Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Museum of 20??

One great thing about having a growing circle of future-oriented peeps is that we swap and share opportunities to engage in future-think. This past spring I had to turn down an invitation to join a fabulous group of people to discuss my favorite topic, and suggested that Adam Rozan slot into the panel in my place. But (I told Adam) he owed me a detailed account of what happened! Adam in turn recruited his fellow panelists to summarize their remarks, and today on the blog I share their debrief with you.

In March, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) asked its audiences and a group of panelist to think about and discuss the future of museums. The program was entitled Extreme Museum Makeover: The Future of Museums. The panel featured Xerxes Mazda, deputy director of engagement at ROM (Mazda left ROM in April to become the director of collections at the National Museum of Scotland); Peter J. Kim, executive director of the Museum of Food and Drink in New York City; David C. Evans, chair of vertebrate paleontology at the ROM; Joseph Loh, managing museum educator at Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (Loh is now the director of public programs and engagement at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City); Nancy Proctor, deputy director for digital experience and communications at the Baltimore Museum of Art; and me, Adam Rozan, director of audience engagement at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts.

The following are the reflections of the panelists to the question raised that night: what is the future for museums?

Adam Rozan

Museums of the future will fill a void in the modern, tech-saturated, digitally filtered world. Just like today, they will stretch our imaginations and continue to provide us with the opportunity to interact with each other, to reflect on our past and to contemplate our (future) present. But they will also try to meet our evolving needs, which will likely revolve around physically connecting with others(a future rarity) and enjoying highly customized experiences. The museum of the future will be a dynamic place, able to shift its offerings instantaneously to satisfy the interests and preferences of each visitor, and his or her digital avatar.

My hope is that the role museums will take on in our communities will come full circle and they will become the center of people’s lives again, because people – stuck behind screens – will need a physical center.

They’ll function as community and civic centers, co-working spaces, hubs of activity, of eating and drinking, of socializing and learning -– all of this happening around the art and objects and history of which museums will remain trusted guardians.

Xerxes Mazda, Ph.D.

Do history museums collect in a way that will allow historians in the future to use collections to write histories of the world? The answer is obviously 'no'. I predict that in the future, as museums become more aware of the cost of caring for collections, they will increasingly collaborate with each other, and with other types of institutions including manufacturers and retailers, to build national collections. To take one tiny aspect of a collection to illustrate this point (and I recognise that this is one very small way that collections can be used to write histories). To what extent can historians today use the furniture preserved in international collections to write histories of furniture used by Canadians in 1967? The answer is obviously 'not very well'. With the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation coming up in 2017, how could we be working together now, to ensure that our joint collections can represent the world of furniture in Canada in 2017 to historians in 2117?

Joseph Loh, Ph.D.

It was a great experience to be in Toronto, to meet everyone, and to participate in the ROM panel event! Talking about vision and museums of the future is a tricky thing. Xerxes is right in stating that we learn a lot more about the present when we try to peer into the future and foresee what may come. Today, we live in a time of shifting demographics, changing social behaviors, and emerging forms of technology that connect and empower people in ways unimaginable even a few years ago. The traditional notion of the museum’s role and purpose needs to be reconsidered.

So if we’re talking about vision and the museum of the future, I think we first need to consider a museum’s identity. A place like the Metropolitan Museum is a good example. It’s one of the world’s great art museums and one of New York’s most popular tourist attractions. It has a calendar of exhibitions that rivals—maybe even surpassing— any of the other big museums anywhere in the world. In this sense, Met staff are lucky to have such strengths and to be in a position to provide our audiences with great encounters with works of art. But this isn’t as straightforward as you’d think. With 6.2 million people visiting and nearly 40 exhibitions and rotations of the collection annually, we’re always hard pressed to ensure that the visitor experience is meaningful, impactful, and enjoyable. So to guide our work, our vision has been—and will likely remain—to focus on our collection, scholarship and expertise, working to connect to audiences to inspire engagement with our activities, and ensuring that staff work in an environment which promotes excellence and efficiency.

All of this is very easy for me to write in this blog but, believe me, it’s not easy to do. Each museum needs to understand and leverage its strengths. Staff need to know what they can bring and offer to visitors. They also need to know and identify with their communities, whether it be the person who through the main doors or, increasingly, engages with the museum online from at home. So what do you all think?

David C. Evans, Ph.D.

The world is becoming increasingly complex. Scientists are making discoveries at an unparalleled rate, and globalization continues to increase cultural interconnectivity. Research-based museums, such as the Royal Ontario Museum, occupy an important niche in our dynamic and information-rich societies that will become more relevant in the future. Museums sit at the nexus between pure academics and broader communities, and museums are therefore important sources of authoritative, nuanced, and accurate information about complex contemporary issues.  In contrast to universities, museums and their content experts are more accessible to the community, and a public-facing museum can play an important role in interpreting these complex issues to a broader audience. 

At least for the big museums, the ability to thrive in this niche is dependent on employing a body of curators who are actively engaged in academic research; Curators must be on the cutting edge in their fields in order to stay relevant in discussions of contemporary scientific and cultural issues, and ensure that museums provide the most up-to-date and accurate and information to our communities.  However, the role of a curator is changing dramatically, and curators will need to be hired on the basis of both scholarly excellence and effective communication and engagement skills to maximize the relevance of museums in the future.

