From the Server Room to the Board Room: A Decade of Digital Transformation

Jane Alexander, The Cleveland Museum of Art, USA, Anna Faxon, Cleveland Museum of Art, USA, Haley Kedziora, The Cleveland Museum of Art, United States


Our job titles have evolved over the past 10 years, alongside the technology systems we work with. However, we rarely discuss how the digital department's function within the larger context of the museum has transformed. Demonstrated by multiple project-specific examples, this paper will present the digital department at the Cleveland Museum of Art as a case study for bringing digital to the table and creating effective workflows for internal and external projects alike. Most importantly, we will elaborate on our driving philosophy - no siloes, no one-off projects, and always one source of truth! Effective digital systems are vital to museum functionality, from collections management and ticketing to outward-facing digital content. But over a decade ago, the IT department was by itself in the server room. People were scared of change, and worried that digital would take away credibility of our collection. Not only have we changed locations, to the same floor as curatorial, but the role digital plays within the museum has evolved. Through an iterative process of workflow changes and departmental reorganization, we have successfully brought digital "to the table." Not only do we have support and representation to the board and top leadership, but we work through projects from the beginning to launch. This year, COVID-19 necessitated another round of transformation, pushing the museum to readapt. In March, shortly after transitioning the institution to work-from-home, with a temporarily closed museum, we identified a new set of needs for the organization. The team yet again redefined their roles to fit a the newly surfaced museum landscape. After about a year of working in this new landscape, our project managers will elaborate on the drastic changes our institution has gone through, and how we brought our museum up to the next level of digital literacy.

Keywords: Digital

Transformation through disruption 

The Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) is a free museum with a bold mission: to create transformative experiences through art, for the benefit of all the people forever. The simplicity of that statement belies the complexities of its implications. In the context of all things digital, it means we focus on attracting, engaging, creating, and connecting to our world-class encyclopedic collection. Accomplishing our objectives is multi-layered, invoking the strength of our relationships with colleagues, partners, and systems to ensure the work we do daily culminates in something larger than the sum of its parts.   

This past year, COVID-19 pushed us into a new round of transformation. In March, after transitioning the institution to work-from-home, while temporarily closedit became apparent that our “two-week” shutdown would become much longer and more impactful. Like everyone, we were pushed to identify a new set of needs for the museum. We’ve leveraged our API and used AI to develop new digital toolsets, crafting them to target specific audiences. We’ve maintained and expanded on these projects to create a plethora of experiences for our visitors, while maneuvering the museum’s internal shift to digital.  With a demand for live virtual events, we created best practices for a suite of programs. We produced videos and made sure they were relevant to the time, putting our content in direct conversation with the anxiety and unease so many of us had been feeling. We constantly evaluate as we create, measuring success through A/B testing and assessing progress weekly in 25-page visualization reports that help us share real-time feedback with the institution. While continuing much of our regular programming and operations online, we are working on exciting new projects and planning for future endeavors onsite. We are considering the ways the pandemic has shaped the museum experience and are embracing a hybrid model where inperson and virtual experiences happen simultaneously.   

The digital team has seen our roles redefined in real-time.  Now, we are reflecting on the things that brought us to now, reviewing the present, and looking forward to the future. From the perspective of the Chief Digital Information Officer (CDIO) and two Project Managers, we’ll look back at our work over a decade, and how we leveraged our systems to adjust to disruption. Years of investment in the digital department’s infrastructure, our ongoing, iterative back-end systems, and the launch of our comprehensive Open Access policy has given us the track record and the tools to be agile throughout the pandemic. In this new format, we can take more risks. We can ask – how will we take next steps, collaborate with other museums and combine resources to create dynamic experiences, bringing art to all while giving our entire staff digital fluency?  

Bringing Digital and Technology under one roof  

At the CMA, digital strategy is part of our overall museum strategy, neither separate nor an addition. As CDIO, I am part of the museum’s leadership team, reporting directly to the director and president. This ensures that Technology/Digital is brought in at the beginning of institutional projects when others might not understand the value of technology infrastructureor the need for application adjustments.  

 My role is to oversee the CMA’s digital and technology teams, organized into five areas of focus: Digital Innovations, Applications, Media Services, Support Services, and Technology Operations. Previously, the department was the typical small IT team. As the museum evolved into the digital age alongside the vision of our director, additional roles were added, and capacity expanded. Each time someone leaves a position, it is an opportunity to restructure to our advantage. Job descriptions are updated, and the department shifts around the changes. Even this year, we have all rewritten job descriptions in response to the Covid-19 closure shifting our responsibilities. Today, the department encompasses in-house development, network and infrastructure, internal and visitor-facing support, AV and media services, and digital project management, running the gamut for internal and external digital responsibilities in the museum. We manage the platform, workflow, and strategy for all digital projects, from inception to launch and beyond, as our outward facing team supports our digital strategy.  

