Friday, February 28, 2014

Futurist Friday: Flocks of Autonomous Flying Drones

Whether or not Amazon overcomes the difficulties of instituting drone deliver service in the US, drones have a bright future with a variety of applications. They are being used to  survey archaeological sites, escort children to the bus stop and, soon, to combat poaching and protect endangered species

One limitation of flying drones is the difficulty in piloting them, but that challenge may soon be solved. Your Futurist Friday assignment: this video of the first "co-ordinated flock" of autonomous quadcopter drones.

The team of Hungarian scientists who designed these drones used biomimicry--imitating the design & behavior of biological organisms (which, after all, have been honed by millions of years of evolution). The drones' programming draws on the rules that govern the behavior of flocks of birds. 

So maybe, in a few years, when you need to inspect the condition of your large historic building, you will call in a flock of condition reporting drones to buzz the property. Oh, like this (bonus feature!):

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Throwback Thursday: “myCulture” and crowdsourcing museum content

This Throwback post revisits a theme from CFM's first forecasting paper. "myCulture" heralded a creative renaissance driven by a generation of young adults who want to loose their creative energies on shared cultural content. (We dove into this further in the "Harnessing the Crowd" section of TrendsWatch 2012.) 

These trends--of crowdsourced input and creative engagement with museum resources--have left deep marks on museum practice in the past few years. Recent examples include the Georgia Museum of Art crowdsourcing a deaccession decision, the Hammer Museum giving weight to public input in awarding the Mohn Award to an outstanding artist, and the Chicago History Museum "History Bowl," which gave the Chicago history buffs the authority to choose the theme of their next exhibit ("Chicago Authors" won). I also highly recommend the 2011 book "Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World" for a long and thoughtful discussion on the "collaborative making of meaning with the public."

Even as this trend gains steam,  I hear the arguments--pro and con--summarized in this post continuing to play out, so it seems worth reviving the discussion here.You can read the lively commentary on the original post here, and leave your own comments below.

“MyCulture”: the salvation of museums or the end of excellence as we know it?

Orignally published Wednesday, April 22, 2009
“MyCulture” is the term used in the CFM report Museums & Society 2034 to refer to the growing expectation on the part of young audiences that they should be able to shape their own experience. This generation expects to personalize their museum experience much the same way they personalize their cell phones. They don’t want to be presented with only static content, they want the opportunity to contribute, modify and share. Possibilities for the scope of this involvement run the gamut, including:
• Technologically gloried versions of the old comment book (e.g., opportunities to share photos on Flickr, or comments via a museum-sponsored blog)
• Social tagging (audience contribution to annotating and organizing information about the collections)
• Opportunities to create separate, parallel interpretation (via podcasts for example)
This is a very broad set of options, with huge differences in the implications for the kind of involvement being invited, and the kind of control being ceded by the museum. As Nina Simon points out there is a big difference between participatory design (audiences helping create exhibits) and design for participation (exhibits designed by museum staff to encourage user involvement.)

Let me see if I can summarize what I have heard so far, positive and negative, in reaction to this trend. (These summaries, including the extreme language, are largely taken verbatim from discussions at a session in a conference in Tarrytown as well as commentaries on the CFM blog and “chatrooms.”)

“How wonderful that people want to be involved in interpreting the museum’s stuff! What a great way for museums to promote dialog and remain (or become) relevant. Yes it could be confusing, but exciting, to say the least. The value of collections will speak for themselves when visitors can have meaningful interactions. In the future, museums that survive will be all about dialogue—that is why they will survive.”

“Such practices will only create and extend shared ignorance. Opening interpretation and content to audience input will suck up vast amounts of curatorial time in weeding out what little value might be hidden in the dross contributed by the audience. History and the meaning of artworks, etc., will be revised by hackers and various other nefarious sorts whose only interest in museums is wreaking havoc and professional staff will be unable to clarify/provide “better” or more complete understanding of objects/art to the general public.”

It is clear that museums practitioners are very concerned about the effect of visitor-generated content on accuracy. However, one thing that we as a field are cultivating is a better appreciation of the expertise that visitors bring to the table. Many of the conversations in Tarrytown touched on this. A speaker on social tagging pointed out that users know how they describe and remember paintings, and how they would search for them in a database. (Which, by the way, has almost no overlap with the expert curatorial description.) Another attendee told of how an antique-car buff was able to help the museum pinpoint, within a two-year span, the date of an historic photo in their collection, based on the makes and models of autos in the scene.

And there are clear models for how such a synthesis of curatorial and user expertise can be brokered. A case in point is the Flickr Commons Project
. As I understand it, curators monitor and select comments that go into the official metadatabase in the Library of Congress. This takes advantage of broad input and highly specialized expertise hidden in “the crowd” but still exercises quality control. Now, this does imply a changing role for the curator, from author to editor. Museum subject specialists become moderators of the unruly but immensely valuable process of gathering, filtering and synthesizing user expertise. This might not be the career some people had in mind when they became curators, which, I think, is the source of much of the rancor swirling around this issue.

