Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Planning a Golden Tomorrow

Last spring, at the AAM annual meeting, the California Association of Museums enlisted CFM's help in a marvelous project. To celebrate CAM's 35th anniversary, we collaborated on a forecasting session to peer into the future of the Golden State, imagining what challenges the state's museums and their communities may face in the next 35 years.

You can read a bit more about that forecasting session here. Suffice to say, it rocked, and we are looking forward to offering a similar session at the AAM annual meeting in Houston next spring (open to all attendees!) 

Meanwhile, my co-presenter, futurist Garry Golden of Oliver Kaizen, and I created a resource guide that builds on all the great ideas explored in the LA session. The result is Tomorrow in the Golden State: Museums and the Future of Calfiornia, a resource guide that presents the basics of forecasting, an overview of trends shaping California and a set of provocative scenarios to stimulate discussion. It presents resources (sample agenda, invitiation, worksheets) to help museums host their forecasting session, bringing in members of their communities. And it offers tips on integrating the resulting insights into institutional planning.

I hope you check it out—even though it is geared to California, the general framework is applicable to museums anywhere in the country. If you'd like CFM's help presenting a forecasting session and creating a resource guide tailored to your state, region or community, drop me a line at We want to bring futures studies to you...

And if you attend the WMA meeting in Portland next month, don't miss the futurist pas de deux as CAM's director, Celeste DeWald partners with me to present on the results of the California forecasting project. Wednesday, Oct. 20, at 2 p.m.—hope to see you there!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Natural History Specimens as Social Media Celebrities

The rise of social media is transforming the landscape of communication for all organizations, including museums. There are myriad new ways to connect directly with the public, and new spokespeople have stepped forth to fill these niches. Recently I interviewed two museum specimens that have become social media celebrities. Sue the TRex, (otherwise known as Specimen FMNH PR2081) tweets from the Field Museum of Natural History. Mr. Blobby the Blobfish, a Facebook phenom with over 800 fans, resides in the collections of the Australian Museum in Sydney when not making public appearances .

Dear Mr. Blobby and Sue,

Thank you very much for agreeing to be interviewed by the Center for the Future of Museums. In coming decades, museum objects may frequently speak for themselves, as well as for their museums, so you two are pioneers of things to come. I hope that by sharing your thoughts, you will help your colleagues in other museums consider whether a career in social media is appropriate for their future. With that in mind, I invite you to address the following questions:

What prompted you to venture into the world of social media? Was it a top-down initiative at your museum, or was did it emerge from the bottom up?

(Blobby) I happened to get onto social media by accident. I starred in a popular Australian television show about advertising called The Gruen Transfer. The brief to advertising agencies was to ‘sell the unsellable’, in this case what they purported was my ugliness. Just to prove them wrong I set myself up a Facebook Fan page the very next day and within one week had 500 people loving me! Overall, I guess you could say ours was a bottom-up initiative in all sense of the word!

(SUE) When you're fossilized in rock for millions and millions of years you have a pretty unique opportunity to form lots of opinions, but you have no one to share them with. The nice thing about social media is I can stay right where I'm at and thrust my opinions upon the world.

What advice would you give to museums that are seeking potential social media celebrities from amongst their collections? What qualities make for an effective museum spokespecimen?

(Blobby) My advent into social media was serendipitous and I think it is best this way rather than being too ‘try-hard’. That said, one of our Indigenous educators was so taken with the idea of me that she established Gagali the Gecko on Facebook as a way to connect with Indigenous people/community organisations and discuss Indigenous issues and collections. So far Gagali is going rather well! I guess the lesson here is to choose something that resonates with audiences, is a bit quirky and to definitely have a staff champion behind you.

(SUE) I think you need someone able to bite someone in half. People tend to listen to that person.

As accessioned collections, I imagine you usually work most closely with curators and collections managers. But now you’ve ventured into territory normally controlled by public relations staff. Tell me about how this works at your museum. How much independence do you have in your messaging? Do you pretty much toe the official museum line, or do you call it like you see it? (Sorry if that is insensitive, Blobby—I’m not sure you have toes…)

(Mr. Blobby) That’s OK Elizabeth. Not only do I not have toes I don’t have hands either so answering your questions has been a challenge! Now, at the Australian Museum we are a bit different. For starters we don’t have traditional curators but we do have Collection Managers. We also have staff who take responsibility for social media across the Museum – it isn’t the gamut of the PR/Marketing people. So I am completely independent, although I do subscribe to one rule – don’t say or do anything I would not like to see as a headline in the Sydney Morning Herald (or, in your case, The Washington Post!).

