Objects D'It

Deep into the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), past the main exhibit hall, past the special exhibit of Impressionists, beyond the famous armour court, Chief Registrar Mary Suzor inspects a diminutive statue. Hunched over an antique mahogany desk, Suzor works in the shadow of a series of huge oak file cabinets that line the back wall of her office. More than 100 drawers across, the cabinet contains nearly 45,000 fading index cards with information about every item the museum has owned since it opened in 1916.

Collections managers of yesterday referred to these cards 20 to 30 times a day, constantly updating information by hand as it became available. Today, however, the catalogue is more of a museum relic, thanks to a new, Windows-based collections management system and museumwide strides in information technology. The system, named after the Greek painter Apelles, enables Suzor to manage data--details about a work's provenance, its artist and materials used--about every museum object electronically, with some keystrokes and a few clicks of her mouse.

"My job has changed dramatically over the last few years," she says with a hint of nostalgia and a touch of relief. "Technology is responsible for it all."

IT is transforming the museum experience around the country, from the venerable CMA to the Experience Music Project, a new music museum in Seattle. Once remarkably low-tech institutions, these nonprofits are turning to IT in record numbers to streamline processes and cut costs across the board. At most museums, IT efforts are led by someone in the finance department or by a technologist who reports to a vice president. Yet at the CMA, IT falls under the auspices of CIO Leonard Steinbach, a frenetic, fast-talking, ponytail-wearing transplant from, as he says, "big, bad Noo Yawk."

Fresh off a three-year stint at his hometown's Guggenheim Museum, Steinbach is regarded by many industry bigwigs as a champion of IT in the nonprofit world. One year into his tenure at the CMA, he's proven himself with innovative initiatives that include a spanking new website, a highly regarded distance education curriculum and a grandiose effort to digitise every object in the museum's collection. Though the 48-year-old insists that technology isn't essential for museums to survive, he sees IT as a catalyst for moving museums into the 21st century and beyond.

"Art, not technology, is a museum's core competency," he states dryly. In his view, museums should use technology to make art accessible to everyone. "IT is an enabler, something we can use to bring people and art closer together. Can a museum exist without technology? Sure, most of them have done it for years. But how can a museum use technology to play more of a role in people's lives? That is the question I'm here to solve."

THE CIO IN HIS STUDIO

Steinbach's basement office at the CMA is a museum in and of itself; he displays more gadgets and gizmos than a child obsessed with Pokemon. There's a pair of TOMY hoppers, a model 1964 Chrysler Turbine, a plastic pinball machine and, of course, some Star Wars figurines. These items have followed Steinbach everywhere in the past decade, and as recently as last September, they lined his shelves at the Guggenheim, where he was hired in 1996 after two years as the National League of Nursing's vice president for IT.

Back then, the Guggenheim's IT infrastructure consisted of disparate local area networks running off DOS computers. As Steinbach remembers today, the institution was so behind the times that its "fax machines didn't even work right." During the next three years, he converted the museum from DOS to Windows, consolidated a half-dozen LANs into a wide-area network and partnered with Novell to establish a virtual private network that bridged the Guggenheim with its sister institution in Bilbao, Spain.

Across the industry, these accomplishments did not go unnoticed. In the spring of 1999, CMA officials approached Steinbach to come to work for them. The museum had never employed a CIO, but after rewriting their strategic goals that winter, museum officials and other members of the board of directors were eager to establish the position for the future. According to Assistant Director Stephanie Stebich, museum officials knew exactly what they wanted their CIO to do, and they knew they wanted Steinbach to do it.

"We decided technology is a tool and a vehicle for us, that it wasn't just about bits and bytes, but instead about getting our message out and bringing people closer to art," Stebich explains. "In order to do that, in order to do it right, we needed an equal partner who would be working on technology full time. We needed Len."

Steinbach was flattered but sceptical at first. Despite the museum's reputation as one of the foremost encyclopaedic institutions in the world, he questioned the organisation's commitment to technology and wondered aloud whether he, a die-hard New Yorker, could "stomach" a move to Cleveland. Finally, after Stebich and her colleagues institutionalised the museum's goal "to become a national leader in the use of new and emerging technologies," Steinbach climbed aboard. On a bright but chilly day last September, he packed up his trinkets and moved from Forest Hills, N.Y., to Cleveland Heights, Ohio. It was time to start anew.

DRAWING ON A LARGE CANVAS

Never one to ease into anything, Steinbach launched himself into his new digs immediately. With an IT budget of just over $900,000, he knew he'd have to be creative if he wanted to accomplish big changes quickly. By the end of his first month, he had performed an exhaustive analysis of the museum's IT infrastructure and recommended minor improvements to many of the basic business systems, such as the applications used to organise membership and business development. He tinkered with Apelles, installed a new credit card processing network and replaced the museum's telephones. Then he turned his gaze on a larger project: the website (www.cma-oh.org).

Back then, the CMA's site was nothing spectacular--a few images here, a little text there, and some static information about hours and membership. But Steinbach had big plans, and he hired Boston-based Keane to help turn them into reality. Keane consultants came in, interviewed museum representatives about what they wanted in a website, then worked with website designers at Columbus, Ohio-based Motivo to redesign the site from top to bottom. They added content and digitised more than 350 of the museum's most popular objects for a virtual gallery to exist only in cyberspace. When the site relaunched this spring, industry experts hailed it as one of the most sophisticated of its kind.

"Theirs is one of the most well-designed sites I've seen," says Leslie Johnston, editor of eSpectra, the monthly newsletter of the Museum Computer Network. "For those people who might not be able to pass through Cleveland to see the art in person, it provides a wealth of images and information. Other museums do this, but few of them offer as many images as [the CMA]."

