What the Tech Sector Can Learn from Cultural Heritage

Phase 1: Boom or Bust

After leaving undergrad in 1993, I stumbled into a job at an educational and training software company after a stint cooking in a local market deli. Little did I know I also stumbled into the dot com boom.

The company hired liberal arts majors, of which I was one in French history, to write scenarios for ‘learning by doing’ simulations deployed at Fortune 100 companies. I developed training for Six Sigma of Jack Welch fame, “Habits of Highly Effective People” by Steven Covey, Target sales managers, the Rhône Poulenc Rohr salesforce, and more. Content producers would shadow people to learn the ropes of a job and then write scenarios where people commonly get tripped up when we hoped to deploy sage advice to the trainee who wanted to do their job better. We communicated learning goals to programmers and user interface designers (now UX) and developed KPIs for the effectiveness of the training product.

This job gave me a window into corporate America and the company grew from me as the eleventh hire to over 100 people with two regional U.S. offices. The job had its perks. I once worked on a shipping vessel carrying oil in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea while building the framework for safety compliance training. Company launch dinners were at the best restaurants in Chicago and because the company was affiliated with the Institute for Learning Sciences at Northwestern University, I received my own ‘learning by doing’ degree in instructional design; a new (for that time) field examining how to use the affordances of technology to deliver effective learning experiences.

This was the era of the web when you could search for a term on Netscape’s Mosaic browser (‘Googling’ didn’t exist) and not always find relevant results. In fact one of my office mates held lunchtime competitions to find phrases with zero results. Our product was delivered on multiple CD ROMs which were not the most durable medium. URLs were just starting to appear on corporate marketing material and I rapidly shifted roles from content developer to content manager to user interface designer, all learning (and often failing) on the job.

Even though I was laid off in the third round of layoffs in 1998 when the company was sold, I gained so many new skills by watching a tech company grow, break apart, and sold during this extraordinary time in American history. I learned how to work with multidisciplinary teams, about the ins-and-outs of technology and usability, and how to speak ‘corporate speak;’ enough to know that it wasn’t the right environment for me.

I formed my early beliefs about a free and democratic information web as I started to grasp the misogyny in the tech sector which was in full display at a company without an H.R. department for its first few years.

Phase II: Re-examination

The next phase of my career was also unexpected. After being laid off, I had already applied and was accepted to grad school on the east coast to get a Masters in Industrial Design in 2001. I had a carefree summer of cooking, yet again, at a catering company and rollerblading along Lake Michigan in my free time. As someone who worked since I was 12, it was delightful.

The first day of school was clouded by 9/11 and the focus of the program felt more relevant than I had grasped when I applied for the program; sustainable design processes, pervasive technology, and human-centered design. It was a crash course in science fiction, philosophy, presenting ideas with visual evidence, and a time to reflect more critically on the next phase of my career. My master’s thesis was on serendipitous information networks in urban environments, and I accidentally landed a job at the Smithsonian in 2005, a couple of years after graduating and consulting with tech companies.

The job was with the Smithsonian Photography Initiative, a program that was to be a national museum dedicated to photography but was downscaled to be ‘online only’ due to the downward spiraling economy post 9/11. It was my first nonprofit job and I loved it. However, it was one of the hardest culture changes I’ve ever experienced. I was used to 3–6 month development timelines and the Smithsonian was at a minimum a couple of years. It was slow moving, reluctant to adopt new technology and processes, academics ‘rule the roost’, and the skills of tech staff were considered less valuable.

My first conversation with our public affairs department about why a website merited a press announcement was epic. The website went on to win a prestigious Webby Award.

However, I love the place. The splendor of riches I see every day, the fact that the museums are free to the public, and the joyful experience of learning something new every day kept me here longer than I ever expected (now 17 years). I love public service and the fact that all of what the Smithsonian holds belongs to the public.

For me, it was what attracted me to the tech sector in the first place however this was far from corporate America so whatever we produced could be truly free.

Despite my rosy view, there were two major roadblocks to being an organization that effectively participated in digital culture. One was that we were an institution that held the false notion that guarding things online with conservative copyright policies was protecting us from losing income and prestige. Another was competing against major information companies and existing in the tech sector which is riddled with greed, racism, misogyny, and was increasingly ruled by a select few.

