geek speak with Matt Popke

As regular readers would know, I (semi-)regularly like to ask fellow culturegeeks how on earth they ended up working in museum tech. It’s not a straightforward career path for most people, and frequently involves chance and changes of direction along the way.

Today Matt Popke from the Denver Art Museum has agreed to tell his story. I first met Matt at MW2011. In fact, he was the first person I met at MW, but despite talking a number of times at the conference, our conversation remained fairly shallow. However, Matt has become one of my favourite blog commenters, and always adds thoughtful, eloquent and useful ideas to the discussion. He is certainly not the only person writing such comments – only this week a fellow museumer mentioned how impressed they were at the thought and effort that people put into the discussions here at museumgeek. But I thought this geek speak, it would be lovely to get to know Matt’s story a little better.


Matt Popke

I was one of those kids who had so many different interests when growing up it was nearly impossible to predict what I’d want to do with my life, but certain interests wound up having more pull than others. Thanks to video games, William Gibson and early Wired magazine, I somehow landed on computer science as a primary major in college. I also decided to pursue a degree in philosophy at the same time, hoping I would extend my worldview beyond my small town upbringing. In my pursuit of new ideas I ended up taking the philosophy classes that interested me rather than the courses that would actually earn me a degree, so I only graduated with the bachelor’s in computer science.

Initially, I wanted to go to grad school and research artificial intelligence, but I needed a source of income to pay my tuition. In late 1997, through random chance I got a job working for a small web design consultancy where I learned, much to my surprise, that I actually liked design a lot more than science. That shaped the rest of my career, and I have pursued design in one form or another ever since, including going back to school to study industrial design focused on interaction design.

In spite of my change in direction, I have always maintained a strong interest in the hard sciences, and I approach design with a working knowledge of the underlying craft. I think of myself as a software developer as well as a designer, and I maintain and use both sets of skills because together they are the core of my work. Web design is a hybrid occupation where success requires equal parts science, engineering and design process.

Serendipity has played a significant role in my career, and my current job is no exception. It was only through luck that I even knew the Denver Art Museum was hiring a web developer. I was freelancing at the time and was starting to get tired of working on my own. It’s too easy to become complacent or fall into the trap of habit when your only real critic is yourself. Working with a team forces you to challenge yourself and exposes you to more critique than you might get from clients or stakeholders who often don’t have the domain knowledge to challenge your ideas and suggestions. I missed the dynamic of working with other people.

Though I had looked for jobs for a while, I found no mention of the DAM’s opening anywhere. It was only through a friend of my girlfriend that I knew of the opening. It seemed like it would be an interesting place to work, so I applied and made it through the hiring process without really knowing what kind of work I would end up doing. I knew it had something to do with a website redesign and relaunch, but the real scope of the project(s) would not hit me until after I had started. That was almost exactly a year ago.

Museums are in the midst of an interesting transition now during which the audience is changing rapidly. It used to be that “generation gap” was a term used to describe a slightly different taste in music or clothes between children and their parents. Occasionally a generation gap signaled a new ideology or slightly evolved social attitudes regarding civil rights, but those have been more the exception than the rule. The generation gap today is characterized by children who communicate with other people in vastly different ways than their parents did, and who define themselves and their relationships with the outside world using a completely different set of assumptions and values. It might not be long before children and their parents are almost literally speaking different languages, perhaps using the same words but with completely different meaning. I often think this is already the case, where the savviest of our children today are effectively bilingual, capable of communicating with their parents but immersed in an entirely different mode of thinking which is their true native territory.

I see shades of this already in my relationship with my parents. I can’t imagine how big the gap must be for parents whose children are in their early teens today. Those kids were born in the territory I migrated to, and they have no direct experience of the culture we came from. They’ve known from the beginning that information about a thing is at least as useful and as valuable as the thing itself, and sometimes it’s more so. They’ve known their whole lives that information is infinitely copyable, infinitely shareable and impossible to contain once it’s been shared. They have completely different assumptions than the ones I was raised with, when knowledge came from limited sources and required significantly more time and resources to acquire, when the term “expert” had an implied meaning. Kids today are used to the idea of communicating asynchronously with many different people simultaneously. They have a totally different social experience than I did, when most people engaged each other one on one in synchronous exchanges and only addressed large groups if they had the resources or some kind of acclaim.

These, of course, are generalities. There is no real thing called a “generation” that you can safely and easily wall off from other generations and say, “This is a different group of people.” Part of the real challenge with our current generation gap is that it so unevenly distributed. There are kids in their teens today that match the description above, but there are just as many whose attitudes and experiences match their grandparents’ more closely than they do other kids who live only a half-hour’s drive away from them. But I talk about the “current generation” of kids anyway because it seems that’s where we’re all inevitably headed.

What purpose does a museum serve for that generation? When you possess a half-dozen different devices that can answer any question you could possibly imagine at just about any time, what function does a museum serve? What role does it play in their lives? Is it a place of quiet reflection? Is it a place to experience first hand those things you read about on a screen? Is it a place to gather with others and share those experiences? Is the museum an important piece of the fabric of that generation’s lives? Or is it just a big building filled with the physical manifestations of cultural trivia?

I don’t personally believe that museums are, or should be, trivial collections of accumulated cultural trinkets. But what I believe isn’t that relevant in the grand scheme of things. What will today’s teens think when they’re old enough to support or not support museums? What value will a collection have to them when the same information can be gathered instantly and for free from just about any place on the planet? I believe that museums will have to be places of experience. Museums will be places where people can go to experience something first-hand that they can’t get through an incredibly detailed and complete description that is always accessible. Museums need to become centers for shared experiences and not just collections of objects.

What kind of experience should museums offer? I don’t know. I have ideas, but I really don’t know what museums are going to do ten years from now. Answering that question is going to require a lot of trial and error. We’re going to have to experiment, and we’re going to have to do it very quickly and with lots of iterations. We’re going to need to be much more agile and adaptive than most of us currently are. But before we can do that successfully, we need to build a stable platform on which to create those experiments. We need a set of services that will enable us to redirect our resources quickly and efficiently in whatever direction they are needed today or tomorrow.

And right now, that’s my job. I’m building one of those platforms—the online platform for the Denver Art Museum. It’s going to take some time, but when it’s finally ready for launch, we’ll be able to experiment with it quickly and easily. Once all the core pieces are in place, we’ll be able to move them around and reconfigure them. We’ll be able to add new pieces easily and quickly, and we’ll be able to drop or abandon the pieces that aren’t working without impacting everything else. The initial launch of our new web site may not feel like we’re redesigning the wheel, but it’s only the beginning of a much longer process of constant experimentation and reinvention. The hardest part of iterative design is getting off to the right start. But it’s the most important part and, unless they’re one of the few that has already started, it’s what every department in every organization should be focusing on today.

Matt Popke is a web developer at the Denver Art Museum in Denver, Colorado. Working with a cross-departmental team, he is responsible for the design and implementation of the DAM’s online presence and services. His interests are legion but his current obsessions include games and game design (all kinds: board, card, dice, role playing, tactical miniature and videogames), applied aesthetics, procedural rhetoric, and more recently, kites.