Oral History of Museum Computing: Norbert Kanter
This Oral History of Museum Computing is provided by Norbert Kanter, and was recorded on the 30th 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/uaZeLYoTj5E.
Okay, I’ll start with my little story, and I actually will take you really back in time and I’ll start with (probably it’s interesting or not) how I started in the sector. So, I have to go back in time 30 years. Sorry for that. [Laughing.] At that time, I lived in Bonn in the Rhineland, also known as the former capital of Germany. I’d just finished my university degree in art history, but at that time, I already was, you know, interested in computers — I wrote my thesis on an Atari computer.
I managed to get an internship at a little company in Bonn, which developed, at that time quite unusual, Collection Management Software. After one year, there was a job advertisement coming up for somebody called “IT Coordinator” for a new cultural institution in Bonn — something nowadays, you would call “CTO”. So I applied for that, and I got the job, and so I will go back to 1990.
The story I want to tell you, is a little bit about the somehow strange process, how we came up with the first web design for this very institution (and this, of course, was not in 1990, it was in ‘96 then), and about the very, very unusual defining factors which influenced this web design. I will tell you about those defining factors: the name of the institution, and a font.
The name of institution, where I started working some years before [the launch of the website], was (now sit back and relax): Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. So in German, including the blanks, it’s 59 characters. And even if you look at the translation, Federal Art and Exhibition Hall of Germany, it’s still I think 42 characters (I counted it before). It’s a nightmare. It’s a nightmare for P.R., it’s a nightmare for designers, but that was the name of the institution.
The institution itself actually was not a museum. It was a new institution and a federal institution, which is quite unusual in Germany [where culture is usually the responsibility of the 16 states]. It was a space for changing exhibitions, traveling exhibitions. And we showed up to 10, 12 exhibitions every year. It was a huge space, I think 6,000 square meters of galleries, 8,000 square meters of roof garden, outside facilities – a very nice, new institution. And with a quite iconic design. When I started my job in 1990 we were a team of five people: the director, the assistant, me, two more, and we had our offices in containers on the construction site, because the building was not ready yet.
The opening finally was in ’92, and just for you, nobody else might be able to see it, [holds up two-page book with building exterior] this is the really nice and iconic building we opened in ’92. So, a really super nice place to work at. So the name: I will come back to the problem with the name. The other defining factor, the font.
One of the first things when I started to work at this institution was, I was tasked to buy a computer, namely a Macintosh IIfx. Unbelievably expensive, I think it was more than 20,000 German Marks at that point, and the reason why we needed that, was, that we hired a famous London-based graphic designer named Neville Brody, and he was tasked with developing [reading the chat] the guiding system, the signage system, and specifically [the] new corporate font for the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. For the sake of time, I will call it just Kunsthalle. For me, just coming from university, it was like a crazy thing to spend so much money on the computer. But anyway, it was used to prepare all the invitations, the folders, all the necessary print graphic work we needed for the whole building.
I will skip some years — so we have this [new custom] font and we have this unfortunate name of the institution. Around ’95, I went to a number of meetings in Germany from all the big players: America Online, CompuServe, T-Online, because we thought, “Okay, there’s something happening. We have to think about bringing our institution online somehow.”
So at that time, these were all proprietary solutions, AOL, CompuServe, and stuff like that. It was the time of Netscape and the screen resolution was probably 640 by 480. In the end, we didn’t run with any of those providers. We said, “Okay, we will build a website on the World Wide Web.” We hired a design agency, I think it was beginning of ’96, and we set up a very nice team of three people from the design agency, three people in-house. By that time, we were nearly 100 employees, so we grew obviously in the years before. And we thought about the website design.
Just as a reference to the nice Macintosh II back from the beginning of the ‘90s, in ‘96 I actually bought a web server, and it sat for years on my [desk] in my office – it was a Silicon Graphics Web Force Indy, another iconic machine from that time. [Laughing.] I don’t know. It’s in the rubbish, I guess, by now.
Now about the website design. This was really super, super interesting. Nobody talked about agile development back then, but we spent some months in this team to think about it [the web design]. We thought, “Okay, we have art, we do exhibitions, we have to have images on the homepage, on the website, everywhere.” And we also, from the very beginning, said, “We want to use this font because it was everywhere.” It was on site in the museum, it was on all the print material, we wanted to use that. So, we went through a number of iterations, and what happened from one to the other: the whole thing [design] got reduced with every step. We got rid of the images, we got rid of other elements on the homepage, and we ended up with a white page and black font, and that was it.
You have seen the building, which is quite iconic, and we wanted to do something outstanding. An iconic [design] on the web as well, which nobody has done before, which has a unique look and feel. In the end, it was just this font we used on the white page. It was basically the exact opposite of what is happening nowadays. With the websites nowadays, you have the huge images, and then the burger menu, and that’s it.
We used no images, I mean on the homepage, on the landing page, and we constructed the homepage from the menu items. We said “Exhibitions,” “General Information” and “Calendar.” These are our main areas for now, and then some smaller menu items in the footer. When we decided to do that, we [finally] had to deal with the name “Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland” [which came out] 12 or 15 centimeters long. It really was a problem to fit it into a proper web design somehow. End of the story was, the font size of the name of the institution was reduced to seven point. Super small! Basically, if you were short-sighted, it looked like just a black line, and not a name. And then the big [menu items], the exhibitions calendar, information, we blew it up to 70 point. Below that, there was a small seven-point menu as well. And this was the result [holds up mousepad showing the homepage design]. You can still go to the Internet Archive, to the Wayback Machine, because it’s actually fun, [and see the original design].
For one of the poor designer guys, this was a horrible decision. Because, I remember, he probably spent a week in front of the computer, using Photoshop, typing in the whole alphabet in all the different sizes we needed, and then cropped the single digits [letters, characters] to save them as a GIF, because we wanted in certain areas (nowadays, you would say that the website is responsive) to line break at every single digit [letter]. Like you can see on the mousepad here. So if you expanded the browser [window], all those [characters] would flip to the next line. We definitely wanted to have this nice effect. It was kind of a responsive design, but by accident, let’s say. It wasn’t really a design decision.
The other nice effect (to some, it was horrible, and others liked it) [was] the calendar page: when you clicked on that [menu item], you came to the current month, and the next two months, I think. And if you wanted to select a certain specific date to see which exhibition is up, which events were up, you had to click on the date. But the dates, we didn’t give [display] the 31st as “31.” We actually wrote “EINUNDDREISSIG” [“THIRTYONE”] in all the little characters of the corporate font of the Kunsthalle.
Today, I would say, it’s a really fun, nice [design] effect. Because if you clicked on calendar [menu], the calendar page opened, but there were like 400 little GIFs needed to be loaded. Then maybe all the “E’s” were loaded first, and appeared on the screen in random places. And then, all the “A’s” and then all the “I’s”. [https://web.archive.org/web/19970105192416/http://www.kah-bonn.de/k/k.htm]
In the end it was like a piece of art. Nowadays, if you will, you could sell it as an NFT and a piece of art. But you know, it’s the time of dial up modems and 56k connections (if you were lucky) – so it was annoying to some people, to be honest. But we were kind of relentless. We wanted to have it that way. That was the quite bold idea we had. We wanted to have it unique. We wanted to have it visible as the face of the institution. And we were sure, that in the end the management and director would say, “Are you crazy? What are you doing? Here, go back, start again,”. But to our surprise, he [the director], and everybody inside the institution loved it, so we went online end of ‘96.
We received a lot of feedback. There were not so many museums or cultural institutions online in Germany back then. We got a lot of recognition. Very much of it was very positive. Sometimes it was very, very negative. I was pleased with that, it was not “average”. Either people loved it, or people hated it. And I’m totally fine with that.
During the next years, it was the time where people published books about web design. I don’t know if you have ever seen it [holds up book]… this was a Dutch editor, “Website Graphics. Best of Global Site Design”. It was in ’97, [shows feature inside the book] and we got inside the book with our website. […] I still love books about web design. Nobody does it anymore, unfortunately. But it’s a kind of an archive as well. We got a number of awards [for the website], and there’s one more story I wanted to tell you. Have you ever heard in the United States about “Milia”?
