Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Making the Most of What We Have: Museums & Collaboration

Yesterday, at the orientation for Museums AdvocacyDay, deputy director Cora Marrett of the National Science Foundation predicted that, in a future of increased resource constraints, museums will need to collaborate on competitive funding proposals as a matter of course. I suspect this will be true across the board, not just in the sciences.

How apt, then that today’s guest post is by Charlotte N. Eyerman, director of FRAME, North America. I’ve asked her to share FRAME’s model for collaboration in the arts.

“Collaboration,” “engagement,” “community,” and “technology” are key terms of the day for museums. They are not merely buzzwords that animate professional conferences and dominate staff meetings (though they do); rather, they are guiding principles that inform our missions and our day-to-day work. Still, organizations have particular needs, goals, and priorities and may define these terms, as universal as they may seem, in vastly different ways. How we understand these anchoring terms and implement projects around them takes a tremendous investment in communication--formal, informal, written, electronic, verbal, in-person, virtual---to internal and external audiences.

I’m the director of the North American half of a Franco-American museum consortium. Having been in the role for just over a year, I love the organization, what it stands for, what it has achieved, and will do in the future. I’d like to share with you a bit about the history of this organization, and share some thoughts on what we have learned, through FRAME, about collaboration that you might consider as you assess potential partnerships.

FRAME is a relatively young organization, founded in 1999 by Elizabeth Rohatyn, our Co-President and Board Chair, when her husband, Mr. Felix G. Rohatyn, served as Ambassador of the United States to France (1997-2000). As “Madame l’Ambassadrice,” she was committed to promoting Franco-American cooperation, and the art museum context presented an ideal opportunity. The Rohatyns traveled throughout France during the Ambassador’s tenure and discovered many great cities in France outside Paris with outstanding art museums. Mrs. Rohatyn’s inspired and innovative idea was to promote cultural exchange, recognizing the primacy of museums in the fabric of each “FRAME” city. We started with 9 museums in each country and now have 13 in France, 13 in North America (12 US, 1 Canada). FRAME thrives.

For FRAME, collaboration is a way to link community, engagement, and technology with a primary commitment to communicating the importance of art. FRAME provides a model for museum cooperation by providing opportunities for museum directors, curators, educators, as well as exhibitions, development, and communications staff to exchange ideas, develop exhibitions and projects, and to broaden the reach of their collections and programs beyond their local communities onto the national and international stage.

Each fall we bring together about 60 colleagues from all 26 FRAME museums across a broad range of disciplines. We also gather in a smaller groups a few times a year to discuss exhibitions and educational programs. We maintain dialogues throughout the year using good old-fashioned tools like the phone and e-mail, and new-fangled ones like Skype. We juggle time zones and translate back and forth between French and English to advance our initiatives and to share them within our network and indeed with the broader community.

The FRAME consortium has grown and evolved over time, always with a commitment to our core mission to promote Franco-American cultural exchange and cooperation. The member museums are quite diverse but all share collections of European art as a unifying commonality, and all are in cities outside the more familiar “cultural capitals” of Paris or New York. The cities in the FRAME network vary in scale and population, with museums that house important collections. Our consortium balances the diversity of the member institutions with shared commitments to innovative exhibitions, educational programs, and professional exchange primarily within the network, though increasingly FRAME projects are shared with other museums and provide a model for collaboration. Our focus is on communicating and collaborating, with the in-person encounters at the Annual Meeting as a crucial tool to hatching new ideas and building on existing relationships.

With the extraordinary touring exhibition The Mourners: Tomb Sculptures from the Dukes of Burgundy, FRAME launched the show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (a non-FRAME museum), and after venues at six FRAME museums across the U.S., it will travel to Bruges, Belgium, Berlin, Germany, and Paris, France before returning home to Dijon. This is an example of FRAME’s commitment to sharing its work within and beyond the consortium to bring this “once in a lifetime” exhibition the broadest possible audience.  

