Oral History of Museum Computing: Sam Quigley
This oral history of museum computing is provided by Sam Quigley, and was recorded on the 8th of March, 2021, by Paul Marty and Kathy Jones. It is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license (CC-BY), which allows for unrestricted reuse provided that appropriate credit is given to the original source. For the recording of this oral history, please see https://youtu.be/oiRk5CvOQdc.
I can’t even remember, Kathy, exactly what year it was when we formalized our friendship in a contract. You worked for the MFA Boston probably from about 1989 for a while there, or was it even earlier? I can’t remember.
[Jones]: Gosh, it might have been then. I know, you know, like in the early 1990s, for sure.
I’m pretty sure it might have been then because I believe we published what we called a needs assessment, a Collections Management Needs Assessment in 1991, and that included a very, very extensive data dictionary that you helped create with Bonnie Porter specifically, as I recall, and that was based on an analysis of primarily the Registrar’s cards, which we had, like so many places, you know, a primary, full run by numerical accession order in the Registrar’s office, and Bonnie Porter was the Recorder in that department.
And then, in each of the departments, there were three sets: one by numerical accession order, one by artists’ last name order usually, and one by genre order, and that was my introduction to all of this back when I first started working in the musical instruments collection at the MFA, where my first job was to try to get my arms around the collection, using those three sequences of cards, you know, mixing and matching to make sure that we represented everything that we had because each set had gaps in them. And those cards in the MFA, and I’m sure everywhere else, became the cornerstone of any digitization of the documentation. God only knows, there were plenty other troves of information that were in departments’ hands, but we relied primarily on the Registrar’s cards to make sure that we had a comprehensive listing of the collection of the MFA Boston. But I think I’m getting ahead of myself.
In the ‘80s, I happened to be one of the curators who had drunk the Kool-Aid of technology, and realized that computers were very useful for what we do. We do list-keeping, and ideally, we broadcast from those lists, or some facsimile of them. I was an early advocate and, an amateur, but fairly successful amateur programmer. My initial chosen tool was that old faithful, dBase III, but then, for reasons of unknown, a friend of mine was into DataEase, a so-called fourth generation language, which was really cool, and I developed a little database which got bigger over the course of time for the musical instruments collection and, ultimately, that was seen as something valuable, also for the European Decorative Arts department, of which the musical instruments collection was a part. And so, I did another DataEase program for them, and that was particularly useful in their planning of a large move that they were doing. “They” being, well, I was part of them, you know “we.” Having achieved some initial success, and actually even having dabbled a little bit with the idea of using a modem — remember those? — and using another friend of a similar inclination, a guy named Robert E. Eliason [an early American Brass instrument authority], up in Vermont, another collector of musical instruments, who was a technologist at the time, we tried actually sharing databases online, using a little tiny network. Well, that soon became kind of cumbersome, but it opened up some eyes. And I think that it was around that time that I started advocating for the idea of the MFA might “really benefit” from getting serious about this stuff -– this new-fangled code, HTML1.0, which had not yet been codified at that time [Note: Tim Berners-Lee invented HTML 1.0, but it wasn’t officially released until 1993].
I also had a friend who was over the AI lab at MIT, a guy named Jonathan Rees, and he gave me a logon on one of the AI computers, “email@example.com,” and I thought it was really cool to have that one, I’ll tell you. But we were using LINX in order to get around, you know, in the pre-visual web. Anyway, all of this was great and really exciting, and I started talking about it with people up in the administration about how we really ought to do something important here [the MFA, Boston].
At the time, the MFA was about as much as the MFA as it ever was. It was totally silos throughout the building. The Classical department had its own way of doing things, and I can’t express that in a more direct way. The Asian collection, completely different the Paintings departments… everybody had their own way [of collections documentation]. There was another comrade in arms, however, over in the Egyptian department, a guy named Peter Der Manuelian, who’s now, a professor of Egyptology at Harvard, and he was lightning fast with MacIntosh technology. So, he was producing incredible labels with maps and all sorts of things that had to do with the presentation side of things. He was on the curatorial staff there, and brilliant, too. And he also was very helpful in advocating for a better and more comprehensive usage of technology for documentation in the vast collection of the Egyptian department.
