Episode 2: Philip Leers of Hammer Museum

Philip Leers of the Hammer Museum

Take a moment and think about all of the materials that go into an exhibition. It’s a lot, right? Objects, documents, essays, labels, not to mention the installation itself. And your museum can only fit so much of that into its physical space. What about all of the other stories that end up on the cutting room floor? The outtakes? What about the stories that get generated during and after the exhibition?

With your museum’s website, the only limitations to the stories you can share are time and resources. And those are real. But with a little bit of planning, you can come up with a strategy for enhancing your collections and exhibitions online. And that’s exactly what the Hammer Museum has done.

Today I’m talking with Philip Leers, Project Manager for Digital Initiatives at the Hammer Museum, about telling a museum’s stories online.


**FULL TRANSCRIPT**

NICK: Hi, and welcome to What’s On, the Cuberis podcast. I’m Nick Faber.

Today I’m talking with Philip Leers, Project Manager for Digital Initiatives at the Hammer Museum, about telling a museum’s stories online.

Now… Take a moment and think about all of the materials that go into an exhibition. It’s a lot, right? Objects, documents, essays, labels, not to mention the installation itself. And your museum can only fit so much of that into its physical space. What about all of the other stories that end up on the cutting room floor? The outtakes? What about the stories that get generated during and after the exhibition?

With your museum’s website, the only limitations to the stories you can share are time and resources. And those are real. But with a little bit of planning, you can come up with a strategy for enhancing your collections and exhibitions online. And that’s exactly what the Hammer Museum has done.

The Hammer’s digital archives are a fantastic example of using technology to illuminate a museum’s hidden treasures and augmenting those on view. If you haven’t seen what we’re talking about, I’d encourage you to head over to hammer.ucla.edu and click on “Exhibitions.” You’ll find the Expanded Digital Archives on the right-hand side.

So, I spoke with the Hammer’s Philip Leers over Skype and asked him to talk about the work that goes into these projects. We talked about planning, collaborating, and the value of creating goals for individual projects.

First, I wanted to know who exactly worked on the Digital Archives, and that’s where we’ll pick up the conversation.

PHILIP: For some of the Digital Archives — that’s the term we use for the projects — we’ve done two that were for exhibitions, so the websites are built around all of the materials that go around planning the exhibition and that came out of the exhibition. So, essays for the catalog, and label text, and images of the installation, and any material we could get our hands on. So the material is coming from curatorial, but, in terms of the building, this is part of our website, which falls under our communications team, so I work really closely with them. Our IT, our registrars, everybody comes into contact with the project at some point.

NICK: Got it. And so, you said you’re building it out of all of the materials that go into the exhibition, are there also things that don’t make it into the exhibition that, because you’re using a digital platform, that you’re able to bring online?

PHILIP: Yeah, absolutely, and that was one of the big things we talked about. We didn’t want to just recreate the catalog, we didn’t want to do a virtual exhibition. We wanted to include things from both the exhibition and the catalog, but we also figured we’re making these after the fact, we’re doing them on a platform that offers us all new capabilities. So some of the things that we included, we could only do because we’re doing it kind of retrospectively. So we could include press reviews of the show, we can include images of the shows and other materials if it traveled to different venues. So if you’re interested in studying the exhibition, you’re not just seeing how the Hammer did it, you’re seeing how the next museum did it in terms of how they marketed it, in terms of how they installed the show, in terms of how they framed it.

So we were always looking for opportunities to expand beyond what we’ve been able to provide in the past, in addition to all of those things that we were able to provide, but are either no longer available because the show is down or because the catalog is out of print or what have you. And this is one aspect where doing it after the fact is kind of helpful because a lot of the people who worked on the exhibition may not even be at the museum anymore. So it reflects a whole new perspective that we’re bringing to it. And we want to encourage that, rather than discourage that because that’s all added value for us.

