Rob Stein, Deputy Director for Research, Technology and Engagement, Indianapolis Museum of Art


Rob Stein is currently the Deputy Director of Research, Technology, and Engagement at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.  With a history of computer science and computer engineering, Rob initially set out working in the field of computer graphics and human-computer interface.  As the Deputy Director of Research, Technology, and Engagement Rob oversees technology, software, and web for the museum, as well as working with the museums audience engagement and education, publishing and media conservation, and conservation science areas.

The Indianapolis Museum of Art is at the forefront of museum openness, and in more ways than just their famous Dashboard.  The software developed through the IMA is made publicly available as open source software, giving other institutions the opportunity to be open as well.  The important point to take away from Rob’s talk on this topic is that museums’ don’t have a competitive advantage against each other that is like the competitive advantage you need to succeed as a business.  Collaboration amongst institutions, giving away solutions in order to get back improvements on those solutions in the future, is an important strategy.

Collaboration isn’t without its challenges though.  Complications can arise whenever there are large groups of people involved, as Rob puts it, “people are real people, they’re not theoretical.  They’re driven by different requirements; they find themselves in different circumstances.”  The benefits achieved though, having different perspectives and allowing others’ expertise, is the payoff.

In regards to openness of the collection and the public, Rob feels that museums “need to take an approach that advocates the free scholarly use of objects in the collection, provide hi-resolution and accurate documentation of those objects, while still respecting copyright holders’ rights.” Copyright is not a black and white issue, and there will be times when there is conflict from copyright holders.  Rob suggests museums taking a stand and asserting some liberties on fair use.  Rob feels that when not used for commercial means, museums should take an aggressive stand on providing this material for free.

Despite the collaborative qualities of these projects, there still needs to be governance in place.  For ArtBabble, this is accomplished through the Advisory Committee.  Collaboration allows sites like ArtBabble to reflect broader viewpoints, due to the numerous partners, but still needs to be run on a daily basis by the IMA.  The Advisory Committee shares input on how ArtBabble should evolve, and whether new partners should be included or not.  These types of decisions, on new partners and new content, shouldn’t be made by a single individual.

When it comes to recording performance, the IMA uses its infamous Dashboard.  Rob explains it almost as a journal for staff to record in, a way for people to view the metrics that the IMA feels are important.  The Dashboard provides motivation for the IMA to improve its operations, and is geared more towards those interested in getting a behind the scenes perspective on operations and efficiency at the IMA.


Listen to the interview

Listen to the streaming audio above or download the mp3 file.


  1. Cherie Whipple says:

    There were two aspects of Rob’s interview that I found particularly interesting.

    First, he talked about the use of agile techniques in describing the project development process. This is the method that we have adopted where I work in project planning with some minor adaptations. Using an iterative process removes the surprise factor at the end of a project and creates a more successful end product. Collaborating throughout the design and development ensures that whatever is developed will more accurately reflect the true requirements of the stakeholders. It also creates more buy-in from those who will eventually be using the product on a regular basis.

    Second, I appreciated that while he focused on the strengths of open source software he was willing to admit that it is not the be all, end all for all museums and in all cases. Even for an open source product such as Sakai, dozens of professional service consulting firms exist that are brought in to help institutions implement their open source systems. Remember: Open source is as free as a free puppy…

    I did have one question that I wanted to ask (and Rob, if you are reading, please leave a comment on this): how is the IMA Labs funded? You talked about the Labs and the charter to create programs and tools for museums in the open source space, but I wondered how this is structured. Is it under the umbrella of the museum or do you charge clients as in a typical for-profit consulting firm? Is funding a combination of grants, operations budget, donor bequest, staff time and collaboration?

  2. Megan Byrnes says:

    First of all, thank you Jared for following up on my corporate sponsorship/disclosure question. While I get that the IMA Dashboard is meant to measure institutional performance, I thought that Stein’s initial dismissal of corporate sponsor names was disingenuous. One would hope that all museums would have stringent guidelines in place that wouldn’t let donors dictate the content of programming and exhibitions. However, I think that the public has a right to know if a corporation like Exxon Mobile or the Koch Brothers are using the museum to rehabilitate their image, and/or if they are providing funding on a exhibit on environmental art, and thus skewing the content for their own interest.

    I liked Stein’s point about strongly advocating for museum’s to provide free and greater quality access to their collections for scholars, students, and other educators. In this respect, Artbabble is genius in that it allows educators to download quality and vetted content for use in the classroom in a way that isn’t blocked by the school’s Firewall and filters. To me, this represents a clear consultation with educators in the development of the process, and I’d be curious to know about their formative and ongoing evaluation strategies for this and other projects.

    Finally, Stein’s description of museums as a “free-choice learning environment,” while not new, is important to remember. While there is some competition for visitors’ leisure time between museums and other entertainment options, it is key not to forget our educational responsibility. As we learned from David Schaller and some of other other experts and readings this semester, there is a way to structure learning experiences that pique curiosity and promote relevancy to engage the visitor without “pandering” to them. And social media tools and our collections are two crucial tools that we can mobilize to accomplish this.

