Oral History of Museum Computing: Paul Marty
This Oral History of Museum Computing is provided by Paul Marty, and was recorded on the 18th and 25th of June, 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=O2kqFu0nyK4.
I’ll start my story back in the mid-1990s. I had just walked away from the Ph.D. program that I was pursuing in classics at Cambridge. I’ve got a background in different areas. My undergraduate degrees are in computer science engineering, and classics and ancient history. I decided not to go to graduate school in engineering — because I knew too many engineers — so I decided instead to go get a Ph.D. in classics. But that didn’t quite work out, so when I decided to abandon that Ph.D., I returned home to east central Illinois, the University of Illinois, and I took a job there as head of information technology at the university’s World Heritage Museum.
This museum had been collecting since the 1870s. Since 1910 it had been housed in the fourth floor, which is a nice way of saying attic, of a very old building on campus, certainly not the best environment for the artifacts, no climate control, nothing like this. At the time that I came back from Cambridge, they had just received a major gift to build a brand-new facility for this museum. So I was hired to modernize their computer systems, build the databases necessary to re-inventory the museum’s collections, coordinate the move to the new location, all of that work.
So, I was doing that, and just to sort of jump to where I am now, and how I got to what I do now is I’m doing all this work, I’m building all these databases, connecting all this stuff to the internet. We had 40-some thousand artifacts online, with pictures, in the late 1990s. A friend of mine comes in, and he said, “Do you realize that you’re doing library science in a museum?” And I said, “No, I don’t even know what that is.” [Laughing.] And he said, “Do you realize that the University of Illinois has the best library science program in the world?” I said, “No, I didn’t know that either!”
So, I went over, and I met with the dean of the library school, and she was great. And that’s when I discovered this entire field, that all of these people, all these library information professionals, had been working for centuries studying all of these questions about information organization and access, and here I was muddling through in this museum, trying to make sense about metadata and all of these things, and there they were, an entire discipline that has studied this in incredible depth in the library environment, right.
They were asking questions that I’d never thought about before as a computer scientist or as a historian, and they had so many of the answers that I was looking for. So I went over there, got a Ph.D. in Library and Information Science, and that turned into an academic career for me. And what I’ve spent the past 20-some years doing, right, is studying information systems in museums, information technologies in museums, all those connections between people and information and technology in museums and other cultural institutions — some really fascinating things to study from an academic perspective.
I’ve worked with a lot of great museums and museum professionals over the years on some just amazing projects. I’ll just mention one in particular. There’s a museum in Sarasota, Florida, called the Ringling Museum, fantastic, if you’ve never been there, fantastic! It was John and Mabel Ringling’s winter home from, of course, the Ringling Brothers Circus, and there’s sort of three main buildings, I mean there are a lot of buildings, but there’s sort of three main areas. There’s their home, which has been restored to its Gilded Age 1920s splendor, called Ca’ d’Zan, the house of John Ringling, absolutely spectacular. There is an art museum, which is extremely odd, because it looks like somebody just picked up a wing of the Louvre and plopped it down on the beach in Sarasota. But you know John Ringling, he wanted there to be an art museum in Sarasota, so he built one on his property. They’ve got, what, 65 acres. It’s absolutely gorgeous, right on the beach. Spectacular! And, of course, there’s also the Circus Museum, which is the collection of all of the Ringling Brothers Circus materials.
Soon after I came, or right about when I came, to FSU — that would have been about 2002 — they received a major gift from somebody named Howard Tibbals, who had made money, I believe, in flooring in Tennessee. He donated 10 million dollars for them to put a wing onto the Circus Museum to house his collection. He had a tremendous collection of Ringling Brothers Circus memorabilia that he had collected over the years, because he was a huge circus fan.
And they asked me, the Ringling Museum asked me, to help set up their digitization plan, because this donor, very forward thinking, wanted every single item to be digitized and properly… well, preserved might be going too far, but at least digitized electronically. But it was fascinating because he was very nervous about any of these possessions leaving his hands before the new wing was built on the museum, and we weren’t sure how the digitization was going to work. So he said, “No problem at all. I’m just going to buy the house next to me, and remodel it into a digitization studio, and we’ll do all the work there.” [Laughing.] So that’s what happened.
I actually never went up there to see, but I had students who were up there, and the Ringling staff was up there, and literally he bought the house next door to his. They had full-time staff living in that house, working around the clock digitizing his collection, which was transported back and forth. They even built a tunnel to move between the two houses to keep the items safe from the rain, right. Absolutely amazing! This is what happens when you have a wealthy donor who wants to have their collections digitized, right. Fascinating, fascinating stuff. That’s really, really forward thinking. And a really, really nice, really nice guy. I have to say the joke, so I will say it, but a really nice guy, very forward thinking, but I often thought I should write a paper about that digitization process and how complicated it was, as we worked with the donor’s wishes. All of his wishes were great, but you know how difficult it is working with donors sometimes, right? I had the perfect title for the paper, which was going to be “The Trouble with Tibbals” — but I never wrote the paper. [Laughing.] And there really was no trouble with him at all. He was great, right, but it was too good of a title to pass up.
So that’s an example of the sort of stuff that I’ve done as an academic. But I want to jump back to the time in the mid ‘90s when I’m working on this World Heritage Museum at the University of Illinois, and share some of the stories of the behind-the-scenes work in museum technology there. So, let’s jump back.
We’re talking 1996, small history museum, hundred-year-old building, an attic, crazy building, eclectic collections, poor climate control, right, absolutely insane. I had been working there for about a year, digitizing their collections, so maybe it’s 1997 now, and one day a stranger knocks on our door, a stranger. I open up. She says, “I’m a student from the U.K. I’m visiting friends in town. I’m studying museums and technology. I’m curious if anybody’s here who I could talk to about online museum resources.” There were a whole bunch of us working in this office. They all turned to look at me, and I’m like, “Okay.” So I went, and we sat down and we started talking, and I can remember this vividly because she asked me a very odd question. That was her first question to me. She said, “What percentage of your collection is available online?” And I looked at her, and I said, “100 percent.” And she looked at me! She was like, she was astonished. It’s like ‘97, she’s like, “What do you mean 100 percent?” And I’m like, “Well, what do you mean available online?” Right? [Laughing.] Because it depends on how you define that term, that depends on how I answer the question about the perspective, right? Are you talking about any record? Any information? Are all of our files searchable from the internet? Does it have to have a picture? What does it mean? And we ended up in a very fascinating conversation about what it means to put a collection online. And if you can’t define that, then the question itself is kind of meaningless.