As other museums and organizations contemplate creating consortia, the key is:
·         have a clear mission
·         criteria for membership
·         clear expectations for participation

FRAME continually examines the questions of “what we do” and “how we do it” as we face changing cultural and economic conditions. Our mantra is our mission, which is built on a foundation of collegiality and cooperation. Change is inevitable and with flexibility, good will, and a strong sense of purpose and shared values, we are proud of the model that FRAME offers.
FRAME (French Regional American Museum Exchange, is a 501c3 non-profit organization), is a consortium of 26 art museums in France and North America that promotes cultural exchange in the context of museum collaborations. FRAME fosters partnerships among its member museums to develop innovative exhibitions, educational and public programs, and professional exchanges among museum staff, and maintains a bi-lingual website to reach global audiences.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Ethics and the Distributed Museum

I’m wrestling with the draft report of “Forecasting the Future of Museum Ethics.” One of the most delightful things about this project is that, despite the constraints of format (multiple choice and free text in an online survey) the participants—both recruited Oracles and public opt-ins—freely expanded, diverted and added to the topics they selected for discussion.

As a result, the responses covered a lot of territory. Some comments were clearly about ethics (what people working in museums should or shouldn’t do), but sometimes our forecasters strayed into areas of legality (which we originally defined as out of the scope of the forecast), or practicality (what museums will need to do in order to survive). Quite often these thoughts intertwined and it was hard to tease out if the author thought an issue was legal, ethical, practical or just very important.

One emergent issue that took me by surprise: the ethics of museums holding far more collections than they can display at any given time.  Concerns about this practice seemed to be driven by a number of factors:
  • growing commitment to sustainability (what energy-resources should museums devote to collections in storage?)
  • a sneaky suspicion that a lot of stuff in museums collections don’t belong there and need a good culling
  • unease with the paradigm of perpetual growth (in size, in attendance, in collections)
  • anxiety that, in a fiscally bleak future, museums simply won’t be able to afford to maintain all the collections they have now
But some comments were clearly about ethics, reflecting a feeling that museum collections are public goods that ought to be accessible on a regular basis in some way, shape or form, not just once in a great while as the exhibit schedule allows. The corollary being that keeping large amounts of collections in “dead” storage is unethical (not just wasteful, impractical or unaffordable). Huh—I’ve never heard that sentiment expressed before.

The fact that many comments related to this theme came in part from public participants in the survey (who may or may not work in museums) if anything heightened my concern. In my experience, the average “man on the street” doesn’t know that museum collections are like icebergs, the vast majority hidden from view, and are shocked to discover it so. And anyone who works with museum collections (curator, director, registrar) knows that one of the greatest sticking points in negotiating with donors is that they often expect their donated treasures will go on exhibit right now and forever. If people knew how much museums take care of that they never get to see, how many would appreciate our role in preserving this material for the future? And how many would feel such hoarding is a dicey use of the public subsidy they provide to us as nonprofit stewards of the collections?

A particularly interesting twist to this discussion is the role of digitization. Many forecasters shared their anxieties about the evolving dynamic of the virtual versus the real. If the majority of people who “visit” a museum do so on-line, what is the relative value of the physical site? How will the museum decide to partition resources between the virtual (which serves the greatest number) and the real (much of which isn’t accessible at any given time anyway?) If a museum digitizes an object, and the vast majority of people who ever “see” it access the virtual version, does this increase the temptation to deaccession some of the original material? Especially as (in this ever more interconnected world) any physical object can be tagged, tracked and catalogued in the cloud whether or not it resides in a museum. Do museums even need to own or house all the material they curate and interpret?

The purpose of the forecast is to tease out early indicators of change—envisioning how the standards we hold ourselves to, as a field, may shift in coming decades in response to changes in our environment (cultural, political, environmental, economic or technological).  And, of course, to start thinking about potential consequences of these changes. If the field ever decides that accessibility of collections (stored or not) is an ethical issue, how will museums respond?

So I’ve started looking for stories of how museums are coping with the dilemma of what to collect physically versus virtually; what and how much to put in storage; how to track and link to objects the museum doesn’t own, and how to manage public expectations regarding accessibility.

This morning a colleague introduced me to a site I find particularly interesting in this regard. The Vogel 50x50 Project grew out of the National Gallery of Art’s innovative response to the drivers of change discussed in this post. Faced with Dorothy and Herbert Vogel’s desire that their collection of contemporary art be accessible to the public (and the museum’s own limitations on storage), the project distributed the couple’s collection between sites in all fifty U.S. states, drawing on the Vogel’s intimate knowledge of which museum collections might be enhanced by specific works. While the art is physically distributed, however, intellectually the collection is united via the Web. A virtual museum, as it were, housing all the works and making them accessible to all.

