Thursday, March 29, 2012

Innovation Lab for Museums: Tips for a Successful Application

Thank you, MetLife Foundation! I did a Snoopy Happy Dance when I got the good news that you are funding a second round of Innovation Lab for Museums. AAM and EmcArts have just released the Request for Proposals.

You can read about the Lab here. Short version, it’s a program that helps museums take an innovative idea that has been kicking around the organization and nurture it to the point where may actually fly. (As Richard Evans once remarked to me, EmcArts developed Innovation Lab to counteract the tendency, in most organizations, to beat innovative ideas to death before they have a chance to breathe.)

I’m a big proponent of museums innovating and risking failure in order to discover new ways of operating—the “next practices” that may help the whole field prosper in the coming century. Innovation Lab for Museums is CFM’s first attempt to provide concrete support for innovation, by giving museums access to:
  • EmcArt’s expertise in nurturing innovative ideas through mentoring, coaching and support;
  • start-up funding (each Lab participant gets $40k towards implementation of their project).
I learned a lot from moderating the selection panel’s discussions in round one, last year. In an attempt to make the work of the second selection panel as challenging as possible I want to share with you some tips on preparing a successful application.
My advice, make sure your project is:
  1. Innovative for the field, not just for your museum. Creating a teacher training program might be great, necessary for your community and something your organization has never done before. But many museums already have such programs, so you have good models to work from. You don’t need the help of the Lab to invent this from scratch. Successful Lab proposals will address “adaptive challenges”--situations for which there are no established procedures, existing models or off-the-shelf solutions.
  2. “Half-baked.” This is the term EmcArts uses for ideas in just the right stage of development to benefit from the Lab. In contrast, “Raw” ideas are things you just now dreamt up, and haven’t really worked through at all. “Fully-baked” ideas are projects you have already pretty fully planned, plotted and budgeted—you just need money for implementation. Half-baked ideas are things you have been talking about for awhile, think are promising, but need help to develop to the stage where they can be served up at the table.
  3. Grounded in your museum’s history. Show you know what you have done, and tried, before! If you have a proud history of successful innovation, flaunt it. If you have a private history of bold failures, flaunt that, too. Really, for this application, a history of failure can be a plus if you failed because you tried ambitious things, and you show what you learned from falling on your (organizational) face. This probably means you will need to involve a bunch of staff people in developing the application, rather than delegating it to one or two people. Plumbing institutional memory, you may be surprised to find out how much you have experimented, in the past.
Also, if your half-baked idea logically involves other players—in the museum field, in the community, among the people it serves—identify them in the proposal and make sure you have talked to them about the project. Show how they or their representatives will be involved in the Lab (for example, as part of your “Innovation Team” that will work on the project at your museum and at the week-long Lab retreat in Virginia).

As the RFP notes, if you are thinking of applying, I strongly encourage you to make an appointment with Liz Dreyer, national programs manager to discuss your project. at EmcArts [(212) 362-8541, ext. 27,] Liz can take a look at draft proposals (if you have one ready) and offer helpful suggestions for making it stronger. If you are going to attend the AAM annual meeting in Minneapolis Saint Paul next month, you can also make an appointment with Liz on Monday, April 30 or Tuesday, May 1, for in-person counseling.

Check out Liz’s recent blog post about the applications from round one, and catch up on various posts here about the Lab. If you decide to apply, I look forward to reading about your innovation project!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Your Guide to the Future at the Annual Meeting

At the AAM annual meeting next month, I’ll be spending much of my time at the AAM Showcase in MuseumExpo™, hanging out with the Drawing Club—our 2012 Artists Interpreting the Future of Museums. I hope you visit the Showcase and take up a brush (or crayon, or pen) to contribute to this participatory project illustrating potential futures. You can read more about Drawing Club at the Annual Meeting here. (This is the year of participatory art in MuseumExpo™—The Museum Group is also sponsoring an installation by the Flux Foundation.)

I also hope you go to a crazy number of great sessions.

I am, as usual, offering a few recommendations to help you put together your own “futurist track” at the annual meeting. But this year there are more futures-oriented sessions than I can possibly list here. Some, particularly those related to technology—augmented reality, digitization, data sharing, mobile devices—I trust you to spot for yourselves.

