Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Rising Tide: The Changing Landscape of Risk Assessment

In my time heading the Excellence Programs at AAM (including MAP and Accreditation) it was always a challenge to coax, cajole or even gently bully museums into producing well-tailored risk management plans.

AAM staff tried disseminating standards, writing books and compiling sample documents. (Turns out sample documents can backfire. I reviewed one emergency response plan which seemed strangely familiar, checked Google Maps and found that the assembly site specified for staff after evacuation was in…a different city than the museum. Oops.)

My current focus on the long-term future gives me a new perspective on risk management. I sometimes find myself reading the news, shaking my head and thinking things like “that museum spent $45 million on new buildings which are, oh, let’s see, 200 yards from the Gulf Coast?!”

Flooded collections storage in Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art, from torrential storm on May 29, 2012

Depending on where your museum is, maybe the issue isn’t storm surge or rising sea levels. Maybe the risk is drought & wildfires, tornados or other severe weather. In any case, the historical data on frequency of these events becomes less useful for predicting current risk as climate change accelerates. (Basically, hundred year floods aren’t as scarce as they used to be.)

So this is a brief plea for you to keep environmental trends on your radar as you develop your museum’s risk management policies, and for you to make short term plans in a long-term context.

Apropos of rising tides, here are some tools you should check out if you are near a coastline (or even upstream on a tidal river.)

Surging Seas (SS) provides interactive maps showing threats from sea level rise and storm surge for over 3000 coastal towns and cities the continental US, searchable by city, county or zip code. The site also links to fact sheets on storm surge and sea level by state, to any plans and reports produced by states, regions or municipalities, and to the full Surging Seas report. (SS is a project of Climate Central, a project funded by various government agencies, philanthropic foundations and universities to compile and disseminate research on climate change.)

Here is another mapping tool for looking at rising sea level impact, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It doesn’t make projections about sea level rise, but it lets you play with parameters and test out various scenarios.

For projections on sea level rise, check out this data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The outer level projections are premised on accelerated melting of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica—a worst case scenario showing an increase in mean global sea level of 80 cm, or a little over 2 ½ feet, by 2100 (though some argue even this is a conservative estimate). Your museum’s risk assessment, though, should take into account local factors such as coastal erosion, subsidence, storm size and frequency, etc—hence the importance of the locality-specific risk maps I listed first.

And if you want to throw data to the wind and just get silly, check out Burrito Justice’s vision of the “San Francisco Archipelago” in 2070. (Untenable premise: 200 foot rise in sea level. For more realistic SF projections, check here.) How many SF museums are underwater in THIS map?
Credit: Map of San Francisco Archipelago 2070 from

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Integrating Collaboration and Technology to Create a Crowdsourced Experience

I attended the Media & Technology Committee’s MUSE awards ceremony at the AAM annual meeting in Minneapolis Saint Paul a few weeks ago. The award-winning projects illustrate a number of the cultural and technological trends CFM is tracking—gaming, augmented reality, the use of hand held mobile devices to create distributed experiences. Today, guest bloggers Wesley Hsu and Vivian Haga tell us about the My Gallery Interactive project, winner of the Honeysett & Din Student Award, which fits yet another the trends highlighted in TrendsWatch 2012—museums harnessing the wisdom and enthusiasm of the crowd.

The term “crowdsourcing” was coined by technologist Jeff Howe in the Wired magazine article “The Rise of Crowdsourcing” in June 2006, to describe the outsourcing of a task among a distributed group—the crowd. This form of outsourcing has since permeated the modern world, encompassing everything from search engine optimization to political approval. The museum field is no exception. The fact that Wikipedia is nearly as accurate as the expert-edited Encyclopedia Britannica draws attention to the value of the “wisdom of crowds.” With social media effectively gathering crowds by the millions, the potential for crowdsourcing is immense.

My Gallery Interactive in Osaka
My Gallery Interactive is the San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Arts’ (MOPA) experimental foray into crowdsourcing. This is not the first time a museum has experimented with crowdsourcing (or crowd-curation, an emerging term in the museum world). The Brooklyn Museum of Art’s Click! exhibition in 2008 used a very similar model. However, this is Balboa Park’s first step into crowd curation and it is a pioneering project due to its international collaboration and its scale.

The project was a collaborative effort between the NSF-funded Pacific Rim Undergraduate Experiences (PRIME) program at UC San Diego, MOPA, and the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT) in Kyoto, Japan. One of us (Wesley) and fellow UCSD student Lance Castillo were sent to NICT’s labs to develop an interface for a touch-table display, utilizing NICT’s FTIR touch-table and fifty images from MOPA’s permanent collection. The interface encouraged users to interact with these fifty works and build their own gallery, which could be labeled with a title and author, and saved for viewing. These user-curated galleries were displayed live on a 6’ x 4’ tile-wall display of 24 monitors connected to the touch-table. The exhibit debuted at the Knowledge Capital Trial 2011 international technology exhibition in Osaka, Japan, which drew over 12,000 visitors.

