Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Keeping History Above Water

One of the themes we explored in TrendsWatch2015 was how rising sea levels and increased storm frequency are threatening museums and heritage sites. Over the past year we've invited guest authors from museums with a vested interest in climate change and sustainability to write about the topic. Leaders at the Perez Art Museum Miami, Climate Change Museum (NYC), and The Happy Museum Project have addressed this challenge, each from their own angle. Today, Pieter Roos—Executive Director of the Newport Restoration Foundation and a commissioner of the Rhode Island Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission—shares an opportunity for museums and historic sites to explore how they can respond to rising tides at the upcoming conference “Keeping History Above Water.” You can follow the project on Twitter @NPTRestoration and register for the conference here.

It hardly takes a futurist to look ahead fifty years and see a very different world. There will always be a coastline; the question is where it will be located. Timelines vary, but climate scientists predict that sea levels will rise anywhere from three to ten feet in the not-so-distant future. While resolutions, like those resulting from the COP21 climate talks in Paris earlier this month, are milestones in reversing the effects of climate change, the world is still facing a future with higher tides and more frequent storms. As we’ve already seen, these rising waters do not respect culture, they just inundate it, and it is increasingly the duty of museums to play an active role in safeguarding our cultural heritage from the impact of climate change. As a museum director with responsibility for nearly eighty eighteenth-century buildings in and around Newport, Rhode Island, this issue has become a pressing concern.

Christopher Townsend House
Over my tenure at the Newport Restoration Foundation, I’ve seen firsthand the steady increase in “nuisance” flooding, king tides, and major rain events. The buildings in the NRF’s collection make up about a fifth of the city’s eighteenth-century structures and are particularly vulnerable to the kinds of threats that are becoming commonplace. One of our most significant properties, the Christopher Townsend House (1728) at 74 Bridge Street, sits literally at ground zero–at just a few feet above sea level–in the historic Point Neighborhood of Newport. The Townsend House is noteworthy for its age and architectural integrity certainly, but also for its connection to the renowned family of Newport cabinetmakers and by extension to the craft and commercial history of colonial Rhode Island. Seeing this nearly 300-year-old building routinely flooded with brackish water is just one of the reasons we’re taking action.

It’s been said more than once that the riskiest move for museums in the face of certain change is to do nothing. The questions facing the Newport Restoration Foundation, like many in the field, are big and daunting. As preservationists and cultural stewards, what can we do? How do we leverage our areas of influence to effect meaningful change? How do we address planetary threats on a community scale?

In answer to those questions, the Newport Restoration Foundation has teamed up with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the National Park Service, Preserve Rhode Island, Roger Williams University, the University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Center, and Salve Regina University, to organize a conference, April 10-13, 2016, on saving historic coastal communities. Keeping History Above Water will bring together experts from several disciplines and across the United States and Europe to examine the state of the threat, and then consider practical solutions, at structural and non-structural levels, through lectures, panel discussions, workshops, and focused tours. This is not a conference about climate change per se, but rather about what preservationists, museum professionals, and anyone concerned with preserving historic assets in coastal communities needs to know about the risks of climate change, and sea level rise in particular. Our hope is to define a new community–including architects, city planners, engineers, realtors, residents, and elected officials–dedicated to the exchange of information across geographic and disciplinary boundaries and to developing practical measures to protect our shared heritage.

How to safeguard the Townsend House, (our original concern), will be at the center of the conference discussion. The property will be the focus of a series of restoration plans that will model and assess a range of mitigation measures that might be applied to other historic structures. Three or four carefully considered scenarios, at various costs and different degrees of intervention to the building and surrounding landscape, will be presented to participants and to the public during the Keeping History Above Water conference. This case study project is funded through a Hurricane Sandy Disaster Relief Grant from the Rhode Island Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission, with additional funding from the City of Newport under their Impacts of Sea Level Change: PILOTING Toward Solutions grant from the van Beuren Charitable Foundation.

By gathering the forces of preservation, museums, architecture, and engineering, we want to begin a dialog that will move us towards greater resiliency. There is no single solution for protecting our cultural heritage from climate change. Rather, a variety of strategies on multiple scales will be needed to address the necessary intellectual and physical paradigm shifts we face. Museums may not have all the answers, but we’re obligated to play a critical role in charting the future and we want you to join in that discussion.