So here is my “curated” list of sessions, one or two per time slot, some of which may not be the obvious futurist picks. Some feature interesting folks who have worked with or written for CFM over the past few years, some relate to the newly released CFM Report TrendsWatch 2012: Museums & the Pulse of the Future. Some just look way cool.

Sunday, April 29

1:15–2:30 p.m.
  • Bringin' It All Back Home: Acknowledging Your Online Support Community—will "explore the intersections of meaningful social networks and our member and donor bases." The panel includes two fabulous guys who are on my “must read” list for their tweets and blogging, James Leventhal (@jamesgleventhal) and Sebastian Chan (@sebchan).

Monday, April 30

9–10:15 a.m.
2–3:15 p.m.
  • The Decentralized Museum—exploring the “museum as network of locations and experiences.” Panel includes Maria Mortati, founder of the SF Mobile Museum and CFM guest blogger.
  • Dangerous/Ridiculous: Risky Ideas Catalyze Change, which looks at the need for museum leaders to take risks, and to create and implement ridiculous ideas that can lead to outrageous success. One of the presenters, Kathy McLean, was a member of the selection panel for round 1 of Innovation Lab for Museums. (For that matter, so was Maria Mortati, of the Decentralized Museum session, above.)
5:15–6:15 p.m.
  • Idea Lounge: Writing a Museums Ethics Code for the Future
    Sally Yerkovich, of the Institute of Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University, joined by a host of able facilitators, will preside over a discussion of the report from the IME/CFM Forecast on the Future of Museum Ethics. This discussion may shake loose the first pebbles in an avalanche that leads to the next revision of the AAM Code of Ethics for Museums.

Tuesday, May 1

9–10:15 a.m.
  • Experimental Projects: Creating a Community of Practice features undertakings that "transcend traditional categorizations by blending artistic, public programming, curatorial and educational frameworks." I believe you will learn a bit more about the Drawing Club—the CFM artists in the AAM Showcase—which is part of the Walker Art Center’s Open Field project.
  • New Roles/New Culture: Tackling Tough Topics and Engaging New Audiences  features Emily Zimmern of the Levine Museum of the New South, which is one of six museums recognized by AAM for its Innovation Project of Excellence last year. 
  • Show Me the Money: Straight Talk about Museum Business Models. Everyone wants to know what the future financial model for museums is. This session promises to look at "experiments in new approaches to fundraising, income streams, open books management, and budgeting." It also features two more of my favorite speakers—Nina Simon and Eric Siegel.
10:4512 p.m.
  • Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User Generated World. I’m flagging this one because the issue of sharing authority is emerging as one of THE hot button topics discussed in and around CFM content. John Durel recently identified authority sharing as one of the top ten issues challenging the public history field.
23:15 p.m.
  • Radical Collaboration: Building Art through Community/Building Community through Art an interactive session with the Flux Foundation (which is mounting one of the participatory art projects in MuseumExpo™, sponsored by The Museum Group) about their collaborative approach to public art.

Wednesday, May 2

910:15 a.m.
  • Building a Healthy Future: Museums and Communities Tackle Issues of Wellness. I will moderate this session, which is the next installment in Feeding the Spirit, CFM’s ongoing exploration  of museums, food & community. Lisa Falk will discuss the Arizona State Museum’s efforts to help Native American and Latino youth combat obesity (and will give away a limited number of the project’s comic book). Jane Pickering will profile the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History’s fabulous exhibit Big Food: Health Culture and the Evolution of Eating.
  • Museum as Sanctuary: Expanding Museum Communities with Programming for Refugees. One of the programs profiled in this session, from the Tucson Museum of Art, was designated an Innovation Project of Excellence by AAM last year.
  • Wikipedia and the Museum: Lessons from Wikipedians in Residence  Lori Byrd Phillips’ CFM blog post on wikipedians was incredibly popular. In this session you can hear from Lori and other early pioneers of this new museum staff position. 
10:4512 p.m.
  • Future Engagement: The Latest From Brands, Games, and Entertainment is an opportunity to hear from people outside the museum field—brand marketing, live entertainment and alternate reality gaming, to be precise. One of the panelists, Jonathan Salem Baskin, has shared some of his thoughts about museums on the CFM Blog.
  • Mistakes Were Made: Sharing Cringe-worthy Examples. Museums don’t celebrate failure enough, and if we aren’t willing to take chances and fail, how can we really try new things? Three panelists will bravely share their own epic fails, and invite you to bring stories of your own belly flops, and what you learned. I want to go to this one. Yes, I will bring a story of failure.
And if, in between all the sessions and evening events and parties, you would like to share your thoughts with me about the future of museums, drop me a line at and we will work out a time to meet up.

