Oral History of Museum Computing: Holly Witchey
This oral history of museum computing is provided by Holly Witchey, and was recorded on the 22nd of March, 2021, by Paul Marty and Kathy Jones. It is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license (CC-BY), which allows for unrestricted reuse provided that appropriate credit is given to the original source. For the recording of this oral history, please see https://youtu.be/gW8Y8ysy8hk.
I’m going to start actually in the early ‘80s, because I went to Kalamazoo College, where my majors were art history and political science, and I don’t know where it is anymore, but we had career service. We had this K-Plan, which you did all sorts of special things, and I went to career service and I worked at the Fine Arts Museum of the South in Mobile, Alabama, and I wrote my parents a letter back home and said, “I don’t know what I want to do. All I know is I don’t want it to involve computers.” [Laughing.]
[Later after I was grown and married and living in San Diego, my mother found the letter] And my mother sent that [the letter] to me when I was in San Diego. So, I went ahead [and majored in art history], and the agreement with my parents was I could go ahead and study art history as long as I could get some institution to pay for me. And if I couldn’t do that, then they would pay for me to go to law school. Those were my two options.
So, I went to Case Western Reserve University I did my M.A. there, and my Ph.D. My Ph.D. is in 15th Century Italian fresco painting. You can imagine how pleased my parents were. And in 1990, when I graduated with my Ph.D., I was engaged, and I had, had an offer on the table from the school of the Art Institute of Chicago to teach art history. My [to-be] husband’s father asked if we would fly out to San Diego, where he had purchased a company, to see if Curt [my future husband] wanted to work there. We flew out to San Diego that spring. We looked at San Diego. We decided we did not want to move there, came back, and my husband called me a few weeks later, and said, “We’re moving to San Diego.” So that was sort of a unilateral [decision], but turned out to be great.
I had, luckily, there were people at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the program I was in, my Ph.D. program, was the joint program with Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Museum of Art, so I had good friends at Cleveland Museum of Art, who made calls for me, and within about two months, I was employed at the San Diego Museum of Art, first in the Education Department, in charge of education for college students and adults, and then about, oh, less than half a year later, Steven Brezzo, the Director there, reorganized the Curatorial department.
The curator left, and it became a curatorial department of three, [and then] later two with Malcolm Warner as the Chief Curator of the… Curator of European art, and I was the Associate Curator of European art. Steve Brezzo was a fantastic lead. He’s still alive. He’s a sort of a… what do I want to say? He’s like the ghost of Christmas Present. He’s this fantastically larger-than-life individual who went to school with Jim Henson, and we were always told that the rumor was that Steve Brezzo was the original Big Bird, was the original inspiration for Big Bird. That was just what we said in the hallways. But Stephen was very interested in technologies, and at some point, we had a, we had a trustee named Maurice Kaplan [American philanthropist, d. 2007]. And Maurice went to London, and he saw the Micro Gallery, which was the sort of first interactive installation on a large scale with the collection at the National Gallery of Art. And it had been created by a firm called Cognitive Applications. The principal of whom was Alex Morrison, and Mr. Kaplan, the trustee, called Steven Brezzo in the middle of the night and said, “I want to do something like that at San Diego, and I’ll pay for it, but you have to use this firm.”
And so, we came back, and we raised money, and I was called in, and Steve put me in charge of this because I had both educational experience and curatorial experience, and so I was part of that group of people, I would call us… Vicki Porter and I used to call us “The Dinosaurs.” We weren’t technologists. We were art historians, but, for whatever reason, we were able to sort of talk across different constituencies and audiences and get people to come together around projects. And so, I’m still not a technologist, but I like to do a lot of things, and I like to be engaged in interesting projects.
Not long after that, Alex Morrison and Rory Matthews, his Chief Designer, came across, and we sat in San Diego, and we developed a project. They came over I believe in ‘91 and we spent the next couple of years raising money, and I had a baby, and the project didn’t launch ‘til ’94, but because you called today, I was able to go back into my files and find things like – whoops! [reaches over and grabs, then holds up] this was the original press packet for the Image Gallery, “300 Artworks in One Frame,” so I was traveling down Memory Road. Fodor’s San Diego ‘97 said about it… sorry for the break… “Perhaps the most exciting feature of the museum, however, is Image Gallery, the interactive multimedia art gallery explorer, which allows visitors to locate the highlights of museum’s holdings on screen and custom design a tour.”
