Oral History of Museum Computing: Koven Smith
This oral history of museum computing is provided by Koven Smith, and was recorded on the 26th of February, 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/VgV4mxMpZhQ.
So, thinking back to the IMA [Indianapolis Museum of Art], I did not overlap with Max [Anderson], actually. I was there under the previous director who was Tony Hirschel, who was there for I want to say for about three or four years. He was part of the planning for the new building, and, and he left shortly before the new building at the IMA opened. And then I was there for a few more months and then left, and Max came on later. Which also means in a strange way, I kind of did and did not overlap with Rob Stein.
An unsung hero of early museum technology that probably doesn’t come up that often actually is Rhonda Winter, who was the IMA’s first… I forget what her title was. It was Chief Technology Officer, or something like that, but previous to that point, the IMA had basically had, in effect, two help desk guys and then I was the collections database administrator. I worked in the Registrar’s department.
That was pretty much it as far as technology goes at the IMA in those days. I was hired there in 2001 or…. 2002. Rhonda came on later, and she was a very deliberate hire for the Museum. It was clear, based on what I’d been doing and some of the other work that was happening, that the IMA needed to make a personnel investment in technology. That had never really done before. I and others sat in on a committee to evaluate possible hires for what became Rhonda Winters’ position, the Chief Technology Officer.
One of the people who advised us on that was Len Steinbach, who was at that time, still at Cleveland [Art Museum]. That was my first time meeting Len. I think everybody at the IMA was still thinking in very kind of rigid, conservative [terms] like, “Well, we need somebody who knows how to install servers.” They were thinking very much [hand gesture for narrow], and Len came in and just was very much Len for two hours or whatever it was, and just blew everybody’s mind. It was like, “No, no, no! You’re thinking about this all wrong. Do this, and do this…”
Len and I have stayed friends ever since then. I actually went to Obama’s Inauguration with Len and Nancy Proctor and Titus [Bicknell], and my wife, Madelyn.
So Rhonda came in and really just aligned a lot of these disparate efforts, things that we’d been doing with very little support. [We had curators] asking, “What if we did this?” and conservators were asking, “What if we had a little database for our stuff? What would that look like?” Rhonda really aligned those things and put a real management methodology behind it all that had never been there before. And so as part of that, she started reaching out to other partners, and one of the partners she reached out to was at IUPUI [Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis], where Rob Stein was at that time.
That was my first time meeting Rob. I don’t remember exactly what his role was, but he was basically running an advanced projects lab. That was my first time ever experiencing haptics technology in person, and some of what we then called ultra-high def monitors, which were probably worse than the monitor I’m using right now. I had lived in New York before and then moved to Indianapolis to get married and then, when I got divorced, I decided that I wanted to move back to New York.
And Rhonda very much encouraged that and put me in a position where I was [later] able to get the job at the Met. I think, without her advising [me], I don’t know that that would have happened. When I left, that freed up an open position for Rob to be hired. Which is not to say that Rob was a replacement for me in any way, and Rob’s skills, obviously, are self-evident. But I like to joke with Rob: “Well, you wouldn’t even be in museums had I not decided to leave Indianapolis, you know.” Which is in a weird way kind of true. But it seems inevitable that Rob would have found his way in [to museums] one way or another. But yeah, Rhonda made great hires because she hired Yvel [Guelce] there, also Daniel Incandela, who has since left the museum field, but was very important for the IMA in those early days.
[Rhonda] really put me on a professional path. I think, without Rhonda it’s likely that when I moved back to New York, I might have left museums all together. I always want to lift Rhonda up whenever I can. Those of us who were in Indianapolis at the time know how important she was for what later came to pass at at the IMA, and the Children’s Museum, and then subsequently other places. But I don’t know that her role is well-understood outside of that. And she’s just great, and I think she is living on her farm now and riding horses all the time, and I hear from her occasionally.
I’m trying to think… sorry, I’m telling you more of a social history than a technical one. I don’t know if that is or isn’t what you’re looking for, but…
[Marty]: That’s great because it helps shows the connections between people too, and I don’t think I ever met Rhonda Winter, I was just looking her up. Yeah, thank you for pointing us in that direction.
