Tuesday, April 30, 2013

On Objects, and Storytelling

Rob Walker

The theme for this year's annual meeting is Storytelling, and we've recruited Rob Walker, co-designer of the Significant Objects project, as a thought leader to help us explore how stories add tangible value to the objects they are connected to. You can join me on Tuesday, May 21 from 10:15 – 11:30 am for a conversation with Rob about Significant Objects. I invited him to share a bit about the project here on the blog, both to prime us for the meeting, and to share a bit about his work with those who won’t be able to join us in Baltimore.

Every object has a story, right? Actually, I’d argue that’s a bit limiting: Every object has multiple stories. We know the significance of a thing is often linked to its provenance — who made it, out of what, when, and where. But ownership stories matter, too. In fact, who owned and used a thing can completely alter our perception of it. A mass-produced doodad suddenly becomes much more interesting to scrutinize when we learn it was once the property of Andy Warhol, Margaret Thatcher, or Billy the Kid. Ownership stories also come in very personal varieties. The trunk in my home office will never be displayed in a museum, but it means quite a lot to me because it belonged to my father, and his father. The trunk’s connection to my own life story is what makes it a significant.

Thinking about all this led to an experiment that I was involved in with writer and editor Joshua Glenn. We set out to explore another variety of object story: the conjectural, speculative, imagined and outright fictitious. Our hypothesis: Narrative can be such a profound driver of meaning that even an openly false story could add value — measurable value — to an object.

The original Significant Objects experiment involved 100 deliberately low-value, basically meaningless, profoundly insignificant doodads, rounded up from thrift stores, yard sales, and flea markets, at a total cost of $128.74. We recruited 100 writers and storytellers — from best-sellers such as William Gibson and Meg Cabot to literary up-and-comers to television writers, comedians, cartoonists and anyone we believed had an interesting imagination. Each invented a tale concerning one item from our menagerie of ashtrays, coffee mugs, piggy banks, figurines, and the like. Finally, object and story were paired on eBay, with the original thrift-store price as the minimum bid. (It’s important to note that this was not a hoax or other attempt to mislead: Every listing included a prominent notice explaining that “the significance of this object has been invented” by the relevant author, along with a link back to our site for full details.)
The results: Our stuff sold for $3,612.51 — a whopping “significance premium” of just 2,700%. Every single object sold for more than we’d paid; the top price was $192, the average $36. (The money went to the writers.)

Why did this work? Of the many possible answers to that question, I think there’s one worth zeroing in on here, partly because it involves a development we did not anticipate: The project itself became a kind of story, one that people not only wanted to enjoy, but to shape. We had assumed it would be an enormous challenge, for instance, to persuade writers to participate in this scheme. We were surprised when those we solicited said yes — but outright startled when people began approaching us, volunteering to take a crack at making some bit of yard sale detritus “significant.”

Meanwhile, buyers were sending us pictures of Significant Objects in their new homes, or anecdotes about toting the things to readings by our contributing writers. We realized that on some level owning one of our objects was like buying a souvenir of our experiment. In retrospect this makes perfect sense: A visitor’s inquiry about some tacky statuette in the living room would prompt a pretty great story, after all.

Significant Objects at MOMA
Post on HiLoBrow
Thus we learned that the project had taken on a life of its own — and kept going. We bought more objects, recruited more writers, and converted our operation into a fund-raiser, donating thousands of dollars to nonprofits like 826 National and Girls Write Now. Ultimately publishing more than 220 stories, we played with variations on our theme — selling a “mystery object,” or having three writers invent stories about identical objects, or presenting a multi-object story over several days. We organized an “object slam” as part of San Francisco’s Litquake festival, where audience members invented competing stories about a single thing. I helped organize an event at the Museum of Modern Art, titled The Language of Objects, that involved some of our contributors and other friends responding imaginatively to the museum’s “Talk to Me” exhibition, which concerned human-object communication.

Most recently, when Fantagraphics published a book collecting 100 of the project’s finest pieces, the public radio program Studio 360 invited its listeners to invent stories about three objects that host Kurt Andersen and I picked from a New York City thrift store. There were more than 300 entries.

The lesson in all this for us was that the speculative form of story we’d set out to explore offered a different form of engagement. Imagination led to participation; boundaries got blurred, and our objects turned out not to be an end point, but a starting point.

