Thursday, January 31, 2013

Finding Community: Engaging Diverse Audiences in a Historic House

In April, 2007, a small but influential group of historic house professionals, association and foundation staff gathered at Kykuit, the historic Rockefeller Estate in Pocantico Hills, NY, for the Forum on Historic Site Stewardship in the 21st Century. There they wrestled with the issue of how to reconcile the sheer number of historic houses in the US—by some estimates, over 18,000—with the resources available to support these nonprofits. The resulting recommendations included the call for the historic house field to demonstrate a “willingness to change its structure, programs, and services in response to the changing needs of that community.” Six years later, we are still only beginning to see the first hints of change. What will, finally force historic houses to adapt? Sheer economic necessity, perhaps, as funding continues to constrict and core visitors age. Some icons will endure because national fame, status (and endowments) make them secure—Monticello, Mt. Vernon, Winterthur. Which of the other, smaller less famous historic houses survive, and how? Today’s guest post, by Sheryl Hack, executive director of Connecticut Landmarks and Susie Wilkening, senior consultant at Reach Advisors, invites you to follow one attempt to implement the Kykuit recommendations, and reinvent the historic house.

Domestic spaces surround us, and in our daily lives are vibrant, living things.  Our homes are messy, conflicted places of respite and love. 

Yet historic house museums (as well as period rooms in art and history museums) have struggled to be dynamic and relevant in a changing society.

Why is this?  How have we allowed these spaces that tell us so much about people and the human condition, for all of its beauty and foibles, to be perceived by many as dry, dusty, and dull?

We don’t mean to pick on historic house museums.  To the contrary, we love them.  And we believe strongly that historic house museums can be places of incredible relevance to visitors. 

At Connecticut Landmarks (CTL), we have a great interest in rethinking how historic house museums can share remarkable stories that are relevant to not only visitors, but to the communities around them; we own twelve significant historic properties in Connecticut. But the status quo of guided tours, school programs, and the occasional public program is just too risky a path if we want to be a sustainable, and vital, organization in the future. Our previous work with Reach Advisors gave us considerable insight into how polarizing, and even repelling, guided tours are for many visitors (and non-visitors). But if not guided tours, what?  And is it simply the medium (that guided tour), or are there other, more fundamental reason that historic house museums have struggled?

We suspect so. And thus we have commenced a big leap into the unknown.  Thanks to IMLS Museums for America funding
, we have the opportunity to turn one of our properties, Hempsted Houses in New London, into an experimental lab to try new interpretive strategies.

The Hempsted property is perfect for this endeavor as it is has powerful stories to share about race, slavery, social justice, and dramatic societal change. It has human stories that are heart-wrenching and heart-warming. It also has a multi-cultural neighborhood surrounding it that, despite the important role the property’s owners played in the neighborhood’s creation, more recently has found little reason to engage with the property. 

To reinvent the historic house museum experience, we decided to engage what is probably the toughest historic house museum audience out there:  teenagers. Partnering with The Writers Block, Ink, a local organization that seeks to give young adults the power to use pen and prose to ignite social change, next summer we will ask a group of teens to reinterpret the property in a way that they think will be compelling to their family and friends. We are going to provide art handling training, require historic accuracy, and we won’t let them take down any walls, but generally we want to give them the freedom to share the stories of the individuals who lived, worked, fought, loved, rested, and even slaved at this property as they see fit. 

We have no idea what they will come up with, though we suspect it will not be the traditional guided tour. But we are hopeful that their ideas will spark new methods and ideas about how to present historic house museums , and we also hope that the process will help us better understand the why of the stories we choose to present.  If these teenagers can succeed in making this property appealing to their friends, we are betting that their ideas will be appealing to other, broader audiences. (Not that we are forgetting our traditional visitor, or those visitors who happen to love guided tours.  Other phases of audience research will incorporate their thoughts and ideas.) 

