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Zoe Meagher · Experience Developer, Museums Victoria

Dream Job

This morning we chat with Creative Arts graduate Zoe Meagher, who has found her dream job as an Experience Developer at the Melbourne Museum.

Bright, resilient and passionate, Zoe charts her trajectory from Scienceworks Customer Service Assistant to her current role, where she is tasked with weaving space, sound and exhibition design together to ensure the Museum’s exhibitions are an informing and entertaining experience like no other… and continue to pull more than 1.7 million people off Wikipedia and through their doors each year!

13th October, 2017

Zoe Meagher works her dream job as an Experience Developer at the Melbourne MuseumPhoto – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Zoe with specimens in the Melbourne Museum’s test space for the forthcoming exhibition ‘Inside Out’, for which she is overseeing the experience development. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Behind the scenes with Zoe, who has worked for Museums Victoria (across their three locations) since 2009. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Some of Zoe’s amazing notes – she’s an exceptional illustrator – on a visitor experience test cart she had made to assist with prototyping exhibitions and gaining feedback. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

‘When I was studying I didn’t know that this was something I could aim for,’ says Zoe. ‘So I just did the bits and pieces that I wanted to, little by little, and it ended up building into the experience that helped me secure this role.’ Pictured is one of her illustrations from a meeting.

Just going about her day-to-day alongside a gigantic polar bear. Earlier she was testing how far in front of the bear a visitor would have to stand to get its whole body in their selfie! Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Zoe and fellow Experience Developer David Perkins (of Client Liaison music-video fame, they joke!). There are five experience developers at Museums Victoria. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Zoe describes her role as ‘almost like a museum dramaturge’, weaving curation as well as audial and visual element of an exhibition together into an overall experience.

Zoe will often cruise around the Museum testing out her audio tour prototypes. Photo – Caitlin Mills for The Design Files.

Photography – Caitlin Mills.

Elle Murrell
Friday 13th October 2017

Zoe Meagher studied a course that doesn’t exist anymore, to gain a job that wasn’t created until a couple of years ago. The Creative Art graduate’s path to Museums Victoria Experience Developer certainly reveals the dynamic state of the current employment landscape.

An ultimate go-getter, and today’s imperative: ‘a generalist’, Zoe is one of five experience developers at the Museum, and she is currently working on its forthcoming exhibition, ‘Inside Out’.

As part of the project team, Zoe advocates for the visitor, constantly questioning: what does someone actually experience in an exhibition, why should they care, and what’s the best way to communicate the interesting aspects? ‘There is always something cool about an object or topic here, it’s just about finding the key to unlock that for people, and to communicate it,’ she tells, as a 100-year-old taxidermied baby rhinoceros gets wheeled passed, post face-lift.

Today, the 30-year-old schools us on why you shouldn’t wait for an invitation or a big break, but pursue what you love bit-by-bit and look widely for experience and inspiration – such as abandoned Melbourne Airport buildings, Australia’s first supercomputer, or the recently discovered TRAPPIST-1 planetary system, for example.

The talented performance artist and skilled illustrator modestly acknowledges she’s been lucky a LOT, but as we talk, it quickly becomes clear Zoe’s incredible work ethic and enthusiasm have been the drivers of her success, rather than any matter of chance.

At the close of our interview, she struggles to distinguish her future goals from her aspirations for the Museum, as intertwined as they are – the ultimate indication that we’ve really found someone working their dream job!

The most important verb in the get-your-dream-job lexicon is…

Cross-pollinate!

I think it’s really important to look for experience and insight outside of the specific field that you think your dream job is in, because you never know what is going to end up being unexpectedly relevant further down the track. When I was attending university, I was also waitressing the whole time and I remember thinking, ‘this is never going to be relevant to anything I want to do in the future!’. But being able to work under pressure, learning resilience, and how to talk to anyone came out of that.

What all of your experience adds up to is something that is going to be unique to you.

I landed this job by… 

I studied a Bachelor of Creative Arts at Melbourne University, majoring in Visual Media and for my Honours year I wrote on film theory, did some sound design and produced a folio of drawing. It was kind of this Jack-of-all-trades degree, a good mix of theory and practice, but unfortunately it doesn’t exist anymore.

Following university, I started working for Museums Victoria in 2009, in a part-time customer service role at Scienceworks – I was looking for a place that I enjoyed being in, and like so many ‘90s Melbourne kids, I’d had really happy memories their, so it was my pick!

After a couple of years, I moved to customer service at Melbourne Museum, and later into the education and community programs department where I was working on lessons for school groups. Next, I was at the Immigration Museum doing the same work but full-time – so I have the trifecta of working at all three venues! – before taking my current role.

Alongside to all of this, I have continued to work as a performance artist.I really like focussing on little-known historical stories and one project I did, before I started in my role at Melbourne Museum, was actually at the Melbourne Museum with the support of the Next Wave Festival. It was an audio tour and performance about the CSIRAC Computer, which was Australia’s first digital computer. Through this, I got to know some people working at the Museum – that’s my version of volunteering or interning, making connections and gaining experience.

This position was externally advertised and I was persistent; when I got this job, it wasn’t the first time I applied for it. The first time I wasn’t ready, but then I tried again. I had also done a performance at an abandoned building at Melbourne Airport not long before my second application, and some people doing similar work at the Museum happened to attend. They were able to see how what I was doing in performance, was relevant to what I could do in this role.

A typical day for me involves…

It’s always different and it really varies project to project. Usually I will be across a few different projects at one time, but at the moment I am really focussing on the end of year exhibition: ‘Inside Out‘.

