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.