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: https://www.thepealecenter.org/ 


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 https://washington.org/. 


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 washington.org, 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 washington.org 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 www.acmi.net.au/lens/

A pavlova recipe courtesy Seb’s Mum https://www.sebchan.com/never-fail-new-zealand-pavlova-recipe 

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.

Show notes

Learn more about Melissa Felder.


Angie: Melissa Felder joins us today from the Bay Area’s number one cultural attraction, the California Academy of Sciences. It is an incredible organization at the heart of the golden gate park, complete with a natural history museum and aquarium, a planetarium, rainforest, and more. Melissa is the chief revenue and marketing officer and her brand of leadership and sales and marketing is strategically focused at the Academy. She is responsible for that and the exhibitions and earned revenue, spending admissions, membership stores, restaurants, rentals, photos, licensing, tourism programs, and even launched the Academy’s own digital magazine, which you can check out at biographic.com. Melissa, it is wonderful to have you here.
Melissa: Well, thank you for inviting me.
Angie: And today we’re talking about loyalty. So how you create it, grow it, retain it. And I know it’s been a really mixed bag and a bumpy ride in loyalty for many visitor attractions. Some have been very generously supported by their public, or have found other ways to create value for members online. When they’ve been closed, others have been hit really hard, right where it hurts, during an already difficult year in recurring revenue. So we’re very lucky Melissa, to benefit from your experience and leadership today. Thank you so much for joining us.
Melissa: Absolutely. I would say we experienced everything you just said, so it’s not an either or it’s an ‘all’.
Angie: So Melissa with that in your role leading revenue and marketing, how are you now integrating membership with the other revenue components of your business model at the academy?
Melissa: Well, it is a pretty – I don’t want to say completely seamless, but it becomes seamless in a way. And one of our goals, and this was a goal, even pre pandemic, but it’s become even more important as we move through and out of the pandemic, is to have all people that experience the Academy, whether they are a, a community follower or a community member, a ticketed visitor or a member or a donor, somebody that has visited us 10 years ago, or somebody who’s thinking about coming in the future: to have the mindset of a member feeling like they belong, or at least have the potential to belong to something. So yes, membership is a, a product, but we think of it a little bit more like a state of mind, an affinity state of mind.
Angie: That’s such a powerful message there that we’re sort of almost walking away from the term of visitors, which. I don’t know, a visitor to me is, is really quite a short relationship. It’s quite transactional into thinking about everybody is as loyal members and community around us. Can you talk a little bit more about your vision for how you think about loyalty across that visitor experience when it comes to things like programming, retail, online? What’s the vision there?
Melissa: All of those touch points are part of the experience needs to be completely on brand and it needs to do a couple of things for us. One of it, we really want each of those experiences to be clear about what we stand for as an organization, what our purpose is, our purpose is to regenerate the natural world.
And if you think about that, that’s not, place based, that’s not a museum. It’s what the museum stands for. So we want our experiences to be linked to our purpose and our mission. And then we also think about value and how we can create value for. Any of those constituencies, whether they’re literal members or visitors or community followers.
And what I mean by value, is that people are getting something, whether it’s a physical experience, is it digital content? It’s some idea of something that is special, related to what we stand for and also related to what they may have paid, if you will. And sometimes people pay dollars, but they’re also spending their time and their brain space with us.
So that’s sort of how I think about loyalty building.
Angie: And you mentioned touch points there through both mission and value. If we’re thinking about that funnel, if you like of converting public to audience, to visitors, to followers, to members, how do you start to nurture your community?
Melissa: Well, our community is pretty broad and I think of our digital community, our social community, and I believe we have one of the largest followings of any natural history museum in the world.
We have over 3 million followers. Many of them are global. And many of them have never set foot at, into our museum or even maybe been in, in San Francisco. And so we have to think about what we stand for and communicating it to a global audience. So that’s sort of the [00:05:00] biggest piece of the funnel, where the bottom part of the funnel the goal isn’t only to get somebody to visit and to buy something in our store, but to have them really understand what we stand for and how it relates to their life and provide some value for them there. So it can be the top of the funnel can be this broad global audience. It can also be an audience that’s a little bit more narrow, but that is place-based in Northern California.
So we keep our communication with our social communities, very robust. And we also do a full suite of typical marketing communications. And then on site, we have, of course our public experience for ticketed guests and for members and for donors. And after somebody visits, if they weren’t already part of our community, we invite them to be part of our community by asking them how their experience was and asking them how we can add more value for them.
And we keep up a cadence of communication. And in many cases, people become members after visiting, but sometimes they become members without visiting first or in order to visit. If that makes any sense, our members also will go on to support us beyond their memberships as, as donors. And, and then sometimes, you know, you could be a member and you can decide that you’re going to take a little bit of a break and you engage with us in other ways, such as consuming our digital content. And then may, you may come back later as a volunteer. So there’s, I described something that sounds linear, but it’s probably got many loops to it.
And I’m right now I’m drawing with my hands, but you can’t see them since this is a podcast.
Angie: That was a fascinating observation there that with that global audience, many of them have never visited and I take it may never visit. And that might not even be the goal there. And I imagine that’s true for quite a few attractions with a global mission like yours, but in your experience when it comes to those paid members, visitors or not, what are some of the key factors like origin and distance from the venue that influence loyalty in terms of member conversion and churn?
Melissa: So there are some practical factors. One of them is location or geography. Most of our, what we call physical or base or local members live in the Bay Area and even hyper-local to San Francisco in the Bay Area, that said, we do have digital only members. So this is a new opportunity for us to reach beyond the geography. So one factor is geography.
Another factor is where somebody is in terms of life, stage, or demographics. We have a lot of content that is very appealing for families with school-aged children, as well as adults. So those are sort of a bi-modal demographics, but I think the geography and the demographics as sort of secondary factors.
What I think our primary factors are somebody’s motivation and what they’re hoping to get out of their membership with us. And so we have two major types of members. They have overlap between them, but one is one they’re motivated by our mission that they want to support us because they believe in what we’re doing in the world. And then the other type are really about access and they derive most of their value from visiting and experiencing us physically and in person, the way that the mission members, if you will interact with us, some of it’s physically onsite, but some of it is digitally. And then the members that are, tend to be more transactional, the way they derive value is usage or utilization.
