#MCN50 Voices: Lisa Worley & Rob Stein

In continuing celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Museum Computer Network, Rob Stein and Lisa Worley spent some time by phone reconnecting and reminiscing about their own specific introductions to the museum technology field.  

 

Lisa Worley is the Director of Material Culture at the Historic Ford Estates and Rob Stein is the Executive Vice President and Chief Program Officer at the American Alliance of Museums.  While they don’t know each other well, Rob and Lisa have crossed paths in museums a number of times, including during the 2015 “Reimagining the Museum” conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

 

Did you always want to work in museums?

 

Rob:  Remember those career aptitude tests you used to take in High School? Well, mine predicted that I’d either make a great priest… or an engineer. Of the two—engineering seemed to be a much more likely profession! More specifically, I was fascinated by astronomy and wanted to be an astronaut, so I entered University of Illinois to study aeronautical engineering. While there, I spent a lot of time in the computer lab for my classes. With this being the early ‘90s and Illinois being the home for the first web browser, this was a fascinating time to learn about technology. Eventually, I changed my major to computer science and began to explore how 3D computer graphics and virtual reality could tell stories about science. My first job was as a Scientific Visualization programmer and I worked to represent simulations of severe storms, supernova, and various kinds of fluid dynamics problems.

 

I continued to work in academia throughout the first decade of my career. I think I expected that it would be much more collaborative and to have much more direct impact on the public than I found it to. After working on a number of projects with museums, I became enamored with the public impact and collegiality I found there, so I left my job in academia and joined the Indianapolis Museum of Art as a software developer.

 

Over the next decade, I experienced a lot of great things and met thousands of talented people through museums. I’m so glad I made the change and can’t imagine working in any other field.

 

Lisa:  I’ve always loved history. I took AP history courses in high school, and studied history in college. Of course, I assumed this would lead to a career as  a teacher, but I discovered the museum field while getting my BA at the University of Arizona. I took a class in the Anthropology department where I learned to give tours to K-12 students through the Arizona State Museum. It was a game changer for me. I went on to study public history in graduate school, and I learned about architecture, decorative arts, furniture, textiles, and costumes. I loved historic homes, so I chose to focus my career working at historic sites. I love the stories you can tell in homes! After grad school, I ended up in Texas—the last place I ever thought I’d be. My initial plan was to get a few years of experience under my belt at a 1911 historic house museum then move back to Colorado, but life happened and I spent 18 years as a Texan.

 

What’s your connection to MCN? How’d you get connected with the museum technology community?

 

Lisa: I’m a big fan of professional development and networking having attended conferences through AAM, AASLH, ALHFAM, and the Texas Association of Museums. Before the Austin conference, I’d never really heard of MCN. I saw the call for volunteers and jumped at the chance to learn something new. I was only there for one day – but it was an eye opening experience.

 

As you move along in your career, its seems that so many other conferences have less and less new for you to learn. MCN was a fresh set of thinking and topics to explore. With MCN, I usually come home with REALLY big ideas, which is not something that I’ve found in other (or more familiar) conferences. MCN seems just unfamiliar enough that my brain can think the really big ideas.

 

Rob: This reminds me of a concept I first heard from Koven Smith I think. The “adjacent possible” is a concept from evolutionary biology that I’ve been thinking about recently.  The idea goes like this—If you took all the possible combinations of amino acids found in nature, the combinatorial number is absolutely enormous. But when we observe nature, we actually only find organisms and compounds that comprise a relatively small amount of real estate when compared to the universe of possible combinations. Because of the way that evolution works, new mutations are always expanding into those permutations directly adjacent to their current form. Expanding into the adjacent possible—so to speak.

 

I kind of feel that our careers, and the museum field are kind of like this.  Very rarely do we seize upon ideas or actions that are entirely disconnected and “random”.  It’s much more likely that we evolve our thinking and practice into the adjacent possibilities that no one has tried yet.  That’s why conferences or friends who stretch our thinking into new, but not wholly unfamiliar territory, can help provoke our thinking and innovation in useful ways.  The adjacent possible!

 

Lisa: In some ways, this collaborative way that the MCN community works together seems like a bit of new thinking for museums. My experience from working in a smaller museum is that we often see ourselves competing with the “big” museums. The collaborative experiences at MCN seem to have become prevalent for us only recently. Is that because collaboration like this isn’t as readily apparent at the more traditional museum conferences? Or are these competitive instincts present more on a local basis?  Big vs. Small museums in the same town?  But, networking and building relationships, like those at MCN and at other conferences seems to be key to moving beyond that.   

 

On the change in MCN conferences over the years

 

Rob: My first MCN conference was in 2006 in Pasadena. At that time, MCN tended to focus a bit more on IT and technology practice. Over time, I think MCN, and this part of the museum field has slowly becoming more broad in its thinking about digital working as a whole. There continues to be more discussion about museum strategies, process, and impacts. We don’t seem to have very many sessions on how to configure your Cisco router anymore. It’s still important to do that work, but the conversations at museum technology conferences have become more about museum work as a whole.

 

Lisa: I agree. I remember coming home from my first MCN conference with a list of technical terms (jargon) that I had to Google. I like that now, the discussions at MCN have been moving towards the outcomes for the visitors.

 

On sharing a conference experience together in Buenos Aires and how a global context for museum work impacted our thinking:

 

Lisa: It was really eye-opening to understand more about the cultures that other museums are operating in. Some of the realities in global museum communities would never have occurred to me from a US perspective on museums.

 

What’s the line between propaganda and history? Some of the Latin American museums were talking about how the government should sponsor museums on specific topics (such as State sponsored violence), but my first thought was “would the government ever give difficult topics the justice that they deserve?”

 

Rob: The conference in South America made me think more about my own museum experience in the US. Latin American museums are dealing with many of the same issues we are here in the States, but more acutely and more out in the open. Budget crunches, political corruption, remaining relevant to their communities, financial inequalities, etc… In the US, we are dealing with these issues daily now. I feel that we have a lot to learn from our Latin American colleagues, who have been achieving great successes with these issues, but many times working from a different perspective. The “adjacent possible” at work again!

 

3 Pieces of Advice

In thinking about advice they might give to people who are new(er) to the MCN community, Rob and Lisa came up with a few ideas that might be helpful.

 

Lisa:

  1. We’re all in this together: Avoid saying “that’s not my job.” It’s not about you or me—it’s about giving the people who come to us an amazing experience.

 

  1. Always be open to learning new things: Always be reading and exploring beyond your capacity. I love knowing what’s going on in the field—what cool things other organizations are doing. And, really, you never know how often a crazy idea that seems disconnected actually becomes connected sometime later on.

 

  1. Be Flexible: What we do in museums is terribly important, but lives are NOT on the line. We need to put what we do in perspective. Treat each other well and *really* think about what’s important. Pick your battles—it’s too hard to fight all of them at the same time. I’ve learned my way is not the only way, or the only right way. Just keep your eyes on the final outcome.

