Oral History of Museum Computing: Dana Mitroff Silvers
This Oral History of Museum Computing is provided by Dana Mitroff Silvers, and was recorded on the 21st 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/NonI4JOjfAk.
My story of museum computing is all thanks to Richard Rinehart [who is currently at the Bucknell University Art Museum]. I was working at the BAMPFA, also known as the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive in the 90s. And the BAMPFA had one of the very first museum websites to go online. I think it was among the first 500 domains. And Rick — because that’s the kind of person he is — said, “I’m going to do this. I’m going to put up a website!” And he just did it. At the time he was the IT guy. And these roles [website manager jobs] didn’t even exist. Rick was the guy who managed all the Mac workstations. And he just put up the first website and he started digitizing the Theresa Cha Archives, which the Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive owned. To which people were like, “Wait, what the hell is he doing?!”
I was working in the education department as a program assistant creating print materials… And these were paper-based print guides for schools and families to come into the museum and go around with a paper tour. And I just said to Rick, “Hey, why don’t we put this online?” And Rick said, “Yes, go for it. Here’s a little booklet on HTML 1.0, there’s a computer in the hallway that has Photoshop on it, I’ll teach you some basic HTML, and you can go for it! Oh, and here’s a scanner.”
Now this wasn’t part of my job. Nobody knew what I was doing. I told my supervisor and she said, “Why would you do that? Why would you want to put this stuff online? That’s weird. That makes no sense.” And I just did it. I would stay late, and taught myself some HTML…
Rick explained everything to me. I didn’t even know what metadata meant. I didn’t know what a digital image was. I didn’t know any of this. And Rick just taught me and I apprenticed myself to him. And I started putting our Family Guides online on the BAMPFA website. And then I started getting really interested in it and realized, well, we could put this online and this online. And we can have a clickable JPEG file that could be a visual image of the museum. Because we were thinking so literally at that time, like, “Oh, we’ll have a map and you click here because that’s where that object is — it’s on this floor in this corner. So you’ll click on it and it’ll load a new page and that’ll have the information.”
At the time, my supervisor still used a typewriter. And she was actually one of the holdouts who used a typewriter for many, many years. So she literally sat in her office on her typewriter and here I was putting all this material online. And that opened up this whole world for me. Because I had been doing all this in-person, traditional, education stuff and I was like, “Wow, why wouldn’t you put this online?” It seemed amazing and to me like a no-brainer. And that led me to realize there are careers in this. And maybe this could be a job or there’s a field here.
I remember taking a class in Multimedia Studies at San Francisco State. Because that’s what it was called back then. It was multimedia studies and you were learning to do things mostly for CD-ROM. And I took a class on “Information Architecture for the Web.” And this was so new. You couldn’t even get a degree in this [web design, multimedia design, etc.]
And then I thought, maybe I should look for a job doing this. And I found a job on Craigslist. This is like way way way way back — this was ‘96-‘97. And I found a job on Craigslist as the Webmaster for an educational software company. I applied for the job, I interviewed, and I got the job. And I remember a couple of cool things. One thing is that I emailed Craig Newmark — as in Craigslist — to tell him, “Hey, this Craigslist thing is pretty awesome. I got a job!” And he wrote back because Craigslist was so small then.
And I got this job outside of museums. And I doubled my salary because I wasn’t making much in the museum. And I went and I worked for a couple years as a Webmaster at an educational software company. They were leaps and bounds ahead of the museum world at that point. They were putting curriculum online, they were creating resources for teachers and classrooms, even though it was still very rudimentary at this point… And I did that job for three years and really built up my technical skills, my content skills, and professional production skills. And then I really was missing museums…
And then the job at SFMOMA opened up. And I think when I applied for the job, it was called Web Manager, but I don’t even know what the title was. This was 2000 or 2001. It was still pretty old school in that it was considered a graphic design job. The question [with the website] was always, “Is this marketing? Is this graphic design? Who owns this thing? Where does it go? Who owns the content?” So I got that job. And I went back into museums and I think I was only the second person in that role. And it was only the second or third version of the website. I was there for two redesigns of the site over 11 years.
