Thursday, February 25, 2010

Convergence? Explore the Future of Museums and Libraries

The Institute of Museum & Library Services has just announced the launch of UpNext, a wiki site where people can share thoughts about IMLS’s recently published Discussion Guide on the future of museums and libraries. Starting next week, a series of themes will be featured on the wiki, each for a two-week period, introduced by expert discussion leaders. The project wraps up May 19 when IMLS posts a summary of the discussions.

If you haven’t read the guide yet, I recommend you access it here. It’s a good framework for thinking about the trends affecting both museums and libraries (like financial stress, challenges to traditional models of authority, digitized content and the search for effective measures of success.) In the future, the boundaries of these organizations may become more and more blurred, until it’s hard to categorize them as one or the other. (And IMLS may become the Institute of Liseum Services?)

And if you want to get more engaged in exploring the intersection (and evolution) of these two fields, check out the Committee on Archives, Libraries and Museums (CALM), a joint committee of the American Library Association, the Society of American Archivists and AAM. CALM will host a session at 9 am on Monday, May 24 at the AAM Annual Meeting in LA devoted to the Discussion Guide. And CALM welcomes attendees to join them at their committee meeting at 3:45 pm that same day.

I hope you weigh in--I look forward to seeing your thoughts, and blogging about them here!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Report from the Future: The Cultural Museum 2.0

It’s a good thing about the future is unequally distributed (cf William Gibson)--that way your museum can learn from pioneer organizations that are adapting to trends that will affect you in five, ten or twenty years.

Where do you find pioneers? Often (as was always true) in the West. California is one of four states (plus the District of Columbia) already living the majority-minority future facing the rest of the country. And because California has more than its share of high-performing, innovative museums, we can look to the West Coast for lessons on how to surf the waves of demographic transformation and meet the needs of our next generation audiences.

First up on the recommended reading list: The Cultural Museum 2.0: Engaging Diverse Audiences
. This report, prepared by The Japanese American National Museum with support from the James Irvine Foundation, explores how a culturally specific arts organization can adapt to changing demographics. Now, you may be thinking “my museum isn’t culturally specific, so this doesn’t apply to us.” But in a majority minority future, will many museums that are mainstream now be seen as culturally specific to the Caucasian minority? Think about it.

In any case, the essential questions addressed in the report, while focused on JANM, are of interest to all museums: 
  • To what extent is visitor experience influenced by cultural or ethnic-self identification?
  • What is the relevance of the Museum to younger, multi-ethnic audiences?
  • How can the Museum engage new audiences while sustaining and satisfying its current constituency?
  • What impact does engaging these audiences have on the ability of the Museum to sustain itself in the future?
The report describes JANM’s three-year project transforming the museum’s operations in order to implement the changes suggested by their research. They worked with New-York based EmcArts, a firm that specializes in fostering innovation in cultural institutions, to decrease the chance of the initial enthusiasm petering out into “business as usual.” (Hmmm, have you ever experienced that in a project designed to change your organization?) The Cultural Museum 2.0 includes a useful description of the process the museum used to encourage organizational growth and change. Also a good analysis of what is needed to innovate in times of crisis. (Spoiler alert—JANM found the most useful step to be dedicating a small pool of risk capital and staff time to innovation.)

Some of the research findings that were eye openers for the Museum’s staff are probably not that different from what many museums would find when asking the community about their organizations:

  • many potential visitors were not aware of what JANM was already doing
  • a number of Japanese Americans viewed the Museum as “aloof.” (Staff concluded this may have been an unintended side-effect of promoting the museum as “world-class” in its marketing, creating a perception that it had strayed from its community-based roots.)
  • JANM’s key competitors for leisure time were typical every-day activities like going to movies or a restaurant or hanging out with friends
  • People wanted to be able to interact with the exhibitions, not just look at them and
  • wanted exhibits to be relevant to them today, not just about the past
The museum responded by questioning basic assumptions and changing their ground rules, including:

  • allowing visitors to take photos in the galleries using their cell phones and digital cameras (resulting in unprecedented exposure for their “Giant Robot Biennale.”)
  • providing more shopping and eating activities (including encouraging L.A.’s famous Korean barbeque taco truck to park outside on JANM’s free Thursday evenings.)
  • creating a program model that enables staff to create topical exhibits with a quick turn-around time and less money
The research also surfaced concern among JANM staff and leadership that providing new types of programming might alienate core supporters and donors. I hear variations on this plaint all the time. “What if a younger audience is noisy and disruptive and disturbs our older visitors? What if people who want to interact and play games interfere with quiet contemplation of art?” Has JANM found the answer? No, but they are doing yeoman’s working in exploring the boundaries where tolerance of new people playing in a museum’s sandbox gives way to alienation. Keep an eye on them as they break trail for your future…

Friday, February 19, 2010

Playing with Shiny Objects: Tech Trends and Innovations

I’m sometimes reminded by readers of this blog that the future is not all about technology (despite the way futurism is depicted in the popular media.) But you have to admit, the tech realm offers bright shiny objects that stimulate our imagination about how the future may be different. Here are two emerging technologies that could have a profound impact on museums and their work. Both are on the cusp of effective performance and affordability, both could have transformative effects on museums’ work in the next decade.

