Friday, August 26, 2016

Futurist Friday: Curating the Hereafter

I have a special place in my heart for museums that help their audiences explore the future.

The latest addition to my collection: the Hereafter Institute, a fictitious company created by Gabriel Barcia-Colombo, recipient of a 201 LACMA Art + Technology grant.

Working in collaboration with theater director Benita de Wit, Barcia-Colombo envisions the Hereafter Institute as "part funeral home, part tech company." The resulting provocation challenges us to think about our legacy in a digital age. What will happen to your data when you die? How will the masses of data you create during your life change the way you are memorialized? 

The Hereafter Institute: An Invitation from Gabriel Barcia-Colombo on Vimeo.

As reported in the LAist, the exhibit will include virtual reality simulations that enable you to spend time with a virtual reality recreation of Barcia-Colombo's grandfather; wearable tech loaded with memories; and the digital equivalent of cremation urns, filled with the deceased's digital remains.

The fictional Hereafter Institute is offering a limited number of real individual consultations--and there already is a waiting list. If you snag a consult, let me know! I will invite you to write about it for the Blog. 

Meanwhile, readers, read the article, watch the video, and think about how digital data will change the way museums remember and interpret the dead, and whether it shapes how you want to be remembered. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Museums and the Future of Work: A Call for Collaboration

Hi, Nicole here. In today's short post, I'm sharing some exciting news—and making a call for your collaboration!

This spring, CFM will be holding a national convening on museums and the future of work. The two-day event builds on the issues highlighted during the Museums and Labor Demo at the 2016 AAM Annual Meeting, and will be a capstone to the final year of my term as a Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow at AAM. 

From Raconteur's Future of Work report

The convening will bring together museum professionals, nonprofit leaders, labor organizers, activists, and academics to imagine the future of museum work. Through a series of interactive panels and working groups, attendees will explore questions of wage equity and access.  We will reflect on the forces of change shaping the museum workforce, share experiences, and map ways that we can move forward toward ensuring sustainable futures for our field.

Together, we’ll assess inequities in the museum workforce and strategize toward expanding the pathways to careers in museum leadership.  Some key questions the convening will engage include:

  • How does the changing nature of work impact our field?
  • Where does the future of equity intersect with the future of workplace change?
  • How can we make both the business case and the ethical case for equitable workforces?
  • What scenarios can we build?
  • Can we tell a dystopian future of museum work? What can we learn from that future?
  • What best practices around labor in our field can we highlight?
  • What can we learn from other fields about museums and work?
  • Who works in our field today and how can we broaden our outreach to new communities?

A big part of this project involves helping museums inspire young people—and especially those from marginalized groups—to pursue museum careers. I believe that the future of our field depends on tapping into the talents of communities not traditionally represented in museum leadership.  I’m asking you to join me in making a more equitable future possible.

Planning for the convening is in its early stages, but, in the spirit of experimenting together, I’m extending a call to you for help in building the conversation.  This is important work—and we can’t do it alone. If you or your museum would like to contribute to the thinking and visioning of this project, I’d love to hear from you. If you’re interested in partnering with us, I’d love to know that, too! Please drop me a line at nivy (at) aam-us (dot) org, or leave your name and a note in the comments section below. 

Image credit: R. Black

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Beyond Neutrality

In Season 2 Episode 2 of the Museum People podcast, New England Museums Association director Dan Yaeger argues that all museums should be social activists, describing the oft-voiced museum ambition of being "places to convene discussions" as "weak tea." In today's guest post, Sean Kelley, senior vice president and director of interpretation describes how the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site in Philadelphia moved from neutrality to taking a position on criminal justice reformSean writes on prison museums at 

Here at Eastern State Penitentiary we are rewriting our mission statement to remove the word “neutral.”

We believe that the bedrock value that many of us brought into this field—that museums should strive for neutrality—has held us back more than it has helped us. Neutrality is, after all, in the eye of the beholder. At Eastern State, more often than not, the word provided us an excuse for simply avoiding thorny issues of race, poverty and policy that we weren’t ready to address.

Most visitors to Eastern State are white. Most are middle class, and most are tourists to Philadelphia. Ten years ago I would have argued that leisure travelers don’t want to explore the complex and troubling root causes of mass incarceration. At the time we did commission artists to explore these issues at the physical edges of our property, but our tours and historic exhibits focused squarely on the past. Nobody complained.