Good—so the visitors are experts about some things in their own realms. I think we can all agree to that, though we will debate how to identify and validate what levels of expertise. And there are ways for museums to apply quality control standards to user contributed content, if they allocate resources to do so. I want you to consider a more controversial point. How important is it that museums and museum content be right? A lot of the fears I hear about user generated content is that it may be “wrong,” inaccurate or simply unguided. Here is my heresy of the day: maybe it is better to be wrong but interesting than right but boring.

This thought, which had been percolating for some time, coalesced last Sunday as I watching my fencing coach teach the first class of a beginners group. I expected Vitali to demonstrate the correct classical and arcane elements of footwork, armwork, maybe lecture them a bit on the rules. Instead he floored me by suiting them up, putting foils in their hands and inviting them to fence each other…and him. “It will give them an intuitive understanding” he explained later. “They discover for themselves what works.” Almost everything they did in that first half hour was, in any traditional sense, wrong. But they sure were enthusiastic about trying. Maybe enthusiastic enough to plow through the boring and painful job of learning footwork…and getting it right eventually. For me, this demonstrates the importance of welcoming and inviting passion, creating a way to discover or flush out raw talent with the presumption that you can shape and refine it later.

So, call me on this. What are the various levels of “wrongness” or ambiguity that a museum might tolerate or welcome, as a by-product of embracing user-generated content? When are these valuable, or at least tolerable as side effects of winning hearts and minds, and when does it cross the line into mere mediocrity? Your turn…

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Explore the Future of Food & Museums in Seattle

Jessica Harris
Are you coming to the annual meeting in May? Bring a hearty appetite for some exciting ideas on museums & food! Culinary historian Jessica Harris, CFM’s 2011 lecturer for the “Feeding the Spirit: Museums, Food and Community” initiative is teaming up with Larry Bain, founder of Food for the Parks, the non-profit that created the health and sustainability guidelines for food service in the National Parks Service, to present attendees with a feast of ideas at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). Jessica and Larry will commandeer SAM’s Taste restaurant, where they’ve enlisted executive chefs Craig Hetherington and Paul Rosquita to provide a tasty and informative brunch to fuel the discussion.

As readers of the Blog, you have an inside track on snapping up one of the limited supply of tickets when you register for the annual meeting. (Early Bird registration ends March 3.) Here are the event details:  

What: The Future of Food in Museums, a Tasty Trip to Catalonia

When: Sunday May 18th, 12:15-1:30pm

Where: Seattle Art Museum, Taste Restaurant Private Dining Room

Cost: $40 per attendee

The Seattle Art Museum is currently staging a Joan Miró show, so attendees will enjoy food that is made from ingredients locally and sustainably produced and cooked using recipes from Miró’s native Catalonia. Jessica, Larry and Chef Craig will discuss the opportunities and challenges of working with food service providers, and how chefs can collaborate with museum staff to create menus for visitors inspired by and compliment the changing shows and seasons.

This gathering continues the exploration of museums & food begun at Feeding the Spirit. That symposium evolved in response to CFM’s observations on how trends related to food, nutrition and obesity present opportunities for museums. We received a lot of feedback from people wanting more information about how to work with commercial food service providers to shape a museum’s food service around these themes, in the service of mission-related goals. Larry and Jessica volunteered to dig deeper into this issue via this event at the annual meeting. I hope to see you there!

Seattle Art Museum: Review in the
Seattle Times

Monday, February 24, 2014

Monday Musings: on the Corcoran

Reading the news about the Corcoran Gallery of Art last week made me very happy, if a little puzzled, too.

For those of you who haven’t been following the story, a quick recap. The Corcoran is a private, nonprofit museum here in DC, affiliated with the Corcoran College of Art + Design. For a number of years, the College has been the solvent part of this equation, as the Gallery struggled to find a viable financial plan. Its challenges included its location (which, while technically a short walk from Metro and the White House, is functionally off the beaten tourist path); its beautiful but deteriorating building; its admission charge (in a city with a wealth of free museums); and its lack of distinct identity (having neither the homey appeal of the Phillips Collection, the overwhelming strength of the National Gallery, nor the quirky charm of Hillwood Museum and Gardens).

Various proposed solutions over the years have included building an addition designed by Frank Gehry, changing the exhibition focus to photography, and moving to a different neighborhood. I even speculated, back in 2009, about whether some other city might come courting the Corcoran, bidding on this cultural amenity the way that some cities fight over sports teams.

The ultimate solution, announced last week and awaiting final approval, is as follows:
  • The National Gallery will take over the art, exhibiting some of the collection and sharing some works with other museums, with a preference to organizations in the DC area.
  • NGA will maintain an exhibit space, dedicated to modern and contemporary art,as well as a “legacy gallery” of works closely associated with the Corcoran’s history, at the Corcoran’s original building. These exhibits will be free to the public.
  • The George Washington University will assume the college’s educational functions, as well as taking responsibility for the building (and the tens of millions of dollars it will take to stabilize and restore the historic structure).
Seems to me this is win win win win win. The public gets (free) access to the collections, perhaps getting to see even works formerly relegated to storage, in more sites; students get the stability and prestige of being affiliated with a major university; and the building gets an owner that can afford to take care of it.