For more information about Keeping History Above Water--including a list of climate science that intersect with the interests of preservation and cultural heritage--and to join the conversation, visit www.historyabovewater.org.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Announcing a CFM Future Fiction Challenge: Imagine the Future of P-12 Education

In January CFM will launch an education “Future Fiction” challenge.This challenge will invite everyone—including educators, museum professionals, futurists, parents and community members—to submit short stories set in the year 2040, describing a future of P-12 education in which museums play a starring role.

The Magic House, St. Louis Children’s Museum; Sid the Science Kid™ the Super-Duper Traveling Exhibit
We at CFM are convinced whatever “school” looks like in the future, it will revolve around immersive, hands-on, passion-based learning, and that museums will be key players in this new learning landscape. We began mapping a route to this future in the CFM report Building the Future of Education: Museums and the Learning Landscape. Now we need your help to take the next steps.

By entering the Challenge, you can share your vision of a bright future. Start thinking and (of course) how museums will play a role. (2000 word limit, photos and videos also accepted instead of, or to illustrate, text submissions.)

Winning entries will receive modest cash prizes, will be featured in Museum magazine, and on the CFM Blog. 

The stories you submit will help the Alliance and our partners envision solutions to issues like:

  • The social and digital divide created by increasingly decentralized and specialized options for learning
  • Fear of failure, fostered by the current emphasis on testing, leading to an avoidance of risk-taking in curricula, teaching and organization and schools
  • The growing gap between the training provided by P-12 education and employment opportunities.
Students delve into their learning expedition assignments at the Wagner Free Institute of Science in Philadelphia, PA.

The beauty and power of fiction is that it can inspire us to real action. Your fiction can help create the real future of museums and P-12 institutions.
For more information on the CFM Education “Future Fiction” Challenge, email: futureofeducation@aam-us.org.

Watch this blog in early January for the announcement of the Challenge launch, and instructions on how to apply.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Building Bridges: The Phillips Collection & THEARC Join Forces

Museums and community partners create vibrant learning opportunities every day and we’re proud to highlight powerful examples of such work. We invited Dorothy Kosinski, Director of the Phillips Collection, to tell us more about an innovative collaboration between her institution and the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus (THEARC) in Washington DC’s Anacostia community. Follow ongoing news about this project on Twitter: The Phillips Collection, Dorothy Kosinski , and THEARC .

Just a couple months ago on a brilliant October afternoon, I had the privilege of attending and speaking at a groundbreaking ceremony for Anacostia’s Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus (THEARC), celebrating the third and final stage of the community center’s expansion. THEARC’s Phase III expansion will add a new, 92,000 square foot building to the campus by 2017, making room for several new resident partners, including The Phillips Collection. With a hardhat on my head and a shovel in my hands, I was honored to stand alongside our fellow partners in a shared commitment to serving our community. 

Phase III groundbreaking ceremony. Photo Credit: StereoVision Photography for THEARC

Building on the Phillips’ mission as “an intimate museum combined with an experiment station,” we envision Phillips@THEARC as a dedicated offsite “experiment station” inviting DC residents to explore cross-disciplinary programs in our new, light-filled arts-integration studio and community art gallery. The Phillips will work closely with leaders from DC’s Ward 7 and 8 communities, our broad network of non-profit and for-profit partners, and current resident partners at THEARC to co-create programs based on community need. Focusing on two of the museum’s core competencies—art and K-12 education and art and wellness—these free, multi-generational programs may include daytime art discussions for older adults living with chronic illness; after-work art and meditation classes for adults; collaborations with Wards 7 and 8 schools infusing art into K-12 curricula; professional development sessions for DC teachers; and children’s book workshops for young children and their caregivers. There are boundless opportunities to be explored, and we look forward to co-curating a program that meets community needs.

At the Phillips@THEARC Curriculum Slam, local educators brainstorm Prism.K12 lesson ideas to integrate into their classrooms. Photo: Laura Hoffman
But these efforts can’t wait until 2017; we need to start building on our vision today! To launch our partnership with THEARC, the Phillips is training teachers from the THEARC resident Washington School for Girls and nearby Turner Elementary School in Prism.K12, the museum’s innovative arts-integration methodology for K-12 teachers. Our educators will also foster a global dialogue through an Artful Exchange, exploring religious and ethnic tolerance between students at these DC schools and Bosnian children as part of a Phillips initiative with the U.S. Department of State. In a fresh approach to teacher workshops, Phillips@THEARC hosted a Curriculum Slam earlier this month, during which two teams of DCPS high school teachers showcased lessons they developed tying together Prism.K12 strategies and Question Bridge: Black Males, a video installation about black male identity in America, on view at the Phillips through the New Year.

