Oral History of Museum Computing: Shelley Mannion
This Oral History of Museum Computing is provided by Shelley Mannion, and was recorded on the 28th 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/NxLVkpAcjjM.
So yeah, I just, I feel like the invisibility… what struck me about your original, you know, sort of approach and, and you know, where you were describing this theme of invisibility is that I feel like, well, you know, you just mentioned, Paul, that you have… there’s the invisibility of the work of kind of what happens in museum technology departments, but you know, in maybe the invisibility to the people from, you know, outside — people from outside — meaning visitors, right, or the public, or you know, the kind of people who consume the things that we produce, but… But I actually think there’s another really interesting layer of complexity to this, which is the invisibility within the museum of our work, right, so I presume this has probably come out in other conversations…
But I feel like that invisibility works in two ways. Like, it works in our favor, and it also works against us. So it works in our favor in, in the respect that it allows us to experiment and do things that the institution maybe wouldn’t formally sanction or approve of, and so I guess maybe an example that I’d use this my work at the SDDC, which is the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre at the British Museum, so it was one of the first and, and sort of most ambitious digital learning programs that kicked off, you know around 2009, I think. So, I was one of the kind of first… Oh, I was the first co-manager of the space…
And it was a program, you know, sponsored by Samsung, it targeted children… and children and their families, so you know, it was basically young people. So we were in the schools and young audiences team, which is where that activity sat. And it was, yeah, designed to kind of create digital learning programs for, for families and for schools. So you know, formal and informal learning. And I guess, one of the… one, where I feel like I benefited from invisibility is, is that nobody was really that interested in what was happening in, you know, in education. I think this is sadly true, you know, in the museum sector in general, that you know, what’s … what often what happens in museum education departments is seen as a seen as sort of – what’s the right word? — not quite academically rigorous enough to be interesting to the kind of the curatorial departments, and you know, other areas of the museum. And so it, you know, it’s, it’s seen as “nice.” You know, part of the museum’s mission, you know, I think, I think there’s a sort of often a patronizing attitude on the part of the … kind of, you know, some of the Curatorial staff, towards what happens in Education. And, which is incredibly unfortunate, considering how qualified museum educators often are, and you know, how credentialed they are. But, as I say, that you know, that that kind of attitude, which, you know, what definitely I … you know, as I say, I benefited from that, I feel like, while I was at the British Museum.
So the fact that there wasn’t a lot of scrutiny, you know, about what I, what I did I had a lot of, I had a lot of autonomy, and not only was that satisfying from the point of view of, you know, kind of professionally, you know, building my skills and you know, kind of what I felt like taking ownership of something, and building something, and having, you know, having the freedom really to make my mark on it, but equally, it meant that, as I said, there were a lot of things that I got to do. You know, that I genuinely don’t think would with, with kind of more interest in oversight and more, you know, kind of scrutiny, I don’t think that I would have, I would have been able to do that.
So yeah, I mean, certainly the, you know, you mentioned earlier [before the recording started] the you know the Augmented Reality work that we did in the, in the SDDC, which, which was yeah, it was really interesting to me that I now, I now… I seem to keep finding myself at the, at the beginnings of these sort of these technological, you know, sort of momentous… these moments, you know of sea change, I guess. So, in other words, right around the time I graduated university was, you know, the internet suddenly… like, you know, I mean. You know, the early ‘90s, I made a website, and was like, “Oh, there’s this thing called the World Wide Web, and like, Oh wow!” You know, and that you know, sort of dominated, you know, the first part of my career and then, at the point at which I sort of you know pivoted, you know back, towards my original interest in you know, in technology and ended up as I say at the British Museum at the, at the SDDC, and you know, Augmented Reality was one of those things that was just taking off.
And now interestingly, I find myself at a Blockchain art company, you know, again at the beginning, so you know, with this sort of, yeah, interesting development. But yeah, I guess, I mean, as I say, I think, I think the way that we were able to work with Augmented Reality, which was… yeah, benefited from the fact that nobody was you know, was evaluating my sort of proposals, was looking over my shoulder, you know, kind of asking me questions or unnecessarily to justify why I was making those choices.
And you know, of course, as I say, the downside of that, right, is that you have incredibly few resources. And, and one of the things I always felt surprised about was how… the assumptions that people made about working for the British Museum, you know, that, “Oh, well, you guys have all these resources, so of course you can do all that stuff.”
But no, I mean, I did it myself, like, as a single individual, which again, I’m sure as a recurring theme in these conversations, but, you know, being a museum technology person means that it’s, it’s kind of all on you. And you know, you just you develop skills that you, you didn’t have before.