As a result I’ve paid closer attention to other experiments, by museums and others, to open up the notion of objects as communicative prompts that invite audience involvement. One interesting example is the Object Ethnography Project, which involves trading objects for stories; through a series of exchanges, each thing acquires up to three distinct narratives. Our friend Paul Lukas, a New York-based writer and overseer of various creative projects, has hosted a series of “Show & Tell” events, which invite attendees to tell a personal story about an object they’ve brought along. Most recently, The Museum of Contemporary Craft, in Portland, has supplemented its exhibition “Object Focus: The Bowl” with a Tumblr dedicated to stories about bowls. Some are commissioned, but many come from the general public, submitting a variety of tales and even poems.

What matters here is that in all cases, stories are both an end and a means. Significant Objects resulted in an impressive outpouring of narrative creativity, and the book version stands not only as a document of the project, but also a tour de force of imaginative thinking inspired by objects – it’s amazing to experience the range of strategies our writers employed to make readers re-consider these previously overlooked things. In other words, the stories could stand on their own.

But the pleasant surprise (and noteworthy takeaway) was that the stories helped make the original experiment something people wanted to be a part of, not just observe. That’s what gave Significant Objects a life beyond what we ever could have imagined — and gave us a pretty good story to tell in the bargain.   

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Membership Game

Yesterday I attended an event at the Hirshhorn organized by the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access, exploring the use of digital badges in museums. It was a great session, and you can watch a recording of the whole thing here

However, while I attended to hear about digital badging (since we're about to launch CFM's own digital badging prototype, with the help of our volunteer test pilots) what I want to share now is what Max Anderson had to say about DMA Friends, the Dallas Museum of Art's new membership program. 

You can read more about the DMA's membership experiment here. Basics are:
  • Admission is free
  • Basic membership level is free
  • Visitors are encouraged to sign up for a free membership, and provide contact info
  • Visitors can earn points, and badges, from various forms of engagements
  • Engagement can be tracked when visitors scan their membership card to check into various locations, including specific galleries
  • Points can be redeemed for a variety of things, right up to spending a night in the museum. 
The system premiered in January, so it's too soon to assess the impact on things like diversity of audience, long term engagement and the financial model. Anderson estimates they are signing up 80–90 new members a day, over 90% of whom were not already in their database. (About 9% are existing members trading their paid membership for a free membership.)

Some things that caught my interest:

About the points awarded for engagement:
  • The points DMA awards for participation truly are turning into an "alt currency" that has real world value. The higher level of DMA membership (Museum Partner) costs $100, but visitors can "earn" the membership with points rather than plonking down the cash. They also can redeem points for things like free admission to ticketed special exhibits and free parking. They have given away over 7.7 million points since they started. 
  • These points have their own, unique value—Anderson noted "even wealthy people want points!"
  • Anderson proposed that in the future, these points might become a shared currency between museums that opt into a kind of currency exchange: I could redeem my points earned at the DMA, for example, for perks offered by the Cleveland Museum of Art. Could this be the museum equivalent of Bitcoins? (Hopefully without the crash.)

  • This system facilitates targeted communications: for example, emailing people who have amassed enough points for free admission to a special exhibit, to remind them of the opportunity and invite them to come. 

  • It provides opportunities for spontaneous and personalized feedback. Staff, for example, can award a visitor with points for asking a great question.
About the data the museum collects on its members:
  • DMA uses a zip code search to track where people are from, and cross-references that with the Census data to get a demographic snapshot. This data can tell them not only who is (and isn't) attending, but when, and what parts of the museum they are visiting. True, many museum have long collected this kind of data, but DMA's membership structure is designed specifically to capture as many people, and as much data, as possible, and mine that for all it is worth.

  • Real time data from the swipe cards facilitates improvisation. For example, if staff notice that a critical mass of people have swiped into a given gallery, they can send a text message offering a guided tour. (Contrast this with the pre-scheduled "There will be a gallery talk at 2 p.m." dang-I-missed-it experience.

