Thursday, February 28, 2013

Pop-ups and Emerging Museums

Recent posts on the CFM Blog on pop-up museums & exhibits have provoked a lot of interest, so I invited Katie Spencer, executive director of the Museum of Durham History, to contribute yet another perspective. Her museum, still under development, is using pop-up events as a form of rapidproto-typing—a low cost, low risk way of trying out concepts, forging relationships with partner organizations, and building community engagement before the museum even opens.

The Museum of Durham History is a young museum in Durham, North Carolina. Because we are new, much of what we do is an experiment. We’ve seen local history museums in our state and region struggle and sometimes fold, so we feel obligated to look at new, experimental models for museums to ensure our success. We have the advantage of building a new museum in a time when many museums are re-evaluating their institutional histories and trying to think of new ways forward.

One thing we have been experimenting with is pop-up museums. We were inspired by Michelle DelCarlo’s pop-up museum concept, seeing it as a low-tech way to create engagement and conversation, both of which are critical to our museum’s long-term success. Conversations such as those spawned by a recent CFM post on museum pop-ups suggest that other museums are interested in experimenting with this model as well.

Our emerging history museum is very much in a start-up phase and has only recently leased a small building to use as our first museum space, called the History Hub. We were initially attracted to pop-up museums as a way to kick-start conversations about the past in our community. Pop-ups provided a way to bring people, objects, and stories to the History Hub, even before we install exhibits, by creating a museum experience complete with objects, community voices, and visitor engagement in what is currently an empty building. In Durham there is no central historical collection, and so the pop-up museum model also creates opportunities for us to discover and document objects that are valuable to our community’s understanding of the past.

A Durham druggist shares stories about growing up in town 
and working at the family drug store at the 
Tools of the Trade Pop-up Museum.

Our first pop-up took place at the History Hub as part of a weekend-long outdoor festival in downtown Durham. We selected the theme and format through conversations with staff, volunteers, and community members. I really like Michelle’s focus on universal themes and emotions (e.g. “hope”), but I discovered that people had a hard time relating these concepts to their understanding of history. They responded better to more tangible topics, so in the end we focused our first pop-up on an object-based theme: “tools of the trade.” We encouraged people to interpret “tools” to be anything used to get a job done, from cooking to factory work to art to public safety. Twelve people brought personal or family objects to share, over 200 people came through our doors to see the pop-up in progress, and a photographer and an audio documentarian captured the stories that were shared.

This first pop-up museum was on the whole a wonderful experience, but getting people to participate took more work than we expected. Because we were worried that no one would show up, we made many calls inviting people to bring pieces of their collection or their family history. In the end only one of the people who brought objects did so without a personal invitation from museum staff.

A visitor reads about desegregation of Durham schools at a Pop-up
Museum created by students from Duke University and N
orth Carolina Central University
As we develop more pop-up museum events, we find they work best for us when conducted in partnership with other community groups. In a few months we will collaborate with Durham’s North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, the oldest and largest African American life insurance company in the country. In celebration of the company’s 115th anniversary, the museum and the company will invite current employees, past employees, and descendants of past employees of NC Mutual to bring in photos, stories, and objects from their time with the company. Later in the year we will conduct a pop-up museum on Durham’s Jewish history in conjunction with a program at the Durham County Library. We’ve also conducted a pop-up museum featuring mini-exhibits made by students at nearby Duke University and North Carolina Central University. All these partners link the museum to members of the community with interesting perspectives on history and help ensure broader participation. We conducted two pop-up museums in 2012 and have four planned for 2013. I suspect that the challenge will continue to be driving participation: we need to convince people that their perspective on Durham’s past is interesting and significant enough to be in a museum, even if only for one day.

Recent efforts on the part of museums to build community participation is a wonderful step in the right direction, but it may be easier for those of us who spend a lot of time thinking about museum models—past, present, and future—to embrace that goal, than it is for people who see museums as less central to their everyday lives and who may think of museums as a place one visits to be told about the past (or about science, art, etc.). Pop-up museums have proved to be a simple way for the Museum of Durham History to communicate our vision of the importance of community participation and each event measure of how successfully we have shared that vision.