 

Rob:

  1. Give more than you take: The artists Jim Hodges used this as a title for a retrospective of his art that we exhibited at the Dallas Museum of Art in 2015. I really stood out to me as a great way to be successful in museums and in life. The times in my career when I’ve made this a priority have been among my most successful as well.

 

  1. Always be exploring: I find that giving myself permission to have side projects that interest me has been a key to maintaining creativity, connection, engagement to the larger world (both personally and professionally). Sometimes we feel guilty about taking time to explore things like this, but I’ve found that I’m often most productive plowing through the hardest parts of my “real work” when I’ve got an engaging distraction too!

 

  1. Prioritize: There are too many good things to do in the world. When we’re trying to do them all at the same time, we’ll never get anything accomplished. Be ruthless in deprioritizing the good things in favor of your best next steps. From there, you can be certain that you’re actually moving forward and not just spinning your wheels.
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#MCN50 Voices: Chani Knight  & Ilaria D’Uva

This year MCN celebrates its 50th anniversary. Just as MCN has established a network of established and emerging professionals, #MCN50 Voices brings members together, old and new, near and far.

 

In this conversation, Chani Knight, Manager of Individual Giving at the Nevada Museum, and Ilaria D’Uva, CEO of D’Uva srl, spoke about how they got started in the musetech world, their advice for those just starting out, and the piece of technology they can’t live without.

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#MCN50 Voices: Elizabeth Bollwerk & Torii Moré

This year MCN celebrates its 50th anniversary. Just as MCN has established a network of established and emerging professionals, #MCN50 Voices brings members together, old and new, near and far.

Elizabeth (Beth) Bollwerk (left) is the Archaeological Analyst, Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery, at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in Charlottesville, Virginia. She is on the MCN board of directors.

 

Torii Moré (right) is the Curator of Digital Humanities at the McLean County Museum of History in Bloomington, Illinois. She is attending MCN for the first time this year!

 

Beth and Torii have never spoken before this conversation, but Torii was excited to get to know someone before coming to the conference in November.

 

Torii: So you are an archaeologist, I understand, so how did you first become interested in archaeology? What led you down that path?

 

Beth: Well I was always interested in history, my parents were both history majors so I spent a lot of time growing up going to museums and various historic houses and other organizations. Then it came time to decide what I wanted to do I thought I would be a history major and I needed up taking an archaeology class and I really enjoyed it. My teacher actually pointed me towards the archaeology field school that my college ran every summer because he said, “you know, it seems like you are interested in history but this is an interesting way to expand it beyond just written records, something new to experiment with.” The field school was in Indiana and Michigan it was a Native American Contact Period site dating to the mid-1840s. I worked there for about 6 weeks and absolutely loved it and came back to serve as a TA the summer after. Ever since then I’ve been totally entrenched.

 

Torii: So how long have you been in the field then?

Beth: Let’s see, that was 2001 so I guess going on 16 years.

 

Torii: How long have you been working at Monticello?

 

Beth: I’ve been working on and off since 2010. I ended up going to grad school at University of Virginia (UVA), which is also in Charlottesville. And while I was working there I crossed paths with a couple people who were teaching there and also working in the archaeology department and they fortunately had part time work that they let me know about. I was processing collections as a start and slowly got more integrated into the current project I work with, which is the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS). I’ve been on full time since 2014.

 

Torii: What is a typical day like for you at your workplace? I saw your title is “Senior Archaeological Analyst,” what does that mean?

 

Beth: It means a lot of things. Like many museum titles, it encompasses a lot of tasks. Depending on what we have going on that day it could be anything from analyzing nineteenth century artifacts and entering them in the database, it could be teaching a workshop about how to use our website and database, or answering questions about different artifacts or sites in the database. It could mean updating our website and doing research ourselves with R (a programming language) in preparation for giving a conference paper. A lot of it is analysis and spending time with artifacts but it really depends on the day.

 

Torii: Since you went to school for archaeology, how did you develop all these digital skills that it seems like you use a lot?

 

Beth: Uh, I developed a lot of them on the job.

 

Torii: Me too! [laughter]

 

Beth: When I started back in 2001, in the field most of what we used was notebooks, pencils, really basic stuff. Our cataloging was in an Excel spreadsheet. I did get an undergraduate minor in computer applications. So that introduced me to a little bit of programming and some of the opportunities that were part of digital technology. It wasn’t until I got to UVA and got involved in the Chaco Research Archive, which is a big online database of information from excavations from Chaco Canyon, that I really got involved in digital archaeology, and that was in 2009. I got my feet wet there, and then moving over to DAACS I kind of shifted regions and temporal periods but stayed in the digital archaeological world and learned a lot about databases and SQL code and R code just by watching other people do it and learning from my fellow graduate students and co-workers. They’ve been critical in helping me find my way in this digital world.

 

Torii: Well, that makes me feel a lot better!

 

Beth: Is that your experience too?

 

Torii: Yes, absolutely! I studied anthropology too as an undergrad and had an internship at the museum I work at right now. I was photographing objects and putting them in the database, and at the end of my internship there just so happened to be a part time position that had opened in the library processing collections and making finding aids, and from there I had to update if a collection changed, and the finding aid on the website. And so then I started tweaking other pieces of the website and the Executive Director noticed. He was conjuring up this position, this curator of digital humanities position, it didn’t exist yet and he asked me if I would be interested in giving it a shot and I said “Yes absolutely, I can give it a shot—and also what is it?” Then he told me that I needed to be in pursuit of my master’s degree in Library and Information Science to be eligible for the full-time position so I applied and got in and here I am. That was three years ago.

 

Beth: What does your daily life look like? It sounds like it is pretty hectic?

 

Torii: It’s kind of like yours, it depends on what is going on project-wise. The past two or three years have largely been focused on technology in our exhibits. Depending on where we are in that process I will be conjuring up big ideas, goals, and dreams and hopes for iPad/computer applications, videos, and audio visual tools, to actually researching for those things or making sure that the companies that we’ve hired to develop these things actually incorporated our edits, doing usability testing, and then buying and installing hardware and opening the exhibit. There is really no typical day, which is sometimes a great thing but it’s also not-so-great sometimes because you never know what you are going to walk into and be doing that day. You know, you could go down a path that takes you five days off into a research hole.

 

Torii: When we got matched up it was a few weeks after the rally in Charlottesville. So of course I want to know what things are like over there, what that was like for you and your colleagues who are teaching about slavery? How as an institution do you all handle events like that?

 

Beth: It’s been a really difficult period obviously. In some ways Charlottesville was a really perfect place for white supremacists to come and have this rally, because socioeconomic and racial tension already exists and has recently been exacerbated by the Confederate statue debate. It was unfortunate, but not necessarily surprising. I think a lot of really good and tough conversations have come out of it. The violence inspired by the rally has forced a lot of people to take a harder look at our community and how the problems in Charlottesville relate to this larger, difficult conversation we are having about race at a national level. I think for us at Monticello, it’s reinforced this relatively recent focus of efforts to try and show the public how Thomas Jefferson is this really complex figure. We’re not ignoring the fact that he was a slave owner, but addressing that head on while at the same time acknowledging that he was a founding father, obviously was a person of incredible intellect, of incredible work ethic, but also acknowledging that a good part of the reason he was able to accomplish so much was because he had this enslaved workforce doing all the labor on his plantation.

