Friday, January 29, 2010

Museums as Aggregators?

This guest post is contributed by Allyson Lazar, museum consultant and freelance registrar based in Los Angeles, Calif. You can follow Allyson’s musings at her blog Two Ls and A Y.

Reporter Sandra Hughes of CBS ends her video article “Bringing Art to the People” with these words, "For the rest of us we can just hope that museums can find a way to stay afloat while we have fun with the art." So when all is said and done, with changing demographics and funding priorities, with furor over permanent collections and how to manage them and what it means—or what it should mean—to be and have curators, what can and will museums do to stay afloat?

Mikku Wilenius of Allianz, a forecasting company in Europe, predicts that the future will belong to companies that serve as aggregators of information, such as Google or websites that can offer consumers different best-price offers.

Let's think about this prediction in terms of museums: what would it look like for a museum to serve as an aggregator—or would a museum simply be part of a network that formed an aggregator? An alliance such as the one just announced between five museums in Georgia might be a model for what that might look like. The High Museum of Art, the Albany Museum of Art, the Columbus Museum, the Telfair Museum of Art and the Georgia Museum of Art have joined together to form the Georgia Art Museum Partnership, an initiative that will "allow for the sharing of resources and collections among museums in Georgia and the Southeast."

What does that mean, practically speaking? Well, it could mean that visitors and members have access not just to the information, collections, programs, exhibits and expertise of one museum but all five. But what is especially interesting is that this partnership is actually much more internally focused than externally: the initiative in part will include workshops on topics such as fundraising, public relations, exhibit design and collaborations between curators and educators that will allow staff from all five institutions to "share ideas, receive feedback and relay successes." In essence, the initiative will start to build a network of shared resources with each of the five museums as a network hub.

There is a precedent already for museums as nodes of a larger web rather than individual stand-alone institutions. Naturalis, the National Museum of Natural History in the Netherlands, views itself as an integral part of an expanding network that brings its building, collections and scientific research to the network as assets, rather than a center around which a network may or may not revolve. Natural history museums here in the States are recognizing the need and value of seeing themselves as nodes rather than individual entities as well. The Biodiversity Collections Index allows researchers access to specimens and collections around the world through a collaborative effort of museums and research facilities. As the BCI website states, "Research into biodiversity relies on the use of specimens. These specimens are held in reference collections around the world. BCI is a central index to these collections."

Perhaps the best way for museums to stay relevant--and open--will be to take a page from the libraries and become better integrated and networked not just with our visitors, but with each other as well.

Or not. Maybe it's still too soon to see, maybe any attempt at solving these grand issues will turn out to be nothing more than a desperate search for a panacea that isn't there--that is, that any of these approaches will turn out to be not as far-reaching as we hope. As Andras Szanto puts it in this article, "Digesting the full cultural implications of a once-in-a-generation event like the Great Recession will take years, even decades. In the meantime, museum leaders have an opportunity to frame new visions for the future." Let's just hope that our leaders will seize upon that opportunity.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

¡Bienvenidos a Nuestro Museo!

We are bustling about with last minute preparations for the CFM webcast tomorrow—checking equipment (will the video camera work?) and finalizing supplemental material (check out the Discussion Guide!) Over 300 individuals and groups are registered to watch and chat! Registration closes at the end of the day today, so go sign up now to join what is shaping up to be a heated exploration of diversifying museum audiences.

Meanwhile, I continue to noodle away at some of the issues Gregory raises in the lecture. Here’s the one I’m currently contemplating—what is the role of Spanish-language advertising or exhibit labels in museums? Gregory cites the intersecting trends of second and third generation Latinos becoming fluent in English, and these generations converging with the usual demographics of (college educated, affluent) museum attendees. In other words, he contends that Latinos who are likely to come to your museum speak English anyway. He scoffs at what he feels is a patronizing attempt by the Getty Museum to welcome Latino audiences by placing banners in Spanish down in “the ‘hood,” while the museum itself is up on "the hill,” remote and relatively inaccessible.

