Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Wordless Wednesday: Street Art

#TakinItToTheStreets #NewMuseum #StPetersburg @urbanophile

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, September 29, 2015

Shaping the Future of Learning

Back in 2007, when I started writing CFM’s business plan, I looked for other futures-oriented organizations to adopt as models for our work. One of the first I came across is KnowledgeWorks, a nonprofit dedicated to exploring and helping to create the future of education. Their trends analysis, forecasting and scenarios has been immensely helpful in our exploration of how museums can help shape the next era of learning. Katherine Prince, Senior Director, Strategic Foresight at KnowledgeWorks, has become a valued partner in CFM’s work. In today’s guest post, Katherine previews their upcoming 10-year forecast, to be released in November.

The future is not a fixed point.  It is ours to create.

Every three years, KnowledgeWorks publishes a comprehensive forecast on the future of learning. We take a step back from what’s happening in education today to consider how the world is changing and how major forces of change might impact learning.

There are always a host of possibilities for how museums and other learning providers across the education spectrum might channel those forces of change to create better opportunities for young people and deliver more fully on their missions.  As we have explored with the Center for the Future of Museums through its “Building the Future of Education” convening and report, we see great potential for diverse learning ecosystems to put learners at the center of flexible value webs to which many kinds of organizations and individuals might contribute.

Our next forecast suggests that the stakes for finding effective approaches to learning will only get higher as the pace of change accelerates over the next decade. The trailer below previews some of the questions that we will all be facing as new ways of living, working, and learning emerge as a result of exponential changes in digital technologies.

Over the next decade, our lives will become so inextricably linked with our digital companions that we expect to find ourselves living as partners in code. This new era promises to change learning dramatically, affecting the ways education prepares learners and the reasons individuals pursue learning in the first place.

“The Future of Learning: Education in the Era of Partners in Code,” will highlight five drivers of change contributing to this shift along with provocations suggesting how they might impact learning. Among them:
  • The potential to design for flow states that engage learners at their most personal and deepest levels
  •  Increasingly fluid school structures that push beyond traditional organizational constraints and limited customization
  • A heightened interest in artisanal education options that fit individual values and lifestyles
  • A potential redefinition of readiness as the changing nature of work brings to the fore a societal debate about the role of people in the workplace.

To stay tuned for more, you can sign up to receive an alert when the forecast comes out in November.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A New Museum in NYC: Climate Change Museum

While I spend most of my time scanning for change taking place in society writ large, rather than trends in museum practice per se, I do keep an eye open for new museums.  Why and how do museums arise (especially in these financially troubled times)? What are the motivations of the founders, and funders, of these institutions? How do they see “museumness” as a way to advance their goals? In the past I’ve reached out to Liz Williams of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum and Peter Kim of the Museum of Food and Drink. In an upcoming post we will hear from Joanna Ebenstein, Creative Director of the Morbid Anatomy Museum. Today’s interview is with Miranda Massie, founder of the Climate Museum being created in New York City. You can follow them on Twitter @ClimateMuseum.

Miranda Massie, Founder of the Climate Museum, guest lectures at Columbia University’s M.A. Program, ‘Climate and Society’ Photo credit: Zina Precht-Rodriguez

Give me the elevator speechfor the Climate Museumwhat do you tell people when you want to explain really quickly, what it will be and why they should care?

The Climate Museum will be a hub for climate science, art, and dialogue in tourist-accessible New York City. Its aim is to put climate at the center of our shared public life, catalyzing broad climate engagement.

Why a museum? People are tackling climate change education in a lot of different ways. What do you see as the advantages of pursuing advocacy and awareness in this traditional bricks-and-mortar format?

There is an outstanding array of efforts already in progress. To name just few examples,, NRDC, and the George Mason and Yale Climate Communications Centers are doing essential advocacy work that has transformed the conversation. There are robust networks devoted to formal and informal climate education that are similarly critical. We’ve recently started talking with Frank Niepold of NOAA about connecting with these networks and are thrilled about that.

However, to support the growth of a broader climate public, we need a venue—a place where people can be together, learn together and from each other, share experience. When things really matter, we come together in person. Climate really matters and we should have a collective space to do the work of educating people on this topic.