NICK: Wow. That’s really interesting that you’re able to look at it from sort of a positive perspective. Because I would think that while people are working on the physical exhibition, that it’s top of mind, you have all of those resources at your fingertips, people have stories that they’re uncovering, things like that. And if those folks have left, then you’re kind of on your own to do detective work to put it back together. But it sounds like what you’re saying is that it’s almost an advantage because now you can almost present it from a different point of view.

PHILIP: Yeah. We were sort of forced to take that approach, and I think it works out well. There are definitely some challenges that come from looking back. The first project we launched was the digital archive for Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980, which was up in 2011. And so we’re working on it three years after the fact, basically. And the challenges that come from it are, like you said, that the people might not be on staff who were working on it, which, in this case, they weren’t. And you have to be reliant on the file keeping at your institution and the people who were around when the show was up. So we had a lot of resources on staff who, even if they didn’t work directly on the show, were around. And, in the end, I think it’s fun to think of it as sort of bringing this thing that’s gone back to life, and giving it kind of a second life that’s different from the first, but that carries on what it accomplished and makes it available for hopefully a whole new audience of people.

NICK: Has there been any effort or desire to make them sort of more contemporaneous to a physical exhibit at the time that it’s in the museum? Or even thinking about it before something goes up?

PHILIP: Yes, actually. And it’s good that you ask. Now I’m working on the digital archive for an exhibition called Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985. That’s a show that just came down from the Hammer and it’s now traveling. It’s going to be up at the Brooklyn Museum very soon, I believe. So we still have the curatorial team that worked on the show, and I’m getting to see what it means to work on the digital archive in a much more contemporaneous way. I was able to let the curatorial associate know, these are the materials I want to include in the website, this is the format that we like to have them in. If you can work them into your workflow, it makes my life that much easier. And I have to say, it has. It’s really great to have that. And if I have a question, to have somebody two feet away who I know knows the answer.

So I think this is an opportunity to see how it is to build a digital archive alongside an exhibition. In terms of making the research and the material gathering easier, it’s been a huge difference, and I’m really excited. It’s exciting to work alongside the team, too, and to feel like you’re part of this project that — I’ve been at the Hammer since the Radical Women show was being conceived, and now it’s great to take the ball and run with it. I’m enjoying it.

NICK: So you mentioned it’s great working along with the team. You mean your curatorial team, right?

PHILIP: It’s the curatorial team, but like I said, all of these projects — one of the first things I realized is that you can’t be an island. You need to reach out and, especially with technology projects in museums, because tech stuff doesn’t just stay in one area. It bleeds into everything. So, I work closely with communications and IT, and our development team in terms of fundraising, and our finance team in terms of the budget, and our registrars in terms of our cataloging information and things like that. So, yeah, the research is coming from curatorial, and I’m working closely with them, but as always, I’m always trying to pull other people into my orbit.

NICK: That’s awesome. So that sort of leads me into something else I wanted to ask about. How would you say your online and digital initiatives support the Hammer’s mission?

PHILIP: Our mission is that “The Hammer believes in the promise of art ideas to illuminate our lives and build a more just world”, which I’m reading off my screen. I don’t have it memorized. But certainly, I keep the mission in mind. I think of the mission of the museum and the mission of my individual projects as being concentric circles. So I’ll kind of have my own, or the team will have its own mission for the project, and our goal is for that mission to help fulfill the mission of the institution as a whole.

NICK: So I saw that you taught a course with UCLA’s Digital Humanities program. Is that something you still do? How did that come about? What were the lessons that you were trying to teach the students as they prepared for their final projects?

PHILIP: The course was one of the most rewarding things I’ve gotten to do. It was really a fun and exciting opportunity that I never thought that I would have. It came about when I started the position in 2014. One of the first things I did was reach out to Miriam Posner, who’s the coordinator of the Center for Digital Humanities at UCLA just to set a meeting, and let her know what I was doing, and to see if there was any way for the Hammer to partner with Digital Humanities at the University. And she threw out the idea of me teaching a course, which I was totally not expecting. But, of course, I’m not going to say no to that opportunity.

I love teaching, and one of the goals of the grant is to strengthen our connection to UCLA, which is our parent organization. We’re part of the UCLA family. I was looking for any opportunity to get my work to intersect with what UCLA is doing.

