Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on defunct, Central Indiana arts website Sky Blue Window on August 25, 2014. Some content, style and formatting may differ from the original version.
Nestled in a corner of the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) behind the library, a small, dedicated team sits at desks toiling steadily to transform the visitor experience in the galleries that surround their office and beyond. The employees at IMA Lab are not art historians. They’re not curators or archivists, trained in the delicate task of artistic preservation. They are programmers, designers and developers.
“We have an interesting perspective, because nobody on our team came from a museum background per se,” IMA Lab director, Kyle Jaebker says. “We’re not typical museum employees in that we came up through humanities programs or things like that. We have a technology angle on things that’s a bit different than some other parts of the museum would be looking at it.”
For the last five years, IMA Lab has served as the museum’s in-house technology team. Beyond the ongoing maintenance of IMA’s website and a steady stream of internal projects, the team builds open-sourced software and applications to serve the museum community all over the world. “We’re lucky that we have the staff that we do here at IMA,” Jaebker says. “Most museums have maybe one person or two in the technology realm. Some don’t have any. So, we can come in and help them see how technology can help them with their collections.”
One recent, external project is the Closer App that the IMA Lab built and designed for the Art Institute of Chicago. The IMA Lab designed a custom interface, which showcases the works of art within the museum’s modern wing and the stories curators and staff created around them. Most of the projects that the IMA Lab works on are designed to be used internally or within specific exhibitions, Closer is one of the team’s first designs available to the public through the app store.
Jaebker admits the line across which technology moves from an enhancement to a distraction, proves a delicate one. “We try to think about visitors and what they would want to see when they come to museum and how we can use technology to enhance their experience, not take it over,” he says. “If we’re providing more information that then causes them to spend a few more minutes looking at a painting, then that’s a big win for us.”
Through grants and external client work, the IMA Lab is able to offset some of the costs that come with their work. The team recently secured a Sparks! Ignition grant, through the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), to build location-based software using Apple’s new iBeacon technology. “It’s basically using Bluetooth technology to put little sensors in the galleries, and then you can use your phone to triangulate people and provide context through an app” Jaebker says. “So, we’ll be taking some of the tour platforms that we’ve built and making them contextually aware based on your location.”
Outside organizations grew aware of IMA’s technology arm a few years ago, after the organization launched its ArtBabble and Dashboard websites. Both of those projects were launched prior to the formation of the IMA Lab. Now, the team relies largely upon word-of-mouth and networking at several conferences within the museum community each year to spread its word.
“It’s been a really interesting position to be in,” Jaebker says. “It’s nice to offer the open-source opportunities that we are able to build and to share that with the community. That’s one of the most rewarding things of this job. It’s nice that we’re able to make some revenue to the museum and offset our costs in that way, but to actually be able to give back to the community has always been our strongest benefit that we provide here.”
Though his team may not qualify as artists in the traditional sense, Jaebker says the IMA Lab has grown into an integral part of the museum’s larger infrastructure. At the end of the day, he believes in the group’s ability to extend the museum’s reach beyond its campus on W. 38th Street. “There are millions of people who are never going to set foot in this building, so how can we engage those audiences with our online offerings and provide an experience that isn’t going to be the same as being here, but it’s still an experience they can share with our museum through technology,” he says.
Written by Rob Peoni
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on defunct, Central Indiana arts website Sky Blue Window on November 19, 2014. Some content, style and formatting changes may differ from the original version.
A recent study in the Journal of Early Childhood Literacy created a stir in the museum community. The reaction was spurred by coverage in the press, where attention-grabbing editorial tactics and divisive quotes from prominent artists misrepresented the author’s conclusion as a call to allow children to run free in museums. This reaction comes despite the fact that the museum served solely as the setting of the research, rather than the planned target of its results.
Regardless of the intended audience or reaction, Abigail Hackett’s study Zigging and zooming all over the place: Young Children’s meaning making and movement in the museum has people talking. This is due in part to a shift in museum marketing in recent years, which finds the industry redefining its target audience. “There’s been a huge push for family audiences across the board,” says Elee Wood, Director of IUPUI’s Museum Studies program, “both in terms of catering to the needs of younger children … and trying to think about how to be more responsive to audiences in general.”
The Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) is one such local museum that has embraced the trend of family-oriented offerings. Through Wee Wednesdays, a weekly program targeting the 2- to 4-year-olds group, the IMA combines structured activities with family exploration. The IMA also offers Art Packs, which provides children with artistic quests of varying complexity. Starting in January, the museum will offer a family day on the first Saturday of every month, which will be thematic, both in terms of the seasons and exhibitions.
“The more successful thing is when you create programs for adults that also work for kids,” says Scott Stulen, IMA’s Curator of Audience Experiences and Performances. “What you want is that the parents feel equally engaged as the kids do … but you think about different ways to engage them.”
