Our latest instalment of MCN50 Voices pairs two past MCN presidents, Diane Zorich and Richard Rinehart. They each talk about the role of MCN in their early careers, and discuss the history of museums, current challenges in the field, and imagine what a museum they would design would look like.
Diane is Director of the Digitization Program Office at the Smithsonian Institution. Prior to taking this position, she spent over twenty years consulting for cultural heritage institutions and nonprofit professional organizations, working on projects in the areas of information management and policy, digital humanities, intellectual property/open access, and digital strategies and assessments. In her early museum career she wrangled with Unix kernels and soldered her own cables. The internet and wifi set her free.
Richard is Director and Chief Curator of the Samek Art Museum at Bucknell University. He has served as Digital Media Director & Adjunct Curator at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and as curator at New Langton Arts and for the San Jose Arts Commission. He has lead NEA and NEH-funded national research projects on new media, art, preservation, and museums. He has recently published a book with MIT Press on preserving digital culture, co- authored with Jon Ippolito – Re-Collection: Art, New Media, & Social Memory (http://re-collection.net)
How did you come to work in museums? Was it your early passion or did you come to it later?
Diane: I trace my interest directly to Margaret Mead. I read her work “Coming of Age in Samoa” when I was 14 years old and her description of adolescence in a Samoan village was totally opposite of what my friends and I were experiencing (i.e., extreme angst fueled by raging hormones pent up in an all-girl Catholic high school). I later discovered that Mead was an anthropologist working at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. I started reading more of her work, following her in the press (she was one of anthropology’s first “public intellectuals”) and became more enamored with the notion of being a “museum anthropologist.” I studied anthropology in college and graduate school, and my first museum job was in an anthropology museum (Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology). Unfortunately (or fortuitously?), I wasn’t hired as an anthropologist—I was hired to run the museum’s computer systems and databases.
Richard: Museums were not an early passion, but art was. I was drawing from age 0, and then continuously. We didn’t have museums in the small rural town that I grew up in, but I regularly poured over the public library’s vintage 60s-era Time-Life art books by way of proxy. I eventually went to art school and college and was planning to move to the city and become an artist but knew that I would need a day job. I figured that working in the art world would make my work hours more relevant to my passion for art and so I kept my eyes open for a job in a museum. I eventually found one, starting off by managing the museum’s computer systems and website, and my ongoing interest in everything digital/art/museum began there.
How and when did you first get involved with MCN? How did that involvement impact your career? Have remained involved in MCN? If not, why not?
Diane: When I started my job at the Peabody Museum I was introduced by a colleague to Ron Kley, who was the executive director of MCN. He was based in Maine and was trying to organize an MCN conference in Boston. I was thrilled to find out about the organization—it was the mid-1980s and I was feeling professionally isolated—there weren’t many people working with computers in museums at this time. I offered to help Ron with local arrangements, and gave my first ever paper at the MCN 1986 conference in Boston that year. That meeting was pivotal for me: I had found my museum tribe. Afterwards, several meeting attendees decided to keep the momentum of the conference going, at least locally. We met periodically as a local “museum computer users” group with the regrettable name of BAMCUG (Boston Area Museum Computer Users Group).
I have been an MCN member ever since. I upped my level of participation in the 90s when I served on the Board (as member, VP, and President) and as conference program chair for the 1993 MCN Seattle conference. I have attended every conference (except when I was 8 months pregnant and advised not to travel…). I recently “re-upped” my participation in the first MCN50 Archive Dive, which was a great history lesson and drove home how important it is to view an organization over time—to see its struggles, its successes. MCN history has been a real roller coaster ride.
Richard: Following on my above answer, in the early 1990s I was working at that rare intersection of museums and technology so my ears were tuned to anything in the field that was related. Additionally, I was in the SF Bay Area where digital technologies were quickly spreading into every area of life. When I learned about MCN, I was eager to meet others who were similarly professionally caught up in this historic moment and from whom I came to learn. My involvement with MCN (as member and later board member and president) was instrumental. It was through MCN, and museums working together on a national scale, that I put together a picture of how technology was going to impact museums (and in my case, the broader art world) in ways far beyond me setting up our museum’s DNS server. We worked on projects like developing new shared metadata standards that showed me how much museums can accomplish when working together.
