this is aaronland

no futures without history

MuseWeb 2020 – Build or buy?

airsickness bag: Air Canada. Paper, ink, metal. The Henry Steiner Air Sickness Bag Collection, SFO Museum Collection. 2006.026.003.

These are the slides for my presentation as part of the Build or buy? A debate and discussion of capacity-building for digital teams session at the MuseWeb 2020 conference. The talk accompanies the paper I wrote for the conference, Capacity Planning for Meaning, which I've included in full below. I was presenting alongside Chad Curtis from the Saint Louis Art Museum and whose paper How to Build, When to Buy: Scalable Tactics for Digital Projects and Services is also included in the conference proceedings.

The talk itself was meant to be summary and did not try to capture all of the nuance and complexities of the subject that the paper tries to address. It was meant to recap the thrust of the paper in a way that would, hopefully, encourage the audience to push back or challenge some of the things I was saying in order foster the conversation. Bruce Wyman deserves a big sloppy thank you for chairing the session and helping to facilitate the discussion.

What follows is a reconstruction of my hand-written notes and the thrust of what I said during the presentation. These aren't my exact words as spoken but they are what I was trying to say.

airsickness bag: Air Littoral. Paper. Gift of The Henry Steiner Air Sickness Bag Collection, SFO Museum Collection. 1998.157.019.

Hi, my name is Aaron. I am the Head of Internet Typing at the San Francisco International Airport Museum. The museum and the airport are owned and operated by the City and County of San Francisco which means that, officially, I have a dull and ambiguous title befitting the civil service but Head of Internet Typing is the best way to describe what I do so it's what I tell people.

The museum is fully accredited and has been operating since 1980. At the moment it has 25 galleries located throughout the airport and has produced more than 1,400 exhibitions over the course of the last 40 years. It also has a permanent collection of 130,000 objects focusing on the airport itself as well as commercial aviation more generally.

This talk is not about SFO Musuem, though. It is only about SFO Museum in so much as we are a museum and face some of the same challenges I want to discuss today. This is a talk about the cultural heritage sector as a whole.

airsickness bag: Continental Airlines. Paper. Gift of The Henry Steiner Air Sickness Bag Collection, SFO Museum Collection. 1998.157.090.

I want to start by suggesting that the sector is stuck in a circular argument when it comes to digital technologies and what they make possible for our institutions and our collections. Not what's possible in a What if we won the lottery? kind of way but more about how we get anything done given the realities and the constraints we operate in today.

The purpose of this talk is not to point fingers at any one institution or to assign blame for past mistakes but to try and make some observations, as bluntly and directly as possible, with the hope that they might short-circuit the inertia of the current discussion. My hope is to jumpstart the conversation about the role and the purpose of digital technologies in cultural heritage organizations in new and more productive directions.

airsickness bag: British Airways. Paper, ink. The Henry Steiner Air Sickness Bag Collection, SFO Museum Collection. 2006.026.021.

One reason I think the conversation is stuck is that we throw around the phrases digital media and digital technologies and even the digital as general-purpose conversational shortcuts when in fact we have very different, sometimes radically different, understandings of we mean and expect from the same words.

For example, when someone talks about digital are they simply talking about the transition from analog to digital tools as a means of production? Are they talking about advances in, and the increasing affordability of, computating and storage capacity? Are they talking about a global always on network of information resources? Are they talking about a global participatory community of humans and machines alike?

When I say digital I am talking about all of these things. My definition should be understood to be more expansive than not, but that's just my definition. The same may not be true for another person.

airsickness bag: KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines). Paper. Gift of The Henry Steiner Air Sickness Bag Collection, SFO Museum Collection. 1998.157.141.

In same vein we are equally unclear about what all of these digital technologies are for.

Is the primary purpose of digital technologies in an institution to serve as an attractor, to get people in to the door? Is it meant to increase dwell time, to keep people in the building longer than they might otherwise stay? Is it to make that instituton, or its collection, look and feel more like the contemporary culture that most visitors are already familiar with?

Is the purpose to be a MacGuffin by which we might address larger issues in an institution or the sector? Already, one person at this conference has spoken about digital technologies as a way to challenge the primacy of the (museum) object in favour of the community and the larger public.

I believe the reason we should invest in, embrace and deploy digital technologies is because they are a transformational mass on institutions and their collections. The application of these technologies allows them to make a conceptual leap, similar to the one made by educators, that distinguish them from their curatorial counterpart. That is it, they act as another lens on to the institution and its practice, not better or worse, but recognizably different and valuable on their own terms.

