Oral History of Museum Computing: Cathryn Goodwin

This oral history of museum computing is provided by Cathryn Goodwin, and was recorded on the 9th 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/1L9ZIYeKCE4.

Maybe I’ll start with when I first met Sam Quigley [referencing an earlier conversation], which was at an MCN conference, and we bonded immediately because we both had the same title. Sam was at the MFA in Boston, and I was at Saint Louis, and we both… had invented our own job titles, and were called Information Resources Coordinators because nobody was doing this work in museums, nobody knew what to call it, how to describe it, how to write a job description for it, what kind of background was necessary, all of those things were challenging, and so Sam and I thought we were both pretty clever for having come to the very same job title independently of each other as great minds will do, right?

So anyway, when Sam was doing this work at the MFA, I was at the Saint Louis Art Museum, where I started in 1991 as a volunteer, and again probably, it’s a very common story: How do you get into museum work? Well first, you have to volunteer, and, sort of prove yourself and prove your interest, and at least this is the way it used to be, and maybe still is.

I had very purposefully volunteered at the St. Louis Art Museum because I read in their annual report that they were going to be “automating” their collection, as it was called in 1990, and I had gone back to school, and was getting a dual degree in museum studies and information management.

And this was exactly what I wanted to do in the museum that was in the town where I was living, so I started volunteering, and I literally as a volunteer, photocopied every object record in the museum to be sent off to what was then, well, still is, I guess, Willoughby, and are maybe not anymore, Willoughby, and the Quixis database, which was our first collection system. We, we scanned, we photocopied every session record, and we had to stamp them because, of course, the photocopies were all black and white, and any color coding that was in these documents was lost, and so we had to recreate the color coding, and rapid data entry was done by the vendor. The whole collection was put into this very, very, very basic database at the time, which, of course, had no images. It was all, all text-based, black screen, blue letters, you know, that whole look. At that time, my computer at the museum when I was volunteering, had two floppy disk drives. One to start the operating system, and the other to save your data. So, I’m really dating myself, but, yeah. I do feel like I sort of have the history of museum computing in my career as I think both of you do as well, but…

So, I started from the ground up at the Saint Louis Art Museum, and brought that collection into an online database, and then was hired to manage that database, and by the time I left there, I had a staff of two full time catalogers, and someone who was doing digital image management, because at that time, again, still when I left in 2005, the museum in Saint Louis still wasn’t doing direct capture digital imaging. They were, they were scanning transparencies, which we were doing ourselves. We did that ourselves for the entire collection in Saint Louis, but by the time I left, we had digital images in our database and we had the core of the collection online.

Now, when I say the core of the collection, the other thing it was really interesting about the challenges in that time was, just the idea that all this information about objects that curators had been working on for their entire careers can suddenly be publicly available. It was incredibly threatening to curators I think, at the time, and it really in fact, this never did happen in Saint Louis, and it hasn’t happened still, to my knowledge. The mandate that comes from the Director that says, “You know folks, we have to share this information. It doesn’t really belong to us. The collection needs to be made accessible, and so all the objects are going online. And you can come along and fix up your records and correct things as we go along.”

So that, you know, striving for perfection was a real obstacle for a lot of institutions, I think. The notion that nothing could be online unless it was completely perfect, and research, all the research was done, which is just an impossible task, right, because everyone knows that cataloging museum collections is a never-ending process. It’s always changing. Data is always changing, scholarship is always changing, so, I guess that’s a job security thing, [laughs] if nothing else.

So anyway, we… I was, I was, I was really fortunate in those early days to be able to go to get involved in the MCN community, and I was in fact sent off in my early days at St. Louis to what was then called an Art and Architecture Thesaurus Workshop that was run by Elisa Lanzi and […] Suzanne Warren, who worked with AAT early in her career, and the woman who really had been driving the development of the AAT [Toni Petersen], and it was all still books. It was books! It was volumes and volumes of reference, and this was prior to its adoption and stewardship by the Getty, so this was when the AAT was a project on its own. And I was, I went to Chicago for a week-long conference on how to apply thesaurus and authority, authorities to museum cataloging, which was definitely fundamental in my career.