The teen research is one phase of a larger re-interpretation project at Hempsted Houses that we hope will give us a resilient and engaging strategy for re-interpretation at our other properties. As this project kicks off, we are delighted to share our process, its twists and turns, its successes and failures, with the field along the way with the project blog, FindingCommunity:  Engaging diverse audiences ina historic house. On the blog you will hear from the entire interpretive planning team, including CTL staff and our consultants:  Louisa Brouwer (curatorial consultant); Robert Kiihne (RK Exhibits – exhibition planning); and Susie Wilkening (Reach Advisors – for audience and strategy work). Come summer, you’ll also likely hear from our consulting teenagers as well.  We hope you will join us.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Micro-vlogging: Keeking Up with Social Media Trends

Remember when you though Twitter was just a silly fad? (Heck, maybe you still do.) Many people were skeptical about Twitter when it launched in 2006, but that microblog platform took off in 2009 and has turned out to be a popular way for visitors to share their impressions of museums (good and bad), and for museums to take notice and respond. The Warhol Museum was cited by Pew Internet & American Life Project, which noted the museum's use of Twitter exemplifies how technology is transforming arts organizations, in this case in a manner well suited to the Warhol’s mission to engage audiences in “interesting and subversive ways.” In only a couple of years we’ve gone from debating whether museum staff should tweet, to trading tips on how to tweet effectively. Now conferences stream Twitter feeds behind the speakers, museums stream feeds to flatscreen monitors in exhibits and lobbies, and I use the service to find and connect with some of the best & brightest thinkers in and out of the museum field.

So what's the next hot thing in social media? Maybe it's "micro-vlogging” (micro-video blogging.) Think YouTube meets Twitter: micro-vlog posts are a way of sharing short burst of information, the visual/audio version of 140 characters.

I learned about micro-vlogs last week at a workshop I taught in Saudi Arabia for the staff of the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture. As I’d hoped, I learned at least as much from  the attendees as they learned from me and from my co-presenter, CFM Council  member Garry Golden. The audience was comprised of Saudis, mostly young, doing their rotations within Aramco, as well as expats brought in from the US, Canada, Great Britain, Greece and elsewhere around the world to help the Center jump-start its planning. One of the Center staff cued us into a micro-vlog site called Keek. Apparently, for many young Saudis video is the preferred medium for information. Where we might turn to Wikipedia, they search YouTube for basic info on a topic, so micro-vlogs are a logical next social media step.

Micro-vlogging isn’t brand new—it was being touted as a trending platform way back in 2009. (I know, WAY back, eh?) I don’t think this platform has caught on in the U.S., yet, but that doesn't mean it might not be the next hot new thing.

Why should you care? Because most efficient and effective way for your museum to communicate is to adopt the media preferred by your users. Museums are highly visual experiences—and visitors already revel in documenting and sharing pictures via sites such as Flickr and Instagram. Video shorts may be an even better way to share highlights of some kinds of museum experience.

Keek, for example, supports video status updates of up to about 30 sec in length, shot with a webcam or with an app on a mobile device. Keek integrates with other social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which encourages users to share content across various platforms. Check out some of the museum-related micro-vlog posts on their site:

Here’s a post that documents a work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney that needs video to capture one of its dimensions (change over time)

And another "moving experience" at the Bishop Museum in Hawai'i

So, do you want people saying “I’ll be keeking from your museum?”
Are these particular clips profound or insightful? No, but they provide a glimpse of what visitors found compelling, and worthy of sharing with friends. That last clip certainly is a nice shout-out to the Atlanta History Center (if I were on their staff it would make me feel warm and fuzzy!).

I’ll be looking for the first museum spokes-specimen to start micro-vlogging on their organization’s behalf (as @SUEtheTrex tweets for the Field Museum of Natural History, or @OWNEYtheDOG for @PostalMuseum)--a sure sign of mainstream museum adoption of the platform.

If your museum has already jumped into micro-vlogging, please share your experiences in the comment section, below, and let us know where to find and follow your vlog posts.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Future of Food

I’m finishing my edits to a manuscript that grew out of CFM’s Feeding the Spirit Symposium in Pittsburgh last year. The discussion guide we assembled for the subsequent webcast is morphing into an e-book as well as a traditional print publication. This gave me the chance to expand the content and deepen our exploration of the relationships among museums, food and community.

