Oral History of Museum Computing: Darren Milligan
This oral history of museum computing is provided by Darren Milligan, and was recorded on the 19th of March, 2021, by Paul Marty and Kathy Jones. It is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license (CC-BY), which allows for unrestricted reuse provided that appropriate credit is given to the original source. For the recording of this oral history, please see https://youtu.be/in8NC2iJJoo.
So I guess I’ll start maybe right now, and kind of work my way backwards, a little bit. So, I’m very recently the Acting Director of the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access, and prior to December, was the Director of a project called the Smithsonian Learning Lab, and my official title is Senior Digital Strategist at the Center for Learning and Digital Access. I’m still with the same department within the Smithsonian, but now in more of a leadership position. But the center exists to ensure that folks who are in the, what we would describe as, I suppose, the educational ecosystem, or the educational community have the right level of access and the right tools to make use of the digital resources from across the Smithsonian’s umbrella.
So, the center exists specifically to serve in an educational capacity for the Smithsonian, but not within the context of the museum itself, and so I think that’s part of the story that I was excited a bit to tell you is, you know, I often feel like I don’t work at a museum because I’m really, we’re really engaged with what happens with museum knowledge and museum objects and assets. But outside of the context of the museum exhibition experience, the museum collection experience, and you know, that has its own set of unique challenges, and also have unique sort of possibilities.
But I’ve been at the Smithsonian for 16 — 15 and a half years — so when I came into the Smithsonian from outside the museum space, and so my undergraduate degree is in, I have an undergraduate degree in Spanish, sort of focusing on Latin American popular culture, and undergraduate degree in biology, focusing on ethology and evolution, and my first sort of job out of college was working at a nonprofit that did research on migratory birds, and did some public education, some public outreach and some public engagement and you know, I got that job because I had some experience in biology and I was doing some fieldwork assistance and some other things, in some of the traditional patterns, but this was the late ‘90s, and so you know this organization was really interested in connecting and communicating, growing their base.
And so, right when I was sort of leaving that organization, I was building some tools for sort of mentorship, actually. Creating a mentorship program where people who were more involved in this conservation side of this work and people who are newly coming into this, and creating citizen science or a data collection tools so that people could report migration patterns. And that’s I think, you know, I was sort of on my way out of that organization at the time, but that’s when things really started getting much more interesting was really sort of the beginning of more of a back and forth, sort of you know Web 2.0, or sort of more participatory way of using these digital tools to connect you know, an organization with a really, really wide group of enthusiasts and individuals.
So then I left all that behind and I, you know, the unfortunate thing was that that nonprofit was in my hometown, where I grew up in northwestern Pennsylvania, and really didn’t want to be in my hometown as a recent college graduate, and wanted, you know, to do something different, so I moved to Pittsburgh and started working in corporate marketing and digital communications, and so I was I worked for a software company in sort of the .com era. Very exciting. Lots of young people, lots of money to do all kinds of interesting things, you know, big teams of writers and creative people and technologists and video people and really focused exclusively on doing you know, email marketing design, web design, web development, you know, really, but very much outside of that nonprofit space, but really in a much faster-paced, much sort of very, very different environment, and worked there for a number of years, but, you know, I think realized, having had that nonprofit experience that, that there was a you know that sort of I think that mission-driven fulfillment that we probably, the three of us collectively, have, you know, most people working in our field sort of have, was really missing, and so moved to Washington, D.C., really to, to work in a very similar company another and other software company, but moved here knowing this was sort of the headquarters for a lot of nonprofits, a lot of museums, and just knowing I kind of wanted to get back into that space, and so, somehow I was able to make my way into a job application, a federal job application at the Smithsonian, knowing really very little about that and it’s kind of shocking to me that I even got an interview at this point. I mean, I think you know the office I was applying to was at the time called the Center for Education and Museum Studies, and the… it’s, it’s in a sense, the same office that I’m leading now, but in a very different sort of era… I mean, that the Smithsonian’s had an office like this. This is actually the 50th, kind of the 50th anniversary of this this office. It really began, though, is the Office of Secondary Education.
