Staffing the Museums of the Future: Seb Chan interview

A transcript of the interview I did with Seb Chan, who was then Director of digital and emerging media at the Cooper Hewitt ,in the run-up to the 2015 Museums Australia Conference. Seb as usual was full of interesting insights into the business of musuems …

Hi Seb

Hi Geoff

Geoff: So can you give us a quick introduction.

Seb: Hi I’m Seb Chan, Director of digital and emerging media at the Cooper Hewitt which is the Smithsonian’s Design Museum in New York. I was previously at the Powerhouse Museum and headed up all the digital stuff there and some other units as well which was fun in the last couple couple years of a New York Hewett rethink what it is to say to be a museum in the digital age and help it reopen. It had been closed the last three three years and reopened end of December 2014.

So pretty exciting times and now we’re just into that time five six months later figuring out what’s working, what isn’t working, and getting ready to roll the next set of these set of exhibits we’ve got some cool ones coming up and then bedding down some of those systems and you know bedding down some of the change that’s gone on as well. It’s been a pretty exciting time. New York’s always full of good things and with summer coming around it’s good.

Geoff: Lots of good coffee shops and gelato shops

Seb: Yeah it’s starting to pick it up you know I think one of the more significant changes at the Museum that people don’t talk often enough about is that we now have a fabulous European grade coffee which is very nice to have on the Upper East Side it’s been a little bit rare over the last few years but they have also learned how to do a proper Australian cup too which has been a good thing.

Geoff: The question I’m going to ask you is one one of those from the Museums Australia Conference 2015 and this is … What will the staff of the Museum of the future look like?I’m just wondering what your thoughts are, whether it’s more about the structure that’s going to change, or the people that are in the structure that are going to change.

Seb: Yeah look I don’t know really know. I mean I think it’s an interesting period I’ve seen moving into the States that the States has a very different financial model for museums and that really affects the staffing structure of this sort of staff you have. So in the States you have development or fund raising teams that are often quite sizable and in fact you know often a bigger than say digital team or as big as the education team because fund raising is such a key part of keeping the doors open and I guess the other thing that’s different views is because of that you have a lot of staff who are project based and that’s both good and bad. Good in that I think what’s interesting here is that it’s perhaps in New York at least a bit easier to get significant capital to do interesting stuff but also because of the project nature of the staff and the lack of a solid recurrent funding base it often means that the goals are relatively short term and the biggest sort of strategic visions are very hard to pull off. Not only because it’s hard to see far but it is also that actual resources you have are on hand are only for a certain period of time and you can’t redirect what they do to perhaps to the strategically appropriate goals because you signed onto a particular grant three years ago which no longer is necessarily the right things to be doing.

4:54 So that’s kind of tough and I guess the other thing is we’re also seeing a lot of turnover with staff retiring which is similar in Australia, there is this curatorial generation leaving museum world to retire And so I think for the first time perhaps in twenty years there’s a whole rush of new people into those sort of positions which is really exciting but I think it’s also pretty tough because I think you know for twenty years graduates of museum studies and curatorial programs have really struggled to find employment sector and it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out in time. And of course it’s coming at a time when there’s a whole lot of new skills required to run a museum and to think about how curatorial practice, conservation practice and education practices are delivered. So perhaps even the recent graduates are not appropriately skilled for the museums that we need.

I certainly see that when I’m hiring people with digital skill sets now. You know there is a real shortage of people with the necessary experience I guess but it’s also very hard to get experience because it just haven’t been any of the jobs so you know it’s tough right, it tough.

6:30 Geoff: I know I’m going to be talking to Catherine Howard in a couple of days time and she’s been doing her Phd thesis on convergence across the heritage sector and looking at staff across the heritage centre. And to me that seems to be one of the themes for the future that seems really positive. I think that Archives, libraries and museums kinda merging their staff skill sets could be really great. Have you come across much of that happening in the museum sector?

