Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Reluctant Optimist on the Difficulty of Writing Bright Futures

I recently taught a forecasting workshop at the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections’ 27th annual meeting in New Haven, Conn. To seed our conversations, I recruited a few twisted brilliant collections managers to write scenarios—short stories that serve as jumping off points for exploring potential futures and their implications for museums. Everyone gravitated towards dark possibilities (Pandemic flu! Economic collapse! Massive coastal flooding!) so I had the thankless task of writing a happy-fuzzy-bunnies-and-flowers scenario. This predominance of dark imaginings is typical, in my experience, which left me wondering—are museum professionals, for the most part, pessimists; are scary stories just more fun; or are bright futures inherently less credible? Read my “happy” scenario, below (which isn’t actually all sweetness and light) and think it over.

2036: Biology Saves the Day

The early 2020’s also saw two major breakthroughs in health care: the development of several new antibiotics effective against a growing number of drug-resistant bacteria; and a practical, low-cost treatment for diabetes. The latter was particularly important in the U.S. given the fallout from the obesity crisis that started in the early 2000’s—by 2030 over 42 percent of U.S. residents were obese and 25 percent had diabetes. Both these breakthroughs arose from genomic research conducted on museum collections. As a result, many museums are being courted by major pharmaceutical companies offering lucrative sponsorships in return for exclusive access to collections. Meanwhile, museums experience a surge in repatriation requests from countries seeking control over their biological heritage.

The major economic drivers in the U.S. for the past two decades have been genomics, big data and bioengineering. The proliferation of national and international regulations promoting organic agriculture, and the decreasing resistance to genetically modified organisms, created a race to discover and exploit genetic resources leading to “naturally” pest and weed-resistant crops. However, the back-lash to this approach fueled a “Natural Foods” movement, leading to resurgence in agriculture and animal husbandry devoted to non-GMO rare and heritage breeds and traditional crops.

Global political unrest has disrupted the production and distribution of oil from foreign sources. The massive legal settlement in 2018 against Exxon Mobile over the devastating health effects of the Marcellus Shale fracking effectively ended this form of natural gas mining. However, at about that same time, Exxon Mobile began scaling up commercial production of biofuels from algal aquiculture. By 2021 .42 percent of U.S. landmass (about 15,000 square miles, half the size of Maine) is devoted to aquaculture, fully meeting national energy needs. The massive amount of carbon sucked out of the atmosphere by algal culture has helped to slow global warming.

With the energy companies competing to discover, develop and exploit the most productive algal hybrids, the drug companies racing to discover the next biological magic bullet and big agriculture shifting its focus to independence from drugs and chemicals, ecology and taxonomy are booming fields, sucking up graduates as fast as they can earn their degrees.
You could use the following questions as a jumping off point for exploring this future:
  • List the trends and any disruptive events, described or implied, that create the future depicted in this story.
  • What would the implications of this future be for museums in general, and natural history museums and collections in particular?
  • What might natural history museums and collections do differently to thrive in  this future?
  • How might this scenario be extended? Where might the story go from here? Where does this future lead beyond what I have written?
And please use the comments section, below, to weigh in: do you think this is a plausible future, and if so, what do you see happening in the world now that points in this direction? If not, what evidence do you see pointing to darker (or even brighter) outcomes? Use the comments section below to add your two cents.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Updates to CFM’s 2012 Trends to Watch

Our first annual summary of Dispatches from the Future of Museums—TrendsWatch 2012: Museums and the Pulse of the Future—is getting a lot of attention and commentary, which is great. But as soon as Phil Katz (my co-author) and I sent it to press, we started to experience “Rats! We should have included…” and “Look what just hit the news!” moments. Fortunately, on the Web, nothing is ever really finished. Here’s an update from Phil on the seven trends featured in the report. (He warns that this is “just the tip of the iceberg – a few prominent examples that caught my eye.”) We’re starting to work on this year’s summary already, and would love to hear from you! Use the comment section at the end of the blog tell us what stories in Dispatches you have found particularly important and useful to your work.

