Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

What Museums Can Learn from Amanda Palmer

 On the way to New Zealand in May I started reading Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help). I thought of it as “me time” reading, and as such it was relegated to snippets of time before bed.

When I finished the book last weekend, though, I realized that it was work-reading after all. Amanda Palmer has a lot to teach museums about the art of the ask.

For those of you who don’t know Amanda, she’s the artist/musician who famously broke the million dollar mark with her 2011 Kickstarter campaign to fund production of her next album. Having split with her record label over irreconcilable differences regarding cultivating her audience, she turned to crowdfunding as an alternative method of producing & distributing her work. While the book isn’t written as a “how to” manual for Kickstarter (leaning more towards angst-ridden personal memoir), it’s the best guide I’ve found to understanding the dynamics of using social media to ask a bunch of people to support your work.

I’m not claiming everything that works for Amanda will work for you, my nonprofit peers. I’m not going to encourage you to strip naked and let your visitors decorate your body with Sharpies. But here are some things she “gets” that museums need to understand:
  • How to cultivate a fan base you can trust to catch you when you leap into the unknown
  • The difference between a transactional relationship between a vendor and customer, and the kind of emotional relationship that leads people to support a person, or a cause
  • The strength in being vulnerable, imperfect and open to people who care about your work

Amanda tapped the power of social media just as it began to be a thing that could be tapped. Starting in the early 2000s, she amassed an emailing list of everyone who came to her concerts, and was an early adopter of Twitter (where she now has over 1.142M followers) and blogging. She split with her label in part because the marketers didn’t understand this dynamic—why, for example, she needed a web site year-round to communicate with her base. Her use of all these social platforms is (as Brene Brown puts in in her introduction to the book) “a study in intimacy and connection.”

But social media just amplifies what Amanda does really, really well: building deep, long-term, mutually supportive relationships with people who love her work. She does this by seeing and recognizing them as individuals—not just as a collective mass of “fans.” She is generous in sharing her time, attention, support and networks to help them with their work and support their needs. She is transparent (painfully so) about the process behind her music, rather than just handing over the resulting albums.

I think this translates rather well to the kinds of relationships museums can build with our communities, with our potential fans. Think a bit on how museums can:
  • Recognize people as individuals, not just demographic categories: “teens,” “Millennials,” “retirees.” When a security guard gets down on her knees and asks a toddler what she’s looking at (instead of delivering a stern warning to “not touch”)? That’s a win.
  • Use museum resources—space, time, expertise, social media reach—to help people achieve their own goals. You’re staging your own pop-up exhibit? Beauty! I’ll tweet about that.
  • Is the new exhibit/renovation/wing running behind schedule and over budget? Share why. People mess up, things go wrong—we all know that. It’s ok to tell your base what’s keeping you up at night. And who knows? Maybe someone will be able to help.

I do suspect some of Amanda’s lessons are unnecessary for museumers. She devotes a lot of text to encouraging artists to be comfortable asking, urging them to feel worthy of funding, whether charging for their work or asking for capital up front. In my experience, this is not a problem in our field. Nonprofits take their 501(c)3 status as official validation of their right to ask for money without the stigma of sponging. And museum workers are more likely to feel righteous indignation over being underpaid and undervalued than angst over whether they are worth their salary. But if you are shy about asking for support (for your museum or for yourself) Amanda’s stories might help you get over your inhibitions.

So, give it a read, see what you think and blog (or tweet) your comments tagged #ArtofAsking. Or hey, tell @AmandaPalmer what her work means to you. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she tweeted you back.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Monday Musing: Solving Social Problems

Today's brief "musing" looks at a story from Pew Research Center I featured in Dispatches from the Future of Museums last week: Are churches key to solving social problems? Fewer Americans now think so.

Summary of the trend: Since 2001, there has been a 17% decline in the percent of US adults who say churches, synagogues and other houses of worship contribute "some" or "a great deal" to solving important social problems, and an 18% rise in the percent who feel these institutions contribute "not much" or "nothing."

This is tied in part to the rise of the percent of the population who identify as religious "nones" (not affiliated with any organized religions), but the erosion in confidence in religious institutions as key problem-solvers is reflected in religiously-affiliated adults as well. 