The exhibit’s success attests to the importance of collaboration and visitor engagement. First, it illustrates the power of museums collaborating with university programs on experimental projects. There is a wealth of young talent in the student body of universities. If museums can tap in to that wealth, the benefits are countless. Contracting experimental work to a corporate vendor can be high-cost and therefore the financial risk will be high. Collaborating with students lowers the financial risk. And it is mutually beneficial--the real-world experience provides mentorship for the student, nurturing the skills of a future professional. In the case of My Gallery Interactive, the PRIME program also gave MOPA the opportunity to collaborate at an international scale.

With the recent economic decline, the visitor experience has become even more important. Visitors often regard museums (particularly fine art museums) as the experts and expect the museum-going experience to be a passive one. However, there is often a gap in the visitor’s experience of the museum and the curator’s interpretation of the museum. By shifting curatorial decision making towards the crowd, making an exhibit’s design a participatory experience, the gap between visitor and curator narrows and aligns, and the museum becomes a much more active experience.

Soapbox! in MOPA galleries.
Lance and Wesley were both hired by MOPA as developers for the next phase of the PRIME/MOPA/NICT collaboration. Soapbox! The Audience Speaks, which debuted at MOPA this month, builds on the lessons learned from My Gallery Interactive. Soapbox! is an in-gallery exhibit that integrates the crowd-curation from an interactive touch table and web interface into a physical exhibit. Visitors now have the opportunity to vote in-gallery or online on which photos they would most like to see physically displayed on the walls in October 2012.

In the museum world, crowd-curation is still experimental and the assignment of quantitative values to works of art can certainly cause debate. Indeed the ubiquitous presence of the Web and all its implications (social media and crowd-curation included) is beginning to shift the infrastructure of museums. By taking a risk on an experimental project with students, Balboa Park created the opportunity to delve into these issues with its first technology-facilitated crowd-sourced exhibition. While crowd-curation may not be the ultimate future of museums, it certainly presents interesting and exciting possibilities.

Keep an eye on the M&T 2012 Muse Award page for a full description of the winning projects (which appear to be coming soon).

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Yarnbombing Museums: Blow the Doors Down

Today’s guest post is by Streetcolor, a knitter and yarnbomber who has blogged for CFM before about the experience of creating art outside a museum’s authority. Now Streetcolor blogs about the experience of being invited inside…

Ten Reasons To Yarnbomb Your Museum
  1. Knitting makes people relax, they are tricked into thinking they are home.
  2. Yarnbombing is cheerful, people think they are going to have fun.
  3. Yarnbombing makes the museum building itself more of an experience.
  4. Yarnbombing makes sculpture different, thus new.
  5. Knitting is common and humble, it relaxes the elitism of art.
  6. Yarnbombing can be done by anyone, it includes everyone in the art process.
  7. Yarnbombing a museum questions where woman's art belongs.
  8. Yarnbombing is an event, it’s news, it's social.
  9. Yarnbombing a museum is low art becoming high art.
  10. Yarnbombing is a site specific installation disguised as a friendly gesture.
Yarnbombing is the term for making street art with knitting or crocheting.
I started yarnbombing museums because I like places that are saturated with art and also I wanted to challenge the assumption that art was only inside a museum and suggest that art could be outside on the street.

At first I only yarnbombed the outsides of museums. It was exciting, scary and satisfying to stand outside a museum in the dark and sew knitting to its street fixtures.

Then, one day, that was no longer enough. I wanted to yarnbomb the outside AND the inside of a museum. I thought maybe I could yarnbomb the Oakland Museum of California, it was nearby, it was known for being experimental and I had a friend that worked there.

It turned out the Oakland Museum was perfect, they have a special program called The Oakland Standard devoted to innovative and fresh displays of art for the local community and they had already thought of doing a yarnbombing project.

I proposed to The Oakland Standard that we yarnbomb the front of the building, the banisters into the building and down into the gardens, two chairs and a bench in the entryway and a tree. I wanted to make really sure you noticed that the museum was covered in knitting.

My knitting is all handspun and hand-knit so this was a huge undertaking. I gathered a crew of super knitters and asked them to help.
In addition, I wanted to do a street show of yarnbombs from all over the world by many different yarnbombers, creating my own mobile museum encircling the traditional museum. I went on Facebook and asked the international yarnbombing community to send me some tags. I ended up putting up yarnbombs from Canada, several different states in the U.S. and one from South America. Later, The Oakland Standard suggested a knitting circle. We had a large group of community knitters and crocheters come and collaborate on a group yarnbomb for the installation, so we had three different levels of yarnbombing going on at the museum. I especially liked using the museum as a place to make art as well as view art.

