Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Third Rail of Museum Ethics: Selling Collections to Pay for…What?

Is it ethical for a museum to use the money it gets from selling collections to fund general operations?

How about using the proceeds from the sale for “preservation” (the term used by AASLH’s Statement of Professional Standards and Ethics) or “direct care” (cf. AAM’s Code of Ethics for Museums)? Does preservation or direct care include fixing the roof? Hiring a conservator? Paying the salary of your collections manager?

According to Financial Accounting Standards Board regulations (and those of its government counterpart, GASB), using the funds from deaccessioning for anything other than buying more collections means the museum has to capitalize the whole collection, an action that some parts of the field believes to be unethical in and of itself.

Of the six issues CFM and the Institute for Museum Ethics are exploring in Round Three of Forecasting the Future of Museum Ethics, the question of what ethical constraints should be placed on the use of funds resulting from deaccessioning is far and away the most contentious. Museums have been arguing about this issue for decades. Is anything different now? Perhaps yes. The unprecedented financial pressure facing museums is apparently leading more boards and directors to ask, “What good does it do to firewall the collection if the museum itself is going broke?”

So maybe the national fiscal meltdown will transform the constraints we, as a field, have placed on the use of funds resulting from deaccessioning collections. This change could go either way—faced with increased pressure to raise money whatever way possible, the field might tighten its standards, closing the loopholes left by nebulous words like “preservation” and “direct care,” or it might abandon the existing standards as unaffordable luxuries in the face of economic necessity.

So, in Round Three we cut to the chase and ask:
In the next 25 years, are the restrictions placed on the use of funds resulting from deaccessioning likely to become more or less restrictive? How and why will the restrictions change? 
In other words, is there now—or will there be in the future—enough consensus of opinion on the topic for the field to revisit the standards and reexamine how all “good” museums should behave regarding deaccessioning?

Please weigh in on this issue—either using the comments section below or (even better) using this link to access the public version of Round Three of the ethics forecast, where you can address this and other issues.

If you are just now reading our forecast, you can get up to speed by reading earlier posts about the project.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Forecasting the Future of Accessibility: Please Touch or Don’t Touch?


I wish I could preview my Inbox from 2036. How come Outlook doesn’t have an option for that?

As a member of AAM’s staff Ethics Taskforce, I help answer plaintive, irate, indignant and panicked questions that come over our email. So I have a pretty good handle on what people grapple with, day to day, in their organizations. Forecasting the Future of Museum Ethics, CFM’s joint project with the Institute for Museum Ethics, is trying to determine what museums will be grappling with 25 years from now. How can the field provide backup and support for colleagues if we lag five or ten years behind the issues? This is our chance to gear up for the ethical future. And this is my pitch for you to help by weighing in on the public version of the forecast.

Our expert and public forecasters have identified accessibility as an important ethics issue that will change significantly, in some way, in the coming decades. Reading through their (copious) comments on the forecast’s early rounds, it became clear that “accessibility,” as used by the forecasters, encompasses at least four different things:

  • Physical and intellectual access to museums, their exhibits, programs and services
  • Economic access to museums, their exhibits, programs and services
  • Accessibility of collections and data
  • Balancing access to collections against a responsibility to preserve collections

Forecasters raised some interesting questions. Is there an ethical obligation to make museums economically accessible (i.e., affordable), paralleling the obligation (aside from the legal requirements) that museums provide physical access to people with disabilities? Has technology, by making it feasible for museums to provide public access to huge amounts of data, created an ethical imperative for them to do so?

Some of the most heated comments that surfaced in earlier rounds of the forecast were about: access v. preservation. “Many visitors express a desire for increased access—a chance to touch objects, behind the scenes tours, etc.” commented one forecaster. “Has the pendulum swung too far toward preservation, and is it in the process of swinging back?”

Access always compromises preservation to some extent. The safest storage environment is the proverbial black box. But if no one ever accesses a collections object, how is that different from the object never existing? (Someone should modify Schrödinger’s cat dilemma to apply to museum storage.)

That’s an exaggeration, of course. No object is going to last forever, and no sane museum is going to let an object be torn to pieces by ravening fans. But where, in between, is a reasonable compromise? Has preservation historically been privileged over access (as our forecaster observed) and is our position as a field on that balance of power on the verge of changing?

