Oral History of Museum Computing: Aaron Straup Cope
This Oral History of Museum Computing is provided by Aaron Straup Cope, and was recorded on the 12th of February and the 29th of March, 2021, by Paul Marty and Kathy Jones. It is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license (CC-BY), which allows for unrestricted reuse provided that appropriate credit is given to the original source. For the recording of this oral history, please see https://youtu.be/L7o-tXTTUts.
I mean, I guess there’s two approaches to this. One is, you know, war stories, and then the other is the sort of larger context in which all of this work happens. And I had the occasion… I was talking to someone else in the sector recently, and what I was saying to him, it was interesting because it was a thing that I had been saying about museum collection data, but I think it applies to, you know, the work that goes on in the technology sphere, which is fundamentally — and no one wants to hear this, I mean it’s a bit of a drag — but fundamentally, the job is managing absence that… you know, and in the context of, you know, museum collection data, you’re like, “Look, it’s all imperfect. We know this.”
No one wants to admit it. And a lot of museums go to a lot of trouble of, you know, only presenting, you know, the perfect record. And it’s always about saving face. And the argument that I’ve had with people is, you know, it’s not going to take long before people realize the dirty little secret is that all museum metadata is garbage. I mean in the aggregate. I mean, when, you know, the way that people approach it and the concern that people have about it, you’re like, “Well, if that’s the case, then, when we look at all of it, most of it is pretty bad.”
And what I was, you know, we had this conversation, a lot at Cooper Hewitt, and when I would try to say to people is understand that we have managed to accomplish some pretty remarkable stuff on the backs of all this terrible data. So it’s not de facto a reflection of you or your work, and, in fact, you know, the good news is is that it can only get better. But, you know, the same is true, I think… I mean, it’s not a one to one, sort of apples and oranges, but the same dynamic is true of the work that goes on in museums around technology, which is there’s never enough time, there’s never enough money. And there aren’t enough people because there’s never enough time and there’s never enough money. And when there is money it gets put into questionable resources for which there isn’t enough time or money or people to sustain them properly. So you end up in this vicious circle of, you know, in order to address short term needs, you hire outside vendors, who produce something that’s very expensive that isn’t designed to be sustained, and you don’t have the staff to sustain. So nothing happens, until the next round of funding, when you hire another expensive vendor to do the same thing. And you know, I think that, you know, I’ve been thinking about this a lot talking to people and just thinking about the sector in general, that this is in fact the world, this is the sky we live under, and this is the challenge. And what people don’t want to think about, at least on bad days is, what do we need to do and change and accept in order to deal with it – that, that dynamic? That, you know, and particularly, when it comes to technology, and if you think about… and software, and sort of designing and building systems, we look to the private sector, and we look to the commercial sector, and it’s … honestly, it’s a distraction.
I did a talk a couple years ago where, you know, I was saying, “Disney is to the museum sector what Google is to the technology sector.” Which is, it’s not a useful comparison. Google and Disney both have created, you know, their own universes. They breathe different oxygen than we do. And you know, they’ve done that, by virtue of their hard work, but we can’t… we can’t do what they do, because we don’t have any of the infrastructure. And I think that same dynamic exists with a lot of sort of best practices in “engineering,” as a loose term, that it is predicated on staff and resources and budgets and salaries that we don’t enjoy. We should, but we don’t. And so I just, you know, I’ve been trying to think about what kinds of… what are realistic expectations for projects? What are realistic expectations for handing projects off? What are realistic expectations for, for making these things sustainable? Right? You know, the other thing that we don’t enjoy in the sector, for a variety of reasons, is we don’t have a history of handing complicated projects off.
I mean, I’m sure we could find examples, but they are the exception still, that something gets built, and, and it runs and it works, but the people behind it leave, either because the salaries are terrible, because, you know, because there’s the, the dynamics around, you know, senior execs and directors in museums… you know, basically we drive people away. We have a retention problem. And so, all of the history around a project is lost. And new people come in, and in particularly, you see this with complex systems. Some things are just complex. There’s a lot of moving pieces because that’s how you have to make something look simple.
And people are overwhelmed. They’re overwhelmed because it might be a brand-new system to them. They’re overwhelmed because they have ideas about what they want to do, and they’ve inherited this other thing. They’re overwhelmed because the director has new ideas about what needs to happen and there’s this other thing. And because they don’t have enough latitude, whether that’s from the director, or from, you know, from the organization. They don’t have enough latitude to figure things out, and so the only thing that they see is the opportunity for failure. And rather than the opportunity to, you know, realistically address the organizational dynamics that have left this very complex system in a state where no one’s entirely sure what it does…
But you know, the other thing I said in that talk is that when we make that sort of casual comparison, we do a disservice to the work that Disney and Google have done. I mean, they earned it, and they’ve invested a lot of money and, importantly, a lot of time. You know, which is the other thing that happens in the museum sector, which is, I mean, this happens in all organizations, but you see it in spades in the museum sector, which is you know, the belief that version two of any project will never happen. And the consequence of that is, is that you know everyone’s hopes and dreams and aspirations gets front-loaded into version one, and the results are predictable. It doesn’t really work very well. It’s clunky. It takes a long time, you know. All of those things. And my argument has always just been like, “What if we just did version two? Right? What if we just believed that we would actually do version two?”
And, you know, so talking about like, stories in the work, like, that’d one of the things that, you know, in my current role at SFO Museum, that I have actually tried to do, which is to say, “We’re going to launch bite-sized features around a specific topic or, or problem. And we’re going to do that deliberately. One, because you know time is limited and there’s a million other things to do, but also as a, as an exercise to make sure that we come back and do the next iteration, even if it’s very small.” And that’s really just to start to collect a body of evidence that it can happen. And it’s challenging because you know, there isn’t …you’re not, you’re not, you’re not releasing things that necessarily warrant trumpets and fanfare. And that’s the metric that we usually use for everything. And you know, the truth is, is that a lot of times people don’t want to… I mean, it’s that tension between, you know, is talking shop the public face that you want to present. Like, people don’t necessarily care about the larger meta issues, but there’s a quote, that that I’ve sort of trotted around ever since I heard it and it was from the designer Jack Schultz, who said, “No one cares what you do unless you think about it, and no one cares what you think unless you do it,” which is a nice, I think, a nice sort of framing device. And, and the reason I’m, you know, I’m talking about all this is, you know, going back to Disney and Google is they have sort of multiyear projects, they have multiyear investigations. They obviously have things that they deliver, and they have things that people value and support and give them money for, but they also bet on the future in a way that the sector hasn’t historically.
