Oral History of Museum Computing: Deborah Howes
This oral history of museum computing is provided by Deborah Howes, and was recorded on the 12th of March, 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/-uv5OyTK9J4.
I’ve been thinking about this, primarily because I’ve been interviewing so many people about their journeys, and it wasn’t always about digital but it just, you know, I, I feel like I’m living it, reliving it currently. And when I speak with the [Johns Hopkins, Museum Studies] graduate students, I think it’s always important for me to say that, you know, when I entered into my career position, you know, post-college, the world was tremendously different, and so, I feel that there were certain things that really served me well in ending up where I was, is now and it has nothing to do really with what I studied in school, but it did have to do with following what I was interested in and being observant about what really mattered to me.
And so, I can’t start the story without telling you that my mother [Sarita Seid] was an artist, and my father [Eugene Seid] was an electrical engineer. I have very little training in digital per se, which of course is no surprise, given my age, 60, and, but, you know, my mother gave me the sense of creativity being an important driver for your life, and my father made me not afraid of technology at any level. We had the first computers in the house, and he was always digging around, around them, and he put me on his lap and showed me what a cassette tape memory looked like, and so like the language and the stuff of technology didn’t faze me at all. And I think I took on a little bit of his, “Well, let’s see, let’s see if I break this, can I put it back together?” So that, that also was sort of an approach I had and that really served me well.
Finishing college, my mother, the artist could not have been more surprised that I had a degree in art history: “What the heck was that good for?” She didn’t think another artist was necessary in the family, and I decided to show her wrong by just like trying to get into a museum somewhere. And it just so happened that the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles was about to open, and my thesis undergraduate was on the history of Los Angeles art, which they the, my professors in college said, there was no such thing, and you are going to fail in that endeavor. So, I felt like going to work at a museum that was primarily established to bring contemporary art to Los Angeles, as well as herald the L.A. art that was happening there was the right place for me, and I threw myself at their doorstep, didn’t ask for any money, they brought me in and assigned me to [Julie Lazar] the Curator of Media and Performing Arts, and she and I had a wonderful relationship. I ended up being hired there, and I worked there as her assistant for a number of years, but the point there being that goes back to you have to listen to what really interests you, and it didn’t terribly interest me that I was the only one that knew how to use a dedicated word processor, that I had learned to do that in college, but that seemed to be the reason why they hired me.
But what, what was interesting… technology’s always there, and with that, they weren’t spending any time helping people understand the pretty abstract and out there art that was going up on the walls when we finally opened. And I’m thinking they’re really losing an opportunity, because not everybody understands what they’re looking at or has the experience of having a conversation about what they’re looking at and [Richard Koshalek] the Director is like, “I am not into museum education, but if you are actually interested in that, you should go work at the Art Institute of Chicago.” And so, I thought, “Oh that’s interesting.” My friend Marian [Ferme] […] was in school at University of Chicago. She’s like, “You know, they have a really nice education department here. It’s, it’s founded by founded by Dewey, so you know, it’s got to be okay.” And so, I went there, and sure enough they’re like, “We love museum education. Let’s do it!”
So I kind of ended up going to the Art Institute of Chicago for work […] the University of Chicago for my [Masters] degree. And in that duality, I was able to put together that something that now we would say, “Oh, you’re an evaluator. You were watching how people respond in the museum and taking in information.” And, you know, maybe that’s like our UX design first phase. Right? Like. “Oh, we just opened up this wing, and their doors are closed because of HVAC concerns, so why aren’t people coming into our new wing? Well, maybe, if you open the doors …” You know? Anyway, stuff like that that wasn’t the most brilliant thing that I brought to the table, but it was the most memorable.
