Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Limits of Neutrality: A Message From The Natural History Museum

Today’s guest post, from the team at The Natural History Museum (including director Beka Economopoulos), illustrates one of the trends I discuss in TrendsWatch 2015, and touches upon another. In the chapter on “Ethical Everything,” on the rise of the moral marketplace, I pointed to Beka’s new museum as an example of the increased scrutiny being leveled at our field. Her organization raises uncomfortable questions about the ability of policies and procedures to firewall museum practice against the power, money and influence wielded by donors and board members. And the particular issue The Natural History Museum tackles—the responsibility museums bear for educating the public about the science that should inform our policies on climate change—has direct implications for the changing landscape of museum risk as well (another TW15 theme). You can continue this conversation with Beka and her colleagues in the comment section of the post, or by finding her at the annual meeting next week, where The Natural History Museum will be exhibiting in Booth #1741 of MuseumExpo.

The Natural History Museum made headlines a few weeks ago when we released a letter from dozens of top scientists, including several Nobel laureates and senior government officials, calling on science museums to cut all ties to the fossil fuel industry. The news went viral, kicking off a sector-wide conversation about ethics, funding, greenwashing, and fossil fuel divestment.

Within days, more than one hundred members of the scientific community reached out to add their support. Together with this growing list of signatories, we are asking museums of science and natural history to drop climate science deniers from their boards, cancel sponsorships from the fossil fuel industry, and divest financial portfolios from fossil fuels.

The Natural History Museum is a new museum that makes a point to highlight the socio-political forces affecting the climate. As a new member of the American Alliance of Museums, we take very seriously the Museum Code of Ethics, which states “It is incumbent on museums to be resources for humankind and in all their activities to foster an informed appreciation of the rich and diverse world we have inherited. It is also incumbent upon them to preserve that inheritance for posterity.”  

We decided to initiate this letter upon learning that David H. Koch is a board member, major donor, and exhibit sponsor of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). David Koch’s oil and manufacturing conglomerate Koch Industries is one of the greatest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Mr. Koch also funds a large network of climate change-denying organizations, investing more than $79 million since 1997 in groups that deny climate change science. David Koch’s actions, and those of his company, pose a significant threat to the continued preservation of the rich and diverse world we have inherited.

We believe that when David Koch sponsors the Smithsonian and the AMNH, these museums are also sponsoring David Koch. Museums provide their donors with cultural capital and social license, lending an air of unwarranted scientific legitimacy to benefactors who simultaneously bankroll anti-science disinformation campaigns and efforts to block action on climate change.

Many of our colleagues in the museum sector have noted that institutional policy protects  sponsors from influencing either administration or programming. We are told that funding is only accepted on the condition that there are no strings attached. Strings, however, need not be visible to make an impact, and self-censorship—however invisible or unquantifiable—is a major factor in every institutional decision. Nobel laureate Eric Chivian recently put it this way: “It is just human nature not to bite the hand that feeds you.” Sponsorships do have an effect at every level, and when a sponsor is known for his anti-science practices, that sponsor circumscribes the very horizon of the possible, not through coercion, but through the invisible threat of withdrawal.

Imagine a major natural history museum that organizes an exhibition about the full range of causes and impacts of climate change, obstacles to action, and solutions/responses—one that directly and forcefully critiques the anti-science practices of its largest sponsor, be it a corporation like BP or a private benefactor like David Koch. Would this exhibition offer a scientifically accurate educational experience about anthropogenic climate change? Yes. Would it risk jeopardizing the museum’s relationship with its sponsor? We believe that it would. Is the risk worth taking? It is imperative.

In a time of profound environmental disruption, it is not enough for museums to accept the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change. We need museums of science and natural history to take a stand, to call out the biggest polluters and obstructionists to action on climate change. We need museums to equip visitors with the stories and tools they need to shape the world in the public interest. Faced with pervasive attempts by the fossil fuel lobby to muzzle scientific research and spread disinformation, countless scientists have stood together to declare that the time for neutrality has long since passed.

Museums, like scientists, have historically maintained a position characterized by museologist Robert Janes as authoritative neutrality. This widely held position affirms that “we must protect our neutrality, lest we fall prey to bias, trendiness or special interest groups.” But as Janes points out, as museums increasingly depend on private-sector sponsorship, their claims to neutrality take on an ideological bent. After all, what are corporations if not special interest groups?

