Oral History of Museum Computing: Costis Dallas
This Oral History of Museum Computing is provided by Costis Dallas, and was recorded on the 3rd of May, 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/kplzebtY6NY.
I mean, going back to the beginning… one way, you know, to think of, really going back to the beginning for me, is, like: I did archaeology, I studied archaeology. History initially, then archaeology, and I sort of went and wrote a D.Phil. in Classical Archaeology. And some of that was really very, very much informed at the time by… ideas about scientific archaeology, and science, and the scientific method, and the diligence, the way which… the methodological rigor that we need to apply in method. So, these [were my interests] really somehow, you know, and this is one interest, and then [an]other interest… [I was] always interested very much in mathematical methods in archaeology at the time. The other thing I was interested in [was] art, so that’s really got me into this interest in how we represent things in… especially in material culture. And being an archaeologist understanding a little… being interested in art as well, this… sort of created a context.
But then, you know, what happened really was very much serendipitous, in a way. Because I came back to Greece at the time, with a very young baby and my wife, and, you know, I was in the army, because you had to go to military service, and I was looking for a job. I mean, that was the thing. And so somehow, one thing led to another, and… just people that I knew introduced me to other people, and I got this project at the time, when I was working for a consultancy firm that was working on statistical analysis and support of researchers — [as the firm was the] representative of SPSS in Greece — so, I was doing that kind of work that I knew from my Ph.D work. And we were doing also databases, with a couple of prior database projects. The War Museum in Athens [asked] us to do a proposal for computerization, etcetera. And then this opportunity came up, to start [at] the Benaki Museum a sort of small project. And that [I] started externally initially, as just an external consultant, and then I joined the museum part-time. And this is a story that you may have heard from others as well. I mean, you could talk to those Dutch guys, for instance, the ADLIB people, and Jeanne Hogenboom, you know, these guys [who] were also employed by the Rijksmuseum at some point as individuals, and then spun out to make companies, going into consulting. But for me, it was the opposite thing at that time.
So, I just went to the Benaki Museum. And so, it’s interesting in the beginning how little one knows. That is one of the things that really probably escape[d] me [up to] now is how ignorant I was about so many things, really. Because, okay, I knew some stuff about theory and about methods, about all things database as well — so I was very much into that — but then nothing much about cultural heritage documentation, because I wasn’t a documentalist, I wasn’t trained in an information school, right? So, at the time I sort of started reading more and hanging out with the people from… from the library community a little. And my first decision when I joined the Benaki Museum at the time – the Benaki is the largest private museum in Greece, so it’s got collections from Cycladic figurines and classical Greek art to folklore objects and ethnographic collections, and 19th century painting, and jewelry, they’ve got a lot, really… so, I started working with the Department of Drawings and Paintings in the Benaki, and so… What I did at the time, there was CDS/ISIS, and CDS/ISIS I knew just because it was free for one thing, and money was an object, and so, I got started sort of working with the database and creating this kind of database using CDS/ISIS to start documenting that collection.
And it was interesting because I had a curator who was very interested in that, and she was supporting the project because she felt this was going to be a useful thing for her. And for her, the whole process of computerization was nothing different to just transferring the records about these paintings and drawings and prints on to something like a manual card catalog – I mean, this was… I mean, it was the analog that she had in mind, right? So, in many ways this is how we started doing the work. And that’s when lots of things… as with many of us, I mean the complexities are in the detail, and the challenges are in the detail. So, we sort of started encountering all these issues of standardizing, for instance syntax standardization, elementary stuff, right? To creating thesauri, so that we can retrieve iconographic forms, and using those thesauri – and in Greece you don’t have much in terms of established collections [thesauri] – this is, mind you, around 1990, 1989-1990, right?
So, this is the time really in which, internationally… what you had [was the UK’s] Museum Documentation Association conferences that I started attending at that time. There was also the Getty at the time, because the Information Institute that — it wasn’t even called the Information Institute at the time, it was called the Documentation Program or the Information Program — at the Getty they sort of were in the middle of just creating these massive resources. So it was like a brave new world, in a sense, to me, but one that was very much inaccessible. In the beginning, you know, what you do is… you are a little alone in this, and one of the challenges was really to be able to sort of find a community of other people to talk to. And as I said, I mean, people that I was talking to at that time were people from the libraries field, because there was nobody in museums, very few people in museums were doing that type of work [in Greece].
