Thursday, July 28, 2011

More Crowdsourced Scholarship: Citizen History

Today’s guest post is by Elissa Frankle, an education consultant at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. When not coordinating and raving about the Children of the Lodz Ghetto Citizen History project, she trains law enforcement officers and judges and coordinates public survivor programs for the museum. Elissa can be found on Twitter @museums365.

Forecast: In the history museum of the future, curators’ work will be driven by our audiences’ curiosity, and their preference for inquiry over certainty.

In the age of the twenty-four hour news cycle and a well-researched, well-policed Wikipedia, museums like to believe that we still have the advantage of being Authorities. We know how to do Research. We know how to pose the Right Questions. We know, most importantly, how to Give Our Visitors The Answers.

Citizen History is an experiment in finding out what happens if we trust our visitors enough to allow them to bring their diverse perspectives and boundless enthusiasm into the research work of the museum and share our authority.

Citizen History is similar in concept to Citizen Science, in which a museum or other research institution invites participants to go into their backyards to count birds, for example, or sample streams. The institution sets the question, determines the parameters of the study, may provide training, and checks the results—but trusts participants of various levels of skill to collect the actual data.

Citizen History opens up a museum’s existing data to participants and, through scaffolded inquiry, invites participants to draw conclusions to answer big questions. At the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, for instance, our Children of the Lodz Ghetto project invites citizen historians to mine our data, challenging them to find out what happened to 14,000 students from the Ghetto who signed a school album in 1941. The questions we pose are: What was school like in the ghetto? How were students organized? Where did they live in relation to the schools? Did the fate of a given student depend, in part, on where he or she lived or went to school? Our databases may contain the names, dates, and places that can help answer these questions, and enable us to properly memorialize these individuals. 

Screen shot of the project.

We currently have 5,000 names on the project site, and provide the information we have on each: the name as it was signed in the album, the number of the school the student attended in the fall of 1941, and a general age range of students in that school. We designed a user interface that helps citizen historians organize their research: for each student there is a “workspace” divided into five chronological sections, and each section contains fields for specific information researchers are challenged to seek out: given name, date of birth, address and date of address change, parents’ names, name of labor camp to which the student was sent, etc. We link many of the museum’s searchable online names databases related to the Lodz ghetto to the relevant chronological stage, facilitating the search for snippets of information to fill these fields.  

Yiddish signatures

One of the greatest difficulties facing citizen historians is the messiness of the data: students might have gone by many different names, but only signed one—and sometimes signed in Yiddish, or with a first initial and last name only. There may not be any information on a given student. While these are no different from the frustrations that professional historians face, it does mean we have to work to manage the expectations of citizen historians (there will not always be information, but don’t give up!) and encourage them to be flexible and use their imaginations (what if that last name Berlinska signed in the album appears as Berlinski in the database?).

The secret weapon in Citizen History, mitigating both user frustration and institutional concerns, is the back-end facilitator (in this case, me!), who is responsible for enforcing institutional standards for accurate research and maximizing user satisfaction with the interface. The museum has high standards for precision and accuracy in disseminating the history of the Holocaust; rightly so, since inaccuracies are often used to fuel the fires of Holocaust denial. No information generated by the Citizen History project is made available to the public until it is quality checked by me.

This is a huge job: I proof the work of citizen historians by checking the online sources they cite, respond to all submitted content with a rating of its accuracy (confirmed, possible, invalid) and provide an upbeat, encouraging comment while gently pointing out (if necessary) that the user has jumped to conclusions without evidence or missed a possible name match in a database search. I encourage citizen historians to go through multiple revisions until he or she has learned the correct methodology for moving from a question to a data point to a narrative. The next stage of the project, launching this fall, will also encourage citizen historians to organize into research groups to tackle questions they have generated themselves.

In the future, we hope to turn some of the work of facilitation over to “expert users,” who have established their credibility by using the site extensively and accurately. I can imagine a future in which this research process lies entirely with citizen historians: self-organizing research groups submitting work that is checked by an expert user, and integrated into museum content. This will require a high degree of trust on the part of the museum—but so far, our most dedicated citizen historians have proven themselves to be accurate and thorough, in other words, trustworthy users and guardians of the memory of the students who signed the album.

