Oral History of Museum Computing: Nik Honeysett
This oral history of museum computing is provided by Nik Honeysett, and was recorded on the 5th 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/X_QphWPWvxo.
So, I’ll start with the BBC. So, the reason I got into museums is starting at the BBC with the — at one point in the mid 80s, they had a department called the Interactive Television Unit, which was to look at, you know, not the number of lines on television, but dials that were, you know, more comedy or more drama or something like that. And that did not last very well, but it was the, it was the same unit that the Domesday — if you remember the Domesday Disc? It was, it was a kind of redo of the Domesday book in the UK. And it was it was one of the first, kind of real major, kind of, nationwide projects, education and submitted on a laser disc. And I was initially a programmer on that. But I got involved in a bunch of interactive stuff.
And at that time there was a company down in Brighton called Cogapp. And you should, you should get somebody from Cogapp because they’ve been around for, well, they were going when I joined them. And that was ‘87, I think. And so they just called up. They knew the BBC were hiring people for the Interactive Disc series, and so they just called people up and said, you know, “Are there any people who – that you’ve turned away?” You know, that – you know, sloppy seconds from your hiring process? And I got to hear about it. And I did my degree, my postgraduate degree in Brighton. And so, I’m like, “I’m going down to these guys.” And at the time, they were doing, kind of knowledge engineering. And they just got a gig – a complete happenstance – right. So Alex Morrison – you know him. He’s CEO of Cogapp. He was in a pub in Trafalgar Square right next to the National Gallery of Art. And they had just hired what they called a ‘technical project manager’. And the brief was to create a room in the new wing that was being built by the Sainsbury brothers that was going to be a computer information room.
And I got, I got some show and tell as well. So this is what it turned out to be, right. [holding up a printed item: “The National Gallery, Micro Gallery Computer Information Room, The Micro Gallery is located in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2”]. And so you can see “The Computer Information Room”. And so, we kind of had – using the knowledge engineering process that Cogapp had developed, they they got this gig. And, literally, this technical project manager in a bar is sitting next to Alex Morrison. They’re both kind of crying into their beer because the knowledge engineering world, which was all about expert systems – if you remember that in the ‘80s – which, you know, was really popular and then all of a sudden everybody thought they were going to lose their job. So they’re like – no more expert systems. So Alex is crying into his beer. This guy is crying into his beer. They happen to start talking and he says, you know, “I got this project, I have no idea what we’re going to do. We’ve got to build, you know – we’ve got to use computers to enhance the experience of the National Gallery.” So he’s like, come down to Brighton. And it was a typical kind of, you know, startup weekend of like, let’s just brainstorm what this thing could be – look like. And came up with this idea of, you know, on a big screen — color screen, we could put an image and some text next to it. And you could click on the text and something would happen with it. And that was all based on – if you remember Ted Nelson and his – what did he call it – Xanadu Project. So Ted Nelson was talking about, you know, in the mid-’80s and earlier, he was talking about Xanadu as this kind of connected information system.
So we built this pilot, which was literally one screen. It took weeks to get a scan of an image. You know, a digital scan of an image. I mean, then, it was a real problem. Throw up an image on a screen. Figured out how to do anti-aliased text on a Macintosh. And we just presented this screen and was like, “What do you think?” And AmEx were funding – were a co-sponsor of this. And they were like, “What do you need?” So they wrote a check for a million pounds. Was it a million? No, it was a million dollars. It was about 650,000 [pounds], right. And so we were off and running on building this – which was the Micro Gallery. I don’t know if you ever saw it. There was – we did another one in the National Gallery in Washington.
But the London one was the first one. And it was how do you – and the interesting thing about that is, they have their entire collection on show – the National Gallery. That’s one of their, kind of, big deals. So about 2,000 works. So, you know, get what used to be those, if you remember those big flatbed scanners. You know that would take like fifteen minutes for a scan? So we had a guy, I remember for three or four years, just in that room scanning stuff. Never let him out. But during that time we had to build both, you know, what we called at the time an editorial workbench, which is now a content management system. But you, you know that was a time when you had to build everything. Had to write everything. There were no apps that you could, you know, download. And I always remember weird things, you know, like, you could call up the – what were their names? I think two brothers who started Photoshop. You could call them up and say, “You know what, we’re trying to do this thing.” And they’d be like, “That sounds like a fantastic idea. We’ll send you a build of Photoshop.” Can you imagine that? Just run off one build of Photoshop and you’d get it, you know, on 500 you know Mac Plus discs that you can then download.
But everything – you had to build everything. There was an image processing software called Debabelizer. I don’t know whether that’s still around. But it was kind of batch processing. And you could call those guys up as well, and say, “You know what, I’m trying to do this thing. And convert this to this.” And they’d be like, “That sounds like a really cool idea.” And so, you know, it would take weeks because, you know, because you’d have to write them a letter or call them up. There was no email or anything. But they – you know you – and then, you know, none of this stuff was stable. And so you had to, you know, you’d do week-long batch processing of images. Or renderings of the the system to create this system. Which is all based on HyperCard and we’d kind of render it out into an app. And so you couldn’t, you know, if you if you’ve got something that’s crashing all the time, how do you know when it’s crashed? Well, you have to send a notification every time, you know, every time it’s looping around. So you would just get these [head nodding in circles]. And at that time there was a telephony app on the Mac. And so we would have this system running over the weekend. And it would call your phone, you know, every thirty minutes just to tell you that it was all right. And so, it used to annoy the crap out of my wife because it would call you, you know, all through the night just telling you things were going well.
