Thursday, May 30, 2013

What if an Historic House was about Art, and Storytelling, and Change?

Many, many people are struggling with how to reinvent and reinvigorate the historic house. (Including the National Trust for Historic Preservation, whose “Re-imagining History House Museums” is one of the current projects in the CFM-partnered Innovation Lab for Museums.) Today’s guest post is by Allison Weiss, the executive director of the Sandy Spring Museum. I invited Allison to share how SSM is implementing ideas in line with her passion--finding ways to engage communities in the work of local history museums. The resulting approach—blending history with art, traditional with participatory design—results in new income streams and new audiences.

Type “how to make history museums relevant” into Google and you will get 27,300,300 results. Clearly the Sandy Spring Museum is not the only museum struggling with this issue!  But we’ve come up with an idea that I think is worth sharing: open up the collection to visual, literary and performing artists to use as a source of inspiration in the creation of new works of art.

So what does it mean in reality?  First, let’s try to imagine a completely different kind of history museum.

Imagine a local history museum with frequently changing exhibits that are created through the collaboration of artists, historians, and community members, where artifacts from the historic collection are juxtaposed with objects that tell stories about contemporary life.

Imagine coming to a program where storytellers bring to life stories from the museum’s historic journal collection, and visitors are invited to share stories about their own personal journey to Sandy Spring.

Imagine walking into the museum and encountering an artist creating new works of art based on some aspect of the collection, like photographs, journals or maps – or all three.

These are some of the ideas that we are implementing at the Sandy Spring Museum. Without changing our mission—essentially to preserve and share stories about local history—we have re-envisioned how we can fulfill that mission. Our vision is to become a thriving, central gathering place where local residents and visitors connect to history through the range cultural arts – visual, literary, performing, and storytelling.

For example, this fall we are partnering with the Bethesda Writing Center to offer an historical fiction writing workshop, introducing participants to the idea of using archival materials from our collection in their work.

We are also working with visual artists, bringing them into our collections storage facility and asking, “What inspires you?” The first artist was Rebecca Vaughan-Geib, a stone lithographer. A set of early 20th century yearbooks caught her eye and she created a series of prints using individual faces from the yearbook photos. The prints were displayed alongside the yearbooks, which had never been on exhibit. Descendants of many of the children depicted in the photos still live in Sandy Spring and were amazed to see these images used in such a contemporary way.

The second artist to work with us, Courtney Miller Bellairs, combined her interests in photography, local history, and color to create a series of photo collages based on a color grid inspired by the “colors of Sandy Spring.” In addition to exhibiting her work in our traditional art gallery, we hung several pieces in the exhibit hall, so her modern collages are on view right next to some of the artifacts that she photographed.

We have also converted unused space in the museum into artist studios and rented them to artists who use the collection in some aspect of their work. Enamellist Sue Garten is incorporating images of historic letters and photos in new works. Eileen Crowe is painting a pair of boots that were on display in a general store exhibit that is next door to her studio. Visitors to the museum can watch the artists at work and see the collection through the perspective of an artist. At the end of the summer, a potters’ cooperative is scheduled to move into an unused barn. Their presence will give us a chance to educate visitors on the potters mill that operated in the community during the early 1800s.

The next idea we are implementing is “Extreme Exhibit Makeover.” Our permanent exhibit has not changed in fifteen years, but we doubt that another traditionally constructed exhibit would reflect our new vision. Instead, our approach will be to identify teams of artists, historians, curators, exhibit designers, and members of the general public and sponsor friendly competitions to create new exhibits in our gallery. We are negotiating with the local cable TV station to see if they will film parts of the project as a kind of museum reality TV show! 

We will also reach out to folk and traditional artists through fieldwork so the museum can more accurately reflect the history of the entire community, not just the dominant culture. Once we have completed the fieldwork, we will create a plan for bringing the folk artists into the museum. We are open to many possible ways to do this– residencies, performances, informal classes, or maybe just serving as a place for folk artists to gather and share traditions.