 

This national dialogue on history and race and how African American communities have been impacted and still are impacted by this history of enslavement only bolsters us because we realize how critical it is to get stories like the ones we are trying to tell out. We are trying not to ignore the tough realities of slavery but to get people to engage with that and most importantly think and talk about it. Because we are immersed in it, it seems obvious to us, but it really isn’t. Everything we can do to tell that more complex story to a broader public is really important to us. Clearly this is a time where we need that dialogue and need to force people to think about the complexities of the stories. I think Charlottesville still has a lot it needs to work through. It’s a time of reflection and growth and understandably there still is some anger and we are all still working through.

 

Torii: I think a lot of museums are grappling with that same issue of, you know, it’s our place to educate and have those conversations and to be open to hosting those conversations but it is seen as divisive and political. Straddling that is hard, so tough conversations are being had and will continue to be had in museums.

 

Torii: My last question: You have been involved in MCN for a while now, so what advice do you have for my first time at the MCN conference? What should first-timers keep a look out for?

 

Beth: This will be a great conference to start with. There will be a ton of energy around 2017 obviously because it is the 50th anniversary. MCN chose Pittsburgh as a site because there is a growing museum culture and it is really thriving. The goal is for it to be an inspirational setting, in addition to the conference but Pittsburgh as a whole. The thing that got me to stick with MCN is just the fact that the community is so open. Coming from academia, it can be somewhat frustrating when people, understandably, because the way you build your career is to really tout what you’ve produced and what’s gone well in your research and projects. But I often found that came at the expense of having a difficult time talking about what goes wrong with research and what doesn’t pan out with research. What I really like about the MCN community is that people are really willing and open in talking about what works but also what doesn’t work. People, I’ve found, are really honest about how well a project works, and how well it is meeting their goals, but also aspects of it that maybe didn’t work so well or things that they would do differently. And I have found that incredibly valuable because it’s helping other people avoid reinventing the wheel. And it’s helping build community because if something is not working for one person there’s often conversations you can have where someone else has tried it and had different results.

 

Since museum technologists are not that big of a crowd, often institutions are working towards the same goals and if people are willing to share where they are finding traction and having trouble that’s really helpful. So I often encourage people to come ready to share what about their projects that they are really proud of and excited to be working on but also be looking  to talk with people about things in their institution that they are struggling with because this is the  community that has the knowledge base and the willingness to talk about challenges equally and I think that’s incredibly valuable.

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#MCN50 Voices: Jason Alderman, interviewed by Scott Sayre

This year MCN celebrates its 50th anniversary. Just as MCN has established a network of established and emerging professionals, #MCN50 Voices brings members together, old and new, near and far.

This audio conversation is illustrated (and linked!) by Jason Alderman (left), who was interviewed by Scott Sayre. Jason talks about how he entered the museum field through an interest in the intersection of digital and physical design, about several of the projects he’s worked on, and his interest in getting museums to go beyond the touchscreen.

 

Jason Alderman is an interaction and experience designer who works as an independent consultant to museums, and Scott Sayre is chief information officer at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York.

 

See a version of this video with embedded links on Jason’s website.

 

Below are links to some of the projects Jason mentions in the interview:

 

A few other projects with the Balboa Park Online Ccollaborative (BPOC):

 

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New #musetech Jobs in a Mixed Reality Future

By Zejun Cai

 

In the past few months, the MCN Job Description History team has hopped on a time machine and documented the shifting and persisting trends in #musetech jobs over the last 50 years. Tracing back to the days when people who run or visit a museum had never used an iPhone has been a fascinating process for our group, who communicate with each other purely via digital devices and platforms—a virtual team of historians, if you will. Check out our previous blog posts for a moment of inspiration or nostalgia.

 

I am especially interested in the new job opportunities and titles that have emerged along with changing technologies. For example, Sarah Outhwaite and I have been looking the annual reports of Seattle Art Museum (SAM) from 1967 up to the present day. In 1996, the museum hired its first Chief of Information Technology to “offer access worldwide to information about art and Seattle’s collections through state-of-the-art technology.” Since then, new job titles have emerged each year, from Web Programmer (1997-1998) to Computer Technician (1999-2000) to Digital Media Manager and Digital Production Designer (2013-2014).

 

In 2017 Tech Trends Annual Report published by Future Today Institute, mixed reality (P17) was identified as a key trend for nonprofit organizations. Mixed reality, or MR, is an umbrella term encompassing augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), 360-degree video, and holograms (P87). None of the MR technologies are strangers to today’s museums. At this year’s MCN alone, there will be at least three discussion sessions dedicated to these trendy technologies (Reality (doesn’t) Bite: AR vs VR, Best Practices for Creating Meaningful AR/VR Experiences and Virtual Futures: When VR is the Cost of Doing Business). However, probably all of them were alien to museums of the 1970s. During my research, I came across an article titled “Holography Takes Root in SoHo In a Museum Devoted to Future,” first published in the New York Times on December 29, 1976. The article reported on the newly opened Museum of Holography, a museum dedicated to new art and “visions of the future.” What amused me, however, was Rosemary H. Jackson, the then 29-year-old director, recounting visitors’ behaviors and the museum’s reaction to the visitors’ needs.

 

‘People Don’t Understand It’

“We have to remember that people who come here are not familiar with holography,” she said. “We’re going to put up numbers indicating the best places to stand, because people don’t understand it. Two days ago a man came in and looked at the black cube that is projected away from the wall. He said he didn’t see anything. I told him he was standing in it. He moved back and it came floating out.”

The museum will eventually open a children’s section because parents are complaining about lifting heavy youngsters into the right viewing positions. The new institution already has a book counter and will have a library. It is open from noon to 6 P.M. Wednesdays through Sundays. Admission: $1; 50 cents for under-12’s. Telephone: 925-0526.

“Holography is moving along,” said Miss Jackson, “We already have people coming in and saying, apologetically, ‘I just have this old two-dimensional camera.”‘


This snapshot of the early days #musetech inspires our team to explore emerging #musetech job opportunities related to increasingly popular mixed reality technologies, especially VR. As Desi Gonzalez envisioned, multimedia production roles at museums might evolve into VR production, while artist-in-residence programs might involve VR game developers and designers.

 

At the early adoption stage of the technology, museums also need to consider new challenges posed to exhibition design and visitor services. I remember at last year’s Margaret Mead Film Festival, staff and volunteers from the American Museum of Natural History were assigned to facilitate visitors at the Virtual Reality Lounge. The museum ensured visitors’ safety by providing additional seating and assisted visitors’ viewing experience by reminding participants, especially first-timers, to “look around.” For more immersive and intense VR experience like “Real Violence” by Jordan Wolfson, featured in this year’s Whitney Biennial, museum staff needs to ensure one’s physical and emotional safety by providing clear instruction and guidance of exit points.

Photograph by Bill Orcutt. A museum staff (in green top) instructs visitors before experiencing Jordan Wolfson’s VR project “Real Violence” at 2017 Whitney Biennale.