And we can see that members that visit those transactional or access members that visit more frequently, open their emails more, buy more things on our store, are much more likely to renew. I do really enjoy that separation of mission versus transactional members and how you start to spot those motivations and their behaviors.
Angie: That’s really interesting. So, and in your experience, when it comes to those, what does that magic equation of what makes a member sticky in either of those categories? What do you need to hit that makes that member less likely to churn?
Melissa: I think that if they – I called it utilization before, which sounds cold, maybe a good way to say it as engagement, higher levels of engagement, both physically onsite and digitally with content, the higher levels of engagement, the more sticky someone is- and sticky can be renewal, but it can also be the willingness to volunteer, be advocate in somebody’s community. And it can also mean willingness to give above and beyond a membership. So that utilization is one another one is understanding, standing, fundamentally understanding how their membership supports [00:10:00] everything that we do. So it isn’t a dollar in exchange for the ability to visit. If that dollar goes into global biodiversity and conservation programs, it goes into educating kids within the Bay Area. And then also in countries where we do do our work. And then I think the last piece around stickiness is having really special experiences and those can be onsite or they can be remote.
But when I think about onsite, I think about personally facilitated experiences, small groups, my family with an interpreter or program presenter, or an ability to go behind the scenes and see something special. So the three kind of sticky points to me are sort of usage or utilization of fundamental understanding about how my membership supports the mission.
And then the third one is these sort of special experiences or feeling of something that’s, you know, custom for me.
Angie: That’s a great equation. And I can imagine that your members are indeed very sticky with such an intentional strategy there. I love that exponential growth that you get with recurring revenue models. It’s so powerful when it comes to them, adding to that base. Do you find it easy to charge growth through growing net new members? Or do you focus more on growing member lifetime value through reducing churn or increasing average spend per member?
Melissa: Probably the, the order that we do it and we do all of it by the way, but the most efficient spend is reducing churn and we put dollars into not only reminding people to renew, but providing opportunities for them to, I kind of explained this a little bit a go, opportunities for them to use their memberships. So stewardship, during the course of their membership ends up reducing the churn.
We do drive new members every year. We feel that, I would say our spend is probably, two thirds in the stewardship and renewal and about one-third in sort of the acquisition and new. There is always a need to bring in new members and then, I would say in terms of increasing average lifetime and getting people to do more, we do constantly show people opportunities for them to upgrade.
If they will upgrade to a higher level or more robust benefit package or to buy additional things during their visit, that ends up being smaller than the first two buckets, smaller than sort of that renewal, if you will, or churn reduction and smaller than the new acquisition. I’m curious whether that’s typical, right? I don’t know if you have, can I ask you questions?
Angie: Sure. And yeah, I think we do see a mixture of, of focuses and I think it’s really interesting seeing what works, where. I think for a lot of places where their membership is very local, focus on getting people to visit more often. And therefore the incremental spend is more effective when that membership is further away from the venue and the propensity to, to renew as perhaps less linked to the visit and the propensity to visit is harder to move, than focusing that on things like other methods of churn reduction, like e-commerce discounts can be more effective. And so I think it really does depend on that overall vision that you talked about in the beginning, so it sounds like yours is very aligned with that.
You talked there about objectives, such as engagement and before in stewardship and the actions and behaviors that you’re managing for. What are the sort of key data points that you’re using in leading loyalty amongst the revenue picture?
Melissa: So the things that we track are, we do definitely track renewal rates, both in total and for first year versus multi-year, we keep track of average tenure, which is pretty important.
Where, I use, I said utilization before, so visitation frequency and party size, and we do that by type of member. Visitor satisfaction, including net promoter score, is really important for us to look at and then also additional spending or support. So a member might have a membership and our average membership prices, but those members may also donate to our end of year annual appeal.
And so keeping track of how much extra people are spending on things like donations and, you know, in the store and how they utilize discounts is also important for us to track. We have a bunch of digital engagement metrics we track as well.
So we look at engagement in terms of our social media. We look at our email opens and clicks. RSVPs for events and programs, both [00:15:00] online live stream, as well as in person and something we call a no show rate, which is becoming more and more important these days now that we do online reservations. So how many people say they intend to participate in something versus how many people do gives you an idea of their engagement routes and, and how behavior changes.
Angie: The attrition rate is I think one of the hottest topics in the industry at the moment, especially with a lot of members booking out free visits and taking up capacity, sadly.
Melissa: So there’s one thing, one measure that I didn’t mention and it’s because we don’t have the ability right now to track lifetime value on an individual member basis. We have it for total membership and we’re able to do it by sort of member large segments of members, but not by individual. And that’s more of a, a systems gap for us, something we hope to change in the future.
Angie: I was actually curious about this system’s picture and by the sounds of some of the things you’re talking about, say for example, between your CRM of managing your membership and then your email marketing of open rates, there’s, there is obviously some intelligence and integration behind that to achieve it. And then by the sounds of it, a couple of things around lifetime value that you’re aiming towards, what does that picture look like for you behind the scenes and is there a broader strategy at how you push that CRM ecosystem forward?
Melissa: Yes. So we are integrated with our email system, but it’s a, right now it’s a one-way integration. And on our roadmap for this year is a two-way integration. So right now we have to run our, let’s say email metrics out of the email system. We’d like to feed it back into the customer file, which will make segmentation much easier for us. And, oh, I know one of the other things we outsource our dining and retail, and because of that, we don’t have customer level spend. And so a lot of times we have to do approximations. It would be great to get that synced up, but that’s probably not my first priority. My first priority is to do the two-way integration between our email system and then also for our website and our social media platforms to get that behavioral, digital, behavioral data back into the CRM.
Instead of having to do, we do the analysis, we can do the analysis, that’s just not happening in the CRM. So it’s, it’s more work right now.
Angie: And you mentioned NPS. Is that just something you’re doing with visitors in general or, and differentiating out your members who visit, or do you do that direct to the member about their membership?
Melissa: Oh, well, that’s a good question. So we do continual visitor satisfaction monitoring on a daily basis and we are able to calculate it for ticketed visitors and members separately. So we can do a member net promoter score on an annual or biannual basis. We do a pretty in-depth survey of all of our members and donors to understand their motivations, their reasons for joining, reasons for renewal, whole bunch of other things. So we do sort of annual surveys of large numbers, and then daily, as people are using the online experience. Or not online, I’m sorry. Onsite experience.
Angie: And so within that big picture, what do you goal your team against the most?
Melissa: The most? They have revenue goals. So for new member revenue, renewal revenue, and then sort of per household or per capita revenue, we have households that we keep track of, attendance.
