Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Museums as 21st Century Databases

In August, Jeff Inscho blogged for CFM about the launch of the Carnegie Museums’ new Innovation Studio at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. This week his colleague David Newbury, who leads development on the Art Tracks project for Carnegie Museum of Art, blogs about one of the forces driving the creation of the Studio: the need for museums to develop 21st century digital skills. What, exactly, does that mean? I’m so glad you asked:

The 21st century is now well underway, and many of our institutions are entering their second century. Some of us are approaching our third. What does it take to support a museum conceived in a time before television, operating in a world completely revolutionized by digital technology? How do we use our institutional experience to build infrastructure that thrives in our modern world of connected databases?

It is important to remember that museums have always been databases. From the founding of the first museum, our goal has been to take items that are culturally significant and protect them, catalog them, research them, and love them. We treat our collections not as objects stored on a shelf, but rather as the physical embodiment of a vast repository of data describing our cultures and our histories. In this, museums were ahead of their time. As industry has grown around us, they have begun to realize the value of stored knowledge. To talk about it they have borrowed our language and our concepts.  Provenance, once a dusty word of art dealers and historians, is now the focus of a W3 working group; developers store the history of their code in repositories.

It is important, however to remember that museums have a fundamentally different view of their data than industry. Industry views data as a means to an end. They store sale histories to grease the wheels of future purchases; they store search histories to improve future searches. In industry, data’s raison d’ĂȘtre is to make money, and because of this, vast sums of money have been spent building tools to manipulate data. We benefit from their work in that we could never afford to construct such elegant tools, but we should never forget that the tools we use were designed to solve a problem other than ours.

Our ultimate goal is “… the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” In pursuit of that goal, our data is not stored for monetization, but because data is the root of knowledge. The knowledge of our cultures and our sciences is intrinsically valuable.   Data becomes knowledge when it is connected; connected to people, to events, to the stories of our humanity.  Museums are not merely vaults; we store objects and their data in trust for the public.   This does not mean that we shouldn't care about preservation: quite the opposite!  But we should remember that preservation is not the goal, and that we preserve in service of our mission to put knowledge in the hands of those we serve. We educate, we preserve, and we provide access to objects that are not ours.  We are merely the caretakers.

The combination of this wealth of information, combined with tools from industry to store and analyze this data, provide us with an unprecedented opportunity to connect and disseminate knowledge. But we cannot do it ourselves. Even at the largest museums, the firehose of information overwhelms. We must come together to share knowledge and expertise. Together, we can focus on making explicit the *connections* between the data, not just the facts themselves. These connections are stronger and the stories are richer when we all contribute to the pool of data.  There are innumerable stories in the connections between the data, and the connections are stronger and more varied when we all work together.

Given all that, what are the characteristics of a 21st Century digital infrastructure?

It is available. Too often our information is locked within systems that are individually useful, but difficult to access. We should provide secure, consistent access to everyone who needs the information, both within our individual museums and, when appropriate, across the world.

It is consistent. Without a universal way to access and understand this information, every system and every institution’s data remains intelligible only to itself. We should provide aggregated information, while respecting the nuances and expertise of each institution and department.

It is connected. Too often, the rich connections between our institutions’ data are hidden, even to the expert. We should make explicit these connections, allowing the richness of our history and our staff’s expertise to inform across domains and institutions.

It is global. As the world becomes smaller and as technologies make information more readily available, museums need to join together to fulfill our collective mission of holding our collections and data in public trust. We should share our expertise with the world and we should also leverage the strengths of other authorities to enrich our knowledge and experiences.

Much of this was true in the 20th century, and the 19th, and the 18th. Why do these conversations seem to be happening now, and not 50 years ago, or 50 years in the future? One answer is the inconceivable amount of information available. More information is created and stored every day than existed a century ago. Almost two billion photos are taken daily, dwarfing even the most prolific museum’s collecting. One of those billion photos will be a masterpiece, but how will we find it?

