Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Future is Collaborative Part I: Give The People What They Want

About this week's guest blogger: Günter Waibel is a Program Officer at OCLC Research with a long history of working at the intersection of libraries, archives and museums. He co-authored “Beyond the Silos of the LAMs: Collaboration Among Libraries, Archives and Museums” (a study of library, archive, museum collaboration at five campuses and museum complexes), and co-teaches the graduate class “Digital Collections in Libraries, Archives and Museums” in the School of Library and Information Science at Catholic University of America.

If I told you that the future of museums lies in collaboration, would you keep reading, or turn away with a yawn or a smirk? Unfortunately, the term “collaboration” has both been cheapened (there are no limits to facile interactions being hyped as “collaboration”), and vilified (you have certainly heard the quip “collaboration is an unnatural act between non-consenting adults”). Rather than superficial or beastly, true collaboration is utterly transformative – it changes behaviors, processes and organizational structures, and leads to a fundamental interconnectedness among the partners.

And in the networked age, it is no longer a choice. Ask yourself where you shop online, share your photos or update your friends and family about your toddler’s latest exploits. Likely, the sites which came to mind all share one common characteristic: they effectively match up a massively aggregated resource (all the books, photos, friends, etc. you could possibly want) with a massively aggregated user base – in other words, there are millions of people like you frequenting the same site. In the 90s, we gestured towards this idea with the words “economies of scale”, now we call it “network effects.”

Compare the lessons of Amazon, Flickr and Facebook with how museums are trying to serve their audience. Whereas the large network hubs co-locate resources, the 17,500 museums in the U.S. effectively divide what they have to offer over an equal number of institutional websites. To make matters worse, cultural content is not only silo’d into segregated sites, but further dispersed across 122,356 libraries and countless archives (I literally couldn’t find a count) across the U.S. All of them believe that they are at the center of their user’s universe – and none of them truly are. Online denizens are very clear that nobody but they themselves are at the center of their experience – after all, weren’t they TIME’s person of the year 2006, and shouldn’t we get with the program already? The “Knowledge Commons” referenced by fellow CFM guest-blogger Dave Curry, bringing together an aggregation of stuff at a similar scale to the commercial hubs setting user expectations and allowing creative re-use of those materials, would go a long way towards finally serving the person of the year 2006, our user.

These ideas are hardly new, and clearly, such a knowledge commons can’t be talked into existence overnight. The powerful forces aligned against it are not technological, but social and political:

  • Social because creating such a commons would require libraries, archive and museums (or LAMs, as I will call them from here on out) to understand that online, their institutional success will increasingly depend on the success of the community as a whole – all for one, one for all. (A good example for this type of behavior is the phenomenally succesful ArtBabble, where museums, as well as a library, are placing high-quality art videos on a common site under the institution-neutral ArtBabble brand.)
  • Political, because in the United States, we do have funders backing collaborative ventures (prominently including IMLS), but we lack an infrastructure organization with the mandate and clout to shepherd the community to its shared destiny. (Not true in other countries – in the UK, for example, the Collections Trust inaugurated the Culture Grid, which in turn will feed into EU’s massive LAM aggregation Europeana.)
While no U.S. effort towards a national LAM knowledge commons exists, work towards shared resources is moving forward in varyingly scoped circles. At the state level, for example, statewide digitization programs are rallying LAMs; at the campus-level, Yale’s Cross Collection Discovery project and the high-profile development of the Smithsonian Commons stand as exemplars.

In other words, progress towards a more converged future is still possible, right in your own backyard. I’ll venture the guess that most of you reading this post work at institutions which are already a microcosm of convergence issues. Museums often house a library and an archive in their own building. (If you don’t have them in your building, you’ll have them right down the street in your local community.) Museums in a university context find particularly strong partners in the plethora of libraries and archives co-located with them on the same campus. LAMs under common administration have the opportunity to learn their allied community’s language, establish common interests, and become more interconnected so they can better serve the larger organization they are part of. By acting locally, they can get ready for the globally networked future of LAMs.

To join a conversation about the future of museums and libraries, visit the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ UpNext wiki.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Museum Design 2034: Perpetual Beta

I blogged last week about how futurists write stories of the future based on trends we can observe now. This helps people explore what their lives, and their organizations, might look like in these potential futures, which in turn helps them make decisions today.

Here is my second story of the future, exploring how current trends might shape museum design in the next quarter century. It is based on two trends: (the increasing desire of audiences to participate in the process of the museum, as well as using the content; and the increasing costs of caring for, shipping and insuring collections.) I've also thrown in one potential disruptive “Black Swan” event--the radical reinvention of the U.S. educational system.