Angie: So Melissa, what insights have been pivotal for you and how you form your business strategy around loyalties and members, how you put out products, promotions, what are the really key points that have helped shape? How you think about how your membership is performing and what initiatives or improvements you’re taking that forward?
Melissa: I like to think about sort of forward progress and, uh, against a large goal. And so I’ll tell you a large goal that we have is for us to grow our member base significantly outside our local geography over the course of the next five years. And so in order to get there, I need to create plans that can deliver small amounts of growth each successive year.
So that’s what I mean by forward progress. So biting off a little bit at a time. So we can kind of, I don’t know if that makes sense, to earn our way into it. And so part of what we’re exploring right now is the levels of satisfaction with our onsite experience and with our digital content and what gaps we have and what member needs we can [00:20:00] fulfill. So we have some research steps we need to do to be able to achieve that longer-term goal of growth outside our local geography. Cause that’s really the next place for us to, to grow. We’re not completely saturated and penetrated, but I think we have the highest member penetration in the Bay Area.
And so as we ask ourself, what’s next. So it’s understanding how well are we meeting the local audience and the new potential audience needs. What they value and can we create a sort of a product offering and how to describe it and get incremental growth every year.
Angie: This is some impressive results too.
Melissa: Well, that’s what we want to achieve. Let’s check back in a year, but we have, we’ve over the last several years pre pandemic, we were growing revenue at a pretty sizable rate, faster frankly, than we were growing the household base. Our strategy was around sort of depth of engagement and growing, growing revenue. And now, as we think about growing households, hopefully not at the expense of revenue, we have to find out, you know, sort of new territory to go into.
Angie: With those kinds of aspirations, how do you forecast and plan forward for things like your member numbers and your revenue?
Melissa: Yeah, that’s a really good point. We’ve had some pretty good and consistent forecasting models and you saw both a top-down and a bottom up method. And that has worked pretty well for us in the past, because things have been pretty predictable. We had pretty predictable, let’s say renewal rates and responsiveness to marketing spend.
So our ROIs were really consistent and we were really dialing that in and we’re pretty, pretty efficient. We also had pretty consistent conversion in our various sales channels. So by that, I mean at our box office, our contact center and over web, the world is changing. So not only do we have aspirations to grow outside our geography, which where we will have probably different dynamics, um, no doubt, but the world is changing now, post pandemic, most of our transactions are happening online. And so our web channel conversion is becoming more and more important. So we’re really dialing that in. So I think on what we’ve had as a very predictable model forecasting model in the past, we’re having to really think about it again and sort of imagine in how it might need to change.
So things like that we didn’t really measure before, or really included in our model brand awareness, because we were pretty ubiquitous within our geography. It just, wasn’t, you know, everybody knew about us, so we didn’t really need to measure it. As you imagine, if we go outside our geography, our brand development and brand awareness will probably be a factor and we’ll probably see different acquisition costs and ROIs.
So we’re going to have to kind of ease into it. We’ll have to make some assumptions and see how we do against the assumptions, sort of rebuild the model.
Angie: You’ve mentioned quite a few different areas of the organization. You’ve got your member products team by the sounds of it and sales and even donors involved there, potentially visitor services, if it’s about the visit you mentioned. You’ve got some external partners around things like dining and then coming into potentially exhibitions. I imagine retail, et cetera. How do you get all of those people and all of those different teams to collaborate around those goals and that strategy?
Melissa: I love to say that it’s, it’s perfect and seamless and it all works perfectly, but we find that, that we have a very passionate mission aligned organization. And this has improved over time where people really understand that earned revenue drives our mission delivery as well. And so while many of the areas you mentioned report to me and I have probably more influence over it, not all of them.
But I have not found it difficult to get people to come to the table to talk about our ultimate goals. And they’ve been very, very responsive about how can we, for example, create a membership product that is consistent with what we do and delivers value for our members. And if that means we need some custom experiences developed that other people have to, other parts of the organization have to deliver on, they’ve been very responsive.
I think a lot of times, if you start something out as a pilot, and see how it goes. If it goes well, then you can expand it. And if it doesn’t, you have a culture that says, okay, we tried it, didn’t work, onto the next.
Angie: So last question, Melissa, I’m curious about what the post COVID world is unfolding to be at the Academy in this area? What changes have you seen?
Melissa: Oh, well, I [00:25:00] nodded to, or mentioned before and that’s how people, how people are transacting were requiring online reservations, as many places are. So we’re seeing things really change from, you know, 80% of pre pandemic would just sort of show up and buy a ticket or buy a membership. And it was a lot more spontaneous. Now, 80% are buying ahead of time and we have a lot better visibility, which helps us do sort of mundane things like staffing, but it also helps us communicate with our visitors and members ahead of time and allows us to talk about them, their visited and their experience and continue the relationship afterwards.
So that’s a really positive change that we’re seeing. We were really fairly surprised and I think really happy that while we were closed for almost a whole year, we had 50% of our members stayed members and gave us additional money. During that time they believed we would come back and wanted to make sure that we had the wherewithal to do it so that Goodwill, we want to continue to carry forward.
And we provided a lot of really interesting digital content for them. And we are continuing that while we talked about it at the time as a pivot, it’s a permanent pivot, which does require additional investment, but that digital content has been really well received. We’ve had really good engagement rates.
And even after we’ve re reopened, we’ve seen an appetite for that. So that’s another change that’ll continue into the next. It’s so heartwarming to hear, and it’s not the first time I’ve heard it either of how well the public has stepped up to support its cultural institutions at a difficult time for so many.
Angie: And here’s hoping the world’s visitors, keep up that habit of advanced booking, even once the pandemic is over, it makes all of our lives so much easier.
Melissa: Yeah, it does. We are thinking about whether different different audience types have different abilities to preplan or different freedoms, not to preplan. So we’re, you know, thinking how do you position some of that pre-planning as in the visit, or a members’ best interests, right? You, if, you know, reserve this time, because you can have sort of an exclusive quieter experience or something like that. So I think there’ll be a lot of continued experimentation going forward. That is really good for the good for the industry. And I think you’re probably hearing this from other folks, but we’ve also had been very gratified by how fast things have come back and that we are a valued part of the community and cultural experiences are thriving.
And maybe in some cases as much as they were in 2018 and 19, which is great, hopefully that doesn’t, you know, fizzle out. I don’t think it will.
Angie: That’s a great note to finish on, rapid growth and quick innovation being what we need as an industry to thrive. Thank you so much, Melissa, for sharing such amazing insights with us today, I really admire the way that you lead with purpose that relates to your mission and trickle that through the loyalty experience at the Academy. And thank you for joining.
Melissa: Absolutely. It was my pleasure. Take care.

