Bryan Miller is one of our much-anticipated TMS speakers at CI 2023. His session will delve into how the NMAAHC leverages TMS to catalog its time-based media collection. For this Collective Conversations interview, Bryan shared a look into his Media Cataloger role, including his career trajectory, interesting projects, and insights gained from his time at the NMAAHC.
Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is devoted to documenting African American life, history, and culture. It’s the only national museum of its kind in the United States. Through interactive exhibits and a vast collection of over 40,000 objects, the NMAAHC works to engage new audiences and showcase African American resiliency, optimism, and spirituality.
NMAAHC Contemplative Court. Photo credit: Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC. Courtesy of the NMAAHC.
Thank you for making time for an interview! Would you tell us a bit about your role at the National Museum of African American History & Culture?
You’re welcome and thank you for inviting me to participate in this interesting series!
I’m currently the Media Cataloger at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). I work primarily with digital and analog time-based media (TBM) objects and occasionally other types of digital objects.
I also act as a de-facto liaison between the Cataloging & Digitization Team and the Media Archives & Conservation Team. I ensure metadata and other TBM requirements are accounted for in catalog records, while at the same time ensuring that TBM objects adhere to the NMAAHC’s general cataloging standards.
Gallery Systems is honored to have you as a CI 2023 speaker this November. You’ll be speaking on cataloging time-based media. What was the genesis behind your upcoming presentation at Collective Imagination?
I’m a huge fan of The Museum System (TMS) and I’m constantly learning about the database.
At the same time, I recognize its limitations in cataloging time-based media and we’ve had to think creatively about solutions. After working on new guidelines for cataloging TBM objects in TMS for the past few years, a colleague with whom I work closely, and who has presented at Collective Imagination before, suggested that I submit a proposal, so I leapt at the opportunity.
I’m excited to share our challenges and successes with cataloging TBM objects in TMS at CI 2023 and hear about the experiences of some of our peer institutions.
Musical Crossroads exhibit at NMAAHC. Photo credit: Eric Long/NMAAHC. Courtesy of the NMAAHC.
We’d love to hear about your career trajectory. How did you end up in the museum field?
My path to the museum field was quite indirect and unintentional.
I was working on my undergraduate thesis during winter break and one of the research librarians who was assisting me forwarded an email about the Robert F. Smith Internship Program with the NMAAHC’s Cataloging and Digitization team because she thought it aligned with my thesis. I applied but I had never really worked in a museum before, or even considered it a potential career path.
Curiously, working in TMS was one of the most rewarding aspects of the internship. I had worked with databases in other industries in the past and was struck by how transferable some of that knowledge was.
A few months after the internship ended, I was able to join the NMAAHC team as a contract media cataloger.
Throughout our careers, we tend to receive a lot of advice from mentors or peers. Is there a piece of advice that you’ve taken to heart?
I try not to burn bridges. It seems very cliché, but I think it’s one of the best pieces of professional advice ever.
Collections often tell a story. How would you sum up the NMAAHC’s collection in one sentence?
I would say the NMAAHC’s collection tells the story of a people’s journey, fraught with prejudice and challenges, and the rich cultural and political contributions they have made—and continue to make—to this country, despite those challenges.
Cultural Expressions exhibit at NMAAHC. Photo credit: Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC. Courtesy of the NMAAHC.
The NMAAHC uses TMS as its collections management system. How does this software solution play a role in your daily tasks and workflows? Any TMS features you love?
TMS is an essential part of my daily workflow. I spend most of my workday updating records in TMS. There is almost a sense that my workday hasn’t begun until I’ve logged in to the database.
When I begin working on a new collection, one of the first things I do is create TMS records for all the objects in the collection and create an Object Package for the collection. Some catalogers prefer working in a Word document or Excel spreadsheet before transferring the information to TMS, but unless something is a rough draft, I almost always work directly in TMS, updating a variety of fields based on guidelines set forth by my team.
When I’m done working with the collection, I usually run a few reports to export the data to a Word document and review each object within the collection thoroughly. I then create another Object Package, which is shared with our Collections Information Specialist, who uses that object package to review the records.
When I’m not actively updating records in TMS, I’m thinking of ways we can use it more efficiently, new terms we can add to the thesaurus, or figuring out new features.
One day I was playing around with the database and discovered its Combine Components feature. It wasn’t a feature widely used at the Museum before. But there was a point when we made some significant changes with how we catalog preservation elements, and that feature made the process infinitely more efficient. It’s probably my favorite feature to date.
As a media cataloger, what are the most engaging projects you’ve worked on and why?
This is a really difficult question. The NMAAHC has such a rich collection, and each project has its own merits, so its difficult to say which projects are more engaging than the rest.
As a cataloger, the information I add to our records is descriptive and factual.
We avoid adding personal opinions, conjecture, or superfluous contextual information to our records. Also, much of the work is describing individual objects within a collection, information that would help distinguish an object from its peers. And while we do biographies for all constituents, our constituent records aren’t yet shared publicly.
In the end, we often end up learning more about a collection than appears in the online catalog record. Plus, sometimes when there is an object you find particularly interesting, it doesn’t always feel like the uniqueness of the object(s) is fully captured in the catalog record.
Catalogers aren’t allowed to play favorites! However, there is a feature on the NMAAHC’s website called “Collection Stories” where Museum staff, including catalogers, sometimes write stories highlighting objects in the collection.
These pieces give us the opportunity to author a deeper story we would like to tell about a particular collection. We can highlight specific objects we find interesting in the collection or share some of our knowledge about people associated with the collection, which is always engaging.
What’s one change you’ve made at the NMAAHC that has had a major institutional impact?
One of my earliest assignments was to reassess and update our time-based media cataloging guidelines. This involved codifying standards, adding new attributes to the database, and so forth.
It’s hard to gauge the extent of its impact but I think our catalog records, which are frequently accessible online, are much more accurate and searchable since we implemented many of those changes.
Having new guidelines and standards for time-based media also made it possible to make more objects within the collection public.
Visual Arts exhibit at NMAAHC. Photo credit: Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC. Courtesy of the NMAAHC.
Looking toward the future, how do you see your cataloging practices evolving?
I’ve always been very interested in describing our objects as accurately, concisely, and engagingly as possible, especially since our Museum opened in the digital era and many of our catalog records are shared with the public online.
Now that we’ve done a lot of work to update the thesaurus with TBM-specific Object Type attributes and subject terms, updated how we catalog preservation elements, and did a lot of general cleanup of our records, my next step is learning how to better convey the richness of our objects through writing descriptive captions, while adhering to the guidelines around accuracy and objectivity outlined by our team.
I also believe that part of the process of learning and evolving professionally requires collaborating with others in the field.
As such, a few of my colleagues and I have had a couple of meetings with TBM teams at peer institutions that also use TMS to see what sort of challenges they’ve had and the solutions they have implemented. For instance, we noticed that one institution documents much more at the component level than we currently do and that’s something we’re reassessing and might even implement at the NMAAHC.
I hope meeting more catalogers, especially those working with time-based media, at Collective Imagination 2023 can help me achieve some of these goals!
Attend Bryan Miller’s CI 2023 session
Bryan Miller will be speaking at Collective Imagination 2023 on Friday, November 17.
His presentation is entitled “Cataloging Time-Based Media in TMS: the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture’s approach,” and if you’re attending, you won’t want to miss it!
Lauren Turner is the Senior Communications Specialist at Gallery Systems. With 8+ years of industry experience, she has an extensive background in content marketing. She also earned an M.A. in Creative Writing from Montréal's Concordia University.