As former Museopunk Jeffrey Inscho leaves the museum world, we take a moment reflect on the factors that influence a decision to leave or join the museum profession. We also examine what outside organizations can gain from hiring museum professionals–and what museums can gain from those who have grown up professionally in complementary industries. Plus, we preview a soon-to-air podcast that focuses on the wildly circuitous ways through which people come to, and leave, museums.
Until recently, Jeffrey Inscho was a museopunk and cultural hacktivist based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. His work played thoughtfully at the intersection of digital culture, mindfulness, strategic subversion and DIY. His most recent position in the museum sector was running the Studio, a nexus of design, development and workflow at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. He previously held positions at The Andy Warhol Museum, Carnegie Mellon University and the Mattress Factory.
Ros is an experienced digital professional with a track record of successfully leading and implementing digital strategy for world leading commercial and non-profit organisations. Her enviable employment record includes Channel 4, Ministry of Sound, Radio 1 and Random House. From the arrival of napster in the music industry to on-demand viewing in broadcast, from the ebook revolution to changing funding models in charity, her work has focused on helping organisations adapt to seismic industry shifts and changing consumer behaviour.
Now Digital Director for Tate, Ros is excited to bring her experience to the museum and art worlds. Connect with her on Twitter.
Read the Transcript
Suse Anderson: Good day and welcome to Museopunks, the podcast for the progressive museum. My name is Suse, and I am going to be one of your hosts for today’s episode, but in a joyous moment I am joined by two wonderful co-hosts Jason and Chad. Hello and welcome.
Jason Alderman: Thank you. Hello!
Chad Weinard: Hi Suse.
Suse: I would love for each of you to introduce yourselves so that people will have a sense of who is going to be helping co-host this episode. Jason, why don’t you kick it off?
Jason: Hi, I’m Jason, and I’m a creative technologist based in San Diego, California in the United States, and I’ve worked on many projects in Balboa Park with Balboa Park Online Collaborative.
Chad: Yes, I am Chad. I am a museum technologist and a consultant based in Durham, North Carolina. I’m currently leading digital initiatives for the Williams College Museum of Art.
Suse: Thank you both so much. I have to say our decision to work together on this episode came about a little bit serendipitously. I knew as Jeffrey left Museopunks that I was really interested in bringing him in as a guest on the show to talk about what it means to leave the sector, why he was leaving the sector, and to think a little bit about his exit strategy.
I was thinking about people coming and going from the sector, and Chad, you happened to send me a DM in Twitter right at that moment. What do you want to talk about?
Chad: Right, well Jason and I had this idea. It’s one that we batted around at MCN last year, and the week before I sent you that email, Suse, Jason hit me up on Slack and said, “That idea! Remember that idea we had? It was called Exit Interview? Let’s get that rolling.” I said, “Oh! Oh!”
I wasn’t sure that was good enough to get rolling, but…
Jason: Do you want to launch into the pitch, Chad?
Chad: Yeah, we’d better launch into the pitch pretty quickly, or I’ll be exiting and interviewing.
Jason: The premise of this is you know that one person in your museum who’s been around for ages who knows everything, or that young upstart, the steely-eyed one with all the ideas who’s made much-needed waves in the last year or two on staff?
Chad: What happens when they leave the museum? What happens when they move on to a different position entirely?
Jason: Exit Interview is our new podcast to capture the wisdom of former museum professionals as they move on to other challenges. What do they wish they’d known when they started? What projects are they most proud of? What are the torches they want their successors to pick up? What can other professions learn from museums? And what are they up to and excited about now?
Chad: People come to the museum field and work in it and journey out of it in wildly circuitous ways, and we want to tell their stories. We hope you’ll join us.
Jason: Find out more at ExitInterview.me or on Twitter @ExitInterviewMe
Suse: This is pretty amazing to think that you are having this whole discussion, this whole podcast coming up, all about people leaving the sector. I think it really taps into something that we’re seeing more and more in the sector, which is not just people leaving, and I think it’s a particular problem that I’m aware of in the technology space, although I’m sure it’s happening right around the sector, but also people being willing and in fact quite publicly talking about what it means to leave.
There was a recent post about the idea of “quit lit”, of people really being public about how and why they’re leaving. It feels like Exit Interview plays into this same idea.
Jason: Exactly. We wanted to try to be a more silly and jovial HR department and try to capture some of the knowledge of people who are leaving the profession, but we wanted to do so in a lighthearted way and not be all doom and gloom.
Chad: I think it’s important to think about not just leaving the sector as something that’s sad or a loss, but in many cases, it should be celebrated. This is an opportunity as we see it for those that are interested to be able to look back and to think about their time in museums and maybe throw some ideas to those that are still in the sector.