We believe that Citizen History can encourage more people to become historians, or at least make history and historical thinking more accessible to participants. If we don’t talk at our visitors, but instead talk with them, listen to them, find out what makes the curious—we welcome them into the conversation and open up the possibility that history is interesting, or, even fun. And the museum benefits from this shared authority as well: maybe the findings of our Citizen Historians will challenge our assumptions about the Lodz Ghetto. Maybe they will pose questions we haven’t yet thought to ask.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Museums Can Save the World: Tackling Food Deserts

Take a look at DC’s food deserts:

The pink areas are food deserts. In D.C., they are all located in Wards 5, 7 and 8.
Image is from DCentric
Pretty scary, yes? All those swathes of pink are low income communities where at least 33% of residents live more than a mile from a supermarket or grocery store. (But close to plenty of fast-food joints, I’m sure.) You can use the USDA’s Food Desert Locator to map your community.

One of the goals of the First Lady's Let's Move! initiative is to expand the availability of nutritious food to food deserts. This still leaves the daunting goal of changing behavior, but it’s a good start. You can’t eat what you can’t buy.

Hmmm. Good test of CFM’s thesis that museums can save the world. What can a museum do to help solve the problem of food deserts? In a mission-compatible way that also benefits their bottom line?

Plenty, it turns out. See this earlier post on the partnership between the historic site Woodlawn and the DC based Neighborhood Restaurant Group that has resulted in the Arcadia Center for Food and Sustainable Agriculture. Arcadia is tackling the food challenge on many fronts: educating school children about healthy eating; making it easier for local farmers to transport and market their produce. Now they are launching the Mobile Market, a farmers-market-on-wheels, housed in an old school bus, that will take local produce and artisan foods to neighborhoods that typically don't have access to fresh food. The Mobile Market will also try to overcome the behavioral barriers to buying and preparing fresh food by providing recipes, cooking demos, and fun food education to encourage better eating and home cooking. And it accepts vouchers from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children (WIC) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Here is Michael Babin of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group talking about Arcadia’s Mobile Market, which is about to launch.

Maybe this isn’t the perfect model for your museum, but there are many other ways museums are contributing to the national effort to fight obesity and promote healthy eating.

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.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Futurist Friday: BLDGBlog

Sometimes scanning for change is about finding information. Sometimes it’s about fueling your imagination, seeking out what Jane McGonigal called “brain grenades”—ideas that shake up your thinking and open your mind to new possibilities.

Here’s a good source for mental explosives: BLDGBlog

BLDGBlog features a news feed pulling from fringe sources such as their sister site Edible Geography, Wired Magazine’s Danger Room (“what’s next in national security”) and We Make Money Not Art as well as mainstream sources like the Guardian and the NYT.

It also conducts long, thoughtful interviews with writers and thinkers with a lot to say about the future, including author China Miéville  (one of my fav authors of science fiction) on the process of envisioning the future of the city, Ed Mazria (founder of Architecture 2030) on architecture and climate change and Sara Redstone (plant health and quarantine officer at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew) on the ecological risks of open borders.

Then there is the blog posts themselves, which provide a wild tour through the realm of the possible and actual (and the strange intersection of the two). I always find it stimulating reading, whether it is:

So how should I describe BLDGBlog? It’s just…oh never mind. It’s kind of like the Museum of Jurassic Technology—explaining it spoils half the fun. Explore it for yourself, and see how it warps alters your perceptions of the world.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Future of Museum Ethics: Launching the Forecast

This week, the Center for the Future of Museums and the Institute of Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University launch the Future of Museum Ethics forecast, a project to identify emerging issues in museum ethics. This week’s guest post by Erik Ledbetter, principal of Heritage Management Solutions and special adviser to the exercise, introduces the first round of the forecast. See the final paragraph for an invitation to participate in the forecast and a link to the initial survey.

My assignment is to launch our forecasting exercise with a review of some misconceptions, disputes and thorny issues that arise whenever we invoke the term "museum ethics." These include the relationship of ethics to law, whether ethics are minimal guidelines or aspirations, and the enforceability of ethics codes. Let's explore each of these in turn and see how they can help us envision the hot ethical issues of the future.