Research also plays an important role in what I would argue is the most fundamental function of a museum- the maintenance and growth of collections for research. Museums form a global network of collections that are vital to documenting the continuing history of the planet, the life it supports, and human culture. Collections serve as markers of where we have been, which lets us assess where we are now. These collections form the foundation of many scientific and cultural studies, and through continually providing research access to collections on a long-term basis, make these studies repeatable and allow us to build upon our collective human knowledge. Continuing to expand museum collections is therefore vital to human progress on a global scale. Curators ensure that collections are growing in strategic ways that enhance understanding of contemporary issues in science and culture, while at the same time making sure collections will be useful to future generations of scholars who want to understand how our world has evolved, and where it is going in the future.

Peter J. Kim

I see two trends for the museum of the future. First, it will have no walls. In the literal sense, it will reach beyond its brick-and-mortar home to bring its programming into its constituent communities. In the figurative sense, it will defy formal boundaries that have traditionally distinguished, say, art museums from science centers. As always, it will tell important stories, but it will do so in an increasingly cross-disciplinary fashion, using art, historical collections, interactive exhibits, and sensory immersion as storytelling tools.

Second, as information becomes more diffuse and accessible, the museum of the future will at once be more relevant than ever, and more challenged to prove its relevance than ever. Museums that merely replicate what is already available on the internet will fade away; they will be irrelevant. The museum of the future will need to take an untamed world of information and--better than any website, better than any book--bring compelling narratives to life by shaping, guiding, curating, and synthesizing that cacophony. By meeting this challenging test, the museum of the future has the potential to be stronger than it ever was before.

Nancy Proctor, Ph.D.

If it is hard to distinguish current trends from future probabilities, it is even harder to separate one's aspirations for museums in the future from valid predictions. With Modernism came a belief in progress and an insatiable consumer desire for the new and innovative. Both subject to this ideology and in defiance of it, I hope the museum of the future will exist in a new era of citizenship that goes beyond participation to recognize an expanded - rather than enlightened - sense of self and self-interest that includes collections as well as communities.

In this brave new business model people will not support the museum out of a sense that it's good for them, or for society, and much less out of a sense of noblesse oblige. Rather the museum like other civic and memory institutions is a part of their identity, and they a part of it. This model takes our current ideas of "engagement" and "accessibility" to a whole new level, and is one that sheds new light on the proliferation of museums we've seen globally and online in recent decades: they will continue become increasingly diverse and specialized, like the communities of the Internet. I hope also like these new forms of discourse, museums in the future will be deeply effective as well as intellectually rigorous and fearless.

These comments speak to the many challenges and changes that are already underway. Please share your thoughts and examples of change you’re seeing.

Thank you.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Monday Musing: Museums and “the Flag”

I’ve been following the chorus calling for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from…well, everywhere. The Alabama and South Carolina Capitols, the physical shelves of Walmart and the virtual shelves of Amazon and eBay, even games in the Apple Store. (Including games in which the flag was used in an historically accurate manner, though some of those were quickly restored.)

As a futurist, I am gripped by how this illustrates the complex, intertwined relationship between trends and disruptive events. For a hundred and fifty years following the end of the Civil War, America made glacially slow progress (and sometimes lost ground) in removing the signs and symbols of systemic, state-sponsored racism and oppression. The killing of 3,959 black people in “racial terror lynchings” did not accomplish this change. The death of four little girls in the Birmingham church bombing in 1963 did not accomplish this change. The murder of three civil rights workers in 1964 did not accomplish this change.  And then, a terrorist attack on worshipers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church—and finally the tide seems to turn. People are calling for the removal of flags, statues and monuments that symbolize the Confederacy or memorialize its dead. Why now? It’s beyond my expertise to parse all the history, politics and emotion leading to this moment, but I wonder if social media boosted the impact of this tragedy past the threshold where our outrage could fade back into complaisance. The ubiquity of social media indelibly associated Dylann Roof with the Confederate flag even after the pictures were pulled from the web and amplified the moral pressure on leaders—political, religious and business—to take action.

As a museum worker, I’m noticing how our field is invoked in this dialog:

‘"The president has said before he believes the Confederate flag belongs in a museum, and that is still his position," Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman, told reporters aboard Air Force One’ –BBC News

‘Senator Rand Paul weighed in Tuesday on the controversy surrounding the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina, saying it was “time to put it in a museum” during a radio interview.’ –New York Times

‘Longtime Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley on Sunday called for the Confederate flag, which hangs outside the South Carolina state capitol, to be removed and sent "into a museum,” calling it an "affirmation" of hatred.’ –The Washington Post

‘Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker believes it's time to change his state's flag to remove its reference to the Confederacy, he told CNN's "New Day" on Thursday. "I don't think our current flag is unifying and I think it's time to put it in a museum," said Wicker, a Republican.’ - CNN

‘“Frankly, the Confederate flag does not belong on state house grounds, it belongs in a museum,” said [Vermont Senator and Presidential candidate Bernie] Sanders.’ –Ring of Fire Radio

The best interpretation of these statements is that the speakers trust museums to make meaning of these hateful symbols, to both preserve the past and put in in perspective. I certainly think that’s what Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss) had in mind when he said in an interview on msnbc:

“We can put it [the Confederate flag] in a place where if people want to find out about it, they can do that—museums..We are doing a civil rights museum in our state right now. I would hope that flag would be part of that…museum, so people all over the world can come and see how Mississippi used to be. ”

(This article provides some thoughtful commentary on what interpreting a Confederate flag in a museum might entail.)