[Marty]: Let me jump in with one thing that you made me think about. Back in the 1990s, I remember talking to a lot of museum registrars who were very reluctant to put information about their collections online, and when I asked them why they said, “Because our records aren’t perfect.” And I said, “Well, then you’re never going to get anything online.” How do you go from that mindset to… I think about some of the talks, I know I saw you and Seb give at least one talk at a Museums and the Web conference about the amazing stuff you were doing at Cooper Hewitt, the collections API there. How do you go from that mindset to “Hey, let’s open our stuff up and see what people make?”
So, there’s, there’s the strategic part about how you do that internally, and you know, Seb did that, before I got to Cooper Hewitt, so he’s, he may not like this characterization, but you know, whatever… I mean, I think Seb… I mean, when we did the first metadata release, it just, I don’t think people necessarily realized what he was doing, and then, it was just too late, like it was done.
But the way that I used to talk about it is that, and let me see how to construct this because there’s two pieces to it. The sort of backstory to this is that, at a fairly fundamental level: museums have been very greedy of people’s time and attention. That we want to control the narrative around the things that we collect and the things that we talk about. And you know, whether or not that’s good, bad, or indifferent, it also just doesn’t really matter in a world where the internet exists. I mean, it just, it’s an approach that just got superseded by the present, like, it’s done.
And what I would say about the collection at Cooper Hewitt, we ran the numbers, and we realized that we had about 10,000 objects where we didn’t have a picture of it, we didn’t know the title, we didn’t know who was by, we knew it was on exhibition at some point, we probably knew where it was in the shelves, but not always, and we knew it was a print. So basically what we had were 10,000 pieces of paper. And I was like, “We could go down to Staples and buy 20 stacks of printer paper, and it would be the same thing.” And, but the idea was that we would give each one of those objects a stable permanent URL. We would give it a home on the internet, and the idea being, and in particular the web. Like, that’s an important thing. I think that’s got lost in the last few years, which is just how important the web as a philosophical and technical infrastructure is, and how closely it maps to the cultural heritage sector in terms of what it values and what it thinks is important.
That we would give every one of those objects a place on the web, that we were able to control, we were able to say, “This is here. This is not the thing, but you know you may not be able to get into the stacks. You may not be able to come to D.C. or New York.” Like, the argument is, is that it’s better than nothing. I mean, that’s the core. That, that you know yesterday people had literally nothing, and now today they have something. With the idea being that you know, let’s say there’s an object that has… we don’t have a picture of it, we don’t know who made it, but we know the type, right, and you and I know what that object is. And so, now that thing has a stable identifier in a, you know, globally connected network, and you and I can share that link. And the idea being that we start to add mass and weight to the object around which things can work with, and it’s not necessarily important what those things are, right? Like, you and I might have an academic interest in something between this object, but you know, my other friend and I might just think it’s, you know, a piece of funny pop culture. It’s not important. It’s that, you know, it’s that the, the object itself is the transit for an intellectual endeavor.
And, and then, importantly it’s this, you know, going back to this idea of, you know, version two, and version three and version four, is one of the things that happened was so, we did the metadata release at Cooper Hewitt, and that was a few months before I got there. So it was done, right? The horse had left the barn. There was, there was no putting it back. Every… if you look, you would see just how bad the data was. And then we put up all of the web pages, and you know, I can talk more about this, if you want, but there’s a whole other exercise around how you represent absence. Again, it’s that question of managing absence. Like, what do you do to make pages and pages and pages of nothing a little more something. And at the time, we can digitize maybe 7 to 10 percent of the objects. So, you know 20,000 out of 217,000 objects, give or take.
And what happened was Seb ran the numbers, and figured out that — and don’t quote the numbers in there. They’re placeholders. Basically, Seb figured out that to digitize an object in isolation was about 50 bucks a pop. But to do them all at once, the unit cost dropped down to what, seven dollars. And Seb mentioned this in a board meeting one day, and the Chair of the Board basically turned around and was like, “Where’s my checkbook?” Literally. I mean, that’s what happened, and a year later, 70-80 percent of the remaining objects were online, and the rest were like, coming down the pipe way, and, or, pipeline rather, and we had done the whole thing in two years. And, and the thing was that, as soon as any object was digitized, it had a place to go on the internet already. It just you know, every object got a little bit better, every, every object record online got a little bit better. And I don’t think that the inverse would have happened. That if we had digitized 200,000 objects, the museum would have been like, “Now, we’re going to make a website for all these things.” I mean, it would have turned into the usual like four-year, $700,000, you know, fiasco. So that’s how I talk about it.
That’s what I say to people that… the, after Cooper Hewitt, I went back into the public, private sector, rather, and I was working for a mapping startup. And I was responsible for a gazetteer of geographic places, and you know, we were, it was an openly licensed gazetteer of all the places in the world from continents down to neighborhoods. And you know, we were like, “Look, the world’s a big place. This is an ambitious project. Not everything is perfect.” And the de facto motto of the project became “Better than yesterday.” That like, you know, and again, when the when the startup folded, and I used to say to people it’s like, “Yeah, so you know, this thing we’ve built, it still isn’t perfect, but we can go back to 20 — you know we can just rewind to 2014 if you want. You guys can start from scratch all over. Like, but, but maybe that’s not what we do.” And, you know, I think a lot of this is, you know, some of it is, some of it is a rhetoric that makes … some of it is a rhetoric that that tries to justify or the, the operational realities of technology in the museum sector. That that the money we spend on third party vendors is unsustainable. I mean, it’s gonna run out sooner or later. And you know, “woulda, coulda, shoulda.” That’s money that would have been better spent on, on internal capacity, but the past is the past, so, until we get there we should keep endeavoring to spend that money on internal capacity, but until we get there, we have to, we have to be realistic about what we can accomplish and how, and what the metrics for success are.
[Marty]: How do you argue for building that institutional capacity when museum directors are so gung ho to go out and hire those outside firms?
[Jones]: …Or just to add to that, don’t see the value in building that internal capacity.