Our pop-up museums, each with its unique theme and community partner, have functioned as experiments in community involvement. Because these pop-ups are so simple, so economical, and so flexible, we can afford to experiment in this way, and what we learn from these experiments helps us plan for our museum-in-progress.

Katie notes that she is very interested in finding other community history museums that are experimenting with new ideas. If you can help her find such projects, please share information and links in the comment section, below.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Museums, Cubed

Last month, Nate Rudy shared his hope that museums would pop up more often in storefronts to help revitalize small towns. This week, guest blogger Leslie Davol, pushes us to go even further, based on her experience creating distributed cultural experiences via the Street Lab and Uni Projects.

The future of museums can include public space, even outdoor public space. A commitment to bring museum programs to plazas, parks, town squares, and even farmers markets and malls—the places where we already gather—will benefit our culture, our cities, and museums themselves. And it will signal what we, as a society, value. What we put in public space, be it a monument, a sculpture, or an activity, says the world about our priorities. All too often we end up erecting billboards. By showcasing the work of librarians, teachers, and museum educators on a very public stage, I believe we can move the needle away from a culture of consumption towards a culture of learning.

I worked in museums in New York City for many years before moving to Boston in 2006 and working with my husband to start a nonprofit called Street Lab. Together we produced cultural and educational programs for public space: outdoor films on a vacant lot; performing arts rehearsals, visible from the street and open to the public. We also launched a project called the Storefront Library—a community library in a vacant storefront in Boston's Chinatown, which convinced us to focus on developing more small-scale, library-like community spaces. When we returned to New York City in 2011, we launched the Uni Project, which offers a portable reading room for public space.

 The Uni in Corona, Queens. July 29, 2012.
Photo courtesy of The Uni Project
The Uni Project aims to do one thing and do it well: temporarily transform almost any available urban space into a public reading room and venue for learning. We deploy an architect-designed system of cubes and benches, a collection of books and learning activities, and a dedicated staff of volunteer educators. We believe that books and learning experiences should be prominent, accessible, and part of our street-level experience in cities.

In 2012, our team installed the Uni ten times, in seven New York City neighborhoods, including a park in hurricane-damaged Red Hook, Brooklyn. We purposefully chose a variety of environments: plazas, farmers' markets, “playstreets”, and street festivals. We partnered with a variety of organizations, including both the Queens and Brooklyn public libraries. And we partnered with museums, which will be a growing focus of our work in 2013.

Cube curated by the Louis Armstrong
 House Museum, Corona, NY
Photo courtesy of the Uni
We initiated our museum partnerships by inviting institutions located near our sites, such as the Louis Armstrong House Museum, the NY Hall of Science, and the Museum of the Chinese in America, to curate a cube of books for the Uni. We added audio and images to some of these cubes, but the initial focus was a collection of browsable books that gave the public a taste of each museum. In 2013, our goal is to add more objects and activities to these museum cubes, in line with other cubes we've created that go beyond books.

The Uni is an opportunity for museums to create a concise experience, in a 14" cube, for a walk-up urban audience. With these cubes, we take a mosaic approach to programming public space. The Uni provides a framework for involving multiple institutions, side-by-side, sharing a physical infrastructure and relying on volunteer educators who relish the opportunity to work in public space. Few institutions have the resources to program a public plaza for an entire day, but together many institutions can create a critical mass that serves thousands of people with a mix of content.

What Uni offers the public is not particularly new. Like a traditional library or museum, the project provides a place to go, a collection, an opportunity to learn, and a dedicated staff to oversee the experience. What’s new is where we’re offering it: in public space, right in the heart of things, on a kind of stage that we believe will make people come to expect and demand more such opportunities as part of the urban cultural mix. And that's good for everyone.

Monday, February 25, 2013

High Debt--No Job: What Field Are You In?

A Monday Musing sparked by an article in the NYT yesterday on a crisis in one particular field of training.

Let's see: 

--80% of current graduates are women.
--The available trainiing programs are increasing the number of applicants admitted (to increase their profitabality to their schools), even though
--The number of jobs is declining (last year, 39% of graduates had no job offers), and
--Starting salaries are dropping, in fact
--The educational debt of new graduates is, on average, three times the size of their starting salary. 