And then what happened… It was… it was 1990, 1989, and the Greek section of ICOM had agreed to organize [the] CIDOC 1990 [annual meeting] in Greece, in Athens. And it was that time in which I sort of started getting in touch with three or four other groups of people who had computers in their museums. There was the Peloponnesian Folklore Foundation, and a couple of other places really — very, very few places — but there was this small community of people, who started building a community in a way, because initially it’s this kind of loneliness that you face. Facing loneliness means inability to develop a common practice, develop common themes, and also common criteria, and a common place to support each other, and to validate work, which was pretty, pretty important at the time.
But I guess… the reason why I’m saying this is not just as a touchy-feely story of what happens at the time, and when somebody enters one field that they know almost nothing about, because that was the thing. I came back to Greece initially in order to become perhaps an archaeologist with the archaeological service, and then I realized what famously one professor in the University of Athens told me, that there’s no place for me in Greece, when he said: “Oh, you’re doing these things with computers and archaeology. Well, what I suggest is to take the next plane and go back to England, because it’s very difficult to find anything in Greece, in terms of employment.” So, in a sense, I mean even my initial sort of work with a consulting company, and then the little contract with the War Museum to do that study with others on computerization, and then the work at the Benaki Museum emerged out of serendipity and need, rather than out of some kind of life plan, in a way.
And now, I guess, from that experience, the interesting thing for me that’s been really very much shaping my interest, and also my network later on – because, I mean, there’s two things that really developed in my life. One is a particular interest in knowledge representation, in relation with cultural heritage and museum data and information, that’s… that’s one thing, and especially how, you know, data, information, how objects relate to knowledge. So, this is an interest that persisted. And the other thing that persisted is relationships with people with whom I developed or I found affinities.
So, I was mentioning these conferences, and I was saying that I started going to conferences when I was already in the Benaki Museum. One of the things that really – I think – fueled very, very much what I did afterwards is my meeting at that time with a group of people in the [Institute] of Computer Science, the Information Systems [Laboratory] of the Foundation of Research and Technology in Crete, in Heraklion. So, these people [were] in ICS-FORTH, and at the University of Crete, the reason why they were interesting to me is because they had already worked on another project – I was looking at the projects in which Greek people were involved, right? – and these were computer scientists, but somehow, they got interested in working with Italians and others within the European funding, the research funding scheme at the time which was called ESPRIT, in order to develop, among other things, a system that would allow one to represent works of art, their iconography, and then make searches according to the iconographic structure of those works of art. So this really piqued my interest, right?
And I sort of started talking to these people because I was thinking about [the] CIDOC 1990 [conference]. It so happened that the people from the community asked me at the time — I said I was very young — but they said, “Okay, can you, can you be… vice chair in the organizing committee?” And I said, “Yeah, of course.” It was very, of course, very honoring, this… this invitation, I didn’t think much [more] of it, but then the chair of the committee, who was Dr. Tzedakis, he was the director of antiquities in Greece, fell ill at the time! You know, he got back well again, but he fell ill, and suddenly I found myself in the center of organizing actually the conference, organizing the program of the conference. Just because other people were very senior people from the museum field in Greece, but practically they weren’t really the people who knew much about computers or computerization or information, right? So one of the things that I did is [that] I invited that professor from the University of Crete, his name is Panos Constantopoulos – Panos at the time was a Professor in Crete, and then we got together in other things, he then became founder and Director of the Digital Curation unit in Athens to which I still I’m still attached from 2007 onwards – but at that time I just happened to meet Panos just off this serendipitous thing, right?
And then, what we started… we say, we sort of got funding, and this is what I what I wanted to say, how important [is] the ability to sustain these collaborations, and to sustain some seed effort in specific activities such as, for instance, building an information system. This is crucially important, because we got into this competitive… this competition for a grant, and we’ve got a grant, maybe ten institutions around Greece, not all of them [museums]… we were the museum, so it was very broad, I mean, to have two or three different case studies, another one was in tourism, and the third one was in banking or something like that, right? So, it was very diverse, but we were the museum case, the Benaki Museum, at the time. And then FORTH, the Foundation of Research and Technology, was one of the scientific partners, and our goal at the time was to build a museum information system which would cater not just for the management of the collections, that was one side — and I was reading avidly at the time, I sort of got in contact with Andrew Roberts and Richard Light, and all the other guys in the Museums Documentation Association at the time, and I tried to get to learn more, I went to seminars, etc., to understand that side of museum documentation — but the other side, that was really the most interesting thing to me, was to develop a system that was good for cultural documentation, that would allow us to represent the richness of knowledge about… about museum objects, really.
