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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!