“Howdy Partner!” The Transformative Power of Museum-University Partnerships

Mimi Roberts, USA


The Center for Cultural Technology (CCT) is a museum-university partnership program headquartered in rural Las Vegas, New Mexico. It has drawn in equal parts from the traditional work ethic of the American Southwest and new technology-enabled forms of collaboration to develop a cultural technology program that encompasses academics, internships, and research and development, based on long-term, sustainable partnerships. CCT provides a replicable and adaptable model for meeting a major challenge faced by museums and the academic programs that prepare students for employment in them. The challenge: addressing the growing demands for new technological skill sets. By providing students with access to practical and affordable technological and design solutions, the partnership structure promotes the use of technology by New Mexico’s cultural institutions. By paving the way for career paths for students traditionally excluded because of socio-economic status, geography, and ethnicity, CCT is helping diversify the museum workforce. By generating community goodwill and making a positive impact on recruitment and retention, CCT has raised the stature of NMHU.

Keywords: cultural technology, partnerships, internships, museums, media arts, degree programs

Cowboys and cowgirls herding cattle out on the range have traditionally used the greeting “Howdy Partner!” The words come naturally because cow herders never work alone—they always work with partners.

Reshaping the Workplace through Technology Partnerships

Technological advances have enormous potential to move cultural institutions from the margins of community life into the center. For instance, by removing boundaries between cultural technology, tourism technology, and educational technology, new platforms can open up new kinds of opportunities for community partnerships and collaborations. They can help museums become important partners in local initiatives to revitalize economies, reform education, and enhance the quality of life.

It is thus clear that museum IT work can no longer limit itself to traditional functions like maintaining networks and e-mail—nor even to digitizing collections and maintaining digital archives. It needs to address a new host of mission-driven requirements, such as creating and maintaining exhibit technology, Web sites, mobile apps, e-commerce, e-publishing, and social media. And it needs to help make data open and accessible online and enable new avenues of communication, e.g., with education and tourism.

For both museums and academic programs that prepare students for employment in them, obtaining and harnessing the technological skill sets required is a pressing need. Yet museums are by nature conservative and slow moving—a good thing for the preservation of cultural collections but a barrier when it comes to the need to adapt to rapid advances in technology.

In her blog, Kajsa Hartig, Digital Navigator, New Media, at the Nordiska museum in Stockholm, approaches this need for on-staff digital literacy from the point of view of academia. While she welcomes a growing trend in universities to bring digital media into heritage studies, she voices concern that the institutions that will employ these students—libraries and archives as well as museums—are ill-prepared to make use of their skills. She notes that, while some of them involve their staff in digital productions and social media, this is not the same as strategically adapting the institution to new technological demands (Hartig, 2012).

Exhibit developer Ed Rodley looks at the issue from a different perspective—the need to develop museum literacy for museum technologists, most of whom enter museum work as software developers, Web designers, IT people, or project managers. He sees the museum field as very closed. Why, Rodley asks, isn’t there more out there about museum work that isn’t part of masters program in museum studies? He suggests filling this gap by providing technologists with museum skills through online tutorials, podcasts, and Web sites (Rodley, 2012).

Confronting the lack of digital literacy in museums, Koven Smith, Director of Technology at the Denver Art Museum, blogged about the idea that “technology should be taken out of the conversation,” meaning that museum technologists should assimilate and adopt the ways of thinking and speaking of other museum professionals. His post engendered a lively comment thread (Smith, 2012).

Smith warns that museums ignore the impact of technology at their peril, and there is plenty of research to back him up. The global marketplace of leisure time activities is increasingly competitive; visitors are finding information online and making choices via social media. Although he does not say it this way, Smith’s implication that digital literacy is a moral imperative for museum professionals is not off the mark. We do have a moral obligation to our collections and communities, and we cannot fulfill that obligation, as Smith says, if the definition of “museum” is “a place to pretend that the world will always be as it was.”

Museums are content rich—full of collections, information, and expertise—and they have built-in audiences, which is why they are fun and inspiring places for creative people work. Yet trying to bring fresh perspectives into institutions that are, by and large, hierarchical, bureaucratic, and averse to change can make museums frustrating places for creative people to work.