So, I mean, I can remember this slightly harrowing moment when I realized that I’d actually designed and — well not quite designed yet — but I’d advertised and, and you know, got bookings for a family workshop around Augmented Reality, and I literally didn’t know what I was going to do. [Laughs.] And so, and it was… I had maybe two weeks, and I remember sitting, you know, kind of slightly panicked, you know, in my, in my bedroom in my tiny apartment in London, being like, “Okay, I really have to, I really got to get it together now. Like, I have to research AR and figure out how, in two weeks’ time, I’m going to sort of design some sort of digital learning experience for these, you know, these families that are going to come in and have the expectation of you know, doing AR at the British Museum.”
But what was interesting was that we started so early, and you know, so that I was able to see at least three generations of that technology in a very short space of time. So, so the very first project that I ended up then, you know, running, you know, kind of yeah probably figure it … mostly figuring out that afternoon, you know, Saturday afternoon in my bedroom, you know, was… it was based around that the first, I guess, iteration of AR which involved these kind of AR markers that look very similar to QR codes. So they… they’re… yeah, I mean they were the only thing that the AR browsers at the time that were available that you could download onto a mobile device, because obviously the point was, actually to get, you know… as with, you know, digital learning generally, right, is to get you know, get learners out into the museum itself, right, and get them interacting directly with the… with the objects and the technology, the technology mediating, ideally, their experience of, you know, of looking or understanding the, you know, the collection. So anyway, so we started with, with something which was like, a downloadable, you know, app called Junaio, which was one of the, one of the few at the time. There was like Wikitude, and there were a couple of others. But anyway, Junaio was the was the one we ended up using. And we, I put these markers. It was around it was a temporary exhibition. If you if you ping me afterwards, I’ll tell you what it was called. It was a, it was about ancient Egypt, and we put these markers… I had to put the markers up temporarily in the museum, in the gallery and then take them down after the, after the event.
Because again, that’s one of the other challenges, right, of working with technology in museums, is that there’s, you know, there’s always this, this tension, you know between things that are needed to help you kind of you know, mediate the digital experience or facilitate the digital experience, and the design, right, that is, you know, that, that — and other challenges of the building, but that is kind of –yeah, certainly, from the, you know, from the kind of the curatorial side, and the sort of exhibition design side, you know, these, these types of, you know, again “education” interventions, you know, are somehow perceived as, as unwelcome.
So, but yeah we put these markers around. Oh yeah! And then we worked with, worked with this great 3D animator called Ali Vennings. So he, yeah, really very talented. And so he created these 3D models that were based on objects in the museum, and we kind of did a hunt around the … a trail around the gallery, where children had to find… they each got a phone, and they had to find the, the markers in the gallery. And then, scan them, and they would, on the marker itself, they would actually see this, you know, this 3D model, animated 3D model, and that then was a clue to them being able to answer a question and sort of complete the activity. So, so that was the sort of first incarnation of AR.
And then the second one… The second iteration was — trying to think. This is, this is, this is, this is this is, I knew this would be tough. I was like, I should have prepared for the call. [Laughs] What was the second iteration was, I think, scanning images, yeah. So the second iteration was scanning images, or was it location-based even? We ran a project, I think, with teenagers on larger tablets. And we had them go around the gallery, and we could actually place — if we had them stand in a particular location, we could, we could actually have them, yeah I think, it was, it was location based, and we had them scan a marker but then they could move around and actually see you know something like super-imposed in the space.
But then, you know, we moved on to something which was even more sophisticated. Which was obviously, you know, what we were really aiming for, which was the promise of AR when we sort of first started working with it. And that was the, that was, that was actually being able to scan the objects themselves, right, because you need something to sort of trigger the AR experience, whether that’s, you know, a location, or a, you know, a marker or an image, right, all of those things we used. You know, we went from a marker, I think, to an image, to a location, but then, you know, really the Holy Grail of, you know, of AR is actually being able to… for it to you know the device and the technology to be able to recognize an actual object in the gallery, right. and that’s also the beauty of it, that you can potentially, you know, expose or impose something on the view, right, of that object, which enhances it in some way, right. I mean, because you know so much of our work, right, and this is about, you know, museum interpretation, education generally, but you know, perhaps even, even more, you know, about to do with technology, it’s about restoring context, right. Like that, that is arguably, you know, one of the most, you know, fundamental things that we’re attempting to do, right, is to restore context, particularly in a, you know museum, which is a Historical Museum. Which is, you know, British Museum, as you know, the history of the world, right.
