Ideas for Museums: a Biography of Museum Computing, Dr. Larisa N. Vasilieva


As a child, I lived in a closed town,
where we had no museums. There was one theatre of musical comedy
and one puppet theatre. There was a puppetry club
at the local youth center. Throughout my childhood,
I dreamt of becoming a puppeteer. After finishing school, I went to Leningrad
to apply to the Theatre Arts Academy. I failed the entrance exams. I started working as a props mistress
at the puppet theatre. I decided not to try entering
any other university, because at school, I was getting high grades, and I was tired
of studying, it seemed that I knew everything. However, having worked for a year,
I realized that I did need to know more, that I wanted something new,
so I entered Chuvash State University, the Faculty of History and Arts, the Department
of Russian Language and Literature. I didn’t want to study full time, because
I liked my job at the puppet theatre very much. So I went for an extra-mural course,
and I did quite well. Then I got married and had a child. After the maternity leave,
which was 12 months at the time, I returned to the puppet theatre. But it wasn’t interesting for me there anymore;
I overgrew the job of a props mistress. Always doing the same things, no creativity… Suddenly, I was invited to work at a museum. At that time, our museum was named
Chuvash State Gallery of Art. They offered me the position of a tour guide
because I had a good handwriting — the job involved writing inventory books. It turns out that I’ve been working
at the museum for over 30 years; since 1992-1993, we started introducing IT, and it means that I have 20 years
of experience with computers already. I started my museum life
with copying information from scientific description cards
to inventory books. I think this had a huge influence
at the future of our IT, because it was just impossible to sit
and write day in, day out! We had blisters on our hands,
it was unbearable. So I was dreaming about computers
so I could finally stop writing, so that the computer would do
everything on its own. The first computers arrived from Moscow. However, we didn’t know
how to turn them on or off… At the time, I was a curator for graphics. We had already moved to this new building. Writing descriptions on cards, then copying, composing various card catalogues —
topography-based, theme-based… this work was taking an awful lot of time. Then, Main Information and Computing Center
(MICC) staff came here from Moscow, installed the computers, invited us
to Moscow and trained us. Initially, it was very difficult,
because it was the first time — we had never seen any computer before. I, personally, was shocked. How could that be — a multifunctional device,
you tell it to do something, and it does it. When we started working with computers,
we still didn’t feel very confident. I perceived the computer as a living
creature — with its own personality; sometimes it had a bad temper,
and sometimes it worked well. Every morning, I tried to persuade it, “Dear computer, please, work well today.
Behave yourself, be a good boy”. Yet over time, I understood
that it is nothing but a machine, and all the mistakes
are the mistakes of the user. When we had IBM ATs, the database
was maintained by the curators, because it was divided. That means painting is in one directory,
graphics is in another, sculpture is in a separate directory
at another computer, applied arts were also stored separately. For this reason, everything was very slow. Moreover, as you know, programs
for IBM ATs were far from perfect. By the time we transferred to the Automated
System Muzey-2, we had built the database. It was not very large at the time,
about 12 000 depository items, and we had just completed it. When AS Muzey-3 appeared,
MICC converted the database for us, and we started keeping everything
in the automatic mode. Now, 100 % of museum items
are entered into the database. Now both our young employees and those
who have worked here for ten years can’t imagine their lives without
the database and without the computer. It is just a working tool, primarily for curators, researchers,
those who make up the exhibition. Our museum was the first in the republic
to start introducing IT, the National Museum was next. We were the first to go to training. It was taking place once a year,
because software versions were changing; AS Muzey-3 is already the third version.
Now it’s time to move to the fourth version. MICC staff have been training us
all the time; I’m the most grateful to Tatiana Anatolyevna Bakumenko,
who developed AS Muzey-3. I like this software because
it is suitable for any museum. Ah, I haven’t told you that when
I accepted the job in the museum, after working for two or three years,
I realized once again that I didn’t have enough
specialized knowledge. I went to Leningrad to enroll
to the Academy of Arts, later renamed as St. Petersburg
Repin Institute of Arts, where I later also did my PhD. Now I’m a PhD in History of Arts, and my position
is Inventory Accounting Department Head. We migrated to AS Muzey-3 system in 2004. Normally, these systems
change every 4-5 years. But now we have slowed down a little bit; it has long been time to move to AS Muzey-4, but everything is held up
on the good will of the directorate. We launched our website in 2006,
and it hasn’t changed much since then. It was developed by the Internet-Service
Company here in Cheboksary. The websites of all the cultural
institutions of the Chuvash Republic have basically the same structure,
but ours is different because it has such sections
as Museum Collection and Exhibitions. The first time I visited an ADIT conference
was in 2002, when it took place in Ivanovo. I was amazed by museum employees
who were obsessed with computers, with IT. We shared our problems, achievements, results. Of course, after ADIT,
I felt inspired and elated, and I decided to take part
in these conferences every year. Then there was EVA conference.
I attended the second EVA conference. I was shocked by the amount of information
on IT in different cultural spheres I obtained at the conference. At the time, I knew nothing about it. This conference is a true school of IT. And I’d like to express my profound gratitude
for this to Nadezhda Viktorovna Brakker, who, I think, brought up all of us, and set the direction for
the development of museum IT. Later on, those conferences gave an impetus
to publishing the entire museum collection at the museum website. We were guided by the example
of Rybinsk Museum, who gave a report, and by the approach itself,
promoted by Nadezhda Brakker. She used to say that it was necessary,
that it was essential. The closed approach of our museums harms
everyone, because researchers often don’t know what paintings are located where,
what materials they can find. Moreover, thanks to Nadezhda Brakker,
we have moved even further; I have long been dreaming about and,
in a manner of speaking, envied other museums that were involved in international projects,
and wished that our museum could also take part in an international project someday… However, I didn’t know how to do this,
and it was difficult for me… Yet finally, thanks to Nadezhda Brakker,
we joined the ATHENA project. Our museum began introducing IT starting from the Inventory Accounting
and Storage Department. Thanks to IT, we became a separate department. It was called Department
for Inventory Accounting and IT. Finally, quite recently,
just a year and a half ago, we became simply Inventory
Accounting Department. Information Resources Department
separated from us at some point. Information Resources Department
manages the website content and multimedia support of exhibitions; that is, we now extensively use
new technologies in the showroom, provide additional information
through touchscreen kiosks. My dream is related to using 3D technology, so that we could not only have plane images,
but could also move them: look at a sculpture from all the sides,
or at applied art items — a cup, for instance — to turn it,
to have a close look, to see the seal. And I want this to be published online. I think that museums will keep pace
with new technologies anyway. I think it’s inevitable. To young employees, young people
who come to work to museums, I wish to love their job,
to be dedicated and hardworking. Without love, there will be nothing. Museum salaries… in the whole system of cultural institutions,
museum staff are paid the least. Very few stay to work here, but those
who do, stay for their entire lives.