Thursday, August 30, 2012

Catching up with Jeannette Ickovics: 2011 Feeding the Spirit Keynote Speaker

Can a museum win the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Childhood Obesity Challenge? With your help, maybe yes. Read on.

Last winter, Jeannette Ickovics from the Yale School of Public Health talked to us about the exhibit Big Food: Health Culture and the Evolution of Eating in the Feeding the Spirit symposium and webcast. Her colleague Jane Pickering, from the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, shared advice about designing exhibits that tackle issues of health & obesity in the Feeding the Spirit Cookbook: resource and discussion guide.

As Jane noted, Big Food was a challenging exhibit to pull together, not the least because of the sensitivity of the topic. How do you motivate people to come to an exhibit about how we Americans are getting too fat? It’s hard to make that subject sound fun and compelling. But the Peabody Museum pulled it off: Big Food has had over 75,000 visitors in six months (including 13,400 children in school groups) setting a record for the most monthly visits in a decade of the museum’s operations. Jane wrote to me recently, commenting that she continues to be amazed at the conversations generated by Big Food. “Far more people talk with me about this exhibit than any others I have done at the Peabody,” she relates. “Case in point it's the first time an out-of-town Advisory Board member has made an extra trip to the museum specifically to bring a friend to see the show.”

Besides being a successful exhibit, Big Food is a great example of a university museum reaching both inward and outward to amplify its power to change the world. By partnering with staff at the School of Public Health, the museum tapped into both expertise on content and the existing community connections that the school’s CARE program has been building since 2007. CARE—the Community Alliance for Research and Engagement—unites community organizations, neighborhood associations, hospitals and health centers, city government and public schools, faith communities, arts and cultural institutions and businesses with the university, its School of Public Health and (now) its museum. Our speakers at Feeding the Spirit emphasized over and over again that this kind of deep, enduring, complex network of support is necessary to create real change in a community.

Bonus payoff—the exhibit is raising the profile of museums as agents of social change. Big Food is a contender in the Childhood Obesity Challenge being conducted by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Winners will be selected by a panel of experts, but there will also be a “popular choice award.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a museum won both the expert and popular vote? You can help make that happen by casting your vote here.

If you think an exhibit on fighting obesity is a good fit for your community, but don’t have the resources to create one from the ground up, you’re in luck. The Peabody Museum is looking to put Big Food on tour. Jeannette says “We believe that the powerful impact Big Food has had on the local community can be exponentially amplified by taking Big Food ‘To Go’.  Transforming Big Food into a traveling exhibition will disseminate greater understanding and consideration for the way individuals, families, and communities across the United States consume food and help increase positive changes in lifestyles across the nation.” If you’re interested in hosting Big Food at your museum, contact Jeannette.

What’s next for the Peabody Museum of Natural History? Jane reports that they will continue addressing the “big” challenges facing society in the 21st century with "Seasons of Change," a travelling exhibit that focuses on the impact of climate on New England. As with Big Food, they’ll be doing a variety of programming that uses the resources they have at Yale as well as collaborating with local organizations.

And if your museum is tackling issues of childhood health and obesity prevention, you can sign up to be a Let’s Move Museum and Garden at the IMLS website.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Scanning for Political Futures

Though I’ve worked in D.C. for over ten years, I know very little about politics.

I’m a biologist by training. My colleague and partner-in-scanning, Phil Katz, is a historian. This inevitably shapes our reading, if only because we gravitate to sources we’re familiar with. When it comes to the STEEP categories of change—Social/cultural, Technological, Economic, Environmental and Political—I give us high marks on S T and the eco E, and a passing grade on economics (I’m still learning to read the NYT business section). But we struggle to give adequate coverage to political trends.

This November the U.S. will experience a classic disruptive event that falls into the category of “we know when it will happen, but not what.” (As opposed to, say, the eventual mega-quake that will devastate California. We know pretty much what will happen with temblor of  magnitude 7 or greater, but not exactly when it will happen.) In the months leading up to the election, Phil and I want to spend some time imagining how the outcome will affect the path of museums into the future, as well as examining the trends that create the political climate in which the election takes place.

