Monday, September 28, 2009

Goin' Mobile?

According to some predictions, “by 2020, mobile devices will be the primary connection tool to the internet for most people in the world.” And a forward guard of museums is already adapting to this coming reality, according to a new website from the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University on the use of mobile technologies in museums. The site includes a white paper of research findings, examples of mobile technology in action, off-the-shelf tools and prototypes, and a list of additional resources.

Here’s a summary of the research findings:
For many years, art museums have been at the forefront of offering their visitors learning experiences that extend beyond traditional exhibit labels with gallery kiosks and audio guides. More recently, art museums continue leading the way by adding cell phone tours, podcasts, and platform-specific applications in an effort to capitalize on the commonly-owned portable devices—iPods, MP3 players, Blackberries, cell phones—that visitors already carry in their pockets. Museum professionals see great potential in reaching new audiences and pleasing old ones by providing content and social interaction via mobile devices. The biggest challenge is that many museums do not quite know where to begin when working with a small budget and small staff with limited technical knowledge.

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

Friday, September 25, 2009

Economic Change and the Future of American Museums

Guest blog by James Chung and Susie Wilkening, Reach Advisors

Over the summer, James was asked to speak at the International Council of Museums meeting about the current economic turmoil and the impact on American museums. Primed by our work on AAM’s Center on the Future of Museums white paper on the future landscape and its impact on museums, and our ongoing analysis of a number of external indicators for various clients, we dug into this topic with gusto. For this post, we excerpt some thoughts from the presentation on what this time of turmoil likely means for museums, big and small, over the long haul. 

The Economic Downturn

So first, how is the U.S. economy affecting U.S. museums? The gyrating equity markets have shrunk endowment income . . . as well as contributions from individuals, corporations, and foundations. On top of that, municipal and state government deficits are yielding funding cutbacks that affect museums. We simply don’t see governmental budgets bouncing back any time soon—all our indicators show that the drop in sales tax, property tax, and income tax receipts is shaping up to be more than a short-term aberration.

But there is a bright spot. For many museums, admissions and membership revenue are holding up. Why? While tourism may be down, local and regional visitation is stable or increasing as consumers look for high-value options for themselves and their families.

Different types of museums are feeling the pain in different ways. Generally, this is what we are hearing from the field.

  • Larger art and history museums are struggling with a decline in tourism and gifts. Those with historically larger endowments are suffering the most economic strain and budget-cutting pressure.
  • Children’s museums and science centers are holding up, with relatively stable visitation. Their earned income may actually be up and this is ameliorating, to some extent, decreases in gifts. As relatively young institutions, they tend to have smaller (or no) endowments, so they are less affected by the stock market downturn than their older, larger brethren in other disciplines. 
  • Hyper-local museums, such as small museums that are thoroughly embedded in their community, are surviving through their personal connections with their base of support. It is harder to cut back on your gift to the local historical society when its director eats at your restaurant regularly. Like children’s museums, these organizations tend to have smaller (or no) endowments, so they too are also less affected by endowment losses. The bubble collapsing wasn’t much of an issue since the bubble was never there for them.
Looking ahead, we see some key challenges worth flagging.

Challenge One: The State of the Financial Services Industry
In some parts of the U.S., there has been a heavy reliance on individual and corporate philanthropy from the financial services industry. What museum doesn’t look to a local bank (or two, or three) to help pay for an exhibit, program, or for general support? How many new construction projects of this decade have been funded by wealth from the financial services industry? But the financial sector has been hit extremely hard in this downturn . . . and their profits are declining sharply beyond just the short term since they are no longer allowed to take on as much debt as they used to do in order to amplify their profits.

Let’s pick this issue apart. At the peak of the economic boom, the top 10% of U.S. households accounted for nearly ½ of the earned income in the U.S. Breaking it down further, the top 1% of households accounted for almost ¼ of the earned income in the U.S. Meanwhile, the median income dropped slightly during this decade. The rich did indeed get richer. Much richer. Almost half of American income growth this decade was fueled by the growth of the financial services and real estate industries. Those days of extraordinary windfall, and charitable giving at that level, are over for the foreseeable future.

