Thursday, May 20, 2010

Dark Future/Bright Future

I love telling people I am going to LA next week to forecast the future.

Not predict the future, mind you—forecast. There’s a big difference. Prediction implies certainty—“this is what is going to happen.” Forecasting is seeing a number of potential futures, assessing their likelihood and exploring their potential implications.

The California Association of Museums is celebrating its 30th anniversary, and thanks to a lovely invitation from Celeste DeWald, CAM’s executive director, next Tuesday I will help a group of museum and library practitioners, philanthropists, educators, politicians, community activists (and a lone game designer) forecast what the next 30 years will be like for California’s museums and their communities.

How do we go about this? Under the guidance of professional futurist Garry Golden of Oliver Kaizen, we will look at major trends shaping the state, factor in some potentially disruptive events, and then explore stories (scenarios) describing futures that might be created by these forces.

Turns out I am something of a pessimist, as futurists go. I find it a lot more fun to mess around inventing “Dark Futures” than “Bright Futures.” Garry scolds me to lighten up a little, but my Facebook posse concurs with me that the dystopian futures provide the most fodder for the imagination.

An example. What might happens as a result of the intersecting trends of:
• Increasing divide between rich and poor
• Increasing demographic diversity (racial/ethnic, cultural, immigrant/native, socioeconomic, educational attainment, etc.)
• People using the proliferation and fragmentation of news and entertainment to tailor their sources of information
• People self-segregating into homogeneous communities with common political/social views and values
• Technology increasing our ability to identify, track and monitor individuals in outdoor and public places
• Financial crises in state and local governments leading to downsizing of basic services such as education, transportation, trash collection, etc., not to mention support of cultural amenities

Maybe you get…Calibalkinization! (thank you, WriterGuy, for the brilliant title and the kernel of this scenario):

California continues to become more diverse—economically, racially, ethnically—and more polarized politically. The state fractures into subcultures along cultural fault lines in response to the stressors of ever-more dramatic inequality of distribution of wealth, tensions between long-time residents, new immigrants and temporary workers and political schisms.

As people are empowered to closely tailor their own sources of news, opinion and entertainment, political and cultural divisions widen. Continuing a trend first noted early in the century, people increasingly self-sort by where they live, work and spend their leisure time. As state funding declines, these communities are pushed towards self-sufficiency.

As formerly public areas (museums, libraries, parks) and public services (security, education, transportation), are cut or downsized, individuals and community groups step in to provide private alternatives.

Some communities self-segregate into "gated" enclaves along lines of race, ethnicity, immigrant and socioeconomic status and political affiliation. Other communities become defiantly diverse catch basins for those who either don’t or won’t fit inside the gates.

Location-based services become ubiquitous and most people expect to manage their identities and privacy while they are in the world. It is hard to enter a building or walk into a public area without being scanned and recognized (via facial recognition software) by someone’s surveillance equipment. In a sophisticated public relations move some 'gated' communities' actually take down physical barriers, but install wireless perimeter that requires authorization of your profile and permission to enter the community as a guest. Those who are not identified are met by security patrol.

Communities build strong identities, cultivate local pride, engender high levels of trust between members and pride themselves on self-sufficiency. However they also erect barriers to movement and communication between enclaves, and compete to control resources such as water and energy. “Problem” people such as the indigent, mentally ill, homeless and jobless are aggressively deported. California residents have high levels of trust in community-based governance and authority, and exceedingly low trust in the state and federal governments.

So, what do you do with a story like this? You can, for example, explore:

--What trends and possible events support this scenario? Are there also trends that refute this story line?
--What are the implications for communities, local institutions and for museums in particular?
--What would California, its communities, local institutions and in particular, museums, do to respond?
--How does this scenario be extended? Where would the story proceed from here? Where does this future go?

We will ask the diverse group of working session participants to discuss these points for this and other scenarios.

From the content generated in this working session, CFM and CAM will produce “Museums as Community Catalysts: Shaping the Future of California”—a discussion and resource guide for the museum field. We will encourage museums to use the guide to stimulate conversations among staff, board and community leaders about what actions museums can take now to help their communities, the state and their institutions flourish in the future. Look for it later this summer on the CAM and CFM websites. Celeste and I will give a session on it at the Western Museums Association meeting next October.

