Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Holidays with Class(es): St. Entropy Gets Schooled

This is #25 in a series that, I'm happy to say, looks like it won't end anytime soon. Enjoy a holiday break, and I look forward blogging with and for you in the new year.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, but I was not done;
Final grades for my students had yet to be run.
All of the essays, exams, and the rest
Had to be scored, as did every test.
All of the projects that took multiple tries
(Note: if you work in collections, learn to alphabetize),
And all of the classes they didn’t attend,
All the displays that fell down without end
(The labels with typos that made text obscene,
The objects glued firmly and wrongly—I mean!)
And all of the tours that they led the wrong way
Had to be graded—and all wanted an A.
And I? There I sat at my desk, tired and weary
From teaching my students museum learning theory.
I had Falked, I had Dierkinged, I had Heined and had Spocked,
But the students all seemed to be mentally blocked.
I musealized, made meaning, and drew them a map,
But all that they wanted was to download an app.
Whether online or offline, hook, line, or sinker,
It seemed that no student could be classed as a thinker.
When, down in exhibits, there arose such a clatter,
I leapt from my languor to see what was the matter
(Assuming displays were collapsing again,
But, no, they were stable.) Re-capping my pen,
Away to the window I flew in a flash,
Tore open the shutters, and threw up on the sash.
(A hint: never mix drinks when strange creatures are stirring,
If you don’t want to wind up with your brain all a-whirring.)
But the moon on the snow, now starting to fade,
Reminded me I still had essays to grade.
When, what to my slow-crossing eyes should appear
But an anachronistic red sleigh and reindeer?
With a lively old driver, with such vim and verve,
I knew in a moment he must grade on the curve.
With a nod and a twitch and a big puff of smoke,
St. Entropy popped in and gave me a poke.
His eyes, how they twinkled―he smiled with such zest!
I knew he could never have passed the drug test.
He flipped through the essays, sadly shaking his head:
I knew that my students had something to dread.
Whipping out his red pen that matched his face well,
He proceeded to write out what he had to tell.
“If you use 3-inch margins and 30-point font,
Santa is not going to give what you want.
No dashes! No danglers! No punctos! Must scan!
Use logic and reason whenever you can.
Make a case for each case, have a plan for each item;
Those who don’t find that things come back to bite ‘em.
If you depend for your image on Civil War re-enactors,
Then don’t include Elvis or John Wayne as factors.
No, you can’t sell your collection at yard sales around town
Or donate things to your skeet club to get crowding down.
The collection is not yours to sell or to barter
And you can’t fund the museum by using Kickstarter.”
He grumbled and groused and was one basic jerk,
Until finally, finally, he finished the work.
Then, raising the papers to check off each name,
He sputtered and asked me, “Hey, what is your game?
Your students were never the true perpetrators—
All their essays were cribbed from your genius curators.”
Alas, it was true—one might say heuristic
The students had merely been opportunistic.
Capitalizing on low curatorial pay,
And professional ethics (decidedly gray),
They hired out the work that they should have done,
Knowing money was something no curator would shun.
I was stunned nigh to silence by this ethical lapse,
So I took a quick quaff of my holiday schnapps.
The meaning of this leaves me haunted by specters.
Will all of my students become…gasp…directors?
As for St. Entropy, he was no help.
He just leaped in his sleigh and uttered a yelp.
As quick as he’d come, now he was gone,
His sleigh and his team just a speck on the lawn.
But I heard him exclaim, as the team rose away,
“Like all drama and trauma, we’ll end with an A!”

--John Simmons, Sally Shelton and Elizabeth Merritt know exactly what is going to be on the final.

Image from "Tacky Christmas" Blog

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: Glamorous Glucose

#wearabletech #diabetes #fashion

Follow the link in the photo caption to the associated story. You can find more glimpses of the future (and links) on CFM's Pinterest Boards

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Your 2014 CFM Guide to "Trendy" Gifts

As the year wraps up, here are a few suggestions for last-minute items to round out your trends-related gifting. This selection illustrates a number of the issues I’ve explored via the blog in the past year, with a range of price tags that should fit any budget.

If you are getting all excited by drones, but want something a little more family-friendly, pre-order the new Bionic Bird. For only 99€ you can kill two birds with one stone (sorry--had to say that) by amusing the recipient AND your cat.


This year there was a lot of tech buzz about Oculus Rift—a head-mounted 3-D virtual reality display designed for gaming. The latest version of their “development kit” (as in, this is still in Beta, folks) sells for $350.  But if you want dead simple (and dead cheap) virtual reality try Google Cardboard instead—a DIY headset that turns any compatible smartphone into a virtual reality headset. There are several options, including “Unofficial Cardboard”—shown in this video

If you are shopping for the “quantified self” in your life, and are feeling a mite generous, why not gift them Narrative Clip? This little gadget is the ultimate in visual life-logging—a tiny camera that clips anywhere (Your lapel. Your skateboard. Your cat’s collar). It automatically takes 2 pictures every minute—storing up to 4,000 pictures that then upload to a personal library in the cloud. The associated app uses “smart” algorithms to organize the tsunami of images.