And just to perhaps spoil the story, I want to say now that, of course, I mean this system never… was never used fully as we had hoped it would. You know, we built a system but [it] never materialized as a system that the curators of the museum actually used from then on. And I will say why I think that is — maybe it’s a question, if you want to ask, you can ask me, please feel free to interrupt me anytime you want really because I’m just sort of talking and talking about a story, but there might be things that might be more interesting than others — but anyway, the point is that we started building this system with them, and the interesting… [the] important thing for me was really for the system to be expressive.
So effectively, what we started doing, this system called CLIO — like the Muse, right? — that was the name of the system, and in the museum we called it a part of MITOS, which was our joint information system. So, the interesting thing about it at the time, which made it very, very different to others, was that the system was not really based on the notion of relational databases in which information is split in tables, etcetera, etcetera, but it was based on the notion of a semantic net. So, this was the foundation of the system. We used a knowledge representation language [called Telos] that had been created at the University of Toronto — by coincidence, you know, where I found myself many years later — by a professor called [John] Mylopoulos and a researcher called [Manolis] Koumbarakis [who] is a professor in Greece now. And that model [applied in an] information system, SIS, the Semantic Index System, that was the name, allowed somebody to express all kinds of relationships.
From the work [of] trying to document the drawings and prints collection, and all the stumbling blocks that we had found, [that] made it truly expensive… expressive. I found that really interesting. You know, questions like, for instance, that different kinds of museum objects have completely different properties. You can’t really put all these interesting important attributes of those objects… of a coin, in the very same grid you would have for let’s say a painting, or you’d have for a vase, or for an industrial object, or for an icon. So, the idea was then to be able to cater for specialization, and for great diversity between objects. And there were other things, like that objects have many parts. How do you meaningfully express information at a certain — at the appropriate — level of generality, of, let’s say, of this part composition structure in a way? Or how do you deal with… with ambiguity? I mean, coming from archaeology I was very much attuned to the difficulty of representing time precisely. In archaeology you can’t always give a date, right? Typically, you won’t give a date. Typically, you will have ambiguity that is expressed typically in verbal expressions. But then, how do you make it possible to be able to represent these? This level of ambiguity, or the range of dates that might apply on to something? Or the fact that multiple dates really weren’t just dates, flat numbers, but they were really hiding representations of the events, representations of activities, of periods, of stuff that’s happening in time, in which the spatial and the cultural context was as important as the actual timespan. So, we just kind of talked… and, at the time I was not very strong on all the post-modern theories that all of us have been somehow fed with in later times. I mean, after let’s say 2005-2010, obviously we sort of all started reading about event-centric stuff and we started talking about the centrality of… you know, the challenge to the notion of objectivity of objects, and the thingness of things. Or like all those interests. At the time, I didn’t know any of that kind of stuff. But what I knew is that there were multiple dates that are important for all these objects, that they may have been repainted, used in different contexts, moved between different settings, and some of them were culturally important for us. It wasn’t just, you know, that these objects were acquired by one person and then another person and we weren’t interested in the acquisition history. So, event-centricity became another thing that we were very much interested in dealing with in this information system that we were building.
And SIS, as I said, and the [Telos abstract] model, this wasn’t for museums. It was like a generic model for an information system based on the semantic net with temporal relationships, and where events can be central. This allowed us to have this expressive power in a way. And started working on that at the time. And as I said, [when] we reached the point in which we launched the system, there was resistance from our curators. The curators weren’t really interested, on one side, but they weren’t also attuned to the kind of work… that working with a computer makes you adopt, in a way. And maybe the system was a little more obtuse? Maybe the demands on representing, and representation by just spending time in order to create this, you know, conceptual maps for each of those objects was too much? There are reasons like that. But interestingly enough, what really persisted very much is our modeling work.
Because at that time, initially, one important meeting for me was my first meeting with David Bearman. And David has been one of the people, you know, maybe three or four people that really sort of shaped very much my interest in certain things. I found that his ideas resonated a lot with some of my interests and my questions in the field. But also, the other thing with David is his enormous generosity of spirit. And you know, as we know, David. You know David, you know how he can be sometimes — how should I say? – spicy in the way in which he deals with people, he’s not really a person who minces his words, he doesn’t stand fools easily. But then the possibilities that conversations with David at the time, and the possibilities that my attending the ICHIM conferences, and the early Museums and the Web conferences at the time in that period, you know, in the… in the ‘90s, and then in the 2000s, you know, have been really pretty important for me, right?
