Monday, March 31, 2014

Monday Musings: Museum as Creative Hotspot

Last Friday I read a thought-provoking post from Jasper Visser about the use of alternative workspaces. "Why not work a couple of days each week from a bar, incubator or creative hotspot?" Jasper asked. "I’m sure you will achieve more, be more creative and probably be on the receiving end of more opportunities."

This reminds me of the Register Citizen Open Newsroom Project in Torrington,Conn.Their Newsroom Café invites readers to interact with journalists at the paper, as well as offering coffee, free wi-fi, a community media lab and featuring an artist-of-the month. The Café not only provides an alt-workplace for community members, it also invites them to contribute to the work of the paper and creates a public interface for journalists.

Which leads me to my brief musing of the day. Flip Jasper's thought: consider the Newsroom Café, and think about how museums might provide workspaces for the public. Not only would it cultivate the image of museums as convivial third place, it would provide a venue for interaction with creative people looking for opportunities to contribute. What if the museum posted its current challenges (strategic, financial, technological, logistic) and invited the peripatetic workers to weigh in? It could lead to some beautiful, and mutually beneficial, relationships. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Futurist Friday: Bossy Wearable Tech

We humans use technology--digital or analog--to outsource our brainwork. Calculators mean we don't have to remember the times table anymore; calendars track our schedules; Diigo means I don't have to remember where I read that dang article (or flip through stacks of file cards). 

Does this outsourcing have limits? Your Futurist Friday assignment: contemplate that question as you watch this video (2.5 min). Can we outsource forethought, compassion, even romance, to a digital device? Do we want to be bossed around by what Rob Walker has dubbed "Nanny Devices?" 

(And, would those flowers mean as much to her if she knew his digital assistant suggested he buy them?)

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Questioning (more) Assumptions

In rereading old posts from the this blog, I was reminded that some things bear repeating. This post, from 2009, makes one such point: always start your planning by identifying what you assume to be true about the future--and then take some time to imagine the opposite. The past five years has solidified my belief that a skeptical approach to museum conventions is vital to the future of our field. So with this post as a refresher, I ask the question again: What basic assumptions underpinning decisions made by your organization, or the field as a whole, bear reexamination in the future?

Questioning Assumptions

originally posted on March 25, 2009

Earlier this month I participated in a very interesting scenario planning exercise at the Smithsonian. The session was led by Peter Schwartz, a board member from the Long Now Foundation, an organization whose mission is “to creatively foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.” Now there is long range planning to aspire to! Guiding us through two days of thought about the future, Peter emphasized that one weakness of scenario planning is people’s tendency to take certain things for granted. This makes it is tremendously important to recognize and question the assumptions we make about our organizations and museums in general.

Since CFM encourages museums to use scenario planning as part of their suite of planning tools, I want to begin an ongoing conversation about what museums often take for granted about their world. Here goes—I’ll start, and you weigh in.

Let’s start with an assumption that museums are already beginning to question:

Everything in the collections stays in the collections
Barring unfortunate circumstances (whale ovaries that prove to be at risk of exploding), material that inconveniently proves to have been illegally expropriated from its country of origin, the need to sell one Dutch master painting to afford an even better one) once an object entered the collections, it used to be presumed it should stay. Forever. The field is already revisiting this issue, if only due to the belated realization that collections storage is both finite and expensive. About seven years ago the Accreditation Commission instigated a national discussion on the need to engage in collections planning--the process of shaping the collection in a coordinated and uniform direction over time to refine and expand the value of the collection in a predetermined way. Now there is wide acceptance that having a collections plan is a best practice, and it is well on its way to evolving into a standard (something all good museums are expected to do.) That may make museums look, and operate, very differently in the future.

Everything that fits the plan goes into the collectionsWhat is the next logical challenge to the collecting paradigm? Perhaps in the future there may be many alternatives to the “permanent” collection owned by and residing in the museum for the indefinite future. Are there collections that museums might consciously acquire for a finite period, and then pass along (into or out of the public domain) when they are no longer of use to their community of users? Might museums increasingly “curate” (identify, track, research, conserve and interpret) material that never enters their collections at all? Which museums like the Richmond History CenterHistoric Annapolis and others already do, in effect, when they make whole neighborhoods extensions of their museums.

Growth is good, necessary and inevitableMuseums can hardly be faulted for embracing this value, which I think underpins the whole American way of life. How many directors and board chairs see the pinnacle of their achievement as being the capital campaign funding the museum’s new building or expansion? This is so ingrained in our thinking that even the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is jumping on the growth wagon, and they have as unimpeachable excuse as a museum ever had for NOT expanding. In fact, they had to go all the way to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts to determine it did not violate their founder’s intent in order to do so. 

For a variety of reasons society as a whole is beginning to question whether growth is good and inevitable, or whether it is even sustainable. Taken to its logical extreme, it is obvious that of course it is not. Any system (ecological, financial or other) has a maximum carrying capacity. Sometimes we find a way to temporarily expand the pie (for example, increasing crop yields by using nitrogen based fertilizers—in essence spending solar energy that had been banked for millions of years as fossil fuels.) But in the end, we reach the limits of these new resources as well. We as a nation are contemplating what our society will look like, post-peak oil production. And this year we are wondering how many of our financial systems were, in effect, Ponzi schemes that created an illusion of sustainable growth. As a species, we need to assess the world’s carrying capacity, and create an economy in equilibrium with basic ecological support systems. As we do so, America, and American museums, will explore the rational limits to our growth and learn what it means to live within a steady-state economy, rather than one premised on unending growth. How do we reward organizations and individuals for sustaining a museum at the same, right size for decades? Or even celebrate a good decision to downsize it in response to changes in the community? Which is a good segue to the next assumption…

Museums as organizations tied to a particular placeOn an historical timescale human populations have always been transient, and in this century the rate of migration may accelerate, driven by ecological, economic and political forces. Museums, anchored to their large, expensive buildings, their historical communities and their sense of identity, traditionally behave as if they are fixed and immovable. How do we reconcile these conflicting behaviors? Will the Detroit Institute of Arts continue to be a bastion of culture in a city that continues to decline in wealth and population? Who will support it? Who will it serve? Can it actually contribute to the revitalization of Detroit, to a scale comparable with its glory days of the auto industry? Does it face a future in which it downsizes to fit the needs and resources of a much reduced city? Or does it pick up stakes and move to a swelling population center that wants and can support an institute of its quality? If the majority of the population of New Orleans relocates to Houston in the next decade, should the New Orleans Museum of Art follow, and in order to continue to serve the community that built it?

