Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Starting a Museum: Advice from the Trenches

Today’s guest post is by Liz Williams, president of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans (SoFAB). SoFAB “celebrates, interprets, investigates, entertains and preserves”—and in this museum, preservation means jam as well as conservation! Because I get so many questions about starting, and funding, future museums, I invited Liz to share her experiences and advice.

I have had the pleasure of being involved in the opening of three museums, the D-Day Museum (now the National World War II Museum), the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and, most recently, the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. The first two museums opened while I was at the University of New Orleans Foundation—they were great on-the-job training in opening a museum. I was fortunate that, as projects of a state university, these museums had the power of the state of Louisiana behind them, as well as large staffs of talented and interested people working on the start-ups.

In 2004, armed with the knowledge I acquired from these two projects, but without the power of the state, I joined with two other New Orleanians to open a food museum. We were not typical “blog and photo” foodies. We were interested in exploring cultural, historical and other aspects of food, drink and eating. I was the one most motivated and able to spend time working on the project. One of my partners was experienced in design and internet, the other in politics and advocacy. None of us was the “angel” investor that so many projects seek.

Although opening this museum proved very different from opening a state-sponsored institution, I found that the basic principles were the same: establish a well-articulated, focused mission; decide whether and what to collect and exhibit; define a target visitorship; establish a point of view; create a budget; create a fundraising plan; identify volunteers and supporters; create a timeline. And identify the leader—although creating a museum cannot be done alone, it cannot be done by committee either. Someone has to be the point person, and willing to carry the load.

Opening a museum about food presented unique problems, the most important of which was that no one knew what a food museum might look like! There aren’t enough of them to make it easy to explain or to find a parallel reference. So in 2004 we began by mounting exhibits in borrowed space that illustrated the idea of a food museum, while we kept planning and started to raise funds.

We began by concentrating on small gifts, going to restaurants and bars in town and asking for small, $500 donations. There were occasional larger windfalls. Through the work of volunteers we created a logo and a website and began to look as though we existed—though we had no slick marketing materials. With a solicitation packet tweaked for each “ask,” we began to collect checks. Having already received 501(c)(3) status from the IRS gave us the advantage of tax deductibility, and the ability to spotlight those who supported us. Our pot began to grow.

Though we hoped to eventually obtain grants from traditional funders, we also knew that that would not happen until we were actually open. Many funders, such as the Institute for Museum and Library Services, require a museum to be open and operating for two years before they will consider funding you. In the interim, we planned to sustain ourselves by creating a board that would make personal donations, and through the revenue of the gift shop and entrance fees.

We experienced a number of false starts and setbacks, notably the flooding after Hurricane Katrina. Finally we realized that if we waited until everything was perfect—enough money, perfect artifacts, and the perfect location —what had at first seemed like a good idea would become an idle promise. So we opened our first small permanent space in June, 2008, with the idea that we would remain stable financially and grow gradually. We wanted our museum to be a gem, but accepted that it might be a small jewel, for now! Now we have been growing for 3 years, and have an annual operating budget of around $250,000 with 4 paid staff (director, business manager/shop manager, editor and operations manager). We have a full-time VISTA volunteer, many serious interns who work full time on various projects, and we bring in guest curators, accountants, and others as needed. Our space is about 14,000 square feet (1,000 SF museum store, 9,000 SF exhibit space, the rest “back of the house”—prep space, offices and storage).

We have been creative in ways that only arose from financial necessity, but perhaps are better than more conventional solutions. We have avoided museum cabinetry in favor of furniture, which is cheaper, and solicited cast-off cabinets from two of the established museums in town. We have found the exact same display supports—such as manikins- in store supply catalogs for much less than in museum supply catalogs. And we have learned that paint can create a harmony when furniture is mismatched and otherwise unrelated. An ethic of thrift permeates the staff: often we call to alert each other to opportunities: “There’s an old refrigerator on the side of the road. Do we want it? I’ll guard it until you get here.”

When we opened the galleries seemed a bit empty. Since then we’ve acquired a 32 foot mid-nineteenth century bar, a collection of 12,500 beer bottles, many large signs, equipment and artifacts—far beyond what we imagined when we first began dreaming. We haven’t yet organized ourselves to have exhibits scheduled out into the future. That is a dream for later. Right now we just work a few months ahead. But we do program a demonstration or tasting every Saturday.

