Monday, June 28, 2010

Engaging and Empowering New Immigrants through Art

AAM’s recently released forecasting report Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums highlights the gap between current museum audiences and the majority minority future of American society. The sobering statistics are leavened with profiles of museums that are successfully reaching beyond traditional white, affluent, well-educated visitors to serve the next generation of museum-goers. One important segment of those future museum-goers are immigrants. While the majority of US population growth in coming decades will be from native births (principally the children of Latino immigrants,) immigration always has been and will continue to be be an important force in shaping our nation. In the U.S., international migration accounted for one fifth of the net population growth during the twentieth century and almost 40 percent of population growth between 2000 and 2007. According to data from the 2006-2008 American Community Survey, foreign-born individuals are now 12.5 percent of the American population.

The Nassau County Museum of Art, situated on 145 acres of the historic Bryce-Frick estate in Roslyn Harbor, NY, is widely recognized for a fine collection of American, European and Latin American art. Nassau County on Long Island has experienced a 107 percent growth in Hispanic population since 1990 and neighboring Queens is among the most diverse areas in the U.S., with a population that includes many new immigrants. In light of this extraordinary growth, the staff recognized new opportunities for integrating the historic site more fully into the dynamically changing region.

In partnership with Queensborough Community College’s adult literacy program for English language learners, the museum created the “Culture and Literacy through Art” (CALTA) program, specifically geared to new immigrants. Drawing on her own immigrant experience and the challenges of learning a new language through text-based instruction, Patricia Lannes, NCMA’s director of education, understood that images, as well as written texts, could serve as a powerful tool for developing literacy. Works of art can be “visual texts” readily available for decoding by adult immigrants who have a wealth of experience on which to draw as they build vocabulary, practice conversation and articulate interpretation. The program, drawing on the methodology of Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), engages adult immigrants in facilitated discussions of a painting or sculpture in a provocative but non-threatening conversational mode that can accommodate a first-time museum visitor or an experienced art-world patron. A single work of art offers multiple entry points into a conversation—from description to more complex interpretation that may include aesthetic critique, as well as social and political analysis—in a way that a single written text may not.

The program has proven to be highly popular with participants. Thanks to a National Leadership Grant from IMLS, the museum and community college staffs are now collaborating on plans to develop a teaching institute and a model curriculum that can be shared with other cultural and educational institutions. The beauty of the CALTA program is its versatility; it is also used in family programs that allow separate, but interconnected, intergenerational activities, engaging everyone without disempowering the adults who may not have the same English proficiency as their children. It offers English language learners a means of finding a voice in a new culture and, for some, new modes of critical expression. It is a program that positions the museum as a key player in helping ease the transition of new immigrants into their American communities.

Do you know of any museum programs that, like CALTA, are geared to the needs of new immigrants? Please comment on mographic Transformation and the Future of Museumsthis post to let us know...

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Building the Future of Museums on a Better Base of Knowledge

This week's guest blog post is from Betty Farrell and her team at the Cultural Policy Center of the University of Chicago, presenting an abridged version of their recommendations from the report Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums. Betty et al outline their vision of how museums can build a better base of knowledge to support our planning as a field.

It’s important for museums to grapple with the demographic changes sweeping the country if they plan to be useful to more than a small segment of American society. But good decisions require good data as well as good instincts. Unfortunately, the research on race, ethnicity and cultural participation, though provocative and suggestive, is spotty, often outdated, and usually too narrow to draw broad conclusions for museums. If nothing else, the literature review we conducted for Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums should serve as a call to action to fill in the research gaps. This would improve the ability of museums to make sound, informed decisions about how to serve their communities now and in the future.

We believe that individual museums, and the museum field as a whole, should:

Make better use of existing data: especially from the U.S. Census Bureau, as a starting point for understanding the demographics of their local communities. Museum service organizations should help museums access, interpret and apply this information as a tool for strategic planning. Although the Census remains the most reliable source of data on American racial and ethnic groups, many other sources now provide online tools that make demographic analysis relatively easy. (The report includes a list of suggested resources).

