Thursday, October 27, 2011

Can Disasters Help Us Build a Better Future?

The best that can be said of a disaster is that sometimes we can learn something, if we are wise and attentive, that will make for a better outcome in the future.

I just finished reading a great essay, Lost and Found in Japan, on the World Futures Society website. The author, Patrick Tucker, reports on his travels to several villages in Japan that were devastated by the tsunami that struck on March 11, 2011.

Tucker notes “Events like the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan illustrate just how little control we have over the future, despite our actions. Contrary to common hubris, you cannot plan for the unthinkable. You can only pay attention, listen, and learn in order to build stronger, react smarter, survive better when the unforeseeable occurs.”

Japan is an interesting model for the US in many ways. We share the challenges of:
An aging society (In the tsunami-affected prefectures of Iwate, Fukushima, and Miyagi, an average of one in four people is over the age of 65. Today, 1 in 8 Americans are older than 65. In 2034, the ratio will jump to 1 in 5.)

Growing disparity in wealth (in Japan, “kakusa sakai”—the society without evenness). See this article on the US Congressional Budget Office report released this week documenting that the top 1 percent of earners more than doubled their share of the nation’s income over the last three decades.

Rising unemployment (especially notable among relatively well-educated youth—which is known in Japan as the Lost Generation).

Increasing distrust in government (though that is kind of perpetual in the US).

Watching how the consequences of this natural disaster play out in Japan—demographically, technologically, culturally, politically—sheds light on what the US might face in the future from natural and man-made catastrophes.

Some things that jump out at me, when I read Tucker’s observations:

1) The way that large numbers of volunteers, largely young people, many from the ranks of the under- or unemployed, flocked to help after the tsunami. This dramatizes the potential in both our populations of people ready and able to do good and necessary work, if only we can provide productive channels for their energy, altruism and discontent. Contrast the focused, organized and productive response of volunteers to disaster relief in Japan with general dissatisfaction in the US that has given rise to still unfocused rage at social inequality expressed through Occupy Wall Street and its sister protests.

3) The huge difference that a single nonprofit can make. Tucker highlights the work of Peace Boat, a Japanese NGO founded by students in the 1980s to promote world peace through cultural tourism. In the aftermath of the tsunami, Peace Boat directed its fleet and its staff towards relief efforts—bringing in and coordinating volunteers, and evacuating local youth to “summer in a healthy, dynamic and creative environment, where they can learn new skills, enjoy new experiences and gain a fresh perspective on the future, while enabling their parents to focus on rebuilding their community.” Tucker notes that Peace Boat may well bankrupt itself in the process, but what a glorious way to go!

4) The scale of the response required for a disaster of this scope, and the daunting gap between needs and resources. Tucker reports that the Ishinomaki authorities plan to build 150 government-subsidized housing units. However, 8,000 families have applied for temporary housing, and that number is expected to reach 10,000. What role can the NGO and private sector play in filling that gap? Tucker mentions the work of David Lopez, a Baltimore architect who’s promoting new approaches to emergency housing. His focus: “shelter solutions that allow communities to stay together, as close to their original dwellings as possible, after disasters,” enabling people to stay in their neighborhoods and house themselves by making low-cost, adaptive use of debris.

5) The hyper-local approach to disaster relief taken in Japan, in which communities make most of the key decisions about how to deploy government resources, from how to group neighbors together in emergency shelters, to how to rebuild. Contrast this with the often ham-handed federally-driven approach taken to relief in New Orleans post-Katrina. “If there is anything to be learned from the events that played out in Japan after the tsunami,” notes Tucker, “it is that our public response to disaster must accommodate and encourage this vital urge to keep community physically intact.” 

The coming decades will inevitably challenge the US with floods, fire, tornados and earthquakes as well as creeping threats such as drought or rising sea levels, and wildcard events such as terrorist attacks. What role can and will museums play in preparing their communities to respond to these challenges, and in uniting and preserving communities in the aftermath of disasters?

Please share your museum's experiences in helping communities deal with disaster. Email stories to or post in comments, below.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Building a Better Fishing Pole: how technology-focused organizations can help their museum community

Many museums are struggling to navigate the expanding universes of social media and digital content with the slim resources available to them in constrained budgets. Fortunately, some entrepreneurial museums are breaking trail—pooling resources to develop shared tools, investing in free and open source software that can be adopted by the rest of the field. In today’s guest post, Perian Sully, project manager: online access and digital asset management at the Balboa Park Online Collaborative, reports on some of these projects.

