Friday, July 31, 2015

Futurist Friday: 10 Bite-sized Stories of the Future

Popular Science has released their annual collection of  "Dispatches from the Future," a collection of microscenarios solicited from sci-fi writers. At a few hundred words each, these provide  a nice short pop of futurist fiction. For this week's FF assignment, I'm suggesting you read them with a critic's eye. Sure, notice the futures the authors envision, but  I'm more interested in your reaction to their writing. Which of these essays are the most compelling, and why? Which imply the world in which they exist, and which hit you over the head with the details? What do they teach you about effective writing?

The stories encompass: 

Transportation--Ian Tregillis presents a steampunkish vision of biomimetic airships buoyed aloft by...nothing. Karle Schroeder points out our impatience will always exceed the speed of the newest technology. 

Aging--both Ann Leckie and Scott Lynch take a chilling look the downside of extreme longevity. (I think Lynch's essay is particularly compelling and well-written. If you only read one of these essays, scroll down to his.)

Entertainment: Melinda Snodgrass riffs on the historic impact of sci-fi, while John Scalzi points out that when it comes to the foibles of tech and tech support, plus ca change...

Food: Elizabeth Bear takes a sly dig at the paleo diet and the high prices at WF ("Wild Food," in her story) and Mary Robinette Kowal dramatizes the value of fresh veggies on a space station. 

War: Seanan McGuire envisions a neurotoxic War of the Roses; Daniel Abraham speculates that the high stakes of interplanetary conflict might tone down the violence. 

It took me a 1/2 hour to read the whole collection, and that included breaks to write the summaries above, so this is maybe a 15-20 break for you. Enjoy!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

A Bodacious Commitment to Diversity

Yesterday the Mellon Foundation released a report based on the first comprehensive survey of the demographics of art museum staff. For the most part, it documents what we already knew: “professional” staff in museums (e.g., directors, curators, registrars) are much less diverse than the US population as a whole. But it also surfaces some troubling issues that were less obvious (e.g., the younger cohort off staff is not budging the needle on diversity when it comes to curatorial, education or conservation positions). Most significantly, this report gives us a baseline against which to document our progress in coming decades.

Or lack thereof. The absence of a “youth bulge” (as the report puts it) of staff from historically underrepresented minorities shows time will not magically bring museum staff into alignment with demographics of the US as a whole.

In her introduction, Mariët Westermann, Vice President of the Mellon Foundation summarizes the conclusions of the study, many of which, she observes “are perhaps best addressed on the local level, as local and regional demographics tend to differ considerable across the continent.” Given that I work for museums en mass, I’m thinking about what our field needs to do collectively to change sector-wide assumptions and conventions that are barriers to diversifying staff.

And while many appropriate actions are local or regional, to make real progress on this front we, as a sector, have to identify and examine deeply embedded assumptions about what we do, who is qualified to do it, and what constitutes appropriate training and experience to start doing it.

For example, the report observes that “the nation will need more programs that encourage students of color to pursue graduate education in preparation for museum positions,” citing the AAMD/UNCF diversity initiative and the undergraduate curatorial fellowship program supported by the Mellon Foundation as examples of good work. These are excellent programs, but I’m not convinced we can make real or rapid progress by trying to route more minority students into traditional degree programs.

So go read the report. And while you do, think about the following points:

·        The barriers to graduate degrees are not just economic: they are deeply social and cultural as well. From helping diverse students to see graduate degrees as possible or desirable to begin with, to rarity of a cohort of supportive(diverse) peers, to bias on the part of major professors and thesis committees, the current system of higher ed can seem like an endless system of obstructions. Besides,
·        Once a degree is in hand, women and minorities often face bias (conscious or unconscious) in hiring, and once hired, in compensation and promotion (which will affect retention).
·        As long as museums require traditional graduate degrees for certain position (whether an MA in museum studies or a PhD in art history) we are hostage to the graduate pipeline, over which museums have little if any influence.
·        The work of museums, and role of even the most traditional staff, are rapidly evolving. Will a curator of 2030 need the same academic training as the curator of 1980?