Well, so I think what you have to be able to, to argue and demonstrate and convince people of is that digital is not just, is not a passing fad. That, and so the… I did a paper last year for Museums and the Web, that was a very long thread that started out with one of the challenges we have is we, the sector, are unable to articulate clearly what we mean when we say “digital” or “digital technologies” that there are, in fact, a number of equally valid, but very, very different definitions. And, but we kind of use a catch-all. And, and so it’s not surprising that, when we try to get down to actually implementing anything, no one’s quite sure what’s going on. So, my argument has always been that when I say digital, I’m talking about something that’s more expansive and more inclusive than not, and in particular it depends on the idea of the internet, of a globally connected network that it has changed people’s expectations around what as possible and what is something that can be taken for granted. And so I’ve talked about this a lot as sort of the… either the operation, operational — I’m not going to say it because I’m having trouble saying it — but the de-fetishizing of recall. That we live in a world where, you know, one of the things, you know, people pull out their phone, touch the sky, so to speak, something happens, and then they put their phone away. That’s genuinely novel, and it’s genuinely awesome. It’s great! You know, when, when people would say to me at Cooper Hewitt, like, “What are you trying to do with the collection website? What do you want people to do?” And what I said to them was, “I want people to link to us because we’re the National Design Museum,” and you know, you would be forgiven for maybe thinking that was a little overstated, but, you know, right now in 2012, anyway, people link to Wikipedia. And again, Wikipedia has earned it, but we should do that. We should be so good that people link to us.
So, you know, the … this is still sort of, I’m sort of turning this around in my in my mind, because I’m not sure what it means, and I recognize that it’s a little bit hoity-toity, but it’s this idea that digital technologies in the cultural heritage sector are kind of transformational mass. In the same way that you know, education departments were transformational masses on, on museums and collections that, you know, it’s not that one is better than the other, I mean, notwithstanding the never-ending arguments between curatorial and education. Now there’s like this third thing. But it is the argument that it is, it is one among equals, and it is a new thing. If you can’t convince someone of that, then the rest of the arguments are sort of moot. And once you do convince people of that, then, you know, it’s the same sort of resourcing and the same allocation of attention and staff, and you know, all the things that make things operational. You know, we don’t outsource conservation — well, I’m sure some people do, but as a rule, you don’t outsource conservation. You don’t outsource curatorial, although increasingly that’s happening.
You know, just a quick backstory: part of the reason that I wanted to go to SFO Museum is that we do literally everything except digital in-house, you know, we do conservation, registration, curatorial, receiving, packaging, exhibition design, fabrication, installation — all of it’s done by the museum staff, which is unheard of. And what I like about that is that you know, things happen slowly, things happen with a very small team, but there is that institutional capacity. So that it’s never a question of like, “How are we going to do something?” And, and, by extension, the other dynamic of always depending on someone else to get something done is that you start to foster a culture of, that necessitates third party validation. Right? Like, some days, I don’t want to, it’s not to pick on curatorial, but some days you’re like, “You know, you guys put together like lists of Excel spreadsheets, and then you just throw it over the fence,” and you, like, “You do something with it. Make it make it pretty so that people show up.”
And it’s not that there isn’t outside expertise that can be brought to bear on this stuff, but at the same time it’s like, don’t you have opinions? And that’s the dynamic that you see sort of played out across a lot of the departments. And you know, again, I mean, when you’re talking about cultural history, when you’re talking about cultural artifacts, you’re talking about the past, you’re talking about, you know, trying to piece it together in a story, there’s two parts to it. One is history has always been lossy, right. We’ve always been… I mean, so going back to the notion of managing absence, you’re like, well that’s sort of baked into the practice. So I don’t know, why, you know, digital technologies are treated differently, unless you just, you think — not without judgment — but you think that their only function is marketing. Is to serve as an attractor. If you do, then yeah, there’s a totally different way of working.
And, but the other thing I was thinking about was, you know, when, when you’re thinking about the past and history there’s a lovely quote by the historian Margaret MacMillan where she says, you know, “The past keeps changing because we keep asking different questions of it.” And you know, with that in mind, you think well, “If we’re going to have tools and technologies, digital, network whatever, then, that should be the metric by which it’s judged. Do those, do the things that we create allow us to keep asking questions?”
I was looking over. It was actually an old MW talk from I guess about 10 years ago where I was saying… it was something to the effect of, it was about community and community participation. It’s like, you know, “The good news is is that there’s a whole universe of people out there who want to help you.” And then I said, “the bad news is they’re going to help you whether you want to, whether you want them to or not, that they’re just going to self-organize.” And you know, I often I’ve often used Open Street Map as a, as an example.
So Open Street Map is is often likened, it’s not a perfect comparison, but to likened, to be the Wikimedia of maps, the Wikipedia of maps. And it’s, it’s an astonishing project. They have they have achieved the impossible, which is to actually make an accurate map of the world, you know, using nothing but volunteer efforts. And the sad part about Open Street Map is Open Street Map was founded as a reaction to the licensing around the Ordinance Survey data in the United Kingdom, which is expensive and onerous, and Open Street Map was just like, “Well fine. We’re just going to do it ourselves.” But, as such, Open Street Map was founded, you know, essentially, its founding was political. And the, the challenge has been I don’t know that Open Street Map will ever find a way to hold hands with the Ordinance Survey. That it’s always going to be an opposition to the Ordinance Survey. And that’s a shame, because there’s value in both projects, and I think there’s this idea that if you let, if you let a multiplicity of opinions, if you let a multiplicity of you know, degrees of, of seriousness into an institution or project, that it will de facto undermine the very legitimate expertise that does exist. And that it assumes that, that by letting in all of these other voices, that no one will want to hear the experts. And I actually just don’t believe that. I think people always want, like we… sooner or later someone’s gonna want someone who thought a lot about this to be able to speak about it. But that shouldn’t preclude, you know, for, for lack of a better, it’s a, it’s a catch…. It shouldn’t preclude what is essentially fanfiction around the collection, or the things that we have. You know, I think a lot about… You know, one of the people who’s really good at this is Ellen Lupton. I mean, everyone loves to hear Ellen talk. She’s amazing at what she does. She’s super knowledgeable, she’s a very good communicator. I don’t think anyone wants Ellen to stop thinking or talking about this stuff. But there are other ways of, you know, engaging and interpreting the collections that she’s focused on, and it’s Okay… I sort of lost the thread, so I’m going to…
[Jones]: No, no. That’s Okay. It just, it’s it seems like you’re talking about democratizing what we’re doing, and I think that’s a really good way to go. There’s room for everybody, right, so her opinion or her knowledge is there alongside other voices. Maybe an example, when I worked at the Peabody, when we could, finally, have tribal elders come and speak about the collections. You know it wasn’t just the anthropologist’s voice anymore. It was somebody else and even somebody else could come into that as well with another opinion. Does that kind of fit, Aaron, with what you were saying?