Museums will always be tax exempt nonprofits
We are living in a world turned upside-down. Newspapers, in economic freefall, are closely watching their compatriot Mother Jones and considering going non-profit. Now that newspapers' traditional economic model of using advertising revenue to subsidize investigative reporting is busted, they are considering our model—finding people who value a service that provides a general good to society (in this case, acting as a watchdog on business and government)—and asking them to underwrite it. “Why should you support us?” Mother Jones asks. “Because "smart, fearless journalism" keeps people informed–"informed" being pretty much indispensable to a democracy that actually works.” Other services that have traditionally been delivered through nonprofit NGOs are exploring a for-profit business model, finding that it does their good work more effectively. For example, the Africa Netmark regional project teams the nonprofit Academy for Educational Development with the S.C. Johnson Company (a multinational for-profit producer of insect-control products) to distribute pesticide-treated materials to combat malaria. There are already a handful of for-profit museums (the International Spy Museum, the Newport Aquarium, the Museum of Sex.) What can we learn from their economics? What do they do (or not do) differently from nonprofit museums? Might organization, in the future, unbundled “profitable” functions such as exhibits from functions such as collections care, research, conservation that, like investigative reporting, are valued public goods and lodge them in separate organizations?

Your turn! What basic assumptions underpinning decisions made by your organization, or the field as a whole, bear reexamination in the future?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Punking about Museums

The recent “museum blogger” day on Twitter yielded a wealth of recommendations on who to follow on the blogosphere for great content in and around the museum sector. (You can retrieve those recommendations by doing a Twitter search on #museumbloggerday and #museumblogs.) In today’s post, I want to direct your attention to another format. Museopunks is a monthly “podcast for the progressive museum” in which self-proclaimed “Museum GeekSuse Cairns and the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Jeffrey Inscho investigate the fascinating work and personalities in and around the museum sector.  Since April 2013, the pair has explored emergent, boundary-pushing work and ideas. Today Suse shares a bit about the origin and evolution of the podcast.

Suse, what was the inspiration for MuseoPunks?
The idea for the podcast came from Jeff. He’d previously hosted a weekly podcast, talking about art, technology, and museums. The two of us met in late 2012 at the Museum Computer Network conference, and immediately had a good rapport. The early goals were quite small, at least for me… I wanted an excuse to talk to interesting people. It quickly became apparent that there was also potential to help shape practice within the museum sector, and that realisation proved to be quite a watershed moment in terms of thinking about what else the podcast could become. After our second episode, on design and design thinking in museums, I had a number of people mention to me that they’d started introducing design thinking approaches to their work, having first heard about the concept from Museopunks. It was quite meaningful to realise that we could have a real world impact, and reminded me that having a public voice is a powerful thing.

You’re based in New South Wales, Australia, Jeff is in Pittsburgh, PA, and I bet your listenership is global. Do you find the issues you explore are pretty much universal, or do they play out differently in different countries?
It’s funny you should ask that question now, because our March episode is looking at ‘the economics of free’, with Maxwell Anderson (Director, Dallas Museum of Art), and journalist Tyler Green. Coming from Australia, where so many of our institutions are publicly funded, I’ve grown up with free or largely free museums, so I’m more conscious of the gaps between US practice, and funding models in other parts of the world in this episode than in many others. Although I’ve noticed differences between countries before, it was really only planning this episode that I became conscious of the need to ask questions in a way that could be simultaneously specific, and universal, so that our international audiences will still find the topics interesting and useful. Whether we’ve fully solved that problem with this episode, I don’t know, but it’s been useful to identify it as an issue to address in future episodes.

Share a couple of things you have discovered in the course of the podcast that strike you as particularly important for museums to pay attention to.
I have taken away something new from every single interview we’ve done, but I think some of the stand-outs for me have to be those episodes in which guests really address new ways of thinking about acquisitions and collections, like when Paola Antonelli (MoMA) spoke about acquiring the @ symbol, or when Seb Chan and Aaron Cope (Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York) ran us through the thinking around their recent acquisition of Planetary - an iPad app. These discussions have really helped give me insight into different ideas about how museums might need to approach collecting and curating the digital world, particularly when digital is becoming a dimension of everything - inside the museum, and beyond it.

20 years ago, or even 10, you would have had to have tackled these subjects through academic, peer-reviewed journals. How do you think social media have changed the way that ideas are disseminated and discussed in our profession?
Social media platforms make it possible to explore ideas in timely and responsive ways. They can enable different kinds of dialogue and engagement, too, which means they are super useful for encouraging collaborative work and thinking. They can also be very flexible with voice, and range from funny to serious, which I think gives them far more flexibility than does the usual peer review format. It’s probably why I love the podcast format, and blogging too. They offer a very human face to museum work.

That’s not to say they suit all purposes. I value peer-review publications for the type of measured research that they tend to encourage. It’s one reason why I still utilise peer-review platforms for my own work, in complement to social media. One of my favourite quotes is from new media theorist Friedrich Kittler, who writes that “New media do not make old media obsolete; they assign them other places in the system.” It’s a quote I revisit whenever I’m thinking about scholarly and other forms of publishing. It reminds me that different forms of publication necessarily have different purposes and different affordances - and while that the advent of social media and this kind of low-barrier publication creates new conditions for discourse and discussion, that actually enables peer-reviewed publication to come into its own in ways that maybe weren’t possible when it was the default type of publication.  (FYI: right now, Ed Rodley, Rob Stein, and I are conducting an experiment in online discourse and publishing that will hopefully explore and exploit the best of both these types of publishing. Check out Ed’s post on the subject to find out more, before the full project rolls out in April.)

