#MuseTech Interview Series: Nik Honeysett, CEO, Balboa Park Online Collaborative

Industry · June 14, 2017

#MuseTech Interview Series: Nik Honeysett, CEO, Balboa Park Online Collaborative

Hellooooo museums! We’re excited to begin a series of interviews with a few of our digital heroes in the museum and cultural institution world. Cuz it can’t always be about us, right? Our hope is to foster the sharing of ideas about tech in museums and challenges to its successful implementation. Through these chats, we hope to move the conversation forward and hopefully, provide a spark of inspiration that leads to the creation of even more cool projects! – Guru

To kick-off the series, we are thrilled to be talking with Nik Honeysett, CEO of the Balboa Park Collaborative and member of the boards of the American Alliance of Museums, MCN, and lucky us, Guru.   

What led to the founding of the Balboa Park Online Collaborative?

It was really a recognition of the proximity of all these museums. There was a recognition that they needed technology not only to start achieving their business goals but also, to engage audiences. In the mid-2000s, all the museums were recognizing these things and running to foundations and saying, “We need money for websites, collection digitization, those kinds of things.” One foundation, in particular, recognized this as a problem and said, “This is crazy. You’re all independently asking me for money for the same thing. So I’m going to stop making individual grants and I’m going to step back and set up an organization.” (The BPOC) was originally a team of museum technologists with foundation money to make things happen who were there to be at the disposal of museums. The driving force was to build websites, hence our name, but one of the first things they did was to lay infrastructure–a high fiber bandwidth network–the kinds of technology on which digital stuff can happen. For example, the reason we have super fast free wifi across the park is that there was all this kind of investment in high fiber networking in the late 2000s. Now, you have a combo of volunteer-only museums and mid-sized museums who all have access to high-speed internet, for example.

We’re doing all this crazy stuff right now with apps and augmented and virtual reality. It’s good to remember that it’s built on all the preparation that happened a decade ago.

Yeah and digital things like that are not going to happen without tech infrastructure. You want to do some cool, compelling things in your institution–particularly on a phone or a handheld or a mobile? If you don’t have the bandwidth or the wifi, you won’t be able to do it.

Speaking of different digital strategies, what are the things you are most excited about currently? What digital strategies, do you think, have the most potential to help museums and to also engage visitors?

I think we need a better understanding of our visitors. I think that’s a key piece. First, If you think about mobile as a philosophy from a tech standpoint, you also have to think about a visitor first initiative. Museums are gradually coming to grips with that. Previously, it’s been the museum on its own–in its own kind of process of educating and creating the experience rather than really flipping the process on its head and asking: what do visitors really want from us? Tech is playing a part in helping us understand that. Because visitors, when you ask them, will tell you one thing. They always want to be nice to you and paint a rosy picture of what you’re doing. But the proof of the pudding is in what they actually do. And so, mobile apps, wayfinding, and tech can absolutely tell you–unequivocally tell you what they’re doing rather than what they think they’re doing.

Are there any other strategies besides finding out what visitors want that you’re excited about?

It’s all about experience. My three things are: experience, participation, and control. What are the experiences you are creating that connect to the audience–which hopefully get you the ultimate loyalty in a repeat visit? A donation is good but a repeat visit is better. How are you including people in the experience you are creating? And then what control are you giving them? I think about those three things when I ask: How do you get visitors on that engagement pipeline to loyalty? And, if you have an app or website, are you leveraging those things to extend your connection to your visitor outside the physical visit–to maintain that relationship?

What are the biggest challenges to museums and other cultural institutions adopting a digital strategy? It says on the BPOC website that “digital is an organizational mindset.” Can you talk about what that is?

Many times when institutions think about digital tech, they think of layering it on top of what they’re doing. And that brings with it greater consequences as opposed to, how does it get embedded in your organization? And that’s a cultural thing. To me, digital is being nimble and entrepreneurial and opportunistic. It doesn’t have to be a shiny new gadget–it just needs to be you questioning what you’re doing and figuring out ways to do it better. And that’s really the essence of the digital mindset. If you apply those kinds of ideas, technology is the obvious choice to help you deliver on business goals and connect with your audiences.

Are there any inspiring projects you see in the museum world that are great examples of using a digital layer to enhance what the organization is already doing?

