Oral History of Museum Computing: Cathy Heller

This Oral History of Museum Computing is provided by Cathy Heller, and was recorded on the 24th of September, 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/aJnBq_Ny2PM.

So, I’m honored to be able to share some of the work that my dad, Dr. Jack Heller, did regarding computerizing museum contents. I know he would have loved to have shared his work with you, but he passed away in October 2018. When Kathy Jones approached me to ask if I was interested in providing a summary of my dad’s work, I was intrigued. Digging through my mother’s photo albums—in our family, affectionately known as the Heller Archives—I learned so much more about my dad than I had known before. Or remembered.

I have vague memories of some of my dad’s work at NYU and then at Stony Brook. My brother, Adam, and I remember the names of Carl Dauterman and David Vance. Dad got me involved in doing some cataloging of the Sèvres porcelain artifacts at the Museum of Modern Art. The pieces were laid out on a long table and some were marked with an “F,” which had been used by two different artists. Computer correlations could usually be able to identify the correct artist. However, I’m getting ahead of my story. This research has expanded my memories. Or provided me with information about my dad that my brothers and I never knew about. I knew my dad was an amazing father, but didn’t know the extent of the work he did.

Museum automation began in 1963 in Washington, D.C. I was in the third grade at the time. There was a Scientific Staff Committee developed by the Smithsonian Museum to explore the potential of data processing for the museum community. In 1965, there was an exploration into the use of computers by the Smithsonian in D.C. And recommendations were made for the development of a data processing system. In 1965, New York University established the Institute for Computer Research in Humanities—ICRH. There are a lot of acronyms here.

My dad became the director. This was the first organization of its kind to be launched by a university. A few years before this, there was only one computer-aided humanities project at NYU. And by 1966, there were some twenty-nine. Some were in the discussion stage, some were starting, and some were near completion. There were twenty-five professors who were using an IBM 360 computer to help solve a stack of unsolvable research problems in the arts.

The first project completed was an index to a Spanish journal. The projects were varied according to the interests of the faculty. Some other projects were an alphabetical list of words in Beowulf, an analysis of the compositions of Joseph Haydn, an index to the 10,000 rare manuscripts on microfilm at the Institute of Hebrew Studies. Some other examples of projects included a Latin professor who used the computer to decide if the younger Seneca was even the anonymous author of a Roman satire. And an English professor who asked the computer whether it was the author Daniel Defoe who wrote about one hundred anonymous articles for British political journals in the turn of the century. The computer was programmed to pour over all the authors’ works, make a list of the favorite words, sentence structure, and paragraph lengths. The computer was then fed text blocks of anonymous works and asked to compare the prose of an author. It took the professors a year to get up the program list of instructions. But once this was done, the computer could perform 20,000 operations every second.

The Institute helped the researchers by arranging meetings with computer scientists who advised and assisted them by keeping them apprised of related humanities research being done elsewhere, helping them obtain grants, and engaging in discussion in order to stimulate ideas for their research. The computer scientists met to discuss the programs that they were developing that could be adapted to another product—project, avoiding duplication of work. Dad worked on a print chain for a computer that enabled the machine to print using the graphics of many languages, such as Greek, Hebrew, or old English. This made it possible for the researcher to feed information in the language he’s working with, rather than having to change the characters first to a standard alphabet.

In 1966, my dad and the Institute for Computer Research in the Humanities came to the attention of the staff at the museum—Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Institute developed processes for Carl Dauterman and to analyze the Sèvres porcelain in the Met’s collection. And had begun exploring a project to create an electronic index of the Met’s collections.

The Museum Computer Network was born out of a cooperative computing project in the New York City area in 1967, under the direction of my father. The organization began as an informal grouping of museums with the goal of automating registration records. With funding from the New York Council on the Arts, MCN developed a prototyped mainframe network that was shared by participants from 1968 to 1971. When the funding ended in 1971, MCN was formally incorporated as a nonprofit organization that has since attracted members from around the world. The first yearly MCN conference was in 1968. And the group, which is now an international membership organization, is continuing strong some forty years [after] its incorporation in 1972, under the director—directorship of David Vance as its first president.

At the beginning, MCN was housed in the New York University Institute for Computer Research in Humanities. Growing out of the small computing center that had been established on the University Heights campus, it was the first to combine the new computer catalogues of information stored in the data bank and then compiled by the Institute. The vision was for a shared national and international museum data bank that would not only improve museum management practices, but would provide unprecedented access for researchers. The vision has come to fruition.

My dad had his hands in other projects at the same time—unrelated to the Museum Network Project. He worked with twenty-five students who were entering their senior year of high school, doing research at NYU. And one student programmed the IBM 360 to speak Pig Latin. Another student tried to teach the computer how to play a game called nine men’s morris. Another student used the computer to solve a problem in probability theory. And yet another calculated the wake of an airplane or other vehicle in space. Students came from seven states. During the first two weeks of the eight week program, the students learned Fortran. They then designed a program for their project.