More than an academic paper, this is our documented workflow. As an institution and digital department, we‘re committed to sharing our findings with others. The following narrative is our best attempt at summarizing what we’ve learned over the past decade of digital transformation.  

digital department org chart
CMA’s Current Digital Innovation and Technology Services org chart shows the breakdown of the division into 5 distinct departments, as well as how they interact. While we’re not a large group, our work extends to every corner of the museum. Areas that would sometimes be found in other departments, such as website management, exhibition interactives, and ticketing systems, all fall under the Digital Innovation and Technology Services team. We are also responsible for all internal digital infrastructure, applications, and systems, including ticketing, collections management and cybersecurity, and technical support for staff and visitors.

The department’s name has shifted to reflect the multi-faceted nature of the team, formerly Information management, Media, and Technology Services (IMTS) to Digital Innovation and Technology Services. We are integrated to encourage collaboration. The infrastructure, applications, and back-end work with our front-end interactives, and our team works across areas of focus. Digital Innovation works with applications and infrastructure to implement outward-facing digital projectsCollectively we place our attention on the end user, with a support services team that works with front-line staff and interfaces directly with visitors, helping them engage with content, and acting as a bridge of communication between the user and the internal team. Previously, project management was folded into the responsibilities of the chief digital information officer, but as the capacity of the department expanded, the need for a designated role was clear. Within our current structure, projects and initiatives are moved forward, launched and iterated with not one, but two project/product managers.  

person showing an ipad to two visitors
An ArtLens Technician, on CMA’s Support Services team, helps visitors interact with the ArtLens Wall


Where did we start?  

When I came to the CMA in 2010, the perfect storm of events led to a revolution in the museum’s use of technology and the unprecedented launch of the ARTLENS Gallery (previously known as “Gallery One”). The rapid advance and convergence of mobile technologies, coinciding with the opening of the highly anticipated museum expansion provided an opportunity for innovation. The recent launch of a new website without a plan for dynamically implementing the museum’s online collection, and a committee of 20 plus employees about to select a new collection management system without a needs assessment highlighted the need for a strong digital roadmap.   

My first major project was a 13,000 sq. ft experiential digital and physical art gallery, which would become Gallery One. The intent was to use technology to put the visitor into conversation with masterpieces of art, encouraging engagement on a personal, emotional level. There were mixed feelings about this project, reflected in its lack of progress. The Board and staff were concerned that technology in the museumin a large gallery intertwined with digital located at the front of the museum-would undo decades of work building the credibility of the collection, while fearing the technology would quickly become stale. During my first six months at the museum, many hoped the project might fade away. However, a small team believed that Gallery One was an opportunity to change the way people think of museums; making them more relatable and inspiring new audiences to engage, create, and connect with the collection. Rather than undermine credibility, I was confident that the gallery would achieve our goal of bringing people closer to the collection. Data from our in-house evaluation team has shown that Gallery One successfully reinvented the museum experience for visitors of all ages, promoting active engagement and personal discovery throughout the museum. 

demonstration of interactive

A Visitor strikes a pose in the award-winning original Gallery One (2012).

Working together across the museum 

The traditional structure of museums does not facilitate digital projects. 10 years ago, the CMA’s departments were siloed and working independently of one another. Over time, we have remedied that with cross-collaborative project teams that internalize an iterative framework and work to continually provide better solutions for the museum’s goals. 

Our projects begin with goals: learning goals for the visitor, and institutional goals, set collaboratively with interpretation, curatorial, and other teams. We use digital to problem solve, rather than bring digital in to implement an existing idea. By beginning all projects with digital, all staff members across the museum understand the process and what is critical to a sustainable and scalable digital product.   

We recognized our core competencies and decided to keep these in house (project management, flexible and integrated application system, infrastructure, and big data strategy). We committed to borrow best practices and collaborate with the best practitioners and to well organized data collection and evaluation process to track our success.  All these steps served to build trust, alleviate concern about expense and viability, and generated much enthusiasm for the project.

colleagues sitting around a table
Representatives from Digital, Curatorial, Exhibitions, Education, Collections Management, and Design collaborate on a list of artworks to be featured in ArtLens Gallery. Through all our projects, we hold weekly meetings with curatorial, education and academic affairs, design, collections, and technology departments, making sure that the focus remains on the art and the visitor experience.


