Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Catching up with: Jane McGonigal, 2008 CFM Lecturer

This the first in a series of updates on various interesting folk you have been introduced to through CFM lectures or our the "artists interpreting the future of museums" installations at the AAM annual meeting. 

The fabulous talk Dr. Jane McGonigal gave in December 2008 on “Gaming is the Future of Museums” was the first public event for CFM, and it was a wild success. (You can watch an excerpt from the lecture here.) Jane went on to publish “Reality is Broken,” arguing that gaming can be harnessed to do good in the real world. She has also created a series of games that demonstrate this thesis, including:

·         Cryptozoo for the American Heart Association, which inspires people to get out and move by challenging them to research and imitate fictional animals. This game is part of a trend of using games for health including the popular Wii Fit.

·         Evoke, developed for the World Bank, which recruited young adults in Africa to solve global problems. Nearly 20,000 people from 150 countries participated. A handful of the game’s best innovators were selected to be mentored by business leaders and experienced social innovators and given seed funding to further develop their concepts.

·         Just last year Jane created Find the Future for the New York Public Library (“the first game in the world in which winning means writing a book”). It launched with a one-time, overnight adventure in the Library’s Schwarzman building in May 2011, before segueing to an on-going online game. Here’s a great video, under 8 minutes, documenting the joyful chaos of 500 people locked in the library overnight with a giant plush lion mascot.

These accomplishments came in the face of great challenges. In 2009 Jane suffered a concussion when she stood up into a cabinet door, and she was in the unlucky minority of people whose concussions do not resolve quickly. She struggled through over a year of dizziness, migraines, inability to concentrate, fatigue and depression.

Four weeks after receiving strict orders from her doctor to refrain from anything that triggered her symptoms (which, as she notes included just about everything that makes life worth living) she decided “I’m either going to kill myself, or I’m going to turn this into a game.” And she did, creating what eventually became SuperBetter, a game that helps people recover from injury or illness or pursue personal wellness goals. One guy is even using it to improve his writing

In this recent talk for TED, Jane speaks eloquently of her injury, her recovery, SuperBetter and (not incidentally) how gaming can improve our quality of life.  I recommend you watch! Jane promises it will add 7 minutes to your life…

Friday, July 27, 2012

Futurist Friday: The Rosetta Project

Pop Quiz. Q #1: How long do you want your museum’s collections to last?
r 50 years   r 100 years   r 500 years   r 1000 years   r > 1000 years

Q #2: what is your museum doing to meet that goal?
(Use the comment section, below, if you want to share your free-text answer.)

The most explicit and ambitious goal for preservation I know of has been set by a non-profit that isn’t even a museum. The Long Now Foundation has as its mission the promotion of long-term thinking. Reaaally long term thinking. They are tackling the challenge of how to preserve human language and culture for 10,000 years via the Rosetta Project.

Today’s futurist assignment: watch this short (<14 minute) film by Scott Oller telling the story of the Rosetta Project’s aspirations and achievements to stimulate your thinking on your preservation goals and strategies.

Another Long Now Foundation Project is the Clock of the Long Now: a mechanical clock designed to keep time for 10,000 years. Why 10,000 years? “Ten thousand years is about the age of civilization, so a 10K-year Clock would measure out a future of civilization equal to its past.”

Which leads me to wonder, what would the 10,000 year museum look like? How would you create a resilient, adaptive, self-regulating organization that could successfully steward the objects it cares for through that span of time? Sounds like a worthy project …

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Future of Ethics: Living Collections and the “Ambassadors for Their Species” Concept

Today’s guest post is by Colleen Dilenschneider, director of digital engagement at the predictive intelligence company, IMPACTS Research. I highly recommend Know Your Own Bone, where Colleen blogs about creative online engagement and new media for zoos, aquariums and museums, and the emergence of Generation Y in the workplace.

 “Captivity” is defined as the condition of being imprisoned or confined. Zoos, aquariums and museums with living collections (ZAMs) struggle with the negative connotations of that word even as they inspire conservation, provide education, and encourage the protection of the very animals that “captivity” imprisons.

“In the 70s,” said John Racanelli, CEO of the National Aquarium, during his keynote speech at the annual conference for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums last September, “I remember our standard rationale for keeping three orcas in a grungy, one-million-gallon tank was, ‘They’re ambassadors for their species.’ In some cases, little has changed. It’s a well-worn, familiar old saw and—in my view—it’s becoming increasingly less relevant every year.”

Racanelli may be onto something.