But I think that in most cases, this reading of the call to “put it in a museum” is too optimistic. I fear museums are being cast as the cultural equivalent of a bomb disposal container, a safe place to bury an explosive issue. The kind of warehouse that appears in the closing shot of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” where dangerous artifacts can be secured. “Put it in a museum” may be short hand for “stuff it away in the attic and forget it,” or “relegate it to the dustbin of history.”

However these statements are meant, I think museums should take the speakers at their word, step up to the plate and show what we can do—not just wrap these artifacts up in acid free paper and store them as relics of the past, but put them right back out in public view, with context about their history, symbolism, use and misuse. Museums can play an active role in making sure that, this time, we as a society don’t backslide, that this time the terrible disruption of violence finally accelerates our progress, and makes “the slow arc of the moral universe toward justice” a little less slow.

Monday musings are my way of sharing "brain blorts": brief, off-the-cuff thoughts about something I have read recently, both to help clarify my thinking an in the hopes of generating discussion and response. I give myself 15 minutes or so to jot down a summary of the article(s) stuck in my brain, and outline why I think they may be important.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Futurist Friday: The Flood Next Time

Bjarke Ingels BIG architects in Copenhagen, won a federal competition to design storm protection for New York City. In this article he speaks about how his work in geoengineering is inspired by science fiction--specifically Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy. (My husband just finished reading Red Mars, the first in the trilogy. I get it next. Yay.) Ingels notes that "Architecture and design—-at the core of it, is the art and science of turning fiction into fact."

In TrendsWatch 2015 I look at how cities and museums are envisioning resilient futures. Your Futurist Friday assignment, watch this video [4 min 17 sec] about BIG's design for protecting NYC from the next big storm, and dream up some elements that would help "future proof" your community, fictions that you may someday help turn into fact.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Meet Emma, the Docent Dog

I’m having a great time following the many and various discussions on Museum Junction—the Alliance’s conversation forum for members and non-members alike. One recent thread explored service dogs in museums—their role, the regulations that make accommodating these canines an important part of accessibility, the tricky issue of distinguishing service dogs from companion animals in a legal and appropriate manner. In the course of this back and forth, Cathy Callaway, museum educator at the Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Missouri, let drop that her museum has its own canine assistant—Emma the Docent Dog. I had never heard of a docent dog. (The closest I could think of is the Philbrook Museum of Art’s resident cats—which, other than occasional video blogging, have no official duties that I know of.) Cathy was kind enough to recruit Kathie Lucas, the Emma’s human counterpart, to explain this unusual arrangement.

Emma, the Docent Dog is a unique addition to Columbia’s art world. As the official canine tour guide and ambassador for the University of Missouri’s Museum of Art and Archaeology, Emma is a welcome sight to staff and visitors alike. After all, who can resist the warm greeting of a smiling, silvery-black standard poodle? 

Emma the dog and Kathie Lucas
Emma is my dog and she is especially trained for her role: serving museum visitors, especially children, in a therapeutic capacity. Visitors, especially children, are surprised---and delighted--- to see a dog in an art museum, and just about everyone is cheered by Emma’s good-natured, tail-wagging welcome. And although there is a hands-off rule when it comes to the art, museum visitors are free to gently stroke Emma the Docent Dog’s soft curly fur.

A docent is defined as a person who acts as a guide, or teacher. At the Museum of Art and Archaeology, docents are intensively-trained volunteers who eagerly share their knowledge of art and history with museum visitors. Sharing art with others is both a mission and a passion for museum volunteers and professional staff. But until recently, no one ever thought to include a dog on the tours. In fact, my preliminary research indicates that few, if any, art museums have docent dog programs. Emma appears to be the first docent dog in Missouri. And definitely the first in Columbia. Could she be the first in the the country---or in the world?  And if so, wouldn’t that be a first for our University!

If other art museums don’t have docent dogs, why would the Museum of Art and Archaeology be willing to give Emma a try?  The answer lies partly in the Museum’s dedication to teaching. Studies in the field of cognitive psychology, such as those on emotional memory, suggest that a novel, positive stimulus---perhaps, for example, the unexpected presence of a friendly dog on a museum tour--may well increase visitors’ emotional arousal, thereby enhancing their ability to retain the interesting information shared with them during their visit. The research possibilities are intriguing, not only for children’s learning but also for reaching out to our healing arts community.

The Museum’s director of education, Dr. Cathy Callaway comments, “I was worried that a dog in the museum would distract from the art, but I now believe that Emma will enhance the experience of any visitor and even help create a sense of calm awareness that is part of a great museum experience.”  

