So many of us in the museum technology field are a multitude of different experiences and backgrounds. Susan Edwards fits that to a T. She talks about her games background, digital publishing and museum content ecosystems, and her new project to celebrate 50 years of the Museum Computer Network.

I feel like I keep meeting different iterations of Susan Edwards, who is Associate Director, Digital Content at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles: at various Museum Computer Network conferences I’ve met Susan the digital publishing project manager, Susan the Design Thinking instructor, Susan the MCN50 conversation advocate (more on that below), Susan the Peer Consultation champion, Susan the Slack partner (on the digpublishing Slack team founded by The Getty’s Greg Albers) and most of all, Susan the cross-disciplinary master par excellence.

But I didn’t know the Susan with the games design background. For more about her and MCN50 Voices, keep reading our interview, conducted over Slack over the course of a week. (Because Slack!) I gave Susan some questions in advance, so this interview is edited and compiled for length and clarity.

RJW: Hello! This still work for you? I am badly sleep deprived, but ready if this works for you.

Susan Edwards: Hi! Yeah. Let's do it.

Getting into the field


RJW: A question about you—how did you get into the museum field?

SE: I got into museum work because I realized that I wanted to work with the arts, because I like to teach/educate, because I need to have a profession that is creative, and because I got disillusioned with academia. I never wanted or intended to work in museums. I actually had a strong background in science, and was on the pre-med track as an undergrad, and was a biochemistry major. I was not happy with the community/culture of scientists, and I decided to take a break from science when I went for a junior year abroad. At the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, I ended up taking Modern Art History, kind of on a whim, and found that I was really good at it. A professor there encouraged me to continue, which I did when I got back to the U.S., and went on to grad school.

But academia was not for me, and in the middle of working on my dissertation, I decided to take a break. I sold all my belongings, put everything in my car and drove west. I ended up in Seattle. I fully planned to work in a restaurant kitchen, which is what I did all through grad school, but ended up getting a part-time job at the Seattle Art Museum selling tickets at the front door for their blockbuster Leonardo DaVinci Leicester Codex exhibition. And I stayed. (That Da Vinci codex is also called the Hammer Codex because it was in the Armand Hammer Collection, at the Hammer Museum, before Bill Gates bought it in 1994. Kinda freaky that I now work at the Hammer, huh?)

RJW: And digital publishing specifically?

Digital Publishing


SE: I started working on a project at the Getty with the Getty Research Institute that was trying to build an online collaborative space for scholars. That started out as an experimental project, and ended up becoming the Getty Scholars' Workspace initiative, and the Mellini digital publication—five years later.

Click here for a video from The Mellini project

But really, publishing to the Web in general IS digital publishing!

RJW: Was this project driven by the scholars/curators, by management, or by your cohort of publishing people?

SE: It was driven by Murtha Baca, who was the head of Digital Art History at the Getty Research Institute (she just retired a few months ago). And specifically by a project that was pitched by an art historian from the University of Malaga in Spain, Nuria Rodriguez. She had found a manuscript in the GRI collection—a 17th-century inventory written in verse—that she wanted to explore with scholars across the world and she thought that an online space would allow them to collaborate on the research, and discuss the document together

RJW: So the “tool” (for conversation) became the platform, in a sense?

SE: Yes, exactly.

Scholar Note and homepage for Digital Mellini



RJW: You said “five years later,” meaning, I believe, the digital publication? What happened in the intervening years? Was most of the time spent amassing the discussion? At what point did the tool become, hey, a digital publication?

SE: The digital production team was originally three of us who worked in the Getty Web Group—Tina Shah, Wes Walker, and me. So we were working on a lot of other projects and didn’t work on this full-time. But we had regular meetings. Murtha had us meet like every two weeks and she is also incredibly passionate and inspiring, which helped. We realized really quickly that we were working on something pretty important and potentially revolutionary. So for two or three years it was about digital collaboration. And then Murtha and Nuria said, "wait, now we want to publish our research. And, oh my, all this data is trapped in the website. Hmmm...maybe this online collaboration tool could just ‘turn into’ an online publication?” Thus, the joke was born about the magical "print button."