Balboa Park Online Collaborative is an unconventional organization. BPOC was founded two years ago to provide a host of technology services and support for 27 (and growing) organizations in San Diego’s Balboa Park. We provide IT support, build new websites, help with iPad kiosks, digitize collection items and video archives, and act as a resource for museum staff with various technology questions. BPOC’s partners include organizations that represent natural history, science, history, anthropology, craft, fine art, performing arts, locomotion, a zoo, archives and libraries; yearly budgets range anywhere from $500K to over $200 million.

Because of the diversity of partners, BPOC strives to develop tools that allow organizations to duplicate our efforts, with or without our direct assistance. This also reflects the belief in collaboration and sharing that the BPOC staff hold dear. We are an organization that has the knowledge and ability to promote technology use in the museum field, and we have been hard at work developing at least two Drupal website modules (not yet ready for prime time, but we’re polishing them now), as well as an image uploader that takes metadata exports from collection management systems and matches the records to their images and uploads to Flickr. We’ve called this uploader Sammu: Synchronized Automated Metadata and Media Uploader.

San Diego Air and Space Museum images preparing to be uploaded.

For many organizations looking to put their collections online, the options are either confusing, expensive, labor intensive or a combination of all three. And even if the museum already has their collection available on their website, they may wish to share their images on social media sites to encourage awareness of the collection and drive traffic back to their website. Here at Balboa Park, we encourage our partners to put their collections on Flickr because it’s inexpensive, easy to use, has a very large and active user community and it’s easy to use Flickr’s built-in tools to display the collection back on the museum’s website. People are much more likely to stumble upon the images via Flickr because of its robust tagging and search tools.

One BPOC partner, the San Diego Air and Space Museum, has released over 170,000 images into the Public Domain through the Flickr Commons, and has garnered nearly 4 millions views in 18 months. The Museum of Photographic Arts, joined the Commons in May of 2011—as of this writing MPA has only 585 images online, but nearly 200,000 views. Last year, the SDASM and MPA websites had 768,124 and 385,788 pageviews, respectively. Clearly, these organizations are gaining broader exposure among the community that uses the Flickr website.

However, we also know how difficult it can be for organizations to get their images and descriptive text into Flickr. It was important to BPOC to develop a tool that we could use and also share with our community in order to duplicate these successes. We hired a developer, John Fox (maker of the MemoryMiner software some museums are using), to create Sammu. He created an elegant tool that takes tab-delimited text files exported from collection management systems, looks for the image filename, matches the record information, and smushes the record fields together into Flickr’s description field before uploading.

Sammu in action

Developing freeware like Sammu takes a fair amount of care and feeding by the developers and clients alike, and at some point the software needs to be tested by the community at large. We’re at that point now, and (if you’re running MacOS 10.6 and up) we could use your help with testing Sammu and providing feedback.

The Indianapolis Museum of Art Lab, the Center for History and New Media and the New Media Consortium regularly release new open source or free software tools to the community. Other museums offer their collection data and images in formats appropriate for hacking, research or remixing via API or download (like the Powerhouse Museum’s Electronic Swatchbook and the Brooklyn Museum’s images in the Wikimedia Commons) or provide standards and other resources (ex. the Getty Research Institute’s vocabularies).

The institutions I’ve provided as examples here are large, it’s true, as it does take a fair amount of resources to create these tools. But as our culture of sharing and collaboration becomes the norm, small institutions can join in, too. By using these tools, and offering their images and data to each other and to the public, we can capitalize on access to these materials and make even better tools.

Perian and CFM would like to know how successful your museum’s Flickr efforts have been. Please use the comment section below to share links to your Flickr stream and tell us how it has worked for you.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Futurist Friday: Agenda 2026

To paraphrase Churchy, from Pogo, “Futurist Friday comes on a Thursday this week.”

I am delighted to find that our museum association colleagues in the Netherlands—the Nederlandse Museumvereniging—produced a report last year that parallels CFM’s Museums & Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures. They were kindly responded to our request that they translate Agenda 2026: Study on the Future of the Dutch Museum Sector into English, so we can share it with you.

It’s a good read, and provides a trans-Atlantic opportunity to explore some important questions. Is the future universal, or will the forces shaping the coming decades play out in significantly different ways across the globe?