The financial impact?  Currently our studio rentals are estimated to bring in $18,000 per year--almost 5% of our $385k operating expenses. Artists also help expand our audience by bringing in their own followers. We are essentially co-marketing the museum with our new partners.  

In this world where is easier to connect in the virtual than the physical world, we are creating community by providing a place for face-to-face communion. This seems like a worthy role for a local history museum. 

Images courtesy of Courtney Miller Bellairs, Copyright 2013

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Badging in Baltimore: Report from the Annual Meeting

In the spirit of “practice what you forecast,” CFM experimented with digital badging at the annual meeting last week. With the help of LearningTimes, we offered a badge to attendees who attended & commented on at least four sessions featured in our annual “Guide to the Future.” Fifty people registered on the badge site, submitting ~90 comments, and 17 attendees earned the Future Traveler Badge.

I wanted to promote sharing of content, so from my point of view the resulting submissions were mixed, ranging from “awesome!” (appreciated, but a little more concise than I’d hoped for) to critiques of format (also welcome, but more appropriately directed as session feedback in the annual meeting app).

There were some highly readable, and shareable insight, submitted as well. Here is a selection, in case you want to eavesdrop on highlights of the sessions:

City History Museums: Canaries in a Coal Mine
“The idea of engaging people in a local history museum by reversing the timeline to show current events first and then related them to the past seems at once brilliant, obvious, and deceptively simple to do. Still, it seems to me that is the only way a city museum can behave if it wants to remain relevant.”

Horizon Report, Museum Edition
Holly Witchey made an excellent point that is often overlooked or not clearly articulated by museums that are anxious to engage with audiences online: "social media" and "social networking" are not necessarily the same thing. Using the web as a social medium is about more than just collecting "friends" and pushing out bits of content to garner "likes". It is about museums participating in conversations with their audiences as learners, not just teachers.

I also liked this gem

“Struck by Nik Honeysett's anecdote about his children's non use of the term technology. Am reminded that my generation used something called "magic markers" and my son wanted to know what was "magic" about them” [#anachronisms] 

Keeping Museums Young: Best Practices for Out-of-School Teen Programming
“There we're lots of great ideas shred (sic)* in this session. My break out group was very beneficial. Two of the women in my group worked at institutions with long standing teen docent programs and we want to start one at my organization which is why I attended. I also loved the Teen Historian Program, especially the state history exam review the teens developed for other teens, very creative and useful. The Historical Tweets were great " Guys, Guys let's just compromise so we can pass SOMETHING! #freemaine #slavemissouri #3630latitude #The_great_compromiser March 3, 1820". Need I say more?”

[*I know this was a typo, but I love the phrase “idea shreds.” May have to use that intentionally.]

Magnificent Masters of Museum Mysteries: Narrative Games in Museum Contexts
“I have been thinking about creative inspiration that comes from outside museum staff and so my ears perked up when Georgina recommended getting game designers to come to your museum, touring your space, and offering their fresh wacky ideas.”

“Keep the games simple because learning the rules to the game is 50% of the struggle. Games with complex rules and/or open-ended games have not worked well in the past, and this is known because failure, testing, and retesting are important parts of creating narrative games.”

Museum Teen Summit: Teens Share Expert Advice
“According to Museum Teen Summit surveys teens identified the three following qualities for teen programming in museums: 1. Engagement (challenging programs and activities) 2. Diversity (teens want to meet teens with different backgrounds and interests) 3. Interaction (lively conversations with museum staff and program attendees)”

“Will work for food" seemed to be the motto for these teens. Payment for consultant services was not a motivator - their passion for improving museums and making them more teen friendly was the driver. The Philadelphia Cultural Alliance is creating a teen pass program - allowing teens free access to museums - promoted via a teen council. The Cultural Alliance is paying these teens a stipend. After attending this session, now I am wondering if this could be setting up a negative rewards system”

Museums & Homeschool Learners: A Story in the Making
“My main takeaway here is that homeschool audiences aren't going to fit into predetermined programming plans, and we shouldn't try to force that fit. They'll arrive late and/or early, they'll benefit from longer programs, they don't need as much historical content as school groups, and they'll definitely have breast feeding moms. Know these things and plan for them.”

