Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Exploring the Sixth Extinction through Immersive Theater

One of the most-read guest posts of 2017 on the CFM Blog sharedt how immersive theater helped one Connecticut museum build new audiences. Since the topic evidently struck a chord with readers, I tuned my radar to find other examples of museum—theater collaborations.Today on the Blog, Maureen Rolla, director of strategic initiatives for the four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, tells us about a recent production that I wish I had seen in person!

Nearly 10 years ago, CFM’s Museums & Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures speculated that the proliferation of interactive digital technologies would ultimately lead audiences “to expect to be part of the narrative experience at museums.” Since then, there’s been much discussion by CFM and others about the growing desire for more participative experiences and museums’ opportunities to incorporate such activities—tools like VR and AR and other enhanced storytelling—to create empathy and meaning.

With those issues at the fore, Carnegie Nexus—an initiative of the four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh—and Bricolage Production Company—named one of “7 Companies Producing Groundbreaking Immersive Theater” by Backstage.com—teamed up to present DODO: The Time Has Come, a world-premiere theatrical experience at Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History.

The Custodian. Photo by
Handerson Gomes
For six weeks this fall, the museums opened their doors after hours to small groups of intrepid adventurers—members of the hitherto secret “National Self-Preservation Society”—whose 90-minute initiation included contemplating artworks in galleries illuminated only by glowing lanterns, helping collections staff prepare scientific specimens, and one-on-one encounters with characters in hidden nooks and crannies, ranging from an attic crawl space to the subbasement. Threaded through the experience were themes of loss and memory. Focusing on the Sixth Extinction, the ongoing extinction event due primarily to human activity, DODO encouraged participants “to ponder the fates not only of lost species, but of lost artists, lost languages, lost songs and poems, and lost ways of life as well.”(Pittsburgh Tatler)

The sold-out run attracted more than 1,700 people, with an additional 180 turning out for a live-streamed Talk Back with the cast, creative team, and museum staff. Post-performance surveys resulted in an impressive 22% response rate, with 61% indicating the production caused them to see the museums in a new light: “This is the most unusual inside view you will ever get of the Carnegie Museums, no matter how many times you have been there—magical.” “Being in the museums after hours literally took my breath away.” One reviewer noted, “After the experience, I feel much more connected to museums now, shaken up by how much life and learning they can facilitate. . . Giving experimental, original performance work a chance to properly develop into something as stunning and grand as DODO is rare.” (No Proscenium)

In the attic.
Photo by Handerson Gomes
From the beginning, both parties were intent on challenging traditional rules of engagement, but doing so—especially in 17-acres of historic buildings filled with priceless artifacts—required an enormous amount of trust and cooperation. During the two-year development process, Bricolage interviewed scores of staff members, immersed themselves in the museums’ stories, and eventually came to know our buildings as well as (or better than) we know them ourselves. We pierced the barrier between “public” and “behind-the-scenes” spaces, not just because it made for great theater, but to offer a tactile experience of the collecting and research activities that are at the heart of museums, yet are so often hidden from view. We treaded the line between fiction and fact, honoring the creators’ imaginative ambitions, while ensuring that information about the collections would be factual.

Choosing the Sixth Extinction as a core theme had special relevance, given our Museum of Natural History’s focus on the Anthropocene, currently in its exhibition We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene, and looking forward to the creation of a new Center for Anthropocene Studies. The open-ended nature of the script purposefully left room for participants’ contributions, inviting them to reflect on their own relationships with nature and responsibilities for safeguarding it. When asked to reflect on what DODO was about, most—not surprisingly—cited themes of “extinction and loss” and “humans’ interconnectedness with the earth and universe.” But many went beyond content to describe the effect the show had on them, suggesting the potential immersive experiences have for driving relevance and impact: “DODO is an ethereal and intimate journey…that calls to question the natural, spiritual, and physical foundations of our world. It will change you.” “This event literally changed the way I think about myself. I was completely emotionally invested.”

In Polar World. Photo by Handerson Gomes
What might we have done differently? Many participants wanted a chance to socialize and compare experiences immediately after the show. There were logistical challenges to making that happen, but we agree it would have enhanced the experience.