  • Points, and how they are redeemed, gives the museum real and immediate feedback on what people would like to receive points for—what motivates them?
About the financial model underlying the experiment:
  • DMA has decided to value participation first, and trust that cash will come along with that

  • Behind that general optimism, however, lies the shrewd observation that "the true currency of participation does not cost that much to offer." In other words, much of what a museum friend earns with points costs the museum nothing (extra) to provide

  • And often people who redeem the points for things like free admission to special exhibits bring along (paying) guests

  • In any case, the museum had already figured out that any membership that cost less than $100 was a net loss, since it cost more to support than it brought in

  • This system of data collection enables them to compile a detailed and compelling story to tell funders about who the DMA is serving, how they engage with the museum and what they learn

My big three take-aways:

  • It's all about the data—data will, in one way or another, prove to be the most valuable thing you can ask for as an entry level of engagement—more valuable than cash for a ticket or a basic membership fee

  • It's about building a business model based on the long-term payoff of relationships, rather than immediate exchanges of money for goods or services
It's clear that DMA sees this experiment as a great leap forward in creating a more egalitarian, accessible museum. Maybe from this video they created (parodying Downton Abby) you can deduce how they assume people used to see them, and what this "class revolution" may achieve. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Art Viewing and Mindfulness Meditation

Of the six trends we feature in TrendsWatch 2013, one that has generated the a lot of feedback so far is “Disconnecting to Reconnect”—our exploration of how people are going to great lengths to “unplug.” One of the people I connected with in the ensuring commentary is Clare Kunny, founding director of Art Muse Los Angeles (ALMA). In speaking of opportunities for museums to provide off-line experiences, Clare told me, “My question is: what aspects of mindfulness meditation can inform and enrich the museum experience and how do we apply them?” In this guest post, Clare shares a recent program she co-designed to help people disconnect from their mobile devices, and reconnect with art.

In recent years, there has been a tendency for museums to emphasize visitor engagement that can be experienced only through technology or social media, dis-connecting the visitor from a real-time experience. Some museum professionals, however, have pushed back against this trend, preferring to encourage people to reconnect with art and each other when they visit the museum. A recent CFM post by Andrea Michelbach discussed the importance of mindfulness meditation as a way for museum staff and visitors to reconnect. Not long before that, an article in the New York Times delved into the values and limits of mindfulness meditation in a fractured and information-overloaded world. These discussions caught my attention, because I was in the midst of final preparations for a 3-hour workshop on mindful art-viewing.

The workshop was the result of my years of working in art museums as an educator as well as a recent experience at the Hammer Museum in Los Angelesa 75-minute contemplative art-viewing session. I was skeptical, but curious to learn, first-hand, whether mindfulness meditation could enhance art-viewing. I went away from the session convinced  that mindfulness meditation has something to offer museums—particularly art museums. I wondered what might happen if a longer session took place in a gallery setting. Could we dig deeper into the relevance of mindfulness to the museum context? Could I collaborate with a mindfulness educator to bring two areas of expertise (art, meditation) into one program? 

The result of these musings was the experimental workshop “Art in the Heart: The Heart-Mind Connection in Viewing Art” that took place at ESMoA in El Segundo, California, on April 9. The workshop was developed in partnership with mindfulness educator Mitra Manesh, founding director of Rumi Rooms. Our goals for the workshop were to make attendees aware of the mindfulness meditation practice in the context of an art space and to provide them with a new approach to viewing and experiencing art.

Mindful Walking at ESMoA Workshop
The workshop was hosted by ESMoA, a newly opened, non-profit art laboratory that proved an ideal setting. The inaugural exhibition in their 2,000 square foot space consists of paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints and photographs eccentrically installed in clusters without labels. On a day when ESMoA was closed to the public, we set up chairs in a semi-circle and, in the course of several hours, Mitra guided 10 participantsmuseum educators, docents and artiststhrough mindfulness meditation, mindful art viewing, walking meditation, and discussion. All attendees had some experience with meditation practices, and several in the group were acquainted with mindfulness meditation. Alice Cisternino, in a blog post for Art Muse Los Angeles wrote about her experience in the workshop, observing that:

“Looking at art readily lends itself to this sustained consideration. Art is a visual language and words can offer entry points into its content but never completely define it. This mystery encourages the viewer’s search and reminds us that some of the most meaningful experiences cannot be articulated.”