So, I remember, one time, going up to Alan Shestack, the Director at the time [1989?], and suggesting that we really ought to do something seriously about this. I pointed out that the Metropolitan had already started, in the Ratti Textile Center, [to create] a new program to try to organize their documentation, and that program as everybody knows, became, well now, what is it what, what is the name of Jay Hoffman’s program?
TMS! Yes, TMS, The Museum System. Sorry, it was a while ago, after all. And TMS was actually helped… devised by [commissioned by] none other than Tom Campbell, of the Tapestry department at the time, and now ex-Director of the Met and current Director of the Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco. But he was an early advocate as well.
About the same time, when I was talking with Alan Shestack, he did one of his characteristic puckish things: he pulled out his pen, and said, this is my word processor. I had seen him do that from the podium in the auditorium in a staff meeting as well. However, he did recognize that I might have something worth talking about, and he had heard about this idea before. So he suggested it would be a good idea if I would go out and develop a proposal, and I believe that was in the late ‘80s late, maybe ‘89 or something like that, which is when I got authority and a little bit of budget — a very tiny little bitty budget — to create this Committee on Documentation. I decided that it would be a good idea to try to get several people who were naysayers as well as advocates of the idea, so, in addition to Nancy Allen, the current Director of the Library and very much a strong voice in library information science, and Linda Thomas, the current Registrar, who was very technologically savvy and interested in these things as well, and Janice Sorkow who was the Chair or the department head of the Slide Library, which also had authority over the Photographic lab as well.
We had those three very strong advocates for documentation, and then, not to paint the others in a bad light, but I recognized that there were very strong voices and many other ones who were going to need to be convinced. If they could be convinced of the value of this [digital documentation], they would be strong voices in favor of the process, so I asked Cliff Ackley, the venerable Curator of the Prints & Drawings department, which was literally about half of the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts at the time, as well as Jonathan Fairbanks, the Curator of America Decorative Arts. Jonathan Fairbanks, known to everyone as a curmudgeon, who refused to allow voicemail in his office, and he preferred to use his Royal non-electrified typewriter for all of his correspondence, a true luddite, who was a dear friend of mine and one who I knew I could count on to grouse about everything, and keep us on the straight and narrow. Little did I know that he was going to become a strong advocate as well, for all of these things, and I would say the same thing about Cliff Ackley, too. Cliff amongst all of his many, many contributions, both to the concept and to the, you know, cajoling and convincing of his colleagues, our colleagues, he also adorned the frontispiece of the Collections Management Needs Assessment, with a drawing of an electrified pencil, quite a piece of work that is part of that document still.
So, this group, this Committee on Documentation, met for months, I think it was at least a year or so. Kathy was now on contract working with Bonnie Porter, and with me, and with everybody who would listen, and we proceeded to have many, many meetings, large meetings, some of them, trying to garner support and get people’s knowledge level up to snuff. I believe then we presented the Committee on Documentation’s recommendation at a poor time. Unfortunately, the museum had just suffered a number of – a couple years in a row – deficits. Alan Shestack, who had commissioned the work, was just handed his hat as he had exceeded the budgetary tolerances of the Board, and all of a sudden, nothing was happening. And I think this was around 1992, maybe almost 1993. Then a new broom came in, in the guise of Malcolm Rogers. As I recall, it was Labor Day of ’94. We had a couple meetings of the senior staff of the curatorial departments in which he tipped his hand about how he is shocked and appalled — as [Precinct Captain Claude’s reaction to gambling at Rick’s] in “Casablanca” — about the fact that there was no centralized documentation; of course, in England, everything is very centralized. At the National Portrait Gallery which is where he came from, and the British Museum as well, so he really couldn’t imagine not having a centralized database. I took note of this in October, and in November, Nancy Allen [Librarian], Arthur Beale, the Head of Conservation, also an advocate for documentation and I started talking about possibility of developing a proposal for Malcolm Rogers at the time.