What is my advice to anyone who wants to start a museum? Have a focused mission. Start small. And work hard, smart and with imagination. Although it’s not about the money, it is about the money. Trying to find the balance between opportunism, begging and integrity is the most difficult part of creating a great museum. That applies no matter how big you become.

All you museum founders out there, or staff of new museums—particularly small museums—what is your advice to people intending to start future museums? Please use the comment section below to share your best advice.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

When Trends Collide: The New Gilded Age Meets the Rise of the Amateur Expert

Museums have long struggled to resist pressure from wealthy donors or sponsors who want to call the shots. How might this play out in a future in which museums loosen their grip on curatorial authority and actively encourage participation in content creation?

Earlier this week, Erik Ledbetter blogged about the possibility that we are entering a New Gilded Age—an era in which museums are funded (or not funded) by the richest 1% of Americans who control as much wealth as the bottom 90% combined. CFM’s Museums & Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures identified the increasing disparity in the distribution of U.S. wealth as a trend that will have big impact on museums in coming decades. Another trend discussed in that report is the erosion of authority. We live in an age shaped by Wikipedia, when the content of the Web is available via search in an instant and anyone can contribute to this searchable content via their own blog or website. How will this affect the authority traditionally ceded to museums by their audience? Will we continue to be one of the most trusted sources of information, or only one source among many? And how can we respond to the desire, on the part of audiences, to be involved in shaping content?

Either of these trends could be disruptive in their own right. When you consider how they might interact to shape the future, things get downright scary. This was dramatized for me recently when, while travelling, I attended a lecture at a museum.

It was billed, innocuously enough, as a talk about the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a topic in which I am somewhat interested, having absorbed, second-hand an older brother’s infatuation with all things related to ancient Egypt. (Being a little unclear, at that age, on the timeline of history I remember mummifying several of my toy dinosaurs, complete with accompanying canopic jars.)

The lecture began with a very brief introduction—I missed hearing the speaker’s credentials, but assumed it was the usual academic hood waving. Further distraction ensued as some friends arrived late. As they settled in, I pricked up my ears as the speaker introduced some points that seemed a little unorthodox, based on my basic liberal-arts-plus-hefty-dose-of-science education (supplemented by childhood memories of fraternal lectures on Egyptology).

It started with a statement about the Sphinx—I’d never heard that it used to be a figure of Anubis, surrounded by a giant lake, but that sounded plausible. However, the speaker’s points became progressively stranger. Did any credible scholar really believe that the pharaoh Akhenaton (even given his religious unorthodoxy) was, in fact, Moses, and led the Jews out of slavery? Or that laser levels created from rubies were a crucial technology in the construction of the pyramids? Or that the reason mummies are rarely found in pyramids is that they had been teleported out (as replicated, apparently, with recent experiments on rabbits)? I was pretty darn sure that Ancient Egyptians didn’t really ingest precious metals to produce superconductors inside their bodies that conferred extended life and the ability to levitate the Ark of the Covenant.

By this time my friends and I were furiously pecking away at our mobile devices, trying to find sources for some of these bizarre pronouncements (which led us to some interesting and fringy websites). At last, we Googled the speaker himself to find that he was a very wealthy man, in fact a major donor to the museum.

That felt exceedingly awkward. Maybe I missed something in the museum staff’s introduction of the lecturer, but I don’t remember anyone mentioning the connection. I had presumed the speaker was invited based on his expertise and credentials. Did the other members of the audience go away thinking that his statements about lasers and superconductors and teleporting bunnies were endorsed by the museum? That the speaker was, in fact, a trusted source of information? And if they did catch the connection between the speaker and his status as a donor, how did that affect their opinion of the museum’s credibility?

For decades, museums have relied on systems of credentialing and rules of engagement to create firewalls against undue influence. Development of the current national museum standards regarding donor support were prompted by the 1999 "Sensation" exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum (which consisted entirely of works from Charles Saatchi’s private collection), and the attendant accusation that Saatchi wielded undue influence on the content of the exhibit, as well as benefiting personally from the resulting increase in value of the works that were exhibited. The systems and rules many museums erected to guard against such situations may have excluded many valid amateur experts, or discouraged forms of participation that would have won some hearts and minds. But these systems made it easier to say “no” to the subtle or not so subtle pressure from donors to let them call the shots in addition to paying the bills.