So, in an effort to beef up our politico-scanning, Phil and I sat down last week with AAM’s new assistant director of political relations, Ben Kershaw, to identify some blogs to add to our radar. I’m sharing them here in case you want to follow them, too.  Here’s what we are starting with:

Ezra Klein’s WonkBlog on the Washington Post website, regularly features essays by Suzy Khimm (budget/financial regs), Sarah Kliff (health care), Dylan Matthews (taxes, poverty, higher ed), and Brad Plumer (energy/environment). When Ezra started Wonkblog almost a year ago, he wrote that one of his goals was to “cover the stories that aren’t leading the evening news, but perhaps should be.” A quick skim of recent posts included coverage of immigration, reproductive health, economic policy and the presidential campaigns. (After a morning of heavy political slogging, I appreciate the humor provided by their Lunch Break column, which features lots of cute animals, like this corgi frolicking in a waterpark, and kids, who do an awesome job of video narration, given the chance.)

I’ve also signed up for The Agenda from the National Review Online. The most recent post, when I first visited the site, explored the origins of Paul Ryan’s belief that social assistance discourages people from working. Conservative credentials confirmed—It should provide some balance for WonkBlogs relatively liberal slant. Out of curiosity, I did a quick search to see if any of their content addresses our field in particular. A post from a couple weeks ago points out that the “army of nonprofit employees could prove a bulwark of opposition to tax reform” since they constitute one tenth of the American workforce, and control assets almost equal to that of state and local governments combined.

To further ensure coverage from all parts of the spectrum, I’m now tuned into Real Clear Politics, a content aggregator site that describes itself as “the trusted source that sets your political agenda each morning by selecting the must-read stories and analysis from every side of the debate.” And Phil has added Watch Blog, which makes its “balance” graphically clear with a three column format that sorts commentators into “Democrats and Liberals,” “Third Party and Independents” and “Republicans and Conservatives.” (Though I find it kind of depressing that the three feeds are separate subscriptions, facilitating the increasing tendency of Americans to filter their news to fit their existing beliefs.)

So, that’s what’s new in my newsfeed, starting this week. What would you add to our roster? Please use the comments section below to share your favorite (most informative, thought-provoking, easy-to-understand-for-non-wonks) news sources and blogs, and political tweeters. And if you see specific stories related to political trends or forecasts you think we should feature in Dispatches from the Future of Museums, email a link to me or Phil. Thank you!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Forecasting Giving to Museums in 2012 Through the Giving USA Data

Museums watch current economic trends with a combination of fear and fascination. Every major source of museum income has been undermined in recent years, including private philanthropy (which accounted for a median of 36 percent of museum income, prior to the Great Recession). Where is philanthropic support headed in the future? Different folks read the same tea leaves in very different ways. This week, Carl G. Hamm, CFRE, deputy director of Saint Louis Art Museum, former chair of the AAM Development and Membership committee and of the Professional Network Council, encourages us to consider the consequences of reading the data as an optimist, or a pessimist.

Each summer, the philanthropic world eagerly anticipates the annual release of Giving USA as the generally accepted scorecard of charitable giving in America for the previous year. Thanks to the Giving USA Foundation and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, non-profit leaders across the country can share in this benchmarking moment together to ponder trends in giving across the charitable sector and contemplate whether to launch new fund-raising initiatives or pull back, based on others’ experiences. Some even try to use this data to predict how giving will fare in the year ahead.

Until the publication recently became a downloadable document of the digital age, an understanding of the Giving USA data primarily depended on one’s own reading of the published book every year.  Now, for better or worse, coverage and interpretation of these annual figures abounds, through stories in the mainstream media and journals covering the non-profit sector, articles, blog posts, emails and webinars hosted by fund-raising consultancies. It’s easier than ever for development professionals, or anyone, really, to glean a superficial sense of how Americans’ giving fared over the past year through sound bites and headlines, bypassing the old-fashioned way of reading it for yourself. Just do a Google search on Giving USA 2012 and you’ll see what I mean.