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People first retail at The Metropolitan Museum of Art with Will Sullivan

People first retail at The Metropolitan Museum of Art with Will Sullivan

Will Sullivan, Head of Visitor Experience at the Metropolitan Museum of Art shares insights on how to blend retail and visitor experiences together. Sometimes, ’where can I find the gift store?” is the most important question you’ll answer at your visitor attraction. Through understanding the 360 holistic visitor experience via data and strategies to align retail arms with your attraction’s mission – you create impactful memories that your visitor takes home forever.

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Learn more about Will Sullivan.

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Visitor experience and value with John Falk

Visitor experience and value with John Falk

John Falk is recognized as one of the most influential museum professionals of the past hundred years. Director of the Institute for Learning and Innovation, and Sea Grant Professor of Free Choice Learning at Oregon State University. Falk formerly held a number of senior positions at the Smithsonian and has authored over two hundred scholarly articles and chapters in the field, as well as more than two dozen books, including ‘The Museum Experience Revisited’ – he is the leading globally authority on free choice learning, being the learning we do when we have choice and control over what, where and when, like we do in museums.

We ask John about how visitor experience has changed over the years, including due to COVID, why people visit museums and how institutions contribute to enhanced wellbeing.

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Learn more about John’s work: www.instituteforlearninginnovation.org.

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Using design thinking to execute rapid change with Daniel Jordan

Using design thinking to execute rapid change with Daniel Jordan

In 2021, visitor attractions who are able to execute rapid change are the ones who will thrive in recovery while facing changing market demands and visitor behaviors.

Daniel Jordan, Design Director at Dexibit, discusses how attractions can innovate and adapt quickly through a 5 step design thinking process – applicable for strategic and operational decision making processes.

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Recommended by Daniel: resources on design thinking in museums – designthinkingformuseums.net.

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Generating demand at MoMA with Rob Baker

Generating demand at MoMA with Rob Baker

Rob Baker, Director of Marketing and Creative Strategy at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) reflects on two reopenings in as many years, after the Museum’s temporary closure for a significant renovation before COVID-19.

Rob covers how MoMA has positioned and communicated with a primarily now local audience during the crisis while engaging the world online with viral and newsworthy moments like its comedic take on Kim Kardashian’s birthday trip. With a fast tracked digital transformation of the visitor experience now driving advance online bookings, we hear about how the call to action in MoMA’s marketing has changed.

Plus, hear Rob’s expectations and plans for the year ahead as the industry navigates rebuilding demand once vaccine rollouts are in progress and tourism begins to heat up.

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Get in on the action by tweeting your favorite Kardashian inspired piece from MoMA’s collection: bit.ly/36XMIxA. 

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Capacity management at Smithsonian’s NMAAHC

Capacity management at Smithsonian’s NMAAHC

In this value packed episode, we talk to Herman Marigny and DeAnna Wynn from the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) about their partnership between visitor services and information technology, particularly around capacity management both pre and post COVID and their visitor centered decision making, mixing empathy and data to ensure safe and happy visitors.

Show notes

Learn more about NMAAHC: nmaahc.si.edu.


