Collections Information Manager, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF)

Self-described as “locally rooted and internationally engaged,” the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) showcases the possibility of art for inspiring, educating, and enriching lives. As the city’s largest public arts institution and one of the most visited museums in the United States, the FAMSF oversees a 150,000-object permanent collection, showcased between its two iconic sites: the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park and the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park.

To catalogue this wide-sweeping collection, object data was being hosted on multiple unique databases. Interested in streamlining collections management and departmental workflows, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco team recently began the transition to TMS Collections and TMS Conservation Studio.

For an inside look at this project and other developments at FAMSF, Gallery Systems reached out to Adele Barbato, Collections Information Manager. Adele shared details on the current initiative to move and consolidate 90 databases into one cohesive collections management system, along with her thoughts on the shifting role of modern museums—from technology and digital adaptation to the necessity of Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion (DEAI) within institutions.

What is the biggest challenge your team faces on a daily basis?

The answer to this question tends to evolve alongside the initiatives of the institution. At the moment, I’d say our biggest daily challenge is adaptation to change.

Being on the eve of migrating to TMS Collections and Conservation Studio, and throwing a DAMS integration in there to boot, my team—and a quarter of the staff at Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco—have been preparing at length for a holistic workflow transition.

Where FAMSF had been working in silos, utilizing more than 90 individual bespoke and homegrown databases to track collections-based activities, we are now merging everyone’s work into a single, collaborative, and integrative system. That is a huge amount of change, requiring not just years of effort on the data end but a real cultural shift for how staff work together. And we are right in the thick of it all.

Fortunately, I am surrounded by an incredibly open, engaged, and brilliantly creative group of colleagues, who seem to be uniformly excited about all the changes ahead.

How do you see the use of technology evolving at your institution?

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco has been steadily adopting technology on various fronts. Right now, with DEAI and workplace culture as the centerpiece of FAMSF’s recent strategic plan, our focus with technology (at least in the immediate) seems to be to implement integrated solutions internally that help staff workloads become more efficient, collaborative, and cross-departmental.

Facing outward, the COVID-19 pandemic has inspired a new level of awareness around the possibilities of increased digital engagement for museums across the world. FAMSF is no different. What I am starting to hear around the water cooler, and see through the projects that cross my desk, is a move toward greater integration of digital engagement both online and in-person—offering take-home digital experiences no matter where our audiences meet us.

What is the one change that you’ve made at your institution that has had the biggest impact?

Given the scale and scope of our TMS Collections conversion, one could say the initiation of that project alone has had the biggest impact! But I’ll add that my campaign for radically inclusive workflow documentation and development seems to be having a very positive reception.

This process has been rather straightforward. Anyone who may touch a particular TMS-governed workflow is invited to sit at a cross-departmental table and spill their guts on how they intersect with the workflow, and how they would like to see workflows change moving into implementation of TMS Collections. These meetings have been cathartic, enlightening, and rather challenging at times, but most importantly they’ve hopefully given space for all stakeholders to feel invested and heard. So far, they also seem to be instrumental in smoothing the way for staff buy-in and adoption of TMS Collections.

Moving forward, we may be looking at doing a similar process for our DAMS workflow discussions.

How do you think the role of museums will change in the future?

This is a tough one. What I would like to see happen is greater localization and listening—all museums, even the biggest blockbuster museums, focusing their eyes and ears on what is happening in their backyard. On who is in their backyard. I actually give a lot of credit to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco for this, as they are moving more in this direction with programs such as the recent initiation of the recurring de Young Open juried show. This sort of hyper-localization enables institutions to engage in a two-way dialogue with their members, artists, and local community by offering collections, exhibitions, programs, and conversations that are most relevant in their immediate context.

Sure, you go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, but the Mona Lisa is Italian. What can you learn and take in about Paris, or France, by visiting that country’s foremost cultural institution?

What I hope is that this overlays with exhibitions focusing more on relevant social issues, permanent collections, and true diversity of thought and artistic expression, and museums becoming known as forums that reveal the intersections of history and society through visual mediums and material culture, infinitely more so than they are now.

Realistically speaking, I’m not sure the role of museums will change all that much without clear, united vision, and years of consistent, concerted effort and willingness on the part of staff, members, donors, thought leaders, and the public to engage in very difficult conversations. I’m talking messy, nitty-gritty sorts of conversations that lean into the source of conflict and provide all an equal voice at the table.

Do you have a favorite book, event, or training resource that has helped or motivated you in your career?

Stephen Weil stands the test of time for me. Since grad school, his iconic meditations Rethinking the Museum and Making Museums Matter have always struck me as enduringly relevant. I was recently reading his collection of lectures in Beauty and the Beasts, which were given in the 1970s and 80s, and was so taken (and disheartened, to be honest) by how, in this particularly vibrant moment of accountability, his words still ring true. Weil’s writings are a part of why I have been so interested in change management in the museum realm.

What is one of the most interesting projects you’ve worked on and why?

The current TMS Collections conversion project at Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco is infinitely interesting for how broadly and comprehensively it will impact the museums. However, having only been with FAMSF for a little over a year, the most interesting project I’ve ever had the privilege to lead was with another museum.

When I was hired, I also helped migrate that museum’s CMS to The Museum System, and then led a team in inventorying the archive, focusing on structuring and recording object information that became the seed collection for the pending museum.

Getting to work with that museum’s objects was a one-of-a-kind experience, but what was most interesting about this project was being so integrally involved at the beginning stage of building a globally minded museum from scratch. As one of the first people to be hired, I had a seat at the table in developing the nascent policies, culture, and initiatives involved in becoming a large institution. I will forever be grateful for that opportunity.

Stirrup vessel. Peru, North Coast, Moche. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Image © the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Stirrup vessel
Peru, North Coast, Moche
7 1/2 x 6 x 3 3/4 in. (19.1 x 15.2 x 9.5 cm)
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, gift of Bruce Heath Rogers

If you had to choose a favorite item from your collection, what would it be and why?

Moche jars are objects I’ve been fascinated with since being an undergraduate anthropology major. They are masterfully built containers presumably designed to hold liquid. What I find particularly fascinating about them is how they offer such an intimate glimpse into this pre-Incan Peruvian society. The jars depict myriad themes, such as activities from everyday life, human portraits, erotica, animals, objects, myths, deities, and anthropomorphic creatures.

The portrait jars, in particular, are wonderful because each face is unique. It is believed they were made as actual portraits of living people.

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco has a small but beautiful collection of Moche jars. I like this one (shown in the object photo) for the specificity of the man’s facial features, and how it evokes him in a peaceful rest or meditation. I often wish I were sitting somewhere with my eyes closed, resting.

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