As a side note, my sense is that the social dynamics of face-to-face interactions are why museums continue to be so popular and culturally powerful even as they transform.

Finally, a solutions-showcasing Climate Museum is exceptionally well-suited to break down the barriers we’ve seen to the creation of a climate-engaged public. Research shows us that most people in this country view climate change as an issue, but few prioritize finding solutions for this challenge.  Museums help to simplify complexity, and having a museum devoted to this topic could help to make climate science and data palpable, clear, and personal. We want to inspire people to focus on climate success stories large and small, so that visitors leave knowing that what they think, feel, say, and do on climate matters.

We’ll have the benefit of all that on top of the traditional museum virtues of conferring legitimacy and serving as a trusted source of information.

Your organizations profile on states The Climate Museum will join a successful group of forward looking, problem solving, citizen museums.What are some of these “citizen museums” you see as your peers? Is there anything particular about these benchmark organizations you plan to emulate?

We’re not yet the peer of any of the institutions I’m going to mention, but we aspire to be. Some of the great museums that seem to us to aim to build civic engagement include the Holocaust Museum, the Newseum, the 9/11 Museum, the Center for Civil and Human Rights. And the Science Museum of Minnesota, with, for example, its exhibit on race and its upcoming exhibit on cities, seems to us to clearly propose something outside of any simple repository-of-knowledge model.

Even established museums find it challenging to sustain their operations in the new economy. What are you finding are the greatest challenges in starting a new museum?

We’re at such a different stage in our life cycle. That said, I suppose both zygotes and adult organisms need similar things to thrive: favorable contexts, good nutrients, symbiotic relationships.

Our biggest challenge, given that we’re in such a growth stage, is responding to the opportunities rapidly expanding around us in an effective way without irretrievably exhausting our currently minimal staff. A given day can include meetings with exhibit design teams as we familiarize ourselves with that milieu, fine-tuning the formatting of a newsletter, soaking up a mentoring call with one of our incredible advisors, selecting insurance carriers, herding cats to schedule a Trustees’ meeting, taking out the recycling, and deciding between two very similar Pantone yellows. The good news is that we’re meeting with such good will, feel so committed to the mission, and are encountering these challenges so freshly, that they are, in the main, highly enjoyable. 

We’re going to be launching seed fundraising in the fall. I’m sure there will be challenges as well as great excitement associated with that.

As a member of your own board observed, climate change can be a very depressing subject.Is one of your goals to attract an audience that includes people who are not already passionate about this cause, and if so, how will you go about that?

That’s our single central goal. We have to be clear about urgency while emphasizing success stories and solutions—that will be our great content challenge—and we have to make the experience inspiring, beautiful, connected, impressive, and cool. I am deeply confident that with the right team this can be accomplished.

What are some of the ways you plan to make the museum resilient in the face of projections for rising sea levels and increased storm frequency in NYC?

We’re a long way away from creating our permanent facility and that will indeed be a great design challenge—especially given the resonance of potentially securing a location near the water for the very reasons you mention. In short, we don’t yet have any resiliency plans, but the question will be absolutely key.

Starting a new museum is a daunting undertaking. Who have you turned to for advice and assistance as you plan the Climate Museum?

We’ve moved forward in what often feels like a magical surround of good will and support. There are countless people outside of the museum profession who have been tremendous, but given the museum-centered community we’re connecting with through your blog—an opportunity we much appreciate, by the way!—I’ll focus on people likely known among your main readership.

The first person who must be highlighted has been enmeshed in every positive aspect of our development: Lou Casagrande. Lou, as many readers will know, ran the Boston Children’s Museum for a number of years and served as AAM’s Board Chair. We were exceptionally lucky to be introduced to Lou more than a year ago, at the very beginning of our launch. I’ve spoken with him more often than with anyone. Lou’s a hard person to describe credibly. He’s intellectually brilliant and a visionary. He’s savvy and wise about the business side. He’s intuitive, warm, and kind as a mentor. And with each of these gifts he is on the edge of the spectrum.

There’s one big decision I made without conferring with Lou—and I had to retract it. He’s at the heart of this enterprise.