Clearly the answer is going to vary from museum to museum and community to community. Tammie Kuhn, director of the Children’s Museum of Houston and one of our webcast panelists tomorrow, notes that the Latino communities of Houston are different from those of Los Angeles, and children’s museums attract a different audience than art museums. Some museums may well have visitors who need or welcome Spanish language labeling to make their exhibits more accessible. But there are other considerations as well:

  • P.R. aimed at potential visitors. Marketing and labeling in other languages (whether it is Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean or Russian) sends the message that your museum doesn’t assume it’s is only of interest to English-speaking audiences. Even if many members of a given culture don’t need or want your text in their ancestral tongue, they may appreciate your courtesy in providing it. It’s a way of signaling “we see you.” (Ok, yay, I saw Avatar this weekend.)  
  • P.R aimed at potential donors. If funders want to promote diversity, the museum may be signaling its sensitivity and responsiveness to these concerns. (Whether or not the foreign language materials are actually effective in reaching diverse audiences.)
  • Tourism. Spanish language labels (or Chinese for that matter) may be of most use to the upper middle class international tourists visiting your museum.
  • Education of the English-speaking audiences. Giving prominent placement to foreign language texts may help build awareness about your community’s diversity, and promote tolerance for and appreciation of other cultures. Maybe it will even encourage some Americans to break with our traditional mono-linguism and learn a foreign language. (Am I being hopelessly optimistic?)
If your museum uses foreign languages for marketing or exhibit interpretation, which of the above describe your goals? Or do you have other motivations? And do you formally evaluate the success of your efforts to achieve these goals? Please, share…

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Future of Museums: Mausoleums or Houses of Curiosity?

The following essay by Gregory Rodriguez introduces the Discussion Guide for the second annual CFM lecture, to be webcast next Wednesday, Jan. 27 2–3 p.m. ET. Register for the free webcast.

The words "museum" and "mausoleum" sound an awful lot alike. And according to two recent studies out of Washington, if America's museum directors and curators don't make some fundamental changes in the way they do business, their institutions might soon become tombs.

The National Endowment for the Arts recently published the sixth in a series of surveys it has conducted since 1982 that seek to measure public participation in the arts. The news was not good. The NEA found a notable decline in theater, museum and concert attendance and other "benchmark" cultural activities between 2002 and 2008. In 2002, 39.4% of people 18 and older participated in such events within the previous 12 months. Last year, that number had dipped to 34.6%. Sure, the economy probably has something to do with the drop. But if you look deeper into the study's numbers, you will see that by and large cultural institutions are having a difficult time keeping pace with the demographic changes that are reshaping the American population.

Perhaps the most troubling news for museums in the NEA study is the declining percentage of Latino adults visiting the nation's art museums. In 1992, the survey found that 17.5% of Latino adults had been to an art museum in the previous year. That number dropped to 16.1% in 2002 and 14.5% in 2008. A 2005 study out of UCLA found a similar trend in Southern California. Between 1984 and 2005, the rate of Latino museum attendance locally declined, while Anglo attendance saw a rise.

Although some of that drop can be explained by the increase in the number of blue-collar immigrants, who may not visit museums because of financial or cultural reasons, there is evidence that museums have not done a great job of reaching out to the stratum of minority populations that does share the income and educational profile of Anglo culture lovers.

Last year, the Center for the Future of Museums published “Museums & Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures.” Data from Reach Advisors, authors of the report, shows that only one in 10 "core museum visitors" today is non-Anglo. Given the fact that nonwhites are projected to make up roughly half of the national population by mid-century, that figure should terrify anyone who loves museums.

Why are museums lagging behind the demographic shift? According to the NEA study, museum-going -- particularly art museums -- is largely the province of people with higher educational attainment and incomes. Because whites have more years of education than Latinos or blacks (the NEA does not collect data on Asians), it makes sense that they have higher rates of museum attendance. That said, the NEA survey also shows that nationwide, only 26% of whites had visited a museum in the previous 12 months.