Share a moment from one of your favorite interviews.
In November last year, Jeff and I were lucky enough to receive sponsorship from the Museum Computer Network to attend the MCN2013 conference, and conduct three Museopunks sessions in person, which were filmed by Parce Que Films and then put online. The final session of that series, which looked at how technology is changing the way we interact with the world and each other, tickled an itch for me, since it’s a topic of ongoing personal fascination. We had three super smart guests, all of whom were generous with their thinking and knowledge, and played as much with each other’s questions as the ones that Jeff and I asked, and the chemistry in the room just worked. I still cannot watch or listen to that episode without feeling a sense of enchantment with the conversation.

What have you learned about doing interviews, through producing Museopunks? Any advice for up and coming bloggers and podcasters?
I think the biggest lesson that I’ve learned from both my blog and my podcast is that you can’t anticipate how something will be received until you start actually doing it. Also - it helps to find great partners-in-crime for projects like this. Jeff is such a driving force behind Museopunks, managing all the technical aspects, and bringing such great creative thinking to the project. I don’t think either of us could tackle something like this alone, because it’s hard to sustain the energy when life gets in the way. Finding good people to work with makes a huge difference to generating good (and regular) creative output… Fortunately, there are lots of them in this sector.

What are some issues you want to explore through the podcast in the future?
We actually have quite a long list, from museums and mobile devices through to professional identity online and offline. We try to forward plan our shows in advance, but often find that a pressing or timely issue propels us in another direction, in response. Maybe we’ll even do a show on museum discourse and publishing (social media vs. peer review), based on this interview?

What you about you, readers? Any favourite Museopunks episodes you’d like to share? Any other museum podcasts to recommend? Please weigh in.

Suse and Jeff interviewing guest at MCN for episode 9 
of the podcast: Museums as Digital Citizens

Monday, March 24, 2014

Monday Musing: All the World's a Museum

Due to a technical glitch last week's Dispatches from the Future of Museums is coming out later today. When it does appear in your in-box, take a look at this article:

Gulf Business reports that Dubai's ruler has directed that art museums be included in each of the emirate's metro stations, in order to "inspire and communicate with every employee on his way to work, every student on his way to pursuing education and every tourist visiting Dubai." 

I'm already a fan of museums embedded in the world, particularly the transportation grid. I am fond of hanging out in museums in airports, which Max Anderson has described as "ideal sites for viewing art. Taking museums to where people are lowers psychological as well as economic barriers to entry. Maybe ubiquitous museums will help position museums in popular consciousness as basic amenities available to all, rather than just as destinations or something "I know I ought to enjoy but have never tried." 

Museums in the metro could be the food trucks of the museum world, nurturing curiosity and adventurous taste, priming people to try new things in bricks & mortar restaurants/museums. I hope my Monday Musing prompts one of your own: where would you like to find a mini-museum, a small oasis of art or culture, embedded in your weekly routine?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Futurist Friday: Kamermaker (House Printer)

Technology is disrupting traditional industries left, right and sideways. This week's Futurist Friday assignment asks: how could digital fabrication disrupt the way we design and build cities?

The inventors of Kamermaker (House printer) envision a day when 3-D printing could bring affordable housing to 7 billion people in the world. 

And, in the process, put architecture, design and construction back into the hands of the people it serves, making it personalized and custom-crafted. You can read more about the project here.

Throwback Thursday: TrendsWatches Past

As we have just released TrendsWatch 2014, the obvious candidates for this week's Throwback are the posts in which I introduced the first two editions of the report. I hope you use this opportunity to become acquainted with or revisit our themes for 2012 and 2013. 

Introducing TrendsWatch, Your Digest of the Future
Excerpted from a post published on 3/8/2012. Read the original post here.

After reviewing over seven hundred news items from the past 12 months, seven trends
floated to the top:

  • Crowdsourcing
  • Threats to nonprofit status
  • Mobile, distributed experience
  • New forms of funding (microfunding, crowdfunding)
  • Creating aging
  • Augmented reality
  • Shifts in education

We sought out examples of museums responding creatively to these trends, imagined how the bright or dark futures these trends might create, and asked for advice from a cadre of wise advisors about what museums might do now in order to surf these tides of change.

But I’ve said enough—go read the report! TrendsWatch 2012: Museums and the Pulse of the Future is available as a free download from the CFM website. Please share it with colleagues—debate, discuss, dispute, emend, adapt and apply it to your work.

 This post provides a general update on each of these trends. You can find posts on specific trends using the search function at the top of the blog.

CFM Returns to the Future with TrendsWatch 2013
Excerpted from a post originally published Tuesday, March 12, 2013. Read the original post here 

The Alliance has just released TrendsWatch 2013: Back to the Future, CFM’s second annual watch list of important emergent trends.

If we’re right, and the trends we’ve tagged this year shape the evolution of museums, a museum visit in the future may go something like this:

  • On the way in, a staff member asks if you want to borrow a “digital disconnect” pouch for your mobile device, to help you go offline for a stress-free visit;
  • But you decide to opt for the fully immersive digital experience. You authorize your mobile device to track your progress through the museum, pull information from exhibits as you approach, synch with your bio-monitor wristband to assess your reaction to the experience and suggest what other galleries you might enjoy;
  • Feeling a bit tired, you take a break to visit the museum’s lounge—a popular gathering place for residents of the many “micro-apartment” developments that have popped up in the surrounding neighborhood;
  • In the lounge, you kick back with your tablet to complete an essay you’ve been writing on the current temporary exhibit, which earn credits towards your digital badge in Art History from the museum’s education department;
  • Having submitted the essay, while you finish your latte you bring up the museum’s website to check the dashboard metrics on the teen art lab project you are supporting. You are pleased to see that the museum has documented a decrease in school absenteeism and an increased graduation rate among the teens participants;
  • On the way out you stop at the museum store to pick up a print-on-demand miniature reproduction of your favorite sculpture (having texted your order to the shop’s 3-D printing center on your way through the gallery).
Each of the elements in this story builds on one of the six trends highlighted in the new report—trends that CFM’s staff and advisors believe are highly significant to museums and their communities, based on our scanning and analysis over the past year. For each trend, we provide a brief summary, list examples of how the trend is playing out in the world, comment on the trend’s significance to society and to museums specifically, and suggest ways that museums might respond. There are also copious links to additional readings.

Here are posts with updates on the Internet of Things as well as a specific example of indoor wayfinding, the future of education, and philanthropy.