Sure, yeah. She was only at the IMA for a relatively short time. I think she was there for maybe five or six years, something like that. But, I mean, she was incredibly impactful during that time. I don’t think you would have had IMA Labs had Rhonda not been there. I don’t think [that without] the groundwork that was laid [you could have] prepared the way for IMA labs. She didn’t start IMA labs, but I don’t I don’t think that any of that infrastructure would have been there were it not for her. She just made great choices.
[Marty]: Oh, and I don’t mean to interrupt, but I just wanted to say that you know this is fantastic for putting a human face on these technical labs, right, because it’s, it’s these connections that caused them to build. You mentioned Rob Stein. I just had to, I had to look up where he was at IUPUI. He was assistant director of their visualization lab.
The Visualization Lab, that’s right.
[Marty]: So, he’s done all this image visualization work, which, of course, leads directly neatly into museums, but I’m sure, as you say, if he hadn’t had that connection to IMA, he wouldn’t have made that jump.
I do also think we take the advanced technology university lab… like that marriage with museums seems obvious to us now, and I’m not sure that it really did then. I felt like [people in advanced technology labs] were working on very abstract technology. If they were intersecting with museums at all, it was often preserving historic sites, maybe, like that kind of neighborhood.
And so, it would seem obvious now if you’re looking to do a fancy [tech] project in an art museum, that you might look to see if there’s a friendly lab at the research university nearby that’s doing some of that work, but I don’t know at the time that that was… I mean it’s still the first instance of [that kind of collaboration] that I’m aware of. I’m sure there are others that pre-date it for sure, but [that collaboration] was a really meaningful one. I saw technology in Rob’s lab that I still haven’t seen since then — stuff that was like, “Wow! This is amazing.” [That tech has still] not metastasized into other commercial technology or whatever.
I’m trying to think of technology stuff that was really meaningful in those days. My work at the IMA was as the collections database administrator, and what I brought to that position was [that] I was the first person hired in that position that that had any real kind of technical chops at all. The previous person holding that position was primarily a photographer. And he did great work, but he was more like a super user more than somebody who could go in and run SQL queries and so forth.
When I came into that role, without realizing it until later, I was really the first content-focused technology role that the IMA had, because I wasn’t in there just installing [desktops] and whatever. I was working directly with the museum’s most important content.
And like a lot of museums in those days, they’d been through two or three other collections management systems before Argus, which they were using at that time. There was all kinds of data all over the place, really not normalized, not aligned with any kind of controlled vocabularies or anything like that. And there was a whole users’ group of Argus, poor Argus users, all of us long suffering, who were trying to figure out how to get things out of the data. Because we were starting to get demands and requests to use this data in other ways. That was when for the first time [we thought,] “Oh, this isn’t just like a fancy card catalog; this data may have usability beyond just this system. And others, other than just Registrars may want to use it.”
A big part of my job was cleaning up that data to make it more usable and more useful and doing things like creating workflow diagrams [so you could say], “Well, if this variable is present, then here is the end state. Here’s the activity that occurs. If [a different variable] is present, then this other activity occurs…” But that had never really happened before. And I remember hearing from one of the Registrars years later, like 10 years later: “Yeah, that diagram is still up in our office. We still use it to keep track of the activity flow of things in the Registrar’s Department.”
If I recall, that led into my very first MCN [Museum Computer Network conference], which was in Toronto. I feel like it must have been… later than that because I didn’t start at the IMA until 2002. It was kind of a funny year because MCN had paired with another, like a library group, I can’t remember now [the group was the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN)]. But it was sort of a big one. For MCN in those days, it was kind of an overstuffed conference.
I was terrified because I didn’t know anybody. I bought a suit for the trip because I thought that was what you were supposed to do; I didn’t know how people dressed at conferences [laughs]. I would have been at the IMA for just a few months, really, when I went to MCN for the first time. And my first night at the conference I somehow ended up going out to dinner with a rather heady group of people, it was Amalyah Keshet, Susan Chun, Rob Lancefield, [and others]. I was just terrified. I had no idea, and I very quickly realized oh, I’m not just going to dinner with some random group of people. These are heavy hitters here. I was sharp enough to recognize that [laughs].