To me, this suggests that the most effective and realistic way for museums to catch up with demographic shifts is to try harder to reach the growing ranks of college-educated, English-speaking non-Anglos. In particular, they should be trying to create cultural habits of museum attendance among all first-generation college graduates. And, yes, though they may want to occasionally create exhibits that are ethnically targeted, these guardians of houses of curiosity welcome any and all who are curious about the wider world.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

From Theory to Practice: Applying Futures Studies

A guest post contributed by Joe Cavanaugh, museum director of the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas. This week Joe is one of Elizabeth Merritt’s classmates in the University of Houston Future Studies Program’s certificate course in Strategic Foresight.

I anticipated that because this course is called “strategic foresight” it would be about developing a better strategic plan. I came intending to use it to develop a very professional plan at my museum, using the latest thinking in that regard.

The class isn't what I expected—we spent the first two and a half days on building a forecasting framework, how to do scanning and developing scenarios. (Tomorrow we start the module on strategic planning.) But I think this is going to be really useful—I can use these techniques to write a plan that takes into account the external events that the foresight approach helps me identify and analyze ahead of time. This might change where we decide we are going or want to go. Forecasting is very compelling way to look at things, especially in light of the dynamic changes that have occurred in the world since we wrote our last plan—changes that we did not anticipate.

Some elements of the future are easily predicted--they are on a known straight line, or close to it: population growth in Texas, immigration, increasing scarcity of fossil fuels and factors of societal change including education and media. These will have important and far-reaching consequences for any plan. Others require more imagination. Who could have predicted how fast LinkedIn and Facebook and Twitter would become important communication tools? Now the Internet, especially as bandwidth increases and becomes more efficient, has profound implications for my museum. But in my experience even when we do anticipate change, we often don’t react in a productive way.

For example, look at two issues facing our field fifteen years ago that were perceived as threats for the future of museums. One was the potential for museums to use the Internet to provide content and imagery. People worried it might deal a blow to visitation as people used the virtual museum and didn’t have to come through the actual doors. From everything I have seen, quite the contrary is true. People use online museum resources for study and interest but rather than hurting this may actually help visitation.

The other issue was Disney’s attempt to purchase property outside Manassas, Virginia, where they intended to create a Civil War-based theme park. In the hue and cry about the destruction of the land, this was perceived as a negative development for museums. As Disney and other theme parks invested in providing actual historical content and using real artifacts and hired real curators, people worried they could quickly overwhelm nonprofit museums. On the flip side, there was a concern that museums were treading on a slippery downhill slope if they made their institutions more attractive to younger audiences by “Disney-fying” their exhibits, using interactive media-based to convey information. Some felt that would be like a museum prostituting itself to increase its audience.

I freely admit I expressed these concerns back in the 1990s, asking “how dangerous is it?” I was deeply concerned that both the changes listed above could be very negative. It took only a few years for me to begin to see that the second of these challenges (making your exhibits more attractive by introducing new media) was not a negative, and likely was going to be required by the declining level of reading of young people. By the late 90’s, it was clear that we had to find ways other than print labels to get through to an audience that was reading less and less.

So, people's knee jerk reaction is that any change is more likely going to be bad than good. This resistance to change, not only in museums but every endeavor, is one we should strive to overcome. My futurist training has led me to decide that in any planning process I will encourage the team not to assume that every potential change is going to be a negative, and not to assume that the status quo is necessarily as good as it can be by any stretch of the imagination. I will be a proponent of two things: for people to be open to considering the trends and disruptive events that may well have an impact on our institution in the future; and for people to consider how to best survive and prosper if those outside forces take effect. And I've resolved to keep my eyes open for potential shifts in outside forces as time goes on.

Two trends I have already been watching for the past 10 years are in the areas of demographics and development. In Texas we are in the midst of a shift to a predominately Hispanic culture, and this will have an impact on attracting new audiences*. And there is a mega-shift of population with huge growth in our major cities. As Austin and San Antonio grow and edge even closer to Fredericksburg, it will affect our audience. I think the growth of population in these two centers will be good for my museum—tourism in Fredericksburg has increased every time there is an economic downturn or an increase in fuel prices that reduces travel because we are a day trip from two major population centers.