Indeed, prior to each Docent Dog Tour, children, especially, are encouraged to use calm energy when interacting with Emma. I teach them that calm energy is moving slowly, speaking softly, thinking about what they are doing, and feeling their bodies relax as they reach out to greet Emma. And I ask them to use their calm energy throughout their museum tour. Soothed by a calm-energy frame of mind, children seem quite open to learning about specific pieces of art as we move through the exhibit areas. And, interestingly, when their attention wanders, a short petting break with Emma allows them to refocus and continue their tour with renewed concentration.

The Museum of Art & Archaeology is a treasure trove with a collection of close to 16,000 objects of antiquity and art. In fact, it’s the third largest art museum in the state. The Museum’s mission is to preserve and understand these priceless pieces of our past and present, and share them with the public as well as with the university community. That’s why the museum is open to the public six days per week, including weekends, with evening hours on Thursday--and is always free of charge. Even the docent-led tours are free!

Not surprising, the Museum’s Docent Dog Tour with Emma emphasizes the theme of animals as our creative companions throughout the millennia. From the ancient  Mesopotamian stone wall plaque of a Griffin and Horseman, to the 1500-year-old Roman floor mosaic of Kneeling Gazelle, to the Medieval oil painting of the Holy Family fleeing into Egypt on the back of a donkey, to the contemporary wooden sculpture of an antelope by Korean-born artist, Nam Jun Paik, to the animal-themed objects in the African gallery, art in the Museum is rich in animal motifs.

So who better to bring this art alive than a living, breathing animal?  In fact, one visitor, a teacher, commented, “Having Emma with us is like having the art jump out of the frames and come alive!”  And, other visitors, especially children, agree that having a grinning, curly-haired poodle greet them at the door, and then accompany them on a tour, makes their visit extra rewarding.

Emma is well suited for her role as canine ambassador for the Museum. As a poodle, she does not shed, so furry floors are not a concern. An added benefit of non-shedding is that Emma is less likely to cause reactions in people who suffer from allergies. And she is intelligent, easily trained, and friendly with everyone.

Emma has been preparing for her role as Docent Dog for about 4 years. She is a native Missourian, bred by Denise and Dave Spotila at their kennel, Apres Argent, near Jefferson City. The Spotilas donate one puppy from each litter for service or therapy dog work, and raise their puppies with the expectation that they will play active and important roles in the lives of their owners. Emma and her brothers and sisters spent their first 8 weeks of life in a safe, stimulating environment with lots of gentle handling, proper nutrition, and veterinary care.

At 8 weeks of age, Emma joined our household here in Columbia. She learned to interact with our elderly German shepherd, Ella, two cats, Beatrice and Biggs, and our donkey named Jeeves. And, best of all, she spent many hours playing with our extended family members, including our young granddaughters, Kate and Claire. Emma’s good cheer and playfulness, tempered with gentleness and respect for us and our other animals, earned her easy acceptance into our home and hearts.

She continued her informal training for service by learning how to behave properly inside our home, in our yard and on walks in the park. Then, at about 7 months of age, she began her formal schooling in Columbia which lasted about 2 years. First came group lessons in puppy socialization and obedience at Ann Gafke’s Teacher’s Pet dog training classes. Then, Emma and I trained, one-on-one, with professional dog trainer, Judy Steiner, at the Columbia Canine Sports Center. During obedience training, Emma practiced basic commands, such as sit, down, stay, come, and leave it. She also learned to walk calmly on a leash while surrounded by other people and dogs. Later, she learned to interact with people with disabilities, including walking beside those in wheel chairs and safely accompanying people on crutches.

After her formal schooling, Emma entered the certification stage of training. She easily passed her certification for the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen award which evaluates not only proper obedience but also excellent temperament. She went on to earn certification through Therapy Dogs International. Following that certification, Emma also became certified as a therapy dog by the University’s PALSS program (Pet Assisted Love & Support for Seniors) directed by MU professor, Rebecca Johnson. Finally, Emma passed a formal veterinarian-administered obedience and temperament evaluation through Columbia’s local PALS (Pet Assisted Love & Support) therapy dog program run by students at the University of Missouri School of Veterinary Medicine. As an active PALS member, Emma now represents the Museum of Art and Archeology during MU Vet School-sponsored open houses and other educational events.

The Museum of Art and Archeology offers a rich opportunity to appreciate the creative efforts of mankind from the ancient past to the present day. Please visit us and enjoy what we have to offer. And if you are interested in scheduling a free, 45-minute Docent Dog Tour with Emma, call the Museum of Art & Archaeology at 573 882-3591. Tours require at least two weeks prior notice. Emma and I are looking forward to showing you around Columbia’s jewel of a museum!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Handy Bionics

#robotics #prosthetics #disability
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, June 23, 2015

Tapping into TransAtlantic Research on Diversity & Inequality

In a couple of weeks I’ll be in London, representing the Alliance at the “Diversity, (In)equality and Differences” workshop organized by the Trans-Atlantic Platform for Social Sciences and Humanities. Around twenty researchers and scholars from Europe and the Americas will spend two days identifying priorities for collaborative research, in order to help guide the work of European and American funding agencies. 

