Crossing the Floors with David Hingley at Tate

Crossing the Floors with David Hingley at Tate

David Hingley, Head of Visitor Experience at Tate, talks about an initiative to share education and development between cultural institutions to professionalize visitor operations as a career pathway.


Angie Judge: Hello and welcome, my name is Angie Judge from Dexibit and welcome to the Data Diaries. I’m here today with David Hingley. David, good morning.

David Hingley: Morning. Good to be with you.

Angie Judge: Great to be with you! David has spent the last 12 years leading visitor services and operational excellence in the UK’s leading cultural institutions, and he’s sharing his passion with others up and coming in the industry. From a career in FMCG retailing, David has worked at the Historic Royal Palaces and then the Landmark Trust before going on to head Visitor Experience at Tate across both Tate Britain and Tate Modern since 2019. And he’s also a trustee for Painshill Park and is currently running a series of 10K runs to raise funds for mental health too, I understand. Looking for a bit of sponsorship there, David?

David Hingley: Yeah, always looking for sponsorship. I’ve done 10 runs so far this year and I’ve got two more to go.

Angie Judge: I would gladly be on the paying side rather than the running side. It’s definitely not my cup of tea.

David Hingley: I’m definitely banking on that with a lot of my supporters.

Angie Judge: David is going to share with us today, one of his great passions and how he’s sharing his work in the industry, helping visitor services and frontline teams of the UK’s cultural institutions to – what he calls, “Cross the Floor” – to swap and share in their experiences and gain new ones. So, David, I’m looking forward to hearing all about this. Perhaps you could start us off with a quick overview on what “Crossing the Floors” is all about.

David Hingley: Yeah, absolutely. It’s definitely a bit of a soapbox of mine. So people that know me and have worked with me know that I’ve been sort of banging on about this in different forms, for quite a while, but essentially it’s a really simple idea. It’s the idea that a lot of the teams that work really broadly in front of house, so visitor experience, my teams, but also areas like ticketing, security, et cetera, they don’t get the same opportunities that other areas of the organization do to just dip out maybe and grab a coffee with a colleague in another institution, or spend time in another museum or a cultural site as part of their work. Because their work is very much normally around being rooted in certain places at certain times so that the site can operate. So talking to the team, one of the things that they wanted to do was have wider experiences and we were thinking about how we could do that, and just one simple way that we came up with was to be able to go and spend some time with a similar or even slightly different institution that was kind of relatively close by, because we’re always thinking about the cost for the team member, for example, to do a different commute, but, you know, go and spend a day shadowing a shift, buddying up with a colleague and just see what it’s like. So, for example, Tate Modern sits facing St. Paul’s Cathedral, and they’re both big tourist sites, but they’re very different obviously, in terms of what they offer. So what “Crossing the Floors” does is it gives people an opportunity to think, especially those people who are just starting off their career and maybe working for Tate is their first job. They may well love it, but they may also be trying to work out what they want to do longer term as a career. This gives them a chance just to go and spend a day and just get a taste of what that might be like. Whether that’s for them, whether it’s not, but also a chance also to see how things are done differently in different places. Because I think you can become very kind of focused on your own institution. So it’s nice to kind of take a step back and see something different.

Angie Judge: And how do you get around this kind of constraint that you mentioned there of as a frontline person, these people would need to be onsite for it to operate. Is this something that they’re doing on work time? Is it out of work time? How do they manage, you know, that need to be present at their own institution?

David Hingley: Yeah, so we’ve worked really closely with partner organizations to sort of see how we can make this work and everybody’s gonna do it in the same way, because we thought that was really important. And it will be done on work time. Again, I think the culture sector can depend a lot on people getting experience through volunteering, and we thought it was important to be able to give people the chance to do something at their regular rate of pay. So they will work with a buddy. So it does mean that each site’s got to free just one person up for a day. We can run this scheme, we can have people who are interested put their names forward. We’ve been very clear that we kind of have to plan ahead to make sure our rotors work, et cetera. But then we can drop people in over a number of months into their kind of chosen site on days when we are better staffed and we know we can afford to do that. And the place where they’re going, whoever’s hosting them, knows that, you know, “Alright, they’re getting somebody who we’re not gonna leave them on their own, but we do know that these people have transferrable skills. They’re going to be great at talking to visitors at customer service. So they’ll bring that along with them.” So in a sense, you probably get kind of the equivalent of an extra half-person, they’re on your site for the day without leaving them, you know, unsupported. Because it’s really important that they’re with somebody and they’re looked after and that’s part of it. We’ve got six different organizations at the moment who are working on this and we’ve already got people that want to join us and expand. It’s easier to spread the load between us, whereas if we’re trying to do training kind of for our own teams, it’s really difficult to get more than a few people off the floor sometimes.

Angie Judge: Yeah. There is sort of a critical mass that you need to reach in order to do training across frontline teams, isn’t there?

David Hingley: Yeah, absolutely. So really one of the things we are looking at as well, is sharing the kind of training courses that we run because we recognize there’ll be a lot of similarities and I may only be able to get a couple of people off the floor, which would mean running a course for my team wouldn’t be cost effective, but if there are other teams that want to run a similar course and they can all get a couple of people off their floor together between us, then we can run the course.

Angie Judge: And I have to ask, in today’s tight labor market where it is quite difficult to attract staff, and I know so many cultural institutions are feeling that pinch at the moment and are short staffed. Does that become a little bit of a risk in terms of letting staff walk out the door and across the way to someone who I imagine isn’t quite a competitor, but equally another workplace that might entice others away?

David Hingley: Do you know what? I think it’s always a risk, but I think it’s that classic, there’s absolutely a risk that if you don’t do something to look after and develop your team, you’re going to end up with individuals who are frustrated, who want to get on, but aren’t seeing the opportunities and who are probably gonna look elsewhere anyway. So I think there are two bits to it. It is a tight labor market. We’re all pulling on, effectively very similar pools, but we’re talking about how we want to change that pool of people in the future and attract more diverse individuals, for example, in the culture sector. And I think each institution is not gonna be able to do that on its own. So by pulling together, you know, maybe I’m a firm believer sometimes in getting the right person in the right place. So there could be somebody who’s a little bit demotivated, maybe isn’t sure that my place of work is a place for them, but they go and experience somewhere else. They really find that that is where they want to be. And then I think you’ve gotta take a broader view that that is good for the sector. And you know, I’m a believer that our organizations are, although we would quite often say they’re large, they’re not large in the scheme of the world. I’ve worked for kind of major blue chip companies where we had tens of thousands of employees, lots more opportunities to develop. So I think what we can do by giving people the opportunity to see what else is out there is they have an opportunity to develop. There’s not necessarily always somewhere for them to go where they’re currently employed, but it may be they go away and come back and they’ve got some experience in a different role. So I think, yeah, I’m a firm believer in giving people that opportunity.

Angie Judge: Very well put. And I know I love hearing your passion that speaks to the way in which a visitor services or visitor experience career is a profession in its own right. I’m curious, at what moment in your own career sort of sparked this inspiration behind starting off this effort around “Crossing the Floors”?

David Hingley: Yeah, I think I’ve always been interested in that kind of, I think if you work with lots of people, you know, you always get interested in what makes people tick, be that the visitors and customers or be that your own team and how that interaction between individuals is the point where, let’s be honest, whatever your product, whatever area you work in, that’s kind of the moment when it happens. And that’s very, I think that’s very personal. So I think it’s really important. Whatever else goes into an experience or a project is that kind of interaction moment where it actually happens. That for me is the most important part. And so I came to the conclusion that whatever else people did in the background, when I worked in department stores, or now I work in more creative and cultural industries, that personal interaction can totally ruin everything else on the downside or it can totally make up for something that’s not quite working in the way that you’d hoped. So I think that is a real, it’s often overlooked and partly that’s because it does just happen because, you know, we are just human at the end of the day, and we try and get on with each other most of the time and we try and make things sort of work as well as they possibly can. On the one hand, that’s quite a simple thing because we do it all the time in everyday life. So we all think we can do it. But delivering that day in, day out for very different audiences that may be coming into the same place, that is a real skill. And I think you learn that over time. So I think for me, probably there was a point at which actually when I was working in department stores, when I decided that I actually really liked that part of the whole journey. And I have done roles where I’ve been further away from that kind of interaction, and I’ve just found I don’t get the same buzz out of it and I don’t enjoy it as much. And I also think the teams in that expert field of operations, visitor experience, more broadly, I think they’re people who what gives them a buzz, is usually seeing somebody go away who’s had their experience turned around if they were maybe not having a great time or who’ve had their experience really moved on to the next level. People write in, I always kind of joke a bit, but people write in, and this is the same wherever I’ve worked. And they don’t say the art was amazing at Tate Modern. I mean, they do, but they kind of expect that because it’s Tate. Or when they go to a royal palace, they expect the royal palaces to look amazing, to be stunning, to be full of history. That’s kind of a given, which is slightly unfair, but that’s the deal. But what they write in about is the member of staff they met that told them the little secret or the thing that they couldn’t read in the guidebook or the writing about the sandwiches in the toilets. But I think it’s really important that you leave a real impression on people and I think that can get so overlooked because it’s really hard to quantify actually. You can do mystery visit scores and you can, you know, there’s all kinds of things you can do. It’s quite hard to tap into just what it is people do because if you’re doing it right as well, it seems effortless and I think that’s really hard. It’s almost, the better a team is at it, the less it gets noticed.

Angie Judge: That’s so true.

David Hingley: Because we always react and again, team people that work in these teams, I think are naturally predisposed to kind of look at what went wrong and try and fix it for next time.

Angie Judge: And David, I wondered if there’s a moment that you’ve learned through “Crossing the Floors” or seen somebody else learn that sort of light bulb moment of those secret ingredients that go into that secret source that delivers that really special visitor experience.

David Hingley: It’s really interesting. I’ve seen it where we’ve taken, even just taken people in on work experience at different levels and they’ve quite often been really nervous about, you know, the first time you go and work, usually you end up wearing a uniform. If you are in a big visitor experience team, as soon as you put that uniform on or that name badge or whatever you do, the pressures on. Everybody assumes you know everything. And I think what I’ve seen quite a few times is where you say, “Well, we’ve partnered you up with this person today.” And it’s usually somebody who knows the institution clearly, someone who’s really enthusiastic about it. What we found is if you say to them, “While you are with that person, just kind of ask them about what their personal favorites are. You know, what little stories they’ve got.” I have seen quite a few people really blossom on the fact that what they’ve realized is, you don’t need to be an expert on everything. You can’t. But if there’s a few bits that you really know and you really love, and you really learn to kind of tell that story or share that in the way that you want, that can really make a difference. And I can think of people who are quite quiet, although, you know, great at meeting and greeting, but you know, quite quiet as an individual. You would say they were outgoing, but they, they pick up these bits from people that they’re buddying up with and you can see they think “I could do this because there’s something in this space where I’m working that I’m massively passionate about, and I know I’m not gonna have a problem talking to somebody about it for five, ten minutes if that’s what I need to do.” So I think that’s what you see people kind of take away from the experience.

Angie Judge: It’s a great leadership mission, isn’t it? To connect with your “why” and find your personal passion in there that helps you love your work.

David Hingley: Yeah, I think that’s it. And I think one thing that I’ve reflected on is, and that probably has made me even more passionate about the idea that this is a real career for people, is that you come across people who are so passionate about what they do. Whether you meet people, for example, who work at Tate, who are practicing artists as well. And this is just where everything connects for them. And that’s fantastic, but it’s, you know, it’s also great because it’s something that they want to share with people.

Angie Judge: And so, outside of that passion, what are some of the big skill gaps that we as an industry need to address?

David Hingley: One of the things I used to kind of give regular talks to museum studies groups, which I always loved doing. I think a lot of people in the audience, and this is not to say that you shouldn’t want to become a curator, but they’ve kind of, the job they’ve heard of is being a curator in a museum. So that’s what they want to do. I think this happens in lots of organizations, actually. There are certain jobs that you just think, “Right, that’s the job I want. Cause that’s the one I’ve heard of.” So actually one of the gaps is in people being able to understand what the structures are that are behind working in, for example, a museum or heritage site. Such as the ones I work in at the moment. You can work in marketing, you can work in maintenance. There’s a whole structure there and I think one of the gaps is that we just don’t make people aware that we do need those skills. So it’s kind of a catch-22. I think what people naturally want to do is to specialize in an area and so actually one of the skills gaps is in, I would say if you work in Visitor Experience because you’re the end result of everything else in the organization. You are the kind of point of delivery. You do get to see everything. So you get to work with every single team. And that in itself is a skill to be able to balance that and to be able to put across your experience in dealing with customers to say, “I know this looks great on paper, but in the nicest possible way. I don’t think it’s gonna work when it comes into contact with people.” And I think another gap is having people who don’t necessarily have a massive understanding about everything, but a great understanding of specific things. Sometimes you’ve just got teams on the front line who know the visitors who operate in those spaces every day, and it can be something as simple as everybody always turns left when they come through that door. There’s not necessarily any deep logic as to why that is, but that’s just what the humans have been doing here for ages. So don’t build an exhibition where you need everyone to turn right because they’re gonna get confused. Sometimes there’s less understanding of the importance of really having, not just having the data, because I think we’re quite good at having data, but analyzing it and seeing how you can get the best possible use out of it. So I’m thinking about things like, how many people go through an exhibition in a day, and really breaking that down. I think people don’t tend to work on the detail of like, how many people did you get through that hour? How many people did you get through the next? How does it vary? How can you maximize and make sure the experience is as good as possible while still having the ticket sales that you want? And I think that’s an area that when I moved from retail into heritage and culture, I felt that the sector has been behind on at times. It almost feels like it’s not somewhere where people wanna get too scientific about it because it might ruin the magic, but I think it’s quite the reverse.

Angie Judge: That’s so true. I’m so glad you brought up data and insight as part of that skill gap, because I think what we see in our work is that the visitor experience and visitor services teams in a venue or a museum where data is incredibly successful, they are the number one consumers of data. They look at forecasts to do their rostering. They look at visitor sentiment to see how happy their visitors are. They look at exhibition performance against goals. Again, they look at revenue, average revenue per visit, and how they can improve it and get visitor services into that state of play. There is quite a big leap to make from how we’ve operated in the past. Right?

David Hingley: Yeah, definitely. I think I’ve often been surprised by the fact that data doesn’t actually get to the teams on the ground sometimes. It’s almost like it’s analyzed, understandably, it’s analyzed financially and all that, but it’s not necessarily looked at by the visitor facing teams. And I think there are always gonna be some members of the team, and that’s fine, who aren’t into all of that detail. You don’t need every single person to know the minutiae of it. But certainly, at a management level, I think it makes such a huge difference to be able to stand back. I mean, we’ve all had it happen when we work operationally, where you think at the end of the day, “Gosh, that was a busy day. You know, we must, we must have had a really large number of people come through.” And then you look back at the counters and, you know, oh, it wasn’t as busy as I thought. It just happened to be one of those days where we dealt with a number of issues. So that’s really helpful, I think. But the reverse is also true, sometimes you think, “Gosh, that didn’t feel like it was a busy day,” but actually what it means is you’ve had huge numbers of people through, you’ve hit your targets, but you’ve managed to do it in a really good way. And to be able to go back and look at that and say, “Right, how do we repeat that experience so that having X thousand people through the doors over a weekend so it doesn’t feel painful? I think that’s really important.

Angie Judge: Yeah, and you hit on such an important point there that often we haven’t democratized that data to those frontline staff. That it is sitting in the finance department, or the marketing team are the ones with all the tools, and yet our visitor services teams are the ones who have the most context to add to that data. Of all of those things that went on, on that really big weekend that made it feel heavy, and they’re also the people that can provide the most actionable moments to that data as well when we see those opportunities for improvements of, “How can we repeat that beautifully scalable, seamless weekend and do more of them in the future?”

David Hingley: I do think that one of the things that came out of the pandemic, and I think it’s still really important, is when we had to be really careful in terms of how many people were in a building, how we operated the space. We had to keep so much space, I mean there were legal reasons as well. While we needed to do that, it really focused the mind on what we were able to do. And what we were able to do was get really live information from surveys that say “How safe did visitors feel?” Cause that was the number one thing above everything else. How safe did people feel so that they would continue to visit and come back? And because we were getting that almost as a live feed sort of at least kind of once a week download, we could make changes and we could see how those changes were affecting the experience in an exhibition, for example. And we could do that kind of week on week. I don’t know if you could do it any more than that. I mean, you could possibly do it more than that, but sort of week on week was really manageable actually. And I think one of the things that I have taken away is, another one of these areas where I think it’s really important to work as consistently across organizations is because visitors were going to your competitors, if you want to call them competitors, or going to, you know, I think people will always go to the National Gallery and Tate because we’ve got different art, different exhibitions, but, you know, people having both those experiences. Safety and fun. So to be able to make sure that, to a degree it’s aligned in terms of people won’t go to the National Gallery and think, “Gosh, it’s brilliant they did that there, and yet Tate does none of it.” I mean, if stuff’s working for visitors, you kind of wanna grow the whole experience rather than just focus on an individual area, an individual site. Because it just doesn’t work because they always come back to you and say what they saw elsewhere that they loved.

Angie Judge: And speaking of these pandemic trends, we are sort of in this very weird time of hyperinflation and these tight labor markets that we were talking about before. Are we in a spot right now where the industry is understaffed on the frontline?

David Hingley: I think it’s a challenge. I’ve heard different things. We’re fortunate that we’ve recently been recruiting and we’ve had a really good response. I’d like to think some of that’s because people can see what it is we’re offering and that we are absolutely saying there are opportunities to work as an apprentice, for example, and kind of move through the visitor experience. So kind of a career ladder if you like, but also we’re being quite open and saying “If you’re looking for an experience, come to Tate, work with us in visitor experience and we’ll hopefully help you to think beyond Tate if that’s where you need to go.” So I hope that’s insulating us if you’d like a little bit from that. But it’s definitely tight and there are other opportunities. So I think it’s gonna be increasingly, and I know this has been a trend over quite a period, but I think it’s kind of accelerated why it’s important that this is a career. We live in a gig economy world, and you can choose to work on contracts where you might come and support different organizations for different events, et cetera. And that really suits some people. But I think it’s being able to say that there’s another option, and the other option is kind of building a career in the sector. You can’t always necessarily compete on the salary because some of these gig economy roles, you know, somebody’s desperate and they’ve got an event to run so they can offer a good hourly rate, and it’s up to people whether they want to take that, understandably, they may need to, but I think to be able to say, “Look, there’s different ways of doing this” and just kind of be really honest about what it is you can offer, I think that is hopefully helping us to insulate a little bit against that, but it, it’s definitely a tough market at the moment.

Angie Judge: What are you looking for in the staff that you’re hiring that are new to this role?

David Hingley: I’m looking for people who are passionate about people. Actually, first and foremost, I think it’s great if they’re passionate about, in Tate’s case art, but equally sometimes some of the people who maybe come from a retail background, et cetera, who are great with people. I mean, our whole selection processes have moved to looking at personal interactions, group exercises, those kind of things to see how people are at talking to and engaging with other people. Because quite often people who don’t have that arts background actually suddenly come across an artist that they’ve genuinely never heard of who might be at some upcoming exhibition, and they become so interested and excited because it’s completely new to them that they can carry that passion through as well. So people. Love interacting with people. It’s people who I think understand the variety of what you’re gonna deal with in a front-of-house role that, you know, if you’re open to it all, you genuinely will get every type of person in. You need to be able to think about what that will be like and will feel like, and we support people obviously, but you know, sometimes you can have difficult conversations. It’s not always easy doing the kind of roles that we’re talking about. And then I’m absolutely happy for people to come in and work with us and get early career understandings of what the culture sector is and then they may move on to work in a different area. think it’s always good that people have had front-of-house experience. But I’m also looking for people who do want to build a career in front-of-house, who do want to be the managers of the future and can see the opportunity to kind of shape what the experience is by moving up in that.

Angie Judge: And where can these careers take people in front-of-house for visitor experience and cultural institutions?

David Hingley: Yeah, I’ve seen people that we’ve placed in different roles within the same institution. I think what tends to happen is people who are really passionate about it use this as a springboard. We’ve had people go and join our learning team, so move from visitor experience to kind of more formal learning and engagement. So that’s great. Looking after family program development, that kind of thing. We’ve had people who’ve moved into curatorial roles, particularly in areas like if you think about kind of program production and delivery. So looking kind of more broadly beyond the day-to-day delivery. So they’ve already got those skills. They take them, they take that on. We’ve had people join other teams simply because they’re just really good at customer interaction. We have visitor communications teams who look after a lot of the emails, calls, et cetera. So members of my teams have moved into that. And then I’ve had people who’ve kind of taken first management roles, if you like. When I went to historic royal palaces at Hampton Court, whenever anybody left, we used to try and encourage people to think of it as us gaining another museum. So we had people who’d kind of start with us, build up their experience and then go and run. I think we had somebody who went to Oxford Castle for example, someone who went to the Ashmolean, which is another museum, and they were able to take what they’d learnt and then kind of take the next step up and then bring us back to “Crossing the Floors”. Then that’s increased the network and we’ve got somebody else that we can contact and say, “Can we work together in the future?”

Angie Judge: And what would your advice be if somebody wanted to attempt, replicating your initiative in another country or in another city? What would you suggest to them in terms of how do you go about getting something like this off the ground?

David Hingley: I think I absolutely mercilessly pitched to people who I thought would be interested in my personal network. There was a bit of that. I think it was very much around, I think people were keen to do it, but I think we’re all, we’ve talked about it. It’s tough at the moment in the labor market and we’ve got a lot going on, so you can become quite focused on your own problems and your own institution. So actually I think the group we’ve set up, we’re also a bit of a self-help group at times where it’s like, we have worked out together how this is gonna work, and I think that’s been important. Without a huge amount of investment, et cetera. But you know, what I’ve been able to say is that I’m one of the bigger teams involved, so we can take on kind of quite a lot of the admin and such to support other smaller organizations. And one of our organization values is to be kind, though I think in a sense it’s like what are your organizational values? Do they align with the other organizations you’re gonna work with? Because then, you know, you’ve got probably a very similar start point. And the other element is just sorting out the admin because you can imagine the admin people thinking, “Are they gonna go and work at a different site? What’s the insurance? How are you gonna cover that? Different organizations can have different kinds of security clearance levels.” So getting all that sorted in the background has been important.

Angie Judge: I can’t even begin to imagine what that looks like.

David Hingley: There’s quite a lot of spreadsheets, you know. That’s good. Once we’ve got it off the ground, I’m sure as well it’ll get easier.

Angie Judge: Well, thank you very much for taking a few minutes out of your day and all of that paperwork to share your “Crossing the Floors” initiative with us. It’s incredibly exciting to hear in this post covid world that the way in which cultural institutions came together to collaborate and to work together as an industry as continuing on in lots of different ways, I’m really excited about that.

David Hingley: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to seeing how it develops and I’m kind of excited. We’ve got other organizations who are interested, so hopefully we can just build on that and as you say, keep working together post Covid.

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The Power of Play in Learning with Arthur G Affleck III from the Association of Children’s Museums

The Power of Play in Learning with Arthur G Affleck III from the Association of Children’s Museums

Arthur G Affleck III, Executive Director for the Association of Children’s Museums, shares his organization’s mission to support children and families to learn through play, with the importance of this work in lives and to society.

Show notes


Angie Judge: Hello and welcome to the Data Diaries, I’m your host Angie Judge of Dexibit. Today I am here with Arthur G Affleck III, Executive Director of the Association of Children’s Museums. Welcome Arthur.

Arthur Affleck: Thank you for having me.

Angie Judge: Now the children’s museum field is one of the fastest growing cultural in industries in the world. And ACM is its international nonprofit for representation and advocacy. It has over 480 organizations and members across 16 countries and 50 states. And Arthur is very well known in the industry for his achievements in education administration, institutional advancement and nonprofit governance, centering diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion. Before ACM, he served as EVP at the American Alliance of Museums. And he currently serves on several nonprofit boards, including for the International Council of Museums who just had their annual meeting in Prague. Plus Bottom Line, New York, Crystal Bridges, and Playful Learning Landscapes. And he’s also an accomplished author too. That’s quite the resume Arthur!

Arthur Affleck: Well, thank you.

Angie Judge: Thank you for taking the time out of that very busy lineup to join us here. Today is a very special topic that I’m really looking forward to. Because as of a few months back, I joined the parents’ club and it’s really got me thinking about my own parenting style and how we want to approach education. We’re going to talk about the ‘power of play’ in children’s learning and experiences and cultural institutions and beyond, and how the work of the Association of Children’s Museums is not just representing the interests of their museums, but changing the way children learn, which is a really big departure from the ‘desks set in rows’ that we all grew up with and an incredibly powerful mission. And when we were exchanging ideas ahead of today, Arthur shared with me a great quote by the late great Fred Rogers. That “Play is the real work of childhood”. And he also went on to specifically say, this is Rogers speaking, “That children’s museums offer play experiences that other settings are not able to give them.” That’s quite the ultimate endorsement for your work I imagine!

Arthur Affleck: Yes. Yes. And I just should say that some years ago in 1996, actually ACM gave Fred Rogers, our ‘Friend of Kids’ award, and he gave the talk and the keynote address and shared some of those thoughts, but we give that award out every year. So we were thrilled that Mr. Rogers would come and, and obviously knew he shares our love of children and love of play.

Angie Judge: You must get this a lot, but perhaps you can set us off with what a children’s museum actually is. And, how does it differ from other museums?

Arthur Affleck: So first we like to talk about the four dimensions of children’s museums. First as local destinations. Second as educational laboratories. Third as community resources and fourth as advocates for children. Now a more traditional definition I could give is a place where people come together, children and families, to understand the world and their place in it. Some museums do that through art, others, through natural science specimens. And children’s museums do it through immersive play based hands on experiences. So that is how we differ from a museum that focuses more on collections.

Angie Judge: And what led you to your role as ED at ACM?

Arthur Affleck: So very interesting. I have always, for most of my career, worked in education in higher education. As a matter of fact, I originally wanted to be a school teacher, a science teacher. I went to college for biology pre-med, but wound up going to graduate school for a degree in higher education leadership, and then to law school. And after a few years, working at a law firm decided to get back into education where I felt more fulfilled. And every university where I worked the last 10, 15 years had a museum. And I loved those museums. And so the opportunity came about six years ago to work at the American Alliance of Museums. And I jumped at the opportunity and it was a great experience there for six years. My last role, as you mentioned, was Executive Vice President. And then for the last six months, I had been the Executive Director of the wonderful Association of Children’s Museums.

Angie Judge: And what are some of the sort of current opportunities or challenges, the work that you’re facing right now?