And now I have a new trend on my radar. The dynamic of the individuals in this class, coming from at least five foreign countries, has made me realize that we are going to be in a position to market and provide a meaningful experience to a more global community. I saw an article recently that referenced the largest potential growth market for tourism as being citizens from China. Our mission dealing with the Pacific War, a war that started in Manchuria and China ten years before Pearl Harbor, should resonate with this emerging audience.

[N.B. To join a lively discussion of museums in a majority-minority future, register for the CMF webcast "Towards a New Mainstream." Wednesday, January 27, 2:00 - 3:30 p.m. EST. Lecture by L.A. Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez followed by a panel discussion and on-line Q&A plus chat rooms.]

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Why Diversity? One Answer

Today's guest post is by Day Al-Mohamed, Senior Policy Advisor at the U.S. Department of Labor and member of the CFM Council. Day shares some thoughts in response to my post about the lecture by Gregory Rodriguez, which will be webcast on Wednesday, January 27 at 2 p.m. EST.

Diverse Juries

Gregory brought up the “importance” of having a minority on a speaking panel, saying that he wasn’t sure it was “right” or “appropriate” to have an individual speak for the community as a whole. That it was critical that we see people as individuals. The minor scandal when MSNBC’s Contessa Brewer accidentally confused civil rights activists Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton being perhaps the best recent illustration. She made the slip-up while introducing Jackson during a segment on homelessness. Gregory’s comment intimated that the network may have been saying - “Get me a black person to speak…I don’t care who” perceiving them as interchangeable.

On a theoretical level, I can agree with Gregory. We should treat people as individuals. We shouldn’t expect one black or Hispanic presenter to espouse the views of all the community. We shouldn’t seek out minorities to fill our quota or to act as token plots of color. But what is the alternative? Not having minorities present? I would strongly disagree. It is critical that diverse individuals are present. I may dislike tokenism as much as the next person, but there is more to the issue than just “stick some minority in there.” The very fact that even one individual present is of a different race or ethnicity, impacts a wide array of interactions, perceptions and other social factors.

Dr. Samuel Sommers did a study a few years ago called "On Racial Diversity and Group Decisions Making" in which he asked 30 different mock juries, each composed of six adults, to watch a video summary, edited from Court TV coverage, of the trial proceedings of an actual sexual assault case in which a black male defendant allegedly assaulted, separately, two white females. Half of the juries were all white and the other half had two black jurors.

Sommers found that diverse juries deliberated longer, cited more case-relevant facts during deliberation, made fewer factual mistakes, and were more likely to correct inaccurate statements than the all-white juries were. Was that because of the presence of the black jurors? Yes, but not in the way you would think. We generally assume that it is the different experiences and unique perspectives of the minority status individual that gives them their value. But the objections did not come from the black jurors. Sommers found that white jurors were actually responsible for a large proportion of the group differences, as they behaved differently in a racially mixed jury than in an all white jury.

White jurors in diverse groups mentioned more facts, made fewer factual errors, corrected more mistakes and raised the possibility of racism more often than did white jurors in homogeneous groups. Serving on a diverse jury seemed lead to careful consideration not only of racism itself, but also to more systematic and thorough information processing of all relevant facts.

“When any large and identifiable segment of the community is
excluded from jury service, the effect is to remove from the jury room
qualities of human nature and varieties of human experience, the
range of which is unknown and perhaps unknowable. It is not necessary
to assume that the excluded group will consistently vote as a class
in order to conclude, as we do, that its exclusion deprives the jury of
a perspective on human events that may have unsuspected importance
in any case that may be presented.”

—Justice Thurgood Marshall, Peters v. Kiff

Although Justice Marshall was talking about juries, I believe the same holds true for the example of speaking panels, museum exhibits, art programs or any other presentation or demonstration. So, if adding a diverse participant to a jury increases the overall sensitivity and perception of its members leading to an empirically BETTER result, then isn’t that what we’re looking for in our communities?