Another participant noted the walking meditation was a reminder that walking is an essential activity while visiting a museum and makes you pay attention to your presence in the physical space shared with the art.

Although the workshop came near to meeting our goals we set, there is more work to be done. My partner, Mitra Manesh, and I intend to offer a series of 3-hour “Art in the Heart” workshops in the coming months to continue to explore how mindfulness meditation can be woven into the art viewing experience to enrich it. Furthermore, we’ll continue to explore what components of this meditation practice can be integrated into museum work through staff training, program development, and interpretation and presentation of art. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Your Guide to the Future at the 2013 Alliance Annual Meeting

Once again, I’m sharing a selection of futurist picks for the upcoming Alliance annual meeting. The advance registration deadline is April 26, so if you are not signed up yet, jump online!

First, an overview of what CFM is up to in Baltimore (besides the sessions mentioned in my list below):

  • We are hosting a 3-D Digital Scanning and Printing Demonstration in the Alliance Showcase in MuseumExpo. With equipment loaned by MakerBot Industries, and the help of staff from the Art Institute of Chicago, The Metropolitan Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, New Mexico Highlands University, and others we will be exploring this emerging technology profiled in CFM’s TrendsWatch 2013 report and how it may shape museum research, conservation, packing & shipping, exhibit production and public engagement. The demo will be operating during the open hours of MuseumExpo. (We would welcome more volunteers to help with the demo—for more information email me.)
  • I’ll be interviewing Rob Walker, co-instigator of the brilliant Significant Objects project, on Tuesday, May 21, from 10:15–11:30 a.m. Museum folk know objects derive their power from the stories associated with them. What if those stories are fictional?  Rob and his colleague, Joshua Glenn, invited master storytellers (best-selling novelists, television writers, comedians, up-and-coming literary talents) to create stories for "insignificant" objects acquired at thrift shops and yard sales, and then tracked how these stories increased the objects’ value when they were resold. What lessons can museums learn from this escapade?
  • Liz Dreyer and Richard Evans will offer applicant counseling for museums interested in applying for funding in round 3 of the MetLife-funded Innovation Lab for Museums, a joint project of CFM and their organization, EmcArts. (Contact Liz to set up a time.)
Now, on to the featured sessions.

This year, CFM is offering these session recommendations with a twist: LearningTimes, sponsor of the 2013 CFM Digital Badging experiment, will use a mobile app called Credly to offer digital credentials for participation in live events. Interested in helping us try it out? Here’s the deal: if you download the app, attend any of the recommended sessions and submit a brief and pithy insight summarizing what you heard, you’ll earn credit towards a CFM Badge. (The badge can be shared with your employer, included on your digital resume or on social media or on your blog or institutional web site.) I’ll draw on your insights for a blog post reporting out on the annual meeting. You can get a head start by creating an account at www.credly.com.

A future blog post will give instructions on how to participate in badging at the meeting, but for now, check out this year’s futurist picks:



2 p.m. 


Embracing Access for All: Children with Autism and Museum Experiences. In an increasingly neuro-diverse future, museums have the opportunity to create experiences tailored to audiences with a variety of particular needs. Presenters include staff from the Warhol Museum, Dallas Museum of Art, Walters Art Museum as well as a researcher from Johns Hopkins.

Museum Teen Summit: Teens Share Expert Advice. Who better to tell us how teens can use museums to build their own personal learning platforms than teens themselves? Marit Dewhurst, associate professor of Art & Museum Ed at the City College CUNY Art History and Museum Studies Program, moderates the discussion by 10 teen presenters.

3:30 p.m.

2012 Horizon Report Museum Edition. If you aren't familiar with this annual forecast of  emerging technologies, and their potential impact on and use in museum education and interpretation, well, you should be. Join Alex Freeman and Holly Witchey for a showcase of micro-presentations projects utilizing new technologies highlighted in this year’s report.

Or, in this same time slot, you can choose between two sessions on participatory engagement:

Democratization of Content in Art Museums, sharing lessons from projects at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, Wis.


If You Build It…Creating Community Space in the Museum chaired by all-round smart cookie and small-museum maven, Janice Klein.


8:45 a.m.

TrendsWatch 2013 (CFM Session)—Phil Katz and I romp through a brief overview of CFM’s new trend report, punctuated by examples that have come up since we published it all of two months ago (by the time of the session).

