Oral History of Museum Computing: Kathy Jones

This Oral History of Museum Computing is provided by Kathy Jones, and was recorded on the 16th and the 23rd of July, 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://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pvYFdfo5UxE.

Yeah, so I actually wanted to start when I was an undergraduate at Florida State and happened to keep going to the Computing Center with someone who was, I guess, sort of my boyfriend, but getting his Ph.D. in social science. And it made me realize the value of having a computer do that type of work for you. So, I kept that in mind. And then when I was in graduate school, also at Florida State, I started taking computer science courses in addition to my anthropology and archaeology courses. And the funny story for that little segment of my life is that I had taken Spanish for seven years. And so, you know, you need two languages. So, I didn’t really have another one. And I said, well, what about Fortran and COBOL. And they’re like, “Yeah, sure. Why not?” [laughing] So I had those three languages for my graduate degree. [laughing] So I always thought that was kind of funny. But, you know, doing computer work really did help me then. And helped me help other people in the anthropology department who needed to do statistical computation. And so that was kind of a lovely thing to do.

After I graduated I went to work for the Department of State in the Division of Archives History and Records Management in the Bureau of Historic Sites and Properties. And so I wanted — I’ll kind of sprinkle a few things about legislation into this oral history. Because in 1966, which was way before I went to Florida State — the Historic Preservation Act was passed. In 1966. And that created a State Historic Preservation Office. Before that time, all of the records of archaeological sites and properties had been kept by the universities in the departments of anthropology. So suddenly we have the SHPO Office and the files start moving there. The SHPO’s Office was able to hire archaeologists and they were able to begin to work on a historic site mitigation when a federal property was being tagged for development. Or if federal funds were being used. Later, that moved over to cultural resource management companies, which I worked for from time to time. But that’s not a big part of my story.

With that act and with all of those site files moving to one central office, it meant that there was a need for a database. So, on or before the year of 1974, the SHPO’s Office had licensed GRIPHOS from the Museum Computer Network. And that was significant because people like Robert Chenhall were — he was then working for the Arkansas Archaeological Survey and was thinking about standardization in recording information about historic sites and properties. And also about collections that resulted from them. And also then museum collections. So we in the archaeological research section, were using GRIPHOS. And we had to run it on a large mainframe at another state office. We kept all of the punched cards, which allowed us to put data into the system, in file cabinets in a large office in the Old Leon County Jail. [laughing] Because the Old Leon County Jail was our home. And so my first office actually was in a holding cell. And that was kind of convenient because you could lock it up at night and not have to worry about your stuff. [laughing]

So, that was the first time that legislation kind of came into my working life. Then I still worked for the state until 1985. And so we saw — we were beginning to see the transformation from that mainframe to, even then, to desktop computing. Although we didn’t make the switch until after I left. We also started looking at Geographic Information Systems and how they might help the archaeological work in the state of Florida and beyond. So that was being planned when I left the Department of State and moved to Rhode Island to work for a computer consulting company that was doing the same type of work for the state historic preservation offices in Rhode Island and in Massachusetts. And in Massachusetts the development of a database was quite far along. But we began to add that GIS component to it. And so that — I stayed at that firm for a while. And then I moved on to the New York Historical Society as a registrar. Primarily because of the work that I had been doing with computerized databases.

And I should step back just for a second because also in the 1970s — and I wasn’t working in New York State then, but it came up through the Museum Computer Network — there had been, I guess illegal transfers, I’ll call them. Gifts or sales from collections in New York state to friends of a director. And the Attorney General found out about it and mandated that all of the New York museums have inventories of their collections. So, just thinking about MCN and what that meant — it meant that some New York museums could use GRIPHOS also to do those inventories. So that, I think, helped the field be accountable. Although databases at that time didn’t necessarily have the ability to log who was entering the data or viewing the data. Or who had last looked at that record. So, important for location and keeping things accountable.

So, back to the next decade, which I worked at New York Historical for a while. And then I also later worked at the — what was then called The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. Again, because of the computer work that I had done. Now it’s called Historic New England. So then I had my son and I took a little bit of time off. But I ended up, after just a little bit of time, being a research assistant at the Peabody Museum at Harvard. And this was in the late 1980s. And again, you know, it was because of my computer work. People hadn’t really done a lot. Although the Peabody was sort of greatly ahead of other museums in the area, in that it had a timeshare database. And it had this database through the children’s museum, oddly. And they had that database because Michael Spock was the director and forward thinking. And a man named Bill Mayhew created it for that museum. And then it was shared, probably for pay, with other museums in the area. So that was one database. Then the Peabody had another database called Ingres, which was a commercial database not made for museums, but could be used for. And again, it had assistance from other nearby units — in the Herbarium and other parts of Harvard that were — that had similar but not exact collections. So that was that.