Law v. Ethics

When some of us were young, eager, and new to the field, it all seemed very simple: law was the minimum standard and ethics the higher standard. The American Association of Museum’s (AAM) Code of Ethics supports this view, asserting that
As nonprofit institutions, museums comply with applicable local, state, and federal laws and international conventions, as well as with the specific legal standards governing trust responsibilities. This Code of Ethics for Museums takes that compliance as given. But legal standards are a minimum. Museums and those responsible for them must do more than avoid legal liability, they must take affirmative steps to maintain their integrity so as to warrant public confidence. They must act not only legally but also ethically.

Nine times out of ten it works this way in the real world—but not always. Sometimes the general public’s attitude towards an ethical issue change faster than the museum field's own understanding and expectations. If public attitudes on a ethical issue lead, in turn, to a law being enacted into law by sympathetic legislators, museums can find themselves in the uneasy position of their own Codes of Ethics suddenly becoming a minimal standard, and the requirements of the law a more stringent and restrictive test. This happened twice during the 1990s when changing public attitudes towards cultural property led to: 1) the U.S. Congress creating NAGPRA to supersede museum's laggard handling of Native American claims to human remains and funerary objects; and 2) in the area of non-U.S. antiquities, U.S. Federal courts ruling that some foreign patrimony laws might make it illegal for a museum or private citizen to possess ancient objects covered by such laws, even though the acquisition of the object complied with the most stringent museum ethical requirements concerning provenance. The second situation persists to this day: even though AAM and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) have recently tightened their ethical guidance in the area of antiquities, their requirements still fall short of the requirements of law in some instances, and museums proceed at their own risk.

Lesson 1: In forecasting, keep an eye out for areas in which public attitudes towards an ethical issue seem to be moving faster than museum practices. These areas could be the NAGPRAs of the future.

Minimalism v. Maximalism

A second controversy, concerning the very nature of ethics, plays out between adherents of what I will call the Minimalist and Maximalist approaches to ethical issues. Minimalists believe that any action that passes the test set forth in the standards is by definition ethical; no compliant action can be said to be "more ethical" than any other. Maximalists see ethics as a rubric that can be applied to any decision or dilemma, rather than being limited to certain specific areas defined in the codes of ethics (acquisitions, deacessioning, donor support, etc.) or by the details of those codes. Maximalists believe one can always ask: is there a more just or more inclusive course of action we could take? Are we seeking a kind of mechanical minimum compliance, or are we bringing the museum into greater harmony with and support of progressive developments in society at large?

Lesson 2: Be on the lookout for issues that might exacerbate tensions between the minimalist and maximalist approaches to ethics. Who will comprise the museum workforce of the future, and are they likely to favor one approach over the other?

Voluntary v. Enforced Compliance

Finally, a third area of controversy involves enforceability. In the museum field, compliance with codes of ethics are, for the most part, voluntary; museums and museum professionals not yet in compliance in all areas are encouraged to evolve toward a stance of ever greater compliance. As a general rule, museum associations do not police compliance with their Codes through any formal enforcement procedures and sanctions. The emphasis is on counseling and assistance rather than censure. This is not, however, universally true. AAMD reserves the right to sanction members for taking actions the association’s board of directors believes contravene AAMD Professional Practices in Art Museums. Most recently, they censured Randolph College for proposing to use funds from deaccessioning collections of the Maier Museum of Art for purposes other than the acquisition of new art.

Lesson 3: Consider developments that could shift the field toward a culture of enforcement or reinforce the expectation of voluntary compliance.

This essay on differing understandings about the very nature of museum ethics just scratches the surface. (I’ve barely said anything about the flashpoint issues that set off ethical debates; I’m sure each of you could make a long list of these based on your own professional perspective.) But the methodology holds: take a present area of tension within museum practice — or outside the museum community, but with direct relevance to museums — and imagine how it might play out in changed circumstances in the future. Some issues will be rendered irrelevant by time and change. Others will become the ethical conflicts of the future. It's up to you to tell which is which!