In some small ways I was probably right. Bipartisan support for criminal justice reform has grown dramatically in recent years. Ten years ago our staff was tiny, our resources modest, and our board of directors in transition. Perhaps we weren’t ready.

But mostly I was wrong. Development of our first Interpretive Plan in 2009 forced us to look more critically at our choices. Looking at a map of programming around the site, I had to conclude that our version of “neutrality” was mostly taking the form of silence. As a coworker said at the time, “Oh, we talk about race and the US criminal justice system every day…our silence tells visitors exactly what we think about it.”

I thought neutrality would create a safe space for visitors, but it was becoming clear that this space wasn’t safe for Americans who have experienced mass incarceration up close, within their communities.

We have tried to shift our focus to effectiveness and inclusion. We have found that many leisure travelers really will engage with these difficult subjects, but core elements of museum craft become more important than ever. Experiences need to be social, multi-generational, interactive and accessible to visitors who don’t typically learn by reading alone. They need to genuinely value the wide perspectives and personal experiences of the visitors themselves.

In 2014 we built The Big Graph, a 16 foot tall, 3,500 pound infographic sculpture that:
  • represents the massive per capita growth of the US prison population over the last 40 years;
  • compares the US Rate of Incarceration to every other nation on earth (we are highest by an enormous margin),
  • divides nations into those that practice capital punishment and those that do not;
  • tracks the consistent and disturbing racial disparity in our prison population over time.
Every visitor encounters The Big Graph. It concludes the main audio tour and is incorporated into every school tour. The text on signage is direct and blunt. The audio tour asks “So why does the U.S. need to imprison so many people?”  To our surprise, visitors consistently report that The Big Graph feels “neutral.”

In developing the companion exhibit, Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration we faced a crossroad. We had dipped a toe into the pool of honesty about our perspectives, but we had maintained the illusion of neutrality. The new exhibit was shaping up to be a deep dive into issues of policy, race, enforcement and outcomes. Were we really going to say “on the one hand….?” It felt patronizing.

There are too many Americans in prison. Our staff knows it, our advisors know it, our Board knows it. And so we eventually united around a statement: “MASS INCARCERATION ISN’T WORKING.”  That phrase opens the exhibit in 400 point block letters.

Exhibits, tours and public programming at Eastern State have moved
away from a central focus on neutrality.  The new exhibit "Prisons Today"
(pictured) opens with the statement "MASS INCARCERATION ISN'T WORKING."
Today formerly incarcerated people sit on Eastern State's Board of
Directors and are employed as tour guides.  Photo: Darryl Moran.
Nearby a seven-screen video tracks the political rhetoric that has driven criminal justice policy since the 1960s. The video ends with admissions of humility and compassion from a set of current political leaders, stressing voices from the political right such as House Speaker Paul Ryan. At a later point in the exhibit, visitors are forced to walk through one of two corridors, based on their willingness to admit if they’ve ever broken the law. Admitted lawbreakers are confronted with artist Troy Richards’ installation, asking if they see themselves as “criminals.”  He invites these visitors to leave written confessions. He also mixes visitor confessions with confessions from men in and women living in prison. Visitors try to guess which is which. They can’t.

If there’s a message to this exhibit, aside from the failure of our criminal justice system to justify the scale of its growth, it’s a call to empathy. Exhibit cases contain objects on loan from members of our tour staff who have been recently incarcerated. A beautiful and troubling film by Gabriela Bulisova tells the stories of six men and women impacted by the criminal justice system. A reading table includes “The Night My Dad Went to Jail” (written for children 5 – 8 years old).  Visitors are invited to “Send a Postcard to Your Future Self,” using a digital kiosk to create personalized electronic postcards that will arrive in two months, one year and three years. The postcards remind visitors of what they were thinking during their visit, and recommend ways that they can influence our nation’s rapidly changing criminal justice policies based on their responses to the exhibit content.

The journey to create this programming has changed our organization. Our Board of Directors now includes a scholar who studies race and incarceration and teaches inside prisons. It also includes a reentry professional who was himself incarcerated for seven years. [Full disclosure: like many museums, we lack still appropriate racial diversity on our management team; we know have work there to do.] 

Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, was the model for more than
300 prisons worldwide.  It closed in 1971, after 142 years of consecutive use.
It opened as an historic site in 1995.  Photo: Darryl Moran
Our visitors—about 220,000 last year—aren’t expecting this programming when they arrive. Most want to see Al Capone’s cell or the site of the doomed 1945 “Willie Sutton” escape tunnel. I’ve grown to think that makes them the perfect audience to engage. Exit surveys conducted after The Big Graph’s completion reflect only 4% saying that the inclusion of contemporary content detracted from their visit. A full 91% of visitors reported learning something thought-provoking about today’s criminal justice system. The Prisons Today exhibit has only been open a few months, and summative evaluation isn’t yet complete. Press coverage and social media comments are encouraging.

Our audience has grown by more than 20% since we began addressing these complex and troubling aspects of American life. I once feared these subjects would suppress our attendance. I feared they would divide our Board of Directors and scare potential funders. I feared they’d harm staff morale, including my own. And I thought neutrality, whatever that meant, had to guide all of our programming decisions. I was wrong on every front.

Now I wonder what other misguided beliefs we’re leaving unexamined.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Monday Musing: Electoral futures

In today's brief musing I want to draw your attention to a piece by Philip Kennicott in yesterday's Washington Post.

In "Would Donald Trump make art great again?" Kennicott pens a short scenario of what the arts might be like under a Trump presidency. Given that candidate Trump hasn't made any specific policy pronouncements about the arts, Kennicott's sketch focuses on how public attitudes might be affected by the kinds of statements Trump has made, and his general attitude about civic discourse.

Some of the developments Kennicott envisions in this future include:

  • Vandals targeting a gallery showing art that satirizes the new president
  • Threats to federal funding of the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art
  • Cultural leaders self-censoring exhibits and performances that might provoke Trump supporters
  • A growing gap between "preservationists" who advocate hunkering down to defend arts funding until the next election and "purists" who argue that arts leaders have an obligation to resist the "new authoritarianism."

Give it a read. What elements of this scenario do you find plausible? Implausible? What do you think the arts would be like under a Clinton presidency? While there are only 77 days until the election, a little future thought might help you prepare your organization for the outcome. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

Futurist Friday: Building the Future By Understanding the Past

We know we don't know what the future will be. We can deal with that--that's what strategic foresight is for.

Far more corrosive is the misconception that we do know the past.

In fact, the past and the future are mirror images: the farther we travel through time in either direction, forward or back,  the less certain we are of what did or will occur.  And any effort to build a better future has to be grounded in an accurate understanding of history.

For example, to build a better future of justice and rehabilitation we need to understand how the current demographics of incarceration in the US are a product of our history of slavery and racial oppression. 

Can museums help prime this civic conversation about justice? Yes, and here's one example: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration--a museum and memorial slated to open in Montgomery Alabama in 2017. The Equal Justice Initiative, which is designing and funding the new museum, says it will "connect the history of racial inequality with contemporary issues of mass incarceration, excessive punishment, and police violence.”" 

Your Futurist Friday assignment, watch this video, which previews how the memorial will embody the history of racially motivated lynchings in the US, a piece of history largely omitted or underplayed in dominant narratives of the past.

This design is powerful in so many ways, but what I like best is the quiet and powerful call to action: a challenge for counties in which lynchings took place to step up and reclaim their own histories, taking their memorial columns from this central site and bring them home.

And here's a question for your consideration: what "hidden histories" in your country, state, city or neighborhood need to be brought into the light before healing in the present can begin?

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Thinking About Inclusive Museums in the UK

Hi, Nicole here! As part of my work as a Mellon/ACLS fellow with CFM, I’m focusing on a constellation of issues related to museums and labor, including pathways to museum employment; wage equity in the sector; workforce practices promoting access and inclusion; and employee retention. A recent report of the UK Museums Association connects all of these issues in order to recommend some better practices that its member museums can use to reduce discrimination in the field. Although museums in the UK and the US operate in profoundly different political and economic landscapes—and with vastly different funding structures—I believe the Museums Association’s report has some important resonances with current discussions of diversity and inclusion in the US, including in AAM's strategic plan. I urge you to take a look at the full report, share it with colleagues, and use it to guide your own thinking about diversity and inclusion in the field.    