Everybody talks about Gallery One as a compelling experience. I think the challenge is: you never know when that moment of inspiration is going to happen. And that’s really what you’re going after. Yes, you can have these big tent pole experiences like Gallery One–which is fantastic. But embedded within that are moments when an 8 year old kid suddenly gets a statue or a sculpture or a work of art. It’s embedded in their mind. And it sets them on a path of curiosity and discovery.

My philosophy around technology is to approach it like a magician. You invest in it to disappear. So that you just have the experience. And the technology is not in the way of making that connection.

You were talking about wifi and how ten years ago we invested in things that set us up to create the amazing experiences we are now. What do you think we need to do now to set ourselves up ten years from now?

When I think about museums and their collection, I don’t believe we’re thinking in the right way about how we can take our collections and create meaningful experiences. Look at shopping malls, for example. That’s a really good parallel to museums. Because of online shopping, shopping malls are taking a real hit. The shopping malls who are going to survive are the ones who are transforming the experience. They are creating value in the destination itself. They’re bringing in cinemas and quality dining experiences in the evening. They’re putting on performances during the day and putting in spas and gyms and those sorts of things to try to create a compelling reason to visit a mall–and just “happen” to do go some shopping. Museums have to do the same thing. Museums have to compete in a much stronger way— compete for the attention of visitors. There are changing expectations of what a cultural experience is and museums have relied too much on the fact that they are a place to visit rather than proactively seeking out and creating experiences that are going to drive visitorship.

It’s sad to think that people will go towards things like social media and movie theaters and other activities that don’t have a lot of educational value or meaning more than towards museums who are doing such valuable work. It seems like without having some sort of an entertainment bent—even though that sounds shallow—museums won’t be able to compete for attention.

Thinking much longer term, I look at what’s going on and changing in society. You look at the education system–which is in the toilet basically–and can see that there opportunities are for museums to play a much more substantial and embedded role in education. Not just providing school trips. Museums used to be universities. That’s what a museum was. It was primarily a place for education–formal education for the rich. What’s happened over time is it’s sort of bifurcated. You’ve got universities as, sort of, explicit centers of learning, and museums as centers of curating and displaying and holding collections in public trust. I think that at some point, you’re going to see that merge back together again. The educational system is unsustainable right now. If you look at national standards for teaching, a lot of them include primary sources of material. When you look at tech and advancement of culture, it’s all about consolidation. So for example, your mobile phone is a convergence of a camera and a phone and a music player and all these things. I think that education and entertainment is on a collision course. We’re seeing that now. Are you creating a sufficient enough experience to bring your visitor to you as an experience? That requires a different mindset than museums have.

And it seems like a willingness to let visitors interact with knowledge and learning.

Yes It has to be somewhat self-directed and a partnership of discovery and curiosity and learning.

Right now, who are you museum heroes? Who are people who are doing a good job at this right now?

You see instances of greatness and experience—like Gallery One or U of Penn or all those kind of tent pole experiences. And then you come across these small institutions where they’ve done an amazing job of some particular aspect. When Shelley Bernstein was at The Brooklyn Museum, she was doing some fantastic experiential project. Their ASK app was very cool in connecting visitors to curators. I’m really excited to see what happens at the Barnes Foundation now that she’s there.

I also see merging development around Alexa. I’ve seen a couple of museums figuring out how to have this artificial intelligence (AI) experience with an exhibition or a collection object—leveraging the Alexa technology. Again, there’s a convergence of all these things; AI, AR, VR, haptics. I see other people creating exhibitions that include other sensory interactions like smell and physical feedback. Imagine a VR experience where yes, you’ve got a headset on and you’re hearing stuff but you’re actually sensing heat or motion or wind or smell or touch. Some amazing things are coming down the pike. It’s a very exciting time! But it does require museums to be smart and use these technologies and not be gratuitous but create elegant experiences.

Is there anything else that you’re dying to say about the importance of digital strategies or the importance of thinking in a different way for museums. Is there anything you want to impart?

I think of Apple’s classic marketing campaign in the eighties: Think different. That is certainly on my mind all the time. Think different and question assumptions is where I go with my strategic engagements with museums. This is what I hope you get out of your interaction with me: that you think different and that you question your assumptions because that’s how you move forward.