Museums and Homeschool Learners: A Story in the Making. Did you know the number of children being homeschooled in the U.S. is comparable to the number who attend charter schools? And yet charter schools seem to get all the attention. When it comes to forecasting the future of education, I think there is as much, or more, to learn from people who have opted out of the public education system as from those trying to innovate from within.

Shared Guardianship and the Future of Collecting in Museums. This looks like it will be an interesting glimpse at a new model for shared ownership of 21st century museum collections. The program description says the session will examine recent news in repatriation, digitization and joint purchases that may be early signals of a significant trend.

1:45 p.m.

Ethics Smackdown. This debate, moderated by Sally Yerkovich (direct of the Institute for Museum Ethics) grew out of the Forecast of the Future of Museum Ethics CFM coordinated for IME last year. Two champions from the museum field will square off over the resolution “Whereas, cultural, financial, technological and political trends are changing the world in which museums operate, American museums should revisit the Code of Ethics for Museums and relax the restriction on the use of funds from the sale of deaccessioned collections.” Your vote on who wins the debate may influence whether and how our field tackles revisions to the Code.

No Walls? No Problem: Taking your Mission to the Streets. How can I resist a session that riffs on the “pop-up culture” trend we featured in TrendsWatch 2012? Staff from the Wolfsonian at FIU, the Sandy Spring Museum and the Chandler Museum share stories of taking their mission beyond the museum walls.

3:30 p.m.

The Inclusive Museum and Active Citizenship Forum. For those interested in continuing to explore the challenges CFM described in Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums.


8:45 a.m.

On the Road: Two Years of a Teacher Training Program. How can museums scale up their educational impact to be major players in the American learning landscape? One promising avenue: train the trainers. This session looks at the National Museum of American History’s national teacher training programs.

Rethinking Museum Membership: How Participation and Philanthropy can Impact Visitor Engagement. I’ve been watching with interest the Dallas Museum of Art’s experiment combining membership, gamification and digital badging to create a new economic model for members and income. This is your chance to hear about it first hand from DMA staff.

10:15 a.m.

Diversifying the Museum Field: Transdisciplinary Education for Museum Professionals and Students. You may have read one of my soap box rants about the need for museums to develop non-traditional pipelines if they truly want to build more diverse staff. From the description, sounds like this session may explore one such experiment, a collaboration between Morgan State University’s Center for Museums and Historical Preservation and the James E. Lewis Museum of Art.

1:45 p.m.

Keeping Museums Young: Best Practices for Out-of-School Teen Programming. See all my notes above on the importance of exploring the future of education! This looks like another good session on that theme.

Magnificent Masters of Museum Mysteries: Narrative Games in Museum Contexts. In CFM’s inaugural lecture, Dr. Jane McGonigal contended that “Gaming is the Future of Museums.” In this session staff from the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art share how their organizations used narrative games to bring their collections to life.  If you miss this, (or want to explore the topic in more depth) check out the session in the next time slot:

3:15 p.m.

Gamification and Museums. I can’t tell for sure from the description, but it sounds like this might take a more general approach to using the principles of games design to make compelling museum experiments, not just games per se.

Magnetic Museums: Stories of Engagement. Phil and I highly recommend! Beth Tuttle and Anne Bergeron will share results from their research into the factors that combine to create high-performing museums.

City History Museums: Canaries in a Coal Mine. This session promises to explore “hybrid institutions that are part community center, part contemporary art space, part digital information hub and part city plaza.” I approve, as I'm in favor of museums getting over their rigid concepts of self-identity and doing what needs to be done.


8:45 a.m.

Direct Care: Pushing the Exterior Envelope. For those of you who don’t recognize the phrase, “direct care” are the waffle words the AAM Code of Ethics uses to delineate the allowed use of funds from deaccessioning, if a museum isn't going to use those funds to buy more stuff. This could be a good follow-up for those of you who come away undecided from the Ethics Smackdown on Monday.

10:15 a.m.

On the Edge: A Museum Talk Show about Risk and Reward. I can sneak this one in under the general CFM charge to encourage risk taking and innovation. But honestly I’m listing it because—a conversation between Kathy McLean and Nina Simon, how can it not be awesome?

