Thursday, September 27, 2012

One from each Category: Part 2

Time for a brain stretch. This is part two of a quick review of recent scanning hits in five STEEP categories of forecasting—this one covers economic, environmental and political developments. (You can read part one, on social and technological trends, here.) Each section concludes with some questions to help you apply this information to your planning.


This article from the New York Times quotes the VP of education and training at the Georgia Aquarium as saying his institution ensures its guests will not hear the term global warming, as their visitors are “very conservative.” But museums can play a significant role in helping their communities examine how their environment is changing, and foster wise decision-making about how to adapt. Clearly this issue can also create tension between museums that have an environmental/science-based mission and members of the community who do not believe in climate change. Museums may have to choose between being advocates for environmental action and neutral, trusted places for people to exchange points of view.

Whether or not your museum chooses to tackle climate change in programs and exhibits, the scientific consensus is that this century will see an overall rise in mean temperature, rising sea levels, drought, increased fire hazard and increase frequency of severe weather events.  These forces may create profound changes in American agriculture and in patterns of development, especially in the West, where every drop of (ground or river) water is already owned by somebody. Museums need to take these trends into account when thinking about where to site new buildings, how to landscape the grounds, and how much to invest in energy and water efficient infrastructure.

Questions to consider:
  • What are the climate projections for your museum’s region? Are there city, regional or state-wide plans addressing these challenges?
  • What role might your museum play helping its community examine how their environment is changing, and foster informed decision making?
  • Has your museum reviewed its risk management and emergency preparedness plans, to ensure that you are making realistic estimates of the frequency and severity of events that could threaten your operations?


The Great Recession is restructuring the whole American economy, perhaps for the long term. As the Federal government scrambles to cut costs (to a greater or lesser extent, depending on which party hold the balance of power after the November elections) more and more costs and responsibilities are passed on to states, which often pass them on to cities. The fallout of the mortgage and loan crisis has gutted municipal tax bases, leaving cities with less money to pay for basic services such as water, sewer, roads, police and emergency response. So cities, in turn, are responding with increasing frequency by asking nonprofits that have removed large swathes of property from the tax rolls to make voluntary “Payments in Lieu of Taxes” (PILOTs), or to pay fees for city services that were previously provided for free. As the Museum of Fine Arts has learned, these payments can add up to significant amounts—by 2016 Boston expects the MFA to be contributing over $1 million. As Providence, RI, pressured Brown University and other nonprofits to make PILOT payments, the question arose, “what happens if we say decline?” the state legislation was introduced that would empower cities to levy such fees. (For an excellent overview of the PILOT issue, see this report from the Lincoln Land Institute and this summary from Johns Hopkins Listening Post Project’s recent webinar on nonprofit taxation.)

Questions to consider:
  • What would the property tax on your organization’s land be, if you were not tax exempt? If you already make PILOT payments, what percent of this hypothetical tax bill do they represent?
  • If your city implements PILOT payments, what would your organization do, in terms of increasing revenues or decreasing expenses, to absorb these costs?
  • If your city asks you to quantify the public good you provide, in order to justify the financial break you get on property taxes or city services, how would you make your case? (See next trend.)


In the 21st Century version of the culture wars, the basic principle of government support for museums is coming into question. The narrative that accompanied the budget proposed by the House of Representatives last spring characterized support for NEA and NEH as “a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens” and support for museums (via IMLS) as “not a core Federal responsibility.” As Nina Simon noted in her analysis of the recent campaign for a millage to support the Detroit Institute of Arts, the argument that “great cities should have great arts institutions” did not resonate with voters—it was characterized as elitist and provoked a lot of negative blow-back. She casts the successful argument, by contrast, as “Great museums improve quality of life and the value of the region.” Some museums can make dramatic and visible contributions to their own economic health and that of their communities: the San Diego Zoo’s Innovation Center, which explores how biomimicry can be applied to industry and commerce, commissioned a report showing this area of research could “generate as much as $300 billion annually to the U.S. economy.” The majority of museums, however, are left struggling to quantify the good they do. The taskforce creating recommendations for PILOT payments in Boston (see above) considered “crediting” nonprofits for the quantifiable value of benefits that that the city would have had to support in its budget if the nonprofit did not provide it. Where does that calculation leave museums?

Questions to consider:
  • If your museum has made an explicit case for public support, what was the basis for your appeal: general statements about the need to support museums, on how museums enhance the quality of life, or specific documentation of economic impact?
  • How would you answer the question Nina poses in her post: “if people were debating your museum in the newspaper, what would they say?”

