Oral History of Museum Computing: Richard Rinehart
This Oral History of Museum Computing is provided by Richard Rinehart, and was recorded on the 14th of May, 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/WoBJ9mnKAj4.
Well, I have a few… take this in the form of notes. Notes from the field, rather than a sort of biographical narrative. I do want to again, apologize for being late to our session today, but it did give me cause to reflect, because I was late because of a bridge coming down. And I while I was frustrated and embarrassed to be late, you know, as I was waiting there, it did occur to me that I was frustrated by the failure of some invisible technology, right. You know, the fact that this bridge was coming down, and we don’t notice this kind of invisible infrastructure until it fails us, and, and that was not lost on me, as I was waiting for the bridge to come home to jump on the information bridge and be able to talk to you all. And I was kind of, as I was passing the highway workers that were working on getting this bridge up and running too, I sort of felt a kinship in a way. You know, I know what it’s like to be one of the Morlocks, you know, down in the subterranean chambers, laboring away at machines, that whose purpose and impact I perhaps fully don’t grasp, but laboring nonetheless in darkness, while the masters above, you know, reap the benefits until we, until we smash the machines. So there was that.
But, I have just a few stories I’ll tell, if that’s okay.
So, way back in the early days, most of these memories come from my long tenure of 17-plus years at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, right. And I remember, and I started there in 1994. I was actually working across campus in the library for a few years prior, and my job, not coincidentally at the library, was to sit in the basement, and they would send computers to us, and back in those days, in the early ‘90s — I’m talking like ‘91 to ‘93 — you didn’t get a nice little computer that was ready to plug in and go, right? You got parts, and you had to assemble the parts and then you had to program the ROM and all that kind of stuff. I mean, you could get computers that were, you know, fully contained, but the library at UC Berkeley chose not to. So, I sat in the basement, assembling those computers, and programming that ROM, then I went over to the museum.
And one of the first projects that I remember in the ‘90s was that we partnered with Apple computer, and they were introducing a new device called the Apple Newton. I don’t know if that’ll ring a bell, but it was a handheld digital, yeah, sort of … they call it a PDA back in the day. It was the precursor to, of course, you know, [holds up smart phone] these things, right. Only, it was eight times the size of these things, you know, and 100th of the computing power. Anyway, had a little black and white screen, but it had, you know, it had multimedia. It had nonlinear multimedia capabilities. And so, we partnered with them, and my, my great idea was to turn it into a new form of in-gallery, you know, a walking tour of the museum for visitors, right, about a particular exhibition that we were having. And you know, if you remember at the time, like, museums have long had those sort of cassette recorders on a, you know, on a rope that you can hang around your neck.
Good one! Wait, I got to see this [looking at something in chat]. Aha! Interesting.
Okay, so you know, museums had had those tape recorders, but those were, of course, limited, non-interactive. They were very linear, you know, you sort of had to follow the tour. They were famous for people getting lost and not knowing what painting the people were talking about at a given moment. Things like that. So I thought, “Well, this opens up all kinds of possibilities.”
And I was excited to partner with Apple, which wasn’t quite the international behemoth that they are now. They were a big company by then, but they were also kind of in their ups and downs period, you know. And so, they partnered with us because remember we’re both in the Bay Area, so it wasn’t that far, you know, to Silicon Valley from Berkeley.
And we worked together, the Berkeley Art Museum crew and myself and Apple, to work on these things, and we worked for months. And, of course, this was, you know, sort of invisible, behind the scenes. Like, you know, very few other people knew what we were working on. Of course, Apple wanted that to be super-secret because they were going to kind of use the event to promote the multiple uses for this new handheld digital device that would transform the world, you know. Trick is, they were ahead of their time, because when we unveiled the project to our public, and, in fact, we made it free and did everything. We trained the docents on sort of how to use it, so that they can answer questions, and trained the visitors, but the bottom line was, for all of that effort and all of that glorious vision, it was a big flop. It just, it just, you know, went over like a lead balloon with the visitors. And it was, I think, primarily because people just weren’t used to having this kind of a thing yet. [Takes Smart Phone out of his pocket]. People weren’t used to holding a computer in your hand and having some sort of interface, you know.