And the – I remember one of the biggest problems we had was how do you – because we had to deliver this on an 8-bit screen. So, if you remember the time where you know you, it’s not a kind of a raw 24-bit color image. You got to get it down to 8-bits. And so, you’ve got to dither it. And so – which is, now nobody dithers or you don’t need it because you’ve got a much higher res screen. But I remember Ben Rubinstein who was the technical – or is the technical director at Cogapp – I remember him giving me this paper. So this – it was a post-graduate paper on image dithering. And it was by this guy called Heckbert. And Ben, you know, he said, “I haven’t got time for this. Can you do this?” And I sweated for, it seemed like months, trying to, trying to understand this guy’s paper. Which is basically, how do you take a 24-bit color space and render it down to 8-bit and make it look nice. So I did this. I always remember this really kind of Byzantine – it was really inelegant – but it worked. And I always remember building this thing as a subroutine and coming in one Monday morning just like, “Ben, okay, I think I’ve got it.” And he plugged it in and it kind of worked. First time. And I remember, I was on top of the world. I was like – because it had been – the first time I read it, I was like ‘I don’t even understand this’, you know? And I literally had to go through word by word. Decode the algorithms, all that kind of stuff. And that was – that was my kind of shining moment. Like, you know what, I’m a real programmer now. I’ve figured out this thing.
But what – so, then, you know, we had to do everything. You know that was a – we had to write printer drivers, you know, because you could print out the images. If you went there Kathy, there was a station screen and there was a printer that you could print stuff out. So, I had to write the printer driver as well. And that took forever. So you just have to build everything yourself, which was kind of fun and time consuming. But we had this money to be able to do it.
And then we delivered that. And I got – it was one of the first times you know – now, I think the people who build these systems, they don’t get the – now when you launch these new systems, the people who build them are often not in the spotlight. You know, they don’t get to, you know – like you have these big openings – like VIP openings. At the National Gallery, you know, it was the Queen that did the opening. And I was – I used to work there late. It was in London and I was up in Brighton, so I used to travel up on the train every day. And I remember being there late one night, it was maybe nine – half past nine. And, you know, we were allowed because we were the “computer kids” [smiling]. You know, that’s what they called us – “the computer kids”. And we were allowed to be there because we were trying to, you know, trying to get this thing [done] on a tight deadline. And I remember sitting at one of the desks late at night and somebody came in. And I thought it was a security guard, just checking around. And he said – this guy said something to me. And it was Prince Charles. Right? Because he’s the patron of the National Gallery. And so he just, you know he said, “What are you doing?” You know, we had this conversation and I explained what I’m doing. And he said, “I’ve got to tell everybody. I’ve got to tell Mummy about this,” I think. Because she is the head patron of this… And so, you know, he disappeared off. And so, of course, I called up my mum and my sister and went, “I just met Prince Charles.”
And then there was a week of VIP openings. And, again, typical, you know, the – and this was consistent with a bunch of things that we delivered. You were literally still tweaking, you know, minutes before you launched it. And I remember, there was something – something had happened and I had to fix it. And so I’m up in this room doing a final tweak to some code and somebody comes in. And it’s the Queen Mother. On her own. And she’s got a [gestures like holding a glass] – she was known to have a tipple. And so she comes in and I’m – she said, “What are you doing?” And I get a chair and I pull her up. And I show her what we’re doing. And she’s – all she wanted to see were the portraits of horses. Because she – they are big racing fans. And so, for maybe, I don’t know, ten, fifteen minutes, I’m explaining this system to her and showing it to her and all this kind of stuff. And I was totally – I’m kind of on one knee beside her because she’s she’s barely five foot. And she’s sitting down. So I’m on one knee. I’m like – I’m being knighted or something.
And so, during this time, all the, you know, her ladies-in-waiting, of which there were five. I remember and I’ll tell you why. And, you know, everybody else, the director, you know, everybody comes in and they’re just all around. And they’ve been really quiet, while I was telling, telling this. And so – and I had not been – you know, you’re meant to be briefed on protocol with the royal family. And so, she said, “This was fabulous, dear. Thank you so much.” And she stood up. She kind of looked around and then she held her hand out, like this [holding hand out] to kiss her hand. And I have no – and I just kind of whacked it on my forehead. And so the – and then all her ladies-in-waiting all came up and offered me their hand and so – [throwing his hands up]. And then, I got to meet the Queen a couple of days later. The Queen came in. I didn’t – I wasn’t actually introduced to her, but she came in. And I always remember she – the project manager was, you know, demoing the system to her on touchscreens. And he asked her to touch the screen on something that she was interested in. Of course, she had gloves on and it didn’t work. So it was this moment of panic, you know, because that had been a big thing that we were – me, Alex, and Ben – we were meant to get pictures of the Queen, you know, touching the touchscreen for kind of, you know, to promote. And it never worked. And she was interested in horses too.
So that was a fab– and then I have another picture. So, this is [pointing to the picture] – this is me on the far left [showing picture]. You can see that. So that’s Alex Morrison on the far right. Christopher, whatever his name is, is next to Alex. And then the guy in the middle with the receding forehead, that’s the Duke of Kent. The then Duke of Kent. And that was taken at the Royal Society in London, where we were invited and I got to present the Micro Gallery because it was like the first system. And it – I think that’s probably the most nervous I’ve ever been – is to give a presentation at the Royal Society. And it went off fine. I know there were a few technical glitches but it went off fine. And then after that Amex said, “You know, we sponsored this, but we really think there should be one in the U.S.” So they just wrote a check for the National Gallery of Art to do the same. And that’s how we got the the Micro Gallery in Washington. And then, you know, the museum world is is a world where you immediately get pigeonholed. And so, based on the National Gallery, we just got a slew of projects.
But I always remember – and this is where I met Holly [Witchey]. I was over in the U.S., giving a presentation of the Micro Gallery and saying – and the word was out that the National Gallery in Washington were going to do one and that we were going to do it. And I always remember, I gave this presentation and Holly comes up to me at the end of it and she says, “How much would it take for you guys to do a similar system at the San Diego Museum of Art and deliver it before Washington?” So we’re like, “We can do that.” Because they had a private funder.
