Sebastian Chan, Head of Digital, Social and Emerging Technologies, Powerhouse Museum

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

Listen to the streaming audio above or download the mp3 file.


  1. Ryan says:

    Another fantastic interview last week although I got cut off mid-way through, Technology 1, Ryan 0. I am extremely jealous of the opportunity Seb has had at the Powerhouse to experiment with digital and emerging technologies but I applaud his use of the Fresh & New(er) blog to create discussions around his projects. It allows the wider museum community to see and comment on the cutting edge activities.

    I think Seb has a good take on the future of digital tech in museums and I couldn’t agree more when he said, “We are giving people access to all sorts of content on all sorts of platforms, but are we giving them the right content?” Many museums are dealing with developing loads of engaging content right now. I agree that they will also need to develop metrics to measure success and measure what content people are accessing and why. Getting it right will save loads of resources, getting it wrong will do the opposite so making sure the right content is delivered is key.

  2. Megan Byrnes says:

    What a fantastic and engaging interview! Seb Chan certainly provided us with a lot to think about. I enjoyed learning more about the evolution of the Powerhouse’s Thinkspace digital learning space, which helps students and adults develop media skills like video and music making. Such a hands-on and interactive experience exemplifies some of the power behind Web 2.0 technologies and approaches for engaging multiple learning styles (auditory, musical/rhythmic, kinesthetic, etc.) and for extending the museum’s reach to other non-traditional audiences like troubled teens and people with learning disabilities. His remarks that museum need to connect with what teachers are teaching in the classroom and how the museum’s learning resources are or aren’t being used, as being central to product/programming development and bringing teachers into the feedback process are also spot on.

    Finally, Seb’s discussion of the “gift exchange” paradigm for social media engagement is a crucial one for all institutions to remember before blythely undertaking blogs and other user-generated content platforms. In order to keep online user engagements and relationships strong, the museum must be strategic and committed to maintaining a continuous and reciprocal connection with its audience. Social media is an investment with responsibilities that sometimes gets overlooked by museums with “start/end” exhibition approaches, and museums must shift their approach if they are to remain relevant and fulfill user expectations for these platforms and media.

    1. Cherie Whipple says:

      I loved the ThinkSpace concept, too, Megan. It really blends the Gardner ‘intelligences’ into the learning modalities. What do you think of this idea…create a matrix of all the content you provide at the NMAI and see how many modalities are incorporated? I just thought of this for my own museum interaction to see if we are hitting the broadest learning audience. What do you think?

  3. Jared Chamberlin says:

    Seb definitely had some great thoughts on where we are now and where we could go with digital content. I found him mentioning how Australians love to travel very interesting, as he put it, it gives him a more global perspective, which is incredibly beneficial in today’s digital world. Finding a national identity and brand is an interesting concept, something that I haven’t really come across.

    The Powerhouse museum sounds like it has some great opportunities for visitors. I liked how Seb comments on the fact that you need to be aware of what teachers are using in their classrooms, you won’t get a good idea if the educational results your making are being used, and why. Engagement needs to happen with the teachers so the projects will actually reach the intended audience. It may not always be an issue of content either, it could also be an issue of access, where the teachers don’t have the ability to access a web project. It is well worth the time and resources to find out these types of things before investing heavily into a project.

  4. Cherie Whipple says:

    As my classmates have already mentioned,I too found Seb’s comments on connecting with teachers particularly relevant. Because teachers are a strategic target market for museum content, I appreciated that he emphasized the need to understand what teachers are using in their classrooms, evaluate the impact of what is being used that the museum can provide, and garner feedback from the teachers concerning current and proposed content. Museums should be leading the charge of mixed learning modalities and supporting learning beyond the classroom walls.

    In my work with my own museum, I head from teachers that we have great stuff only they can’t find it. For the most part, the lesson plan content is great but the website doesn’t support an easy or inventive way of working with the curriculum materials.

    I’m excited for Seb and his new role in the states. Great interview and informative!

  5. Juliana Olsson says:

    I was interested to hear Seb’s observation that different nations view the purpose of their museums differently, and this all ties into how people view/value culture. We talk about museums needing to determine their identity, their mission, and their raison d’être before developing a web presence; however, we focused on how the organizational structure affects this identity, and have ignored the ways in which the larger culture influences these choices. By participating in global forums for museum web practices, Seb is certainly well aware of these identity issues, but I doubt that many smaller local museums have the opportunity to think about WHY their identity is what it is. It’s lucky that the web allows you to change or update your identity fairly efficiently and (relatively) inexpensively.

  6. Averie Buitron says:

    Seb touched on a lot of topics and really managed to give great insight onto each. As an anthropology major I found his introduction statements about the importance of understanding and taking note of not only your own nation, but global perspectives in terms of strategy very enlightening and refreshing to hear. Using the web to make up for the Powerhouse Museums lack of identity can be a model for similar museums who may have similar issues. Utilizing the web can obviously be very beneficial to solving these problems, but as he mentioned, don’t let it overshadow your physical museum. It was great to hear his take on mobile and how it has brought together these two spaces.

  7. Amber Glen says:

    I must admit I was fascinated by Seb’s interview. His take on mobile and museums is refreshing compared to the constant statement I get from museum staff that “We need something on mobile devices to stay current.” That being said, Seb’s observation that “context is key” is what we should be focused on; if an exhibit or topic doesn’t lend itself to an app we shouldn’t necessarily create an app for it, but we must acknowledge that visitors might expect access to a website or supplemental information online.

  8. Seb Chan says:

    Thanks for all the great comments and I’m glad you found the interview useful. It was recorded on my last day at the Powerhouse and so was under somewhat unusual and chaotic circumstances.

    I’m hoping that in my new role I will be able to offer some exciting opportunities to students in NYC. Stay tuned on my Fresh & New blog.

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