Think we are talking about museums? Hah, wrong. Veterinary Medicine.

This article in the New York Times yesterday outlines the current crisis in veterinary medical training, and the parallels to museum training are eerie. 

One thing that struck me about the story was the interviews with young vets, who fell in love with the idea of entering their profession at an early age, and couldn't give up their dream even when it became clear the economics of the choice were a disaster. Though it often didn't become clear until after they graduated and faced the stark reality of finding a job and paying back their student loans. 

Another point that caught my attention was the correlation between the feminization of the profession (80% of current graduates, as opposed to 20% thirty years ago), and the decline in average salary. Are women more willing to take low-paying jobs in fields they want to work in (including education and social sciences) therefor driving down the salaries in those professions? Are they less willing to negotiate for higher pay? Correlation is not causation, but it makes you wonder. My colleague, Phil Katz, argues that if we want to raise salaries in museums, we should promote gender equity in hiring, and aim for at least 50% of the profession, across specialties, to be male. What do you think? 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Few Optimistic Futures

I’m working on a couple scenarios on the future of education to share during Museums Advocacy Day training next Monday. This exercise reminded me yet again how easy it is to “go dark” when imagining potential futures. Maybe I’m just a pessimist or maybe writing dystopias is just more fun.

In any case, when I took a scanning break, it was refreshing to find an article on “7 Best-Case Scenarios for the Future of Humanity” on SentientDevelopments. George Dvorsky—the futurist/science writer/ethicist who pens this blog—provides a round-up of some of the brightest futures envisioned by a variety of scientists, transhumanists, philosophers and other creative thinkers. Here is a summary of the scenarios he explores:

  1. The Status Quo, which Dvorsky argues is better than many alternatives. Could humans in fact be at the pinnacle of our development as a species?
  2. A Bright Green Earth—in which engineering and ecology combine to create a Rousseauian paradise
  3. A future in which we are Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. Instead of being bent on the destruction of their human overlords, robots devote themselves to creating utopia for their creators. (Bonus—this scenario includes a poem.)
  4. No list of bright futures would be complete without imagining that the Star Trek universe becomes real. “To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before” does just that, postulating that our species could survive and thrive not only on earth, but throughout the galaxy.
  5. Alternatively, the next frontier could turn out the be Inner Space, Not Outer Space, as we upload ourselves into massive supercomputers. (I’m not sure this is, in fact, a best-case scenario, but maybe that’s just me.)
  6. We could obey the Hedonistic Imperative and devote ourselves to creating a state of Eternal Bliss.
  7. and ending on a woo-woo note, we have Cosmological Transcension (which I don’t even understand, but apparently is something like the Gaia hypothesis on a cosmological scale—we can control the universe with our thoughts if only we evolve far enough.)  

I recommend you read the whole post especially if you are feeling and end-of-world gloom in the wake of the recent meteor strike and nuclear weapon tests by rogue states. Bookmark it, too, because, as you have time, exploring the hyperlinks will lead you to some very interesting essays and background material. (And you can wow people at your next dinner party by making small talk about Matrioshka Brains and quantum computing.)

Also, I've added Sentient Developments to my Google Reader feed, because Dvorsky presents provocative and entertaining futurist content on a regular basis, including thoughtful commentary on the ethical dilemmas raised by new technology

(BTW--if you want to hear my scenarios about the future of education next Monday, you can register for the free virtual Museums Advocacy Day conference here.)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Where Should Museums Look for the Workforce of the Future?

Intel just hired of the Black Eyed Peas to be their Director of Creative Innovation. Google hired futurist and noted transhumanist (“the singularity is coming”) Ray Kurtzweil as its Director of Engineering. President Obama just nominated Sally Jewell, the chief executive of Recreational Equipment Inc., to lead the Department of the Interior.

That leaves me wondering, who would museums hire if they looked beyond the traditional pipeline?