 

The 2016 NMC Horizon Report predicted that virtual reality would have a significant impact on museum education and interpretation within the next two to three years (P42-43). Indeed, we have already seen new #musetech job titles and requirements brought by mixed reality. For example, Sheila Carey has discovered that a program facilitator job posted by Canadian National Exhibition in 2016 required “advanced knowledge of technology, specifically augmented reality and virtual reality,” and a managerial role in exhibition projects at Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation, demanded experiences in “managing digital media projects such as virtual and augmented reality interactives/experiences and Apps.”

 

As mixed reality technology is making people’s physical and virtual reality increasingly interchangeable, at the same time, people’s relationship with MR technology is evolving. For example, we have witnessed the booming VR projects across industries. There are VR films, VR games, VR fitness, VR education, and endless possibilities for VR applications. What will the future museums look like when VR became the alternative/dominate way of experiencing the world around us? Perhaps, at one point, we may need museum historians to recreate a physical experience for us to reconnect with the primitive life.

 

No matter what technology a museum chose to adopt, the core of visitor-centered experience remains the same. Potential roles as VR curators or VR securities all demand understandings of the needs of museum visitors, both onsite and online. I would like to envision that the future museum professionals are accommodating to visitors who are different levels of technology adaptors: the future museums are welcoming places for different types of technologies as well as lifestyles, as depicted in the video clip below.

 

The clip is from The Series Has Landed, Season 1 Episode 2, Futurama. The episode aired on April 4, 1999.

 

 

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Sharing, Caring, and Hashtag Taxonomies: going beyond #MCN2017

Thanks to social media, following a conference from home if you can’t make it in person has never been easier. Over the years we’ve seen an incredible level of activity around MCN and we are well aware that the amount of content being shared can make it difficult for those tuning in from home. At last year’s conference, we had 600 attendees but over 1,200 chimed in on Twitter alone, sharing over 9,000 tweets over a three-day span.

 

We decided to switch things up a bit this year in an attempt to make following through Twitter more digestible for our onsite and online communities. Following the success of the “Hash-Dash Syntax” at Museums and the Web this past spring, we’ve adopted the concept at #MCN2017.

 

Sean O’Shea, Manager of UX and Strategy at @Cuberis, came up with the brilliant idea. You can read more about it in his Medium post.

As Sean said, “Due to the way Twitter’s hashtags work, only the text before the dash will be recognized as a hashtag. This preserves the integrity of the conference hashtag. But the power of this approach is that users can easily search Twitter for the full hash-dash tag, which will surface all tweets from that session.” Brilliant, Sean!

 

If you’re getting ready for #MCN2017 you’ve probably been looking over the program and you may or may not have noticed in the online conference calendar that we’ve added a session-specific hashtag to each session. You can find them in the bottom left of the session descriptions.

 

So as we celebrate 50 years of MCN (and 10 years of the humble hashtag!), we hope this helpful change allows you to get more out of the sessions. See you in Pittsburgh and online!

 

The #MCN2017 Program Team
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#MCN50 Voices: Johann Diedrick & Tina Shah

This year MCN celebrates its 50th anniversary. Just as MCN has established a network of established and emerging professionals, #MCN50 Voices brings members together, old and new, near and far.

Johann Diedrick, Senior Developer at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Tina Shah, Senior Developer at The Art Institute of Chicago, decided to do their interview as a creative exchange.

 

SO… How did you get into museums?

Johann: I’ve always been working in cultural spaces, since it aligns with my own art practice. I was introduced to my current job through a friend who introduced me to my current manager, who is also an artist working with sound. There was an opening in the Digital department, so I applied and got the job!

Tina: It was the year 2008. I had recently moved to the LA area. I was teaching at a private college. I loved teaching but did not agree with the institution’s policies so I quit. I didn’t know LA very well so wasn’t sure where to look for a job. I started thinking about places I had enjoyed visiting during my time thus far, and I thought of The Getty and the beautiful sunset I had witnessed during my last visit there. I immediately went online and checked out their website, coincidentally they were looking for a developer and as luck would have it, I got the job! The rest is history :).

 

Artists at Work

For our interview, we decided to pass images back and forth about our daily life at the museum and what it means to be a creative person working in an institution about creation. We talked at length about what inspires us and how we struggle to find time for our creative activities while working full-time. Each of us is able to find ways that our museums can inspire us still, and we can use that inspiration to fuel our creative energies. Over the course of eight months we communicated via image and text in order to document our work and creative lives. At the end we worked on an artwork together. Below is a visual journal of our correspondence.

 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Johann: How do you start your day? Mine begins, one way or another, by swiping my Met ID badge. This machine is the one near our digital department offices. It’s the one I use if I come in the building through the main entrance into the great hall, up from the steps on 5th avenue between 84th and 81st street. If I come in through our 84th street entrance, I use another machine located in the labyrinth-like passageways underneath the museum. Thinking about how you start your day? How did you get started at museums at all?

 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Tina: Hi Johann! SO… I start my day by getting off the train, usually running late and trying to walk up this little mountain as fast as I can. The museum is right in the heart of what we call ‘the loop.’ This is walking up Monroe St. and Michigan Ave. To the left you could catch a glimpse of Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate! Once I reach the top of that little hill, I get a good view of one of our gardens. In the summer it’s especially beautiful!

 
Tina: And then I swipe here.

Tina: And have yet another little mountain to climb 🙂 How did I get into museums? I’ll have to get back to you on that soon!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Focal Distance, Zhang Peili

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Tina: Degradation of an image. Kinda like a memory. How are you?? Where are you? What’s inspiring you these days?

 

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Johann: Hey! I have been in Japan for the past few weeks – sorry for the bad communication! I’m doing well! I’ve been teaching workshops here for 3 weeks and I’m heading back to NYC on Sunday. These days I’ve been inspired by this environment.

Johann: This is the Kamo River in Kyoto where I’ve been doing sound recordings. For me the sound recordings are like photos to remind me of a place and its unusual things. (For a month I did a residency in Kyoto, Japan, where I taught sound art workshops.)

 

Monday, May 8, 2017

Tina: Hi Johann! That image is beautiful. Sound does take me back to so many memories. Hearing a car with a bad engine drive by takes me back to riding in a rickshaw in India. I value these precious memories and want to do as much as I can to preserve them. My thesis project in grad school was actually about memories being triggered by color – I’ll send you a YouTube link!

 

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Johann: Ok! Send me the link when you can! I’m now back at The Met from travelling around.

While I was in Japan I made drawings about my experiences recording and listening to “weak sounds”

 

While traveling I was doing sound recordings and drawings from the places I made the recordings. I’m also interested in how we document places, things, events, experiences, etc… It’s hard for me to know how these will remind me of memories down the line though. It’s still too early to tell.