I did a little bit of field work in England, which had been previously arranged for, some research in January, and when I got back, I found that these ideas had become quite advanced, and that Nancy Allen was really holding sway with not only Malcolm Rogers, but his deputy director, Brent Benjamin, who previously had been rather skeptical of this idea of unified documentation, but by the end of January, it seemed like all the pieces were in place, and indeed, a couple weeks later, there was an event which some people refer to as the Valentine’s Day Massacre at the MFA Boston because it was on Valentine’s Day, 1995, that Malcolm Rogers laid off 90 people of the staff. And with the money that he was saving, created this new department called the Department of Information Resources, of which Nancy Allen was the department head, I was the new Manager of Collections Information, and a couple other staff members were appointed to it, and we formalized our work basically on February 15, 1995.
So, we set about to work, and we challenged ourselves to do two major efforts: one was to transcribe or digitize [reformat] the information off of the comprehensive index cards for the collection, and for that, we created a physical space, which included nine computers hooked up to a database that was custom written by a guy named John Bastow, who we all refer to as “Limey” because he was a Brit; he was quite a good programmer. He still I think is active in his company which at the time, was called ArrayWorks, and he was amazing in translating my very amateurish needs requirements into this MS Access database, which was then utilized by, I think we had about 90 college work study students, over the course of around four and a half years, who just came in for their shifts and pounded in data from the cards. We were immediately adjacent to the Registrar’s office, and so we had a protocol for you know, getting cards and distributing them, getting, making sure they got back, and all that. And in that regard two other people were particularly important: Curt DiCamillo, who had been working in the Slide Library and was obviously quite organized and able to manage an office, became our Office Manager and organized what we call “Data row,” those nine computers. And Linda Pulliam, who had started off as a volunteer who, but then became so obviously capable of doing the proofreading, basically she would review all of the data entry and make changes and help normalize it on the fly. She was hired as an Assistant or Associate Collections Manager, I forget what it was called, but she was a very important person in that process. And let’s see where was I headed?
We then just pounded it out, you know, for the next four and a half years. Simultaneously, we decided that we needed to try to capture and aggregate through a whole series of normalizations, all these different little databases that had been grown up in different curatorial departments using different programs, you know, Shoebox was one, as I recall, that was in Egyptian, FileMaker was one that had been used in a couple places, you know, there were some Excel spreadsheets, the photographic studio was just using Word and Excel at the time to track their images, so, there was a broad variety of things that needed to be captured and aggregated and normalized.
And whereas I was overseeing “Data row” via Curt and Linda, I was particularly interested in doing the actual aggregation of the databases, and working with my colleagues to try to pull in their information. So, I started working with Sue Reed, an associate curator in the Prints & Drawings department, where we basically created some basic, basic databases out of FileMaker Pro and then added to the data model incrementally, practically every night. And so it happened that bit by bit, we acquired, massaged, normalized, etc. all these various databases, and were maintaining this one basic Filemaker database on a single Macintosh G3 tower underneath my desk. We had 60 concurrent users at one point, off of that one G3. And we were utilizing the ethernet that had been installed after the Coax cabling and the Wang had become obsolete, remember that?
And let’s see… yeah, it was fairly… well, I’m trying to find a nice delicate way to get around saying it was a parallel universe, shall we say? Because the rest of the computing power of the MFA Boston was located in… what was by that time called I.S., or maybe I.T. department. But, they viewed their mandate – probably because their boss told them – to make the cash registers sing in the Museum Shop, and to sustain basic office word processing throughout the building, initially using a Wang Mini system. And, in fact, try as I did, to work with them, I found them to be just short of antagonistic to this idea of utilizing the computing power of the museum for collections management. Imagine that…!
