As USF launches its graduate museum studies program, we’ll be posting a series of interviews to help you get to know our faculty better. Our first interviewee is Mandy Smith who recently accepted a new position as Senior Manager, Visitor Experience at Chabot Space and Science Center. Mandy will be teaching our Museums and Technology practicum in Spring 2014.
Q: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the museum field in the last decade?
Mandy: Obviously, both hardware and software have advanced considerably and these changes have enormous implications for museum visitors. In 2001, Marjorie Schwarzer and I co-researched a cover article for AAM’s Museum Magazine titled Art & Gadgetry: The Future of the Art Museum Visit. At that time, laptop computers and cell phones were still unusual sights. Today, nearly half of Americans own a smart phone and use it regularly. Museums traditionally think they are competing for audiences with other bricks and mortar entertainment venues like Disneyland, shopping malls or movie theatres. That still may hold true, but now they are also competing with entertainment and culture found in the palm of their audiences hands.,
Last year when I was working for Art.com, I attended the Museum Store Association conference. The keynote speaker was James Dion. He is a retail futurist and his observations about how the retails experience is changing struck me. He reminded us that having the conveniences of the internet and access to instant information is raising the bar for our expectations on all of our transactions with organizations. Consumers want as few hassles as possible and excellent customer service. They want communication to be smooth and efficient. They expect information to be at their fingertips. Translate this to museums. As the latest Horizon Report puts it, museum visitors expect a seamless experience. When visitors see something in a museum and can’t find out the information they want, they can take out their smartphone. If they are bored, they take out their smartphone. If they want to share their experience, they use their smartphone to take a photo and post it through social media. So, museums have more incentive than ever to make sure visitors have a fantastic experience.
The great news is that museums are getting much smarter about how technology can help do this. Even though they are more cost conscious, museum staff are very resourceful in the way they use off-the-shelf products to develop products in-house.
Here’s another change: When I first got into the field, only people on the business side the museum, like the CFO or the Development Director, needed to understand how the finances work. Only the IT person needed to understand technology. Today everyone needs business and technology savvy: educators, collections folks, frontline staff, everybody.
Q: After you earned your MA, you worked for a company that develops audio and multimedia tours. Then you worked in the fields of electronic publishing and ecommerce. What were some of the most important things that you learned in the private tech sector?
Mandy: Unlike museums where one organization in a defined region will focus on a specific subject or collection, the competition in the tech sector is very aggressive. Attracting and maintaining your customer base is all about excellent customer service. You can have the best product in the world, but you can bet that another company is figuring out how you do it. In the end it won’t mean anything if you aren’t treating customers well and giving them a top-notch experience. I was horrified the other day when I heard about a museum restaurant with a reputation for terrible service. The food was okay, and the prices were fine, but customers kept complaining that the wait staff was slow, and even rude. That just wouldn’t be acceptable in private companies on any level, and it shouldn’t be acceptable in any part of the museum experience.
Q: What drew you to your current position at Chabot Space and Science Center?
Mandy: This is the perfect job for me right now. I had been working with technology companies and doing B2B sales for quite some time now. Yet I missed the opportunity to make an impact on the public’s experience at a museum. I’m thrilled to be back in a museum. I love motivating staff to do their very best. I’m heading the Visitor Experience team, which means I work with my staff on everything from developing public programs and promoting CSSC as a wedding or corporate teambuilding venue to coordinating how our volunteers and box office team may work together on a busy Saturday. The revenue these kinds of activities generate is critical to the museum’s budget. I love gathering people together to brainstorm ideas and then finding the right combination of people and resources to make the best ideas happen. I’m particularly intrigued by ways to enhance the customer service experience. Staff working on the frontlines set the tone for the entire museum visit. Their jobs are hard! They need support, training and a voice in how to do their jobs better. I’ve been looking at top end retail experiences to see what best practices we can incorporate at CSSC.
Q: Your work has largely revolved around art and art museums. How has the transition to a science center been for you?
Mandy: I have to admit that first and foremost I’m an art lover. I love to visit art museums, and that’s why I got into this field. But my passion for science is growing. Recently an asteroid came the closest to Earth ever in recorded history. That same day a meteorite hit Siberia. When I got into work that morning I couldn’t help but get caught up in the excitement of it all. Because local media recognizes Chabot as the go-to place for earth and space, our marjeting department was running around in circles keeping up with the news crews stationed at the museum all day. The people who work at Chabot, everyone from the volunteers to the staff, are incredible. They are amazingly dedicated to science education and their passion is rubbing off on me.
Q. What is your vision for the Museums and Technology practicum at USF?
Mandy: I would love for my students to come out of the class not only grasping a context and basic information about technologies, but how to apply it to their careers. I want to them to appreciate how dynamic technology can be. And to understand that when technology is used well, it makes the whole museum visit better. For example, have you been to the Walt Disney Museum in San Francisco’s Presidio? The audiovisuals in the galleries add so much to how the museum tells the story of Walt’s life. I’d love for students to grapple with questions like “when and how can technology add engaging layers to a museum experience, and when is it overkill?” I’m enlisting some top-notch producers and UX designers to come to class and inspire my students to become experience designers and design an original museum app. The final projects will be fabulous!
Q. What advice would you give someone who is developing their skills for a career in museums today?
Mandy: I was trained as a museum educator, but I’ve found myself doing so much more. It’s really important to know the basics of business. Developing sales skills is enormously helpful for promoting your museum and soliciting development monies. Equally important is knowing a bit about internet law, rights & reproductions, contracts, and other legal aspects of museums. Keep your technology skills sharp, and make sure you know programs like Photoshop and Excel. You never know what you’ll be asked to do. But also find your niche in the field and become really good at what you do, so that you’ll be the go-to person. Most importantly, trust yourself and be open to learning new things constantly.
Q: Is there anything you want to add?
Mandy: I want to invite everyone to come up to Chabot Space and Science Center. We have a fantastic lecture series, Future Fridays and we’re developing some really awesome programs for this summer. And don’t forget that the telescope viewing is always free Friday and Saturday nights. Gotta keep an eye out for asteroids!