The story of the 20th century was that of data collection—the story of the 21st is going to be that of filtering data. Storage and preservation are still great challenges for our sector, but they are quickly being eclipsed by the problems of access, discovery and filtering. From industry, we can borrow tools: Machine learning, semantic technologies, graph theory, linked data, and distributed systems. However, we must work to understand not only the capabilities these tools provide but also the nuances of the problems we want them to solve. The tools can help make the connections, but the stories must come from us.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Wordless Wednesday: Street Art

#TakinItToTheStreets #NewMuseum #StPetersburg @urbanophile

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, September 29, 2015

Shaping the Future of Learning

Back in 2007, when I started writing CFM’s business plan, I looked for other futures-oriented organizations to adopt as models for our work. One of the first I came across is KnowledgeWorks, a nonprofit dedicated to exploring and helping to create the future of education. Their trends analysis, forecasting and scenarios has been immensely helpful in our exploration of how museums can help shape the next era of learning. Katherine Prince, Senior Director, Strategic Foresight at KnowledgeWorks, has become a valued partner in CFM’s work. In today’s guest post, Katherine previews their upcoming 10-year forecast, to be released in November.

The future is not a fixed point.  It is ours to create.

Every three years, KnowledgeWorks publishes a comprehensive forecast on the future of learning. We take a step back from what’s happening in education today to consider how the world is changing and how major forces of change might impact learning.

There are always a host of possibilities for how museums and other learning providers across the education spectrum might channel those forces of change to create better opportunities for young people and deliver more fully on their missions.  As we have explored with the Center for the Future of Museums through its “Building the Future of Education” convening and report, we see great potential for diverse learning ecosystems to put learners at the center of flexible value webs to which many kinds of organizations and individuals might contribute.

Our next forecast suggests that the stakes for finding effective approaches to learning will only get higher as the pace of change accelerates over the next decade. The trailer below previews some of the questions that we will all be facing as new ways of living, working, and learning emerge as a result of exponential changes in digital technologies.

Over the next decade, our lives will become so inextricably linked with our digital companions that we expect to find ourselves living as partners in code. This new era promises to change learning dramatically, affecting the ways education prepares learners and the reasons individuals pursue learning in the first place.

“The Future of Learning: Education in the Era of Partners in Code,” will highlight five drivers of change contributing to this shift along with provocations suggesting how they might impact learning. Among them:
  • The potential to design for flow states that engage learners at their most personal and deepest levels
  •  Increasingly fluid school structures that push beyond traditional organizational constraints and limited customization
  • A heightened interest in artisanal education options that fit individual values and lifestyles
  • A potential redefinition of readiness as the changing nature of work brings to the fore a societal debate about the role of people in the workplace.

To stay tuned for more, you can sign up to receive an alert when the forecast comes out in November.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A New Museum in NYC: Climate Change Museum

While I spend most of my time scanning for change taking place in society writ large, rather than trends in museum practice per se, I do keep an eye open for new museums.  Why and how do museums arise (especially in these financially troubled times)? What are the motivations of the founders, and funders, of these institutions? How do they see “museumness” as a way to advance their goals? In the past I’ve reached out to Liz Williams of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum and Peter Kim of the Museum of Food and Drink. In an upcoming post we will hear from Joanna Ebenstein, Creative Director of the Morbid Anatomy Museum. Today’s interview is with Miranda Massie, founder of the Climate Museum being created in New York City. You can follow them on Twitter @ClimateMuseum.

Miranda Massie, Founder of the Climate Museum, guest lectures at Columbia University’s M.A. Program, ‘Climate and Society’ Photo credit: Zina Precht-Rodriguez

Give me the elevator speechfor the Climate Museumwhat do you tell people when you want to explain really quickly, what it will be and why they should care?

The Climate Museum will be a hub for climate science, art, and dialogue in tourist-accessible New York City. Its aim is to put climate at the center of our shared public life, catalyzing broad climate engagement.

Why a museum? People are tackling climate change education in a lot of different ways. What do you see as the advantages of pursuing advocacy and awareness in this traditional bricks-and-mortar format?

There is an outstanding array of efforts already in progress. To name just few examples, 350.org, NRDC, and the George Mason and Yale Climate Communications Centers are doing essential advocacy work that has transformed the conversation. There are robust networks devoted to formal and informal climate education that are similarly critical. We’ve recently started talking with Frank Niepold of NOAA about connecting with these networks and are thrilled about that.