Even if it takes a little tokenism to get there.

Friday, January 8, 2010

A Side Note on Future Financial Models

The Indianapolis Children’s Museum has announced a deal with Procter & Gamble declaring “Swiffer Dusters” to be the official cleaning product of the museum. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has, in the past, struck similar deals with Arm & Hammer (baking soda) and Unico (HVAC.)

This is an interesting model for monetizing museums' reputation for good stewardship--taking an existing, intangible asset and turning it into cash. What other museum stand-bys can we list that are ripe for product endorsement?

Q-tips? (“Gentle enough for our artifacts, gentle enough for your ears!”)

Benjamin Moore zero VOC paint? (“Won’t corrode historic metals OR your lungs.”)

C’mon—I know you can add to this list.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Representation versus Individuality: A Museum Koan

I am still processing the thought-grenades Gregory Rodriguez lobbed at the audience during the CFM lecture last month. You’ll have the chance to grapple with them yourselves during the webcast January 27th, but I want to share some of my mental explorations as I work on the discussion guide for the webcast. Here’s one—a sort of museum koan that I haven’t been able to work through.

Gregory contends “we tend to think that whites behave as individuals and all non-whites act as representatives of their people.” He shares his experiences being typecast as “Latino” and expected to play that role. And this when his family has been in the US a hundred years! I get his point. My father’s family arrived at Ellis Island in 1906 but no one expects me to speak for all Byelorussians. “Constant and presumed foreignness” laments Gregory “—it’s a problem.”

A closely related issue is that minorities, in being typecast in their roles, are expected to represent everyone from the same category. Gregory contends it is unrealistic (and patronizing) to expect anyone to speak for “their group.”

And yet, with the best of intentions, isn’t this exactly what happens in museums, over and over and over again? In our earnest dedication to diversity, we carefully balance the composition of every panel, committee, council and board. But if the individuals chosen to create this diversity are not chosen to represent the perspective of (fill in the blank…African Americans, Japanese Americans, Native Americans, Latino), what is the expectation regarding their role in the group?

Is ensuring “diversity” in committees really about PR? A way to signal the museum’s commitment to social equity? Is it a way to do our small bit in ensuring equality of opportunity and advancement? (Though as Gregory also points out, often the representatives chosen to fill these roles are a close match in educational attainment and socio-economic class to the people making the appointments. Elites salving their conscience by finding “diverse representatives” from other elites.)

How does this play out at your organization? Are there expectations regarding the diversity of committees, teams, staff, etc? Are people recruited with the explicit or implicit expectation that they speak for or represent a particular group? If people aren’t expected to represent a group, what is the purpose of having “diverse representation” on boards, committees, etc.? Please weigh in…

And, just as a teaser, here is a clip from the lecture of Gregory talking about expectations regarding roleplaying and expectations:

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Reminder on Research Opportunity!

I recently posted about a free research opportunity being offered by Reach Advisors. They are inviting museums to apply to participate in a study of the fundamental motivations of the core visitors to museums. I think the results will be extremely interesting, and of immense importance to the field. Basic deal: you share your audience contact information, they share the results (including informatino specifically about your museum's audience.) More information and an application form are now available on their blog Museum Audience Insights. If I still worked in a museum, I'd click over and sign up now! As it is, I am going to encourage you to wade in...

Monday, January 4, 2010

Challenging Assumptions--Why Not Sell the Collections?

Last week I joined Gregory Rodriguez, Lori Fogarty and Jim DeMersman on air for KQED's Forum in San Francisco to discuss the effect of the recession on museums (archived recording here.) I was generally pleased with the discussion, but I am suffering from massive “Rats! I should have said…” syndrome regarding a question from one listener. Fortunately, this blog gives me an outlet for these second thoughts.

Michael’s email to the show blamed museums’ financial woes on the “anti-social management” of collections, pointing out that that “the Art Institute of Chicago could sell approximately 1% of its $35 billion collection and endow free admission forever.” I trotted out three answers, the first of which was the trite (but emotionally satisfying): “that’s like selling one of your children into servitude to support the others.”