Yeah. I mean, it does, I mean, I … as you were telling that story reminded me of, so it reminded me of the 9/11 Museum, which is, which is a whole bag of problematic for a bunch of reasons. But, I remember thinking, I remember thinking two things when I went to 9/11. You know, one of the one of the interactives they had was, you know, just like a web-based kiosk for listening to all the people who died. And there was a, you know, a short… there was their name and short narrative about them. And I came away thinking like, “Would like, would that we could create something like that for all the different tragedies.” That you know, 9/11 occupies a very specific place in the United States, but you know there’s, it’s not an… a lot of people point out there, like, “So 3,000 people died. That was terrible but dot dot dot.” And that’s, there’s some validity to that critique. And all of those other things that aren’t 9/11 don’t enjoy the same focus the same… you know, even just the same…what I want to call it an archive. They have, they don’t enjoy any kind of weight or mass in the universe. They just kind of drift off, and then might be kept alive by you know oral histories, or like small pockets. But I think, you know, what the technology of the present day, coupled with the mandate of cultural heritage institutions allow, is for us to start thinking about, “Well, what if we did start to keep some of that stuff? How do we do that? What does it mean? What are the opportunities that it presents?” And so, you know, at Cooper Hewitt, you know, one of the things… so we had the Pen, and you could collect things, and that was all great. It was a lot of work, but sort of core to that was this idea that we would hold on to your visit. And you know, we would like you to come back in 24 hours, but it was Okay, if you didn’t. It was Okay, if you didn’t come back for two weeks or two months or two years. And so, that was a very, very deliberate attempt to sort of bump up against this idea that museums are greedy of people’s time. That we demand you always do things on our schedule.
And my opinion was like, “We’re the Smithsonian. All we do is keep stuff safe forever. So we can’t, you know, we can’t apply the same degree of rigor around your visit that we do to accessioning objects, but maybe the infrastructure that we build for keeping your visit safe,” and just making them, giving you confidence that they’ll be there in two years, maybe that can be training wheels for the Smithsonian to think about how it addresses all this other stuff. Because yeah, it’s there’s a lot of it. It’s complicated. There are many issues. But, here we are. And this is our mandate. And you know, it’s not unlike public broadcasting corporations, who began life doing radio, realizing like, oh, television is just another, just another broadcast channel, and the same for the internet. And yeah, I mean, my bias is, is towards the public, I mean that’s why I like to work in, in the public sector, because you know, we have a mandate for you.
I mean, I guess, yeah, so I’ll probably spend a lot of time thinking about this, but you know, the question of like, how do you, I mean, how do you, how do you convince people of the merit of doing this? I tell a story, a lot of, there was a Kickstarter project a few, a crowdfunding project, a few years ago. There was a photographer who wanted to go out and document all of the rest areas across the United States that had all been built in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and her argument was you know, “When these were built they all reflected very significant regional features and differences, and, and as those facilities are being largely privatized, they’re becoming standardized, and so all of those unique characteristics are being lost, and so I’d like to go out and actually you know, create a documentary record of this.”
And I always thought that was a good story, because you know, fifty years ago, when those rest areas were, were built if you’d said, like, “It’s really important that we document the bathrooms along the side of the road,” people would have laughed at you. Fast forward fifty years, and we now understand you know, why. And we’ve seen this happen enough times. This isn’t new. It’s not necessarily the subject that is important, it is the rigor with which that subject is approached. And so maybe, maybe we can, you know… the value in collecting and publishing and sharing this stuff in all of its imperfections is that we are betting on a future where someone else will see, you know, the forest for the trees or or vice versa. One of the things that we’re doing at SFO Museum is we’re just building systems to capture flight data. So all of the arrivals and departures and the flight paths in and out of the airport with — excuse me — all the airlines and the aircraft and just all the things that are important to a museum with a focus on aviation. And we’re just snapshotting it. We’re just publishing it every day. And in in the next couple weeks, we’re going to do the same thing for the parking garages and for the checker, the checkpoints, security checkpoints. And that’s really boring data in the moment. It’s really hard to see like why that’s important. But I just, I know from you know, just experience, that sooner or later someone’s going to be like, “That thing with the stuff…” You’re like “Yeah, but no one has the stuff.”
[Jones]: So, I want to ask you a question about that. So what if we do have the foresight to collect it? So, you know, now there’s the Act of Collecting Movement, where people are saying, “Be even more thoughtful.” You know, “Don’t collect unless you need it or can use it.” I get that. Can we, can you leave like a little thought process into that data that you’re collecting now, of what you were thinking? That it might be used for? So that it won’t be deaccessioned in the future. I’m just kind of making that up, but I think it’s an interesting question.
So, the short answer is yes, I mean emphatically, yes, that that should be part of the process. Do you know, we in as much as… so, I think I said at the beginning of all these interviews that I, you know I have made a practice about being sort of relentlessly open about all of this stuff. That a really, really important piece of the work for any team is to just write about it, and to publish that writing, and so the easiest cheapest way to do that is to just have a weblog. And, and this is a thing that we really tried to drive home at, at Cooper Hewitt, and it became eventually, just became part of the process. In the, in the early days we sort of had to shepherd people along to write stuff and to be like, “It’s Okay. No one’s going to judge you. Like, there’s value in what you did.” But there is now that historical record, and almost anytime that people ask those of us who were there from 2012 to 2015 about something around what we did, there’s a blog post where it talks, not just practice, but also theory. And so that goes back to the sort of the Jack Schultz quote.
And I think that unite… so the question around what you should or shouldn’t accession is a, it’s a valid one. It’s an ongoing one, and I think that there, there’s not one, but there are different approaches, depending on the medium, or the media that you’re trying to accession, and so, particularly for you know, metadata or born digital records, I mean, it’s just not a problem anymore. You know, disk space is so cheap.
The, answer to your project that I mentioned it’s called “Who’s on First,” and one of the decisions we made early on, is that the unit of currency for every given record is a plain text file. And so what you have are, you know, a huge collection of nested directories with text files in them. The argument being that if your concern is longevity, portability and durability, nothing’s better than a text file, just period. That, then the next piece of that is that in 2021, we know how to batch process text files quickly and efficiently. We can put them in any old database you want. It’s not a problem. It’s an extra step, but it’s, it’s manageable. And then you know, I know lots of people are celebrating the death of microfiche, but you know, it will ride again. The argument that I can — we never did this, I always wanted to — but I was like we’re gonna have 26 million records, and we’re going to bake them to microfiche, and so the idea was that, and I still want to do this, I want to do a round trip, where we take a born digital record, we snapshot it to microfiche with, you know, then we scan it, and we do OCR on it, and it becomes machine readable data again.