Again, my definition should be understood to be more expansive than not, but that's just my definition. The same may not be true for another person.

airsickness bag: TWA (Trans World Airlines). Paper, ink, metal. The Henry Steiner Air Sickness Bag Collection, SFO Museum Collection. 2006.026.093.

It is important to step back for a moment and point out that my purpose here is not to convince you to adopt my definition of digital technologies. There are many equally valid definitions and the circumstances that led to them.

My purpose is, though, to suggest that when we use the same short-hand to talk about very different things we may have difficulty trying to achieve what we think are common goals or in agreeing on how to accomplish them.

I think that disconnect is at the heart of why the conversations we have about making the possibilities afforded by digital technologies a tangible and sustainable reality are so difficult. We are talking about different things. Again, those differences are legitimate but we owe it to each other, and to ourselves, to be able to clearly articulate what we mean when we say digital.

airsickness bag: Eastern Air Lines. Paper. Gift of The Henry Steiner Air Sickness Bag Collection, SFO Museum Collection. 1998.157.113.

Traditionally, digital initiatives have followed the model used to produce exhibitions. Often digital initiatives are compliments to, and in service of, those exhibitions. They have a high production value, involving significant amounts of labour and budgetary resources. They have known boundaries and are, out of necessity, relatively inflexible to change because once launched they, like the exhibitions they serve, are meant to run unattended for the time it takes an institution to produce the next exhibition.

There is nothing inherently bad about this model. I just think it represents a lost opportunity.

airsickness bag: Braniff International. Paper. Gift of The Henry Steiner Air Sickness Bag Collection, SFO Museum Collection. 1998.157.048.

The reason I think it's a lost opportunity is two-fold.

First, when I look at digital technologies, and remember my definition is expansive and includes things like the internet, I see the tangible means by which an institution can extend itself beyond both an atomic visit and the building a person is visiting. In the paper that accompanies this talk I write that cultural heritage institution should embrace digital technologies because:

  • They provide the tangible ability to produce a multiplicity of avenues, where they did not exist before, into an institution’s collection and the history of its curatorial practice.
  • They allow those same avenues to extend beyond the physical footprint of an institution, to reach a global audience and to do so asynchronously. They allow these avenues to stay open, or “always on,” such that people can find them at a time and a place of their own choosing.
  • They afford the freedom, both intellectually and importantly financially, to limit the costs, risks and consequences involved in these efforts.

These are things that we have not able to do in the past and they are the things that enable our institutions to be taken for granted in the same way that people have come to take services like Google and Wikipedia for granted. These are services that in their ubiquity people have made an extension of their lived experience. It should come as no surprise to people in the cultural heritage community that these services, and others like it, are where people turn to find out about our collections but we should endeavour to fulfill that role.

I don't believe we can accomplish this without building and maintaining a digital scaffolding around our institutions and our collections which ensures and promotes a revisiting of these things, independent of any given visit, at a time and place of an individual's choosing and rationale.

The second part of my argument centers around my belief that the bedrock of the humanities is the practice of revisiting an idea. To revisit, reconsider and to reimagine a subject are at the core of cultural heritage. Without them, and without the ability to practice them, what is to separate our work and our collections from any other commercial enterprise or broadcast-based entertainment channel?

airsickness bag: American Airlines. Paper, ink, metal. The Henry Steiner Air Sickness Bag Collection, SFO Museum Collection. 2006.026.009.

I mention these things because they are important but become crucially important when it comes times to decide how we pay for these projects, how we maintain them and who does the actual work to build them. By and large the cultural heritage has out-sourced the technical implementations, and the support, of our digital initiatives to third-party vendors the same way we might contract a fabricator to build furniture for a gallery. This is still very much the norm as evidenced by the majority of nominees and winners of this year's GLAMi Awards working in collaboration with outside agencies.

I'm going to keep saying this: There's nothing inherently wrong with this approach.

If past work is any guide, though, it shows us that it is an approach which yields projects that are slow and expensive to produce, difficult to update or integrate with other projects and generally brittle and ultimately ephemeral. Dependening on how you are approaching digital technologies and the reasons for doing so in the first place these may not be concerns you need to worry about. The cost of a project, and its relative longevity, might be entirely offset by the rewards it generates elsewhere.

airsickness bag: British Caledonian Airways. Paper. Gift of The Henry Steiner Air Sickness Bag Collection, SFO Museum Collection. 1998.157.056.