More than enough for now! But I hope you can see that though it’s challenging to maintain a well-rounded scanning list, it’s worth the effort. How else will you keep a “weather eye” on the horizon?

Phil Katz and I are currently debating which trends we will feature in our second annual trends round up—TrendsWatch 2013. If you want to nominate a recent trend as “most likely to have a profound effect on museums and society, send me an email, making your case and (preferably) including a few links to news or blog posts that support your argument.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

KidShare: Collecting, Presenting, and Preserving Children’s Culture

The Madison Children’s Museum is one of three participants in the current round of Innovation Lab for Museums, funded by the MetLife Foundation and presented by EmcArts in partnership with the Alliance. In today’s post, Brenda Baker, MCM’s exhibit director, shares the museum’s “half-baked idea” that will be refined and prototyped through the Lab process. We will profile MCM’s two Lab classmates—The National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Mississippi Museum of Art—in future posts, so stay tuned.

Madison Children’s Museum (MCM) has always been a museum built by, for, and about children. Honoring and respecting youth, recognizing and supporting their intuition, innate creativity, sense of wonder, and burgeoning intellect is what MCM is all about. With this vision of children as key collaborators, the museum has routinely involved them in all aspects of exhibit development: as researchers, designers, content experts, prototype testers, makers and occasionally builders. MCM believes strongly that the best way to create engaged citizens who care about their communities is to engage them deeply as partners, honor their expertise, present their work, and preserve what they’ve created for future generations.

This year, MCM is thrilled to be selected for funding from MetLife Foundation, enabling us to participate in Innovation Lab for Museums to develop our idea for Kidshare, a new culture and digital media project. Kidshare will increase the museum’s capacity to work with significantly more children as authors and creators of the museum’s exhibits while transforming the museum into a highly accessible living story lab and repository of children’s knowledge, wisdom, and culture. Kidshare is about honoring kids’ deep knowledge about the places they live, and allowing them a place to share their knowledge with others. From our experience, it is in the sharing with others that children feel validated and genuinely connected to their community.

In our application to the Lab, we made the case that KidShare represents a significant break from past practice (one of three criteria in EmcArt’s definition of innovation). In the past, we’ve approached exhibits as individual projects around separate subjects with a small number of children contributing knowledge within a set of tightly controlled parameters. The outcomes were not collected or shared beyond the run of the exhibit. For KidShare, we will make the guidelines much more open-ended and non-project based, allowing them to be used for multiple projects.

Much more than a digital documentary project, KidShare will help MCM and three partnering local schools, their students and teachers, generate a cadre of young citizen ethnographers and citizen scientists who have documented their stories and understanding of their own sense of place in a variety of formats: video, audio, drawings, graphs, poems, prose, and painting. This research will then be transformed into a layered digital “map” of Madison that tells the kids’ authentic insider story of Madison and surrounding communities. The idea is that this map will be ever expanding and changing over time as new stories and new generations of kids participate over time from throughout the community. The material created may also be used in additional applications, from apps to digital games to interactive exhibit components.

One goal of the project is to create a climate in which visitors, community members, and researchers think of our museum not only as a destination for hands on learning, but also as a catalyst for collecting, presenting, and preserving children’s stories. Through the Innovation Lab for Museums, we hope to test our assumptions, experiment with pilot projects, and find a replicable model that works for individual kids, family groups, and schools alike. During the Lab, we’ll answer questions like: Will this project help young people feel more connected to the museum and engaged with their community? What will motivate them to participate?  How do we make this project “cool” enough for older kids?  How can we make it simple enough for anyone to participate?  What kinds of technologies are easiest to employ? How do we preserve these stories for posterity?

On a larger scale, we anticipate that this project will have a direct impact on educational pedagogy in both public school and museum field realms. Our own shift in assumptions have come from the deep understanding of the way that both formal and informal education must be deeply connected to children’s real lives in order to be transformational. As a museum that cares deeply about helping transform children’s lives for the better, MCM is committed to becoming the place where youth ideas and understanding of their community are truly valued, presented, and preserved. We’re grateful to the MetLife Foundation for supporting our innovation, and to AAM and EmcArts for working together to make this program accessible to the museum field.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

One From Each Category: Part 1

Sometimes I find myself fixating on one category of change, usually technology, since it gets so much coverage in the press. Who can resist news about robots and 3-D printing? (Or 3-D printing that kind of turns a little girl into a robot.)

To combat this myopia I periodically review the five STEEP categories of forecasting—Social, Technological, Economic, Environmental and Political—and summarize the most interesting trends I have seen in each.