For an overview of the ethics forecasting exercise, see this post and the project web page. To participate in the public version of the forecast, follow this link to the first survey. Your input will be compared and contrasted to that of project “Oracles,” who have been recruited to represent a range of expertise and experience within and outside the museum field.

[Note to Oracles: to answer the first survey, follow the link provided in your assignment email—do not use the public link provided above.]

Let the forecast begin!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Introducing Food Day!

Today’s guest post is by Carolina Sánchez-Hervás, Food Day assistant coordinator at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit watchdog group that advocates for nutrition and health, food safety, alcohol policy and sound science. Carolina invites museums to participate in a national event promoting health and good nutrition.

It’s time to fix our broken food system. Over the course of the next 3 months, the Center for Science in the Public Interest hopes to create a huge grassroots mobilization for changing what Americans eat—and what the food industry produces—for the better. And we want to enlist museums to help with this effort.

For Food Day 2011, we’ve identified six key priorities:
  1. Reducing diet-related disease by promoting healthy foods
  2. Supporting sustainable farms and stopping subsidizing agribusiness
  3. Expanding access to food and alleviating hunger
  4. Reforming factory farms to protect animals and the environment
  5. Curbing junk-food marketing to kids
  6. Obtain fair pay and safe conditions for food and farm workers
Our goal on Food Day is to inspire people all over the country to organize thousands of events on Oct. 24 to celebrate healthy, delicious eating and to solve local communities’ food problems.

As Michelle Obama noted in her video announcement of Let’s Move! Museums & Gardens at the AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo last May, your field already contributes enormously to the health of your communities. Museums and public parks and zoos and so many other places expose our children to new ideas and inspire them to stretch their imaginations. You teach them new skills and ways of thinking and you instill a love of learning that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Museums have the ability to reach thousands of children, teens, and adults every day and make a lasting impression on their lifestyle choices.

So I suspect many of you may already be holding an event that fits into Food Day. For example, in Washington, D.C., the National Archives is observing Food Day by holding an Open House in conjunction with its “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” exhibit. We hope other museums will get involved by offering special programs or exhibits about food, holding nutrition workshops for kids, offering healthier options at dining facilities, hosting a food film screening, or other events. Why not let us help you organize and publicize these events! Visit the Food Day web site to volunteer to be a community coordinator, find a community coordinator, or register your event.

It’s all connected: The meals we eat, the foods we grow, the policies we form, and the impact we have. Let’s have a great Food Day to make it happen!

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.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

More on Reinventing the Historic House (while Saving the World)

Over a thousand readers perused the post on director Laurie Ossman’s strategies to improve Woodlawn’s future through partnering with restaurateur Michael Babin to create the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture.

Arcadia is dedicated to growing a sustainable food system and culture in the Washington, D.C. area, creating a rallying point and collaborative space for local efforts and initiatives around better food. By partnering with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Michael Babin wants to improve community health by providing education about good food and creating connections between local farms and the urban core, suburbs and surrounding areas.

Woodlawn gets a working farm, true to its agricultural roots. Michael gets access to primo land barely 15 miles from downtown D.C. Match made in heaven, yes?

But is this partnership so rare as to be unique? Many of the comments you’ve lobbed my way about this story have been along the lines of “that’s great, but it’s so specific to Woodlawn! How could a model like this work for my museum? What are the key factors for success?”

I recently visited Woodlawn to see the farm-in-progress first-hand, and invited Laurie and Michael to address these questions. Here are some snippets from that interview. (Background music provided by the helicopters of nearby Davison Army Airfield at Fort Belvoir):

Stay tuned for a longer excerpt from this conversation, which will appear in the September/October issue of Museum.

To explore ways museums can improve their financial sustainability and grow their audience through food-related projects, educate kids about healthy eating and help communities tackle food issues, join us in Pittsburgh on Oct. 13 for “Feeding the Spirit,” a national symposium on museums, food and community.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Questioning Assumptions: Is Inspiration More Important than Knowledge?

Today’s guest post is by Conny C. Graft, a consultant in research and evaluation based in Williamsburg, Virginia. Her keynote on the future of museum audiences, delivered at the Small Museums Association Conference this past spring received rave reviews, so I invited her to share her musings on the CFM Blog.