“I heard a number of ideas that debunked some of the things we were doing at my previous institution that I will carry to my new institution and programming including: offer a timed organized curriculum - 3 hours - versus a whole day festival style program. Develop pre aad post activity materials and get into the hands of families. Homeschool parents will use and prepare their families for a visit. The museum can build relationships with these families and watch whole families grow up in the museum. Let the parents do some of the teaching.”

No Walls? No Problem: Taking your Mission to the Streets
“The big takeaway from this session for me was that museums do not have [to] wait until they are in some dire circumstance to begin to take their missions to the street. Be everywhere. Share with your community where they live and work. Let them get to know what you have and invite them to visit and learn more.”

“My favorite quotes from this session: "meet the community where they are;" "come across exhibition spaces by chance." I also appreciated the extensive web presence of the Chandler Museum.”

On the Edge: A Museum Talk Show about Risk and Reward
“My major takeaway here is Nina Simon's reminder that in the museum field, we're lucky enough that the potential fallout from risky endeavors that flop is usually much smaller than our anxiety over taking that risk in the first place. Take the risks!”

Rethinking Museum Membership: How Participation and Philanthropy can Impact Visitor Engagement
“I'm excited to see where DMA will be with this a year from now. I remember when we implemented an admission fee at our museum, after being free for the first 13 years of its existence, we saw an immediate impact on how our visitors valued their experience - they stayed longer during their visits, bought more memberships, and started buying tickets to public programs that had previously languished. This session helped me see the transactional nature of that relationship with our visitors and brings into question how fully we are capitalizing on the potential for visitors to be partners in our mission. The data-driven approach to relationship building through the Friends program is an interesting angle on CRM.”

And finally, a comment on the TrendsWatch 2013 presentation that Phil Katz and I gave, that makes me feel good about our work:

“Keeping an eye on the future is essential for museums survival, but it's sometimes difficult to pull our heads up from the work of keeping things running in the moment. This session provided a lot of food for thought - where can we leverage our core strengths to take advantage of trends and lay down foundations for future success instead of just running after the next shiny thing. I'm particularly excited about the role we play as educational institutions; the power of informal learning experiences SHOULD be applied to tangible outcomes, like getting a job, and the faster we can demonstrate our value in the real world through micro credentials, the better. I think there's great potential here to support adults in their second (or third or fourth) careers, not just college-age individuals. In our rapidly changing economy, where new skills are continuously emerging as essential, museums can be a safe and supportive learning environment to help adult learners accumulate the demonstrated experience they need to transition into new careers. Thanks for a very thought provoking session!”

This was very much a "toe in the water" experiment for me, to see what it would be like, technically and logistically, to offer digital badges at the annual meeting. If we do it again, I will try to make the assignments more rigorous--demonstrating some mastery of content, or contributing material relevant to the topic at hand. If you have any experience with badging at meetings, or thoughts on whether or how you would like to use such microcredentialing. I would love to hear from you.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Stories in the Art Museum

The theme of this year’s Alliance annual meeting is “storytelling.” However, if you are attending the meeting in Baltimore today, you probably aren’t reading the Blog! For those of you who can’t join us this year, recurring CFM guest blogger Zoe Mercer-Golden shares some thoughts on the power of storytelling, based most recently on her experience with Yale University Art Gallery

From the time I was small, I was teased about my love of stories: I eavesdropped on conversations at the grown-up table, snuck books into bathrooms when I became bored at parties, and acted in plays that I wrote with friends. Stories that I read and told shaped my life and continue to be central to who I am today.

