Thursday, April 28, 2011

Campaign for the Abolition of Nouns

“I seem to be a verb”—Buckminster Fuller
My beef with nouns:
a) they are, at best, approximations—attempts to create clear boundaries for identities that are inherently fuzzy

b) As they mutate over time, they accumulate archaic baggage, outdated meanings that continue to shade our perceptions and

c) They get in the way of seeing the complex reality of the thing we are trying, inadequately, to label

For example:

Or see this great post exploring the increasingly fuzzy boundaries of the noun “book.”

What triggered this rant? The frequency with which I hear variations on the statement “museum’s don’t do…” or “we don’t do that because we are a museum.” This rigid self-image is the institutional equivalent of the Buddhist concept of the fallacy of “I.” We lock into stories about ourselves that we tell over and over again, instead of embracing the fluid and ever changing nature of our identity. We, and museums, too often let our behavior be determined by internal image of who we are, rather that by external needs and opportunities.

One of core purposes of futures studies is to shake up our assumptions about the world, about ourselves. In CFM forecasting workshops we prod people to question the assumptions they have about museums. When asked to list things they “absolutely know to be true about museums” some of the things museumers commonly list are:
  • Museums own collections
  • Museums are nonprofits
  • Museums are educational
  • Museums are respected by the public

Part two of the exercise consists of listing the exact opposite of these assumptions:
  • Museums do not own collections
  • Museums are not nonprofits
  • Museums are not educational
  • Museums are not respected by the public
The challenge is to imagine what could result in the insertion of that “not.” What forces would create a future in which museums do not own collections, and what would that look like? What trends or events would result in museums losing nonprofit status? I’ve yet to encounter an assumption for which a group of creative museum folk can’t create a plausible story of how it could be flipped on its head.

Some of these thought exercises are cautionary and instructive—once we imagine what events might lead to the loss of tax exempt status, how can we make sure that doesn’t happen? Some are liberating, shaking up our thinking of what museums are, or are not, loosening the constrains of our designate noun, giving us license to simply do what needs to be done—and then figuring out what the resulting thing is going to be called.

Maybe the next noun we should tackle is “curator”…

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

What's the Point of a Museum Website?

Ignite Smithsonian.

Many of you have probably already heard that on April 11 the auditorium of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian was packed from 10 a.m.– 12:30 p.m. with people talking about museums, technology and how to best combine them.

The Concept (shamelessly stolen from the SI Web and New Media Strategy site)
  • A series of Ignite talks. Each speaker speaks for 5 minutes. The speaker uses 20 slides which advance automatically every 15 seconds. Talks are lively, entertaining, provocative. There's a performance art aspect to Ignite events, and it's an easy/fun way to share a lot of ideas in a short period of time. Learn more about Ignite talks on the official Ignite website.
  • Museums and the Web is in Philadelphia the week before and a number of speakers will be in Washington the week of the 11th, so let's take advantage of that and share their smarts for all the local D.C. people who can't afford to get up to Philly.
  • Hear from some non-museum people and some museum people who did not speak at Museums and the Web, to a) take advantage of smart people who will be around and also introduce some outside ideas in the mix
  • Inject a big can of whoop-ass ideas into ole' SI
  • Have fun, meet new people
This goal was certainly accomplished. Talks ranged from the humorously thoughtful (Elissa Frankle comparing how museums teach history to making a souffle) to the more serious (Brett Bobley, chief information officer, NEA about the Data Challenge).

One of the talks that I personally found most interesting was by Koven Smith, director of technology at the Denver Art Museum. "What's the Point of a Museum Website?" he asked.

It got me thinking, what do I use a museum's website for? Typically, it's to find the address, hours of operation and a point of contact for when I have a question. Smith suggests that rather than museums continually focusing upon content and how websites need more, instead museums should be about enabling access to content, "whether that content is produced by us or others."