So, one of the things that I was involved with after [the] CIDOC 1990 [meeting] was the Data Modeling [Working] Group at CIDOC, which was a place at the time in which a lot of the work was really going in a direction of building a system and a model — a generic model for museum documentation — that was based on a relational database. There are people like Pat Reed, other people from the Smithsonian at the time, you know, who joined the meetings. At that time, Jennifer — Jennifer Trant — was co-chair of the working group. So for me, really, the thing was when we were in this meeting in… in the ICOM meeting in Stavanger, I don’t have the date in my mind, but it’s really very much at that time, it was at the  triennial meeting of ICOM. So, we were to work on the model, and suddenly there was this room, this meeting room, in which people opened and stitched together pages with printed parts of the model. It was like the whole floor, it was, like, full of representations of boxes, connected with arrows.
And this was the thing on which I said, “This can’t be”. So, we just started then talking with people in FORTH. And I failed to mention that the central, perhaps, person in doing the work on the side of the data modeler, the elicitor of knowledge or knowledge engineer that worked on our system in the Benaki Museum, on the CLIO system, was a guy, a German physicist who had joined the Information Systems Lab in FORTH, in Crete, Martin Doerr. So, Martin was… we started sort of talking with Martin, and Panos as well — Panos Constantopoulos was the [director] of the Information Systems Lab there. And I started talking to them. I said, you know, we… we should do something about this, we should, perhaps as an alternative, put [forward] some stuff that we’re doing in the Benaki, would that kind of approach be suitable for that? So, we started doing that, and so we started having that conversation. The first conversations, of course, were met by disbelief, really. I mean, our colleagues, I guess, you know, thought, “Who are these guys from Greece who are just saying these crazy things about semantic information systems and stuff, and semantic models?”
Right… But then this got traction, and then Martin joined the Data Modeling Group at some point, and the rest is very much, you know, a public story — because it’s like… — a story in which some other people as well joined the initiative and joined this approach. And two or three years down the line… — [in 1996] — at that time already CIDOC work on the model had switched to the CIDOC-CRM, to what then was to become the CIDOC-CRM, the Conceptual Reference Model, which went in that direction and applied these abstractions, to allow specialization, to allow event centricity, so that we are able to show the life of objects, cultural objects, cultural heritage objects, material culture objects as a biography, really, in which events are in the center. So, I think that was something that really… at the time we didn’t even know the importance [of]. It was much, much later, for me at least, that I realized how much this might resonate with the work of others. I’m thinking of the work of Jon Ippolito, for instance, and Depocas, and all the guys in Guggenheim and also the Langlois foundation in Canada, on the documentation of contemporary art, of variable art, for instance, where this centrality… the DOCAM data standard that emerged as part of that movement within contemporary art and digital media art as well. All the conversations that really have started infecting and invading the museum… the professional museum field. All this kind of stories, and the work, especially behind the scenes, from the perspective of indigenous cultures. And how much, you know, really, the information systems that we build in museums are representative or giving space to those approaches to objects that do not put the object in the center with its fixed attributes, but that see the object as a living terrain for events, for life, for the lives of communities whose meanings are invested through this history of events.
So that was some… some stuff that I did at that time was like that. And, so, I guess, the reason why I’m just going so much back in time is in order to go back to the question that you were asking, Paul, about digital curation, about what’s happened in the late 2000s really… 2007, 2005. Well, it’s all related also to stuff that… at that time, you know, just to go back to the field, the museum field in Greece, I would say — ‘cause I was living in Greece at the time, I was working in Greece — the situation was that there was European [Commission] money. And one needs to understand that this is one difference from the North American perspective, that a lot of the initiatives in the field of cultural heritage [in Europe] are driven by European money. So that has a flip side, at least two sides. One side is that money is there, and that institutions are supported in doing stuff. But the flip side of this is, of course, that the priorities become then a matter [of] administrative talk, and the power of institutional weight of the people in the European Commission. And it’s kind of amorphous thing this, the bureaucracy of states with a special mission become part of this, but…
So, it was almost necessary at that time to get involved in those conversations. And I got involved in those conversations initially because we were running successful projects, and so they invited us through these Expert Groups, etc. And then, at that time, I was still very, very much interested in the notion of knowledge representation, etcetera. So there [were] these two groups, one was “Knowledge Representation and Access”, and this gave rise to… and I was involved with that, I sort of helped Pat Manson who was then the Head of Unit for the cultural heritage technologies, a unit of the European Commission, the one that funded all these projects in the field of museums, archives, and libraries, and I was working on that area of knowledge representation and access. But it so happened because, you know, again… you know, there’s a lot of correspondences. Going back to Luxembourg and then Brussels during these years, 2003-2004, we were having these meetings, and typically what happens, the unit would have two meetings in parallel for the two areas — one was “Knowledge Representation and Access”, and the other one is what they called “Digital Preservation”, not digital curation, digital preservation. There was this guy at the time who I knew because we were together in Oxford, he was also an archaeologist in Oxford at the time, Seamus Ross. And Seamus was running that panel for the commission unit, right? So, we sort of started hanging around and talking about it. And you know, somehow, we were sort of coming to all these conversations: What is really most important? Can you have digital preservation, can you have [it] without access? No, no, no. We agreed that access is pretty central – it’s almost in the definition of digital preservation — and also Seamus at the time was of those… this group of people who were talking about digital curation, so that work was there, right?