Research suggests that an increasing number of folks oppose the concept of captivity—particularly members of Generation Y and especially regarding the captivity of larger, charismatic species. As public sentiments continue to evolve and new generations assume leadership positions, ZAMs will have to adapt to this evolving environment, changing both their programming and the rationales that support their collection policies.

From a pure business perspective, compelling data also indicates that programming that was once considered a key driver of visitation—such as dolphin shows—are potentially posing barriers to onsite engagement. As Racanelli states in his keynote, data from IMPACTS Research shows that 35-40 percent of the National Aquarium’s audience is NOT motivated to visit by the existence of a dolphin show. In fact, 15 percent of the National Aquarium’s potential visitors chose not to come [at least in part] BECAUSE the Aquarium has dolphins. As Millennials take the stage, those two quotients are predicted to rise—and not just for the National Aquarium. Increasingly, young adults aged 18-34 report that captive animals—particularly those featured in a “show” format—represent a major barrier to their visiting a ZAM. In fact, our detailed research shows that, in the past four years, there has been an 11 percent increase in Millennial audiences who cite a conceptual objection to captive animals as the primary reason that they have not recently visited a zoo or aquarium.

This shift in sentiment will have consequences: Millennials represent the largest population bubble in U.S. history—significantly larger in number than the vaunted Baby Boomer generation that has long been the object of many marketers’ affections. The future viability of any ZAM dependent on earned revenues will hinge on their ability to engage with Millennials…and this generation’s beliefs about captive animals may not reconcile with the current programming of a number of ZAMs.

Investing in more ambassadors:

Despite the research presented above, some aquariums argue that having these animals onsite provides a unique experience that would otherwise be inaccessible to members of the general population. Many zoos and aquariums have a mission “to inspire” (action, conservation, respect for the natural world, etc.). This may be the driving force behind Georgia Aquarium’s recent request for a permit to bring 18 beluga whales into the United States to be housed in zoos and aquariums across the country.

Promoting new kinds of ambassadors:

Organizations like the National Aquarium and the Monterey Bay Aquarium are taking another approach.

In May 2012, the National Aquarium dramatically revamped their traditional dolphin show experience to instead feature a new Dolphin Discovery program. The Aquarium’s separately ticketed 20-minute stunt shows have been replaced by an all-day, open amphitheater program featuring one-on-one interactions with trainers and the opportunity for audiences to observe more natural dolphin behaviors. The Aquarium is also highlighting its well-known and highly-regarded marine animal rescue programs, and sharing these animals’ compelling stories with both their onsite and online audiences. In turn, this storytelling engenders a vast network of ambassadors with an increased awareness of and appreciation for the animals in the Aquarium’s care.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has long been recognized as one of the preeminent advocates for animal populations, and they have selectively featured animal ambassadors as a means of advancing their mission to inspire conservation of the world’s oceans. Recently, their White Shark Project offered the public the rare opportunity to experience six white sharks at the Aquarium between years 2004-2011. While the public enjoyed a unique, “once-in-a-lifetime” encounter with an endangered species, the Aquarium’s research yielded valuable information about how to protect and preserve the species. Under the careful care of the Aquarium’s scientists, each of the sharks was returned to its natural habitat when its continued display was no longer in the best interest of the shark’s well-being. While the sharks definitely helped attract visitors to the Aquarium, perhaps the most important benefit of their presence was an increase in public awareness of the Aquarium’s conservation research initiatives. For example, the Aquarium also rescues sea otters on the California coast through its Sea Otter Rescue and Care Program. Many of the sea otters in the Aquarium’s exhibit were originally rescues—taking the traditional “ambassador for their species” concept to the next level.

On to the Future

The continued vibrancy and relevance of ZAMS depends on their ability to inspire audiences by offering a unique experience while remaining congruent to the prevailing social beliefs and conservation ethos of future generations. The examples given above illustrate how aquariums are embracing or adapting their respective approaches to the “ambassadors for their species” concepts, but as John Racanelli said:

“I think the ambassadors concept worked for a previous generation, in a less-connected time, in a world that didn’t boast 23 channels of wildlife programming, but—and this is only my opinion—increasingly, it doesn’t work anymore...”

Change is coming. Will there be more ambassadors, new kinds of ambassadors, or none at all? Research suggests that zoos and aquariums, like the species they house, will have to adapt or die.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

On Stories, and Authenticity

I just got my copy of the new book Significant Objects documenting a fascinating project exploring the relationship between objects, stories and value.