The Smithsonian had a very significant Museum Studies Program, Museum Studies Department in this era in the ‘70s that I think fulfilled a lot of the roles that like AAM and some other organizations fulfill now. We maintained a lot of resources on college programs for museum studies, publication opportunities, and was sort of a clearinghouse. The Smithsonian was playing bit more of a kind of a leadership role that are the national sort of museum infrastructure space in there, and at some point in the ‘70s, that those two organizations were sort of smashed together into this office, called the Center for Education in Museum Studies, and so, it sort of was sort of three things: It was a museum educational publishing department, it was a professional teacher– professional development program, and it was this museum studies program. And I sort of came in to that sort of world, but in the publishing end.
So, at the time when I came in, I was, I was hired as like, my title was Webmaster. I think probably many of us have had that title at one point, but I was really brought in to take care of some existing you know web properties that the center ran. One was museum studies programs’ website, we ran the internship program for the Smithsonian, and we had sort of a portal that was very new when I came in. It had just launched when I joined. It was called SmithsonianEducation.org, which was sort of a, the central place for families or for teachers for the Smithsonian. So very much at that sort of Smithsonian level, not at the individual level, of what we would call a unit-level museum or research center, library, or archive. And it was really, you know, was a database of about 500 lesson plans, I think, from across the institution that were available digitally. That was sort of our education outreach tool, I would say.
A big part of what we did was published something called “Smithsonian in Your Classroom,” which was a printed magazine. It went to every elementary and middle school in the country, so we were mailing between 80 and 100,000 of these out twice a year, which was a… seems insane to me now. The amount of paper and postage, and, and you know there were you know beautifully designed, they were usually you know, like 20-25 page teacher magazines that included background information for the classroom teacher, usually one to three activities. Some extension activities. Oftentimes we would feature a Smithsonian expert who was involved in that area, but we worked across the Smithsonian. So you know, we might do an issue on whale migration, and the next one would be on Native American doll beadwork, and it was sort of very kind of broad spectrum, so part of what I was doing was sort of art directing and managing that while sort of taking on those sort of webmaster sort of roles.
And then, that continued. I mean, I think that was pretty kind of straight for quite a while. I mean, that was… you know, we, we referred to ourselves as the central education office for the Smithsonian. And so, while each of the museums had their own education departments, they primarily focused on you know, the, you know, being at the Smithsonian, the thousands or tens of thousands of people coming through the door every day, and you know, working on programming for families, or for school groups. A very, very small percentage of their time was dedicated to sort of online or outreach or the people who were not being served by the museum. It was very much, very much focused on the museum visitor. The educator’s job was on the floor. It was really in that museum space at the time. And so, really, we were, we were the ones who are tasked with, anything online was sort of more or less our responsibility, with some exceptions, of course, because the Smithsonian is a big place.
I think about, let’s see, about eight years, eight or nine years ago, eight years ago, since… that SmithsonianEducation.org website, which has launched I believe in 2003, was you know, starting to age pretty significantly, in terms of its you know user experience, but also, I think in terms of what we were publishing and how republishing. And much of what was there were PDF versions of the “Smithsonian in Your Classroom” magazine, and similar from other parts of the Smithsonian, and you know, I sort of had for my leadership kind of a mandate of like, “We need to redesign this and create a better user experience, and so figure out how to, you know, how… what, what we need to do that.”
And I think you know, pretty, pretty quickly, we realized… I sort of realized, and with a lot of terror, that I didn’t know how to do that because we knew so little about who our users were right, I mean, I think the site had launched, you know 10 years previous, we could see you know, what was being downloaded or you know, Google analytics sort of data about usage, but you know, what does the teacher do in a classroom with a PDF of a 25-page magazine that’s about whale migration? Like what, what is she actually doing, what does that actually look like, and you know how do we make that better? How do we improve that? And so we, we somehow I like to have a fog over this in my memory, because it’s, I think I was really terrified at the time I kind of had to go to my leadership and say, “We, we can’t do this. Like, we don’t know enough about what our role is or who our users are or how they use digital museum content, how do they use extensive lesson plans to, to be able to create anything that would be good. That would actually be more than just an improvement of the user experience.”