To test whether the pendulum is about to reverse its arc, the current round of the forecast asks:

“Thinking about the ethics of balancing a responsibility to make collections physically accessible with a responsibility to preserve collections, do you feel that in the next twenty five (25) years museum standards will tilt more towards access or preservation?”

(Respondents select an answer on a scale that runs from Favoring more access through to Favoring Preservation.)

I hope you will weigh in on this issue—either using the comments section below or (even better) using this link to access the public version of round 3 of the ethics forecast, where you can answer this and other questions.

If you are just now reading our forecast, you can get up to speed by reading earlier posts about the project.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Ethics Forecast Round 3 & the Future of Museum Standards


This week we launch Round 3 of Forecasting the Future of Museum Ethics. As with previous rounds, the public is invited to weigh in at the same time (on a parallel track) as our recruited “Oracles.”

This round delves into six issues selected on the basis of their rankings in round two, exploring where the Oracles and the public think these issues are headed in the future. They are:

  • Accessibility: providing access to collections and institutions; economic accessibility; balancing accessibility to collections with preservation responsibilities; economic accessibility; balancing accessibility with preservation
  • Conflicts of Interest: development and fundraising, governance, personal collecting
  • Control of content: curatorial independence and scholarship by staff and academic experts versus community curation; public participation in content creation (e.g., crowdsourcing, participatory design); censorship
  • Collecting and deaccessioning: including the use of funds resulting from deaccessioning, retention of material the museum does not use or make accessible, choice of what to collect
  • Diversity: diversity of representation in governance, staff and audience; affirmative action in recruiting staff and board members
  • Transparency & accountability: governance, operations, finance 

Many of the questions in the round 3 survey instrument are framed around museum standards—asking whether the existing standards will be sufficient to address these issues in the future, and if not, how they might change.

Why did we frame the questions about ethics around standards? After all, not everything in museum standards is about ethics, and conversely, many ethical issues about which museum people feel passionately are not addressed, or are barely addressed, by current standards.

AAM defines standards as “generally accepted levels of attainment that all museums are expected to achieve.” In plain English, that means standards are practices that all good museums are expected to adopt. Museums can expect to be criticized by their colleagues, or their supporters, or the press, if they don’t. As National Standards and Best Practices in U.S. Museums states, “Standards are not lofty goals that only a few will achieve, they are fundamental to being a good museum, a responsible non-profit, and a well-run business.” This means museums had better be pretty darn careful when declaring something to be a standard—because they might have to live with the resulting coverage of their actions, as judged by this standard, in the local press the next day.

For this reason, thinking about how an issue is addressed or might be addressed by a standard is a good test of whether an issue is important, and whether there is sufficient consensus in the field to describe the appropriate way for museum practitioners to behave. You could write a standard about the ethics of gender equity regarding setting the thermostat in your meeting rooms—but do most people care enough to bother? And even if they do care passionately, could you broker an agreement between men and women regarding the appropriate setting?

In fact, we found all six of the issues selected for further investigation are addressed to some extent in the current standards, but some only vaguely or tangentially. Regarding accessibility, for example, the standards state

The museum demonstrates a commitment to providing the public with physical and intellectual access to the museum and its resources.

One issue related to accessibility raised on round one was that of economic accessibility: as one Oracle put it, “keeping museums affordable (free or low cost) for the broader public in future scenarios of diminished public/private support.” Do you think that in the future, museum practitioners might decide that economic accessibility of museums is sufficiently important it should be addressed in a standard, and will there be sufficient consensus to determine what that new standard might be?

The other reason to tie the ethics forecast to standards is that one practical outcome of our forecast might be a decision, on the part of the museum field and the AAM leadership, to revisit the standards and revise them to reflect the challenges museums & society will face in the next 25 years. If our forecasters overwhelmingly say “the current standards about issue X are not sufficient to accommodate the changes we see in coming decades,” that would be a clear call to action.

That, in turn, is why we hope you'll weigh in on this round. It might be your museum looking to the national standards for guidance in 2025, or answering an awkward question from a journalist who knows “what all good museums should be expected to live up to.”