The tape recording thing was frustrating enough for a lot of visitors who got lost, and I think we were just asking for too much for people to soon, right. Because if you’re not used to this technology out in the world, and then you step into the museum, and they throw this thing in front of you that is so alien that you’ve never seen it. You know, it’s, it’s too far advanced to have even appeared on Space Odyssey, you know, 2001, there’s just no familiarity with it, you know. So it almost is like… one of the lessons that I learned, many lessons from that, about piloting small. You know, pilot and iterate, pilot and iterate, instead of sort of building up your big project and putting too much energy into it. Especially if it’s not something that you know you’re going to commit to permanently, and this wasn’t. This was definitely an experiment. And I credit Berkeley and the Berkeley Art Museum for having that experimental, innovative spirit, you know, for, for many years and they still do. So that was one of the big lessons from the failed Apple Newton project was just, you know, once, once the thing is out there in the world, it’s a lot easier to introduce it, you know, into the museum setting.
Now the exception to that is of course artists. Artists, of course, innovate and new media artists innovate with technology, and they do weird and kooky things, and they’re usually years ahead of their time in terms of interface design and also social uses of media, unexpected sort of uses and critiques of new media in the art space. But I sort of feel like that the, you know, museum audiences are sort of prepared to be challenged by the artworks. They’re not necessarily as prepared to be challenged by the sort of the invisible furniture of the museum itself. You know, the thing is that the museum’s whole purpose is to make it easier to engage with these, you know, crazy, advanced artworks and by us being too innovative on our side, we weren’t making it easier. You know, we were just challenging them from the from the first go. So, you know, once these things got in the public, and then, of course, museums started to take up that, that technology, it took off.
And that was a big lesson for me. And, moreover, I have to say, I really did learn from my failures. Maybe they stuck in my brain more because we all are wired to want to succeed, you know. So maybe that my failure stuck out for me more, but I think, as I got older, I realized, “Oh, you know, it actually is valuable to learn from your failures. There’s no bad information. You can of course waste resources, and that’s never a good thing. But as long as you have a good goal, you know, and you’re learning from what you’re doing that seems to be the important thing.”
So the, the next project that I undertook was, I was curating the aforementioned new media art at the UC Berkeley Art Museum, and I talked them into let me curating a wholly online net.art series of exhibitions. You know, an ongoing portal for net.art, and and indeed, I perhaps not that creatively called it net.art. And that was the portal of the UC Berkeley Art Museum website, and it was an exhibition stream of our curated exhibitions, a series.
And, one of, in my mind, one of the innovations that I wanted to propel with that, in which I was successful for a period, was that the new media artists who showed on there would show a work of new media art on the website, and we would you know, I would gather some contextual texts, and then I would usually do a video interview, kind of just like this, actually, with the artist, and that would accompany the artwork for context. So we were doing, we were exhibiting the art, and we were doing what museums do well, provide context for things. But the extra thing that I wanted to do that really hadn’t been done too much at that time, was that I got the artists to agree that after their exhibition, you know, it’s usually about two months, they would allow the source files for their digital art project to be uploaded to the same site and made freely available to the public under Creative Commons licenses. So they could be, of course, as restrictive or as open as they wanted to be with these things.
And of course, I was open when I approached the artists for this project, I said, you know, “Part of this project is you exhibit your art, and then part two is you give it away.” You know, and so, it wasn’t like, so the artists who came on board were ones who wanted to participate in this. And they gave away the source file, you know the SWF Flash files and things like that, you know, the original images, any bit of coding they had done, sort of whatever was behind the artwork, and the idea was that not only, not only could people experience the artwork, but, and it wasn’t about people downloading it to own it, it was about people sort of being able to reverse-engineer an artwork and use it as part of the infrastructure for their own work.
And then we even had a system built in where, if somebody used a piece of one of these new media artworks in their own artwork, or their own not art, creation, part of the requirement was that they would register it back, so that we could start to create this kind of growing tree of, you know, the artwork began here, and has since spoked out here, and it’s been, you know… And since they’re more sophisticated tools for that sort of thing, right, but that’s what we were attempting to do is to trace the influence of the artwork and the spread.