This is one example in my small collections of stories that shed light on the future of what I call the Distributed Museum—museums that function in many physical places (via mobile, pop-up or branch extensions), and museums that “collect,” curate and interpret material that doesn’t reside in the museum itself. Can you add more to my stock? Please send descriptions and links to me at futureofmuseums@aam-us.org

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Open Authority & the Future of Museum Ethics

Lori Byrd Phillips is the U.S. Cultural Partnerships Coordinator for the Wikimedia Foundation and the Wikipedian in Residence at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. As a museum studies graduate student at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis she has been researching the role of Wikipedia in the future of museums, a topic she has previously written about on this blog.  At this year’s AAM Annual Meeting you’ll have the chance to learn more about Wikipedia in the session, "Wikipedia and the Museum: Lessons from Wikipedians in Residence."

I was struck recently by a statement made in the introduction to Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World (2011): "Long before Wikipedia, museums were wrestling with the benefits and consequences of de-centering expertise." Just look to Duncan F. Cameron’s 1971 landmark article, "The Museum, a Temple or the Forum," and it’s clear that the museum field has been considering the role of visitors within the scope of museum authority for some time—thirty years, in fact, before Wikipedia was established in 2001.

Today Wikipedia is often cited as a quintessential example of de-centralized knowledge sharing, an open source, global, collaborative platform that has caused many to question the role of credentialed authority in the digital sphere. Museums are now wrestling with this pervasive culture of transparent, user-generated content, while struggling to maintain their established authority. 

In my graduate studies, I’m currently researching Wikipedia as a platform for museums to openly and collaboratively share cultural resources. This links naturally with issues of the future of museum authority and the ethics of crowd-sourcing content. But why do these two concepts need to be at odds? I see the successful future museum as one that embraces the culture of the open, collaborative Web, while still maintaining authority. I call this concept, "open authority," a model that achieves a balance by bringing together the museum’s established expertise with the contributions of broad audiences via the open Web. In my definition, "open" draws its influences from the free and open source software movement, which is strongly linked with ethical issues in museums such as transparency, accessibility to content and the role of digital audiences.

Museum authority has been discussed repeatedly on the CFM blog, including in a post about the Forecasting the Future of Museum Ethics survey, which points to the ethical dilemmas that may arise when incorporating amateur experts into the interpretation of museum content. Similarly, as American Historical Association president William Cronon has exemplified, the history field has debated the role that the open Web might play in scholarly authority, specifically discussing what part they, as experts, should play in contributing to Wikipedia.

Just as "authority" has become a trending dialogue, so has the concept of openness. At the recent Horizon Report Retreat hosted by the New Media Consortium, leaders in the education and museum fields included "Openness" among their list of meta trends, stating that, "Openness—Concepts like open content, open data, and open resources, along with notions of transparency and easy access to data and information—is moving from a trend to a value for much of the world." As openness is becoming more of an expectation within our society, museums should be looking to ways to become more open while maintaining their authority.

Museum authority can especially step in to achieve balance as our fast-paced, digital world is flooded with content that is impossible to fully digest. Rob Stein, deputy director of research, technology, and engagement at The Indianapolis Museum of Art, recently pointed out the nuance between a museum that is "authoritative" and "authoritarian." Just as Cameron (1971) stated that museums should be both a temple and a forum, Stein points out that museums should remain authoritative in their representation of culture, but avoid being authoritarian. Being authoritative is not the antithesis of being participatory. The two should work hand in hand.

One way "open authority" might occur is when museums more purposefully take on the role of facilitators of content. The New Media Consortium’s Horizon Report meta trends note the need for authoritative curation in the digital realm: "As authoritative sources lose their importance, there is need for more curation and other forms of validation to generate meaning in information and media."
Nina Simon encourages museums to put this into practice by being facilitators of platforms, Wikipedia being one of many that we need to better utilize.

Museums have been slow to embrace the potential of facilitating and engaging in open, collaborative platforms, and even slower in seriously incorporating user-generated content into the core of interpretation.  However, as the Web continues to move towards even more open, collaborative and prolific content creation, museums will more clearly see the need to rise to the occasion. Already, transparency is beginning to be seen as the rule, not the exception. One day, it may be just as much of a standard, ethical obligation to adopt the ideals of "open authority" as it is now to remain stewards of our collections. Now wouldn’t that be something?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Choosing Roles: Facilitator or Advocate?