At that point, the field was evolving, but it’s nothing like it is now. So this was still, gosh, like over 20 years ago. And at SFMOMA, I was really interested in how to professionalize what we were doing because it was still pretty new. And I was still doing a lot of the updates by hand. I don’t think we had a content management system when I started. And we had to use Dreamweaver templates to manage the website. And I can’t even remember if the Collection was online. Maybe a section of it was online. These were the old days of this this time. I started to get really interested in the whole idea of user experience, user research, and usability testing. And people thought that was crazy too, like, “Why, why would you do this? Because we know what our audiences want.”
And the first version of the site had been designed by people sitting around a table with [staff from] Curatorial, Marketing, Graphic Design, and Publications. But there was really no user research. Nobody talked to visitors. Nobody thought about that stuff. It was just like, “Well, why would you do that because we know. I mean, we’re the experts. It’s our content, it’s our Collection, so why would we talk to people?”
So I started trying to professionalize that internally. And even at the time, there were not that many resources for this. I was reading books and reading articles online. And I remember it was a big coup — I got somebody from the Nielsen Norman Group [to come consult with us]… I think she did it as a volunteer. She flew down and came and sat with us and helped us [explore how we] would do usability testing. And how we could bring these practices to our website. And we brought her in and she gave us advice.
I was there for 11 years. And a lot happened in 11 years. We did a couple of redesigns and it was a real effort to start to professionalize the field and to recognize that this was more than just taking something from graphic design and marking it up in HTML and slapping it up there. There was so much that went into the Web experience.
And while I was there, the Collection went online and more and more objects went online. We had — what did we call it? I think we called it E.space, which were artworks that were commissioned just to be digital artworks. Actually, that’s someone you might want to talk to was the curator at the time [Benjamin Weil], who was very forward thinking in commissioning artists to create works that just lived on the website… also talk to Jill Sterrett, who’s no longer SFMOMA. Jill was involved with questions around the preservation of these [digital] objects. Because these were all created in old code and they lived on old servers. While I was there, we watched them degrade. They were created on old servers. They worked on old browsers like Netscape. And this was one of the first digital spaces [that existed solely] on the website. And so I remember that was a big deal that we had that part of the website.
While I was there, I really tried to push for this idea of usability, user research, and really thinking about who’s using this and what do they need versus what do we want them to need or think that they need.
[Marty]: I’ll just jump in to say that this is certainly a theme that several of the people we’ve talked to have touched upon. What you said, so many people in the museum world said: why would we talk to our visitors? Why would we talk to our users? We know what’s going on! And helping people realize that and recognize that is certainly a theme. We’ve heard some great stories about that, by the way, I think Scott Sayre had a fantastic story about that at Mia.
There were the people in the early days who were doing this: Rick Rinehart; Scott Sayre; Robin Dowden. We were like the first generation of the people doing this. I remember when Rick Rinehart was at Berkeley Art Museum, I think Scott was in his role [at Minneapolis Institute of Art]. Robin was there [at the Walker Art Center]. They were doing the early work in the field. And really trying to professionalize what we were doing… And another thing, a theme that often came up at SFMOMA: people would come to the web team… and say, “I want you to make this this. Or, build that. Make that.” And I would always say, “Whoa whoa whoa. Why? Why are we doing this? Maybe you saw some cool thing on some other website, but why?”
I was always trying to push back and why? Why are we doing it? What’s the point? You may think that it would be cool, but what visitor or user need does it meet, and why are we doing it?
And all of this work around usability and user research led me to discover the field of Design Thinking. And that was something I discovered because of [my former SFMOMA colleague] Susie Wise… She had left SFMOMA and gone to Stanford for her Ph.D. And she was one of the early people involved with the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, also known as the d.school. And she said, “Hey, you should come do this this Executive Education program we have here in design thinking. You’ll be the only person from the museum there and you should really do this. And I can help you find a nonprofit discount for this program.” So I went and I did that. And it blew my mind because it was all these things that I had been doing over the years, but it was codified and brought together user research, usability, and human-centered design together in this process. And I remember just thinking, “Oh my God. My brain is exploding.” And I brought I brought this back to SFMOMA.
And I was definitely met with a lot of resistance, just as I had been met with resistance with wanting to do usability testing. Because I wanted us to literally get up from our desk and go into the galleries and talk to people… to ask them things like, “What brings you here today? And what are you finding challenging today? And what’s standing out from your visit?” And then to extract from their answers their deeper needs, and to then ask ourselves, “How can we meet these needs?” And because was working in digital, on the website, I was asking how we could meet those needs using what we were doing digitally.
