An innovative tool to program exhibitions in museums: Case Study of CaixaForum

Ursula Imbernon, Universitat Internacional de Catalunya, Spain, Maria del Mar Casanovas-Rubio, Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, Spain, Jaume Armengou, IESE Business School, España, marta crispí, Universitat Interancional de Catalunya, Spain. Catalonia


How are exhibitions selected in museums? Who is it that makes these decisions? These questions are relevant today because after reading the literature and conducting interviews with museum directors, there appears to be no specific decision-making method when selecting exhibitions for a full-season program. This paper intends to contribute to the implementation of an innovative tool, which will assist the directors of museums in making better decisions. This research proposes to analyze how decisions are made when choosing artists, topics, and shows for an annual season, bearing in mind the lack of a process to do so. In general, the decision-making process within cultural institutions is intuitive. It is based on the experience and subjectivity of the director, who is trained with an artistic background but sometimes lacks experience in arts management. With regard to the decision-making process in museums, this research paper suggests the innovative use of a multi-attribute tool that can evaluate different seasonal programs by rating previous exhibitions. By considering the preferences and priorities of the museum, key criteria will be defined when planning the optimal program. The research methodology is based on the multi-criteria decision-making (MCDM), which is widely used in other sectors such as engineering. The method used in implementing the tool is the Multi-Attribute Utility Theory (MAUT) (Keneey and Raiffa, 1976), which determines the Season Value Index (SVI). The SVI is a final result that will indicate and help the directors in improving and optimizing the programming of the exhibitions. This paper presents the case study of CaixaForum, one of the most important cultural institutions within Spain, with more than eight centers. In order to apply this new model, it was necessary to interview Isabel Salgado, the director of exhibitions. Throughout several interviews, she specified the criteria considered when developing the seasonal programs such as the variety of subjects, the duration, the impact, the valuation, etc. The definitions of these criteria were connected to the mission, vision, and objectives of the cultural organization. Furthermore, the criteria were defined and weighted on a scale of importance from 0% to 100%. After that, each one was defined by an indicator and a value function, which resulted in a total assessment for each exhibition. After the evaluation of each one, the SVI of the season was obtained, which includes all the results of the displays. This final result reflects the differences between seasons and the possible alternatives and improvements of each year. This new model guides the decision-maker to choose the alternatives or change them in order to improve and thereby obtain a better SVI. Overall, this new method confirms the interdisciplinary connection between science and culture by proposing an innovative tool, which was also designed as an IT platform to automatize the application of the method. This new model could be applied in any institution considering its concrete characteristics as well as the mission, vision, and objectives.

Keywords: MAUT, multi-criteria, decision-making, museum management, exhibitions program, cultural content

1. Introduction

Over the last few years, it has been noticed that museums have to deal with a limited budget and continuous changes on the society and the environment. One of the most recent changes was the COVID-19 pandemic that occurred these last months, changing programs, cancelling exhibitions, and promoting online activities in a way to continue offering art to the public. In May 2020, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) published a report evaluating the impact of the pandemic on museums and its current situation. It has been demonstrated that museums and cultural institutions are vulnerable places affected by the changes, but also, they have the power to adapt their offer to different kinds of possibilities. The reprogramming of exhibitions and activities can be based on a decision-making method that analyzes and evaluates objective data, leaving aside the intuition and subjectivity.

It has commonly been assumed that the design of the exhibition programs in museums is a long process in which the directors and their teams have to select different types of exhibitions several years in advance to create a complete season. It is a process in which the directors have to make daily decisions to organize and coordinate all the exhibitions with other areas of the institution such as curators, education, communication, marketing, production, logistics, and others. Establishing a procedure or method to make decisions when scheduling exhibitions would be helpful to improve the decision-making process, as well as to effectively accomplish the necessities of the audience.

The specific objective of this study is to analyze how decisions are made, when choosing artists (in art museums), topics, and shows for an annual season. The research methodology is based on the multi-criteria decision-making (MCDM), which is widely used in other sectors such as engineering. The method used in implementing the tool is the Multi-Attribute Utility Theory (MAUT) (Keneey and Raiffa, 1976), which determines the Season Value Index (SVI). The SVI is a final result that will indicate and help the directors in improving and optimizing the programming of the exhibitions. This investigation takes the form of a case-study of the CaixaForum, one of the most important cultural institutions in Spain, with more than eight centers.