The focus of this workshop is the “dynamics of social and cultural diversity, inequality and differences and how communities value, respond and interact.” So, timely, especially for the US and our national museum community.  T-AP has set ambitious goals for participants, including “exploring how global changes, such as urbanization, climate change and migration, shape cultural practice, society and identities; and how we can enhance solidarity and inclusion to achieve cultural, economic and social well-being.”

Here are the three themes framed by the agenda, and the associated questions participants will be invited to address (quoted from the conference description):

- Culture and heritage. What is the role of heritage in shaping identities, enhancing solidarity and national inclusion and maintaining cultural, economic and social wellbeing? How might heritage be conserved, and what can we learn about the dynamic relationship between the past, present and future?

- Inequality. How does diversity shape the dynamics of inequality and how do societies respond to this challenge? How do we identify and test the (political) interventions which impact quickly and positively on inequality?

- Diversities. How has migration and trade impacted the transatlantic area in particular and how have ideas, cultural practices and forms of culture informed transatlantic relationships in both a contemporary and historical setting? How are languages, values, beliefs, histories and narratives translated, transformed and transmitted across boundaries?

I’ve been asked to provide, in advance, a brief essay addressing these themes, with some thoughts on where research is needed to help answer the questions they pose. Today I’m sharing my rough draft for your input, because (as I pointed out in a recent post) as a staff member of the Alliance, my job is to represent you and your organizations.

So here’s what I’ve jotted down so far. Please add your thoughts, questions and concerns using the comment section at the end of the post, and I’ll use your contributions to polish this essay up before I send it off to the T-AP organizers on Friday. Thank you!
Draft “Brief Reflections” for the pre-conference summary:

Culture and Heritage
U.S. cultural organizations face the challenge of transforming our operations to attract an increasingly diverse population—a challenge I believe we share with our Trans-Atlantic colleagues. Cultural organizations can’t play a role in “shaping identities, enhancing solidarity,” etc., unless we extend our reach beyond the primarily white, older, highly educated individuals who are core consumers of arts & culture. To meet that challenge, we need more and better research on the needs and preferences of diverse audiences. Such data would help us reexamine every aspect of our operations, including location, architecture, design, focus of collecting and research, methods of interpretation, governance and staffing.

Inequality and Diversity
(I address these two themes together, as I feel they are inextricably intertwined.) The need for research is particularly acute when it comes to uncovering and addressing the inequities that weaken the ability of cultural organizations to provide public benefit. These inequities range from physical and technological barriers to access, to biases shaping hiring, pay and advancement of staff. With regard to focus and content, cultural organizations might benefit from coordinated research and planning on the role of heritage sites in illuminating and addressing the legacy of historic Trans Atlantic economic imperialism in general, and the slave trade in particular. 

And further
Cultural organization on both sides of the Atlantic need to find new economic models to support our work. In the US, these financial challenges, if not addressed, will only exacerbate the inequities that cripple the existing system. Increasing disparities in wealth combined with reductions in government support have resulted in many US nonprofits relying more and more heavily on a relatively small pool of wealthy donors. This, in turn, threatens to further distance cultural organizations from the concerns of disadvantaged and disenfranchised audiences, and may in the long run damage the trust vested in them by the public. Can emerging areas of practice such as crowdfunding, social entrepreneurship, and social benefit corporations be used to balance power inequities arising from funding? Is there a need for stronger social, ethical or legal barriers firewalling the programmatic work of cultural organizations from the political or socioeconomic interests of specific funders?

Status of research capacity in my area of expertise
Strategic foresight relies on trends analysis and scenario development to explore potential futures. There is little or no coordinated international foresight work in the cultural sector. I believe the global cultural community would benefit from ongoing partnerships between organizations that engage in futures work that is primarily national or region-specific (e.g., The American Alliance of Museums Center for the Future, the Museum Association’s Museums 2020), and hope that we may begin to forge such connections at this workshop.

image from British Archaeology

Friday, June 19, 2015

Futurist Friday: De-extinction. Conservation's Fallback Plan?

"The past is never dead. It's not even past."
                                           --William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun

If some scientists and visionaries have their way, Faulkner's pronouncement may hold true for species as well . The Long Now Foundation's Revive and Restore initiative is just one of several projects trying to use genetic material retrieved from museum specimens to recreate  vanished species. 

These efforts are problematic for a number of reasons, among them:

  • As researchers freely admit, they are not really "cloning" or recreating a species, so much as trying to create a reasonable genetic approximation. 
  • Clarifying the goal. Is the intent to create one-off individuals, and if so, why? To satisfy curiosity? Provide a supply of high-end, high[-status pets?
  • If the goal is to produce viable populations, where will they live? As I heard one skeptic remark, if we restore the vast flocks of Passenger Pigeons that once blanketed the skies of America, we will have to cope with the poop they deposited--which contributed inches-thick layers of fertilizer to ancient forests. In modern cities? Maybe not so helpful.
  • Species don't exist independent of ecosystems. If we want to restore self-sustaining populations, are we committed to reviving the key species on which they fed, and their predators?
I am particularly intrigued by these efforts not because of the prospect of Mammoths or Passenger Pigeons roaming the world again (cool as that thought may be), but because of what they mean for the work of museums--particularly zoos and botanical gardens. 

