Seb Chan
Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York
Director of Digital & Emerging Media
Has been working in museum field since
The recording date of the interview
May 14th 2013
All interviews


I mean I think moving to America was really triggered by a few things, one of them was my increasing desire to change the whole museum


Seb writes a blog called the Fresh and New

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Text of the interview

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I think when I was a kid I really was interested in science, and I was interested in being a scientist, probably, but I was introduced to computers. My parents were academics, and they bought a Commodore 64 probably when I was about ten, nine or ten. But then at the end of my teens I got this interest in social change, so I ended up in fact doing a social work degree rather than doing computer science or things like that which is probably what I otherwise would’ve done. And I got interested in, I guess, the need for social change. At University as well I got interested in electronic music, and these things fused together somehow: computers, social change, music cultures, space, transformation of space, so I ended up in museums like that. 

I started at the Powerhouse Museum in 1999 as a project manager in the IT department, mainly because I was working at the University, I was trying to finish off a doctoral thesis that didn’t get finished in the end. I was working at the University library…

I came into the museum world from a very technical position, but then throughout the years at the Powerhouse the interests that I had beyond technical stuff, i.e., music, and culture, and social change became more engaged with the purpose of my technical work.

So then around 2003 the IT manager of the time left for another position, and the last thing she did was to move me out to form this web unit that was outside of the IT team and not in the marketing either, but was more aligned with curatorial, so the web team came around about that period. Although the Powerhouse had been doing things on the web for years, previously they didn’t have a dedicated web team, so that was an interesting moment, and I think from there we did a lot of quite exciting things with the team and the people that got pulled into it. 

2003, I think once I moved out of the IT team things began to change because the web was evolving, web 2.0. had kind of taken off, it started to happen more. And I think it was an interesting moment, we were doing re-design of the Powerhouse website, we were working with some out-kind-of-site firms, as well as building our skills in-house

In 2005 we did the electronic swatch book project, which was these fabric swatches that the curators wanted to get out to fashion kind of students, and so we built this database … that allowed people to tag and describe the patterns as a way of search. And that was quite interesting and really started to make us think about how we could do that at bigger scale. So 2006 we launched the Powerhouse collection, which was really most of the collection at that time that had been digitized we made available, and that really was the turning point for us when we saw that you know you could do a lot of things, interesting stuff with the collection, with search, with user-tagging, this sort of stuff, we started to begin to socialize the site. Than all the social media stuff happened, we had blogs and all this sort of stuff, but really 2004-5 was an interesting period when we were moving out of the lessons we’d learned from the failure of Soundbite, the music social network prototype, and the lessons out of the flash-based collection behind-the-scenes project. 

Yeah, I mean I think one of the interesting  things at Powerhouse was under Tim Hart and later Kevin Sumption who were the associate directors of what was IT, and web, and other things like that, the research library, music labs and stuff. They put a heavy focus on professional development, and so we would always send stuff to conferences, and Museums and the Web, both Tim and Kevin were on the committee for Museums and the Web, and people from Powerhouse would always go to these events.

And that moment 2007 was a very exciting time, and I think that was when, you know, I  realized the value of those events was really the networking and the global recognition that was possible for museum projects, and it really was an exciting time

Yeah, we did a lot of stuff in that period from 2007 and 2011, we did lots and lots of stuff. We did all the social media stuff, we did all the stuff with our collection. I’m very pleased that the collection became such a focal point of the Powerhouse’s digital work. But we, you know, that spawned all the Creative Commons work, the stuff with the Flickr and the Flickr Commons, and the ability to be an early adopter, I think, joining the Flickr Commons as the first museum, following the Library of Congress was really an important thing to do.

So we did a lot of in-house development, a lot of the stuff there, not only digital stuff, but curatorial stuff, and the education teams, registration teams - they learned a lot from what our digital projects could generate in terms of public feedback, in terms of usage, data, all this sort of stuff, it gave suddenly a visibility to a lot of work there. Beyond exhibitions and beyond public events

I mean I think moving to America was really triggered by a few things, one of them was my increasing desire to change the whole museum. Through 2008 to 2011 I’d been doing a lot of travel, consulting with other museums; the Powerhouse would send me out almost as a commercial consultant. You know, they would generate revenue from me going out and doing talks or workshops for other museums or being, you know, on project teams on other projects around the world.

What was interesting too with that was that travel from Australia was exhausting, and it’s very far away, so that sense of me being out on the road quite a bit meant that I was away from the office and my, you know, home too. So when this position came up in New York, it was interesting, it was a museum that was rebuilding. Bill Moggridge was the director at that time, and Bill, you know, he was the leading ... design person, he’d set up IDEO, he designed the first laptop. He is the sort of person that you kind of... I was super excited to have the chance to work with. And that opportunity to rethink the museum was kind of a unique one, so... Plus, I was gonna be closer to the rest of the world, and it’s rare to get a chance to live in New York for a little while. So, yeah, it made a lot of sense. These opportunities don’t come up much, and when they do, it’s important  to use those. And I think it was a good moment to leave Powerhouse too, you know. I’d done a lot of the things I wanted to do there, and I’d set up some great teams, and people were working really well, and we were doing exciting stuff. But there were limits. The exhibition schedule was planned for a few years out, and the building was being changed, but there were things that we couldn’t change. It was time for me to take another challenge

Oh, yes, so I am at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, a design museum, which is the Smithsonian design museum in New York. It’s one of the few Smithsonian museums that’s in New York, for a start, and it’s the only one that charges admission. It’s on the Upper East Side, two blocks north of the Guggenheim, and we’re closed. So I arrived, and it was closed, and we’ll reopen in about a year and a half, and really my responsibility there coming in was ‘here is a museum with no technical infrastructure really, that’d done some innovative stuff, very early IPod Touch tours of galleries and some IPad experiments, but they were not part of the operating of the museum in general.’ So I came in and was charged with really re-thinking all the digital stuff for them, and taking this opportunity of them being closed to build it into the operations of the museum, and the building, and its programms

I think it’s very hard to foresee what’s going to happen. I think if I looked back 5 years or 10 years, there’s lots of things we wouldn’t have, you know, predicted. But having worked with a lot of museums and a lot of research projects now, looking at a lot of data about how people behave in museums, and the changes in the way people use digital projects and engage on mobile, all that sort of stuff... I think what we’re seeing is that we’ll need for museums to define what they are about that other things don’t do, you know, other people and myself included often talk about museums as media, that we compete now, particularly in the digital space, as media. We’re not really resoursed to be media, and we see media collapsing around us as well, so I’m no longer so confident that that’s the way to go, but I think museums will begin to define what they are about and they will begin to define what their physical experience is like, and that we’ll integrate and understand that people are bringing their own digital experiences with them to the museum, and that sense that people would just turn off their phones - it’s not gonna happen. So we need to think how we can choreograph the behavior of visitors so it works with us and it expands both our own opportunities and the visitor’s experience, it enhances both.

We always in the digital space look for people who are doing things even irrespective of working in a museum. You know, do your own stuff, and then come to us and say ‘this is better than yours.’