Thursday, September 29, 2011

Innovation Lab: nurturing nonconformity and half-baked ideas

 “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably will not themselves be realized."—Daniel Burnham

When I previewed CFM’s plans for 2011, I said we would “establish mechanisms to foster innovation and experimentation in museum operations, in order to discover methods and strategies that will help museums thrive in the future.”

True confession: I was making that up. I didn’t know, at the time, how we would actually do it.

But I knew it had to happen! The AAM board assigned CFM “fostering innovation” as one of its mandates because they realized that operating environment of the 21st century will be a very different operating environment than that of the 20th century. Most of AAM’s programs and services (e.g., Accreditation, the Museum Assessment Program) encourage conformity to standards and best practices that evolved in the last 100 years. Not that these are bad operating guidelines—but they may not be the framework that will ensure success in the future.

So how do we recognize, encourage, reward the non-conformists—the museums that say “heck with the standard way of doing things, we think we have a better way”? Especially since, (as with any risk taking) many of these ventures will fail. How do we celebrate risk taking and failure while helping to minimize risks and maximize the chances of success?

One small start: Innovation Lab for Museums.

Innovation Lab was originally developed for performing arts organizations by a nonprofit organization called EmcArts, with support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The Duke Foundation doesn’t fund museums, but, over time, EmcArts worked with some museums in California with the support of the Irvine Foundation. Richard Evans, who directs EmcArts’ programs and strategic partnerships, approached AAM about broadening the program, and the funding, to serve more museums. Recognizing this as an opportunity to innovate within AAM (while minimizing risk) I’ve worked with Richard over the past year to ensure the program is suitable for museums of all kinds and to find funding.

We were very happy to announce, last week, that generous support from the MetLife Foundation has enabled AAM and EmcArts to open the first round of Innovation Lab for Museums for proposals.

The Lab is designed for museums that already have what Richard calls “half-baked ideas”—promising dreams they would like to implement, but haven’t quite worked out how. Building on EmcArts’ observation that most institutional culture is fatal to budding innovations, the Lab will take teams of staff out of the museum, to join teams from the other participating museums for an five-day, residential intensive retreat. The program also provides coaching before and after the retreat, input from outside experts selected in consultation with the museums, and $40,000 in implementation support.

Participating museums will benefit in two ways: implementing a specific innovation in their institution, and modifying their organizational culture to be more supportive of innovation in general.

This is a small start—three museums will be accepted in the first round—but my hope is it will grow over time and will have ripple effects far beyond the participating institutions. Successful innovations developed through the Lab may be mainstreamed into other museums, and we will share what we learn about creating innovative cultures with the field, helping counterbalance our field’s emphasis on conformity with a greater tolerance for risk and experimentation.

The deadline for proposals is Oct. 31. You can read more about Innovation Lab for Museums and the nature of innovation in Richard’s guest post for the CFM Blog. You can direct inquiries about the Lab (questions about eligibility, suitable projects, nature of the program) to EmcArt’s national programs manager, Liz Dreyer.

I am psyched to read the applications that come in, and look forward to sharing stories of the awardee’s innovative projects in the coming year!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Museums Can Change the World: Improving the Nation’s Health

A projection for the U.S., by 2030: Obesity prevalence will rise to ~50% in men between 45% and 52% in women. There will be: 7.8 million extra cases of diabetes; 6.8 million more cases of coronary heart disease and stroke; 539,000 additional cases of cancer. Annual spending on obesity-related diseases will rise by 13-16%, leading to 2.6% increase in national health spending. Total medical costs associated with treatment of these preventable diseases are estimated to increase by $48-66 billion/year. Can we do anything as a society to stem the tide? Maybe. Can museums help? The B.B. King Museum says “yes,” as reported by AAM intern Ella Mitchell.

The state of Mississippi is marked by an alarming distinction: it is the most obese state in the nation where 44% of children are obese or overweight.  To much of the country, the statistics on obesity, as well as hypertension and diabetes, are just numbers, but Ann Shackelford, communications and development director at the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, explains that in Indianola, MS, and the entire Mississippi Delta, “We are living with these statistics every day, seeing them as people walking down the street.”

Where some may just see a problem, the B.B. King Museum instead found a natural way to be part of the solution to this obesity epidemic and other local issues by starting The Art of Living Smart, a seven-week summer day camp for children ages 6–15. During this time the kids engage in a variety of activities designed to teach them about healthy habits while also exposing them to the rich arts culture of the Mississippi Delta area. On any given day they might be playing traditional blues instruments, writing acrostic poems about music, practicing a new dance, making healthy smoothies, or exploring the history of their community through the museum’s exhibits.

