Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Recap of 2011


This week I took a look at the most-read posts of 2011. By “voting with your mouse” you help us identify the trends and developments that you think are most interesting and relevant to your work.

What does it say about us as a field that the most popular story of the year was It’s Not About the Cat Cams from the Philbrook Museum of Art? I’d like to think it stems from the serious attention we are giving to the power of social media and its ability to radically expand the number of people interested in our museums. I suspect it is because the video is so damn funny. (I want to see a sequel in which the cats—carefully escorted, of course—are set loose in the museum. Cat as art critic?)

Given the state of the economy, and the number of newly minted museum studies graduates looking for positions, it’s no surprise that Landing a Job in the Museum of the Future came in a close second after the cats. Another top ten post on that topic was The Workforce of the Future Starts Now. In 2012, we’ll continue to scan for any hints we can pass along regarding how museums will recruit, train and retain staff in coming decades.

Another theme that got a lot of attention from readers was the effect of the economic crisis on museums. The Future of Development: Crowdsourced Funding reviewed how museums are using social media and the web to finance projects via small donations, often from people previously unconnected to the museum. On the other hand, Museum Ethics in a Gilded Age explored the ethical dilemmas that may arise in a future in which museums are even more dependent on wealthy individuals.

Museums are using the internet to solicit input and expertise, as well as funds, from the public. Museums & Wikipedia and More Crowdsourced Scholarship: Citizen History present case studies of the costs and benefits of this approach, and how it can best be managed.

I am please that the Let’s Move! Museums & Gardens campaign, fighting childhood obesity, is getting so much attention. Read about the campaign in Let’s Help America Move! and sign up to be a Let’s Move! museum. Over 500 organizations have joined this effort—our ambition is to swell our ranks to 3000 in 2012.

Saving the Historic House bridged the themes of financial stability and fighting obesity, as Woodlawn shared how it has partnered with Michael Babin’s Neighborhood Restaurant Group to create Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. I am a total fan of their work!

And readers were clearly intrigued by the Transformative Power of Innovation exemplified by Innovation Lab for Museums, launched in 2011 by AAM and EmcArts with funding from MetLife Foundation. Stand by for an announcement in early 2012 of which three museum projects were selected to participate in this first round of the lab. We look forward to sharing the lessons they learn from their experiments.

Best wishes for 2012 from the Center for the Future of Museums and all of the staff here at AAM. Let’s make it another step along the way to a bright future…

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Klaatu barada Santa: Cyper St. Entropy enters museum space

My co-authors for this year’s Xmas post are John Simmons and Sally Shelton. We firmly maintain that we have not and will never be replaced by cheaply constructed androids.

'Twas the Night before Christmas, a snowy cold night,
While making my rounds I’d just turned off the light.
The exhibits were lovely, with faint dustings of snow―
Oh, wait. That's just arsenic. (at least it’s not blow!)
The loans had been processed, the donations accessioned,
Documents filed, requests re-refreshened.
And, after arranging the hors-d'oeuvres by size,
The curators left early to un-socialize.
(They had not much to do in the way of curation—
Our objects had been through full digitization.
Reality morphed into bits and to bytes—
The managers shifted to researching rights.)
No creature was stirring in any direction—
Our mice were all wireless, no cords there for flexion.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care
(with good 3D glasses they appeared to be there).
And I, in a case study, studying cases,
Wondered if we had all covered our bases.
If anyone came in to see the real thing,
All we could offer was pixels and bling.
And what if visitors didn’t have smart phones or iPads?
If our fancy-pants apps went the way of all fads?
When, what to my bloodshot eyes suddenly glared
But an actinic light at the top of the stairs.
(It’s a good thing we didn’t use retinal scans
In our high-tech and high-price security plans.)
And then, in an instant, I heard on my phone
Scraping sounds made by a pilot-less drone.
As I turned to find ammo, I heard a strange sound,
As Cyber St. Entropy crashed to the ground.
His eyes, they were lasers. His face, much like Gort’s.
He was shiny and sleek, and just lousy with ports.
Whirring sounds came from his joints and his belly,
Which could have held gallons of holiday jelly.
He had a small bag, nothing much, nothing finer—
It turns out the elves had been outsourced to China.
All of its contents beeped, hummed, glowed, or sparked,
And his sleigh flashed erratically where it was parked.
He spoke not a word at first, then started talking,
Sounding a bit too much like Stephen Hawking.
He reprogrammed our systems, access and entry,
To keep out the riff-raff but let in the gentry
He added great handfuls of memory freely,
So our digital holdings could for once be seen clearly.
He lit up the galleries in LED modes,
And replaced all the labels with new QR-Codes
Making use of the latest Augmented Reality
He programmed our dinos to engage in depravity
While checking our finances’ state of liquidity,
He nuked the AS virus (Artificial Stupidity).
Then, checking his work to see what he’d beget
He pressed down the button labeled “reset.”
And, laying a digital digit to nose,
While blinking all ports, to the ether he rose.
But I heard him exclaim as his drone-sleigh took wing
“Next year I expect you to show the “real thing!””

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Steampunk, Crowdfunding and the Power of Social Media

Or, How One Exhibit Company Pulled A Brass Elephant Out Of A Hat

This week’s guest post is by Peter Overstreet. Pete and his wife, Cat Taylor, founded the exhibit and event design company Aeronaut Productions LLC. Pete was a full-time illustrator with experience in games, theater and film, who entered the world of exhibit design after joining the team that designed and assembled a traveling exhibit on the American space program—NASA: A Human Adventure. Pete is also the director of a Steampunk theatrical company called Legion Fantastique. This unique combination of skills and experience put him in a perfect place to respond to an opportunity presented in a Facebook message from a friend:  “Hey, Pete, there is a museum in Anaheim that is interested in doing an exhibit on Steampunk. I thought you might like to talk to them.”