Why did this story catch my attention? This trend bears on the future of nonprofits, and nonprofit status as a whole. If trust in religious organizations as agents of social change continues to decline, along with the number of people who identify with particular religions, the sacrosanct status of churches as nonprofit institutions may come into question. These questions are also fueled by the backlash to our recent advance in civil rights (such as the legalization of gay marriage), as some conservative religious institutions to request exemptions from compliance with such laws. Such requests highlight the inherent tension in asking the government to determine what constitutes a valid religion

What does it mean for museums? This trend is both a threat and an opportunity. 

  • On one hand, a decline in confidence in organized religion as agents of social good is one more force that may push the US to reexamine tax exempt status--who gets it, what it means--more generally.
  • On the other hand, this decline is an opportunity for museums, as trusted public institutions, to step up and fill the gap. I suspect that a similar survey asking about what museums, collectively, contribute to solving important social problems would reveal that we have a lot of room for growth--room that we can and (in my opinion) should fill!
Read the Pew report and see what you think.

Monday musings are my way of sharing "brain blorts": brief, off-the-cuff thoughts about something I have read (or in this case, heard) recently, both to help clarify my thinking an in the hopes of generating discussion and response. I give myself 15 minutes or so to jot down a summary of the article(s) stuck in my brain, and outline why I think they may be important.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Futurist Friday: Cognitive Museum Buildings

Here's a short video from Jonathan Strickland of Forward Thinking on the emergence of "cognitive buildings": structures that use the internet of things (IoT) to analyze performance and anticipate our needs.  

Jonathan's only direct mention of museums is a poke at the Louvre's AC, but much of what he says is directly applicable to our field. Cognitive energy conservation? Approve.  Automatically turning off the lights when people aren't in storage or galleries--also a conservation win. 

But the applications that intrigue me most are touched on at the very end of the video. Could a cognitive computing program (like IBM Watson, cited here) monitor visitor tweets from museums around the world and, comparing that to a database on museum architecture, draw some higher level conclusions about what works and doesn't work in museum design? 

Or imagine a critical mass of museums hooked into the IoT, tracking visitors through the galleries and amenities, monitoring route and dwell times, even using facial recognition software or the MAC address of phones to monitor the patterns and experiences of individuals. That network would generate incredibly valuable information, not only for the individual museums, but for the field as a whole. Reporting attendance? Pssssh, not a problem. How about global A/B testing on various components of exhibit design, wayfinding or retail? 

Your Futurist Friday assignment: take four minutes to hear what Jonathan has to say, and come up with your own ideas for what a cognitive building might "think about" for museums. Share your thoughts below, or with a tweet tagging both Jonathan (@jonstrickland) and @futureofmuseums.


Thursday, July 21, 2016

Moving Primary Schools into the Museum

The museum school movement in the US is gaining steam, and now our colleagues in the UK are jumping on the bandwagon. The "My Primary School is at the Museum" Project, conceived of by architect Wendy James, pairs two primary and one nursery school with three museums: the Tate Liverpool, the Arbeia Roman Fort and Museum and the National Waterfront Museum.

Following the students for one school term (plus a follow-up project next spring), researchers from Kings College London will "test the hypothesis that there may be beneficial learning, social and cultural outcomes for primary school children and their families when they receive their full time education in a museum setting, as well as benefits for museums." 

These student's daily classes will take place in the museums, and this video shows you a bit of what their school days look like:

Some of my favorite quotes:

From students:

"I don't actually like museums, but this one turned out to be different."

"I'll remember this forever!"

and from a school administrator:

"I'd be very interested to move the whole school into a museum.

I've played with projections about how many school children could get all or part of their education through museum schools and museum apprenticeships. I hope research projects like this help shape policy and direct funding that brings museums into the educational mainstream. 

The findings from the project will be published this fall--meanwhile you can follow the project on Twitter using #museumschool. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A New AR Invasion: Pokemon Go!

If you haven’t heard the buzz about Pokémon Go—the new augmented reality game taking the world by storm—well, you must have been locked in collections storage, with no internet access, for the last few weeks.

This new game was born from the collision of numerous trends, notably increasing sophistication of augmented reality, the ubiquity of internet connected hand-held devices, and continued growth of gaming—especially so called “serious games” with real world objectives. (The “serious” objectives for Pokémon Go and its sister game, Ingress, are encouraging people to be physically active, to get to know their neighborhoods and to socialize with other players.)