The thing about the Art Institute of Chicago which, being a public educator there, which I quickly had to learn how to do, is that they have a very well-known collection. And I couldn’t believe that people were coming to my two o’clock general tours and saying, “I want to see this painting with a guy in a nighttime coffee shop, and there’s a yellow light in the background.” And I’m like, “Oh, Edward Hopper’s ‘Nighthawks.’ Sure, let’s go see it.” Or, “I’m looking for that painting with the pitchfork and the lady and the man—” you know, and so I’m like, “Okay, we’ll do it.” And then later I made this connection that those works of art were part of a board game we all played called “Masterpiece,” and I didn’t realize that the collection of that, that board game was actually a big overlap with [the collection of] the Art Institute of Chicago.
And the reason that’s important is that it also meant that in the late ‘80s, when I was working there, and you know, Microsoft’s Bill Gates was building his house, his like amazing technology house in Seattle, he came knocking at the Art Institute of Chicago’s [AIC] door and said, you know, “I have this idea that rather than buy art for my new house, I’m going to just project the images I love, and the images I love, many of them are at your museum.” And I’m thinking “Masterpiece!” But on the, the, the museum said, “Oh, Mr. Gates, we would love to have a partnership with you. What do you require?” And he says, “Well, can you send me, you know, my hundred favorite pictures in a digital format?” And we’re like, “What’s that?” You know, “What, what do you mean by that?” And Alan Newman [then head of the AIC Photographic Studio] is like, “We’re not giving away the digital file! He has to… The richest man isn’t going to…” Like, “We need money for that!”
And so the Director, Jim Wood, was like, “You know, I mean, Alan’s kind of right. Like, why should we give away these images, and for nothing, like you know, especially for this kind of personal…” and, all it was going to do is be projected on the walls. I think development had a few different comments they were looking at this as, a, you know, a trust building exercise, but that project never happened. But what did happen is that Bob Stein at Voyager said, “You know, we’re doing pretty well making these videodiscs out of museum collections. We’re working with the National Gallery [of Art, DC]. We’ve got some other projects, like, would you be interested? And I have a particular need for your collection.” And I’m like, [puts hands up, signaling “Yes!”], and he said, “My kid really loves looking at the videodiscs that we make from art museum collections, and you know, he’s 5, and he knows enough to like go forward, forward, forward, and see all the pictures. Why aren’t we making anything for children? And would you be interested in making a video[disc] just for children?”
And again this is like, I don’t know, 1988 maybe? And I want to just remind you that the technology required for a video disc to show, in conjunction with a computer, not on the same screen, was a Mac computer that didn’t have the capacity to show images on its screen yet, only black and white, 8-bit images could be on these early Macs. And they would have an RS232 connector to a videodisc player and monitor, so it was a two-screen solution, and what Voyager is saying is: Let’s choose 250 objects that you think would really be interesting to children, and we’ll make an interface using HyperCard, an Apple software that many of us grew up with, and using the HyperCard interface, this, the kids would be able to drive the images in a kind of… I don’t want to say game-like because it really wasn’t a game, but a browser. We used the word “browser” even before the web.
And they’re like, “Well, we don’t really know what that would entail,” but Alan said, “I want to do that, because you’re going to pay for me to digitize a core collection of images that we don’t right now have the money to do, and I’m going to ask that you use the Hollywood System of digitizing images,” which I’ll explain in a minute and then, I said, “I want to do that because we have a lot of teachers here who use this technology, and we could really put it to good use in our teacher resource library,” which was very actively used by our Chicago teachers, and, and I’d be very curious to know how we end up doing this because, by the way, Bob Stein says, “Oh yeah, and there’s not going to be any words on the interface. That the interface has to be navigable by pre-literate children.” It doesn’t mean they couldn’t get to like an explanation, or the title of the painting or something like that, but to actually browse, you had to use images only. And I was interested in that.
So what happened was that Alan and I were on several occasions, going to Los Angeles, and Voyager had rented, which is where Voyager was, but also we rented these high-end studios that we would project… what do you call them? Transparencies onto a wall that would be pretty big, like the size of a movie screen. And then, in the same room, there would be a digital moviemaker machine, like a camera capturing, digital camera capturing, that would capture the projection, and that became the digital file. There was no other way to make the image that we now just like put in our scanner, there was no other way to make these images, other than this high-end Hollywood technology that was clearly beyond any museum’s ability.