Arthur Affleck: We are emerging from the pandemic. So as an organization working to, I’m look at my team and building my team. You may recall the book ‘Good to Great’, which said, those who build great organizations, make sure they have the right people on the bus and in the right seats. So I’m looking at my team and I have a very strong team, but we’re looking at roles and responsibilities. And so we’ll be making some changes there and then we’re going to grow the team. We’re hiring additional people because the demand for our services is greater than ever. But some of the challenges that, that we also have – technology, we’re upgrading our technology. We’ll be bringing on a new database for us, but when it comes to the children’s museums, some of the challenges they’re having. We spent a lot of time doing virtual work and now that we are focused on in person work and some of them are not fully back in terms of staffing, 100%, they’re struggling to say, how do we fully give the in person experience yet not lose all of the great work we did in the virtual space? So that’s one challenge. Staffing is a challenge – hiring and retaining staff – because we are not able to pay right as high as some other entities. So that’s a challenge. We’re facing funding as a challenge. We have to work harder for revenue and support because when you have a pandemic and people have medical challenges and people are unhoused and people have food insecurity, a lot of charity kind of shifted a little bit for those resources, but we make the case that man or woman does not live by bread alone, that we must feed our souls and our children and adults need access to culture and the arts to behold. And in fact, if you think about the mental health crisis, we know that we are even more important as children’s museums that is to the children and families than ever before, because while we don’t solve those problems, we ameliorate those symptoms because when children play they’re joyful and in the process they’re learning and families are engaging and we can see that they are having a very positive emotional, mental and physical experience in our museums. So we are vital and we must fight for those resources, just like every other organization. We’re thrilled to be here. The challenges are not as many as the opportunities. We have many great opportunities that I’m very excited about.

Angie Judge: And what is the science and the data behind this say what, what supports the value proposition of play and play based learning?

Arthur Affleck: There is a lot of data and information around play and play based learning. I will start with an article since your podcast is all about data, right? So I’m going to refer to an article called ‘A New Path to Education Reform, Playful Learning Promotes 21st Century Skills in Schools.’ And this 2020 paper has 150 references, to back it up and support it. And this paper was written by one of my colleagues and friends, Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and her colleague, but essentially they start out by talking about the American education system, just not preparing all children to thrive. So that’s a big challenge right there. The data shows that in the science of learning, narrow content focused education, the didactic method, is insufficient, works for some, but is insufficient. And so we’re calling for scalable evidence based education that puts student engagement, educate expertise, and equity at the center. And so we believe that play and play-based learning and the data shows it helps students and teachers make learning more active, engaging, meaningful, socially interactive, iterative, and even joyful. And when it’s joyful for the students and for the teachers, not only do the students learn, but the teachers are better retained. So that’s one, and I’ll give you another reference for play-based learning and, and another endorsement. And that is the American Academy of Pediatrics. They put out an article, many articles, but there’s one that, that I referenced and it’s called ‘The Power of Play, a Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development of Young Children.’ And so that article talks about the fact that children need to develop a variety of skill sets to optimize their development and to manage toxic stress. Basically research demonstrates that development developmentally appropriate play with parents and peers is a singular opportunity to promote social, emotional, cognitive language self-regulation skills, et cetera. So lots of references from the medical field, from academics, from teachers that play in play based learning is the way and from none other than Fred Rogers.

Angie Judge: It’s incredible. Especially following a couple of years where our kids have been learning in front of screens, really. And it’s so different to being able to sit and play with each other. And you mentioned equity in there. How does this whole approach address some of those inequities that we face in early childhood education?

Arthur Affleck: We believe that learning through play is accessible to every child, to all students, to all families. It’s not based on your income level, it’s not based on your zip code. It is based on the ability of the institution of the school, of the museum to implement this methodology. And, and we find that play based learning can be made to be culturally sensitive and culturally specific, because play is viewed differently in different parts of the country, different parts of the world. They view play a little differently, but play-based learning can be moulded and modified to be culturally specific and therefore help students to be engaged. I’ll give you an example of that. If you are from, maybe your cultural background is from Latin America. Well, there are things in that culture that animates children and families. So one way to get to play and feel comfortable is to play some games that they would be familiar with from that culture to reference, you know, some of the characters from that culture that would be of interest. And you can do that with every culture, whether it’s African American or whether it’s, you know, Asian or what have you. And so when we work with schools and we are talking about our academic partners and museum educators, we always look at how we can make sure that we are creating culturally appropriate kinds of opportunities for children to engage and to play. And then the other part of play, you know, play comes on a spectrum, you know, there’s free play and there’s an argument for free play because we believe play is learning full stop. When students are playing, they’re learning, there’s free play, but free play doesn’t have a learning. Children are just doing their thing and having a great time. But we believe guided play is what we use in museums. More often where the child does indeed have agency and is actively engaged and involved, but you have an educator or a museum staff member kind of guiding the child toward a learning objective. So it’s still fun. It’s still engaging, but there’s learning going on. And at the other end of spectrum of play and learning is direct. Instruction, you know, where students are sitting down, they’re being told what to do and how to play. And that we think is not the best way to go about it because we need children to have agency. We need them to have the feeling that they’re making decisions about how they want to play and just, and, and they can be guided then in ways that make play even more important and even more meaningful. So that. That’s uh, what I would say about why we, we know that more equity can be achieved if playful learning is utilized. And we can see that in, you know, some of the data as well.

Angie Judge: That’s so interesting. When you talk about sort of the cultural elements of play, and one of the things where I come from in Aotearoa or New Zealand, there is a, a respect for food, which means that it can be  somewhat offensive to have children playing with food, which is quite common in the Western world. You know, you think about things like play-doh, or making macaroni sculptures or playing with rice. But here that’s very different. So it’s really good to hear that be incorporated as part of this view on play-based learning. And Arthur, I understand your team are working on a new strategic plan? Can you share any of that in terms of your preliminary findings or some of the priorities that are coming out of that work?

Arthur Affleck: Yes. So we are, we should have this plan done by the end of the year. It’s been fascinating to move around the country and to receive input from our members, from education leaders, from our board members and others. Right now we’re emerging, we have four major priorities that are on the draft plan. And the first of those priorities is that we will continue to support the children’s museum community as, as a membership organization. That’s critical through convening and resources and connecting and research, et cetera, but a new plank that was not in the last plan is that we will have a separate priority focused on children and families providing indirect and services through our members, but also direct advocacy and work from the association. And I should say, Angie, this second plank came out of the awful experience that we all learned about and with the Uvalde shooting, when all of those children were lost in that school, meant some of our board members came together to say, it’s not enough that we champion our mission statement. Our current mission statement says we champion children’s museums worldwide. It’s not enough that we champion children’s museums. We have to champion children and families, and we have to fight for them to be safe wherever they are. So for example, our current mission statement, you know, says we champion children, children’s museums worldwide, the emerging mission statement, the draft mission statement says, “ACM champions children’s museums and empowers children to play, learn and thrive safely in these vital shared spaces worldwide”. So that’s a shift that we are going to do more to advocate, not just for children to play and learn, but also to thrive safely in these vital spaces in museums or schools. Which means that we will, I’ve had conversations with the boys and girls clubs of America. I have conversations with other organizations that we won’t go with alone, but we will join with other organizations advocating on behalf of children to be safe funding for schools. We’re gonna fight with others for universal pre-K, all of those things that we know make a big difference. And I know at some point you’ll let me share some data. You know, school readiness and, and why it’s so important that we, we have this early childhood education, but let me finish responding to your question. The two other planks in our strategic plan. So one was the children, museum, community, two children and families. Advocacy policy and research and advocacy is so critical. We work with federal government educating, sharing information, making sure they continue to financially support the museum community. We have museums advocacy day, every year, working with AAM and other associations. And we have been successful in maintaining funding for our museums. And the last one is strengthening the organization, that we will work to strengthen ACM as an organization. So we can be more impactful to our members, provide more direct services, children and families generate more revenue to offset the work that, that we are doing and to hire and retain more staff. So all of that is in our new plan, but the newest plan is, and I’m excited about this work to think about how we can do more direct work with children and families.

Angie Judge: This is such a radical leap and it’s such an amazing vision to have. And you mentioned the origins of that an absolutely horrific situation, but it does go on to highlight the need for this safety of our kids. But, and not only that, but the children that grow up to experience problems through their early years and the impacts to society that that sort of creates, these shootings that have taken place. The people who are the offenders in that situation are, are young people themselves. Aren’t they, in, in many cases, Arthur, you mentioned some of the, the data that are coming out of some of these elements, the statistics on how kids are ready for a kindergarten and the relationship of how we set up our kids to enter the academic system and then the socioeconomic trajectory that, that sets them on. If they essentially learn to hate learning and then never catch up, what does the impact of that problem look like in data?

Arthur Affleck: A child’s learning, and it’s not every parent just doesn’t know this, but a child’s learning from birth to five is critical. It determines their kindergarten starting point. Students who enter kindergarten behind have a monumental undertaking to catch up with their classmates. And so the data show that one in four kindergarteners are not ready to learn. Some of this comes out of the Pritzker Family Foundation report: low income black and brown children are almost two in four, almost 50%, approaching, kindergarten, not quite ready to learn. For students who enter kindergarten one or two or three years behind, it is very difficult to make sufficient progress, to move up even one level without a massive amount of intervention. So, so, you know, we are hopeful. We believe all children can and will improve. Right. But for those who enter kindergarten, the data shows 75% will never catch up to their classmates. This means that each child’s kindergarten starting point matters. And this is according to the Children’s Reading Foundation data: that we have got to get more children ready for kindergarten. So children’s museums play a vital role in facilitating play and many school readiness programs exist to address this pressing challenge. And so we plan to do more in that regard. I remember being in the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia and seeing that very wonderful school readiness program that just gets these kids ready so that they have socio-emotional skills. They have executive function skills, self-regulation skills. So they show up to school with literacy, numeracy, self control to the extent that they can indeed learn. And the point you made earlier that breaks my heart is that we know that if children are not prepared for school and they get to school, and spend years behind, school becomes painful because every day you are found out to be unprepared. You can’t answer the questions you can’t keep up. And the minute they get old enough to be able to drop out, we see millions of kids dropping out of school every year and they become, unfortunately, those young people that often get into difficulty and get into trouble. And the data show that a high percentage, 75%, if not more, of convicted felons in prison are people who dropped out of school didn’t have a good school experience. So we know that the dire consequences to society for not paying more attention to early learning. And our goal is to advocate for more, to do more within our institutions and to partner with others who also understand this.

Angie Judge: And that’s not just about crime, is it? Because in the last few years we’ve seen mental health for both adults and kids become more front of mind  for our society and indeed more pressing, how does play help with that?

Arthur Affleck: And you are exactly right. The two crises, one is mental health crisis. The other is the early learning crisis, but they’re related, right? They’re definitely related. So, and I think it was the in readings from the American Pediatric Association talking about the fact that play is good for the physical, the mental, the social, and the academic growth and development of children. And there are studies that show how young people who are allowed to play as the American Pediatric Association said, it helps the toxic stress that they experience in their lives, that we can’t avoid some stress. But what the data show is that if children are allowed to be in those environments, where they can release that stress by playing freely and even through guided play with facilitators, but also playing with parents, the other benefit of play that supports mental health for parents and that playing museums and our museums is intergenerational. I was in with the Louisiana Children’s team a few weeks ago. And saw a grandfather with his daughter with his granddaughter in this play space, watching the granddaughter, you know, a toddler playing and he reported, he just volunteered to me, “We come here twice a week. She loves it and she’s learning so much and having so much fun.” So all of that, he felt great, he felt pride. The mother felt good and the child was having a great time. So, you know, we need to do more of this and provide more of this feeling. And again, it doesn’t solve the problem if you will, of mental health. But we also are beginning to work with our members to have trauma informed programming so that while we can’t solve the challenges when we, but we need to be able to identify trauma in families and in children and be able to help parents and families to services that can help them. And then also to train our staffs and we’re working to do that. So that again, you know, we, we have programming to say, first of all, it’s okay to be a little anxious. It’s okay to be concerned when things are happening in society, that nothing is wrong with that, but here’s how we process trauma. And certainly coming out of eval, more museums have been in programs, bringing in experts, bringing in social scientists, bringing in psychologists, bringing in others into the museum to talk about how we process trauma and all of that. And all of that helps with some of the mental health challenges that we’re seeing among children and families. And sadly, that is not going to go away tomorrow. They will be more. Tragedy, sadly in America, and in the world. So we just have to help children and families become more resilient. And that’s the goal of ours.

Angie Judge: And what are some of the other ways that the children’s museums are engaging with parents and other caregivers?

Arthur Affleck: So one of the exciting programs that I love is, a number of our museums have these, programs called ‘The First 1,000 Days’. And these programs, we understand that parents really are the first teachers of children. And if we can help parents understand how they can facilitate play in their home, how they can facilitate brain development in their children, the children will be so much more successful. So in collaboration with researchers and scientists and health professionals, artists, and educators, some of our museums have designed a support system to help parents navigate the first three years of this parenting journey. And so they come into the museum for programming and then they’re given tools and resources to take. So they can do some things at home. So that’s exciting evidence based collaborative with community resources. And that’s one of those programs that we want to expand to throughout the country to make sure that we are doing all we can because if we don’t start early with these children’s first 1,000 days, first three years, and then the first five years, you know, we give children a chance if we do that well.  So that’s a program that I think is, is exceptional, that, that we will do more.

Angie Judge: It all sounds like it makes a lot of clear sense, but I know it’s, it’s always hard to get everyone to recognize the value of change like this, particularly when it is quite dramatic from the traditional ways that generations have learned before that, is this an obvious way that the world is heading or do you have to really work to convince parents, teachers, government officials that we need to do things differently?

Arthur Affleck: I think it’s getting easier. It’s becoming more acceptable  for play to be accepted. And one of the things that helps I think is that we have not only children’s museums, not only academics, not only the American Pediatric Association saying this. But their corporations and foundations, like Lego that truly believe in the power of play and that promote play and that support with their resources and their programming play and play strategies. For example, as you know, I visited the Famous Lego House recently. And one of the Lego foundation’s aim is to redefine play and to reimagine learning. And they’re working toward, as in their words, the future where learning through play empowers children to be creative, engaged life, long learners. So we have allies, an increasing numbers of allies, and we will partner with Lego. We will partner with academics, we’ll partner with all these other organizations that want to do this. And superintendents, I’ve met with superintendents because helping them to convince parents and other teachers that this is, this is important. And if time permits, I’d love to chat about the New Hampshire program that I think is going to, to make a, make a difference. But I think it’s getting better. People are recognizing the importance of play and especially coming out of the pandemic where children were pent up in their homes, parents and others are realizing, kids have got to get out, they’ve got to play. They can’t be, you know, kept cooped up on these screens or in, in homes all day.

Angie Judge: Tell us about New Hampshire what’s happening up there?

Arthur Affleck: So one of the great things that happened in New Hampshire, a parent who believed in play and the value of it wound up running for office and became a legislator. And then she introduced legislation to say, we ought to have play and play based learning for pre-K and kindergartens in New Hampshire and lo and behold, it was passed. So it is now a law in the state of New Hampshire. But to implement play based learning in the pre-K in kindergarten classes, they decided to bring in the Children’s Museum of New Hampshire. They also brought in professors from the university of New Hampshire and one of my colleagues, Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Dr. Kimberly Nesbitt from the University of New Hampshire, Kathy’s from Temple University and they put together a program to train coaches who would then go into the classroom and train teachers and work with teachers in the classroom on how to implement a play based approach to their curriculum. They’re not trying to change their curriculum, just implementing play based techniques. And I went up to New Hampshire. I met with the educators, I met with the children’s museum and that I went to some of these schools, sat on the floor with these kids and saw the joy in them And it works. It works. And so we are going keep looking at the data from New Hampshire. I may have mentioned, I went to California, met with the superintendent of Los Angeles unified school district the great  Alberto Carlo, and he’s doing great work there. He said, he’s interested in doing more round play and play based learning. And there are many others. And so we believe that this New Hampshire model will be carried forward. I was in Washington. And met with legislators there and they said they willing to take a look at what more can be done there. We actually have an event coming up, another event in Washington State and Seattle. So we think it’s gaining momentum and we’ll see other models like New Hampshire and each state might do it a little differently. And that’s okay because it has to be state specific, culturally specific, but the idea is to bring more play and for learning techniques into schools and into communities.

Angie Judge: And in doing that work, what is the role of the museum in changing how children learn and, and has this sort of shifted as a result of the pandemic, has, has the last couple of years changed that role?

Arthur Affleck: So, I don’t know that the last couple years has changed the role except that what it has done is that it has made the role that much more important and that much more relevant and clear. Let me give you one story during the pandemic. One of the things that many of our museums did was when children were cooped up in their homes, couldn’t go to schools. Couldn’t come into the museums, is that they created kits. That would help children learn. And with the support of their families. One story was the Children’s Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. They created over 4,000 thinker player, creator boxes for an entire school district’s kindergarters because those families and children were really struggling on with online work. As a result, the district saw that when the kids got their boxes, the dropout rate among families slowed dramatically. Also one of the parents told the district that the materials in the box were the first time the child ever had their own book, scissors and crayons, the first time. So that’s just one example. Hundreds of museums did stuff like that during the pandemic. And so coming out of the pandemic, we know that and then some became vaccination centers. As you may recall, some became places where you can just get wifi, whatever, that the community needed. Some were food distribution centers. Our museums stepped up, but learning and education was a central way that our museums help families and children. And we’ll continue to do that on going.

Angie Judge: And speaking of that wider museum community, I know for our listeners, they might be from cultural institutions that they’re hosting school groups through their venues, or even from commercial attractions who are appealing to kids, they’ll be wanting to implement some of these ideas around play based learning too. How are you going about sharing the work of your team for others?

Arthur Affleck: So we share in a variety of ways. Number one, we certainly have an annual conference, a really big show and tell, and it’s not just open to children’s museum professionals. We have lots of other folk who come to the conference. In addition, our website provides a lot of information in the form of articles and blog posts and this to other materials. We have a newsletter called hand to hand that newsletter has lots of information. As a matter of fact, the story I told about the museum, in Arizona came out of that hand to hand one of our hand, hand publications. And then for members, we have something called group site where members post question, share challenges, uh, and successes, cetera. And if people want specific information, most of our children’s museums get requests and work with, for example, other community organizations and certainly schools to bring them into the children’s museum to say, this is how we do what we do, and we’re happy to share. So if anyone is in a community with a children’s museum, that children’s museum will welcome that organization in to dialogue about what they can do together and to share inspiration.

Angie Judge: Very cool. And I know some of your work is actually outside of what we traditionally think of as a venue, if you like, or a cultural institution, because you work with cities and public spaces too, through landscapes in some of your work. What does that look like in those other spaces, in terms of learning with play?

Arthur Affleck: So playful learning exists, not only in the classroom, but outside the classroom in what we call these informal learning spaces, museums, a one informal space, but I serve on the board of an organization called Playful Learning Landscapes. And this is an initiative that uniquely blends the science of learning place, making and community cohesion, right? Transforming public and shared spaces into fun and enriched learning hubs for the further development of children, families, and, and communities. And the beautiful thing about the way that works is that these spaces are co-created. So if we agree in a community that a bus stop or basketball court, or a park or playground could be transformed, we work together. We have some ideas. We ask the community, what do you think? What do you want? Parents, children, others, so that they own that space. And it’s different in every city and there’s some international locations. And so this is a young organization, but has already had some successes. And ultimately we believe that certainly play is important for children, and young children, but play is important for all of us, play everywhere. Play throughout our lives, play for adults. There’s data to show that those folk who are playful and who play and who do puzzles and do other things live longer and don’t have as many mental challenges as, as others. So play is good everywhere for all of us.

Angie Judge: Oh, that’s good, Arthur, because I bought my son some baby puzzles the other day. I bought them home and immediately did them, myself, so it’s gonna pay off! And so you just returned from a tour of Europe, I know with ICOM in Prague. And you mentioned Lego there in Denmark, too. What were some of the things you could leave us with that have inspired you recently?

Arthur Affleck: Oh, just first of all, the international conference was great. It was inspiring to, you know, be first of all, Prague was a beautiful city, but to just have presentations on topics like climate change, leadership, diversity governance, resilience from colleagues who are from Kenya or Paris or Australia or California, Brussels, DC. So I met so many colleagues from all around the world, so that was tremendous. That was great to see that we have so much in common with these common goals and objectives. And then I went to London and the great joy there was visiting the wonderful museums in London and meeting with colleagues from cultural institutions and talking about ways that we can collaborate and partner. And so we will be doing more work with them. And then the National Children’s Museum Eureka, talk about inspiration. When I visited, it was a Saturday, the museum was full of children and families having the time of their lives. And one comment from that museum, in the museum, there is a wall of pictures and quotes from their ambassadors, remembering their days in the museum. And one woman who her name is Hannah. She’s a five time para Olympic champion, and she said that Eureka is unique. “Children are just free to go out and explore”, and she wrote, “you’re having fun, great fun, but you’re also learning.” And then many quotes like that from adults now who remember their days. And as I said, my final destination was in Denmark at the Lego house in Denmark and my host there was a wonderful gentleman. Brilliant kind, joyful, gentle. And showed me so many things. Lego’s been doing this for 90 years, and I mentioned Legos on this mission to promote, play and play based learning. So we are there. But one quote I share that inspired me as well from the Lego Museum. And you’ll find these words around the Lego House as well. “Only the best is good enough”. It means we will always strive to do better year after year because the children of this world. How’s that for inspiration!

Angie Judge: What a beautiful note to end on. Thank you so much, Arthur, for sharing all of those incredible worldviews on how learning is changing in different cultures in different places and what we are doing to, uh, further that in the museum field. It’s very, very inspirational.

Arthur Affleck: Can I share one last quote?

Angie Judge: Oh, go ahead.

Arthur Affleck: So I want to leave us with the words of the great Frederick Douglas. Frederick Douglas said “it is far easier to build strong children than to, than to repair broken men and women”. And so let us together work on early learning on play and play based learning to build strong, healthy, productive children, so we won’t have to try to prepare broken men and women, which doesn’t work so well. So thank you and Angie for your time. And I enjoyed so much talking.

Angie Judge: Likewise, a fantastic conversation. Thank you so much, Arthur.

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Contemporary product culture with Veronika Gower from Dexibit

Contemporary product culture with Veronika Gower from Dexibit

Dexibit’s Product Director Veronika Gower talks about contemporary best practices for product management in technology/digital first organizations, and what these mean for company culture and ways of working, drawing on her experiences at Dexibit.


Angie: Hi, and welcome to the Data Diaries with Dexibit, I’m Angie, and today I’m sitting down with Veronika Gower, who is our Product Director and Veronika has got a really fascinating history, started off life as a child psychologist. Have I got this right?
Veronika: Yes. A behavior therapist.
Angie: My goodness. And then launched into the world of technology and software. And actually before Dexibit worked for a company called Vista with their business unit Movio who do analytics for movie theatres, and now is in the world of visitor attractions, which isn’t all that dissimilar really. Thank you for joining me and welcome.

