Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Forecasting the Future of Museum Ethics

It’s a beautiful spring morning in 2036. Sitting down to breakfast, you gesture at your interactive e-tabletop, bringing up your international museum newsfeed. The lead headline grabs your attention, but you have trouble focusing on the text. Does it read:
  • Museum Loses Nonprofit Status over Sale of Collections
  • Museum Opens New Wing to Great Acclaim: Funded by Deaccessioning?
Ethics, like other cultural values, change over time, affected by social, political, economic, technological and environmental trends shaping our world. Forty years ago, the ethical dilemma attending choosing a new car might have been whether to “buy American.” Now we angst over whether it is, environmentally speaking, ethical to drive an SUV. Technology creates issues that didn’t even used to exist—is cloning a human being ethical? How about selecting a child based on gender, or potential IQ?

Museum ethics are subject to the same evolutionary forces. What emerging issues face museums in the 21st century? Will our positions on enduring concerns (use of funds from deaccessioning, cultural property, conflict of interest) hold firm, or morph with changing times?

That’s what we’re here for—to help museums explore potential futures! This summer, CFM will partner with the Institute of Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University on a project forecasting the future of museum ethics.

"We are usually most conscious of ethical issues when we are confronted with a difficult decision or face a controversy over something that has already happened,” says IME director Sally Yerkovich. “Working with AAM, the Institute of Museum Ethics has chosen to look towards the future and anticipate issues and ideas that will be critical for museums to be prepared to address."

This is an opportunity for CFM to try out a technique called “Delphi” (after the Delphic oracle)—a systematic, interactive forecasting method that captures and synthesizes the opinions of experts and attempts to align the sometimes conflicting positions of these experts into a coherent and unified perspective. In addition to a core group of oracles (recruited to reflect diverse perspectives and experience in and around the field), we will open up the process to general input, soliciting your opinions on what the ethics issues of the future will be, and how the field will respond.

We’ll kick off the project with a Twitter chat on June 15, asking you to contribute ideas (and links, and resources) on ethics issues that should be included in the forecasting. Mark your calendar and stay tuned! And watch the CFM website for news and updates on the project.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Global View of the Future

Bonjour, привует, Guten Tag, سلام !

This is a shout-out to and call for input from CFM’s international followers.

In the past month, the traffic to this blog has come from:
  •  United States: 5,634
  •  France: 1,173
  •  Canada: 334
  •  United Kingdom: 266
  •  Russia: 143
  •  Australia: 132
  •  Germany: 110
  •  Iran: 78
  •  Ukraine: 72
  •  Slovenia: 68
I’m stunned that almost 1/3 of the CFM Blog readership is from outside the U.S. of A. (And I’m hoping this reflects real readers, not bots probing for weaknesses in the US nonpo sector.) It makes me reflect on the perspective my colleagues and I bring to our forecasting. Are we too U.S.-centric in our focus? Are many, or most, of the trends we talk about global in any case? Are museums in other countries being strongly affected by trends that are not even on our (national) radar?

Global, but happening at different rates (e.g., demographic transformation—aging, immigration, blurring of cultural boundaries).

Global, but locally buffered (like the growing economic divide in wealth).

Local/specific to a particular country or region. I suspect such trends are most likely to be political. In the U.S., for example, threats to tax-exempt status (though the same driver of change--need for new government income--may be playing out in different ways elsewhere).

I know these stats on international readership are going make me more conscious, as I go about scanning, summarizing and reporting on trends, of the need to have a trans-national perspective.

And I’m asking your help. Please, if you are a reader of the blog from France, or Canada, or Ukraine or Slovenia, anywhere outside the U.S. borders, tell me what, from your perspective, we may have missed. Which parts of our work resonate most strongly with you, and which are not as important? Are there additional issues and trends we should be following that will strongly shape your future?

Please comment on the blog to share your thoughts with all our readers, or write to me at emerritt@aam-us.org.