Suse: One of the things that I think is really lovely, you’re talking about people’s circuitous routes in and around the museum sector and out of the sector. When I first came to the museum sector, one of the things that really intrigued me was that very few people, at least in the technology space, seemed to have a straight way into museums.
I think it’s different when we’re talking about an area like collections management, where there are some pretty defined paths as to how people get there, but technology is not that space. How did you each end up in the museum world?
Chad: Goodness, I got into the museum world through art history, of all things. I remember in grad school I was in art history school and doing technology stuff on the side, some web development back when Flash was a thing. Remember that? That was something I was interested in. I never quite knew which would be a hobby and which might be a job.
When museums started getting interested in technology and museum technology became a thing, it was kind of the best of both worlds for me. I really got my start through the curatorial door. Started doing digital things and moved more in that direction.
Suse: I think from every project I’ve ever seen that you’ve worked on, I feel that you retain that curatorial sense, which is also a really lovely eye to be bringing with you into that space.
Chad: Right, it’s something I’m super passionate about. I think knowing the content and building things that work along with that content, even when we’re talking about interfaces, even when we’re talking about visitor experience, to build something that matches that is where the magic is.
Suse: Jason, we were talking the other day off-air about your somewhat interesting, I think, journey to museums. Can you share a little bit about how you ended up here?
Jason: I won’t get into too many of the details, but this is probably the third or fourth profession that I’m on. I started out in the military for several years and then worked at an educational software company making games for preschoolers, and then worked into consultancies making enterprise software for big corporations, Fortune 500 companies. It was at the end of probably three or four years at a consultancy in San Diego that I went to museum camp at the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz, Nina Simon’s museum.
Jason: It was fantastic. You slept overnight in the museum and worked on several activities. It was ocean swimming. It was the most unorthodox, amazing conference that I had been to at the time, so I was sold and wanted to try to get into museum exhibit design.
I found out about the Balboa Park Online Collaborative and saw on Twitter that Chad had just accepted the job as the director of digital media there. I asked him if I could buy him a coffee and find out how to break into the world of museums. That coffee led to a breakfast with his boss, and that led to a consulting job offer and everything went from there.
Suse: Chad, that is so generous of you and yet not in any way, I think, surprising from this part of the museum world or, in fact, I think the museum world in general. I think we’re an incredibly generous sector.
Chad: Yeah, that was probably the most profitable coffee that I had that summer, by far.
Jason: But you would have gotten so much more sleep if you hadn’t accepted that coffee.
Chad: Ahh, that’s probably true, but it would have been much less fun.
Suse: That is fantastic. Jason and Chad, it is fabulous to have you both here on Museopunks. Chad, you are only with us for the intro and outro. I am afraid that with my nascent audio editing skills I didn’t think juggling four audio tracks was quite the way to do this, so I have kicked you off for the next part of the show, which is our fabulous interviews.
We are going to be talking to Jeffrey, my recent co-host for Museopunks and longtime friend, as well as to Ros, who is at Tate and who came to museums actually later in her career. In my case, I’m not just focusing on the exit interview. With this interview, we’re thinking about the flows that people bring to and from museums, how people end up here, but what they take from this career.
I am really excited to get into both of these interviews, so Jason, I will speak with you in a second and Chad, we will see you after the jump.
Until recently, Jeffrey was a museopunk and cultural hacktivist based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His work played thoughtfully at the intersection of digital culture, mindfulness, strategic subversion, and DIY. His most recent position in the museum sector was running The Studio, a nexus of design, development, and work flow at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. He previously held positions at the Andy Warhol Museum, Carnegie Mellon University, and the Mattress Factory. Jeffrey, welcome to Museopunks.
Jeffrey Inscho: Hey! First-time caller. How’s it going?
Suse Things are great. It is so wonderful to have you as a guest for this episode. I had wondered if we were going to make it happen, and I’m so glad we could.
Jeffrey: It’s awesome to hear your voice again and also your co-host’s voice for this episode.
Suse: Huzzah! Jason, you want to say hi?
Jason: Hi Jeffrey.
Suse: Jeffrey, in late December, you announced just via a very quiet post on Medium that you would be leaving the museum sector to take up a position in the outside world. Before we talk a little bit about your decision to leave museums, can you tell me about your new role?
Jeffrey: Yeah, sure. First week of January I started a new adventure in the private sector. I went corporate, as they say. I am now sitting on the digital commerce team at a large Pittsburgh-based retailer. The d-com team, my team, we oversee all of the customer-facing digital channels for the company like the website, mobile apps, any type of physical space engagement. It may surprise some people, I think, this change, but it’s definitely not that dissimilar to the work I was doing at museums, surprisingly enough.
