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!