Computers first began to be used for management of museum collection records (back in the 1960s and ‘70s) they were typically “mainframe” machines designed primarily to handle heavy-duty ”number crunching” required for fiscal management, banking and engineering applications. None of the major manufacturers (most of which are now out of business) envisioned museum record management as a significant application. Neither was there much available in the way of what we now call “database” software available as an “off the shelf” product that could be custom-tailored to a museum’s needs, or as a vendor-supported product configured with registrarial/curatorial needs in mind.


Image courtesy of the Computer History Museum

Image courtesy of the Computer History Museum

Those museums able and willing to have a go at computerized collection records management were on the “bleeding edge” of technology, and some were nearly bled dry.  One early aspirant to the role of software service provider to museums created a reasonably functional product, assuming that its virtues would be widely adopted – at least among the then-small community of computer-capable museums. That hope didn’t pan out, however, and the company washed its hands of further museum involvement — walking away without leaving the program’s source code in users’ hands, and thereby making it very difficult for museum staff or consultants/contractors to modify the system in any way…or to export its data to any successor system.

Museums fortunate enough to acquire their own computers, at great expense, were sometimes left stranded by the unrelenting march of time and technology, or by the corporate failure of computer manufacturers which effectively doomed their products to the status of un-maintainable white elephants. One major Midwestern museum which had proudly showcased its computer and its computerized cataloging system at national conferences in the ‘80s was forced, less than a decade later, to have the machine’s carcass dragged to the curb to be hauled away as junk. I recall working with one federal (military) agency whose collection records resided on a computer that had become “cranky” and hadn’t been run for several years before being fired up one last time, with fingers crossed, to (successfully) unload its data to a magnetic tape drive in preparation for transfer to a system based upon the then-new “PC” desktop computer.

Sometimes the most sophisticated of high-tech systems fell victim to very low-tech or no-tech misfortunes. One large eastern urban museum did not own a computer, but relied upon the computer of a local bank to periodically process batches of punch cards that represented new or edited records, or provided instructions for search queries. (Direct “real time” interaction between a registrar or curator and a computer was almost unheard of, so such batch processing, at odd hours on computers normally occupied with other tasks was the most practical way to get the work done within the museum’s budget limitations.) One rainy and windy day a staffer from that institution, en route to the bank’s computer facility with a large box of punched cards, tripped on a curb and dropped the box, spewing its contents. The wind then whisked the cards out into the busy street where they were promptly mashed into pulp by passing traffic.

We seldom hear of such disasters in this day of powerful and affordable desktop computer hardware and software that’s well-supported by competent and well-established vendors, but problems still do arise. More about that in my next “I remember when” blog offering.