Thursday, March 31, 2011

Help Choose the Next CFM Lecturer!

When I gave you an early peek of CFM’s plans for the year, I dropped a hint about the topic of the 2011 CFM lecture. Now I will spill the beans. We are going to address museums and…food!

“Wait,” you may say. “Gaming (Dr. Jane McGonigal) I kinda got. Demographic change (Gregory Rodriguez), sure thing. But what does food have to do with museums?”


Food is a big issue for many of our communities, whether it is fighting obesity, making healthy food accessible and affordable, or working to create a sustainable food system. So, museums have an important role in promoting “food literacy.” We can help our communities explore collective values about food, our bodies, our environment and society; and how we can deliver key messages through exhibits, programs and partnerships.

Also, many museums feed their visitors. The choices we make about the food we provide in our facilities embody our values and send a powerful message to our audiences. How to our choices about the food we provide align with health, nutrition and sustainability?

And food is a connector. We are grappling with the challenge of reaching diverse audiences museums have not traditionally served. Food can play a key role in fostering relationships, building new audiences, and (tada!) creating financial sustainability for the museum. (Cue great excuse to watch video of the Kogi Taco Truck at the Japanese American National Museum.)

So we need your help finding a witty, engaging, thoughtful speaker from the food world to lob some provocative ideas at museums about how we engage with food and food issues. Could be a chef or restaurateur, could be a policy wonk or activist. Has to be passionate and articulate. (Jane and Gregory set a high bar, didn’t they?) Preferably someone who hasn’t already made several laps around the museum conference circuit—we’d like to offer a platform to a relatively fresh voice.

Two candidates who have been mention are:
  • Mark Bittman, NYT food and food policy columnist and author (How to Cook Everything).
  • Dan Barber, food sustainability activist, chef and owner of several restaurants, including Blue Hill at the nonprofit Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.
This is your lecture, guys. As in past years, the live lecture will be delivered to small audience (in this case, in Pittsburgh, at the Phipps Conservatory and Garden, on Thursday Oct. 13, as part of a bigger symposium on museums, food and community. More on that soon.) But the primary audience will be invited to tune into a broadcast version via the web. So weigh in on who you want to hear! You can use the poll below to register your preference for Bittman v. Barber (foodie smack down!) But please, use the comment section to suggest other names! (And do let me know if you know them personally. Connections are always good!)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Museums & the Spectrum of Control: Part I

This week’s guest post is by Barbara Stauffer, chief of temporary exhibitions at the National Museum of Natural History. This is the first in a series of posts exploring how museums are adapting to people’s desire to contribute, share, manipulate and interpret museum content, in addition to being consumers of (fill in the blank…art, science, history.) We talk about this trend under the heading “MyCulture” in “Museums & Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures” and have begun to get some non-museum bloggers to share their experiences about interacting with museums and their collections in ways that go beyond the standard museum visit. Barbara kicks off this conversation by telling us about her experience gently nudging the culture of NMNH to accommodate public participation in the creation of an exhibit.

Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef, on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History through April 24, 2011.

Photo: Don Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution
In many ways, the Institute for Figuring’s Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef project was a natural for the National Museum of Natural History. How better to fulfill our mission of “inspiring an appreciation of the natural world and our place in it” than to display these amazing community creations that, when assembled, resembled healthy reefs teeming with color and diversity, bleached reefs in shades of white and gray, and even “toxic” reefs of recycled plastic? But, the Office of Exhibits had never done anything like this before. Would we be able to pull it off?

We knew it would take some time to convince the rest of the Museum of the value of this project. After all, we’re an institution more accustomed to evaluating projects based strictly on scientific merit rather than on artistic value and ability to inspire. Fortunately Nancy Knowlton, Sant Chair for Marine Science, successfully championed the project to her colleagues.

We also wanted to be sure our visitors would understand the exhibition in the context of our Museum, while allowing the installation to speak for itself. Jane Milosch, a curator of craft at the Smithsonian, expertly helped us integrate messages important to the Museum—the biology and conservation of coral reefs—without detracting from the visual and emotional impact of the pieces.

One of the greatest strengths of the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef project is the community component, where community members crochet their own reefs for display locally. We wanted to do the same, but this required funding to hire someone to run workshops and coordinate submissions. Fortunately, we received great support from the Quiksilver Foundation, the Embassy of Australia, and the Coral Reef Alliance. Their sponsorship allowed us to bring on Jennifer Lindsay, who spent six intense months assembling volunteers to create the Smithsonian Community Reef.

