Technology, New Media, and Museums: Who's In Charge?


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Session introduction with summary notes and recommendations. From the American Association of Museums 2009 annual conference. See also related powerpoint show.

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Technology, New Media, and Museums: Who's In Charge?

  1. 1. Rough notes for ―who’s in charge‖ session AAM 2009 To-do: clean-up and re-post Introduction Hello. I’m Michael Edson, I’m the Director of Web and New Media Strategy for the Smithsonian Institution, and this session is titled ―Technology, New Media, and Museums: who’s in charge?‖ Few topics are more pressing to museums than the oversight and management of Web and New Media initiatives. A 2007 survey of 27,000 Web and New Media professionals on the ―alistapart‖ yielded this conclusion: ―From law firms to libraries, from universities to Fortune 500 companies, the organization’s website almost invariably falls under the domain of the IT Department or the Marketing Department, leading to turf wars and other predictable consequences. While many good (and highly capable) people work in IT and marketing, neither area is ideally suited to craft usable websites or to encourage the blossoming of vital web communities.‖i In the old days, museum executives assigned responsibility for New Media to the first person on staff who knew how to use a computer. And why wouldn’t they? A Director may have thought ―why take time and resources from Frank in Curatorial or Marge in Public Affairs when I don’t really know how this Internet thing is going to play out. I need Frank and Marge focused on the next exhibit: I can’t risk a show-down with them over something that none of my donors or board members even know how to use.‖ This was very rational thinking, and, it must be noted that many museums did important work and created social value with the resources that they didn’t put in to institutionalizing New Media in the 1980’s and 90’s. Aren’t you glad that your museum didn’t create a Department of Laser Disk Productions back in 1989? But this is 2009 and the enduring value…the transformational power… of the Web, the network, the social graphii, is now beyond debate. We’re past the tipping point. — Time Magazine named the socially-networked ―you‖ the person of the year in 2006—three years ago!
  2. 2. — There are 1.5 billion Internet users and 3.5 billion mobile phone subscribers on the planet.iii — The Internet use of American 70 – 75 year olds has doubled in the last three years, with nearly half of that group now online.iv — Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, asserts that your customers—the public you exist to serve—consider your Web sites and your bricks-and-mortar facilities to be co-equals.v Equals! This is not a passing fancy So why do I hear from so many of you that the new media program in your museum is still an orphan, an interloper, or a renegade? Why are Education, Publications, Marketing, Exhibitions, and Curatorial still fighting over authority, control, and accountability for the Web? Why have some institutions made Web and New Media their own department with their own Associate Director, while others tolerate ambiguous ownership? Why do we still struggle to green-light non-traditional projects even when they’re high-impact, low cost propositions backed by passionately enthusiastic staff? This is especially perplexing to emerging professionals—gen Y’ers and gen X’ers in entry-level positions or with a few years under their belts who, in their private lives, use the most powerful publishing and collaboration platforms in the history of the planet— blogs, social media, social network, mobile, and instant-messaging platforms—but who at work can’t get their museums to understand what they understand about these things. I’m convinced that there are some good answers to these questions, and some reasonable ways to move past them in our museums, so I was thrilled when Aurelie Henry, my colleague at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum brought me, Jeff Tancil, formerly of the Tenement Museum, and Cynthia Graville-Smith from the St Louis Science Center together to work on this session. And we were all thrilled that six AAM committees endorsed the vision for this discussion today: — Media and Technology Committee — Committee on Education — Development and Membership Committee — Museum Management Committee — Committee on Museum Professional Training — Public Relations and Marketing Committee
  3. 3. The message we got back from the AAM was ―do this‖ and focus in particular on the voice of young and emerging professionals on this issue. Our slides are on slideshare right now: [give URL] and I’ll be using and watching the twitter hashtag #aam09 to the best of my ability during these talks… First up is Cynthia Graville-Smith Cynthia Graville-Smith serves as the Director of Learning Technologies for the School and Community Partnerships department of the Saint Louis Science Center. Mrs. Graville-Smith integrates a majority of her work in the SLSC’s work-based youth outreach program, Youth Exploring Science (YES). She has driven the department’s commitment to utilizing new media as a means of engaging at-risk youth in a variety of academic and career pathways. She created the program’s participatory website, For her work on this site, she was recently awarded the Roy L. Shafer award for New Leadership in the field from the Association of Science and Technology Centers. Mrs. Graville-Smith has a B.A. in Interactive Media from Webster University, and a Masters of Education in Educational Technology from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. […Cynthia’s presentation] Next up is Aurelie Henry Aurelie Henry is the Education Technology Projects Coordinator for the National Postal Museum’s Education Department. Her background in history and cultural tourism is completed by an extensive training in website and interactive development within the realm of museums and practical interpretive and exhibit development experience. She is the project manager in charge of the enhancement of interactive kiosks located on the museum floor. She also brings her education background and expert knowledge of museum visitors’ use and needs for New Media and Technology to exhibits’ website creation and website’s redesign. […Aurelie’s presentation] Next up is Jeff Tancil Jeff Tancil served as the Director of Web/IT at the Tenement Museum from 1999 to 2009. During that time, he built the Museum’s award-winning website (, launched the acclaimed Digital Artists in Residency Program and served as Producer on From Ellis To Orchard Street (, a new interactive game designed to teach immigration history to middle school students