We’ll get back to that in a minute, but let me back up one more time, right? I mentioned Tibbals and I forgot to mention the donors for this new museum, why I was hired in the first place, as the University of Illinois got a very generous — like eight figure — gift from William and Clarice Spurlock to create a new home for this World Heritage Museum. So, it’s the Spurlock Museum at the University of Illinois. Fantastic.
We’re talking about moving from this hundred-year-old attic to this brand-new 50,000 square foot facility, ultra-modern, gorgeous, tremendous change for this museum, absolutely tremendous. So that’s why I was hired. They needed somebody to basically bring this museum into the 20th century, update all of their computers, all their systems. They were still working on card catalogs and ledger files. They didn’t have a database, right? All of this work, going from nothing to something.
And of course, I had grown up in Champaign-Urbana. My dad was on the faculty there at Illinois, so I knew this museum. I had spent a lot of time there over the years. I was pretty familiar with the collection, amazing collection, really neat stuff. Actually, oddly, they had, they still have, one of the country’s best plaster cast collections. I don’t know enough about conservation history, but I know, like in some point, some point like in the ‘60s or ‘70s, there was a backlash against plaster casts. A lot of museums got rid of their plaster casts. But the U of I did not do that. They still had all these plaster casts that they had gotten in the late 19th century, like 1880-something, because the university had bought all these plaster casts from museums around the world, and their collection was spectacular. In fact, they have one of the three best plaster casts of the Parthenon Frieze in the world. There were three casts taken from a mold before the mold was lost, and the mold was taken of the Parthenon Frieze before it was moved to London. There’s only three of these casts in the world, and the University of Illinois has one, so it maintains details of the Parthenon Frieze panels that are not on the original anymore. So scientists will come to study the casts to see these bits that were missing there. This is, you know, a really interesting museum.
It was on the fourth floor of Lincoln Hall, had been there since 1910, strange building. All these older university buildings have stairs that go nowhere, elevators that go nowhere, just bizarre things. And fourth floor, again, is a pleasant way of saying “attic,” really the most terrible place to have a museum, freezing in the winter, awful hot in the summer, not good for anything. And the museum had all kinds of problems, in particular, a lot of information management problems. The last time that this museum had attempted a full inventory was in 1973. So, they literally didn’t know what they had, and that became very clear as we worked through the move, right. The museum, you know, we thought we had… maybe 27,000 artifacts was what we thought the museum had. We moved 45,000, which is a fairly typical range, I think, for museums to discover stuff that they didn’t know that they had. And you know what happens when you move a museum, right: you uncover problems, you find missing things.
In fact, this is one of my favorite stories. When we were tearing down the old exhibits in the old museum, we kept finding things. We tore down one exhibit wall, and behind it was a cache of artifacts that somebody had walled up there, probably in the 1960s, and nobody knew about, so you know we’re inventorying things that we’re finding. [Laughing.] Yeah, and apparently the collections manager even instructed her staff to go around with a drill, a power drill, and drill holes through the drywall, as we moved out, looking to see if there were any other secreted stashes of artifacts throughout the museum, right. [Laughing.]
All right, so as I said we’re moving this museum, and this prompts the first major inventory project in the museum in decades. So we talked to the museum staff about the information records. They’ve got ledgers, they’ve got card catalogs, they’ve got all kinds of paper files. There was an early attempt to put some information into a database, but it wasn’t being updated. We had some typed up information, but the main record was actually the card catalogs, so the information records had completely diverged.
So, the first thing that I did was build a whole new database for their collections and, of course, we did this in FileMaker Pro. And this was really quite a thing, right? We ended up building this unbelievable suite of databases in FileMaker Pro, and you know the advantages and disadvantages of using a homegrown system. We had a lot of money to build a new building, but we didn’t have a lot of money for other things, so all of the move was really being done on a shoestring budget. You know universities, you get $10 million for a new building, and it turns out nobody budgeted for light bulbs. Literally, this is something that happened. We opened a new building, but we had no lights in it.
So, we’re building these early databases, we’re putting all this together, and we were connecting it to the web. And back then, in the mid ‘90s, there was no way to connect a FileMaker Pro database to the web without using various third-party tools. I remember I was working with a lot of developers who were developing these third-party tools. There was one in particular called Tango. I wonder whatever happened to them, but I can remember talking to them over the years, and they were very excited to have this museum collection connecting to the web using their software. I even showed up in one of their advertisements at one point somewhere, in some magazine. [Laughing.] Interesting… and people today would have no idea how hard it was to get a lot of those early databases online and talking to the web in ’96 and ’97.
And, of course, with the move, you’re moving everything from point A to point B. You have the opportunity there to put your hands on every single object. So these inventory systems that we built to coordinate the move provided a great way to make sure we actually knew everything the museum had. We can get a picture of every single thing that the museum had. We can find out what we have, look for missing artifacts, look for confusions.
We took an entire – of course, the museum got closed to the public at about this time, so the museum was closed for about five years, between when the museum closed and the new museum opened, maybe four years, and we turned an entire wing of this museum, it was actually the Greek and Roman Gallery, which had all the plaster casts there, so the whole wing was turned into this inventory registration area. We had just an army of undergraduate students working on this inventory project. I know from talking to the students — and I’m still friends with some of them years later — what an amazing project this was that they got dropped into, to re-inventory an entire museum’s collection. And it was interesting because we went through different processes behind the scenes, different – almost kind of assembly-line type — processes. We tried things, for example, where like one student would just be taking pictures of artifacts, and other students would only be weighing and measuring artifacts, and other students would be entering information from the research files into the database, this sort of thing. But I think, eventually, we found in the end that the students felt a lot more ownership if they had ownership over a particular item. So what would happen is that the students would come in, and they would take the next item needing to be done, and they would take the whole thing through the process. We had the registration process separate from the packing and collections management process, so the collections managers would bring the next set of artifacts out of storage, bring it to this registration area, the students there would pick an artifact and basically take charge of updating all of its information. So new photographs, weighing, measuring — we even did things like Munsell color coding, all of this sort of stuff.