And I always remember the – so we, you know, I wasn’t involved in the you know contract negotiations then – but we got the gig. And so I came out to do some initial kind of R&D. You know, to figure out what they wanted. You know all that kind of stuff. And I always remember it was a – it was – this was probably ‘91 maybe. Something like that. And so we’d been working mostly for, you know, government projects or small museums. And so I get – it’s like February – and I get on a plane in Heathrow. And it’s, you know, pouring with rain. It’s cold and wintry. And I [fly] direct to San Diego. I get picked up by Holly, you know, in a company car. And I get driven – I don’t know if you’ve ever – I mean this is, you know, twenty, thirty years ago. San Diego and Balboa Park was much more lush and green than it is now. And I just remember – it’s like, “These people are going to pay me to work in San Diego.”
And they put me up in La Jolla. And we did this similar thing. They had a much – they had a smaller room. I think there were five systems there. Again – and then we did dye sub printing. So there was the – you could print out. So the National Gallery was black and white. I think the Washington [Micro Gallery] was color. Again dithered. But for San Diego it was a – it was a private funder. And they wanted color – full color printouts. And so we did this dye sublimation printing. I don’t know if you call it that now anyway. But it was like really high quality. And it was 10 bucks a pop. And you know the same. And for that we built a — I mean this was really advanced at the time because we had a lot of freedom. So we built, you know, what we called an editorial workbench. And it created – it published out the website and it published out the touchscreen system as well. And it was so far ahead of its time and we were really proud of it, you know. And this was the, you know, editorial work benches, now content management system, but at the time it was, like this is the way to go. This is how we build these things. And so that’s when I met – first met Holly. So I’ve known Holly for like 30 years. And that was a big splash.
And about two years ago they – the system had – I don’t know how long it lasted. Maybe 10 years, a little more than 10 years. Yes, 10 years. I have a story about that. They had reconfigured it as an education school room. But now about two years ago they were changing it back into something. And so they had stripped all the walls and all the original – Image Gallery it was called – all the original Image Gallery, you know, logo and explanation was all still there. And so I actually have some photographs of it somewhere.
But anyway, so when I came over to LA in – so I’d been at Cogapp for maybe 14 years, I think. So October 2000 I came over to LA to work at the Getty. And I was running their web development team. And I remember I’d been there six months and I get a call from the San Diego Museum of Art. And I think they had called Cogapp and said, “We need some help.” And they said, “Nik’s in LA. Go and talk to him.” So they offered me a couple of days consulting to kind of help them because it had been over 10 years, it was falling apart. It wasn’t working. And they had got two bids to kind of redo it. And so, one you know, one bid was – so this is 2000. No it was actually 2001. Beginning of 2001. One bid was – it was about 45 to 60,000. And the other bid was three and a half thousand. And I remember having this long meeting saying, “There’s no -.” And it was a couple of kids from SDSU who decided they could figure it out. And I’m like, “There’s no way that these kids can do anything remotely giving you, you know, a version two of this for three and a half thousand.”
And they [said], “Well, you know, we can’t spend all this other money.” And I said, “Well, you know, I cannot endorse you hiring these two kids. ‘A’: they’ve never done this before and ‘B’: they really don’t appreciate or understand.’ Because, I mean, it would build on hyperlinks. I mean it was a fully – it was, you know, a full-on system. And of course I, six months later, I happen to bump into this guy at a conference who was the IT director who hired these kids. So they’d spent 20,000 with these kids and they still hadn’t had anything. And so they shut it down. It was such a terrible loss.
But, what was I going to say before then? San Diego…
[Marty]: I just was – sorry – I was just so convinced that you were going to end up telling me that that those kids ended up being Larry Page and – [crosstalk and laughter].
I wish [laughing]. I should look up and see if I could figure out who they were called.
But I – so then I left – so Cogapp, you know, for profit company. And then I left. I got a gig at – actually Vicki Porter who was – Kathy, you must remember Vicki? Vicki Porter? Yeah. Paul, you must know Vicki? You remember that name? So she was the curator at the gallery – the National Gallery of Art. So she was kind of in charge of the Micro Gallery project there. And she had actually done some work at the National Gallery in London as well. And so, she hired – she was kind of our – who had hired us for that. When we delivered the National Gallery project she went to the Getty. And I always said – you know, I had such a good experience in the US, it’s like, you know, “Any jobs, let me know.” A job came up running the web development team. And I was successful in getting hired, and they paid for me to come over and all that kind of stuff.
And I always remember, the first big task was to redo the website. Focus, you know, improve all the collections online stuff. We had a good team, I mean it’s – the Getty is slightly dysfunctional but we we managed to deliver something. But I always remember, there was a chief of staff at the Getty, who was a – well, the President of the Getty Trust characterized her as having sharp elbows. That was a complete understatement. And I always remember, we were about two months from launching the new website and I get a call from her and she says, “How is the Web project going and are you on time?” And I said, “Yep, we’re going – we’ll probably be a little ahead of time which will give us kind of a soft launch opportunity.” Blah blah blah. And she said, “Are you sure?” I said, “Absolutely sure.” And she said, “If you don’t launch on -” and I’d given her this new date, she said, “If you don’t launch on this new date, you’ll be telling me about it from back in the UK.” Put the fear of God into me. [laughing] So then I had to just, you know, rally the troops, like there’s no way we’re going to miss this right, everybody? Because I was on a Green Card, then. And so they could have just, you know, annulled my Green Card. And that would have been it.
So that was a – that was an interesting time. The Research Institute were looking – you know they had the thesauri. You know, the Getty Vocabs. And at that point they were just looking at how to integrate them – to actually use them in some way, rather than just being a resource. It was like, how do we actually use this? So we came up with, you know, kind of an assisted search solution, which was to – so you could do much more complex searches. And again, this is, you know – this is the early 2000s. And so it’s – it was a real complex thing which kind of worked. But I think set the stage for them to really accelerate investment in the Vocabs. And you know now they’re – AKA? No, that doesn’t ring a bell.