And that was, you know, I think it was a… it was a wonderful sort of aspirational gesture of open culture. I think anybody who remembers sort of the early 2000s probably remember, remembers that, you know, for a period, every computer-related conference was titled “Open…” “Open this, open that, everything was ‘open,’” right? Open Source, Open Community, Open Apps. So, we were kind of there, you know, and being a public you know, university, I think it was within our ethos to do something like that. And there were problems with it, of course. Like, now, I would be… you know, I think now, I would be more critical about what compensation the artist was getting. And I would probably try and make it such that it wasn’t, you know, like, so much of a gig economy, and make it so that the museum upfront would compensate the artist more significantly, you know, so that there aren’t any sort of, you know, sort of loss that they might have from giving away their code, would be compensated for by a public institution whose responsibility is to support artists, right. And to, you know, support sharing culture. Sharing a culture, so I would see it within the writ of a public museum to do something like that.
Anyway, that wasn’t part of the project, then, but that’s what I learned. And I have to say, one of the hardest lessons that I learned with that is that the program went on for years, and it was, you know, I thought it was it was really fun and there were some interesting projects that were opened up, and reinterpreted in interesting ways. And then, when I left the institution, they, you know, they didn’t, they didn’t fill my position. It was a hard financial times, so I understand why they didn’t do that. But, essentially, there was no institutional pickup of that initiative, or of a lot of initiatives, and so, while I don’t really fault the institution, it was sort of the aftermath of the 2009 financial crush, crunch, you know, so I sort of get why institutions had to sort of retract and entrench after that, and, in fact, are still kind of retrenching.
The lesson, one of the other lessons that I learned is just how much innovation — if I can go ahead and say that — comes from, you know, an individual evangelist in an institution, pushing for something, and then when that person leaves, that that leaves, or that just stops. You know, so you have this really sort of staccato rhythm of institutional innovation, you know, like Steve Dietz goes to the Walker Art Center and boom! it’s the center of the digital art world, and then he’s gone. And then, you know, [sound of slamming on the brakes] the brakes are on, and like, that whole — you know, so that institution had a real moment there. And there were other people involved too, of course. So yeah, that was the lesson for me is it’s, it’s not so much about institutions as personalities. And, to my mind, that’s not a good place to be. I mean, I’m happy that the institutions allow you know, for that kind of rapid change and, and that kind of experimentation, on the one hand.
On the other hand, I sort of feel like, as institutions, you know, especially long-term cultural heritage institutions, you know, we should all be forward thinking, and thinking in terms of sort of interoperability and sustainability, right. Not only in terms of our sort of, you know, green footprint on the earth, but of our information technology projects too, you know. And if it’s not going to be taken up, if it’s not scalable, and not everything should be, some things are just experiments, but I, it did leave me questioning sort of the role of the institution. You know, what’s the obligation of the institution in these scenarios, besides, you know, providing a time for the individual to do this and the resources, which is no small thing, right? The willingness to experiment is great, but I sort of wonder about that, the conversation between the individual and the institution. And, and it’s perhaps, you know, fitting that I left that position to become the director of a small museum, the Samek Art Museum at Bucknell University. And so, I brought that that institutional question with me when I came.
It’s sort of like, Okay, what’s the institution’s responsibility here? Even if I or somebody else on staff innovates and creates some terrific experiment, you know, what is the institution’s responsibility afterwards? And can we say that up front or not? I don’t know. It was just a question for me that really stuck in my head.
Another project that I will talk about is the Media Art Notation System. So I’ve been involved in the collection and preservation of new media art for quite a while, decades now I guess. And was working with the Guggenheim and Franklin Furnace and other good institutions on a couple of grant-funded projects, you know, Archiving the Avant-Garde, comes to mind is one of them. So we got grant funding from the NEA and the NEH and the IMLS over the years to fund these kind of projects. So we were looking at the problem of preserving and collecting digital art from all levels, from the culture of the institutions and the museums that were collecting, and what needed to change in terms of professional education, professional practices, institutional infrastructure and policy, all the way through the technological aspects of the question, naturally, including metadata. You know, and it was a time, it was a real time and when there were a lot of metadata schemas and standards being formulated, and there was a real sort of blooming of awareness about metadata and the role of it. And now, of course, that is a truly invisible technology, but as you both probably remember, there was a time when a lot of us were thinking very, very openly about that. And that’s where a lot of museum conferences would be focused.
