Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The New Borgias

In Superstruct, the Alternate Reality Game from the Institute for the Future that ran last fall, player Phil Deely wrote a story titled “The New Borgias.” Deely posited that, in the game’s fictional future of 2019, the wealthy few dominate and control cultural institutions in the U.S. As with many hypotheses explored in the game, this one seems very plausible the more I mull it over.

Deely’s story came to mind this past week as I helped Phil Katz, AAM’s research director, pummel the data from AAM’s latest financial survey into shape. Everyone is eager to see the financial survey data. It compiles three years of information, through FY 2008, and documents the initial effect on museums of the current financial crisis. Even this early in the analysis one thing leaps out: many fewer museums answered this survey than responded to its predecessors. We received 588 complete or partial surveys, compared to 822 in 2006 and 806 in 2003. (And a big shout out to readers who did complete the survey for your museum! We love you…)

This sample size is still theoretically big enough to give us sound statistical data, but why the small numbers? There may be a psychological block to completing this survey in a time of economic confusion (looking over the financial statements is just too depressing!) Unfortunately, a major reason for the low response rate appears to be that many museums are scrambling just to keep themselves afloat. AAM staff made personal phone calls to directors and staff of many museums to try to increase the response rate. These conversations gave us a heartbreaking glimpse of museums struggling with layoffs, deficits, and how to keep faith with their audience, communities and staff while making difficult decisions about what to do and stop doing as funding shrinks. They don’t have time to answer a survey, even though they desperately need exactly the data the survey is gathering to support their case for funding. This also may skew the survey data, since museums most severely affected by the economic crisis may be underrepresented.

And that’s what makes the data really scary. I have no doubt that once we crunch the numbers, they will document profound damage. Unlike the period following the terrorist attacks of 2001, when individual museums or regions suffered but the field as a whole was sound, the effect of this economic crisis is pandemic. It may also be long lasting: in the CFM forecasting report Museums and Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures authors James Chung and Susie Wilkening of Reach Advisors point out that it took Japan a decade to climb out of the financial hole created by the bursting of their real estate bubble. This suggests that our recovery could be equally protracted. However long our current recession lasts, things will get grim for museums and other cultural institutions. Government support, endowment values and individual donations and foundation support are already in decline. This leads to the obvious question—in the future, where will the money to support museums come from?

Which brings me to Deely’s prescient story. Per the old joke, crooks rob banks because that is where the money is. Museums, while we like to think of ourselves as too virtuous to resort to theft, follow the money just as assiduously. In the future, that money may be found exclusively in the pockets of the rich. Museums and Society 2034 observes that our society has a large and growing wealth gap. The ranks of the poor are growing, while the middle class slips in its relative earning power. The top 5% of households in the U.S. earn one third of the total earned income, and the top 0.5% (roughly 500,000 households) account for 14%. These top earners are taking a financial hit too, but they still have large amounts of money available for discretionary spending. A D.C. realtor recently underscored this point: explaining why the mortgage crunch was unlikely to interfere with the sale of the Icelandic Ambassador’s residence (priced at over $5.6 million), he noted that people buying over the $2 million price point tend to pay cash. Indeed.

We have seen several examples of the wealthy playing white knight to museums threatened by financial dragons. Most recently, Eli Broad rode to the rescue of the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art, spearheading development of a $75 million recovery plan which included an offer of as much as $30 million from his own foundation. On the face of it, what a fine solution! If the wealthy are willing to follow the example of Andrew Carnegie and invest in society by investing in its cultural institutions, why not let them assume the responsibility?

The problem is, museums know from long experience that whoever provides the money calls the shots. Money from prominent donors usually comes with very explicit agendas. It has been suggested, for example, that in “rescuing” MOCA Broad was in fact watching out for his own financial interests: the closure of MOCA’s downtown location could threaten his financial interests in adjacent real estate.

In my experience, Broad’s willingness to wield the influence that comes with patronage exemplifies the rule, not the exception. To cite just one other example, consider the Experience Music Project founded and funded by Paul Allen. In 2004, four years after opening, that museum scrambled to downsize when Mr. Allen repurposed a large portion of their space as a science fiction museum and hall of fame.

The Borgias, the Medicis and the Broads of this world have been marvelous supporters of culture. We all have benefited from their patronage. But their support has, perforce, shaped the arts and, by extension, our own values and tastes, to conform to theirs. Their influence is in large part responsible for the perception that we now work so hard to reverse—that museums are elitist, unwelcoming and, well, patronizing. As Museums and Society 2034 discusses, younger Americans expect opportunities to contribute to the content presented by museums and take an active role in creating their leisure experiences. Communities expect museums to be responsive to their needs and concerns.

So before we cede control of our museums to the new Borgias, I suggest we pause and ask: Can you create a truly democratic museum, one that responds to the expectation of its audience and community and by so doing becomes a vital part of society, with aristocratic funding? And if we don’t like the effect patronage will have on museums, what is the alternative?

Stay tuned for future posts exploring our options…

Next week: Pt. II, alternate financial models for the future

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Post-educational Museum

The recent kerfluffle about whether museums should be included in the federal stimulus bill was a depressing reminder of the narrow stereotypes into which museums force themselves in order to protect their access to public funding. For those of you who missed the drama: Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) introduced an amendment that would have barred museums from receiving funding under the stimulus package, lumping them with frivolities such as casinos, golf courses and swimming pools. While museums were removed from the final amendment, zoos and aquariums are still excluded from receiving funding—perhaps because they are way too much fun, more on that below.

One counterargument to Coburn’s amendment was the fact that museums are, in truth, major employers and generators of local tourism and business. But so are casinos and golf courses, for that matter. For museum advocates, the issue wasn’t just whether any or all of these organizations are economic drivers but whether they have some socially redeeming value, worthy of public support. In pushing back against the amendment, people reminded their elected representatives that museums (unlike casinos, pools and golf courses) are educational in nature. (Though I would counter that casinos offer an unparalleled lesson in statistics and probability, one that, alas, usually goes unlearned.)

Museums have been using the banner of education to defend our funding for decades. When I was researching the origin of the AAM Accreditation Program for the book National Standards and Best Practice for U.S. Museums, I was disillusioned to learn that a big motive for the “Excellence and Equity” movement in the early 1970s was, to put it simply, money. Prior to this time museums had been lumped, for government funding purposes, with recreational and entertainment organizations like theme parks. Museums battled hard to be reclassified as educational organizations in order to access the dollars being made available in the wake of Johnson’s “Great Society” movement. I am sure there was a deeply held philosophical underpinning as well, but the immediate spur for making the argument was the prospect of more money.

Not that money is a bad thing. But it invariably influences (some would say, corrupts) that which it touches, and it behooves us to be aware of the nature of that influence. Has this effort to be seen, and funded, as primarily educational organizations obscured some of the true nature of museums? Or discouraged us from doing other worthwhile things? Unless one stretches the definition of “education” to encompass any experience at all, it does not include many other roles filled by museums. For example, they provide moments of peace and contemplation, opportunities to connect with friends and family, and (gasp) the potential to have fun.

I think some of these other museum functions and behaviors are marginalized because museums are busy defending their self-identification as “educational.” And we speak as if the alternative to being “educational” is being “entertaining,” with the implication that the latter is a frivolous waste of money and time. The stereotype works both ways. My new friend Andrew Sacher was just telling me that in the entertainment industry, “education” is seen as a four letter word—something that puts the kiss of death on a project aiming to be fun and popular. What a terrible dichotomy!

Bless our puritan heritage, heaven forbid that learning in the United States should be fun. There is a small exception carved out for children—we call it “informal education” and that makes it ok to introduce some games, some playful element. But as soon as a person in the U.S. reaches the age of majority, learning is a serious business. It can involve books, or lectures, or long painful hours on your feet on marble floors reading exhibit labels. It shouldn’t involve running, or giggling, or being raunchy or overtly showing that you are having A Good Time. This goes a long way, I think, to explaining Nina Simon’s observation that museums rarely allow themselves to be funny, or opinionated, or sexy. We seem to have forgotten that, biologically speaking, the function of play is to help us learn. We are hard wired to respond to “fun” by repeating an action (physical or mental) until it is mastered. If we want a nation of “life long learners,” then we need learning experiences for adults that continue to be fun and playful.

It also seems worth examining what socially uplifting functions museums serve other than education, instead of always trying to force ourselves into that role. After the terrorist attacks of 2001, many museums (especially botanic gardens!) noted a bump in visitation as people came seeking solace and a place for quiet contemplation. In the conversations following Dr. Jane McGonigal’s CFM lecture on Gaming the Future of Museums, some attendees disputed her thesis that the primary purpose of museums is, or should be, making people happy. But they listed as valid outcomes for museums many things that don’t explicitly educate people either. After the lecture, participants cited other emotions that museums might usefully provoke--awe or wonder, even sadness or grief. So museums can be engineered to evoke particular emotions that enhance personal and spiritual development—isn’t that a useful and desirable role for a public institution? Research by Reach Advisors uncovers other hidden motivators as well—the desire of parents to be good role models for their children, for example, and the wish to resume the pursuit of childhood passions.

Yet another valid question is: what does our audience (or potential audience) want? As Reach Advisors has documented in their research, and commented on in Museums & Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures, the next generation wants to “curate” their own lives. They don’t want a museum, or anyone else, to do it for them. To meet this expectation, a museum could become a platform that enables users to access the museum’s resources to their own creative ends. Will that trump the role of museum as a traditional educator and authority figure? We may be approaching a cultural shift from museums as educators of the masses to museums as facilitators of the exchange of information and points of view. In this future, museums might play a smaller role as arbiters of what is true or correct, and a larger role as catalysts for conversation.

I know that this forecast drives many museum people absolutely nuts, as it undermines our traditional role as scholars, experts, and connoisseurs, but maybe it’s time to stop forcing museums into narrow and constraining categories. Let’s stop arguing about whether museums are all “educational” by nature, and explore the boundaries of everything they can and should be to help people, and society, fulfill their greatest potential.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Stone Soup

Elaine Gurian has started an interesting thread on Museum 3.0 titled “Museum as Soup Kitchen.” She asks how museums are helping their communities in the current economic hard times. “It is clear to me,” she writes, “that museums could be much more helpful and timely by changing hours, job retraining, health care information and all manner of social service. What I wonder is if you think they should do that or retain their primary function of preservation, education, etc. or do both and if so what is the mix?”
An extremely timely question—exactly the kind that the Center for the Future of Museums exists to explore. CFM is not just about helping museums navigate the future, and be the best museums they can be. It wants to help museums realize their potential to help society be whole and strong. “Reality is broken” said Dr. Jane McGonigal in the first CFM lecture last December—summarizing her thesis that people spend massive amounts of time computer gaming in part because they can’t find happiness in their real lives.
Sound too dramatic? Two recent CFM futures forecasts dramatize the challenges we, as a society, face—not just to finding happiness on the higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but to meeting basic needs. Reach Advisor’s “Museums & Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures” is a sober, careful look at trends shaping our world in the next quarter century. Even this relatively conservative report portrays a future in which energy costs soar, social services are strained by an increasingly aged population, and the U.S. struggles with a long-term recession. James Chung and Susie Wilkening envision a diverse and fragmented society that, due to the proliferation of personalized media, has few points of common reference and is strained by increasing stratification of wealth. And that’s the rosy version of the future.
Museums & Society 2019” is far darker. This crowdsourced report was created by players in the game Superstruct. Based on plausible, if somewhat extreme scenarios created by professional forecasters at the Institute for the Future, it reflects a world stressed by refugee populations displaced by political conflict and climate change, plagued by unstable energy supplies, epidemic disease, threats to the food supply and malicious corruption of web-based information. The players exploring museums in this future project massive closings, mergers and relocations, the adoption, by necessity, of extreme “green design,” and museums forced by financial distress to digitize archives and sell off the original documents. One player in the game echoed Elaine’s question, asking “What does it mean to have a museum when your needs for food, shelter and community are not being met?” Another player envisions that “many museums [become] makeshift “sites of conscience” for displaced institutions and communities.
However, Dr. McGonigal, in her CFM lecture, also expressed her optimism that museums can help invent a better future, create a sustainable future and “save the world.” So, to return to Elaine’s question, if museums do an excellent job in their traditional roles of preserving and educating, would it be enough? Or if job retraining, health care information and social services are what our communities need in order to survive, should we explore how we can use our resources to help provide those things, as well?
Now, I am sure that in her post Elaine meant “soup kitchen” metaphorically, but in fact Megan Dickerson responded with a story about the Boston Children’s Museum’s “GoKids in Boston Neighborhoods,” a series of family dinners at public housing developments. BCM saw this human services project as “a kind of empowered soup kitchen,” providing families with food, health and nutrition counseling. Megan goes on to tell how the project, in a unexpected twist, began to attract higher income families, resulting in yet another great outcome—creation of a social occasion in which families of very different cultures economic strata mingled and formed bonds. What a great, if unexpected, outcome! And one that directly addresses the need foreseen in “Museums & Society 2034” for museums to find ways to counteract the forces fragmenting society.
Megan’s reponse made me think of other interesting twist to Elaine’s metaphor—from "Soup Kitchen" to "Stone Soup". Do you know the story? Two beggars show up in town. The townspeople all say "don't expect anything from us! We are starving, and can't give you anything. It’s all we can do for each family here to take care of itself." "Don't worry about us," the beggars say. "We don't need food from you. We will make ourselves a delicious stone soup!" All the villagers gather around, curious to see how this will work. The beggars do point out they have to borrow a kettle, and firewood, which are duly provided. They carefully remove a rock from their tattered bag, and put it into the kettle full of water. "This will be fabulous," they say. "Of course, it would be even better with a few carrots in it." You can see where this is going...eventually they get people to pitch in potatoes, spices, a bit of meat, some grains, and they end up with a vat of soup big enough to feed everyone in town, which they proceed to do.
Museums start with far more precious resources--their collections, building, expertise. But in hard times some people (evidently Senator Coburn1 among them) think that a museum is about as useful as a stone. As the story of the beggars points out, even if you don’t grant its intrinsic value, a stone can be a starting point. It can be a focal point to bring together all the other resources of the community until there is enough, all in one place together, to serve everyone.
The other thing I like about the “stone soup” metaphor is that it shows that to act as a “stone” a museum has to relinquish some control over the end product. The museum says, in effect, “here is what we have, what can you bring to the table?” And, like the Boston Children’s Museum, you may find that unexpected people show up with unforseen contributions and unanticipated needs. And that’s ok. If museums are open to the possibilities that arise from all the wonderful things that they do and have, they can, as the CFM mission statement says, “transcend traditional boundaries to serve society in new ways.” Ready to make soup?
1 On February 4, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) introduced an amendment to prohibit any funds in the economic stimulus bill from going to museums. The language of the amendment read "None of the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, arts center, or highway beautification project, including renovation, remodeling, construction, salaries, furniture, zero-gravity chairs, big screen televisions, beautification, rotating pastel lights, and dry heat saunas."
How can you join this dialogue on the role of museums in the future?
Respond to Elaine’s post at Museum 3.0
Comment on the Reach Advisor’s report “Museums & Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures
Contribute to the crowdsourced report “Museums and Society 2019
Become a friend of the future of museums through CFM! Email us at to join our list of people interested in getting engaged in our projects