Oral History of Museum Computing: Diane Zorich
This Oral History of Museum Computing is provided by Diane Zorich, and was recorded on the 24th 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/T8_D-adpYVw.
I’ll just start with when I started at the Peabody [Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard], because I was a one-woman shop when I came in, and I was also going in hoping that it was going to open a door to something totally different, and that would be museum curatorship. I did not want to necessarily work in technology. I took the job because I thought it was a foot in the door that would allow me to go elsewhere. And it was quite a shock to the system because they had already had a VAX computer, with its own air conditioned, climate- controlled room, running a Unix system, and the one person who knew a little bit about it was the Collections Manager at the time. They wanted somebody to come in to take that over. I did not know Unix. I had not even heard of Unix, so I bought a couple of books [Laughs] about Unix. And immediately thought, “Whoa! I am over my head on this.” But eventually, through trial and error, I learned a lot of things.
My favorite Unix story is when I had to upgrade Unix, and that involves something called “creating a new kernel,” for the operating system. I had no idea what I was doing, so a colleague said, “Hey, you’re at Harvard. They have a computer science department. Ask.” So I did, and they assigned me a young undergraduate, which I was told they do. This is an opportunity for undergraduates to get real-world experience. And I met with this gentleman. We decided we’re going to do [the upgrade]on a weekend because we didn’t want to disrupt business. When we knew it would go south. So I met with this young man on the weekend, a delightful, quiet, very smart young man who walked me through the paces and together, we created a new Unix kernel. It worked. Brought [the system] back up. I thanked him profusely. I wanted to take him to lunch, I said, “What can I do to thank you for saving my life and my job?” and he said, “No, no, this was great. It was fun.” Okay, fast forward one year. This news comes out that there’s a worm that had been let loose on the internet inadvertently. The first ever, and it took down all these systems, and it turns out that the young gentleman who had helped me was the person who had released this worm on the internet, Robert – what was his last name? You can look it up, I forget his last name. And I couldn’t believe it because he was such a quiet, mild-mannered, smart kid. He is now at MIT as a professor of computer science, but he did serve jail time for this, you may recall…
[Jones]: You can run through that story, Diane. [Laughs.]
You didn’t know that story? It’s on Wikipedia – look it up. Just Google, “internet worm”, “Robert”, and you’ll see his name. Morris! Morris that was his name, I think it was Robert Morris.
So I immediately freaked out, thinking well! [Laughs.] But it was a year past. The system had worked flawlessly, nothing [wrong]…. He did the best work he probably did as an undergraduate on that system, because it was such an old system. That was kind of a funny little factoid that happened. Eventually I was able to hire people to do data entry, hire somebody to actually migrate us off that system, and then Kathy [Jones] came aboard, and I left. So that’s where that went. But I bring up the story, I guess, to talk about in the early days of this, you had to really rely on yourself.
And, we talk about agile development. You had to be an agile person to take this stuff forward and work with it. [afterwards], I went into consulting for two decades, where I didn’t do so much actual technical work as much as policy and analysis work, which I actually enjoyed and I felt was more in my bailiwick than the technical. Although, again, when I was at the Peabody [Museum], I was there with soldering irons, making my own cables because we had CRTs back then, and they went into different offices, and I couldn’t get Security to come in, or Facilities to drill holes in the wall, so I drilled holes in the wall, and ran cable and you did everything yourself. But now, fortunately, I hope that’s no longer the case, and we are a little bit more mature in both our infrastructure support and in the people coming in and their knowledge base.
After having worked for two decades with consulting, I took this job at the Smithsonian for a number of reasons, one of which was that I’d been consulting for the Smithsonian for a while, and already knew the system and the federal system, and I knew the people in this office that I would be running, and they were all top notch. And I thought, “Where else am I going to ever have an opportunity to walk into a job where I know the people already, I know the setup, and I know they’re all really wonderful and professional.” And they had been running the office on their own for a year without a leader anyway, so I was probably a pest at that point because they were doing it all themselves.