So, I was involved, for instance, because, partly because I was at UC Berkeley, Daniel Pitti over in the library was developing the EAD, the Encoded Archival Description, which has now become an institutional international standard for the description of finding aids in archives. But what was that, where was I going with that? But so I was involved in metadata from early on, and I was sort of trying to bring a museum perspective to things. But what that meant is since Daniel brought me into work in that really kind of library and are really archive-centric kind of a thing, I also worked with people in the UC Berkeley Library. Remember, I used to work there before the museums, so I had those connections? And a lot of the projects that we were doing like MOAC, Museums and the Online Archive — Museums and the Online Archive of California, purposefully involved museums, archives, and libraries, right? We were trying to hit really the, the triad, you know, the eternal triad of cultural heritage to get everybody involved and get everything to be interoperable. So I saw a lot of these standards, you know, were coming from the library world, because the library world had a longer history of developing these kind of standards, like with the MARC library format and others. And the library world is much, much bigger than the museum world…
I was really interested from the museum side of things in making, you know, first of all, not being so competitive as museums, traditionally, you know, are for a number of financial reasons. And also, working with libraries and archives to develop interoperable standards. It just made sense, because the li– the world of libraries is so much bigger and the world of library vendors was bigger too — so I wanted to be able to as a museum professional, be able to tap into and use library standards and library tools, right, because those are going to be better supported, cheaper, more… you know, there’s probably going to be more diversity of them, given the market is so much bigger. And for so many other reasons, I wanted people to be able to discover, discover cultural heritage data and share it behind the scenes and discover it on the other side, from, from a political perspective, sort of seamlessly, you know, possible right. That’s still the dream, and it’s definitely happening.
So, at that point I… when we were talking about preserving digital art, the conversation naturally went toward, “Well, we should… here’s a metadata schema we should use, you know, maybe we should use CIDOC? Maybe we should use…” you know, any of the others that were pumping out at the time… The EAD, for that matter, and the more I looked into it, despite my own proclivity for interoperability, I thought, there are so many things that are different about new media art than you know, a sort of digital, textual resource. Or you know, the other kinds of things that our archives were mostly dealing with. Artworks are just different kinds of cultural artifacts. I suppose that’s why there is there’s a specialized kind of institution to care for them, right. Because they’re different enough that they require that kind of consideration, so.
I thought, you know, “We can’t just slap on, despite the fact that library metadata is the 800-pound gorilla, and museums are really the small fry here, and that we, we shouldn’t just sort of uncritically apply these library technologies metadata standards onto our own needs for new media art.” Now that’s not to say that we should just invent our own and do our own thing either. Like, going rogue has its own pitfalls, so I thought, “Well, what we should do probably is take, you know, a, a broader computer industry and/or library standard and adapt it and tweak it in certain ways.” So I set about writing a metadata schema called the Media Art Notation System. And I published in Leonardo, the journal Leonardo, and a couple of places about it, and it was a metadata schema intended to describe works of interactive, multimedia, new media art for the purposes of access, but also for preservation.
