Chris McDowall

You know when you meet someone and you feel like you've actually met them before because they are just so damn lovely? I (Nina) met Chris last year at the National Digital Forum at Te Papa. We were sat next to each other going - "you seem familiar...," "you seem familiar too..." From that serendipitous meeting, Chris has been one Tusk's biggest supporters- full of tautoko and always ready to engage with us and to spread the good word.

Chris' movement through the cultural sector reads like a tapestry -  a career built from many different parts, resulting in something totally unique and incredibly valuable. This is something I think many of us in the sector can identify with, myself included. Speaking from my own experience, what used to feel like a piecemeal collection of jobs now feels like something much more valuable. And all the more so due conversations with people like Chris. 

So kia ora Chris, thanks for sharing your story and for all you do! We're stoked to welcome you into the Tusk whānau. 

In five words, describe your role in the sector. (The five word limit is for this question only)

Curious outsider and occasional participant.


What is it about the sector that you love?

I love the people. I love their insights, wisdom, knowledge, eccentricities, and passion.


What have been some challenges in your career?

A big challenge for me has been knowing neither where I fit in nor which direction I’m heading. My career trajectory looks crazy on paper. I did an Arts undergraduate degree, focused on geography, philosophy and anthropology. My doctoral research proved fascinating but difficult because I took on a project that involved designing data structures and algorithms without any training in computer science. My first job title after university was “Scientist”, despite dropping science completely after school certificate. After several years working in a Crown Research Institute I shifted into the cultural heritage sector working at the National Library. Somewhere in there I worked as a development manager for an education startup spread between Auckland and Silicon Valley. Several years later I’ve disappeared to an island to write a book while contracting on a range of interesting digital projects.

Each shift has been stressful with many uncertain nights where I doubted my capacities and life decisions. I’m not sure I can recommend building up knowledge, skills and relationships in one sector before lurching wildly to another every few years. However, I strongly believe that entering a new domain with outsider eyes and beginner mind can be tremendously valuable.

I’ll probably never be true expert in anything. Instead my career seems to be about contributing value through unusual combinations of knowledge and skills built up over years of shifting contexts.


What challenges can you see moving forward?

At a personal level my challenge is to determine where to focus my energies over the coming year. I am currently working between the sciences and open data spaces, but my heart lies in in libraries and museums and I would like to return. (I wonder if I will.)

For the sector as a whole I’ll highlight a weirdly specific challenge concerning computer stuff. One of the books that’s most influenced my professional thinking is Stewart Brand’s “How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built”. It explores how the physical forms of buildings evolve over decades to satisfy the needs and tastes of successive generations of occupants. Brand suggests that the best buildings are often simple, humble and easily modified rather than the impressive constructions that find their way on to the covers of architecture magazines.

A key challenge for memory institutions is figuring out how to create digital systems and experiences that have enough slack and flex to adapt as expectations and needs change over the years. This may mean doing less at the start and allowing room (and budget!) to grow as you figure out how people really interact with your collection.


What do you think people in the early stages of their careers can offer the sector?

People in the early stages of their careers bring fresh energy and new perspectives. They question practices and processes long-term staff may take for granted, breaking institutions out from stale ways of thinking.

When fresh water stops flowing into a pond it becomes stagnant. It’s the same for organisations.

What is your spirit animal?

That's easy. It's a ruru / morepork. Specifically, the ruru who lives in this valley and whose call gives my mind something to hold onto if wake at 3am and have trouble getting back to sleep.