The Norquest Museum is a medium-sized museum serving the burgeoning community of Oracle Junction, located on the colliding fronts of Phoenix and Tucson. The majority of residents in this relatively affluent exurb telecommute for all or part of their work-hours, many of them employed or self-employed in the fields of information technology, information management, animation or games design. Oracle Junction is a hotbed of the swelling national home-school movement, and many parents depend on the Norquest as an essential resource to support the curriculum they create using on-line and local resources. To help fill this role, the museum has an aggressive annual schedule of changing exhibits—4 exhibits in each of two changing galleries, in addition to small permanent exhibits on history, natural history, science and art.

The Norquest exhibit philosophy is based on three key principles:

  • Perpetual Beta—all changing exhibits are works-in-progress for their entire three-to-four month run. The exhibits are prototyped in the museum’s on-line virtual world, where they are tested and critiqued by a cadre of home-school student volunteers (60% of whom are non-local, 15% of whom live outside the US.) Each exhibit is staffed by an exhibit specialist who serves as developer/interpreter/evaluator, changing label copy and tweaking exhibit components in response to visitor feedback right up until the closing date. Regular users of the museum expect and value this “work in progress” approach, and look forward to the launch of a new prototype online, as well as the opening of the actual exhibit, knowing their comments and reviews will help shape the exhibit.
  • The Process is Also the Product--students from both home school programs and the small local conventional primary and secondary schools are actively recruited to serve on exhibit design and production teams. The applicant list for team assignments typically fills up with 24 hours of being posted. The exhibit production process provides students with experience in research, project management and fabrication. In addition, the museum offers an on-going home-school curriculum unit on museology. Three of the museums current four exhibit specialists are former student members of the museum’s design teams. 
  • Don't Collect, Don't Preserve--the museum has limited collections: just the material in its permanent galleries and several small, focused study collections for hands-on use by students. However, the changing exhibits are extremely wide-ranging, covering everything from vertebrate paleontology to Egyptology to Post-modern sculpture. This is accomplished by accessing the International Collections Scanning Registry to download specifications for the objects selected to populate an exhibit, which are then produced on-site using the museum’s 3-D printers. The high-quality artifacts produced by the most recent generation of such printers are essentially indistinguishable from the “real thing.” The closing party for each exhibit includes an auction at which these replicas are sold, with the proceeds going to the museum’s exhibit development fund.
The Norquest Museum is a good example of 21st century museum successfully adapting to rapid evolutionary change of the American educational system, the desire on the part of audience members to be involved in the process of creating displays (rather than passive consumers of content), and the increasing costs of caring for, shipping and insuring original material.

As I often point out (quoting William Gibson) the future is already here--it's just unequally distributed. You probably can think museums that incorporate one or more of the Norquest's principles into their operations--use the comment section of this post to share what you know!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Thinking About Convergence Part 2: The Knowledge Commons

This is the second installment of David Curry's two-part forecast of the convergence of libraries, archives and museums. 

One can certainly argue about whether the set of drivers I discussed in my last post is complete, or whether their descriptions are complete, or even correct. But in drafting that list, another thought occurred to me. One can also see the “library, archives, museum convergence” at the center of this graphic as the wrong focus entirely.
Convergence may indeed be driven by these factors overall, but, more important, convergence itself is really transitory. It is the “ground” that will pretty much occur, more or less quickly, as these forces and others continue to provide momentum.

It strikes me that the “figure” in all this should really be the last driver I discussed, the one at 11 o’clock in the figure: The Knowledge Commons. This can shift our focus from “market forces” that drive convergence to an energizing rallying point for the future – a future which libraries, archives and museums might well aspire and contribute to, indeed lead.

I believe that in this decade the prospects are good that a secure, accessible, digital, and “free” global knowledge commons - fostering exploration, learning, development, creative activity and innovation – will be built. And, of course, we must be building, in parallel, such commons in local, physical terms, in communities everywhere, to complement to such global aspirations. Aligning our public institutions to helping build this all is a powerful notion.

Such alignment might also galvanize the emergence of a new, integrated professional field – let’s call is knowledge stewardship for the moment – to assure we are nurturing the skills and competencies needed to preserve, interpret, and deliver the content and creative dimensions of these commons.

Seen from this frame of reference, the signs of convergence occurring now across libraries, archives, museum and heritage institutions of all types signal an important evolutionary period as new types of collaborative projects, new business models, and new organizational forms are explored. But they can also be seen as movement along a path toward a larger and vitally important good that is grounded in all our institutions, not an end-game of uncomfortable loss.
And the “drivers” can be viewed from a very different vantage: not whether they are affecting the velocity of “convergence” of libraries, archives and museums but how they enable or potentially thwart the building of such “commons” and strong communities – global and local – that will thrive in the future.