We learned quickly that the needs of a community project often run counter to the long-term planning, security, and approval needs of a large federal institution. We weren’t accustomed to designing an exhibition without knowing well ahead of time exactly what we were going to display. Nor were we sure at first that we’d receive any submissions at all! In addition, as a science organization, we had to manage questions and concerns from within the Museum about the accuracy and scientific grounding of the project. Explaining that the installation was designed to be evocative and interpretive rather than literal, I sometimes felt like I was speaking another language.

With the dedication, organizational skills, and diplomacy of Jennifer, as well as Meg Rivers and Catherine Sutera, who coordinated the installation and the programming, we were able to pull it off. Through, (a fiber arts site), a weekly newletter, and countless workshops held at yarn shops, on the Mall and at the Museum, Jennifer created an incredibly strong community of participants, many of whom continue to be involved with programming at the Museum. Meg managed to navigate our many layers of fire and safety, ADA, script, and other reviews by providing boundaries–like pre-designated platform, panel and case sizes–while allowing for the flexibility needed to respond to last-minute changes inspirations, and hiccups at the end. And Catherine worked closely with our curators, community members, and a dedicated group of participants from our Botany Department to develop educational carts that help explain the relationship of the crochet to the science and actually include scientifically accurate crocheted specimens.

And, was it worth it? Absolutely!

The community response was overwhelming—over 800 participants from around the globe contributed 4,000 pieces to the Smithsonian Community Reef. I still laugh at my early concern that we wouldn’t have enough submissions to fill the 10 by 16 foot platform we had designated for the community portion of the exhibit. Our audience’s response has been positive as well. Preliminary results from a visitor survey show the exhibition has been one of the top rated Smithsonian shows in the last seven years. And, the Natural History Museum community now better understands and embraces the power of innovative, interdisciplinary and participatory exhibitions.

Created from the five words that 125 interviewees wrote down in February 2011 to best describe their experience of the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef display at the National Museum of Natural History.

There will never be another Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef, but I look forward to taking some of the lessons we learned about engaging a community and visitors with art and carrying those over into future exhibitions and programming.

Has your museum invited the public to help create exhibit content? Did require mind shifts in institutional culture and tradition, and if so, how did you navigate the shoals of change? Please write in to share your experiences.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Art of Learning Science

Some people learn math by drawing pictures, or crocheting reef creatures or building model bridges.

Some people are drawn into art by their appreciation of geometry, or taxonomy or historic costuming.

Point is—sometimes the distinctions we draw between fields are barriers and hindrances. One thing museums do is serve as fertile fields for collisions between art, science, history, craft and myriad different “disciplines” each of which can be a path to the same end.

Maybe the future of education depends on just such cross-walking between fields, so that self-directed learners can pursue use their passion as an entry way into any field of endeavor.

I’m happy to have been drafted to help with an exploration of how museums tackle such cross-disciplinary learning, and I hope you will join me at

The Art of Science Learning Conference 2011

Being held April 6–7, at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

This conference is one of three being held in the coming year, as part of “The Art of Science Learning: Shaping the 21st-Century Workforce,” a National Science Foundation-funded initiative that explores how the arts can be engaged to strengthen science education and spark creativity in the 21st-Century American workforce.

The convening will bring together scientists, educators, teaching artists, business leaders and policymakers to showcase arts-based educational methodologies that develop collaborative, communicative and critical thinkers for the future STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) workforce; share the latest neuroscientific and educational research on the impact of arts-based learning on science education; and explore the connection between the arts, innovation and American economic competitiveness.

If you can’t make the D.C. conference, look for one to be held this spring at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago (May 16–17); and another at the University of California San Diego’ s CalIT2 (June 14–15).

Modeling best behavior for conference of the future, these convenings won’t just be a bunch of folks exchanging information. They will do real work: groups formed at the conferences will go on to develop an online knowledge base for science educators working in all forums and media; a research agenda for future quantitative impact studies; and a workforce development report with actionable public and private sector policy recommendations.

We’ve directed the conference organizers to a slew of art/science science/art programming and exhibits in museums, but I am sure there are tens times more we don’t know about yet. Please do comment on the blog with links we can share on cross-disciplinary education in museums!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Gearing up to Explore the Museum of Tomorrow

We are in full annual meeting prep mode here at AAM, getting ready to offer you a great experience in Houston. Since this year the whole meeting pretty much revolves around the future, CFM won’t be producing our usual “guide to the future at the annual meeting.” (This year that would be...the conference program!) However, we will be spotlighting sessions we think will be of particular interest.