For all these reasons, I’m most interested in the approach Mariët hints at when she observes that developing “diverse educational pipelines into curatorial, conservation, and other art museum careers are going to be critical if art museums wish to have truly diverse staff and inclusive cultures.”  

We need to take a long hard look at the ways the role of our professional staff are evolving, the skills and knowledge they will need to fill those rolls, and consider a broad and creative range of ways to help prospective staff gain those credentials before, or after, we hire them. We need to support for on-the-job training and to create a robust national system of alternative education related to museum work. We need to subject our hiring practices, from how we write position descriptions and job ads, to how we assess and rank applicants, to excruciating examination of how traditional practices stack the deck.

And perhaps most importantly, we have to not let ourselves off the hook if what ever we try first, or second, or third doesn’t work. As Dr. Johnnetta Cole said in her keynote at the AAM annual meeting this spring,

“…all of our museums must boldly, indeed bodaciously commit to rethinking about what takes place in our museums, to whom our museums belong, and who the colleagues are who have the privilege of telling important stories through the power of science, history, culture, and art. The responsibility for bringing far greater diversity into each and every one of our museums is in your hands, and in mine.”

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Wordless Wednesday: Climb Every Mountain

#Mountain #Museum #ZahaHadid #Italy

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, July 28, 2015

So this museum geek walks into an academic research meeting...

Earlier this month I was in London, participating in the Diversity, (In)equality and Differences workshop organized by the Trans-Atlantic Platform for Social Sciences and Humanities. As I shared in an earlier post, I was one of about twenty researchers, scholars, and funders from Europe and the Americas who spent two days identifying priorities for collaborative research. I don’t want to pre-empt my hosts (who still have a ton of work to do compiling and disseminating our feedback) by blogging the substance of our discussions, but I do want to share some self-discoveries I made during the workshop.

First: I was embarrassed to find I harbored a double standard when it comes to scientific research versus research in the social sciences and humanities. I believe in the fundamental importance of basic research in the sciences. Studying ant behavior? Fascinating. Documenting the myriad permutations of trilobites? Great stuff. It drives me nuts when politicians or policy makers mock work like this and tag it as wasteful spending. (Nigel wrote that song on Applied research is great, but it builds on a vast pyramidal base of work that expands our understanding of how the world works. And I think that understanding the natural world is a valid end in and of itself.

Dr. Nigel Hughes performing “Lament for the Passing of the Trilobites.” No grant monies were used in the production of this video.

So I was surprised to find myself mentally devaluing basic research in the fields represented at the workshop. Maybe it’s because the acute problems identified by participants—violence against marginalized people, the death of political refugees and the surge in climate refugees, modern slavery and human trafficking—are so important I want to see research that helps craft solutions NOW. But one issue participants raised repeatedly in our time together was the need for funders to support “slow science”—long term, large scale studies that help us understand patterns and causality. They longed for the social science equivalent of the Framingham Heart Study, which has followed the health and lifestyle of over 5000 participants since 1948. Or the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire, which has supported continuous ecological monitoring since 1955. This kind of research has no immediate application, but in the long term may be the only way to tease out how to create sustainable systems and address inequalities in health, education and employment.

Second, I caught myself thinking about inequality as something that could be measured in purely economic terms—perhaps because of the immense attention being given here in the U.S. to wealth inequity. So I was surprised and heartened to hear participants wrestling with how to measure equality in terms of people’s capacity to conceive of, pursue and achieve well-being. What do people need to have, do or be in order to live well? There are groups and individuals tackling this challenge—for example the Gross National Happiness Index of Bhutan, the Life Satisfaction Approach to valuing the environment, or the OECD Guidelines on Measuring Subjective Well-being, but we are far from having metrics that are universally valued and applied. While I worry that measures such as these may be misused to let governments off the hook when it comes to economic fairness, I whole heartedly approve of approaches that look at something more fundamentally important than wealth per se. (Also, I suspect that museums and other cultural organizations contribute more, and more meaningfully, to well-being than to economic parity.

