Oral History of Museum Computing: Layna White
This Oral History of Museum Computing is provided by Layna White, and was recorded on the 10th 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/BQ5EQZb0qLE.
I began working in museums when I was studying information science at UCLA, and got a part-time gig at the Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts at UCLA. And really did some hands-on work, got to apply at a part-time level the work I was doing, you know, studying information science and namely, thinking about cataloguing artworks. And so that was, that part-time gig back in 1989 — there’s a date! — landed me then a full-time gig at the Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, and I stayed there for a long time. Really thirteen years, working principally to make access to that collection better, easier, whether it was through, you know, cataloging, if you will, find-ability, but also working directly with faculty members and students to, in their, in their use of the collection. So I learned a heck of a lot from users of collections, and how people want to use collections, and how they look for things in collections, and lots of, lots of stuff around the care of collections, of course.
So, from spending thirteen years at UCLA, I then moved up here — up here being the Bay Area — to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and I’ve been at SFMOMA since 2003, which is quite remarkable to me. So my current, my current role… I have two, I have dual roles now at SFMOMA. I am the Director of Collections, and I always like to say, we have more than one collection at SFMOMA. We have the art collection. We have the library and archive collection, and we have a really cool collection of artists’ materials. This might be, an example might be a palette knife that came into the collection by one of the Bay Area artists. So it’s like materials that artists use. It’s a really cool collection.
So — my dual roles at SFMOMA are Director of Collections, and then also the head of a department called Collections Information and Access, otherwise known as CIA, and that’s where I’ve spent most of my time, have spent most of my time at San Francisco. I’ll just quickly sketch out what those two roles mean. So, Director of Collections, that’s been since 2019 [Fall 2018] to the present — Wow! A couple years — leading a division of, comprised of five super, highly functioning departments: Conservation, Registration, Collections Management, CIA — I have to say, my favorite, although I probably shouldn’t say that — and then the Library and Archives, so five departments. And together those five departments, we are engaged in art stewardship, art exploration, art research and art experiences, and in my other role, the head of CIA, which I’ve had since 2003, I oversee a department that works super cross-disciplinarily to develop digital records, all towards maximizing access and sharing of art and information for staff, and for the public’s benefit, right.
So, I would say my personal interest over the years has been to provide the best possible access to art that we can, whether that’s in person — so thinking about my days at the Grunwald Center, working with faculty and students. So, the best possible access to our [collections] in-person, online, over time, and in different situations, so that’s kind of been where I’ve been coming from. Like, how do we provide the best possible access to art? And as director of collections, I’ll throw in, and also provide the best possible care of that art? And also throw in, how can we do all this so that it is humanly sustainable, environmentally sustainable, financially sustainable? So how can we do all these things, these things being art access?
And I thought for today, I would offer up three stories. I like the three stories. And I chose these stories because they are really focused on working collaboratively in order to make things happen. Alright. So, and I also think these three stories are about experimenting, and all towards getting, if we can, increasing that access to art.
So just to hit the three stories and then I’ll go into details. One, the first story, is the Museums and the Online Archive of California, otherwise known as MOAC, and then, leaping forward in time, a story around using Mediawiki as a thing [for art access]. And then also a project called Send Me SFMOMA. So those are the three stories.
So, MOAC, the Museums and the Online Archive of California. This is a project that ran roughly from 1999 to 2007, and it had lots of good funding from the IMLS, which was great. I joined the project in 1999 as a member of the steering committee, and at that time, that’s when I was working at the Grunwald Center at UCLA. So, from roughly… the, the part I’m going to focus on is the part from roughly 1999 to 2003, and that’s when the steering committee members that, we were led by Richard Rinehart, then at the time, he was at the Berkeley Art Museum / Pacific Film Archive. So, from 1999 to roughly around 2003, the steering committee folks worked on what we called MOAC Classic. So, at its core, MOAC was about bringing together information about art, archive, and library collections into a shared space. So, the idea was to bring those diverse types of collections into an online public space.
