Monday, November 22, 2010

Museums and the Future of Health

A few forecasts about the future:
By 2050 40% of Americans will be obese

By 2034 over 44 million people in the U.S. will be living with diabetes (compared with under 24 million in 2009.)

On a more upbeat note, according to a recent article in Wired Magazine we may be on the cusp of a revolution in tissue engineering (the use of stems cells to repair and rebuild damaged organs, from breasts to hearts.

Society is already starting to struggle with the practical and ethical implications of techno-medical advances such as cloning, genomics, gene therapy, novel means of imaging and testing, and new (and expensive) forms of treatment. Over the next few decades, we will be faced with choices that have massive implications for the health and well-being of individuals and their communities.

What role can museums play in this dialogue? I think this is an enormously important topic to explore, so I am delighted that Left Coast Press has issued a call for papers for a volume of Museums & Social Issues that will be devoted to “Health and Wellness.”

The editors want to examine questions such as: What is "wellness" in the 21st century? What is a healthy lifestyle today? How are ideas, knowledge, attitudes and personal choices changing towards the question of 'what is health'? How does the concept of wellness fit with the mission of museums?

Take a look at this call and see if your work is a natural fit. If so, I hope you will drop a note to Kris Morrissey ( or
by December 6, letting them know of your intent to submit a paper.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The “Realness” of Museums' Online Communities: A Platform for the Future

Colleen Dilenschneider’s posts on Know Your Own Bone are always a “first read” when they pop up on my blog feed. I suggested our recent guest poster, Jonathan Baskin, read her recent post on museums’ use of social media as he organized his own thoughts on the subject.

Museums of the future will continue to engage and inspire audiences through online communities. And museums are well on their way to melding virtual and physical communities to create this seamless visitor experience. I had the chance to speak with Jonathan Salem Baskin as he was working on his most recent
An Alternate Future for Museums post on this blog. We had a thought-provoking discussion about the “realness” of museums’ current online communities and their ability (or inability) to translate into direct admissions sales. By “real,” I mean significant and a thing to be treated as a serious resource. Baskin reminded readers in his post that on-site interaction is a key aspect that differentiates museums from other providers of content. This is certainly true. As things stand, however, online communities don’t always amount to physical communities and getting bodies in the door (hence the Brooklyn Museum’s turn toward But does that mean that the point of all online engagement should be to get bodies in the door? Does this currently-existing gap between the virtual and the physical make online communities less “real” and a less powerful tool to be taken seriously, I wondered?

The moment of wonder was brief. Online communities are increasingly “real” because they provide unique opportunities for museums to fulfill their mission, build fundraising potential through personal connections, and develop a relatable voice, among other things that will be critical for the future development of museums on the whole. Though we aren’t at the point where we are translating Twitter interactions directly into admission sales, online communities are arguably fulfilling different aspects of a museum’s long-term mission that will, in the future, provide another aspect of engagement that will differentiate museums from other providers of content.