Angie: Hello and welcome to the Data Diaries. Today we’re here in Washington, DC with the team at the National Museum of African American History and Culture who are experts at crowd control and capacity management, here to share their experiences with the world, given this is such a hot topic for many visitor attractions who are grappling with new or reduced capacity constraints in the age of COVID-19. I’m here with Herrman Marigny, Visitor Services Manager, and Deanna Wynn, the Assistant Director for Information Technology. A big welcome to you both.
DeAnna: Thank you.
Herman: Thank you, Angie. Excited to be here.
Angie: The museum are absolute pros at this capacity balancing act. You’ve had this aspect to the museum’s operations since you opened originally a few years back and given, you’ve always had to control crowds and demand. How different are things on that front for your team post versus pre COVID-19?
Herman: I was only actually with NMAAHC for three months prior to COVID. In that short time I had an opportunity to observe how visitor flow what’s happening at the museum and get a feel for how the institution was operating and working. And one of the things during that onboarding period that I learned was the conversation around the importance of balancing safety and satisfaction was even important pre COVID. NMAAHC has had, or required time passes, you know, since 2016 and their opening. And the primary driver behind that is there was increased demand.
And so to make sure that we’re able to manage crowds safety from a n overcrowding perspective, the time ticketing system was great. A lot of the focus we’re shifting towards making sure we were utilizing capacity to the best of our abilities. So we had the time ticket passes, that program was running fine.
And then new initiatives were rolled out to make getting a ticket to the museum even more accessible. So one of those programs was the walkup window. Initiative where folks could come up to the museum without a pass on Wednesdays and off peak season and on a consistent and kind of regular basis be granted access into the museum.
And the sentiment at the time was if those types of programs continue to go well, that eventually in the future, we hope to move to a place where eventually you wouldn’t require a pass to get into NMAAHC in being in line with the way that the other Smithsonian operated at the time in this post COVID environment.
It’s, it’s very different again, with safety and satisfaction stand top of mind, but with safety, having to drastically reduce capacity has definitely impacted how accessible the museum is has become a big driver. Behind the reasoning for the capacity limits in the volume that we’ve chosen is directly tied to some of the guidelines to health and safety guidelines that were laid out so broadly.
And of course, all of the Smithsonian units are following DC’s guidance, the 200 square feet per person. Then from that guidance units kind of have some discretion how risk averse or how aggressive they want it to be beyond that point. One of the things that I was really pleased by was NMAAHC’s openness to taking a very conservative approach to the number of visitors we let into the space.
And I think that that was one of the key things. Pre COVID, safety was still a primary concern, which is why we had the timed passes. But the ultimate goal was to allow as many people in, as we could safely fit in versus post COVID. Although we may have had the capacity to allow a few more visitors in, because it was untested, because we hadn’t opened the doors and there was still a theory overall.
There was a very conservative approach. And then quite frankly, at the time a lot of these decisions were being made. Some of the data around the impacts of COVID-19, was also becoming available. And, one of the pride points of NMAAHC as an institution is we attract a very diverse audience into the museum space, many of whom it’s their first time visiting a museum. But we’re also seeing in parallel that the COVID-19 virus had had disproportionate impact on diverse communities across the U.S. And so as we’re thinking about our audience and who we’re allowing back into the space, there was a sense of responsibility to those audience members, and I think that that in so many ways is very different from, I think, a traditional institution that may have a more objects centered approach.
This visitor centered decision-making, factoring in empathy and also taking into consideration, some of those broader social contexts.
DeAnna: Hermand said something I thought was just really insightful. And I have to say, I haven’t really heard this expression used a lot in other places, but he talked about using empathy as it relates to engaging kind of with [00:05:00] visitors and what that means for me from an I.T. perspective is.
It goes back to CRM and I think of what is, and the Dexibit platform and the other types of data that we can and will pull into the platform is, what type of information can I make available to Herman and his team, so they have kind of a complete picture of visitors who are ticketed, who are coming to the museum, a complete picture of the cultural ecosystem that is Washington DC. And so that when the visitor services team is in engaging with the public, to either, allow them into NMAAHC or ask them to wait or propose alternatives, they just have this wide range of information available to them to have that conversation. So, the focus that Herman and his team has on empathy, I think is probably maybe one of the differentiating features or factors that that helps make NMAAHC so popular is really being empathetic to what we want the visitor experience to be. And in any way that from a systems perspective that, we can make that information available throughout the museum, but certainly to the visitor services group, I think is really critical to making sure that visitors are having an optimal exposure.
Angie: How about on the technology side? I know for many places there’s been a huge need to step up technology wise to meet the needs of COVID-19, but in your case, the museum was so well-prepared in the first place to manage capacity. Have you seen the need for a technology change on your side?
DeAnna: Yes. I think, coming in to the museum in April of this year, one of the first observations that I made is, I came in post COVID, but I was well aware that from a ticketing perspective, the museum was pretty far ahead of other institutions of its type and how ticketing and including walk-up Wednesdays and managing capacity from the demand perspective was managed.
I think NMAAHC has done a fantastic job. But what really became clear as we started to enter or exit kind of this COVID period was really to use data and to get more data points actually to use to our advantage, to manage capacity on the supply side, so if demand is understanding how many people we anticipate coming into the museum.
We wantedit to have insights, such as footfall to go along with ticketing to really understand, who actually showed up, what were our attrition rates looking like? And then more on a more granular basis. What was that visitor journey through the exhibition spaces and through the galleries really like? One other observation that I had, which is a little external to NMAAHC is, and what NMAAHC had done very well, became adopted across Smithsonian.
And I, I saw that. All the museums recognized a need to more effectively kind of plan and manage, visitor flow, but also to be a bit more proactive. And I think NMAAHC is doing a fantastic job with this at not just managing visitor capacity, but starting to really look more broadly at managing the visitor experience.
So really from a technology perspective, it really is looking at what other types of data and other types of insights about visitors. Can we begin to sort of assemble and consolidate and perform some analytics on. And, I know maybe later we’ll talk a little bit about that.
Our focus right now has been on footfall and having that data sort of match up or be consolidated with the ticketing data. We’ve had some successes there and lots of lessons learned. One of, I think the chief lessons learned, I would say around the footfall counters and with Sensource is, is just making sure that the, that the implementation and the placement, you know, of these cameras really are reflective of visitor flow through the museums.
And so there’s a bit of trial and error there because you frankly can’t quite get it right until you have traffic in the museum to then go back, tweak the placement of cameras, or really understand what the flow is. So we’re learning more about, how our visitors travel through the museums, you know, as we go and as we roll in other systems, for example, begin to gather, insights through wifi access. We’ll learn from the experiences that we’ve gotten out of their sensors implementation, I think will help guide and inform future implementations of visitor capacity management solutions.
Angie: And that’s fantastic that the Smithsonian has had such a great example in house to [00:10:00] follow on this topic with the need to move so quickly to reopen, especially given they’ve had to do that at a time with no visitors to practice on, as you mentioned.
DeAnna: It’s true. For often it was Herman and his team, trying to simulate visitor traffic before the before the museum opened. And now that we are open and have good numbers, it just gives us that much more data. Not only to tweak and refine the system but also just to get more insights into the visitor experience, which is really important to the museum.
Angie: The museum had started experimenting with walk-ups on certain days of the week and times of the year. How do you make that choice between offering walkup or advanced passes or a hybrid between the two of doing both at the same time? What does that sort of discussion look like internally for you?
Herman: The option to offer advanced passes is heavily influenced by wanting to make sure that the visitors who are fortunate enough to secure passes, have enough time to plan their visit ahead of time. What we also know at the same time is managing attrition is a real concern. We will release passes, every evening at around 4.30. So right after the museum closes for the next day, and then we’ll also do another release of passes for the morning, and the idea there again is to just offset what we’ve comfortably known to be our standard attrition.Attrition.