So the work of product teams has come a long way in the past few years from sort of silo days where business analysts would write requirements away and hand them to a developer who then ships code eventually into test. Why is it so important that we don’t work like that in that fashion anymore, when we are in the business where technology is our product?
Veronika: I think it comes down to the fact that you have different people in different roles. So you’ve got product, you’ve got design, you’ve got engineering and all of these people are keys to you making a product and you need all three in the same room talking about the same problem, approaching it from different perspectives in order to come up with a really good solution that’s viable, feasible, and desirable. So me as a product person, I cannot sit there on my own and come up with a solution, come up with the idea, test the idea with a customer, and then just hand it off to engineering and then ask them to build it because I don’t really know the underlying structure of the code, how complex something is, but also I don’t have an engineering perspective that would guide me and challenge my thinking. And that engineering perspective from a different view… because I come from product and I’m conditioned to think in a certain way, reading the product books that I read. And that’s the whole beauty of having people from different departments, with different roles coming together and using their different perspectives to talk about a problem and idea together.
Angie: So, this is sort of the idea of product trio, is it?
Veronika: Correct. I’ve actually never worked in the way where you only had a product or business analyst defining requirements, and then just passing it off to engineering. I came through the new way of working, which is you have this holy trio, triangle. You have a designer, you have product and you have an engineering tech lead with you at all times. And that’s exactly what we do here at Dexibit. Just to give you an example, we had a customer request to add filters to our visualization so that customers will be able to save these filters of different things they want to do, so they wouldn’t have to add different attributes, they can just save it as a filter and then they just click on that filter and they add it again and they don’t have to keep selecting all the 10 different things they want. Very simple, and then I started chatting to engineering about this. I’m like, “Hey guys, we’re thinking of doing this” and straight away, they were like, “By the way that filters are very complex for our ticketing system because of X, Y, Z. And the underlying architecture that we have from a legacy system in relation to ticketing is complex and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” So this work that I thought would be, you know, so very simple for this one data source was very, very complex.
Angie: So you’re kind of solutioning on the fly as you’re understanding the discovery, at the same time.
Veronika: Yeah exactly. So the feasibility of your thinking of what you want to do, impacts what you will do and what you can do. Because you don’t want to be in a situation where design or products have spent months thinking about a problem, if it’s a really big problem, chatting to customers about it, and then only at the very end coming to engineering to understand that, “Oh, this is not even possible. This technology doesn’t even exist for us.” So that’s why you have engineering from the very beginning of problem design.
Angie: What were those things that you talked about? Feasible, desirable, viable?
Veronika: Yeah. So viable in terms of the business perspective, is this something that we want to be building? Is it aligned with our strategy? Where do we want to go as a company? Is it desirable by our customers? Will it add value for our customers? Is it solving some of their key problems that they have? And then always feasible. Is it technically possible for us to do this, given the technologies that we have, or the technologies that are available to us? So you’re constantly addressing these three things, desirability, feasibility, and viability.
Angie: Making decisions around an iterative movement through those things as well, rather than just one big lump sum sort of move as a product at the end?
Veronika: Yeah. It’s sort of trade offs and evaluations, depending on things. So you could have something that’s technically feasible, but very difficult, but it adds such great desirability and value to our customers that, you know, we still want to spend the time doing it. It’s still worth it to go down that route.
Angie: Like that automation for us.
Veronika: Exactly. Very big project, technically challenging. In terms of feasibility, but the value that it will add to our customers, but also the future of our product and where it could go is enormous. And so it’s definitely worth us investing in that.
Angie: So the three of you, product, design and engineering are kind of all making decisions individually together as a team at the same time, by understanding each other’s words and sort of moving through the problem space and solutioning.
Veronika: That’s right. Yeah. And I think to me, that’s the definition of collaboration. And so I would absolutely hate and caution, anyone else working in siloed on their own and not talking and getting those different perspectives.
Angie: Unfortunately, I do have memories of working in a waterfall basis that was what I used to do as a business analyst back 15 years ago. I worked for Hewlett Packard and that’s how IT was done back then. It was sort of before this emergence of, you know, product thinking and, and really sort of product practice. And we did do all of those things. We would spend three months writing requirements with a business without talking to anybody from a technical pathway only to get to the end and find out how hard and big and long these things were. And we would end up sort of with these huge phase approaches that would span multiple years and it would be forever before we shipped anything out. It was crazy.
Veronika: Oh no, that sounds like my personal hell to be honest.
Angie: It’s the way things are done back then, I suppose. So what does that sort of cross functional team look like here?Given the different skills that we need in Dexibit, particularly with data engineering and data science being involved in that picture as well, when we’re delivering?
Veronika: Because we are foremost data company not everybody will have data analysts, data science or data engineers. And depending on the team that we have, so generally you have, you know, backend engineer, frontend engineer, design product. But for us, depending on the team, for example, one of our teams is insights, which is tasked with looking after an area of the product or anything related to the product that delivers visualizations, deep insights, forecasting for our customers. Not so much the experience inside the product, such as you know, how you send an email, how you do reporting, that we have a separate team that looks after that…
Angie: Obsessing over the calendar….
Veronika: … Obsessing over the calendar functionality, the filter functionality. So we actually have data scientists who also feed into that depending on the project that we’re doing. So if we are looking at how to improve our forecast or what we want to do with our forecast, we absolutely have a data scientist who come in on that team and helps us work through the problems and solutions that are possible.
Angie: I think it’s one of the exciting things about here is that at Dexibit being a data product, there are these sort of unique things that come with that land that you do not run into in your general sort of software as a service kind of ecosystem, in other companies. There are very specific things that we encounter that there is not the way things are done already coming out of Silicon Valley or out of the SaaS or tech industry generally, where you can pick up and say, this is how that’s done. You kind of have to work it out as you go along in sort of incorporating data science into a cross functional team or data analysis into a cross functional team is kind of part and parcel of that piece, isn’t it?
Veronika: That’s right. It’s new territory. And you know, we run into issues in terms of how is the best way to structure that, to work with data science and which projects, you know, do we involve them? So it’s definitely an evolving space for us. It’s a learning for us, and there’s just no material out there. And I’ve talked to other data scientists in other companies as well. And they come up with the same problem to be like, there’s no blueprint. It’s a new area of having, you know, data science in product.
Angie: Inventing the way of working as we are.
Veronika: Yeah. Which is an exciting opportunity.
Angie: So that kind of brings us quite nicely into understanding how sort of the research horizons of data science, which when you’re thinking about not for academic pursuit, because we are a commercial company, but when you’re sort of thinking about sort of general research for innovation and progressing that bar forward, how that blends with the roadmap horizons that we think about in product management. How do you kind of make those two worlds sing together?
Veronika: It’s something that we are working on and trying to figure out a better way of working together. But what we want to try and what we’re implementing is, like a three phase approach. There are, if you think of data scientists, they have to do operational things. They have to upkeep our forecasting and the project. And then other project they’re working right now is update dating our machine learning pipelines, a big project.
Angie: This is the Data Bricks thing.
Veronika: Yeah. Data Bricks is so huge, but you know, all these things need to be done, operational things that data science are responsible for and need to do. Then you have data science contributing directly to product outcomes like short term or medium term where they’re working on customer problems. That are, short term horizons, I would say not green field thinking, not that deep research where you don’t know what’s possible, what’s not possible.
As a product company, if you want to focus on those green fields, you probably only wanna dedicate like 10% of your time in that space, because you do have to deliver results and value to the company and your customers. So for us, yeah, we have a roadmap of the things they should be working on in terms of product. I think being very close to product is really important. Right now, there’s nothing that they’re working on for us in terms of very short horizon, but they are working on a medium term horizon and that’s to have a unified industry insight for us. So for us, we have all these lovely customers around the world from different venues within their traction sector. And so we are able to get that data and if we can learn from that data of what how visitation impact like works for that specific, sector within our attraction industry. So if we can figure out how all these art galleries function from, you know, within New York or within certain area of America, and then they can benchmark themselves for a specific gallery. How amazing would that be? So then they can compare and say, “okay, well, everybody else is here. Their visitation is 20% around this time, but we’re actually below that mark, what does that mean for us? Why is everybody else 20% above us? What’s happening for them and what’s not happening for us.” And that actually was inspired from our customer feedback. So a lot of our customers want to benchmark and understand what is happening in the industry, around their space and globally too. That’s a very big problem for them, and they’re not able to solve it themselves because they don’t have access to their data, but we do. And so it’s a very exciting project for us.
Angie: So that unified model sort of both helps us increase the accuracy for individual venues and predict things that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to predict if they were new or novel for that venue. and delivers benchmarking value across the industry, like we’re seeing for Recovery Index.
Veronika: Yeah, exactly for Recovery Index, but you can then take it onto so many other levels, not just visitation, you can do anything.
Angie: And one of the interesting things I think about that, those data science horizons as well is that you’ve got also this sort of data, operations of data science, which from a product perspective in SaaS, you kind of don’t really have that anywhere else. Right? Like in SaaS, you build product, you ship it and then you support it, but you don’t sort of ‘operate’ it. And with machine learning, you, can’t kind of just build a machine learning model, set it free into the wild and never look at it again. Every week you need to continuously improve forecast accuracy and integrity and validity, particularly in a time like post COVID, where things are changing so much. And there might be like new features that pop up or things that change or need to adjust the scope of that data and constantly experiment with that. So that’s kind of a new horizon of more like… current and present, in addition to your medium and long, and sort of research horizons as well.
Veronika: That’s right. And that’s only relevant for a company that does use data and has data. So many other software products. I have to think about this. But it is an area that constantly has to be looked at and thought of for example, recently, we saw another forecast falling, not recently, but you know, a few months back. And then the data science team were like, what could we do to make it better? And they looked at different factors and, you know, they tried COVID as being one of the variables and that was actually a great variable to use. And now we’ve implemented that into our machine learning. COVID a factor that helps our models predict better. Again, if you’re not constantly looking and innovating, that specific area, then very quickly it can go down. It’s like a little baby that’s constantly growing and looking after.
Angie: And so what about the topology of product teams? So what goes into the decisions around how you sort of structure your product teams here?
Veronika: I think there’s many ways you could go in that area, theoretically. What we’ve done is we’ve just looked at our product areas. You know, given the size of where we are at right now, what’s happening with the product, and we’ll just cut it up into three teams in terms of product teams. So, as I mentioned before, I think so we have the Experience team that looks after the overall experience of our customers entering the product, doing certain functions, like sending emails, how they’re using the studio, like their overall experience, how can we make it easy for them? How can we make the product more intuitive for them? How can we save them time with our product? And then we have another team that’s Insights team, and that’s focused on answering their key questions that they have of the data. How can we make data inspired. How can we help them visualize their data in a way that makes them have insights and brings value to them? And then comes on the experience to be like both very easy and intuitive and everything else, and yeah answering those other questions. So, you know, to be for a marketing team, what metrics do you need to know? What metrics should you be tracking, or what should you be measuring in that space to be successful? So that’s the insights team. And then we have our team of Automation, and that looks after our ingestion pipelines and everything that happens within like a data product, you know, how data comes in, how it’s integrated, how it’s transformed. So that’s a huge, huge piece for us, a crucial piece.
Angie: So it’s sort of building a new data automation platform underneath all of the app that everybody sort of interacts with as users.
Veronika: Correct. That’s a project that that team is working on right now. You’re building an entire data processing system.
Angie: So you wrote an article recently on our blog about our ways of working in product at Dexibit and you made a mention in there of all of these sorts of things around not working in silos and having your product trio and your cross functional teams and blending the research horizons for data science and finding out the right topology and all these sorts of things. And you connected all of that, that ways of working in products to our team satisfaction. And you had some really interesting findings there. What was that all about? Where does that idea come from of, of that connection?
Veronika: So when I first joined Dexibit I noticed that there was some inefficiencies and a lot of chaos in this space. Obviously Dexibit didn’t have a product owner before I joined. So a lot of the teams were unsure of the overall roadmap or of why they were doing something. The work wasn’t broken down enough for projects. So then the teams could not give a realistic estimate to the business of how long something would take. So then if they would say, “oh, it’s a small project,” because it wasn’t broken down enough when you start digging, it turned out into very large projects, which then the business, you know, didn’t think it would be as large and then potentially wouldn’t have made that decision to work on that specific feature had the business really known how big it was versus what the value that it would deliver for us. And so then there’s frustrations between the business and the engineers and people feeling a bit stressed, like, “Oh goodness, I can’t deliver on this now.” And feeling under the pump, because they’ve said that they could do it. And so I think that’s kind of the key of coming in, putting all these processes in place, best practice, to just ensure that there is that clarity and that process. And it’s well managed and expectations are well managed and we de-risk projects so that we do know what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, how we going to do it? Again, bringing engineers. You know, and solution architect in earlier on to help us design that solution before going ahead and just building it.
Angie: And there’s been a huge uptick in our team satisfaction as a result.
Veronika: Yeah, so we do these surveys within the company. And so it was amazing to see people like, you know, saying, you know, how clear are you on the outcomes or just team sentiment? Like their happiness and yeah, it was just amazing to see.
Angie: You’ve implemented this sort of dual track, agile product development process, and that’s all connected to this idea of pulling in people earlier into planning and doing that discovery and delivery, often simultaneously. What’s the sort of TL;DR… Too long, didn’t read story on how that all works and mechanisms of that?
Veronika: So in practical terms, that means we are actually building features and we’re planning for features that we’re going to build next at the same time.
Angie: So you’re holding both in your hands.
Veronika: You’re holding both in your hands. And there’s just different stages at which you involve which engineers. So we have the trio that does all the initial planning. And then you have the rest of your team engineers who are building the product, the feature that they’ve already broken down, we’ve sized this all up. We have the solution design for it. That’s fine. That’s happening. And then when we are ready, when the trio is ready, we bring in the engineering team that will be working on the next feature and we ask them to take a look at it, to think, to elaborate it, to start breaking it down. So then they’re building something and breaking something down so that by the time they’ve finished one feature, we have the next one really broken down, greater understanding of it. And that way they see what’s coming up, they’re aware of the work. And then we as a business, understand the complexity of that work. So then we can provide better clarity to the rest of the stakeholders of what that entails what’s possible. Which really helps our roadmap and communication with customers.
Angie: One of the things I’ve noticed in the last year or two since you’ve been implementing all these changes and particularly under your leadership and Daniel’s has been this introduction of continuous discovery and a huge amount, more investment in the energy that we spend in discovery before we embark upon delivery. And I saw a really cute quote on that on Twitter or something over the weekend around the fact that as a company, you do that discovery, and you either do it consciously at the start before you start delivering, or you do it subconsciously during delivery, which costs you a huge amount more, or you do it after you ship a product and no, but you have to do it at some point, right? I think that that’s been one of the biggest changes that I’ve noticed is really the amount earlier that we are doing that discovery and really testing out our, our ideas before we start developing. And that has meant that everything we’ve shipped has been beautifully designed, beautifully validated and tested out and has great features that immediately has a lot of uptake for adoption and usage that we see immediately, as opposed to prior where we sort of, almost tested out quite a lot of ideas in live product which probably had a lot more investment in them. And then we ended up with kind of a scramble of things that we had to unpack afterwards, because there was a lot of unproven ideas in there.
Veronika: Yeah, that happens really often for a lot of companies that I have had that experience myself as well, if things are not planned out. And I think one of the core things that causes that is rushing or just not having somebody to manage expectations or these products or the sizing of them. You have to have that space. And as you’ve mentioned, Angie that practice to be like, “no, no, no, before we build a single line of code we are going to do the research upfront about it. We’re going to think about this problem. We’re going to understand this problem. And then if at the end of it, we decide we’re not gonna do it, then we’re not gonna do it.” But yeah, no single line of code should be written before we’ve had that discussion.
Angie: Yeah cause we’ve always like capacity is a great example of this. Capacity is something that we tackled pre COVID because we have customers that deal with capacity problems that are long standing, you know, that just have more visitors than they can fit in their venues. Then we encountered capacity again, through COVID, particularly at the height of the pandemic where everybody was capacity controlled by government decree. And then we’ve sort of got the life life after COVID capacity controls for people who are retaining that, or maybe have special interests for particular exhibitions or events or whatever it might be. So we’ve kind of had three bites at the apple of pulling off capacity. And if I look at the discovery experiences of all three, they are really different in terms of the work we’ve done and the product that is resulting, or the solution concept that results from that is far superior now to, you know, that first thing that we put out in the market, which to be honest, I don’t think anybody used versus now something that’s, you know, quite ingrained with the operations of many different attractions. But it is really cool to see, but an awful example, if you like, of, of things that we’ve had to throw out because of, we didn’t invest enough in, in our discovery
Veronika: And look, I don’t think you can always build products and always get it right?

Angie: Yeah. That’s so true.

Veronika: Yeah, absolutely. There’s no such thing as perfection. But what we aim to do, and especially a passion of mine is just to reduce the risk for the business. So then if I know we’re following the best processes that I’ve seen work, and many of my other teammates have seen work, you know, if we do our due diligence and we do the best that we can, then we just de-risk that issue and, you know, deliver real value for our customers. And if we don’t get it right, sometimes that’s okay. We can see where did it go wrong? Well, why is this not a value? That’s very powerful.
Angie: And what does that customer discovery look like? Particularly, I know again, if we come back to Dexibit being a data product, and Daniel talked a little bit about the sort of recent industry presentation that he did, where it’s really hard to test out for a data product, whether somebody is actually having that light bulb moment of going, “Hey, I understand that I took away insight. I’ve gained value. That’s gonna help me make a decision in a different way. That’s been informed by this.” How easy is it for them to get to that from a data product? How difficult is it for us to test that that’s happening with a user as opposed to your standard old SaaS product? That feels like it’s, it’s a real complex world in there.
Veronika: Yeah, absolutely. Especially when you take the fact that so even if they understood the insight and gained value from it, there’s no way that we can measure they acted on that insight because they’re acting and those operational strategic decision making happen outside of our product, you know, because of our data. Did they change how many people they scheduled on for the month of June? Yeah. We have no way of tracking that. So that makes it difficult. But we do have monthly business reviews with our customers. So through those conversations, our customer success is able to probe and ask and have those conversations to help us out in that space. And also in terms of just testing new ideas and prototypes, we ran into this problem. I didn’t realize how much, how difficult it is to test new concepts when it comes to data stories with customers. And so what we learned is that we have to have the right customer for that data story. So for example, we have data visualizations for revenue. If we have new insights about revenue, we wanna share with those customers and get their feedback. There is no point showing that to a person who’s not interested in revenue, doesn’t work with revenue. But we must get the person from the finance team to take a look at that insight and see if it is valuable for them. Did it give them something new to walk away with? Can they make a decision based on this information? So absolutely getting the right person to look at that data and also giving them time and space to look at it. It is something that doesn’t happen within a second. They do need time. And so we came out with the concept of the experiment module. We will input these new visualizations and insights and data stories. Let the right customer know, “Hey, this is available for you. Please take a look.” And then later we follow up with questions so that they could take a look at it on their own. Without us there because ultimately…
Angie: Pressure to understand something in the moment. Isn’t it? When everybody’s watching your reaction?
Veronika: Yeah, exactly. And plus I, I’m not going to be there holding their hand when they’re using the product. None of us are going to be there. So we want to design a product that can stand on its own so that we have the right experience, the right health documentation, the right visualizations. That customers can get the value themselves without us.
Angie: So it’s kind of a, a live data prototype. If you like to test out this feasible, viable, desirable type side of things, to make sure that we can, using their real data, show them something that’s an insight of value, as opposed to kind of the traditional way of testing discovery, where you show somebody a mock up. It’s very different, isn’t it?
Veronika: That’s right. Yes. So the key, I didn’t mention here that it has to be their live data too. The nuances of that customer’s business rules need to be taken into consideration to see what was happening with their live data when we input this in whether with other products that have worked on, or like, you know, you think about an email editor An email editor is the same for any customer makes no difference. What data you have, what data you don’t have. It’s a simple function, the same, everywhere. But when you’re talking about revenue, they have different business rules. They, you know, some want to see very granular business line like item line, you know, chips versus somebody who wants to see just cafe data. Two very different concepts.
Angie: Yeah. It’s one of those, again, those sort of unique circumstances of data products that there’s not the playbook for how to do this. So this is one of the things that you all have discovered is important.
Veronika: Right. And I’m just so fortunate we have Daniel who just guides that process and helps us.
Angie: And so take me through what’s next for the product culture here at Dexibit.
Veronika: I think we want to continue down the route of best practice and then bringing everybody onto that journey, especially as we have new staff members joining and growing not everybody comes from the same experience, knowledge, skill set in terms of how to build data products. So I think it’s important that, yeah, we align everybody and explain to everybody of why we’re doing something, how we’re doing it, how we’re building products at Dexibit, you know, what kind of practices we want to implement, why we have the dual track of delivery and discovery, why we have the product trio, why we talk to our customers, why we take a customer approach and we don’t just product designing something that they thought up without talking to a customer or an engineer just going away and doing something without talking to product or a customer.
Angie: So you’ve sort of got this people integration challenge when newbies join of first of all, inducting them into these practices of product and then sort of adding on the data products layer of our thesis, of how those practices apply in a, in a world of data products where these challenges like live data prototypes. And then you’ve gotta layer over the fact that we’re doing that in an enterprise market. So we do that in different ways when we’re working with our customers,
Veronika: Correct, yeah. It is quite different. Again, you know, if you’re working for a product that’s not enterprise or what, you know, $5 a month. Yeah. Very different. Processes that you would have and the scale at which you would sell, everything’s just different, the business model’s different, how you develop, how you can test, very different.
Angie: Well, I’m so excited about where things are at at the moment. The product, but also the product culture here has come so far in the last, you know, year alone. And you know, when I think about where it’s gonna be and another year from here, it’s very exciting to look into the future and see all these ideas of what a post modernization ,post modern, if I can use those words in an app podcast looks like for us.
Veronika: Absolutely. Absolutely. I just, yeah, I think we just have a great team. Everybody here is so engaged. So it makes my work really easy. And yeah, just everybody understands and is willing to listen, willing to change, you know, I just love that.
Angie: Very cool. Thank you for joining me for a cap of hot lemon on this cold winters morning.
Veronika: Thank you, Angie.

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Leading the data agenda with Baku Hosoe from The Met

Leading the data agenda with Baku Hosoe from The Met

Setting up a data function in your visitor attraction? Join Baku Hosoe, Head of Data and Analytics at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, to hear about the origins and evolution of The Met’s data program and Baku’s takeaways for structuring, hiring and enabling a data team.


Angie: Over in the past few years, the world of data and visitor attractions has come a very long way. So joining me today for our next episode of the Data Diaries is one of its leaders of data analytics doing that work on the ground in one of the world’s biggest cultural institutions I have with me, Baku Hosoe, the head of data analytics at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Welcome Baku!
Baku: Thank you for having me.
Angie: Baku, you came into the museum field from a consulting background. How does analytics and visitor attractions compare to what you’ve seen in industries like finance, telco and pharma?
Baku: Yes. It was a very different from what I was accustomed to. In many ways it is much more difficult to think about analytics in visitor attractions perhaps because when we think about people’s decision to visit a museum, it is not a transactional thing, it is something that’s deeply emotional and many of our visitors come with high expectations, leave with great satisfactions and often repeat. And so it is even more important than ever, and in a way, very difficult to understand the rich and nuanced experience of each of our visitors and derive insights on how we can improve.
Angie: And it’s always sat pretty close to the executive, the data function at the Met – and from memory at your board level as well. What was some of the origins and the drivers that were behind the data initiative?
Baku: It has certainly been a multi-year effort. There has always been strong interest from all around both internal leaders, as well as board members and even some of the donors have also pinged the institution about what we’re doing with data and how we’re improving the use of data. They all felt the need to invest in this area, which actually helped create my position as well.

It can be seen as a bit of a reflection to go along with the changes in board structure as well. One of the key changes they have made in recent years was to form a revenue committee, which is really aiming at improving the visitor experience all around. And that goes hand in hand with the creation of the data team to have visibility across all the data silos and business unit silos and provide the best in class experience across all the aspects of the interaction with the Met to our visitors, because ultimately whether they show up at the stores or visit the Museum or go to the concert or go on to become members and participate in different live events, they’re all the same people. And it is really important to have a holistic view about each and every one of them. 
Angie: And it’s such a wonderful thing to see, data championed at such a high level. I think it’s one of the key factors for success that we’ve seen in visitor attractions is that it really does need to come from the C level, if not even higher, and so fabulous that the whole board, is on board so to speak, at that level at the Met.
How has your role  evolved over the course of the last few years?
Baku: For one thing to state the obvious, COVID has thrown a wrench into our plan for sure. I have a stepped away from data to work on COVID related project management around the closure and reopening. But putting that aside I would say that my overarching responsibility has remained the same, which is to be the change agent and in a way, an evangelist for the use of data to derive the insights and to inform decisions and actions throughout the museum. But tactically speaking for the first year, I’d say much of my activities or around building things, creating reports, doing things for people. And compared to that, lately things shifted more to influencing or enabling people throughout the organization. That is definitely a one noticeable change that has happened.
And at the same time I think some of the key priorities or focus area have widened. It hasn’t shifted, but just widened, in that for the beginning, it was really important to show visible and measurable ROI through the pure focus on the revenue and audience. But now there are much more efforts around how to improve the operations internally through the use of data, how best to utilize the rich collections data that we have and how to establish the governance structure and a community mentality fostering  the data culture throughout the Met.

These are all the areas that have become important almost if not more than the revenue from.
Angie: That last piece is so interesting to me, the way that the focus has widened over the years, because in many cultural and institutions that we see, the focus has actually gone the other way recently with COVID, that they had started out a few years ago with a really broad scope with data. And we tend to encourage people to get narrow in the first instance, when they’re starting to work with data, but in sort of the post COVID months that we’re in at the moment, and that has become really hyper-focused on revenue. Which perhaps, for a lot of cultural institutions, isn’t something that they naturally would’ve started out with. So it was really interesting to see that your journey’s almost taken you in another direction at the Met over the past few years.
Baku: Yeah, it is certainly dependent on the institution. And I think what is happening at the Met in particular is that with the COVID and with the macro trends around the labor force, we are all asked to do more with less.
And when we think about that, it is very important to be efficient, effective, and really be able to prioritize and focus on what matters. There are technologies out there that help us do it, but there wasn’t as much impetus on required being required to do so. And COVID has changed the formula. And I think people are much more excited about having a better way to improve the way we work and the way we manage our work through data that is a driving force behind the broadening of the scope, so to speak.
Angie: So there’s an efficiency layer to that as well as there.
Baku: Absolutely.
Angie: And you make a really good point around data governance, right? That is also a piece that we see as being a really, really important part of the sort of best practice equation and cultural institutions. Because a lot of the work of data is finding out where it came from and making sure that the critic business rules are applied and making sure everybody knows what those things are. And then managing for things like privacy and security and the validity of data as well, and its integrity. Is that what that work comprises for you at the time?
Baku: Absolutely. It really is about having a more explicit structure and also a centralized focus on those areas. All the industrial changes, regulatory changes that are happening around us, impact all of us and influence how we think about collecting, storing, using data. And yet in the past, many of the data users within the Museum were operating more in silos. And there were at subscale when it comes to thinking about all the global changes that are happening. So it was all the more important to create a governance structure and committee that actually look at these things and ensure there is the right level of access, for the right reasons. And keeping transparency and above all, staying in compliance with regulatory changes… an environment, that’s constantly in change.
Angie: And one of the things I think is really interesting. You’ve you’ve built your data department up to include a few people and cross-functional roles as well from across the Museum.
I know a lot of other attractions are really busy hiring data roles at the moment, and it might include their first data roles, or somebody like yourself. But, in your view, what sorts of roles are most useful to hire and what order should they hire?
Baku: I personally think there’s no one right answer that fits for everyone. As we think about data as a function, it is still in the early stage of maturity curve, unlike other established business functions like HR, finance or IT. And I think for many of the institutions, the resource limitations, and really the degree of ambition surrounding the data topic, dictate how best to structure.
Angie: So Baku, coming back to this org structure of how you approach data, what are your thoughts on outsourcing versus insourcing for that function? One of the sort of elements that go into that decision?

Baku: Again, I think there’s really no one right answer that fits all in this particular one. One of the things that I needed to do early on as I started my role was to really evaluate our internal capabilities that existed at the time and how data was structured. And what we found for ourselves was that our data resources existed. But they were scattered throughout the organization and the types of tools they used, the level of capabilities when it comes to data topics, were all at different levels. And more importantly, there wasn’t any conversation across that data resources, because they’re all reporting into different organizations. So when thinking about the design overall, the two main questions we asked was: one, whether to centralize or decentralize data capabilities and two, how much to insource versus outsource. And I think the question is applicable to any institutions who are thinking about the design, but the right answer would be very different depending on both the reality of the organization, as well as the resource limitations and ambitions for the data function in the institution. On the questions or centralization versus decentralization, it really comes down to how different are the types of insights that are needed to be effective for particular areas. And what we found was that there is a very significant difference between say, a retail department versus a fundraising department, versus membership department. So the way we’re approaching it is that there is still a component of centralization, through my team sitting at the data analytics office, but we also have very specialized data resources in some of the key departments. And we all work together in the area where the consistency makes sense, but otherwise have developed very focused capabilities on how best to deliver insights for that particular department. And similarly on the questions of insourcing and outsourcing, outsourcing works effectively when there is not enough in sort of in house capabilities to build it from scratch. Whereas insourcing works flexibly when you already have resource who can handle that. So it does really come down to the scale of your organization and the resource availability as well, too, to decide whether to invest in particular area or not. And for us, we are definitely doing the mixture of it. So in some of the areas, we have more than one data analysts who are really going deep into to utilizing AI, machine learning, to deriving insights themselves in an in sourced fashion. In some other areas, we utilize outsource vendor for both the creation and analysis of the data. So there really isn’t one solution fits all, but really dependent on the reality of your organism.
Angie: It’s great to hear that, that such a conscious decision for you, because I think this is such an important question that is often really skipped over in favor of just talking about the solutions, rather than being a strategic one. And one of my favorite pieces of advice that I was given a long time ago on this question was to insource or to build the things that are unique to your organization. And then to outsource, or to buy the things that are common in your industry, so that you sort of concentrate your investment into the areas that make your organization special. And it sounds very much similar to some of the things that you’ve been doing at the Met. Because the total cost of ownership of some of these data solutions can be… when everything is built in house… can become incredibly, incredibly heavy to bear for one organization, when you think about maintaining something, and as, as you’ve mentioned before, going through a roadmap of, of developing something over over a period of time as well.
Baku: I cannot agree more with your statement there. One of the things that we have to realize is that as, as cultural institutions the Met is obviously one of the bigger players in the space, but even we are subscale for many of the things. And when we think about the industry at large, there’s a tremendous value in having an outsource vendor who can scale more effectively for the type of topics that impact and influence everybody as you noted.
Angie: Whereas something like collections data is going to be so unique for each organization. You know, it’s something that differs so broadly between say an art museum versus a history museum versus a science museum. And, you know, at that point there is sort of no productized approach to it is there.