Furthermore, a considerable amount of literature has been published: manual of museum exhibitions (Lord and Piacente, 2014), organization and exhibitions design (Belcher, 1997), arts management such as Byrnes (2012), Resch (2016), Keeney and Jung (2018), Paquette (2019) among others. However, there is little published data on Multi Criteria Decision-Making (MCDM) methods applied to the cultural sector. Some examples are: decision support systems in museum management (Truex, 1984), multi-criteria decision making for urban built heritage conservation (Yau, 2009), decision support model for scheduling exhibition projects (Lee and Lin, 2010), multi-criteria decision making for evaluating museum virtual tours (Kabassi et al., 2018). Likewise, there exists a recent study performed by Casanovas-Rubio et al. (2020), which applies MCDM method to music management, to the season program of Palau de la Música Catalana, a relevant music institution in Barcelona. It is the most similar to the one presented below, with the difference that this case study takes a step forward by creating a digital platform.

This paper is structured in four sections: 1. Introduction, 2. Multi-Criteria Decision-Making Methods, 3. The development of the MAUT: case study of CaixaForum and 4. Conclusions.

The Decision-Making Process in Cultural Institutions

Before introducing the case study of this paper, it is necessary to relate the decision-making process to the mission of the museum, which is not always considered when making decisions. It is now well established from a variety of studies, that the mission in business corporations is the main point in its development and the way of working.

There exists a business leadership model named Management by Missions (MBM), which proposes prosocial motivations rather than extrinsic or intrinsic motivations. According to Cardona and Rey (2006), it is a characteristic type of leadership that creates or reinforces the sense of the mission in the company. Likewise, Bastons et al., (2017) holds the view that prosocial motivations are “related to the satisfaction of the needs of the stakeholders considered in the mission statement”. Therefore, the strategies, actions, internal processes and even the communication systems in the institutions should be oriented towards its mission and towards the objective of increasing the level of sense of belonging in the institution.

When comparing MBM in corporations and in the cultural sector, Bastons and Pérez-Pérez (2016) explain: “It is questioned if the same happens in the world of cultural management, taking into account that what defines the essence of cultural institutions is the development of a (transcendent) mission, and that everything points to an affirmative conclusion”. Everything in a temporary exhibitions program of a museum has to be aligned with the collection, with the essence of the institution, and with its mission. All the actions taken within these institutions have to be oriented towards their mission and be coherent with it, which would have the focus on their public. According to Lord B., Lord G. and Martin L. (2012):

Planning for people is fundamental to whether a museum is truly effective in realizing its ultimate objectives of interpreting and communicating the meanings of its collections, the collections of others, and their place and role in the world. The role of museums is extensive and becoming more so daily.

It is a widely held view that each museum has its own particular decision-making process: the mission, vision and objectives, the role of different curators, the ways in which museums collaborate with international or national institutions, the budget invested in the program, the number of temporary exhibitions per year, the variety of topics on display, the duration of each exhibition, the type of the target audience, among others.

However, there are some aspects that are common to all of them. For example, the majority of the institutions have a person – the director or curator – who is specifically in charge of programming the exhibitions, which respond to the extent of the museums’ mission. Furthermore, the exhibitions are programmed within a period of two to three years of anticipation, and the head of the museum has a direct influence on the programming of the exhibitions’ season. As mentioned, the mission should define the essence of the arts institution and should be identified by all the employees and participants in the organization.

The decision makers within the museum have several opportunities to rewrite the mission, to improve the role of the museum in the society and to carry out new exhibition topics by offering content to make visitors think and reflect. As explained earlier, it has been reported that the decision-making process within cultural institutions is, in general, intuitive and based on the experience and can be notably influenced by the subjectivity of the director, who has an artistic background but sometimes lacks of experience in arts management.

The Case Study of CaixaForum

After revising the literature and performing several interviews to museum directors in Spain, no theoretical procedure or method to make decisions when programming exhibitions was found. Scheduling exhibitions is a process in which the directors have to analyze and evaluate all the possibilities to program the best exhibitions in the season. Meaning that the director or the curator of the museum are exposed to choose the best option between other alternatives. Even so, which are the criteria that they consider when selecting exhibitions? Are there criteria that are more important than others? Have they ever made a list of criteria before planning the program? Is it possible to create a quantitative method to assess the museums?