I think I said, you know I said, you know, we can make a more up to date database of you know, at this point, I think we had about 2,000 lesson plans sort of cataloged there. They’re all aligned to national standards that, and it was it was good for what it was, but it was a, it was a text database of metadata describing lesson plans. And, so that really sort of stopped that project, and kind of made us quickly kind of gear up to be more of a research and evaluation department to try to figure out… We first started out what’s the website what’s the website be, but I really, I think started to answer two questions: not just what’s the, what’s the user experience we should be connecting, what is our user experience expectations for teachers in the classroom from a place like this, the Smithsonian? But also the content: What should we be publishing and how should we be publishing it in a way that is useful to them? You know, I think, you know, one of the, and this was sort of a series of sort of five studies that were done over the course of several years to define our audience, and then to really dig into that, that actual process of what teachers do with the digital museum learning content.
You know, I think one of the first, the first focus groups, the first you know, it was it was a series of different things, and some of it was quantitative, a lot of those qualitative, looking at you know the actual experience that teachers who were using our material, and you know. And it was you know sort of astonishing. It was like 98 percent of users were not using the material in the ways that we get published it. Now, this is sort of looking at like that’s “Smithsonian in Your Classroom,” and they, you know when we would connect with people who are using it, they would, they’d say, “Oh yeah. We love that. You know, I loved… I cut out the map that you had on the second page, and I like blew that up for my bulletin board.” And we’re like, “Okay well, what about the lesson that went with the map?” And they’re like, “Oh yeah. I don’t think I read that.” Or you know, like they were reading the background essay, sort of bringing themselves up to speed, because they were introducing a topic the next day, but that’s all they needed. You know, they didn’t need the lessons. They didn’t need the activities, or they you know, the activity took two class periods and they had 20 minutes, and so they would adapt it to make it work into period of time. So, you know, what we were publishing was useful to them, but we were publishing it as a PDF, you know, on a website that you had to know to go to, and to know how to find. We were making it, you know, almost as difficult as we possibly could to allow for that kind of customization and flexibility and sort of mash up behavior that we were, you know, quickly seeing was typical teacher behavior for how they create lessons.
And, you know, and with them, we sort of looked… we were looking at other sort of, on the screen user experience side, sort of what was that looking like? And this was a time where there were a lot of kind of Ed-tech startups really beginning to really surface and build some market share, and we’re beginning to build the kinds of tools that I think we were starting to picture in our own minds about what, what we’d want our teachers to be able to do with these things, and you know, this was still sort of seven years ago, I guess.
And you know the Smithsonian at the time we were not Open Access participants. We were very strict with the usage of our, of our digital materials. And you know I remember the time thinking, “Man, if we could just get our millions of images into these other external platforms that already have teacher communities of hundreds of thousands, it would be amazing! You know, we would see the results of that,” and that wasn’t possible legally based on, you know how we saw you know the sort of copyright or that kind of usage restrictions of our materials. And so, what we started to learn is that we needed to build some sort of infrastructure that would sit on top of our digital content that would enable this kind of, kind of flexible creation, but it would be our tool, so it could sort of not get in the way of sort of issues around copyright and usage. And you know, I think you know, looking back on it from today, we would never sort of build our own tool. I mean, I think you know, obviously Smithsonian’s got, we have close to 4 million images, now that are CC0. The institution has changed a lot in terms of its thinking, but you know, it was at the point where we were really beginning to understand what teachers would want from a place like, like museums, like the Smithsonian.
To design that system, we did, over the course of the summer, six years ago, we had teachers coming to Washington, D.C. for a weeklong teacher, sort of professional development experiences, and this is something the Smithsonian has done for a very long time, where people, teachers come from all over, they spend a week in Washington, D.C. They go to three or four museums behind the scenes and work with our education teams on using primary sources in their teaching, or using museum resources, you know, in a classroom. And we carved out an hour or two every day, at the beginning of their day, over the course of three or four weeks, to work on this problem, on this idea. And we had you know through, through some of the previous research, we had kind of come up with some paper prototype ideas of what this, maybe this kind of experience should be like, and so at the beginning of every day, we worked with them on this idea. And “we,” meaning the staff at the Center for Learning Digital Access, but also our external partners who were our research and development partners, and so we had software engineers in the room, we had former sort of educators who are now our sort of EdTech research partners. And so, you know, we would hear feedback from teachers on a Tuesday morning about a sort of a paper prototype we were working with. And then Wednesday morning, you know, they would get a new version of that prototype. You know, our team would sort of do this experience in the morning and then spend the rest of the day reengineering everything. And as we moved through that experience, we had a… we created a sort of a digital prototype of this, and so again, you know, teachers say, “Oh, this is great, but the button was so small, I couldn’t see it.” The next day, the button would be a lot bigger, you know. So we were able to like iterate, iterate on a daily, daily, daily basis, over and over and over and over again. So it really enabled us, by the end of that summer, to have something that had been tested, you know, by hundreds of teachers who had gone through you know, 20 rounds of iteration, and really helped us define, you know, what a sort of a digital toolkit would look like that would really be in line with that you know a lot of sort of teacher input it in a lot, a lot of realities of teaching.