Even better, send a postcard (Elizabeth Merritt, CFM at AAM, Suite 400, 1575 I Street NW, Washington, DC, 20005, USA). I’d love to collect the stamps…

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Your Annual Meeting Concierge: Recommendations for Sunday

Back when I was an attendee (rather than host) at the AAM annual meeting, I always found the first day to be the most challenging. I hadn’t plotted my course through the final program yet, and would find myself making last minute decisions on the fly. Then, curled up in bed with the program that night, I’d second-guess my choices.

To help you avoid “first day” syndrome, in today’s post I’m sharing the fantasy lineup of sessions I’d go to Sunday if I weren’t teaching the all-day CFM forecasting workshop—where I hope to see some of you! Here ‘tis, in case you want ideas for filling up your dance card on the first day of sessions:

I’d LOVE to attend the 2 p.m. On-site Insight by Project Rowhouse on Integrating Arts & Culture into Neighborhoods. Is Project Rowhouse a museum? Who cares! This brilliant organization embodies the approach of “doing whatever needs to be done” to help a neighborhood, without getting hung up on whether that includes stuff a “museum” does or doesn’t do. (c.f. the recently launched Campaign for the Abolition of Nouns.)

However, if I stuck around the convention center for the afternoon, at 1:15 p.m. I’d be in room 372E for Future of Exhibiting: Voices from Non-traditional Museums. I want to hear Maria Mortati of the SF Mobile Museum talk about expanding beyond a museum’s four walls. (Also, any session chaired by Paul Orselli is going to be good. Do you follow his blog? You should.)

At 2:45 p.m., I’d head to room 332B to hear Selma Thomas lead a discussion on Building Staff for the Museum of Tomorrow. I’m intrigued to see in the session description that they are going to talk about “hiring from the local base”—a step I suspect many museums will find necessary to build a staff that truly reflects their own community and help attract more diverse audiences.

I’m going to surprise you with my 4:15 pick—bet you thought I would go for the session on smart phone apps. Which I am sure will be great, but the future isn’t all about technology. I think I’d head for room 351B where Linda Norris (among others) will look at the future Role of Narrative in the Museum. (Linda blogs at the Uncatalogued Museum--your futurist concierge suggests adding that to your blogroll, too.) Museums are, and I think always will be about stories and memories. How may this play out in different ways in coming decades, and what will endure?

Once MuseumExpo opens (noon, Monday) I’ll spend most of my time there. Look for me in the AAM Showcase, tending to the installation by Tracy Hicks, this year’s CFM artist-in-residence, and the Houston Future Studies program’s “Ask a Futurist” booth. This means I will get to meet many of you (yay!) but won’t get to many sessions (boo). Please stop by for a visit, tell me which sessions you’ve gone to and how they are shaping your view of the future!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Helix: Scaffolding #21211

Today's guest post comes to you from Tracy Hicks. Here he shares with you some of his thoughts over the evolution of his piece that will be on display in Houston at the AAM Annual Meeting. Be sure to also visit Hicks' website to see some videos pertaining to this piece.

For the past few days I have gleaned and cleaned building energy around the re-evolving helix in my studio. The jars in the studio windows have changed. Collections of jars have moved from boxes to shelves and from shelves to shipping boxes. Some broken glassware has gone to recycling while other broken pieces have been gently packed for shipping the first week of June to the new home and studio in Atlanta. I have also made intimate still images and animating them daily.

The Helix physically looms over everything this week. The piece has also continually evolved—making “it” harder to describe. The largest vessels spiral out high overhead smaller vessels at eyelevel while the smallest wait in the wings to emphasis the perspective. Sequences have tightened creating a more distinct spiral at eyelevel revolving and still evolving high overhead merging with the out of sight ceiling.

This helix installation correlates a balance between the sculpted form of nucleic acid, DNA structure and an essential spiral of life. The genetic bonds we share with all life reflect an image asking to be personally interpreted. The self-portrait animations made this week mark a focus on the individual as an invested statement of ownership.

Natural History is changing at an ever-increasing rate while public ownership in natural history evolves from classical dioramas with quality informative signage. Behind the museum exhibits, scientists struggle to keep up with the spiral of environmental change.

Please note Dr. Joseph Mendelson’s blog entry on Forensic Taxonomy.