So anyway, we’re trying to restore context, and so, in that case, the, you know, the idea that… where we eventually got to, and, obviously, you know, exceeded my own abilities as, you know, as sort of a technologist, I guess. So, you know, we worked with an agency to do this, and one of the few who had an algorithm that was good enough to be able to recognize stuff in the galleries directly with, with changing light conditions. So, you know… and this is interestingly, it’s still quite, something that’s still quite challenging these days. But I was really pleased with where we got to with it. So again, it was, it was for the Ancient Egypt Gallery. This was, it was a permanent, it was a permanent gallery and yeah, there was a little… again, a little pot of money, you know, sort of in addition to, as you know, set aside for education. And so we developed something which, yeah, I’m not sure if it’s still used, but the technology is still there. But to be able to then see things superimposed over the, you know, over the experience… to be able to scan the objects themselves, and the objects themselves to be the trigger, which was obviously brilliant. That was, that was the goal when we kind of first started, first started working on it.
So anyway, like I say, the invisibility of, of our work, I think, was, was a real benefit, you know in being able to do things which, yeah — which, again, you know, the museum and certain, you know, staff members would have been really challenged by, had we … yeah — had we had to defend it to them, I think.
[Marty]: Can I jump up with a quick question?
Yeah, go for it.
[Marty]: What was the reaction of the curators to these AR projects in the galleries?
They were either not aware of them, or just like, “Okay well, you know, that’s Education [department]. They’re doing their thing, you know. They’re, you know, they’re delighted to be able to, you know, to put a few glowing quotes, you know, from attendees, you know, into their sort of final report.” Which is like, you know, “Hey, yes, we ran this round of education programming alongside this exhibition, and it was a success.” And, and you know, here’s some nice quotes, here’s some, you know, here’s some stats, you know, we had X number of you know, children through, you know, demographics, you know we did this many number of family programs, we did… had these this number of school groups come through. So yeah, I think, there were very, very few, very few who ever really engaged, you know, with it directly. I had much, much more success with the scientists and the conservation department. [I] had some really rewarding and satisfying collaborations with them.
And, you know, again, in designing some of the school programs for the SDDC, we had some really fascinating you know, collaborations where, you know, they, they provided some of the material, they had real interest, you know, and they also hired a like, you know, there was a sort of a liaison between you know … who, who sort of straddled, you know, two worlds. You know, who sat in the science and, you know, conservation – it was Conservation and Scientific Research Departments, CSR, and, and Education, so you know, kind of was involved in doing some education work, and then, you know, he provided a real, yeah a real bridge, you know between, between us and … yeah, you know, him being embedded, you know, in CSR, I think, gave, gave the Education work then some visibility.
And, you know, equally, I think there was a greater interest amongst them in technology, right. There’s, there’s less, you know… there were fewer technophobes. They were, they were much more open minded about, you know, embracing the possibility of technology and, you know, oftentimes, I think, because they, they, you know, they were using you know technology in their own, in their, you know, in their own work, and obviously, the nature of their work, is that, you know, that to be good at what they do, they need to sort of keep abreast of changes in technology. Whereas, you know, curators are mostly keeping abreast of changes in scholarship, right, which is a, you know, different nature of … yeah, different nature of… yeah activity, I guess.
So let’s see. So I didn’t… I haven’t covered Lugano yet, but that was, that was maybe a good one. So we covered the Digital Learning Centre. We talked about the first AR app, which was the one at the, the one for the, for the, for the Egyptian Exhibition. And like I say, I’ll find a find a few more details and send those through. Yeah, AR really did have its moment there. And yeah, the BM’s first digital strategy, yeah. That was super interesting. We, we did kind of fail.
Okay, well, let me say a little bit about the, about the program in Lugano because I do think it’s really important. I think there’s a really important bit of history there. Since a lot of the people, other people who you’ve interviewed actually participated in that program, often as instructors, so Susan Chun, Peter, Peter Samis, Jim Spadaccini, Scott Sayre and Kris Wetterlund – gosh, who else do we have? — Sarah Kenderdine, and feel like I could go on, there were probably several others that I’m not… for that I’m not mentioning. But all of them came, and I mean, it … for years, I mean, I think I was Peter, I was Peter’s teaching assistant for like, I don’t know… six or seven years, probably. So he came, yeah, it was — it was the best thing ever. I mean, you know, spending time with Peter is just a joy, right, but … But yeah, you know, being able to kind of work together and, and be mentored by him, you know, not just, not just as a, as a sort of museum professional, but just as, you know, as a, as a, you know, genuinely decent human, was, was you know, something really remarkable, but… but yeah, I mean…
So I was in the inaugural class for what was called the TEC-CH Program, so Technology Enhanced Communication for Cultural Heritage. So this was at a tiny, you know, sort of… wouldn’t go so far as to say provincial, but not a little bit provincial Swiss, Swiss Italian university, at which, you know, which is, it was very new. And I think … I’m trying to think. Did they just celebrate their 25th anniversary or something like that? Anyway, you know, very, very kind of new, and therefore, quite forward thinking university, and there was a lab… they were, you know, again very, very much focused on kind of, kind of practical trainings. There were a lot of you know, they, they did they started a series of international master’s programs. So they had tourism and fashion and merchandising and you know, a lot of things that were, I think probably unique, you know, within the kind of Swiss, you know, higher education system, you know which is… yeah, more, more I guess, more traditional, but, but certainly, you know, that that was sort of their, their you know, unique selling point or what, what differentiated them as a, as a sort of you know, modern university. And so, they started advertising these programs.