In this case, that public space was the Online Archive of California, which is hosted by the University of California, coming out of the office of the President there. I’ll hit some of the partners in the MOAC endeavor. We were led by the Berkeley Art Museum / Pacific Film Archive, and that was Rick Rinehart and Gunter Waibel. Those were the key leaders of this project. We, the other, the other teammates, I would say, were over at University of California Riverside, the California Museum of Photography, and that, the partner there was Steve Thomas. A really wonderful place in Los Angeles, the Japanese American National Museum was a partner. And the partners there were Cameron Trowbridge and Snowden Becker. And also a longtime friend, in and outside of the museum world, at the UC Berkeley Bancroft Library, Mary Elings, was one of our key partners at, in MOAC. And the Grunwald Center. We had a few other partners, but I would say, those would be the five entities, I think, were the kind of the main, the main cohort.
Alright, so what was the challenge here? The challenge was that, you know, historically or traditionally, however you want to say it, museums, archives, libraries, we’ve used different data structures for describing our stuff. Describing our collections, describing things within the collections, so what MOAC partners were really wanting to do is to explore and to experiment. So the idea on the table was, could we all use the same data structure, and can we use a data structure standard from the archive community to describe our collections and describe the things within our diverse collections, right? So, specifically we were experimenting with the idea of using the EAD, the Encoded Archival Description. Could we use the EAD to bring our stuff together into this shared space? And that, at the time, was a super novel idea and experiment, right. And in fact, it yielded, that experiment yielded content, and it remains, that content remains visible today in the Online Archive of California, and also discoverable through their new… what would they call it? Like a web project. I guess. It’s more than a project, initiative, Calisphere? I don’t know, though, how often the content is updated by the MOAC partners. I can guarantee — well probably too strong of a word — I would suggest that the content from the Grunwald Center has not been updated.
So that’s an interesting point, like, what happens when a project goes away? I guess, you know, so this was 1999 to 2003? [There was] A big rush to get content onto the shared space, the Online Archive of California, and then so, my God, that’s now, I mean I’m not good at math, but I think that’s … are we? We’re almost at 18 years ago. Is that right? Holy! That is … that is striking, right! So I … the content is being maintained. I mean, it’s accessible, but I’m not so sure that content is being updated, which is interesting. So, how, the… one of the remarkable things that happened in this that I think was remarkable, that happened in this project was the Grunwald, at the time, having really very limited in-house IT support, we were able to get, or I was able to get, content into the Online Archive of California, in large part because of a tool that the Berkeley Art Museum team built. And this would have been Rick and Gunter, and I believe Orlando Sanchez at Berkeley also had a hand in this. They built a FileMaker Pro database essentially, and this tool, I mean I might be exaggerating, but I feel like it was like almost content at a push of a button. Once you’ve got your content into this tool, it pushed the content out in EAD, into an EAD finding aid. And I don’t think that the Grunwald would have been able to participate in a, in a, a project like this without having a tool that, such as this that they made. So that made it super, super easy to do. I’m just going to call out a couple of things about this project that I think are noteworthy. That project, that partnership really jump-started, really jump-started literally the Grunwald’s ability to get a little bit of its collection on the web. So, that partnership really was key to getting that, that collection, at least part of it onto the web.
Again, we had super extremely limited in-house technology support, and it would have been a really long time had we not been involved in MOAC to get some of the stuff online. So, major, major, major love to the MOAC team for doing that. I would also say kind of on a personal level, the Grunwald was a super, super small place, and I was left alone to, I was the person… I was left alone in a good way, I suppose. I was left alone, and I was the person that worked on the content to get three finding aids for the Grunwald contributed to the OAC via that tool. And when I say, I think it was a good thing, it also can, you know one might also say, it’s like, ‘Was that really a good thing?” Because what happened is it allowed the content… it allowed progress to be made, right. I was given, I was trusted and also given — made it, you know, the project got done while everyone else was doing many other things, right. So why would it not be a good thing? Because when I left, I took that knowledge with me about how to operate the tool that was developed by Berkeley, and I also maybe took, perhaps I took some of the energy about participating in the OAC with me, right. And also in hindsight now, right, that could have very well, a singular operator introducing perhaps lots of biases in that content, into the, into the choices made that were in the selection of content and that went in, into the words that were used to describe the content, so it’s kind of interesting to think about that dual, dual thing. Like, it enabled the project to get done because I could focus on it, and I was trusted to do it. That was great. It happened. And then I took it with me. I took the knowledge with me about that project and the use of the tool in this case. So that’s MOAC. That’s my story. That’s my story on MOAC.
