Thursday, July 31, 2014

Bringing a Collections Catalogue to Life

When the Walker Art Center launched their redesigned website in 2011, it was hailed as a “game-changer,” changing the focus of the site from the museum as destination to the museum as content provider—a portal to all things related to its mission. This was a great example of breaking the bonds of skeuomorphism (in this case, a website that recreated the functions of a set of print museum brochures) and take full advantage of how digital publication can be truly different from print.  Last month the CFM Blog featured one example of how museum publications are evolving in the digital realm: “Curious,” the Royal British Museum’s new multi-sensory journal. So when I heard that the Walker was exploring the creative limits of digital publication, I invited their staff to tell us about the project.

Emmet Byrne, Design Director

On June 30th, the Walker Art Center published the first volume of its Living Collections Catalogue, its contribution to the Getty Foundation’s Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative. As a contemporary art center dedicated to presenting the most innovative visual, performing, and media arts of our time, the Walker conceived an online serial publication that would be tied to its acquisition strategies and collections-based exhibitions.

I have learned, from this project and from all of our online publishing initiatives, that creating new publishing platforms can change how an institution works and thinks. When our departmental blogs went live in 2008, they gave everyone in the institution a voice, which resulted in new ways of contextualizing our programs and communicating with niche audiences. When we launched our redesigned website in 2011, it changed the way we think about interpretation, about the services we provide as a contemporary art center, and even the definition and scope of who our audience could be. In many ways we are still figuring out how to live up to the promise of this platform and our relationship with it changes day to day.

The Living Collections Catalogue project exemplifies this change in our thinking. We realized early on that the platform we were creating to host collections-based research could also guide this research and have a positive affect on the exhibitions themselves.  Having an online publication for each upcoming show—something that can be turned into a template and produced faster than a traditional publication—gives the curators a new format that directs their thinking in a consistent framework. The themes reflected in the wall labels can be fleshed out, illustrated with images and rich media, linked to the wealth of information in our collections database and shared with an incredibly broad audience. We hope that this new publication process will complement and strengthen the collection exhibitions process.

Designers know that “visual rendering”—making something look real even when it is still speculative—is an essential strategy for moving an idea forward. As a publishing platform the Catalogue exists somewhere between a rendering and a prototype: highly developed but still somewhat speculative frameworks for future content, only made real once they’ve been used. As museums respond to the influence of the internet on how people consume content, it behooves us to understand how our publishing initiatives not only push our content out to our publics, but how they change our own organizational culture.

Robin Dowden, Director of Technology and New Media Initiatives

The main takeaway for me is the challenge and excitement involved in creating something completely new based on a sophisticated understanding of book publishing and online initiatives. The Walker is an award-winning book publisher and a leader in field of museum work on the web. What happens when we try to bring the best characteristics of each of these two worlds to bear on a single project? The Getty initiative is about creating new models for the future of scholarly collection catalogues, and from the outset we were interested in bridging the gap between the database and publishing, playing to the strength of each depending on the information (knowledge) we were sharing.

The iterative and dynamic nature of new media runs afoul of traditional publishing in so many ways, from the editorial process to the role of the designer. For example, we built an authoring tool to create essays, the most bookish piece of our catalogue in terms presentation and versioning. The tool allows “a user” to construct an essay as a series of multi-column sections composed of various document elements including text, pull quotes, images, rich media, and slide shows. We imagined the tool would be used by an editor or subject specialist assigned to the volume (a role in book publishing traditionally assigned to the designer). Building the tool was a very new media approach, reflecting our penchant for systematizing content production schemes, but we misjudged the process for laying out the essays, media selection, and workflows: authors were not necessarily writing to the medium. We found we needed someone unafraid of the technology and possessing an understanding of various assets and resources—internal and external, identified and not—to work with the new media designer and volume content editor on page layouts. We needed a much more layered and iterative approach (e.g., dropping in footnotes at the very end and editing in pieces as content becomes available) for efficiency and quality of final product. Going into volume 2, we certainly have a better understanding of what’s involved but the fact remains that traditional author, designer, editorial roles and workflows aren’t a perfect match with online publishing. That said, the evolutionary nature of the work, from constant changes in the medium and platform to our understanding of them, is what makes this work challenging and exciting. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: Um, meow?

#MuseumCats Day #Twitter
(Photo from #Hermitage)

Follow the link in the photo caption to find out more. You can find more glimpses of the future (and links to associated articles) on CFM's Pinterest Boards

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Keeping up with the 2014 Trends: For Profit For Good

It’s been about 6 months since the Alliance released TrendsWatch 2014, so I’m going to blog a round of updates on each of this year’s six trends. In each of these posts I will recap the trend, report on its overall arc in the first half of this year, recommend a recent article (or video, or maybe even a book) exploring the topic, and list one source (blog, Twitter account, etc.) you can follow for related news and commentary.

Haven't read the report yet? You can download a free PDF of TrendsWatch 2014 (as well as past issues of the report) from the CFM TrendsWatch page. You can download a free app from iTunes (the report looks great on an iPad, and the app version includes embedded videos.) If you want a print copy to mark up and pass around, you can buy it from the AAM Bookstore for $12.95 (significant discounts available for bulk orders, in case you want to use the report with your staff, board or museum studies class).  

For Profit For Good: the rise of the social entrepreneurs
A rising number of for-profit businesses are tackling traditionally nonprofit goals. “Social entrepreneurship” is the growing realm of mission-driven business enterprises that view financial success as a way to create more and better good. As TrendsWatch asks, “What if it turns out that for-profit organizations can do a better job than the ‘independent sector’ at solving the world’s problems?