For skillsets we don’t have on our team, we bring in partners to help achieve our goals. As the museum’s collaborative process changed, we realized we needed to work with outside vendors who were highly specialized per the digital product we were developing. Consequently, the museum continued to lead the way not only in the robust blend of art and technology throughout the physical gallery experiences, but in museum practices. 

When the pandemic hit, we felt we were experts on creating digital experiences cross-collaboratively. With every area of the museum going online, we expanded this process with weekly meetings and a core team of cross departmental stakeholders. We knew the product we needed to create was changing, and we brought different people to the table to respond accordingly – for example, the communications team became a key player as our museum closed and virtual visitors relied on social media for updates.   


One source of truth 

The biggest question for digital projects is not what the technology is, but how it is maintained and kept scalable and sustainable. It was important that CMA’s workflow could power any interactives. My main objective, as early as 2010, was that our back-end systems were integrated, flexible, and API driven; so that as curators, registrars and educators updated content, it would reflect outwardly. Over the years this became the overarching strategy of the Digital Innovation/Technology application group and the reason we can create and innovate so fast.  Our main core collection, constituent, and business systems serve as the single sources of truth for all the ancillary systems and platforms that rely on this data. This philosophy of “one source of truth” continues even into our internal business systems, from donor, membership, and ticketing systems, to parking, finance, and our staff intranet.  At the core of our technology infrastructure are our collection management systems. We developed and managed a custom collection content management system (CCMS), as well as a digital asset management system (DAMS). These contain all artwork-related data and digital assets and are the source of truth for all our collection platforms, including our collection online, our Open Access API, and our asset middleware.  

diagram representing backend system
We incorporate a flexible and fully integrated backend system. Now everything pulls from the same system, allowing for consistency. It is modular, allowing it to be scalable for every component of ARTLENS Gallery. We can easily add and update content. A flexible, fully integrated backend system also streamlines troubleshooting.

The back-end never ends. 

Our flexible and integrated backend makes us more agile. Over the last 10 years, the digital innovation team has constantly worked on improving their Digital Asset Management System (DAMS) and their home-grown Cataloguing Collection Management System (CCMS) as well as adding, combining, and updating the back-end applications that interact with these fundamental systems.   

diagram demonstrating data flow
In the original Gallery One, we chained together our digital asset management system, Piction, with some off-the-shelf solutions such as Dropbox and Amazon Web Services as well as a bespoke, light API. The redesign of the App in 2016 brought several improvements to interface, asset download, and integration with the ArtLens wall (moving from a clumsy RFID system to a more seamless Bluetooth beacon approach). This redesign also gave us the opportunity to rethink the backend, creating a true content management layer for the App and some (but not all) of the interactives.  Now, information updates automatically every 15 minutes These platforms update automatically to all outward-facing digital within 15 minutes, from the collection site and API to our ArtLens mobile app, onsite Artlens interactives.

Through iteration, CMA has more possibilities for our data and assets. The team established a standardized, well-documented development environment, including: a master application programming interface used for integrating all artwork, artist/creator, and location information, a common framework for defining and testing the content structure and staff workbenches needed to manage both existing and new interactives, a consolidated content delivery network platform for digital assets for all interactives (ARTLENS Gallery, Collection Online, Open Access API, or any future interactives) for ease of management and troubleshooting, and a single method for connecting interactives to user devices for favorites and saving of user-generated content. The Piction DAMS ingests artwork images and automatically creates all derivative sizes used for various applications and interactives. When a new or updated image is ingested and processed, the DAMS messages the CCMS in real-time so that the artwork thumbnail can be updated, and the record timestamp can reflect the change to update other systems.  The custom-built CCMS pulls live content, writes it once, and then updates it everywhere, making any artwork information or interpretive content immediately accessible in all digital interactives.  

diagram demonstrating API system
In the current data flow for ArtLens, all data on gallery interactives, collection online, and Open Access API update automatically within 15 minutes.