These questions are relevant today because after conducting various interviews with Ms. Isabel Salgado, Exhibition’s Director of CaixaForum, and analyzing the management and exhibitions of the institution, it has been possible to answer them. This case study presents the implementation of an unprecedented tool, Multi-Attribute Utility Theory (MAUT), to assess, help, and support the director in making better decisions when scheduling the exhibitions. This research started in 2016 as a master’s thesis. It later evolved into a doctoral degree started in 2017. The practical framework and case study of the doctorate is supported by a research project based on the decision-making process when scheduling exhibitions in CaixaForum. This project is carried out by the “Universitat Internacional de Catalunya” and “Fundació Bancària La Caixa”, which started on 2018 and finished in 2020.

CaixaForum is an arts and cultural center situated in 8 different cities around Spain: Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca, Lleida, Madrid, Tarragona, Girona, Zaragoza and Sevilla. This institution is part of “Obra Social La Caixa”, managed by “Fundació Bancària La Caixa”. Moreover, it offers different types of activities: educational and family activities, seminars, concerts, exhibitions and others, although the most popular are the exhibitions. These programmed exhibitions are of very varied subjects: visual arts, contemporary arts, archeology, architecture and design, photography, cinema, and science.

It should be noted that Ms. Salgado and her team, based in Barcelona, schedule all the exhibitions seasons for each center. Thus, they program the exhibitions of all the centers at the same time, making them rotate between centers, and the total budget has to be divided among all the centers mentioned (in different proportions). An exhibition inaugurated in Barcelona can be travelling to the rest of the centers for 2 or more years. This means that the majority of the programmed exhibitions can be offered to different audiences around Spain, but also, it is a way to reduce costs.

The participation of Ms. Salgado and the rest of the team was essential in order to obtain the information about CaixaForum, to understand the mission, vision, and objectives of the institution, to analyze data from other seasons, to develop and implement the decision-making tool and convert it into a digital platform. The information and data were provided by CaixaForum, and they were also collected through several meetings.

As previously stated, this research proposes a pioneering use of the MAUT, a multi-attribute tool which can evaluate different seasonal programs by rating previous exhibitions considering objective data and patterns. The implementation of this tool will help to optimize the museum directors’ decisions when creating the exhibitions program.

2. Multi-Criteria Decision-Making Methods

Decision-making is a process that is applied in daily life which, many times, can be done unconsciously. A certain option is chosen after considering both intrinsic and extrinsic aspects of the objective that needs to be achieved. These different aspects receive relative importance from the individual, who will make the decision based on the results of an analysis of importance of these criteria and their qualification. This decision-making process is found in very diverse situations, such as in the clothing selection, job choice, or in more complex situations such as in choosing a railway track.

Likewise, Multi-Criteria Decision Analysis (MCDA) or Multi-Criteria Decision Making (MCDM) can be of great assistance for the decision maker in the decision-making process. The MCDA methods reduce subjectivity and intuition in the decision-making process through a series of filters that help the decision-maker, when choosing between complex alternatives (Muñoz and Romana, 2016). A bibliographic search on the methods of MCDM has been carried out distinguishing five large groups: ordinal multicriteria methods, multiobjective mathematical programming, outranking relation theory, preference disaggregation analysis and the multi-attribute utility theory.

After studying the general characteristics of each proposed method, MAUT has been selected for various reasons. In the first place, it serves to choose discrete alternatives. Moreover, it is intuitively understandable. Finally, it has a solid theoretical foundation. In addition, the preferences of the decision maker are coherent with the value function and all pairs of alternatives can be compared to each other.

The Multi Attribute Utility Theory (MAUT) was first introduced by Fishburn (1964) from the one-dimensional theory and developed by Keeney and Raiffa (1976) towards the multicriteria case. Some criteria are established and defined by indicators, which measure the different alternatives obtained. In addition, each indicator is defined by a value function that transforms the different indicators of each alternative into units of value or satisfaction (Casanovas-Rubio et al., 2020). The value function refers to the satisfaction (or value) that each alternative has for the decision maker. The attractiveness of an alternative depends on its score in each attribute of interest and the relative importance of these (Sarin, 2013). This value function is composed of different criteria which are in conflict with each other and therefore reduce the multicriteria problem to a situation of monocriteria optimization (Casanovas-Rubio, 2014).

