NANCY PROCTOR, THE SMITHSONIAN: Museums, mobile apps and possible futures

By Teresa de Andrés | Nancy Proctor. April 11, 2013


Nancy Proctor might just be one of the best people to tell us about the current connections between mobile initiatives and museums. It may well be that museums are full of dinosaurs but they also offer a wealth of enthusiastic catalysts that are prepared to bring the present closer to the future. They are all welcome.

We chat about museums 
the past and the future, apps, the need for change, online communities and Wikipedia.

The Smithsonian is one of the most relevant museum and cultural complexes in the world. I imagine that your job as Head of Mobile Strategy and Initiatives lies someplace among all the Smithsonian’s museums and centres. What is the working process with the representatives of each museum like?

I don't actually have a formal team, I don't have any staff, it's just me. So when the individual museums or units decide that they want to work on a mobile project I support them as a sort of a consultant and try to bring best practices and my own learnings. I am also looking for opportunities to find economies of scale so if two or more of our organizations want to do something similar I try to bring their efforts together so that we can pool resources. We build a lot of open source code that can be reused, we try to develop in a very modular way. I am also a kind of a central operator trying to connect people and make sure that everybody knows what's going on, which I have to say it's a significant challenge in an organization our size, we have 6,000 staff and more than that again in volunteers, who are really critical in what we do in mobile at the Smithsonian.

Would you say that there is a growing sensibility from sponsors towards technological projects in museums?

It has always been there as long as I have been working with museums which is for about 15 years now. Because I think there is always an appeal of being associated with the first and the shiny new gadget. You know, for certain people technology has a certain sex appeal. I actually find that very problematic because a lot of technology companies would like to showcase their technology in museums. That can be a great partnership at the beginning but if that technology companies' real market is outside the museum sector which usually it is, do they really have the commitment to sustain that technology in the museum? Will they continue to invest? Frankly, most of the times in my experience the answer has been no. So the museum risks being left with a legacy technology that they don't have the means to support. So personally I much prefer sponsors who do not come from the technology sector but rather have an educational imperative or cultural interest and they are really committed to the mission of the institution rather than to their own marketing objectives. That it's not to say that it's not possible to find a win win with technology companies but I think it can be much more difficult.

If your work at the Smithsonian was not enough, you also manage, an open forum on mobile, media and technology for museums and cultural sites. In some occasions you have stated that museums are resistant to change. Why do you think this happens? Have you experienced a shift towards this issue in the last years?

I'd like to qualify that statement a little bit. Yes, I think museums are resistant to change but I think so are human beings. It's a very natural tendency even though in order to survive we must change. But I have quite a bit of sympathy with the fact that museums are resistant to change because I think that a lot of that comes from their missions, basically. I mean, we're charged with preserving forever the most valuable by definition cultural artifacts and knowledge of human culture that there is. And in difference to a business, museums can't when they get into financial difficulty sell everything and reinvent themselves.

Therefore, fortunately or unfortunately, the tendency would be to be very conservative about change. Now, of course, sometimes in order to preserve a museum and therefore its collection you do have to evolve, you do have to change. Although I can become very frustrated at times because I want to move faster in the direction that I think is right, in calmer moments I think it is very understandable and probably even prudent. So it's a difficult balance and I think it's important to be sensitive to that. As a tactic for those of us who wish to bring change we have to look for ways of collaborating and bringing our colleagues along with us.

With approximately 20 apps for smartphones and tablets, and as many special websites, we could say that the Smithsonian truly believes in mobile projects. So do you think there is some specific positive aspect of this incursion of apps in museums or they are just tools?

I think we don't have to give apps too much credit, they are just tools. We don't credit the hammer with building the house, right? I think that as a platform, the new generation of mobile devices enables an anywhere, anytime with anyone connectivity that is new. And before that people had to physically come to a museum to experience it and benefit from its collections and its events and its knowledge. The means of distributing that content and those experiences to people who were not physically present in the museum were very limited.

Now, everything is new and it's profoundly transformative of how we think about who our audiences are, how we reach them and what we might do with them. In the early days of mobile in museums mobile was limited to unidirectional broadcast of content from the museum to the visitor, the museum spoke and the visitor listened. Now, we can hear not just from individuals but from communities and be part of larger conversations as well. We are not experts in doing that, we are still learning because it's very new. That's the real opportunity. It's more about the connectivity than about the apps per se.