So, I took the job, and I knew this might be my swan song, it would see me out. Because I already was, as they would say, a mature professional. And since then, I have learned – Paul, you talked about your students’ learning from my two discussions with them – I learned all of that myself when I came into it. And it was wonderful to be in an environment like that, where I had people working ostensibly for me, but in fact, I realized really early on, my role was to remove obstacles to let them thrive, because they had come up with these programs and these plans. They knew the system. And the only thing that was holding them back were the bureaucratic and other budgetary… other obstacles that come with any job. And so that my real role there could be to try to help remove those obstacles so that they could go forward and do what they wanted to do. And I still feel that’s a large portion of my role on a day-to-day basis, trying to find funds, trying to showcase their work, so people see the amazing things they’ve done because often it’s hidden labor, hidden products. People [within the Smithsonian] will go outside and say, “We need somebody to 3D scan something,” but we have an in-house team that is stellar at that. They just didn’t know it. So I’m kind of always out there, trying to sell this group, even among the Smithsonian, especially among the Smithsonian actually, because it’s a large organization, [it] has 6,000 people. You can’t possibly know, everybody. And you can’t possibly know all the projects going on either, which is amazing, [but it’s] also a liability, sometimes, especially with a team like mine, where we could help so many of these clients.
It’s not so much that I need to know [how to use] the technology, I need to know it on high level, but I don’t need to be able to have used it, to have that deep hands-on expertise, because the team has that [skill set]. It’s a different level of maturity, technical, technological maturity, where [you] know how it works, the best use cases for it, where it should be used or not, and then you make those opportunities, you line up those opportunities with your team and let them go at it. So they’ve done some amazing things, as Paul has heard, and they continue to do amazing things, and I will defend, I will fight anybody who says that we don’t have the best 3D, for example, team in any museum, and similarly mass digitization team, although the British Museum might dispute that, but I’ll fight them. [Laughs]
So, we have these amazing teams, and that’s really what it’s all about. They’re the ones that learned early on. And another thing they’ve taught me is that, is that although I go to museum technology conferences, they often did not. They found the best return on their investment of time and money, since these conferences are expensive, was to go to tech conferences in their area. And that had a dual payoff. It sharpened their skill sets – they saw [the] state of the art, what was going on in industry and commerce. And it also introduced those industry and commerce sectors to us. And if we have one amazing benefit [here], it’s the Smithsonian brand. I have been time and time again gob-smacked at how you just drop the Smithsonian name and people don’t question it. They’re just – “Yes, we want to work with you.”
It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my life. And it happens all the time, and every time it happens, I’m amazed all over again. But industry wants to work with us – they won’t give us money because that’s not done anymore, by the way. Giving money [outright] — they will give in-kind services, they will give expertise, they will work jointly on projects, but nobody gives money and walks away. They [industry]want an investment in it as well, of some sort. But that’s actually been a real positive, I think, because we continue to learn from each other. We had, for example, a partnership that started before I came on board with Autodesk and the 3D team. Autodesk is this major CAD company. And even though we no longer have a day-to-day working relationship with them, we know we can call them or email them for anything — insights on something, and vice versa, and they will do the same for us.
So, for example, just the other day, our 3D program manager got an email from somebody very high up at Autodesk who was talking to the Computer History Museum. [They] were looking for a new 3D viewer, and she told them, “The best 3D viewer out there is the one developed by the Smithsonian.” So she’s linking our team with their team, and you would think, “Okay, that’s great. So maybe they’ll use our viewer.” It’s open source, we want people to use the viewer. We’re happy to help them set it up, within limits. And it’s another museum, so of course we want to help. But there’s really something very much deeper going on here. The Computer History Museum is located in Silicon Valley and has relationships with technology companies that are unsurpassed for a museum, just because of the nature of what they do. So, if we can work with them, if they like our 3D viewer, there’s a possibility of other relationships and collaborations developing. And so that’s the other thing I try to do is look long-term at where – what might look like something very simple today – like helping another museum use our 3D viewer – will pay off down the line. And it’s a long game. It’s not something that I might see happen this year, next year, or even in five years, but maybe further on. And that’s where much of our expertise has come from, to be honest with you. We’ve had these kind of long games going on with different technology companies who contribute little pieces here or there.