And, of course, the students went through all of the research files to find information about the collections, and enter this into the system. And this was very, very interesting, lots of complications. In fact, let me tell this story real fast. This is a story that I’ve told many times before, but it’s a good example of this. So, we’ve got the students, they take an artifact, they start entering all the information, and sometimes they find problems. My favorite example of this was a student who was working with this African figurine, Mende, from Mende culture, standing female figure, wooden figure. You know, it was maybe 10 inches tall or something, maybe around there, not very large. And there were some interesting problems with it. Basically, what the student found, the student’s got this artifact in front of her, and yet, when she looks in the information systems, in the records, and she looked at the accession card… I’ve got a screen capture of the accession card that I just pulled up right here, so it’s fascinating because the accession card says — oh, it’s 22 inches, I was wrong on the height — “Wood carved, female figurine. Sierra Leone Mende people. Mid 20th Century. Height 22 inches. Female figure with hands over the breasts.” And yet, when you look at the figure, the hands aren’t over the breasts, the hands are at the hips. And we were like, “Well, that’s an odd mistake to have on the accession card.” So she checked the research files, and the research files for this artifact also described it the same way, with hands over the breasts instead of hands on the hips. So, she has this discontinuity: why in the accession card and in the research files, does it describe the hands on this figure someplace different from what the figure she had in front of her actually had? Mystery! We didn’t know, right? Who knows? This artifact was accessioned in 1971. Anything could have happened. We packed it and moved on.
And it was only when we packed it that we realized the problem, because as soon as the information was entered into the packing database system, the packing system threw what we called an “already packed” error, that this artifact had already been packed into a different box. Of course, what turned out was that there were two of these figurines that had mistakenly been assigned the same accession number, and one had hands over the breasts, and one had hands on the hips. And the information over the past 30 years had gotten messed up and disjointed in the files, and the accession card… because, you know, these weren’t on display or anything, they were just back in storage somewhere. So nobody knew that there were two of them that were represented as one artifact in the records, despite being slightly different figurines. And we wouldn’t have found that out if we hadn’t been doing the packing, and of course tracking every single artifact because we wanted to know where every single thing was in every box at every point of the move.
The collections manager there was very much focused on that, wanting to make sure that she knew where everything was, in every box, where it came from, where it’s supposed to be going. So, we had all of these, not just the digital files, but all of these paper files that went along with every box, too. Every box that was opened up in the new facility had a page right there saying this is what’s in this box, here’s where it’s going, right, everything’s been signed off, everything’s been checked at every single point along the way. It really was just a phenomenal process, and it’s a great example of how, when you tackle each artifact one at a time, you find those problems that people would never have seen before, right?
So, that was going on. All this work from all of these students, all this record keeping, setting up this entire process to track this move. Again, I don’t think anybody who hasn’t done that kind of work can imagine how complicated it is behind the scenes, how many steps are going on there, all the record keeping, all the learning about standards, and metadata. We used Chenhall’s nomenclature for describing things. What do you do with terms that aren’t there? One of the problems with Chenhall’s nomenclature is that it’s very Euro-American centered, so what do you do with the Asian collections, for example? We would often mod… we would make changes to our nomenclature internally. Well, then, that causes trouble when you’re trying to share information externally and people aren’t using the same controlled vocabularies anymore.
And of course, all along this entire process, we’re constantly updating and modifying the FileMaker Pro systems, because it wasn’t just one database, it was this entire suite of connected databases, you know, not just the inventory, but the condition reporting system, and conservation activity reporting system, and all the packing and shipping systems, and all the images. Here we had to build our own digital asset management system from scratch, behind the scenes, to do all of this, an entire integrated collections management system built in FileMaker Pro [laughing] in 1996, right? Absolutely crazy, incredibly complicated, and, you know, so much stress and anxiety too. I remember one day I accidentally deleted an entire database one afternoon. It wasn’t a pivotal one, and we were able to restore it from backup, but you know the feeling when that happens, right, just terrible.
You know, on the plus side, we also saved the museum from Y2K. [Laughter.] I always love this story, right, because you remember at the time, like late ‘90s, everybody’s panicking about Y2K, and every unit on campus had a Y2K coordinator. Well, I was the Y2K coordinator for the World Heritage Museum, so I had to certify that the museum was not going to blow up, or whatever people thought was going to happen on January 1, 2000. I even got a lovely certificate signed by the president of the university, thanking me for saving the university from Y2K, which is great, and so one of these days I’m going to find it and frame it. But you know what helped the museum with Y2K was it finally prompted the museum to change their accession-number format away from a two-digit date. Of course, this museum had been using, you know, 26.2.12, or whatever, for something that was accessioned to 1926, the second lot, the 12th artifact. And this was the impetus that we needed to move that date to a four-figure date system, and building the computer system that enforced that helped make that particular move.
And again, it also speaks to the difficulties… shoot, I can remember students trying to read these accession numbers written in crabbed handwriting on all these artifacts. Is this 81 or is it 18, because when I turn it upside down, it’s a different number, right? So, absolutely fascinating, fascinating stuff. And you know, working with the students, we kept having to find these workarounds. A tremendous opportunity, working with students on this. We must have had 20 or more undergraduate students working there at any particular time. It was a spectacular environment and they learned so much.
But one of the things that we learned, in addition to the value of giving the students ownership over particular items, is that some items were considered kind of more difficult than other items, or some artifacts were considered almost more scary than other artifacts, and this was a particular problem with the packing process. Artifacts that had gone through the whole re-inventory and research process ended up on a table that was basically labeled “artifacts ready to pack.” And the undergraduate students that were in charge of packing – and they did amazing work – I mean we’re talking, they would custom carve, out of Styrofoam, containers for the boxes, and again, the collections manager was all on this. I remember once she tested the quality of the students’ work by throwing it from the fourth floor down the railing, dropped it, not with an actual artifact inside, but with something fake, right, to see if it would be damaged, right, and really impressing upon the students the need to build… and this is for a one-time move, about a mile and a half across campus, right, but every single artifact was packed as if it was going to be shipped to the moon. It was unbelievable, and the students took a lot of lessons, I think, out of that.
But again, we look at the table of artifacts ready to be packed, and there were always some artifacts there that the students never seemed to pack, right. Maybe it looked too fragile, or too expensive, or frightened them away. So we came up with a very non-technical solution to that. So, what would happen was that the collections manager and the assistant collections manager would usually stay late, and they would pre-wrap some of these artifacts in a sheet of… not Styrofoam, what am I trying to say? It’s not cellophane, I don’t know what the word is I’m trying to think of….
Ethafoam! Right. So, yeah, right, so they pre-wrap these in Ethafoam, and have the accession number neatly labeled on the outside. By the way, that was a huge benefit for the students, because that way they would come in in the morning, and they would see these sort-of-shapeless objects with the accession number very clearly written on the outside. They knew what it was, they could carve the Styrofoam to shape, and fit it in, and pack it, and they didn’t need to worry about “if I drop this it’s worth $20,000,” which was the sort of thing that was, I think, really, really slowing them up. So, you know, we told the students that there were these pre-wrap magic fairies that would visit the museum in the middle of the night and wrap the artifacts for them, so that they would find them wrapped and ready for them the next day. [Laughing.] And that really helped the undergraduate students, right.
