Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Building a National, Distributed Museum

It sometimes seems like every new museum with national ambitions wants to be located in DC. Near, if not on, the National Mall. This despite the difficulty of succeeding in the shadow of the fabulous, free Smithsonian museums (a challenge that contributed to the demise of the Corcoran Gallery, and may be a factor in the current troubles of the Newseum). Today on the Blog, Elizabeth Williams and Tracey Mitchell tell us about an alternative approach to building a national museum through creating outposts across the country, each tailored to local conditions. Liz is a founder and President & CEO of the National Food & Beverage Foundation. Tracey is the director of the Pacific Food & Beverage Museum in Los Angeles, California.

Getting started in any new endeavor is always a matter of appropriate capitalization and a realistic plan. And of course a dose of imaginative megalomania, bubbling gently below the surface. But raising the capital for a new museum can be an exercise in chasing your tail – by the time you reach your fundraising goal, the cost of the project has risen by 10% or more, making it impossible to begin. When the National Food & Beverage Foundation (NatFAB) was formed in 2004, we were an organization trying to create a new museum without having agreed on exactly what form it would take. We were also beginning without an angel donor or a governmental agency behind us. After mounting a few pop-up exhibits, on a scale that we thought manageable, we opened the Southern Food & Beverage Museum in 2008 as a small regional museum about food and beverages in a mall in New Orleans. That space served as our incubator for five years.

Gradually we began to deepen and broaden our collection, our exhibits, and even our resources. In 2013 we moved into our current home, a larger building that gives us space for an integrated restaurant and bar, as well as a demonstration kitchen. We are very fortunate, but we have grown slowly and gradually. We did not raise enough money to be a large organization on our first day.

Southern Museum of Food and Beverage, interior

We found that people from outside of the geographic region covered by SoFAB, also have a desire to have their food and drinkways represented in a museum. So we began to conceive of a network of regional food and drink museums linked together around the country. Together they would form a national museum, although not one under one roof in one place. We plan to build this network using our proven strategy of starting small and growing organically. Our first step in this direction will take place in Los Angeles, where the NatFAB is launching the Pacific Food & Beverage Museum. PacFAB will become the second star in what we hope will become a growing constellation of museums that taken together will form a single American food and beverage museum.

Distributing a food and drink museum via multiple locations is an intuitive concept; identity and place are at the heart of our business model, and will determine the form and support of each location. In Los Angeles, on the eve of opening in our newly acquired location, we are pausing to reflect on who we are and how we operate. Our LA programming so far has consisted of pop-up events at various locations, but our constituents—home cooks, consumers, agricultural business, large and local, food industry proponents, restaurateurs, chefs, bartenders, and grocers—don’t seem to mind. They have a sense of ownership in our work. We’ve been able to evoke a sense of home and celebration engaging people through their senses, introducing them to history, science, and cuisines in a way that makes it immediately present, even if they have to do a bit of traveling around town to see our exhibits. 

NatFAB provided the start-up funding for our west coast location, but now PacFAB has formed its own subsidiary organization and is conducting its own fundraising. Currently, the funding is through private funders who are involved in the food industry, such as restaurateurs, chefs, and investors in food concerns. In this region, growers’ influences reach beyond the local to global, and we hope to bridge borders and approach supporters in countries where imports and businesses are who have an impact on cuisines and culture here on the West Coast. Historically, there have been some interesting connections involving food and beverages between West Coast and Peru, for instance. Some of these connections are obvious, like Mexico and Southern California with Sonoran food. The history of cuisine in this area crosses the abstractions of political borders, so what we will be offering from PacFAB pertains to the Pacific region as a whole and not just the Pacific coast of the United States. We also get a financial boost from the fact that the Pacific and Southern outposts of the Food and Beverage Museum can share back-of-house services, such as accounting, marketing, and technology, 

Always fascinated by the way the lure of nutmeg and peppercorns motivated the exploration of the world, Liz Williams was lucky to be born into a family of Sicilian heritage in New Orleans. She grew up eating in two great food traditions.  She is a founder and President & CEO of the National Food & Beverage Foundation, which includes that Southern Food & Beverage Museum, the Museum of the American Cocktail, the Boyd Library . She coauthored with Stephanie Jane Carter, The Encyclopedia of Law and Food. In 2013 AltaMira published New Orleans: A Food Biography. In 2016 her book, co-authored with Chris McMillian, Lift Your Spirits, was published by LSU Press.


Director of the Pacific Food & Beverage Museum in Los Angeles, California, Tracey Mitchell, is a native of New Orleans. Having grown up on Julia Child’s cooking shows, her mother imparted her love of cooking and food.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Connected Museum of 2040

I hope you've had a chance to read your print copy of Museum 2040, or to download a digital copy. If you’re a little confused about why the magazine is set in the future, read my introduction to this special issue. As I noted in that post, one of the hardest things to project is the rate of adoption of a given technology. (Roy Amara at the Institute of the Future encapsulated this truth in Amara’s Law, which states that we tend to overestimate the impact of new technology in the short term, underestimate it in the long term.) Today Tiffany Fredette, offline marketing and graphics specialist at Displays2go, offers her thoughts on how far some relatively new technologies will have evolved in by the year 2040. Displays2go is one of the advertisers supporting this special issue of Museum magazine.