And it took us about a year to get everything right, including the interface, but when we finally published it in 1991, the whole world has shifted, and gone to CD-ROMs. And that, I had left the museum in 1990… no, I left in ’92, but in ’93, the CD-ROM came out, which was the equivalent of what we had imagined in this kind of jerry-rigged system, much better idea. Exactly the same content, just in a much neater package, because now, of course, the images are coming up on the computer screen, and that was bundled with Apple education distribution. Like, when a school would buy an Apple package, they got the “With Open Eyes” CD-ROM from the Art Institute of Chicago, and it became the number one art CD-ROM of that moment, you know, like that was the one that everybody had. If they were using art in the classroom, they all had it. And those, I think, maybe 250, 350 images became the core set for almost everything else that was done at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was really an interesting example.
And when I left, we moved to Texas for [Brian Howes] my husband’s work, and then in ‘95 the web was invented, and it was discovered by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and someone I used to work with at the Art Institute was now at the Met, Kent Lydecker [Associate Director for Education], and Kent is like saying to the Director [of the Metropolitan Museum of Art], you know, Philippe de Montebello, “This is going to be big. Like, this web thing. Like, we, we really need to focus on what the educational message of this is going to be.”
And Philippe’s like, “Well, you know, you could be right.” And let me just remind you that in ’95, not many museums had websites, but the Met did, and someone had run out again with their like, 8-bit Flip Phone, and taking a picture of the facade of the museum with a prominent yellow taxi in front, almost obscuring the building, and that was the homepage for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website. And when you said “enter,” you had to fill in your email address, because you know, they don’t want anybody coming into the website, you had to be like, you know, you had to be registered as a visitor. And then the next screen was “Which floor would you like to see? First, second or third?” No pictures. I mean, it could not have been more inside baseball in, in any way… And so Kent’s calling me to like, “Have you seen the Met’s website?” I’m like, “Uh-huh.” He’s like, “Do you think you could come to the Met and help us?” [Laughing.] Like, “You betcha!”
And so that, that really, besides the fact that my husband was tremendous, tremendously allergic to the area of Texas that we were living in, and he was really suffering terribly. Like, we were, we were out, and you know, we stayed in the New York area for 25 years. I stayed at the Met for 13 of those, and at that time, I have to say again, it was… nobody was really watching us that closely about what we were doing. You know, like it was such an unknown… there were no expectations. There were five people at the Met when I started there who had email addresses, and they were not “Metmuseum.org,” it was “Interlog.com,” and so when I would talk to curators about, “Let’s do this on the web.” They were like, [hand signaling confusion] “I… you know, what is that? Like I don’t know what that is.”
And so, not too soon after, I was in the education department, we had a team of people who knew how to make video, who knew how to make CD-ROMs. The Met was another, you know, tremendous producer of CD-ROMs from museum publishing, and so we had a nice group of technology, but this web stuff, it just wasn’t, like, sexy enough really. At the moment I got there, ’96, ‘97 the images were clunky, the graphics were limited, you know, it wasn’t that sexy. But the development department identified somebody who has a reputation in the New York area as funding institutions for the purposes of making timelines. And so, for example, when you visit the American Museum of Natural History, there’s a galaxy timeline of the universe that you walk up around the kind of huge scale model of the universe, and that is funded by the family known as Heilbrunn.
And Philippe was furious. There is no way he’s going to paint a timeline on the gallery walls! “That, that is not happening!” And so he’s like, “But education, if you find a way to use this money, go right ahead.” And I have to say, the Heilbrunns were wonderful, quite elderly individuals, very dedicated to art, very open-minded about things, but had never even seen a computer. And so, my task was, “How do I, I get these lovely donors to get excited about an interactive timeline on the web?” Which is what Phillipe and Kent had, had agreed with me as the way to go. Like, what we want to do is be able to give anybody access, intellectual access to the collection, without requiring them to know, certainly not the floors, but, you know, the names of the artists, or the, the titles of the paintings, or any of those other classic search requirements that you would need to know.