And so you know, I think, you know, from my perspective of my kind of story, you know I kind of went from someone who kind of learned how to build do some HTML to someone who was really not a web developer or a webmaster and but really a software project manager, software product manager, which it’s very different. So, so different. I think you know, I mean, I think you know that I think this has sort of happened… I’ve seen this too, is kind of my delight, I mean, I think there’s a core of sort of webmasters, the people who are webmasters at the Smithsonian when I started, many of them are still here, and they you know, all of us, were such generalists. I think, you know, 15 years ago we had to be, and we were probably taking the photographs that are on the web page for editing the photographs, we were probably writing most of the content, editing the content, coding the pages, launching the pages, sometimes taking care of the servers. You know, you were you were a team of one in many ways, and I think what’s been sort of wonderful, I think, as our digital teams have grown and there’s been more emphasis and funding and resources for, for outreach and for you know online platforms is to see the sort of specialization I think, you know, I think I’ve had the opportunity to really dive deeply into education, while there’s a dive into scientific researcher, or in other areas of sort of more deeper specialization, which you know which was not a reality, you know 15 years ago. And we were all teams of one.
But, so anyway, so about six years ago, we had this sort of prototype, this idea, and we built this thing called the Smithsonian Learning Lab, which is really a set of exactly what we, you know, had, had set out to build, which is a tool that encourages the use of all of our stuff by a, by a somewhat specialized audience. And so, we’re coming up this summer actually launched five years ago, in June, our five-year anniversary is this summer in June… We have about 120,000 registered users on the site and our users have made 40,000 — you can think of them as lesson plans, but the, we call them Learning Lab Collections — there. You know the site encourages aggregation of individual museum objects, uploading material from outside of the Smithsonian, layering on an annotation or an assessment, or building some sort of experience and sort of package. So, we’ve had 40,000 of those have been made by you know, users all over the, all over the world, who are primarily educators, and that sort of educational ecosystem, but not exclusively. And so, we’re you know, we’re kind of at this period now, I think of, where it’s been a tool that was really designed for classroom teachers, and that’s beginning to expand as we continue to explore how teachers use this material. And you know and it turns out, I think one of the big assumptions we made when we were developing the tool and choosing our target audience, is that teachers were the best audience for this. And you know, we realized that teachers, primarily for issues of time, are not the best suited all the time for sort of content creation. They’re great adapters and modifiers, which we saw you know, in the beginning, when they were doing that, with scissors. But it’s really, it’s people like librarians and curriculum specialists, curriculum designers, who already are in that space of making things from scratch and building things that suit the needs of teachers in their school or in their, in their district. And so, our audience types have continued to kind of bubble out and expand.
We’re now in a moment, I think, in the past year partially because of COVID, but not exclusively, where many of the users that we focus on are internal, so the museums themselves. We have 48 different Smithsonian divisions who are currently using the Learning Lab as one of their, or their exclusive, platform for educational outreach. So that’s been a big change too, because obviously museum educators, and these are really different, they’re using it as a publishing tool, very much designed to create something very sort of polished and published for, you know, teacher use, where teachers, many of them aren’t building things with the idea of publishing them, they’re really just creating things for themselves to use with students, with their classroom.
So we’re doing kind of this sort of balance now as we think about users, both on an internal and external space, in the Smithsonian with our new Secretary, Lonnie Bunch, is… I think rebranding is probably too light of a way to think about it. I think re-centering the Smithsonian’s mission as an educational institution, I think. He is articulating and will continue to articulate the… one of the greatest potentials that the Smithsonian has to have in our country of a very troubled time is, is having an impact in schools and having an impact, you know, with teachers and students.
