Connected & Ready

The intersection of physical and digital experiences, with Jane Alexander

Episode Summary

What happens when in-person experiences are out of reach? Organizations must look for ways to expand access to communities who would otherwise be left behind. In this episode of Connected & Ready, host Gemma Milne talks with Jane Alexander, Chief Digital Information Officer at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), about how CMA used innovative technologies to improve accessibility to its collections and create new ways to engage visitors, as well as how these initiatives have helped transform the entire organization, and influenced how others in the art world and beyond think about these issues. Dynamics 365 is helping businesses of all sizes unify their data and create a digital-first culture. With next generation ERP and CRM business applications, employees at every level can reason over data, predict trends, and make proactive, more-informed decisions. Request a live demo of Dynamics 365 today: Thank you for listening to Connected & Ready! Do you have ideas of how we can improve the show? Want to recommend a guest for us to interview? We value your partnership and participation. Please drop us a note at We would love to hear from you.

Episode Notes

Gemma Milne talks with Jane Alexander, Chief Digital Information Officer, about the impact of its Open Access and ARTLENS Gallery initiatives, the technologies behind them, how her team got critical stakeholder buy-in from the CMA board, and how other organizations might be able to learn from the CMA experience.


Topics of discussion


About Jane Alexander:

 Jane Alexander is the Chief Digital Information Officer for The Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA). As CDIO, Jane is responsible for creating awe-inspiring and iterative digital projects supporting a vision of innovation, technology implementation, and digital transformation that exemplify the CMA’s mission. Since 2020, Jane has brought this same innovative thinking to the museum’s increased online presence in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In her tenure at the museum, Jane has moved the museum to be a data-driven, forward thinking institution. Under her leadership, the CMA launched a comprehensive Open Access initiative in 2019, allowing the public to share, collaborate, remix, and reuse high resolution images of 30,000 public-domain artworks as well as metadata for 61,000 artworks for commercial and non-commercial purposes. Jane has led the many iterations ARTLENS Gallery, originally known as Gallery One. This world renowned, innovative experience uses cutting-edge technology to inspire visitors to look closer, dive deeper, and connect with the museum's encyclopedic collection. 

Jane leads the development of in-gallery digital experiences, including Revealing Krishna, an unprecedented, immersive mixed-reality exhibition opening November 2021, an entirely new museum experience where technology is used alongside exceptional Cambodian artworks, to tell the story of these objects and their restoration. 


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Episode Transcription

Gemma [00:00:05] Hello and welcome. You're listening to Connected and Ready, an ongoing conversation about innovation, resilience, and our capacity to succeed brought to you by Microsoft. I'm Gemma Milne. I'm a technology journalist and author, and I'm going to be exploring trends around how companies are adapting to a disrupted world and preparing for tomorrow. We're going to speak to the innovators who are bringing products, operations, and people together in new ways. In today's episode I'm chatting to Jane Alexander, chief digital information officer at the Cleveland Museum of Art, who shares real world examples of how user centric technology is transforming how we appreciate art in physical and digital forms, while also expanding access to communities who would otherwise be left behind. Along the way, Jane shares her insights on how to get digital transformation projects off the ground, achieving stakeholder buy in and how to move audiences from passive to active engagement. Before we start, I want to thank all of you listeners out there. If you have a topic or a person you'd love to hear in the show, please send us an email at We're so thankful for you all. Now on with the episode. 

Gemma [00:01:18] Jane, thank you so much for coming on the show today, really excited to have you. Let's start with some introductions. Tell us a little bit about who you are, what you do, and perhaps a little bit about the path you took to your current role. 

Jane [00:01:29] Thank you for having me today. My name is Jason Alexander. I'm the chief digital information officer at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and I have been at the museum for over a decade. So I myself didn't realize that it has one of the top encyclopedic collections in the country and world, and it's known for its exhibitions, its performing arts. But it is also now, a decade later, known for using digital innovation to making art matter to more people around the world. I came here in 2010 and part of the building project was to create a space which was known as Gallery One, which combined the intertwining of art, digital, and design to give people the tool sets to be able to look closer, dive deeper, and be able to go throughout the museum and the galleries and feel comfortable. So my goal was to make this more accessible to more people. 