I am sad to say that I’ve not remained in close touch with MCN. That’s not due to any lack of interest or fondness, but rather that my career has since taken several turns, first to curating and now to directing an academic museum. In both of these turns, my responsibilities broadened out beyond the digital aspects of my museum, requiring me to spend my time on more traditional aspects of museum work such as collection management policies, overtime payroll, and too infrequently, curating. My time spent with MCN was formative and continues to influence my work.
What are two of the darkest secrets in the museum world? The ones that no one talks about.
Diane: This might be a career-ending question, but here it goes. The first is how gullible we are to trends of the moment. I don’t know if we are worse than other sectors in this regard, but few of us call them out when we see them taking hold, and even fewer of us question them before we jump on board. The second is that we have benefitted more than we acknowledge from the subtle exploitation of our staff. Our field attracts bright, hard-working professionals and then pays them a sub-optimal wage. $30K/year jobs that require Master’s degrees +3 years’ experience? Part-time jobs that have full-time duties? Unpaid internships? Women (still) paid less than men for the same job? There is a real long-term cost to organizations that have institutionalized these practices: loss of talent, lack of diversity, diminished creativity, not to mention the hit on morale and the need for a living wage.
Richard: One of the darkest secrets is our shared institutional history. Much of the modern museum traces back to the European Wunderkammer and cabinets of wonder that were indeed Enlightenment era vehicles of intellectual curiosity about the empirical world. But, through a darker lens, they were also treasure troves of plundered booty and monuments to Europe’s colonialization of the world. This history is not so secret, but we don’t often talk about how many of our current institutional attitudes and practices are still influenced by these beginnings. For instance, why do certain artifacts (even using this term is loaded) end up in anthropology museums while others end up in art museums? And should it come as a surprise that museums still struggle to prove our relevance to historically disenfranchised audiences that we spent centuries depicting as the “Other”? We’ve come a long way, but we have far to go.
On a less ominous note; 90% of museum collections are not on view in the galleries, but are hidden away in the vaults in collections storage. This figure is common knowledge among museum professionals, but far less known among the public and it is relevant because it means that 90% of the world’s shared material heritage is, by necessity, hidden away with only its image reflected in online databases.
What is one of the biggest failed projects you worked on? And what did you learn from that?
Diane: I spent a large part of my career consulting, and the one thing consultants hate more than anything else is to see their reports sit on the proverbial shelf. One of my projects that “got shelved” was a huge metadata analysis effort that was well received when completed. But it never was acted on because the institution did not have the resources to do so, the leadership to push for those resources, and the buy-in from grassroots staff about the value of the project to their own work. The lesson for me here was that there are times when important projects should not go forward if the pieces needed further down the line are not in place or on the drawing board. Those pieces will not fall into place on their own. Inertia is a powerful force.
Richard: I had the pleasure of piloting one of the first museum handheld interactive multimedia gallery guides. At that time, there had been museum audio guides, but most of them were tape-based, audio-only with no images and minimal interaction. The hardware we used for this pilot project was the Apple Newton, a large and, by today’s standards, unwieldy device with black and white graphics and an untested interface. At this time also, very few people had smart-phones, so a handheld interactive device was alien to most and this is the main reason the project failed. We were too far ahead of our audience, asking too much of them to learn a whole new interface while they were trying to look at art.
Museums can, and sometimes should be, centers for innovative research, but this project taught me the value in making sure to bring our audiences along for the ride.
Do you think it is possible and /or desirable for museums to be neutral spaces?
Diane: Nope and nope. I think they can try to be safe spaces, but neutral? No. And why would they want to be? How can you make an impact if you don’t take a stand? Museums are research and educational institutions. Why would they position themselves as such then not incorporate their research and educational viewpoints in their public programs?
Richard: No to both. Earlier, I cited the museum’s history as a tool of colonialism and that history remains etched in our historic collections and in some of our basic and unquestioned practices. So, even the default spaces and unselfconscious practices of museums have been shaped by historic forces and specific agendas. Any museum presentation that purports to avoid social implications becomes an echo chamber for the voices of history and a monument to the culturally dominant status quo.
Museums may offer aesthetic experiences and present exhibitions that do not focus on the explicitly didactic or political, but the best ones do so in ways that are self-aware, critical, and honest about the museum’s own position and stakes.
If you had a billion dollars to fund a museum what would that museum be? What would it collect? Who would it serve? What would it be like to visit?
