Meet a Museum Blogger

Meet a Museum Blogger: Dana Allen-Greil

Dana Allen-Greil is a geek on a mission. She specializes in leveraging technology to help museums and other nonprofits engage constituents, demonstrate value, and stay relevant.  She never thought she’d know so much about coins, polio, and the flag that inspired the national anthem, or thought she’d get to work in the same building as a 920-pound Calder mobile and the only Leonardo da Vinci portrait in the Americas. It’s all in a day’s work when you’re employed in a world-class museum.

Dana Allen-GreilDo you work in a museum? If not, where do you work? Tell us about your job.

I recently joined the education staff at the National Gallery of Art to lead the department’s approach to digital strategy. I’m really excited about the opportunities to impact how the museum reaches and engages people, as well as to really scale up the number of people we are able to serve through digital learning experiences. I’ve been working in museums for about a decade and working in digital for even longer. Most of my career was spent at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, heading up digital outreach and engagement.

It can be challenging to champion change in these huge, national museums with strong ties to tradition (and the federal government) but I thrive on helping to transform such institutions. And that transformation is really necessary if museums are to take full advantage of 21st century modes of interacting with audiences and, ultimately, be able to continue their important work far into the future.

The bottom line is this: I like having my eyes opened, my heartstrings pulled, and my sense of humor tickled. And, frankly, the people who work in museums are incredibly talented at those things. I feel very lucky to work among them. I see my job as figuring out how to better and more deeply connect those people, their expertise, and the incredible treasures in our collections with those we’re all here to serve. Digital tools can be excellent bridge-builders, loud-speakers, and thought-provokers if you use them smartly.

What’s your educational background?

I have an undergraduate degree in English with a minor in Women Studies and a graduate degree in Museum Studies with a focus on American Studies. Essentially, I’ve pursued credentials in every interdisciplinary discipline I could get my hands on. I love following threads across time and subject academically so I suppose it makes sense that, in the working world, I also love to build collaborations and break silos.

What was your ‘sticky’ moment?

I recall reading research by Reach Advisors about how nearly all “Museum Advocates” have a distinct memory of a specific museum experience from at ages 5 to 9. But I don’t have any strong memories of visiting museums as a child. Instead, I found myself as a newly minted twenty-something living in Washington on a scant nonprofit wage and looking for inexpensive activities to fill my weekends. In DC, that means the Smithsonian (lots and lots of the Smithsonian!). Some favorite “wow” moments from those years include Ron Mueck’s Big Man at the Hirshhorn, the Zoo’s naked mole rats, the Greensboro lunch counter at American History, and the Gem Hall at Natural History.

Dana's "wow" moments

What is the name of your blog? How long have you been blogging?

My blog is called Engaging Museums, which conveys both my intention to help museums be engaging places for the public but also my belief that museum professionals must do the hard work of engaging our institutions in challenging discussions about the future of museums if we are to remain relevant. 

I’ve written in my free time for various (mostly defunct) blogs on various topics since about 2005. From 2008-2011, I was heavily involved as managing editor of the “O Say Can You See?” blog for the Smithsonian. I didn’t really begin blogging regularly and in earnest on my own time until last year, although you’ll find links to older papers and presentations within the Engaging Museums archive.

What do you blog about?

I write about the interaction between museums, audiences, and technology. I try to highlight the importance of strategy and accountability in good museum projects (digital or otherwise).  So you’ll see me talk a lot about audience research and evaluation; I also discuss models for strategic planning and goal setting and about using resources wisely for maximum impact.

I am most interested in technology that goes beyond the museum’s walls—to enable access, discussion, creation, and collaboration. I focus more on the things that aren’t bolted down: so, social media or mobile experience design rather than touch-screen kiosks or wireless infrastructure.

What’s your most read blog post? Tell us about it.

The post that has hit the most eyeballs is a recap I wrote about a mobile technology conference which took place in March: Top 6 Lessons from the 6th Museums and Mobile Conference. I can’t claim credit for any of the wisdom within the post as it’s all distilled from fabulous presentations by experts in the field (such as Nate Solas of the Walker, Hugh Wallace of National Museums Scotland, and Keir Winesmith of MCA Australia). During the conference, they talked about fantastic work like the Magic Tate Ball (my all-time-favorite museum app), the tablet-first design of the new Rijksmuseum website, and the wildly creative social-mobile Open Air Philly project. My post was picked up recently by the Guardian’s Cultural Professionals Network and used as a resource to start a rich live discussion about the challenges and opportunities of mobile for museums.

This is what I love about the museum blogosphere (and the museum technology community, in general): the more we are free and open with our experiences, lessons learned, and perspectives on the issues that we face, the more we move the field as a whole forward. So if you’ve been thinking about starting a blog but aren’t sure what you’d write about or are concerned because you won’t have regular weekly content, I’m here to tell you: JUST DO IT. Do it when you can and when you have something to contribute, even if it is just summarizing the smarter folks in the world who inspire you.

By the way, my next most-read post may owe its popularity to a catchy headline: Everything that’s wrong with society? I wrote it after being perplexed by a television commercial for an HTC phone in which a woman interacts with Facebook Home rather than the art museum she’s visiting.

What’s your “go-to” blog/online museum resource?