Follow this link to contribute to round three of Forecasting the Future of Museum Ethics. [Oracles, make sure you follow the link in your personal email.] And then stay tuned for the results…

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Museums Innovating in Businesslike Ways


Many people tell us that, in the future, museums need to be more entrepreneurial. It’s hard to find written case studies, however, of museums innovating in businesslike ways. Today’s guest post helps fill that gap, as Karen Coltrane, president and CEO of the Children’s Museum of Richmond, blogs about how CMOR became the first children’s museum in the county to open a satellite location. They’ve been fielding calls from other children’s museums considering a similar model—some hoping to fend off competition, others to reach new audiences. 

This week the Children’s Museum of Richmond is announcing plans to open a second satellite location. We started experimenting with satellites for several reasons, chief among them financial survival. Our first satellite location helped us achieve that goal, but it brought other significant benefits, too—expansion of our mission by increasing the numbers we serve (attendance is up 56%), strengthening of our community partnerships and enhanced relevance of our institution within our community

Being good at what you offer at your main museum is a prerequisite for opening more locations. We had raised and spent nearly $1,000,000 over three years to improve our exhibit areas, revamp our education programming and develop a full calendar of well-marketed events (on average, one major event every two weeks) to insure CMOR was visible and top of mind with young families. A pre-satellite marketing study confirmed that those efforts were successful—we had 98% brand awareness in our market (defined as area families with children under the age of eight) with 90% of respondents rating our offerings as high or very high in quality. 

The same study noted that despite our extremely positive perception, most of the families in our region only visited us once per year, citing lack of convenience associated with our location. In our market, young families don’t want to drive more than 20 minutes for a visit. Many parents commented that by the time they wrestle the little ones into the car seats and drive for a half hour, the children have fallen asleep and waking them for the visit posed challenges. Also, our location in the city’s museum district, away from shopping and family-friendly restaurants, made a trip to our museum a special destination that couldn’t be combined easily with other regular activities.  So while our museum enjoyed strong goodwill, the majority of our market only visited occasionally for exceptional events.

Once we understood that convenience was the only thing keeping us from serving more visitors, we started to explore our options. We included the satellite location concept in our strategic plan. The special committee convened to consider the issue included a group of our current and past board members and other community leaders, led by the community’s most forward thinking volunteer, a well respected former corporate CEO who is now a business school professor and nonprofit advisor.

Several pertinent questions came to light. First, we were very surprised – and a bit concerned – that there were not satellite models in the children’s museum world to follow. Second, we wondered if a satellite in a more vibrant area would “cannibalize” the attendance at our main location. Third, while the staff was confident, the board rightly asked if we could manage another location with current management. And last but certainly not least, everybody was concerned that we might appear to be “abandoning” our mission by focusing on wealthier suburbs to the exclusion of lower income, urban neighborhoods.

The committee’s discussions were probably the most rigorous and thoughtful in the museum’s recent history. They resulted in a recommendation to the Board to look not only at one branch in the region’s western suburbs, but to consider an entire branching strategy that would bring 12–15,000 square foot versions of the 40,000 square foot main museum to densely populated areas not strongly represented in our current attendance. The Board adopted the strategy in October 2009 and the initial satellite opened in June 2010. In its first full year of operation, 130,000 people visited the new location, while attendance stayed the same, 230,000, at our main museum.

Operationally, we learned—and are still learning—important lessons. Staffing has been much easier than we expected. We initially sent a member of the management team to run the day to day operations, but she was bored quickly and we were able to bring her back to take on a bigger role, replacing her with an assistant director of guest services who reports to a director of guest services at our main location. In fact, the satellite runs so smoothly that we decided to hold our weekly management team meetings there just to make sure our key staff are in the facility once a week. Our ticketing/finance/development/shop software company, Explorer, happily worked with us to adapt their program to support multiple locations. And while we keep an eye on the satellite’s revenues and expenses, we are careful to roll the numbers up to reinforce the culture that we are one museum—we just happen to have two (or more) locations.