Would you rather be loved, or would you rather save the world?

You can’t necessarily have both.

I pondered this choice, as it applies to museums, yesterday morning at the last half day of the 21st Century Learning in Natural History Settings conference at the National Museum of Natural History.* (Search #21cnhm if you want to view the recent flurry of conversation on Twitter.)

One of the documents being drafted as part of this project is a statement on the assets, public value, and potential of natural history institutions. In defining “what we are,” the document affirms, several times, “we are trusted.”

One thing that engenders trust is love, and it is true that many people love museums. Natural history museums in particular seem like prime candidates for universal love. Dinosaurs. Mummies. Cool dioramas. Birds, bugs, snakes (ok maybe these last two are not universally popular).

But it’s not all cute fuzzy animals. Natural history museums do more than reflect the documentary and observational practices of early natural historians. They are scientific institutions in a time when science seems to be increasingly devalued, especially when it comes to the ways in which science might inform national politics and policy.

The current 21cnhm draft values statement also affirms that natural history institutions can (or should) play a role in teaching about evolution and the human role in climate change (“altering the Earth’s natural processes”).

But there are a lot of people in the U.S. who aren’t going to trust museums on the issues of evolution and climate change. Less than forty percent of Americans believe in evolution while twenty-five percent don’t (the rest are agnostic, so to speak). Thirty-five percent believe that effects from global warming "will never happen” (18%) or “not in their lifetime” (16%). If natural history museums clearly and aggressively adopt an agenda of teaching evolution and the human role in climate change, the folks who don’t believe in these issues now probably aren’t going to trust natural history museums in general, either.

Which is fine, if museums are willing to write off that audience (most likely) or win them over (nice ambition, but less likely.)

But how does that reconcile with the reams that have been written on the need for museums to embrace diversity? One attendee yesterday thought the values statement should reference the need to “respectfully engage diverse communities,” another attendee felt museums should reflect “a plurality of voices.”  Does that include political diversity and the voices of religious fundamentalists, even when they are at odds with mainstream views of scientists?

Many museum aspire to be “places of dialog,” creating “safe spaces” where people with different perspectives can come together for civil (and civic) conversation. And now museums are being told that, in the 21st century, they may need to adapt to the trend of distributed authority, becoming moderators and facilitators of learning and discovery for their audiences rather than the sole expert.

But one of the hard things about being a good facilitator is that you don’t get to inject your opinion into the discussion. Honest brokers don’t have agendas.

So this morning’s conversation made me think about the choice we face about the role our museums will play in society. Do we want to present opportunities for learning, trusting our audiences to draw their own conclusions, hoping that this in turn creates trust in museums as honest and neutral brokers of information? Or, do we want to set forth an agenda that may save the world and, in the process, be willing to say “you, you’re not only wrong, you’re endangering the future of the human race.”

And who gets to make that choice—to decide what values guide an individual museum, or the field?

Several years ago I had a memorable dinner with close museum friends, which turned tense when one of us, the director of a science museum in the Midwest, revealed she had nixed a travelling exhibit on evolution because it would incite controversy and damage her ability to operate in the political and funding communities in that city. She was pragmatic—but she also felt the museum had a responsibility to reflect community values, and this exhibit would not. Her colleagues were horrified—they felt a science museum should reflect the values of scientists, no matter who that offends.

A large majority of staff in natural history museums might eagerly take on the role of defender of science, and go to battle on behalf of teaching evolution and convincing the American public of humanity’s role in climate change. And some directors might, too. Others, like my friend, might ponder the realities of public funding and support in a US where a large percentage of the public don’t share these values. Pragmatic concerns aside, some might feel it is more important for museums to be neutral (and trusted) places for self-directed discovery than to advance a particular agenda.

This is a very difficult conversation. The choice—facilitator or advocate—is one that has to be made at the level of the individual institution and (if we are trying to create unifying statements about who we are) for the field as a whole. I’ll be interested to see how this tension plays out in the statements drafted through 21cnhm.