And so we got in a conversation. We invited the donors up to like the nice conference room with a view, and Philippe was in attendance, and I put up my slides, and I was showing them that, you know, all these different things that you could do on the web, and that it would go around the world […] and they said, “People in India would be able to see this timeline?” And I’m like, “Absolutely! In fact, people in India are well connected to this technology for the time,” and they were sold! And they became the donor for this ongoing project. […] That prototype amount allowed us to build a 5,000-year history of the collection, primarily featuring the collection of the Met, but also including signature other pieces, and it was an early addition to art history teaching. And as a result of that, everybody connected to it. You know, and everyone continues to connect to it. It is the number one draw on the Metropolitan [Museum of] Art website, I’m told, today.
And it’s gone through a lot of iterations, as has the platform itself. […] Before I left in 2009, it, it was honored with an endowment. And it is the only electronic resource I know of in a museum that has its own endowment. And the heirs of the Heilbrunn family decided that it had been so delightful for their parents to be part of this endeavor, that they, they gave it a very generous endowment, and so it’s still around today, and I think, that’s a lesson that we don’t teach enough about how the sustainability of these projects really need continuing funding, and care and feeding.
So that was the story of the timeline, and then I left to become part of this new initiative, led by Phyllis Hecht [Director of MA program in Museum Studies at JHU], who was asked by Johns Hopkins University to create an online museum professional training program, and I thought that was really interesting. I had loved teaching the first class with her, and I thought that I would really hate it, because my education background is in entirely teaching face to face, and having an hour in the galleries and being surrounded by art and coming up with answers to people’s questions on the fly, I mean, it was a very synchronous, but I thought quite accessible environment. And once I began teaching online, I realized that in fact, it couldn’t have been that — well it could have — but it was a very restrictive environment, teaching in the galleries, requiring people to stand up for an hour and follow, you requiring them to absorb information on the fly, and then respond with comments that, you know, someone felt confident enough that wouldn’t be seen as silly. Like, I mean, if you, only the top performers in an Ivy league situation really excel in that environment, I’ve come to understand. And don’t even count the fact that, like 70% of the Met’s visitors come from another country, so, you know, like, who am I teaching? I mean, in terms of public access, this is very limited. But, my graduate students came from all over the world, many of them couldn’t speak English well, many of them appreciated the fact that, with their mostly asynchronous plan, they could have the time to spell-check their contributions, they could listen to recordings many times, if they weren’t capturing the essence of what was being said, there were so many built-in bonuses to teaching in an asynchronous graduate environment that I’m like, this is it: this is the most accessible way I could spread knowledge that I could think of.
And, in, two years later, and the Museum of Modern Art was already engaged in online courses, of course, not for an academic environment like Hopkins, but the person who had been working for them, building these courses, left suddenly, and I was friendly with the head of education and she said, “I don’t know what to do. Like, I don’t know how to make these courses, and we have a funder and blah, blah, blah…” And I’m like, “I can help you.”
So for three years, I worked at MoMA, and it was a very different charge, right, than at Hopkins because, you know, at Hopkins, I was looking for professors that, you know, could handle the technology but were able to think in, you know 13-week blocks, and to sort of divide out the learning in manageable chunks that you know you would assess, and grade, and everything else. At MoMA, the person who had the job before me, had come from that environment and had made the courses in that model. I’m like, “This isn’t museum learning, this isn’t…”
I mean, some adult learners would go for it. In fact, they were getting a lot of participants who were paying a couple hundred dollars to take the courses. I said, “But most people are gonna want, you know, shorter, sweeter presentations: more lively, much more emphasis on expert knowledge, behind the scenes, the, the courses that I inherited were mostly educators in the galleries giving their talking heads, and they weren’t really conversational or approaching things from more critical analysis point of view.”