As we fight a rearguard action against the current soaring rate of extinction, our field is creating genetic repositories for plants and animals, reasoning that even if the last representative of a species or variety disappears, we may be able to revive it in the future.

In the context of concerted efforts to restore whole ecosystems (such as the forests of Hawaii), reintroduction of recently extirpated species may make sense. 

But given the vast shifts in habitat caused by development and climate change, how long before these newly extinct species have, like the Mammoth, no real home to return to?

Your Futurist Friday assignment: watch the video, above [1.34 minutes] and consider: 
If we perfect the technologies needed to revive extinct species (or create close approximations), how should those technologies be applied, and to what end? 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

On the hard work of building the future

Currently I’m watching the birth of two movements in our field. #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson and #MuseumWorkersSpeak are both grappling with issues of what museums can do, should do, and should be expected to do in response to issues of equity and social justice. However, as a representative of the Alliance, I feel stymied when threads of these vital conversations lead (or end) with the question/suggestion/demand “why doesn’t AAM make this a standard?,” or "why isn't this a requirement of Accreditation?"

Statements like that imply that AAM staff decide what the standards are. That’s not how it works, and it isn’t how it should work. As Vu Le recently wrote on his blog Nonprofit with Balls, “If your nonprofit serves a constituency that you are not a part of, remember at all times that they [the people you serve] are the experts, and you are their staff.” 

To shed light on how our field does come to agreement on the standards they strive to adhere to, I want to share the stories of two other movements exploring potential future standards-- collections planning and sustainability.

Tuesday’s guest post was by a trio of visionaries working to reshape the way museums approach collecting. Through Active Collections, Trevor Jones, Rainey Tisdale and Elle Wood are agitating for museums to move from “lazy artifacts” to “active assets.” Their manifesto declares “We believe collections must either advance the mission or they must go.” And they don’t just mean “theoretically related to the mission,” they mean “providing public value.”

I am thrilled to see them tackle this cause. As I mentioned in my preamble to their post, I spent a good deal of time advancing this cause almost a decade ago. Back then, at the behest of the Accreditation Commission, I led an Alliance staff team that worked with the Smithsonian to organize a national colloquium on the subject of collections planning. We took the results of that meeting on the road for further input and commentary, and in 2004 published a book representing the collective thoughts of the field. As part of this extended exploration, the Accreditation Commission gave museums a heads up that someday, eventually, the Accreditation Program might require museums to present a collections plan as one of their core documents.

That hasn’t happened yet.

Not because the need has gone away—the Commission still sees many museums struggling to manage collections that seem by any reasonable measure to be tangential to their mission, or exceed their resources. But we still have three barriers to overcome before a collections plan becomes a core document, something all good museums are expected to have. These missing elements are:

  • Broad consensus from the field that a collections plan is vital to museum success
  • Sufficient resources, training and models to help museums write such plans
  • A critical mass of museums that actually meet this expectation. (I think we would see a revolt from the field if the Accreditation Program introduced a requirement that ninety percent of accredited museums immediately flunked.)
Another potential future standard concerns sustainability. The Alliance’s Green Professional Network has been advancing this cause for several years. In 2013 PIC Green held a summit on environmental sustainability standards for museums at the AAM annual meeting. That gathering began the process of assessing the field’s “experience with, response to and appetite for sustainability metrics.” The summit resulted in a call to action titled Museums, Environmental Sustainability and Our Future. That paper notes that, when it comes to environmental sustainability, museums may choose to recognize the value of shared standards, leave each museum to decide among many separate standards, write some standards specific to museums or create a whole new (LEED-like) system of their own.

Both these efforts to explore future standards are playing out in the self-regulated environment of our field. Museums (collectively) have developed discipline-specific as well as field-wide standards. But adherence to these standards isn’t mandated or fostered by any government entity. When it comes to museum practice, our field self-regulates, having created a wide variety of systems that support any individual museum in committing to the standards (e.g., AAM's Pledge of Excellence), measuring progress (e.g., AALSH's stEPs program, or AAM's Museum Assessment Program), or obtaining certification such as AZA or AAM Accreditation. Only about 5% of museums are currently accredited by the Alliance, and adherence to the standards by non-accredited museums is enforced only by peer pressure and public expectation.

So what part does the Alliance play in the process of creating and enforcing standards? The Alliance is your professional association—it represents you, advocates for you, provides services for you. Our role is to provide forums in which you, the people who actually work in and around museums, can raise important issues, and seek consensus on “what every good museum should do.” These forums can be as small as the eight-member Accreditation Commission, or the forty or so people who serve on the National Program Committee (the assembly of peers who select the session proposals that will appear on the program of the annual meeting). It can be as large as the thousands of attendees who gather at the annual meeting to share and debate the ideas presented in the formal sessions and the informal or self-organized gatherings that are nurtured by the conference.

Some of these forums are open and self-selected, like the Professional Networks, or elected, like the leadership of those networks. They may be nominated at large and vetted by a smaller group of peers—like the nominating committee of the Board. All members of the Alliance have the chance to play a role, direct or indirect, in the selection of our volunteer leadership, in addition to the influence they wield by their own participation in networks and committees. (Speaking of which, nominations are now open for members of the Accreditation Commission.)