If you are attending the AAM annual meeting next week, you can get a preview of the results of our forecasting at a session on Wednesday, May 26 at 9 a.m. (Convention Center room 502 B). Garry, Celeste and I will give an overview of the forecasts, present the recommendations drafted by participants and invite responses and dialogue. Hope to see you there!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Future of Conferences, cont.

I blogged last year about AAM’s steps to “go green” with its annual meeting. Fact is, we may face a future in which professional conferences are profoundly different because of heightened sensitivity to travel’s ecological impacts as well as its high cost.

This year, AAM is taking another incremental step in adapting to such a future—offering Virtual Conference 2010 for museum practitioners unable to schlep to Los Angeles. This two-day, online conference showcases nine sessions selected by AAM’s Standing Professional Committees as having the greatest relevance to their constituencies. The registration fee (AAM members $199, Non-members $299) about equals the cost of one plane fare, and one registration fee entitles 10 people to access the conference. (Even virtual conferences can involve participation in live, local groups!)

In case you are wondering—no, it isn’t a live broadcast, exactly. That would be too nerve-wracking (for us, at least.) The presenters of these sessions have kindly agreed to repeat their presentations in a separate broadcast room for quality control. Trust me, it’s better this way.

Fittingly, the second session of the virtual conference, (Monday May 24, 9:15-10:30 a.m. PST) is “Innovative Technology: Breaking down Barriers between the Physical and Virtual Museum Experience.” Chair Charles Katzenmeyer, VP for External Affairs at the Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum in Chicago will shepherd presentations by Carl Hamm of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and Natural History, Amy Ritter Cowen of the Shedd Aquarium, and Anne Haskel.

So, I wonder, how does one break down the barriers between the physical and virtual conference experience? One way is to follow reports on the blog and tweet-o-sphere about the goings-on. You can follow news about the conference on Twitter by searching on #AAM10. You can read posts on the annual meeting blog as well as posts by other bloggers attending the meeting, such as James Leventhal, writing at WestMuse, Maria Mortati at Museums Now and Allyson Lazar, at Two Ls and a Y. (Please add your blog address to “comments” on this post if you will be blogging or tweeting from LA as well!)

And, after the conference, look for the video being produced by The Pinky Show based on interviews with attendees on the future of museums. (We will also post photographs of Pinky’s installation of artifacts from future museums.)

All that said, I hope to (actually) see you in LA!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Thinning the Ranks--Alert!

I’ve had many a late-night debate about whether the field as a whole might actually be healthier if there were fewer museums, and some of the perpetually unstable ones closed. Whether or not that ever happens, we may be on the verge of having many fewer museums technically “in existence” (as nonprofit entities, at least) by virtue of neglected paperwork.

The IRS is about to revoke the tax-exempt status of any small nonprofits (revenues of $25k or less) that have not filed a 990-N form by May 17. This is a result of new filing requirement, established in 2006. More details are available in this
NPR story.

The IRS estimates up to 200,000 nonprofits are on the verge of losing their nonprofit status, and has set up a
website where organizations can check on whether they have filed. For example, a search on nonprofits in Ohio (my home state!) with the word “museum” in their name turns up 22 organizations. Some, like the Ohio Valley Museum of Discovery , may still be in the fund-raising phase (though OVMD’s website says they offer travelling exhibit bus.) Some like the Kettering Moraine Museum and Historical Society actually have ceased to exist as an independent entity. But there may be real and useful groups in there as well, doing good work. The Children’s Doll and Toy Museum of Marietta seems to actually exist. You might want to take a look for any “littlies” you are involved with or care about.

As the NPR story points out, the organizations losing their nonprofits status from failing to file can always reapply for tax-exempt status. Meanwhile, this may be one step towards thinning the (recorded) ranks and getting a better picture of how many nonprofits in the US are actually active and trying to thrive…

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Breaking Research News at the AAM Annual Meeting!

Reach Advisors (authors of the AAM forecasting report "Museums & Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures") have announced major data releases to be held at the AAM meeting later this month.

James Chung and Susie Wilkening will present findings from their recent study of over 40,000 museum-going households, and shedding light on who is using museums now, what they expect from museums and what this presages for our future audiences.