Hmmm...maybe this online collaboration tool could just ‘turn into’ an online publication?” Thus, the joke was born about the magical "print button."

RJW: I hear the “can’t you just print from X and get a publication?” from curators a lot! It’s hard because you almost are required to fail at digital publishing, to know what doesn’t work, in order to figure out what worked. I was recently involved in a digital-print hybrid project that I like to call a “glorious failure”—it didn’t succeed at its goals, but nevertheless it was a great learning experience.

SE: When I left the Getty, we were in the middle of getting Mellini published.

RJW: I’m just taking a look online at the Mellini. At which point I closed Chrome with like 15 tabs open.

SE: Re the glorious failure you mentioned above, there is a way in which the original Mellini site was a “failure”—or, really it was a proof of concept. It was was designed for the Mellini project and was used once. There was a second project with the Institut national d'histoire de l'art in Paris which Murtha hoped could also use the Mellini structure, but we realized quickly that we needed to re-tool the tool for the specific scholarly needs and methodology of that project. Scholarly research is not one thing. Many methodologies = many tools needed. In a way the publishing part has been the one static/standard in scholarly work.

RJW: Have you ever managed to re-use a format for a different project? Always an issue.

SE: We are trying to do it for the Hammer's Mellon-funded digital archives. But no, of course we are having to add functionality and features for each new archive.

RJW: Is there one particular project you’re proudest of?

SE: Mellini is obviously its own thing. But all the other "digital publishing" projects I have worked on (not many) are part of a larger ecosystem. So the Hammer's Digital Archives are part of our larger website, and they themselves are the multiples of one thing. Honestly, the projects that I am proudest of are the games projects I worked on at the Getty.

RJW: Can you expand on the “ecosystem” idea? I find that the Met is moving towards that as it tries to figure out the place of digital publishing in a building with distinct print publication and digital departments.

A Hammer Digital Archives page

The Ecosystem of Museum Content


SE: First, the "ecosystem" idea. I come from a web development perspective, not publishing. So the idea of creating something inside a walled garden (as they say) is foreign to me. And I think my work in digital publishing never started as a goal to do digital publishing—these projects started as ways to use digital tools to help scholars collaborate, and access information. And to make the museum's information more widely available, which is the larger goal of any website. So, I guess, the "Digital Publishing" projects I work on are just websites, and as such are part of a larger ecosystem. We were talking about this in a conversation at the Getty yesterday, in fact. Greg Albers was pointing out that the reason why the digital publications coming out of the Getty Publications department are very individual, and static and book-like, is because they come out of a publishing department. And the reason why the projects I work on look more like websites is because that's what I do—websites.

These projects started as ways to use digital tools to help scholars collaborate, and access information.

On games


RJW: Tell me about the games projects.

SE: I worked on several games projects at the Getty, starting in 2003, I think. I was actually hired at the Getty to work closely with the Education department and create a web presence for them. We first partnered with Whyville.net to create a virtual Getty for kids. I worked with museum educator Rebecca Edwards (no relation) to create two games there. Then Rebecca and I worked on GettyGames, a series of casual games using the Getty's collection. In 2012 we took one of those games and started to turn it into a mobile game in the galleries—that was called Switch. I also helped to start a relationship with the USC games lab to bring students up to the Getty once a year to do a 36-hour game jam. I spent a lot of time thinking about the crossover between games and the work I was doing with scholars on digital publishing.


The Getty Museum in Whyville.net


RJW: Wow, I didn’t know about that aspect of your career! If there’s one thing you could bring over from your games experience into working with scholars or publishing, what would it be?