The stories I relate above, exploring how museums are exploring collections planning and sustainability, illustrate the fact that finding consensus about what is right, or necessary or ethical is a long and arduous process. Frankly I think that’s a good thing, because the process is as important as the outcome. Done thoughtfully and inclusively, field-wide deliberation results in deep understanding and commitment, which is a far more meaningful result than would be achieved by blind adherence to a rule imposed from above. (Even if AAM could so impose. You, reader, might be among the first to thumb your nose if we tried.)

Fact is, building the future takes a lot of hard work, and there aren’t any shortcuts. But our job, as your association, is to support you on every step of that long journey.

Yours from the future,


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Wordless Wednesday: Resilience

#RisingTide #ResilientDesign #Miami2010 #CoralGablesMuseum
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, June 16, 2015

Toward Lean Collections with Greater Impact

In around 2000, the Accreditation Commission took a long, hard look at their tabling decisions—this is when they pause their review to give a museum time to take corrective action. They were troubled to find that over a quarter of these tablings related to collections stewardship. It was clear to the Commissioners that many museums were struggling to manage collections that didn’t fit their missions, exceeded their resources or both. 

With the Commission’s encouragement, in 2002 I worked with Jim Gardner (then Director of Curatorial Affairs at the National Museum of American History), to organize the National Collections Planning Colloquium, bringing together 80 staff members from 36 institutions of all types and sizes to explore how museums could be more intentional and selective in their acquisitions. The resulting AAM Guide to Collections Planning (2004) outlined the emerging consensus in the field about how the field can more thoughtfully assess what, and when, to accept something into the public trust.

More than a decade later, we as a field have made only tiny, incremental progress implementing the recommendations of the Colloquium participants. So I am delighted to learn of Active Collections—a group dedicated to generating “discussion and action across the history museum field to develop a new approach to collections, one that is more effective and sustainable.” In today’s guest post Trevor Jones, Rainey Tisdale and Elee Wood share their motivations for starting this movement, and how you can become involved. (You can find more information about Trevor, Rainey and Elee, including their contact info, at the end of the post.)

In 2004 the Heritage Health Index determined there were 13.5 million historical artifacts held by museums in the United States. 13.5 million. That doesn’t include 4.7 million works of art, 153 million photographs, and 270 million books and scrapbooks – many of all of them also housed in history museums. That’s a whole lot of stuff.
Forget these numbers entirely. However impressive, they obscure the real issues.

We instead invite you to think about what history museums are doing with all this stuff and why anyone should care.  Museums too often equate size with quality. In our fundraising pitches we say if we can just get some more money we will be able to complete our cataloging backlogs, build adequate storage space, and finally catch up on these impressive numbers.

The problem with this message is it reinforces the idea that museums exist mainly to preserve as many things as possible – we are the community’s attic, the nation’s attic. As Americans face unprecedented levels of consumerism, their own attics (and garages and storage lockers) are bulging. The reality is that we will never catch up. Is it responsible or sustainable to continue with our current collections stewardship model?

We believe museums need to stop touting the size of museum collections and start talking about leaner collections with greater impact. History museum collections seem particularly prone to this problem so that’s our current priority.

We believe we need to stop treating artifacts the same – too many museums pretend that all their collections are equally valuable and they budget the same amount for care across the board instead of focusing their resources on the pieces that best support their mission.
Multiple studies have assessed the problem of collections preservation, and each has proposed providing museums more money to process and preserve artifacts. But there’s little point in preserving collections if they don’t actively support the mission.

Any artifact that doesn’t support your mission is a “lazy artifact.” They cost the same amount to care for and store, but they sit on the shelves for decades, never getting used for exhibitions, programming, or research. Most history museums possess thousands of underutilized artifacts. Instead of being active assets, these lazy artifacts drain vital resources and deflect attention from the powerful, compelling objects that do provide public value.

Some objects support the mission better than others and this decision shouldn’t be based on monetary value or rarity, but based on the stories they can tell and the ideas they illuminate. The ones that provide the most public value should get the largest share of our time and resources.

We want to generate discussion and action across the history museum field to develop a new approach to collections, one that is more effective and sustainable. As a first step, we drafted a manifesto.

We know this isn’t a new problem and that it’s been addressed before.  The AAM Guide to Collections Planning (2004) discusses the importance of making collections relevant to the mission, and Jim Vaughn’s Rethinking the Rembrandt Rule (2008) addressed the “tyranny of collections” and its impact on museums. In addition, many posts on the CFM site have addressed museums’ bias for preservation over access and asked what exactly are we saving this stuff for? (For a start see Please Touch the Objects: The Future of Museum Accessibility from 2009, and Navigating Preservation Futures from 2011).

However, we believe that the field has now reached a tipping point. As we’ve spent the last few years talking to professionals across the country, we’ve noticed an increased willingness to rethink the purpose of collections and tie them more closely with museum mission. As a field we’re starting to realize that we cannot continue to collect and use artifacts the way we have in the past and we need to find more ways that collections can help us reach our organization’s goals. What we lack is a path forward – and that’s what Active Collections is working on charting.