Another project my dad worked on was a fundraising dance that raised money for a community placement service that, in its first year, placed 625 youngsters in part-time and vacation jobs. My brothers and I have no memories of these programs. But our dad did teach Fortran to our brother, Doug, who went on to do amazing things with his computer knowledge.

By September 1968, the Smithsonian noticed the Metropolitan Museum’s work that focused more on humanities computing than with the natural sciences that the Smithsonian was working on. The Smithsonian work consisted of birds, rocks, and crustaceans. And the Museum Computer Network looked at paintings, sculpture, and drawing. Fifteen New York area museums had joined forces to explore ways that an electronic index—a data dictionary—of the Metropolitan Museum’s collections could be used beyond the Met and other museums. Funding was provided from the New York Council of the Arts and the Old Dominion Foundation. My dad developed a system called GRIPHOS—General Retrieval and Information Processor for Humanities Oriented Studies—which was based on the data—on a data dictionary that could be used by diverse institutions participating in the project. It consisted of a tagged record format that allowed for the description of individual objects with separate linked records for the artists’ biographical information and for reference citations.

GRIPHOS is a logical network that’s comprised of a number of museum catalogs, all being built by the same programs, though in different places and on different computers. To start the museum—to start, the museum and my dad had to decide on the categories to use for the database: the artist, materials used, base work, workshops and craftsman used to construct it, the site where it was found, the period and school of artist, date of work, and lots more. They finally agreed on twenty categories from each—for each work from a possibility of 1500. The GRIPHOS System provided information storage, search, and retrieval infrastructures for the museum records. This system permitted retrieval of hundreds of cross-referenced essential characteristics of any given item.

Before this system, fewer than six cross-references were possible from any item in the Library of Congress card catalog. The GRIPHOS System was also used for the maintenance of some student records at Stony Brook and the indexing for rapid retrieval of official documents at the Dag Hammarskjöld Library of the United Nations. My dad set up a computer system for voting and subjects reports, which was involved in the process that meant constructing the database in English and having the computer translate into three other languages. GRIPHOS continued to serve as a centralized approach for the consortium of museums until 1979.

In June 1969, my dad left his position at NYU and accepted a position at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. My dad served as the third computer science department chair from 1977 to 1984. He expanded the Computer Science department faculty and made it one of the most important departments on campus. His research interests were database systems, office automation, and visualization. I was entering my senior year of high school in New Jersey. And rather than uprooting the family and especially move me—but I did offer to move in with neighbors in order to finish my high school year—my dad commuted to Stony Brook until I was able to graduate from high school. We moved to New York the day after I graduated.

The original grant funding for the MCN pilot project ended in 1970 or 1971. Of the original fifteen partners, only the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art continued to catalog their collections using computerized methods and their own operating funds. All the museums were able to use the same computer programs and all were able to be cross-indexed. Or join together as if merged. Museums could join to receive consultation and advice about computerization projects or as full members with access to MCN software and hardware resources.

Eventually, this physical world connected machines, terminals, computers, storage devices, and communication lines—all working as one huge coordinated information system, which would multiply the information retrieval potential that was previously available within MOMA’s and other museum collections. Originally conceived as a physical computer network, MCN was to become part of the growing professional network of related cultural heritage computerization projects. MCN would be one of the co-founders of a related group known as the Museum Databank Coordinating Committee—MDBCC—which sought to find connections and opportunities for sharing work among a variety of museums, including archaeology, ethnography, history, natural museum, and art museums. The group incorporated in 1972 under the directorship of David Vance as its first president.

David’s name was a common one within our family, although none of us know why. [laughing] Now we know. In 1974, the New York Times reported that 100,000 objects had been catalogued in a computerized system that promised to ease the work of museums organizing its loan exhibitions. MCN attracted a number of large institutions as members, allowing it to continue operations and development of the GRIPHOS System. Especially important, was the decision by Robert Chenhall to select the MCN GRIPHOS System for the Arkansas Archaeological Survey, which encouraged other statewide surveys to take a similar path.

During this period, MCN began to regularly host annual conferences. Initially, the conferences were focused on issues relevant for GRIPHOS users. However, over time, the conferences attracted representatives from other museums who had not yet implemented a computer system. In 1974, David Vance and the MCN office joined my dad at SUNY Stony Brook. Until this time, the network had been located at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. And Mr. Vance had been the museum’s registrar. Mr. Vance moved to Stony Brook under the agreement as Visiting Associate Professor of Arts and Sciences and Special Projects Director of the Center for Contemporary Arts and Letters.

The Center and Network shared space, faculties, staff– facilities, staff, and technology in order to make use of one another’s knowledge base to develop archival activities. The Network worked closely with the Computer Sciences department and my dad, who developed the data management system used by the Network and had played a leading role in the Network’s overall development. Towards the end of the 70s, the operating systems found that—found on the IBM’s mainframe computer were quickly becoming obsolete, foreshadowing the end for GRIPHOS, which had been tightly tied to those operating systems.

