Oral History of Museum Computing: Jane Alexander
This Oral History of Museum Computing is provided by Jane Alexander, and was recorded on the 26th of March, 2021, by Paul Marty and Kathy Jones. It is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license (CC-BY), which allows for unrestricted reuse provided that appropriate credit is given to the original source. For the recording of this oral history, please see https://youtu.be/kKhHfcTDKDk.
So, I started at the Museum [Cleveland Museum of Art] in 2010, in the middle of a $320 million building project, where it had been a, like seven-year overall project, in that it opened, it opened in sections, but kind of 2013, it was completely open. And when the position… when I started, there were like four main, huge projects. One was the infrastructure of this new building, and decisions had already been sort of made that I was like, like every other gallery could have WiFi and, and they showed a beautiful like Viñoly did, our… was the architect that did the renovation, and it connects our 1916 building with our Breuer Building, and had taken out sort of these ‘50s, ‘60s “doggy do” buildings, and was this whole, there was this beautiful atrium, and it showed in the rendering all these people on their computers and on their phones, and of course there’s no place to plug in, so that you know, like, sort of like these major infrastructure parts, and that we were building a boardroom and conference rooms and all, for sort of the future, for the next decade. How do we use these premise spaces?
And then, also, the museum was, had a committee, which museums like to do, to select a collection management system. And apparently, this committee had been going on for two years, I think. Holly [Witchey] might have even started this committee. It was pre-me knowing Holly, but… and when I came to the museum, it was pretty much like… and they were down to, and I think it was like, which is now called TMS — it was called something else — and Adlib, and it was like, the library side wanted Adlib, wanted one, and the other side wanted the other, and they were all like, “I’ll quit if we don’t pick what… you know, the one they want,” and the museum was launching a new website, and it was being launched. It was again, how we… it was from the marketing team, and it hadn’t really figured out how they were going to launch their collection online, and so that was going to launch thirty days after I started, which I did say, “I… we’re going to need some time for more time for that,” so, I think it was like, ninety days we launched the website with the collection online. And then, the last was this project at the time called the Lifelong Learning Center, which became Gallery One, which is now ArtLens Gallery, which they — a team, a small team in Education had been sort of working on ideas. They had worked with a firm, an interactive design firm, but, honestly, the scope was stuff you’ve seen before. It was going to be, most likely… it… not able to… it would be out of date before we started, so… so, it was kind of the perfect storm.
I came from more of a consulting background and education background. So, I started while I was in school at Columbia University, I worked in a distance, it was called distance education back then, and it was all corporate-based. It was engineering school, and you could get your master’s and initially, it was all through dedicated T1 lines, and we worked with companies like IBM and Lucent Technologies and General Motors, and, and so, it’s interesting ‘cause what became ArtLens Gallery, Gallery One, is very similar to how that project started off at Columbia, like 20 years before that, in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s.
And, so, I came… I was really excited ‘cause my background is architecture and applied math, and information. My career has been in information management and sciences, and I’ve done… I came to Cleveland to work at Case because they were building a new building, a new business school building, and I was the technology director and liaison to sort of make this building the most technologically advanced business school in the world, or, I forgot what their charge was… And they had kind of, they had sort of an infrastructure in place that was really interesting to me. The Dean, at the time, I mean I was a typical New Yorker, where I didn’t even know where Cleveland was, and that project was interesting, but the Dean was really interesting. He left six months later to become President of Tulane, so it was one of those projects that… and then the President of the University left, and then a year later, another President left, and so, it was one of those projects that you’re like, “Ah!” [gesturing that she is overwhelmed], you know, so I was really excited to be back in an institution.