(SUE) Well, I have a brain the size of a cantaloupe, so I do need a proofreader from time to time. Mostly I just use common sense (No one likes a petty dinosaur who's negative all the time) but other than that...have you met the nice ladies from our public relations department? I doubt any of them even OWN a tranq gun. Who's going to tell a two-story tall horror lizard from Earth's brutal past what to do? As to independence, I see it like this: The Field Museum is the greatest place on the face of the planet and everyone should get down here and give me a high five. Also, they keep me well stocked in meat, and I don't want to spoil that gravy train.

You two could hardly be more different. For example: Blobby has no bones while you, Sue, are a big-boned, gal. (All bone, as a matter of fact.) How important do you think is for museum celebrities to have a spine? Might being spineless, in fact, make you more flexible in maneuvering through the complex world of public relations?

(Blobby) I know I don’t have a spine, but I do believe strongly in speaking my mind, taking a stand when need be and generally being an all-round jolly and informative fellow. And, yes, flexibility is the key!

(SUE) Are you making fun of my back injuries? I lived to be pretty old for a T.rex, you know. You get bumped around and jostled. And don't get me started on T.rex mating...

Has the museum set goals for your work? What is considered “success” and how do you measure it?

(SUE) I think "Don't devour museum visitors" was pretty much the only rule they gave me. Some days I'm successful. Some days I'm... less than successful.

(Blobby) Early on the Museum decided that I would be on Facebook for around two months (the same time my physical self was on display in the Museum’s College Street site). How were we to know the love that fans developed for a blobfish such as I? Now success factors are how many more fans I can engage and how I can continue to–reinvent myself and chat to fans about anything. We do have some big plans for the next few months…

What are your favorite things to discuss via your respective social media, and why?

(SUE) Dinosaur news, science-y things, stuff going on around the museum, meat, Chicago stuff, Star Wars, velociraptor hatin', the weather, sports, video games, chasing Jeff Goldblum in a speeding jeep in the rain...

(Blobby) Well, I am considered not only a scientific icon but somewhat of a popular culture commentator and raconteur. Not only did I predict the winner of the FIFA World Cup, I successfully predicted the winner of Australian Master Chef, participated in discussions about movies and TV, as well as other such cerebral worldly matters. I also attended the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes– Australia’s most glamorous and prestigious science awards event and reported live from the red carpet which was fun and informative!

What is the strangest question you've ever received? (Or, the oddest thing you've overheard in the museum)

(Blobby) I have someone continually asking me what I eat. Coz I’m a shy fellow, not much is known about me so I haven’t been able to answer that. Oh, the other comment was that I looked like a person someone once dated and I have had several marriage proposals…

(SUE) Someone asked me if I'd ever go vegetarian. THESE TEETH ARE NOT MADE FOR HUMMUS!

Just for HUMANS, eh? So Blobby and Sue, If Hollywood made a movie about you, who would play you and why?

(Blobby) Well, Elizabeth that was such a great question I just had to put it out to my fans. The variety of suggestions were terrific and some that resonated with me were Jimmy Durante (for obvious reasons), Orson Welles, Benny Hill, Brad Pitt and Ed Norton. However, who did I choose? Well, it just had to be Jack Black – an actor with a great sense of humour and comic timing, yet with an underlying manic, chaotic and cheeky personality somewhat like myself.

(SUE) Lindsay Lohan. She could use the work. I'm generous that way.

Let’s take it to the mat, here. Which of you is more charismatic, and why?

(Blobby) I think we both have our charismatic features. While I could never compete with such a magnificent creature as a T-Rex, the nature of my looks and personality shine through the so-called ugliness I believe. Like Sue, I am also here for the long haul and have important messages to send about biodiversity and conservation, as well as having a jolly old time!

(SUE) Let's put it this way... kids don't go to bed wearing blobfish pajamas in blobfish sheets after being read a story about blobfish.

Well thank you for your time, Mr. Blobby and Ms. Sue. You are truly role models for museum specimens across the globe, giving voice to the (usually) voiceless. I hope this interview encourages yet more people to follow you on your respective media.

Gentle Readers, does your museum have a spokespecimen, and if so, who is it and what social medium do they inhabit? Help me compile a list…

And if you happened to know the Great Blue Whale who tweets, poetically albeit unofficially, from the American Museum of Natural History, please broker an introduction!
Mr. Blobby photo ©NORFANZ Founding Parties

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Scanning for Change: or How Important Work Can Sometimes Look Like Wasting Time

Last week’s mini-tutorial in futures studies was on the sneaky nature of change. How can we notice change as it creeps up or springs upon us? We can actively look for bits of information that give hints of the future. This information may be embedded in articles, blogs, tweets, “top ten” lists, research results, mainstream media, books, films and everyday conversation.