Remember, the deadline to preregister for the meeting is this Friday, March 30.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

How will museums be embedded in the school day of the future?

Famous futurist quote: “The future is already here, it is just not equally distributed.” (William Gibson)

In other words, hints of any plausible future already exist somewhere in the world around us.
  • A future in which no one has to own, or drive a car (because cars drive themselves)? Check out Nevada (a state always willing to take a gamble).
  • A future in which most historic monuments are leased to private businesses for commercial use, because governments can’t sustain them? Already happening in Albania.
  • A future in which the major form of entertainment is holodecks, a la Star Trek? South Korea is getting awfully close to a prototype.
So, what about the future of education? Where can we catch a glimpse of that?

I’ve written here on the blog about why many forecasters think America is on the cusp of a new educational era and you can read more about it CFM’s recently released TrendsWatch 2012. Some think this next educational era will be built on self-directed, passion-based learning, with learners drawing on a multitude of resources, including museums, to build their curricula.

If Gibson is right, hints of that next era of learning should exist here and now, so I went on a scavenger hunt with Scott Kratz, VP for education at the National Building Museum, to track these hints down.

And here they are: compiled in Museums and the Future of Education*, a survey of educational innovation in museums across the nation. Read it and be proud of our field! I’m tickled to see how museums channel harness their assets in the service of learning—whether it is the National Building Museum teaching with bridges, the Exploratorium with cow eyeballs, and the Tech Museum of Innovation with (of course) a virtual avatar.

This paper documents numerous examples of museums using their unique assets to teach critical thinking, synthesis of information, innovation, creativity and collaboration. These core skills are widely regarded as crucial to success in the 21st century workplace.

I am painfully aware that this compilation was out of date the moment it was published. (For example, it doesn’t feature the “first preschool at an American art Museum” at the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum.) Help us keep it up to date by using the comment section below to contribute links to the latest, best and most innovative educational projects you know of in museums.

As noted in the paper, I’m particularly interested in projects that have tackled the challenge of scaling up museum educational experiences to serve large numbers of learners—a challenge we have to solve if museums are to play a vital (read: necessary, not just nice) role in American education.

And if you want an actual peek at that school day of the future? Check out this video from Learning 2025: Forging Pathways to the Future.

What do you think, can you see your museum’s education staff serving as “learning agents” in this future?

*Museums and the Future of Education first appeared in On the Horizon Volume 19, number 3: Education and the new normal. It appears on the CFM website by permission of Emerald Group Publishing.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


This week, guest blogger Peter Kimelman, founding director of the FLUX Foundation, previews his group’s participatory art project at the upcoming AAM annual meeting. One of PK’s recent projects was conducting research on wine and design for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s exhibit, How Wine Became Modern, so maybe you want to find him in Minneapolis Saint Paul and ask him out for a drink…
Just a few weeks ago in this space, Charlotte N. Eyerman, the director of FRAME, North America wrote: "Collaboration, engagement, community, and technology are key terms of the day for museums." We at the FLUX Foundation could not agree more. We are honored to have been selected by The Museum Group to be Thought Leaders at this year’s AAM annual meeting in Minneapolis Saint Paul where we will be addressing these themes directly. In addition to our Thought Leader presentation on Tuesday, May 1; FLUX will engage with the AAM community in a unique participant driven installation. Individual installation components will be distributed to all 5,000 conference attendees. After customizing each piece with content, we will be inviting all attendees to stop by the FLUX/TMG Lounge at the Expo Hall. The Lounge will be an innovative designed environment; a piece to take a break, pause and reconnect with your creative self. There you can add your individualized piece to a larger collaborative artwork.

In Ms. Eyerman’s post, she refers to the importance of collaboration, engagement, community and technology in guiding museums’ inter-institutional relationships. For FLUX, these themes are even more important in guiding the museum’s relationship with the public. The FLUX Foundation exists as a new model for the exploration and creation of art. We apply collaboration, engagement, community and technology to the production and experience of artworks. At its core our work is about the transformation of the spectator into the participant.