Sometimes it’s helping us develop something, like the first major scan we did of the Apollo Command Module, which was huge. And Autodesk actually wanted to do it at a very high-level of resolution because they wanted to test their software on a huge dataset, so it was a win-win on that [front]. But our team learned a ton from that project, and from their engineers, and we continue to learn from them going forward.
So that’s the other end of this – is that building [of] partnerships. I’m used to building partnerships with museums, and they’re still important, I don’t deny that, but from my group the longer-term partnerships with technology companies have proved more useful in the long run. And working with these companies in a way that is not just saying, “give me money” because they want to be valued. They want the association with the museum, and that might just be the [because of the] Smithsonian brand, but I bet other museums would have similar success in that way, by saying, “Let’s do a partnership.” It’s time consuming and there’s a lot of education that has to go on, because technology companies often come in as if they’re a bulldozer. “We know the answer. We can help you.” They have to learn about us, and we have to learn about them. We have to learn about their corporate culture. How things move through their system. They have to know how it moves through our system, which is further complicated by being a federal system, but the long-term benefits I’d have to say are huge for both [the] company and for us.
[Marty]: I was just….
If there’s… something you want to prompt me on, something that I haven’t thought about…?
[Jones]: I do. I always thought the work that you did on information policy was important, Diane. Maybe you could talk about that a little bit, and how, how some of the consulting that you did helped to integrate that work into the museum field.
Because it was early days, we were jumping into technology – but we didn’t have any policy about information, and it was all really about information. And so, I was thinking about these things, and looking around, and the first place I looked was libraries, because libraries were always my idol. They seemed to have their whole act together. They have vocabularies, and they have thesauri, and they have cataloging systems. And then, when I looked closer I realized, well, of course they do. It’s so easy for them. They have a book where [the information] replicates itself. We have one-of-a kinds, and even when we have one-of-a kinds, nobody can agree on what that one-of-a-kind is. So that’s when I did my first article, – “Libraries and Museums: Beauty and the Beast,” – because I thought, “I see this. Why doesn’t everybody else see this? There’re real distinctions here.”
So, I laid it out that way. And that article is really old now, and it was [published] in Spectra – not a widely distributed journal. I still get people telling me they teach that [article] in classes in information school. Because people come in thinking, “Well, why can’t you do it this way? Libraries do it this way. Archives do it this way.” And it hasn’t changed – I mean the issues at the core haven’t really changed. The solutions might have, new solutions come up but, we’re always going to be different than libraries, they are always going to be different than archives. It’s just the nature of the beast.
So, that kind of got me thinking more about, “Well, museums need information policies.” You know the great thing about libraries, even if we can’t use their policies, they’ve got them. Now, we should have them as well. And every place I worked at in the early days, the ‘80s and ‘90s, and the early aughts, didn’t really have policy and wasn’t thinking of information that way at all. And many still don’t, I think. To be honest. I know at the Smithsonian, it depends what museum you’re in, and if you’re a library, you’re pretty good. The archives are pretty good, but the museums are still not quite thinking “information”. There’s still a sense that that’s kind of infrastructure, we don’t have to think about it, but in fact, you do… Did that answer your question, Kathy?
[Jones]: Yes, but I want to say a little bit more and have you respond, so during that really tragic fire at the Brazilian museum, I thought of the line in the chapter that you wrote for the, Marty and Jones’ book, how, having the information and having it secured would be so important.