Now, just a few weeks after the close of DODO, we’ve started to discuss how the work can influence our museum practice. For example, by incorporating special lighting and sound and creating drama around specific objects; providing exclusivity through special after-hours viewings; offering individualized experiences and storytelling that keeps audiences front-and-center; and increasing access to behind-the-scenes experiences, which proved to be one of the most resonant aspects of the production.

We know other museums are experimenting with immersive theater in their venues, and we’re keen to compare notes and share ideas as our thinking develops.

Maureen Rolla is the director of strategic initiatives for the four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, spearheading projects like Carnegie Nexus that leverage the collective assets of the museums outside disciplinary silos and hierarchical boundaries. Previously, she was deputy director of Carnegie Museum of Art (1999-2013) and administrative director of the Getty Leadership Institute (1992-1999).

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Fostering Truth and Reconciliation One Generation at a Time

In his story for Museum 2040, Omar Eaton-Martinez posits a future in which the United States establishes its own Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to deal with the “atrocities and long-term impact of the genocide of First Nation peoples, enslavement of Africans, and incongruent immigration policies towards non-white peoples.” Futures studies teaches us that every plausible future has a toe hold in the present, so Omar’s story sent me in search of museums already formally involved in truth and reconciliation. Canada created a TRC in 2008 to address the damage inflicted by the Canadian residential schools that systematically separated indigenous children from their families. Cara Krmpotich,  Director and Associate Professor in the Museum Studies program at the Faculty of Information, University of Toronto, has worked extensively with museums engaged in reconciliation work, and in today’s guest post she envisions where that work may lead us by the year 2040.

Just over a generation ago, in 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its final report and Calls to Action in Canada. The truth it brought to light was the history of Indigenous children being taken from their families and placed in Residential Schools with the goal of assimilating them into Euro-Canadian, Christian society. It continues to inspire reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, but less public reconciliations are also happening within Indigenous families and communities. Back then, one of the lead Commissioners of the TRC, Justice Murray Sinclair, suggested that since the residential school experience spanned seven generations, the work of reconciliation would likely take multiple generations as well. Following this advice, our museum started thinking in generations.

Although the TRC focused on Residential Schooling in Canada, it opened a much larger conversation about decolonization. Those of us trained in anthropology and ethnographic museums, thought we had been “decolonizing the museum” for many years prior to the TRC. There was the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in the US, the Assembly of First Nations and Canadian Museums Association Task Force Report in Canada, and constant conversations about collaboration, access, and post-colonialism. But in the wake of the TRC, the sense of power and purpose shifted. Museums were pushed to consider radical alternatives grounded in Indigenous sovereignty.

Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal representatives from 4Rs Youth
Movement present the 4Rs drum made by Nisga'a artist
Mike Dangeli, as an expression of reconciliation at the Truth and
Reconciliation Commission Alberta National Event, March 2014.

At our museum, we chose to listen to one message in particular: Give It All Away and Start Again. In 2016 Lakota artist and professor, Dana Claxton, suggested this action at the spring meeting of the
Canadian Art Museum Directors Organization, and soon after that her fellow artist, Tania Willard, transformed the sentiment into a work of art. Many institutions came up with rationales for why they couldn’t act on this suggestion. Our museum – a municipal museum like many others across the country – decided to dedicate our first generation of reconciliation work to “Giving it All Away.” We are now embarking on our second generation of work, which is to “Start Again,” with the re-creation of collections representing Indigenous peoples, built from scratch with full and informed consent.

Giving It All Away took a lot of time, starting with the effort to rally staff and board members to the cause. A few people resigned over this decision, but at least they didn’t try to stop what we were doing. We took the advice of Indigenous leaders to begin our reconciliation work by starting locally. It took time to earn the trust of Indigenous nations—but trust is at the heart of reconciliation.

The museum suspended its usual exhibition schedule for five years and used its galleries to bring all its Indigenous collections out of storage. Our exhibition budget was repurposed to bring groups from communities in to see the collections and, as Cree and Anishinaabeg Elders and Survivors phrased it, to identify which people belonged to which objects. We listened to the call to reconnect knowledge to place by moving  public and school education programs out of the museum and into the communities. This practice ended up being so successful that it continues to be our main approach today. Museum educators currently run their programs on city streets, in ravines, at the lakeshore, in forests and on farms, and rarely in the museum. The museum’s collections are constantly in contact with the environment, as are ideas and our visitors.