Trailer for HAPPY, a feature documentary that ranges from the swamps of Louisiana to the slums of Calcutta in search of what makes people happy.

I admit to feeling a bit out of place in an academic research gathering, but the workshop gave me a renewed appreciation for the role museums play in bridging the gap between research and action—communicating research findings to the public and to policy makers, and driving the debate on how to turn knowledge into wisdom, and ensure wisdom informs our actions.  Maybe all gatherings of funders and researchers should have a museum practitioner or two in the room, to offer this practical perspective on the ultimate payoff for basic research.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Monday Musing: Thinking the Unthinkable

 The other week I included a sobering story from the New Yorker in Dispatches from the Future of Museums*.  The Really Big One, by Kathryn Shulz, looks at the Cascadia fault line that runs for 700 miles down the coast of the Pacific Northwest, From Cape Mendocino California up to Vancouver.

At some point geologic slippage in this fault zone will result in an earthquake somewhere
Image from National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center
between magnitude 8.0 and 9.2 on the Richter scale. For reference: the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and resulting Tsunami killed more than eighteen thousand people and triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. It did somewhere around two hundred and twenty billion in damage, including impact to least 353 cultural landmarks, and destroyed a number of museums.

In forecasting terminology, Earthquakes are “disruptive events,” in this case, events for which we know more or less what will happen, but can’t pinpoint when. As Shulz reports, scientists estimate the chance of a Cascadian earthquake in the vicinity of 8.0 in the next 50 years at roughly one in three, and of a “very big one” in the 9.2 range as one in ten.

Those are pretty bad odds, if you ask me, particularly for museums dedicated to preserving their collections for future generations.

What will the country (and museums) be dealing with when this quake occurs? Quoting Shulz,

“In the Pacific Northwest, the area of impact will cover some hundred and forty thousand square miles, including Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, Salem (the capital city of Oregon), Olympia (the capital of Washington), and some seven million people. When the next full-margin rupture happens, that region will suffer the worst natural disaster in the history of North America. Roughly three thousand people died in San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake. Almost two thousand died in Hurricane Katrina. Almost three hundred died in Hurricane Sandy. FEMA projects that nearly thirteen thousand people will die in the Cascadia earthquake and tsunami. Another twenty-seven thousand will be injured, and the agency expects that it will need to provide shelter for a million displaced people, and food and water for another two and a half million.”

Or putting it more succinctly, the director of the FEMA division responsible for this region said “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”

In the face of these projections, what are we to do? As individuals, family members, community members—and museum professionals—what real choices do we make (other than ignoring the forecast)?

The barriers—psychological, cultural, logistic and economic—to doing anything are huge, but I would argue that to fulfill their public trust, museums in the Northwest have to prepare for “the very big one.” Hard choices might include:
·        Identifying artifacts and specimens of such overwhelming importance that they ought to be reposited in other museums
·        Jointly or individually creating inland storage facilities for collections of high value (monetary, historic, artistic, cultural or scientific)
·        Relocating to the most stable location in their existing community, into buildings with state-of-the art earthquake resilience

We all face a range of risk every day—from bicycling to work to living in tornado corridor. But sometimes these risk rise to a level that demands a different kind of attention. In addition to raising awareness of the need for museums to grapple with extreme risk (whether in the Northwest Coast or elsewhere in the country or the world), I’m writing this post in the hope that you will tell me how you face these hard choices—personally or professionally.  Please do share how you, or your museum, is grappling with the prospect of “the very big one.”

*Dispatches from the Future of Museums is CFM’s free weekly e-newsletter. You can access past issues and subscribe here.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Futurist Friday: Rise of the (Cute, Self-aware) Robots

Have you seen Ex Machina yet? I watched it on a flight back from London. Its depiction of artificial intelligence is way, way ahead of the actual state of the field, but this week we saw a hint, just a tiny bit of evidence, that we may be on the path to creating robots that can shape their own destinies.

Meet Nao, a robot as cute an unthreatening as Ex Machina's Ava is seductive and...oh, sorry, no plot spoilers. 