Overall Arc of the Trend
Accelerating, with some bumps. One thing to watch about this trend is whether “impact investing” (investing in for profit companies that have a mission to achieve social good) pulls money from traditional philanthropy. We are looking at real money here, as this kind of investment-for-good is projected to “grow to into a $1 trillion part of the financial market by 2020.” Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, recently co-authored an e-book called “The Power of Impact Investing” that explores how ordinary folks (not just the 1%) can be social impact investors, reaping a modest financial return by supporting social change. On the other hand, the “hybrid” organizations such as low-profit limited liability corporations (L3Cs) and Benefit Corporations, that are springing up at the intersection between for profit and nonprofit organizations focused on social missions seem to be off to a rocky start. These new legal structures have been hailed as a way to combine some of the advantages of both sectors, and attracting support from both philanthropy and investors, however they seem to be spreading only slowly, and some people are raising questions about whether rules governing these entities really enforce transparency and accountability. (Then again, I could raise the same doubts about the often nominal oversight of traditional nonprofits.) Here is a good article from Nonprofit Quarterly reviewing some of these concerns.

Recommended Read
One great article I came across since the publication of TrendsWatch on the theme of “for profit for good” is this piece in Hawaii Business: “Impact Investing is the New Philanthropy.” (I explored some of the implications of this piece in this Monday Musing blog post.) The article describes the work of the Ulupono Initiative founded by Pierre and Pan Omidyar, and describes how these two philanthropists view the intertwined economies of impact investing  (to foster for profit enterprises that address social and environmental needs) and charitable giving (to nurture nonprofits that will, in the long run, become self-sustaining). I highly recommend this medium-length piece.

To Add to your Scanning Feed
The Ecopreneurist: “a blog for and about eco and social entrepreneurs, startups, cleantech, web 2.0 and disruptive business ideas.” Features an eclectic mix of posts that range from ethical fashion to clean energy to socially responsible business practices. (This, for example, is where I read about the guilt-inducing Oroeco app that can calculate the carbon footprint of almost any aspect of your behavior. No pressure.)

Friday, July 25, 2014

Futurist Friday: Lend Me an Extra...Limb?

One subset of robotics pertains to cyborgs: "cybernetic organisms" that have both organic and biomechanical parts. 

The artificial limbs that enabled Oscar Pistorius to leap from the Paralympics to  able-bodied international competition replaced appendages he lost as a child. But some cybernetic technologies, such as the additional fingers and arms being developed by MIT engineers (below) could either compensate for disabilities or enhance the able-bodied "norm." 

Your Futurist Friday assignment, watch these videos and consider:

  • Are there tasks you accomplish, at work or at home, that would be made easier if you had additional arms or fingers?
  • Can you imagine a time when it is normal, even expected, for people to wear technology that enhances their strengthmobility, even their memory?
  • In a country that values a "level playing field" when it comes to sport, how will devices such as these disrupt the standards by which we judge what is "fair" and equitable? 
  • In a country that struggles with the entrenched disparities of wealth that already stratify our society, will such devices widen the achievement and opportunity gap between those who can afford enhancements, and those who can't? 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: A Vision of the Future Unsullied by the Present

#ecotourism #NorthKorea #Utopia

Follow the link in the photo caption to find out more. You can find more glimpses of the future (and links to associated articles) on CFM's Pinterest Boards

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Unaccompanied Children at our Borders: Can Museums Help?

 The theme of the Alliance 2015 conference is Museums and Social Value. Leading up to that meeting in Atlanta, CFM will be hosting a number of guest bloggers addressing various aspects of museums and social justice. Last month, Robert Janes led off with a post on museums’ role in addressing social and environmental threats. For our second post in this series, Gretchen Jennings, who has blogged for several years about the need for “empathetic museums,” volunteered to address an issue currently getting much attention in the press: undocumented, unaccompanied children crossing the US border.

Immigrant Boy: photo from CBS News

Why should this question be raised?
In a quick and unscientific poll of other museum professionals, especially those who work with children’s museums or with refugee groups, I find that I’m not alone in asking “what role, if any, should museums play in this national crisis?” But as Elaine Gurian and others have observed, museums are not noted for (nor expected to have) immediate responses to current events, and history museums in particular pride themselves on developing reasoned analysis with the passage of time. There is little in our traditional structures that lends itself to timely responses to current situations. If we museums want to become more actively involved with our communities, especially in our fast-paced global society, we may have to develop a new process and timeline for being responsive. However, while the issue of undocumented, unaccompanied children is one that may seem to have appeared suddenly, it actually has deep roots in many of the communities we serve. And this situation, while most urgent at the border, is gradually and inexorably moving into the entire country as groups of children are being taken in by humanitarian groups in other states.
It seems to me that museums might help the country to address this issue in two ways: by providing humanitarian assistance in collaboration with experienced agencies already working in the field, and by fostering discussion and dialogue in a safe and structured environment.
Collaborative humanitarian assistance
For museums in states and regions housing the families and unaccompanied children in this most recent wave of undocumented immigration perhaps the most welcome contribution would be organizing activities and programming. From what I have read, many children pass weeks or months in shelters with little or nothing to do. Museums are expert at engaging minds, imaginations, and bodies in art, science, and other aspects of the world. In doing this, museums might make the time in limbo go faster, providing some relief from the stress of confinement and separation. Museums positioned to provide such assistance might include those that already have:

  • Staff who are experienced in working with families and children--getting their attention, engaging their minds and bodies; creating, tinkering, working in groups or alone
  • Kits, packets, activities, and workshops already prepared; traveling science activities; perhaps some hardy specimens from live collections
  • Access to materials needed for these activities
  • Devoted volunteers
  • Staff and volunteers with bilingual skills.
Collaborating with other relief organizations could help museums effectively deploy their resources within existing structures for aid. The Houston office of the Children’s Defense Fund recommends working with humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross or Catholic Charities that are already on the scene. They also recommended contacting staff of the members of Congress working on this issue. Museums might also identify and partner with other local nonprofits that provide aid to immigrants. Funders such as MacArthur and the Ford Foundation that already support such efforts might be willing to provide support to add museum assistance to this mix as well.
Involvement through Dialogue: Museum as Forum
In addition to meeting the immediate needs of children being detained, museums can help their communities to explore this specific issue as well as more general issues surrounding immigration and immigration policy in the U.S. Many museums are already engaged in such work, for example through the The National Dialogues on Immigration Project which launched in January of this year, facilitated by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. This public initiative uses historical perspective to foster dialogue among people with diverse perspectives and backgrounds through encounters with the past.  (Training on how to create and conduct dialogue programs is provided by the Sites of Conscience Coalition. Contact Sarah Pharaon, Coalition Program Director for North America, for more information.)
One example of a museum engaged in such work is the
Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, which houses the Gallery of Conscience—an experimental interactive space that uses folk art as a catalyst for conversation and engagement on social justice and human rights issues of our times. Their latest exhibition, Between Two Worlds: Folk Artists Reflect on the Immigrant Experience, “draws on the work of international, immigrant, native Hispanic New Mexican, refugee, and native traditional artists to explore issues of home, place, displacement and belonging from different points of views and distinct histories: those who leave to find a new home, those left behind, and those who welcome newcomers in their midst--or not.” Gallery director Suzanne Seriff notes “The issue of the children crossing the border has come up in these conversations with the community kids over and over this week, and our exhibit has proven to be a rich platform to spark these discussions especially with a couple of the pieces of art [that directly address immigrant themes.]”

Painting by folk artist Cenia Gutierrez Alfonso
from Cuba depicting a child crossing the Atlantic
on her own with her beloved gallo (rooster) in hand.
Photo by Museum of International Folk Ar

Are there Risks?

Museums located in areas where immigrant communities are large and growing no doubt serve audiences with varying views on how and even whether the U.S. should continue to accept and process immigrants in general and these children in particular. Museums considering involvement either in collaborative work with humanitarian organizations or by initiating dialogue and discussion about this dilemma may face strong opposition from their boards and/or members. This is, it appears, the price of taking on almost any difficult topic, whether it is controversial exhibition content or, as in this instance, linking mission, collections, and programming to complex events in the civic sphere. In deciding whether and how to play a role in either helping the children caught in this terrible situation, or in taking the lead in fostering discussion about immigration policy per se, a museum should be guided by its mission, and by the best judgment of its staff and board.

I am sure there are as many opinions among us museum folk as there are in the communities we serve. Your thoughts and comments are welcome. Also any specific experiences such as the one shared by the Museum of Folk Art in Santa Fe would be so helpful. I look forward to the conversation.

Gretchen has worked in museums for over 30 years as an educator, administrator, and exhibition project manager. Since 2007 she has served as Editor of Exhibitionist, the journal of AAM’s National Association for Museum Exhibition. The opinions she expresses in her blog and in this guest blog are her own and are not presented in any official capacity. You can find her posts on the need for and the qualities of The Empathetic Museum at Museum Commons blog. She can be contacted at or on Twitter @gretchjenn.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Exploring the Future of Museums with Learning Revolution

Last Thursday I previewed the upcoming online New Media Consortium conference on July 23, giving you a peek the keynotes by Jasper Visser, Nik Honeysett and Nancy Procter. As promised, here is a look the other half of this twinset:  a free online conference taking place the following day (Thursday, July 24), organized by the Learning Revolution.

Both conferences are structured around four main themes plucked from the NMC Horizon Report>2013 Museum Edition: BYOD (Bring Your Own Device); Location-based Services; Crowdsourcing; and Makerspaces.

I’ll kick off Thursday’s conference with a keynote looking at how these four trends are influencing the expectations of our audiences, and what museums may look like after decades of being shaped by these evolutionary forces. Once I’m off the digital stage, I look forward to settling in for the day to listen to keynotes from Suse Cairns and Jeffrey Inscho (co-hosts of the marvelous Museopunks podcast), Lath Carolson (VP of exhibits at the Tech Museum of Innovation), Barry Joseph (associate director of digital learning at the American Museum of Natural History) and Alex Freeman (director of special projects at the New Media Consortium).

This conference also features breakout sessions selected from submissions from the field. I’m reading through the accepted proposals now, deciding which ones to attend.

One of the valuable features of this conference is its mix of international attendees, and (I hope) participants from outside the museum field. The Learning Revolution Project consists of a series of virtual and physical events that have approximately 100,000 attendees/logins each year, and the project also highlights the activities and conversations of more than 200 partner organizations across the learning professions in the school, library, museum, work, adult, online, non-traditional and home learning worlds. As the Alliance works to implement the vision outlined in CFM’s most recent report—Building the Future of Education—it is critical that we connect with individuals and organizations from all parts of the learning landscape. Other Learning Revolution events include the School Leadership Summit, Reform Symposium (RSCON), Homeschool Conference, and the Library 2.0 and Global Education Conferences. I’m hoping some of the regulars from those events join us for this conference, as well. Sign up, log on, help make them feel welcome, and hopefully they will log off with a better understanding of how museums would be great partners for their work. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Building the future of education: what comes next?