Especially as there is such widespread dissatisfaction with the traditional pipeline (e.g., museum studies programs, arts administration). Some signals of how this model of training and hiring is creaking at the seams include:
  •       Recent graduates of museum studies programs are overwhelmingly white, and female, at a time when museums themselves are saying they need a diverse workforce to better serve diverse audiences;
  •        Recent museum studies graduates tell me that they feel there are not enough opportunities for employment, and the resulting bidding war by applicants (for jobs) results in entry level salaries so low they don’t justify the educational debt they have taken on to earn their degree;
  •        Museum managers labor to rejigger org charts, assignments and hiring to staff positions that didn’t even exist five years ago: curator of audience engagement, social media manager, director of digital and emerging technologies;
  •        Museums struggle to find truly new approaches to delivering their core experience in a financially sustainable way, taking advantage of those emerging technologies and shifting patterns of cultural consumption without losing the museum’s soul.

I’m not convinced the solution to these challenges lies in recruiting different people to museum studies programs and tweaking the syllabus. I suspect it lies in a completely different pattern of recruitment.

I’m not talking about a return to the fad that (I hope) peaked in the ‘90s—that of hiring people from the business world as museum directors on the premise that for-profit managers would do a better job managing non-profits that people who trained up in the system. (That myth was, perhaps, finally laid to rest by the mess Larry Small made as regent of the Smithsonian, after having been recruited on the strength of his experience at Citicorp, Citibank and as president/COO of the FNMA.) As one person observed (in the discussion that followed Chris Norris’ recent post on the CFM Blog), people recruited from other sectors straight into museum directorships are likely to try to recreate the museum in the image of their own sector, be that higher ed or business.

I’m talking about hiring for entry and mid-level positions, drawing people from diverse backgrounds, experience and skills, and giving them the museum-specific training they need once they are on the job.

This is not a revolutionary thought. Many of the most talented and creative folks I know working in museums today had at least one foot firmly grounded in a different field before they committed full-time to museums. Joël Tan, a poet and editor, was as the artistic director at SF’s Asian American Theater Company and worked as a health educator on HIV prevention programs before joining Yerba Buena Center for the Arts as their director of community engagement. While Seb Chan was getting a toehold in museums as systems administrator at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, he was also working as a freelance journalist, organizing music festivals, working as a producer at a radio station and founding and editing a magazine. Now he’s leading the “digital renewal” of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum. Nina Simon got her bachelors’ degree in electrical engineering, and worked as a researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Center while beginning to work in the museum realm. Fewer than 10 years later, she is putting her principles of participatory design and practice to work as the director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. (I could go on but then some people might get cranky if I left them out, so I will stop with this short, highly curated list.)

I’m not suggesting something new, I’m suggesting a shift in what seems to be the default expectation for training and hiring.

Here is a list I’ve started of sectors I might fish in for museum staff, were I hiring today, with notes on the skills I hope they might bring to the job:
  •       Gaming and games design: how to make experiences rewarding & compelling
  •       Community health/community organizers: how to put the museum’s resources in service of community needs and (if you hire locally) a deep knowledge of and ties to existing community organizations
  •      The military: logistics, planning and project management, risk assessment and management
  •      Law (given the recent glut of law school graduates): considering how few museums can afford in house-legal council, having a staff member trained in research, critical thinking and writing with a legal background as well couldn’t be a bad thing.

Two things I’d love to hear from you: pocket bios of museum colleagues you admire who have “non-traditional” backgrounds (or your own alt bio, don't be shy), and your list of other sectors we might draw on to diversify our ranks (in many different ways).

And as to how hiring in this manner might change the economics of museum jobs? Well, that gives me the topic for a future post…

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Advocating for the Future of Education

I’m going to interview Abraham Lincoln. You can help. 

February 25-26 is the 5th annual Museums Advocacy Day. This year the Alliance is offering a free virtual conference so you can take part even if you can’t get to D.C. for the live program and Congressional visits. I’m orchestrating a couple of futures-oriented events—two with components for the virtual audience , and one just for advocates who are coming to Washington. Here’s the rundown:

Monday, February 25
Keynote Address: Museums and are the Future of Education
12:45 – 1:45 pm EST
In which I share the signals I think herald a new era of education in the U.S. We are on the brink of transformational change, and when we emerge from a turbulent period of transition, our educational system may be premised on the kind of self-directed, experience-based learning at which museums excel. Join me for a tour of the forces driving this change, and a brief glimpse of some possible futures. There will be opportunities for the virtual audience to weigh in--I look forward to seeing your thoughts online.