It’s a great company. I don’t want to get too into the details of the specifics of the company just because it’s a new environment, but anybody who knows Pittsburgh knows the company. It’s one of the bigger brands here in town. 400 locations. $9 billion annual revenue. It’s exciting for me, so yeah, that’s what I’m doing now.
Jason: Jeffrey, what excites you the most about your new position and the opportunities that you have there?
Jeffrey: The thing that excites me most really is getting back into the world of strategic marketing and strategic engagement. That’s the world I came from and cut my teeth in. I’ve always considered myself a technologist, I guess, but technologist was always secondary to the work of connecting with people, and technology was usually just one of the media that I found myself working in to connect people with ideas or people with objects, or in this case, people with products in my new position.
The company that I’m working for now, it’s interesting. It’s a legacy institution. It’s been around for a long time. Founded prior to the internet and is trying to figure out how to succeed in a world where we have things like Amazon, and particularly Amazon Go. I don’t know if you’re familiar with what Amazon Go is, but it’s their internet-connected store that is monitored with sensors and people can just walk in and scan a phone and walk out with their stuff and it automatically bills them.
It’s a really interesting opportunity for me to think about meaningful, compelling engagements at the scale of that. It’s pretty exciting.
Suse: Jeffrey, I think it was really interesting that you mentioned that this is almost a return to the continuum of where your career was earlier. You’ve been so visible as a contributor to the discourse around museums and technology, not just in your job but in things like Museopunks and in your writing. I was wondering how this might impact your sense of identity, but it sounds like this actually feels really like it’s returning to something core for you.
Jeffrey: Yeah, I would definitely describe it that way. I think it feels a little bit like coming home, in a way. Not that museums weren’t home to me for ten years, but definitely as I was considering making this move, it wasn’t an overnight decision. I had been thinking about making a change for more than a year, really, and considering it thoughtfully. Taking into account this professional identity that had built up over the years, whether it be Museopunks or Twitter or whatever, how I was going to deal with that and would I be okay walking away from that?
I actually used this change as I’d been considering withdrawing from the Internet for a little bit, and I used it as an opportunity to disassociate from Twitter and social media and just bring it back to basics for me.
Suse: I know! I noticed that you archived or deleted all of your tweets, that your website stands vacant. You’ve become not just less visible, but you’ve almost gone through a process of erasure of so much of what you’ve done. Is it about a more deliberate engagement with technology, which is something that we’ve spoken about before, about your sense of mindfulness, or is it about managing and changing that online brand to something much more closely aligned with your new role?
Jeffrey: No, and honestly I don’t think I’m intending to create the Corporate Jeff brand. It’s definitely rooted in mindfulness. It’s rooted in focus, focusing on things that are in front of me, things that are in my presence at the moment. Honestly, the identity that did build over the years … It’s going to sound totally weird, but it was not an intentional strategic thing. It just kind of happened, and I felt a lot of pressure once it was there to maintain it, so it’s refreshing not to have that.
Jason: You’ve spent a lot of time thinking about museums and cultural organizations over the past several years. What are things that you think that the outside world could learn or should adopt from museums and cultural institutions that you are maybe bringing with you as you go to your new role?
Jeffrey: Great question. I think the museum world offers a lot to the outside world. For example, in this new role of mine, it’s a big company. It’s a complex organization. It’s a diverse set of stakeholders, depending on what project I’m dealing with at the time. I don’t think there is a more complex network of stakeholders than museums. Think of the mustech community. People listening to this podcast, regularly they find themselves in the Bermuda Triangle of curator, educator, and technologist. There’s really nothing more complex than that, so while yeah, sure, this new role I have a lot of complex relationships to deal with to realize projects and have them emerge into the real world. Museums do offer that. If you’re good at navigating the environment or networks that exist in museums, it’s going to translate elsewhere.
I also think one of the reasons why I think my new employer liked me for the position when I really had no retail experience other than agency side of things prior to my time in museums was that companies are starting to value the fusion of the digital with the physical, and museums play in that space. Museums play elegantly in that space, and a lot of the work that I dealt with over the years in museums played in that space. The idea that we can fuse the digital with the physical in interesting ways is something from museums I think really translates to anything, really. That’s just the world we live in now.
Suse: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. One of the things that I was thinking about is what would attract people in outside organizations to museum professionals, and that melding of online and on-site, of thinking about experiential aspects of the world and work, I think, is a really big part of that.
Jeffrey: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Suse: What do you wish you had done in the sector that you didn’t have a chance to do, or is there projects that need to get done that no one’s working on that we really should be?
Jeffrey: Yeah, I think the projects that should happen and I feel really need to happen are the collaborative projects across institutions. Museums are staff strapped and resource-strapped and to the extent that they can work together, figure out the standards, and build something bigger than themselves, it would be remarkable if projects like that could happen. I know it’s hard. I know it’s on the front end of getting those projects started and maintaining those projects and keeping them going is not a trivial thing, but I think that’s really where the larger impact can be realized.
