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"Iteration made our back-end a Star!" Was presented at the MW20 conference on April 3, 2020. Jane Alexander, Chief Digital Information Officer at the CMA, and Ethan Holda, Director of Technology at the CMA, discuss the history of back-end iteration at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the history of the systems that made CMA's outward facing intitiatives, such as the ARTLENS Gallery (Gallery One) and our Open Access Initiative.
See the full presentation here: https://mw20.museweb.net/session/papers-1-from-headless-to-the-back-end/
To read more about the Cleveland Museum of Art's outward facing digital endeavors, visit clevelandart.org
"Iteration Made Our Back-End a Star!" Was presented at the MW20 conference on April 3, 2020. See the full presentation and read the accompanying paper here: https://mw20.museweb.net/session/papers-1-from-headless-to-the-back-end/
To read more about the Cleveland Museum of Art's outward facing digital endeavors, visit clevelandart.org
Jane Alexander is the Chief Digital Information Officer at The Cleveland Museum of Art Ethan Holda is the Director of Technology at The Cleveland Museum of Art
Though Ethan has only been at the museum as our director of technology for a few years, he and Jane have been working together for a decade on innovative projects at the CMA. Through this presentation, we'll be taking you back through the past 10 years of front and back-end iteration.
We like to start off with this quote because it truly explains our digital team's philosophy. The (CMA) team has come to embrace digital as in perpetual beta, constantly reinventing itself, continually pushing the boundaries of what's possible... For us this means that we are not afraid to move forward.
In order to be successful in implementing digital projects in the museum world, you need to have full support of the director of the museum. As Chief Information/Digital Officer, Jane is part of the executive team and reports to the director.
Here is a picture of director Dr. William Griswold – CMA's director - in the first iteration of ARTLENS Gallery making a pose. His quote is from the 2017 Museums and the Web Conference.
Slide Text: ------ “We are Deeply Committed to the Use of Technology as an Interpretive Tool” — William Griswold, Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, MW Tour April 2017
Why did we choose to work on innovative digital projects? It aligns with our mission.
The Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) has embraced its mission of “For the Benefit of All People, Forever” since 1892. This mission is the foundation to every project that is conducted inside the museum.
The technology at CMA helps us achieve this mission by expanding the ways in which people can engage with art.
If you've been to MW before, odds are you've heard me talk about the CMA's front-facing digital initiatives. These include: the ARTLENS Gallery, Wall, Studio, and App, our Collection Online, and our Open Access initiative, and our photogrammetry. Each year, we've unveiled an exciting new project which has made us well-known in the field – we've gained a lot of attention over the years, and people always want to know how we achieve these accomplishments.
Well, we're giving you a behind the scenes tour today.
Our backend data content and systems are what make our outward facing experiences engaging, fun and connective. We create content organically in tandem with the museum's workflow. You can see this priority as a common thread between past projects, leading up until now. Pictured above, is our original Collection Online, 2012's Gallery One, and our ArtLens Wall (then the collection wall). Though these are from 2012 (almost a decade ago!) our overall philosophy has not changed.
The ArtLens Wall is a great example of this principle in action, a public facing interactive that is fed directly from out back-end. The hardware has not been updated since 2012, however thanks to our one source of truth, content remains up-to-date.
To dive further into this concept, unlike one-off stand alone touch screen interactives, all interactives at CMA dynamically refresh their content as it is added to any system, across the museum. Meaning: No content update to individual interactives is needed Museum workflows keep our content fresh It is easier to work across departments, with Educators, Curators, Collections Management, Library, etc.
Our digital projects are "sustainable, scalable, iterative" The wall now updates every 15 minutes – meaning that the interactive never feels "outdated"
This is where we are today: Agile and Flexible. These are some of the qualities we've built into our backend: Content updates every 15 minutes API Driven Can plug into any platform Easy to work with outside partners Because of this we can implement projects quickly that would have taken us months, like photogrammetry. We focus on integrated API driven systems and analytically oriented data that can constantly update. This makes it easy to focus on visitor experience and learning goals.
Definition: “Iterative design is a design methodology based on a cyclic process of prototyping, testing, analyzing, and refining a product or process. Based on the results of testing the most recent iteration of a design, changes and refinements are made. This process is intended to ultimately improve the quality and functionality of a design.”
At the core of EVERYTHING we do, is iterative design. We have never had a project that we simply built and deployed all in one go. Projects go through multiple iterations before launch, and almost always are iterated upon thereafter. This is something that can be applied to the back-end, not just the front-end!
In 2010, a unique opportunity for digitization presented itself while the museum was under renovation - digital structures could be rebuild alongside physical ones. This is also the year I started at CMA, and began to reengineer digital systems in place, and build new ones. The museum was in the midst of an 8 year, multi-million dollar renovation which necessitated closing nearly all of the permanent galleries on rotation while work ensued. We took advantage of this constant art movement to work on digitizing our collection. Everything was photographed as it went into storage or back out onto view. We were excited to have the opportunity to put our digitized collection online – but we needed to have the right workflows.