The 2026 authors recruited experts from many sectors to rank a multitude of issues on predictability (though I think this is a wonky translation, and they really mean probability) and relevance to museums. This might have played out differently in the U.S. Water, for example, which they rank low on both counts, will be of great relevance in our country as scarcity affects the rate of growth and development of many major metropolitan areas and concerns about water quality and safety affect the exploitation of energy resources. The “tight labor market” would indubitably have made our short list, while European-specific issues would drop out.

In the end the authors focused on six major areas:
  1. Retirement of baby boomers
  2. Growth of international cultural tourism
  3. Cuts in [government] subsidies
  4. Development of the Randstad metropolitan area (Randstad is an area in the Netherlands that includes four major cities: Amsterdam,Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague.)
  5. Digitized society
  6. Greater European influence

Numbers 1, 2, 3, and 5 (bold) are very relevant to U.S. museums, though these forces may play out in different ways in American than for our European colleagues.

Some points of similarity: our Dutch colleagues also face an aging population. We are intensely interested in the large cadre of baby boomers whose behavior (with respect to cultural consumption, philanthropy, volunteerism) is hard to predict yet critically important. The report also includes some interesting speculation on the effects of boomer nostalgia on collections and exhibits, and the risk of alienating younger audiences.

Even the section that on the face of it seems least relevant for the U.S. (on the Randstad metropolitan area) raises interesting questions. Are there comparable “mega-cities” in the U.S., like the Boston-New York-D.C. corridor, which may blend into one big metro area? Should these separate cities start cooperating with each other now on cultural tourism and global marketing, as the 2026 report suggests?

I encourage you to read, compare its observations with Museum & Society 2034 and with your own reading and think about the implications. Use the comment section below to weigh in with your observations.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Feeding the Spirit Symposium: A Fresh Frame of Reference for Museums-Community-Food

This guest post is by David R. Curry, a member of the CFM Council

As someone who has refined a set of strategies to survive symposiums and conferences (which all too often seem like they could be half as long and twice as substantive) I was disarmed by the quality and impact of CFM’s Feeding the Spirit: Museums, Food and Community last week in Pittsburgh.

The meeting was hosted by the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden, and convened in collaboration with the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, the Association of Children’s Museums, the American Public Gardens Association and the Association of African American Museums, with support from presenting sponsor UPMC Health Plan and from Sodexo.

I say disarmed because I did not anticipate that the meeting would have the effect of changing my frame of reference about museums and the role that food—broadly speaking—could play to energize, refresh and align mission, programs and people.

The précis for the meeting on the CFM website addresses the opportunity as follows:
Feeding the Spirit” will recruit museums and public gardens to…help their communities explore our collective values about food, our bodies, our environment and society. It will unify the field around key messages about food critical to transforming the health of the country, and challenge museums and public gardens to integrate these messages into their exhibits, programs and operations. It will lead the field to examine the food choices we provide in our facilities and how these choices align with health and nutrition. [Further, it]…will help museums and public gardens prepare for the future as they re-examine their own attitudes and relationships towards food and explore how food can play a key role in fostering relationships and building new audiences. 
But the proof was in the pudding [note food metaphor] as some 150 participants from a range of museum types, as well as food service companies and collaborating organizations, actively participated in thought leader-led panels and workshop-level exercises.

Well…it did recruit, unify, lead and help prepare!

During the day, organizations as diverse as the Yale Peabody Museum, the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, the Newark Museum, National Museum of the American Indian, the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, the Chicago Botanic Garden, Growing Power (Chicago) and others all reported on unique and powerful exhibits, programs and initiatives themed to “food.”

My key observation (which I am still reflecting on) is about how rich the collaborative networks were that underpinned all these projects.

Clearly, they each depend on building and nurturing collaborations between museums, but, more important, with non-museums institutions and organizations—governmental, academic, commercial and community.

My open question involves how we develop and refine the collaborative skill sets in our museum staffs and leadership to make such projects and their new kinds of goals and outcomes a possibility….and a success.

The day included a good dose of brainstorming and ideation which will be analyzed and disseminated through the “Feeding the Spirit Cookbook” a resource and discussion guide to follow.

Please watch this space as CFM will post video of the thought leader segments of the meeting as well as the annual CFM Lecture which closed the day: Serve It Up Proudly! Some Food for Thought on the Intersections of Food Studies and Museums delivered by Jessica Harris, culinary historian and Queens College, CUNY and the Ray Charles Program at Dillard University.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Backward ABC’s of Museum Data

This week’s blog post comes from Philip M. Katz, assistant director for research at AAM.

