Thursday, June 26, 2014

Turning the Museum into a Personal Oracle

I’m always on the hunt for examples of people “hacking” museum content in interesting ways. Museum fans come up with amazing ways to use museums—things museum staff may not have thought of in a million years. This week, artist / educator / coach Laurie Phillips tells us about Art-o-mancy, a social engagement that basically turns the museum into a giant Tarot deck, co-opting museum collections as signifiers onto which seekers can project their hopes and fears.

Art-o-mancy is an experiential game that creates a new relationship between museums and museum-goers. My husband, writer and performer Jon Spayde, came up with it at the Walker Art Center in response to my boredom at mechanically looking at a painting then reading the wall description, looking, reading, looking, reading. Jon was inspired by Surrealist and Situationist games and psychogeography to try a whole different way to see art. A new paradigm was born. Since the creation of Art-o-mancy, we’ve played it in museums from San Francisco to Paris to Prague. Hundreds of people have benefited from using this sacred and fun practice to bond with art, each other, and the Muse — while getting help with some pretty gnarly life issues.

How does the game work? By turning the museum into a personal oracle.

Art-o-mancy sends the museum visitor on a multi-sensory journey anchored in the visitor’s own life. (We developed the game in art museums, but it works in just about any museum setting.)

The player, or Art-o-mancer, arrives at the museum and comes up with a question — ideally, a serious, open-ended, and significant personal question. “What do I need to know in order to succeed at my new job?” “What are the possibilities for my new relationship?” “How can I become more creative?” “What’s next for me?”

The player closes his or her eyes — or is blindfolded — and, with the help of a partner (called an Oracle Guide), uses a museum map to pick out, sight unseen, an area of the museum to begin the Art-o-mancy quest. The guide leads the questioner to that spot; during the journey the player experiences the museum with all the senses except sight — hearing the conversation of other visitors, feeling the air currents, noticing the changes in the floor surfaces, smelling historic objects or brand new installations. It’s all intended to create a kind of sleep-and-dream state that prepares the Art-o-mancer for a very personal experience.

When player and guide have arrived at the designated area of the museum, the guide invites the player to listen to his or her body. The player “tunes in” and follows whatever urge to move that he or she feels — forward, to the left or right, straight ahead. With the guide’s careful help, the player eventually feels his or her way to a stopping place, usually (but not always) in front of a work of art. The blindfold comes off.

And the work of art — or the natural history exhibit, the historical artifact, even the doorway or the window — “answers” the Art-o-mancer’s question.

How? In many ways. The imagery of a painting may deliver a direct response by indicating a course of action to follow or avoid. The dominant colors may resonate with the questioner and convey a deep meaning or a helpful mood. Details of the work’s creation or provenance may carry the weight of a response. Any- and everything about the work may be brought into play, from art history to the peculiar qualities of a certain shade of orange.

And, as we’ve discovered in playing Art-o-mancy for many years, the oracle doesn’t need to be a work of art; any objects — including fire extinguishers and wayfinding signs — can become full of meaning when a questioner really interrogates them.

The main thing is that the player, helped by the guide and any other people in the group, explores the piece with an open mind and the desire to find an answer. In that way a museum object is transformed from an impersonal cultural entity into a very personal source of wisdom and inspiration. And the museum becomes more than a site of cultural authority — it becomes the home of a work of art or culture that really “speaks to” a visitor.

Most recently, Jon and I conducted a two-hour Art-o-mancy workshop at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, in which 17 trained Oracle Guides led 42 Art-o-mancers on a personal journey through the museum. The group included high school students, middle-aged hipsters, mothers and daughters, and older people with open minds.

We met as a large group for an introduction then split up into small groups. Each Oracle Guide took their group into the galleries and led each of them through the process described above. When we came back together as a large group, here are some of the comments made by participants:

“I learned from walking blind-folded, then looked at the art much more intensely — especially art I would usually bypass.”

“Art-o-mancy was a fun new way to experience the museum and tap into my intuition. I was dumbfounded by where I landed.”

“My question was: ‘Why is my desire for possessions never satisfied?’ I was led to Dutch artist Ary Scheffer's painting of Christus Consolator, depicting Jesus liberating oppressed people. I interpreted this to mean that spiritual seeking provides more meaning than ‘worldly goods’ and perhaps I can have an ongoing relationship with a spiritual ‘consolatory.’”

“I liked the camaraderie, the depth of the experience along with the light-heartedness of the approach, and the overall sense of fun.”

I’d love to hear from you about your thoughts on Art-o-mancy. Could you see it working in your museum? Is it something you would like to play yourself? Please use the comments section, below, to let me know if you would like to connect with me to talk about the game.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: Augmented Ouchies

Wonder what this is? #AugmentedReality #Ouch #FutureofMedicine 
Follow the link in the photo caption to find out more. You can find more glimpses of the future (and links to associated articles) on CFM's Pinterest Boards

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Museums in a Dangerous Time

The Alliance has announced that the theme of our 2015 Annual Meeting will be The Social Value of Museums: Inspiring Change. Believing, as I do that Museums Can Change the World (CFM’s motto), I look forward to the year leading up to the meeting in Atlanta as a time to delve into a variety of issues related to social value and social justice. I am pleased that Robert R. Janes, Editor-in-Chief of Museum Management and Curatorship, accepted my invitation to kick off this extended discussion by sharing some thoughts he recently aired at his Fellows Lecture to the Canadian Museums Association in April, 2014.