We continue to monitor the 13 trends identified in the first two editions of the report. I hope you will continue to share examples of how crowdsourcing, pop-up culture, digital detox, threats to nonprofit status and these other drivers of change are playing out in your museum and your community.

Throwback Thursday: Respite, Retreat...and Privacy

In TrendsWatch 2013, we covered the rising dissatisfaction with our always-connected, hyper-digital world, giving birth to a movement dubbed "digital detox." Now, as documented in TrendsWatch 2013, this desire for respite and retreat from the digital realm is reinforced by our increasing discomfort with our surveillance society, and a search for ways to buffer our privacy. I'm writing some new scenarios of potential "museums of the future," shaped by the forces outlined in the new TrendsWatch, but when it comes to privacy, I find that I can pull out and dust off an old favorite. 

Museum Design 2034: Respite and Retreat

Originally published on April 12, 2010. 

The Ransolm Museum of Art in Los Angeles provides a jarring contrast to the bustling city outside its doors. After passing through the four acre “buffer garden” (which conceals advanced sound baffle devices that block 90% of the noise from surrounding streets) visitors are required to check all non-medical electronic devices at the museum’s door. Visitors using technologically based accessibility-enhancement devices such as EnhancedSight and EchoLocator are encouraged, but not required to forgo these devices as well. In fact, smuggling in an earphone bud or cloudlink device won’t do you any good, because the museum’s walls are engineered to block all electronic signals from outside.

Once inside, the Ransolm’s exhibits are a throwback to a bygone era. There is one set of labels (print), rather than the abundance choice of interpretive “threads” museum-goers are used to selecting using portable interfaces. They don’t offer recorded audio tours—not even old-fashion cassette tape packs (though this was suggested by one board member, who waggishly contended it would be retro enough to fit the museum’s low-tech ethos.) Visitors requesting audio commentary are personally escorted by a staff member who obligingly reads the label, providing translation as appropriate, or describes the painting or sculpture in question.

In contrast with the replicas and holographic projections used by many museums today (which according to the American Association of Museums, comprise an average of 20% of the material on display in a typical art museum) all the objects at the Ransolm are “real” and genuine. Their conservators even follow the quaint (and many would argue out-dated) convention of carrying out repairs in a way that renders them distinct and identifiable.

This does not mean the museum is non-interactive. Sketching and (old-fashioned mechanical) photography are encouraged. Over a dozen “appreciation” groups have regularly scheduled meetings in the museum to discuss exhibitions or individual works of art. The museum’s “contemplation rooms” are particularly popular—here a visitor (after browsing the collections via the web, from home) can book time, unobtrusively escorted by a staff member, to sit and examine a work selected from the collection for up to an hour.

The museum has mined a rich source of revenue via its corporate retreats, enabling companies to rent the museum after hours or on Mondays for staff “personal renewal” time, or for “single tasking” sessions in the museums meeting rooms and auditorium. (Which has excellent acoustics despite the absence of electronic speakers. Of course, computer projection is not available.)

In a 2033 poll by the Los Angeles Times WebNews service, LA residents voted the Ransolm Museum the “Best Secret City Treasure.” This despite the fact that it receives over 60,000 visits a year (which is above the national average for an art museum of its size.) At peak hours you may be sharing the museum with 300 other people—but it would be difficult to tell that as you enjoy the quiet and peace of its galleries.


Update: I can think of some enhancements to the Ransolm, given my last few years of reading. I think people will leave their cars at a remote lot (or better yet, be dropped off by self-driving cars), and transported to the museum by a variety of human powered, whimsical conveyances (a la the "Happening Couch" that made an appearence at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History). The museum gift store will sell privacy-enhancing fashion by Adam Harvey and his disciples. The most popular time to visit the museum will be "Meditation Mondays," when complete silence is observed. Pretty cool, eh?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

TrendsWatch 2014

Third time is charming, right? Hope so, as I’m very pleased to share with you CFM’s third annual forecasting report—TrendsWatch 2014. After posting printed headlines from a year’s worth of stories from Dispatches from the Future of Museums on my wall and shuffling them around, the following six trends emerged from the noise:

For Profit for Good. One of our 2012 trends—NPO No’ Mo’—explored the erosion of nonprofit advantages due to the rising popularity of PILOTs (Payments in Lieu of Taxes) and other municipal fees. This year, we explore how social entrepreneurs are pioneering ways of achieving social good while forgoing nonprofit status altogether. How will the success of these mission-driven for-profits shape social and political attitudes towards the nonprofit sector?

Synesthesia. This is really the collision of two trends—the proliferation of technologies that give us new ways to capture and share scent, sound, sight, touch and taste; and the integration of multisensory stimulation into traditional experiences that used to be premised on one main sensory input. There are great examples from across the cultural sector—film, opera, theater and, of course museums—of how organizations are taking advantage of both the new sensory technologies and the popular enthusiasm for synesthetic experiences.

A Geyser of Information. Were you watching when IBM’s “Watson” beat champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter at Jeopardy? That’s the kind of awesome that can happen when advanced analytical computing is combined with “big data”—data sets too large to be crunched with traditional statistical techniques. The tremendous amount of data we, as a species, are generating, combined with emerging tools for making sense of this geyser of information, is creating whole new ways to see the world and predict the future. On a very practical level, it is giving businesses (including museums), powerful ways to assess their operations and impact.

Privacy in a Watchful World. Of course, the flip side of big data is the intrusive and sometimes downright creepy methods being used to collect all that information. As individuals, organizations and as a society we are just beginning to work through appropriate limits on how data is shared and with whom, and who benefits from the resulting value.

What’s Mine is Yours. Have you booked a ride through Uber, Lyft or Sidecar? Scheduled a stay using Airbnb? Arranged for canine care through DogVacay? If so, you are a participant in the “sharing economy”—downplaying ownership in favor of collaborative consumption of resources. The internet is enabling trusted intermediaries to match formerly unused bits of time and resources with frugal consumers. While this undermines many traditional industries, it opens up opportunities for museums to play matchmaker and to practice their own economies of consumption.