And I was looking around, at the time, you know, I had worked in … I’d worked in a few startups, you know, I’d been working for several years kind of professionally as a, as a sort of web developer and web designer and you know, kind of content person. And, and I really… I really, really wanted to get back into, you know, kind of the cultural sector. I was trained in art history, and, you know, have always really had a passion for that. So I really wanted to find my way back into that world, and the fact that the – yeah, that this program was starting up, and that blended, you know, technology and cultural heritage, it was like a dream. You know, I was like this is perfect, for me, you know, absolutely perfect. And, and yeah, kind of, yeah, serendipitously, you know, my partner at the time, got a job in Switzerland and then I started, you know kind of looking around for what the opportunities were, and yeah, this program was starting up.
So, I can’t remember exactly how many of us there were in the first round. I want to say maybe eight or so, but, but we just were… we were spoiled, I think. You know, we kind of, we had so much time that the… obviously because of the fact that, you know, these, the instructors were working professionally, and so, you know, I really should call out Paolo Paolini from you know, from the University — Milan Polytechnic – right, I think that’s what it is. Politecnico di Milano, right. Anyway, for really having the foresight to you know, to organize the program and to invite these amazing people who he had been, you know, kind of connecting with at Museums and the Web conferences and other conferences, ICHIM and other, you know, other conferences in the preceding probably decade. And yeah, I mean, you know, he just was starting up this program. He had some budget to bring them over. And so, you know, clearly, it wasn’t practical for them to teach an entire sort of, you know, kind of trimester or… I don’t remember how it was organized, but you know, or semester or quarter … whatever. You know, they could only take a certain period of time away from their, you know, away from their busy jobs to, you know, to come and teach. So we got them, for you know, sort of you know one to three weeks, depending on how, you know, how much time they could take off, but it was like really intensive during that time. You know, it was just, you know, we were we were kind of with the instructors, you know, from like morning to late afternoon every day. And I mean, in Peter’s class, which was, I think, called interactive communication for cultural heritage, or something like that, we would — or interactive communication for museums, ICM, I think we called it, yeah.
We also did, we did field trips. So I think at least two years, we went down to the, to the Venice Biennale together. And then we did … this was again very much Paulo’s sort of approach was project-based, you know. He, he really believed in kind of, you know, hands-on learning, and you know, less, less theoretical and very much practical. You know, kind of produce a project, to produce something, you know, actually make something. And so we do we just did project after project. And yeah, we, you know, we produced CD-ROMs, and we did you know, we built websites, and we did… I mean, you know, so quite a bit of that stuff I’d already done as part of my professional career, so you know, it was… for me, it was much less about the practical skills, although for other students, that was new for them.
But, for me, it was really the opportunity to spend time with some of these, you know, I considered to be you know kind of luminaries you know of the museum technology, you know, sort of field. And really, you know, just absorb what, what, you know, they’re, they’re kind of their approach to things, and you know, how, you know, sort of … some you know, it was an education and an introduction to some of the, some of the practices, which you know, now I have greater context for and greater understanding of. But, you know, those were the beginnings of sort of you know, design thinking and you know, sort of just, just you know, user experience, even as a discipline. You know, it was kind of just getting, you know, kind of just getting going in the you know, very early ‘90s. And you know, it was, it wasn’t necessarily a widely, you know, a widely kind of accepted, you know job description.
And I remember a funny conversation I had with, with Davida Balkini, who is one of, one of the sort of instructors in the program. At one of our first, first sort of events you know, like a meet and greet, you know, with canapes to welcome the first group of students. And, you know, overlooking, you know, the campus was like very close to the this beautiful like Lake Lugano, and any way it’s this gorgeous microclimate, right. You know, in Tocino, where it’s just, you know, often beautiful weather. It’s sunny and beautiful, bright, even when it snows, and it’s just, you know, it’s just, it’s just a kind of breathtaking setting. So anyway, here we were in this, you know, this stunning, you know kind of new campus. And the middle of this beautiful, you know, beautiful place, kicking off this, this arguably, you know, probably a groundbreaking, you know, sort of program, and I remember, you know, we had, I had a conversation with them like, Oh well, I guess, you know, where I remember… it was like… where you sit on UX or usability or something like that is, you know, “The real question is are you a Jakob Nielsen follower or are you not?” You know, like are you are, you are, you are you a fan, or are you not? You know, because he was Jacob Nielsen was this polarizing figure wasn’t he, you know, in the early days, with his Alert Box, you know, thing?