Nude Pregnant Women with Animal Heads and Chippendale Chairs. Which gets my vote for best session title of the entire conference. It also happens to be apropos of CFM trendswatching as it explore how Winterthur loosen the grip of curatorial authority a bit, and let artists go behind the scenes to create a special exhibition.

There are many other fabulous sessions, of course, but this is diverse selection complements many of the trends we are following in CFM scanning and research.

When I am not otherwise assigned, I will be in the Alliance Showcase in MuseumExpo, hanging out with the 3-D printing demonstrators. Stop by for a chat—I would love to hear your feedback on the work of CFM, and your ideas for what we might do next.

Yours from the future.


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

2014 TrendsWatch Contenders

With TrendsWatch 2013 hot off the digital presses, Phil and I are already scanning for early signals of the trends we will feature next year. When it comes to scanning, more eyes = better results! We are fortunate to have a growing cadre of proto-futurists to help with our forecasting. In this week’s guest post,John W. Jacobsen, president of White Oak Associates, Inc, and CEO, The White Oak Institute, weighs in on his early picks for 2014.

Inspired by Elizabeth and Philip's excellent trend forecast (“TrendsWatch: 2013 Back to the Future”), I realized that some of next year’s trends are bound to be bouncing around already in our international museum planning work. There’s a lot of pent up creativity out there among museum professionals – ideas have been brewing during the Great Recession, and now, just maybe… Here are some of the contenders for 2014 that we’ve a) seen already in our planning work with museums; b) appear to lie ahead; or c) may be fertile ground for innovation.

a. Trends already affecting some museums
  • Multi-mission Museums: Some museums welcome their richness of community services by recognizing their multiple purposes, rather than just one role as their “core mission” and calling all the rest “ancillary” or “mission-supporting.” Museums provide lots of community and individual benefits. Our mission may be most important to us, but other services we provide are important to the people who pay our bills. In the new economy, we have to get off the high horse of solitary mission, and focus on providing a variety of good value services that are needed enough to be funded by the community. With multiple funding sources, this means being intentional about serving multiple missions.
  • Cultural Accommodation: I knew we would need to add prayer rooms to our project in Kuala Lumpur, but what a surprise that we might want to consider it in Edmonton! Immigration is turning growth cities like Edmonton global, bringing new expectations for human interaction, food choices, propriety, language, gender sensitivity, ‘family’ membership definitions and numerous other cultural accommodations way beyond writing labels in two languages.
  • Grrrovernance (how Millennials, Boomers and their metrics are upsetting traditional board/staff territory lines): It used to be simple in theory: Boards set policy, raised money and hired and fired the director. Staff developed and implemented the strategies to carry out the policy, and staff delivered summary reports at quarterly meetings. Then came the demand for metrics and policy indicators from younger board members. During the white water of the recession, the indicators that mattered to the
    board members we worked with were financial. Then came CEO dashboards that monitored how the museum was scoring at achieving policy, and then, soon thereafter, came transparency. Now, board members used to monitoring financials, can see your dashboard live, in real time. “Why were the membership renewal numbers down last week?” To staff, this looks a lot like micro-managing. To board members, it feels like responsible oversight. Middle ground is not yet in sight on this one.
b. Trends we think may lie ahead
  • Boomer Volunteers (Yikes, they have purposes of their own!): Speaking as one, we Boomers have always been full of ourselves, and we will bring that bravado to our volunteer work. When it becomes our turn to give back – and most of us are in denial about when that will be -- we’ll attach strings. We’ll want to address some of the societal needs we feel are important, and we’ll want to hang with interesting people. Should museums offer volunteers more structured opportunities where they can pursue their own thing using the museum’s platforms?
  • The Food, Diet and Fitness Craze: Currently a top-of-mind public topic, judging by media attention - Celebrity chefs… Food fights on TV! And sex and food share the supermarket magazine rack. We run our own expensive arms race spending on both kitchen and exercise equipment. From on high, we get food and fitness pronouncements from Michele Obama, Mark Bitman and Bill Clinton. The topic is inherently multi-disciplinary, and most categories of museums can find a way in: “The Science of BBQ and Beer;” “Stories from the Grave: Exercise in Colonial New England;” “The Art of Buff: Nudes from Rubens to Mapplethorpe;” and “ObesityWorlds” – lots of possibilities….[For more on this emergent trend, see CFM’s “Feeding the Spirit: Museums, Food & Community” initiative, and the White House’s “Let’s Move! Museums and Gardens” campaign.]

