Oral History of Museum Computing: Diana Folsom
This oral history of museum computing is provided by Diana Folsom, and was recorded on the 2nd of April, 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/giBO15QljRI.
Okay, well, you know, I’m kind of a quiet person so I’m probably not as flamboyant maybe as some of your other stories. But the way I started in the museum field was a little bit flamboyant because I met a guy on a bus in New York, who happened to be the chief information officer of the LA County Museum of Art. And that’s how I even first heard about working in museums and thought about the possibility.
I was on a bus from JFK into the city and the bus I was on broke down and another bus came along. And there was only one seat left by the time I got on the bus, which was next to this very entertaining fellow, Jim Schlotter, who was brilliant and very steeped in the humanities and music. And he, you know, sang and talked and inspired about what could be done in museums and museum technology. [He was flamboyant.] So we stayed in touch over the years.
My background is in the arts. I’m an artist and my degrees – my undergraduate is an art major with music and dance minors. Right? All the practical things. Which, I think most of us have those kinds of backgrounds who work in museums – who have a passion for the arts. And I’ve always continued to paint and work on my art. And so Jim and I kept in touch about art, but also because the kind of internship that I had – that got me through graduate school – was as an illustrator on a computer based training program and a project. And this was in San Diego. Although I went to graduate school in New York at Hunter College, when I was home in the summer in San Diego, I got this job through San Diego State – my alma mater – as an illustrator there. So back then we had to do our drawings on graph paper and then the programmers would hard code it in. There weren’t any easy to use illustrator programs. So that got me started and the consulting company was Courseware and they were innovators in the field of computer-based training. And then after I finished graduate school and was looking for a job, I started working for them again in the art department. So I progressed, kind of through the ranks, managing the art department and interacting, of course, with the instructional designers on various projects over the years. And really enjoyed it.
So that was another point of conversation that Jim and I had. He would call me from LACMA to talk about what we were doing in computer-based training and educational areas there. And then, a job came up – an opening. He was looking for some people who might be good trainers, actually at the museum. And called me to see if I had suggestions and I said, “Ah, maybe me!” [laughing] And Jim was of the mind that he wanted to hire people who could think a certain way, and could learn, and it didn’t matter whether you knew the software systems. You can always learn the systems. But you’ve just got to be able to have a good, maybe logical mind. And be receptive. So I got the job, drove up after working all night at Courseware for a project for Apple computers and interviewed. And it was really fun. So it was a really great department. He was very innovative and inspired me. He thought about things like linguistic programming and he was actually developing a database – a collections management database – from scratch, working with a company out of Boston. Digital Equipment Corporation. You may remember that company, DEC, from back, those years ago. We had a central VAX cluster and they were donating time and money and programmers and engaged in helping us develop this system. It was called LADRRS [Los Angeles Data Research and Registration System]. But it really never got finished. It’s pretty difficult for museums to develop those collections management databases from scratch. Although some have done so successfully, like the Chicago Art Institute. But it was a bit too much for us.
We, over the years, moved to Multi MIMSY. We were given Getty grants and it was really through the Getty Grant Programs that we began our digitization efforts. And that’s most of what I did while I was at LACMA – was worked on these, at that point, really kind of blossoming or the birth of working on digital collections. I also was involved with the AMICO project and it was really the consortial projects that enabled me and probably all of us in art museums, anyway, to begin to understand and learn how to digitize our collections, how to catalog, how to do this thing. So those consortial projects, I think, are key, were key, and they continue to be key and pivotal in the progress that we make in our institutions.
So, gosh, let’s see. We also created our own website in about ‘97 I think – 1997 and I remember Kathy’s story about how she created websites, I think at Harvard. And we were just, you know, in the IT department. I was most of the time in the IT department and just sitting in the back room and we were just re-typing what we saw in either a brochure or the collections catalog – permanent collections catalog – and, you know, plug that information online. And that was about it. At one point, I think the colors chosen were colors to match one of the IT guys’ cars, you know. There wasn’t a whole lot of thought about user experience then. It was just trying to figure out how to make a few pages, recreate a few brochure-like pages, and stick it online. As many things begin, it was kind of quiet and just having fun together. Trying things out, just trying things out. Experimenting a bit. So we were the little elves behind them, making the magic happen.