When I started at CMA in March 2010, I was so excited they had taken the time to digitize their collection – I was taken into this room where they kept their digitized files... and it was this shelf of CDS! I knew right away that we needed to change the way that this information was stored so that it would be easily accessible, especially with large-scale projects coming up.
That year, we implemented our new Digital Asset Management system (DAMS). The implementation of the new DAMS, the digitized collection, and the new space thanks to the renovation, all came together to allow for Gallery one to be born – my first major front-facing project at CMA
Having a good DAM and a fully integrated backend were crucial to the success of two of our early digital initiatives: The ArtLens App and Wall. Both of these showed every object on view at all times – meaning that they needed to update every time an object went on and off view. It’s silly to have a staff member update your digital as a reaction to what’s happening around the museum. Everything should be connected, so there is one source of truth. So in 2012, we built a workflow that connected the back-end DAM to these front end devices. Collections Data only needed to be updated in one place to then reflect on these outward facing platforms.
However, the workflow wasn't perfect. Refreshes took a long time.
Before Ethan gets into the technical nitty-gritty of how we got from there to here, I wanted to pause and quickly comment on our current situation. Here's the nice thing about a virtual conference – you can quickly revise your presentations!
On Monday, March 16th: CMA staff began working remotely. Suddenly, everyone wanted to do a digital project! Our ongoing projects were put on hold as we pivoted our focus onto digital resources for our visitors. This sudden change could have been a challenge, but our back-end allows us to quickly implement new solutions. As we all know – things have changed rapidly over the past few weeks – so we’re going to share some new projects our backend has allowed us to implement over the last few weeks, then focus on the original topic of this presentation – our history of back-end iteration, and our innovations
While the Digital & HR team were working nonstop, some areas of the museum were searching for new ways to be productive, outside of the museum's walls. This became an opportunity for curators to add more content to our collection management system. People who we had been pushing for YEARS to engage with our digital systems suddently couldn't get enough!
People who refused to use Skype are now picking up Microsoft Teams like that. It's incredible how quickly this change has allowed our museums staff to become open to new technologies. We're so pleased that members of our curatorial and education departments are stepping up and willing to give new digital initiatives a try.
Since launch of our Open Access initiative in 2019, we've been pushing staff to add metadata to our CCMS. But during typical operations, many people didn't have time to contribute as much. We are a data driven institution, and we've always had analytics on everything we do. This dashboard shows content added to our CCMS by museum staff. This graph breaks down content added by type. It demonstrates a large spike in metadata, right after our closure on which was announced on March 13. From this visual, you can get an idea of just how much more content we've added daily since the closure. We were so pleasantly surprised to see this engagement from our staff!
We've noticed a big trend towards virtual museums, and the idea of exploring a gallery/museum from home. Articles like these are popping up all over the internet, showcasing google street view tours, among other endeavors. We had people saying to us "why don't you do one of those street-view tours?"
While being able to look inside of a place virtually is a valuable tool, we are especially interested in pushing beyond that – there are already tons of museums who do it well, so we wanted to think about what our systems best equip us to do.
Prior to March 16, CMA was't focused on having exhibitions on view online, but after the closure, there was immediate demand from the public to see exhibits that had closed. We needed to quickly make space for current exhibitions in our collection online, so we utilized the search feature already present in the Collection Online, and simply made a designated space for Exhibitions, where each button would to a custom search based on that exhibition. This project took us just a few days to implement, because of the system already powering our collection online.
Check out our collection online here: https://www.clevelandart.org/art/collection/search
Beyond adjusting to recent changes, we're asking ourselves: How have the needs of our audiences changed (members, students, teachers, families)? How can we offer new experiences? In a time when nearly every institution has a virtual presence, what can set CMA apart?
Many people out there are already doing video content or virtual tours well – we don't want to just scramble to follow in their footsteps, we want to think about the unique digital resources that CMA has, and how we can utilize these in innovative, engaging, and sustainable ways. Our endeavors aren't designed as just "something for the covid-19 crisis", but resources that can continue on and grow down the road.
Because of our back-end we are able to make progress quickly. In a situation where we were challenged to make progress in one week – we are able to quickly begin innovating. Because of integrated systems that update & capture analytics, we are devloping experiences that can integrate into platforms used every day, such as Slack.
Some say: "we shouldn’t be turning out new content so quickly"… but we believe we have the capability to do so. This is because of the back-end systems we have in place. We don't need to build a whole entire new framework for this slack bot, for example. The simple code pulls directly from our API.
Here's another project we were able to implement in one week – live analytics dashboards on our Open Access initiative.