And this reminds me of another story, by the way, thinking about working with artifacts. So, these artifacts have been there since 1910, a lot of them, right, especially the plaster casts, and we had some very large plaster casts. The largest we had was a plaster cast of the Laocoön Group, which, by the way, is fascinating because our plaster cast shows it before the restoration that was made when they changed the arm on one of the sons, to bend it back instead of up, or up instead of back — I can’t remember which one, right. So, you know, this plaster cast is different from what you see if you go look at it in Rome right now. This was huge. This was the largest artifact in our possession, and when it was brought up the elevator originally to the fourth floor, this building had a cargo elevator. At some point in the previous 90 years, that cargo elevator had been turned into a passenger elevator, and the plaster cast of Laocoön did not fit into the passenger elevator.
And I can remember these brainstorming sessions, trying to figure out how in the world are we going to get this plaster cast out of the building? At one point we were even kicking around the idea of tearing a hole in the roof, and using a crane to lift it up and take it out. But luckily, the Collections Manager — Christa Deacy-Quinn is her name, she’s spectacular — she realized that even though the cargo elevator had been changed into a passenger elevator, the elevator shaft was still the same size. So, we shut down the elevator for a week. She built a platform on the top of the passenger elevator. So, again, this museum is on the fourth floor. Now, this wouldn’t have worked if we didn’t have a basement. So, she parked the elevator car on the third floor, opened the doors, built a platform on the top of the passenger elevator, moved the Laocoön statue onto that platform, then lowered the elevator car all the way down to the basement level — again, it wouldn’t work without a basement level — opened the doors on the first floor, and took the statue out. Right? Absolutely brilliant, right!
And this shows the sort of behind-the-scenes, work-around thinking that was going on throughout this entire move. So, it’s not just the digital and the computing technology, but just handling all these objects too and dealing with this, right. And it was chaotic, and it was crazy, and we learned a tremendous amount. We learned a lot about what we had, and what we didn’t know we had…
One of my favorite examples I like to tell is about the Roman lamps. This museum had a fantastic collection of Roman lamps, and one day we got a phone call from a detective in San Francisco. He said that somebody had recently passed away in San Francisco, and in his will, he had confessed to stealing some of these Roman lamps from the World Heritage Museum, back when he was a student at the University of Illinois in the 1950s. And one of his dying wishes was that these lamps be returned to the museum. So, this was the detective calling to arrange the transfer of these lamps back to the museum. And of course, we were very happy to get these lamps back. Of course, we didn’t tell the detective, but we had no idea we’d ever had these lamps or that they had ever been stolen. Anything could have walked out of this museum in the 1950s. Nobody would ever have known! [Laughing] A really good example of how bad so many of these inventory systems are, especially when you’re talking about things in storage, and how little we know about those collections.
And the Roman lamps reminds me that it’s also connected to this issue of “we may know,” right, goes back to this question of what does it mean to have 100 percent of your collection online. We may know we have this Roman lamp, and it’s made out of terracotta, and it was found in this location, and it dates to this date, but what else do we know about it, right? Who knows? There may be stuff somewhere… and this came up. Since I had a background in classics, I ended up working with the head of the classics department at the university, who was in charge of designing the new ancient Mediterranean gallery for the new museum. We had a lot of fun together working on that. And there was one exhibit where we had the opportunity to put some of the Roman lamps out on display. It was an exhibit about daily life in ancient Rome. We only had room for a handful of lamps, maybe two or three, right, and there were literally hundreds to choose from. And all we had in the database system was this sort of tombstone data, right. And from that, all these lamps looked exactly the same. They’re all made of terracotta. They’re all about the same age. They’re all about the same dimensions, right. How do we know which of these lamps were significant? How do we know which of these lamps are worthy of being put on display? Is there any way to find that out?
And at this point, I can remember — Jim Dengate was his name, chair of the classics department — he said that he is 100 percent certain that back in the 1960s, there was a master’s student in classics at the University of Illinois who did her master’s thesis on this collection of lamps. And if we could find a copy of that thesis, it might tell us which of these lamps were worth putting on display, and which weren’t. But of course, he didn’t know the name of the student, he didn’t know the title of the thesis. We had no idea how we could ever find that thesis. Certainly, it wasn’t digitized anywhere, probably wasn’t even in the library system. For all we knew, the museum had a copy, but we’d never be able to find it, so we gave it up. So, it’s a great example of how there’s so much behind-the-scenes knowledge in museums that is basically hidden. And if we don’t find that information and try to get it in some sort of format where at least it’s findable, so much is just lost. And we literally just gave up on that.
And so, again, this gets back to this question of what does it mean to have your collection online? Roman lamps is a good example. Cuneiform tablets was another one. So, this museum has a collection of about 1,700 cuneiform tablets, not a bad collection for a midwestern public university. What would it mean to put 100 percent of that collection online? What we have, if you go look at the records, is, you know, the date, where it came from, a picture of the tablet, but we don’t even know if the picture’s right side up, right? I mean, you’re not an expert in cuneiform, how do you know if the picture is upside down or backwards or sideways, right? Exactly. And all of the information that makes it meaningful tends not to be in the inventory databases. That information may be somewhere, but unless you can find that and put that online for somebody, or at least point people to it, then all you know is that it’s made out of clay and it’s 4,000 years old, right? And we have 1,700 of them. Good luck learning anything more — unless you can read cuneiform.
So, it’s a question about sharing information in a way that’s meaningful, right, and we see this come up again and again, working with registrars’ assumptions about working with databases. What does it mean to put the… what information do we want to have in the records? What does it mean for information to be ready to go online? And what does it mean for something to be accurate, right? The Registrar at the World Heritage Museum was great, and she didn’t have this attitude, but I knew a lot of registrars who did: “This is not going to go online until it’s 100 percent perfect!” Well, it’s never going to be 100 percent perfect, and instead you should think about this as a way of getting feedback, right. If you put information online, people could help you fix things, right. Well, absolutely, one of the nice things that you could do with that is — you can get data from the end-users as well, you can get feedback from them, that brings this in, but that of course assumes that you’ve got the time to process that.