Mine data from other sources, especially when comparable sources of information about museums do not exist. For example, we don’t have longitudinal studies that follow museum-goers over time, information that would be especially useful for museum participation research. But we do have several large national studies that capture information about education, social conditions and cultural habits—in particular, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (U.S. Department of Education), the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (Bureau of Labor Statistics), and the Children of Immigrants Longitudinal Study. Museum researchers could be more creative in their use of these and other projects in the social sciences.

Pressure existing research projects to capture more information about museums: For example, the General Social Survey (GSS) conducted by the National Opinion Research Center has been tracking demographic information, attitudes, opinions and social change in the U.S. since 1972—an ongoing project designed to “take the pulse of America.” Museums and museum service organizations should actively seek ways to incorporate museum data collection into research platforms such as the GSS, and encourage federal data-collection agencies to incorporate more questions about museums and museum-goers into their ongoing research programs.

Share the knowledge: Too much valuable data is locked away in proprietary studies, in the form of market research or evaluation studies, but never shared beyond the walls of the museum that commissioned the research. Museums need to develop a shared expectation that the knowledge that what they collect as individual organizations will be shared with the field unless there is a compelling reason for it to remain confidential. There are many models of data sharing on a local or discipline-specific scale.

Collaborate with other nonprofits: Other nonprofit sectors (e.g., dance, theater, classical music) share the museum field’s challenge in understanding and adapting to demographic change. Studies that cut across organizational types and cultural activities can produce information on audience engagement that is useful to museums. Research on cultural participation is accumulating, but evidence about what works and doesn’t work—about risks that were taken, about innovative projects that may not have succeeded at first try and those that soared immediately—all need to be shared more across the cultural sector

Develop research opportunities through partnerships: Museums, and their national service organizations, should take the lead in developing new research partnerships. Research can be expensive and museums rarely have substantial research budgets. But many could work more closely in partnership with colleges and universities in their local area to develop supervised, student-based research in a systematic way.

What say you? Does your museum have research that could benefit the field, and can we help you share it with the field? What do you think is the most important thing AAM can do to improve the state of research in the field?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Museums as Community Catalysts: Museum of Northern Arizona

Many museums aspire to be “conveners,” “dialog centers” and “safe places for conversation.” So it’s nice to be able to share stories of museums living up to this aspiration. This week the Museum of Northern Arizona provided a forum this week for the Center for the Future of Arizona to engage 55 local residents in discussion of their views about what issues candidates for state office should address. How can taxation be distributed equitably? What does health care look like in a civilized society? How should Arizona deal with immigration and illegal residents? How can the state attract back residents who have left the state? How can politicians improved education?

The Center for the Future of Arizona is attempting to build consensus about what Arizonans want in this century, in order to help policymakers focus on what is important. What better partner in this effort than a museum which can put these questions in a broader historical, ecological and sociological context? Props to museum director Robert Breunig for providing a stage, and helping ask the hard questions…

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Do Innovation, and Diversity, Sometimes Look Like Failure?

The New York Times reports that the Brooklyn Museum is struggling to meet its attendance goals, using director Arnold Lehman’s strategy of building local audience rather than competing with other NY museums for tourists.

The article cites a 23% drop in the museum’s attendance from 2008 to 2009, falling to about 340,000 (about a third of its high point, decades ago). This, the article points out, was in a year when attendance at other NY cultural institutions overall were pretty stable. (Though the NYT uses the average attendance for this figure—I wonder how much variation at individual institutions that masks.)

A quarter of attendees to the Brooklyn Museum come for free First Saturdays—food, drink, dancing, gallery talks, films—and the museum admits it doesn’t track how many FS attendees convert to regular museum visitors. (As a recent post from Slover-Linett Strategies points out, maybe its unrealistic to expect to convert them at all.)