Neutrality is a political category, one that hides from view the alternatives against which it is defined. And the claim to authoritative neutrality is dangerous precisely because it prevents institutions from seriously re-evaluating their roles in a time of climate crisis. At a time when powerful lobbies representing the interests of the fossil fuel industry seek not only to influence public policy but also buy the next election, we can only see neutrality as another word for resignation. And as the overwhelming majority of climate scientists predict, without taking action, there will be no future, let alone a future for museums.

Museums of science and natural history are indispensable public spaces for the transmission of knowledge about the world we live in. They are among the most trusted sources of information. But when these institutions have significant ties to the world’s biggest polluters, or ignore the massive impact of the fossil fuel industry on the continuity of the earth’s many species, we are forced to question whose interests they serve. When museums cozy up to climate deniers and fossil fuel companies, they risk undermining the faith and trust they’ve earned through years of dedicated service.

As sites that both represent and supply basic societal infrastructure, museums of science and natural history are not just necessary; they are worth fighting for. We are urging museums of science and natural history to rise to the challenges of the present. This means presenting exhibitions on climate change that address the role of the fossil fuel lobby and its climate-denial machine in the shaping of nature—exhibitions that take on anthropogenic climate change without excluding the vast asymmetries in the burden of responsibility and the burden of impact.

If there is to be a future for museums, we need to do away with the false promise of authoritative neutrality. We need our museums to function as both educators and yes, as advocates for a sustainable and equitable future. Only then can we equip visitors with the stories and tools they need to truly understand the rapidly changing world, and to shape it for the common good for generations to come.


Launched in September, 2014, The Natural History Museum offers exhibitions, expeditions, educational workshops and public programming. Unlike traditional natural history museums it makes a point to include and highlight the socio-political forces that shape nature. The museum’s programs appear within existing institutions, in its 15-passenger mobile museum bus, and online at  

Next week, The Natural History Museum will be at the American Alliance of Museums annual convention in Atlanta, where it will mount an exhibition on fossil fuel industry greenwashing in science museums. Find us at Booth #1741 in the Museum Expo on the convention floor, “traveling exhibitions” section. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Building the Future of Education

Last week I dropped a tantalizing hint about the second position planned for the evolving CFM Fellows program, one that will be officially announced at the annual meeting next week. Here’s the unofficial preview:

The Ford W. Bell Fellow for Museums and K-12 Education

In honor of our outgoing president (himself a former teacher—bet you didn’t know that!) we are creating a two-year position to start the Alliance down the path of creating the “vibrant learning grid” CFM envisioned in last year’s white paper on education.

It’s 2025, and:
Paolo’s dad drops him off at preschool—right at the front gate of the Detroit Urban Nature Museum. Paolo is excited about his morning activity—exploring a new topic in the engineering center—and about helping to plant the garden during “Curiosity Time” in the afternoon. Modeled on the Hundred Acre School that opened at the Heritage Museum and Gardens in Sandwich, Massachusetts in 2014, this program in Detroit is one of the “1000 Museum Preschools” that have opened in museums of all kinds over the past ten years. By 2025, these museum-based, immersive, hands-one experiential learning programs serve over 50,000 children aged 3-5, in all fifty states.

The Ford Fellow’s mission will be to:
  • Foster innovative education experiments by museums
  • Compile and disseminate case studies of museums integrated into community education networks
  • Identify high-performing digital platforms that aggregate and distribute educational content (and help museums infiltrate those sites)
  • Conduct research to quantify museums’ contributions to education, and help the field set ambitious but achievable goals for scaling up that impact
  • Pilot projects that help communities integrate museums into the local learning ecosystem 
That’s a tall order, but we are confident that in during the 2 year residency, this first Fellow will help the Alliance plot a continuing course to achieving these goals.

It’s 2025, and:
Jess and her classmates are studying Ancient Egypt. They browse the Internet to find3-D scans of objects they want to print for their classroom museum, and select a scale model of the temple of Dendur from the Metropolitan Museum, a canopic jar lid from the Smithsonian and three mummies from the Field Museum of Natural History. As they assemble their exhibit, they compile questions to ask the staff of the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum (halfway across the continent, in San Jose, CA), which they will tour via telepresence robot next week. Building on Bre Pettis’ MakerBot Academy initiative, by 2025 over 70% of grade schools have 3D printers in every classroom, drawing on digital content shared by over 5000 museum in the US, giving students hands-on access to art, history, science and nature.