And yet, much of the coverage of the news treats this as a tragedy. For example, Philip Kennicott writing in the Washington Post, said “this is the end of the Corcoran and its final dismemberment”…”Everything that was darkly whispered about the Corcoran’s board over the past few years has come to pass.”

Which leaves me wondering, what is really lost? For years, critics such as the group Save the Corcoran have complained about the museum’s administration. Putting aside the question of whether that criticism was fair, the administration is, in fact, the only part of the museum truly being systematically dismantled.

It seems to me that this solution practices all the things that we (meaning the field as a whole) have been giving lip service to for years, such as the need for creativity, flexibility and collaboration.

A close reading of the coverage makes it clear that what is lost is a sense of identity, the “pride” (as David Montgomery put it) of being the Corcoran exactly as it was. And yet what years of practice showed us is that the Corcoran, in that incarnation, was financially unsustainable. Critics who attacked the previous proposed solutions never ponied up enough money to make the museum work “just as it was.”

The moral of this musing? Organizations should focus on their goals—in this case preserving and sharing great art, fostering art education—and be open to questioning every traditional assumption about how they achieve this end. Being fluid in their identity, rather than tethered to a fixed and artificial sense of self, is the best way for organizations to achieve success, and a kind of immortality. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Futurist Friday: Visitor Analytics

Your Futurist Friday assignment is this very brief (1.58 min) video from Cisco about using Connected Mobile Experiences (CMX) analytics to locate and track every wireless device in a venue. 

While the commentary in this piece is about shoppers, think about the implications for collecting data about museum visitors--the traffic patterns through the museum,  dwell time in particular exhibits throughout the day and at different times of the week or year. Would mobile tracking such as this give you useful information you do not already have? How could data such as this would help you make operational decisions?

Even as museums begin to move into the world of mobile location analytics, they need to respect the privacy concerns of visitors. This week the Future of Privacy Forum and the Wireless Registry announced the creation of a new platform and a voluntary "Mobile Location Analytics Code of Conduct" that enable consumers to opt-out of such tracking. In the future, data privacy may be commonly addressed in  museum codes of ethics, as well as in museums' operational policies.

And if your museum is already using mobile tracking analytics of one sort or another, and/or addressing data privacy in your policies, I would love to hear about it! Drop me a line or post in the comments, below.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Game for (Future) Good: FutureCoast

The first trend CFM tackled, with the help of futurist and games-designer Dr. Jane McGonigal, was the rise of “gaming for good” and the potential for games-design to make museum experiences more compelling and rewarding. Today’s guest post is by Ken Eklund, aka Writerguy, freelance game and experience designer Ken creates “what if?” storytelling games and activities for museums, foundations and public media. He’s perhaps best known for World Without Oil, a crowdsourced “authentic fiction” about an oil crisis, and Giskin Anomaly, an immersive cellphone adventure in Balboa Park. With producer Sara Thacher (The Jejune Institute), he’s running a gameful climate science education project called FutureCoast, live now through April 30. (Twitter: @FutrCoast, @FutrVoices; Ken, @writerguygames) You can play, too!

The software system of the future has sprung a space-time leak. But since it's only in their voicemail storage, it takes them decades to get around to fixing it. Meanwhile, we get to listen to the messages that people leave for each other in the years 2020 to 2065 – by turns banal, mysterious, and terrifying.
A chronofact falls in California
Welcome to FutureCoast, a playful yet serious collaborative storytelling game about possibly climate changed futures. At, visitors listen to these voicemails and speculate about the futures they must come from. They “mixtape the future” by curating voicemails into Timestreams. They follow @FutrCoast on Twitter to rescue the mysterious objects (“chronofacts”) that voicemails are decoded from.
Meanwhile, behind the game curtain at, visitors take on the creative challenge of recording voicemails that seem to have leaked here from the future. They volunteer to geocache chronofacts for others to rescue. And for organizations interested in holding creative “futurethinking” events exploring climate change, this is where you sign up.
Exploring mini-stories as collaborative learning
This blog’s readers know the educational landscape is changing, as learners act as collaborative curators and “proactive consumers who co-produce what they consume.” In this world, storytelling rules, whether it be documentary, counterfactual or somewhere in between.
Why are learners demanding to participate in their learning experience? That’s easy: they want the learning to be relevant to them, and they want it to recognize where they’re at, i.e. to respect what they already know. Playfully encouraging them to tell miniature stories is a perfect way to begin learning.
Voicemails: a world in thirty seconds
Pity the poor voicemail, no one’s idea of a good time. Yet maybe the perfect building block for a participatory story? Consider:

  • Voicemails are rich. People are wired to glean meaning from the human voice.
  • Voicemails are familiar. We encounter and create this type of story every day (i.e., we already know how to play this storytelling game)
  • Voicemails are compact: people get to the point.
  • Voicemails are personal. They bespeak person-to-person relationships and realities at a hyper-local, human level
  • Voicemails thus afford much of what the climate change discussion lacks.
Creating a play space for climate change
There is no one future. In FutureCoast, the voicemails leak out of the cloud of possible futures. Acknowledging that, anyone can make a voicemail from a possible future with us, simply by calling the FutureCoast hotline at 321-7-FCOAST.
In these voicemails, people express their views and share the elements that make the threat of climate change relevant to them. They mix in a collaborative space where different ideas about climate-changed futures exist together and learn from each other. It often is a surprisingly cathartic “futurethinking” experience.  
Join the Chronofact Recovery Effort
FutureCoast is immersive. To make it easy for visitors to enter the playspace, it has characters (“the Coasters”) that live its fiction as their reality. So, meet Sam:

Sam chases a chronofact  
As Sam says, when chronofacts materialize from the future, the Coasters can sometimes pinpoint exactly where. Seekers then scramble to track them down, as chronicled in the Chronofall Diary.
What the Coasters don’t know, but you do, is that volunteers cache the chronofacts. Science students and educators such as museums have priority in chronofact caching (and can use our lesson plan).
FutureCoast: an “authentic fiction”
FutureCoast is one of several engaging climate change education projects being created by the PoLAR Partnership at Columbia University. Our goal is to open up ideas and dialog about climate change and its effects on natural and human systems. To ground voicemails in reality, we’re growing a helpful link library at
Reversing “a profound disengagement”
Many factors conspire to drape climate change in a veil of unreality. The issue is complex and global, which have been used to muddy, suborn, ensilo and polarize its discussion. People understand this: they know they’ve been disengaged from the dialogue and their concerns and questions disregarded.
What people want, I feel, is a way they can take positive action on the climate change issue: to participate in an open exchange of ideas, to share what they question and what they know. People deal all the time with muddied, suborned, siloed and polarized issues; they just need someone to give them an opportunity to come together and apply that expertise to this issue.
Among their missions, museums seek to help society face the future. Giving museums unique opportunities to push through the veil of unreality on climate change has been a goal of this blog and a part of FutureCoast’s design from the beginning.

 Chronofact rescued by a study group at the
American Museum of Natural History! (AMNH YouthCaN)
What museums can do:
> Host a FutureCoast “study group” event  (A mini-FutureCoast workshop and social experience, in which people listen to voicemails and make their own. Contact us for details and to arrange support.)
> Cache a chronofact! Here’s the application and associated lesson plan
> Share FutureCoast with your communities. (Here is a nice quick summary of FutureCoast in the StoryCode newsletter.)
> Share FutureCoast with students and educators
Contact the Future Coast team to find out more!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: Chronofacts

Chronofact recently discovered in Washington, DC
For more information, stay tuned for tomorrow's post on the CFM Blog

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

When Preschool IS the Museum

Michael Edson recently challenged museums to think about how we can help a billionlearners in this country. Some of that impact will be digital and online, through individual museum projects or platforms like Khan Academy. But our impact will also build on the cumulative effects of ambitious, embedded, local, face-to-face educational opportunities. Today’s guest post by Ellen Spear, President & CEO of Heritage Museums & Gardens, tells the story of one such program.

In the face of agonizing discussions in our community about funding education, addressing the need to attract young families to live and work on Cape Cod, and debate on changing curriculum standards, Heritage Museums & Gardens, in Sandwich, Massachusetts, has been actively planning for how we can make a positive impact on the fluid state of public education.

Like many museums, we have for years been providing informal STEM (or should I say SHTEAM – science/history/technology/engineering/art/math – in essence, the whole person) and formal education programs, so it was not a big leap to envision ourselves as primary educators of children in our community.

Around the same time, the Sandwich Public Schools announced plans to create a “STEM Academy” for all 7th and 8th grade students to better prepare them for new standards in high school and to provide better educational infrastructure. Seeing a possible collaborative opportunity, Heritage met with school officials to discuss how we could help. 

It became clear that by focusing on preparation for success in public school through a more structured approach to preschool curriculum, Heritage Museum and Gardens could make the best use of our expertise while meeting the school system’s needs. There is a growing body of research which indicates that solid early childhood education breeds successful citizens and saves society money in the long run. In addition, our state’s Department of Early Education and Care has been planning to encourage the creation and adoption of formal STEM curriculum models for preschools, and thinking about how to begin implementation.

Stars aligned, and after careful planning and a $1.5 million fundraising effort for startup including over $160,000 from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, we recently announced the creation of The Hundred Acre School, a preschool program that will open at Heritage this fall with a newly created STEM (read SHTEAM) curriculum for 4 and 5 year olds.

Developed in concert with our school system’s curriculum specialists, the Hundred Acre School curriculum aligns and maps to the public school curriculum, utilizing the new national and state STEM standards. Another partner, the Sandwich Public Library, will serve as the out-of-school program provider for parents and children--an important factor for academic success.  We are a private school for now, but our goal is to become a public school eventually. And we plan to be ready for the day when universal preschool is a reality.

Preschools are not unique in museums, but our approach to curriculum development in collaboration with the public school and public library, supported by the state’s Department of Early Education and Care, may well be a “first.”  We hope that this will be a useful model for other museums and communities to follow.  