I felt way out of my depth, and I had no idea what anybody was talking about. And fortunately, Rob, who was sitting across from me at dinner, we realized that he and I were both musicians. I’m a musician by background and training, and at that time, I was still leading a big band in Indianapolis, so I was happy to talk about that with Rob. Rob was a total lifeline, and got me through that evening, and to a certain extent through the conference.
I had been posting on the Argus users’ group about using Perl to normalize data and get data out of Argus, mess with it, and then get it back in, which really nobody else [was doing]. I don’t even know if anybody at whatever company it was that was running Argus in those days [even understood what I was doing]. When I would send them questions, they’d [respond with] “I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
I had a tiny degree of notoriety from that, so I could meet other Argus users at the conference. That was my crew, for the rest of that conference. I got through it that way. In those days… most of the MCN sessions felt like they were about collections management. That was mostly what we were talking about. And everybody complaining about their collections management systems? Not too different from today! The people that were doing museum technology in 2002 were often like me. They were in the Registrar’s department; they were working with the collections management system. It was them and then a few I.T. people, and then you had people like Jennifer Trant and David Bearman, and Susan Chun, who were a little bit more high level. But the stuff they were thinking [about] was well outside of what a museum like the IMA in those days could even conceive of doing. So, they were not really part of part of my orbit in those days. But that did change when I when I came to the Met.
I had decided that I wanted to move back to New York. I was still very much a musician in those days, a jazz musician, and I [thought,] there’s not much tying me to Indianapolis any more at this point, and I think I should go back to New York. Literally 24 hours after I’d made that decision, my friend Mike Rippy, who had been the former database administrator at the IMA, sent me a job posting. I don’t know where he had seen it. He was like, “Oh hey, did you see this? The Met’s hiring this content technology role that looks like it might be good for you.”
And I said, “Well, gosh, this just seems like kismet or something. I should probably pursue this.” Because I had had it in my mind. I thought, “Well, I am going to move back to New York, I’d love to stay in museums if I can, and I would really like to work at the Met.” I don’t know why I thought that. I don’t know that I’d ever even been to the Met at that point. In New York, MoMA was my museum. I think there was an interesting challenge about the Met maybe. But I don’t even think I fully understood quite the position that the Met occupied within the museum community writ large. I mean, I knew it was big, I knew it was important, but I don’t think I understood that it’s: “Well, this is, this is it, right?” I have since acquired a degree of cynicism about [the Met], but I didn’t have that yet!
And so, I applied for the job, I tried as hard as I could find friends of friends, anybody who might be at the Met. I was sure they were going to get hundreds of applications, and mine was just going to be one of them; there was just no way that anyone was going to see [my resume]. I tried really hard to see if I knew anybody who might be able to encourage my resume to get a better look. No luck, and so I finally just kind of fired it off and assumed that I would never hear back from them. Rhonda Winter helped me write my cover letter, actually — Rhonda Winter and my dad.
I was in my apartment in Indianapolis and got a random call from a 212 area code, and it was one of the HR recruiters at the Met. He introduced himself and started talking and about two minutes in, I suddenly realized: “Oh, I’m being interviewed right now.” Like, no preparation, nothing. He literally just cold-called me and started talking to me about the job and asking about my background. I had written this off because it was months later at this point.
Anyway, a few weeks after that I had a phone interview with Douglas Hegley, who was Deputy Chief Technology Officer, I think, at that point. There was no digital media department at the Met — this [job was in the] Information Systems and Technology (IS&T) department. Douglas was hiring me for the position of Senior Analyst for Enterprise Content Management, the longest and most difficult to remember job title I have ever had, that anyone has ever had, I think, outside of government work, maybe. So Douglas and I talked for about an hour, we got off the phone, and I was sure — he and I have talked about it since — that I bombed that interview. I was like, “There is no way I’m getting this job. That went horribly.”