My colleagues and I are thrilled to embark on this journey with an organization dedicated to giving families East of the river access to high quality academic, artistic, cultural programming and social services—resources that have been historically out of their economic and geographic reach. Working with our community partners, we will develop arts-infused programs that have a meaningful impact on the students, teachers, and multi-generational families we serve. This collaboration comes at a pivotal moment for the Phillips—as we approach the museum’s centennial celebration in 2021, Phillips@THEARC is evidence of our strategic plan in action. Our partnerships cannot be superficial or convenient, but must reflect deep engagement and commitment.

At the Phillips@THEARC Curriculum Slam, local educators continue to brainstorm Prism.K12 lesson ideas to integrate into their classrooms. Photo: Laura Hoffman

At the Phillips, we believe that when we weave art into our personal experiences, we increase our quality of life. Throughout our long history of co-creating K-12 programs with Anacostia schools, we have been providing highest-need DC areas with direct access to exceptional visual art programs. With over a decade of research and evaluation, the Phillips has become a national leader in arts-integrated teaching and learning, developing a rich portfolio of programs with DC public and public charter schools. Phillips@THEARC continues to extend the museum’s service beyond our walls, fulfilling our institutional goal to collaborate throughout the DC metropolitan area to broaden audiences and reaffirm the Phillips’s role as a vital contributor to community well-being. I am delighted by this tremendous moment for the Phillips—through our residency at THEARC, we will no longer be visitors to Anacostia, we will have a home there!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Happiness, Design, and the Urban Future

The Museum of Vancouver’s “lab of happiness,” demonstrates the museum's commitment to strategic partnerships based in community need and well-being. You may recall last week we examined the Happy Museum Project, a group in the UK dedicated to promoting sustainability. Today, Gregory Dreicer, Director of Curatorial and Engagement at the Museum of Vancouver, introduces us to their happiness initiatives. Follow the Museum of Vancouver’s ongoing work on Twitter: @Museumofvan

Neighbourmaker Program next to Museum of Vancouver

The future has taken Vancouver hostage. An endless series of house demolitions and a boom in high-rise construction are transforming the landscape. High living costs, low salaries, a housing shortage, and gentrification have heightened anxieties in a city deemed most livable and most unaffordable. An epidemic of disconnection is said to be affecting Vancouverites. Urban researcher Andy Yan reports that no other North American city has a lower percentage of people locally born. Like New York and a few other cities around the world, global capital in search of a home is transforming the Vancouver region, making developers the happiest people on earth . . . if you believe that money makes you happy, which local experts such as Prof. Elizabeth Dunn at the University of British Columbia tells us, is not how money works. In the midst of the wealth and the want in this ethnically diverse, former hippie haven on Canada’s west coast, a laboratory of future happiness may emerge—with the Museum of Vancouver at its center. Here’s a brief story about how the museum arrived at this threshold.

Visitors share their opinions of short term happiness at the Museum of Vancouver's Stefan Sagmeister: Happy Show 

Over the past ten years, CEO Nancy Noble transformed the Museum of Vancouver from a Smithsonian-style showcase of civilization to an innovative institution focused on the city. But, despite a series of pathbreaking exhibitions, the museum was still not connecting with a broad audience (for reasons including structural conditions that go far beyond the usual institutional challenges). When I moved to Vancouver in 2014 to become Director of Curatorial and Engagement, I read the Vancouver Foundation’s Connection & Engagement report, which deemed Vancouverites isolated and lonely. It sparked the city government to develop the Mayor’s Engaged City Task Force, which issued a host of recommendations. And recently, the Healthy City Strategy was approved by the city council, with ‘cultivating connections’ as one of its goals.

It turns out that Vancouver has a happiness brain trust that includes Prof. John Helliwell, co-editor of the United Nations World Happiness Report and whose work shows that happiness is a critical measure of quality of life; and Happy City author Charles Montgomery, whose consultancy on urban design works with cities around the world. A passionate group of entrepreneurs, designers, and artists are taking on social disconnection, from individuals such as Jorge Amigo to inclusion experts such as Gord Tulloch and renowned social innovators Al Etmanski and Vickie Cammack.