[Jones]: Oh. All Known Aliases. Maybe it just looked across the artist’s names database.
It was – yes. So it was – so you could type in, you know, the nickname of an artist and get the right result. And so it was – it was actually a pretty sophisticated solution where you would kind of pre-build all these indexes and then pass the search off. It was a little slow and I think after a while the feedback was it was too slow. So I think, I think we pulled it. But it was, at the time again, really advanced in in what we were trying to achieve. And now, you know, again – another one of those situations where you had to build it at the time, you had to build it. Now it’s – you know you can – you have all these frameworks in place. I remember, I remember going back, going back to the earlier days again, when we were when we wanted to hire some people. So initially there were three of us at Cogapp. And then, as we started getting this build – you know these gigs and building the systems – we had to hire some people. And so, hiring people was really strange because you couldn’t – you know, at that time, you know, late ‘80s, early ‘90s, you couldn’t hire somebody who’d built interactive systems or websites or anything. So you had to just kind of figure out, figure it out as you go along. So find somebody who is in some, maybe, tangential discipline to hire them.
And I always remember we hired – because we needed a designer. And really we needed – we didn’t know it at the time, you know – we said graphic designer who can design in – on computers. But what we really wanted was a UX designer for this – for the National Gallery – the first one. And I always remember the conversations of how, you know, how do you figure out this stuff. And, kind of, user flow and experience, you know, digital experience and feedback. And all those kinds of things. And I remember, you know, we – endless conversations, long into the night about so, you know, what is a “button” on a screen. And what should it do? And then figuring out how to elegantly give some feedback on it. And so we came up with all this stuff. You know, we had a kind of a navigation bar along the bottom. Only because in the installation, it was going to be – because everything else was on the top, you know all that – certainly all the Mac applications. There was a drop down menu. So we – as we were experimenting with these things – because you were doing it all the time, you know, you get tired. And so you just have your elbows on the, on the desk. And so the easiest thing was just to punch the bottom of the screen and not have anything at the top.
So we just – you know all these things that we came up with at the time, there wasn’t really much precedent. And I always remember hiring – once we’d launched the Micro Gallery, maybe a year after, we were hiring somebody. And they had done immediately, and I think it must have been at Leicester. So I don’t know whether – if you’ve talked to Ross [Parry]? If he’s on your list. I think it was a Leicester student who had – they’d done this kind of formal analysis. And I remember sitting in an interview situation. It was me, Ben, and Alex talking to this person. And they were deconstructing the design of the Micro Gallery and saying, “Oh, you must have used this.” You know and they had all these names of people that had been – that seemed to be kind of post-applied to the, just design that we just, like, “I don’t know this seems like the best way we we can do it so let’s just do it.” And I remember ‘A’: being massively impressed that this person – there was actually discipline around it. Because then it still felt like we were just kind of making this stuff up and just trying to figure it out. And it wasn’t, you know, kind of like generally accepted practice. It was just, “Well this feels right.” You know we test it. It kind of feels right. We’d bring in, you know, girlfriends and wives and you know cousins and test it and we’d get their feedback.
But I remember being massively – and I think that was the moment when I realized that this was, like a career, if that makes sense. You know it was like, “Oh, this is real. There’s a real course about it and this looks like this is going to be in – in real jobs.” That people can have this – you know, because at the time there wasn’t anybody – there weren’t many people who were in real jobs in museums doing this stuff. And that was a moment where I was like, “Okay I’m in a, you know, a discipline.” So that was a watershed moment for me in just, you know, where the industry was heading.
I remember, we did a – the Art Gallery was – so we deliver the National Gallery Micro Gallery and Microsoft were in the process of creating a – their Microsoft Home Series on CD-ROM. And so we did a version of the Micro Gallery – it was called Art Gallery – on CD-ROM. I remember that was the moment where we started putting Easter eggs in… Do you have that Paul?
[Marty]: I have a box of CDs here. I think it might be in there. Or it might be in a box I have in my office at the university. But I definitely have a copy of it. So tell me about the Easter egg so I can go and look it up. [laughing]
So I need to, I need to remember how to do it. But it’s on – there’s a picture of a – there’s actually a couple. There’s a morph that Ben did of a – it’s a dragon head and it – morphing software was a big thing in in the early ‘90s. And I remember there’s this morphing dragon that turns and it turns into Ben’s head and it looks at you. I remember we did one at the National Gallery, which was, I forget the clown – the painting is a – it’s a clown in, kind of a white costume. And then they’re all these characters around it. So I remember we explicitly shot everybody in the right pose. And so it would – and I remember Vicki was this kind of central character in this kind of white, almost clown suit. And then all of us, you know – everybody who worked on the project – it was a big project, there was, I want to say there was about fifteen of us on it.
And I remember, actually during that project at the gallery was the first time I ever saw a browser — a Netscape browser. And I can’t – I wish I could remember the guy’s name at the National Gallery. Rick something. But the Netscape version – whatever – literally just launched. And, you know, he’d spent a weekend – because we’d been doing all these you know scanning and stuff. He had all these images that he could use. So he – I remember this Netscape browser turning up on my desktop. Kind of just – you know, he just pushed it out to everybody. And I remember clicking on it and just – I couldn’t figure it out to start off with. I just couldn’t figure out how it was working and how it was doing what it was doing. And I remember just being completely blown away by it. And then all these conversations about so, “Do we think this – where do we think this is going? Is this something we should, you know, start delivering?” You know, all that kind of stuff.