Challenge Two: The Economic Effects of Changing Demographics
First topic, the education of women. Twenty-five years ago, adult men were about 50% more likely than women to have a college degree. Among adults today, overall there is roughly gender parity. But when you examine young adults, a startling shift has taken place. Young women under 30 are now almost 50% more likely to earn a college degree than their male counterparts. And in many U.S. cities that draw an educated workforce, young women are now out-earning young men. Why? Primarily, it’s the education gender gap. Also, young men’s income stayed close only due to their heavier concentration in finance, real estate, and construction – the industries that have been hardest hit by the financial downturn. While men’s income has been disproportionately dependent on those industries, income growth of young women has come from greater education levels. The rising economic power of these young women will be a key economic driver reshaping consumer markets through the next decade. And just as they will reshape consumer markets, their expectations will almost certainly reshape U.S. museums as they move through new life stages, including parenthood.

Second topic, the aging of America. Right now in the U.S. about 1 in 8 residents are over the age of 65. In 25 years it will be 1 in 5. This will almost certainly create an increased strain on government to cover unfunded retirement and healthcare obligations. Which raises the question, what is the future of museum funding if economies don’t grow fast enough to support these increasing obligations? Some commentators are already explicitly casting the debate on tax policy as museums versus health insurance.

Challenge Three: The Jump-Ball Economy
Here we find a possible silver lining in the grim economic news. The global economic situation impacts more than just funding for museums, it also impacts the behavior of museums audiences in ways that can turn out to be positive. There simply hasn’t been a time in the recent past where discretionary spending and time allocation habits have been up for grabs to this extent—we’re calling it the ‘jump-ball economy.’ While consumers are spending less, they are rethinking many of their decisions, embracing value as a virtue. It’s almost as if some consumers are breathing a sigh of relief that the era of conspicuous consumption died along with AIG and Lehman Brothers. Instead, the pursuit of luxury is being replaced by a pursuit of meaning. Value and meaning—two things that museums do extraordinarily well.

Museums could come out of this economic downturn stronger, with our publics more clearly seeing the value that museums bring to our communities. This will take thoughtful positioning, signaling, and advocacy for external constituencies to see how museums are more relevant than ever. But it’s an effort well worth taking since this may be far more than just a cyclical correction with a return to the way things used to be. The future may well look like this period as the ‘new normal,’ and that’s not necessarily a bad thing for museums.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Building a Self-Study Course in Futurism

One of CFM’s major goals is to encourage museum practitioners to think and plan for a longer time frame (longer, that is, than the usual one to three-year plan.) In our rapidly changing, uber-connected world a plan that looks good in the short term and at a local level can turn out to be disastrous when it plays out on a larger scale in time and space. Not everyone is going to become a full-blown museum futurist (heck, I’m still working on that,) but versatile museum staff (particularly directors) know a useful bit about marketing, development, communications, evaluation—all things that go into making a museum work. We hope to add a dollop of futurism to that mix. To that end, I will periodically lob articles and web links your way, to add to your self-study curriculum. Here are a few to start.

Jamais Cascio of The Institute for the Future (IFTF) presents the first of a series of occasional series of essays on thinking about the future in Slate magazine. I particularly like his reminder, as he outlines methods for mapping future possibilities, that “the futures you come up with will almost certainly be wrong—the goal is to be wrong in a way that offers insights into present choices.” Cascio offers a good outline of a basic framework for forecasting and scenario building.

I have been following several sites that do a thoughtful job of helping people explore the future, and think about how to be wrong in an insightful way. One is GoTo 2040, a site designed to solicit input from Chicagoans on comprehensive metropolitan planning. (The public comment phase for this project is closed, but they have left the site active as an educational tool.) I particularly admire the interactive Invent 2040 section where users can make choices about development density and location, roads, transit systems etc., and see how this affects the map of population density in and around Chicago over time. It takes complex issues and presents them clearly, focuses attention on key parameters affected by policy decisions and helps people visualize the effects of potential choices. What are the most relevant policy decisions for your museum, and how might you help your community visualize the results of your possible choices?