It took twelve more years to give all our Indigenous collections back. Every possible destiny for those objects has been fulfilled. Now we are Starting Again. Our approach for this generation of reconciliation work is to collect through prior, free, informed consent. If donations are offered from non-Indigenous donors, we only accept them with the consent of the individual, family and/or First Nation who belongs with that item. We worry less about ownership and more about accountability, and this is reflected in the terms of our donation agreements. For Indigenous acquisitions, we plan for four generations of accountability between the museum and the individual, family and community, with the provision that after four generations either the item will revert back to the individual, family and community, or we will renew our stewardship by articulating our accountability to each other for the next four generations.

Our plan for the third generation of reconciliation work will require a fundamental rethinking of how our institution is funded. The city agreed to continue operational funding to the museum for a period of 40 years, after which time, we need to propose and justify a new budget model that reflects and enables our new ways of working. We are shifting from five-year strategic plans and ten-year director-led visions, to a museum practice based on twenty-year generations. We are just coming to understand what it means to work in generations, from measuring impact to planning staff positions, from predicting contingencies to maintaining relationships.  

Our fourth generation of reconciliation will be the repatriation of the lands on which the museum sits. For now, we are learning to give away, to give back, without fear and without loss.

And Cara notes:
I’d like to acknowledge Dana Claxton and Tania Willard for bringing their ideas so powerfully into the world; members of our TRC Reading Group Courtney Jung, Melissa Levin, Jennifer Orange, Cheryl Suzack, and Neil Ten Kortenaar; Camille Callison; Lucy Bell, Nika Collison, and Vince Collison; the MMMC group; and colleagues and students at the iSchool. I have done my best to treat the ideas you’ve shared with me with respect. Any misunderstandings or errors are my responsibility.

Cara Krmpotich is Director and Associate Professor in the Museum Studies program at the Faculty of Information, University of Toronto. She teaches and researches in the areas of museum and indigenous relations, critical collections management, cultural property and material culture. Much of her work has been about getting Indigenous material heritage back into the hands of Indigenous peoples. She has worked in museums in the UK and in Canada, is active in the Ontario Museum Association, has written two books, and most recently, worked with Anishinaabeg and Cree seniors in Toronto, learning about their life experiences, collective memory, and urban Indigenous culture, all elicited through handling of collections. You can find her on Twitter @MMStCara

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Numbers Behind Museum 2040

Museum 2040—the current special issue of Museum—adheres pretty closely to the usual format of the magazine. It opens with a letter from the Alliance’s CEO, though in 2040 that CEO is a licensed psychiatrist starting a three-year stint as a “rotator” at AAM. Toward the end readers will find announcements about new jobs, though these include positions such as spiritual services director, poet-in-residence and director of fun. Each issue of Museum is anchored by a By the Numbers column presenting a few key facts and trends about the world and about museums. Realizing this feature could play a vital role in orienting readers to the scenario in which this issue is set, I recruited regular contributor Susie Wilkening, principal of Wilkening Consulting, to paint a numeric picture of this particular version of the future. Today on the blog, Susie shares a bit about what went into finding, or fabricating, realistic and credible projections about the year 2040.

Whenever Elizabeth asks me to think about the future, my first inclination is always to start by looking to the past. In this case, my 2040 “By the Numbers” assignment had me thinking of 1994. I was in college, and had a 486 computer on which I wrote my papers … but I checked my email daily via Georgia Tech’s broadband connection. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The point being, if you had plucked me out of 1994 and put me into 2017, yes, life is different, but we are all humans going through life’s ups and downs, and sustaining our physical lives. My assumption then, for 2040, was the same. Life will be different, yet the same.

Putting together a 2040 edition of “By the Numbers” was fun, daunting, and not that different than creating one for the present. I scanned for ideas, reviewed the issue’s essays and articles, and spent a fair amount of time thinking about the trends I’m seeing in society (and in museums) from my own work.