Two Flowers

 

Kamogawa

 

Heater

 

Cherry Blossoms

 

Shink at Nigh

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Tina: I bet those drawings will stir up memories later. Are you adding descriptions to the drawings too? I guess you could say ‘metadata’? I’ve been archiving my daughter’s drawings, and works of art. I find her creativity so interesting. On the back of each drawing I add her description of the work and the month/year. Recently she and her grandma found one of the archives and had so much fun going through it! Especially my daughter Soma. She was flabbergasted by what she was doing in preschool and kindergarten :). She’s finishing up 2nd grade now. I just finished my first oil painting class, had done a lot of acrylics before but not oils! Here’s my last painting, of my daughter:

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Johann: I want to install the drawing with sound recordings that I made at the site that I drew them. I have been doing the same with photos and recordings for a while, and I’ve always wanted to introduce drawing into my work so I’m trying! Here are what those other works look like:

These recordings were turned into sound/photo diptychs that document my recording activities.

 

Johann: Now that you mention it, I did add dates to the back of the drawings! Some of them got titles too. That painting is awesome! I did a little painting in high school but I was never drawn to it. I think I want to stick with drawings for a bit. Speaking of which I was inspired by a few I saw at the Cy Twombly show at the Pompidou in Paris in March:

While in Paris, I visited the Pompidou Museum and was inspired by Cy Twombly’s color pencil drawings and watercolor paintings.

 

Johann: When was the last time something at a museum inspired you to make?

 

Over the course of the next couple months, we decided it would be fun to collaborate on an artwork. We had a Google Hangout and checked out some digital options to make a work online but we were not satisfied with what we found. We decided to send a work back and forth to each other in the mail and to use whatever medium we each wanted. We exchanged addresses and…

 

Monday, August 7, 2017

Johann: Shipped! Should get there by the end of the week

Tina: Awesome!! Can’t wait 🙂

 

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Tina: Still haven’t received it!

 

Johann: Yeah I’m thinking it got lost 🙁 I’m going to call them and see what happened. This sucks lol

 

Tina: Did you take a pic? Or maybe we just do this electronically. Draw, scan, send; print, draw, scan, send?

 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

 

Johann: I didn’t take a pic… but I made a new one this weekend. Hopefully you can work with it? I can try scanning that at work tomorrow too.

Tina: Beautiful! Yes, if you can scan, that would be great!

 

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Johann: Did you get my email with the scan?

 

Tina: Yes! Will do something with it soon

Description of work/process

Johann: This was may be the third watercolor painting I have ever made. I wanted to play around and explore with colors, so it’s a simple color study with watercolors, which I made on a camping trip.

Tina: Initially I had planned to print out the image and draw on it with black ink. I doodle and draw with black ink often so that’s what came naturally at first, but then I wanted to see if I could replicate the way I draw in Photoshop. I started to do this and began to experiment with the various editing tools and filters. What I ended up with looks very different from what it had started to look like initially!

From the Editor: Can you both comment on any connections between this artwork you made together and your careers? I am thinking about collaboration, process, and things turning out differently than intended.

Tina: Initially I thought we’d have more time to work on our piece. We had planned to send our work to each other via mail more than once. However, with the mail getting lost we had to make do with what we had. We decided to make another work and send to each other electronically. This change in plan also affected my personal approach to how I would contribute to the work. In a sense, I had to be ‘agile’ to this change and to the limited time we had. In the end, I’m disappointed that our original plan didn’t work out but I’m not disappointed with the end result of the plan that did happen. I’m glad that we were able to collaborate on a work of art, and each of us was able to explore, not as planned, but in unexpected ways which made the entire process even more interesting!

Johann: I think that in a lot of situations, you have to work with limited time, limited resources, and unexpected circumstances. Being able to be adaptive when things don’t go as planned is part of the work I do, both creatively and professionally. I think we were able to create something new and exciting given both of our schedules (something we have some control over) and the original artwork getting lost in the mail (something we have no control over). I’m glad we were able to create something together and share our creativity together!

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#MCN50 Voices: Tim Svenonius & Brinker Ferguson

This year MCN celebrates its 50th anniversary. Just as MCN has established a network of established and emerging professionals, #MCN50 Voices brings members together, old and new, near and far.

Tim Svenonius is the Senior Content Strategist for Interpretive Media at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) and an artist in his spare time. Brinker Ferguson is currently a PhD candidate in Digital Heritage at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and has worked at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Cyark. In this wide-ranging conversation they discussed the benefits of working in the Bay Area, conservation work and cultural heritage repatriation, and the role of social justice in museums.

 

Working inside and outside the museum: San Francisco as Backdrop

 

Tim Svenonius (TS): San Francisco maintains a kind of dual identity, attractive for a kind of picturesque history, yet at any given moment it’s been associated with innovation, a rebellious spirit and the shaking off of conventions. So while many people are drawn to the city for its historical icons (Alcatraz, cable cars, the bridges), its true industry is always newness. In the museum field you’ve got a similarly split paradigm: people will continue to think about museums in the old ways, as grand, imposing neoclassical structures, but in fact most of the venerable museums in the U.S. have rebuilt or radically expanded to accommodate changing demands and evolving visions. We’re holding onto our legacies, yet we strive to stay relevant amid cultural shifts. And for anyone who’s working with digital technology, we are in the front seat, witnessing that seismic shift.

 

Brinker Ferguson (BF): Yes! And you yourself are in a really interesting position of having been in the Bay Area since the 1990s and working at SFMOMA for some time now. You have seen many changes happen both within and outside the institution. So for the museum’s reopening in 2016, how much were you and your team looking outside the museum for inspiration and how much were you looking inside, especially to the legacy of SFMOMA, for its new interpretive needs?

 

TS: We had to be hyper-attuned to the particulars of Bay Area audiences. It’s a very young, very tech savvy population, and the area has many rich cultural offerings. So while we paid attention to what other museums were doing, locally and globally, we also recognized our situation as unique.

A vast majority of the digital experiences in the museum were reconceived for the reopening. Technology-based experiences unfortunately have a short shelf life—they quickly become obsolete or simply cease to look fresh, so we have little choice but to continually reinvent the means to deliver our content. But the changing technology also spurs us to rethink the ways in which we can tell stories, and continually rethink what audience engagement means.

TS: And you have also been working (though a bit more recently) in the Bay Area both within more traditional institutions like the Fine Arts Museum but also outside the museum sector, with CyArk. Can you speak to the differences?

 

BF: Sure, I actually see more similarities than differences. What has united a lot of my professional experience has been working with conservation teams both inside the museum and then within the larger heritage field, specifically in at-risk world heritage sites. At its core, conservation is about documenting the rate of change to an object or heritage site, and from this data, making decisions on best practices to attempt to slow this rate of change. My focus over the past couple of years has been on helping conservators tell their remarkable stories through digital projects as well as the documentation/tracking side of conservation through scientific imaging and computational photography. It’s been exciting working the Bay Area because there are a lot of really smart people working in this space right now. It’s been really wonderful for example, to be able to have coffee with engineering grad students at UC schools, or Stanford or go to a product launch for huge for-profits like Autodesk or Leica Geosystems, but it’s a balance between things like open source with proprietary software (which is really scary for long-term data preservation) and sometimes conflicting agendas on what constitutes “success” especially in the tech field.  