A big part of getting to the future is having a good grasp on what’s happening right now. Here’s a brief overview of how organizations are utilizing online communities right now and in a real, significant way that will serve as platforms for the evolution of online engagement in museums:
  • Online communities meet the museum’s mission. Social media and online engagement do not belong solely to the marketing department. This is because online communities have an incredible capability to serve as tools to further the missions of museums. Generally, online communities can be created and strengthened based on a desire to be educated and inspired by a museum’s collection.
  • When a museum asks a Facebook user to click “like”, they are essentially asking, “Do you want updates from us that will educate and inspire you (or something else related to the mission)?” Let’s be honest: though informative, your fans likely aren’t very interested in updates on the museum’s new open hours. Individuals subscribing to museums’ online communities want to be educated and inspired. If the museum’s mission is to inspire and educate, then online communities provide an avenue for accomplishing just that.
  • Online communities create personal connections to the museum: Because online communities take place in a virtual realm in which interactions can be preserved, these interactions allow museums to listen to audiences so that they may better meet visitor needs. Preserved interactions provide the ability for museum professionals to respond to inquiries and meet the interests of certain demographics without alienating others. This kind of attention paid to the museum audience and individual fans and followers often results in the feeling of a personal relationship with the museum. It doesn’t hurt that engaging through social media increases oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone,” in the brain.
  • Online communities allow museums to grab onto those positive associations and build personal, potentially long-lasting relationships while fulfilling the museum’s mission and opening up potential opportunities for fundraising, corporate sponsorship, marketing, membership, and program enrollment, among other things.
  • Online communities shatter perceptions of museums as stale environments of the past: How strange it seems that even as initiatives like AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums engages forward-thinking museum aficionados, museums are still thought to be institutions of the past. I don’t think that simply having an online community puts a museum ahead of the game (though nonprofits originally paved the way in online engagement over for-profit companies). All organizations-- museums or otherwise-- have the ability to build an online community now. The museum advantage? Museums have a message and many, many stories to be told. Telling these stories and connecting audiences to museum collections gives museums a modern-day voice. Videos, pictures, podcasts, interactive sites (perfect for teaching purposes!)... was the Internet made for museum engagement?! Museum professionals have an opportunity to challenge tired perceptions of being “stuck in the past” by utilizing these tools.
As a society, we are still experimenting with online communities in order to provide statistical analysis on some of its greater long-term benefits. Almost without a doubt, the future of museums (and everything else) will be heavily connected to online communities. Blame it on society’s growing emphasis on soft skills or Generation Y’s desire for brand transparency, but social technology is sticking around- and it’s real. Armed with this information, the future of community engagement in museums is dependent upon where we go from here. Online communities are doing a lot more than building up brands; they are fundamentally changing up what a museum is and how people interact with these institutions.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

An Alternate Future for Museums: Part II

Global brand strategist Jonathan Salem Baskin contributes part two in his series of visions about the future of museums. You can read part one here.

Museums in 2020: When Communities Got Real

The siren call of Facebook and other social platforms back in the ‘00s suggested to museums that they should migrate their marketing efforts and content online in search of virtual engagement. Many institutions created long lists of people who were all too happy to click, view, and otherwise consume information as long as 1) it was free, and 2) didn’t require them to do anything.

Then in late 2010, the Brooklyn Museum took the extraordinary step of discontinuing its efforts to engage with faraway virtual consumers to focus on tools that got people together face-to-face and, more importantly, connected them to the physical reality of museum content. This radical move asserted that communities needed to move beyond online consumption and embrace physical participation in order to satisfy the goals of museum-goers and the institutions they might visit. We didn’t know it at the time, but getting people thus engaged built upon the only quality that truly differentiated museums from any other producers of content.

A tidal wave soon followed as more museums elevated their furtive online social experiments to more full-bodied engagement programs. A museum in St. Louis figured out that communities have always been dependent on purpose more than entertainment, so it keyed its ecology exhibit into the curriculum of the local public grade schools and encouraged kids and parents to join a community that would help them learn. A technology museum in San Francisco created weekly on-site events for computer programmers to discuss how to best adapt an ongoing exhibit on AI.

Now there are communities that participate in everything from genetic research and archeological digs, to oil painting restoration and poetry...all through engagement campaigns (both online and off) that create topical, timed, and purpose-driven reason for them to get involved and bring them into museums. It’s odd that less than a decade ago we celebrated Twitter subscriber lists as accomplishments of community, when now we have engaged consumers who are also participants in museum visits and purchasers of museum content.

What’s the future look like? Now that museum communities are real, the next decade will herald a new era of creativity. It’s possible that by 2030 we’ll see museums routinely involve their communities in the vetting of information, selection and design of exhibits, and other forms of mediated crowd-sourcing. Members could get engaged with what’s inside museums before it’s ever inside.