In the year 2040, “the internet of things” will no longer be a talking point—this technological network will practically be interlaced with our DNA. Trillions of connected devices will be transmitting and gathering data seamlessly behind the scenes. Augmented and virtual reality will be a part of everyday life, not just something to experience via a cool gadget select friends or relatives may have. Together, these advances will transform what it means to “visit” a museum.

Even before you enter a museum or gallery, your devices will be gathering data based on your conversations at home. When you remark to your partner, “We should really take the kids to the Museum of Science,” your personal artificial intelligence assistant will start checking calendars, schedules, modes of transportation, and the interests of your family members. Knowing that Tommy loves dinosaurs, it will notice the upcoming opening of a new fossil exhibit. It will scan for days when you have no meetings scheduled for work, and cross check traffic projections. By the time you ask, “When’s a good time to go to the Museum of Science?”  it will promptly reply “Friday, the 24th of next month, at 2 pm.”

Connected devices will be directly integrated into the fabric of museums and exhibits of every kind. When patrons walk through the doors with their own connected devices, the transfer of information will happen unobtrusively.  Museums will use the collected data to personalize the experience of any patron that visits for a tour. Don’t like to read the labels? No problem – an audio clip will play as you stop in front of the artwork. Not sure of the time period in which the work was made? Simply look at the art and ask, “When’s this from?” aloud—the audio will play automatically. Want to experience a museum visit the ‘old-fashioned way’, i.e. a very basic walking tour? Then that’s what will be offered to you, because the museum will have saved your preferences from previous visits.  

How will augmented and virtual reality come into play? Of course people will still make traditional trips to a museum. But what if you wanted to visit, without physically going anywhere? Those same connected devices will be your guide and mode of “transportation”. By 2040, virtual assistants will be a ubiquitous home appliance. Simply saying “Virtual assistant, bring me to the Max Ernst exhibit at the museum” will transform the space before you with a high-resolution hologram. Or synch with your virtual reality glasses, and you’ll be immersed in the exhibit without having to leave your front door. By 2040, VR may stimulate all five senses. Imagine being able to smell a botanical garden 3,000 miles away!

School field trips to museums will be completely reimagined as well. No need to bus 50 or more students an hour away, wasting gas and spewing hydrocarbons. With virtual reality, teachers can take the children on an adventure without having to leave the school building.  Putting culture and immersive history at students’ fingertips (via haptic gloves!), will enable us to increase the knowledge and appreciation of generations to come.

What will this mean for museums themselves? Will staff be downsized, and some positions become extinct? Perhaps, but new jobs may be created. Will some museums be forced to close? Probably not. The rise of virtual visits will only highlight the multisensory advantages of going to a museum IRL (in real life). Just as the rise of digital retail is leading stores to emphasize the pleasure of actually seeing, feeling, and touching items; museum visits will emphasize on-site experiences. Virtual and augmented reality will represent merely an alternative option. Physical institutions will still appeal to the human element; even as they enhance their exhibits with dynamically interactive, digitally transformed presentations.

Museums and places of culture will always have a place in the world. As with anything, staying ‘up with times’ is the key to their continued success. What will a museum look like in 3010? Now that is beyond my comprehension. What I do know, is that companies like Displays2go are in it for the long term. We’re here to support the needs of the modern museum, and we’ll continue advancing our offering to meet those needs into the future.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Museum 2040: Some Thoughts on the Future from Alberta Museums Association

Meaghan Patterson, CEO, Alberta
Museums Association
I hope Museum 2040 has arrived in your mailbox, or that you have downloaded a digital copy. If you’re a little confused about why the magazine is set in the future, read my introduction to this special issue. As I mention in that post, I am immensely grateful to the advertisers who were willing to play along with this unconventional approach. Some created ads that are, themselves, bits of immersive fiction. Others offered to contribute some content for the blog. Today, Meaghan Patterson offers some thoughts about the future based on her experience as executive director/CEO of the Alberta Museums Association.

Museums just aren’t what they used to be. The past decade has seen a significant shift in the way museums operate within their communities. Our current global reality is one of shifting demographics, increasing environmental worries, rapidly changing technologies, and economic uncertainty. The resiliency and optimism of our museum sector has been put to the test, and these changes have been viewed as challenges and opportunities for learning and for growth. They are opportunities to educate ourselves and our communities while empowering museums by demonstrating the importance of the work that we do. With long term sustainability as the goal, museums have been working to reposition themselves in their communities, collaborate with new partners, seek funding that supports long-term planning, and use a multi-sectoral approach to finding innovative and inclusive solutions.