This was going to be an essay about the power of museum financial and operating data—robust, reliable numbers that can help museums plan for the future and help the museum field make a better case right now for all museums. I even had a clever hook: the backward ABC’s of Collecting, Benchmarking and Advocating with data.

I was going to write about “the folly of prediction” using data (the subject of a great episode of Freakonomics Radio). I was going to remind you that CFM typically urges museums to take a long-term view of planning. Our standard warning is that “traditional short-term, small scale planning methodologies usually do not prepare a museum for radical changes in the future, or foster real innovation.” As a result, we  try to provide museums with tools for looking 5, 10, 25 or more years down the line. But our assumption is always that good long-term planning builds on solid knowledge about a museum’s current situation. And that requires good tools, like AAM’s new Museum Benchmarking Online (MBO) system, which features instant comparisons and detailed reports for subscribers. 

Finally, I was going to talk about how AAM needs as many museums as possible to share their vital statistics, so we can make informed arguments about the state of the museum field and its impact on American society. (Especially important when policymakers start talking, again, about cutting support for museums.) In the past, museums across the nation generously contributed their data to AAM’s periodic Museum Financial Information surveys; now we’re using MBO to collect the same information. It’s free, but it does take time. subscribers get access to a suite of comparison and reporting tools.

But I couldn’t find a way to make any of this exciting or compelling. So I drew you a comic strip instead. Please share it with you friends and colleagues.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

SmartSteps at the Senator John Heinz History Center

Today’s guest post is from Lisa Dundon, manager of multimedia communications at the Senator John Heinz History Center. Lisa introduces a new video showcasing the History Center’s SmartSteps exhibit, demonstrating yet another way museums can help their community tackle challenges of health and fitness.

The Senator John Heinz History Center, “the Smithsonian’s home in Pittsburgh,” and UPMC Health Plan have partnered to encourage museum visitors to climb the stairs and blend health and history with the new SmartSteps exhibition.
Visitors who take the steps to explore the History Center’s six floors of exhibition space will be treated to unique facts about Pittsburgh history and colorful murals with health and wellness tips.

As far as we know, the History Center is the first museum in the nation with an exhibit in its stairwell. 
The SmartSteps exhibit is part of the museum’s “Health & Fitness” initiatives, which includes healthier eating options at MixStirs Café, a Health and The Body section inside the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, and the nation’s first curator of food and fitness.

Visitors who climb all 123 steps of the SmartSteps exhibit will be rewarded with a complimentary Heinz pickle pin.
The Let’s Move! Museums & Gardens initiative brings the fight for childhood health 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.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Can Museums Step Up?

Today’s guest post is by Jesse Moyer, manager of organizational learning and innovation at KnowledgeWorks. KnowledgeWorks is dedicated to “transforming education in the U.S. from a world of schooling to a world of learning.” As a nonprofit that has spent over a decade helping society envision a better future, it has been a model for CFM from our inception. You can follow Jesse’s exploration of the future at Welcome to the World of Learning blog.

When people talk about the future of education, you invariably hear about Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) and/or Personal Learning Networks (PLNs). From what I have read and understand about the concepts, the difference between PLEs and PLNs is that environments involve taking advantage of different technologies while networks leverage person-to-person relationships. Instead of arguing over vocabulary, let’s just call them personal learning ecologies.

The 2020 Forecast: Creating the Future of Learning defines personal learning ecologies as, “families looking outside the traditional ‘system’ to create ecologies of learning experiences.” Put another way, families do not wait for the traditional education system to change in order to meet currently unmet needs; they take responsibility for their own learning and find their own solutions. Obviously, this has huge implications for the learner, educators, and for institutions inside and outside the “traditional system.”

For the learner, it means they can take control of their own educational destiny. Some people call it anytime, anywhere learning; some call it any place, any pace learning; and some call it differentiated instruction. Whatever you want to call it, personal learning ecologies empower the learner because they are created by the learner, for the learner. Below is a video that contrasts the current system with a learning ecology:

There are also implications for educators. In our current system, teachers have to be everything to everyone: instructor, counselor, social worker and sometimes the only positive influence a child has in their life. In a network of content providers where instruction is differentiated to meet the needs of each and every student, it seems logical that learning agents (educators of the future) would have differentiated roles too: a learning journey mentor, a learning fitness instructor, a community intelligence cartographer, or an eduvator, explained in the video below:

Finally, there are major implications for institutions inside and outside the education system. For those inside the system; schools, districts, boards of education, etc.; the repercussions are too vast to discuss here. It’s the changes for organizations outside the traditional system that are relevant to museums.