Maybe our standards will change over the coming decades, adapting to a new ethical, financial and cultural environment. How can we maintain appropriate boundaries once we admit that boundaries are inherently fluid? Museums are increasingly welcoming Citizen Scientists and Citizen Historians to participate in content creation. We are discussing the need for curators to be moderators, aggregators and mentors, in addition to being content experts. We are experimenting with participatory design, finding ways for people to help us shape the way we present exhibits and programs. There has already been copious debate about how to vet, filter, edit or validate such amateur content. It only gets harder if the amateur being vetted is, in effect, paying your salary.

How can a museum be fair and even-handed about welcoming amateur input, while applying appropriate standards and transparency? Are the wealthy exempt from this avenue of participation? And if not, how can museums ensure that they are not more equal than others? Your thoughts welcome…

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Museum Ethics in a Gilded Age

This week’s guest post by Erik Ledbetter, principal of Heritage Management Solutions and special adviser to the Forecasting the Future of Museum Ethics project currently underway in partnership with Seton Hall University’s Institute of Museum Ethics.

We are living in a new Gilded Age. Like the 1870s and 1880s before them, the 2000s and 2010s are marked by a vast increase in concentration of wealth and a yawning gap between the top one percent of society and the rest. In the September 2011 issue of The Atlantic, journalist Don Peck notes that as early as 2005
“the richest 1 percent of households earned as much each year as the bottom 60 percent put together; they possessed as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent; and with each passing year, a greater share of the nation’s treasure was flowing through their hands and into their pockets.”
Since then, the Great Recession has only accelerated the hollowing out of the American middle class. “Median incomes declined outright from 1999 to 2009,” Peck reminds us. “For most of the aughts, that trend was masked by the housing bubble, which allowed working-class and middle-class families to raise their standard of living despite income stagnation or downward job mobility. But that fig leaf has since blown away. And the recession has pressed hard on the broad center of American society.”
Source: Emmanuel Saez

The decline of the middle class and the reemergence of a true American plutocracy will have, I predict, some interesting consequences for museums. In an era when public budgets and private household wealth are both contracting, museums’ business models will be increasingly upset. For decades we have worked hard to diversify our funding sources. As the Great Recession grinds on, however, it is ratcheting down nearly all of our supposedly diverse income streams at once. Declining household wealth puts pressure on admissions and membership revenue; tight federal, state and municipal budgets crimp grant income.

Increasingly, the last remaining source of income growth for museums will be that special one percent—the plutocrats of our new Gilded Age. But are the new super-wealthy going to be interested in funding existing museums? History and present trends alike suggest not. In the first Gilded Age, the plutocracy preferred establishing its own museums to funding those which were already there. New institutions with names like Frick, Clay, Walters, Huntingdon, and Freer were founded right and left. We see the same behavior emerging today. After playing the art museums of Los Angeles off of one another in a bidding frenzy for his collection of modern art, Eli Broad fooled them all by electing to establish his own museum. Alice Walton is bringing the finest American art to come on the market in the last two decades to her new museum in Bentonville. Ron Lauder’s outstanding collection of German and Austrian expressionists can be seen not at the Met or MoMA, but at his own Neue Gallerie museum in New York.

Nor is this trend limited to art museums. In Ohio, an entrepreneur is building a new private railroad museum complete with a purpose-build roundhouse and turntable to house, restore, and display his collection of historic steam locomotives. When complete, his facility will be superior to the majority of public railroad museums in the country. Yet it is strictly a private venture, and the terms, if any, on which it will be accessible to the public remain unknown.

What does all this have to do with museum ethics? Not to put too fine a point on it, I suspect that as our existing museums vie for attention and funds for the new plutocracy, some of our current fussiness about curatorial independence will go discreetly overboard. Current AAM ethical guidance places a premium on maintaining an arm’s-length relationship between museums and donors to avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest. But how can an existing museum compete when the donor could as easily found her own museum, and become effectively curator in chief, director, and chair of the acquisitions committee all in one? Answer: it can’t—unless, that is, it is willing to give donors considerably more sway over acquisitions and exhibit decisions than they presently enjoy. The same goes for loans—our present guidance is designed to create a total firewall between the lender of an object and/or financial donor to the show and the museum staff working on the content. When a handful of individuals control both the collections and the economic resources museums will need to thrive, however, will such guidance come to seem mere needless pearl-clutching?