I actually wrote a little blog post on that, on the DPO [Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office] blog, and I got some pushback. It was really interesting and it made me think a little bit. In this blog post I argue, in the context of that museum fire, if things were digitized, you’d at least have a surrogate image, ideally, and you would have the [digital] records. And you could do research from that, a certain level of research. Yes, it’s incredibly tragic that the originals, be they specimens or objects, are gone. But you’d have something to go on. Similarly, if there were 3D models of some of these things, – I mentioned that you can’t smell a 3D model, you can’t touch and feel the same level of the original as you can on 3D model, because the 3D model is going to be a plastic kind of thing – but you’ve got something there that you can work on. And one of the things I learned from my mass digitization program, which is 2D imagery, is how much research can be done from an image. And, in fact, that [mass digitization] team, when they go around and do mass digitization, people ask, “Well, what resolution do you [digitize] it at?” Our Mass Digitization Supervisor calls [the process] “the object whisperer.” [Laughs.]
He looks at the object, and he asks the curators, “At what level of detail, at what level of resolution, do you need to see something on this object to be able to study it from an image?” And they tell him. For example, for the stamps at our National Postal Museum, they need to see the engraving markings. That’s a different level of resolution than in the botany collection, where they need to see whether a fern has spores or not. So each collection determines that, but the goal is to be able to do research off of [this imagery], and to go back to the information policy (and blog post), it was really incredible, the pushback I got was, “Yeah, that’s in an ideal world, Diane, but nobody can digitize their entire collection. There’s just too many things in our way, and always have been.” And that’s true, but that means we need to argue better for ourselves of why it’s so important to digitize because if this stuff goes up in smoke — literally or figuratively — all you will have is your records. And your paper, if they are paper records, those may go up in smoke, too. So you really do need some kind of digital representation, and that’s up to the museum to decide as to what that is. To be able to have some accountability, nowadays, for your physical collection, yet we still don’t do that.
[Jones]: So Diane, I remember, I think, your whisperer gave a talk during our weekend with...
Yes, he did.
[Jones]: And you know, it gets back to a theme that Paul and I have heard throughout, about how we are now listening to the users and letting them help us program for them, instead of knowing what they want, you know, and doing it our way. Not you, but other people.
It’s true and we’ve learned that during the pandemic. We have a lot of digital assets, but then the pandemic came, and everybody’s doing things intermediated through a screen, including teaching, in K through 12. And suddenly, digital assets become really important for K through 12, and we’re finding — not just the Smithsonian, every museum — that their assets aren’t… they’re there, but they’re not there in a way K through 12 can use them, and that’s because nobody really asks, “How do you need these assets?” “How can we make them easier for you to incorporate in your curriculum?” Nobody has really had to — I shouldn’t say that. I shouldn’t say “nobody.” I’m sure people have done this, but as a group, as an entity, museums have not been good at asking their audience, and K through 12 is a huge example. So we have these assets, and we find in the D.C. Public School System, for example, they love our assets, but they can’t use them for two reasons: they have to be bilingual, according to the D.C. Public School System. And they have to be accessible. Accessible for people who have disabilities. They’re not. We have to make them that way. […] We need to up the game here folks. to make these usable.
[Jones]: Well, that’s a really good point. So is Congress going to give you all that money to do that?
No. Congress gives us 60 percent of our budget and they’re always fond here (at the Smithsonian) of saying that 60 percent keeps the lights on. Basically, it pays for the facility management, but none of the special programming. That’s all raised by public [funds], shop revenues, licensing… We have a public trust arm, which is a for-profit that we can fundraise from. And that’s where all the programming [funds] come in. Now we do get some funding every year that’s appropriated for “digitization,” but that’s broadly interpreted, and usually goes to technology infrastructure, not digitization. Yet, we are held accountable. Our Secretary has to go to Congress, as well as the folks in our budget office, a couple times a year to report on what we’ve done in the digital realm. And they really want numbers. How much have you done? How much more have you done? Which is very Congressional, isn’t it?