Then legislation comes into the picture again in 1990 with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Which mandated that all museums that held native North American collections and were receiving federal funding would provide inventories of the collections to federally recognized tribal groups. So the Peabody and other museums began to scramble [laugh] to get a lot of data in and to start producing these inventories, which resulted in linear feet of print outs to describe what was in the collection. Now, if you could imagine having those all shipped by mail to a tribal office that had no clue about how to, kind of, read [air quotes] the fields of data that had been in the database — that might have been a challenge. So as you might know, NAGPRA began to evolve so that conversation conversations were part of it — with the museum and the tribal group having that conversation. And having visitations so that tribal elders and others could see the collections and begin to think about what was really there.

So that was another time when we were required to do something because of a legislative act. In addition to that, during the time that I was at the Peabody it was in the time of the magical 1990s, when all of us were able to do things like digital imaging or create multimedia products. And one of the, well, the early website that my team and I created for the Peabody and other Harvard museums was during that period. And we based it on a little book called The Treasures of Arts and Science at Harvard University. And I’ve thought that it would be okay to use the material for each museum because it had been funded by the Provost’s Office and vetted by the Office of General Counsel. So I felt that there would be no copyright issues. And we didn’t run into any. But that — I wanted to give you the kind of background on that.

So we, we reserved the domain names for the Harvard museums. Many of them still have those in place. Like peabody.harvard.edu. [laughing] So that was that was what we did. We also formed an internal committee to look at the different departments that should be represented on the website and to begin thinking about how you would create consistency — cohesion in the pages that you were presenting. A main page then maybe departmental pages and other sub pages. So we were thinking about that. We also thought about — but it was really my, well, one of my successors there, David de Bono Schafer, who actually brought the collection online. So at the time the Peabody had switched from Ingres to EmbARK. And then later Harvard museums, as — almost as a whole — switched from EmbARK to TMS. But not necessarily the scientific collections. They keep their own. Like MCZ base for the Museum of Comparative Zoology or BG base for the Arnold Arboretum.

But we did a lot of work. And I’m, you know, I’m not sure that anyone would know that history, other than having it recorded here. So I’m glad that we’re doing that. [laughing] And one other thing that happened during the magical 1990s was that I went to College Art Association Conference that was held in Boston. And gave a talk about digitizing collections. How odd for me, right? I never would talk about that! [laughing] Just kidding! And there were two people from Harvard who were in the audience and one was from the Fine Arts Library [Martha Mahard]. And the other was from the, The Graduate School of Design Library [Ann Whiteside]. And we got together after that. We worked about, maybe, two, I guess two Harvard blocks away from each other. But we had never met. And we were like, “Why haven’t we met before?” Right? They were in College Art Association, I was in MCN. Finally, we were together. And so through that effort and working with the Harvard Libraries — and then, a man named Sid Verba [Harvard Librarian], who was very forward thinking, supported a project to begin to tie all of the repositories that had visual collections together. And that came together under the name of Visual Information Access or VIA at Harvard. And now it’s called HOLLIS Images. And HOLLIS is the name of Harvard’s library database. So it still exists. It’s still there. It also had a kind of local side. So that you could either catalog your collection in it and then migrate that to VIA. Or you might have already had your own collection collections database, as the Peabody did and the Harvard Art Museums did [under Sam Quigley’s direction]. And that’s one project that Sam Quigley had worked on, to create ways to import the data from the Harvard Art Museums into — at least the visual representation — surrogate information — into VIA. So that all could be represented.

But it meant that other groups like the Arnold Arboretum — which has a fantastic collection of not just Asian trees and seeds and cultivars, but also images that were glass plate photographs [negatives] brought back from these trips to Asia, where there would be a botanist and a photographer. And putting that all together. So I thought that was kind of a miraculous thing. Where anyone could look through all of the Harvard collections and see images of everybody who had an elephant. [laughing] Or something like that.

So then, I, I had sort of a, a gap in working in museums we’ll call it — when I went to the Divinity School. And I was the Assistant Dean for Information Technology and Media Services for about, almost 10 years. Then, even at that time though, I was teaching at the Extension School in the museum studies program. And was teaching museums and technology. So we had the ability to teach people about databases and digital imaging at that time. We don’t do it now because we have other parts of the Extension school that cover digital media and information technology in probably four different ways that you might slice it. So, I felt that we didn’t need to do that hands-on work. They could get a course credit as an elective and learn that skill, which is very important.

So, I might be talking too fast, but I’m just going to keep going if that’s okay.