Most recently, I prepared such a review for participants in the 2012 Smith Leadership Symposium, organized by the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership. BPCP graciously gave permission to adapt this summary for you. I’ve divided it into two parts: today’s post surveys recent news related to social and technological trends. I also pose some questions that may help you consider how these trends affect our field in general, and your organization in particular.

(Also—a reminder: you are welcome to join attendees from the Smith Symposium later this afternoon, Thursday, Sept. 20, 3 p.m. (ET), for a TweetChat I will lead on the future of the museum workplace--hashtag #smithsymp.)

Social/Cultural Trends

As Phil Katz and I noted in TrendsWatch 2012, we see a rapidly accelerating hunger for informal, pop-up experiences. Just as television eroded people’s willingness to get dressed, get out and go to the theatre or orchestra, mobile food trucks are making bricks and mortar restaurants nervous. Some big name chefs are hedging their bets (and expanding their offerings) by embracing the new model. The “truck” model has exploded way beyond food: now you can even get DNA paternity tests from a truck. ( I wonder what jingle that truck plays?!) Pop-up experiences aren’t always on trucks—some take advantage of open &/empty space to host transitory shops, hotels or language schools.
Questions to consider:
  • Will the proliferation of pop-up cultural experiences, including poetry, art, astronomy, even libraries, cut into people’s willingness to trek to museums, or will it hone their desire for more traditional experiences?

  • Can museums use the “food truck” model, or transitory pop-up experiences, to expand their reach and build new audiences?

  • Food trucks have been hailed as lean start-ups that enable entrepreneurs to test concepts, build audience and prospect for viable locations. Will more museums embrace the mobile or pop-up model to prototype new buildings before committing to a site and commissioning a design?

  • Can the truck model bring museums to “cultural deserts” the way mobile markets are bringing fresh, healthy food to food deserts? Though as this article notes, making fruits and veggies accessible and affordable doesn’t mean people will eat them—the same might prove true of museum experiences.

Technology trends

CFM is tracking many technological trends: augmented reality, 3-D digital printing, haptic technology, near field communication. But in addition to watching specific tech developments, I’ve been contemplating the cumulative effect the rapid pace of technological change has on the expectations people bring to museums. When the Russian government kits out its pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale with wall-to-wall QR codes, do they raise the bar for everyone else? Big museums are pioneering fabulous applications: like the Getty Museum using augmented reality to enable visitors to manipulate a 17th century cabinet of curiosities, the American Museum of Natural History creating an app that takes the place of the old “guide to the exhibits” handout, or Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art providing each visitor with an iPod Touch and associated app that takes the place of conventional exhibit labels. But, as the curator of the Fort William Henry Museum on Lake George recently lamented, it’s hard for a small museum to keep up when kids come in expecting an interactive, multimedia experience. Museums also face a growing expectation that they will digitize their collections. Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian, has made a promise widely interpreted as a commitment to put “the entire collection of Smithsonian artifacts, records, documents and relics from 19 museums, nine research centers and the National Zoo” online*. Again—a rising bar. As the registrar of the Princeton Art Museum commented, “students expect to be able to see the entire collection online in their pajamas in their dorm rooms at 2 o’clock in the morning.”
Questions to consider:
  • Right now funders are willing to support digitization projects, but who, in the future, is going to cover the (large) costs of keeping the digitized data readable and up-to-date when digitization is no longer a shiny new technological trend?

  • How can we identify and share information about free or low cost platforms (such as Aurasma) that small museums can use to deliver on these expectations?

  • How can museums pool resources to create technologically savvy interfaces, as the Balboa Park Online Collaborative has done in sharing WiFi infrastructure and apps, or as the Smithsonian has done in partnering with other museums on the Pheon game?

  • Is there an opportunity for some museums to buck the tide, and provide low tech or no-tech islands of respite and retreat? After all, “off-line hotels” are beginning to capitalize on people’s desire to disconnect.
Next week: a roundup of recent news in the realms of the environment, the economy and (my current favorite scanning category) politics.

*Though the SI has recently clarified that their priorities for digitization target a more realistic goal of 10% of the object collections, and 63% of the archival materials. And they aren’t going to digitize every blessed one of the zoological specimens.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Opportunities and Challenges with Reproductions

As I travel the country talking to museumers, one of the most frequently asked questions is "in the future, will people still value ‘real’ things?" People wonder, naturally enough, whether constant exposure to virtual worlds, digital depictions and ever more accurate replicas will erode the respect accorded to the collections we work so hard to amass and maintain. Why should people subsidize collections care and conservation if they are just as happy with a good copy? If, in the future, anyone can fabricate a good facsimile of any object, what happens to the competitive advantage museums hold in being able to mount only-see-it-here exhibitions? This week, Jasper Visser, who blogs at The Museum of the Future, shares his thoughts on the repro v. real based on his recent experience opening an exhibit at the Beurs van Berlage in Amsterdam.