The point I am trying to make is that while there is, and will always be, a role for outside vendors to play in our work there is a whole landscape of projects and ambitions for which they are entirely ill-suited. Their business models do not permit them to devote the time and the resources to a prolonged and iterative process often involving significant customization and tailoring to meet the needs of any given institution.

Even if their business models did permit these things it is unlikely that an institution could afford the cost. And if an institution could afford the cost for that kind of work delivered over months and years, essentially a retainer, it begs the question of whether it could put that much money to better use. For example, using that money to hire full-time staff with a mandate to tackle and solve those same problems, to develop long-term institutional capacity that outlasts any one team member and that reduces the cost of the inevitable failures to something that is manageable rather than catastrophic.

The point I am trying to make is that these are things that are not self-realizing, that someone needs to do the work to actualize them and that the people the sector has traditionally relied on are both a poor fit for the job and simply too expensive for the scope of the work. An institution doesn't have to do these things that I've described. As I've said a few times now there are other, equally valid approaches to "the digital" in an institution.

If we are going to try and do them, though, I think it's time, long overdue in fact, that we recognize we will have to figure out how to do them ourselves.

airsickness bag: Iberia. Paper. Gift of The Henry Steiner Air Sickness Bag Collection, SFO Museum Collection. 1998.157.127.

Part of this work will require thinking about how we develop and implement projects in such a way that they outlast reluctance. We need to develop the capacity, culturally and technically, to outlast the initial reluctance to an idea whether it is internal or external.

Inevitably some ideas and initiatives will be failures but some of them will be new, and challenging, enough that they need more time for people to warm up to them. Sometimes it's a question of leaving enough time and space for belief in a project to germinate and other times it's simply a question of being patient enough to wait in the queue, so to speak, of people's busy lives.

There is a pervasive, and I think ultimately destructive, belief that everything we do needs to compete with and be measured in terms of the so-called attention economy. We don't and we shouldn't.

Just because someone has to pick up their kids on the day you launch your new shiny thing doesn't mean they won't eventually cycle back to it. It might take them a week, or two weeks or even a year but aren't we, the cultural heritage sector, in it for the long game?

airsickness bag: Braniff International. Paper. Gift of The Henry Steiner Air Sickness Bag Collection, SFO Museum Collection. 1998.157.047.

This revisiting is what digital technologies make possible and we, as a sector, need to develop the skill and the practice to make it both real and sustainable. This will be a non-trivial amount of work and it will be hard and there will be a learning curve, some of it steep, to develop the capacity to do these things in a way that is conceptually and financially. We need to develop the capacity to allow both visitors to revisit projects but also for an institution to revisit, reconsider and improve those same projects. Critically we need to be able to do these things without them being major undertakings.

It is work that will need to acknowledge and address the mistakes that were made around similar past efforts. It is work that will need to ultimately overcome but initially be resilient to at least a few false starts.

All of this will be made harder still because it forces a lot of long-standing, and complicated, issues around hiring and retention and salaries in the cultural heritage sector to rise to the surface.

That difficulty will be exacerbated by the challenge of competing with the benefits afforded by for-profit technology companies and competing amongst ourselves for the limited pool of people who will sacrifice the rewards of the private sector to help us accomplish our work.

airsickness bag: China Airlines. Paper. Gift of The Henry Steiner Air Sickness Bag Collection, SFO Museum Collection. 1998.157.080.

And it's a lot of work. This is why I keep coming back to the need to articulate what an institution means when it speaks of "the digital" and why it believes it is important.

Without these things there will be little to convince the staff the sector needs to attract to give up the creative comforts of the technology world. Without these things there will be little to convince the visitors the sector claims to serve that we are not, in fact, just another pit stop in the attention economy.

Thank you.

Capacity Planning for Meaning

“Because, there are no futures without histories.” (Jain, 2020)

This paper was originally published on the MuseWeb 2020 conference website.

Designing for patience

The idea of “designing for patience” is for cultural heritage institutions to develop capacity to make their digital infrastructure resilient to uncertainty whether that is unstable funding or reluctant audiences or both. That capacity needs to be seen as an on-going and long-term investment, developed and maintained internally, spanning, and in service to, the history of an institution rather than any single exhibition or project.

The phrase “designing for patience” is meant to reflect the reality that cultural heritage institutions no longer enjoy a monopoly on the general public’s attention. This shift away from the academy towards large commercial enterprises as well as the proliferation of smaller niche publishers, all developing and promoting ever more cultural production, has been underway for decades. In recent years, and particularly with introduction of the internet and low-cost mobile computing, the shift has picked up speed often being likened to a “firehose” in both its intensity and, increasingly, the inability to meaningfully make any sense of it.