And so I think we’re seeing this moment, too where the Learning Lab, which was designed as really just a kind of a tool to interact with our digitized content, will really become a platform for broader connection with education audiences to the entire Smithsonian, which is you know, we’ve seen that, as the as the divisions have begun to use it as a tool for outreach, but I think that’s going to really go, go quite a bit deeper, you know, as the, the mission of the institution is really about having an impact really with, with teachers and students everywhere. I mean, the Secretary has, if he hasn’t done it public — I think he has articulated publicly – that, you know, he wants the Smithsonian to be in every classroom in the country. He wants it to be, you know the one of the handful of places that teachers instantly think about as a, as a, you know, a place for quality information, knowledge, resources, experiences. You know, and I think, I think we, I think, museum educators, especially those who kind of work in the technology space, are constantly battling this idea that the public has that museums, especially in to a teacher, to an education space, or even to a family really, that museums are events. You know, that they’re very much experiences. They’re a thing to do, but not necessarily a resource for knowledge.
The Smithsonian has — everyone at the Smithsonian hates this, but it’s like a lot of lot of people think of this – and it’s actually something I think we came up with, and we’re using you know, in the, in the… I think it was in the ‘70s. This year is our 175th anniversary of the Smithsonian. And it may have been around the 150th, where we were talking about ourselves as “The Nation’s Attic.” And that was just something, kind of, we thought that was kind of a catchy, clever sort of thing. I think, I think we all hate that now, because you know, an attic is where you put stuff you don’t need. It’s a place you don’t quite want to throw it away, but you know, you don’t need it every day. And I think that’s the opposite of what we aspire to be, is that it is something, we could be something that you need and use every day, and so I think we’re trying to shift that “Nation’s Attic” to more of the idea of the “Nation’s Memory.” This place that you’re recalling and using to make decisions that you are using to inform your, your sort of day to day.
So yeah, so I mean that kind of brings, brings us up. For the last five years, we’ve been running Learning Lab, continuing to really evolve at doing you know continuing that sort of research and evaluation perspective of working with our users to understand their needs. Now, and that means both internal users and external users, building new tools building supports that enable other types of users to take a greater advantage of the resources that are available there. So, my role has really gone from somebody who’s you know, stealing HTML snippets from other websites to try to build things, to managing a system that I, I mean, I understand how it works, but I cannot, I mean, you know my skill set is nowhere capable of being able to fix or change things. I mean it’s leading a team of you know, of 10 or 15 people who, who have very specific technical expertise around managing that the code for this very complex and growing a complex piece of software.
So, I’ll pause there for a second.
[Marty]: We spoke last week with Scott Sayre, you remember Scott…
Yeah, I know Scott.
[Marty]: He told some of his memories about the early days of working with ArtsConnectEd, right? With the MIA and the Walker, right. It’s, it’s wonderful to see this historical progression, right, to look at all of these resources for education, and he actually told a similar story about working with teachers and doing some user testing with teachers. I was just wondering, so what was your relationship like with the teachers? Do you still work with them? How did you build that connection?
Yeah, it’s good, and you know ArtsConnectEd was one of our, you know, we… part of our initial work was doing a fairly extensive literature review and environmental scan of both in museum and but also non-museum kind of platforms, and they were certainly high on our list, and really something we built upon. Yeah, I mean it’s interesting. I mean most of our user feedback comes from sort of teacher professional development programs. Unfortunately, you know many of those are sort of one and done sort of experiences, especially you know, they, the ones where they would come for a week and typically they were coming to a specific museum, and so in the case of our… that that’s week after week piece, those weren’t, those weren’t professional development workshops that our, that our center was running. They were being run by the Smithsonian American Art Museum or a National Museum of African Art. In that circumstance, the funding that paid for those experiences for bureaucratic reasons, more than anything, sort of funneled through our office, and so we were in this kind of position to sort of tell the museums, “Look, we’re going to take an hour a day of your workshop, okay, to sort of do this digital thing. The rest of the day we won’t be there. It’s your program.” And so those museums typically had the relationships. There are a couple more contemporary examples where those relationships, so those relationships sort of fell away, I think, you know, we had this experience and we worked with them, and we certainly, when we launched the platform, we, you know, we reached out to them to let them know that their, their input had had a significant influence on, on the tool. The Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery do these same experiences and continue you know, doing them every summer, and even last summer, continue to do them sort of in a digital, and will again this summer, do them in a digital format, but historically, those workshops culminated sort of on the Friday or beyond with each participant creating a lesson plan that you know, they would then take back and use in the classroom, and it’d be a tangible result.