Last month, the UK Museums Association released a report examining the landscape of diversity, accessibility, equity, and inclusion in museums across the four nations of United Kingdom. Titled, “Valuing Diversity:The Case for Inclusive Museums,” the paper is part of the Transformers program, an initiative designed to promote innovative thinking among mid-career museum professionals. The piece is the product of a year-long research project exploring internal workforce dynamics. It features responses gathered from surveys of some 80 museum professionals about the state of inclusion in their individual institutions.

The Case for Inclusive Museums
There is so much good thinking and persuasive reflection in the report. I especially appreciate how it places recruitment, day-to-day interactions, and audience engagement as part of a larger ecosystem of museum practice. It is tempting to focus our diversity efforts on outreach. But, this approach can reinforce an “us vs. them” binary. As Porchia Moore notes, diversity efforts that propose to bring so-called outsiders into museums can sometimes “send the message that museums are founded upon a dominant culture’s values” alone, without creating a framework for broadening authority in our institutions.

The “Valuing Diversity” report tackles this problem head-on. One of its key findings relates to the issue of power. The authors report that some of those surveyed “felt that more focus should be given to how power operates in organisations and how this impacts on policies and decision-making.” They rightly ask, “If the higher levels of our organizations are not diverse…then in what ways can we devolve decision-making to genuinely include and act upon diverse perspectives?” I read the word “devolve” here not in any pejorative sense, but as something more akin to the current use of disruption in discussions of organizational innovation. This focus on power is…well, powerful. It threads throughout the report as its authors consider the forces that produce inequity in the pipeline, in professional training programs, and in organizational structure. The report specifically engages the intersections of power and diversity by:

  • Defining Diversity Broadly and Intentionally
  • Identifying and Limiting Bias

Its authors make creative, ethical, and business cases for diversity while also stressing that “values-based change requires a commitment to understanding and embracing diversity fully, not simply to ensure that museums survive.”

Defining Diversity Broadly and Intentionally

Diversity, inclusion, equality defined in the report
At first reading, the report’s definition of diversity can seem too vague. “Our definition of diversity,” the authors note, “is any characteristic which can differentiate groups and individuals from one another.” They then open up this fairly fuzzy definition to explain diversity as relational. “There are different understandings of what diversity means for each of the four nations [of the UK] and this requires acknowledgement,” the writers point out. The report highlights some specific contexts in which each of the UK’s four nations engage diversity. In Northern Ireland, the National Museums organization prioritizes “cohesive community relations.” In Wales, the organization Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museums Wales) has focused primarily on how museums can ameliorate poverty and respond to socio-economic diversity. Museums Galleries Scotland prioritizes valuing Scotland’s “own distinct indigenous practices alongside practices from other cultures.” For these groups, diversity is less a fixed label given to a specific cohort of people (e.g., “there’s the diversity over there!) than a relationship between people whose experiences, backgrounds, and abilities are different from one another.

The idea of diversity as a relationship that institutions can strengthen through intentional practice is underscored by a focus on unconscious bias. The authors explain that “unconscious bias not only impacts decisions related to recruitment and salary of individuals but also impacts investment in their ongoing development once inside an organization.” CFM founding director Elizabeth Merritt has piloted this work here at AAM and offers an honest, insightful recap of our recent challenge-based and non-traditional hiring practices.

Identifying and Limiting Bias

The report connects unconscious bias in the hiring process to its effects in the day-to-day workplace environment. “One clear piece of feedback we received,” the authors admit, “was that for people who self-identify…as being of a diverse background, the day-to-day experience of working in museums can be exhausting and can present regular emotional and psychological challenges.” These “micro-inequities,” as the report terms them, reflect unconscious (and sometimes conscious) forms of bias in institutions. These forms “communicate who is ‘within’ and who is ‘without.’”

By prioritizing inclusion practices across the spectrum of museum work, museums can create sustainable environments that ensure both engaged audiences and innovative institutions. These latter outcomes matter to museums abroad and at home.

Share your thoughts on the report with us on social media and in the comments section below!