Our extraordinary Tax and Governance counsel John Sare of Patterson Belknap, known to many readers I am sure, has also been a key intellectual partner in framing the strategy for the Climate Museum. We have spoken countless times, well beyond the constraints of tax and governance law. John is a nuanced, outstanding strategist.

More generally, we’ve reached out to the museum leaderships in New York City, and are starting to expand geographically. We have been moved and struck by how open-hearted this talented community is. A few examples of people who have extended themselves to provide great advice: in the science museum world in New York, David Harvey, Lauri Halderman, and Michael Meister in the exhibitions program at the American Museum of Natural History have been repeatedly supportive and helpful. We’re setting up meetings with the staff of the New York Hall of Science, who’ve also been very welcoming. At the Science Museum of Minnesota, which as readers will know is a major content producer and sharer, we’ve had great conversations with Paul Martin and Pat Hamilton. And in terms of recently founded New York City museums, science or not (a category that seems to us pertinent given the specific challenges of launching in any given city), we’ve gotten great advice from Glen Whitney and Cindy Lawrence at the Museum of Mathematics, Patrick Sears at the Rubin, and Amy Weisser, at the 9/11 Museum and Memorial. Generally, we’ve found this to be a highly congenial and generous community. I love the civil rights litigators I professionally grew up with, but museum professionals are non-provincially committed to the vibrancy of the sector as a whole in a way that has seemed to us to be remarkably robust and universal.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Trending Now: Museum Schools Part II

This week we followed up with Laney Tillner to learn more about her work with the John Early Museum Magnet Middle Prep--a museum school where she volunteers as a consultant. Laney is a graduate student in Public History (with a concentration in Museum Studies) at Middle Tennessee State University, and she's writing her thesis about museum schools. You can follow her on Twitter @OliviaLane87.
Last week, I discussed the rise of museum schools and the vast variety that exist within our field. Today, we will look at just one institution—the John Early Museum Magnet Middle Prep, located in Nashville, Tennessee. It was created as one of six new magnet schools resulting from a Magnet School Assistance Program (MSAP) grant that was awarded to Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools in 2011.
Like other museum schools, John Early integrates the museum process into their instruction. Students routinely participate in Learning Expeditions, or curriculum based lessons that focus on instruction beyond the boundaries of traditional classroom settings. Every nine weeks, students have a school-wide Exhibit Night in order to share their knowledge of museum standards.

Perhaps one of their most innovative methods of community engagement is the work they do with their pathway school, Robert Churchwell Elementary (also MSAP grant funded). Each month, students from both schools participate in Family Expeditions. These visits allow for in-depth and meaningful experiences between students, their families, and staff at partner museums.

Family Expedition to Glen Leven Farm, August 2015 Credit: Becky Verner

Project-based learning (PBL) is an important aspect of the John Early experience, particularly when students work directly with museum partners. Some even complete internships with these institutions, including the Tennessee State Museum, the Parthenon, and Belle Meade Plantation. Students also regularly work on projects with their peers beyond the John Early campus. For example, in the 2014-2015 school academic year, 7th grade students worked with a team of archaeologists at the “Unknown 20” site—an unmarked cemetery which recently was identified as a slave burial site on the property of the Nashville Zoo and the historic Croft House. The students performed DNA analysis, primary source research, gave presentations to Croft House employees based on their findings, and created programming based on their research. They presented their work via a student-written and directed event.

Student Internship Presentations at the Tennessee State Museum, July 2015, Credit: Becky Verner
Beyond the partnership with the Nashville Zoo and historic Croft House, two self-contained 6th grade classes are currently completing the “Museum Matters” PBL, which consists of them developing floor plans to best utilize museum storage space. They will create proposals and presentations for a panel comprised of the principals, teachers, and available representatives of the Tennessee State Museum, Middle Tennessee State University, and Glen Leven Farm among others.

John Early Museum Magnet Middle Prep is unique in comparison to other museum schools because it also is creating its own museum . The museum will be a place of instruction for the students and a place of cultural engagement for the surrounding community. A chance meeting led to the school’s acquisition of a collection from Scarritt College, a school for Methodist missionaries that moved to Nashville in 1924 and ceased holding classes in 1988. As missionaries returned from their missions Scarritt College came to accumulate various cultural artifacts representing the nations they visited. The collection was recently deaccessioned by the Hartzler-Towner Multicultural Museum at the Scarritt Bennett Center and gifted to the John Early.