 

In Pursuit of Passions

 

BF: Tim, I know this week you are taking some very precious vacation time to work in your studio. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your artistic practice and how this might influence your creativity inside the museum (and vice-versa!)

 

TS: Any spare hours I can find outside of the work day I try to devote to my creative pursuits, mainly painting or drawing. I’m always seeking new inspirations and approaches, and it’s been invaluable to work in a place where I’m always near art, continually exposed to new work, and also have access to rich scholarship around it. It flows the other way too—I find that when writing about art it makes a big difference to have worked in a lot of the same media and worked through similar problems. I will often look at an artwork and think I have been there. It doesn’t mean that I reached the same conclusion or the same solution, but I often feel I can get inside of the process, whether that’s the physical making or the thought process that led to the ultimate result.

 

TS: And you, too, are working on a big writing project—the dissertation. How has this influenced your museum work or thinking about the museum field?

 

BF: Yes, attempting to wrap up this research in the next couple of months, though I am really trying to savor every drop of this time too since (at least the dissertation part) has been very exciting and rewarding! I am grateful for this time because it’s given me an opportunity to slow down and think very deeply (maybe this is similar to your artistic process) about one set of issues around one particular case study—in this instance a Maori meetinghouse at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa. The meetinghouse has been the jewel of the National Museum’s collection for 150 years, but how it got to the museum has always been questioned. A few years ago the New Zealand government formally acknowledged that it was taken without consent from its tribe (iwi) and the full ownership has now been returned to the Rongowhakaata iwi. This set in motion several important developments for the nation, museum, and the intangible and tangible redress of Maori cultural heritage.

Rather than staying quiet about losing a key item from their collection however, Te Papa is working with the iwi on long-term conservation and interpretive storytelling projects. My personal role through the PhD has been working with the museum and iwi on creating a full 3D conservation documentation record of the meetinghouse-through photogrammetry and laser scanning technologies, training Rongowhakaata iwi members on 3D imaging technologies for sustainable long-term conservation/preservation practices, and tracking and 3D imaging several ancestral carvings from the meetinghouse that ended up in collections abroad like the British Museum and National Gallery of Australia for a digital repatriation (or the repatriation of information) project that will realign the correct genealogical order of the carved ancestors, though virtually. Looking at just this one object inside the museum’s collection has opened me up to ask larger questions around issues of power, control, and cultural self-determination.

 

The changing roles of museums

 

TS: It’s a fundamentally different way of thinking about the role of a museum, when the most responsible thing that they can do in this case is to relinquish the object. Of course there is this immense conservation effort occurring as part of the repatriation.

 

BF: Yes, in my opinion Te Papa has been and continues to be a leader in museums and indigenous community relationships. One thing that we have talked about in the past is, what is the current role of the museum? Te Papa seeks to understand the needs of its Maori communities, from how they want to tell their stories, to what is appropriate or not appropriate in terms of sharing information as well as handling and storing objects. I think what Te Papa represents and something we are seeing in general in our field is a shift in museum practice. Historically the museum began as a type of temple for heritage objects, with its particular one-way dissemination of information. This then transitioned into the forum in the 80s and 90s where visitors began to participate and have voice within the institution. It seems to me that we are entering into a 3rd wave—we are saying ok, we have participation with our audience, but what do we do with that? How do we actually make an impact? How do we both facilitate as well as be open venues for social activism and change? Look at our keynote speaker lineup for MCN this year, it’s not focused on tech leaders but leaders who are activists and community builders in such movements as #BlackLivesMatter or #MuseumsRespondToFerguson.

 

BF: So…do you believe that museums need to be part of or facilitators of social change?

 

TS: It’s a really complex question, and maybe every museum has to come up with its own stance. First, I believe any museum occupies a specific niche within its social landscape, and has to be attuned to changes in that landscape. With the ubiquity of social media, many people in our field feel it’s crucial to bring visitor voices into institutional discourse. But how do we reconcile the democratization of information with the authority that many museums have worked for decades to establish? How does a museum tell its essential stories and also engage an open dialogue? We can look around and ask, how are museums contending with these questions, but there’s no single solution, and even the leaders in this movement are grappling with it, still figuring it out.

 

An early/memorable museum moment

 

BF: Tim, would you mind sharing one of your earliest or most memorable museum moments?

 

TS: I was about eight or nine when I accompanied my mother on a business trip to New York (we lived in DC) and we visited MoMA. At that time Guernica was still there—it would be returned to Spain soon after. I had known nothing about it, and I knew nothing of Picasso, and I was completely in awe—at the scale, the bold style, the brutality. The way I remember it, there was also almost no one there–so the two of us stood by ourselves silently in front of this colossal work. That felt like a really special privilege, and also like being let in on a secret.

 

TS: And throwing that question back at you!

BF: Sure, when I first graduated I received a modest fellowship which I used to work, or intern, in several museums around the world. One of these museums was the Belvedere in Vienna Austria. I used to get to the museum as soon as they would allow staff to enter, around 7am, put on a pair of clean socks, and creep around the galleries to be completely alone in front of the Kokoschka, Schiele, and Klimt paintings (including Klimt’s The Kiss). The security guards started to have a nickname for me “kriechende fraulein” which kind of translates to creeping girl (or creepy girl). I hope it was the first. But it was a really lovely four months of being able to stand in front of these incredible paintings and be completely overwhelmed and immersed by them–it’s something I will never forget.

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#MCN50 Voices: Keir Winesmith & Ed Rodley

This year MCN celebrates its 50th anniversary. Just as MCN has established a network of established and emerging professionals, #MCN50 Voices brings members together, old and new, near and far.

Keir Winesmith, a current board member of MCN, sat down with Ed Rodley, former MCN board member and Secretary of the Board. Keir is the Head of Web and Digital Platforms at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Ed is the Associate Director of Integrated Media at the Peabody Essex Museum. Their video conversation touched on the ethics of linked open data, the social justice challenges of databases, and the ways to help improve data access.

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#MCN50 Voices: It’s All Personal—Robin Dowden & Scott Sayre

This year MCN celebrates its 50th anniversary. Just as MCN has established a network of established and emerging professionals, #MCN50 Voices brings members together, old and new, near and far.

Robin Dowden is an independent consultant working at the intersection of technology and museums. From 1997–2015 she worked at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis as the Director of Technology and New Media Initiatives. Prior to joining the Walker, Dowden was the Collections Systems and Web Site Manager at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Scott Sayre is the Chief Information Officer at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York. From 2002–2014 he was a Principal and co-owner of Sandbox Studios, a Minneapolis-based museum media production and consulting company. Prior to working independently, Scott was the founder and Director of the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s Interactive Media Group from 1993–2002.

In this interview Scott Sayre and Robin Dowden talk about how their friendship, spanning 20 years, began with their work, and an MCN conference. Read to the end to get their 10 Maxims of advice for happy career in Museum Tech!

Robin Dowden, Kris Wetterlund, and Scott Sayre began working together in musetech 20 years ago in Minnesota. Robin is now Kris and Scott’s neighbor in Corning, NY.