This weekend in Amsterdam we opened an exhibition around the works of the famous Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, Van Gogh, My Dream Exhibition. It’s a special exhibition in a number of ways and most obviously because not a single work in the exhibition is a 'real Van Gogh.' The works on display are photographic reproductions (partly) restored to their original colours and a set of 3D animations inspired by Van Gogh╩╝s works and letters.

The website of the exhibition, which mimics the digital restoration process, sparked quite some discussion on Twitter, amongst others with Suse Cairns and Mia Ridge. In response Elizabeth Merritt asked me to reflect on the challenges and opportunities of reproductions in the museum context. As I wrote earlier I do believe Van Gogh, My Dream Exhibition is a wonderful experience and from the feedback we get on Twitter and in gallery, visitors enjoy the colours and stories in the exhibition. This leads me to answer some questions that might immediately be asked:
  • Do visitors mind seeing reproductions instead of ‘the real thing’?
    The honest answer is, I don’t know. We clearly tell people at the entrance and in all promotional materials that this is an exhibition of reproductions, so people come prepared. We’ve had a handful of negative comments online (but who hasn’t?) by people who preferred the real thing. Eavesdropping on visitors, I’ve not heard them mention it. Instead, they focus on things other than the price tag of a real Van Gogh, the beautiful frame or the bad lightning needed to preserve the piece.
  • If people don’t seem to mind reproductions, does this challenge our right to exist as museums with collections?
    No. Van Gogh, My Dream Exhibition doesn’t show anything that replaces the real Van Gogh paintings. It adds to them. Personally I can say the exhibition changed my way of looking at Van Gogh and I can't wait to see the original paintings again. More generally we see it as a new interpretation of Van Gogh, just as it is completely accepted to reinterpret Shakespeare or Vivaldi to reach new and wider audiences with their art.
  • Is a reproduction exhibition a viable business model for struggling museums?
    Of course there are financial advantages to using reproductions. Insurance, for instance. At the same time, most of the costs of an exhibition are fixed even if you don’t put anything on the wall, and it’s not cheap. Van Gogh, My Dream Exhibition was initiated by a team of (cultural) entrepreneurs and paid for without using public money. It’s possible to organise exhibitions without (public) funding if you manage to work differently as a team, not by definition because you use reproductions.
  • Is this possible with all collections?
    I’m not sure how to replicate a Rothko, but I’m pretty sure that if you have a good enough story to tell, you can tell it in any creative way possible. There’s no need for an original object to tell a story. There is, however, a need for original objects if you want to show original objects. I don’t think anybody checks the Mona Lisa off their list after having seen a copy (or do they?)
  • And finally: what is the next step with this? Where does this go?
    It’s tempting to look forward to the possibilities in a couple of years. Seb Chan recently described a 3D copying project at the Art Institute of Chicago. Obviously cheap 3D printing makes it possible to replicate many more and different objects. At the same time our online collections get better and better and there’s a lot of research into building 3D models from 2D images. This means that it is likely people around the world will start printing our (public domain) collections for their own use. This, of course, is a huge opportunity and a considerable challenge for all of us, but one that is exciting to witness.

Van Gogh, My Dream Exhibition opens up the world of Van Gogh to thousands of people from around the world. Our explicit aim is to reach new and wider audiences, which seems to work looking at the visitors we’ve had in the first days, and the press that covered us. The temporary exhibition is not designed to replace museums, but if we get them to think differently about exhibitions and get a new audience to explore them, we would be very happy.

 As Jasper notes, the costs of borrowing/lending high-value works are going up, along with the risks. Would you prefer to send reproductions on tour rather than putting originals at risk? Can you afford to borrow the originals you would like to exhibit? Museums are struggling to cover the costs of storing and maintaining ever-growing collections. Would your/does your museum use digital reproductions of works in other collections (public or private) to supplement your own? We are honing our ability to create relatively inexpensive, high quality reproductions, potentially embellished by AR and other enhancements. Might the increased use of copies, driven by all these forces, change people’s attitudes toward authentic objects? And, in turn, how might that affect how museums see their charge to “collect and preserve?” Perhaps the collections plan of the future will include a section on materials that will be maintained as digital data, and fabricated as needed…

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Peering into the Future of the Workplace

Last Friday I moderated a virtual breakout session for the Smith Leadership Symposium, organized by the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership. Their focus this year was on organizational innovation, and in preparation for the event, I provided registrants with some scanning on the trends shaping today’s workplace and workforce. BPCP graciously gave permission to share some of this prep material with you. If this topic is of interest to you and your organization, please join me and Smith Symposium participants and others for a TweetChat on Thursday, Sept. 20 at 3 p.m. (ET), hashtag #smithsymp, to hash things out.

