Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Whole World a Museum?

Take a look at "Tales of Things," an interesting website that launched this month. It's part of the TOTeM project--"exploring social memory in the emerging Internet of Things." This UK-based project essentiall is encouraging people to catalog objects and share the associated stories in a public database. A prototype of the universal, dispersed, publically curated collection?

The "Internet of Things" is a concept that came out of MIT a decade ago, referring to the emergent culture of always-on, always connected devices. In this future scenario, all "things" are tagged at the moment of their creation (in this prototype, with a physical bar code) enabling owners/users to log and track the object's history.

The TOTem project explores how attaching personal histories to objects may change how we relate to them. Will objects that have their own "accession" and "catalog" records be less likely to be discarded, and more likely to be treasured and passed to a new user? Might this make personal possessions (and personal collections) more like public resources?

TOTeM is funded through a £1.39 million research grant from the Digital Economy Research Councils UK. The project is a collaboration between Brunel University, Edinburgh College of Art, University College London, University of Dundee and the University of Salford.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Hello Museum People!

My name is Pinky and I am from The Pinky Show. Bunny and I were invited do a guest CFM blog, so here we are. We realize that many of you may not know who we are or why we are interested in museums, so we will start with that.

We run an education project called The Pinky Show that studies social structures, ideology, and power. As you can imagine, this makes us particularly interested in certain institutional formations - especially schools and museums. For us, museums are fun to study because they're so often discussed via such a fascinating mess of contradictory, reductive representations that make it almost impossible to see clearly what they really are or how they're really functioning. For example:

Museums are instrumental in drawing attention to under-known histories and
Museums are inherently conservative in nature.

Museums help educate the general public about democracy and injustice;

Museums are instrumental in maintaining the hegemony of the ruling class.

Museums try to be as fair as possible in the presentation of histories and ideas;

Museums allow themselves veto-power over marginalized people's ability to represent themselves.

Museums promote compassion and fairness;

Museum institutional culture is extremely hierarchical and anti-democratic.

Community programming is a high priority for most museums;

Museums' community programming is not done with communities, it is done for communities.

Museums want broad-base support and audience participation;

Certain classes of people are not welcome.

Museums are all about education;

Feminist, radical, grassroots, and other forms of counter-hegemonic educational
practices don't count as legitimate forms of education in museum education departments.

Museums are interested in bettering society;

Museums uphold the dominant values and practices of capitalism.

Museums are constantly mindful of the future;

Museums people do not think revolution, only reform.

We could go on and on with a hundred more examples, but basically we just think (hope!) that trying to untangle this giant heap of narrative-static will bring us closer to unlocking the mysteries of how people understand their complicated relationships to history and power. Which reminds me...

Next month, May 24, 25, & 26, The Pinky Show will be at the American Association of Museums' Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo in Los Angeles. We'll be there, along with over 5,000 museum people from all over the world, to do two things:

1. We'll be exhibiting a small collection of museum-related artifacts that we
brought back from our recent expedition to the future. (Actually, it would be more accurate to add an "s" - as in "futures" - since there are actually an infinite number of futures...) Our expedition was not a comprehensive survey of possible futures, but rather, due to the high cost of gasoline, we were only able to stop off at a few random future-moments. However, the objects that we were able to bring back with us are pretty neat to look at. Time-travel is a pretty big hassle so if you can stop by for even a few minutes that would make our day - especially for Bunny, who really wore herself out building the time travel machine.

2. We'll also be bringing a video camera & microphone and will be interviewing anyone willing to share their thoughts and ideas concerning the future of museums. We're focusing our attention on what you - museum people - have to
say about where museums are headed because, One, you're the ones who perform the day-to-day, hands-on transformational work that will directly reshape museums' relationship with the general public; and Two, the general public isn't allowed inside the convention hall.