I now tell stories in a different context: art museums. For the last three years, I have spent hundreds of hours researching and designing tours that tell the stories behind and around art objects. I share anecdotes about artists and the realities of their lives, and explain the political and social narratives surrounding different objects. If the piece in question makes reference to a particular text, myth or legend, I discuss the larger symbolic importance of that narrative to a people or a nation. These stories help the objects come alive for visitors, who are often looking for points of access for objects that come from unfamiliar cultures or time periods.

This past year, I have begun telling a new set of stories on my tours: the story of how objects entered museum collections. Within the clean, well-lit halls of art museums, we (those who work in art museums and those who visit them) tend to imagine that the stories behind the objects’ presence are as unmarked as the museums’ walls. The reality is far more complicated—often, in fact, quite distressing.

Last summer, I visited many of Europe’s greatest museums, principally in former imperial capitals. While the objects that I studied mostly had been removed from their countries of origin in the last three centuries, some had been removed even earlier. “Art appropriation,” the blanket term for the removal of objects or artistic styles from their original contexts, is by no means a new phenomenon: the ancient Mesopotamians practiced it, as did the Greeks, Romans and ancient Chinese. For the last three hundred years, art appropriation has been largely (though not exclusively) conducted by Western powers inside their colonial territories. Humans took and continue to take the artwork of other countries and cultures both to prove “I was here” and to signal their own cosmopolitan taste. Art appropriation demonstrates political power, social prestige and the capacity to mobilize on a massive scale.

The end result of these appropriations are massive museum collections full of objects that were stolen or purchased at absurdly low prices. While some objects were lovingly excavated by knowledgeable archeologists, many were excavated by under-trained researchers who were out for quick cash; others were simply lifted by wealthy travelers looking for souvenirs.  Few objects and sites were left unscathed by dynamite and axes. War and colonialism left a bloody legacy behind, and facilitated the violent removal of beautiful works of art.

Contemporary museum collections thus present a serious problem: our museums contain objects that, for their educational and aesthetic value, we are loath to give up. Yet it is hard to avoid experiencing at least some residual feelings of guilt or shame when thinking about the way in which these objects entered museum collections. We now care about objects we don’t want to return that signal histories of oppression in which the museums that house them are implicated. How, then, can museums reconcile these histories with our current tortured awareness?

I have found that story-telling, and other self-reflective educational practices, while not a permanent or complete solution to this problem, is at least a beginning. People everywhere, most especially teachers and students, struggle with how to discuss the legacies of imperialism and colonialism. Telling stories in museums tied to concrete objects is a useful way to start difficult conversations about the parts of history many would like to efface or ignore.

Good facilitators of this conversation will make clear the strong arguments on both sides of the debate: those who demand the right of return did suffer violence and destruction, and have a strong claim to their cultural heritage; yet if we believe that cultural heritage is a global inheritance, we also acknowledge that all people have a right to learn from all cultures, and that global museums are rare places of cross-cultural dialogue. Sending all appropriated objects home would diminish museums in general, and might even harm the objects in question, even if maintaining the status quo seems unjust.

Assyrian Relief, Yale University Art Gallery
In the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery, we have a number of objects that can be used to as points of departure for these discussions, especially our ancient Assyrian reliefs from the palace of Assurnasirpal II in Kalhu. Removed by Protestant missionaries trying to prove the literal truth of the Book of Isaiah, the reliefs pay testament to a difficult time in American and European history—and to the continued heightened emotions that many people feel about that part of the world. My job as a teacher becomes using these reliefs to explain the many different imperial and cultural histories that are attached to these panels, and to the ways in which they have been re-purposed for centuries to mixed effect.

Art museums therefore become spaces in which conflicting claims to stewardship and ownership can be raised, in which objects take on significance greater than aesthetic or cultural symbolism. The stories that we tell in art museums don’t have to be simple: they can question the very fabric of museums themselves. Unless they acknowledge the complex histories of the objects they contain, museums will remain the conservative bastions they are often accused of being, and miss an opportunity to educate and people at home and abroad. Storytelling becomes a safe way for museums to engage with their own histories, and indeed, a way for museums to move forward with self-awareness and dignity.   