  4. 4. around the country. Prior to joining the Museum, Jeff Tancil worked at IconMedia, a New York multimedia shop. He is currently serving as a consultant on web initiatives for various museums and nonprofits, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum at Eldridge Street, the American Poetry Museum and the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative. [Jeff’s presentation…] Some summary thoughts Slide: Natural Progression There seems to be a natural, evolutionary progression to Slide: Higher Standards for Stewardship of New Media I would like to press the AAM accreditation committee to set higher goals and provide roadmaps for the management and organization of new tech in museums. A few questions on the accreditation self-study questionnaire is not enough. Slide: Note: don’t hate your colleagues There’s a natural progression through these evolutionary states …goes for everyone in the museum. You may perceive that they’re lacking vision, ―don’t get it‖… but they probably just haven’t had the ahah moment. Yet. There’s a natural progression, and this stuff is HARD. I do it full time. Slide: Use your internal social network — Success from having advocates in several areas Slide: It’s not over — ―It’s not over‖ - - it never is Slide: be transparent and consistent
  5. 5. When bad decisions happened staff will ―know‖ what the NM team is and stands for. Slide: advocate for your vision ―Advocate for your vision. Do it yourself. Don’t cede this to others.‖ In a competitive environment, you have to communicate effectively. The director isn’t going to (or don’t assume) pick you to run new media if you’re not an effective advocate, spokesperson, team leader. Slide: don’t assume your Director is too busy Advice from Max Anderson — Paraphrase ―don’t assume the director is too busy‖ to hear from you. He/she certainly wants to hear from you now, rather than when failure has arrived. — For most of us leadership and communication at the senior management level does not come naturally. I cringe when I think back on some of my early conversations with Milo Beach who was Director when I was cutting my teeth at the Freer Gallery of Art. But that’s how you learn: do it, make mistakes, get better. Slide: Don’t obsess about how other people organize Advice: VP: ―people obsess about how other people organize. Pick a model that works for you & where your organization is: Ultimately…―It’s less about how you’re situated in the organization and much more about the conversations you’re having with the rest of the organization and to what degree there is strategic visibility at the CEO level,‖ says Greg Foglesong, general manager of Home Depot Direct, the e-commerce and catalog arm of The Home Depot Slide: Don’t confuse reporting structure with leadership Says Victoria Portway who leads Web and New Media for the National Air and Space Museum (NASM). Slide: Understand the natural evolutionary model
  6. 6. This is what I’ve observed happening in museums and private industry. Much thanks to Victoria Portway from NASM for critical help with this model. 1. Ad Hoc (chaotic) web program started in a scientific research group where the internet connection existed (grass-roots, matter of convenience & where the passion & interest resides). Underground, success (but not repeatable) Nothing measured Dependent on heroics 2. Emerging/ Repeatable Separate Division, still small, position & importance in organization uncertain (special interest hobby shop, everyone knows it is important but not sure to what degree or how it works). Some measurement, explicit responsibility to somebody, usually lower in the org chart 3. Emerging/Defined: authority vested in some semi-logical entity. — Director level awareness of web importance, uncertainty over purpose of web & org. placement leads to internal power struggle, debate over quot;who ownsquot;, multiple reorgs. — Mostly based on competence and/or willingness, without regard to org chart rationale. — Lots of matrix and dotted-lines — Corsely visible in budgets, PD’s, planning, measurement 4. Managed — Professionalization of web, greater awareness of role and key stakeholders, integral part of organization.
  7. 7. — Formal organization, oversight. Usually in the Director’s office to someone without specific background Increasing cross-disciplinary expertise/experience: the team is familiar and broadly competent with each others areas of expertise. 5. Optimized — There’s aFormal ownership in the executive suite [note: semantics different in every org] [note: ―ownership‖ and ―leadership‖ VP’s story] — Directors engaged (look at their appointment book) — Professional, full-time management — Win/win scenarios with controlled innovation and experimentation i ―Let There be Web Divisions.‖ Jeffrey Zeldman 2007, divisions/ accessed 5/3/2009 ii See Thoughts on the Social Graph by Brad Fitzpatrick and David Recodorn, 8/17/2009, graph-problem/, accessed 5/3/2009 iii November, 2007 statistics from International Telecommunications Union, D/ict/newslog/Global+Mobile+Phone+Users+Top+33+Billion+By+End2007.aspx iv Pew Internet and American Life Project: Generations Online in 2009:, referenced 5/3/2009 v Email to the author, 21 April, 2008. The exact quote is ―Everything we hear from people we interview is that today’s consumers draw no distinctions between an organization’s Web site and their traditional bricks-and-mortar presence: both must be excellent for either to be excellent.‖ vi Where does the Web team belong? does-web-team-belong.html, accessed 5/3/2009