We're very excited to do something at the AAM Thing because we believe that museums are like everything else in the world - they can be used for good or they can be used for evil (or most likely some undetermined ratio of both), and of course if we can do something to nudge things more toward the former and away from the latter, that's wonderful. Coming at things from an education perspective, we always think it's a good idea to start where people are at, so showing up with a microphone and asking simple questions about the future of museums seems like a reasonable way to go. If you're going to be there, please come looking for us!
Hope to see you in Los Angeles!’

Pinky & Bunny

Monday, April 19, 2010

Museums in a Troubled World: Models for Relevance

This week’s guest blogger, James Leventhal, is Deputy Director for Development at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco (follow them on Twitter @jewseum), and serves on the board of the Western Museums Association.

I had the good fortune this past Saturday to listen to Robert Janes, PhD. speak as the centerpiece of this year’s Helzel colloquium presented by John F. Kennedy University’s Museum Studies program in Berkeley, CA.

Janes is an inspiring and eloquent presenter on the importance of the work we all do on behalf of museums. And he has issued a call to action in his new book Museums in a Troubled World (2009)—I recommend it highly to anyone who cares about museums in the 21st century. (You can hear him talk about the book on CFM’s YouTube Channel.)

JFKU’s Museum Studies conference room was full of emerging professionals, professors and young museum studies students. In that setting, how can you not love stuff like this?

“…museums and galleries are potentially the most free and creative work environments on the planet…There are very few other workplaces which offer more opportunities for thinking choosing and acting in ways that can blend personal satisfaction and growth with organizational goals.”

To realize this potential, Janes promotes new models, encouraging museums to be relevant, not imitative, noting

“museums are using existing mental maps while they drift onto the shoals of unthinking imitation, repetition and excess.”

He listed museums that he sees as doing important, relevant work with an eye on reinvention:

• In terms of global consciousness with a focus on climate change and an acknowledgement of crisis-level environmental conditions, The Field Museum in Chicago and Museum Victoria
in Manila, which has taken on health issues in the communities they serve

• The Heifer Village museum in Little Rock, run by Heifer International engages audiences around hunger and the need for sustainable practices in a novel way.

To this short list, Adrienne McGraw of California Exhibition Resources Alliance (CERA) added the Pratt Museum in Kachemak Bay, Alaska. Following the massive disaster of the Exxon Valdes, The Pratt Museum took on the cleaning and environmental message as a large part of its defining mission.

And here in the San Francisco bay area, both the Chabot Space and Science Center and the California Academy of Sciences have dedicated a large portion of their mission and physical plant to global consciousness. In this setting, speaking to a forward thinking museum studies program in Berkeley, Dr. Janes was preaching to the choir.

But Janes also asks us to reassess what we do with our collections. He is being credited with starting some of the talk about moving away from museums as collecting institutions. Janes sees collections as “sacred cows,” and says it is time for us "…to talk to the cows.” He writes, “The salient question for museums is whether they can transcend their commitment to the stewardship of collections and embrace broader societal issues?” (p. 27).

For me, the “take aways” were the need to emphasize the importance of staff and increased professionalism of the museum worker, with a focus on collaborative, cross-departmental models and leadership training. As Janes joked, “If you don’t like the marketing person, you are just going to have to deal with it, because they are coming to be part of planning every meeting.”

In this time, when major, mid-sized museums in California are closing (for example, see stories on the Claremont Museum of Art here and here) the Helzel colloquium really ended up being a tribute to the value of the museum worker.

More commentary on Janes’' talk, by graduate student Jason Jones, can be found at the westmuse blog

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Shaping the Financial Future of Museums: A Commentary by Marie Malaro

This week's guest blogger is Marie C. Malaro, a lawyer, author and retired university professor. For many years she was legal counsel for the Smithsonian Institution, and later was Director of the Graduate Program in Museum Studies at The George Washington University, where she is Professor Emerita, periodically teaching online. She is widely known for her books and many articles, as well as her 20 years of participation in the American Law Institute/American Bar Association’s annual seminar, “Legal Problems of Museum Administration.” The post originated as an email from Marie to CFM director Elizabeth Merritt, author of the article referenced in the commentary.

