IMA technology chief developing new tools to make collections more accessible

Stuart Alter is the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s first director of technology strategy, a post he assumed after joining the cultural institution a year and a half ago.

His position combines the roles of IT department manager and director of innovation at the IMA Lab, the museum’s decade-old center for art-based technology use and study. He has a team of 10 technologists—six working in the IMA Lab and four in the IT department.

Stuart alterStuart Alter

Alter said partnerships with organizations such as the American Art Collaborative, an open-data initiative that includes 14 U.S. museums—are key for keeping the museum’s collections and databases up to date.

Alter spoke with IBJ about upcoming projects at the IMA, community partnerships and working with museums across the nation to share in the rapid growth of museum technology.

IBJ: In your role as director of technology strategy, what do you do at the IMA?

ALTER: There are two separate departments that I manage. One is the internal IT department, which is your typical IT infrastructure that you think about—email, digital phones, a lot of the monitors, your network, your internet, your security and all your servers and computers.
The other half is the IMA Lab. The intent of it is to create technologies that, of course, we can use ourselves at IMA, but also that other museums can use. We create things in open source. We’ve gotten many grants over the years and external projects, always with an eye on multiple usability of something, because museums are all the same. What one museum needs to do, another museum needs to do. So, we have been involved in several projects that have moved the technology bar forward, like scholarly digital publishing.

IBJ: What are some of the museums who have picked up on this technology?

ALTER: We’ve been involved with the Art Institute of Chicago, Getty, Peabody Essex and a lot of others to do all these different projects.

We’re currently working on something called the Access App, which is kind of like an audio experience. It’s meant for accessibility for the blind. You would crowd source—just the average visitor, just what they’re seeing and the average experience, as well as maybe putting that together with people who are really accustomed to describing things for the blind. So it gives blind people more accessibility to a garden or to a museum.

IBJ: How long have you been working on the Accessibility App project?

ALTER: About two years. We’re getting toward the end of it, which means we’re looking to launch it or take that next step. A lot of times, these projects are research and development of a prototype. And then if you can get a second round of funding and enough interested people, you can then take it a step further.

IBJ: You touched on the fact that technology is always changing. What are some of the places you look to for ideas to replicate in Indianapolis?

ALTER: Everywhere. It really is everywhere. There’s a local tech company that does fantastic stuff. We look at what they’re doing. We look at other museums. We go to museum conferences regularly.
When the IMA Lab started doing some of this stuff, it was fairly cutting-edge. And now there’s a whole slew of vendors that do these things for museums, so every year when you go to these conferences, there’s just newer and better and bigger stuff, like VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality). It’s just mind-boggling what’s out there.

IBJ: Of this technology, how much of it do visitors see and how much of it is happening behind the scenes?

ALTER: I’m going to say 50-50. What we’re trying to do is make all of that collections data more and more accessible, which means that the apps and technology in the exhibition halls can become more sophisticated. If you’re looking at a Van Gogh, now you can look at other Van Goghs or you can look at other paintings that were done at the same time or in the same location or of the same subject. No matter what you’re interest in it is, you can dig down a little bit deeper and find that information. That’s really what we’re striving for, and we’re not alone.

The whole museum industry is looking to do that because, without getting political, but in this current state of government and education, it’s museums that have just this wealth of information. And we’re also trying to bring that into the community. How can we bring our collections into the schools?

IBJ: What does this interaction between technology and art look like at the IMA?

ALTER: In our museum, we have the Audubon exhibit right now. There is a room you walk into which is completely immersive (with) projections on the walls. Now we did not do that. There were just certain things that vendors do far better than we could ever. We can’t do everything, so we work with vendors to create these things. That’s one. There’s others are like hand-held devices, where you can drill down into a little bit more information.

IBJ: What have you seen as major changes in museum technology in the last few years?

ALTER: Expectations of it. I mean that completely serious. Very shortly, you’re going to come to the museum in your driverless Uber car, which is going to go shopping for you while you’re inside. Plus, everyone’s used to such sophisticated technology on their iPads, so the more ubiquitous technology is, the more every institution has to keep really raising the bar.

IBJ: What do you think is in the future for technology use at the IMA?

ALTER: With such a city and state emphasis on technology and, in particular, internet of things, I think that the IMA Lab, because it’s imbedded in an institution like the IMA, is going to be able to serve an increasing role in the technology community in Indy, because there’s a need for technology in the cultural community that’s often overlooked. 

I just recently joined the board of the (Department of) Human-Centered Computing at the School of Informatics with IUPUI. Technology becomes so esoteric and so specialized that the only way to succeed in any kind of a technology group is to partner with other expertise.

IBJ: What developments do you see coming from these relationships?

ALTER: A lot of times the schools may have a capstone or senior program that they’re looking to build certain technology, and we are certainly more than happy to accept additional resources to help us build out some of the technologies we want to use.

IBJ: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

ALTER: I think more than anything, it was one of the last things we just talked about, which was the IMA as a community partner. With the tech scene what it is now and the art scene what it is now and the smart city initiative which has to include a cultural component, I really think that the IMA Lab is going to help bring the IMA deeper into the community.

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