Museums thrived in the former Gilded Age, and they may yet thrive in this new one—but if so, it is likely to be by setting some of their nicer scruples to the side, and learning again how to give a plutocracy its droits du seignior.

What do you think? In the coming decades, will pragmatism trump principle when it comes to donor relations? Should it? Will selective pressure favor museums founded and funded by the new economic elite? Read the next post in this series for a real-world illustration of this conundrum.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Museums Shaping Cities

One crucial way museums can change the world is to help people in their communities improve their own environments. I want to spotlight a few notable examples that have crossed my radar recently.

The National Building Museum’s Intelligent Cities, developed in partnership with TIME and IBM and funded by The Rockefeller Foundation, explores “the intersection of information technology and urban design to understand where we are, where we want to be, and how to get there.” It prods people to think about the environment they live in, on a scale encompassing homes, cities, regions and the nation, posing questions such as “what do you like best about your neighborhood,” and “what makes a city a city?” Their current poll is on the issues of density, and you can answer it here. NBM hosted the Intelligent Cities Forum this past June and I am eagerly awaiting the release of the companion book this fall. The NBM’s award-winning CityVision program, now in its seventeenth year, uses design as a framework to teach District of Columbia public school students how to become active participants in shaping their communities. Operated in partnership with the D.C. Public Schools and Public Charter Schools, CityVision helps students identify needs and propose solutions designed to help local neighborhoods. Projects have resulted in design proposals for redevelopment of areas scarred by vacant homes and lots; rehabilitating an abandoned building as a community center; and an underwater library for the Anacostia River. (I particularly want to see that one come to fruition. Scuba librarians? That would rock.)

True to its operating style, the Guggenheim is going global with the process of crowdsourced civic input. The BMW Guggenheim Lab recently launched a mobile, pop-up site that will travel the world addressing issues of contemporary urban life through programs and public discourse. Its goal is to explore new ideas, experiment, and ultimately create forward-thinking solutions for city life. The current version offers the Urbanology Game, (in which visitors role play scenarios for city transformation), and free events such as lectures, walking tours and facilitated discussions. You can visit the Lab in NYC, on Houston Street, until Oct. 16, when it pulls up stakes and moves on to Berlin and then Mumbai. (Regular readers of this blog know I’m a fan of the mobile museums, and the Urban Curation Lab is the uber-pop up exhibit. Check out this video of the lab being assembled.

You can find more videos of the lab here.

Lest these examples imply that issues of city design can only be tackled on a international scale with huge projects, check out the Museum of Vancouver. MOV exemplifies museums of average resources helping their local communities with civic issues. The MOVments blog “explores the living history of Vancouver, examining contemporary concerns in relation to the past.” Museum staff and guest bloggers follow, share and comment on issues and news related to local civic life: architecture, transportation, homelessness, physical infrastructure, public art and the emotional relationship between Vancouverites and their home. MOV is also partnering with the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC) to launch a Built City @MOV lecture series, starting with a look at the Living Building Challenge. (Photosynthesis—nature’s own renewable energy source!)

I would love to beef up my portfolio of examples of museums helping tackle civic issues and city planning. If you know of projects fitting the bill, please use the comments section below to share!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Creating your own Arcadia: Where do you start?

I’m often asked, “What will be the financial model be for museums in the future?” That model may well combine the idealism and mission-driven focus of nonprofits with strategies adapted from the for-profit realm. This week’s guest post is from Diana Peacock, director of Community Wealth Ventures, a for-profit subsidiary of the nonprofit anti-hunger and anti-poverty organization Share Our Strength. CWV is a management consulting firm that helps nonprofits achieve their goals for growth, sustainability and impact through a variety of strategies including business model assessment, business planning, strategy implementation and social enterprise. I’ve invited Diana to share some ideas on how museums bolster their financial sustainability while magnifying their impact. Here is the first installment of her response.
When I learned about Arcadia Center for Food and Sustainable Agriculture—the partnership between Woodlawn and the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, my eyes lit up and my heart beat a little faster. You see, this partnership not only exemplifies the kind of Community Wealth that is at the core of my firm’s work, but also demonstrates how arts and culture institutions can make a tangible impact toward solving some of society’s most pressing challenges—a personal passion of mine! (More to come on that concept in a later post.)

Community Wealth is created as people from varied backgrounds share their strengths to advance worthy causes that lift up our communities. These strengths not only have the potential to generate monetary wealth and positive change in the world around us, but also to create relationships that yield new perspectives and enrich lives.