Reflecting on some of the coverage for last year’s data released in June, I was struck by how differently several venerable sources of journalism could slant what is ostensibly the same information, with one side preaching ‘doom and gloom’ while others chose to focus much more optimistically on Americans’ continued giving for causes they embrace. In fact, consider two of the more prominent headlines “Donations Barely Grew at All Last Year, Giving USA Finds” vs. “Americans Donate More in 2011” based on exactly the same information.

Not criticizing either journalistic position, I do believe it is useful to understand the trends and patterns in how donors across the country are investing in their specific areas of interest through philanthropic giving. But can anyone really predict how generously donors will contribute to museums this year, given specific circumstances in each community and individual organizations’ priorities and requests for support?

As museum leaders, there may be little we can do to change the macroeconomic environment in our country and donors’ confidence in it, but perhaps the way we choose to present data about broader trends in giving to our volunteer leaders and donors might actually inspire confidence in them about our organizations, resulting in more generous support.

Harold J. Seymour once referred to leaders as those who “light the way…create the confidence, (and) sustain the mood.”

Doom and gloom or realistic optimism for the future?  Either way, you can find an article or interpretation out there to back up your point of view. 

But which type of organization would you rather support?

One of my favorite sources for deep thoughts on the future of philanthropy is Lucy Bernholz’s blog Philanthropy 2173: The Future of Good (you can follow Lucy @P2173 on Twitter). I also look forward to the monthly Museum Results e-newsletter, dedicated to museum-specific philanthropic news, which is edited by CFM Council member Jim Hackney. You can find the latest issue and back issues on this page—the July issue highlights some results from Giving USA. For a deeper dive into that report’s data, my colleague Phil Katz recommends the transcript & video of a program he attended at the Hudson Institute in D.C. on June 29, 2012: "Giving USA 2012: Who Gave, How Much, and to Whom in 2011?"

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Catching up with: Gregory Rodriguez, 2009 CFM Lecturer

On Dec. 9, 2009, over 150 people trudged through a chill evening to the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., to hear LA Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez speak on “the new mainstream”—the growing Latino population of the U.S. which, as CFM explored in Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums, is most definitely not the current mainstream audience for museums. The recorded lecture was webcast the following January and viewed by over 1000 people around the globe and the discussion guide and reading list has been downloaded by over 1,900 users. The lecture is still timely, and is available on the CFM YouTube channel. The discussion guide and other related resources are available on the CFM website.

So what is Gregory up to now? You can catch up on his editorials for the LA Times including this essay on Pew’s recent research report on the current face of American immigration. “Once the cheering over this study, titled "The Rise of Asian America," has subsided,” Gregory speculates, “we might remember it as the dawn of a new era of anti-Asian bias.” In this time of growing concern over income disparity, the Pew research shows the median household income of Asian Americans is 33% higher than that of the general public. “invidious comparisons between groups are alive,” he warns, “they're stoked by economics and, though not particularly venomous in the U.S. right now, they have the potential to become dangerous under the wrong circumstances.” He concludes with a forecast, predicting we might hear calls for the end of highly skilled immigration from Asia, if Americans feel their jobs are at stake.

I also recommend you keep an eye on Z√≥calo Public Square, the “living magazine” Gregory founded, which he describes as “an innovative blend of on-the-ground events and on-line journalism.” Their site features full videos of speakers on diverse topics, including, most recently, New Republic senior editor Timothy Noah (author of The Great Divergence) discussing the effect the growing disparity of wealth might have on American society. At just under an hour, this commentary is definitely worth a listen as museums confront the New Gilded Age.

Gregory is also the founding director of the Center for Social Cohesion, dedicated to “studying the forces that shape our sense of social unity.” Their media page compiles recent essays by
Gregory and other fellows of the Center.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

CSISOS: Cool Sessions in Search of Speakers

The call for proposals for the AAM 2013 annual meeting closes on Friday, Aug. 24. As I’ve explained in an earlier post, this year AAM is encouraging people to post early drafts of their ideas and refine them with crowdsourced input. As I write, there are over 150 proposals in the system. With only one week left to go for comments and revisions, I’m using today’s post to highlight some proposals that I think are particularly interesting and futures-oriented, for which the organizers are still looking for input or speakers.