So, I, I left Harvard for a little bit in 2000 and — let’s see — nine. Came back in 2010. In 2012 though, I became the head of the museum studies program. And one of the things that I had always tried to do was make sure that we had at least an element of technology in the program. So with my course, Museums and Technology, that was one. Lately, we’ve been adding more. But it’s really important. And one of the reasons I think it’s — well, I mean I have that bias, right. It’s what I’ve always done. So, I feel it’s important to do that. But to think about how information can be used in almost any way for bad or good. To talk to your board. To talk to anybody about what you’re doing and the impact that it has. So that’s the type of work that I that I do now and that I think about in teaching courses about technology or the use of data. Or it — or maybe to call it even museum informatics. So that’s what I do.

The next thing where I think we have a shift — so, first it was 1966 with that — the passage of that law. Then it was 1990 with NAGPRA. And now in 2020 and beyond we have had the pandemic. And Paul, I think that this is, this is a necessary shift. This is where technology — again, everybody was scrambling to make digital products or programming online or a gala happen in Zoom. And, you know, my biggest hope is that, as a field, we can continue to do this type of work. And why it’s so important to me to have the museum studies program that I run have this flexibility of reaching out to other fields and bringing in skills like digital media or learning design and technology is because it’s so needed in the museum world now. And what you and I heard from our colleagues as we did these interviews was “I had to make it up on my own. We didn’t know how to do that. You know, we didn’t have all the tools that we needed to make that happen.” The other part that I heard, which is also encouraging, is what everyone gained from being a member of the Museum Computer Network. And finding that community, as I did, so early on in the 1970s, where I knew that I wasn’t at the mercy of God knows who — to try to make this up on my own. So, I feel that we have the means to make it happen for museums. But I want the museums at the highest level — director level or whomever — to really keep their eyes open about what’s happening. And also for funders and I’m grateful for funders like the Knight Foundation and Mellon and also IMLS, to see how technology can really make a difference in what museums are doing.


When, when I was in graduate school and taking a lot of computer courses, I would show up at the Computing Center often. And they said — so, one day, somebody said, “Hey you show up here a lot. Do you want a job?” [laughing] And I’m like, “Okay. Sure. Yeah, I’m a starving graduate student. Why wouldn’t I want a job?” So I became the tape librarian for the Florida State Computing Center. And they were using Control Data (CDC) equipment. So a CDC 1100 or something like that was the computer. And at that time, I mean, it was a mainframe. It had a whole large room that was dedicated to it. Very air conditioned. Very cold in there. Men in white coats — the engineers who would keep things up and running. And yeah. It was quite a different day from where I am talking to you now with my iMac [laughing] and cloud based servers and things like that. So I have, you know, based on the length of my career, I’ve seen everything from the the removable disk drives that I was describing to you, that were large and had a little case that you could carry them around if you wanted to carry that much weight [laughing]. But I mean, it was such a different environment.

And then in the 1980s, when we started seeing desktop computers. And that’s when we started also seeing the development of systems in Filemaker Pro or dBase or FoxPro. I think all of those coming into being and having colleagues, like Jim Blackaby — who was also instrumental in the Museum Computer Network — create databases for museums that served a good purpose for, for quite a while.

And then other systems like Willoughby Systems that Lenore Sarasan was the head of. Creating all of that. Lenore introducing project management concepts into our field. Where, you know, often we didn’t have a clue. And then having David Bearman bring a whole different set of Information Systems values into the field through his writing and through the publication — archives what? What?

[Marty]: Archives and Museum Informatics.

Thank you. [laughing] And then the AAM publishing the book The Wired Museum. And then later — a decade later — our book, Museum Informatics, came into being. But you know, there was an interesting time when Museum Informatics came out because we also saw a lot of other publications that were similar. Like The Digital Museum and Cameron and Kenderdine’s book. Digitizing — what? [laughing]

[Marty]: I have it on the shelf… Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage.

Yes. [laughing] Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage. Thank you. So, you know, the field — it even, at that point, was changing. And now, as you and I have heard, we see all these other wonderful changes. Like the work that Andrea Ledesma is doing and others to just bring us forward in a very different way. Now that I have the floor again with this addendum, I’m going to say that now we’re listening to our users instead of just telling them what they wanted. Or what we thought they needed. Thinking about our databases in a different way and how we access them. Thinking about the language that we use. You know, and the other part, I mentioned, sending all those printouts to tribal elders. And with no no guide, right. All this scholarly language. Fielded data that we had. That is, I just — really, you don’t have access to it unless you have the type of key which gives you an entry point. So, you know, I think in terms of the field and where we’ve been and where we’re going, that we’re on a really good trajectory. And I won’t get on my soapbox again about how I want us to emerge from the pandemic because that’s already been recorded. [laughing]


So, Paul, adding to what I said before — you know, I introduced things with legislation that kind of prompted what we did at the state of Florida and in other places. But adding to that, in a way, our division became the repository for artifacts that had been recovered from archaeological sites that were under that 1966 act. So, then we had to start processing them and taking care of them as if we were a museum. So I don’t know that all of my colleagues were prepared to do that. But we learned quickly on the job. And it became apparent that we could use GRIPHOS to record artifacts too.

