MCN50 Voices: Eleanor E. Fink & Dara Lohnes-Davies

In this instalment of our MCN50 Voice project, Dara Lohnes-Davies, the University of Wyoming Art Museum, Collections Manager interviews Eleanor E. Fink, past MCN Board Member and collections database pioneer.

 


Eleanor Fink headshot

Eleanor E. Fink has held senior positions at the Smithsonian, J. Paul Getty Trust, and World Bank. She is one of the founding directors of the Getty Center in Los Angeles where she initially formed and headed the Getty Vocabulary Program and later became the Director of the Getty Information Institute (GII). As director, she oversaw the Getty’s flagship scholarly art history research databases, including the Census of Antique Art and Architecture Known to the Renaissance, the Bibliography of the History of Art, and the “The Getty Provenance Index (TM)”. She worked to position GII around the concept of universal access to art information and promoted national and international collaboration among institutions. The National Initiative for a Networked Cultural Heritage (NINCH), Getty Vocabularies, Categories for the description of Works of Art (CDWA), and Object ID are some the products of her leadership. Most recently, she initiated and manages the American Art Collaborative Linked Open Data Project (AAC) that brings together 14 U.S. museums interested in erasing data silos to provide seamless access on the subject of American art across museum collections. Eleanor serves on several advisory committees including the Department of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University, the EU ViMM project, and Marie Curie Research Program on Digital Cultural Heritage (ITN-DCH). She is a former director of the Museum Computer Network and a former President of the Visual Resources Association.

Dara Lohnes-Davies headshotAs an EMP (emerging museum professional), Dara Lohnes-Davies started a new position at the University of Wyoming Art Museum as their manager of collections in late July 2017. Previously she was the photographer at the National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota, where she worked on an IMLS-funded project to digitize their founding collection and pre-1800 collection, and to establish a working database of their digital assets. She earned her MA in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester and did an eight month placement at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History working on a variety of digitization projects in the Earth Collections department. Her museum specific passion is working with databases and making the collections more accessible and preserving them through that work. Over the last few months through many emails and some phone calls, Eleanor and Dara got to know each other and discussed many ideas surrounding linked open data, digitization standards, and the climate of digitization projects, both historically and currently. A re-occurring concept was that of “network” and the weight that word carries in demonstrating how not only people are connected, but also how all of the data that is created in the museum sector connects objects to each other and the wider society as a whole. In the transcript below, Eleanor reflects on her career’s past, present, and future, guided by questions Dara drafted based off of those conversations.

 

What led you to work with technology in museums?

Discussions with scholars and the need for a system that could provide scholars with multiple ways of accessing information led me to explore technology. My early beginnings were at Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). It was known as the National Collection of Fine Arts at the time. Initially, I was hired to establish a slide library and photo archive, but my career took off during my tenure at SAAM and I became the Chief of the Office of Research Support that included responsibility and oversight for all the museum’s computerized research projects. SAAM has long been a pioneer in using information and communications technology in helping people understand the significance of American art. The Museum had initiated several national research projects covering the topics of paintings, exhibition catalogs, sculpture and photographic documents.

Right from the start, I realized that the manual systems for cataloging and indexing subject matter were one-dimensional, based on browsing catalog cards one by one. The museum had a well-established research scholars and fellows program, and when I helped the scholars find information, I discovered their interests varied considerably. Some were interested in examples from a particular period, others were interested in works of art created using a particular media or technique. But most were interested in subjects depicted, such as “women with white parasols,” “children playing games,” “still life paintings with skulls,” etc. I realized that I needed to produce something that would allow the fellows to access information from multiple points of view and interests. The museum had launched a pioneering national research project called the Inventory of American Paintings Executed Before 1914. It collected data from museums and private collections across the United States. The data was computerized at SAAM and stored on a Smithsonian mainframe. At the time, computer programming at the Smithsonian was free so I sought help from the Smithsonian’s office for central computing. They agreed to help me design a computer system that would support multiple ways of accessing information.

One of the first things I did was try to find what standards and subject headings already existed that I could use to maintain some consistency across the museum’s five research projects totaling more than 500,000 records. While librarians were well organized and had established national resources like the Name Authority Cooperative Program (NACO) that manages names for authors of books, I discovered that museums had nothing equivalent. When I set up a meeting with NACO at the Library of Congress, I suggested they include names of artists because one artist could have hundreds of works of art dispersed across the museum community. The Library of Congress felt it was not feasible at the time because it was unclear what institution would be the authority! Fast forward a year and I became the founding head of the Getty Vocabulary Program.

 

At SAAM, I ended up creating my own subject thesaurus to capture the items and themes depicted in works of art. SAAM still uses it today. However, it was not until I got to the Getty that I was able to begin work on ULAN (the Union List of Artist Names) and TGN (Thesaurus of Geographic Names) and later metadata standards like CDWA (Categories for the Description of Works of Art), which started off as the Art Information Task Force under a three-year grant from the NEH.

 

How have you been involved with the MCN historically?