In future-speak, looking for such early hints of the future is called scanning. Scanning identifies and monitors change, anticipates disruptions and helps us imagine the implications of what we observe. Our goal in scanning is to find what is not already known, to go beyond established wisdom and seek the new. We look for early signs, teases and hints of trends that are just beginning or changes in speed or direction of existing trends. This post is my pitch for the absolute fundamental importance of scanning in making us aware of what is going on in the world. In other words--read, people! It was important when you were in school, it's still important now.

Now it's harder, though, because you aren't flogging away at a textbook. You are looking for your own source material, and you don't know where the important stuff is going to pop. Your scanning should includes mainstream sources (newspapers, journals, magazines etc.) but also "fringe" sources (blogs by new voices and emerging experts, social media, YouTube.) Mainstream sources will tend to reinforce what you think you already know, but the fringe sources may well challenge your beliefs and help you to question your assumptions.

Good scanning involves more than just plowing through that pile of journals and books you never seem to get to. It also involves nosing around obscure blogs, watching (occasionally silly) videos and browsing trashy magazines. In other words, it is playful, eclectic and exploratory—adjectives museum practitioners usually use as complements. Until it comes to sitting at your own desk putting off “real work” to soak up bandwidth with YouTube or flip through “Martha Stewart Living.” Then it feels an awful lot like wasting time.

So how do you validate this activity, and make sure it doesn’t get pushed to the bottom of the priority list? I recommend embedding it in your work environment and your daily routine. For example, what is the home page for your internet browser? The most important tab that opens for me every morning is iGoogle, which I have configured to include:

  • A Newsbar programmed to scan for a bunch terms I am interested in at the moment, including “future of museums,” “alternate reality games.” “futures forecasting,” “demographic trends” and “future of education,” along with the names of interesting people I am keeping an eye on. 
  • Google Reader, where I follow about 60 blogs, with a few of my favorites being
  • Museum Audience Insight from Reach Advisors, featuring previews and highlights from their research for organizations in such as tourism and resorts, museums and culture, community development, and healthy living.
  • Know Your Own Bone where Gen Y blogger Colleen Dilenschneider writes about the evolution of social change in museums and other nonprofits
  • Worldchanging a nonprofit media company that seeks out and highlights “new tools, models and ideas for building a bright green future.”
Do I read all the blog posts that pop up in the reader? Good heavens no! That really would eat my life. But usually I find two or three interesting posts each day by scanning the headlines, and if I don't find anything that looks promising, I'll read a couple at random, anyway, just in case.

  • A gadget monitoring Twitter, but I keep Tweetdeck open as well, where I set up search columns to following timely topics (like current conferences) as well as the tweets of a couple hundred organizations and individuals CFM “follows.” The most useful tweets, for me, disseminate links to research and news items I might not otherwise spot, or bring interesting projects to my attention.

Is this distracting? Well honestly, it was at first. Sometimes it still is. But I make a habit of checking iGoogle and Tweetdeck when I sit down at my computer in the morning, again just after lunch, and during an afternoon break. This is an "official" and valued part of my work day.

Another thing you can do to embed scanning in your work is to create formal ways to share and use what you find in your scanning. I'll write more about that in a future post...

You can access Garry Golden’s Guide to Scanning for Change, along with links to more blogs of interest, on the Reading About the Future section of the CFM web site. We share highlights of our scanning in our weekly e-digest, Dispatches from the Future of Museums. But if you rely on us to do the scanning, we risk becoming myopic or missing good stuff. The more eyes open the better, when it comes to spotting the future. Help us out by using the comment section, below, to share your favorite sources of information about trends and innovations!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Sneaky Nature of Change

This is part three in a series of short essays exploring the basics of Futures Studies and how they can be applied to the museum field. Find the whole series by clicking on “Futures Studies 101” in the blog’s tag cloud.

Complacency is the enemy of futurism. Too often we chug along, taking things day by day, oblivious to how the world is morphing around us into something entirely other. The key to forecasting is being aware of change—change that is happening or is on the cusp of breaking over us. This is harder than it sounds, because change is sneaky and hides itself in various ways.

You’ve heard the fable that if you put a frog in a pot of water, and heat the pot slowly, the frog won’t notice being boiled to death? This myth, while laughably underestimating amphibian common sense, reflects a deep truth about human nature. Sometimes change is hard to notice because it happens slowly and unobtrusively. The cost of insuring collections creeps up, the willingness of cities to let museum property remain tax-free creeps down. This kind of incremental change is hidden in plain site—we don’t see it because it is gradual, and we often don’t step back to see the overarching pattern over time.

