Oral History of Museum Computing: Jeff Gates

This oral history of museum computing is provided by Jeff Gates and was recorded on the 15th of February, 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/ILCe0R5o-ks.

Let me begin in 1992 when I was teaching at the Maryland Institute College of Art. I was teaching photography but would eventually migrate to computer graphics. This story reflects one spark that ignited both that shift and the direction of my life and art.

During the summer of 1992, I was teaching summer school at Carnegie Mellon, where I connected with their Center for Creative Inquiry. The web was launched in 1993, so this was about a year before, and the Center was exploring electronic bulletin boards and gophers. It was one of the first experiences I had with the net. I remember the first images I saw online were from the Vatican’s art collection, which blew me away. I saw the possibilities of connecting with others via the net. And now look what we’re doing with Zoom!

When I got back to the Maryland Institute, I immediately made an appointment with the dean, Barbara Price. I told her, “Look, I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but the internet will change not just what we teach but how we teach.”

She replied, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Let’s go talk to the president [of the college].” So, we met with Fred Lazarus. Barbara introduced the notion of institutional change very well. She said, “You know, some teachers got their MFAs twenty years ago and teach the same way they were taught, like painters and the more traditionally based artists. Then there are younger people coming out from new programs who are looking at things differently, and finally, there are people like Jeff, who got his degree 10 years ago but are looking ahead. Listen to what he has to say.”

I told him the same thing I’d told Barbara. His reaction was (and this is a direct quote—I’ll never forget it), “This is not Carnegie Mellon. This is not a research institution. This will never happen here.”

And that was the end of that until, years later, their digital art program got so big they built a brand new building to house the program. The couple who donated money to build the complex, the Browns, have their name on the building. Somehow, I feel I deserve a classroom named after me. [laughs]

That’s how my interest began. In 1998, I left teaching and started working at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) as their head of new media initiatives. My job was to help shepherd new media programs within the museum. SAAM has had a website since the mid-1990s. Betsy Broun, its director, was very open to the internet, encouraged by Steve Dietz, the Chief of Publications, who introduced the museum to the net.

It was a perfect opportunity for me. I’m naturally curious and interested in “process,” how things get done personally and institutionally. But nothing could have prepared me for what I encountered. I had always been a teacher and, as such, was the “director” of what went on in my classroom. I had never worked in a large organization before. And it didn’t take long before I encountered my first obstacle. I was sitting in a meeting, listening to a discussion (I can’t remember what it was), and suddenly I said, “Well, that’s an interesting problem.” Immediately, the Chief of External Affairs reacted, “What do you mean it’s a problem??!” Coming from academia, I saw a problem as simply something to be solved. She saw it as something negative. I realized I had a lot to learn about the nature of organizations and specifically museums.

The internet introduced a revolutionary change like I had prognosticated to the college president. Eventually, I learned that collaboration, working with like-minded colleagues to move forward, was critical to success. In addition, I needed to know how to introduce these ideas to the uninitiated and show them why these steps could be a positive move for the museum.

One of my key tasks was to figure out how to bring a constant flow of new content to our web pages. Remember, this was the early 2000s, and websites were hand-coded and static. Aside from running the department, I designed many iterations of our earlier websites.

Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired, had written about what he called the long tail strategy. Using Amazon as an example, he said that while bestsellers got a lot of play and purchases, when you added up sales from the thousands of less popular books, they far outstripped the total sales of the best sellers. These books comprised the long tail. So, how could SAAM bring the vast amount of content on our website to the surface? In addition, we faced a challenge. In 2000, the American Art Museum closed for a six-year renovation. While we were closed, how could we maintain a public face on the net?