In general, the Smithsonian mobile projects are aimed at its community, who plays a very important role in the creation and enhancement of content. In this sense, how would you assess the current fever towards social media and online communities? Do you see it more as a hype or as a long-lasting current?

Oh, I'm certain that individual social media platforms are over-hyped and will disappear or change beyond recognition. I think that's inevitable. But I think the concept of social media is a bell that we can't unring, it has already transformed the way that we think and organize ourselves. And that won't go away. And part of the reason why it won't go away is because the seeds of social media have always been there. People have been social before the media existed. It's just that the tools are much more powerful now.

You published your first online exhibition in 1995 and you co-founded in 1998 with Titus Bicknell "to present virtual tours of innovative exhibitions alongside comprehensive global museum and gallery listings". How would you assess the nature of these first experiences? What would you change?

There are two key things I have learnt from being involved with new media –internet-based media– at its beginnings. One is that when you are confronted with a new platform or a new tool like the internet and websites and CD-roms, it is very hard to think beyond traditional paradigms for communication and publishing and even collaboration. In the early stages we tend to reinvent on the new platform the ways of working that we had on the old platform with bringing along with all the deficits of the old platform. So back in the 1990s our first websites were like print publications but in digital form, in terms of navigation and interface content. We were thinking about print and so you had some horrible websites, we call them brochureware now, right? We also did some really interesting things by the way but it's hard to get outside your experience.

The second thing that I learnt from being involved with new media in the early days is that change is difficult and slow. We all think that change is going to happen a lot faster than it does. And even if you have a technology coming like the iPhone that suddenly changes the game completely, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's changing the underlying cultural habits. That is, there are some deep cultural habits that don't change so quickly and a great example of that is Wikipedia. Obviously it's a very revolutionary concept that you can crowdsource the world's knowledge and have it in one place. But as that project has developed it has emerged that in fact even though is such an innovative and transformative platform it is still subject to some very deep and old cultural patterns. So the vast majority of people who write for Wikipedia are men. Fewer than 15% are women. So I wouldn't be surprised to discover that Encyclopedia Britannica has more women writing for it. So Wikipedia is phenomenal and it's a wonderful thing but it's also a very partial view of human experience because it does not adequately reflect the experiences of half of the human population.

And why do you think this happens?

There is a really wonderful writing about this from people who have studied Wikipedia very deeply. A lot of the theories are that it goes back to the insecurities that are encouraged in women as young girls of not feeling like we are experts. So we don't have the right to write for Wikipedia for, what do we know? Somebody else must know more than I. A fear of standing out and stepping forward and claiming authority. Women historically have not had very much authority in most cultures around the world and you cannot overnight grow a generation of women leaders if they have no examples to model themselves upon.That's a very slow, transformative process and we've made enormous progress but we have still a very, very long way to go along.

There are also other cultural habits that discourage women from participating and one of them that has been documented and it's indeed quite horrifying is the deep misogyny that can be found online particularly among the developer community. When women speak up in developer forums and their gender becomes known they have been subject to very sexists attacks because there is an inability it seems on the part of some of their male colleagues to see women as intelligent and professional people who have something valuable to contribute to the conversation. That's very intimidating and discourages participation.

So, what would fix Wikipedia would be overcoming misogyny and that's not going to happen that fast.

Have you seen many wishes fulfilled during this past 15 years?

I do think we are making progress. Our expectations tend to be too high and therefore they're very easily disappointed but I do nonetheless think we should be very proud of the way that a much more diverse array of voices are part of museum conversations now. I think that although too many people still feel that museums aren't for them we have nonetheless seen a much more welcoming face on many museums and that's working. Thanks to the efforts of museums like Tate and others to really make a change.

And another really important shift that we have seen that it's kind of exemplified in the Google Art Project is that museums are starting to collaborate more. Museums have tried to collaborate many times with varying degrees of success, but I think that if nothing else we should credit Google and almost only Google could have done this because of the time needed, the power of their brand and their resources to pull it off, they got a huge number of museums to put their content onto a common platform and to participate in a common project. And that is a wonderful shift.

And in parallel, and this is a bit of a virtuous circle, a kind of a chicken in an egg situation, and I wouldn't want to give Google Art for starting this by any means, but at the same time we saw opensource collaborative projects, a lot of them led by the Indianapolis Museum of Art. That's wonderful because it allows us –and it is basically on a smaller scale what I'm trying to do at the Smithsonian– to work together so that everything is cheaper and better for everyone and more sustainable.

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