Right? This was before the Internet. We were doing something that I still believe in, and I even have [holds up to camera] these are Rory’s original designs for the interface. I mean, it’s, it’s just a copy of it, but we worked really hard, and I loved… I worked with Cognitive Applications for more than 20 years on projects because we had a really good working relationship with one another. Alex Morrison is one of the brightest people I’ve ever met. Rory Matthews, a brilliant designer. He went on to design the interactives for the Royal Collection. When he went off as RoryMatthews.com. Ben Rubinstein, who is with Alex Morrison, the other principal of Cognitive Applications, is, to my mind, the most brilliant programmer ever. I just love everything that Ben has ever done. And I think the magic was everybody there really cared about art and art museums, and they like to look at things and they know why people like to look at things, so we built the Image Gallery, and we had so much fun, and I’m sure you heard stories like this before, right?
We couldn’t have Image Gallery in the galleries with the works of art. You can’t have the technology and the art competing. So they gave us a little room, just to the left of the staircase in the San Diego Museum of Art, and Mitch Gaul [d. 2010], the designer, built this fantastically Jetson-y installation for it, that had like two… they were shaped like flying saucers, two circular areas with flying saucers, and it wasn’t until the night when we were installing that we realized that the guys were going to have to bench press these massive computers up into the installation, because they really hadn’t given them any way, so, on the, the sort of fourth member of that team was Nik Honeysett, who later went on to the Getty. So Nik was, Nik was the, the junior programmer that they left in place to help me, to help me do things and to get everything finished, so Nik was down, bench pressing these computers into the installation. The other thing Image Gallery had at the time that was remarkable was we bought a — ready for it? – an $11,000 dye-sublimation printer. It was the most expensive piece of equipment we had in there, and it would take five minutes, but it would chug-chug-chug-chug-chug out a, you know, a full-color print of the works in the collection, and until that time if you wanted to print, you normally got black and whites, and you had to apply to the Registrar’s office. I think I [reaching beside her to find more material to show camera]… I’m amazed that I have so many things that I was able to access today. It even had an Easter egg. The program did. Let me see if I can find it. Whee!
So here’s an example of one of the dye sublimation prints. [holds up a print] just an 8×10, and it printed out a label [turns it over] and stuck the label on the back, and they were envelopes and people went away with their wonderful prints from the collection. And I can remember in the first couple of weeks being very frustrated. We had a desk in there with a full-time attendant to print off and to answer questions because people really didn’t know how to use these, and they were they were touchscreens, so there was a lot of cleaning that needed to be done.
And I can remember the in, the first couple of weeks, people more than one, more than one person came in and wanted to see the Mona Lisa. And I had to explain that the Mona Lisa wasn’t there. Well, but that’s really what they wanted to see, and you know, luckily, a few years later, the Internet came around, and people are able to see whatever they wanted to see.
And so, the Image Gallery was really my start and then, once we, we had done that, we got to a place where we were making interactives quite frequently. And my rule of thumb at the San Diego Museum of Art, which was in agreement with the director there, was, we didn’t have… we tried to make things with the permanent collection in mind, and only very occasionally, would we do things for special exhibitions. Because the goal is if we’re going to spend the time and the money to get something done, we wanted that to be something that could be reused, and that was something that I took that when Len Steinbach hired me to come to the Cleveland Museum of Art, that’s something that I took with me. We tried very hard, even when we were doing interactives for special exhibitions, to make sure that they focused on pieces that were in the collection.
So, did a lot of interactives at San Diego. I was at San Diego from 1990 until 2000 (and then I took the job at the Cleveland Museum of Art). In San Diego, we did a beautiful one [interactive] with dragon robes that was actually a Chinese cabinet that you could pull the drawers out, virtually pull the drawers out and look at pieces, and pieces would pop-out that Rory designed. It was just a really wonderful time, I feel, because we were thinking about projects in depth. We [were] able to go through various levels. It wasn’t… it was a time when people wanted more information, where there weren’t restrictions, you know, you can do it in 30 words, you can do it in 50 words, you can do it in 80 words. We really had the time, I think, to think through projects, and sort of go as wonderfully deep as we wanted to in discovering kingfisher feathers in Chinese jewelry.