The weather this past winter forced me to sit down at my desk and tackle some “not urgent” matters that have been patiently waiting for my attention. On top of that pile is a copy of your article in the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of Museum that gives an overview of Museum Financial Information 2009. When I first read the article I had the urge to write you immediately with my comments, but then I reminded myself that I am supposed to be retired. So, I waffled and put the article in the “not urgent” file. Now that I look at the article again I’m inclined to forget retirement and get on my soapbox.

Your article is very good at showing how quickly things change these days and how this rapid pace has affected all aspects of our society, even throwing into question the future of museums in this country. Your focus is on what may lie ahead for our museums financially now that just about all means of support currently used by museums have been compromised by the latest financial crisis. But then after reviewing the data AAM recently compiled your advice to museums is that they may now have to run even faster than they have been in order to stay in place. This conclusion saddened me because I think we can come up with some very positive (but challenging) advice about what museums should do now, if we look back far enough.

The position the museum community now finds itself in should have been foreseen at least 30 years ago. By the early 1990’s museums were becoming more and more market oriented. The bicentennial boom of the 1970’s and early 80’s with its out- pouring of grant money for museums was over and many museums were left with new buildings and programs that were costly to sustain. The solution for many was to embrace a more entrepreneurial approach to acquiring income.

The first steps were tentative but the spirit of competition soon took hold. Museum shops were moved to center stage in museums and some even ended up in shopping malls. Exhibitions became “events” not supported by philanthropy but by corporate sponsorships which are nothing more than business arrangements with for-profits organizations. “Lending for profit” became common place and museums joined the bandwagon only to be diverted when marketers began singing the praises of “branding”. And, not surprisingly, those holding major management positions in museums began to compare themselves with managers in the for-profit world and demand similar compensation packages.

It is growing harder and harder to tell whether museums are nonprofit or for-profit organizations by the way too many operate today and just about every problem now facing museums is due to the failure of museums to understand and adhere to their nonprofit status. Let me explain this sweeping statement.

We support a nonprofit sector in this country and afford it many privileges because we expect that sector to offer our society services and products that cannot be provided by our government sector or our for-profit sector. In other words, nonprofits are expected to stand apart from the other two sectors and put their special privileges (great tax advantages, government encouraged philanthropy, freedom to accept volunteer services and a public willing to volunteer,) to good use so they can provide their unique services and products to the public. When the nonprofit sector forgets what its distinctive role is (when what it offers cannot be distinguished from what the other two sectors provide) it places in jeopardy its special privileges, and the good will of the public. This is why we see so many attempts by governments to curtail tax exemptions enjoyed by nonprofits, why true philanthropy (giving without expecting anything in return) is being replaced by “deal-making" and why there is so much confusion in the profession about what a museum is.

For more of my thoughts on this issue, I encourage readers to revisit my 1994 book “Museum Governance”. This was written for museum board members but few, I fear, have read it. I particularly recommend Part One of the book and chapters 9 and 11 in Part Two. These should flesh out what I am trying to say in this abbreviated post.

In a nutshell, there is a bright and secure future for museums if they truly commit to their nonprofit status in both word and action and demonstrate to the public that what they offer is unique and important.

P.S. I recognize that many other types of nonprofits are guilty of straying off course but nothing changes if this is the excuse used by others to do nothing.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Museum Design 2034: Respite and Retreat

This is the third installment of a series of “stories from the future” illustrating how museum practitioners can use trends data as a jumping off point for exploring potential futures. (Read the earlier installments here and here. The CFM forecasting report Museums & Society 2034 speculates that, in the face of the increasing technological noise aand clutter of the future, museums may become oasis in which people escape from multi-tasking and What might that look like? Maybe like the (fictional) Ransolm Museum of Art—a 21st century institution that has capitalized on the desire for respite, retreat and the real spawned by our hyper-connected, multi-tasking, increasingly virtual daily environment of work and play.