However, to support the growth of a broader climate public, we need a venue—a place where people can be together, learn together and from each other, share experience. When things really matter, we come together in person. Climate really matters and we should have a collective space to do the work of educating people on this topic.

As a side note, my sense is that the social dynamics of face-to-face interactions are why museums continue to be so popular and culturally powerful even as they transform.

Finally, a solutions-showcasing Climate Museum is exceptionally well-suited to break down the barriers we’ve seen to the creation of a climate-engaged public. Research shows us that most people in this country view climate change as an issue, but few prioritize finding solutions for this challenge.  Museums help to simplify complexity, and having a museum devoted to this topic could help to make climate science and data palpable, clear, and personal. We want to inspire people to focus on climate success stories large and small, so that visitors leave knowing that what they think, feel, say, and do on climate matters.

We’ll have the benefit of all that on top of the traditional museum virtues of conferring legitimacy and serving as a trusted source of information.

Your organizations profile on Idealist.org states The Climate Museum will join a successful group of forward looking, problem solving, citizen museums.What are some of these “citizen museums” you see as your peers? Is there anything particular about these benchmark organizations you plan to emulate?

We’re not yet the peer of any of the institutions I’m going to mention, but we aspire to be. Some of the great museums that seem to us to aim to build civic engagement include the Holocaust Museum, the Newseum, the 9/11 Museum, the Center for Civil and Human Rights. And the Science Museum of Minnesota, with, for example, its exhibit on race and its upcoming exhibit on cities, seems to us to clearly propose something outside of any simple repository-of-knowledge model.

Even established museums find it challenging to sustain their operations in the new economy. What are you finding are the greatest challenges in starting a new museum?

We’re at such a different stage in our life cycle. That said, I suppose both zygotes and adult organisms need similar things to thrive: favorable contexts, good nutrients, symbiotic relationships.

Our biggest challenge, given that we’re in such a growth stage, is responding to the opportunities rapidly expanding around us in an effective way without irretrievably exhausting our currently minimal staff. A given day can include meetings with exhibit design teams as we familiarize ourselves with that milieu, fine-tuning the formatting of a newsletter, soaking up a mentoring call with one of our incredible advisors, selecting insurance carriers, herding cats to schedule a Trustees’ meeting, taking out the recycling, and deciding between two very similar Pantone yellows. The good news is that we’re meeting with such good will, feel so committed to the mission, and are encountering these challenges so freshly, that they are, in the main, highly enjoyable. 

We’re going to be launching seed fundraising in the fall. I’m sure there will be challenges as well as great excitement associated with that.

As a member of your own board observed, climate change can be a very depressing subject.Is one of your goals to attract an audience that includes people who are not already passionate about this cause, and if so, how will you go about that?

That’s our single central goal. We have to be clear about urgency while emphasizing success stories and solutions—that will be our great content challenge—and we have to make the experience inspiring, beautiful, connected, impressive, and cool. I am deeply confident that with the right team this can be accomplished.

What are some of the ways you plan to make the museum resilient in the face of projections for rising sea levels and increased storm frequency in NYC?

We’re a long way away from creating our permanent facility and that will indeed be a great design challenge—especially given the resonance of potentially securing a location near the water for the very reasons you mention. In short, we don’t yet have any resiliency plans, but the question will be absolutely key.

Starting a new museum is a daunting undertaking. Who have you turned to for advice and assistance as you plan the Climate Museum?

We’ve moved forward in what often feels like a magical surround of good will and support. There are countless people outside of the museum profession who have been tremendous, but given the museum-centered community we’re connecting with through your blog—an opportunity we much appreciate, by the way!—I’ll focus on people likely known among your main readership.

The first person who must be highlighted has been enmeshed in every positive aspect of our development: Lou Casagrande. Lou, as many readers will know, ran the Boston Children’s Museum for a number of years and served as AAM’s Board Chair. We were exceptionally lucky to be introduced to Lou more than a year ago, at the very beginning of our launch. I’ve spoken with him more often than with anyone. Lou’s a hard person to describe credibly. He’s intellectually brilliant and a visionary. He’s savvy and wise about the business side. He’s intuitive, warm, and kind as a mentor. And with each of these gifts he is on the edge of the spectrum.