The purpose of this post is to challenge museums to become activists in addressing the social and environmental threats to our individual and collective well-being. In order to embrace this challenge, museums require both visionary leadership and a profound commitment to true public engagement. Contrary to conventional wisdom, public engagement goes far beyond increasing audiences and earned revenues. I believe that museums, as highly trusted organizations in civil society, are key intellectual and civic resources in a time of profound socio-environmental change. There is a danger, however that museums will remain focused on their internal agendas and traditional practices – immune to critical reflection and courageous action.

Problems and Uncertainties

The time has come for museums to become active participants and problem solvers in the current Age of Disruption. The problems and uncertainties are unprecedented, yet the possibilities and opportunities for change and renewal have never been greater. Our highly technological, interconnected, global civilization is now threatened with collapse by an array of environmental problems, including the accelerating extinction of animal and plant populations essential for human survival; the spread of toxic compounds, and the unnecessary use of environmentally-damaging technologies such as “fracking” for oil and gas. Climate disruption is the most obvious issue and it is the focus of the new video I filmed for CFM (below).

In addition to these environmental problems, there are many uncertainties:[1]
  • Will we run out of essential resources?
  • Can the earth sustain 9 billion people by 2050?
  • Will everyone have employment that meets basic needs considering the prediction that two billion jobs will disappear by 2030 as a result of robotics and digital technology?
  • Will we be able to avoid the severe social disruption caused by increasing financial inequality? What about the lack of effective global institutions and global law to address these issues?
We cannot, as museum practitioners, simply dismiss these issues as someone else’s problems, as they are about our individual and collective well-being. For museums to claim intellectual neutrality for fear of espousing values is nonsense. To sit on the sidelines is to embrace the status quo, and the status quo is obviously perilous.

What Can Museums Do?

I certainly agree that museums may not be able to contribute to the resolution of many of our global problems, but museums are in a position to invent a new future for themselves and their communities. Museums could at least help create an image of a desirable future – the essential first step in its realization. I cannot emphasize enough that the sustainability of museums cannot be separated from the sustainability of the biosphere. This is the harbinger of a new future for museums, as museums are untapped and untested sources of ideas and knowledge, and ideally placed to foster individual and community participation in the quest for greater awareness and workable solutions to our global problems.

Taking Action

In considering what museums might actually do to become agents of change, there are at least five defining characteristics of museums which make them ideally suited for taking action.[2] What form this action takes is up to each museum. I am hoping that these suggestions will help expand conventional museum practice and contribute to a greater museum presence in the world.

The first characteristic of museums is that their collections are a time capsule of material diversity and this record has a value akin to biodiversity, as destructive industrial technology is replaced with more adaptive solutions.

Second, museums embody diversity. Globalization is creating a stultifying degree of sameness throughout the world that is undoing the diversity that underlies the resilience of our species. The 55,000 unique museums in the world make them a significant antidote to global homogenization.

Third, museums are keepers of locality. Local communities are the key to intelligent adaptation and Wendell Berry, the American poet/farmer, noted that “the real work of planet-saving will be small, humble and humbling”, and that problem solving will require individuals, families and commu­nities.

Fourth, museums are the bridge between the so-called two cultures – the sciences and the humanities.[3] Museums are one of few institutions equipped to bridge the divide between these two ways of looking at the world – a divide that continues to befuddle our understanding of human presence on the earth.

The fifth characteristic of museums is that they are some of the most free work environments on the planet. There are very few other workplaces which offer more opportunities for thinking and acting in ways that can blend personal satisfaction and growth with organizational goals. Museum workers must now cultivate their personal agency—meaning their capacity to take action in the world. Act on your values and beliefs; rock the boat; fly under the radar—do what you need to do to if you feel that something is important and needs to be addressed.

The question facing our field is this - can museums finally subordinate themselves to concerns that are larger than their own? If they do, museums will, of necessity, become more “reality-based”, and by this I mean becoming more involved in the broader world, embracing a sense of urgency, and seeing things as they really are in terms of the challenges to our well-being.[4] This is the work that really needs to be done.


[1] M. Marien, “12 Mega-Uncertainties for the Decades Ahead”, January 16, 2013 Revised and expanded version for GlobalForesightBooks Update (initial draft, 6/4/12).p.1. Available online:

[2] Janes, Museums in a Troubled World: Renewal, Irrelevance or Collapse? London and New York; Routledge, pp.178-182.

[3] C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures: And a Second Look, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1959 and 1963.