The Ransolm Museum of Art in Los Angeles provides a jarring contrast to the bustling city outside its doors. After passing through the four acre “buffer garden” (which conceals advanced sound baffle devices that block 90% of the noise from surrounding streets) visitors are required to check all non-medical electronic devices at the museum’s door. Visitors using technologically based accessibility-enhancement devices such as EnhancedSight and EchoLocator are encouraged, but not required to forgo these devices as well. In fact, smuggling in an earphone bud or cloudlink device won’t do you any good, because the museum’s walls are engineered to block all electronic signals from outside.

Once inside, the Ransolm’s exhibits are a throwback to a bygone era. There is one set of labels (print), rather than the abundance choice of interpretive “threads” museum-goers are used to selecting using portable interfaces. They don’t offer recorded audio tours—not even old-fashion cassette tape packs (though this was suggested by one board member, who waggishly contended it would be retro enough to fit the museum’s low-tech ethos.) Visitors requesting audio commentary are personally escorted by a staff member who obligingly reads the label, providing translation as appropriate, or describes the painting or sculpture in question.

In contrast with the replicas and holographic projections used by many museums today (which according to the American Association of Museums, comprise an average of 20% of the material on display in a typical art museum) all the objects at the Ransolm are “real” and genuine. Their conservators even follow the quaint (and many would argue out-dated) convention of carrying out repairs in a way that renders them distinct and identifiable.

This does not mean the museum is non-interactive. Sketching and (old-fashioned mechanical) photography are encouraged. Over a dozen “appreciation” groups have regularly scheduled meetings in the museum to discuss exhibitions or individual works of art. The museum’s “contemplation rooms” are particularly popular—here a visitor (after browsing the collections via the web, from home) can book time, unobtrusively escorted by a staff member, to sit and examine a work selected from the collection for up to an hour.

The museum has mined a rich source of revenue via its corporate retreats, enabling companies to rent the museum after hours or on Mondays for staff “personal renewal” time, or for “single tasking” sessions in the museums meeting rooms and auditorium. (Which has excellent acoustics despite the absence of electronic speakers. Of course, computer projection is not available.)

In a 2033 poll by the Los Angeles Times WebNews service, LA residents voted the Ransolm Museum the “Best Secret City Treasure.” This despite the fact that it receives over 60,000 visits a year (which is above the national average for an art museum of its size.) At peak hours you may be sharing the museum with 300 other people—but it would be difficult to tell that as you enjoy the quiet and peace of its galleries.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Another Opportunity to Train as a Futurist

Why? Because bringing a futurist perspective to museum planning is really, really useful. Futurism, and forecasting, is about understanding how to spot and interpret relevant trends, project what they may mean for the future of your organization, and take appropriate action now to adapt to or change that future. Doesn't that sound like a vital skill for anyone helping to guide their museum through the coming decades of change?

So here is an opportunity to take a crash course in the basic skills of futurism. The University of Houston Future Studies Program is again offering museum practitioners

a 25% discount on their week-long certificate course in Strategic Foresight to be held May 17th – 21st, 2010.

This program is run by Dr. Peter Bishop, who is one of the founding members of the CFM Council. The project-based workshop teaches participants to “anticipate disruptive change and work towards the creation of transformational change in order to influence the future of their organizations, companies and communities.” (The course offers 4 CEUs for attendance and a certificate upon completion of a project after the workshop.) I took the course in January and it was, indeed, transformative to my thinking. It is intense, it is immersive, it is stimulating. It will change the way you approach your work--I bet you spend the trip back furiously jotting notes on what you want to do on your return, and how to share your new skills with your colleagues.

Joe Cavanaugh, Museum Director of the National Museum of the Pacific War, was one of my classmates in January, and blogged about the benefits of learning to think like a futurist, here.

More information is available here. The deadline for discounted tuition and hotel is April 15th. Call staff of the University at 713.743.1060 for more information or to register for the course at the CFM discount price of $1875.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Future is Collaborative Part II: Early Exemplars

This is the second guest blog post by G√ľnter Waibel, Program Officer at OCLC Research on the convergence of libraries, archives and museums (LAMs.) Read part I here.