Exhibit Cases Installed into Museum Space, July 2015 Credit: Lane Tillner
John Early’s museum collection also includes items originally from the Children’s Museum of Nashville, which initially became the Cumberland Science Museum, and later the Adventure Science Center (at which point it transferred its collection to Scarritt Bennett). This cultural collection, of nearly 5000 artifacts, represents numerous African, Asian, South American, and Europe nations. Following the acquisition of the collection, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools approved a museum addition to the existing school building. Completed in July 2015, the first major exhibit is underway and a grand opening is planned for later in October.

The museum addition is a valuable learning resource for students at John Early. They will be able to explore their museum, only a two minute walk from classrooms. The Junior Curators club will act as docents and provide tours to members of the community and other school groups. The students will create exhibits throughout the hallways, not just in the museum. Teachers will teach with artifacts from the collections and use them to draw direct connections within their curriculum standards. The in-school museum will enhance museum partnerships and create new opportunities for collaboration between the school and its partners.  
Junior Curators Work with Collection, August 2015 Credit: Becky Verner
Since the completion of the museum addition, I have been working in the museum to help prepare for the grand opening. Many of the students have been allowed to spend short periods of time throughout the day helping me unpack artifacts, develop an inventory, and curate the opening exhibit. The preparation process usually slows when students help, but working with them is an intangible experience. They regularly stop to examine an artifact they find interesting and debate what it is and how it might have been used. I think that level of engagement is absolutely worth any delay. Frankly, the best part is seeing their excitement when they ask how soon they can return to help. Museum schools create truly significant and unique learning experiences for students and will continue to do so. If you read my post last week, you will recall that a broad range of institutions call themselves museum schools so it remains rather difficult to define them. But, all that I have come across reflect an interest in moving beyond traditional models of classroom instruction, advocating for multiple pathways to learning, and creating community engagement projects. This trend within then field of education and museums, I believe will only result in a richer classroom experience for students, teachers, and their communities.


Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Trending Now: “Museum Schools”

If you attended the CFM session on the future of education at the annual meeting in Atlanta last year, you may remember the lines that stretched up the aisle as folks waited to talk to Katherine Kelbaugh, founder of the Museum School in Decator. We had to take the discussion about her school, and the association she has founded to unite other museums schools, into the hall. Now Katherine has recruited Laney Tillner to blog for CFM about the first conference of that new association. Laney is a graduate student in Public History (with a concentration in Museum Studies) at Middle Tennessee State University, and she's writing her thesis about museum schools. She also volunteers her time as a consultant to John Early Museum Magnet Middle Prep, You can follow her on Twitter @OliviaLane87.

Ten, twenty years from now, what will partnerships between museums and schools look like?  Any number of possible scenarios are plausible, many of which go far beyond field trips to embed museums into the core of students’ daily work. One trend in education--the creation of museum schools--is significantly shaping the future of these partnerships.

NAMS 2015 Conference Program and Logo--credit: Lane Tillner, 2015
On June 22, 2015, educators and museum professionals convened in Atlanta, GA for the inaugural conference of the National Association of Museum Schools (NAMS). (This isn’t the first conference of its kind—In 1995 a group of teachers, administrators, and museum professionals met at a Museum Schools Symposium in Washington, D.C.) Principal Katherine Kelbaugh initiated the formation of NAMS as a part of a federal grant awarded to the Museum School of Avondale Estates, which is located outside of Atlanta. NAMS’s goal is to provide a national platform for educators to discuss the museum school movement, share their curricular approaches and ideas, and cultivate an environment of support. 

Featuring nineteen presentations that included ideas about best practices, case studies of specific schools and their programs, the day-long conference was an opportunity for participants to explore the concept “museum school” in general. The program highlighted “Spotlight Schools,” selected through a national search, which met or exceeded a set of criteria that included program longevity, museum focus and student achievement. These schools are Genesee Community Charter School (Rochester, NY), Ortega Elementary (Jacksonville, FL), and Normal Park Museum Magnet (Chattanooga, TN).

