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