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Before You Were Born…Museums had Networks

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In honor of this week’s Museum Computer Network conference, I want to talk a bit about the early history of museum computing.

MCN Logo in 1998

Most people are not aware that MCN was born out of a cooperative computing project in the New York City area in 1967, under the direction of Dr. Jack Heller. Fifteen New York-area museums joined forces to explore ways that an electronic index of the Metropolitan Museum’s collections could be used beyond the Met. With funding from the New York Council of the Arts and the Old Dominion Foundation, the consortium formed the Museum Computer Network to create a prototype system for a shared museum “data-bank.”    Dr. Heller’s work resulted in a system called GRIPHOS (General Retrieval and Information Processor for Humanities Oriented Studies), which was based on a data dictionary that could accommodate the diverse institutions participating in the project: a tagged record format that allowed for the description of individual objects with separate, linked records for artist biographical information and for reference citations.

The first MCN conference was in 1968, and the group — now an international membership organization– is continuing strong today, some 40 years of its incorporation in 1972 under the directorship of David Vance as its first president. I attended my first MCN meeting in 1988, and that organization was my professional home for many years. I served on its board from 1992 to 1999.

In a similar time frame of 1965, the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History was developing SELGEM (Self Generating Master) System, which it shared with UC Berkeley, the Lowe Museum at the University of Florida, and the Oklahoma Inventory of Ethnological Collections.

The museum community has long been an innovator in the use of technology.  In 1978, Robert Chenhall published his  Nomenclature for Museum Cataloging, which was geared toward the sort of authority control needed for electronic resource metadata and discovery.

In 1979, The Detroit Institute of the Arts developed DARIS (Detroit Art Registration System).  By 1982, 12 organizations across Michigan were using DARIS.

1979 was the same year that the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, distributed its first videodisc of 2,000 collection images. In 1986, I was working on a videodisk project at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, where we captured images of ethnographic collections via video camera onto to videotape, and mastered them onto videodiscs that could be pulled up through an interface using what was then Questor Systems’ Argus collection management system. We even had an early digital image printer that created prints not unlike Polaroid prints (am I dating myself by thinking of them that way?).

In 1982, Canada launched its National Inventory Programme through CHIN (the Canadian Heritage Information Network), to evaluate and provide museum computing expertise to museums across Canada, emphasizing shared efforts.

In 1989, MCN launched the Computer Interchange of Museum Information (CIMI) project, which published its CIMI Standards Framework for interchange standards that should be used by different museum applications to transfer data  independent of their hardware, software or network vendor.

Museums were some of the first organizations on the web.  In 1995, at the annual AAM meeting, a group of MCN members created the first MCN web site while working at the MCN booth — we wrote the HTML by hand and used images from an early consumer digital camera.  I was one of those original site creators, and I helped maintain the MCN directory of museums online until 2000. Versions of the MCN site dating back as far as January 1998 are available through the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.

Collaboration and the used of shared standards and technologies are not new to our community. We may not have been as focused on preservation in those early days, but we were highly focused on data sharing and interoperability, something which has not changed today. Let’s not forget that our focus effort on collaboration has borne fruit based on many decades of effort.

11/9: Updated link to Library catalog.

Comments (2)

  1. Interesting! Looking at the timeline and dates, because SELGEM predates ARPAnet, was shared data transferred between institutions via tapes?

  2. It’s not quite before most people were born, but the UK’s Museums Computer Group is 30 years old this year – there’s a brief history at

    Cheers, Mia
    (current MCG Chair, benefiting from the work of many before her)

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