I admit city planning isn’t museum planning (let’s not start an argument over which is more complex). Well, here’s another futures planning site a little closer to our home turf: the Knowledgeworks Foundation’s Map of Future Forces Affecting Education. Knowledgeworks aims to “transform education in the US from a world of schooling to a world of learning—where efforts are focused on the needs of the learner, not the institution.” Sounds highly relevant, given the key role that museums play in informal learning, yes? Read over the trends that Knowledgeworks and IFTF (their partner in this project) identified as shaping the future of high school education in the US, and check out the tools they provide for scenario planning to help school districts apply the trends information to their decision-making. I’ve taken the liberty of editing the sample focal issues they present to show how easily their scenario planning guide might be adapted to helping a museum plan for its future educational role:

  • How should my [museum] evolve in order to provide a high quality learning environment for all students in 2020?
  • What will [museum educators] need to know and be able to do in order to be effective in 2025?
  • What types of education will motivate and engage learners in 2020?
  • What will be the public’s expectation of and support for [museums] in 2025?
  • What will the education marketplace look like in 2020?
Take a look, and let all our blog readers know if you try using the map, the trends and the scenario building guide at your museum—it would be good to know if it can port usefully into our field.

And send me your nominations for best futurist/trend spotting sites! I will read and share.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Blog to keep an eye on: MuseumDesignLab

This blog documents the work of 18 students at the Parsons School of Design who will spend the next semester forecasting the future of 6 NYC-based museums: The American Museum of Natural History, The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, The New York Hall of Science, The Museum of the American Indian, The Museum of Modern Art and The Tenement Museum. Under the guidance of professor Tim Ventimiglia, and using the CFM report Museums & Society 2034 as a jumping-off point, teams of students will forecast the issues each museum will face in the next 50 years, and create proposals for how the institutions can face these challenges. You can follow and comment on their work on the blog.

The site also includes a reading list and links to resources that may be of interest to other museum futurists…take a look!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Tomorrow’s News Today: The Evolution of Museum Photography Policies

Here’s an interesting item: This article talks about the decision of Seattle’s Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum to allow non-flash photography in their exhibits. One-off or trend? I think the latter—that this is an early signal of a growing movement to question the traditional policy of “no photography allowed in the galleries.” This policy evolved to protect the objects, of course, as well as out of concerns for copyright. Why question it now?

I can think of several reasons:

• In an era of ubiquitous cell phone cameras it is impractical to enforce.

• With respect to preservation, as long as the camera doesn’t have a flash (and most cell phone cameras don’t), it isn’t an issue.

• With respect to copyright, give me a break—most of these photos are of such quality, overall, that they are no threat to the potential income sources of artists or museums.

• Allowing, or even better, encouraging people to take photos and share them with their friends through email, Facebook, Flickr and other social media is a great way to cultivate social experiences around the museum visit and spread the good word about why other people may want to come.

Nina Simon recently expressed her own frustration with restricted photo policies, arguing persuasively that such policies should be as open as possible. It has also been a lively topic of discussion on the listserve Museum-L.

As a former registrar-cum-collections manager, I realize how convenient it is, when struggling to set boundaries, to present a clear black-and-white delineation of what is acceptable and not acceptable in museum practice. “No food or drink in galleries, ever!” is another such popular dictum. But the more museum staff understand the real benefits and risks involved in such decisions, the hollower such reductionist arguments sound. Letting someone take snapshots for personal use isn’t the end of museum civilization as we know it. And some galleries are more at risk from food and drink at receptions—depending on the type of objects (lithics or textiles?), how they are displayed (cases or no cases?), the nature of the gallery (carpet or tile?) and the food (passed canap├ęs or serving stations with Sterno?!).

To the extent that some practices pose measurable risks, we may choose to accept them anyway—and our tolerance for risk may change over time. I speculate in this post about the possibility that in the future, society—and museums—may give more weight to the benefits of access, even at the potential cost of preservation.