Harnessing the Crowd

  • The Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond is using “the crowd” to help identify the people in Civil War era photographs. This was a relatively low-key effort until earlier this month when an AP story that included a picture of an especially winsome child went viral: “An Associated Press story on the effort to identify the subject in this and other photos was passed along repeatedly in social media circles throughout the day via Tweets, Facebook ‘likes,’ blog postings, news reports and more. On Yahoo News alone, the story was ‘liked’ nearly 2,000 times and had more than 1,700 comments.”

NPO No Mo’

  • In April, Urban Institute hosted a panel on the question Are there too many nonprofits: “The vast and varied assembly of 1.8 million nonprofit organizations—about 1 nonprofit for every 175 Americans—faces a triple threat. From one direction comes reduced funding from government at all levels and diminished foundation grant making. From another comes harsh competition for corporate and individual donors. And from another comes an ever increasing demand for safety net and other services.”
  • There are legitimate fears about the return of the "Pease" provision in 2013, which would limit the value of itemized deductions (including donations to charities like museums) for most individual filers with adjusted gross incomes of more than $175,000.
  • We’ve tracked down one museums that has opted to take the L3C path: The Sackrider Museum of Handbags, a virtual museum (so far) in Chicago. The founder, Jill Brady, writes that L3C’s are “designed to be a hybrid between a charity and a for-profit entity for social entrepreneurs. Since we are capable of drawing from different sources of funding, we can draw capital from both charitable foundations and private investors.”

Takin’ It to the Streets

  • We had to leave out one of one of our favorite examples of a pop-up museum because it fell outside our time frame for TrendsWatch 2012. The San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society, opened a low-key, no-tech pop-up exhibit in the Castro District in 2008-09 while searching for a permanent home. It received such a positive response from visitors and donors—plus local businesses and community leaders—that the museum was able to secure a permanent location in the same neighborhood, which opened in 2010. (This particular museum has lessons for community development and the future of inclusive public history.)

Alt Funding:

  • Amanda F*!@ing Palmer! The punk cabaret musician/performance artist just raised more than $1 million on Kickstarter to produce and market an independent album with accompanying art book. She started with a small but very loyal fan base, which she argues was vital to the success of the campaign. She also modestly claims this is the future of music; others say it’s the future of culture writ large. 
  • This summer, the UK is launching a large-scale experiment in using ATM’s for charitable donations. “Donations will be offered as a separate menu item on the ATM screen, or as a post-transaction option, so that making a donation will not interfere with the actions of people who just want to withdraw cash.” Nick Hurd, the UK’s minister for civil society, argues that “By making it possible to add donations at cash points we can make an even greater difference to other people's lives.” Here at CFM, we think ATM donations could be the next big tool for alt funding.
  • Giving through mobile technology has hit some roadblocks, however. Note that many museums say they are eager to collect donations via cellphone: According to a 2011 survey by AAM, 13 percent of all museums were planning to introduce or expand mobile giving opportunities last year (and we have an update to that survey coming out soon). But another recent survey by LearningTimes and Pocket-Proof shows that museums are seriously lagging in the introduction of any mobile platforms.

Creative Aging

  • My favorite recent example of museums addressing issues of cognitive impairment is the SPARK! Program. This is a coalition of smallish museums around Milwaukee that are “extending their cultural and historical collections to create meaningful experiences for older adults with Alzheimer's disease and their caregivers. The SPARK! project connects the museums with local partners in healthy aging to bring the model to the Midwest. The Alzheimer’s Association is assisting with training and support.” This project was featured in a session at the AAM Annual Meeting in Minneapolis St. Paul.

More Than Real

  • Just this month, an ad agency in Amsterdam “hijacked” the Rijksmuseum to create a virtual exhibition entitled “Paint Job.” Some of the most famous paintings on the museum became backdrops for virtual graffiti when viewed through the AR app on a smartphone. It’s not clear how involved the museum was in planning this – but even if it was primarily a publicity stunt for the agency, it also allowed the art museum to demonstrate an unexpected level of hip-ness.
  • And here are some up-and-coming technologies:
    • Near Field Communication, which will not require anything as clunky as a QR or bar code to trigger gallery interactions;
    • holograms in gallery spaces (following on the heels of the virtual Tupac at Coachella and the wildly popular—but not flesh-and-blood—Japanese pop performer Hatsune Miku).