Gemma [00:02:32] Let's dive in a little bit more to that point about accessibility, because I think this is an interesting, I guess, theme when we are talking about museums and about art, because, as you say, it's not just about accessibility in terms of I don't know,  people feeling comfortable, but also in terms of you know, who can get physically into the building, how it can be navigated. But also, I understand it's been a huge project as well for you at Cleveland Museum of Art over the course of the pandemic where we physically all couldn't get into museums. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about accessibility through the lens of the last year and how you've navigated that perhaps that will open up that theme more broadly for everyone listening. 

Jane [00:03:12] Sure. As I said, when we launched Gallery One in 2012, we wanted to use innovation. So we use augmented reality gesture based systems. And we really wanted to think of how to make sure it was about the art, not the technology. And in order to do those kind of things, people always think outwardly of what are the outward facing interactives. But we really looked at our backend first. How can you make content grow organically with the museum? And so it was really about creating a backend that pulled from the databases. So our collection management systems and our digital asset management systems are all API driven. Therefore, if a curator or educator or registrar changes something about an object in our collection within the next 15 minutes, it is everywhere. It updates wherever that object is be it collection online, in our open access collection, in one of the multiple interactives as we have throughout the museum. And so that makes us able to have a strong backend that is one source of truth. And why I talk a lot about that is it has given us the flexibility to be able to really think creatively. We realized that our original 2012, we did not build for the digital native. And then so we decided if we build these interactives for the digital native, more people will be able to actually get into and understand art through emotion and gesture, symbolism, its original purpose, instead of just reading the narrative. So we were in the middle of planning for a exciting, first of its kind scholarly exhibition that was going to open in November of 2020. It's now opening this November 2021. But as the world shut down in March of 2020, a lot of museums had to pivot and because we had a backend and everything was already API driven and because we had an open access collection, we were able, in like a matter of weeks, to create artificial intelligent games like Art Lens for Slack, which is played around the world still daily. So when August 2020 came and we realized we weren't really going back to school the way we all had thought, by last spring, we created Share Your View and you share a view from your wherever you're working or studying and it matches it with an object in our collection. You know, it takes you right to the artwork and all its metadata about the artworks. But it was an easy, quick way for a teacher or a student to get into artwork without watching videos or having Zoom lectures. So we were trying to again think of new ways to make art matter to people that were finding it necessary. 

Gemma [00:06:08] So Open Access and Art Lens or two big projects that was really, I guess, are illustrative of this approach that you take at CMA. Could you tell us what each of them are and how they came into being? 

Jane [00:06:22] Well, Cleveland Museum of Art also is a free museum, which is pretty remarkable. And Open Access, which we launched in January of 2019, was truly the next logical step in continuing our mission, extending the collection beyond our walls. I mean, we are really the caretakers of these objects, but they are truly everyone's. And at first I thought, well, this is going to be easy because, you know, other museums have gone open access. But when I really started to look at it, I thought, if we're going to do this, we need to make it so people really understand what it is. So it became a little bit more complicated. But for me, if we were able to set up a best practice, then other museums could point to all what we've done and then it would be easier time for them to convince their museum because I truly believe it is the right thing to do. And so what it is, is that it allows anyone to download, reuse, create our use of high resolution images, including our photogrammetry images. So, again, you'll see that people say, oh, we have an open access policy, but you have to write and request and you have to do these things or say, how are you going to use it? That's true. That's sort of to me, not what really open access is about. And what we have found is only positive. Our collection was never looked at and used more than when we launched in 2019. In 2020 when the year after where we thought, you know, it might flatten out because we have an open access and we have an API, everything is API driven from our open access collection, we're part of multiple repositories, clean creative commons, Wikipedia, Internet archives, art store, lots of things. So we can't even track where our objects are. I mean we could, but we started to make these open access dashboards so that not only could we see, but the public and anyone can go on and see what objects, what people are looking at, what they're using on depending on the platform. And that also could be used for other museums to ensure that this is a way to get your collection understood by the world. And because of it, it's been in more publications, more classes. This is the other thing that was really great: during the pandemic, people were watching Bridgerton. Objects from our collection is on the walls in Bridgerton. Like people were like, oh my god, that's our artwork, that's our artwork! And then even there's an HBO show called Hacks, and so it's getting us recognition and there's always this worry: well, if you see it digitally, you know, why would people come to the museum? But that starts your relationship. I mean, you still want to see the real thing. You still want to like, oh, my gosh, that's the museum that has the original. So all of this is actually growing our attendance to our collection. And it's harder to measure at this moment, but more people through the doors to actually see it. 

