Ideas for Museums: a Biography of Museum Computing

Anna Mikhaylova, Russia


"Ideas for Museums: a Biography of Museum Computing" ( is a research project about the history of museum computerization. The idea is to collect video interviews with museum professionals who were/are working on implementing digital technologies in everyday museum practice.

Keywords: museum computerization, museum professional, digital story

1. Introduction

We have probably all seen data on the history of museum computing: the numbers, the dates, the names. However, sometimes you are not even sure if these names belong to a man or a woman, because you have never seen those people. Of course you can find most of them on Facebook and Twitter, but what about the pioneers? And what about those who do not use social media for professional communication? How do you sort of put a face to a name?

2. People Matter

Although there are quite a lot of papers on the subject, they mostly present dry facts, speculations and rather brief information. For example, a clear chronology of using computers in museums can be found in Jones-Garmil (1997), however, it should be mentioned that special attention is paid only to American museums and associations. The amount of information about other countries’ experience varies from barely sufficient to nonexistent (for example, Асеев, Поднозова, Шер, 1980; Ноль, 2007; Keene, 1998; Šola, 1997; Williams, 2010). A rare exception can be found in the books published by Leicester University. One of the most useful books among them is Recoding the Museum written by Ross Parry in 2007. The book presents detailed analysis of cultural and philosophical background in which museums started using ICT. In Museums in a Digital Age, which Ross Parry edited, a variety of theoretical and practical issues are discussed. On the one hand, it gives a sense of what is happening in the field nowadays; on the other hand, it still lacks human approach. It seems that we can get caught in the technology trap and forget about people (Parry, 2010).

Hardly anyone nowadays doubts the importance of the human factor in any field, but we often forget what exactly it is that makes people so important. We, the people who are working on Ideas4Museums, like to think that people are a direct learning source, unlike a book or a rehearsed conference speech. People are the flesh and blood of any museum, and we need to talk to them in order to understand how everything really works or used to work. That goes especially for those who carry unique knowledge, but do not share it during conferences for various reasons: age, distance, funding etc.

We take a more people-oriented approach and are looking for first-hand experiences; that’s why the project is called “Ideas for Museums: a Biography of Museum Computing.” The project is based on collecting video interviews with museum professionals who were/are working on implementing information and communication technologies in everyday museum practice. Our main goal is to create a major online resource about the history of museum computerization.

In addition, the following aims are pursued:

  1. Create a clear timeline of the implementation of computers in museums worldwide and compare these dates to computer history in general;
  2. Compare approaches to ICT implementation in museums in different countries in order to find common ground;
  3. Point out the dominant ideas of each decade;
  4. Outline prospects for the future;
  5. Create a platform for a professional scientific-oriented discussion on the topic;
  6. Bring leaders of the field and young professionals together.

3. Methodology

We film interviews with museum professionals who work in the field of ICT. We decide who to interview based on research. We contact people from IT departments of major museums in different countries and interview them. Conferences and blogs are also a good way to find interesting interviewees.

We have a list of questions which are asked during each interview. For example, we ask the museum professionals about their job, their hopes and dreams now and when they were starting. We ask them what they used to think of museums when they were not a part of museum staff. The final video does not contain the questions and is cut to look like a monologue. In order to make the video accessible, we provide subtitles and transcripts, both in the original language and in English.

So far we have filmed 11 interviews and the plan is to shoot 15 more by April. We have managed to collect quite amusing facts about the mysterious ways which brought the interviewees work in museums, and all the sorts of computers they have encountered during their career. Some people provided tips for aspiring museum professionals; some told rather sad stories about the current state of their projects, mainly about funding.

What should also be mentioned here is that a fair share of videos features Russian museum computerization professionals, since the project originated in Russia. The project provides a unique insight into the world of Russian museums and their special relationship with computers, a topic, which is highly under-researched.

4. Сonclusion

The first interview was filmed on November 13, 2012. In two and a half months, a significant amount of effort and time was invested in the project by a number of people. We got our first response only a day after the first video was published, and it was quite inspiring. It was an e-mail, sent by an Italian museum professional to his Russian friend and colleague, sharing the link to the video, followed by a very flattering commentary. The colleague later shared the e-mail with us and after some time was interviewed for the project too. Today, YouTube statistics show that our videos are watched from locations all over the world.

What we have filmed so far shows quite a lot of similarities, although the participants come from different countries, for example, Russia, Holland and Australia. These similarities include the main features of collections management systems, strategies of online promotion and audience engagement. All these interviews will be available for researchers to study.

The final goal of the project is to create a virtual museum of museum digitization and celebrate all the people who were and are involved in this eternal quest for museum efficiency.


I would like to express my greatest gratitude to the people who are involved in the project: Alexandra Skochilenko (filming and editing), Dmitry Ageysky (transcripts), Alexey Belozerov (subtitles), Svetlana Jemerova (translations) and Anastasia Afanasieva (brainstorming). A special thank of mine goes to Margaret Greeves from Collections Trust for her valuable comments on the project and her moral support. I am also very grateful to Leicester University and all of my professors for the theoretical background they have provided me with. And, of course, I want to thank all the remarkable people who took their time to be filmed for the project: Dr. Alexander Drikker (The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia), Dr. Lynda Kelly (The Australian Museum, Sydney, Australia), Dr. Alexey Lebedev (the Museum Design Laboratory, Moscow, Russia), Dr. Lev Noll (The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, Russia), Dr. Dmitry Perzev (The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia),Leonid Kujbyshev and Nadezda Brakker (The Centre for Informatisation in the sphere of Culture, Moscow, Russia), Alexander Dremaylov (The State Historical Museum, Moscow, Russia), Jasper Visser (Inspired by Coffee, Amsterdam, Holland), Elena Filatova (he Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, Russia), Sergey Cherkalin (Rybinsk State Historical, Architectural and Art Museum Preserve, Rybinsk, Russia).


Jones-Garmil, K. (1997), “Laying the foundation: three decades of computer technology in the museum”. In K.  Jones-Garmil (Ed.), The Wired Museum: Emerging Technology and Changing Paradigms. American Association of Museums, 35-62.

Available online:, accessed 30/01/2013

Keene, S. (1998). Digital Collections: Museums and the Information Age (Conservation & Museology). A Butterworth-Heinemann Title.

Parry, R. (2007). Recoding the Museum: Digital Heritage and the Technologies of Change. New York: Routledge.

Parry, R. (2010). “Digital Heritage and the Rise of Theory in Museum Computing”, in R. Parry (Ed.), Museums in a digital age. New York: Routledge. 454-469

Parry, R. (2010). Museums in a digital age. New York: Routledge.

Šola, T. (1997). Essays on museums and their theory: towards the cybernetic museum. Helsinki: Finish Museum Association.

Williams, D. (2010). “A brief history of museum computerization”. In R.Parry (Ed.) Museums in a digital age. New York: Routledge

Асеев, Ю., Поднозова И., Шер Я. (1980) “Каталогизация музейных коллекций и информатика”. Современный художественный музей. Проблемы деятельности и перспективы развития: Сб. научных трудов ГРМ. Ленинград: ГРМ.

 Ноль, Л. (2007). Информационные технологии в музее. Москва: РГГУ.

Cite as:
A. Mikhaylova, Ideas for Museums: a Biography of Museum Computing. In Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published January 30, 2013. Consulted .

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