One thing that might drive such a change is a better understanding of the risks related to people, to balance our pretty thorough understanding of the risks to objects. Perhaps I should call this “risks to relationships”—the potential damage to our relationships with visitors when we ban various behaviors. Because museum staff are trained in object preservation, and rarely trained in human psychology, these risks may go unnoticed and unmeasured. Sure, it’s possible some people may be annoyed enough by what they regard as unnecessary rules to complain, but most will grumble to themselves. Others may not even be consciously annoyed by the rules, but may enjoy their museum experience less than they would if the restrictions did not exist. And, consequentially, they may visit museums less frequently or over time may come to think of museums as places they don’t enjoy visiting. This is an important risk, and needs to be weighed in the balance when making decisions about access versus use.

So now might be a good time to take a fresh look at your museum’s photography policy. Is it reasonable? Necessary? Enforceable? Would you and your visitors be better served by something more nuanced and flexible? It might not be an easy or comfortable argument to have internally, and it may take more training for staff to consistently and appropriately enforce a policy more complex than a simple ban. But no one said that running a good museum was easy …

Weigh in here to share how your museum’s photo policies are evolving. Or not.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Call for Papers: Involving Users in the Co-creation of Digital Knowledge

One of the trends being explored by CFM is the rising expectation on the part of users that museums provide avenues for them to contribute their opinions and expertise—to be co-creators, not just consumers. Some museums are harnessing users' expertise through social tagging (see, notably, the STEVE project) Other projects like the Open Museum invite users to curate their own exhibits on-line.

So, I am eager to alert you to this call for papers issued by Library Trends, an academic journal that explores future directions in the fields of library and information science. The journal is preparing a special issue on Involving Users in the Co-Construction of Digital Knowledge in Libraries, Archives, and Museums.

As the call for papers notes “We need to consider what social computing really means for the future of libraries, archives, and museums, and think carefully about the future trends and long-term implications of involving users in the co- construction of knowledge online. It is important to have broad-based discussions about what happens when users are involved in shaping and directing and guiding the development of online libraries, archives, and museums and their information resources.”

In my experience, moderating discussions on this theme around the country, there is a great deal of anxiety in the museum field about what it means for our field to lift the curtain and let the public participate in what is, traditionally, behind-the-scenes work. I look forward to reading a thoughtful exploration of these issues, and encourage you to direct submissions to Paul Marty at or Michelle Kazmer at mkazmer@fsu.ed.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Got Game? Another Opportunity for Museum Partners

CFM’s inaugural lecturer, Dr. Jane McGonigal, lobbed “brain grenades” at the museum field last December, challenging us to apply the principles of game design to museum practice. Why wouldn’t museums want part of the “heart-share and mind-share” (read: thousands of hours and tons of passion) that people devote to on-line gaming?

Jane was careful to point out that applying the principles of game design doesn’t have to mean actually making a game to play in the museum or on-line. It can be as straightforward as applying her criteria for a good game* to a museum’s programs or the overall experience it provides. But, gaming per se is certainly one good way to engage an audience, and several museums have been experimenting with incorporating gaming into their suite of activities. See, Wolfquest, a 3D wildlife simulation video game by the Minnesota Zoo, and Ghosts of a Chance, a game created by the Smithsonian American Art Museum that started as a multi-player on-line alternate reality game, culminating with a “live” game at the museum that is now offered on a continuing basis as a program. John Maccabee recently guest-blogged here on a new museum game, PHEON, that is in development.

Over two thousand people watched the “Gaming the Future of Museums” lecture or webcast and participated in follow-up discussions. Sometimes museum staff want to try out this idea but aren’t sure how to get started. If you are in this camp, here is an opportunity for you: the Museum Gaming Initiative of the Departments of Cultural Materials Sciences and Fine Arts, College of Liberal Arts at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) is looking for museum partners to help develop and evaluate games and interactive media. No financial contribution is expected—just advice, insight and involvement. Ideally, they’d like partner museums to be able to use the games developed through the project.