Much has been made of breaking down barriers at the institution. This has often been thought of literally, starting with Malraux’s Le Musee Imaginaire and continuing with endless “museums without walls” 

For us, the barrier to break is between content and viewer, object and public, and between people themselves. Ms. Eyerman’s four terms are how we do it.

Collaboration. FLUX is a collective enterprise, a 501(c)3 non-profit led by a team of experienced artists, architects, designers, social sculptors, and community organizers. We pursue projects which create and empower communities through the public art-making process. We enable ordinary people to do extra-ordinary things. The Foundation investigates creative methods that encourage involvement and participation of large numbers of people from the community to create interactive site-specific works. FLUX not only creates public art; it creates public artists. To us, the process of building and making is fundamental to a project’s success and is just as important as the completed piece. People of all skill levels are invited to contribute to our process and each person’s contribution is regarded as a fundamental part of the whole. By focusing on the process and collaboration we challenge the dominant notion of the singular Artist or Designer.

Engagement. Our artworks require collaboration not only in their production but as part of the piece itself. They are incomplete without the participation of the public. In some cases they require the input of the public in their ongoing fabrication. This will be the case in the installation we are designing for this year’s meeting in Minneapolis Saint Paul as it was  in our eponymous piece the Temple of Flux (2010). There participants shared personal messages by writing upon its walls, and adding personal mementos and constructions to its mass, before being burned in a collective moment of release. The sculpture becomes the collective embodiment of the community that made it.

Community. Engagement leads directly to community. By breaking down the barrier between the individual and the artwork, this novel experience creates a shared commonality that breaks down the social barriers between individuals. This starts with the creation of the piece. The process of creation is just as important as the completed piece. People of all skill levels are invited to contribute to our process and each person’s contribution is regarded as a fundamental part of the whole. As such, the projects reflect the needs of the community in which it is sited and benefits the larger community by whom it is created. Our goal is to further integrate these communities as much as possible so that the production of art and design is central to everyday life. At once an abstract large-scale formal sculpture and a bench, the Spire of Wishes (2010) creates a connection between the strangers that sit and reflect upon it. FLUX projects create a space for community. Through the creation of shade and mist by day, and the warming glow of fire at night, BrollyFlock! (2011) invites crowds to sit on its handles and gather beneath its soaring umbrellas. This shared connection is often instigated by our works through the spectacular. Our works create extra-ordinary conditions in which normative social codes are disrupted and allow substantive social interaction.

Technology. Technology forms the connective tissue between collaboration, engagement and community. Our collaborative methods rely on internet-based platforms such as Google Docs (where this post was crafted, reviewed and edited), email list-servs, DropBox and wikis. Ideas and content are shared, worked and reworked by different people with different vantage points at various locations and times. This type of process would have been inconceivable over a decade ago.

Technology is one of our prime artistic tools in creating engagement. Our work utilizes computer controlled effects to create pieces that change over time and respond to their environment. In the FishBug (2009) computer controlled pneumatic systems allow the body of the sculpture to expand, and the flames along its spine to raise and lower, creating an almost living/breathing presence with which to interact. A remote allows participants to shoot flames out of the FishBug’s tusks to spectacular effect. In BrollyFlock!, oversized buttons on the handles allow participant to directly engage the artwork, changing light patterns or flame effects. This direct control radically challenges the normative relationship between the exhibited and the public.

Like our past work, our installation in MuseumExpo will also challenge the relationship between exhibit hall and exhibited, artist and audience. The piece will be continually evolving, morphing along with collective input. With spaces to work, relax and participate, we invite you to collaborate, and become an engaged part of the community.

If you haven't already, be sure to register for the AAM Annual Meeting by March 30, after that registration will only be available on site.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Report from the Horizon Project 10th Anniversary Retreat

Today’s guest blogger is Marsha Semmel, director of strategic pPartnerships at the Institute for Museum and Library Services.