About four years ago, both of this museum shifted to Learning Lab being the tool for them to for the participants to create something. And so what’s kind of incredible now is that you know they have this connection with those users, and they have hundreds of these Learning Lab collections that have come out of these experiences that are, you know, they’re, they’re for the most part, really fantastic, because they’ve been guided by museum educators for a whole week. You know, they’re also teachers who are opting into have this experience and so they’re highly motivated, sort of teachers who were coming to Washington and kind of having this experience are really into using museum objects already. And they’re now part of this kind of cohort of sort of alumni of people who have participated in this that created this body of work that the museum uses with fundraising. They can go to the funders who support these professional development [opportunities], and we can say, “Here’s these hundreds of amazing things that are now published and freely available on the Smithsonian’s platform. Other teachers are using them. They’re teaching with them.” There’s this much more sort of tangible visible output of these things.
I think, you know, much of what much of what happened, which of what happens on Learning Lab I think was happening before, I mean, you know, but it was happening on a teacher’s PowerPoint or on a laptop, you know. It was happening in spaces that were just invisible. They were happening in classrooms. And what’s so powerful right now is that it’s happening on something you know we own, we can stand behind the scenes, and we can sort of see what’s happening, we can begin to understand how you know teachers take advantage of these, these materials, and I think it’s really shifted. And I think will continue to shift. We have a Ph.D. student who’s just coming on board right now helping us look specifically at how teachers build or how users of the Learning Lab build these collections, and sort of what that looks like. And it you know I think it’s been probably a part of the shift we didn’t really talk about yet, but I think part of the change I’ve seen in museum education, you know, since you know, in sort of my 15 years, I guess, in the museum world has been this big shift towards user-centered or, or being responsive to user needs. I think you know much of what we were doing with that “Smithsonian in Your Classroom” magazine was you know the National Museum of Natural History is opening the Ocean Hall. Okay, well in coordination with that, we will do an issue on whale migration that helps promote the opening of this hall. [That] was very much driven by the sort of museum, museum identifying what we thought was valuable to sort of what knowledge was valuable and was shareable and was important for people to know, and not that that has gone away, but I think what we’ve learned is that the — especially in the education space, especially in education outreach space — is that if you if you want to have an impact with a large number of people, you need to give them more of what they are looking for. You need to help them, you need to identify the things that they can’t find elsewhere. Or they’re struggling to teach, or to work with their students on. And so I think we’ve seen that I think it’s museum education departments have evolved to focus a little bit more on sort of the national impact of the national outreach versus just the in-person experience.
There’s been this big shift and kind of the museum educator I think… you know, the way that it was sort of described to me coming into the museum world is that the museum educator sort of interprets the exhibitions for families, or for, for school groups. They sort of… they’re the middleman between the sort of the expert and sort of the public, I guess, I think you know, and it seems terrible to me now, because I think most the educators, I know are so expert at the things that they do, that it just it’s a, it’s a minimization, I guess, a minimizing way of describing what they what they do. And I think so much more of it now is understanding teachers, understanding the classroom, understanding what the Smithsonian may uniquely be able to help teachers do. And it’s not the thing we want them to do, it’s the thing that they know they need to do the thing that they know that their students need access to, and we might be uniquely positioned to connect with that, and to explain that to be the provider of that. And that’s a huge, that’s a big transition, I think, one that maybe hasn’t been talked about a lot about that sort of change in how educators approach their work, and I think we see that now, where educators, you know, at the Smithsonian or on exhibition teams, and they weren’t… You know, when I started, there weren’t any educators that were on exhibition teams. They were brought in at the last week before the exhibition opened and said, “Oh, you know. Can you make a lesson plan about this?” The kind of thing that was they were sort of an afterthought, or that sort of translator role. But that’s, for the most part, at least at the Smithsonian perspective, that’s changed a lot. I think that the role of educator as a leader, as sort of the, the voice in the room has really significantly grown. And I can imagine that’s going to not grow further, at least in the Smithsonian context, with the focus on, on education from our leadership.
