Think museums are musty repositories of history? Think again. Major metropolitan museums are becoming petri dishes of innovation. Take the Indianapolis Museum of Art which recently launched an internet technology consulting service to help cultural institutions and non-profit organizations leverage technology to solve problems and enhance programs. Building on IMA’s track record for creating effective open-source digital tools, the new division—IMA Lab—is poised to lead a technological revolution in this largely neglected space. We spoke to IMA Lab visionary, Robert Stein, about his commitment to provide much-needed tech support for the arts…
GOOD: How was the museum most technologically challenged when you first arrived?
ROBERT STEIN: IMA has over 50,000 works within its collection but we can only show about 2,000 of those at a time, so it’s only a small percentage of the collection that’s actually ever seen by a member of the public. The other stuff sits in our storage room, so if we don’t do a good job of putting it online, we’re not doing a very good service to our community. Historically, museums don’t have a really deep bent as technology clients. It’s hard to be a good client and express to developers what it is you need and why, so as a result, the tools that the museums had weren’t and still aren’t terribly good. At the same time, our audiences are becoming more sophisticated with the way they use technology; but it continues to be hard for museums to meet those expectations.
G: What initial steps did you take to address these problems?
RS: Since we weren’t getting the kinds of tools that we needed from the marketplace, we began to hire a software team to do our own work and, as a result, started working collaboratively with the community and with other art museums. I’m very much in favor of open source technology and software development where digital tools are shared within a community, so when IMA began developing software, we would give it away to museums with similar needs, in exchange for feedback.
G: What kinds of open-source digital tools and solutions have been developed through this process?
RS: One of the projects is called ArtBabble. We needed a way to show and aggregate our video online but didn’t really see good places for that- lots of museums were putting their videos on YouTube but it was really hard to find them- so we developed ArtBabble as an online portal for museums and cultural organizations to contribute video. We’re the technical lead on the Steve.Museum project, a kind of flickr for museums that allows people to tag photos to make them easier for others to find online and to search for art in a more visceral way. We’ve also developed a platform called TAP, which is mobile tour software that museums can use to develop their own tours of their collections, exhibitions, grounds and campus.
G: Why is it so important for other arts and cultural institutions to adapt to modern technology?
RS: We have a charge to make sure that these collections exist hundreds of years from now. I help run our library and archives here at the museum and something that we’ve been working at for quite some time is figuring out how we can preserve paper. How do we make sure that that information doesn’t just disappear? Not only that but how do we make it easier for people to gain access to the art? I think the challenge- or rather opportunity- that we have is to make our content ever more relevant to contemporary society. I’m continuously blown away by how relevant an artwork created a hundred or even a thousand years ago is to contemporary issues- race, poverty, power, war- all of those are issues today and they were issues a thousand years ago and artists have had a view point about them forever.
G: What advice would you give the director of a museum or cultural institution with no budget but a real need to expand their technological offerings?
RS: There are a number of good conferences for people in our field of museum technology, free online tools, and regional museum groups- all of which can be good resources. I’m a board member for an organization called the Museum Computer Network which maintains resources dedicated to addressing questions about technology and solutions to specific problems. I would encourage as much collaboration as possible because as a not-for-profit business, we gain nothing by not sharing our work- on the contrary, I get a lot from sharing time and opinions and ideas with other museums, so that would probably be the best way to go.