(*I actually missed the bulk of the meeting, only swooping in to listen to the summaries of three days of intense work. The conference is part of an ongoing project to “develop, initiate and disseminate a collaborative and sustained learning research agenda to inform how natural history museums can best use their resources to support our audiences in the 21st Century.” I’ll be catching up by watching videos of the conference and reading the draft documents-in-process at the project wiki, and you can, too.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Future of Funding

Everyone wants to know what the next business model for museums may be. Will they morph into hybrid nonprofit/for-profit social benefit corporations? Lose tax exempt status entirely? In today’s post Carl Hamm, immediate past chair of the AAM Development and Membership Committee, makes the case that the future of museum funding will continue to lie squarely in the hands of the 1% of Americans who control 42% of our country’s wealth.

First, I think it’s important to distinguish between the ideas of funding for museums vs. giving to museums.

As it relates to the idea of funding, I very much believe that the revenue mix supporting museums (in individual cases and collectively as a field) will evolve with societal patterns over the years to come.  I think that one direct response to the dramatic recent cutbacks in government funding may be that we will be forced into a greater reliance on earned revenue from creative, non-traditional sources. For example, in our increasingly digital, media-driven world, there could be boundless opportunities for museums to package and repackage existing content which can be licensed and sold to generate earned revenue—yet fulfilling mission-related objectives at the same time. 

Consider this as a crazy idea. Let’s say a museum decides to video its hands-on preschool classes, then works with an entertainment industry partner to wrap the concept around one of their already existing properties; they co-brand the program and distribute it online or through traditional means (such as DVDs) for a fee, then they create and distribute corresponding co-branded merchandise which is sold internationally, etc.—all simply using the basic intellectual content that the museum’s educators have been using for years, but relying on the megabrand, distribution channels and business opportunities presented through the partnership. 

Some might see this type of content-driven collaboration as an inappropriate contribution to the slow erosion of museums as trusted, respected, “safe” institutions of society. On the other hand, it could also be argued that taking existing, well-developed content and providing it to global audiences is actually a worthwhile, mission-related activity, even apart from the new earned revenue possibilities it might open up.

My point here is that I do believe the funding mix for museums will absolutely need to change in the years to come, and these changes will require that we consider revenue generating possibilities which are as innovative and entrepreneurial as the rest of the business world requires.

As a transition to the conversation about giving, I think that how we engage audiences may also fundamentally change the way our missions are delivered. If we are successful in our attempts at inclusion, the profile of those constituencies who care about museums will correspondingly change.  The age-related, financial and racial shifts in our country’s demographics will certainly change the profile of those who are attending and benefitting from our museums. And that will, of course, change the “look” of the broad base of those who support us through their giving as well. 

Technology will evolve, the young people of today (who will be the old people of tomorrow) will require that we all embrace new transactional media, we’ll all be connected through the latest craze in social media, and our donors will continue to demand the utmost transparency and accountability for every dollar we spend. Yes, yes, yes and yes.

But I do believe (with the passion I infused into this soliloquy!) that the long term, ultimate sustainability of our institutions, individually and as a field, from the largest mega-institutions to the tiniest of tinies, will continue to rely on the essence of major gift philanthropy, which will supersede changes in tax law, demographic shifts in society, ebbs and flows in partisan attitudes in government, and so on.

How we deliver our missions to, communicate with, connect and receive transactions from the broad base of those who support us financially (the 99%) will undoubtedly change. Absolutely. And these shifts will also have a profound effect on the way museums are funded, and possibly, on the way transactional giving by this group will be motivated in the future.

I’m not suggesting that we rush out and focus all of our energies on finding a couple of big transformational gifts. What I am trying to suggest, however, is that the stable future of our institutions relies on our ability to engage and work with our closest donors in a regenerative system of ongoing support which both challenges their capacity for giving and our own capacities for mission delivery, rather than focusing too exclusively on efforts aimed at producing many small, mostly transactional, gifts.

While they may not look or act like they do today, to the extent that we lose focus on that select group of philanthropists (the 1%) who care deeply about individual museums, and the idea of the role museums play in our society, I believe we will not be maximizing our potential for philanthropic engagement, both through current and deferred gifts, and we will continue to lose ground to the other institutions of society (health care, higher education, etc.) to whom this group of donors will choose to give.

If Carl is right, and the wealthiest Americans are crucial to the financial future of our museums, what are the consequences? How might a museum shaped by broad public funding differ from a museum dependent on a few deep-pocketed donors? Please use the comment section, below, to weigh in.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

How a Cookbook Can Help Your Museum Engage with Food

I hope you’re planning to join us for the free Feeding the Spirit webinar, Friday, Feb. 17, 1:45-5 p.m. (ET).