The Office of the Future

Workplace 2020 forecasts that within a decade the U.S. workforce will be multigenerational, culturally diverse, > 50% female, mobile and concerned about sustainability. Increasingly, the workforce will be composed of independent contractors rather than traditional employees. They will engage in work that is highly collaborative, using mobile technologies and powerful data analysis tools. With many people engaging with their coworkers via mobile devices and cloud computing, the actual work “place” will have very specific functions—facilitating social interactions and providing access to high tech tools. This short video demonstrates a what a workplace can look like when you downplay cubicles and corner offices and focus on collaborative spaces, or, as the video puts it, “Giving up ‘I space’ for ‘we space’.”

Generational Trends

The workplaces of the next few decades will need to be configured around the behavior and expectations of Gen Y—the “Millennials” born in the 1980’s and 1990’s. These twenty- to thirty-year-olds don’t want to make coffee and answer the phones while working their way up the ladder, clock in from 9-5 or be told exactly what to do and how. They want their workplace to be social and fun, they expect flexible hours and autonomy over their work. In response, some major companies are experimenting with the gamification of work environments for training, socialization, team-building and motivation. Some companies have designed their work environments around the philosophy that play and fun can help inspire their employees to design more innovative ideas, products and services.

Technological Transformations

Technological trends—including the explosion of mobile devices, cloud-based data, and a reliance on social networks—are pressuring employers to support teleworking and loosen restrictions on the use of social media.  As the 2011 The Future of Workplaces report (PDF, 40 pages) notes, “the very meaning of commonly used phrases such as ‘showing up for work’ and ‘normal working hours’ is changing.” Managers need to both embrace the resulting opportunities and manage the resulting stress. We need to be cognizant of the fact that the Internet has literally shaped the brains of our young employees, fostering “continuous partial attention” to tasks. In response, we (i.e., managers of a certain age) can provide technological and management environments that are friendly to this mode of engaging with information.

Cultural Change

As our standards for a desirable work environment change, so do our measurements of success. You may be familiar with the movement that originated in Bhutan to measure Gross National Happiness as an alternative to Gross Domestic Product—creating a holistic index of a country’s prosperity. The Happy Planet Index from the New Economics Foundation (NEF) puts an environmentalist spin on this concept, factoring in ecological impact to create a measure of sustainable happiness. Now NEF has fielded a Happiness at Work survey. As the project leaders explain in this short video, happiness at work isn’t just a “fluffy term,” it’s a way of making your business more sustainable and profitable. These aren’t fringy theorists—one of the project’s backers is Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos, the world’s largest online shoe store, which was bought by Amazon for $1.2 billion in 2009. Microsoft gets it, too. This author notes that the software giant knows “if you measure employee happiness to changes in their work and physical environments, management can make the necessary changes to increase productivity. Using the data, ethical leaders will rebalance the work environment to support greater collaboration, serendipitous encounters, informal knowledge flows and more profit.”

The Org Chart of the Future

The transparency of data inside organizations, the ability for employees to connect with each other and with outside collaborators via social media and the desire of cultural organizations to collaborate with their constituents may all combine to drive fundamental shifts in the traditional organizational structure. A 2010 report by Gartner (available for purchase here but summarized by a Gen Y “digital native” in this blog post) describes how forms of internet-enabled collaboration sidestep the pyramidal org chart. New positions—“community curator,” “curator of the audience experience”—are springing up as cultural organizations reorganize around community engagement as a core value. The burgeoning phenomenon of crowdsourcing may result in work traditionally performed by paid staff or on-site volunteers being outsourced, while creating the need for new staff to train, supervise and validate the work of virtual volunteers. However, the National Research Council recently concluded that our educational system is behind the curve in teaching and assessing some of the core skills needed to fill these new roles—notably “soft” interpersonal skills, such as teamwork and complex communication,  resiliency and conscientiousness.

At the Smith Symposium, Chip Conley’s keynote address explored the premise that the internal work environment and the morale of the staff shapes the experience an organization provides to its customers, clients, visitors. If that’s true, creating a happy workplace that motivates employees from all generations isn’t just a matter of staff retention, it is vital to fulfilling your museum’s mission. To read more about this inside/outside symmetry, and how Chip ties the behavior of staff and audience to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, check out his books: “Peak: How Great Companies Get their Mojo from Maslow” and “Emotional Equations: Simple Formulas to Help Your Life Work Better.”