And so, it really had to be sort of a parallel thing, and it was not all that pleasant, the interaction between I.T. and I.R., which is what we call ourselves, Information Resources. Even though we were using their network, there was very little else that we had to share. But we worked it out, and over time, they got a new director, a guy named Gordy Sands, who was much more sympathetic and helpful actually in helping make some of this stuff work. But he had his hands full with other things, and he really did have to pay attention to the business side of the information infrastructure.
One of the brightest lights of the whole group of activities that was happening at that time was a guy named Jeff Steward, who was a low man on the totem pole in the Photographic Services Department, which was the new name for the Slide Library and he had obvious enormous capabilities, but he was really underutilized, and not given much of a chance to do much more than sort of log in the newly photographed images into a very… well, rather incapable database, I can’t even remember what it was kept on. It might have been an Excel spreadsheet. And I urged him to think broader, and to be vocal and active, and try to develop new ideas and how he could make his job easier. I basically told him, “Be lazy and be smarter, so you can make better tools for yourself, and we’ll all benefit.” And sure enough, I didn’t realize it at time, but I think it’s fair to say he’s a genius at this, pretty soon, before I knew it, he would go way beyond Excel. He had gone deeply into SQL Server. He was programming like crazy and he had developed a very magnificent database for photographic services. I know it was really well organized because it was my job at one point to incorporate all those images and all the metadata about them into this FileMaker database that I had been working on with Jeff and everybody else. And, I remember, Kathy, do you remember that weekend when we actually set up the file dump we had scripted using Apple Script to do all this incorporation and it took around a whole weekend I think to access and bring in, I think it was 70,000 new image records into the database. It was quite something. Jeff had been greatly helpful in that one.
[Jones]: I remember seeing the fireworks over the city of Boston.
Haha. Yes. Well, it was just us popping the corks here.
[Marty]: All that still running on a G3 under your desk?
Yes, yes. And every once in a while, that G3 would crash, and I would have to send out a note telling people that, you know, “The database had crashed, but no data was lost.” And there was a particular member of the Asian department, who will go unnamed, who would always respond to me and say, “As you know, data is plural, so your statement is false.” And I thought, well if that’s the worst thing that I can do here, then so be it.
But in fact, we ran a very heavy backup system, and yes, it slowed things down to be sure, but we did manage to keep it up and running most of the time, and no data was ever lost. And so it was that we moved from February 1995 ‘til around, I think it was around August of 1999, when lo and behold, we had finished reformatting all the data from the database from, from the records of the Registrar.
I think I forgot one major element which was that, even though I had personally paid attention to the Prints and Drawings department initially, and developed their database model using FileMaker, it was very important that, instead of bringing a cadre of body-pierced and decorated college student, work study students into the hallowed halls of the Prints and Drawings department, we instead decided to deploy a SWAT team of the museum volunteer corps, namely the Ladies Committee Associates, who were the alumni of the Ladies Committee, the very proper and very generous Ladies Committee. After they finished their first three years, or whatever the first term was of the Ladies Committee, they ascended to status of Ladies Committee Associates. And they were the most dedicated, the most sophisticated group of volunteers I’ve ever run across. Not to mention that they probably all went to Wellesley or Smith, and they all were multilingual and proper. They were all incredibly punctual, and they were all really good friends with most of the staff members of the curatorial staff and so they were welcomed with open arms by the Prints and Drawings department. They also were able to read manuscript writing in the ledgers, which was a challenge for many people, myself included. It certainly didn’t seem like we were going to be able to ask our college students to do that. The Prints and Drawings department maintained… mind you, the Museum of Fine Arts was founded in 1870, and the prints and drawings department, I think, maintained their curatorial acquisition records on ledgers up until around 1911, when new technology – the typewriter – supplanted ledgers. And so, there are many, many volumes of single-spaced, handwritten records that the Ladies Committee Associates transcribed from…they reformatted all of that to a digital database.