If you are jazzed by the idea of 3D printed food, but can’t shell out for an actual 3D printer, (much less muck about cleaning chocolate off the print head) how about these 3D Dinosaur Cookie Cutters? “Create the tastiest treats this side of the Jurassic period... then eat them into extinction”

For the person who has everything, how about Estonian e-Citizenship? For only $64 you can give them a government-guaranteed digital identity, including a digital signature that has the same legal forces as a hand-scrawled John Hancock, as well as the right to open a bank account and run a company out of that country.

If you and your loved one are finding that emojis alone aren’t enough to bring your passionate e-communications to life, consider re-igniting your relationship by exchanging Miranda July Somebody app, which recruits total strangers to lend their face and voice to your messaging.  

On the other hand, if you want to help someone “disconnect to reconnect” (as well as protecting their privacy), you can order the “UnPocket” for £18.00—a stylish waxed canvas cell-phone case that blocks all cell, WiFi, GPS and RFID signals to help people drop off the grid. The Affair, the tech/fashion firm that makes UnPocket, specializes in “fashion for an under-surveillance society. Because, let’s face it, Big Brother knows way too much already.”

Have a great holiday!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

In Memoriam: Tracy Hicks, 1946 - 2014

Tracy Hicks, Helix, AAM Annual Meeting 2011
photo by Susan Breitkopf
One of the blessings of this job is the wonderful, brilliant, generous people I have met in the course of my work for CFM. Tracy Hicks was all these things, and more. You may remember him as CFM’s “Artist Interpreting the Future of Museums” in 2011 at the AAM Annual Meeting in Houston, where he gave so generously of his time—sharing his concerns about the decline of amphibian species, and his appreciation of the beauty to be found in the work museums do to document that vanishing world. I first met Tracy through John Simmons, and in today’s post, I invited John to share his memories of our friend.  

In the early spring of 1999 I received an urgent message asking if I could help an artist whose installation of dozens of jars of goldfish preserved in alcohol had just been shut down by the fire marshal. That was my introduction to Tracy Hicks. When we spoke, I was impressed by how concerned Tracy was with authenticity in his art—he wanted the jars in his installation to be as similar to actual fluid-preserved museum specimens as he could make them.

Tracy and I connected immediately—we were about the same age, we had grown up in the same part of Texas, and he raised poison dart frogs in his studio. A few months later, Tracy drove up to the Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas (KU), where I was collections manager in the Division of Herpetology. Tracy was fascinated by museum collections, particularly the way that specimens were treated individually but valued as members of sets of similar objects—he was particularly enchanted by the seeming repetition in collections. Much of his art at that time dealt with his interpretation of what he called museum vaults, such as Correlation and Collection and Freedman’s Field, as well as the powerful Third Ward Archive which consists of hundreds of photographs exhibited in jars (these works can all be seen at www.tracyhicks.com under the heading “Stills—older works”). But when Tracy arrived at the museum at KU that day, he had something more profound in mind—he wanted to probe much deeper into the mystery and the beauty of collections. In 1994, he had participated in a field trip to Guatemala with a team of scientists from the University of Texas at Arlington, and returned intrigued by the details and processes of preparing scientific specimens, and worried about the disappearance of amphibians in the wild.

In the lab at KU, Tracy demonstrated the rapid alginate cold-casting method he had developed to make molds of fluid-preserved frogs without damaging the specimens. His goal was an exhibition that would interpret scientific collections, but in a radically different way than I then imagined. I introduced Tracy to Marjorie Swann, an English professor who taught a class on collecting in the KU Museum Studies Program and was the author of an insightful book on the history of collecting (Curiosities and Texts: The Culture of Collecting in Early Modern England). Marjorie immediately understood what Tracy’s work was about, and proposed that we find some means to get Tracy involved with our students and fund an exhibition. The result was two grants from the Museum Loan Network. The first was a travel grant to develop the concept. Tracy, Marjorie, a museum studies graduate student, and I went to the Field Museum in Chicago to select Asian frog specimens to compliment the New World species available at KU. The second grant provided nearly $45,000 to borrow the Field Museum specimens, pay for molding and casting materials, and support two graduate student assistants for Tracy’s work. The Hall Center for Humanities at KU provided an exhibit venue. The project melded our three distinct interests in collections. I thought of scientific specimens as tools to be used to understand evolution; Marjorie conceptualized collections as cultural constructs that shed light on the conflicted relationship between humans and nature; Tracy saw in the specimens the inherent beauty of nature, life, and death. The overarching concept was to demonstrate how scientific specimens, selected from the wild to be preserved as objects of cultural patrimony, reflected our efforts to interpret the diversity of life. Tracy derived the name of the project from C.P. Snow’s book, The Two Cultures, which addresses the communication gulf between scientists and artists.