Open Access: a digital project game changer  

In 2019, The Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) launched a comprehensive best-practice Open Access initiative, allowing the public to share, collaborate, remix, and reuse high resolution images of over 30,000 works from the museum’s collection in the public domain, as well as metadata for the collection. The launch included a well-documented and searchable public API – which became key in the next year. The back-end and systematic digitization that the museum had been developing for years allowed us to implement new workflows ensuring our data and images are up to date worldwide, updating automatically through the same workflows as our other outward facing platforms. In the same year, CMA deployed a redesigned Collection Online, and re-installed ARTLENS Gallery with new artworks and new features, such as gesture-based 3D photogrammetry, all possible due to the infrastructure in place.  

person in museum stands wearing AR goggles
Visitors explore projects created using CMA’s Open Access data at our 2019 Open Access Launch event

This initiative was the next logical step in fulfilling our mission. Making our data and images freely accessible was intimidating to the traditional museum communitywhich was alleviated bya comprehensive, best practice work plan. We wanted to be the first museum to offer 36 fields of metadata on every object, including provenance and didactics - requiring the trust of our tenured registrar, chief curator, and legal team, by demonstrating the benefits would outweigh doubts.  

image of menu
A dropdown on CMA’s collection online offers visitors several options for downloading artwork images and metadata.

Our staff embraced Open Access after seeing the positive impacts on scholarship and access. Since making analytics freely available, the increase in engagement from the public with certain collections and artworks has encouraged staff to update records at an all-time high rate.   

We knew being an Open Access institution was a vital step forward for our institutionWe didn’t know that a year after launching this initiative, the back-end work done in preparation, and our flexible API would be critical to creating engaging digital toolsets during COVID. This, more than anything, defined our agility during the pandemic.  

Iteration and prototypes  

All digital projects are iterative – driven by project goals, we prototype, develop, and move into product management after launch. In addition to our on-site support team providing feedback, we build digital interactives planning to monitor analytics, both on-site and online. This framework allows us to take risks, experiment, and be creative with technology. We often go through multiple iterations during alpha and beta testing and continue to make updates throughout a product’s lifespan - and yes, we do have sunset dates for our interactives. 

person stands in front of large screen
Line and Shape, originally In Gallery One, was prototyped, iterated on, and is still available to play. The interactive matches shapes visitors draw to artwork in the collection. 

CMA has been making prototypes and using the audience feedback to tweak final productsince the launch of Gallery One. One of the first interactives in Gallery One, called Line and Shape, asked visitors to draw a line, and would then show a similar art object in response. This was a novel way to engage in the collection at the time, so much so that Cooper Hewitt licensed this software when creating a related project two years later.


person mimmicks gesture of sculpture
In 2017, the ArtLens Exhibition space was redesigned with a focus on the digital native – people who use digital technology regularly – as well as on non-traditional visitors. We planned 16 new interactives that intertwined inventive gesture-sensing, eye-tracking, and AI technology with masterworks of art.

When taking risks, prototyping is critical. We created prototypes to test reactions to gesture-based interactives. To ensure that the 2017 testing was done with the target audience, it was scheduled around events that attracted Millennials and families. Signage around the prototype alerted visitors to the testing and provided space to begin marketing new activities. Tweaks were made to the prototype and it was redeployed. A second wave of testing was conducted over the subsequent six-day period with additional target audience users as well as museum and technology professionals. The digital team worked closely with CMA’s Research and Evaluation team, who analyzed any commonalities or differences between each round of testing. (See MW2017 paper “Removing the Barriers”)We use this same model to understand user behavior and use new innovations, such as adding gesture-based photogrammetry to ArtLens Gallery in 2019.  

two people view interactive projection
Prototyping has become a major part of our daily lives this Spring (2021), as we prototype with technology we have never used before for an upcoming digital exhibition, Revealing Krishna, opening in November 2021. These prototypes are on a larger scale than we’ve ever tested before – and we’re constantly adjusting to testing these in “hybrid mode” as we’re continuing to work from home.

Measuring engagement across platforms 

Thanks to our track record of success, projects which used to intimidate the traditional museum community are now exciting to our board, leadership, and staff due to our ability to demonstrate the positive impact of previous initiatives. One of digital’s most significant contributions to the CMA’s 2017 Strategic Plan was to advocate for the museum to be a data driven institution.  

Over the last decade, along with our in-house evaluation team, we have refined a methodology for evaluating digitalcompounded with increasingly specific qualitative analytics. For example, data gathered by the Digital team through our Meraki WIFI endpoints showed us that visitors who spent 5 minutes or more in ArtLens spent 30-60 minutes longer in the museum overall and visited more galleries. Evaluation from our research team old us that visitors who spent time in ArtLens reported greater gains in art historical knowledge than those who did not visit, proving success quantitatively and qualitatively.  

bar graph
Today, we continue to monitor analytics for all virtual programs, videos, and visitor traffic to our websites through a variety of platforms and live dashboards (I.e., Google Analytics, Vimeo and Zoom reports). We then aggregate findings into a weekly tableau published report that is shared with the cross departmental innovation team. Although we have been collecting this data for years, since the beginning of the pandemic, a cross-collaborative group of people looks at these each week and discusses the analytics.

