A Tale of Two Museums: How Digital Technology is Implemented at the IMA and the IMHM

21 Feb

In this blog, I will compare the digital environments of two vastly different Indianapolis museums.  I interviewed a staff member responsible for technology at each museum and asked them about the challenges they face.  Each museum acknowledges the benefit of digital technology, but are governed by far different means.  Both the Indiana Medical History Museum and the Indianapolis Museum of Art have websites, but only the IMA currently has digital technology integrated into their exhibits. Each museum’s implementation of digital technology reflects its resources in terms of staff and budget constraints.

Both the IMA and IMHM websites include the expected information about the museums such as hours, staff, news, exhibitions, and so on.  The IMHM site is powered by Wild Apricot, which is a subscription based service that describes itself as a membership management platform.  Wild Apricot includes the ability for users to design simple websites that can be maintained by museum staff. It keeps track of memberships/donations and allows the staff to do things like send mass e-mails.  Excellent support is available if the customer gets in over their head.  For this, clients pay a scalable monthly fee based on the number of contacts they manage (up to 2000 contacts is $130 per month) The simplicity of the IMHM website makes it manageable for the museum’s limited staff.

The Indiana Medical History Museum has recently embarked upon a design for a separate website that aims to collect stories from those who have an affiliation with the decommissioned Central State Hospital, which is a major area of interest for them and their visitors.  The museum has recognized that those who have stories to tell about CSH are dying off.  IMHM is guided by a younger generation eager to record the stories of those willing to share them.  Towards that end, IMHM engaged HCI (Human Computer Interaction) students from IUPUI’s School of Informatics and Computing to design a prototype website that encourages community input.

The goals of the new website are to capture and share stories of those who interacted with the hospital, along with historical documents and other materials. They want to encourage people to explore the varied perspectives of those who were associated with the hospital either as patients, staff, neighbors, family members, etc.  With the HCI students, they are currently working through design issues and considering how to best encourage people to, not only share their stories of CSH, but also to reflect upon the perceptions of others.   As CSH was a state operated psychiatric institute, the staff is carefully weighing issues such as patient confidentiality and the preconceptions often associated with mental hospitals.  They are concerned about how to strike a balance that encourages the public to tell their stories while at the same time minimizing the potential misuse that might occur from people preferring to tell ghost stories or advance urban legends.  This type of design is more sophisticated than building an informational website and the staff is earnestly seeking guidance from outside, as well as significant finding to support the implantation of the project.  If all goes well, it should be launched in 2018.

In contrast, the IMA website is more complex and includes a broader range of topics and information.  In addition to the usual themes one would expect in a larger and better funded facility, the IMA site has a more sophisticated back-end for collecting and tracking things like memberships, donations, tickets, etc.  A phone interview with Stewart Alter, the IT manager of the IMA, reveals that the IMA is constantly responding to visitor expectations.  They will soon be leaving their web-platform, Drupal, for an in-house design.  Alter acknowledges that they are unique in that they have a competent technology lab that can react quickly to visitor expectations.  When asked for an example of what visitors expect nowadays, Alter referred to their mobile needs, “they expect to be able to buy tickets on their phone.”  Another challenge IMA faces is the question of how much information about their exhibits they should include in their website.  Alter said that this consideration is an ongoing challenge.  Clearly, the IMA and the IMHM face different issues based on their needs and resources.

The IMHM has no digital footprint beyond their website, while IMA has several digital exhibits.  One tool often used by IMA curators to determine the authenticity of paintings is to expose them to x-ray and infra-red light. Sometimes an entirely different work exists just beyond the surface.  A digital exhibit, entitled Davis Lab, allows museum-goers to use that technology.  There is an interesting exhibit on the fourth floor of the IMA that is worth experiencing.  It is a rudimentary video mapping exhibit whereby complementary video clips are displayed on two surfaces – in this case, walls.  Each is unique, but supports the other.  This one includes different camera angles of the same scene.  I won’t ruin the exhibit by revealing the subject.  I only wish it was accompanied by music – but only the music I want to hear.

The Indianapolis Museum of Art is larger and more sophisticated than the Indiana Medical History Museum and each’s digital environment is a reflection of the resources they can muster.   Both museums recognize the value of responding to the expectations of their visitors and are continually challenged themselves to meet those those expectations.

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