And what about the sort of attributes and skills we should look for in data hires. What do you see as being the best people to get for the job?
Baku: I think, generally speaking, there are two elements to think about. One is about the business skills. And the second one is about technical skills. And really it is a question of, what’s the status with data champions, so to speak, within the organization, in terms of what should be the focus or priority in each. To elaborate further on this, I think I believe strongly that one of the most important thing is to have one data champion within your organization, fairly high up so that, they can have both visibility into what the institutional priorities are, but also to be able to channel and provide the best findings, the most useful findings from data initiatives, to the senior leaders within the institution. And this person’s key role is to really elevate data to insights, and then to tell a story that would then influence decisions and actions at the most important levels. And that really comes from having a robust understanding of the business and being able to talk and engage at the board and the management though.
Angie: That’s such a hard trade-off, isn’t it, that a lot of attractions have to make. If they can only get one hire. Is that sort of an analyst? Do they then bury that in the finance department or marketing department or something similar, ticketing, et cetera? Or is that a leader, that can then show that venue and help connect as you say, the business with the data, to turn data into insights and to really start to prove that right.
Baku: It is certainly a hard decision. But I do again, think that when it comes to to data, the reality is that I think most institutions have very rich data already. And if you look at the market, there are tons and tons of analysts as well as many excellent services and vendors and tools and softwares that allow you to do most anything. But what you need to have is somebody who can help guide prioritization of where to focus and to use these tools in the right way. Otherwise you just drown in the sea of options and choices and resources. So you have to start with the data champion and from the there, you make a more difficult trade off in decisions of the second person you hire, how much focus to put on the technical skills versus business skills.
Angie: Speaking of that champion, a big part of that job, I imagine is really encouraging adoption and usage, rather than sort of simply bringing data to people to give it to them, but rather sort of teaching them how to fish for themselves. For your internal users of data at the Met, how have you gone about that?
Baku: I think it really starts with showing a bit of a proof of concept on what ‘good’ looks like. So, what I try to do is to keep mind of an understanding of who are going to be important stakeholders who will be using data in depth. We can first take on a bite size project and do more of the building process through the centralized data team, but then show, really illustrate the value that we can provide through this. Once there’s a buy-in on this, I think generally speaking, there’s a lot more willingness to learn and adopt and invest in that area from each of those areas. So we would then work with them to focus more on the enablement and training element, as opposed to doing it for them. That’s generally the sequencing of it, but all of this needs to start with being able to show actual values to start out. And that goes back to having a conversation and really good understanding of what the key questions are for each of the areas, what the problems they’re trying to solve, what are the hypothesis they have about the opportunities? And really proving or disproving them through the use of data.
Angie: It’s such sage advice for everybody in this area is  distilling things down into problems and then questions and then hypothesis, or even in some cases, assumptions that people might be making that need to be proven right or wrong.

What about developing data literacy? How have you approached that?
Baku: One of the key things on the data literacy throughout the organization is accessibility and also providing how to read and utilize insights. So to give a tangible example, we’ve created a automated dashboards and reports, which is now actually open, not just to the senior leaders of the organization, if we used to receive such reports, but also to a broader set of people within the institution including mid-level managers and sometimes even all staff. And the key is never to just distribute reports in PDF format and help people take a read, but to accompany with presentation Q and A’s, some sort of sessions to engage them in both describing and having them truly understand the takeaways, but also having them an opportunity to lead to ‘so what’ of findings. That kind of effort takes a lot of time, but it pays dividends in really making people pay more attention to it and having a better understanding and actually having them create more questions and requests that help us make better decisions. So it helps everybody to increase the awareness and understanding and interest curiosity around data.

Angie: It’s funny, isn’t it, it’s sort of that moment when you bring data and insight to a group and you walk away with more actions and questions… it’s actually the successful outcome that you aimed for, rather than everybody sort of smiling and nodding and saying, great, let’s move on. So the work has sort of never done, is it?
Baku: Absolutely. That’s the, that’s the blessing and the curse of the role for sure.
Angie: And what sort of changes have you seen in how your team communicate with each other or collaborate over data or how they make decisions or their team culture? What sort of impacts have you seen with this work?
Baku: I think we’re still certainly in the middle of the journey on this one and by no means  we’re done with this sort of transformation. But one thing I do really enjoy seeing is that people often have conversation at the beginning of the project, or a fairly early on in the project, to discuss how to evaluate and how to think about the success. I think so much of what people used to do was around – here’s a great idea. These are all the reasons to do it. Let’s do it and let’s discuss how to do it. But not so much on what, what does success look like? And numbers are not the only thing for sure. There is a qualitative and quantitative aspect to measuring success, but the fact that people are thinking ahead and thinking about that question as they design and come up with wonderful programs within the museum is very encouraging to me.
Angie: Speaking of that qualitative and quantitative view, I know you recently merged the visitor evaluation function at the Met into your data and analytics team. How do you see those worlds of that traditional qualitative world colliding or complimenting the more quantitative space of analytics and conversely, how does the technology of data analytics disrupt some of those more traditional approaches in that field?
Baku: Qualitative data compliments quantitative data in many ways, they go hand in hand, especially to tell a story. As we have previously talked about the importance of that. Numbers are very cold. There isn’t as much of a sense of feeling and emotions behind it. But once you compliment the quantitative analysis with the qualitative backups, you really put the actual human beings behind data.
And this helps both convey what really we’re finding and what are the things that we can do to improve people’s experience. And technologically speaking, there has been a tremendous progress in many areas, just from the way the world has shifted over the last several years. Couple of examples that really come to the top of my mind. First one is email collection. So COVID has really pushed us into approaching online ticket ticketing more fully. So prior to COVID, most of the people coming to the museum, didn’t buy tickets in advance. They just showed up and bought the tickets through the registers or kiosks. Now the majority of people purchase tickets prior to visiting the museum. And this actually allows us to collect contact information the emails, which allows us to conduct a much better post-visit surveys on follow-ups with our visitors. Turning to on site. The fact that there is a higher and more technologies are supporting on-site surveys, like iPad, the multilanguage surveys and just the sheer quick turnarounds of the findings and survey respondents to be able to derive insights quickly. It has been a game changer on speed to insight. And thinking a little bit about the qualitative data, the world of AI with natural language processing, to be able to analyze thousands, tens of thousands of customer feedbacks through the use of AI to categorize them and quantify even the quality of the comments have certainly allowed us to track what people are  thinking, and saying to us in much more efficient ways.
Angie: Natural language processing. It’s such a good example of how the qualitative and quantitative can come together, even if it is just a first pass, isn’t it? Because previously a lot of those comments would have to be manually coded from scratch by the visitor evaluation teams. So they have to go through and say if they positive or negative or what sort of topics and emotions are coming through and to be able to have that first pass where they can still go and confirm those things and, you know, obviously go and do a lot deeper surveys or processing to get their core takeaways of the meaning that people are giving across. But it does, it does help speed up that process of very manual labor. And focus the time of visitor evaluation on interpretation, as opposed to codifying.

Baku, what sort of obstacles have you had to overcome in executing data strategy?
Baku: I’d say, it was not quite an obstacle, but one thing that did come up as necessity is the, is the need to relentlessly prioritize and focus. There are almost too many things that can be done in the world of data and the museum. And it has really been important to create and maintain and update a multi-year roadmap with a clarity around what we’re focusing on this quarter and next quarter, and so on and so forth, as opposed to taking on all tasks and, and failing at all. This comes back to the resource constraints. If I had a team that’s 10 times as big, obviously we can do more in the shorter time. But just like any cultural institutions, we do have resource limitations. And that really requires us too to know what the focus and prioritization should be.

Angie: And what are some of the biggest challenges you see, if we are looking forward to the future, whether it’s at the Met or more broadly in the whole industry for all cultural institutions, can you leave us with your thoughts on where visitor attractions and working with data are headed?
Baku: Yeah, similarly, I think in general, there’s still a lot of uncertainties when it comes to data as a function, especially in the cultural institution or visitor attractions at large, there probably needs to be a little bit more time and cases being built from in this phase that we’re in with the evolution of the data as a function before we have a shared understanding across the industry of what good looks like. And here are the types of people to hire and here are the types of things people work on. And again, technology is already out there to really unlock value from data that exists, but there really isn’t a sufficient amount of, or availability of the talent and resources who can help bridge the gap between the technology and the cultural institutions, and have a holistic vision for data approach at large. So I think that that is the piece that the next several years will be a time for the industry to really develop and cultivate.
Angie: And it is going to be such a challenge, particularly with the tight labor market we’re in, at the moment as well, for the cultural sector to then compete with the commercial one. It’s going to be a very difficult challenge to address.
[Baku: Certainly agree. Looking at the bright side of it, including myself, I think I think of this as, as a truly, truly a big white space and opportunity for the like-minded people. I am reminded every day, how much value I could be delivering by unlocking values through data. And I’m always feeling constant feeling of need to do more and more and more because I know I can help the Museum make better decisions and actions by working on certain things. It’s just that, you know, there’s a limit to how much one can do in one day. But I do think the same applies for anybody within the institution. And the fact that it is still under developed, or still in the developing phase, really gives opportunity for the people to explore what they can do here in this particular industry, and the areas compared to some of the more well-established industries where the use of data is already codified and cleaned up. And there’s not much more exploration to be made.
Angie: It is fascinating, isn’t it? I think over the past, I think… five years, we have seen data go from experimental and sort of the early innovation of research and then into sort of proof of concepts and pilot projects. And now very much into evolving functions where the focus is on return and deriving value. And really seeing that sort of maturity of the industry, if you like in the data world, it’s an exciting phase to be in.

Baku: Absolutely. 

Angie: Baku, thank you so much for joining us today and for all of that fantastic advice for those people who are going to follow in your footsteps of becoming data leaders themselves and, and for the institutions that will follow in the footsteps of the Met in investing in that function and navigating all of the highs and lows you’ve no doubt been on over the past few years, particularly with the pandemic thrown in there. Really appreciate you joining us today and thank you so much for sharing that journey.
Baku: Thank you very much.

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A journey to reimagine the museum with Nancy Proctor from The Peale

A journey to reimagine the museum with Nancy Proctor from The Peale

Nancy Proctor weaves together two unique stories: her career intersecting entrepreneurship, academia and culture, with that of a radical vision for the Peale – the first museum in the US, currently undergoing transformation ahead of reopening (summer ’22). Set against a backdrop of the evolution of digital and now of culture in society, Nancy redefines the meaning of the museum as ‘a place where culture gets created’, with a community centric philosophy inverting the curatorial model.

Show notes

For more on The Peale visit: 


Angie: Well, hello and welcome to the Data Diaries. I’m Angie Judge from Dexibit here today with Nancy Proctor, entrepreneur, historian, and thought leader. Welcome Nancy. 

Nancy: Hi, Angie. Thanks for having me. 

Angie: Nancy is the Chief Strategy Officer and Founding Executive Director at The Peale, which is actually the first purpose built museum in the U.S. and now the center for Baltimore stories and a laboratory for cultural innovation too. And Nancy has a fascinating career history. She was previously Deputy Director of Digital Experience and Communications at the Baltimore Museum of Art, before that – Head of Mobile Strategy and Initiatives at the Smithsonian, Head of New Media and Initiatives at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, and has a PhD in American Art History, a background in filmmaking curation, feminist theory, and criticism in the arts and lectures and publishers on technology and innovation and museums impressively in French and Italian, as well, as English.

Outside of her cultural and academic work, Nancy and her husband Titus Bicknell co-founded The Gallery Channel in 1998, which was later acquired by Antenna Audio, where Nancy led product and sales for many years, going through the acquisition by discovery, coming into the Travel Channel.

Nancy, that sounds like the world’s most interesting career history to me. Can you take us back through that story of how that all got you to where you are today? This most amazing mix, this very unique blend of entrepreneurship and academia and commercial and cultural industry leadership. 

Nancy: Well I will definitely try to at the risk of perhaps being guilty of, as I say, I’m being asked what time it is and telling you how to build a clock. So I had a lot of different interests in life. I ended up for personal and strategic reasons more than academic ones, attending the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics.

Even though at that time, I really thought of myself more as a writer or certainly more of a creative humanities person, but it meant that I got to spend some formative years with serious scientists, and technologists. In particular people working with early computer coding and that kind of thing, and developed a huge appreciation for geeks, I guess and subject matter specialists of all sorts who are really passionate about what they do. I’ve tried to always follow my passion in my career and do the things that I found were most interesting to me. And indeed that kind of came through when I was working on programs for conferences like muse web or before that MCN and the Tate conference, when people would say, well, what do you want me to talk about?

I would always say, well, the thing that makes you the most passionate, the thing that you’re most interested in because that’s what’s going to engage others. And similarly, I always said, I will learn any subject matter as long as I have a great teacher. So that’s, I suppose, been the engine behind my journey.

It was just following my interests, but I’ve been very, very fortunate and not least at birth that although, you know, I don’t come from a terribly wealthy family or anything. I nonetheless was born white and able-bodied, in a country where I had certain safety nets, systems that meant that I could afford to take certain kinds of risks and have more or less gotten away with most of them.

I started out actually studying classics at university and I was paying my own way through college. So I was thinking about the economy and getting value for my money and realized I could get two majors for the price of one. So I was like, well, what would be a good second major to add onto classics?

It’s gotta be easy because classics is hard. And I perhaps naively decided that art history would be a good compliment because it was mainly sitting in a dark room, looking at pretty pictures. Subsequently I found out that there’s a lot more to art history than that, but I think the common denominator there is history and it’s only actually been fairly recently through my work with The Peale that I’ve realized that I really am inherently a historian.

And that’s because history is really stories and in romance languages. In fact, the word for history and story is the same. I just love the way those things came together. Early on I had some fantastic history teachers who taught by simply telling the stories of our past. So that was kind of one piece of the puzzle. I also very early on met the person who became my husband, Titus Bicknell and, and really my partner in, so many things in life. He too, came from a humanities background as a writer, a poet, something of a composer and musician but got very interested in early computing and had a roommate who was a computer science major and a potter.

So there’s this kind of pattern of finding one foot in the sciences and one foot in the arts and humanities. And so through Titus, I learned a little bit about early computing. I ended up doing a master’s degree at the university of Leeds, studying with Griselda Pollock that was feminism and the visual arts, try to apply some of the theory that I was studying to questions of what is a feminist art space, what is a feminist exhibition? What’s a feminist curatorial practice. But of course I was a student and I had no money still paying my way through school. And I didn’t therefore have the means to publish a catalog and Titus suggested, well, how about instead of a printed catalog having a website. and I was kind of like, I’m not really sure I know what a website is, and I certainly don’t know how to build one.

We’re talking about, this would be between 1992 to 1995. I think we built our first website actually in ’95 for an exhibition that I curated. And I liked so many, I had the hope that the internet would, would democratize access to, to art in particular, contemporary art and make it easier for artists to reach collectors and be better known and make money off of their practice without too much mediation. of course we found Out that the power of capitalism meant that that effect was not entirely realized, but it did get me into, technology. For arts and culture and cultural publishing. And that was, really the impetus for our starting initially something we called new art which was kind of an exhibition project that was the first CD rom as well as website of contemporary art in the UK.

I’m still based, I think by this time doing my doctoral, at Leeds university, ironically, perhaps studying 19th century American women’s sculptors, but also doing this technology thing and that led to our founding the gallery channel, whose aim really, again, quite naive.

I wanted to capture the sort of marginal exhibitions and art practices that were typically underfunded, therefore couldn’t again, publish themselves as catalogs or create any kind of lasting record, but that we’re doing really important, radical work on art, on art discourse on, on curatorial practice. And I didn’t want that knowledge to disappear. This is the historian coming in, the archivist. I wanted to preserve that knowledge for others to build on, and so The Gallery Channel was built. We started in 1998 with the idea of documenting exhibitions through virtual exhibitions tours that would be image and text and audio based ways of online walking through real world exhibitions.

Of course the problem, there was the business model and there was also a technology problem. First of all, in 1998, we’re still all operating on dial-up modems. And so not really great bandwidth for downloading lots of images and high file size content. But also the people I really wanted to serve and work with were artists who were too poor to afford a catalog or even hiring a traditional exhibition space.

That’s why they were working on the fringes. So they certainly didn’t have enough money to pay me to, keep this business going. The good news is we learned a few things from that about business. We also learned about how valuable the listings were, just the knowledge of what exhibitions were happening, what artists were involved, what institutions in places were involved, that that had a value.

And so we were able to syndicate that listings content to like Lycos, which older members in your audience might recall was one of the first internet portals and browser systems. However, as the internet bubble burst and that revenue stream started tanking, we transitioned to a new phase, which is our knowledge of technology for cultural publishers. We became valuable to companies like Antenna Audio the audio tour company that – I think they recently closed actually – but they came to be known as Antenna International. In those days they were one of the biggest audio tour companies in the world. They had lots of major clients ranging from the met to the Louvre to the Vatican Museums, Rijksmuseum Museum and lots of smaller ones, but they knew that with the rise of the internet and digital technology, they needed to move beyond the traditional audio tour, which had actually begun as something – gosh, Louis Tallot discovered back in the 1950s as a kind of reel to reel tape and radio broadcast systems, but had in the 1980s really an industry with the Walkman.

Then they transitioned to digital MP3 players and they knew they needed to go beyond that So I was hired and they acquired the gallery channel, as a kind of an arm and an activity of antenna audio back in 2000. My job as head of new product development was to work on everything that was not a traditional audio tour.

So I worked with the first virtual tours. the first downloadable tours podcast, cell phone tours, and audio visual tours. We launched the first multimedia tour on a handheld device, pre iPhone. This would have been 2003 at Tate Modern. and we actually got a BAFTA for that. Which I think partly was because we were put in the same category as Sony and all of the video game companies and I think the judges in that category just couldn’t bring themselves to give an award to the kind of shoot them up. video games were our competitors. So they felt like they were perhaps serving culture better by awarding it to what was really a fairly modest very early audio visual tour. I will also admit we had fantastic collaborators, Jane Burton, who was then the curator of Tate Modern and her husband, who’s one of the principles of Double Negative, who do incredible visual effects and that kind of thing and films. So we were able to tap incredible talent to build that. So that’s what I did with Antenna for a while, until it sold to Discovery Channel, which, have to say, I thought at the time was brilliant because Discovery knew video and then had known audio. And I thought that was the next step for what we were doing with digital was to really get to grips with the visual side of things. Unfortunately it turned out to be in many ways, the beginning of the end of the company, because a big corporations like that and particularly in Discovery’s history, they wanted to list on the stock market. And so there’s a certain profit margin below, which there’s just no point they’re even getting out of bed. Antenna had always been a very slim margin company because we were working with museums and it was as much mission-driven as anything. It wasn’t about getting rich. And so the company just really didn’t thrive under Discovery.

I left, after the company was acquired and went to the Smithsonian and was able to work with the brilliant Mike Edson at the American Art Museum, in terms of new media strategy and initiatives there before a couple of years later moving, actually kind of following Mike in some ways into the office of the CIO and working with other colleagues there on mobile strategy and initiatives.

And that was really a position that was created in response to seeing the rise of mobile as a very important technology for the Smithsonian to be on top of. I don’t know that the institution really understood how to integrate mobile or indeed digital strategy into everything that it did being such a large and sprawling organization that was a complex proposition.

But anyway, it was a fascinating startup moment for me. And I guess at this point it should have started dawning on me that what I really like is the startup. I like being in at the beginning of things precisely because structures and systems are not terribly well defined. And you get to write the rules to a large extent.

 That said, about six years into my time with the Smithsonian, I had another startup opportunity, to move to the Baltimore Museum of Art and help them really professionalize what they did with digital and start their first digital division. I ended up being also in charge of marketing communications and visitor services.

By the time I left a couple of years later, that was a really wonderful opportunity to build digital kind of from the ground up. But what I still didn’t know was how to really build a museum from the ground up. I had gone from working as a consultant to museums, to working in the biggest museum in the world, the Smithsonian in a very specialized role or set of roles.

And I really wanted to understand how the whole museum got put together. And it was very clear to me that it was no longer really effective to talk about mobile or even digital as a standalone separate thing. It was so deeply interwoven by this point, we’re talking 2014, 20 3, digital was integral to absolutely everything that a museum did.

So I wanted to understand the other, the other facets of that and I also was, I felt like there were things that needed to be done in the cultural sector, quite urgently that. Established museums, even a relatively small and nimble museum, like the BMA – we’re just not going to be able to move fast enough to do so. I left the BMA and started an initiative that was in large part inspired by my work with MuseWeb the conference, and a mobile company that we had gotten to know where we’re working through, through those who were willing to sponsor an initiative to collect community stories. And I recommended Baltimore as a wonderful city for that.

It’s one of the oldest cities in America. So it has a lot of stories and has always been an international city because it’s a port city. So it’s always had a large and international audience And therefore very diverse communities. And in fact today is a majority African-American city.

So I just felt like it was a wonderful place to start with saying, okay, what are the parts of the story in the sense of the local and national cultural heritage that haven’t been adequately preserved or shared or amplified? I was able to lead with the help of a lot of people, including the team of the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street, an initiative to start this kind of local storytelling program that led me to encounter The Peale and its Board.

As an American art historian, of course I had heard of the Peale family, but like so many people, I associated them with Philadelphia. I didn’t realize that they had actually built a museum in Baltimore as well. And that building was in fact, the first purpose-built museum in the country. So represents a really interesting moment in museum and national history of where Rembrandt Peale and his collaborators had to think. What does a museum look like as a piece of technology, if you will, a physical space with certain affordances, what does it need to enable? What does it feel like? What kinds of experiences does it make easier or not? So I. went to see a wonderful exhibition that had been curated there, by the contemporary, which was a kind of a nomadic contemporary art gallery in Baltimore at the time and fell in love with the building, which is something that building just does to people. It’s magical.

I think one reason is it’s not, It was not built on the model of the Acropolis. It was built on the model of a federal style townhouse. So it has these very human, if not homely proportions. And so it doesn’t intimidate, quite as easily as those neoclassical facades with big classical pillars and lots of steps up to the front door kind of thing.

So I was persuaded by some really smart people including Jackson Gilman for Laney, who’s the city of Baltimore’s historic preservationist, that the stories and the voices that I had been trying to help amplify preserve to some extent would really benefit from having a home in a building of this historical importance that kind of showcase is precisely what so many of them had never been afforded and other more traditional institutions.

And therefore we needed to save this building. At this point, it had been standing empty for 20 years. The roof had started leaking. There was a lot of water damage. Its last run as a museum had gone from 1930 to 1997. It had never, amazingly to me, had an elevator or other accessible features put into it.

So I undertook to be the founding Executive Director for the Peale, which no longer had a collection, a physical collection other than the building itself. And we had to find a purpose for it because you know, buildings are all nice, but what’s it going to do for the community? And so it’s purpose became to be really a home for Baltimore stories, a place where the cities, communities and voices can be preserved and heard and amplified and where they could also be supported with access to the resources, be they financial or technology or expertise to help ensure that those stories get told and get heard as well as at home.

So that is, kind of how I ended up at the Peale. This was now 2017 And I was the only staffer for a while. But we started attracting folks. And I think this goes back to something I first heard when I was at the Smithsonian from Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine. He came to speak at the Smithsonian in an event called Smithsonian 2.0 about re-imagining the Smithsonian. I think this was around 2009 and he told the story of Joy’s law, which was named after the founder of Sun Microsystems, I believe, which is basically something like this: the best person to do any particular job doesn’t work for you. And moreover you can’t find that person, but if you send out the right signals, you can attract them to you.

We had $40,000 for operations when I started at Peale and that was to pay me and everything else that needed to be done. So I certainly didn’t have the money to go out recruiting great talent with great money.

But I realized that what we could do was be a place where people could do things that perhaps they couldn’t do and more established and better funded institutions quite as easily. So we started attracting people who needed a place to realize a dream. and so our team kind of grew and by 2020, with the pandemic on, I needed, frankly, to have more time to teach my kids, so we decided to homeschool in the midst of the pandemic. And I also felt like it was a moment where we could, we had a big enough team that we could start looking at distributed leadership models or a decentralized power in a way I’d always felt like the traditional museum directorship model is fairly feudal in its structure. You know, with this all powerful director at the top. and everybody else kind of jumping when they say jump and asking how high, that was not how I wanted the Peale to grow up. So, I had the opportunity to start collaborating with Christa Green, who took on the role of our Chief Administrative Officer and is my co-director of The Peale and that’s when my title shifted to Chief Strategy Officer. We also worked very closely with Geoffrey Kent, who’s our Chief Curator. And initially David London, who was our Chief Experience Officer and now has another wonderful job with the greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance as their director of innovation.

So, in a sense, the leadership team has shifted to now include a Chief Operations Officer, Robin Marquis, who’s also been with The Peale almost since the beginning, as our Accessibility Manager, and, now as also leading all of our institutional development. So with a really strong focus on being accessible, being inclusive.

And Robin is helping lead us through this process of really rewiring power at the Peale so that we are more of a worker owned organization, which is a little bit of an odd thing to say in a nonprofit, but rather than again, having top down hierarchical, relationship, among the staff and the team and the leadership. Another really important ingredient in all of this is the Peale’s Board who were brought together by a passion wanting to save this important building and do something meaningful with it, for the community, rather than through any kind of. Personal ambitions to network or be seen as having a certain kind of status or role in Baltimore society, so to speak.

And I’ll have to say they have all made this possible by being incredibly supportive of a really quite radical vision. and they had already, before I got into the appeal, decided not to call it a museum to call it the Peale’s Center for Baltimore History and Architecture. Because there was this sense that museums would hold us back in some older and less appropriate models.

I think today we’ve kind of come full circle where we are embracing the term museum with the understanding that we’re reinventing it, that we have an opportunity because this is both a very old institution and a brand new one to draw the best learnings and best practices from the past to build something radically new and very relevant for the present.

And as I’ve learned in my 20 some years in museums, if the board doesn’t get that and doesn’t support that it doesn’t matter who your director is, who your leaders are, or who your team are. They’re not going to be able to make It happen. So it’s really been all of those elements that have come together to make it possible for us to do something that I think is very new and very exciting. 

Angie: It is such a magical story. And speaking of being at the beginning of things and people having their own love story of The Peale, I remember the last time I was, in Baltimore, which I think, was about 2017 when you just picked up the keys to the museum and it had been closed for a while and it was it had that smell and that feel about it.

But there was, I think, an immersive improv theater upstairs who were in full dress rehearsal mode. And you took me down into the basement of the museum and we were going through things that people probably hadn’t touched for decades and finding all sorts of joys down there. And it has been a memory that’s stuck with me for a very long time.

It was quite the treat to be, to be, able to save the museum in those beautiful early days before everything got started. 

Nancy: You bring back fond memories. We call that the basement of Harry Potter because it seemed that, I mean, again, we had no money, right. So we had to kind of beg, borrow and steal. We pieced together everything that we did. And it seemed like anytime we needed something, we just went down in the basement and we would find it.

But that was because being a city, it was still a city owned building. Since it wasn’t being used, it was where all the other city agencies would dump stuff that they didn’t have storage space for. So yes, it was a magical place, and it still is. The stuff is all gone because we’re almost at the end of our renovations, but we are actually, I think when you came to submersive productions, the local immersive theater company was creating a wonderful show in the building about real museums.