Robots! Ok, I admit, I am a robot junky. But, in my defense, the past year has seen an unprecedented rise of robotic innovation and application not only in society as a whole, but in museums specifically. Now we have robots performing conservation assessments, surveying field sites, even trying out for the role of interpreter. And the stories keep coming over the transom—after TrendsWatch went to press, I found out the National Museum of Australia is offering tours of via two telepresence robots, endearingly named Chesster and Kasparov.

As in previous years, the report:
  • explores how each trend is playing out in the world
  • investigates what this means for society and for museums
  • shares examples of how museums are engaging with this trend
  • suggests how museums might respond

A free PDF is available for download from the CFM website. (Apropos of two of our trends—big data and privacy—that version comes with a tracking chip that records when the report is downloaded or printed, helping us build the case to funders regarding its reach).  Soon there will be print copies available through the Alliance Bookstore. We’re hoping the quantity discount for the print version will encourage use of the report as a starting point for discussions with board and staff of museums. Later this year we will release an enhanced digital version that look fabulous on digital devices, and includes videos illustrating the trends.

I’ll be exploring these themes throughout the year here on the Blog—let me know if you are engaged in related work and would like to write a guest post, or to finger a colleague as a potential author. There will also be a Board compiling images and links related to each theme over on the CFM Pinterest page.

And one specific call for assistance: I'm trying to engineer a robot demo at the annual meeting (along the lines of the 3D printing demo we did in Baltimore last year)—if you know of any museum staff, companies or individual robotics enthusiasts who might be willing to help, please drop me a line!

Yours from the future,


Monday, March 17, 2014

Monday Musing: reinventing the "library"

In case this is your first Monday visit to the Blog--"Musings" are my place to share brief, off-the-cuff thoughts about something I have read recently. I set the stopwatch for 15 minutes & jot down a summary of an article stuck in my brain, outlining why I think it's important. In addition to giving me a place to expand a little on the articles I share via Dispatches from the Future of Museums, it hones the way I evaluate articles as I read them. Give it a try yourself, eh? 

I often talk about the need for any industry to know its core business, citing examples of major companies that floundered because they failed that basic test. Kodak tanked because it fixated on film and cameras rather than on helping people make and share memories…so smart phones + online platforms like Instagram and Flickr ate their lunch.  Blockbuster focused on how to rent videos, rather than on how to share content, now they’re dead while I subscribe to Netflix.

This article from last week’s edition of Dispatches: Breaking Out of the Library Mold, in Boston and Beyond caught my interest because it describes the process of libraries (re)discovering their “core business.” If you asked someone, a decade ago, to describe what libraries do, the answer would probably be “they lend books.” Now that simple statement is being both deconstructed and expanded.

“They lend…” As the article notes, libraries are expanding the range of things they share: at the Chicago Public Library's Maker Lab, access to 3-D printers, laser cutters and milling machines. At the Lopez Island Library in Washington State, musical instruments. At the Library Farm in Upstate New York,  "plots of land on which patrons can learn organic growing practices.”

And nowadays “books” are only one of many ways that people access information. Digital content expands the scope of a library’s “shelves,” and libraries are exploring the right balance, for their communities, between digital and print. Many people turn to the library as their only portal to the internet, an essential resource for finding a job or navigating the government regulatory or legal system. The article quotes library futurist Joe Murphy as noting “When I started out in the ’70s, you would walk up to the reference desk and ask a question and I would find an answer. Today it’s the opposite. People turn to librarians to help them sift through the 10 million answers they find on the Internet. We’re more like navigators.”

Other ways cited by the article that libraries are reshaping themselves to fill the needs of new audiences:

  • Becoming more convivial, offering comfy seating spaces, and welcoming food and drink
  • Supporting people’s desire to be creators, as well as consumers, of information
  • Rethinking their traditional architecture, and creating more flexible, outwardly-focused spaces

Does all this sound a teeny bit familiar? The balance between physical and digital content; reshaping public space to be more welcoming; accommodating audience desire to do as well as view; expanding roles from expert to facilitator. As museums deconstruct and expand their traditional missions to “collect, preserve, interpret” how do you see them changing to fit the world?

Friday, March 14, 2014

Futurist Friday: Virtual Reality & the Museum of the Future

The immersive virtual museum experience (at least the visual dimension) is creeping closer and closer. Your Futurist Friday assignment: this 2 min video by Europeana, using Oculus' head-mounted display to tour a 3D model of the fictional "EUseum." 

As Oculus' PR  says:

"Imagine being able to visit the Louvre, the Rijksmuseum and the Guggenheim all in one day! Imagine looking at the world’s most famous masterpieces from your favourite chair in your own home. Imagine being able to look around museums and visit heritage sites that you otherwise might never be able to see because you can’t afford it, or aren’t physically able to travel, or just don’t have the time. Then imagine creating your own museum, populating it with your favourite works of art and sharing your creation with others."

This post on the Europeana Blog riffs on this emerging tech:

"Virtual reality will offer great opportunities for the world of museums, galleries and archives. A first step would be to recreate existing museums online so that people from all over the world could visit them from exactly where they are. And then each of us could curate collections and put them in an environment of our choosing: how about looking at some of Rembrandt’s paintings in one of the workshops he worked in? Or what about a museum in which you could change the entire collection with a press of a button? How about stepping into a painting from Monet and being able to walk around the water-lily pond?" 

Virtual reality glasses such as the Oculus Rift are projected to cost only about $300 when they come out later in 2014, which makes them more affordable than, say, Google Glass. On the other hand, @nhoneysett tweeted that using this head set made him queasy, so maybe the technology still needs a little tweaking. Meanwhile, there are always airsickness bags. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Throwback Thursday: When Your Collection has More Twitter Followers Than You Do

Today I reprise one of my all-time favorite posts. Working at the Alliance gives me the opportunity to interview all sorts of interesting folk--Neil deGrasse Tyson, Rob Walker--rock stars all! But none are dearer to my heart than the Field Museum of Natural History's Sue the T-Rex and the Australian Museum's Blobby the Blobfish. Blobby has gone on hiatus (a little digital detox, eh Blobby?) but Sue is still tweeting up a storm as Specimen FMNH PR2081. Meanwhile they have been joined by a plethora of collections spokes-specimens. For some reason, mummies seem to take naturally to Twitter: there is the Kelsey Museum's Mummy Djehutymose (@Djehutymose), the Kalamazoo Valley Museum's @KVMMUMMY, the Lousiana Art & Science Museum's @LASMmummy and Tulane University's @MummyDjedi. (@MummieFerentill tweets in Italian.) Then there is the National Postal Museum's Owney the Dog (@OWNEYtheDOG). (If you want to know why a postal museum has a taxidermied dog...well you can go suss that out for yourself.) I am especially fond of the Johannesburg Zoo's internet-connected live-tweeting badger  (@zootweetslive), who is, to my knowledge, the first museum object connected to the internet of things. Please correct me if I am wrong!

