeah… We don’t. So, while as much as I personally appreciate folks who like keep those like public-facing like notebooks of work, like… One of the ready examples right now is Cooper Hewitt with their Interaction Lab, or even with the Pen, right, they have that blog that I turned to in grad school and think about now. The unfortunate fact is that we’re not quite there yet at the Field, but that said, internally we do just have, I think, as many do like, a very like wealthy Google Drive network of folders and processes, of course, like, every year, or so we have to look back. It’s like, Okay, well, this is the archive copy, this is the copy we used to share. Like that’s just some like record keeping maintenance there that I think comes with every job, but always trying to think about like, Okay, where’s the project brief that tells us what this thing is? What were our guiding goals and who did we work with? I think that as a practice that we’ve really been able to finesse, especially with 2020, because of how quickly we were intaking work, and how quickly easy it was to get lost in just doing the thing, that even the practice of creating a brief or a scope and schedule, like, allowed us the moment to just pause and be like, why are we doing this? And what are we trying to achieve, by when? That is such an important question to ask yourself with anything that you do in this space. So we have that. Like, I am not a stickler for like, why is your document not 12 point font? Just show me where the document is. Like, as long as we all have an agreement of what it needs to achieve, I’m happy.