If you are in DC that evening, I hope you join me for a networking dinner (Dutch treat) at Jardinea in the Melrose Hotel. I’d love to continue the keynote discussion of the future of education, any other CFM projects or the future in general.  Sign up for the dinner at registration on Monday morning

Tuesday, February 26
A Tweetchat with President Lincoln
1:00 - 1:45 pm EST
From GeekSpeak
Fritz Katz, who portrays President Lincoln for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois., is making several appearances during Museums Advocacy Day. As Lincoln, he is addressing the Congressional Kickoff and Breakfast on Capitol Hill. (Which ought to keep the senators and representatives in their seats—it would be so rude to walk out on the president). Tuesday afternoon I get my turn, interviewing Mr. Klein about his views, as an amateur historian and a museum educator, on the state of American education, and what museums can do to make things better. I'll post (and tweet) more later about how to join the chat--stay tuned.

You can register now for the virtual conference, and please and ping me if you intend to join me for dinner—I’d love to know who will be around the table.

From LA Times Hero Complex

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

No Future

The Field Museum of Natural History recently announced that it is cutting its budget by 7%—$5 million from its overall budget of ~$70 million—with $3 million of this coming out of the science departments.The museum has begun a process that would allow it to layoff even tenured researchers. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I read that. A week before, if asked, I would have named the Field as one of a small handful of natural history museums likely to make collections and research a priority no matter what. This week’s guest post is by Chris Norris, president of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections and Senior Collections Manager at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, who kindly accepted my invitation to speculate about what this portends for the future of museums.

What is it that museums do? I’m sure if you asked fifteen or twenty people from different parts of the profession you’d get fifteen or twenty different answers, or possibly more (since by nature we museum types tend to prevaricate when confronted by a straightforward question). You could say that museums educate, inform, interpret, entertain, enable, research, document, collect, or preserve and all of these things would be true. We’re fortunate enough to work for multi-faceted institutions and this is what drew many of us to a museum career in the first place.

The FMNH Bird Division tissue collection samples from
2,600 of the world's 9,500 bird species
Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much imagination to envisage a future in which this is not the case. In fact, for many museums, that future is already here. We’re living a new age of austerity, at least in the western world, where we can no longer be all that we want to be. Instead, we’re asked to choose what we have to be, because there’s no money to pay for anything else.

If we’re funded from the public purse, then the tendency is to look outwards for guidance. If money is tight, then we have to justify our existence in terms of the service that we provide to taxpayers. How do we best serve those who pay for us? How do we avoid the accusation that we are milking hard-up citizens to support ivory-tower academic elitism of the worst sort?

If you use this rationale, then it seems obvious that what we should do is pump our limited funds into outreach. We need to make our museums into genuinely public spaces, where we engage with our communities in novel and exciting ways. We need to support an already overstretched public education system, providing a different, but complementary educational experience that extends beyond the classroom to encompass all aspects of life-long learning. We should work to make museums a more open and inviting space by branching out into novel areas – retail, catering, or performing arts. We need to leave the paying public in no doubt of our wider relevance to society as a whole.

Actually, I don’t agree with this. I think we need to look after our collections.

Collections are not very fashionable at the moment. A quick scan through the museum literature suggests that they are more problem than solution; unsustainable, unfocused, imperialistic, and irrelevant. Collections storage facilities are unrepentant energy hogs, whose HVAC units guzzle fuel in pursuit of unsustainable conservation standards. Many of the objects in the collections will never be seen or touched by anyone other than collections staff. There is a strong suspicion that they lack fitness for any purpose, and that some of them may have been removed from their countries of origin in questionable circumstances.