And so, on the other side, my interest… my interests were like, okay, then, what happens with actual systems? What happens with museums, with archives, with all these resources? How we can integrate those resources, etcetera — from my panel. And it was that interest that really started developing, saying: okay, then, there should be things that really connect to better knowledge representation and access on one side. We were seeing the then-emerging notions of the Semantic Web and about Linked Open Data… that was very, very much the talk of that period. CIDOC-CRM, of course, was part… something that I… it was part of my interests at the time. And then we started at that time understanding, and sort of seeing also, the need to be able to undertake initiatives that run beyond institutions.
Remember, it was the time… a few years before, when [the Getty’s] report about networked digital cultural heritage — I guess you were involved in that, it was before your [Museum Informatics] book, right? — but also the 2007 book which very much instilled, very, very much, this agenda, the agenda of a networked heritage. But this was part of our conversation at the time, right? The need to see cultural heritage and collections not as isolated little animals, but as you know, vibrant participants in this ecosystem which we connected with one another, somehow It was a time in which there was maturity and broader recognition of the value of ULAN and the AAT, and this and that, that was the conversation — right?
And it was in that kind of climate that I sort of started getting involved in two different things. One was the notion that we need to do something specific about digital curation on one side, and to theorize and understand digital curation. But the second thing is that, really, the way to do that would be to focus on information integration, to focus on existing collections, and how these collections need to be connected with one another. And one of the initiatives… [the] early initiatives that have come out of the 7th [Research] Framework Program of the European Commission at the time was Europeana, actually. It was part of the stuff that happened in the group in which I was participating, the “Knowledge Representation and Access” group, and at the time of planning these things. And Europeana became a major thing for my later initiatives that related somehow also to notions of digital curation. It wasn’t just an issue of somehow self-aggregating material that just simplifies [for] people to do cross-institutional access across these few thousand collections of European museums, archives and other research projects that Europeana has under its wing. But there was also, how can we do that in ways which can get access to the knowledge, and add better knowledge representation? And how we can do that in ways, also, that we can preserve and perhaps enrich that information? And this is very much what shaped my work after 2007.
I wasn’t working at the time for a museum. I was teaching at the university, I was an academic and already in Greece, and the thing that really somehow shaped my work at the time was an invitation by Panos Constantopoulos, the very same person [with whom] we started the CLIO system many years before in 1991-92, and sort of worked together then in the first stages of CIDOC-CRM — that to its own part became a big, big thing with many, many people that made it into an interesting major aspect of what has been shaping the larger museums’ work and also interoperability work in the field. Now, the very same person, Panos Constantopoulos was… we sort of kept in touch, not very closely, for some years. And then, you know, he spoke [to] me and said that he was switching from Crete to Athens, just appointed [as] professor at the University of Economics and Business in Athens. He said: “Shall we start something? We’ve been saying so many things… that we’d do something together, why don’t we start something now? This time is right, there’s so many interesting things that are happening in the field”, etcetera, so we started part time. Panos founded the Digital Curation Unit in the Athena Research Center in Athens and he asked me also to be with him. So, I agreed, and I was a founding research fellow of DCU at the time. I started working in this information integration project with some sort of doing some work on, “Okay, then how can we expand the notion of digital curation, first of all, so that it encompasses understanding… so what curation is that go beyond them their data management approach to digital curation, and the data management concerns?”
So, for me… For Panos, it was more an issue of making digital curation something that really allows us to see information objects, for instance descriptions of museum or cultural heritage objects, not only from the point of view of what happens the moment that they’re already in a collection, but also from the point of view of actually making sure that this information is retained for the future. But, also, that we can incorporate with it a broader range, a functional range, what happens to information at the time before it is collected. What happens to the information after it goes and is accessed by users, as we say, by the so-called end user, the mythical end user? That was, that was the idea of Panos. And, for me, I guess, the idea was very, very much how to instill understanding [of] digital curation that really draws also from the world of what curation means as selection, as the ability to somehow represent something in a canonical form, the way that it happens in art curating on one side. But what curation also means in terms of the richness of frames of representation, and frames of reference, and what we see in the history of museum curation from the time of the 18th Century, and the 19th, when this starts becoming codified as curation. So, there was more or less the initial idea.