The museum gets slammed by the usual mix of miffed trustees and art world cognoscenti who sniff at the occasional populist exhibits, like Star Wars, the museum has hosted. Many of the same folks gasped in horror when the museum experiments with “serious” exhibits, like the 2008 exhibit on Takashi Murakami that bent museum-y conventions by having a real live Louis Vuitton shop in the exhibit.

But but but. Lehman points out that the museum’s audience “has become younger and more diverse.” A 2008 survey found visitors had an average age of 35, a large portion (40 percent) came from Brooklyn, and more than 40 percent identified themselves as people of color. Considering the challenges that museums overall face in reaching younger, more diverse audiences, that sounds pretty good. And the museum is trying all sorts of exciting things, like Click! a crowd-curated exhibit that Nina Simon called “a substantive research contribution by the museum to the social technology field at large.” (Besides being darn fun.)

Here’s what I thought about, reading this article on the Metro this morning:

  • Why do folks seem to assume that revelers at First Saturdays “only” come for the food, drink and music? Even if you documented they don’t visit at other times, why is enjoying the museum, and the art, less valid in a party atmosphere than in one of quiet contemplation? What makes the latter the “right” way to experience a museum?
  • If a museum’s attendance, and budget, fluctuate year to year, why is that interpreted as “failure?” Innovation is good, right? Or so the pundits, myself included (do I get to call myself a pundit?) keep saying. And a hallmark of innovation is that some experiments won’t work. The article says that the museum is financially on an even keel right now. As long as you budget for risk, why get all bent out of whack when (inevitably) some ideas fall short? If a major institution is willing to take major chances (and not just noodle around at the edges of change) why don’t we all stand up and applaud?
  • And, finally, why do we always assume more (more space, more fancy architecture, more visitors) is better? Even Lehman, after noting how pleased he is at the diverse audience the museum has built, is quoted as saying “though I admit to you, I’d like to see 100,000, 200,000, 300,000 more people.”
I wish we spent more time, as a field, discussing the next generation of questions raised by stories like this one about the Brooklyn Museum. If a museum decides its priority is to serve a diverse local audience, how can it adjust its size, and budget, to realistic projections of the resulting numbers of visitors? If a museum is going to experiment, big time, on a regular basis, how do you build a budget, and a staff, that can weather the resulting fluctuations in a healthy way? If a museum invests in providing an “alternate” museum experience, like Brooklyn's first Saturdays, what is the desire outcome, and how do you measure it? It is converting people to “regular” visitors. Is it measuring their enjoyment of being in the museum, among the art? Or is it some specific learning objective you want them to absorb along with the booze? I’ve said it before, you have to decide what your priority is (diversity, numbers, transcendent joy) and you get what you measure.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Future of Reality

I highly recommend this talk, When Games Invade Real Life, by Jesse Schell . It’s worth taking half an hour to plonk yourself down with a soda and let him blow your mind.

Museum-ers will find this lecture particularly heartening because, contrary to the standard drumbeat of “the future is virtual,” Jesse argues that technology is going to help us reconnect with the real world. A interface with the physical world and real friends, he points out, is the defining characteristic of the most popular recent games (Guitar Hero), toys (Furbies) and social media time-sucks (Farmville, Mafia Wars). Even the blockbuster movie Avatar was a fantasy about using technology as a portal to migrate to a more authentic, primal world.

The beginning of the talk takes an interesting look at how people are monetizing virtual participation in non-intuitive (& extremely lucrative) ways. Worth thinking about how this could apply to museum pricing and incentives.