Many thanks to all of you who have sent feedback and expressed support for CFM’s recent report “Building the Future of Education: Museums and the Learning Ecosystem.” Please accept my apologies if I am not able to respond in depth to all of your communications right now, but be assured I am logging your emails and compiling lists in people (and museums) interested in being engaged in some way in building the “vibrant learning grid” of the future.

Here at the Alliance, I’m helping us figure out how we can help make this vision of a “preferred future” real. I am sure you face similar dilemmas in your work: Out of the many good things you could do, which would have a lasting effect on the world? Where can you best spend your time, funds and influence to actually change the world? I feel this acutely, when it comes to museums and education, because it is clearly possible to pour huge resources into improving American K-12 education, and not significantly move the bar. If you need evidence of that, total up the dollars being spent on education reform--charter schools, common core, new standardized tests etc.—$44 billion in federal stimulus funds alone, and by one estimate at least $4 billion in private philanthropy. Contrast this amount with the country’s dissatisfaction with the performance of our children as measured by standardized testing, college preparedness and employment (if you even grant the premise that these are valid measures of success).

Studying the forecasting work done by KnowledgeWorks, the Institute for the Future, and mainstream educational reformers has convinced me that the changes we need to make in K-12 education are transformative, not incremental. Even if we find the magic fix that makes the current system work perfectly—raises testing scores, increases graduation rates, enables more kids to matriculate into college—we would not be equipping learners to succeed in the future world. This is the message of organizations like the Partnership for 21st Century Skills: Everything from how our children learn to what they need to learn impels us to reconsider education from the ground up. Our current educational system doesn’t just need a tune up, it needs a new engine. (Or a new form of transportation—perhaps the educational equivalent of jet packs or teleportation.)

When I share these thoughts with folks, as we discuss the “future of education” report, the most frequent question I get is “if the future needs to be so very different from present, how do we get there?” Even if we want to create a “vibrant learning grid” what is the first step along the path to that future? That’s exactly what I am trying to map out, for the Alliance and for museums, and as I do so here are some of issues I wrestle with:

Timeframe. How long will it take to create the next educational era? Future studies teaches us that elements of whatever will become the new mainstream exist now, even if we don’t know which innovations and experiments will become the next dominant paradigm. But how long before that new paradigm becomes the norm, the mainstream? I’m sure five years is too short a time period to affect this transition. And despite the fact that KnowledgeWorks frames its forecasts 10 years out, I personally think ten years is too short a time frame, too. (Your call as to whether that makes me a pessimist or a realist.) My instinct is that we will experience a 25 to 50 year incubation period for the new learning landscape, a forecast which, if correct, poses its own challenges. How do you inspire people to work for transformation that won’t flower in their lifetime, or at least not in time to benefit their children? How do you help organizations plot the first few steps in such a long journey, with confidence that those steps will take them down the right path?

Method of migration. When it comes to educational transformation, I see two potential paths which (per my training as a biologist) I think of gradualism v. saltatory evolution. The gradualist path would build through selection and amplification of successful mutations in the current system. Charter schools might slowly increase proportional to traditional public schools. Longer school days and school years might become the norm. As these changes ripple through the system, they reach all students sooner than others, but everyone is progressing towards the new evolutionary state. But (in line with what I note above) gradualism is in fact likely to result in incremental (and therefore insufficient) change. I think it far more likely that the kind of transformative change we need in education (resulting in a system in which groups of learners are united by skill level or learning style, characterized by passion- and inquiry-based learning, drawing on learning resources throughout the community, encouraging kids to engage in real and meaningful work) will occur via the rapid evolution, in small populations, of new, more useful and desirable learning systems. (Being a fan of Stephen J. Gould, I might as well call this the punctuated equilibrium model of educational reform.) As well-off, well-educated, or simply savvy and tenacious parents migrate their offspring to these new, better options, the failure of the old system accelerates as it struggles to serve the students that were, on average, disadvantaged to begin with. The old system fades away, and the best of the new systems expand to fill the gaps. (Think of the last of the dinosaurs lumbering about, while proto-mammals speciate at their feet.)

Combine these forecasts of a long time frame with saltatory change and you have a grim scenario in which many children fall through the gaps, growing up in a system that does not serve their needs, disadvantaged for life both socially and economically and not only suffer these results personally, but drag down the economy as a whole as well. As attractive educational alternatives like the Incubator School (see video, below) remove the barriers that hold back talented, driven kids (and fosters teenage entrepreneurs) the gap between the educationally and economically advantaged and disadvantaged will become even wider.

Do we face a near-term future in which some teens found their own companies, or make Bitcoin fortunes (or both), while others fail to graduate high school, or nominally graduate high school or even college with minimal literacy and no employable skills?

I think the best path we as a country can take to navigate between the extremes (rapid change, many students left behind; gradual change with the majority of students insufficiently-served for the foreseeable future) is to shorten the time frame of change by providing as many high quality educational alternatives as possible and creating policies that encourage people to make full use of these alternatives, while doing what we can to improve the experience of the children who, for now, remain in the traditional schools. So, for example, museums can:

  • Provide more and better support to homeschooled and unschooled learners;
  • Develop robust, high-quality after school and summer programs;
  • Create their own schools structured around experiential, immersive, project-based learning;
  • Designate staff “learning agents” to help K-12 learners, and their parents, create personalized learning plans around museum resources.
  • Identify and partner with innovative schools founded on the same principles of self-directed, passion-based learning that informs our design. (For example, the new Math Academy opening in San Francisco this Fall.)

