Profile: Jennifer Snyder
Director of Digital Experience, SF MOMA
PhD in History, University of Florida, 2013
Like most other major museums around the world, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is closed during the pandemic. Nevertheless, one can still hop onto its beautiful website to enjoy online exhibitions, and daydream about walking through the galleries to admire its vast collection of artworks up close, and to delight in the thoughtful interactive experiences that always accompany the exhibitions.
The person overseeing all this digital awesomeness is Jennifer Snyder. “I’m the Director of Digital Experiences here at SFMOMA,” she summarizes her job with a great quip, “If it’s not art and it has pixels, then I’m in charge of it.” At SFMOMA, Jennifer manages a team of six—“a small but mighty force”— that is responsible for its website, digital content, and interactive components throughout the galleries.
Planning for an exhibition takes place anywhere between a year to three years in advance. Jennifer’s team works with curators to map out the digital footprints for the exhibition to help bring about the curatorial vision. What kind of cool interactives could best serve a specific exhibition? Would a projection or a video work best for a certain segment? Having held the space and funds for the digital narrative, Jennifer stays alert for the most state-of-the-art technologies to carry out the vision, “I always have to keep a light hand on planning digital so far in advance, because you never know what changes are going to happen in the digital realm!”
Jennifer compares the day-to-day of her work to that of a traffic controller. With 20 to 40 meetings a week, she coordinates among multiple departments and divisions to make sure a web feature launch isn’t clashing with the filming of a video series. She meets regularly with curatorial staff to brainstorm new ideas. In pre-pandemic times, between creating “cool new toys” for people to play with and fixing pesky bugs on the website, she also walks through the galleries like a visitor, trying out all the interactive features and making sure that everything functions as envisioned.
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Back in 2004, when Jennifer entered the history PhD program at the University of Florida to study early American history, she had wanted to become a history professor. She researched the kinship networks and identity politics among diasporas of British enslaved persons during and after the American Revolution—a topic that she loved.
“Then the economy crashed in 2008, and I looked around and saw a massive shift in higher education, from professors hired for stable tenure-track jobs to more reliance on adjuncts. At the same time, I was watching a digital revolution happening in museums.” Curious, Jennifer sought an internship at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, an experience that gave her both a love for museums and an understanding of how they worked internally.
Jennifer returned to the University of Florida after the internship. Crucially, she stayed involved and leaned into opportunities that opened up. She continued to do some contract work for the museum, while also working a part-time job at the university’s Bob Graham Center for Public Service (similar to Stanford’s Haas Center). Around this time, Jennifer’s boss at the Bob Graham Center, Ann Henderson, visited the Museum of the City of New York. She was so impressed by a video project created for the museum by an award-winning startup called Local Projects that helped museums with digital content, that she was inspired to bring something similar to the University of Florida.
Jennifer helped her write a successful Knight grant to pay for the project, and Local Projects came to Florida to bid on the contract. When the firm’s founder Jake Barton encountered some technical problems with his presentation, Jennifer made a great impression by helping him fix the problem in front of the university’s president and other top administrators.
A few months later, Local Projects won the bid and was hiring for a project manager. Jennifer applied, and got the job. Her academic advisors were against her taking the full-time position in the middle of her PhD, but the opportunity was too great to pass on. So she embarked on the unusual journey of moving to NYC to work full-time for Local Projects while still continuing with her PhD. “I would not recommend it,” she reflects with some humor upon the experience, “As a result, it took me 10 years; so I’m not exactly the poster child for finishing your PhD on time.” After three great years in NYC, Jennifer moved back to Florida to work for the Florida Humanities Council (FHC) on their digital content, and was able to complete her PhD.
Although at this time Jennifer had not decided to leave the academic path behind, she was learning through action what made her thrive, and was open to and ready for new opportunities. While at the FHC, she worked with Bluecadet—a digital experience design agency—to develop an interactive tour app that would connect and promote local museums across the state of Florida. The project also caught the attention of the Museum on Mainstreet section of Smithsonian Institution, which was keen on preserving small-town museum ephemera in its archives.
The experience helped Jennifer clarify what she was passionate about, “What I really loved was putting digital interactives and storytelling in museums.” In fact, Jennifer had perceptively identified a seismic shift in the field of museum and technology. When she first moved to NYC, museums usually had no digital departments, and a handful of firms like Local Projects and Bluecadet contracted the work. Over the next few years, digital content firms mushroomed, and museums themselves were also establishing digital departments. Through her own career, Jennifer rode the wave of this digital revolution.