Kyle Herrington, Director of Exhibitions at the Indianapolis Art Center agrees with Stulen’s philosophy. His approach to programming for younger audiences is less about lowering the bar and more about leveling the playing field. “Everyone who walks through our doors is an artist or an arts patron,” says Herrington. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re 3 years old or 83 years old. So, when I’m giving tours, I’m talking to them like they’re interested in the work, and I find they respond really well to that. I think that if you assume they’re not going to understand art that’s really detrimental.”
Stulen also warns against the assumption that kids are unable to comprehend highbrow artwork. He talks about an experience at a previous position at another museum, where he asked 6-year-olds to lead tours of one of the more complicated, contemporary art conceptual shows. “Their tours were incredibly accurate, because they don’t have any baggage,” he says. “They’re actually right, because they’re saying what they see in front of them. At times, we assume a lot of things as adults that are not necessarily true about kids.”
In the same way Herrington and Stulen are altering the discourse between art institutions and their patrons, Hackett is attempting to reinterpret the way in which child development experts analyze early forms of communication. “Focusing equally on all modes employed by young children in their communicative practices presents a challenge to the role of spoken and written language, both as the primary means of communication and as the end goal towards which other forms of communication are building,” Hackett writes. “Instead, the emphasis is on understanding the perspectives and viewpoints of the young children who are constructing these complex and creative multimodal practices.”
“Just as play activities have been recognized as a complex and meaningful combination of multiple modes, drawing on creativity, identity, and peer and family relationships to construct communicative signs,” she continues, “walking and running must not be dismissed as the ‘noise’ that happens in between focused engagement and learning in a museum.”
For her part, The Children’s Museum‘s Director of Early Childhood Education, Cathy Southerland agrees, “We [as adults] know that children have different learning styles. There are children that learn through music. There are children that learn through body movement — the kinesthetic sense. There are children that learn through auditory means. There are children that learn visually. There are children that learn through connections with nature.”
The Children’s Museum places an emphasis on family learning, with the belief that a child’s experience will be enriched by the active involvement of a parent or guardian. “Once in the exhibit, we love to see the adult or parent asking those open-ended questions,” says Southerland. “When you see something, how does it make you feel? What do you wonder? What do you want to know? Asking all those questions that elicit language, because we know this is so important for young children.”
Herrington echoes that sentiment, saying: “When people are taking young kids to cultural institutions, galleries, and places like that, it’s really the role and the job of the guardian to be a cultural steward for that kid to guide them through why these places are important and how we behave in a gallery.”
Wood points out that art museums are faced with the reality of protecting and preserving the, often expensive, works in their galleries. “The problem is that art museums, in particular, having people wildly cavorting through the galleries is not good for the art if something happens,” she says. “Now, that’s only if something happens, but everyone is worried that something will happen.”
For Stulen, it’s a risk he’s willing to accept. “As far as it goes, with worrying about the artwork, adults are 10 times worse than kids,” he says. “They’re so much worse about touching stuff and being a problem than kids are.”
Written by Rob Peoni
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on defunct, Central Indiana arts website Sky Blue Window on May 7, 2015. Some formatting, content and style changes may differ from the original.
One of the things we strive for at Sky Blue Window is to make larger cultural conversations around the arts accessible and meaningful on a local level. We try to take bigger issues and decompress them. As part of that mission, we want to spark conversation and engagement around the arts.
A recent conversation between WNYC columnist Eric Ducker and renowned arts critic Dave Hickey in which they discuss contemporary music’s place within museums, struck a chord. The conversation arrives on the heels of a recent Björk exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The exhibit was met with widespread ridicule and condemnation at the hands of art critics nationwide.
Though Hickey and Drucker’s discussion centers on the Björk exhibit, the conversation has broader implications. How does contemporary music fit within the framework of art museums? What would a successful incorporation of the music into a museum show look like? And does the institutional nature of museums demand a pace too slow to include the more fluid, amorphous contemporary music climate?
For his part, Hickey has definitive and surly opinions on the subject. “Going to Björk is like going to see a rerun. How many times do you want to go see a rerun?” he asks. “In Björk’s case, it’s almost like a celebrity roast: ‘You thought you were so famous, we can make you look like s—.’”
In Indy we appear capable of showcasing visual arts and music on the same platform with surprising regularity. Gallery exhibits on First Friday often include local or touring musicians as visual artists. Indianapolis Museum of Art invited musicians and amateurs alike to join in its E is for Equinox celebration last fall.
With this in mind, we wanted to turn the discussion over to our readers. What local arts events have successfully shared musical collaborations? Does contemporary music fit within the landscape of our local museums? How can our arts organizations do better? Let us know in the comments and on social media.
Written by Rob Peoni