Mid-way thru Jesse digresses into an argument against the wide-spread belief that all electronic gadgetry will converge (basically a setup for a pretty funny slam of the iPAD.) Stick with it though, as he proceeds to paint a mind-bending picture of a hyper-interconnected world in which all objects (from your cereal to a bus) can interact with you and influence your behavior (what you eat for breakfast, how you get to work). This could be a force for good (promoting walking or public transportation) or evil (encouraging people to reap rewards for drinking soda or watching television ads). When he gets to interactive digital ad-based tattoos, though, he starts freakin’ me out…

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Demographic Transformation and…What Next? A Call to Action

On May 24th, at our annual meeting in Los Angeles, AAM released the latest CFM trends paper, Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums. Betty Farrell and her colleagues at the Cultural Policy Center of the University of Chicago, who prepared the report, combed the literature for research on the relationship between race/ethnicity and museum going and found...good stuff, but less than one would hope. In their wrap-up, they issue some shrewd recommendations to museums for improving this sorry state of affairs. My favorite is: “share your data, guys!” (My paraphrase.) Too much potentially valuable information never goes beyond the museum that commissioned the research. Betty et al observe that “Museums need to develop a shared expectation that the knowledge they collect as individual organizations will be shared with the field unless there is a compelling reason for it to remain confidential.” Amen to that.

But we know enough to take some action now. Given the magnitude and speed of demographic change in America (and the growing gap between the demographics of museum visitors and the American public) we can’t afford to sit around and wait for perfect data. The report concludes with a challenge from AAM to the field to:

• Broaden our sense of identity. What can we learn from other public spaces: libraries, community centers, even coffee shops, bubble tea stores, even taco trucks (see video at end of post)? Wherever people choose to spend time socializing, talking and learning—we have something to learn from those places, as well. We need museums to be places people want to hang out in, not just places they feel they ought to visit—places to check off on their life list, or destinations for the ritual pilgrimage with guests.

• Take responsibility for learning, in depth, about the communities we want to serve. Diversity is fractal—when you take a closer look at categories, they break down into subgroups that contain just as much complexity—right down to the level of the individual. Museums need to look and listen for themselves to understand the nuances of their communities, their shared and different needs. Future posts will highlight case studies from the report, including efforts of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose to create appropriate ways to engage diverse communities and sub-communities.

• Invest in the diversity of the field. Eric Siegel, director of the New York Hall of Science, commented on an early draft of the report that “too many middle aged hypereducated white people are going to limit the degree to which museums incorporate other points of view.” Right now only 20 percent of museum employees are minorities. Museums need to tackle this problem at all stages—increase awareness of museum careers, recruit more diverse students into museum studies programs and look outside traditional training programs for bright, interested people and then invest in their continued education. Another case study examines the New York Hall of Science and their Science Career Ladder, which has helped the Hall recruit a diverse staff from the local community.

• Heed the Millennials’ call for participatory and social activities in museums. There is a rapidly emerging consensus that the most successful museums of the future will be places to hang out, engage and contribute. They will blur the boundaries between “back of the house” and the public side. They will be moderators and filters of contributed wisdom and diverse perspectives, in addition to being sources of scholarship and opinion. This is illustrated in the report with a snapshot of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, recounting how they collaborated with artists, students and teachers in the creation of the exhibit “Artifacts of Our Lives.”

• Take the lead in building a new era! Be positive about your ability to make your museum matter to groups that are not core visitors now, but don’t expect it to happen without a lot of deep thought and hard work.

For our part, AAM and its Center for the Future of Museums pledge to keep driving this conversation forward. We will heed Betty’s call for more and better collaborative research at the national level, we will delve more deeply into the next explorations suggested by this report (generational change, the effects of income and education on museum use) and we will encourage your participation in this exploration of the future.

CFM will also serve as a platform for what we hope will be a lively and contentious discussion of these challenges. Please jump onto our stage: propose a guest post for the CFM Blog, comment on the posts of others, record a “Voices of the Future” video, submit a session proposal to the 2011 AAM annual meeting, invite museum futurists (from CFM or elsewhere) to present at the meetings of other associations or groups. Share any research on diversity that your museum has conducted. Together we will build a bright vision of the future of museums, and with time, turn that vision into a story of a future past.