I believe that the broader mission of the cultural heritage sector, and the humanities generally, dictates that we should not be competing with the immediacy of the firehose. Instead we should use digital technologies to develop the infrastructure to ensure that our collections and our holdings are available and accessible and relevant long after the firehose has passed. To be confident enough to believe that people will revisit an idea, to be patient enough wait for them and to be sustainable enough to make both a reality. I do not believe it is possible to do these things without developing the practice and the capacity to do them internally.

In order to discuss these ideas further we first need to spend some time defining what is meant by the terms “digital” and “infrastructure.” The terms “digital,” “digital media,” and “digital technologies” are frequently used interchangeably but, just as often, absent any consensus about what they mean or represent. When someone speaks of digital technologies it is not often clear what they mean. The ambiguity of meaning when two or more people discuss digital technology is often the root of misunderstandings or disagreements about broader topics.

In the “What is ‘Digital?'” appendix to this paper I have included a list of potential meanings that are all equally applicable or relevant when discussing “digital media” and “digital technologies.” This is not an exhaustive list of what might be considered as “digital”, and importantly there are equally valid interpretations that contain only a subset of that list.

For the purposes of this paper the meaning of “digital” should be understood to be more expansive than not. When I speak of “digital technologies”, I am referring to all of things listed in the appendix, whether they are realized or unrealized potentialities.

Equally, the phrase “infrastructure” can mean different things to different audiences in the cultural heritage sector . For the purposes of this paper, infrastructure is defined primarily, but not exclusively, as software projects grouped in to one of four generalized categories.

Detailed examples of each category are included in the “What is ‘Infrastructure?'” appendix to this paper.

Separations of concern

All of these infrastructure systems, or layers, are used in tandem and in concert with one another during the course of normal operations in a cultural heritage institution. All are “digital” but that does not mean they are the same. Each has unique tolerances and affordances and distinct requirements and skill sets to operate and maintain. Understanding these separations of concern is critical for the cultural heritage sector, particularly when it comes to staffing, because each incurs demands that are not necessarily portable from one category to another.

It is important to distinguish these layers in order to answer one simple question: What is the function of digital technology inside of a cultural heritage institution?

There is not a single “right answer” to this question. But because there are a multiplicity of answers it is important for an institution to be able to articulate their position on the question. To be able to explain why digital technologies are even part of an institution’s mission, independent of which technologies are chosen or how they are deployed. Ideally, the “why” should influence the decisions about the “what” and the “how.” Regardless, the reasons why an institution chooses to entertain digital technologies in the first place will dictate whether the “what” and the “how” succeed or fail.

There is nothing about the dynamics of a “why-what-how” relationship that is unique to digital technologies. It exists in most, if not all, institutional endeavors. Digital technologies, however, have an uncommon ability to force the tensions in the “why-what-how” dynamic to the surface because the promise of “what” they can achieve is so alluring while the realities of “how” to accomplish those things can be unexpectedly complex.

I take the position that the role of digital technologies should not limited to a supporting role, solely as a compliment to an institution’s existing practice and mirroring it in digital media. I believe that the reason “why” a cultural heritage institution should embrace digital technologies, as defined by the list above, is three-fold:

  1. They provide the tangible ability to produce a multiplicity of avenues, where they did not exist before, into an institution’s collection and the history of its curatorial practice.
  2. They allow those same avenues to extend beyond the physical footprint of an institution, to reach a global audience and to do so asynchronously. They allow these avenues to stay open, or “always on,” such that people can find them at a time and a place of their own choosing.
  3. They afford the freedom, both intellectually and importantly financially, to limit the costs, risks and consequences involved in these efforts.

Digital technologies as a whole are a vast canvas so this list is only one possible framing of their qualities and properties. I have chosen these three because they are the qualities and properties that are genuinely novel. These are things that we have not able to do in the past.

Units of currency

The act of revisiting is a touchstone of the humanities. The repeat consideration, and often reconsideration, of a body of work is what distinguishes the humanities from other endeavors. Without this there is little to separate our practice from the cataloging of instruction manuals or traffic reports (both of which are collected by some institutions).

In many institutions the “unit of currency” used to define their efforts remains the exhibition, rather than the collection or its broader mission seen in an historical context. The past, when it is made manifest, is only available in the form of a printed exhibition catalog. An always-on and connected network means that an institution is no longer quantified by the atomic isolation of a building, a single exhibition or an exhibition catalog but rather its ambient presence and the ease with which its present can be connected to its past, not to mention everything else.