[4] J. H. Kunstler, The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, New York: Grove Press, 2005, p. 324.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Futurist Friday: Compiling a Summer Reading List

Earlier this week I tweeted about the search by UCLA law professor Ted Parsons for reading/viewing to assign for his upcoming seminar “Law in Futurist Social Visions.” The course will use speculative fiction to explore challenges that may arise from three trends he sees shaping law and government:
  • major technology-driven advances in human capabilities and/or longevity (whether of widespread or limited availability);
  • severe environmental deterioration (realized or imminent);
  • blurring of the boundary between human and non-human consciousness, e.g., through advances in AI, alternative substrates for human consciousness, or encounters with non-human intelligences.

Parsons is looking for suggestions of “works of science fiction (or other futurist fiction) that contain detailed and interesting descriptions of how law or government work in the speculative future world where the story is set.” This article by his colleague Eugene Volokh suggests some works to see that list (including several episodes of Battlestar Galactica, which will no doubt delight law students looking for an excuse to add binge video watching to their summer to-do list).

Parsons’ quest inspired me to revisit my own summer reading stack, which is at the moment grimly devoted to nonfiction works such as the Millennium Projects latest State of the Future report. So, I am recruiting your help to compile a list of works of futurist fiction (print, TV or film) that contain detailed and interesting descriptions of how museums work in the speculative future world where the story is set.

Here are a couple of titles to get the list started:

H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. In chapter eight the Time Traveller explores the Palace of Green Porcelain (a museum), looking for tools to fight the dreaded Morlocks. (Since most of the collections are deteriorated beyond use, he pries a piece of metal off an industrial machine on display to use as a mace. So much for long-term conservation.)

Paolo Baucigalupi’s The Windup Girl, which I reviewed on the Blog a few years ago. This is a stretch—museums don’t play a feature role in the work, but seed repositories (which as living stock collections are a kind of first cousin to museums) are the major source of Thailand’s wealth in the dystopic future in which the story takes place. 

Ideally, the fiction will include an actual museum, in a way that is integral to the plot, and sheds light on how museums might reflect and shape that future.

Use the comments section, below, to add your own favorite works of museo-centric futurist fiction to the list. Thank you!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Yah, Museums Do That

I want to share this video the Alliance recently released. It shares a couple of great stories demonstrating museums' role in the growing "vibrant learning grid" connecting educational resources in the US. 

These stories of "how museums rocked my world" belong are to two pretty amazing learners:

Spencer Hahn, who defied his doctors' predictions that he would likely never walk or talk. He took his first steps and said his first words in The Children's Museum of Indianapolis. His mother describes the museum as "an extended family we always have access to." 

Simone Batiste, 16-year-old aspiring reconstructive surgeon, now interning at the Chabot Space and Science Center. Simone started going to museums when she was five years old to "learn all this stuff I don't learn in school." 

Next time a friend, or neighbor, or funder or your legislative representative says "I didn't know museums did that" (i.e., education) send them a link to this video and knock their socks off. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: Assistive Emotional Intelligence

Wonder what this is? #FacialRecognition #EmotionalIntelligence
Follow the link in the photo caption to find out more. You can find more glimpses of the future (and links to associated articles) on CFM's Pinterest Boards

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Meet Watson, Your Personal Museum Learning Agent

A recent post by Steve Hamm wrote on the IBM Smarter Planet sparked a new thought about a role for AI (artificial intelligence) in museums. Steve writes about IBM Watson’s new gig: improving the customer experience, as demonstrated in this video:

Drawing on Watson’s ability to understand natural language (e.g., plain English, as opposed to specific commands or computer codes), to mine huge amounts of information on the web and make connections, the program can serve as a free-floating “customer service representative,” offering advice and recommendations on things a user may not have even specifically asked about. In the video, the customer is Emily, a recent college graduate who will start a new job in two weeks and is shopping for her own mobile phone plan. Watson notices her hesitation about which to choose, and jumps in to give advice. In addition to answering specific questions, Watson raises relevant points Emily has not thought to ask about yet.  As the video says, cognitive customer computing is about “how to engage with people, and how to exceed their expectations, quickly”

I speculated, in an earlier post, about how cognitive computing and machine learning could supplement the curatorial work of museums--perhaps doing a better job than (sometimes biased) humans at attributing works and spotting forgeries. But this video suggests another, more mainstream way that Watson could assist museums—by mentoring museum audience members and helping them access our resources to support their self-directed goals.

The analog equivalent of such a "museum learning agent" already exists. For example, in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ YBCA:You program enrollees get to “create and refine [their] own personal art goals with the YBCA:You staff” and “receive biweekly communications and recommendations about upcoming programs and exclusive YBCA:You events.” "Of course” the program FAQs go on to say, “YBCA:You program staff are always available and eager to talk with you!” It would be great to have a personal art mentor, kind of a self-directed learning thesis adviser. But there are only so many staff in any museums "available to talk to you."  How can museums scale up an experience like that, and make it available to as many people as possible? How can we apply “mass personalization” to mentoring?