I had started blogging on my own site in 2001. In 2002, I first proposed doing a blog to our External Affairs Department. I thought this could solve both issues (bringing buried content to the surface and maintaining a presence during our closure). The goals of an organization’s marketing/external affairs department often have a different focus than that of its content producers. Their job is to publicize the activities going on in the museum. They were focused on the ongoing renovation and our traveling exhibitions, and my blog proposal was premature. Two years later, I had two new bosses, Joanna Champagne and Mike Edson, and I floated the idea again. Both were quite savvy in technology. We were thinking more seriously about how we could keep our website fresh. And a blog could provide a way.

But we had a couple of challenges: all departments were preparing for our physical reopening. And we were concerned about how a “revolutionary” new project (few knew what a blog was at that time) could fit into their workflow. Would there be resistance to one more “unknown”?

The other challenge was convincing the director that this was a viable project. So we had to be very strategic in our proposal. We looked closely at the pros and cons. It seems very pedestrian now, but it was a big deal back then. This was a new way of doing things. We had been trying to deliver fresh content via a “What’s New” page, but we had no technology for quickly updating pages. Everything would have to be done by hand. When I started doing my own blogging, I did it by hand. But early content management systems like Moveable Type and Typepad made it possible to create ongoing date-based entries easily. This would allow us to bring our museum’s “long tail” content back to the surface, making it easily found.

Initially, we took it slowly. We hired an outside art blogger and had banked several posts before Eye Level, the Smithsonian’s first blog [https://americanart.si.edu/blog], went live on November 29, 2005. Every blog post had to be approved by the director. I remember being on a panel about blogs at the Museum Computer Network Conference (MCN) in 2006 with Phyllis Hecht from the National Gallery and Robin Dowden from the Walker. When I told the audience, “Every blog post has to be approved by our director,” everyone’s mouth dropped, and there was a collective sigh. Robin said, “I don’t know if our director even knows we have a blog!”

In the lead-up to our launch, there were several decisions we had to make. How were we going to convince our staff to buy into this? How were we going to organize blog posts? What did we want to blog about? Who was going to blog? I became the de facto managing editor (which I ended up doing for 13 years). What would be the workflow? How many blog posts would we do a month? What tools were available that would allow us to edit and share this information?

We ended up using Basecamp to run posts through the workflow. And initially, our Publications Department editors edited each post. We soon realized that the editors were approaching their jobs like they were editing a book rather than a more informal short essay. The editing was taking longer than it should have. The museum was used to creating well-written and tightly edited content. Exhibition labels often take up to six months to write and edit. But these posts were a new type of content for us. And there was pushback as we sought to find a happy medium. We eventually resolved this issue by making our case to edit within the blog working group.

We formed a group of interested people from across the museum to write from various vantage points. And our workflow settled into a routine. We eventually parted ways with our art blogger, who considered his writing more art criticism than content about our collection and programs. Most of all, we wanted our posts to be inviting and interesting to our public. So we had to consider just who our public was. And it varied from art lovers and art historians to those who might be coming to the Smithsonian and wanted to find out what would be on exhibition.

I remember the first time I announced we were doing a blog at a meeting of the pan-Smithsonian web group. During development, we had kept this to ourselves. We didn’t talk about this outside the museum. But when we were ready to launch, I announced our project at this meeting. Everyone around the table knew how difficult it was to try something new. Our blog was the beginning of social media in our museum.

[Marty]: I’ll just jump in and say that you know this whole thing about having a blog before your boss even knows you have a blog, right, this connects to an ongoing issue with MCN, right, about how savvy is your boss with respect to tech, and does that help or hinder the museum technology professional?

As I mentioned early, our former Chief of Publications, Steve Dietz, introduced the web to our director, Betsy Broun. And she trusted him. After he left and I came onboard, Betsy was already a proponent of using the net as a public-facing tool. But she was also very concerned about the messages we conveyed. An incident before my time, in the early 1990s, led to her strong oversight over all projects at the museum.