I’ve since learned that in interviews, Douglas really plays things close to the vest, but just he was giving me very little on the phone and, I was just thinking, “Well, this is not going to happen.” And then the next call was from the recruiter again saying we’d like to bring you out to New York for an interview, and it kind of went from there. That was in 2005. When I interviewed at the Met, Christo’s “Gates” were still in Central Park — it was the last week that that was there. I prepared for my interview underneath one of these orange gates in Central Park, which was kind of memorable.
I had a strange role [at the Met] in those days, because this is a moment where we were transitioning away from much more of a very “I.T.” approach to technology to one that was more content-focused. A reason that my resume probably floated to the top is that I was probably one of the few people who applied who had actual coding expertise. I mean, that’s not really my background, but I had enough. I could write SQL Queries and I could do Perl scripts and things like that. But I also had domain expertise in museums and had worked with collections data, which was very much at the center of the role as Douglas had envisioned it. I was definitely an early hire for the Met in that regard, in that working with hardware and installing software were not in my “duties as assigned.” My role was very content-focused.
And later, the domain of that role expanded somewhat, but initially, I was very focused on just trying to understand what content repositories existed throughout the Met. That in and of itself was a whole long research project – trying to understand [the Met’s content] at a very atomic level. I was working for Douglas, but I was partnering often with Susan Chun’s team, which in those days included Michael Jenkins, who I’m sure will come up in your discussions. And Jeannie Choi was working with Michael Jenkins, at that time [as the Met’s collections database administrator]. And then later when Michael left, Jeannie was elevated into that position.
One of the very first projects I became involved with [at the Met] was the Steve [social tagging for art objects] project. I had been at the Met for only a couple of months, and I was invited out to this convening at Grindstone Island in Canada. I had to get a passport for that because I’d never traveled outside the United States! I had to very quickly get a passport together to go to Grindstone Island, and it was another one of those things where I was once again feeling very out of my depth. That would have been the first time that I met Bruce Wyman [at that time, Director of Technology at the Denver Art Museum]. Douglas didn’t go, so I was without my supervisor there, I was kind of untethered. I had invited Matt Morgan, who was then head of tech at Brooklyn Museum. Shelly Bernstein was working with him at that time. I didn’t know Shelly yet then.
The whole focus of that meeting on Grindstone Island didn’t have a name yet. The name [Steve] came out that that meeting. It was probably Bruce who just suggested [the name] — like let’s just call it “Steve,” like not have it be an acronym that actually stands for anything, because that will be funny. Somehow that stuck because we couldn’t really come up with a better name than that. [Steve, in its initial form, was a protocol and an application that was intended to help museums acquire subject matter tags related to works in their collections. The innovation in the Steve project was that these tags would be contributed by the users of the collections themselves, and not be provided by the museums. At the time, so-called “social tagging” or “folksonomy” applications like Del.icio.us had just appeared, but their usability in the museum space was an entirely unproven prospect.]
So what I will [reacting to Marty holding up a button advertising the Steve project] — Hey! There we go! Wow. See? We didn’t have those yet [at Grindstone Island]. I think those buttons came to pass after I was off the project. In those early days, this notion of accepting user submissions of any kind was unheard of, certainly in the museum space. In those days the technical infrastructure for [accepting user submissions] didn’t exist. The notional infrastructure for it didn’t exist in that people didn’t even understand what that would be.
Public comments on Web pages were not a new thing, but it wasn’t something that everybody intuitively understood… I attribute [the Steve] idea entirely to Susan [Chun]. Susan really had a vision; she understood that museums had a problem where all the metadata around objects was from a curatorial perspective, so that data might tell you everything about the object, except what it literally depicts.
[At the Met] we did have a couple of use cases where the curator actually did not know what a photograph was of. The curator could tell you everything else about [the photograph]: who made it, when, what style it was, the technique. But [the curator would not know the name of the place] being depicted in this photograph. And Susan’s insight was, “Well, we might not know, but somebody probably does. Somebody might look at that building and say, ‘Oh, I know exactly where that is.’ Or what that place is called, or what kind of car that is…” Susan put in place this whole technical infrastructure for collecting user submitted tags, to help [museums] visually identify things. I would still love to have that. I think there’s still potentially a lot of use for that.
