Jane Alexander, Director of Information Management and Technology for CMA

As Director of Information Management and Technology Services for the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), Jane Alexander was one of the driving forces behind the uber successful Gallery One project and ArtLens mobile app.  Both of these efforts have transformed the CMA into one of the most engaging cultural institutions around the world.  We were incredibly fortunate to speak with Jane about her experiences at the CMA and perspective on crowd sourcing, social media, and the roles of scholarship and visitor experience within the museum space.

Early in her career, Jane developed and directed Columbia University’s acclaimed distance education program.  Within this role, she was faced with the 21st Century challenges of integrating multiple systems into an online environment accessible anywhere in the world.   This was a very formative event, as it taught her to be both sustainable and scalable when it comes to digital strategies.  A New Yorker through and through, moving to Cleveland was not easy.  Though she was able to capitalize on the wisdom she’d gained at Columbia to spearhead innovation within the state of Ohio.

After serving as a technology design consultant to one of Frank Gehry’s building projects at Case Western University, she ended up at the CMA.  Never having worked at an art museum, she was suddenly confronted with a host of ambitious and interrelated projects.  One of the more controversial among museum staff was an early phase of what would eventually become Gallery One.   Colleagues were concerned with technology’s disruptive potential within quiet contemplative spaces, which is something she had to acknowledge and incorporate from the get go.  After careful evaluation of their local audience, the museum found that many people were intimidated by museum culture.  Technology, Jane saw, could help familiarize visitors with content.  The focal point of this project then became the personalization of experience.

While the success and individual components of Gallery One are now well known, the lessons learned about visitor engagement are wide reaching and only beginning to be explored.  Although we all know museums can’t be everything to everyone, Gallery One shows us that the personalization process causes people who may be otherwise intimidated by the museum experience to suddenly pay attention to content.  This is truly groundbreaking, and can be applied to literally any collection, anywhere.

Transparency has also factored largely in Gallery One’s success.  Object status is updated in real-time, showing viewers whether or not a piece of art is on loan, being conserved, in storage, or on exhibition.  This clarity shows visitors that, far from being static entities, the museum’s objects have an ongoing life of their own.  Revealing the “lives” of objects is a crucial step in opening up authority to make content more accessible to visitors.  Transparency is the keystone to effective crowd sourced content and social media initiatives, as it opens up the content for ownership.  This personalization, as discussed above, brings visitors closer to the scholarship involved with each piece.

Jane ends by giving a single word of advice to emerging professionals: listen.  By paying attention to the actual desires of both museum staff and visitors, technology can most effectively be applied towards catering the museum experience to each patron.  This is the power of Gallery One, and museums everywhere would do well to heed its lessons.  Jane’s advice is astute and heart-felt, a piece of wisdom that a seasoned professional develops through years of hard work and trial and error. So, to the collective, what other advice can we share with one another?  If we could make the lives of budding museum technology professionals a bit easier by shortcutting that experience, what valuable lessons would you add to this list and why? If you can sum it up in one-word like Jane did, even better!

Listen to interview


  1. Julia Ross says:

    I appreciate Jane’s comments about the public being intimidated by museum culture. It’s something that all museum staff need to be aware of and work to defuse. GalleryOne sounds like it has broken this barrier through a sense of fun and personalization. The “strike a pose” feature in particular is a brilliant ice-breaker and great way to help visitors forge a personal connection with an object. So many lessons learned here.

  2. Leslie Walfish says:

    I found it particularly interesting in this interview that Jane Alexander is hyper-aware of research and ideas that are new in the field especially when it comes to engaging with art collections and the museum. It is clear that she is always thinking of ways to connect findings from studies back to her position at the CMA (for example the study that people remember more when they focus on details of a work). Her mind keeps finding ways to create something that can be used for an app or in Gallery One. She suggested: “listen,” and it is clear that Jane Alexander is listening. She is listening to visitor needs, listening to other institutions, and listening to studies about museum visitors. She is always looking outward to find innovative ideas that she wants to apply to help people connect better with her institution. “Listen,” is great advice!

  3. Jessica Harvey says:

    I found Jane’s thoughts on evaluation to be very valuable. She offered great advice when she recommended setting project goals and planning a course of evaluation before executing a project. Jane’s work mantra is “whatever we do, we learn something from and build upon it.” This remark ties into the articles we read last week. Rather than be afraid of the findings, museums should embrace evaluation as a learning opportunity. Evaluation allows us to celebrate our successes and gives us the chance to make our institution better by learning from our failures.