The best outcome of our satellite strategy, thus far, has been the ability to move from daily worry about making this week’s payroll to the freedom to explore pathways to greater impact throughout our community.  In just the first year of operation we were able to:
  • provide free and low cost field trip programming to thousands of young students from under-resourced area schools
  • engage area school superintendents in real, regular dialog with the museum’s leadership about early childhood education
  • create a new position dedicated to parent education and engagement  

We can now proactively pursue relationships and ideas that further our mission in ways we could barely dream about before. For us, a branching strategy serves more visitors, while providing the resources to do more good in our community.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Civic Duty Calls


In this blog post, AAM Director of Government Relations and Advocacy Gail Ravnitzky Silberglied explores why advocacy—like voting, jury service, and paying taxes—is a civic duty that furthers our nation’s democracy and prepares us and our leaders for the future. Gail joined AAM in 2008 and is the author of Speak Up For Museums, published by The AAM Press and available through AAM’s bookstore.

Civic Duty is defined as “the responsibility of a citizen” and recently I fulfilled one of our nation’s great civic responsibilities: serving on a jury. It was my first time serving, and while it took me away from work and family responsibilities, I really didn’t mind. It was actually interesting, both the subject matter and the process (so different from Law & Order!). But more importantly, I knew I was performing an important civic duty.

For me, awareness of civic duty started very early. My very first memory is from age three when I went to vote with my mom (I remember that my older brothers had to wait outside because they were for the other guy!). And while I don’t enjoy every single civic duty (paying taxes comes to mind) I know that these civic duties are the foundation of our nation’s democracy.

Museums work every day to educate and inspire the public. We help people to learn and be inspired, to stretch their imaginations, and to interpret information in new ways. This is the heart of a museum’s public service mission. Why then don’t museums step out, front and center, when opportunities arise to educate their elected officials? Perhaps we need to reframe advocacy as a fundamental civic responsibility.

Here’s some civic-minded (and future-minded) food for thought:
  • Our nation’s founders included advocacy in the Bill of Rights (“the right of the people...to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”) And isn’t there plenty to be aggrieved about?
  • Elected officials actually appreciate hearing directly from constituents—it helps them build stronger ties to their community and understand the future needs of their community. (I worked for several members of Congress so I know this from experience.)
  • If you are not making your case, your viewpoint will often get overlooked when it does (or doesn’t) come up in future policy debates or budget battles.

If I haven’t convinced you yet, ask yourself the following questions:
  • How much buy-in do you have from the community about the future of your museum?  Are your community “success stories” helping to make the case for your museum?  Are your volunteers and members aware of advocacy opportunities in support of museums?  You have powerful, inspiring stories about your work in the community, something elected officials need to know about in order to shape—and invest in—the future of their community.
  • Do your elected officials know how your museum educates and inspires their constituents, how your museum spurs local economic activity and creates jobs, or how your museum partners with local schools to educate future generations?  Even if they love museums, your community leaders may not realize how many school children or seniors or veterans you serve. And if you are securing the future for others, in other ways, for example by hosting food banks or blood banks, let them know this, too.
  • Do civic leaders know your museum’s future plans?  Consider planting a seed about future exhibits, needed repairs, desired expansions, or special events or milestones. Elected officials can often help to publicize or otherwise support these endeavors. 

Advocacy sure sounds like a civic duty to me. And it’s never too late to get started. AAM makes it easy to advocate for museums. For starters:

  • Visit the AAM Advocacy website to find information and inspiration, including how to get involved with advocacy at all levels, what’s at stake, who represents you, and why it all matters.
  • Sign up to receive AAM’s Advocacy Alerts.
And (most important):

Join your colleagues in D.C. for Museums Advocacy Day, Feb. 27–28, 2012, or send a board member. Museums Advocacy Day is your chance to join with advocates and colleagues from around the country and Speak Up for Museums! We provide training and support—you do your civic duty to tell legislators about the good work museums do. And it’s way more fun than jury duty.

This year, for the first time, the Museums Advocacy Day agenda includes a half-day session, run by CFM, on forecasting the political future. Learn more about the agenda and register to attend here.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Questioning Assumptions: The Ideal Employee:Volunteer Ratio


Today’s thought experiment: what if, in the future, museums asked not “how many volunteers do we need” but rather “how can we structure our operations to engage as many volunteers as possible in meaningful work?”