As a general rule, museum elites have advanced degrees in scholarly disciplines, and it’s not just technology that they don’t get—it’s pretty much everything outside of their highly-specialized areas of expertise. Museum technologists, who can be equally guilty of single-mindedness, are simply the newest members of the club of frustrated museum workers—educators, exhibit designers, et al—who feel like they are treated like second class citizens. Are their technology-driven solutions to this problem? A couple of phenomena infiltrating museums from the outside world hold promise: makerspaces and skill exchanges.

At the 2012 MCN Conference, Miriam Langer chaired a session entitled “What’s the Point of a Museum Maker Space?” The point of the panel was to discuss this watershed moment in the desire for maker activities and spaces for tinkering with electronics components and other materials and experiencing the communication and connection that are forged over a shared project. The makerspace phenomenon is having a huge impact on the relationship between museums and visitors, but it can also transform how technologists relate to the museum’s other professional staff and external partners.

Designer Kate Koeppel promotes the concept of skill exchange (Koeppel, 2012). Skill exchange—and by extension knowledge and information exchange—is a very useful concept for museums, and not just for public programs. It can also be applied to the issues raised by Smith. Rather than debate whether or not technology should be taken in or left out of the conversation, the dynamic can shift to “what do I know about, or know how to do, that you want or need to learn, and what do you know about, or know how to do, that you can teach me?” Skill and knowledge exchange removes the boundaries of credentials and job positions and values expertise regardless of its source. Through the simple act of exchange, we can learn each other’s ways of thinking, speaking, and doing, along with a healthy respect for each other’s expertise.

Ed Rodley and others are correct in pointing out that museums will not bridge the digital divide just by hiring the next generation of professionals. Adding digital literacy competencies to academic programs, providing IT professionals with tutorials, offering Webinars, such as the new MCN Pro series (http://mcnpro.org), are all strategies that will help. Yet it’s still easy to feel overwhelmed by the immensity and pace of accelerating technological change, and in fact, if a cultural institution goes it alone, the odds are against success. This is where collaborations, resource sharing and partnerships can play a pivotal role.

University partnerships are useful to museums because academicians have options for staying up-to-date and connected that most museum professionals can only dream of—sabbaticals, release time for research, and the ability to bring in guest faculty and guest lecturers. Moreover, university-trained interns bring access to university resources with them, and serve as change agents in museums. (Robert. et al, 2011, and Roberts, 2012).

The Center for Cultural Technology

A real educational shift is underway, and getting in at the early adopter stage will help position New Mexico for the future. Museums can play an important role in bringing this shift about. This is what led to the Center for Cultural Technology (CCT). To be a leader in making this change has been CCT’s mission since its inception.

CCT is an institutional partnership between the Department of Media Arts & Technology at New Mexico Highlands University (NMHU), a regional, public Hispanic-serving institution, and the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA). Along with a growing network of other cultural institutions and individuals, CCT provides a program that combines academics with opportunities for paid internships in museums and other professional settings.

CCT also includes the AmeriCorps Cultural Technology program (ACT), which places AmeriCorps members, primarily NMHU Media Arts & Technology students and recent graduates, in New Mexico cultural institutions, to apply their technology and design skills. CCT also offers the biannual Program in Interactive Cultural Technology (PICT), in which CCT joins with a museum partner to offer a semester-long immersive class in which students work with museum staff and other professionals on exhibit projects.

Getting Started

The CCT partnership began in 2005 as a pilot project with a $2,500 grant. It was conceived by Miriam Langer from NMHU and Miriam Roberts from DCA. They have co-directed the program since its start.

CCT’s kick-off took place when NMHU Media Arts students created a virtual print shop for the Palace Press at the New Mexico History Museum and three virtual exhibits on New Mexico land grants for the Web site of the New Mexico Office of the State Historian. The following year the NMHU-DCA partnership was formalized with the goal of preparing media arts majors for careers as multimedia professionals in New Mexico’s museums and exhibit design businesses. The State of New Mexico provided $100,000 in seed funding, administered through DCA. Funding was soon made recurring. Although levels of state funding have declined over the years because of the poor economy, it continues to provide critical support for program coordination, internship stipends, equipment purchase, travel, and other expenses. Equally important, it has given the program the leverage to obtain matching funds.