I have been working on the audio layer, so the curator and I have been doing lots of interviews with subject specialists from both inside and outside of the Museum. Last week we interviewed an Egyptologist, and later that afternoon a tattoo artist from Preston! Tomorrow it’s an iconic Australian fashion designer.

Getting to interview and meet all those people is really exciting, and then I go away with the recorded audio and figure out how that will fit into the script for the audio layer of the exhibition. I put a very rough edit into the headphones so I can wander around (looking very strange) and test it to see if it is doing the job that we need it to do for the visitor.

In the afternoon, I usually go and sit down with the curators, designers and the creative director and see how all our respective work is fitting together, if it’s weaving together into a story that we can share with the visitors.

The most rewarding part of my job is…

Having conversations with the people that actually visit the museum, because this means I get to understand our finished product! 

Also getting to collaborate within this organisation is really rewarding; the unique mix of people who work on each individual aspect of a project, makes each one super inspiring and its own kind of unique beast! It’s really interesting to see what can spring out of the unexpected collaborations.

On the other hand, the most challenging aspect is…

…I think, sometimes just answering that basic question of: why should someone care about these things? Because for some of the items we have in the museum, it’s not that obvious. The CSIRAC computer is an example; it just does look like a big metal box with a whole heap of wires sticking out of it, and many people will just work straight past it.

The flip side is getting to seek out the story of a particular item, through talking to people who really know and love it the curators, researchers and scientists in the building. Getting to witness their passion, drawing that out of them and feeling that spark too, before working out a way to convey this to the visitor turns the challenge into another highlight.

The culture of my workplace is…

The people who work here are very passionate about what they do, and they bring a whole lot of love to the Museum. Everyone is very supportive of one another, but people are also supportive of one another’s individual aspirations, their interest and passions outside of the Museum. Our workplace culture allows people to have their own lives too.

I continue to do my performance art under my art name, Zoe Mars. Recently, I did a little audio tour and projection for the Gertrude Street Projection Festival in collaboration with a composer. It was about the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system, which was identified earlier this year. You could download it and stream it, and it was to scale, taking you on the 40 light-year journey from Earth to the TRAPPIST-1 planets over the course of 15 minutes. I also created these projections that were based on 70s sci-fi illustrations, that was a lot of fun.

I’m always…

…sketching on my iPad during meetings. I find it can be a really helpful to storyboard or draw a diagram that communicates an idea or concept. I was always doing this at school too.

Sometimes I’m doing it so much that it starts to look like I’m not listening, but I am. As I interpret things they just come out the other end of the pencil.

My idea of the perfect workplace is…

I think one that encourages playfulness, calculated risk taking and experimentation, but also one where you get the opportunity to collaborate with lots of different people, I think that is really so valuable.

Practically speaking, a workplace where baked good are plentiful.

And also one where the line between colleagues and friends is a little bit blurry. Here, we’ll go out together after work and see theatre or live art shows. And just having that, being able to be friends, makes the workplace much more wonderful. 

The best piece of advice I’ve received is…

…not to wait around for the one big project, or one big opportunity, but instead to dive in and find small ways to start doing the things that you want to be doing. Collectively they will unfold and turn into something bigger.

If you don’t, I think there is a danger of always only talking about that big thing that you want to do and never actually getting around to doing it. Then it becomes too intimidating to ever start… ‘Just do it,’ – some wise words from Shia LaBeouf… and Nike, but this advice actually came from my partner Matthew. He used to work in live art too, and is just one of those people with an excellent work ethic who is always doing things and never hesitating, not waiting for an invitation, just going ahead and trying stuff out.

Over the years, the Museum has…

Well, the job I have now didn’t exist three years ago, so that is one big change.

Another one would be the approach to now developing, not just exhibitions or programs, but experiences that mean something beyond delivering information to people.

I am also really pleased to see a big growth in collaboration with people outside of the Museum, as well as making it much more accessible. There have been really beautiful initiatives over the last couple of years, like The Autism-friendly Museum that provides resources for families who have members on the autism spectrum. Another, called I Want To Go To The Museum, makes it easier for people who would otherwise find it difficult to visit, by assisting with transportation, costs, cultural differences… and just making it more open and welcoming for everyone.

In the next five years, I’d like to…

…find ways to work with even more objects that are currently tucked away in storage. Of our 17 million, only around 1% is on show. I know that there are some really excellent supercomputers that are just waiting for someone to come along and love them – I would LOVE to be in it person!…computer history is so so rich, and there is really interesting feminist history with as well. A lot of the early operators and programmers were women, because people thought it was a clerical position, and then as soon as it started to get more prestige a lot of women got pushed out of the industry – I could rant about that for ages!

The work that is happening here is changing all the time, there are always so many interesting things going on, who knows what’s going to happen in this place over the next five years. If you had said to me three years ago, ‘You’ll be able to work with virtual reality by 2017!’ There is no way I would have believed you, but that is something that has emerged all of a sudden. The scope for new kinds of technology to affect how we experience museums is really exciting.

I definitely want to continue with my personal art practice. And I want to go and see lots of live art and theatre so I can find ways to incorporate unexpected inspiration from other disciplines into what we do at the Museum!

Melbourne Museum’s ‘Inside Out‘ exhibition opens on December 23rd and runs until February 11th. For more information, visit the website, here.

‘Dive in and find small ways to start doing the things you want to be doing,’ – Zoe Meagher.

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