[Marty]: I would just jump in and say that there’s a lot of connections to philosophical themes that we’ve heard throughout these oral histories, just in what you’ve said there, and MOAC, right. This idea that inter-institutional cooperatives help maybe some of the smaller museums make progress, right, in ways that they wouldn’t have been able to before. This theme of losing institutional knowledge, right, we’ve heard that a lot as well. And this idea that, you know, it’s … you mentioned about you know it may be MOAC is still being updated or whatever. The key thing is not the product, the key thing is the process, what we learn by doing this project.
Mmmm hmm, absolutely. Yeah, and I mean, it’s interesting to reflect on too. I am not you know, absent MOAC, I can guarantee that, SFMOMA is not using… so now that I took my knowledge with me to SFMOMA, right, we, the art collection, we are not using the EAD to describe our… I mean, it’s interesting too to think about that process, and it was, it was an experiment, right, and an experience, an experiment that still remains visible. And you know, is it something allows — you know, what… It was an experiment. What did we learn? Is it viable? And also, standards have moved on, right, other, other standards have moved on, moved on right beyond EAD.
Let’s see [reading the chat]. Yes, thank you for asking. So Kathy is asking about [in the chat, “Did someone replace you?”] when I left the Grunwald… I think… I don’t really know the answer to that because I will, just to be really frank, I, I took my energy and placed it in SFMOMA. I took all my energy and all my concentration, and I moved it into SFMOMA. I don’t necessarily think, I think, I think the answer there is no. I think the answer there is no, but I could be wrong. I don’t want to misspeak about that. I would just say that I took all my energy and placed my energy and to what I was doing in SFMOMA. Yeah, good question, though.
Alright. Well, I’m going to move to story number two. Okay, alright, story number two is about MediaWiki. Alright! So, exactly, super exciting! So in 2012, SFMOMA began experimenting with using MediaWiki as a platform, especially as a means of documenting very complex, variable artworks, and this experiment was born out of frustration, like so many …. Like, like so many experiments, right. This was an experiment that was born out of the frustration with, with our then collections management system, although I think it would be safe to say that it would, no matter what collections management system the museum had been using in 2012, it would have been the same frustration with the kind of collections management systems that are on the market too for museums, right. So, it was born out of frustration with the collections management system to really capture the nature, and I’ll say the evolution of artworks that can change over time, that are variable, that can be displayed in any number of ways. Alright so, for example, the collections management system may have been pretty good at answering really direct questions, questions that start with like, “How many…?” How many works in the collection, you know, which works in the collection were on view? That kind of stuff, but they weren’t, the collections management system we had at the time really wasn’t that good at helping us tell stories about an artwork, about how an artwork might change over time. Again how it might be installed differently each time we install it, right. So we saw, what we saw in the media– what we saw in MediaWiki as a potential platform for this kind of work, and for what we were aiming for, we saw it as a space that could help us make and keep very inclusive, multi-voiced, living or active records for artworks that can change. These would be records that can communicate and show context that are more narrative in style, much more narrative than a database can be.
So the MediaWiki, just to be clear, we started experimenting in 2012, and it does not replace our collections management system or our digital asset management system, for example, but it’s situated adjacent to it, I would say. It is a tool that we use, again, thinking about how you can narrate a story, how you can provide context around, around what you want to say about an artwork and how it’s been changing. Alright, so when it’s super, super cooking, cooking with gas, I would say, our MediaWiki, is powered by inter-departmental collaborations between departments like conservation, so conservators; registration, registrars; our installation team, like our preparators, for example; certainly, our curators, and our information manager, so when it’s cooking and doing really well, and by, what do I mean by cooking? I mean when people are adding to it, contributing to it, contributing what they know to the MediaWiki, it’s a really, really active space, right. Really juicy. I’m trying to think of other things – cooking, juicy, you get the idea. I want to actually pause there and say that there were two people on staff who are really principally responsible for getting our MediaWiki off the ground. A former — that’s a key word, put a pin in that – a former media conservator Martina Haidvogl, and she’s now teaching at the University of Bern in Switzerland, and also our media consultant on staff. I guess he was a consultant, now is on staff, a media programmer, I would say in our IT team, Mark Hellar. Those two were our champions and our shepherds back in 2012.