[Marty]: It’s a lot of key philosophical shifts happening at once. There’s this idea that what was an inside museum experience is an outside museum experience. What was a one-way interaction is now a two-way interaction, right, and you’ve lived through that whole development.
Yeah, which was, I mean, and also, I mean a highly contextualized experience, an exhibition, a linear experience you’re going through. Here now we have 6 million digitized objects online right now in the Learning Lab, which are contextualized in the context of how users have created them, and added them into collections and created their own context. And some of those users aren’t museum contextualizations. They’re museum… you know, about 20 percent of our published collections are created by Smithsonian staff, but if you’re not, you know… but the rest of it is all these individual objects and their, you know, their metadata records, which you know can be up to 175 years old. You know, which is a whole different sort of slew of issues, and kind of… but yeah, I mean, I think you know, which I think you know… I think our Secretary is right in thinking that we have great potential to be a source and not just this experience, and not to you know… I mean, I love museums, I love going to museums. And I think, you know, that that it’s not to sort of separate or to take away from that, but to sort of elevate the places that we can have an impact.
[Marty]: Well, back in the day, we used to talk about this as shifting from the “visitor in the life of the museum” to the “museum of the life of the visitor.”
That’s exactly right, yeah. Yeah, I think that’s still holds up. Yeah, and that’s very much, that’s very much figuring out, and I think that, you know, I think the educators, are the, are the ones who are at least experienced and positioned to, to help that grow, to help that sort of be, have some hope for that actually working.
[Marty]: Well, this is absolutely brilliant. I mean, I think, maybe we’ve reached a natural pause point right. Kathy, do you have any questions?
[Jones]: Sorry, it took me a minute to unmute. I don’t. I’m just fascinated by this. I’m still stuck on what would the teacher do when they got the 25 page PDF?
It was even worse than that, Kathy. I mean, there’s like you know one issue, you know, that they would go to the library typically of a school, and you know so one issue would be meant for a biology teacher, the next would be meant for like, you know, English language arts teacher, so it wasn’t even like each issue had sort of continuity with who its recipient was. And so you had to have an amazing librarian who would get it and go, “Ah! This is for, you know, Mrs. Simpson.” And take it, and then Mrs. Simpson would have to go, “Oh, this is great. I’m going to use it” in an already jammed lesson, you know, plan or an already stressed environment where they’re trying to meet you know the needs of standardized testing and all the other sort of stressors that teachers have put on them. So it was, you know, the chances of success were so small, and we, you know, we would mail these things out, and sort of high-five and be like, “All right. What’s the next issue? We’ve got to get another one out, you know, in five months.” Like it was it was gone, it was disappeared. You know, and what’s so incredible about you know and they’re not apples and apples, necessarily, but sort of the Learning Lab Collection as the, as the equivalency of that, equivalent of that is that you know, we can see exactly how many people looked at it. We can see it was assigned to a roster of students. We can see if it was copied and adapted by another user like, that were buried under the kind of data that we have, versus you know the zero points of data that we had you know, with the sort of printed, printed version of this, this idea.
[Jones]: Or the anger that the librarian had when they cut out that map.
Right. And returned it back. [Gesturing scissor cutting] Sure, that happened.
[Marty]: Also this was happening in an era when school librarians were losing their jobs left and right.
Very, very much, yeah. So, I mean, that you know, we, we started to we, the last couple issues we stopped publishing, yes, seven years ago. The last two or three issues, we experimented with creating sort of a, sort of student-centered digital interactive version of whatever the lessons were, and so you know, we would create like a simulation or so almost a game. They weren’t quite games, technically, but… And those were super popular, but they were also extremely expensive, and you know, and again it was the same sort of issue of you know, connecting with the, with the right, right audience and the right user. I mean, it was just put out online in a sea of a million other kind of similar things, and that just was not you know, a sustainable activity, despite how sort of charming and wonderful those were to create and work on, they just weren’t you know, we no longer had… well, I should say, not that we were asked before, we, we didn’t have the data to support sustaining them anymore. You know I mean, I think we were moving also to an era where we had to be more accountable, you know for the, for the budget that we had you know, for, and I think especially, you know, it’s very unique to have an office focused exclusively on educational outreach in a museum. You know, in museum infrastructure, so I think there was more pressure on our center to justify its existence. And I think to sort of, say, “Oh, we mailed out 80,000 magazines, you know, last week.” I mean that’s like, “Oh, Okay, great. Well, did children’s lives change? Or you know, are teachers giving money to the Smithsonian now? Or like, you know, what what was the actual kind of impact of that from the student or from the institutional level?” And we couldn’t answer those questions without extensive evaluation or you know other longer-term investigations.