The Reactions

The installation process went on for days, so I had a chance to watch people interacting with the knitting. The Oakland Museum of California has schools of children coming all the time, and lots of kids posed for pictures next to the yarnbombing. Several kids stopped and talked to me about wanting to be artists. My favorite moment was watching 20 ten-year-olds run up the stairs in a line, every single one dragging their hands along the knitted bannister. You don't often get to fondle the art.
The employees of the museum especially liked seeing the color and ease of the wool against the concrete building. People sat on the knitted furniture very casually and occasionally gratefully with a sigh.

The Sonoma Valley Museum of Art Yarnbombing

Last December, a volunteer at The Sonoma Valley Museum wrote me and asked if I would do a yarnbomb to go with their Holiday show. I countered with the suggestion that I just yarnbomb the whole museum. After several months the educational director Margie Maynard contacted me again and asked me to make a yarnbomb for the museum to go along with their “Color" show. This was a very interesting challenge as we couldn't put anything in the galleries or cafe or hang anything new on the outside of the building. We ended yarnbombing a table, two door handles and a large existing hanging sign. I also knit an (uncommissioned) streetlight right outside the building so that there could be streetart and art. This was put up May 5, 2012.

What does This All Mean?

People are amazingly accepting of yarnbombing—in part because they think it’s light entertainment: pretty and pretty silly. Knitting is familiar and comforting. It seems too available to be meaningful. But I think yarnbombing is only disguised as silliness—it's really art. I call yarnbombing a museum “Parallel Art World," because the art isn't on the walls, or in the galleries, it all around you. It's the knitting on the ordinary boring bits of life that you just don't see making them jump and come alive.
All right that's it. Except:

What about it? Have I got you interested in having someone yarnbomb your museum?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Some Notes on the Future of History Museums: Part II

This is the second installment of Phil Katz’s report from the recent joint meeting of the Organization of American Historians (OAH) and National Council on Public History (NCPH). You can catch up on part one here.

While I was at the meeting, I participated in a lively roundtable discussion about digitization and visualization of history for public audiences. During the previous few months, I was part of a small working group on the topic convened by NCPH, which includes a really fantastic group blog called “Visualizing the Past.” My posts to the group blog were a bit feeble (just some links to other material I saw around the Web), but most of the rest are full of detailed descriptions of innovative projects, links to new tools and fundamental questions about: a) how to make digital materials more accessible and b) how to use powerful (yet still limited) digital tools for historical interpretation.

The roundtable was a review of the diverse topics already introduced via that blog—but then ranged even more widely to include:
  • The “seductive nature of visualizations” (which seem transparent but actually include a tremendous amount of interpretation).
  • The need for well-defined constraints to make crowdsourcing projects successful.
  • The notion of “serendipitous discovery” (a phrase offered by Mark Tebeau). In other words, we can’t control how people use online exhibits, archives and other tools, so we might as well design them to reward certain types of unstructured exploration.
  • The lack of research devoted to how people use and understand online interpretive projects. Instead, some of this research is carried on in isolation by museum audience researchers, experts in user interface design and education researchers interested in information-seeking behaviors.
  • The variety of models and metaphors that could be used to guide digital history projects, ranging from timelines to gaming and geocaching.
  • The challenge of creating “linked open data” (i.e., can you get distributed users to add more information to online digital repositories and get museums and archives to open their records to outside users).
  • The challenge of competing standards for creating and sharing metadata, which stops many museums from sharing their registration and curatorial data even if they wanted to!
  • The relationship between “mash-ups” and the traditional work of historians and curators, who have always pieced together disparate sources in new ways.
  • The need to track how people actually use online history resources—and how often they use them—so researchers and museums can justify the expense of creating them.
  • The future of digital interfaces as tools for “meaning-making.”

Whew! It was a great discussion, and I hope one of the other participants will write up a more detailed summary, in which case I’ll share a link. Any one of these topics would be worth an entire session at the next AAM annual meeting.

P.S. I also attended several sessions about key issues related to museums. One was devoted to Closing Up Shop: Strategies for Partners and Communities When Historic Sites Close, featuring Bob Beatty (VP of programs at AASLH), Barbara Franco (director of the new Seminary Ridge Museum in Gettysburg, Pa.), Bruce Beesley (from the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites, who talked about “purposeful deaccessioning” of historic sites: they turned over a few facilities to local friends’ groups) and Sheila Kirschbaum (from the Tsongas Industrial History Center in Lowell, Mass., who talked about creative use of partnerships—for example, with her local university—to prevent closures).