As I translate these thoughts into actions the Alliance can take, both on the part of our staff and together with our members, here are some steps I envision. We can:
  • Document what museums do now, both to identify educational innovations on which to build, and to establish a baseline measure of museums’ current educational impact. (This might include, for example, case studies as well as quantitative research to determine how many hours of teacher training museums provide, how many home-schooled learners use us as primary resources, how many students are educated in museum-based schools.)
  • Create inspiring, ambitious but achievable goals for the educational reach of museums, as individual organizations and as a field.
  • Advocate for policy and funding that enable museums to participate as fully as possible in the educational mainstream, and support innovation and experimentation
  • Encourage funders to support the building the infrastructure (of all sorts: digital, transportation-related, physical facilities) that museums will need if we are to play a significant role in education

Of course, when I say I am thinking how to use our resources, I mean your resources—the Alliance’s charge is to make wise use of the support given to us by our members and by the field. I hope, by sharing my thoughts early in the process, to start a conversation with you about what the Alliance can do to advance the role of museums in US education. So weigh in—below in comments, where your colleagues can build on your thoughts, or via email.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Exploring the Future of Museums with NMC

 Q: how can you take a quick trip to the future, hear from thought leaders in museum technology and hobnob with colleagues all from the comfort of your own desk? (Bonus: also without the carbon-guilt, time and expense of travel.)

A: On-line, that’s how.

On July 23 and 24 you have the opportunity to participate in two back-to-back, virtual conferences about the future of museums. Today I’ll give you a preview of the first event, and next Thursday I’ll tell you more about the second (a free conference organized by Learning Revolution).

On Wednesday, July 23 the New Media Consortium is offering the NMC Virtual Symposium on the Future of Museums: Thought Leaders Explore Disruptive Technology.  (11am-6pm ET/ 10am-5pm CT/ 8am-3pm PT). This day-long event explores four of the major themes from the NMC Horizon Report > 2013 Museum Edition (an annual forecast to which I have the pleasure of contributing). 

Jasper Visser of Inspired by Coffee will kick off the day by telling us “These 18 Facts About The Museum Of The Future Will Change Your Life.” I follow Jasper via Twitter and on his excellent blog The Museum of the Future. He’s helped me explore a number of future-shaping trends, (including blogging for CFM on the wildly popular exhibit in Amsterdam that consisted entirely of reproductions of Van Goghs and how that reflects the way people d, or don’t, value authenticity.) I look forward to hearing Jasper’s take on BYOD (Bring your Own Devices), crowdfunding, foodie-ism and other trends shaping our world and our field.

At 1 pm ET, Nik Honeysett, the new CEO of the Balboa Park Online Collaborative, will share his vision for a digital strategy designed to last a whole generation—30 years rather than our more typical 3 year time frame. How can we ignore specific technologies (that will be inevitably be disrupted at short intervals by the next innovation), focus on trends and identify core philosophies and practices to ensure ongoing institutional relevance and sustainability?

The closing keynote will be by Nancy Procter, newly relocated to the Baltimore Museum of Art where she is deputy director for digital experience and communications. (You may know Nancy through the Museums and the Web annual conference, which she co-chairs.) Embedded throughout the day are featured sessions on location-based services, crowdsourcing, Makerspaces (I’m on the panel for that one) and a deeper dive into BYOD.

If you register today (July 10) you can save $10 off the registration fee, so it is $59 non-members and $49 for members.

Come back next Thursday to hear about the free Learning Revolution event (at which point I’ll be putting the finishing touches on my opening keynote).  

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: Drone Tagging

Wonder what this is? #drone #art # #graffiti

Follow the link in the photo caption to find out more. You can find more glimpses of the future (and links to associated articles) on CFM's Pinterest Boards

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Letting Agents Loose in the Museum

Any experiment that overturns business as usual can give us a glimpse of alternate futures. Some of the most entrenched “usuals” in museums are related to authority and process: Who sets the agenda for what we do, and how? This week Divya Rao Heffley, program manager of the Hillman Photography Initiative at the Carnegie Museum of Art, relates how that project is turning some museum conventions upside down.

The Hillman Photography Initiative website
The Carnegie Museum of Art launched the Hillman Photography Initiative earlier this year as a living laboratory for exploring the rapidly changing field of photography and its impact on the world.

L to R: Hillman Photography Initiative “Agents” Alex Klein, Arthur Ou, and Marvin Heiferman meeting with Carnegie Museum of Art staff to discuss the current state and future of photography and to begin planning for the project.
The intensive four-month planning process gathered five internationally-known experts (aka Agents) together in a far-ranging conversation about photography. The Agents are Tina Kukielski (our internal CMOA Agent and co-curator of the 2013 Carnegie International), Marvin Heiferman (independent curator and writer), Illah Nourbakhsh (professor of robotics and director of the CREATE Lab, Carnegie Mellon University), Alex Klein (the Dorothy and Stephen R. Weber Program Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia), and Arthur Ou (assistant professor of photography at Parsons The New School for Design). We asked them to identify the most exciting issues and questions in field in which billions of images were shared daily and on a global basis. For teachers, what made their students sit up and listen? For curators, how did their research connect with the person on the street? For artists, how did the digital revolution affect their practice? What aspects of photography did the Agents discuss around the kitchen table with their partners, friends, and kids?  

 This Picture explores what photographic images can say and do by tracking the responses and feedback a single image can trigger and generate. The public is invited to submit responses to a carefully selected photograph each month. Image: Marilyn Monroe during the filming of The Misfits, 1960 © Eve Arnold/Magnum Photos
As a result of those incredibly stimulating conversations we realized that the most interesting aspect of photography today is how it travels. From creation through transmission, distribution, circulation, appropriation, even death, the photograph follows a lifecycle that can be physical or virtual (or both). The projects that emerged from these discussions—This Picture, The Invisible Photograph, The Sandbox, A People’s History of Pittsburgh, and Orphaned Images—all explore the concept of this lifecycle.