Early in 2005, the Two Cultures: Collections exhibit opened as a walk-in installation containing around 1700 jars of glow-in-the-dark silicon casts of scientific specimens of frogs. After exposure to UV lights, the various casts would fluoresce for anywhere from a few minutes to nearly 24 hours before fading. I digitized some field recordings I had made of frog choruses from the Amazon basin for Tracy to play in the background. A computer in the exhibit displayed a database of the catalog information for the specimens. The student assistants planned programming related to the exhibit, conducted tours, and organized a mini-conference on art and science at the Hall Center. A splendid time was had by all.

Tracy had many circles of friends who he turned to for inspiration, information, and amusement. I was invited to join the group that Tracy called The Chorus, a name derived from a combination of a chorus of singing frogs and a critical Greek chorus. We kept in touch through frequent email messages. The idea was that The Chorus would comment on Tracy’s art, which we did, but we also became a very tight group of friends, sharing many intimate moments of our own and Tracy’s life.

The glowing silicon frogs reappeared in Tracy’s art from time to time over the next several years, but he was never content to repeat what he had already done. As his understanding of scientific collections and the disappearing amphibian crisis grew, Tracy’s art took some fascinating twists and turns through several other major installations. By 2009, when Tracy was invited to participate in a show called Reflections on Darwin at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio,  he had moved from storage vaults to a two-story high indoor scaffolding holding objects and specimens that he had collected on a trek across West Texas and mounted on heavy glass panels. It was a mesmerizing display that included a reassembled snake skeleton, rocks, fossils, a bat and a frog, butterfly wings, doll parts, plants, dozens of insects, laboratory glassware, animal skulls and bones, and bottles of strangely colored oils.

Tracy’s commitment to preserving amphibians was a constant current in most of his art and a driving force in his activities. He went to the tropics again, this time to Peru, with several friends, and played a role in putting together an organization called Tree Walkers International that awards grants for amphibian research and publishes a magazine called Leaf Litter.

Tracy had survived a massive heart attack in 1981, but suffered from severe angina the rest of his life. The scarring on his heart meant that nothing was easy for him—not the long hours he spent at work on his art, not the physical effort required for the astoundingly long drives to far-flung venues to set up his complex installations, not trekking around in the humid tropics, and not the daily awareness that he was living on borrowed time. Tracy once wrote that, “Since the early 1980s my work has been continually charged with the physical reminder of mortality.”

In 2010, Tracy was selected for the Smithsonian Artists Research Fellowship (SARF) program, a prestigious award that gave him inside access to the largest natural history collections in the world, and the scientists who made them and care for them. His art continued to morph, now including fantastically mixed images of field notes written by scientists during their studies in the wild, superimposed with beautiful, touching photographs of specimens suspended in time in fluid and human skin (Tracy had been a commercial photographer before he became a full-time artist, and that experience shows in his images―he knew how to use light). The SARF project became a metaphorical comparison of human skin and amphibian skin, using close-ups of finely textured preserved frog and tadpole skin, young and old human skin, and particularly scars. At his request, I sent him images of cross-sections of amphibian skin and stories of how scientists found frogs in the wild.

In the midst of his SARF fellowship, Tracy came down with H1N1 flu. With his bad heart, the virus nearly killed him. For days, he lingered in a coma. We didn’t know if he would ever awake, or if he did, whether he would have lost some measure of cerebral function. To everyone’s relief, Tracy pulled through, weakened and exhausted, but alive, and eager to get back to work, which he did.

Tracy devoted considerable energies his last few years to the design and construction of the house he and his wife, Victoria Loe Hicks (an award-winning journalist) built in the mountains of North Carolina. It was their dream house, quiet and restful, with studio space amid acres of woods where Tracy walked daily. Last spring, they held the first of what was planned as an annual gathering of artists, musicians, and scientists, a converging of the Two Cultures around the theme of giant salamanders. Back in 2003, when we were at the Field Museum, Tracy became transfixed by a specimen of the giant Japanese salamander. Although the specimen did not fit the parameters of our project, we borrowed it anyway, and one afternoon I watched as Tracy made an alginate mold and then a plaster cast (which had to be poured within ten minutes of making the mold) in the lab at KU. The huge plaster salamander traveled with Tracy back home to Texas, moved with him to Atlanta, and then to North Carolina in 2010 before he found time to work on it. Giant Japanese salamanders (Andrias japonicas) grow to five feet long or more; its only living relatives are a similar Chinese species (Andrias davidianus) and the somewhat smaller hellbenders (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) of the eastern United States. All of the giant salamanders live in cold water that flows down mountains; like all amphibians, they live through their porous skin; and like too many amphibians, they are gravely threatened with extinction. Tracy spent hours working with the plaster cast, transforming its dull white surface until it looked very much alive, its’ skin glistening, an astoundingly beautiful piece of art. Tracy, who liked to describe himself as a crazy old artist, frequently told people that Andrias was the only god he believed in, emblematic of the way he embraced the natural world with a childlike curiosity coupled with a fascination with science.

