Digital, policy, museums, leadership and positive change.
Seb Chan will be with Culture24 in London on Monday 5th of June to share his thinking on the challenge of transforming the totality of the museum experience for the 21st century. It is a rare opportunity for those of us in the UK to hear him talk about the lessons he has learned over the last 18 years working in the sector and how these have helped to shape strategies for structural change, digital transformation and implementing human-centred design in large and small organisations.
Seb is a good friend and I have worked with him and watched him shape and influence each institution he has been in, pushing them into the spotlight for doing good joined-up thinking and really changing the way the museum thinks and works.
Key to his success has been the fact that from his early days at Powerhouse in Sydney, he had a lot of creative freedom and trust from the senior management. They realised he knew more about digital and audiences than they did and they listened to what he had to say. Seb’s work at Powerhouse and the openness with which he shared his thinking and evolving practice by blogging and speaking regularly at international sector events defined his reputation internationally and led to a succession of more senior roles reporting straight to the Director.
For the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in NYC, Seb’s appointment, combined with their physical closure, allowed them the luxury of a complete rethink and time to rebuild all the museum’s digital activities on top of a new set of content APIs. These gave him and his team the freedom to play with the content in new ways, packaging it or pushing it into other platforms. The results were pretty transformative and led to the production of the much written about and praised ‘Pen’ a new (and successful) tool for engaging visitors digitally during and after their visit.
Seb is now back in Australia at ACMI in Melbourne as Chief Experience Officer. He now has a lot of computer games and video content to play with and is overseeing not just the digital experiences but digital as an integrated and important part of ACMI’s overall visitor experience.
This integration at the highest level of a user-centric approach, by someone who understands digital behaviours, is a rare thing at the moment in museums. Where else do they have this level of digital skill & literacy in someone on the senior management team? Shelley Bernstein at The Barnes Foundation is one, Chris Michaels in his new job at the National Gallery in London will be another. There are lots of other very talented and forward thinking individuals working with digital in the museums sector right now, but as far as I know few of them have the freedom to make wholescale changes and lead change in the same way…. yet!
To me, the biggest problem facing the museum sector today is the need to connect meaningfully with a much wider public — younger, more diverse, less formally educated, more playful, more political, more experience seeking. Our future has to be about more than just that existing group of culturally super-served (bless them, I love them and I’m one of them) but an opportunity to tap into a much deeper human need for community, storytelling and identity that cuts across class, education or privilege. Museums can’t do this without understanding digital behaviours, platforms and, crucially, how to make their content fit for the digital world. Without embracing a radically more digitally informed leadership they will never meet the challenges of widening their audience reach. The sector needs more people like Seb or Shelley at the top of every organisation.
Our behaviour as audiences has been altered forever by online technologies and the phones in our pockets. Any industry that does not understand this and take it on will become less relevant. The big win here for museums is the opportunity to use today’s technology to enable inclusivity and reinvent themselves in the process.
I would love to see museums as creative hubs in every community, redefining our experience of public space shaped by an understanding of the past and the present.
The government’s #Cultureisdigital project, launched on 3rd April 2017 is a perfect moment for these issues to be debated and I am pleased to be one of the group of experts who have been brought in to work with Matt Hancock and the DCMS team on the first set of digital cultural policy recommendations.
Tickets for Culture24’s Masterclass and Crit Room with Seb in London at the Digital Catapult are on sale now for £39 - price includes wine/beer/drinks and nibbles after the event. Book here: https://sebchanmasterclass.eventbrite.co.uk/