Post by Chuck Patch, MCN President 2002-03
When I joined a motley group of MCN regulars for the Archive Dive at the Smithsonian Institution in January of this year, I must admit that there was a huge nostalgic impulse involved. Among us, we represented something like 40 years of MCN’s 50-year history, with David Bridge, who was part of the organization in the 1970’s, and Charles Zange (who I doubt was even a glimmer in his mother’s eye when I attended my first meeting in 1986) marking the extremes of that span. Several of us were past presidents (the old joke used to be that if you attended 3 consecutive meetings, you’d be asked to join the board. Give presentations at those meetings, and you’d be elected President.)
We were brought together by the indispensable Marla Misunas, who may have single-handedly saved MCN’s bacon on several occasions. I’d heard about this archive for years, and I was curious about the early days of the institution. I’d met Everett Ellin, credited with founding MCN in 1967, when the Museum Computer Network was really imagined as a physical network. But the years between 1967 and sometime around 1974, when MCN found a home in SUNY, at Stony Brook under the leadership of David Vance, were largely a mystery to me. I really wanted to see the documentation of that 1986 meeting, when as the new systems manager at The Historic New Orleans Collection, I functioned as the errand runner for my boss, Rosanne McCaffrey, who was that year’s program chair. The 1986 meeting, I have come to realize, was a pivotal moment in the life of the organization, where it was shaking off a past that had been slipping away for years.
The proper history of MCN is being knocked together by people who really know what they’re talking about – most notably Richard Urban and Marla Misunas (see their excellent history at http://mcn.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/HistoryofMCN.pdf.) I’m not one of those people. But as I think back to that 1986 meeting, and compare it to the subsequent history I both experienced, and found in the archive at the Smithsonian, it occurs to me that MCN has gone through several of these tipping points, where groups of passionately devoted leaders ceded to changing interests in the field just barely in time to keep the organization from sinking into irrelevancy and worse, insolvency. While I’ll probably be helpfully contradicted by more knowledgeable historians of the organization, it’s hard not come away from a read of the early letters, meeting agendas, and board reports (following the incorporation of MCN in 1972) with the sense of an organization built around the creation of a tangible asset. The Griphos system, a museum collection description system (it was still far too early to describe it as a “Collections Management” system) developed by Jack Heller was at the center of MCN’s origin story. It was essentially the great-great-great-grandmother of an Open Source museum system, except that it was written in machine code for an IBM mainframe. MCN membership was available at the institutional level only. The early get-togethers were small, and conceived of primarily as user group meetings. Sessions dealt either with theoretical issues (indexing terms for describing works of art) or cool things you could do with Griphos. And the range of cool things that were attempted were impressive. Meeting agendas, starting from the 1968 meeting at the Met, and will into the ‘70’s include sessions on archaeological description, the uses of databases for conservation documentation, the analysis of musical form, and, in a pre-graphical computer universe, the description of visual elements in museum artifacts. The themes were strikingly visionary, and as the decade progressed, it became clear to attendees that what you could do with a computer was far more interesting than what system you did it with.
By the end of the decade, it was obvious that no institution or funding agency was very interested in Griphos itself, but plenty of people were interested in the organization, and the potential for computers in museums. It was a fact embedded in the 1972 incorporation, which essentially transformed the organization from a physical to a professional network. But as often happens, this essential fact was difficult for its founders to recognize. Plaintive accounts of failed attempts at funding appear often in the archive.
Partly from the financial pressure of its leaking budget, but also because it just seemed an obvious move, the MCN opened up to individual memberships.
The 1986 meeting was widely regarded as a turning point for the organization. Ron Kley was elected as only the second president the MCN’s history. The last of the old guard leadership from the days of Everett Ellin and Jack Heller, he succeeded David Vance, who had taken over from Heller and served as the MCN’s president so long (1971-1985) that he might as well have been the MCN. Perhaps incorrectly, I have a lingering memory of grumbling from new upstarts at the meeting over this continuation of the old leadership. But for the first time, the meeting had an exhibitors’ “area” – one end of the modestly-sized ballroom that comfortably fit all the attendees. The handful of exhibitors included some who were marketing Collections Management Systems, some of which even ran on micro-computers, which had become the bread and butter of the meeting. The growing interest in multi-media, which had percolated for the previous decade
fused with this theme when Howard Besser presented his graphical T-shirt database (showing screenshots with projected 35mm slides, of course) and a baby-faced Alan Newman, from the Art Institute of Chicago, demonstrated a graphical database showing images from their collection on a Macintosh that sported a gigantic 20-megabyte external hard drive. (You practically had to shove your way through the tightly packed crowd around his table to get a look at it.) Multi-media on laser disc and CD-ROM came to dominate the meetings from the end of the 80’s until the Internet exploded in the early 90’s. Toward the end of the meeting, a panel consisting of a mix of vendors and museum professionals (another innovation) led a discussion on the future of the organization that could charitably be described as spirited, and was certainly voluble.
After 1986, the vendor area became a hall. Simultaneous sessions were introduced. The meetings grew in size and sophistication as MCN forged alliances with other cultural organizations, and even spun off one (CIMI). All of this is reflected in the archive by the heft of the yearly programs, which had reached over 130 pages in length by 1991.
This wasn’t the last time the MCN had to pivot in order to survive. Having presided over one of the MCN’s occasional near-death experiences in the early 2000’s, I learned that it’s usually at the fringes of that the future shows up, but it’s really hard to tell if that session on that blue-sky thing is the future, or just another dumb alleyway. But the programs, letters, board reports (alas, hardly any photos) demonstrate that the things that the organization ultimately turned to, and thrived upon, were being discussed at the meetings years before they became vital.