Elissa Frankle and Tim Rhue want to tackle The Future of Museum Education with roundtable discussions on topics that came up in the idea lounge they orchestrated at AAM 2012: access, resources, standards, museum education as a profession, interdisciplinary work and teaching, and metrics. The discussions will explore the role of museums in the shifting educational landscape of the U.S., and how we, as institutions, need to change. They’re still looking for people “seasoned or new to the field” who take a forward-looking approach to museum education, willing to serve as “provocateurs” to lead the roundtable.

In a session with the lovely name of From Memoir to Exquisite Corpses, Jason Porter proposes to use the newly introduced storytelling format to showcase institutions that have taken a bold risk by sharing authority for exhibit content with visitors, volunteers and “unlikely partners in the field.” Jason would love to hear from volunteers willing to tell stories of how their organizations experimented - succeeded or not- in ways that “forced the conversation to shift outside the normal confines of the museum.”

I went to a great session at last year’s meeting—Mistakes Were Made: Sharing Cringe-Worthy Examples—in which organizer Sean Kelly encouraged speakers and the audience to share examples of professional mistakes. I loved this because to foster innovation the museum field has to create an environment in which risk-taking, and failure is ok. Creating this climate of trust is going to take sustained effort, so I am pleased that Guy Hermann of Museum Insights has proposed a session for Baltimore titled simply “Museum Failures,” to promote sharing and learning from each other’s epic fails. If you are willing to stand up and ‘fess up about a project or strategy that didn’t work, please contact Guy.

Since the 2013 meeting is devoted to “Storytelling, I’m looking forward exploring the many ways that museum collections can be used to tell stories, beyond the “just the facts, ma’am” approach of the ur-traditional label. Therefore I sat up and paid attention when I came to the proposal by Claude Faubert, No Shame: Collections out of the Closet. Claude is looking for presenters interested in sharing ideas for “reconnecting museums with their collections.” He’s lined up someone from the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation to present a number of recent initiatives, including the Reading Artifacts Summer Institute and More than an Object. I’d like to hear from people who’ve devised distinctly non-traditional ways to connect people with collections: maybe museum lending “libraries” like that at the Hull-House Museum in Chicago, or the Clare Twomey exhibit at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which invited members of the public to become owners of one of over a thousand replicas of a cup from the museum’s permanent collection, committing to care for it forever, just as the museum promised when it accepted the original artifact.

I’m still keeping an eye on CFM’s inaugural theme of gamification (did you see our recent update on Jane McGonigal?) so I’m pleased to see that John Macabee, founder of CityMystery proposes to explore Digital storytelling: Expanding a museum’s vocabulary. John’s area of expertise is transmedia games (also known as ARGs—alternate reality games). He’s looking for presenters to add their own stories to his narrative of how museums can use their digital spaces (website, social media) to create missions that recruit people to conduct research, explore museum resources and make connections between different institutions.

Finally, I spotted this session, totally in synch with CFM’s tagline (…because museums can change the world)  Museums as Advocates for Social Change. Katherine Brown from Walsh University is looking for three speakers –one each from a small, medium and large museum—to give “flash” presentations on how their museums have tackled social issues like human trafficking, obesity, or finding homes for children in need of foster parents.

You’ll notice I’ve encourage you to contact the session originators via email (their addresses are embedded in their names). That’s because—true confessions—there is no easy way to find an individual session among all those that have been submitted. You basically have to browse. I don’t want you to get discouraged looking for a session, and bailing before finding it.

And yes, that’s not the only glitchy part of the proposal site—I know, I made it malfunction at least five ways while putting in the CFM proposals! The site is very “beta”—a work in progress. In a weird way I’m proud of this. It’s an example of AAM being willing to do rapid prototyping of a concept (in this case, crowdsourced feedback on session proposals) before putting a lot of (your) money into elaborate site design. This first attempt is kind of clunky and hard to navigate. But it was a fast and inexpensive way to test the idea of crowdsourced input. If you tell us “love the concept, hate the tech” we’ll know it’s worth putting money into a more elaborate design for next year. So, thank you for your patience, and your feedback. And get ready to vote for your favorite proposals in September.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Catching up with: Tracy Hicks, 2011 CFM Artist Interpreting the Future of Museums

Tracy discussing Helix: Scaffolding #21211
with attendees in Houston.
Tracy Hicks was CFM’s 2011 Artist Exploring the Future of Museums. Installed in MuseumExpo at AAM’s 2011 annual meeting in Houston, Tracy’s sculpture and video installation, Helix: Scaffolding #21211, explored the future of natural history museums and their ability to influence our stewardship of the natural world. You can read about the Helix project in these posts on the CFM Blog. I invited Tracy to give us an update on his life and recent work.

