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.

Transcript

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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Show notes

For more on The Peale visit: https://www.thepealecenter.org/ 

Transcript

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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Show notes

For more on Destination DC, visit https://washington.org/. 

Transcript

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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United States Olympic and Paralympic Museum

United States Olympic and Paralympic Museum

“The number one operational change we made through our first summer season was to open earlier – based on our booking demand, entry timings and capacity flow. In Colorado, ours is a crowd that rise early and get out and do things; we saw that in our data and had to respond. It made a significant difference for us in our operation.”

Robert Bready
– VP Museum Operations,
U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum

Creating a gold standard experience

How Dexibit’s analytics enhanced the United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum’s data journey.

It’s no surprise that Architectural Digest named the United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum (USOPM) one of the most anticipated buildings globally in 2020. With visitor intelligence at the heart of its design, the USOPM has continued to put its community first in its mission of honoring the Olympic and Paralympic ideals and sharing its achievements with the world.

Built in collaboration with Gallagher & Associates, an internationally recognized museum planning and design firm, the USOPM is a 60,000 square foot museum located at the base of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado Springs. The museum was designed to welcome 350,000 visitors annually.

Initially built to be completed in time for the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the museum is only 2.4 miles away from the United States Olympic & Paralympic Training Center. It is at this flagship training center that dreams are turned into reality for many Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls. Here athletes dedicate themselves to their sport, pushing the bounds of human potential to the next level.

United States Olympic and Paralympic Building Design
United States Olympic and Paralympic Building Design

In that vein of boundary-pushing innovation, the intelligent design of the building has been inspired by contrapposto – an Italian term meaning “counterpose,” a stance in which a figure stands with their entire body weight supported over one straight leg and lets their arms fall in opposite directions.

In an unforeseen turn of events, the agility and philosophy of “counterposing” enabled the USOPM and Gallagher & Associates to get their project over the line during a pandemic. Their foresight to invest in industry-leading technology positioned the USOPM uniquely to tackle the unprecedented challenges of
opening amidst a pandemic. This included comprehensive location-based experiences using a technology called radio frequency identification (RFID), to provide visitor benefit while inspiring and informing decisions for the museum’s team.

Optimizing visitor flow, reducing bottlenecks and increasing visitation

The museum quickly discovered its local and tourist audiences are early risers, facing the challenges of capacity restrictions, queues and bottlenecks at the beginning of the day. These impacted visitor flow, requiring wait times and extra handling by visitor services. Through its data, the USOPM team isolated this problem to its previous opening time at 10.00 AM. Quick to respond to this insight, the museum moved to test opening an hour earlier – with great success. Now, the Museum sees approximately 10% of its visitation at the earlier opening time – spreading demand across the morning crowd.

Path analysis reveals visitor behavior

Via RFID, but with anonymized data to protect visitor privacy, the USOPM conducted heatmap, dwell time and path analysis for its building and various spaces within – testing their visitor experience design’s path hypothesis with actual visitor movement. This gave the team the ability to understand where visitors were engaging and how, remotely observing sometimes unexpected visitor behaviors and tweaking the visitor experience.

USOPM’s data sources include: ticketing, membership, RFID, footfall, WiFi, website, social, events calendar and weather.
Intelligent design through RFID

RFID works via smart tags which are tracked by a reader. For the USOPM, these form factors are a credential incorporated within the lanyard given to visitors to serve as their ticket. This is also linked to the visitor’s customer record. These tags are picked up when the visitor is nearby, by a series of sensors at points of interest throughout the museum’s galleries and other spaces (including on each of its digital interactives), helping to personalize the visitor’s experience while providing comprehensive visitor behavior data for insight. Via the Museum’s ‘Digital Locker’, visitors create avatars, inputting sports they are most interested in and are then recommended specific activities and content. 

RFID and visitation data informed insights at the museum ranging from general attendance monitoring to comprehensive capacity control and visitor heat map, trail route and dwell time analysis, helping the museum team and its partners at Gallagher & Associates to see their visitor experience designs come to life, while tweaking the museum’s operations – especially in response to COVID-19 restrictions.

Optimizing visitor flows via dwell time analysis

Particularly beneficial during the pandemic for tightly optimizing capacity and flow, the USOPM had real-time data on dwell time through the venue and its galleries, to analyze the amount of time visitors spend onsite and where. Dwell time tracking highlighted that on busier days, particularly weekends, dwell time was lower – prompting the museum team to investigate the impact of occupancy on the visitor experience.

One for the books

In their mission to become one of the most accessible museums in the United States, the USOPM and Gallagher & Associates can celebrate designing a venue with purpose and innovation at its forefront – one which has been resilient in the face of challenging circumstances. This museum deserves a gold medal for visitor experience and intelligence.

Download the USOPM data story pdf.

Learn from the best in the world. Share the United States Olympic and Paralympic team’s success story with your team – or just keep it for yourself to implement at your organization.

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Insight Bites: Exhibitions and Events

Insight Bites: Exhibitions and Events

Recording attendance for activities

Options plus a few tips and tricks for how to count visitors in terms of activity attendance and conversion for exhibitions, experiences and events.

Analyzing visitor behavior curves

When does your Fear Of Mission Out (FOMO) behavior typically kick in for your visitors? Find out how to plan ahead for marketing, scheduling and wane.

Simulating exhibitions and more

In a world first, see how Dexibit simulates performance for exhibitions to optimize the schedule and marketing mix for visitation versus revenue.

Want to learn more about Dexibit?

Talk to one of our team to hear more about bringing big data analytics to your visitor attraction

Featured Resources

Discover industry leading resources for visitor attractions professionals

Setting up a data function in your visitor attraction? Join Baku Hosoe, Head of ...
Podcast
Data audits don't have to be hard or expensive. With our workbook - bring your s...
Kit
Nancy Proctor weaves together two unique stories: her career intersecting entrep...
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Data audits don't have to be hard or expensive. With our workbook - bring your s...
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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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Transcript

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.

Creating Successful Exhibitions and Events