I love museums. I had also been the virtual CIO for Great Lakes Science Center, and what I loved about the description, which is now funny, because it’s typical museums description, is like, “Oh, do everything!” You know, and but, I had really I really had some experience in most every part of it, and I was really excited, mostly for this Gallery One project because I myself do not have an art history background, but I love museums, and I had young kids, and the idea of giving people the tool sets to look closer, dive deeper, engage, understand when you go into the galleries, how do you look at art except for reading that didactic? You know, when there is one, so I was really excited about this position, and from my first interview, was like, “Oh, I really want this.” So, I felt super lucky. I called it my dream job, for… I still call it a dream job, but the first year, I was a little naive to… and, I had been not working in in academia for a while, and it has a similar sort of business practices, and best practices are like a decade behind, and so I was coming with, “Oh well, where’s the…?” Like, the very first meeting for the… we convened the team to pick the collections management system, and I, you know, I heard everyone’s strong feelings, I was like, “Okay, where’s the needs assessment? Let’s really look….” No, there hadn’t been a needs assessment. Like, two vendors came in, did a dog and pony show, and people were like, you know, fighting each other that we had to pick one. And so things like that, and I think when you’re new, you’re given a grace period to kind of run as fast as you can, and then all of a sudden, you know, halt. You know, so, I think, I always think of, I like, I think back to sort of how naive I was in that I didn’t realize… I mean, I’d had experience working in education, but I didn’t realize how, how simple workflows and things like that was just really foreign to the museum. And, and it was… and that people, you know, there was this ownership… you know the real idea of collaborating and who’s in charge becomes really… became really hard in, in helping the museum move forward.
The thing that I was always — look, I’ve been here, and I’ve had five bosses, five directors, two interim, and, and the last one has been the same since 2014, so it was… it was at the beginning, I started in 2010, and got me to five directors by 2014, I was extremely lucky that they really understood the vision, and what we needed to do to kind of move us into a different realm. And so that was way too much of an intro, so we’ll cut that to one sentence. So sorry about that. But, uh, the, the Gallery One really depended on our back end systems, because to me, hardware was changing all the time. And it was really interesting to me that people kept saying how expensive, you know, technology is, and they always were really referring to the hardware, and I was like, “Well, hardware like has a, has an end of life cycle of five years.” I mean, people want things to last for 15, 20 — I mean, you can make them last, but they’re not gonna… it’s not really the level of what you want to do, so, you need to really put all your energy into your back end, so that you’re able to iterate on whatever you’re doing, conceptually, and grow with whatever innovation comes out. So that was one of the reasons we, in the end, started over. Which, again I naively thought everyone would be excited once we showed kind of why we needed to start over, but, but, as you can imagine, [laughs] there was a, there were people who had been on the team that, that were, were not. And again, it came from a team of people that had no technology background, had not, had not done anything digital, or understood even how database systems intertwine and interact, and so, so it was just… it was, it was definitely interesting that I realized like, a lot of doing this is going to be strategically maneuvering to get this all done.
And so, the biggest thing was what’s going to run our back end system? Like, because the content’s going to… the content, one of the things that people do all the time, I’ve seen it in the museum sector, people make these… they get these grants, they make these projects, and they’re really, like, not about long term. So, they’re sort of outdated and they don’t build upon it. So one of the reasons I was really excited about this position was that the museum, during, while it was closed, the museum had made a smart decision to really digitize the collection. And every object came off on view… and objects were put back on view, to really digitize it. So, that was one of the things that I thought, “Okay, we have that.”
We had also purchased a digital asset management system the year before and, and so, none of that had been really worked out in, to the level that I thought it had, but, again, it’s like when people call and ask me, you know, “What do we need to do what you guys do?” It’s like, have you — is your collection digitized? Because start there.”
And so, a collection online for the website, which had to move quickly, became our first sort of proof of concept. We had a homegrown collection management system. As you know, we were trying to pick a new one, and we ended up doing a workflow in that our digital asset management system spoke to whatever outward facing, the collection online, and pulled all the metadata from our current collection management system, and we had sort of a weekly update, and that was really our first sort of like, Okay here’s how content will be worked, and it also made me really understand what is kind of content is collected when we talk about art. And so, our Collection Wall really became a project. Another project that was a proof of concept in that there were ways people wanted to do things and make it look cool, and we would curate things all the time, but, as everybody knows in museum world, once something’s done, nobody has time to keep it updated and going; it has to be organic, part of how the museum works.