"It is so very good to be here" has been a near constant refrain over the past year. 2011 and now well into 2012 has been hard. You may not be aware that I was hospitalized in March, 2011, just before the AAM annual meeting. The last time I saw many of you I was barely walking and talking, and that was a major accomplishment. The H1N1, pneumonia, coma and brain swelling left some residual memory loss and related confusion that had taken most of the past year to accept and to compensate. In rehab the most effective exercise was playing mind games that provided the focus for the physical exercise. So over the past year I have focused on making intimate and often intricate animated video studies.

The week following the Houston AAM-CFM installation we (my wife and a number of close friends) packed our home and my Dallas studio and moved everything to Atlanta, unpacked and stored everything in a much smaller rented home with a tiny basement studio. Again I was saying, "It is so very good to be here" in Atlanta where the culture is more relaxed than Dallas. The 1000 sq. ft. two story Dallas studio shrank to a manageable 144 sq. ft. studio in Atlanta with most of my art, tools and materials stored in a 20 ft. shipping container resting in our driveway. Plans are actively proceeding for a new home and studio in the mountains above Asheville, N.C. Land has been purchased, designs drawn, new much nicer land found and purchased, and now new plans are again actively moving forward with hopes to break ground before winter sets in.

From Amphibian Human Skin studies
Late summer, 2011, the Smithsonian Natural History Museum (NMNH) cut planning for all temporary exhibitions not fully funded including the plans for an exhibition evolving from my Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship. The installation project might still happen with the continuing support of SSAM Chief Curator Eleanor Harvey, NMNH Amphibian researchers Roy McDiarmid and Ron Heyer. Setting that work aside has been a tremendous disappointment, still knowing the support of Eleanor, Roy and Ron, researchers of art and scientists I respect so deeply lightens the frustration. "It is so very good to be here" and still working on the intersections of art, science, human and amphibian skins.
In the spring of this year, 2012, I was offered and accepted a collaboration project in Mobile, Ala., with Rick Lowe of the Houston-based Project Row Houses. The Memory Lab project Rick conceptualized as a means to reintegrate Mobile's historic shotgun houses into the city culture before they were lost. The Center for Living Arts' Space 301 now houses a scaffolding structure I designed and built to replicate a shotgun house in roughly one to one scale. 
Mobile Memory Lab

The installation named 301c has become a stage for community activity including performance and will over the course of 2012 evolve into a laboratory for change. With the help of a Mobile collaborator, Elizabet Elliott and her organization Rumor Union, we are soliciting objects with local intrinsic significance from the community. These objects that range from dirt and rocks to Mardi Gras icons and a 19th century hand-forged dolphin spear are collectively creating a forum for Mobilians to re-conceptualize Mobile. This Memory Lab project has been challenging to say the least, but "it is so very good to be here" doing this with people I respect.

You can find bits and pieces of all this and more of last years' work collected on my website:

And you can follow Tracy on Pinterest.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Shhhhhh… it’s a surpise!

The National Museum of American History has been exploring the American Experience through the study of American food and foodways for the past 15 years through its Food and Wine History project. A signature object in the museum’s collections is the kitchen from Julia Child’s Cambridge, Mass., home. Later this fall, the Museum will open a new exhibition, including the kitchen, called FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000. This month, the Museum will put the kitchen back on view for a limited run in honor of Julia Child’s 100th birthday and its staff are cooking up some fun programming to accompany the exhibition. In today’s guest post Amy Bartow-Melia, director of public programs, and NMAH intern Maura Hallisey share a peek into these projects.