There’s one big decision I made without conferring with Lou—and I had to retract it. He’s at the heart of this enterprise.

Our extraordinary Tax and Governance counsel John Sare of Patterson Belknap, known to many readers I am sure, has also been a key intellectual partner in framing the strategy for the Climate Museum. We have spoken countless times, well beyond the constraints of tax and governance law. John is a nuanced, outstanding strategist.

More generally, we’ve reached out to the museum leaderships in New York City, and are starting to expand geographically. We have been moved and struck by how open-hearted this talented community is. A few examples of people who have extended themselves to provide great advice: in the science museum world in New York, David Harvey, Lauri Halderman, and Michael Meister in the exhibitions program at the American Museum of Natural History have been repeatedly supportive and helpful. We’re setting up meetings with the staff of the New York Hall of Science, who’ve also been very welcoming. At the Science Museum of Minnesota, which as readers will know is a major content producer and sharer, we’ve had great conversations with Paul Martin and Pat Hamilton. And in terms of recently founded New York City museums, science or not (a category that seems to us pertinent given the specific challenges of launching in any given city), we’ve gotten great advice from Glen Whitney and Cindy Lawrence at the Museum of Mathematics, Patrick Sears at the Rubin, and Amy Weisser, at the 9/11 Museum and Memorial. Generally, we’ve found this to be a highly congenial and generous community. I love the civil rights litigators I professionally grew up with, but museum professionals are non-provincially committed to the vibrancy of the sector as a whole in a way that has seemed to us to be remarkably robust and universal.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Trending Now: Museum Schools Part II

This week we followed up with Laney Tillner to learn more about her work with the John Early Museum Magnet Middle Prep--a museum school where she volunteers as a consultant. Laney is a graduate student in Public History (with a concentration in Museum Studies) at Middle Tennessee State University, and she's writing her thesis about museum schools. You can follow her on Twitter @OliviaLane87.
Last week, I discussed the rise of museum schools and the vast variety that exist within our field. Today, we will look at just one institution—the John Early Museum Magnet Middle Prep, located in Nashville, Tennessee. It was created as one of six new magnet schools resulting from a Magnet School Assistance Program (MSAP) grant that was awarded to Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools in 2011.
Like other museum schools, John Early integrates the museum process into their instruction. Students routinely participate in Learning Expeditions, or curriculum based lessons that focus on instruction beyond the boundaries of traditional classroom settings. Every nine weeks, students have a school-wide Exhibit Night in order to share their knowledge of museum standards.

Perhaps one of their most innovative methods of community engagement is the work they do with their pathway school, Robert Churchwell Elementary (also MSAP grant funded). Each month, students from both schools participate in Family Expeditions. These visits allow for in-depth and meaningful experiences between students, their families, and staff at partner museums.

Family Expedition to Glen Leven Farm, August 2015 Credit: Becky Verner

Project-based learning (PBL) is an important aspect of the John Early experience, particularly when students work directly with museum partners. Some even complete internships with these institutions, including the Tennessee State Museum, the Parthenon, and Belle Meade Plantation. Students also regularly work on projects with their peers beyond the John Early campus. For example, in the 2014-2015 school academic year, 7th grade students worked with a team of archaeologists at the “Unknown 20” site—an unmarked cemetery which recently was identified as a slave burial site on the property of the Nashville Zoo and the historic Croft House. The students performed DNA analysis, primary source research, gave presentations to Croft House employees based on their findings, and created programming based on their research. They presented their work via a student-written and directed event.

Student Internship Presentations at the Tennessee State Museum, July 2015, Credit: Becky Verner
Beyond the partnership with the Nashville Zoo and historic Croft House, two self-contained 6th grade classes are currently completing the “Museum Matters” PBL, which consists of them developing floor plans to best utilize museum storage space. They will create proposals and presentations for a panel comprised of the principals, teachers, and available representatives of the Tennessee State Museum, Middle Tennessee State University, and Glen Leven Farm among others.