Shiny Object #1: Gestural Interface. The movie Minority Report featured a cool display screen hovering in the air that Tom Cruise manipulated with his hands—moving photos and documents, enlarging or banishing items, turning him into a symphony conductor of digital content. (Here’s a clip about the movie featuring this special effect.) John Underkoffler, who dreamt up the interface for the movie, went on to co-found the company Oblong Industries to make the fictional invention real. Last Friday he gave a talk at the 2010 TED Conference about this invention, which he calls Gestural Interface.

As reported by the NYT, one incredible element of the demo was that Underkoffler “reaching into” different film clips to pluck out characters that he then combined on a table top. Think how this technology could open up digitized collections to visitors. How about an “open storage and exhibit design room” where people work together to select virtual objects from the collections and create a digital, table top maquette of their proposed exhibit? Watch the promotional video on the Oblong Industries website
and this won’t seem so far-fetched. Underkoffler claims this technology will be standard in personal computers in five years—that sounds like a stretch to me, but it might be accessible far sooner to organizations.

Shiny Object #2: 3-D Printers. These aren’t new—manufacturers have been using them for some time to turn coded instructions into a three-dimensional object by building up successive layers of
a given material (such as plastic or resin.) This process turned the creation of prototypes from a laborious, hand-driven skill into a one that is relatively fast and easy. But not cheap (the industrial models cost in the range of $100k.) Now Wired Magazine reports that HP is poised to launch 3-D printers priced at less than $15,000. Low-end models of home 3-D printers are already available for under $1000, but they are severely limited in their precision and functionality. High end 3-D printing can reproduce details at the scale in the 100 nanometer range, in multiple colors, with moving interlocking parts using materials ranging from paper to metal to polymerized gels. John Balistreri, a ceramic artist who heads the ceramic art program at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, even came up with a 3-D printing system that he can use to create and fire artifacts built up using ceramic powders.

The potential museum applications are endless (and some are doubtless already being used) but I am particularly interested in how 3-D scanning and printing could help make museum collections accessible*. 3-D scanning data is of immense value to museums anyway. Such data can be a priceless form of risk management and conservation—preserving important information in case of loss and guiding restoration in case of damage. Why not maximize the benefits in other ways as well? What if, instead of browsing from a limited selection in your museum shop, a visitor could select and “print” a high quality reproduction from a much larger selection of objects scanned from your archaeology, paleontology or ceramics collection? As the costs of transportation and insurance rise inexorably, what if satellite museums (or schools, community centers, or passionate amateurs) could design exhibits based on objects drawn from collections around the globe, go to the 3-D printing lab at their local museum and download and print the artifacts?

Despite my flip remarks at the beginning of this post, I’m not drooling over this technology because it’s cool. I’m excited by its potential to drive a wedge into the dam that separates collections from the public. Gestural Interfaces could enable “hands on” interaction with “hands-off” objects and (literally) bring a whole new dimension to “open storage.” 3-D printing could facilitate loans and accessibility, minimizing cost and risk, as well as making high-quality reproductions available on demand to users that might not be able to provide environments suitable for original material. Nothing will ever supplant “the real thing,” but these emerging technologies have the potential to provide a pretty good second-best…

*Here’s a clip from CFM's Voices of the Future series in which Chris Norris, Senior Collections Manager in the division of vertebrate paleontology at the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale, talks about the potential uses of 3-D printing and the effect of such technology on collecting (see time mark 3:16). This is a great interview overall—I highly recommend kicking back for a cup of coffee or tea for about eight minutes to listen to Chris exploring the future.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Mapping the Future

The Institute for the Future and Business for Social Responsibility have released their Sustainability Outlook Map charting four potential stories of the future. The map explores ways of approaching challenges to the environmental, social and economic sustainability of our society through:
  • A "commons" strategy dominated by bottom-up, participatory solutions driven by self-organized communities of interest
  • Market-driven solutions focused on alternative capital, financial incentives, and market dynamics
  • Control and remediation driven by government policy
  • Solutions arising through science and technology
Layered across these stories are “signals” (trends), like open source design or increased regulation of philanthropy, that may shape the future. The map is also dotted with “wild cards” (high-impact events that are hard to predict) such as regional “Luddite” movements resisting technology, or the collapse of key resources such as fisheries or oil.