In fact, I remember the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. When they went live with their Thinker.org site — this is also in the mid ‘90s — they had a “Tell us what you know” button on the side, and you could click on that and send data back to the museum about the records that they had online. Well, a year later, they killed that. I remember asking somebody why they did that, and the answer was: they got so much information sent to them no one had the time to look at it. No one had the time to process it. So, again, this behind the scenes, invisible labor. Who’s going to look at this data? Who’s going to do the work? No time to process. Exactly.
So, again, we see these problems all the time, right? Registrars. Curators. Experts. I think I’ve told this story before, but I always remember once working with… I think it was an anthropology professor who came in and wanted to look at some of our records. I said, “Well, we have all of this stuff digitized on the computer. Here’s our database here. Sit down here. I can show you how we can search it.” She looked at me and she said, “I didn’t get a Ph.D. to type in a computer.” I was like, “Oh, okay… Alright, I’ll type for you. You just tell me what we’re looking for, and we’ll find it, right? No problem!” But it’s interesting, right, these changing perspectives as to what it means to provide access to information. […]
Because it reminds me of another story when I was at the Smithsonian. Not working in the Smithsonian, but I was visiting the Smithsonian, doing some research there and working with some of the folks there, too. We were doing usability studies at the Smithsonian, and this was early 2000s. I can remember one of the things that we found in the usability studies was that a lot of the people who go the Smithsonian website thought about the Smithsonian as one museum, not a collection of 19 different institutions or whatever. And there was some discussion about should something to be done about that? So, for example, if you’re on [the Museum of] Air and Space’s website, and you click over to [the Museum of] Natural History, should there be an alert that pops up to let people know that you are moving from one museum to another at the Smithsonian? And I found that I was really baffled by that, because I was like, well, from the user’s perspective, that would just be an annoyance to them. They don’t pay any attention to that at all. But that sort of distinction is important from the curatorial perspective, and you know, that distinction is really key.
Again, thinking about these user studies at the Smithsonian, one of the things that we found… if you looked at a heat map of where people clicked on the main Smithsonian website, the vast majority of the site’s taken up with information about all the exhibits and information about what’s on display. Nobody was clicking on that. What they were clicking on were all the little links along the bottom of the screen: hours, location, parking, jobs… right? So, again, you’ve got this disconnect there between what the people who work at the museum expect people are going to use of their information, and what the people outside the museum expect. And you see that disconnect in communication all the time. These database systems that we were building in Illinois — one of our primary users of those data were the exhibit designers that we were working with, who would access our online database to help them plan the exhibits. So, a lot of the information that we put in there was geared toward the exhibit designer’s work.
When I was first working there, we were working with an exhibit design firm in New York. So, we’ve got an exhibit design firm in New York, we’re in east central Illinois, and we’re sending information back and forth through these online databases as they develop their exhibits. We ended up later switching to an exhibit design company that was closer to home, but even though they were closer, we still worked over the internet with all of that information because it was the easiest way to convey that. But even simple things, right… like they’re trying to figure out what size does this display case need to be, and they’re looking at the measurements that we had entered into the system. It’s not even necessarily obvious, if, you know, if it’s 10 by 20 by 5, is that vertical or horizontal? Is that portrait or is that landscape? Right, so trying to answer those kinds of questions, coming up with some sort of standard way of presenting this information so that it made sense, both to the curators and to the exhibit designers. Fascinating stuff.
I mentioned the Parthenon panels. We had this problem as well. [Laughing.] One of the things – I remember this vividly because I was working on the design of the ancient Mediterranean gallery, and we had this really cool exhibit that we built to display the Parthenon Frieze. So basically, in a corner of the gallery, we made a Parthenon temple coming out of that corner, and the frieze ran along the outside on the front, and then along all four sides on the inside. And it was up top out front, so you got sort of the sense of looking up at the panels as you entered the temple, and then they were eye level on the inside, so you could walk around and see all the frieze panels there.
Well, in order to get that all sized right, we needed to know the total length, if you took all of our hundred Parthenon Frieze panels, a hundred — whatever it was, a large number, I can’t remember how many panels, but there were a lot of them — and put them all end to end, what would that number be? Well, the problem is, some of those panels are portrait, some of those panels are landscape. But the way that the information was entered into the computer system, you couldn’t tell. So, I remember, I had to write a little snippet of code that went behind the scenes to solve that problem because, of course, they were all the same height. So, it was easy by looking at which number was that number to figure out if it was this way or that way, right? But that was something that couldn’t be done… it had to be done kind of manually. I mean, I wrote code to have the computer do it for us, but just another great example of that behind-the-scenes work.
So, we were talking about the challenges of metadata and interoperability, and I was just thinking about a story of a friend of mine who came over once to visit us at the World Heritage Museum at Illinois. He was a computer scientist. I was showing him some of the metadata and the computer systems that we have built, and he looked at the accession numbers for the museum artifacts. I said, “Okay, you’re right. It’s this three-code thing, right, where the first number is the year of accession, and the second number is the accession lot, and the third number is the item in the accession. So, 1924.72.3 is like the third object in the 72nd lot of 1924.” And he said, “Oh, that’s great — so, can you just add a fourth number in front of that to indicate what museum this is at, so then you have a universal number system for every museum in the world?” And I said, “No, sadly, it doesn’t work like that.” Right?
Would that it were so simple! And it’s so funny to talk with people from outside the museum environment because they don’t realize how complex a lot of these metadata issues were, and this is certainly one of the things that we learned behind the scenes, working toward the move toward the Spurlock Museum, was how complicated all these metadata initiatives were. In the late ‘90s, I participated in an Open Access initiative with the University of Michigan, and we were crosswalking all of our internal metadata to a repository and going through the Dublin Core, so all of this work, you know, crosswalking what we had done to Dublin Core fields, to their system. You really could see how much information and context is lost in that process, how much of this metadata is unique to different institutions. That knowledge is something that I certainly work with, with my students here at FSU in the classes that I teach, and that’s knowledge that they can certainly take with them.
I was talking earlier about working with the Ringling Museum on the digitization initiative. And we had to do all of these metadata crosswalks there as well, I remember. I don’t remember what system they were using back in ’02 — it may have been EmbARK. I know they were using TMS by ‘08. So, I did a study with them in ‘08, where we were looking at data sharing across the library and the archives, and the museum collections at the Ringling, because they have all of those, and talking about how difficult it was to share data, especially between library collections and museum collections. Trying to get them all to use the same system is just not possible. But I remember, during that Ringling digitization project, we had all of these CD-ROMs of images that were going around because they were digitizing images one place, and shipping the images someplace else, and data were being entered into a database system someplace else. It was an incredibly complicated process. People don’t see the complexities of that behind-the-scenes metadata work, but when you do, it gives you a renewed appreciation of how this goes.