Historically, CWV’s work has focused on helping nonprofit organizations leverage their assets to help financially sustain their mission and deepen their impact on the community. This kind of Community Wealth can only occur where three essential elements intersect:
  1. the organization has unique assets upon which to build
  2. the product/service/venture fills a market need
  3. the organization has or can acquire the capacity to deliver
Herein lies the brilliance of the partnership that became Arcadia—it meets all three criteria, articulated most eloquently by Laurie Ossman, director of Woodlawn, in her original post about the partnership. 
“Rather than invest in a vision based on a stakeholder and staff-driven process and then see if anyone out there is interested, we can also start by identifying the needs and opportunities in the community, and determine what role we can play in fulfilling them. Then we can begin to reposition ourselves as multivalent resources, working with partners who have the talent, knowledge and resources to help us to reach new audiences—even when it falls outside our usual conception of ourselves.”
So while launching a farm is certainly not an appropriate strategy to generate Community Wealth for every museum or historic trust property, the example prompts me to ask the reader to ponder these three questions:
  • What are the needs and opportunities in your community? By meeting real needs, you can build new audiences and attract new resources.
  • What unique assets do you have that can help you meet those needs? Assets range from money, to facilities, to networks/relationships, to expertise, etc.
  • What internal capacity is needed to deliver on this idea? Consider the strengths can you bring to the venture and those you can acquire through partnership or other means.
Please the comments section below, to share your examples of new ways to positively impact your community while generating income and building audiences.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Who Oversees the Future? Introducing the Council

When the AAM board green-lighted the concept of CFM back in 2006, they took an important step in making sure this AAM skunkworks would operate in truly new ways, helping museums see things from a fresh perspective.

They handed over the reins to a bunch of folks who, for the most part, don’t work in museums: the CFM Council.

Councilors serve as:
  • Connectors. Helping CFM develop relationships with creative, innovative thinkers in other sectors, content-sharers, potential partners, and funders
  • Entrepreneurs. Helping staff generate and vet ideas for sustainable projects (ongoing or time-bounded)
  • Ambassadors. Making the case in their own circles of influence for museums and their potential to help society tackle important issues. Helping to bring museum representatives into forums, discussions, decision making where they may not have traditionally had a seat
In alignment with CFM’s mandate to be” outward looking, receptive and responsive to the needs of society,” the board decided this initiative should be guided by a group drawn from many different sectors. To this end, they directed staff to go forth and recruit Council members from the ranks of:
  • Systematic Thinkers (demographers, sociologists, futurists, theologians, innovators and academic researchers)
  • Creatives (artists, architects, novelists and essayists)
  • Philanthropists (foundations, donors and other cultural investors)
  • Civic Partners (business, religious, community and political leaders, senior legislative and executive officials and the media)
  • Allied Service Providers, (librarians, archivists and officers of government agencies involved in funding museums) 
  • Entertainment Providers (film, television, video game, sports and other entertainment industries)
  • Museum Professionals (representatives of the diverse disciplines and professional practices contained within the museum world)
While some of the people we’ve tried to recruit have still not returned our calls (*ahem,* Steve Martin, Oprah, I’m so disappointed in you) we have assembled an impressive, high powered and creative team. At the AAM annual meeting in Houston this spring, half of the founding Council rotated off—I’d like to introduce our current roster so you can get to know the men and women “behind the curtain” helping to direct CFM’s work (members of the founding Council are marked with *):
  • Day Al-Mohamed*, senior policy advisory, United States Department of Labor 
  • Peter Bishop*, associate professor of strategic foresight, University of Houston 
  • David Curry, managing principal, davidrcurryAssociates 
  • Jim Hackney, managing partner, Alexander Haas 
  • Carroll Joynes, executive director, Cultural Policy Center 
  • Angie Kim, director of programs and member services, Southern California Grantmakers 
  • Timothy Rub, George D. Widener Director and Chief Executive Officer, Philadelphia Museum of Art 
  • Nina Simon*, executive director, Museum of Art & History, Santa Cruz, Calif.
You can read more about the Councilors here.

This begs the question: why would someone with a perfectly good (not to mention all-consuming) day job care want to devote time and energy to angsting about the future of museums? I’ll let a few of our Council members address that first-hand.

