This interview is part of our “Thought Leader” series, where we get inside the heads of the best and brightest in the museum & technology world.
Director for Innovation and Digital Engagement, Museum of Life and Science in Durham, NC
Beck Tench is a simplifier, illustrator, story teller and technologist. Formally trained as a graphics designer at the University of North Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, she has spent her career elbow deep in web work of all sorts – from the knowledge work of information architecture and design to the hands dirty work of writing code and testing user experiences.
Currently, she serves as Director for Innovation and Digital Engagement at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, NC where she studies and experiments with how visitors and staff use technology to experience risk-taking, community-making and science in their everyday lives.
Beck is currently working on creating Experimonths about sharing, cooperation, negotiation and trust in partnership with my museum and the Exploratorium for a NSF-funded project called The Science of Sharing.
TourSphere: What was a stand-out museum/exhibit that caught your interest this year?
Beck: My visit to AVAM (American Visionary Art Museum) in February with the Matt Groening co-curated exhibit on “What Makes Us Smile?” wins the prize. The whole place is spectacular, but the experience I keep returning to is one of me sitting on a bench watching videos of people right after their photo had been taken. Just a series of people transitioning from smile to frown and moving away from whomever they’d just put their arm around.
It was funny and sad and took me on a path that started with my own relationships, wound its way through sociology and evolutionary biology and found its way back to me again.
TourSphere: What was the coolest use of technology you saw in a museum in 2011?
Beck: Jer Thorp’s use of Processing.org to map all of the names of 9/11 victims on the 9/11 Museum memorial fountains blew my mind. He created an algorithm that solved several complex problems (some environmental, like the shifting of expansion joints, and some conceptual, like placing victims names near those they knew and died alongside). More about it here.
TourSphere: Is there an app or a technology that has changed the way you do things or made your job easier this year?
Beck: There are a ton, always. I’ve found Balsamiq Mockups to be a wonderful tool for creating very quick, sketch-like wireframes to get an idea across without investing too much software time into the communication of it.
I’ve also enjoyed Google Plus Hangouts for multi-participant video conferencing, be it for “virtual beers” with far away colleagues or for more legitimate meeting purposes.
As for time management, the Pomodoro Technique was new to me this year and has changed the way I prioritize my time and estimate the work required to complete things (when I muster up the discipline to do it, that is).
Notational Velocity is an old friend, but I want to mention it as a technology that I love the more I use it and consistently makes my work life easier. I’m composing the answers to these questions in it right now.
TourSphere: Apple or Android?
Beck: Apple products tend to make decisions for me in a way that doesn’t feel compromising — my cognitive load is lighter, my canvas unencumbered. I am a total fan grrrl.
TourSphere: If you had to sum up what you think the theme for museums in 2012 will be in one word, what would your prediction be?
Those of us who were all about third-party sites and tools to get up and running quickly have been burned once or twice and we’re seeing that part of our role as museums (and libraries) may be to preserve the social interaction and content we’re generating in our communities. Not that the pendulum will stay here forever…
TourSphere: What do you see as the biggest challenge for museums in the coming years?
Beck: Finding and keeping smart people. As a field, we need to define ourselves as a space for creatives to have freedom, space and insanely interesting content. Museum leaders can do that by creating space for their staff to work on passion projects and take risks — something like the Google 20% time policy.
TourSphere: Is there something you are passionate about in the museum world that you would like to wax philosophical about or rant about?
Beck: I’m passionate about understanding how we learn. I find myself often torn between the physical, materials-based, social environment of our museum and the opportunities afforded to us by technology. There’s just so much we don’t know. Should we take advantage of the “moths to a glowing screen” effect because it affords us attention?
How are we compromising the privacy of our visitors with our participation in social networking sites? Can we find a reliable way to use the Internet to get people off the Internet? What’s the line between providing an awesome experience and relinquishing control to a burgeoning community? How do we measure learning in an online informal learning environment?
Basically: What role does technology play in the often frustrating, but crazy awesome and important process of learning something new? We’re trying really hard and have some ideas, but are still far away from having answers.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts (and all of your productivity apps) with us, Beck! Follow Beck and her work at: