Oral History of Museum Computing: Matthew MacArthur

This Oral History of Museum Computing is provided by Matthew MacArthur, and was recorded on the 19th 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/ofclhPQEdUo.

Well, my first exposure to museum technology was during a year that I spent at the Smithsonian. I started as an intern at the American History Museum and, on projects that were not related to technology anyway, this was in 1994. And after the internship, I thought being in D.C. and being at the Smithsonian was kind of fun, so I stayed around for a little while, for the rest of that year, and was lucky enough to get a couple of short-term contract work. So, one of those as the next thing I did, was at the National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

So, at that time, the museum was just starting to get into digital scanning, digitizing their artworks, and it was, it was very early, it was very home-grown. I worked with the, what was then the head of their computing office, their technology office, and we just ordered some equipment, you know, some early scanners. I remember… one of the things I remember with amusement now is we ordered a CD writer, because what we did with these these scans was put them on CD-ROMs. And the CD writer machine was like, almost just as big as a desk, you know, and it had a little slot in it, where you put the CD in, and I’m sure it took hours to, to write to these CDs, but we were so proud — you know, you have this, this disc of digital images. So I, I helped a little bit with, with that project, and I don’t know that people had a really good idea yet what to do with those images, but just that it seemed important to start playing around with the technology. But of course, in 1994, this was just on the cusp of the World Wide Web coming into existence for the public, and being a thing.

And so, after, after that year in D.C. I was, I had planned to go get a master’s in history. I got my master’s at what was then Claremont Graduate School, now Claremont Graduate University, and I was getting a master’s in history. And I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with that, with my degree, but I went ahead. I was interested in… because of my experience, I thought, you know, I was interested in working in museums and I thought, “Hey, this tech angle is kind of interesting.” I, you know, I … as a kid I had liked kind of fiddling around with computers and things like that, such as they were back in the day, and I thought, “Well, maybe this is a way to kind of combine some interests.” So, the school was very accommodating, and helped me explore that angle of things as I studied kind of traditional history, but on the, on the side, I took some tech classes, kind of just in a very early like digital design and web design. I downloaded I think it was AOL’s… like a little AOL web builder software to kind of start making just very rudimentary websites.

And then I ended up for my master’s thesis, I ended up, the topic of my thesis ended up being an exploration of sort of a theoretical underpinnings of presenting history in kind of a nonlinear form that that websites would, would allow, you know, with sort of hyperlinked information. Back then, you know, hyperlinking was very exciting, you know, as a concept that, you would… and what it meant to kind of you know, present history kind of in this nonlinear fashion. As part of that, I, I created a website that I kind of borrowed content that I had been working with from the National Portrait Gallery and created a little demo website to go with my thesis. And I remember it was kind of funny because the… when it came time for me to deposit this you know, my work with the university library, they just… They were like, “You’re giving me a disc? Like, what am I going to do with this?” It was the first time, you know I’m sure they figured it out by now, hopefully, but you know, so that was… that was that was kind of funny.

So, I was fortunate after I, after I got my degree, I was, you know, reaching back out to contacts at the Smithsonian and saying, “Hey, you know, what are what are people doing in this field now?”

And I was fortunate to be referred to a small office at the central Smithsonian that was doing some kind of experimentation with, with online presentation. It was the first, it was the Smithsonian’s first kind of dedicated program for online outreach. That office was run by Judy Gradwohl, who had — and the way she’d gotten into it was that she, she has, she was a scientist and she had curated this large traveling exhibit called “Ocean Planet,” which was debuted at the Natural History Museum and then traveled all over, but as part of that, she had done an exhibit, an exhibition website in partnership with NASA, and I think that was the Smithsonian’s first digital kind of exhibition, representation of an online exhibition. So she had kind of gotten interested in it and got some funding and started this little program to do some more experimentation, and you know, I counted that just that the, for me, the timing was just right. You know, I was just totally by accident, just riding the crest of this wave. Kind of in the right place at the right time. And so I was, I was lucky to get that job, working with Judy and a couple other people. And we did some kind of experimental things, but, but it was it was it was a challenge, because it was, you know, we were kind of self-funded. So that was in 1997 that I started on…

A couple years later, we started doing some work with the, with the American History Museum at the Smithsonian, and after a couple of years, the… there was a guy there, who was running their web department, but he was, he was also he was the head of Publications, so he had many hats, and was doing many things. One of them was he was responsible for the museum’s kind of nascent web presence. So, I think it was in 1999, the museum had decided to — and I think it was actually because he was retiring — the museum decided to start its own, you know, its first dedicated kind of web department. So Judy and I came over together. They hired us on, both on, and we became the web program of the museum. And, my… you know it’s 2021 now. Basically I’ve been doing that, doing that at the National Museum of American History since that time. I’ve stayed with the museum, and you know, the work has evolved, of course, as the, as the context and the technology has evolved, but that’s how, that’s how I landed at the American History Museum.


Reflecting on those early years at the museum, I think what our main job was really, was to evangelize the possibilities of the web. This was, this was very new, it was not in any you know, in many people’s workflow, or in their budgets. Of course, it fit in very nicely with the mission of the museum as a, as a national museum with… that aspires to, to serve audiences, you know, in the whole nation, and even internationally. The web of course, greatly expanded the opportunities to reach those audiences who couldn’t come to the museum. And of course, we were, we were learning at the same time, what, what it meant to, to manage and staff and run a website project. But really, we would… and at, at our museum then, and to a good extent today, exhibition projects were really the driver of funding and institutional effort. And so, we would schedule meetings to talk to projects [project teams], you know, for upcoming exhibitions and really just kind of sell this idea of why they should be interested in, in trying to have some kind of web presence.

We were starting to figure out for ourselves and for the museum what were the strengths and weaknesses. Some of the, some of the museum’s first efforts were very like, at many places, were just very literal like, “Here’s a map of the gallery, you know. Click on this room. Here’s that…” you know, and some of them are… and I’m embarrassed to say we are, we are working on our, on our backlog. You can… but we are, as a history museum, you can actually see a bit of this web history still running on our website. You know, “Click through the labels…” and, and you know, it was very [much] getting out of that mindset, which, which can still be valid in some cases of the, of an actual gallery as an organizing metaphor, but of course, we saw that there were so many opportunities when you went beyond that and, and really started to see a website, as its own, its own project with its own opportunities and strengths.

So, we were kind of learning that together, and talking about that with projects. And so we would shop this around, work with teams, and because we, we never really had, from the earliest days, never really had development, you know, technical development resources in-house, it usually meant working with outside contractors for that piece. And we got to work with some very, with some excellent contractors over the years and, and did some great projects. Part of our challenge was there, an opportunity inside the museum, was to kind of establish a budgeting process, and even just on the level of getting some kind of online component to be a standard part of a project’s budget template. So in that sense, working with project managers and, and fundraisers, and, and kind of getting the resources to do that.

So, for some period of time, we were, you know, we were we were trying to drum up work, basically. At some point, the tables turned, you know. Everybody got it. Everybody wanted a website. It became… in not too long, it became sort of an expectation, right, even from funders and stakeholders and internally, that these projects were gonna, you know, we’e going to have an awesome website. So then it became, well, like too much work, you know. It was a, it was a gate keeping problem, unfortunately, which continues today. There’s always more… you know, unlike the, the constraints of the physical building, where we have only so much floor space and so much capacity to rotate things through that floor space and there’s very defined kind of boundaries and parameters for what happens inside the physical museum, digitally, it’s sort of infinite space. And so knowing how to, figuring out how to define that and even just, just our… to manage workflow and everything like that, is just, it’s kind of a perpetual challenge.

One of other the things I think that was a… what do I want to say? One of the trends, I guess, over the first 10 years maybe, of being at the museum was our desire to kind of professionalize the work and the staffing around web projects. It was, you know, I was an early tinkerer, and I certainly wasn’t the only one, and there were others on staff who liked to kind of tinker with the technology, and sometimes this meant that…. They, people would come to us and say, “Look, I built a thing. Or like my intern built a thing, and it’s their last day. Here’s the files. Would you please post this?” You know, and it wasn’t always great. I mean, and again, I will fully admit that, you know, my early efforts were not something that I would accept today either, but you know, again, we were trying to get this above the level of early tinkering and into this idea that, you know, if it’s not something that you would put on the wall of the museum or on a banner on the outside of the museum or whatever, then it’s not something that we really want to publish on the website. You know, that that a website needs the same level of professionalism and, and care, and in fact, it’d be interesting to go back and look at the numbers because I don’t know… I did it one time for some kind of presentation or something, but that moment, when our traffic crossed, when our digital presence started getting more traffic than our physical museum, and you know, at that point, you know, everyone had to realize that more people see our website as the museum than the building, than they see the building, and thinking about what that means.

That’s a conversation we’re still having today, in fact. And thanks to, thanks to some other, some colleagues and things we’ve… I’ve started, with our leadership, really using the language of the digital museum as a second museum: that it has, it has a presence, it has… like, it has infrastructure, right, it has workflows, it has defined spaces, and it has real resource needs as much as having a second like a second kind of museum campus. And that, that’s how people outside see it. But still, our curators, our staff, they’re very… you know, they’re very… they’re all about the physical thing, right. They love the physicality of the objects. They love the, the exhibition, the galleries, and the kind of the feelings, the emotive experience of exhibitions and things like that, and that’s, and that’s terrific. And so we’re always just there to remind them that there’s this whole body of people now, and if you — and I haven’t got to this yet — but of course these days, it’s not just websites, but our digital presence encompasses a lot more, but there’s people who experience this content in such different ways, in virtual ways, and mediated by screens, and we’re still working to gain our, you know, our, our facility and figure out what that means. And the technology keeps changing, so the, you know, the challenges continue.

[Marty]: I’m just going to jump in, and jump in and say you know it speaks to the challenges of getting the rest of the museum to understand how much work it is to maintain these digital experiences, or just to develop them and get them started. I love the way you put it, a few minutes ago, when you were talking about somebody would come to you and say, “Here’s some files. Put them online.” Like, oh yeah, let’s put them over here and it’s done, right? And yet, I know people still think that way today about digital work. I’ve talked to people who do digital humanities work within the past couple years and say they’ll have a professor of history come up to them with a bunch of discs and say, “Here, put this online.” Well, what?

Yeah, yes, I’m sure that happens in many places all over. And it is… it’s, it’s just, it’s very interesting, I still don’t have quite the words to explain it, and if I, you know, were better read in the field, I’m sure this is [among the] things people are talking about, but… I do, I do like to contrast the mindset to how we think about our physical spaces.

And maybe partly it’s because — and I’ve heard this pointed out, too — the museum field has such a wealth of history and tradition to build on, when you’re talking about you know, how to make how to make an exhibition, how to present artifacts, right, how to care for and preserve and conserve artifacts. The digital space is so new. I mean, you know, those of us in my generation we’re still like the first generation. We didn’t have anyone to, any classes to go to, you know, to learn how to do it, or traditions to draw on, things like that. It really is, we’ve been learning as we go. But, but when it comes to the care of physical artifacts and putting them on display, at least in our museum, there’s just very well-defined roles from conservation to exhibit designers to fabricators, things like that, and we don’t really, nobody treads on… I mean, we’re collaborating in different… you know. it’s, it’s a, it’s a interdisciplinary process, but nobody’s marching down to Conservation and telling them, you know, like, “Here’s here’s a bottle. You should be really using like this stuff.” Or, you know, going in to the fabricator and, and you know, grabbing their tools.

But with a digital tools, you know, a lot of people know a little, and they know just enough. Like maybe, either back in the day it was, oh like, “I, you know I made a geo page.” Or just say you know, like “I made my little site.” Or social media, you know, same thing. It’s like, “Well, I have social media accounts. I post, and therefore I, I can be somewhat of an authority on this.”

And I’m not saying that’s totally untrue, but to… as anyone who’s run, you know, institutional social media knows, it is very different than running one’s personal, you know, personal accounts. And then, if you if you get into the aspect of that we’re actually trying to be educational about it, and teach history, there’s just a lot of skills that come into play. It is a highly skilled job, and yet, sometimes it is hard to explain even to people who know us very well, to colleagues, or to our managers, we do find ourselves sometimes in the position of feeling like we’re constantly explaining what it is that we actually do. You know, or why it is that it’s hard, or why I can’t, you know, do something tomorrow, you know, it takes more than a week to turn something around, or… just because there is not really a shared, as much of a shared, I think, knowledge and understanding, as there is in some other kinds of disciplines in the museum.

[Marty]: I would also just jump into say that this connects very, very clearly, with the trouble with the library and information science has as a discipline, right. Because people are like, “I have books on a bookshelf at home. How much different could it be?” Right? Or, “I have an Excel spreadsheet list,” Right? People don’t understand that there is a science and an art to this as its own discipline, its own profession that people have studied.

Yeah, and I appreciate that. You know, I think that’s a good, I think that’s a great observation, saying it is part science and part art. And sometimes I guess it’s the art piece that’s a little harder to communicate as to why it’s special, or why that, why that it takes a certain level of experience or a combination of skills, kind of to get that to get that right, and to do it full time and to represent an institution.

Well, so on, the on the subject of infrastructure, to kind of go back in the story. In the early years, when we were doing these web projects, basically, the model would be, you know, as I mentioned the… a lot of the funding and institutional energy is driven by exhibition projects. And so, we did our, you know, our team was responsible for our kind of core museum website. What our homepage looked like, and informational pages and things like that. There wasn’t a lot of attention or resources given to it because, I guess, you know, it seemed kind of boring, and again, the, you know, exhibitions really sort of drove a lot of the conversations, so a lot of the resources went into, you know, very beautiful exhibition websites designed by you know, some great designers, and companies that we worked with.

What happened is that these, these websites started accumulating over time. They were all one-offs, because we would work with different companies, and just, as time changed, or as time went by, the technologies would change. And so, we found ourselves with a — accumulating a collection of these, you know, unique kind of, unique snowflakes of websites. And looking back from the perspective now, you know, we were just setting ourselves up for kind of an infrastructure and maintenance nightmare because each, each site was unique to maintain. When a site broke, it broke uniquely.

The Smithsonian would update its you know, update its servers, and things would break. So, we really started changing our mindset about that in the early 2000s, where you know, we started saying you know, “Let’s hold on. Let’s stop thinking so much about these one-off projects, and start thinking about making investments in platforms, technology platforms that were reusable, that would kind of unify our approach somewhat, and that we could update over time.” And that was, in some cases we’re still having that conversation. There was a little bit of tough conversation, because of course it meant standardizing some things, and sometimes people didn’t want to be standardized. If you, again to… in the exhibit analogy, if you walk around our museum, our exhibit halls are, are very uniquely designed. They’re, they’re designed to the topic. They don’t have much of a shared you know, visual identity, one to the next, and so that’s kind of how people thought about the websites. And as the, you know, starting about 10 years ago, of course, other things became important — well, and before, in some cases — but questions were more important, like “Our, is our, you know, how searchable is our content? Is it mobile friendly?” When use of mobile devices, you know, really started becoming important, and a lot of that speaks to standardizing some things, and going into more, more you know template-driven content, which you can still make nice, but it wasn’t it wasn’t this beautiful, unique jewel, you know, for each, for each project.

And so, it’s kind of interesting today in 2021, we’ve been grappling really for the first time in a very serious way as an institution, with lifecycle issues with some of this. You know, things like Flash expiring forced our hand with some of it, right? We had a bunch of site content in Flash, as you know, I’m sure many others did. And so, that was like, “Okay, well those sites we’re definitely retiring,” but we just had never really had a conversation about how long does this content stay up? It’s kind of I think in people’s minds, it was sort of: you post it, and it just can kind of be there forever. And not only from a technology side, really even from an interpretation side, as a history museum, you know, we look back… our current staff might look back to something we did 20 years ago and kind of wince a little bit and say, “Well, we wouldn’t do that the same way today.” But these things have, you know, our more successful content has a way of getting embedded in the school curricula and things like that, so it’s not, it’s not a super simple, you know, calculation. Sometimes we take things down, or they break, and teachers start writing us and say, “Hey! Like, my class was doing this today. Like, what the heck?”

Like, “Sorry. Like, it’s broken,” or “we don’t actually think that’s good history anymore.” So, so it’s not, so it’s a little messy, but we’re… you know, we have leadership who, I think, who gets this, and is still helping us transition our mindset to build in better, more sustainability into the process.

The other big thing that happened over that you know, less… Well, in the, during the 2000s era, was the rise of social media platforms. So in 2008, well, in 2008 our museum had ended a period of being closed. Because of some big construction work in the museum we had had to be closed for a year or two, I don’t remember exactly how long… in the 2006 to 2008 timeframe, and we had a big reopening in 2008. And so, during that period, we, we took advantage of that to retool a little bit, and, and amp up our digital presence. So that’s when we started, we started a blog, for one thing, to… initially, to kind of share out construction updates and things like that, but that, the blog became an important part of our digital presence. And we started on social media — Facebook and Twitter, I think. And so, we were not the web program anymore, because it was bigger than just the web, so now we were the New Media Department, and, and then that incorporated these some of these external platforms that we really came to see as… it’s integral, integrated.

And one thing I want to be sure to mention that I’m actually really pleased with. It will be interesting to see what happens to this in the future, but for most of my time at the museum, these digital outreach functions have been in the… housed in the museum’s education department — education and programs department — and that’s sort of unusual. Sometimes they started in the I.T. department. Sometimes they were kind of part of Communications or Publications. But we just really have a strong sense that our digital outreach is an educational program of the museum. It does some marketing functions, it does some P.R. functions, and things like that, but we, we feel like if we’re if we’re doing our job right — and I guess it overlaps with what, what you know, a company might call content marketing — but we feel like if we’re doing our jobs right, wonderful content on these platforms is the best marketing. People still love, people love our collections. Our… the collections of the American History Museum, for one thing, are just… still amaze me today. They are so broad and deep. We just have… I’m just so lucky. We have endless content to work with, and that, that content is, is on so many topics, and reaches so many different audiences. It’s sort of an embarrassing, embarrassment of riches. And connections to, to those collection objects is still really what excites our audiences at heart, and what they really love.

And that’s sometimes… like, the word I use, that’s our “value proposition,” right? Because there’s a lot of, you can get content on American history in a lot of different places on the internet, and a lot of people are much better general, you know, history resources than we are, but the — and it’s, ironically enough, since it’s a digital platform, but it’s that material culture aspect that makes us unique, and people still love to connect with those objects in that history, even on the digital platforms.

So, so we see this as very integrated. That our, my, my office and my responsibility has never really been on the collection database side. We have colleagues at the museum who do that, and some excellent colleagues now, but, of course, their work is, is a fundamental, you know, foundation for the, the sort of the outreach side that we do. Without that that digital content, and getting it on the website is, is so important. Once it’s on the website, it can be blogged about, it can be shared on, on social media, you know, so it really is an ecosystem that’s, that’s very much integrated and tied together, between our properties, social properties, our digital collections. So that’s… so that’s, that’s definitely a difference. Again, it was, when I started, it was very much like here’s an exhibit script, put it online, and now, we’re at the place where we’re… and that to me, I think that’s what you know a lot of people talk about “digital first,” and in fact being digital first is part of our part of the Smithsonian’s strategic plan. Sometimes, my colleagues and I don’t love “digital first.” Like, nobody has to be first or second. What I like to say is “we’re happy to be digital and…” But, but I think that it means that some things can be “digital first,” and we’ve seen that, as so many people suddenly, the pandemic and being closed in during this last year, has forced a lot of people into thinking of, of their work as “digital first.”

And we weren’t, we weren’t terribly unprepared for that, as an institution. I think we were set up pretty well for that, but I think more staff across the museum have begun to recognize some of those possibilities so that… just as an example, there was, there was a small exhibit that was that was set to open, or of political history content, kind of timed with the election last year. Well, of course, due to closures and whatnot, that exhibit wasn’t happening, so that pivoted to a digital project. The curators collaborated with, with a colleague of mine who, who does a lot of social media work on digital content, and which primarily came out to be a social campaign, and tremendously successful. I mean both internally, because it was such a great collaboration, but also with, with the audiences. And it was so much more than using those platforms for, “Hey, you know, we have an exhibit at the museum. Come down and see it.” You know, but it was actual, you know, it was actual history education in the strictest sense. And, and we’ve really loved that. I have another colleague who is a video whiz, and she’s been just cranking out so much good video pieces in the last year. So, so that’s that’s exciting, and I think that’s kept the — it’s always just kept the jobs – why I’m still, still coming to work, still coming, well I’m not going to the museum this year, but you know, virtually showing up. Just because the… it’s fascinating as the landscape changes, as our audience patterns change, and their, their needs and capabilities, it seems like we always have something new to explore.