Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) is dedicated to traditional, modern, and contemporary sub-Saharan African arts, distinguishing itself as the first museum in the United States to include a sustained focus on modern and contemporary art. Recognized for having expanded the parameters of the field of African art history through its collections research facilities, innovative exhibitions, and state-of-the-art conservation lab, the NMAfA aims to promote cross-cultural communication and represent the rich artistic practices of Africa throughout time.
In order to manage these collections, the National Museum of African Art relies on its experienced staff. Gallery Systems recently caught up with Jeremy Munro, Database Administrator and Digital Project Manager at the NMAfA. He shared his insights on the evolving role of technology in museums, the importance of supporting pan-institutional initiatives, and more.
What is the biggest challenge your team faces daily?
Staffing, for sure. This is a common issue in many museums. The National Museum of African Art is interested in changing work practices and policies to Africanize the museum for instance, but this requires more capacity to achieve on top of doing the day-to-day stewardship of collections management.
How do you see the use of technology evolving at your institution?
The NMAfA’s new director has implemented common sense things like working on documents collaboratively and shutting down the shared drive, instead opting for cloud-based systems. My goal is to get us to use technology as a tool rather than an end in itself.
What is the one change that you have made at your institution that has had the biggest impact?
It might sound weird but being willing to show up. Even though we’re all busy, I always try to carve space to assist others with their work and participate in pan-Smithsonian initiatives. I like to think that the impact of this has been significant because the National Museum of African Art did not previously have a dedicated digital person with the time for pan-institutional projects. The NMAfA is a small museum in a big pond, so it is important for us to take part in bigger digital efforts that we lack the labor and resources to do on our own.
How do you think the role of museums will change in the future?
I think museums are in a bit of an identity crisis, especially digitally. All other forms of cultural media have adapted to the digital age: music, film, video, literature, etc. They all have robust, popular digital presences. Digital experiences in the museum space, however, are often an attempt to replicate a gallery experience or do a one-off novelty thing, like a video or social media campaign. I also think it can be unclear to the public what the purpose of museums is aside from it’s something you do while travelling or somewhere you go when your family is in town. We have this problem of when someone asks who a show is for, the standard PR spin is “well, everyone” but this always strikes me as odd because I wouldn’t say that any particular music, movie, or book is for everyone. Museums need to redefine what the public means and start targeting key audiences they either want to reach or who are not currently attending museums.
Do you have a favorite book, event, or training resource that has helped you in your career?
I constantly find myself recommending Trevor Owen’s book The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation. It ably lays out the problems of what we’re trying to do with digital preservation in museums and the sheer amount of effort involved. Owens also tackles the core questions that underlie database practices like the power of naming and classification. It’s an essential read particularly for people who might not be knee-deep in data or digital preservation but want to better work with their colleagues who are. A unique part of the work we do as collections database people is often functioning as liaisons between staff who understand art/natural history/history and staff who understand technology/IT. Owens does a great job at providing ways to explain and articulate the uniqueness of cultural heritage data to both sides.
What is one of the most interesting projects you have worked on and why?
Prior to working at the Smithsonian, I worked at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. The first major contemporary art show there was called State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now (2014-2015).
For myself and for many of our art handlers and collection staff, it was our first big exhibition. A major narrative around Crystal Bridges at the time (one that I am thankful has now been left in the dust), was always “wait, a museum that big is in…Arkansas?” Internally, the project felt scrappy. We were a hodgepodge of people, some with museum experience, many without, trying to make a massive show work. I don’t have a master’s degree, but I consider State of the Art like a museum studies program, jam packed into about a year. All the staff wore many hats, helping with loans, design, art handling, installation, and even development. It was all hands on deck in the truest sense and I am eternally thankful I got to be part of it. Anyone who works a job in a museum is a museum professional of course, but the night that the show opened it was proved beyond reasonable doubt.
I am humbled to have had the chance to be part of building something so cool in little Northwest Arkansas, which has since emerged as one of the fastest growing and rising regions in the United States.