Angie: That’s actually a good point. Being able to do one or both at the same time, too. Both be able to serve the visitor experience so that you can have those people who like to plan ahead versus those people who like to show up. And that’s given you the flexibility by the sounds of it, to manage fluctuating attrition, and sort of tip that over as well.
Herman: We allocate our 11:00 AM opening passes and the 11 and 12 o’clock slot so that we, we kind of fill the building up between those hours and then we drastically reduce the number of passes we make available between the one o’clock and two o’clock hour, in anticipation that the building will be close to its maximum capacity.
And those visitors that came in in the morning would just be wrapping up their visit, between one o’clock and two o’clock. And hopefully you see that shift happen of those visitors exiting and then your kind of second wave of visitors and turn the space when we are making that choice to allocate same day online passes.
Attrition is normally very top of mind for that. And so for us at NMAAHC, we know our standard attrition is about 40% for the same day online pass application specific, because though that those visitors have a slightly lower attrition. Because they’re there, they’ve made the decision either yesterday or the morning of to attend the museum.
We’re really careful about how we allocate those passes. The advance passes are distributed evenly across our time slots across the board. The same day online passes, they do follow a check mark where we start very high with the allocation. And then, as we get closer to the one o’clock to two o’clock, we offer very little passes during that time slot. And then during the last time or that day, which is two o’clock, you know, we try to open it up managing the same day online passes, helps us to kind of combat that attrition.
Angie: What goes into that decision of what volume to set capacity for the museum? And then how do you work at how many passes to offer and is that impacted by dwell time or anything like that?
Herman: Yeah, that’s exactly what’s happening. So we’ve worked out, what the maximum capacity is for the museum. And then when you factor in the dwell time of average visitor, so now we’re seeing that that’s approximately three hours, in the past it’s been four, but currently our, our cafes store isn’t open. So based off of the data that we received, we safely assume that visitors will be here for approximately three hours, two hours in the building. And so, you know, we have the schedule of advanced passes and that’s pretty set, but we know things happen, right. I mean, even with this year being the year that COVID happened, so many travel plans were adjusted. And quite frankly, visitors who felt comfortable or safe coming into a museum, and so adjusting, or taking those things into consideration, when we’re allocating same day online passes is a very big factor.
Angie: What are some of the systems that you’re using to manage all of this?
DeAnna: Well, on the ticketing side, we are using a cloud-based solution Etix. For footfall monitoring we’re using Sensource and since ours really has two components to it, it’s a cloud and or server based solution, that primarily works with cameras that you would place around the perimeters of the museum, where we have that for entry and exit as well as around key spaces throughout the exhibition space in [00:15:00] and galleries. Sensource also has a module or an application called safe space which we are really just starting to use. Safe space provides a bit more granularity into things like dwell time and will enable us to set capacity limits at the gallery or excavation space level.
Primarily right now we’re using Sensource in the aggregate. So we can see who’s come into the museum, who’s there at any given point, in terms of number, it’s all anonymized data, but how many people have have entered and exited. A solution that we’ll be using as is Altum. And that really requires visitors to enroll in our wifi system. So they’d enroll in Smithsonian visitor wifi, and then we’d really be able to track their journey through the museum. I think that will be important along with the Sensource data again, to match up against the ticketing data, because it gives us a sense of, of a couple of things .
One is, how many people and when do we expect visitors in the museum, then we can look a bit of our actuals. How many of the ticketed, visitors actually, turned up and then where are they spending time in the museum? How we use those insights? I think, for right now is around capacity management, but I can easily envision expanding how those insights are used to not only, to influence existing visitors, but perhaps to attract new visitors and to enrich the experience of, of visitors who are in the mix.
Angie: It’s amazing, isn’t it for something like capacity when you dig into it? There’s actually lot s of different data sources that you have to tap into. And in order to get that insight, it’s a tricky puzzle to stitch everything together in order to get an idea of what’s happening out on the floor and get that up to your team.
DeAnna: Some future capabilities that we are considering for beyond capacity management, for example, there is an interest in enriching the data that we currently collect around customer relationship management. So CRM, we don’t have a fully fledged CRM capability at the moment. And we are interested in, in pursuing that. There, there are many, many different, I would say visitor types or engagement with the public that we really want to explore.
So for example, members, how many of our members we’re converting into visitors or even vice versa. How many visitors ultimately become members? Are there other engagement points with the public? For example, even through some of our digital assets that we may be able to engage in a way to either convert them into visitors, convert them into members to encourage them to buy from the museum through either our point of sale or through a Smithsonian enterprises e-commerce program, although, as has Herman said, previously our immediate focus is really on managing the capacity of our visitors and the visitor experience for individuals who come to the museum. But we certainly see expanding those expanding that out and getting insights beyond just members of the public who visited us in person.
Angie: You mentioned that for NMAAHC, you’re seeing 40% attrition, right? That’s sounds slightly lower, which is great, than what we’re seeing in the wider museum space. I think across the sector around 50% of visitors who book an advanced past that is free, don’t show up, that attrition rate. And that’s, as you mentioned, it has a big impact on, on managing capacity because, we can think that we might be selling out tickets, but then experiencing a significant number of no shows at the door and any other ways that you can sort of counteract that or that your team deal with it, other than dealing with sort of next day or same day.
Herman: It’s been a hybrid. So the, the same day online passes is definitely, the most effective method, but when I think about the visitor journey, the pre-visit touchpoint opportunities definitely include, reminder emails that go out to the visitors. At the moment the primary messaging in those pre-visit messages are still COVID related, making sure visitors understand what the expectation is, maintaining social distance and wearing your mask when you come to the museum. But they also do serve as a great reminder for visitors about their upcoming visit.
When we move into a space where we have a more full-fledged CRM, I can definitely envision an opportunity to confirm in those messages, ‘Hey, are you still coming tomorrow?’. And I think that those types of proactive methods also help fight off the attrition.
Angie: And are you having to [00:20:00] turn people away at the door who don’t have a ticket booked or even somebody who has one booked? If you’re at capacity, what sort of tactics have you prepared your team with to handle that sort of situation?
Herman: Unfortunately that is one of the realities that we deal with, that the markets quite frankly always had to deal with because they’ve always had time passes. There are two parts, two major parts. One is definitely starting from a place of empathy. When we’re training our staff, we do, you know, emphasize how difficult it is sometimes to get passes to the museum. And then also how far some visitors come to actually journey to the museum. And if, unfortunately they had some misinformation or they just were not aware that, you know, our institution require passes to make sure that we’re sensitive to that.
And now, transparency is also very important to us. We’re very forward about the reasons that we have limited capacity and being that being primarily centered around COVID right around the new safety protocols that are in place. And then after that moment of transparency and empathy we offer the visitors information around how they can go about getting passes.
So we inform them about the same day passes that we offer every morning at 11:00 AM. We also inform them about the passes that go on sale in the evening, you know, at 4.30, the next day, and also point them to the QR codes that are immediately available when you’re onsite. So if we’re having that conversation on NMAAHC’s campus, the QR codes that redirect you to the online passes are there and available for the visitor to have immediately, even if they walk away without a pass.
But then the third thing, and know, I think that this is critical as well is we have empowered our team leads our to kind of make that decision on issuing a pass to a visitor in real time. Because again, circumstances are different. If there is someone that is local and, you know, has the ability to kind of come back tomorrow or come back the next day, versus the rare occasions that we have, where a visitor, you know, has traveled from quite a distance and just so happened to be in time and have the opportunity, and know that they won’t have the opportunity again, for a while, we try to be as flexible and as accommodating as possible, just kind of keeping that visitor centered approach, balancing safety. And so, we emphasize the importance of issuing every visitor a pass. It’s not just a scenario where we can let you in. We were sure to collect the information of all of the visitors on site, just for COVID safety reasons, in case we have to report back out or get in contact with the visitors who are onsite that day.