To help you plan your discussions before, during or after the webcast (as well as your menu for your potluck) we’ve assembled the Feeding the Spirit Cookbook: A Resource and Discussion Guide on Museums, Food and Community.

For those planning to participate in the webinar, the Cookbook provides tips on how to get the most out of the webcast, reviews our core themes, and presents the webcast “menu” of events and shares biographies of our speakers. This can help you decide whether to participate in the full, three-course presentation or a smaller slice.

Whether or not you can join us on Feb. 17 for the online event, the Cookbook is chock full of resources that can help your museum explore how it can engage with audiences through food. Including:
  • Discussion Topics for our core themes: Promoting Food Literacy, Feeding the Visitor, and Food as Connector
  • Ideas contributed by participants in the October, 2011 Feeding the Spirit Symposium on Things Museums Can Do to Promote Food Literacy; Ways to Make the Museum Food Service Healthy and Green; and Overcoming Barriers to Integrating Food into the Museum
  • “Recipes for Success” contributed by museums across the country, sharing how they have created food-related programs, exhibits or initiatives and giving tips on how you might adapt these to your museum
  • Information on how your museum can join the national Let’s Move! Museums & Gardens campaign
Last but not least, we provide some suggestions for hosting a potluck at your organization to bring folks together over food to participate in the webcast. This includes recipes (actual recipes for food and drinks!) contributed by our 2012 CFM Lecturer, culinary history Jessica B. Harris.

I hope you can join us—the webinar will bring together museum practitioners, food policy wonks, food service providers, chefs, public health advocates and community leaders across America for a "national potluck" exploring how museums can promote food literacy, make their food services healthy and sustainable, and use food to build audience and strengthen community connections.

We provide dynamic speakers, commentary and discussion by experts; forums for participants to connect with colleagues via chat and social media; and suggested recipes for potluck viewing parties. Museums across the country are encouraged to provide a venue for groups to view the webcast, contribute to the national conversation and discuss how their museum wants to tackle food issues. And (of course), food!

More information, a downloadable copy of the Cookbook and a link to registration, lives on the CFM website.

Hope to see you in the chat windows on the 17th—Bon Appetite!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Curation of Collaboration: Experiments in Mobilizing Museum Archives

This guest post is by Gaurav Vaidya, Andrea Thomer, Rob Guralnick and David Bloom. Gaurav, a graduate student at CU Boulder, has been editing Wikipedia since 2002. Rob is a biodiversity informatician, museum curator and collaborative coffee consumer who sometimes inhabits Boulder, Colorado. Andrea is a graduate student in library and information science, and a former excavator of Pleistocene megafauna. Dave coordinates VertNet from his secret lair in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley.

We live in a world that is increasingly digital. While museums are gradually adapting to this new reality, it is crucial that we complete ongoing digitization projects with minimal resources and a maximum of community engagement. Traditional ways of doing this are not going to be enough; museums need to be bold in their efforts to harness the power of readily available, but previously untested, resources, tools and techniques.

One technique we believe will become increasingly important in keeping costs down and public engagement high is “crowdsourcing”—using interested members of the public to contribute directly to cataloging, transcription and annotation activities on museum collections. A perfect example of crowdsourcing is Wikipedia, built from scratch over the last decade by millions of volunteers into the largest and most popular general reference work on the Internet. As an experiment, we decided to try to use Wikipedia’s own resources on a museum project to unlock valuable data about Colorado’s biodiversity in the first half of the 20th century.

Junius Henderson in 1904 at Arapaho Glacier, Colo.
Junius Henderson was appointed the first curator of the newly created University of Colorado Museum of Natural History (CU Museum) in 1902. He kept field notebooks containing handwritten daily accounts of his expeditions across the Rocky Mountains over a 26 year period. Henderson’s notebooks paint a vivid picture of a changing Colorado, as horses-and-buggies give way to cars, cities grow, and wild landscapes retreat. Although their primary value is to biologists and geologists, his notes will also be of value to historians, geographers, and anthropologists interested in this period of Colorado’s history.