After listening to the responses to the Pinky Show's question on the digitization of art collections as well as the the criticisms of Google's Art Project, it makes me begin to wonder how this all fits together. Is this digitization helping enable access to content or is it simply providing more and more content for you wade through and find the answers that you're looking for? And let me tell you, sometimes on a museum website it's incredibly hard to find points of contact or location.

So I put the question to you smart folk, what do you think is the purpose of a museum website?

- Guzel duChateau, AAM New Media Specialist and CFM Program Coordinator

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Museums & Wikipedia: The Future of Collaboration and Accessibility

Lori Byrd Phillips is a museum studies graduate student at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) and the current Wikipedian-in-Residence at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. She recently received a full scholarship from the Wikimedia Foundation to participate in Wikimania, an international conference located this year in Haifa, Israel.

When I first started my graduate program in museum studies I would never have thought that Wikipedia would become such an important part of my research and experiences within the museum field. Over the course of the past two years, however, I’ve come to understand the potential of Wikipedia as a collaborative learning tool and as a means for increasing accessibility to museum content. The discussions within the museum field surrounding trends in collaboration, accessibility, and technology solidify my feeling that Wikipedia has an important role to play in the future of museums. The Museums & Society 2034 report points to a future that includes a creative, collaborative renaissance stemming from a technology-savvy society. IMLS encourages museums to provide tools for communities to learn important 21st century skills, including collaboration and media literacy. The 2010 Horizon Report: Museum Edition describes key trends in museum technology that will promote visitor interaction and accessibility. Wikipedia can serve to answer the call of each of these trends.

I have had the opportunity to work with both the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and the Indianapolis Museum of Art on Wikipedia-related projects. I am currently the Wikipedian-in-Residence at the Children’s Museum, where I am coordinating a content donation from the museum to Wikimedia, including images as well as institutional research. The collaboration is not about driving traffic from Wikipedia to the museum’s website (though that is a perk), but about benefiting a much wider, global audience through the sharing of content. Through the Museum Apprentice Program, we developed a program that allowed middle and high school students to contribute information to Wikipedia. The students worked in teams to research iconic museum objects, learn Wikipedia with the help of detailed guides, and create a total of five new Wikipedia articles. The Indianapolis Museum of Art’s E-Volunteer program provides the resources for volunteers to learn Wikipedia and then research and create articles about notable IMA artworks. The program has the potential for Wikipedians from all over the world to become IMA E-Volunteers, as well.

It is through programs such as these that I believe Wikipedia can prove valuable for the museum of the not-so-distant future. Community programming can utilize Wikipedia in order to combine collaborative, 21st century research skills with an efficient method for sharing collections information. Museums are being called upon to be increasingly accessible, but digitization efforts can be time consuming for staff. Museums are also expected to offer educational services to their communities, including opportunities for digital literacy. Wikipedia is one of the largest collaborative digital communities in existence, and will only continue to become more relevant in the coming years. By providing public programming opportunities that use Wikipedia to teach 21st century research skills, museums can also digitize their published collections information in a way that is not time consuming for already-overburdened staff. In addition to this dual-benefit for museums and those participating in such programs, the wider global community benefits through increased access to the museum content that is added to the encyclopedia. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s also the potential of mobile phone applications, where geolocation programs or QR codes can link to Wikipedia articles from within exhibits and provide deeper levels of information for visitors. Sounds like a win-win-win (…-win?) situation to me!

Many are still concerned about Wikipedia’s level of reliability, but in actuality the information in Wikipedia is extremely well vetted, not to mention well referenced. In recent years, automated systems have been developed that greatly reduce vandalism, making this much less of an issue. Another concern is the museum’s lack of control over contributed content. However, more often than not your contributions are made even better, not worse. One of the greatest benefits of Wikipedia is the ability to update information and easily maintain accuracy. In my opinion, the benefits of sharing professional expertise and collections information on Wikipedia far outweigh the often overinflated issues of reliability and control.