And the practice of collecting is HT Darling’s incredible museum, where they used a fictional story to do. Wonderful critique of museums and collecting, but one which you didn’t just have to be a museum person to care about. It was a great story for everybody. And they are actually, in fact, you just got an email from them yesterday about they want to do something in the basement when we reopen.

And I can’t wait to hear their ideas. This is what I’ve found throughout with The Peale, when somebody is attracted to the Peale because it’s the place to do the thing that they most want to do. They’re always right. And they always come with ideas that I could never have thought of. No, even a committee of much more brilliant curators and museum leaders, and myself couldn’t have come up with the best ideas as Joy’s Law says always come from somewhere else. And so the most important thing is structuring yourself to be open in a way that those ideas find you and then supporting them to make them happen 

Angie: Nancy, I remember you said to me once that the Peale doesn’t find people, people find the Peale and you’ve got this very contemporary leadership structure there.

What’s the philosophy behind all of that and this almost inverted curatorial process being very community driven? 

Nancy: Well, if you think of a museum as not just a treasure house, a place where you put the valuable things of culture that somebody said are valuable and therefore should be preserved. If not more so, a production house, a place where culture gets created and enabled, then you really need to be led, not from administrators and subject matter experts in a top down way, but you need to be led by the creators themselves.

And if you value creating an inclusive cultural record of a place, then you need to value all voices as creators. And so that’s where you really do end up needing as I’ve called it, this inverted curatorial process, which starts with a community or a creator from the community saying these are the stories that are important to us in this moment that we want to tell that we want to be heard, that we want to preserve and transmit to future generations.

Then you go, okay, well, as an institution, as the museum What do we need to do to enable that? And in some cases, the creators know exactly what they want to do. Like some of the immersive theater companies or artists or curators we’ve worked with. And we just need to give them the space and perhaps a little bit of support along the way, and in various forms of resources to make it happen. In other cases, you’ve got somebody who has an amazing story that needs to be told. But they’re not in a position… this is not their usual creative practice, and they need much more support with how to go about recording that and how to go about publishing that story, how to go about presenting that in a public context.

And then if you cast your museum, your institution in that role of enabler, then all the other normal stuff that a museum does in terms of marketing or educational programs and outreach follows, but still driven by that community instigator. Again, rather than I know one of the things that I’ve heard all the time throughout my career in museums is, oh, if you just brought, you know, such and such department in sooner, be it marketing or education or it, or whatever, this would have all been a much more joined up process.

When things are driven from the community, you actually avoid a lot of that siloing of activity and information. And most importantly, you have your audience and your relevance baked in because the creator is already coming from a community. And this was one of the early concepts that we led with in the stories project that I started when I left the BMA is that the content creators in a community, the storytellers, if you will, are always already known to that community and respected by them.

So if you can find them and enable them, everything else follows as opposed to treating it as more of a voyage of discovery, à la Columbus, or a mining, digging for and finding diamonds in the rough and then trying to polish them, which is a much more colonizing kind of structure and process.

So we obviously don’t want to go there. We want to, to invert that curatorial process, we want to be community driven. And then that means also at our own staff level, those hierarchies need to be dismantled. And so as soon as we had a kind of a critical mass of staff and I’m very proud of the fact that, and very grateful, I should say that during the pandemic, instead of laying people off, we were able to hire more people.

The Board really supported me in converting funds, wherever we could so that we can make sure that people were safe, their incomes were safe. And then once we had a critical mass of people, it started making sense to talk about, now, changing the leadership structure, because it wasn’t just, me and a couple of other people who could all fit in a car and have a nice conversation.

We had to really think about communicating and collaborating on a much more, wider scale. So yeah, that’s something that we’re very much in the middle of, or I should say at the beginning of it in the middle of a strategic planning process and a business redefinition process that will hopefully speak to this need to rewire power, not just at the Peale, but I think throughout the cultural sector.

Angie: And when it comes to that motive, innovation and creativity and empowerment, what lessons have you taken from the history of startups in the sector or from the history of new museums themselves? 

Nancy: You know, I don’t know enough about that yet, Angie and I really, really need to know more – I’m taking the idea that the best way to learn something is to teach it. I have embarked this year on a project to create a course, which will help me write a book, precisely about the history of startups and museums, both, in the U.S. and and around the world. Obviously the Peale is itself a great example. And there are many others. So both historic and contemporary. I really want to do more research into that and learn from those other examples. And I would love to hear from anybody who has great stories along those lines, that might help inform this process and, and to help me help amplify those stories too, in the great Peale tradition. 

Angie: Nancy, there’s a couple of things happening in the cultural sector at the moment. There’s of course the great resignation and the shifting awareness of our roles in society issues like the living wage and career privilege. Then we’ve got this next generation of students coming forth and the way that we interact with the general public is changing around the issues around education, bridging the digital divide and such. How do you think about the museum’s role in those sorts of changes and instigating that next generation force, what is the work ahead for you and the team? 

Nancy: Bridging the digital divide is a really critical issue for The Peale that came to the fore with the pandemic. And we were under stay at home orders and yet our job was to preserve and share and amplify the voices of people who might not normally get recorded and become part of the cultural record. How are we going to reach people who may not have internet access at home who may really be separated from the free tools and services that we make available to culture, keepers and storytellers because of that digital divide and we tried a number of things and I don’t know that any one of the worked hugely. I think together we made a first step towards bridging the digital divide, but there’s so much farther to go. We have a storyteller ambassador, Daisy Brown who would go on walks with her dog and bring her camera and a microphone and see people sitting on their stoops.

Baltimore is famously a city of stoops and a lot of culture happens out on people’s front steps. And she would ask them how they were doing and start recording their stories of what it was like to live in Baltimore and the early pandemic under the stay at home order, et cetera. We partnered with libraries without borders who distributed these backpacks that have internet access to people who didn’t have it in the form of a kind of internet hotspot, 4g drive, and a laptop computer.

And, those devices came loaded with certain software and tools that could be helpful for everything from finding COVID information to recording your own story. So The Peale’s tools were part of that toolkit that was given out, There’s so much more that needs to be done. I was very happy to see our state and our city, appoint people and provide budgets for broadband and digital accessibility. but even there was still so much at the beginning. one thing that was particularly inspiring that I heard this time was, in a panel discussion that we had about bridging the digital divide and the artist Latrice Gaskins, who was born in Baltimore and is now based in Boston was part of that panel discussion.

I asked her, what would it take to really decolonize the tools and the platforms that we’ve come to be so dependent on, we’d been talking about things like ambivalence around platforms, like Facebook and indeed all of these large corporate owned platforms that we use and both love and hate. And she said, and I’m paraphrasing here, she said it much better than I can, ‘we’ll never really decolonize those platforms and those technologies until they are built by the people who have been excluded from those systems of power’. So essentially it’s a riff off of Audre Lorde’s ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’. We need to make sure that the tools are in the hands of the people who have been colonized historically, to enable them to generate platforms that are inherently decolonized. At least that’s the hope. And I found that very inspiring, but of course, translating that into direct action is a much more complex proposition than I confess, I don’t have as much of a plan for, as I would like to. So I think that’s going to continue to be a big challenge at the Peale and beyond. But I, you know, I have great faith in brilliant young minds coming up to help us sort this out. And one of the things that we are at the appeal in addition to being a community museum, and a home for Baltimore stories, we’re also a teaching museum. And so we were able during the pandemic to also start up an apprenticeship program working with young people who really are coming from some of the most disinvested communities in Baltimore. They are folks who squeegee clean windshields as part of their hustle for surviving, and have often experienced homelessness for a large part of their lives.

And just not really had much support from anybody. And our Chief Curator, Geoffrey Kent he himself had come from a pretty challenged background and life story, and he wanted to share what he had learned and what had helped him get to a better place in terms of, personal and financial stability and security with young people who came from similar backgrounds couple of them helped us pilot this concept in the summer of 2020 installing an exhibition that we hosted, by the artist Kim Rice. Importantly, I think Kim is a white woman and her work is all about exploring her white privilege And the systems that have enabled her privilege not just today, but generations back. She discovered a while ago that her ancestors had enslaved hundreds of people. And so she was able to trace the effects of that privilege and exploitation of labor up to where she is today. We had two apprentices that summer, both young black men. Working on installing this exhibition under Jeffrey Kent’s leadership. And that really, I think inspired a lot of people. We were able to get support to expand the program this past year in the fall of 2021 to four apprentices whom we’re currently working with and add in a component that was really the brainchild of Shantay Daniels who’s the executive director of the Baltimore national heritage area here. I met her early on in my time at the Peale. And she said, you know, Nancy, when you finished renovating the Peale, it’d be really neat if you could think about taking what you’ve learned And and helping save so many of the other historic buildings that Baltimore is just rich in that need new purposes and they need to be saved physically as well. And perhaps use that as an opportunity to expand the historic preservation trade. There are very few people entering the historic preservation trades. and it has always been kind of a field dominated by white men and as they’re dying off, so to speak, literally and otherwise it’s an opportunity for other people to come in and learn these skills.

They’re very creative jobs, very well paid, and they don’t necessarily require a college degree or, or any of the kind of intergenerational wealth that often you have to have in order to get a higher degree. And so it’d be a great place for people from disinvested communities to find really meaningful and important and well paid work.

And I loved that idea, but I really thought, I need to wait and we’ll finish the renovation. And then we’ll be able to tackle a project of that scale. But Geoffrey Kent, thank God, is not that patient. And he really pushed us for it. And he absolutely was right. We did. And this year, the apprentices are learning both historic preservation skills with David, who’s a historic preservationist with 40 years experience. We’d met him through a project that we’d been able to be part of from the national trust they did. It’s called the hope crew hands-on preservation experience. And it was aimed precisely at getting people of color to have experience of the historic preservation trades and consider that as a career path.

So for two summers, we got to work with two different groups that David was teaching on that program, and he agreed to come and teach our apprentices as well this past year, and is still working with them down in the Peale’s basement teaching them things that they’re then doing even on the field building. So they’re part of renovating our space and hopefully. Learning skills that they could use both to become a historic preservationist or like Geoffrey Kent know how to install exhibitions and curate them and know something more about the art business and the entrepreneurial activities there. But also these are the ideas that these are transferable skills that can be valuable in all sorts of different career paths that they might take.

I think that’s a really important part of who the Peale is today. That it’s part of our mission to re-imagine what museums can be. And again, it’s not just about what you do, but about who you are and the apprenticeship program, being a teaching museum, being staffed by emerging museum professionals from all sorts of different backgrounds and walks of life is an opportunity for us to really help diversify the entire cultural workforce and make sure that cultural institutions are, are not just, you know, educated, privileged white people like me talking to each other.

Angie: I think that’s the perfect bow to put on this. As you said, it’s not just about what you do, it’s who you are. And I think that when it comes to your own story and then the story that’s coming out about The Peale, that’s what it’s all about. It’s marvellous to see how you’ve weaved those two things together. 

Nancy: Oh, well, thank you. 

Angie: So Nancy, these issues around rewiring power have struck every institution in the sector, acutely. The Peale feels so uniquely placed to have the freedoms to think and act differently. You’ve got the reopening ahead of you the summer that we’ll need to take in with you and see how that unfolds and this post pandemic future will be like? 

Nancy: Yeah, well, I’d love for you to visit us virtually and in person. I guess you may know that we were able during the pandemic to work with the folks at Linden Lab and our friends at Virtual Ability to completely reconstruct the Peale in it’s second life. And it’s a beautiful, amazing virtual building where we’re able to host exhibitions 24/7. So I invite you and anybody listening to come visit there anytime they like. Obviously I’d be thrilled also to welcome you to the Peale museum building, which is a very, very special place in downtown Baltimore. We’ll reopen with our first programs in May. And then we’re really using the idea of a kind of soft reopening to, you know, run through everything, make sure we’ve got the signage right, all our systems and every hour support for visitors and our partners are all working well. And then we’ll do a grand reopening later in the year. So stay tuned for that date, but I’d love for you to participate in any way you can. 

Angie: I can’t wait to get back. 

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The 2022 outlook for travel and tourism

The 2022 outlook for travel and tourism

Elliott Ferguson, President and CEO of Destination DC shares his unique insights into the state of tourism, mandates, omicron and the question of what’s next from the Nation’s capital, a premiere visitor destination filled with world class attractions.

Elliott talks about the pivot for destination marketers from ‘heads in beds and butts in seats’ into a new central role of chief communicator between venues and visitors, reflecting on the changing expectations and demands of travellers across attractions, events and hospitality.

Show notes

For more on Destination DC, visit 


Angie: Hello and welcome to the Data Diaries. I’m Angie Judge from Dexibit here today with President and CEO of Destination D.C., Elliott Ferguson, who is the outgoing national chair of the board for the US Travel Association and the chair of Tourism Diversity Matters. Welcome Elliott.
Elliott: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Angie: I understand congratulations are in order too, because this month marks two decades for you at the helm of Destination D.C., it’s quite the tenure!
Elliott: You know, Angie, that means you’re either getting very old or, or… something along those lines. But yes, I did celebrate my 20th anniversary last week. Very happy to be able to be here for that long. So thanks for that.
Angie: I’m guessing the last couple of years have been your most notable there. Does anything else compare?
Elliott: Well, I moved here right after 9/11. We’ve had, as you look at tourism and you look at the things in which we try to influence, there had been a lot of obstacles, be it 9/11 itself… Anthrax, which was a major scare. And actually there’s a show on Netflix about it now and other government shut downs and anytime something happens, terrorism related globally, there is a perception tied to D.C.
So we’ve, we’ve had a lot of things in which we’ve had to deal with in that regard. And of course, January 6th, which comes to mind, is something that happened this year [2021]. So the key for us is resilience. And the fact that as the Nation’s capital of the United States, there’s so many amazing reasons for people to still want to visit and enjoy our world class destination, despite some of those obstacles.
Angie: I’m going to have to check out that series on Netflix. I think I fell in love with DC first on the big screen!
Elliott: Yes. It’s usually some movie tied to politics, hopefully with a positive ending.
Angie: Well, D.C. is my second home and I’m missing it so much during the pandemic. What is life like there at the moment? We’re in December ’21, all of us are holding our breath to see what next year looks like, especially with Omicron creeping
Elliott: Yeah, absolutely. I think that we’re all concerned about Omicron. But I think we should still remain very concerned about Delta and the fact that as you’re looking at the number of cases that are being documented, two things come to mind.
One, those that are not vaccinated are those are the most, they’re the ones that are most vulnerable. And then two, Delta has proven to be far more formidable as it pertains to long-term negative effects, then Omicron at this point. So I think the fact that we have two variants plus the original are reasons for us to all remain concerned.
But to answer your question. You know, we’re unlike in New Zealand, we’re ramping up for our winter mind. So it’s a little colder here. This happens to be a slower season for us in terms of travel. So, you know, we’re, we’re optimistic keeping our fingers crossed that people will continue to follow the safety protocols and still enjoy being in the Nation’s Capital, being in the U.S. without having to go through another shutdown, which nobody wants.
Angie: I guess it can be a that some of the disturbance of these new variants is happening in the winter rather than the top of the high season.
Elliott: Yeah, I think that’s, that’s one way of looking at it. And, you know, I think the other is the fact that we’ve had so many months of people being at home, working from home. And I know that people are still doing that.
We know so much more now than we did arguably a year ago and we have protocols that are in place that should make it a lot easier. I think the key thing in which we’re focusing on Angie is not only getting vaccinated and telling visitors and locals to be vaccinated, but also continuous testing.
Because we all know that you can be vaccinated and you can still carry one of the Corona viruses and you just have to know your status. So constant testing is an necessity. If we’re wanting our industry to remain back on track and see some of the positive trends that we heard, that we would have moving forward based on where we are maybe 30 days ago.
Angie: So Elliott you’re out on the front lines with many of the cultural institutions in your area. And you’re an advisory board member to the Smithsonian National Zoo and Director for DC Jazz. I know you head up a few recovery committees and working groups. Can you give me a sense of what the industry’s confidence or spirit is out there at the moment.
Elliott: Well, I think overall, the outlook is very, it’s very optimistic from be it the Zoo or any of the institutions that are here in Washington, DC. You know, we’re all hoping and praying that as we learn more about Corona virus, that, each iteration, if you will, that we’re learning about will be less than the next and that’s what’s happening with Omicron.
And I think the key thing for us is to look at it through a positive lens. Let’s talk about groups and events that have been able to take place successfully – and in an environment such as we’re in now. I think that clearly there’s a need to communicate how detrimental the viruses and articulate the importance of testing and vaccines.
But as we’re looking at getting back on track for meetings, events, and activities, we’ve got to talk about what has and how it’s worked in which folks should do so that we can continue in that trajectory. So that’s what our stakeholders are asking of us. That’s what we’re sharing. And we’re always trying to get the latest information in terms of being global or national as to what’s the easiest way to navigate and to still meet in a COVID environment.
Angie: And are you expecting demand to pent up at any stage or for that to kick in, or is it going to be slow and steady wins the race? What’s your thesis on how that will unfold?
Elliott: Each sector is going to be different. As we look at our meetings or conventions industry, we were anticipating and still anticipate positive results in terms of the number of major citywide congresses we’ll host in 2022, we’ll host nearly 20 next year compared to 5 this year. And of course, 2020 after March of that year, everything just totally dried up in terms of meetings. So we’re anticipating a recovery, a strong recovery in terms of the larger congresses and small meetings that we normally host as we look at the international community, of course, the borders reopened on November 8.
That means different things to different parts of the US and the world in terms of travel. But we remain optimistic as we are being told by experts that by 2024 or maybe it’s as early as late 2023, we will have returned back to the numbers that we have hosted in 2019. So, you know, be it any obstacles that might skew or, or change that course of action, we remain optimistic as do our stakeholders, as we look at the future.
Angie: We’re seeing that visitor attractions in DC right now, they’re sitting at about 72% of normal on their visitation recovery index and the holiday lead-up. What is happening out there in the wider travel and tourism recovery, in terms of tourism numbers or occupancy rates?
Elliott: It depends on where you are. I mean, if you’re looking at locations that are on the coast or maybe in the Midwest, whereas folks who are able to do things outside, there are doing much better than major cities, like New York, Boston, DC, and, you know, that’s short-term of course.
So, you know, we anticipate, Washington is one of those cities, whereas you can come here, you can socially distance. Especially with monuments and memorials and the museums are so large. And the key thing for us is that there’s so many free attractions here, that in addition to them being amazing attractions, they’re free.
And that’s appealing to a lot of folks, especially those that have been financially compromised. But those destinations that have been skewing better are those that are usually beach destinations or places that like state parks in the middle of the United States.
Angie: That’s interesting. So it’s a real advantage for the DC region over New York and for some of those outdoorsy states over others?
Elliott: For now, I think that the key thing for us is that we normally rely on a mix of business travel, conventions and meetings and leisure, domestic and international. And for us, business travel is relatively non-existent, meetings are trying to get back on track. And as I referenced earlier next year as a stronger year, and the international leisure market has been totally decimated and the domestic market is still trying to recover.
And so as we look at the successes of 2021 – much better than last year, not remotely where we should have been, but very optimistic as we’re looking at potential for recovery. And the key thing too, Angie, is that individuals are ready to get out. Folks are ready to meet in person. I’ve attended a series of meetings and we all recognize how more impactful meetings are when you meet in person and just the opportunity to interact with your peers and to learn from others in person that is far more appealing long-term than any scenario that’s out there or Zoom or any other platform. So therefore there’s a desire to get out there. There’s a desire by the leisure market. The moment November 8th was marked as a day that international travel returned, we saw significant spikes in interest in returning to the US. So those are all good signs.
Angie: Are you hearing of any standout behavior changes in that market, such as advanced booking timeframes or changes to mode of transport or sensitivity to cancellation policies, anything going on there?
Elliott: I really think that it’s all the above. I mean, you know, folks are trying to figure out how to navigate the new norm.
And they need to know how flexible wherever they’re going is in terms of a need to potentially change plans for whatever that reason is. And so there’s a lot more sensitivity there. There’s also more sensitivity and knowing what the protocol is for venues for hotels in terms of cleanliness and say, as well as what is open and what services could someone suggest if they’re staying in your hotel, you know, people don’t like to show up and be surprised on site that there’s no food and beverage options or there’s no room service at all.
So there, there is a need to communicate, in some cases over communicate, simply because individuals want to know more and know exactly what their options are as they’re looking at.
Angie: You talked a little bit about the trends of domestic versus international tourism. Particularly now the borders are reopening and the outlook for winter and the coming summer season.
Are there any particular demographics or places of visitor origin that are recovering faster or conversely, is, is DC more appealing to a particular type of visitor is maybe a destination with a higher degree of mass compliance and vaccine coverage?
Elliott: Yeah, absolutely. Angie, I think the key things for us is that: one, you can start with recognizing the world-class attractions that are here with our museums and monuments and memorials, and the fact that they’re free. So if you’re looking at a compromised financial situation and you’re trying to figure out where to go. And how to get there. Washington becomes an appealing destination. We’ve got 33% of the US population within a four hour drive of Washington. So that became a large part of what we were focusing on as people were trying to get back on track and figure out whether or not, in their mind, it was safe to fly versus getting on a train or to drive. And so therefore our strategy out of necessity changed from, you know, a global end domestic outreach to mostly domestic short term, simply because those are the only ones that only individuals that had an opportunity to travel.
And the response for a city like Washington clearly is not the same as a beach location, but with two rivers and folks being able to kayak and go hiking within close proximity to Washington and the region as a whole, we’ve been able to market and promote how you can socially distance and have a good experience in Washington, DC. And equally as much, if you want to go to theater, what protocols in place to make sure that you’re safe as you’re going into different different venues.
Angie: Speaking of some of those protocols, are you expecting any winter restrictions, such as capacity constraints to be re-introduced or do you have, an outlook on when the last of those might lift? I know as well now where we’re sort of getting back into this conversation with public venues over whether they might consider shutdowns again, which seems, amazing to think about.
Elliott: I think the key thing is that no one wants to shut down again. We don’t want it. I know our elected officials don’t want it, but we do want to make sure that we focus on safety and something you said earlier that has resonated with visitors is the fact that we have been very cautious and not every state in the United States or territory has the same protocol as it pertains to wearing masks. In Washington, our mayor lifted our mask protocol a few weeks back, but it’s back on as of tomorrow out of necessity. I think the key things would be to figure out how to successfully communicate or make sure that visitors or folks that are attending events, understand the importance of being vaccinated. I know if you’re traveling internationally to the US you don’t have a choice, you have to be vaccinated, but equally as much, we’ve got to make sure that testing is readily available to folks that are coming into the city, as well as folks that live here and that are here on a regular basis. So these things are all important as we’re looking at moving the needle in the right.
Angie: D.C. doesn’t have a vaccine passport, right?
Elliott: DC does not have a vaccine criteria. Now it is being discussed, but nothing is in place. Of course the federal government does, and we have a lot of federal employees here in Washington, DC. So there’s a lot of talk about what makes the most sense. We know other major cities, New York LA have those, those mandates in place. And I talked to my peers in those other cities as early as this morning. And we’re all trying to figure out what makes the most sense. And I think when you hear more about Omicron and other variants, people become more aware of the fact that they should get vaccinated, get that booster. The goal is to not having mandate because everyone is vaccinated, but we realized that’s not where we are.
So, we’ve got to figure out what makes the most sense to make sure that frontline employees and visitors alike are safe as they’re coming to the Nation’s capital.
Angie: There’s a real trade-off, isn’t it of consumer confidence of going to a public place versus the convenience of visitors and visitor experience of having to enforce.
Elliott: No, you’re absolutely right. And, here’s the thing. When you’re in the space of economic development, through tourism and you are dealing with the sensitivities of a pandemic, you want to be empathetic and communicate the right messaging. And that messaging is tied to ‘ we don’t want to shut down’. We want to remain open. We want you to feel safe coming to Washington and theUnited States. We want to make sure that employees are safe. If you’re coming here, so let’s by all means, focus on the protocol, get the vaccine, wear your mask.
Angie: To shift gears a little bit, I’ve heard you talk about the role of destination marketing in terms of heads and beds and butts and seats. How is that evolving as we come out of the pandemic and we have to jumpstart travel and tourism, and how that appeals to the consumer?
Elliott: I love heads in beds, butts in seats. You know, the bottom line is that no matter how we articulate our role, it’s always going to be tied to creating jobs through visitation and economic development, through visitation, visitors coming to the city and saying for three or four days, and then other people coming in.
The reality for us is that we have now morphed into an organization that has to communicate more about safety as it pertains to the virus. And as well as other aspects of safety coming into an urban environment, we recognize that, yes, we should talk about how amazing DC is as a destination, but we have a responsibility to make sure that individuals understand what safety protocol is in place and what’s expected.
And, quite frankly, that was probably not something on our radar. No one’s radar a few years, a few months back. And as well as keeping up to date with whatever is the latest information that visitors need to be aware of. As they’re coming into the city today, you don’t have to wear a mask. As of tomorrow, 6:00 AM, you must wear a mask. As we talked to the city about testing, we want more testing sites around the city open for visitors and for locals because the convenience makes a big difference in terms of people getting tested.
We’re now, the organization, our website and, that’s going to be responsible for communicating that message, especially to visitors. Our role continues to evolve. We never would have thought we would be this insightful on all things tied to a pandemic or coronavirus and out of necessity, not only are we listening to the information and paying attention, not taking the responsibility of being, we’re just the conduit. We hear the information from the community and for the medical community. And we share that information, but, but equally as important, we do have to share it and ask key questions that are important to visitors that are looking at coming to the US.
Angie: That’s that’s so interesting that it’s gone from destination marketing to really industry and visitor communications as well as promotion, both to the attraction and to the tourist.
Elliott: Yeah, you’re right. And, our members, their expectation of us is to share with them what’s expected by visitors. What folks from Oceana expect in terms of coming to the United States is different than from other parts of the world, you know, and I’ve said that for a long time, one size does not fit all. Your travel patterns are different. What’s expected in terms of information is different. And we have to be on top of that so that we can communicate the right messaging that, that everyone isn’t.
Angie: You keep in touch with a lot of other destination marketing and communications organizations around the world and around the US – what other strategies and challenges are you seeing at a domestic or even international level with your colleagues?
Elliott: I think it’s tied to finding individuals that want to return to work in hospitality. We have a labor shortage right now, and that’s nationwide and in some cases globally. That is a big concern, of course, as we’re looking at meetings, get coming back on track. The question is, you know, who pays for the hybrid? How much is it and how do we make sure that we are communicating to meeting planners because there are expectations that did not exist before. So, you know, it’s, it’s really tied to those are the, the major concerns, of course lift, because a lot of airlines have opted to stop nonstop flights in certain markets, which remains a concern.
And, just the economics tied to what we do. We did see light at the end of the tunnel. As we looked at the vaccine being introduced late last year. But where we are now is that uncertain area of what’s next? The concern that I have is the fact that the moment we hear that, one aspect of events be it sports events or theater shuts down, then there’s a ripple effect.
And I don’t know whether or not in this environment where people are testing and more people are vaccinated that we have to shut down. And that is the key thing in which we’re talking about internally. How do we make sure we’re articulating messaging? That’s important to those that plan events and meetings so that they can still go do those events and meetings successfully.
Angie: You’ve spoken a little bit about the conference market and events in terms of things that will be on your horizon like cherry blossom next year. What about the longterm outlook for business travel, especially in the age of zoom, is that forever changed?
Elliott: You know, I think it’s it’s for those who did not think that zoom or WebEx was an option, they now realize that it is an option. But another part of that is recognizing the fact that there’s nothing more important than person to person interactivity and interaction. In terms of building relationships, a couple of things are going to happen. Angie, if my company sells a product and I know that my competitor is going to meet with a potential vendor in person, am I going to want my sales team to talk to that same vendor on zoom? When my competition is beating them in person. And the answer is no. I think that one we’ve learned as an industry and we continue to articulate to the industry as a whole, is the importance of meeting in person.
We’ve learned that zoom is a conduit and can be very helpful, but let’s just face it. Everybody multitasks when they are on zoom, they’re not paying a hundred percent attention. So therefore you’re not getting the full scope and capacity of the audience simply because they are multitasking.
The answer is, the studies that the experts share with us suggest that the meetings market will return. The caveat might be that instead of having 10,000 people in person, you might have 10,000 people in person, but an additional 3,000 on zoom or on a hybrid simply because now that’s an option that, that organization may not have offered before.
Absolutely remaining optimistic, recognizing human behavior is tied to human interaction. Just look at the grade schools and how kids suffered emotionally and physically and their grades suffered simply because they weren’t meeting face to face that same data can be shared in terms of what happens when you need accreditation or you need training or certification on a certain process. Do you want your cardiologist to have learned a new process on a zoom call versus versus being in person and learning that process in person? So they can ask questions that more.
I think we all know the answer there. And I think that there’s, there’s something to be said about in-person meetings and the same with leisure travel. During COVID we had no choice. So we relied heavily on social media to tell stories about what’s happening in the Smithsonian, what things are happening in DC.
But that was a stop gap so that people can write those things down and say, well, when we start to travel again, I want to come to Washington because I want you to see these things in person, the new World War One Memorial, the new Eisenhower Memorial, or the new Planet Word Museum or, or the Children’s Museum.
So these are things in which we whet people’s appetites in terms of what’s happening in Washington, DC, with the hopes that they’ll want to come in person once they’re able to do.
Angie: That’s a good last demographic or group for us to cover, those school and tour groups, particularly in DC, they make up such a huge proportion of visitation. What’s your prediction on how those elements will recover?
Elliott: Yes, school groups. That’s always a very touchy subject, because as I tell parents, when they call and say, ‘Hey, we heard about a something that happened in Paris, is DC safe?’, my response is always going to be the same, in most cases, the school groups, usually the first rite of passage for a kid is that eighth grade trip in America, mostly to Washington DC.
And we want them to come and we want them to feel safe. But as I say to parents, you’ve got to dictate and decide on your own, whether or not you feel comfortable with your child traveling without you. I cannot tell you that they will, I cannot guarantee to you in any capacity and if you have any concerns, be it coming to Washington or stay over at a friend’s house, then you’ve got to make that decision. The destination cannot. But what we focus on, the, the inverse of that messaging. Washington has well over 20 security policing organizations. So it’s arguably one of the safest cities in America. We’re a compact destination. So you have so many attractions that are so close together.
So use the common sense that the organizations that are traditionally responsible for kids groups coming in, use the information that they share with you in terms of safety and safety protocols for your kids coming. That should at least alleviate some of those concerns or fears about them traveling.
Angie: And what does the future hold for DC, you’ve got a few new museums on the horizon?
Elliott: Yeah, absolutely. We continue to focus on the fact that between our nightlife and theater and sporting events and world-class cuisine and the two rivers and events and activities that take place there and sports. And of course memorials and museums. There will continue to be a large influx of individuals that want to either come to the Nation’s capital for the first time, or because they’ve not come in a few years. And there are new museums that opened, new attractions or new memorials or new exhibits and museums that they’ve attended before.
They’ll want to come back and enjoy a baseball game on one day and then go to the Kennedy Center or Arena Stage on the next night for a performance and of course eat world-class cuisine. And that’s our responsibility is, to share with those potential travelers, how unique and diverse Washington is.
And the key thing is that I love the most is that a lot of those things you do for free. So if you’re spending the whole day enjoying Washington as a destination and spending no money, then that gives you more to spend on shopping or perhaps upgrade your hotel room or go to a Broadway show or a show here in Washington, DC, that perhaps was not on your radar.
So that’s our responsibility. And that I feel that there’s going to continue to be a demand to come to Washington DC because of that great mix of things in which people can see and do it.
Angie: Thank you so much, Elliott, it’s such an important role that destination organizations are playing in the future for recovery and at a time that is still a little up and down in terms of what’s happening out there in the world. Thank you so much for sharing all of that with us.
Elliott: You’re absolutely welcome. It’s my pleasure. And I look forward to. Welcoming, any guests that are looking at coming to the US, to Washington, go to to learn more about what’s happening in Washington, DC as you’re looking at perhaps your next trip to the US.
Angie: I can’t wait to get back there myself.
There is nothing like that drive from Ronald Reagan over the bridge, seeing the lights of the iconic DC skyline. It’s my favorite.
Elliott: I totally agree. Angie – we look forward to having you back. All right. Take care.