A People’s History of Pittsburgh compiles family-owned, found, and anonymous photographs from the city’s residents to create an online archive that unearths and reconstructs narratives through the lives of Pittsburghers. Image: The Baron family's Croatian tamburitza band, Braddock, PA, January 23, 1930, Submitted by Jennifer Baron.

The Sandbox: At Play with the Photobook includes a temporary reading room and event space at the museum, with programming investigating the many ways that photobooks present and interpret images. Photographers Melissa Catanese and Ed Panar of Spaces Corners, a Pittsburgh bookshop specializing in photography books, staff the reading room.

The intricate set of online and onsite projects of the Initiative required us to create new ways of operating. Most of the Carnegie Museum of Art’s internal processes revolve around the development, approval, and implementation of exhibitions and events. Typically an exhibition is proposed by a curator and is reviewed and approved by an internal group of departmental directors. The Initiative was developed and implemented outside of that normal workflow. The point was to ask outside voices (the Agents) to propose the projects that the museum would then implement and build. This experiment challenged the museum to reexamine its own assumptions, benchmarks, and even its metrics of success.

Trapped: Andy Warhol's Amiga Experiments (Part 2 of The Invisible Photograph documentary series) investigates how a team of computer scientists, archivists, artists, and curators teamed up to unearth Warhol’s lost digital works. Image: Andy Warhol, Andy1, 1985, digital image, The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. © 2014 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; From disk 1998.3.2129.3.4

In fact, we realized that the process was so experimental that none of our standard benchmarking procedures would suffice as evaluation metrics. So we began inventing new benchmarks from scratch. Our director of education asked questions like, “How does being interested in what our visitors think change the museum?" And: “Does the Initiative change the way we establish online engagement with audiences in other exhibition or collection areas?” Our web and digital media manager got us thinking when he told us he could not only track how people were navigating or clicking through the website, but where they were coming from and how long they spent on any given page. Our director of publications ruminated on whether we could "see the Initiative as a model for developing standards for online writing for all museum projects, not only for content but also for tone and approach." Our marketing team discussed extending audience engagement from the typical art scene to the sciences, social sciences, and technology. From a curatorial point of view, we’re just as interested in assessing the less tangible metrics of success, such as how the Initiative shapes ideas about photography locally and internationally.

Within days of launching the Initiative, we began gathering statistics to figure out what was going on. How many people were coming to our website and accessing our content? Were they engaging with our content? Did we have to shift our marketing strategies? The hierarchy of content on our website? The types of demographic content we were gathering at events?

The first two installments of The Invisible Photograph documentary series (premiered online at reached a large number of viewers worldwide despite being longer format films.

Here are some findings from our first full month of evaluation:

  • The Initiative’s web activity equaled the activity on all other museum sites combined, including main site, blogs, and microsites. In terms of web campaigns, is on par with other high-profile web campaigns such as the 2013 Carnegie International.
  • We surpassed our wildest dreams in terms of reach for Part 1 and Part 2 of The Invisible Photograph, which achieved global viewership, reaching six continents. These two 20-minute videos had over 60,000 complete views and over 300,000 loads. This runs counter to the popular consensus that says shorter videos perform better and shows that there is significant appetite for more substantive content online.
  • The earned media value for the Initiative in the first month alone was approximately $4 million. To put that in perspective, in all of 2013 our earned media was $8 million, which was itself a record year for us thanks to the 2013 Carnegie International.  
From the beginning of our social media campaign on March 16, Initiative-related content more than tripled the museum’s reach of Facebook posts through user sharing and liking. We tracked a significant upward trend in people “liking” CMOA that corresponded to the launch of the Initiative. On Twitter, of the top 15 posts from the museum’s account @cmoa, more than half were HPI-related. These posts saw increased reach that was sometimes three to five times greater than the average museum tweet.

However, there was relatively modest onsite attendance for the Initiative’s related programs. We think this is in large part due to the fact that we did not prioritize onsite attendance when asking the Agents to propose projects. This has created tension with our institution’s larger mission to encourage onsite attendance, so we are trying some changes that might address this issue, such instituting a “pay what you can” price structure. We’re also discovering that creating an onsite to online connection, which is at the heart of the Initiative, is one of the harder goals to accomplish. One of the best suggestions from our last meeting is to use “onsite payoff” to encourage online submissions by printing the submissions, posting them in the gallery, and featuring them on our website. We think that such onsite payoff is one of the main reasons that Oh Snap: Your Take on Our Photographs, (another experimental museum project and an important precedent for the Initiative), was such a success last year.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. But one thing is for sure: the more experimental the process, the more progressive we need to be to evaluate the outcome. Because, as the old saying goes, if you don’t evaluate, you’ve already failed (or something like that). For any project that’s even remotely experimental, the need for unconventional thinking never ends.

For more information, read an expanded version of this post on the Hillman Photography Initiative's blog. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Monday Musing: Mirror Mirror

Of course, the answer to that classic question (“who’s the fairest of them all?”) is supposed to be “you—of course. You look fabulous.” But whom can we trust to tell the truth, rather than just saying what we want to hear?

When it comes to fashion, there is an app for that, soliciting unvarnished responses to another classic--“do these jeans make me look fat?” When the question is “are we (museums) great?” there isn’t an app (unless you count Yelp ratings), but the blog-o-sphere can be a pretty good mirror, if we are willing to look. Todays’ Musing points you to two recent unflattering reflections.