 c. Macro trends seeking museum innovations
  • GPSification and "Placebook": The crowdsourced story of an exact spot is already possible, and may allow open-source interpretation. An object on display has GPS coordinates that tomorrow’s mobiles can find, read and then add virtual post-its and links to that spot's "Placebook" page. At a fine-grain resolution, folks nearby or in South Africa could tune into the Hope Diamond, or at a larger resolution, to a house and its stories. Elaine Gurian envisioned this in her “Essential Museum” article, which talked about opening up collections for user-based exploration and comment. Certain sites, like the Freedom Trail in Boston, might collect a sufficiently robust set of comments that people could filter by their interest: architectural details; Italian food sources; Patriots and Tories, etc.
  • Brain Science is the New Space Race: Obama's push for neuroscience research may offer major opportunities for museums. The human brain will reveal new information about how our brains work and how they can get stronger. There will be new self-tests and exercises that will be both fun and helpful, and museums can position themselves as places of structured stimulus - a mental Nautilus. How does your brain react to different exhibits? Different stories? Can you curate a gallery of paintings that will boost seratonin levels? Do you want visitors to bookmark the museum moments that most quickened their pulses? Remember how many planetariums were funded during the space race in the 60’s and 70’s?

If you are advancing or experiencing any of these "trend contenders," please use the comment section, below, to share with me and with the CFM crew.

Thanks, John

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Museums are the Future of Education

Earlier this year, I shared some thoughts regarding the future of education with face-to-face and on-line attendees at Museums Advocacy Day. My thesis, which I’ve advanced on this blog before, is that we are on the cusp of transformative change in the U.S. learning landscape, and that museums have the opportunity, through advocacy and action, to help create a more equitable and successful educational system in which they play a starring role. We recorded the presentation, and I share it with you here in the hopes you will use it to spur thinking in your own organizations about the kind of future we want to live in, and what you can do to help make that future come to pass.

30-minute video. Schedule a brownbag lunch. Make popcorn. Hit “play”

Here is the CliffsNotes version for those of you who prefer reading to viewing:

One goal of strategic foresight is spotting the end of major eras and foreseeing the nature of the next age. Many signals suggest the American educational system is on the cusp of transformative change. Our last era was based on a “factory” model of education designed to prepare a workforce prepared for the 20th century economy. The forces that shaped that era are fading away and new drivers of change are pushing us in a different direction. What might the new era of education look like?
We can begin to outline potential scenarios of the educational future by looking at the forces—trends and events—that will shape our path forward. These include:

  • Rising dissatisfaction with performance of primary, secondary schools
  • Increased experimentation with alternatives (charter schools, homeschooling, unschooling)
  • Rising cost of higher education, escalating debt, low rates of post-graduation employment
  • Burgeoning online educational content, including MOOCs
  • Accelerating in development of micro-credentialing       
Disruptive Events:
  • 1983: A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence)
  • 2002: No Child Left Behind
  • 2011: HASTAC/MacArthur Digital Media & Learning Competition, supported by Mozilla, Gates funding for Badges for Lifelong Learning, supporting 30 development grants
And I can easily imagine plausible disruptive events that haven’t happened yet, but could happen in the next couple years. For example, watch for these headlines:
Coursera reports first quarter profits, announces IPO. Coursera is one of the major providers of Massive Open Online Courses As soon as one of the big MOOC providers figures out a workable business model, the development of these platforms for delivering educational content, much of it of very high quality, will rapidly accelerate.
IBM releases applicant guidelines for digital badges. As soon as mainstream employers (and IBM is one of the biggest employers in the U.S.) start accepting alternate forms of credentialing, such as digital badges and other micro-credentials, the calculation regarding ROI of going into debt for a traditional college degree will look even less attractive.
Finally I presented two brief stories of the future, either which might come to pass, depending on how things play out over the next couple of decades: A Fractured Landscape, which might result from continued doubling down on our current reform strategies: a more narrow focus on marketable skills; rigid attention to testing & results; growing divide between educational haves & have-nots, and decreased state support for state higher education. In this (rather depressing) future museums are educational luxuries, available only to the economic elite. On the other hand, we could take a different path to the future, leading to A Vibrant Learning Grid1 of distributed, personalized learning experiences. In this future, government-funded facilitators help students assemble personal learning ecologies that meet their needs. In this era, characterized by experiential, immersive, passion-based learning drawing on distributed resources, museums play a vital and valued role.