Gemma [00:09:35] And quickly, can you tell us about Art Lens as well. 

Jane [00:09:37] Yeah, so Gallery One, as I said, is dear to my art, and there's a studio where you start your relationship with the collection and it's all gesture based. And so there's a wall where objects from the collection pop up. It's a 20 foot wall and your body is a magnifying glass. So as you walk around, you can see the paint strokes like something blown up that big, you're going to see in a different way, but now you're actually getting into the details. And this puts everything in Art Lens studio is based on this study where, that if you look at a detail, you actually remember more and you take in more, the whole composition. So they had done a study where they asked people to go through a museum and they asked them about their five favorite artworks. And then they had a second group and they asked them to take photos of their five favorite artworks. And the second group couldn't really talk about the artworks because they took a photo and their brain was like, you know, I can refer to the photo. But the third group, they said, take a photo of a detail in the artwork. And so that group actually remembered the colors, the composition, could talk a lot more about it because they were brought into the artwork. So the goals of these were to bring you in. And we also wanted engagement and interaction so you can go on a regular day and you'll see an 80 year old, a six year old in front of the screen just moving around. And when they come together, they're magnifying glasses, become one big magnifying glass. So you're looking at it together. And the best thing is you will see people walking through the galleries and they'll be like, oh, my gosh, there is the horse. You really start your relationship. The other thing is there's this, it's called, we have not changed this interactive since 2012, and it's still the director's favorite, it's line and shape. You draw a little squiggle and it's mapped to our collection that it will map, so if you do a little squiggly Q, it will go to a squiggly an artwork in our collection. So you can see that a plate is made up of all circles. If you do a circle or if you do a line and it really again brings you into the artwork. And then we also wanted to create using the objects. So we have - make a portrait where it takes a photo of you and you can pick a watercolor or oil painting or charcoal from our collection, and it gives you the brush strokes and the palette to do exactly like the object in our collection. You paint it and you can do an abstract version of yourself or exactly if you fill it in the same way. And again, what you create pops up on these bigger screens so other people can see what's being created in real time. And then you go into the main space, which is we call it Art Lens Exhibition, which there are artworks from the collection. And they're not like from the storage. They're actual top objects in the collection that there's a theme every two years. And then so you see an object, a physical object, and there's a projection in the background so that you can walk to it. It's all the objects we use photogrammetry so that you can explore it, gesture based wise, like you can look all around an object that you would never be able to touch. So like our Wade Cup, our Islamic beautiful bowl, you can look at it closely and then a game will launch and it will either be about, as I said, like the purpose of the object, the composition of the object, you'll learn about symbolism, you learn about emotion and gesture all through gameplay. So a game will just start and some of the games just happen to you, some you have to think about the answer, and some it's more about your part of the answer. The other thing is we have an app that every object in the entire museum, it's uploaded again in real time is on this app. So you start in Art Lens Gallery and any of these games you can dock your phone. So this one game is about there's original purpose to objects. So you can actually guess what this object was and then you actually can wear it and it takes a photo of you. It saves directly to your photos on your phone. So you don't have to be taking the pictures. You have it right through the phone. You dock the phone in front of you and you're able to really just, again, focus on the art. But all of that's with you, including where the object is in the museum. And then there's also this: this is from 2012. This was my favorite and sort of my baby. It's called our Art Lens Wall, or collection. wall, it's every object on view at all times. So every 30 seconds a theme can come up that we create depending on what's going on exhibition wise or if it's snowing out or if there's something going on in the world, there'll be a theme that comes up and then it goes back to every object on view. Any object you touch, you can save it to your phone. And the phone app can take you anywhere in the museum to go find that object. Or you can save a bunch of objects and make your own tour and go on a tour yourself. Your tours that you save are saved to the wall so people can take your tours. And this wall is been replicated all over the world. People send us pictures all the time. But what makes ours really successful is that it changes all the time because the backend changes all the time for whatever the museum is doing. 