Tracy once wrote in a description of his SARF project that “Preserving life and death is universally personally charged with emotion.” The message that Tracy had suffered another massive heart attack came on a Friday evening, as Victoria was en route to Liberia for a reporting assignment on the Ebola outbreak. Via email, members of The Chorus shared a mixture of disbelief, loss, and consolation until late into the night. I wandered about the house, unable to sleep, never before realizing how much of Tracy’s art we had—a massive glass panel from Reflections on Darwin sits atop a bookcase, a brass apple rests by the window in the living room, a stack of custom-made books of Tracy’s SARF images sits on the floor, one of Tracy’s photographs from Two Cultures: Collections enlivens the cover of a book I published. I finally gave up and crawled into bed, only to lie awake watching several jars of glowing frogs slowly fade to black.

Aug 11, 2008 still/LIFE study, Tracy Hicks
All photos by John Simmons, unless otherwise noted

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Let’s Talk Money: How much do you make?

You’d probably feel massively uncomfortable if someone asked you that question at a dinner party. After all, money is one of the things (along with politics, sex and religion) that are simply not discussed in polite company. 

But that doesn’t mean we aren’t all massively curious about what everyone else gets paid.

Fortunately, there are ways to get at this other than personal and intrusive questions (or poking around on GuideStar for a nonprofit’s 990 statements, which include the salaries of key employees.)

I’m pleased to share the news that the Alliance, in collaboration with all six regional museum associations, has published the first field-wide museum salary survey. Massive thanks to the staff and volunteer leadership of the Association of Midwest Museums, Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums, Mountain Plains Museums Association, New England Museums Association, Southeastern Museums Conference and Western Museums Association for working with AAM to make this possible. The report includes information on salary, benefits and demographic information for 51 positions, in many cases broken out by geographic area, museum discipline, governance and operating budget.

Here’s a link to the publication in the Alliance bookstore. It’s being provided free to all 736 museums that complete all or part of the survey and at a discount to members of the regions and the Alliance.

I anticipate this data will primarily be used by museums to benchmark salary ranges, and by people working in museums to bolster their own negotiations regarding compensation. I hope it will be used by people contemplating a career in museums to help with their financial planning and to set realistic goals. As a rule of thumb, student debt loan payments shouldn’t exceed 15% of graduate’s expected starting salary. So when a would-be museum educator contemplates a degree in museum studies, it would be relevant to note that his or her starting salary is likely to be in the mid-to-high 30ks. (That would mean a debt of no more than $5,000 or so—when average student debt on graduation from college now exceeds $30k.)

I’ve been blogging lately about the economics of museum pay, including the forces that drive salaries down (while suppressing diversity of our field) and lead many staff to feel undercompensated for their work. I’ve suggested one way to avoid this kind of resentment is to help museums and prospective employees agree on the fairmarket value for a given job: the compensation (cash + intangibles) an employer and a job applicant agree on when both parties are knowledgeable, willing and unpressured. While many factors go into creating a shared understanding of all those factors, one important piece is having sound data on what people in comparable positions typically earn. That way if a curator decides to trade off $18k of salary in order to work in rural rather than an urban museum, for example, perhaps that  conscious and well-considered decision is less likely to rankle later on.

I also hope this publication will provoke reflection on the part of the field as a whole—financials often tell the truth more clearly than obfuscating words. What social and economic factors drive the gender imbalance in museum pay and status? While two-thirds of the professionals represented in this survey are women, there are more men than women in directors in museums with budgets over $3M, and female directors earn only 71 cents for every dollar earned by male directors. True, this disparity reflects the pay gap in the American workplace as a whole, but does that make it acceptable? What are the biases, conscious or unconscious, acting on women’s museum careers that lead to this result, and how can we create systems and policies that eliminate such bias?

There is great information collected in this publication—and as I watched the salary project play out, I compiled a list of additional things it would be great to know and put them on my wish list for future research. Spurred, no doubt, by the theme of this year’s annual meeting, I find myself wondering: what is the ratio of highest to lowest salaries in museums, especially in the very biggest organizations? How many museums pay a living wage to their lowest paid workers (relative to the local cost of living), and have any museums committed to paying a living wage? You may have items to add to that list--what additional data would be useful to you, your museum or to the field? I look forward to hearing your thoughts in comments and discussions on Museum Junction and the CFM Blog. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Monday Musing: Making it Personal with Telepresence

This video caught my attention this morning: a crowdfunding pitch for what is billed as "the world's first social innovation telepresence experience."

This system, Omnipresenz, is designed to let you control a human "avatar" anywhere in the world, seeing and hearing through their internet-connected gear, and directing them to interact with the world. It's being pitch by developer Daniel González Franco "as a tool for virtual tourism, as a sort of therapy for agoraphobics or bed bound people to leave their house, or even as a way to rethink the experience of charity." You can read more about it in Fast Company. 

It reminds me of the whack "Somebody" app by artist Miranda July that also facilitates recruitment of a human avatar, in this case for the very specific function of putting a human face and voice to your digital message. 

Both Omnipresenz and Somebody grapple with how to turn put a human face on remote, virtual engagement with the world. 