The MUZEO, a small, city-owned exhibit space in downtown Anaheim had recently arranged with a local collector of Victorian art and ephemera to borrow his extensive menagerie for an exhibit. One of the MUZEO’s marketing staff suggested adding a “Steampunk” theme to bring in younger visitors, hence the call for Steampunk help that led them to us. They initially thought of this as a small “supporting” exhibit, but we were so excited by the possibilities that Aeronaut proposed a full exhibit called Steampunk: History Beyond Imagination.

Our ambitions went beyond an exhibition of quirky sculptures made of lamp parts, leather top hats and goggles. We wanted the exhibit to be a journey into the origins, aesthetics and future of the Steampunk phenomenon. We mainstreamed historical elements into the exhibit, including—with the help of several Disney artists who were also members of the Anaheim Historical Society—tying the world of Steampunk in with the history of Anaheim itself. (Did you know that if Walt Disney’s film “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” had flopped, his company would probably have to auction off the orange groves that were about to be turned into what is now Disneyland?)

But there was a problem. How could we come up with sufficient funds to make our vision a reality? We suggested launching a Kickstarter campaign (Kickstarter is an online crowdfunding site) to raise a portion of the budget, and the MUZEO staff agreed.

First we needed a compelling video to make our pitch on Kickstarter. I made phone calls and frantic emails to rally a crew to help make a small, fanciful appeal for funds. What I thought would be 15–16 people turned out to be a rabid crowd of 60 people all dressed in their finest Steampunk regalia. On a boiling July afternoon, we filmed a madcap commercial that not only helped us raise funds, but also gave potential investors a feel for the wonderful world of Steampunk. 



The video was a huge success. We pulled together over $10,000 for the exhibit, and we made contacts with artisans who were willing to loan us their fabulous pieces of Steampunk-themed art! We had tapped into something that we hadn’t thought of initially—going to the community that would chiefly have an interest in the exhibit and allowing them to be a part of the production of the exhibit. We brought our supporters along for the ride by posting a semi-regular video production blog on YouTube, tweeting and updating our Facebook group almost daily.

The exhibit’s chief strength was the amazing pieces of Steampunk art from around the United States. We would never have been able to borrow so many quality pieces of art had we not involved the greater Steampunk community by putting out an open call for submissions.

This social transparency provided us with the opportunity to contact owners of artifacts – including a gentleman who was building a full-scale replica of the Time Machine from the 1960 George Pal film of the same name. We made professional connections with companies like Disney, Warner Bros. and the owner of the Classics Illustrated comic book franchise, aiding us in acquiring licensing and usage rights with some of the items in our show.

We were also able to involve prominent Steampunk enthusiasts in the design process by allowing them to critique our efforts. Many effective changes were made thanks to help of people like the “Steampunk Scholar” Mike Perschon and the crew of the Neverwas Haul.

Our blog entries became more sporadic as we labored on the show to the very last few minutes. Friends and observers, who had kept abreast of our progress through our social media efforts, came to our rescue more than once and chipped in with physical help and or much needed words of encouragement.

On October 23, 2011, Steampunk: History Beyond Imagination opened to the public.

The ribbon cutting ceremony was swamped with hundreds of people who had all come to see both exhibits—many of them had heard of it through Kickstarter, Facebook or Twitter. We and the MUZEO staff learned just how powerful a tool community involvement had become for funding and organizing exhibitions like this!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Futurist Friday: Uglies, Pretties, Specials and Extras

“The function of science fiction is not always to predict the future but sometimes to prevent it.”—Frank Herbert


This week’s guest post is by Kat Burkhart, executive director and curator of the Carnegie Museum of Montgomery County. Kat is a not-so-closeted sci-fi fan who offered to contribute to Futurist Friday from her reading list of favorites. 

In a previous CFM Blog post we were encouraged to read more science fiction. Here is one selection with a new twist on an old theme. If you enjoyed reading the Hunger Games, you should appreciate this series as well. Enjoy some light reading over the holidays.

Good science fiction includes imaginative world building in addition to a quality plot. Scott Westerfeld’s series Uglies, Pretties, Specials and Extras builds a futuristic world we can recognize as not to distant from our own.

Set 300 years in the future, after all oil was violently destroyed by a bio-engineered microbe, this coming-of-age tale conforms to all the standards of traditional dystopian science fiction, with a fresh look at an old tale. Partially inspired by the 1964 Twilight Zone episode Number Twelve Looks Just Like You, the premise of the books is that at age sixteen everyone either undergoes massive plastic surgery to become “pretty”—just like everyone else—or runs away to live in the wild. Those that turn pretty have all their needs met and spend all their time partying and having fun.

In classic science fiction mode, the story showcases new and amazing technology, such as hoverboards, hoverstruts and hovercars and lots of nanotechnology. It also includes interface rings and body sensors which connect the wearer to the electronic world. Without the interface it is as if a person doesn’t exist- doors won’t open and elevators won’t respond. “Smart” cars will run over someone who is not connected to the system.

Something for us all to think about in the era of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. 

Recycling without reuse—everything is completely disposable.

“She turned her gaze to where it had fallen. Discarded, the plastic mask had recycled itself, turning into pink dust, which the carpet in the elevator was already filtering away.”

In Westerfeld’s world everything is recycled; if something drops, the five second rule applies because after that it’s gone. Clothes and accessories are not cleaned or repaired; they are recycled into new ones. Objects are impermanent and little if anything is saved to be shared or passed from one individual to another. Everything is cheap if not free and always instantly available, but almost everything is disposable.

The Smoke, a place of runaways and rebels, has a trading post because outlaws do not have access to the city made items. Here most necessary objects are made by hand and traded or handed down from person to person. Presents are precious because they are not disposable.

Some current real life issues that the first book, Uglies and this series encourage us to consider:

  • Mandated conformity in a world obsessed with youth and appearance, where plastic surgery is the norm. Currently some children in the United States are having elective plastic surgery to decrease the likelihood of being bullied in school or in the future
  • In Extras, a popularity monetary system, where by the more virtual hits and the more people follow your feed; the more you can buy, the more power and influence you have. Is this so different from the wealth and power that accrue to fame in the U.S. today?
  • A world in which the population is kept fed, clothed and happy enough to not ask questions. (Bread and circuses) Most people are kept in a dependent state with a small percentage of people in charge. This includes extreme safety protocols, including nothing that has real risk; only safety fireworks, bungee jackets and lots of protective items to keep people safe while they are having fun. Nanotechnology can repair almost anything. Imagine the world of the perpetual invincible teenager who believes that nothing really bad can happen. This is purposefully created by the government of each city-state to keep the citizens focused on having fun. Would a little more government-sponsored fun have headed off the Occupy Wall Street movement?
  • Smart appliances, accessories, furniture, transportation; everything, including bridges, doors, elevators and even buildings, interacts with everything else, so that everyone is monitored, tracked and reported. We may be on the cusp of this now—you can already buy a refrigerator that writes your grocery list for you! In the past year, some citizens in California and across the country are fighting aspects of the smart meters which connect, either wirelessly or through a wired connection, with the system which can tell if residents are at home by the amount of electricity in use at the time and some people are concerned that this information could be a privacy breech. 

If you read this series, or other works of science fiction, try to draw connect the fictive future state with things you observe happening now. The future always as a toehold in the present. And as I read, I always find myself wondering what museums would be like in the worlds created in works like this. For example, if all material goods are transient and everything is instantly recycled, would museums be seen as transgressive, or valued more than ever? —E. Merritt

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Forecasting the Future of History Organizations and Their Leaders


For three weeks every November leaders and practitioners from the field of the public history meet at the Seminar for Historical Administration to discuss challenges and future directions for history organizations.  This week’s blog post is by John Durel, who coordinates the seminar, and his partner, Anita Durel. John and Anita work with museum executives nationwide and have written frequently about museums and cultural organizations.

The public history field—history museums, historical societies, historic sites and archives—has reached a tipping point. Driven by the need to develop financially sustainable operating models, the impact of technology how individuals access and share information and most importantly the emergence and favorable reception of new leaders with entrepreneurial acumen, the field is no longer hesitant or resistant to change. Though some organizations are lagging, we see a blossoming of ideas and new approaches that promise to make history relevant, meaningful and useful in today’s world.

This is a time of innovation. Here are ten developments we see coming in the years ahead.

1.  A National Purpose
Leaders in the field begin to articulate a purpose for history organizations aligning with a nationally recognized need. Children’s museums are building their case around healthy early childhood development as a fundamental right and an investment in the nation’s future. Science centers, in partnership with schools and universities, have established STEM education as essential for our future prosperity. Both children’s and science museums have built a platform to articulate the importance of these respective fields and their link to a strong America. History organizations must do the same. What is the greater good that public history serves? How will improved knowledge and understanding of the past make us better as a nation? In the long run, what difference will history organizations make? The field needs a single, concise statement of purpose that does not require elaborate explanation.

2. An Integrated Programmatic Approach
History organizations will no longer assume that the best methods to present history are thematic exhibitions, historic site tours and living history “experiences.” Programming, generally seen as supplemental to these primary approaches, will begin to play a central role. Staffs, in collaboration with advisors, will brainstorm ways to tell a particular story, explore a topic and engage the public. Science Gallery in Dublin, Ireland, is a good example. Their innovative work includes a series of integrated, edgy and extremely popular programs, incorporating interactive exhibits, online engagement, onsite happenings and public events. We look forward to the history organization that takes this approach and makes the examination of historical phenomena relevant, edgy and fun.

3. The Value of Historical Objects
We expect to see more innovation in the use of three-dimensional collections. The traditional and expensive development of thematic exhibits, laden with numerous objects and interpretive labels, will give way to more flexible and experimental approaches. An early glimpse of this shift is “Controversy” at the Ohio Historical Society. Constrained by time and money, the staff selected objects that prompt a reaction and discussion. Similar constraints will lead to innovation elsewhere. We are already reading about pop up exhibits. Experimenting with the use of objects will help us understand their true value and educational potential.

4. Sharing Historical Authority
The authority for interpreting the past, which resided with professional historians and curators, is increasingly shared with visitors, program participants, online users and community groups. Digitization of collections is making it easy for anyone to use a computer or hand-held device to read documents, view images, and get information about historical topics, locations, events or artifacts. Over the next several years we expect to see more history organizations embrace this change and find ways to involve the public in presenting and interpreting history.

5. Critical Thinking and Historical Practice
As the field learns to share historical authority, it finds ways to help the public develop a more complex and nuanced understanding of history. Building on educational programs developed for youth, such as National History Day, and spurred by IMLS’s 21st Century skills initiative, history organizations offer tools, resources, and “history labs” for both youth and adults. They engage the public not only in an interpretation of the past, but also in understanding how historians arrive at the interpretation. The public (lay historians) receive guidance and support for finding reliable information, thinking critically about primary evidence, considering alternative and multiple perspectives, thinking historically and not projecting today’s assumptions on the past, and crafting narratives that reveal the subtleties and ambiguities of history.  (See “What is the role of the historian in the age of shared authority and radical trust?” for further thoughts on this.)

6. The Power of Historical Places
History organizations will engage people “on site, online, or on the road” (to borrow a phrase from the Kentucky Historical Society.) At the same time they will recognize the power of particular places and settings. Following the lead of Historic New England and the historic sites of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, innovative uses of historic properties will continue, enabling people to experience these places even when the purpose is not an overt or explicit history lesson. Historic properties will be both places to gather and places to learn (this time borrowing a phrase from Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, N.H.)

7. Contentious History
Some history organizations, in some communities, will be compelled to address contentious history. See the Nov. 8 blog post at Developing History Leaders @SHA for our thoughts on this. This requires leaders who are passionate about history, deeply committed to building stronger communities, and have the fortitude to endure attacks. It will also take skilled facilitation. Exploration of the past can easily divide people rather than unite them.

8. Business Thinking
Through our work with museum CEOs in executive roundtables, we are beginning to see increased understanding of business thinking. More leaders are becoming adept at business planning, market research, data driven change, monetizing assets, strategic investment and disinvestment, disciplined measurement of ROI, diversification of revenue, and capitalization. They are also tuning in to changes in philanthropy and the growth of social entrepreneurship, as described in Nonprofit Finance in Hard Times, by Susan U. Raymond.

9. Governing Boards
In spite of our general optimism, we remain deeply concerned about the performance of governing boards. For every conversation we have with an executive director indicating a strong and engaged board, we have five conversations about boards that are inactive, resistant, or worse, undermining change. Without active board engagement in the fund development process, without their willingness to step up to the challenge of raising money, without their enthusiastic financial support for new approaches to the work, it seems unlikely that the current spate of innovation in the field will be sustained. It does not have to be this way—a courageous and committed executive director can give the board the direction and the support it needs to meet its responsibilities for the financial health of the organization.

10. History Leadership
After a delay caused by the recession, we are starting to see the retirement of executive directors who have led organizations since the 1970s and 80s. Opportunities are opening for younger individuals who are department heads or directors of smaller institutions. These younger leaders are responsible for much of the innovation now underway. Their greatest challenge will be to learn how to lead a board. We use the word “lead” here in the sense that Jim Collins uses it in Good to Great and the Social Sector. The leadership challenge is not to make the right decisions, but to make sure that the right decisions get made, and that will require building boards that are fully supportive and actively engaged in the transformation of history organizations.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Navigating Conservation Futures



I’m often bemused when I compare the answers to two questions I frequently ask museums:



  1. One of the key functions identified in your mission is preserving collections. What’s your goal? How long do you want them to be around?
  2. What timeframe do you examine when you approach institutional planning?

The answer to 1) (once I stipulate it can’t be “forever”) is usually in a 200–1000 year range. The answer to 2) is usually around 20 years, if that.

This depressing disconnect made me particularly happy to receive a paper from MaryJo Lelyveld, conservator of frames and furniture, National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, titled “Beyond Swabs and Solvent Gels: Using Scenarios to Generate, Evaluate and Navigate Conservation Futures." This is a good read for the staff of any collecting institution. How can we expect to do a good job of preserving scientific, artistic, historic and cultural heritage for future generations if we don’t spend some mental energy considering the impact that trends will have on collections and collecting?

The main text of the paper is a general overview of forecasting and scenario planning, pitched at conservation professionals. For those budding futurists and have read the Futures Studies 101 series on this Blog, or attending the University of Houston’s Certificate intensive Certificate in Strategic Foresight* this will be a review of familiar material.

But I recommend Appendix 2: Scenarios for the Future of Conservation to the attention of all readers. Here Lilyveld summarized pertinent trends in all the STEEP categories (social, technological, economic, environmental and political) and assesses their impact on collections. She also defines a set of key issues and addresses them through presenting the seed (or kernel) of three scenarios—hypothetical stories of the future about 20 years from now. These are set in Australia, but the drivers of change shaping that nation are broadly similar to those facing the U.S., and the scenarios could be adapted for American museums with minor changes.

The Great Release envisions a future in which the rising financial burden of caring for collections, slow economic growth and the collapse of government funding leads many state and regional galleries to close their collections and aggressively deaccession materials. Private and cooperative collectors step in to buy these materials, and conservators (92% of whom are self-employed in this future) band together to form centralized cultural heritage skills centers to care for these distributed collections. The current Maker movement gives rise to the “Thing-kers” movement—people eager to learn lost trades and return to the comfort of tangible artifacts.

In GaME on natural disasters and terrorist attacks have fueled the movement of collections, and conservators, to centralized, secure storage sites. (Hmm, sounds like Louisiana.) “Real” exhibits lose ground to “immersive art experiences.” Not that collections are not longer valued. au contraire—some museums have begun to monetize their collections by selling biological samples to commercial enterprises, others sell accurate 3-D models of their material. Conservators specialize as either Heritage Scientists, focusing on analysis and research, or Cultural Replicators, skilled in 3D documentation, database management and creation of virtual experiences.

Conservation 2030: Museoagora paints a picture of the future in which museum growth and expansion is fueled by increased volunteerism on the part of retiring Boomers and unemployed Millennials. Attendance rises to new heights, and museums expand their activities in a variety of ways, turning their grounds into botanical arks and creating pop-up museums in local businesses. The increased use and transportation of collections demands more conservation support, assisted by advances in nanotechnology and molecular engineering that essentially enable artifacts to heal themselves. (This is what futurists would call a “bright future.” Can you tell?)

As with all scenarios, these stories are starting points for deeper exploration. You might adapt and expand them to apply to your museum and its community, helping your staff to plan for many potential futures, all of which include well-cared for collections.

*Registration is now open for the Jan. 9–13 session of the University of Houston’s Certificate in Strategic Foresight course. Register by Dec. 9 for the early bird rate, and mention you are a CFM follower for a 20% discount! Several museum graduates have documented their experience in the course here on the CFM Blog.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Next Frontier of Museum Ethics


Here at CFM, we’re wrapping up Round Three of Forecasting the Future of Museum Ethics. The survey closes Dec. 9 (there’s a link below if you still haven’t participated) and I can hardly wait to compile the input from our Oracles and the public.


Most of the issues that have surfaced during the forecasting exercise are echoes of ongoing arguments from a hundred year or more of the museum literature. I’d lay money that John Cotton Dana (d. 1929) was blogging, I mean writing, about the obligation of museums to be economically accessible to the public; the ethics of making collections accessible; and the perils of conflict of interest when it comes to donors, sponsors and members of the governing authority. Maybe these will play out in new ways in coming decades, but we probably know the arguments and the players already.

But the forecast looks at one issue that may actually be new—or at least so different in degree as to be different in kind as well: the challenge of curatorial authority vs. crowdsourced input/community curation/participatory design.

Really? Community curation might be viewed as unethical?

Actually, this wasn’t a total surprise to me. As I work with various museums on futures forecasting, I’ve noticed that the biggest internal tension is usually on just this point. The curatorial staff often feel not just threatened, but morally outraged at the thought of letting amateur experts or your average woman-on-the street, contribute to (much less control) museum content. But elsewhere in the room, members of the education department, development staff and often the museum leadership are saying “we need to invite the community in. We need to be more than just a place they are welcome to visit. They need to feel this is their museum, that we value their talent, opinions and participation.”

The issue is not entirely new—some museums have long welcomed the input of select amateur experts. But tension is arising from a number of trends that expand and extend the nature of this participation. The growth of social media and the ubiquity of smart, hand-held, internet connected devices have fundamentally shifted the public’s expectations regarding authority and participation. As CFM documented in Museums & Society 2034, the MyCulture trend reflects an increasing desire on the part of audiences to do, not just view. People have grown accustomed to sharing and shaping opinion by Yelp, Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare and a host of other social media. The first reference they turn to is Wikipedia, not an encyclopedia or the academic literature. And they know that they themselves could become Wiki-editors, or set themselves up as authorities with their own blog, Twitter stream or self-published work (even if relatively few of them do).

At the same time, many museum professionals see themselves and their organizations as the last bastions of accuracy and excellence. They believe that the greatest value they bring to the museum and its audiences is the deep knowledge and nuanced insight that come from years of study and experience. They believe the highest and best role of the curator is to be an expert, not a moderator, editor, compiler or convener. Even a little experiment (e.g., experimenting with labels with content provided by public contributors, in addition to the “official” text, in one small gallery) can seem like a profound threat to the ordered workings of the museum universe.

Personally, I think that when the AAM Accreditation Commission wrote the Characteristic of Excellence that reads “the museum’s interpretive content is based on appropriate research,” they meant that museums should be diligent in ensuring the material they present is accurate, and ensure they do not present bad information based on sloppy research. That’s different from saying that a museum can’t decide that “appropriate research,” in some cases, includes asking members of the public what they like, or what they remember, or what they think is important. But evidently, there are a variety of opinions on the issue.

Please weigh in on this issue—either using the comments section below or (even better) using this link to access the public version of Round Three of the ethics forecast, where you can address this and other issues.

If you are just now reading our forecast, you can get up to speed by reading earlier posts about the project.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Tailor your Twitterverse to the Future


Thanksgiving 2011 marked a CFM milestone—we topped 10,000 followers on Twitter. I was thankful about that—I like to think it means we are sharing information people find useful and informative. And maybe a little fun.


I know some folks thing of Twitter as a morass of inane trivia. But there are a lot savvy, interesting Tweeters, like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who have developed a clear strategy for sharing thoughtful and informative content. Following a carefully edited list of savvy Tweeters can be a great addition to your scanning.

Here are just a few of the Twitter feeds I find very informative:

@jessemoyer, from KnowledgeWorks Foundation, shares links to articles and reports on the future of education, mobile and online learning learning and STEM education.

@garrygolden, professional futurist and frequent CFM collaborator, shares information on trends in transportation, energy, learning systems and demographics. And occasionally reports on cute baby Noah (who is a fan of MOMA. Starting out right, that kid is.)

@janetcarding monitors a lot of museum research and blog sites,  sharing news, reports and projects, as well as glimpses of what’s going on at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, where she is the director.

@sebchan brings deep knowledge and a wry and skeptical voice to his observations on media and technology, (Seb’s tweets also document his current move to the Cooper Hewitt in NYC from his former perch at the Powerhouse museum in Sydney. Woot! Maybe Americans will get to see him in person more often, now.)

@mitchbetts was a classmate of mine at the University of Houston’s Certificate in Strategic Foresight course. A technology journalist, Mitch shares his broad reading in trends, innovation and market research, a useful balance to my often museum-centric scanning.

@P2173 (aka Lucy Bernholz) is a self-styled “philanthropy wonk.” If you don’t have time to monitor the tremendously important literature of asking and giving, not to worry, Lucy does a good job on behalf of all of us.

@mgorbis, at The Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif., is my go-to Twitter source on futurist literature and reports, and she also reads (and shares) broadly and imaginatively in a variety of fields. Watching who Marina retweets has helped me expand my Twitter circle into new fields.

Just for fun, I recommend the 140 character musings of my favorite museum spokes-specimen, @SuetheTRex, at the Field Museum of Chicago, as well as the (unsanctioned) tweets of @NatHistoryWhale at the American Museum of Natural History. Also @Hirst_Shark, who, tweeting in the persona of the pickled shark that anchors Damien’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” engages in charming and toothy banter with his fans.