The conference revealed that museum schools are just as diverse and as difficult to define as a “museum” itself. Some are charter schools--for instance, the Museum School (San Diego, CA)—others are magnet schools. Some are traditional schools that have adopted a museum theme. Some museum schools are housed on museum campuses, like the Dr. Charles R. Drew Science Magnet Museum Site (Buffalo, NY), while others operate at an independent location. Some were developed by museum educators and others developed by school and district professionals. So far, the one thing all the NAMS organizations have in common is that they are public schools.

The number of museum partners varies from school to school. A few museum schools have collections, some borrow material from their major museum partners, and one, the John Early Museum Magnet Middle Prep (Nashville, TN), has its own museum. (I will be writing in more detail about this school, where I interned, in a follow-up post.)  All of the museum schools in NAMS incorporate an extension of classroom learning where students (either as a full grade level or a single class) venture to a museum for in-depth interactions amid exhibits and artifacts. These experiences are more than fieldtrips. Commonly called a Learning Expedition, teachers create focused objectives tailored directly from units or lesson plans to illustrate the importance of museums as spaces for learning. Additionally, all museum schools have some form of an Exhibit Night to demonstrate and display their learning—events which often resemble the museum exhibit design process. Some involve museum staff directly in curriculum planning, such as the New York City Museum School (New York City, NY), and others use the museum staff as expert resources. All of the schools incorporate the ‘museum process’ in some manner, whether undertaking research, writing text, artifact handling or exhibit design.

During the JEMMMP Museum Matters Project-Based Learning (PBL) 
students apply math and ELA skills to develop a floor plan 
of the museum storage space--credit: Becky Verner, 2015
Several presentations at the conference pointed to particular schools as “model” programs. For example, Normal Park Museum Magnet School is often cited as one of the museum schools people often visit during the initial process of planning and designing a museum school. But even schools based on the program at Normal Park vary in some degree. This begs the question, is a standard model for museum schools even possible?  Perhaps. Certainly the core idea of creating deep partnerships with one or more museums can be adapted to fit many schools. The national curriculum standards can easily be met by curricula based in museum resources. However, any model has to be flexible enough to accommodate variables such as geographical location and proximity to museums, the variety of museums in a general area, the student population (some museum schools are identified as Title I schools and the students may not be able to contribute as many of their own resources compared to those at non-Title I schools), school resources, state curriculum standards, and national standards.

Museum schools bridge the gap between schools and museums. They are sites where distinctions between formal and informal learning blur and real world, meaningful learning is promoted. This is not to say that the museum school is the only model for museum-school collaboration, but it suggests incredible possibilities for the future. Here’s to another successful NAMS conference in 2016.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Futurist Friday: The Sound of Color

Meet Neil Harbisson. He is one of the 1 in 30,000 or so people born each year with a form of complete colorblindness. 

You might think of Neil as having a disability--one that impairs, for example, his ability to experience art.

But Neil thinks of himself as a cyborg with augmented sensory capabilities. Why? Because he is. In 2004 Neil had an antenna implanted in his head that enables him to hear color--including wavelengths "normal" people can't, such as infrared and ultraviolet.

So, is Neil "disabled" or "super-abled?"  

This year we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This legislation was only one step in a long process--now we are challenged to bring the same attention to bear on cognitive disabilities. 

But meanwhile, the whole question of disability, accessibility, assistive and augmentive technology is becoming more and more complex. Neil is just one of many people who see themselves, and their abilities (natural or enhanced) as part of an increasingly fluid spectrum. 

Your Futurist Friday assignment: watch this video profile of Neil [a smidge over 5 minutes] and:

  • See whether you can think of other examples of technologies that are blurring the distinction between people with disabilities, "normal" folk, and people with super powers.
  • Walk through a museum and try to imagine what it would be like to be able to "hear" the visual environment.
  • Ask yourself, if you could have a new body part (or a new sense) what would it be?!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Revisiting the Future of Museums in the New Gilded Age

I recently reread a 2011 post by my former colleague Erik Ledbetter on the effect the "New Gilded Age" may have on museums. He wrote "The decline of the middle class and the reemergence of a true American plutocracy will have, I predict, some interesting consequences for museums. In an era when public budgets and private household wealth are both contracting, museums’ business models will be increasingly upset." As it turns out, he was remarkably prescient in pegging the financial pressures that would lead museums into increasingly tight ethical spots. 