Synopsis: Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker collected inexpensive, tag-sale objects (e.g., a Santa nutcracker, a creamer cow), paired an established writer with each object and tasked them with creating a story about it, then auctioned each object + story on eBay. The project’s premise is that “Stories are such a powerful driver of emotional value that their effect on any given object’s subjective value can actually be measured objectively.” And what was that effect? The collective value of what at first seemed to be insignificant objects increased by 2,700 percent.

Some readers may already be poo-pooing this experiment because it is about commerce, about selling things on eBay, for heaven’s sake. Museums hate talking about monetary value. We act as if it is a necessary evil accompanying the artistic, historic, scientific or cultural value we attach to an object (even while we preen about our acquisitions budget, and surreptitiously peek to see how it measures up to our rivals’.) But money is, after all, just a proxy for how humans “value” objects and services for their utility, their beauty or because they fulfill some deeper need. What need was filled by the (valued) stories that the Significant Objects project attached to these tchotchkes?

Futures studies challenges us to question our assumptions about the nature of the world, assumptions which may blind us to possible futures. The Significant Objects project leads me to question one of my bedrock assumptions about museums: that our physical collections are irreplaceable because of the (true) stories we tell about them. The anxiety most often voiced by participants in CFM forecasting workshops is “will the virtual will supplant the real? Will future audiences care less about authenticity?” I’ve always assumed the answer is “no,” because one of the reasons humans are so attached to objects is that we attach our stories, memories, emotions to them. We treat objects as external hard-drives—psychological extensions of ourselves.

But what if fictional stories can be just as compelling as true ones? Orhan Pamuk just opened a museum in Istanbul that documents the life of the narrator of his novel The Museum of Innocence. It’s a real museum that recreates a fictional museum documenting a fictional life story. Part of the addictive appeal of the Museum of Jurassic Technology (MJT) is that some of the stories it tells through its exhibits and publications are true, some aren’t, and it’s left to the visitor to a) realize that and b) figure out which is which. (If you aren’t familiar with MJT and can’t get to Culver City, Calif. to visit, I recommend Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder as an excellent introduction to the museum, its founder and its complex relationship with the truth.)

These museums are good examples, as Peter Linett puts it, of “break[ing] most of the unwritten rules of museum display, such as the one that says…museums offer direct, unmediated encounters with authentic works…, the “real thing.” [Italics added.]

Can museums flirt with fiction without losing their credibility? Can fictional back stories create the same kind of value & emotional response as the truth? Can playful (and transparent) use of fiction enhance the value of collections, and fire the imagination and interest of our audiences?

This is a particularly timely question because the theme of AAM’s annual meeting next year is “Storytelling.” “Story is the very foundation of the human experience,” reads the call for proposals. “Long before there was writing, there was oral tradition. Inventing and conveying stories may be what most distinguishes us from all other species—and the power to unite us across all cultures. Humans cast their identities in narrative forms.”

So let’s use the coming year as an opportunity how all kinds of stories—fiction and non-fiction—can help people relate to objects, and value the collections museums hold in trust for them.

This year, AAM is crowdsourcing input on annual meeting session proposals. To test reactions to your own proposals and comment on ideas presented by others, login to the proposal web site. I’ve posted four session ideas on behalf of CFM, and look forward to seeing what you have to say about them.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Crowdsourcing the AAM Annual Meeting

Ever wish you had a voice in running the AAM’s annual meeting? Now you do. AAM has opened up the session proposal process to crowdsourced input. You can use the new site to submit a draft session proposal for input from your peers, and to read and comment on the ideas that your colleagues are developing. After the proposals are finalized (Aug. 24), you’ll be invited to vote for the sessions you’d like to see in Baltimore next spring, and the program committee will take your collective opinion into account in making their decisions.

The proposal site’s only been open since Tuesday, and already there are over a dozen proposals available for your inspection. Some of them are nuggets of ideas (“What can museums—particularly smaller institutions—do to raise awareness of their importance and increase support other than dealing with their federal and state officials?”) that will be fleshed out with your input. Some of them are pretty well developed, but could still change if you weigh in with a great idea.

I’ve posted four proposals on behalf of CFM, and would love your help improving them before the voting and formal selection process begins. In addition to introducing crowdsourced input, this year AAM has introduced session formats replacing the traditional default of “three talking heads and a moderator behind a table/podium.” I’ve tried to explore the potential of some of these new formats in shaping the following sessions:
  • Ethics Smackdown would pit two speakers (or teams of speakers) against each other to debate a resolution that restrictions on using funds from the sale of collections objects ought to be loosened. CFM’s recent forecast on the future of museum ethics (report currently in prep at the Institute of Museum Ethics) made it clear opinions in the field are split on this topic, with very strong feelings on both sides of the issue. The subject evokes such passion that a knock-down, drag out debate might be just the way to “get it all out on the table.” The audience will be invited to vote on who won the debate, of course.