As evidenced by these activities, the camp isn’t just about the physical health of the children; their overall well-being and the health of their community are also critical to the goals of The Art of Living Smart. To do this, the B.B. King Museum has capitalized on a strong local network including a national corporation, local non-profits and several regional universities.  In this way the museum’s work benefits not only the campers, but also the surrounding communities. A grant from the Delta Health Alliance (DHA), made it possible for the camp to forge multiple local partnerships to support their work with the children. DHA is a nonprofit dedicated to community-based healthcare solutions, part of the Indianola Promise Community (an initiative connected with President Obama’s Promise Neighborhood program).

One of the most fruitful connections the museum made was with a dietetics professor and her students from Delta State University who helped design several aspects of the program. After planning nutrition lessons, the students, as well as some from Mississippi Valley State University, served as knowledgeable counselors. In the first year of the camp, all of the counselors had actually gone to high school in Indianola and thus served as great role models for the campers. The DHA grant made it possible for the museum to pay them. “That’s one of the things we were really proud of: that we were not only giving jobs to local young people, but they also had this opportunity to be mentors,” said Shackelford.

The camp’s program underwent numerous developments between its first and second years. “Last year when we started the program it didn’t have as big a connection to the exhibit as we would’ve liked, and we realized that we have some really natural ties between the camp and the museum,” said Shackelford. The museum decided to emphasize connections between the musical traditions the museum explores and corresponding dances, such as gospel music and praise dancing or the blues and juke joint dancing. The size of the program also dramatically increased. In 2010, the museum served 58 children but had over 200 on the waiting list. Shackelford remembers, “It just broke our hearts that there was this much interest and need and we couldn’t serve them.” Fortunately the camp was able to host both a morning and afternoon session this summer, enrolling over 125 children with hopes to expand even more in the summer of 2012.

The Art of Living Smart is not just a health boot camp, as evidenced by the variety of arts- as well as nutrition-focused activities. Nonetheless the kids are practicing healthy habits that carry over into their daily lives, even if it’s just in small ways like reading nutrition labels with their parents. The B.B. King Museum hopes the kids learn that taking care of their bodies is the only way they can live to be 86 years old just like Mr. King himself.

Interested in exploring what your museum can do to help your community with issues of food, health and nutrition? Join us for Feeding the Spirit, a national symposium being held in Pittsburgh on Oct. 13.

And consider joining the Let’s Move! Museums and Gardens initiative, which 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. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Do Museums Need to Care about Foodies?

This guest post is by Susie Wilkening, senior consultant and curator of museum audiences, Reach Advisors. We’ve been blogging a lot about food, leading up to the symposium Feeding the Spirit: Museums, Food & Community in Pittsburgh on Oct. 13. Susie shares data demonstrating why museums should care about food, and foodies, when planning how to expand audiences and improve the bottom line.

Turns out, there are a fair number of museum goers who enjoy food. 
This makes intuitive sense to me! When my husband, Jeremy, and I recently traveled to Turkey, Jeremy was prepared. He thoroughly researched all the most interesting restaurants and local dives and coded them on a map. As we explored Istanbul, whenever we got hungry, Jeremy pulled out his handy map and presto! we had a convenient (and typically delicious) meal. For us, food is a gateway to learning about a new place, a different culture, even a different time. Back home in the Boston area we also seek out interesting foods, both traditional to the area we live in and authentic fare served by, and primarily for, the many ethnicities of our multi-cultural region. 

In some of our recent client work at Reach Advisors we have gathered data on interest in food-related activities, such as:  learning about the past or different cultures through food; seeking out interesting restaurants, markets and food festivals; and getting creative in the kitchen via cooking or baking. When we examine the responses of food-oriented individuals, we find that these individuals are curious museum-goers who would love for museums to engage them via food. Our work with the Atlanta History Center is representative of our food findings for museums to date. Michael Rose of AHC graciously allowed us to share these findings with you because, as Michael puts it, “foodways is one of our favorite things.”

About the Research
Our work in Atlanta began with a cultural consumers survey disseminated via the email lists of cultural organizations throughout the Atlanta metro area; nearly 7,500 individuals responded.

A third of the sample (37 percent) said either they enjoyed cooking or baking at home in their leisure time or that eating authentic or ethnic foods from the past was a favorite way of experiencing history. An additional 14 percent, who we are calling Super Foodies, chose both responses, for a total of 51 percent of the sample having some explicit interest in food. I’ll be focusing on the smaller group of Super Foodies, though the additional 37 percent of food-motivated visitors are more like the Super Foodies than the remainder of the non-Foodie sample. 