Nao is in the news because it just became the first robot to pass a test of self-awareness. (Not as rigorous as the Turing Test administered to Ava, but an early pre-requisite.)

This video shows what happened when Professor Selmer Bringsjord of New York's Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute asked three Naos which one of them had not received a "dumbing pill" (actually a push of a button) that would render them mute. Watch what happens:

So, first steps on a long road. In the past century we have progressively extended the concept of personhood, and "human" rights to an ever wider circle. In the US women were granted voting rights in 1920. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation and banned discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion,  gender or national origin. The Supreme Court of the United States just ruled that gays have the right to marry. Globally, we are beginning to recognize the rights of non-humans as well: In January a court in Argentina granted an Orangutan named Sandra the right to "life, liberty and freedom from harm." In 2012, New Zealand granted a river "rights of personhood"  and appointed legal (human) custodians to represent its interests. 

So, my futurist Friday question for you: can you imagine granting personhood, and legal rights, to robots? And if so, what would a robot need to demonstrate (such as self-awareness) to demonstrate it deserved those rights? 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Notes from the Team: An Introduction, or Why Predict the Future, Anyway?

 I am so pleased to introduce a new member of the CFM team—Nicole Ivy will be working with me for the next two years, supported by a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies. I invited Nicole to introduce herself today—you will be learning more about her, and her work, via the blog in coming months.

“So why try to predict the future at all if it’s so difficult, so nearly impossible? Because making predictions is one way to give warning when we see ourselves drifting in dangerous directions. Because prediction is a useful way of pointing out safer, wiser courses…Best to think about it, though. Best to try to shape it into something good.”
—Octavia E. Butler, “A Few Rules For Predicting the Future”

I am a museum professional. And a skeptical historian. And I am here to help envision the future. At least, this is what I tell my mother. As the newest member of the Center for the Future of Museums team, my job is to research and develop programs that will expand the reach of ground-breaking technologies and ideas throughout the museum community. This work includes identifying trends shaping the museum sector, and also understanding the challenges and implications of these trends—both within and outside of the field. Over the next two years, in my position as a Museum Futurist and an American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Public Fellow with the Center for the Future of Museums, I look forward to collaborating with museums as well as with makers, educators, researchers, designers and other individuals (that means you, dear reader) to continue CFM’s work at the leading edge of museum innovation.

In addition to helping incubate projects that shape changes in museum practice, I will also be thinking through important issues raised by emerging conversations around the future of museums. One of my first research projects for CFM will focus on the history of labor organizing in the nonprofit sector. When I arrived, Elizabeth briefed me on recent debates in the field about pay equity and labor conditions, and noted that unionization had been floated as one possible route forward. I look forward to helping lay the groundwork for a serious examination of these issues through the lens of history. By grappling with the histories that inform current debates about fair pay and the unionization of museum workers, we might better envision paths to more equitable stewardship within the field.  

My becoming a futurist with a track record as an historian is not as improbable it might, at first, seem. I come to CFM through my work as an academic, a curatorial fellow, and a public historian. My Ph.D. is a joint degree in African American Studies and American Studies from Yale University. I have taught students of medical history, visual culture, Black Studies and women’s studies at Cornell University, Yale, and, most recently, Indiana University. As an IMLS Fellow in Museum Practice at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, I gained experience in curating, exhibition development, and museum education. I also have eight years’ experience in secondary education, having worked with academic enrichment programs in New Haven Public Schools in Connecticut. My scholarly research centers on the race, gender, technology, and the politics of memorialization. I look forward to attending the University of Houston’s certificate course in strategic foresight to add formal futurist training to my credentials.

I was attracted to the ACLS fellowship position precisely because of these diverse interests: I’m nosily drawn to the future of cultural institutions even as I’m passionate about the pasts that we present-day travelers have inherited. I’m especially inspired by CFM’s commitment to supporting new developments in education and its efforts to promote fruitful partnerships between educators, students, and museums. During my tenure here, I look forward to expanding the practical application of trends in museum innovation into educational leadership. I am honored to solicit your collaboration and feedback as I begin!