A Vision-Starter

The early rumblings of this development are already being felt in the museum community. If your museum is riding the early tail of this future, comment here and provide links to information on how you harness the energy and knowledge of your audience to create content...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

We Saw the Future, Now What?

Guzel duChateau is the CFM Coordinator and AAM’s New Media Specialist. She also leads the association’s Emerging Museum Professionals group. CFM works closely with the EMPs since (after all) they are the museum professionals of the future! Last week, futurist Garry Golden of Oliver Kaizen joined Guzel online to explore the basics of futures studies in the first national EMP webcast.

I'm sure that all of you have been waiting with bated breath to hear how the webcast went on Friday.

I would say, without a doubt, that it was a grand success. We had over 70 unique sites logged in, and as many of these were group viewings, giving more than 130 people watching and participating.

But what exactly did we learn?

Perhaps most importantly, we learned about "foresight." This is the ability to anticipate (and lead) change as well as the ability to construct compelling visions of plausible, possible and preferable futures. This idea of foresight is integral to futures forecasting. Futurists don't simply pluck ideas out of the ether—they are developed from something. Futurists look at what has been going on in the past to project where we might end up tomorrow.

Think about it, as Garry suggested, in terms of how far we've come when it relates to digital competency. How did we become more productive and make learning better? In the late 1908s and early 90's, digital competency was all about using things like Microsoft Word to become more productive. In the mid-90s e-mail and Web browsers started showing up. Browsers like Netscape, introduced many of us to the idea of the Internet and also made companies understand websites as a way to distribute information. Then we hit 2005 and suddenly "Web 2.0" and social networks were a big deal. You were expected to manage yourself within these online communities and the Web was not about getting information pushed out to you, but instead about communities.

So what does all this mean for the future?

Now that we've gotten used to this idea of the Web as a social platform it's also gradually turning into a service platform. Think about cloud computing. We want information out in the "cloud" to be able to get to it easier and faster. Wanting these things can only lead to new tools and needing to learn how to leverage these changes and their growing importance.

So museums need to think about this, especially as the idea of museums as "third places" emerges and develops. We want museums to be more than simply buildings. We want museums to be considered part of a community; a place where you can go not only to learn but also to do things. This is why we've started seeing this evolution of applications like Scvngr and FourSquare which are pushing gaming mechanics and interactivity into museums.

This is just a little snippet of what we learned during this presentation. Did you miss the program? Never fear, LearningTimes recorded it and now you can watch it.

Also, did you enjoy this glimpse into what futures forecasting? That’s good to know, because Garry will be leading a day-long workshop at the American Association of Museums 2011 Annual Meeting! The program isn’t out yet, but we’ll keep you updated here.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mining MyCulture: serving the community of creative consumers

The CFM report Museums & Society 2034 explored a trend we dubbed “MyCulture”—a rising generation demonstrating an extraordinarily high level of creative output and creative consumption. This week’s guest blogger, Allison Thurman, shares her thoughts about how museums can fulfill their potential as repositories of knowledge and sources of inspiration for this creative community.

I like to make things. I’m a looker and a doer, too—I visit museums, I fence (both historical and modern sport.) But big part of my time and enthusiasm goes into creating historically accurate clothing. Happily I'm not the only one, and have found a number of good groups of people in the Society for Creative Anachronism, Costume Society of America, and International Costumers Guild to brainstorm and play with.

This is no casual hobby. My vacation time is spent going to different academic conferences, like the Florence, Italy costume colloquium in 2008, and the Kalamazoo Medieval Congress. At these events museum curators, academics and amateurs share research and trade notes on various aspects of costume and textile history, from details of construction and design to histories of manufacture and trade. I’ve given over a significant portion of my modest apartment to fabric, sewing machine and storage for my creations. I have an extensive book collection and seek more obscure sources, like inventories, when needed for a particular project. Of course, the primary sources for a lot of my interests are locked up in museums and archives, in storage, not on public view. From my point of view, it’s great that this material exists in public institutions, but only if it can be accessed by the public!