I'm intrigued with "telepresence avatars" as an alternative to "telepresence robots" (like those we demoed at the Alliance annual meeting this past spring.")  As museums begin to experiment with telepresence, whether for education, accessibility, or simply as a new form of engagement with the museum, it will be interesting to weigh the benefits of human over robot, robot over human.  One Suitable Technologies staffer piloting a BeamPro in Seattle noticed many attendees were shy about coming up and interacting with him via the robot--until he held his cat up to the screen (cats apparently being the universal language of internet relatability. See, #CatVidFest). Would people be more, or less shy about talking to someone with a helmet-mounted camera on their head? 

Food for some Monday thought. And if anyone wants to visit a DC museum remotely, I'm totally up for being your avatar, if we can work out the tech.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: Happy (Futuristic) Thanksgiving


Follow the link in the photo caption to the associated story. You can find more glimpses of the future (and links) on CFM's Pinterest Boards

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Reinventing the Historic House Museum: MJT meets the Civil War

Here is another brief brain jotting as I take a break from writing TrendsWatch 2015.

I’ve been vastly enjoying blog posts and tweets from Frank Vagnone, author of the Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums. I love the way he systematically challenges every assumption about what a house museum is and how they operate. He inspired me to set my imagination loose  on reinventing the genre, and here’s my nugget of an idea for an historic house I would like to visit: the Museum of Alternative Histories. 

Alt history is the imaginative fiction of “what if?” It starts by identifying a key event that shaped our current world, and asks how things may have played out had that event taken a different turn. (Here is a list of such “what if” questions and associated fiction.) Livy pioneered the genre in about 25 BC when he explored what might have happened had Alexander the Great marched his armies west instead of east, and gone to war with Rome. In 1836 Louis Geoffroy imagined what would have happened had Napoleon successfully invaded first Russia and then England. Given the wealth of (real) historical detail an author can draw on in crafting these scenarios, alt history is a useful exercise in how to explore the Cone of Plausibility, and develop skills for imagining the various ways history might play out from this time forward.

Enter the alt-historic house. I imagine a house, in Charleston, say, which reflects three histories of the United States: the one that actually occurred (at least in our timeline); one in which the Confederacy staved off the Union and the South became a sovereign nation; and one based on the premise of Terry Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain, which imagines a world in which John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry succeeded, leading to a full-scale slave revolt and the establishment of an independent black nation called Novo Africa.

Unidentified African American Woman with Book. Daguerreotype by Thomas M. Easterly, 1861-1865
From The Civil War in Missouri
[The daguerreotype above, for example, could depict Ms. Sarah, a slave belonging to the Harris family of Charleston, Ms. Sarah Harris, free woman of color, or Ms. Sarah Harris, personal secretary to the finance minister of Novo Africa.] 

There are a number of ways the interpretation could play out:
  • The “house” could in fact be three adjacent row houses. The experience starts at a kiosk outdoors, where a visitor chooses the outcome of a key event, and then is directed to the house that reflects the consequence of that turn of fate. The interior of each house is a snapshot in time, as if the residents had just stepped out and might be back any minute. There might be a meal half-eaten at the table, dishes in the sink waiting to be washed, an unmade bed. By perusing the photographs on the walls, reading the correspondence lying on the desk, even peeking into the account book for the household, visitors are encouraged to deduce who lives there, and how their lives were affected by the key event. The three houses will be designed to echo each other in ways that play up both the similarities and difference between the timelines.
  • Alternately, there could be one house, almost empty (perhaps containing some basic furnishings). Visitors could trigger the interpretation for any of the three timelines through their smart phone (recordings, augmented reality overlays for the rooms, biographic notes on the residents).
  • Or, a la China Miéville’s The City and the City, evidence of all three timelines could exist physically in one house, at one time. The visitor would be challenged to untangle the clues, deducing which artifact, which bit of evidence, belonged to which version of history. As in the redoubtable Museum of Jurassic Technology, the contents of the house would be a combination of the absolutely true, the slightly warped, and inspired fictions, and it would take a bit of detective work for a visitor to unravel what fit into which category.
I love the way MJT keeps me on my mental toes. That little element of doubt makes me examine every label with extra care, and puts the responsibility for making a determination about "truth" back on my shoulders (where, in the end, it should always belong). An historic house with the same playful approach could encourage people to understand that history is not inevitable, but contingent. And that history that runs in the other direction (into the future) is contingent as well. That, in turn, might remind people that they are active players in determining the direction our timeline will take, and that they themselves are powerful agents of change. 

Well, I’m going back to writing TW15, now, but I’d love to hear your reactions to my idea for an alt-historic house, and also your best idea for re-envisioning that sector of the field.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Futurist Friday: The Encrypted Archive

Here's a challenge for GLAMS (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums): how can we guarantee the privacy of donors who want certain records to be kept from the public until a certain date? This article in The Economist kicks off with a chilling story of how Boston College was forced by the courts to release tapes by former leaders in the Irish Troubles. The archive had promised the material would not be made public until after the death of the donors.

It's bad enough when paparazzi (or a skilled research historian in search of the next hit popular biography) are sniffing around for scandal. When law enforcement gets into the act, a collecting organization can be legally powerless to enforce the conditions of a donation.