Today, Florida State University and University of Florida are co-leads on a big NSF project called iDigBio, which is a massive tens of millions of dollars initiative to digitize and provide a repository for hundreds of millions of natural history specimens. And I know some of the people who run that project and chat with them about it every now and then, and it is amazing the challenges that they have, trying to coordinate metadata records across natural history museums around the world, and it’s just phenomenal the challenges that they have.
And it’s fascinating to me because I can remember back at the University of Illinois in the 1990s, right, for some reason or another, the World Heritage Museum ended up in charge of the Natural History Collections at the Natural History Museum there — staffing shortages, I can’t remember what it was. It was fascinating there to look at the different metadata practices, because I can remember, right, over in the World Heritage Museum, we’re trying to come up with one unique accession number for every artifact, but over in the Natural History Museum, they have one number for thousands of arrowheads or hundreds of frogs, right, and there’s no way to do anything different from that. They did have an amazing herpetological collection there, by the way. I’m sure that they still do.
And this reminds me, I should tell this story, right? So, even though the World Heritage Museum was closed, the Natural History Museum was still open, so we were doing some work with the collections there, doing some tech installs there. Oh, the collections there — by the way, they had fantastic displays of animals, right. All these animals had been treated, it turned out, like early 20th century, late 19th century, and our collections manager found out that a whole bunch of them had been treated with arsenic. So, at one point I remember, I can’t remember why we had to do this, but we had to move a whole bunch of these collections, and a bunch of these animals that weren’t on display were in storage in the basement of an old building on campus that also happened to house the English department teaching assistants. So — and I didn’t do this, but I went to photo-document it because that’s always fun, right — all of the museum staff was wearing full head-to-toe HazMat suits, and they went into these storage rooms and came out carrying large stuffed animals, which then they carried down the hallway, past all these offices with the English TAs in them, all kind of looking askance out their office doors, as this parade of people wearing HazMat suits walked by carrying badgers and foxes and beavers. [Laughing.] It was one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen, right, all treated with arsenic.
But I should tell this story. So, at the Natural History Museum, one of the things that we decided to install there at one point was a computer… was a display about earthquakes, and we put a computer into that display, because the idea was that we wanted… there to be an interactive. So, we had a computer running — I think there were actually two computers. So, there was a computer running a slideshow basically about earthquakes, and there was another computer where you could jump in front of the exhibit, and the computer screen had a seismograph on it, so you could see how your jumping caused the needle to go up and down. A very cool, very simple interactive.
But the exhibit designers that we worked with had not thought at all about the needs of the technology. The first problem we ran into was that there was no ventilation for the computers, so they kept overheating, which was a terrible problem. So, this was a giant exhibit that had been made and then bolted to the wall — very hard to get in and out of this exhibit, by the way. So it was fairly straightforward to cut ventilation holes into the top of the exhibit, which was what our collections manager did. But then we ran into a fascinating problem, where the software program that we were running to use the seismograph, where people could jump up and down and see the earthquake, had some sort of bug where every 48 hours or so it would crash. So, every couple of days, I had to go over to this museum to reboot that computer, or at least restart that application. The problem was, to get access to the computer we had to pull the entire case off the wall, and it was bolted onto the wall at the four corners. It was a large case, like maybe 10 feet tall and 12 feet wide; it was a sizable case. It only stuck out about three feet from the wall, but it was this big thing. So, I had to go over with an undergraduate student to help me pry this off the wall. Getting it off the wall was easy, getting all the bolts lined back up to reattach it to the wall was very hard. We had to do this every couple of days.
This obviously wasn’t sustainable for this exhibit, so I had to figure out a workaround. So, my workaround was I really only needed access to the mouse in order to restart the computer, but of course all this was inside, behind. So I got a really long mouse extension cord, and I plugged the really long mouse extension cord into the computer. Then I ran the mouse up through one of the vent holes that we had cut at the top of the case. So now I’ve got a mouse sitting on the top of a 10-foot case. So, instead of having to pull the case off the wall every couple of days, instead all I had to do was go over to the museum every couple of days, stand on a chair, reach up, get the mouse, and move the mouse around to restart the application. So, I’m trying to do this without falling off the chair, while leaning over so I can see the computer screen, which of course is embedded into the display case, while I’m trying to move the mouse to restart the application. And, in fact, more than once, I had to have a student come with me, so they could be like, “No, no, it’s a little to your left. No, down a little. Okay, yes, click! You found it!” Right? Just so I could restart the application. Absolutely hilarious!
I don’t have any pictures of that, but the funny story is I actually do have a video clip. At some point in the time we had that exhibit on display, some students made a student film horror movie that was set in this museum, probably because of all the stuffed animals. The earthquake exhibit was right next to a giant stuffed bison, of all things. So, in the movie you can see the students walking past the earthquake exhibit, and sure enough, in the movie as they walk past, the computer is malfunctioning in the video. [Laughing.] So it’s a permanent reminder of the problems of that exhibit, but it’s absolutely a great example because it shows how much the exhibit designers often tend not to think about the needs of the curators, or the tech needs, and all of this that’s happening behind the scenes.
But back to the Spurlock Museum. Even though the World Heritage Museum was closed to the public, we were doing a lot of online museum website work because we were trying to keep the museum relevant in the community. I talked about working with exhibit designers, but we were also putting a lot of technology out there for the general public, putting our databases online, putting our collections information online, putting information about what the new museum is going to look like online.
We went through so many different versions of a virtual museum interface. We kept making changes. We were doing a QuickTime Virtual Reality, QTVR, all kinds of interesting things just to get stuff out to the general public: this is what the new museum is going to look like. You know, at one point — once the building was built, but before we moved in — we had a walkthrough, so you could see what the empty galleries looked like, and then you could see the artist’s visual representation of what it was going to look like. And we kept changing it over the years — so many different iterations of that online museum. All of this to keep the museum relevant, because the general public had no idea what was happening behind the scenes, so we were trying to get all of that information out there.
One of our main audiences was the K-12 students, the educators that work with the museum, because for so many of these schools, this museum was a major field trip destination for them. And I was always cognizant of the fact that we’re in the middle of… this is Champaign-Urbana, Illinois — a hundred miles in any direction there’s nothing but corn or soybeans. And for a lot of those kids that live in those rural communities, their once-a-year field trip to the World Heritage Museum or the World Cultures Museum at the University of Illinois was their only chance to learn about a culture other than their own. And, you know, it speaks to empathy, to the importance of what museums are doing as outreach. So, trying to move a lot of that outreach to the online world, we did all kinds of stuff. You know, we had full-fledged education staff, two full-time people and a lot of student workers, who spent their entire time that the museum was closed on online educational outreach activities, and also doing a lot of outreach into the schools as well.