So, in the middle of me, bringing this kind of experience into that course making, the whole massive open online course (MOOC) initiative started coming, fast and furious, and the director [Glenn Lowry] at the time was like, “The Board keeps talking to me about Coursera. What is Coursera?” And I’m like, “Well, Glenn, I mean I think it’s an interesting thing to look at. It’s basically for universities, and they are trying to open up education to the world. I don’t know that it’s entirely missionary. I think there’s a mercenary angle there, but in fact they’re giving it away.” And he’s like, “What do you mean they’re giving it away?” I’m like, “Well, the courses are free.”
He’s like, “Wait a second.” He’s like, “Don’t we charge for our courses?” I say, “Yeah, we do. We charge a little bit, mostly by members. I think personally, it really should be a membership program, you know, as a benefit to them.” He’s like, “What’s going to be the future of courses that you charge for when they can get it for free?” And I’m like, “Exactly.” And so he’s like, “Well, you go talk to them (Coursera).” And [imitates a fist knocking at the door] him knocking at the door, and they’re like, “Who are you? You’re a museum? We don’t want to talk to you.”
And, and then I tried another angle, maybe that board member helped. I’m not really sure what happened, but I did finally get to talk to somebody, and I’m like, “Look. Like, we know how to do this. We know how to teach the public. You don’t have much humanities-oriented content on your STEM, heavily STEM curriculum. Give us a try.” And they’re like, “We’ll get back to you.” And so, when they got back to us, they’re like, “You know, our, one of our leaders is really interested in teacher professional development, so, if you can make courses that are for teachers, K-12 specifically, and we’ll give you this little pool to play in, and see what happens.”
I’m like, “We know how to do this.” So we started, and fortunately, the funder was really interested in this audience as well. They didn’t see that as a left turn, which I was really worried about. But basically, working with the educators, we came up with a three-series online course program for K-12 educators that helped them understand how art could help, help both visiting museums, art museums, specifically, and how to manage your visit to the art museum, but also how art, integrated into your curriculum in the classroom, could really increase a lot of important goals like critical thinking, and stuff that’s important to us educators. So, when we made the first course, again, you know sticking to my rules of short, sweet videos, focus on the art, get the experts in there, all that kind of stuff, we launched, and it was, you know, very well enrolled at first, and so we were pleased, because, you know, this is exciting. We didn’t know who was going to sign up for it, right? This like […] 2012 we launched.
And we’re getting numbers back, you know. We’re getting all this stuff like, you know, over 100 countries enrollees are coming from, and we’re, you know… that they have never heard of MoMA before. They don’t even know what MoMA is, you know, these thousands of people that are signing up for this course, and that they, they’re in between the ages of 25 and 35 years old, and they all have undergraduate degrees. They’re just doing this because many of them have never had an experience… they didn’t have time in their undergraduate to take the kind of courses they wanted. And I’m thinking, “These are courses for teachers. Like, what are all these other people doing in these courses?” And when the director got ahold of the numbers, he’s like, “Are you kidding me? Tens of thousands of people all over the world in this demographic, understanding who MoMA is? We’ve got to be here. Like, this is the most important thing we can do in terms of thinking about our future visitors to the museum, or even our global community, like, the more we can do for these young professional individuals all around the world, we’re going to do it.” And that was the end of that. […] The curators jumped in, and they’ve been making courses about photography, and this latest one is architecture, and with every course, the curators have really stepped up to the plate, and they create conversations with people all over the world, and then, when they travel to different — when they used to travel, before COVID — they would send out an email to their students all over the world, and say, “Hey, I’m going to be in Beijing and I’m going to give a lecture on this topic. Come!” And they do. They do. So it’s a totally different understanding that’s so important for museums to know that in the digital world, being in a physical place is only a small part of who you are, and pushing yourself out into the digital universe to where people already go is going to be your sustainability factor, in my opinion.