They all agreed that consolidation and contraction are realities that historic sites need to face; also that museums need to keep building new and stronger connections to their communities. Beatty was especially brave in calling on everyone to discourage the creation of historic house museums and reminding us that “closing isn’t always a bad thing” if buildings can be repurposed, collections deaccessioned appropriately and community needs met through other means.

Please use the comments section to share your thoughts about any of these issues.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Some Notes on the Future of History Museums

In today’s post Phil Katz, who directs AAM’s research programs and collaborates with me on CFM’s forecasting reports, shares some of the wealth of information he brought back from a recent professional meeting.

Last month I spent a few days attending the joint annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians and National Council on Public History in lovely Milwaukee, home of both the Fonz and the amazing Milwaukee Art Museum building designed by Santiago Calatrava.

This is the nation’s largest gathering of historians who focus on the US and public historians (including many people who work for or with museums), more than 2000 strong.

I was part of a panel devoted to “The Present and Future of History Museums.” The other panelists were the chair, Steve Lubar (Brown Univ., formerly of the Smithsonian), Paul Reber (Stratford Hall), Dan Spock (Minnesota History Center) and Laura Schiavo (GWU museum studies). I opened with an overview of demographics (the US population, the museum-going audience, the museum workforce) and a review of the trends in CFM’s recent Trendswatch report. You can see my slides below:

Reber talked about house museums, and the best quote from him was “It’s wrong to say that house museums are declining in popularity; except for a few places, like Mount Vernon and the Biltmore mansion, they’ve never been popular.” He encouraged house museums to seek alternative models of sustainability, including appropriate re-use (because many house museums will, even should, be closing their doors). He discussed the challenges of burdensome standards for house museums, deaccessioning, and the need for more creative approaches to education. On a positive note, he also described some innovative technology projects at Stratford Hall designed to make the house relevant to new audiences.

Spock described the heterogeneity of history museums as an example of biodiversity: a vibrant system as a whole, requiring and encouraging evolutionary adaptation, but with the expectation that some individual organisms will die and some species (= types of museums) may go extinct. He also described museums as “history doctors,” helping people recover from the poor history education they get in schools, while expressing some skepticism about museums as places to teach “21st-century skills.”

Spock noted two important dichotomies for history museums: 1) a traditional state/local orientation versus population mobility and remote technologies (which make place less important) and 2) the resource constraints on exhibit design versus the rising expectations that visitors bring to museums (how quickly can museums churn through exhibits that are elaborate, polished, interactive, technologically sophisticated, etc.?).

Spock ended by suggesting some action steps for history museums and those who love them:
  • cultivate kids from an early age (we need to “occupy their worlds”)
  • advocate with policymakers and foundations about the importance of history
  • cultivate the baby boomers as visitors and donors (they are entering a nostalgic phase of life, which is good for history museums!)
  • diversify staffs (as they are trying to do at his museum through an undergraduate pipeline project with the state university)
  • be willing to engage popular culture, thus offering visitors more “handles” to attract them to the museum’s work.
Schiavo talked about museums as social agents and the training of museum professionals. She argued that the field isn’t doing enough to “disrupt and transform current museum practice,” falling back instead on traditional approaches (which is also, she admitted, a tribute to the resilience of models that go back to the 19th century!). She called for more civic engagement (which public historians outside of museums often do better than history museums), and for museums to do more to “help communities become agents of change themselves” (an approach that considers museum-goers as citizens rather than consumers).

At the end of our panel, a lively Q&A moderated by Lubar became a discussion about shared authority in museums—an issue addressed in more depth in another session at the conference, Letting Go? Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, based on the book of the same name recently published by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. The presenters looked at shared authority through online projects, in museum spaces (ranging from enhanced opportunities for visitor feedback to co-curation and community advisory boards), in oral history, and in collaborations between artists and history museums.

I also learned about two new digital projects that may be of interest to AAM members:
  1. Next Exit History is a database and mobile app of historic sites around the nation developed by the Univ. of West Florida. They are trying to create “an educational and entertaining portal to the historical landscape. To accomplish this, the team is looking to expand its content database by providing an opportunity for historical organizations to upload information about their resources.” It is impressive, and free.
  2. The History List, now in beta, is “an online platform, connecting individuals interested in history with history-related organizations and sites, events and exhibits in their community and across the country.” The goal is a free, easy tool that (history) museums with limited resources can use to promote themselves and their programs.
Please use the comments section, below, to let me know if you have any questions, or can share any links to resources related to the issues addressed in these panels.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

How Museums are Like Bellybuttons and What That Tells Us

I think it’s time to share my omphalic classification scheme for museums.

I started using this metaphor while I was directing AAM’s excellence programs (MAP, Accreditation) to capture my observations about major differences about museums’ organizational culture, behavior and financial structures.