Further, we see this as a start to what could be delivery of several grades of public education at museums. I can imagine the day when our institution IS the school for pre-k – 3rd grade in our community.  (It is so very exciting to contemplate the children of our community growing up in our museum!) Museums can, in many cases, be more nimble with their facilities than a public school system, responding more quickly to changing demographic patterns.  Compared with, in our case, the slow-moving town meeting process, bonding, de-commissioning buildings and construction project rules that public schools must follow we could be able to react efficiently and cost effectively to deliver what the town might need.

At Heritage, we have a lot of the ‘stuff’ that students study –right here in our horticulture, teaching and American history collections.  We have 100 acres to explore, tied to STEM curriculum, outdoor discovery and daily exercise. We have gifted teachers and we have the trust and partnership of our community. We have the expertise in evaluation, creative program design and communication with parents and the community.
Ellen Spear with pre-school student

The next step will be to consider how to build enough public trust to allow tax money to follow the students to our institution as the provider of public school education.  Creating the appropriate mechanisms for public accountability will be a challenge, but one worth pursuing.

This formal blending of museums, public education and resources is of vital importance to our institutions’ futures and to the reinvention of the public school systems of the 21st century. And in the process it may change other museums in exciting and positive ways, as it is changing ours.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Monday Musings: What Price Nonprofit?

Today's brief musing was prompted by an article this past Saturday in the New York Times: 

It May be a Nonprofit Theater, but the Tickets Look For-Profit

It lists the ways in which nonprofit theaters in New York are acting more and more like their for-profit brethren: raising ticket prices, partnering with commercial producers to mount sure-fire hits, renting out space, rotating in established blockbusters and hiring star actors. 

The article summarizes the justification for nonprofit theaters as places where "new works with homegrown actors are produced, where challenging Pulitzer Prize-winning plays are introduced, and where, until recently, ticket prices where low." But clearly, activities focused on these ends alone are not paying the bills.

All of which raises a disturbing prospect of how long theaters can flirt with having their tax-exempt cake and eating it, too. I find this story disturbingly reminiscent of the way in which nonprofit hospitals (among the largest recipients of charitable donations) are increasingly coming into question for behaving in ways indistinguishable from for-profit hospitals. This has led to practical consequences such as the City of Pittsburgh challenging the tax-exempt status of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which in turn prompted legislation currently waiting voter approval that would give Pennsylvania the power to determine tax status, shielding nonpos from cash-strapped municipalities scrambling to find funds. 

The theater story leaves me (and museums) with the following questions:

  • How far can nonprofits pursue "business-like" income opportunities without erasing the distinction, in the public eye, between their operations and those of a straight-up for-profit enterprise?
  • How much public benefit does a nonprofit have to offer to justify public tax support? The NYT article cites the span of nonprofit ticket prices as being from $25 to the new high of $162, and that of for-profit Broadway shows as typically being $200-$477. But last minute and student discount tickets to Broadway shows are often available for $20-$30. At what point does public subsidy of nonprofit status cease to make art substantially more creative, or more accessible?
  • There are already segments of the museum field (notably aquariums) that have successful for-profit counterparts. The nonprofit Georgia Aquarium has already been accused of trying to import and exhibit Beluga whales for their entertainment value, rather than benefits to research and conservation. How long before we see an article in the NYT or the Nonprofit Quarterly is examining the basis behind the nonprofit for-profit distinction for aquariums? And how will we, as a sector, respond?

Friday, February 14, 2014

Futurist Friday: Hyper-Reality

I'm happy to see that Keiichi Matsuda successfully funded his "Hyper-Reality" film series through a Kickstarter project. It looks like an awesome futurist project.

This series of 5 minute films, set in Medellin, Columbia, will explore how rapid technological transformation can impact a culture. As Keiichi describes it, the films will show "an ambitious new vision of the future; instead of jetpacks, flying cars and robots, think smart cities, super-social media, and ubiquitous augmented reality. It will be a science fiction short for our time; introspective, critical, and beautifully designed."

Your Futurist Friday assignment: watch the promo video Keiichi created for the Kickstarter campaign  [2.50 min video]

Think about the technologies Keiichi depicts, and how they might transform your life, and the work of your museum. And keep an eye out for the full series!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Revisiting the Borgias

This Throwback Thursday post revisits an issue I touched on back at the beginning of the financial crisis, in 2009: how the decline in traditional funding sources and the increasing inequality of wealth in American are shaping the behavior and image of U.S. museums. Since I wrote this post, the wealth gap has continued to widen, as most of the dollars generated in our modest economic recovery have gone to those who are already well off. The questions I pose at the end of this post are as relevant as they were five years ago, if not more so.

(Note this post was written while Alliance staff were analyzing the results of the last field-wide financial survey. You can read the Alliance’s ongoing coverage on how museums have fared in the economic crisis on our Annual Condition of Museums and the Economy Reports. We’ve moved our data collection online, and you can contribute. Login to the AAM website and select Edit Profile (from the gray navigation bar at the top of the page). Then select the My Organization tab. Here you’ll find two links: one for Organizational Profile (which allows you to enter or update your museum’s basic contact and demographic information) and one for Operational Data (where you can enter information about your museum’s finances, facilities, staffing, attendance and collections). The Alliance encourages all museums to provide this information and keep it up-to-date. Current data, used in aggregate, helps us better serve you and better advocate for the field.)