Enter the "dark archive"--encrypting digital records in such a way that they CAN'T be read until some date in the future. The Economist article outlines two approaches to the challenge: 

  • lock a digital archive up with encryption that can't be broken with current methods, and trust both that no one can crack the code too soon, and that someone will crack it eventually. Either assumption might be faulty, of course. (Consider artist Jim Sandborn's experience: 24 years ago he installed "Kryptos"--a puzzle-sculpture containing an elaborately encrypted message--at CIA headquarters in Langley, VA. Now, exasperated that no one has cracked the last bit of the code, he's resorting to giving hints.)

"Kryptos" by James Sanborn, Picture from Wired

  • use a "bank and trust" model that distributes pieces of the encryption key to a set of guardians (public organizations such as libraries, or lawyers). Some risks of this approach can be mitigated (e.g., build in redundancies to ensure no part of the key is irrevocably lost) but it is still vulnerable to valid legal challenges (even if the number of subpoenas involved, potentially needing to be served to organizations or individuals across the world, might slow things down a bit.)

Now Harvard's Jonathan Zittrain (director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society) has received a $35k grant from the Knight Foundation to pursue the second approach, and he plans to have a prototype of the system running within nine months. 

This article is firmly grounded in the present, but it leads naturally to today's Futurist Friday assignment about the implications for our field. Read The article and consider the following:

  • What is the most sensitive information you keep in your digital records? Who or what would be damaged, if that data were compromised?
  • Are your mission, and collections, such that you can imagine the government requesting access to private data you hold, and imagine your organization fighting the request?
  • Does your museum (or library, or archive) accept donations with restrictions as to what information will be made publicly accessible, and when?
  • Are there types of information (like collecting locality information for fossils or for threatened species) that you only release to vetted users?
  • And finally, given the growing challenges to keeping any data private (the accelerating threat of data hacking; rise in legal actions forcing the release of data held by public institutions) what strategies will your organization deploy to secure your records. Can encryption play a role? 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: On Ethics, and Tiara-wearing Punk Grandmothers

#VivienneWestwood #Kenya #Tiara #Ethics
Follow the link in the photo caption to the associated story. You can find more glimpses of the future (and links) on CFM's Pinterest Boards

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

On Philanthropy and Paternalism

I’m immersed in writing TrendsWatch 2015 for the rest of the month, which leaves limited bandwidth for blogging. For the next few weeks, I’m going to be sharing brief thoughts, the kind of “here’s a 15 minute essay on why I think this story is interesting” I usually post in Monday Musings.

Today’s quickie was inspired by this article in the New York Times:

Which shares the news that billionaire Barry Diller has announced his plans to provide $130M to turn an abandoned pier into an off-shore park in New York City. The city, state and Hudson River Park Trust are being asked to kick in another $39.5M towards the costs.

All good, yes? Who wouldn’t like the prospect of a “futuristic park built atop an undulating platform 186 feet off the Hudson River shoreline with a series of wooded nooks and three performance venues, including an amphitheater?”

Well, I don’t know because (and this is the point) they didn’t ask. Diller commissioned the design without public input, and the Park Trust allegedly hide the nature of the project when changing the legislation governing the part to pave the way for the project.

 Artist's rendering of the park, as presented in the
NYT article. Pier55, Inc./Heatherwick Studio 
Not to bash the Dillard’s intent, or his generosity. He has also promised to run the park and pay its operating expenses for 20 years.

So what’s my problem? Three things:
  1.  If you want to give people a gift that you expect them to use, you ought to ask them what they want. Contrast Dillard’s process, for example, with the extensive input (gathered through over 160 community meetings) used to shape the much more modest 11th Street Bridge Project in DC, which likewise will create a park out of an abandoned river structure. Not that there isn’t room for vision and leadership, but so often visions get built, and then sit empty while the founder wonders why nobody comes.
  2. 20 years of operating support sounds great, but after twenty years the city (or the Trust, or whoever) has to pick up the costs. What are the chances that the Dillard family foundation, relying as it can on its endowment, will have established a sustainable, self-sufficient business model by then? And to that point;
  3. How will this park and its performance venues affect the overall cultural economy of the community? The article notes two other projects in the works (Culture Shed at Hudson Yards and the Performing Arts Center at the World Trade Center site) that may compete for the same audience. Set in Stone, the 2012 report from the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center, has documented the overbuilding of culture in the US between 1994 and 2008. Is it doing us any favor to build a cultural infrastructure too big for the cultural carrying capacity of the Chelsea Pier area?

So yes, philanthropic impulses are great. And sometimes (as with Andrew Carnegie’s libraries) they can be of long-term benefit to the nation. But as we enter a New Gilded Era, when the pendulum swings from grassroots cultural project funded by local populations and local government back to culture as envisioned by the economic elite, we’d better tally the costs we have to bear in the long term. Gifts don't always give you what you need, and they aren't always free.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Futurist Friday: Alt History & Alt Futures

Ever wonder how the present would be different, if some some key event in our past had torqued just enough to propel us into a different sector of the Cone of Plausibility? Exploring such scenarios is the realm of "alternative history." Some alt-history is fanciful (most steampunk fiction, for example), some constitute thoughtful, scholarly exploration of our timeline. (For example, how would WWII have turned out if the Allies had not launched a campaign in North Africa?) 