“I think we’re in the nascent stages of a great transformation that will re-set what we expect out of our nonprofit institutions. While the Great Recession illuminates the stresses on cultural institutions, the decreasing role of government in providing social services, the increasing needs (and competition) of the nonprofit sector, and changing demographics (e.g., ethnically and generationally) indicate that institutions must work harder to anticipate the changes that are sure to come. I have been interested in how changing conditions may impact the philanthropic sector and am excited to focus on these questions for the museum field. Few nonprofit sectors have had the foresight to create a program, such as CFM, that specifically focuses on the future, surfacing the issues and questions that will help us plan today for tomorrow's opportunities and pressures.”—Angie Kim

“I think CFM’s vision returns the idea of the museum to its origins—a place of not just education and enlightenment, but also entertainment; a vibrant and exciting part of the community, not apart from the community. Through the fostering of innovation, CFM can ensure that museums serve not only as a curator, but a driver of the American cultural landscape and remind us that they are the descendants of P. T. Barnum's “Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome.”—Day al-Mohamed

"As museums are challenged from within to refine (and often re-invent) their missions and how those missions might be achieved, and from without to come to grips with demographic shifts, funding and sustainability, governance leadership and courage will make a crucial difference. I hope to translate my experience in nonprofit governance—both in the museum space and beyond—to help address such challenges and the important work of CFM overall."—David Curry
Please join me in welcoming our new Council members and thanking them for their work!

I’ve been asked several times, “how does someone get to be on the Council? Can I nominate myself?” Here’s what I tell them: if you are in the museum sector, the best way to line yourself up for a Council appointment is to help with the work of CFM. Come to our lectures and workshops or help create new opportunities to share our content. Introduce us to interesting and influential folk. Demonstrate you already are a Connector, an Entrepreneur, an Ambassador for CFM’s work. And if you know someone fascinating from outside the museum sector who would be a great addition to the Council, especially from sectors not yet representing in the Council’s ranks, please make an introduction! (I, personally, would love to meet Steve or Ms. O.)

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Big Food: Health, Culture and the Evolution of Eating

Ella Mitchell, an intern in AAM’s Government Relations and Advocacy department, reports on an innovative collaboration between the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, and CARE—Community Alliance for Research & Engagement and its relation to Let’s Move! Museums & Gardens. This post is part of a continuing series documenting how museums are helping to combat the trends of increasing childhood obesity and decreasing fitness, contributing to a healthier future.

Natural history museums tend to conjure up gargantuan images: a towering Stegosaurus, enormous slabs of petrified wood and half-ton meteorites. The Peabody Museum has all of these, and on its way is a more unusual giant: Big Food.

Next year, “Big Food: Health, Culture and the Evolution of Eating,” a collaboration between the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and CARE—Community Alliance for Research and Engagement (a health initiative at the Yale School of Public Health) opens at the Peabody. This exhibit takes the Peabody’s mission to “advance our understanding of earth’s history” and applies it to obesity—one of the largest problems, both literally and figuratively, facing the Earth’s population today.

Marlene Schwartz, deputy director of the Rudd Center, explains her colleagues’ interest in the project, “Our mission at the Rudd Center is to take what academics study and translate it into something that’s useful to the general public.” One major way they do this is by working at the state and federal level to improve America’s food policies by advocating for optimal nutrition standards in schools, reduced food marketing to kids and correlating healthy food with affordable prices (and vice-versa)

For Jane Pickering, deputy director and assistant director for public programs at the Peabody Museum, and her colleagues at the Peabody, the major challenge with “Big Food” is how to make the topic fit in a museum setting. They have to consider, as Pickering says, “How can we design the exhibit so the average person says to himself, ‘I should really go see that.’”

As it so happens, the Peabody is particularly good at doing just that. Some recent shows, including “Invasion of the Bloodsuckers: Bedbugs and Beyond” and “Solving the Puzzle: Lyme Disease, West Nile, and You,” not only demonstrate their creativity (Check out the “Spot the Bloodsuckers” game on their website!) in making health topics into engaging exhibits, but also their commitment to teaching about pertinent issues. This doesn’t come easily, however, as Pickering points out the dangers of working with these topics, “We have to think about how to make it work without getting too heavy,” she said without irony. This is an aspect that the museum must constantly consider as Big Food continues to develop.