Editing the text made me aware of a glaring hole in my thinking about this topic. The symposium covered how museums can help improve food literacy; make values-based decisions about their own food services; and use food to reach out to new audiences. It did not, however, consider the future of food. I going to address this topic periodically on this blog—a format more suited than a book, in many ways, to sharing signals that hint at the future landscape of food but may prove to be ephemeral.

So, my first two potential game-changing trends for the world of food are:

3-D Printing, which is a kind of additive manufacturing in which you build your final product out of bits of material glued or fused together, rather than by injecting stuff into a mold or carving bits away. There is no reason that the “bits” can’t be edible, resulting in a final printed product such as chocolate

Or cookies 

Or even meat. Assembling artificial meat from its component amino acids is a particularly exciting prospect for some animal rights activists, as well as those concerned about the high carbon foot- (or hoof-) print and relative inefficiency of raising actual animals. The “meat printer” is still in early stages of development, and I couldn’t find a good picture. Though medical researchers have tested printing working organs, which is kind of the same thing. Sort of. Ick.

Some implications:
  • If we invent what is, in effect, a Star Trek-type food replicator, will that replace microwave meals (no great loss) or make further inroads on the culture and camaraderie of cooking?
  • If we can build a dish molecule by molecule, would that enable people with health issues related to diet, or who have food allergies, to enjoy food with the look, feel and taste of traditional dishes while leaving out elements that put those foods off-limits?
  • Will the ability to “play with our food” using high-tech gadgets bring together the hacker and the food communities, spawning maker labs devoted to food experimentation?
The Internet of Things. It is increasingly common for everyday objects to be connected to the internet, and many are equipped with near-field communication devices and/or sensors that collect some sort of information about their environment. Program these objects to share information with each other, and take appropriate action in response to incoming data, and you have the Internet of Things: a world in which your trash can detects that you have discarded a carton of milk and orders a new half gallon (2%, lactose-free) to be added to your automated delivery. Or (one step spookier) your bathroom scale, bio-monitor wristband and refrigerator compare notes, notice you have put on a couple of pounds and your blood pressure has crept up, select an appropriately healthy menu for the following week, order all the ingredients, and download the recipes to your iPad.
A somewhat less creepy and more immediately practical function is envisioned in the marvelous Internet of Things comic book, which illustrates how the IoT can help make shopping less fraught for people managing food allergies and intolerances.

Some implications:
  • If the things that surround us do our food thinking and planning for us, will we pay less attention to what we eat and put less thought into expanding our food boundaries?
  • When food can tell us where it comes from, and how it was raised, shipped and prepared, it will be easier for us to make informed choices about the food we purchase. Locavores, people seeking to minimize their carbon footprints, people dedicated to organic farming, people who believe in humane slaughter—they could each program their food-assistive devices (refrigerator, shopping cart, etc.) to help them screen their choices and ensure they are in line with their values. Will this result in a more sustainable food system? Will it further fragment the social aspect of dining, as people become more narrow and entrenched regarding what they will and will not eat?
  • In the museum of the future, will a visitor enter the café only to be greeted with a personalize menu that reads: “We noticed you spend a lot of time in the French Impressionist Galleries today, and it is rather cold and nasty out. May we suggest a nice warming bowl of cassoulet?”

Please share your vision of the future of food, and its implications for society, in the comments section, below, or by tweeting to the attention of @futureofmuseums. Until next time—ciao. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

For Your Financial Radar: Social Impact Investing

In the course of writing TrendsWatch 2013, Phil Katz and I found many interesting leads that won’t make it into the final copy (coming soon), either because the trends aren’t quite well defined enough, yet, or because there just isn’t room for all the cool stuff we found.