And one of my main intentions with Media Art Notation System was really a kind of as a proof of concept. Because what I wanted to do was be able to talk in great detail, and with a, with a great granularity about exactly the kinds of metadata approaches [that] are needed for new media art, and, moreover, how these might be different than the metadata needs of other, you know, of other types of cultural materials. And, and I think one of the things that I learned from that is I wrote it, and then I wrote these papers detailing it, and put it out there into the world, and I think, from my own part, you know, I saw it as a proof of concept, but perhaps, I wasn’t clear enough about that in the delivery, so I think it was put out there as if it were a standard meant to be taken up and adopted. And it wasn’t really adopted that widely. I mean, some, some people, noted, noticeably there was somebody in England who tried to implement it inside of a digital asset management system that I thought was very interesting. But, it was again, really meant as this kind of proof of concept, and it was an adaptation of the MPEG standard, MPEG 21. So, not the video compression standard, but the video metadata standard, which was really complex. But I thought, you know, if I just adapt it, and I’m not breaking any piece of it, right, but I’m adapting it and documenting the special ways in which I’m using this or that, you know, tag or field in such a way that I’m creating a metadata schema that’s really… if you create it, and put it out there, it’s MPEG compatible, you know. So I thought. “Oh, this is, this is great stuff.”
And, and it was successful in that it demonstrated, to people who speak metadata, it demonstrated, I think the special needs of new media art, and I often refer to it for that purpose. But I think one of the lessons I learned from it though, is one has to be very intentional about the intended role of, you know, a schema or a project, so going into any sort of project…. I’m sorry. I’m pausing now because my calendar is popping up some pop-ups for me…
One needs to be very intentional about the purpose and scope, I would say, of an intended project. I think that would have helped us with the Apple Newton project as well if we had sort of said, “Okay, this is just going to be a one-off. We’re going to take six months, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it at this scale. And if it fails, then here’s what we’re going to do with that information. If it succeeds, then we’ll do version two.” You know, so I think the same would have been true of the Media Notation System or would have been good to for me, I think, to think through more clearly, “Okay, this is not like the EAD, not stitching something from whole cloth that I’m going to push out there into the world as ready-made to go.” It really was a proof of concept. So, that’s quite a different thing. So that was a lesson to me, in terms of project conceptualization and management.
The last thing I think I mentioned is the, is the installation and manifestation and creation of the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive website. So, we made the website, which launched in 1994, when I got there. And I remember, when I first got to the museum, and I, it was the year that I got there, right, and I had just come from the library, and I was some whippersnapper, and didn’t know anything or anybody. And I said to, I think, I think at a staff meeting or something, I said, “I’d like to create a website for this museum. I think that’d be a great way to reach the public.” And of course everybody’s like, “Web? What? What’s a web?”
You know, and so, I had to do that, but I also remember, there was one other person on staff in Communications, who said, “Oh, we already have plans for that. I have detailed plans for a gopher site. So we’re making the gopher site for the museum.” And I said, “Well that’s, that’s great. We can have two sites, but I sort of feel like this HTTP and HTML protocols, you know, the way to go. Let’s, let’s try that.”
And I have to say that nobody was into it. You know, it was just this thing that wasn’t on anybody’s radar, and they’re like, “What, what is this crazy thing? What are you doing?”
And there was one curator, in particular, who said, “Yeah, why don’t we make it for this exhibition I’m doing? Because I just want to do this thing.” You know, and again, so it was one of those things where the institution was only peripherally involved. In fact, largely unaware of what we were doing. And we launched the website and in the various, over the years, in my various combing through of history, I think it was probably among the first 10 museum websites developed in the world. So, it was pretty early in there. And I remember a couple of the other ones, because the first one that, the first website for a museum, for an actual real, physical museum might have been the Museum of Paleontology at UC Berkeley, and so it’s no coincidence. So, you’re, you’re confirming that. I think that that was an early one, if not the first, right.
And I, so he was on campus. It was a grad student who started it for them without their knowledge, either. So, we were sort of you know, simpatico with that, but I was able to draw on that expertise. Moreover, though, I think, maybe, and this, I invite anyone to correct or document this history, because this is just anecdotal. And I remember the Web Louvre might be the first museum website. Now, the reason I said Paleontology was the first real museum website is the Web Louvre wasn’t started by the Louvre at all, or anybody working for the Louvre, right? It was a grad student unaffiliated with the museum, Nicholas Pioche, and he started this thing on his own, and he was just using images that he could scan or grab from anywhere of works in the Louvre. So I think that might have been the first museum website, which was kind of illegitimate, and then Museum of Paleontology at Berkeley was the first real one. And then the Berkeley Art Museum might have been, you know, in the top 10, or certainly was one of the early ones. But it was of course interesting to me again too how we started this under the radar. Like we were the Morlocks, and we were building our own machines and nobody knew up above you know what we were doing until they came out. And it turned out to be, you know, quite a useful tool.