So yes, it’s definitely something our frontline team has had to deal with, even pre COVID. But what we found is when we’re transparent about the reasoning, why, especially the safety related concerns, visitors are very understanding, and thankful for the opportunities to have access to the same day passes that are available in the evenings.
Angie: That’s such an important point that those advanced passes are doing double duty, really as a contact tracing as well. You’ve got quite a complex site to manage there because you’ve got this pinch point of sorts that happens early within that visitor experience that Deanna was talking to. For our listeners who haven’t been to the museum yet, when you come in, you actually begin your journey, and Herman correct me if I’m getting this wrong, but you begin underground. So you go in, in an elevator or down the escalator at a point where you’ve got the Oprah Winfrey theater, you’ve got entrance to the cafe, you’ve got the special exhibition gallery and then the entrance to the beginning of the visitor experience, starting with a history gallery.
And normal times, this is actually a really busy space. And then that goes into a tighter space for the beginning of an exhibit on slavery and freedom. And I understand it’s purposefully designed like that, but I imagine very tricky to manage with the millions of people that you can see in a year. So how do your team manage that spot and that nuance in particular?
Herman: Definitely the thought of letting the visitors kind of create their own experience, where at the welcome desk, there are some visitors that have very specific artifacts or exhibits that they want to see and we can easily direct them there. And then there are the visitors that come and they want to know. Just tell me, tell me where to start, where to begin the journey. And the history gallery is always it’s the preferred exhibit, right? You have chronological history from the 1600, the transatlantic slave trade all the way through. And beyond the election of Barack Obama in 2008. So a wildly popular exhibit.
And as you mentioned, when you start that journey with the transatlantic slave trade, the brilliant exhibition team at Newmark was also sure to kind of make that space really tight and enclosed to kind of recreate the experience of being transported on a slave vessel. And when you’re looking at that in a post COVID world, there are multiple flags that kind of come up for that. A space as intentionally designed to be kind of [00:25:00] compact is a huge area of concern, but you balance that against it being one of the, you know, the most popular attraction at the museum. It was a tricky challenge to think through and work through with leaders of the museum and leaders of the curatorial team as well.
But some key decisions that helped us kind of manage visitor flow in that area was first the decision to modify the exhibition experience. So when you step into the space, it is a combination of museum artifacts that help tell that story. But then there are also a number of videos as well that play in the space. And one of the early decisions that was made was to turn off all of the videos within the space. I mean, the idea was that if you made it an audio only experience in that specific section, that it would help decrease the dwell time within that space writing and kind of keep visitors moving through at a somewhat consistent.
And the second big thing is, in addition to having the footfall counters, helped give us an idea of how many visitors are in our history galleries. We did make the decision to also have visitor services team members there to also manually manage that process. And I say that that’s a big thing decision because again, having that empathetic approach towards visitors is important, but when we were retraining our staff, that conversation actually starts with the frontline team members where they’re doing.
So making sure that we are creating a working environment that is safe for them so that they can extend excellent customer service to our business. And so making sure we thought through, you know, where that team member would stand, where they would be, safe to manage visitor crowd flow, but then also able to keep an eye on and prevent pinch points, crowding, from forming was extremely critical in that space. So again, in that specific exhibit, you have a combination, right? The footfall counters, the technology that’s helping, you have the modified exhibition experience to the curatorial team’s contribution to helping visitor flow through that space. And you also have the visitor services team member that has their eyes on monitoring the visitor flow, encouraging visitors to maintain this social distance, encouraging visitors, to make sure that they keep their mask on, that safety information is reiterated within that space. And I’m very happy to report that we’ve seen really great success with managing that space, using the combination of those three things.
Angie: What are the key insights that you and your management team and your team on the floor need to achieve all of these sorts of things and, and come up with those ideas and control that capacity?
DeAnna: Whether we are implementing the footfall counters or wifi insights, or any other technology capability that’s going to directly monitor the visitor experience, it’s going to be important for, any, IT director, CIO, IT team to really partner up with the equivalent of a visitor services group.
The way that we’ve done with, with Herman and, and walk the floors, walk through the exhibits, see where cameras are going to go see where you need your access points, really understand that visitor. So that what you are implementing is relevant in real time and it’s not conceptual. And one of the lessons learned that we got from that really had to do with the placement of some cameras, which made sense on a blueprint, but we needed to go in and adjust. So we really were actually seeing and capturing the way visitors may have entered or exited a particular gallery space. So, walk the floors, I think is really important when you’re, you are implementing kind of our visitor tracking monitor journey, experience management solution.
The second thing that I would say from technology perspective and not really a technology perspective, I would say from really just a leadership perspective is data. The more that we are able to understand the kind of needs and desires and expectations for the journey through the museum that our visitors have felt, the more effective we’ll be able to help craft what that experience is going to be.
And that’s not just capacity data, as we mentioned, it’s CRM data. ‘ Why are you in the Washington DC area? Are you going to other museums? What would you like to see from here wherever you visited before?’ It’s some of the tourism data, what’s happening in the vicinity around the museum on at any given point that may be of use or interest to our visitors, something as mundane, but that can be as impactful as weather.
Herman mentioned, people are often traveling across the country and sometimes across the world to come visit us. So the more that we are able to [00:30:00] proactively share with them what to expect when they arrive, I think the better that experience will be. So from my perspective, really having a data rich experience, a data rich environment with which, or by which we can help craft and drive what the visitor experience is going to be, the more effective we’re going to enable our visitors to enjoy their time in the museum.
And then again, for the technology implementation piece, really, when I say walk the museum, when I really mean, really understand the business processes for lack of a better term, that we’re are trying to effect change in, not in NMAAHCthat I’ve seen just in prior places where I’ve been, you know, the technology solution sometimes is agnostic and it, and it works, but if it’s not really meeting the business outcomes, then it’s not going to be effective. And what that means really for this particular purpose where we’re talking about capacity management specifically, and visitor experience in general, your IT team really needs to understand that business environment, the museum environment, and the expectations that the museum has for what they want the visitor experience to be, before you start implementing one piece of technology, you need to know what you’re working.
Herman: Yeah, absolutely. I think Deanna hit one of the very critical pieces. It’s that walking the floor and making sure that there are multiple departments present, the relationship between visitor services and the IT team has been invaluable as we’ve journeyed together in this reopening.
Again from the visitor services perspective, one of the things that NMAAHC did that was brilliant, was we understood where our new maximum capacity would be in the post COVID world, but we did not open day one with that new capacity limit. We slowly worked our way up to that maximum capacity figure over the first three weeks of opening.
And what that allowed us to do was to test the system. And the protocols that we had in place, and it also allowed the frontline visitor team to become comfortable with those new policies, those new protocols. And then also making sure that we had our team in a space where they were comfortable sharing insights or tweaks or adjustments that needed to be made.
And during that same period of time, I was able to work closely with the IT team as we tested a lot of the new platforms that were in place. Because, as DeAnna said so beautifully. Having them in place is one thing, but making sure that they serve a true business function is critical.
And so getting to a place where you can trust the data and the insight that you’re getting from your platforms is critical. And that comes from spending that time with the systems, walking the building and collectively looking at the data that’s coming back. I think aside from that, specifically related to the platforms, DeAnna mentioned we do use Etix for our ticketing, but the the visitor feedback form, giving us some insight into how much time visitors are spending in the building, like understanding that dwell time is critical to the process. Having some insight into our hour by hour breakdown of anticipated visitor demand is also important.