Friday, May 17, 2013

Futurist Friday: Bits to Bytes to Bits

Your Friday viewing assignment: a video from the Smithsonian flaunting their 3D scanning and printing chops. These projects, tackling objects ranging from orchids to gunboats, show how this rapidly accelerating technology can be harnessed for both research and public access. [< 4 minute vid.] 

Vince Rossi and Adam Metallo, both featured in this short, will be joining us at the 3D printing demonstration CFM is hosting in the Alliance Showcase section of MuseumExpo at the annual meeting next week. They'll be there all afternoon on Monday, May 20, and giving a brief talk at 1:30 pm on their work in the Showcase Theater. They will also tweet with us from the Alliance's Social Media Desk from 9 - 10 am Monday morning--you can follow the discussion and tweet questions and comments using #AAM2013.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Relentlessly Social at the Annual Meeting

Guzel duChateau, the Alliance's New Media Manager, dishes on how we are going social in Baltimore.

This year the Alliance is doing something new at the Baltimore Annual Meeting.

For the length of the conference we’re running a Social Media Desk on Twitter. “What does this mean?” you may ask. For those joining us in Baltimore, there will be a physical desk in the Pratt Street Lobby with two computers and a large monitor displaying the #aam2013 Twitter feed. You’ll also find the daily line-up of scheduled conversations interspersed with open hours for drop-ins and the more organic conversation.

Through these conversations individuals, whether in Baltimore or afar, will be able to share insights from sessions, sparks of new ideas and discuss topics of broader interest to the museum field.

Our own Elizabeth Merritt, will be joining us twice. On Sunday, 10–11 a.m. ET, she and I will discuss futurism broadly. We’ll discuss some of the this year's sessions featured in CFM's Guide to the Future and share resources related to those topics. If you have questions about futurism and museums, or just question for Elizabeth, tweet them at us! Then on Tuesday at 9 a.m., Elizabeth will be joined by Rob Walker, author of Significant Objects, warming up for their 10:15 a.m. session exploring objects, and stories, and value. This is a great opportunity to ask questions about the project and what it means for museums.

We’ll also be taking the desk into the General Session and live tweeting Ford Bell’s speech and the remarks from Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski, our keynote speaker.
What do we want from you?
We want participation! Join the conversation, tweet questions at us. We have hours dedicated to Alliance programs (MAP, Accreditation), audience engagement, the sexy topic of 3D printing and even why it’s important to be involved in your local and regional museum communities. If you aren't able to make it to Baltimore, here’s your opportunity to engage, ask questions, share your knowledge and learn from others. If you are in Baltimore, please stop by! Sign up for a time slot to lead your own conversation, check out the Twitterfall and see what others have to say about the meeting (and perhaps get meta and tweet a picture of your tweet on the monitor), or just take advantage of the comfy seating near the desk. (We’ll be near windows!)

This project comes to us courtesy of Adam Rozan (@adamrozan), director of audience engagement, Worcester Art Museum, Mass. (@worcesterart) and is being run in collaboration with Guzel duChateau (@guzelfrances and the voice behind @AAMers), new media manager, American Alliance of Museums.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Earn Your Future Traveler Badge in Baltimore

Ready for the road to the Alliance annual meeting? Podcasts loaded for the journey? Plane/train reading all picked out? One last thing--take a minute to learn about a new way to share some of the great stuff you are going to hear, and earn a badge, to boot.

LearningTimes, sponsor of CFM's digital badging project, has set up a BadgeOS site just for the annual meeting. Attend any four of the sessions listed in the 2013 edition of CFM's "Guide to the Future at the Annual Meeting," submit an insight, favorite quote or key take-away, and you will earn an awesome Future Traveler Badge. Here's how:

  1. Use your mobile device to log on to (you will be invited to download an app—I recommend you accept. The one I put on my iPad has a nice, clean interface.)
  2. The first time you come to the site, select "Register" to pick a username & password, and provide an email to which your badge will be sent.
  3. The site lists all 21 sessions eligible for badging points. When you are ready to submit your insight, select the appropriate session, enter your text in the Submission Form box and hit the submit button. (Note you can upload a file instead of or in addition to the text in the box.) That's it!
  4. After you submit insights from at least 4 sessions, you will receive an email awarding your badge via Credly, which you can share via any digital platform (LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.).