 

First encounters and a commitment to collaboration

 

Robin Dowden (RD): I remember watching you give a presentation about interactive media at MiA [Minneapolis Institute of Arts]. You were wearing a vest, your signature look (are you ok with me saying that?). I swear it was an MCN conference because I didn’t attend anything else at the time. I was thinking “He’s smart. I want to get to know him.” I make a habit of surrounding myself with smart people. Then in the spring of ’97, I was considering the move to Minneapolis and Steve Dietz brought me to your house as part of my introductory tour. Typical Steve, he got lost in your neighborhood. When we finally got to your house, I remember standing in the living room and seeing Kris [Wetterlund] in the kitchen, cooking with a friend. And again I thought, “I like these people.” It was comfortable. It was the Midwest in the best of senses. A good vibe.

 

Scott Sayre (SS): I can’t recall our first meeting but Steve was definitely the linchpin. Steve and I started working together on the precursors and ideas behind ArtsConnectEd (ACE), which created the opportunity to bring you on board. Steve had recently been hired by the Walker [Art Center] to build the new media program.

 

RD: Remind me again how that partnership was formed?

 

SS: The state of Minnesota had this new technology investment money. It was there for the asking, and Steve came to me and said “let’s do something.” I was already working with Kris to digitize MiA slide sets and we [education and digital media] were beginning to explore distributing curriculum resources online. We knew any proposal had to have an education bent to it. We started talking about digitizing the MiA and Walker collections, making them available for educational use, really targeting the K-12 audience. It wasn’t something the Walker or Steve was particularly interested in doing but he saw it as good justification for the investment, and thought he could build creatively off the investment, which he went on to do. It was a good foundation for a lot of things, primarily because digitizing collections wasn’t really happening.

 

RD: One of the great things about that partnership was the two institutions had some different objectives; your emphasis on K-12 and Steve was really interested in the Internet as a medium for art making. Together you forced one another to broaden your scope. In the same way Walker and MiA, in combining their digital assets, were acknowledging neither institution individually could tell a complete story of art. The partnership produced a better whole.

 

SS: I think that’s true. Some of the commissioned ACE projects were a hybrid of what Steve and I were trying to do. Steve was like “let’s get these designers and artists to do a project using the resources but it will have an educational application.” Those were the higher-level projects that lived on top of the ACE content. It was just a good opportunity to play with some of those ideas. Bringing you to the table with a good understanding of how to deal with massive amounts of collection information was a skill I didn’t have, my staff didn’t have. The digitized collections were the foundation of a lot of what would happen.

 

RD: One of the things that’s interesting about that idea, how the partnership was formed, was this sense from the beginning, that it wasn’t going to be a complete replication of expertise within each institution. MiA was going to have the lead in certain areas, Walker in others. There was even talk at one point about shared digitization resources [staffing, equipment]. That feeds into the whole emphasis on collaboration, which has been super strong in most of the work I’ve done and a lot of stuff you’ve done.

 

SS: That project really got me more interested in seeing some of the opportunities around collaboration, like the idea of us going to Microsoft and getting a good deal on licenses. Microsoft’s probably a pretty easy target nowadays for nonprofit support, but when we got that incredibly high-end imaging software, I don’t think either institution could have afforded it, or even justified the vendor giving us a good price on it. But coming together really made the case. Then there was shared hosting environment. There were a lot of gains there.

RD: Just before I left the Walker, all the shared stuff was finally completely abandoned. The Cloud changes everything in so many ways, but the idea that we would have shared rackspace in a colocation facility ended in 2015, nearly 20 years later.

 

SS: It’s really easy to have sour grapes over a lot of the things that have been discontinued, allowed to fail, or not respected. But at the same time, there’s no question that a lot of the work we did set the foundation for where both institutions are now, independent of those specific projects. We were able to fund digitizing and setting standards for collections online, build integrated data sets, and a lot of stuff that’s just taken for granted now. I think the whole justification for shared access to educational resources, still a great idea, wasn’t something either institution’s education department nor director saw as a priority. It was really something that came out of the digital areas. It was good enough to get the money, and then the institutions were really happy when we had millions of dollars to spend on digital projects. To a certain degree the political climate, other than in the digital departments, hasn’t really changed because it was always a bit of a struggle to get the rest of the organization to buy into these ideas.

 

RD: Well, you know, it’s like everything. You just need to convince them that it’s their idea and then suddenly it’s golden.

 

 

How did we get in this field anyway?

 

SS: Well, in 8th grade when I was a lost cause in life, the guidance counselor who ran the photo club dragged me in to set up the dark room, and that’s where my interest in media started. From that point forward, I was really engaged with photography. I started working on yearbook, learning about graphic arts, and decided I wanted to pursue something like visual communications. I went on to get my undergraduate degree in visual communications technology from Bowling Green. When I graduated, I was not enamored with the idea of working in advertising—which even back then I thought was kind of the evil empire. I wanted to apply that knowledge to something different. I saw education and training as the place to do that.

I followed that path through my Master’s and PhD and at the same time started to learn more about kinds of informal education, using it in places like museums, which at that point in time wasn’t characterized or understood as such. I loved museums, particularly science museums, but the idea of working in a science museum wasn’t panning out. I was working at an academic technology research center, doing work with interactive technologies and got assigned to a project to produce a documentary about how those were being used in public spaces. I knew MiA had an interactive videodisk kiosk, and while documenting that work was asked by an MiA Visitor Services person if I knew anything about this kind of stuff because they were looking to hire a director of digital media. It took a while to actually land the job but it was a match made in heaven to a certain degree. It was the first job like that in the US, maybe even the world, to form a public-focused digital media team in an art museum.

 

RD: I’ve never heard you talk about advertising and visual communications, which is interesting to me because I too was a bit lost in high school but unfortunately didn’t have anybody to guide me. Visual communications and graphic design was never apparent as a “thing.” My interests were viewed as more language-based, and I was directed toward journalism programs, and within that, advertising. I was at the University of Nebraska, writing copy for Mrs. Smith’s frozen fruit pies, and thinking, you know, this isn’t really anything I want to do. At the same time, I was taking art history as a humanities requirement and it was just suddenly like, wow! I love this stuff! It was the combination of art and history which I was always interested in.

SS: Now that you say this, this might actually be the first time that I thought about this, I believe part of the reason I didn’t go the path you went was I always struggled with writing and reading. I also felt socially awkward, like a lot of kids, and so photography for me was a good way of communicating, not having to use words but being able to do it a different way. Then when I started to learn about multi-image, video, and other forms of visual communication, that became a channel for me. I think part of the reason I ended up at Bowling Green and studying Visual Communications was the fact that I was looking for something that didn’t focus solely on written words.

 

RD: When I started taking art history classes, I’d never been in an art museum. It was a field I’d never heard of and one that I changed everything for—colleges, my major, it really opened up the world for me. Between undergrad and grad school, I went on my grand tour, working my way through Europe’s museums. I attended grad school at UC Davis, did an internship at the Crocker in Sacramento, worked in the gallery on campus, and then summer of 1981 landed an internship at the National Gallery of Art.

 

SS: There were so many paths you could have taken. How did you end up specializing in museum informatics?