Then the World Wide Web came about… I was at San Diego, like I said, until 2000.
Len Steinbach, who I had met at conference because Steve Brezzo wanted us to be involved in technology, and Steve had been invited, based on the Image Gallery, and based on the work we were doing, he had had been invited to speak at the Governor’s Conference of the Arts and Technologies in California. I don’t even remember what year that was, but Steve Brezzo couldn’t go, so I ended up on a panel with Ken Hamma. And sort of, that was my, that was my real introduction to the world of technology conferences, and so from that time on, San Diego [the administration at the San Diego Museum of Art was] really good about [encouraging me to attend and be a part of national and international initiatives in museums and technologies] Museum Computer Network, about Governor’s Conference for the Arts, about AAM, presenting at AAM, presenting at ICHIM, presenting at Museums and the Web, and then there was the conference that Jim had in England, what was that called?
Do you remember? I can’t think of the name of it.
EVA! Yeah, did a lot, a lot of sessions at EVA, which reminds me of a story Nik Honeysett was always a practical joker, and when I was going over to give my first presentation at EVA about the Image Gallery, CogApp [Cognitive Applications] was going to have one of their younger employees meet me up there to set up the technology and Nik Honeysett told them I was a tall, slender blonde. [Laughing.] [I am a short, dumpy redhead.] Much fun ensued, I can tell you, as he searched for me and didn’t find me.
Cleveland was quite a different case. And Cleveland, the Cleveland Museum of Art is one of the big powerhouse museums in the United States, but they hadn’t done much in technology, but they had hired Len Steinbach to come in and be CIO, and Len hired me to come in and be first the Manager, and then Director of New Media. Cleveland Museum of Art, which under Jane Alexander, is, is the technology museum, you know I sort of came in, in a period when technology was greeted warily and reluctantly.
The very first interactive we did, I believe the first one we did, was for an exhibition of Victor Schreckengost’s works. [American Industrial Designer, 1906-2008] Victor was 100 at the time. He was an industrial designer and scholars of American history believe that everybody in America has used or seen or been exposed to something that Victor Schreckengost designed. For example, one of his great inventions was pedal cars or toy cars for children, riding toy cars for children were very, very expensive, and what Victor Schreckengost figured out is if he could just bend the axle so that the axle could become the pedals, you could make them much simpler, so inexpensive pedal cars for children. He was a ceramic artist; he was a printmaker. He designed in the 1930s, he belonged to a local pottery company called Cowan Pottery, and when you went in that day as one of the artists, you would pick a slip out of a punch bowl, out of a fishbowl and that would tell you what project you were going to work on, and Victor got the job to create a punch bowl for a woman in New York City, and it turned out to be Eleanor Roosevelt, and he created something that’s called the Jazz Bowl, but anyway, so Victor is this local character. And Henry Adams, the American art historian, had written up an exhibition catalog for this exhibition that read exactly like scripts for interactive animations. So one of Henry’s sentences that I’ll never forget was “the shift from pottery to pedal cars was not as hard as you might think,” and so we took these, and again, I was working with CogApp. We took these bits and created these animations, and built this absolutely beautiful installation, and it was Len who said, “We’re not going to have it on a little screen, not even a 20-inch screen. What we’re gonna do is we’re going to have a big screen up above, and then we’re going to have a little screen, and the grownups who don’t want to approach technology will watch the kids who will be doing anything, and they can see what’s going on on the screen above.”
It was, it was great. It was brilliant. The curator would not let us have it in the exhibition. We had to put it in the gift shop at the end of the exhibition. And Katherine Lee Reid, the Director, came through, and at the end of her walkthrough of the exhibition, she saw the interactive and she said, put it out in the entrance to the exhibition. So that was sort of a… and we continued to fight those battles, but I think even fighting those battles…
Another thing we learned to do was that many of us, some people I’m sure you’re talking to, learned to do was work with the curators who were interested. You know, if you could get an interested curator to do some sort of great project, then others would follow suit. So we did a lovely Picasso’s exhibition of Picasso’s “La Vie,” where you could look at the painting and then go into the X-rays and the infrareds. And some of the things that I’m talking about are old hat now, but they, they were new then, and they were remarkable, and people would stand at the screen, and, and use the mag—right? There was a magnifying glass — so they could, they could touch and go deeper into the magnifying glass. Deeper into the work of art. I sometimes feel that I’m not very articulate…
Anyway, I do think it was a wonderful, it was a… 1990- 2010 was a wonderful time to be in this field. I want to give full credit to Jane Alexander because had I stayed at the Cleveland Museum of Art, I probably, I’m certain I wouldn’t have come up with Gallery One. I would have done something different, but, at the time I was at Cleveland, we were getting to do exciting things, like we built a glorious interface to the website, which linked the proprietary collections management system to a function on the website and gave deep information, you know, and I think part of it, for me, was I, as an art historian, I, I knew what I wanted to see, and was able to make it happen.