Seems to me Watson could help answer the challenge of scale, supplementing and assisting human expertise by playing matchmaker between museum resources and potential users. Think about how Watson could build on what museums already do. When the Walker Art Center launched a new web site in 2011, the site was hailed as a “gamechanger” and a “paradigm shift”because it provided information not just about the museum, but about art and artists generally. The website positioned the Walker to be a community hub at the “center of the conversation that the their mission is about.” Essentially it positioned the museum to be a mentor for web users, rather than just servicing visitors. What if Watson kept a virtual eye on the Walker web site (eventually, on every museum web site) watching the behavior of visitors to the site and intuiting when they might need more help. It could step in and offer advice, such as personalized recommendations about programs, exhibits and links to other resources. It could become, in effect, a personal museum mentor to the web user, and help them find the digital and physical resources that meet their needs.

This scenario doesn't take humans out of the equation—notice that in the video Watson hands Emily off to a “real” person once she is close to making a decision. But as an assistive Artificial Intelligence, helping museum staff do their work, Watson could enable museums to have the reach and scale the Michael Edson has encouraged us to embrace, while deepening the relationship between museums and digital visitors.

In the future, maybe customer service Watson will be assisting museums to interface with our growing cadre of people taking advantage of our resources, and “initiating a relationship [the museum] hopes will last a lifetime.”

Friday, June 13, 2014

Futurist Friday: Heads Up

When Jeff Bezos announced last year that Amazon was going to introduce "Prime Air," a drone delivery service, he was roundly mocked and Amazon quickly backed off the claim. But, in fact, the barriers to drone delivery are mostly regulatory, not technological. Australia has already legalized commercial drone flights, paving the way for Flirtey---the start-up profiled in the video below. 

Flirtey has teamed up with a text-book rental service (which itself challenged a dominant paradigm--that students buy  textbooks) to deliver study materials. Some features: 

  • Their service costs less than standard postage 
  • Delivery can be directed to the use's smartphone rather than a fixed address
  • Collision avoidance technology
  • A delivery system that involves hovering above the recipient and lowering the package down (as well as dropping the parcel if someone pulls on it)
In addition to giving us a glimpse of a future in which drone delivery may be just another feature of our landscape, this story demonstrates a number of features relevant to forecasting:
  • as with the internet, another once-esoteric technology that is now integral to our lives, drones were nutured by military funding and university research. Keep an eye on DARPA for glimpses of outre tech than may go mainstream.
  • these technologies are going mainstream more quickly than ever, due to an economy and a culture that encourages entrepreneurs and start-ups like Flirtey.
  • innovation depends on a regulatory environment that allows it to flourish. The US isn't scheduled to license commercial UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) until 2015, and it may take longer than that. What do we lose, economically and intellectually, by lagging behind other countries?
  • technologies like drones (or sharing economy services like Lyft or AirbNb) are disruptive in large part because the bypass existing power structures. If drone delivery takes off (sorry, couldn't resist that), what existing businesses will be undermined?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Museums in the World of Open Data

Yesterday IMLS gave a webinar explaining the methodology that went into compiling the 34,144 records in their recently released Museum Universe Database File (MUDF). 

The big news isn't so much the count, though that is important, as the fact that for the first time there is a publicly available, open source data set of US museums. 

The MUDF data has already been imported into Github--a web-based hosting service for software development projects, and launched an Open Source project to bring MUDF into the Neo4j graph database. This is the first step towards tapping the potential of this kind of public museum data. So take a minute to read (and view) a bit about graph databases and what they can do. 

A graph database contains nodes and relationships, as well as data about the properties of these elements. So it is about how data points are connected to each other in various kinds of ways--including geographical relationships and social relationships. Here is a brief video from the founder of Neo4j talking about how you can use graph databases to detect patterns, embed information in maps, and overlay social data. 

 Imported into such an environment, MUDF data becomes a step towards creating, for example, a "museum recommendation engine" that can answer queries like "what museums near me might I like to visit?"  (Ok, Emile uses restaurants as an example, but you can sub in "museum.") These queries can be pretty "intelligent"--going beyond simply finding what is nearby, and how highly they are ranked, to weighting the credibility of the people who gave that ranking. How are museums rated by your friends, or their friends? Is a given rating from someone who visits a lot of museums? Graph databases excel at supporting these kinds of sophisticated reasoning inquiries, based on knowing how things (and places and people) are related to each other--about connections.  

Of course, all of this presumes that the data in the graph database is actually about museums--a point which occupied a lot of the side bar commentary during the IMLS webinar  

Which brings us back to the fundamental question: what are we trying to count? Even if we all agree the database shouldn't include examples like an athletic hall of fame in a high school or a friends group supporting museums in Russia (examples Max van Balgooy points to in his analysis of the webinar), we are left struggling with whether to include support groups of US museums, or parent organizations, or associations devoted to historic preservation or folklore or other types of culture. As a field we have been notoriously unable to agree on a definition of "museum" that includes everything we believe ought to be counted and excludes what should not. (Since this is nominally Throwback Thursday here on the Blog, I will refer you to this post from 2009 on the museum identity crisis.)

One way to dodge the language tangle is to focus on utility--what do we want to use the database for? Or perhaps I should say, who do we expect to use the database, and what do they want to use it for? I presume that for its own purposes, IMLS wants to know the size, shape and impact of the field it supports. Here at the Alliance we want to set appropriate goals for advocacy and service. But I bet a lot of the folks accessing MUDF's data want to use it to create applications that serve people who want to actually visit a museum. Even after we all pitch in to refine the data by weeding out duplicates, museums that have closed, organizations listed more than once and things that clearly are not, in any way shape or form, museums, we also have to figure out what to add to MUDF (like "are there exhibits open to the public at this address?") in order to support things like a museum recommendation engine. 