In 1991, we organized an exhibition called, The West As America. And a museum fellow wrote the captions for the show. At the time, Betsy didn’t think it was necessary to have the final say in these matters, leaving it up to the curatorial department. But after the exhibition opened, there was an immediate public reaction to the revisionist context of westward expansion these captions conveyed. As Michael Kammen writes in his book, Visual Shock, the response was three-fold. Art critics panned the show (and the national tour was canceled). The public showed their strong reactions to what they thought was unpatriotic with their written opinions in the show’s comment book. And Congress got wind of the controversy and threatened to cut the Smithsonian’s funding (even though non-governmental sources contributed funds for The West As America).

This affected our director deeply. I believe she had to testify before Congress. And from then on (and throughout my twenty-year tenure at the museum, from 1998 to 2018), all public text had to be approved by her. She became a micromanager. So when we started the blog, she insisted all blog posts had to be approved by her. As she became more comfortable with what we were writing, slowly that oversight loosened. That was one challenge that initially affected our blog—the very nature of a blog: short, informal, and timely posts. And this was the reason the MCN audience reacted as they did when I mentioned it.

Another issue that all museums faced as we entered this internet age was how do we get curators to participate in our online endeavors? Their traditional jobs were to research art for exhibitions and write catalogues and captions for the artworks. Our overtures were often met with various levels of resistance throughout the museum as staff’s days were filled with more traditional work. The evolution of that change was slow and often frustrating. Interestingly, the pandemic changed everything. Suddenly, public programs and lectures were held on Zoom. I’ve often thought about the positive changes the pandemic will have on society. In the museum world, this was a tipping point.

There were other ways we got curators involved with our internet projects. When Google Arts & Culture (GA&C) approached us to do some online exhibitions from our collection, it allowed me to work closely with curators in a very short timeframe. GA&C would often contact me to ask if we’d like to take part in a larger project, say, an exhibition from our African American collection during Black History Month. But their deadlines were often very short. So the curator and I had to work quickly to put it together, both images and text. The opportunity to have an exhibition on such a large platform was very inviting, encouraging our technology department’s collaboration with curatorial.

[Marty]: Jeff, I was going to jump in and say we’re having the exact same arguments in academia, right? Those of us that have been pushing for online education for years now, suddenly everyone was forced into it. And we’re like, “You gotta, you gotta stick with this. Don’t, don’t go back into your sheltered world after this is over.” And it’s hard to do that.

It is! Before coming to the Smithsonian, I taught college photography and computer graphics. Way before all the online teaching tools we have now, I taught the first online web design class in 1996 as part of the primary curriculum at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. I did this from my home office here in DC. The connections were slow. We had no video, face-to-face critiques, or one-on-one synchronistic dialogues between myself and my students. We only had online chats. A comment I’d make to a student that might take a few minutes in real life would take a half-hour to type out. Many students didn’t take the class seriously, and many failed. We were working in prehistoric times. It was the most challenging course I ever taught. Obviously, things have changed since then. Curators are more comfortable talking online. We use a lot of video (often using curators) to create inside looks at our artworks’ content and context. And we use those liberally online.

As social media developed in the late “aughts,” SAAM started to use additional platforms to engage online. We still were very invested in our blog, and it got a lot of traffic. In addition, External Affairs used Twitter, and Flickr became an essential way of connecting our art with our visitors. But pretty quickly, we realized we were working in silos. Many departments had different target audiences and different messaging. Creating a more unified voice became important. I say “more unified,” but that didn’t mean every message had to be the same. It meant we had to communicate with each other more and develop strategies that didn’t oppose others. Social media was forcing a critical shift in how we worked together. We now have a person who coordinates all of our social media posts. Recently, External Affairs and the technology teams merged into one department. And I think that will facilitate conversations between our teams.