Alt-history, like futurist scenarios, doesn't have to be textual. Here is a map of an alt-Africa , by Nikolaj Cyon, envisioning a timeline in which Europe did not colonized that continent

Map from BigThink post by Frank Jacobs
Cyon's alternate timeline diverges from our history in the mid-1300s, when (in his universe) some tweak in the genome of Yersinia pestis made the Black Death even more deadly than it really was. What would have happened if the Muslim Empire overran a depopulated Europe? How would culture have flourished in Africa, absent the Western slave trade? 

Your Futurist Friday assignment: read this post by Frank Jacobs about Cyon's map and the logic underlying his conclusions. Then (if you work in a museum) stroll through your galleries, or the storage rooms, and think about how they (or their counterparts) would look different in Cyon's universe. Whose portraits would hang in your halls? What artifacts would represent "primitive" cultures? Who's point of view would drive the interpretation? I'd love to hear what you come up with, in the comment section below, or on the corresponding post on the CFM Facebook page. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: Save Our Sleeping Sculpture?

#Trash #Popup #architecture

Follow the link in the photo caption to the associated story. You can find more glimpses of the future (and links) on CFM's Pinterest Boards

Monday, November 10, 2014


If you aren't exploring Medium yet, you should. This blog publishing platform is turning into my go-to place for browsing and expanding my horizons. The recommendations by Medium itself seem rather random (no, guys,  I really am not interested in "Bedbugs: the untold horror story"), but you can search keywords and follow folks who's taste you trust. For example, I'm following Mar Dixon (of #AskACurator day fame), Jacob Harold (CEO of the nonprofit watchdog group GuideStar USA), Rob Walker (journalist, author, co-instigator of the awesome "Significant Objects" project) and Ed Rodely (associate director of integrated media at the Peabody Essex Museum). 

To get you started, here are a couple articles recently recommended by other folks I follow:

Lucy Bernholz (author of the excellent P2173 philanthropy blog) pointed me towards "The 36 People Who Run Wikipedia,"  about the world's largest self-organized, all-volunteer endeavor. Some wiki of these uber-editors spend over 20 hours a week on Wikimedia-related tasks, rewarded only with badges. This illustrates the amazing potential for passion to drive significant levels of volunteer engagement. It's also an interesting peek behind the scenes at non-traditional ways of structuring authority and participation. 

Seb Chan recommended The Sixth Stage of Grief Is Retro-computing. I'm not sure what resonated for Seb--I'm sure he, at least, recognized the archaeological fragments of software the author mines for meaning. For me it was a chance to hear a familiar story in a new voice: of the importance of finding a network of kindred souls who take your passions seriously, even when you are just a kid; on the episodic nature of adult friendships, in a world where you may intersect with people you love only once every few years. 

And if nothing else, follow Code|Words:technology and theory in the museum on Medium. I'm going to keep hounding you to read this excellent, ongoing series of essays instigated by Suse Cairns, Ed Rodley, Seb Chan and many other of the most insightful thinkers (and eloquent writers) in our field. 

So go. Read. Write. Recommend. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

Futurist Friday: Siri on Steroids?

Yesterday Amazon launched Echo, a digital assistant that sounds a lot like a female version of Hal (from 2001: A Space Odyssey). Or better, Majel Barrett channeling the brain of the starship Enterprise. 

"Far-field voice recognition" enables Echo to listen for your queries (triggered by a wake-up word) from a distance. Here's a demo video:

For some reason I went in primed to snark, but I am actually intrigued by the prospect of using Echo while cooking (elbows deep in raw ingredients not being the best time to make notes or look things up). True, Amazon's motivation seems to be to provide you with an ever present personal shopping assistant, but that doesn't mean that Echo won't be co-opted into other roles. 

As technology gets better at understanding natural language queries, and at interfacing with the world (to make appointments for us, place orders, adjust our physical environment) "assistants" like Echo will proliferate in a variety of forms.  A program like Echo may, in time,  follow you everywhere--embedded in your environment. 

Is there any downside to having a discreet, always-on, internet connected digital Gal Friday at our beck and call? Will (s)he be just one more device that makes our lives easier and more efficient, or one more digital intrusion into our privacy and self-sufficiency? Or both?

Your Futurist Friday assignment: make a list of what you would ask Echo to do, or answer

  • in your home
  • at your workplace
And what is gained, or lost, by off-loading those tasks to a digital assistant.

And if you wouldn't use Echo even if someone gave her to you, why not?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: After the Flood

#RisingTides #Architecture #biomimicry #Brachiopiod

Follow the link in the photo caption to the associated story. You can find more glimpses of the future (and links) on CFM's Pinterest Boards

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Digging Deeper than Dinosaurs and Pasta

Recently, the Field Museum commissioned research from Slover Linett Audience Research, exploring why people visit a natural history museum. Staff at the museum are using the results to figure out how different kinds of people do or don’t want to use digital media and interactives in the museum. They are also being generous in sharing the report with the field (applause). In today’s guest post, Matt Matcuk, Exhibitions Development Director, talks about the challenges to even beginning this study, and how their perseverance paid off.