But let's not lose sight of the big picture: now that the data is out there for anyone to play with, some pretty cool things are going to happen, with or without the direct involvement of the museum field. Hackers (in the constructive sense of the word) are going to start playing with data about us, and in the process they are going to amplify and add to the value of what we offer. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: Gaga Lift-off

Wonder what this is? #drone #fashion
Follow the link in the photo caption to find out more. You can find more glimpses of the future (and links to associated articles) on CFM's Pinterest Boards

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Future of the Museum Store

In April, I had the pleasure of giving a talk at the MuseumStore Association conference in Houston. My hosts invited me to exploring how, in the future, stores might play a more integrated role in the museum.

I loved this assignment, not least because I’ve long followed stories documenting museums’ often conflicted relationships with their retail operations. See, for example, the fuss that was kicked up over the Takashi Murakami exhibit, staged both at LA MOCA and the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibit was designed around a fully functioning Louis Vuitton store selling Murakami merchandise—which shocked a bunch of people, even though it was entirely apropos of Murakami’s identity. More recently, catch up with the debate over whether the 9-11 Memorial Museum should have a shop at all, and if so, what is it can appropriately sell. (Consensus: not cheese plates.) Even though we all know that nonprofit is a tax status, not a business strategy, we in museums often seem to act as if commercial activity is a necessary evil, something that ought to take place at a dignified remove from the core activities of the organization.

That seems odd to me, as someone both devoted to museums, and to shopping in museum stores. I think museums per se and their stores spring from the same basic human impulse. Somewhere at the heart of the hard-to-define museum identity is the nature of our relationship to objects. My personal theory is that our thoughts, emotions and memories are too big to be encompassed by our oversized mammalian brains. We use objects as receptacles for the overflow, as repositories of memories, feelings and stories.

The museum store is a natural extension of our relationship to the objects we preserve in museums: enabling people to capture and archive their memories, feelings and stories of their visit.  In the past, stores did this by selling stuff, and doubtless will continue to do so. But they may also find other ways of fulfilling this function in the future. Sure, in the future stores may sell futuristic “things” (such as Adam Harvey’s “stealth fashion”) but importantly, they may behave in different ways.

To free up our thinking about the “museum store of the future”, let’s look at four assumptions that currently undergird the current status quo. Stores:
  • choose what to stock and sell
  • deal with tangible objects
  • transfer ownership of objects to customers
  • are primarily about financial transactions
Let me present the cast that current trends could call each of these assumptions into question.  

The Rise of Personalization
What is even hipper than a name brand item? A personalized name brand item. Now you can use photos from your smart phone to customize your Adidas sneakers  or iPad covers. And photography in the museum is now ubiquitous—“No photos” is the exception rather than the rule. Technology —e.g., smart phones, Etsy, self-publishing platforms—that enables people to make and sell their own sharables could be seen as competition with traditional store products. (True confession: sometimes I generate my own postcards with the Postagram app, and send from inside a gallery during my visit, no stamp necessary.) But visitor-generated digital content is also an opportunity to invite people to put their own personal stamp on the museum brand. Perhaps in the future: in addition to choosing merchandise to stock and sell, museum stores encourage visitors design their own personalized products, using the museum’s resources. A store could offer print on demand services (for e-publications or physical books) in which visitors’ combine their own photos with museum images, and add their own text. In short, the store could create the in-house retail equivalent of the Rijksmuseum’s radical invitation, via their Rijksstudio, to “take our stuff and do anything you want with it” (including creating temporary tattoos or decorating a car). The museum store becomes a point of access to the museum's open resources. 

The Maker Movement and Accessibility of Digital Resources
3-D data from the Metropolitan Museum
On Thingiverse
Mass personalization is made possible, in part, by the increasing sophistication and plummeting costs of technologies like 3D printing that transform digital data back into physical objects. Increasingly, museums are capturing and sharing digital data (2D or 3D) about their collections, and people are becoming more sophisticated about manipulating digital content—whether it’s cropping & applying filters to an image file, manipulating up digital data to create their own 3D creations. Perhaps in the future: In addition to physical objects, museum stores will vend data. Free content is great (when it is subsidized) but maybe there is also a place for paid premium digital content—early access to newly scanned acquisitions, for example, or higher resolution images. Or the museum store may also become part maker lab, helping people choose and manipulate  data to create their own personalized objects. The store becomes a partner in co-creation.

