Meet Your Manager: Q&A With Mark Dickson, Royal British Columbia Museum

Meet Your Manager: Q&A With Mark Dickson, Royal British Columbia Museum

The Royal BC Museum Corporation located in Victoria, BC, is a Canadian cultural treasure. The Museum, founded in 1886, and the Archives, founded in 1894, were joined together in 2003. The result is a beloved combination of provincial museum and archives, collecting artifacts, documents, and specimens of the region's natural and human history, safeguarding them for the future. Technology is one of the tools used by museum staff to deepen visitor engagement and pique curiosity. Mark Dickson started his career as a multimedia technician at the Royal BC Museum more than thirty years ago. During those three decades, he has held a variety of positions, the most recent being that of production manager. The production manager portfolio is responsible for a wide range of exhibition functions, including multimedia and IT for the exhibition spaces. We asked Mr. Dickson to share his perspective on AV/IT convergence and how technology is influencing the design and user experience of public spaces.

Mark Dickson, Production Manager, Royal British Columbia Museum

How is AV/IT convergence playing out in your facility?
Mark Dickson: The Museum’s AV department has been around since the early 1970s and using computers since before our IT department even existed. Back then, we had full autonomy to buy what we wanted and put it where we wanted—no rules. It was like working in the technological version of the Wild West.

Then along came the 1980s and 1990s, and the introduction of the corporate IT department with all their rules and protocols for security and standardization. We felt that our creativity was being stifled. So, what did we do? Like most AV departments, we built our own networks and used the local ISP. (Ahh... those were the days.)

Skipping ahead, much of today's multimedia hardware supports IP-based communication, including lighting, which is another area of responsibility I own. To be honest, I can’t think of a piece of AV hardware that I have recently purchased that didn’t have an RJ45 port somewhere.

How much is AV playing a role in your professional life?
Mark Dickson: In today’s world of multimedia in exhibitions, we are being asked more and more frequently to keep exhibitions fresh by pushing live content, displaying live Twitter feeds, and streaming video and audio. Consequently, we have to ask ourselves if it makes philosophical and /or financial sense to run two separate networks.

There is very little middle ground in this discussion. I'm in the camp that believes that you shouldn’t need two in this day and age, especially when building a new facility.

To build trust that our multimedia and lighting hardware isn't going to bring down or pose a security risk to the government network (the Royal BC Museum is a BC crown corporation), my team and I work closely with our IT group, providing them with as much product literature as possible and coordinating network trial times on an isolated VLAN. So far, I'm happy to report, we have not caused any catastrophic failure.

What AV/IT problems have you solved recently?
Mark Dickson: Many museums have fairly static environments. Permanent exhibitions often last for years, if not decades. We are no different, and maintaining legacy hardware (running an average of 4,500 hours per year) is a constant challenge for us. Exhibition interactives written in now-defunct programs and designed to operate on Win 95/2000OS platforms are not easily adapted to operate on current platforms running the latest OS.

A few years ago, we did a wholesale swap-out of hardware in one of our gallery spaces, consisting of twelve fifteen-year-old computers. We R&D'd small form factor machines but found them expensive and difficult to defeat many of the buried auto-updating features found in the OS.

Enter the Pi, a cheap Linux-based machine that does what it is told and has more than enough power to run programs built for a machine 15 years its senior. But there was a problem: The last employee to know Linux retired 6 months earlier. My remaining programmer, Tracy Coyle, stepped up and took on the challenge.

Since we introduced the Pi almost two years ago, the only issue has been with a bad batch of HDMI to VGA adapters. The Pis have been so reliable that we have introduced them into other areas and are looking to deploy them in other locations.

Does the IoT (Internet of Things) have any influence in your organization and or facility? If so, what is your IoT strategy?
Mark Dickson: When asked about IoT for personal devices carried into our building, I’m not sure of the value to our visitor. At the latest museum conference that I attended, survey findings around connectivity indicated that more and more people were disconnecting from their personal devices for the duration of their visit.

When building an interpretive plan for an exhibition, we also discuss the visitor experience. Museums go to great lengths to create spaces where visitors can interact with each other inside the exhibition, and personal devices tend to create individual experiences. There is definitely a place for both experiences, but often I feel there is never a good balance.

IoT for hardware connectivity is a totally different matter. Who wouldn’t want to monitor the health of their AV/lighting network? An over-temp alert on a projector or a high current alarm on a dimmer could potentially save you thousands of dollars.

What AV/IT do you hope to buy in the near future? Why?
Mark Dickson: Beside the purchase of a new lighting control system to replace aging infrastructure, I have been evaluating a centralized AV management control system. Like all older facilities, our AV started with a handful of devices requiring no management, but has grown to become a larger, more complex system containing a variety of devices with varying levels of functionality and connectivity.

Currently we are using our lighting network to control all of our multimedia. It works, but is not an elegant system. My initial findings are that none of the end users that I spoke with are 100 percent happy with what they have. The systems are either too complex, too expensive, too difficult for simple changes, don't have all the reporting function they are looking for, and et cetera. As I am still undecided about charting a new direction, I welcome feedback from end users who are happy with their systems.

Where are technology manufacturers getting it wrong or missing opportunities?
Mark Dickson: Small museums are in a tough situation. They are hungry for technology, but they don't have big bucks to spend on big-ticket AV. They may be able to get some grant money for capital projects, but rarely for maintenance. When they do get funding for tech, they expect it to run flawlessly and last forever, and unless they are a state/provincial/federal museum, it is highly unlikely that they will have dedicated multi-media staff capable of supporting much more than a monitor and a digital playback device.

If you are building them a computer-based IA, specify solid-state hardware with no moving parts to wear out. Monitors are better than projectors because they don’t feature lamps, which burn out.

By no means am I saying that small museums are unable to look after their hardware; they are filled with smart people with big dreams and even bigger hearts. So if there was one thing I could say to hardware suppliers and integrators, it’s to use the "KISS" principle. Nothing looks worse than AV that’s not working, and if your name is on it, it is a reflection on your brand, too.

What is the biggest obstacle to collaboration? What are your collaboration strategies?
Mark Dickson: Meeting client expectations is probably the biggest challenge facing any AV producer. Often clients/partners come with visions that are simply unattainable within the confines of budget and time.

One such project was “Our Living Languages: First Peoples’ Voices in BC,” a feature exhibition that the American Alliance of Museums honoured with an award.

The exhibition was a media-rich experience that highlighted the current status of the 34 Indigenous language groups found in British Columbia. Our partner was the First Peoples’ Cultural Council, whose story we were telling through a variety of methods, including a heavy dose of AV hardware. The challenge was that budgets were tight ($80,000), and expectations were high (34 language stations, four computer-based IAs, four large format projections, overhead lighting effects, numerous zones of audio playback, and the list goes on).

The project was successful because we took the time to review, with our partner, every piece of media and discard the ones that didn’t bring a significant return on investment, both financially and intellectually. In doing so we avoided recommending “trendy and spendy” technology that would quickly reach obsolescence and lose its appeal from a visitor’s perspective.

The exhibition had a three-year life cycle, so we looked for technology that was sustainable and maintainable. In the end, we were able to construct a vibrant exhibition where the technology supported and complimented the visitor experience.

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Margot Douaihy, Ph.D.

Margot Douaihy, Ph.D., is a lecturer at Franklin Pierce University.