Museums and Transparency

Indianapolis Museum of Art

Eyes may be the windows to a person’s soul, but to me, it’s a website. Well, at least into the soul of an institution. Everything put online is a choice, and that says a lot about the beliefs of that particular museum. What do they choose to emphasize and just as importantly – what don’t they? How is the information organized? Do these decisions mirror their mission as an institution? What drew me to museum blogging in the first place was the idea of information transparency. Museums didn’t have to be mysterious shadowy places, where the only discussions allowed were in hushed whispers in the galleries. Visitors could read the behind-the-scenes details of what goes into an exhibition and could engage in discussions with those involved. A few museums take this idea to the next level, by letting visitors not only see into every aspect of the institution but actively interact with it.

One museum that does this particularly well is the Indianapolis Museum of Art.  In an interview on the Indianapolis-based blog On the Cusp in 2006, then newly appointed director Max Anderson made a statement which has proven to be true in a very short period of time: “I foresee making the IMA a model of transparency in revealing the collections, exhibitions, programs, and life of a great museum”.  

I interviewed Robert Stein, Chief Information Officer and Director of MIS, to ask him about the decision to move in this direction and where they see it going from here:

Unlike many, your museum embraces the idea of transparency of information.  How did the decision to do that come about?

We’ve been encouraged all along by our Director, Max Anderson, and the museum’s senior management, about being open and honest about where we are succeeding and failing as an institution.  Every large organization has certain things that it excels at, and others at which it does not.  Museums talk a lot about mission and vision, we feel that it’s important to be able to track and demonstrate those areas in which we are meeting the goals of our mission and those in which we are not.  Being very open and public about these statistics does two things.  First, we hope that it engenders trust within our local community that we are using our resources and non-profit status appropriately and wisely. And Second, it acts as a motivator to staff members who know that the trends of our performance are on display for anyone who cares to look.

Did you meet any resistance?

I wouldn’t say that we’ve encountered much resistance to the publication of these statistics.  We have certainly gone through a learning process around which statistics should be published and how they should be maintained.  It would be very easy to dump a slew of numbers onto the site and let the visitors figure it out. From a maintenance perspective, it can be a lot of work to keep a huge array of statistics accurate.  It’s our current thinking that it is most valuable to publish statistics which we feel are valuable to ourselves as professionals for tracking our progress towards the museum’s mission related goals.  This allows us to share with the public, those things that are vital to our success as an organization, and allows the staff a mechanism of following the trends of our own performance.  We have debated the cost benefits of automating many of these statistics and come down on the side of using staff members to process the updates. Automation can be expensive and hard to integrate with some commercial products.  It also frequently does a poor job of handling “exceptions to the rules”, which as we all know are more common than we’d like them to be.  We do automate some of the statistics that make the most sense, but have designed the tool to make the staff maintenance of these statistics a cut-n-paste operation.  Keeping staff involved in the process also keeps the statistics we care about on the top of our minds.  Our experience is that it is easy to ignore automated statistics because they are repetitive and don’t require our intervention.

How have your visitors responded?

The Dashboard has been really well received by the press and bloggers, and by our Board of Governors.  I think the approach we chose of being light-hearted and accessible rather than overly analytical has been something fresh.  Huge website traffic numbers were never our goal for this site, and we’ve anticipated that these sorts of statistics appeal mostly to other museum professionals or journalists.  That being said, we’ve recorded over 20,000 unique visits and 80,000 page views in a little over 1 year since the Dashboard launched. A quick search of Technorati will turn up dozens of bloggers who have written about the Dashboard from around the world.

Do you have plans to take this idea further?

We’ve recently released the source code for the Dashboard under an open-source license as a Google Code project.  We’d love to collaborate with other interested institutions in making this Dashboard tool something that can work inside of a lot of organizations.  It would be a real benefit to have a common set of metrics which museums can agree are the basics of running a responsible non-profit institution.  Being really detailed about the way we calculate these things, like attendance, and web traffic will allow us to compare apples to apples. It would really help us understand the ways in which we can improve, rather than guessing at why these statistics, when reported, tend to be all over the map.


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