Jason: I know that in your work at The Studio, you did a lot of work that tied together the many institutions in Pittsburgh, even within the Carnegie Museum network. Of those projects, what are the projects that you were the most proud of, and also what might have been some projects that you feel were the most fun to work on but might have been overlooked by people?
Jeffrey: Cool. I love a question like that, Jason, because it allows me to reflect on the body of work. I think probably the project that I would be most proud of would be the light clock at Carnegie Museum of Art. This was a project that The Studio worked on for about nine months, and it ran all of 2017. It was a huge challenge. It was the first physical object that we designed and fabricated. It was a really complex installation. Some cutting-edge, never-before-seen software came out of it, and it’s something that I’ll definitely be proud of for a long time.
I think a project that might have been overlooked or a little bit hidden was the last project that I delivered for The Studio. The rest of the team, obviously, is still working really hard there at The Studio. We built a cabinet of curiosity and put it in the Pittsburgh Airport, and we installed that right before Christmas of last year. You can only see it if you’re traveling because it’s behind security, but it fused the collections of all four museums. We laser scanned museum objects and printed them out in bronze and had them mounted on the cabinet. It’s really an elegant thing, so if you’re traveling through Pittsburgh, definitely check it out. It’s a project that I’m proud of but very few people have seen.
Suse: It sounds fantastic. It actually makes me feel like I need to fly into Pittsburgh next time I come visiting as opposed to driving up there. It does sound like a really beautiful object and beautiful creation.
Jeffrey: Yeah, the documentation isn’t even online for it. It’s one of those things where you just kind of have to know about it, I guess.
Suse: That’s fantastic. A couple of quick questions: One of the things we haven’t spoken about yet is why now was the right time for you to transition I know that if you’re thinking about sector change, I’m sure there’s many, many things, many factors that go into something like this. What was it about this moment that made it the right time to move?
Jeffrey: There were a ton of factors that came into this decision. Like I said earlier, I’d been thinking about it and considering it and contemplating it for a long time. Yeah, it’s definitely a big risk professionally, one that I definitely had to weigh and consider. With respect to timing, it was a combination of a couple things. It was certainly a combination of the opportunity. It was an opportunity I felt was a good fit for me professionally and personally. The company is very family-friendly, very progressive, has a culture that’s rooted in positivity, so that all played into the factor of making a change.
Then also on the previous employer side of things, there were some leadership changes that were happening and some of the leadership that was really supportive of the work that I was doing was moving on. It’s one of those things where the opportunity was there, but then also your advocate from above is moving on. I wasn’t really sure of how the work was going to be supported in the future, so it was the right time.
Jason: Obviously, this is a big decision that you had to think about for a while and, as you said, there was the opportunity and then a confluence of factors at your home institution. I’ve got a few questions around that: What sort of reactions have you gotten by leaving, what advice would you give to those people who might be considering leaving the museum field, and any advice to those people who are staying in the museum field, maybe a little bit of a pep talk?
This is not getting too difficult.
Jeffrey: No, no. I want to be really clear that I don’t want this to be seen as a referendum on the museum sector. If an opportunity at a museum in Pittsburgh were to present itself, I probably would have stayed in the sector, but the decision to move out of the sector was rooted in the fact that my family is tied to Pittsburgh. We love Pittsburgh, and so personal factors trumped the professional sector factors, if that makes sense.
If I were to stay in the museum sector, it would have necessitated a move, or maybe a move into consulting, which is not something that I really wanted to do. I definitely want that to be clear: I still love museums. I still love the people who work in museums and the network that exists. I think professionally the mustech and museopunk network that’s out there is one of the most vibrant professional communities that exists.
As far as someone who is thinking of leaving the sector, I would definitely recommend they take their time with that decision and weigh all the factors, both professionally, personally, and make sure that what they’re moving into is the right fit for them to the best ability that they can. We don’t have crystal balls, but you can definitely map out the things that are important to you and realize if the shift meets those needs.
Suse: Yeah, Jeffrey, I think it’s really interesting and important that you mention both personal factors but also location and how important it is. It was something I really struggled with back home in Australia and in Newcastle. I lived in a city of 125,000 people and I think its actual, official jobs in museums and cultural institutions, there were around 60 of them. The possibility of changing and progressing in a museum career is such an easier thing if moving is on the cards, and if it not, it can be really challenging for growth and to be in a place where you’re really stretching yourself.
If you can’t be changing and having that flexibility … People in big cities, there are still limited positions but at least there is some opportunity, whereas if you are in a small city or a small town, your capacity to move and change is very limited.