You know, given that museum cataloging was not a field that had accredited, accredited training programs, these independent workshops and training programs were the ways that we learned how to do this work because there were no official training programs for this kind of work. And I’m not sure how much that’s improved. It’s improved, but not entirely. I know Paul, a lot of the work you’ve been doing has been helping that, but anyway, the AAT workshop was a fascinating thing, and following that, I was, I was fortunate to be able to attend two different summer institutes at… for libraries, museums and archives at the, that the Getty hosted with UCLA. This was a very formative training program again for museum professionals in information technology, and that’s where I first met Howard Besser, who was teaching us all about digital imaging, back in the day when the biggest problem that you had to solve was how you were going to store the files, because the storage was so expensive. That’s now the least of our problems, I think. So, I… it’s been a really wonderful journey for me, being able to be in sort of on the beginnings of all of these technologies, and the evolving of the field, and to the point where, in my own career, after 15 years in Saint Louis, I had the opportunity to move to the museum at Princeton, where they were in the exact same place that I had started in Saint Louis 15 years before. With the exception of the fact that they had already done, the very core data object record creation, they had object records for everything, but there was no, there were no data standards, there was no system, there was no digital imaging, so all of that we started fresh with one other person on that team, who is on the imaging side, in 2005.

And again, working this time with Gallery Systems Software, and I guess, probably the most challenging and rewarding both aspects to this work, for me, has always been this invisible piece, which is bringing along the rest of the institution. So when you start out in a field, as I mentioned, you know, …about curators being nervous about releasing their information to the public. When I first came to [Princeton] and was charged with putting that collection online, I had individual conversations with all the curators, talked about the kind of work that we were going to be doing, and the help that I would need from them, and many of them were very resistant because they already had jobs, and they already had plenty to do, and this was not part of what they had been planning for, and so it really was a bridge, you know, it was… you’re required to build a bridge between the technology that not everyone has to understand and the benefits of that, and the people who are, are really the content holders in their heads, or in their records, or in their work, and creating an environment where it become… this work becomes a collaborative project that benefits the entire institution, and really proselytizing for the importance of centralizing information about works of art in a museum.

I think that the, you know, the idea of siloed information all over museum collections is, is very well known. You know, you’ll come into an institution, and there’ll be a database for this over there and a spreadsheet for that over there, and then five other databases that are doing something else, and trying to get all of those things to, to be consolidated into a central source of information that can create such efficiencies for museums in everything they do, and again, that proselytizing piece around the museum is about the collection, and educating people about the collection, educating from the collection, and in order to do that, you have to have information about the collection. That really is pretty… it’s a very solid third most important piece that a museum can do. Is, is very as professionally as they can, create a centralized repository with, that makes the collections discoverable, so that others — researchers, students, the public — can know that they exist. And this is in, and certainly now, this is how people know that collections exist in the first place. I think that’s probably one of the things that I have done in my career, and I think most people who are doing the kind of work that I do, are really charged with, but that isn’t really in the job description. [Laughs]. It’s not a job description that you need to be really an incredible diplomat, and be able to bring people together around a common cause, and argue for your program.

It maybe isn’t necessarily obvious that people in jobs like mine, or certainly in my experience, are creating strategy for the future of the institution, and writing grants to support their, to support this work and certainly at Princeton, we were very fortunate that we got just enough support from the university and the museum itself to be able to establish a grant writing program and a strategy for cataloguing the collection retrospectively from all of the analog material that existed in curators’ drawers, and filing cabinets, and, and bringing all of that, together, so that it could be used by students and faculty and others, and we were able to write a series of grants that have supported the careers and development of at least six museum professionals, who started out with their first job being a cataloger at the Princeton University Art Museum, and now they are working in the field, all of them that I’ve hired over the years, are working in the field. And so that’s also very gratifying, you know, the ability to provide, to generate funding that provides entry level positions for, entry level positions that actually pay more than minimum wage, which I think is also a critical aspect to the work that we have to be constantly advocating for, is the professionalism of the field. It… this has been an issue for a long time, I think it continues to be.

A great example I have is when I was preparing to hire my first cataloger here at Princeton, after I had been doing the work just by myself for about four years, I finally… had, had some funding to hire a cataloguer, and the university’s hiring system wanted to classify that position as a clerical position, an hourly clerical position. And so, I literally had the compensation officer from HR come to my office, and I walked through the entire process of what’s involved in cataloging a work of art, so that they could understand, begin to understand that this does not correlate to typing up dictation. This correlates to cataloguers in libraries, who are being, you know, class… whose jobs are classified at a completely different level than catalogers in museums, and that has been, I think probably one of my primary goals and ambitions during my career is to try to contribute to the professionalism of the field, because it has been, it has really been a challenge, and it continues to be a challenge, as we all know. Museum, museum workers are underpaid, and, and in technology, are often… their work is often very misunderstood.