 

RD: Happy coincidence. I get the internship at the National Gallery, I’m planning to go to USC in the fall to do another Masters in museum studies, I’m a week out from completing the Gallery internship and was offered an opportunity to stay. The National Gallery’s Board had basically issued a mandate to perform annual collection inventories using a computerized information system.  My internship was in the prints and drawings department which had the largest holdings. The Rosenwald collection, the core of the Gallery’s prints and drawings collection, had just been transferred to Washington. I was on the verge of leaving and here was this special project that included completing the integration of the Rosenwald collection and creating electronic records for over 100,000 works of art. I spent the next three years cataloguing prints, drawings, rare books, and developing standards and systems for recording the information, all on an IBM Mainframe that practically filled the lower level of the East Building. In the mid ‘80s I found myself at a crossroads: was I going to pursue this work as a career or go back into something that felt more curatorial, which was where I thought I was originally headed. There were opportunities in a burgeoning informatics field that needed people who could be a bridge between the technologists and content specialists, and I fit it pretty well.


I also got really excited about the application of art information beyond collections management. I would lead the development of the Gallery’s first collections management system, followed by their first website. We were relatively late among big institutions going online but when we did so in 1997, it included a searchable catalog of the entire collection. Nobody was doing that. I was pretty proud of that. But then I saw a future that looked like a hamster on a wheel: the website would be followed by a reengineering of the collections management system, and I didn’t want to do that, again. Enter Steve and the Walker.

 

SS: When did you start to see the value of your work was beyond inventory, something of greater historic, scholarly, and public value?

RD: Pretty early. You know we’ve talked about this in a different context. Recently I’ve become more interested in bird watching and ornithology again, an interest I had in the early 1980s that coincided with my first years in Washington—anyway, this will make sense in a minute. I was hanging out with people working for EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), BLM (Bureau of Land Management), Forest Service, and if you weren’t saving the spotted owl or protecting the environment, your life was meaningless. And I was really questioning, what am I doing? Where is the value? The notion that there was a bigger idea, purpose, was being formulated. I wanted to do something that felt like more than yes, all the beans are counted.

 

SS: It’s interesting, we might have talked about this before as well, but I’ve always struggled with the ephemeral nature of the work we do. There are projects that both of us have worked on that don’t exist anymore.  And at the same time, artifacts of that work, everything from workflows and standards to the actual digitized assets, will go through many iterations into the future, hopefully, but have long-term lasting value. You have to disconnect yourself at a certain point because you get your feelings hurt by the short life span of some of the things you put a lot of effort into, at least the cover image of them, is gone.

 

RD: It’s taken my entire career to understand the importance of the process. The product is important but the way we would get there, the byproducts of that final thing that does feel very ephemeral, those the pieces that have longevity.

 

SS: A lot of the relationships were generated across departments. I think digital has been a tremendous driver of internal collaboration and getting people to actually talk about where they have shared values and objectives. Like you said, I think byproducts is a really good word. Digital has been such an incredible driver for changing the way institutions and individuals think about themselves.

 

Importance of MCN

RD: I think we can connect that emphasis on collaboration back to MCN and the things that have mattered there. For me, it was a lot of relationship building.

 

SS: How did you first get involved in MCN?

 

RD: At the Gallery in the 1980s. It was a very different conference then, really hosted by the local museums, particularly in Washington. I saw a picture recently of people going through the MCN archives, and there was a man I hadn’t seen in forever, David Bridge! David, Mary Case, Jane Sledge, so many people I haven’t thought of in years. At the time, I thought the most interesting work was being done by the Canadian Heritage Information Network. It was beginning of some of my friendships in Canada that, like ours, have endured to this day. I was on the MCN board from 1996–2001, a commitment that overlapped NGA and Walker. In 2001, I was program co-chair for the conference “Real Life: Virtual Experiences, New Connections for Museum Visitors.” The conference was a collaboration with CIMI (Consortium for the Computer Interchange of Museum Information). Angela Spinazze was my co-chair, another important friendship born from work. We invited multiple plenary speakers from outside the membership—that was a new model—and then 9/11 happened. It was amazing the conference took place.

 

You had a different path to MCN, first embracing AAM and their Media and Technology Committee. That was a whole new group of characters.

 

SS: In all honesty, my early relationship with MCN was more awkward because I was involved with AAM and their Media and Technology Committee. AAM was struggling with its relationship with MCN. MCN had always had a place on the floor there, served a certain role, and I think AAM wanted it to either become part of AAM or go away. Meanwhile, Peter Samis, who was at SFMOMA, and I were trying to breathe some new life into the Media and Technology Committee, which was completely media focused—films, slide presentations, some video—there was nothing digital, nothing interactive. It was the early pre-web days of ICHIM. I was involved with those groups because in my mind, it was sexier than what MCN was doing, which was focused on collections management, infrastructure, and IT. I mean the world has changed so many times. Then I became very disenchanted with Museums & the Web, seeing it as a heavily-curated commercial entity that didn’t always have the community’s best interests at heart. MCN today is such a different organization, it’s like MCN version 3.0.

RD: We’ve both been through multiple versions of these organizations. MCN has been reinvented numerous times, and almost gone under on more than one occasion.

 

SS: I feel like one organization starts to outshine the other based on a gap or a need that is not being filled. MCN was missing when digital media really became a sexy thing. MCN was hesitant to get into that and suffered because of it. Unfortunately, it’s now to a point where MCN doesn’t deal much with IT, and that’s now the gap.

 

RD: The evolution of these organizations always comes with some down moments. But when doing their best work, they are responding to the needs of the community. I would agree with you, given the summit we organized last year around e-commerce, there just isn’t a place for some of those big systems conversations right now. At the same time, we can and do argue that digital technology is everything. The compartmentalization of all this stuff is problematic. So, it will change yet again.

 

SS: All true, and yet though all of it, the relationships continue. On a personal level, you, Kris and I have developed a close relationship in part because we share a deep concern about these areas. As much as we try to not talk about work all the time, we often find ourselves gravitating to it and then, at the same time, we found that we have a lot of other shared interests, like food, gardening, and …

 

RD: … chicken coops!

The chicken coop that Robin built on her property with the help of Scott and Kris.

 

 

SS: … living out in the country. These things, that seem very divergent in some ways, have brought us all together even more.

 

RD: And now we’re wishing MCN a happy voyage into its next 50 years, and us as well, as we set up camp in Corning, NY. How about ending with a little advice for a happy career in museum tech?

 

Robin and Scott’s 10 Maxims (+1)

  1. Collaborate with sister institutions.
  2. Colleagues can become your best friends, if you’re lucky.
  3. Be generous.
  4. Healthy competition is a good thing.
  5. Learn from past initiatives. It’s likely your idea has been tried before: do it better!
  6. If your developer says it’s impossible, give him a day before charting a new course.
  7. Make him in the last sentence her.
  8. The impossible often seems attainable after a good night’s sleep.
  9. The work you do in museums will be among the best experiences of your life.
  10. The contribution is not the headstone but the life that went with it.
  11. Don’t eat green grass on an empty stomach (really applies to cats).

 

 

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