Use rather than Ownership
One of the trends I’m following closely is the rise of the “sharing economy.”  What role can museum stores play in a future that values access over ownership? In TrendsWatch 2014, I list just a few of the many instances of “art sharing” programs run by museums. I also cite the Museum of Vancouver’s Swap-o-rama-rama as an example of a museum choosing to play a part in the entire life-stream of products by serving as a site for exchange of goods. Perhaps in the future: museum stores facilitate sharing and reuse, at a larger scale, and in new ways. Museums might create collections of historic cars or tools, for example, for loan to the public in order to cultivate a constituency interested in deeper engagement with the subject. People may value the chance to tap into museums' knowledge and expertise, and connect with fellow enthusiasts, as well as the opportunity to use stuff they don’t want to (or can’t afford to) own. The store joins the growing economy of organizations matching underutilized resources with willing users. 

New forms of currency
Data has been dubbed “the new oil”—a gushing human-generated resource that can be monetized in many ways. Clicks on a web page translate into advertising revenue. More subtly, information about individuals is transformed into personalized, highly targeted marketing. Data helps companies refine their products and services, making them more valuable. Our algorithmic
Visitor checking in via text message (and thereby
contributing data) in the DMA Friends program
ability to find meaning of the mass of data we generate fuels advances in fields as diverse as law enforcement, medicine and disaster relief.  Museums are already starting to play in the realm of big data, using analytics to build visitor engagement and loyalty,  personalize communications, and track impact. Perhaps in the future: museum store clerks will ask “will that be cash, credit, or personal data?” That’s a flippant way to frame a serious challenge: not how to configure the checkout register, but how to integrate the store into the whole ecology and economy of the museum. The stores becomes one of many 
facets of the museum responsible for interfacing with visitors, playing a role in the exchange of personal data for valued experiences, the collection of metrics on behavior and participation, the sharing of expertise and information, and deepening visitor engagement overall. 

My only disappointment in my time at the MSA meeting was that most of the attendees were (no surprise) people who manage museum stores. The challenge presented by this presentation--how to integrate the store more deeply into the museum's operations--is one that needs to be tackled by the museum as a whole, including directors, CFOs, educators, experience designers and evaluators. 

So I’m going to end by asking you some questions I lobbed at the MSA attendees, and encouraging you to share them, along with this essay, with you museum's leadership and the staff of all departments. I hope you report back on some of your collective answers in the comments section, below.

Warm-up questions:
  • Name one thing about museum stores that is true now, that you think will not be true (or will be rare) in 20 years.
  • Name one thing you see just beginning to happen in retail (museum or otherwise) that you think will be mainstream in 20 years. 
And the heavy lifting:
  • What do you think is the “core identity” of your museum's store--the essential role it plays in your operations?
  • How might that role be fundamentally different in the future?

Friday, June 6, 2014

Futurist Friday: Robotic Emoticons

I will be writing soon about CFM's experiments with robots (telepresence robots and drones) at the annual meeting in Seattle last month. Spoiler alert: some people found our robot guests charming, others were more than a bit creeped out. 

People react positively to other people, and to things that obviously exaggerate or parody human characteristics, (Like anime figures with their huge, cute eyes.) But between those two extremes lies the "Uncanny Valley"--a dip in our emotional response to things that are just slightly off. 

Some people envision robots of the future as being flawlessly human. But the "Valley" effect means that falling even a little short of that goal can result in a robot that triggers fear or revulsion. So many more roboticists are shooting for "cute and non-threatening."

Your Futurist Friday assignment: watch the short videos embedded in this post, and rank your emotional reactions to each robot. Which ones do you find generate the most positive emotions? Can you identify what features trigger your response?

Read more about ERWIN and other "emotional robots" on Activist Post.

Kismet, from MIT

Nao, from Notre Dame, is designed to assist kids with autism

Jules, from the prolific workshop of Hanson Robotics

Thursday, June 5, 2014

A Recap of Big Data

The good news about the CFM Big Data session in Seattle is that it was very well attended. Actually, that was the bad news, too, as the room was overflowing and we had to turn folks away. I suppose there are worse problems to have—I am glad people are eager to learn about this topic—but I’m sorry that not everyone who wanted to come could get in. I hope this post redresses that to some extent, as well as sharing the session content with people who didn’t attend the conference.

My fabulous panelists were:
Robert Stein, deputy director of the Dallas Museum of Art
Donna Powell, business and administrative service manager at the Port Defiance Zoo and Aquarium
Beth Tuttle, president and CEO of the Cultural Data Project
John Lucas, director of Solutions Delivery, Business Solutions, Avnet Services

Big Data because is one of the disruptive forces explored in this year’s CFM TrendsWatch report. Brief summary for those who are not familiar to the topic: The sheer volume of digital data generated and captured in our world is exploding, and as this happens the ability to selectively analyze these huge data sets will become a new source of value and competitive advantage. Museums of all sizes need to understand the implications of big data—how it can help us understand our audiences and their needs, how we can make our operations more efficient and effective, how we can create new value and sources of income by smart use of information, how to navigate the associated privacy concerns.

Big tech companies and major retailers are at the forefront of experimenting with data mining, but some cultural organizations are already in the game as well. Every “touch” point with a visitor—ticket sales, museum store, food service, even engagement with exhibit kiosks or via social media—can generate data that, when combined, creates a richer portrait of how people are using museum facilities. This in turn can affect decisions about programming, marketing, staffing, stocking and communications.