At that time, it was a huge yearly multimedia convention in Cannes in South of France, you know, where the film festival is. It was a huge thing back then, like probably 7,000 attendees, thousands of companies present, nearly 800 to 1,000 exhibitors. Part of Milia was an award they gave in different categories, so we entered the procedure, we got a nomination for the “Milia d’Or”, what they called it, in ’98, which was super exciting! It was not like a multimedia fair or like a museum conference [nowadays], it was a really glamorous thing in Cannes with, lots of events and parties… And I had to present the website for one hour in front of a jury live, and the funny thing was, the president of the jury was Douglas Adams — the author of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. He was also in the multimedia business at that time, so that’s why he popped up there… I was super nervous, it was super exciting. Unfortunately, we didn’t win in our category. We lost against, I think, it was a website by the “Amnesty International Refugee Campaign”, which, funny enough, was in the same category. But it was big fun. Finally, the website lived until 2000, when I left the Kunsthalle. Then the first re-design came along… It was really a fun time with little limitations by the medium, I mean, whatever was possible [at that time], but also by the management or director.
I’m not sure if I conveyed it properly with the examples I gave. I think, looking back so many years, it has been an unbelievable privilege to live during that time in an institution, and be tasked with bringing them online and working in the digital area. It’s nothing like today. It was more interesting, more fun, more difficult, more complicated, but more rewarding as well. That’s my impression, if I compare it to what happens in the museums digital sector nowadays.
I want to make a reference to Larry Friedlander. I don’t know if you remember, he gave a keynote speech in 2013 at the MW [Museums and the Web Conference] in Portland, which was called “The Digital Tail is Wagging the Museum Body”. I was super impressed by this speech and I still love it. And he used a number of buzzwords or keywords, which I think explain a little bit the differences between web design back then, and web design nowadays. I think back then, and I’m going to use some of those words, it was risky. It was surprising. People were bold. Often, things were unique. […] Sometimes it was provoking, like our calendar page with the slowly popping up characters, so something like that. And it was fun.
Of course, there was a lot of bad web design as well. No question about that. If I compare it with today, and I’m playing the devil’s advocate here a little bit, I think today, it’s [web design, people and institutions] risk averse, it’s predictable, 100 percent predictable. It’s streamlined, it’s too often mediocre. It’s compliant and boring. Because everybody thinks there is best practice, we have to have it, we have to do it like that, because everybody else does it like that, so every other museum website looks like the next whatever… grocery website because everybody uses the same CMS. I really mourn the loss of all the attitudes we had in the ‘90s, in the very early days.
[Marty]: I’ll just jump in and say you know this is, this is a theme that that I’ve seen more and more at MW and MCN conferences over the past, I don’t know, maybe 10 years. We were talking with Seb Chan not too long ago, and he kind of put the turning point at about 2012, was when he puts his finger on it. And that’s about when I was really starting to notice it too. I would almost call it a kind of disillusionment among the technology field for exactly the reason that you say: There was a time period when this was exciting and new and people took risks, and now you’ve got a board of directors and the last thing they want you to do is take risks.
Yeah, absolutely. You know, it’s about having (I don’t know if you can say this) the balls to do something bold and different — even if it gets more complicated. This was one of the points of Larry Friedlander back then: If you present things in so easily digestible chunks, it’s not interesting. People will not learn from the easily digestible chunks, they will learn and take something away from things which make them think, which are a little bit more complicated. And that’s, I think, one of the traps many cultural institutions fall into nowadays.
[Marty]: I’ve talked to, say, like some museum social media managers, who have told me much the same stuff, where the way I hear it from them is, “When I started this job, it was all, ‘How can we engage our audiences using all these new tools’, but what it turned into is ‘Why did your retweet numbers go down over the last quarter?’” [Laughing.]
Indeed, let’s say the notion of speed is something to consider also probably, if you talk about media history. Back then, speed was always a problem, but okay, it was like that. Now, nobody talks about speed anymore, but everybody expects everything to be there within a fraction of a second — not [only] displayed on the web page, but the information found they are looking for. So, speed is like a crazy thing nowadays, in media, in social media, everywhere.
[Jones]: So what about your experience with interactives and creating multimedia?