Thirty-plus ideas later, Elizabeth and I began sifting. The scenario in which Museum 2040 is set reflects a future shaped by current trends—no dire catastrophes, no miraculous good news, just business-as-usual playing out over the next 23 years. For this reason, we tossed out our most pessimistic concepts (such as listing the number of cities submerged by rising sea levels). On the flip-side, since we weren’t being wildly optimistic we had to axe the budget for a new US Department of Arts and Culture. I had thought of highlighting a car museum where you could drive real cars (an anachronism in the 2040 world of autonomous vehicles) but the New York Times kind of beat me to it.

We settled on eight data points from the future that were rooted in today’s reality. Here’s my thinking behind those eight choices:

An aging population. Demographic change was an obvious candidate for inclusion because of its profound effect on society. Racial and ethnic change pervade the 2040 issue in many ways, but the dramatic aging of the population (and practically stagnant population growth for children) wasn’t so obvious in the stories by our authors. I clearly needed to highlight that shift, and went to the US Census Bureau’s population projections to pull “real” numbers. Done.

6,152,440 kWh of energy generated by the 20 largest science centers. I’ll be honest. I had no idea how to make up credible numbers about renewable energy, so I turned to my friend and energy engineer, Jim Guertin, for help. Although we discussed multiple renewable sources, we decided to keep it simple and focus on photovoltaics. Jim then made energy generation estimates (less consumption), and sent me a crazy spreadsheet. I researched how much energy the typical house uses today (as good an estimate as any), and suddenly those 20 science center were powering 569 homes. (This doesn’t even count those other possible renewable sources, or other museums!)

5 extinct species successfully revived by the Zoo of the Long Now. Honestly, I just pulled that straight from the “What’s New” section. And the illustration was a no-brainer. It had to be a dodo!

2,132 museum schools serving more than half a million K-12 students. I give credit to Elizabeth for instigating this statistic. My job was primarily to say “let’s pull back on your lovely yet optimistic number a bit.” We compromised at 2,132.

18 percent increase in percentage of American adults visiting at least one museum per year. The 2017 number for the graph was easy: AAM’s Museums and America 2017 sampling (forthcoming) showed that 33% of Americans had visited a museum in the past year. But 2040? Since just over half of families with young children visit museums today, we thought that was a reasonable stretch goal for the entire population. So, 51% … an increase of 18 percentage points.

Health and wellness: This summer, I had spent a fair amount of time reading reports linking cultural consumption and well-being (you can find my reviews at The Curated Bookshelf). Then three different essays in the issue also focused on this theme. Obviously, this was important, so we devoted three graphics to it:

$425 million in impact investments in museum programs to improve health and wellness outcomes. I assumed Jessica Liu-Rodriguez (Funder Spotlight, page 37) wasn’t alone in wanting to see more health and wellness impact, and came up with a reasonable (though imaginary) 2017 number, plugged it into an inflation calculator, and got $425 million.

1,112 museums operating well-being and cognitive health centers. Given the rather conclusive evidence finding that challenging one’s mind aids cognitive health, the well-being and cognitive health centers were obvious … and 1,112 within the realm of possibility.

But what about health and wellness in daily life? The Newport Cultural Ecosystem (Accreditation Spotlight, page 39) provided a case study of a holistic cultural organization that would likely be at the forefront of health and wellness. Being a small city, it wouldn’t be as challenging to engage the medical community and get measurable results. Thus, 12% of Newport, RI residents receiving a medical prescription to visit and engage with the Cultural Ecosystem.

Some of these numbers are made up, and some are just a bit optimistic. Yet they are also rooted in trends and data that are real and possible for museums build on. I’m excited about the opportunities we all saw for museums in 2040, and the meaningful impact those new initiatives would have on individuals and communities. Now our job is to make that optimistic future a reality.

Susie Wilkening (@susiewilkening) is the principal of Wilkening Consulting. She has 20 years of experience in museums, including over ten years leading custom projects for museums as well as fielding groundbreaking national research on the role of museums in American society. She resides in Seattle, and is working hard to raise her two young children to be empathetic, creative, global citizens … by taking them to museums early and often.

Susie shares her latest research and data insights at The Data Museum, and book and research reviews on The Curated Bookshelf.