I recently conducted a post-field trip survey with school teachers about the skills of interpreters, asking the teachers to rank a list of critical skills that the interpreters demonstrated from best to worst. I also asked the teachers to use the same list to rank which skills were most important to the success of a field trip. The good news: teachers ranked interpreters most highly on knowledge. The bad news: knowledge was the least valued of the listed skills. The teachers indicated the most important skill for the success of a field trip was the ability to get students excited about the subject, and on this skill interpreters ranked dead last.

(The left column shows the best to worst skills teachers believed the interpreters exhibited. The right column shows the skills that were most important to them. These are the skills they hoped for and felt would make the field trip useful and memorable.)

When I shared the results with interpreters, some were visibly confused. Why wouldn’t teachers rank knowledge as the most important skill? Because teachers want to spark their student’s interest so that they go back to the classroom excited about learning history. Is it possible this opportunity to become enthused about a subject is what is most important to other visitors as well? More generally, do historians, curators, visitor services staff, directors and board members assume that visitors value knowledge over the ability of staff to engage the interest of their audience? Do staff, in effect, assume that visitors are mirror-images of themselves?

As a visitor researcher, evaluator and trainer, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to make museums sustainable. Several recent CFM reports examine the changes in American demographics. In 2010, there was “Museums and Society: 2034,” followed by “Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums” (prepared for CFM by the Cultural Policy Center of The University of Chicago). These reports make it clear that in the U.S. minorities are growing relative to overall population, and museums need to consider the impact of this change. This past May at the AAM annual meeting, I attended a presentation by James Chung from Reach Advisors where he shared recent Census Bureau data. There it was again: the changing face of America. When I looked around the room at the audience, there we were: all white and almost all female. But the gap in diversity between staff and audiences goes beyond white/nonwhite and male/female. We need to examine the assumptions we make about current and future audiences, and how these assumptions are shaped by the demographics of our staff and volunteers. Do visitors in fact value what we value? Do they want to consume what we want to provide, in the way we prefer to provide it?

The field trip story I relate above suggests that the gap between “us” and “them” may deep. This is born out by my overall experience as a consultant. Recently, before giving a talk for interpreters for The Historic Homes Consortium of Washington, D.C., I surveyed interpreters and guides registered for the symposium on how they preferred to experience historic sites and houses. During my talk I shared the results of their surveys and compared them to the results of a larger study, conducted by Reach Advisors, which asked museum visitors how they prefer to visit historic sites. As I expected, while most interpreters preferred guided tours, only half of visitors do so. The other half of visitors preferred to see sites on their own. While most of the interpreters did not prefer hands-on activities, a large majority of visitors do, especially families with children. Understanding and examining our own biases and preferences for learning and identifying where they are similar or different to those of our audience is critical to preparing our staff and volunteers for change.

Museums may need assistance in recognizing our assumptions and considering how they impact visitors. The Arc of Dialogue method has been used successfully at many institutions, including many Civil Rights Sites of Conscience (The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, The Levine Museum of the New South, The Wing Luke Museum, the Jane Adams Hull House Museum and others) to bring visitors together to talk about difficult issues. Perhaps we could we use this tool with our staff and volunteers to examine stereotypes and assumptions about our current and potential audiences.

Examining internal assumptions amongst staff/volunteers before undertaking a visitor study can be eye opening. After the visitor study is complete compare the findings to your initial assumptions. Do staff and volunteers think that the visitors they serve share their values and preferences? If the visitor study challenges those assumptions, how might this realization change how you select and train interpreters? Would it change how you design the museum experience? We may think that our visitors mirror ourselves, but visitor studies can help us really see who we are serving, and identify, understand and bridge the gaps between our assumptions about our audiences what they truly want and need.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Futurist Friday: Past Visions of the Future

Meet Matt Novak.

Matt is a self-identified “accidental expert” on past visions of the future, and oversees the Paleofuture blog—an online archive of materials related to retro-futurism.