The New Borgias
Adapted from a post originally published Wednesday, February 25, 2009

In Superstruct, the Alternate Reality Game from the Institute for the Future that ran in 2008, player Phil Deely wrote a story titled “The New Borgias.” Deely posited that, in the game’s fictional future of 2019, the wealthy few dominate and control cultural institutions in the U.S. As with many hypotheses explored in the game, this one seems very plausible the more I mull it over.

Deely’s story came to mind this past week as I helped pummel the data from AAM’s latest financial survey into shape. I have no doubt that once we crunch the numbers, they will document profound damage. Unlike the period following the terrorist attacks of 2001, when individual museums or regions suffered but the field as a whole was sound, the effect of this economic crisis is pandemic. It may also be long lasting: in the CFM forecasting report Museums and Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures authors James Chung and Susie Wilkening of Reach Advisors point out that it took Japan a decade to climb out of the financial hole created by the bursting of their real estate bubble. This suggests that our recovery could be equally protracted. However long our current recession lasts, things will get grim for museums and other cultural institutions. Government support, endowment values and individual donations and foundation support are already in decline. This leads to the obvious question—in the future, where will the money to support museums come from?

Which brings me to Deely’s prescient story. Per the old joke, crooks rob banks because that is where the money is. Museums, while too virtuous to resort to theft, follow the money just as assiduously. In the future, that money may be found exclusively in the pockets of the rich. Museums and Society 2034 observes that our society has a large and growing wealth gap. The ranks of the poor are growing, while the middle class slips in its relative earning power. The top 5% of households in the U.S. earn one third of the total earned income, and the top 0.5% (roughly 500,000 households) account for 14%. These top earners are taking a financial hit too, but they still have large amounts of money available for discretionary spending. A D.C. realtor recently underscored this point: explaining why the mortgage crunch was unlikely to interfere with the sale of the Icelandic Ambassador’s residence (priced at over $5.6 million), he noted that people buying over the $2 million price point tend to pay cash. Indeed.

We have seen several examples of the wealthy playing white knight to museums threatened by financial dragons. Most recently, Eli Broad rode to the rescue of the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art, spearheading development of a $75 million recovery plan which included an offer of as much as $30 million from his own foundation. On the face of it, what a fine solution! If the wealthy are willing to follow the example of Andrew Carnegie and invest in society by investing in its cultural institutions, why not let them assume the responsibility?

The problem is, museums know from long experience that whoever provides the money calls the shots. Money from prominent donors usually comes with very explicit agendas. One journalist suggested, for example, that in “rescuing” MOCA Broad was in fact watching out for his own financial interests: the closure of MOCA’s downtown location could threaten his financial interests in adjacent real estate.

In my experience, Broad’s willingness to wield the influence that comes with patronage exemplifies the rule, not the exception. To cite just one other example, consider the Experience Music Project founded and funded by Paul Allen. In 2004, four years after opening, that museum scrambled to downsize when Mr. Allen repurposed a large portion of their space as a science fiction museum and hall of fame.

The Borgias, the Medicis and the Broads of this world have been marvelous supporters of culture. We all have benefited from their patronage. But their support has, perforce, shaped the arts and, by extension, our own values and tastes, to conform to theirs. Their influence is in large part responsible for the perception that we now work so hard to reverse—that museums are elitist, unwelcoming and, well, patronizing. As Museums and Society 2034 discusses, younger Americans expect opportunities to contribute to the content presented by museums and take an active role in creating their leisure experiences. Communities expect museums to be responsive to their needs and concerns.

So before we cede control of our museums to the new Borgias, I suggest we pause and ask: Can you create a truly democratic museum, one that responds to the expectation of its audience and community and by so doing becomes a vital part of society, with aristocratic funding? And if we don’t like the effect patronage will have on museums, what is the alternative?

Stay tuned for future posts exploring our options…

Next week we will reprise and update Pt. II of this post, on alternate financial models for the future

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Playing with Food: A Recipe for Success from the Hartford Symphony Orchestra

In 2011, CFM launched Feeding the Spirit, an exploration of the relationships between museums, food & community. That project lives on in a number of ways—most notably, it played a role in the launch of the ongoing Let’s Move Museums & Gardens campaign to promote healthy eating and fight childhood obesity. As I work on an ebook for the AAM press summarizing some of the great “recipes for success” shared by our many partners in the project, I’ve continued to collect examples of how cultural organizations use food in playful ways to explore their missions and connect with new audiences. Today’s guest post, by Carolyn Kuan, Music Director of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and Katie Bonner Russo, HSO Director of Marketing & Public Relations, shares a particularly delightful example.