  • One of the new session formats is Creative Collaboration, inviting session organizers to use “role-play, simulation, proto-typing or game play” to explore a topic. I can’t resist trying this format out, so I’ve recruited games designer Ken Eklund (aka “The Writer Guy”) to help me create a futurist approach to the meeting theme of “Storytelling.” We’ll be cooking up some way to explore “Stories of the Future” (known more formally in futures studies as scenarios) through immersive role-play and gaming (details TBD).

  • Another great alternative to talking heads is the “Skills Lab” format for hands-on workshops. I’d like to use this to teach a core forecasting skill that I can’t spend much time on in my workshops. How to Read: a Primer on Scanning would lead participants (armed with their own internet connected devices) through the process of selecting and personalizing Web tools for finding, monitoring, bookmarking, archiving and sharing news sources, as well as encouraging attendees share tips on their best sources whether it be mainstream news, obscure online journals, blogs or tweeters. (My not so hidden agenda for this session—I want to recruit and train a cadre of citizen scanners to contribute to CFM’s weekly e-newsletter “Dispatches for Future of Museums.” The more people scanning, the better and more comprehensive the news we compile and distribute to you!)

  • Another potential session would feature CFM’s second annual trends report (TrendsWatch 2013) being released next spring. I’m still noodling on how to design a session that adds value to the report itself, rather than just walking people through the content. For now, I’ve proposed using the “Flash” format to feature a series of presenters (one person, with appropriate expertise, for each trend) each giving a lightening summary of one trend and lobbing thought-provoking ideas about potential implication for museums. We ought to provide a way to collect and share audience feedback too—take a look at what I’ve sketched out and see what you think.
If you’re planning to submit a proposal for the 2013 meeting, I strongly encourage you to put your proposal up on the site as soon as possible, and use your own avenues of communication (email, Twitter, blog, word to a friend) to encourage people to read and comment. Whether or not you intend to submit a proposal, please bookmark the site and make a point of visiting, reading and commenting throughout the summer. Let’s get past the days when people exit the session room muttering “I know who would have been PERFECT for that panel, if only they had asked me,” or “it would have been so much cooler if they had done [x].”

Even if a given proposal isn’t selected for Baltimore, your input may help make new connections (as organizers follow up on leads for potential speaker) and inspire people to explore the topic in alternative ways. The site will become a collection of ideas, widely shared and jointly improved, that may inspired videos, podcasts, webcasts and sessions at other meetings, national and local.

Let the crowdsourcing begin!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Glimpses of the Ethical Future

Today’s guest post is by Sally Yerkovich, director of the Institute of Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University and instigator of the Forecast on the Future of Museum Ethics. You can catch up on previous news from the forecast here.

At the AAM annual meeting in Minneapolis this past May, I led the Idea Lounge session Writing a Museum Ethics Code for the Future. This is the latest step in the forecasting exercise that the Institute of Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University and the Center for the Future of Museums have been conducting over the past year. The session yielded three discussions that gave us further food for thought as we prepare a final report for the field.

Six oracles—Bob Beatty, Colleen Dilenschneider, Erik Ledbetter, James Leventhal, Sarah Pharaon and Holly Witchey—led conversations on the themes of accessibility and diversity; conflict of interest and control of content; collecting and deaccessioning; and transparency and accountability. They sorted through the issues that our forecasters already identified as key, but separating those that are clearly ethical in nature from those that are reflective of general concerns and part of the bigger, changing picture for museums.

Overall, the Idea Lounge suggested that our forecasting exercise is the beginning of a much larger, field-wide conversation that needs to continue rather than a definitive identification of future ethical challenges. Repeatedly, participants stressed the need for wider dissemination of the current AAM code of ethics as well as training on how to tackle ethical dilemmas for both staff and board members.

Specifically, the group discussing accessibility and diversity called for a better definition of “accessibility”—what do we really mean by it?—as well as an articulation of why it is important. This group also suggested that the current AAM standards are very museum-centered and that perhaps the standards need to be reframed with various museum audiences in mind.

When it came to the themes of transparency and accountability, participants said clearly that both are with us to stay—even if many museum people feel uncomfortable about freely making information about their institutions publicly available. They added that if a museum is seen as transparent, it gains social capital and the assumption of good faith, and is often given the benefit of the doubt when difficult situations arise.