Places like museums, libraries and theaters have all sort of interesting knowledge to share, but are often thought of as one-day field trips, at best, instead of legitimate educational providers. What would it look like for museums to take the lead on becoming important contributors to the future education landscape?  Well, it is already happening.  The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis has established a preschool with the mission of, “creating extraordinary learning experiences across the arts, sciences, and humanities that have the power to transform the lives of children and families.” The New York Public Library (I know it’s not a museum, but the concept still applies) hosted a “Find the Future Game” as part of their centennial celebration.

My challenge to museums is this: follow the examples above and step up to this opportunity. As Personal Learning Ecologies erase the boundaries distinguishing “inside” from “outside” the educational system, how can museums, how will museums become a vital part of the new ecology? How will museum staff integrate the role of learning agent into their work?

There are very few things, if any, more important to our society than the education of our children.  Take this opportunity to innovate, shift the role museums play in our society, and become an important part of the most crucial experience in children’s lives: their education.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Futures Studies 101: How to Read the Newspaper

I joke that the biggest change in my life since becoming director of CFM is that now I read the financial section of the New York Times.

Except it isn’t a joke.

Once future studies gave me a framework for my reading, I started reading more broadly and strategically. It has improved my education in many areas in which I was woefully ignorant (economics, global politics. Pop culture). It uncovers news items we share via Dispatches from the Future of Museums and inspires posts on this blog.

So, silly as it may sound, I will devote this post to describing how I, as a futurist, now read the newspaper, based on yesterday’s edition of the NYT (Oct. 5, 2011). I encourage you to add your savvy tips on reading in the comment section at the end of the post.

First. I skim headlines, mentally dropping stories into the general STEEP categories of futurism (Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental and Political). This helps keep my scan wide, and ensures I don’t just fixate on bright shiny objects. (Ooo look! Apple released the iPhone 4S. No transformative changes.)

I also look for stories relating to trends in areas we follow regularly at CFM: anything related to museums, of course, but also ethics, education, energy, transportation, green design, accessibility, mobile tech, gaming, demographic change, philanthropy, food and crowdsourcing. Also (of course) 3D printing and yarnbombing.

Some stories seem directly applicable to the museum field: the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Take a Stand project is an effort to train the next generation of teachers who will “bring classical music to populations that normally wouldn’t have it.” How can museums contribute to training the next generation to appreciate and use our resources?

But many important stories have indirect, but profound, implications for society and our field. I watch the unfolding news about the presidential campaign with acute awareness that a Republican victory in 2012 would be a disruptive event creating a very different political future for museums. Funding for NEA, NEH, NSF and IMLS might be drastically cut. Tax-exempt status might be under greater threaten from political leadership that seeks a balanced national (or state) budget without tax increases on businesses or “ordinary” Americans.

I think about the future implications of any given story—a Japanese reactor shut down yesterday, dealing another blow to public confidence in nuclear power not only locally but, potentially, internationally. Japan’s power strategy was based on nuclear; in the aftermath of damage from the earthquake and tsunami in March, it will almost certainly rethink this strategy. If Japan turns its attention and money to alternate energy research, could this kickstart progress globally?

The most interesting story about the iPhone actually wasn’t about the phone per se, it was about the effect it might have on products and services it may drive closer to the brink of obsolescence. The writer points out that its improved features pose (further) threats to makers of video cameras, telephone providers and makers of digital greeting cards. How will the ever increasing sophistication of smart handheld devices like the iPhone effect the American economy overall? How will it shape how visitors consume and share museum content? (This was before the announcement of Steve Jobs’s death, which may change everything!)

Beyond the serious stuff, I look for stories that provide color and detail for potential scenarios of the future, like this story on squatters in Britain who simply take over vacant properties (and are apparently, under current law, very difficult to evict). In a contracting city like Detroit, where conventional museums are closing, what would happen if people occupied vacant buildings and opened “squatter museums,” to protest the decaying urban infrastructure, and tell their own stories?

Finally, I try to talk about one or two interesting articles with someone else, to test my understanding of the content and to get their take on it. And I listen to what they found interesting—often a different reader will focus on things I completely missed.

Overall, reading with a futurist focus has expanded the range of things I know at least a little about. (Even if I still don’t really understand derivatives.) It helps me think about museums, and the world in which we operate, in a richer context. And it expands my mental rolodex of interesting people in all sectors that AAM might want to involve in future projects.