New Educational Era

  • We already know that homeschooling is booming. (According to the Dept. of Education, by 2007 an estimated 2.9 percent of all school-age children were being homeschooled.) In March, the New York Times reported that, “As the number of home-schooling families grows, museum programs for them are springing up all over the country.”
We are already sifting through the recent issues of Dispatches, tagging  trends we might feature in TrendsWatch 2013. Use the comments section, below, to tell us what news items you have found particularly useful and relevant, and what trends you think are emerging as the Big New Thing.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Is a Farmers Market Right for You?

Today’s guest post is by “Chef” Betty Brewer, president & CEO, of Minnetrista, in Muncie, Ind. Lessons from Minnestrista’s hugely successful farmers market can help you assess whether a market like this might be a good fit for your museum. This post is abbreviated from a “recipe for success” Betty has contributed for the expanded edition of the Feeding the Spirit Cookbook that CFM is compiling. Keep your eyes on this blog for more news about the expanded Cookbook (which is a resource and discussion guide for museums), and other projects in CFM’s ongoing exploration of museums, food and community.

Minnetrista is the 40-acre combined estates of the Ball Brothers who made an international impact on food preservation through the Ball canning jar. With that as our heritage, as well as the fact that the family ran an orchard on the estate, selling apples, apple cider and other produce to the community for decades, starting a farmers market twelve years ago didn’t seem too far-fetched. In the ensuing years we have learned a great deal about running a market to keep it professional and fun for vendors and guests.

Minnetrista introduced a farmers market because it fit with our Ball family and Ball Corporation heritage—on-site produce and food preservation. In our first year of operation, we averaged 15 vendors and 150 – 300 customers per Saturday. In 2012, our season opened with 40 vendors and 1,000 guests. At peak season, we will have a waiting list of vendors for our 50 spaces and see an average of 2,000 – 2,500 guests every Saturday. This translates to nearly 50,000 visits to the Minnetrista Farmers Market in a year.

More recently, as we develop a new interpretive framework for our campus and focus our energies on being audience-centric, the farmers market serves a broader purpose. The ambience of the Minnetrista market has always—from the first year—been extolled by vendors and customers alike. We use a small parking lot bordered on one side by the original brick apple barn that now houses a gift shop and our apple cider production equipment (we still produce unpasteurized apple cider). On another side is a low brick-walled courtyard with umbrella tables and chairs. Landscaping trees and flowers on all sides offer beauty and shade. The farmers market has become the place to gather in Muncie on Saturday mornings, May through October. (By the way, “Minnetrista” means “gathering place by the water.”) Market opens at 8 a.m. for the serious shoppers; another wave hits around 9:30. The courtyard will be filled by guests enjoying coffee, pork burgers, pastries and each other’s company. Friends meet and new friendships are made.

For two seasons, we have maintained a waiting list of vendors who want to participate in our market. I’ve resisted suggestions to enlarge the market by moving it. No other space on our campus provides hardscaped and shaded space, ready electrical power, restrooms, ample parking and the ambience that encourages our guests to “set a spell.” Serving our audience with a premier experience is paramount, so we’ll stay with our medium-sized market.

Early on, we thought we could entice market goers into the museum at the same time through family programs at market. No dice. We learned that market goers are just that—they want to shop, socialize then continue their Saturday errands (after getting their purchases out of heated cars!). However, we continue to provide information in different ways about our other programs. Two years ago, we planted a victory garden in the courtyard as part of a museum exhibition program. Market goers didn’t visit the museum after market, but many came back to the exhibit at another time. We continue to offer monthly cooking demonstrations with our own chef and members of the American Culinary Federation. However, we have learned that canning demonstrations were not well-attended, unlike canning workshops, which are—people want to participate, not just be lectured to! This year, Minnetrista staff will have a booth called The Canner is In. Folks can stop by to ask questions or seek advice for canning fruits and vegetables in their own homes, as well as learn about our related workshops.