SE: The way of developing games with the user is the connection for me. A game has to "work"—so you do what they call "play test" to make sure it functions, but also that the balance is right—that it's not too hard, or too easy—that it's pleasurable to play. And this very iterative way of working with the audience is something I definitely carried over to the Digital Mellini project. We would literally build a feature, have the scholars use it the next week, tell us what they liked/didn't like, and change it overnight—repeat. I think they didn't even know they were playtesting the collaboration tools, but that is essentially what they were doing.



From Project Switch, a mobile phone game from the Getty

This is also why Design Thinking resonates so strongly for me. It's working closely with the audience, trial and error, creative inspiration coming out of that. I gave a talk at the Serious Games conference several years ago called "what museums can learn from making games"—I think it boiled down to teamwork/collaboration, failure/iteration. I also gave a TED-style talk at the Western Museums association in 2015 where I talked a lot about the positive role of frustration in games, and what we can learn from that.

RJW: That iterative aspect is so alien and difficult in more “print-ending” workflows.

SE: These digital publications projects are sticky, difficult, and can be frustrating! But the frustration can be harnessed.

RJW: Teams in publishing workflows still have trouble saying, “Okay, what have we learned, what are we going to improve upon, what do we have to fix?" (as opposed to moving on to the next book)

MCN50 Voices


RJW: So to connect this with MCN50 Voices, this aspect of museum work as a “journey" really surprised me when I first started coming to MCN. From my publishing background I was still focused on the finished product (not that digital teams aren’t). But the idea of the constant learning experience threw me and attracted me.

SE: Yeah, it's what I LOVE about this work. I am addicted to learning. [I actually have to go now. Do you want to ask an MCN Voices question? I can answer here later…]

RJW: Sure, I’ll leave you with this: how did your experience in the field, and with MCN, inspire you to want to start MCN Voices? Thank you! (Now for me, home, wine, and sleep.) Note for the reader: I'm the co-chair of the program committee for MCN's 2017 annual conference.

So we started again a few days later …


SE: The idea for MCN50 Voices came out of discussions with Marla Misunas, my MCN50 collaborator; Carolyn Royston, MCN’s current president; and Eric Longo, MCN’s director. We wanted to create a space for people to have a conversation that could be captured for the rest of the community to "listen in" on. I have been inspired by all the great conversations I have had in the field with my peers, with those more senior, with emerging professionals. It's such a rich community of smart, dynamic, engaged people, and we are all also grappling with the changes in our field, in our profession, in our institutions, and also thinking about what our roles are within the institution. I have talked to enough of my peers to know what I am not alone on that!


MCN circa 1999 …

So it started out with the idea of matching up people who have been working in the field for a while with those who are emerging in order to create a mentor-like knowledge sharing opportunity. And that would go both ways—so someone more senior can give more traditional advice to the emerging professional, but the emerging professional can also provide perspective and new insights for those of us who have been in the field longer. Mara Kurlandsky is helping me with the project and we've matched up several interviewing pairs like this. But others are asking to interview their long-time peers, which is fine! So we are going to have several interviews between old friends, which I think will be fascinating.

Finally, I think it's cool to just put a face on the profession, and to learn more about the career trajectories of our communities' luminaries.

Finally, I think it's cool to just put a face on the profession, and to learn more about the career trajectories of our communities' luminaries.

RJW: It’s interesting that at MCN50 Voices’ core there’s a conversational, mentoring, sharing ideal. So much more than just interviews! Even if it ends up being more of the latter, I love it. I got a lot out of my “friend-tor” relationship after MCN2015 in Minneapolis, and even though I am more senior than the person I spoke with a few times, we both got to vent about our museums and our workplaces and our career.

… 

So after yet another break Susan and I called it an interview. MCN50 Voices’ first post is a conversation between Diana Folsom (Director of Digital Collections at the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art at the University of Tulsa) and Andrea Ledesma, a graduate student in the public humanities at Brown University, and more conversations are forthcoming. If you’d like to be part of the project, you can learn more and sign up on MCN’s website.