“Innies,” I noticed, are often created by enthusiasts who are sure that other people will appreciate their passion once it is shared in the form of a museum. Classic innies include transportation museums (trains, planes, automobiles), historic houses, and museums focused on particular kinds of stuff (anything from paperweights to individually amassed collections of art). These organizations are often repositories of deep knowledge and expertise, though they vary in their ability to convey that expertise in ways that make the subject interesting to the lay visitor. (I could make a joke here about navel gazing, but I won’t.) Innie museums often struggle to find audience, and funding, broad enough to support their needs.

“Outies” are started by groups or individuals trying to meet a community need through the medium of a museum. Children’s museums, for example, experienced a bump in numbers starting in the 1970s as groups such as the Junior League founded museums as a way to serve families with young children. Or Project Row Houses in Houston, which was founded on the premise that “art and the community that creates it can revitalize even the most depressed of inner-city neighborhoods, for the mutual good of existing and future residents changes lives.” Outies are sometimes accused of being shallow, of being glorified community centers, or of creating experiences judged second-rate by their colleagues, but often enjoy broad, even passionate, public support.

The most unfortunate hybrids are museums that are founded as innies, but expect to be supported as outies. Take for example, the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Va., whose founder gave enough to establish, but not run the museum, and which now struggles to bridge the gap between what a handful of well-off donors are willing to provide, and the public support they would need to be sustainable. At least according to this article.

I’m beginning to think that innie/outie orientation is even more deeply embedded in museum psyche than I had realized, and more critical to the future of our profession. I’m going to explore implications of this theory over the next few months on this Blog, but for now I’d like to share some half-baked ideas on how the omphalic divide is shaping the national discourse about public support for museums.

Since CFM tagged the erosion of non-profit status as a major trend shaping the future of museums in TrendsWatch 2012, the political and financial situation for American nonprofits has only gotten worse. Current proposed state budget cuts total $122 billion in 44 states and the District of Columbia. California alone faces a $16 billion shortfall this year, and is grappling with whether to raise taxes or reduce support to education and public safety on top of the existing “teacher layoffs, college tuition hikes, fewer medical benefits for the poor and elderly, and reduced child support programs for low-income mothers.”

If states are unable to meet needs so basic on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, what hope do museums have for state funding, or indeed, the support of state tax-exempt status? And the prospects for federal funding are not much brighter. The Congressional report explaining the current House-proposed budget characterizes museum funding through IMLS as “not a core Federal responsibility” and funding for NEH and NEA as (hold onto your hat) a “wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens.” We live in a time when the tax-exempt status of hospitals, educational and cultural institutions may be re-examined by policy makers and by the courts.

Right now we tend to see the major divisions in the museum field as being between disciplines (art, science, history, children’s, natural history, zoological, botanical etc.), budget size (large or small), or governance (private nonprofit, municipal/state, university/college). I can envision a bifurcated future in which the most important division is between tax-exempt museums—outies that meet community needs in a museum-y way—and innies that exist with support from the specific audiences they serve, without the benefit of the “wealth transfer” provided by nonprofit status.

Self-sufficient innies may be supported by the largess of individuals who can afford to implement their individual visions without public support. (See, for example, the Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania, which is privately owned and funded by billionaire David Walsh, underpinned by the lucrative winery, brewery, restaurant and hotel he runs on the same site.) Innie museums might also arise through the collaboration of groups that are willing to forgo nonprofit status and its attendant burdens of transparency and nonprofit governance (c.f. the International Spy Museum). Or they may seek a little bit of the best of both worlds, becoming social benefit corporations—L3Cs—with explicit social missions, qualifying from funding from charitable foundations, but also attracting the support of investors seeking to do good as well as make money.

Looked at another way, the public realm may increasingly focus on supporting “stuff” (collections, programs) that fills a basic public need that might otherwise not be served, while leaving the market to care for collections and deliver programs that can exist without public support. A state, for example, might choose to maintain a natural history collection that supports research and decision-making necessary for public health, resource and long-term environmental management, while trusting that individual owners will acquire, preserve and (on occasion) display art.

I’m not saying this is a good future or bad future, just that its one future that falls within the cone of plausibility. It’s up to you to decide how likely this future is, and whether you want to try to head it off.  Well? Weigh in below…

(And, BTW, let me know where your museum falls on the belly button spectrum…)

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Illustrations of the Future

The AAM annual meeting is often a little bit overwhelming. And exhausting. OK, it is always a bit overwhelming & exhausting. That being so, I was particularly pleased with this year’s CFM guest artists project.

As I wrote before the meeting, local artists organized by the Walker Art Center’s camped out in the AAM Showcase in MuseumExpo™, recruiting attendees to participate in the Walker’s Drawing Club—a participatory “citizen art” project. It turned out to be a great way for people to relax and degauss. Some folks sat quietly, working by themselves. Others chatted with friends or new acquaintances as they drew, creating joint masterpieces. It was a truly convivial experience.