Others feel that engaging with the Wikipedia community can be intimidating, especially due to the various policies that are in place to maintain accuracy. Luckily for museums, a Wikipedia community known as GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums) provides resources to assist with the collaboration between Wikipedia and the cultural sector. Through the centralized efforts of the GLAM initiative, institutions around the world have begun to coordinate with Wikipedia in more purposeful ways, including the British Museum, the Palace of Versailles, and the National Archives in Washington D.C. Wikipedia certainly has an important role to play in the future of museums, both as a means for increasing accessibility and as a learning tool for our communities. It has been inspiring to see how the encyclopedia has already become an indispensible tool for some institutions in the cultural sector.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Trends and Futures in the Economic Condition of Museums

Today AAM released its second annual report on the economic state of America’s museums, U.S. Museums Continue to Serve Despite Stress. The report is based on a survey of AAM institutional members.

Some of the news is bad:
  • More than half the museums in the survey (53%) saw their revenues shrink in 2010 (while just 28% saw an increase). Government funding took the worst hit, down at 52% of museums and up at just 12%.
  • 71% of museums reported economic stress at their institutions ranging from moderate (39%) to severe (14%) or very severe (18%) – with very severe stress defined as “the very worst I have seen in at least 5 years.” In the 2009 survey, 67% of museums reported economic stress.
  • Museums are relying on drastic measures to respond to economic challenges, like hiring freezes (at 35% of responding museums) and deferring maintenance (30%).
Some of the news is good:
  • Fully half of the museums that responded to the survey indicated some increase in attendance in 2010, with a significant increased (at least 5%) at 32% of museums.
  • More than three-quarters of the museums maintained (51%) or expanded (27%) services to K-12 students and teachers in 2010.
  • And they managed to hold the line on admission prices (the average adult general admission ticket is still around $7, if museums charge any admission).
For futurists, the most interesting thing in the report is the trends spotted by museum leaders that are likely to affect the economic condition of museums in years to come. Not all of these can be confirmed by the hard numbers in the AAM report, but they could be the signs of future trouble:
  • The challenge of attracting potential donors to governing boards
  • A decline in local property values = a reduction in local tax revenues (“We were not hit too badly this past year but are expecting a delayed impact in the next couple of years as property tax income is expected to decline.”)
  • A trend away from public support for higher education (and primary ed, too!)
  • Regional declines in specific industries that have traditionally supported local museums.
  • And a shift in philanthropic focus from arts, culture and education to “social services, environment and other causes.”
Are these just temporary blips in a time of recession? Or permanent alterations to the landscape of museum funding? Are there other trends that museums need to track? Let us know!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Museums and Spontaneous Eruptions of Art: Yarnbombing

Over the past two weeks, we've had Maria Mortati share with us the foundation of the San Francisco Mobile Museum and Barbara Stauffer discussing the challenges of orchestrating a participatory design experience in an institution. To round out the conversation, this final entry is from the street artist, and self proclaimed "yarn bomber", Streetcolor.

I am a Yarnbomber. Or I should say—I am a regular artist by day and a yarnbomber by night. Yarnbombing is the activity of putting knitting or crocheting outside, often onto parking meters, poles, street lamps, bike racks, telephone booths and trees but also onto sculpture, bus seats, potholes and overpasses. When this began in 2009 it was considered a form of graffiti, but it has moved into the broader category of street art. It is now an international phenomenon and is spreading like a fire. There is a lot of it going on in Europe where I am told it is much more satirical and witty then what we are doing in the States. It figures.

Yarnbombing and Museums

I started yarnbombing 10 months ago, knitting long complicated colorful strips and sewing them onto poles all around Berkeley, Calif. I put them up in front of places that I loved, gardens, shopping districts, restaurants and mostly, really, bakeries. I basically made a map of my life in yarnbombing, putting up more than 60 yarn bombs. Inevitably my mind turned to museums, as a favorite place to go and as an interesting place to provoke a discussion. I see the yarnbombing as art and I wondered how a museum might respond. My assistant, “The Russian,” and I yarnbombed SFMOMA, the De Young Museum, the Cantor Art Center in Palo Alto, Museum of Art And History in Santa Cruz, San Jose Museum of Art, Musee D'orsay in Paris and the Crocker Museum in Sacramento. Many of these installations included several knitted pieces. We often put the pieces up at night or when the museums were closed to avoid the security guards. This work is not permitted and I would imagine is a bit of a surprise the next morning.