Nicole Ivy is a futurist, historian, and lover of slow reading. You can talk back to her on twitter at @nicotron3000.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Futurist Friday: Seeing the Bigger Picture

You can follow FiveBooks (& their cute
manatee mascot) on Twitter
Today, for your weekly fix of futurism, I recommend you bop over to the Five Books site to read this wonderful interview with Andrew Curry, director of The Futures Company. Andrew provides a great capsule history of applied futurism and its various strands. A couple of my of my favorite quotes:

"the only point in futures is to change what you do - there's no point in constructing perfect views of emerging landscapes and then doing nothing."

"A lot of futures work is really just getting people to see a bigger picture of the system that they're in, because when things do change quickly or change at all, they change because something outside their immediate system changes, and that creates disruption inside the organisation and its assumptions about itself."

The interview is worth reading in and of itself, but if you have more time, go on to tackle one or more of Andrew's five book picks, the first of which is The Living Company, by Arie de Geus, which he lauds as "fantastically clearly written." De Geus was a senior Shell Oil executive--Shell is notable in futurist circles for the scenarios staff have developed to guide their business decisions, as well as for for sharing this expertise in forecasting with others. (Andrew cites, for example, the assistance Shell gave South Africa in creating scenarios about the post-apartheid era.) 

De Geus bestows the label "living company" on organizations that have exceeded the average (brief) lifespan of their peers. So, for example, a Swedish manufacturing company that has persisted for 700 years, versus a mere 20, which is the average corporate lifespan in the Northern Hemisphere. You see why this book caught my attention--museums' promise to steward their collections for future generations is grounded in the assumption that they can, and will, survive for...well, quite a long time. Centuries, we hope. (Though I've yet to find a museum that set an explicit goal for longevity.) What can museums learn from the oldest living for-profit corporations?

In this essay in the Harvard Business review, de Geus summarized some of his conclusions on how to extend the organizational lifespan. "The manager [of a living company]," he observes, "must place commitment to people before assets, respect for innovation before devotion to policy, the messiness of learning before orderly procedures, and the perpetuation of the community before all other concerns." Sound good to me. I plan to read the book and see how the rest of de Geus' advice may apply to our sector as well.

Andrews other recommendations are:
  • Three Horizons: The Patterning of Hope, by Bill Sharpe. I'm interested in this book because it addresses one of the thorniest issues in applied forecasting: having envisioned a brighter future, how do you map out how to get from here to there? 
  • Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital, by Carlota Perez. Basically about seeing patterns in the history of technology, and how we can apply this to parsing current patterns of change. As Andrew observes, "Being able to think about the world through patterns allows us to make sense of it; otherwise we'd just get caught up in the moment." 
  • Reframing Business, by Richard Norman. I agree with Andrew that the vast majority of books on business strategy are bunk. So I'm intrigued when he tags this as one of only three he thinks are good. (It had better be--Andrew admits it is "a hard slog" and "not airport reading.") The core premise sounds relevant to our work: how markets (for us, the market for cultural/scientific/artistic experiences) is being molded by "different forms of service, different forms of digital behaviour, and different forms of experience behaviour." 
  • The Limits to Growth: The 30-year Update, but Donella H. Meadows, Jorgen Randers and Dennis L.Meadows. The original edition made a highly touted and, as it turned out, inaccurate prediction about the imminent demise of our species from overpopulation and starvation. (Which did immense damage to the credibility of the environmental movement, I fear--for which I haven't fully forgiven the authors.) But the update apparently makes the case we averted catastrophe only by "kicking the can down the road" rather than solving fundamental challenges to our continued survival. I might be willing to give Meadows et al a second hearing. (While keeping in mind that many self-styled prophets have revised their dates for the apocalypse multiple times. So, #skeptical.)
If you do tackle any of these tomes, let me know--I would love to hear your review.

Yours from the future


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Monday, July 13, 2015

Wearable Technology in the Body Metrics Exhibition

In TrendsWatch 2015 I cited The Tech Museum of Innovation for their creative exhibition on wearables called Body Metrics. We are pleased to bring you an update on the exhibition from Romie Littrell, Curator / Project Director - Health and Biotech. 