The same group tackled questions relating to collections and deaccessioning. One conclusion they reached is that over-collecting may be as much of an ethics issue as deaccessioning. They also felt that the discussion of the latter should start with an evaluation of a museum’s overall management (especially financial management, strategies) because the use of funds from deaccessioning for ongoing operating costs is usually the symptom of a deeper problem.

Finally, the group discussing control of content firmly declared that the issues arising around community curation do not necessarily involve ethical issues but can bring other challenges to institutions. These challenges vary by discipline. They noted that general, field-wide guidelines would not be effective in this area because the ethical issues are usually quite site-specific and subtle. Instead of creating a more prescriptive code of ethics for the field, some in the group suggested that what we need is increased training in ethical decision-making, including a compilation of case studies or scenarios that could be used for guidance.

Should AAM revisit its current code of ethics? There was a split of opinion on this question. Some felt that the field is too diverse to generate a code of ethics that would be helpful to all museums. Others argued forcefully that museums, as a community, are the caretakers and interpreters of our cultural, scientific and biological heritage; as such, museums need a well-defined and explicated set of moral imperatives as well as a community-wide dialogue about them.

The Oracles facilitating the discussion all agreed that more discussion and debate is needed. Leventhal commented that participating in the forecasting exercise, along with the follow-up discussion in Minneapolis, gave him an opportunity to look beyond our current, sometimes daunting challenges—and to be reminded of how “young” we are as a profession, and how much potential we have for the future.

It’s hard to think of a better spin to put on our many forecasting conversations—both virtual and face-to-face! Stay tuned for the next steps as we prepare a compilation of all the forecasting feedback we have been gathering this past year.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Futurist Friday: Internet Fail

Futurist Friday is a series of occasional posts featuring recommending reading, viewing or listening resources to expand your thinking and fuel your  forecasting.

When I teach forecasting workshops, I lead participants through the process of identifying trends and disruptive events that may shape the future.

As I’ve written in CFM’s Futures Studies 101 series, trends sneak in under our radar because we don’t notice their gradual effects, or project where they will take us. Disruptive events, on the other hand, spring out to take us by surprise. By spending some time contemplating what kinds of events could have sudden and profound effects on our world, we can be prepared to respond quickly and effectively. A good example is your museum’s risk management and/or emergency response plans. (You do have one, right?) These typically cover floods, fire, storm, power outages and, sometimes, terrorist attacks. As my workshop attendees consistently demonstrate, however, a intelligent and imaginative group of people can come up with a far, far longer list of credible threats we may have to deal with in the future.

Inevitably, one of the disruptive events that workshop participants throw into the mix is “massive solar flare brings down the internet.” Yes, such an event is well within the Cone of Plausibility, and yes, it would have huge effects on society as a whole, and certainly on our institutions.

So, for your futurist Friday reading, here is a interview with David Eagleman on the vulnerabilities of the internet. To summarize:
  • Solar flares can and do put communications satellites out of commission, and can cause geomagnetic storms that could “blow out transformers and melt our computer system.”
  • Cyber-warfare directed at military or corporate targets, or civic infrastructure. In the future, governments or terrorists may target general internet connectivity as well as specific targets. Or the perpetrators may simply be malicious hackers (this type of malicious “griefing” was one forecast explored in the Institute for the Futures “SuperStruct” game –n 2008.)
  • Political mandate, as in Iran and Egypt which both shut down the internet in the recent past to exert control over social media. Did you know that 61% of Americans approve of the idea of the U.S. president having a “kill switch” to shut off internet access? Homeland Security’s 2010 proposal on this didn’t make it through Congress, but stay tuned…
  • Cable cutting. I didn’t know 99% of all global web traffic runs through deep sea networks of fiber optic cables. Apparently there is growing history of sabotage of these networks, and they are understandably difficult to protect.
If you prefer to listen to reading, you can download a podcast that Eagleman did on the subject on 4/1/2010.

Spend a little time imagining that you wake up, one day, to the NPR Morning Edition lead story “Internet down, across the globe, no projection yet to why or when connectivity will be restored.” What would be the immediate implications for your family, your neighborhood, your museum, the country, the world? What steps would you take to adapt?                                           

The next major geomagnetic storms are forecast for mid-2013—plenty of time to review and revise your emergency plans. 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Natural History Museums as Superman’s Crystal Palace

Today, guest blogger Henry McGhie (seen below), Head of Collections and Curator of Zoology at the Manchester Museum, shares his thoughts on how museums can empower visitors to become superheroes, and describes the museum’s unorthodox approach to the recent reinstallation of its natural history galleries. 
photo credit: CityLife
Preserved dead animals have real and undeniable power to change the way people think about themselves, about nature and about their relationships as part of nature. To me, the real power of natural history collections in museums lies in the ways that they connect people to the world beyond the museum through objects and experiences.