The Alliance is supporting the fellowship itself out of operating budget—which is only appropriate given the core identity of our field as educational organizations. However, we need your help to fund the activities of the Fellow, in order to accomplish our ambitious mission.

It is fitting, given this is a CFM project, that our funding campaign will rely in part on crowdfunding—rallying the support of museum professionals and people from all sectors who value museums’ role as educational institutions, and share our belief that museums are key assets in the next era of education. Your contribution, of whatever size, on our Razoo funding site can help us claim that generous gift. Just as important is your help in spreading the word about the campaign. If you want to support the Ford Fellow, please blog, tweet, Facebook and Snapchat with a link to the campaign site []. 

It’s 2025, and:
Indra is riding the bus across town to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where she is interning in the department of herpetology. She is one of forty teenagers who have chosen CMNH as their formal work-for-credit experience. Another thirty-five students are working in the parallel program at the museum of art, fifteen at the historical society and eighteen at the botanical garden. Altogether, almost 200 students in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District are engaged in formal museum internships in any given year, and are, in turn, serving as mentors and tutors to younger students in science, math, art, and history. Building on the shift towards personalized, learner-centered programs that engage teenagers in real work, it is becoming the norm for the staff of US museums to include teen interns, engaged in research, interpretation and collections care in return for educational credit. In 2025, the American Alliance of Museums releases a report projecting that by 2030, half its member museums will offer such internships, serving over 5,000 teens.

You may be curious about how and when we will recruit the Fellow. Keep your eye on this Blog later this year for more information on that. But here’s a teaser: if you are a regular reader you know I’m a fan of alt hiring practices, and the search for our Fellow will probably take some interesting twists and turns.

It’s 2025, and:
Ivan Sedowski is browsing the online catalog of teacher training from Coursera. He’s torn between the Museum of Modern Art’s“Art and Inquiry" Course, which as one of the original Museum MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) for teachers, now enrolls over 50,000 teachers each year, and one of the newest offerings—“Immersive Math,” just launched by the Museum of Math in NYC. While Ivan finds this online content immensely helpful, he was blown away by the Exploratorium Teacher Institute he attended last summer (that program’s 30th anniversary!) and is looking for a similar program to take next July—maybe one at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, which is practically in his backyard. By 2025, over one-fifth of American teachers receive at least a portion of their continuing education credits from museums, either through on-line courses or face-to-face learning.

The microscenarios interspersed in this essay depict the scope and scale of the rich, immersive, experiential learning landscape museums can create in coming decades. Each of these scenarios is grounded in the present, extrapolating from something a museum is actually doing today. The assignment for our field (should we chose to accept it) is to scale those efforts up to the point where museums are part of the personal learning portfolio of every child.

The Fellowship will be announced at the general session of the annual meeting on Monday, April 27 at 10 am. At my session "Beyond Field Trips: Museums and the Next Era of Education" (Tuesday at 1:45 pm) I will discuss the fellowship--and the future of education generally--with my guests Katherine Kelbaugh, director of Atlanta's Museum School and founder of the new Association of Museum Schools, and Andrea Rombauer, Manager of Family Programs at the Atlanta History Center. We are going to leave plenty of time for Q &A, so come prepared to contribute your thoughts as well.

I know we can build this bright future of learning—because museums can change the world. Help me make it so.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Exploring the Wearable Future, Part II

Exploring the Wearable Future, Part II

I hope you enjoyed Tuesday’s preview of the mock Museum of the Future CFM is staging in MuseumExpo at the annual meeting week after next. Neal Stimler, an early adopter of Google Glass, will be helping me with the demonstration. In today’s post he contributes some thoughts and resources to prime your thinking. During the meeting, look for hashtag #cfmwearables15 on Twitter to follow the conversation generated by the Museum of the Future, and contribute your thoughts.

(Neal asked me to include the disclaimer that his remarks are his personal views, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Also, please note any mention of a specific company, product or service is not a paid endorsement, but is provided for your enjoyment, learning and reference.) 

Neal Stimler & Google Glass at the Bard Graduate Center
Photo: Raffi Asdourian
Greetings friends and followers of the Center for the Future of Museums! I’m Neal Stimler, Digital Asset Specialist at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I forecast trends, lead digitization efforts and manage special initiatives. I also explore wearable technologies like Google Glass and the Moto360 smartwatch. I’m especially interested to study how museum collections and content are experienced with wearable technologies as well as how wearables can improve customer service for museum constituents.