CFM highlighted The Tech Museum of Innovation in the 2015 edition of Trendswatch for our use of wearables in the Body Metrics exhibition, presented by Kaiser Permanente. We have just passed the six-month mark and are reflecting on what works and what changes we would like to make for our 2.0 revision.

Photo Credit: Ya'im Beyah
Our primary motivation was to develop this exhibition to improve the health and wellness of our community. Body Metrics stands apart from most health exhibitions because of The Tech’s strong emphasis on making and doing. We recognize that health improvement and behavior change are notoriously difficult goals, and that simple knowledge of best practices is not the road to health improvement (learning about the negative aspects of our bad habits can just as easily trigger cravings and aversion). What we have found to be memorable, however, is extended, full-body, social experiences. Using those criteria for The Tech’s version of a health exhibition brought us to developing a behavior and activity tracking-based experience where the focus was not on what is good or bad for us, but that paying attention to what we do as the key to positive change.

Photo Credit: Ya'im Beyah

Wearable sensors also meshed well with our mission-related goal to highlight innovative technology, not just because of the booming Quantified Self movement in Silicon Valley, but because they are basic tools for interactivity and self-reflection. Tapping into the experiences of visitors and their personal activity became a way for us to create a platform that was more layered and purposeful. San Jose has one of the most diverse populations in terms of race, class, and education. So designing for visitors who are both data-driven and those who have never thought about tracking before posed an interesting challenge. The exhibition, though heavily reliant on the streams of data, became more a problem of narrative than technology. And so we ran into one of the key challenges faced by wearable tech companies: “Why”?

Photo Credit: Ya'im Beyah
Telling an engaging story around activity data is a big ask for trackers like Fitbit, where the user needs to provide context. As tracking sensors themselves are relative commodities, the user experience is essentially based on the interpretation of data rather than the tracking itself (and in part the fashion statement made). In actuality, it appears wearable real-time computation represents a large portion of the value in this space, with all that the retrospectively hilarious attempts and modern failures like Google Glass entail. We have an easier time in museums, where context is explicit and and our expanded set of sensors can make correlations more realistic. Still, the real-time interpretation and visualization back-end software that was designed and implemented by Local Projects became the hidden hero. It, however, required intensive data handling infrastructure generously donated by NetApp. As a visitor experience about wearables, such investments are decidedly overkill, but they remain necessary if The Tech plans to contribute to the “holy grail of museum metrics” and generate enough big data to glean the impact that museum visitation has on visitor education, health, and overall well-being.

Photo Credit: Ya'im Beyah

The key to our successful tech integration was establishing the partnerships that drive the evolution over the life of the exhibition, showcasing technology when appropriate and abstracting what will quickly fade. Our experimental peripheral device, a modified version of the Cricket, is a wireless tension and heart-rate sensor and was the product of a collaboration with Somaxis, a wearables startup. The ability to provide input on development of a museum-grade version, and to collaborate on skin patches that are inexpensive enough to be disposable, was crucial to enabling our long-term exhibition. The Neurosky Mindwave we use for EEG metrics is, by contrast, a partnership with a finished product we added to our system because of NeuroSky’s open-source policies,allows us to incorporate their output with our metrics. For the smartphone-based interface we chose to heavily obscure all but the screen with casing, as its branded appearance would add connotations outside the scope of the experience, but we also wanted to maintain the smartphone “feel” and emphasize that these technologies are real and available outside the museum.
The recent explosion of new smartphone tracking apps and wearables integration gives new opportunities for BYOD exhibits where museum-branded downloadable apps read visitor response as well as provide content. Visitors have commented on how meaningful it has been to see their entire visit visualized through time lapse, correlations, and comparisons with other visitors. Their feedback of the exhibition is encouraging and teaches us that visitors are equally as interested in reflecting on their responses to exhibitions as museum professionals. Though we have not yet finalized how much visitor data is appropriate to have accessible, there is a strong consensus that guests would like to be able to revisit their museum experience online. Future capacity for using personal devices makes taking this introspection outside of the museum a real possibility, bringing us closer to the cultural engagement metric we would love to help reach.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Wordless Wednesday: A Museum to Watch