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

September Suggestions: Spice up your Scanning

Time to reinforce my relentless message: even when it seems like a guilty pleasure or a waste of time, you should carve out space each day to study a least one short piece of news, read a blog post, or watch a video that is not directly relevant to your current work. Broad, eclectic scanning helps expand your mental map of possible futures. (Also, the brain charge provided by material like this this fuels your creativity and may end up spurring on your current projects after all.)

To help you meet this goal of habitual scanning, I periodically share some of my favorite Tweeters or Bloggers you might want to add to your scanning radar. Here are some interesting folks I have recently added to my Twitter feed and to Google Reader:


  • The ArtsFwd Blog, part of EmcArts’ ArtFwd (@ArtsFwd) initiative, shares insights into innovation and “next practices” in the cultural sector, featuring case studies and analysis of innovation and adaptive change in the arts. Recent posts have featured thoughts from staff at Off-Center @theJones on how to measure success and provided a sneak peek behind the scenes at the first Innovation Lab for Museums retreat. Earlier this year, they featured an essay sparked by staff cuts at the Getty Museum, musing on the consequences of pitting art acquisition against education funding. (Karina Mangu-Ward, EmcArts’ director of activating innovation, is looking for blogging fellows, and you have until September 17.)

  • I recently found the Nonprofit Quarterly through Twitter (@NPQuarterly) and have quickly become a fan of their coverage of issues and research in philanthropy, policy and nonprofit governance. They have the most readable commentary I have found on government policy and philanthropy (see this recent post, for example, on the complex intersection of taxation, charity and religion in the U.S.)

On Twitter:

  • @BryanAlexander is an eclectic reader who is generous in sharing links to good articles on a variety of topics, with a focus on the future of education & education technology, and some interesting asides about science fiction. Bryan also blogs at Scanning for Futures.

  • @cascio (Jamais Cascio) spots great material about the collision of emerging technologies, environmental dilemmas, and cultural transformation, and he is one of my favorite creators of scenarios of the future. James’ online home is Open the Future.

  • I frequently retweet @nealstimler, who keeps an eye on the museum blogosphere, humanities and arts in general, as well as developments in digital technology. He himself is a prolific retweeter of good stuff, which helps me spot new people to follow.
Here are some links to past posts on recommended reading, including blogs that cover the future of education.  Please use the comments section, below, to share your favorite scanning sources—blogs, Twitter feeds, YouTube channels—or tweet links to these sources tagged with @futureofmuseums. Thank you!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Future of Museums, and of AAM

There’s been plenty of buzz, this past week, as AAM launches its metamorphosis into the American Alliance of Museums. In this guest post, president Ford W. Bell shares his vision for the future and how the changes at AAM will help museums control their destiny.

I have a story to tell about my preferred future. In this future, museums are recognized as:
  • Essential education institutions
  • Vital economic engines
  • Valued community partners
  • Catalysts that help shape a better world
So I’m excited to talk to you about the changes that being implemented at AAM to help make this vision a reality. We are rolling out a new membership structure to support our goal of uniting all U.S. museums in an alliance that will amplify our influence and give us the collective clout to be a powerful driver of change.

We’ve listened to you over the past years—through surveys, at sessions at our conferences and those of other associations, and one-on-one as I’ve travelled the country visiting your institutions and hearing about what you need from us. Based on what we’ve heard, we’re realigning our activities to support two directives: championing the cause of museums, and nurturing excellence. In order to do this, we are making membership in AAM and participation in our excellence programs more accessible and affordable.

As Elizabeth illustrated on this blog on Tuesday, we recognize the diversity of the museum field, and we value your individual strengths. However, it is vital that museums also identify what they have in common. As a united field we can speak with one clear voice to important constituencies, including elected officials, funders and the general public, to tell our story effectively. AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums is documenting the many forces—financial, political, cultural and economic—that challenge the work of museums. As an Alliance we can unify not only those who work in museums and with museums, but also those who love our museums and can be the best advocates on our behalf. As an Alliance we have the strength to meet the challenges of the future.