My contribution to the project in those days was that I was doing work on a project with the Met’s library to scan old newspaper clipping. They had a clippings archive; [they would keep a copy of a clipping] any time a newspaper would mention the Met going back to the 1800s. I was doing a project there where we were exploring the possibility of [scanning these clippings and using] natural language processing to try and cluster things together and say, “Oh, all of these [clippings] relate to similar subject matter.” We were using MATLAB and a couple of other applications [to do this]; a lot of Perl in those days, because that was what I knew best. [We were trying to figure out if we could] process this undifferentiated text and extract useful tags.
For the Steve project, what we were doing was asking, “If we programmatically extract tags from text from collection records and other related materials, are those tags better or worse than those that are submitted by just regular old people?” And it turned out that the stuff that was submitted by people was certainly at least as useful [as the automated tags], and a lot of cases, more.
But natural language processing was a really big thing for a minute, because it was it was very new and very exciting, and it was highly specialized, and it was real fancy. Some of my first MCN presentations dealt with some of this because we were doing a lot of Semantic Web work [at the Met] as well. [We were] trying to learn how to catalog the Met’s collection data using RDF and OWL and other semantic ontologies and things like that. Natural language processing was part of that.
So those were my early days at the Met and right around that time would have been when I brought Don Undeen in to work for me at the Met. Don later became, after I left, the head of the Met’s Media Lab and Maker Space, [which was] basically the first makerspace ever in a museum, to my knowledge. He now runs the makerspace at Georgetown University. He was definitely at the Met at a very pivotal moment, when we were making another shift. [We became] much more focused on a more playful and open-ended use of technology and platforms, and [we were] really trying to leverage commercial technology in a way that we never had before. Everything to that point had all been like, “Well if we need it, we have to build it somehow.” And there weren’t very many people around then who knew how to do that.
So, towards the tail end of my time at the Met [2007-2008], we started — after kind of really working on the curators there for years — getting requests…for actual interpretive technology to go into the galleries themselves. I can’t emphasize enough how controversial that idea was at the Met at that time. The Met’s curatorial divisions, with some exceptions, were highly conservative, with some making very bold pronouncements like, “There will never be computers in our galleries!” That sort of thing. There was a lot of that going on.
So, the first real kind of meaningful [request from a curatorial department we got] was from the Greek and Roman department. Their galleries had been closed for renovations for years, and one part of the renovated galleries was going to be a study gallery — open storage, basically. They came to us because they had more objects that they needed to show in [that gallery] than they had space to identify them with any kind of physical labeling. They had cases filled with hundreds of pottery shards or coins and things like that. The head curator there at the time, whose name I’m now unfortunately not remembering [Chris Lightfoot], came to us and asked “Is there a way that we could have computers do this?”
This was probably about as sophisticated as the request was, and I think Douglas and I were like… [rubbing hands together excitedly] “Okay, this is finally our chance. Now we can really do something.” We’re not doing experiments in the margins… [instead] this is something that will go in the gallery and might be there permanently.”
Still, for the curatorial team, their default position was “we’re not going to do this. We’re interested, but we’re probably not going to do it.” So in every single meeting we had to kind of win them over all over again. Eventually we settled on a methodology, which was that there would be a series of kiosks along one wall in the study gallery, whose purpose would really be just to show label copy for the objects. That’s it. Nothing else. It was still yet to be determined exactly how you would match what you saw in the kiosk to the objects that were in the cases, but [our attitude was], “We’ll figure that out somehow.”
Douglas and I were both trying to push these things to do more, to try and get more stories told. Or, [have] more imagery. And the curators said, “Look, you guys are on real thin ice with us, and so it’s going to [display label copy], and it’s not going to do anything else — that’s it.”
I think that was maybe my first time having to issue an RFP, and we finally identified Potion Design as our partner. This was one of their first, if not their first museum project. Now they mostly work in museums, but this was still pretty early. [At that time] Potion Design was still basically just the two founding partners, Phillip Tiongson and Jared Schiffman, and occasional contractors who fortunately for a while included Eddie Opara, who’s now at Pentagram. If memory serves, it was actually Eddie who did the visual design and language for the kiosks, which in hindsight was like man, we got lucky that we were able to get him.