So I’m going to call out a few things about the MediaWiki here, one of which is unlike MOAC, our MediaWiki is very, very much an internal tool, right. It doesn’t have an external facing view into it. It’s, it has, it’s limited in its visibility. It’s visible within SFMOMA. It does have extremely limited visibility like, outside of SFMOMA. A person would need to be whitelisted into, into access. We’re limiting the access to our MediaWiki. [It] has been limited, I think, because we’re trying to protect ourselves too much from being messy. I would like to see us be less concerned with being too conservative. So let me, let me start out by, let me go back and say what do I mean by that. By limiting its visibility, I think what we’re saying or what we’re showing is that we’re uncomfortable with showing incompleteness or uncertainty or a certain lack of polish. Similarly, our collections management system is not exposed externally, right, but the MediaWiki has so much to offer towards that contextualization, and toward that narration, and toward our desire to have it be multivoiced, that certainly we would wish, and everyone, most people believe in this, that we would want artists and designers and other museum professionals at other museums, for example, or experts at other museums to weigh in on what they know about an artwork. But I think we’re being a little too conservative and a little too cautious, because it is, it’s not very polished. It’s not a polished space. It is, it is incomplete, and p.s., the artworks in and of themselves are incomplete. And so I would like to see us as a team move more into a space where we can expose the MediaWiki much more grandly to the outside world, because it has so much to offer. Alright, so getting, so it is messy, I think. Sorry, were you going to ask something, Paul?
[Marty]: No, I was gonna say that’s another theme that we’ve been hearing a lot too is this need to capture those multiple voices and perspectives, store them someplace where they’re accessible, and make them available and how hard, that is for a lot of museums to do.
Exactly, yeah. I mean, it’s interesting because we so much say that’s what we want to do, but we haven’t proven it. And I’m just speaking when I say “we,” I mean SFMOMA, right. We haven’t proven we believe in it, but we haven’t proven that we’re ready to do it. Like, that we’re okay with it, right. And this is a great example I think the media, our MediaWiki around these complex works. It just offers so much, it just begs for that external, external [access] … We have some champions internally, like a handful of the curators that are involved in this see it that way, too. And some don’t. Some want to keep it more protected. So I just think it’s about, we need to be more comfortable sharing our work in progress, because it is a work in progress, right, and I think that we should be comfortable with that. And to your point about inviting other voices in – super, super key.
I would say that we are going back to what I was saying about putting a pin in it. So we’re, it’s, it’s no longer an experiment. So 2012, so we are, we are so committed to keeping the MediaWiki adjacent to our collections management system, and adjacent, part of our ecosystem, right, our information ecosystem. It needs care and feeding like, to be cooking with gas. I’m mixing all sorts of metaphors here. Like any kind of system, right. So one of the issues is that one of the shepherds, Martina, one of the persons that part… one of the people that, you know, was the shepherd, the motivator, kind of like the energy behind it. Now, now she’s in Switzerland. She’s teaching. She’s got another gig, and I will say frankly, that it’s gotten, since the year that Martina left the museum, the MediaWiki has gone quiet, right. So it’s, it’s gotten a little quiet. The kitchen’s kind of been closed, going back to that cooking analogy.
And so what do we, you know, how do we…? It’s similar to the MOAC situation, right, where you’ve got, you’ve got someone who’s the champion and the motivator leaving, so we’re, we’re… it’s present in our minds a lot: how do we keep the MediaWiki alive and cooking? But it’s a challenge. We could certainly use, it could certainly benefit from having a champion, a shepherd to encourage, encourage regular use, right. That champion can be me. I’m not sure I can be the shepherd, right, you know, I don’t know if I can be the shepherd, given what else I do. I guess I’ll say it, though. [Laughs.] Call me crazy! I don’t know.
Yeah, exactly, right. There, it’s exactly it. Needs that, you know, again Kathy, that energy, right, that energy that can power and sustain a project and a program, right. That’s what you need. And an idea, you know, I think, is it one person or is it many people? I think it’s good to have, going back to the lesson from, from when I was at the Grunwald, more than one person, you know? More than … a shared, a shared energy would be good shepherds. Alright.