In 2012 my colleagues and I at the Field Museum received funding from The Grainger Foundation for technological upgrades to our exhibits. To figure out what these upgrades might be, we set out to learn what visitors would want to get out of them. But to know that, we had to first know what our visitors want to get out of their experiences in general. We were looking for their fundamental motivations for coming to a natural history museum. And that is what the experts call a “Big Question.” So big, in fact, that when I proposed the study, people I talked with tended to fall into two groups.

Group A said:
“You don’t need to do that study. It’s simple. We already know why visitors come here.”

Group B said:
“You can’t do that study. It’s too complex. We’ll never really know why visitors come here.”

We forged ahead.

To address Group A’s concerns, we had to help visitors get past the obvious, familiar answers that come easily, but which tell us little: 
It’s fun. We really like dinosaurs. It’s something we can do as a family. It’s educational.
Asking people on the spot to explain their motivations doesn’t usually yield good data. If the owners of an Italian restaurant stood at their customers’ tables and asked them why they came here to eat, they would get the same kind of answers:
It’s fun. We really like pasta. It’s something we can do as a family. It’s relaxing.

© The Field Museum, GN91954_596d, Photographer Karen Bean.
Our study would also have to address Group B’s concerns. People do things for reasons that are complex, layered, and mysterious—to those of us studying their behavior, and sometimes to the visitors themselves. If our decisions result from the sum total of our experience, you could spend years studying the motivations of a single visitor. We had to arrive at a list of questions that was short enough to be practicable, but nuanced enough to be applicable to many kinds of visitors.

Group B’s objection (that we’ll never really know why visitors come here) applies to most research that involves human subjects. In advertising focus groups people will often claim to find a logical, reason-driven ad more compelling than one that takes an emotional approach. Sometimes it’s not that people can’t tell you the truth, it’s that they won’t:  not because we’re liars, but because we’re tempted to either give answers that we think will make our questioners look good (“You’ve done a good job of convincing me here”), or give answers that make us look good (“I’m not an easy mark for manipulative ads”). In the museum context, some people who have spent twenty minutes in an exhibit with twenty thousand words of text, when asked how many of the labels they’ve read, calmly answer, “most of them.”

Why does asking people directly about their motivations provide the kinds of answers that led Groups A and B to discourage us from doing such a study? I think there are four reasons.
  1. Visitors’ answers represent a reflexive response; an automatic reaction to stimulus.
  2. Visitors are susceptible to the temptations described above: to either give answers they think we want to hear, or to give answers that make them look good.
  3. Questions that require analysis and synthesis can be hard to answer.
  4. Finally—because of these reasons—the answers that visitors give to direct questions about why they’ve come here tend to be low in risk and high in generality:

  • “It’s fun,” means nothing more than, “this is something we like to do.” “Fun,” as an adjective, can be applied to everything from a round of mud-wrestling to an operetta.
  • “We like dinosaurs/pasta” is just another way of saying, “We came here because natural history museums have dinosaurs/ Italian restaurants have pasta.”
  • “It’s something we can do as a family,” is better—it hints at a direction for inquiry, at least—but is not yet a piece of actionable data.
  • “It’s educational/relaxing,” is a summary of the outcomes that one typically associates with museums/restaurants, and uses language that’s too broad to be of much use.

Our study with Slover Linett attempted to avoid these pitfalls in order to better understand visitors’ attitudes towards technology in museums. A few of its findings:

  1. People see the museum not as a source of information, or as a partner with which to engage in dialogue, but rather as a facility or vehicle to use in order to achieve their own goals, using their own methods.
  2. By looking for patterns in those goals and methods, we can create psychographic profiles that describe a visitor’s attitudes towards digital technologies. Surprisingly, these attitudes show little correlation with demographic factors such as age or gender.
  3. The report emphatically reinforced that the majority of our visitors’ goals are social:  visitors are spending time with us in order to get closer to each other.
  4. Visitors don’t come here to learn about a subject, or master a concept, but to be amazed: they expect us to furnish the platform on which they can have a blow-your-mind, Aha!, meaningful experience.

I hope that the Slover Linett study doesn’t just illuminate visitors’ attitudes towards various museum experiences, but casts additional light on a shift in the common psyche—an effect of the last several decades of information technology change. To put it bluntly, visitors see knowledge authorities such as museums as tools. And you don’t engage in dialogue with your tools—you use them. I think this points to a need for institutional humility that many museums have not yet fully recognized.

To get a clearer picture of the study’s findings, you can read the full report here. It’s not the last word on how a person’s reasons for visiting a natural history museum relate to their attitudes toward technology in exhibits. But it’s a pretty good start. Please let me know what you think

11-12-14 addendum, here is a new executive summary, which includes links to the two original reports.