  3. Ryan Dodge says:

    While I don’t think the IMA’s dashboard is all that important in the grand scheme of things, I recognize its purpose and commend Rob for pushing it through. I also think it is very important that Rob said, “Collaboration, sharing and giving away solutions to get back solutions is really important to museums.” I couldn’t agree more and also think museum professionals have a lot to benefit from each other and wish everyone thought this way.

    I am intrigued by the steve museum project. I have heard about it before but never first hand from someone who was involved from the start. Although I am not convinced social tagging is the future of collections documentation, I will definitely take a second look.

    From this whole conversation I get that Rob is a leader in revolutionizing museums through technology, to push museums to open up their collections. I wish every museum had a Rob Stein on staff.

  4. Amber Glen says:

    I really enjoyed all of Rob’s talk, especially the points he made about open source collaborative projects and copyright and fair use.

    Rob’s take on collaborative projects that should promote and share culture is something that we can all agree on whether we are in the museum or education field; learning about culture and history is just as important as other subjects. Yet many times both fields (museums more so since the majority are not government funded) get the short end of the stick when it comes to software development. I found it interesting that Rob mentioned being able to find solutions for developing open source museum projects through different disciplines. Although it seems obvious that working in a collaborative effort with other museums would produce different techniques for solving problems and that some of those solutions can come from the business world, it seems like one of those “duh” things that we hardly think about until we are put in a situation where we need to think about it.

    Between this class and the Digital Preservation class JHU offers, I seem to be getting a copyright and fair use overload, but it truly is important for museums. I agree with Rob that museums should be allowed to provide information for free when it comes to scholarly use of the materials. It seems silly to charge a large amount of money every time someone wants to quote one line from a historic text or use an image of an artwork in a scholarly research paper. In some instances copyright is important (we struggled with using scenes from The Goonies in the Oregon Film Museum because Warner Brothers did not want to provide the footage free of charge since visitors could easily record or photograph the film once inside) but most of the time copyright issues are not so black and white.

  5. Averie Buitron says:

    Rob touched on a lot of informative topics. Regarding the project, he mentioned the conflict between user expertise and museum expertise. This ongoing debate of what to take into consideration is a hot topic. I wish we could have heard a bit more about the techniques he mentioned that museums are taking to represent the users contributions to put on their websites.

    I really enjoyed the ArtBabble conversation as well. I found out about the site a few months ago and it was interesting to get some perspective on the goals of the site and how it partners up with different organizations. I wasn’t aware of the “note” feature on videos and think this is a really cool idea.

  6. Juliana Olsson says:

    One thing that resonated with me was Rob’s comment that museums tend to cobble together software solutions for their different needs, but that there’s really no market for software specialized for museums (mostly because there’s no money in museums like there is in retail or other industries). On the one hand this is rather sad, since it means museums have to spend a lot of time tweaking things to get them to fit their needs. On the other hand, as Rob said, museum’s aren’t really competitive with one another the same way that businesses in other industries are, so there’s much more opportunity for collaboration. Given this background, it makes sense that many museums, including the IMA, have embraced open source software, warts and all.

  7. Brian Rayca says:

    Like Ryan I’m not convinced of the utility of the Dashboard, but that is just a criticism of the application of the policy and not of the policy itself. to me IMA is a great example of Paul Marty’s point that large “rich” museums are experimenting and sharing thier knowledge with smaller museums that can ill afford to invest in technologies that don’t pan out.

    In that sense I like that Rob is leading the IMA in being an innovator that other museums can learn from.

    I also like that Stein talks about using technology to provide greater access to the museum’s collection. It comes full circle with John Cotton Dana’s focus on the museum colleciton being “of use.” Technology allows the museum to provide the use to the community without the conservation issues physically limiting that access in the past.

  8. Emma says:

    As we have studied and discussed the Indianapolis Museum of Art this semester, it was great to be able to talk to the IMA’s Rob Stein about technology utilized within the Museum. Not knowing much about open source software, I found Rob’s discussion about it especially interesting. In the beginning of the interview, he described using open source software as strategic and philosophical. As he explained, the essence of open source software is its accessibility and its promotion of sharing historical and cultural information to large audiences. Like Rob, I feel that this is an important aspect of museums today – collaborating with one another to share solutions as well as ideas. He mentioned that it was important to look at other museums, not as his competitors but rather as partners, and in doing so benefits would be reaped by all. I agree with Rob about sharing and collaborating with other museums and it should not only occur with technology, but in other areas of the museum as well.

    One thing that has impressed me about the IMA (based on our readings, discussion and the interview) is the amount of focus and emphasis the Museum places on the audience. For me, it feels like the IMA stresses this more than other museums. From implementing the IMA Dashboard (being open/transparent to visitors), social tagging and commenting on (allowing visitors to add their own commentary and interpretations), to developing a site like Art Babble (dedicated to museum visitors), the IMA has really connected with and work for and with their audiences.

    Thanks for an interesting interview, Jared.

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