Art offers the opportunity to bridge the gap between the fading public collections and the persistent study of serious science going on in the quiet labs and dark vaults of fragile collections of specimens.

As I write, now, the helix structure is mostly disassembled. Plans are to reassemble it tonight with added structural support.

The scaffolding is a key the conceptual side of the installation and the subject of my next blog entry.

Scaffolding key: next

Monday, May 16, 2011

CSI-Museum Edition

This week’s guest blogger, Dr. Joseph R. Mendelson, is Curator of Herpetology at Zoo Atlanta and President of the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles. Joseph’s essay helps set the stage for Tracy Hick’s installation on the future of natural history museums at the AAM annual meeting in Houston next week.

At the scene of a murder, one of the first priorities of the crime investigation professionals is to determine the name of the victim. This crucial piece of information does not, of course, change the fact that they have been murdered, but it is important nonetheless. Recently I realized my career has taken a morbid turn, and I needed a new name for my role as a scientist. I settled on the term Forensic Taxonomist, because that is what I am doing now—assigning names to recently deceased victim-species that turn up the shelves of natural history museum collections.

More conventionally, I’m what’s known as a herpetologist—I specialize in amphibian taxonomy. If you’ve ever noticed in field guides or museum or zoo, those unpronounceable scientific names that accompany the illustration or display, well then you know me. I’m the guy (or one of them, anyway) that conjures those unpronounceable names and ascribes them to species newly discovered by science. My career has been built helping to catalog the amphibians of the world and bringing taxonomic order to the world by following the simple edict of “one species – one name.”

I’ve spent half of my career working in natural history museums, and my entire career as a constant user of museum collections. I mostly study Central American frogs, having named about three dozen new species of them. Museum collections allow me to compare the anatomy and DNA of specimens from, for example, southern Mexico and northern Nicaragua side-by-side on my lab bench. Are they the same, or are they different? Really, that’s all I do every day.

Joe Mendelson with toad.
The date of collection of these specimens was never of any particular importance to me, until I started to notice that the specimens in the jars represented populations that no longer exist in the wild. Museum specimens collected as recently as the 1980s are the “new fossils,” representing entire species that have gone extinct within our lifetime. Dozens and dozens of them. Suddenly and awfully, the time-stamp museums dutifully put on specimens when they enter the collection has become a simultaneous epitaph, representing the last time this species was seen alive on the planet. No longer do the specimens on the shelves represent ongoing, vibrant populations in nature. They are gone, and all we will ever know of them is these preserved specimens.

I never had poignant moments in natural history collections, until now, because the samples there were always intended to be mere subsamples of ongoing, renewable, timeless, vibrant populations in nature that were collected merely to help us catalog the Earth’s wondrous biodiversity. Paleontology collections represent the extinct past of our natural history, but while paleontologists may yearn for the time-travel experience to see their study subjects alive, I doubt they feel much emotion in cataloging that biodiversity based on fossils. After all, it’s clear that humans played no role in that mass extinction. Now I have emotions about natural history collections.

When I first met Tracy Hicks in the mid-1990s, I told him that our biodiversity surveys and collections were essentially “running in front of the bulldozer” to document populations being vanished by the never-ending expansion of humanity. I did not anticipate those endeavors translating into Forensic Taxonomy. I am grateful for Tracy’s work to give us natural historians a novel perspective on our collections, our efforts, our careers, and allowing us insight into our own perspectives on obsessive collecting and annotation, and the very notion of permanence. Little did we know that taxonomy would become the new paleontology, documenting contemporary extinctions. Tracy Hicks’ work helps give us that much needed perspective.

Come see Tracy’s installation in the AAM Showcase of MuseumExpo next week in Houston. You can tweet your musings on the piece with #AAM2011, or post your comments here at the blog!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Closing the Loop

Over the past month we’ve hosted a conversation about the spectrum of control museums exert over audience input and participation. Barbara Stauffer from the National Museum of Natural History wrote of the challenges of inviting over 800 people to contribute to the community element of the Hyperbolic Crocheted Coral Reef. Maria Mortati described how the SF Mobile Museum solicits content and takes the resulting exhibits out into the community. And Streetcolor gave us an inside look into her yarnbombing, with which she contributes her own aesthetic commentary to museums. In this wrap-up these guest posters reflect on what they’ve learned from this exchange of perspectives.