Cost sharing

CCT’s unique cost-sharing model has been the key to financial sustainability. From the beginning, NMHU and DCA have provided steadfast support of the CCT partnership. Over time, program partners have also become funding partners. Host institutions provide funds for internship stipends. Scientists have embraced the idea of incorporating funding for student-produced multimedia projects in research grants as education and outreach components. For several of our partnering institutions, private donors have been attracted to supporting multimedia projects specifically because of student involvement.


From its inception, CCT was designed to comprise three components: academics, internships, and research and development (R&D). The first two components were developed early. The third is taking take shape only now, in 2013, with seed funding from LANS (the private consortium that operates Los Alamos National Laboratory for the federal government). With this funding, CCT is establishing R&D capabilities through co-development of a network of makerspaces and collaborative research projects.

Academic program

CCT’s academic core consists of an undergraduate and graduate Media Arts & Technology Program with a concentration in Cultural Technology. It offers BA, BFA, and MA degrees; an MFA is in the works.

This is not a traditional museum studies program. It provides media arts majors with skills in working with cultural and scientific content, not as content specialists, but as interpreters and communicators of it. The curriculum includes audio/video production, digital imaging, graphic design, interaction design, and Web site and mobile app development for museums. NMHU was one of the first universities in the region to introduce the Arduino microcontroller environment, to build large-scale interactives, and to offer a course in 3D printing.

Instruction focuses on hands-on activities, exhibit-driven class projects, and community service. Students work next to technology professionals, designers, museum curators, and educators, learning from their team members and gaining hands-on experience.

Central to the academic program is the Program in Interactive Cultural Technology (PICT), a biannual immersive experience in which students work together on museum exhibits. It is open to NMHU and non-NMHU students. Between 12 and 14 students are chosen through a competitive application process. Partnering museums provide funding for project expenses. Students who successfully complete the academic program and an internship receive a Certificate in Cultural Technology.


Students in the academic program can participate in paid internships, including the AmeriCorps Cultural Technology internship program (ACT), coordinated by full-time internship coordinator Lauren Addario. DCA helps with administrative support and funding and helps develop internship opportunities.

Host institutions commit themselves to providing meaningful educational experiences, mentorship, opportunities for interns to build their professional portfolios and networks, and support in career planning and job seeking. In return, institutions receive the services of highly skilled and creatively talented interns, who offer an affordable way to address technological and design needs and act as change agents, bringing fresh ideas, new skill sets, and diversity into the workplace. Through them, institutions gain access to university resources and expertise.

Internships provide students with a crucial understanding of the museum world’s unique professional practices and social norms. Each year since 2010, ACT has offered approximately twenty paid internships with terms ranging from three to eleven months. ACT students enroll in professional mentorship courses while working in a variety of multimedia capacities for their host institutions. In addition to their living allowances, ACT members who successfully complete their terms of service are eligible for federally funded education awards.

CCT R&D: The Museum Classroom

Opened in 2012 at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science in Albuquerque, the Museum Classroom is a place where NMHU students and faculty, museum professionals, technologists, and others hold classes and workshops and work together on projects. The museum has provided the space, and NMHU has provided media lab equipment, furniture, and network upgrades.

The Museum Classroom serves upper-division and graduate-level students in the Albuquerque area. Museum professionals from DCA are eligible for tuition fee waivers to attend classes with NMHU students. The Museum Classroom is also a hub for “drop-in making,” where tools can be shared and museum staff becomes familiar with new technologies in an informal, exploratory way.

This embedded partnership will facilitate all kinds of museum-university projects. CCT is already collaborating with the museum in creating the Start-Up Studio, a makerspace extension of their renowned Start Up! exhibit on the history of personal computing, as well as in planning for the full overhaul of the Paleozoic exhibit.