I began to observe the internet’s influence on one-on-one communications within our organizational structure. And I wrote several articles about these changes. In 2009, I wrote the first of these pieces, “Confessions of a Long Tail Visionary.” [https://outtacontext.com/writing/long-tail-visionary/] In it, I said, “While the traditional visionary makes connections between the big pictures, long tail visionaries look for relationships between the small pictures [by the way, a curator called me on the carpet for using the word ‘visionaries’ to describe us]. I am hedging my bets at the grassroots level. And at this level, I, along with my coworkers, play several roles.” I then identified the new roles necessary for us to bring other staff onboard to convey our museum’s mission online. These included explorers, collaborators, advocates, collaborators, community activists, and, finally, realists.

Part of my job was to look into the future to see what technologies were coming down the pike and how they might further our mission. As a realist, I understood we could never hope to move as quickly as we wanted to. And I learned to be thankful for small victories.

A year after writing “Confessions of a Long Tail Visionary,” I wrote a follow-up, “Clearing the Path for Sisyphus,” [https://outtacontext.com/writing/sisyphus/] adding system analyst, negotiator, and opportunist to the new roles technologists took on during our migration online.

Those of us who were invested in the transformations that technology was bringing to the museum were trying to convey these changes to our coworkers. We were going from the traditional one-way conversation between the experts and our visitors to more of a two-way conversation. Even today, that’s still a challenge: thinking of our visitors, not just as consumers of our content, but also people with valuable opinions.

[Jones]: Jeff, just one quick point… you talked about how the language changed when you were blogging, so I would imagine that you had to begin to change the language again with the two-way interaction with the public for the different platforms that you had?

Yes, social media is a much more informal way of communicating. And each platform requires a unique way of interacting. Getting our audiences to engage in fruitful dialogues has always been our goal (and it’s still challenging). But how do you deal with trolls? How do you deal with complaints? There was a whole bevy of challenges brought on by these new two-way conversations. And, like everyone else on the net, these interactions demand constant attention.

If you look at the traditional hierarchy of the museum, curators and art historians are near the top. I’ve attended enough College Art Association (CAA) meetings to know how art historians talk. It’s not always accessible to the layperson. Using my experiences as a teacher and as a technology writer, I’ve always been interested in making sure that we’re understood when we talk about ideas. If you want to be heard, one of my philosophies is to talk to people in ways they will hear you. Even if those ideas are complicated and variegated, there are ways to convey that information in a more digestible form—in ways our public will understand and in ways they can react. We certainly won’t be able to do that if we speak only in “art historyese.” In our museum world, the language will change, depending on how it’s conveyed.

I remember a wonderful panel that I attended at CAA many years ago. When I was doing my graduate work at UCLA, I studied with TJ Clark, a well-respected art historian with a Marxist bent. He was on this panel with other like-minded art historians, and he finally said to them, “Look, if you want to convey this information, get it out there, get it accepted, you’re going to have to talk in terms that people can understand.” It had been at least twenty years since I was in his class, but after the session ended, I went up to him and said, “I know you don’t remember who I am. But now I remember why I liked you.” And he replied, “No, I do remember you. You used to ask a lot of questions.” We can’t ignore or underestimate our audiences. Our material must be accessible. That doesn’t mean we get rid of academic writing. But finding a place for informal conversations is critical as we expand our outreach. And I love when people ask questions.

Here are two examples of early outreach: Maybe forty percent of our collection is being shown in our galleries at any one time. Our Luce Foundation Center [https://americanart.si.edu/visit/saam/luce] shows parts of our collection that the public would typically not be on view. The Center is an open storage gallery where art is displayed in simple glass cases with very little contextual information. Sometimes, a visitor to Luce might suddenly come upon an empty space where we had removed an artwork for an exhibition, a traveling exhibition, or for conservation. There would be a gap. One of my coworkers had an idea. What if we asked our online audience which of our stored artworks should fill that gap? We asked our followers on Flickr to suggest replacements from our collection (you could tell which of our artworks were in storage by doing a search). And we naturally called this program “Fill the Gap!” That was one of the first ways we used the net to get our viewers actively involved in what we displayed.