And none of this happened in a vacuum. I keep using the word “I,” but in every place I worked, there were these fantastic teams of people. And I could remember, I think it was the Victor Schreckengost. It must have been the first interactive. There was something wrong, and we could not get the first interactive to work, and Bob Ladd, one of the hardware people at the museum, just took me aside and said, “Sit back. Relax. We’re not going to fail as a team.” And we didn’t. It was a team, so Doug Hiwiller, and Tom Hood and Bob Ladd and Bob Noon and Michael Hilliard, we were all sitting there doing things together. And sort of another thing about Cleveland, because Cleveland had these high-powered shows, we did an interactive for a Burgundy show, Court of Burgundy show, and worked with students at the Cleveland Institute of Art and with a designer at the Cleveland Institute of Art, [to create] and animate a table fountain, a Burgundian table fountain, and did this beautiful, and you know, and it was days of rendering and, and the interactive is delivered to us, ready to go, the day before the exhibition is going to open. And we’ve got the equipment, and we’re all ready, but technology is the last thing that goes in, so we can’t go into the exhibition until the last courier is done. So way after midnight, I’m sitting at the museum with Michael Hilliard to help install, and I think Doug Hiwiller might have been there, too, and we’re waiting, because the courier from the Louvre was coming in with two little gold figures, and he came in from his courier trip, with his, his briefcase handcuffed to his wrist, and we just sat there and twiddled our fingers until he was out, and the case was down. And we did. You know, we always managed to get it installed in time, but I can remember more hours, you know, more after-hours time than I think people do today.
And with those early interactives, somebody had to go into the San Diego Museum of Art every morning and turn it on. And on the weekends, that was me, or the person who was sitting there. For the Cleveland Museum of Art, somebody had to go in and make sure those things were working, and the screen was clean, and that was our responsibility, so…. There was a lot of boots on the ground work that was that was really, really fun. Oh my gosh. I just said really, really fun, didn’t I? Oh, it was it was so lovely. Just got to work with lots of lovely people, and it was a great, it was a great time to be a pioneer in technology.
There were fantastic people all over the world, when we would go to these conferences. When we would go to ICHIM and EVA, and David Bearman and Jennifer Trant, you know put together these panels, and Susan Hazan from Israel, you know, there were all sorts of people who, we’re all still friends, and we, we get together on video chats when we can. But you know, to have memories of technology and, and Paris, I can remember sitting at a Paris ICHIM, where they were making us wait for one of, the one of the events was the preview of a Salvador Dali CD-ROM. And they had banks, we were, you know, we were in the Louvre, and there were banks of champagne in glasses, but we couldn’t have any of that until we’ve actually gone in the auditorium and heard the presentation.
And I remember the man in the presentation started out saying, “If Salvador Dali was alive today, the first thing he would do is make a CD-ROM.” [Laughing.] And, and I think, that’s kind of the measure of how important we thought our work was, or what we thought we were doing. You know, we went into this with all the hubris that this is going to change the world and it did, in a few ways. Maybe not as much as we hoped. But it was so great to see. It’s been so fantastic to see, I would say, the next generation, and the next two generations of fantastic people who are working in museums and making things happen.
I would say, in my generation but Scott [Sayre], I can’t imagine what we would do without Scott, who’s now at Corning [Museum of Glass], taking on the world or without his wife, Kris Wetterlund, who’s one of the fantastic educators of our times. Vicki Porter, who did the Micro Gallery in, at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Slavko Milekic, and all the work he was doing. I can remember him displaying his first. It was a, it was the face, where the children were taught to eat the vegetables or fruits by picking the right… ‘It was just remarkable because I wasn’t one of the smart people, but I got to hang around with a lot of truly smart people. There was this woman named Katherine Jones and this guy named Paul Marty, and I would go see them and hear their sessions at conferences. Jim Devine at the University of Glasgow, it was just remarkable.
