Time sure flies when you’re having fun. I can hardly believe it’s been three months since I set up camp at the NewInc offices at 231 Bowery. It’s been a crazy three months, and I’ve been pretty silent about all that’s been going on, so I think now is as good a time as any to write some of it down and give you all a little behind the scenes look into what’s been going on at 231 Bowery.
I started this experiment back in March after leaving a job as Director of Digital and Emerging Media at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, where I had been working for about seven years. It was a tough choice, but I had an idea in mind, which has since evolved into a dozen other ideas along the way.
Initially my idea was to start a private consultancy, selling my time to museums that were looking for help managing and developing their digital programs. Things started out great with a first engagement with the newly forming M+ Museum in Hong Kong. It’s been an incredible nine months of traveling there to do workshops and helping them to develop their ideas and strategies for their eventual opening in 2019. You can read all about M+ on their new “Stories” website, which the digital team launched a couple months back.
At some point, I also started working with The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. I was super excited when Shelley Bernstein called me, looking for someone to play technical consultant on a number of upcoming projects. I’ve always wanted to work with Shelley, and it sounded like a cool gig. However, a few months in and we found ourselves in a tough situation where we needed to bring on a couple more engineers and a design team to get their collections website heading in the right direction. So, we partnered with Area 17 for the design, and I pulled in Rachel Nackman, Eric Chaves and Jonathan Dahan to write the code. All of the sudden we were working as a team, building digital things for cultural orgs.
In parallel with all of this, I took my seat at NewInc. It’s been an excellent professional development program and a wonderful spot to sit and get work done on a daily basis. Rachel joined me this past month and we’ve been plotting our way towards building a bonafide studio.
Who We Are – What We Are
So it’s probably relevant here to explain what this all is, who we are, and what we are aiming to do. It’s all very much in flux, and probably will be for a while, but things have been gelling, and our mission and purpose has become more focused and … uh.. purposeful.
I’m calling this a “studio.” It’s Micah Walter Studio for now. We are teams of engineers, designers, product managers and data scientists who come together to work on projects aimed at the cultural sector. We are working on projects we find meaningful, working with clients who speak our language, and working to help museums and other cultural organizations position themselves for success in this ever-changing digital world we all live in.
This means building systems and services that are handoff-able, easily understood, and not built with magic. This means building tools and resources that these organizations can take advantage of with minimal effort, and limited skillsets.
This means working with the most talented folks in the field. Here are a few of them:
Rachel Nackman – Rachel and I first started working together at Cooper Hewitt. I hired her back in 2016 to be the museum’s Interactive Media Developer. Rachel understands museum collections, gets complex systems, and is always learning something new or brushing up on her Calculus. (Who does that?) – Since leaving Cooper Hewitt, Rachel has been freelancing on projects and it seemed only natural to pull her in on our collections website for the Barnes Foundation. She’s a true computer scientist, and her ideas around “how it all fits” together is so good we decided to make our README.md template out of it.
Eric Chaves – Eric is a “freelancer as a lifestyle” engineer. He has a studio of his own in Brooklyn, which he shares with a handful of like minded creative technologists. I was immediately excited to work with Eric because after talking with him for twenty minutes, I could tell he’d be able to build the Barnes Collection website frontend with his hands tied behind his back. Eric’s ability to turn design work into websites is top notch, and he’s one of those engineers who doesn’t quit until the problem is solved.
Jonathan Dahan – Jonathan is someone whom I’ve wanted to work with for years. At Cooper Hewitt, I tried to bring Jonathan in on a number of projects that just never panned out. Now, in this new capacity we are able to work together whenever we want. Jonathan is insanely curious. He’s continually presenting new ideas to me, and thinking up new approaches to problems we’ve yet to solve. He communicates with me on a nearly telepathic level. I explain the project to him and before I’ve finished the first sentence, Jonathan is in his laptop working out the solution.