Again, with the argument that’s it’s like, look, you know, a book with 26 million pages or 100 million pages, that’s a big book. Microfiche with 100 million pages is, you know, a wall of boxes. But I think, you know, we used to, we used to measure value and importance. We used to use the means of production as the measure for value and importance. That inclusion in a book represented something because producing a book was expensive and difficult and time consuming and occupied literal mass in the universe. And it’s just not true with databases. I mean, we just don’t worry. I mean, you just don’t have the same problem. So, I think, again I’m like, the benefits of saving this stuff for the future and believe… in believing that there is a future, in believing that there is version two, in … and I know we’re almost at time, so I’m going to, I’m going to squeeze this in because when I have talked about like, version one, version two, the thing that I’ve you know pointed out, is what I’m really trying to say here is that fundamentally, most museums don’t believe a person will come back a second time. And that everything about museums organizationally and, by extension, technologically, is predicated on the idea that people will only come to your museum once.
And it’s not so funny anymore now that we’re a year into a pandemic, but when I would tell this story. I used to say to people, I was like, just, just tell someone from MoMA that JFK is going to be closed for two weeks, and just watch their face. Like, it turns ashen. Now you’re like, oh yeah. That was prescient. But you know, if… I mean, if we don’t believe that anyone’s going to come back to our institution a second or third or fourth time, that’s kind of an existential crisis for the whole cultural heritage community because cultural heritage is predicated on revisiting an idea. It is that you know, that Margaret MacMillan quote of asking different questions, or we are just another entertainment option among many. And, and if we say that that’s all, if we say that that’s what our value is, then, you know, Disney will, will slit our throat with a smile. I mean, we have said, the rules of the game are what Disney does. And Disney will be like, “Cool! We’re here to fill that void.”
I mean it’s, it’s a, it’s a theme that keeps coming back, and and I think a lot of it has to do with sort of so much of the cultural infrastructure around the arts and cultural heritage is focused on a particular class of users, if you’ll excuse the expression. Meaning scholars and experts, and that there is a whole universe of convention that had been, the conventions that have been built up. That, you know, are fine. Like, they’ve served that group well, but you know, suddenly, when you introduce educators, or the general public, there’s no way, there’s no way in, because it depends on you know, if you’ll excuse the shorthand, like it depends on having a Ph.D. It depends on having 10 years of learned practice of thinking and speaking about the subject in a particular way.
And you know, I think that, if you know, one of the other things that has come up at least in the conversations that we’ve had is the sort of never-ending split or divide between curatorial and education. And I think if nothing else, the value of education sort of becoming, coming into its own, is forcing that issue. That that there is another equally valid way of looking at, of thinking about, of speaking about the work. But I don’t think that anyone was quite ready for what that would mean when we opened up the doors to the general public.
Yeah, I had I had occasion to look over an old paper that I had written, and stop me if we talked about this last time. We might have, but I don’t think so, and it was about sort of at the core, it was about the Galleries Project at Flickr. And, and what I was trying to, and it was presented it at Museums and the Web. And what I was trying to say was that you know, if you look out on the internet, there is a whole lot of activities that you know looks … that, that you know, maybe we don’t want to call it capital “C” curating. I mean, it sort of took on a, the word got overused and abused. But what I was trying to say was that you know, what you see is people exercising curatorial muscle that you know, they might not they might not have ever talked about it that way, but that’s really what’s going on right, it is the act of choosing.
And the, the other point that I was trying to make was that the important thing to understand about what the Internet and digital makes possible is you know it, that there’s a whole, like outside the confines of the Ivory tower, of the institution, of the expertise, there’s a whole other party going on. Like, that’s what the internet made possible, was that suddenly everyone realized like, “Oh, we don’t have to depend on Met to do these things.” You know that that whatever else you want to say about Tumblr, like I think Tumblr more than anything, as a product, fostered that kind of behavior and that kind of skill.
And I was trying to point out, I was like, look, we, we ignore this at our peril. Like, it doesn’t have to be… it’s not a threat. And I think actually you know, we’re kind of in a weird spot right now. Like, I .. I am a little… I’m a little… there’s a rhetoric that’s going on right now in the sector that I find problematic, and, and I … and what I find problematic is that at the core, what it’s saying is, you know, in the service of user-centered design, in the service of community, in service of you know, opening up the space to as many people as possible, fundamentally, our collections are nothing more than props. And it’s … I mean, I can see the, I can, I can intellectually, I can make a connection between that, and it’s not invalid. That that the collections are devices for conversations, but at a certain point, if we’re going to go down that road, why do we have, like, why are we keeping any of this stuff? And why do we have all these buildings? And what it is, what is the function of you know, depending on how you want to count, three, four or 500 to 1000 years’ worth of practice? So, I’m still trying to work through that, but it’s just something that, whenever I think about like, people stretching a curatorial muscle and like, and and that ability to include more people, you know, I wonder if we’re not swinging the pendulum a little bit too far.
And again, I think we, you know, I touched on this at the very end of the last conversation, like. If we say that our collections are nothing more than props, that we are measured on that, then we put ourselves in a fairly precarious situation because there’s a lot of people who can do that better than we can. Like, really. And we sort of undermine… yeah, I mean I think it’s… anyways I just I think it’s a conversation I would like to see happen, because I, one of the things, one of the questions that raises is maybe some of the stuff we have isn’t actually worth keeping. I mean, anyways, it’s … yeah, anyways, it opens up a lot of other conversations.
[Marty]: It’s akin to the conversations that we have in the public library sphere, right. People come in and use the library as a community center, to look for jobs, all kinds of all kinds of activities that are only tangentially related to the actual collection of books, right? But does that diminish the purpose of the library, to provide public access to information? I don’t think it does. I mean, it provides an additional role for the public library, which continues to make it an important community center. And I think in museums are going through a similar transformation here. You know, back in the day, we used to refer this as to changing, changing about thinking from, thinking about the visitor in the life of the museum, to the museum in the life of the visitor. What is the role that the museum plays in the lives of our visitors? How do they think about us and we want them thinking about the museum when they’re not physically in the museum? Right?
Yeah, and I… Sorry.
[Marty]: Go ahead.
Well, I think, I mean, I don’t think that that the Seattle Public Library was the first, but because they got the fancy Rem Koolhaas building they were… it was easy to it was easy to point a finger and sort of, say, this is kind of a revelation. And I remember the first time I went to the to the main branch in Seattle, and I was just I was amazed. I was delighted. It was an amazing space. You wanted to spend time there. They had just sort of, you know… it was little things, like good seating, and power on the floor, so that you could just go and work there, and be in a space that was, that you could be in a social space that had a public mandate. That, that sort of took to heart the people who were in the building, whether they were looking for a job, or just relaxing, or … and you know it’s always seemed to me that that’s something museums could, but won’t do. That museums don’t create spaces, where people can come and make those collections just an ambient part of their lives.