Oh, another, you know, rather sad story. Two, three years ago, Harald Kraemer, Peter Samis and I gave a workshop at MW. From our vast archives, we selected like 15 CD-ROM productions from the ‘90s, and actually revived them, which was really complicated. You know, having a virtual machine with Windows 95 on it, and stuff like that [e.g. Quicktime 2.0] in order to get it running. But we made it. But there was like literally no interest in it [at the conference], so we had three people sitting in the half day workshop. [Laughing.] I mean, we had fun anyway. It was a good thing.
I think [in the end] you can do beautiful things with little money and little technology. You can do incredible stupid things with millions of dollars, but this is common knowledge, and nothing special I came up with. I think [in future developments] it might go back to social interaction and just talking to people instead of trying to convey things through technology.
It’s actually something we discuss right now in the company where I’m working now. How to go and create new services and platforms for the cultural sector for museums and museum visitors, which are engaging, which are forward-looking. In all those discussions between a lot of different companies and stakeholders, the “voice” [as a medium] comes up most: the “real” guided tours, audio guides, podcasts, things like that. And I take it as a sign, that things like Clubhouse went through the roof, where people just talk, nothing is recorded, nothing is readable somewhere. It’s the opposite of Twitter or Facebook. It’s just talking to each other. And I hope for a Renaissance for that.
[Marty]: When you talked about starting in 1990, you mentioned that they had a collections management system?
Before I started at the Kunsthalle, for a short term, it was close to one year, I worked at a company who produced a Collection Management System. The company still exists. It was, at that time, the only professional Collection Management Software produced in Germany, actually. And then, when I boarded the Kunsthalle, we had another big [software] project: creating a new database [Collection Management System]. This was not only the Kunsthalle, also the House of the History of Germany [in Bonn], and the German Historical Museum in Berlin. It was a consortium of three big federal museums, and we were tasked over, I think, two years, to find a common ground to develop a database system for exhibitions and collections. But it never happened. Nothing came out of it [that’s a different story]. And then, the next time I came in touch with collections management is, when I changed jobs. I left the Kunsthalle in 2000, and I started at zetcom, where I’m still.
[Marty]: I’d be, I’d be curious to hear, you know, your thoughts about how collections management systems have evolved over the, you know, because you’ve been watching this now for how many decades?
Yeah, that’s another hour we need probably, on the history of Collection Management Software. I mean, there was a time, for many years, where the requirements [coming from the cultural sector] grew and grew towards Collection Management Systems. It was not only about the inventory of your collections and scientific documentation, now it was about exhibition management, loan management, logistics, transport, depot management, membership, archive, library.
For, I would say, about 10 years, 2000 to 2010, all the major Collection Management Systems grew a lot in their functionality [and scope]. I think we kind of reached the ceiling with that. That doesn’t mean that the demands from the museum and the cultural side diminish. On the contrary, it’s more and more [about] “digital”, but now it’s much more about, you know, APIs connecting different systems, integration in existing workflows, facilitating new workflows with a handful (or zoo) of different systems, and so I think the focus shifted a little bit.
Also, one thing I recognized in Europe, in the ‘90s, in the “collection management world”, it was very much about scientific documentation of your collections. And this went away big time, because now it’s much more about the next exhibition, the next event, and managing that, and there are less and less resources and time spent by museum staff to actually improve the quality of the data, or to really dig deep into relations and scientific work. There’s one exception only which is provenance research. Driven by politics, this is something which came up just in the last years (at least in Europe).
Do you think it’s the, the same picture for Collection Management in North America?
[Marty]: I think so, and you know, what you just said about you know less on data, less on the documentation, except for provenance, because we do need to keep track of that. One of the things that I’ve always wondered about, you know, we have so many amazing, great, rich research files in all of these institutions that have never ever really made them into the collection management systems.
Because it was not in the best interest of the museum [in the case of provenance data] — and [the lack of] resources, yeah right.
[Marty]: Yeah, I think it’s much the same here. It’s like we just see the tip of the research iceberg, and we, we know what it is, but if you could get access to all the research files, you would know a tremendous more about it, but it seems like that almost is never going to happen.
The director of the Pergamon Museum here in Berlin, some years ago, he told me, if he goes down into the basements, in the depots, deep under the Museum Island [in the heart of Berlin], they still have wooden crates from archaeological campaigns from 100 years ago, which have never been opened.