Jeffrey: Yeah, definitely, and that plays into some of the discussions around equity and those sorts of things. It’s something, again, as I was considering a move, Jill and I were talking about it, whether or not we would be interested in a move. Taking the kids out of school that they love and putting them somewhere new. We came to the decision, and it was an easy decision for us. We love it here. Anyone who came to MCN last year knows how awesome the city is, and that trumped any business decision on my end of things.
Suse: I think that’s fantastic, and it is a factor I understand all too well. My ability to move to Baltimore was really a once-in-a-lifetime moment in my life where, if circumstances hadn’t laid out exactly as they did at that time, I don’t think I would have had that opportunity. You have to time it so well.
Jeffrey, just before we wrap up, one of the things I was just wondering: Every time we finish this podcast, we ask people how listeners can get in contact with them. You are so deliberately cutting down your online connections, I didn’t know whether that was still an option, and if it’s not, how does that feel? Does that feel like a loss? Is there a sense of uncertainty about being so much less connected than you were?
Jeffrey: People can still get in touch with me. There is a reason why the Twitter account is not deleted and it’s just empty. If somebody wants to shoot a DM, they can do that. I’ll probably log in in a month or two and just make sure nothing pressing is coming up.
Again, it’s definitely an intentional thing on my part, and it’s allowing some mental space to really focus on things that are meaningful and important at this point in my life, both professionally and personally. If somebody wants to get in touch, I would recommend just shooting a DM on Twitter, or if you have my email that’s probably the best way. Email or text.
Jason: Jeffrey, thank you so much for being on Museopunks. This was really a wonderful interview, and it was great to get some parting insight as you head on to other opportunities.
Jeffrey: Thank you both. Museopunks always held a really warm spot in my heart, and I’m so glad that Suse, you’re carrying it forward. I will remain a fan, the biggest fan, and a regular listener.
Suse: That is fantastic, Jeffrey. It has been wonderful working with you over the last several years, and I look forward to keeping an eye on what you are doing into the future. In the meantime, I think that’s a wrap on this interview.
Jason: In this segment today we have Ros with us. She’s an experienced digital professional with a track record of successfully leading and implementing digital strategy for world-leading commercial and non-profit organizations. Her enviable employment record includes Channel 4, Ministry of Sound, Radio One, and Random House.
From the arrival of Napster in the music industry to on-demand viewing in broadcast, from the e-book revolution to changing funding models in charity, her work is focused on helping organizations adapt to seismic industry shifts and changing consumer behavior. Now the digital director for the Tate, Ros is excited to bring her experience to the museum and art worlds.
Thank you for being on our show today.
Ros: Thank you for inviting me.
Jason: You’re currently the digital director at the Tate. Can you tell us a little bit more about that position and what your current role involves?
Ros Lawler: Sure. I’ve been there for four years, and I basically oversee all our online platforms. That’s Tate’s main website, where you will find 150,000 digitized artworks, where you’ll find all the information about how to visit and lots of content about our arts and artworks. Includes the e-commerce platform, which has recently been relaunched. Includes things like our app. It includes fantastic things like our in-gallery experiences, and I also have a wonderful content team who do loads of great writing and interactives and make fantastic videos.
Suse: Ros, that is fantastic. Can you just give me a little bit of a sense of the size and the scope of the digital team at Tate? What is the structure of the digital division? I think it’s useful to get a sense of different organizations in different museums and what that structure looks like.
Ros: Yeah, absolutely people do cut it very different ways. I have at last count 24 people in the team, plus a bunch of freelancers who kind of flex with. Within that, there’s a small project team. I have a head of projects and development, and she manages two project managers, a UX developer, and an analyst. We have a very small in-house dev team of two people. We’re going to go up to three soon. I have a content team who is slightly bigger, so that includes producers, assistant producers, and a couple of film specialists.
We also have a team that are fully funded by Bloomberg at the moment. Bloomberg are one of our biggest sponsors, and they focus on the Bloomberg content. And I have a small e-commerce team.
When I joined Tate, actually, this was quite disparate. The digital was split across three different teams, so over the past four years we’ve really brought that together and made it knit together with one team.
Jason: Thank you. That’s such a large team that works with so many different aspects of the museum. Are there any times that you feel that your experience outside museums has given you unique perspective on problems that you’ve faced with your museum?
Ros: Essentially, the jobs that I’ve done previously have been very similar to this of running large websites, large online platforms, which both deliver a lot of content and also have a commercial function. For example in publishing, we have lots of content about authors and books, but also it was a platform for selling e-books or referring on to other commercial websites. Similarly in the music industry, we worked on content-heavy sites. Lots of great videos about music, but also there was a commercial push there as well.