In other words, everything a museum does is connected to everything a museum has done not just for those with institutional knowledge but for the greater public audience that an institution exists to serve.

Historically, institutions have undertaken linear and sequential series of themed exhibitions, often both labor intensive and expensive to produce, culminating in big splashy “reveals” designed to buoy an institution for the time it takes to complete the next set of exhibitions. This model of working, sometimes described as “fire and forget,” no longer matches people’s expectations. This is one place where digital technologies can be crafted as a kind of scaffolding that serves to promote the practice of revisiting and to buttress a culture of reflection, alongside existing practice.

The challenge of changing expectations is exacerbated further by a series of issues, unrelated to digital technologies, affecting the cultural heritage sector as a whole:

At the same time, we are living through a moment in history when the over-arching cultural zeitgeist is a sense of helplessness and a powerful belief that nothing short of radical transformational change will accomplish anything or, worse still, even be noticed. To be a cultural heritage institution in the twenty-first century, then, is to operate in a noisy and cluttered space referred to as the “attention economy” where the very air itself often feels as though it has been weaponized.

Research has shown that museum visitors’ encounters with art are generally brief—an average viewing time of 28.6 seconds per work, according to a 2017 study by Jeffrey and Lisa Smith and Pablo Tinio at the Art Institute of Chicago. That time includes reading the label and, for “a large percentage of visitors” taking selfies, they noted.


Compounding this reality is a growing belief that there is only a single chance for cultural heritage institutions to capture people’s attention and a disbelief that any of our efforts can buoy themselves longer than an initial first impression. That in order to survive and prosper we must produce ever more elaborate spectacles whose primary function is to serve as attractors giving us equal, or at least improved, footing in an increasingly crowded “attention economy.”

In this context the function of digital is best described as an aspirational signifier. Its manifestation and its reasons for existing are measured only by whether or not it successfully captures people’s attention in an ocean of distractions. In this context anything that does not produce an immediate reaction, or that yields any reluctance on the part of its target audience, is understood as a failure.

As the perceived need for spectacle drives ever more elaborate and costly productions so too do the stakes increase. The impact of a failed production can have significant consequences for an organization’s budget and its appetite for, and importantly its belief in, future efforts let alone revisiting and improving past work.

Even when they do succeed institutions are typically left with a digital infrastructure consisting of expensive one-offs produced by outside vendors that do not age well, almost never interoperate with one another and are ill-suited to adaptation. There is never a past to work from, only a high-priced future to rebuild from scratch.

We also have to look at our own interests and participation in this system as what I call the donee class. Donors give and trustees serve because artists and museum staff beg them to do so. This has become the primary job of directors of institutions in the US. The rising costs of museums, which necessitate huge gifts from wealthy donors, are not primarily driven by board members. They are driven by the ambitious expansion plans of directors, the grand visions of starchitects and the skyrocketing prices of artists’ work. This growth is driven by competition and ambition, not by need. It creates an extremely steep pyramid of resource distribution, in which a few individuals and institutions at the top absorb the vast majority of the total resources in the field. The corporate populist museum needs spectacle and the whole system flatters donors into funding it. (Millar Fisher & Fraser, 2020)

Outlasting reluctance

Reluctance, though, is a kind of resistance. It can be understood a necessary survival mechanism. It is a not uncommon reaction to new ideas, new modes of operating or simply new opportunities. It is normal and, in moderation, healthy. The pragmatic act of suspending belief (or disbelief) is sometimes necessary for the simple reason that people are busy and need to prioritize their attention.

But just because someone does not warm up to an idea immediately or on someone else’s schedule does not mean they cannot or will not. Not all connections, or relevancies, are made in the moment. Nor can they be. As often as not those connections are only made after, sometimes long after, a first impression. Just as often if a remembered impression has no way to reestablish that connection it is lost forever.

Without the means to reestablish those connections, without recall, how can there be a revisiting? Without revisiting is there even a cultural heritage to preserve and promote? I argue that being the means of not simply establishing connections, but reestablishing them, is the the principal function of the cultural heritage sector, by whatever means the present makes available.

To that end the role and function of digital technologies inside a cultural heritage sector should be to promote and foster those means. To that end we need to develop and architect those technologies not with the principal aim of a short-term attention economy but instead with the goal of weathering the long-term and usually meandering process of creating meaning across as many audiences as the technologies allow to reach.

