Program Perspective: Interview with WMA 2015 Keynote John Hollar

By Lauren Valone

At the helm of Silicon Valley’s Computer History Museum (CHM) is President and CEO, John Hollar. Since starting in 2008, Hollar has lead a re-envisioning of the Museum’s strategic planning and operations, as well as led the development of the permanent exhibition, "Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing," a multi-platform history experience that examines computing's history from the ancient Antikythera mechanism to modern-day social media. Today the CHM is known as the world's leading institution capturing computing history. In this interview, Hollar discusses his experiences with multimedia formats, Silicon Valley, and the future of museums.


Many of your professional experiences are from outside museums. How has this diversity been important in your career and as a leader in museums?

I’m fortunate to have a great team and a great board, and they helped me enormously with the thousands of things I needed to learn as a first-time museum CEO. They still do, which is important because I’ll always be on a learning curve. My experience outside museums has helped in two ways, I believe. First, I have a media-centric view of the world, and that has become an important part of our strategy. Second, I’m naturally attracted to storytelling in all of its forms from my days at PBS and Pearson. A history museum is inherently a story-telling institution, and I’ve felt very comfortable with that at our core.


You have a lot of experience in global media production and are even a voting member of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. How have your experiences in media influenced your role as a leader in museums?

We live in a media-dominated world. More and more of our audiences—and this is true for every museum—perceive the world through and learn from media as much as from physical experiences. I felt from the beginning that we needed to heighten our attention to storytelling and education through digital media, and in getting feedback through digital means. For us, this strategy has translated into television, radio, filmmaking, a branded YouTube channel, a large Facebook presence and the aggressive use of social media and marketing. The audience response has been very satisfying. And of course our subject lends itself really well to this approach.


Silicon Valley has a very unique population with 39% of residents are born in another country, 12% have entered the U.S. since 2000, and many are employed at international tech companies. What are some of the ways that CHM is engaging this audience?

The WMA 2015 event we’re hosting at the museum is called “Night in Nerdvana,” and it’s true that we enjoy broad and deep reach into the tech community. We’ve been surprised, however, by the horizontal nature of our audiences. More than 40 percent of our on-site visitors are from outside the United States. Our online audience is heavily international. Our work, whether physical or digital, is designed to appeal to a non-technical community, and we find that we’ve had success engaging them. Computing touches everyone, and we believe everyone needs to understand its history and impact, and to grasp the implications for the future. That viewpoint stretches us well beyond Silicon Valley.


You have accelerated CHM’s annual and capital fundraising that has lead to sustained growth. What are some of the successful strategies that have guided this process?

I think we’ve been successful appealing to donors who are making an impact in the world and grasp the way their work will ripple through generations to come. They want the museum to preserve and explain this work and use it as a platform to inspire the future. I like to say, only half-jokingly, that we’re a history museum with more future than history. I think our supporters understand the implications of that and want to help us tell that story, whether through our growing education programs, exhibits, media or live events.


How is the fundraising experience unique in Silicon Valley?

From the outside looking in, you’d perceive Silicon Valley to be a fundraiser’s dream. But here’s a secret: fundraising in Silicon Valley requires the same hard work as everywhere else. At our museum we’ve been very fortunate to engage and earn support from a large base of donors. Naturally, many of our largest donors made their fortunes in technology. But many more are individuals or families of modest means who simply see us as worthy of their support. I suspect our fundraising team works just as hard and just as diligently in cultivating and stewarding our total donor base as any other team in the country. One thing that may be unique to us, though, is that our development staff and board interact with some of the most transformational people of our time, and that’s wonderful.


Your are an Executive Producer and frequent host of KQED San Francisco’s “Revolutionaries,” in addition to expanding CHM’s content distribution to C-SPAN, YouTube and on the Museum's own website How is utilizing media outlets important for museums?

All museums compete for the mindshare of their audiences. Our attention spans are more fully occupied than ever before, and there are more demands on our time than ever. In this very cluttered environment, I believe a museum’s biggest challenge is the ongoing battle for your attention and your free time. A persistent and interesting presence on media can help you in that battle. I happen to believe that any museum can do this, and in a world flooded with digital outlets, all museums have lots of willing partners who want to get involved.


What are important qualities of a leader, both within and beyond the museum world?

There are so many approaches to leadership, and so many ways to be effective. These are some of the principles I like. I think you have to be relentlessly, insatiably curious—curious about issues within your institution, and curious about influences outside of it. I believe you have to be a good listener, especially to points of view that you may not agree with. I think you have to be really good at connecting the dots as you listen and learn, and communicating that with others. You have to make decisions even when you don’t have all of the information you wish you had. And when you fail, you have to fail really fast.


Do you have any parting thoughts or recommendations for attendees as they prepare for WMA 2015 in San Jose?

I’m always so impressed with the wonderfully high level of talent among people who’ve chosen to make museums their professional homes. It’s an amazing cohort to be a part of. My biggest recommendation would be to network like crazy, go back home with three new things you learned and want to try, and connect with at least three new people you want to stay in touch with in the future.


Visit the Computer History Museum during the Western Museums Association 2015 Annual Meeting on October 24-27. Then join your fellow attendees at the Night at Nerdvana Closing Event on Tuesday, October 27 while getting your inner geek on and watching the third installment of WestMusings. Also make sure to attend Sunday’s General Session where John Hollar will be giving the keynote address.

Learn more about the WMA 2015 Annual Meeting



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