Natural History Specimens as Social Media Celebrities

Originally published Thursday, September 23, 2010

Mr. Blobby photo ©NORFANZ Founding Parties
Dear Mr. Blobby and Sue,

Thank you very much for agreeing to be interviewed by the Center for the Future of Museums. In coming decades, museum objects may frequently speak for themselves, as well as for their museums, so you two are pioneers of things to come. I hope that by sharing your thoughts, you will help your colleagues in other museums consider whether a career in social media is appropriate for their future. With that in mind, I invite you to address the following questions:

What prompted you to venture into the world of social media? Was it a top-down initiative at your museum, or was did it emerge from the bottom up?

(Blobby) I happened to get onto social media by accident. I starred in a popular Australian television show about advertising called The Gruen Transfer. The brief to advertising agencies was to ‘sell the unsellable’, in this case what they purported was my ugliness. Just to prove them wrong I set myself up a Facebook Fan page the very next day and within one week had 500 people loving me! Overall, I guess you could say ours was a bottom-up initiative in all sense of the word!

(SUE) When you're fossilized in rock for millions and millions of years you have a pretty unique opportunity to form lots of opinions, but you have no one to share them with. The nice thing about social media is I can stay right where I'm at and thrust my opinions upon the world.

What advice would you give to museums that are seeking potential social media celebrities from amongst their collections? What qualities make for an effective museum spokespecimen?

(Blobby) My advent into social media was serendipitous and I think it is best this way rather than being too ‘try-hard’. That said, one of our Indigenous educators was so taken with the idea of me that she established Gagali the Gecko on Facebook as a way to connect with Indigenous people/community organisations and discuss Indigenous issues and collections. So far Gagali is going rather well! I guess the lesson here is to choose something that resonates with audiences, is a bit quirky and to definitely have a staff champion behind you.

(SUE) I think you need someone able to bite someone in half. People tend to listen to that person.

As accessioned collections, I imagine you usually work most closely with curators and collections managers. But now you’ve ventured into territory normally controlled by public relations staff. Tell me about how this works at your museum. How much independence do you have in your messaging? Do you pretty much toe the official museum line, or do you call it like you see it? (Sorry if that is insensitive, Blobby—I’m not sure you have toes…)

(Mr. Blobby) That’s OK Elizabeth. Not only do I not have toes I don’t have hands either so answering your questions has been a challenge! Now, at the Australian Museum we are a bit different. For starters we don’t have traditional curators but we do have Collection Managers. We also have staff who take responsibility for social media across the Museum – it isn’t the gamut of the PR/Marketing people. So I am completely independent, although I do subscribe to one rule – don’t say or do anything I would not like to see as a headline in the Sydney Morning Herald (or, in your case, The Washington Post!).

(SUE) Well, I have a brain the size of a cantaloupe, so I do need a proofreader from time to time. Mostly I just use common sense (No one likes a petty dinosaur who's negative all the time) but other than that...have you met the nice ladies from our public relations department? I doubt any of them even OWN a tranq gun. Who's going to tell a two-story tall horror lizard from Earth's brutal past what to do? As to independence, I see it like this: The Field Museum is the greatest place on the face of the planet and everyone should get down here and give me a high five. Also, they keep me well stocked in meat, and I don't want to spoil that gravy train.

You two could hardly be more different. For example: Blobby has no bones while you, Sue, are a big-boned, gal. (All bone, as a matter of fact.) How important do you think is for museum celebrities to have a spine? Might being spineless, in fact, make you more flexible in maneuvering through the complex world of public relations? 

(Blobby) I know I don’t have a spine, but I do believe strongly in speaking my mind, taking a stand when need be and generally being an all-round jolly and informative fellow. And, yes, flexibility is the key!

(SUE) Are you making fun of my back injuries? I lived to be pretty old for a T.rex, you know. You get bumped around and jostled. And don't get me started on T.rex mating...

Has the museum set goals for your work? What is considered “success” and how do you measure it?
(SUE) I think "Don't devour museum visitors" was pretty much the only rule they gave me. Some days I'm successful. Some days I'm... less than successful.

(Blobby) Early on the Museum decided that I would be on Facebook for around two months (the same time my physical self was on display in the Museum’s College Street site). How were we to know the love that fans developed for a blobfish such as I? Now success factors are how many more fans I can engage and how I can continue to–reinvent myself and chat to fans about anything. We do have some big plans for the next few months…

What are your favorite things to discuss via your respective social media, and why?
(SUE) Dinosaur news, science-y things, stuff going on around the museum, meat, Chicago stuff, Star Wars, velociraptor hatin', the weather, sports, video games, chasing Jeff Goldblum in a speeding jeep in the rain...

(Blobby) Well, I am considered not only a scientific icon but somewhat of a popular culture commentator and raconteur. Not only did I predict the winner of the FIFA World Cup, I successfully predicted the winner of Australian Master Chef, participated in discussions about movies and TV, as well as other such cerebral worldly matters. I also attended the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes– Australia’s most glamorous and prestigious science awards event and reported live from the red carpet which was fun and informative!

What is the strangest question you've ever received? (Or, the oddest thing you've overheard in the museum)

(Blobby) I have someone continually asking me what I eat. Coz I’m a shy fellow, not much is known about me so I haven’t been able to answer that. Oh, the other comment was that I looked like a person someone once dated and I have had several marriage proposals…

(SUE) Someone asked me if I'd ever go vegetarian. THESE TEETH ARE NOT MADE FOR HUMMUS!

Just for HUMANS, eh? So Blobby and Sue, If Hollywood made a movie about you, who would play you and why?