Okay, story number three: Send Me SFMOMA. Alright, so this is the, this is the story of the awesome potential of the very humble tag, right, super awesome. So gosh, I keep … I’m looking at these markers like 12 years ago, 13 years ago. Here’s another one: 12, roughly 12 years ago, at SFMOMA, the CIA department, so Collections, Information and Access, well over 12 years ago we made, started a very concerted effort to add tags to artworks in the collection, and this effort continues today. So what do I mean by tags? It’s principally subject matter, and I’ll tease it apart a little bit. This work has been, to give a huge shout out, this work has been done principally through the efforts of Marla Misunas and her team of documentation specialists in CIA too, I’ll name Margaret Kendrick and Ian Gill, as well as interns, many interns over the years at SFMOMA. So in this effort, it’s similar to the MediaWiki in some ways, we totally embrace the approach and the idea of having people from different perspectives bringing different observations, bringing, having many different people add tags, right, so looking for different perspectives. So that’s why the work has been led by Marla, Margaret, Ian, and interns, but we also are really keen to get folks from around SFMOMA, so our frontline staff, for example, our Visitor Services staff, adding tags. There’ve been engagements with local high school teachers to talk with them about tags that would be beneficial to help their, them and their students find artwork, alright. So very generally speaking, over these years, we’ve been tagging what we see, or who we see in an artwork, so literally, literally naming the things that are visible in an artwork. So that is, maybe what we see, I’ll say, as opposed to naming emotions or sensibilities or concerns or concepts, things that are more personal, I guess. So we’ve literally, literally been naming things. Alright. So why didn’t, why weren’t we, up until recently naming things like emotions and concepts, etc., because that seemed, as I said, a little too personal, too interpretive. It seemed that way, so put a pin in that.
So then, I’m going to fast forward to 2017. In 2017, that’s when former staff member Jay Mollica created this really snappy, successful text messaging application called “Send Me SFMOMA.” So that was 2017, and that, how, how it worked — I’m going to try to summarize it as best I can — is that you basically opened up your text messaging service, and sent a text to this number, to our number. You sent a text that started with “Send me” and you filled in the blank with a word or a phrase and, in return, SFMOMA sent you an image of an artwork that, that responded to that word or phrase that you entered. So the No. 1 request, for example, was “send me love,” and so when a person texted “send me love” to our number, Jay wrote an application that randomly chose an artwork, an image of an artwork, based on the tags that Marla and Margaret and Ian and interns and many others around the building had added to the collections management system, right. So our tags fueled what got returned, as well as our images, you know, fueled our tags and responded in return. So, the thing with SFMOMA — excuse me, the thing with Send Me SFMOMA– that was super valuable for us, and maybe you could see it a mile away, was that, if you remember when I said that we had, up until then been tagging what we saw in an image, but here the No. 1 request was “send me love,” which we hadn’t been tagging, because it was so personal, because it was so interpretive. So the cool thing was that Send Me SFMOMA was super valuable for us because it surfaced absences in our tags or absences in how we were tagging, right.
So, it also underscored how, how important it is for us to take really fresh looks at what we’re doing. In this case, what we’re doing around tagging, right. You could also extrapolate that to what we’re doing in terms of providing access to the collection online, right. Are we providing access to the collection online that people are actually… Are we providing access the extent to which people are actually desiring of that? Boy that was a, that was a strange way of phrasing that sentence. Are we providing the access to the collection that is helpful, that is relevant to individuals who seek, seek out works of art, right. Alright, so the Send Me SFMOMA project, it really, those queries that were coming, it so much influenced how we were tagging. It so much influenced us in expanding our tags to include “aboutness,” right. So the team continues today to still tag the things that are seen in an artwork, but the team is also now very enthusiastically and very readily tagging emotions and sensibilities and concerns and concepts, whether they are suggested or believed.
So it really, that whole project was so incredibly valuable that it also got us thinking about are our tags biased? Right. Are our tags relatable? Are they relevant to our audiences and staff? When we saw it firsthand through this Send Me fill in the blank. So some of the things that we saw, when we looked at our tags, were things like we saw more of. We were adding more names of men than women. So this is literally what we saw on the pieces, right, what we saw in the artwork. And one might ask why might that be? Is that because we recognize the names of men, but we didn’t … Is that because we recognize the men who are being portrayed in the artworks or not? Or is it, does it say something about what we were collecting? We also saw very specialist, I would call it specialist terminology. Something that an intern called out as being, coming in education, perhaps an education gap in what we were using. So an example might be instead of one of our tags might have been “chanteuse” or is that, I don’t speak French, so hopefully “chanteuse,” [enunciates and draws out the word when she speaks it the second time]. Yes. So instead of instead of using the tag “chanteuse,” should we not have used the tag “singer,” you know, right, or something? Right, or why not, I mean both?