In late January, I joined several museum professionals  (including CFM’s Elizabeth Merritt!) and approximately ninety other ‘thought leaders’ from around the world in Austin, Tex., for the Horizon Project’s tenth anniversary retreat. Over the past decade, the New Media Consortium (NMC) and its partners have produced a series of Horizon Reports that chart trends and developments in education and learning technology in the worlds of higher education, K-12, and museums. The Reports have been translated into 27 languages with more than one million downloads.

In 2010 and 2011, the New Media Consortium produced “museum editions” through a co-production arrangement with the Marcus Institute for Digital Education in the Arts (MIDEA). As the outside skies roiled with fast-moving tornadoes and fierce thunderstorms, the mix of experts in the room—representing research, technology, schools, museums, universities, corporations and foundations—churned up our own dynamic energy. Retreat chairs Dr. Larry Johnson, CEO of the NMC and Dr. Lev Gonick, VP and CIO at Case Western Reserve University and Board Chair Emeritus of the NMC, led us to posit the future of technology and learning and identify and defend the key technology-related ‘metatrends’ that will impact learning and education in the next decade.

Interspersed throughout the lively and interactive plenary and small group conversations were mini-TED-like talks that were designed to drill down on certain topics and provoke the discussion. I was privileged to present one of them, offering my views on the contributions of (and challenges for) museums (and libraries) in the evolving, technology-influenced, learning ecosystem.

At the conclusion of the retreat—through vigorous debate, visualization, push-backs and “push-forwards”—some 28 megatrends were identified as “ones to watch” around the intersections of technology adoption and learning. Among the top ten:
  • People expect to work, learn, socialize, and play whenever and wherever they want to.
  • Openness—concepts like open content, open data, and open resources, along with notions of transparency and easy access to data and information—is moving from a trend to a value for much of the world.
  • Legal notions of ownership and privacy lag behind the practices common in society.
  • There is a rise in informal learning as individual needs are redefining schools, universities, and training.
  • Business models across the education ecosystem are changing.
During the retreat, new relationships were formed and insights achieved. And the sun was shining when, our work concluded and our brains both stimulated and drained, we boarded our cabs and buses back to the airport!

You can read the full communique from the retreat at

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Using Pinterest to See the Future

What is the fastest growing social media startup-of-the-moment?

Pinterest, a site devoted to “visual scrapbooking.” Pinterest’s first investor, Brian Cohen, attributes the site’s burgeoning popularity to “people’s natural desire to curate and others’ need to find those curators.” A natural match for museums, yes? (Especially as the demographic of Pinterest users—70% women between the ages of 25 and 44—is a close match to the demographics of emerging museum professionals.)

Food bloggers use Pinterest to share mouth-watering pictures of food they have cooked, or eaten. Fashionistas use it to share their taste and finds. And museums are beginning to use it as well—SFMOMA, for example, curates beautiful image boards, drawing on their collections. But this site can also be a way to engage communities in your work: Nina Simon has adapted Pinterest to coordinate design-in-progress at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, enabling the museum’s staff to share images with each other and with the public.

Now I’m pinning too. Why?

First of all, to bring this social media opportunity to your attention. As Jasper Visser points out, Pinterest could be your museum’s new best friend. It is a way to share and encourage sharing with a low barrier to entry and participation.

I’m also using Pinterest because with the debut of CFM’s TrendsWatch, my scanning has become much more visually oriented. My colleagues and I are spending a lot of time looking for images that illustrate potential futures and demonstrate how these futures can be glimpsed in the present.

So I’ve set up an account where I’m stashing all the interesting images I come across that relate to the future of museums. There is one “board” (collection) for each of the seven trends profiled in our new report, TrendsWatch 2012: Museums & the Pulse of the Future

Check out the “Creative Aging” for images of the “granny pods” that may house our aging selves. At “Takin’ It to the Streets” you can see the World Famous Crochet Museum (housed in a portable Fotomat kiosk, an image I regret did not make it into the final TrendsWatch layout). And in The Future of Education you can see the cutest preschooler, working on her next masterpiece at the Lincoln Nursery School, housed in the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. (Potential Datelab profile question in the future: “Which museum did you go to for preschool?”)