Museum Design 2034: The Distributed Museum

Museum practitioners are pre-adapted to be futurists. Why? Because futurism is, basically, the process of telling compelling stories about things that haven't happened yet. These stories help people explore what alternate futures might be like, and based on that vision, make wise decisions today. Well museums are great at telling stories—usually about the past or the present, but the same skills can be applied to the future. How do you go about writing a story about the future? 1) Pick a few trends that we can observe, 2) think about how these trends interact and the way they would shape the world and 3) imagine different aspects of your life and work in the world shaped by these influences.

For example, consider the following trends

Here’s my story of how this future might shape museum design a quarter century from now.

Founded in 2015, the Museum of Urban Ecology’s (MUE) headquarters is located on the Lower West Side of Manhattan adjacent to the High Line, a New York City park founded in 2004 and built on a section of the former elevated freight railroad of the West Side Line. MUE integrates the work of two major initiatives— a network of citizen scientists gathering, sharing and interpreting data on the flora, fauna and environmental health of the five boroughs of New York City, and a network of displays interpreting the “natural” urban environment.

The NYCitizen Scientist Network has over 2,500 members—amateur experts in zoology, botany, climatology and estuarine environments. In coordination with curators at the American Museum of Natural History, NYCitizen Scientists monitor animal and plant populations, water and air quality and log climate records, uploading data via mobile phones, to create an overall picture of the environmental health of the City.

Subgroups of the NYCitizen Scientists include City Naturalists and the Natural Artists, dedicated to teaching residents and visitors about the “nature” of this most populous American city. They accomplish this primarily through a network of displays integrated into the city itself. In addition to installations in traditional venues such as schools and libraries, MUE specializes in “pop-up” exhibits in a variety of formats installed in temporarily vacant storefronts in neighborhoods struggling with vacancy and foreclosure. The installations might be photography exhibits, art installations interpreting the natural world, “traditional” natural history displays of animal mounts or even small zoos. These pop-ups are announced via Proximity Alerts—a microblogging system that has been tremendously successful in generating buzz. Fans compete to be the first to find and “tag” new exhibits, adding them to their “MUE life list” before a pop-up closes anywhere from days to weeks later.

The most popular and heavily used offerings of MUE, however, are the interpretive content they have offered for the past two decades through an evolving range of hand-held portable devices, starting with the iPhone in 2015. This includes Bird Spotter, an application that, when enabled, alerts users to the proximity of species of interest. This GPS-based system is incorporated into approximately 60% of the birds banded and released by NYCitizen Birders (pigeons, sparrows and starlings conspicuously excluded), and the system can be programmed to alert the user to just certain groups of interest (hawks, for example, or unusual migrants) or only individual birds close enough to observe with the naked eye. Twenty museum and retail partners throughout the city also lend out MUE 3-D Overlay Goggles (3DOGS) such as those first popularized through use at Civil War battlefields. Rather than immersing users in the sights (and in case of the most recent 3DOGS, sounds) of war, at 28 sites throughout the City MUSE goggles enable the user to see what the landscape would have looked like at four points in time (10,000, 2,000, 500, and 100 years ago.)

MUE is a fabulous example of a museum capitalizing on the enduring enthusiasm and dedication of amateur experts and on 21st century, technological innovations that provide new ways of distributing content beyond the physical boundaries of a permanent museum building, and the rising costs of creating and maintaining buildings.

What do you think? Plausible story? How would these trends affect how your museum plans its exhibits and operations? Starting from the same premise, would you write a different story of the future? Please share…

Monday, March 8, 2010

One Potential Future for Museums, Archives, Libraries

The IMLS wiki UpNext kicked off last week looking at changing roles of museums and libraries as they adapt to the changing needs of their communities. The latest discussion focuses on shifts in power--are museums evolving into facilitators and networks for information, rather than gatekeepers? In the spirit of this ongoing exploration, I've invited David R. Curry, managing principal of davidrcurryAssociates, to contribute his thoughts of the future of libraries, archives and museums.

David brings an interesting perspective to this discussion, as he has his Master's of Science in Library Science, and has been involved in the library, archives, and museum fields through most of his career. He's served as an board officer, trustee or director of organizations as varied as The Franklin Institute Science Museum (Philadelphia), the Philadelphia Liberty Medal, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Arts Midwest, The Arts Foundation of Michigan, Friends of Detroit Public Library, and the Michigan Center for the Book.
David thinks that libraries, museums and archives will converge in the future, blurring boundaries as they adapt to the forces shaping them. Here's his reasoning behind this conclusion:

Thinking About Convergence Part 1: Drivers

One’s frame of reference can make all the difference in trying to understand complex phenomena, issues or opportunities. The accelerating convergence of libraries, archives, museums, cultural heritage and memory institutions is a good example of such complexity.