We have this Open Access initiative we did- thankfully it went live in February of 2020. [Laughs] Boy, that timing was good. And there’s over 3 million assets in there now – images and 3D (models) and 14 million metadata records – that are open and that have been used in amazing ways. The stats are great. But we haven’t had a chance to add much to that, and probably won’t because the facilities are closed,* and we haven’t been able to get in to digitize. So we’ve kind of moved to records digitization in this period, because the museums are less concerned about letting their records go out for digitization than they are the objects, which are – objects are fragile, it requires much more time and investment and money to move those out. Card catalogs, easy to do. Just box them up and take them over.
So, we’ve been doing this kind of digitization, and experiments with machine learning and OCR on [collections] records to try to see if we can get metadata off the cards into digital records, and enhance them at the same time. Because we don’t have any money to do this, beyond our traditional budget, we’re looking at machine learning to see what can be done automatically to a high level of confidence, and then the rest would be done by human transcription. Things that just can’t be done (by machine learning). But we’re finding that a lot of the machine learning and the OCR even, it’s getting really good at handwriting recognition. The problems we have – it’s not just always handwriting (on the analog records). Sometimes – if you think of natural history collections with specimen labels, there’s these labels, some are typed, some are scrawls, and over time, more and more these labels come up, and so it’s more of a management thing than actually a transcription issue. But that’s kind of where we’re looking now.
[Marty]: I’m sorry. I was just about to jump in and say another theme we’ve heard a lot is these misunderstanding of what digital work is. And especially about something like digitization. People think it’s taking a picture, right? They don’t see the vast apparatus of management that surrounds that.
Yes, that’s true for both MassDigi [Mass Digitization] and 3D, more so for MassDigi [Mass Digitization], because the whole idea is to leverage the economies of scale that come with big numbers. And that means moving these collections from storage to a digitization station and back safely. And in our facilities, that is a real challenge for many. We have very old buildings. We have offsite facilities. We have over 1,000 storage spaces total, from every broom closet that has something in it to huge spaces in our Museum Support Center in Maryland. And getting those things is not, it’s not trivial to get them.
One of my favorite stories — and Ken [Ken Rahaim, Manager of the Mass Digitization program at the Smithsonian] may have told you this, I think it’s one of his favorite stories too — is when he was in charge of the mass digitization project at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City. Their storage area is actually in Newark [New Jersey]. So they set up shop in Newark for 18 months. And they would bring things over to the digitization station in carts, wheeled carts, but they had to go through doors, and there were two problems with the doors. They had to be physically opened, and the carts were getting a little jarred as they went through them. Sometimes the object handlers were going a little too fast. It was making the conservators and everybody nervous. So he put in sensors that automatically open the door when it saw something coming. And that cut off four seconds in getting the objects from here to there, but over time, that four seconds added up . [Ken’s] amazing, he’s a logistics superhero — he was able to equate that savings of time into money, and it was huge. It was almost something like six figures. So, something like just shaving four seconds off via a door opening. That’s what you have to do when you’re thinking on that scale.
You have to look at the physical infrastructure. There are also issues, some of our buildings – we don’t have internet drops to all of the sections of our buildings. In fact, most of the storage areas were chosen in some of the buildings because there’s no internet drop. Nothing can be done there, except storage. But we need to sometimes bring internet drops in to be able to use barcoding and scanning – we want to automate as much as we can [in these projects] and get it (object images and data) online. Some areas don’t have electrical outlets: we have to put in electricity, drop electrical wire, so we have to bring our facilities people in. It’s a huge checklist of things that we go through before we even click the first shutter. It could be months of planning before you actually do anything. And you need the entire staff of the museum to know that. Sometimes the nearest way to get [objects] from A to B is to go through a public section of the museum, which nobody really wants to ever do, but it’s the nearest way. You have to figure out, well, do you want to do that? Or do you want to take more time in the project and divert it to back hallways, which are safer? You have to talk about all these things. Who is equipped to move objects? Not everybody is a natural born object handler as we’ve learned [laughs], and then once they [objects] get to the digitization station, who sets them up for the best viewing? You have to go fast. The whole idea is to be able to move fast, almost in an assembly line process. If you have to stop and artistically pose each picture, you are defeating the process. So, these are all these kinds of things we have to think about.