We track engagement and compare programs with data from previous periods, looking at comparable institutions to see what their programming and engagement looks like. Throughout the pandemic, these reports have allowed us to ask questions like: “does virtual program platform make a difference?” “How does video length affect average view duration?” and adjust our offerings accordingly. Through A/B testing and weekly reviews, we have been able to be nimble and make changes. We are not afraid of changing format to improve. In our newest video series on our contemporary gallery reinstallation, we are experimenting with a shorter video length based on our previous video analytics.  

A few snippets from our data: from our initial closure on March 14 through December of 2020, we saw a 153% increase in Open Access API downloads, a 65% increase in collection online artwork views, and a 54% increase in views on our YouTube channel, as compared to the same period in 2019. This view and traffic data, along with qualitative feedback such as positive comments from our viewers, helps us show that we have been successful in engaging our visitors throughout the pandemic.  

Failures become success because we can pinpoint our missteps through data, We are data driven and obsessed. From the start we committed to gathering analytics, visitor feedback and engagement observations to ensure the user was usinga philosophy carried forward since 2010.  

Project managers divide and conquer 

From the moment we shut down, our busy days got even longer. We’re putting in more time, but also doing more. The team found outhe museum was closing on a Friday, and by the next Monday, we had shifted gears, taking on a slate of new responsibilities, putting a hold on existing projects, and reimagining the CMA’s role in a transformed landscape for museums Our team worked with all departments to envision new, robust programming for the age of the pandemic that would reflect our current time.  The team yet again redefined their roles to fit a the newly surfaced museum landscape. As digital project managers, we had been previously dually focused on on-site interactives. Now roles are separated between video and virtual event management, helping us work across departments and manage multiple projects.   

group of people in virtual meeting
The digital innovation and technology services team on a Microsoft Teams call. In March 2020, the digital team was tasked with getting the entire museum staff online remotely, while moving the museum experience online for our visitors.


Prior to the pandemic, but now with increasing frequency, a team of representatives from across the museum has met regularly to discuss digital resources and programming. This has given us the opportunity to work together and consider how audience and goals changed during this period. We knew we had to pivot, but we wanted to do more than just move the in-person museum experience online. As we worked from home, we leveraged technology to bring art to those in similar circumstances, responding to changing needs in new, enriching, and innovative ways. We worked to bring our audiences moments of joy, levity, and thoughtful reflection through relevant discussions around art during a global pandemic. We engaged partners from across the country who had worked on ArtLens Gallery, and challenged them to conceptualize web-based initiatives to inspire audiences.  

Our Open Access API, Integrated CCMS and DAMS allowed us to focus on creating innovative toolsets and break the monotony of digital content during the early months of the pandemic, focused on making art relatable and accessible during a time of crisis. Within the first week we put every open exhibition online. Despite the empty galleries in person, online visitors would still be able to see everything “on view.”  

online collection search
Current Exhibitions filters, implemented in Spring 2020, gave visitors a quick and easy way to browse objects in special exhibitions. Although this was previously available through the advanced search, these buttons prioritized the shifting needs we saw in March 2020.


In addition to outward facing projects, the Digital department improved the digital literacy of the museum staff and assisted team members across departments with reframing their responsibilities and roles in a virtual workplace, including solutions for registrars and art handlers to monitor art installation and condition objects without traveling. Within the first week of the pandemic, we successfully migrated our staff onto Microsoft TeamsWhile managing an increase in help desk tickets, our support services team began holding institution-wide weekly “teams training” sessions.  

When our visitors could only connect virtually, our leadership saw the value of the toolsets we had in place, as well the critical role of the in-house team. We became essential to keeping the museum running – not just our systems, but programming across departments. The pandemic leveled the playing field and created opportunity to focus on a wider audience. No longer were we just a Midwest museum. CMA is committed to documenting all our digital projects and sharing what we learn to help other institutions, small and large, thrive. This past year has been a time for innovating. We feel our team’s understanding of our audience’s priorities has grown. 