Do you have a question for me, because I think I’m running out of steam here?
[Marty]: Sure, I can jump in with a couple of questions. I’m fascinated with this this sort of this changing philosophy about bringing technology into the galleries, right, because you lived through this period where people were extremely reluctant to have that happen, to where now it’s an integral component. And you said something about how the trick was working with the curators who really wanted to do this, and, and what do you think led to the, the change in philosophy on the part of more curators to, to be more accepting of technology?
Well, I think they’re more accepting of technologies, but I really haven’t seen that they’re more accepting to having it in their galleries per se. I think we still see a lot of cases where, this is perhaps not the most appropriate use of the word “ghetto,” where technology is, is put somewhere by itself, and there may be artworks in with it, but I still think it’s fairly rare for it to be integrated into the gallery space. And that’s because you know, I’m a curator myself. Curators are interested in what they’re interested in, and they don’t want to go into their prized gallery and see everyone next to a screen.
And, but you know, and, and what the pandemic will do, I don’t know you know until we figure out better ways. And some people already figuring out better ways, so you don’t have to clean screens. You know I do sometimes worry about the smallness of our phones. And the sort of trivializing of information that you can find. One of the things that I did like was being able to see images blown up, being able to see details blown up, and I suppose we’re getting a little bit of that, with the, on steroids with all these immersive exhibitions that are going on all around the country now. And intellectually, it’s quite interesting to me that you would walk into a Van Gogh painting, and turn around. And you know I, I can’t say I think a lot about this, but when I do think about it, I’m like, so what, what is it that you’re getting from that? What is it that we’re asking people to get from that?
So I think the way technology has ramped up is, we can do a lot of stuff so much more easily than we could. And there isn’t the sort of paper thought process… I hate to sound like a troglodyte but there isn’t the, the… because you can make templates, because you can make… what are they called in technology? Wire frames so easily now. There isn’t the, you know, sitting around… Who’s sitting around at the table with a pencil or a napkin sketching out and then changing that to a template and adjusting that? So, I think we have shorter runways that get us great technology, and I guess I’m glad I was on, I was in one of those bigger planes that had a longer runway.
[Marty]: It’s interesting, you mentioned Scott Sayre earlier. We talked to him a couple of weeks ago and he actually said something very similar about missing the richness of the interactive exhibits from the ‘80s and the ‘90s. I, like the way you put it, a minute ago there’s a bit of trivializing of the information in the online world. I guess we’re all kind of feeling a little old. I talk with my undergrads, right, and it’s… there’s a reluctance to dig deep into anything, right. Everybody wants to skim along the surface, and, and they learn lots of really interesting stuff but, I wonder about the museum’s role to encourage people to stop and, and have a deep and rich experience, and what’s happened with that and technology.
Well, and it’s interesting that, you know, in the sort of great pendulum swings that go on in museums, perhaps this is slow looking. You know, education departments are increasingly falling back and slow looking in engagement with the object. And you know the other thing, because I’m, I’m a huge supporter of the current generation and them, them doing with technology what they want to do for their audiences, and so there’s so much good work being done in the realm of social justice and things which I would not have been very good at, you know. I was just, I was just really interested in how Rubens painted women, you know [laughing].
That’s not quite true, but I can remember having you know I remember having a sort of an Aha! moment: We had an exhibition of Winslow, I think it was Winslow Homer’s genre paintings, and being able to spend the time to go deeply and look at local color literature and how, you know, the painters who are painting these paintings, and the authors who are writing the books were all in the same society together and feeding off one another, and that just felt like a really rich opportunity. Living in San Diego, where you spent half your life on a highway, you know, just to spend some quiet time with Winslow Homer was a pleasure.
[Jones]: I have a question, Holly, I’m wondering, I’m going to take you back to the Cleveland Museum. What you and Len did, it I would imagine provided some infrastructure for what Jane Alexander could do, or am I wrong?