How do you commemorate the centennial of an American legend? This was the question the members of the Food and Wine History team at the National Museum of American History asked ourselves as we prepared for the 100th anniversary of cookbook author, teacher, and television star Julia Child’s birth. Because Julia donated her kitchen to the museum in 2001, we knew that “foodies” and “non-foodies” alike would be looking to us for ways to acknowledge her legacy and her many significant contributions to our culinary heritage on what would have been her 100th birthday, August 15. (Julia Child died in 2004.) We decided on five main ingredients with which to create a truly memorable party, including a “surprise” event that will be a first for the Museum.

Ingredient One: The Kitchen! First and foremost, we knew that our visitors would want to engage with the kitchen where Julia Child cooked and dined with family and friends from 1961 to 2001. Currently off view while it is being installed as part of an upcoming exhibition about food in America, we are offering the public a two-week “sneak peek” of the kitchen in its new gallery on the east end of the museum’s first floor.

Ingredient Two: Julia in Action! There is nothing as inspiring as experiencing Julia Child in action, so we have partnered with WGBH’s Educational Foundation in Boston who have generously given us permission to show three episodes of WGBH’s The French Chef that haven’t been seen since they were originally aired.

Ingredient Three: Food!  Nothing is more frustrating than talking about food and not being able to eat. So we’ve partnered up with the museum’s chef who will be offering dishes inspired by Julia Child’s cookbooks throughout the two weeks the kitchen exhibition is open. 

Ingredient Four: Stories. In addition to the amazing stories that the objects in Julia’s kitchen inspire, we are inviting several authors and friends of Julia’s to the party, including her grand nephew Alex Prud’homme and the producer of her last three television series, Geoffrey Drummond. We are also encouraging our visitors to share their memories of Julia and stories of their family’s food traditions on our “talk-back” boards

Ingredient Five: Surprise! Julia encouraged her students and fans to try something new and to have the courage of their convictions. We have decided to follow her lead and try something new for us—hosting a surprise birthday party--to courageously express our conviction that Julia Child deserves recognition on this special day. We hope our surprise will spark a memory, start a discussion and bring a smile to our visitors. If you aren’t in D.C., follow us online and whip up a Julia recipe or try a new ingredient on the 15th. And if you are in D.C., we hope you come to the party—1 p.m., Flag Hall.

We’re taking our cue from Julia, wrote in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, “above all… have a good time!” 

This post is one of a series documenting the many ways museums are engaging with their communities through food, and part of CFM’s ongoing Feeding the Spirit initiative. You should also read up on the White House’s Let’s Move! Museums and Gardens campaign coordinated by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The (Authentically Fictional) Future of Education

Today’s guest post is by Ken Eklund, Writerguy, freelance game and experience designer. Ken creates “what if?” games and experiments, usually for museums, public media, or foundations. He works in what he calls “authentic fiction.” Ken’s perhaps best known for World Without Oil, a crowdsourced public media narrative, and Giskin Anomaly, an immersive cellphone adventure for the Balboa Park Online Collaborative. Ken tells us about his current project, which is a happy confluence of the first theme CFM delved into (using games to tackle real-world problems), one we are beginning to explore (the future of education), and the theme of the upcoming AAM annual meeting (storytelling).

I was telling a group of public media people in Saint Paul about a massively collaborative project I’m working on called Ed Zed Omega. I had deep ideas, pretty slides and five minutes of blah blah blah. And then I said, “Ed Zed Omega is immersive, and if you have questions about what I mean, here is Clare Morgan to answer them.” And Clare came in and sat down and in her giggly 16-year-old teen way told the group about herself and why she has decided to drop out loud from high school.

Clare Morgan: “My guidance counselor found out that I don't want to finish school and wanted me to explain why. (Roscoe helped)”

A lively discussion, er, erupted. People asked Clare questions about her plans, came up with ideas about learning alternatives for her, listened intently (and with some horror) as she explained why, at this point in her life, school had ceased being relevant.

And the discussion continued after Clare left. It was extraordinary. The audience shared stories about their educations and the situations of people they knew. They continued to debate Clare’s prospects and paths forward. You could watch as, out loud, they collectively began to put aside old precepts and forge solutions...