Writing and reading for this project has changed my sense of what a museum can be. I realized that my ongoing yarnbombing is making the streets of Berkeley into a kind of museum. (See the photo of my latest Berkeley pieces-bike racks which are so delightfully sculptural even before I had to cover them in knitting.)

What struck me about Barbara's story about the Crocheted Reef was how she thought NMNH wouldn't have enough entries sent in and how they were flooded. I have always thought that most people would love to help, would love to do something good if they just knew how. Barbara's project gave everyone an opportunity to make something meaningful and beautiful and big. Both the Reef and the SFM Mobile Museum projects took many small parts and made them into something complete and impressive. Can everyone participate in making the art in museums? Is a museum a permanent space? Can a museum be any space we declare to be a museum?

As we discuss museums I am going back to my base beliefs: people want to look at art, they want to make art, they want to have their own voice and they want to be part of something large and good. We all want the pleasure and happiness and insight that art brings. And of course we all want satisfying work. You all are true museum creators-I am more trying to change city streets and give people pleasure as they move in an ordinary day. And so we ease the world a little.

I was surprised to see that Streetcolor made a play through her work with the museum through graphic mimicry of the architecture. Love that. I also was happy to see the sharing and re-posting the work. It warmed my heart that museums were engaging with it. I could see how that would be a tough balance for them to strike, so that's cool.

What I found delightful from Barbara's post was hearing about all the intellectual resources she had at hand to realize the exhibit. I really appreciated that she shared this element: "We also wanted to be sure our visitors would understand the exhibition in the context of our Museum, while allowing the installation to speak for itself". In my experience, visitor contributed exhibits work best when they have been considerately designed or developed. For visitors it helps them get it, for the participants it values their contribution, and for the institution (large or small) it makes excellent use of their core competencies. Doing justice to the public's contribution involves design and consideration in a flexible yet fully realized manner. So while Barbara has more resources at hand, I see this project as developing a new skill set for her institution.

In terms of next steps with the SF Mobile Museum, these posts have helped solidify my thinking around what they might be. The goal has always been to be a platform for experimentation. I'm thinking that I'd like to focus on pushing the envelope further and play with the structure of the "museum" vs. the topic or nature of the exhibits.

Reading about Maria and Streetcolor’s experiences makes me realize that we're really all trying to do the same thing—surprise and engage communities—and that doing so requires similar tactics, whether it's one individual or a large organization.

Their posts also remind me of how important it is to have one person dedicated to the project—particularly if you want to engage and remain responsive to a community. Even though Maria and Streetcolor have fewer resources behind what they are doing, they do have one huge advantage—they are completely dedicated to their projects. One disadvantage of a large organization like ours is that responsibilities are divvied up among any number of people, and everyone has a gazillion things on their plate at once. Having someone working on the reef full-time allowed us to actively engage the community rather than just launching a volley and waiting for it to be returned.

Has the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef exhibit made NMNH looser in our methods for future exhibitions? Ironically, the exhibit has demonstrated the importance of greater planning and strategizing when it comes to future exhibitions. The museum is large and complicated and I don’t see the infrastructure diminishing. But, as a result of the HCCR project we now have a much better sense of what we need to do to plan for visitor participation – and we have statistics, final reports, and visitor feedback to help us make our case – both for the effectiveness of such projects but also for the need to funnel resources into them in order to make them work. Fundamental to that planning will be bringing in a dedicated community coordinator and strategic use of our social media vehicles.

Maria recommends readers check out:
An event that Machine Project put together at the Berkeley Art Museum, playing with lecturing and how far you can take it.

A fabulous informal series of gatherings at SFMOMA, loosely around the idea of survival for artists. It's turned into a similar thread that the CFM blog explores: how can we not just survive and compete, but thrive?