Rob shared how the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) is implementing data collection and analysis through their DMA Friends program in order to encourage repeat visitation and build long-term relationships. The Friends program invites people to enroll for free membership, presents a menu of participation options, and awards credit and recognition for visitor involvement. In the course of enrolling and participating in the program, members contribute data DMA uses to measure its performance and tailor visitor experiences. Rob discusses this topic in depth in the following papers that he co-authored with Bruce Wyman:
DMA recently received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to expand their engagement platform to the Denver Art Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Grace Museum and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. It will be interesting to see what data these museums choose to collect, and how they use it.

Where DMA developed an in-house system to track and foster visitor engagement, Donna Powell’s organization worked with Avnet and IBM to implement point of sale and control systems to help them make real-time decisions about staffing and operations. You can read more about that in this post Donna wrote for Wired:

The Cultural Data Project was started by Pew Charitable Trusts, and spun off as a separate organization in 2013. It arose from a desire to streamline the application process for foundation funding by providing a central repository for the basic information asked for in such forms, so that nonprofit cultural organizations don’t have to answer the same questions over and over again. Of course, such a consolidated database quickly becomes a powerful research tool as well. CDP now serves more than 14,000 arts and cultural organizations in 12 states and the District of Columbia and, as it expands to national coverage, it will be one of the few big repositories of data about cultural organizations per se. You can read more about this work in the report New Data Directions for the Cultural Landscape: Toward a Better-Informed, Stronger Sector and hear Beth discuss the CDP in the associated webinar

John was a particularly valuable speaker to nab for this session, as he comes out of our world (he implemented data analytics at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden as their director of operations) and now works in the data analytics field. I first learned about his work from reading about IBM’s work with History Colorado (as profiled in this case study). Not every museum is going to be able to build their own analytics system in-house. Our field needs to become intelligent consumers of services such as those provided by Avnet to take advantage of turn-key solutions as they become more sophisticated and affordable, and we need to work with people like John to educator these service providers about our needs.

Both at this session and in side conversations, museum staff puzzled over how to tackle analysis of data that can get so dauntingly big. John's advice: ”don’t try to “boil the ocean...go after the things that have the highest ROI and the things that have the greatest impact on your customer experience first."  As Rob said, "If you start too big, you will just quit and give up, because you are not smart enough yet to know what you need. So you have to treat it as a process where you and your staff get smarter over time. It almost doesn’t matter what data you’re recording in the process. If...your staff are learning, you will figure it out."

All the session recordings from the conference, including Big Data are available for purchase. Session handouts are also available for download through June 30—while this session did not have handouts, you can access the Prezi online if you want to queue it up to watch while you listen to the session recording. 

As John pointed out, while data analytics have been around a long time, museums are only just beginning to get into the game, fortunately at a time when the tools are getting easier, and less expensive, for non-technical people to use. But we need to mentor each other to speed adoption of big data analytics in our field. If your museum is using data analytics, or wants to start doing so, please weigh in to the comments section below, to make connections with your peers and build a community of practice around this rapidly evolving technological tool.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: Can You See Me Now?

Wonder what this is? #Nanotechnology #PrivacyFashion 

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

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Synesthesia: Multisensory Publication in a Multisensory World

As soon as TrendsWatch 2015 published in March, I started searching for stories that extend my exploration of this year’s themes. The “synesthesia” trend is, predictably, yielding some of the most playful, pleasurable and simply joyful examples. This week’s guest post is by Eric Espig, the museum content developer and web specialist for the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, BC, Canada. Eric tells us more about Curious, a new multisensory digital publication.

Combining of media and external stimuli to trigger multi-sensory experiences, or Synesthesia, can be cutting-edge, amazingly powerful and awe inspiring for audiences. If you doubt this, simply check out the Human Harp project (mentioned in CFM's Trendswatch 2014) that turned the Brooklyn Bridge into a musical instrument.  Even small-scale combinations of traditional text with multi-media stimulation can significantly increase the emotional impact of an article. The lauded (an often referenced) Pulitzer prize winning New York Times interactives are a prime indication that mainstream audiences have turned a corner and may soon come to expect that kind of impact from digital publications. If a digital publication references a sound or a visual it needs to include the corresponding media in order to feel complete to increasingly sophisticated audiences. If the publication’s design is elegant enough (see, for example the New York Times’ The 'Boys' in the Bunkhouse), the measure of success may be how seamlessly the reader moves from reading to listening to viewing and back to reading without even noticing the transitions. Having turned this synesthetic corner, it may now be the omission of the complementary sound/visual which will distract audiences from receiving the author’s message.
Caption: Bevin Bells the Curiosity featured in the 
Royal BC Museum journal Curious Quarterly, Spring 2014. 

Curious Quarterly is a themed, digital, museum journal packaged as a cross-platform app (android and iOs) and as a website. The Royal BC Museum developed this new format to inspire our museum curators and staff to share their work and to refresh the way we deliver extended content (i.e., content that is outside of our member magazines, exhibitions, programming, etc.) Inspired in part by the spirit and styling of the NYT, and wanting to stay away from the tired model of a museum blog, we chose to package this content as a four-issue-per-year digital publication. For our second, and most recent, issue, Spring 2014, we chose a theme we could literally riff on: Noise.