I offer tips on considering whether and how to start a farmers market at your museum this Recipe for Success. If you already host a farmers market at your site, please share your advice in the comment section, below. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

5 Steps for Rapid Prototyping

Today’s guest post is by Charlie Miller and Emily Tarquin, co-curators of Off-Center @ The Jones, a new series of non-traditional theatrical programming at the Denver Center Theatre Company developed through the Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts. One important facet of Innovation Lab for Museums is rapid prototyping—trying small experiments quickly and cheaply to see what works. The first three museum participants in the Lab found it challenging to apply this concept to their projects, so I asked Charlie and Emily to share a few tips on how rapid prototyping works in their organization.

Charlie Miller and Emily Tarquin

At Off-Center, we’re in the business of research and development. We’re also in the business of creating theatre that feels like a night out—fewer formalities, less sitting still, more beer, more fun. But for every show or event we create, no matter how hilarious or bizarre it may seem, we are also testing out new ideas and learning from our experiments. Every show is a prototype, and every audience is a focus group. This is how we will discover the tools, strategies, and new forms necessary to survive and thrive in the 21st Century.

We learned a lot about prototyping when we developed Off-Center through the Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts. EmcArts recommends testing new ideas on a small scale, where the risk is low and the opportunity for learning high. Innovation is a gradual and cumulative process—as much as we want that sudden moment of inspiration that solves everything, it rarely works that way. Instead, ake small steps toward your goal with quick prototypes that provide immediate feedback.

We struggled with this idea of rapid prototyping at first because, in the theatre, we are used to long and established processes for the work we create. We are also part of a very large organization with unavoidable layers of bureaucracy that slow things down. We knew that it was important to become more flexible and nimble, and quick prototypes would force us to practice this. As we tested new ideas, we would also be testing and practicing our new curatorial process.

In the two years since we began developing Off-Center, we have refined our model for rapid prototyping. As you’ll see, this is not specific to theatre and can easily apply to any kind of product or idea development. Here it is, in five simple steps:

  1. What are we testing? Identify the two or three things you want to test in a prototype. Don’t test too many things; it will only muddy the experiment and make it harder to implement quickly. Once you know what you’re testing, those elements combine to form the foundation of an idea and the content of your prototype should begin to reveal itself.
  2. How have others approached this? It is always helpful to learn from other examples. Look in your community and nationally at how other organizations have responded to the challenges you are facing or the things you are testing. It is often most helpful to look outside of your field—at Off-Center we’ve been inspired by food truck events, Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art and a zombie crawl. This research is not just one step; it is an ongoing process. You never know what you might encounter that will make you think about your work in a different way.
  3. Plan it. Enroll others from inside and outside of your organization to help develop and implement the prototype. Always stay focused on the 2-3 things you are testing—keep it simple and make sure whatever you design will yield the desired learning. It’s okay if your prototype is small; in fact, that is probably a good thing as you’re starting out. Decide how you are going to evaluate your work and make sure that is part of the prototype from the beginning. Waiting until the end of the process will leave you without the tools and time needed to evaluate effectively.
  4. Do it. Even if you don’t know how exactly to get to your end result, start by taking small steps toward implementation and you will figure it out as you go. Remember that you are not only testing the specific things you identified in step 1, you’re also building innovative capacity in your organization by experimenting with new ways of doing things.
  5. Evaluate it. Shortly after your prototype is over (it’s important that you do this while it is still fresh in your mind), revisit your goals and summarize your learning. This should be easy if you have already thought through evaluation in step 3. Traditional metrics and evaluation techniques won’t always apply when evaluating innovative prototypes. Often you have to come up with new ways to measure the ideas you are testing.
That is our prototyping process; hopefully it can help guide your organization as you explore new ideas and innovate. If you have any questions or want to share your thoughts, post below or email us. Good luck!