Shared values and goals, shared resources, and mutual benefit

The best partnerships are between people motivated to work together enthusiastically sharing common goals. CCT has developed a variety of partnerships with individuals as well as organizations. These partnerships have three things in common: shared values and goals; shared resources; and mutual benefit.

New Mexico Association of Museums

To help build New Mexico’s museum community, CCT has built a close relationship with the New Mexico Association of Museums (NMAM), providing representation on the NMAM board of directors and helping maintain the NMAM Web site. Students and interns attend the NMAM annual meeting, where they promote CCT and showcase their cultural technology projects. The Tech Showcase is a highly anticipated conference event, and the experience helps build self-confidence and improve presentation skills, which have served the students well at national conferences, e.g., the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), Museums & the Web, and the Museum Computer Network (MCN).

Santa Fe Institute

CCT is fortunate to partner with the Santa Fe Institute (SFI), a world-renowned center for advanced scientific research, to help make its research broadly accessible, understandable, interesting, and exciting to public audiences. The first project with SFI is an exhibit serving as the education and outreach component to a $5 million five-year research project on the Origin of Life funded by the National Science Foundation. The second project is an exhibit for the Santa Fe Children’s Museum based on SFI research on cities, scaling, and sustainability. The partnership with SFI has accomplished three things: It has reenforced CCT’s credibility; it has proved that our students can successfully tackle extremely challenging content; and it has broadened CCT’s focus from cultural heritage to include cutting-edge science.

The Parachute Factory

To strengthen ties with NMHU’s local community, CCT is working with graduate student Mariano Ulibarri and a small group of Las Vegas-area collaborators to launch the Parachute Factory, a grassroots makerspace. The goal is for the Parachute Factory to be part of an economic and creative ecosystem that will sustain them and allow them to contribute back to the community. Artists and designers, members of the university community, fix-it volunteers, and a diverse local population of all ages are already working together in an open-ended environment and in structured workshops. The Parachute Factory has organized an official Hacker Scout Troop (http://hacker-scouts.org). Now operating as a pop-up program in temporary spaces, the Parachute Factory is in the process of securing a permanent space.

Seabury Fellowships

The challenges faced by our students in lifting themselves out of poverty and embarking on professional careers are daunting. Graduates typically finish school without financial resources and often in debt. There has often been no alternative to returning home to live and work at minimum wage jobs.

AmeriCorps internships have helped address this problem, but students also need time outside of formal courses to hone their skills e.g., on portfolio-building projects that go beyond class assignments. For students working their way through school,  finding time for this has been a serious problem. The Seabury Foundation has stepped in to address this problem with a fellowship program. Each year Seabury Fellowships provide support to four recipients to work on these kinds of projects. The fellowships are administered through the NMHU Foundation, which provides matching funds.

The Center for Art and Exhibit Electronic Design

Stan Cohen, a semi-retired physicist from Los Alamos National Laboratory and volunteer at the Museum of Natural History & Science, is an extremely valuable CCT partner. An expert in keeping the museum’s interactive exhibits working, he has also established a nonprofit organization, CAEED (pronounced “seed”), that offers hands-on learning programs for museum exhibit makers and artists. CAEED’s primary focus is the use of electronics, electronic sensors, and controllers. Cohen has now joined the faculty at the Museum Classroom, where he works hand-in-hand with other faculty and students to teach real-world technical skills usually skipped or avoided in other electronics and media arts curricula.

Lessons Learned

Start Small

University-based programs should not be afraid that starting small and working with community-based partners will harm their reputations. On the contrary, the opposite is true. So go out and find the hidden collections and experts on your campus and in your communities. Make them the stars of exhibits and Web sites. It doesn’t matter whether an exhibit is in a major museum or a vacant storefront—CCT works in both. The best opportunities are not always those offered by the largest or most prestigious institutions, but once they see what is possible, they will come knocking at your door.

Stay Scrappy

A big part of the challenge for museums that want to expand their use of technology is that traditional museum planning processes—needs assessments, long-range plans, strategic plans, budget projections—are out of sync the unpredictable environment in which museums now operate. Many funders talk the talk of risk-taking and innovation while demanding exhaustive planning and guarantees of specific outcomes. Avoid them.