When OCLC Research recently studied LAM convergence through a workshop series (see the report Beyond the Silos of the LAMs: Collaboration Among Libraries, Archives and Museums), we found that every single institution we visited had the ambition to create a single search across all of the varied collections under its jurisdiction. The Smithsonian Institution, one of the locations for our workshops, recently released the Collection Search Center, where 2 million records with over 275K multimedia files from Smithsonian libraries, archives and museum flow into a common online space. The process of building this single search interface created a new understanding of LAM systems, descriptive strategies and curatorial traditions, and for the first time positions the Smithsonian to comprehensively communicate the wealth of its 19 museums, 18 archives, 1 library (with 20 branches), 1 zoo and 9 research centers beyond the boundaries of its individual unit websites. And lest you think that single search is only for largest museum complexes or the Minnesota Historical Society (a veteran of single search), check out the Magnes Museum’s LAM collection search, as well as the Historic New Orleans Collection and the Autry National Center.

While discussions around LAM collaboration often focus on access, the financial benefits of jointly shouldering infrastructure investments bear close scrutiny as well, particular in tough economic times. For instance, LAMs all have made a sizable investment in producing digital content—however, over time that initial investment is dwarfed by the costs of managing these assets, and preserving them for the long term. As the report by Sustainable Economics for a Digital Planet by the Blue Ribbon Taskforce on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access demonstrates, preservation is costly and depends on mobilizing an intricate web of players with different incentives and capabilities. In recognition of the fact that joint infrastructure investments will move LAMs into the future, Yale University (depending on how you count, home to at least 22 LAMs, including three major museums) has created an Office of Digital Assets and Infrastructure, which currently investigates not only single search for the campus, but central digital asset management as well as digital preservation. The Yale Center for British Art, the Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History are prominent players in all of these endeavors.

Digital as well as physical infrastructure has been a catalyst for collaboration at the University of Calgary, where a new building in the heart of campus (The Taylor Family Digital Library) will unite the campus LAMs, as well as various student services, under a single roof. The library, archive and museum staff have been administratively integrated into a single Libraries & Cultural Resources unit. Under the themes of staffing, research, learning services, technology, outreach and collections, cross-domain working groups created reports charting the possibilities of a converged future. You can find an overview of all this work in this article by Peggy White. Naturally, single search is on the top of the to-do list at Calgary, and OCLC Research facilitated a two-day discussion about the goals and features of one-stop searching. In the US, the State Libraries, Archives and Museums of Alaska are on a similar trajectory: the departments have been administratively integrated since 1991 – however, only with the imminent creation of an integrated facility did the LAMs finally come together around shared functions and interests, as Sarah Barton outlined during an MCN panel presentation last year. The University of Calgary and the State Libraries, Archives and Museums of Alaska are a striking example of the energy engaging in the vision of a shared future releases.

In summary, the model of a single library, archive or museum alone seizing the opportunities (access) or shouldering the burdens (example: digital preservation) of the networked age are doomed to fail. While you don’t all have to move in with each other right away, think about the benefits collaboration can bring to your institution: it is transformative because it will enable us to give our users what they are clamoring for – for example, access on the scale of the digital hubs which dominate their lives. It will leave your brain and pocket-book free to invest in what you do best, and let your collaborations carry you over the finish line for the rest. To flog my example one last time, museums aren’t in the digital preservation business, they are in the exhibition, education and jaw-dropping business. While we may not yet have the right policy and social conditions in place to make the leap to the national knowledge commons or related digital infrastructure investments, you should absolutely try collaboration at home, LAM or otherwise. The current activities in the local context of common administration are fertile ground on which broader common interest collaborations among independent LAMs can grow.

n.b.--On September 20-21, 2010, a forum on collaboration, created by OCLC Research, planned by library, archive, museum professionals, and hosted by the Smithsonian, will explore how to create a more collaborative culture.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Spotting the Long News

I sometimes use this blog to highlight news items that may presage important developments in the future—the leading edge of trends lapping at our toes. This short TED talk by Kirk Citron asks a good question: how do we know which stories are transitory, and which have enduring significance (what Citron calls “long news?)