Yeah so, it seems that with all of my work in museums, I brought my artist’s perspective. I am really interested in making sure that people look at the art that we – it seems that I think even early on, we made our images as large as we thought we could get away with as we were pondering the size that would work on the Internet. And pondering the rights issues. Because I think it’s just really important to be able to come back to the art object and look closely. I also really believe in collaborative work, trying to bring in educators, curators, the designers, the – every aspect, the software developers – in team meetings, to make our ideas and move things forward. And we usually get a much better product by talking together, but it certainly leads to messy attempts and communications get tricky because we all have such different perspectives. But it leads to such a good good product, I think. Gosh, what else to talk about? I guess my –
[Marty]: Can I jump in? Let me jump in with a question real fast.
[Marty]: I was really intrigued by what you mentioned about AMICO and the value of those consortial projects, for I guess, you know, pushing boundaries. What is it, you think, about those consortial projects that was really so helpful?
These consortial projects – AMICO was the first I was involved in – they helped us understand what the issues were and how to do things that we didn’t know how to do. And there were usually so few of us in technology, even in the larger museums, that we didn’t know who to talk to. And this was a way to share information, get to the experts that we would not be able to get to or pay for or even know about without these consortial projects. So AMICO was the first great consortial project. Another one that I think about a lot and it still influences my work to this day, is the Steve Social Tagging Project. That project was fantastic. Susan Chun and Rob Stein started that project. [Of course, Jennifer Trant and David Bearman were also originators of this project and played major roles.] It was groundbreaking at the time and now looking back, probably people think that it wasn’t – you know, what’s so unusual about that? – but it was so radical at that point. And that really appealed to my artist side as well.
So it really opened up everyone’s thinking, certainly in the museum field because we were very far behind and cataloging, particularly for subjects and themes and content of the art that we were sharing online. And then on the opposite extreme, the opposite end of the spectrum, were the librarians and archivists who have such a formal, you know, very careful way of cataloging and using Library of Congress terms and a methodology that had been worked out over a long period of time. But, you know, we in art museums have such unique objects. We don’t often have multiples of them, so it was much harder to standardize. Plus I don’t think we’ve – I don’t think that way anyway. And maybe some museum people do but – we are also unique in our approach to the work we’re doing. So, I really love the Steve Project [steve.museum project] and was involved in part one and part two, and it really stayed with me. I really liked the software that was developed by Charlie and the guys at the IMA Lab, which is, I guess, now called New Fields Lab. And that really stuck with me. And so I used their utility that allows you to not only add tags but review tags. And we tried to do that at LACMA with our docents. And it worked fairly well, but I really wanted to develop that utility further. So, curiously, coming here to the Gilcrease Museum, the first project that we planned with an IMLS grant was working with some pottery that was very, very important. Very important collection. Very important to me personally. It’s ancient Mississippian and Caddo pottery, that is, for the southeast tribes. And being at the Gilcrease Museum and working with Native American objects and that perspective has really allowed me to expand my thinking. And also it’s allowed me to connect with my own personal heritage.
My family’s from this region in Oklahoma. I am a member of the Choctaw tribe and I didn’t know that much about my own roots. So coming here to the Gilcrease Museum has allowed me to explore. And so often, the projects that I pull together are a way for me to personally explore what I want to explore — what I want to learn more about. Partly because the collection is really important, but also because I’m curious. And so, for that first project we developed something called a Distance Cataloging Interface – the DCI. That’s, you know, a very boring techie label, but we expanded it so that it’s quite a robust utility. And we worked with Native artists and had them tag the ancient ceramic vessels. There were about a total of 3,500. And, you know, we learned through the Steve Project that even though we thought people would just love and just enjoy tagging just for the fun of it, and they would tag all of our objects and just help us get all these search terms – turned out it’s fun for, what, about five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes. Unless it’s a specific project or unless maybe you pay people. Or they have a particular reason to get information out there about something they know about.