Super Foodies, Museums and Food
Super Foodies are younger than average museum visitors, being much more likely to be under 40. In particular, young women without children and mothers of children five and younger, seem to be particularly attuned to food in their lives. 

Happily, Super Foodies are committed, curious museum goers visiting a wider variety of museums more often than regular museum goers with less interest in food. Their strong interest in food does not get checked at the door when they visit museums, however, and Super Foodies are attuned to opportunities to learn about food, where it comes from and how it reflects different cultures and the past.  As one of our respondents noted:
“Okay, at the risk of sounding gluttonous, I would say that I enjoy any history experience where I get to ’taste’ the past!  I LOVE food (and most everyone else does too, but some won’t admit it). . . . I have a very strong association with food and memory.”
Additionally, Super Foodies are hands-on individuals. While they are more likely than other respondents to enjoy hands-on activities at museums, they are also much more likely to enjoy crafting and DIY projects as well as gardening. In our continued work with AHC we met young mothers who were planting their own vegetable plots and even tending chickens and other farm animals. Our research from within and outside the museum field indicates that younger adults and parents are giving more thought to food, where it comes from, how it is grown and how it tastes, as well as the cultural significance of food.

Food and Museums.  So what?
Given that just over half of regular museum goers have an explicit interest in food, food represents a very powerful, sensory method of engaging museum goers at museums of all types.  Additionally, food is a great venue for participating in Let’s Move! Museums and Gardens, the initiative in which IMLS is working with the First Lady’s office to develop programming around healthy eating. How could your museum go about incorporating food in your programming?  Here are some of our ideas: 
  • sparking debate on the pros and cons of industrial agriculture versus organic farming at a science center
  • getting dirty at a botanical garden with young adults learning how to tend their own gardens
  • time traveling at history-based museum by sharing authentic foods of the past
  • expeditions via food, exploring the significance of  food in sustaining cultural identity, at an art, anthropology or even a children’s museum

The possibilities of incorporating food into traditional museum experiences are endless, and given the high interest many museum goers have in food, and the intensity of a tasting experience, food is a, ahem, tasteful and filling addition to the offerings a museums has to offer visitors, and could well be a draw for bringing in younger and more diverse audiences.

Interested in exploring how food can help your museum connect to new audiences? Join colleagues from the museum and food communities in Pittsburgh on Oct. 13 for Feeding the Spirit.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Transformative Power of Innovation

This guest post is by Richard Evans, president, EmcArts Inc. AAM is partnering with EmcArts, with the generous support of MetLife Foundation, to offer Innovation Lab for Museums. The Request for Proposals for the Lab has just been released, proposals are due Oct. 31.

At EmcArts, we work with some of the most courageous and forward-looking cultural organizations in the country. They are all responding positively to the demand for new practices, and making space to challenge and depart from “business-as-usual.”  Through the remarkable participants in our programs that incubate organizational innovation, we have learned a good deal about how organizations do this crucial work well. On the occasion of the public launch of the new national Innovation Lab for Museums, in collaboration with CFM, here are some of the things we’ve learned that may be of use as you consider this new program opportunity.

Innovation is different from creativity
Don’t confuse innovation with “creativity” (or “ideas”) and think that innovation is like lightning striking—rarely, and never in the same place twice—so it cannot be relied upon or regularly repeated. These are two quite different qualities. Creativity is a characteristic of individuals, where innovation is a group, or corporate, activity. It requires people to work together to turn ideas into practical projects that can feasibly be implemented. Innovation changes things by applying ideas to practice.

Innovation is a means to an end
In our programs, the purpose of innovating is to achieve new public value and advance the organization’s mission. To put it bluntly, we need to do things differently than in the past because established strategies are not producing the returns they used to, our perceived value to our communities is not on an upward trajectory, and other organizations, or sectors, are seen to be delivering more vital services. If we do not shift our organizational assumptions, and develop new approaches that leverage current social dynamics rather than rely on cherished principles from the past, then we will drift toward inconsequence—or grind painfully toward dissolution.

Innovating needs a process framework to sustain it
Without a well-researched incubation structure, green shoots of innovation tend either to wither under the glare of established practices, or become excessively wacky so as to justify their existence, regardless of mission. The Innovation Lab for Museums provides a formal structure to support your work, because innovation won’t be something you’re used to, or practiced at, so you won’t be able to rely on the processes you already know. The Lab framework protects the work of your innovation team from the fatal attraction of business as usual, so the team has the freedom to open up new pathways.

