MCN 50 – Today is Tomorrow

By Marla Misunas, MCN50 Co-Chair, Collections Information Manager, SFMOMA

 

The Museum Computer Network (MCN) got its start in 1967 when local New York museum directors met at the Whitney Museum of American Art in the Spring of 1967, to explore ways of using technology newly developed by computer scientists such as Jack Heller at New York University.

Meetings were funded by the Old Dominion Foundation and the New York State Council on the Arts. MCN offices were set up at the Museum of Modern Art’s annex on West 53 rd Street, with Everett Ellin as its first Executive Director.

The network expanded quickly over the next year, with distinguished Washington D.C. museums joining the original New York 15. By the time the 1968 meeting was organized, eight more institutions had joined the consortium, including museums further west such as the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. We are continuing to track down details on early MCN history, so stay tuned for further posts!

Looking back 50 years later, the cultural landscape of the country and of the role of technology in our culture has changed dramatically—but much may still feel familiar. In the spring of 1967 the science fiction show Star Trek was approaching the end of its very first season.

Promotional photo of the cast of Star Trek

 

I was a kid in suburban Illinois in 1967. When the streetlights came on, it was time to break up your game of tag and go home. That wasn’t difficult on Thursday nights, because everyone I knew was skedaddling home to watch Star Trek. Star Trek and my other favorite show, That Girl, had premiered on the same night the previous September. That year, my AM radio played hits like Aretha Franklin’s Respect, the Beatles’ Penny Lane, and the Rolling Stones’ Ruby Tuesday. My older brother’s FM radio played cuts from Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced, and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Lee Friedlander, Jazz & Portfolio [Aretha Franklin]

 

Grown-ups with beards and long hair wearing funny clothes and waving flowers started appearing all over the news. Exotic far-off lands (for me) like New York and San Francisco had hippie gatherings called “Human Be-Ins,” music festivals like Monterey Pop, and huge marches protesting the war in Viet Nam.

Monterey International Pop Festival

 

1967 was a time of change all over the country. The civil rights movement was in the news—Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were still going strong, Carl B. Stokes was the first African American mayor of a major city (Cleveland).Tragically, race riots were part of this period as well. Citizens rioted in Washington, D.C., Detroit, Minneapolis, Florida, New Jersey,

Buffalo, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. Unrest at my hometown high school, where my dad taught, caused the city fathers to send police officers and dogs to patrol the corridors.

Getty Images

 

 

At least the USA was winning the space race—or so it seemed. The Mariner 5 space probe flew past Venus. Venus! It was like Star Trek might be coming true. Another space probe landed on the moon. The government continued to move forward, in stiff competition with the Soviet space program.

Against this backdrop of tremendous unrest and tremendous hope, computer scientists like New York University’s Jack Heller began to develop automation tools for NYU’s library, the International Repertory of Music Literature, and the Dag Hammarskjöld Library of the United Nations.

The tools would no doubt seem rudimentary to us today, but can you imagine what it must’ve been like: instead of flipping through results in a massive card catalog, you could see that same data going into a computer the size of your house? Maybe Star Trek really was coming true!

Courtesy of the IBM Corporate Archive

News of the day in 1967 doesn’t seem so different than what we are dealing with today. We (almost) have driverless cars, but turmoil and warfare still seem to be the way of the world. In museums, we are still grappling with remaining relevant, engaging younger audiences, and incorporating “space age” technology into our daily work.

What do you think about how far we have come—or not—since 1967? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

0

Looking to the past, seeing the future: MCN 1968

This #MCN50 post brought to you by Charles Zange

 

A year after its founding, MCN hosted its first major conference: “A Conference on Computers and their Potential Applications in Museums.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted the event, which was supported by a grant from IBM. Over three days in April, participants came together to discuss the future of technology and in so doing laid a foundation for decades of collaboration.

The attendee list was small. A total of 27 speakers signed up, most from New York but a few others joined from Oklahoma, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Toronto. Registration took place on Monday from 11:00-12:00. Sessions began that afternoon one at a time and continued through Wednesday. The Junior Museum Snack Bar was reserved for participants to take lunch. The conference concluded with dinner at the Met’s main restaurant.

Compared purely with the scope and scale of #MCN2016 in New Orleans, #MCN1968 was a minor affair: no parallel session tracks, no grand ballrooms, and no complimentary breakfast. The schedule was printed on plain paper with neither advertisement nor graphic. The san-serif font is black and white. Yet even at its small dimensions, #MCN1968 laid the foundation for many common elements of today’s conferences.

For example:

– “Demonstrations and Films of Computer Hardware and Applications.” Tuesday, 2:00-5:00PM – This precursor to the Exhibitor Hall provided a space for IBM to install and demonstrate technology for museum application. (The stars of the show were “Displays of visual equipment for microfilm and microfiche.)”

– “Documentary Applications.” Monday 1:30-5:00PM – Presenters were considering the best ways to create, organize, and analyze computerized records of collections systems – an ongoing need in collections management.