So we did have a specific project with these Native artists who have backgrounds – their tribes are descendants of the people who made these vessels. And we paid them, and so we had a really robust and rewarding project by using the Steve Project – the things we learned there and now applying it to work with underserved people. And so we’ve found that in each project we’ve done since then, particularly with grant funded projects, people seem to get excited about using this Distance Cataloging Interface. We also don’t have hardly any curators in this museum. We have a deep and wide ranging collection, a very important collection, but just a couple of curators. So we need experts to help us. So we take the approach of inviting experts, but all different kinds of experts. So we’re also working on another IMLS grant project now where we’re working with ethnographic specialists and focusing on tribes, particularly those that are in this region: the Osage, the Cherokee, and the Muscogee Creek. And working with their ethnographic materials and photographing them, identifying them, and recording information from an expert – an elder in the field – who knows more about it than we do in the museum. So we’re able to catalog our collection by working with this Distance Cataloging Interface. And we are also working with another expert on the ceramic vessels who reviewed our cataloging and fixed it and added more information, more data that we did not have. Which is then enabling us to have meaningful NAGPRA consultations. So this result of the Steve Project is moving us forward in new and very, very important ways for the field – to work with Native peoples and improve our understanding of our collection and also to help them have a voice in what we say about these objects.
[Jones]: Diana, could you say a little bit more about how the interface works? I’m finding it fascinating that you developed that and you’re working with tribal elders. So my ‘Peabody mind’ is kicking in and I just wanted to hear a little bit more about that.
Okay. So the software side or the…?
[Jones]: The user experience side I think. So, not so much the museum, as how do the experts interact with it? What is the type of training that you might have to give them in order to do the work?
Okay, yes. So, again, you know, we figured that they would love to see these ancient ceramic vessels because they’re related to their heritage. And each of these tribal members are ceramic artists. So it was very interesting to them on many different levels, from the iconographic layer to the methodology, the material, the shapes – they’re very complex vessels. So we thought it would be, again, a little easier for them to do, but we found that we needed to give them training, initially. Which we did in-person. We had several long meetings and we had an advisory committee as well. And the artists were on the advisory committee and we met together in those meetings. Actually, Holly Witchey was hired to be a facilitator for those meetings. She was really great.
So we talked to many issues and then, when we got down to business, it was – we felt it important to run it like a project. We had to have monthly goals and we also found that it was important to go meet them in their homes or in a Starbucks and do additional training in-person. We thought it was really easy to use, but you know, if something’s new and if it’s not a – if you’re not necessarily accustomed to working with software or technology – we spent a lot of time doing that. And we made ourselves available all of the time, like a help-desk to them. And that personal, hands-on training, once they’d actually tried it for a while – going to them made a big difference. Does that help?
[Jones]: That’s perfect. Thank you so much for that.
[Marty]: I was just looking to see if the tool was still on your museum website and I couldn’t find it. Is it there?
Well, it’s password protected. So, this is really by invitation only and certainly we learned through the first project that a large percentage of these ceramic vessels are from a funerary context. So they’re [the ceramic vessels in addition to the DI utility] are not really shown easily or readily online to the general public. But again, we are using that utility in the background, so to speak, in the password protected area to do some NAGPRA consultation with a couple of the tribes coming up soon. So that’s been useful. And then we did just get a third IMLS grant – an IMLS Cares grant. We’ve gotten a brand new collection called the Eddie Faye Gates’ Tulsa Race Massacre Collection. And Eddie Faye Gates is a woman who was key in trying to pull together oral histories of the race massacre survivors. And she’s a real activist, to help the community and improve the understanding in Tulsa and even improve the way, certainly the way black citizens are treated, but also the way they are compensated for what happened during the race massacre.