Innovation is a learned organizational behavior
It would be nice if museums could innovate easily by just trying new things. But it’s not just a matter of debating the possibilities, selecting one and saying “Go forth and innovate…..” To be consistently innovative as an organization is a difficult learned behavior, the result of making conscious choices (in personnel, in structures and systems, in definitions of success) and taking imaginative risks. The Lab will help museums learn how to achieve and sustain those conditions—what Kathleen Cerveny calls “an internal culture of self-awareness, attention to the environment and willingness to change.”

Treat innovation as a vital new management discipline
“Can you really pursue innovation?” I am glad to say the answer from the field to this question is a resounding “Yes.” The more difficult question is: “Can we systematize innovating?” Our work at EmcArts suggests we can, using incubation frameworks and carefully designed facilitation to build innovation “muscles” for the longer term. A 2008 report from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, Intentional Innovation, encourages not-for-profit organizations to embrace innovation as a permanent part of their core competencies, calling it “a rational management discipline with its own distinct set of processes, practices, and tools.”

I hope these thoughts help clear the undergrowth around that slippery word, “innovation,” and encourage you to think about doing things differently in response to the radical changes happening around us. We know there are lots of museum leaders who could take advantage of this opportunity, so I encourage you to learn about the Innovation Lab for Museums, and seize the opportunity to apply!

The Innovation Lab for Museums is an 18–24 month program in which EmcArts facilitators work with “Innovation Teamscomprised of senior managers and board representatives in combination with museum staff, artists and scientists, educationalists and/or external voices from inside and outside the cultural sector. The Lab provides individual coaching, group facilitation, an Intensive Retreat and a variety of extended support systems tailored to the needs of each organization, including support grants of $40,000 toward project prototyping. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Agriculture Training Symposium for Historic Site and Museum Professionals

Proving yet again that this is the year of all things food, for museums, Kristin Hagar, development and communications coordinator at The Wyck Association shares the following opportunity to explore how food can help museums build community while nurturing their own financial sustainability.

This Friday, Sept. 23, Wyck Historic House & Garden will host an agriculture training symposium for historic site and museum professionals, in which we will discuss how agriculture can function as an impetus for growth in fund-raising, visitorship, and community relations, for both large and small organizations. Case presenters will include the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, the Wyck Association, Awbury Arboretum, the Weavers Way Food Co-op and Grumblethorpe Museum & Farmstand. The Temple University Fox School of Business will conduct an Innovative and Entrepreneurial Thinking workshop to stimulate ideas about developing and implementing successful agricultural programming, as they have with numerous conservation and food organizations in the greater Philadelphia region.

Wyck Historic House & Garden has a history as colorful as the Rouge Vif d'Etampes pumpkins, red yard-long beans,and Concord grapes that our Home Farm Manager harvested earlier today.  Blessed with a reputation as the most “quirky” among the numerous preserved sites in Philadelphia’s eminently historical Germantown neighborhood, Wyck’s programming over the past four decades focused on the site’s 250 years’ worth of possessions and collections accumulated by the innovators, educators, horticulturalists, and social reformers that lived here. Since 2007, however, Wyck’s Home Farm has been attracting more and more attention out back—including the attention of individuals otherwise uninterested in this National Historic Landmark. 

Wyck’s venture into the nexus of agricultural programming and heritage stewardship began with support from the Samuel S. Fels Fund to develop a farm that serves several distinct but interconnected purposes. The farm grows food for a weekly on-site farmers market; it stands as an interactive, outdoor classroom for local children and adults; it perpetuates Wyck's 300 year-old agricultural traditions; and it enhances the bucolic landscape that visitors to Wyck have long enjoyed. The result is a place that attracts a broader public than before. The Home Farm and related programs have caused Wyck’s audience to more than double in the three years since the farm began.

Urban farming, put simply, is farming with neighbors. And so the cultivation of food becomes a way to cultivate relationships. The multiple functions of the Wyck Home Farm allow us to develop multiple types of relationships and to fulfill, in a real way, our mission to enrich local community life. 

Northwest Philadelphia is a bastion of the locavore movement; from urban farming, to gastronomes, to urban homesteading, food is a top interest among many of our neighbors, and it’s no mere trend. At the same time, Northwest Philadelphia is a socioeconomically mixed, and many other of our neighbors struggle to find decent produce in subpar groceries. Both Wyck and our partner farmers explicitly aim to offer affordable chemical-free foods to the neighborhood, and customers can use food stamps as well as the vouchers distributed through the federally-funded Farmers Market Nutrition Program. The Home Farm also functions as a learning environment for elementary through adult levels. And it’s not hard for anybody who comes by, whether new visitors or family descendants, to feel a sense of satisfaction that this historic site is not only preserved but also enlivened. 