– “New Approaches in Museum Education.” Wednesday, 3:00-5:00PM – Attendees in this session responded to a presentation on “The Future of the Museum as a Learning Environment,” approaching a question that continues to face educators today.

The no-frills #MCN1968 experience calls back to the essence of the gathering itself: even from the beginning, MCN has always been an experimental mix of thought leaders and technology. It will be exciting to see where this energy can lead this year at #MCN50!

Below is the full schedule from #MCN1968. What was your first MCN conference? Let us know in the comments.

 

0

#MCN50 Voices – Andrea Ledesma & Diana Folsom

Post by Andrea Ledesma

 

This year MCN celebrates its 50th anniversary. From birthday parties to archive dives, and of course to the annual conference, there’s no shortage of opportunities to honor this landmark year.

Today, we’re kicking off #MCN50 Voices. Just as MCN has established a network of established and emerging professionals, #MCN50 Voices brings members together, old and new, near and far. Diana Folsom and I are excited to kick off the series with a conversation of our own.

 

 

Diana is the Director of Digital Collections at the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art at the University of Tulsa. Previously, she worked at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) for 20+ years, where she helped orchestrate the Getty Online Scholarly Catalog Initiative among other projects. Currently, I’m a graduate student in the public humanities at Brown University. Through coursework focused on public history, museum technology, and collective memory, I explore how technology reinvents the ways in which narratives are formed and interpreted within museums and cultural institutions. Currently, I work as an instructional technology fellow on campus, as well as intern for the Digital Public Library of America in Boston. Here are some highlights from our conversation.

 

Getting from there to here takes commitment, grit, and a bit of chance.

Diana and I share a love for cultural heritage. While I study history, memory, and narrative, Diana has a background in art, music, dance, and education. What she calls “all the practical things.” Learning about her professional experiences was interesting, if not inspiring for an emerging professional like myself. Diana’s story, however, also showcased the value of the unexpected. After graduation, she worked a number of jobs in technology – educational software, computer manufacturing, and marketing – but her path to the museum started with a serendipitous bus ride in New York. She found herself sitting next to Jim Schlotter, then LACMA’s CIO. He was – and still is – a “charismatic, outgoing fellow.” Fast forward through a long-distance friendship based on shared projects and LACMA’s growing digital infrastructure, Diana eventually found herself working at the museum.

 

Find ways to have fun, IRL.

Star Flower – Birthplace of Stars

Earth treading Star

Andrea’s roasted winter salad, light on dressing and heavy on an Instagram filter

For as many hours as Diana and I spend with screens and servers, we both like to disconnect. Diana is a practicing artist. She explained:

“I have to say working with technology and day to day business applications, I just didn’t want to do anything with computers in my own art. I may work with ideas a bit through sketching and manipulating images, but beyond that I just like the physicality of painting and mixed media.”

When not at my desk or in the library, you  find me in the kitchen. I cook and eat, and read about other people cooking and eating. Fun fact: if not in museums, I’d be a chef. I worked at Williams-Sonoma all through high school and could probably still sell someone on a copper-core pan if I tried hard enough. This hobby is not nearly as well documented as Diana’s – unless you’re counting all the gratuitous shots of my #homecooking on Instagram. So, here’s a bit of Diana’s art. Her paintings rely on “materials of special meaning, selecting soils from places of family, cultural or historical significance or personal memory.”

 

Professional decisions can lead to personal discoveries.

Curious about Diana’s work at the Gilcrease, I asked what inspired her to move from California to Oklahoma. She explained that it was as much a professional decision as it was personal. When Diana flew out to Oklahoma for her first interview at the Gilcrease, she took her mom. The Gilcrease’s initiative to digitize its 400,000+ objects presented the perfect opportunity for her and her husband to “do something kind of radical,” but, her ties to Oklahoma run deeper than the museum. Tucked away in the museum archives, Diana has found pieces of her family history. Her great-great grandfather David Folsom, for example, was a Choctaw District Chief with close ties to another relative, Peter Perkins Pitchlynn, who was Principal Choctaw Chief through the Civil War. Some of David Folsom’s correspondence is archived among the Pitchlynn papers. Some of these materials have been digitized. You can take a peek into Diana’s story with one of the letters, featured below. Here, David Folsom writes to his brother-in-law Peter, and writes in the post-script:

“Advise – you know John Ross was hated by many – trying to do his people good, or at least defending their wrights.[sic] So you have many enemies all ready about and you will be on your gard. The men are fraid [sic] to speak against you before me. But I know enough to tell you of these things.”

Letter from David Folsom to brother-in-law Peter Pitchlynn 1841, p1

Letter from David Folsom to brother-in-law Peter Pitchlynn 1841, p2-3

Letter from David Folsom to brother-in-law Peter Pitchlynn 1841, p4

 

Don’t underestimate the buddy system.