Since my teen years I've been particularly fascinated by Mariano Fortuny's pleated silk tea gowns. It's not just the luxe, timeless look, but the mystery behind the pleating process that intrigued me - patent documents exist but aren't entirely clear, and each gown had to be sent back to the Fortuny atelier in Venice for re-pleating every time it was cleaned.

Over the years I've read all of the readily available books on the designer, and have seen a few of the pleated gowns behind glass in museums but some of my questions regarding construction could only be answered by close examination inside and out. After discovering that the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History had one tea gown, I decided to ask if I could visit behind the scenes to satisfy my curiosity.

I was a museum volunteer in the past and have visited museum storage spaces before, but this was the first time I'd ever made an appointment to handle a delicate item and I wasn't sure they'd say yes. I'm not trained in museum studies nor do I have any "academic cred", but I figured it couldn't hurt to ask.

Finding who to ask was fairly easy. I looked up the dress on the NMAH website, and browsed backwards to find the curator in charge of the department that held it. My email was fairly formal but concise, simply asking if I could make an appointment and including the catalog number of the dress (taken from the website) to ensure we both knew what I was talking about.

Once the curator said a visit was permitted, I went about scheduling (a month in advance) and asking specifically what kind of handling, if any, would be allowed. Sketchbook with pencil and a cloth measuring tape were permitted, as was supervised handling with cotton gloves. Photography was permitted as well, as long as it was for research only.

The day of the actual appointment I was a bit nervous, but the curator, Nancy Davis, was friendly and informal, which put me at ease. She asked me about my research as she took me to get my visitors pass.

She had pulled the dress in advance, laying it flat under tissue paper on a muslin-covered table in one of the costume storage rooms. It was accompanied by two other gowns that were also pleated and hence derived in style from Fortuny's work. The curator had pulled them simply because she thought I might be interested!

There is truly nothing like The Real Thing. I was able to learn a great deal the light weight and "hand" of the silk even through cotton gloves, and examination of the inside neckline and seams revealed some of the coveted construction details. Even evidence of wear (frayed trim, faded, flattened sections) told a story about how the dress was worn and repaired - and when it wasn't. Measurement of the tiny pleats suggested that the pleating was done by industrial processes, rather than by hand.

The visit created as many questions as answers. As the Smithsonian's dress is sleeveless, I still don't know how the sleeved gowns were formed - were they pleated and added before or after construction? How wide were the fabric sections unpleated?

Though I'm not the only one of my fellow costumers to take advantage of museum collections, I think there could be so many more if it were more obvious that going behind the scenes was an option. I have some advice on how to win the hearts and minds of this corps of potential fans:

Make it easy for people to find what you have. What was most useful in my NMAH experience was the quality search on the Smithsonian site that helped me find exactly the item I was looking for - more museums should create lists (or preferably, photos and descriptions) of their collections online, especially those that aren't often/ever on display. If behind-the-scenes visits are allowed, contact information and requirements for appointments should be somewhere on the site linked from the collection pages.

Let us know if you allow researcher visits in the first place, and what you require/allow. In my limited experience, serious researchers will go the extra mile, but most of the general public isn't even aware that viewing items outside of an exhibition is possible. The curator I worked with mentioned that assisting researchers with garments is difficult with inadequate staff coverage. If you do allow appointments, make it clear how far in advance to request a visit and what kind of handling/photography (if any) will be permitted.

Tell us more. I was deeply flattered that Dr. Davis took time out of her busy schedule not only to pull the Fortuny out of storage and meet with me, but took extra time to present other garments and ask me about my research. After my time with the gown, I was also given access to the "additional information" files that the Smithsonian keeps on each designer, and these gave me leads for future research in other institutions. I recognize that no matter my enthusiasm for a subject, museum staff have more experience and knowledge of the history and context of their collections than I ever could. I valued Dr. Davis' expertise and additional information.