Fast forward 50 years, when Professor Peter Robinson, himself a CU Museum Director and now Emeritus Curator, transcribed all 14 notebooks into Word files. The notebooks themselves were eventually scanned by the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). As an experiment, we decided to publish them to Wikisource, an extension of Wikipedia founded in 2003 with the goal of crowdsourcing the transcription of public domain texts for permanent record. Although primarily focused on literature (from The Wind in the Willows to A Study in Scarlet), Wikisource already has a large number of historical texts, from George Washington’s First State of the Union Address to President Obama’s State of the Union Address last month.

We began with Henderson’s first notebook, covering the period from 1905 to 1907. We uploaded Henderson’s notebook scans to Wikisource, then used its built-in software to create an Index page for this notebook, which provides page-by-page access to the notebook (Wikisource’s software also allows each notebook to be displayed in a single page). In less than three weeks, we had copied all of Robinson’s transcript onto Wikisource, making making both the scans and text of Henderson’s first notebook viewable side-by-side and publicly accessible. Success!

Having scanned and transcribed notebooks was fantastic, but we wanted something more. In recording his observations of the species around him, Henderson had recorded a baseline against which we could compare the species distributions we see today: are birds once spotted by Henderson near the town of Florissant, Colo., still found there today? Or have encroaching human settlements and climate change forced them into higher, colder and more distant locales? Each of his field notebooks contain hundreds of species observations from the early 20th century, long before organized data collection became the norm for ecologists. We began annotating Notebook 1 by journal dates, locations and species names in mid-December, and—with the help of some anonymous contributors—had completely annotated all 112 pages a mere month later. You can see these annotated notes on Wikisource.

We’re pleased with what we’ve achieved in a very short period of time: transcribed, annotated notes available side-by-side online and reaching out to a community of existing users interested in trying to read scrawly handwriting scribbled during field trips to inhospitable climes. Now, we’d like to reach out to you: we’ve uploaded Notebook 2 and Notebook 3, and we’d love your help in transcribing and annotating them. We’d also love to see you upload your museum’s field notes to Wikisource, and to try out its infrastructure to build your own transcription communities and to annotate your own collections.

Most importantly, we’d love you to be bold, to experiment with new technologies, to trust your data to untrained strangers and to get involved in opening museum research to new communities of online visitors and citizen scientists. We’re looking forward to your feedback, suggestions and reports as comments here, on Twitter, or through blog posts.

Use the comments section, below, to lob questions to the authors about the project: logistics, challenges, outcomes, resources needed, etc. Or to tell us about crowdsourced collections projects of your own.

For updates on the Henderson Field Notes and broader issues related to museums and digitization, check out Rob and Andrea’s blog, So You Think You can Digitize, where “screwball comedy meets serious thoughts on digitization.”

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Food: A Recipe for Successful Museums

I hope you’re planning to get together with colleagues to share “Feeding the Spirit: Museums, Food & Community,” CFM’s free webinar on Feb. 17, and explore food literacy, values-based food service and community building.

If you’re still mulling over the webcast menu, I bet this guest vlog (video blog!) from Eliza Fournier will convince you to join us at the table.

Eliza shares how the Chicago Botanic Garden uses its Green Youth Farm and other garden-based programs to integrate food into their operations, get visitors excited about conservation and mentor the next generation of museum staff. (Which, incidentally, also builds a more diverse staff, thus helping to address the demographic challenge facing museums.) She also explains why Feeding the Spirit (originally a symposium, now a webinar) is so useful. 

Are you interested in implementing a youth garden at your museum? Eliza shares the Chicago Botanic Garden’s “recipe for success” in the webcast’s discussion guide, the “Feeding the Spirit Cookbook." Here is a sneak peek, sharing Eliza’s recipe