In a nutshell, Wyck’s Home Farm provides a safe, beautiful, historic space in which diverse constituents come together for both pleasures and practicalities, and through which Wyck management can harness an unprecedented range of community outreach opportunities.  Let’s talk about this further!

Please join Wyck Historic House & Garden for
An Agricultural Training Symposium for Historic Site and Museum Professionals
Friday, Sept. 23
9 a.m.–4 p.m.
$65/person; $25/additional persons in group registration

Visit for the symposium brochure and registration information. To register, call Kristin Hagar at 215-848-1690 or mail your information and payment to her attention, Wyck Historic House & Garden, 6026 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19144.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Futurist Friday: Exploring the Cone of Plausibility

Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
—Arthur C. Clarke, "Profiles of The Future", 1961

Today’s recommendation: spare two minutes to watch a mind expanding video:

The Floating University presents a clip of Dr. Michio Kaku talking about “the difference between ideas that are beyond our technical capabilities today but will be available within the next century, ideas that will be doable 1000 years from now, and ideas that violate the known laws of physics.” “Surprisingly,” he observes, “very little falls into the third category.” Most of what we see in science fiction is possible within the next 100 years.

Kaku’s talk illustrates the principle depicted in my favorite futurist diagram: the Cone of Plausibility.

The boundaries of what is plausible/possible expand outward over time. Hand-held mobile technology—which would have seemed magical a hundred years ago—is now ubiquitous. “Stargate” technology is science fiction now—but maybe our great grandchildren will step through a gate to a different universe in 2100.

So, when doing forecasting and scenario development for your museum’s planning process, question assumptions. Don’t be too quick to dismiss a new technology as “impossible.” Ask, “does this violate the laws of the known universe?” And, if not, ask instead “when will it be possible?”

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Technology: A Tool for Storytelling

Michael Balderrama, programs coordinator at AAM, shares news about next week’s Technology, Interpretation and Education online conference—an opportunity for readers to glimpse of how an organic approach to technology can transform the future of learning in museums.

When I sat down to reflect on this guest post, I had a whirlwind of ideas—"oh! Wouldn't it be cool if I did a video podcast?" And "let me see if I have my mini microphone. I'll do a regular podcast, but mix in some tech music with it!"

Notice you're reading this; in my case, using technology didn't work. I sat at my laptop for about two hours, listening to my voice over and over again—muting out the ums and ahs, cutting and pasting audio—but it still didn't feel right. I realized I was trying technology for technology's sake—for the novelty of it—which ultimately misses the point.

Nik Honeysett, head of administration, J. Paul Getty Museum in L.A., made this very point at last year's Technology, Interpretation and Education (TIE) online conference during his plenary talk with Nancy Proctor—"Doing Stuff That Matters: Using Limited Resources to Create Meaningful Museum Experiences" 
"To do less with less is to focus on the things that are core to our institutional mission, things that are being done for the right reasons which everybody is clear about, and are done in a way that maximizes resources and finances. We should plan for flexibility because we don’t know where this “thing” is going; we should plan for scalability because we don’t know how big this “thing” might get; we should use standards because we want to play and share in a much bigger arena; we should collaborate and stop trying to re-invent the wheel. And most importantly, we should address the long term—the sustainability of the things we’ve created for our institutions after we’ve moved on."  
So what is this core we need to be thinking about? When my colleague Greg Stevens and I sat down with the chairs of AAM's Media and Technology professional network last month—Suzy Sarraf and Jack Ludden—we agreed that technology is a vehicle for storytelling. I strongly believe that technology serves a transformative purpose in peoples' lives, a role that can support the mission of the museum field.

Next week, at this year's TIE online conference, we will be trying something a little different. We have challenged presenters representing ten Muse award-winning projects to make the conference experience interactive. They will devote half of their time to conversing with you, the audience. It's an opportunity to learn from others' experiences, and take away a little inspiration for yourself. Most importantly, it will demonstrate that products such as video podcasts, alternate reality cell phone games, or interactive websites are merely the outputs of a project, and should not be confused with the desired outcomes. These technologies are tools for storytelling, not the stories themselves. We as museum professionals need to look at the long-tail effects of how technology transforms the storytelling capabilities of the museum, and how our audience’s reaction to our work will build and change how the institution may use the technology. In a way, we need to look at technology as an organic process (I know, it's a strange phrase to type).