And I used to just, you know, like, I was religious, you know, a religious reader of his, you know, of his newsletter. And, you know, I followed some of the other people who yeah, who he… who, you know, who worked with him. You know, Donald Norman and Bruce Tognazini, and you know, I remember, there was somebody else, Carolyn Snyder was another one who wrote this book on paper prototyping and I was like, “Oh my God, paper prototyping. That’s a thing? Like, oh my God. Like how cool is that?”
So, you know, there was just this, this really… it was a really fun, exciting time where you know, that the, the idea that you know, there was there was a, there was a whole world of you know, new kinds of, new practices that were, that were kind of, you know, going to define, you know, this this this era of, you know, of, of kind of consumer technology really. You know, just, just the way that our lives were changing, and that you know, and that people were researching this, and you know that there was there was as much a, you know, kind of a scientific side to it. As there was a, you know, maybe an aesthetic side, you know. And so anyway, yeah, that was — but I remember he looked at me blankly, and I was like, “You don’t know who Jakob Nielsen is? Like, how can you not know? Like what, how can you know what I mean by this?”
Which is, yeah, it was quite, it was quite funny, and I was like, “Well, I don’t know, I don’t know about this program then.” You know, if they don’t know who Jakob Nielsen is, and I feel like, well … yeah, yeah. Yeah, clearly that was, you know, in my, my you know, kind of unhelpful reaction, but I think, as I say, that the program was just phenomenal. Like as I say, you know, being able to spend time with you know, with Peter, with Susan, with Jim, like, you know, hearing about what they did every day, the projects that they, you know, that they built. And like I say, also learning how they were applying — because they were learning a lot of this stuff too, you know, like, that, you know, kind of how …
I remember Peter was the one who introduced me to personas for the first time, right. And, and he was introduced to personas by Rachel Smith. So, I don’t know, Paul, do you remember Rachel? So she, she used to do these amazing like, she now she does this visual facilitation. She like draws… there was one at Museums and the Web, like a few years ago, where like, you know, she, she… [lifts arms] it’s like yeah, visual facilitation during meetings, and like drawing…[nods yes.] Yeah, anyway… so yeah, and I remember he brought in this article from yeah, [looking at chat] yeah probably yeah. and but anyway, so she… yeah, she’d written this article, because she was working for… She was working for that, the New Media Consortium.
Right, yeah, so she was, she’d worked for them, and kind of Peter… right, because they, they were involved in Pachyderm, right, in the development of Pachyderm, and you know, Peter introduced us to that because that was really his… you know, that was a big thing, right. Like, it was quite kind of huge. I mean, that was the first time that anyone had ever tried to create something which was, you know, as far as I know, which was really a content management system, specifically for interpretive, you know, interpretive media. Like, you know, was amazing.
Of course, you know, I never understood why he called the Pachyderm. And, and I literally have spent, you know, probably — I don’t know, way too much time — being like, “Peter, why did you [call it] Pachyderm? I don’t know. Like, it’s a software system, you want to call it something that implies that it’s fast, not slow, and like quite lean and not you know, old, big and wrinkly. I mean, all due respect to elephants and all that, but Pachyderm, really?” Like, why? Anyway, you know, yeah… right? I mean, just… yeah I think his instincts and branding were a little bit off there. Yeah, I guess, I guess that’s Okay. You know, he’s good everything else, so. Yeah, but, but yeah, basically. Yeah just, just I mean, yeah I remember he showed us like, he, he kind of yeah… The templates like, the very first templates for Pachyderm. We worked with those, and – Oh! We even used Pachyderm a couple of, couple of years, students used Pachyderm and actually built, you know, built their projects in Pachyderm. And so, yeah, the, you know, the kind of different interpretive templates that he shared and all that were just… so kind of … yeah, it was just, it was just, it was just fantastic, yeah. Exactly yeah, yeah so good.