We worked through a number of these ideas when we were redeveloping the Manchester Museum’s main natural history gallery, which opened in April 2011 as Living Worlds. We were interested in doing something that addressed current environmental concerns and topics, but quickly realised that the last thing we wanted to do was to repeat negative news stories that people are all too familiar with from mass media. A new ice age (remember that one?), ozone depletion, forest destruction, climate change—the environment can too easily become little more than a series of issues, rather than the system we are in. In what was a major shift for us, we began to see the museum visit as a means to an end—what people did after than their visit—rather than focusing solely on what people did during the visit.

We wanted to appeal to people emotionally and individually and we definitely wanted to avoid our project becoming preachy (who needs that?). We selected a design firm, Brussels-based villa eugénie, who had no experience of working in museums but who had exactly what we were looking for: the ability to produce events and installations that grabbed people emotionally. As museum curators we could easily come up with stories about objects, but building drama and emotion don’t come so easily to us.

From our early meetings, villa eugénie were most captivated by the Victorian gallery environment, which has a protected building status, and by the positive message we were trying to convey. They developed an approach that combined tradition, modernity, visitor experience and innovative use of technology. One of their main comments to us was that the previous gallery was far too text heavy. This approach to text would not work in a gallery that was geared around building drama and emotion. So, we developed a smartphone app that visitor services assistants would use to engage with visitors. The main ‘headline’ messages that we wanted to emphasise appear in the gallery itself. Additional information, suggestions of activities to do and in ways to get involved in nature is found on the app. Most of the information on the app is housed on our collections management system (KE EMu), which we can very easily change, so we have found a really nifty way to avoid labels becoming out of date and to meet the challenge of providing cutting edge information.
Photo Credit: Ant Clausen for the Manchester Museum.
Working with villa eugénie provided us with access to new ideas and approaches. I doubt if we would have got such a beautiful and thought provoking installation from anyone else. A mounted Crane and a piece of rubble from Hiroshima are surrounded by a thousand origami Cranes, international symbol of piece; a mounted wild Sheep (wearing a blue woolly jumper) and other animals that feature in our everyday lives are presented in a display case that has been turned into the inside of an apartment; animals being affected by climate change appear against a large coloured map of world temperature with facts about climate change appearing on LED displays.

Intellectually, we based our redisplay on Stephen Kellert’s typology of attitudes to nature. This was an excellent framework for us as it helped us think about how might we communicate with people who think differently from ourselves as museum curators, and how mixed groups might use the gallery as a platform for dialogue. By taking this approach I hope we enable more people to find a ‘way in’ to the gallery and to the topic of environmental sustainability. We hope that the gallery, which is very beautiful, will act as a spark or a catalyst, leading people to get more involved in activities after their visit, and challenging them to think about their own views on nature.

Our gallery has been the basis of a wide range of newly developed sessions for schools about nature and sustainability, the location for public events including panel discussions on climate change with university academics, and the springboard for a number of other events and activities, from a museum allotment to an exhibition of photographs of people who had themselves tattooed with illustrations of endangered wildlife to become ambassadors for those species.

This leads me to reflect on an essay Elizabeth Merritt recently posted to this blog: ‘Are Natural History Museums ready to become superheroes?’  I love the idea of natural history museums as superheroes but here’s where I disagree: buildings aren’t heroes—people are. And in order for there to be heroes there have to be villains. The challenge with environmental sustainability, as I see it, is to support people to make positive choices. We are all potentially heroes, just as we can all be villains. The power is in the trying and through the accumulation of tiny choices.

So if I was to run with the superhero theme, I think I’d go for something a bit different. Thinking about Superman as an example, rather than trying to cast natural history museums as Superman himself, I’d opt for them to be his ice fortress as it appeared in the movies, complete with crystals containing memories, fantastic things that help him reflect on his past and support him in his missions, and devices and objects relating to the past and the future. Sound familiar? Rather than trying to be the hero, I think museums should focus on how they can become super-efficient catalysts, benefitting people’s individual well-being, society and the natural environment.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Innovation Lab for Museums, Round 2

MetLife Foundation, EmcArts and AAM issued a press release yesterday, announcing the second round of participants in Innovation Lab for Museums. I’m pleased that these three projects continue the pattern, established in round one, of innovating around issues that confront many of their peers.