Paleofuture explores “the past that never was.” Why should we care what forecasters of previous decades and centuries got wrong?
a) It’s funny
b) Laughing at the mote in others’ eyes can make us aware of the beam in our own. Blind spots. Get it?
For example, this recent post on a 1958 vision of Jetpack Mailmen, whooshing door to door to deliver letters. The post goes on to describe a vision from the next year that almost, but not quite, foresees email. But after envisioning how messages could be beamed through space, the author reverted to a printout for final delivery. Assumption: Mail = physical object.

Our visions of the future are often similarly constrained by assumptions about how things are or have to be. This constricts the mental map we draw of the Cone of Plausibility encompassing potential futures. Which means, in turn, we may incorrectly assume that some potential future are Simply Impossible or fail to imagine them at all.

Following Paleofuture is a great way to hone your ability to recognize and test such assumptions. After you have a good snicker at the expense of the poor sap who got it wrong, whip out a pen and make a few notes:

  • What underlying assumptions shaped this vision of the future?
  • How did each assumption influence the scenario created by the author or artist?
  • What happened in the world to undermine this assumption, and turn it on its head?

Want to take it a step further? Write or draw your own little story of the expected future—something you assume will come to be. Then turn a critical eye on your prediction, and have a good preemptive laugh.

To make Paleofuture part of your regular process of scanning for change add the blog to your RSS feed or follow Matt on Twitter.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Dirt on the Stearns Museum’s Children’s Garden

Ella Mitchell, who is interning in AAM’s Government Relations and Advocacy department, reports on her interview with director Charlene Akers of the Stearns History Museum, an early volunteer for the Let’s Move! Museums and Gardens campaign. 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.

Given the current projects at the Stearns History Museum in St. Cloud, Minn., you might wonder whether Charlene Akers and her staff were the inspiration for Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Museums and Gardens. The Stearns opened its latest exhibit, “The Working White House: Two Centuries of Tradition and Memories,” from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), on June 18, soon after the museum’s summer White House Children’s Garden celebrated its inaugural plantings.

The seeds for this garden/exhibit collaboration were sown last year when a volunteer suggested transforming an overgrown plot on the museum’s property into a place to teach kids how to grow vegetables. The museum had eagerly anticipated the “Working White House” exhibit since July 2009, and in light of all the press about First Lady Obama’s vegetable garden, a garden seemed like a perfect match. Local children were recruited to the project even before the ground thawed, growing seedlings for the garden in nearby elementary school classrooms this spring.

Now in its fourth week, the White House Children’s Garden is thriving under the care of its budding botanists. Each Thursday throughout the summer, 40 children ages 7–11 will till the soil, yank out weeds and tend sprouts as they learn how to cultivate their own food and understand the relationship between healthy eating and strong bodies. Partnerships between the Stearns and individuals and organizations in the community provide opportunities for the kids to learn more practical skills as well. Last week local chiropractor Dr. Mark Roerick visited the museum and led an animated lesson on stretching in preparation for the day of gardening ahead. Later in July, pediatric nutritionists from nearby St. Cloud Hospital will teach about smart food choices.

Ms. Akers doesn’t consider this foray into farming to be a peripheral project for the organization. On the contrary, it is integral to fulfilling the goals of the Stearns Museum. “Our mission is to engage people in the exploration of [Stearns] County’s diverse heritage by making connections to the past, perspective on the present, and inspiration for the future,” she commented in a recent interview. “People in the past had gardens, in the present they have gardens, and hopefully they will in the future.” By teaching children about gardening, as well as the historical context of food production, Akers hopes that “kids will be inspired to get out, get active, and raise their own food Hopefully they will realize that they have to take part in their own health - it’s just not from a doctor’s office.”

The history of Stearns County is rooted in 150 years of agricultural activity, but that doesn’t mean that a garden can’t fit just as well into the mission of an inner-city or any other museum. Akers points out that growing vegetables at home has never been limited to the fields of the Corn Belt. “Gardens have always been a part of peoples’ lives: even in New York City they have little tomato plants out on balconies.”