Scope the famous Kogi Korean Taco truck serving up outside the Japanese American National Museum. ("Gretchen, you gonna check out the museum after you get your food? You better! I'm gonna hold you to that! If I don't see you in that museum, we're never coming back!" Food trucks as museum advocates. I love it.)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Questions of Scale: The Hard Business of Interpreting Trends

One of the fundamental tools of forecasting is trends analysis. If various things (price of oil, use of social media, craze for cupcakes) putter along in the direction they are headed now, at the same speed, how will these trends interact, and what kind of world will result? What might be early indicators that these trends are slowing down, speeding up, or changing direction? Taken together with potential disruptive events, (like an oil spill in the Gulf Coast, or passage of the Health Reform bill) trends are the fodder for envisioning plausible futures.

But evaluating trends isn’t easy. Things that seem obviously true may look completely different when you look at them in a different time frame, or on a larger geographic scale. Your museum’s financials may look terrible in a 3 month snapshot—but you know that’s because summer is your slow season. Year to year comparison may show you are growing and thriving.

So how do you spot fallacies of scale when dealing with a system (like your community, or the whole world) that you don’t know as intimately as you know your own organization?

Real World Example. I bet you’ve heard of Colony Collapse Disorder—the dramatic decline in the world’s honeybee population. (Heck, I even worked CCD into my personal storyline in the massive multi-player online forecasting game Superstruct a couple years back.) Take your best guess on the cause (over use of pesticides, habitat destruction, general environmental stress) but we all know we face a critical dearth of pollinators, right?

Maybe not.

This post on WorldChanging Bright Green profiles a paper that elegantly illustrates the challenge of finding the proper scale for analyzing and assessing a trend like the decline of pollinators (while scaring the pants off me). The good news? There’s no evidence that there is a world-wide dearth of pollinators. We are seeing local death of domestic colonies, and even extinction of some native species, but somehow, so far, some busy bees (or flies, or whatever) are winging in to pick up the slack. This is evidenced by the fact that the yield of insect-pollinated crops has not declined over time. But deeper analysis shows that in the long term we may face an even scarier real collapse, as our collective appetite for luxury crops like coffee and chocolate (mea culpa on both counts) creates a world economy that causes a global pollination crisis. “Bee scarcity” concludes Nathanael Johnson, the report’s author, “is an economic problem caused by economic forces.”

Next time you contemplate a trend you think you understand, ask yourself:
  • what scale (geographic/temporal) have you used to look at the trend?
  • what data supports your analysis, and is there better data you could look for?
  • what basic assumptions prop up your conclusions, and are they open to question?
No one ever said forecasting was easy…now hand me my crystal ball.

Monday, June 7, 2010

What is Innovation Anyway?

One of the goals AAM set for CFM is to “foster innovation.” Why? Because innovation is to museums’ survival what genetic variation is to evolution—a source of novelty, producing structures or strategies that succeed better than the old ways, and might thrive under new circumstances. So while AAM encourages adherence to standards and best practices on one hand, it recognizes the need for some museums to be wildcards, trying new things that may not fit into the standards (and may even contravene them) in order for the field to evolve.

But what is innovation anyway? It turns out to be amazingly slippery to pin down. One museum’s innovation (“hey, it’s new for us!”) may provoke a yawn from colleagues (“we’ve been doing that for yeeeears!”) Slover-Linett partners polled readers about the nature of innovation on the CultureQ section of their blog, and concluded “It’s not just any change or newness, nor the everyday, incremental evolution of methods and approaches that all fields experience.”

The Johns Hopkins Listening Post Project* while recently explored innovation among American nonprofits (including museums), specified that “’An 'innovative' program or service is a new or different way to address a societal problem or pursue a charitable mission that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than prevailing approaches."

I think that is a pretty mild definition. (Though I love that they bring in ‘justice’ as a criteria for improved mission delivery.) Even so, while the vast majority of organizations in the LP study reported implementing an innovative program or service within the past five years, museums were less likely than other nonprofit organizations in the survey to introduce innovations (68% vs. 82%). Hmmm…are museums inherently more conservative than other types of nonpos represented in the LP project? The responding museums reported the most important barriers to innovation to be a lack of staff time (89%), a lack of funding (87%), and a lack of necessary technology (78%). But surely our colleagues in theatre, orchestras, social services etc. aren’t rolling in resources we don’t have…You can read the full LP communiqué on innovation here.