The session on Monday, May 24 7:30 - 8:30 a.m.--an overview of the research findings--will be open to all AAM registrants, but space is limited (come early!) The location (in the Convention Center) will be listed in the final program.

There are also two session being filled by RSVP only (severely limited space!) These are:

Monday, May 24
3:45 - 5:30 p.m.
To Ultra-Curiosity . . . and Beyond!
Moms, Dads, Curiosity, and Museums
Private session, just across the street from the LA Convention Center
Space is limited - RSVP to to guarantee a space
Refreshments provided

Tuesday, May 25
10:30 a.m. - 12:00 p.m.
Awesome Spaces and Sticky Stuff: Childhood Museum Experiences and Museum-Going Behaviors
Private session, just across the street from the LA Convention Center
Space is limited - RSVP to to guarantee a space
Refreshments provided

Follow breaking news about the data sessions and nuggets from the research data at the Reach Advisors Blog here.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Creating the New

How many of you know of dysfunctional relationships between universities and museums? Hark--I hear a forest of hands rise across the land. Too often colleges and universities fail to take advantage of the resources in museums (their own, or other regional institutions.) Too often expertise within and between museums and universities are walled into missile-hardened silos, trapped by labels that separate “science” from “art” (and “history” and “philosophy,” etc. etc.)

The Phillips Collection is trying to break down these walls. Yesterday I attended a convening here in DC, arising from a partnership between The Phillips and the University of Virginia that aims to “envision new ways for scholars and practitioners to create the new - across all domains of learning and human endeavor - using experiential learning and dynamic interactions with change agents to explore the power of abstraction and associative thinking.”

Starting with the premise that “universities and museums need to grow in their roles as innovation leaders” the convening brought together practitioners from art, medical research, music, dance, business and magic to explore how their realms could inspire and inform each other. I think this is a great approach, being a firm believer in the “edge effect”—the biological phenomenon of biodiversity flourishing at the intersection of different habitats.

It was an interesting day—demonstrating the challenges and potential benefits of such explorations. As someone trained in both cell and organismal biology, who has worked with museums of all types, I was perhaps uniquely positioned to observe the attempts of these groups to communicate. Sometimes the practitioners seemed almost intentionally abstruse—reveling in their specialized language and referents. Sometimes, while presenting their own material with good will and enthusiasm, they did not seem to know how to help people bridge the connection to other fields. Sometimes things really clicked, opening new windows into how one field could potentially illuminate another.

Here is one project I think has the potential to truly capitalize on the possibilities of exploring art through various branches of science and science through multiple modalities of art: Matthew Burtner (tenured associate professor at the University of Virginia and Director of the Interactive Media Research Group and Associate Director of the VCCM Computer Music Center) talked about his eco-acoustic opera, a work-in-progress of “computer enabled environmental sonic art.” (Here is a link to some of his completed eco-acoustic works.) Short and extremely simplistic description of his work: Matthew samples and transforms data from the natural world into sound and visual information. This includes historic data (e.g., records of climate change), as well as live feeds (e.g., acoustic monitoring beneath the arctic waters.) A local action can (a whale song captured via underwater boom) can have remote consequences (cuing the entrance of human singers.) While the general public may understand in an abstract way that climate data is important, if you aren’t a data-geek its hard to really grasp what the dramatic change in the ice pack means to residents of the arctic. Matthew’s project might help humanize the data and make it more accessible. (And certainly prettier.)

Anyway, in the spirit of using art to explore connections, here is my poetic response to the convening, envisioning where such collaborations between very different fields of specialization may lead. A true futurist, I hedge my bets by describing two possible future states, rather than predicting what will come…

Dark Future
Terms and signifiers
Rarified, precise
Requiring multiple translation
Field to field to field
Intersections yielding points of entry
So very narrow
Camels, needles
Come to mind

If this is our portal
To a future world
We will be beautiful
And, mostly…alone

Bright Future
Slow down!
Back up
Explain in simple words

Transform profound abstractions to
Sights and sounds the
Primal sections of my brain
Can grasp

Peering through an unfamiliar lens
The world transforms
Internal lines
Essential rhythms
Emerge, inspire me to overcome
Demonstrate the power of ideas to make
Rocks fly
Cookies teach
Whales sing the future of the world through human voice