Recipe for Success: Youth Engagement with a Side of Sustainable Farming 
Chef: Eliza Fournier, green youth farm manager, Chicago Botanic Garden 
This tasty recipe will yield a holistic youth development program, using sustainable agriculture practices, that includes: cooking, nutrition, leadership development and work-readiness skills mixed in with a little old-fashioned farm work. 
The Chicago Botanic Garden has been involved in community gardening outside the walls of its Glencoe site for its entire history. Since 2003, it has deepened its connection with the community through its Urban Agriculture programs, which include the Green Youth Farm initiative for youth and the Windy City Harvest certificate program for adults. Green Youth Farm consists of four off-site sustainable agriculture (small) farms, each of which employs 20+ high school students mid-May through mid-October. Participants experience life on the farm while gaining an appreciation for how their food is produced, harvested and marketed to patrons of the Chicago Botanic Garden and members of their communities. 
Ingredients for Success:
  • Leadership: No substitutions for this ingredient. You must have highly inspired and committed internal leaders to “raise the dough” and provide the institutional support needed to support this effort year after year.
  • Space: You need fertile soil in which to grow your gardens (and students). This can be on-site or off-site on park/forest preserve, school or purchased land. Important ingredients include access to water, office space and fencing. If your space is on urban land, make sure to utilize raised beds to avoid growing in contaminated soil, which can spoil the recipe.
  • Staff: At a minimum, one full-time/year-round staff member to run the program. This is a painstaking and complex recipe that takes committed and skilled staff whom you will want to have around for the long term. The best quality staff people for this recipe will have experience in working with youth, farming and team-building/program delivery. To serve 25-30 students on a ¾- to 1-acre site, we recommend one full-time/year-round coordinator, one full-time seasonal grower (six months) and two full-time seasonal interns (three months).
  • Curriculum/plan: Fortunately, lots of people have made this recipe before, so there is a wealth of information and training available to people who are attempting this dish for the first time.
  1. Raise the dough. This can be done through the institutional budget or through outside fundraising from corporate sponsors, individual donors, family foundations and/or government grants. A diverse mix of these sources will yield the optimal flavor balance.
  2. Hire the staff. The pool of candidates with the right mix of personality, experience and education is ever-growing. There are many on-line resources that can help you recruit quality staff for your recipe, including ATTRA (or National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service) and Slow Food USA.
  3. Gather available curriculum/program materials. Maybe even participate in some training with an experienced “chef” to make sure you understand the steps to this recipe.
  4. Identify the land where you will create this recipe. Is it on or off-site? Does it have the key qualities listed above? Do you have long-term permission to use the space? (Note: Steps 1–4 can be performed simultaneously or in reverse order. Sometimes it’s best if step 4 happens first to avoid future conflicts!) If the land is off-site, identify community partners who may already be doing similar work and who may be able to help you: a) identify staff and/or students from within the community to participate in the program, b) help provide pieces of the recipe you do not feel so confident about, c) procure or share resources such as gardening materials, advice, etc.
  5. Develop a site plan. Make sure to include raised beds if you are planting in urban soils!
  6. Recruit students. Participating in high school career days or just setting up a booth during lunch are great ways to raise interest.
  7. Build your garden. It is great to include high school students in the initial construction of the garden. (Note: Don’t fret about yields in your first year. The most important produce is your students and the built farm.)
  8. Repeat and add your own special ingredients to make the resulting recipe your own unique blend!
Notes on Technique:
Recipe has the tendency to double, triple and quadruple! Sustainable food systems are a very popular topic right now, and if done right, people experiencing your recipe will undoubtedly want more. Consider how much you are willing to undertake before embarking on the adventure that is this recipe. 
The key ingredient in this recipe is staff. The right (and enough) staff with the right skill sets will help you avoid having to redo this recipe over and over. 
There are great opportunities for institutional synergies in this recipe. Youth participants can grow food for your museum’s cafĂ© and support your museum’s gift shop through value-added products (food and other products, e.g., cookbooks, etc.). Today’s youth participants are tomorrow’s museum employees. Field trips for discussion with museum staff about careers help make our museums even more accessible to the communities we serve. Youth are advocates for our museums. They help inspire folks who previously may have never heard of our institutions. 
More Information:
  • For the original recipe (including curriculum and manuals) that we adapted for our use, visit www.thefoodproject.org.
Register for the Feeding the Spirit webinar now to ensure you receive the Feeding the Spirit Cookbook: A Resource and Discussion Guide on Museums, Food and Community. We encourage you to host a potluck at your museum and participate in the webinar as a group, using it as a jumping off point to explore how your museum can help improve food literacy, incorporate mission-related values into your food service and use food to reach new audiences.

This webinar incorporates content presented at the “Feeding the Spirit” symposium hosted at the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh, Penn. on October 13, 2011. The webcast is made possible by the generous support of our host, LearningTimes.

Feeding the Spirit, the symposium and webcast, is the result of collaboration between AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums, the Association of Children’s Museums, the American Public Gardens Association, Phipps Conservatory and Public Garden and the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, with the generous support of presenting sponsor UPMC Health Plan and Sodexo.