Conversely, radical, transformative change can be hard to imagine because it may be outside our experience. How do you convince a tadpole it is about to grow legs and become a frog? You can’t expect what you can’t imagine. Disruptive change pounces, rather than creeps upon us, often finding us unprepared. Would a museum professional from 2000 have predicted that bag checks and metal detectors would be a common part of the museum-going experience? (A change in culture triggered largely by the terrorist attacks of 2001.) Would a museum intern in 1969 have anticipated that by the time she became director, museums would be reaching huge audiences that never physically visit the museum via something called “the internet?” (The first message was sent over ARPANET on October 29th, 1969.)

These two types of change, incremental and disruptive, interact with one other to create patterns over time. Take, for example, the passage of the No Child Left Behind act. That disruptive event, interacting with a number of trends, created a storm that still buffets the museum community. The new focus on teaching to the test, combined with the rising costs of fuel, tight budgets and increased parental anxiety has led the number of school field trips to nosedive. Now we live in a future that calls for new strategies for museums to reach students—for example, via the web—and new incentives for schools to use our learning resources—like tailoring programs to fit NCLB-oriented curricula.

What sneaky trends do you see creeping up on your museum and the field as a whole? What disruptive events can you imagine that may lie waiting to pounce? Please share your thoughts with other readers…

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Quick Look at the Future of Education

The start of a new school year is a good time to think about the future of education. The New Learning Institute has a 21st Century Learning section "featur[ing] 12 videos by educators explaining what works and what does not in our education system. They argue what should be done to actually deliver 21st century education." The site also describes digital learning projects at the Field Museum and the Bronx Zoo, plus a project in Chicago that used digital media to help local young people imagine the future of their city and their world. (We spotted this link at the Upside Learning Solutions blog.) 

And there's another interesting video at Global Change about "the speed of change" in education, the challenge of preparing students for the future, and the role of "wild card events" in all futures forecasting.

And if you haven't done so already, check out KnowledgeWorks Foundation's 2020 Forecast -- a "guide to the yet unwritten future of education." I find something new to think about in this fascinating thought piece everytime I read it...

What about you? What sources do you look to when thinking about the future of education? Help us add to our list of blogs and basic reading.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Future Studies 101: Potential Futures

This is part two in a series of short essays exploring the basics of Futures Studies and how they can be applied to the museum field. Read part one here.

Studying the future isn’t all that different from studying history. We start with what we know (the present), and things get increasingly uncertain as we move forward or back in time. Historians study traces of the past through written records, oral tradition and physical evidence. It may seem they have more to work from than futurists, but they have no way to know for certain if they get it right, since there’s no way to visit the past. Futurists, on the other hand, must use their intuition and reasoning to imagine where the forces that shape our path will take us, but have the advantage that they will, eventually, get to test their “imagined futures” against reality.

The farther we look forward from the present moment, the more things have the potential to change. Absent a sudden, cataclysmic event (for example, an earthquake or a terrorist attack) tomorrow will probably be pretty much like today. Ten, twenty, thirty years out, however, events will have diverged far more. We can imagine potential futures as a cone radiating out from the present. This “cone of plausibility” defines futures that might reasonably occur. The edges of the cone are defined by the limits of plausibility. Functional teleportation within the next fifty years is probably a non-starter, for example. However, 3-D printers that recreate objects from digital data already exist, and could become the functional equivalent of teleportation for objects in the near future. (For an example of how this could affect museum futures, read this scenario.) Immortality is probably not in the cards, but extension of healthy lifespan by ten or twenty years might well be.

Dead center in the cone of plausibility is the expected future. This is how the future would look if business proceeds as usual. Things may change gradually, but only in the direction we have come to expect. Contrary to what common sense would suggest, the expected future is highly unlikely. It’s far more probable that some force will cause us to veer off course and land elsewhere in the cone, somewhere between the expected future and the limits of plausibility.

This is the realm of foresight: what are these possible futures? What factors would bring any given one into being and how can we spot those factors early on? Where in the cone is our preferred future, the one we consciously choose, and how do we make it our destination?

CFM offers Future Studies 101 seminars and workshops, in which participants explore potential futures in the cone of plausibility, and envision their own preferred futures. One such workshop will be held on Sunday, May 22, 2011 at the AAM annual meeting in Houston. If you are interested in our giving a workshop at your organization, conference or event, contact