Here’s a few suggestions for what to pencil in on your dance card for a full futurist experience:
  • Register for a crash course in Museum Future Studies 101 in the CFM workshop being offered on Sunday, May 22. Learn the basics of scanning, forecasting and scenario development, and work with fellow attendees to envision some dark, and bright, futures. Last year people were trying to wheedle their way into the invitation-only version sponsored by CAM. This year it is open to all—jump on the opportunity while there is still room!
  • Join futurist Peter Bishop in probing how museums can help their communities envision the future (The Future of the Museum is the Future, Tuesday May 23, 9 a.m.)
  • Question three directors who have used CFM forecasting reports. (“Practical Futurism: Integrating Forecasting into your Planning,” Tuesday, May 24 at 9 a.m.)
Throughout the meeting join us in MuseumExpo to try out a museum tarot deck at the “Ask a Futurist” booth (staffed by the University of Houston Futures Studies Program) and contribute your thoughts on the future of natural history museums, provoked by an installation by artist Tracy Hicks.

And for those of you who can’t attend, we will be tweeting, blogging and (I hope) posting videos to share glimpses of the Museum of Tomorrow.

Looking forward to seeing you in the near future!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Trends in Tax Exempt Status

I’ve written about the trend for cities to establish PILOTs (Payments in Lieu of Taxes) for nonprofit organizations. These payments (nominally voluntary) can be seen as a civilized way for museums to be good neighbors, supporting their community in economically troubled times. However, PILOTs may set the stage for a more formal erosion of tax exempt status. Unfortunately, many such examples are cropping up. Here are a few scanning hits that I hope don’t presage such a trend:

In Rhode Island

Newly elected Governor Chafee has just
proposed a 6% sales tax on all tickets to performances and exhibitions, including those sold by museums, historical sites, zoos, parks, art galleries and libraries. It would also institute a 1% sales tax on items sold to charitable, educational or religious organizations. (Including, of course, museums.)

In Vermont

At the end of last year’s legislative session, lawmakers
introduced a provision in state’s Miscellaneous Tax Bill that created a new 6 percent sales tax on all performances for non-profit groups that take in more than $50,000 in ticket sales annually. It’s set to go into effect on April 1. This could be seen as a values statement about nonprofits as much as a fiscal decision, as the new tax will only raise about $650,000 this year (less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the general budget).

In Louisiana

report commissioned from the nonprofit government issues firm BGR reviewed nonprofit property tax exemptions in Orleans Parish. The report concluded that eliminating the exemption would significantly increase government revenues or (in a revenue-neutral scenario) at least reduce overall property tax rates. It notes “there are some compelling arguments for eliminating the nonprofit exemption altogether and making property taxes a cost of doing business.” BGR presents recommendations for a new framework for non-profit property tax exemptions, including requiring a nonprofit benefiting from an exemption to demonstrate it “relieves the government of a burden or provides important public benefits.” Can museums demonstrate they are performing a function that government would otherwise need to take on? Hmmm. Probably not. So that leaves us arguing over what constitutes “important public benefits.” In this political climate, I don’t feel too sanguine about the outcome of that debate.

And the “public benefits” provision in the BGR report is a troubling echo of the
Boston PILOT report which proposed charging nonprofits for the city services they receive, backing out the monetized value of the benefits the nonprofit provides to the city. How do we place a dollar value on the educational and social experiences we provide our communities, not to mention our roles as preservers of cultural, artistic, and scientific heritage? (That’s a serious question—I would love you to send examples of researchers or organizations attempting to do so.)

And perhaps these proposals point out the strategic downside of touting museums as economic drivers. It may become too easy to seize on that number (a museum’s putative contribution to tourism and local sales) as the quantified “benefit” factored into the tax debate.

Please write in to share news you spot that gives early hints on possible futures of nonprofit status. What actions can we, as a field and as individual organizations, take to stave off a future in which nonprofit museums are no longer tax-exempt?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Free Webinar on Forecasting the Future of Vulnerable Populations

I blogged a couple of months ago about a wonderful set of scenarios commissioned by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on the future of vulnerable populations. Now the RWJ is offering a free webinar to enable readers to explore these potential futures.