I got off on a tangent then. What was I talking about? Oh, Art Gallery! And so the one in one in Art Gallery is – if you – okay, when – I need to figure out which painting it is. But I’m pretty certain – God, this is baked into my memory. Because I often can’t remember what happened last week. I think, if you type in any page – this was any system we did, any DVD – we did musical instruments, we did ancient civilizations, we did dinosaurs. On any page if you do 323H, it’ll show you all the hot spots and it will show you the hidden ones as well. And I’ll figure out what painting it is. 323H. Yep. And it will figure out. And I remember. Was that Washington? Somebody accidentally found it. And got very upset. I remember it was, you know, it was in production. And some, you know, some, I think some kid was just, you know, randomly hitting the keyboard or something like that. And this thing appeared. And you know that was like ‘modification of a work of art.’ And there was some very strong languages – was was exchanged. And in the end, we had to we had to take it out. But yeah, it’s in – it’s in all the others. What else can I tell you?
[Marty]: I just thought of a quick question while you’re talking about that move – the Web browsers and seeing Netscape for the first time. We’ve had a couple of people touch upon that – that when the Web first came out a lot of people were comparing it to CD-ROMs or laser discs and saying, “There are so many limitations on the web!” And it was hard to convince people to move in that direction.
You know, I think we had – I think our – my initial experience of it was the entire collection that we digitized up to that time and all the content. So I immediately saw that there was – and there was no issue with scale. You know there were thousands of works of art on there. I always remember – speaking of which – speaking of the Art Gallery – there is – I have it somewhere. There’s a newspaper cutting of the Guardian. When the Art Gallery CD-ROM launched they kind of did this piece at the Micro Gallery in in Washington. And and I was the kind of poster children as – there’s my hand – you don’t see me but there’s my hand – holding up this Art Gallery CD in the backdrop of the Micro Gallery. And there used to be this television – this children’s kind of television news program called John Craven’s Newsround it was called. And it was on about like 4:45 on a weekday. And it was just like a 15 minute kind of kids version of the news. And I remember, we made it to John Craven’s Newsround. And I always remember because this this lasted for years afterwards. The opening line when he introduced this thing is – he held this thing up and he said, “Scientists have managed to squeeze the entire collection of the National Gallery of Art onto this CD-ROM.” And we were like, “We’re scientists!” [laughing and arms raised in celebration]. And so we would just call each other scientists all the time from then on. “Scientists have managed to scan this, you know, eight by ten transparency on to whatever.” And that was that was a moment when we thought we’d arrived – when John Craven’s Newsround had featured the – us on – you know, they never said our name. They just called us scientists. So we used to call ourselves scientists from then on.
Website. So, you know we built a – speaking of the Web – in, I want to say, it must have been ‘94 or ‘95, recognizing the power of what was happening we built this – it was called Art Guide. And it was a website that was meant to be this kind of crowd sourced works of art on a, on a website, it was artguide.co.uk, I think it was. And it was really advanced at the time because it would be, it would – we reached out, and it was a lot of work to kind of compile all their collections and stuff. But we started off with just highlights from across the UK. And I think we had – we’d got about 600 museums – museum highlights in there. And you could comment on everything. And again this was really early. And it was, I remember, written in Perl, which was my go to programming – program of choice. And it would build – it would build dynamic axes. So you know, if you did a search, which was – because on CD-ROM you had to kind of pre-program axes. You know, if you wanted to see all landscapes or whatever you had to kind of program that in and you couldn’t do a free text search and then come up with an axes of all those. So you know, a thread through them. And I remember when I finally figured out how to do that – was another moment when, you know, it was hard for my head to get – to pass through the door jamb of the company offices, when I figured that out. Because it – I thought it worked beautifully well.
But that was a really early system – crowdsourced comments. You know, commenting. And these dynamic axes. And it actually – I think we tried to sell it at some point. And I forget where it is now. I can’t believe that it’s still going. But again, it was this really early attempt to really take advantage of what a browser and the internet could achieve. And that yeah – I can see the homepage now. What else, what else have we done?
[Jones]: Nik, there’s always Balboa Park. You can’t forget that so… [laughing]
It’s true. It’s true. You know better – I mean, I was not the founding director. That that was Rich Cherry. And there are some good stories about him. You know, he was the one – so the reason the organization was set up was to address this – you know, in the early 2000s when all the institutions were understanding that technology was playing an increasingly important part, not only in how museum professionals can get their work done, but also to create engagement. And so the – there were a couple of foundations in San Diego who were fantastic supporters of the park. And one in particular, The Legler Benbough Foundation, actually who just…
Thank you, Kathy for that prompt because I got this book out as well [showing “The Legler Benbough Foundation: Grantee Relationship Philanthropy” book] they just released this. And they have a really interesting approach to funding. And so they – Legler Benbough – they – the institutions were going to Legler and saying you know, “We need some computers. You know, we need to do some digitization and we need to build a website.” And he had been a big advocate of kind of collaborative endeavor. And so he said, there has to be an opportunity to leverage the economy of scale here. You’re all asking me for essentially the same thing. There has to be a different solution. So he said I’m going to stop funding you individually and together we’re going to figure out a solution for this.
And so they hired David Bearman, you know, who was, you know, MCN at the time. And he spent, I think he spent about a year talking to all the institutions. And he came up with this plan, of you know, create a kind of a one stop shop for all the needs that the park may have across infrastructure, projects, you know, all that kind of stuff. So BPOC [Balboa Park Online Collaborative] was bankrolled three million for three years. Hired Rich Cherry. And that was a collaborative hire. The directors all weighed in. And I, and I always remember because the trustee at that foundation always talks about this because he gets this bill. This invoice from Rich for 27 smartphones. Right? And he’s like, this sounds a little weird. You know, he was he was in the weeds on, you know how the money is being spent. And so, you know, Rich’s argument was, “You know, we’re going to be talking about mobile.” Because then mobile was starting to – you know, things were starting to happen on mobile. And he’s like, “When I talk to the directors about mobile”, he said, “They have no idea what I’m talking about.” So he said, “I want to buy them all smartphones so they understand it.” I mean a real – I mean brilliant, you know. If you’ve got the money. Yeah everybody – so everybody immediately starts to understand this kind of new – and they probably wouldn’t have got to see anything about it for a year or two. But you know, he already planted the seed of where things needed to go. And so, then Rich was responsible for you know, first of all, building out the infrastructure. So high bandwidth fiber. You know there’s a, there’s a Metro Area Network across the park which BPOC set up. Well, Rich set up and we still maintain.
