An interview with CultureConnect CEO Samantha Diamond

I had the pleasure of meeting Samantha Diamond, the CEO of museum technology company CultureConnect, at the 2016 Museum Computer Network conference in New Orleans. She was there as a speaker, session chair—(here’s an audio link to the presentation "Your Museum, Your Community")—and an exhibitor (and now she’s a member of MCN’s board!). Though Samantha is guiding the creation of amazing gallery experiences and I’m obsessing on organizational change from within museums, it turned out that we had a lot of concerns in common.


CultureConnect CEO Samantha Diamond

I spoke to Samantha over the course of a couple of months; first via Slack, then over the phone. This interview has been edited and compressed so you, dear reader, will never know the difference.

RJW: I always ask this, but how did you end up working with museums? Like you, I ended up in the cultural sector from another field.

SD: I’ve always been drawn to the arts—before she became a CPA, my mother was a high school art teacher, and I grew up going to museums. When I began my career in public service, I was working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during a time of political unrest at the end of a long civil war. I got to know a community of artists that negotiated a lot of themes in their work about the conflict, politics, and daily life. I was fascinated by this and ended up doing a research study that I presented back in the US. The artists conveyed a much more nuanced portrait of a complex social and political situation than any of the news coverage at the time. The international community involving arts and politics was pretty small back then, too, so there was very little academic work being done on the ground.

Later, I worked in the private sector and went to Columbia Business School here in NYC. After business school, my focus became technology and the arts. I was on the executive team at a VC-backed arts tech company—20x200—and then I started CultureConnect with colleagues. I love the balance of my work because it’s mission-driven, innovative, and entrepreneurial.

RJW: What do you see as the connection between cultural and entrepreneurial work?

SD: I enjoyed the meaning and intensity of international development work, and I wanted to find both of those things in a US-based career. I was captivated by the idea that innovative technologies could have an impact on society and was attracted to both the challenges and the pace of building something new. I deeply believe in the importance of arts in education and the role that museums play in communities as centers for lifelong learning (other than libraries, are there any other institutions that educate and enrich a person throughout their entire life?!). CultureConnect is a manifestation of all of these drivers—we developed a truly new, innovative technology that helps museums connect with more visitors in a meaningful and relevant way both in and out of the museum.

In terms of a connection between cultural and entrepreneurial work, I think the cultural space is in a unique position to innovate. The physical collection, stories, the scholarship behind them, staff expertise, and access to a wide-ranging public audience makes for an unbeatable mix of resources with which to experiment, create, and innovate. And non-profits (in terms used to describe startups) are extremely resourceful ("scrappy") in doing a lot with limited budgets, rallying (“pitching”) their communities to collaborate or funders (“investors”) to fund projects.

"I deeply believe in the importance of arts in education and the role that museums play in communities as centers for lifelong learning (other than libraries, are there any other institutions that educate and enrich a person throughout their entire life?!)."

RJW: How does your business school experience affect your work in the cultural sector? I hear from so many museum colleagues who are afraid that their institution is getting too "corporate."

The business-school/private-sector mindset that I bring to my work is one of systems and analytical thinking. How can we make this system better? How can we make technology a less risky or resource-intensive initiative for museums so they can focus on their core strengths (scholarship, curatorial, education) rather than on software development? I think there will always be a healthy tension around creative inspiration and analysis-driven decisions—you need both. Better systems are good things in organizations, but anytime you disrupt the status quo there will be discomfort. Is it too corporate or just different and new? What does too "corporate" mean, really?

RJW: At the Museum Computer Network 2016 conference in New Orleans, I saw you moderate a talk called "Your Museum, Your Community: How New Orleans Uses Digital Interactives to Build Community and Celebrate Culture," with representatives of city arts agencies and museums. I was struck by how rarely that combination of speakers appears before a group like MCN, discussing the community and urban impact of art. What interested you in getting that group together at MCN, and what would you like to see discussed at future museum conferences?

SD: Thank you! I was definitely trying to bring those different voices to the table with the common thread of digital initiatives. While I am from NYC and live here now, I did live in New Orleans when we initially launched CultureConnect. I was able to put the panel together because of my relationships in the community and an awareness of various initiatives at these organizations (some of whom are our clients). New Orleans holds a very special place in my heart and had a personal impact on me, but it also is a unique place to speak about rebuilding, reinvention and modernization, historic preservation, and arts and culture all at the same time.

At any conference, we should look to the local community of the host city, and ask the host institutions who they collaborate with and how digital/tech has been a part of those collaborations. The answer may look very different for each city as each partner organization may have unique priorities. We should also look at all the government (local or otherwise) departments that are involved with the arts, urban planning, and technology. What are they doing and how can/do museums intersect? And are there speakers who are adjacent to museum-tech, but can bring a fresh and relevant perspective, like the game designers who work with Games for Change?

RJW: You’re now on the board of Museum Computer Network, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary as an organization this year. What does #MCN50 mean to you?

SD: I am humbled to have been selected to serve on the MCN board and to get to work with such extraordinary people. Reach out anytime if you want to connect about MCN or learn more about it!

It's impressive that MCN has been building a community for 50 years. I would love to hear from folks who were there in the early years—while tech has evolved a lot, I wonder what hasn't.

RJW: Being named to the board was part of a very busy spring for you and CultureConnect!