From March to March: 36 videos, 60 virtual programs, 4 new digital toolsets 

Homepage Takeover

While the museum was scheduled to update our decade old website in 2021, in 2020 we knew we needed a homepage to refresh the current website’s main page and promote our offerings and initiatives. In the spring of 2020, we engaged our contracted web developer and a designer to create a takeover homepage that facilitated exploration and showed the CMA’s digital offerings in a single scroll. 

screen capture of a museum webpage
A recent view of the CMA’s homepage after being redesigned.

Open Access dashboards 

Since launching our Open Access Initiative in 2019, CMA has asked: “how is Open Access making an impact?”. We have seen qualitative evidence of engagement with our Open Access collection from the public — from artists using our images and data analysts exploring the collection to artworks appearing in mainstream media, like the Dolce & Gabbana runway, and Netflix’s Bridgerton.  

 As the museum closed in response to the COVID-19 crisis, we noticed an increase in traffic to our collection online. This led us to wonder if there were similar patterns in Open Access downloads and views across other repositories. With the data science firm Pandata, CMA launchelive Open Access dashboards. All artwork information is pulled in from CMA’s API, and reflects the most up-to-date images and metadata. Additionally, every artwork represented has a live link back to the museum’s collection online so viewers can explore the artwork further.   

analytics dashboard
CMA’s Open Access Dashboards can be filtered by date, department, or artwork, and feature artwork metadata, as well as links to the Collection Online. Through colorful, interactive graphs, the dashboards visualize engagement on CMA’s Collection Online, Open Access API, and Wikipedia. Since making analytics available through our Open Access dashboards, we noticed the demonstrated engagement from the public has encouraged our staff to add new didactic information and update records with new research.

ArtLens for Slack 

We launched this project in response to the transition to work from home. We realized we were missing our typically art-filled surroundings at work and wanted to create something in response that we could share with other teams like ours, missing moments of connection and discussion during our remote workday. ArtLens for Slack is for teams that are looking for a moment of levity and creativity in their day. It is a Slack app that sends daily art prompts to individuals on a team, and together they “curate” daily exhibitions as a group. Users select an answer to a prompt such as: “If Zoom was unavailable, what alternative method of communication would you use instead?” then choose an artwork to go with their answer and add a witty comment, which is displayed at the end-of-day exhibitionThe app combines the traditional museum experience and the in-office water cooler conversations. We focused on making the content in each prompt relevant, and used that same topical content to cross platforms, adding related Instagram Filters. 

prompt from an app in Slack
Sample of a daily Slack Prompt relative to what is going on in the world.

ArtLens AI 

Over summer 2020, we found ourselves often sharing the views out our home office windows. Many on our team are parents, or live with students, teachers, professors and other remote workers. As Fall approached, we were daunted by the possibility of beginning another school year from home. These anecdotal observations were at the forefront of our minds as we conceptualized a new toolset.  

two fall scenes
Visitor images are juxtaposed with Open Access images from the collection.

Schools in hybrid mode rely on video calls and online platforms for classroom engagement. College and high school students are learning from their homes and dorms, without access to on-campus resources. We wanted to create a tool for students, teachers, and parents feeling drained by virtual learning to spark conversations about composition, palette, and pattern.  

comparison of flower and artwork
Placing an artwork alongside a snapshot creates new comparisons and opportunities for critical thinking.

Based on this idea and empathetic to those facing the start of a new remote school year, we created ArtLens AI. This Artificial Intelligence powered tool, using the AI engine Milvus and trained on CMA’s Open Access collection, recognizes shapes, patterns, and colors in user-uploaded images compared to artworksshowing surprising and delighting connections. ArtLens AI is on the museum’s website and on Twitter. The fun and surprising results, combat Zoom fatigue and provide a low barrier entry into the collection.  

a snowy path compared with a river

Relatable videos 

Not only have our audience’s attentions changed during the pandemic, but several of our team members have adjusted their focus to new projects. Staff who previously worked on on-site events and interactives have now become live virtual event producers and video editors. In the past several months, the CMA team worked with curators to create short videos from home, focusing on objects relevant to our current time. Our team works directly with curators to spotlight objects across the collection. The videos have evolved over time, increasing in production value and updating content for relevancy.   

person viewing sculpture
A screenshot from a recent CMA created video, featuring CMA educators speaking about collection highlights. In this video, Gallery Teacher Arcelia Gandarilla explores Simone Leigh’s “Las Meninas.”