I encourage you to use Twitter to share your reading with others—together we can form a powerful scanning network. Here’s my advice for strategic tweeting:

  • Clarify who your Twitter account represents. Is it personal or on behalf of an organization you work for? In either case, make sure your activities are in line with your employer’s social media policy, if they have one.
  • Define the focus of your Twitter stream. For example, CFM concentrates on content tied to forecasting/future studies in general, especially issues that CFM/AAM is addressing through forecasting (i.e. workforce diversity, food issues, universal design/accessibility, financial models, ethics).
  • Tweet links to interesting content (videos, articles, blog posts).
  • Write catchy text to accompany the link in order to provoke interest. Tweets with humorous lead-ins are retweeted more often than bare links.
  • Include relevant users or hashtags to attract the attention of people and organizations mentioned in the tweet—they may retweet, and/or start following you.
  • Retweet or “favorite” interesting tweets from influential people and organizations. Twitter is a platform for networking and building your circle of connections.


Now it’s your turn to help build our shared futurist Twitterverse. Use the comments section below to share your favorite Tweeters, and explain why you follow them. Or (of course) Tweet about your favorites and tag the tweet with @futureofmuseums—follow the CFM Twitter stream over the next few days to see who turns up!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Third Rail of Museum Ethics: Selling Collections to Pay for…What?

Is it ethical for a museum to use the money it gets from selling collections to fund general operations?

How about using the proceeds from the sale for “preservation” (the term used by AASLH’s Statement of Professional Standards and Ethics) or “direct care” (cf. AAM’s Code of Ethics for Museums)? Does preservation or direct care include fixing the roof? Hiring a conservator? Paying the salary of your collections manager?

According to Financial Accounting Standards Board regulations (and those of its government counterpart, GASB), using the funds from deaccessioning for anything other than buying more collections means the museum has to capitalize the whole collection, an action that some parts of the field believes to be unethical in and of itself.

Of the six issues CFM and the Institute for Museum Ethics are exploring in Round Three of Forecasting the Future of Museum Ethics, the question of what ethical constraints should be placed on the use of funds resulting from deaccessioning is far and away the most contentious. Museums have been arguing about this issue for decades. Is anything different now? Perhaps yes. The unprecedented financial pressure facing museums is apparently leading more boards and directors to ask, “What good does it do to firewall the collection if the museum itself is going broke?”

So maybe the national fiscal meltdown will transform the constraints we, as a field, have placed on the use of funds resulting from deaccessioning collections. This change could go either way—faced with increased pressure to raise money whatever way possible, the field might tighten its standards, closing the loopholes left by nebulous words like “preservation” and “direct care,” or it might abandon the existing standards as unaffordable luxuries in the face of economic necessity.

So, in Round Three we cut to the chase and ask:
In the next 25 years, are the restrictions placed on the use of funds resulting from deaccessioning likely to become more or less restrictive? How and why will the restrictions change? 
In other words, is there now—or will there be in the future—enough consensus of opinion on the topic for the field to revisit the standards and reexamine how all “good” museums should behave regarding deaccessioning?

Please weigh in on this issue—either using the comments section below or (even better) using this link to access the public version of Round Three of the ethics forecast, where you can address this and other issues.

If you are just now reading our forecast, you can get up to speed by reading earlier posts about the project.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Forecasting the Future of Accessibility: Please Touch or Don’t Touch?


I wish I could preview my Inbox from 2036. How come Outlook doesn’t have an option for that?

As a member of AAM’s staff Ethics Taskforce, I help answer plaintive, irate, indignant and panicked questions that come over our email. So I have a pretty good handle on what people grapple with, day to day, in their organizations. Forecasting the Future of Museum Ethics, CFM’s joint project with the Institute for Museum Ethics, is trying to determine what museums will be grappling with 25 years from now. How can the field provide backup and support for colleagues if we lag five or ten years behind the issues? This is our chance to gear up for the ethical future. And this is my pitch for you to help by weighing in on the public version of the forecast.

Our expert and public forecasters have identified accessibility as an important ethics issue that will change significantly, in some way, in the coming decades. Reading through their (copious) comments on the forecast’s early rounds, it became clear that “accessibility,” as used by the forecasters, encompasses at least four different things:

  • Physical and intellectual access to museums, their exhibits, programs and services
  • Economic access to museums, their exhibits, programs and services
  • Accessibility of collections and data
  • Balancing access to collections against a responsibility to preserve collections

Forecasters raised some interesting questions. Is there an ethical obligation to make museums economically accessible (i.e., affordable), paralleling the obligation (aside from the legal requirements) that museums provide physical access to people with disabilities? Has technology, by making it feasible for museums to provide public access to huge amounts of data, created an ethical imperative for them to do so?

Some of the most heated comments that surfaced in earlier rounds of the forecast were about: access v. preservation. “Many visitors express a desire for increased access—a chance to touch objects, behind the scenes tours, etc.” commented one forecaster. “Has the pendulum swung too far toward preservation, and is it in the process of swinging back?”

Access always compromises preservation to some extent. The safest storage environment is the proverbial black box. But if no one ever accesses a collections object, how is that different from the object never existing? (Someone should modify Schrödinger’s cat dilemma to apply to museum storage.)

That’s an exaggeration, of course. No object is going to last forever, and no sane museum is going to let an object be torn to pieces by ravening fans. But where, in between, is a reasonable compromise? Has preservation historically been privileged over access (as our forecaster observed) and is our position as a field on that balance of power on the verge of changing?

To test whether the pendulum is about to reverse its arc, the current round of the forecast asks:

“Thinking about the ethics of balancing a responsibility to make collections physically accessible with a responsibility to preserve collections, do you feel that in the next twenty five (25) years museum standards will tilt more towards access or preservation?”

(Respondents select an answer on a scale that runs from Favoring more access through to Favoring Preservation.)

I hope you will weigh in on this issue—either using the comments section below or (even better) using this link to access the public version of round 3 of the ethics forecast, where you can answer this and other questions.

If you are just now reading our forecast, you can get up to speed by reading earlier posts about the project.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Ethics Forecast Round 3 & the Future of Museum Standards


This week we launch Round 3 of Forecasting the Future of Museum Ethics. As with previous rounds, the public is invited to weigh in at the same time (on a parallel track) as our recruited “Oracles.”

This round delves into six issues selected on the basis of their rankings in round two, exploring where the Oracles and the public think these issues are headed in the future. They are:

  • Accessibility: providing access to collections and institutions; economic accessibility; balancing accessibility to collections with preservation responsibilities; economic accessibility; balancing accessibility with preservation
  • Conflicts of Interest: development and fundraising, governance, personal collecting
  • Control of content: curatorial independence and scholarship by staff and academic experts versus community curation; public participation in content creation (e.g., crowdsourcing, participatory design); censorship
  • Collecting and deaccessioning: including the use of funds resulting from deaccessioning, retention of material the museum does not use or make accessible, choice of what to collect
  • Diversity: diversity of representation in governance, staff and audience; affirmative action in recruiting staff and board members
  • Transparency & accountability: governance, operations, finance 

Many of the questions in the round 3 survey instrument are framed around museum standards—asking whether the existing standards will be sufficient to address these issues in the future, and if not, how they might change.

Why did we frame the questions about ethics around standards? After all, not everything in museum standards is about ethics, and conversely, many ethical issues about which museum people feel passionately are not addressed, or are barely addressed, by current standards.

AAM defines standards as “generally accepted levels of attainment that all museums are expected to achieve.” In plain English, that means standards are practices that all good museums are expected to adopt. Museums can expect to be criticized by their colleagues, or their supporters, or the press, if they don’t. As National Standards and Best Practices in U.S. Museums states, “Standards are not lofty goals that only a few will achieve, they are fundamental to being a good museum, a responsible non-profit, and a well-run business.” This means museums had better be pretty darn careful when declaring something to be a standard—because they might have to live with the resulting coverage of their actions, as judged by this standard, in the local press the next day.

For this reason, thinking about how an issue is addressed or might be addressed by a standard is a good test of whether an issue is important, and whether there is sufficient consensus in the field to describe the appropriate way for museum practitioners to behave. You could write a standard about the ethics of gender equity regarding setting the thermostat in your meeting rooms—but do most people care enough to bother? And even if they do care passionately, could you broker an agreement between men and women regarding the appropriate setting?

In fact, we found all six of the issues selected for further investigation are addressed to some extent in the current standards, but some only vaguely or tangentially. Regarding accessibility, for example, the standards state

The museum demonstrates a commitment to providing the public with physical and intellectual access to the museum and its resources.

One issue related to accessibility raised on round one was that of economic accessibility: as one Oracle put it, “keeping museums affordable (free or low cost) for the broader public in future scenarios of diminished public/private support.” Do you think that in the future, museum practitioners might decide that economic accessibility of museums is sufficiently important it should be addressed in a standard, and will there be sufficient consensus to determine what that new standard might be?

The other reason to tie the ethics forecast to standards is that one practical outcome of our forecast might be a decision, on the part of the museum field and the AAM leadership, to revisit the standards and revise them to reflect the challenges museums & society will face in the next 25 years. If our forecasters overwhelmingly say “the current standards about issue X are not sufficient to accommodate the changes we see in coming decades,” that would be a clear call to action.

That, in turn, is why we hope you'll weigh in on this round. It might be your museum looking to the national standards for guidance in 2025, or answering an awkward question from a journalist who knows “what all good museums should be expected to live up to.”

Follow this link to contribute to round three of Forecasting the Future of Museum Ethics. [Oracles, make sure you follow the link in your personal email.] And then stay tuned for the results…

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Museums Innovating in Businesslike Ways


Many people tell us that, in the future, museums need to be more entrepreneurial. It’s hard to find written case studies, however, of museums innovating in businesslike ways. Today’s guest post helps fill that gap, as Karen Coltrane, president and CEO of the Children’s Museum of Richmond, blogs about how CMOR became the first children’s museum in the county to open a satellite location. They’ve been fielding calls from other children’s museums considering a similar model—some hoping to fend off competition, others to reach new audiences. 

This week the Children’s Museum of Richmond is announcing plans to open a second satellite location. We started experimenting with satellites for several reasons, chief among them financial survival. Our first satellite location helped us achieve that goal, but it brought other significant benefits, too—expansion of our mission by increasing the numbers we serve (attendance is up 56%), strengthening of our community partnerships and enhanced relevance of our institution within our community

Being good at what you offer at your main museum is a prerequisite for opening more locations. We had raised and spent nearly $1,000,000 over three years to improve our exhibit areas, revamp our education programming and develop a full calendar of well-marketed events (on average, one major event every two weeks) to insure CMOR was visible and top of mind with young families. A pre-satellite marketing study confirmed that those efforts were successful—we had 98% brand awareness in our market (defined as area families with children under the age of eight) with 90% of respondents rating our offerings as high or very high in quality. 

The same study noted that despite our extremely positive perception, most of the families in our region only visited us once per year, citing lack of convenience associated with our location. In our market, young families don’t want to drive more than 20 minutes for a visit. Many parents commented that by the time they wrestle the little ones into the car seats and drive for a half hour, the children have fallen asleep and waking them for the visit posed challenges. Also, our location in the city’s museum district, away from shopping and family-friendly restaurants, made a trip to our museum a special destination that couldn’t be combined easily with other regular activities.  So while our museum enjoyed strong goodwill, the majority of our market only visited occasionally for exceptional events.

Once we understood that convenience was the only thing keeping us from serving more visitors, we started to explore our options. We included the satellite location concept in our strategic plan. The special committee convened to consider the issue included a group of our current and past board members and other community leaders, led by the community’s most forward thinking volunteer, a well respected former corporate CEO who is now a business school professor and nonprofit advisor.

Several pertinent questions came to light. First, we were very surprised – and a bit concerned – that there were not satellite models in the children’s museum world to follow. Second, we wondered if a satellite in a more vibrant area would “cannibalize” the attendance at our main location. Third, while the staff was confident, the board rightly asked if we could manage another location with current management. And last but certainly not least, everybody was concerned that we might appear to be “abandoning” our mission by focusing on wealthier suburbs to the exclusion of lower income, urban neighborhoods.

The committee’s discussions were probably the most rigorous and thoughtful in the museum’s recent history. They resulted in a recommendation to the Board to look not only at one branch in the region’s western suburbs, but to consider an entire branching strategy that would bring 12–15,000 square foot versions of the 40,000 square foot main museum to densely populated areas not strongly represented in our current attendance. The Board adopted the strategy in October 2009 and the initial satellite opened in June 2010. In its first full year of operation, 130,000 people visited the new location, while attendance stayed the same, 230,000, at our main museum.

Operationally, we learned—and are still learning—important lessons. Staffing has been much easier than we expected. We initially sent a member of the management team to run the day to day operations, but she was bored quickly and we were able to bring her back to take on a bigger role, replacing her with an assistant director of guest services who reports to a director of guest services at our main location. In fact, the satellite runs so smoothly that we decided to hold our weekly management team meetings there just to make sure our key staff are in the facility once a week. Our ticketing/finance/development/shop software company, Explorer, happily worked with us to adapt their program to support multiple locations. And while we keep an eye on the satellite’s revenues and expenses, we are careful to roll the numbers up to reinforce the culture that we are one museum—we just happen to have two (or more) locations.

The best outcome of our satellite strategy, thus far, has been the ability to move from daily worry about making this week’s payroll to the freedom to explore pathways to greater impact throughout our community.  In just the first year of operation we were able to:
  • provide free and low cost field trip programming to thousands of young students from under-resourced area schools
  • engage area school superintendents in real, regular dialog with the museum’s leadership about early childhood education
  • create a new position dedicated to parent education and engagement  

We can now proactively pursue relationships and ideas that further our mission in ways we could barely dream about before. For us, a branching strategy serves more visitors, while providing the resources to do more good in our community.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Civic Duty Calls


In this blog post, AAM Director of Government Relations and Advocacy Gail Ravnitzky Silberglied explores why advocacy—like voting, jury service, and paying taxes—is a civic duty that furthers our nation’s democracy and prepares us and our leaders for the future. Gail joined AAM in 2008 and is the author of Speak Up For Museums, published by The AAM Press and available through AAM’s bookstore.

Civic Duty is defined as “the responsibility of a citizen” and recently I fulfilled one of our nation’s great civic responsibilities: serving on a jury. It was my first time serving, and while it took me away from work and family responsibilities, I really didn’t mind. It was actually interesting, both the subject matter and the process (so different from Law & Order!). But more importantly, I knew I was performing an important civic duty.

For me, awareness of civic duty started very early. My very first memory is from age three when I went to vote with my mom (I remember that my older brothers had to wait outside because they were for the other guy!). And while I don’t enjoy every single civic duty (paying taxes comes to mind) I know that these civic duties are the foundation of our nation’s democracy.

Museums work every day to educate and inspire the public. We help people to learn and be inspired, to stretch their imaginations, and to interpret information in new ways. This is the heart of a museum’s public service mission. Why then don’t museums step out, front and center, when opportunities arise to educate their elected officials? Perhaps we need to reframe advocacy as a fundamental civic responsibility.

Here’s some civic-minded (and future-minded) food for thought:
  • Our nation’s founders included advocacy in the Bill of Rights (“the right of the people...to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”) And isn’t there plenty to be aggrieved about?
  • Elected officials actually appreciate hearing directly from constituents—it helps them build stronger ties to their community and understand the future needs of their community. (I worked for several members of Congress so I know this from experience.)
  • If you are not making your case, your viewpoint will often get overlooked when it does (or doesn’t) come up in future policy debates or budget battles.

If I haven’t convinced you yet, ask yourself the following questions:
  • How much buy-in do you have from the community about the future of your museum?  Are your community “success stories” helping to make the case for your museum?  Are your volunteers and members aware of advocacy opportunities in support of museums?  You have powerful, inspiring stories about your work in the community, something elected officials need to know about in order to shape—and invest in—the future of their community.
  • Do your elected officials know how your museum educates and inspires their constituents, how your museum spurs local economic activity and creates jobs, or how your museum partners with local schools to educate future generations?  Even if they love museums, your community leaders may not realize how many school children or seniors or veterans you serve. And if you are securing the future for others, in other ways, for example by hosting food banks or blood banks, let them know this, too.
  • Do civic leaders know your museum’s future plans?  Consider planting a seed about future exhibits, needed repairs, desired expansions, or special events or milestones. Elected officials can often help to publicize or otherwise support these endeavors. 

Advocacy sure sounds like a civic duty to me. And it’s never too late to get started. AAM makes it easy to advocate for museums. For starters:

  • Visit the AAM Advocacy website to find information and inspiration, including how to get involved with advocacy at all levels, what’s at stake, who represents you, and why it all matters.
  • Sign up to receive AAM’s Advocacy Alerts.
And (most important):

Join your colleagues in D.C. for Museums Advocacy Day, Feb. 27–28, 2012, or send a board member. Museums Advocacy Day is your chance to join with advocates and colleagues from around the country and Speak Up for Museums! We provide training and support—you do your civic duty to tell legislators about the good work museums do. And it’s way more fun than jury duty.

This year, for the first time, the Museums Advocacy Day agenda includes a half-day session, run by CFM, on forecasting the political future. Learn more about the agenda and register to attend here.