A visitor in foreground photographs one of many gumball machines, while one in background samples the candy at Stefan Sagmeister: The Happy Show 

I had experienced Stefan Sagmeister: The Happy Show at the Chicago Cultural Center, where it was enormously popular. It was developed by the ICA, which was kind enough to let us take it on. I wanted to bring it to Vancouver because I realized that social connection—that is, individual relationships—is more than the key to personal happiness. It is the key to urban wellbeing. A socially connected city is healthier, is ready for disasters such as earthquakes, and is more sustainable; being safe, green, and strong is a community effort. In other words, your level of happiness says a lot about your future and the future of your community.

In The Happy Show, graphic designer and visual artist Stefan Sagmeister does everything right. Data visualizations, videos and interactive pieces that focus on Sagmeister’s insights about happiness, along with the artist’s handwritten commentaries on the walls— a mere description of the exhibition does not do it justice. He developed the project outside the museum-industrial complex. It also stands outside the standard way that museums treat design—by reducing it to ‘art.’ Museum anthropologist Rachel Roy, in consultation with Museum of Vancouver Curator of Contemporary Culture Viviane Gosselin, conducted a Happy Show visitor study. We are still analyzing the data, but the clear message is that it inspired people to think about their own lives. The Happy Show broke attendance and revenue records at the museum—and helped push it in a new direction.

Visitors step up to an interactive at the Stefan Sagmeister: The Happy Show

During the run of The Happy Show, we developed programs and partnerships. A symposium co-presented with CIFAR brought to the museum urban wellbeing experts such as Meik Wiking, whose Happiness Research Institute, based in Copenhagen, puts out a trends report that claims that Denmark’s happy reputation increases tourism. At the museum, we created programs including a series of Happy Hours that brought people together for informal presentations and to hang out and have a few drinks. We created a companion exhibition, #makesmehappy, which featured an artifact selected by a local personality, their story, and a call to action. Vancouverites posted thousands of notes about what makes them happy on a large window—a sight as inspiring as the mountains no longer visible through the window. We included an opportunity in this exhibition for people to test their philanthropic muscles, thanks to Chimp, a Vancouver-based organization that is changing how people give—and increase the chances of most museums, that is, the small ones that go begging, while the 1% gets almost all.

The Happy Show marks the beginning of a realignment in the Museum of Vancouver’s approach to Vancouverites. Many museums, when they speak of community engagement, refer to connecting communities to the museum. Instead, we are beginning to concentrate on what is referred to as bridging—creating connections among groups. I understand now that some of my most successful projects explored bonding and bridging, including conflict. Between Fences, for example, originally at the National Building Museum and later in a Smithsonian Museum on Main Street version, explored fences as a symbol of relationships between individuals and groups. It touched people deeply. The Museum of Vancouver's focus on design has enormous potential not because it’s an art or because ‘design thinking’ is a trend or because it will encourage us to spend large sums on digital experiences—however nice these things are. The potential lies in the fact that design (aka creativity or innovation) is a networked activity. It’s about people working together. Which is an activity that makes them happy. So instead of reproducing the art-museum focus, we created Why I Design—an evening event consisting of 30 designers standing around waiting to talk with the public about what they do. In 2014, 300 people came; in 2015, over 400. People were excited to connect with designers (and vice-versa!); and designers like the opportunity to connect with each other.

The Museum of Vancouver recently developed a new vision: To inspire a socially connected, civically engaged city. We hope to orient staff and build a new board around it; and we are looking to work with and learn from others. The Bay Area seems to be a hotbed of bonding and bridging, including Hugh McDonald, who developed the Exploratorium’s Science of Sharing, and with whom we hope to collaborate. I’ve been knocking on the door of the Oakland Museum, fortunate to have the Irvine Foundation behind their efforts at bridging. And of course, there’s Nina Simon. I’ve been asked to work with Vancouver’s city government in figuring out how to implement the social connection component of the Healthy City Strategy. Thanks to support from the Koerner Foundation and a planning grant from the Vancouver Foundation, we are developing with social practice artist Justin Langlois a project called Trust, in collaboration with artists, designers, and social science and innovation experts.  More about that in the future.

Deeper understanding of how we live together and apart must be the foundation of the Museum of Vancouver’s work, if it is to succeed. With the humanities devalued and life-long learning a chimera (in terms of demonstrated ‘impact’), it’s important to observe that social connection and collaboration are behind happiness—and learning. And connection can be measured.