There have been dozens of articles and blog posts on Pokémon Go, already (I link to a few particularly interesting examples below), so I’m not going to go over the basics of the game. I do want to point your attention to how Pokémon Go illustrates the transformative power of another trend I’ve written about: how entrepreneurs are making use of museum resources to build their own products and services.

The digital landscapes of Pokémon Go and its older sibling, Ingress are built around real world landmarks—including historic markers, public art, museums, zoos, botanic gardens and historic houses. Niantic Labs, the creator of both games, started with Google Maps data (Niantic itself was born inside Google) and pulled in public data sets to prepopulate Ingress with “portals,” including public buildings like libraries, police and fire stations. In the early years of the game, it also encouraged players to nominate and annotate additional portals, encouraging them to focus on public art, historic buildings and notable community landmarks. Niantic imported many of the Ingress sites into Pokémon Go, as well as using geodata from crowdsourced sites such as the Historical Marker Data Base.

Hence the crowds of people huddled over their smart phones in museum buildings and on museum grounds.

Now, scavenger hunts in and around museums are nothing new. Nor are apps that introduce virtual elements into our galleries even without permission. But the growth of open data sets and social media facilitate taking such use to scale. Estimates range from 9.5 million to 21 million active users of Pokémon Go per day in the US (which would put it well ahead of the ubiquitous Candy Crush). Though the app is free, players can buy virtual items to improve their game play. At that scale, even these micro-purchases add up to real money. Last month Forbes reported that the app, which is a free download, was bringing in $1.6 million a day through the Apple store alone (and the game also plays on Android devices). Pokémon Go is also credited with boosting the stock price of Nintendo, co-owner of Niantic Labs, by over 50%. Ingress offers in-app purchases, too, and has partnered with various companies to incorporate their brands into the game. So these games, built in and around public data and public space, are generating considerable private profit.

Maybe museums can profit from the mania for this game as well. Indeed there have been some reports of increased attendance: a 50% bump at the McNay Art Museum San Antonio  (8 Pokéstops, 4 gyms); 30% at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas—not counting increase in foot traffic on their grounds; a 25% increase at the Morikami Museum & Japanese Gardens Boca Raton (25 Pokéstops) on one day.

Skrelp is a Weedy sea dragon!
Courtesy Ocean Portal
And some organizations are tying the game to their mission. One blogger, noting that Pokémon drives people to explore historic sites and markers, coined the term “archaeogaming” and hails it as a boon to public archaeology. Ocean Portal parses the real-life taxonomic analogs to Pokémon creatures, and I imagine many aquariums could incorporate that into their interpretation. The attendance figures I quoted above are from a Bloomberg News article which also notes how appropriate it is for there to be Pokéstops at the British Museum, given its extensive collection of Japanese netsuke carvings—direct antecedents of the digital “pocket monsters.”

But the game isn’t always museum-compatible. The Worcester Art Museum, while celebrating their two Pokéstops, gently offers safety tips (i.e., please don’t run into collections objects while you’re staring at your phone.) There have been protests over the impropriety of playing the game at all in places like cemeteries, memorials and, here in DC, at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Echoes of the past—when Ingress launched it included portals in historic sites of German concentration camps, prompting a similar outcry. Google apologized and removed the offending portals from the Ingress landscape. If your museum has similar concerns you may be relieved to hear that Niantic does provide a way to request removal of a Pokéstop or Gym. (I haven’t heard how many such requests are granted, or how fast. If your museum does opt out, and it works, please share the news?)

This last point—what entities can opt in or out of being used in the game—raises an interesting legal issue. In the future, who will be able to control what augmented reality (AR) gets layered over “your” space? As the Guardian asked in a thoughtful commentary, “I can’t put a billboard on your house without asking you; but is it so obvious that I should be allowed to put a virtual billboard ’on‘ your house without giving you any say in the matter?” That story suggests that just as airplanes created the need for laws governing airspace, augmented reality games like Pokémon Go may result in laws concerning “AR” space. Add this to the list of emerging concerns for museums as we struggle to control, adapt to or partner with people who make us part of their digital worlds.

Braviary Pokémon
Eagle netsuke from British Museum Collection