Besides being great examples of how to write compelling stories of the future, these scenarios about vulnerable populations are directly relevant to the communities we serve. Americans are contending with the steepest unemployment rates since the 1960s. A Rockefeller Foundation study estimated that in 2009, 20% of households lost 25 percent or more of their income.

As the RWJ Foundation observes, "with vulnerable populations facing such challenging circumstances, we need to think about the forces today that will shape the future of vulnerability tomorrow. What will vulnerability in America look like in 2030? How will key economic, policy, social, enironmental and other factors evolve over the next two decades? Can we envision the different ways in which the future might unfold, and the kind of actions we might take today that could most effectively improve the health and well being of vulnerable people across a variety of different future conditions?"

Speakers will be Jane Lowe,Team Director for the Vulnerable Populations Portfolio, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; Clement Bezold, Founder and Chairman, Institute for Alternative Futures; and Ron Haskins, Co-Director, Center for Children and Families, Brookings Institution. Participants will explore the scenarios (expected, bright and dark futures) and engage in Q&A with the speakers.

The webinar is being offered twice--on March 22 and April 12, 2011. Registration is free, but limited, so jump in soon. After I attend the March 22 session, I will report back, and solicit your input on what this mean for our museums and their communities. Hope to "see" you at the webinar!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Twebevent Wrap Up

Late last month, we ran the first of what will (hopefully) be many twebevents. With Cecilia Garibay and Lisa Sasaki joining Elizabeth Merritt and Phil Katz, we spent an hour on Twitter sharing information about demographics and museums, how to gain a diverse audience and staff; and ultimately shared links to information out on the Web.

This was my first time working in this format and I found it fascinating. It included all the things you find in a regular chatroom, but with all the constraints of Twitter. Having only 140 characters (less obviously once you start using hashtags) makes for some very sharp thinking. How do you express a big thought in a simple and clear manner? Want to see how successful we were? Check out the transcript of the tweets here.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the best parts of this event were the links that we shared. Here is a brief rundown on some of them. Check it out and let us know your thoughts. Also, we are interested in doing more of these in the future, so let us know what topics you're interested in discussing. Perhaps you could be a panelist!
- Guzel duChateau, CFM Coordinator and AAM New Media Specialist.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Some Great Museums Ready to Move

How can we make sure museums are recognized for all the good things they do for their communities? Kudos from the White House would be one great thing, wouldn’t it?

That’s why AAM is partnering with ACM and APGA to launch a “Let’s Move Museums, Let’s Move Gardens” campaign as part of the Obama administration’s anti-obesity initiative. What a great way to share what museums are doing to educate their audiences about food and nutrition, access safe and healthy food, and encourage activity! And it will help museums inspire their colleagues with examples of what can be done in institutions of various types and sizes.

“Well,” (you may be thinking) “that’s fine for the public gardens; they are all about plants and being outdoors! It’s easy for them. And the Children’s Museums have been focused on kids’ health for a long time. What about the rest of us? What can an art museum do to fight obesity? Or a historic site?”

Lot’s! Here is just a small sampling of the diverse organizations I think are pre-adapted to be “Let’s Move” museums!

The Sojourner Truth Multicultural Art Museum runs “Hip Hop to Wellness,” addressing childhood obesity by involving the family in making healthy changes in diet and encouraging physical activities through activities such as the Oak Park Kids Run and Hip-Hop, African Dance and Salsa workshops.

The Detroit Institute of Arts partners with Sodexo on local implementation of its Feeding our Future program, providing free summer lunches for area school children who rely on free and reduced-price meals during the academic year.

The Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame & Museum has created a cardio workout exhibit designed to help Mississippi school kids win the battle against childhood obesity.

Jane Addams Hull-House Museum Heirloom Farm tackles access to healthy, affordable food and nutrition education through such projects as an outdoor exhibition, farm-to-school programs for local public schools, and food-focused museum tours and activities.

The Museum of Science, Boston, integrates education about obesity and health into its exhibits and programs, including the presentation “Body Talk: Obesity” and the Human Body Connection.

The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry touring exhibit “Every Body Eats” explores healthy food choices.

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s health programs include “You Are What You Eat” and “Macronutrients: Fads versus Fitness” delivered in classrooms or via distance learning, as well as the “Health on Wheels” outreach van.

The Virginia Museum of Natural History’s “Community Nature Initiative” provides family outdoor experiences and promoting healthy lifestyles.