So the museum, every week, 200 items can be put on view, and taken off view. Every week, more research is done about the dates, and didactics are written, and discoveries are made, and so I looked at what do we have on each artwork, no matter what? We always know where it is. And that was one of the reasons we didn’t choose, by the way, either of those collection management systems because our current one that didn’t have spellcheck, that was ten years old, actually did a lot of functionality that the other two weren’t doing. And I actually did approach the other two and say, “Partner with us. Let’s like, you know, we will be your test server.” And no one knew what Cleveland was, or what we were doing. Because people then approached us two years later, and I was like, “Oh, that train left, and we built our own collection management system,” which I do not suggest for any museum to do, but we really already had… we know where every object is at every moment, and that was really important to making this always live. We also realize there’s always a date on every object, or date range, so that field is, is filled out. And then, there’s always a medium, you know, even though there’s like for 4,000 objects on view, you can have 2,500 mediums, because they get very, very, very specific, but we rolled them up into you know, oil and paint, and so, and then the last thing is… it’s associated with a department. It’s contemporary, it’s photography, it’s what… So those are four things on every object, and so, the, our Collection Wall really is a visualization of all the data.
I was like, “Wouldn’t it be great if anything you touched, you could immediately go see right away?” So it’s, it’s always everything on view, and when things go on view, it goes up on the wall, and they go off, it goes off the wall… In ten years, that is, that one interactive has not changed at all, except for during the pandemic. We actually upgraded the, the… actual MicroTile light sources, which were at, it was at end of life. So, the projector, kind of… behind it, it’s rear-screen projecting tiles. So, so those were like proofs of concepts of how we were going to make things work.
And the same thing with our app, and every year, we’ve focused on a back end application, or, I mean, we do everything all the time, but we go from sort of project management to product management, so we have a team, so we have a person who’s all the infrastructure, from software to server to security and WiFi… That’s that. We have an Application Director. Every application the museum does, so it’s intertwining and integrated into anything outward-facing. We have a Digital Team that works, you know, cross departmentally to figure out what are the goals, you know, we’re trying to solve. What are we trying to do? And, and then concept and create whatever we’re going to do. And then we have a support team that supports all these things that are on view or online or, you know, so every visitor can easily… and it’s sort of, it cycles all the time, depending on the projects we’re doing.
And obviously, when last March hit, all of our… it takes 18 months to do some of these big projects we’re doing, and so those projects were still in full force, while meanwhile, we’re getting the entire museum on, we were creating new content and, in our, in our fashion, we really want to think about tool sets that really are not out there, and that could help people engage and create and connect to the collection. And because our mission is for the, you know, “We create transformational experiences for the benefit of all forever,” I mean, that was that mission was… 1916, when the museum opened, that’s the mission statement. It has not changed. It sounds very… I mean, I’m always just so surprised how forward-thinking that statement was, so we take it very seriously.
And so, we created… I mean within five weeks, we had every, you know, like everyone was online, we had virtual events, but we also created things like ArtLens for Slack, because we found like one of the things that we were all missing is art. Like, here we all are working from home, and we’re not like walking through the gallery, like all the reasons we work at a museum we’re missing. And that we realized, a lot of workers were working from home and the offices they work in, and that water cooler moment, you know, where you kind of bump into each other. And so, we … everything we really … I’ve really been a big Open Access since we’ve launched an Open Access, like what we create, really can pull from that. It’s all API driven and that, you know, that it can easily, we could collaborate with another museum, and add their collection too. Like, it’s… everything’s always set to keep, to take it to another level, so… I am all over the place.
[Marty]: Can I jump in with a question?
[Marty]: Well, first of all, I loved your point about, about the workers from home missing the art. I don’t know if you use Chrome or not, but I live by the Google Arts and Culture plugin for Chrome because every time you open a new tab in the Chrome browser, it shows a randomly chosen work of art from museums all around the world.
