geek speak with Neal Stimler

Posted on August 16, 2011

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Ok, it’s time for geek speak – my regular guest blog series, in which I ask fellow culture geeks to write about their journey to museum tech. Looking back at the first couple of editions, it would be fair to say that neither Jasper Visser nor Lori Phillips knew they wanted to be in museums when they started their career journeys. Neal’s story is somewhat different, in that he had his mind set on working in museums from the very beginning.

Neal and I are both volunteering with the marketing committee for MCN2011, and we’ve connected via the Internet over the last few months. We had a Skype chat a little while ago, in which he recounted to me his days growing up in Ohio, and his time studying abroad writing German poetry and visiting museums. It was cool stuff, and I thought it would be nice to hear from someone whose path to museums has followed a far more traditional route of interning and persistence.


“What is to be done?” – geek speak with Neal Stimler

Neal Stimler: Renewing American Democracy Through Museums & Digital Culture. From Ignite Smithsonian, 11 April 2011 at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Photograph by Michael Edson

Note: The remarks herein are the personal views of Neal Stimler and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I grew up on the summit of the majestic Cuyahoga River Valley, the son of two fair-minded attorneys and the great-grandson of farmers and factory workers.  My parents, from an early age, instilled in me a love for the arts.  Other beloved mentors nurtured interests in history, literature, music and poetry.  I have been a scholar as long as I can remember.  Museums have always been the place where I felt empowered to reflect upon my place in the world.

I began my museum career as an intern at Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens in Akron, Ohio during my last year at Walsh Jesuit High School.  Stan Hywet was the home of the founder of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, F. A. Seiberling and his family.  I believe the family’s motto, “Not For Us Alone,” defines the vocation of the museum profession.  During my first summer in college, I was an intern at the Akron Art Museum.  While working at the Akron Art Museum, I gained practical museum skills cataloging collections records, taking digital photographs and preparing for exhibitions.  I also participated in an arts program for teenagers through the City of Akron’s Lock 3 Summer Arts Experience.  The most enlightening part of this program was dialoguing with young people struggling through a transformational period in their lives.  I recognized after working at the Akron Art Museum that museums are critical sites for community engagement.

I continued to develop my skills working as the curatorial assistant at the Miami University Art Museum in Oxford, Ohio.  In this intimate university museum setting, I experienced all aspects of museum work and studied a collection of domestic and international significance.  The hours spent with my colleagues and students at the Miami University Art Museum were surely the happiest and most instructive of my college days.  My study of art and culture was greatly augmented by my summer study abroad in Germany and the Czech Republic, where I visited over fifty-museums.  After my undergraduate thesis on the Zen humanist artist Frederick Franck, I made a personal commitment to make social justice and humanistic principles the core of my scholarly practice.

The summer following my return from Europe, I was selected to be a Summer Intern at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Working at The Metropolitan Museum of Art had been a dream of mine since the early days of my studies.  As a Summer Intern, I had the opportunity to learn first-hand from museum professionals in one of the world’s greatest cultural institutions.  During the summer of 2005, I assisted visitors at the museum’s central information desk, gave public tours and worked in the Department of Drawings and Prints cataloging German Expressionist prints.  It was a life changing experience.

Upon graduation from Miami University in 2006, I returned to the Department of Drawings and Prints at The Metropolitan Museum of Art to research American prints made under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Projects.  The projects were part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal measures to create jobs and reinvigorate American life through the arts, thereby lifting the nation from the devastating Great Depression.  I was deeply impressed by the diversity, technical skill and moving expressions documented in the Federal Art Project prints.  I became especially inspired by the writings of Holger Cahill, the director of the Federal Art Projects, who championed the democratizing ethic of teacher and cultural philosopher, John Dewey.  I believe the art made during Works Progress Administration to be among the greatest achievements in the history of American culture.

Since 2007, I’ve been the Associate Coordinator of Images in The Image Library at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  In this capacity, I assist scholars seeking images for their study and publication of works from The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collections and coordinate the distribution of images to partners such as ARTstor.