At the end of the MoMA stint, my… I had some parents who were failing, and I had to attend to that, and when I, that was over, people were calling me saying, “Can you help me with this? Can you help me with that?” I’m like, “Sure.” But I didn’t really know what that was going to turn into, and what it turned into is creating my own company, Howes Studio, and it, we’ve, we now have, I don’t know, at least a dozen clients at any time. A wide range of sizes and not just art museums, but all kinds of museums. And the general reason people hire us is because we work very closely with the educators to understand their potential for using technology, and to help them use it in a more effective and productive way. And I think COVID, for all its horribleness that it’s wrecked onto the world, it has advanced museums’ thinking about the need for this about five years. And so, it’s been it’s been a run, trying to like, help people write the grants, and start the projects, and you know, like it’s, it’s been fast and furious.
You guys have any questions? I didn’t really pause for questions, but…
[Marty]: I was just thinking about so many themes that you were touching upon, Deb, as, as you went through there. And what you what you just said about how advancing museums’ thinking as a result of being forced into this by COVID… We’ve seen so many of those same advancements over the past 20, 30 years where some new technology came along, and it took people a long time to get their mind wrapped around it. Or access to information. Your Masterpiece example was, was brilliant, I have a copy of that game somewhere. I’m gonna have to go and find it, right. But, but the realization that people come to a museum, right, not looking for this painting by name or that artist by name, but because they played a game and they saw this picture and they want to see it, right? It’s just one of so many realizations along the way, where museums had to come to terms with the fact that the way they thought about things isn’t the way that the general public thinks about things.
A lot of my work right now, I’m sure Kathy will be familiar with this, as well as you, Paul, is with “persona development.” You would be so surprised at the number of museums, and I’m talking about top level staff at major museums, who really have never put themselves in the, in the shoes of those who have never been to a museum before. And it’s a painful process for them, but also so eye-opening.
[Marty]: You know, Kathy knows this, right, I teach my UX Design / Usability Analysis class every year to graduate students, and every year I explain to them, “You’d think we would be past this by now. You’d think people would do this, but, but they don’t. We have to sit down and get them to think about this. Yeah, personas are a great way to do that, yeah.
Kathy, did I skip over any memories you were hoping I’d touch upon? I really streamlined it.
[Jones]: No, it was great. There is one that I wanted you maybe to talk about. I was telling Paul that I remember the conversation that you and I had about the timeline at that lovely café in New York.
[Jones]: And you mentioned that one thing that you — maybe I have it wrong, or not, I don’t know, but — that you thought it would have been better, interesting or would have gotten the timeline further along if it had integrated with TMS directly.
And that really is, that was a problem… I don’t remember when we had that conversation, but I think it drove a lot of our decisions. And now, just speaking to the nerd audience that might be listening, so, when I started at the Met, TMS [The Museum System by Gallery Systems] had just been successfully integrated into maybe one or two collections, and first being the textile collection, which originated it. And in typical Met fashion, but probably so ridiculous now, is that everybody decided to install their TMS eh! just a little bit differently, you know, because that curator calls it “date,” and I call it “time,” and, anyway, so nobody was overseeing this nightmare, and it was unfolding and those of us in editorial, because of course, I’m in education, but editorial was my, my buddy in making the timeline, because they, they you know, they’re very used to taking the raw information from the curators and making it all look nice with everything else, so that was kind of the job, right.
We decided that it was too early in the process. When we started the timeline, only a few collection areas had dynamic, the ability to serve their objects up dynamically, and, so what we decided instead, was that we would create a not exactly a crosswalk, but we would create a combined database, where it would pull every night into a separate content area, and that would be the timeline information. And the curators didn’t feel like there would be any need for it to flow back, even though in the secondary combined timeline collection, we were going to be editing, and you know, clarifying the, the overlaps of information and standardizing the fields. So, in other words, there was a lot of value that we were adding to the information that was selected for the timeline, and then drawn into the secondary repository. And you know, it’s like those kinds of things where you make decisions because they seem like the right ones at the time, but then, if you only could look a year or two ahead, you would realize that was a disaster.