One interesting trend that we left out: Social Impact Investing. This is a system under which governments put together hybrid public/private financing measures premised on pay-for-success. Simply put, social impact investing brings together:
From Bafford, 2012, Stanford Journal of Public Policy V3.1
 The Feasibility and Future of SocialImpact Bonds in the United States
  •  Non-profit entities that need start-up money to launch or scale up programs
  • Investors willing to take a risk with their money in return for a potential payoff that includes doing good as well as making a profit
  • Governments who need delivery of crucial services, but don’t have money to invest in innovative programs, and have a low tolerance for risk

The government entity contracting for services repays the investors if the nonprofit organization successfully delivers the results it has promised. If the nonpo falls short, the investors take the loss. The White House started promoting this kind of financing last year, and the Departments of Justice and Labor both began favoring, in their grants funding, programs that incorporated elements of this approach.

Philanthropy wonk Lucy Bernholz has tagged this as a developing trend. While we have only seen a few social impact projects so far, Lucy predicts in her new report for the Foundation Center—Blueprint 2013: Philanthropy and the Social Economy—that six new social impact bonds will be issued in the coming year. 

I find social impact investing to be an intriguing approach to funding nonprofit work because it:

  • Tries to create a sustainable model for scaling up good works.
  • Addresses the downturn in government funding by providing a way for governments to fill critical needs by funneling support to nonprofits.
  •  Forces nonprofits to quantify the good they do, and to be ruthlessly accountable for their results.

This recent article in the NYT profiles social impact investing experiments in prep or in process in New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Ohio and California. Most of these programs, as the journalist points out, involve addressing needs that, if neglected, cost society more in the long run —for example, programs helping people on parole find jobs or housing the homeless. That’s because social impact investing isn’t charity—it’s philanthropic capitalism. If the initial investment project proves, for example, that a city saves money on emergency room services when a nonprofit group provides preventative health care to the homeless, the city may transition to contracting directly with the nonpo for these services. The philanthropic contribution comes from the investors, in the form of the increased risk they assume (since they almost certainly could find a safer place to put their money were they only interested in financial ROI). This approach can help nonprofits develop a more stable funding stream: the funding priorities of a foundation are almost guaranteed to change over time, as program officers and CEOs come and go, but a city has to make pragmatic decisions based on their bottom line. Value for money is an enduring proposition.

Many museums would be hard put to name any existing goals they could fund via social impact investing. That doesn’t mean, however, that they will remain unaffected by the trend. The results-based accountability approach is increasingly informing other forms of government support, as well. In Wisconsin, for example, Republican Gov. Scott Walker proposed making public funding for schools, technical colleges and universities contingent on outcomes, including the employment rate of their graduates. When states, dealing with severely constricted income in the wake of the mortgage loan crisis, work on reducing expenditures, they may well question museum funding first. For several months,Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler has been warning the 17 museums under his purview that they have to develop new sources of support, as the state continues to taper off their funding. If museums quantified how they help a state’s financial bottom line, would they be buffered from these cuts?

It is hard to measure the economic impact of many of the social goods that museums provide—things like increased happiness or better community cohesion. Which isn't to say there is not a financial impact, in the long run, just that it is hard to capture. Recent research, for example, shows that social ties within a neighborhood may be as or more important than formal infrastructure in helping residents survive natural disasters. Community-centered museums help build these social ties.

But reading up on social impact investing made me think about what kinds of results-based programs with concrete, quantifiable financial impact museums could potentially fund with such bonds. Some examples that come to mind of museum projects that provide measurable economic benefits to local, state or federal government include:
  •   Increasing literacy rates among at-risk students. Examples: The Tubman Museum of African American History's "John Oliver Killens" student workshops have improved comprehension and test scores in math and reading for at-risk students in Macon, Georgia. The Milwaukee Art Museum plays an important role in the SHARP Literacy program--started by a former docent of MAM to improve reading and writing at 32 of Wisconsin's most challenged schools. (Visits to the art museum are a key part of the award-winning program.)
  •  Improving performance in STEM learning. Example: the “Urban Advantage” program, a collaboration between the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the Denver Zoo, the Denver Botanic Gardens and three local school districts. Supported by a $3.27 million National Science Foundation grant, this five year collaboration is modeled on a partnership between the American Museum of Natural History and the New York City Department of Education. The goal is to improve science literacy among middle-school students in urban environments.
  •  Lowering rates of childhood obesity. Example: The Children’s Museum of Manhattan's Eat Sleep Play Family Health Curriculum. CMOM  worked with the National Institutes of Health to adapt the NIH We Can! Obesity prevention program, and are partnering with United Way of New York City and the Administration of Children’s Services to integrate these educational methods into Head Start early childhood programs, and with the City University of New York Professional Development Institute to train childcare providers on healthy practices.
Keep an eye on the news, and see what pops up over the coming year as we test Lucy’s prediction. I think it unlikely that one of those six new bonds will go to a museum, but over a 10 year horizon? It is possible that social impact bonds will take the place of some of the government funding that used to flow to cultural organizations in less constrained times.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Pop-Up Museums...On Main Street