The Open Space blog offer some wonderful food for thought as well.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Preview of Houston: Exploring the Future of Natural History Museums

At the AAM meeting in Houston this May, artist Tracy Hicks will create an installation on the future of natural history museums and the influence of natural history museums on the future of the earth. One of the things I love about Tracy’s work is the interplay of meaning between preservation (in museums), destruction (of environments, of species), transience (of individuals) and permanence (of species and environments, we hope!) I hope it provokes similar musings in conference attendees, as we invite them to think about how what natural history museums do now can shape the future world, and what natural history museums may look like in the future. To jump-start the conversation, here are some observations from John Simmons, principal of Museologica and author of AAM’s best-selling Things Great and Small: Collections Management Policies.

The Renaissance cabinets of curiosities were conceived as microcosms of the universe, samplings of rare and unusual objects that could reveal the secrets of divine order. The idea of museum collections as extractions of the world continues to drive collecting in modern natural history museums. Tracy Hicks’ art takes extraction to abstraction by examining the interface between science and culture. Scientific collecting is a quest for knowledge, but the reasons collections are made and the way specimens are preserved also an expression of the culture we live in.

My first contact with Tracy occurred when one of his installations was shut down by the fire marshal because it contained dozens of jars of goldfish preserved in alcohol. Through frantic emails and telephone calls, we discussed alternative preservatives that would not violate fire code, and our mutual interests in preservation and conservation culminated in Tracy coming for a visit.

Collection: Correlation, University of Texas at Arlington
©Tracy Hicks
At the time, I worked in the Natural History Museum & Biodiversity Research Center at the University of Kansas, which houses a very large collection of amphibians. Tracy wanted to try out a procedure he had developed for making casts of rare and fragile fluid-preserved specimens. I was highly dubious, but Tracy proved that his method was safe, so he was granted permission to work with the collections. A colleague of mine named Marjorie Swann (author of Curiosities and Texts: The Culture of Collecting in Early Modern England) liked to challenge perceptions about scientific collections, so I invited her over to the lab to meet Tracy. And thus began a fascinating and spirited series of discussions about scientific collections as cultural enterprise.

Tracy is fascinated by the ordered arrays of objects and specimens in museum storage areas. Much of his art is concerned with why we save what we save, how we sort it out and arrange it, and how this impacts our understanding of nature. In 2004, Marjorie and I obtained funding from The Museum Loan Network for Tracy to make 1700 jars of glow-in-the-dark casts of Asian frogs from the Field Museum and Latin American frogs from the University of Kansas collection for an installation he called Two Cultures: Collections (in reference to the 1959 essay by C.P. Snow about the lack of communication between the sciences and the humanities).

Two Cultures: Collections
©Tracy Hicks

Tracy’s interest in amphibian conservation has led him to participate in field work in Guatemala and to take on the delicate task of raising rare poison dart frogs in his studio, both of which are deeply reflected in his art. My collaboration with Tracy has stimulated me to see collections from an entirely new perspective, and find deeper reasons for why we put things in museums and value them as we do. As I have watched Tracy’s art evolve in complexity and take unexpected new directions, I have discovered new ways that natural history collections can use the past to predict the future.

Preview Tracy’s work-in-progress in his studio here, watch this space for more commentary from the field and come see the final installation in the AAM Showcase at the annual meeting in Houston!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

SWF ISO Museum Position

This week’s guest post is an interview with future museum professional Paige LaCour, student in museum management at Northwestern University School of Continuing Studies and volunteer at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

Given that CFM has done so much work on the demographic trends shaping American society, and museums, can you tell me a bit about your demography?

On the census, I mark myself as Caucasian. I grew up in a working class family in a small southern Indiana town. My mother has held an administrative position at a non-profit organization for nearly 30 years and my father was in sales. High school was the highest level of education that both of my parents completed and I was a first generation college student. I put myself through Indiana University by working part time and taking out student loans.

Especially given the debt you’re taking on for your education, what makes you want to go into museums, which typically offer relatively low-paying positions?