Children’s museums face particularly daunting and complex challenges in coming decades, as recognized by the Association of Children’s Museums’ “Reimagining Children’s Museums” initiative (also funded by the MetLife Foundation, BTW). Many communities served by existing children’s museums have declining birth rates, and where population are growing, this growth is taking place among cultural & ethnic groups (mostly Latino) that have not traditionally been the primary users of museums, children’s or other. Also, the “Great Recession” has disproportionately affected younger adults (and parents with young children), who are likely to make museum membership decisions based on value-for-money (See Reach Advisor’s blog for posts on this subject). For this reason, among others, I’m happy that one of our three funded projects in round two is The Madison Children's Museum’s "KidShare: Collecting, Presenting, and Preserving Children’s Culture and Creativity." The central goal of this project is to prototype a system for helping kids and classroom teachers conduct fieldwork, and share them with the larger community. KidShare has the potential to provide new models for intertwining museums, students, schools and communities. I think this could help children’s museums to cultivate new audiences, as well. 

While the demographic and cultural trends affecting children’s museums are just beginning to lap at their toes, historic house museums are already immersed in their challenging future. The National Trust for Historic Preservation documented this in detail in their 2007 Final Conference Report Sustainability of Historic Sites in the 21st Century. “At a time when the market for heritage tourism, cultural tourism, and eco-tourism is rapidly expanding, historic sites are drawing fewer and fewer visitors,” notes the report. “…historic sites seem to have lost their way. How should the historic site profession (that unique cross section of public history and museum studies) respond to this situation?” “Historic sites must no longer think of the "velvet rope tour" as their "basic bread and butter" program,” the report concludes, “and must generate more varied ways to utilize their remarkable resources to enrich people's lives.” Therefore it is highly appropriate that the National Trust should conceive “Re-imagining Historic House Museums” for their innovation project. I fervently hope that the Lab helps the Trust achieve its goal of “creating house museums that inform, illuminate and inspire.”

While the Madison Children’s Museum and the National Trust projects have the potential to benefit their disciplines, the third funded project in round two tackles an issue that challenges the museum field as a whole: our out-dated membership model. As the Mississippi Museum of Art’s project proposal notes, the museum field has build org charts, software systems—a whole infrastructure—around the assumption that the traditional membership model is THE way to monetize individual participation. This model, however, is increasingly out of sync with the behavior of new audiences that are young, mobile and new to museums. “Our business model is based on behavior of the past,” MMA observes, “while our programming is based on behavior today.” I look forward to their experiments with "Unpacking Museum Membership: A new model for participation."

As in round one, there were more worthy projects than could be funded even with MetLife’s generous support.  On the recommendation of the selection panel, AAM is designating the McKissick Museum’s “The University Museum as Social Entrepreneur” as an “Innovation Project of Excellence,” in the hope that this will help the museum in its quest to explore how university museums can leverage faculty expertise to tackle community challenges while contributing to the museum’s sustainability. I am particularly eager to see this project go forward, since it focuses, in part, on community foodways and heritage foods to help tackle economic and health challenges of the region. (See CFM’s ongoing Feeding the Spirit initiative for more on this subject.)

I look forward to sharing news and reports from the three new Lab participants as they move the program, as well as keeping you updated on the progress of our round one museums.

And a big shout out and my personal thanks to these fabulous individuals, who served as selection panelists for this round of applications to Innovation Lab for Museums:
  • Sebastian Chan, director of digital & emerging media, Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum, N.Y. 
  • Karen Coltrane, president & CEO, Children’s Museum of Richmond, Va.
  • Georgina Bath Goodlander, interpretive programs manager, Luce Foundation Center for American Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
  • Scott Kratz, vice president for education, National Building Museum, Washington, D.C. 
  • Maria Mortati, founder, San Francisco Mobile Museum

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Museum Volunteers are Awesome!

Erin Blasco does public programs and social media at the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum. You can always say hi to her on Twitter at @erinblasco. Today she shares a new initiative they've begun to recognize their volunteers.

If you work with museum volunteers, you know they often go above and beyond their basic duties. At the Postal Museum, we’re lucky to have volunteers who conduct research projects, attend every museum lecture and get sore hands from cutting out puppet pieces in addition to their basic duties. We also have volunteers who frequently impress us with small scale actions like our volunteer who makes a themed pair of earrings for every public program she participates in, showing our visitors just how dedicated our volunteers are and, in a quirky way, reinforcing the program theme.