I tried to train people in this at SFMOMA. I tried to implement lots of little projects using design thinking, also called human-centered design. And then people started calling me from other institutions. Like, Hey what’s this design thinking thing you’re doing over there? Like Silvia Filippini-Fantoni [who was at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at the time] was one of the people who called me early on to ask, “What are what you are you up to there?” And Nancy Proctor [at the Smithsonian] was really interested in it. And then she mentioned it to Vicky Portway [at the National Air & Space Museum]… so people started calling me. And that’s when I ended up leaving SFMOMA to do my own consulting using design thinking with museums and cultural institutions. And it’s just been a trajectory of exploring how to use these methods to understand the needs of visitors and users…
So that’s where I ended up on this really long, circuitous journey. And how I ended up in this human-centered design and design thinking space. But it really comes from my early days of asking, “Why would we just slap something up online? Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.” And often there are solutions that are not digital that can meet the needs of visitors. And those are just as valid. Even if I was the “digital person,” it doesn’t mean that the “answer” is going to be [a digital solution] from what we’re hearing from visitors.
It’s been really, really cool to watch the field, become more open and receptive to this kind of work. Because when I first started doing this work, I presented at Museums and the Web in Portland. I think it was 2012 or 2013. I presented this paper I wrote on using design thinking at SFMOMA. And there were a lot of people in the audience asking, “What are you talking about?” I mean, crossed arms and people saying, “Why would you go out and talk to people? And why did you do that? And why would you design something based on only talking to five or ten people?”
There was a lack of understanding that that this process is qualitative. It’s not a quantitative process. This is about understanding human needs and extracting from those needs what the really deep, underlying human needs are and then asking how we can meet them… I think that has changed over the years. Although there are still some skeptics out there.
[Marty]: I was just going to say, right, because I teach our usability class here. And it seems like I have to continue to make this argument over and over. Right, we have to do the qualitative research. We have to talk to people. So many students are like, well, I just want to know if the button should be blue or green. Like that—you’re totally missing the point.
Right. Exactly. Right. And, “I just want a quantitative answer to that.” or, “I want to do a survey.” And it’s the trying to explain to people that you can have your quantitative data, but this is this qualitative, subjective, human experience that’s really important. And one of the things that I really love about human-centered design and design thinking is that the process forces people in museums to get up from their desks. Get out of their offices… Actually get face to face with visitors, who are not abstracted numbers in a survey. You’re actually getting away from your desk and going into the galleries…
So [in] my consultancy, I have worked with curators who admit they never go to the galleries. They say, “I never talk to visitors. This is so eye opening for me. I never understood. I just didn’t get it, like I didn’t understand how important it is to have a place to sit. I just didn’t understand why walking from this part of the building to this part of the building is such a huge ordeal because somebody’s there pushing their elderly relative in a wheelchair.” And it’s these things that seem so obvious and basic but don’t hit home until you have that first-hand experience.
And I was just thinking about this actually yesterday — I ran a workshop with a science museum. This museum was really open-minded in that they included a security guard in the design thinking engagement. And a curator and the security guard were partnered up together, and they went out [into the exhibit hall] and they talked to visitors. And they had never met each other or talked to each other. And [through the collaborative, design thinking process], they started to learn things, such as how intimidated many visitors were by the security staff because they look like cops [because of their uniforms]. The curator had never thought about this, and the security guard never felt that he had any agency to bring this up. And this issue that was elevated institutionally… This is why I was so attracted to human-centered design and design thinking — because you can have moments like this… So I worked on so many projects like that, where it was just really cool to see these light bulbs go off with staff members.
[Marty]: And we certainly see this in a lot of museum technology projects. Many of them fail because they didn’t talk to the visitors…
Right, right. And even projects I’ve worked on as a consultant that were grant funded have a lot of parameters around them. For example, it has to be an app or it has to be built with this platform or blah blah blah. But even then [with these types of constraints], I think there are opportunities to still talk to visitors and make what it is you’re building resonate with them and meet their needs. And that’s a drum I’m always beating and telling people: just because you may have constraints around this digital project, that doesn’t mean there’s not space within those constraints to make something that’s really going to be meaningful and engaging and resonate.