Now I'm thinking about the broader effects of the widening gap between the 1% of Americans who control 40% of the country's wealth and everyone else. I see a plausible future in which US museums bifurcate as well, with one branch of our sector serving hoi polloi, and another providing exclusive experiences that don't involve crowds, mingling with badly dressed tourists or hobnobbing with folks who have not taken a college-level course in art history

The development of exclusive museums would parallel the rise of other bespoke services that are creating a bubble world for the well-off. For example, I just read about Gravity, a bespoke gym for "C-suite" (read, wealthy) clients, with an entry fee of over $2000 and monthly fees of $460. For that you get blood analysis, a 3D body scan, in-house doctors and nutritionists and an app that helps you track progress and compete with other gym members. 

And I've paid close attention to the proliferation of boutique/concierge medical services that charge annual fees anywhere from $500 to $15,000. Ten years ago only about 500 doctors participated in such practices--now that is up to over 15,000. The physicians who choose this arrangement prefer it in part because it allows them to be better doctors. For example, instead of the 10 to 15 minutes allowed by most insurance coverage, they typically spend at least twice as long on an average visit. (This does more than simply create an elite tier of medical care for those who can afford it--some analysts are concerned that if this trend accelerates, it will undercut subsidized care for those who need it, upsetting the fragile balance that provides medical care for society as a whole.)

There is already evidence that this same exclusive, boutique ethos is infiltrating the museum world. On the periphery, there are high-end members-only art clubs for well-heeled, would-be collectors (e.g., The Cultivist). Closer to home, see the rise of private museums, created around personal collections, that can tightly control access to venues. This article cites a number of such organizations in Dallas. The New Yorker ran an extensive article on the  Boros Collection in BerlinAnd Erik noted in his post "In Ohio, an entrepreneur is building a new private railroad museum complete with a purpose-build roundhouse and turntable to house, restore, and display his collection of historic steam locomotives. When complete, his facility will be superior to the majority of public railroad museums in the country. Yet it is strictly a private venture, and the terms, if any, on which it will be accessible to the public remain unknown." (See image below)

I added a coda to Erik's post, asking "Will selective pressure favor museums founded and funded by the new economic elite?" To which I will now add a couple more. Will these favored, "elite" museums be free and open to all (like the Broad), free, but limited, via reservations (like Glenstone), or invitation only (like Deedie Rose' Pump House in Dallas)? And how would this bifurcated future affect the willingness of the one percent to support truly public museums, or of the rest of the population to support public financing of museums as a whole?

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Wordless Wednesday: Cloud Corridor

#architecture #sustainability #green#urbandesign @AplusD_LA
 #housing #design

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, September 1, 2015

Why are we locking our data away from the public?

When I was researching TrendWatch2015 I sent out a call for examples of how museums struggle with the trend towards “openness” when it threatens traditional ways we have shared (or not shared) our data. Chris Norris, in the Division of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Yale Peabody Museum, replied that he and Susan Butts, Senior Collections Manager for Invertebrate Paleontology, had just submitted a paper on that topic to Collection Forum (the journal of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections). For those of you who do not subscribe to that excellent publication, I asked Chris and Susan to summarize the gist of their thinking in a guest post.

“I do not like them in a box”
(Suess, Dr. 1960. Green Eggs and Ham. Boston, Thomas Y. Crowell Co.)

Museums hold collections in trust for the public. We say that a lot, but what do we actually mean by this, and how do we respond when the public demands access to those collections? This is a particularly acute problem for natural history museums, and especially for those that hold paleontological specimens.

From iDigBio Workshop on Digitization of Paleo Collections, Yale Peabody Museum 2013

To understand why, it’s important to realize that the circumstances under which an animal, or plant, or traces left by these organisms are preserved as fossils are very unusual. As a consequence, fossils are quite rare.

For the same reasons, they are also not uniformly distributed. Fossils occur only in certain places, and while it is possible to predict where these places might be, finding them takes a great deal of skill, knowledge and, ultimately, luck.