Yeah, well this… yeah, I saw, I saw that too. This was, we put it on, even though we’re a Teams – we’re a Microsoft museum — we had noticed that Slack… We chose Slack because they already had apps, and we thought that the industries that were using Slack were sort of smaller and design-oriented and innovative firms that kind of use this, and the idea there was that every morning at 9 a.m., it’s still, it’s the only project I’ve ever worked on that my team still plays daily.
We always test things and then people get busy, and we… we still play it every day. We don’t have everybody playing it, but people come in and out, depending on how… And we have, we have people all over the world playing it. But what how it works is: You’re… there’s a, there’s a prompt, and it’s really the — the other thing was we wanted to make it relative to what was going on, so back last spring, it was like, in May, there was a prompt that was like: Now that your cat, you know, your daily is working from home, like there’s always the name of the exhibition, so the exhibition is like, “Keeping My Pants On,” or something, and then it’d be like, “Now that you’re working at home, have you gotten casual? How are you choosing to dress? Like, fully clothed? Pants off? Nude…? Right, and so you would pick, you pick one of those, those categories, and it brings up an object from our collection, so if I pick “nude,” it will bring up a nude from our collection. And I think, “Yeah, I don’t really like that one.” So, I can shuffle, and pick — I can’t pick another category, but I can shuffle ‘til I find the one I want — I say, “I like it,” and then I write sort of, it’s sort of like a New Yorker caption contest meets, you know, and then you just say like, “If only my body looked this good after the 10 pounds I’ve gained, you know, during the pandemic.” And, you push, you push send, and you forget about it. At five o’clock, you get a — or at 4:45 — you get a notification that says, “The exhibition is up.” And then, our team sees the exhibition, and it says, you know, “Wearing no clothes” or “Pants off,” and then it says a little clever thing, and then each image that everybody picked has their little comment. And the thing it’s brought is, you’re like, “Wow, that person’s so clever,” or “that’s really funny.” We’ve all seen objects in the collection we’ve never seen, and we think we’ve seen it all. And then, it says “Come back tomorrow,” and then the next morning, there’s another prompt and like, during the election, there’s an election prompt, during you know, there’s some of the prompts are a little bit rougher, but it’s all about like us coming together, and every single time when you look at the artwork, or, when I look at everybody’s in the exhibition, I can click on it, it takes me right to the collection online, where I can dive into it.
And I will tell you, I have, sometimes I’m like, “What the heck! I’ve never seen that object” and dived into it, so, that was sort of a proof of concept prototype that, and then we went on and did other things, but that was a real example of, we wanted something that we knew others were sort of suffering from. We, we saw tons of virtual… I called, I was like 2010 Google art, you know gallery, 3D gallery things were up, everybody was putting up their videos that they had created, and we just were like, we wanted to think of things that people really, really needed.
The other thing, and that’s not to say that people were like, “Are we going to do gallery tours? Are we going to do videos?” which we did a lot of videos. It was another, but it was another thing, we looked at analytic… for the first time ever, every week, a team looks at analytics. We actually look at the analytics of all the things we’re putting online. And we look at duration of how long people will watch a virtual event, of how long people watch the video, and it really helped… we got to practice during this time, making data driven decisions. That’s used all the time, but do museums really, where we really doing it? Not really. This on, this was so like, experimental that each week we could look at, you know, like, “Let’s bring everything down to three… Let’s do this series and make sure everything’s under three minutes.”
Virtual events, you know, like working with people, we were like, “We normally have this party. It’s three hours. Let’s do it for three hours…” It’s like, “No. No one’s going to stay on for three hours.” We can’t, you can’t take something on site and just translate it to online. So we really did work with the museum to like, 30 minutes is OK, if it’s really engaging — like have them wanting more, coming back. And again, it was a team of people that we didn’t do this in the past, so it’s been, in one sense, it’s been really exciting, in another sense, we’re doing, we’re keeping all the onsite stuff. Our museum is open, and so it’s been a balance of not wearing everybody out.