Noise is an unlikely subject for the journal, not typically addressed in our museum dialogue. This theme opened the door for text and visual content to be complemented creatively with audio. Chris O’Connor, RBCM’s Schools and Family Learning Team Lead, collaborated with me on this issue, and took the theme in interesting directions. He has been working on various “synesthetic” projects at RBCM for a few years now, including exploring noise as an art form, such as the performance piece Port Moody Choo Choo.  For Noise, Professor Jack Lohman, RBCM’s CEO, contributed an essay on Museums and Memory which discusses that subject in the context of the streets of São Paulo, Brazil. To “illustrate” this essay, Chris sourced a sonic collage of the historic São Paulo streets which we embedded in the text. In a more literal riff on the theme, we encouraged curator Dr. Lorne Hammond to write about his relationship to noise—he brought in his home-built modular-synths for us to photograph and record.

Soundcloud link to a sound-map that Chris had created for his letter from the editor that “travels the public and non-public spaces of the Royal BC Museum"

Admittedly we have not produced a piece on the par with the NYT’s famous Snowfall, but this honest approach to content creation has been a small success for our organization, one which has resonated with both the contributors and audience. The tasteful and creative use of embedded media and strong imagery has allowed our content to rise closer to a benchmark that our more technologically entitled audiences are, perhaps, expecting. Hopefully, in time we will reach new audiences by playing with how we package our digital publications, expanding our offerings and piquing your curiosity.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Monday Musing: For Profit for Good & the Challenge of Scale

Last week Forbes featured the company TechChange in an article titled "When and How to Scale: DC Startup at Crossroads." The piece caught my eye for three reasons:

TechChange is an example of the "for profit for good" companies I wrote about in this year's TrendsWatch. A for-profit online education company, it trains organizations like the World Bank, the United Nations and various NGOs how to use technology to support their work in health care, disaster relief and humanitarian aid. After TechChange uses fees from paying clients to recoup the costs of developing an online course, they make the course available free. The article contrasts TechChange's economic model to Khan Academy, a free online learning platform that is nonprofit and grant funded. Musing: as for profit companies show they can meet certain social needs without the benefit of philanthropy, will individuals and foundations direct their funding to other causes? Will donors be less willing to give to a Khan Academy if a for profit company (not TechChange, which serves a different  market) shows it can achieve the same social benefits? 

TechChange is a B Corporation-- a legal structure often referred to as "hybrid" because it combines for-profit income structure with an altruistic mission. Though legislation varies slightly from state to state, B corporation status generally requires a company to embed a "materially positive impact on society and the environment" into its activities, and makes the company responsible to shareholders for achieving this impact (along with generating financial profit). B corp status helps socially responsible companies raise money from so called "impact investors" who want to create social change through their financial investments. While there are currently only slightly over a 1000 B Corporations world-wide, it is a social and economic experiment of great interest to the nonprofit sector. Musing: will some museums experiment with B corporation status, enabling them to attract capital from investors to improve arts literacy, support research, or preserve history in addition to a modest financial return? Divorced from often dysfunctional complications of donor expectations and nonprofit governance, would a museum be better positioned to achieve financial sustainability?

The focus of the Forbes article is how TechChange is tackling the challenge of scale. Their founder wants the company to have a deeper social impact, and has to figure out "at what pace and with whose money." Should they "bootstrap" themselves up, expanding their client base and plowing the profits into growing their operations, or attract social impact investors? Musing: What can museums learn from for-profit and hybrid businesses about financing the process of scaling their operations? How can we change the scope of our ambitions regarding scale, and change our financing to match? 

Museums face a vast challenge in an age in which scale is defined by the reach of the internet. Michael Edson summarized this challenge brilliantly in Dark Mattera recent essay which launched the online publishing project Code|Words: Technology and theory in the museum. Michael has addressed this theme before--in AAM's recent report Building the Future of Education: Museums and the Learning Ecosystem, he points out that reaching a billion learners is the kind of dream museums need in order to have a major impact on US education. I've heard from many museum folk, not all of them from small museums, who are deeply disturbed by this challenge of scale. Should every museum be expected to exploit the reach of the internet? Are there appropriate smaller ambitions for impact? What about the physical, face-to-face audience? 

In the Forbes article Sonal Shah, senior fellow at the Case Foundation, points out that organizations can scale in two ways: breadth (reaching more people) and depth (increasing the quantity and quality of what they offer their audience). Both require capital--which is notoriously difficult for nonprofits, including museums, to access. To people who feel it is not appropriate for their museums to aspire to scale up and out, using the reach of the internet to serve a global audience, I would say, what about scaling deep? Either way, you start with an ambition and fund that vision, rather than asking "what can we do with the money people are willing to give us?" And finding the capital needed to achieve that vision may require something more than philanthropy, more than the traditional business model. 

So keep an eye on the news, for coverage about companies like TechChange, or ThinkImpact (profiled in TrendsWatch), and think about what our sector can learn from companies hell bent on improving the world...without the benefit of tax exempt status.