Then we got really involved in a number of European projects for information integration. I guess the most relevant one to museums is an initiative that now goes by the name of Europeana Archaeology, that includes a number of museums, but also known non-museum institutions, such as, for instance, national archaeological archives from different countries. All in all, you know, maybe 20 or 20-something countries now, every … almost all European countries, right? And in this one, I mean, we just designed a system. So, we sort of tried to help with developing systems that would allow again very diverse object metadata to be integrated. So, a lot of this life has been really interactions with people, some of whom would be information scientists who were in museums, or in those cultural foundations. Others would be museum people who come from the curatorial side. And, for me, a lot of the learning in this period has been really by interacting with those people with diverse experiences, and especially to understand the limitations that our systems even to date [have], and our way of understanding the world of cultural heritage, and the stories, and the context, and the meanings that these objects can have for us as societies today, of how all these met with… still to date, [with] difficulties, and with limitations. So, it’s been a story of conversations that led to realizations that we’re still somehow searching, or scraping the surface of things. I mean this is at least my understanding.
I’m sorry, I’ve been sort of talking non-stop for all this time.
[Marty]: No, but this…
Please ask me something.
[Marty]: This is awesome, Costis. This is just so amazing. We don’t have our video on, so you can’t see me nodding enthusiastically, and I’m sure Kathy is as well, right. Because to hear you give this vision of the history of the Semantic Web, basically, and Linked Open Data, going back to the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, it’s just phenomenal. And as you say, we’re still, as you said, right here at the end, we’re still trying to figure out how to, how you know how do you get past the basic “Here’s your, here’s your inventory data for the collection” to something that’s actually meaningful. We’re still wrestling with those problems.
I think… I think you’re absolutely right. And you mentioned some other people as well from, you know, from this, this… because it is, it is a community of sorts, really, and we know people like, like Howard Besser and others… And you know, it’s interesting how for us at the time, especially from somebody who comes from this kind of peripheral country in Europe at the time, it just felt very isolated. How much, you know, one sentence: so, you know, this list of problems and the conundrums that Howard that identified in, in one of his papers about photographic collection recommendations, how this, you know, this slide, for instance, this list has become part of almost our mantra for people like myself, you know. And there were others as well. I mean books, you know, your book, and then again, of course, Sarah Kenderdine’s and Fiona Cameron’s book, more or less at the same time. But your book was like, very much… I’m talking about the Museum Informatics book, which really put the field on the map at that time, sort of created this kind of canonical history, this kind of identification of items and themes, and we knew that there were people there, like in the… in the group that were doing different things. And for me, I think, an important thing, which… I’m sort of heartened to see that this is happening more today, even with a continuation of everything, with [the] Museums & the Web [conference], it’s also being carried over, you know, later by other people and so, by Nancy [Proctor], and yeah, so the thing is that…
What I see is that there is this community that really allows people to derive strength from interaction with others. And we knew at the time, you know, who were like the stars of that universe that we had, and we just followed what they did, frankly. You know the time, there wasn’t at the time of Twitter, right? And following people around, what Peter Samis would do, or you know other people, anyone, Kathy… or it was like an issue in many cases, we just [went] searching online or maybe sometimes sitting there just writing an email or responding to an email, or something like that. So, it was a different time in a way, and I think that the way the things have been transformed today, in a way is, in one particular sense, encouraging, just because it allows people to be now in the field, having already a system of support. I mean people like, for instance, my ex-student at the University of Toronto, Erin Canning. So, Erin did a thesis with me on how museum visitors develop specific affects in front of paintings in an art gallery, and how we can, or we might, approach the issue of creating effective metadata about the museum experience, or something like that. So, for Erin, it was like pretty, pretty easy to say, “Okay I’ll connect you with Nancy Proctor, I’ll connect you with somebody else…” You know, and people would write them. People would go to the conference, and there will be there and they would be able to meet other people and then sort of develop — like she’s now an ontology engineer in the University of Guelph, after having worked as the new media manager for the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, just immediately after graduation. And I think this is a good thing for people that really are involved in the field. I don’t know if this is your experience, also because you’re both educators, like myself — because now it’s what I do, right? So, if, for your graduates you have the same experience. But this has been my experience, that graduates now can do, can sort of start, can go and do things, in a way.
