Seb Chan leads the Digital, Social and Emerging Technologies department at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. Seb has a background in social policy, journalism and media criticism as well as information technology. Since the mid 1990s he has been building and producing websites and interactive media. At the Powerhouse Museum, he oversees a number of different teams: web, audio visual and photography, rights & permission and the photo library, the research library and Thinkspace, the Museum’s digital media teaching laboratories. Seb’s responsibilities at the Museum include driving user focus in design, usability and content as well as expanding the scope of the Museum’s online digital projects.
Seb is also a researcher in several Australian Research Council Linkage projects where he focuses on social media, museums and technology and how they relate and are connected to the cultural sector. Within this sector, he is known as a social media and Web 2.0 specialist. Seb serves on the international program committees of Museums and the Web (USA), Digital Strategies for Heritage (Eu), the Horizon.Au New Media Consortium, and is an International Steering Committee member of Culturemondo. He is also a member of the Australian Government’s Government 2.0 Taskforce.
Seb also writes the popular blog, Fresh & New(er).
Digital technology plays an important role at the Powerhouse Museum in the development of strategies to attract audiences and to enhance their on site and online visits. Through the implementation of various related tools such as Flickr, Thinkspace (the digital teaching laboratories) and mobile devices, the Powerhouse Museum has been able to successfully engage and connect with visitors from Australia and all over the world.
In the beginning of the conversation, Seb speaks to his experience working with other museum professionals (on committees and in organizations) from around the world. Through his interactions with others on the international stage, he notes the strategic importance of a global perspective as it relates to museums and digital media as well as to national identity, something that Australia has been struggling with since the early 1990s. Having a strong national identity is an important part of a country’s cultural heritage and this specifically includes museums, the repositories of history and culture. Seb talks of the effects that a lack of national identity has on the Powerhouse Museum, its funding initiatives (75% of the Museum is government/state funded) and overall sustainability.
A lack of identity is a challenge facing the Powerhouse Museum. Seb gives the example of asking 5 people about the purpose of the Museum and receiving 5 different answers. He says that the Museum is trying to figure out their brand, and as a result is utilizing the Web and its online presence to create an identity that helps cultivate new and diverse audiences and expands the relevance to their collections. Seb discusses the role of the Web and the Museum’s digital spaces, but stresses that its online presence can not stand alone. He explains that the Museum’s physical and virtual worlds need to blend together seamlessly (at least to the most passionate visitors/users) and to always remember the two are inherently connected. “Odditorieum” is the example Seb gives that highlights the physical manifestation of the online act of tagging and commenting.
Another way in which the Powerhouse Museum is bringing together the physical and digital parts of the Museum is through mobile content. Seb explains that the move towards the incorporation of mobile technology is rapid and somewhat challenging. He stresses that “mobile is not about the device, but more about the context.” Context is key; users will not always sit at their computer to find information, they will use their smartphones, Droids, iPads in order to connect wherever and whenever. Seb states there is an “intimate relationship with content because there is a more intimate relationship with devices.” Museum strategy addresses this notion by creating and developing context for the Museum’s content and making it easily accessible to the public (specifically in terms of usability and browsability of mobile interfaces).
Seb outlines a number of external and internal (built-in) metrics that Museum uses to analyze and evaluate the mobile use of the Museum visitor. Using various types of technology like GPS locating and QR codes, the Museum can extract quantitative data (while maintaining privacy policies) and use it to improve their mobile applications. Equally important is the qualitative data that the Museum gathers through observations and talking with visitors about their mobile experience. Seb explains that through data we can find out how people interact with online content and within the physical space, however, still stands the question of the future. Have we given visitors the right content to fulfill their needs and expectations?
For Seb and the Powerhouse Museum, the strategy for the future is to focus on the long-term sustainability. According to him, the future of museums and their emerging online and digital initiatives are promising.
Listen to the interview
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