What about your museum? Do you think you are ready to be a “Let’s Move” museum? Read more about what that involves and indicate your interest (no commitment required) by signing up here. Help us show the White House how many museums are ready to help their communities Move!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Andrew Masich is the director of the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, and a member of the AAM Accreditation Commission. Andy’s narrative illustrates the recent research by Reach Advisors, exploring how childhood memories influence attitudes towards museums and what kids choose to do when they grow up.

We would love to hear how your childhood experiences influenced your choice of career! For example, did you (like Ms. Silvia) create your own museum while you were growing up? Please share in the comments section, below, or send us a video of your memories!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Advocacy Day 2026

“’Lizbeth! You’re going to miss our Advocacy Day appointment!”

“Damn, is that now?! I thought we were down for 10:30.”

“We were…they just pinged us, pushing it up a half hour.”

“Of course they did. When will I learn?”

Dashing into the conference room I plunk myself down next to Manuela just as the table beeped softly and the air screen shimmered into view. “CONNECTING” it flashes, displaying the head shot and bio of our contact at the Senator’s office, just as the intern herself resolved on the screen, looking slightly harried.

“Hello! I’m Senator Prajeet’s aid, Melodie Alexander.”

“Hello Melodie! I’m Elizabeth Merritt, director of the Museum of the Future, and this is the museum’s community liaison, Manuela Rodriguez. Thank you for making time to see us today!”

“My pleasure. I apologize for being a little rushed, but we have an important vote coming up on the Life-Long Learning bill in just a little while. How can I help you?”

“We’re participating in the 18th annual Museum Advocacy Day. I appreciate that you’re very busy. The Triple L bill is very important to museums, so we don’t want to keep you.” I touch the files Manuela has queued up at the side of the airscreen and drag them over Melodie’s desk. “Here are briefing sheets on our three major issues this year.” Manuela smoothly takes over, walking Melodie through our well-practiced summary, making sure to pull out and display photos of the Senator attending the museum’s opening ceremony last year, and of teens from the Senator’s favorite local project, the Real World Science Academy, working in our labs with visiting scientists. I surreptitiously glance at the time display in corner of the screen, noting we’ve almost used up the traditional 3 minute time block.

And indeed, I can see Melodie’s gaze straying to the seemingly blank space in front of her that holds her screen’s display. “We’d like to ask the Senator to sign the “Dear Colleague” letter Manuela showed you, Melodie.” I chime in. “Can you give us a read on whether she will do that?” Political interns become adept very quickly at avoiding commitments their reps don’t want to make, and Melodie is no exception. “I’ll make sure she sees it,” she says brightly. “I think she’d be interested on those statistics you mentioned about employment rates of participants in your passion-based learning program. Can you provide details?” “Sure thing, we’ll send those right along. And please tell the Senator we’d would be very happy to have her visit the museum to see the program for herself.” “Thank you so much for the invitation!”

After a closing flurry of pleasantries Melodie fades from view and the screen disappears. “I thought that went pretty well,” Manuela says, tentatively. “Not bad at all!” I enthuse. “You did a great job of presenting the issues.” She beams, “Thanks! Reading the new edition of Speak Up for Museums really helped. It has a lot of advice on virtual advocacy that helped me put together the presentation.” “Your comment about the Senator’s pledging her support for that other teen learning program was brilliant. How did you know that?” Manuela blushes. “I took a tip from the book and reviewed the public video archive of recent advocacy visits from other cultural institutions in our town, and stumbled across that. It was a little creepy to think we were going to be recorded…but might as well make use of it!”

[Fade Scene]

What indicators suggest a future in which most advocacy is conducted virtually, rather than face to face?

The current system, as this past Tuesday brought home to me, reflects the 18th century, agricultural, pre-technology country we were when Congress first convened. When not many people (relatively speaking) trekked to the Capitol for a face-to-face with their representative, because, in part, in 1790
  • travel was a lot more difficult. It would have taken several weeks to ride from Georgia to New York, the capital at the time. Today you can fly direct from Atlanta to DC in about an hour.
  • there were limited other opportunities for face time, our representative pretty much being in residence for the duration of a session, rather than jetting home for weekly time in their home districts.
  • There were 30,000 citizens for each representative, compared to 710, 767 per representative today.
But things just puttered along for a couple centuries, trending to the “expected future” that is now, as the system that channels constituent/representative visits swelled to accommodate hugely more people.