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WTF are NFTs?

WTF are NFTs?

Murray Thom, Cofounder of NFT start up Glorious and James Blackie, Director of Art, give us the download on everything we need to know about Non Fungible Tokens (NFTs) and their potential for visitor attractions – from art museums to stadiums. Combining their respective careers in music producing and art dealership, along with a who’s who leadership team, Glorious have burst onto the scene to create authentic digital masterpieces. Learn about the potential for brand, engagement, revenue, loyalty, access and more that this latest tech trend represents and what to watch out for in terms of security, equity and environmental impact.. 

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Angie: Hello and welcome to the Data Diaries, I’m Angie Judge from Dexibit. Today, we’ve got something a bit different, a bit special, a bit… glorious. We’re talking about NFTs or non fungible tokens, a name that sheds no light for those of us that are new to this… but digital assets of sorts, which exists in the digital universe, holding value and investment. They’re simultaneously a form of cryptocurrency and a form of art or collectibles, which is all… clear as mud. If you ask me, they are the latest – dare I say it – ‘hype in the digital world. Here today to give us the download and what it all means for the visitor attraction sector is NFT startup ‘Glorious’. We have the great Murray Thom and James Blackie. Welcome to the show!

Murray: It’s great to be here.

Angie: So let’s get the most important thing out of the way. First, is it cooler to say NFT or ‘nifties’?

Murray: Um, well, no! Nifty, of course, I believe is a trademark for another company. We call ourselves Glorious and we’re in the NFT business. So it’s way cooler for us if we go NFT!

Angie: I will stick to that one then. I’m going to level with you both. When I first heard about in NFTs, I had a bit of an eye roll moment. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to admit this publicly, but unlike Paris Hilton and Tiger Woods and whoever, I just haven’t been able to get into this whole blockchain and crypto thing.

And maybe it’s a bit of cynicism leftover from the GFC or I’m old fashioned, or there was a few sort of early misfires in the art world… I’m thinking, of course of Beeple, the artist that went from what, $100 to $69 million with a collection of digital art that was pretty crass and homophobic and racist. So when I saw the story about Glorious, it really caught my eye because of who was behind it. Not only as your team, as we would say here, world famous in New Zealand, but one of your co founders, rugby star Dan Carter is just plain old world world famous. And the superstar lineup of names you’ve got signed from Neil Finn to Lisa Reihanna, it’s beyond impressive. So what was the trigger for you all to come together in this new

Murray: I think we would all agree a hundred percent. And it was my friend Scott McCleaver, who was just an amazing guy. He’s global lead for digital innovation for PWC. He’s an absolute heavyweight, but to reinforce part of your introduction, he sent me a text and he goes, mate, what do you know about non fungible tokens?

And I’m reading this text, and I’m thinking I have no idea what your predictive [SMS] meant to say, but I’m sure it doesn’t mean to say that. And of course that was only back in February or March, which is probably a lifetime ago in the tech world, but my interest could not have been less. And to again, reinforce what you’re saying. When I looked at the world of NFTs, I think what I saw was that they all had in common was that they were overpriced and uninspiring. They had all that in common and my interest was close to zero in anything to do with it.

The moment of change came for me when I understood… a traditional artist, a painter, , of something that you’d hang on your wall, would take their work to a gallery. And let’s say, sell the work for $50,000 and they would get a portion and the gallery would get a portion. And then let’s say, let’s say that it on sold for a $100k and then it on sold for $200k, the artist only, ever profited from the very first sale.

When I appreciated that digital art, on the blockchain, was a continuing revenue source for the artists for every recurring sale… That moment, Angie, I thought, okay, there’s something really quite a significant going on here. And that was my way into the business. And that remains as it were, you know, really what I’m all about.

I was the person that named the company, ‘Glorious’, because it said everything about who we were, who we were going to partner with and our hopes for the future. And our byline, I’ll just finish with this, is ‘authentic digital masterpieces’. In a world of, or on a platform of hype, if we were world class content, that would always endure and it would always have value.

Angie: James, I think I’m going to have to ask maybe if we can back the truck up a bit… WTF is a NFT? Can you explain it to me like you would with your grandma, and tell me about what’s different about Glorious’ offering?

James: Well, to explain it to a more octogenarian audience, is that if an artwork is magnificent enough that the public wants a memory of it, if you go and visit a museum and you see it, and you want to remember it at home, you buy a poster print, right? And you take that home and you might frame it. And that creates for you a visual memory of that original, in your home. And the poster’s role is to up the ‘mana’ [life force] of the original artwork.

Now, as an aside, the sale of those poster prints, they create an income stream for the artist or the institution that licensed it. But the problem with poster prints is the quality is low, right? The, the ink will fade, the paper’s full of acid and they’re valueless. As soon as you’ve taken them out of the shop, they’re pretty much valueless.

So NFT s are an invention that has allowed digital images of masterpieces or an artist’s original work to be properly controlled, editioned, authenticated. And that means the replication can not only become digital and therefore globally accessible, it doesn’t matter where the artist is geographically… they can also make it scarce by limiting the addition of the digital copies. And therefore that can carry value. Right? So if the digital copy has author authenticity and provenance, then it can carry value. With the poster print, and any other digital copy of an artwork like Google images or wherever you find it, it can’t. So it makes the possibilities for NFTs endless for major institutions around the world. A lot of them have been closed because of COVID and if they’re selling NFTs of artworks, they’re creating an income stream. But the potential is huge for educational tools, or for people who can’t travel, or people who want to have the experience of standing in front of an artwork and can’t get it.

Angie: I quite like this comparison to the poster print, because merch is something we can all relate to in the sector. And I’ve always loved the idea that it’s a way of making the experience accessible and allowing visitors to take a bit of the visit home with them. So thinking about this visitor attractions world, the applications, it seems for digital are fairly straightforward for art museums.

I know one of our customers, ICA Miami, just made their first acquisition. The British Museum’s selling a couple of hundred Hokusai works in tandem with an exhibition and complete ironically, with a physical pop-up store. But I take it that there’s more than just art in this industry here. I’m thinking of zoos and the Bored Ape Yacht Club or aquariums and the Pudgy Penguins NFTs and then there’s theme parks and film studios and halls of fame and the sports stadiums. What is the potential here for wider visitor attractions?

James: I think the thing that NFTs really provide for anything – for a zoo, an aquarium, a library, is – it’s about connection. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a Glorious artwork.

But the thing that really differentiates Glorious from a lot of other NFT platforms is that everything that we are going to make will be a Glorious artwork on a screen. It will look stunning. NFT is actually a term that relates to the smart contract behind these entities that allows amazing things to happen. You can authenticate and you can limit the addition, but you can also open connections between your fans… and connectivity is massive. And that’s where I think potentially the majority of the power of NFTs lies. That if you have a zoo or an aquarium or a stadium if you have an NFT of a stadium, you might be able to enable first tickets of any concert that’s going on show there or sporting fixture. If it’s a zoo, you might invite in people who hold your NFT to see an unveiling of a new animal. A lot of people contribute to these local institutions. People donate money to keep their local zoo alive. But if you are creating an NFT, then you have that connection.

You’re still providing the fiscal support. And you know that money has gone straight to them, but they then have a direct conduit of communication back to you to make you feel properly connected to the institution that you’re trying to support. And that’s incredibly powerful.

Murray: And just adding to that, what James is saying, you know, like take a zoo, you know, if I’ve got an NFT for a zoo, James was right, I’m supporting the institution financially. But maybe your NFT holders can get in half an hour earlier or stay half an hour later. In other words, there’s all manner of rights and privileges that can be added or sold with the NFT. Even take a work of art you might buy a digital work about and then find that you can go to a gallery and you’ll have a professor speaking on the subject. I love all the rights that go in and around the NFT, in addition to the actual digital assets.

Angie: I love this connection to membership and loyalty because that’s a real focus for so much of our industry. Right now it’s recurring revenue, it’s support from membership, which has held so many venues through closure when their revenue otherwise disappeared. And so I can understand it from the visitor’s perspective of the member’s perspective.

Murray, in a world where anyone can download or copy digital assets. What is the point of ownership? Is it just flex?

Murray: I think there’s an element of flex. There’s no two ways about that, but I think that if you take a work about that’s near and dear to you, of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but you know, I’ve already got my eye on two or three editions that Glorious is going to be coming out with. I’ve got physical art all over my walls at home. I haven’t got room for another piece of art. What I love about the digital art is that it’s going to go on a screen.

If you think about our screens all around the world, we’ve got black television screens lying dormant in the corner, right until TV comes on and what digital art does, it now it enables you to put something compelling in some way that you’ve never had it before. And not only can I have a piece of digital art, but then the following day, I can change it to another piece of digital art that I own, as opposed to knocking holes in walls and trying to shift my art. James has probably spent his whole life doing that also. I’ve got something, as James said before, that is actually authenticated by the artist, it’s on the blockchain. Really the blockchain is all about a digital ledger. It’s as simple as that. For my part, I’m very keen to purchase something that is an original, if you will. And own it. We’ve all got different tastes. People might buy this and sell it. I don’t know that I’ve ever sold a piece of art in my entire life. So I’m probably unlikely to sell my digital art, which probably isn’t good for the Glorious business model, but I’m very energized about this.

Angie: And James, can you connect an NFT to a real world object? And what does that mean? If that object is held and the permanent collection of say a museum, and it’s not going anywhere?

James: That is happening all around the world. In the last month – the Uffizi in Florence, the Hermitage in St Petersburg, the British Museum, as you said, all releasing NFTs of their masterpieces and those masterpieces aren’t leaving the walls. And in fact, in some cases like the Hermitage did a DaVinci, Giorgione, Kandinsky, van Gogh. And they released those five NFTs, but they actually released them as an edition of two and the Hermitage retained the second edition.

So they’re keeping the original artwork on the wall and there’s one NFT sold and one edition kept in the museum, but as you said, the Hokusais and the British Museum, they might do an edition of 1,000 or 10,000. So you can absolutely collect an NFT of an original artwork and you’re not buying the artwork and it’s very different.

In the bricks and mortar art world, there’s, there’s the ability to fractionalize paintings. And it means you can buy like, a square millimeter of a Picasso or a Jean Michel Basquiat. You know that you own a square millimeter, but you’re never going to get your hands on the painting because you only own that small amount. That painting is kept on a store in the dark somewhere in New York, in a secure warehouse, and then five years down the track, they sell it and you make your money because the value of artwork’s gone up. Now to me that’s base kind of speculation. That’s not, it’s not particularly attractive. It doesn’t have the beauty and wonder that comes with collecting art. But if you buy an NFT of a masterpiece, you have that NFT and an authenticated copy on your screen at home that you get to enjoy. And you know, that the purchase of that NFT has gone to support the museum that houses the original.

And then as, as Murray was saying before, you can have all these kickbacks from the museum, you might get in an hour earlier and an hour of private time in a major museum like that is priceless to people who want to own an original Rembrandt or a NFT or DaVinci.

Angie: So it’s not just the original that ownership applies to, you can create editions too? What are the ethical or legal aspects to think about around that?

James: I think some of the big ones are things like royalties, whether the royalty still applies, if the artist is still alive or has recently died, then royalties last, depending on your country, around the 50 year mark. For a lot of the artists that we are representing through Glorious that are still practicing artists, they will retain the copyright themselves.

And as Murray said, every time it sells, they’ll get the money back on the secondary market artists, resale royalty type scheme. But when it comes to an institution, then you want to know whether the copy, the NFT that you have of their masterpiece is authenticated properly by the institution that houses that masterpiece.

And so it’s up to you as a collector to go and make sure that if you’re looking at buying a DaVinci NFT to make sure that it’s actually come from a reputable place. If it’s coming from the Uffizi and the contract that you’re buying says Uffizi gallery and you know therefore it’s the right one because everywhere in the art world, there’s the opportunity to fall into the pitfalls of it. And you still have to have your wits about you. But the authentication system of it means they can’t be forged or faked. It’s just making sure you know what you’re buying and you buy from a reputable platform. Part of what Glorious is, is the, is the promise of quality and that, you know, that if you’re buying anything through Glorious through our app or through our platform or by any of our represented artists or content creators, then you’re getting quality and that NFT will retain value. It’s obviously unknown what the valuable will be. And particularly with the examples we’ve seen around the world of crypto punks skyrocketing, that’s an unknown and that’s to be found down the track, but it’s on the head of the buyer to make sure that what you’re buying in and buy from an authentic and valued platform.

Angie: To come back to your point around copyright and your original parallel around merch, it’s not dissimilar to an art museum creating kitchen towels off an art work or the poster to take home. What would selling these rights, give to this owner for something that’s say held by a museum? What are the sorts of ramifications that should be thought through?

James: Well they’re not selling reproduction rights? As an NFT holder, you generally have the right to enjoy, view, display your NFT. And that’s pretty much it. Just like in the bricks and mortar art world, if you replicate something, if you buy a painting, you generally don’t own the copyright, 99% of the time, you don’t buy the copyright with the artwork that you’ve purchased.

So if you replicate it with a digital camera and turn it into a very high risk poster print, and start selling them, then your heads on the block. That’s a breach of copyright and it’s the same with NFTs. You are entitled to view them and enjoy them, but you’re not allowed to replicate them.

And they’re not the easiest things to replicate because those smart contracts are unbeatable when it comes to sell. Like a lot of people have said to me, well, why would I have an NFT? If I could just find a, a high res image of the same painting and just put that on my screen. And that’s fine. And I hope you do, because if I own the NFT and you’ve got a Google image of that on your screen, then you’re elevating the ‘mana’ [power] of the NFT and the original. So you’re helping with the whole fame generation of the originals of the authenticated copies. And at the time that you and I come to sell, if I own the NFT and you have a Google image, then that’s when you find out one is valuable and one is not.

Angie: We’ve touched a little on this already from a loyalty perspective, but what’s the benefits for the visitor attraction? Is it purely revenue or are there other business benefits or even academic benefits? I’m thinking particularly here for our cultural institutions. Should we be thinking about things like brand innovation or collections, accessibility, social media engagement, connecting with non-traditional audiences? What does that big picture look like?

Murray: Actually, everything you just said there, Angie. Whilst it’s got a fantastic, potentially tremendous revenue streams from the NFTs… The engagement with members and fans is extraordinary because you can add as many.

You mentioned Dan Carter back in your intro, Angie, you know, the famous All Black [New Zealand national rugby team]. Some NFT holders might be able to go to a kicking session with them. That in itself is priceless. So there’s all manner of fan engagement that can actually be part of the NFT. Having access to the artists, having the artists maybe be able to communicate with, let’s say, 100 NFT holders or a 1,000 NFT holders, you’re really part of a community. Not a Facebook community, which is endless, or an Instagram community, but a community that the artist is actually engaging with. I think that’s actually phenomenal.

James: And just to add to that, there’s a whole new generation that’s coming through in the way of audiences. Most of my examples are art because I’m an art dealer, but museums are finding that their audience is aging. The average age is going up and NFTs are a way to create a new audience globally that aren’t actually walking through the doors of the institution and standing in front of paintings, but they do want to be involved. And to extrapolate that out, then it might not be that people want to go and visit a zoo. I might want to own a New York Zoo NFT, but I can’t visit the New York Zoo. Not at least because of COVID, but because there’s a fair amount of water between me and there. But I have that connection and I might want to buy an NFT of an animal there. And you’re creating a support network around the world of a youthful audience that’s coming through, that the institution might not be getting physically.

Murray: In addition to that Angie, we’re dealing with… I’ve been in the music industry my entire career and we’re dealing with a lot of artists. And you might buy their NFT, you might have the opportunity to go to a rehearsal. These things are so priceless.

You know, I’ve been to many rehearsals over my career. All of them are fascinating. That’s never been able to happen before. That was always… if you’re going to go to rehearsal, it was free. You might have, back in the eighties, won a radio promo or something like that. But this is now part of the many benefits that you’ll get as being an NFT holder for that particular artist.

Angie: And I like, to that point, that you were making. In the age where we can’t travel so readily, of connecting audiences that are outside local demographics. So say I’m a visitor attraction and I’ve decided to go ahead and do this. What would I need to think about and do in order to pull off an NFT offering? And what kind of money are we talking about?

Murray: Glorious Digital, which is the company that we represent, we’re saying you won’t need any money. We’ll take care of that for you. We are an end to end NFT organization. From playing in the creative, we will help your people actually plan their creative for starters. So people don’t feel that they have to come up with that. We’ve got a whole team of really clever people that would be happy to take the brief and then engage with the customer to come up with something completely compelling so that it’s not a cost thing. But then it’s a matter of what benefits would you like to add to this. Take the example of the zoo, maybe I could take my kids to actually get into the enclosure and feed some animals, all that sort of thing. So to answer your question specifically, anybody that’s got a public property, Glorious Digital can help them come up with their NFT offering..

Angie: And what’s the sort of income potential that we’re talking about?

Murray: That is completely impossible to answer. You mentioned Beeple in your introduction was $69 million, but you might find that, that somebody wants to do in an NFT and they want to charge $5 for it. And they want to sell 20,000 or 100,000. There’s all these levels with NFTs. In other words, you might take the old gold, silver and platinum. Your platinum NFT might be 100, the gold NFT, that might be 1,000, but the silver, there might be 10,000. Each one will have different benefits to go with them. So that’s actually monetizing. It is actually quite exciting when you look at that.

Angie: I was really curious when I was thinking back to when VR/AR came along in the market, there were a few cases of private companies, profiteering or operating in an unendorsed way from cultural institutions. They were selling third party tours, on a museum without actually the museum’s permission or, or engagement in that. I can think of one in particular, in Boston. Is there a risk that somebody might try create something on top of a museum’s collection and then start trading without the institution’s permission?

James: Yes.

Murray: Yeah. I think piracy is always going to be with us in any industry, but as James said before, it all comes back to provenance, that’s the advantage that the blockchain and the smart contract has. You can track it, exactly who has given permission for this work. Blockchain gives far more security from a policy point of view than we’ve ever seen through any other platform.

James: That’s absolutely right. There have been instances where a famous public figure has walked past somebody with a high spec digital camera in a crowd and they’ve taken a photo and then they’ve looked to create an NFT saying that it’s an NFT of that character. And it is because that person was out in public, the photograph was taken, all of that’s perfectly legal. And they’ve said that it is an NFT of that personality, but it’s not endorsed by that.

So you still need to go in and check out when you’re buying, where you’re buying it from and who’s selling it. And all of those things are made crystal clear – the blockchain is pretty much unforgeable. And that’s why $2.38 trillion now trades on the blockchain because it’s a very difficult authentication device.

Murray: And also the thing is with Glorious, we know what business we’re in. It’s very clear to us, authentic digital masterpieces. We are going to create quality content with quality partners. So the place that we sit in this new environment is a very safe place for us. We’re going to be continuing to deal with the world’s very best content

Angie: It’s one of those things, isn’t it? Where you’ve sort of got to be and to have your authentic assets represented. Otherwise the world gets away on us all.

Murray: But, Angie, what an incredible opportunity this is for opening up a revenue for opening up assets, which haven’t been seen widely. It’s actually mind blowing the opportunities that are coming out of this. It’s just incredibly exciting.

Angie: James, maybe this is a question for you. Does digital art really exist forever? I’ve got CDs that I can’t play in my house. Maybe even a mixed tape too, if I’m being honest and there’s some file formats from even a few years back that I can’t open up on my computer.

James: This is a really cool one. I think any artwork that’s ever created, it starts deteriorating immediately. There’s all sorts of factors that apply. If it’s a tangible piece of art, you’ve got UV problems or the way moisture might affect it. If you’re hanging on your wall, then you should obviously immediately install a sprinkler system so that it can’t possibly get hurt in a fire, except that the sprinkler will probably ruin it.

So, what does last forever? I think with digital artworks, to compare it to your CDs, the really exciting thing about NFT is as the biggest problem you’re going to have is your TV screen or your device that you’re viewing it on. It’s going to have that sort of inbuilt essence that makes it die. But the NFT won’t. To the extent that you can… we had an example where we were looking at an NFT…. that could be that all our NFTs are looking at being made at 8K. And so it’s all Glorious NFTs so that the quality is staggering. But what if we could only get one made at 2K? You could potentially, although we won’t do it this, but you could release it and then allow an upgrade. And so if you’re NFT pops up in your digital library, you can have an upgrade option. And when it’s really at 4K or 8K, then it could upgrade. So equally, if there was anything that ever went wrong, you can have an update function for the digital entity that makes it about as safe as any artwork’s ever been, because you’re not susceptible to any climactic factors you’re susceptible to. It’s your digital wallet and it’s cloud based, it’s pretty safe.

Angie: Speaking of safety, there has been a few stories and the news of crypto heists lately, is there any security risk within this?

James: These are a digital asset that when you download them, they appear in your wallet essentially. Now those things are, again, they’re as safe as can be imagined by being authenticated on the blockchain. There have certainly been cases of crypto heists and they still haven’t been explained, which is concerning, but it’s still considerably more rare than money being stolen. There’s always going to be some risk to anything that’s ever traded, but NFTs are digital assets that are kept in your wallet. As long as you keep your wallet safe as you would with your cash and your own wallet, don’t let it out of your sight. Don’t let anyone else into it. Then you’re in a pretty safe world.

Angie: What about diversity, equity and inclusion? This has been a huge focus for our sector, particularly in the past few years. What’s your take on this both from a buyer’s and a seller’s perspective, is it going to improve DEI initiatives or do the opposite? What sorts of things should we be careful with around that?

James: I’m really excited about this angle. We’re in New Zealand, New Zealand is in a far-flung corner of the world and we’re a long way from being connected with a lot of what is going on around the world with these voices that you hear through news filters and NFTs are an opportunity for a content to create something that they firmly believe in to put it out to the world.