[Marty]: That’s what I find so positive, I guess, maybe even uplifting about the Smithsonian’s vision, right? I talked to Diane Zorich about this not too long ago, Effie Kapsalis, right, everybody’s on board with this idea of the Smithsonian making a difference in people’s lives, regardless of whether or not they can come to D.C., right? And, and it sounds like this vision is coming top-down. Secretary Bunch is on board, and you as an institution, you’re focused on that.
I would say that’s true, and I think that’s been the shift, I think, with, with the Secretary. You know all the people you mentioned, and you know and, and quite a few more, you know, have been pushing this for you know, this idea of you know, investing in, in digital and all the ways that will all the things that that means, lays the groundwork for us to have a greater impact, and I think you know, most of us who work here, feel like, I mean, assume that that’s possible. I think, right, are optimistic that we have a role to play, or that access to what we have, kind of what we know here, is crucial to democracy or crucial to healthy citizenship, or crucial to cultural well-being and satisfaction and joy, and all the kinds of things happen, all of us sort of have drunk the Kool-Aid on, you know, and I think you know, so there’s been this sort of I think bottom-up push for quite, quite a while, of, you know, people really making the case for that, building the evidence for that, and I think you know Lonnie, having come from our world, to understand your institution, you know, spending his career here, has heard that and, as he sees that, and I think I think feels like we’re in a moment, probably where he thinks it’s possible. You know, I mean, I think he, because he understands how you know, where we are in our course of sort of evolution, as an institution, and this is the moment where he thinks it’s worth, particularly because he think, he I think he sees that it’s possible, which is really, I mean, it’s pretty exciting to be there at that moment.
[Marty]: And that optimism is you know, both inspiring and contagious. I was just writing some letters of reference I guess it was last month for some students who are applying for the internship programs at the Smithsonian right and I’m seeing this in the students’ personal statements that they are sharing with me that, that vision right? It appeals to the students who are trying to do this, who want a career in this.
Yeah, no. I mean I, we, I think we were all ecstatic when the announcement was made, you know, of Lonnie becoming the Secretary. I mean he was very well loved institutionally, but to know, to have a historian, to have a museum director, to have someone who represents so much sort of change and at the right time, and the right moment, I think, was, was so I think, inspiring to many of us, I think, to sort of say this this is, this is going to mean really good things for our whole field, you know this isn’t just, this isn’t just, just symbolically a really great choice for right now. It’s you know, he’s an incredible person, and incredible sort of leader, and I think is willing to articulate that kind of vision that you know that we all want to be part of, that we all want, I think, because we work in the space, we want there to be that, that sort of driving mission, beyond just the mission statement.
[Jones]: I think it inspires the whole field, you know, because he is a museum person, so there was probably both a sigh of relief and an exhale of joy.
Yeah. No, very much. It was you know, and I think, you know he was my fourth Secretary, I think that’s right. And you know, the first Secretary when I started at the Smithsonian, sort of left in shame and disgrace. There were a lot of financial issues, and you know the Secretary before Dr. Bunch was not a museum person. He was a great guy, but he was you know and had was a physician and a university leader. He had come out of university leadership, which seemed, I think, to a lot of people, make sense. It’s like, “Well, the Smithsonian is sort of like a university.” It has similar, you know, human resources issues and system issues and all of that. But I think the, such a stark contrast with you know, with Lonnie, you know, is that museum experience, that sort of deep passion for you know, in Lonnie’s case, for history, and for our culture, and you know, and for the role that having a knowledge of your history and your culture can mean to you as a citizen and human, you know, is tangible, yeah.