Jeannette Ickovics, professor of public health and director of CARE, conceived of the project and is the lead curator. As a professor of public health and mother of two young children, she was thrilled that the Peabody Museum was addressing health issues. She said to a staff member last fall, “It is great that the Peabody is addressing health, but acute infections aren’t driving human health in the 21st century—it is chronic disease. You should do an exhibition on ‘the evolution of obesity.’” And the rest, as they say, will soon be history. She reminds us that the World Health Organization estimates that more than 1 billion adults worldwide are overweight—at least 300 million of them clinically obese. The dramatic increase in obesity has contributed to an increased burden of chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, stroke, and certain forms of cancer.

The exhibit will include state-of-the-art and state-of-the-science approaches to understand the complex challenges associated with food, obesity and health. It will include a wide range of perspectives from the anthropology of hunter-gatherer societies to the culture of food marketing. All three partners are working to shed light on such diverse topics such as the neuroscience of appetite, impact of food and obesity on health, food deserts, modern agricultural subsidies, school lunches, the importance of energy balance via physical activity, and weight bias, among others. “Big Food” has the challenging task of teaching the public that bigger is not always better—especially when it comes to portion sizes and waistlines. The resulting exhibit should not only provide adults and children alike with an enjoyable afternoon, but also hopefully inspire them to become advocates for a healthier world.

Big Food opens Feb. 11, 2012, and run through Nov. 30 at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven, Conn.

Jane Pickering from the Peabody Museum and Jeannette Ickovics from the Yale School of Public Health will share lessons learned from their experiences in designing Big Food when they present at Feeding the Spirit, AAM’s symposium on museums, food and community. Join us in Pittsburgh on Oct. 13, as attendees and speakers from the leading edge of the Let’s Move! Museums & Gardens initiative work together to build a compendium of best practices for museums addressing food issues to help their communities and strengthen their own sustainability.

Feeding the Spirit is convened in collaboration with Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, Association of Children’s Museums and American Public Gardens Association.

The Let’s Move! Museums & Gardens initiative brings the fight against obesity in America to museums and gardens of all types. By signing up for the program, museums are part of a partnership not only with the White House, but also with a larger network of national associations and museums. For more information on the initiative, visit the IMLS website.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Futurist Friday: Exploring the Future of Education

I’ve been blogging a lot about the future of education, and the coming of a new educational era. If we are on the cusp of transformational change, it’s very important for museum futurists to be actively scanning for hints of what this new era may look like so we can envision our preferred future and help make it a reality.

Here’s a resource I recommend: The Future of Education blog from KnowledgeWorks Foundation.

KnowledgeWorks is kind of the CFM equivalent for the education field. (Except they came first. And are larger and better funded. Oh well.) Their mission is “to transform education in the U.S. from a world of schooling to a world of learning – where efforts are focused on the needs of the learner, not the institution.”

Recent posts, for example, have explored:
On this blog I first read about self-directed (or passion-based) learning (prompting my explorations into the fringe educational world of “unschooling”). It’s also sharpened my focus on the increasing importance of data-privacy.

I’m a fan of KnowledgeWorks’ 2020 Forecast on the future of learning, and the Future of Education blog is a good place to follow updates to that project.

And happily, one good blog leads to another—Future of Education’s blogroll is no exception. This is where I discovered Edutopia (“What works in education” from the George Lucas Educational Foundation) and KQED’s MindShift (“How we will learn”) both of which I have added to my regular reading.

The Future of Education blog also has a code of ethics covering the behavior and responsibilities of users of the site—I’ve never seen this before (have you?) and I think it’s an interesting model.

Futurist Friday is becoming a semi-regular feature on the CFM Blog, highlighting recommended reading to fuel your futurist thought. You can find earlier posts in the series by selecting “recommended reading” from the tag cloud on the right.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Landing a Job in the Museum of the Future

I get a lot of calls from people asking for advice about careers: getting a first job, getting back into the museum field, switching to museums from another field.

I wish I could wave a wand and open a door for these earnest job seekers. I totally sympathize with their goal—personally, I think museum jobs are among the best in the world. My one regret about coming to work for AAM was losing the privilege of actually working in a museum, rather than with museums. I still miss "my" collections!

I want to do more than merely point out the obvious—that the economy stinks and there are very few job openings. (Not that this is news to the callers.) Some of the best and most experienced people I know in the field have "gone independent," which often means piecing together shards of work as they become available. Some of the brightest and most talented young people I know have taken jobs outside the field, as they graduate with their hard earned museum studies degree and...nothing opens up.

