Open Source and Open Attitudes: Technological Innovation for Museums at the IMA Lab

In 2006 the Indianapolis Museum of Art devised an innovative solution to a common technology problem that many museums face. Instead of paying outside software developers who are unfamiliar with the needs of museum the IMA decided to in-source software development whenever possible.  The resulting IMA Lab not only develops projects for their own museum, but for the field at large. With the creation of the IMA Lab, the museum has been able to shape the conversation about technology, as opposed to just reacting to it.

I interviewed Charlie Moad, the Director of the IMA Lab, about the work of his department and how open source technology can serve museums. Moad outlined the challenge that IMA Lab works to address, “The lack of internal technology staff is easily the largest barrier for most museums. Many spend a great deal of money with vendors while not maintaining that museum specific knowledge from project to project.”  The IMA’s response to that challenge now includes a Lab now includes five application developers and two graphic designers, many supported by the work they do for outside organizations.  Moad explained that, “We now have software developers on staff that actually understand the sensitivities and complexities that museums face. Our belief is that this approach is more affordable and productive than the outsourcing of all technology.”

The IMA Lab has developed programs and technology applications for use in-house, such as the IMA dashboard and the TAP mobile application. The idea for the IMA Dashboard was conceived by IMA Director and CEO Max Anderson as a way for the museum to make public the type of statistics it regularly collects for institutional reporting. These include the number of museum members, how many new works are on view, the kilowatt hours the museum uses, and the size of the institution’s endowment.   TAP enables visitors to get more information about works of art on a handheld device.  They have also developed field wide resources, like ArtBabble, a website that hosts videos about art and artists from over thirty contributing institutions.

The IMA Dashboard

The IMA Lab’s specific approach to developing software for museum is different from that of a typical developer. Moad explained, “We will always use technology in order to enhance the visitor experience. It can be very tempting to create software solutions in order to demonstrate the latest and greatest in technology, but many times we opt for simpler and less flashy solutions which will not distract from the intended purpose.”

The IMA Lab is committed to using and creating open source software because it benefits the museum field as a whole. The nonprofit nature of museums leads to collaboration, as opposed to competition. Moad notes, “We have the wonderful advantage of working in a market segment where we are non-competitive with our peer institutions. If anything, a visitor becoming engaged with one art museum will lead them towards seeking out many more similar experiences. For this reason we strive to make everything we do usable by others and absolutely love to see when other museums use our software to accomplish their goals.”

Open source applications like the TAP mobile application and the IMA dashboard give other institutions a head start on developing software without being confined to the proprietary tool of a particular vendor. For example, the MFA Boston and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art both recently developed TAP applications that are distinct from the IMA’s and each other.

The IMA’s page on ArtBabble

The IMA Lab’s flexible resources will create a technologically forward-looking future for the museum community as a whole. Open source software enables even small museums to create technology tools suited to their own use without a large expense. With increased options for software development available to them the challenge for moving the museum field to the technological cutting edge will be less about the access to software, and more about museum’s attitudes. Moad explains, “Museums just need a willingness to be open with their audiences and data, while also setting aside the fear that this approach sacrifices authority in any shape or form.”

A Flickr slide show about the development of TAP

Eleanor Whitney is a writer, educator, arts administrator and musician raised in Maine and living in Brooklyn, New York. She has also worked at the Rubin Museum of Art as the Coordinator of Educational Resources, the Brooklyn Museum as the Academic Programs Coordinator, and at POV/American Documentary as a development assistant. She is completing her Master of Public Administration degree at Baruch College and received her bachelor’s degree from Eugene Lang College in Cultural Studies and Education.