I have to say I’m sure that editorial and I knew what the disaster was going to be, but you weigh it against, “Do we… Is it going to hold up the project? Are the curators going to allow this?” Like, I don’t mean to make the curators out as the devils, by the way, because in fact, one of the reasons we started to build the timeline chronologically was because the, the ancient collections already had databases of their information. It may not have been TMS, it might have been something else, but they were very savvy about storing information in standardized ways and so, you know, when the curator of the Egyptian collection produced a timeline that was like, you know, I mean, gave us the data, so we could produce the timeline, the Director was thrilled you know, because it was like everything he thought it should be. And it doesn’t, however, help that the Egyptian department rewrites their timeline like every six minutes. You would think that, you know, I mean, who knew 5,000 years ago people were…? You know, you’d think that it would be settled by now, when certain eras start and end, but no. And so that produced its own kind of annoying factor, but nevertheless, it was really you know, trying to find the professionals in the museum who were empathetic with what we were trying to do, and empathetic with this idea of everybody, having to kind of pull together and make synthetic decisions about how this information was going to appear and you know, the… if we had had that, like if we had built the timeline maybe five years later, I think we would have lost a little of our edge of being first there — that you know all the academics link to, we could have lost that — but also, we learned so much in creating this thing.
And just like the Masterpiece example, the timeline became the Ur set of materials. Right? Every collection area, of which there were you know, almost 20, sent their key objects that really influenced the history of art, and, and they were sort of this, you know this Pantheon of materials that everybody would draw from. We have edited text about each of the objects. We have approval that they’re actually important. They’re connected to other materials. We have exhibition kinds of wall text that get archived and attached to these objects. I mean, the knowledge network grows from this initial set. And there’s a huge value in that. There’s a, there’s a huge institutional history that gets grown, even if now, most of the curators who helped us with the timeline no longer work at the Met for various reasons, most of them, they retired but, but their institutional memory is still part of this public-facing thing.
Now, if I were designing the timeline today, it’s actually an idea that I posed to Philippe which he told me never ever to ask again, but I said, “You know Philippe, there are eras of the timeline that we’re not really that expert in, but wouldn’t it be great if we could give like a template, you know, to the Museum of Javanese Art and, or you know, whatever, and that they could fill in what they think the timeline, their timelines of history would be.” And he was like, “Absolutely not.” But I think today, that is what we should do. That is what we should do we should be thinking museologically about connections that we can make together. It would be so important as a decolonization effort. It would be so instructive for us to think about how these objects are looked at and considered from their own places, and I don’t think it would be that difficult to do. But I don’t have a project in my back pocket, so. Open to ideas!
[Marty]: Well, it connects nicely with what you were talking about when you told the story earlier about convincing the Heilbrunns to, to fund this, and they saw the value of global outreach. So here, you can take it to the next step, right? Let’s get all the global museums involved, so it becomes a true two-way street then, right?
Right! Yeah, very much so. Very much so.
[Marty:] That that story about the, the donors understanding the vision of the global outreach. That that takes it beyond the museum walls, right. That’s, that’s wonderful to see that light bulb go off.
[Jones]: I think that’s true. Now, we, we need that funder that could support this global outreach.
I see you put the MoMA Coursera in the chat. That’s great.
[Jones]: Just for fun.
Yeah, no, they’ve really, they’re the leader. There were a few other museums that I that I pulled in with us, the American Museum of Natural History, Exploratorium. They also still produce courses in Coursera. And then, of course, as part of my operations, I’ve helped the National Gallery [of Art, DC] make MOOCs for edX, the second largest provider of online courses. And, you know, I mean, I think we need something else besides the MOOC example to really make museums stand up and listen. Maybe it’s the idea that we just spun about the connected timelines, but you know, museums just, they don’t think in online course components. I mean, it’s silly because, in fact, what MoMA just did with their Black Architects show is they took an exhibition, and they reimagined the components as a course, and it works beautifully.