We had always been collecting data behind the scenes, but we thought that now would be a great time to make a public-facing resource. Check out our analytics dashboard here: https://www.clevelandart.org/art/collection/dashboard
SO now, we'll get back to what we had originally intended to explain: What brought us to our current position? How did we build up these back-end systems that allow us to implement these great projects so quickly?
It all starts a decade ago, with what I like to call "The perfect storm" of digital projects.
As we touched on, with the approach of Gallery One and ArtLens mobile app, it was clear that development and implementation of a comprehensive digital media strategy—including all foundational technology for art information, interpretive content/secondary assets, research resources, and relationship management—would be instrumental to their success. Content needed to update SEAMLESSLY and DYNAMICALLY. The descriptions and images for artwork would need to flow automatically from the asset management systems used by staff and the “cascading CMS” approach would allow the Collection Wall and ArtLens to reflect current gallery installations (e.g., the art shown “moves” as it is moved within the museum, and “drops” when the object goes on tour/loan). In addition, they are paired with video and interpretive content stored in a system geared for fast, efficient delivery via iPad and smartphone.
When Gallery One opened, CMA had a 15 year-old bespoke CMS based on paper workflows and 3 separate DAMS servers (for the main collection, collection online, and Gallery One). The graphic in this slide shows the data flow from our CCMS and DAMS systems to the outward facing interactives. The artwork metadata for the Collection Wall and the ArtLens app was stored in the DAMS records.
Since interacting directly with the Piction API and parsing the XML responses wasn’t practical for quick updates to these applications, we created a lightweight MySQL database and flask/python API, so that data could periodically be pulled from Piction, serialized, and stored in a flat JSON response that could be returned to these applications on request.
This journey for data from the CCMS to the Wall or App was time-consuming and error prone. Updates would take a week under normal conditions, and sometimes could take 3 or 4 weeks if something went wrong.
The Gallery One infrastructure was a good start, but there were still many orphaned systems, such as the Gallery One Lenses. The updates took too long and still only the Wall and App updates were coming directly from the CCMS.
Also, we were expecting so much traffic on the mobile app that we had multiple application servers under a load balancer! (we later moved to a single web server for the app)
Things remained this way until 2015, when we launched our new bespoke CMS, “Athena”. In addition to serving as a central repository for data about the artworks in the collection, it also contained data on:
Exhibitions Artists Art Movement Photography Task management And much more… …
The larger goal, however, was to integrate all our systems. Beyond just collection data, the goal was to also integrate other systems such as Tessitura (our ticketing platform), our website, our library, and several of our business applications.
In 2016, we reimagined Studio Play as ArtLens Studio. The space moved away from being a children’s space to being an innovative intergeneration space that would that was designed to engage all family members together. We also largely began to move away from restrictive touchscreens to more fluid, gesture-based interactives.
However, the backend was not very innovative. Content was kept in Dropbox folders, nothing was integrated, and the update process was very manual.
In 2017, we updated the ArtLens mobile app. We took advantage of updating some of the technology, such as moving the interactive “docking” system from RFID tags to native Bluetooth and restructured the backend, making updates easier, but still not reaching the goal of seamless integration.
In 2012, The Gallery One “Lenses” were a great proof of concept for us – and showed us that digital as a learning tool could be really successful in a museum. However – these weren’t sustainable. The thing with digital is that it has to be constantly updating – especially in a museum where things change almost daily – or it will get outdated quickly. These were too static.
But it was a great launching point for us in that we began developing a system where all content was identified by accession numbers of artworks, which made it possible for visitors interacting and creating content on the interactives to email content to themselves.
So FINALLY, in 2017, we redid everything and Gallery One became ArtLens Gallery. We almost completely moved away from touchscreens in favor of gesture based controls, eye tracking, and facial recognition.
The new model was to make a space that functioned like a real gallery, with artwork rotating every 18 months. This would require the content to be automatically updated from collection data and the interactives to be easily iterable. This slide lists requirements we had for the new ArtLens exhibition, based on what we had learned in the past. -We needed to be able to rotate the artworks in the space -We needed content updates to happen on the back-end -We needed all interactives to be updatable - updates didn't need a technical staff or developer to take place.
During the transformation of Gallery One to ArtLens Gallery (including ArtLens Studio, ArtLens Wall, and the ArtLens App), we worked with 3 different vendors. It was imperative that we provide a way for these creators to interact with our collection content without having to reinvent the wheel with each interactive, and yet we still did not have seamless integration between the CCMS and DAMS and our outward facing apps. Our vendors were constantly having trouble figuring out our back-end, which caused more of a lift for us for every new aspect of the space.
This is where we paused, undid stuff, and took stuff apart…
If we were really going to be flexible and dynamic, we needed to untangle and reweave the strands of what we had.
So where are we now?