They were amazing, and, if memory serves, there was something like 90,000 entries in those ledger books alone, because after 1911, they were then – no, actually, come to think, I think that they might have kept doing some ledgers up until almost World War II to tell you the truth. I think, they might have gone into the ‘40s or late ‘30s. We could check that, I suppose. Anyway, there were a lot of them and, along with the “Data row” college students, the Ladies Committee Associates did an amazing piece of work, and actually, I will never forget, the wonderfully inscribed picture of the Ladies Committee group that they presented me with at the end, where each one of them signed off and were very kind with their affectionate words about how they enjoyed working on the database and helping the MFA come into the 21st Century.
Let’s see here, there were so many other things that went on. I think… I guess, one of the things, and this is where I do feel a little self-aggrandizing… just a little, a peculiar thing I remember with great pride is that I was the one who registered the URL, “MFA.org” in Ways or Whois (something like that), and I remember doing it, despite a rather intense discussion we had about whether or not we should be allowed to take the URL “MFA.org” or whether we should modify it by having “MFA B” or “B MFA” because, after all, there are other museums of fine arts, as well. My feeling was, first come, first served. We were there first, and so we got MFA.org. So that’s the story of that one.
Fun stuff to be thinking about, all this going back. I think that we, just to bring this whole raconteur thing, channeling Jan Fontein (the MFA director when I was initially hired) and, oh look at that! Kathy has got her own copy of the needs assessment. [Shown off screen] How about that! I still have mine too, but it’s just not close at hand, that’s all.
You know, all of this doesn’t exist in the abstract. As a matter of fact, as fun, as it is to remember, when I was talking with the woman who was at Cleveland who did the oral history for the MCN 50th, whose name right now I forget, she was an Indian-American woman. Do you remember who I’m talking about?
What is her name… Sheena?
[Marty]: Yes, Seema Rao.
[Marty]: She’s now at the Akron Art Museum, and she does some amazing UX design stuff. She’s the Chief Experience Officer at the Akron.
Excellent. Excellent. Well, I’m not surprised. She was really, really smart. I had met her when I was still at the Art Institute, as a matter of fact, when I came to see the Cleveland Wall of Moving Images [Gallery One], that one. But Seema was apparently a little bit nonplussed by all this effort that was put into reformatting documentation to get it into digital form. Because by that time, it was just, of course, the way it is, or the way it should be. I was really taken aback by that because, sure enough, just to simply have it to aggregated and to have it digital seems, in retrospect, not all that amazing. It’s what you do with it, after all, and so, the end of this long story is that by around 1999, Director Malcolm Rogers had sort of funded all this effort, had been patient, waiting for it to be coming along, and he wanted to see some results. He wanted to see some tangible results, so he started asking, “Well, Okay. You’ve got this mfa.org thing. We have a website. When are you going to put the database on it?” And I said, “Well, we have to make sure that all the curators are fine about that.” To which he rolled his eyes and said, “by that time…” I think it’s fair to say there was a good bit of skepticism on both sides of the aisle, between the Director’s office and the Curatorial staff, and he said, “Well, yeah, Okay. You can try to go convince people to authorize the publication of their data, but you can let them know that I’m pretty impatient about this as well.”
So, it was my job to go around and try to get people to sign off on their things, and we tried a number of strategies, and I think the first iteration of digital publication was something like 15,000 records. Not all of which, by the way, had images, even. Most of them were mostly just what we now called Stub records, practically….you know, just the bare tombstone information, but it was something. And something was better than nothing. That was our mantra, and eventually, we were trying to get more and more people to put more data out there. We started floating more images onto the database to make it a little bit more useful and visually appealing. And by this time, well, I guess, by this time, a number of museums around the country were doing similar things, and there was much more of a keen interest in seeing what was going on.
Little did I know that SFMOMA had been watching what was going on at Boston, and one day, I saw a job announcement come out that looked remarkably similar to the job description I had at the time where it was something that they were wanting to do to combine resources from the library, the archives, the photo library images, and information metadata from the curatorial departments. So, there was this job description, followed up by a couple phone calls, and next thing you know, I was interviewing at SFMOMA for a position. And found myself moving out to San Francisco to become the Director of Collections there, just at the time when the millennium was turning over. Time when you and I, Kathy, used to joke about how all of a sudden, COBOL programmers and Fortran programs are in demand again because all the Y2K fears about life stopping, as we know it, right? Fortunately, that didn’t come about.