On the other hand, I think what has been happening is that a field in which you almost had to know everyone at a certain point in time — just because there were only so many of us, right? — now, has become a little bit impersonal. So, in a sense, it’s becoming more impersonal, not necessarily more thoughtful always, especially in light of the extreme pressures that people who enter the field of museums now — especially in the back end, especially people who would work with collections — [the] extreme pressure for careers they face. Because one of the things that has been happening recently — and I know this is not perhaps part of, you know, a story of my life — but this is what I do now for the… for the University of Toronto. So, this is really part of my concerns there, and I’ve been discussing with colleagues… not only when I was director of the program between, you know, 2012 and 2015… but, even now, you know, it’s really still on, this. Because it’s myself and my colleague, Cara Krmpotich, who are teaching the collections courses, right? So, the whole emphasis there in many ways, is really on the public side of the museum, right? It’s really to create the exhibition. It’s really to address all the important, crucial, in a sense, challenges that are being placed on museums as institutions developed through the colonial period today by the communities, by society, by our contemporary concerns for equity for diversity and inclusion. And all these typically find a just… mostly interpretation, exhibition, programming, as the main areas that really need to be somehow sort of strengthened and supported. The twilight is there, right? And in this, to say that I want work in collections, I want to work on the back end, I want to work on, you know, what is happening in the back room, is not always a thing that is that is somehow welcome out there.
So, I don’t know if this is changing. It’s interesting, really, because following, for instance, OnMuse or CanMuse — these are the two [mailing] lists, the professional lists in Canada, the Ontario museum list and the Canada Museum Association list — what I see is this… a lot of talk about collections as well. Maybe this pandemic, the fact that we sort of have this moment of pause, and this moment of self-reflection that has to do with the fact that we can’t do much on the surface — and on the veneer, and on representation… the outward representation… and on communication — if we don’t deal with also the essential problems of how we go back, and how we describe, how we account for the collections themselves. And I think that this would be a welcome thing. I see more interest there. And I want my students this year because I was teaching collections management last semester, it was at least four or five people out of a larger group, that is, that were really keenly interested on collections and all the issues of how to do museum documentation, you know, how to sort of go beyond representing things using the traditional tombstone data approach, and going beyond that in order to accommodate the event-centricity of museum knowledge — but not just museum knowledge, it’s also the efficaciousness of museum objects, the fact that they do things, their contemporary lives. And I think that this is something that I welcome very, very much.
It’s another thing that I was very much interested [in] earlier on, mainly through my conversations also with David [Bearman] at the time, that was in the mid 1990s, and at that time, you know, I was like this kind of peculiar world. It was my ignorance of the museum world at the time in which I was entering that perhaps really led me to ask the question. Because I could see, and I said, that we’ve got two cultures. I was looking at this… paper of mine at that time, where I said there’s two cultures in museum and computing, and one is really the culture of databases and collection databases, and the other is a culture of multimedia and communication, but like two separate worlds. You know, people who don’t talk to each other, people who do these separate things on one side and another side. And it’s so interesting that… how especially networked digital technology, and the expanded possibilities of representation, of visualization, of storytelling today, have created this kind of new situation that caught up with us. And they’ve caught up with these ideas that really… what we want is really to bridge the two together somehow. And we can’t, you know, just sustain a situation in which… museums who do one thing behind the scenes, and who do another completely different thing, especially using digital technologies, when they talk to audiences, or where they communicate. So, it’s this kind of situation, really, I see happening today, again, and that’s…, that’s a good thing that is happening. And this is probably, maybe, explaining something that I very much hope will be the case for the next few years, or the next decade, which is the resurgence of collections. The realization that collections are central to museums.
Because we might [say] that a museum… the museum can be a forum, of course. It can be a forum but, as I was reading on it yesterday, in a paper, you know, it’s really – that famous paper, of course, you know that Cameron paper — you know, it needs to be both a temple and a forum, right? It needs to serve, not just a collection, to serve really the source communities, through which metonymically the collection talks to us. Because the collection is just not a set of dead objects! It can be possessions, but if it is just possessions, then it becomes dead, right? But it can also be our window to this contact zone with the otherness of that other culture, be it our own past — — sometimes our past which is troubled — or being the past or the present of others, right? So if we see that side, then… in anything that we do with regard to the forum, this aspect of the museum as the site of those collections that represent this other, you know, becomes pretty, pretty much central, right? And you can’t ignore it. And I hope that this realization is coming into play. This is like something that explains the renewed interest in collections that at least, I sense a little, as I say, in the lists and also among my students.
[Marty]: Yeah. Let me jump in here because Costis, I mean, I think you’re, you’re exactly right. And I want to go back to a few things you said earlier too, but just before I lose the immediate thread of what you were just saying about collections, not just, not just a set of dead objects. What I always tell my students here is that when I was a doctoral student at the University of Illinois, working at the World Cultures Museum there. One of the things that became very clear that for the, for the K-12 kids who live within 50 to 100 miles of Champaign-Urbana, and you know, in that part of North America, there’s nothing there but farm land, right. For those kids, that once a year field trip to that museum was their only experience with a culture that didn’t look like them, talk like them, sound like them, right. And that’s a, that’s a connection with another culture that’s a powerful force that the museum provides. That, that the collections can do that, we often forget about.