People could (and did) doodle about anything, but we encouraged them to put their visions of the future down on paper. I love what they came up with—take a look! Many of the drawings portrayed museum professionals decades hence.

When people can choose their own DNA (or maybe their physical avatars), will natural history museum directors adopt the form of their favorite dinosaur?


Curators may be holographs

Docents may be robots (an idea much discussed in the recent #futrchat between museumers & professional futurists)

Here’s a great group portrait of future staff

Of course, some people took a stab envisioning the future museum itself

Which might be about (or perhaps exist on) social media

In outer space (exhibiting objects with in zero gravity!)

Or, by virtual of mobile, internet-connected devices & augmented reality, the museum of the future might be everywhere

The Drawing Club’s Tumblr features more drawings from the meeting—check them out! And take a look at Scott Stulen’s post featuring the participatory art posters created with the help of letterpress printers from Lunalux at the Walker’s evening reception on Tuesday May 1.

Hmmmm. These drawings would be great illustrations for a book of museum futures. Why don’t you contribute some captions/commentary below, and help me get started.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

DIGITAL DIASPORA FAMILY REUNION: Curating Family Stories in The Digital Museum

Recently, reading EmcArts’ Audio Postcards documenting the 2011 Rockefeller Foundation Cultural Innovation Fund (CIF) awardees, this video caught my attention:

“These guys may not know it,” I thought, “but they are creating a crowdsourced virtual museum.” So I got in touch with them to learn more. Today’s guest post is by “these guys”—Thomas Allen Harris and Don Perry. Harris is an award-winning film & transmedia maker and founder of Digital Diaspora Family Reunion. He’s a graduate of Harvard College and the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program. Perry is a writer/producer for Chimpanzee Productions, Inc., an independent film and multimedia company “dedicated to producing unique audio-visual experiences that illuminate the human condition and the search for identity, family and spirituality.”

“I knew a world of people who dressed fabulously, who led interesting lives and who were represented in my family albums and in other photographic contexts in a very celebratory way, and I would go into museums and I wouldn’t see any of that material at all.” —Rick Powell, Interview Subject, Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People.

As avid museum-goers, we are quite often struck by what is absent …not so much as among the crowds of fellow devotees, but rather in the stories of people, cultures and groups who have been marginalized or gone missing or worse, whose narratives have been delimited to a fairly narrow range of experience that fails to present a fully nuanced perspective as to who they were, how they lived, their loves, hopes, dreams and aspirations. Our latest documentary film, inspired by the pioneering work of photo-historian Dr. Deborah Willis, Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People, seeks to fill in some of the gaps in the historical record of the African American experience by illuminating the rich legacy of photographic images made by Black photographers and their subjects. The film aims to ignite a movement of people exploring their own photographic archives—the scrapbooks, photo albums, boxes of old slides, negatives, Polaroids, etc.—and examining the connections to the larger historical narrative that exist within it. We want people to take a closer look at how their family, group, culture is portrayed in their own photographic archive and to compare that interior portrait with the external images of themselves frequently represented in popular culture…including the confines of museums. It was with this goal in mind that we began our transmedia social engagement initiative, Digital Diaspora Family Reunion: One World, One Family (DDFR), which is open to the world.

DDFR seeks to mutually support and amplify intergenerational dialogues among youths (especially ethnic and minority youths) and their elders around the images and stories contained in their family photographic albums. DDFR consists of a touring live-event, DDFR ROADSHOW and a Web portal, which together uncover, illuminate, educate and entertain participants about their hidden history as captured in their family photo albums, creating in essence a “people’s history” of our world. DDFR has been to Atlanta, Silver Spring, Md., Jersey City, Boston, Brooklyn and Harlem so far. We received a Rockefeller Foundation Cultural Innovation Fund grant to take DDFR to all 5-boroughs of New York City in 2012. We are hoping that this will be a model for tours to cities across North America and beyond. For each DDFR Roadshow we formed critical partnerships with museums, libraries, historical societies and others.

DDFR engages with its audience to create new communities around collective story-telling on three levels:
  1. DDFR holds community photo-sharing events, where our production team and participants jointly create a narrative from participants’ family photo archives. These events, held over a 3-5 day period, are the precursors to a larger public presentation
  2. The DDFR ROADSHOW GRAND FINALE is where the audience participates in a journey of discovery through family photographs, creating a communal experience in which images help to illuminate our shared humanity. This event is streamed live online and invites viewers to share in the process by asking questions or contributing comments via social media which are then shared with the live community.
  3. Each individual photo-journey gathered during the DDFR event is edited into a short module and streamed on our website.
In this way, DDFR exposes hidden photographs from private worlds and brings into the public realm stories and histories that would otherwise remain outside of the larger collective narrative. By encouraging people to share their stories online as part of the DDFR SocialNet, we are curating a digital archive of vernacular history that provides a unique portrait of people we would not otherwise be privy to.