Through a mentoring program sponsored by the American Association of Museums, I was introduced to Nik Honeysett, Head of Administration of The J. Paul Getty Museum.  My conversations with Nik inspired me to further explore the implications of digital technology for museum practice as the chief focus of my scholarly pursuits.  Nik’s guidance continues to influence my work in ways that constantly offer me new perspectives and directions.  Nik is a significant role model in my life.  His foresight into the field always amazes me.  I remain ever grateful for his devotion to my personal and professional development.

While attending The 2009 American Association of Museum’s Annual Meeting in Philadelphia as a Media and Technology Committee Fellow, I met Nancy Proctor, Head of Mobile Strategy and Initiatives at The Smithsonian Institution.  Nancy too has been a stalwart supporter of my immersion into the museum technology community.  Nancy’s welcoming spirit brings so many new voices into the field.  Her visionary efforts with mobile technology and activities in support of Michael Edson’s Smithsonian Commons are critical to building an enlightening, engaging and empowering museum experience through digital technology.

I learn so much from the generosity and open hearts of mentors and colleagues.  I stress to any student or emerging professional the importance of fostering nurturing relationships with the leaders you most admire.  I believe the best way to learn is from self-directed study and apprenticeship to the greatest minds of the day.  This manner of learning cultivates a life-long devotion to critical scholarly practice and awareness that one’s labor in life should be dedicated to the compassionate service of others.  My work for the Museum Computer Network, a volunteer professional organization advocating for museum technologists, constantly reminds me of the importance of collegially working together for benefit of others.

The camaraderie so freely shared with me from friends and teachers alike, affirms my conviction that museum workers have a duty to work for democratic reform within their institutions that encourages greater access for and participation with the public.  Digital technology plays an essential role in this process by transforming observers into persons whose actions meaningfully contribute to our cultural institutions.  Museums are the protectors of our shared cultural heritage, but they must not lock-away the beauty, inspiration and wisdom that are the right of all humanity.

Fear of the public’s use of content or that traditional power structures will be transformed are not just reasons for limiting the inherent freedoms of citizens to utilize the full resources of human creativity.  If museums desire to be part of today’s digital culture, they must reduce the obstructions to their collections and content that the Internet, mobile technology and social media have already opened.  It is time now to use the powerful tools of digital technology to increase communication with the public, and encourage their involvement in the fundamental operations of museums.

I have the utmost confidence that my colleagues in the field will present new platforms and tools to bring about the urgent transformation of the museum community that I have described.  I entrust the work of technological innovation to those whose curiosity and talents will lead them to success in such endeavors.  My work is committed to helping museums better serve their constituents by empowering the public to live the Vision Statement of the Smithsonian, which requires its staff “to shape the future by preserving our heritage, discover new knowledge and share our resources with the world.”  The future of museums will be determined by our willingness not only to utilize new technologies, but by museums and museum workers ability to make sacrifices that serve altruistic, humanistic and social values.

To this end, I have been searching for past wisdom that can offer insights into a new course of action for museum technologists in the 21st century.  At this time of continued global crisis, I turn to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s First Inaugural Address delivered on March 4, 1933.  Roosevelt shared this insightful observation with a depressed and desperate multitude on that inauguration day:

The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.  Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and the moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days, my friends, will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.

Roosevelt’s call was not only for ethical reform, but for immediate action to improve the conditions of citizens.  Museums too are bound to perform this earnest duty as civic institutions at the very center of cultural life.  Museum technologists, with their democratic ethos, are the instruments of hope for the future of an open, free and shareable digital culture.  Let us consecrate our purpose, as museum technologists, to work earnestly in concert with the public for a more compassionate and loving cultural paradigm through the use of digital tools.

Neal Stimler is the Associate Coordinator of Images in The Image Library at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Neal was a Media and Technology Committee Fellow at the 2009 American Association of Museums Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, and his article titled, “‘Ferry Me O’er’: Musing on the Future of Museum Culture,” was published in the July 2010 issue of Curator Journal. He gave a paper, “Fostering A Democratic Museum Culture,” at the 2010 Museum Computer Network Conference in Austin, Texas and participated in the first Ignite Smithsonian Conference in April 2011 with his lecture, “Renewing American Democracy Through Museums and Digital Culture.”  Neal graduated with honors and was a Provost Award recipient from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.  Neal takes an interdisciplinary approach to humanistic scholarship that is informed by art history, cultural studies, digital technology and sociology.

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