Beginning in March 2020, this included our “On My Mind” video series – produced entirely from home, these videos featured CMA curators and staff speaking about an artwork from the permanent collection that spoke to them during the early months of the pandemic.

person looking at desktop computer
A viewer watches an early 2020 video from home. At the time, topics ranged from discussions of loneliness in relation to the isolated figure in Hughie Lee-Smith’s contemporary painting, Rooftop, to how a Greek lekythos can be reminder of the need for a haircut.

Before March 2020, the museum did not have a video department. Media Services staff, who were focused on production of on-site events, shifted focus to videos and learned new skillsets, starting with short videos produced from home in March to now professionally produce videos filmed on site as skillsets expand.  

The right platforms for the right virtual program 

Over the past year, the CMA has aired a suite of live, virtual events designed as virtual renditions of on-site programming. In place of gallery tours and lectures are live virtual programs with high-quality content and production values. Understanding that there isn’t an exact translation from a physical experience to a virtual one, instead the team has taken an evaluative approach to developing events, analyzing successes and failures alike, then working to improve user facing and internal processes 

 The digital team dedicated energies to iterating on and improving the production of our virtual programs. With numerous platforms offering varying features and requiring different types of technology, it was important for us to have a stable of platform options and an understanding of what to choose from depending on the needs of the program. In researching different platforms, the team developed a system for determining what the optimal virtual location is for each type of event, so that a lecture-style virtual program where attendees weren’t participating directly in conversation might take place on a platform that offers a chat feature but doesn’t ask guests to be on camera or microphones.  

a live event screen showing 2 speakers and an artwork
Screenshot from a Desktop Dialogue: The Politics of Sound. Desktop Dialogues is a free, live conversation every 1st and 3rd Wednesday at noon. Other programs are the Close Looking at a distance series, examining a single artwork in detail with feedback from the audience. There are regular virtual dance parties, an online version of the museum’s special public lectures, classes, and other exhibition-related events hosted virtually.

The CMA has hosted many public programs, each with content aimed at different audiences, including curators, educators, community leaders, artists, and guests offering new ways to look at and understand artworks, special exhibitions, and museum-specific issues Beyond public programs, there has also a slate of programs for all levels of donors and members. Each program has a distinct set of needs, and thus separate methods to optimize the viewer’s experience, which we’ve now standardized in approachingeach new program.     

The new hybrid model 

As the world opens up, we are shifting focus back to onsite digital, while continuing the projects that began during the pandemic. This has been a learning experience as our staff primarily works at home, yet we prototype onsite for upcoming exhibition interactives.  

When the museum planned to open a major exhibition in early 2021, itself a quick-pivot response to a postponed exhibition, the digital team was tasked with creating a new form of exhibition guide, in place of the audio guide that would normally be distributed. The exhibition, Stories from Storage, is an ambitious look at numerous art objects in the CMA’s storage. With a mini exhibit from each of the museum’s 19 curators and containing over 300 objects the show contained a glut of information to share with visitors and demanded a user-friendly interface to do so. With some development, but without overhauling the app, working within the existing ArtLens app to modify the gallery map and inject the UX with additional content, anyone with access to a smartphone is now able to see every work on view in the show, plus additional multimedia content and insight from the curators themselves.   

screen in ArtLens app
Special UX in the ArtLens App for the Stories from Storage ArtLens guide.

Now that the museum is open, though with limited attendance, we are balancing the responsibilities of an open museum with virtual visitor needs. We aim to meet visitors where they are, offering enriching information and experiences regardless of location.  

In November 2021, the museum will open a first-of-its-kind exhibition, showcasing masterworks of Cambodian sculpture alongside mixed-reality digital experiences that tell the stories of the objects in new and immersive ways. This story was difficult to tell with artwork alone; it spans centuries, continents, and features extensive art conservation and international relations. Four out of the six galleries in this exhibition will be digital, changing the perception of a “scholarly museum exhibition.” This would not be possible without the trust and support of our stakeholders. Throughout the process, our director, chief curator, CPO, and head of education have been enthusiastic about this project.   

Demonstrating how much buy-in matters for something like this: the CMA is a free museum; this is one of a select few revenue-generating exhibitions. Not only will this exhibition be the first of its kind for the visitor, but the cross-collaborative process for this exhibition exceeds what has been done institutionally and opens the door for future projects. When the curator conceptualized this exhibition, digital was trusted to find solutions, rather than be prescribed an existing vision. Along with partners who had expertise in this type of storytelling, we pitched ideas for the exhibition, centered around learning goals. The show will incorporate immersive projections, elegant, interactive 3D models, and a mixed-reality experience using Microsoft HoloLens 2’s.  

person kneeling in AR environment
The team testing a prototype for the HoloLens experience in Revealing Krishna. We partnered with Microsoft corporation, as well as Interactive Commons, expert developers, to ensure that this experience would do the story justice. Not only has Microsoft lent their talent and expertise, but they are trusting us to implement this vision by generously funding development.