And then, like I say I remember, remember …so yeah I remember Kris Wetterlund. So she and Scott, obviously, like you know, team taught, and it was really so much fun because they’re… anyway, they are just great. Like, they’re just, you know, incredibly engaging, you know, instructors, but they… and they sort of had this great double act, you know, where Scott is sort of on the technology side and Kris is on very much on the education and interpretive side. And I remember, you know, remember really learning a lot about, about fundamental principles of education from Kris and you know, the fact that she was just, she was sort of yeah really, really … as were, as were all of the instructors and very inclusive and very much, very much about wanting to involve us in participatory learning, whereas … and it’s hilarious because the Italian students, for the most part, were like, “This is crazy. We have never ever experienced this before. Like this… this is so, not what we can do.” Like, when Peter would be like, “Hey guys, let’s have a discussion about something. What do you think..?” And you know, they were like, “Oh my God. He’s interested in what we think. Like, he actually wants to know. He wants to engage us in some sort of you know, dialogue or conversation…”
And I mean, you know, having, having kind of you know, grown up in the States and stuff, I think I’d had had probably enough, maybe enough contact with you know, with, with that, I guess that you know just, just more interactive style of teaching. But the, you know, the Italian students who had been very much … you know, had very traditional educational experiences up to that point, just found it a complete revelation. Like they, they fell in love with Peter. I mean, it’s easy to fall in love with Peter, but they just absolutely, you know, kind of like, he…they just, he rocked their world completely.
And you can see the transformative effect that he had by, by showing an interest in their opinions, you know. And by facilitating, you know, kind of conversation and debate and stuff. And anyway, Okay. I’ll stop going on, I mean, you know, you know how good Peter is. So yeah, a lot of funny conversations as well with… between, between Peter and the Italian students in the debates and stuff that took place, like, yeah, yeah anyway. So let’s see. So yeah, so Okay.
So another, yeah, I remember some of Kris’ lectures, I remember, like, I say on some like fundamental principles of education. You know, the idea that you, you know, active learning and you know, involving the learner, you know, sort of in the process, you know, rather than just, you know, sort of dumping information. And, as I say, for a lot of these students, it was, it was… they just… this, this, this sort of, you know, like, as if the whole kind of revolution in education that happened in like you know the ‘60s and’ 70s, is as if it never happened, you know, like for them. They, you know, here, they were in the early ’00s like getting it.
But, and then, I remember Susan, yeah, I mean, she gave this great lecture on Web 2.0 in one year. And you know, I remember you know she was just challenging us. Like, Okay, “What, you know, so, so guys, let’s, let’s talk about what you know, what what is, what is the definition of Web 2.0? Like what does it mean?” And at the time, she was working with the Steve project, and she was working with you know, kind of you know, social tagging and stuff like that, and then, as a result of kind of my involvement with, with that, and her introducing that to me, then I ended up getting a grant from the Rubin Museum to do some work, specifically around like social tagging and I built a Steve, you know, instance to collect tags, and then analyze them and stuff, but for my thesis, but but yeah, there were… as I say, it was, it was, it was such an interesting time in terms of what was happening in our industry, and you know, we were, we were hearing about it really from the people who were, you know, who were sort of the pioneers in a way. That’s what it, that’s what it felt like for us. And yeah, it just, just such a, such an incredible, you know, yeah, such an incredible thing to have been a part of.
[Marty]: Let me jump in and say your Steve instance at the Rubin Museum that was very early for the Steve project. What was it like jumping on board there?
Yeah, I mean, it was Okay. I mean, it was kind of… it wasn’t, like I had a few, you know, sent a few emails back and forth just in terms of figuring out how to like get it working and stuff, I mean. You know, obviously I’d been a web developer before, and it was, it was it was built in like a cloud, it was just on a LAMP stack, right, so you know, I was like, “Okay, fine. You know. No problem.” Like, my, MySQL you know, PHP. I’m like, Okay cool. I’m more or less get it. So yeah, it was Okay. You know, I set it up, I customized it and stuff. I had a few emails back and forth with like Charlie, you know, at the IMA. Do you know who I mean? From Rob [Stein]’s team, like Rob’s original team, yeah.
Yeah, Charlie was great, and this was just a great bunch of guys, you know, yeah they were, I mean that was a super, super special time at the IMA, right. Like I hope that Rob, you know, kind of talked enough about that or you know, somebody else did, because I, because I do feel like, and you know, funnily enough, I’m still referring to him. I’m doing some consulting work for, for a friend who, who works in the NHS, and you know he’s setting up this like digital product lab, and I’m like, so yeah, there was this really interesting example you know of the IMA lab, you know, of this, you know, in the museum sector. Of this, of this lab where, you know, they were kind of spinning off Open Source projects, right, that you know, could be used, like more widely with the, you know, within the industry, but then they were consulting right alongside their, their kind of product work. Like, for me that was such that was such a fantastic example of really how it should be. I mean, the fact that… I mean, I think I’m almost certain that Rob said that they were self-sustaining right? I mean, you could go back and I’m sure you know he will have written it in the Museums and the Web, his Museums and the Web presentations and stuff, but you know, they I think, they were self-sustaining weren’t they? through their, through their…. and they built brought in so much consulting revenue that they were then able to, you know, pay for the cost of their team through this consulting revenue, which is, I mean, that is… that’s huge, right? Like for museum technology, you know, for museums, to be so …. Any, any, any, any department in the museum being self-sustaining I think or was already impressive you know, perhaps, except for this restaurant or the café or the shop. Like, you know, I mean I do really genuinely, you know, my, my, my aspiration for museums has always been that you know that they would be savvier you know with regard to revenue generation. And you know, I’m not sure whether we’ll get there ever, but, but yeah, as I say, for me, that was just an amazing model. You know of what, of what was what was possible. And, and you know, I’m sorry that it, it didn’t last longer, as I’m sure Rob is as well, but you know, yeah I don’t know. I don’t know enough about you know, how they felt about it. You know, kind of I think it was probably precipitated by Max [Anderson] leaving or something I don’t know, but um, but yeah.