And they did all this knowing “Clare” does not exist, that she was played for them by an actress named Tara Borman.

Now you might imagine this is a proud moment for me, and you’d be right, but not because I authored Clare—I didn’t. Here’s where the story takes another twist: Clare was so immersive because she is authentic to Tara’s own life experience: some blend of people she knows, circumstances she’s witnessed, and roads she herself has contemplated or taken. As Isabel Allende writes, “What is truer than the truth? The story.”

This blog’s readers have already been exposed to provocative thinking regarding authenticity of narrative and an emerging recognition of the power of storytelling for museums. Now comes the opportunity to participate in a bold experiment that pushes this envelope even farther, a provocative exploration of the future of education.

As I write this, Clare Morgan and her fellow “Zed Omegas” are still on summer vacation, but on August 15, they begin “dropping out loud” for the fall semester.

Will they stay dropped out? Will they school themselves, or abandon learning altogether? What was it that education was supposed to do for them? Will museums play a role in their learning? The Zed Omegas will be listening; will the people of the Internet be able to make this turn out right?

And here’s where, narratively, things twist yet again: because where do people go to have these conversations with the Zed Omega teens? Why, on Facebook and Twitter of course, where they live the consequences of their decisions out loud online.

Mary Johnson: “Nicole, Edwina, Lizzie and Jeremy are also “zed omega”—slang for “so done”—with high school.” Mary J is their guidance counselor. 

It may surprise you to learn that Betty Draper has a Twitter account, but it shouldn’t. For every new means to communicate (radio, say), there’s a storyteller eager to commandeer it (Orson Welles, War of the Worlds). Stories want to live where we are, and today we’re tweeting, Facebooking, texting on our cellphones, cute-bingeing on YouTube and so on.

One of the great upheavals of today is that the way people experience the world is evolving, and effective stories will incorporate these experiences. Ed Zed Omega hopes to immerse people because it tells itself not just with texts and Facebook, but as them. And as fiction, because all talk of the future is fictional.

How do we get at the “authentic fiction” of a big question such as the future of education? Not the way we’re going now, which has Quest To Learn, homeschooling, charter schools, magnet schools, Finnish Lessons, Sir Ken Robinson on TED, American Graduate, Khan Academy, Jada Williams’ essay, Every Child Left Behind, Thiel Fellowships and about eleventy-zillion other points of view shouting at each other.

To get a dialog going about education which is not stuck in the past, let’s start with the small picture, a clean slate: a group of teens who honestly felt their futures are best served by quitting high school. Because, when you talk to a teen, the past or ideology don’t get you very far. Inherently the talk focuses pragmatically on the future.
Xavier Washington: “We got this idea that we would reach out to some famous persons and let them know about EdZed. I chose Denzel Washington.”

We’re not talking about just six teens, or even the million-plus teens who drop out year after year. We’re really talking about school being something that many, maybe most, young people tolerate or survive. If the first step is to feel the problem, to make it human and personal, then what better start than to chat with it on Facebook?

Note: Now it’s your turn to help these teens discover the future of education. You begin at While Ken is collaborating with TPT (Twin Cities Public Television) on Ed Zed Omega, EZO isn’t TV, it’s live online Aug. 15-Nov. 15 at The participatory documentary is a Localore project presented by the Association of Independents in Radio

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Strength of Diversity

 “No matter what business you are in, most of the smart people work for someone else.” –Joy’s Law

I see many people I work with having to make hard choices about what conference(s) to go to this year and which professional memberships to renew. When times are tough, there’s a strong temptation to fall back to the group we most closely identify with—paleontologists prioritizing SVP, natural history collections geeks going to SPNHC, botanic garden types cultivating APGA. These are all good and worthy organizations that run great meetings. But…I want to make the case for spending some time with people from organizations as Not Like Yours as possible. 

At a gathering of your peers you can benchmark your performance, bring yourself into alignment with the norms for your field and improve what you already do by learning from best practices. This is a good way to improve your existing business model. Hanging out with people from organizations that serve a different audience, or are designed around different assumptions, fosters break-through ideas that can take your organization to a whole new level. As I’ve written before, I’m a firm believer in the “edge effect”—the biological phenomenon of biodiversity flourishing at the intersection of different habitats.