(Blobby) Well, Elizabeth that was such a great question I just had to put it out to my fans. The variety of suggestions were terrific and some that resonated with me were Jimmy Durante (for obvious reasons), Orson Welles, Benny Hill, Brad Pitt and Ed Norton. However, who did I choose? Well, it just had to be Jack Black – an actor with a great sense of humour and comic timing, yet with an underlying manic, chaotic and cheeky personality somewhat like myself.

(SUE) Lindsay Lohan. She could use the work. I'm generous that way.

Let’s take it to the mat, here. Which of you is more charismatic, and why?

(Blobby) I think we both have our charismatic features. While I could never compete with such a magnificent creature as a T-Rex, the nature of my looks and personality shine through the so-called ugliness I believe. Like Sue, I am also here for the long haul and have important messages to send about biodiversity and conservation, as well as having a jolly old time!

(SUE) Let's put it this way... kids don't go to bed wearing blobfish pajamas in blobfish sheets after being read a story about blobfish.

Well thank you for your time, Mr. Blobby and Ms. Sue. You are truly role models for museum specimens across the globe, giving voice to the (usually) voiceless. I hope this interview encourages yet more people to follow you on your respective media.

Gentle Readers, does your museum have a spokespecimen, and if so, who is it and what social medium do they inhabit? Help me compile a list…

And if you happened to know the Great Blue Whale who tweets, poetically albeit unofficially, from the American Museum of Natural History, please broker an introduction!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: The Mobile Town Square

Intrigued? Read more here.

You can follow this and other images of the future back to their source from the CFM Pinterest Boards.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Teaching Economics at the Museum

Sometimes I read a news item so great I have to track down the person at the heart of the story, and beg for more details. Here’s an example: an article on Magnapubs entitled Museum Exhibits and Macroeconomics? In it, professor Satarupa Das of Montgomery College wrote about her use of an exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History in an introductory economics course. And it wasn’t just an ancillary field trip--the museum component counted for 25% of the course grade! Graduate students in fields like paleontology or art history regularly use museum collections to support their work. But economics? I was particularly intrigued as this example seems to support the approach of proponents of STEAM education, who contend that cross-disciplinary exploration can support almost any academic pursuit. So I wrote to Dr. Das to invite her to say more.

Can college professors of economics use museums in their classrooms?  Is there a pedagogical connection between museums and classrooms? My answer is an emphatic “yes!” to both questions.

Educators are interested in finding active or experiential learning methods to engage students in classroom. Active or experiential learning can involve a wide range of activities. It can be as simple as having classroom discussions with students participating or, it can be as complex as students doing computer run experiments with investment funds or doing service in the community.  In very simple terms, experiential learning involves performing an activity, critically reflecting on it and then drawing some analyses from it. Visiting museums can be a form of experiential learning as well. I learned it for the first time in 2011 when I won a Smithsonian Faculty Fellowship resulting from a partnership of the Paul Peck Institute at Montgomery College and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C. 

Patent Model of a Mousetrap
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Gift of Alan and Ann Rothschild
My first encounter with experiential learning at the museum happened in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.  Since the theme of the fellowship was “The Politics of Identity: Race in 21st Century America” and fellows were responsible for finding an exhibit that could be linked to one of their courses, I decided to integrate Macroeconomics with the exhibit titled “RACE – Are We So Different?” at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. )A concise version of my experience of using Race exhibit is published in The Teaching Professor (October, 2012). The project inspired me so much, that even after the end of the fellowship, I continued to use a Smithsonian exhibit with my classes.  After the completion of the fellowship, I used “Inventing a Better Mousetrap: Patent Models from the Rothschild Collection” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum with my Microeconomics class for four semesters.

As an instructor I have derived substantial benefits from these implementations. The museum integration projects allowed me to move away from the lecture mode of teaching and encouraged me to design new types of assignments.  These assignments required students to display command of existing knowledge, evaluate and synthesize existing knowledge, do group work and presentations. Secondly, this new pedagogy invigorated me. I am always searching for ways to keep my teaching fresh.  I always try to convey to my students that economics is not just a list of concepts.  The museum exhibits gave me a tool that allowed me to provide students with contexts to understand economic concepts and make them interesting. The opportunity to use this tool re-energized me.

The projects benefited students as well. First, the students appreciated the social learning experience outside the classroom and the change of pace that museum projects provided.  Students interacted socially amongst themselves during the visits. Second, the project enhanced student engagement with the content. The way I had structured the pre-visit and post-visit readings, discussions, actual visit to the museum, assignments all allowed students to have in-depth coverage for certain topics.

Why don’t more professors then integrate classroom teaching with museum exhibits and derive these obvious gains?  I think the answer in economics profession is that many economists are not aware of such integration. Traditional teachers rely on the lecture mode of teaching and their toolkit of active learning strategies does not include well-structured museum visits. Only a recent paper by Watts and Christopher (2012) shows some serious attempt to bring museum artwork into economics teaching at the undergraduate level. The paper lists a series of fifty paintings and provides a set of economic concepts/issues associated with each painting.

However, more can be done.  The Patent Models Exhibit is a wonderful example where history of patents, technological innovation and some discussion on economic growth can be tied in with the visit to this exhibit.  I had also used the online exhibit of the depression era art “1934: New Deal for Artists” to stimulate classroom discussion.  This exhibit included paintings by artists who were employed under Public Works of Art Project—the first federal government program to support art. Looking at these paintings invoked discussion on unemployment (cyclical and structural) and the Great Depression. With appropriate readings and assignments, this exhibit can be a full-fledged tool in an economics classroom.

However, the Smithsonian Institution is not the only institute that can be integrated with classrooms. Instructors can use any local resource for experiential learning: state or local museums (mining museums, whaling museums, presidential libraries, etc.), historical sites or living history museums (Ellis Island Museum, Plymouth Plantation, Colonial Williamsburg, Grand Portage, etc.). Any lighthouse museum is especially fascinating to me.  I can think of ways to integrate a visit to a lighthouse museum with discussion of private and public goods.  The point is there are many ways to integrate museum exhibits with classroom teaching. More work such as mine will expose others in the profession to explore and use this novel method of teaching economics.