How the Museums Responded
  • San Jose Museum of Art: No response. I'm not sure if the piece even stayed up.

  • SFMOMA: I posted this on their Facebook page and received an enthusiastic response from their administer. This installation is still up and was photographed profusely by passersby.
  • De Young Museum: We put up 3 pieces and the park service took down 2 of them immediately. One piece stayed up and various people wrote to us or blogged about it. No comment from The De young. I don't think they noticed it was there.
  • Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History: This one was daring because I put it on their property which I usually avoid as rude and pushy. The Museum didn't respond, but they left it up and many visitors to the museum have sent me pictures or blogged about it.
  • Musee D'Orsay in Paris: This piece was all the way across the street but it stayed up for months and the school children seemed to like it. Lots of blogging about it by Paris visitors.
  • Cantor Center Of Art: Kristin Olson of their tech office sent me a great e-mail thanking me, posted the piece on their Facebook page, and tweeted it. The piece is still up.
  • Crocker Museum Of Art: Posted the piece on Facebook, tweeted it, called the newspaper and had an article written, blogged about it and used it in their advertising for their knitting classes. This was shocking to me and thrilling. We went back and added another piece.
See more here.

What Does This Mean For Museums?

I view yarn bombing a museum as tossing a ball out and seeing if anyone will play. Street art is a big part of the contemporary art scene so I place it near a museum and see if they consider street art as something they are interested in. If a museum doesn't like it they can easily remove it with no harm done, unlike painted graffiti. Usually it is a policeman, security guard or park official who makes the curation. That's interesting: Who gets to decide what we see in a spontaneous art event?

We are all using Facebook and Twitter more and more for quick smaller communication and blogging for longer personal developments. My sense is that museums who detailed the yarnbombing had a lot of interest and enthusiasm from it. I also think the pieces are pretty good, they photograph well and I make an effort to relate them to the museum and it's collection. Street art varies in quality as does all art.

Where Does Art Go? Who gets to make it?

Graffiti and street art, performance art, flash mobs, traveling museums, virtual museums—we live in a time of dissolving boundaries and hierarchies. The Internet feeds everyones' desire to create and be a star. We have to stay with the currents of our age and enjoyably ride them. How can more of us enjoy more art more of the time?

Watch out: You might be yarnbombed soon!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Thoughts on the Digitization of Museum Collections

When The Pinky Show asked attendees of the 2010 AAM Annual Meeting what they thought about the digitization of museum collections, it was on no one's radar that Google was planning to do exactly that with the Google Art Project.

Today we bring you a segment asking museum professionals what they think of Kim's idea of digitizing museum collections. What are your thoughts?

- Guzel duChateau, AAM New Media Specialist and CFM Program Coordinator

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Using Your Audience as Exhibit Designers

Last week, Barbara Stauffer shared with us the challenges of orchestrating a participatory design experience in an institution with well-established organizational procedures and hierarchies. For her, inviting the input of over 800 community members involved a lot of time, finesse, diplomacy and sensitivity to organizational culture. Maria Mortati, project manager and senior exibit developer at Gyroscope Inc., took a different tack, founding the San Francisco Mobile Museum, giving her the freedom to experiment with many ways of making the audience part of the museum design experience.

Working and Playing
In 2009, I was a museum exhibit developer in search of an audience. I had tested out an exhibit at a Maker Faire a year prior, had fun and learned a lot. Serving 60,000 people in 2 days is a great way to try something on for size.

During my work travels the following year, I met Jaime Kopke, founder of the Denver Community Museum. The DCM was her brilliant, year-long community contributed project. We decided to collaborate on a dual-city exhibit challenge, and I needed a platform—the San Francisco Mobile Museum was born.