#VisualOnomatopoeia #museum #architecture #Piguet
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, July 7, 2015

Stitching Together Open Collections Data

In TrendsWatch 2015 I cited last year’s CitStitch Hackathon as an example of natural history museums collaborating with the public to create open datasets about collections. So I was super happy to open an email from Robert Guralnick, asking if CFM could help spread the word about a bigger, better, badder version of that event. Rob is the Curator of Biodiversity Informatics at the University of Florida's Museum of Natural History and is working with WeDigBio partners Paul Kimberly, the Digitization Manager for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and Libby Ellwood, Post Doctoral Researcher with iDigBio. Here is how you can get involved in their work:

Citizen Science and Open Data are both major trends in Museums. They meet in the middle when citizens can access recently digitized content and help museums do more with those data. One of those key tasks is transcribing imaged natural history collection labels, converting the imaged text into machine readable formats. In the past three years, a set of "online public engagement transcription centers" have emerged across the globe, often operating at a regional or national level, with foci often on different kinds of collections (e.g. herbarium specimens). These virtual centers continue a volunteer tradition that spans hundreds of years, but use new technology that further lower barriers for participation.

One great thing about a globally connected world is that the efforts of transcription centers have not been entirely independent. Two recent hackathons have brought together those working on transcription challenges to discuss integration and how to work more collectively. Borne from that crucible is an idea we are very excited about -- a global transcription event or “blitz”. We have called this event WeDigBio and are working hard to pull off this major global event Oct. 22-25 of this year.

The more we can spread word about the event and get you involved, the better the outcome for our community. So, if you are interested in working with the public to increase awareness of citizen science helping unlock natural history biocollections data--simultaneously and interactively with other institutions around the world -- can we ask for your help and support for this effort?

We are currently recruiting institutions that would like to collaborate on the first annual 4-day, global WeDigBio Event. This year's event will focus on engaging the public in the transcription of specimen labels and ledgers through partnerships with online public engagement platforms, including the Smithsonian Transcription Center, Zooniverse's Notes from Nature, Atlas of Living Australia's DigiVol, Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland's herbaria@home, Paris Herbarium's Les Herbonautes, and others.

Participants can contribute from anywhere in the world, but collaborating institutions may also host onsite transcription parties similar to those described at The WeDigBio planning team is compiling checklists, press kits, educational games, post-event surveys and other resources to ensure successful onsite events. If you're interested in hosting an event at your institution, or supporting WeDigBio in another way, answer this short questionnaire. Upon completion of the form, you will be added to the WeDigBio mailing list, and you will receive links to resources and updates about the event. Additional information is also available at or by contacting Paul Kimberly (kimberlyp at, Libby Ellwood (eellwood at, Austin Mast (amast at, or Rob Guralnick (robgur at

Never has it been more important to invite the public into our biocollections—simultaneously accelerating specimen digitization and enhancing science literacy.

Tray of bumble bees at the Smithsonian Institution, 
National Museum of Natural History. 
Photo by Patricia Gentili-Poole.


Monday, July 6, 2015

Monday Musing: Field Trips & Videoconferencing

Monday musings are usually 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. This week’s “musing” is brought to you by Sylvea Hollis, CFM Project Coordinator.

A recent Wall Street Journal article details the growing number of school teachers and administrators opting to take their students on virtual field trips rather than the more traditional bus excursions. Mostly a change out of necessity, the article outlines numerous factors that have contributed to this shift including: the recession, budget cuts, and school performance pressures. The author focuses on the expansion of videoconferencing programs primarily at zoos and aquariums, but it is hard not to think about how these types of changes also shape other cultural institutions, like art, history, and science museums. I can appreciate the way teachers use videoconferencing to help their students reach museums and institutions from around world, but I hope that this technology will not mean the eventual end of field trips within their own communities.