In working on that proposal, I thought you know we’ve used that DCI in every proposal so far, maybe people are getting tired of it. But it just seemed like people were still excited about it, so I put together a plan where we will be pairing a young person, like maybe a high school-aged person, and an elder from the north Tulsa community, which is the community where most of the race massacre survivors and more of a Black community in Tulsa. And they will look at photographs in this collection that we’re cataloging now. And they will also look at some of the videos – the oral histories that were recorded. And they will work on tagging together. So probably the young person will help the elder use the technology a bit and the elders will help the young person learn more about that time period and what happened and how it affected their community and their family members. So we’re really – we’re also talking about a new project, where we might be using it with native Nahuatl speakers. So it’s interesting that it’s turned – really turned into a tool that we’ve been using for the kinds of people in our community and in our collection and in our world, who have not been heard from enough and whose voices we want to amplify – they’ve been underserved, I think.
[Marty]: Yeah, No, I love that. And boy, it speaks to the value of these tagging tools to give people the opportunity to add their voice, right? The missing personal experiences, the missing backgrounds, the – so many things that often get, that’s hidden by the curatorial voice right? You can get that extra voice in there.
[Marty]: And I love the pair of relationship idea for going over the Tulsa Race Massacre collection objects. I’ll be really fascinated to see what you get from that, with those conversations.
Me too, me too. And I do want to emphasize that it’s really important to pay people to do this work for you. Because it is, it is work for us. And so often Native communities, and I think probably Spanish speaking communities, as well and maybe Black communities also – you know, we – museum people will kind of, you know, swoop in and want to grab all their knowledge and information and then we’ll take it back, and process it and put it online or use it in our own sort of intellectual ways. But it’s really important to pay them. What they’re doing is important work. It’s key to what we do. And to use it in more, would you call it an unedited fashion? Or in a more direct fashion, maybe that would be a better word. So that we really understand their perspective.
So those consortial projects, boy, they live on [laughing]. They live on for a long time. So, I can –
[Jones]: Uh oh, you froze again. But if you can hear me, could we get back to talking about AMICO and what that project meant to you in terms of digitizing collections? I know maybe I’m repeating things, but I think it’s interesting to hear what the impact was on the museums themselves who were the participating members of that.
[Jones]: Yeah, just to kind of jump back to AMICO to talk a little bit about the impact of digitizing to the AMICO standard and the impact that had on many museums. And the reason I’m asking is because it’s something that Sam Quigley and I talked about. And it seemed that member museums had been digitizing, and then when AMICO came along and people joined, it meant that there was a new standard for it. Maybe in terms of the metadata that was collected, but also the quality of the image. Right? Does that make sense?
Okay, yes. Absolutely. So for us, we had really not started digitizing yet. So, it was brand new to us and, you know, very helpful to have those standards. And to even understand that those were issues to talk about and to understand and to learn about. So it was completely new to us and so that enabled us to get started in a good way. [AMICO and also the Getty Electronic Cataloguing Initiative both enabled us to learn about data and imaging standards – and create a solid starting place for digitization efforts. We started with high-quality imaging, but we did not try for the highest quality possible – because of the expense and speed of digitization we were aiming for.] Although, certainly image standards evolved quickly and things changed quickly and we’re always scrambling to have the highest quality image, as well as data, as we move along. [To clarify, soon after we began imaging, improved cameras started coming out regularly so we were continually upgrading equipment and improving quality. It was tempting go back and reshoot continuously, but our photographer decided to only do highest quality reshoots when requested or needed for a publication.] So it’s a challenge to not want to go back and re-do things, while we’re still on the march forward to digitize everything. [It seems that there is always a higher level of imaging quality to keep up with. It’s a moving target.] We certainly – at the Gilcrease Museum, our collection size is about 400,000 things. So [with about 30,000 items online now] we have a long way to go. [toward the goal of digitizing every item in the collection] And we’re taking a very kind of, rapid digitization approach, as much as we can in a medium sized museum with a small staff. But, boy, it’s hard not to want to re-do those photos already – those images [laughter].Does that help you for that question?