So, all things considered, wouldn’t it be better if we applied a little focus to our collections? Cut back on esoteric curatorial research, disperse “non-core” material through deaccession and disposal, and concentrate more on use than preservation? Maybe. Focus and relevance are good. Access and use are critical. But these are things that, if done properly, will cost more money rather than less. These are all aspects of curation.

Curation is what museums do. Our collections are our unique proposition – the one thing that we have that no other institution possesses. Everything that we do in museums, if done well, flows from collections – education, exhibition, scholarship, and entertainment. They give us a relevance and authenticity that is one of our most valued resources. Our reputation depends to a large extent on the quality of the material that we hold in trust for the public. The ability of the public to access and benefit from these collections, which are their collections, not ours, is dependent on our continuing to invest in collections care.

By now, you may be thinking that this is a rather retrograde post for a blog on the future of museums, but this is an argument about how we see the future of museums and it’s one that we need to have now. Curatorial and collections expertise is a fragile enterprise. It requires significant, long-term investment to build. Museums have been investing in it for decades, through war and peace, boom and bust. No amount of automation, remote access, and crowd-sourcing can replace it. And yet, as we diversify and innovate, and try our best to be all that we can be, it is being placed at risk.

One of the saddest aspects of the first six months of my tenure as President for the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections has been the number of letters that I have to write to directors and trustees of museums pleading that they do not cut staff, remove support, or deaccession collections. The responses that I get are articulate and well-argued and depressingly similar; money is tight, we can’t do everything, we have a responsibility to our stakeholders, et cetera.

To which I say, yes, this is an issue of responsibility. Your responsibility is not to plug holes in the public education system, fix your broken communities, or provide your visitors with a better soy latte. Your responsibility, placed on you by the people that pay your wages, is to exercise responsible stewardship of the collections in your care. Nothing trumps this. The most likely future that I see for museums that neglect that duty is that in 50 years time their collections will be unusable for a lack of basic curatorial care. I don’t think that serves the needs of today’s public, and it certainly will not serve the needs of their grandchildren.

I wish I could build the FMNH equivalent of the game Budget Hero, which invites citizens to make their own hard choices to balance the Federal budget, Short of that, I invite you to read about FMNH’s budget strategies and then weigh in below. Faced with the need to trim the budget and grow income, what choices would you make?  

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Will You Lose Your Museum Job to a Robot?

Drawing produced by participants in the  CFM
"Drawing Club" event at the 2012 AAM conference
OK, maybe not to a robot, but to increasingly sophisticated automation. 

This question is prompted by a report released last month by the Associated Press, titled AP IMPACT, forecasting the effect of technology on the economy and employment.

The thesis of the authors is that the world is experiencing the first real “jobless recovery” in history, as we bounce back from the great recession of 2008. They argue that the millions of jobs that went away in the past few years, not only are not coming back, even more jobs will be lost as automation takes over more and more work. Technology isn’t just replacing factory jobs, as robots show they can build things faster and safer than their human counterparts. Technology is making inroads into solid, white collar jobs like lawyer, accountant, bank teller and manager. The AP report makes the case that while technology is creating some jobs—in software engineering, app development for example—it is eliminating many more.

The report points out that the work most likely to be automated involves processes that can be replicated via software. Paralegals used to have to read, review and tag documents—now a computer program can do that.  Accounting software can keep your books. Legal and tax software can help you fill out and file simple forms. Travel agents have been rendered practically anachronistic by sites such as Orbitz and Expedia. As we increase our ability to collect and interpret data, automation will eat its way up the food chain as well. Programs could perform many management functions, such as tracking productivity, accuracy, and timeliness of work and providing assessment, feedback and recommendations for training.

The report cites Martin Ford, author of "The Lights in the Tunnel," a book predicting widespread job losses, as saying “There's no sector of the economy that's going to get a pass. It's everywhere." No sector, eh? What about museums? What roles in the museum may be fully or partially automated, outmoded or obsolete? Here are four positions I thought of that may be reduced or made redundant by smart technology. Please agree, disagree, and add to this list in the comment section, below.