Together with Bluecadet and the Smithsonian, Jennifer presented the app prototype she had developed for the FHC at the MuseWeb Conference in Chicago—a leading international conference on museums and tech. At the conference, Jennifer befriended Michael Neault, who oversaw all things digital at the Art Institute of Chicago. A year or two later, when the Art Institute launched an innovative and successful exhibition on Van Gogh that included immersive projections, Jennifer reached out to congratulate him on the work. Neault told her of a job opening in the museum’s digital department, and that was how Jennifer became the Associate Director and then Director of Digital Interactives at the Art Institute of Chicago for the next three years. Then in 2018, a new job opened up at SFMOMA that would put her in charge of all digital experiences. She applied, and has been here ever since.
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Jennifer is keen on debunking the myth that humanists have to know how to code to pursue a career in digital work. “I started by hanging around more technical people” and learning the structure and life cycle of digital projects. As the field of digital content creation matures, greater specialization means that project managers, content writers, and developers and programmers can each focus on their area of expertise. On Jennifer’s team of six, four do not have backgrounds in computer science.
What is far more pressing than technical expertise is honing one’s project management skills. On this, humanities PhDs already have a head start. “Project management is simply a defined set of skills that you learn from the humanities. It’s reading a situation, it’s writing about a situation, it’s strategizing a way out of the situation, and coming up with a solution and moving forward. PhD students are already managing their own projects and their dissertations; it’s just about naming those skills and putting them towards other contexts.”
“I encourage everybody to get a humanities degree, and it is because of the reasoning skills.” Other disciplines also teach reasoning skills to be sure, “But in the humanities, you can look beyond the problem. You can start to understand the holistic context and the holistic picture.” Fixing problems without understanding context can potentially generate even more problems, and “taking a step back and understanding the landscape is something that the humanities does better than any other discipline.”
Another advantage that Jennifer sees among humanists is their writing skills, “I write all day, every day. If I am unclear in my language, I could potentially mess up a contract, and get the museum into hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt.” Be it emails, memos, or pitch documents, when conveying important information, “it all comes down to writing. Being clear, concise, and accurate with your thoughts and with your writing is something that you get in the humanities in a way that is head and shoulders above anybody else.”
So how should humanists best channel their advantages towards fulfilling careers?
“The Number 1 thing would be to take a chance,” advises Jennifer. While it might seem natural to hunker down on one’s PhD and simply focus on that, “There are so many opportunities around you that could lead to amazing experiences later in life.” And taking chances doesn’t just mean saying yes to major opportunities and turning points. “It’s the small things. For example, I volunteered with a women’s leadership group at the University of Florida, and it connected me with specific women leaders that were able to get me positions at the university. They were part-time positions, but they opened doors.” The small things could be “volunteering, or going to that conference, or starting that Twitter account. While in the moment it may feel like they’re taking you away from your dissertation research, they’re actually creating more avenues for exploration as you move forward.”
A second piece of advice Jennifer has is to “take one person away from every conference. Fifteen years down the line, I keep in touch with that one person from each conference and it’s so much more manageable than trying to learn everybody’s names. Just dive in and you can keep in touch with that one person on a yearly basis, and then at the end, you have 15 fantastic friends and colleagues from across the country.”
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At the end of our conversation, Jennifer raised some interesting questions about the future of work culture. As working online becomes more permanent and physical location becomes less relevant, what changes is not just the material setting of work, but also the nature and narrative of work. At present, as Jennifer observes, “Online work can be so disjointed and isolating. As a result, you are going to see companies, organizations, and individuals really start to focus on storytelling to create the narrative of what their businesses are if they are all remote. What are museums in a digital age when you can’t see the art in person? Who are we as humans, when we move forward from a work culture that we had spent hundreds of years building face to face?” Things are moving online, but there are not yet compelling stories that connect us to this rapidly changing reality, and narratives that help us reconceptualize how we work and who we are.
Telling the story of our new future will perhaps fall on the shoulders of humanists.
Profile written by Michelle Mengsu Chang, PhD ’21, History. Interview conducted in August, 2020.