[Jones]: Thank you.
[Jones]: Yeah, I know the urge to do it again and do it now, when we have different technologies and tools. Right? So, probably can’t.
Right, right. Not right away. Depends on the content, I guess. I think – do you have other questions, for me, maybe? Or maybe as a woman in technology, that’s an issue that might be – might have some interest – me starting in technology.
[Jones]: Yes, please talk about that.
Okay. Very, very early on, you know, even as a graduate student – it [technology] seemed fairly natural to me because it [my work] was education based, and I was pretty interested in doing anything or using any kind of utility that would help people or be education based. I later read some articles or stories that have the theory that women in technology are most interested in using it to make a difference in the world, to do something good in the world. And maybe we’re not as interested in making something faster or bigger or more of this or that [powerful], but instead interested in helping the world, improving the world.
And I think that’s what really got me hooked on digitizing collections. [laughing] Because I really do feel that it helps the world to share art and to share music and dance and all sorts of humanities ideas and to connect them together. That’s also what got me interested in the Linked Open Data Project, the American Art Consortium. That’s the most recent consortium I was a part of that I think is a pivotal – an important – project to help understand how complicated it is. And to begin to use a tool that makes it easier to link our data to lots of other kinds of information – events and people in places – to enrich our information, which I think is part of the dream. Part of the dream, to make this important humanities and art information available to the world, and help us understand each other better.
[Marty]: That sounds like a speech I give in my museum informatics class.
[Marty]: That’s exactly what I say to the students!
Do you? [laughing]
[Marty]: It’s about making the world a better place.
I really think it does. And you know, I sometimes say that to some colleagues and they roll their eyes, and I say – you know what? I actually believe that. And they usually confess that they believe it too. [laughing]
[Marty] : I was just going to agree with you, right. I would never have rolled my eyes at that. I think that’s exactly why we’re here. And, I mean, I think about where I grew up in East Central Illinois, right? The World Cultures Museum at the University of Illinois was the only bit within you know — I mean Chicago was, what 130 miles away? — so I’d say within a 100 mile radius, that was it! That [museum] was the only place in that giant amount of farmland where you would see anybody who looked different from how you looked, who talked different from how you talked, you know what I mean?
[Marty]: It’s the job of the museum to expand our boundaries, to remind us that we’re all one shared humanity.
Yep. Yep. I love that. I love that. I’m going to use your words too. [laughing] Great. Okay, and I guess I’m thinking more about women in technology. I feel like I tended to play the role of the, sort of translator or in-between person – between, you know, the tech, really high tech guys and the regular staff in the museum. And that’s still, I think, kind of the role I play. But now it’s been infused at the Gilcrease Museum with my personal passions for [learning about] the content and bringing in Native peoples and underserved peoples to help us change the nature of our information, of what we share about our collection. And change ideas about authority, as you were saying, that Greg Albers was talking about. So the museum and the curator are – we are people who have studied these works and study these collections and have a useful perspective, but it’s not the only perspective. And it didn’t come from on high. So there are other critical perspectives that are equally important and sometimes maybe more important than ours.
[Marty]: And these new tools that we have at our disposal make it so much easier for us to collect those voices than we could have in the past and I – and, you know, thinking about – you’re talking about the value of the Steve Project and I think what that really showed is how you manage the technology to make that possible.
[Marty]: It wasn’t as easy as people thought it was going to be — to start with.
Right. That’s right. That’s right. And even now as well. But it’s still – but it can happen. And it works so – and it’s enabled us to keep getting things done, even during the pandemic.