This is part of a new RIT research program to study and develop gaming and interactive media for cultural institutions. The RIT students want to explore how web-delivered content can influence viewer attitudes toward museum collections. Can an on-line game change viewer attitudes towards a museum and increase attendance? Can on-line interactive media build context that improves a viewer’s connection to objects in the collection? The project’s initial focus will be collections of modern and contemporary art (often considered the least accessible to casual visitors.)

If you are interested in partnering with RIT on this project, contact Dr. Elizabeth S. Goins at

And if you are already working on your own museum game project, please post about it in the comments to this blog! I would love to know what is out there in the works.

*Good games provide (paraphrased from Dr. McGonigal’s lecture slides):

• Clear instructions
• Good feedback
• A sense of community
• Positive emotions (a sense of accomplishment)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Oh Brave New Virtual World!—Explorers Wanted

Museum practitioners are energized, perturbed, or both by the prospect of a future in which people spend more and more of their time immersed in virtual worlds. After all, the virtual is the enemy of the real, right? Some counter that a society where people spend more of their work and leisure time in virtual worlds will cause a backlash of people valuing museums more than ever, as engaging physical environments and purveyors of access to the “real thing.”

The relatively few museums that are dabbling in immersive, 3-D virtual worlds often use them to supplement their existing physical space, either to provide access to people who can’t visit, or different kinds of experiences, or access to information not available at the museum itself. The Tech Museum of Innovation uses its Second Life space—the Tech Virtual Museum Workshop to encourage innovative exhibit design that may then translate into physical exhibits. (Of course, they are the museum you would hope is pioneering virtual space.) A few, like the Smithsonian Latino Virtual Museum, exist only on-line.

Museums often lag behind the technological bandwagon, though. You’ve heard of early adopters? Museums tend to be the opposite, riding the lag end of the curve. A decade ago this was a problem for many small museums struggling to establish web sites with limited expertise and technological resources. (Though this gap is shrinking: a 2004 study by the Institute of Museum and Library Services reports that 88 percent of museums had a Web site as of five years ago—doubtless the figures are even better now.) To the extent that virtual worlds prove useful (maybe even necessary) to museums, it is disturbing to think that we might again lag behind the tech curve, and possibly create a cadre of technological haves and have-nots within the museum field.

So, I am particularly happy to report on an initiative that may help reduce the risk of such technological disparities. The Virtual Immersive Technologies and Arts for Learning Laboratory (VITAL Lab) at Ohio University is working on a project they call iVirtualWorld. This is a kind of automated Virtual Museum Builder—a turnkey program to help museums generate 3-D, navigable virtual museums populated with digital assets (images of collections objects, audio, movie files, even 3-D digital models.) Such an application would simplify the creation of a virtual site the way that PowerPoint simplified the creation of digital slide presentations, or a site like Blogger, Wordpress or Livejournal simplified creation of a blog. Offering a choice of various virtual formats, such as Second Life, Unity3D or OpenSim, it will enable a user to chose the size, style and configuration of their virtual museum, upload content and automatically generate their museum. iVirtualWorld is a university research project and the intent is to make the final product available free to users.

Chang Liu, VITAL Lab director, is looking for a museum partner to work with the VITAL Lab, testing out iVirtualWorld’s museum-building capabilities. The prospective partner would provide engaging subject matter and content, digital assets (existing or planned) and narratives. And Chang notes, most importantly, imagination! No financial contribution from the museum is expected. If your institution is interested in signing on as a partner to test iVirtualWorld’s museum-generation tools, contact Chang Liu at

And I would like to hear from you--if you did build a virtual museum, what would be your goal? Would it mimic your existing institution, or would it be a platform to try things that are physically or financially impossibile in the real world?

Friday, September 4, 2009

Toward Multi-Museum Multi-Media Collaboration (in the IMMEDIATE future!)