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Gemma [00:15:23] I wonder if we could go in a little bit to, I guess, the approach that you have at CMA, because, I mean, some people might assume that most museum innovation is happening at the sort of the world-renowned institutions in the big cities that people would first think of. But clearly, CMA has long been a leader in this arena. And as you sort of said, it's about not just going how can we make the art visible online, but how do we actually get people to interact with it, curate it, play with it in a completely different way? What is it that makes CMA a leader in this? And what sort of sustains that commitment? Is it that you've managed to now get the single source of truth and that just allows for that creativity? Or do you think is it is it leadership is a different kind of approach by the people? What would you say is kind of making you guys really think differently about this, that perhaps other museums are not able or simply not wanting to do? 

Jane [00:16:14] That's a great question. And I will say that it's taken us through iteration. We keep improving on what we've done as an institution. But when I came here in 2010, one of the things that we had an advantage of is when the museum was going through this renovation, they decided that digitizing the collection was important. It was a priority. So that was one thing. The other thing was, as in a lot of places, we were very siloed and to use digital to interpretate and get meaning to multiple audiences, you need to truly have the curators that are involved, the educators that are involved, collections, photographers, the infrastructure of our technology. And we're one of the few museums that really started a, I called it more a digital roadmap, on how do you approach a digital project in the museum. So we actually have outward facing support people on the floor in the museum, removing boundaries for all visitors. And then we have the digital team that is listening to the learning goals set by the educators or the curator. And then we take those and we begin to brainstorm how we can make that into a tool that will help visitors engage easily. And again, I find success is not when people say, like, man, that was the coolest technology space, instead of, oh, my gosh, that art here is amazing. The other thing that we had that I felt lucky is that we do have leadership that believes our director, he will admit he's not the most tech savvy, but he has seen the value. We also really iterate on projects. We prototype and we look at things and we'll pull things away and start over or we'll add onto it. But we don't create one off projects that a lot of museums put a lot of money into doing something that's outward facing. And then it's kind of out of date in the first six months. And then people move on to other projects and, you know, you don't really learn something for and someone else new comes in and then they do something new. We've really built upon what we've learned and we document it and we share it with all museums because our feeling is, that we don't compete against other museums. The more museums succeed, then people will go to museums when they are in any state or any city and thus making art matter to more people. 

Gemma [00:18:48] I want to hear a little bit more about the actual technology that's used to bring all these different experiences to life. You know, what's actually in Gallery One? What kind of physical and software wise technologies are utilizing? 

Jane [00:19:02] We never use technology for technology sake, but when we're trying to solve a problem, we are thinking creatively within Art Lens Gallery, we  found that people over a certain age over study the interface and instead we would create things by moving. And if it was designed well, you would understand how it worked and then it would just sort of happen to you. And we had found not only did we have an increase in the amount of people that went into Art Lens Gallery, but the age group range got 20 something to 80 something where before we had either really young families or older people. Another aspect of Art Lens exhibition area is that we use eye tracking about understanding composition. So the average person looks at an object or a painting in a museum, two to nine seconds, which to art museum employees that seems shocking. So what this game does is you look at an object at our collection for 15 seconds. It will then play back where exactly you looked at the artwork and it also projects that. So we've realized also in our space some people are nervous to play at first. They don't want to do it in front of someone. So we let them watch what other people are doing. It encourages them to do it. So the eye tracking has been not only again, we love analytics at our museum, but it's been a way for people to really understand composition and how an artist thinks about creating a set work. We also use facial recognition and it will match you with an object in our collection. But we have this other activity called Express Yourself, where you don't have to love an artwork to enjoy looking at art. Some art can be, you know, confusing or uncomfortable. And so this game you will show you in 30 seconds artworks and you make faces comparing that, you know, you laugh or you smile or you confused look. And then at the very end, it shows you what you thought of all these different objects. And you can actually then make a digital flipbook that sends to your photos in your phone collection a little video of you and your face next to the artworks. Again, as I said, we use augmented reality in our app and that you can lift your phone up to objects in hotspots, pop up and then learn more. We'll bring you to the object page that has everything, including videos and tours and everything about that object. But we also use artificial intelligence for our Art Lens AI game, as you say, where you share a view and it matches it with our collection and then it brings you into that object in the collection. And then of course, our collection wall is every object on view at all times. And but it's also sort of a visualization in that it's all connected through different fields that every object has so that you can sort of go across the collection in multiple ways, be it location, medium department or actual content. 