In 2021, the museum is overhauling its web presence, bringing digital toolsets and the website to a new, cohesive platform. This project began considering institutional goals and audience needs. Driven by our mission, ”for the benefit of all the people,” we knew our web presence must evolve to serve the needs of our expanding audiences, while continuing the museum’s digital strategy. This project is the first of many that the museum will undertake using an Inclusive Design Framework, thinking holistically about our visitors and audience and creating a product in which all visitors can find themselves. We’ve brought in top consultants in their fields to help our team incorporate this new process.  Through this framework, the museum’s cross-collaborative web team will partner with community members representing various stakeholder groups to build a product that extends beyond accessibility and brings new audiences into conversation with the museum’s collection.  This project is our “proof of concept” for a new workflow, which will help the entire museum build inclusively with our local and international audiences. 

person sitting in room with projected walls
Prototype testing for a 360 degree immersive experience for the upcoming Revealing Krishna exhibition.

Looking forward: it’s about the people, systems and relationships

For successful digital projects, getting buy-in and partnership from various stakeholders is vital. We have learned over the past decade that this involves building trust through a track record of success, demonstrating that technology is vital for a museum to succeed, along with a strategy ensured by having the right people at the table.  

We get stakeholders on board through proposing a detailed strategy/roadmap, explaining data workflows, helping staff understand we were creating enriching experiences and a leveraging a robust back endwith one source of truth. We begin with prototypes demonstrating how technology gets people to look closer at art. The success of past launces garnered international attention, which continued to build trust. With analytics, we demonstrate and evaluate the impact of our work, converting those with hesitations. Each project is less of a fixed moment in time, and instead a proof of concept for digital engagement, a reminder of the benefit of innovation in the face of hesitancyAs we’ve learned from our visitors and data, we understand the need for iteration to better achieve institutional goals.  We constantly iterate on both the seen and unseen, from infrastructure and storage to applications and outward facing engagement. In many ways our work is cyclical. While we advance, content is always being re-imagined.    

Staff and internal stakeholders are not our only priority. We continuously promote our work to local corporations, many of whom had no idea a museum was using innovation in this way. This buzz allows us to continue generating interest and support from donors. Building these relationships throughout years of project development have given us the rapport and understanding with our partners to quickly ideate and collaborate on new projects.   

The disruptions that caused us to pivot in the last year have challenged our team and asked us to tap into the resources we’ve worked the last decade to implement and improve. As a result, our organization sees the value of these initiatives, and the impact they have had in uncertain times as we’ve worked through the past year to become a virtual museum. After 10 years the team has embraced digital in perpetual beta, constantly reinventing itself, continually pushing the boundaries of what’s technically and humanly possible in a museum. This is a place of exciting discomfort and possibility. We don’t yet know what kind of innovation the future will bring but we will strive to meet everyone’s needs, for the benefit of all the people, forever.” 



Alexander, J. “Gallery One, the First Year: Sustainability, Evaluation Process, and a New Smart Phone App.” MW2014: Museums and the Web 2014. Published March 7, 2014. 

Alexander, J., Wienke, L., and Tiongson, P“Removing the barriers of Gallery One: a new approach to integrating art, interpretation, and technology.” MW17: MW 2017. Published February 16, 2017. 

Alexander, J. and Bolander, E.  (2015) Digital Road Map: Developing & Evaluating Museum-Wide Digital Strategy.” In Decker, J. Technology and Digital Initiatives: Innovative Approaches for MuseumsLanham: Rowman & Littlefield. 

Amieva, A. and Vargas Saniago, L. (ed.)(2019) Museo Digital: Futuros y Posibilidades (Digital museum: future and possibilities). Ciudad de Mexico: Fundacio Telefonica Mexico: MUAC, Museo Universario Arte Contemporaneo 

Bolander, E., Ridenour, H., and Quimby, C. (2018) Art Museums and Technology: Developing New Metrics to Measure Visitor Engagement 



Cite as:
Alexander, Jane, Faxon, Anna and Kedziora, Haley. "From the Server Room to the Board Room: A Decade of Digital Transformation." MW21: MW 2021. Published April 6, 2021. Consulted .