With 3D scanning, it’s not quite so bad because we don’t have the volume. It’s very expensive to 3D scan, so we do not do hundreds of thousands [of objects]. In fact, if we do 80 to 100 at a time, that’s huge for us. So, it’s not quite the same thing, but the process of actual scanning is more intensive, and it requires more expertise.
[Jones]: So Diane, that brought up two things for me, and that’s one, is working in old buildings and having people understand what you need to do to upgrade the infrastructure. And then, the other thing was seeing the botanical collections scanned, and the question there is were you able to use that technology that process for other things during the pandemic?
We were able to keep the botanical project going at a reduced scale [during the pandemic]. Maybe just three people at a time in that space. There was a number of reasons that we were allowed to do that. The museum agreed. We had developed work safe protocols, which required — now they seem standard, but when we started, at the beginning of the pandemic, it was by no means standard — that everybody was wearing masks, washing their hands, checking in and checking out, so that if some outbreak of COVID came out, we could always do contact tracing. So we had a whole work safe protocol set up first, and that took a couple of months. And then with that, the museum agreed to let a smaller team come in, so that continues to go on, but we have not been able to go into other museums to do any of our other projects beyond what I mentioned with these records, taking the records out to digitize. So they’ve [the mass digitization team], made a big pivot from objects to records digitization right now.
Also, the conveyor belt is not ours. It belongs to a vendor. Which again, our mass digitization program manager totally thinks is the way to go. Because if it breaks down, it’s their problem. They have to fix it, and quick. And because we don’t have a budget to speak of. If we had to buy hardware, technology, cameras, – things change so quickly, the technology, scanners, – we’d spend all our money on technology. It’s become our philosophy to hire vendors who specialize in this [digital imaging] and keep up-to-date with the technology, and then we manage the projects. But the hardware itself, our 3D scanning hardware, almost all of it is on loan to us from technology companies. And that botany conveyor belt is part of the vendor relationship. We have a contract with the vendor who does the transcription on those [botanical specimen] sheets as well.
[Jones]: That’s great. So how will you link the information on the cards that were scanned back to the objects when that can be done?
Yeah, there… that will actually probably take place initially through accession numbers [and bar codes]. The discussion, right now is that every museum has different cards, some have ledger books. The formats of these [records] are very different, so when we do our analysis with OCR machine learning and human transcription and see what can be done, each project has to have that done separately, because the format, the physical format, is different. So, most of it will be by accession number [and bar codes]. […] So we’ve set up scripts that take our images and once they are QC’d (quality control checked) and approved, go right into the DAMs.
[Jones]: mm hmm.
And then, if the DAM’s permission is that they can go public, they then go out to the websites or the aggregators or wherever the museum has designated as public for them. […]we’re still in early days on this, I’ll be honest, with the record digitization, we’re doing pilot projects to see where the flaws are. And that’s how we started with the mass digitization in the imaging projects. We started with these pilots, worked through the whole process, saw where there were problems, did another pilot that addressed the problems, continued, so it was an iterative process, and we’re still in that iterative process for the records digitization as well.
[Jones]: And I have forgotten, but do all of the museums use one system or do you have to push it out?
Most of the museums use TMS. We have a few outliers — the Natural History Museum uses EMu as does the American Indian Museum, and then the American History Museum uses… I don’t know if it’s still called Mimsy.
