Exploring the GLAM sector with Mahuki’s Priscilla Loong
Vince and I were fortunate to be invited to take part in a Trade Delegation to Wellington. While there, we met with many members of Wellington’s creative industries and entrepreneurship support initiatives. We’ve collected some of those stories in a (short) series of (long) interviews.
The first person we met was Priscilla Loong, Visual Communication Designer and Activation Manager of the Mahuki Incubator. The Mahuki Incubator is an initiative of Te Papa, New Zealand’s largest museum, focusing on the nation’s heritage and cultural history. Mahuki Incubator was launched in April 2016, as an initiative of Te Papa’s former CEO, Rick Ellis, who saw the incubator as a way to extend and expand the role of the museum beyond its own walls. This is quite important for what she referred to as “The GLAM sector” (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums), as Te Papa is a guiding light for many of New Zealand’s smaller cultural institutions.
Priscilla told us how they select teams that are aligned with the goals of Te Papa. This is something that can be quite hard because as NZ’s largest museum, Te Papa has exhibitions that take up to six years to develop. In that sense, new teams joining the Mahuki incubator can struggle to jump on board with these longer processes that Te Papa requires.
“We try as much as possible to select teams that are aligned with Te Papa’s goals, but sometimes there is cool tech that Te Papa hasn’t used before, and we invite those teams to come through and explore what they could do in the exhibition space”.
Vince asks if those goals are revealed in advance, and Priscilla mentions that it’s difficult, because the museum likes to do a big public reveal once new exhibitions are completed. Although there is a focus on particular goals and use of technology for exhibitions, Mahuki also welcomes unexpected projects or teams that are interesting to exhibitions in ways that they did not expect.
“We accepted a team doing VR expert talks. One team came up with the idea of having people give TED-style talks in their workshops or workspaces. The big thing is that a lot of people are interested in back-of-house tours or to see collection storerooms. The capacity to run those sorts of tours regularly is quite limited. So recording it in VR and enabling people to see it in the comfort of their own homes goes towards Te Papa’s mandate to reach people that might not be able to come to Wellington.” This use of technology is allowing Te Papa to include VR experiences with established New Zealand artists
The Mahuki Incubator intake is in July, with the 2017 intake beginning on the 27th. Each intake lasts 4 months or around 16 weeks. At the end of the program, there is a final showcase event. “It’s like a big dinner, three-course affair. We have it up at the marae, on the top floor of Te Papa. We invite investors and potential customers from the GLAM sector to see what teams have come up with”.
As a visual communication designer, Priscilla’s path into Mahuki was different to that of most people. “Most people come from museum backgrounds. I went to university wanting to be a graphic designer. On the side, I took a marketing course that looked at advertising and then went on to take some straight marketing and commerce courses as electives. In my final year, I did a paper at Massey Uni called Creative Futures. It was a mix of design and marketing, and the idea is that you identify a problem that surrounds you and apply design thinking to develop a solution. It’s a team project, so myself and my team noticed the amount of waste paper in the design industry. It’s a huge problem! As graphic designers, we often buy Moleskines or really expensive notebooks, and we found that they were so expensive that the poorer students would struggle to doodle in them. So when we say how much waste paper would have only one line of text on it and be thrown out, we decided to make notebooks where we would basically grab that paper, fold it and staple it together.”
“We wanted to make and sell them cheaply so that they were more appropriate for doodling. We started by using them for ourselves, and it was really fun when you would find your older work in the reused sheets and remember what you were thinking when you did it.”
Priscilla tells us there were four graphic designers on the team, and it was the course’s lecturer, Anna Brown, who encouraged them to take the product to craft markets. This was at a time when craft markets were starting to get really cool again. The books sold really well. “We sold heaps of them. We then applied to a business accelerator for hardware businesses. We were interested in learning how to streamline the production process because at the time we were doing it all by hand, stapling, all of it. That was a three-month accelerator run by CreativeHQ called The Lightning Lab Manufacturing. It helped us beyond manufacturing, though, as it covered aspects of how to run a business. As a team of graphic designers, we didn’t know how to run a business, even if we do know how to make things look great. The accelerator helped us go through the process of incorporation and understand what shares mean, all that sort of stuff. My co-founders are still going on with the business. It’s called The Misprint Co.”
Priscilla says the team decided to bootstrap, or self-fund, rather than look for investment or other forms of funding. This required them to get part-time jobs. At this point, she saw an ad for a part-time role at Mahuki around the time it launched. She got the job, and as things developed and started to gain momentum, she left The Misprint Co and decided to work full time at Mahuki. “In a roundabout way, that’s how I got here”.