And there can be followers on the other side of the globe and it allows those voices to be heard instantly, clearly. They can be directly supported by this fan base. And it has a chance for diversity equity and inclusion, to be much more widely considered around the world.

Some of our artists are creating some amazing statements in their artworks. I’m really looking forward to seeing where the audiences are going to pop up, because I’ve always been slightly frustrated being an art dealer in an island nation and watching how the art world operates in Europe, where border borders almost dissolve. Because collectors are quite happy to drive a couple of hours from France to Switzerland to see a new artist’s work, but it’s a bit hard to drive from Australia to New Zealand. And so they help the shrinking of the world to get those messages more clearly delivered directly from the artist and for those audiences to be created.

Angie: The last one for you, what is the stance on the environmental issues of crypto? Is it all fun and games until you check your cabin footprint?

Murray: We’ve all done a bit of a masterclass on this over the last few months. Bitcoin, people talk about that, a Bitcoin is the same as keeping the Switzerland lights on for a weekend, what I’ve learned.

And what is the truth is that there’s two things. One is proof of work and one is proof of stake. So Bitcoin has proof of work, very highly in energy inefficient. We are proof of stake. So the Glorious NFTs are proof of stake. I believe it’s pretty much the same as streaming a song on Spotify. It’s almost like neither here nor there from a power usage point of view.

So, proof of work and proof of stake are the two things that I believe that you really need to know about to have this conversation. And, and we believe that Glorious Digital is very energy efficient.

Angie: Wow. So I think I finally understand this whole space and I’ve got you both to thank for it.

Thank you so much, Murray and James, for today, it has been, in a word, glorious.

Murray: Thanks for having us.

James: Thank you very much.

Platforms for visitor superpowers with Sebastian Chan

Platforms for visitor superpowers with Sebastian Chan

Seb Chan, Chief Experience Officer at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) discusses the evolution of how we think about visitor experience in experiential spaces, going beyond traditional engagement to cross creative and infrastructural elements. Seb covers ACMI’s redevelopment, a unique approach to staff restructure, establishing the museum as a platform and its technologies including the Experience Operating System (xOS) and the Lens: the ingredients which set the ACMI team to make the most of a terrible opportunity in coping with the pandemic.

Show notes

For more on the Lens, visit

A pavlova recipe courtesy Seb’s Mum 

Watch for more on The Lens at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) that Seb discusses in this episode.


Angie: Hello, and welcome to the Data Diaries. I’m Angie Judge from Dexibit and here with us today, we have Seb Chan, Chief Experience Officer at the Australian Center for the Moving Image, a big welcome to Seb.

But before we start, I’m going to get this out there. You could be forgiven for assuming that Seb is Australian: he’s based in Melbourne, he serves as the Adjunct Professor at the School of Media and Communications at the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT plus he’s on the board of the National Communications Museum in Melbourne and is the national president of the Australian Museums and Galleries Association. And I should add outside of Australia, also an advisory board member of Art Science Museum in Singapore, too.

And many of our listeners will be familiar with Seb’s earlier digital transformation work at the Powerhouse in Sydney. And of course, between Sydney and Melbourne, he then jetted to New York to lead the digital renewal and transformation of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, in New York, including the very well known ‘pen’ experience. But Seb is actually a kiwi like me from New Zealand and we New Zealanders are very sensitive about things that are mistakenly claimed as Australian, like Crowded House and Russell Crowe and Pavlova. So I just needed to get the record on that straight first.

So Seb, you pretty much invented the Chief Experience Officer or the CXO role for visitor attractions. And so many people have now followed in your footsteps, especially in this era of the experience economy. What trends in the sector brought about that need on the leadership team and how has the role evolved for you in the years?

Seb: Yeah, it’s interesting. When my role was called the CXO role, it was really an acknowledgement that museums and galleries were primarily experiential spaces. That now sounds ridiculous that we didn’t think they were before, but there was a moment I think when we were a little bit less sure about that, strangely enough.

And I think that sort of mid the early 2010s and certainly subsequent to 2015, it’s very rare to find senior museum people or boards that don’t feel that museum and gallery experiences are fully experiential things. Obviously we’ve got a long way to go with that in what that actually means in the production and the processes and your end curation.

But I think we were pretty clear. We operate as part of an experience economy and we don’t just need to follow in that sense too. The other thing that’s changed perhaps in my role, particularly, we did a restructure here in 2019 as a part of preparing to reopen, this was pre COVID. And that, restructure was a ground up restructure where the staff designed and voted for a new organizational structure. And it was interesting in that my role now pulls in a lot more teams than it did previously in that experiencing engagement division of the museum is one of the major divisions of the museum now.

And that means, the CXO role touches more of that visitor journey and more of the interactions visitors have, and also staff have with each other. And so that experience extends beyond the outward facing, but actually more seriously acknowledges the inward facing and the new opportunities that that brings. And that’s interaction, perhaps the more obvious end of things, around brand and communications.

Angie: I’m interested in coming back to this restructure a little bit later in our conversation, because it’s a fascinating thing what you’re doing with the team there, but I’ve never really thought about it like that, how you talk about this new age of the experience experiential space. I’ve certainly heard the argument played out: ‘are we here first for the collection or the visitor’, but I’ve never really had that takeaway that you’ve shone a light on for me about this shift and in the leadership space of visitor attractions and museums of there being a time when, regardless of which one of those things comes first, we even didn’t consider the experience of the space.

Seb: Yeah, it’s interesting isn’t it? I think part of the sort of realization and the way particularly museums and galleries have seen themselves as part of cities and have had stronger relationships with city governments, and then other, other levels of government too, and planning and urban planning and that sort of thing. Being part of the revitalization of cities, the whole ‘Bilbao effect’ and all of that was happening for years, decades, in fact. The experience economy phrase comes out of the 1990s, but at some point that that flipped over into the way museums work with curation and collections to, and perhaps it dates back to the period when there was that switch from visitors not being allowed to take photos in museums, and then suddenly they are, maybe it does date to really the birth of mobile and smartphones in museums that really seals the deal. I often also think in other media, the way that fan cultures and audience participation is now built into the way major film, feature, feature films, and other ‘IP properties’, for want of a better word, are designed and made now. So, you can sort of draw a line, I guess, between the pre fan designed media and the post fan designed media. If we think about Marvel films, the way that they’re almost structured to engage fans beyond the moment, you’re actually watching the film itself, the content of the film is a small part of your engagement with that, in their world, the Marvel cinematic universe, which includes all that stuff around the fans and the stories fans tell to each other and share and all of those things. That was kind of not a thing, but it’s hard to imagine that, it’s a bit like it’s very hard to imagine the world before Wikipedia or the world before Google, or even sadly, a world without capitalism.

Angie: And I know this sort of cultural equivalent of fandom and how the experience plays into that, before, during, and after the visit to a physical venue, plays a really big into your philosophy around what it means to have an experience in a museum. But I’m glad you mentioned this trigger around digital and smartphones for this change of where we are now.

How do you actually see the CXO role itself fitting with the CDO or the Chief Digital Officer role we saw so much attention to emerging in the years prior?

Seb: Yeah. It’s interesting question. I think the CDO and the CXO in many ways merged, because digital is no longer as a separate thing, digital is part of experience and it’s part of the mission and purpose. I think the fading out of the CDO role that sort of occurred around, I guess, between 2013 to 2017, was really an acknowledgement that there isn’t a museum experience, there isn’t a museum, without digital, in any way. And you know, in my group, we have the ICT and the infrastructure side of things in my remit as well.

It’s interesting, the different ways we have discussions inside the institution and outside the institution in the CEO digital mentoring program that we’re running in Australia, this sort of sense around digital having an infrastructural element to it, but also a creative capacity element to it as well, alongside the notions of digital literacy and digital fluency. The infrastructural side, much as the, the materiality of IT, hasn’t gone away. There’s still rare earth metals. There are still, you know, the cloud as a series of server farms in warehouses in cheap real estate parts of the world. You know, it’s all that sort of stuff. There are pipes, there are cables, there are physical things that materiality, I think it’s starting to come back and we’re starting to think about the interplay between what museums and galleries and make possible as being constrained a little by that material. And needing staff, technically savvy staff who are aware of what that materiality means infrastructurally, but also then also staff who can see it in terms of capability and possibility in terms of experience.

And that that’s something that the CDO role, I guess, as emerging out of a CIO, role: the CIO was all the info, the hard IT side of things. The CDO was sort of a softer version of that. The CXO tries to marry those two. Often I do see a lot of CXO roles, newish CXO roles, sort of foregoing that in that infrastructural side, even though it probably plays a more significant part now than ever before. And certainly technical literacies haven’t gone away. They’re very important, even more so now with machine learning, actually understanding the technologies is a key part of being competent in the emerging world.

Angie: I was going to ask this question a little bit later on, but we keep on coming back to the cross-functional nature of your team and the necessity of that for the CXO role to be successful. And I know at ACMI, in addition to going through a redevelopment these past few years, it also underwent a simultaneous, bottom up staff led restructure that the staff themselves had voted for, which sounds very unique. And essentially from what I understand adopting this notion of cross-functional teams. So what has that been like?

Seb: Yeah, it was exciting and challenging. Katrina Sedgwick, our CEO and Director instigated that change. It was really, I think her way of acknowledging that the institution before redevelopment and after reopening were going to be different. And the staff led restructure was a way of signalling that and buying in ownership amongst the staff of ‘this is a new institution now, how do we need to operate it?’ So staff formed groups and came up with different models for executives and teams, and the like, and then proposed a series that were then voted on. And then that was taken to the executive and the board and with some tweaks, implemented. But it was really a way of signaling change and signaling that, we’d been through physical change and for some of us, programmatic changes for the curatorial staff, and those who work deep deeply with the renewal project, this programmatic change. And obviously alongside that, the technological shifts too. But then opening the building was bringing out the lived reality to all the stuff. That it was going to be a different museum. And it wasn’t a different museum that was static, but it was a museum that was starting with new opportunities to do different things that people who worked on the renewal hadn’t imagined, but we’re setting the stage for that to be possible.

If that makes sense. So it was sort of like birthing a new world. And then rather than that being seen as a static thing; as some something that needed people to buy into and then further develop. Which I think was really exciting and it has been really exciting. It’s helped a lot of the subsequent process change changes that we’re still working through since launch, with some of the old practices, systems and processes, ways of doing things, have become clear that they’ve needed to adjust both as a result of the new building and new opportunities that brings and the more diverse audiences we were attracting and the different needs they bring.

But also then also with COVID, we’ve been able to use this moment of change to work comparatively well with the challenges of the pandemic. But I think for us, we’re in a rather privileged and unique base where we’re already going through that change process anyway. We were already closed. And so it was about adjusting and making the most of a terrible opportunity.

Angie: We’ve certainly noticed ourselves an almost organic move to more agility, more urgency, in the way that a lot of cultural institutions in particular working at the moment. You mentioned changes to your practices and processes in there. How has that cross-functional nature in adopting agile and so forth changed the practicalities of how the ACMI team approached things like a new exhibition versus what you would see a traditional museum doing?

Seb: Well, we haven’t adopted it across everything. I would make clear that we have, we still have a mix of different practices and processes. We have a new project management framework that has really only just begun. We’ve been working on this for quite a while with one of our university partners, which again, you know, it was about understanding that not everything can change at once, but sometimes what you arrive at requires further change and more things come into play there. Certainly as we’ve come to learn the building and its affordances, that’s become more clear. I guess the other, you know, we have a lot of legacy systems, I’m talking, talking about collections management, I’m talking about ticketing systems, those systems take a long time to change. And in many cases, it’s about how you work with them rather than what the systems actually are. So again, it’s been about shifting to a model. And I think the new organizational structure, it’s not really new since 2019, but the 2019 to now structure has more transparency across processes.

So the cross functional piece of the institution requires cross functional workings to be visible to all. And so, so certainly transparency has been key in that. And, you know, we used Slack and Trello and Confluence to show more things to more teams, if they’re curious, and certainly across the experience in engagement group, which is now really large, there’s lots of staff and lots of managers in that group, the cross-functional nature is supported by our systems rather than the systems getting in the way of that.

Angie: For our listeners out there, ACMI is about film games, TV, digital culture, and you’ve been undergoing a massive redevelopment in these past few years. The museum shut its doors in 2019 and reopened in 2021, really fortunate timing and in a way, given what the world was going through in 2020, albeit that we’re sadly still in lockdown in Australia with the Delta outbreak. How has the essence of the visitor experience atACMI shifted with both the redevelopment and then the pandemic, on top?

Seb: We were designing from the very beginning in the very early stage of the master planning for that redevelopment project, $40 million redevelopment: architectural, technological, and programmatic slash curatorial that, it was very much about creating the tools and the opportunities for a museum that does things, particularly film, TV, games, digital culture – we now say screen culture. Those are all screens. Screen culture is a field that is not exclusive to the museum, like in that the visitors b ring a lot of their own knowledge and have a lot of opportunities to both create and consume and participate in screen culture when they go home, which is quite different to a museum of fine arts.

Obviously it has things that you can’t experience at home. We have a museum of everything that you can and do experience at home. And in many ways, the purpose of the visit is to expose you to other things. And other ways of looking at, listening, watching, and playing things you are familiar with and perhaps things you are not familiar with.

So it’s that sort of sense of change, changing people’s perception that they then take away with them as well. So, in the technological side of the visitor experience, this was about building tools for that in a gallery experience, to extend into people’s homes. People get this thing, we call the Lens: a recyclable, take home device that they can go around their galleries and collect things as they move through. And then take home to watch at home later on various streaming platforms or on their PlayStation or other gaming platforms as well. Super exciting. And that in some ways creates a visitor experience, that’s quite interesting, but it also creates a curatorial experience that’s that’s interesting too, because allows the curators to connect the things that they have access to through our collection or through loans in our galleries to things that they don’t have, that they can point people to when they get home- they can connect TV and films and games to other things that the museum would never ever show, but has an interest in. In the early days, I would often talk about it gives the museum the opportunity to curate the world of screen culture, which I think is really interesting and exciting as an opportunity to do.

The second side of that was with the pandemic, obviously our reopening was delayed. We opened in February 2021 with the gallery experience and all of this. But before that, we launched a reboot of the main themes of the major ongoing exhibition we have, ‘Story of the Moving Image’, as a digital magazine experience with videos embedded and all sorts of stuff that really zoom down on the major curatorial stories of the exhibitions and programming.

We also launched Gallery Five, which is a web gallery for net art, which are new commissions predominantly that we’re doing now as well. And a thing called Cinema Three. So we have two physical cinema in our building, but Cinema Three is an online pay per view, rental streaming service, which is great too. And that’s allowed not only us to continue our programming, but also because the museum hosts film festivals for various other community groups and others, from human rights film festival, the environmental, the queer film festival, to the Japanese film festival and many, many others, that Cinema Three platform is offered to those festival clients for them to use, which again, allows them to do things that they couldn’t do if they were just using our physical cinema. So that allows them to have a film festival on our platform that actually reaches all of Australia potentially, which is very, very different when you’re thinking about that from a programming perspective, a festival within a building, within Melbourne itself, where the audience is primarily Melbourne, Melbourne people. So again, using the opportunities of the museum to end the infrastructure of the museum as a community platform.

That’s been really exciting, continuing to grow in ways I don’t think we had suspected we would do as quickly prior to COVID.

Angie: I certainly enjoyed a lot of screen culture during my lockdown. I’m going to have to check out this Cinema Three to get me through the last bit, but this is a really fascinating thing to me that as a cultural institution, this isn’t just a program, this is a platform that you’re enabling these partners to deliver new experiences to their communities.

Seb: I think that is the role of infrastructure projects. That was always the role with the redevelopment of the museum was to use that capital investment to create new opportunities, not just for ourselves, but for others, to our communities that we work and serve, artists that we work with and other creative, practitioners too, but also in a digital sense that we can provide other supports. We are a museum of screen culture. We have skin in the game and we have stakes in that too. And so we need to be, to think beyond just the venue as both the physical and digital space. What does that enable? It creates an enabling museum, which I think is very important, particularly in increasingly fractious times.

Right back to the very early days of the master planning, which we did with David Hebblethwaite, a New Zealand based museum designer. David had this beautiful phrase of ‘visitor chemistry’ and he would describe that as really great museum experiences where visitor chemistry is created and that allows people from different families or cultural groups visiting a museum to talk to each other when they don’t know each other. And I just felt that that really encapsulated what a public museum should should be doing is creating those spaces where people talk to each other. That’s something, in these difficult political times, and economic times, we need more spaces where that’s possible, and they need to be designed to enable that rather than designed without trying to do that.

Angie: And speaking of that early advice, I really enjoyed one of your recent blog articles. You mentioned some words from, was it Elaine Gurian, on operating models for new or refurbished venues, which was ‘always design for three levels of visitation: extremely busy, busy, and almost empty’. You referred to that as ‘fallow periods that are part of every cultural institutions operating reality’. How did you achieve that? And how has that come to fruition in these days of lockdowns and reopenings?

Seb: Elaine said that to me when I was still at the Powerhouse Museum. Elaine spent most of her career building and reopening and launching museums. She had done the NMAI for the Smithsonian the Native American museum there. It’s been such an important voice in the museum community. I always thought it was really interesting, this sort of challenge of designing for the very busy days, but then the reality that a lot of days there’s no one there. There’s always a time, maybe it’s Tuesday at 10:00 AM, when the galleries are super quiet and if they don’t work well, then it’s not a success. Similarly, if a visitor visits when it’s really busy, how are you going to manage that?

For us, we’ve been fortunate. We’ve had some really, really busy days when we’ve been able to be open, but we’ve also realized that, since COVID, the visiting pattern to the city and people’s leisure time have quite significantly changed. And certainly without, for many months, domestic and international national tourism in Australia and in Melbourne, border closures and other things. The weekdays have been very quiet for us, but the weekends have been enormously busy well beyond what we’re expected. And that’s created this very lived reality of that. We actually changed out our hours to cope with that. So we now open from 12 o’clock to five during the week. And from 10 o’clock to six on weekends, but for school visits, we opened from 9 o’clock to 12 during the week for booked school visits, which is something we didn’t previously do. In the before times school visitors would be going through the galleries in the mornings during the week at the same time as tourists and other visitors would. And there would be that tension that is created between groups of school kids, and tourists coming in wanting to have a quieter gallery experience. And it’s been interesting that by adjusting with COVID realities, we’ve been able to cater for both groups. And our visitor experience staff too. They really do prioritize a great visitor experience for all, but the operating model now supports that better. And I guess, linked to that too, the sense that we were able to be more nuanced around how we sort of support visitors with different kinds of needs. So we have low sensory times slots as well for visitors with sensory requirements, where we have the lighting up higher, and we have less sound and all of this.

The pandemic coupled with our redevelopment, coupled with the organizational shift around thinking, and the prioritization of that visitor experience has allowed us to achieve some of those things that I think we always wanted to achieve, but the building and the operating model got in the way.

Angie: I’ve seen so many attractions change their opening hours to the post COVID world, that being one of the most impactful changes that they’ve made in reopening… but that’s genius to bring in the schools separately because it really helps the experience of both the kids and the other visitors, neither of which sometimes do well at the same time.

Seb: Also for, for teachers too, they really love this sense that the schools get a special experience too, and also in a COVID world it makes it easier for parents to feel that their kids are safe and they won’t be with anyone else who isn’t part of the school community.

Angie: Behind the scenes, I’ve heard a few whispers of what your team have been building out, what you’ve dubbed as an ‘experience operating system’ or xOS. What is the vision for that?

Seb: Yeah, the xOS is something that came from when Greg Turner was working as our CTO on the renewal. And it was really about giving a name to quite a disparate set of middleware, the different back of house systems to connect to each other. So a lot of legacy systems systems in terms of collection management and ticketing, particularly, but also legacy websites and the xOS now connects those systems to each other, but also to all the new gallery infrastructure. And has spun out some things around temperature and condition monitoring, IP and license management, all sorts of things that were never in the original scope, but became necessary as part of that. If everything is connected up in a lightweight way, there are all these other benefits if you connect these other adjacent things up.

The xOS continues to grow, but it’s a network of interconnecting bricks to connect other Lego blocks together. And it’s, you know, relatively unique to us in that we couldn’t just give xOS to another museum, it’s more a philosophical approach.

There are of course productized units of that. So the temperature and condition management suite is available for other museums to use and similarly, some of the connectors to proprietary systems. And also of course the infrastructure that sits around the Lens. So the way the lens works, as NFC device has a series of readers, which are physical microcomputers with software running on them. Those are also productizable as well. So it’s a mix. The xOS has sort of a a brand umbrella to cover a complex network of little things.

Angie: Seb, you mentioned the Lens earlier, this physical disc shaped souvenir that deliberately looks like a ViewMaster slide, that visitors receive when they come to the museum and they then tap to collect these things that they’re enjoying to take ACMI home with them, maybe pin it on their fridge and come back to what they enjoyed later and share. What lessons did you take from the ‘Pen’ at Cooper Hewitt and your strategy forward for the Lens and ACMI?

Seb: The ‘Pen’ at Cooper Hewitt was constrained by the technical realities and production realities of that period of time. And the specific context of Cooper Hewitt, very early on in that, that we did originally want to give visitors a pen to take home with them. But of course the manufacture, the physical reality of that costs, the manufacturing and all the other things meant that was never going to be possible. But it was always the idea, that if you could give something to someone that they took home, that would be much, much better than giving them something to borrow that then they took a proxy home, like a code on a ticket for. And so when we did the one that could have a travelling exhibition, to New Zealand, to Te Papa (the National Museum of New Zealand) to Art Science in Singapore as well, a local design and art company came up with a thing called the map, which we used in that exhibition. It was a take home folding piece of paper that did magical things with technology. And we found that that worked really well. And visitors really excited about getting this souvenir-able thing, and the Lens then evolved from a much more optical device as was originally in the master planning in 2016, 2017 to this ViewMaster style souvenir piece. It’s really the size of a compact disc or a DVD. And there’s that Blue-Ray disc, I guess now even physical media is a bit weird, but yeah, this points to the physicality of visual of screen screen culture too. So it’s got nice messages built into it.

It’s a beautiful thing, but it works similar to the ‘Pen’, except it doesn’t have batteries. So the battery, the power is in the walls. Something we couldn’t do at Cooper Hewitt rather (the power was independent at Cooper Hewitt). So it really extends that. And I think the other thing that we’ve done that the experience of doing Cooper Hewitt definitely attuned me to, the production realities that manufacturing physical products is really hard, particularly in any sense of scale. And that was something in the early days of Cooper Hewitt, we were working with Local Projects and we were all at that moment, you know, we’re talking 2012, there was that big boom on Kickstarter where everybody was doing physical, small round manual manufacturing projects, lots of artists, a lot of designers, a lot of creative people were like, ‘wow, we can actually do physical menu manufacturing now’. And 3D printing was hype and all of this sort of stuff, but actually it turns out that making things and shipping them to people as physical things is really, really hard. And we saw through 2013, 14, and 15, that a lot of those Kickstarter projects blew out or didn’t ship at all. You know, manufacturing is really hard, but the Cooper Hewitt experience, my team there and working with all our collaborators there it was such a great experience in understanding or beginning to understand the challenges and the opportunities of bespoke manufacturing in the museum space.

Also the absolute criticality of on boarding and the visitor experience in integration around bringing something new in to a museum experience. That sense that a museum visitor arrives at a museum, not expecting to be given a pen or map or lens, they don’t expect that to be a key part of what they do nor do they necessarily get how it works.

And so certainly the importance of designing user journey around that product, it’s super important. And that’s something we worked really hard on with the teams that at here with the Lens and Lucy Patterson’s team has done a huge amount of evolution around that and thinking around ‘How does that work? How do we communicate that to visitors? What a visitors doing with it?’. What we learned from Cooper Hewitt, the effort pays off many times over because people remember it. And even when it only partially works they’re are excited about ‘this is different from other museums’.

I got a lovely message from a museum colleague who works at AMNH New York, the natural history across the road from Cooper Hewitt, who had been doing some visitor research and was speaking to some teenagers in New York last year. Some of them actually mentioned, ‘I went to this amazing museum where you got this pen thing and it did all this stuff, it was so cool’. And I was like, wow, that is success because that is the thing the kid remember remembers and associates with that museum experience. And it’s something that if we’re going to diversify who visits museums and who is inspired by your museums, we need to make museums feel special and different from each other. And it isn’t just what’s in the museum, it is the experience of them. Part of the museum also has got to be unique and useful and usable.

So the Lens really leans in on that and pushes hard around this sort of sense of you’re in a museum of screen culture, you should be able to take things home to watch. Of course you should, you’re at a museum of film, TV and games. If you come to the museum, you should expect that you are going to go home and watch or play more things on screens. That’s the point. And I think the Lens does that pretty well, you know? It’s evolved a lot from the complexity of the ‘Pen’ and it’s very simple and works very well.

Greg Turner and the team did a huge amount of work on getting the feedback when you touch the Lens to a label, to be very snappy. We’re talking shaving microseconds off an interaction, but when you’re doing that 40 times in a day, those microseconds add up. And it’s been really interesting to see how that last 10% of design finesse pays off.

Angie: It is the ultimate challenge, isn’t it? This new CXO era, when faced with these new generations coming through of bringing these two things together, the hybrid: the physical visit and the digital experience, whether you’re having a digital experience during your physical visit or coming back to your physical visit through your digital connection.

Seb: The obvious thing everyone asks is ‘why isn’t it just on people’s phones’. And that was a question we were asked in New York, too. All of the time. ‘Why isn’t this just an app, can’t I do that with my phone?’. I’ve often come back to that question and I would always say, ‘but you do that on your phone, in the rest of your life’.

It is not special. The phone is no longer magical. And in fact, what we want to do is create experiences within museums when everything else is accessible and should be accessible, you want to create unique experiences within museums that are memorable and different from the outside world.

I was talking way back in 2016, again, during this master planning phase. There’s some drawings of some of the meetings that we had in those early days. And you know, this sort of sense of the museum as a magic circle and visitors attaining superpowers, when they come into the museum that they don’t have in the outside world. When you come to the museum, what is the special thing that gives you superpowers while you’re there that then changes your life when you leave… and just putting things on a phone , it doesn’t do that. That’s just like work or school or hanging out, like, that’s fine, but it’s not different. That really changes how people perceive the difference of the museum to the rest of their lives. That difference is important and that difference matters because that’s what helps museum visitors achieve, boost their curiosity or engage them with whatever the museums try and get to them.

Angie: I love that. It’s the ultimate bullet to the question of, ‘doesn’t digital take away from the fact that the visitor wants to visit?’. I love that giving them super powers is the thing that makes that visit special and not. What’s next for you and the team at Acme? Where to from here?.

Seb: I think COVID, it’s obviously changed a lot of the, the realities of the future. The other thing I should’ve mentioned in the redevelopment was the significant new focus on first nations storytelling and self representation. Telling local stories has been even more critical now. Those local stories and the nature of those stories and who gets to tell those stories has also accelerated during COVID and it’s brought out many of the social inequities in our society. And is very well-placed now with technologies. It’s new programming, for the affordances and the architectural affordances of the physical space itself and of our digital spaces in Gallery Five. It’s really well set up to continue to allow different and new and emerging things to be experimented with. Quicker and more cheaply than ever before.