However, since for every one person who does catch me on the phone or at a meeting, there may be probably ten or twenty or thirty others wishing they could ask the same question, here, for what it’s worth, is the advice I find myself cautiously offering. With the caveat that I don't (ironically) have a crystal ball, these are just my best shots, based on watching the world and its behavior. How to get a job in the future museum, given the current lousy job market:

Do real work. Don’t wait to be hired for a paying job—identify a useful project and tackle it now. This doesn't have to take the form of the classic (and increasingly resented) unpaid internship. Start a blog to share your thoughts, analysis and observations with the world. Fund your own project. Heck, start your own museum or museum-like endeavor.

Come at it from the side. Don't train in museum work, train in something museums ought to know, but don't (or should know better). Study games design. Or electrical engineering. Or futures studies. Get a good start in that field, and then convince a prospective museum employer that they can use that skill to expand their repertoire. Now instead of being one-among-a-hundred (or more) museum studies graduates you are a rare asset.

Focus on practice, not theory. If you are in a traditional museum studies program, don't do your research or write your thesis on something academic or theoretical. For heaven's sake don't write the umpteenth paper on the history of accreditation (to have it molder on the shelf. Or on the hard drive. Whatever.) Find a museum that has a problem and offer to help solve it. Gather the data they need to make a decision. Prototype a process or a design that might work for them. Share whatever you learn from this project-share it: publish. Don't wait for a peer-reviewed journal—publish on the internet on a blog or wiki or where ever else it will be known, accessible, useful.

Train for the future. Not for the past, or even the present. I talk to a lot of folks who seem to want jobs that were the norm twenty or thirty years ago. Some people want to be bookbinders or farriers too, and a few can find jobs, but it's not as easy as finding work as a webmaster or a car mechanic. I think that for good or for ill, the old curatorial model of academic, scholarly expert will become rarer and rarer. Museums will need communicators, facilitators, moderators—who are in the best of all possible worlds also experts. Museums will be hiring curators of engagement and dialogue, curators of audience engagement and curators of the visitor experience. To make museums central to the next educational era, museum educators will need to know how to deliver compelling content over the web, make museum resources accessible and compelling for self-directed learners and create opportunities for exploration.

Perhaps the most useful thing I can do is open up this conversation to my colleagues: employed, unemployed, hiring, laying off staff or seeking jobs. What is your best advice to the earnest caller who says, "I want to work in a museum?" Use the comments section, below, to share your thoughts.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

At the Phillips, Just Take the Stairs

Today’s guest video is introduced by Dorothy Kosinski, director of The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

For me, the future of museums has a lot to do with supporting an overall sense of well-being for our visitors and community. In our founder Duncan Phillips’s words, The Phillips Collection is about a “joy-giving, life-enhancing” experience with art and, I believe, that extends off the walls to the health and wellness of the people within them. That’s why we’ve gotten involved in Let’s Move! Museums and Gardens, part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s ambitious Let’s Move! campaign, which aims to solve the problem of childhood obesity within a generation.

Sure our visitors can’t run or rappel through the galleries, but we can encourage kids of all ages to make a simple, healthy choice when they visit the Phillips: just take the stairs! Employ this strategy while following our 90 min @ the Phillips self-guide, and your feet will take 2,500 steps—that’s about a mile of masterpieces. With our all-ages Discovery Pack smaller feet can achieve a half mile, engaging with art and each other along the way.

Since the First Lady’s initiative focuses on youth, we tested our hypothesis—that a visit to the Phillips facilitates both art appreciation and fitness—on a young and active bunch. They climbed stairs, engaged in vigorous discussions about art, and, after an energetic hour in the galleries, were ready to unwind with a healthy snack. See their reactions for yourself in the above video.

It’s great to find art museums using their environment—inside and out—to promote physical activity. I’ve seen examples of museums creating hiking trails on their grounds, doing yoga in the galleries. But I wonder—are there any art museums out there addressing issues of obesity, body image, attitudes towards food, etc., through their exhibits? Please use the comment section below to share any examples you know of that fit that bill!

Interested in exploring what your museum can do to help your community with food issues? Join us for Feeding the Spirit, a national symposium being held in Pittsburgh on Oct. 13. Feeding the Spirit is the result of collaboration between AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums, the Association of Children’s Museums, the American Public Gardens Association, Phipps Conservatory and Public Garden and the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.