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Tech Trauma: MoMA’s New Chief Tech Officer, Plus More on Museums’ Digital Disasters

The Museum of Modern Art’s use of technology (including its Audio+ museum tours and its hyperactive, frustrating-to-navigate website) could certainly use improvement. But promoting from within may not be the best way to achieve that.

MoMA today announced the appointment of Diana Pan, its director of technology and applications since 2009, to be its chief technology officer, effective immediately. Her new gig involves overseeing “the strategic direction and tactical delivery of all information technology systems and solutions to support MoMA’s mission and diverse operations,” while also serving as “a technology thought leader.”

Diana Pan, chief technology officer. Museum of Modern Art Photo by Martin Seck

Diana Pan, chief technology officer. Museum of Modern Art
Photo by Martin Seck

Two major “technology thought leaders” have recently exited New York museums—Seb Chan, founding director of digital & emerging media at the Cooper Hewitt (which, as I recently reported in the Wall Street Journal, still needs to work out the bugs in its digital Pen and interactive tables); and Don Undeen, founding manager of the Metropolitan Museum’s MediaLab, who extolled, among other tech travesties, the “wild juxtapositions and clever contrasts” of this mashup of two 17th-century sculptures at the Met:

Mashup of TKTKTK

Mashup by Jonathan Monaghan of  Jacques Sarazin’s  “Leda and the Swan” and Balthasar Permoser’s “Marsyas”

Chan left the Cooper Hewitt in August to become the Australian Centre for the Moving Image’s “chief eXperience [sic] officer (CXO)—the first role of its kind in the international museum sector,” according to ACMI’s announcement.

Still at the Met is Sree Sreenivasan, its chief digital officer (to whom this blog owes a lot), who recently gave me an enthusiastic demonstration of how the Blippar app can animate van Gogh’s “First Steps, After Millet” on personal mobile devices, so that the baby awkwardly toddles from her mother to her father’s outstretched arms.

When I recoiled in horror, he dialed down his enthusiasm, assuring me that the Met isn’t actually doing this in the galleries. But he is so smitten with Blippar that he uses a photo of “First Steps” being “blipped” as the header image for his Twitter feed:

SreeTwit

I later stood before the actual painting, scanned it with the app and, sure enough, got a replay of what Sree had demonstrated to me on his smartphone.

It reduced the charming, delicate painting…

Van Gogh, "First Steps, after Millet," 1890 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Van Gogh, “First Steps, after Millet,” 1890, Metropolitan Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…to this garish animated cartoon image:

Screenshot from Blippar animation of van Gogh's "First Steps, after Millet," 1890 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Screenshot from Blippar animation of van Gogh’s “First Steps, after Millet,” 1890
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

All of this suggests that some of those whom museums have tapped to lead their digital initiatives have a lot more tech savvy than art smarts. Enamored of cool bells and whistles, they seem oblivious of the disservice they’re doing to the art.

By contrast, the MoMA tech officer whom I interviewed during my research for my recent WSJ critique of in-gallery digital enhancements had a refreshingly conservative approach to tech innovations.

“I’m wary of being an early adopter,” Fiona Romeo, MoMA’s director of digital content and strategy, told me. “You sometimes put people through an elaborate experience to arrive at something that is very simple in content and may not be worth that whole journey.”

True enough. The best commentary I’ve seen on what’s wrong with museum tech came from a comment posted in reaction to my WSJ piece, written by someone with whom I had lost touch long ago, after I had written a favorable piece about her work on the National Gallery’s Micro Gallery, a computer-filled room that provided D.C. visitors with information about the museum’s holdings and printouts of how to navigate to the works they wished to see.

Here’s what Vicki Porter posted in reaction to my piece:

As someone who has been working on museum engagement through digital media for over 20 years, I applaud this article. To understand why such projects never seem to realize their potential would take a study in itself. But broadly, museums still tend to use magical thinking when it comes to things digital. Somehow because it is technology, it will succeed!

Alas. The real hard work is the content, not the technology. Bright digital teams need to work with bright subject matter experts who can tell compelling stories. Ah, but there’s the rub…

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