Museums are under increasing pressure to measure and report on the benefits they provide to society. Notably, we need to demonstrate we are excellent stewards for the collections in our care and of the funds that sustain our work. To create multiple ways for museums to be recognized for their good stewardship, AAM is introducing a Continuum of Excellence that provides a range of options that enable museums of all types and sizes to demonstrate their achievements. We encourage all museums to take a to demonstrate they are committed to operating in accord with national standards and best practices. Some museums may choose to use our new Core Documents Verification program to confirm that the policies and procedures they have in place reflect standard practices of professional museums. We hope many museums continue to use our Museum Assessment Program to improve their operations and document their achievements. And, we have streamlined Accreditation so that becoming fully accredited will take about half as long and cost half as much as it used to. In addition, the Continuum integrates with other standards recognition programs such as the American Association for State and Local History’s StEPs program and the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s Accreditation, recognizing the ways that museums have already demonstrated their commitment to excellence through these programs.

Technology and financial pressures are combining to change the ways in which organizations associate with each other, learn what they need to know and hire and retain the staff they need. To adapt to these realities, we’ve deconstructed and reinvented our membership model. In order to be a powerful advocate for our field, AAM wants to represent every museum and every museum professional. We’ve asked you what it would take to reach that ambitious goal, and here is what you have told us: we have to improve the value of what we offer with programs that are more affordable, accessible and relevant. Our new approach to museum membership is designed to remove all barriers to joining the Alliance. Our new Tier 1 membership asks museums to “pay what you can.” I’m serious about that—if I’m visiting a little, all-volunteer museum in a small town and the chair of their board hands me $10 and their contact information, I’ll sign them up. Even the biggest museums opting for Tier 3 membership will pay only one-third the dues the largest members of AAM paid under the old system. And at tier 3, museums can opt for an “all-staff” add-on package that enables all employees to become individual members of AAM at no additional charge. I expect the reduced costs, added flexibility and clear value to dramatically increase the Alliance’s membership—and a larger membership enables us to speak with a louder voice, and wield more influence, when we advocate on your behalf.

Through CFM, we have been preaching for four years that museums have to recognize how the world is changing, and adapt their own operations in order to thrive. This week, I am proud to introduce changes that demonstrate that the Alliance is applying this lesson to its own operations. These are the first steps toward becoming a more nimble, responsive and forward-looking organization that will help lead museums into a bright future. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Fractal Taxonomy of Museums

I’m about to break my own rule, and talk about nouns.

Specifically, names.

Hyper-specifically, AAM’s name. You may have heard the buzz over the last week, as people notice that our web page quietly announced “The Association is now the Alliance.” Bloggers and tweeters and listserve-posters pounced on our rechristening, speculating what it might mean. Tomorrow you’ll find out all about it, as AAM officially announces how the organization behind the name is changing to meet the future. For now, I’m just gonna ask:  

What do all these organizations have in common? (Jump to end for the reveal)

  • With charismatic marine megafauna (dolphins, seals, penguins, whales)
  • Without charismatic marine megafauna 
  • Specific to their local ecosystem 
  •  Featuring global collections 
  • With dolphin shows 
  • Without dolphin shows 

Art Museums
  • Featuring encyclopedic, global collections
  • Featuring culturally-specific collections
  • Featuring a single artist
  • That focus on modern/contemporary art
    • with permanent collection
    • without permanent collections
  • Focused on particular media (photography, film, sculpture)
  • Focused on particular themes (wildlife, Western, religious, advertising, book illustration)
  • Inside universities/colleges
  • Inside larger art complexes
  • Art museums inside historic houses
  • Art museums with public gardens
  • Sculpture parks (that may also be gardens)
  • Formal and stuffy
  • Not formal OR stuffy
  • Museums in landmark "pillars of society" buildings
  • Museums in new “starchitect” designed palaces
  • Museums best navigated with a Segway, bag lunch and a ball of twine
  • Museums that are little more than one room 

Botanic Gardens
  • Primarily decorative/display
  • Research/conservation oriented
  • Attached to an historic house
  • Attached to an art museum
  • Inside a cemetery
  • Featuring public art
  • Focused on particular taxonomic specialties (trees, cacti, roses)
  • Historic (featuring heirloom plants, or recreating a particular time period)
  • With children’s gardens
  • Without children’s gardens 

Children’s/Youth Museum

  • Focused on toddlers and moms with infants
  • Collecting
  • Non-collecting
  • Has a pretend supermarket
    • With culturally-specific groceries
  • Doesn’t have a pretend supermarket
  • With/without a garden

General Museum
  • Combination of a history & a natural history museum 
  • Combination of a history & and art museum
  • Combination of art & natural history
  • Combination of a history, art & natural history museum
  • Little bit of everything
    • With a mummy
    • No mummy

Historic House/Site
  • Interpreting an historic time period
  • Interpreting a famous person
  • Restored
  • Unrestored
  • With landscaped grounds
  • With a working/demonstration farm
  • Featuring immersive, first person interpretation
  • Reproductions of sites/settlements/villages
  • National Historic Landmarks
  • Battlefields
  • Archaeological digs
  • Containing art
  • Not containing art 

