Next week is my last week at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

February 25, 2017 in News

That’s right. After nearly seven years, I am moving on from the museum, moving on from the Labs, and moving on to the unknown. It was a difficult choice, which I made over the holidays, and which has mostly to do with reasons that are largely personal. But simply put, it’s time for a change. There are so many wonderful things on the horizon in my life, and so I feel it’s time to right the ship career-wise.

It’s been an amazing journey.

I started my career at Cooper Hewitt just before it was to close for a long term renovation. The job I signed up for, a consultant position to help the museum edit web pages, eventually turned into a full-time gig, complete with the title of Webmaster. My job was initially pretty simple. Staff members would send me red-lined word docs, requesting that certain pages on the museum’s website be updated as soon as possible. I’d take these requests and make the changes in HTML, and publish the website. It was laborious at best.

So, I eventually helped the museum move to a CMS, and then another CMS, and then finally the CMS we use today. Staff became more self sufficient in maintaining their areas of the website, and my job changed as our use of the CMS allowed me to focus on more strategic and technical initiatives.

And then we closed.

The museum closed for a long term renovation, restoration, and total rethink. We made some incredibly smart choices, hired a bunch of incredibly smart people, and created the Digital and Emerging Media Department. It was the first time the museum had a department devoted solely to digital, reporting directly to the director of the museum.

Digital & Emerging Media

Led by Seb Chan, we formed a team that included Aaron Straup Cope, Katie Shelly, Pam HornSam Brenner and myself. Together we began to develop a technical infrastructure for the museum with an eye toward a human centered design mentality around the development of a public collection dataset, a collections website and API, and of course our darling Cooper Hewitt Labs weblog, where we would document all of our work as we went along.

The New Experience and the Pen

While we were closed, the museum collaborated with a number of organizations to develop a host of new technological innovations in our galleries. These included the now infamous Pen as well as a series of applications running on multi-touch screens throughout the galleries. We were trying to solve a couple of problems.

The first was the basic issue of recall, and being able to remain “in the moment” and be able to “save for later” all of the things that you were discovering as you made your way through the museum. The Pen approached this problem as a tangible object that visitors could use as an elaborate way to bookmark the things they wanted to learn more about.

The second was a little more abstract, and I’m not convinced any of us really understood that there was a problem to solve until we saw it working right in front of our eyes. Like many museums, the Cooper Hewitt suffered from something Elaine Heumann Gurian calls “threshold fear.” Visitors didn’t feel quite at home in the museum, tended to keep their hands in their pockets, or would take personal dives into their mobile devices, in pursuit of a safe, comfortable place—their happy place!

The Pen did pretty good at solving all of these problems. It aforded our visitors a slick tool for bookmarking objects, and it gave them a tangible object they could hold in their hand that said “you are here to do things, you are allowed to touch things, and you can play designer while you’re here.” It really worked and is still going strong with over 10 million objects collected with the Pen in the first year.

We’ve all written about the “tech piece” extensively, have presented on the project a countless conferences, dozens of classrooms and tour groups and have talked about it over hundreds of cups of coffee. It was a huge success and it’s now positioned to continue to be hugely successful with the right kind of stewardship.

I am proud of the work we did.

Pioneers, Settlers and Town Planners

Simon Wardley wrote an important article on his blog called On Pioneers, Settlers, Town Planners and Theft. It was an incredibly useful bit of writing for me when it was posted about two years ago. In it, Wardley explains that there are three types of people within organizations. And it’s important to stop right here and reiterate what he says in the article, which is that each of these types of people are “brilliant people.”

He also explains that over the course of the evolution of an organization, different types make the most sense, typically in the order they are stated in the title. In the beginning you need lots of Pioneers, those crazy, spontaneous folk who come up with the concept, and help break out the vision. But, eventually you’ll need Settlers, to come in and keep the lights on. Later, you’ll definitely need Town Planners who are great at scaling things and building upon the foundation set by the Pioneers and Settlers. It’s a great analogy.

When I read this it occurred to me that Cooper Hewitt was just passing the Pioneering phase. It’s not to say that there is no longer pioneering work to be done at the museum, but more that the museum will now need to figure out how to sustain the work its done, help evolve the systems and infrastructure we’ve put in place into a more robust, finely tuned system, and turn focus towards building all the nuts and bolts that fell out of scope when we were scrambling to open the doors.

From Wardley’s post:

“Pioneers are brilliant people. They are able to explore never before discovered concepts, the uncharted land. They show you wonder but they fail a lot. Half the time the thing doesn’t work properly. You wouldn’t trust what they build. They create ‘crazy’ ideas. Their type of innovation is what we call core research. They make future success possible. Most of the time we look at them and go “what?”, “I don’t understand?” and “is that magic?”. In the past, we often burnt them at the stake.”

I like to think of myself as a Pioneer. Cooper Hewitt needs Settlers.

I want to express my deepest gratitude to those I’ve worked with at Cooper Hewitt over the years. The Pioneers, Settlers and Town Planners that exist within the walls of the Carnegie Mansion are some of the finest people I’ve had the privilege of knowing.–one of whom I am planning to marry in just three months!

What’s Next?

To be honest, I’m not quite sure. I have a number of discussions going with people whom I’d love to work with, and that’s just it–I want to find a place filled with pioneering folks who are looking to build on their crazy ideas, and happy to embrace my sporadic way of thinking, and left-brain-right-brain conflicts.

I’m hoping that whatever I do, I’ll remain doing work aimed at the cultural sector, because I think the work in that space is worthwhile, and I know that there are literally thousands of museums and cultural organizations out there that are in the same place Cooper Hewitt was seven years ago, primed for change, and open to what’s clearly possible.

To that end, if you are interested in talking with me about my future plans, I’m always happy to have a coffee. Or, if you are in town, feel free to come by to my little gathering after my last day of work on Friday March 3rd at The Milton around 6pm.

It’s been wonderful.


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