As people who care deeply about the power of objects, we want a better future for museum collections. We’re calling on you to help us move from problem to solution. Have you wrestled with these issues? Have you found solutions that others should know about? We’re interested in your case studies and thought pieces to help us make progress on this very important topic. Send your ideas to activecollectionsproject (at) gmail.com

You can also help us by participating in a short survey from the Active Collections project about deaccessioning practices before June 30th. We’re trying to understand the barriers to deaccessioning in order to find ways to make this process less challenging and time-consuming. Your information will support the development of new strategies and approaches. 

The survey will only take about 10 minutes and you can find the link here: http://bit.ly/1OoiHZW.  Please feel free to share the link with your co-workers and colleagues.

Trevor Jones is Director of Museum Collections & Exhibitions, Kentucky Historical Society.

Elee Wood, PhD, is Director, Museum Studies Program, IUPUI School of Liberal Arts, Associate Professor of Museum Studies and Education, Public Scholar of Museums, Families, and Learning @Epiplectic  @MSTD_IUPUI

Rainey Tisdale is an independent curator, raineytisdale.com, @raineytisdale (Twitter), Author of Creativity in Museum Practice by Linda Norris and Rainey Tisdale

Monday, June 15, 2015

Monday Musing: On Failure

I was a dinner a couple months ago, when people started dissing buzzwords. One that came in for a hit was “failure.” “I hate it when people start touting the importance of failure” one diner declared (I'm paraphrasing here). The general sentiment of the table seemed to be disdain for the current management fad for “failing forward.” I, on the other hand, had one of those deep “I want offer a clever rebuttal but right now it’s 10 pm and the words just aren’t coming to me” moments.

It particularly bothered me because someone pointed to science as a counterargument to the prevailing narrative that “we are too afraid of failure.” “Science is premised on failure,” he said. “The experimental method is working fine.” Well no, it’s not. We are increasingly aware of the cumulative damage done by the fact that “failed” experiments don’t make it intopeer reviewed publications—negative results, though supremely important especially in the aggregate, aren’t sexy enough for publication. And the pressure to “succeed” (prove a hypothesis) is so high that there has been a recent swell in the number of fraudulent papers exposed and retracted. If the scientific community genuinely celebrated “failure,” we would have a more robust literature supporting analysis of what truly works and does not work in a given field. And people would, perhaps, feel less pressure to diddle their results.

A recent article brought that conversation back to me, and helped me articulate my feelings about that dinner conversation. The story was Game Changer: 4 Reasons Digital Learning Thwarts Feelings of Failure, in which Ossa Fisher grapples with talking about failure with her 6-year-old daughter. She points out that that failure has gone from being an outcome to being an identity, engendering fear of embarrassment and ridicule by peers, and therefore something students try very hard to avoid.

But assiduously avoiding failure means avoiding risk, which stifles originality and creativity. Fisher examines, and rejects, one approach to minimizing that fear for students—grade inflation (I was stunned to learn that the median grade for undergrads at Harvard nowadays is an A-. Clearly I attended college in the wrong era.) She asks instead, “how to do we keep failure as a consequence, emphasizing the importance of accountability, but reduce the fear? How do we make sure consequences are constructive and not identity-changing?”

And she points to gaming as a good model for fostering a tolerance for failure. Any gamer knows that failing (even “dying”) in a game is just an incentive to try again. Analyzing the aspects of gaming that support constructive failure, Fischer identifies (paraphrasing again):
  • Frequent feedback
  • Privacy
  •  Respect (what she calls “fail without ridicule”)
  •  Opportunities to try again. As she points out, “in a game, failure is never final. In fact, it almost always ends with "Play again?" and gives players the clear opportunity for another chance.”
She goes on to talk about how she applies these principles to the ed tech programs they create for K-12 students. 

I encourage you to read the article and think about how to take a similar approach to fostering productive failure (and creativity, and experimentation) in the workplace, and (for your visitors) in the museum.

Image from 360.mmgn.com
Monday musings are my way of sharing "brain blorts": brief, off-the-cuff thoughts about something I have read recently, both to help clarify my thinking an in the hopes of generating discussion and response. I give myself 15 minutes or so to jot down a summary of the article(s) stuck in my brain, and outline why I think they may be important.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Futurist Friday: My Mind to Your Mind

While we are not ready for the Vulcan Mind Meld (yet), researchers are already making great leaps in brain-to-computer interfaces. Now scientists are beginning to play with brain-to-brain communications. Recent experiments include:
  • fitting a human with an EEG cap that sends signals to a rat's brain, stimulating it to move its tail (Harvard University)
  • a video game that can only be played by two neurologically linked players--one who can see the game screen and, by thinking really hard, "tells" the other, holding the game controller, to push a button (University of Washington)
And in the future? Perhaps technology that enables people without speech to transmit thoughts and feelings directly to the minds of other people. Or, brain-to-brain training from someone who has already mastered a skill. 

Your Futurist Friday assignment: watch this video [5 min 11 sec] to find out more about the technology behind this evolving technology, and think about some of the questions posed by the narrator (Jonathon Strickland): How would you use brain-to-brain communication? What would art look like in a future in which we communicate directly with our brains?

If you enjoyed this video is from fwthinking, I recommend their website (where you can find more videos) and blog, You can also follow them on Twitter @fwthinking