DDFR is building on the explosion of interest in genealogy, family history and personal biography—which is being driven by new online technologies and accessibility to digitized databases. In addition, we are in effect “crowdsourcing” self-curated content that is not part of museum collections, but very much could be. Museums can utilize this digital vernacular history to comment on and augment materials in their own collections, thus providing alternative perspectives on events and filling in some of the absences in the public record. For museums of the future, accessing the kinds of digital collections that DDFR represents allows them to expand their curatorial offerings and engage in unique dialogs with their users in a way that promotes greater inclusion in the curatorial process and in shaping the narrative voice with which exhibitions address their audiences.

As one commenter in the recent Ethics Forecast pointed out, too much “stuff” being generated in the world today for museums to collect everything that is important. DDFR is an interesting model for digitizing and preserving records and the stories associated with them, working outside the constraints of museums’ capacity to collect and store historic material. Like StoryCorps, DDFR can engender interest and enthusiasm, creating scores of “citizen historians” and laying the groundwork to connect their stories to a broader historical narrative. Where could this model go from here? Could the physical photographs brought to DDFR events be tagged with RFIDs or barcodes to connect them to their digitized records? Can museums mine DDFR or similar projects for content, and shepherding some private collections into the public realm? Your thoughts welcome…

Friday, May 4, 2012

Unschooling, Museums & Learning Models for this Century

One trend highlighted in TrendsWatch 2012 is America’s jittering progress towards a new educational era. I’ve been exploring a number of alternate futures for our learning landscape, in this blog and in the article “The Future of Education” I coauthored with Scott Kratz of the National Building Museum. In today’s post Shauna Edson, an emerging museum education professional, helps extend this exploration, speaking as a learner who never enrolled in the formal educational system.

I’m something of a poster child for unschooling: California kid, pre-school dropout, tree-hugger, tie-dye collector, fiercely independent and curious about nearly everything. I taught myself instead of having my parents as “teachers.” I followed my interests, not a curriculum. I never took a test until the SAT in preparation for college, which I got into just fine. And anything that I didn’t learn at the “designated time” in my youth (such as, say, botany) I am teaching myself as I need it in my adult life.

In January, I knew almost nothing about orchids.
Photo Credit:  U.S. Botanic Garden by Liz Fort.
 In February, I was teaching other people why orchids are special (and why we should care).

I’ve been asked the usual questions countless times throughout my life (“what about socialization?” “how did you learn the things you had to?”). But recently, Elizabeth Merritt asked me something that I was delighted to answer: how could the unschooling model become a guide for the new direction of the American educational system, and how can museums play a role?

Musing on an answer to that question is the main component of my “Voices of the Future” video. The many skills that I gained from unschooling include self-motivation, confidence, problem-solving, resource-finding, the cultivation of lifelong learning, the freedom to be creative, and the ability to cooperate with adults and younger children, not just my peers. Do those ideals sound familiar? You might know them as 21st Century Skills.

I think the unschooling philosophy is one of the best ways to foster the skills every employer claims to be seeking. In a redesigned education system, students could decide what they were interested in, join teams, dream up projects, and solve real problems. Now before you panic at the thought of that, remember that this kind of learning doesn’t require a “teacher”; the role is more of advisor, facilitator, resource, sounding board, audience, and even (gasp) colleague.

I will be the first to admit that unschooling isn’t for everyone. It fit perfectly with my family’s situation, my personality, learning style, and interests, but learning isn’t one-size-fits-all. Some people prefer the structure of a curriculum, classes, and didactic teaching

On the other hand, kids and young adults can teach themselves a whole lot more than we allow them to do in most schools. When they’re given the freedom to do that, most of them won’t play computer games all day; they’ll eventually get up and do something that feels useful, worthwhile, rewarding and, above all, meaningful. If you’re interested in graphics or art, building programs in ARTLAB+ when you know real people will see them and use them is pretty compelling. Hold that up against creating a PowerPoint presentation for your assigned-topic history report, which will be seen by your 20 classmates and then forgotten. 

Museums, zoos, aquariums and National Parks have the fantastic ability to present a host of those real situations, and they are free-choice by definition (with the exception of school groups, the visitors are a pretty self-selecting bunch). The CFM has discussed this potential in two previous unschooling blogs, A Fringe Future of Education and Unschoolers on Museums Here’s my take on museums and unschoolers.