I see TIE as a chance to prove a very important point about museums' use of technology: it does not (and cannot) exist in a vacuum. I’ve worked with a unique blend of museum professionals, technology vendors, writers, and designers over the last four months. Drawing on a wide spectrum of experience from outside the museum field makes the use of technology so much more robust and worthwhile. The Muse projects have fostered long term partnerships that will grow for years to come. It is clear to me that collaborative partnerships are essential in charting the technology path in the coming years. 

In preparing for the conference, I've reflected on the conference’s own history. What began as a one-day face-to-face program has transformed into an online interactive multi-day experience. We as storytellers—maybe even story sharers(?)—want our voices to be heard by everyone who wants to listen; technology helps to do that--if done right. Take me for example: two hours ago, I had an audience of one. When I planned my technology poorly, I still had an audience of one. But now I have you. I find that so unbelievably cool.

I invite all of you to join us next week to hear some fascinating technology stories, and share your own, as we chart a path to the future of museums.

Visit the AAM website to find out more on the Technology, Interpretation and Education online conference this coming Tuesday and Wednesday, Sept. 20–21.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Don't Just Stir It, Shake It!

Today's guest post is by Richard V. Piacentini, executive director of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. Richard previews one of the themes we will explore next month at Feeding the Spirit: Museums, Food & Community
how museums can bring the operation of their food services into alignment with their mission-related values while still attending to the financial bottom line. 

photo credit: Alexander Denmarsh

Soda: It's about as unhealthy as you can get but, boy can you make money on it. Twelve cents' worth of syrup mixed with inexpensive carbonated tap water and sold at $1.75 a cup turns a good profit.

And yet, in less than a month soda will be gone from Phipps. By then our new "Splash" Bar will be open and we will be serving filtered and sparkling water with a splash of fresh fruit juice. At less than 40 calories per serving, these new offerings fit nicely with the recommendations of the Harvard School of Public Health.

Like many museums and gardens, Phipps didn't start out with a health focus when we opened our cafe. Initially, we were only looking to align our food service practices with our green building philosophy by featuring organic and local foods, and eliminating plastic disposables. Ultimately we realized that despite the risks of lost profits, it just wasn't consistent with our mission to ignore the environmental and health effects of the types of food we offered; we felt we had to change. We wanted our café to reflect the same high standards we hold ourselves to in everything else we do.

After eliminating bottled water several years ago, and shifting our focus to more sustainably-produced fruits and vegetables, and minimally processed foods, Phipps upped the ante by increasing the number of vegetarian and vegan options we offered and, even started to feature vegetarian specials on Meatless Mondays. We also developed a series of programs to engage urban kids in healthy foods and gardening.

Even after all those changes, we realized that the types of food we were serving kids were contributing to the obesity epidemic. We decided to eliminate sugary, flavored milks, fried foods and hot dogs. Next, we added fresh, organic fruits and vegetables, and whole grains to our kid's meals, switching to healthier menu items like whole wheat pasta with turkey meatballs. We even came up with a café mission statement to get all our staff on the same page, bringing us to the present day and the soda machine.

There were skeptics at first, but we persisted. We conceived and tested our "Splash" Bar—and, so far, people like it. While we don't make as much money on beverages as we used to, the goodwill, press and reputation we are generating as a result is great. It has even led to our role as an initiator and leader in Let's Move Pittsburgh to help promote healthy lifestyles for children in our region. I also expect that we will soon surpass our old café sales numbers.

When you face choices about configuring your food service, you have to guide decisions with considerations of both mission and money. For us it was easy to connect the dots. Our mission at Phipps is to connect people to the important role that plants play in our lives and to promote environmentally-responsible lifestyles and practices. The most important ways that people and plants interact is through the food we eat and the biggest impact on our health and the environment is made through the way that interaction is currently taking place. Our industrialized, factory farm and highly processed food system is destructive to the environment and our bodies while disconnecting us from nature. In this respect, promoting healthy and responsibly produced foods is right up our alley and ties in seamlessly with all of our other greening efforts up to and including our constructing a Living Building. Not every museum will have as clear a mandate, but certainly any institution with a mission that encompasses concern for the environment and people can make the same case.

Unfortunately, the current economics of most food service contracts cause difficulty in making mission-based decisions. Museums usually find a vendor that will absorb the losses from a food service in exchange for exclusive catering rights and an agreement to pay a guaranteed percentage of catering revenues. This model is a recipe for failure, since the food service vendor has every incentive to serve as inexpensive a product as they can in order to mitigate their losses, making it hard to implement dramatic changes in your café. Usually, you are then limited to little tweaks here and there, stirring the same old pot when what you really need to do is shake things up and start from scratch. The field needs a new economic model for food services that helps us make values-based operational decisions. At Phipps, we pay an outside vendor a management fee, and we make the profits and absorb the losses. It is riskier, but it gives us the control we desire.

Can we change the way we run our cafés? Is the Phipps model relatable to other museums? Are there other ways to accomplish similar goals? I hope these are topics we can explore further at the upcoming Feeding the Spirit conference on Oct. 13 as we examine our future relationship with food.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Musarians: The bastard children of museums and libraries.

In today’s guest post, AAM staffer Lauren Silberman, continues her exploration of the entwined futures of libraries and museums. Her first, massively popular post, speculated on what museums can learn from librarians of the future.

What would you get if you crossed a museum professional with a librarian?

Would the baby be locked in an eternal struggle of touch/don’t touch the materials—unsure if they should let other kids take the toys out of the toy chest or not? As a teen, would the child rebel and do some sort of massive “information cleansing” to release all the stories, histories and provenance collected from their predecessors from their memory? Or would the kid, being a child of our quick change, techno-magic society, become something far different than what we imagine someone working in a museum or library today? As Elizabeth points out in this video, the iPhone doesn’t have much in common with its Alexander Graham Bell ancestor. Many people don’t even use it as a phone anymore. In the future, what we now call museums, libraries, community centers, studios and schools could all be bundled into one thing called a museum. Or a library. Or a librarium. Maybe even a schoorarium center. Would it be anything like the original institutions? What would the musarians who work in these institutions be like?

I imagine that a musarian would be one-part security guard, one-part receptionist with a good chunk of information wizard thrown in. A cheery, welcoming but ultimately reserved Doctor Who-ish figure that helps others navigate our precious, collective heritage while opening the doors to new ideas. In a world where more and more content is born-digital, they would be the gatekeepers of our tangible history and tour guides of the technological frontier. While they may work in a good ole fashioned brick-and-mortar institution, they would be instantly available in anyone’s home, office or school, whether in some sort of holographic device or, more likely, through an avatar that blends their individual characteristics with their institution’s brand. I imagine they would provide personalized, customized services, born out of the considerable research they’ve undertaken. A visitor or group could still tour a historic structure or view actual artwork, but their experience might be hyperlinked with layers and layers of information provided by the musarians—as well as by the general public. I think this would make people value “actual” items in community-based digital centers even more highly. Maybe the public’s experiences with the materials would be supplemented with technology, such as gloves that replicate the feeling of touching the object—enabling us to issue the directives “touch” and “don’t touch” at the same time.

So, what do you think? Who will be the museum professionals of tomorrow? Will they be musarians as described above or something completely different? Contribute your descriptions below.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Food: the Universal Communicator

Today’s guest post is by Jennifer Rothman, associate vice president for children’s and public education at the New York Botanical Garden. Jennifer contributes to our ongoing exploration of museums, food and community. Interested? Join colleagues from the museum and food communities in Pittsburgh on Oct. 13 for Feeding the Spirit, a symposium exploring how museums can use food to grow audiences (and improve their own financial health). 

As someone who works at a Botanical Garden I don’t like to admit this but...I have never had a garden of my own. I never grew my own tomatoes, harvested lettuces for dinner, or picked strawberries for desert. Living in a small apartment in New York City, I was afraid my daughter Ella might follow in my footsteps. So, as soon as she was eligible (3 years old), I signed us up for a program I oversee at the New York Botanical Garden,  the Children’s Gardening Program. Every week this spring and summer, she and I planted beans, tended to radishes, harvested strawberries, watered, weeded and prepared weekly snacks like tomato bruschetta and herbed cream cheese.

I enrolled Ella in the program because I knew that she would benefit from seeing where her food came from. I knew she would be proud of the plants she tended and that she would grow from experiencing the many benefits of gardening that I talk of daily to funders, visitors, and other stakeholders. I was less prepared for the impact it would have on me. I now understand seasonality more intuitively than I did before and I find myself choosing vegetables at the market that I may have shied away from previously. More than that though, there is an intangible joy and pleasure that comes from growing your own food which I learned right alongside my three year old.

As associate vice president for children’s and public education at the New York Botanical Garden, I oversee all of the gardening programs for children and families along with all public programming for special exhibits—which increasingly includes food related programming. The Children’s Gardening program is one that I was lucky enough to inherit—it has been in existence at the New York Botanical Garden for over 50 years.

Every spring, summer and fall children maintain their own plots filled with vegetables and fruits that they weed, water, harvest and prepare. Our overarching goal for the program is to help children and adults understand where their food comes from and to make a connection that might change their eating or lifestyle behaviors.