I became involved with MCN in the late 1980s while I was working at SAAM. Since SAAM was so engaged in collecting data for national research projects like the Inventory of American Paintings and the nationwide Inventory of American Sculpture, etc., it occurred to me that the work of collecting data would be easier if museums used a network. Therefore, when I heard about MCN, I was interested in creating a real-life network for museums. In fact, in the 1980’s I organized a panel on creating a computer network. Speakers included Peter Homulos, Director of CHIN (Canadian Heritage Information Network) Humanities Data Dictionary, David Bearman from the Smithsonian, and William Arms who oversaw computing at Dartmouth College and also served as a consultant for the Getty Art History Information Program. My interests led to being elected to the MCN Board. It was a critical time for MCN’s future. David Vance was a life-long president of MCN with no term limit. We all respected him, but felt if MCN was to become a thriving membership organization, we should propose a rotating president position elected by the membership. I cast the deciding vote to institute the change.

 

How do you think your legacy has influenced the museum technology sector?

Years ago, the concept of accepting widely agreed upon standards was controversial within the museum and art history communities. You could say that discussions about agreeing on de facto standards was emotional and political. Therefore, I am happy to see that ULAN, TGN, CDWA, and Object ID are now used widely across the international museum community and are being built into most collection management systems. Moreover, now that the Getty Vocabularies are available as linked open data (LOD), these standards should continue serving the museum community well into the future. I think the standards have helped the museum technology sector become more effective.

 

What project(s) in your career have you been the proudest of?

There are several projects throughout my career that fit your question. Perhaps it is worth pointing out that most of my projects are pieces of a larger concept of simplifying access to information and laying the groundwork to interconnect art and cultural heritage information. All of them involved building consensus and working with diverse segments of the community. For example, CDWA resulted from a grant submitted to the NEH. For three years, I convened meetings comprised of art historians, collection managers, and computer programmers. It was important to bring the mix of expertise to the table to discuss what categories these experts felt were essential for describing works of art. The technical experts reminded us how important formatting and standards are in respect to our recommendations. It took a diverse team effort to produce a metadata standard like CDWA. Likewise, when I came up with the idea of producing Object ID, a standard that could help law enforcement agencies like Interpol and national police communicate about lost or stolen cultural property, it was a consensus building effort. First, I formed an alliance of organizations committed to working with AHIP (Art HIstory Information Project) such as UNESCO, ICOM and the Council of Europe, and then years of convening organizations to build consensus. Today Interpol, the Italian Police, and most art theft databases use Object ID. Even the US Military and ICE are using it. Of course, the Getty Vocabularies could not have been created without building consensus and engaging experts worldwide. What all these projects have in common is that they contribute toward harmonization of cultural heritage information and in that sense are building blocks toward the goal of simplifying access and eventually being able to interconnect information without data silos getting in the way.

So my vision or interest in the concept of “network” has driven me for many years. With the introduction of the Internet the idea took on new possibilities—namely with W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) protocols and standards, the network could be distributed like the world wide web itself, rather than an aggregation model where all the data resides in one place. When I became director of the Getty Information Institute, I reorganized GII around the concept of universal access to images and art information and we produced a video called the Virtual Database: Art Information on the Networks. It illustrated the value of seamlessly being able to find all the works of art associated with the creation of St. Peter’s Basilica no matter where today those works reside. We felt all the tools, and standards GII produced contributed toward achieving this concept.

Most recently, I have been working with Linked Open Data (LOD). When Rachel Allen, Deputy Director of SAAM and former MCN president, and I learned about LOD we realized that we had reached a significant turning point. The ideas we talked about a decade earlier like the virtual database now could become reality. I put together the American Art Collaborative (AAC), and it follows the format of many of my earlier projects by bringing together a diverse mix of expertise. In this case there are 14 museum partners, an advisory team, and consultants working together to establish a critical mass of LOD drawn from the collection of the 14 museums. We plan to demo how erasing data silos simplifies access and improves research. We are preparing a guide with good practices and recommendations to help the broader museum community engage in LOD. Additionally, we have created a target model that other museums can use to help simplify mapping of their data.

 

What advice do you have for people working on or seeking careers in database
management/digital access management?

Increasing interest in LOD should open up many new possibilities in respect to creating a need for additional skills, services, tools, and the rethinking of how we catalog. For example, the community would benefit from services that include mapping and/or hosting an institution’s LOD. More museum collection management staff and curators need to learn about LOD and how to produce it. Technical positions in museums should include programming skills. We need tools to simplify reconciling data so it is more consistent, and tools to help an institution learn who is using their LOD and how. Organizations like CIDOC (ICOM International Committee for Documentation) and MCN can help the community address data legacy issues and build new standards. We need more demonstrations of the value of LOD and APIs to help us access data across institutions. Implementing LOD and an ontology like the CIDOC CRM should move cataloging practices from just capturing static pieces of information (artist, title, date, etc.) to more expressive and event driven data concepts. I hope that museum training programs and universities will update their curriculums to cover these new skills and methods.

Building upon these prospects for the future, I wish I could press a reset button and launch a new
career.

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