And we did some fun technology for that, too. The one story that always sticks with me is we did a really cool project, a project where the students had a chance to research ancient Egypt. We put together an entire website about ancient Egypt for the students, and our collections manager… I have a conference paper on this. I think it’s in one of the early Museums and the Web papers, if you want to read the whole story, but the short version of the story is our collections manager made a fake piece of cartonnage fragment. This is the plaster covering of Egyptian mummies, so inside the sarcophagus. And we asked middle school students to conduct research on this “artifact.” But we intentionally didn’t tell them that it was a fake. This is, there are some real interesting ethical issues that came into play here as well, and we were trying to tread really carefully, because we wanted the students to try to tell us whether or not they thought it was authentic, or whether or not they thought it was a replica.
And we knew it was a replica because we had made it, but the students – oh man, the students wanted it to be real. So, even though the collections manager had put a lot of clues into the replica that it was a modern re-creation, a forgery, the students found every chance they could to explain those away, because they wanted this to be a real piece of cartonnage fragment. My favorite example of this is that on one place there is a Mayan figure. There’s like a row of Egyptian figures, and one of them is painted as a Mayan figure. Most students didn’t notice the difference because the cartonnage fragment was pretty badly “damaged” over the past couple thousand years. But if you looked closely, you could see. And one student noticed it, but explained it away because, as he said, “You know, there were lots of interactions between the Egyptians and the Mayans at the time, so that’s understandable.” [Laughing.] Right? The students were very good at rationalizing things, and it was just really fascinating to work with them. As I said, there’s a Museums and the Web paper about this particular project, which was just fascinating to see.
And yet so many of these lessons about working and outreach show up again and again later on, like you just said in the chat, Kathy, the lessons for the pandemic, right, outreach over time, outreach online when people can’t come to the museum. We saw this with museums looking at Second Life and Virtual Reality, like spaceships, right. I remember working on Second Life back in the day, and so many museums were jumping on board in Second Life. We were doing a lot of research in Second Life back then in the early 2000s. It was funny because when Museums and the Web, the conference, decided to hold their 2020 conference in Second Life, it was really fascinating. I hadn’t been in Second Life for more than 10 years, but my avatar was still there where I left it, still wearing an FSU T-shirt, right? It was really kind of hilarious. It was just like walking back into this life that I had forgotten about in a virtual world.
And I think that segues to these broader lessons about working with technology in museums, which gets back to this issue of what I research as an academic with museum informatics, that people are always so confused by how technology changes things. It’s so hard to predict — the importance of museum websites, and the role that museum websites play in the lives of museums and their visitors. The example that always sticks in my mind is, I can remember — this was long before I started working in a museum, well, not long before, but a few years before — when the Chauvet Caves were discovered in 1994. I can remember being one of many people trying to look at those images online on the French Ministry of Culture’s website, and the website crashing, and in a news story, the French Minister of Culture saying that he had no idea that so many people would want to look at those pictures online. It was a really good moment, I think, for the museums realizing that yes, there’s going to be tremendous traffic for people to see their stuff.
And it’s hard to predict that, right? I mean, we talked about digitizing images and the role on museum visitation. I’ve told this story many a time, but it is a good one to tell. Many a year, I would go into a museum and the museum director would say to me, “I’m really worried about all of this digitization, worried about all of these museum artifacts being put online. Do you think it’s likely that if people can see our artifacts on the internet, they won’t come to the museum?”
And I got asked this so many times that I got really good at answering the question. I would put on my sad newscaster face, and I would look to the director, and I would say, “You know, it’s a really good thing that you asked me this, because, yeah, it’s a really terrible problem. You’ve got to keep a real close eye on this. Maybe you haven’t heard, but ever since the state of Florida started putting pictures of beaches on their website, nobody vacations in Florida anymore.”
And, sometimes the director would be, like, whoosh! Right? [raises hand, sweeps over head] It would go right over their head, “Oh, that sounds terrible!” I mean, like, “Yeah, you don’t know the half of it.”
And the fact of the matter is, this is all about the role of the museum in the life of the visitor. And I’ve written a lot about this over the years as well. It’s about making that transition from thinking about the visitor in the life of the museum, to the museum in the life of the visitor. If the museum — the library world’s been dealing with this for decades as well — if all you look at in a library is the record of the books that circulate, you miss 95 percent of everything that’s going on in the library.
And it’s the same thing in the museum world. We have to look at all the roles that museums play in the lives of our visitors, not just what they do when they walk through the door, and that’s a difficult shift in perspective to make. And one of the reasons why it’s so difficult is that we always have this tension between technology and society, and what we can do technically and what we’re inclined to accept societally.
And I’ve got two stories I want to tell about those socio-technical tensions. So, one: back to the late 1990s at the University of Illinois. I talked about the World Heritage Museum, where I was working, and the Natural History Museum, where we were also in charge of the collections, but there was also a very nice, there still is, a very nice art museum there, the Krannert Art Museum at the U of I — fantastic art collection, and we knew a lot of the people there, of course. One day, I was over there for a meeting or something, I can’t remember what, I was walking through the galleries and I saw that there was a computer, an old MacIntosh, right, on a table in the gallery, with a sign that said “Look up information about our collections here.” This was late ‘90s. I was like, “Oh, that sounds cool. I should go see how they’re doing that.” Right?
So, I go over and look, and they’ve got a sign, they’ve got an info sheet, instructions about how to use the database. But this isn’t online, right, this is just a computer sitting here. What they had was a FileMaker Pro database sitting on the desktop of this Macintosh, just open so that people could type in searches and search the collection on this FileMaker Pro database. And it wasn’t really a fancy database. It was pretty much bare bones, black and white interface, with not… I mean the instructions were there on a piece of paper, yes, but it wasn’t the most usable interface, for sure. But what caught my attention was the fact that this database was in wide open edit mode. Anybody could change anything. Not only could I type anything I wanted into this database, but I could delete entire records.
And the reason this caught my attention is that FileMaker Pro at that time was a modal database, where you had a screen with all the fields on it, where you can see the information, but then, if you switched into find mode, all those fields went blank, and then you typed in your search terms in the exact same layout. So it’s very easy accidentally to overtype actual data when you think you’re entering a search term, if you see what I mean. And that had happened on the system. I could see search terms that people had typed into records where they didn’t realize they were overwriting data. And I was like, I know, I’m sure this is a copy, right? It’s not like their one and only FileMaker Pro database is sitting on a public computer in their galleries, right? This is some copy.