[Jones]: And I didn’t make tons of money because it wasn’t needed.
Oh well. Too bad… we all got into this for the money, after all, right?
Anyway, so all of a sudden, I was out after 20 years. I left Boston sometime in June, because I think I ended up figuring out that I worked in various capacities at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for 19 years and 10 months, just shy of 20 years. And when I got out to San Francisco, it was a whole new ballgame. It was, it was fun, but it turned out to be not exactly what had been told to me what was going to happen. And, briefly, it turns out that the strategic plan, which was really great, had an evil twin called the financial plan, and they had nothing to do with one another.
Anyway, David Ross was a great Director, he was a great interviewer, he got me to come out and I was a full of all sorts of enthusiasm until I found out that there was no money to do any of the work that he had in mind for me to do. Fortunately, at that same time, Andrea Notman had fallen in love with a wealthy technologist at MIT named Kenan Sahin, and he had swept her off her feet, or he she swept him off his feet, who knows how it all works? But in any case, Andrea, the Registrar at the Fogg Art Museum, a co-conspirator with Lee Mandell, in developing EmbARK with that company out in Oakland, whose name I now forget, was looking for her next career as a non-working person, and all of a sudden, I was able to get a job at the Harvard University Museums, the Fogg, the Bush-Reisinger, and the Sackler, to become what ultimately was my next big job, the Director of Digital Information and Technology, where I got to work with the one and only Lee Mandell, which was really great. However, I did have to learn about EmbARK, which I liked very much at the time, but ultimately, after seeing that system get larger and larger, we moved the data from EmbARK to TMS. Since EmbARK had been already acquired by Gallery Systems at that point, it was moving within the family, so to speak.
But anyway, I think I’ll leave it at that. I think, really, the only story I have that might be worth telling is the one about the actual reformatting of [paper] documentation of the MFA Boston. There’s a lot more to go with it, I’m sure. Funding was a really important part of that whole initiative. Nancy Allen was able to run in front and shield a lot of the work that we were doing, to get all the political players in the proper position, and I think all in all, the MFA story was a pretty successful one. Even though after five years, we only had 15,000 records online.
I think it was about a year later that, by fiat, Malcolm Rogers caused the rest of the 400,000 records to go online as well, in a newly redesigned website. Which is really, really quite good. It was terrific to see the name that we had dubbed it – Artemis – in the url.
Oh, that’s right. I forgot to mention that our whole initiative that was coming out of the Department of Information Resources we called Art&MIS, which, besides having been suggested by, I believe, Erica Hirshler of the American Paintings department as an homage to the Huntress and Protector, was “art ampersand m-i-s” – art plus museum information system. We had a nice little logo that was red and grey and, everybody kind of liked it and, in the first iteration of the newly christened database on the new website was subfolder ART&MIS, which was kind of cool to see.
Anyway, let’s leave it at that. That’s pretty much what I can tell you about that one fairly extensive chapter at the MFA.
[Marty]: It’s a great story, Sam. You know, I’d be curious to know your thoughts on this transition from home-grown database systems into something like EmbARK or TMS, because I’m sure you’ve gone through that transition as well. The, the pros and cons that you’ve seen there.
Well, I was a strong advocate of the idea that we needed to work with the knowledge holders in using their knowledge and transferring it into a more standardized format. We needed to do that fairly carefully and gently, and with them being part of the solution, rather than tempting them to just hang back and not be part of the solution. So, the process was in fact a tool to garner support as much as it was being an open-ended gathering bucket. By virtue of constant and responsive data model development, we could accommodate what, in retrospect we might refer to as harebrained ideas about what things ought to be kept or not, or vocabulary that was used to describe things. But by doing that, I believe we made people feel more comfortable with seeing their data, their knowledge, their life’s work, in other words, in a completely new format. And it was a good midwife or transitionary process for them, and therefore, I believe, it was important in order to accomplish the overall objective, which was to get their knowledge out there in a normalized data format.