I often talk about the Smithsonian as being a federation of museums. Each of the museums has their own Director, staff, and budget, and they report to this mothership called the Smithsonian.
[Jones]: Sort of like “Battlestar Galactica” and other, other ones we might know.
So, it would be great to be able to say, “You must use TMS!” but we cannot. [Laughs.] So instead, we create workflows for all those systems so that the data goes into the system, depending on the museum, their system. The (images) all filter into the same DAMs. That’s true. That was a major achievement to get people to do that.
[Jones]: And what are you using, Piction?
And now we’re creating a 3D repository because we have so many 3D assets, in addition to CT scans, which the Natural History Museum folks do a lot of. And it was getting a little worrisome with how safeguarded these files are going to be, so our 3D team, and this is a great pandemic project — it can be done so remotely — is developing a 3D repository. A group of developers on the team are working on this, so there will be the equivalent of a DAMs for 3D. We did try putting 3D files in our DAMs, but conventional DAMs, they’re not set up to handle that the complexity of 3D files and the size, too. We just demo’ed a minimal viable product [of our 3D repository] for our CIO the other day, and when it gets more robust, we’ll make it open source. That’s the other thing I like about my team. They keep doing things that will be open source. [Laughs]
[Marty]: Well, I was actually just about to ask about that. We, I mean one of the themes that have cut through a lot of these oral histories is shifting perceptions and philosophies about openness in museums, right. So you were talking about Voyager 3D Explorer is Open Source software and now more Open Source software and we’ve got Open API to collections and, of course, the whole Open Access images movement that’s been happening. And what do you think is behind the shifting philosophy, providing more Open Access for museums?
You know what, I think this is a win for museum grassroots professionals. Seriously. This did not come top down, you know it. [Laughs] This came from the bottom up, and the bottom pushed it up and met a few from the top who were open minded, and willing to start, to try it. And the Smithsonian was obviously not first out of the gate. In fact, maybe we were the 200th out of the gate internationally. But that was okay, because those 199 before us, or whoever, gave us the ammunition to show that they did it, and no one died. [Laughs.] It was okay. Nothing untoward has happened. That was really important in convincing not only senior management, but legal departments, who are often, I mean, that’s their nature to be risk averse…I think all of us in the trenches should pat ourselves on the back for the years of hard work on that. But of course, I don’t think people think of it that way, right? But it really was people in the trenches who moved that (open access) forward. This wasn’t going kill anybody. For us (Smithsonian) too, we have a public — a very public — mission, because we are partially taxpayer-funded, we are seen as America’s museum, although we feel we’re global. The truth is we do have to be accountable to Congress and the taxpayers for the use of their money, so it’s really hard to justify not making this stuff open. This is the American public’s collection. They’re paying with their tax dollars and, yes, they get free admission to the museums, but that’s not enough really… so that public mission also helped push us over. And I know all museums that have a public mission, but it’s different for us. We really do have the American public supporting us financially.
[Marty]: Well, I think that’s… I appreciate you saying that. It’s… I’m searching for the right words here. When you look at the sweep of the history of museum computing, it fills me with optimism to see these initiatives having moved forward. You know, we’ve heard a lot of stories of people being depressed at this point, or some challenge here, but you look at the overall arc, we’ve come a tremendous way.
And you know what I think the next area is going to be, is with DEAI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access) initiatives or IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access), depending on which acronym we use. (We use IDEA here). Because I see emerging professionals making that a new point for their work going forward, and I think that’s terrific. […] There’s so much more here than legal issues, right? There’s the moral, there’s the professional, […] I see that coming from the rank and file, at least in the passion for it. Sometimes I think if it comes from the top, it’s not necessarily passion as much as, “Oh well, I’ve got to do this for legal reasons.” But the passion for doing it for the right reason is coming from the rank and file.
[Marty]: Well, I was just going to say, it speaks to the… I mean, it speaks to the power of, of each generation of museum technology professionals as they come in, and push ideas forward.