[Jones]: So Diana, I want to ask about that too. So in the Steve Project and then with your – the cataloging interface – how did you get people to think about what terms they wanted to use? With Steve it might have been easier. You know, I remember that website interface and what you were asking, but if you could say how that helped you with working with the Native American groups? Just to find the right terminology?
Yes, and that definitely evolved. And with the first project with the Native artists – again, I still thought, even with our experience on the Steve Project, I still thought that people would kind of naturally find this interesting and could think about adding tags and search terms, the way we might think of them. And I felt that the perspective I wanted to learn from was, what words would they use to find these objects? What would they need to find these objects? The anthropologists who had already cataloged them used terms that don’t make any logical sense whatsoever, most of the time, to someone who hasn’t been exposed to them. As I’m sure you’ve probably found at your museum. So – but they did wonder where to start. I had been using, in the past, just this kind of “who, what, when, where” as sort of basics. Now – tell me what you see. You know, is there a tree in the painting? Is there, you know – what is the iconographic element that you see? What is the material you see? Does it show that it was pit fired – so you can see the smoke rings on the ceramic vessel? What is the shape? How would you describe the shape? But it still was difficult for them to start.
So what we ended up doing was that, on my Digi [short for Digitization] team we brainstormed, kind of in the background, and we looked up the names of some various animals that you would see in iconography and we also just came up with basic shapes: a triangle, a circle, you know, a line, a crosshatch – that would describe what you see. And we would come up with nature words. So I had made up these different columns, you know nature words, animal words, shape words. And so we made this big, kind of long vocabulary chart with all the possibilities that I thought that myself, as an artist – what I might want to look for. We looked up the terms the clay makers [artists] would use. You know, when they’re talking about how they work in their art and their craft. And so – and also we looked at art historical terms which weren’t really used by the anthropologists, which is the way it had been catalogued a bit so far.
So, then – so we ended up with this kind of long vocabulary in a chart that we used an in-person committee meeting, like an advisory committee meeting with all the artists, and Holly Witchey was the wonderful facilitator. And we basically went through every term and they voted whether they would want to use those terms or not. So we kind of developed our own little folksonomy. And we also learned that Native peoples do not like it when we give a regular animal name to something that they see depicted on an ancient ceramic vessel because it’s something that they may have seen in ceremony and it’s not necessarily a regular kind of an animal. You wouldn’t call it a hybrid of a dog plus a dragon or something because it’s something very different. So we learned a lot from that. And that’s how we came up with the vocabulary of terms. Is that helpful?
[Jones]: That’s wonderful. Thank you.
And if – I’m not sure that it’s – certainly it’s not sort of exhaustive and we found that they still tended to use a fairly limited range of terms. And one of the most important things they got out of this project was that this enabled them to look. And maybe that’s what you’re referring to when you were referring to the VTS methods. It just helped them really look at these objects more closely, more carefully and consider their ancestors who made them, you know, before their time and what we could learn. This was a lost art, which you may know, until maybe ten, fifteen years ago [probably more like 25 years ago]. A few artists, one of them is Jeri Redcorn, began studying collections in museums and started experimenting to figure out how to recreate those old ways – how to make the ceramic vessels. And so it was really through these museum collections, that this has been revived and it’s now becoming more and more popular in our region. Certainly in Oklahoma. And it has also become a way for Native peoples to have – to add to their income. So that’s very important as well.
And Native peoples see these items as living things. I hate to even use the word objects or items to refer to the work of art itself – even describing it as a work of art seems incomplete. But they are living things. Native peoples can feel that their ancestors made them and touched them and there’s deep, deep personal meaning. So these artists got so much joy, had so many new ideas, there was such creativity and beautiful range of work in these ceramic vessels. And then we’ve ended up purchasing some work from these contemporary artists for our collection as well, that give more modern – I don’t know if modern is the right word, but more contemporary versions. Or even interpretations of these ancient techniques. So I’m really, really happy to have played a small role in helping to move this artform forward.