With legitimate reason, some people may ask: Is this not the role that for-profit services like the Google search engine or not-for-profit organizations like the Wikimedia Foundation or the Internet Archive perform? Google would certainly like to assume the role of a memory institution in people’s lives as would many members of the Wikimedia community. In many respects they already have. Digital technologies have allowed us to see recall as something we can, that we should be able to, take for granted. Recall has joined the list of things that are only noticed in their absence.

Many, if not most, people already use services like Google or Wikimedia as the primary means of discovery and importantly rediscovery for works in our collections. Are we, as a sector, ready to cede both the control and the responsibility of being the means of discovery for our collections? Are we willing to delegate the decision making process around those means to a third-party, whether or not they operate as a profit-driven enterprise? If not then we need to see these services, and the ways that people are already using them, as a guidepost for the kinds of functionality we need to build and maintain ourselves going forward.

In 2019, I wrote (Cope, 2019) that :

The present offers us the ability to harness the databases, the publishing tools, the programming languages and networks of communities and broadcast channels that have been created, in many instances for entirely other purposes, in the service of our collections and the mandates that our institutions claim. The goals are not new but what is new is that many of those goals are actually within reach now. That these goals are within reach does not, however, mean they are self-realizing.

If an institution believes the role and function of digital technologies is to meet the expectations of the present and to avail itself of the possibilities, near and future, that these technologies suggest, it also needs to recognize that these things are not “self-realizing.”

Concretely, the sector needs to invest, and in some cases re-invest, in dedicated staffing for digital technologies inside cultural heritage institutions. That means investing operational, rather than capital, funds in long-term dedicated staffing for the institution-specific internal-facing and public-facing systems, described in the infrastructure list above. Of these two, the most immediate and pressing need is to develop in-house capacity around internal-facing systems and public-facing online systems and to ensure that capacity both spans and outlasts any one project or single employee.

These are the systems that bridge the collections management systems and any public-facing endeavor an institution undertakes, usually with outside vendors. These are the systems that need to enforce structures and methodologies defined by and tailored to the long-term vision of the institution rather than the short-term needs of an outside vendor. These are the systems that influence everything the public sees and so it stands to reason an institution should have a stake, an opinion and a hand in how they are built.

In doing so an institution itself begins to act as the bridge connecting the many polyglot projects undertaken over time, both internal and external, which would otherwise be short-lived eventually perishing in isolation. In doing so an institution begins to develop the skills, the understanding and crucially the infrastructure to develop and operate its own public-facing systems. To do so not at the expense of third-party vendors but in a way that ensures a more level, and more cost-effective, playing field of possibilities.

In doing so an institution learns to understand and conceive of its digital infrastructure as something that outlasts any one project and fosters confidence in its capacity to produce and sustain long-term and open-ended projects. Comfort with the long-term and with projects that have no fixed end-date is a prerequisite for patience. Patience, in turn, is a prerequisite for developing systems that are able to meet the irregular and meandering needs of the humanities as a whole.

The whole point of a digital team inside an institution is to do those things. Not only the big reveal but “version two” and then “version three” and so on. The purpose of a digital team inside an institution is to build and nurture the infrastructure so that each subsequent project is easier than the last or at the very least creates new challenges rather than retreading the same ground over and over again. These are precisely the sorts of things that outside agencies are not set up to do. It is not their business and no amount of wishful, or magical, thinking on the part of their clients (the cultural heritage sector) will make it so.

“Infrastructure” here should be understood to mean both the technological and cultural scaffolding that supports an institution. Another crucially important function of an in-house team is to be able to respond and adapt to mistaken assumptions along the way. To reduce “the cost of failure”, real or imagined, from being seen as catastrophic to being understood as addressable. (Cope, 2019)

Put bluntly, none of the opportunities and potentialities offered by digital technologies described in this paper are possible without dedicated staff. The opportunities are not “self-realizing.”

There has always been, and remains, a role for outside vendors and for outsourcing parts of an institution’s infrastructure. The mistake that is too often made, though, is to assume those vendors are the correct solution for all of that infrastructure equally. If an institution wants to explore and leverage digital technologies as a core component of their mission then dedicated staffing is the only means by which these goals can be met and, crucially, be made sustainable and affordable. Given a desire to make digital technologies integral to an institution then absent dedicated staff there seems little point in discussing what is or is not possible outside the offerings in a vendor’s promotional material.

To make possible what was previously impossible

The question of staffing and retention in the cultural heritage sector is long-standing and complex, bordering on existential. It quickly points to larger structural problems about how museums are funded and how that funding gets allocated. It highlights the equally complicated problems about how the non-profit sector competes with the salaries and compensation offered by the private sector.