John Early Museum Magnet Middle Prep is unique in comparison to other museum schools because it also is creating its own museum . The museum will be a place of instruction for the students and a place of cultural engagement for the surrounding community. A chance meeting led to the school’s acquisition of a collection from Scarritt College, a school for Methodist missionaries that moved to Nashville in 1924 and ceased holding classes in 1988. As missionaries returned from their missions Scarritt College came to accumulate various cultural artifacts representing the nations they visited. The collection was recently deaccessioned by the Hartzler-Towner Multicultural Museum at the Scarritt Bennett Center and gifted to the John Early.

Exhibit Cases Installed into Museum Space, July 2015 Credit: Lane Tillner
John Early’s museum collection also includes items originally from the Children’s Museum of Nashville, which initially became the Cumberland Science Museum, and later the Adventure Science Center (at which point it transferred its collection to Scarritt Bennett). This cultural collection, of nearly 5000 artifacts, represents numerous African, Asian, South American, and Europe nations. Following the acquisition of the collection, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools approved a museum addition to the existing school building. Completed in July 2015, the first major exhibit is underway and a grand opening is planned for later in October.

The museum addition is a valuable learning resource for students at John Early. They will be able to explore their museum, only a two minute walk from classrooms. The Junior Curators club will act as docents and provide tours to members of the community and other school groups. The students will create exhibits throughout the hallways, not just in the museum. Teachers will teach with artifacts from the collections and use them to draw direct connections within their curriculum standards. The in-school museum will enhance museum partnerships and create new opportunities for collaboration between the school and its partners.  
Junior Curators Work with Collection, August 2015 Credit: Becky Verner
Since the completion of the museum addition, I have been working in the museum to help prepare for the grand opening. Many of the students have been allowed to spend short periods of time throughout the day helping me unpack artifacts, develop an inventory, and curate the opening exhibit. The preparation process usually slows when students help, but working with them is an intangible experience. They regularly stop to examine an artifact they find interesting and debate what it is and how it might have been used. I think that level of engagement is absolutely worth any delay. Frankly, the best part is seeing their excitement when they ask how soon they can return to help. Museum schools create truly significant and unique learning experiences for students and will continue to do so. If you read my post last week, you will recall that a broad range of institutions call themselves museum schools so it remains rather difficult to define them. But, all that I have come across reflect an interest in moving beyond traditional models of classroom instruction, advocating for multiple pathways to learning, and creating community engagement projects. This trend within then field of education and museums, I believe will only result in a richer classroom experience for students, teachers, and their communities.


Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Trending Now: “Museum Schools”

If you attended the CFM session on the future of education at the annual meeting in Atlanta last year, you may remember the lines that stretched up the aisle as folks waited to talk to Katherine Kelbaugh, founder of the Museum School in Decator. We had to take the discussion about her school, and the association she has founded to unite other museums schools, into the hall. Now Katherine has recruited Laney Tillner to blog for CFM about the first conference of that new association. Laney is a graduate student in Public History (with a concentration in Museum Studies) at Middle Tennessee State University, and she's writing her thesis about museum schools. She also volunteers her time as a consultant to John Early Museum Magnet Middle Prep, You can follow her on Twitter @OliviaLane87.

Ten, twenty years from now, what will partnerships between museums and schools look like?  Any number of possible scenarios are plausible, many of which go far beyond field trips to embed museums into the core of students’ daily work. One trend in education--the creation of museum schools--is significantly shaping the future of these partnerships.

NAMS 2015 Conference Program and Logo--credit: Lane Tillner, 2015
On June 22, 2015, educators and museum professionals convened in Atlanta, GA for the inaugural conference of the National Association of Museum Schools (NAMS). (This isn’t the first conference of its kind—In 1995 a group of teachers, administrators, and museum professionals met at a Museum Schools Symposium in Washington, D.C.) Principal Katherine Kelbaugh initiated the formation of NAMS as a part of a federal grant awarded to the Museum School of Avondale Estates, which is located outside of Atlanta. NAMS’s goal is to provide a national platform for educators to discuss the museum school movement, share their curricular approaches and ideas, and cultivate an environment of support. 