 Get a head start and visit Credly now to set up a free account, if you don’t have one yet. (Use the same email address when registering for Credly as for the app to make receiving your sharable badge fast and easy.)

After the meeting, I’ll mine your collected wisdom to compile a blog post featuring highlights of these futures-oriented sessions. Thank you, in advance, for sharing some of what you learn in B'more. 

If you have questions about how to earn, and use, your Future Traveler Badge, or about badging in general, visit Credly’s booth, #1066, in MuseumExpo™.

Badge On! 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Futurist Friday: Stranger than Fiction

Looking for content to listen to on the way to the Alliance annual meeting? Slate magazine recently launched a six episode podcast--"Stranger than Fiction." Each week, Tim Wu, a Future Tense Fellow at the New American Foundation, will ask a contemporary science fiction author "are we living in the future?"

The first episode features Neal Stephenson, author of one of my favorite pieces of futurist fiction. The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer envisions the disruptive effects of a "book" that shapes itself as a personalized tutor to whatever child opens it first. Some of Stephenson's other imaginings have come to pass, and I think this one may as well! Highly recommend.

In the second episode, Wu hosts Cory Doctorow, digital rights activist, co-editor of BoingBoing, and author of several science fiction novels. I'm currently reading "Makers" in which two inventors create an "open source" museum-cum-amusement park ride that visitors add to and reshape. Also worth a read.

The third episode will be available this coming Monday. 

The hashtag for annual meeting is #AAM2013 --if you do listen to this series on the way to Baltimore (or back home in your office) tweet comments! 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Make Art, Meet Strangers

Here’s a story that demonstrates the power of social media to create community: I met Jeff Greenspan via Twitter after I retweeted Michelle DelCarlo (@popupmuseum) when she wrote “Creating communal rather than 'in tandem' experiences - Selfless Portraits” I’d been keeping an eye on Selfless Portraits already, a non-profit undertaking which describes itself as “a collaborative art project aiming to bridge the gap between technology and humanity by encouraging small, creative gestures between strangers across the globe.” I think it holds many lessons for museums, as an intriguing example of a) fostering interactions between strangers (something museums often struggle to achieve) b) encouraging people to make art and c) harnessing the best aspects of the digital realm to the world of physical objects. Jeff, it turns out, is chief creative officer at Buzzfeed, and he has a long history of spawning cool projects. I invited Jeff to tell museumers more about Selfless Portraits, and how he envisions it might intersect with our work.

On February 12th, my creative partner Ivan Cash and I emailed about 150 friends asking them to participate in an online project we were launching. It was called Selfless Portraits, and the premise was simple: draw a randomly assigned stranger’s Facebook profile picture and submit your own to be drawn by another stranger somewhere in the world.

Two and a half months later, over 27,000 people have submitted a drawing of a complete stranger’s Facebook profile picture to These creative interpretations can all be seen alongside the original profile pics that inspired them by visiting the Gallery section of the site.

Submissions range from simple stick figures to highly thoughtful interpretations in a multitude of mediums. Visitors can also search the Gallery by country of drawer/drawee. For example, one could find drawings those from Brazil have done of people from France. People can also become Facebook friends with those they've drawn or have been drawn by, and we're excited people are actually forming connections this way.

Even though Facebook connects people all across the world, there's something a little impersonal about having to do so from behind a screen. This project encourages people to look closely at another human being, ponder their face, then go away from their computer and use analog tools and creativity to recreate their likeness. To us, this feels like a unique mix of high tech and human touch.