Oh absolutely. Infrastructure, because the infrastructure was changing so much, but I think what it did, is it, it is it… people expected things to happen at Cleveland, and, and they do. And you know she has a, she has a very different skill set and, and was able to build a team and then partnered with Erick [Kendrick] at Piction, you know, to do a digital asset management system, right. We were working without digital asset management systems until sort of the, closer to 2008, 2009, so the things you can do, once you get a digital asset system too it’s fantastic!
You know I, if I have, I have one regret, regret, it’s that you know, all of the things that are really gestural that are happening now, and the games and things that you can play, that would have … that seems to me that that would have been fun.
[Marty]: Yeah, I keep trying to talk Kathy into buying an Oculus Quest, because I tell you the immersive VR experience in the museum world is amazing and Scott Sayre’s in…
[Jones]: It’s just a matter of days, Paul, just a matter of days…
[Marty]: …just a matter of days, well. Well, Scott said they’re releasing one for Corning that’s supposed to be just absolutely spectacular in terms of an immersive experience there and … Holly, you also talked about this, this upcoming generation and I d say, you know I, I totally agree what I’m seeing with my undergrads. Just over the last five to ten years, such an awareness of social justice issues and awareness of how to use the Internet to affect positive change and there’s an increased awareness of how they’re being manipulated online. Right, and how to fight against that, so there is, there’s really something special about this upcoming generation for sure, and I’ll be curious to see how they use museum technology.
And to go back to the virtual reality, so we have a group that developed the HoloLens here at Case Western Reserve University. And they developed it for really interesting application for anatomy students to look at the body, so you can put your lenses on and, and all look at a model and talk about things, and they had done… HoloLens had done a project with the art school everybody goes to… the art history program everybody goes to in London, can’t think of anything right now….everybody gets there goes over and gets their master’s degree at the Courtauld [Institute of Art]. They had done a program with the Courtauld, and basically had some works in HoloLens, so you could put your lenses on, and it would look like you had you know, a painting in your living room or a mummy… you could put a mummy on your coffee table. And I had a conversation with them about digging deeper and then my… the chair of my department, Betsy Bowman, Elizabeth Bowman, who is a specialist in the Red Monastery in Egypt, which is closed, but she did 3D renderings, she worked and did 3D renderings of a 3D scans of the entire interior and exterior Red Monastery, and now her students this semester are using it to get close. Her art history students are using it to get close to places they couldn’t see, you know, you can’t get on a ladder, but with a HoloLens, you can go way up and they can go in places that women aren’t allowed. So, I think that’s an accessibility issue too, although that does, that does bring up another question.
One of the things I’ve been, I’ve been doing not technology work, but just sort of gotten engaged with the Native American community, indigenous communities through ATALM, the Association of Tribal Archive Libraries and Museums, and I heard a really interesting presentation a couple of years ago about Native American protocols for digital materials and, and physical materials. So that there are, there are objects that are sacred and if the object is sacred, the photograph of the object inherits those same tendencies, and the description of the object inherits those tendencies, so there’s a lot of conversation about how do we let things die, naturally, you know. And we’re all, all three of us, are engaged in preservation, but what does it mean to actively not preserve something for the right reasons, which I think is also very interesting?
[Marty]: That’s another really important philosophical shift as well, because in the early days of technology, working with art history people, rarely asked the community or the art historians are the artists about their …you know, that was more of a content that the technology people were simply using to test their technologies, and we’ve come a long way since then. And I love this perspective of the indigenous community and, and getting their voice into these projects, which was so often lost in the early days.
Well, and we had a I had a conversation once with … about a spirit drum, a ghost drum that was going to be given back, and they build, they build places where the ghost drum can be placed and where it can decay, and so the question was, “Well before it goes, can we do a video or an animation of it being played?” And they’re like, “No, you can’t, can’t do that.” You know, I know, I understand, and it’s not for me to say no, but you know again, intellectuals and intellectual exercise, if you’re not supposed to see it, you’re not supposed to take a photograph of it. You’re not supposed to animate it. And I think that’s, that’s hard for a lot of people.
[Jones]: Yeah, we had a big discussion about that, how technology can support decolonizing a museum and, in some cases, whether it should. So that’s so on target, Holly, about that.
Yeah, we’re, um, we’ve been deciding – I had an interesting discussion with my graduate students last week about what’s the difference between repatriation and deaccessioning? And I know we’re all completely off technology, but I don’t know if you saw this: Syracuse had the two-day deaccessioning thing, and people started using this term “progressive deaccessioning….”