Guest post by Bruce A. Falk, Contracting Officer, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

Imagine a paleontology team on a dig. The lead scientist narrates a video capture summarizing the day's finds, which is then posted to a vlog (web-based video blog) shared by a coalition of museums and affiliated scientists. They, in turn, post feedback including matches to existing collections, comparative 3D scans, and identifying areas of opportunity for further research. In near real-time and at a single click, the collaborators post the integrated multimedia field notes to those following the dig on the internet.

Museums and educators have been moving in the past decade toward facilitating shared resources, open collections, and visitor-generated metadata in the process of digitizing and publishing their holdings with tags and/or descriptions. These are all good steps towards increasing access, facilitating use and encouraging users to contribute content. I envision the next leap forward will be to make resources accessible via a multi-media platform that enables users to compare and annotated audio and video recordings, complete with synchronized transcripts and notes. And why only text-based annotations? Why not music notation, images, audio, other video, even other equivalently-annotated video? The whole could be made fully searchable so that both the annotations and transcriptions also serve as sophisticated metadata that facilitates within-media searching. Finally, the package could be streamed or digitally broadcast in its entirety in a wiki-enabled format that makes it possible for other users to make, save, and share their own annotations/marginalia. How futuristic is this? What is needed for museums and educational organizations to bring such a tool into existence, into widespread use?

Actually, the idea itself is pretty simple—and the Smithsonian has already piloted the format with Synchrotext. Synchrotext facilitates collaborative museum education in two ways, both by allowing editors to synchronize jointly or independently developed media files with transcripts, translations, and running annotations in a variety of formats (text, image, sound, etc., the way Stanford's Diver project does) and by allowing viewers to jointly or independently add, save, view, review, and pass back their own commentary. The underlying principle is that works whose cultural contexts are less widely known (like Haya heroic ballads, folktales, or Shakespearean works) can be better appreciated during real-time performance (itself able to be paused, re-played, browsed, etc.) when relevant material is immediately juxtaposed/associated/made available. The principle exploits the power of our penchant for associative rather than linear thought (this is like this which is like that which means this which implies that which is related to the other in the following way). (Follow this link for a more in-depth description of the project.)

Is there enough interest in a tool that integrates all this functionality in a single package that renders productive collaboration realistic or timely? I say emphatically, yes. Change the modality from music pedagogy to linguistic preservation and study be it of Livonian or aboriginal Australian languages and we’ve established a present need. Shift to analysis and discussion of Supreme Court cases and legislative history and another possible partner can be identified. Permit the enrichment of public dialogue around current events through the contrast and combination of crowd-sources (tweets and uploads) through mainstream media through a simple tool for publishing auto-transcribed video with embedded columnists’ commentaries and related materials (like this timeline) and advocates in the media community emerge. Look to an expansion of the medical theater to a distance learning context by juxtaposing slides and lecture with live video of ongoing laser eye surgery, and… well, you get the idea. All this has to date been half-baked (for example, the multi-synch features of VioSync/TubeLinx lack the annotations and are as easily duplicated by simultaneously opening two separate browser windows of streamed media), but it shouldn’t take much now to finish cooking it

Ironically, the real challenge to bringing this vision to fruition is not limits to our technology, but limits to our traditional financial model for funding such projects. Even though every unique flash-programmed presentation can cost over $100,000 to develop in and of itself, no one user would see sufficient payback from a sole investment in a common, open-source platform to make its development economically feasible.

Here’s what I propose. Let’s build a coalition of like-minded institutions to pool funds and collaborate on an approach to complete a Synchrotext-like authoring environment or tool, which would be licensable to all nonprofits and educational/cultural organizations under a standard copyleft license. With a critical mass of funding and participants identified, the resultant project could be bid out among likely candidates. Such projects require a developer champion, project oversight, and a source of funds. The first can easily be secured (there are many candidates), but only the museum field, acting together, can provide the other two.

If this is something you feel worth pursuing, let’s talk! Comment on this blog post, or email me at, and let’s get this project finished. Let’s pioneer new ways of funding technological progress at the same time we are building the technologies needed to serve future audiences.