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Digital Media: Interview with The Field Museum’s CIO Joe Brennan


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joe brennan field museum chicago cioJoe Brennan is a lucky man.  As CIO (and General Counsel) of The Field Museum, not only does he have big plans for new media development, but thanks to a generous grant from the Grainger Foundation, he also has the resources to put them into action.  Blooloop talked to Brennan about his strategies for social media, the museum’s website, Wi-Fi, eBooks and apps.

Established in 1893, The Field Museum is perhaps most famous as the home for SUE, the largest, most complete and best preserved T-Rex in the world.  In 2010, the Chicago based natural history museum and research facility welcomed 1.26 million visitors, supported research or conservation programs in 20 countries, and grew its collections to more than 24 million specimens. 

Brennan is on a mission to share the work of the Museum and its vast treasure of artefacts and scientific knowledge with the world by enthusiastically embracing digital media.  2011 was a busy year with a new website, social media strategy and Specimania, the Museum’s first app launched in November.  But Brennan is just getting started.


The Field Museum’s latest website was unveiled in March 2011 after a year spent working on the redesign.  Incredibly it had been over 13 years since the last “new look”.    Underpinning the site is an open source platform and philosophy that allows multiple users to upload information, removing bottlenecks and ensuring lots of changing content.  Over 50 people are authorised to add to the site, crucially including scientists and educators, in a regime that is “rules constrained rather than resource constrained”.

So far the new ways of working have been well received and very successful resulting in a vibrant and dynamic website.  Brennan has some tweaks he fish field museum social mediaplans to make already, including pulling together the rich library of video and audio content into a more impactful “media centre”.  This will include short videos, podcasts and programmes recorded by research scientists at work out in “the field”, and will be showcased in the centre of the home page.

Social Media

The Field Museum is currently working on a new set of social media strategies that are already yielding results: in the last three months social media presence has tripled.  Brennan attributes this increase to broadly three things:

  • Put simply just doing more than before, having recruited a dedicated social media expert.
  • A change in philosophy from the traditional view of a museum’s success being measured by ticket sales and visits alone.  How can you measure a museum’s effective presence?  It’s a question that the whole museum world is struggling with but Brennan takes the view that using social media to increase public awareness is “a rising tide that raises all boats.”  A change in the way museums communicate their message is needed.  Brennan says, “We are a complicated organisation and we have important things to say in a serious but informal way”. 
  • Following on from this change in philosophy, The Field Museum has launched a series of projects that aim to systematically share the vast wealth of content, for instance “Insect of the Week” and “Mammal Monday”.

It’s early days yet, but Brennan’s team are workinfield museum chicago socila mediag to establish the metrics that will help measure and refine their success.


The feedback that The Field Museum has had from public focus groups is that while it is lovely to have 4 hours available to fully explore the Museum, it can be frustrating to try to navigate round the exhibits if you only have a shorter amount of time.  Other research that the Museum has carried out, also points to the visitors’ preference for accessing content from their own mobile devices. 

Brennan is passionate about using new technology to share the vast resources of the museum with the public in the most effective way possible, “I just want to build the things that I want for myself”.  For Brennan this means a way of delivering content to a mobile device with geo-positioning so that if you’re standing in front of SUE then you will be offered some information about the T-Rex.  Similarly if you want to take a tour around the museum, you can have your personal guide on your own mobile with tailored information to suit your interests. 

specimania app mobile digital media field museum brennanSpecimania

All attractions seem to be feeling the pressure to develop a mobile app.  Brennan says that he has been careful to make sure that money spent in this area is spent wisely.  “Lots of people seem to be ‘following’ on this, but I’m sceptical about spending on apps.  We have a mobile version of our website which will be available in the next month or two and that will deliver about 90% of what people want.”  Brennan describes the development process for Specimania as involving “internal brainstorming about how to share content in a dynamic way”, to ensure that the resulting app was not just another version of the website.  Brennan was keen to come up with something different and fun, “an irreverent game with very serious content”. 

Specimania is a Pokemon style game where players collect cards featuring ‘unbelievable artefacts, animals, fossils, plants and more from the institution’s vast collections’.  The app allows players to compete against themselves and others, and there is an easier memory game aimed at younger children.  Educational elements are seamlessly integrated into the app, with fun facts about each card character in the categories of Anthropology, Botany, Geology and Zoology.   A Trivia Quiz then allows the player to boost the points value of the cards held. 

Specimania from The Field Museum on Vimeo.

The development process involved:field museum joe brennan interview

  • Creating all the content in house: the Museum’s scientists deciding on the items and images to include;
  • Using an external artist to create friendly, approachable images appropriate for a smartphone format;
  • Lively discussions between the scientists and the artist, including some “hysterically funny dialog” to try to find a balance between “friendly” and scientifically robust; and
  • Lots of consumer testing to refine the product, including recruiting the help of Brennan’s own sons aged 6 and 8.

While this process worked well for this particular app, it is not set in stone and there is a flexible approach to adapt as necessary for future projects, with the intention to create 5 or 6 new products this year.  Brennan does however have strong views about ownership, having seen many museums bring in outside developers for specific projects and then be left with legacy systems that cannot be maintained.  Apart from perhaps the most high end apps he says, “With the new people we have on board, I feel that we can capture the skills we need in house.  I am very keen to own all the assets we have in development.” 

The intention is now to take Specimania into classrooms and leverage it for real educational purposes.  Originally the app was intended as “freemium” and it will probably remain so, but Brennan does not shy away from looking for income streams from other products in development where appropriate.

eBooksfield museum chicago

Also in production, in house, are eBooks for both iOS and Android platforms.  Brennan sees potential in both the children’s and adult markets. 

For children’s eBooks, The Field Museum will be seeking to offer the interactive elements that we’re used to from apple products but to do something “a little different by offering eBooks that are both scientifically accurate and fun.” 

With adult eBooks, Brennan is keen to tap into the wealth of content available at the Museum, for instance the Rare Book Room’s ancient images and texts.  “Using the scientists to interpret them will allow us to share with the world what’s really important and interesting about the subject matter.”  This is an area where Brennan does see the potential for the Museum to be able to monetize the products with a price of $0.99 to $1.99 to cover costs.

A common thread of discussion in the museum community is how best to engage with the public through new digital media.  From social media to eBooks, and apps to websites, The Field Museum is offering some innovative propositions.  Brennan knows that he is very fortunate to have the resources to turn his plans into reality: “I wake up each morning aiming to be as productive as possible”. 

Images: Courtesy of The Field Museum

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