One of the themes CFM explored in TrendsWatch 2012 was pop-up culture: the public’s growing appetite for mobile, transitory retail, culinary or cultural experiences. Today’s blog post is by Nate Rudy, director of economic and community development for the City of Gardiner, Maine, which just finished a pop-up retail experiment over the holidays. Nate “gets” the potential of museums to help revitalize the city center. How can we encourage more other administrators to share his vision? One starting point might be to share this post with your town’s planners as a starting point for a conversation on how museum can contribute to economic, and cultural, revitalization.

In a perfect world, every Main Street would have a museum of local and regional art or history. I say this as my small Maine city—population 5,800, struggling economy, community eager to rebuild itself in the shadow of its closed factories—takes bold measures to break from recent hardships and revitalize our main street. I wish that a history and art museum were part of the plan for my city’s downtown.

In the aftermath of the global economic adjustment and the factory closings that preceded it here in Maine, many of us lost jobs and income or have been compelled to change trades. For some, there's a gnawing hole where identity, opportunity, and pride used to be. Our children look to us and our leaders for answers (and jobs, too) but we're still trying to figure out what happened and what, if anything, we can do about it. After thirty years of shifts and adjustments in federal and state funding sources, small cities and towns like mine are starting to realize that meaningful changes happen locally and small-town politics, surprisingly, matter again. Residents are finding a voice at City Council and school board meetings, questioning their children's education in civic engagement, and mapping the future of their own communities. Some towns do this with more gusto and clarity than others, but it's happening here and elsewhere.

We're starting to see that if we don't do things to help ourselves, nobody else will.

Toward that end, our city's Main Street program and the City’s economic and development department asked downtown building owners to let new businesses use their empty storefronts, rent-free, from Halloween to New Years Day last year. With luck and good cash flow, maybe the new businesses will stick around into the new year, but for sure our downtown looked vibrant and bright for the holiday season. The event made national news when we filled nearly every empty storefront —I read about it in the Portland Press Herald. Not Portland, Maine, but across the continent in Portland, Oregon.

One thing we didn’t have in one of those empty storefronts was a museum. But I hope some other town experimenting with pop-up development does—wouldn't it be something if there was a pop-up museum in your downtown? 

If the purpose of art is to reflect our culture back to us in an unfamiliar form, and to make the familiar and mundane once again fresh and exciting, what better resource could we employ than a museum in the heart of our new local economy? We need to remind ourselves who we were when our economy was thriving, and we need to show our children why the towns where they live were founded in the first place. We need to give the community an outlet for expression, reconnect ourselves to the wonder of experience, and explore how we can rebuild our economies and communities for a durable future.

From my childhood growing up in a suburban wasteland, I remember museums as destinations—places where we went and wondered before leaving on the school bus with the rest of our classmates. But what if the local museum was located on the way to work, next door to the lunch cafe, or near your child's school? What a gift to the community to teach young people that their local history and historians are a source of information and context for the future and for civic life, and not just a place to go on a field trip or to humor a grandparent.

In a perfect world, that museum would be part of a community center that might include after-school art programs, a local art and craft gallery, studio space for art, exercise, and music, even municipal offices of community development. It would blur the lines between the past and the future, commerce and art, economy and community, and bring the foreboding, empty “museum on the hill” back to the fold of people and energy flowing through downtown.