So we created our middleware, a standardized, well-documented development environment, including: - a master application programming interface (API) used for harvesting/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, for ease of management and troubleshooting. - single method for connecting interactives to user devices for favorites and saving of user-generated content.
This allows us to update all applications directly from collection content as frequently as we want. Many of the outward facing interactives update every 15 minutes.
This allows us to pull content directly from the collection and manipulate it specifically for apps. Here’s an example of the middleware’s SHAPE SEEKER content interface, which allows non-technical staff to create interactive content for finding shapes in artworks.
Here is another example for creating “hotspot” content, or positionally relevant content. The content managers can do this by selecting any artwork in the collection.
The middleware is just part of the overall larger picture. This diagram shows the current layout of our systems, including data flows between our ticketing system, business applications, and even outside services such as Wikimedia, the Internet Archive, and GitHub.
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 are able to easily add and update content. A flexible, fully-integrated backend system also streamlines troubleshooting.
In 2019, we launched our Open Access initiative, which involved a huge lift on our back-end to create our open API, Git repository, and new collection online.
The biggest challenge was our own legal team, the API was easy because of the groundwork we had already laid.
In 2019, we did our first regular rotation in the ArtLens gallery. The new theme of the gallery was “What Can Art Be?” and the goal was to attract non-traditional visitors without alienating members.
We updated the interactives to include 3D photogrammetry: 3D models of sculptural and decorative objects that could be manipulated through hand gestures. We leveraged the Sketchfab platform and were able to provide the same 3D content in our onsite interactives as well as on our Collection Online.
Thanks to our back-end, we now have the ability to do a wide variety of different projects, all backed by the same infrastructure. Not to mention, the constant, frequent updating inspires curators to share information with the public, because they can see the changes they make to provenance or exhibition history appear in 15 minutes!
Our next goals are to focus on the anaytics to really get a granular idea of engagment on our virtual platforms.
Now we're looking forward, and this current situation has us thinking: Many of us host our collections on the same platforms around the web Can we use our APIs and virtual tools collaboratively to bring more art to greater audiences? We'd like to get to a place where world class museums work together through our APIs to pool resources
Right now museums worldwide are using resources to assist medical professionals and other essential employees. Beyond donating supplies- how we can help by offering therapeutic, connective, or creative experiences to those working tirelessly right now?
Cheers from the CMA digital team. Thanks for reading!
tMW20 – April 3, 2020
Iteration made our
Cleveland Museum of Art
Chief Digital Information Officer,
The Cleveland Museum of Art
Director of Technology
The Cleveland Museum of Art
The (CMA) team has come to embrace digital
as 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.
“We are Deeply Committed to the Use of
Technology as an Interpretive Tool”
— William Griswold, Director of the Cleveland
Museum of Art, MW Tour April 2017
"Cleveland Museum of Art creates
transformative experiences through art,
for the benefit of all the people, forever."
CMA’s art-forward digital innovations
One Source of Truth
Having a back-end act as a
single source of truth
updates all outward facing
interactives has always
been a priority.
New content updates automatically
NO ONE OFF’s
Making it easy:
Fully Integrated Systems, API
Driven, Content, Data…
Updated Every 15 minutes &
organic to the workflow of the
“Iterative design is a design methodology based on a
cyclic process of prototyping, testing, analyzing, and
refining a product or process. Based on the results of
testing the most recent iteration of a design, changes
and refinements are made.”
You can apply this to your back-end too!
2010: The Road to Digitization
• Galleries closed on rotation
~ 7 years
• Opportunity for digitization
while galleries closed
• Idea for a new space
• Re-engineer back-end
• New Piction DAMS
• New Website & Idea for a
We're asking ourselves:
• How have the needs of our audiences changed?
• How can we offer new experiences?
• During this time when our institution is temporarily closed,
it’s important that we give visitors the tools they need to
digitally interact with our collection
For example, there are museums already out there with great
video content – we don't want to be doing things they've been
doing for years
Can you create meaningful experiences weekly?
2012: Gallery One - LENSES
Email Links to
On Collection Online
Stand Alone Kiosk
2017: ArtLens Exhibition
• Needed to be able to rotate
artworks in the space
• Adapt to updating content on the
• All updates happening for 16
• All games needed to be updated
in-house by non-technical staff
• Worked with different vendors for Studio, App 2.0,
• Needed an easy way for our complicated back-end
to plug into everyone's different front-end interfaces
• Still did not have seamless integration between
CCMS, DAM, and outward-facing apps
STOPSometimes We Need to Go Backward Before We Can Move Forward
CMA’s digital team: diving in head first
• Thanks to our back-end infrastructure, we can easily
implement new, innovative, and sustainable projects
• Curators, Interpretation, Collections and Exhibitions
can continue to work on the collection and share
with our public via existing resources (app,
• Working on analytics to monitor engagement with
our virtual platforms, partner repositories