The MAD audience overwhelmingly voted for A Vibrant Learning Grid as the future in which they would rather live and work. But (reality shock) they felt that, of these two scenarios, A Fractured Landscape is much more likely to come to pass. See if you agree.

And I issue the same challenge to you that I threw down to the MAD attendees: if you see a gap between the future you feel is probable and the future you prefer, this is your space to act. This is where you can exert the third driver of change—personal action—to shape the world we will live in. Once you have identified your preferred future, ask yourself every day, every week, every year, what can I do to make it the future you and your children will actually live in?

Read more about the trends shaping the future of education in the past two CFM reports: TrendsWatch 2012 and TrendsWatch 2013, as well as in the 1KnowledgeWorks Foundation’s 2020 Forecast: Creating the Future of Learning, particularly the “Vibrant Learning Grid” scenario from which I borrowed elements for this talk.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Reports of Losing Your Museum Job to a Robot have been Greatly Exaggerated.

Forecasting is about exploring “fringe futures” as well as more probable outcomes. Part of the art of futures studies is casting your imagination out to the edges of the Cone ofPlausibility, but also knowing when to reel it back in. This week Alliance board member Nik Honeysett, head of administration at the J. Paul Getty Museum, pulls us back into the mainstream, in this response to my recent post on the potential effects of automation on museum jobs.
Image from Cauldrons & Cupcakes
Remember Expert Systems? In the 80’s, Expert Systems were going to change the way we worked, technology was going to take over and do our job better. Never heard of them? That’s because everyone got upset and thought they were going to lose their job, oh and there was the tiny issue that they weren’t very “expert”. They went through a rebranding exercise to “knowledgebase” and as a tool to assist us in our jobs.
Technology is replacing jobs, but that’s been happening for centuries, but the number one motivator is for it to provide some kind of return on investment – productivity or reduced costs, but not always an improvement in service. Travel agents are a good example, they’re replaceable by technology because we don’t really need them – one never needed a travel agent to book a holiday, one needed a travel agent to work the system that booked the holiday. Similarly Estate Agents (Realtors) are destined to be replaced by technology, because we don’t really need them either.
Call centers are another sector that, until recently, were being replaced by technology in the form of voice recognition. Like expert systems, this technology is not yet good enough. In fact talking to an automated system is a death spiral of pain and frustration resulting in some form of self-harming, and by “self” I mean the nearest manifestation of said technology. Automated answering systems for companies that pride themselves on customer service are going the way of expert systems, and while the ROI of these may have been about reducing costs, customers are turning away in droves.
So that brings us to the issue of technology replacing jobs in museums where customer service and a sense of the physical and visceral is tantamount. Oh and all those volunteers who are the heroes of our operations including our (customer-facing) visitor engagement. My main question is what ROI calculation would provide a net benefit to replacing a costless employee with a technology investment? Not to mention that most of us don’t have the technology infrastructure, people or money to support this, expertly summarized in the 2012 Horizon Report – Museum Edition: “#2: Funding for technology projects, even those for interpretation and exhibition, continues to fall outside core operational budgets.” And if that weren’t enough of a challenge, try convincing your board that its worth it: “#4: Boards of Trustees and executive management too often do not recognize the importance of technology in generating financial or mission return on investment.”
There’s no question that technology will replace some jobs in some museums, I’m just really skeptical that it will replace a lot of jobs in a lot of museums. To deploy technology in museums requires an existing technology infrastructure and management of the data that the technology is going to replace. I'll admit that a couple of museums will deploy some kind of interpretive robot soon, just as Seb* says, but that requires a infrastructure and support. For the vast majority of us, it’s much easier to continue with our docent core providing a personalized teaching experience, or issuing and tearing tickets, or...

*Seb Chan, in a comment on the CFM Blog Post “Will You Lose Your Museum Job to a Robot?”