Give it a look. Should you decide to leap in, Pinterest nominally requires you to be “invited” to join. However, a colleague of mine just signed in using his Facebook account without an invitation—so maybe the developers are phasing out that requirement. In any case, the site is growing so quickly in popularity, I’m sure if you ping your social-media savvy network of friends (on Facebook, Twitter or Google+) you will find a Pinner happy to ask you in. If not, email me and I’ll open the door (but please don’t use CFM as your first line of entry, I’m worried it will overwhelm my in-box!)

One of CFM’s Pinterest boards is called “Inspirations for the Future of Museums,” and I’m inviting you to help in filling it up, pinning images that illustrate your hopes, dreams and fears for our field, decades hence. If you would like to contribute to this board, set up a Pinterest account, make at least one board of your own, and then email me at with your Pinterest name. I’ll add you as a collaborator on “Inspirations” and together we will create a scrapbook of the future.

Read more about Pinterest with this collection of links.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Introducing TrendsWatch: Your Digest of the Future

At a recent conference I was challenged to come up with an image representing my role in the universe. I had a sudden image of myself as a Whale Shark trawling the vast digital sea of information and filtering out bits that museums will find nourishing.

So far, my fellow-trawler, Phil Katz, and I have been delivering these tasty morsels via Dispatches from the Future of Museums. Many of you have told us how much you enjoy reading that weekly e-newsletter and sharing it with staff and colleagues. (Thank you very much for these “love notes”—they give us the mental fortitude to make it through many a last-minute deadline.)

Now, we’ve gone one step further, wading through a year’s worth of news-catch to spot emerging patterns, tease out their significance, and forecast how they might affect your work. The result is TrendsWatch—a new annual report to help you translate the futures scanning of Dispatches into action.

After reviewing over seven hundred news items from the past 12 months, seven trends floated to the top:
  • Crowdsourcing
  • Threats to nonprofit status
  • Mobile, distributed experience
  • New forms of funding (microfunding, crowdfunding)
  • Creating aging
  • Augmented reality
  • Shifts in education
We sought out examples of museums responding creatively to these trends, imagined how the bright or dark futures these trends might create, and asked for advice from a cadre of wise advisors about what museums might do now in order to surf these tides of change.

But I’ve said enough—go read the report! TrendsWatch 2012: Museums and the Pulse of the Future is available as a free download from the CFM website. Please share it with colleagues—debate, discuss, dispute, emend, adapt and apply it to your work.

And give us feedback! We’d love to hear from you which of these trends are important for your museum, and what you are doing to respond.

Update: now that we've taken TrendsWatch on the road, we've edited this post to include this Prezi tour of the major trends in the report. Contact me if you are interested in arranging for an in person presentation on TW12 at your museum or conference.

We’ve already started work on TrendsWatch 2013—if you read a news item, blog post or announcement you think is sheds light on the future, please send it to with the subject line “scanning hit.” And tell us what trends you observe bubbling up to that we should keep on our sonar.

Yours from the future…


TrendsWatch 2012 was made possible by the support of lead sponsorsThe Museum Group and Sodexo, with additional support from Argentine Productions, Mary Case of Qm2, and White Oak Associates. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Future Babble by Dan Gardner

Today’s recommended reading is contributed by Rob Waller, president of the Protect Heritage Corporation. Prior to PHC, Rob spent thirty-three years at the Canadian Museum of Nature, including periods as chief of the Conservation Section and as managing director of the Collection Services Division. In 2005 he and I had a wonderfully paranoid time co-teaching "Museum Facilities and Risk Management," and Rob contributed a chapter to the AAM publication "Covering Your Assets: Facilities and Risk Management in Museums."

Future Babble is Dan Gardner’s second popular technical book. Different publisher’s versions are variously subtitled, including: Why Expert Predictions Fail - and Why We Believe Them Anyway, Why Expert Predictions Are Next to Worthless, and You Can Do Better, Why Pundits Are Hedgehogs and Foxes Know Best, and How to Stop Worrying and Love the Unpredictable.
Gardner, in adding this to his earlier book—Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear—is emerging as a master popular science writer along the lines of Daniel Goleman and Malcolm Gladwell. Future Babble is both entertaining and well researched and referenced to original sources. It is important reading for any budding futurist. Much of it is built on and around the work of Philip Tetlock, especially as reported in his book Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? It is, however, more accessible to lay readers and supplemented with anecdotes, stories and additional references.