Volunteers are already essential to the work of museums. Typically, volunteers outnumber paid staff 6:1. In history museums that ratio climbs to 9:1, and in museums with budgets under a quarter million it soars to 18:1*.

Historically this arrangement has been driven mostly by utility: museums don’t have enough money to hire all the staff they need. As it is, salaries constitute about half of the typical operating budget.

Volunteers aren’t free, mind you. A good volunteer program needs policies, procedures, background checks, training and supervision (often provided by a paid staff member dedicated to volunteers). And the more volunteers a museum has, the greater the costs. This is one reason that museums tend towards efficiency in volunteer recruitment—using just enough free help to get the job done.

But the spin-off value of volunteers, over and above just getting the work done, can be extraordinary. Here are three compelling reasons the museum of the future might structure its work around volunteers:

1) “MyCulture”—the increasing desire of people to do as well as view, to be actively engaged with the museum rather than just being passive consumers of content. The more meaningful this participation is, the more “real” the engagement, the more compelling the experience. Thirty years ago an edgy “interactive” experience at a museum meant lifting a flap to read a label. Now it might mean providing the content for an exhibit. Volunteering is the ultimate participatory experience.

2) The education revolution. Reformers envisioning the future of education emphasize that the new educational paradigm will provide self-directed learners with the opportunity to do real work and supplement or replace standardized tests with portfolios of meaningful accomplishments. The Institute for the Future’s Jamais Cascio acts out this scenario here, demonstrating that one crucial role of learning agents (educators of the future) will be matching learners up with real-world projects that support their educational goals. Projects like ArtLab+ at the Hirshhorn Museum already support students creating exhibit content—can such integrated learning-work be a normal aspect of every museum? Volunteering can be the ultimate educational experience.

3) Hearts and minds. Museums are threatened by the perception that they serve primarily “the 1%” (to use OWS jargon)—the wealthy, educated elite who frankly are the ones best able, right now, to fund museums. This, in turn, could create a spiral in which museums, by serving the interests of the few, become disconnected from the many and are increasingly seen as private, rather than public, goods and unworthy of public tax support. Can we counterbalance this by fostering stronger practical and emotional ties with large numbers of people, making them see museums as “their place?” Nina Simon has written about the power of museums creating the feeling that people have access to a secret, exclusive place. Volunteering is the ultimate “insider” experience.

How would museums have to change to radically increase their use of volunteers? Technology is vastly expanding the ways that museums can provide volunteer opportunities as people can contribute over the Web, tagging, organizing, transcribing and researching digital data.  However, nothing will ever replace the thrill of working in a physical (often beautiful) space with real objects.

Unfortunately, museums often aren’t structured to accommodate the diversity of people who would like to volunteer in physical museum. People with nine-to-five jobs might jump at the chance to do free work if only the museum could accommodate them in the evening (which some, but far from all, museums do.) As it happens, many museums are experimenting with alternate hours anyway, as they discover that visitors might like to come at 6 or 9 p.m., or 1 a.m., rather than during banker’s hours.

A recent paper from the Arts Consulting Group points out the vast potential for recruiting more volunteers to the work of museums. But they also note that the volunteers of the present (much less the future) have high expectations. They want support, rather than supervision, and they want a large degree of autonomy. Staff positions would have to be re-tooled to meet these expectations, with training, supporting and coordinating the work of volunteers playing a greater role in every staff member’s work.

Volunteerism is not without negative side effects. The huge number of people eager to work in museums in a paid or unpaid capacity probably contributes to the relatively low pay of the profession. Museum studies graduates already bitterly resent the fact that the entry path to paid professional positions has become the unpaid internship—they leave school with significant educational debt only to find they are expected to volunteer to be competitive. But really, aren’t there worse things in the world than having lots of people so interested in what your museum does that they are eager to donate their time, attention and skills?

So maybe in the future the ratio of volunteers to paid staff will be more like 25:1, 50:1, even 100:1. Do you think that future lies somewhere in the Cone of Plausibility? Is it a desirable future and, if so, how do museums need to shift course to get there? Please weigh in.

* stats on volunteers and staffing from AAM’s 2009 Museum Financial Information, unless otherwise noted.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Workforce of the Future Starts Now


We get a lot of questions about who will be working, or should be working, in the museum of the future, and how museums should be finding, recruiting and training these future staff members.

