Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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Farewell Cooper Hewitt. Next stop Melbourne.

August 21st, 2015 by Seb Chan

Playing card. Gift of Mrs. Dexter J. Purinton. 1955-78-2-46. From collection of Cooper Hewitt.

Playing card. Gift of Mrs. Dexter J. Purinton. 1955-78-2-46. From collection of Cooper Hewitt.

Maybe you heard the news, yes, I’m heading to ACMI in Melbourne to take up a new type of role as Chief Experience Officer. It all happened rather quickly and the idea of the CXO at ACMI is a kind of ‘post-digital’ role (see Parry 2013) around which new shape and form is still yet to coalesce.

I’m a little sad to be leaving New York. The last four years have been a wild ride with some fantastic and challenging collaborations that have resulted in some great work.

The scale of change that Cooper Hewitt has undertaken is pretty much unprecedented – and not just for the museum world – and the whole museum and its multitude of external collaborators and co-designers should be immensely proud. Cooper Hewitt is now well and truly on people‚Äôs radar and, although it will take a while for all those people who are now aware of Cooper Hewitt to come and visit, the presence of families and children in the galleries is an indication of where the audiences of the future are. With the mass digitisation of the entire collection due to be completed mid 2016, policy changes that bake-in ‘openness’, continuous improvements to the gallery experiences, and more born-digital objects now in the collection, the next few years should be easier.

It has been an enormous collective effort from across the entire museum from curators to security staff, and the board through to my own little team of caffeinated makers and doers.

Thank you to everyone for their trust and support – especially because I know some of the changes have been painful.

Janet Carding, now director of TMAG (formerly ROM Toronto), told me recently that when you’re brought in with an explicit instruction to catalyse change, you come with a certain amount of ‘change capital’ which, over time, gets used up. I really like that idea and it speaks to the reality that change capital can’t be ‘re-earned’ – it can just be spent wisely.

Looking back at Cooper Hewitt I can divide my short time there into two phases – an energetic possibility space opened up by Director Bill Moggridge who was one of the most generous people I’ve worked with. And then an equally energetic production phase where, following Bill’s sudden death in August 2012, we all pulled together to make something that – at least in my team’s mind – would be bold and impactful enough to honour Bill’s legacy and deliver the mission as he saw it. Bill’s successor, Caroline Baumann, raised a huge amount of money and trusted us enough, and loosened the reins so we could pull it off.

Everyone has heard about The Pen, but that is just the visible tip of the iceberg. Under the waterline are a huge amount of incremental changes that have added up to all that makes the visible things possible. When I started, 7% of the museum’s collection was online, and today that number is 92%; the release of collection metadata under a CC0 license was a first for the Smithsonian, as was some of the born-digital collecting that was done too; and an API at the core of all the things.

A lot of these sorts of changes have become the irreversible sediment on which new things can be built, not just The Pen. Most of that journey has been documented by my fantastic, and now partially dispersed team, over at the Cooper Hewitt Labs blog. If you’re looking for a ‘digital strategy’ document, then that’s worth reading in chronological order.

I’m going to miss them. We had some hilarious and productive times – there’s definitely a causal relationship between hilarity and productivity.

Tags: 5 Comments

  • Simon Rumble

    Oh wow! Well it’ll be awesome to be in the same continent again. Congrats.

  • Michelle Cavanagh

    Congrats Seb! NYC’s loss is Melbourne’s gain. Loved reading your piece which made me a little sad too. Having visited Cooper Hewitt a couple of months ago it’s plain to see that you and your team have every right to be as proud as punch in relation to the part you played in making the museum the gem it is.

  • Caroline Brabant

    Wow! Great news – it will be great to have you back in Australia. Congrats Seb! I look forward to seeing what you do next!!!

  • asa letourneau

    Welcome back Mr Chan! Will be awesome to have your creative spirit in Victoria :)

  • Best wishes to you, Seb. Our loss, their gain!