How a small museum can create BIG digital projects: A Case Study of the Museum of Inuit Art

Photo of Lindsay Bontoft at the front desk of the MIA

Lindsay at the front desk of the MIA

A friend of mine, Lindsay Bontoft, recently started working at the Museum of Inuit Art (MIA). It is a very small museum in Toronto, Canada with three full-time and one part-time staff as well as an Executive Director. Yet they have managed what many larger museums have not – a wide array of both online and onsite digital projects.

The projects are created and managed mostly by Alysa Procida, the Associate Curator and Director of Education. After Lindsay gave me a tour of the museum pointing out the digital projects, I sat down with Alyssa to discuss how these projects were accomplished.

When Alysa first arrived the museum only had a basic website and a mediocre Facebook page. Boy have things changed since then!



Online projects

1)    Skype Conversations

These are conversations between artists and Alysa discussing objects on display. These conversations are on the MIA Blog and on the museum’s Pinterest page. Lindsay, when recommending I look at the Skype Conversations, described them as “one of the key ways that we can connect with the community/artists that we are representing. It’s also a way for us to incorporate their voice into the museum space via QR Codes.”

2)    Virtual Tour

This is based on the Google Art Project. MIA, like most small museums, was not going to make it onto the Google Art Project so they decided to be proactive and make their own version. Another motivating factor has to do with a specific exhibit (the subject of the virtual tour). Jessie Kenalogak, an Inuit artist, was unable to make it down to Toronto to approve how her paintings were hung so Alysa decided to create a virtual walk through of the exhibit for Jessie to see her work and give feedback. Alysa also decided that it was a great opportunity to open the gallery space up to the online public. Creating the virtual tour involved using open source jQuery code and writing some of their own. It will be launched on the MIA website soon and the new code will be shared with the open source community.

3)    Blog

Alysa introduced an MIA blog where staff members can give personalized voices to the museum.

Onsite Projects

1)    Game

SCVNGER is a game Brittany, an intern-turned-part-time-staffer, introduced to MIA. SCVNGER is a pre-existing game that the museum uses. MIA have an account with SCVNGER and have added their own content to the game. Users can download it to their iPhone or Android device. Points can be earned by the player. When they reach 5 points they get a free membership to MIA.

2)    Augmented Reality

Augmented Reality is found in the temporary exhibition Christian Morrisseau: New Directions 2010-2012. It uses Junaio (which I mentioned in my previous AR post as one of the options for user friendly AR creation). Visitors can download the Junaio app to their smart phones and then go to the MIA channel to access videos of the artist working, audio clips of the artist explaining their work, or images of other related works by the artist.

3)    QR Codes

QR codes are found throughout the MIA’s permanent collection exhibits. They don’t just link to the website but go to additional content directly related to the object in front of you in the gallery (the same things as the AR i.e. a video of the artist working, an audio clip of an interview, and other related works by the artist). Visitors without smart phones can borrow them from the museum.

Accessibility Drives Digital

photo (22)

Alysa in the MIA gallery entrance

When speaking with Alysa and Lindsay it became clear what drives this small staff to work so hard on these digital projects – the desire to make the museum and its collection accessible.

This goal is always important for a museum but it is especially important for the MIA because of the nature of their collection. Most of the artists reside in remote regions of Northern Canada making it hard for them and their friends/family to attend the museum to see their art. In addition there is a strong international community of Inuit art collectors who are interested in the collection and expertise of the museum but cannot necessarily visit in person. This makes accessibility all the more important for the MIA.

Here is what they say on their website about why they do digital projects.

The MIA’s mandate is concerned with both preserving the objects we hold in public trust and educating that public about the culture and people those objects came from. And the public we serve is not necessarily limited to only those visitors who can physically enter our space, we have also reached out to an online public through our social media platforms.

But How Do They Do It?

It’s all well and good to talk about the MIA’s accessibility mandate and their proliferation of digital projects but HOW DO THEY DO IT???? I had been wondering specifically about two things – funding and creation.

I assumed a small museum such as this one would have to apply for grants to create these digital projects. That in itself is almost its own position – grant writer. So how does the museum manage it? They don’t write grant applications. Alysa explained why

…the reason we don’t have these projects funded by grants is really that we think of them as our core operational functions in an effort to provide access, so we budget accordingly. Grants are helpful for larger things, but not always available between budget cuts and other factors. For us the manpower needed to apply for grants is substantial because of our small staff, plus the time they take to get approved doesn’t always match up with the needs of our visitors so in prioritizing our activities in budgeting we make to sure to include these initiatives.

This leads me to creation. I asked Alysa if she came to the museum with coding knowledge and experience. Turns out she arrived with just basic knowledge of computers (and by basic I mean “basic for a millennial” so she has a fair amount of knowledge depending on who you are comparing her to). Alysa taught herself to code thanks to the Khan Academy’s tutorials on computer programming. She also utilizes the open source community (which I mentioned above). Alysa proves that museum workers can teach themselves digital skills to create some amazing things.


Some tips from Alysa if you are thinking of creating digital projects at your museum.


Poster by Devon Fyson via Wikipedia.


1)    Use Agile MethodologyThis is a software development tool that can be applied to project management. Projects are broken up into the smallest components with the team completing one section at a time. This prevents a commitment to a full project only to realize too late that it won’t work. Each section of the project is user tested as it is created that way the team can discover right away if something is not working and adapt it or start something new.

2)    Be comfortable with failure

Creating projects on a small budget, in fact on any budget but especially with a smaller one, means that you have to do some guess and testing. This also makes you transparent to your users. They know the museum is trying to create something to make the collection more accessible and are open to feedback to improve it. It’s a process.

3)    Social Media Alone is not Enough

Don’t think that Social Media alone is an adequate digital presence. This is only one part of a larger access plan that should include onsite digital creations (QR codes, AR app, game etc), and digital community partnerships

Alysa and the MIA are happy to share their knowledge with other small museums who wish to create digital projects. If you would like to contact Alysa for mentorship you can write her at

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