I remember there was all sorts of, not acrimony, but anxiety, and, and grand concerns about how this crucially important information was going to be handled and cared for, so it was very important, as we made the transition, to work with them in ways that felt comfortable to them. And when I say “them,” I’m referring to our colleagues, I mean the MFA Boston curatorial staff was very, very strong and excellent – exquisite really – it’s just that they did things in their own rather specific and sometimes unusual ways.
It took a series of years to get them to see the value of that phrase we always say but not really think about: “garbage in, garbage out.” Nobody likes to think of their life work as “garbage in,” but in fact the way they had been managing it, well, it was kind of careless, sometimes.
[Jones]: Sam, you also had to help them understand things in almost a different language, right?
[Jones]: I’ll never forget that meeting we had in the classics department, and we asked the curator, John, “On the accession card, what do you call that?” And he said, “Oh, that’s the top line.”
Exactly. The top line. Exactly. Ha ha!
[Jones]: It was the title of the piece, but it was the top line on the card.
Right exactly. And do you remember, too, how, when we had the capability of doing whatever we wanted to with formatting, using the FileMaker database, one of the screens that they could view was actually a replica of the card, including the hole in the bottom center. And for some people, using Courier typeface too, by the way, you know that was a very comforting thing.
Yeah, go ahead.
[Marty]: I was just going say, it’s a good example of helping people get over some of this fear. And it kind of relates back to what you’re saying earlier, right that, right, I mean, you all started in 1980 doing this, I started in ‘95 you know, 15 years later. For people who started in 2010 or 2015, it’s hard, I think, for them to imagine the fear. I can remember talking to Registrars who said, “I don’t want to do this. I, we can’t put our information online.”
[Marty]: You don’t see that much these days.
[Marty]: Sorry, go ahead.
I used to say, we had to stay within shouting distance of the popular culture, because at that point in time, you know, this new thing, the world wide web, that was so obviously going to just take over, and yet it wasn’t until summer of I think ‘96 or so, when it really took on efficacy, with regard to commercial real estate, or commerce. Basically, if we hadn’t jumped on beforehand, museums would have been left out of the picture entirely, I think.
[Marty]: That’s a key point, I love that quote you just said, “had to stay within shouting distance of the popular culture.” Sam, it reminds me of something I want to say. Wasn’t it MCN in 2010 that was in Chicago somewhere around then, ’09, ’11?
Yeah, it was, because we were too expensive at the Art Institute to be a host, I think.
[Marty]: Whatever it was, I remember, there was a great session which had museum directors and museum CIOs telling stories together. And if I seem to remember, now correct me if I remember it wrong that you and Jim Cuno got up there and talked about some of your experiences. I have this amazing memory of the two of you talking about when the Art Institute went on YouTube for the first time.
Right, right. Well, and that was the other thing too. You know, Jim was the director of The Fogg, the Art Museums of Harvard at the time that I got hired in 2001. I started working there in April of 2001. And at Harvard University Art Museums, there was no database online, and yet they were admitting students who were already teenagers when the world wide web had been born. Actually, that’s not quite true, but they would shortly be doing so, anyway, but you know, Jim [Cuno] said, “We’ve got this, you know, all this stuff [data], but we just haven’t organized it.” And sure enough, it was an easy thing to sort of organize, take the EmbARK database, which was still growing rapidly, and our first digital publishing iteration was about 65,000 records. They went right online because they had done so much work for such a long time, imaging and everything. And, and then it was another couple five years or something like that, that we had successfully done the data capture and were ready to publish all 220,000 records or something like that.