The first chapter is an overture to the book, sampling content from main chapters. The second chapter, "That unpredictable world" demonstrates the impossibility of accurate predictions in complex systems drawing on examples like trying to predict the price of oil next year or your local weather on the 15th of next month.

Chapters 3 and 4 provide treatments of heuristics and biases now offered in so many popular psychology books. Still, Gardner’s explanations of these are so well woven into the theme of this book that they are interesting rather than tiresome even for someone who has read extensively in this area. Here we learn:
  • the illusion of control leads us to think we are more able to control outcomes than we can possibly be;
  • overconfidence has us believing our understanding is better than it is;
  • hindsight bias will cause us, after the fact, change our memory of our predictions to think we were more prescient than we really were;
  • group think allows our opinions to become shaped by common opinion therefore reducing the diversity of our ideas about the future;
  • the availability heuristic has us estimating the significance of something simply by how easily we can recall an example of it—certainly not a benefit for understanding a future that differs from our past;
  • similarly our near ubiquitous use of the anchoring and adjustment heuristic means we allow a number in mind, even an unrelated random number, to influence our estimate of any quantity, for example, numbers of museum visitors, and costs of preservation;
  • finally, through the representative heuristic we allow detailed scenarios, built on "typical" situations and characteristics, to seem more likely to occur than more generally described scenarios. This last heuristic necessitates great care in the use of scenarios. We need to temper the excellent use of scenarios for expanding our thinking with an understanding that contemplating overly detailed scenarios can reduce our ability to contemplate alternate scenarios.
Chapters 5 and 6 explore our anxiety in the face of uncertainty and our craving for certainty and how this leads us to look for predictions, sometimes even from astrologers or superstitions and omens, as well as experts. We do that even though none of those sources, experts included, provide useful predictions as much as they simply reduce our internal sense of uncertainty. Unconsciously we let our sense of certainty serve as a proxy for sense of accuracy. We also let our sense of someone else's confidence serve a proxy for our sense of their accuracy. The more clear and certain the expert the better the settling effect on us. Unfortunately, the opposite is closer to the truth. The more uncertain an expert is the more likely he/she is nearer the truth. As Bertrand Russell has said "The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, with wiser people so full of doubts."

At this point you might think "come on, it can’t be that bad—surely we would notice all those wrong predictions." Just in time, Chapter 7, "When prophets fail" illustrates how we notice fulfilled predictions with the help of both experts wanting as many people as possible knowing he/she had a correct prediction and media seeking experts who succeeded in a prediction. In contrast, we immediately forget failed predictions aided by the media not reporting on them since failed predictions tend to equate with "the absence of news."

Finally, Chapter 8, titled "The end" could have been titled "So what?" We crave relief from uncertainty that predictions can provide but, importantly, we need predictions as a basis for planning. We can make better predictions. Better predictions are made by:
  • being skeptical of our ability to predict,
  • seeking as much information as possible,
  • taking many divergent perspectives into account, and
  • ensuring predictions include stated uncertainties so that decisions and plans can be made as robust and resilient as possible.
So what does all this mean for AAM's Center for the Future of Museums? 

Elizabeth Merritt’s introduction to the Center’s first publication, Museums & Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures stated:
"humanity has always been obsessed with predicting the future. The unknown scares the pants off us, as well it might! Knowledge is power, and knowing what is coming around the corner would be immensely reassuring. Unfortunately, that isn’t going happen.  And predicting the future is not, in fact, the goal of futurism. We can’t determine what will happen, but we can take a thoughtful look at what might happen, and the attendant consequences. This awareness of potential futures enables us to choose which future we most want to live in, and figure out how to bring it into being."

From MaryJo Lelyveld’s Beyond Swabs and Solvent Gels: Using scenarios to generate, evaluate and navigate conservation futures (reviewed in Merritt’s, Dec. 8, 2011 entry "Navigating Conservation Futures") one of the concluding remarks is:
"The intention of scenarios planning is not prepare for one future but develop policies and processes that will be robust in many futures and create specific plans to deal with potential risks or take advantage of opportunities."
In these examples we see that those who are thinking seriously about the future of museums are aware of the need to avoid the trap of believing any particular scenario or prediction. They are sure to have a prominent caveat to that effect at the start, end, or both of any future-discussing documents. This is also the main lesson of Future Babble. It is such an important lesson that, in my humble opinion, it is well worth the time to read the book. That the book is also a pleasant and entertaining read is a bonus.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Prodding Sacred Cows: The Mission Statement

When I was pulling together the book National Standards & Best Practices for U.S. Museums, I found myself increasingly uneasy with the way that the standards use mission statement as the ultimate touchstone for determining what a given museum should or should not do.