A lot of that experience comes to bear here as well. One of the big projects that we’ve worked on over the past four years which is really coming to fruition now is to pull the commercial and the content together into an experience which is really joined up and doesn’t jar. It’s just taking people on really meaningful user journeys from, say, their favorite artwork through to deeper research or content about that artwork, then perhaps on to a commercial opportunity to buy a ticket or a related product. Really trying to make that into a seamless journey for whichever route people come into our content or products.
Suse: That’s fascinating. I’m really interested to hear that there’s been such a deliberate linking of the commercial and the educational aspects of the Tate’s content. Was that a driving motivator behind you coming to work at Tate or behind you even moving from the e-commerce division of Tate, which I know you were the head of, and moving into the digital division more broadly?
Ros: My motivators for joining was really quite basic. One, that I really love Tate. I’ve been a massive fan since I was about 15. I was in another job and I wasn’t thinking of leaving anywhere, and a recruitment friend of mine said, “Ros, there’s a job at Tate and you should really go for it.” I was kind of awestruck that I could have a possibility of working at Tate and came in, as you said, to what was a pure e-commerce role. It hadn’t been on my map that I might do that, but I met the people at Tate and we got on very well, and I was absolutely delighted to join.
It was nice the first year I was there, I was able to focus on actually what had been quite a small business online and had been a sort of satellite business, floating around the outside of Tate. I really spent the first year trying to think how I could plug that more into the rest of Tate, make it a more joined-up experience, and was able to really focus on what the project software was there.
When you go into a museum and you go in the shop, the shop makes sense because it’s connected to the experience that you’re there, whether that’s an exhibition or a collection that you’ve seen, whereas if you just stumble across it online, sometimes it doesn’t really make much sense. We really focused on developing two things within the online shop offer: One was the print offer, because that makes sense that you go along to a Tate website and it’s got great prints, and gifting, because we’ve got fantastic things that make great gifts.
I just got that strategy up and running, got a team set up there, and then there was some movement with my ex-colleagues from Tate. A couple of people left, and it just brought about this opportunity to put in a digital director role, which could pull together what had been slightly disparate teams, content team and a digital team and the e-commerce team. I was right place, right time and was lucky enough to get into that job and really put it together. That’s my mini-history at Tate.
Suse: That’s great. Jeffrey, who is the former co-host of this podcast and who is the other guest on today’s show, recently left museums to take up a position with a retailer. I think you’ve basically flipped that, coming from an external position in marketing in e-commerce to the museum world. Are museums thinking about e-commerce differently from the way external organizations are?
I think you’re starting to talk about connecting the full range of products here, the educational, but is this something that museums are … Are museums new to thinking about their commercial relationships online in this way and thinking about that connection in this way, or are they actually dealing with e-commerce differently from what’s happening outside the sector?
Ros: I think there is an aspiration to be like e-commerce businesses outside of the sector, but most of the museums I know are struggling with a really similar problem. That is the IT infrastructure and legacy platforms that they’ve got. One thing that I learned on joining the museum sector is that there is no e-commerce platform which is easy to use and readily available that really sells well across the range of membership, tickets, and products.
Most museums now are in a situation where they’ll perhaps have one platform which sells their membership and ticket, and another one which sells their online products. They’re two disparate platforms, which is what we had at Tate. We’ve just got to the end of a project where we’ve brought them together onto one platform, which may not be too obvious to the customer, but to us that’s a really big deal.
For the first time, we’ve got a platform which sells e-tickets, you can buy your membership, and you can also buy a t-shirt at the same time. Everybody I talk to in the space is dealing with this same problem: With limited resources, how do you pull together these slightly antiquated legacy systems that we’ve got?
Unfortunately, it would be great if we could invent a system that everybody could use and save everybody’s time and resources so we can just get on with delivering a great customer experience, but everybody’s setup is slightly different. Everybody’s trying to patch together slightly different systems, which means we’re all working really hard to try and achieve the same thing, I think.
Jason: It really would be wonderful if there were some kind of one-size-fits-all solution, as you’re describing.
Ros: Wouldn’t it? Yeah.
Jason: Have you experienced any culture shock when you joined the museum sector? You’re working in very similar areas and working with e-commerce, but what was the biggest surprise that you had about working with museums?
Ros: Actually, one of the surprises was the similarity. Having worked in different creative industries before, there is the similar emotional and different relationships. You have your creatives, your artists and your curators in this. It compares quite well to the music industry, where you have your musicians. You have this creative project that you’re trying to treat in the best way possible and make it accessible to the biggest audience possible, so some of those things I thought were very similar.
One thing that really surprised me about the museum industry, having come from industries that are essentially hit industries, so you’ve got publishing, you’ve got music. They live off their hits and then they have a back catalog that makes them money the rest of the time.