As an educator, the biggest "aha moment" I've seen is watching a child harvest broccoli that they grew themselves and see a huge smile grow on their face. This of course is followed by the child eagerly eating the broccoli, something that most of their parents assure me that they have not done before. I remember thinking: If growing vegetables could have this sort of impact on children, why couldn’t it have the same effect on adults?
Lidia Bastianich
Photo: Ivo M. Vermeulen. Courtesy of The New York Botanical Garden

So, two years ago I created the Edible Garden program—a series of cooking demonstrations, talks and tours—to help adults make healthy choices at home and be inspired to grow and prepare garden fresh meals. On the kitchen stage we built in front of our landmark Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, chefs like Mario Batali, Martha Stewart, Todd English and Lidia Bastianich demonstrated everything from sautéed kale with ricotta to beet risotto to herbal cocktails. Mario Batali has become a friend and partner—this year helping us to create the Mario Batali’s Edible Garden.

Through my experiences, I have come to believe food is the universal communicator. It helps me bring to life the stories of our exhibits. Most recently for the Spanish Paradise: The Garden’s of the Alhambra exhibit, we created a series called the Food and Culture of Spain. Through programs like these we can use food to help a visitor get a sense of place or time in history and to understand the themes of the exhibit in a deeper way.

I am also seeing that many of our food programs are bringing in a younger demographic than we typically see. This is exciting because I think these are the real change makers in the food conversation and they are also audiences we can build on for the future of the New York Botanical Garden. With all of our food programming, we are reaching new audiences but we are also reaching old audiences with new information. As an educator, administrator, mom and newly minted amateur gardener, it’s pretty exciting.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

What are Ethics? A Brief Essay in Plain English

This essay introduces Round Two of the Forecasting the Future of Museum Ethics exercise. Follow this link, to vote on which of which of the issues identified in Round One will be most important to museums in the next quarter century, determining what we will examine in more depth in subsequent rounds.

The more I ponder “ethics,” the more it seems like Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography: “I’ll know it when I see it.” It is just as blindingly clear, and just as hard to nail down.
Many years of handling ethics inquiries at AAM has convinced me I am not alone in my confusion. There is deep and persistent lack of agreement in the field about what ethics are (and aren’t). Other than referring to the subset of ethics issues formally addressed in Standards and Best Practices for U.S. Museums, how can we draw boundaries about what is, and isn’t an ethical issue? How do we distinguish decisions that are, first and foremost, ethical from those that can legitimately driven by consideration of business, finance, strategy and other practical concerns?
Here is my attempt to explain, in simplest terms possible, why some of the “ethical” concerns lobbed to staff at AAM don’t, for me, pass the Potter Test. I encourage you to use the comment section of the blog to agree, disagree or expand on this list.

“Unethical” is not the same as:
  • Illegal. Lot’s of things are ethical but illegal (think civil disobedience, or feeding the homeless in places where that act of compassion violates local ordinances). There are plenty of things that are legal but not ethical (else there wouldn’t be so many lawyer jokes).
  • Upsetting. Years of fielding complaints against accredited museums taught me that people often say “unethical” when they mean “this really ticks me off.” As in, “it’s unethical for that museum to hire a curator who hasn’t got a PhD. (…instead of me),” “it’s unethical for the museum to lay off staff,” “it’s unethical for the museum not to buy the important artifact I am trying to sell them.” (Really. Not making that one up.)
  • Important. Though many important issues that are not in and of themselves about ethics may spawn ethical dilemmas down the line: e.g., museums merging, convergence of institutions like libraries museums and archives, wealthy people founding nonprofit museums, people founding for-profit museums, globalization.
Conversely, there are “green flags” marking an issue as very likely about ethics, notably related to obligation imposed by a nonprofit museum’s tax-exempt status. Caring for and using its assets in trust for the public imposes a set of obligations not shared by for-profit organizations. Many ethics issues for nonprofits are about honoring the responsibilities that come with that relationship: accessibility, transparency, acting in a trustworthy manner and avoiding conflicts of interest. Many ethics issues for museums arise from the characteristic that usually distinguishes them from other nonprofits: the collections they hold in trust for the public.

Guided by this reasoning, my colleagues and I recently compiled and culled the contributions from Round One of the Forecasting the Future of Museum Ethics project, resulting a list of twenty-four ethics issues that will trend (emerge, die away become more or less important) in the next quarter century. While our Delphic Oracles ponder which of these issues should be examined in more depth in Round Two, you can weigh in via a public version of the survey.

Read about Forecasting the Future of Museum Ethics, and access earlier posts about the forecast on the blog. This project is a collaboration between AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums and Seton Hall University’s Institute of Museum Ethics, with support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.