And I think that’s really where we’re at now, where we’re taking stock of how things have been and how things are being used. And we are evolving those for all the future exhibitions and all the future programming. So you’ll see when Lens integration with all of the ex exhibitions we have coming in and we’re building ourselves over the next couple of years and also evolving. I’m doing a lot of work around accessibility: what are some of the accessibility affordances that the Lens brings, which was some stuff that was originally planned in the redevelopment.. But we did quicker solves for those, so automatic captioning and things like that. But what we can now offer again with the Lens, which needs further software development for a lot more synchronization to people’s own devices for accessibility reasons. And also this greater extension into what Katrina calls multi-platform museums. So the development of Gallery Five and Cinema Three, these initiatives that really sprung out of COVID and the need for us to deliver infrastructure and content and programming through purely digital channels. Those will continue. And of course the integration of that into how we program and how we think about things, is that multi-platform? This is now baked in. It’s still a little way to go, but when people are thinking about a talk series or commission or whatever it is, how is this going to work across the national regional international reach that – network delivered program brings but also deliver specifically within the building too. And it’s that hybridness that I think is interesting and is challenging. We know from the music world and music streaming and the infinite Zooms, we’re on every day still that there are different challenges there, and there are different levels of visitor tolerance.

If I’ve spent the day on Zoom as I have today, I’m not interested in going to a talk on Zoom at seven o’clock, but maybe that I can watch that talk on the weekend. That will be great. So, you know, there’s lots of new things emerging. I’ve talked for more than, more than a decade now about the time wallet visitors engaging with museums and anything really has. So a visitor leaves their house with a certain amount of time in their wallet. And it’s how they spend that time. That matters and the return that they as a visitor get on that time matters too. And I think that’s the same with these multi-platform experiences as well.

And trying to figure out the affordances and the boundaries of those. And of course, all of the other stuff, digital arts, going through a pretty exciting moment now. And there’s a lot of questions about how hard it is to get paid. And again, there’s a lot of questions and it’s difficult to imagine a different world at the moment, but we need to, because COVID is really the trial for climate change and climate crisis.

We need to get better at collectively working together and at a global scale, distributed and synchronously as well. There’s lots of stuff in there. And what does that mean for museums? They’ve got to play a huge part in that or contribute in some way.

Angie: It is the perfect charge for us to finish on and thank you much for that incredible walk through all the amazing things that you have accomplished with your team and the redevelopment and reopening and wishing you all the best for that secondary opening now and November.

Seb: It’s been great to chat. This has always been the work of large teams and many other people. None of this is my work, it’s always collective.

Angie: And I’m going to go and find your mother’s pavlova recipe.

Seb: Excellent!

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Connecting exhibitions and experiences through visitor services at Auckland Museum

Connecting exhibitions and experiences through visitor services at Auckland Museum

David Lew, Visitor Services Solutions Manager at Auckland Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira talks about how to connect exhibitions with visitor experience through the power of visitor services, including with He Kōrahi Māori, the Māori dimension (the indigenous people of Aotearoa, New Zealand).

Show notes

David refers to several words in Te Reo Māori, the indigenous language of Aotearoa, New Zealand:
– Marae, Māori meeting grounds
– Iwi, tribe
– Pōwhiri, welcome ceremony
– Mana whenua, customary authority exercised by an iwi (tribe)
– Mahi toi, art or art work
– Kaitiaki, guardianship of the sky, sea and land
– Tanoa (Pacific), a large wooden bowl for kava ceremonies

Watch for more on Te Ao Mārama (the South Atrium) that David discusses in this episode.


Angie: Hello and welcome to the data diaries. I’m Angie judge from Dexibit. And here with us today we have David Lew, Visitor Services Solutions Manager at Auckland War Memorial Museum. Welcome David!

David: Thank you for having me.

Angie: Thanks for being here. And David, you’re joining us from your ‘bubble’ at home… because we’ve ended up, as we speak here in September 21, in yet another lockdown this pandemic after a local outbreak. That was a bit of a plot twist!

David: Absolutely! Yeah, I think now that we’ve had so many of these lockdowns, so the kids are kind of used to it and maybe even relieved that they don’t have to get up early.

Angie: Anyhow today, we’re going to talk all about exhibitions and visitor experiences and other activities as part of the public program.

So this is a conversation that I’ve been really looking forward to. Shall we start at the very beginning? David, can you shed some light for me… what exactly is a visitor services solutions manager?

David: Yeah, well, it’s an interesting role and it’s something I feel like I’m regularly learning more about this. So visitor services solutions manager, very generally, I support everything that our visitor services team does onsite. We have about 50 people that work as visitor hosts. We have another couple of people that work as bookings and sales coordinators on phones. And we have a leadership team that works along with all of these people as well. And so it’s my job to try to support everyone, identify opportunities for solutions and maybe new technical products, that kind of thing, anything that might help our team deliver better customer service, but it is an interesting role.

So originally I came on as the development manager, kind of the learning and development role for the team. I would do training analysis and instructional design and facilitate and coordinate all the training. Kind of a one-person training team. And when I first started about two years ago, one of the first problems that I identified was that the team felt really disconnected from a lot of the other teams around the museum.

So a lot of my work for the last couple of years has been almost like an internal relationship manager. I’ll go and meet the other teams and learn about what they do and how they can benefit from greater involvement with our visitor services. Often that’s making sure that we’re able to give insight into how different things will be, maybe how the visitors will impact or be impacted by the decisions that have been made in exhibition spaces… you know, where people are likely to be gathering and eating and which things need to be placed higher so that children can’t grab it and pull it down. Those types of insights that maybe don’t always come until you’ve had some advice from people that are out on the floor working with all the visitors. It’s a really cool way of working back with the rest of the museum team.

Angie: Cause I know it can otherwise sometimes be a bit of an after thought?

David: Yeah. Well, that’s definitely one of the struggles that happens too often. One of the things I’ve learned is that it’s not uncommon for people to have maybe almost like, a purist view, or an intention about an exhibition. You’ve got this idea that we’re going to express all these concepts or convey all this. And in your mind as the designer of that exhibition or that space, you might think that everyone’s going to naturally go to the right and they’re going to follow this path and they’re going to read all these things and they’re going to have this experience.

And then when you add that perspective of learning about what visitors actually do when they come to these spaces, we can quite quickly say, ‘oh no, no one’s going to read that. Everyone’s going to walk over here and they’re all going to sit down and all these kids are gonna cluster up at this table and they’re all going to line up to do this thing’. Just with a little bit of a perspective we can help to correct some of those initial intentions and make sure that it’s a good visitor experience for everybody there.

Angie: I imagine that might be a line used frequently of ‘no one’s going to read that’.

David: Just in balance. So isn’t there cause it might be that we’ll have that perspective of ‘that’s going to get very little use’ or ‘no one’s going to read that label there’ and then you might still have that handful of people that do get a really meaningful exercise out of reading that one label and then it’s like, well, maybe it was worth it.

Angie: My husband is one of those people, him and I can not visit a museum simultaneously.

David: Does he read everything?

Angie: Oh yes. Every single word, every single exhibition, every single museum.

I understand you’ve come into the role from a background in nonprofit and government. What motivated you originally coming into the museum?

David: Yeah, well, so my background’s been training design and community development. I spent several years coordinating and facilitating a youth program in New Zealand and Australia in Papa New Guinea. And that was all about helping young people make good decisions and contribute to their neighborhoods.

And then I spent several years in my career and often that has been about mental health. I don’t know for whatever reason, that’s been the path that I’ve been on. So I’ve worked with some mental health providers and support lines in particular. And that’s been very interesting, very eye-opening. And I admire all the people that can do that with their careers and quite a good experience, very eye-opening in terms of what people are dealing with in terms of their mental health around the country and the ways that people support. And then I worked for Auckland Council for a bit as an instructional designer there with the customer services team.

When the opportunity came up to work at the museum, it just felt too appealing a prospect to turn down, I really wanted to grab the job. I mean, part of it is just that it’s so cool to work inside of the museum and to be around that environment. I guess for me, it wasn’t so much a challenge switching from social enterprises and not-for-profits and coming into a museum. I mean, it all kind of felt like it aligned to me. It’s all learning, it’s all improvement. It’s all helping the community to understand its history and the contemporary application of that history as well. It’s all fascinating to me. I also really enjoy the fact that because it’s a museum that does not only natural science exhibition and content and history and culture. And it means that I get to constantly learn from everyone and everything that’s going on in the building as well. So I really enjoy that aspect of working.

Angie: And you’ve come into the museum in the middle of its five-year strategic plan, which is currently in the transform phase. And as part of this, I see the museum has recently completed a really stunning refurbishment of its south atrium ‘Te Ao Mārama’, which itself has sort of reconceptualized the feeling of visiting the museum with such a huge project, including big transformation of where special exhibitions are hosted, a lot of changes to retail and hospitality around that experience of that whole area, especially when a big exhibition is on… what went into the thinking behind that? And what have you seen as a result?

David: So the museum itself is about, what, a hundred years old now. In 1929, this particular site opened up and the building at the time was very much the war memorial. That’s the Northern entrance with the great columns, European styles of architecture. Then around in the 1960s the Southern entrance in the semicircle was built there. At first, from my understanding, at the time, that was mainly meant to be offices and a staff entrance. What we now know as the atrium was just an open courtyard. Over the decades, after that, eventually it became covered up and it became a public entrance. You would walk in that Southern entrance and immediately hit an information desk. There was a smaller exhibition space behind it, then you would end up on the flanks of that, the atrium and entry entering into the museum.

What we’ve done with the Te Ao Mārama space is we’ve really indigenized that entrance experience. So now when you watch people walk in, there’s a couple of gates Mahi Toi (art works), which have some Kaitiaki (guardianship), guardians protecting the space there. That’s the first thing you see as you come in through that entrance. About the same time, you’ll be able to hear voices of the mana whenua (customary authority) of the local iwi (tribe) singing the songs about their arrival into Auckland. And so you’re going through steps that parallel a pōwhiri (welcoming) process when, when you’re visiting local Marae (meeting grounds) of local iwi in New Zealand, this is the process that you go through, you’re greeted and welcomed.

Once you’re through the gates and you’re listening to these songs and there’s a visualization of these different tribes as they entered the Auckland Harbor as well. And you’re underneath a giant, kava bowl, the Tanua that we have, it’s above you and it’s this massive circular shape it’s above you as you enter.

And you see people just kind of hit with that sense of awe when they’re walking in the space for the first time. And the whole kava bowl is supported by the legs of the bowl, which are also the elevator shafts in the building. And the they’re decorated with manuloa, which are this bright red pattern that’s made to look like birds. And it’s also a reminiscent of the lashings that would be used to fix ships together, on these voyages. And so what you’re getting from all of these different things, the symbolism of the space and the entryway and the kava bowl, this is all telling the story about arrival into New Zealand, arrival into Auckland and connections into the past of human voyages and expeditions across the Pacific. It’s this really powerful experience that we get to welcome visitors with as they come through that Southern entrance.

Angie: So beautiful as well to symbolize the role of Auckland as well and this heart of the Pacific being in many ways, the capital of the Pacific and the different peoples that have arrived into the city. It’s amazing to see that represented through the museum’s physical building. 

David: Underneath the Tanua there’s this projection that’s going on as well. It’s again telling these stories of arrival and talking with some of the exhibitions team, I remember when we first opened up in December and we were able to invite the public in to see what had come, I guess the fruits of the labor. So there’s one projection on the back wall, showing boats and these different stories of arrival and it’s kind of a seascape. And then on the floor underneath, is a different variety of images. So then we have things like, stingrays swimming around, and fish, boats. And what was really heartening was to see how children in particular will respond to this projection. This is simply a flat projection on the floor, but kids will jump on it and they’re crawling around and they ‘stand’ in the boat and they wait excitedly for the next projection to show. It’s really quite lovely, very encouraging.

Angie: I think there’s no age barrier for that as well, I saw a six month old baby having the time of its life the other day on that projection, simply because it was so accessible on the floor.

So I’m really curious about this one because the museum does such a spectacular job and has put so much emphasis and energy into it as well with a refurbishment. How do you incorporate Te Reo, our indigenous language and tikanga, our cultural practices into the visitor experience around these various exhibitions and the building itself?

David: As a museum, we promote a value that we call He Korahi Māori, which means the Maori dimension. And so we have individuals and teams around the museum dedicated to ensuring that everything that we’re doing is done with that Māori perspective as well. So in addition to our teams that focus on He Korahi Māori within the museum, our museum board also has a trustee board that we call Taumata-ā-Iwi and they act as representatives for the different Māori tribes around Auckland. So those tribes have decided on which people should be part of that board.

And then that board advisors the museum board. And so that’s for anything that might be to do with any indigenous history. We also have people that will do supporting literature. We try to make sure that everything we’re doing is done in a considered and deliberate approach. We don’t want to offend anyone, but more importantly than that, we need to make sure that we’re representing stories correctly. That we’re really providing that honoring way to tell these stories and to make sure that we’re doing things accurately with our visitor services team. One of the first courses that we go through in our team is to talk about the value of Manakitanga. Sometimes it’s translated as simply, hospitality, and I think that it doesn’t tell the whole story. The idea of Manakitanga is that it’s the actions that are giving Mana (energy and power) to others. And mana can be translated like, honor, or, maybe even, the respect or the status that a person has, depending on their manner.

So when we talk about Manakitanga, we’re talking about the need to make sure that our visitor hosts are treating people in a way that gives each of those visitors this mana, and in the context of a museum, that mana is shown by welcoming these visitors into not only your home or your workplace, but you’re also welcoming them into the lives and the stories of all the people that we represent in the museum.

So in my understanding of Māori tikanga and the way that you would do things the right way and Māori culture, every object or artifact that we have in the building, that obviously it was created by someone, someone used it for their lifetime and someone donated it. And so there’s, for any particular artifact, there might be dozens of people or scores of people that interacted with this item before it got to being in the museum case and being on display.

And so Manakitanga for the visitor services team means how are we going to make sure about all of these scores of people and the stories that led up to this day. And it’s not necessarily that we have that whole history of it, but more about that approach and making sure that everyone feels that almost that sense of reverence or awe as you’re looking into the history of these things.

And so that’s why from that indigenous perspective, it’s so much more than, ‘here’s a tool that someone used centuries ago’ or ‘here’s an item that we know was a weapon’. But it really is much more about considering the fact that this is something that was treasured. It’s still close to a lot of people. The identity of my ancestors for instance, might be attached to this item. And it’s important for me to treat that with a reverence that’s much more than just, here’s some things in a case.

Angie: So the museum has got quite a delicate balance though, because it’s free for Auckland, it is not for tourists and you’ve got ticketed admissions on top for a special exhibitions and other sorts of experiences and events. How does your team manage that dance for visitors that are coming into the atrium space and what sort of challenges do you see from that?

David: Well, it, it can be a little bit tricky, especially when it’s super busy in there, like, it’s not uncommon for us to have a couple hundred school children in at a time on a weekday, and they’re coming in to do their programs. And then it means that we’re also trying to manage that space and make sure that people can get to a ticketing desk. And yeah, we can have that discussion about whether or not they need to purchase a general admission ticket. And if they’re also looking to do the special exhibition that day, so it can be a little bit tricky.

One of the other things that we’ve found that further complicates it is that for us Aucklanders, they’ve always known that they can come to the museum for free. Because it’s for free, it means they don’t always remember that they do need to get a ticket still. So we do often have conversations of, we’ll have staff floating around in the hallways or around the atrium, and we’re encouraging people to come over to the ticketing desks and have that check-in experience. We do that also because, for our my museum cardholders, they can come to the ticketing desk. They can check in, we’ve got a little bit of data about their visits. And we can provide them with information about what might’ve changed since the last time they visited. We do also have a membership program, which also launched towards the end of last year. And what we’re finding there is that they, these members will love to come back. They bring their friends and family as well. They get unlimited re-entry into the special exhibitions. So they’re often taking advantage of that, but again, they still have to come to the ticketing desk and have that conversation with the team. The challenge will be on those days where it’s really busy and you’ve got people that are striding towards the very welcoming, bright hallways. Sometimes we have to catch people as they’re about to enter the galleries and remind them to come back to the ticketing desk. And so a lot of the time it just comes down to making sure our staff are really patient, really polite, very courteous and, and welcoming, but also letting people understand, this is the rules of admission and here’s how we do our ticketing over here. It’s a little bit easier in the north entrance when people come in and they’re straight to a ticketing desk and our staff can greet them that way at the museum.

Angie: You’ve got this mix of your permanent exhibitions, which have also been going through big modernization as part of this refurbishment over the last several years. And then you’ve got a number of special exhibitions each year. How does the museum strategy come together across the two?

David: That’s been really interesting to observe and I think we’ve still got some learning to go. So the permanent galleries there, that’s part of that same five-year plan that you were mentioning before. There’s an ongoing plan for a gallery renewal and on the ground floor, we’ve got some new galleries around the stories of Auckland,.Tāmaki Herenga Waka (the stories of Auckland). Those galleries tell stories over centuries of human occupation in Auckland, right up to modern times. And that was partly because we realized we didn’t have a lot of content on Auckland history before putting those galleries in.

The special exhibition, that is something that’s kind of new for us. We’ve had two special exhibitions in the new special exhibition hall already. One was ‘Brickman Awesome Epic Lego Creations’ and now with ‘Sea Monsters’. These exhibitions are very much family shows and we’re encouraging children and their families to come in and have a look at it and play with the content and be impressed by the size of the sea monsters and blown away by how large some of these Lego creations are.

In the coming months, we have ‘Secrets of Stonehenge’, which is coming from overseas. And we have exhibition called ‘Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors, and Heroes’, and that’s coming from the British Museum. And what I mean between the four of those exhibitions, you can see there’s very different topics and not necessarily the same audience. And that’s quite intentional when we’re trying to ensure that the museum special exhibitions appeal to the breadth of our potential visitors, anyone and everyone to feel that we’ll have content here for you and for you and your family to come and enjoy. It’s been quite lovely.

It’s been really interesting to watch how people will come in and they’ll explore our local history, but then also come and have fun with the Legos or see how large an Ichthyosaur was.

Angie: The ‘Sea Monsters’ exhibition. That’s coming from Australia right?

David: Yeah. The Australian Maritime.

Angie: It is fantastic. I love, it has these little wooden shapes that represent the different sea monsters that you can literally lie on and swim like a prehistoric monster. And it’s just so much fun seeing the kids adapting their bodies to these ocean going giant animals. It’s so gorgeous to watch.

David: Yeah, absolutely. It’s hilarious watching adults give it a go as well.

Angie: I know you’ve toured in several of those exhibitions from overseas. And it sounds like a few more on the way. What sort of logistic challenges are you running into at the moment with the borders closed and travel restrictions and whatnot?

David: Yeah. Yeah. That’s, that’s been quite interesting. So, I mean, obviously, you know that with a lot of these traveling exhibitions, normally there’s staff that travel with them as well. So that’s been a logistical challenge to make sure that people can get spots and manage isolation and be here to help install and mount some of these things. The initial schedule, we were going to have that ‘Ancient Greeks’ exhibition last year, that was going to be our first to open up the new space. But with, with all the pandemic rearrangements, then that the schedule changed. So, ‘Ancient Greeks’ went to Australia first and now they’ll have it now for another year, basically before we get to what middle of next year, I think we’re scheduled to have.

So it has been challenging. It’s meant that timelines, we’ll move around sometimes by a few weeks. And sometimes like in the case, the ‘Ancient Greeks’ than by a year and a half. One of the things we’re worried about now is that all the people that we had hoped would come to see the ‘Sea Monsters’ exhibition in August and September, now that’s all jeopardized. We don’t know when we’re going to be able to reopen it for people because it’s supposed to close at the end of October, so, coming up soon and they’re all at home at the moment.

Angie: What are the main goals behind those exhibitions? What does, pandemic aside, success look like?

David: Well, my understanding is that the main goal is as drivers of visitation – we want more people to come and see these different things. We want visitors from Auckland and New Zealand. Obviously we don’t have a lot of international tourism right now. But we want our visitors to know that we are a space that they can come and see these different shows. And there’s that challenge with your regular visitors that they want to know what’s new or what’s changed.

But then if you change any permanent galleries and they ask where the old one went, so we do want to keep people engaged. And part of the reason that we’re having this broad range of special exhibitions is to make sure that we are actually addressing the needs of the entire museum-going public. And it’s not just for certain individuals over others.

Angie: And so much of that visitor experiences is learning oriented. I’m curious about how you and your team think about that from design thinking all the way through to visitor evaluation?

David: Well, the exhibition’s team, I know they’ll, they’ll do a lot of that modeling based on the different personas of visitors and the different cultural segments that we’re trying to address. And they do a lot of that design thinking around what’s going to be the best way to engage the different populations from around the city. The visitor services team, I know our perspective is often ‘how can I make sure that this person that’s visiting is going to have the best possible experience that they’ll, with their limited amount of time with us today, that I’m going to help them find the right exhibition for them and their family or their group that they’re with today?’. A lot of that for our visitor services team just boils down to what kind of quality of interactions that we’re having with people, whether at the ticketing desk or on the floor or throughout. I know one of the little pleasures I have when I’m walking through the museum is to catch someone and ask, ‘ have you gone to see the birds over there?’. Or, often it’s just a chat with the children as I’m passing by. And they’ll point out things that they’re finding to be their favorites. Like the Haumanu tree that we’ve gotten installed recently, this towering tree that tells a beautiful story next to our new classrooms. I guess it’s finding those little moments, to connect people, it’s quite rewarding.

Angie: Have you trained your team specifically on that with their ongoing visitor services training, or particular enablement in the lead up to an exhibition, about how to have those coincidental water cooler moments with visitors around the museum?

David: Yeah. Well, that’s definitely something we stress. And we try to communicate one of the challenges I’ll frequently put to the team is that it’s really easy for a member of the public to mistake a visitor host for security guard. And, and we know that’s people’s conventional view of staff that are working in a gallery room. And so my challenge to the team is always ‘what are you going to do to make yourself different from a security guard, so that these visitors know that they can come to you with questions, or they know that they can have a different kind of interaction with you?’. And that’s not to put down the security guards of the world. Many of them are very lovely. But the point I’m trying to get across is that for our hosts, we very much encourage them to take that opportunity to find that magic moment that you can enhance that person’s day or visit. And it often doesn’t have to be something really extraordinary.

It’s just taking that time and giving someone that little bit of personalized attention, so they know that you see them and you recognize what they’re going through for the day, we cover that in our induction, we stress that in our conversations with the team, we try to model it, for everyone around the museum. So even in other departments, our IT manager loves to tell stories about how, when he’s walking through the building and then he has these little engagements with people and you’ll see him come into the office and he’ll very proudly tell our membership team that he’s been promoting their program to the public as he’s walking around.

Angie: You’ll have him on a retainer, soon. I love that, that the museum, it’s got its mission and vision and values that we’d see in most organizations. And then it has those principles that draw upon that cultural connection to bring that spirit right into the dNA of the museum’s purpose and its people. And you can really hear that penetrating every aspect of what you do.

David: It’s really important. And it’s really cool. It’s something that I really enjoy about the way that we that we offer. But one of the things that will regularly come up with new staff as they join the museum, and especially if they’ve come from different countries and maybe they don’t have a background in, in Māori culture and tikanga (cultural practices), there’s the concept of things being tapu (sacred and special) or noa (common or free from restriction). So there’s kind of a sacred aspect to these different things and one of the aspects of Māori tradition is that you wouldn’t have food around different things, for instance. Food is a very earthly thing. It’s not a very spiritual thing. So you have to keep your food separate from a lot of these different artifacts. We have routes that have been mapped out around the building, because we also have things like a cafe onsite and a bistro onsite, and we have private functions that need to be catered. These maps show you, okay, ‘I’m allowed to take food from this place to this lift and then up from that floor. And then I can go exactly this path.’ And so we have all these little maps. It’s one of those, those fun little things that, particularly new staff from overseas, they have to come to learn what those special routes are and how to maneuver things through the building in a way that’s still culturally respectful.

Angie: It’s truly beautiful. I think one of the things that really struck me when you go to so many history museums around the world, you have these colonial European settler history galleries, and then separate ones around indigenous artifacts and in Auckland Museum, the new Auckland galleries there’s an exhibition around people’s homes a hundred years ago. You can see the cultures of Auckland all represented in those homes all together. They’re not separate and it’s something so small and so simple, but so such a powerful message as well.

David: That’s a good point. And I know that the exhibition team were very deliberate that they wanted to have the gallery laid out in that way so that it wasn’t a separation, but really by combining everything and by not being constrained by timeframes, they’re able to compare those different lifestyles and those different artifacts simultaneously and I think that’s like you’re saying it’s quite a beautiful comparison.

Angie: And so David moving from there, how do you evaluate the visitor experience? How do you work out what an exhibition has achieved when you’re doing your retrospective on it?

David: So we have an in-house visitor market research team, and they’ll often conduct a different analysis for our different exhibitions. So not only would we have things like camera counts, people entering different spaces and we can get information about how long they’ve dwelled within an exhibition, but then we’ll also do occasional interviews and surveys with different people. We ask about, ‘ where did you visit today and what kind of things did you see?’. We have a range of different questions and survey questions we’ll go through and our team very diligently produces those types of retrospectives and reviews for us at the end of different shows. We’ll have consultation again with our team, we’ll provide some perspective about what we saw, what we observed from that visitor services , but it’ll generally be a cross section of different teams that have worked on or with different exhibition spaces. We’ll have those kinds of reflective discussions about what we learned and what do we want to do next. What do we need to change? That kind of thing, that might even boil down to which interactive seemed to be the most used or which screens were getting used the least.

Angie: Do you do that separately in your visitor services team and then again with the wider museum group, or is that a cross-functional effort?

David: It’s a bit of both because our team is so large, it’s not practical to get very many of them into one of those reflection sessions at a time. So we’ll probably have a focus group or a debrief from our team. And then we’ll have some of us represent that perspective when we meet with the other.

Angie: Very cool. Well, thank you, David, for a very fascinating look into the world of exhibitions and experience at Auckland Museum and fingers crossed for your next post lockdown reopening again, sometime soon. Hopefully it comes well in time to get the last few visitors through that ‘Sea Monsters’ exhibition!

David: Let’s hope so. Let’s hope we’re out of this sooner than later. And thank you again very much for having me.

Angie: Thank you.

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Designing for loyalty at the California Academy of Sciences with Melissa Felder

Designing for loyalty at the California Academy of Sciences with Melissa Felder

Over the course of the pandemic, many visitor attractions experienced wild changes in their membership and season pass customer base – moves which have forever changed consumer behaviors and how we strategically respond to these. Hear how Chief Revenue and Marketing Officer Melissa Felder thinks about loyalty at the California Academy of Sciences and how their mission is inspiring the next generation of supporters.

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Learn more about Melissa Felder.