I’m delighted to be joining Elizabeth Merritt, GuidiGo and other collaborators for the Center for the Future of Museums’ MuseumExpo experience at the 2015 Annual Meeting. As Elizabeth mentioned in her recent post on April 14, 2015, I was one of the first people in the cultural heritage and museum sectors to experiment with Google Glass as a Google Glass Explorer and an #ifIhadglass winner. I have traveled in the United States and Europe, notably in Denmark and Italy, sharing Google Glass and the Moto360 with museum and technology professionals. I enjoy facilitating people’s introductions and learning experiences with wearable technologies as they consider the applications of these tools in daily life and their professions.

I join Elizabeth in inviting you to visit the special Google Glass demo in The Museum of The Future in MuseumExpo. Try Google Glass and the other wearable devices we will have on hand for yourself and share your experiences on Twitter. I’ll be at the MuseumExpo to answer your questions about wearables and help you become more comfortable navigating these devices. Please feel free to dialogue with me before, during and after the 2015 American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting on Twitter @nealstimler.

Five Themes on Wearables

Here are five themes on wearables for your consideration prior to MuseumExpo experience at the 2015 Annual Meeting.

1. BYOD Mobile Morphs to Wearable:

The New Media Consortium Horizon Report: 2013 Museum Edition identified and the 2015 report wiki further addresses BYOD, or “Bring Your Own Device,” as a continued and hastening trend for museums.

Wearables devices are now part of the BYOD paradigm that require further consideration from museums.  Wearables as BYOD devices in museums necessitate that museums: 1. Re-examine media making and recording policies to address contemporary practices including body worn, heads-up and wrist devices for museum constituents and staff. 2. Provide technical infrastructure, such as open WiFi and free charging stations, for museum constituents onsite so that they may continue to interact with personal and museum content. 3. Shift design paradigms and workflows to serve museum content for a mobile and wearable platforms first to maximize opportunity for engagement and reach onsite and offsite.

I encourage you read the full New Media Consortium Report: 2015 Edition which will cover more recent perspectives and timelines for BYOD when it’s available. There will also be a session at the 2015 American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting on the report.

2. Seek To Understand Rather Than Ban:

It will be important for museums to take an active rather than reactive approach to wearable technologies. As institutions dedicated to aesthetic appreciation, creativity, discernment, and learning, experimentation with wearable technologies is aligned with museums’ missions. With collections that document human ingenuity, programs that teach critical thinking and technical skills and staff whose research offers new scholarly insights, museums are optimal platforms to explore wearable technologies. It is through careful and mindful study of wearable technologies in dialogue museums that we may come to better understand them.

Pivotal to museums being able to understand wearable technologies is supporting efforts like the MuseumExpo, where museum professionals can come together to demonstrate and try these technologies. Museums that have access to wearable technologies play a vital role in leading these efforts by collaboratively sharing their expertise and resources with the broader community of professionals.

3. Connected and Customized Customer Service:

Applications on mobile devices connect individuals to the content they care about and enable them to facilitate interactions with products and services they value. Like mobile devices, wearable technologies will further integrate into the fabric of customers’ daily lives. Museums have an opportunity to better serve constituents’ needs through responsiveness via wearable technologies.

While this may come through museums own applications, it is likely that museums can address business on wearable devices in partnership with extant and popular third party applications who have the development capacity and resources to more quickly adapt to meet customer needs. By being where users already are, museums can more readily adapt to constituents’ preferences and provide customer service that meets contemporary expectations. Museum constituents must be able to continue their social and transactional activities before, during and after they cross the onsite threshold and in offsite interactions.

Wearable technologies ought to be considered not only as the next generation of multimedia guides, but moreover as essential tools for maintaining customer relations, building new agile patronage models and fulfilling essential services including navigation, reservations and ticketing. The relationship between a museum and constituent with wearable devices is an intimate and embodied one, which requires both attentiveness to a superb customer experience and a sensitivity to aesthetic and design concerns. Customers as well will want to customize their museum experience with wearables to suit their preferred applications, devices and platforms.