This tool allows to choose the best possible option among different alternatives as a result of the criteria analysis. This tool, which, used in other fields, would optimize the exhibitions management and even the cultural management in museums, as they would obtain more value from their criteria. The specific objective of this study is to support and advice the directors in the decision-making process, and make it more effective, functional, objective, and unbiased.

Using a mathematical tool when programming within a visual arts institution might be perceived as something atypical, because these two disciplines are extremely different. After the implementation of this method, it will be easier to understand how distinct subjects can work together and demonstrate successful results. This fact will improve the decision-making process which is mainly based on intuition, subjectivity, and previous knowledge of the exhibition’s director. For this reason and the previously mentioned, it is necessary to create a new method and digital platform of evaluation and programming of exhibitions, unprecedented in the arts sector.

3. The development of the MAUT for the temporary exhibition programs in museums: case study of CaixaForum

The research method is based on the Multi-Attribute Utility Theory (MAUT). This theory is mainly useful in selecting the most appropriate choice, presented among a wide spectrum of different alternatives, which have resulted from analyzing a range of criteria. Once it is implemented, the Season Value Index (SVI) of the exhibition programs is determined.

Therefore, the steps to follow to implement the MAUT are:

  1. Definition of the criteria according to the mission, vision, and objectives of the museum.
  2. Assignment of a weight to each criterion in a scale of importance from 0% to 100% in order to establish preferences among them.
  3. Definition of an indicator for each criterion, which will be used to assess them according to their specificity. The magnitudes of the responses of the different indicators cannot be compared directly because, in most cases, each indicator measures in different units (Casanovas-Rubio, 2014).
  4. For this reason, after defining the indicators of the criteria, it is necessary to define the value function in order to assess the value or satisfaction provided by each season. The value function transforms the units of the different indicators into units of value or satisfaction.
  5. Then, the SVI of the season is defined as the weighted sum of the values obtained for the different criteria.

All this information and calculations are transferred to a digital platform in order to automatize the process of programming exhibitions.

As stated earlier, the first step is to define the criteria, which are connected to the mission of the museum. It is important that different departments share the same understanding on how and why a criterion was selected. At this level, including the participation of other employees in the decision-making process of the institution also gives the leaders a more interactional approach with their team. In the case study of CaixaForum, by conducting several meetings with Ms. Salgado and all her team members, it was possible to list the criteria they consider when programming exhibitions for a season.

All data concerning the criteria and the method come from real and objective evidence provided by CaixaForum from previous seasons. The information obtained is based on quantitative and qualitative analysis, statistics, patterns, and trends of the exhibitions and seasons under study that will be published in a near future. CaixaForum has collected a large amount of quantitative data from all the exhibitions since 2008, a fact that has allowed the development of this research.

The criteria defined are:

  1. The variety of topics presented on a season, which are nine: Archeology and Ancient World, Classical Art, Modern Art, Contemporary Art, Contemporary Art Collection (belongs to the own collection), Photography, Cinema, Architecture and Design and Science. The majority of these topics must be programed within a season to accomplish the satisfaction of the team and the public.
  2. The impact and interest that the exhibition has caused to the public. This one can be evaluated considering the % of school visits (which is numerous) and the number of visitors.
  3. The itineracy, which proposes the rotation of the exhibitions to other CaixaForum centers to offer the same exhibition to different cities and public and to save costs.
  4. The duration of the show specifies how many months the exhibition will be on display. Coordination is important when considering this criterion. It must be taken into account if they are planning diverse exhibitions in the same period of time, if there are bank holidays, or if the art pieces are borrowed from another museum.
  5. Cost per visitor, this criterion is useful to know the ratio of the cost of the exhibition and the number of visitors. CaixaForum predicts this ratio for each exhibition, and once the exhibition finishes it is updated with real data. The lower the cost per visitor is, the more satisfactory it is for the institution. It means that the more visitors an exhibition receives, the lower cost per visitor it will have.

These are the relevant criteria according to several meetings performed with CaixaForum team members. This method is a tool to help decision makers at an early stage when selecting exhibitions, and it can evaluate the exhibitions posteriori with real data.