Off-Center is a test kitchen for the Denver Center to prototype new ideas and a new entry point to the organization for artists and audiences. All of Off-Center’s work is guided by a Recipe of five essential ingredients: Immersive, Convergent, Connective, Inventive, Now. To learn more about Off-Center’s development through the Innovation Lab, check out their innovation story on ArtsFwd.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Psyched about Storytelling

AAM just announced the theme for our 2013 annual meeting in Baltimore, and it is (drumroll, please):


This is such a great theme, for many reasons.
  • While people who work in, and with, museums can’t seem to agree on how to define “museum,” we always circle back to the feeling it has something to do with “the real stuff.” And what distinguishes the real thing from a copy or a fake? Its story (read: provenance). People often love objects for their beauty, but they love them even more for the stories and emotions embodied in them.

  • Everyone has stories to tell, so stories are a great medium for museums to invite people to contribute content and share their experiences.

  • Stories can be funny, sad, heartfelt, sexy, outrageous—qualities that museum exhibitions all too often lack.

  • And (very important for CFM) stories are a compelling and immersive way to explore the future.
I’ve dreamt up a bunch of projects CFM could launch leading up to Baltimore. In the spirit of crowdsourcing, I’m sharing these nascent ideas with you in today’s post. Please use the poll at the end of this post to tell me which, if any, of these you’d like CFM to instigate.
  1. Nowadays, any object can be tagged, catalogued and connected to the Cloud. What happens when these objects start having adventures and compiling their own histories? The Tales of Things project by the Internet of Things is a platform that enables anyone to tag any object with an RFID (internet connected graphic) to create a shared public catalog record of the object’s story. I blogged about the project, and since then, they’ve done even more interesting stuff exploring how stories enhance the perceived value of objects. I’d love to do a project about objects, and storytelling, that launches an RFID-tagged object from D.C. to find its way to a museum in, say, Australia. The object would be helped along each step of the way by whoever it is passed to, and each recipient/finder would document their part of the story on the Internet of Things. (I think of this project as Paddle-to-the-Sea for the internet age.)

  2. One topic featured in TrendsWatch 2012 is the current demand for mobile, transitory, pop-up experiences. I’d love for Michelle DelCarlo to incite meeting attendees travelling to Baltimore via Amtrak to create pop-up museums on the trains using her template. What object would you bring on a train to share with fellow riders, and what compelling story would it tell?

  3. Thomas Allen Harris recently blogged for CFM about his Digital Diaspora Family Reunion Project, which he describes as “StoryCorps” meets “Antique Roadshow.” The result is, in effect, a virtual museum built from the roots up by African American communities around the country. If we invited Mr. Harris to hold a DDFR event in Baltimore, in conjunction with the annual meeting, could this create a bridge between AAM attendees and the local community?

  4. The “Significant Objects Project,” created by author and journalist Rob Walker, recruited writers to create fictional backstories for objects that were then auctioned on Ebay, dramatizing the power of storytelling to enhance the value of even the most mundane things. (There’s a book on the project coming out soon. I’ve pre-ordered it.) Studio 360 recently recruited Rob to run their own “Significant Objects” contest, inviting listeners to contribute their stories to thrift shop items Rob picked out. This is pretty transgressive stuff for museums—can fictional stories be as compelling as the truth? Perhaps Rob could explore this question with CFM through a Significant Objects event.
So, what’s it going to be? Cast your vote for one or more of these ideas. And use the comments section below to build on, critique and otherwise improve these projects or propose new ones.

It’s particularly appropriate for me to invite you to weigh in on these ideas for storytelling projects, as it parallels the way the annual meeting session proposals are going to work this year. AAM is creating an online platform where you post your session ideas to get input from your colleagues and connect with potential collaborators. You can use that feedback to refine your ideas & finalize your format and speakers before the Aug. 24 session deadline. I’ll be posting some CFM session ideas on the annual meeting site, and look forward to hearing what you have to say.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Building a Healthier Community from the Inside Out

As I recently reviewed the wonderful stories we’ve compiled about museums, food and community, I noticed that most of our attention has focused on museums helping their audiences become fitter and healthier. Wait—what about us!? This week’s “guest chef,” Kristen Greenwood, assistant curator of education and Staff Wellness Committee Coordinator at the Birmingham Museum of Art, helps fill this gap by sharing a “recipe for success” based on BMA’s staff wellness program. Kristen’s post is adapted from her contribution to the expanded edition of the Feeding the Spirit Cookbook that is in the works. Keep your eyes on this blog for more news about the Cookbook and other projects in CFM’s ongoing exploration of museums, food and community.