Most importantly, that museum could stimulate local economies and teach young people the survival skills of ingenuity, self-expression, respect for that which preceded us, and appreciation for their community. It could anchor a downtown in which people live and create, where they patronize locally-owned shops selling handmade art, crafts and sundries and food. The museum and community art center would be like a global, year-long Kwanzaa--a celebration of gifts given and made by caring hands of someone you know.  It could pop up in a community like yours—maybe it should.

I know of a few museums that have experimented with pop-up culture. Maria Mortati’s SF Mobile Museum, of course, and the Denver Community Museum. Billy Joel’s motorcycle museum was conceived of during a pop-up “tactical urbanism” project in Oyster Bay, NY. On a grand scale, there is the internationally peripatetic BMW Guggenheim Lab. What other museums out there are experimenting with pop-up culture? Please use the comments section, below, to share your projects or tweet a link to the attention of @futureofmuseums. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Coming Soon to Your Museum--The Internet of Cars

I can hardly wait for the “Internet of Cars” to become something we simply take for granted.

This includes cars that drive themselves  (now legal in California and licensed in Nevada), but also cars that:
  • Find their own parking places
  • And then remind us where we parked
  • Monitor who is driving around us, and avoid those with bad driving records (awesome)
  • Detect my mood and queue up appropriate music. (OK, this one is a little far-fetched. But not much.)

 We are rapidly approaching a time when “car” could be as much of an anachronistic, catch-all term for a whole suite of functions as “phone” is for that internet-connected computing device in my pocket. In fact, cars may turn out to be the  ultimate “mobile technology.” (Pun shamelessly borrowed from the Wired article I link to in the opening paragraph.)

Why is so-called “smart mobility” an issue for museums, and not just for impatient futurists? Because access is everything, and museums need to start thinking about how people will get to their museums in coming decades, and what opportunities and challenges this presents.

New museums now in the planning stages (or museums planning new buildings) may do well to develop their plans around transportation issues.. This includes not only technological trends, but also cultural trends. Millennials don’t have the same relationship to cars their parents and grandparents had. They have a lower rate of car ownership, and they drive less. According to the research firm Gartner, Forty-six percent of drivers aged 18 to 24 said they would choose Internet access over owning a car. Of course, the development of true “smart cars” may mean they don’t have to choose, but for now, the more people in this age group use the internet, the less likely they are to have a driver’s license.

Many firms are already experimenting with alternatives to car ownership, if not car use per se. ZipCar was just bought by Avis-Budget. The traditional car rental firm thinks it can make the popular car share service (which only just began to break even) into a money-making proposition. Start-ups like GetAround, JustShareIt and Wheelz are experimenting with platforms that support peer-to-peer car sharing. The leading contender in this new market, RelayRides, is backed by GM and Google, so again—mainstream street cred. (That pun was mine.)

Bicycle transportation is on the rise as well. More and more cities (e.g., Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago and Washington) are investing in Bike Share programs and expanding bike lanes and trails.

How might museums take these personal transportation trends into account?
  • Make sure you have the information you need to assess how changes in transportation may affect your organization. If you don’t have data about how people get to your museum, start collecting it! If you do “non-visitor” surveys, be sure to ask about barriers to access, including transportation.
  • Project potential financial impact. Do you depend significantly on income from parking? If so, you might want to create a scenario in which fewer people park, and pay, and start working out how to make up the lost revenue.
  • If you are planning a new facility, think about how much to invest in parking infrastructure, and how to make it flexible and adaptive (so you are not, for example, stuck with a half-used parking garage that is designed in such a way as to be hard to re-purpose).
  •  Include alt transportation options in your marketing message, especially if you are targeting Gen Y. “Zip cars--they're not just for runs to the grocery store or Ikea—take one to the museum!"
  • Partner with commercial firms and city planners to make sure you have a car share and/or bike share station on or near your grounds.
 I did a recent tweet-out, asking for examples of museums with Bikeshare/Carshare sites on their campus or nearby. Here are some of the replies. You can add to this collection in the comment section, below, or tweet to the attention of @futureofmuseums.
  •  SAMAart @SAMAart @futureofmuseums we do! we have a @bcycle station at SAMA + we are a river taxi station on the Museum Reach portion of the river #sanantonio
  • Maren Dougherty @MarenReport @futureofmuseums There are @car2goSanDiego stations in @BalboaPark, home of these museums:
  • FLMNH @FloridaMuseum We have bike share within museum grounds and car share in adjacent lots,
  • Diane Shaw @Museocat @futureofmuseums There are a lot of DC @bikeshare stations near museums on the Mall and elsewhere (map at
  • Jonny Brownbill @jonnybrownbill @futureofmuseums @MelbBikeShare adjacent to @melbournemuseum

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Do Campus Museums Enjoy Greater Freedom to Innovate?

In today’s post, guest blogger Pam Campanaro, Education and Public Programs Coordinator at the Samek Art Gallery, Bucknell University, continues the ongoing commentary on the Campus Art Museum report, with an exploration of the on-campus opportunities and constraints on museum creativity.

The Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago’s recent report “Campus Art Museums in the 21st Century: a Conversation suggests that working within a campus museum allows for a kind of freedom unsanctioned at major institutions. Based on my recent experience mounting a cutting edge art event at the Samek Art Gallery of Bucknell University, I would disagree.

Unlike “business model” institutions such as MOMA or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, college museums such as Bucknell’s operate on a much smaller scale, with less pressure to generate revenue from bookstores, facility rentals, or cafés. In theory, this institutional support should give campus museums the freedom to experiment in ways larger institutors cannot; to mount exhibitions that are more democratic, programs that are more cutting-edge. However, not all the forces that work to maintain the status quo are economic.

Excito! Excito!”: A Veritable Feast  was a social practice installation designed by New York-based artist, Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung, Bucknell’s Graduate Assistant of Printmaking, Jessie Horning, and local photographer Sanh Brian Tran. The concept was to create a two-part program. Part one was an interdisciplinary panel, Food for Thought: How Our Palates Have Become Political, featuring an economist, a chemical engineer, and Hung himself discussing the ways in which food consumption and Americans’ relationship to food has drastically changed course. Part two was a “social practice happening” that invited participants to dine as a collective around a table filled with gelatin apples, artificially flavored turkey, and genetically modified side dishes.

Social practice happenings are based on the concept of Relational Aesthetics, a term coined by Nicolas Bourriaud. In essence, it’s a joined audience envisaged as a community, rather than a relationship based solely on the viewer, the object, and its setting within the “white cube.”  For Bourriaud, “the role of the artwork is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of actions within the existing real.” This means the interaction and communal nature of a shared experience and the exchange of language is a catalyst which can generate art as a byproduct.
Try explaining the concepts of Relational Aesthetics or Social Practice Art to campus dining staff or a university head of risk assessment.
The evening prior to our event, artist Jessie Horning came to my office accompanied by the Director of Risk Management from the Office of General Counsel for Bucknell University. I was shown sheets of paper asking for signatures from the individual claiming sole responsibility for this event. In other words: Who would fork over the hundreds of thousands of dollars for medical care and vacation injections if students, faculty, or staff contracted hepatitis from eating “off-site” food? In addition, our artists were asked to present food licenses and show documentation that they were in fact authorized to distribute food in the state of Pennsylvania. For everyone, but particularly for Horning, a twenty-something artist in her second year of graduate study, this was a lesson in negotiating the politics of campus administration. For the museum, “Excito! Excito!” was a cutting-edge program that could hold its own against larger institutions. In the eyes of the university it was a potential liability.

Gallery staff took a huge risk in that evening- after listening to the concerns expressed by the university, we proceeded with our event as planned. We decided that if the premise behind a relational work of art was to allow an audience to become activists in communal experience, then we would let that happen. We would give no direction and allow audience members to dine or not dine based on their own observations. Were we hoping they would take social cues and join us in feasting on gelatin turkey? Yes! Were we holding our breath that administration would not find out? Oh, YES.

After the panel discussion, we invited our audience into the gallery. Gallery staff sat at the food-laden table and we served one another. Initially, the crowds surrounding us were uncertain how to act. Were they invited to participate? Were they to follow our lead and interact with our communal meal? Such questions are the beauty of the social practice movement. Art and life suddenly blurred to the extent that our audience did in fact take the reins and seat themselves. They became contributors, artists even, in the engagement and dialogue around how our food and eating practices have the potential to be, well… art.