So now, I’m getting near the end of my career. I’m actually planning to retire in about three months, so it’s… it’s a wonderful kind of wrap up moment for me, transitioning off all of the work that I’ve done in the, in the programs that I had built at Princeton to a completely marvelous team that I was able to build. We’ve got a staff of six: Two full time developers, two full time cataloguers, three full time cataloguers, and including, you know, with… and then my position, so I feel that it’s, it’s, it’s time to let, let these young people see what they can do.

[Jones]: I have a question for you about disparate databases, and whether you included… Did you also include visual collections in the work that you are doing?

I wish. I wish. That’s, that’s probably one of the, one of my, one of my…. the “one that got away” stories. I don’t know if you know Trudy Jacoby, who was very active in the visual resources community. She’s the, was the Visual Resources Director in the Art and Archaeology department at Princeton when I first came here, and we were adamant that we were going to create a way to cross-search our collections, the visual resources collection, and the museum collection. And we had programs, we did an entire workshop where we brought in people from all over the university, as well as speakers from… Erin Coburn was there. Murtha Baca was there. People came from all over the community who came to Princeton to talk about cataloging in different types of collections, and so that was that was the beginning of that collaboration. We wrote a number of grants to try to get funding to be able to create an integrated system between holdings that they had visual resources and [that we and] holdings we had in the museum, and unfortunately, we were never able to really get that off the ground. I think that it may happen after I go, because honestly, the technologies that are available to us now have changed the possibilities just exponentially, right, so probably about a year ago, we were able, finally, to integrate the museum’s collection with the library search at Princeton, so that anyone can go to the library and search their collection and find museum objects. This was a long, long, long term goal, and we are currently working on expanding that to include the visual resources collection at Princeton as well.

[Jones]: Thank you for that. For us, it was something that came through the library system, the support and all of that, so it’s not surprising, but, glad to know about that. Thank you.

Mmm hmm. Sure. I guess that’s the thing I probably should have talked about a little more is the library, archive, and museum collaboration part of my work, which has also been a major focus for me since… even since I was in St. Louis because, just because of staffing reasons, while I was there, I also was tapped as the system administrator for the museum’s library catalog system. And so, I didn’t get deeply involved in the cataloging work for the library, but I was involved in the system support side, and I was involved in, in St. Louis, there’s a Cultural Heritage District, if you will, between the zoo and the botanical garden and historical society and the art museum, and they created a joint library consortium that we were part of. And from that moment, I got very interested in the, in the integration of library, archives, and museum collections, and ways to make effective cross-discovery possible. And that has probably been the other main focus of my work, beyond moving along the state of, of library art museum cataloging to the place where we are now, and again, going back to the changes in the technology, we were able to hire a developer, with one of the grants that we wrote, and that allowed us to create an, write an API to our collections database, and to set up a IIIF server for image delivery, and subsequently, our data was open, our data was accessible, and all of these other things are possible now, right. So that cross-discovery becomes a real achievable thing.

And it’s also great fun being in an academic museum with that kind of technology foundation, because we have students who come to us two or three times a year, wanting to build projects on top of our API. And they’re, you know, they’re… they go off and they create some kind of a little app that will help you discover all the paintings that are blue, or whatever it is that they’re interested in, but it’s, it’s been really, really fun. And we’re starting to plan what will be an annual hackathon at Princeton for, for innovation around museum data.

[Marty]: Definitely let me know when that happens. I would love to share that as an example with my, my students.

Yes, yes.

[Jones]: Me too.

[Marty]: And I was just looking at the Princeton University library catalog search to see how… it looks like they’re connecting out to your catalog API to present the results in their library search.

That’s exactly right. They’re sending a search query to our API and pulling back, pulling back the results, yeah.

[Marty]: And then, if you click on one of them, it jumps you over to your museum website, yeah.

Right, so it’s a very superficial integration.

[Marty]: No, but it works extremely cleanly, right. And you know as soon as you have the API there, just like you were saying about the students creating an app to find blue paintings or whatever, right, the library could use this resource too.