For example: historic house museums are suffering severe attendance problems. Who could help them with that?  Susie Wilkening of Reach Advisors says “I’d love to see a children’s museum reinvent the historic house museum for preschoolers. Preschoolers love the familiar, and they all live somewhere (we hope), so houses are very accessible to them.  Ergo, historic houses should be awesome children’s museums.  And yet their barriers and guided tours present a steep challenge to young children and their families.”

Jennifer Caleshu, at the Bay Area Discovery Museum, echoes this sentiment, observing “children’s museums know a family audience really, really well. What can we teach art museums about reaching those audiences? How can our play-based philosophy transfer to an art museum or history museum? Some of the ‘family’ projects I’ve seen in other museums are very close-ended – there is only ‘one-way’ to complete the art project for example, and lacking in fostering creativity. I would love to see more cross-discipline collaboration!

Nik Honeysett, head of administration at the J. Paul Getty Museum, thinks that art museums (in particular) should expose their behind-the-scenes work, and suggests they could learn a lot from their colleagues at natural history museums about how to integrate research and preparation labs into exhibits.

(Photo prep lab at Field Museum of Natural History by Anatotitan, Creative Commons.)

Sometimes the fertile crossover is about content, as much as process. Maria Mortati tells me she was wowed by about a science/art crossover project she was involved in, Phil Ross' Critter Salon project "Enormous Microscopic Evening" which started as a science event held in a storefront art space, then later produced and held at the Hammer Museum. (You can see a short video of Ross talking about the project here.)

The benefits of mixing it up come not only from cross-disciplinary exchange, but also from working across different scales. Small museums can borrow expertise from large museums that have the resources to invest in research and testing. Ann Fortescue, executive director of the Springfield Museum of Art tells me she wants to maximize the limited educational resources of her smaller museum by applying model educational programming developed by Smithsonian experts to SMOA’s education planning. She is particularly interested in working with the SI Accessibility Office to develop programs for individuals with disabilities. How many smaller museums can afford to create their own accessibility office? Yet small museums have the same legal, ethical and practical obligations of accessibility that a big museum has.

Big museums can learn a lot from small museums, too. As the Small Business Labs writes “One thing we've consistently found in our research is that small businesses are natural innovators. Janice Klein, principle of EightSixSix Consulting and former chair of the Small Museum Administrators Committee points out, “small museums tend to be more flexible in their scheduling and can respond more rapidly to new ideas, events or needs.” I’ve spoken with staff at many big museums struggling with how to be nimble and responsive to community interests and current events--how could a large museum program a gallery to operate in a small museum timeframe? Stacy Klinger, co-author of AASLH’s Small Museum Toolkit, observes that because small museums are constantly working with teachers, social workers, newspapers, service clubs and more, they are frequently seen as an integral part of the community.  “Successful small museums simply do ‘community engagement,’” Stacy notes, “because there is no other way to do it.

True, we live in a time of unprecedented virtual content—you can access material from people working in museums of all types and sizes via videos, podcasts, Slideshare etc. (and I encourage you to do so). But some of the most valuable moments of exchange are spontaneous and low key, as when a conversation with the director of Fallingwater (a large historic house in Pennsylvania) led the director of the new (and much smaller) Cade Museum for Creativity and Innovation in Gainesville, Florida to attend the MAAM Building Museum's conference to learn about architectural competitions. (The Cade’s own competition is now almost complete, with the winner soon to be announced.) The value of the old fashioned “fly across the country to spend a few days hanging out with folks and schmoozing” conference hinges on this kind of un-programmed face-to-face interaction and serendipitous connection.

So I’m going to disagree with Anita (West Side Story): please don’t “stick to your own kind.” Belong to organizations, like AAM, that bring together people who probably wouldn’t encounter each other any other way. And when you come to the AAM annual meeting, attend sessions outside the usual scope of your work, then go out to dinner with someone from a museum completely unlike yours. Then tell me what you learned…