It basically came down to a decision to follow my interests and passions. I double-majored in English and Anthropology because studying those topics provided me with personal fulfillment and I enjoyed the process of my education. I knew that I could choose a more lucrative career but because I was responsible in every way for my education, I wanted to do what would make me the happiest. It just so happens that what makes me happy doesn't pay the highest!

What is it you would like to do in museums? What career path do you see for yourself?

Given my background working with children, I think I would fit in well with an educational department. I'm also interested in exhibit development and creating the narrative stories that help visitors relate to the exhibits themselves. I'm currently a docent at the Field Museum and I really enjoy interacting with the guests and providing them with information they might otherwise miss out on.

You fit right into the demographic majority of museum studies students—who are 80% white, 80% female. Museums are hearing, and saying, that they need to attract and recruit staff members who reflect the demographics of their communities. How would you feel if you found it difficult to get a job in a museum in part because you don’t fit the profile of the staff the museum is trying to build?

That is a tough issue and it hits at the heart of affirmative action in general. In a perfect world, positions would be awarded based on merit, talent and skill and everything would be equal across the board, demographically speaking. However, you raise a good point in that museums are in dire need of more diversity, especially given the rapid ethnic changes in our country. We cannot expect Latino, African American and other minority populations to increase their presence in museums if they feel alienated and are unable to identify with the curators, volunteers and staff.

Ultimately, if a position I was aiming for was given to someone else solely because I did not fit a certain profile the museum was seeking, I would feel disappointed and likely jealous. While I would understand how that decision would affect the greater good of the museum and community in general, I probably couldn't help feeling slighted. In the end, I would work harder to differentiate myself from the other 80% of white women in the field so that I could be a front-runner for any positions that might go to someone within my own demographic.

Let’s catapult 40 years into the future. It’s your retirement party (you did get that dream job in museum education after all!) and you are reflecting on how museums have changed (or not changed) in your long career. Can you give me a capsule summary of your remarks?

“Over the last 40 years, museums have done a good job of incorporating advancing technology into their collections and exhibits. Guests have more interactive experiences and these technological advances allow them to learn in radically different ways. Instead of walking through halls and reading labels, a visitor might experience a virtual reality where they watch a dinosaur excavation, the opening of a tomb or the painting of a piece of art - even in real time. There has been an increased effort to make museums accessible to a wider demographic and the creation of exhibits and programs which allow the visitor to relate to displays on a personal level has become the norm. We've learned that when people feel that the museum speaks to them personally, they're more likely to become life-long visitors.

“On the other hand, with this advancement of technology came a fundamental change in the accessibility of collections to the general public. Many museums have put a significant portion of their collections online, which is good for educating people who might not have access to the museum otherwise but has proven to be bad for getting actual foot traffic in the door. Some potential guests feel that the entire museum-going experience is actually more elitist than ever before, since they could stay at home and view the same exhibits for free.

“One of the biggest challenges faced by museums has been and continues to be a serious lack of funding. While some museums have put collections online because their actual doors have had to close, others are walking a fine line between providing enough to satiate the visitor's general interest and giving everything away for free.”

That's how I see things going. I think that advancing technology has the power to both help and hurt museums and it will be up to the museums themselves to determine how they utilize that technology to the best of their interests. Every museum will likely have a different plan but I believe the same general challenges will be faced by all.

If you are, like Paige, a SWF ISO a museum position, what do you think your prospects are in today’s job market? How do you feel about potentially being at a disadvantage, relative to more diverse applicants? Should museums be actively trying to build more diverse staff, even it that means favoring applicants with non-traditional backgrounds over graduates of museum studies programs? Please weigh in.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Museums & Community: Steampunk Love

This weekend, the city of Waltham, Mass. will host International Steampunk City. Presented by the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation, this “con” (convention) mashes together industrial history, Victorian culture and fashion, Jules Verne and alternative pasts (and futures.)

Museums across the country are asking, "How are we going to be sustainable in the future, all of our traditional income streams are drying up? How do we find people who really care about what we do and will support us?" Here is a story of how one museum found a vital new audience, albeit somewhat unconventional, to love and support it.