So I always like to tell people that in the projects that I’ve worked on. For example, I was working with the National Gallery of Art in DC, and they had funding from the Walton Foundation and they knew [the end product/solution] had to be digital. But even then, we found so many things that were important to visitors that we could incorporate into the digital [solution].
[Marty]: We’re getting a little abstract, and you may have concrete things you want to get back to, but I’m really curious, this is just an abstract question, one of the things that I wrestle with, and I know I’ve talked to a lot of colleagues of mine who also teach usability and design thinking and have the same problem—was, why do we have to keep explaining this over and over? Why do people—when we tell people this, it’s like they never thought of it before. So where’s the, where’s the breakdown? Why aren’t they encountering this elsewhere in their academic or professional life, until you meet them?
Right. Well, my very personal theory, which is not grounded in any comprehensive data, is because we’re in a field that people spend years studying are there are so few jobs. Once you get into these roles, there’s this fear of control. And [this attitude of], “we’re the experts and we have the answers.”
And the design thinking process can be scary to people because it feels like it’s undermining their expertise. And I think a lot of this might come from fear, because I’ve seen many institutions that are afraid. As in, “Well, are you saying that we’re just going to let our visitors tell us everything we should do?” And my response is, “No, absolutely not. That’s not what this is about. There’s still a place for your expertise and there’s still space for your knowledge, but we can balance that with responding to what we’re hearing from visitors.”
And so I think a lot of this comes from this fear and from this being in a field where so much is about knowledge and expertise. And that’s scary for people. Anything that feels like it’s going to undermine or encroach on that. Because often, this is about saying, “It doesn’t matter what I think. What do you, visitor, think? What do you feel? I may have all this knowledge about these objects, but what do you think?”
And I think that’s scary for a lot of people. And I’ve seen that firsthand be scary for a lot of people who think, “They [i.e. the visitors] just don’t understand. They don’t get it. So we need to push out this information.”
So that’s my theory of where [the fear and resistance] comes from. And I know that pisses off a lot of people. But I mean, in the work I’m doing, I’ve had people get outright angry and hostile at me in this design thinking/human-centered design work… But then I’ve also seen the flip side, where I’ve had [people] say, “Wow, I never really watched anybody use our online collection.” Or, “I never went in the gallery and talked to somebody while they were standing in front of an object. Or while they were trying to use this kiosk we have. I never thought about it that way. Wow, this is really valuable.” So I’ve also seen that happen as well.
[Marty]: Well, I was going to say this connects to another theme that we’ve heard a lot of in these oral histories where this understanding of how technology can help in a way that people maybe didn’t know before. And we’ve had a lot of people talk about fear, right. How do you help people overcome their fear of technology?
[Marty]: It seems like you’ve got some great examples of that.
Yeah, I don’t know if I have examples of overcoming that fear. But I think there’s just something so powerful about letting “museum people” watch “real people”—visitors, users—use our stuff…. When you actually have a museum staff member watch a real human use something, that’s where the magic happens. Because then it’s not this abstracted visitor.
For example, I’m thinking of work I did with the Getty Center in Los Angeles. [In this project, we went beyond the] abstract visitor. We had the 22-year old woman who’s got a YouTube channel and who is there at the Getty Center with her boyfriend on a weekday. And she’s taking selfies in the garden and we were watching her go on the Getty website on her phone. That’s real and really powerful.
And then have somebody not at their desk but out talking to that person and watching that person — that’s the stuff that gets me really excited about this work.
Which, by the way, I can’t wait until [visitors] come back [after] Covid. A lot of this now is happening virtually. I’ve done some projects now where I talked to visitors virtually, but I think we will get back to where we have these moments of human interaction with visitors in person, as more and more institutions open back up.
[Marty]: But I guess whether it’s in person or online, it’s all about understanding how the users are actually engaging with the content.
[Marty]: And not making assumptions.
Right. Not making assumptions. That’s the other thing. Not making assumptions about people, [and about] things that often seem very simple and obvious… [for example], museums that are free. We often just assume that everybody knows they are free… and that they wouldn’t even be looking for admission because they know they’re free. But they don’t know they’re free. Just really basic things like that. [Or] that they know the difference between temporary exhibitions and the permanent collection. All these assumptions we make. No, they don’t know that. They still don’t know that. It’s 2021 and they still don’t know that. I’m sorry to tell you. Because I can tell you that they don’t know the difference between the permanent collections and special exhibitions. They don’t know you’re free. All these things they don’t know. And we can’t assume it.