So the course that I thought of was a project-based course focused on the Franklin Murphy Sculpture Garden, which is on UCLA’s campus. It’s the center of their north campus, where the humanities buildings are. The works themselves are in the Hammer’s collection, so it’s this shared space that I thought would be a really great topic for coursework.

In the first quarter, they generated a research project, and it included a proposal for a digital aspect of the project. And that’s what the next quarter, the Spring quarter, was designed to help them realize those projects based on their research.

The ideas that come out of it are really inspiring, and whether or not it becomes a project for the Hammer, it helps to see how other people use your resources.

NICK: So that seems like a good opportunity to segue into what advice would you give to other folks who work at museums who have the task of creating digital stories or content. If they were you or students… or maybe I shouldn’t put it that way. I guess, just broadly speaking, from your experience, whether it be as a teacher or a project manager who works with a lot of people and you understand different departments and their own goals and needs. What advice would you give to somebody who has a task like you’ve had of telling the stories of their museums and the works online in a really meaningful way that does help fulfill their mission?

PHILIP: A lot of it specific to the institution. Every museum is different and will have different stories to tell and different ways of telling those stories. But some of the lessons that I’ve learned: One is to build a strong team. You get into a lot of problems if you try to silo these projects, if you think, oh, this is just a curatorial thing, this is just tech thing, or this is just a marketing thing. I just find that you strengthen the team by getting more people invested. It helps to bring in different perspectives that you might not have thought about yourself. You don’t want to get yourself into an echo chamber, you don’t want to be the one person making a decision on everything.

And that’s one of the great things about museums, is that you’re surrounded by really smart and capable people with different areas of expertise. If it’s not obvious, I’m speaking from experience where when I started, I felt a lot more isolated and alone, and as I started to get more connected with the staff, and as new staff members were brought onboard, and new people joined the team, the change was like night and day. As soon as I was able to have this kind of support system, which is not just support for me but support for the project, all of whom are, no matter what their relationship to the project is, they start to get involved in it.

It helps to make a project like mine, which is grant-funded. So, in a way, it’s sort of separated from the rest of what the museum does. So, kind of getting my hooks into all of these departments helps keep me tethered to what the museum is doing, and makes the project feel a lot more organic to the museum, and a lot more kind of naturally a part of a lot of the stuff that we’re doing. And that’s really important, I think. You want that institutional buy-in. You don’t want to create these projects or products that, even if they’re great, they feel like this whole separate thing to what the museum does.

NICK: Yeah. So, is part of getting that buy-in demonstrating the value of the work that you’re doing?

PHILIP: I think that that’s at the basis. And if you can’t get buy-in on that, you’re in trouble. But that’s the whole– the great thing about a project like mine that is built on our past exhibitions and our collections, of course, we care about these things. These are the center of what the museum does and the center of what we value.

So I felt very sure throughout the entire process of every project that none of this stuff is unimportant to the people around me. The entire museum needs to be committed to how we treat that kind of material because that’s at the heart of what museums are about. Art museums, specifically I’m speaking about.

And that’s kind of where the idea that we were talking about earlier, about fulfilling the mission statement for the museum and having that kind of coincide with the mission of the project itself. That’s where that becomes really important. Because as you’re working on a project, it’s easy to get lost in the details. But we always went back to that goal of, are we creating good content for an academic audience? Are we making this tailored to the researchers that we’re supposed to be serving? And I’m happy that I can look at all of the projects that we’ve launched and say that we have accomplished that goal.

NICK: That was Philip Leers of the Hammer Museum.

I want to thank Philip for taking time to share with us, and I want to thank you for listening.

If you want to subscribe to future episodes of What’s On, or download our Ebook, The Art of Storytelling, head on over to Cuberis.com and click “What’s On”.

And if you know of any great examples of museum content, or maybe you’ve produced some yourself, send me an email. I’d love to showcase your work. You can reach me at nick@cuberis.com.

Until next time, I’m Nick Faber. What’s your story? And how will you tell it?