Our First Product Launch
Last month we launched our first official product into the world–The Barnes Foundation Collection Website. It was a collective effort involving Area 17 as the design team, our studio as the engineering team, and collaborations with a couple of data scientists to help us generate all the metadata that makes the site work the way Shelley and her team had envisioned. There’s loads of articles on Medium about the process if you’re inclined, but I’ll just say here that this was an ambitious project which required some razor sharp thinking and agility on everyone’s part. The end result is a site that is unique and fresh. It has unlocked an incredible collection in a way that speaks to a wide and diverse audience like never before.
Under the hood, we learned a lot. For example, the marriage of a user interface with a bunch of data generated through machine learning and computer vision algorithms is hard. At the end of the day the interface has to seem obvious and interesting, with the data supporting those ideas. It’s really hard to get that just right and we spent a lot of time tweaking things like the “visual similarity slider” based on our intuition and many, many Trello comments from Shelley and crew.
I’m really proud of the end result. I think it speaks to everything we are trying to do here at the studio and shows off how collaborating across teams of museum professionals, engineers, designers and data people can really pay off when executed in the right way.
Cultural Fact Finding
In parallel with all this building, I’ve been on a fact finding mission for the past 4 months or so. Just before starting at NewInc I traveled to Taichung, Taiwan (manufacturing home of the Cooper Hewitt Pen) where I spoke at the Link and Linkage International Digital Forum.
Later, I found myself in Medellin Colombia for Re-imagining the Museum, as well as Mexico City, where I spoke at another digital forum called The Digital Museum. Future and Possibilities held at Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo.
And last week I traveled to Philadelphia with the rest of the Museum Technology Track members at NewInc to visit museums big and small to try and help us understand what their needs are from a technology and digital strategy standpoint. We will be doing more of these trips in the months to come.
All in all, I realized something. I started thinking about why I care so much about museums in the first place. And I realized, while riding on a bus in the hills of Colombia, it’s about community. I realized that my interests in museums have always centered around the idea that these kinds of places (museums and cultural organizations like libraries, and public spaces), have the ability to bring communities together. In fact, many of these places are the direct result of their surrounding communities need for a place to congregate, and connect with one another.
In Medellin, I was blown away by the vibe from museum professionals who came from all over Latin America. This vibe, from my own observations, was born out of a concern with building places for communities. They seemed less interested in museums as places to store and take care of valuable art. They were concerned even less with museums as places for instagrams to happen, with people lining up for hours to walk through rain rooms, mirror halls, or 24 hour movies about clocks. Really, it was that notion of a museum or a public space as a way to connect people together that was “top of mind.” That building relationships between one another, and healing an entire city following a decades long traumatic event are the kinds of ways places like museums could be getting involved in our world is an intensely profound thing to think about.
These ideas, this vibe, was present in Taiwan, and Mexico City as well as in Philadelphia. It’s something I’m going to try and dig into in the months ahead. It’s something I want to remain “top of mind” in everything we as a studio does going forward.
Next year is already shaping up to be busy, productive, and exciting. We’re looking to continue our projects and relationships with our existing clients, and we’ve got a few new clients in the works who are all looking to do the same. It’s a really exciting moment, because my initial idea — of setting up shop, and figuring out a way to help museums and cultural orgs do the kinds of things we did within the digital team at Cooper Hewitt — is working. We are figuring out how to be nimble, cost effective, and innovative at the same time, and I hope we will fill a gap for cultural organizations who feel stuck and frustrated.
At our core, I am hoping the studio will evolve into a business that is focused on helping communities, enabling organizations and inspiring everyone. (Can you tell I’ve been working on our mission statement lately?)
I’ll have lots more to say about what that actually looks like in the new year. Until then, if you are a museum or cultural organization in need of some digital guidance, get in touch. If you are a cog in the wheel of an enormous institution and you’re looking to right the ship, get in touch. If you are a “department of one” and you need a shoulder to cry on, get in touch. If you just want to meet up for a beer, by all means, get in touch!
In the meantime, have a wonderful holiday season, pay attention to your friends and families, and try and only read the news twice a day. (Trust me, it helps!)