I fully agree, I fully agree, Paul. I think we’ve just only come to realize that… the transformational power that encounters with objects can have. Of course, I mean, we know it from theory, because theories talk about this kind of numinous or evocative power of objects, you know, the affiliate power of objects, their ability to link us with identities, and with others, and ideas, and with the past, and the sense of belonging, and the sense of being, sometimes. But I think we are only sort of scratching the surface again on something that is so seminal, it’s so central. And it’s so central in all our… our discourses of… of developing a reciprocal, equitable, inclusive reinterpretation of what the museum might be.
I think collections are our friends. And the ability of objects to… somehow, sort of, even resist our interpretations, when these interpretations — and also you know, how historical attempts at appropriation, just putting them within our systems of commercial value, or social capital, as has been the case, very, very much in the process of colonization, for instance — that ability to resist that, to be reticent to all these readings and just show us the possibility of rediscovering those redeeming values of… of authenticity — the redeeming values of linking with original context, social and cultural context, the redeeming values of linking to the plural communities and the plural cultures that really are part of their creation and their use — I think it’s an important thing. It’s a very very important thing. You know, I usually start one of my classes by asking people to bring an object from the… — no, not even bring. I say, “you know, just you’re … where you are, you know, just get to the other room and get an object that has some meaning for you.”. There’s always an object that has a very, very great meaning for any person, I think. And I think that, in many ways, what I would hope, what I would have hoped, what I would hope, positively, it’s really that we discover new ways of using collections.
Just taking the thread from, you know, all these discussions about the use of collections — for instance, I was reading… in Britain there’s stuff that Suzanne Keene and others have been writing — so rediscovering this thread allows us to take… now with the use of digital technologies as well, take collections out in the world and make them part of the context of, let’s say, curation in the wild — which is one particular concept that I’ve been sort of grappling with in the last few years, and in my current research interests, especially — allowing objects to circulate, even through their digital surrogates, or sometimes the objects themselves. They’re not this… Yeah, of course there are objects we want to protect, and I’m not against, you know, the physical preservation of objects. But still, we can share those as well, but digital technology becomes almost… an obvious way to somehow produce value through collections… to let them circulate, to… They have this expression in archival science, which is called “exercising the archive”, right? So, the archive, if it’s not exercised, is not used, if people don’t go there and search for a particular record, and look at the record, and say something about it, and allow then the finding aid to become better, right? So, if you don’t exercise the museum collection, I’d say, then the collection will become dead, will become a mortuary. And the only way for it to become alive again is really to allow these processes of curation in the wild, to allow an object to circulate there. So what I think is really the next frontier — for me at least, and this is something I try to understand — is not so much the museum as institution, and the museum collection as an institutional resource, but mostly this institutional resource becoming a public resource, becoming a social resource, becoming a cultural resource in which communities, users, will be able to go back and use that object and add to it. So, I’d like to see more fluid information systems in museums.
One of my most memorable experiences — I won’t take long — was this flight back from ICHIM Los Angeles? or San Francisco? I can’t remember, with Martin [Doerr], so we traveled in this transatlantic flight, sitting next to each other and using, you know, the napkins, in the aircraft to just draw stuff on CIDOC-CRM… it was like… pretty phenomenal at that time. You know, hours and hours, because Martin can be thorough that way, you know it’s just going to be really be very, very focused and thorough. I think, in many ways, the CRM is what it is because of his rigor and his persistence of vision, to put it like this. But it’s those experiences… and so many experiences, all our conferences and, our, you know, bar drinks, you know, so [the] conversation… after session conversations, I think, certainly, were so central, really, to what has been happening in the field as well.
So, I think this is something also that has been happening, and sort of mushrooming around the world, you know. And then Toronto, when I joined… we really shifted very much into a digital orientation, not least because of the fact that we just… in this cohabitation, in this Master of Museum Studies with the Master of Information [programs] sharing their elective courses, etcetera. So, I think this is a direction that is not stopping. In many ways, I enjoy being part of this process, and knowing all these people, really, and feeling part of that community. I’ll probably end what I want to say, with that, I think probably the best, most suitable, conclusion: it’s really the centrality of community, and the centrality of common knowledge, and common perceptions that are created by people when they talk to each other, and when they apply things in practice.