For many years, predating the web, we had another program called “Ask Joan of Art.” Anyone could write our research team, ask about artwork in our collection, and get an answer via email. The head of this program was actually named Joan. Researchers would use many sources that were not available to the public. Years later, I discovered that one of our researchers, Kathleen Adrian, had started a Twitter account on her own and started tweeting some questions people had written in—but just the questions, not the answers. In an organization where permission to do a project or attention paid to every sentence in a manuscript or caption was critical, I found her initiative refreshing. It’s a perfect example of “just do it, and ask for forgiveness later.” After discovering this, I asked her, “What if we took those questions and began posting the answers on our website on a new ‘Ask Joan of Art’ page?” The questions and answers were already in our in-house archive, so we already had the content. Repurposing this and bringing it to the public was a great example of a long tail strategy. It was low-hanging fruit. And we would connect our Twitter presence to our website.

One concern was our answers often used proprietary information culled from paid research-based subscriptions. Would it be fair to make those assets public? Adrian assured me she could rewrite the answers in a way that wouldn’t jeopardize that paid model. After a few years, we had over 3600 people who had accessed these pages. That may not seem like much now, but back in the mid-2000s, that was a huge audience. And in fact, our “Ask Joan of Art” section got so large, we were afraid this content would again become buried. I suggested we migrate this content again as a new category on our blog. The content management system would always show this category throughout the blog, keeping these posts visible. Once again, we finessed the writing to match the platform. Adrian rewrote the answers in short and easily read missives that were perfect for Eye Level.

These are two early examples of how we used the idea of the long tail to bring older and buried content back to the surface for our new online audiences.

[Marty]: Hey Jeff, can I jump in with a quick question there?


[Marty]: You talk about building on successes and failure, right? So for many museums, this is about building that institutional, those staff members who know how to work with technologies, What do you think, I mean fewer and fewer museums have that institutional knowledge now. It’s more and more that’s being outsourced. What do you, I’m curious about your thoughts on that, after having been that knowledge for the, for your museum for so long? Does that worry you?

That’s a great question. Yes, there is a lot more outsourcing than when I started at SAAM. Yet, from the very beginning, we needed people within our organization who could be the intermediary between these outsource companies and the project managers and the stakeholders of these projects. The content and its contextualization would always be the museum’s responsibility. Knowing enough about the technologies we’d be using and the content we wanted to present allowed us to be good go-betweens between our outside contractors and the museum. I did this when we produced an early series of podcasts.

Here’s another example. In 2011, I worked on a project co-sponsored by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It would be a website mainly for teachers using our combined African American artworks. It was called “Oh, Freedom.” I was the tech representative on the project, and I ended up designing the site. When I spoke to the project manager about her priorities, one of the most important was the ability for teachers to upload lesson plans they could share with other teachers. This was not something that we could create from scratch in-house, so I went looking for a CMS that would fit most of the project’s priorities. The one that most closely delivered was a content management system called Omeka. George Mason University designed it expressly for cultural institutions.

I had never worked with a content management system at the development level before. And it shocked me when I went into the backend looking for the directories and didn’t find any. It was database-driven. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing! I was still thinking html and image files would be located in directories and subdirectories. How could I do this? I didn’t know PHP or MySQL!

Not only that, this was going to be housed on Smithsonian servers. And any time you put something on our servers, there were always security concerns. There were significant concerns about the security of PHP/MySQL, and, initially, these weren’t allowed on our servers. Our blog used Typepad, but we housed it outside of our firewall. Of course, things have changed since then. We now use Drupal and WordPress throughout the institution. This was turning out to be the most nightmarish project I’d ever worked on. Every night I came home thinking I was going to fail big time. I had never felt so inadequate. Luckily, I was able to reach out to people within the larger Smithsonian community and to the developers of Omeka to help me, and together, we made it work.