The Platform
The physical constraints of the Museums’ exhibit platform were that it had to fit in my car, be able to be set up within about an hour, and be made of reasonably sustainable materials. I designed it and a local furniture designer built it with some smart modifications. Our first show was called “Looking for Loci," and it was based around the ancient Roman idea of “Genius Loci," or special place.

The Exhibit
Online I found a resource for boxes that would be a reasonable size for people to work with, and for us to wrangle with while hanging. We put out a call to the citizens of our towns and challenged them to use a box as a way to convey the Genius Loci of a place in their city—specifying it could be part of their “home, in a park or garden, on a street corner, or just a forgotten place in the alley.” We mailed the boxes out with instructions, and folks mailed them back or dropped them off.

Marcia Stuermer’s Looking for Loci
The exhibit toured around Denver for a few months and then San Francisco. I wanted to provide an on-the-spot way for visitors to contribute, so I added a map of the Bay Area and invited visitors to write notes on it. It all worked really well- people enjoyed encountering a museum unexpectedly, and seeing the variety of interpretations of place.

During the run of the show, I experimented with a variety of locations for the mobile museum. I found parks to be the best place to attract a diverse audience. It also was easier for folks to perceive it as a museum when it was outside, vs. linked to the place it was shown in when inside.

The SFMM in Dolores Park, San Francisco
Extending the Visitor Experience
In San Francisco, we photographed and posted the pieces on our blog, letting the contributor of that box write the post. Often I’d add contextual information about the maker, or let them do so. I don't yet have a feel for the impact of these annotations, but I believe that it is important to document ephemeral work, for the makers and for the museum. Also, documenting their pieces helps people feel you’re taking their contributions seriously.

After the first exhibit, I wanted to play with a few things:
  • Would it work to move away from a fixed format (the boxes) to an open format for contributions?
  • Would it be helpful to have additional interpretation?
  • How could I foster more meaningful on-the-spot contributions?
Tweaking the System
The following year I developed an exhibit called “Free Shrines,” exploring the history, meaning and spontaneous use of shrines. Contributors were invited to create a palm-sized shrine that embodied their idea of someone, a remembrance, an icon of joy, or a representation of a special wish. The first installation had three weeks to come together for a one-night show outside the Exploratorium, so it was a bit smaller in scope than “Genius Loci."

FREE Shrines at the Exploratorium
To my surprise, this open-format worked fine in terms of generating creative responses. But it made it more difficult to make this exhibit a comprehensible experience for visitors. The consistency of format helps people get the idea overall quickly when they are looking at a series in response to a single question. You can read an evaluation I wrote about that show on our blog.

The winning element by far was the improved design for the on-the-spot contributions, an “Ema shrine station”. As I suspected, honoring the contributions of folks by giving them an integrated design meant that they responded in kind.

What’s next?
I’m working on iterating the platform, playing with interpretation, and collaborating with other individuals and institutions. Think the next exhibit may not be a public “challenge” but about experimenting with using the SFMM to interpret where the location it’s at on a given day. I’ll post updates on the blog.

Left: map at “Looking for Loci” Right: Ema shrine station at “FREE Shrines”
What’s in it for Museums?
Working outside the political structure of a museum meant that I could work quickly—I was empowered to make decisions based on the needs of the project and the audience. Encountering a museum or abstract ideas presents interesting challenges, but they’re fairly easy to overcome with a little planning and design.

Museums have to move out of a mode of cultural protection to cultural production. I see a variety of ways such platforms could help both grand and humble institutions make this adjustment. Having a little in-house talent, time, and a willing cultural infrastructure could make all the difference.

To learn more about the SF Mobile Museum at the AAM Annual Meeting, join Maria and her fellow panelists at the session “'Future of Exhibiting: Voices from Nontraditional Museums” on Sunday, May 22 at 1:15 p.m.