The strong and distinct traditions of leadership, professional culture, training, career systems, funding streams, and “issues” within these fields make such convergence, for some, not only challenging to understand as the way forward, but a challenge to those very traditions.

But using a frame of reference external to the field, I see a number of “drivers” – commercial-speak for forces that shape and accelerate trends or direction --
that are fueling such convergence.

The octagonal map and discussion below presents my view of such drivers.

Economic Pressures
Continuing pressures from The Great Recession on federal/state/local government resources, foundations, corporate and private grant-making will mean long-term negative impacts on contributed income for all nonprofits, weakening their near-term fiscal health and long-term sustainability. Responsible board and staff leadership in the LAM (Library, Archives, Museum) community will explore ways to address this reality, including a range of collaborative options involving pooled talent, joint asset management, shared back-office operations and more.

Business Model Evolution

Responding in part to economic pressures, but also recognizing innovation in the nonprofit sector, creative leaders will explore new and new kinds of business models which fold-in strategic alliances, shared services, virtual operations models and merger/acquisitions. In this evolutionary period one important phenomenon is the emergence of “social businesses”—for-profit entities delivering traditionally “nonprofit services” having a range of options as to how operational “surpluses” (when they can be achieved) are applied. LAM leadership might well watch the “incursion” of for-profit entities into the realm of educational services space as they consider how this might affect their fields.

Value Chain Disruption

LAMs are not immune as traditional methods of supply are upended by web-based models, the emergence of brokers and aggregators, and other forms of value chain redefinition. There will be increasing pressure to find scale, invest in innovation, enhance earned income streams, and achieve cost-efficiencies for programming and services delivery. Addressing these imperatives will help fuel convergence.

Interpretive & Services Options

The Internet/Web 2.0 is increasingly the “default” platform for interpretive, curatorial and service design strategies. Whatever an institution does in this realm, and however physical assets and content may be employed, the question about “how this gets delivered on the web” needs to be answered. This common platform momentum will drive a new common skill set requirements and an expansion of audiences served in both sector and geographic terms, fostering convergence along the way.

Digitization and Technology Momentum

The cost-effectiveness and priority of digitization of collections and primary content is redefining acquisitions and programming strategies as well the definition of the audience LAMs serve. The evolution and ubiquity of mobile devices at the global level across economic strata is a “pull” mechanism that the LAM community cannot ignore. Responding to this pull will drive common strategies and integrated techniques to deliver value.

Primary Sources: Preservation/Storage

Demand for access to and leverage of primary sources and collections of all kinds drives the need for common strategies around licensing, intellectual property, copyright management, and associated revenue streams. Just as important, LAMs will have an increasingly common agenda in addressing preservation, access, physical storage, and overall management of primary source content overall, including “born-digital” content.

Content Market Dynamics

The large and economically powerful “commercial” content market, which is perhaps anchored overmuch in entertainment content at the moment, is a key driver (and definer) for market and community expectations. Apple iTunes, Google Books+ and similar disruptions will increasingly “invade” the LAM domain, driving the need for common, robust strategies to deal with the velocity and vectors of change.

The Knowledge Commons and Community-Building Missions

The notion of the “the commons” and community-building as central anchors to mission frameworks is growing, and in some ways is a counterweight to the dynamics of the market for “commercial content.” Activism is growing at a global level (e.g. the A2K “movement,” Convention on Biological Diversity and World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) actions), complemented by local, indeed block-level, community building agendas. How LAMs respond and remain relevant will drive common strategies and tactics across institution types.

I hope my view of these “drivers” of convergence makes a contribution to this IMLS wiki discussion (adventure).

Not everyone agrees with this vision of the future--believing instead that museums, libraries and archives will retain distinct identities. Weigh in--do you think David's forecast is correct? If not, what reasons lie behind the scenario you paint of the world ahead?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Save Museums, Save the World?

I’m cynic when it comes to slogans and tag lines. I basically agree with Ivan Levinson, who wrote that at best tag lines are “like a Japanese haiku - a highly concentrated form of expression that attempts to communicate an essence, a distilled truth loaded with meaning and significance. At its worst, it's puffed-up, self-congratulatory nonsense.”