To build this project, we relied upon the guidance of our Producer, Luis Peña, and the talents of our development team at Rally Interactive. These collaborators haven’t just built Selfless Portraits, but in essence have adopted it, putting in many hours out of a sheer passion for the project. What makes it so worthwhile for our whole team is seeing participants tweet and make Facebook comments about how they felt making art. So many people shared how they didn’t think could draw, weren’t creative or weren’t artistic. However, once they drew someone they were able to appreciate their creations and be less self critical. Many claimed they’ve been inspired to keep on drawing. Others felt this was the perfect excuse to pick up a crayon or paint brush after resigning these tools to in the backs of closets and tail ends of childhoods. While we don’t feel people need an excuse to create, we’re happy to have provided one.

This project has helped us connect with members of the museum and arts communities. We’ve discussed how Selfless Portraits could be used to help museum attendees gain a better appreciation for not only portraiture, but also the creative process in general. One suggestion we’ve heard was to have some of the side­by­sides from the Gallery at be projected onto the walls of a museum. These projections would be accompanied by “stations” (laptops with SelflessPortraits loaded up) and art supplies. An expert on portraiture could then be guide the group through the process, helping participants focus their observations of their subjects and their process. Or, an event like a SelflessPortraits Draw­a­Thon could be a way to bring tech­centric teenagers into a deeper relationship with their local museum.

So far, people from over 115 countries have delved into SelflessPortraits and emerged with a creation shared in the site's Gallery. We hope it inspires many more people to discover their own talents as they bridge the gap between the virtual and the real. Should any museum or space devoted to the arts want to explore a collaboration with SelflessPortraits, please email the project at

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Art, 3D Printing & Collections: Museums in the Post-Audience Era

For the past three years CFM has sponsored an “artist interpreting the future of museums” in the AAM Showcase. (In 2010 it was the The Pinky Show, 2011 Tracy Hicks, and in 2012 the Drawing Club.) This year we are doing something a little different: demonstrating 3-D printing as a technology that may change how artists interact with museums, their data and their collections. (It may also have a profound impact on other areas of museum operations, including preservation, research, exhibit fabrication and teaching.) Jonathan Monaghan will join us as our “featured artist,” and provides a little background on his work today on the blog. Jonathan will be available in the Alliance Showcase in Museum Expo™ to talk about his use of 3D scanning and printing and what these technologies might mean for museums.

One of the most popular video games of all times, Counter-Strike, was developed by a small group of individuals in their spare time, as a hobby, for fun, with almost no financial incentive. As a kid who played Counter-Strike, I soon discovered these online communities of developers and began to learn how to work with computer graphics software to make custom video game content. I did this simply because I enjoyed making video games rather than playing them. I was certainly not alone in this tendency, and I think digital technology has brought with it a certain creative capacity. YouTube, Minecraft, Wikipedia, Facebook, memes, Instagram; the content consumers are also the content producers. We build, share, repeat; it is the post-audience era. What is also interesting is that when we do this we tend to remix, respond to and reinterpret other creations and popular culture. So what does this have to do with museums?

Objects in museums can often feel static or frozen in time. It can be difficult to translate our wealth of artistic and cultural production into the digital age of active participation. However it is important to do so: if we can reconcile our past and present, perhaps we can gain some critical insights on the apparently seamless condition of our lived experience.  I think this is something artists have picked up on since the digital age began to take shape. In Sweet Dreams, Contemporary Art and Complicity, art critic and UCLA professor Johanna Drucker describes the tendency in art since the 1990’s to maintain a kind of complicity and even enthusiasm for contemporary culture. She describes how artists today regard popular culture and new technologies as no lesser a source of artistic reference than great works from our art history textbooks and museums.

From the Met Hackathon
As an artist with a background developing video games, combining high-end 3D technologies and their aesthetics with historical works of art was a natural impetus and is the basis for much of my work. “Life Tastes Good” for instance draws on references ranging from Coca Cola commercials to Zurbarán.  As a result museums have always been a valuable resource for me and so when I was asked to participate in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's 3D Hackathon in June of 2012, I jumped at the opportunity to continue mediating and re-interpreting great works of art through new digital technology.