Another reason economists have not used museums with their classrooms could be because this process of integrating museums with exhibits requires substantial time commitment from professors and many professors who are already overworked cannot pick up additional time-consuming assignments. For this reason, academic institutions and departments need to find incentive mechanisms (e.g., giving release time from another course, a reward or recognition for doing innovative work) to encourage professors to take up this approach to teaching.

Museums also need to do outreach work in their community. Museum researchers have long found a satisfying cognitive component to museum visits (Doering, 1999) but they need to take proactive steps so that academic institutions and educators can both be aware of such cognitive benefit and build strong partnerships for mutual gain.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Futurist Friday: the future, as foretold in the past

Italian information visualization designer Giorgia Lupi created a fabulous "map of time" for Brain Pickings, showing future events as predicted by famous novels. It includes a breakdown of the forecasts in these works of fictions into a kind of STEEP framework: environmental, sociological, travel-adventure, technological, scientific and political.  Besides being a beautiful and informative graphic (Edward Tufte would approve), it's a good way to add too your science fiction/futurist reading list.

Double click to enlarge image, or follow the link in the caption to read the original post (really, it's worth it).

A Visual Timeline of the Future Based on Famous Fiction

Key to the Time Map

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Revisiting the future workforce

This week's Dispatches from the Future of Museums  features a story about a report from the Labor Department that shows the rate of volunteerism in the U.S,. is the lowest it has been in a decade. The biggest declines are among those with bachelor's degrees, and people between the ages of 55- to 64-years-old. I'm betting a large proportion of museum volunteers fall into one or both of those categories. This lead me to pull out and dust off a post from 2011 on trends shaping the museum workforce, the role of volunteers and the ratio of paid to unpaid staff in the future. The original post generated some lively commentary. I hope that the Labor Dept. study, casting the size of the volunteer workforce into question, will restart the discussion about the "ideal" proportion of volunteer staff. Please weigh into the comments section, below!

Questioning Assumptions: The Ideal Employee:Volunteer Ratio

Originally published November 8, 2011

Today’s thought experiment: what if, in the future, museums asked not “how many volunteers do we need” but rather “how can we structure our operations to engage as many volunteers as possible in meaningful work?”

Volunteers are already essential to the work of museums. Typically, volunteers outnumber paid staff 6:1. In history museums that ratio climbs to 9:1, and in museums with budgets under a quarter million it soars to 18:1*.

Historically this arrangement has been driven mostly by utility: museums don’t have enough money to hire all the staff they need. As it is, salaries constitute about half of the typical operating budget.

Volunteers aren’t free, mind you. A good volunteer program needs policies, procedures, background checks, training and supervision (often provided by a paid staff member dedicated to volunteers). And the more volunteers a museum has, the greater the costs. This is one reason that museums tend towards efficiency in volunteer recruitment—using just enough free help to get the job done.

But the spin-off value of volunteers, over and above just getting the work done, can be extraordinary. Here are three compelling reasons the museum of the future might structure its work around volunteers:

1) “MyCulture”—the increasing desire of people to do as well as view, to be actively engaged with the museum rather than just being passive consumers of content. The more meaningful this participation is, the more “real” the engagement, the more compelling the experience. Thirty years ago an edgy “interactive” experience at a museum meant lifting a flap to read a label. Now it might mean providing the content for an exhibit. Volunteering is the ultimate participatory experience.

2) The education revolution. Reformers envisioning the future of educationemphasize that the new educational paradigm will provide self-directed learners with the opportunity to do real work and supplement or replace standardized tests with portfolios of meaningful accomplishments. The Institute for the Future’s Jamais Cascio acts out this scenario here, demonstrating that one crucial role of learning agents (educators of the future) will be matching learners up with real-world projects that support their educational goals. Projects like ArtLab+ at the Hirshhorn Museum already support students creating exhibit content—can such integrated learning-work be a normal aspect of every museum? Volunteering can be the ultimate educational experience.

3) Hearts and minds. Museums are threatened by the perception that they serve primarily “the 1%” (to use OWS jargon)—the wealthy, educated elite who frankly are the ones best able, right now, to fund museums. This, in turn, could create a spiral in which museums, by serving the interests of the few, become disconnected from the many and are increasingly seen as private, rather than public, goods and unworthy ofpublic tax support. Can we counterbalance this by fostering stronger practical and emotional ties with large numbers of people, making them see museums as “their place?” Nina Simon has written about the power of museums creating the feeling that people have access to a secret, exclusive place. Volunteering is the ultimate “insider” experience.

How would museums have to change to radically increase their use of volunteers? Technology is vastly expanding the ways that museums can provide volunteer opportunities as people can contribute over the Web, tagging, organizing,transcribing and researching digital data.  However, nothing will ever replace the thrill of working in a physical (often beautiful) space with real objects.

Unfortunately, museums often aren’t structured to accommodate the diversity of people who would like to volunteer in physical museum. People with nine-to-five jobs might jump at the chance to do free work if only the museum could accommodate them in the evening (which some, but far from all, museums do.) As it happens, many museums are experimenting with alternate hours anyway, as they discover that visitors might like to come at 6 or 9 p.m., or 1 a.m., rather than during banker’s hours.

A recent paper from the Arts Consulting Group points out the vast potential for recruiting more volunteers to the work of museums. But they also note that the volunteers of the present (much less the future) have high expectations. They want support, rather than supervision, and they want a large degree of autonomy. Staff positions would have to be re-tooled to meet these expectations, with training, supporting and coordinating the work of volunteers playing a greater role in every staff member’s work.

Volunteerism is not without negative side effects. The huge number of people eager to work in museums in a paid or unpaid capacity probably contributes to the relatively low pay of the profession. Museum studies graduates already bitterly resent the fact that the entry path to paid professional positions has become the unpaid internship—they leave school with significant educational debt only to find they are expected to volunteer to be competitive. But really, aren’t there worse things in the world than having lots of people so interested in what your museum does that they are eager to donate their time, attention and skills?

So maybe in the future the ratio of volunteers to paid staff will be more like 25:1, 50:1, even 100:1. Do you think that future lies somewhere in the Cone of Plausibility? Is it a desirable future and, if so, how do museums need to shift course to get there? Please weigh in.