Anyway, so, so it was Okay, doing you know, the Steve instance was quite fun and yeah, and I, you know, I sent out links and collected… I, you know, used it to as, as you know, in the context of the research project, you know to collect tags as a basically a sort of a yeah, data collection tool. And yeah, so yeah, it was, it was a, it was good. But all of this stuff you know was all really happened through you know, through, studying in Lugano, and, and sticking around, you know, to continue to assist Peter, and you know, to kind of yeah, continue to sort of connect and learn from that, that, you know, amazing group of people. So yeah, I’m conscious of time, so we got one more topic haven’t we?
So let’s talk about just, just to end on a bit of a downer. The British Museum’s first digital strategy. Yeah, it was… I don’t … I want to say, like to tie it back to my original point, which is that invisibility can be beautiful thing, this is an example of what happened when you know, the … some of my, some of my colleagues and one of my former the most, the most recent place that I worked, and used to, used to say when the eye of Sauron is turned on you, which means, like all the stakeholders are looking. You know what I mean, like, suddenly, the business recognizes that you know you’re doing something interesting, and it’s like… [makes a mechanical noise and moves hands to focus at the camera] Focus! Focus! And it does. It feels a bit like the eye of Sauron, and it’s like, suddenly people are interested, and therefore, everybody has an opinion about it. And yeah, Katherine, you’re nodding, so you obviously know what I’m talking about. So it just it suddenly feels like this wonderful autonomy that you’ve had, you know, where actually you’ve been, you’ve been able to be self, you know, self-directed. Have an idea and be like, “Yes, we’re going to do that. Yes, we’re going to try that. Why not? You know, don’t mean, like, that sounds like a good thing to try.” And suddenly, then, you know, when you have to begin to justify everything, it’s, it’s a real … yeah, I mean, it’s, it’s great, right, because you want the attention. You know, you want that, right? You want visibility for your work. You want, you know, you want resources for your work, you want, you want it to become part of the fabric of the institution, right, in order to genuinely transform the institution, you know, then, you kind of, you did. They have to pull you… you need to be close, right, you need to be, you need to be close to the, the sort of the centers of power of the institution, right, where decisions are made, where influencers are, and so on. But, equally, you then surrender, right, you know a great degree of your sort of autonomy and freedom because of the fact that it now, you know, you’re working within a set of constraints and equally, you know, needing to, needing to find a way to, you know, to kind of yeah, it just becomes so much more political.
So, so yeah, the British Museum’s first digital strategy, so I guess, where I, where this connects with my kind of personal history is that I worked for the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre for five years, and at five years, that five year sort of point was also when the Samsung sponsorship was renewed, and although I absolutely loved my job as the, you know Education Manager of the SDDC, literally the best job I’ve ever had, would do it again in a second if I could afford to. Then yeah, I mean, it was really my dream job. I absolutely loved it, but I needed to move, move forward in my career, and an opportunity came up for me to move into, into a new role, a different role, which was like a Senior Content Producer in the, in the kind of web digital team. And it’s interesting because I think, you know, I mean, I say the British Museum’s first digital strategy, but there’s like a there’s a slight… the point at which this intersects with my story, I would argue, maybe is, was the the first, first successful digital strategy, because there was an attempt just before that which kind of failed, which I wasn’t so close to, but if you reach out to Matthew Cock. Have you spoken to Matthew? You should definitely, yeah, you should definitely speak to him about that, because he was very close to that, that first…there was a kind of first iteration of kind of what happened, and anyway Matthew’s got loads of good stuff to talk about, you know, in terms of early, you know, early days at the BM. Like that, you know, hundred objects, you know, History of the World in 100 Objects, and, Oh God, he’ll … yeah. He’ll have amazing stuff to talk about.