And one other project that we did this year that we’re really proud of is ArtLens A.I. It’s called “Share Your View.” Come September, schools weren’t open still. My youngest who is still in college, they were doing it online, you know, like it was this whole thing of you were still going to be working from home. And going to school from home, and teachers are going to be teaching from home, so we have this, this product called “Share Your View,” where we also were like, people are Zoomed out, people have watched tons of videos. How do you connect with art in a fun, fast way? So this is… you “Share Your View,” and it will match — and the reason we also picked “Share Your View” because it’s not meant to be match you with, it’s not match, it’s not like Gallery One is like “Make a Face,” which matches you with another thing in our collection. It’s truly matching with our collection, and we have a lot more sort of landscape kind of views, so you share something. Again, we had learned a lot from the Slack and, as you [hand gesture of cycling through choices] you can rotate, if you don’t like your choice, you can put it in our gallery, but it takes you right to the artwork, so we were like, teachers were using it just to get the discussion going. Or, you can start a history project that way, or you could do a lot and, we have people who just… I love going to the gallery. It’s on CMA.org, ArtLens A.I., but the gallery is really fun to see what people put up in the last week. I find it really engaging.
[Marty]: I just pulled it up right now. This is amazing, I had no idea, you had this tool there. That’s fantastic.
And we created that during, while doing everything else. I mean, one of the things we’re working on ,and why I’m here today is we, there is going to be an exhibition in November ’21, it was supposed to be November 2020, and this is one case where I’m… it was kind of good we had a year. We really did put everything on hold and brought it back up, I guess, four months ago. But it’s, we’re going to have “Revealing Krishna,” it’s going to be a scholarly exhibition, and it’s going to be one of a kind, and it’s where we are going to… it’s about this Cambodian sculpture that we have that, we’ve had in our collection forever. In the ‘70s, there were parts, and it was just sort of the bodice, and in the ‘70s parts that were in Belgium, in Stoclet Palace, were found, and they were put together, and it’s been in our gallery for years. In 2014, our new curator came and through technology with scanning, realized that those parts don’t fit right. So and then, realized, worked with Cambodia, which in the ‘70s, obviously, we were… there was no open discussions with Cambodia, and they scanned theirs, realized theirs wasn’t put together. We’ve traded pieces. Some pieces, we don’t know where they go, and this exhibition is going to have both these works from Phnom Da in this exhibition.
Fabulous, but it’s a lot to understand as an average person, so, it is going to be, it’s going to be elegant, interactive, 3D models, mixed reality experience with you know, where you’re going to go on the whole history, it’s going to start with this, a journey to Cambodia, because people don’t even know where Cambodia is, and the Phnom Da is surrounded by water, so this cinematic audio landscape to take you there, and it’s going to be truly, for the first time, I mean this just shows in a decade, how far the museum’s come, that we’re going to do a scholarly exhibition, and we’re known for our exhibitions, that four of the three galleries are going to be digital. That’s like sort of a whole new thing.
I am, you know, November is going to be here before, you know, we’re all opening up. I’m glad to see, see how fast the vaccines are going, but we’re very excited about that, but this is like a whole new Gallery One project, and it’s an exhibition. So, trying to make it… it’s, we have our entire team working on that. And it’s always like, as someone will always say, like, you know, I wish I was just working on this project. Like, there’s, you know… we’re keeping the whole museum running. And it’s not a large team. It’s a small team, so we’re excited about that. I feel I’ve lost… again, I’m just sort of here, and just like kind of rambling.
[Marty]: This is brilliant. It’s wonderful to get your insights on all of these projects. I jotted down a couple of questions while you were talking. You know the whole thing about the museum’s mission not changing since 1916. I mean, talk about forward thinking. That’s astonishing for me to hear that. But then, it’s even more astonishing to think about the fact of that ArtLens, Gallery One, the Collection Wall, it hasn’t changed in 10 years either. That’s almost unheard of for a technology project to last that long. To what do you attribute that?