The Birmingham Museum of Art began incorporating wellness classes such as yoga and tai chi into its public offerings several years ago, but we realized that there were not any wellness initiatives in place for our own staff, who for the most part, have fairly sedentary jobs. The Museum was accepted into the free Corporate Wellness Pilot Program with YMCA of Greater Birmingham, which included an assessment of our organization’s commitment to health and wellness, lunch and learn sessions on health and wellness topics, health screenings for employees, and an eight-week wellness challenge with prizes for the winners. The program lasted approximately four months and over 30 staff members (40% of the staff) participated. Staff members lost weight, changed their eating habits, began incorporating more fitness into their daily lives, and in general became more conscious of their health. The program was so well received that after it ended, a committee for staff wellness was established.

Our Wellness Committee consists of 6 enthusiastic staff members who are committed to creating a healthy work environment at the Museum. Ideas generated by the committee range from very simple things such as unlocking the emergency exit stairs in a non-public area so staff can take the stairs instead of the elevator to simply fun activities such as an employee talent show. Daily walking clubs, fitness challenges, and healthy potluck lunches are just a few projects initiated by the Wellness Committee. The Museum continues to partner with YMCA Birmingham by subsidizing employee memberships and utilizing YMCA fitness instructors at onsite fitness classes for staff.
The initiatives developed through the Wellness Committee have boosted morale, made staff more health conscious, and have created a little “healthy competition” among colleagues.

If you decide to start an internal wellness initiative at your museum, be sure to assemble the following ingredients:
  • A core group of individuals who are committed to developing ideas and making positive changes
  • A supportive administration
  • Employees who have an interest in a healthy lifestyle
  • Local partner(s) that can offer discounts or incentives to keep the staff motivated (e.g., discounted gym memberships, free classes, healthy lunch options)
As you implement the program:
  1. Assess your institution’s commitment to health and fitness, either formally or informally. Informal assessment can be as simple as polling colleagues to see if they have an interest in more at-work options for a healthier lifestyle. Gather ideas from colleagues about what they would like to see happen in terms of health and wellness options. Check with senior staff to make sure you have their support.
  2. Select a core group of dedicated individuals. It’s important to have staff that are truly committed and enthusiastic about a wellness program in order to see your efforts come to fruition.  
  3. Experiment. The ideas that are developed in the committee will range from extremely simple (like BMA’s unlocking the stairwells) to things that take more effort (healthy employee picnics and getting healthier items in the vending machines). As non-profits, wellness programs may not be the first item to get internal funding, but there are plenty of low or no-budget options available once you start thinking creatively. Find what works for your group environment. Don’t be afraid to experiment, and keep trying.
  4. Share information.  Don’t forget to include staff who may not have access to e-mail. Sometimes the person you think the least likely to participate is the one who is most enthusiastic.
  5. Be patient. Give it a little time. If the committee members are doing this in addition to their full-time job during normal work hours, it means that although this is fun, it is something extra on their plate. Share responsibilities, meet on a regular schedule and be willing to accept that it may take a while to get everyone on board.

The most important ingredients in this recipe are staff commitment and time. Your human resources are your greatest assets. Get the right people on board and you’ll soon have a happier, healthier staff!
For more information on ways to incorporate health and wellness into the workplace, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

Please share any ways you are promoting employee health and wellness at your museum in the comments section, below. If you tried such a program and it didn’t work, what did you learn from the experiment? Any success stories you can share?