Disney MagicBand
Front line staff: including, sales (tickets, food service, shop) and information desk. How often have you printed your own tickets at the cinema lately, checked out your own purchases at the grocery store or pharmacy, or checked out your own book at the library? Sales clerks are an increasingly rare breed. In the long run, digital tickets will perform even more functions than physical ones anyway. Disney is gearing up to automate admissions, replacing tickets with “MagicBands”: high tech wrist bands equipped with near field communication chips. The wrist band stores information of what admission privileges a visitor has bought (online) and the data on the band's RFID chip is read by a turnstile. The band can be personalized to the user (the turnstyle can also use a biometric fingerprint scan to verify identity.)  Will there come a day when instead of a membership card, you have a membership wristband for your local museum, which not only admits you to the premises, but collects information about where you go in the museum, and how long you stay?

Interpretive staff: There already are a number of robot docents being tested right now. BIB, conducts tours for visitors at the Technical Museum in Malmo, Sweden. A somewhat cuddlier robot gives tours at the Daejon Museum of Art in Korea. But the function of docents is being supplanted in a more mainstream manner by information delivered through ubiquitous internet connected mobile devices like smart phones and tablets. Integrate that with the capabilities of an artificial intelligence program such as Siri or Watson, and every visitor could have a personal digital guide through the museum. This isn’t just a matter of personalization or efficiency, either. Research from Reach Advisors suggest that the majority of museum goers prefer a “self-curated” experience with no staff interaction in any case.

3D-printed statue of Thomas Jefferson, National Museum
of African American History and Culture, D.C
Exhibit fabricators: When I worked at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History, I used to take breaks to visit the exhibition prep areas and watch our fabricators make fabulously detailed fiberglass recreations of specimens. Now I wonder how long it will be before much of their hand-craft is replaced by equally fabulous (and possibly more accurate) 3-D printing. Here’s one example: a paleontologist from the National Museum of Brazil who recently scanned a fossil crocodile as it was excavated, and printed a 3-D model for research. Here’s another: the Smithsonian Institution sharing digital files to enable other museums to print and display copies of SI artifacts. 3-D printing aside, as the costs of various kinds of digital fabrication machinery comes down, museums that do a lot of in-house exhibit production may invest more in such equipment, and in training the few(er) staff needed to run them.

From the Hurstville LMB Blog
Collections managers: In my earlier career, I was a collections manager, so the possibility of automating some of the responsibilities of this position strikes particularly close to home. A lot of what I did as a collections manager involved keeping records, tracking objects, monitoring storage conditions—uh oh, this sounds a lot like the functions the AP article documents being automated across many industries. RFIDs are already being used for collections tracking (see, for example, this presentation by Jessica Allen, Curator at the Hurstville City Library, Museum & Gallery). The Louvre has already created a smart building environment that self-monitors and adjusts climate control in response to internal feedback. It’s only a short step from this to an internal museum “internet of things” in which the collections communicate their positions and needs to the building controls and the remaining staff. Soon every object in the collection may be tagged with an RFID chip or other near field communication device that reports on its position, communicates with the nearby RH/T° monitor and the bug monitor (which “sniffs” for signs of frass or other insect traces), checks the object’s environmental preferences, adjusts the climate control as necessary or reports to the (remaining) collections staff any other action that needs to be taken.

Do I see museums laying off staff because they are automating? No. Museums staff are pretty “mean and lean” to begin with But the 2012 National Comparative Museum Salary Study documents the recent downsizing of the field. Significantly more museums saw their staff size decline than grow between 2008 and 2010: almost 60% of museums with operating budgets over $3M experienced a net decline in staffing. I think it quite plausible that as the costs of various technologies drop, and the economic recovery enables museums to ramp up their operations, they may invest some of that recovered money in technology instead of staff. What do you think?

You can access the AP report here:
Part 1: Recession, tech kill middle-class jobs
Part 2: Practically Human: Can smart machines do your job?
Part 3: Will smart machines create a world without work?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Roundup of Recent News on Accessible Design

With more and more museums pushing content to personal digital devices, we need to remember who we may be leaving out. When Phil and I talk about the digital divide, we are usually thinking of an economic barrier—the shrinking (but significant) portion of society that does not have access to mobile technology, particularly smart mobile technology. But apps and other digital content can pose accessibility challenges as well. Museums have a mixed record on making even their websites meet accessibility standards—often unintentionally throwing up a “digital glass wall” that hinders access. How will we fare with the myriad content being developed for apps, podcasts, etc? For this reason, we've kept our eyes open for news related to universal design and digital devices, as well as our ongoing scanning on accessibility in general.