… and I think is such an interesting, such an interesting concept that again, when I have some free time, I want to break down. That, if you put the word “progressive” in it, does it make it good? Does it make it right? Does it change the rules? I don’t know.
[Jones]: Yeah, I only got to a few of those sessions, but they were all very interesting. I think my takeaway was the comment that “blockchain is a registrarial tool,” I told Paul that on Friday. I thought that was amazing.
Yeah, and who knew? What are they called, NTS? NFT?
[Jones]: Oh yeah. Non-fungible tokens. Yup.
Very, very glad, not to have to not have to worry about that, on top of everything.
[Jones]: I know.
[Marty]: But, again, I get back to what worries me, which is that if people only understand the technology, then these things can be misused. And Holly, you were talking earlier about you know, understanding the technology, but also understanding the world of art history, understanding the curatorial viewpoint, and being able to build bridges among all of these communities. Where are our bridge builders today? Right, because we don’t want to get trapped in separate silos again.
Right, yeah and well, right, if you’re a big enough museum, you’re already siloed, but you have to hope that people will talk to one another. It’s all, it’s all… right, museum success is all about communication.
[Marty]: Well, we had a long chat with Seb Chan about that a few weeks ago, which was also just a brilliant conversation that I’m glad we have recorded because he was talking about there’s a, there’s an institutional knowledge that museums developed over the past few decades that has been lost in just the past few years, and a lot of, a lot of people are worried about that.
At one point, Angela Spinazzi and I were talking about trying to raise money to get a retreat for women to talk about the women who had been technologists over the past 20 or 30 years, because if you, if you were at a small museum, and you didn’t do your own cataloging and making sure things to survive, they just didn’t. I don’t think there’s anything, I don’t think there’s anything left of my work at San Diego, except you know what I have here and in CogApp’s archives and in the other developers that we used. And um, but we were doing. We were doing. We weren’t, we weren’t preserving. We weren’t thinking about that.
[Jones]: You have it, you had it in your hand today. You have proof…
I have, I have. [Holds up two photographs] I have two pictures, I have two transparencies of it. And I have the free flyer [holds it up]. This was before ICHIM. This was the Hands-on Hypermedia and Interactivity in Museums, which is ICHIM ‘95 and MCN ‘95, and this is the flyer we made…
[Jones]: That’s great.
…so people could come and see the Image Gallery for themselves.
[Jones]: In San Diego?
… in San Diego.
And I would like to say I don’t think you can have a conversation with Seb Chan that isn’t intellectually rich. He’s amazing. There’s some amazing people out there.
[Marty]: Amazing, and what we’re talking about here also connects with another theme we’ve heard a lot, that the project’s themselves die, right. They don’t have a long time frame, but the process that we go through, the knowledge that we — the friends we make along the way — right, that’s, that’s the important thing that we don’t want to lose. And I don’t know how we, how do we hang on to that institutional knowledge, especially as people retire, or leave the field?
And how do you, how do you capture….? Well, you’re doing, you know that’s part of what you’re doing is capturing that institutional knowledge, and you have to walk that fine line between “Oh, my gosh, we tried that 10 years ago and that won’t work.” You know, you can’t say that to a young person coming into the field, just sort of you have to nod sagely and think, “Maybe it’ll be different this time,” and you know, and try to help them over the, over the hard bits.
[Jones]: Yeah, but we want to tell them that: “No, that won’t work. We tried that before.” Paul, go ahead, I know you want to talk about that.
[Marty]: Well, I mean I’ll tell very, very quickly, but Holly, were you at the virtual MCN 2020 in November?
[Marty]: Right, so I was there, and you probably saw that MCN got a very nice grant from the Knight Foundation to do some online community building, so I went to their conference session to find out what they want to build. And they said, “Well, we have this great idea. We’ll build a project registry for MCN projects where everybody can upload information about their projects and post that online.”
And I, I think it was me and Bruce Wyman in the virtual audience, who were like, “Ummm… In 2008, we did this!” [All laughing] But not a single person on the team that was proposing this be done, knew that MCN had tried this in the past, not a single person.