So when AAM staff tackled creating a tag line for CFM, I was initially resistant and discouraged. The candidates alternated between wordy and stiff (“Helping museums transcend traditional boundaries to serve society in new ways”), funny but unsuitable (whoops, I can’t print that one), overly corporate (“Foresight. Insight. Action.”) and unoriginal (“The best way to predict the future is to create it.” Which I love, but it’s a direct steal from Paul Saffo.)

In the end, to my surprise, we came up with a line that I am enthusiastic about, something I can use with pride and conviction: “Because museums can change the world…" It’s not about CFM, it’s about museums, and why CFM supports their work. It makes it clear that we are all working together as part of an enterprise that is big and important. And it is something I passionately believe. In that spirit, I’ll periodically be using the CFM Blog to profile museums whose work exemplifies this aspiration. This week we kick off with the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, part of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Hull-House was originally a settlement house in the Near West Side of Chicago co-founded in 1889 by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr. Addams was a pioneer in the field of social work, as well as an out-spoken pacifist and advocate for immigrant rights. Until recently, Hull-House was preserved and interpreted as a fairly traditional “look at the original china” historic house. As you will see from the following essay based on an interview with executive director Lisa Yun Lee, Hull-House is maturing into an organization much more in tune with Addams activist roots.


How cool is this: Sam Kass, White House Assistant Chef and Food Initiative Coordinator to First Lady Michelle Obama used to be executive chef at the Jane Addams-Hull House Museum. And that is not as big a leap as you may imagine.

In 2008, the museum’s director, Lisa Yun Lee, was reading Alice Water’s call to museums to promote healthy, locally grown food and dreaming of opening up the house’s kitchen. The house also has a historic dining hall that was being used more as an artifact in the standard tour than as a working space. At the time, Hull-House staff were pushing their thinking about programming. They wanted to go beyond the “standard” historic house tours and bridge the gap between the social justice theories embodied in their mission and action.

Cue the intersection with Sam Kass. Kass graduated from the University of Chicago before studying in the kitchen of Mörwald im Ambassador in Vienna, and coming back to work for the Chicago restaurants Avec and Blackbird. He had been thinking about food access and social justice, grappling with where to do this work. It wasn’t an offbeat or isolated issue—there are lots of nonprofits in Chicago trying to tackle the challenges of feeding the urban population in a healthy sustainable way. It’s a pressing issue not just in Chicago, but nationally, given the trends of rising childhood obesity (and the linked rise in diabetes), growing disparities in wealth, increasing costs of transporting food long distances and concerns about the effect of our food production system on energy conservation and global warming.

Lisa talked with Sam and together with museum staff, they realized the kind of work he wanted to do could be done in a museum and could link to the exploration of history. Together they dreamed up “Re-thinking Soup”—a soup kitchen-cum-intellectual laboratory that serves as a democratic gathering space to explore pressing issues related to food. People were invited to gather on at lunchtime on Tuesdays to “eat delicious, healthy, soup and have fresh, organic conversation about many of the urgent social, cultural, economic and environmental food issues that we should be addressing.” Issues like climate change, conservation, urban gardening and the link between home canning and social equality. Hull-House attracts a diverse audience from school kids to Japanese tourists to academics. Lunch time conversations proved to be an excellent forum for inviting their participation in exploring the museum’s themes. “Some of best advocates for our work is bike messengers and taxi drivers” Lisa notes. “They love to stop and talk about the issues. Taxi drivers think about these things all day, listen to the radio, but have no place to discuss them!”

Lisa gets a little stressed, occasionally, when people say activities like Re-thinking Soup are not strictly in Hull-House’s mission. She feels it’s important in these days and times to be relevant, not just to calcify history and present the past. To her, its all part of finding creative and innovative ways to make history speak to the next generation. There actually was huge debate among the museum staff about whether Re-thinking Soup was a soup kitchen (with a focus on providing free food to the needy) or not. Jane Adams never wanted Hull-House to be a direct service organization—she wanted everyone to contribute capital to create social change. “Yes the “Re-thinking Soup” series feeds people,” says Lisa, “but what it is really trying to do is take on critical issues and create conversation; to use Hull-House’s space in a way resonant with its history and mission.”

“We want to avoid addressing our visitors only as consumers. We think of them as instead as global citizens, contributing their intellectual and social capital. We invite people to give their ideas and time to think about creating the common good.”

Hull-House continues to address the issue of healthy, affordable food through Re-thinking Soup, and has created the Hull-House Urban Farm to “support collective efforts of people to sustain ourselves and one another, while addressing and educating about the food and land issues of our day.” And with a direct line to the White House, who knows how far that influence may extend?