These changes were met at first with some resistance and some uncertainty, both within and outside our sector. Some museums that rolled up their sleeves and tried to get involved were asked not what they could contribute to the conversation, but why they were at the table in the first place. In Alberta, initiatives such as the Alberta Museum Association’s (AMA) Community Engagement Initiative and Future Coalition Summit helped encourage both museums and their potential community partners to reconsider the role of museums in their communities, and to foster a true understanding of community engagement and social responsibility. Now, empowered with a greater understanding of how those values directly connect to the success and sustainability of our sector, museums are beginning to make proactive changes towards deeper community connections.

Looking forward, it is more important than ever for the museum sector to position itself as vital to the success of communities, and to understand that this repositioning relies directly on the relationships museums have with their larger environment. Museums know that a strong, vibrant future requires a focus on two realities: that museums have a crucial role to play in creating and maintaining healthy, happy, successful communities, and that engaging in socially responsible work is crucial to maintaining relevancy and resiliency in increasingly unstable times. In short, museums are demonstrating and making clear that communities need museums as much as museums need their communities.

In the future, museums will continue to facilitate conversations about issues that matter. They will utilize their position as trusted sources of information by continuing to invest in programs and services that have positive impacts. They will draw on the inspirational and creative work that has been done by other museums. In Alberta, we have shining examples such as the Kerry Wood Nature Centre and Historic Fort Normandeau’s partnership with the Central Alberta Refugees Effort to support and provide services to new Canadians, or the Peace River Museum, Archives, and Mackenzie Centre’s focus on encouraging conversations on mental health and wellness and the lasting impacts of residential schools. The AMA is also an active supporter of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice. Museums will develop and strengthen new partnerships, and demonstrate a commitment towards real change.

Museums and the museum sector will continue to see significant changes going forward, particularly in the next ten years. As museums both large and small continue to enact change and take on these challenges, they will be supported by each other and by their sector, and encouraged to focus on community involvement and support in their long term planning. Our vision for the future is ambitious, but our museums are engaged, resilient, and innovative. Our sector has embraced, adapted to, and learned from challenges, and it has a bright future: one in which museums continue to utilize their diverse skills and their creativity, affect positive change in their communities, and are fully recognized and valued as hubs for growth, empowerment, and learning. #MuseumsDoMore


Tuesday, November 7, 2017

What Can Museums Learn from the Harvard Business School?

 Joy's law: no matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else. (Attributed to Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy.)

I’m pleased to see the registrations rolling in for the working session “Don’t Raid the Cookie Jar: creating early interventions to prevent deaccession crises.” The Alliance is organizing this meeting in partnership with AAMD, AASLH, AAMG and NEMA* to try to create some practical early detection systems and practical intercessions for budding crises. It’s taking place in Cambridge, MA on December 14 and 15, and you can read more about it in this earlier post.

Several people, seeing my social media posts on the convening, have asked me whether it is a Center for the Future of Museums project. It isn’t, at least not directly. The Alliance is tackling this issue to further our strategic focus on thought leadership, and it is true that CFM is the Alliance’s major thought leadership initiative. However, use of funds resulting from the sale of deaccessioned collections isn’t inherently a futurist topic. It is very much a problem arising from inside the museum field, with which we have grappled for decades, though how we resolve the issue may have profound implications for the future of our sector. (More on that in a post to come.)

However, having been asked to help develop the agenda and act as lead moderator, I bring a CFM approach to the endeavor. CFM’s gaze is always directed outside our field, trying to discover what museums might learn from other sectors. Since the meeting is being hosted by the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, I started knocking at digital doors of the Harvard Business School (HBS). Surely, I thought, for-profit companies must on occasion find themselves caught between ethical rocks and financial hard places. My colleagues and I had a number of discussions with various faculty about how they teach related materials, and how this approach might be relevant for museums.
 Nien-hê Hsieh,
assoc professor of business
administration, HBS

As a result, I am enormously pleased to announce that Dr. Nien-hê Hsieh, associate professor of business administration, will join us Thursday morning, setting the stage by leading participants through a case study from the HBS. Professor Hsieh teaches Leadership and Corporate Accountability to first-year MBA students and to Executive Education participants in the Program for Leadership Development. He joined the HBS faculty from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was an associate professor of legal studies and business ethics and served as co-director of the Wharton Ethics Program. Professor Hsieh is well-positioned to help attendees explore real-world strategies for taking considered action when both ethical and financial pressures come to bear.

And that’s a challenge facing our December convening. It’s going to require a massive act of collective will to resist gravitating yet again to a discussion about on ethics, and think instead about practical solutions. But I’m looking forward to trying this approach, especially with the help of one of the “smart people who works for someone else.” (See Joy’s Law, at top.)


*Translation: Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD); American Association for State and Local History (AASLH); Association of Academic Museums and Galleries (AAMG); New England Museum Association (NEMA)