Exactly, exactly. And everybody, everybody at Princeton can use the resource for… without having to jump. I mean, they do end up on our website, but they can all start from the same spot, and that’s kind of huge. And you know, it’s, it’s because we didn’t, in all these years that I was that I’ve been in Princeton, for the 15 years that I’ve been there, the people at the library, a couple of specific colleagues of mine and I, have worked on, how do we get to cross-searching? And what are the, what’s the metadata schema we have to use? How are we going to map our metadata so that we can actually search it efficiently? And this business, you know the API, allows us to not do any of that stuff. We don’t have to do any of that stuff. Obviously, our results would be better if we aligned our metadata more closely, but still, it allows discovery without the deep synchronization of our data standards, which has always been the problem. The biggest obstacle between museum and library collaboration is that we don’t always talk the same language.

[Marty]: But in many ways, it seems to me, this is a much more powerful option, right, because if you had done all the work to integrate the metadata for the library and the museum, you would have limited the ability of people outside of that group to, to add new kinds of discoverability.

This is true. Oh, that’s definitely true. That’s definitely true. Yeah, yeah, Absolutely.

[Marty]: And I want to connect this back to the philosophical changes that you were talking about earlier, right, because when you started talking, you’re talking about how so many people in the museum world see this as initially threatening. And here we are, 20 years later right, more, and, and we have more — Oh my God, 30 years later! [Laughing.] — and we have turned this story on its head, right. How do we, how do we, how do we make this less threatening over time?

[Laughing.] And I think, I think it really is true. I mean, at this point, I think we certainly are getting much more… the collaboration that we get from our curators and our administration, because all, because the work has proven itself over, over these decades, and now, what we’re more likely to hear is, how can we integrate all of these cool functions into our own collection pages? Or how can we use the, all of the things that we’ve built to support this particular class that’s happening at Princeton? And, and I think that, you know, again, when, when we all went home on March 13th of 2020, the museum here in Princeton was teaching 600 individual precepts a year in classrooms, in the museum with objects, and all those classes were scheduled for the rest of that semester, obviously, everybody went home, and everyone was told, “You have to teach remotely.”

And everybody experienced this, not just us, but because we had that foundation with, between the IIIF images, the data services, the image services, we really were able to turn around, in a matter of two weeks, and have a sort of set-driven deliverables of high resolution images for teaching in, in Mirador, in PowerPoint, and in just direct downloads of images that were clickable by faculty from anywhere in the world, and it was only because, you know, we had made that investment, and were ready to deploy you know, we had been planning for deploying that technology in earnest right about now, because the museum in Princeton is ready, is about to close for three and a half years, as a new building is constructed on the same site as the old museum. So we had been planning for virtual all contact with objects for that closure period, and it just happened a little sooner than we thought it would.

[Marty]: Did you say a new building on the same site? So you’re moving everything out and then back in?

That’s exactly right. All the art, all the people, all the furniture, all the files, all the everything. Yep, the big move starts in about two weeks. And the building will be demolished in June.

[Jones]: Wow.

Right about the time that I retire. I planned it so when the wrecking ball hits the building. That will be my retirement party day. [Laughing]

[Marty]: Well, you know, like, like we always say, what I think about a museum move is that it gives you a real opportunity to well, change the way of thinking, update all your collection inventories, right?

Yep, yep. That’s right. That’s right.

[Marty]: Clean slate.

Yeah, well there are lots of ideas floating around about what will happen during that time, in the, in the background and storage facilities, and probably some kind of digital recognition system will be put into place so that inventory can be automated and information can be more precise. That is one of the main goals for during that time period because our new museum is meant to have extensive visible storage, and so we need to be able to provide ways for the public to identify works of art without labels. So, that will need to be some kind of a digital transmission of information, from the object to the visitor, and so we’re that’s something that we’re working on right now. That’s it [Marty holds up smart phone]. It’ll be, it’ll, it’ll be that handheld device that everybody has right. Yeah.

[Marty]: You have any thoughts yet on…


[Marty]: I’m sorry. I was asking if you have any thoughts yet on what technology they’re going to use, like RFID chips or Near-Field, or what?

Yeah, I know we’re, we’re in researching, we’re in researching mode right now about that to try and figure out what’s, the best thing.

[Marty]: I mean, I guess there’s also the possibility of doing something that’s non-invasive, like actual image recognition.

Which is what I’d like to see. I’d love to be able to see that, but you know, we’ll have to do a lot of testing around how accurate that can be with three-dimensional objects, and you know, things that have a lot of similarities.