So, one thing that I did early on — luckily, they were smart enough to let me have money to go to MCN and AAM, but I also applied for an NEA grant and was successful in getting that. It allowed me to travel to various places like the National Museum of American History and take a look at what was happening then with Vince Wilcox and others. I didn’t I didn’t meet David Bridge then, but I got to see what they were doing with the collection. And I went to the University of Arizona where people like Jeff Neff and Holly Chaffee, who were early MCN members — but left the field to pursue other things — had done amazing work with databasing the collection there. And it was all because of their great director who supported it. And also because of the programming of a man named Larry Manire, who ended up later in Providence, Rhode Island, and was the person that I went to work for when I left Florida.

So he was the one who wrote the system for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the State of Rhode Island to record their historic sites and properties. So, just closing that little circle. But it also introduced me to people who were museum registrars. And gave me the ability to go to workshops at AAM so that I could learn about caring for objects in that way. I became a member of the Registrar’s Committee of AAM, which now is a separate organization, but was instrumental in how we were processing — how we were becoming technologists really early on in the museum world when we thought we were dealing with paper records. But, no more, we were dealing with computers. And we needed to know how to standardize our data so that we could, kind of, eventually maybe talk across platforms. Or understand how to migrate data from one platform to another.

So that was really important for me very early in my career. And for MCN and AAM to be thinking about standards so early — in the late 1970s — when databases were still on mainframes. I shouldn’t leave out the Smithsonian. They were also thinking of how to standardize and had created SELGEM, which David Bridge told us about. So that, to me, was important foundational work for the field. Thinking about how registrars became the people who were the early providers of computer information. Later, perhaps, working with IT departments. Later, working with colleagues across the museum, we began to break down silos. Once databases allowed us to have more democratic or democratized access to the information that we had kept for so long. So when I did end up at the at the Peabody in the 1990s, the Peabody — and I said it before — had been through different iterations of systems. But we were at a place where we were talking as a group: collections managers, the people who were — I was the documentation manager. And having conversations about how we were recording information. We were also, even then, looking at the the language that was being — that had been recorded and ledgers and wondering if it was appropriate language to keep access to. So early curators might have referred to Native American groups in less than appropriate ways. So we’re trying to manage that, but also keep the historical record. And I think that has been an important part of the work at the Peabody for the time that it has been — even before NAGPRA, but also working on NAGPRA — and beginning to bring in new voices and new perspectives into, not just the museum, but also into the database. And how that’s recorded in in video conversations with tribal elders. And thinking about, then, how we would keep access to all of the media that began to surround the initial record. Coming from text. Coming from multiple multiple systems. And so on.

But back to being a registrar. That helped me tremendously in understanding the whole life cycle of an object and what museums needed to do to keep the information about it. So one time, when I was working with Sam Quigley at the MFA, we recorded — oh, I don’t know, I’d have to count. But there were probably — I’ll count — but say 50 transactions that had to happen among and between departments in order to acquire an object. From the time a donor proposed it to the museum through the whole process of accepting it and vetting it. And even seeing if it needed conservation treatment or conservation analysis to make sure that it was a, a proper object. Not, you know, not necessarily an antiquities fake.

So being in the registrarial community for quite a long time really helped me prepare for the rest of my career in working with databases — large databases that had special characteristics that you had to manage, if they reached a certain size. And understanding the coding that has to go into that. It also prepared me, oddly, for looking at multimedia and how we could develop websites and other digital products. And that helped me greatly. So understanding the coding, whether it was program code or HTML code or XML — all of those little tiny bits added up. And we’ve seen that, you know, in other recordings that we’ve done, where people were bringing bits of their past along into the future and transitioning it into something that was part of an emerging technology scenario. Or something like that.

So I’ll just end by referring again to the National Initiative for Network Cultural Heritage, or NINCH, which was headed by David Green for so long and supported by the Getty and others. And I just recently saw that Maria Economou had posted that to an online source, so that we still have access to the very wonderful document that was prepared by her colleagues at the University of Glasgow. So that is available through academia.edu. And it used to be hosted by NYU, but it became unavailable for a time. So, I was happy to see it again. And I — I will end with that. And, and we’ll wrap that up. [laughing] With a bow.