Especially where technology is concerned, we delude ourselves into thinking that carefully mapped out strategies can serve as useful guides even a few miles down the road. Conventional planning commits the museum to a hardened path and makes it difficult to change course when circumstances change. Who predicted the impact of iPads, Arduino microcontrollers, Microsoft Kinect, social media, or makerspaces even a year in advance?

Seize Opportunities

Be prepared to jump at opportunities when they arise and turn short-term partnerships into long-term relationships. All these opportunities came about by staying nimble, keeping options open, and refusing to lock-in to specific outcomes:

  • A field trip to visit museums in Washington, D.C led to an invitation from the Marion Koshland Science Museum to return to create a virtual tour and promotional materials.
  • An exhibit produced for SFI and presented locally led to an invitation from the National Science Foundation to present the exhibit at their headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.
  • An offer to document the biennial exhibit, Lucky Number Seven, for SITE Santa Fe, a contemporary art space, led to an invitation from curator Lance Fung to participate in his next project in San Francisco.
  • A summer internship at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum researching the use of 3D photographic techniques to monitor the condition of historic buildings and works of art led to a trip to Cuba to share these new techniques with preservationists there.

Spread the Vision

From the beginning, travel has been an important component of the CCT program. Initially the motivation was to enable students, many of whom had never traveled outside of New Mexico, to broaden their horizons by attending professional conferences, visiting major museums, and meeting museum professionals. Before we knew it, however, these people were interested in us, and we began to be invited to participate on panels and in demo sessions at professional gatherings such as AAM, MCN, and Museum & the Web. Colleagues we meet at these national conferences now come to New Mexico to give lectures and workshops, connecting us to the global museum tech community.

In conclusion

The high price of technology makes partnerships cost-effective solutions for museums. In the current economic climate, they are a matter of survival.

Museums can take advantage of the resources offered by universities, including technical expertise, administrative infrastructure, and most especially students eager for the experiences that museums can offer. Universities can take advantage of the resources offered by museums, including collections, information, expertise, and internship opportunities. Communities also stand to benefit when their academic and cultural institutions work together for the betterment of all.

For the NMHU Department of Media Arts &Technology, the partnership with DCA has led to its elevation from program to department status within a new School of Business, Media and Technology. For DCA, the partnership is accelerating the adoption of new digital technologies by the state’s museum system and the reinvention of its role as a learning environment. For CCT and all of its partners, the most rewarding thing has been to see our graduates, their lives transformed by the opportunities they’ve been given, launching their professional careers.


Thanks to Elizabeth Neely, Director of Digital Information and Access at The Art Institute of Chicago, for suggesting the topic of this paper; to my Center for Cultural Technology colleagues Miriam Langer and Lauren Addario for their support and contributions; and to James Liljenwall, editor and formatter extraordinaire.


Hartig, Kajsa (2012), http://kajsahartig.wordpress.com, consulted December 2012

Koeppel, Kate (2012), http://katekoeppel.com/Skill-Exchange, consulted February 2013.

Museum Computer Network, MCN Pro series, http://mcnpro.org.

Rodley, Ed (2012), Thinking about museums, the other side of ‘the tech skills divide, posted October 9, 2012, consulted December 2012, http://exhibitdev.wordpress.com/2012/10/09/the-other-side-of-the-tech-skills-divide.

Roberts, M., et al, Museum Internships as Catalysts for Change. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2011: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2011. http://conference.archimuse.com/mw2011/papers/museum_internships_as_catalysts_for_change.

Roberts, M. Exhibition Studies: A Model Museum Internship Program in New Mexico. In Exhibitionist Journal: Navigating a Changing Economy: The New Normal for Museums?. Published by the National Association of Museum Exhibition, Fall 2012. http://name-aam.org/resources/exhibitionist/back-issues-and-online-archive.

Smith, Koven (2012), Leave tech in the conversation, posted April 19, 2012, consulted February 2013, http://kovensmith.com/602.

Cite as:
M. Roberts, “Howdy Partner!” The Transformative Power of Museum-University Partnerships. In Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published January 30, 2013. Consulted .

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