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Artists, Art, and Historic Sites: A Revitalization of the Past Through Present Creativity

Kate Laurel Burgess-Mac Intosh is an independent museum professional who shares her research on contemporary art/historic site mash-ups on the blog Revitalizing Historic Sites and on Facebook. She is Chair of the Young and Emerging Museum Professionals Professional Affinity Group of the New England Museum Association, a Teaching Assistant in the Museum Studies Program at the Harvard University Extension School and a Research Assistant for Reach Advisors.

What do historic sites and artists have in common?

Both must constantly reinvent themselves in a shifting economy, a changing philanthropic world and amidst an ever increasing desire for at-home entertainment. Historic sites are exploring new ground, and finding new ways to make their unique stories tangible and sought after; artists are seeking spaces to show work, ways to build their network, and new experiences that challenge their artistic output. Partnerships between artists and historic sites are win-win situations. Working with artists is one way to revitalizing historic house museums, and continue to exemplify their relevance in 21st century culture.

My forecast is that in 2034, art will be incorporated into historic spaces—parlors, bed chambers and kitchen hearths. Lawns and landscapes will be transformative spaces of meditation and reflection, in which artists will come to sketch and plan installations. Performance artists will descend stairwells, artists’ collectives will live in historic basements and attics, and openings will be unannounced, yet heavily attended. Artists and historic sites will find a renewed renaissance through partnership with each other, bringing new light to the past through the lens of contemporary creativity.

Artists see the world differently than historians; they are uniquely poised to highlight the eccentricity of historic sites, and are thirsting for intriguing locations, stories and objects of inspiration. Artists visually categorize experiences through their medium, be it brushes, cameras or crayons. They are visual curators, record keepers of the sublime, the mundane and the world at large. Their creativity could be the solution to waning attendance figures and fading enthusiasm. I think artists, and the art they create, are crucial for historic site revitalization.

The Center for the Future of Museum’s Museums & Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures, pointed out we are undergoing a “creative renaissance.” This presents museums with the opportunity to invest in an idea that introduces new voices, ideas and interpretations to stagnant stories of the past, fostering community involvement, engaging new audiences and increasing educational programming.

It is a chance to discover new revenue and funding possibilities, and expand partnership and collaboration opportunities, while enlarging the reach and visibility of historic house museums. Most importantly, it gives us the opportunity to change public opinion, uncover new research and information, and breathe new life into old spaces, while seeing the past in different ways. Contemporary art introduced at historic sites can do all this and more; art is the new mode of interpretation, and artists are the new interpreters.

What would happen if historic sites:
  • Embraced the artists on Etsy? Picture an exhibition of Etsy artists’ work installed in an historic site, inspired by the site’s architecture, stories and collection. Go one step further, and envision an historic interior entirely made by Etsy crafters, with modern materials being used to make each element of the historically inspired interior.
  • Hosted an artist’s market on their lawn or historically significant landscape? 
  • Served as sites for pop-up exhibitions, that while not formally advertised, are discussed and promoted in artists’ circles? If a museum’s restroom can be a unique art installation site, what about a historic house?
  • Hosted touring underground art exhibits, like The Sketchbook Project? Could historic sites position themselves to create their own version of a “sketchbook concert tour,” exemplifying themes common at different historic sites throughout the country, or around the world? 
  • Proposed an exhibition of contemporary art around a theme. Stepping back from the curatorial role and encouraging artists to take responsibility for the exhibition’s idea, limitations and installation requirements? How could historic sites use the model of assignments to create unique, mission reflective, thematic contemporary art installations?

Encouraging repeat visits to historic sites with new exhibitions and art related happenings builds loyalty to the institution, fostering a relationship with your community and creating a dialogue with those who are engaged with your new initiatives. Historic sites need to embrace new modes and models as museums shift from single, segmented institutions focused on singular topics, time periods, and stories, to hyper-experiential, hybrid models. Human experience is not segmented; historic sites must reflect the multiplicity of experience of daily life, and artists are poised to bring a multitude of contemporary interpretations, experiences and impressions to the past.

Many historic sites have already begun experimenting with introducing art and working with artists, and this is only the beginning. By 2034, I think contemporary art will be incorporated into historic spaces. Art has the potential to be a primary form of interpretation, with artists as interpreters, and historic sites discovering true revitalization by reflecting the creative renaissance. 