For example, people and organizations advocating for cultural accessibility, like:
  • Pesky People, a UK-based group that, among other campaigns, advocates for the cultural sector to subtitle their video content. 
  • Arts Access Australia is that country’s leading advocacy group for arts and disability, with an extensive resource list.
  • The US-based Autism in the Museum, which is a “clearinghouse of best practices, models, ideas, resources and research about making museums ... welcoming and inclusive for people with autism and their families.”
  • The Tucson Association of Museums, which maintains a convenient list of agencies, information and products for the visually impaired.
  • We also like the Museum for All blog--"an initiative to open museums for all publics." 

Museums making notable efforts to create accessible exhibits, such as:
Israel Children’s Museum exhibit “Dialogue With Time”: 
visitors strap on heavy shoes to experience what it feels like for the  
elderly to climb a flight of stairs. (Israel Children's Museum) 

Digital devices and tools related to accessibility, like:
  • BrailleTouch, which makes it easier for users who know Braille to send text messages
  • Hearing Loops that connect anyone with a hearing aid or cochlear implant to a building’s sound system
  • OpenDyslexic, a free font that helps people with dyslexia read online

Guidelines or resources on digital accessibility, such as the:

Plus some resources on physical accessibility in museums, including:

Finally, for a more scholarly and theoretical approach, Helen Rees Leahy’s book, Museum Bodies: The Politics and Practices of Visiting and Viewing (Ashgate, 2012) offers some historical perspective on how museums have accommodated or excluded people with disabilities. H-Disability is an academic discussion list devoted to disability studies, including reviews of the emerging scholarship on disability and museums.    

Please help us keep our museums & accessibility resource list up-to-date by sharing links to articles, websites and other resources in the comments section below. Thank you!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Monday Musings: Accessible to Whom?

 Another in an occasional series of 15 minute musings on items in the news last week.

I’m working on a blog post for tomorrow on museums’ efforts to be accessible to a broad range of audiences.  (And it is slow going—please  lob stories and links to me if you have any museum accessibility news to contribute. Thank you.)

Anyway,  I've been distracted by thinking about the story from last week about how the Musee d’Orsay evicted a couple and their child who were on a free trip to the museum with a group that supports “hard up” families. Why? For being "smelly." Another story quoted a spokesperson from the sponsoring group as saying “"Women who stink of perfume don't get asked to leave. No one calls security when you see people pontificating in front of paintings."

Good point. I have found both such groups extremely annoying, on occasion.

Contrast this with the story @adamrozan tweeted about this morning on how the Boston Children’s Museum is offering deeply discounted admission to families on public assistance to “attract a demographic that has largely stayed away” from the museum in the past.

Getting people into the building is only half the battle: how do museums make people feel welcome once they are there? I’ve heard complaints from teenagers who feel harassed for…well, for being teenagers—loud, flirty, rambunctious, social. I've heard from people of color who felt uncomfortable just because no one else in a museum "looked like them." Even CFM’s (white, upper class, highly educated) lecturer Jane McGonigal chided museums for “making her feel stupid.”

The question of what subtle signals museums send, consciously and unconsciously about who is welcome, and who is not, about acceptable behavior, dress, demeanor, is really complicated. For now I want to focus on the more egregious issue raised by the Musee d’Orsay’s behavior: what is your museum’s policy about chastising, or evicting, visitors? Do you have homeless people coming in to use your restrooms (and maybe hang out to see the art?) If so, do you welcome them in or escort them out? What is so unacceptable that someone would be asked to leave--does the person have to appear actually dangerous, or merely make others feel uncomfortable?

I’d appreciate it if you shared any policies (official or unofficial) your museum has on this issue. And if you don’t have any policies—how do your front line staff actually handle these situations?