Any exploration of the future of the museum workforce has to start with an accurate snapshot of what we have now. So CFM commissioned an analysis based on U.S. Census data.

These numbers are based on the American Community Survey (ACS) conducted in 2009 (the most recent public dataset available in September). They will probably shift a bit when we get access to the 2010 ACS and the 2010 decennial Census. Also note that there are different ways of counting museum workers (such as by occupation) that yield different results—and the Census numbers never quite balance with numbers from other federal agencies like the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

For now, this is probably the best reflection of the current museum workforce as a whole. The workforce is:
  • 80% white
  • 52% male
  • full of people who attended college (70%), but only 11% have a master’s degree or doctorate.
We take a broad view of the “museum workforce,” so these numbers include everyone who draws a museum paycheck—from the director of the Met to the custodian at your local historical society—and not just the professional staff. For a useful point of comparison, 87% of museum studies graduates in 2009 were women and 70% were white.

Some items for your discussion: 
  • What other data do we need about the current museum workforce to inform our planning?
  • What do you think the workforce of the museum of the future needs to “look like”?
  • If the future workforce needs to be different in its composition from the current workforce, what needs to change?
  • What do we, as trainers and employers, need to do to make those changes come about?
Please weigh in using the comments section below.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Futures Studies 101: Implications Wheel

What would happen if a space craft full of weak, disoriented insectoid aliens parked itself in orbit over South Africa?

The implications of that (highly) improbable event are explored the 2009 film District 9. The director posits humans would confine the aliens to a ghetto outside Johannesburg, scornfully dub them “prawns”, and exploit them for military research. This plot, as with so much good science fiction, explores our actual history and culture, but it applies a useful forecasting technique—looking at a trend or event, thinking about the implications, and seeing where in the cone of plausibility those ripple effects might take us.

So maybe aliens aren’t going to park above your museum. Pick something more plausible that may profoundly affect your current plans. For example:

  • Your community is aging: within 10 years, 60% of the population will be over the age of 65, and fewer than 20% of families will have school age children.
  • Your local government decides to implement Payment in Lieu of Taxes, and slaps you with a bill for city services equal to 5% of your current annual operating expenses.
  • Your museum decides to merge with another organization in your community.

How do you begin to get a handle on all the ways in which these changes (good or bad) will affect your organization? How do you begin to plan your response?

One very useful tool is the Implication Wheel—a method of visual mapping that leads staff, board members and other stakeholders through a process of wrapping their brains around a change, and planning effective responses.

Start by putting your trend or event at the middle of your wheel.


Then ask yourself:

  1. What is likely to happen next?
  2. How would my (our) life change?
  3. What would we need to decide?


So, for the merger, you might add:


Then, choosing one item from this first circle of implications, ask the same questions and build out from there.



Push participants to explore implications of the central event in all the “STEEP” categories—social (cultural), technological, economic, ecological, political. And consider both small and large frames of reference. Social/cultural implications might be institutional (staff with very different backgrounds and training have to learn to work together) or local (the distinct communities that used the two museums need to get comfortable with each other). Same for political implications—you need a communications plan both internally (for staff and volunteers) and externally (for members, funders, community stakeholders).

Implications wheels are great for a number of reasons: 
  • They are accessible. People who don’t feel comfortable writing memos or position papers usually feel ok contributing a thought on a sticky note and putting it on the wheel. 
  • It feels messy and provisional, which can encourage people to free associate. Sometimes this is the best way to flush out touchy topics or fringe possibilities. (To foster this approach, I recommend drawing freehand on a white board or flip chart, and/or using sticky notes.) 
  • It has high visual impact, and illustrates the decision making process in a way that easy to share with other stakeholders. (If you want to create an electronic document to share, you can use mind mapping or flowchart software to transcribe the wheel.) 
  • The method tends to do a very good job spotting major negative implication of a decision or event, and identifying opportunities.

You can find a brief introduction to Implications Wheels here, and a longer exploration showing how it was used to model the implications of pandemic flu here.

If you have done an Implications Wheel for a decision or event facing your museum, I would love to see it. Are you willing to share? Please do!