Accordingly, she encourages other museums to add some green to their routine and consider joining the Let’s Move! Museums and Gardens initiative. Innovative programs are essential for museums in the 21st century. As Akers says, “We’ve got to expand our roles. We can’t operate as one-track operations; we’ve got to be diverse while still fulfilling our missions.” For the Stearns, the garden initiative also contributes to the bottom line. Not only is the White House Children’s Garden teaching valuable lessons to local children, but the museum has also gained positive publicity and local interest. “In fact,” Ms. Akers says, “We received a grant from the Smithsonian to provide educational programming for kids this summer and funding from The Julianne Williams Fund as a result of the Children’s Garden.”

The Stearns Museum is committed to integrating the Children’s Garden and its lessons into their regular museum programming. In the coming summers, the museum will transform the plot of land first into an native plant and herb garden to correspond with an exhibit on the history of Native Americans, and then to a victory garden for a show on World War II. And when the kids have to put down their trowels in the winter, they can still stretch their muscles by hiking or cross country skiing on the 10 miles of trails on the museum’s property throughout the year.

Teaching about nutrition and healthy bodies isn’t a goal only for science or children’s museums, as the Stearns History Museum demonstrates with its thoroughly integrated Children’s Garden program. Partnering with First Lady Michelle Obama and Let’s Move! Museums and Gardens is the icing on the cake (or, perhaps more appropriately, the dressing on the salad) of this meaningful project.

The Let’s Move! Museums and 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 and to register, please visit: Please leave a note in the comments if you’ve heard of other museums showing their green thumbs, taking a closer look at nutrition, or getting people moving!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Futurist Friday: BioPunk Fiction

“The function of science fiction is not always to predict the future but sometimes to prevent it.”—Frank Herbert

Me, authoritative voice, telling you, museum professional: Read More Science Fiction

I know, it may look and feel like wasting time (because it’s, you know, fun) but I assure you it is a totally valid forecasting activity.

Some good science fiction hits the futurist sweet spot—set far enough in the future not to become quickly dated, close enough to the present to help us reflect on the consequences of our current acts, building on credible projections and spiced with vivid imagination. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl fits the bill, and is tremendously well-written to boot. I encourage you to add to your summer reading list.
(photo credit: Nightshade Books)

Bacigalupi’s story takes place in a dystopic world about 100 years in the future, shaped by:

  • The collapse of petroleum supplies
  • The effects of global warming, notably a dramatic rise in sea level
  • Genetic engineering as the dominant technology of the era

“Calorie wars” over food and seed stock have wracked the world. Society has just begun to re-establish global trade, via dirigibles and sail, and the emergent powers are giant agricultural companies. Employing the best and brightest generippers, these companies control governments and economies by nefarious use of genetically engineered diseases that wipe out crops (and have a regrettable tendency to mutate into human pathogens), graciously fill the resulting caloric void with resistant (and sterile) seeds.

Does this sound just a little bit plausible? (*cough* Monsanto *cough*)

The tale is set in Thailand, the only country to resist the global crop monopolies through its careful stewardship of its botanic heritage (and a willingness to engage in its own biohacking, when necessary). The “windup girl” of the title is a genetically engineered geisha-cum-personal assistant, one of a number of “New People” created by the Japanese to fill their need for workers given the continued decline and aging of their population.

Here are some of the very real contemporary issues this fictional tale pushes us to consider:

  • As we extend the boundaries of biotechnological enhancement and begin to experiment with genetic manipulation, what constitutes the boundaries of “being human?” Will biologically enhanced people have the same rights as non-enhanced? (Think this isn’t a current issue? Check out the debates concerning who can compete in the mainstream Olympics.)
  • Faced with the inevitable approach of peak oil, and with heightened awareness of the dangers of nuclear energy, how do we prepare for a credible future that relies on neither of these sources of power?
  • Is genetic manipulation of food wise? For example, do the risks posed by crops designed to be herbicide-resistant outweigh the benefits?
  • Are the current policies governing distribution of seeds to third world (via trade or aid) ethical? Do they provide a short-term solution that in the long term will endanger crucial biodiversity?

And, (this reader, at least, wants to know) if you cross a cat with a chameleon, would you really get a Cheshire feline capable of surviving the end of the world?

Please contribute your futurist summer reading recommendations in Comments, below. Better yet, volunteer to review a book for this Blog!