I mean, exhibitions tend to be linear progressions through a set of ideas, like, hello. It’s just that they don’t have the control over the visualness of it, and the MOOCs tend to be super boring visually, and limited.
[Marty]: There’s another interesting issue there, right? I mean, I think this is one of the reasons why people had a hard time getting, getting onto the web early on, because the web isn’t this linear progression, right? So many of these technologies, every step forward requires you to rethink what you’ve been doing in the past, and, and maybe some things aren’t initially as good as what you were doing in the past. Like, I love the example you gave about how the pictures on the web weren’t as good as the pictures on the CD-ROM. Why, why should we go into this, right? And… yeah. No it’s, it’s truly amazing, Deb, to see the perspective you have on this, and just how this all moves over time. I loved it. I loved the whole thing. This was great.
Thanks. Um, I realize I skipped over AMICO [Art Museum Image Consortium], and things like that, but, maybe other people have spoken about those projects. I don’t really have anything brilliant to say about it, it just that you know, I think a lot of the museum technology… I also didn’t talk about the Museum Education Consortium, which might be important, but, so the Museum Education Consortium was a really early grant in the ‘80s from the Pew Foundation that encouraged seven museums with collections of impressionism to band together and make some kind of interactive digital experience with the help of Bank Street College [of Education] and The [Center for] Children and Television, who had just recently been so successful in creating something called “Palenque,” which… and “The Voyage of the Mimi,” which were two K-12 experiential 3D walk around, immersive experiences that were again designed for K-12.
And so, when I was at the Art Institute of Chicago, every month there would be a meeting in New York, I didn’t go every time because it was really meant for the heads of the education departments, but sometimes I was sent as the proxy, and I met all these fantastic people, many of whom I’m still really close to, and our, our task, as defined by the Pew, was to make this prototype. Which we did, and I think it would surprise you, if I could show it today how similar it looks to like a gamification in, you know, I don’t know Farmville or something like that, like, it really, it… we visited Monet’s studio, you could click on his scrapbook, and you can see drawings, real drawings, of what he was thinking about, and then you could go out into the Japanese garden and see the Monet waterlilies. I mean, it was really way, way out there, but needed such a specific kind of technology to support, it was dead the second we finished it.
The value of that project was that the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the New York Metropolitan Museum, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art, I’m thinking, the Art Institute of Chicago, those heads of education were taught to think digitally. And they went on to create and support, within their institutions at a moment where it was really too early to do so, all sorts of innovation that happened as a result of that. And so, you know, this is something that’s wrong, I think, right now, with the way funding happens, is that you know, very often, we get funded for projects, but we should really be funded for professional development, or we should be funded for positions, because that’s where the real change happens, and there was nothing ever like that after that. And, and, you know, whoever was lucky enough to mentor with these leaders of their education departments like me, you know, had a lot of impetus and inspiration to go forth and do good things in the digital world, but we were just a handful. And I think, you know, that’s something we really, really, really need to think about now, which is why I’m involved with MCN, spreading digital literacy, and just comfort.
[Marty]: Well, I was just going to jump in and say, right, that you know that we’ve heard this in some other interviews we’ve done as well, it’s, it’s, it’s not that product that you made, that project, it’s what you learned from doing it, and how you move forward from that that matters.
Right, and I think AMICO was like that, too. AMICO was a similar kind of thing, where the I.T. departments were more involved, or the imaging departments were more involved. And I think Peter [Samis]’s projects that he did for SFMOMA [San Francisco Museum of Modern Art] that involved IMLS money, like, I learned a lot being involved with that. Like, there were a lot of projects like that that was about creating the networking. You know, the technology challenges are human, they’re not they’re not machine made. The machine can solve whatever, but the humans have to define the problem and work together to make sure it’s well thought through.