#MCN50 Voices: Susan Wamsley & Richard Urban

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.


Richard Urban head shot

Susan Wamsley head shot






In this interview, Susan Wamsley and Richard Urban discuss how they got into the field of Digital Asset Management (DAM) and take a deep dive into the mechanics of DAMS, how and why you save what, and the future considerations about saving so much data. Susan is the Digital Asset Manager at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.  Prior to the Guggenheim, she served as Manager of Corporate Image Archives for STV and Corporate ImageLibrarian for Parsons Brinckerhoff.Richard is the Digital Asset Manager & Strategist at the Corning Museum of Glass.  Richard has served as an Assistant Professor, a research assistant with the IMLS Digital Collections & Content Project (IMLS DCC), and Project Coordinator for the Colorado Digitization Program.



Richard: How did you end up in your position being a digital asset manager? What was the path that led you here?

Susan: When I moved to New York to go to graduate school in art history, I got a part-time job working in the photo archive for a civil engineering firm. That was still in the days of prints and duplicating 35mm slides, putting them in the slide carousels, and shipping them off to someone giving a presentation in another city. Eventually we went through a major digitization project.  We slowly worked our way from the “Best 500 photos” website to reinventing the wheel with an in-house DAM, then we purchased software and finally developed a DAM for the entire company, which was global. There was a lot of on-the-job training as technology and expectations advanced. When the Digital Asset Manager position opened at the Guggenheim, it was really a nice fit because my professional experience has been organizing collections and DAMs and of course my education is in art history.

Richard: How long have you been with the Guggenheim?

Susan: It will be three years this fall.


Richard: I’m just coming up on six months here [at the Corning Museum of Glass]. It still feels very new.

Susan: What was your trajectory getting into DAM?

Richard: I started out as a history museum person. My early career was in historical societies.  But my 5th grade teacher sent me to computer camp in the days of TRS-80s.  I never thought of computers as a career.  Instead I became the humanities person who knew how to make computers do things.  I was working on an exhibition at the Historical Society of Delaware and originally we were going to do some photocopy binders that people could flip through.  We decide to try going digital using touch screens and we developed an intranet web server that fed the kiosks. I did all the digitization for the project and what now seems like really rudimentary HTML templates for it.  From there I went on to another historical society and did some digitization projects and eventually ended up in Colorado to work on a statewide digitization project.  Then I went back to school for long time to focus on metadata and digital library development. That’s been my interest and that’s what led me to being in this position where I get to use what I learned in graduate school along with my experience with digitization projects. This position neatly ties it all together.

Susan: I feel like metadata is my whole life. I’m sure you do too. Trying to make things uniform and simple, yet detailed enough that you can drill down.

Susan: How do you feel about the push to have automated tagging or crowdsourcing or artificial intelligence? Like tagging everything that looks like a face as a “face”?

Richard: I’m interested in applying that here. It’s a question of how much time you want to spend manually tagging things. I think there’s the idea of being cyborg: what I’d like from AI is the ability to extend my capabilities as a human to efficiently and effectively tag stuff. Go find the things you think has a face in it, but let me use some more judgement..is this a really face, is it really this person?

Susan: I feel like there’s so much room for going back and fixing so many things, so I don’t know if it’s a real time saver.  That’s a perfect way to describe the move toward that. A little bit of each.

Richard: It seems like it’s come a long way in the last couple of years.  I’m excited because many of the assets we’re looking at bringing into the new system are just piles of files in folders of somewhat descriptive names.  Any way we can automatically improve them will be a time saver.

Susan: How long have you been a member of MCN?

Richard: I attended my first MCN after I started at the Colorado Digitization Program, the meeting in Toronto (2002).  I was just reading Chuck Patch’s comment about how people got involved in MCN and that’s my story: I went to more than three meetings and I opened my mouth one too many times,  Before I knew it, I was on the board  from 2004-2010. But then I went away to do my PhD and did the academic thing for a while.  On my limited student income, there wasn’t incentive to come to MCN because there wasn’t a publication.  But I’m really looking forward rejoining the community and coming back to Pittsburgh this year.