And that goes back to you know, a comment that I made the last time, about you know, we – “we” being museums — are exceptionally greedy of people’s time and attention, that we want to dictate what, what, what the quote unquote experience is, rather than thinking about, you know. I mean again, it’s sort of the same sort of thing like if you if you think about the top floor of the Seattle Public Library, which is basically just a big open space with chairs and electricity and the internet. What would that be, but with collections? What would that be with a rotating collection? What would that be if you know, what would that be if you said “we’re going to do…?” I’m just thinking out loud, but “we’re going to do a half dozen works by…” “we’re going to do a single artist over the course of a year, and we’re going to do, half a dozen works every month.”
Right, so it’s a manageable role of turnover in terms of installation and de-installation and all the rest of it. And there’s obviously a lot of a lot of issues around conservation, security, you know all of it, but you know, I guess I sort of feel like that should be the work that we do. Like yes, it’s hard, I mean, we’re here to do the hard things. [Laughs.]
And what if we had lots of those spaces? And what would it mean for people to, to think about, you know quote unquote experiencing art in that way? And that’s always, that was that continues to be the reason why I choose to work at a museum in an airport because it’s … people don’t think about it this way. They they still think of it as a novelty, but it is kind of an amazing space to see art. Because you, you there is a … I mean, there, there frankly there’s an enforced period to look at it. But again, a lot of this is predicated on, you know, the before times. But if you imagine like business travelers or people who travel for work weekly, like, that is an opportunity for prolonged, continued, for a prolonged continued revisiting of, of specific works.
And you know, again, for me, I’ve always just … when you sort of pull the thread all the way back to why we do this at all, why the humanities are important versus just like you know, whatever’s on Netflix this week, that, at its core, it is that ability to revisit and reconsider a subject. And that is what physical museums are very bad at. And I think what the pandemic has, has demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt, like, I think it’s forced people to admit that we have manufactured the museum experience as a one-time tourist trap. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.
And there is no expectation that anyone will come back, and the closest, you will get to revisiting the subject is the postcard you buy on the way out of the door. And that’s terrible. And it’s also why the internet, in its broadest definition, is so important because it may be an imperfect revisiting. It may be a flawed reconsideration, but it’s better than nothing, and yeah, I mean, if you know if, if the, if the conversation is, is about you know the history of trying to go down that road… I mean, I think, I don’t know if it was Sam or someone else, but, but that willingness to say that we will do something proactively and preemptively because we believe that, that we we should be ready when people’s expectations change, is… I mean, without that, there’s nothing. I mean you can’t, you can’t argue for the funding, you can’t argue for the staff, and you know, I think if, if the question is like, what have we learned? And this is, you know, this is an unpopular opinion because it’s pretty critical. Is what we’ve learned is we made… we went two steps forward in arguing that we should be proactive and preemptive, and then, we went, we took one step backward, because when we tried to do it, we squandered all the goodwill and all the money.
There isn’t really… like, I know I touched on this before, and it’s not to point fingers at any one group or institution. It’s to say that we need to be honest, that collectively, our efforts over the course of about a decade, maybe 15 years, haven’t or rather didn’t amount to very much. And so it calls into question the value of being preemptive. Personally, I think there’s still value in that pro-activity, not even sure that’s a real word, but whatever. But I think, you know, in addition to, in addition to arguing for you know, staff and funding going forward, we need to be able to argue, we need to be able to justify the mis– we need to be able to admit that there were mistakes made, and that we will do better. [Laughs.] That we can and should do better, going forward. Because I think, you know, you saw that happened like, from, I don’t know… I mean, you know, and I talked to Seb about this, and he sort of dates it to somewhere between 2012 to 2014, he’s not really sure, but let’s just say 2012, until March of 2020, you just saw all of that effort, like, you just saw all of that money and all of those efforts dry up. And then, suddenly, there was nothing but the internet. And, and no one really knew what to do. Still, people are not quite sure what to do, or even how. I mean, there’s lots of talk, but talk is cheap.
At least for the foreseeable future, for as long as the private sector continues to be as lucrative and as comfortable as it is for people who, who can do the brass tacks of technology work, we will always be at a disadvantage because we can’t compete on compensation. We can’t compete on “selfish compensation” may be a better way to put it. The work is better. The work is arguably more important and more rewarding. And so, one of the things that I’ve sort of just, you know, I don’t, I don’t necessarily know how the details will play out, but at a high level, what it boils down to is we are in for five, maybe ten years of just training our own staff that we need to bring in essentially…
You know, we need to bring in mom and dad to oversee very, very junior engineering teams, and to give them enough… we need to figure out how to make them…. we need to build the capacity ourselves is what it boils down to. And we need to figure out how to give people enough rope to learn and grow, but not hang themselves and not, you know not destroy all of, you know, not destroy the museum’s collection website, for example. And that’s going to be a long process.
And you know, when I think about it, I think, you know, I think that what you would need to say to those people is, “Some of you will cut your chops at this museum, and you will look over to the private sector and we’ll never see you again. You will learn enough to get a better paying job in the private sector, and that’s Okay. Some of you will learn enough to get a job in the private sector, and will come back, and we will welcome you with open arms because you will then have had the experience in the private sector and that will be valuable to what we do. Some of you will learn your chops in a junior role at this museum, and go on to a senior role at another museum, and that is the best possible solution, that is the best outcome. That is what we want to happen, that we want you to do that, and to replicate your experience here, there. And some of you will be, you know, will be in this, some of you will be lifers, and, and that will be great because you will be the institutional knowledge. And you will be there for the next group of people to come in.”
And over time, we will develop a practice that is centered on the cultural heritage sector that is better able to conceptualize and build tools to, to be able to understand the separations of concerns between being an individual institution and the broader sector.
And again, this is, this is very much brass tacks. This is not high-level stuff but getting into the weeds of like, what are we going to do? We’re very bad at that. We have spent 20, arguably 30 years building aircraft carriers that no one knows how to run. And we, you know, we sort of split the middle between doing it ourselves, and giving it all to the private sector. And you know, we rely on the Mellon Foundation to run these things.
You know, and it, this is not to… I don’t I don’t want to dismiss the work that someone like Artstor has done, but the fact that Artstor has to have its own technical staff that no one else understands, and they just you know all they understand is their username and password, is not… I mean, I guess you would be forgiven 15 years ago for thinking that maybe it was sustainable. You could argue it, like sure, but I think we’ve seen like it’s not. It doesn’t really work. It doesn’t really accommodate people’s needs.
And again, like you know everything I’ve just said about, you know, building and nurturing teams and doing the hard work of like managing junior staff, both managing the staff and then managing management who’s like, “What’s going on in there?” Like, it’s… like, you know it’s a pit of cats are all just running around crazy, and you’re like, “It’s going to be like this for the first year or two.” All of that is exceptionally hard work.