The more I got to know Omeka, the better I could see how to fit my stakeholders’ priorities into the CMS’s structure. I had picked Omeka because, at the time, it was the only management system that would allow for sharing lesson plans, the project’s top priority. We were using Omeka’s first stable version, 1.0. And, naturally, I encountered roadblocks. For example, we had to enter data in the exact order we wanted it to appear on the page. Once entered, it couldn’t be reorganized without starting over. George Mason came out with version 2.0, which solved this problem. But it would require a major backend re-haul, and I wasn’t willing to start over.

Knowing stakeholders as I did and having experience with last-minute changes that always occurred, I became the “technology project manager.” My job was to make sure the content came to me in its final iteration at a much earlier stage than usual. I said to the project manager, “Here are our limitations. We can only do it this way. So I need you to finalize your content as you want it to appear on the page. And if it changes, we will have to redo everything from the beginning, so we won’t meet our deadline.” I knew the limits of the application. And I had to convey that in a way the content producers would understand. They asked me, “If we have to do this way, why did you choose an application with these limitations?” My answer was simple: “If you want this feature (sharing lesson plans), this is the only CMS that will do that.” I had to be attentive to the stakeholders’ needs while knowing the application landscape well enough to justify my choices. This is a typical story of how technology interfaces with content and how technologists and content producers must communicate with each other. My job was to see into the future of our interactions to spot potential problems before they became actual problems. I had to manage expectations. This led me to write a third essay on organizational change, “And the Process-Oriented Shall Inherit the Earth.” [https://outtacontext.com/writing/process-oriented/]


This is a good segue to the challenge of institutional memory. When people leave, their experience often goes with them. And, with time, that history—and the lessons we learned—disappears. When I retired at the end of 2018, I was the person who had been in our department the longest. Sometimes I could say how we solved a similar issue in the past. Certainly, technology has advanced, and some problems we encountered early on have dissipated. But there are still some people who distrust open-source applications. So, it can be helpful knowing how we handled a similar issue twenty years ago. Before I left, I spent months outlining procedures for projects I worked on. I do not know if they ever needed to use them. But they were there if they did.

On another note, I have a good story for you. I would call it “be careful what you ask for, be careful what you want.” During the early 2000s, the director decided that if we put on the front page of our website “Free gift,” we could build a good-sized mailing list. The gift was a set of blank notecards with images from our collection. We had many of these cards, and we posted pictures of what they looked like on the site.

After we did this, I began to monitor our traffic. At first, we had maybe fifty sign-ups a day. Then it went to one hundred a day, but suddenly it jumped to 3,000 a day. And then 10,000 a day. As I reported these stats, we all asked, “Where is this coming from?” We were going to run out of cards! Then what?

I did some sleuthing and found a woman who had signed up right around the time the numbers had exploded. I sent her an email asking if she had passed on this information to anybody. She replied, “Yes, one card has a church picture on it, so I posted this on [a religious website.]” By that time, we were getting 20,000 requests a day. Of course, our director was thrilled, and we had to find other gifts we could give. It was the museum’s first viral moment. The moral: be careful what you wish for.


SAAM was just getting into linked open data in the years just before my retirement. It became one bookend of my museum career. When I started in 1998, we were doing websites by hand. Now we’re able to create connections between our data and others’. It’s wonderful to have worked in this area long enough to see this trajectory.


And one last thing: it’s a story about how my job as a museum technologist connected to my personal life. At one point, Paul, you worked with a pan-Smithsonian working group on usability. Judy Gradwohl, from the National Museum of American History, led the group. We conducted some usability testing with people visiting the Smithsonian as part of your visit. The question you suggested we asked them as they sat in front of our main Smithsonian site was, “You want to see an IMAX movie. Can you find the film schedule on our website?” As a parent of young children, it sparked a challenge my wife and I would often encounter when we wanted to go out to a movie. Often, it wasn’t finding a specific movie we wanted to see, but a movie that coincided with when we could get a babysitter. I actually wrote The Washington Post suggesting they should list films by time rather than by theater in the paper. As a dad and a museum technologist, organizing content was always an important part of my performance plan.