Behind the archivists, technicians, and specialists of the museum field are an abundance of organizations that network ideas, connect professionals, and present new strategies to broaden the impact of museums (American Alliance of Museums, Society of American Archivists, etc.). Many associations focus on specific aspects of this dynamic field and help to push museum practice in new directions. Next week, one the US’s largest museum technology-focused forums celebrates its 50th anniversary: the Museum Computer Network (MCN).
MCN began as an unincorporated organization in 1967 with a specific goal: “to test the feasibility of cooperative development of a computer system capable of handling museum catalogs … as the nucleus of a union catalog of museum holdings.”
Paraphrased: Build a nation-wide database of museum catalogs.
It naturally followed that this ambitious project would be open to the public to facilitate research, discovery, loans, acquisitions, and more. The short(ish)-term goal would be to build such a system. “The ultimate goal,” wrote David Vance, MCN’s president from 1971 to 1985, “…is to extract meaningful content that is inherent but not explicit in the mass of information accumulated by ourselves and our predecessors in this profession.”
Paraphrased: Coordinate nationwide cultural resources to efficiently surface important content.
When MCN incorporated in New York in 1972, it set out to realize this expansive vision. Much of the early effort coalesced around a program named GRIPHOS (General Retrieval and Information Processor for Humanities Oriented Studies). MCN distributed GRIPHOS in its push for broad system adoption. In parallel to this effort, MCN hosted annual conferences that brought museum technologists together to identify common problems and share solutions. The conference quickly took on a life of its own. As MCN’s community filled bigger meeting halls, so too did the organization’s role as a collaborative leader expand beyond its initial database-oriented philosophy.
MCN officially retired its GRIPHOS initiative in 1979. The foundational objective of harmonizing a nationwide collections system was never realized, but in place of this goal came an even larger vision: bringing together the technologists and museum professionals who operate on the ever-shifting digital frontier. Mirroring the growth of the annual conference, MCN itself has moved away from single-software implementation and toward a more holistic view of developing museum practices within the digital space.
Today, MCN’s stated mission broadly speaks to “empowering museums to address challenges and embrace opportunities within the evolving digital landscape.” Topics in this year’s conference in Pittsburgh will range from social media and analytics to accessibility and 3D printing. Sessions include:
- "Becoming Discoverable: Experiments in Marketing Online Publications"
- "Open Source Reality Check"
- "What Happened When We Filled Our Museum with Virtual Reality (and built a VR app)"
So, how does this story connect to the Smithsonian?
The Smithsonian Institution Archives serves as a repository for MCN's administrative papers. Correspondence, membership statistics, and publications span multiple accessions across MCN's entire history. For example, this collection includes details on the 2007 Taiwan Chapter Conference, four decades of the organization’s Spectra publication, and the minutes of board meetings.
A group of volunteers came together this summer to rediscover the MCN's history. We dove into the collection in two separate trips, taking detailed notes and identifying priorities for digitization. Smithsonian Institution Archives graciously digitized these prioritized materials (thank you, everyone!), which are now supporting research projects. In particular, conference programs that the volunteer team tracked down this summer are being highlighted in a presentation at next week's #MCN50 conference. Paul Marty and Castle U. Kim's project, "Trending MCN: 50 Years of Conferences, Conversations, and Community," is looking at the evolving technology conversation as it grew and shifted since 1967. What questions did we ask in 1967 that are still being asked today?
Stay tuned - I will be attending the #MCN50 in Pittsburgh next week and will report back with details.
- Marla Misunas and Richard Urban, “A Brief History of the Museum Computer Network,” Museum Computer Network (2007)
- Chuck Patch, “MCN History with Chuck Patch,” Museum Computer Network (2017)
- David Vance, “Museum Computer Network: Progress Report,” Museologist (December 1975), p 3-10
- Record Unit 7432, Museum Computer Network, Records, 1967-1988, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 13-083, Museum Computer Network, Records, 1979, 1986-2006, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 94-037, Museum Computer Network, Records, 1986-1992, Smithsonian Institution Archives