"Entering Peabody: 'The Original Leather Daddy Community'"
Film Still by Perry Hallinan, courtesy of the Peabody Historical Society, Mass.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Our Broken Economic Model

Every so often I realize I am having the same conversation so frequently, I might as well write it down and share it with everyone.

Today’s conversation is “How Museums Are Like Newspapers and What We Can Learn from That.” I haven’t come to any firm conclusions, yet, but it is an important topic and I would like to rope you into the discussion.

Synopsis: newspapers built a business model that focused on producing one thing (investigative journalism) but trained people to pay for something else (advertising). Then the internet came along and smashed that model by making it cheaper and easier to match buyers and sellers on the web, bypassing the newspaper.

People still value journalism. They happily consume, share and debate the news, but they expect it to be electronic, and free. Some people seemingly don’t even realize news comes from journalists (just like some children don’t know vegetables come from plants, I guess). I read a blithe comment from one article to the effect of “I don’t care if newspapers go away because I get my news from the links people share on Facebook to new stories.” Um...

Now newspapers are cascading through a series of experiments to find their new economic model—including paid online subscriptions with some free content (the New York Times); aggregating existing content, minimally paid or free bloggers (maybe even college student thesis’s) and online ads (Huffington Post); and hyperlocal niche print publications (The Washington Blade).

How is this like museums? For years, we trained people to pay for a visible set of experiences—exhibits, programs, services, cool buildings. Some of this payment was in the form of earned income, some philanthropic support. But most people don’t realize they were also paying for another, hidden set of activities core to museums’ identity: collecting, preserving, research and education.

The average person on the street doesn’t realize that museum collections are like an iceberg—90% hidden beneath the surface (i.e., in storage). In my experience, when told this, people are usually surprised and often appalled. (“You mean you have all this stuff we don’t get to see? Why?!?”) Not knowing what we have, they certainly don’t realize the expense entailed in tracking, caring for and conserving “all this stuff.” But at least the collections make a certain intuitive sense, once people think about it. Research comes out of left field. I’ve had conversations where people failed to believe that museums were research institutions, even when I cited specific examples. It just doesn’t fit their concept of the world.

And education? You can argue that this part of museums’ work is quite visible, but the fact is it goes unrecognized. AAM’s president, Ford Bell, is continually frustrated when, in his conversations with policy makers, funders, business people and just plain folks, he finds over and over again that museums are not regarded as “educational” institutions.

Why is this a problem? Because the visible and profitable parts of being a museum can, and are, peeled off and replicated by for-profit institutions. Travelling exhibits? Check out venues like Discovery Times Square. “Museum quality” merchandise? Not a problem. Places to spend the day with the kids in an edutainment environment? Common and proliferating. And none of these institutions have to bear the costs of collecting and preserving, undertaking research, and making education available in an equitable way both to those who can pay the true costs and those who cannot.

All of this is taking place in an era when supply (of material goods, information, experiences) far exceeds demand. People are surrounded by a plethora of choice, including the ability to consume a huge variety of entertainment online in the comfort of their own homes. Sure they love museums’ virtual content—they expect it, in fact. But we, like newspapers, haven’t figured out how to turn a profit from all the wonderful stuff we put on the web.

So what do we do about it?

First, we turn a threat into an opportunity, and use the internet to burst out of our opaque walls. Making digitized collections accessible in meaningful, compelling ways makes people aware that we have them, even if they aren’t paying to use them. Blogs, videos, augmented reality can all begin to make people aware of what conservation is, why it is needed, what it does for them. A new generation of researchers who blog, tweet, Fbook and Pin can share the process and passion of history, art and science. They can invite people to help with their work through crowdsourced participation and support their work through crowdfunding. And museums, and their representative associations such as AAM, can do a better job of documenting and sharing how the world is better because of the role we play in learning.

Will it be enough? Not by itself…but it’s a start. Weigh in with your thoughts on future economic models for museums below, as well as links to articles that might fuel the conversation.