Sorting news into two categories (let’s call them “long news” and “short news”) is an interesting little forecasting exercise to apply when reading the daily headlines. It’s easy, for example, to shrug off today’s news that the International Banana Club and Museum is being booted from its space by the city. (At least we hope that the founder’s resulting attempt to sell the whole collection on eBay is not a harbinger of things to come…)

I tried this exercise out—plucking one day’s news summaries of my mail bin, and applying my budding forecasting skills. Here’s my vote for the 3 stories from that day that are likely to turn out to be Long News. They are not, of themselves, of earth shattering significance, but it’s my bet that they illustrate trends of immense importance to museums in coming decades:

Story: Detroit Institute of Arts opens a major new Islamic gallery.

Summary and background: DIA was founded in the 1880’s, when Detroit was a burly, growing city fueled first by its role as a thriving transportation hub on the Great Lakes and then by its pre-eminence in automobile manufacturing. Now the city faces a crisis in its traditional core industry, a declining population (as people migrate to the suburbs) and an increase in diversity of its population (the article cites the “emergence of a sizable black middle class and the arrival of Middle Eastern audiences.”) Last year DIA slashed its budget by nearly 20 percent, laying off a commensurate number of staff. One action director Graham Beale took in response to these challenges was hiring a curator with experience at Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art, who then mined the museums collections to open the new Islamic gallery.

Trends: decline of some major cities as their historic income bases collapse; the attendant decline in traditional supporters of the major cultural institutions; growing minority populations contrasting with museums’ traditional, predominantly white, audiences.

Pithy quotes: (from the chair of the DIA’s Asian and Islamic Arts Forum, referring to the fact that many Muslim attendees at the opening of the gallery had never visited the museum before) “They didn’t feel connected. [The prevailing view was] “there was nothing I wanted to see.” And from an interview with a “black socialite” at a recent DIA gala, remarking on the largely white attendees, “Detroit has significant black wealth…but it’s hard getting them to participate.”

Story: The Children’s Museum of Richmond opens a satellite branch

Summary: CMR opens a second location in the (affluent) development of Short Pump. The museum hopes to raise enough additional revenue from this location, adjacent to a Whole Foods, to grow its earned income and underwrite service to other areas.

Trends: Decreased reliance on contributions; multiple locations for one museum; situating museums to reach desirable audience segments.

Pithy quotes: From the director "A lot of organizations, when they hit a recession, try to cut their way out of the problem. We're trying to grow our way out of the problem." From the board chairman:" By opening a second location, the Children's Museum of Richmond will be able to generate additional revenue that will aid in serving more children throughout central Virginia, especially those from communities with limited economic resources." (See additional remarks on this project from director Karen Coltrane here.)

Story: an obituary of the Fresno Metropolitan Museum

Summary: This opinion piece tracks the decline and closing of the Fresno Met, which had its origin in 1976 when Founder Lewis Eaton obtained the old Fresno Bee building for a new arts center. The museum undertook an ambitious expansion in 2004, acquiring land and engaging a high profile architect. In the process, it closed for over 3 years and overran the original budget. The museum never regained financial stability after reopening in 2008, finding itself with $4 million in debt, unable to pay even the interest much less repay the principle. It closed in January this year.

Trends: in the future, museums can actually die. Factors contributing to mortality: organizations driven by personal agendas rather than audience need; niche competition with other museums; over-investment in physical infrastructure (land and buildings); decreasing support from local government; disconnect between the agenda set by the people providing the money and the preferences of the people choosing not to use the museum.

Pithy quote: former board member on why the nascent Met didn’t merge with the Fresno Art Museum “It was made clear that even if we agreed to turn over our entire museum and contents to these people, possibly a few of us might be put on their board, but this new group of people would be in control.” (Emphasis added.)

What’s your pick for “long news” from this week’s Dispatches from the Future of Museums? Write in and share your forecasts…