Personally, my current favorite definition of innovation is from from EmcArts: They say organizational innovations are instances of organizational change that:
1. result from a shift in underlying organizational assumptions
2. are discontinuous from previous practice
3. provide new pathways to fulfilling the mission

This definition shows very well how innovation ties to forecasting and future studies—by emphasizing the need to question assumptions, contemplate disruptive change (not just a future resulting from “business as usual”) and actively seek a way to reach a preferred future.

With that in mind, please share examples of innovative museum practice at your organization or others. What have you seen recently that is truly new under the sun?

*n.b. Museums interested in becoming participants in the Listening Post Project should visit the project website or contact Phil Katz at

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Can Bingo (and Museums) Appeal to All?

Last week, at its annual meeting in Los Angeles, AAM released Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museumsthe latest forecasting report from CFM. In the next four decades, America will become a majority-minority nation, while 90% of the core visitors to museums are non-Latino whites. The report explores how museums can diversify their audiences, and staff, to create a future in which museums' users reflect their communities.

This week’s guest post, commenting on the report, is contributed by Dr. James M Bradburne, Director of the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, Italy.

Dear Elizabeth

Thank you for your paper on the changing demographics of the US museum scene - an excellent piece of work!

I am, however, a little troubled by what seems to me an underlying liberal (in the original, not the current American sense of the word) bias, in which we (and I include myself) often believe that if people don't agree with us, it is just that we haven't explained our position well enough. Why, for instance, should we assume that everyone should want to go to the museum? And why should we expect the demographic of museum participation to mirror the population at large? This is a political objective, but not necessarily a realistic or legitimate one. It was the explicit goal of the Centre Pompidou, and it has at least so far failed to be realised.

I imagine the following letter:

Dear CFM;

As president of the International Bingo Organised Konfederacy (‘I be OK’), American chapter, I would like to applaud you on your excellent research on the demographics of museum participation, and in particular, on highlighting the worrying fact that the profile of museum users is strikingly at odds with that of the community at large.

Based on your model, I was encouraged to apply a similar logic to our research on participation in Sunday bingo – a widely practiced form of recreational mathematics. Unlike museums, we enjoy a widespread popularity, and our ‘players’ ethnic and educational backgrounds largely match the composition of the communities in which our ‘parlours’ are a part.

One troubling exception, however, is the startling absence of certain segments of the demographic, especially those in higher socio-economic groups and those with higher education, and in particular educated women aged 30-40. We are concerned that this may reveal unseen obstacles to their participation – a 'glass ceiling' – as it seems impossible that this sector of the population should shun popular mathematics – an undeniably pleasurable and beneficial form of informal learning. Inspired by your activism, and by your conviction that once the obstacles have been removed, and when everyone understands the importance of what we have to offer, the profile of our users will perfectly match that of our community, we are taking important steps to enhance the inclusion of these groups, and petitioning both private and public funders to support our laudable initiatives, aimed at ‘bingo for all’.

Yours in liberalism,

Surely we want to eliminate as much as possible the visible and invisible barriers to participation. But once we have, must we then assume that everyone will want to participate? Like the good liberal, must we continue to believe that once we have explained ourselves clearly, everyone must agree? I would argue that this is not the case - even if the gates of Paradise are open to everyone, some will not want to enter, and those who do may not match the demographic profile of Fallen humanity. Bernard Shaw famously said “do not unto others as you would they do unto you – their tastes may not be the same.”

Maybe I'm just feeling grumpy, and you know that I am the first to champion this sort of thing, and it seems right that we should focus on making our institutions open to all, to removing any possible barriers to participation, to making them inclusive in the best sense of the word. But I think we also have to accept that however much we try, and however attractive our museums, there will always be those who actually just don't want that sort of thing. And in the end, that's OK.



Dr James M Bradburne
Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi
Piazza Strozzi
50123 Firenze, Italia
+39 055 277 6461