This is a Recipe for…
Conceived by Hartford Symphony Orchestra (HSO) Music Director Carolyn Kuan, Playing with Food is a concert that draws connections between the shared creative processes of musicians, chefs, audiences, and eaters through the presentation of music inspired by food and food inspired by music. For the first performance in May 2013, the HSO collaborated with five local restaurants, which each created a new dish on their menu inspired by a piece of music. HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan also tasted the “signature dish” on each menu and paired it with a piece of music. At the concert, the orchestra performed the music associated with each dish and Ms. Kuan led onstage conversations about music and food with the chefs from each restaurant. Stunning photographs of the food were choreographed to the music, demonstrating the process for creating each dish, the atmosphere of the restaurants, and the chefs in action. Samples of the dishes were served in the lobby during intermission and after the performance.

Carolyn Kuan and the HSO. Photo by Steven Laschever.

What does a cultural organization need to make this recipe a success?
To replicate Playing with Food, you need two main ingredients: artists and chefs. At the HSO, we paired live music performance with food by five of our finest local chefs. The restaurant partners need to be selected carefully; their creativity and willingness to speak onstage and to the media leading up to the concert is essential.

For those looking to recreate the recipe, we recommend that they think about this as an inspirational experience for the eyes, ears, and tastebuds. Look to connect these sensory experiences through a shared vein of inspiration: food inspired by music, photos inspired by food, food inspiring music, etc. The overall effect is that the audience walks away with ideas on how music and art can inspire the most basic elements of their lives, even down to the food they eat.

How we went about implementing this project at the Symphony
Since Playing with Food was a concert on our subscription series, we put the plans in place 14 months before the show, including booking the hall and musicians. Six months prior to the performance we locked in our restaurant partners and chefs. Over the next few months we met a couple times, listening to music and tasting their signature dishes.
Around a month before the performance the new, music-inspired dishes debuted on their menus, allowing patrons the opportunity to try the dishes in the restaurants before coming to the concert; anyone who tried all five restaurants was able to receive a free companion ticket to the performance. The dishes remained on their menus one month after the performance, and audience members received a discount to the participating restaurants when they presented their concert ticket stubs. 

We brought a photographer to each restaurant and photographed them working in their kitchens, creating their dishes, and holding the finished products, as well as photos of the interiors and exteriors of each restaurant. These photos were choreographed to match the musical score, so the audience experienced the visual experience of being in the restaurants while they listened to the music.
A menu item from last year's concert. Like music notes
on a plate! 
 Notes on Technique: lessons learned about how to tackle this recipe.
Asking a chef to take a Saturday night off to participate in this type of project can be challenging, so we would recommend scheduling your event for mid-winter or early spring. Ask the restaurants that you have in mind to suggest dates or seasons when they would be willing to participate. And do not try to communicate with restaurants during the holiday season- they are far too busy!

All in all, Playing with Food was most certainly a recipe for success. People could not stop talking about it, which is why we are planning to serve a second course in April 2014. This project brought together the Greater Hartford community in a way that only music and food can. As a result of this event, the Hartford Symphony has brought in new audience members and the participating restaurants saw an influx of new customers. Music is the universal language and food is a universal part of the human experience; the combination creates a powerful force for bringing people together.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Monday Musings: The End of the Blockbuster Era

Today’s brief musing was prompted by a story I included in our weekly e-newsletter Dispatches from the Future of Museums last week—a video clip of a panel discussion on the Future of the Museum, hosed by the Boston Athenaeum that brought together the heads of the Metropolitan Museum, the Getty Trust, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

[n.b.: the news anchor characterizes this confab as a “convening of the gods.” I guess this shows that museums’ status in society is secure. At least in Boston.]

This brief segment includes comments by Malcolm Rogers:

“It’s nice to have a blockbuster, but to be dependent on them isn’t a good idea. Exhibitions are becoming smaller and more varied, which I think is a good idea…I think we are all trying to invest more in what we call our permanent collections…and not to let an exhibition suck all the energy, or rather the resources, out of the museum.”

A few years ago, writing about “museum eras” (in the futurist sense of the term) I noted that in the last quarter of the 20th century, blockbuster exhibits were the “dominant technology” driving museum attendance. Here is how I described that era:

“Treasures of Tutankhamen” debuted at the National Gallery of Art in November, 1976, eventually drawing 8.25 million visitors as it toured the country. “Tut” spawned a museum-going frenzy—in Riches, Rivals and Radicals, Marjorie Schwarzer writes of people queuing up all night for tickets to the exhibit, camping to get a spot, and fainting in line. The huge impact of “Tut”, cultural and financial, shaped exhibition planning in medium to large museums for decades to come. With time, the downside of reliance on blockbuster exhibits became clear. The pulses of income and visitation were addictive, but not necessarily sustainable, and a return to more conventional short-term, in-house exhibits could look like failure by comparison. Museums that used the income from blockbusters to expand or staff up needed ever larger and more popular exhibits to support swollen operating budgets. Now the blockbuster era is tailing off (if not yet quite moribund) further damaged by the increased costs of shipping and insurance and the logistics of international loans. Blockbuster exhibits are still with us, but they don’t define the landscape the way they once did. During this financial downturn, the trend is for museums to draw on their permanent collections, digging deep into storage to create high-quality, if not quite so glitzy, exhibitions.”