Now excuse me while I go buy the ingredients for Pork Katsu. The recipe looks delicious. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Connecting with Nature and Staying Fit at Lincoln Park Zoo

As Let’s Move! Museums & Gardens continues to roll out, the campaign has engendered some interesting discussions about potential tensions between a museum’s mission and health related activities. Nutrition and exercise may be a natural fit for a science museum, health museum, or children’s museum, but maybe it is a harder stretch for others. Many art museums, for example, are offering yoga in the galleries, but is this mission related, or just something good but peripheral to how the museum serves its community? This debate is going to come up again and again, in various guises, as museums grapple with whether, and how, to help their communities deal with challenging issues in coming decades. Today’s guest post is from Jaclyn Peterson, manager of public programs explaining how Lincoln Park Zoo decided that in their case yoga is, in fact, a natural fit to mission as well as being good for their audience.

Lincoln Park Zoo recently joined the ranks of cultural institutions that are expanding beyond traditional programming to create new mission-driven opportunities that also encourage children and adults to be physically active. A new outdoor exhibit space, coupled with a community affinity for yoga classes at neighboring locations led to the creation of Yoga at the Zoo.

Each week during the summer, Lincoln Park Zoo hosts outdoor yoga classes adjacent to the Nature Boardwalk exhibit, a 14-acre urban ecosystem complete with a large pond and native wildlife. When the boardwalk opened in June 2010, local joggers, hikers and dog-walkers immediately embraced the opportunity to blend enjoyment of nature with their own fitness goals, while helping the zoo achieve our goal of connecting people to nature. Visitors come to spot wildlife, from painted turtles to black-crowned night herons and use the Nature Boardwalk as a unique space for exercising.  

We immediately recognized our new Peoples Gas Education Pavilion—a new partially enclosed education space on the banks of the pond—as an ideal location for yoga classes. Since the zoo’s core audience is families, we began creating yoga opportunities for parents and caregivers to enjoy with their children. We started by offering Parent & Baby classes as well as adults-only classes. However, we quickly shifted to classes geared to parents with toddlers ages 2–5, an audience that is a better fit for our membership base and better able to enjoy yoga classes. These classes are right in line with the goals of the Let’s Move! Museums & Gardens initiative.  They encourage children to be physically active at a young age, and they require parents to engage in exercising along with their toddlers—an important factor in forming long-lasting exercise habits. Instructors lead fun yoga poses, targeted stretching, together with other age-appropriate activities, like reading a storybook, doing a simple craft or exploring the natural surroundings.

Launching this new program presented challenges. We were careful to work with certified yoga experts during both the pre-planning and program development phase. We had to consider: How do people sign up for classes? What if it rains? Are the yoga instructors on the zoo’s payroll? What if a flock of geese comes through the day before class and leaves droppings all over the outdoor “yoga studio”?  Will local yogis forego the comforts of an indoor studio to combat the potential challenges of attending classes outdoors? Not surprisingly, it was elements we did not consider that ended up being the hurdles we had to work hardest to overcome. We found that our registration set up was not nearly flexible enough. While we hoped people would purchase passes for a set number of classes per month, participants wanted the capability to pick and choose when they attended. Additionally, some attendees were frustrated that there was not a better protocol for moving to a rain location and then communicating location changes. More than once, participants showed up for class on a rainy day, were unable to find the yoga class, and had to go home. Not a good thing!

2011 is our second year of Yoga at the Zoo, and we’ve made great strides in streamlining the management of yoga classes and making registration more flexible for participants. We committed to a reliable rain location and communication plan. We created a whole menu of class pass options, from an unlimited summer pass to a monthly 2-class pass to a single class drop-in pass. In 2012, we hope to further expand our Yoga at the Zoo offerings, and incorporate yoga into some of our established programs, such as summer camp. 

Some traditionalists may not immediately see the connection between yoga and the zoo’s usual education topics, like animal adaptations and zoo careers. However, we believe that there is a strong tie. A healthy lifestyle is commonly linked to a healthy environment. Organic farming, active forms of transportation and local production of foods are all beneficial for human health as well as the environment. Educating children about healthy lifestyles is one way of bringing environmental consciousness to their own experience.

Yoga at the Zoo has been a great learning experience and has inspired us to continue thinking innovatively about future programming. Who would have thought that a zoo exhibit turned outdoor yoga studio would work so well?  And in case you were wondering… yes… the geese do still leave ‘gifts’ in the yoga studio but that hasn’t derailed a class yet.

The Let’s Move! Museums & Gardens initiative brings the fight for childhood health 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.