Housed in the historic 1814 Boston Manufacturing Company textile mill, The Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation (CRMII) is on the National Register of Historic Places as America’s first factory. Its focus is American innovation and invention from 1812 to the present, and highlights local companies such as the Boston Manufacturing Company, Orient Bicycle, Metz Automobile and the Waltham Watch Factory. In the past decade the museum struggled with low attendance (sometimes serving 20-30 visitors a day) and the prospect of an aging volunteer base with irreplaceable knowledge of how to maintain their complex historic machinery. Then in spring 2010, the Charles River dealt a terrible blow, flooding twice in quick succession and leaving the museum with a half-million dollars in damage and no prospect of relief.

Enter an unlikely savior—the international steampunk community.

From Flickr user Ikaros

[Quick background primer: “Steampunk” is an alt-history movement that envisions a world based on steam-powered technology including computers (a la Babbage’s “difference engines”), cars and flying machines. The aesthetic is Victorian (frock coats, bustles) meets Mad Max (leather gauntlets, goggles, lace cozying up to brass). Think Jules Verne or H.G. Wells. In recent movies, think “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” “Hellboy” or the “Wild Wild West.”]

Detail of a mechanical heart from Steampunk: Form
& Function at the Charles River Museum of Industry &
Innovation. (Nicholas Dynan for WBUR)
Turns out CRMII is pre-adapted to a steampunk aesthetic. (Watchs are very steampunk. Especially pocket watches. With lots of gears.)

CRMII had begun cultivating a relationship with the steampunk community about a year before the flood—a planned New England Steampunk Festival was delayed several weeks by the rising waters. When it did take place, and now-director Elln Hagney saw 1,000 people in full steampunk attire swanning through the museum (far exceeding the 200-300 attendees they expected), she realized they were on to something. A Google search for the term “steampunk” yielded over 60 million hits, yet while the steampunk community has homes online (Brass Goggles, out of England and the U.S.-based Steampunk Empire) there wasn't a physical location for these steampunks to gather together on a regular basis.

As Elln reported in a recent interview, she thought to herself, "Well we can become that. I saw the steampunk community as a future audience, future volunteers and future donors for the museum” she says. “At some point within the next 20 years these steampunkers, the majority of who are between 18 and 40, are going to have kids and stop running off to conventions. But they’re still going to have that passion. If we can create a home for them, if we can create a place that they feel welcome, we’re going to get volunteers. And when they take those goggles off and they have expendable money in their pockets they're going to remember us and they're going to come back and become our future donors.”

The ingenious steampunk machinists and makers also offered a solution to one of the museum’s other significant challenges—all that wonderful antique machinery supported by an aging, and shrinking, population of volunteers who know how to maintain them.

Now the museum has a Steampunk Exhibition growing out of an International Steampunk Form and Function design competition in which artists from all over the world vied to create for the best functional piece of steampunk art. The museum hosts monthly meet-ups where steampunks exchange stories, show off their latest projects and swap creations. And the national steampunk community as a whole is starting to support the museum. A number of steampunk events this year will devote space to the museum as well as doing fundraising for their recovery. (See for example: New Jersey, Nashua, N.H. and Detroit.)

“We truly are becoming the home to steampunk” says Elln. “The trick is not to become a steampunk museum. We are a museum that loves and embraces steampunk but this is just one of the communities that we are tackling.”

So, what’s happening at the International Steampunk Festival this weekend? A steampunk school bus camper will be parked next to a 1922 12-ton Buffalo-Springfield steamroller. An authentic Victorian picnic will pair with a steampunk New Orleans style parade leading people from the picnic to the closing ceremonies. At an authentic New England-style town hall attendees will debate whether or not Steampunk International City should have a dirigible station; robot's rights and whether or not to allow artificial intelligence inside its borders. Outside, suffragettes will march for women’s rights. There will be workshops on Victorian oratory and lectures on Eadweard Muybridge, gunsmithing and left-wing politics. Heck there is so much going on I can’t describe it all—see for yourself.

Has your museum cultivated connections with unexpected communities? Share your stories in the comment sections, here. And let us know if you plan to attend International Steampunk City this weekend!