#MCN50 Voices: Rachel Allen

Post by Jessica Warchall, a digital communications consultant

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.

In this interview, Jessica Warchall profiles Rachel Allen, Deputy Director at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and former MCN Board President.
Rachel Allen is an MCN veteran: past president from 1992–93 and board member from 1991–96. She attended her first conference in the 1980s, learning about information management and nomenclature. She says those concepts inform the conversations we have at MCN today, like approaches to metadata. Rachel has spent her four decade career within the Smithsonian Institution, and she is now deputy director at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She shared her thoughts about the evolution of museum work and her advice for its future.
People wrote letters.
Rachel has seen the trajectory of digital technology in museums. When she first started working in museums, they didn’t have computers and they didn’t call the field digital. Data entry was done on OCR typewriters, and the Smithsonian received its first Wang compRachel Allen headshotuter system—three terminals staff signed up to share—in 1982.
I asked her what has been the best change that came from introducing technology into museums. Her response was that the best is also the worst: the ways in which we can now communicate so easily. When she started, people wrote letters to the museum, and you had at least two weeks to respond. Then came fax machines, and you had less time to respond, and now people expect an immediate answer. While this improves communication, it’s a lot of pressure. As someone working in digital communications, managing aspects of social media, web content, media relations, and e-communications, I too see the expected immediacy of a response as both a hindrance and benefit.
Cultural shifts in museums regarding new technologies—today including accepting the value of new social media platforms to linked open data—have always existed, and Rachel experienced the cultural shifts that happened with the internet’s introduction into day-to-day functions. The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s online presence began in 1996 with an AOL site featuring select images and “Ask Joan of Art.” People could ask questions online about art and a staff member—whose name was Joan!—answered.
Everyone can find a job in museums.
After graduating from Duke University with a degree in art history, Rachel says she stumbled into her first job. She worked on the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s bicentennial inventory of American paintings, one of the nation’s first humanities-based computer projects. This introduced her to database management, and she continued to take on new opportunities within the Smithsonian, including rights and reproductions, heading the research and scholar center, working on an outdoor sculpture inventory project, and roles in the director’s office.
Her diverse experiences within the museum have led to her belief that everyone can find a job in museums: “There are many, many careers in museums for all types of people, from administrative to computers, to creative, to programs, to social events, and so on.” As museum workers, we have a job to do. We must continue to attract a diverse workforce. Rachel notices that in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s intern program, many museum studies students are applying, but we need to find ways to attract the computer science students and educators, students interested in museums beyond curatorial work.
There’s one thing that can’t be dismissed—networking.
When talking about MCN, Rachel took the opportunity to highlight one of her most valued aspects of the community; she says networking is one thing that can’t be dismissed. She is still in contact with colleagues and friends she met at her first conferences, and she says, “In a way, we’ve grown up together.”
If you value MCN and the community it has created, you can thank Rachel, in part. As the last board-appointed president, she came into her presidency when the organization was in a financially tight spot. She and the board worked tirelessly to turn things around, taking on membership activities, including sending out renewal notices by hand. She says, “I find it incredibly pleasing to see MCN be such a vibrant organization today.”