This is especially true when the question is staffing for digital technologies but, in 2020, digital staff is only expensive relative to other functions at a museum. When you look at the kinds of salaries the private sector will bear for that same digital staff it only serves to highlight the unfair salaries the cultural heritage sector promotes in the first place. These salaries help fuel the on-going problem of retention in the sector which makes building and sustaining long-term team-based efforts, digital or otherwise, even harder than they are to begin with. When you consider the sum totals of money that are spent on outside contractors and especially outside technology contractors in the cultural heritage sector it remains something of a mystery how it is that we cannot both raise salaries across the board and sustain in-house digital teams.

To make these ideas concrete consider the following list, all blog posts, or papers, taken from the Cooper Hewitt’s Digital and Emerging Media “Labs” website ( :

The “digital” team at Cooper Hewitt has never been more than five people at any given point in time. Five people is neither small nor big in a museum context but it is illustrative of what the contemporary technology landscape makes possible. The work above was done in-house and on staff-time, all while maintaining museum operations and the existing digital infrastructure that was launched to support the Pen as part of the museum’s re-opening in 2014. All of this work was built on, extended and informed by the work done for the re-opening. It was done for a fraction of the time and cost that a third-party vendor would have charged to do the same.

I worked at Cooper Hewitt from 2012-2015 and was involved with the museum’s re-opening and the launch of the Pen (O’Kane, 2015). One aspect of that work which has not been addressed as much was the awareness and understanding that in order for the work to be considered a success it had survive the departure of the original team. Success meant ensuring a degree of continuity in staffing that would allow the larger project to survive being “handed off” from one team to the next, or the loss of any one team member.

Ultimately, the value of building and nurturing and sustaining core capacity in-house can be understood as: Making possible what was impossible, or so impractical as to seem impossible, before. In-house teams do not necessarily make that work easy, but they should make it possible.

This is the work

As a sector we have spent a couple of decades making excuses for why “digital” cannot be made core to staffing requirements and the results have ranged from unsatisfying to dismal.

The shift to a “post-digital” museum where “digital [is] being naturalized within museums’ visions and articulations of themselves” (Parry, 2013) will require a significant realignment of priorities and an investment in people. The museum sector is not alone in this – private media organizations and tech companies face exactly the same challenge. Despite “digital people” and engineers being in high demand, they should not be considered an “overpriced indulgence” but rather than as an integral part of the already multidisciplinary teams required to run a museum, or any other cultural institution.

The flow of digital talent from private companies to new types of public service organizations such as the Government Digital Service (UK), 18F (inside GSA) and US Digital Service, proves that there are ways, beyond salaries, to attract and retain the specialist staff required to build the types of products and services required to transform museums. In fact, we argue that museums (and other cultural institutions) offer significant intrinsic benefits and social capital that are natural talent attractors that other types of non-profits and public sector agencies lack. The barriers to changing the museum workforce in this way are not primarily financial but internal, structural and kept in place by a strong institutional inertia. (Chan & Cope, 2015)

In 2020 the question of how to fund, staff and sustain digital teams inside the cultural heritage sector remains largely unanswered. It is made more complicated by similar work undertaken during the previous decade. Have past teams dedicated to technology and “the digital” inside of museums over the last decade, having been given a wide berth and substantial budgets, lived up to their promise? I think it is pretty clear that when you average out all the efforts of the last ten years, including the successes, the answer is no. That is not something most people want to hear but it is important to be clear-eyed and honest when we reflect on past work in order to see where all the good intentions failed in the face of operational realities.

A lot of money and resources were allocated towards those efforts. Many failed or were simply abandoned, leaving in their wake both suspicion and ill-will on the part of donors or others in their respective institutions. This is reality we occupy in 2020 and acknowledging and addressing those concerns and grievances can not be optional. Nor should it be. This is our burden and this is the work. That mistakes were made, though, is not reason enough to give up on the project of building in-house digital capacity.

Arguably in a world where the expectation for the kinds of services and capabilities that digital technologies make possible grows every year there is even more urgency to try again. That mistakes were made simply means we might better understand what not do going forward.

There are no quick fixes for building and nurturing that capacity. It will be a multi-year effort first to establish, or re-establish, credibility for the idea, then to argue for changes in the funding models and then to attract staff. Once those staff are in place it will take time for them to understand the needs and history of the institution, its staff and whatever projects preceded them. How and where a digital team sits in the organization chart may need to be reevaluated. Learning how to correctly identify roles and to scale digital teams in order to work effectively and to ensure succession plans will require trial and effort. It will require a diligence and focus on the part of that staff that was not always present in past efforts.