6:59 Seb: Yeah. I mean there is, but it’s often couched also in terms of downsizing So where there were two or three departments they get collapsed into one and thus lose two to two-thirds of the bodies. In fact what we need is a convergence with minimal loss because I think particularly in that area we need staff who have digital preservation training and skills and interest as well as new forms of registration staff as well cataloguing staff to do and design the new catalogues we need.

7:52 So I also think often what I’ve seen of late is yes all of these departments and themes merge but it’s just about shrinking the full time positions rather than actually coming up with the necessary reallocating of staff and retraining staff for the skill sets that are necessary in the present.

But you know I think we’re in a period of change I think there’s a lot of exciting work going on in individual preservation space and other related spaces too which face some similar challenges people trying to preserve or at least document ephemeral cultures. And you know I think that’s in a period of flux but you know while those areas are emerging we are yet to see a merger that’s not just about saving money.

8:53 Geoff:I know that the digital humanities conference is coming out to Sydney in May this year. I think digital humanities is one aspect of education and the role of particularly tertiary institutions in terms of ongoing preservation of culture and the role of those institutions in things like museums should be closer aligned. And it would be interesting to get your thoughts on whether you think there’s more scope for partnership with tertiary institutions. So rather than appoint curators or registrars per se there may be skill sets that are more applicable across all of the cultural and digital humanities.

9:43 Seb: Yeah sure I mean I think the digital humanities is fascinating at the moment. I think there’s a lot of the issues in digital humanities particularly in the U.S. around tenure positions and the challenges of Academic publishing and all these other things that have meant that digital humanities maybe faces other challenges in the academy still that haven’t been resolved. I would say there’s a lot of really exciting work going on in the field and to date it’s been libraries on the whole that have been able to benefit the most because I guess they have had the most text based materials and humanities has been primarily text oriented, although that’s beginning to change. But we do see a lack of enough collections from the museums sector that are ready for programmatic analysis and study. And I think this is one of the big things museums need to get on top of, and that doesn’t happen without some of the more traditional roles being filled. I mean you know you need collection management registrars and cataloguers to get these museum collections into a place where digital humanists can actually apply programmatic methods of analysis to find things, let alone do scholarship with them.

So you know I think that that’s something that museums you know are going to have to work on pretty hard on. I think here in the states the New York museums and some of the conferences that we have coming up there is some very exciting stuff coming up but within museum world there’s so much work to be done still. I mean there always is that sort of work and that’s what’s interesting about it but

I think that we haven’t yet come up with killer digital humanities uses of museums stuff yet. And maybe that’s just not going to happen, and that’s OK too. But I guess you know programs like the ‘beautiful data’ series that the Getty’s supporting through Hub The meta-lab is interesting, that happens each summer. Last Summer’s ‘beautiful data’ series was really interesting, really amazing in in fact, and this summers one happening in July looks really good as well. And the meta Lab is doing really interesting work with people who go to ‘beautiful data’ to really probe museum collections and what is actually possible with them, art museum collections particularly. But this year’s focus is on ephemeral collections which will be fascinating to see what people do with it over the two week period.

But who knows I think its early days but from what I see now museums are behind in the digitisation game and they need to catch up pretty fast, get all their stuff digitised and make it accessible and then perhaps we can talk about stuff. That’s always been the case but I thinks its more pressing now.

13:45 Geoff

But One of the things I’ve noticed since I moved to the Parramatta Council is that the role of the museums, the archives and the libraries are being presented as being responsible for external relationships with the community. It’s all about family history, it’s about putting on exhibitions but since I’ve been there what I’ve noticed is that we play a very integral role to developments across Council so whether its DA applications or its archaeological digs there’s a whole raft of things where we’re trying very hard to integrate our selves much more with Council activities so for example we are collecting books in the local studies libraries about urban change and urban living, books about the future of living in cities and we are trying to pull our collections together and integrate these together with Council kind of gives us a greater sense of what a museum is for. What are your thoughts bout museums and actually making inroads into the general population to justify why they exist in the first place.