Discovering that, essentially, a lot of the museum industry is a hit industry. Everything pivots around the big exhibitions. When there’s a big exhibition, everybody’s in a great mood and you make all the money off there and you sell your tickets and you upsell your membership and you sell all the catalogs. It actually has a lot of similarities and dealing with a lot of the similar issues. That’s great we had a really big exhibition that did really well, but how do we make those dips in between exhibitions shallower? How can we build up our business so that we’re not entirely reliant on these exhibitions, which in music and publishing, you do with your back catalog? It’s kind of like what’s the equivalent of a back catalog in the museum industry?
Suse: It’s funny that you come from the music industry as well. I dabbled. I came from the music industry to museums and it was, again, around the time that the internet was starting to show that there were different business models. That was actually what directly led me to the museum world. I know of other people who are working in the museum technology space who had a similar background. I think it’s interesting that there’s an analogue between these two spaces.
One of the things that I’ve heard a number of digital directors speak about is the challenges of hiring technologists into museums and particularly later in their careers because so many of those skills are directly transferrable, in fact, between sectors. You are competing with people who are working in multiple other creative sectors, as well as commercial spaces, and a lot of those other sectors can pay a lot higher than museums pay. Have you faced this challenge, and if so, how has it shaped your team and your hiring choices?
Ros: Suse, you’re absolutely right that hiring technologists is really difficult in this sector because we just don’t compete on salary. With the other areas of the team, for example in the content team, we do attract people because people who are interested in making content about art know that we’ve got great content for them to work with. There is a big attraction there, whereas that’s not usually the reason that people go into being a developer. There are other motivations there, so it’s hard to find people who will work for our salaries, and we have spent a painful amount of money on contractors. There are things I would much rather spend that money on, but sometimes needs must because it does cause a real bottleneck in our team.
We can produce a lot more work than we can actually get alive sometimes, so we are lucky that we do have a developer who is also a brilliant art historian and a writer. We shall try and keep hold of Harris for as long as we can, and then get the right recruitment level for people to come in and work in the team. Perhaps on their first or second job, try and give them really interesting things to work on that will give other motivations other than financial. That is difficult for us.
We also try and support that with agencies as well so that we can sometimes flex out and get external support, which helps reduce that bottleneck within the team.
Jason: When do you decide to go for agencies or contractors versus when do you decide that you absolutely need to hire somebody in house for something?
Ros: That would depend on the project, and it would depend on the budget. When we have sponsored projects we’re able to do that. A good example is Tate’s app. We were able to go externally with that. Then, also, when there’s a very hard deadline. A couple of years ago we had a very hard deadline of a new building opening. We needed a new website. We needed lots of things done. There was not much flexibility, so at that point as well we went externally. It’s just choosing those moments.
Also, it’s really great to have that knowledge in-house. One of the other things that we have done over the past couple of years going back to that IT stack we were talking about is really simplifying the setup so actually we’ve got slightly less technical requirement in house to be able to work on the platforms that we’ve got. Just kind of scaling that back a little bit and making it simpler to use.
Suse: I think that’s really interesting, this observation that you are starting to simplify the technology stack. I’m sure that has implications, then, on who you’re hiring as well and the sorts of skills you’re trying to bring in. I also thought it was interesting, you observed you often get people on their first or second job, certainly in the developer stage. You’re not the first person I’ve heard say that. I’ve actually heard a number of people around the sector mention that getting young, keen technologists is a great thing that happens early in their career and then they tend to move on. What are the skills or the traits we should be hiring for, both early in people’s careers but also as they develop? What should we be hiring for that’s important in museums?
Ros: That’s a really good question. Willingness to learn and be interested and be curious is the underlying value that I think we need. People who are prepared to be flexible. We’ve recently hired a developer and we’re working on different technologies to that which he’s been trained in and developed in. Actually, that’s a good learning for him. He’s broadening his skills and at the same time while certainly being useful for us. That’s a really good entry there.
Within the team, we try and get a mixture of people with art knowledge, obviously, because that’s all about our credibility and being able to make sure that the things that we’re doing are correct and really tied in and joined up with the rest of Tate. Then balance that out with people from a non-arts background. People from a more pure-digital background, who can bring in some of those skills like user-centered design, like product development. It’s really getting that nice blend between museum and arts industry and technology industries and really marrying those together.
Jason: The museum field really does feel like a great melting pot of all those different disciplines that help people. I don’t mean to be doom-and-gloom here, but are we doomed in the museum sector to have high turnover and be training people from other sectors?