Are museums irrelevant, by internet start-up entrepreneur and homeschool mom Penelope Trunk, might better be titled “are museums lousy places for kids to learn?” Among her zingers served up in the post:
"Mirror Mirror on the Wall" By DarkNBrutal
  • “For today's kids, the museum is an improvement over school, but not over learning at home. Which means that homeschoolers have little use for museums.”
  • “Your kid's passion is probably…not on the list [of what a museum offers]. Any museum is small compared to the world your kid lives in."
  • “Is it more fun to have all the information about velociraptors at your fingertips, in the Internet, or is it more fun to be limited to just what the museum chooses to tell you?”
  • “museums are like school. They give you a choice of what to learn, but it's a very limited choice and it's in a confined space.”

Before you dismiss this criticism—take some time to listen. Whatever Trunk may or may not know about museums, she knows what she, and her sons, like. And read the comments (58 at the time I write), which reflect a balance of parents who agree with her and some (I’m sure this will soothe our egos) who are total museum fans. It is an interesting commentary in general on what people like and don’t like about museums (also, unusually well-written and civil, as internet blog commentary goes). Here is a sampling:
  • “You go once, or maybe twice, for the exhibits; you go repeatedly for the community & for the opportunity to be an insider.”
  • “My kids have both been going to the museums regularly since they were infants. In times of renovation, the temporary storage of a favorite statue once reduced my toddler son to a weeping lump.”
  • “I've brought a lot of kids to a lot of museums and the best way I've found to make the best of it is to have no expectations about what a child will do there or get out of the experience…The biggest problem I have with museums and kids is the rule about not touching anything, though this has changed somewhat with the increase in hands on exhibits.”
  • “…unless you learn visually, you're not going to learn anything new at a museum that you couldn't get for cheaper elsewhere.”
  • “Ok, I went straight to the source. ‘Hey son, do you like museums?’ ‘Yep.’ ‘What about them do you like?’ ‘I like to look at stuff.' And there we go. Mystery solved. :)”
  • “If our kids are on some kind of science kick – STEM, animals, astronomy, whatever – we should be able to connect with an expert or mentor at the science museum to help us educate our kids on the topic. Instead, it’s just a big facility with stuff.”
  • “I think museums have value because they gather interesting adults for my kids to interact with, other people who share a passion for some arcane field of knowledge.”

(As a bonus, the conversation ranges widely over schools, the special attention given to “underserved” kids v. gifted children, and the economic model for museums, including commentary on the Charity Navigator info about the Museum of Discovery and Science in Ft. Lauderdale. People actually read our 990s!)

Now I don’t know Trunk from Adam, but the second post is from someone I know and respect: Rob Walker, whom you might have heard talk at the AAM meeting in Baltimore last year, about his “Significant Objects” project. Rob is a guy who knows the power of objects, and the stories we attach to them, but in “Who Needs Zoos? In Praise of Nature Cams” he argues that “the mediated wild has distinct advantages over, say, physical-world zoos — for animals and for us.” Setting aside the conversation about the other roles zoos play in conservation (research, breeding), Rob’s piece is a fascinating glimpse at the psychology of watching animals, and a meditation on the value of the virtual v. the real (a point Trunk also touched on in her commentary).

So your (somewhat extended) Monday assignment: read, listen, and reflect on what these posts say about our image in society.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Futurist (Thursday?): No Phones at the Pop-up Dinner Table

[Due to the July 4 holiday in the US, Futurist Friday falls on a Thursday this week. Churchy LaFemme would approve.] 

A study by Android last year showed the average user checks their phone about once every seven seconds. When you are trying to relax and spend some quality time with a loved one, can you resist the impulse to pull out your smart phone and peek, just peek, at your email/Twitter stream/Fbook messages/Instagram Feed/etc. etc. etc.? 

The Napkin Table is one piece of low-tech hardware designed to help you do just that. 

Your Futurist Thursday assignment: spend a few minutes to brainstorm ways to "disconnect to reconnect" this summer, Whether you construct your own version of the Napkin Table,  "phone stack"  when you go out to dinner with friends, or just resolve to turn off all digital devices at 10 pm, select a handful of strategies for your personal "digital detox" to deploy in coming months.

You can read more about "Unplugging from a Hyperconnected World," and what this means for museums, in TrendsWatch 2013

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: Pop-Up Produce

Wonder What This Is? #PopUpDesign #Food 
Follow the link in the photo caption to find out more. You can find more glimpses of the future (and links to associated articles) on CFM's Pinterest Boards

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Tangible Things Online: A MOOC about the Study of Stuff

 I’m keeping my eye on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) because they provide a platform through which museums might increase their reach by orders of magnitude. Last year Lisa Mazzola blogged for CFM about MoMA’s dive into the realm of MOOCs with their professional development course for K-12 teachers. Now I’m pleased to share a post by Dr. Sarah Anne Carter, Curator and Director of Research at the Chipstone Foundation, telling us about Harvard’s newly launched MOOC that draws heavily on museum resources, exploring how digital engagement can lead people to a closer examination of physical objects.

“Art” is typically presented in art museums, “cultural artifacts” in anthropology museums, and “specimens” in science museums. These categories appear simple and straightforward, but the things in them rarely are. The Tangible Things project, drawn from Harvard University’s unparalleled museum and library collections, challenges these facile, historic categorizations. It starts from the premise that careful attention to almost any material thing can open up a wide variety of interdisciplinary questions. Most material things—both inside and outside of museum collections—are best understood from interdisciplinary perspectives, as objects with social, cultural, aesthetic, economic, biological, chemical, and even spiritual meanings. The chair you are sitting in isn’t ever just a chair.

