Past, Present, and Future of Technology in Museums: A First-Time Participant’s Reflection on MCN 2017

  • Posted on Dec 04, 2017 by

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend MCN 2017, the 50th annual meeting of the Museum Computer Network, thanks to a fellowship from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation and the Digital Library Federation. The Kress+DLF GLAM Cross-Pollinator Fellowship is intended to foster connections between those who work in cultural heritage fields. Libraries, archives, and museums involve different practices and professional competencies, but deal with many of the same issues, so cross-disciplinary collaboration has rich potential. 

At NYARC, we collect web-based publications, including art history and provenance resources, catalogues raisonnes, NYC gallery websites, auction catalogues, and our own museum websites. We do this so that the information experienced through these publications survives, and ultimately so that it can be transferred to existing and future scholars and be used in the production of new knowledge. 

However different our means may be, this is what we do in libraries, archives, and museums: we get the knowledge to the people. We make sure we can do this forever. We try to do it better.

MCN has been talking about how to achieve this with technological aid since 1967(!!!), and their first conference was held in 1968. Fifty years later, the conversation has grown to encompass many emerging trends and changing practices in the use of digital technology. 

In 1968,  “A Conference on Computers and their Potential Application in Museums” in New York City included sessions on documentary applications, statistical analysis, hardware and software demonstrations, visual applications, computer networks, and museum education. (Photo taken by @dannybirchall)

In 1968,  “A Conference on Computers and their Potential Application in Museums” in New York City included sessions on documentary applications, statistical analysis, hardware and software demonstrations, visual applications, computer networks, and museum education. (Photo taken by @dannybirchall)

Now, not only have the traditional realms of libraries and archives (such as books and historically significant primary source materials) moved into the digital, but so have the ways we evaluate our successes and failures, the ways our visitors experience our collections, and even entire workflows. Across the cultural heritage field, we’re collecting and producing phone apps, web apps, APIs, data, videos, images, social media posts, blogs with interpretive content, interactive tools for gallery visitors, visualizations, 3D models, augmented and virtual realities...

The pool of creators of digital content has grown to a deluge, and the quantity and variety of digital files are expanding beyond what we can realistically expect to save. For all their ubiquity, digital resources are fragile. The information they contain changes over time. They rely on hardware and software to be accessed, which itself needs to be maintained. Increasingly, their content is wrapped under layers of tools and dynamic content, which again come with new challenges.  

Art + digital preservation highlight! MCN’s 50th anniversary party was held at the Andy Warhol Museum, where you can see Warhol’s digital artworks interact with Amiga 1000 as he would have done in 1985. Extracting the content from floppy disks and reverse engineering the software to make the obsolete .pic files readable was a major effort, described in more detail in the Studio for Creative Inquiry’s report. (Photo taken by @carissapffffft)
Art + digital preservation highlight! MCN’s 50th anniversary party was held at the Andy Warhol Museum, where you can see Warhol’s digital artworks interact with Amiga 1000 as he would have done in 1985. Extracting the content from floppy disks and reverse engineering the software to make the obsolete .pic files readable was a major effort, described in more detail in the Studio for Creative Inquiry’s report. (Photo taken by @carissapffffft)

This is why it’s so important for digital preservation not to be a conversation limited to digital preservationists. In order to maintain digital resources, and allow them to be accessed and used in knowledge production, whole institutions need to engage in sustainable practices in creating them, deciding what’s important, and ensuring that they continue to be used (the most effective kind of preservation!) I was pleased to discover at MCN that these issues were at the forefront of the top minds working in the museum field. 

A full account of the incredible presentations and thoughts this conference introduced me to would be beyond the scope of one blog post, but I got a glimpse of the work being done to 

  • Open up images, datasets, APIs, and other digital assets to online audiences
  • Leverage platforms like Wikipedia, ARTstor, Pinterest, and DPLA to increase awareness of digital collections, and analyze use to ensure that digital assets are reaching the right audiences
  • Encourage the production and promotion of digital scholarship that adds value and utility to museum collections, encouraging further use
  • Ensure that digital tools and processes are simple, standardized, interoperable, and well-documented
  • Create new standards for specific digital preservation needs 
  • Develop an empathetic organizational culture centered on human relationships and values, generating long-term commitment to digital projects

These points encompass all organizational levels and all types of roles, from curators to tech developers, archivists to educators, and so many more. They enrich the museum world and the wider circles of culture, creation, justice, and education that surround it--and they happen to make digital output more easily accessible, archivable, and preservable, too! 

There’s plenty of work to be done, to be sure. And sometimes it can seem overwhelming. But one more theme that came up again and again in different contexts throughout the conference, from the keynote to the very last presentation I attended, was acknowledging and making deep use of the work that has already been done. 

Keynote speakers Adrianne Russell, Aleia Brown, and Jamil Smith in conversation, with the theme for the conference on the screen behind them: “Looking back, thinking forward, taking action.” (Photo taken by @Jennifer_Foley)
Keynote speakers Adrianne Russell, Aleia Brown, and Jamil Smith in conversation, with the theme for the conference on the screen behind them: “Looking back, thinking forward, taking action.” (Photo taken by @Jennifer_Foley) 

MCN was a wonderful reminder that nobody has to start from scratch. However different our particular professional specialties, there is so much to gain from respecting and drawing on the expertise of others. It’s hard not to be awed by technology-enabled projects and shiny visuals. It’s easy to be inspired to learn the technical knowledge they require to produce, promote, and preserve them. But it’s really, really valuable to be inspired to develop the softer skills that are ultimately just as important: trusting, listening, and taking the time to learn.

Hope to see you next year in Denver, MCN!

Carissa Pfeiffer, NYARC Web Archiving Fellow, Frick Art Reference Library; MSLIS Candidate at Pratt Institute School of Information

 


Banner image: Conference materials from MCN 2017: Looking Back, Thinking Forward, Taking Action

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