The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Museum Computer Network and the Smithsonian Institution: Support and Encouragement
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Museum Computer Network (MCN), this is the second blog in a series, which will explore the early interactions of MCN (in 2017 a museum professional organization) with the Smithsonian, based on contemporary documents found in the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
At just 39, Everett Ellin — museum official, art dealer, engineer, lawyer, and talent agent — became the first Executive Director of the Museum Computer Network; a nonprofit organization which began in 1967. He was an evangelist and a “salesman” who worked tirelessly to bring his vision of a database of “all public art collections” to fruition.
Ellin and Smithsonian staff were in frequent contact concerning the MCN project as Ellin sought support for his ideas. Smithsonian administrators Donald F. Squires and Daniel J. Reed visited Ellin in New York City in December 1967. The following April, Ellin came to Washington, D.C. to consult with Nicholas J. Suszynski, the Smithsonian’s Director of Information Systems, and invited Secretary S. Dillon Ripley and the Smithsonian to join MCN. For Ripley, it was “a great pleasure to accept the invitation.” As he wrote in a June 1986 memo: “As I indicated to you in our conversation, I shall be pleased to assist the Museum Computer Network in seeking funds for support of its projects, and I am sure that our own Information Systems Division Director Nicholas J. Suszynski will look forward to continuing cooperation with you.”
At MCN’s first meeting, held April 15-17, 1968 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art , fourteen Smithsonian staff members attended. Smithsonian participation continued throughout MCN’s early development: Suszynski attended the July 22, 1968 MCN coordination meeting in New York; and Director General of Museums Frank A. Taylor and David Bridge attended the consortium meeting on June 9, 1969.
Though Smithsonian staff and leadership were on board, funding remained a crucial hurdle as MCN looked toward the future. As Suszynski reported to Ripley on April 9, 1968. “To fund what Mr. Ellin plans now, will require between five and ten million dollars and as many years to implement. He asked me to make several trips to the Metropolitan Museum to discuss with them their problems … He also asked that we would not duplicate his efforts and feels that "arts” should be in his system while we perhaps would concentrate on the natural sciences.”
After visiting Ellin in New York, Suszynski reported to Secretary Ripley that,“After the meeting, Ellin expressed to me his hope for continued support from Mr. Ripley and, he was most anxious to receive funding to continue his efforts. As of now, he is assured of maintaining his small nucleus of staff through next year; … Beyond that, the future is not clear.”
Added on the top of this memo is a handwritten initialed note from Secretary Ripley (DR):
“I suppose we try a line item in FY ’70 [Federal] budget under ISD [Information systems Division] to be a possible support item for Ellin. Eventually if we keep our hand in, we might persuade IBM to help them through us! DR”
Ellin and virtually everyone who commented on the MCN project estimated that it would require millions of dollars to support this cutting edge computer network. Ellin in his letter of resignation dated March 23, 1970 says
“… it is evident that we cannot expect at this time to fund a scheme of these proportions which would require several million dollars for the necessary equipment alone.”
The MCN project was too ambitious for 1970s technology. It was too expensive for cultural institutions with altruistic public benefits; however, it laid the foundation for automation projects in numerous museums. The resulting MCN organization fostered technology projects in the museum community and collaboration between museums. When the public Internet became available in the 1990’s, many museums were ready to share the wealth of their collections with the world as envisioned by Everett Ellin.
- Record Unit 190, United States National Museum Office of the Director, Records, circa 1921-1973, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 99, Smithsonian Institution Office of the Secretary, Records, 1964-1971, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Everett Ellin papers, [circa 1958-1963], Archives of American Art