However, are these criteria useful for other museums or institutions? There is some evidence to suggest that these criteria can coincide with those of other museums, but also new criteria could be determined related to the mission and the characteristics of each museum.

According to the literature reviewed, there exist different proposals of criteria. The literature on Lord and Piacente (2014) highlighted several inherent criteria to evaluate museum exhibitions, some are: the creation of new knowledge, transformative experiences, self-directed experiences and more. Kabassi and Martinis (2018) pointed out, some criteria to evaluate museum websites are: usability, consistency, accessibility, among others. There also exist the metrics presented by the Quality Metrics with funding from the Arts Council (2014), few of them are: distinctiveness, local impact, concept, risk, originality, etc. For example, Lee and Lin (2010) proposed a serial of criteria to consider when it comes to scheduling exhibitions which are: budget constraint, appropriate proportion of exhibitions from the museum’s collections and a minimum number of total exhibitions per year. At the same time, in the case study of Palau de la Música Catalana, Casanovas-Rubio et al., (2020), proposed: singularity, audience, locality, internationality, social commitment and efficient management among others.

These examples confirm the possibility of proposing a set of general criteria, in order to guide and support the directors, curators and their teams when making decisions. Despite that, each museum will have to adapt these criteria to its own situation considering different facts such as the type of institution (if it is public or private, a big museum or a gallery), the mission, vision and objectives, the target audience, the financial situation, if they program temporary exhibitions or exhibitions from the collection, et cetera. In Spain, public museums do not have the same budget and financial support as private ones. Hence, this criterion is very different according to each museum.

According to the steps indicated above, the second one is to assign a weight to each criterion. This process was verified and performed in a seminar with 22 internal and external experts. Before the assignment, it was important that every participant fully understood the criteria in order to assign each weight properly considering its importance in the decision-making process. These are possible procedures for assigning weights: direct, linguistic variables, AHP (Analytic Hierarchy Process), etc. In each case, any of them may be used in order to establish preferences.  Some authors such as Kabassi et al. (2018) preferred to use Linguistic Variables (very high, high, medium, low, very low) and then transform them into quantitative weights. The case of Casanovas-Rubio et al. (2020) used the direct assignment of the weight by the decision maker, which it is showed in table (2). Likewise, in this paper the procedure selected was the direct assignment of weights in a seminar.

Once the weights assignment is completed, the third step is to define the indicators for each criterion. The institution provided data collected from previous seasons, which facilitated the definition of the indicators. For example, for the cost per visitor indicator it was used the average of the number of visitors from past exhibitions and the average of the cost of previous exhibitions. With previously collected data it is possible to make predictions.

The last step is to define the value function, as previously stated and according to Casanovas-Rubio et al. (2020), since each indicator is measured by different units (%, €, numbers, etc.) the value functions will transform them into units of value or satisfaction between 0 (null satisfaction) to 1 (maximum satisfaction). The figures presented on the case study of Palau de la Música are a clear example of how the value function is represented.

Finally, the result of the Season Value Index is expressed by a numeric index varying from 0 to 1, being 0 the least satisfactory and 1 the most satisfactory result. The SVI reflects the differences between seasons and the possible alternatives of each year, enabling the decision maker to make more objective choices between these alternatives or change them in order to improve and thereby obtain a better SVI.

Once the four steps were completed, all the information and calculations were transferred to the digital platform by an engineer and a mathematician, to automatize all the steps and make it work as a real application. Considering that the CaixaForum team was planning the exhibitions with an Excel spreadsheet, the design of this platform represents a significant breakthrough.

It is unfortunate that the study does not include the statistics, weights assignment, and the mathematical calculations for the indicators and value functions because of confidentiality and future publication of results.

Assessment of CaixaForum Seasons

The data needed to calculate the indicators are known data of the programmed exhibitions, data estimated with the predictive model using information from the CaixaForum data base, or data estimated by the CaixaForum team members. Moreover, once the exhibition is completed, the real data of the exhibition (number of visitors and cost) are modified on the digital platform in order to save and update the results.