So that was my first time [creating a permanent installation], which was also new. In fact, they were so permanent that they are still there. If you go into the Met’s Greek and Roman Study Gallery, there are still there. They still work, which is a testament to how hardy we built these things. We were working with the [Met’s] design team to fabricate the enclosures. This was all stuff I’d never had to think about before, like how to vent the heat from these computers. We had small form factor PCs in the enclosures, so we had to think about venting and what the enclosures were going to be fabricated out of. We had to think about what materials we could use because we were using WiFi to get data to these machines. I think it was the first time that the Met had ever really done anything like that.
So, there were certain materials that the I.T. team was testing out. [We figured out we couldn’t] have plywood because the [wi-fi] signals didn’t travel through it, so we ended up using metal, which was nuts. All the while we’re still trying to satisfy the curatorial team and working with Potion Design on the actual technology of it. We were drawing [data] from the collections management system, and this was the first time that had ever been done at the Met. [It was the first time] where we were really using collections data in a way that was not just record keeping. We were taking that data and really putting it out for public consumption in a way that was that was very new.
I remember the last two weekends before the [Greek and Roman] galleries opened, I was working Saturdays and Sundays for 12 hours a day, making sure those things were ready. We had no remote desktops, so, when I would make changes to the data, or if we would discover anomalies in the data, I had to physically run down from my office on the third floor to the Greek and Roman Galleries on the first floor, which was a full city block each way. I’d check and see if the change I’d made had showed up, and if it did, then great, but if it hadn’t been, I’d have to go back up and make a change on my computer, then run all the way back down again. It was just [laughing]. I was there for hours and most of that time was just walking between my desk and the kiosks. But they launched! They worked! They still work! Which is stunning to me. The last time I was at the Met, I expected that at least one of [the kiosks] would be blue screening or off, and no, they were all there, and they were all running!
The success of that project really led to a much more expansive interpretive technology installation and the Met American Wing, which was also under renovation around that same time. That [project] involved Carrie Rebora Barratt, who later became Deputy Director of the Met. We worked with Small Design Firm on that. Douglas [Hegley] was much more actively involved; he probably has more insightful things to say than me on that. All that [interactive] stuff is still there [today]. We did months of research into touch-sensitive enclosures and preparations for these big iMacs because there were no iPads yet, in those days.
We knew we wanted these [interactives] to be touchscreens, and we ended up with the big old, first-generation desktop iMacs where the whole thing was in the screen with a special treatment over the top of them and then a thing around… I don’t even remember how it all worked. We were really kind of figuring it out as we went. It wasn’t like, “Well let’s let’s buy 15 iPads and then put the software on there.” Even deciding what was the screen going to be, was it going to be too heavy to sit on the rail, and how were we going to facilitate touch interaction [were questions that involved a lot of research]. Because that was something that the curators had said: “Really we don’t want to have keyboards in there. If we don’t have to have keyboards, let’s not have keyboards.” We were figuring it out as we went, and we were lucky then [at the Met] to have the budget to work with a partner like David Small of Small Design Firm, who just made great decisions, was a really great creative partner, and had great ideas.
People still mention those to me — the American Wing and the Greek and Roman stuff — which is astonishing. Because even then I didn’t think any of that stuff would still be in those galleries five years later, much less now, 15 years, or whatever it is. So, good stuff. It’s crazy.
[Marty]: I was just reflecting, as I was taking some notes here, Koven, about some of the philosophical shifts that you, that you’ve touched upon here, right, because you’ve talked about the shift about how museums think about, for lack of a better word, the tech guy in a museum, right? The shift from someone who installs the hardware and the software to someone who’s actually working with content through technology. Then you also talked about the shift from viewing the visitor as the passive consumer of information to the active producer of knowledge with social tagging and Steve.museum. And now, talking about the shift in the curators’ perspective about using technology in an active role in the galleries themselves.
Yeah. I think the degree of that shift became much more apparent to me when I took over for Bruce Wyman as Director of Technology at the Denver Art Museum. There, I was overseeing a team of about seven people. By the end of my time at the Denver Art Museum, my job had basically become showing up to Exhibition Committee meetings and asking, “Where do you want the iPads to go?” We had reached a point where there wasn’t a lot of figuring it out anymore. We had an accepted way of doing this and now were just executing on that. But that was a real change, just in that two- or three-year period. It’s funny to think about the projects that bridge that moment, [such as] the Conservation Space project.