  4. Kate Skelly says:

    It was wonderful to hear Jane talk about how Gallery One is creating connections between people and collections. I think it is fascinating how a relationship between the visitor and the object can be developed through a project like Gallery One. I think this personal approach is a very clever way to make your audience feel invested in the “lives” of the objects in a museum collection.

  5. Liz McCoy says:

    Though I have not had the pleasure of experiencing Gallery One for myself, through the course of this program I have read many papers and watched several videos about it, and was very excited for this interview when I saw her role in the project. I really enjoyed the discussion about transparency and the behind-the-scenes openness that Gallery One provides – our class unit on that topic covered some ways to achieve such transparency, but the idea of people being able to receive real-time updates on objects’ statuses really opens up the barriers between the museum and the public, helping them view the museum and its collectors in a new light, demystifying it in some ways. This, as Jane points out, will help them feel more at ease with the institution and its content, and facilitate increased participation.

  6. Rachel Myers says:

    This interview provides great insight into the complicated inner workings of information technology in a museum. Jane’s responses were very refreshing, explaining that while most web projects start with new systems, her past experiences led her to a simpler more cohesive central table system that united multiple departments and their data. I like that everything is linked so that it always stays current. We’ve been discussing over this course the best way to design projects for museum visitors but I appreciated this focus on integrating systems that provide institution wide efficiency. The examples she used to describe how existing systems allows the CMA departments to pull from multiple data collections highlight how efficient technology systems (not often found in museums!) can create a better user experience for both staff and the visitor.

  7. Alison Heney says:

    A very thoughtful interview regarding museum work.
    One of the points that really caught my attention was toward the end when Jane began to reflect on the balancing act required to implement crowdsourcing initiatives. As she explains, crowdsourcing can be a powerful tool to tap into the thoughts and motivations of your audience, and yet traditional expert skills are still required to contextualize material and maintain continuity for the visitor’s experience.
    In this way, crowdsourcing is akin to “risk-taking,” but as in life, risk can sometime be the vehicle to implement rewarding change and transform old spaces into new frontiers.

  8. Thomas Williams says:

    I like how Jane sees technology as a bridge in many situations. She talked about how technology can bridge the gap between an intimidated local audience and the museum’s culture and collections for instance. Similarly, within the museum itself, technology can be a central point where all of the museum departments come together.

    Towards the end of the interview it was also interesting to hear her opinion on crowdsourcing at the Santa Cruz and Chicago museums we read about, including both the good and bad. I liked her idea to show the votes in real time, as it makes the person who voted take a second look and wonder why others are voting this way. This can add yet another level of transparency to certain projects.

  9. Meg Thompson says:

    This interview stood out to me because of Jane’s attention to the wishes and fears of her colleagues. While considering the visitor experience is critical, considering what is going on inside of the institution is imperative to a project’s success. If you don’t get everyone on board and feeling as if they have been heard, the project will struggle without internal support.

  10. Clay Williams says:

    Jane made a great observation right off the top. The Cleveland Museum had successfully digitized their huge collection but wasn’t doing much with it. Can’t say that any more! Apart from it’s beauty and value as a proverbial “hook” what I find most impressive is all the various manifestations. There are 10 discrete interactive applications that make up Gallery One and each is substantial: the giant collection wall, an app, various in-gallery interactives, and so on. This diversity alone lends credence to an essential point Jane makes, don’t’ design for hardware because you don’t know what new hardware is around the corner. Designing data as well as delivery systems for sustainability and scalability is the approach that makes all those variations within Gallery One possible. There’s no way you could produce a program of that scale and diversity without rational digitization, organization and management of the underlying image and data assets. They’re a broadly applicable resource.

  11. Emily Baker says:

    Remembering Joshua’s comments about having an “end date” in mind for your project, it was interesting to hear Jane start off immediately with saying that you should not be “designing for hardware”. As we’ve all worried throughout the semester about our projects becoming obsolete, it seems this is a real-world concern consistent across the industry.

    I also appreciated her pointing out that the dynamics of your audience: one visitor can show the behaviors of multiple visitor types and you’ve got to accommodate that not only during this visit, but inspire them to come back so that they’ll experience the museum in a new and different way with a different layer of information.

    Great interview!

  12. Jane Alexander says:

    Wow! Thank you for your kind comments. It was my pleasure and honor to be part of your class for one day. Your remarks are valuable help to all focus on the key aspects of using technology to make our organizations more engaging and meaningful. Stay tuned and join me in the journey in furthering technological advances in the museum experience. I look forward to how you all with implement and change the future – keep me posted. Jane

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