Well, that’s not … the wall hasn’t changed in its infrastructure. Everything has changed in ArtLens Gallery, and Gallery One, including their name.
[Marty]: Gotcha. I understand now, Okay.
It’s changed in a way…
So, it’s always been about iterating. Always. So we’re either iterating on the applications, we’re iterating on the infrastructure, we’re iterating on the outward-facing. We, we, when I, when we put it up, I remember it was super successful, and I was putting the budget together for the next year, and the CFO at the time, who — he just retired, and we were great friends — but, at the time, he’s like, “Wait. You just spent money. What’s this money?” And it’s like… I was like, “This is what I told you when I interviewed. This is… it’s not like you build it and leave it alone, and that’s why technology fails.”
Like we’ve invested in this, we can decide how long we want to invest in it, how we’ve changed it. 2016 was a huge – so, while we were changing it, we were building it, we had a timeline to open up on December 12, 2012. The middle part of the space consists of an app. ArtLens studio, which is where you sort of start your relationship with the collection, and you know, and the center place is with artwork, and it’s about understanding you know, how you can look at art in different ways, so it’s really the only space that really has the art and the digital. There’s third, there’s the wall. That’s about sort of personalizing your own tour, finding what you want. The app, like, is everything on view, customization and anything to touch goes right to the app, and you know it goes off. That was the original Gallery One.
In two, we did a sort of in-house evaluation. We didn’t even really know how to evaluate the right way, digital, but we knew it was easy to see certain things that you know people were loving the engagement, but were people getting… was it encouraging people to go the galleries, has always been the question. And, and there were still people who doubted it. Why isn’t it an exhibition space? Yada, yada. We then, really, that’s when, we did, there was a grant that our evaluation team did that showed people– you know, showed how people who came into that space, and spent at least, you know, a certain, five to ten minutes. You know, left with more learning, but we also had Meraki data that showed, you know, it was the No. 1 gallery, and that people who went into that gallery and spent at least 10 minutes spent at least 30 minutes to an hour more in the actual gallery. So there was there was the beginning of really seeing like, this is working.
But what I also noticed was, these were, you know, really beautiful interactives. It was a great project, Gallery One, but we were trying to do too many things. Because, and, and compromise — sometimes you know really, compromising, and saying, “Nope. We’ve got to really decide what’s our goal here.” And so 2016, we changed our, we did also find out that our original space, ArtLens, I forgot we called it… Studio Play. It had two interactives. One was Line and Shape, that the Smithsonian, Cooper Hewitt ended up leasing the software for their… you know, you draw a squiggle, and an object comes up. But, it was hidden among sort of what you would see in many really nice museum playrooms, like they’re books, and blocks, and tents, and you know, families loved it, but you know, you would walk, it’s the first space, you would walk in, parents would be on their phones, kids would be on the floor, nobody was going to go into the galleries, it was just like a really nice…
Parents loved it, and when we closed it, there were parents who did not like that, but more people go in now. We want it truly like, intergenerational. We wanted it to be, we wanted to design interactives that if the caretakers were excited to play it, then everyone will do it together, and so we also decided to design for the digital native. Not, we know when we first started Gallery One, there was this fear that our base people that were 50 at the time, we brought down the age, it was 55 plus that you know, this would intimidate them, this would, you know, so, there was lots of… about writing instructions and over-explaining and, as you, as we all know, you can have amazing UX, UI design, and certain people that aren’t used to technology, they’re going to overthink it anyway. So, I was like, “Let’s flip it. Let’s design for the people who use digital, and let’s design it really well, and let’s have it just kind of happen.”