4. Open Access Fosters Creative Potential:

Museums can foster creative potential by opening access to data and assets and thereby build an ecosystem of content for wearable devices. This includes revising rights policies towards open access when possible, building technical infrastructure and delivery mechanisms so that commercial developers and artists have the resources needed to make applications for wearable devices. Barriers to access mean that developers and artists will go elsewhere for content sources when producing commercial and creative projects. Museum data and assets can be dynamic resources for the making of new products, services and interconnected cultural experiences. Opening access to data and assets is key, but so too is nurturing an engaged community of practice around these resources through the work of museum media labs and maker spaces.

With mobile and wearable devices, museums benefit by having their data and content linked and spread across platforms far beyond their own institutional bases. The museum, its collections and content, is not bound by walls but is an active part of constituents’ everyday experiences at a glance anywhere and anytime with wearables. Artists, many of whom adopted mobile as an interactive canvas for cultural production, will turn to wearable devices as well to communicate their expressions of the world.

5. Art of Wearables, Wearables As Art:

The Cooper Hewitt has an iPhone in its collection and currently on display in its revitalized galleries. It is important for museums to learn about the emulation, interaction and preservation of mobile as it morphs to wearable technologies now, so that museums can be good stewards to collections in the present and future. Wearable technologies will join the grounds of the past that served as supports for artistic communication and expression. The histories of mobile and wearable technologies are part of the histories of art, design, fashion and graphics.

Mobile and wearable devices are tools we use to design daily networked life. Wearable devices, like museums, are tools for consuming and producing contemporary culture. Museums and wearable technologies are at the nexus of a reality that is unified aesthetically and humanistically with the digital and physical. This is Digital Monism.

Five Wearable Technology News Sources

Sources are listed alphabetically.



We Are Wareables

Wearable Technology Conference and Expo

Wearable Technologies

Five Mobile Applications for Museum Professionals

The applications listed below are available on Android and/or iOS. Some already provide integration with AndroidWear apps and notifications. Others have wearable features coming soon. The applications are listed alphabetically.


Daily Art

Field Trip

Muzei Live Wallpaper for Android

Street Art Watch Face from Google Cultural Institute

Museum Twitter Bots

Twitter mobile notifications appear on wearable devices like Google Glass and the Moto360. I’ve made a list of museum Twitter bots to follow that serve up links to objects from a variety of museum collections multiple times throughout the day. It’s one of my favorite ways to learn about museum collections every day. Most of these museum Twitter bots are made by the John Emerson, aka @backspace. The bots may not be affiliated with the institutions.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Wordless Wednesday: Touching Me Softly

#WearableTech #Haptics #Surgery
Follow the link in the photo caption to the associated story. You can find more glimpses of the future (and links) on CFM's Pinterest Boards.  

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Exploring the Wearable Future at the Annual Meeting

 I started organizing a demonstration of the oh-so-trendy Google Glass right after our 2014 conference (suspecting even then I’d be featuring wearable technology in TrendsWatch 2015). Then in January Google announced that they were halting public sales of Glass to focus, for now, on business applications for fields that have a specific need for heads up, hands off displays. (Medicine, for example, or engineering.)

My colleagues at AAM started acting like my dog had died. “Oh too bad,” they said. “What are you going to do now?” So they were startled when my gleeful reply was “THIS IS PERFECT!”

Google Glass at the Bard
Graduate Center Photo:
Raffi Asdourian
Because really, this is exactly the challenge museums have to deal with. How do you know when a new technology is going to catch on? How do you decide whether and when to embrace Glass, or Hololens (holographic augmented reality goggles), or Oculus Rift (virtual reality headset), or Apple Watch (smartphone-on-a-wristband)?  It’s famously difficult to forecast the rate of adoption of any given technology and even the experts get it wrong. (I bet computer technologist Ken Olsen got heartily sick of being reminded of his pronouncement in 1977 that “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.")

The decision about which new device to focus on isn’t even entirely under museums’ control. One trend we’ve seen in the past few years is the rise of BYOD—Bring Your Own Device. Rather than letting a museum provide the technology they need to access digital content, many people prefer to use their own personal digital devices (e.g., smart phone, tablet).

So what’s a museum to do? Spend time and money targeting a mainstream platform may already be passé by the time the project launches? Aim for the cutting edge of emerging tech, only to find that the chosen device never catches on?