What attracted her to Mahuki was the chance to remain amongst entrepreneurs while in a creative space. It was also Te Papa, and therefore a great opportunity to gain experience in a prestigious national institution. Te Papa has a resident iwi, which demonstrates how connected with Maori culture Te Papa and Mahuki are. “Teams are not allowed to work in the space until they have a received a pōwhiri at the marae, which is also the space where the program ends. Maori cultural traditions permeate the whole program and the space”.
So what does the activation manager of an incubator program do? Priscilla tells us that she’s in charge of the program architecture. “I plan it out and orchestrate who delivers workshops. I work closely with teams, helping out with what they need. I have fingers in a lot of pies. All the pies. I also have to be clued into the Te Papa side as well, with the things that happen in their place”. Priscilla mentions that she does a lot of consultation. Te Papa provides challenges faced by the institution, such as how to better connect Maori taonga with their iwi, or how to improve accessibility. Any teams applying to Mahuki must at least address some of these challenges. “A lot of my work when not in the formal incubator is building the relationships, connecting with staff, and working on the new challenges. For example, the work health and safety staff were facing difficulties inducting workers that are highly skilled but have different levels of English proficiency. So we are working on a challenge to help them better communicate with staff beyond the written language.”
The Mahuki program itself first helps teams to understand the GLAM sector. In particular, they teach people to better engage with key decision makers so that they know who their core customers will be. They then get on the road and visit other museums and galleries. “Te Papa is a whale. It is the biggest museum in New Zealand, and it is also the only museum of this size in New Zealand”. Priscilla stresses how important it is for teams to get to know the realities of the many smaller institutions present in New Zealand’s GLAM sector.
The next part of the program is a series of business workshops that help teams to iteratively develop their projects. “This year we had Corina Enache, a business anthropologist based in Auckland who helps teams to learn how to observe and engage with their customers without leading their responses”.
One of the highlights of the Mahuki program is an offshore visit where teams are taken to another context. “The U.S. was huge. They have a massive GLAM sector, although it is much more commercial. Last year we visited the U.S. because we’d heard they were using a lot of digital technology. Our visit to Australia was great because it is the logical next step for teams to grow. Our teams really appreciated going to Australia because the U.S. seems to be much further down the line. Australia is a place where we already have a lot of connections and can provide warm introductions. This is important because if you’re a creative entrepreneur working for the GLAM sector, having that initial introduction with the support of Te Papa will open a lot of doors”.
The final part of the program is preparation for the final pitch. Pitches focus on presenting the projects to customers from the GLAM sector. This is to get people excited about engaging with what they’ve developed, Priscilla provided some really insightful comments regarding large presentation events. “Some feedback we’ve received from GLAM people is that when our teams go for hard sales or financially-focused presentations, they lose sight of empathetic impact, which is what the cultural heritage sector is all about”. Pitches focus instead on how the Mahuki teams can help other museums to achieve this empathetic impact. We really liked this because the empathetic impact is very closely related to what Stir aims to empower project creatives to achieve.
In wrapping up our conversation with Priscilla, we asked her if she had any advice for people pursuing creative entrepreneurship and working in the GLAM sector. “My biggest thing is to just give it a go. Just do stuff. When we first started The Misprint Co, we were in university and we weren’t really thinking of starting a business. When we first started we wanted to take recycling paper and mulch it down to make new paper. We spent the first three weeks buying everything we’d need to start making paper. We quickly realised that Wellington’s weather is not the best for paper-making. It took about two weeks for an A4 sheet to dry. In that process, though, of getting the paper out of the recycling we realised how much blank paper was actually in there. At the time we didn’t even know. So we made books out of that perfectly usable paper, thinking it would be our cheap product, and the mulched paper would be our premium product. We found the premium paper was almost too premium and had the same effect as the Moleskine that people wouldn’t want to doodle on. Whereas the simple stapled paper was very well received, people enjoyed finding typos and doodling all over them, and they sold out really quickly. That’s why we focused on repurposing rather than recycling. So my advice is to just give it a go, as you never know what might happen. But if you’re stuck in your head the whole time, if our minds were so stuck into making new paper, we would have never discovered this opportunity to repurpose existing paper.” Priscilla mentions that it was one of her tutors at uni, that later became a mentor, who encouraged them to apply for a business accelerator. “We didn’t expect to get in, but we got in. They asked for 6% of our company, and we thought, well, 6% of nothing. What is that worth? So we went for it, approaching things with quite a happy-go-lucky attitude. If we were too business focused and commercial, we would have closed too many doors. So give it a go. That’s my advice. Just give it a go.”