Locality data – the information about where a specimen was found – is particularly valuable to paleontologists. It may lead you to more fossils at that site, help you predict where new fossil sites might be found, and – when analyzed in combination with data from other sites – can form the basis for research that enables scientists to reconstruct past environments.

But locality data for fossils can also have a monetary value. It can be used by commercial collectors to find fossils which can then be sold, potentially removing them from the public domain. It also represents a potential revenue stream for museums, because of its commercial value to companies doing environmental impact assessments associated with commercial and public infrastructure projects.

Because of this, museums find themselves in a tricky position when it comes to locality data. On the one hand, access to collections includes access to collections data and these data are critical to scientific endeavor and, perhaps equally importantly, to members of the public who want to know more about the world around them.

At the same time, making these data freely available may cut off certain much-needed revenue to museums and lead to important fossils being made inaccessible to researchers and the wider public. In many cases access to sites is restricted by landowners or - for public lands - by law. In these situations open access to data may nurture the thriving culture of illegal collecting that has arisen in areas that are rich in fossil deposits.

Up ‘til now, museums have chosen to meet this challenge by acting as gatekeepers to the data they hold. They often restrict the locality data they make available to the public (for example via institutional websites) either by redacting the data below an arbitrary level of detail (usually the county in which the site is located) or by “fuzzing” the data – introducing an artificial level of uncertainty into the map coordinates of a locality that make it impossible to pinpoint the exact location of the site to more than a few hundred meters.

It’s still possible for individuals to get access to the precise locality data for a fossil or fossil site, but they have to ask the museum for it. When they do, they’re judged against a series of criteria that assess how legitimate their request is; in other words, we – the museum staff – get to decide whether a certain person is worthy of seeing the information.

We believe (and have made the case in a recent edition of the journal Collection Forum2) that it’s time for to reconsider this approach to data access.

With the publication of a national strategy for the digitization of biological collections, the creation of a national coordination center for collections data (iDigBio), and the commitment of $10 million in National Science Foundation annual grant funding for collections digitization, the United States collections community has made a long-term commitment to capture and serve the data held in its collections to the global community.

Inherent in this is the idea that access to these data will have a transformative effect on science and society, opening new avenues of research, engaging academic communities that have not previously made use of collections as a source of data, and helping the wider public make better use of collections for formal and informal education. These noble goals are predicated on the idea that collections data will be made freely available on-line. So in this new, digital world, should museums still be placing restrictions on who can access their data?

Undoubtedly, illegal collection is a plague on paleontology, not just in the US but globally, with Brazil, China, and Mongolia, being prime examples of countries falling victim to removal of paleontological resources. This theft of national heritage often causes great damage to sites, destroying contextual data in the process of removing fossils. But it’s difficult to quantify how much of this collecting results from the release of locality data. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some thefts may have occurred after locality data was published on the web, but in many cases data are also released in the academic press; indeed, this is typically a requirement for publication.

In fact, many fossil collectors have sufficiently detailed local knowledge that they can find sites without having any access to collections data and there are numerous other routes to the information; ironically, some of the richest fossil sites have their coordinates accurately published on Wikipedia. So, while the release of data by museums may assist illegal collection, it is not clear that restricting access to data would introduce any significant barrier to a determined collector.

Furthermore, museums often receive important collections from experienced private collectors, who have legally obtained fossils from sites; museums need to consider that these collectors may not be willing to donate their specimens if the museum is going to turn around and restrict access to the data for people like themselves. It is inevitable that when museums are discriminate between collection users based on their professional status it will have a chilling effect on their relationships with amateur experts.

On the other hand, it could also be argued that the current, restrictive practices cannot be shown to have limited the amount of legitimate paleontological work going on across the United States. But will this continue to be the case, given the current digitization initiative and its goal to increase usage of collections? If the aim is to expand that usage beyond the boundaries of traditional user communities, then any barriers to collections access are a bad thing.