 In the end, “Excito! Excito!” attracted more people than did any of our other programs this semester. I’ve deemed it our most successful program to date, not because of the number of visitors, but because our visitors became participants. For that evening, we as a campus museum mirrored the controversial, push-the-envelope kind of programming present in larger institutions. We handed our audience the keys to the museum, and invited them to be the curators of their own experience. And, while the risk we took in ignoring the authoritative voice of campus administration was a great one with potentially serious consequences, we elected to stand behind our mission to be a learning lab of opportunity for our campus—which is the real reason campus museums have a place in our futures.

What do you think? Would it be more difficult, or less, to mount a “social practice happening” such as Excito! Excito! at a non-campus museum? Who, at your museum, oversees risk management and legal compliance, and how are they involved in planning for exhibits and events? Would they have put the kibosh on this happening? Please weigh in using the comments section, below. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Reaching Behind the Glass

I've long admired the creativity and ingenuity of the Manchester Museum—following their exploits from inviting a hermit to live in the museum for forty days and forty nights and while engaging the public in an examination of what might be removed from the collections; to recruiting a fashion design firm to plan the reinstallation of their natural history collections. Now they've tackled the haptic frontier—using technology to simulate the experience of touching objects that visitors are not allowed to actually handle. Today Sam Sportun, collection care manager and senior conservator at the Manchester Museum, tells us more about this adventure into the realm of digital digits.

In recent years, Manchester Museum has pursued a philosophy of making more of its collection available for visitors to handle and touch through object handling sessions and tactile displays. As is well known, this approach benefits all visitors, as the sense of touch physically connects the visitor to the object and enhances an intuitive and natural curiosity to learn more. However, as a conservator I also know that some objects will not survive long term use as a handling object. Complex, beautiful objects often have the most captivating histories, but when displayed behind glass, they can be very difficult for a visually impaired visitor to appreciate.

With funding from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, we tackled the challenge of providing access to objects that can’t actually be handled by developing a Haptic Interactive. Haptics consist of a touch-enabled computer system which allows the user to investigate and explore the topography of an artefact within a 3-dimensional digital environment through a tactile feedback stylus. The Manchester Museum’s interactive provides a digital experience using objects from our new Ancient Worlds galleries.

We realized that the end user had to be involved in the process of developing the interactive from the very beginning. Over the past 18 months Christopher Dean and I worked with an enthusiastic focus group from Henshaws Society for Blind People. Members of the focus group chose three objects for the interactive: a faience shabti [380-343 BC], Greek jug [500-475 BC] and Pre-Dynastic hippo bowl [4000-3500 BC]. Even more importantly, they helped to guide us through the process of creating an easily navigable 3D digital space.

Michael handling a museum object and the Henshaw’s focus group choosing objects for scanning

Laser scanning the pre-dynastic hippo bowl (4000-3500BC)
The haptic interface enables users to explore the digital scanned form of objects, using their sense of touch. We enhanced the digital content with sounds, video and the spoken word, creating a rich experience as the object’s story unfolds. We are also developing activities within the interface that enable the user to explore the silhouette of an object to enhance their understanding of its overall form. A portable version of the system is used for outreach to groups that may have problems getting to the museum.

Haptic unit in the new gallery
We found that when visitors use the device for the first time, unless they take time to explore and understand this space, the experience can feel unrewarding. So we introduce users to the 3 dimensional digital space with an introductory screen that uses sound and everyday objects. Once passed this first screen the interactive has a series of “rooms” which deal with different aspects of the objects history, manufacture or use.
“Room” where object selection can be made and story of the object can be extended
The Probos haptic unit is now a permanent feature of the Manchester Museum’s new gallery, offering a new stage for the visitor (whether visually impaired or sighted) to explore. We are at the beginning of understanding how we can use haptics to create a truly meaningful experience—there is still much work to do and numerous exciting possibilities for using this technology to illuminate real objects and their stories.