SD: I was traveling so much, and CultureConnect had a huge product launch at the New-York Historical Society at the same time! In April, there was Museums and the Web in Cleveland, and I had a great time there. And CultureConnect also got a MUSE honorable mention award at the American Alliance of Museums conference in May, for our project with the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, on an interactive that they used in their travel photography exhibition. It brought in Twitter and Instagram and displayed location data on a map, kind of like a real-time, in-gallery social media aggregator. They had a lounge area and a large screen displaying the application and people interacting with it in different ways. Some people would sit in the gallery after they had just walked through and reflect on their own road-trip photography, some would contribute something to this social media experience, and some would just watch the screen to see what images other people were putting in. And the museum also distributed the interactive online.

Crystal Bridges exhibition website for The Open Road

Lounge space at the Crystal Bridges exhibition "The Open Road"

RJW: And you were at a conference in Abu Dhabi.

SD: I was invited to participate and speak at the CultureSummit, organized by Foreign Policy magazine and the government of the United Arab Emirates. The participants were a mix of extraordinary artists and performers as well as people who work in government and the arts from around the world. Some of the people were very high level, such as (former secretary of state and US ambassador to the United Nations) Madeline Albright, who spoke about cultural diplomacy, and the head of UNESCO discussed historic preservation.

I was on a panel called "The Unintended Consequences of Technological Change" with two people from arts centers, and the questions we heard were along the lines of, “is technology threatening the in-person experience?” And maybe we surprised the moderator when all three of us took optimistic positions! I said we shouldn’t take an adversarial approach to technology in museums, but we should think of it as additive and cumulative—the book and the movie inspired by the book are not in competition with each other!

RJW: Another false dichotomy!

SD: Right! People in museums so often worry they have to do something in digital and that they’re going to mess it up and alienate their visitors. I try to assuage their fears and say, hey, there really is a way to do this thoughtfully and intentionally and successfully. And here's all the ways that you can feel like you're not jumping off a cliff.

I was really excited about the CultureSummit because of my international relations experience. Still, there weren’t a lot of museums there, and I’d had loved to see the museum voice better represented in these conversations. Museums can help negotiate some ambiguity and controversy in a way that brings people together and builds understanding. Museums are very special institutions for that reason.

Views of the CultureConnect in-gallery interactives at the New-York Historical Society (credit: Corrado Serra)

RJW: What does "digital" mean to you? And do you feel like your clients don’t always have a sense of what they mean by “digital”?

SD: "Digital" means a lot of things, and for an individual client it’s probably defined by their experience with "digital"—it might be their museum website, a mobile app, touchscreen kiosk, social media, or anything they might do on their office computer. There is a progression from digitizing the collection to putting it on the museum website to then thinking about digital interpretation experiences. Each of these digital outputs has a different intent, design, and a UX for the visitor/user. The challenge is aligning all of this.

The biggest learning curve is typically around the norms of software development and digital project management. A museum’s core mission isn’t to develop and manage software. One of our guiding philosophies at CultureConnect is to help museums focus on what they (and only they) can do best—the curation, interpretation, education, and scholarship. As "digital" becomes ever more ubiquitous in our lives and in museums, becoming an expert in digital tools and processes is a necessity for all museums.

Technology should facilitate the experience, not get in the way of it. So you're always asking yourself that question when you're going through the design process, where you're looking at what the user experience is of a digital interactive. A successful digital interactive should raise people's eyes away from the screen. You want to see people's heads going up and down, looking up to the objects and artwork and then looking down to the interactive, and then looking around the gallery and feeling inspired to explore something else because of what they just learned.

"We shouldn’t take an adversarial approach to technology in museums, but we should think of it as additive and cumulative—the book and the movie inspired by the book are not in competition with each other!"

RJW: Is there any particular technology you’re excited about right now?

SD: I’m really passionate about 3-D digital models. One of my philosophies at CultureConnect is that we take cutting-edge technologies and make them broadly accessible to museums. The technology of modeling 3-D objects—scanning objects and building models that you can rotate from all angles—has advanced to a point where it can become mainstream in the museum space. We launched a project this spring with the New-York Historical Society that included a bunch of 3-D scans. We had the objects laser-scanned and photographed to make an interactive object instead of just having visitors look at 2-D images. And that's just the beginning. You can do so many things with 3-D, including printing and VR. I'm just nerding out so hard on this technology and we’re becoming experts in this now.

RJW: Looking back—which is one part of the theme of this year’s MCN—what's changed about the feel of technology in the field? Is the conversation shifting in terms of the way people talk about the work that they're doing, or has the approach to projects has changed?

SD: There is greater familiarity with tools and crafts, and the approach to technology has definitely changed. So have expectations—when you built an app 10 years ago and the project wasn’t successful, you were actually surprised by this. But every project teaches us something, whether it went swimmingly or didn't meet our expectations or surprised us and sometimes in a great way. It's a constant learning process, which is similar to startup technology culture, where you test assumptions, build prototypes, and iterate.

Remember that modern museums have been planning exhibitions for 100 or 200 years, so there's a lot less confusion about what makes for a good exhibition. But we’re only in year 10 or so of the digital exhibition experience and we only have one or two waves of success and failure to have figured out what works and what doesn't. MCN has been a technology organization for 50 years, and it’s great that it’s been around for this entire period of technology and digital in museums.

RJW: Thank you, this was great!

SD: Our conversations are always really fun, and I really enjoy this interview format.

A joint reading and listening list with Samantha: