Friday, July 31, 2009

More on the Museum Identity Crisis

The last CFM blog post set off a lively discussion about defining museums (unfortunately mostly on Facebook and email—use the comments section, people!) But some of it on public blogs (for example, here) One reader asked, what do I mean when I say there might be different definitions for different purposes?

Good question. People categorize things for different reasons, museums no less than art objects. The Institute of Museum and Library Services, for example, is not so much defining museums as setting boundaries on what they will fund. So for Museum Assessment Program funding they exclude for-profit museums, and museums that are open to the public fewer than 90 days each year. The former is probably philosophical—why should the public underwrite for-profit entities? (Other than the pharmaceutical industries, agribusiness, the military industrial complex. Oh, never mind.) I’m not sure if the latter is practical (can a museum open for such a short time effectively use a grant?) or philosophical (do such museums deliver enough public good to justify funding?)

The American Association of Museums doesn’t define museums for the purposes of membership at all because, well, it’s a membership organization. Besides the philosophic position that it is better to have everyone in the same tent, in order to encourage them to live up to national standards, there is the practical issue that it is a poor business model to tell people they can’t join. (Unless you are going to take the opposite route, and position yourself as an exclusive club that everyone wants to be a member of.)

So, some purposes that might call for separate definitions of “museum” for practical purposes, or serving different perspectives:

• Joint advocacy: how do we identify a set of organization that share concerns regarding policy and funding?

• Data collection: do we really want to follow, and report on, every back room entity that calls itself a museum? (The Chestnut Ridge Typewriter Museum, for example, or the late lamented Mt. Vernon Museum of Incandescent Lighting) How could you draw boundaries that exclude them in a meaningful way?

• Setting standards and determining which organizations they cover. A museum that exists primarily for preservation (where protecting the object is highly important) is very different from a museum that is primarily about access and creating personal experiences (where an object might be sacrificed, over time, in the interest of letting people handle or touch it.) Distinguishing between these different kinds of institutions might head off some of the impassioned arguments in which the staff of the former sort think the policies of the latter sort are simply evil. Often the position is “because you are a museum, and museums are primarily about preservation, what you are doing is wrong.”

• Protecting assets: museums have built up a heap of public credibility over the centuries—there are many intangible and tangible benefits of the good feeling attached to the word “museum.” For-profit museums essentially trade on the credibility and positive public image of being “museums” without being required to pay into that pot through public service. Should they be allowed to call themselves museums, and cash in on perceptions and attitudes shaped by publicly underwritten nonprofit services?

In addition, we have to accept that the public’s intuitive understanding differs from all of the above, and we are not going to change that. (The average person on the street doesn’t think of a botanic garden as a museum.)

Are there other functional examples where a specific definition of museum would have a specialized utility? Do tell…

Future of Museum Studies

Interesting discussion --take a look at these comments from a discussion on June 22 about the future of museums and what a Museum Studies Program at Parsons/Cooper-Hewitt can do to benefit future museum professionals.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Museum Identity Crisis—Who the heck are “we,” anyway?

Recently, the Christian Science Monitor ran this article examining the ways museums are engaging with their communities on a number of fronts. The reporter chose one quote from James Chung (co-author of the CFM report Museums & Society 2034), out of a long interview, that makes it sound like collections vs. community focus is an either/or proposition, with collections on the losing end. Chris Norris picked up on this in his blog Prerogative of Harlots, after being irritated by some of the enthusiastic responses it drew on a friend’s Facebook page. Speaking of the Peabody Museum of Natural History’s after school program that gets local high school students to work with collections, Chris says:

“We'll never abandon programs like this, because we have a responsibility to maintain and improve access to our collections. We also have a responsibility to care for those collections, so that future generations can access them. At the same time, because we are a museum, our activities, public or otherwise, are collection-centered. Museums are all about objects and collections. If not, we wouldn't be museums. We'd be galleries, or science centers entertainment venues or research institutes; schools or retail outlets.”

James and Chris aren’t really disagreeing, but they’re looking at museums from very different perspectives—a researcher working with museum visitors, who for the most part only see and appreciate what is on exhibit, versus a collections manager aware of the hundreds of thousands of valuable research specimens that will only ever be seen by specialists.

But this dust-up dramatizes how hard it is to find common ground to discuss something as fundamental as the primary focus of a museum, and strikes at the heart of a controversy that has come up again and again over my years at AAM. What is a museum? As a group, do we really have one unique element or set of characteristics that unite us as a field, while distinguishing us from other types of organizations? Are children’s museums (three quarters of which do not own or use collections) really in the same business as art museums? What about science centers? How much do museums that primarily exist to serve the general public have in common with museums like the Peabody MNH, where the majority of the collections serve a specialized community of researchers?

And collections are just one parameter—there are many others, some very complex and hard to characterize. For-profit museums like the International Spy Museum or the Museum of Sex look just like any other museum to their visitors, but their governance, accountability, and regulatory environment are so different that the National Standards and Best Practices for U.S. Museums don’t cover them.

I have dodged the question “what is the definition of a museum” for years, by referring inquirers to this wonderful compendium of museum definitions compiled by John Simmons. I didn’t think it necessary to grapple with myself because I was not convinced it was important enough to justify the hours I have heard people argue about it. Now I’m coming round—if we are going to present a united front as a field, decide on common performance metrics on which we should be judged, and collect and report data about “us” we need to tackle this question. Even if we end up agreeing there are different definitions for different purposes.

So I am going to turn the question around and throw it open to the wisdom of the crowds. Have at it, guys. Are museums, as Chris says, “all about objects and collections,” or are they about any interpretation of the world in a physical environment (as another friend of mine contends). How will increasingly sophisticated technology affect our definition--does a virtual museum that provides digital information about real objects (like the Virtual Museum of Surveying) belong to our field, while a physical museum that presents only wall text does not? If being a museum requires collections, how many objects does it take? One? A dozen? What about a museum like the Museum of Jurassic Technology or the Umbrella Cover Museum where the objects are, in many ways, just props to unhinge your mind and force you to question the nature of truth and authority? Go to it...start with your comments here, and we will find the best way to continue the discussion.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Hearts and Minds

I just read a post on the blog Blayne Sucks by Aaron Massey, a doctoral student in computer science at NC State. In other words, a computer geek. Aaron just wrote a 1000 word paean, a lengthy love letter, to the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. He actually throws down the gauntlet, daring any other children’s museum in the country to compare itself to CMI. This guy is trying to start a flamewar arguing the merits of museums across the country! You can’t pay for this kind of publicity.

I suspect Aaron fits James Chung and Susie Wilkening’s definition of a “Museum Advocate.” In their new book “Life Stages of the Museum Visitor” they note that usually these advocates become stuck on museums at an early age, influenced by some experience that moved them in a profound manner. In his post, Aaron describes growing up in the Indianapolis area and taking part in ICM’s Museum Apprentice Program (called MAP), spending about 200 hours on the floor and behind the scenes over the course of a summer. As he describes it: “I setup props for science shows, and I did demos of cool science experiments about things like angular momentum or water surface tension. I got special access to some of their storage areas and I used my lunch breaks to explore the areas where I wasn’t working.” Wow, that investment on the part of the museum sure paid back. When, and if, Aaron has kids (or nephews or nieces) I bet he brings them to museums, too, and they will have their own transforming experience, and become life-long museum advocates.

Susie and James challenge museums to consciously explore how to create the kind of “sticky experiences” that catch kids’ hearts and keeps them for life. While some remember being bowled over by individual exhibits, I bet opportunities for involvement are even stickier. My own museum conversion experience was mucking out cages and doing live animal demonstrations with an opossum at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History as a youngster. I would love to learn more about other museum programs that engage children in meaningful work, and make them feel like they have “special access,” that a museum is truly “theirs” in a personalized way. Tell me your favorites! And if you had a museum “conversion” experience as a kid, what was it?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Near Future: What’s Up at CFM

Here is a glimpse of what is up at CFM in the next six months. I would love your input. Write me at with your ideas.

This summer and fall we are working on the second CFM research report, Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums: Trends and Implications. CFM’s first report, Museums & Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures, highlighted a disconnect between trends in American demography and patterns of museum visitation. For example, today the United States is nearly a third non-Caucasian, yet research by Reach Advisors suggests that only 1 in 10 core museum visitors are members of an ethnic or racial minority. Most analysts predict that the United States will become a “majority minority” nation within the next 25 years. Demographic Transformations, will explore these trends and their implications for museums in more detail. We want to identify, synthesize and interpret existing research on demographics, cultural consumer attitudes, museum diversity practices and related topics.
Opportunities for input: What good research/reports/papers related to this topic do you know of?

2009 Lecture—building on the format successfully piloted with CFM’s first lecture, “Gaming the Future of Museums,” we are looking for a dynamic and engaging speaker to challenge museum practitioners to rethink what it will mean to be a relevant, sustainable museum in our increasingly diverse society. (The live lecture in D.C. will be followed by a webcast.)
Opportunities for input: Know of anyone who fits the bill? Send name, affiliation, contact information and (if possible) links to video/audio on the Web.

Laying the foundation for the Museum Forecasting Network. One of CFM’s major roles is to gather, synthesize and deliver relevant and timely forecasting data to museum practitioners in order to inform their planning. Much of this we can cull from existing fields that produce copious forecasting data (energy, economic, climate, cultural, etc.) However, we want to create a forecasting network for the museum field itself. Adapting the traditional Delphi method of forecasting we plan to recruit a panel of expert museum practitioners to generate and refine predictions that will be disseminated to the field for comment and discussion. What are the emerging trends in museum finance, programs, policy or governance? Where might museums consider actions today to influence the future of our field?
Opportunities for input: Who would you nominate as a prospective forecaster? What friend or colleague seems strangely prescient on museum issues?

I also would love to hear your suggestions for blog post topics—particularly museums operation in a future-oriented manner that we can profile and news that has crossed your radar that highlights future trends of importance to the field.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Tomorrow’s News Today

Last week’s “Breaking Trail” post was the first in a series of profiles of museums pioneering futurist planning and actions. This post premieres another kind of entry that will be a recurring feature of the CFM blog—current news stories that illustrates potential future states.

Let me backtrack to explain this format. When the Institute for the Future ran the Alternate Reality Game Superstruct last fall, I was, at first, startled at how extreme the forecasts were. IFTF’s world of 2019 was marked by rampant epidemic disease, food shortages, energy disruptions, massively displaced populations and cyber vandalism threatening the integrity of data world wide. However, as the game progressed, I found when I opened the New York Times each morning I found some story that was an eerie echo of the Superstruct scenarios. By the conclusion of the game, I felt that the IFTF projections were not so extreme at all—sometimes they seemed to be barely exaggerated versions of our current state. Which has led to an interesting new way to read the newspaper, for me—which stories can I spot that are early tails of future trends?

My first nominee is this NPR Story on the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Philbrook is using part of its grounds, traditionally dedicated to a formal garden, to plant vegetables that will be donated to a local community food bank. This is a win-win situation. The Philbrook did not have the funds this year to maintain the whole formal garden. This illustrates a broader trend we have tracked anecdotally, of nonprofits cutting back on maintenance such as window washing, carpet cleaning, groundskeeping, to shave costs. And in these tight economic times food banks are experiencing increased demand, while donations, overall, are down.

This is a real time echo of a fictional news story posted in Superstruct, reporting on a joint announcement (in 2019) by the AAM and the Association of Public Gardens of new national standards for botanic gardens and arboretums that encourage the use of their grounds for community garden allotments. The new standard reads “a public garden assists its community in dealing with challenges to the local food supply through education and provision of resources including, where appropriate, land for community gardens or other methods of food production.”

I was alerted to the Philbrook story by Amelia Wong, who posted it on Museum 3.0 in response to a challenge by Elaine Gurian to explore the appropriate uses of museums during this serious economic downturn. Should they stick strictly to their missions, or do what needs to be done to meet the most urgent needs of their communities? (The topic was further explored in the first post of the CFM blog.) I think the Philbrook’ actions neatly illustrate that the answer need not be either/or, win/lose. In the future, I think it will be more common for museums to look beyond the strict boundaries of their missions to consider how to meet the acute needs of their community. Or, at least, those museums that do so are more likely to be valued and supported by their communities, and therefore to survive even in hard times.

Write in to contribute to this discussion. What museums do you know of that have stepped forward, in ways not directly tied to their missions, to meet community needs?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Who is counting museum unemployment?

According to today's report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics , the number of non-agricultural workers continued to decline in June 2009 (down by 467,000 people), though the unemployment rate was little changed at 9.5 percent. Job losses were widespread across the major industry sectors, with especially large declines occurring in manufacturing, professional and business services, and construction. Since the start of the recession in December 2007, the number of unemployed persons in the U.S. has increased by 7.2 million, and the unemployment rate has risen by 4.6 percentage points. At first, the numbers for museums and related institutions ("historical sites, zoos, and parks") look much more encouraging, with an employment gain of 4.2% since May 2009 -- but most of this reflects the hiring of seasonal employees. Overall, BLS says that museum employment is down by 0.8% since June 2008 and virtually unchanged since June 2007. However, the Current Employment Statistics survey from BLS fails to account for many of the nation's museum workers (at least a half, by AAM's estimate, for example, many of them at government museums); as a result, the anecdotal accounts of museum layoffs around the country don't seem to be reflected in these aggregate numbers.

--Philip Katz, Assistant Director, Research
American Association of Museums