Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Some Projections to End the Year

Contributed by Phil Katz, AAM’s Assistant Director for Research.

Most anecdotal evidence has pointed to shrinking museum staffs in 2009. However, new projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest that the demand for museum curators, registrars and relate museum professionals will be up sharply over the next decade – 23% for curators between 2008 and 2018 and 26% for “museum technicians” (as the government calls registrars, et al.). This comes from the brand new edition of the Occupational Outlook Handbook for 2010-11
, which categorizes the growth as “much faster than average employment” but warns that “keen competition is expected for most jobs … because qualified applicants generally outnumber job openings.” US News & World Reports even calls curating “one of the 50 best careers of 2010.”

Two caveats on this projection: First, the BLS only counts a portion of the museum professionals working in the United States. According to their numbers, there were only 11,700 working curators in 2008 – which seems unrealistically low, with more than 17,500 museums in the country (a low-ball estimate) and the large number of curators who combine their curating with other functions.

This could mean an even larger number of openings than the BLS predicts, which is potentially good news for museum job seekers. But (and here comes the second caveat) the keen competition for these positions is likely to keep wages from rising very much. (According to the BLS, in May 2008 the median wage for curators was just about $45,000. They’re not predicting what salaries will be in 2018.)

Switching gears completely, here are some projections of population growth and energy consumption over the next decade or two – the big context in which all those new curators and registrars (and their institutions) will be operating!

These three graphics are part of the supporting evidence from a new book by environmentalist Lester R. Brown, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009). For more information and a free download of the book, visit the Earth Policy Institute.

Monday, December 28, 2009

"Why would you want to visit a museum?"

This week’s guest post is by Ron Chew, independent consultant and Community Scholar in Residence at the Museology Graduate Program, University of Washington. Ron is the former director of the Wing Luke Asian Museum, and a member of the CFM Council.

I want to share with you a recent “ah-hah” museum moment. It happened last year during a three-week trip to China with my sister. It was my first trip ever to China. Before this trip, China was a distant place I knew mostly through the stories of my mother who talked incessantly while I was growing up about the hardships of life in Hoysan, a rural area that was once home to both my parents and most of the early Chinese immigrants to America. I took my two boys, 10 and 13, on this journey of discovery. My sister, Linda, brought her four kids. Because three of her children are girls she adopted from China, this was my sister’s fourth trip there.

In China, we visited my father and grandfather’s ancestral village of Fow Sek, a place that time seemingly forgot. The village has not changed for generations. People there still till the rice paddies with a simple plow and water buffalo. We visited the 1,400-year old Buddhist temple of the Six Banyan Trees in Guangzhou. We took a boat cruise on the Li River, marveling at majestic peaks in the distance. We visited the Temple of the Soul’s Retreat with its rows and rows of huge religious statues. We took tours of a comb-making factory and a jade factory. We explored some of the 100,000 Buddhist figures that make up Dragon Gate Grottoes in Henan Province. We saw the terra cotta warriors and horses in Xi’an and climbed a towering section of the Great Wall in Beijing.

Being a museum person like those of you here, I can’t travel anywhere – and certainly not overseas – without stopping at a few museums. About a week into our trip, I realized that we hadn’t visited a single museum in China, even though we had already spent a lot of time going into factories, caves, gardens and picturesque old buildings.

As the tour bus left the hotel that day, I turned to our tour guide and interpreter, Wendy, and said, “Can we visit some museums today?” Wendy paused, seemingly puzzled, then went to speak to the driver. They huddled and talked for nearly five minutes over the din of the kids in the rear of the bus. Wendy came back over to me and asked, “Why would you want to visit a museum?”

I paused. I didn’t know what to say. It first occurred to me that Wendy did not know what I had done for a living and, therefore, did not understand my “special interest” in museums. But then I thought: Why would anyone need to have a “special interest” to visit museums?

I awkwardly responded to Wendy: “Uh, I used to work for a museum back in the United States.” Wendy persisted, “But wouldn’t you rather visit more of these interesting sites like the temples and the historic places?” Again, I didn’t know what to say. She went back to the driver – they huddled again – then she said to me: “The driver says there aren’t any museums around here. We would have to drive far to find one, but we can if you like. How about tomorrow?”

Well, eventually, during the following week, we made our way to two museums: the China National Silk Museum in Hangzhou and the China Block Printing and Yangzhou Museum. The museums were interesting to me – as a museum person who likes history, culture and art – and it provided a badly needed dose of air-conditioning for our kids who had been withering in 100 degree temperatures outside. But it was striking how few visitors there were, except for a handful of foreign tourists.

In fact, as we approached the Yangzhou museum – a huge modern building – we couldn’t figure out where to enter the towering block structure because the parking lot was nearly empty and there was no crowd of visitors to follow to the front. We walked around the building, trying doors.

I’ve been thinking about what I learned in China, and the little exchange with the tour guide and the driver. Sad to say, they were right. The most memorable and engaging places were not the museums – the air-conditioned enclosures with objects protected behind glass and neat little labels – but the living spaces: restored temples, rustic gardens, village courtyards, public squares, orphanages, and outdoor and indoor markets. These well-trafficked spaces – where daily life is lived and lots of things just sort of happen – were the places where I learned the most and found the greatest inspiration.

I started thinking to myself: Should our museum exhibitions and “stuff” be out there in newly-imagined old public spaces rather than in newly created hermetically sealed temples that we now call museums? And what is a museum exactly? Especially since we once believed that they were for collecting and displaying objects, and those boundaries have long since been shattered by the emergence of non-collecting institutions and oral history based rather than object-based exhibitions.

What about a community center that displays the artwork of senior citizens on its walls – using the artwork to inspire, educate and empower? What’s the difference between that community center and a museum?

In Beijing, the Forbidden Palace is called a museum; to me it was mostly a series of giant, interlocking public squares knit together by imperial buildings that are closed to visitors. Was all of that a museum?

Is a conservatory – which has explanatory label text next each of the plants and a knowledgeable security guard at your shoulder – a museum? Is the Griffith Observatory a museum? Why not? What about the Internet and cyberspace – with its infinite capacity to house and store virtual stuff and virtual on-line exhibitions? Isn’t that just an incredibly vast peep-hole museum with many galleries?

If the differences between these differently named kinds of institutions are fewer than their similarities, how do we begin to redefine, reshape and redirect the field?

These are not new questions, but, as you can see, when you travel to a new place, a bigger picture begins to emerge. I’m not sure I have any answers to any of the questions I’ve posed, but I do look to inspired and creative leadership from the generation coming up through the ranks to revisit these ideas. It will be up to them – and you here – to chart the way ahead.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Vetting Future Museums

I read this morning that the National Museum of Language is on the brink of closing the outpost it opened last year in College Park, Maryland. This caught my eye because almost ten years ago their founder asked me to speak to their board about starting a new museum.

That encounter has been much on my mind lately. In my new position as founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums, I receive many calls and emails from folks saying “I am going to start a new museum, and since it will be one of the museums of the future…”

Most of these conversations make me want to bang my head against the nearest wall.

Not because I don’t love their ideas. Some are mainstream, some marginal. Many are about museums I would love to visit, if they ever came into being. But really—look at the timing! I am, somewhat to my chagrin, being proven wrong in my contention that museums are the non-profit equivalent of cockroaches, impervious even to nuclear annihilation. Some mainstream, relatively well-established museums are closing or on the brink of closure. The traditional funding sources of museums are under stress. And although the population of the US is growing, the segment that forms the core of museum visitation is stagnant.

You could argue that in a time of social stress and need, society needs nonprofits more than ever: to pick up the slack left by employers or the government dropping their end of the rope; to provide respite and relief from the grim realities of the stock and job markets. But never once have I received a call from someone saying “People in my community have an acute need for [fill in the blank] so I want to found a new museum.” It’s usually “I have been passionate my whole life about [fill in the blank] and I want to share that passion with the world.” Conversations like this led to my recent remark about the “sweetly self-absorbed” nature of museum folk.

I presume many of the readers of this blog work with or in museums. You probably get called at work, or are cornered at cocktail parties, by prospective founders as well. Since even these grim economic times evidently are not enough to dampen people’s enthusiasm for founding a museum, I want to share the list of the questions I raised with the Museum of Language’s board and have used time and again in the ensuing decade—please use and distribute it widely if you find it useful.

  • Is what you want really a museum? Think about who you want to influence, what difference you want to make in the world and then choose the right delivery mechanism. Separate your purpose (e.g. “we want to save a historic house”) from your position (“so we are going to start a museum.”) Sometimes your purpose can best be served by another means (in the case of an historic house, this could be turning it into a bed and breakfast.) Sometimes the things you love (language, or literature) are best experienced and celebrated through other media, like books. Or if you want to be more 21st century, podcasts.
  • Is anyone else already doing what you want to do? If the history of American commerce is about anything, it is about the economy of scale. A bunch of small museums spend a lot more money on administrative costs, and less on mission-delivery, than one big museum. If someone is already successful at serving the mission you love, why not join forces with them? You can use your resources to help them extend their reach or broaden their delivery. Your partner might not even be a museum—they might be a library system, or a performance space—but they could have resources, an existing infrastructure and an audience on which you can build. This approach requires a certain setting aside of ego. There is immense personal satisfaction in being the founder of a new organization. But at what cost to the public interest?
  • Does it require bricks and mortar? Now, more than ever, it is worth considering whether you should try delivering your mission via a website or museum in a virtual world before progressing to bricks and mortar. This allows you to test interest in your concept at a relatively low cost. It may help you decide whether you need to be a physical museum, if so where and what you would offer. Building a constituency can also lay the groundwork for a fund-raising campaign for a “real” museum.
  • Should you believe the experts? Nascent museums seeking public funding often commission “feasibility studies” to prove the viability of their proposals. In my experience, these studies should be filed under “creative writing” rather than “research.” Most of the time when people commission them, they have already made up their minds to go ahead with the project. Rarely, if ever, will they prove you shouldn’t proceed, even if it is true. And above all—don’t believe the attendance projections.
  • What will it cost and where will the money come from? People consistently underestimate what it will cost to run a museum. This has particularly unfortunate consequences since the planning and construction are often paid for by the time this sinks in, and what gets cut is the budget for staff, exhibits and programs. In other words, the people and services actually delivering value to the public. The “typical” income mix for a museum is 24% government funding (usually local or state), 36% philanthropic (individual donations and corporate support), 28% earned (admissions, space rental, memberships etc.) and 12% earnings on investments. While there is a good deal of variation in this mix from museum to museum, it gives you an idea of what is feasible and makes you focus on specific sources. If you are going to rely heavily on philanthropy, who, specifically, is lined up to support you? If earned income, what will you sell, at what price, and have you tested that there is a large enough market willing to pay? Benchmark your plans against the performance of other museums to test what is realistic. AAM’s Museum Financial Information is a good source of crunched numbers from the field, and you can look up the financial statements of individual museums you think are suitable comparisons on Guidestar.

And closing with the question you should really consider first:
  • Who Cares? This is the key to determining whether the museum will sustainable and useful. Of course you love your subject matter, or else you wouldn’t want to start a museum. But a nonprofit museum exists to serve the needs of its audience, not the interests of a single founder or a relatively small founding board. What is it that you are offering that people want? Someone has to pay for what you do. It may be the people who use your services. It may be philanthropists or government entities who are willing to underwrite access so people who can’t pay can benefit from your services. Maybe financially it is enough that you care, if you are fortunate enough to be independently wealthy. But even if you have the money to open a museum regardless of need or desire, will you be happy, after the ribbon cutting, with who does or does not come through the door?

If you find good answers to all these questions, by all means, proceed full speed ahead. And invite me to the opening.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

We love Free! We love Research!

If you follow CFM regularly, you know we love Susie Wilkening and James Chung of Reach Advisors. Of course I mean we love their work--notably their CFM report Museums & Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures. Come to think of it, we do love James and Susie, too. They are smart and passionate, knowledgeable and articulate about the importance of museums. What's not to love?

Anyway, I am excited to help spread the word about a free research opportunity Susie and James are offering to museums. They are preparing a research project that will dig deeper into their observation (described in Lifestages of the Museum Visitor) that certain kinds of museum experiences are critical catalysts for turning kids into life-long museum geeks-- what Susie and James call Museum Advocates. So Reach Advisors is recruiting museums across the country to participate in a national study. Participating museums will contribute access to their contacts (email lists, Twitter followers, Facebook Fans etc.) and in return get free data they can use about their museum and overall comparables from the other participants to use for benchmarking. The findings will also be shared widely with the field. Follow the Reach Advisors' blog for updates on the project as it evolves.

The current trends in museum visitation are troubling. There is a growing disparity between the demographic profile of museum visitors (largely Caucasian) and the demographics of the US population as a whole, which will be majority minority by mid-century. Even now, we can document a decline in arts participation for reasons that are probably relate both to generational and cultural demographic shifts. This makes it incredibly important that we explore how to nurture the next generation of museum-goers. I encourage museums to participate in the Reach research project--the resulting data may be crucial to our future as a field. And James and Susie do great work.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Managing Holistically—Lessons from Ecosystem Management

This is a second guest blog post from Robert Janes, editor-in-chief of Museum Management and Curatorship, Chair of the Biosphere Institute of the Bow Valley and former president and CEO of the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Canada. Read his first post here. These posts are adapted from Janes’ recently published book Museums in a Troubled World in which he explores the meaning and role of museums as key intellectual and civic resources in a time of profound social and environmental change. You can also hear Janes’ thoughts on the future of museums in his Voices of the Future interview on CFM’s nonprofit YouTube channel.

One of the constant themes throughout this book is the seeming failure of most museums to truly gauge their role and responsibilities in the larger scheme of things. A medley of hesitation, introversion and self-doubt supports the museum’s isolation from mainstream issues and aspirations, with the notable exception of participation in the marketplace. With the exception of those museums that are in search of resilience, the profile of many museums is now being achieved through the notoriety that accrues to consumption—sensational shows, vanity architecture, large private donations and so forth—you’ve heard it all before. This is not dissimilar to the situation confronting environmental scientists and resource managers in the recent past, only they have taken it upon themselves to define a new future for their work with a view to societal values, needs and participation. Museums can learn from this pioneering work and, in so doing, ‘rotate their consciousness’ in a more thoughtful direction.

Resource management is apparently undergoing a fundamental change in the United State, with traditional sustained yield approaches being replaced by what is called ecosystem management. The primary goal of ecosystem management is long-term ecological sustainability, with the recognition that socio-political context is essential, but has been largely ignored. To achieve a more holistic and integrated perspective, ecosystem management emphasizes socially-defined goals and objectives, integrated and holistic science, collaborative decision making and adaptable institutions. This recognition of the need for holistic management highlights the current failure of museums to effectively manage their broader potential as social institutions.

I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by one of the architects of ecosystem management, Hannah Cortner, and what follows is a distillation of a couple of her key observations—which are strikingly relevant for museums.

Ecosystem management attempts to bring the “citizen’s chorus” to the table, answering the question of how specialists will interact with citizens and imbue that performance with wisdom, courage and vision. The challenge is the same for museums, and persists as a result of their inability or reluctance to share authority with outsiders. This deficiency is related directly to the politics of expertise, where the role of the citizen is eclipsed and replaced by experts who have their own values and aspirations. This is certainly a formidable challenge, and ecosystem management employs various principles to address them, beginning with socially defined goals and objectives, coupled with collaborative decision-making. The intention here is to make room for both experts and the public to share in a decision-making process that crosses many boundaries, be they social, cultural or economic.

Cortner and her colleagues believe it is the duty of scientists and scholars to also promote the ideals of democracy and citizenship, a commitment like that of the Field Museum’s
Center for Cultural Understanding and Change. The CCUC describes it’s commitment to public involvement and urban research in its own city and region as follows:

“To use problem-solving anthropological research to identify and catalyze strengths and assets of communities in Chicago and beyond. In doing so, CCUC helps communities identify new solutions to critical challenges such as education, housing, health care, environmental conservation, and leadership development. Through research, programs and access to collections, CCUC reveals the power of cultural difference to transform social life and promote social change.”

Ecosystem management also places great value on integrated and interdisciplinary science, a perennial need in museums, as well as on the importance of adaptable institutions. The latter are flexible, allow decentralized decision-making, and are comfortable with what is called active adaptive management. The purpose of active adaptive management is to learn by experimentation in order to determine the best management, while also involving active stakeholder collaboration.

Ecosystem management is really the attempt to nurture interconnectedness, increase knowledge and thereby evolve professional practice. The broader museum community is in dire need of all these things, although there are admittedly impressive obstacles to developing a new management paradigm. These are various and include the current predilection to look to the marketplace for solving museum issues; the resulting short-term economic thinking; the notion that risk-taking and failure are not acceptable; and the woeful lack of inter-institutional cooperation and collaboration. All of these challenges are the artifacts of convention and comfort, and can be replaced with a rotation of consciousness in the direction of ecosystem management.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Quick Thoughts from the CFM Lecture

My mind is still reeling from the boffo lecture Gregory Rodriguez delivered for the Center for the Future of Museums Wednesday night at the Embassy of Canada here in Washington, DC. It is going to take some time to process all these thoughts as we race to prepare a discussion guide for the webcast of the lecture on January 27, 2010, at 2 pm EST. (Stay tuned for instructions on how to register.)

Gregory’s talk,Towards a New Mainstream?, explored the future of museums in a majority-minority nation. It is particularly timely given the release yesterday of the NEA's 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. This report documents a drop in nearly every kind of arts participation —including a drop in the percentage of adults who visit art museums/galleries each year (from 26.5% in 2002 to 22.7% in 2008). The underlying factors for this decline are complex, but the role of Boomers is especially important: as they get older, they are participating less in the arts – while the generation behind them is participating at lower rates than the Boomers did at the same age.

Latinos are the fastest growing segment of the population, and the NEA reports that Latin music concerts are doing better than most other musical events, “attracting larger groups of young audiences, including adults at lower education and income levels.” Are culturally-specific patterns of arts participation of concern to museums? The report notes that 15% of Hispanic adults reported visiting an art museum in the previous year, compared to 26% of non-Hispanic whites. (African Americans visited less often than whites or Hispanics.) But Gregory spent some time pushing the audience to go beyond the facile conclusion that Salsa concerts and annual Day of the Dead exhibits are the answer to diversifying museum attendance.

I’m not going to go further into Gregory’s’ comments—you will have a chance to hear them for yourself during the webcast. I do want to share some of the things that surfaced as he probed my brain while preparing for the talk. Rodriguez is a journalist and a scholar. He freely admits to knowing nothing in particular about museums (though his conversation suggests that he’s no stranger to culture—high, low or in-between). This made our conversations particularly interesting—as some science fiction luminary pointed out, in encounters with alien cultures, you find out more about yourself than you do about them. And I certainly count Gregory (as a journalist and a Californian) as alien to my usual world!

One question Gregory posed bluntly went to the heart of the subject he was asked to address—i.e., the challenges facing museums in an increasingly diverse society. “Is this really a problem for society?” he asked, “and is it really a problem for museums?” My answer was “no and yes.”

No, the imminent status of the US as a majority minority nation isn’t a problem. It’s a fact—and a neutral one at that. I don’t subscribe to the notion that an American society without a dominant ethnic group will fragment our culture or undermine our political system. (Here I’m straying onto Gregory’s turf. He addressed at some length the fact that assimilation, in a good sense, is something that America does well and will probably continue to do well in the future.) And in fact “majority minority” may be an ephemeral concept. It is quite possible that we are on the cusp of a truly blended society. An increasing number of our fellow Americans either identify themselves as being of mixed heritage or refuse to categorize themselves at all, at least not in terms of race or ethnicity. And individuals increasingly pick and choose which traditions—cultural or religious—they want to incorporate into their lives, whether or not the traditions are part of their ethnic or family heritage. I myself, grandchild of Russian Jews and flinty New England whalers, choose to celebrate the Day of the Dead because it has personal meaning for me.

Whether the increasing demographic diversity of the US is a problem for museums depends on which museums over what time frame. I think it will be a big problem for many institutions, now and in the coming few decades. Reach Advisors has documented a gap between the composition of the US population (1/3 minority trending to majority minority in a few decades) and the core museum-going audience (1/10 minority with no sign of budging). Those trend lines collide in a very ugly way. And the problem isn’t simply attendance (though we often focus on that); it is also whether those who control resources (legislators, philanthropists, corporate donors) see museums as serving the needs of an increasingly specific, historically-privileged segment of society rather than the community and society as a whole.

For culturally-specific museums, the cultural blending I cite above may be an even greater threat, if their existence depends on an audience that strongly self-identifies with that specific cultural designation. Already, here in the nation’s capital, I hear debate about how many more culturally-specific museums will be created within the Smithsonian, and whether at some point it would not be better to integrate all these stories into “American History” rather than isolating them in silos.

I hope listening to and discussing Gregory’s lecture will send your thoughts spinning in interesting directions as well. Keep an eye on the CFM website as we post essays and links to related material in the weeks leading up to the webcast. And think about what interesting group of people, inside our outside your museum and community, you might assemble to view the lecture and discuss the issues it explores.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Museum of the Future—your vision reflected here?

A friend who works with, but not in, museums has asked me for predictions regarding characteristics of the museum of the future. He is working on an interesting project to create a prototype of the “future museum” in order to generate conversation inside and outside the field. I’d love to paint a personal vision (including my own universal master key to collections storage and a standing discount on all jewelry in museum stores.) But given the potential impact of this advice, I had better stick to synthesizing what I have heard in the 18 months or so of CFM’s existence. (Of course, much about museums still works and should be preserved—an equally productive discussion could focus on which museum babies should not be thrown out with the bath. But talking about what should change is often more fun. Let’s go there, first.)

So, I predict that the museum of the future will be:

1) Green. (Let’s get this out of the way early, since it is sure to come up.) There is a great deal of debate about what this means—being LEED certified? Generating the museum’s own energy and growing produce for its café? Promoting local rather than global tourism? Trying to influence the behavior of visitors in ways that will promote resource conservation? Figuring out how to partner with organizations in China and India to effect change? (After all, these countries’ collective behavior will swamp out the global effects of anything we do in the US to reduce carbon or conserve resources.) At the same time, there is a good deal of consensus that in some way, shape or form most museums of the future will be conspicuously eco-conscious.

2) Personalized. We live in a world where Web applications display ads and search results based on your browsing history and social media connections. There are few remaining technological boundaries to any service organization knowing as much about you as you care to share (and some stuff you wish they didn’t know). As Nina Simon has pointed out, there is no excuse for museums not to provide similarly personalized experiences, rather than acting like their patrons are strangers every time they walk through the door. The museum of the future will track and serve people as individuals—providing personalized benefits, interpretation, suggestions and even access based on your history with them. Liked the show on Giant Ground Sloths last year? Get a tweet reminding you of the upcoming exhibit on Megatheriums. Visited six times in the past year? Get an automatic “get in the door free” next time you show up. Use your iPhone to “tag” your six favorite paintings on your museum user profile, and receive back a list of “you may also like” with a gallery map of where to find these suggestions.

3) Comfortable. In the future, museums will become Ray Oldenburg’s quintessential “third place”—anchors of community life that foster broad, creative interaction between people who might otherwise not interact with each other. This is a huge challenge, but as Robert Janes has written, some kind of “dialog center,” formal or informal, will be as common in museums as food service is now. (Perhaps not as ubiquitous as restrooms.) This requires multiple adaptations in both physical environment, programming and operational behavior. Some of the models Janes discusses include sophisticated technological support for substantive conversations. Other important changes may be low- or no-tech. We will minimize barriers to “just dropping in” (cost/distance/open hours); comfort (places to sit, hang out, eat and drink, access the Internet, kibbitz and even snooze); have fun (structured or unstructured play); and some very thoughtfully engineered support systems to encourage interactions with strangers. (Another topic on which Nina has written extensively.)

4) Interactive. Not in the simple sense of having flip labels to manipulate or computer games to play. Interactive in the true sense that the visitor and the museum act on and influence each other. The CFM report Museums & Society 2034 points out that the up and coming Millennials expect to be actively involved in “curating” their experience, not passive consumers of content. The museum of the future will have many layered strategies for inviting users to contribute to the work of the museum, whether it is encouraging visitors to create and post their own podcast tours of exhibits; research and document the collections based on their own areas of interest and expertise; share their experience of the museum visit with remote users; or participate in core decision-making about planning and use of museum resources. In this way, museums will become an extension of the “mash-up” and “crowdsourcing” cultures promoted by Web 2.0.

5) Flexible. With our physical and cultural environment changing so rapidly, it no longer makes sense to invest our resources in capital projects that may be outdated within the decade. The buildings we do construct will need to be able to change with the times, and we may have less emphasis on single sites and more on distributed content. Museums of the future will truly embody Louis Sullivan’s dictum that “form follows function,” which may mean “following” the museum out into the community, or into the virtual realm. Museums will invest more in making their resources accessible, and delivering their services to people where the people live, and less to monumental and relatively inflexible architecture.

Whew. That is my quick data dump of what I have heard in dozens of conversations around the country, and I am sure I have left out more than I have put in. Please add your two cents here in comments on the blog, or as video musings at Voices of the Future! When those outside the museum community take an interest in what we do, it can lead to productive dialog and collaborations about change.

Monday, November 30, 2009

What’s Innovation Look Like? And How Do You Measure It?

A few weeks ago, we used this space to invite museums to participate in the Nonprofit Listening Post Project at Johns Hopkins University. Reminder: the LP Project is a national research initiative designed to identify the challenges facing the entire nonprofit sector, including cultural organizations, human service agencies and community development groups. The LP Project also highlights solutions to the challenges. Now there’s a brand-new blog about the Project and its findings.

And it’s not too late to participate in the next LP research sounding, which will look at both problems and solutions. Here is what Lester Salamon (one of the country’s leading experts on the nonprofit sector) and his team at Johns Hopkins have to say:

The Obama Administration has indicated an eagerness to support programs that “work” and to promote “promising innovations.” But it is far from clear what it means for programs to “work” or how this can be demonstrated. Moreover, in the quest to identify these “promising innovations,” most attention has been focused on private businesses and new social entrepreneurs, rather than on traditional nonprofits. But as the results of our previous surveys demonstrate, there is far more innovation and creativity in the nonprofit sector than is widely recognized.

The purpose of the next LP Sounding is therefore twofold: 1) to document some of the innovation that organizations such as yours have been pursuing; and 2) to assess how you gauge the success of your programs. In the process, we hope to identify some of the barriers to innovation, and to the scaling up of innovations, that you face. We hope to share the results with the White House Office of Social Innovation
—the federal office charged to help mobilize volunteers, to catalyze partnerships between nonprofits, foundations and social entrepreneurs, and to foster an environment that nurtures nonprofit success and innovation—and with a broader audience.
So, do you think your museum is innovative? Are you feeling outside pressure to evaluate and measure what you do? Do you want to help museums have a voice in the nonprofit sector? Then think about turning your museum into a Listening Post.

For more information, contact Hillary Belzer at Johns Hopkins University: hbelzer@jhu.edu or Philip M. Katz at the American Association of Museums: pkatz@aam-us.org.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Towards a New Mainstream?

When we talk about the CFM forecasting report Museums & Society 2034, this figure always makes museum folk sit up and take notice.

Changing composition of America (U.S. Census Bureau/Reach Advisors)

It dramatizes the growing disconnect between the population of the U.S., which is becoming increasingly diverse culturally and ethnically, and the core audience of museums, which continues to be mostly Caucasian. In only a few decades, our society will be “majority minority.” California, Texas, Hawaii ,New Mexico and the District of Columbia have already achieved this status. What does this presage for museums? Can we continue to go about our business, hoping that new audiences will come to know and love us? Do we need to change the way we think, talk, hire and plan in order to establish our relevant to diverse audiences? Or are we evolving towards a post-racial America in which the major challenge will be reaching the tech-savvy, highly engaged “myCulture” generation, whatever their ethnic and cultural heritage?

On Wednesday, December 9th LA Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez (author of Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America) will help us explore these and other questions in the 2009 CFM lecture. The lecture will take place at 6:30 pm, at the Embassy of Canada in downtown DC. Attendance is limited, but we would love for you to join us—please RSVP to futureofmuseums@aam-us.org to reserve your seat.

If you can’t attend the live lecture, fear not! We will webcast it on Wednesday, January 27th at 2 pm EST. The webcast will be accompanied by moderated chat rooms, and Mr. Rodriguez will join us online for Q&A. Watch the CFM website for registration information and a discussion guide to the lecture.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Dialogue Centres—Wave of the Future?

This week’s CFM guest blogger is Robert Janes, editor-in-chief of Museum Management and Curatorship, Chair of the Biosphere Institute of the Bow Valley and former president and CEO of the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Canada. (Hence the spelling of “Dialogue Centre.”) This post is adapted from Robert’s recently published book Museums in a Troubled World in which he explores the meaning and role of museums as key intellectual and civic resources in a time of profound social and environmental change.

“Although much has been written, and much said, about the role of the museum as a forum, or the more fashionable museum as agora, little has been done to consciously nurture the visitor’s active participation apart from the passive consumption of museum services—exhibits, shops and restaurants. Museums might consider departing from their preoccupation with exhibitions, and replace or augment them with a dialogue centre.

The model I have in mind is the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada part of Simon Frasier University. The Wosk Centre describes itself as “an intellectual home and an advocate for dialogue.” At the Centre, practitioners, researchers and students of dialogue probe the nature of dialogue—that process of interaction whereby open-minded discussion leads to mutual understanding and positive action—and they nurture it in practice. The Centre has ergonomic seating for 154 participants and is arranged in concentric rings for maximum interactivity, with each desk equipped with technology to enhance dialogue.

A dialogue centre is also part of the Science Museum in London, and is a stylish, purpose-built venue designed for experimental dialogue and ‘blending of the best from science, art, performance and multi-media to provoke discussion and real engagement with the key issues of the day.’ Activities at the Dana Centre include stand-up comics debunking science myths, updates on radical research, and handling sessions of rarely seen objects from the Science Museum’s collection, as well as debates on modern science. State-of-the-art digital facilities link the Dana Centre with anyone who has online connectivity, including mobile phones.

A dialogue centre is a tangible focus for visitor interaction, and could even be used to explore the future of museum exhibits from the visitors’ perspectives. This is an opportunity for the rhetoric about museums as ‘forums of public discussion and safe havens for dialogue’ to actually assume tangible expression. It is highly unlikely that public space in museums, no matter how monumental it is (and there is more and more of this space every year) will ever produce much more than admiration and fatigue. Visitor interaction, as idealized in the forum/agora aspiration, is not going to happen with people standing around as passive observers. Museums are one of the few public institutions that can assume leadership in nurturing active visitor involvement, and dialogue centres are a means to this end. Dialogue centres are a commitment to the future and one which all museums should seriously consider in their renovation or building plans.”

CFM Addendum: notes on dialog center-like activities in U.S. museums

Giving Voice: A Role for Museums in Civic Dialog cites a number of examples of museums using space and programming to promote dialog.

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum has invited opposing sides of the garment industry together to listen to an educational program and then discuss all sides of the issue.

The Brooklyn Museum Elizabeth E. Sackler Center for Feminist Art has a “presentation space to promote dialogue and exchange about the exhibits and related issues represented in the galleries.”

The new Center for Civil & Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia will not be an “artifact-driven museum”, but rather “a nexus for dialog and understanding about the universal struggle for civil and human rights.”

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bidding War for New Museum

Back in May I fantasized about a future in which cities bid for museums, competing with offers of support and location, in order to attract valued cultural amenities. Now this is is actually happening in California, where Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and an anonymous contender are vying to be the location of Eli Broad's new museum.

I'm not sure whether this is quite what I had in mind--this article reports that "Broad would be paying for all but a small percentage of the design and construction costs" while Santa Monica is offering to pony up about $1 million towards construction, and offering a lease on the site for a "nominal amount." Still, it's kinda nice to see cities trash talking each other in pursuit of cultural amenities. Maybe the next step will include courting organizations that aren't bankrolled by billionaires..

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

You Get What You Measure

Two watch words often thrown about regarding the future of museums are “transparency” and “accountability.” The former is getting easier and easier to achieve—what excuse is there, really, for not having your museum’s audited financial statements, institutional plan and key policies available on the web? Heck, you can put the institutional plan up as a wiki document while you are writing it, and call for comment. You can even put your budget up as you are writing it, ditto.

“Accountability” is thornier because it entails some common understanding of “accountable for what and to whom.” On the face of it, it seems quite reasonable to demand accountability from nonprofits. If a museum is asking for public support, it should be able to report that it is doing some public good.

The problem is that the very act of measuring and reporting on a person or an organization changes their behavior. You get what you measure, and this can have unintended consequences. Just look at the No Child Left Behind act, which many feel have gutted art education, sports, music and many other “extras,” not to mention diverting attention from fostering reasoning or creativity, in order to “teach to the test.” Even in schools that don’t game the system outright by lowering standards, or trying to transfer underperforming students to someone’s classroom or school, or providing students with test results (i.e., cheating) this has a stifling effect on a well-rounded liberal education.

So what are some of the measures proposed for museum accountability, and what effects might they have on museum behavior?

• The classic measure leading the annual report is attendance. This is not as easy as it sounds to measure, but gives some intuitive indication of how many people are exposed (and potentially benefit from) the museum’s content. On the other hand, as a measure of success this has being accused of fueling growth for growth's sake and “pandering to the lowest common denominator.” Indeed, some museum people dream of limiting museum attendance to provide the kind of private experience usually only enjoyed by staff. (Or at poorly attended museums.) I seem to remember that when Emily Rauh Pulitzer, the founder of The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts was planning her museum in St. Louis, she dreamt of limiting visitation to 50 people per day.

This article suggests we give weight to dwell time. Traditionally measured by exhibit evaluators or docents through laborious observation, it is now technologically possible to track a visitor by a GPS signal or RFID tag using their phone or other mobile device. The classic citation is that the average museum visitor spends 3 seconds in front of a work of art (does anyone even know where that statistic comes from?) Is longer always better? Might it encourage long label copy, requiring people to puzzle through reams of wall text? And how do you weight intensity? Being blown away by Michelangelo’s David for 10 minutes may form a life-long memory, while playing with a museum interactive for an hour may be quickly forgotten.

• Some museums brag on the number of exhibits (temporary and permanent) mounted in a give year. This may be a measure of staff creativity (and energy) but does it necessarily benefit the audience? Staff often presumption that changing exhibits fuel repeat visitation, but I know from many, many years of reading MAP and Accreditation Program self-studies and reports that this is not always true. And if most visitors only comes once or twice a year (no matter what the exhibit schedule) how do they benefit from the resources used to create a more ambitious schedule? Could valuing number of exhibits in and of itself burn resources without leading to more public benefit, while leading to staff exhaustion and burnout? (Not to mention tapped-out sponsors.)

• Another popular measure for the annual report is collections acquisitions. As you may know, I have long argued with respect to collections plans that more is not always better. Collecting more stuff may gratify curators and donors without necessarily benefiting the public commensurate with the resources (space, supplies, time) eaten up by new acquisitions. But using acquisitions as a measure of success inherently values more stuff over more nuanced values of the good derived from collections.

• Many people feel that the gold standard for accountability is measuring outcomes in some way, shape or form. Surely this is the ultimate solution to answering the question “how is the world different because your museum exists?” IMLS promoted this approach to measuring success of museum projects when it adopted Outcomes Based Evaluation (OBE) about a decade ago. This approach, since quietly abandoned, required museums to track changes in knowledge, attitudes, behaviors or life conditions of the audience. While it sounds great at first, such measurement quickly becomes both challenging and problematic. Challenging because many of the potential outcomes would only emerge in the long term, and are hard to track and measure. Problematic because it values concrete measurables and (by implication) devalues experiences that fuel open-ended imagination and inspiration.

• Here’s one that I haven’t seen actually used, but is certainly reasonable given the current economic climate. With museums (and other cultural amenities) more and more often being touted as economic drivers, isn’t it reasonable to track the actual effect? Financial Return on Investment would report on much revenue is being generated for the community for the money invested in the museum. Put aside for the moment how tricky this is to track, and how easy to fudge. If this becomes a major measure of accountability, won’t museums be driven to value visitation by non-local audiences over their own communities? (And wouldn’t museums then be vulnerable to public support being diverted from museums to other organizations that can show they bring a larger economic ROI?)

In a future shaped by an expectation of greater accountability, it behooves museum practitioners to choose measures that we feel are appropriate and can be implemented without disproportionate investment of resources. So weigh in—if your museum had two choose three measures to report on each year, in order to be accountable to the public, what would they be?

Friday, November 13, 2009

A New CFM Resource

In case you haven't noticed, CFM launched an e-newsletter a few weeks ago. Edited by AAM's Asistant Director of Research. Phil Katz, Dispatches from the Future of Museums presents weekly content on trends, projections, museum innovation and tools for the future. The latest issue includes links to articles on the new Irvine Foundation report on trends shaping the social sector, demographic data on the Baby Boomers, forecasts from the travel and tourism sector and a creative program at the Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wis. that helps Alzheimer's patients and their caregivers through art.

You can subscribe to Dispatches here.

And before you write to me and comment: yes, Dispatches has advertising. Tasteful and appropriate advertising, we hope. This generates a bit of income to offset AAM's operating costs for CFM. (Museums aren't the only nonprofits in search of new business models!) We appreciate our advertisers' support, and hope that you check out their goods and services.

If you have suggestions for items to include in Dispatches or in the Research Roundup, let us know. Phil can be reached at pkatz@aam-us.org.

Friday, November 6, 2009

2009 American Life and Culture Report

Back in April, we encouraged CFM readers to participate in a new study of cultural consumers, the American Life and Culture Survey. (AAM was a co-sponsor of the project.) The preliminary results of the survey have now been released – and they show that “cultural consumers curate their lifestyles to make ends meet and keep life meaningful.” Plus, they keep consuming even when the economy is suffering.

The research was led by Patricia Martin of LitLamp Communications. She and her colleagues pay particular attention to the generational shift in cultural activity that was also explored in CFM’s report on Museums & Society 2034: the Millennial generation is composed of creators, engaged in composing, writing, making and using social media to share their creations, while Boomers are still predominantly consumers of cultural experiences and collectors of art. They find that while both groups spend an average of more than 3 hours a day online, Boomers are more likely to be seeking information than creating content.

Here are some of the “take-aways” from the report:

• The best way to engage the creative cultural consumers is by linking to their existing pursuits, provide participation platforms that that give them the opportunity to be recognized for their work.
• Cultural consumers value health and the environment, and are willing to pay more for products that fit their healthy, green criteria.
• While cultural consumers in general value the use of collective revenue for efforts that increase knowledge, they prioritize K-12 education and public libraries as amenities that should be valued and publicly funded, while viewing support of public universities and museums as personal choices that should be left up to the individual.
• One good piece of news for museums is that cultural consumers are highly politically engaged. More than 90% stay up to date with political news and vote. That makes them valuable potential advocates for museum-friendly policy and funding.
• Ninety percent of them agree that arts and cultural organizations help to keep the local economy strong and to create growth.

The report is intended to help marketers understand the cultural values and social dynamics that are driving consumer behavior. It’s also designed to spark discussions within the cultural community, where some people may be surprised (or intrigued) by Martin’s argument that “cultural consumer’s attitudes reflect the core American beliefs in the power of the individual, the value of a good education, and the possibility of success.”

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Making the Most of the Traditional Business Model

Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of CFM has encouraged me to share some insights from my experience as director of the Children’s Museum of Richmond (CMoR) in dealing with the current economy. Elizabeth has confirmed my feeling, based on conversations I’ve had at the Association of Children’s Museum’s national conferences, that CMoR is a leader with regard to earned income. Our earned income makes up 72 percent of our operating income, compared to a median of 48 percent for children’s museums generally, and puts us well into the 90th percentile of earned income for museums overall. I brought our assistant director of marketing to the conference in April—she attended a session on “new and unique” earned income possibilities and came away stunned that we were already doing every one of the ideas shared, plus many more. We have to be entrepreneurial with earned income because, as you will see, the other traditional sources of support are even more challenging for us.

We have a non-profit sage in Richmond, a former board member of my museum, who advises most of our significant local organizations on strategic planning. He is a former Fortune 500 CEO who got much more interested in non-profits, and teaches at both UVA and VCU Business Schools. He tells all of us who run non-profits to strive for “forward funding” – defined by him as not spending your unrestricted contributed income in the year it is raised, but rather raising it – and then being able to budget it for use in the next year. Of course, the challenge is to make it one year without those funds so you can use them the next year. We can’t do it currently – not even close.

Fund-raising is hard for museums right now. I hear from donors pretty consistently that they are moving gifts away from “cultural” institutions and instead investing in organizations that provide food and shelter. We try hard to make the case that if young children don’t have places to play and learn, they won’t be the creative people we need in the future to help solve the world’s problems. It is a good case, but it doesn’t have the immediate impact in some donors’ minds of feeding a starving child or healing a sick child. My board chair has heard enough from donors with this perspective that he has concluded the best way to steward the donors we have is to leverage their support by squeezing every possible earned dollar we can from those who use and benefit directly from our services. Our donors express strong appreciation for this approach. Now, if we want to raise money for capital projects, particularly new exhibits, everyone steps up and we have very little challenge here. It is the operating support that proves difficult to raise. So we have been borrowing from the university model and asking for “scholarship” support directly to offset admission for economically disadvantaged children. The response seems to be much stronger to the case for expanding “access” rather than supporting operations. This is a win-win solution. We are happy to have more children-especially those who rarely get an experience like that we can provide, and the scholarship support drops to the bottom line as soon as a child has a visit. The donor feels great that a specific child had an enriching visit they would not have had otherwise thanks to their support.

My organization does not receive any government support either. We get one $30,000 grant from an arts consortium that is funded by several area municipalities, but we are on notice that that program will probably not survive next fiscal year.

These challenges, plus the culture of my board of trustees—full of young entrepreneurs who don’t have fund development connections and experience—have put increased emphasis on our earned income. I have a strong internal staff capacity in marketing that has proven to be very creative and effective in devising new products that people seem quite willing to pay for – for example, layering in extra benefits and selling higher priced memberships. We are also exploring a “sibling strategy” of leveraging our brand to offer a smaller version of the museum in areas where the demographic density of our visitor profile is much higher.

As I scan the horizon, I can see where the pressures we are experiencing are likely to impact other organizations like ours. The steps we are taking will hopefully position us to thrive in the future. Because we believe strongly that children need to play in order to learn, and families need to know how critically important learning opportunities outside of a traditional school setting are to building creative, life long learners. But if we can’t make payroll – that mission can’t be fulfilled.

I hope that we, as a field, can keep this conversation going. I am thrilled to know that CFM is looking ahead at these issues and more.

Karen S. Coltrane

President and CEO
Children's Museum of Richmond
2626 West Broad Street
Richmond, Virginia 23220
804.474.7033 direct

Monday, October 26, 2009

Links for Green Rangers

Last week we introduced you to the (first) Green Ranger: Stephanie Almeida, who took up CFM's challenge to explore the environmental impact of museum conferences. She’s attending the Western Museums Association meeting in San Diego this week with CFM founding director Elizabeth Merritt (whose air passage across the continent generated more than a ton of CO2). Watch for updates here and on the WMA blog.

To help Stephanie and other museum professionals concerned about their carbon impact, we’ve gathered some background material and resources. This is a highly selective list, so please feel free to send us additional links.

Context: The best way to get a handle on the welter of data related to climate change is through graphics, so here are more than a dozen (the website in this link has a slightly naughty name, but completely safe for work). The blog “What’s Up With That?” even has a World Climate Widget you can add to your website or iPhone.

Carbon calculators: Carbon Fund and American Forests offer tools for calculating the size of your carbon impact (whether travelling or just sitting at home). Both sites have very good explanations of the underlying assumptions behind the calculations — and opportunities to purchase carbon offsets.

Should you be skeptical? The Christian Science Monitor tackles the “Top 10 green living myths” at http://features.csmonitor.com/environment/2009/05/13/the-top-10-green-living-myths/. Two of the myths deserve closer attention: “if you want to help alleviate global warming, plant trees” and “local food is always greener.”

Plant a tree? Back in 2003, “Straight Dope” columnist Cecil Adams pondered the question “How many trees should I plant to balance my yearly CO2 output?” (His conclusion: “Getting a handle on greenhouse gases is complicated, and we'd be foolish to think we've got it all figured out.”) Just this month, the Washington Post reported that the “Use of Forests as Carbon Offsets Fails to Impress In First Big Trial.” One of the article’s main sources: a recent Greenpeace report that “questions the premise of using forest conservation overseas to compensate for U.S. pollution.”

Eat local? Locavores offer many reasons for eating local foodstuffs, not just the environmental cost of the “food miles” between producers and dinner plates. In an unlikely piece of corporate sponsorship, Hellmann’s, the mayonnaise folks, have become active supporters of the eat local movement in Canada. The right-leaning National Post counters that “the ‘food mile’ perspective severely distorts the environmental impacts of agricultural production.” For a more nuanced view that tries to “balance [global] economic development priorities with an environmental agenda,” visit the World Resources Institute

Contributed by Phil Katz, Assistant Director, Research, American Association of Museums

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Hi-ho Green Ranger!

I have blogged about the ecological cost of conferences, speculating that in the future our consciences (not to mention our pocketbooks) will make us think three or four times before winging or wheeling our way across the country or the world for professional development. What are the unique, irreplaceable aspects of face-to-face training that webinars and other virtual training will never replace? When we do choose to travel, how can we reduce the environmental impact, while making the most of the unique benefits of such opportunities?

To explore this theme, Stephanie Almeida, an independent consultant specializing in establishing museums in virtual worlds, is preparing to don the cape and mask of the Green Ranger to attend the Western Museums Association meeting next week in San Diego. Trailing her bag of recyclables behind her, Stephanie will explore questions such as: what’s the best way to reduce your energy use in a hotel room? How do you hustle a low-impact cup o’ Joe? How do you choose a restaurant that contributes to the “greenness” of your trip?

I will help chronicle the Green Ranger's adventures—look for updates on this blog and on WestMuse. Join the conversation as we explore the pros/cons, myths and hype surrounding carbon offsets, “locavore” culture and green hotel practices.

If you are coming to the conference, you can join the experiment! Bring a coffee mug to personalize with a “Proud Greenie” sticker, and use it for the duration. (The sticker, and other Green Ranger products, are available at Café Press.) Estimate and share with us your own carbon cost for your trip. Whether or not you are coming, comment on this post for suggestions for Stephanie on what she should track or try—what are your tips for green travel? What do you think is the best use of her time in San Diego?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Meet Me in Houston, and Let's Aim for the Stars!

Want be a pioneer in the ranks of museum futurists? Read on.

CFM has on its to-do list starting a Museum Forecasting Network. The Network will draw on the experience of a diverse group of museum practitioners to preview trends within museums. To accomplish this, we need to train a cadre already conversant with museums in basic principles of futurism.
Such training will benefit the field as a whole, as well as being immensely useful to the organizations in which these individuals work.

In the long run, it is my hope that CFM will be able to sponsor professional development opportunities on futurism specifically for museum folk. For now, though, we will take advantage of existing training programs. So I am very excited that the University of Houston’s Futures Studies Program is offering museum professionals affiliated with CFM a 25% discount on their week-long certificate course in Strategic Foresight to be held Jan 11–15, 2010. (The discounted tuition is $1500.) This program is run by Dr. Peter Bishop, who is one of the founding members of the CFM Council. The project-based workshop will “teach participants to anticipate disruptive change and work towards the creation of transformational change in order to influence the future of their organizations, companies and communities.” (The course offers 4 CEUs for attendance and a certificate upon completion of a project after the workshop.)

Wouldn’t it be great to get critical mass of museum folk at the seminar, resulting in a creative collision between the fields of museums and futurism? Think of the follow-up projects it could spawn! I’m game, and will be sending myself—how about joining me? We could become the legendary class of ’10, founders of museum futurism…

Write me at futureofmuseums@aam-us.org to tell me you are interested. Call staff of the University at (713) 743-1060 for more information or to register for the course at the CFM discount price of $1500.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Seeking a New Business Model for Museums

Read the news nowadays and it seems like museums are the blazing spud in a giant game of hot potato. Financial responsibility is being tossed in all directions.

League City, Tex., is trying to transfer the Butler Longhorn Museum, which has never quite got off the ground under city governance, to a private nonprofit group. On Long Island, the town of Islip, faced with a $10M budget shortfall, is trying to toss the municipal art museum to Dowling College. (Which is ironic, considering that many colleges and university are proving to be unreliable museum parents—think Brandeis University and the Rose Art Museum. So much so that
ACUMG, AAM and other associations recently felt compelled to issue a declaration that “museums are no more disposable assets [for colleges] than are libraries and archives.”)

The potato flies in the other direction in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, where the
Scarabocchio Museum is trying to give itself to the city. (This appears to be a classic case of “I want to start my own museum…hey wait, now I want to retire, who cares enough to keep it going?”)

Sometimes the spud is lobbed from museum to museum, for example to the Arizona Science Center which is taking on the failing Phoenix Museum of History (Their web domain, pmoh.org is now inactive. Always a bad sign.)

Other times the potato will simply fall, as may be the case of the Claremont Museu
m of Art in Calif. and the Legends of the Game Museum in Arlington Tex, which seem to be on the verge of closing. This happens to for-profit museums as well, such as the Sports Museum of America in NYC, which closed earlier this year.

These stories represent more than challenges to individual museums. They illustrate the fact that whole categories of funding are threatened right now. For example, government funding, which has shrunk gradually over the last decade from a mean of 40% of museum operating income to about 25%, now seems on the verge of collapse. Pennsylvania has not only cut funding, but narrowly defeated a proposal to extend the sales tax to museums to fund other social services. A recent article about budget cuts in Illinois
provides commentary on how this rollback has affected museums whether or not they have traditionally relied on state funding in the past.

On the national level, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) is questioning whether the Federal government should fund museums at all. This same article quotes Rep. John Campbell (R-Irvine) dissing federal support for local museum projects. "Is that what people elected me and my colleagues to do, to take their tax money and make charitable contributions with it?" (Personally I agree with Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., that what I buy with my taxes is civilization, and museums are a great addition to the shopping cart.) But museums are being weighed against other social goods, like health care, and sometimes found wanting.

All of which leads to a question I have been hearing frequently: “What is the new business model for museums?” People want a magic formula that will turn museums from something too hot to handle into desirable entrees.

This is a tough question. While the distribution of funding sources varies from museum to museum (see AAM’s new 2009 Museum Financial Information) the basic financial model for years has been nonprofit status supported by a mix of funding from earned income (admissions revenue, membership, space rental), philanthropy (individual, corporate), government (primarily local) and investments. Sure you can fiddle with the particular mix your museum relies on. You can get better at leveraging local support (like the Cincinnati Museum Center, master of the local tax levy.) You can assiduously court donations (Like the Norman Rockwell Museum, which despite the economic downturn recently announced that the quiet phase of its fundraising campaign has yielded $18 million—nearly three-fourths of their $25 million goal.) You can creatively explore more ways to earn money (like the LA Museum of Contemporary Art, whose recent auction of art donated by artists for the occasion grossed $650,000). But these aren’t revolutionary ideas, even if they can be hard to implement in the current economic climate. They don’t constitute a “new business model”—they are examples of getting maximum efficiency from the old model.

So what would a truly new business model look like? It may seem trite to say “nothing like the old one” but that’s actually a good place to start. To come up with a new model we need to shed assumptions that constrain our thinking about how museums operate. Want an example? Here’s the old model: museums need to be complete and independent entities. Just like a brain needs a body to keep it alive, museums need all sorts of appendages that enable it to survive, think and create.

What is the alternative? Be a disembodied brain. Only staff and deliver the things that museums do uniquely: build physical and intellectual resources and provide access to them through exhibits, programs, publications, research. Don’t just outsource some support functions, outsource everything you don’t have to be expert at. Let non-specialized commercial firms like Aramark supply services such as accounting, building maintenance, facilities management, IT, ticketing and housekeeping. Specialty firms will supply services that need to be more museum-specific: exhibit fabrication, security and HVAC maintenance for example. Local consortia will handle the collections support needs of geographically bundled institutions: storage, data management and shipping.

As with many truly new models, the biggest barrier to giving this a try will probably be human nature and organizational culture—it is hard to erase the “self-image” held by a museum staff and board of their organization as a separate and independent entity, containing all the traditional functions.

I’m not saying that the “museum as disembodied brain” is the right new economic model, but it is certainly a different model (rather than squidging around the edges of “business as usual”) and might be worth a try.

So this is a call for dialogue: is your museum trying something truly new to secure its financial future? If so, share the news! Do you have an idea for what the “new business model” might look like? Throw it out there for comment and debate—maybe some enterprising organization will give it a try. And what do you think of museum as disembodied brain, relying on outside suppliers for the vast majority of its operations?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Brits discuss the future of museums

Two new internet sightings remind me that the future of museums is a lively topic of debate in the United Kingdom.
  • Vaughan Allen, director of the URBIS arts center in Manchester, looks at “the future of museums, galleries, citizenship and culture” for the website Culture24. Among other things, he’s worried that the current economic downturn has shaken the commitment of many museums to engage with their communities. (By the way, this is also a featured clipping in the October 14 edition of Dispatches from the Future of Museums, a new weekly briefing from CFM. Click here for information about subscribing.)
  • Planning to be in Birmingham on October 23? Then you might be interested in attending a Public Forum on Imagining Museums at the Ikon Gallery. Organizers describe it as “a debate on the future of museums in the light of the proposed new museum of contemporary art for Birmingham. With leading curators from the UK and around the world, our three panel sessions will explore issues of collecting in the 21st Century and developing innovative learning and research programmes.”
This is on top of a recent government summit devoted to the future of museums in Scotland (see here and here), a series of thoughtful reports by the Museums Association (on the future of collections, the workforce, and other topics), and Understanding the Future: Museums and the 21st Century, a 2005 report from the UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
This is hardly an exhaustive list—so let us know about similar work on the future of museums in Britain or anywhere else in the world.

Contributed by Phil Katz, assistant director, research, American Association of Museums

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Opportunity for Engagement: Volunteer to Listen for the Future

Even before the 2008 founding of the Center for the Future of Museums, AAM was helping the field detect the winds of change through partnership with the Johns Hopkins Nonprofit Listening Post Project. This project helps the nonprofit sector “know which way the wind blows” through periodic surveys of social service agencies (family and children services, homes for the aged, community development groups, etc.) and arts organizations (theatres, orchestras and museums). More than a thousand community-based organizations already serve as listening posts—windsocks for the sector, tracking the critical challenges to nonprofits and identifying creative, innovative responses from the field.

So far, the Listening Post Project has produced influential reports on internet technology use, costs of employee health care, volunteerism, economic stress and advocacy. The next sounding will be devoted to innovations and performance.

CFM is looking for 50 more museums to become Listening Posts—AAM membership not required. Participation is easy: all your museum has to do is respond to periodic soundings (short, on-line questionnaires—usually 20 minutes or less to complete) on topics ranging from governance, finances and operations to the role of nonprofits in American society. Participants receive an advance copy of any published analysis and, whenever possible, benchmarking reports about the museum field and their particular organization—plus the knowledge that they are helping both the museum field and the nonprofit sector in general prepare for the future.

For more information, contact Hillary Belzer at Johns Hopkins University: hbelzer@jhu.edu or Philip M. Katz at the American Association of Museums: pkatz@aam-us.org.