Personally, I spent tons of time at the Exploratorium, Monterey Bay Aquarium and Yosemite National Park when I was growing up. All of those places invoke very vivid memories of discovering and marveling at something I had never experienced before, and the common thread is the interactive component. I learned what “4,800 feet of elevation” meant by hiking to the top of Half Dome. I learned the difference between a skate and a manta ray by touching real ones and watching them closely for many fascinated hours. My learning wasn’t organized into classes or even subjects, so I don’t remember us taking any “courses” or similar programs offered by museums. We preferred to do our own thing.

For museums that want to better serve the homeschooling and unschooling community, I say this: have a wide range of options available. Some of us will want to just wander on our own, and we’ll do whatever self-guided things you have if they seem interesting. Others will want camps, course-like programs, or group activities that bring together lots of local homeschoolers and unschoolers. Some museums that are doing this kind of thing are the Science Museum of Minnesota, the National Building Museum, the Museum of Natural History in Providence and the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History.

Really though, museums, just keep doing what you do so well.  We love you for everything you already are.  You’re there, you’re real, you’re interesting, and you don’t make us do anything.

Also, we like showing up on weekday mornings when it’s not crowded–it’s a major perk of having an unschooling “schedule.”

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Does a Museum Need Four Walls?

One theme featured in TrendsWatch 2012 is “Takin’ It to the Streets”—the rise of pop-up and mobile retail, cultural and social experiences. Throughout the year we will monitor how this trend is playing out in museums. Today’s guest post, by Allison Weiss, former executive director of the Southern Oregon Historical Society, relates how one museum “took it to the streets” as a creative response to an identity crisis.

When a financial crisis drove the decision to permanently close the Southern Oregon Historical Society’s general history museum, the board and staff were faced with a philosophical question: Does a museum need four walls?  If our mission, which could be boiled down to “preservation and education,” remained unchanged, how could we continue to fulfill our mission without a physical building and permanent exhibits?

The answer was History: Made By You, a community-centric traveling exhibit program. Meeting the community on their own turf, we host forums at which we lead discussions on issues of contemporary importance, crowdsource an exhibit topic, and then recruit volunteers to curate the exhibit hand-in-hand with our professional staff.

As we planned on replicating this project throughout the county, we needed a system for building and installing exhibits that was extremely flexible and could be used in a variety of spaces. The intent was not to build an exhibit, rotate it among several locations and then put it into retirement. We envisioned a system in which we could reuse the main components over and over, and configure the set up to fit typical and atypical spaces - a bank lobby, a business foyer, the mall, a school hallway.

The exhibits also needed to be secure and look professional. Dissatisfied with existing trophy cases and cumbersome vitrines, we hired an industrial designer who created unique modular units that became the foundation for History: Made By You.

To understand how the modular units work, imagine a pie. Now imagine that same pie but make it six feet tall, nine feet in diameter, and cut into eight equal pieces. Because we had no preconceived idea as to how large our exhibits would be, and did not want to limit the size of the space in which we could do installations, we designed the units so they could be used as a single section (or “pie slice”) or up to as many as eight sections (the “full pie”). The sections can stand alone, be joined, placed side by side or fill a corner – it all depends on what spaces are available.  

[Notice how two sections can be configured into one larger display unit. Each section has three sides, with either three glass walls or an opaque wall. When joined to another section, one wall is removed, doubling the interior space. The component parts are interchangeable, making the sections relatively inexpensive to manufacture and, should pieces become damaged, one needs only to replace a piece rather than an entire case. When disassembled all of the pieces fit inside of a van.] 

It was not simply a leap of faith for us to believe that community volunteers would be interested in becoming ad hoc curators—we came to this conclusion after receiving extensive, specific feedback from our members and from people who wanted to be involved with the historical society but were frustrated by the lack of meaningful ways to be engaged as volunteers. One request we heard repeatedly was that community members wanted direct access to our collection. Direct access to our collection? Did that mean we would allow volunteers to handle artifacts?  Did it mean that we would need to give up some historical authority and allow voices other than the paid curator’s to be heard?  Did it mean that people other than staff would decide what topics were exhibit-worthy? 

Yes!  As its name suggests, History: Made By You was deliberately designed to exemplify that history is of the people, by the people and for the people.  While our mission of preservation and education remains unchanged, we offer an alternative to the existing model of a historical society. Rather than staff doing all of the preserving and educating, the historical society has become a vehicle through which community members actively participate in preserving local history and sharing those stories with one another.

By their very nature, these community-driven activities do not need to take place inside of a traditional museum. By giving people the skills to preserve and disseminate history, and by taking exhibits outside of our building, we have greatly increased our impact. The number of people who participate in and then view the products of History: Made By You is far greater than the number of people who visited the museum when it was open. By removing the four walls of the museum, we “opened the doors” to the Southern Oregon Historical Society.