And then, you know, that was the kind of foundation. And then started – established a NOC — Network Operations Center — in the park. And then kind of application hosting, you know, file hosting, taking over backup. You know, then taking over desktop support and then getting into projects. You know, in-gallery websites. You know, all this time digitization – you know they brought in Piction for, I want to say seven or eight of the institutions. So, you know, so true – what now would be a kind of a tenant solution to asset management. But then it had to be, and I think I think BPOC was one of the first Piction clients in the US. I mean, really early on, which we kind of suffered from because we were first. You know, as they advanced the application, you know, we were kind of left behind a little bit. We still have, I think there are four instances of Piction in the park still. Still under this kind of collaborative kind of multi-tenant type of infrastructure. But yeah. So lots of websites and the deal was the institutions had to agree to having somewhat templatized websites.
And then – so that seemed to go well and that certainly benefited the smaller institutions. So there are some volunteer only institutions in the park who were able to take advantage of, you know, not only highly skilled expertise, you know, access to cutting edge technology. You know, everybody’s on this kind of gig connectivity in the park now. And it’s a means test. So they – everybody gets the same speed of wifi but some will be paying maybe a tenth of what a larger institution is paying. So it’s all based on kind of budget. So it’s a – it’s an amazing solution which – it’s interesting, over the last year I probably had at least half a dozen conversations with kind of groups of museums who are looking at this as a solution to, you know, increase their efficiency and capability. And, if possible, reduce their costs. And BPOC was established in 2008 I think. And so now, you know, we still provide, you know, for many of the institutions we’re still their IT support team.
We’re doing less of the kind of projects. I mean, we still get to do in-gallery stuff. We did a really cool project with the Old Globe Theatre before the lockdown, which was – they were trying to get people to come into – where the Old Globe is, there’s a kind of a forum outside. And we – they were trying to encourage people to – because they would walk in, they’d take a picture of the Globe and then they’d back out. So it was like, how do we get people to stay here a little longer? So with some judicious use of Raspberry Pis, we pulled out a bunch of chairs from storage and we tricked them out with Raspberry Pis. And when you sit and you – so you’re encouraged to sit in the chairs and when you sit in them, they they say lines from the plays that they were in. It’s – it was very cool. And, and you know – it’s a shame – hopefully that’ll that’ll come back because it was a very cool selfie moment.
And we did, you know, again, it was a real – you know the whole philosophy was do this stuff. And you – Rich was the one that started it. You know, do this stuff and then just share it out. You know, either open source it or share the expertise. And so I think we did a number of things where, yep, built this stuff, shared it out for anybody to use. But more recently we’ve been focusing on, again, less in-gallery stuff. You know, institutions have started hiring their own kind of digital media person. You know, there are tools out there that you can build and deliver your own kiosk, for example. So over the years they’ve seen a number of products and services that were key at the time. So web hosting. You know, BPOC used to host all the websites for all the different museums in the park. And then at some point in, let’s say 2015 maybe 2014-2015. It was obvious that it was much cheaper for them to, you know, go to GoDaddy or, you know, somewhere else much cheaper because we were having to manage and maintain it. And so we transitioned everybody, you know, away from that. So we’ve seen some interesting developments and changes and had to kind of tailor the products and services.
You know, digitization again was something really active at one point. You know BPOC providing the centralized digitization service. But it was – two things happened. One is institutions stopped – with the exception of two – they stopped digitizing unless they could get grant money for it. And then they would only do it. And I think, to a certain extent, still seeing that. We have some clients, right now, who only digitize if they can get some grant money from it. Which is a whole other series of interviews. But so so that’s not a lot of digitization going on. Although now there’s a lot more interest, it seems. It kind of went dark for a while. And I see, you know, one of the things we see is this renewed interest in digitizing just to support more kind of collections online. You know, more education resources and training materials. So we’ve seen kind of – seen some interesting trends happening there. Kathy another prompt? What else?
[Marty]: I’m going to jump in here just to say, I mean there’s some interesting philosophical trends that you’ve been touching upon. And we’ve heard a lot of these from other people we’ve talked to as well. At one point you were talking about the importance of user experience and realizing how critical that was going to be. Well, shoot just you know you mentioned that great point about realizing that this was now a career. Right? We heard that from other people as well – this idea that, wait this isn’t just about plugging in computers! This is about changing the way the museums interact with their, with their public and their visitors. And just a second ago you mentioned that philosophy about sharing for others to use whether that’s internally or externally. That philosophy of reuse. Do you – how do you see that changing? How do you think that has changed over just the past couple of decades? Where do you see it going? I’ve been thinking a lot about, say, open access in museums. The projects that we’ve seen just over the past couple of years – I can remember Ken Hamma speaking about the Getty, arguing for things like that 20 years ago. We’ve come a long way.
Yeah. It was — Ken was a real visionary. So for a while, you know, he was my boss. And that was a roller coaster ride. Mostly good. But he was a real visionary and he was really trying to push the Getty to do all of these things. I think the – you know, the whole notion – at one point, you know, open source. So, ‘open source it’, you know, was kind of a verb. And I think there’s a lot more – there’s a lot better understanding of how that can be a problem. And I’ll give you – one example is – and we did actually – we did do work with LYRASIS and CollectionSpace. Which was, you know, which actually is a really good product. But I think they – they made a couple of mistakes which highlight what the problem with open source is.