Life Tastes Good
I, along with a number of other digital artists and programmers, descended upon the Metropolitan Museum of Art for two days snapping photos of museum objects and converting the images into 3D models. The artworks were digitized via a process called photogrammetry by utilizing the free, cloud-based software called Autodesk 123D Catch. The results were refined and uploaded to Thingiverse with their catalog information. The next day this same process was repeated by individuals in their local museums from all over the world. Almost immediately the web was flooded with a wealth of museum objects. While this certainly offers a whole new way to experience historic works of art, it also provides a valuable creative resource. Build, share, repeat. The museum objects are no longer frozen or static, they are downloadable and remixable; active content from which build on. As a result we may be able to learn from these museum objects more about our current culture than from the culture they came from.
3D print derived from scanned classical sculpture

Don Undeen from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Liz Neely from the Art Institute of Chicago, Adam Metallo and Vince Rossi from the Smithsonian Institution, Miriam Langer from New Mexico Highlands University, James Maza from the Walters Art Gallery and Baltimore-based artist ToddBlatt will be taking shifts in the 3D demo in the Showcase—I hope you stop by to get a glimpse of how 3D scanning and printing works, and schmooze with our guests about how their institutions are using this emergent technology.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Futurist Friday: Robo-bees to the Rescue

This post from Scientific American paints a lovely picture of the future of disaster response.

"Consider a rescue worker with a box full of 1,000 RoboBees—a package that would weigh less than a kilogram. The RoboBees could be released at the site of a natural disaster to search for the heat, sound or exhaled carbon dioxide signature of survivors. If only three of the robots accomplish their task while the others fail, this is a success for the swarm. The same cannot be said about the current generation of $100,000 rescue robots."

Maybe not as macho as human-scale rescue bots, but more elegant.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

MOOCs and the Museum

Are you paying attention to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)? You should be. These courses, offering free education on an enormous scale, are a bright spot in the dark landscape of rising educational debt. While they are still very early in the process of maturation (grappling with finding business models to support free or low cost learning, debating appropriate goals for completion rates, arguing about the effectiveness of online instruction) MOOCs have the potential to be a transformational force in the future of learning.

So I’m pumped that Coursera has announced the launch of professional development courses to facilitate lifelong learning for teachers, and to support this new curriculum, a new set of partners that includes three museums: The American Museum of Natural History, the Exploratorium, and the Museum of Modern Art. These are the first “informal education” providers to join Coursera’s long and illustrious list of content providers. (Note the page that lists these museums is titled “universities.”) 

This development is a significant signal of potential futures in the ecology of learning. Coursera, which launched only last year, already has 62 partner organizations, offers over 100 courses, enrolled over a million students across 196 countries, and is working with the American Council on Education to offer transferable college credit for its offerings.

Reasons this is news is important for museums:

  • MOOCs can accelerate the mainstreaming of museum content into education
  • Partnering with Coursera, along side universities such as Brown, Columbia, Duke and Stanford, raises the profile of our education work
  • MOOCs provide a way to scale up the impact museums have on education overall

Here are videos introducing courses from each of the new museum Coursera partners. Take a look,  and please let me know if your museum intends to foray into the MOOC arena.

American Museum of Natural History
Genetics and Society: A Course for Educators
This video features museum staffer Rob DeSalle summarizing the biotechnologies and ethics issues that will be covered in the course.  This is one of three teacher training courses AMNH is currently offering through Coursera.

Integrating Engineering Into Your Science Classroom
The video below is about the on-site teacher training, and notes that in the past they had to turn away 2 out of 3 teacher applicants, but that in their new site they will be able to triple the number of teachers they train. How will offering this content through Coursera increase their reach, and will it have comparable impact?

Museum of Modern Art
Art and Inquiry: Museum Teaching Strategies for Your Classroom
This video previews the online format and the kind of videos that will be presented in the course, and tells teacher-learners what to expect from the experience.