History Museum/Historical Society

  • Specific to a state
  • Specific to a city
  • Specific to a county
  • Specific to a region
  • Specific to a particular ethnic group
  • Specific to a particular event
    • Specific to a war
    • Specific to an assassination
    • Specific to an act of terror
    • Specific to a piece of legislation or declaration
  • Specific to a particular industry (textiles, steel, ship building, soft drink manufacturing)    
  • Military museums (those that don’t classify themselves as “specialized museums”)
  • With an archive/library
  • Without an archive/library
  • With an archive but not a library
  • With a library but not an archive
  • Featuring some Big Things like trains, planes, automobiles, submarines, machine tools (but not exclusively, because then they tend to classify themselves as “specialized”) 

Natural History/Anthropology

  • Supporting research collections
  • Not supporting research collections
  • Focused on dead, non-human animals, & plants
  • Focused on dead people & the artifacts they made
  • With dinosaurs 
    • Real specimens
    • Casts and reproductions only
  • Without dinosaur
  • With fossils of things without backbones
  • Those with live animals and plants on exhibit
  • Those without live animals and plants on exhibit
  • Housing fluid collections in explosion-proof, specially vented storage rooms
  • Not having fluid collections (and therefore not needing explosion-proof, specially vented storage rooms)
  • Associated with a university
  • Or not
  • Science-based
  • Creationism-based

Nature Centers

  • Associated with a national park
  • Associated with a state park
  • Associated with a city park
  • Just sitting out there by themselves
  • With living collections
  • Or not
  • Or non-living collections
  • Or not 

Science Technology Center/Museums

  • With permanent collections
  • Without permanent collections
  • With research collections
  • Without research collections
  • With a giant Tesla coil
  • Without a giant Tesla coil
  • Featuring a Maker Lab
  • Not featuring a Maker Lab
  • With a Large Format Theatre
  • Without an LFT
  • Institutions with planetariums
  • Institutions without planetariums
  • Institutions that ARE planetariums 

Specialized Museums

  • Culturally specific museums
    • Museums about Native Americans
      • Run by Native Americans
      • Not run by Native Americans
  • Museums about planes
  • Museums about  trains
    • With working trains
    • Without working trains
  • Museums about automobiles
  • Or motorcycles
  • Museums about ships (aka “large rotting objects”)
  • Military museums (those that don’t classify themselves as history museums)
  • Culturally specific museums (that don’t consider themselves to be history museums)
  • Textile  museums
  • Except when they specifically identify as quilt museums
  • Halls of Fame
  • Sports museums (which often contain halls of fame)
  • Music museums (which also often contain halls of fame)
  • Toy museums
  • Museums of specific products (paperweights, mustard, shoes, typewriters, barbed wire, umbrella covers)


  • With classic terrestrial charismatic megafauna (elephants, lions, tigers)
  • Without classic terrestrial charismatic megafauna
  • With botanic gardens integrated into their grounds
  • Without botanic gardens integrated into their grounds
  • With petting zoos
  • Without petting zoos
  • With Greater Pandas
  • With only Lesser Pandas
  • No pandas

OK, yes, I’m poking gentle fun at the infinite distinctions we museumers draw between ourselves. (With many thanks to my far-flung colleagues who contributed to the taxonomy of their own segment of the museum field. To misquote Homer Simpson—“it’s only funny when it’s true.”)

But it is a serious topic. When we get together to talk business, breakout sessions are fine—big art museum directors in one room, small museum administrators in another, college and university museums up the hall. However, we also need to come together in a plenary session, the big AND small museums, art AND zoos, history AND science, to identify what we have in common, pool our collective wisdom and influence, and become a force big enough to shape the world.

To become, in fact, an alliance: to be allies in a common cause. And to rally, not just museum staff and independent professionals and people who make stuff for museums and provide services to museums, but everyone who cares about museums and the work we do.

So, is this just a name change for AAM? No, it’s a reflection of a far deeper and far reaching metamorphosis of what we hope to achieve and how we plan to accomplish it. But for more on that, you are going to have to wait for tomorrow.

Meanwhile, happy tweeting.

As a biologist, I know that all taxonomies are incomplete. The nucleus of the classification scheme above was the framework we used to use for the old Museum Financial Information survey and other AAM data collection, which is being superseded by a new set of categories created by IMLS in collaboration with the field. As to the humorous subdivisions, please use the comment section below to share how you see your subsection of the field.