Gemma [00:22:14] What's been the impact of this approach and or of particular projects in terms of engagement, particularly for underserved communities? And how do you measure success? You said earlier, it's less about, oh, isn't this cool technology, but rather wow this are as amazing or maybe think this or discuss this, you know, once you kind of have those impact metrics of sort, are they used internally to then improve? You know, tell us a little bit about that. 

Jane [00:22:40] So the mission of our museum is to create transformative experiences for the benefit of all. And I take that truly to heart. I mean, that was one of the reasons I wanted to work at this museum. And so when the museum did shut down, we were able to track regularly not only what people were doing on our site, but how people were accessing our collection through Wikimedia and how people were accessing our collection through our open access downloads. And we noticed quickly that what people who come to our collection online on our website were accessing completely different things around the world. But really the integration and the accessibility and the inclusiveness of our main website is a project that we are working on now and will be completed by the summer of 2022. And we have decided to really take this project, as we did with our open access project as a best practice, how do you truly do inclusive design and accessibility as the main priority of a very innovative site? So how do people see themselves? How do we create content that's inclusive? How do we create platforms that are inclusive? How do we make it so that there isn't any barriers to accessing our material? 

Gemma [00:24:03] Amazing Jane, thank you for that. These kind of projects that you're talking about, I'm assuming probably a lot of people listening are thinking, wow, this is amazing. I wish we could do stuff like this all the time, whether it's in a art museum or a completely different kind of organization entirely. The type of project can be difficult to implement from a support standpoint. What did stakeholder buy in look like or it looks like in general for what you're doing? How would you get donors on board? What about content partners just give us a brief little rundown of how you think about stakeholder buy in. 

Jane [00:24:34] That's a great question. And to be honest, when I came in 2010 and this at the time, the project wasn't called Gallery One. It was called the Lifelong Learning Center, which didn't sound fun and you know about getting in. But there was a lot of people who were worried that a technology space, as they were calling it, would take away the credibility of the art collection, that we don't need it, our art stands on its own. And so I realized very quickly that we had to get people not only buy in, but that they had to feel the power and the success that this could be. So what I did at one of the very first board meetings was I worked with our AV integrator and our interactive design firm, and we created a prototype of the Art Lens Wall, which instead of 40 feet wide, we used everything was with micro tiles and we did two tiles and the height of the wall, but just the width of two tiles. And we kind of began to show what this could be and how it would work. And I have videos of that from 2011. And I laugh because the wow moment, I mean, these don't look anything like what it looks like now, but people actually were able to understand how that an average family could just pick one object and get into the galleries and go see an object like already that would be success. So prototyping was really important. The other part is that it truly is collaborative and it took us a few years to really understand how do you do digital projects within the museum and what people's roles are. Then there are times when we determine, in fact, that digital is not the solution here. Again, it's really about the process of what's the learning goal here and can digital seamlessly add to it. The other thing that is really important to me is that people always have lots of ideas and I rather have a smaller scope and have everything work perfectly as much as technology works perfectly. But as I said, we have Art Lens techs out when the museum is open. They are in the Art Lens gallery and it's a really interesting role because technically they need to be able to troubleshoot the 20 different interactives and the app and people come in with all different types of phones, different Android phones, different iPhones, and they have to help them on board that and make sure everything is working well. But they also have to make the people feel comfortable and like people would leave saying, oh, my gosh, that was I love the museum's art collection. And it took a couple of years for people to see. But Gallery One was a true success. Now, originally we were a little worried and we had beautifully designed interfaces. But people of a certain age like my age are going to over think those interfaces anyway. And it really took my kids who would grab my phone, who didn't have a phone at the time of Gallery One and knew how to play Angry Birds. And I would be like, who taught you that? And they we're like, no one taught me that, you know, and that digital natives just start touching and seeing how it works. Their brains are like, Oh, I got it. And then they play. And I was like, why don't we create games that way? And that's when I was like, let's remove the touch screen. This was, by the way, in 2016. By 2020 Art Lens gallery was fully open. And it's gesture based. You're not touching touch screens where a lot of museums are currently struggling with how do we open up our different digital interactive. 