[Marty]: Yeah, through glass, in visual storage, open storage…

Yeah. Yeah, it’s challenging. it’s definitely challenging. They did a wonderful project like that at the Barnes Foundation. And of course, the advantage of the Barnes Foundation is that nothing ever moves. It’s always in the same spot. [Laughing]. That’s part of the, part of the deal, right, you have to install it this way and it never gets to move.

[Jones]: I haven’t heard that as an advantage before, but that’s great.

[Laughing.] That’s probably the only one that that the folks who work there think of, but yeah, it’s a different story when things are just moving all the time, but that’s the — that’s so, yeah. They’re all those things that we’d like to be able to, like to be able to accommodate in the new building, that we’re just starting to really talk about the stretch that will happen between now and then to make possible things that no one’s quite thought about yet, hopefully. It should be pretty exciting. It’s a great time before…

[Marty]: I’m sorry. I was gonna say it connects back to what you said earlier about the, the job of the information professional in the museum to change the thinking of the museum staff, right? To get people comfortable thinking in new ways.

Right. Exactly. That’s exactly right, and I think, you know, one of the interesting things that’s been happening recently as well, is this sort of… I mean, really the leadership role that we take in conversations about inclusivity in description of works of art, and how we need to be thinking about the way we discuss artwork, the way we discuss artists, the way we label people, and there’s been… we have two different working groups right now in Princeton that consist of educators and curators and technologists around how these descriptive guidelines will change — need to change — and what is essential in changing them appropriately, a lot of which includes input from impacted communities and outreach into those communities. So we’re hoping, in fact, I just… right before this got off a call with folks in the library at Princeton who are interested in the same topics, obviously. So we’re working on a collaboration, cross-Princeton collaboration, so that when those consultations take place, we can do that as an institution, rather than as the library having the conversations, and then the museum having the conversations, and we’ll hopefully all end up with a common set of goals and aspirations for changing our descriptive practice.

[Marty]: I was just, this is just reminding me that we got an oral history from Marla Misunas at SFMOMA… you know Marla?

Oh yeah.

[Marty]: Yeah, she talked about that they’re, they’re working on the same problem… handling inclusivity in descriptions of work of art of SFMOMA, so…

Mmm hmm.

[Marty]: It’s neat to see so many institutions working on solving this problem at once.

That’s exactly right, yeah. And yeah, I would love to see, I would love to… I know that there is some cross fertilization on that topic that’s sort of maybe started with the MCN list. I’m not sure quite where it started. I know that there’s a there’s a very active Slack channel where folks in museums across the country are talking about these issues and, and what, what are the, what are the things that we can do to try to take this journey together so that we don’t end up in a whole lot of different endpoints that we then have to reconcile. Yeah.

[Marty]: There’s a good example too about needing to keep up with technology, right, I mean, as the MCN listserv has kind of fallen down, there are all these other venues. Like, “Am I following the right Slack channels?” I know I’m not. “Am I on the right Discord servers?” Like, no, I’m not, right?

Oh, that’s definitely true. That is definitely true. So many, so many new ways of keeping everybody connected that I probably don’t know about many of them. I can imagine that I don’t at this point.

So, yeah. I think that, you know, museums are obviously in a very challenging position right now, right. The, the, the ground feels a little shaky. The, the challenging, challenging aspects of accepting the fact that museums are not neutral, and that the things that we say have, have impact way beyond what we might originally have thought, and so there’s going to be a lot of re-learning and repositioning and reprioritization I think, for both… well, for museums in general, and certainly for the technologists that support the missions of museums, have a huge role to play in helping to break down those biases and opening the dialog in a much more fair and inclusive way.


[Marty]: I love the way you covered the sort of philosophical sweep that you’ve seen across these institutions and across the, across these years… It is, I think I’ve said… I think I’ve said this line in a couple of these as well, like I think back to some of the conversations I had with Ken Hamma at the Getty about Open Access, you know…

Yep. Yep.

[Marty]: …more than 20 years ago, in the late ‘90s, and look at where we are now, we… No matter the problems that we do see, we have seen some amazing philosophical growth.

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely and, and it’s, it’s just really encouraging and hopeful, as I say, between the Open Access movement, which has just vastly altered the landscape for research and scholarship and publishing around art, and these technologies for image sharing and data delivery, the end, what we know about linked data and the possibilities of, of applying linked data principles to museum data is, it’s going to be a very exciting next ten years, I think. I think it really will be.