So, this was, this was a lesson learned, right, what we were doing. So, there were many things that were learned about, through Send Me SFMOMA that were so incredibly valuable, it’s paid off, so, I will say, before I go in to… I want to call out a handful of things about Send Me SFMOMA, and I will say we, the museum, retired it. We sunsetted Send Me SFMOMA in February of 2020, and some of the… one, one principal driver there was the cost, because each of the, for each of the texts, there was a there was a cost to those texts. Literally, like a bill was received from, from the museum, or to the museum, right. Also, you know, it felt like it was time to look for creative ways of using the collection in other… look for other ways of experimenting. So it was sunsetted. I just want to call out with Send Me SFMOMA, call out how, how it was such an unexpected and super beautiful payoff, for that 12-plus year, concerted effort around tagging, right, and really, really experimenting and finding a fresh, new way of making art accessible in a, in a way we hadn’t even seen coming, right, through, through texts and sending images. It was just a delightful, it was really a delightful project.
Yeah, so that’s, that’s the one call out, I would say, I mean, it was I think of all the projects that I’ve talked about, MOAC, MediaWiki for sure, and Send Me SFMOMA, this one, Send Me SFMOMA, had the most visibility, so, if we go back to like, behind the scenes, behind the scenes, backstage, you know, making the, making the invisible work visible, I think of all the, of all the three stories, Send Me SFMOMA really had great visibility, creating, created a lot of attention around the work that we do.
[Jones]: I have a couple of questions for you about that. One is, I put in chat, how many tags were you able to put in? And into what database? So that’s one and then followed that with how did the team work together to do that type of cumulative tagging? How did you get together to discuss that?
Yeah, great, great, Thank you. So I’ll go with the easiest one first. So the database is the collections management system. That’s where like the source is, right. Tags show up, tags are entered into our collections management system. They show up in our digital asset management system too, right, so there’s an integration there. So tags are present in our digital asset management system and can be searched there. Tags are not visible on the interface, but are working behind the scenes in our online collection, so they are being indexed. They aren’t visible on the pages that our users see when they do a search on our online collection, but they are driving some of the results there. And then the tags, I know that as of 2018, because we did some work around like, are our tags biased? And we were literally looking at all of our tags, and in 2018, we had 11,000 tags. And so, I’m guessing that we’re three years later, and I would guess that we would have at least 500 to maybe not 1,000 more, but at least 500 more. We – it’s not controlled vocabulary, it is, it is freestyle, man — and it is something that we’ve known about the, the excitement about being freestyle, and also, the, the downside there, because you might get some misspellings, you might get, you know, all the things we know about, but it’s, but it’s proven very powerful to do it this way.
So then I’ll go to: do it this way, how? Like, what’s that about? I would have to go back in my memory, maybe you guys will help me out here, the, the project – oh, my gosh — that was… how can I blank on the name of this project? Steve! The Steve project! Yes, so that would be really something to think of. Steve was with, Steve was wrapping up in 2012, because I might peg it to the Steve project. So the Steve project really energized us even more to work, to do tagging. So, how did we work together? So I would say, if I would kind of anchor it in the Steve project, and that’s the project, where a bunch of museums said, “Let’s get together…” I’m paraphrasing, hopefully, hopefully one of your oral history folks talked about the Steve project, perhaps? I hope. Many museums got together and said “Let’s contribute images of artwork…” Yes?