Twitter is my lifeline to all things museum. I’m not-so-secretly proud of the fact that I started the #musetech hashtag waaaay back in 2010 with my then co-professor, Carrie Kotcho. Today it is used about 25 times a day by people all over the world interested in how museums are using technology to engage audiences and further their missions. You can find me at @danamuses on Twitter where I also tweet about #musesocial (social media), #museumed, and various other museum-y tech-y topics. (You can find a brief guide to some of my favorite hashtags about museums, technology, and education here.)

As far as blogs about museums go, my favorites are edgital, Art Museum Teaching, Thinking About Museums, and Know Your Own Bone.

If you didn’t work in a museum what would you be doing?

While I’ve worked with museums for the majority of my career, I also have spent significant time working with web technologies to improve public health. Back in 2000, I was part of a team of innovators responsible for cutting-edge health policy news on the web; I explored syndication before the heyday of RSS and live webcasting before mobile wireless technologies made it easy for anyone with a smartphone to stream video. When I took a brief break from museums (2011-2012) it was to join a PR firm, where I developed social media strategies for major health education campaigns, including The Heart Truth®, which continues to break new ground in the fight against heart disease in women. 

I also volunteer my time on the board of a small nonprofit, Education Fights AIDS International, whose work empowers youth affected by HIV and AIDS in Cameroon. And as someone living with Type 1 diabetes, I’m deeply interested in the quantified self movement and the ways self-tracking and other technology advances can empower patients to take their health into their own hands.

At the end of the day, I’m most interested in providing tools and fostering experiences that help people improve their own lives. Museums do this in ways that open minds, spark creativity, and give people joy. If I can find a way for museums to also get people moving, connect the mind and the body, and lead healthier lives, I couldn’t imagine a better combination. (By the way, I’m actually working on a blog post about an idea that does just that kind of combination. What if museums built mobile experiences that encouraged people not to simply sit in front of a screen but to get out, move their bodies, and explore the world around them? These are ethical issues that I believe those of us who work in digital must grapple with—not just increasing screen time but really providing tools to improve lives. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic!)

Name the last professional development book you read. Would you recommend it?

I’m in the middle of The Museum Experience Revisited. While I’ve read many Falk & Dierking articles in the course of my academic and professional career, I’m finding it really satisfying to dig into their work and framework in a more holistic way. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in visitor motivation and audience research (which should be everyone working in museums, in my opinion). The book summarizes decades of work in a compelling, easy-to-understand format that invites the reader to rethink the how and why of what we do in museums.

In a similar vein, I’d like to put in a plug for another publication I recently read: Ignite the Power of Art: Advancing Visitor Engagement in Museums. It’s a quick read which chronicles the transformation of the Dallas Museum of Art based on in-depth research about visitor preferences and a commitment to strategic planning across the entire organization. It’s a great case study for anyone looking to bring colleagues together cross-departmentally to work on a shared direction and goals that actually meet the needs of audiences rather than merely pay lip-service to such a mission.

If you were forced to spend the rest of your life in a library, a museum or a zoo, which would you choose and why?

I’d have to go with a zoo. You’ll have to check out my other blog, The Daily Squee, to find out why (though the title should give you a pretty good hint). Let’s just say that my co-Tumblr-er has to find lots of non-animal squee to balance out the gems I get from the National Zoo, the San Diego Zoo, Animal Planet… by the way have you seen “Baby Monkey (Going Backwards on a Pig)”? Squee! (Note: I realize that working at a zoo is not just about adorable baby animals. It’s about conservation, physical labor, serious scientific research, and raising awareness. But baby animals are PART of it, right? Right?)

Share one piece of advice for those interested in working in the museum field:

In addition to my work in museums, I teach a graduate class on “Internet Strategies” for the Johns Hopkins University MA program in Museum Studies. In it, I try to emphasize the values I think are critical to the future of museums: things like openness, transparency, and collaboration. And I try to egg my students on by underscoring that anyone can do digital work if they are thoughtful, strategic, and able to find the right partners to supplement their skills. You no longer need a computer science degree or hardcore programming skills to build a website. With the huge range of simple-to-use-tools available to us (e.g., WordPress, Twitter)—and an even huger array of ways to use these tools for museum outreach and education—no future or current museum professional has a good excuse for not getting involved.

I believe that those who have mastered the tools of today will be better equipped to lead museums of the future. This includes not just first-hand experience using technology but also a deeper understanding of the ethos of an emerging participatory culture. It is not only okay but preferred that we work publicly. We should not wait until knowledge is comprehensive or perfect to share it.  Collective intelligence requires both effort and respect from all parties involved. Wikis, blogs, and other collaborative platforms help us work together across institutions and across oceans on the problems we all need solved.  If I’m “preaching to the choir,” dear reader, please take fives minutes to share your enthusiasm about the power of technology for social good and for the good of museum work with someone in your “congregation.” Engage a curator or a fundraiser or a venerated educator in your ideas about how digital technologies can help you achieve your mission and shared goals. I look forward to hearing about where the conversation takes you!

Thanks for participating in Meet a Museum Blogger, Dana!

In case you missed it, Dana blogs at Engaging Museums.

Do you have additional questions for Dana regarding her profile above? Feel free to start a conversation in the comments below or reach out to her directly on Twitter at @danamusesPlease use the #MuseumBlogger hashtag. TY!

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One thought on “Meet a Museum Blogger: Dana Allen-Greil

  1. Pingback: Engaging Museums by Dana Allen-Greil » Meet a Museum Blogger: Me!

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