[Marty]: They don’t even know how to get to your museum. [laughing]
Right. They don’t know how to get there. They don’t know where to park. And they don’t know what they can eat when they get there. And they need to eat and they need to sit and they need to use the bathroom. All these things seem so obvious but they’re not. Or they’re intimidated or they don’t feel welcome or they’re scared. Or they don’t understand that the sculpture garden is part of the institution and it’s not a separate place and they’re allowed to go in there. All these assumptions I’ve seen places make over the years. It’s just so interesting.
[Marty]: I remember once, this must be 20 years ago now, at the Smithsonian. And they were showing me a heat map of all the places that people click on the main si.edu website. And you can imagine, because the 90% of the screen is all taken up with all these graphics about the exhibits. And all the stuff that the museum people thought was important, right. But where are people clicking? Oh, no. They’re clicking on hours and directions and jobs. All these tiny little links.
Yes! Clicking on “Jobs.” That’s so funny because that was the number one search term on the SFMOMA website: “jobs.” Or maybe it was the second. I can’t remember. But it was in the search logs every single month.
[Marty]: Now do you think those were people looking for jobs at SFMOMA?
Yes, I think so.
[Marty]: Well, and that also speaks to the confusion about— I’ve been on museum websites where there’s three different search engines: the library search engine, the collections search engine, the website search engine. [laughing]
Right. And how are you supposed to know the difference? Or institutions that have an archive. And the archival search engines and archival collections are powered by [different engines]. As places like the Getty Research Institute, they are very aware there are so many systems and legacy systems, and it makes sense to [staff]. But to us regular people, I don’t understand the difference between that. So anyway, that’s one of the things I really love about this human-centered design process is it helps us not make these assumptions.
The other thing that I really love about when I bring human-centered design into museum work is that it forces us to not immediately jump to solutions as well. That was the other thing in my many years of working inside museums: we were so quick to jump to the solution. For example, we know what the answer is going to be. The answer is that we need to have more information about this object. And the video of the artist talking about it.
And we would just assume the solutions without stopping for a moment and staying in the ambiguous space of asking, “Well, what are all the possible solutions before we jump to one?”
And what I really like about using this design thinking process is it forces us to not jump straight to the solution before we’ve talked to lots of visitors, we’ve considered all the possibilities, we’ve looked at our assumptions. Then we can start to explore all the solutions. For so many years, I saw people just throwing out solutions. This is the solution. This is the solution. You know, it’s just a bigger button that says we’re free!
[Marty]: Well, that’s what I was going to say… I think about the design thinking process, and that solution is way at the end. [laughing]
Yes, it’s way at the end and it forces you to be to be very mindful. And really rigorously put that off before you get to the solutioning. Discipline. That’s the word I’m looking for. It forces you to be disciplined.
[Marty]: So, I mean, thinking over your consulting work then with museums. I mean obviously you’re, I mean you’re being called in by museums who want to do that, right?
[Marty]: So that must be a positive from the beginning?
Yes, absolutely… There are some people internally who think one way. And then you’ve got the old guard or the people who think the other way. And there’s often a clash… and there’s always the challenge of how to navigate that. And where do you end up? And who — in the end — has the say? And a lot of times it starts with the Director and what kind of perspective they have.
And now we’re seeing institutions with really forward-thinking directors. I’m thinking of the National Gallery of Art because that was an engagement I did not too long ago. Kaywin Feldman is really forward-thinking and really committed to thinking in new ways and being visitor-centered. And so when you bring design thinking into institutions like that, there is support, understanding, and buy-in from the top that trickles down. Which is really important. When I was working with the National Gallery and we were out in the galleries with paper prototypes for digital products, Kaywin saw us and asked, “Wow, what are you working on? Let me see it. Let me watch someone test the prototype.” And it’s that kind of support that can help this kind of work move forward in an institution.
Or, another example, I worked with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and their director is very supportive and committed to thinking in these ways. So that really set the mood for the whole institution. [It’s much more challenging in an institution where] you have these kind of initiatives that start in little pockets and work their way up, because sometimes they can only go up so far because there is resistance from the top down. And I’m sure you’ve talked to people who have worked on those kinds of projects where you’ve got people over here in the corner making some cool thing. But if there is no support for whatever it is, it may die. It may not make it.