Perhaps like most reading this post, my thoughts on videoconferencing and school field trips are colored by my own nostalgia for museums as a young visitor. Birmingham, Alabama’s museum community was my playground from the mid-1980s to late 1990s. At the Red Mountain Museum I learned about the work of paleontologists and was mesmerized by stories of the people who first found fossils in the Appalachian foothills. In Moundville my classmates and I studied about the indigenous populations who were in the state first, and we climbed their man-made hills. And, at the Arlington Antebellum Home and First White House of the Confederacy I learned to think critically about why certain stories existed about the past and to ask questions to explain the notable absences in those narratives.

 It is hard to imagine what it would have been like to experience my first field trips from a projector screen. Perhaps, it would have still sparked a desire to travel and see everything firsthand. But, I think we should also consider how viewing art, history, and culture from afar can compromise young learner’s ability to feel a part of it all. Back in 2012 the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art released a report on the Educational Value of Field Trips.  They found that students’ ability to recall information, experience historical empathy, and develop critical thinking skills were enhanced during field trips.

Visiting places, seeing their collections, and walking through exhibitions is an intangible experience for most visitors, including young people. But, it is impossible to deny that right now the current climate of K-12 education forces most educators to treat museum visits as a luxury rather than necessity. I read a review of Fareed Zakaria’s book, In Defense of a Liberal Education. In it Zakaria highlights the value of liberal arts education because it encourages students to find their voice, analyze streams of diverse opinions, and participate in the world with a level of inquiry.  These are also the type of skills that can be enhanced by visiting museums—rather in person or virtual.

Despite the current circumstances museums and schools are doing remarkable work by using technology to enhance student learning. Robots guide young people on virtual tours of galleries; students are able to meet with curators and exhibition specialists over webcams; and students are creating their own digital humanities projects with programs like Omeka, Story Maps, Neatline, and more. It would be wonderful to see more systems of support for K-12 schools to experience both virtual and real field trips. Some of the schools highlighted in the WSJ article might do this, but it was not stated.

I view field trips as conduits or ways by which children and adolescents can learn about the world around them. In some ways the journey to museums is just as important as the visit.  It is a process that democratizes our landscape and teaches young people that they have a right to move beyond the boundaries of their neighborhood. If we could do this in a sustained way, what might that mean for how people engage with their community and surroundings? Furthermore, to what degree will the young people who visit institutions virtually have a desire to support them later as visitors and donors? 

Friday, July 3, 2015

Futurist Friday: the Future of Work, and Happinesss

In a recent article in the Atlantic, Derek Thompson refers to work as the "unofficial religion of America." Thompson is the latest in a long lineage of prognosticators envisioning a future in which most people don't have to work, or don't have to work very much. In the 1930s, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted we would be working a 15 hour week within the century. Keynes was wrong (at least about the timeframe) but Thompson is confident we are finally on the cusp of a radical shift in how, and how much we work to meet our basic needs.

Which, he admits, may not necessarily be a good thing.

In the worst case, automation and advanced computing leads to massive unemployment and poverty. In the best case, advanced in robotics and computing radically reduce the price of goods and services to the point that people don't need to work much to support themselves in any case. Thompson envisions "a happy, thriving community of creative types creating delightful things for each other," rather than a bunch of bored, frustrated, hungry sloths.

"Many jobs may be terrible," Thompson observes, "but there is something about work that is worth saving."

Thompson's arguments (in the article, and the video, below) caught my attention because it seems to me many of the motivations that lead people to work at all, in the Utopian future he foresees, are the same motivations that lead people, including museum folk, to work in the relatively under-compensated nonprofit sector, Thompson sees the end of work as opening up "room to find jobs that align with purpose, and fulfillment." Which is kind of what we've done in our own lives, already, right?

Your Futurist Friday assignment, watch this interview with Thompson [a bit under 6 minutes], and ask yourself:
  • What is work, and why do we do it? 
  • What stands in the way of your being happy about your work? 
  • Do you agree with Thompson that creating this positive future (a new landscape of work) requires government intervention, or can we as individuals, and through our organizations, build it for ourselves?

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Wordless Wednesday: The Future of Greenspace

#VerticalGardens #Singapore
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