Larger institutions, with commensurate budgets and staff can play an important role by actively hiring and training junior-level staff with the expectation, encouragement even, that they might leave and take on more senior roles at smaller institutions. If the greater goal is one of building self-sufficiency and sustainability across the sector then, at least in short-term, we need to think about the project as larger than any single institution.

Critical to the challenge of staffing and retention will be an institution’s ability to articulate why they are entertaining digital technologies at all. In order for an institution to attract the staff it needs and wants those reasons why need to be the “intrinsic benefits and social capital” by which a person will choose the cultural heritage sector over the private sector and for those factors to have a higher motivational value than the salaries offered by the private sector.

I find it useful to think about approaching digital technologies in cultural heritage institutions as being akin to a perennial flower garden: In the beginning things are pretty sparse and nothing is very big. Sometimes empty space are filled in with short-living annuals flowers, bright and colorful in the moment but destined to fade away quickly. Most things are expected to survive the winter but it is understood that others do not. Sometimes plants are moved around and some plants do not flower every year. Although this might sound like a recipe for nothing ever getting done, no one, I think, would accuse a dedicated gardener of lacking design or effort.

I suggest that a successful gardener depends on patience and a tolerance for the unknown and even failure in equal measure. The biggest and most beautiful gardens, not unlike cultural heritage institutions, are complex living systems spanning years and even lifetimes. Digital technologies are often mistaken for fully-formed gardens when they are not. They can, however, with care and commitment, be made so and my hope is that this paper has presented a compelling argument for why that work is worth pursuing.

A transformational mass

I would like to close with a thought-experiment, perhaps even a provocation:

Digital technologies inside of cultural heritage institutions have the potential to serve as a kind of transformation mass, offering genuinely unique outlooks and methodologies for approaching and understand not just an institution’s collections and holdings but the institution. This is sometimes labeled as “the digital humanities” but I think that they are closer in spirit and sentiment to an institution’s education department.

Importantly the application of these technologies allows them to make a conceptual leap, similar to the one made by educators, that distinguish them from their curatorial counterpart. That is it, they act as another lens on to the institution and its practice, not better or worse, but recognizably different and valuable on their own terms.

For me, this is the “why” of pursuing digital technologies in the cultural heritage sector. It acts as the foundations for figuring out, and advocating for, the “how”. After that, the only question left is “what” to do next?


What is “digital?”

When someone speaks of digital technologies do they mean:

For the purposes of this paper “digital media” and “digital technologies” refer to all of these things whether they are realized or unrealized potentialities. This is not an exhaustive list of what may be understood as “digital” and importantly there are equally valid interpretations that contain only a subset of the list above.

What is “infrastructure?”

Equally, the phrase “infrastructure” can mean different things to different audiences in the cultural heritage sector . For the purposes of this paper infrastructure is defined primarily, but not exclusively, as software projects grouped in to one of four generalized categories:

Example of external-facing systems include an organization’s email or calendaring service or common document formats, such as text processing or spreadsheets. In all cases services and standards are defined by third-parties or commercial vendors targeting a heterogeneous audience. Typically these services are managed by an institution’s information technology (IT) department or, increasingly, as a remote service.

Examples of internal-facing system used sector-wide are commercial collections management or inventory tracking systems. These are systems that contain a mix of data suitable for public release and sensitive or otherwise restricted data used in the course of operations. As with email or calendaring services these tools are often managed by the IT department or as remote services hosted and maintained off-site.

Examples of institution-specific internal-facing systems might be tools for gathering data for an exhibition (Adang & Brenner, 2016) or manipulating data in alternative interfaces than those provided by commercial collections management system. (Berg-Fulton & Newbury & Snyder, 2015) These tools might be developed and maintained by an in-house digital team but may also be the necessary by-product of public-facing systems produced by external vendors.

Examples of institution-specific and public-facing digital systems are in-gallery interactive displays (Alexander & Barton & Goeser, 2013) or a larger physical-digital envelopes designed to foster visitor participation in an exhibition (Chan & Paterson, 2019). Historically these have been developed by outside vendors and maintained only for the duration of an exhibition. Typically these are time and capital expensive projects designed to attract as many people as possible to an institution or to attract donors and other funding sources for future projects. Public-facing systems also include the primary means of accessing information about an institution or its holding, usually in the form of one or more websites. These may be operated by in-house digital staff, an IT department or a third-party vendor.


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