Shannon Darrough – Interview

Continuing the series of interviews with professionals operating at the intersection of Culture and Digital, my guest this week is Shannon Darrough, former Director of Digital Media at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Here’s his input on several issues related to his work.

How did you become interested in all things Digital?
Living in San Francisco around the time of the first internet bubble, it was difficult not to pay attention to the early technologies that formed the basis of how we live today. But it was after moving to London to study Graphic Design at Central Saint Martins that the passing interest became more serious. I decided to focus on “web design”—a discipline that wasn’t even officially recognized at the college then. Times have changed!

What main characteristics must a professional working in Digital and Culture have?
Obviously, being very good at whatever specialization you are hired to do is what gets you in the door. Beyond that, there are a lot of “soft skills” or sensibilities that can make you a superhero in a cultural institution. A few, but by no means all important ones are:

  • Being passionate about the subject matter. In addition to making your daily work much more enjoyable, which is invaluable, having enthusiasm for and knowledge about what the organization does will help build trust with others across the organization
  • Focusing on goals. With digital projects, the sky can be the limit. Yes, that sounds great—but it can also be a bad thing (see next question). Make sure you never lose focus on what you have set out to do. If the goals are unclear, gather the team together to define them as narrowly as possible.
  • Thinking about the full context. For many digital projects, the “big picture” generally involves finding smart compromises between the problem you are trying to solve for your visitors, the institutional priorities that can be furthered in the solution, the (hopefully) simple and delightful UX that will allow audiences to solve their problem, and the technology that can be sustainably deployed to do all of this. Keeping these four elements in mind is not easy because it involves collaboration and communication. But if you do it well, you’ll avoid a lot of pain down the line.
  • Always being curious. Enough said.

What were the biggest challenges you faced as Director of Digital Media at MoMA?
MoMA is a very large and ambitious institution with dozens of departments doing many, many things. As you might imagine, there were a lot of ideas involving digital coming my way every day. For a bunch of different reasons, not the least including strategic and sustainability concerns, I had to say “no” to almost all of these ideas, including the many great ones. Being the bearer of bad news isn’t much fun, at least for most well-adjusted people. (If you’re curious about how I went about doing this and not going crazy nor alienating everybody, here’s a talk I did at MuseumNext a few years ago called “The Cost of Yes”. I tried to make it entertaining 😜)

Is there one project in particular you’re most proud of?
The thing I’m most proud of from my time at MoMA is not a particular project but helping the museum think about digital in a new way: moving the institution from a project-oriented mentality to a modern, product-focused approach. As anyone who has been involved in this before will tell you, transformations like these aren’t easy because they redefine goals, values, and processes, among many other things. But if you want me to name a single project, it might be when we teamed up with Google Arts and Culture to use their machine learning and computer vision expertise to build thousands of bridges between our online collection and exhibition history.

What’s the piece of technology you’re most excited about these days?
Ha, I’m pretty skeptical when it comes to technology, especially things on the horizon that can distract strapped cultural institutions from solving existing, real problems. Let’s see what Apple does with their glasses, but until then, I’m liking the proliferation of low- and no-code SaaS platforms that allow you to do so many things that used to take tons of time or couldn’t be done at all. That’s power!

What’s the first thing a cultural institution must do to embrace Digital?
While there are a bunch of ways to embark on a digital transformation, a good start involves leadership and expertise. Because it calls for redefining goals, I think it’s super helpful to have an active leadership prioritizing the transformation and creating the space for it to happen. At the same time, there has to be some expertise in the institution, ideally internally, that can drive the process and bring everyone along.

How can we further bridge the gap between Digital and Culture?
These days Digital is Culture and vice versa. But if you’re asking about bringing cultural institutions into the 21st century, see the previous answer 😉

Shannon Darrough works at the intersection of art, technology, and online and onsite visitor experience. Until 2021, he oversaw strategy and execution of digital product at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City, leading an award-winning team that designed and developed the museum’s core digital platforms. He is now based in Oslo, Norway.



Cover image: Exterior view of The Museum of Modern Art, 53rd Street Entrance Canopy. The Museum of Modern Art Renovation and Expansion. Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler. Photography by Iwan Baan, Courtesy of MoMA

By | 2022-10-26T15:12:20+01:00 October 26th, 2022|Interviews|0 Comments

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