I do remember one little anecdote about Nicholas Pioche because you know, we people developing those early museum websites, since there was there’s only a handful early on, we all knew each other, right, and we were communicating. And I remember, at a certain point, the web — I’m sorry, the Louvre — became aware of the Web Louvre that Nicholas had built, and apparently, they were not pleased. And so they were going through the French Minister of Culture to take action against him because he was a grad student and they… well, first of all, of course, they wanted the website to stop and go away, and then maybe there’d be some punitive action against him, because he had used their name and their images, and all this kind of stuff.
And so, he asked me to write a letter of defense on his behalf to the French Minister of Culture and I thought, “Yeah. Me. [Laughing] I’m sure that’s who he’s going to listen to.” But you know, why not? I was going to help out. Poor Nicholas. I thought he did something really interesting and here, he might, you know, in the end be punished for it, so I wrote the letter to the Minister of Culture in France, and my main point of advice was I said, “Look, I get it. I get that the web, you know, the Louvre probably should have been involved in this, and hasn’t been,” I said, “but instead of the Louvre punishing this guy, they should hire him.” Really. He’s already done the work for them, and he knows what he’s doing. The website was extensive. And I was like, you know, this is … you take advantage of this kind of grassroots initiative, right, and grab on to it, instead of stamping down on it, setting, setting the work back years, and then starting over again, which is what they, what they did in the end, I think. Anyway, I never got a response from the French Minister of Culture. I don’t know whether he ever read the letter or not. I never expected him to.
But I just remember the scene back then, of us, building those websites for museums in the early ‘90s and how we talked to each other, and sort of the little stories that we shared about those early beginnings, and the idea of when the web became aware of Nicholas, and I had to write that letter that stuck in my brain too. That was a little moment in… I don’t know, cultural technology history, you know, that probably nobody knows about.
I’ve since moved from the Berkeley Art Museum, where I had a more specialized role, focusing on technology to being the Director of the Samek Art Museum, which is, you know, a small academic museum that is sort of fully formed and full functioning, right. We do everything that a traditional museum does, just I call us the “Mini-Met of Central PA.” You know, and we’re… and we are the biggest museum within a 50 mile radius, but what I was going to say is, you know, I sort of miss the days of being a specialist. I’m now a generalist, and I was a specialist for so many years. And when I think back on what I miss the most, it’s really the camaraderie. It’s really these connections that we were talking about, and the names that you’re bringing up.
And my days with, you know both of you at the MCN, and the Museum Computer Network were just really fun, and I remember, at a certain point in my career, probably at the end of the ‘90s, the early 2000s, when I was involved with MCN and, and you know the larger museum community, and I was teaching at UC Berkeley and I sort of faced a split in my career, where I thought, you know, I could probably teach and do new media art, and go the academic route, and you know, take up a teaching role. I had guest taught at a bunch of area colleges and everything. And, and the really, the one most influential factor that took me in the other route, the route of staying within museums, was I thought at the end of the day, I thought “You know what? I like museum people better. I like going to museum conferences and hanging out with them better. They’re actually much more fun than CAA.” You know, I love CAA. I go, I go to CAA now, you know. I mean, that’s obviously all crossover, but you, you probably get where I’m coming from, right? I’ll go to MCN and even if we met up at AAM, we’d go after the day’s you know worth of seminars, and we’d go to the hotel bar and have some drinks and talk about metadata standards, and you know, transfer protocols and all the stuff that you’re documenting. All this invisible technology. Somebody should have been recording all of those drink, those hotel bars, you know, in the like early 2000s, and you would have captured all the history that you’re trying to recreate here, after the fact.
[Jones]: Maybe we’ll do that next.
[Laughs] There you go! So, I really appreciate you doing this because that’s what I miss the most and I just want to sort of hang that up on history’s, you know, pin board as well. But I feel like there was a real spirit of community and collaboration during that period, and it was really special.