Susan: My first MCN was just two years ago, in Minneapolis. I hadn’t worked in museums before I worked at the Guggenheim. It was new to me and I am so impressed with the amount of information sharing that people who work in museums are willing to do. Just talking out issues, or helping other people “oh we fixed it this this way,” that kind of thing.  I think MCN is invaluable for that.  There is also the networking and meeting people who do similar things to what you do.  I think DAM touches all parts of the museum, so just getting to see the capabilities it could have, the effect it could have on other departments. It’s one of the reasons I’ve really jumped in and gotten involved. It is such a great resource.

Richard: It’s been fascinating to watch how things have waxed and waned.  Some of the other interviews have talked about the struggles that MCN has been though. When I was in library school the social networking things were new. I was able to set up some of the first social media accounts for MCN.  Until recently I was still an admin on the Facebook group and it was really rewarding to see how busy it’s been in the last year or two.  There’s such an energy behind what’s going on at MCN now, that’s  is another reason I’m excited to get back.

Susan: To me it’s a really vibrant group and I’m glad to be here at this time.

Richard: What roles are you playing at MCN now?

Susan: I’m the chair of the DAM SIG.  Which I guess had languished and been dissolved at some point.  In 2015, in Minneapolis I was talking with my friend Julie who was then working at the Met and she said, “Let’s just resurrect this thing and get it going.”  She’s right that there needs to be one, it is such a critical part of museum life these days.  You’re supplying all the visual content for everything that happens from the marketing to research.  When she left the Met, I ran for the chair position and my co-chair is Jen Sellar at MOMA–she’s fantastic.  It’s really nice to keep this going and see what a busy Basecamp group we have. Everyone is always ready to answer questions and be helpful.


Richard: It has been so helpful having that group there as I’m making way way into the DAM world. Thanks for getting it started again!

Susan: Like I said, it was really Julie Shean’s brainchild to get this going again. I hadn’t even realized there were SIGs, I was brand new to the whole thing. I’m happy to forge ahead with this and make it as exciting as possible. One thing I’d like to do is have more crossover with other SIGs. So I’m doing something with the IT SIG in July, doing a presentation with them.  For instance, I don’t know a lot about the technical side. I can figure out some of it, but it would be nice to know how IT and DAM managers can work together more efficiently.

Richard: It’s also thinking about the new things becoming available, we’re looking forward is having conversations about how how our DAM, once it’s setup and configured, can be driving content on the website, and re-thinking all of that. So talking to people outside of the DAM SIG should be part of that.

Susan: Yeah, I feel like our DAM should be far more integrated in our museum ecosystem, because it’s not really connected at all.  People go to it and download information to use it in other places rather than feeding directly.   Those are definitely things I’d like to explore more.  To get people’s advice when they’ve done it, what to do and not to do – that’s invaluable.

Susan: What software do you use?

Richard: We have been using MediaBin since about 2010, but we are in the process of migrating that all to Piction. We’re just in the early phases of our Piction implementation…Part of that is also the investment we’re making in the underlying  IT infrastructure.

Susan: We use Mediabeacon. When I arrived, it wasn’t being used to its fullest capacity and we are three versions behind.  So, some of the nicer user interface issues that we’re used to now with other programs aren’t there.  We’re upgrading this summer and I’m hoping everyone will be happy with it.  We’ve also amping up the processing power of the hardware and then we can bring in faceted searching which will be a big plus.

Richard: What do you think the biggest challenge for you going forward is going to be?

Susan: There are two things looming on my horizon.  One of which is integrating with other systems. Integrating with TMS or just feeding other systems like our website.  And also video, which is being produced here more and more. We have performances in our theater, Marketing is making video, artist interviews, we have archived video being digitized. So we have it coming from lots of different places with lots of different uses. Some of it is not going to need to be seen frequently; some of it needs to be seen in a final form, but not the b-roll… What do you save? Where do you put it? Where do we store it?  Especially now that we’re getting in large HD files.  Just trying to figure out the storage, processing, accessing, future archival purposes, that whole thing.  We’re getting it worked out among the departments that are involved but that is a big challenge.