These volunteers don’t go above and beyond because they’ll get a t-shirt or tote at the end of the year; they’re motivated, lifelong learners enthusiastic about doing more because it’s intrinsically rewarding and helpful to a museum they respect.

Wearing silly costumes for Pony Express Family Day is above and beyond in our book.
Recently we combined disparate volunteer teams into one collaboratively managed group, and noticed that the volunteer community at large was not always benefiting from these individual achievements. The museum appreciated volunteer initiative and individual volunteers were certainly happy, but we wanted to spread the benefits around so that more volunteers could capitalize on Ida Marie’s research on mail dogsleds, Hilarie’s knowledge about the Postcrossing community and Robin’s passion for Eastern European stamps. If members of our volunteer community could draw from each other’s knowledge, skills and passions, we’d eventually offer our visitors the opportunity to interact with more enthusiastic and more accomplished volunteers. Thinking bigger, these savvy, capable volunteers might be better able to share their knowledge and skills with the wider community, leading trainings at community centers or representing the Postal Museum when they visit museums outside D.C.


Seeking a platform to spread the awesome-ness

We chose to help our volunteers identify new topics to explore and ways to learn, recognize them for their achievements  and share them across the museum community with digital badging. We first discovered the open badging movement from LearningTimes, who directed us to Mozilla’s Open Badges project. Outside the classroom learning is enriching and useful but it’s often hard to get credit for what you learn. While you might spend time with a mentor learning to operate a 3D printer or cook authentic paella, you can’t receive a certificate or diploma (and if you did, it might not be widely accepted).

Open badging addresses this by providing an open, free platform where anyone can “issue, earn and display badges across the Web.” Once you earn a badge, you display it in a “badge backpack” as well as on your Facebook page, blog or resume. This showcases your knowledge and experience in a way that might impact your career, access to educational opportunities and who knows what else.


Adapting to badging at the Postal Museum

The Postal Museum’s new badging program is so far not a true “open” badging platform—volunteers can’t snazzily display their badges online—but we’d like to include this feature in the future. For now, they get public recognition of completed badges on a poster outside the volunteer lounge and soon this system will be supported by the online volunteer management tool the Smithsonian is adopting. 

School and tours coordinator Motoko Hioki shows off our (currently low tech) badge poster.

Our badging program has three goals:
  • Spark a hunger for learning, provide a menu of learning opportunities: Expose volunteers to the skills they can master, knowledge they can share and experiences they can have. Make it easy for them to identify museum-related pursuits enriching to them, helpful to the museum and that can improve the volunteer community.

  • Identify and reward expertise: Give volunteers credit for their achievement. It’s not a tote bag or mug, it’s public recognition that a volunteer achieved something awesome and is therefore a resource to the museum community. The badge is also a great way for a volunteer to identify a mentor able to help earn a new badge. Many of the badges we’ve created require staff sign-off, but some can be awarded by one volunteer to another.

  • Create a networked community of learners: Strengthen skills, increase knowledge, heighten engagement and create a community of learning across our volunteer teams. Re-orient the direction(s) of volunteers’ enthusiasm so that they share their achievements with the entire Postal Museum community, not just their direct staff supervisors.

Looking forward:

Open badging has great potential. Here’s what I predict could happen if it takes off:
  • Museums issue badges to volunteers deputizing them to represent the museum at community events and beyond in ways supporting our mission. We already have volunteers authorized to help Boy Scouts earn their Stamp Collecting Merit Badge. Why not send them into the community to teach Art Appreciation 101 or citizen science projects like identifying invasive species? This brings the museum to interested groups of learners without a significant increase in staff workload and a net benefit to the community.

  • Museums issue badges to the general public. The social media team here at the Postal Museum is well aware of the Letter Writers Alliance, a club of dues-paying members who adore correspondence and earn access to exclusive club merch as well as club-only blog posts. The Postal Museum could offer badges in stamp collecting, correspondence, and even paper preservation, and then issue badges to help participants showcase their achievement.
So here's what we want to know: how do you think open badging might challenge and help museums in the future?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Great ideas...

I am encouraged to see that my recent post, “A Rising Tide: The Changing Landscape of Risk Assessment” has been widely read and circulated—I think it’s critical that museums factor environmental trends into their long-term planning. As we head into the holiday, I’d like to add a belated illustration to the post, contributed by AAM’s program coordinator, Mike Balderrama.

Happy fourth!