Impressed with the overwhelmingly positive response to the digital images, Steinbach decided to take the project a step further and in March announced plans to digitise every object in the museum's collection. He dubbed the effort the Digital Imaging Initiative and outlined a five-year plan to create digital facsimiles of more than 40,000 objects and 450,000 slides. He commissioned museum technologists to begin the effort right away. By Aug. 1, they had digitised more than 2,000 objects.

Believe it or not, creating digital images of these items is as easy as it sounds. Curators in the museum's conservation department photograph the objects with sophisticated digital cameras, tinker with the images in Adobe Photoshop, and upload them to a Sybase database for storage and easy access on the Web. Over the next few months, Steinbach says, the process will only get more complex: Technologists will soon go beneath the surface of many objects, using spectography and X-rays, to create a living record of how the object has deteriorated over the years.

Throughout the museum, news of the initiative has art fiends giggling like schoolchildren. Stebich and other officials are touting the project as "the next big thing," and board members are already sizing up a marketing plan. Bruce Christman, the CMA's chief conservator, says the digital images should make his job easier, greatly prolonging the life of every object the museum owns. "If you have a good digital image, it cuts down on everyone's need to handle it," he says. "From my perspective, that's great news."

Still, with so many digital images, the CMA runs the risk of inadvertently altering an object's natural colours. Experts such as Johnston warn that the digitising process dulls colours to the point where a trained eye cannot match them to those on the original. To eliminate the possibility of colour or image distortion, Steinbach has signed a partnership with E-Color, a San Francisco-based company that uses electronic cookies' to produce color-corrected images so that objects appear exactly the same from one computer to the next. While Steinbach says this technology does not reproduce the experience of viewing art in person, he notes that it can make "quite a difference" while viewing art online.

MODERNIST LOOKS AHEAD

Listening to Steinbach talk about E-Color and his Digital Imaging Initiative is like listening to a teenager talk about his first love. Steinbach considers digitising the CMA's collection his "pet project," and never being one for modesty, he rarely passes on an opportunity to discuss it. Still, he is equally animated when outlining some of the other IT projects on tap for the future--further improvements to the website, exhaustive systems integration, expanded distance learning and trailblazing research in the area of cognitive science.

The first of these efforts is the next step in a constant plan to improve the CMA's presence online. Already, Steinbach has created a special New Media Initiatives division within the IT department. And in September, the museum was scheduled to broadcast its first live Web event, a series of lectures at a memorial conference for former CMA Director Robert Bergman. Later this fall, technologists plan to launch a special section, which Steinbach says will take Web visitors on a virtual tour of behind-the-scenes hot spots such as the restoration room, the conservation department and collections, where Suzor and her colleagues rely on the Apelles system to catalogue information about objects themselves.

"To the casual eye, we have a bunch of hooks with paintings on the wall," says Steinbach. "In reality, there's much more to a museum we feel people should know."

Once the website changes have been made, Steinbach vows to focus on other efforts. Within the next year, he hopes to integrate the museum's retail, finance and ticketing systems. By early 2001, he plans to revamp the museum's distance education program, expanding its videoconferencing curriculum for students who cannot visit the museum.

Last, Steinbach boasts idealistically about unveiling a new initiative to invest in technologies that attempt to bridge the gap between art and its observers. Everyone sees artwork differently, he says, and eventually technologists should be able to use their craft to customise the museum experience for every visitor. When pressed to explain how this might work, Steinbach is surprisingly at a loss for words; he knows it can be done, but so far, he hasn't figured out how to do it. That, he says, is precisely why he plans to raise awareness through a symposium and other research forums.

"IT gives us so much. Someday we'll have to be able to figure out how to use it to make every person's visit different," he says. "Do I know how to do that? Not yet. But that's the beauty of technology. What we don't know today, we will know three years from now. There was a time when digitising paintings seemed nuts. The fact that that's now in our [stable] of talents is a testament to the kind of role technology will play in the future of museums as a whole."

Matt Villano, a New York City-based freelance writer, prefers Impressionism to Romanticism in art and Romanticism to Impressionism in life. Reach him at mjv@whalehead.com.

IT ON EXHIBIT

Museums of every size and stature are using the Web and other IT projects to connect with patrons At New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, former CIO Arthur Tisi used the organisation's website (www.metmuseum.org) to create a virtual tour that allows users to explore more than 3,500 objects such as Vermeer's "Young Woman with Water Jug." To date, experts say this is the largest such collection online.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art includes an "espace" online gallery of website art (such as this image from "Post TV," at right). Visitors to an art exhibit slated for early 2001 will be able to use digital eyeglasses to enhance their experience. A tiny computer screen in the view of the eyeglasses wearer will display arrows that guide the viewer's eye to certain areas on an artwork, creating what researchers call an "augmented reality."

The Experience Music Project (www.experience.org), a new music museum in Seattle bankrolled by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, enables visitors to "ride the music" with a digital James Brown, while they use a handheld PC that guides them through exhibits. The museum houses a sculpture of guitars (left).

In Minneapolis, at the Walker Art Center (www.walkerart.org), technologists have put together an online virtual reality modelling language sculpture garden where visitors can use their mouse to climb inside sculptures for a closer look. Steve Dietz, director of New Media Initiatives, notes that the museum also uses an advanced digital random access detection system that prompts audio guides to tell visitors where they are and what they will see.

Leslie Johnston, editor of eSpectra, the newsletter of the Museum Computer Network, says that recently, museums' IT investments have taken on a patron-centric focus. "Many museum officials are recognising that technology isn't just great on its own, but that it really can enhance the overall visitor experience," she says. "That's an important paradigm shift because it means investments in IT are now functional. Technology isn't just for show anymore; it's now part of the museum."

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