Since my current role as resident AAM futurist gives me license to question the basic assumptions of the field, I’m going to start prodding that particular sacred cow, and see where it goes. I hope you weigh in on the discussion.

I’ll start by saying I totally understand why museums have placed so much importance on mission statements over the past few decades. Three good reasons being:
  1. It establishes a compass direction for all the museum staff and board, combating our all-too human tendency to wander all over the map depending on what prospect looks pleasing at this particular moment.
  2. It creates a flexible framework for applying any standards to our hugely diverse field. One of the core questions guiding the assessment of a museum is “how well does the museum achieve its statement mission?” All the other standards are applied in that context.
  3. It is a public pronouncement of the good we intend to provide for society, justifying our nonprofit status.
The standards loop back to mission repeatedly, for example:
“The governance, staff and volunteer structures and process effectively advance the mission.”

“the museum owns, exhibits or uses collections that are appropriate to its mission.”

“the museum legally, ethically and responsibly acquires, manages and allocates its financial resources in a way that advances its mission.”
But in my experience, mission statements often act as hobbles, blinkers or excuses, holding a museum back from reaching its full potential and acting in its own best interests and that of its community. Perhaps it’s time to question the central role it plays in our institutions.

Consider this article in which Margaret Coady examines corporate philanthropy. She points out that corporations, by virtue of their size, influence and wealth, have the ability to shape society, acting as “significant catalysts for positive social change.” But she also notes:
“…doing so has traditionally not been a part of a corporate CEO's job description…CEOs are paid to prioritize delivering the highest financial return to the company's owners at the expense of all other considerations. Narrowly-defined, this is a CEO's fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders and it is legally-binding.”
Sort of like a non-profit board member’s duty of loyalty to the mission, eh? Which is also legally binding.

But Coady argues that this narrow definition of fiduciary responsibility creates a false dichotomy. In the long term, tackling social justice issues is actually in a corporation’s best interest. Forgive this extensive quote, but it makes my central case so well:
“…many CEOs are stepping up to a new role inclusive of a concern for societal well-being because they are realizing that the growth path of the business will directly and inevitably intersect with certain social issues. Restricted access to affordable housing, environmental concerns, and a lack of access to water (among countless other societal issues) all have the potential to directly affect the success of a company…CEOs are motivated not only by the rising expectations both inside and outside the company, but also because there is a long-term business benefit to doing this way these leading CEOs are living up to their fiduciary responsibility -- but are just redefining that responsibility more broadly and over a longer time horizon. [Emphasis added.] To return the highest profit to shareholders in the future, a company must be part of the solution to societal issues today.”
Whatever the greatest challenges that face our specific communities—food, literacy, employment, immigration, ESL or housing—engaging with these issues is in museums’ long-term business interests. As I’ve remarked before, what is the good of being a great museum in a broken city? Literal adherence to mission may keep us from taking actions needed to heal our communities and create a future in which everyone is able to enjoy the unique benefits museums provide.

Last Friday I was on a panel at George Washington University with Max van Balgooy, founder of Engaging Places and, for many years, director of interpretation and education at the National Trust. Max observed that, in his experience, it is more productive a museum’s staff and board to focus on vision than on mission. How do they want the world to be different because their organization exists? What image do they share of the future the museum will help to create?

The Center for the Future of Museums casts a wide net, monitoring the trends challenging society as a whole, not just our field, because museums are an integral part of our economic, political, cultural, technological and ecological environment. To paraphrase Coady, museums’ “shareholders” are the public, and to return the highest “profit” to our shareholders in the future, we must be part of the solution to societal issues today. Now that is a vision to guide our path to a bright future.

I recommend Coady’s whole article as interesting reading, and welcome your comments, below. Do you think the field needs to revisit our laser-like focus on mission statements? Or just “realize that the growth path of the [museum] will directly and inevitably intersect with certain social issues?” Please weigh in.