Diane: It wouldn’t be a museum in a conventional sense, but it would incorporate collections into experiences. I envision it as a mash-up of a library program and a literary genre. The first is based on a local public library program that was tailored to families going on summer vacation. The library selected books, movies, and games to take on your trip. But the selections weren’t random. They were specific to the place you were visiting and the age and interest of you and your kids. The second is the “Choose Your Own Adventure” literary works that let you select the outcome of a story: you start from one common point, but you pick out the path to the end.
So how do I see these two things playing out in my billion-dollar museum? “Visitors” would select or identify an interest—muscle cars, women artists from the 16th century, video games, Amazonian reptiles, the birth of jazz, you name it—and would be assigned an expert in that area who would personally tailor a learning experience for the visitors that includes objects/specimens/materials, real and virtual, that you could participate in, work with, touch, experiment with, etc. The expert would engage you throughout the process to see what particular areas drew out your excitement and curiosity (where you would want to explore more or differently), then help create a further pathway of exploration driven by your interests.
If done right, this kind of experience would be so immersive that it could be life-changing. If you were interested in reptiles (as many kids are) for example, you might start with exploring reptile specimens in a collection or at a zoo, and then wind up on a collecting field trip in the Amazon. Of course, with a program like this you would go through that billion dollars in no time. The burn rate would be huge.
Richard: I have always been drawn to speculative museums; museums that might or should or will be. Speculative museums, like speculative fiction, offer a way to reflect back on real museums in ways that are both critical and aspirational. My speculative museum would build upon historical precedents.
For instance, writer Jorge Luis Borges imagined an infinite library that contained every possible text. I would love to create a museum of one manuscript. This manuscript is re-generated anew each day by an algorithm randomly combining words. Like a thousand monkeys at typewriters for eternity, eventually the museum would produce the same story by Borges, and book by Octavia Butler, and every other text written and not yet written. I would make the copyright of each museum-generated text public domain.
Artist Sameer Farooq has imagined “Improbable Archives.” I would likewise borrow from his ideas to create speculative mini-museums: the Museum of the Ephemeral, the Museum of the Abandoned, the Museum of the Already Disappeared, The Museum of Boredom and Gaps, the Museum of Internal Images. Just imagining how to make these museums excites the imagination.
In a more tangible direction, the Museum of Jurassic Technology, in Culver City, California, is a real/speculative museum, seamlessly blending historic fact and fiction to create cognitive dissonance that results in a sense of wonder. My museum would borrow from all of these and it would serve critics, children, and dreamers.
What are the top 3 challenges in your institution now?
Diane: Resources (money, people, facilities), and the lack of agility that comes with working in a large organization. That’s two—or four—depending how you count.
Richard: Making exhibitions of contemporary art that engage academic audiences and issues also relevant to the surrounding rural American community and vice versa.
With a small staff performing all the functions of a larger museum, finding time to maintain academic rigor and professional standards in everything we do.
Finding ways to balance the time-tested efficacy of professional museum standards with our mission to innovate and experiment in an academic context.
What are the top three challenges in museums now?
Diane: Relevance has got to be one. We may say we are more relevant than ever, but wishing doesn’t make it so. I know surveys continually show that museums are among the most trusted of organizations. But is that enough? I don’t think that being trusted is the same as being relevant.
Then there is the moral sense that we always must “do more with less.” We have elevated this to a virtue when it really means we are spending a lot of time and energy just trying to survive. We don’t ask, “Is the ‘more’ we are doing better’? Would we do better if we did less, and did it well?”
The third big issue is lack of staff diversity at all levels (but particularly in senior administrative ranks), at our conferences and meetings, and in our audiences. Which, of course, circles us back to relevance.
Richard: Undoing our problematic institutional past and bringing in historically underrepresented voices; not just as casual visitors, but also as stakeholders, as staff, as artists.
Making the case that museums remain (even more) relevant in a fractured social and political landscape. That science, history, and yes, even art matters to a society made up of individuals of diverse backgrounds and passions.
Making the case for the public as an essential component of museums. Today even privately held museums educate the public and steward collections on behalf of the public of posterity, but museums were not always conceived of as public assets and there’s no guarantee that through shifting public attitudes and new funding models, we will not go back on that aspirational model.
Museums have collectively met challenges spanning centuries, continents, and cultures and I believe we can do so again.