But anyway so Matthew was sort of involved in that first incarnation, where somebody named Tim Kliming, came in, was appointed as sort of head of you know the British Museum’s first proper head of digital, kind of thing, you know, sort of above Matthew, who was head of web at the time, and any way that ended up sort of ending in disaster somehow, I mean, I don’t know all the… I don’t know. I really don’t know all the ins and outs of it all. I know is that Tim departed very abruptly, as did some of his then-team, followed him to the BBC, which is then what opened up the role for me to step into, and then someone new came into the role. So Chris Michaels, who’s now the kind of head of digital and technology communications at the National Gallery. Took, took the, took on the role then of, of you know, the first head of digital, and sort of you know, formed the first… he, he wrote, then you know, kind of the first as I say, successful digital strategy. And he kind of, you know, he’d come… he’d been a CEO previously, so he had lots of experience. Yeah, he, he handled and, and the, the political challenges of that role very adeptly. And was therefore able to get sign off on the first digital strategy and what, what that meant for us was huge. You know, massive reorganization of the, you know, the team, we moved to, you know, one of the newer new offices in the newest building on site. You know, which was a, which was a treat. And we, we built a digital product team, and you know, we did it for three years, and we… yeah, we did a lot of really interesting things and introduced to some of the, some of the some of the practices, you know that were… well, that I learned about you know, kind of that I’d learned from, from you know at the University of Lugano, but you, know these, you know how design thinking practices, you know, kind of good practices around kind of UX research, you know, the kind of concept of you know, you know the product development lifecycle, and moving away from this idea of the traditional project. Right, like, that, that’s really, you know, museum are still caught in that, and lots of, you know, heck, I’m still caught in it. You know, here I am at, you know, in theory, as a product startup company, as a, you know, Chief Product Officer. And I’m you know, I’m still, I’m still struggling, I’m still fighting that fight, you know, against, against the, the project and, and you, know there’s a place for projects as well, but, but, but you know, museums are mired in, you know, in projects, and in fact, mired in delivering particularly grant-funded projects, which you know were described ten years before, you know, where now literally everything has changed. And there’s almost no point in doing that anymore, but yet you’ve committed it. You’ve committed to it, and you’ve received money to do it, so you kind of, you have to do it, even though it’s, it’s excruciating, it’s every step of the way you’re just like, “Yeah. No, this doesn’t make sense.”
Anyway, so I know you guys need to… you’ve got a hard stop haven’t you? So Seb Chan, Seb, Seb was great, and actually, yeah, I, in fact, I interviewed for a job with Seb when… as a product manager, you know when he first moved to ACMI, and, and, and would have loved to have taken… I got pregnant right around that time and decided it you know, wasn’t the right time to move, but, but would have loved, loved to do that because he, yeah, he and I thought very similarly, you know, about, about, yeah, just, just the way in thinking about products.
So, yeah, I guess there’s probably a little bit more to say about the, about the, you know digital product team at the BM. The, the very, very, very short version in one minute is that we grew the team to probably about 20, something like that, which was massive, made a lot of ambitious, aspirational, inaccurate promises about how much revenue we were going to generate, which was all incredibly well intentioned, but not necessarily well grounded in a good understanding of what was realistic, within the constraints and context of you know, the museum. And so, one of the, I think, that’s probably you know, what, what, what, what led to the sort of decision by senior management to disband the department. And you know, and you know, Chris departed, went to the National Gallery. The, you know, the rest of us just, yeah, went our own ways, and you know, I volunteered for redundancy. I can see where that was, you know, where it was headed. Patricia Wheatley and Daniel Pet were two people who also, you know, they’re senior managers in the department, and Dan will it have a lot of good stories, by the way, Dan Pet, and is now at the Fitzwilliam, Ashmolean? I don’t know, one of those. But he’ll have some good stories about the portable antiquities scheme. You should talk to him. That was super unique and really, very super interesting to talk to him about because, in terms of like crowd-sourcing, you know, information and yeah, he it was again, total one-man band. Talk about invisibility. Whew!
You know, hugely significant for the, you know, externally, but just not at all recognized or valued internally. And again, let’s, you know, maybe we’ll leave it there, because in terms of invisibility like, that’s, that’s the… that was the frustration, I think, that a lot of us felt in working in digital and in museums, is that, that you know, we, we established profiles within, you know, externally amongst you know, our, our sort of our peers at other institutions, but when we came back to our home institution, nobody cared. Like, nobody, nobody really valued that work, and they also didn’t value, or really recognize the excellence of the work that was taking place, in digital, you know. And how had they had no sense of how that work, you know, was, was really kind of, you know, breaking ground and being you know, yeah, was hugely significant you know within our field, if you see what I mean.