In the digital platform, the results of the SVI can be observed for each center CaixaForum in Spain, but also for the whole institution as a unit. For example, in CaixaForum Barcelona, the results of the SVI in the season 2017/18 was 0.71 (up to 1), and it increased to 0.75 in 2018/19. Otherwise, in Madrid the SVI was 0.77 in 2017/18, but 0.72 in 2018/19. In Palma de Mallorca, the SVI was 0.83 in 2017/18 and 0.75 in 2018/19, showing a sharp decline. Moreover, in Zaragoza, the SVI was 0.78 in 2017/18, but 0.86 in 2018/19, clearly increasing. In Sevilla, the SVI in season 2017/18 was 0.72, but it decreased to 0.70 in 2018/19. Then, in Girona, an increase was noted, the SVI in 2017/18 was 0.77 and 0.82 in 2018/19. In Lleida, the SVI was 0.85 in 2017/18 and 0.92 in 2018/19, one of the highest ones. Finally, in Tarragona the SVI do not vary that much, from 0.78 in 2017/18 to 0.79 in 2018/19. The results of the SVI can be obtained and analyzed per center, which helps and is used to improve specific aspects of each center.

But in addition, it also features the global results of the SVI in CaixaForum (the entire institution) to understand and improve its development as a unified entity. The SVI in the season 2016/17 was 0.66, and it heavily increased to 0.75 in 2017/18. However, in season 2018/19 it only increased to 0.76. This means that, depending on the programming of each center, the institution’s results will change by increasing or decreasing. This shows that small changes can produce improvements or worsening, depending on how the decisions are made.

4. Conclusion

In conclusion, this new method confirms that there is an interdisciplinary connection between culture and science by means of proposing an original tool in order to avoid intuitive decisions, normally made by cultural directors, their teams and curators. At the same time, the decision making process will be more objective, systematic, and optimized when selecting exhibitions for a seasonal program. This is a novel proposal, which should be taken into consideration in the arts sector when making decisions. As it has been noted, this tool will not substitute the directors, it will help them to make better decisions along with automatizing the process with a new platform. Due to the data obtained and predicted, the exhibitions can be adjusted to the public needs.

Another significant aspect of the method is that museums’ decisions change according to several variables such as the financial structure and budget, the political scenario, and historical facts, among others. Thus, the use of a tool that is capable of integrating these changes into its design is essential. Accordingly, as earlier noted, the tool proposed is adaptable and flexible to each institution, regarding its characteristics. Since it is based on a set of criteria in accordance with the museum’s mission, it could also be implemented in different areas of the institution such as marketing, education, production, etc., therefore transforming the process in which decisions are made. It is also an opportunity to connect the mission in the decision making, being more coherent in actions and with the public.

The most important limitation of the method lies in the fact that not all museums have objective data collected from previous seasons. This fact prevents the predictions and analysis of the results from being completely correct. Another factor is that museums are constantly adapting to the changing environment, so the criteria and weights should be reviewed every 2 years in case the institution’s preferences and mission have varied. And finally, the fact that programming directors change their job position or move to a new museum could also affect the criteria and the weight’s assignment, since it means a change in the management of the museum.

The present study raises the possibility to apply this method to other museums and arts institutions in order to demonstrate its functionality as well as improve the decision-making process in any case. It is relevant to disseminate this kind of study in the interest of improving the decision-making process in the cultural sector, providing a better control of the finance, optimizing the resources for the exhibitions, and also facilitating the job to the museums directors in difficult times as the pandemic. Finally, it could be confirmed that the proposed criteria are the starting point for museum directors to consider and reflect on their decision-making process and decide to improve it with new methods like this one.

Further research should be carried out to establish a set of general criteria adaptable to each museum and arts institution. But also, it is necessary to conduct new case studies in order to validate the tool. The implementation of the tool to more museums will be of great help to improve the digital platform and make it more innovative and creative, and to add value to the programming of museum exhibitions.


The authors are grateful to CaixaForum, especially Ms. Isabel Salgado, and all the team for sharing their knowledge and participating in this research. They would like to show their gratitude to all the internal and external experts, who participated in the seminars. Also, they would like to thank Universitat Internacional de Catalunya for the support.



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Cite as:
Imbernon, Ursula, Casanovas-Rubio, Maria del Mar, Armengou, Jaume and crispí, marta. "An innovative tool to program exhibitions in museums: Case Study of CaixaForum." MW21: MW 2021. Published January 14, 2021. Consulted .