So, we worked with Design IO for ArtLens Studio and one of the things that I just think is so fabulous is our Zoom wall, and it has… just an object comes up, your body’s a magnifying glass, and your child’s a magnifying glass, and if you get closer, it’s a big magnifying glass. You’re already looking at high-res images, you know [on] a 20 feet wall, but now you’re like you’ve zoomed in, and it could be something this big [gestures large], so when you see it in the gallery, you, you already know this object. You know where the horse is. You know where… and I also, really about simplifying, and make it simple and clean, because of course people are like, “We should have a button so you can pick which object you look at,” and “do this…”
It’s like, “No. People don’t know the art.” There’s this level of we’re trying to introduce them to the collection, so we’re, it’s not about choosing the artwork. We have things that you can choose. You have the phone, you can look up any artwork — this is about, you know, you don’t know what you don’t know. And so it’s … and it’s been super successful. And that was sort of also the beginning of taking away the touchscreen. Another thing pre-pandemic, we had moved completely towards a no touch experience, you know, in 2016, and 2017, when we opened up, where we rebranded everything as ArtLens Gallery, and one of the reasons we rebranded is that people were confused. Like, “Wait. Is the wall Gallery One? Is this…?” So everything’s ArtLens. We have a Studio, we have an exhibition that changes every two years — 18 months to two years — we have a wall, and we have an app, and they’re all ArtLens. And that’s sort of how we got there.
[Marty]: That’s great. And that’s wonderful to hear that behind the scenes story. You know, I haven’t been there since you added that new feature to it, I guess. When was that, 2017 or something when that happened?
‘16 and ’17. It’s… you won’t, it’s totally completely different, and there.
[Marty]: I need to come and see the new version.
Oh yeah! And yeah, we’re gonna, we’re gonna be installing another group in the exhibition. Yeah, it’s completely different. I mean, things I learned in the first Gallery One, I already knew when we were building, so did… Local Projects was the vendor we worked with, even… you know, I remember, they kind of called things out, but it was very, you can only get the museum… you know, you had to… [gesturing for lots of moving pieces] and we did. The middle space became really, let’s just, let’s just, we, it was a combination of innovation, and touch screen and wanting to make sure the artwork was 15 feet away, but you could still see it, but people will play these games, and their face would match with an object, and they’d be super excited and they’re like, “Where can I find this object?” and you’re like, “It’s right there.” Like, it was… the whole idea of seeing the object in there wasn’t working, and so, but we knew that it was going, I mean it was built knowing that we would change in the next five years, which we did.
[Marty]: Oh, it’s super cool, and you were talking about that, that research question about whether it was encouraging people to go into the galleries. That that reminds me, I remember seeing a, I want to say it was the MCN Conference in San Diego, where there was a presentation on some data that was gathered about that…?
Yeah, was it last year? I mean, two years? Yeah.
[Marty]: The one in San Diego. I think that was 2018 [actually 2019], I want to say? Well, the talk I’m remembering… I can’t remember who gave the talk, but it was, they had tracked the WiFi of the visitors to see…
Yeah, that was me and Ethan, I think.
[Marty]: It was brilliant. I mean, what a fantastic…
Oh, Ethan and… I wasn’t there. Ethan [Holden] and Cal [Al-Dhubaib] did it.
[Marty]: That’s it, yeah, that’s it. Brilliant. I remember, I was teaching my Museum Informatics class that semester, and I came back from the conference and I said, “I gotta tell you about this one talk, because this was just a brilliant use of data, to track visitors in the galleries.”
Yeah, and we were, because we were using it as our connection points already, and it captures all this data, we were like, you know, Cal goes to Case, which is next, well he had graduated and has his own data science firm, and I was like I, I said, “You know, we need your help, kind of thinking, what can we find, what can we see with this data?” And he’s like, “What are you trying to see?”
