Interview : Nancy Proctor

In January, I met Nancy Proctor at SITEM 2017. We discussed a range of subjects: the future of museums, diversity in the culture sector and touched briefly on the use of digital.

Audrey Gouimenou: Do you think that the level of innovation is linked to the business model of museums? For instance, in France, museums are subsidized by the State and it feels like there are fewer innovative breakthroughs in the museum sector.

Nancy Proctor: I certainly don’t want to see cultural institutions in crisis here or anywhere else, I think it’s probably happening everywhere because the resources just aren’t coming from the same places in the same ways as they used to. And that’s going to force us to look at new ways of doing business. Perhaps, that’s to put it in a crass and cold way. But if you’re not relevant to all of the audiences you need to support you in order to keep your doors open as an institution… you’re not going to keep your doors open.

AG : The questions of inclusivity and diversity are arriving very slowly in the French landscape and the answers are sometimes very one-dimensional. What is you experience with that subject? [ndrl: Le rapport de la mission “Musées du XXIe siècle”]

NP: My personal journey started, or was heightened, when I was Head of Digital Experience in Communications at the Baltimore Museum of Art. And our then-director asked me to take charge of new audience development. I had a team of 17 people. All but three of whom were women. All but one of whom were white. And I said we’re really good at talking to people who look like us — white middle class women with a certain kind and level of education who’ve been going to museums our whole lives. But I wasn’t sure I knew how to develop new audiences. What I did know, however, was how to ask people from other audiences what they might find interesting about the museum. So that’s another ingredient that inspired the MuseWeb Be Here project. The idea is you do many things at once by inviting the storytellers, the content creators, people from the communities you’re trying to reach, into your museum and enabling them to use the museum as a repository of raw assets or resources that they can use in making their content. They’re content creators, they always need more resources. They always need more interviews, more images, more ideas to write about or to publish about. So it’s not that dissimilar from the model of what museums do with the press, where we create press-packs, and then the press write their own stories. Why not extend that model to all sorts of content creators and let the people from the communities we’re trying to speak to do the talking for us? Because they know the language, they know the voice, the style, and they already have an audience too. So that was one of the ideas behind Be Here.

AG : So including the diverse communities as stakeholders to create relevant content is one of the keys?

NP: Yes. And once you get started, you just see how many people are out there with really interesting things to say. I think that, as that body of community sourced content grows, it starts to put pressure on the institutions to change how they do business, to listen more than they talk . . . or at least as much as they talk. As an institution you can’t build inclusivity. You have to partner to do that. You need your partners. You have to include your partners.

AG: How do you think the museum of the future will be? What do you think is the next big step? What do you think it’s going to look like?

NP: The good news is I think human beings will continue to create and transmit culture forever. We’re just wired that way. I think the real question is: Will we do so with or without institutions and museums? What I’d really like to see is a couple of different major actions on the part of museums. One is to be more inclusive in their hiring practices. It’s not necessarily an easy thing to do, but it is one that has been addressed even by major corporations that have Chief Inclusively Officers and H.R. practices that make sure that not everybody in the company looks like the founder or the CEO. So we need to do that. For example at Museums and the Web, we’re introducing something called a Community of Practice, which is intended to kick off a conversation about a topic of importance to the community, that involves both commercial partners and nonprofit partners and continues beyond the conference throughout the year. The key to that Community of Practice is a Community Manager. We will be specifically hiring those Community Managers from backgrounds that are underrepresented in the museum field, because then those young people get a chance to learn the ropes, they get mentored by senior people and they get to develop a professional network.

AG: Don’t you think that these are too difficult to implement on a larger scale?

NP: We need initiatives like that because there are already people out there with the training to do those jobs. It’s a mistake to think there’s not enough trained and qualified people out there from diverse communities. I did my doctoral dissertation on 19th century American women sculptors who worked abroad.  I did it precisely because of those remarks on representation, because those American women sculptors, they weren’t all white either. And they weren’t all wealthy and they weren’t all the daughters of sculptors. And they came from working class backgrounds, lots of different backgrounds.
The ressources and skills are there if we just open our eyes. So I think initiatives like ours do more to open the eyes of the professionals to the fact that there are people of color, of different kinds of backgrounds, who can do these jobs. The second thing is to really look more at how museums collaborate with the communities who are not coming to the museum. And you have to be strategic there. I’m not saying one size fits all, means it fits none.

AG: I’ve noticed that the job of Data Scientist is appearing in lots of museums’ strategies abroad, whether it’s for public or economic development. What do you think about this role?

NP: It has started. Tate was the first, MET has one now, as does MOMA and I’m pretty sure Rob had one at the DMA  [ndlr : Dallas Museum of Art / Rob Stein]. I won’t be surprised if both Van Gogh and Rijksmuseum have one too. I don’t know about in Paris.

There are also things that can’t be measured, though. And that’s where I guess having the right relationships is really important because then those things can emerge. Sometimes, something that a community leader or a member of a particular community just says to you isn’t going to be captured in any other way. So just having conversations is the essential ingredient.This is why we continue to come to conferences. You know, it’s nice. I could watch this online, I could read papers from museums, from the web, instead of coming. There’s nothing like meeting face to face now and getting to talk to you.


About Nancy Proctor

Nancy Proctor is Executive Director of the MuseWeb Foundation, the new non-profit initiative of Museums and the Web, and Co-chair and Co-editor with Rich Cherry of MW’s international conferences and publications. Previously she was Deputy Director of Digital Experience and Communications at the Baltimore Museum of Art (2014-2016), Head of Mobile Strategy and Initiatives at the Smithsonian Institution (2010-2014), and Head of New Media Initiatives at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum (2008-2010). With a PhD in American art history and a background in filmmaking, curation and art criticism, Nancy lectures and publishes widely on technology and innovation in museums, in French and Italian as well as English. Nancy Proctor created her first online exhibition in 1995 and went on to publish the New Art CD-ROM and website of contemporary art in the UK in 1996. She co-founded in 1998 with Titus Bicknell to present virtual tours of innovative exhibitions alongside comprehensive global museum and gallery listings. TheGalleryChannel was later acquired by Antenna Audio, where Nancy led New Product Development from 2000-2008, introducing the company’s multimedia, sign language, downloadable, podcast and cellphone tours. She also directed Antenna’s sales in France from 2006-2007, and worked with the Travel Channel’s product development team. Nancy served as program chair for the Museums Computer Network (MCN) conference 2010-2011, and co-organized the Tate Handheld conference 2008 & 2010. She started, its wiki and podcast series in 2008. She was Digital Editor of Curator: The Museum Journal from 2009-2014, and is now on the Journal’s editorial board, as well as on the Board of Directors of the Omnimuseum Project.

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