Right after I finished the interview, I furiously scribbled down what I wish I had said:

1. Museums in the U.S. are filled with great collections largely because people donate them

2. If we start using collections as financial assets, the IRS is going to treat them as such, restricting or revoking the deductions associated with donations of collections (not to mention forcing museums to capitalize their collections and report them as assets, which would be a total pain in the ass.)

3. People who donate collections are motivated in large part by the associated tax-deduction

4. If the deduction disappeared, many of the donations would dry up

Then, being a good futurist-in-training, I sat back and started to question these assumptions. I think #1 holds up pretty well to examination. I am willing to say with complete confidence (despite the lack of data to back it up) that the vast majority of collections in our storage rooms were donated rather than purchased (and even the purchased objects are typically bought with charitable cash donations). Whether this is a good thing is another matter. I have long contended the prospect of “free” donations undermines attempts at rational collections planning by tempting museums to accept less than optimal material, using up scarce resources such as storage space, and staff time.

Having wrestled with IRS staff for many years on issues of capitalization, I am willing to stand by #2 as well. It has been extremely difficult to explain why our collections are primarily artistic, historic, cultural and scientific assets rather than financial assets. If we start conveniently treating them as financial assets whenever we need cash, that argument is going to quickly collapse. Particularly in light of pressure from pork-hunters such as Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who takes particular delight in seeking for waste and fraud amongst nonprofits. Meanwhile, the financial downturn is pressuring the federal government to find additional tax revenues wherever it can. There is an ongoing struggle to diminish the deductibility of partial gifts of art—and I can easily envision a future in which there is no deductibility at all.

But starting with #3, I think my assertions begin to get shaky. Looking at the whole array of things donated to museums (archives, wedding dresses, doll collections, ethnographic artifacts from around the world, fossils, etc.), how strongly are donors influenced by the prospect of a tax deduction? Sure they may be tickled at the prospect (I like a 50-cent-off coupon as much as the next person) but for the vast majority of the middle class donating items of relatively modest value, will it really affect their bottom line? And (stand by, heresy alert here) unlike Michael, I am not just concerned about donations of multi-million-dollar major works of art. With objects that valuable, the owners are going to take damn good care of them—the older works have probably spent the majority of their existence in private hands already. As long as we know where they are, do they have to be in museum storage to be accessible, or can they be accessed via loans? (And if this isn’t a viable model, tell me why so many museums skip over the works in their collections to borrow from private collectors for many exhibitions…) I am more concerned about objects with relatively lower monetary value that may be lost, damaged or disassociated from crucial contextual data if they don’t find their way into nonprofit institutions that appreciate their (potential) significance.

This in turn leads me to question assumption #4. I don’t doubt there would be at least a temporary dip in contributions (as there was after the 1986 tax changes that lowered tax rates making deductions effectively smaller), as people hold on to their “precious” to see if the policy would (with rabid lobbying) reverse. But in the long run, will donors be primarily motivated by their desire to ensure their treasures are preserved for posterity, and shared with the world? I think the answer is yes.

That leads me to the second answer I gave on-air to Michael’s question—you can’t violate the public trust “just a little bit” and then expect people to be reassured that everything else in storage is safe. Either museums have the reputation of taking their public trust responsibilities seriously (demonstrating this with the huge angst and often field-wide hue and cry whenever collections are prominently deaccessioned) or they don’t. I do believe that if the collections in storage are treated as a rainy day fund, people will be less likely to take museums seriously as custodians of the nation’s (non-financial) assets.

And I stand by my third on-air answer to the question as well, which is that all other issues aside, selling collections is too easy a way to solve the problem. A fat endowment can be an invitation to continued irrelevance, if it leads you to ignore the need to make anyone else care about and support your institution. Isn’t it safer, and better, to be so important to so many people that they want to pay for your services (or pay to let others, perhaps with fewer financial resources than the donors, enjoy them as well)? Think about it…then post your responses here.