Featuring nineteen presentations that included ideas about best practices, case studies of specific schools and their programs, the day-long conference was an opportunity for participants to explore the concept “museum school” in general. The program highlighted “Spotlight Schools,” selected through a national search, which met or exceeded a set of criteria that included program longevity, museum focus and student achievement. These schools are Genesee Community Charter School (Rochester, NY), Ortega Elementary (Jacksonville, FL), and Normal Park Museum Magnet (Chattanooga, TN).

The conference revealed that museum schools are just as diverse and as difficult to define as a “museum” itself. Some are charter schools--for instance, the Museum School (San Diego, CA)—others are magnet schools. Some are traditional schools that have adopted a museum theme. Some museum schools are housed on museum campuses, like the Dr. Charles R. Drew Science Magnet Museum Site (Buffalo, NY), while others operate at an independent location. Some were developed by museum educators and others developed by school and district professionals. So far, the one thing all the NAMS organizations have in common is that they are public schools.

The number of museum partners varies from school to school. A few museum schools have collections, some borrow material from their major museum partners, and one, the John Early Museum Magnet Middle Prep (Nashville, TN), has its own museum. (I will be writing in more detail about this school, where I interned, in a follow-up post.)  All of the museum schools in NAMS incorporate an extension of classroom learning where students (either as a full grade level or a single class) venture to a museum for in-depth interactions amid exhibits and artifacts. These experiences are more than fieldtrips. Commonly called a Learning Expedition, teachers create focused objectives tailored directly from units or lesson plans to illustrate the importance of museums as spaces for learning. Additionally, all museum schools have some form of an Exhibit Night to demonstrate and display their learning—events which often resemble the museum exhibit design process. Some involve museum staff directly in curriculum planning, such as the New York City Museum School (New York City, NY), and others use the museum staff as expert resources. All of the schools incorporate the ‘museum process’ in some manner, whether undertaking research, writing text, artifact handling or exhibit design.

During the JEMMMP Museum Matters Project-Based Learning (PBL) 
students apply math and ELA skills to develop a floor plan 
of the museum storage space--credit: Becky Verner, 2015
Several presentations at the conference pointed to particular schools as “model” programs. For example, Normal Park Museum Magnet School is often cited as one of the museum schools people often visit during the initial process of planning and designing a museum school. But even schools based on the program at Normal Park vary in some degree. This begs the question, is a standard model for museum schools even possible?  Perhaps. Certainly the core idea of creating deep partnerships with one or more museums can be adapted to fit many schools. The national curriculum standards can easily be met by curricula based in museum resources. However, any model has to be flexible enough to accommodate variables such as geographical location and proximity to museums, the variety of museums in a general area, the student population (some museum schools are identified as Title I schools and the students may not be able to contribute as many of their own resources compared to those at non-Title I schools), school resources, state curriculum standards, and national standards.

Museum schools bridge the gap between schools and museums. They are sites where distinctions between formal and informal learning blur and real world, meaningful learning is promoted. This is not to say that the museum school is the only model for museum-school collaboration, but it suggests incredible possibilities for the future. Here’s to another successful NAMS conference in 2016.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Futurist Friday: The Sound of Color

Meet Neil Harbisson. He is one of the 1 in 30,000 or so people born each year with a form of complete colorblindness. 

You might think of Neil as having a disability--one that impairs, for example, his ability to experience art.

But Neil thinks of himself as a cyborg with augmented sensory capabilities. Why? Because he is. In 2004 Neil had an antenna implanted in his head that enables him to hear color--including wavelengths "normal" people can't, such as infrared and ultraviolet.

So, is Neil "disabled" or "super-abled?"  

This year we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This legislation was only one step in a long process--now we are challenged to bring the same attention to bear on cognitive disabilities. 

But meanwhile, the whole question of disability, accessibility, assistive and augmentive technology is becoming more and more complex. Neil is just one of many people who see themselves, and their abilities (natural or enhanced) as part of an increasingly fluid spectrum. 

Your Futurist Friday assignment: watch this video profile of Neil [a smidge over 5 minutes] and:

  • See whether you can think of other examples of technologies that are blurring the distinction between people with disabilities, "normal" folk, and people with super powers.
  • Walk through a museum and try to imagine what it would be like to be able to "hear" the visual environment.
  • Ask yourself, if you could have a new body part (or a new sense) what would it be?!