Neal Stimler with Glass at the
Bard Graduate Center
Photo: Raffia Asdourian
There is no magic answer, but this problem—predicting which devices your audience is going to “bring”—isn’t going to go away. It will only become more complicated as we enter an era dominated by wearable technology, as devices that live on the wrist, the face, or even in the user’s body supplement or supplant hand-held devices. Market research firm IDC estimates that vendors will ship over 45.7 million devices in 2015—that’s up 133% from last year. Some projections put that figure at 126 million by 2019. (Figures from Motley Fool, which published a nice slide deck on the future of wearables.)

Hence, CFM’s Museum of the Future demonstration, because in 2020 a significant portion of museum visitors will be using wearables, and a portion of those (plug in your forecast here) will be some kind of heads up display, whether it’s Glass, Sony’s equivalent device that clips on to the user’s own glasses, BMW’s Mini Augmented Vision (which is primarily designed to interface with your car, but hey) or a device like Hololens oriented towards augmented reality.

Our mock-museum in MuseumExpo will be populated with reproductions provided by museums in Atlanta and elsewhere, with interpretive content delivered via an application created by GuidiGO, a Google Glass Certified Partner for museums. You will be able to put on Glass, try out the application and use it to spur your thinking about wearables. Come with your pen (or twitter account) at the ready, as we invite you to share your thoughts on:

  • What roles wearable technology can play in the museum of the future.
  • What wearable tech can do differently, or better, than hand-held devices.
  • Your idea for the “killer application” for Google Glass or other wearable tech in museums, for visitors or for staff.

GuidiGo for Glass tour of the
Keith Haring exhibit at the
deYoung Museum
How can you make the most of the demo? Read the chapter on wearable technology in TrendsWatch 2015 (that’s the chapter that opens on page 41 with an amazing and totally apropos “beefcake” shot). Check out Neal Stimler’s posts on “Seeing the Met through Glass". Neal is going to be on hand at the demonstration in Atlanta to share his thoughts first-hand as well—thank you, Neal. Read Barry Joseph’s thoughtful analysis of wearable tech, plotted into the Mooshme Matrix of Place-based Augmented Devices. At the meeting itself, drop by Creating Tours with Google Glass, Tuesday 1:45-3 p.m. (room B209), with staff of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco and Antenna International. And if you have your own favorite piece of wearable technology (Narrative Clip wearable camera? Google Cardboard—an inexpensive way to experience Oculus Rift-like virtual reality?) Please bring it to Atlanta and be ready to share!

My heartfelt thanks to the corporate partners helping us design and build the demonstration:

The Design Minds, Inc.
Malone Design/Fabrication
MBA Design & Display Products Corp.

And to the museums who have contributed reproductions and content:

Atlanta Botanical Garden
Atlanta History Center
Computer History Museum
High Museum of Art
Michael C. Carlos Museum
National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

Monday, April 13, 2015

Monday Musing: On Small Dead Things

15 minutes of top-of-my-head thoughts on a story featured in last week’s Dispatches from theFuture of Museums e-newsletter.

One of the things that drove me out of graduate school (besides the dismal ROI of remaining for a PhD.) was the cumulative psychic damage of killing hundreds of animals in the course of my research. After I injecting a sea urchin with saline to express its sperm, I would trot out to the sea wall and tip it gently into the ocean, hoping it might survive. But the unborn chicks dissected for the sake of the neural membrane at the back of their eyeballs—nope, those were dead. As someone who studied biology because of a profound reverence and fascination for the living world, this felt dissonant, even though I believed in the value of the resulting research.

That’s why I empathize with Karen Haberman, who wrote “On the Significance of Small Dead Things” (featured in Dispatches last week): “with the death of each animal, I cannot help but wonder, must I continue to take the lives of these exquisite creatures in order to study them?”

As she goes on to note, “the death of organisms is as much a part of natural history as multi-pocketed khaki vests, and the two often go arm-in-arm… We must acknowledge the naturalist’s paradox of both loving and killing other animals, and think deeply about when and why we kill as we explore the natural world.” This kind of ethical reexamination of collecting practices is going on within the natural history realm, and increasingly it’s leaking out into the popular press as well. I illustrate this in the Ethical Everything chapter of TrendsWatch 2015 with a couple of recent stories, including a spate within the scientific community on the necessity of voucher specimens, and populist attacks on one scientist when he blogged about collecting a single spider.