Ros: I don’t know that I’d say doomed, but that is … It’s how you manage it, isn’t it? If you’re a project manager in your mid-30s, you’re quite likely, whatever sector you’re in, to move jobs quite frequently. A two- to three-year stint in a job is not unusual. I think what we need to be really good at is hiring effectively, so let’s go out and find the right people, getting them up and running really quickly, things like induction and getting them established and getting them to be productive really quickly, and then making the most of their time while they’re there and accepting that, yes, people are going to turn over. Actually, that’s just a part of the rhythm of employment now, I think, not just within the museum sector, but within other sectors. I’ve had this in other areas as well. You live in London, there are a lot of great jobs around.
Suse: Yeah, it’s interesting. I think in other parts of the museum, say with collections management, people come in knowing that that’s what they want to do. They want to work with, often, a specific collection or with collections in general, so then it’s really a question of staying within museums and finding the right position or the right collection and working within that parameter. The technology space within museums is certainly not like that. How important, then, is it to have a mix of museum experts and non-museum people, and what kind of training do we need to then offer? How essential is it that someone who’s not from a museum world initially actually comes in and quickly understands what the museum sector is all about? Are there particular things that you want people to come in understanding, or is that not essential?
Ros: I don’t know if anybody’s quickly understood the museum sector. I certainly haven’t. I keep learning as I go along. I think the important thing to establish is a meaningful and creative dialogue between your digital team and perhaps your curatorial or your collection care team of actually how they can interface and work together, which has been done very successfully. Our artwork digitization process, for example, starts off from acquisition and goes through collection care and magically ends up on the website. Our project team and our content team work very creatively with curatorial. It’s actually just hooking up those conversations and seeing, really, what people can learn from one side to the other.
I had a really interesting conversation with somebody the other day where they were saying, “UX skills and understanding creating experiences is all very project and very digital led, and it’s very new to museums.” I said, “Well it’s not, is it, because that’s what curators do. They create experiences.” People are actually thinking about very similar things and doing very similar things, but using very different language. I think there’s a lot you can learn between each side on how you view experiences and how you create them. Even though we’re using slightly different language, we are actually doing a very similar thing.
Jason: Understanding the language between the two fields, industry and museums, is really important, at least from what we’ve seen as well. Do you have any specific advice like that for listeners who might be wanting to make the leap from another industry to the world of museums?
Ros: Do I have any advice? That’s a really good question. Let me think about that for a moment.
Jason: Didn’t mean to put you on the spot.
Ros: No, that’s okay. It’s a good question. I guess my advice would be do your research. Go and talk to people. Find out what the opportunities are. Like I said, there are a lot of similarities. I think one of the motivators and one of the great things that I love about it is that you really get to work both online and in the most amazing spaces. That for me is the really motivating thing. There are not many jobs where I think you get to run a fantastic website full of amazing art, but then people open up really incredible spaces for you to do the most inventive things in.
At the moment, we’ve got this incredible VR experience in the middle of a Modigliani exhibition. There are not many places where you really get to work with your audiences, both online and offline. My advice to people is go out and see what’s happening in the museums. There are some really incredible things. Talk to people. Find out how you might get involved. Go and experience and absorb it, I think.
Suse: That is a beautiful, positive note on which to end this discussion, which is really all about change and moving in and out of sectors. If people would like to get in contact with you, if they’d to find you online, what’s the best way for them to do so?
Ros: Twitter, @RosLawler. You can send me a message on there.
Suse: That is great, and we will also put a link to that in the show notes. Ros, thank you so much for coming and sharing your wisdom and your story with us. It’s fascinating to hear both about what you’ve brought from outside the sector to the museum world, but also to hear about the work you have been working on since joining Tate.
Ros: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.
Suse: Thank you so much to Jeffrey and Ros for joining us on Museopunks today and sharing your insight into progressive museum practice in all its forms. If you want to connect with Jeffrey, you can do so @jinscho on Twitter, and you can reach out to Ros @roslawler. Thank you also to my new co-hosts, Jason and Chad for taking on the grand experiment that is becoming co-hosts for this new iteration of Museopunks.
I can’t wait for the first episode of Exit Interview, which people can find more about at ExitInterview.me, or on Twitter @exitinterviewme. We didn’t cover one question, though, about this podcast. Jason, Chad: When is it going to drop?
Jason: Later this year.
Chad: Good answer, good answer.
Suse: Okay. Once you are ready to make this episode public, I think we will publicize it here on Museopunks, and we will also share a link out on our Twitter feed. Keep an eye out on Museopunks’ Twitter feed as well.
Museopunks is presented every month by the American Alliance of Museums. You can connect with me on Twitter @museopunks, or check out the extended show notes at Museopunks.org. Of course, you can subscribe any time at iTunes or Stitcher.
Jason, Chad, final words? Final thoughts?
Jason: Thank you so much, Suse. This has really been an honor and a swell time.
Chad: Thanks, Suse. This has been fantastic.
Suse: It has been so fun to speak to you both. Thank goodness for serendipity.