Steve Peltzman, the CIO at MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art, had a problem. The world's greatest repository of modern artwork had recently opened its renovated and expanded headquarters on West 53rd Street in Manhattan, and a record number of visitors were filling the galleries.
As the museum's first CIO, Peltzman had been given the dream job of redesigning the way the organization used technology. One of his changes was to make it easier for art lovers to flow into the building -- and for the museum to track what kind of visitors were coming. Peltzman armed ticket takers with handheld scanners. Instead of ripping paper in half, they would zap a bar code, and the data would feed into the museum's database, recording how many were members and how many had purchased single admissions.
But now something was wrong. The scanners weren't beeping like they were supposed to. No one was being turned away, but the scanners still recorded flawed data. In the hopes of discovering the problem, Peltzman dispatched members of his team to work at the entrance scanning tickets.
As it turned out, some of the ticket takers were covering the scanner controls with their fingers, which was causing the problem. The IT staff tried training, but with ticket takers scanning hundreds of visitors an hour, Peltzman knew it would be unrealistic for people not to make mistakes. So he asked a consultant for a bid to redesign the devices. It would cost at least $15,000 and probably a lot more. Then Peltzman went to his dad, who owns a lighting shop. The two figured out that placing a strip of Lucite over the controls on the units would solve the problem. The total cost: $300.
"Sometimes the best technical solution is not a technical solution," Peltzman says. "If you throw money at something, you can make technology perfect, but that sucks a lot of resources from the budget."
For Peltzman, the museum's re-opening in fall 2004 was a watershed moment: the completion of a three-year building project and IT redesign. From deciding whether to upgrade the museum's core IBM iSeries mainframe computers or to migrate to newer systems to deploying crucial customer-facing applications, infrastructure concerns overwhelmed everything else.
At the same time, technology's role at the museum had evolved rapidly. "IT started out as data processing, back-office stuff in the basement, and now it's a partner in everything we do," says MoMA's COO, James Gara, who joined the museum 20 years ago. "A decade ago, no one would have known who the IS team was. Now they work with the curators, and technology is key to what we do."
More and more, the museum is looking to IT to enhance the museum experience for visitors and build its brand online.
"One of the goals of the museum is to figure out how to use technology to achieve the museum's mission better," Peltzman adds. "Our strategy should be reaching people no matter where they are. If we touch someone in Finland with the Web and they never come here, that accomplishes our mission. This is how we can expose the collection to everybody on the planet."
This was first published in March 2007