I think we are well into a phase of museum practice in which exhibitions are smaller and more individualistic presentations that draw on a museum’s own collections. While this may well characterize the current era of exhibitions, these smaller exhibitions don’t have the same fertilizing effect on museum finances. For the next era in museum economics, I think we need to look to the Dallas Museum of Art and its experiments with its playful, gamelike and accessible membership model that creates broader, sustained engagement with a more diverse set of supporters, and in which data mining is the source of museum wealth. 

Friday, February 7, 2014

Futurist Friday: Hana Yakiniku

Introducing Hana Yakiniku--an internet connected olfactory device that lets users generate food smells. 

As this video points out, it has all sorts of applications:

  • for impecunious students, making cheap food smell like a fancy meal
  • for dieters, making lettuce smell like something more attractive (and caloric)
  • for lovers, well, bringing them closer together
This is part of a larger trend towards capturing and delivering sensory experiences via digital media: sight and sound, of course, but also scent, touch and even taste

So if you are sending a teenager off to college in a few years, maybe plan to put a Hana Yakiniku on their packing list, to supplement that rice cooker. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Revisiting the Intelligent City

This is the first in a series of "Throwback Thursdays," revisiting content from the Blog that continues to resonate with recent news. A story from last week's edition of Dispatches from the Future of Museums on how analysis of data from mobile phones can create portraits of our cities prompted me to revisit this post from the archives. In the two years since I reported from the National Building Museum's Intelligent Cities symposium, the case for how the "Internet of Things" and "big data analytics" may transform how we interact with our environment has become even more compelling.

Can Museums Help Make Cities More Intelligent?
Originally posted on the CFM Blog 6-8-11

“Smart cities” is a big topic now. How big? Smart Planet recently reported that investment in smart city infrastructure will hit $108 billion by 2020.

Yah, that’s big.

What makes a city “smart?” Smart Planet defines it as "the integration of technology into a strategic approach to sustainability, citizen well-being, and economic development." The connections and integration between a city's parts are what can make it an intelligent system of systems. Intelligent use of data ranges from citizens reporting potholes, so the city doesn’t have to rely on crews roving the streets to find and fix them, to using data on peoples’ use of transportation to design walkable neighborhoods and encourage active lifestyles. 

I spent Monday in the grand central atrium of the National Building Museum, listening to awesome speakers explore the potential for such systems of ubiquitous, networked data to transform the urban landscape.

The primary orchestrators of the Intelligent Cities project at NBM are Scott Kratz, vice president for education, and curator Susan Piedmont-Palladino. Susan identified museums’ roles in urban design as provoking active curiosity and increasing “urban literacy,” thereby inspiring people to take action. 

Here are some interesting nuggets I took away from the day:

Access to data can shift power to the people
Many speakers acknowledged the troubling potential for governments to monitor (and misuse) such rich troves of data on peoples’ movement and activities. However, Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, pointed out that the “ground up” use of technology enables citizens to band together to prevent government abuse. As an example of ground up citizen tech, she pointed to to Map Kibera, which enables Nairobi slum dwellers (aka “informal occupants”) to create a digital map of the informal economy and residential patterns. Prior to this, the Kenyan government did not recognize or gather data on the slum, depriving its residents of political recognition and services. What issues in your museum’s community might benefit from citizen use of data, and how might a museum help people access and interpret this information?

The future of digital data rights
Caesar McDowell, professor of the Practice of Community Development at MIT, approached data privacy from another angle, proposing creating a Personal Digital Commons, controlling the rights that automatically accrue to data collected via social media. You could apply one of four licenses to the data collected by Facebook, LinkedIn and their ilk: free use; limited negotiated use; collective community use (use of aggregated data for community benefit); or no use. What data does your museum collect from users of your digital platforms, and what options do you give them for controlling how you use this information?

How digital devices influence use of public space
I’ve heard many folks angst over how the use of smart phones, tablets etc. in museums will affect the experience. Do we want to encourage or discourage the connected visitor? If future visitors are going to be constantly connected to friends and family over the internet, should this influence how we design our space? Keith Hampton, assistant professor at the Annenberg School for Communications at UPenn presented some research that begins to illuminate these questions. For example, his researchers, after obsessively stalking and observing wireless users in a variety of settings, found that 10% of the people they observed engaged in extended interactions with strangers, which compares favorably with people not using internet-connected devices. (And contrasting with people listening to iPods, who never, not once, interacted with anybody.) At the neighborhood level, social technologies do lead to a greater number of social ties over time. This effect is greatest in communities already predisposed to form social ties but not, interestingly, tied to socio-economic levels. Keith concludes (reassuringly, for museums) that the more diverse and extensive the use of new technology, the more diverse and extensive the use of public space. If you want to learn more about Keith's research, you can listen to an interview or purchase access to his article The Social Life of Wireless Urban Spaces: Internet Use, Social Networks, and the Public Realm from the Wiley Online Library.

For more on the ideas presented at the Intelligent Cities Forum see this blog post at Embarq. And check out the National Building Museum’s website where you can watch the recorded webcast of the forum , learn more about the Intelligent Cities initiative, and order the book that summarizes the project content.