Well, you know that’s… I would say that a great problem that was caused by the professionalism of technology and museums was this desire that when you got into a new museum, to throw away what had been done before. And to start over again. And that is a, that’s a factor, more of, you know, what people individually need to do to succeed. And I don’t know. I, I think in my life I have not been as grateful to the people who came before me as I should have been. And I’d like to make up for that now, and you know, encourage the people in these positions to practice gratitude. And if the person who had the job before you is still living, to call them up and say, “Hey, I’d like to know what you’ve done.”
You know, what if we made it, what if we made it a practice that one of the things you do is you call your predecessor and, and keep a record for a predecessor? We just instituted that as, as best practice. Before you start to do anything new, find out what you, what came before.
[Marty]: Well, I mean that’s an interesting academic question is well, we talked about this a lot at MCN too, right. Maybe the fact that there isn’t a published proceedings means that there’s not the mindset where people do a lit review before they give a talk, right.
Yeah, and that has always been, it’s always been the way, isn’t it? That’s why people wanted to go to ICHIM instead of EVA, because you’ve got a publication out of it.
So, that’s kind of… But that matters. Still, so much wonderful work was done. But you’re right. And how do they do a lit review? They can’t. And, and there’s no doubt that conference organizers, you know, there are people who are favorites for a while and then fall out of favor. So, again it’s interesting to look at all those ICHIM books and all the MCN books and AAM and see who the big people were on campus, and what their ideas were, and how they trickle down.
You know, one of the one of the projects I started at San Diego, which we never got off the ground, was something called the Clinical Chart for Works of Art. And that was working with Maurizio Seracini in Florence, this idea that you could take a group of paintings and do a complete examination on them, and then put sensors on them, and put sensors on the walls, and sort of follow them because, even though their life spans are much longer than our lifespans are, you can still see the changes that happened and having a hygrothermograph in the corner doesn’t necessarily tell you what’s happening with that work on the wall. And unfortunately, I think that’s one of those projects that it’s just too costly for people to wrap their minds around.
[Jones]: Holly, I wanted to just get back to a thought a few minutes ago. Of calling your predecessor, but also to take it into a theme that Paul and I’ve heard from a lot of people, which is — even Seb Chan — is to document your work. And so Seb is good about that in his blog, David Bearman was good about that in his publications, and I think that’s one way that we can kind of keep knowledge in the field as well, so did that happen at San Diego or Cleveland?
Ummm, so. In Cleveland, did it happen? Yes, did we put away a hard drive with each. When I was there, we put away a hard drive with each of the interactives. There was you know, there was the documentation for the interactives. Sometime around 2006, 2007, we had to move out of the building because they were renovating, and bunches of records went into deep storage. And so, will those, were those you know, do those still exist? And I haven’t had the heart to try.
And in San Diego, you know San Diego, we were just too small a staff. You know we were busy… Yeah.
[Jones]: Yeah, one of my students is writing about new media art, and had the example of Andy Warhol’s Amiga discs, and how they were recovered and that just flashed through my mind again. Even if you found them, could you actually recover the data? So…
I wrote, when you were first started talking, I wrote this little note to myself that said “Wayne Thiebaud and David Hockney”, [holds up Post-it Note] and I need to get these two stories recorded somewhere, because this is about copyright. ‘Cause when we started doing the Image Gallery, we knew we were going to use these 300 works of art, and so, anyone who fit the category, we sent off a nice letter and said, “This is what we’re doing…” and there was a little note that, if you would agree to it, that said, you know, artist’s name, and then we had a line that said, “capacity” in case it was a gallery representative who was doing it, and Wayne Thiebaud sent the sheet back to me and it’s his name and his signature and capacity [read]: “three martinis are equivalent,” [laughs] which I loved.
And then we got into this huge run around with David Hockney… it wasn’t a huge run around. We sent and we asked if we could use the San Diego David Hockney in the Image Gallery, and he sent a note back and said no, we could not use it in the Image Gallery, so I wrote him a note, and I said, and he explained, you know, why: that you know, he was fearful of what would happen, and he didn’t want copies of it being printed off. And he wrote — he or somebody — wrote this very nice letter, and I wrote back, and I said, can we use the letter in the Image Gallery, and he said no. But it was, for the time, it was a really nice artist statement, on why “No, I don’t want you putting this online,” so. I will always feel warmly towards Wayne Thiebaud and David Hockney.