The Tech It Is A-Changin’: 50 Years of #Musetech Trends

By Sean Blinn


In 1860, the Pony Express started running in the United States. It allowed mail to be delivered from one side of North America to the other in a couple of weeks, not several months. Though it became the stuff of legend, it actually lasted for only 18 months, driven out of business by the telegraph, the world’s first transcontinental data network. When the Pony Express went out of business, so did the jobs for horse riders delivering mail, the people who kept horses and riders moving through the country, and all of the other support functions it employed. In their place were new jobs for telegraph operators, people to lay and maintain wire, and for people to produce the electricity needed to power the network.

It wouldn’t be the last time in history that a digital solution replaced an analog predecessor. It wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last, that technological change would lead to changes in jobs and employment patterns.

Over the past few months the #MCN50 Job Description History Project has dug through as much data as we could find to understand the changing face of #musetech jobs (take a look at Sarah Outhwaite’s blog post about the challenge of finding and categorizing this data). New technologies have arrived, old ones have died out, and almost every museum job has been affected by these changes.

Here is one example, a job listing from 1993:

Image source: Spectra, vol. 21, No. 2. Fall 1993

This is a job description for a Computer Specialist in 1993, found by teammate Nicole Riesenberger. By today’s standards, this is a broad description—perhaps too broad to be seen today—for a wide-ranging set of responsibilities. Hardware, software, training, support, supplies, all in one job. Among other things, this suggests that computers and technology were things that a museum did, along with other tasks such as registration, visitor services, and exhibition design.

Or to put it another way, technology was separate. It was one museum function, but it wasn’t central to what museums did or how most museum professionals worked.

To get a broader picture across time, let’s look at a visualization showing changes in usage of technology terms in one museum’s annual reports (the American Museum of Natural History in New York), generated by teammate Sarah Outhwaite.   

Source: graphic by Sarah Outhwaite, data from American Museum of Natural History: Annual Report Archives

Note that this graphic shows the percentage of appearances among terms we searched for, not among all the words in each report. In 1975, for example, “computer” was the only one of the terms we searched for that appeared; “computer” was not 100% of the words in the annual report itself! Additionally, the number of terms in each report varied from year to year; this chart does not show the total number of references to each term in each year.

Of the terms that our team searched, the word “computer” was the most commonly used in AMNH annual reports during the first part of MCN’s 50 years. It doesn’t permanently drop below 50% of mentions until 1990 (when the job “Computer Specialist” was probably far more common than it is now). In 1997 it dropped below 10% for the first time. We can see the balance shift to much more specialized terms. Database. App. Interactive. Online.

In other words, use of a computer isn’t a specialized skill any more. Specific tasks are, such as database management, app development, and social media, to name just a few. But computers? We have reached the point where the ability to use a computer is like the ability to use a phone. It’s not a special skill, it’s expected. Do you need to use a phone? Yes! Is it something that would be listed in a #musetech job description? Not any more, because the inability to use a phone is practically inconceivable today—though making a phone call was once new enough to be the subject of training videos.

From a training video on how to make a long distance phone call. This shows how you dial. Texting was probably a significant challenge.

Occasionally, there are dead-ends. CD-ROMs were all the rage in the mid 1990s, and make a brief appearance in the AMNH annual reports. But in the long run they didn’t have much impact (though future archaeologists may date the late 1990s and early 2000s by the layer of AOL CDs found in landfills). They were the Pony Express of 20 years ago: briefly important but in the long run, a dead end, soon to be replaced by a quicker, more flexible alternative.

Image source

Of course, this pattern will continue. Disruptive technologies have always arisen and changed how humanity works. A new world-changing idea may be invented in a conversation in the halls in Pittsburgh this November at MCN2017.

Looking at the bigger picture and where we fit into our profession, computers and technology aren’t things we do, differentiated from the rest of museum work. Digital initiatives aren’t separate projects, or worse, expenses to be contained. Technology is a regular part of museum work and couldn’t be replaced any more than keeping the lights on. Museum technology will continue to evolve, and I am looking forward to hearing from whoever revisits this topic in 2067 as we celebrate MCN’s 100th birthday.

Next week, Sheila Carey will show how this change has altered one aspect of museum life and had far-reaching implications on how museums collect and use information. Stay tuned!


The Pony Express: History and Myth

American Museum of Natural History: 2015 Annual Report

American Museum of Natural History: Annual Report Archives


For further reading:

Computer History Museum’s Timeline of Computer History

New-York Historical Society’s “Silicon City” exhibition