Phase III: Reconciliation

Fast forward to February 25, 2020 on the precipice of the global COVID-19 pandemic, after years of work, I was able to launch the Smithsonian Open Access Initiative releasing at the time nearly 3 million 2D and 3D images (today over 4 million) into the public domain, an API for at-scale access, and partnerships with a variety of tech companies, universities, and artists and designers. We were by far not the first to adopt such a policy, however, we signaled that an ‘august’ institution could do new things. We released the largest, cultural interdisciplinary data set and it came with several pain points and culture change that was difficult to navigate in the world’s largest cultural and education complex. I could not have imagined what unfolded just three weeks later as the world shut down and universities turned to our data set so they could teach data science, data visualization, and more in the virtual classroom.

Bright graphic with text: “Create. Imagine. Discover. #SmithsonianOpenAccess”

While I was implementing open access across the Smithsonian’s nineteen museums and nine research centers, assisted by either one contractor or staff member at a time, I was also leading the digital strategy for the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative. I was just scratching the surface on how under represented women were in the Smithsonian’s collections and resources were for a variety of reasons including archival practices, sidelining of women’s contributions by past historians, librarians, and archivists, and the lack of equitable descriptive standards for cultural collections when it came to gender. I was growingly concerned that I had just released a data set that was grossly imbalanced when it came to gender, race, and cultural representation. It also glaringly lacked basic ADA accessibility features, something we acknowledged and which we’re currently working on with a grant from the Wikimedia Foundation. Despite our staff’s best efforts to publish the Smithsonian’s riches openly online, we had some work to do and there aren’t a lot of staff who do this kind of work.

The pandemic was a hard time to work as a digital professional in the cultural sector when I had a kid at home struggling with virtual education. All the sudden ‘digerati’ were relevant to our organizations, but increased recognition came with increased responsibility, and there was still a severe lack of understanding of what ‘digital’ staff do nor how to support it within the organization.

Our society was also a distressing mess. Misogyny and racism reared their ugly heads to new heights with the murder of George Floyd and the outsized impact the pandemic had on women, in particular, women of color. I was exhausted, spent, angry, and scared living in the Nation’s Capitol with police helicopters frequently passing over our house. My neighbors who lost jobs were desperate and I no longer felt safe letting my 10-year-old out without supervision. My father who was physically and mentally breaking down was far away living in Greece and he died without me being able to see him for over two years. I was heartbroken and with a history of PTSD, I broke down and took time off. I felt like I had failed even recognizing the impossible odds I faced.

Thankfully I was able to gain perspective and move to the burbs of Maryland where I now live among an acre of trees and find peace once again living near immigrants. Because of Smithsonian Open Access, the great work and innovation of my colleagues who rose to the challenge of the pandemic, and the growing need to have mature digital practices, our leadership approved the founding of a new Office of Digital Transformation which is charged with building digital maturity across the organization and I’m in charge of developing the “One Smithsonian” audience strategy for our now 21 museums, 9 research centers, libraries, archives, and zoo. U.S. Congress recently legislated two new museums, the National Museum of the American Latino and the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum, which gives me the chance to think about how we can better represent and serve these marginalized populations in everything the Smithsonian produces. I am blessed with talented colleagues and a leader, Secretary Lonnie Bunch, who understands the importance of this moment and the signal that the Smithsonian can send to the wider sector.

The signal I hope to send from this new office which is fortuitously led by Becky Boutwell Kobberod who did this kind of transformation at the Nature Conservancy, is that technology needs to be developed and deployed in a vastly different way than what big tech companies have modeled. We need to include and center people in our decisions, especially those that don’t already have access . We need to ‘level the playing field’ for free and equitable access to information. We need to produce and share tools, processes, and guidelines openly so the cultural sector can grow and compete in the digital landscape. We will never be resourced as well as the big tech companies, but we can inform their practices so that they produce technology in a way that is respectful and representative of people of all backgrounds.

The tech sector has become a beast for which I no longer feel passion. This is largely due to a few founders that have no concept of the struggles of ‘regular’ Americans and prioritize free speech over preventing harm. They manipulate users and exploit private information. Their algorithms sideline and harm women, LGBTQA+ communities, and people from non-white dominant backgrounds.

I am passionate about free and inclusive information. The Smithsonian and the wider sector play an important role in producing free and equitable information. Together we can create a new and safer space online so people of all backgrounds can access and use information regardless of race, class, culture, and gender.

Cultural institutions hold people’s memories which begs a different approach. As stewards of culture, we need to make sure we represent and serve people of all backgrounds, and hold tech companies to account to do better.

Black orbs in a mirrored room in green, pink, blue and yellow.
Yayoi Kusama Immersion Room at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

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Effie Kapsalis

Effie Kapsalis

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Effie Kapsalis is an awesome-age cultural heritage professional who came of age in the 1990s dot com boom and bust. She is a first-generation Greek American.