[Marty]: Many ideas wouldn’t get that kind of traction if they didn’t have that passion that they brought with them.
[Marty]: And Kathy just put something in the chat about empathy as well.
[Marty]: We were talking last week with Douglas Hegley, and he was talking about the role that the museums play in encouraging global empathy and connecting communities, too.
And we’re doing that now at the Smithsonian much more because of our leader, Lonnie Bunch, who came in with that (empathy). It’s our 175th anniversary, by the way, this year, and we could go back and reminisce, and rest on our laurels, and we should do that. You should always celebrate, right? But you should also say, “Okay. Where are we now, and are we meeting the moment now?” And we aren’t. I mean, he (Lonnie Bunch) has been honest with that. We are not meeting the moment. And he wants us to, as we should. So I think having the right leadership is really important too.
So I think where this is going to spin off into digitization for us is we used to, and we still do to some extent, digitize based upon what the priorities of the museums are. But the priorities of museums have usually been the priorities of collections management, and exhibition, and loans, and I think we need to move that a little bit more, if not a lot more, to what the public needs are. And so, for example, Lonnie has made this his vision going forward that we address issues of the pandemic, sustainability of our planet, and racial and social injustice, and we’ve got tons of collections that can speak to that, and stories. So I’m hoping the museums will feel pressure to say, “Yeah, it would be nice to have this done, because then I could finish my database.” But really, you know, these things tell a great story. Let’s, let’s bump these up in the queue and do this.
I know they’re doing that for 3D because 3D is just made for storytelling. For the Mass Digi [mass digitization use cases], it’s harder for people to think that way. They want to do one or two things, and we want to say, “Do the whole collection, get your hands in it, and you’ll find it can be used to address issues… don’t just cherry pick.” It requires a little bit more of a leap.
[Marty]: Well, when you put out a whole collection, you don’t know how people are going to use it. It’s about remaking and reusing and…
Exactly… Absolutely. If we’re going to do one or two [dozen], we might just want to do… As Ken [Rahaim] says don’t give me 2,000 [objects]. Give me 20,000 or 200,000…because I can do that for you really quickly [for the same effort], and then you have that much more to work with.
[Jones]: Diane, it just made me think, I’m pretty sure I’m remembering this right, but you can tell me if I’m not. When the Museum of African American History and Culture was beginning, before it had a place, it had a website.
[Jones]: And what I began to see was that they were collecting tags, and they were understanding how people wanted to use the collection.
[Jones]: But if Lonnie takes that into the whole of the Smithsonian, then you can begin to see what stories need to emerge.
[Jones]: And what you then need to digitize.
Right. Well also, we have this huge retrospective amount of work. Our American Women’s History Initiative has taken that on as a challenge, to surface women in our history who haven’t gotten the due they should. And that’s been a fascinating project to watch. Because they are using a lot of machine learning to try to uncover from records women’s names, which are often recorded as men’s names, or Mrs. man’s name, and they’ve unsurfaced so much, and brought so much attention to that [type of work]. One of the areas that I think we will be doing more work in, and this will probably be at the grassroots too that pushes us, is something we call reparative cataloging – to go back and look at our cataloging and see what voices aren’t being exposed, the silences in the record. And we’ve got a team of people in the grassroots working on discussing how we can tackle that at an institution as large as the Smithsonian. What first steps can we take that get us some wins that help us go to the next step, and the next step, and the next step. Because it’s just… you see this, and you start in it, you don’t want to get paralyzed by the depth of the problem. Which is easy to do with all of our collections and the size of the records and all that. But everybody sees it. And this is where I think we’ll find again, that emerging professionals are taking the lead.
[Note to readers: At the time of this interview, the Smithsonian, like other institutions around the world, was largely closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Smithsonian has since reopened and the Digitization Program Office’s teams are once again working onsite in museums digitizing collections. The records digitization program created during the pandemic also continues.]