The Indianapolis Museum of Art just launched a new website in September, 2007 that is really taking the ideas of social media to heart. The “Interact” section includes Videos, Blogs, Podcasts, Tags, and the ability to comment. And in serious consideration of the idea of institutional transparency they have a cool ‘dashboard’ that is “an ongoing effort to measure various aspects of the Museum's performance” in areas like Art, Nature, Attendance, Financial, and Greening of the IMA.
Though only up for a few months at this point, the website has been in the planning for close to two years. Prior to the site launch, an in depth analysis of all the site content, and visitor history was made. The log files were reviewed to see what people searched for, and if they found what they were looking for. This in depth analysis was crucial for the redesign process.
Lining up actions with mission is so important, and the IMA really is working hard to match these up. Recently I spoke with Rob Stein, CIO for the museum. Stein came to the museum 2 years ago to help the IMA figure out how to leverage technology to deliver the world’s best art. And its so interesting to see right up front how their work and their mission statement line up…
“The Indianapolis Museum of Art is dedicated to providing a welcoming environment that fosters meaningful encounters between our visitors and the art of different cultures. Through creative use of its buildings, gardens, grounds and virtual space the Museum encourages the discovery and rediscovery of great works of art and nature.” [Underlines mine]
One of the leg’s of their institutional identity includes a tagline of “Its My Art.” They are finding ways to make it easily accessible, open, and welcome to visitor’s opinions. Finding ways to include visitor’s opinions so that they are engaging and interesting to others is also important.
These ideas play in well with social media tools. In fact Stein says that they often look to the social networking sites like FaceBook or YouTube or Flickr as well as some of the academic institutions and universities to see what the latest technology trends are.
TAGGING (I think this is really neat and powerful stuff!)
The IMA is among a group of 9 museums that received funding from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services to study tagging. Their joint project is called Steve.Museum.
“Steve is a research project whose participants are building a tagging tool, collecting tags, analyzing data, and engaging in discussion. We hope to apply what we learn to improving access to works of art.”
What is tagging? It is using your own words to describe or categorize something and attach those words to that ‘something’. Think of it as using keywords to search Google, only you get to assign the words yourself. In the context of the museum, you can view the art online, and then use your own ‘keywords’ to describe it. You can also see what words other people used as well. Then you can click on any of the words you used as your tags and see what other art comes up that has the same tag.
For example, I clicked on a link to recent acquisitions and the title “Immortals dancing with a crane” caught my eye, even though the thumbnail image was almost indecipherable. Up came this beautiful, what I thought was Japanese but is Chinese Ming, painting. It didn’t have any ‘tags’ so I took the plunge. I added crane, flute, chinese, ming and dancing.
The IMA uses software called Captcha, to keep spam to a minimum. It’s the software where you have to key in the words or letters that appear in a little window. It is designed to prevent automated systems from being able to enter spam. Sometimes they keep me from entering in stuff too because I can’t make heads or tails of the letters. Fortunately they have a refresh button that gives you another choice or even an audio choice.
Since I am particularly fond of cranes, I clicked on the new ‘crane’ tag I had created and was linked to a page showing all the art work that has been tagged ‘crane’. There were only 2 so far. I just increased the choices by 100%!
When I talked with Stein about the tagging project he said that the project really hopes to find out if tagging really matters. Does it matter to visitors? What are the benefits? The project is in the early stages, but there are some interesting findings.
“If we look at the search logs, people are using different words then we do, to look for or describe things. We tend to be more academic. And interestingly, when people are asked to tag art, the result is twice as many tags when the art is presented without any kind of ‘official’ description or information about it, then if it comes with information. Clearly people also enjoy tagging, and find it fulfilling to read someone else’s tags. It’s also quite interesting to look at the tags that people used, and then to look again at the art to understand where that tag came from – what caused them to use those words.”
Rob noted that research has been done which shows that the longer the period of time that you spend looking at a work of art, the more meaning there will be. And other research shows that people tend to spend 10-30 seconds looking at a piece of art – which seems to be a reflection of contemporary culture. So it follows that finding ways to extend the length of time that someone spends will enhance their experience. One of the metrics they will use to determine their success will be tracking the average length of time someone spends at the site, and seeing if that amount of time increases especially on the pages featuring the art work.
Well, my brief foray into the museum tagging experience proves Rob’s point. I was engaged, and excited to participate and in the process found new ways to explore the museum.
Another question that came up for the IMA was how many people would tag art, and would there be enough volume to be interesting. It turns out that this has not been an issue at all. Even though the vast majority of visitors do not tag, the ones that do easily populate the site. Over 40,000 tags have been added since the site launched in September. (Blacklisting software prevents bad words from appearing. It’s been a very minor issue, with only 19 of 40,000 tags submitted triggering the blacklist software.) Another question for future investigation is the extent to which the IMA will correct tags that are incorrect, say calling a piece of work Japanese when in fact it is Chinese. (Oops that was almost me!)
Although the site has the ability to accept comments, it appears that it is not nearly as widely used as the tag feature.
The tagging software they use is open source and can be found HERE.
VIDEO and YouTube
The IMA is doing a super job of creating interesting video content and lots of it. Stein made the point that historically it would have been an issue for Museums to put large amounts of data online and be able to sustain heavy bandwidth that might be major on one day and minor on another. Now with sites like YouTube, they can post this content and not have to worry about this particular problem. It’s a win-win because YouTube needs lots of great content.
And they’ve done a really nice job of embedding them into their own site as well..
The IMA felt that institutional transparency was an important value. Not only is that apparent in their insider videos, but the ‘dashboard’ lets you see how they are doing as compared to their goals and objectives in real time. Because they are a nonprofit and not in a huge competitive commercial environment, they feel like they don’t need to hide their information. Many of the ideas for the dashboard were driven by Google Analytics which they have found quite useful.
For the museum, it’s a way to measure what they care about. Questions they are currently exploring include: “What are we measuring?” “Are we measuring it in the right way?” And if they aren’t measured on a regular basis over time, how do they know if they are improving those things? They have highlighted 9 statistics that they are tracking. For example, being “Green”, includes the kilowatts used. The system automatically generates an email every month to the person who gets the electric bill. He replies with the info which is entered into the system and then shows up on the dashboard. Other measurements like “attendance” are automated. Thermal cameras track warm bodies that enter and leave the museum. This information enters the system automatically.
Nice job IMA!