That project was [essentially to] build the equivalent of a collections management system, but for conservators. [That project] kind of makes me chuckle [because the] specs for it were created before the iPad existed, before there were tablet computers, and when even laptops were somewhat rare. Maybe your I.T. people had them, but certainly nobody else in the museum did. And then there’s this very pronounced shift towards an acceptance of commercial technology that was not present before. The notion that a conservator would not catalog his or her work using a tablet seems asinine now, but we were working on a spec that was created before that existed. It was quite the seismic shift.
I’ve had the good fortune to be present for [the beginning of] a number of those things. I’m pretty sure I had a Twitter account before the Met had one. Before there was a Met Twitter account. [This was] before we thought that that would even make sense, that an organization would have a Twitter account. Just, why would you do that? It’s been fun to be on both sides [of that divide], but it also means that people of my vintage still fight a lot of those old battles. There’s still a part of me that feels when I go into a project, that… “I’m going to really have to sell this thing. I’ll really have to work hard to convince them that this is a good idea.” I don’t have to fight those battles anymore, but I’m still mentally conditioned to do so.
[Marty]: This might be a good place for us to wrap up, I’m thinking I just, I just really love the, the philosophical shifts that you’re that you’re describing here, the seismic shifts. I mean, we’ve, we’ve lived through a time period here, where the museums didn’t use computers to where if the power goes out, I can’t get any work done! Right?
Yeah, exactly. I…
[Marty]: Sorry go ahead yeah. Oh, you were talking about the power outage in Austin, and I was just thinking, the other day about when, when Hurricane Hermine hit Tallahassee [in 2016], the whole city was without power for more than a week. It was a disaster. And I ran into a colleague of mine who is a professor of religion, and he said he was stuck. He was working on a paper about the Dead Sea Scrolls, and he couldn’t make any progress because he didn’t have power. And he said, that’s the craziest thing, and it had never crossed his mind that he wouldn’t be able to write a paper about the Dead Sea Scrolls because he couldn’t turn on his computer!
Yeah! In a short amount of time, I went from working in the Registrar’s office in the basement of the IMA, where one of the Registrars… was literally cutting and pasting documents together, [as in,] literally cutting out pieces of paper and pasting an exhibition checklist together. And not even five years later, we’ve got the Steve project, the stuff in [the Met’s] Greek and Roman [galleries] and the American Wing, and I’m working on the Conservation Space Project. [It was] a total change in the scope of what tech does in museums.
But [it’s disheartening to see] how technology staff in museums and— unfortunately — frontline staff, were some of the first to go when the layoffs were announced. It sort of feels like [tech/digital staff are] begrudgingly accepted now, finally. But in many ways, for a lot of decision makers in museums, our work is still not part of the core –it’s not [considered] core to the work. I think it was Dan Brennan who said something to the effect that the message that directors are sending their boards is, “Well, don’t worry. We didn’t fire any curators. [The layoffs] haven’t gotten really serious yet; we haven’t fired any curators.” That has certainly been disheartening to see.
I mean, [tech/digital] positions are often some of the highest paid in museums and in many ways we’ve had fun jobs and are often well-compensated. But at the same time, it was also a reminder, that [to many] we’re not as critical to mission we might think we are. I don’t want to end on a very down note, but… that’s all still there, you know.
[Marty]: Yeah. I guess to end on a more positive note, I think that if we look back over the scope of your career though, you’ve seen that positive movement forward, the changing philosophy… Twenty years ago, people wouldn’t be letting you do the things that you’re doing now in museums, right? Yeah. So.
I was joking yesterday that when I talk to museum directors now about technology, there’s less ignorance and anger; it has at least shifted into guilt [laughs]. Now the perspective [from directors] is, “I know we should be doing more; I know I should know about this, but I don’t.” That’s progress if you feel bad about [not understanding technology] at least. That wasn’t always the case before.