Seb Sure I mean I guess, local museums have that luxury, that National and State museums often don’t have, I think some of the work of the New York Public Library is doing in that regard with a very specific geographic focus is fascinating, I was out at the Minnesota Institute and History centre just last week in fact and a lot of work they are doing there, amazing story telling work, from the local Minnesota community, it’s incredible stuff there, and you know I think its those, sort of institutions that are very focussed on a geographic region that allows them I guess, to enact what the New York Public Library calls a space time explorer view where you can explore particular geographies through time and space and its a defined thing.

That’s very different to a museum of painting from the 1800s or a design museum like my place or a museum of Australia. Those are very different types of institutions but often its those larger ones that have those really diverse collections that would benefit a lot from integration with those other smaller ones that have those specific focuses. But yeah I guess there is no ‘one size fits all’ for the humanities researcher or any of that. Some museums will always be better off serving the public as exhibition spaces where people go as an outing and others will be more primarily focussed on one speciality, and that speciality may attract very particular niche audiences, I’m thinking here particularly in Brooklyn, the morbid anatomy museum, which is one of my favourite museums in New York. Super discrete focus, super tight connection with he community which isn’t geographically bound but is subject bound. So there is those sorts of things, it’s hard to say what kinds of things come out of that but it would be good to have ways we could explore all of those collecting specialities in some way.

Geoff: Yeah I agree, I think given the breadth of collections it would be nice see them opened up. But what I’m finding very interesting is the actual sharing of more collection spaces for storage and not thinking so much about the bricks and mortar of where things are but more about what you can do with stuff and I think for the museums of the future it does have to think outside of the physical structure. And I know this is something you’ve been talking about or awhile now and that these are not just digital solutions but physical ‘on the ground’ solutions where people can access the stuff and take it away and loan it or re-purpose it and do things with it.

Seb: Yeah Sure. I mean digital is the easy way to do it but often it is actually the physical repatriation, or the loans of pieces that bring collections to life. I think what’s interesting about what we’ve been doing at Cooper Hewitt is not just part of the work we’ve been doing in the digital space it is also about affirming and asserting the role of the physical museum and bringing a sense that the physical museum has to reassert why visiting it on site actually matters and making that a primary concern which forces an exhibition designers, curatorial staff, education officers, and the museum as a whole to say why this is different when you see it physically. And that’s really interesting and think that’s the same if I’m … you know Aaron Pope in my team jokes about relocating all of the museum collections to the airports around America because those have so much through-put and wouldn’t it be great if you were waiting for your plane and you could browse through all these collections which just happens to be on loan to each of the airports.

That sort of thing of putting collections where people are and asserting that the physical collections actually matter, not just putting them in a store house to be forgotten and have digital surrogates as their sort of access copy, but having the ability to actually see things and asserting that the actual thing matters. Whether its actually physical or even digital born itself is interesting to. I think there is a need even with digital born collections to see them in their context and a place to bring a focus to that context. And often that is simply a matter of the viewer being forced to dedicate time and attention to it in a space that hasn’t got other tabs open at the moment and twitter buzzing and you’re not …

Geoff: … Getting a call to get on your air plane…

Seb: … yeah, yeah, right. You know what’s interesting about museum spaces or cultural heritage spaces is even when they are just exhibition halls, as a lot of museums frankly are, is at least they offer a place where people commit to a certain period of time with whatever it is. So if I’m going to say, the Powerhouse, right, or I’m going to say the Cooper Hewitt with my family, I’m setting aside a block of time and I’m saying I’m going to spend this amount of time at that place so then its just the museums responsibility to use that commitment of time audiences, that visitors have made to make most use of that time. You know Xerces Mazda up at ROM in Toronto said something to me a couple of months ago that really stuck with me which was … we have the ROM collections with all these amazing things and it’s our responsibility as museum people to tell people why these are so amazing and why they should care about them, and that if we don’t, because our signage is bad, our labels are bad, or we don’t explain them well then we haven’t done our job.

You know we need to assert that these things are 3000 years old and they really matter, because … because … because … and museum professional can’t just expect folks to know. I think there’s a responsibility for the museum professional to assert why we should care about this stuff and sometimes its much easier to assert when its physically present, it really hard to assert that the thing on your screen really matters because it could just be anything and could be anywhere, right!

… end of part 1


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