Through a decade of Harvard University seminars team-taught by Laurel Ulrich and Ivan Gaskell (now of the Bard Graduate Center), a university-wide exhibition I organized with Ulrich, Gaskell, and Sara Schechner, two large team-taught undergraduate lecture courses, and a forthcoming book co-authored by the entire team the Tangible Things project has explored the interdisciplinary potential of object study and the ways all kinds of material things may be employed to write history. Specific objects become the center of dynamic interdisciplinary stories—stories about love, international politics, racism, colonialism, scientific discovery, war, human rights, friendship, memory and loss.

A floriform Tiffany vase, ca. 1900, on loan from the Harvard Art Museums,
was displayed with The Ware Collection of Glass Models of Plants, better known as the
“Glass Flowers” in the Harvard Museum of Natural History, to investigate the distinctions
and connectionsbetween art and science. Photo by Samantha Van Gerbig
Now, the ongoing Tangible Things MOOC, a massive open online course on HarvardX through EdX that Ulrich and I are team-teaching with help from Gaskell and Schechner, offers new opportunities for expanding the project’s mission and for exploring the meanings of material things and the collections that sort them.

An online course may seem to be a funny place to teach about the tangible, but its tools are well suited to the study of material culture—in some ways better suited to the task than those of traditional classroom or museum teaching. Our MOOC both models and explains how things can become the center of interdisciplinary study. Instead of creating a series of 50-minute, expert-at-the-podium-style lectures we worked with creative HarvardX producer Zachary Davis and a team of talented videographers to craft a series of short documentary-style films focused on key objects and collections set on location in museums and libraries throughout Harvard. Though the numbers have varied throughout the course, over 12,000 students from around the world signed up to learn about Tangible Things online. With this diverse student body we knew we needed materials that could be presented in a straightforward way through videos and also offer students the chance to delve deeper into any topic, whether in physical museum collections or through online resources and additional selected readings.

We organized the course into three broad categories: objects, museum collections, and exhibitions. First, we focused on different kinds of close looking, starting with a fish collected by Louis Agassiz (“Look at the Fish”) located in the Harvard Museum of Natural History, examining a “toga” in the Harvard College Archives (“A Toga in the Archives”) and studying the John Harvard statue (“John Harvard’s Toe”) through close looking in conjunction with historic materials in Houghton Library. In each case the point was not simply to deliver content about these objects. The goal was not to teach students a body of knowledge about material things, but rather ways of thinking about and processing knowledge drawn from the material world. For example, instead of just looking at the “toga,” a student garment from the 1830s, we partnered with a seamstress to recreate it, a process that mandated close looking and helped us understand the garment in new ways.

Tangible Things Teaching Fellow John Bell wearing a recreated “Toga.”

To study museum collections, we first focused on Harvard’s Artemas Ward Museum. We explored the ways house museums blend history and memory through the preservation and presentation of material things (“Hidden in Plain Sight”). Harvard’s own piece of the Philadelphia Commercial Museum is represented in two cabinets created as traveling teaching collections a century ago that reside in the Natural History Museum (“Museum in a Box”). As we looked at the drawer-filled cabinets put together by the Philadelphia Commercial Museum for school children, we challenged our students to think about the seemingly arbitrary categories that the museum employed to sort things into each drawer – from “The Cow” to “Brush Fibers” – and asked our students to create their own “drawers” of objects. In the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (“Whose Collections? Whose Heritage?”), we discussed the acquisition and repatriation of Native American things and the connection between tangible things and cultural patrimony.

After considering specific objects and modes of museum collecting, we turned our attention to display strategies. We asked about how human history may be represented in the Harvard Museum of Natural History (“Animal, Vegetable, Mineral”). We examined an excellent interdisciplinary exhibit on the material history of time created by Tangible Things collaborator Sara Schechner (“Time, and Time Again”). Finally, we imagined the journey of a ca. 1900 Singer sewing machine from a Harvard study to exhibition in a wide range of collections, including Chipstone’s (“Orphan Sewing Machine”). 

The range of videos and supporting materials (including readings and moderated discussions) have allowed us to present specific ways of close looking at individual objects and to think about how museums sort and define the things they collect and display.  We designed several units to move students away from their computer screens (or tablets or smartphones) to apply lessons learned to study the things around them. With students from all over the world, the responses have been fascinating.  After learning about the John Harvard Statue, students shared their experience of monuments in their own communities—the Gloucester, MA Fisherman, a WWI memorial from Burnham, Buckinghamshire in England, a Statue of Prince Leboo at a community college in the Republic of Palau, Dick King on horseback in Durban South Africa… and many more. In another assignment, one student shared her analysis of objects she dug up in her backyard while gardening—from a religious statue to a group of potsherds—another considered the origin of the materials in her smartphone, another created a project devoted to the history of Chinese currency. In these cases, students engaged with things close at hand, regardless of their location.  Not too surprisingly, our global student body also visited a wide range of local museums—from the British Museum and the Rijksmuseum, to an ethnology museum in Japan and a tea museum in India. Our team of experienced teaching fellows helped to moderate these online discussions. We purposefully modeled modes of object engagement that students could apply in their own communities.

The broader Tangible Things project aims to show how nearly any material thing can be the subject interdisciplinary study. Our online course allowed us to apply this principle more widely than an exhibition or traditional course typically makes possible. Our MOOC lets us link the study and interpretation of museum objects to the objects in our students’ everyday lives, and—through online engagement—to explore the many ways those things relate to a wide range of academic fields. Though our content may be delivered online, we hope that at least some of the learning—the close looking, the experimenting, and the questioning—continues to take place through direct contact with material things and in museum galleries around the world.