And I was like, “Well, I really want to see where people who go to Gallery One, where else do they go?” but it’s become even way bigger. I mean, we, we used it even during our Kusama exhibition. We realized that, you know, a quarter of the people didn’t go to the last big gallery, you know, and if we had more ability to A/B test that, we don’t know, is it because of the way that escalators were going? Were people just fatigued? Did they not know that one of the biggest, you know, experiences was on the other side? You know, like, so it’s been really, I mean I’m a big fan of evaluations. I’m a big fan of data scientists. I’m a big fan of looking at it, we make dashboards and, as I said, we have 20 different dashboards we look at each week, from our virtual events to our videos to our website, to ticketing, to … I mean we look at everything to placement on our front page, where people are clicking on, what they’re not clicking on. We change things around, I mean it’s been really valuable just to be that connected. Where normally, you’re kind of like, in an office, and you have to do a report, and you put everything together, and it’s not like in your head weekly.
[Marty]: Yeah, no. The value of the dashboards for making those data driven decisions, I remember, it must have been at least ten years ago, Rob Stein was talking about the value of dashboards at IMA and DMA, and, and, and the way it changed the thinking of the staff, right, to think about using the data.
Yeah. And yeah, that was the talk, well that Cal and I, that I think you, you saw a version that Cal and I did here in Cleveland first, was first, you have to really get trust of the data also, and, and then from there, it has to be something that you can… We had a very, really interesting dashboard, but nobody, the average person couldn’t really read it without training. You know, it was too complex. And so, how do you make things so that you can easily kind of get an idea? At the same time, you don’t want to people making assumptions, you know, it’s truly just data. It’s not an evaluation. You know there’s many reasons why this object, you know, all of a sudden, is in the top 20 when it wasn’t. And we can’t you know, we can’t figure it out, and someone will have some idea, and then all of a sudden, we realized, “Oh wait. This was, you know, you can do more research” and say, “Oh wait. A class in Pennsylvania was doing a whole thing on it,” or something. Or “it was in the New York Times,” or blah blah blah.
[Marty]: Well, that’s fantastic. I know we’re getting close to the top of the hour, and I’m just thinking that might be a good place to wrap up, but I’m just so, I’m loving the examples that came up in this conversation, because you know, we’re ending up talking about making data driven decisions, but we started talking about the choice of the CMS, which was a perfect example of not having a data driven decision, right? You didn’t even have the requirements analysis, or there was no needs assessment.
Yeah, and I guess, where I was going there, was also, having the right people, I do think museums need to invest… I’ve been to so many conferences and things at MCN, and I see different countries moving quicker, but you do need people with technical backgrounds to be, I mean, I think sometimes we, we’re like, “Well, we all use digital.” Well you know, it reminds me of the ‘80s, when we all got Macs, and we had Paintbox on our Macs, and it was like “Oh, we don’t need a graphic designer. We all can make our own signs.”
And I think that happens in museums a little too much in that I’m a big fan of everyone has expertise, like Interpretation should be figuring out the goals of what we’re trying to do with the digital. Design should… like that UX and UI are really important to how… we even had something recently where the didactics in, the analog didactics were a certain size, and there were like, we have a 70-inch screen for this sort of digital interactive to support this exhibition, and then they said, “Well, it should be the same size.” And it’s like, “No.” Like how you read digital, and being four feet away is not the same as a didactic, but they need to, we need to know what the identity package is so that they’re, they’re intertwined, but that they’re different skill sets that everybody needs to bring to the table their expertise to really make something that’s iterative, and can be followed on, and so, I think we have to value those skill sets, and it’s not, and not just outsource everything. Or be like, “I’ll just hire a firm,” and that’s why there aren’t many museums that started a project, and have changed it completely, but it is iterated on. I see all these, I read all the grants, and what people… and I think, “Whatever happened to that project?”
You know, and so, I think how you structure, how museums structure and value technology, it’s interesting when people will call and say there’s a position open and do I know anyone? I always ask, Well, what’s … you know, who does it report to? Because it has to be at the table, and what’s the budget, and what are your goals in the next five years for this department? And that tells you a lot for is this going to be a success. And you know, do I want to like, suggest to someone you should apply for this? Or, is it sort of like, they’re, they haven’t, they’re not really ready to embrace a digital experience.