And, and I, and to that I say three things: One is yes. Two, we’re here to do the hard things, and Three, this is where the larger, well-funded institutions can and should play a role. That it should be organizations like the Met and the Smithsonian and you know, I mean, arguably some of the British institutions are already doing this in limited fashion. You know, but like the British Library, the V&A, people don’t normally think about the Wellcome, but the Wellcome is doing amazing work at the moment. But again, like I don’t, you know if there was a critique of that, it’s that there… that, that it’s still focused very much on the immediate needs of the institution, and that there isn’t this sort of broader understanding of we… and and… I mean, those larger institutions would probably push back and be like, “Look, we’re just busy trying to run our enormous museums. Why should it be our responsibility?” And I think the answer is certainly for like the Met, you know, you raised $20 million in an evening by letting people come in, like prance around and touch the Temple of Dendur, so yeah, maybe… like, I’m just saying, like, maybe yeah. Maybe you do have a little bit of a moral responsibility if you want to continue to argue the mantle of cultural heritage.
So, I think I mean, again, I think that is the, the core of the problem. And, and that’s the thing that we need to, we need to solve, and I think it’s… I would, you know, I would stress that what I’m suggesting is not necessarily the correct solution, it’s that, in the absence of anyone else… So far, the only arguments, or the only alternatives I’ve heard are raising, are giving up, and raising more money from donors to hire third party services, and I’m like, well, yes, giving up is an option. Let’s just, let’s just start from there, we’ll say giving up is always a possibility, but we can always fall back on that. Like, no one needs to plan for giving up. It’s there when we need it. But then, the question is like, Okay, what else? And everyone, from the big institutions, down to the small institutions, has the same challenge when it comes to staffing and retention. And the argument that I’m trying to make is that the larger institutions are better situated to deal with that problem than anyone else, and that it is in everyone’s interest to develop, you know, that… I don’t like the phrase “talent pool,” but for this just for the sake of brevity, I’ll use it, that is then there for everyone to, to be able to, to build on, right? Like the ideal solution, the ideal scenario is that, you know, in 10 years, someone who cuts their chops at a small museum ends up going to the larger institution, and then does the amazing thing that everyone loves. I mean, you know, the work is, it’s not about any specific project, it is about, it is about everyone being able to do those projects.
And you know this, this goes back to what I was saying earlier about, we need to be, we need to… we need to not dance around our mistakes. We need to stop trying to find some justification for them. We need to just be up front, and be like, “Yup, we didn’t succeed there.” And one of the things that, one of the things that I want us to stop doing is just talking about possibilities. Like, talk is cheap. It really … like we can talk all day long. And it doesn’t really get us anywhere. And I think we need, you know, the work going forward, and again this is really just about what’s next, not about before. We need to be, we need to talk about things to actually accomplish something, even if they’re tiny. And we need to celebrate tiny accomplishments not as, not as that. We need to celebrate them so that we understand that you know we, we, you build a wall, brick by brick. And you know if you want to abuse the metaphors like, even if you have a concrete wall, you lay rebar first.
I mean the thing that I always come back to is fundamentally, it’s not that digital introduced new dynamics into the cultural heritage, into cultural heritage organizations in terms of, you know, fundamentally, like who’s allowed to speak on behalf of the organization, and, and what is the public face. It’s, it’s that digital forced those issues in a way that nothing else had before. So they were always sort of simmering, and then suddenly they just like there was no holding it back, and you know really what it boils down to is, if you think about, you know, the web or social media that anyone can hit the publish button. And that is a real… that introduced … I mean, suddenly there were no more controls. All the controls that that organizationally had been depended on to just sort of rein things in, were no longer there. And I think, you know, this goes back to what we were talking about at the beginning, around you know, the expectation of, around the discourse. The boundaries around the discourse. And you know, one of the things that I was …I talked about this a lot at conferences, but I guess in the years leading up to 2012, one of the things — because I was still in the private sector then – one of the things that I would, you know, and I would go in to MW or MCN, one of the things that I would try to say to people is, “I say this with love, but you need to understand that people like outside the loop have no idea what you’re saying. Like they hear the words, but they don’t hear any meaning. It’s just gibberish. And you know, sure, there may be like a sincere and serious professional discourse going on, but you’re the only ones that understand it, and that’s a very real risk.”
And so, then suddenly, you know, things like the internet happened, and there was a way to talk about the subject matter differently. And you know, in 2013, I did a talk at MW, and this was right around the time that we were, you know, we had spun up the Alpha website for the Collection at Cooper Hewitt, and we were very big on experimental features. And we were very big on making the site as welcoming, and even playful, as we could. And, I remember saying to people like, it’s a bit weird for me, because what I hear a lot of people saying is that we, being the Cooper Hewitt, are getting away with stuff. We are getting away with being playful, which, you know if, like if the sentence is “you’re getting away with being playful,” like, there’s a problem, just saying, because you know replace “playful” with “welcoming” and you’re like, what’s the problem with that?
And we were trying to think about how to, how to make the collection approachable, and we and, and there were some practical reasons for that. One of them is you know the decorative arts are, you know, can be a little intimidating by just the sheer volume of the stuff. You know, like 100,000 fabric swatches. You’re like, I don’t even know what to wear. Where do I begin? And then, on top of that, at the time we didn’t have, you know, we didn’t have accurate metadata, and we didn’t have imagery from most of the stuff, so we had to find some way to make the collection approachable. Some way to give people you know, the proverbial like, feeling the shape of the elephant. And that, that, you know, I think this is where, this is where the dynamics haven’t … I’m trying not to… I want to say “senior executive,” I want to say “curatorial,” and I’m trying not… The rest of the museum, the rest of an organization and the rest of the sector hasn’t quite gotten there yet.
And I think a lot of that has to do, frankly, I think a lot of that has to do with the realities of how the sector is funded. And how we act as a service for letting other people save face, and how we save face in order to secure funding. That we present a certain, you know, what we do is a proxy for other people’s aspirations. That we are the experts. That we give value, we assign value to things. And that there is a very elaborate dance around the presentation of those artifacts and that meaning. That whatever you want to say going forward, historically has been very lucrative. It is how we have paid for these … I mean, I don’t know if we have time to get into the funding issue, but like we spend money in all the wrong places, but we have gotten all that money by doing things this way, and it’s very… you know, I think the rest… but so this is where, this is where senior executive, the directors need… the work needs to change the work needs to be to say to those people you know that that what we’re doing to broaden the reach of the collection is not a threat. That we are not making it less serious, that we are not undermining the credibility of the object, that, that there is a way to allow a multiplicity of voices and a multiplicity of interpretations that don’t… I keep saying undermine, and I am, I want to find a better word, but…
I think it’s possible for institutions to have a direction, to have a voice, and at the same time, to have a number of parallel conversations that, that question that narrative, that maybe go off in in different directions, but where the museum can still say like, this is where we’re going, this is what’s important to us, and it’s Okay if someone on staff is challenging that.