Advice to those looking to establish and/or grow their career through these next 50 years: connect with a mentor. Diana found a mentor later in her career after volunteering with MCN, and she described the experience as nothing short of life changing. “Stephanie Stebich has been a fantastic mentor!,” Diana emphasized, “She started our conversation with, ‘We’re going to find a board of directors for your life’…and she made sure I found it.” I consider Paul Sparrow, now Director of the FDR Library, a mentor of my own. We first connected during my internship at the Newseum, when he was then Senior VP of Broadcasting, and he continues to be generous with his insight and resources. Diana also mentors students of her own at the University of Tulsa, teaching courses on museum informatics and collections. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to share what I’ve learned, and to build the strengths in the [university].”

 

Now at Brown, Andrea finds herself with a new cohort of colleagues and mentors. Here she is (right) with a few at their exhibit opening last year

 

We ❤️️ MCN.

I joined MCN last year. Diana’s been a member since the ‘90s, serving on the board from 2011 to 2013. For all that time, Diana and I shared the same warm thoughts about MCN. Reflecting on her first MCN conference, Diana explained:“It was like a whole new world opened up. It put things in context.” For me attending last year’s conference was like happening on a community of my own, of others who spoke the same language and worked in the same niche. I was fortunate to have attended the conference as an MCN Scholar, affording me the opportunity to not only connect with members but also share my own work. MCN, though, is about work and play. These connections happened at panels, over dinner, on Bourbon Street, and of course, with karaoke. I met future colleagues and made fast friends. What I’ve learned from MCN thus far has also proven invaluable as I’ve been charting my own path from graduate student to museum professional. This is perhaps one of the secrets to MCN’s enduring success. Diana describes it as a “generosity of ideas…[and] ways of learning.” It runs through the MCN community, inspiring members to create and innovate together.

 

Talk the talk.

Looking beyond 2017, Diana encourages us to think about communication and education. “It’s still a challenge to communicate what we do,” she noted, “to express the complexities in a simple, clear way to upper management and to continue to fund our efforts at a strong level. That’s a challenge for me. Learning how to communicate up, as well as down, which is really important to learn.” By that she means, learning how translate both the value and labor associated with our work across departments in one’s institution. So, to that end Diana says: “get involved.” Speaking for yourself, your work, and your institution takes practice, find opportunities to work with your peers. “The more involved they got, the more they got back.”

 

Stay tuned for more voices from #MCN50 over the coming months. If you’re interested in getting involved with any of the celebrations, let us know here.

0

#MCN50 – The MCN Archives

In fifty years, MCN has collected a lot of history.

The principle repository for MCN’s records is the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA) in downtown Washington DC. MCN records totaling nearly fifty boxes are spread across six record groups at SIA. These collections include everything from news articles and financial records to board minutes and conference programs.

Card catalogue in the MCN archives

On January 26th and 27th, volunteers from the #MCN50 history team met at SIA for two days of solid research. We organized ourselves into pairs to take on three targeted subjects: founding history, past conferences, and historical partnerships. We dove into twenty boxes over the course of these first two days. Some critical documents were photocopied on site so we could scan them later, while others were quickly captured and tweeted through our mobile devices. About 600 pages of material were marked for digitization by SIA, including old conference programs that are not yet digitally available on the MCN website.

The archive dive had the dual benefit of solidifying our understanding of MCN’s history while also surfacing some unexpected details. Some highlights include:

  • Board member lists to build an almost comprehensive board timeline from founding to present
  • An early history of MCN written by David Vance in 1986
  • Founding documents, incorporation papers, and decades of correspondence
  • A 1973 article in Museum News aptly titled “Museums and Computers: Strange Bedfellows”


Now, the #MCN50 history team is pooling its data together and building content to share. In the months leading up to the #MCN2017 conference, the history team will be writing regular blog posts on some of the interesting findings from the January archive dive.

The search has just begun! Do you know of another institution that may have MCN archival records? What kind of MCN stories and swag have you collected from previous conferences? Please leave your insights and feedback in the comments below.


Special thanks to the Smithsonian Institution Archives for their wonderful support, and to the amazing #MCN50 history team volunteers for coming to DC and diving into the collection!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The #MCN50 History Team: Marla Misunas, Chuck Patch, Darren Milligan, David Bridge, Diane Zorich, Leslie Johnston, and Charles Zange

0

Join MCN’s New Mentorship Program and Celebrate #MCN50

Group of conference atendees sit around a table networking

 

Mentoring is an important cornerstone of career advancement as it fosters professional growth and builds peer relationships among both mentors and mentees.  Whether you are new to the field or a senior museum professional, and you would like to engage in candid discussions about career aspirations, challenges, and concerns, we encourage you to complete this application before February 5, 2017. Our pilot year program runs from March 1 to December 31, 2017

There is no cost to join in this program, other than a few hours per month spent engaging in mentorship activities. MCN will provide resources, programs, platforms and dedicated Board members to facilitate your mentorship engagement. You must be a current MCN member to apply.

0