Our (us being museums, and scientists) claim of the ethical high ground on collecting comes from the utility of these collections in the long run: increasing our understanding of and empathy for the world; helping with species preservation; curing disease. And Haberman nails the core of the ethical dilemma when she reviews the spotted history of collections preparation and preservation. If the future of natural history (and natural history museums) depends on hooking a new generation on the joys of what we do, what about all the individual lives that will be sacrifices in the cause of “practice” collections? Even when talented amateurs amass good and important collections, will they be identified, adopted and preserved or will they become orphans that disappear? As financial pressures lead organizations to downsize curatorial and collections care staff, can even established museums promise to be good stewards for centuries to come?

I’m preparing a talk on this topic—how long can museums aim to preserve their collections for the future—for the Lost Museum Symposium being held at Brown University May 7 & 8, so this topic is much on my mind. Hence today’s musing. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Transitions: The Next Era of CFM

You’ve probably heard that the Alliance’s president, Ford Bell, is stepping down after the upcoming annual meeting. While CFM was conceived under our last president, Ed Able, it launched under Ford and (as I write in the next issue of Museum) it succeeded in large part due to his willingness to let me set nebulous but ambitious goals, try lots of crazy stuff and fail often. It’s fitting that as Ford leaves, CFM itself grows up a bit, and moves into the next phase of its development. Our incoming president, current COO Laura Lott, has identified the expansion of CFM as key to achieving her vision of AAM as “the go-to place for the museum community to find inspiration, information of course, and support.”

So, the next challenge is figuring out what form this expansion will take. As I shared in a New Year’s post, my long-term goals are to scale up CFM’s work to benefit more people and more organizations; create a sustainable business model that is less reliant on member dues; and to move from ideas to action, translating the insights generated through our forecasting and thought-leadership into real-world change.

I spent a lot of time last year thinking about how to realize these ambitions. As I travelled the country I pinged ideas off the smart people I get to work with in museums and in other sectors. After the manuscript of TrendsWatch went off to the editor in December, I sat down to filter, sort and evaluate those ideas, polished with all that good feedback and the input of colleagues here at the Alliance, and came up with the broad outline of what we are calling CFM 2.0. In this second instar of its life, CFM will grow into its role of research and design lab—a place to test and refine practical applications of our forecasting—by launching two new programs:

The CFM Future Lab, an ever-changing series of practicums in a variety of formats (e.g., hands-on learning, retreats, hack-a-thons, video tutorials, on-line learning, mentorships, prototypes) through which museums explore how to apply emerging technologies and approaches. The CFM Future Lab will:

  • Help museums apply the “museums might like to…” suggestions in CFM’s TrendsWatch reports to their own operations
  • Increase the rate at which innovation diffuses throughout the field
  • Facilitate adoption of new practices in small museums
The CFM Fellows Program, which recruits up-and-coming scholars, journalists, artists, futurists, entrepreneurs and educators to spend one to three years helping museums explore the challenges and opportunities presented by trends shaping the future. Focusing on specific trends or issues identified through CFM’s forecasting work, Fellows may:

  • Expand our understanding of these issues via original research
  • Raise the profile of these issues through writing and speaking
  • Foster partnerships between museums and individuals and companies outside the museum field 
  • Work with the CFM Future Lab to prototype and test ways for museums to adapt to change
In accord with the operating principles of CFM, I’m not planning these new programs out in detail, with five year timelines replete with action steps. We are going to start by piloting a few lab ideas, a few fellowships, and flesh out our plans with what we learn from the early experiments. I’ll talk more about Future Lab later this summer, but for now I want to announce our first dive into the Fellows program: a two-year fellowship provided by the American Council of Learned Societies. (Thank you very much ACLS for selecting us to host one of your Public Fellows!)

Most CFM fellows will be recruited to take a deep dive into one of the many topics raised in our scanning—open data, for example, or entrepreneurship—exploring how it may play out in museums and instigating real world experiments. My chicken-and-the-egg, dilemma, however, has been that as a pretty much one-gal operation, it’s hard to get these new programs started.

So this first fellowship will support a Museum Futurist (or futurist-in-training) to backstop my work and increase our capacity to create and fund additional fellowships and prototype Future Lab. In a few weeks, ACLS will send us resumes of the candidates they have vetted for the position, and we will work with them to select a finalist. That person will join me here at the Alliance in mid-July—I look forward to introducing him/her to you.

We already have plans in the works for the second CFM Fellow, this one focusing on issue-specific work, rather than general futurism. That fellowship will be formally announced at the annual meeting at the end of this month, but I’ll give you a sneak preview here on the blog the week before we leave for Atlanta. Stay tuned!