And what I mean by that is if we’re in a space where we’ve reached capacity on our lower level, in our history gallery space, knowing that it’s the middle of the day, it’s 12 o’clock. And we are about to see, a rush of visitors or a new wave of visitors in the next hour, that helps my team make decisions about redirecting visitors.
So instead of recommending a visitor, start their journey on C3 in the history galleries, with the slave ships, we’re going to redirect them up to our upper levels , so they can start their journey with the parliament funks spaceship, the mothership that’s on the fourth floor of the museum and making sure that the visitor services team is informed about the exhibition offerings on each of the levels ensures that they’re able to communicate that to visitors. Because again, all of the experiences in NMAAHC are unique and special in their own way. And although, the history gallery is the preferred starting point, if visitors can still have an impactful visit, if they have to start their journey on the top floor because of safety related reasons.
And then that’s where having the footfall counters installed on each floor has been invaluable because I can look on a dashboard and see, okay, we’re close to capacity in lower levels so lets start to redirect visitors to the upper floors.
I think what I’m excited about is the insights that we’ll get from the Altum system. Once that comes online and being able to more closely kind of track the visitor journey through the museum. I think what I envision is getting to a [00:35:00] place where we could kind of proactively recommend visitor tracks through the through the exhibit. If we are at this place now in a post COVID world, we’re making a lot of these visitor flow decisions for safety related reasons, I would love to see us get to a place where we have pre-built experiences around these paths that we need visitors to take.
The history gallery visitor path is defined because that’s a one-way directional gallery, but routinely we do need visitors to start their journey on the upper levels, again, just for safety reasons. But I would love to see an almost a curated recommended path for a visitor coming in. And that’s something that we could offer to them, even in the pre journey part of the day, what that will look like is the insights, tell us that routinely close to two, o’clock like we can anticipate slowdowns on the lower levels. And so if a visitor is on our site and they book a two o’clock time slot, we could offer a proactively offered them that journey experience through the museum where recommended experiences exhibitions that we have on the list are all in the upstairs galleries. And having the technology in place will allow us to make sure that we are offering these unique visitor experiences that are also rooted in their safety during their visit to the museum.
Angie: So the way that you’re looking at both that sort of safety and happiness and bringing together insights across such a significant number of data sources that you’re bringing together to get that full picture of your visitor experience and a great addition to there, with your surveys, to get an idea of their reflections and their feedback. And I think, especially because how visitors feel about their experience of the moment is so closely related to that topic of capacity too. I think we could do a whole other session on the experience side of insights as well.
Herman: That’s why DeAnna’s team is so invaluable!
DeAnna: Herman is so brilliant. I’m learning every time I listen to him talk, but to be able to even, simulate these curated experience before even providing that to the public, I think is it’s very next level, but I absolutely would love to be working with you on something like that. So once we have data from, you know, Etix and Sensource and Altum and all these tools to really be able to do your, what if analysis, if I am crowded at 2.30, what are some other journeys through the museum that we want to pursue? We’ll we’ll we’ll need to work together on that!.
Angie: Yeah, that sounds like a challenge for the year! Deanna, your team have done such an incredible job of instrumenting the museum for data, with hardware, and then integrating everything behind the scenes so that we can quickly get at data and insight from them, for the team to access and report on. And you’ve got a lot of sensors in that building to gather information on visitor flow and I’m aware that installing a hardware is always a finicky business. We’ve had some examples in London where museums have had significant undercounts due to like a blown device or even a light bulb outage casting a shadow on a spot, where that count was happening. What are some of the ‘gotchas’ to watch out for on that front that you’ve found?
DeAnna: Oh, wow. That’s a really good question. One potential gotcha, even before we get to counting, Herman have alluded to it a bit, or he talked about having a good partnership between visitor services and IT, I would add that when we were looking to expand the footprint for the Sensource cameras, we really needed to bring in our exhibitions team. Because one thing, and I frankly, had not really thought this through from an IT perspective, my focus on that, the cameras and similarly what the wireless access points for the wifi insights was really around coverage. So I wanted to make sure that the cameras would be placed optimally so that we could pick up the sort of digital images of people coming into or leaving a particular gallery space and our exhibition team kind of called timeout for a moment and said, ‘we need to make sure that wherever we are placing cameras or wires or anything that may even potentially be visible to the public, that it doesn’t disrupt the visitor’s experience of viewing that exhibition’. So we walk the floors with, with Herman’s team, my team, facilities team and exhibitions, to make sure that where things were currently placed and where they were going to be placed, were placed in such a way that they weren’t obtrusive, that they weren’t intrusive and that they would not disrupt the visitors viewing experience. So that was a really a great learning point for me, which is thinking [00:40:00] about the technology backend is critical to make sure that things work. But we also, in addition to meeting the business need, as Herman mentioned, we’ve also have to make sure that we are aligned aesthetically with the intent of a particular gallery. So I think that’s super, that’s very critical because quite frankly, if I had people counters that worked just a hundred percent effectiveness, but they disrupt the visitor experience, then you know, my solution may have been successful, but the intent and the goal of my solution will have failed. So that’s one gotcha. That we didn’t go there, we were able to catch it, but it’s something to really look out for.
And then the second big thing that I would say is the systems need time to learn and calibrate and validate the movement of actual people through the museum. So in the absence of having a large team of 50 to a hundred folks who can walk through various gallery spaces and test in real time, you’re always going to have to give yourself some way of having an enhanced or an expanded capacity of visitors to really validate that your people counters or that your wifi insights are working as intended.
And one thing that when we have run into some challenges there, and one thing that Herman’s team has done is, it’s old school, is go back to the clickers and to see, are our manual counts, within tolerance with the Sensource automated counters and then really refine the placement of cameras and the counting of the technology solution so that you have a high confidence level that it’s really mimicking the actual footfall and traffic through the through the space.
So give yourself time and work with an integrated team format, get everyone who needs to be involved in managing that experience in the implementation of whatever technology you’re going to put in place.
Angie: And we always find it’s really important to integrity test those hardware counters every quarter or so too. So I imagine you’ve got probably a maintenance plan around that as well?
DeAnna: Yeah, absolutely. So we’ll be looking to do that by January, I believe, we will have had this in place for about four months at that point. And there are two things that we, one thing that we know we want to do are some upgrades on some legacy cameras that were there.
That will be another lessons learned is I Would not recommend necessarily having a hybrid set of technology, if you can really standardize along one camera set, just so that the integrity of the data that you’re getting out of them will be consistent. So we are planning some upgrades for some legacy cameras, and then we would do more of an integrity test of the data at that point.
The only thing I would add, which I’ve probably said before, but it’s worth reemphasizing is partnership, partnership, partnership. The more that visitor services is supported with all of the partners within a museum and given the tools and the data that they need to be successful, then the more successful the museum is going to be in managing visitor capacity.
To my earlier point about bringing in other types of data. That also means that managing the visitor experiences is at an enterprise wide endeavor and it takes enterprise wide commitment for everyone who has a lever to pull, throughout the visitor experience, just to make sure that everyone’s engaged.
Angie: Thank you so much, to you both for taking the time out and as at such a busy time for sharing this expertise. And some really, really great tips and tricks there for everyone in the industry. And for more on capacity management, for listeners out there and, insights on places people love, go to www.dexibit.com for more.
Thank you so much, Herman, DeAnna.

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Visit The Recovery Room: www.therecoveryroomblog.com.

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