So you have this product – pretty advanced. And they went to Mellon and said, you know our problem is – you know, we’ve only got – I think at the time they had a couple of dozen clients. And it’s like, you know, we were trying to kind of kick start this really good product. And so they got these implementation grants. So they, you know, an institution could apply for a five or $10,000 grant to kind of implement or migrate their current collections management system over to CollectionSpace. But the problem was the upkeep on it. Cost. And so the institutions had – who had no money – applied for the grants, got CollectionSpace in, and then were kind of stuck with it. And I think there’s now much, much greater recognition that open source, you really do need the technical resources to be able to support that. And so it may be, you know, if you if you see now some of the kind of cloud based collections management systems coming in free – free like a free puppy.
[Jones]: Exactly. [laughing]
These kind of collect – like, CatalogIt and CollectiveAccess, which are which are really kind of cheap and powerful collections management systems which completely get you out of the business of requiring technical support. And and I often wonder, you know, the more of these types of – you know, as everybody shifts to the cloud where everything is like SAAS, you know, it’s – sort of what the technical requirement for a museum is now, certainly from a programming standpoint. And it’s interesting to see how that kind of morphs over the coming years. I mean, there’s certainly – you know, most of the vendors in – actually we’re not allowed to call them vendors anymore at BPOC. We call them solution providers. Solution providers, you know, it’s it’s hard to get them to really do the work to make it easy to integrate systems. You know, particularly collections management, digital asset management. Although there are some products that kind of do – at least try to do both.
But you know, they don’t want to – you know Gallery Systems. You know, we’re doing, and I don’t know if you’re aware – we’re doing this streaming of a CMS webinar series.
Which is really in response to the – there are some amazing collections management systems on the on the kind of periphery who are kind of knocking on the door, but just not getting the exposure. You know you’ve got Gallery Systems and PastPerfect and, you know, Axiell who are really kind of dominating the market. And it’s really slow progress in terms of functionality. So we kind of took it upon ourselves to host a conversation around well, what do we really want these things to be? It’s actually – we were surprised. You know, the first one we we figured, well if nobody turns up we’ll record it and people can watch it, you know, at their leisure. But we – I started getting these emails that people couldn’t get into the webinar and – we did, we’d hit our hundred person limit on Zoom. So we were really surprised because we were only planning on really doing one. Maybe two. And I think now we’re just going to keep going. There’s so much to discuss there.
[Jones]: Please keep going. I assigned it to my class. The third one you did with Jack and others.
Oh, yeah. Excellent.
[Jones]: That was brilliant. And then they could compare what what you were all saying to what a TMS user experience was like now. So, it was wonderful, really, Nik.
Well, the next one is – we’re going to talk about – which has been one of the most requested is DEAI.
[Jones]: Oh, good.
I mean, that that’s a really interesting – I don’t quite know how it’s going to play out, kind of strictly from a museum technology standpoint. But I, you know, oftentimes technology can solve, you know, problems for you. And so it’s been heavily requested. So the next one will be that. And so, yeah we’ll kind of see what the conversation is. We have two of three.
[Jones]: Oh, are you including Lauren Vargas in that conversation?
One by one?
[Jones]: Yeah, because Lauren herself is thinking about DEAI a lot.
You know what, maybe we should reach out to her. I’ll talk to Alex.
[Jones]: And I have a student who’s looking at Gallery Space through algorithms to see if indigenous art is truly put on the periphery. So that’s kind of an interesting way to look at it as well.
[Jones]: But Paul, we’re out of time and I have more questions. What do we do?
I have some time, if you want to keep going?
[Marty]: Yeah, we can keep going for a couple of minutes. Sure. I was just thinking, Nik, what you’re talking about kind of is the changing nature of in-house expertise. I was thinking about this when you were mentioning about moving to the cloud and SAAS and all this. And you – this this harkens back to something you said very early on, where you talked about – you kept saying this was back in the time when you had to build it. Right, the frameworks weren’t there. You couldn’t just find someone else to have done it, right. I talk about this all the time with our IT students here at FSU, right. The changing nature of the skills that they have to have. They don’t need to know how to program from scratch anymore. But they need to know how to understand the tools, bring them in. And I think we’ve seen the same process happening with museum technology as well. And I don’t know where that’s taking us in terms of the technical in-house expertise of museum staff and what museums are really going to need in the future.
You see, that’s why I think our model is – and I’m pleased that institutions have been or groups of institutions have been reaching out to us because, you know, our model is based on a kind of a simple matrix of, you know, low and high skill and frequency of that skill. So you know, you don’t need a highly skilled network person all the time. But if you’ve got a dozen institutions, you know, you can kind of budget out that high skill across those institutions. And then there are some there are some kind of lower level skills, in terms of, you know, desktop support maybe. You know, email, you know productivity suite. All those kinds of things are needed much more often. But again, not all the time.
And so our model is kind of based on on that and kind of balancing this notion of how often do you need somebody with a particular skill set. I really, you know – I talk about it all the time. I’ve done a couple of keynotes about it. I really wish and there’s actually – I don’t know if you – Marsha Semmel did this kind of [showing book] Partnership Power thing. Which talks about, you know, museums living – “essential strategies for museums in today’s network world”. And I think there’s some really good stuff in there about, you know, how do you staff institutions as they morph through, you know, what’s required. And I think, you know, certainly now is a really interesting time in terms of – okay, how do you better balance digital engagement with onsite engagement? You know, how does that work? Because you can’t just, you know – everybody was forced into it on March 13. Which was a Friday, I remember Friday the 13th. You know, how do you now, whatever the new normal is – you know, I think what we know is it’s – the new normal is really fluid. And, and I think you’ve got to figure out, how do you structure this stuff in a much more responsive way? How do you – and then, you know, bake into that – these issues of, you know, DEAI as well.
I mean it’s a really complex environment that museums are having to navigate right now. I mean you see these – and massively disruptive in in a good way. I mean you look at, you know, Venable at Indianapolis. I mean the response from the community, you know the – it’s – I’m really interested to see how the museum field kind of responds to this. Because museums have got to get their act together. And they’re public, you know. And they are – museums are public servants. The public are telling them, you know, making some pretty significant and far reaching demands, which I have to believe, has got the attention of the museum leadership community.