[Marty]: I was going to jump in and say we also, we got a fantastic oral history from Marla as well, and she talked about SFMOMA’s early connections to the Steve project, so…
Perfect. Yes. Okay, so Marla, so just connect… you’ll, you’ll have that, you’ll have that in Marla’s, in Marla’s reflections then, but really born out of that… what one of the things that we learned from the Steve project is going back to that, we embrace, we embrace lots of voices here. We want multiple perspectives and I think that’s what we got from the Steve project, right. What would happen if we asked the public or let me, let me rephrase it well, what would happen if we ask people that weren’t us to add, to add tags to artworks, right? And so, it was really born out [of] like, “What do we have to lose? Let’s do it. In fact, it’s much to be gained.” So, multiple perspectives. The other thing that we learned was this: that when we look at tags, can we say to ourselves, “Would someone be surprised if I use this tag to attach it to an artwork, and if someone were to retrieve this artwork, would they be surprised that they retrieved it, or would it make sense to them?”
So we did, we did learn some lessons, having worked with the Steve project that we carried forward into our own work. And so, literally I mean, if we got really particular about this, Marla and her cohorts of documentation specialists are having conversations with people about tagging, and really suggesting just let it all hang out. You know, we have a few, we have a few rules like mind your spelling, you know. We prefer plural over singular. So there’s some formatting, but we really are letting individuals do what they wish, with some of our guidelines. So it is an ongoing… I don’t know, I think it would be like… I don’t know if I call it training, but I would call it encouragement. We don’t review the tags, so yeah, I don’t know if this is helping, but this is… it’s kind of, it’s not quite the Wild West, but it’s, it’s getting close. [Laughs.]
[Marty]: Yeah, I’ll just jump in and say, you know, it’s a natural evolution I think of the key research that came out of the Steve project. Whenever it comes up in class, what I tell my students is the only thing you need to know about the Steve project is that proved conclusively that the way the general public thinks about museum collections does not overlap at all with the way museum curators think about museum collections.
Yeah, “Chanteuse!” Exactly, yeah. Exactly, yeah.
[Marty]: But it showed the value of tags for opening that up, and it showed, I think this is a really important point that you raised here, Layna. It shows the the holes in how the data is organized behind the scenes, the information organization. If the museum doesn’t record this information, but the visitors want that information, then there has to be some way to bridge that gap.
Exactly. One thing that’s interesting is that, you know, I would say five years ago, before our most recent website redesign, our tags were visible on the object pages in the online collection. And there was, around five years ago, a couple of the curators raised their hands and said they weren’t quite comfortable. This gets back into this comfort level about showing the tags on the object pages. So Marla I know for sure is a huge advocate of like, we need to make the tags visible, right, because, I mean, for many reasons, and so it’s interesting to having come back to this. You know, reflecting on the MediaWiki, the museum folks’ comfort level with just like letting it, just being transparent and showing, showing what we’re doing. Yeah, it gets back into like, I love it, coming full circle. It’s like we are on the scene. We’re not behind this. This is not behind the scenes. Like, we are on the scene, so let’s make it visible.
[Marty]: And that’s really another theme that we’ve heard a lot, as well. This, this fear of putting our data out there and, how do you overcome that?
[Marty]: I’m sorry, go ahead.
No, no. I just think we need to be comfortable because it’s such a work in progress, right. It’s such a work in progress, and you know I think that’s a simple message that we can find a way to convey to the world, right. That it’s a work in progress, yeah.
[Marty]: And the other thing I was just about to say is another important theme that you touched upon here, in fact Layna, I’m taking notes. I think you’ve hit upon almost every key theme that Kathy and I have been talking about. These stories are spectacular. Another key theme is challenging our assumptions about the users’ needs and expectations, right. How people will use a system like [Send Me] SFMOMA? It connects to a fantastic story we heard from Andrea Ledesma at the Field Museum because she talked about how she built the, the text chat app for Maximo the Dinosaur there, and they had all the answers to questions prewritten. Of course, did the users ask any of those questions? No. The users asked the dinosaur, “Where’s the bathroom?”
[Laughing.] You gotta, you gotta love it. You have to… that is so beautiful, right? Oh my God. That is so, so cool. I know it’s such a, it’s such a, it’s such an interesting thing about being like, how do we connect? I mean, I think that we say — and I’ll just say “we” — who do I mean by “we”? I mean SFMOMA, and I know that, that our team believes so much in being connected with our audiences, so let’s show it, right. So let’s do it. Let’s ask. Yeah. Yeah it’s, it’s a super, you know, you need … where are we putting our energy? We don’t know everything, right. We’ve… by far, far from it, far from it.
Yeah. Alright, you’ve got, you’ve got all my stories.