But that got me wondering, right. How often do they update this, for instance? Do they do it regularly? Does anybody check? I had no idea, and there was probably somebody I could have asked, but I didn’t have time to go ask anybody, so I said, “Oh, I know how I can find this out.”
As I said, it was wide open, so I put a password on the database where nobody could open the database file unless they knew the password. And then I closed the file. I figured the next time I went back, right, I would be able to check to see whether or not they had replaced the database that I had locked with a password with a new copy, right? Of course, the problem was I completely forgot about this. I absolutely completely forgot about it.
About a year later, I’m in this same gallery, and I see this computer sitting on the table. And this all comes back to me! The sign is gone, right? The “Search Our Collection” sign? Gone! Right? The paper instructions “here’s how to search our collection”? Gone! I go look at the computer. The database is still sitting there on the desktop. I open it up in FileMaker Pro, and it pops up and asks me for the password I put on a year ago.
And here’s the problem: I had forgotten the password. [Laughs] So I sat there for a little bit, and I flagged down the docent who was in the gallery, and I said, “Hey, can you come over here? I’ve got a question.” He came over and he said, “What?” I said, “I’m looking at this computer here, and I see that you’ve got a collections database on this computer so that I can look up information about your collections, but it’s asking me for a password. Do you happen to know what the password is?” [Laughing.] And of course, this guy was like, “I… not only do I have no idea what the password is, I had no idea this was ever on the computer. Right? I’ve never seen anybody do this before.”
So, I never actually found out the true story, but all I can imagine is, at some point, someone in that museum said, “Hey, we should set this thing up so that somebody can search our collection.” They set it up with the instructions, and a sign, and a copy of the database, and then they probably forgot about it, too. And then I came along and threw a monkey wrench into the whole thing. I password-locked their entire database, and then the whole thing just fell apart, and nobody ever fixed it. So, it shows how unstable so many of these technology projects are, and it shows how, if you don’t understand the ripple effects that your technology piece is going to have on society, right, you don’t know where this is going to end up. You can’t just put a piece of technology out into the wild and leave it unattended. Yeah, definitely a disconnect between departments too… absolutely… for sure.
And so the next story I want to tell, and this is the last story I’ll tell. This is one that I’ve told many times before, but it’s good to have it on record. This was at the Museum Computer Network Conference in 2010, which took place in Austin, Texas, and again, it’s a good story of this conflict, this tension between society and technology. So, the Museum Computer Network Conference, hundreds-plus museum technology professionals, we’re at the University of Texas, Austin, and we’re at the conference reception, which is being held at the Blanton Museum of Art on the UT Austin campus, a beautiful museum.
One of the things that had been discussed at this conference earlier was image recognition software, and Google had just released an image recognition tool for iPhone. I think it had been an app for Android before, but it had just come out on iPhone within the past few days, called Google Goggles — so not Google Glass or any of this. It was its own separate thing for a while. Now it’s built into the Google app, but it was its own separate tool in 2010. It had just been released. Google Goggles did this image recognition, and I said, “Oh, I’m going to try this out.” So, I downloaded it to my phone, and I looked about for something I could test it on.
Well, where we were at this conference reception was in their special exhibits gallery, and there was a temporary exhibit there of impressionistic masters from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. And I figured what could be better than impressionist masters to test out Google’s photo recognition capability, right? So, I pull up the app on my phone, I point it at a painting, and boom! Monet, right? It’s got it. It’s perfect! It was instant! You know, I just pointed the camera on the app at the painting. It immediately identified it, right? And I went down the line: Monet, Manet, Degas, Seurat, right? It was all immediate! It was astonishing how well it worked.
So, of course, this being a museum technology conference, I had a crowd of people around me watching this at work, and everybody was very excited to see how good it was, and how fast it was. It didn’t just pop up with the name of the painting, it gave me a link to the Wikipedia page on it, and I could see all the other images that Google had of it. It was a pretty nice tool. But, of course, this attracted the attention of the docents, and by docents I mean 18-year-old art history students at the University of Texas. And there were three of them, and they were over in the corner of the gallery, looking at us and talking to each other. I was kind of watching them out of the corner of my eye. And then one of them separated herself from the other two, came over, and said to me, “Excuse me, sir. I’m sorry, but no photographs.” And I looked at her and I said, “That’s okay. I’m not taking photographs. I’m digitally scanning these works of art for image recognition purposes.”
And she looked at me and she said, “Well, okay then!” And she went back to her friends, and we continued down the line, digitally scanning works of art for image recognition purposes, marveling at what a good job Google did recognizing these images. But at the same time, I’m watching them out of the corner of my eye, and I see them talking. Then she comes back to me 30 seconds later, and she says, “Excuse me, sir, but I talked this over with my friends, and they think that’s the same thing as taking a picture.” [Laughing]
I said, “No! No, it’s not, because if I were taking a picture, I’d have the picture here on my phone, but instead I’m sending the image to Google so Google can tell me what it is — and look, Google already has a thousand of these!”
At which point she said, “Okay. Well, I don’t know. I just don’t know if this is taking a picture or not taking a picture, and I’m just worried that it’s going to violate our agreement with the Walters Art Museum, where people aren’t allowed to take photographs.”
I said, “You know, that’s a good question. I have absolutely no idea, but I tell you what, I know who can tell you.” I pointed across the room to a crowd of people, and I said, “You see over there? That guy? His name is Jim Masa, and he’s the CIO from the Walters Art Museum. Why don’t you go ask him?” At which point, the poor young lady threw up her hands and walked away.
And we had proven our point, right? The technology worked fine, so I stopped scanning things, but, astonishing, nobody would have blinked twice if I had been scanning a QR code next to the painting. Nobody would have blinked if I had been typing in the name of the painting, which was right next to the painting, and pulling up a picture. It was just that I was using the technology to identify the painting from the picture that caused people to blink.
And, you know, that wraps up our entire history of technology in museums, and it leads back to this broader point about not being able to… the technology changes so much faster than society does, and how do we keep our norms, our ethics, our laws, our legal practices moving along with our technology and how hard that is. But it speaks again to the value of technology and museums for effecting change in the world, for building broader communities online, in person, building empathy, emphasizing our shared humanity. My argument always has been that the more we can do to do broader outreach, to get museums to present their information to our broader community, the better off we’re going to be in general.
And I think that’s a good place to stop.