So, when Jim got hired to become the Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, he came into a situation, and I believe this was around 2004 or something like that, where they only had 800 works of art in terms of an online database, and that was only the result of the rights and reproductions group who were trying to sell those images and data about them. And so, it was like one of those phone calls that you dream about it, you know, with Jim saying, “Why don’t you come on out here and we’ll do it all over again?” And sure enough, again moving out there, there was a lot of data worked up already in a normalized fashion, but there had not been the impetus coming from… well, Jim, to actually publish it. So again, in 2007 or ‘08 it was a relatively easy effort to push, and I forget how many thousands, maybe 30- or 40,000 records out online almost immediately. So yeah, it’s… it was kind of amazing that at those advanced times there were still weren’t many records online. So, in retrospect, it’s hard to remember or imagine how things became as they were.
We’ve come a long way, like I said before. And when I was talking with Seema Rao, I mean with her, you know, capabilities of UX design and all the great things that are being done, now, it’s understandable that is not clear and present how all that data ever got there. It’s just the vocabulary that is necessary to do all the cool things that are being done now. But it took a lot of time. Now, once it’s in some sort of digital form, you can transform it and migrate it and add attributes and all those other things that enable wonderful things, but you had to have the basic dataset available.
[Marty]: And again, it connects nicely to this theme of invisible work, because if you hadn’t been doing all that work in the background, unseen, where few people even understood why you were doing it, or what you were doing, the museum wouldn’t have been ready to move into the next phase.
Well, indeed. And not only a few people didn’t understand, I remember there was another colleague, who I only really became friendly with at the Agha Khan Project when I went to work at Harvard, and I remember one day, you know, he actually said, “So, you went over to the dark side!”
He was referring to me having given up my curatorial stripes and gone to the dreaded information technology side. It was a wonderful, wacky world back then, and full of a lot of characters. It still is, I’m sure, but the lines were drawn a little bit more clearly before. Because, after all, as another thing I said a lot of times too, and Kathy, you’ll bear me out on this, and I think you might even suggested this: “The problem is not having a database, we’ve got lots of databases walking around, in fact, they’re on two legs and when they retire, they walk right out the door.” We had huge troves of knowledge about our collection that were suddenly inaccessible to us.
[Jones]: Well, I mean, Cornelius, for one, right?
For example, yeah.
[Jones]: You lose all of that information because they weren’t equipped, I’ll say, to put it into a database.
Right. Fortunately Cornelius [Adrian Comstock Vermeule, III] authored a book almost every year so he, you know disgorged knowledge in a way that certainly matters. I remember another one, Peter Sutton, who became Curator of Paintings at one point at the MFA, and I saw him years afterwards on an airplane, and he said, “Yeah, I remember when, I knew you before, I was an author. Now I’m just a content provider.” [Laughing.]
[Jones]: That’s good. I like that.
He used to, he used to produce a book a year too.
[Jones]: That’s good.
[Jones]: Lots of characters.
Yeah, well, there was real ambivalence – maybe warranted now, in retrospect – about the idea of making all this data — previously private information, and private bailiwicks of these little silos out there, and sort of mixing and mashing it all up. I mean, we’re very skeptical and wary of privacy issues nowadays. In fact, I mean maybe you do it, too, I joke about how privacy… “it’s such a 20th Century thing.” I mean, it was a very real issue back then. People were really worried and obviously, with very good reason. But at the bottom line, you know, privacy of your own personal life is quite a bit different than privacy for collections held in public trust by museums, who receive tax-free status and all the other benefits that come along with it.
I always felt that we were obliged to share our data, and in fact, we love sharing our data, so this is just a new way of doing it. How many times have we been queried about, “Well, you know, if we give too much information away online, will people still be inclined to come to the museum?” You know it’s: “Well, yeah!” Ever since they started publishing black and white images, and, you know, postcards, it just engenders more and more interest, and then, colored slides, wow, that’s another level. And then all of a sudden, I mean, remember Sister Wendy and other kinds of shows that the curators would scoff at? In fact, these means brought more people’s attention and awareness and, and, hopefully, their support to the museum so, it all worked out, it is just difficult to see how the future is going to unfold while we’re in the process of making it.