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How does a museum keep audiences interested when it’s closing its doors?

A few weeks ago I sat down with Pili Mitchell from the Interaction Consortium, a fantastic digital agency in Sydney, to begin to answer the question How does a museum keep audiences interested when it’s closing its doors for three years?

The museum I work for, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is current closed and on the go until 2016. Which opens up an opportunity for innovation in the way a museum can provide a engaging program without a physical venue for people to visit, as well as allowing space for interesting digital experiments. In the following interview I try explain what it’s like to part of a project that includes building a…

…a seven-storey football field worth of art and storytelling in the middle of downtown San Francisco.

Interaction Consortium: Tell us about yourself and what you do.

Keir Winesmith: I have a PhD in new media and an honours degree in physics and computer science. I’m really interested in the places that art and technology meet, and that manifested in my postgraduate research.

I spent a few years working for Australian broadcaster SBS, looking at how they can tell compelling stories online, whether that’s through mobile, web, the desktop, connected TV, games machines. After SBS I decided to get back as close to art as I could, and I took a role as the Manager of Digital Media at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. That allowed me to focus on the stories that surround the negotiations of visiting an art institution or being with an artwork while you’re in the space. There were a lot of things that were wrapped into that in terms of technologies, systems, integrations, APIs and heavy lifting with the technology. Our core goals were to bring people closer to art and give people ways to understand and bring art experiences into the every day.

IC: What are you doing at SFMOMA?

KW: I am now the Head of Web and Digital Platforms at SFMOMA and over the next few years we’re preparing for the museum re-opening. At the moment the physical space is closed, so we’ve got projects running around the city and happening online, and bits of the collection are touring. My focus is on building the systems, technologies, content and the stories that will be manifested in the museum when it re-opens in 2016.

It’s like we’re building a seven-story football field-worth of art and storytelling in the middle of downtown San Francisco.

IC: In the context of SFMOMA running projects outside of its natural space, what do you think about something like what the Walker Center does with its website?

KW: I think it’s a really interesting model. I like that they’ve decided to do something different and go after a magazine story-led approach instead of leading with the current exhibitions as the tent-pole content. That’s almost always the way that institutions that are exhibition-driven do it. The Walker has someone who “shakes the content tree” and interacts with curators or public programs people to generate content that results in a website that’s like a magazine. According to their stats, it works when you measure in terms of engagement, or unique browsers, or a happy organisation.

IC: What’s important to museums, and how has that changed in the last 10 years?

KW: I think the things that are important to museums today are the same as they were 10 years ago and probably the same as they will be in 10 years. They want to engage audiences with compelling, unique content and experiences. For the organisations I’m interested in, those are art experiences, but they could be natural history, scientific or interactive experiences.

What’s changed is the way that organisations now manifest those experiences using connectedness through digital technology. It allows them to start the experience earlier and finish it later. I think that will continue to change, especially as mobile technology evolves.

IC: How do technology and Internet fit with the museum’s goals?

KW: I think that they can support, or they can destruct. When an organisation embraces a technology like the Internet and ties it to the way that it interacts with visitors, it can be game-changing for that organisation. But if it pushes back, finds it too expensive or doesn’t have the right skill set, then the technology that competitors are taking on can be really destructive and can break experiences, because those who are doing it badly will fail to meet audience expectations. So a number of institutions hide, because that’s better than doing something half-heartedly.

Some institutions go after new technology, especially mobile and web technologies, but don’t make them part of the core business of the organisation, and then it feels clunky. Other organisations — SFMOMA is one– tie digital story-telling into everything that they’re doing and make it part of the conversation. That can be really successful, because then onsite and offsite audiences can have multiple touch points and moments of sublime interaction with an organisation that they don’t have to visit, or they can have a different sort of visit that they never expected.

IC: Can you give me an example of some of the things that you’ve seen that have been really good for visitor experience?

KW: Rather than hiring security, some museums hire people who have a really deep knowledge of the work and can engage with visitors. I think that’s really cool – not hiding interpretation or education in the basement, but bringing it to the forefront of the visitor experience. Institutions like QAGOMA who bring play and young people’s interpretation in and celebrate it alongside the adult didactic are great. They acknowledge a place for young people in the art institutions. I think that’s fantastic.

IC: If you had a single-use mind-control ray and you could get every museum in the world to get behind one initiative, what would it be?

KW: Either open their collections or be transparent to constituents. It’s expensive to put out the content that surrounds institutional collections when the collections are enormous or when the staff is small. There are three solutions to that problem. One is to put out a few things about a few works that you’re famous for. Another option is to put nothing out. And another option is to put out everything at whatever quality you can find, and tell new stories about the things that animate the collection. I don’t want to see an institution put out records that are just an image and a title, or records that are just a date and an author. I’d like to see content the institution is proud of, and that’s new and unique.

IC: The sector often has trouble with funding. Can you talk about some creative ways to get around the funding barrier?

KW: It’s definitely the case in Australia and to some degree in the US that the traditional foundation funding model is drying up. To wrangle money out of federal and state governments to do things with artists, or children’s programs, or things that are not straight science, technology or medicine is really difficult. In Australia the government could change the laws and make giving to cultural institutions tax-deductible the way they do in the US. That will open up a new fount of money. The government could also increase the amount of development funding going into public art and local institutions to support them providing resources to the new sites as they’re built.

Society’s perception of what’s important needs to change. People need to decide that these institutions and their goals and aspirations are really important and that we should change laws to support them. At the moment our society doesn’t seem to understand the amount of money that needs to go into the arts. I wouldn’t be surprised that if the people were to choose, they’d choose to give less money to the cultural sector. It’s a bit scary. I’d like to see laws change, but you have to get people behind those changes.

IC: It’s interesting that you view the change out of the sector’s control. It’s more about the lawmakers.

KW: The solution can’t really be that institutions get better at raising money because they’re all competing with each other. So when one group gets better at raising money it’s at the expense of others. I’ve been in situations where I’ve convinced a corporate partner to become a partner, to give a lot of money to the institution I worked for and then read within the week that they’ve cut funding to some other cultural institution. It’s not exactly a zero-sum game, but it’s not simply the case that if we were all better at it, we’d all have more money. There is only so much money that can go around.

IC: Can you tell us a bit more about your plans for the future at SFMOMA?

KW: We’re working on a few systems requirements: we’re building a new CRM; we’re building a new website to reflect changes in the brand and to support the new building; we’re looking at a new ticketing system; and changing the online store. There’s a lot of heavy lifting in the systems integration space and we’re also building the technological ecommerce touch points for anyone who interacts with the museum digitally.

There’s also a piece of work around building the website out to the point that it supports all of the ways that we would like to interact with our various audiences. We want to think about the organisation as a mobile-first museum and look at what that means. While we’re closed, we want to have a compelling museum-quality experience online because there’s no physical museum to visit. We’re looking at the website as a way of bringing together new content with the works in our collection that we want to celebrate. We want to give people a window into the museum and a reason to visit when it re-opens.

When the museum opens we want to use mobile to join the web component to the onsite interpretive component. That way we can have integrated touch points with people during their visit, but also support their visit and their non-visit.

There’s a lot of work, but the really exciting questions for me are, how do you bring people into an organisation that is changing in shape and size and changing its agenda? How do you do it in a way that’s really exciting and takes advantage of the fact that the museum is closed and the systems are offline? We want to re-imagine what all the parts could be and see what a museum of the future might look like.

You can find the the original interview on the Interaction Consortium blog.