Richard: That is all part of our Piction migration. We have a new storage array and we hope to bring all of our video into it.  We recently put a policy in place about what we’re keeping because it was growing so fast that it was outstripping our ability to keep up with it.  We’re now doing a great deal of live streaming. I don’t know how much you know the Corning Museum of Glass, but we do live glassblowing demos and bring in lots of guest artists.  We’ll do these live feeds and we might have 500 people watching online and more that want to come back and watch it later. So we need to manage all of those.

Susan: What size file do you have for a half hour demonstration?

Richard: Some of them can be more than an hour long depending on the complexity of the piece.  We’re averaging about fifty gigabytes per hour of streaming.  There is something like 30 terabytes of unmanaged video that needs to be brought under control, with very little metadata with it.  That’s a lot of work.  Forget the still image AI, I want the video AI!

Susan: And then there’s the other dimension of adding transcripts and syncing captions, and how you edit pieces out. We have so many things on our wish list that it’s overwhelming. Besides the file size which is staggering in some cases.

Richard: I’m curious…do you have a collections policy for what goes into the DAM vs. what goes somewhere else?

Susan: We don’t have it codified policy about that.  Once I was out with a bunch of other DAM people and we were talking about this and I was accused of being a “radical inclusionist,” because I believe you should put as much in there as possible. There are of course some departments who are real packrats who want every last thing.  There’s a certain amount of editing you can do for anything. But in general, storage is relatively cheap, let’s put it in there and organize it because I don’t want people hanging onto little pockets of things individually, which defeats the whole purpose of having a DAMS.  I encourage people to put as much in there as they want. I’m happy to help them organize photos and get things in there and not have them keep stashes at their desk.

Richard: The storage is coming out of someone’s pocket,  it might as well be organized and not duplicative.

Susan: Right, it’s probably going to sit on a network drive or a hard drive.  There will be ten versions of something we have in the DAM anyway.  Let’s try to organize it and bring it all together and have people look in one location.  And also part of the DAMS’s usefulness is the institutional knowledge that it has.  If there’s a photograph you’re not supposed to use I believe it should be in there with that information.  Don’t make it available to download, but it should be there so people can find it easily so they know they can’t use it for whatever reason and should use another one.  I think it is important to have as much information as possible, good and bad, in there. Not bad information, but information that’s useful for why you can and can’t use things. Because eventually the people who know this information move on.

Richard: Things could be worse here, things are mostly pretty well managed.  But I think..”what’s beyond the digital asset management into the digital preservation/data curation steps?”  I think once we’re beyond this setup, these are some questions we’re going to be asking.  Not only in terms of the policy and what should we keep, but how do we actually sustain it into the future.

Susan: Do you manage documents in your DAM or is it just photography?

Richard: Right now it is mainly photography and there are some PDFs that have slipped in there.  One of the things we’re looking at once we’re beyond our initial implementation phases is whether there are kinds of documents we want to put in.  For example, one of the things that does go in now are things like conservation reports that are associated with images.  Should we store other data coming out of conservation instruments? We use X-ray fluorescence to look at the composition of glass: Where do we put that data?  We also have model releases or headshots of artists with rights and licenses.  Right now it is in a shared drive and some of it is accessible through our collection management system.

Susan: We have a similar situation. We do have some model releases that are in there and some reports. I’m not that familiar with what is fully covered in our collection management system so if in doubt, I’ll keep documents with the photos. I’d love to integrate those two systems. That’s on my agenda eventually.

Richard: From the get-go we’re integrating with our collection management system. So the records will stay up to date. That’s a nice feature of what we can do with Piction.

Susan: How big is your collection?

Richard: We have two main collections. There is the object collection where there’s 60,000 objects.  But we also have have the Rakow Research Library where there is 100,000 items which when you turn them into digital asset becomes the majority of what’s in the DAM.  There are approximately half a million assets in the DAM, many of which are digitized pages of books.