Other than being cool to look at, what good is the map? IFTF and BSR offer it as “a grid for making sense of the coming decade” Like a real map, it can help you select preferred destinations, plot routes and plan for the trip. It’s a visual framework for thinking about the future, providing a quick tour of emerging innovations that you may take into account as you conduct your organization’s planning. For example, how could your museum foster communities of interest that contribute to a bottom-up reorganization of society? One of the trends plotted on the map is the increased influence of ethics, individual consciences and global values discourse. How can museums be platforms for exploring morality and meaning? Another trend the map explores is “learning ecologies,” in which on-line tools support learning curricula. With the internet giving your museum’s a potentially global reach, how might you contribute to this new educational ecosystem?

So take a look at the map (probably on-line, since it is difficult to print a copy large enough to be legible.) Let your imagination wander through the landscape it portrays, and see where your museum might embed itself in these stories. And, what the heck—grab some 11 x 17” paper and try drawing your own map of the future. If you do, scan it and send a copy to me at! I’d love to see your vision of where we might be headed.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Grab the Popcorn and Settle in for 2010—Year of All Things Local

Futurist Faith Popcorn’s predictions for 2010. She declares it will be a year of Local Cocooning. See her observations on the growing preference for “Locotainment” –for example, attendance at minor-league baseball games at the expense of major league tickets. She foresees an increased demand for “more approachable venues, more sensible pricing, and a far deeper emotional engagement with “homies”” in all areas of leisure spending.

Popcorn also draws attention to the rise of community college enrollment in contrast to the flat admissions at traditional four year schools. “Look for the community college system to find even closer connections to what they know best – the community” she says. What are the opportunities for museums to help extend the depth and breadth of their local community college content in real space and on-line?

She also envisions a scenario in which many people move back to their hometowns and neighborhoods “to recover roots in a time of stress and uncertainty.” How can your museum reconnect with these returnees, reviving their fond memories of rainy Sundays dawdling among the dioramas and displays?

Popcorn summarizes the social trends in 2010 as a “search for those cultural touchstones we can trust.” Sounds pretty good for museums to me. What do you think—is she on the mark? Do any of the trends she describes bode ill for our profession? How will they affect your museum and your community at the local level?

(Like this and want to read more? Forecasting by professional futurists, is often featured in the CFM Research Roundup.)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

An Opportunity to Expand Your Horizons (and Save the World)

Having just webcast the second annual CFM lecture (Gregory Rodriguez exploring the future of museums in a majority/minority nation) this seems an opportune time to revisit the topic of our first lecture “Gaming (is) the Future of Museums*". In that talk futurist and games designer Dr. Jane McGonigal of the Institute for the Future gave museums kudos for fulfilling two of four prerequisites for happiness: providing opportunities to spend time with people we like, and the chance to be part of a bigger cause. She also pointed out where she feels museums often fall short: giving people satisfying work to do, and the experience of being good at something. Good games do all four of these things well (which is one reason they are so addictive.) Jane encouraged museums to study the characteristics of good game design, and apply them to our work. This doesn’t necessarily mean using complex technology. It can mean creating well-designed, participatory experiences, as Nina Simon has documented extensively on her blog and in her forthcoming book “The Participatory Museum.”

Jane’s work demonstrates how we can harness the energy and creativity people devote to games to solve real-world problems. She is about to launch a new game created for the World Bank Institute, which she bills as a “crash course in saving the world.” This is an opportunity for you to explore the world of Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) and their potential for creating change. EVOKE, launching in March, will challenge players to devise real world solutions to global issues such as food security, energy, water security, disaster relief, poverty, pandemic, education, global conflict and human rights.

As Jane explains in this interview ARGs use social networks and existing online tools such as video, blogs, wikis to create the game’s premise and environment and to solicit the response and contributions of players. ARGs are about “real play and not role play”—participants play themselves rather than some warrior or elf. The information and the players reactions are fictive, but plausible. ARGs can provide a fun and engaging way to explore potential futures and potential responses.

The EVOKE trailer is embedded below. Visit the website to read the first chapter of the graphic novel that presents the story line and sign up to participate. It might stimulate your thinking about how your museum can use on-line social media to recruit “players” dedicated to accomplishing your mission. Maybe, as with Superstruct (an ARG Jane ran to explore of the world in 2019), we can recruit many museum people to participate and investigate how museums can help solve these problems. After all, as Jane declared at the end of her lecture, “museums can save the world!”

(*You can access materials related to the “Gaming (is) the Future of Museums” lecture, including video clips, resources and discussion guide, at the CFM website.)

Here is the trailer for EVOKE:

EVOKE trailer (a new online game) from Alchemy on Vimeo.