Redacted data offers significant security for fossil sites, but it has greatly diminished utility for any form of research that requires precise coordinate data. This includes many of the studies of paleogeography, paleoecology, and diversity over time that are critical for understanding issues such as climate change. To know that these data exist and to request access requires some prior knowledge of collections operations. Non-traditional users of collections, whether public or professional, may simply not know that they can ask for permission to access restricted materials or realize what they are using is not the highest resolution data available

If a request is received, curatorial staff members are placed in the unenviable position of making a value judgment about whether a particular individual should be granted access for a particular project. This could include deciding whether a category of collections use with which they are unfamiliar is appropriate or inappropriate. Should a member of the public be granted access to data simply because they are interested? Should commercial or private collectors be given access to data if—as a matter of personal or professional opinion—a curator disagrees with all such collecting, even if it is legal?

These questions speak to the broader issue of why we have collections, and the role played by museums and their staff in managing them. In their standards for public trust and accountability the American Alliance of Museums is explicit both that the collections of museums are held in the public trust and that the museum should be committed “to providing the public with physical and intellectual access to the museum and its resources” (AAM, 2008). Restricting access is therefore a significant issue, and perhaps more of an issue than some in the natural history collections community have grasped.

Museums have become comfortable – we would argue too comfortable – with the idea of restricting access to collections. In most cases, the restrictions form part of responsible stewardship; without the resources to supervise all visitors, for example, physical access to the collections is limited by the availability of staff and the amount of time that they have to spend supervising visitors. But in the case of digital access, it cannot be argued that access is resource-limited. The museum is making an active choice to withhold something that could be made freely available. Our contention is that this can only be done from a well-justified and supported position.

We believe that for museums to fulfill their duty of public accountability, they must start from the position that all data from accessioned and cataloged specimens should be freely accessible unless:
  • Release of the data would break local, state or federal laws, or be a breach of other codes or regulations.
  • Release of the data is prohibited because the Museum has a prior agreement with the collector, donor, or landowner.
  • There are very specific circumstances relating to the nature of the specimen and/or site in question that warrant restriction of data.

Open access doesn’t mean that all data must be unrestricted – it simply flips the default state to the presumption is that access will be completely open unless there are compelling reasons to the contrary. For example, it’s not enough to specify that publication will inevitably make a site vulnerable to illegal collecting – curatorial staff must consider why that particular site is more vulnerable to poaching than others, based on accessibility, faunal or floral content, market issues, the historical pattern of illegal collection, and other relevant factors.

Transparency is also critical. Museums should have an obligation to advise landowners, collectors, etc. that there is an open access policy for data. We should consider carefully whether it is in our best interests to accept a collection with restrictions on data accessibility, just as we would do with any other form of restriction on use. And it is equally critical that we publicize our guidelines for case-specific data redaction or restriction of data, and that in the rare cases when such a decision is warranted, the online records are tagged with a note explaining what data are being withheld and why.

Here’s another compelling reason to start from a position of “open:” we do not believe that it is possible for a museum to make an objective decision about what level of data redaction is appropriate for future usage, given that one of the main aims of collections digitization is to broaden the usage of collections beyond traditional boundaries. Given that it is difficult—perhaps impossible—to predict how collections may be used in the future, it is equally impossible to make statements about minimal standards for data release that will be valid more than a few years into the future.

In addition, we believe that the greater the range of data that are only made available on request, the more we will be required to make subjective decisions about the use to which the data will be put. As we mentioned earlier, restricting physical access to specimens based on risk parameters is appropriate when resources are limited; restricting access to data has minimal resource implications for a museum that has already committed to web accessibility.

It could be argued that resource availability does come into play once the data have been released. For example, land managers may have insufficient resources to protect fossil sites on Federal land from illegal collecting. In this case, it is entirely appropriate for Federal agencies to place restrictions on the release of data as part of collecting permits or repository agreements should they wish to do so. But it is not appropriate for museums to take on themselves the responsibility of law enforcement when there are other agencies and organizations charged and resourced with doing so.

The role that museums should be taking—a role which is a core part of their mission—is educating the public and private collectors about the importance of collecting in a responsible manner, collecting contextual information, and depositing fossils and data in a museum. We believe it will be easier to make this argument if deposition of the fossils does not lead to them being locked away, along with their data, inaccessible to the public in whose trust we supposedly hold them. This may be an acute problem for paleontology, but it is a principle that is applicable to any type of museum.

1Norris, C. and Butts, S.H. 2014. Let your data run free? The challenge of data redaction in paleontological collections. Collections Forum, 28(1-2):113-118.