Gemma [00:28:14] So lots of different types of people listen to the show, whether they work in the art world or the museum world or indeed in many other kinds of industries and organizations, but there's a sort of common thread. That lots of people are looking to creatively engage audiences. What would you tell your listeners or what advice would you give when thinking about what they should do if they want to move an audience from passive to more active engagement.

Jane [00:28:40] Traditionally, museums did not really think about digital to facilitate new audiences, and it is really important. And over time we have really think that cross departmental project teams are imperative to creating a successful experience. Every project begins with learning goals of the visitor. I think mistakes happen when you're trying to do everything for everyone. So whatever we're focusing on at the time to engage people. We really focus on the learning goals and we really problem solve what we're trying to achieve, what we're trying to do in this case. And as I said, we remove barriers of technology. We don't want people trying to figure out how to use it. So what we decided was that everything has to automatically kind of just start and it has to be easily understood and designed. And again, that's when we really decided to think about how the digital native learns. People aren't going to read about it, they don't want to understand it, they don't need someone helping you. But someone should be right there to help if needed. And we do something brand new, like remove the touch screen. We do prototype with audiences. We do bring people in and we film and we watch how they're using and we see what is easy to understand and what is not. But to move from passive to engagement. I look to what people are doing on a regular basis and then we think what people are already doing and bring it into the art museum. 

Gemma [00:30:11] It sounds like it would be reductive to say build it and they will come. But I suppose it kind of comes back to the original point you were making at the beginning about accessibility, right? If you're making things open, if you're allowing people to feel that they have a level of ownership and the ability to just play and use without having these barriers, you know, it sounds like what you're saying is that's what it's about in terms of active engagement, whether it's the public, whether it's curators, whether it's staff is about making it accessible, right? 

Jane [00:30:39] Oh, absolutely. I mean, making it accessible, making it barrier free, making it relevant. That is super important and making it as updated as possible. That was the other thing that a lot of things are out of date. And that's why it's about always pulling from the source of truth. So, yes, but you need to know that you're going to need resources to continue to support it. Open access: you need resources to continue to support it. Digitizing your collection: you need resources to continue to support it. It's not that you build it and it's done. It's iterative. You build upon it and you have to think about making it sustainable, but also scalable. And that has been sort of a philosophy from the beginning. And it's how we've been able to kind of keep growing so that we're always making it sustainable, scalable, accessible. 

Gemma [00:31:33] Jane, thank you so much for joining us and telling us all about what you're doing at CMA. It's super inspiring to hear about these projects, but also about the approach that you take and really generous of you to share these insights. And hopefully everyone listening can take a little bit of a how tos or just inspiration, no matter what industry they're in who are looking to engage audiences using digital in different ways. So, Jane, thank you so much for coming on the show. 

Jane [00:31:59] Thank you for having me. 

Gemma [00:32:03] That's it for this week. Thank you so much for tuning in. 

Gemma [00:32:06] You can find out more about Jane's work and indeed some of the broader themes we discussed today in the show notes. If you enjoyed the episode, please do take a few moments to rate and view the podcast. It really helps other people discover the show. And don't forget to hit subscribe and tune in next time to continue our conversation about innovation, resilience, and our capacity to succeed. 

Ad [00:32:23]  Dynamics 365 delivers next generation ERP and CRM business applications, helping employees at every level reason over data, predict trends, and make proactive, more-informed decisions. Request a live demo of Dynamics 365 today by following the link in the episode description.