[Marty]: Sorry, go ahead. I was just gonna say this connects to, in my mind, to the Smithsonian’s strategic plan that they announced a few years back to reach a billion people a year, right? I don’t know if you’ve read their plan. For you know I guess there, maybe… I guess it was a five-year plan and they announced it in about 2018, so it’s coming along. I don’t know how close they are, but you don’t reach a billion people a year in D.C. right? This is an explicit acknowledgement that they’re trying to have the Smithsonian be a force in people’s lives, no matter where they are in the world.
Yeah, well, I mean the Smithsonian is an interesting example. I mean, I, you know, I have argued for about five years now that, you know, the Smithsonian should just… the argument that I made was the Smithsonian could fill every large and medium-sized airport in this country, and there are, I mean, most of them are tiny, but there, there are about 4,000 of those. And I still use second person plural. I still say “we.” The Smithsonian could fill every one of those airports with collection objects and not take anything down off the walls in D.C. and still have stuff to spare. And I’m just like, look, if you want to reach people, like there you go, I mean, but I think, actually, I think one of the things that’s, that’s, that’s maybe lost in a lot of these conversations, and I think really needs to be remembered — and I touched on this with the you know that whole argument about like our collections aren’t – people, people seem to be making the argument that our collections aren’t important — is, we need to figure out a way to do all of these things, to reach all these people to allow a multiplicity of interpretations, but we need to do so in a way that, that, that actually says, “You know what? We do have expertise. We do have experience with this stuff, and we do have an opinion. And the opinion is valuable.”
That, that, you know, the curators, for all of their professional quirks, are actually good at their job, and we benefit from that, and that it’s not, you know, it’s not a celebrity death match. That you know I think what I worry about the current discourse is that it’s a kind of well-meaning scorched earth policy. And I don’t actually… I mean, I just can’t… I can understand it emotionally, but when I step back and think about it, I’m like, yeah, that’s a terrible idea. That like, what these people have done amazing work! Like this is… we do… it’s a little hard to understand. And we could, that’s definitely something, an area that we have for improvement. But I don’t, you know, I don’t know that we benefit from just saying like, “It was all a terrible mistake.”
And I think we need to find some way for, for people to recognize each other’s contributions. There’s a, there’s a Canadian filmmaker whose name is Nadine Labaki, I can’t remember the exact pronunciation, anyways, she is of Lebanese origin, which is relevant only because I was listening to an interview with her, and you know, the subject of religion came up. And, and I don’t remember exactly what the question was, but her response is something that’s always stuck with me. And what she said was you know we “It’s not so much that we are intolerant of each other’s religion so much as we are intolerant of each other’s rituals.” And, and that has always seemed to me to be a good and important articulation of the problems that we don’t recognize the ways that other people celebrate things. And that we are threatened by them when perhaps it’s unnecessary.
And I would say that that that should be the work going forward. And you know the onus is on, excuse me, the onus is on everybody because I, I guess, I think two things: I mean, you know in this push to like to do away with any kind of authority figure or, or someone who was charged with expertise, you know, I think. I mean, sooner, I mean… those things just evolve naturally in any community. They, they. I mean there’s a large, there’s a, there is a legitimate and larger philosophical and political conversation around that. About whether there are, whether there are ways of organizing communities that haven’t been allowed to, that haven’t been allowed to exist that maybe would challenge some of those ideas. But we also have a hard stop in five minutes, so I’m going to kind of gloss over those. Yeah, I think I’m just repeating myself, I mean, I think, I think there’s room for everyone.
[Marty]: Well, I was gonna say your points are coming out really, really clear. You know, I would reflect back on something you said earlier about the about the museum being a single visit tourist trap. I’m not even sure if we can count on everybody agreeing that that’s a bad thing, but I think a lot of our work is trying to, to not have that happen, right. But I was thinking about I guess it was 2018, or so I was giving a talk in Doha. It was my first time ever there, fascinating city, and of course it’s I probably may never go back, who knows, right? I went to go see the Museum of Islamic art designed by I.M. Pei. Absolutely gorgeous place, right? Clearly one of those one-time visit tourist trap museum. Right, you walk through the whole thing — it’s beautiful, it’s gorgeous, but the works of art… it was like walking through a jewelry store there, there was no context, there was no content. Where was the research? Where was the curatorial voice? It was… Where was the connection to our shared humanity? It was just stuff because it was pretty. And, and you leave that thinking, Okay that was nice it was beautiful, it was gorgeous, but what difference does it make to my life? And I think so much of the potential of what we do in museum computing enables us to help people draw those connections to our shared humanity, for them to be able to see this thing, right, connects me to these people. Like you’re talking about religious rituals, right, this this connection between all people. There’s, there’s room for all of those voices in there, somehow.
Yeah, well, I mean, I think, you know… There, there are some things that digital makes possible that are that, that you just can’t do physically, and that’s great. Like, but, but beyond that you know, in the short term, for me it is digital is that way to sort of bridge, to sort of bridge the realities of economics and geography, where you know, you might not be able to go back to the museum in Doha every week.
I think one of the things that’s sort of interesting about the times we live in is you know, we are living through, sort of aggravated moment of signs and signifiers, where, and I don’t think people, I don’t think most people talk about it this way, but I do think it’s what’s going on, where — and the craziest part is — you know, the at the core of signs and signifiers, it’s like a constant revisiting. Like, these symbols have like a very deep-rooted meaning. Like, there is like, there is a …. I’ll repeat myself, but there’s like a very deep consideration of them. And, but they are given voice in sort of one-offs, you know, things on plinths and galleries that are shiny. But they come to signify like a much, much broader conversation.
And what’s interesting to me is that I think it’s, I think it’s happening in a very real way and I don’t, but I don’t think anyone’s talking about it. I mean, and, and not to say that people don’t think it’s happening. It’s… everyone knows it is, but no one has like a discourse. It’s just… And you know, we will give the Museum of Ice Cream its two minutes due, because that’s about what it deserves, but like into that you suddenly you have, you know the Museum of Color, the Museum of Ice Cream, like these things that are basically designed to just do that. Like, they… But, again, I think, like if that’s, if that’s the vehicle that we choose for, that we think is appropriate for the humanities, for the larger practice, then we might, we might be in trouble because we are, I mean we’ll just be eaten alive.