This tight integration had already limited the adoption of GRIPHOS in environments that used non-IBM hardware. A problem for museums, who often relied on local university computing centers. Updated packages and user manuals continued to be released, but fewer MCN members were able to support the GRIPHOS software. Mr. Vance and my father worked on migrating GRIPHOS to emerging mini computers in 1981. But these efforts were soon overshadowed by the microcomputer revolution. The computer revolution, which was changing the business world in the 1980s, was reflected in the rapid changes occurring at MCN as well. Cheaper desktop computers, along with more accessible software, made incorporating computers into their operations more realistic for some museums. This caused the increase in MCN’s activity, which was evidenced in the composition of Spectra.

A different audience was looking for MCN for advice on computerization and for an affinity group of like-minded museum professionals. While some long-time MCN members continued to advocate for a centralized approach that the organization had been founded upon, museum computerization efforts were increasingly localized with little demand for the large mainframe systems of the 70s. With dwindling support, the GRIPHOS System was officially retired in 1979.

During MCN’s mainframe period, only institutions could become members of the organization. Reflecting the change to personal computing, the organization opened up membership to individuals for the first time in 1981. The organization soon attracted a broad spectrum of the museum community, using a variety of different approaches to automating their collections. The MCN board decided the time had come to make major changes in MCN’s structure, some of which were precipitated by funding cutbacks—funding cutbacks at SUNY Stony Brook. SUNY’s withdrawal of support meant MCN could no longer afford to pay its long-time staff member and president, David Vance. Vance stepped down as president in early 1986 and was replaced by Roy Clay.

Throughout the 80s, MCN moved further away from the original vision of a centralized system, choosing instead to emphasize the development of data standards that would allow the exchange of museum information between systems that met local needs. These efforts retained the spirit of the original network without forcing museums to adopt a single application or hardware platform. My dad retired—a few times—from Stony Brook. And moved to Manhattan in 2004. Even though he was not working at Stony Brook, he continued working at his computer daily. He wrote his own computer program and database that included everyone who ever visited their apartment in New York, when they had guests who slept over, and the many shows, concerts, and museums that my parents attended. My parents moved to an assisted living apartment in Massachusetts in 2015—near where I live—following my mother’s stroke. Dad continued working at his computer daily. And my visions of him at his desk are emblazoned in my mind.

So that’s the research I did because I have no memory of any of this.

[Jones]: That’s really fantastic, Cathy. Thank you so much for that. It just—I mean, the few times that I visited your parents are memories that I have of that. But they were more about what I needed to learn as a GRIPHOS user. That was the reason for my visit. But your parents were so hospitable that they let me stay over. [laughing] And I always kept in touch with your father. He would tell me that he was volunteering for a certain museum in Manhattan. Or he had wanted to go to the Christo installation, but I think they didn’t let him or something. So, it was wonderful to keep in touch with your parents. And anytime I think about interior design, I think about your mother. [laughing]

Yeah. [laughing]

[Jones]: She was just so elegant. And my first trip to New York was hosted by your father and David Vance. And they took me and my colleague to two plays.


[Jones]: And they let us have two desserts from the dessert tray. [laughter] I know, Paul, you can cut this part out, but I think—it’s always fun for me to think about Jack and Myra.

Yeah. I’d like to send you some pictures. Can I just attach them to an email?

[Jones]: Yes, definitely. For sure.

And when I was talking about my mother’s archives—the photo archives. There are about fifty scrapbooks.

[Jones]: Oh, wow.

And I went through some of them for the years that I was focusing on and found newspaper articles and magazine articles. So it was interesting.

[Jones]: That’s great. That’s really great. The other thing I remember—just one more thing, Paul, sorry. Your father had a great garden in—on Long Island when he was at Stony Brook. So it was fantastic. And I do daily walks, and every day I think about, “Oh that was in Jack’s garden!”

Yes, his neighbors were not so pleased with his garden, as he wanted more of a meadow. So he didn’t have this—what is it called—mowed lawn. And nothing was manicured. It was just all free.

[Jones]: It was beautiful.

Yeah, I think so too.

[Jones]: Yeah. The marshmallows were among the best.


So, I remember my dad driving in the car and he would go like [head tilting and hand gesturing to one side]. And then he would go [head tilting and hand gesturing to the other side]. He was writing his computer program. He was—in his brain—he was programming. All the time.

[Jones]: Was he talking to you as he was driving or just processing the whole time?

Just processing the whole time. We used to—he used to put us in the car—there were three of us at the time. And my mother, maybe, was pregnant or with the baby, Adam, who was eight years younger than me. And so he’d put us in the car and we’d play a game called “Which Way”. And he would be driving and he’d come to an intersection and he’d say, “Which way should I turn or should I go straight?” And one, then the other, then the other of us would tell him where to drive. And while he was driving he was doing this [head tilting and hand gesturing to one side] and he was doing that [head tilting and hand gesturing to the other side]. And it was a funny sight. And a nice memory.

[Jones]: That’s great. That’s great. Thank you.