This can’t work forever. Even if the current trends, in population, costs of travel, and incremental tightening of security continuing at the same rate and speed would make the system eventually unsupportable. And the system is very vulnerable to disruptive events, particularly security breaches. I’ve reluctantly concluded I will never again be able to breeze into the airport a half hour before my flight, with the soymilk I brought from home. Constituent visits could experience the same shift.

The recent assault on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords has already raised awareness of the vulnerability of politicians at traditional local appearances. Another such incident could tip the balance, making informal public appearances in the community by senators and congressional representatives rare and costly. Similar events could erode the so-far stubborn resolve of Congress to be relatively accessible, by Washington standards. To get into the Hart Senate building for my real Advocacy Day visit last Tuesday I just had to go through the inevitable scanner (which I flunked the first time around, because I was wearing a big chunk of jewelry.) But I didn’t have to provide my personal information ahead of time, to enable a security screen, and no one checked to make sure I had an appointment. What happens if (when?) some deranged constituent seriously injures a representative or staffer in the office buildings?

The flood of invitations, complimentary publications, fact sheets and testimonials flooding a Congressperson are already going virtual. One of the questions at the Monday training sessions for Advocacy Day was “what’s the best way to send information and materials to my representative?” Since the anthrax attacks of 2001 all the mail going into the congressional offices are irradiated, rendering them nicely brown and crispy. So, our trainer advised, the best thing to do is to send your spiffy documents as electronic attachments.

The scenario I sketch above is a tiny bit futuristic, technologically, but there’s nothing to keep virtual visits from happening right now. And virtual conferencing will only become cheaper, more available and higher quality as time goes on. (I don’t think I will have to wait 25 years for my airscreen!) And if, as Manuela discovers, virtual visits are recorded and archived in a searchable, database, it will provide a level of transparency and accountability that Wikileaks can only dream of.

Stay tuned for Advocacy Day 2026 part two, where I give you a peek of what the issues briefing sheets in this future may be about…

If you want to experience an old-fashioned press-the-flesh Advocacy Day before it becomes a thing of the past, plan to join us in 2012. And you can order the first edition of Speak Up For Museums (newly released!) here.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

An Idea for New Income and New Engagement: give your collections to as many people as possible

Got your attention with that headline, didn’t I? Calm down, I’m not talking about deaccessioning. I’m talking replication and teleportation of collections objects.

Everyone has their own fav future tech. Phil's is jetpacks:

Mine is 3-D printers (which are the functional equivalent of teleportation devices.) Both actually already exist. Question is: when (if ever) will they become practical, affordable and ubiquitous? And then, how can museums exploit the heck out of them?

I think my favorite is going to beat Phil’s to the punch. Personal jetpacks still cost about $100,000. And they can kill you. 3-D printers are rapidly becoming affordable and versatile. Originally they mostly “printed” (read, extruded) their copies from plastic. Recently someone created a 3-D printer that creates objects from titanium! Which is much more practical than plastic if you are making, for example, machine tools.

Of course, these printers will really take off when some engineer rigs them to print in food. Think about what you could recreate in marzipan, in stunning detail! Awesome. After all, Microplane graters started as woodworking tools, but their market exploded after they were discovered by home cooks. (Somewhat to the chagrin of the company’s founder, who thinks grating cheese is a pretty wuss use for a “serious” tool.)

And 3-D printers really are starting to be affordable—in the range of other ubiquitous electronic devices such as laptops or microwave ovens. The NYT recently ran a review of 3-D printers ranging from $700 to $3,000. Mostly these are still hobbyist kits (much assembly required) but I bet they make the leap to off-the-shelf printing ready real soon.

Museums are already starting to make specialized use of 3-D printers. For example, conservators at the Singer Laren Museum in Holland recently restored a damaged Rodin by CT scanning the original cast and comparing it to a full-scale 3-D printout of the damaged statue.

But I think the potential for these gadgets goes far, far beyond making exhibit models and guiding conservation. Here’s my idea o' the week, which I freely give to you: sell 3-D printers in your museum store (as cheap as you can). Sell kits, for now, and hold workshops to help people assemble them. Then scan some of your most interesting objects and specimens, and post specs on your website once a month so people can fabricate the model of something from your collections. Or establish a benefit at that gives members access to the museum’s digital collections templates. Invite visitors to vote on which favorite object to digitize next! The possibilities are endless.

Let me know if you try this out. I promise I won’t come after you for royalties. And post to comments, below, to share whether, and how, your museum is experimenting with this new technology.