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Big Technology in Little Lab

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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."

The Art Institute of Chicago hired the IMA Lab to design and develop an in-gallery iPad kiosk application called LaunchPad for their European Decorative Arts galleries. - COURTESY IMA LABS
  • Courtesy IMA Labs
  • The Art Institute of Chicago hired the IMA Lab to design and develop an in-gallery iPad kiosk application called LaunchPad for their European Decorative Arts galleries.

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.

As part of the Matisse, Life in Color exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, IMA Lab designed two in-gallery  iPad applications to provide better context to the works on display. - COURTESY IMA LABS
  • Courtesy IMA Labs
  • As part of the Matisse, Life in Color exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, IMA Lab designed two in-gallery iPad applications to provide better context to the works on display.

"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.

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