[Marty]: Well, and also the tech community as well. I mean this has been the case, I think, for a while, quite a while now. But the day in which you can hire a technology person based solely on their technology skills is long gone. Long gone.
Yep. No, I totally agree. I’m actually just – we’re doing a couple of hires for a couple of clients right now. For IT Director positions. And you’ve got to look at many more things. You’ve got to balance out the – as much as you can – you’ve got to balance out who you are bringing in and talking to.
[Marty]: And, in fact, I can remember, Nik, talking to somebody about – this – it must have been 20 years ago now – we were talking about how they hired somebody because they thought they needed a computer programmer. But then they realized that the system that the person designed affected their entire information policy.
[Marty]: And the person didn’t know anything about setting policy. Right?
Right. That’s true. Yeah, it’s certainly interesting times.
[Jones]: Paul and Nik, I wanted to get back to the part of the conversation where you were talking about how the Balboa Park Collaborative has changed. And you mentioned that people are not digitizing unless they have a grant. Does that mean that they’re bringing – is it moving back to, instead of centralized, to being decentralized now? In terms of digitizing?
There’s only – the only – it’s the institutions that have figured out the return on digitizing are the ones who are still doing it. So the Air and Space Museum. They they have kind of like an open access type approach, which is – we get as much stuff out there. Some of it is is highly specialized. There’s a big need for it, you know, SpaceX. You know, tying it all to SpaceX and, you know, all that kind of stuff. And their return is traffic. So they put it out there and they get traffic back to the, to their website. It turns into it, you know, admission. All that kind of stuff. The other one is the History Center who actually are probably generating, certainly six figures, annually from creating products. So licensed products out of their images. So, you know, framed prints. And you know that kind of stuff. And those are the ones who are who are continuing to do it because they’ve completed the circle of what is the return or answered the question, what is the return on this?
Other institutions haven’t quite got there yet. I think they’re they’re happy in the knowledge that they’ve got a lot of the stuff – the important stuff done. So they kind of see it more as kind of representational of their collections and they – you know, everyone’s talking about making revenue from digital right now. You know, and it’s, you know, kind of pick your poison or pick your opportunity. You know, do you want to get into the licensing business? And there’s a couple of digital asset management solutions providers coming into the market who kind of focus on that at the start. So they’re about – it’s not just about managing your assets it’s about what are you going to do with them? How are you going to deploy them? How are you going to manage the rights on them? You know, they come with baked in shopping carts. You know all that kind of stuff, if you do want to either license or create product. So it’s definitely changing from that respect. But it, but I – clearly institutions have not comprehensively digitized their collections. I think we all – very few have done that. And very few of them actually have them in managed environments.
[Jones]: Wouldn’t that be a criteria for accreditation by AAM?
Don’t get me started! [laughter] Okay so, you know, I was on the board of AAM seven years. And anytime accreditation came up, I would say there’s nothing about technology in in accreditation. I just did a re-accreditation at the end of 2020 for a museum. An art museum. And I actually – I wrote a strongly worded letter to the Accreditation Commission about what a sin it was that there was no mention of anything – collections management systems, nothing. And I made a point of pointing out all the things I saw that were right, which this institution had done from a technology standpoint. And then all the things I thought they had done wrong. And all of it was, as far as – I need to go through the final report they just sent me. But certainly the edited one I saw, they had taken all of that out. I’m like, how is that even possible?
[Jones]: I – yeah, how is that possible?
[Jones]: It’s the 21st century, right? [laughing]
Right! It’s – it just –
[Jones]: Paul, sorry. [laughing]
[Marty]: No. I was just going to jump in and say, you know, we have the same issue with the ALA, right? Now, the funny thing about this. There’s a paper I’ve always wanted to write on this, Nik, that I never did. But I think the fact that the AAM accredits museums and the ALA accredits library science programs in universities, speaks a lot to the differences of the field. But we just went through our ALA accreditation for our library science program last year. And that’s, again, sort of the same thing. We’re like, can you, can you get the accreditation standards into the 21st century, just a little bit? Right?
Right I – I’ve offered to volunteer and, you know, get a group of people together and we’ll figure this out. It’s not hard. Right? It’s not hard. [laughter] You know I – it’s such a shame that Rob Stein – you know, he was AAM for a while. Because he, he was all about it as well. And Liz [Neely], you know, that dynamic duo. I thought, because Rob joined just as I was turning off the board, and it was like, I just saw this kind of halo over Rob as he joined AAM. And I’m like he’s gonna fix this [laughs].
You know, the percentage of accredited museums is really small. And, you know the conversation they would – I remember, again, one of my last board meetings when Burt – I can’t remember his name – Burt Logan? No. It was the accreditation commissioner. And he was talking about how the problem they have is that they want to make accreditation kind of more widespread. They have to change their process because it takes too long. And, you know, his calculation was to accredit all museums would take, you know, 275 years or something like that. Just because of the way the process works and how long drawn out it is. And so they were trying to figure out how do we speed this up? You know, how do we make it more kind of peer reviewed? More people involved, you know. And change it so that it’s based on kind of a points system in terms of well, we’re just going to accredit the collections piece. Or, you know, we’re, you know – chip off – so rather than this, like, massive focus on the institution, which you know, partly a lot of institutions can’t do it because they can’t devote all their time to it. So then just break it up into small chunks and then you gradually, you know, you acquire points and and at some point you become accredited. You know, you kind of qualify. But I don’t know where that got to. It’s still a problem.
[Jones]: When you get the group together, call me. [laughter]
Okay. Every time I talk to Laura I bug her about it. But it’s – you know, there’s somewhat of a separation of church and state between AAM and the Accreditation Commission. You know, separately funded and they’re not meant to, you know, influence each other. But they still, you know, the Accreditation Commission does it on behalf of AAM, so they have some responsibility there.