Ask what we can do for you. Even if my private research is never published in an academic journal, it may be of interest to you! Tap into the thousands of hours of work that amateurs undertake, for love, to add to your catalog records and supplement your work.

I'm sure some museum staff reading this post are thinking "yeah, but how would we accommodate hoards of amateurs wanting to look at stuff we have in storage?" I can't answer that question for you, and I'm sure it would be challenging. But really, wouldn't it be a nice problem to have?

Does your museum make collections in storage accessible to interested amateurs? Do you actively reach out to such users, or wait for them to come to you? Share your stories here in the comments sections. If you have questions for Allison, she can be reached at

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Challenging Assumptions: Who says “Entrepreneurial” = “for-profit?”

I want to spread the word about the Startup Open, a challenge issued in conjunction with Global Entrepreneurship Week (November 15-21).

The Kauffman Foundation has announced it will select the “50 most promising startups” launched during GE Week. The Open can be entered by anyone in the US who is “creating a business” and planning to have a “startup moment” during GE Week. Though they never say it explicitly, I’m betting the organizers assume these outstanding entrepreneurs are all starting traditional for-profit enterprises. I’d like to bust that assumption.

The Kaufmann Laboratories for Enterprise Creation, in case you haven’t heard of them (I hadn’t!) is dedicated to growing the American economy by catalyzing thousands of new entrepreneurs who will create “high growth ventures.” They are looking for “founders who want to make a huge difference. To build companies that create thousands of jobs, generate dramatic economic benefits, and transform lives.” I don’t know about “thousands of jobs,” but I can make a pretty good case that many museum enterprises do a damn fine job of meeting the other criteria.

And we need to encourage museum entrepreneurs to explore new ways of doing business, to find new best practices for "how to make a huge difference." This may involve vital new forms of the traditional nonprofit model, or it may venture into new territory. I’ve preached for years that “nonprofit is a tax status, not a business philosophy.” Some are fond of forecasting the demise of nonprofit status (yes, that would be you, Howard Taylor), forcing museums to survive without this source of government support. And now the boundaries are blurring anyway with the creation of hybrid models such as LC3, as alternatives to traditional nonprofit status. LC3s try to combine the best of both worlds (for and non-profit), encouraging the investment of private capital in organizations designed to achieve social objectives.

So here is my challenge to you—let’s make one of those 50 winners a museum, or museum-related enterprise.

Why not (for example), Culture Kettle? This newly launched LC3 enterprise will “conduct exploratory research and foster programmatic innovation in the arts and the public sciences and humanities.” It’s already announced an exciting research agenda, including study of the multiple audiences of campus art museums; alternate concert formats for young audiences, and (best of all!) "a multi-disciplinary study of how awe and wonder function in “peak experiences” of nature and art." (Hopefully they will bolster and expand on Reach Advisors’ findings on the kind of experiences that turn people into life-long museum fans!)

The incentive? (Besides the satisfaction of busting assumptions about nonprofits and museums, and bragging rights, of course). One entrepreneur will receive a free trip to Richard Branson's private island to network with experienced entrepreneurs. Two others will receive a two–day, customized experience at the Kauffman Labs in Kansas City to help them take the next giant step with their startup. Pretty cool, eh?

But we need to get on the ball here, folks.
  • Applications are due at noon, November 17th
  • Applicants have to expect to have a “startup moment” during the week of Nov 15-21) This “moment” could be, for example, getting incorporated; opening the doors for business; making a “first sale”; outside funding is secured (land your first donation?!); a final milestone is achieved in new product development; or anything else that can be interpreted as the company “opening for business”.
Help spread the word! Tweet, post to Fbook or your blog, send a link about the contest to any museum founders/entrepreneurs you know of and encourage them to enter. And tell them to let me know, too, ( so we can make our own “list o’ museum entrepreneurs” honoring the entrants, whether or not they get chosen for Kaufman’s 50.