Seb Chan on Smart Technology in Museums and “an operating system for the building”

This interview is part of our “Thought Leader” series, where we get inside the heads of the best and brightest in the museum & technology world.

Photo credit JJ Halans

Seb Chan

Director of Digital & Emerging Media Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, New York

Seb Chan is currently the Director of Digital & Emerging Media, Smithsonian, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York. He is responsible for museum’s complete digital renewal during a time when the museum is rebuilding its main campus and transforming into a ’21st century museum’.

Until November 2011, he led the Digital, Social and Emerging Technologies department at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, where he oversaw the implementation of Open Access and Creative Commons licensing policies and many projects exploring new ways for visitors and citizens to engage and contribute to the Powerhouse’s collection, as well as state-wide and national collaborative initiatives.

As a cultural sector consultant he has helped many organisations and institutions all over the world strategise and implement cutting-edge technologies. Most recently he has been working with Culture24 in the UK on the Let’s Get Real project helping UK institutions develop better approaches to evaluating the success of digital endeavours. He also worked with Dan Hill and Marcus Westbury on the planning and development for The Edge, a digital cultural centre, at the State Library of Queensland.

He is a regular speaker on the cultural heritage and arts circuit but has also spoken more broadly at Picnic, Webstock, Web Directions South, TedXSydney.

Chan was a member of the Australian Government’s Government 2.0 Taskforce, and in a parallel life he has been heavily involved in electronic music and arts. He was the founder of Cyclic Defrost Magazine and many late night adventure playgrounds in Sydney.

TourSphere: What was a stand-out museum/exhibit that caught your interest this year?

Seb: For me there have been two museum experiences that have caught my attention.

The first was a visit to the Museum of Old & New Art in Hobart Tasmania just before I left Australia. I’ve blogged about that experience here – but the short version is that the ‘total immersion’ of that venue radically shifted my thinking about how museums could be exclusive without being exclusionary.

The second was a family visit to the recently renovated Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City. I was there at the tail end of a road trip, having driven through the surrounding landscapes for the previous few days. What struck me about the Utah museum was the way in which, unlike most other natural history museums, its spectacular collection (dinosaurs!) had come from the immediate surrounds. Thus it had a sense of immediacy and relevance that is very often missing from similar collections when they are transported to institutions far away.

TourSphere: What was the coolest use of technology you saw in a museum recently?

Seb: I see a lot of technology in my work and in the last few years I’ve become more allergic to its presence in museums. In many ways I think the job of any technology in a museum is to ‘elegantly disappear’.

That said, I paid a short visit to the Google Chrome Web Lab at the Science Museum in London a few weeks ago and the large scale robotic drawing machines ‘herding the avatars of online visitors’ was pretty cool as were the robots drawing portraits in sand. The Chrome Web Lab was one of the more successful attempts at bringing online visitors and in-gallery visitors together to be productive in the same space.

We’re also seeing a lot of activity at the moment with 3D printing (and consumer-grade 3D digitisation) which is exciting. As I opined at the NAEA Conference in January at the Met, I’m waiting for institutions to really start rolling out the “123DCatch + Maker-Bot” consumer grade model to general visitors and schools.

TourSphere: Did your museum do something this year(or have something coming up soon) that you are especially proud of/ excited about?

Seb: The best thing we did this year was close our main campus. Not permanently, but Cooper-Hewitt is undergoing a massive renovation which is why I moved over from Australia.

This is giving us the (unique) opportunity to rethink everything from the ground up. We’re working closely with Diller, Scofidio & Renfro and Local Projects to reinvent the idea of a ‘design museum’ along with a ‘historic house’ along the way.

On one level this is allowing us to ask questions about the totality of a visitor’s experience from ticketing and food choices through to how exhibitions operate in the broader context of the building as a whole. On another level it is forcing us to consider how to ‘build technology in from the ground up’ – or, as I’m fond of quoting strategic designer Dan Hill, “creating a new operating system for the building”.

And of greatest relevance in the context of this interview, this means a true ‘mobile first’ approach – not just for visitors but also for staff.

Of course, we’re doing offsite exhibitions, national outreach and education and the rest during our campus closure. We’ve been prototyping and trialling new solutions along the way using these offsite opportunities as test environments. My web team is also currently building a new toolkit for how collections work on the web which is starting from the a position of ‘default = abundance’ which, for art museums, is counter-normal.

TourSphere: Is there an app or a technology that has changed the way you do things or made your job easier this year?

Seb: Working in senior management I find that any new technologies short of time travel and teleportation are always going to be a disappointment. In fact it has been the various ‘quantified self’ technologies that have been most impactful for me this year – just in terms of tracking my energy intake and usage along with stress and happiness levels. Knowing my own physical and mental states with more clarity has had significant benefits in making my overall life easier.

I haven’t really changed my ‘tools of the trade’ since I was interviewed for Uses This  so if you are interested in my hardware and software specs then that might be good reading.

TourSphere: Apple or Android (or other)?

Seb: I still hold that eventually mobile web will be the way to go.

Nevertheless, right now I am yet to find any cultural institutions that don’t have an overwhelming existing Apple-centric userbase either in the USA, UK/Europe or Australia.

Android might have far more devices out in the world but to date the evidence is that of the people who actively visit museums and use their own devices to connect to the web, it is Apple all the way. Probably the lowest Apple figures I’ve seen have been around 65-70% (and the highest being 95%).

I’m sure that if museums diversified their audiences more then we’d see a lot more Androids in the figures. And perhaps that is becoming the case for children’s’ museums and science centers but not for art museums.

TourSphere: If you had to sum up what you think the theme for museums in 2012 will be in one word, what would your prediction be?

Seb: “Curator-Roomba-Drones”.

TourSphere: What do you see as the biggest challenge for museums in the coming years?

There’s an ongoing realignment to smaller budgets, retiring staff, changing educational priorities, and greater competition for time and attention. Put together it becomes an enormous strategic challenge for museums to find the time to reinvent and realign.

Sometimes the smaller museums have the advantage despite their smaller budgets and those who find themselves in supportive communities should be doing all they can to experiment and exert their agile structures. The larger museums are all coming to terms with their own ageing bodies and failing architectures. The sensible amongst them are doubling down their efforts on structural change.

There’s also got to be a much needed new wave of focus on collections. On one hand, how to get better at ‘editing’ and ‘deaccessioning’ what we have. And on the other hand, aggressively collecting the present with better foresight as to what will matter decades (centuries?) into the future. Global collaboration –  an equivalent of the ‘global seed bank’  for art and cultural heritage into which all institutions contribute – is something that isn’t really so far fetched these days.

I get the sense that the wave of deadening managerialism is receding and this is opening up a lot of opportunities for the ‘higher risk, higher reward’-type of charismatic and visionary leadership that so many emerging museum professionals want to experience and work for/with. ‘Museums with attitude’ might be back on the cards again. Except now this attitude comes with a commitment to access.

TourSphere: Is there something you are passionate about in the museum world that you would like to wax philosophical about or rant about?  If so, please share..

Seb: I’m always ranting on my museum blog Fresh & New(er), although a little less than usual right now because of the rapid pace of change at work. My team at Cooper-Hewitt is blogging their new projects and reports over at too.

Thanks for sharing your sense of humor and incredible perspective with us, Seb!  We look forward to hearing more (and seeing the incredible redesign at Cooper-Hewitt!).

Keep up with Seb here:

twitter: @sebchan

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