Friday, April 28, 2017

Futurist Friday: Cognitive Couture

This new installation at The Henry Ford is a marvelous mashup of some of my favorite technologies: artificial intelligence, wearable technology, and emotional cartography. In this case, IBM Watson technology examines tweets tagged #TheHenryFord #innovation or #technology, interprets the emotions behind the language of the twee and maps the results onto a dress by changing the colors of LED lights embedded in the fabric.

Visitors not equipped with smart phones can use an iPad in the exhibit to contribute to the Twitter stream programming the dress.

Now if only I could try it on....

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Museums and Well Being

Our next annual meeting guest post previews a session I’m particularly excited about. Rainey Tisdale has assembled a panel of researchers and museum practitioners studying how museums can contribute to our individual and collective well being. Regular readers of this Blog know that I’m an advocate for the kind of large scale, long term longitudinal study that could tease out the small, subtle but cumulatively transformative impact of our field. In this session, Rainey pulls together some of the threads that may, in time, form the weft of this tapestry of data.
Carol Ryff, professor of psychology
University of Wisconsin

Meet Carol Ryff. She’s a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin who studies well being in the general public. She is best known for developing quantitative methods for assessing individual levels of well being; her measures of Psychological Well Being (which involve six dimensions: self acceptance, personal growth, purpose in life, positive relations with others, environmental mastery, and autonomy) have been translated into 30 languages, resulting in more than 500 publications. As Director of the Institute of Aging at the University of Wisconsin, she leads Midlife in the United States (MIDUS), an interdisciplinary, longitudinal study of health and well being from early adulthood through old age.

What does Carol have to do with the future of museums? After years of studying factors that negatively or positively affect well being across gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and life stage, Carol has formulated a hypothesis that participation in arts & culture, including visiting museums, plays a significant role in improving lifelong health and well being. Building a body of evidence around this hypothesis is a new priority in her research. In Carol’s version of the future of museums, she imagines institutions that help young children connect with the tools and resources they need for self acceptance, personal growth, purpose in life, positive relations with others, environmental mastery, and autonomy; and then support them with a lifetime of self development experiences, in the process reducing their risk of major disease and mental illness, and increasing their quality of life as well as their life expectancy.

I myself have come to know Carol—and to share her vision for museums—through my participation in an international working group she convened to catalyze new research on the role of arts and culture in promoting human betterment. This group includes academics and practitioners from fields as varied as public health, population studies, medicine, architecture, comparative literature, poetry, and yes, museums. Our goal is to build on promising sparks of existing research (like this Happy Museum Project report; Chatterjee and Noble’s 2013 book Museums, Health & Well Being; and Bygren, Konlaan, and Johansson’s longitudinal study of the relationship between cultural participation and longevity, summarized here) to develop a robust and comprehensive body of evidence about cultural participation and well being across multiple social factors and types of engagement.

Those of us who work in this field may intuitively understand how museums contribute to well being. In fact, that may be one of the reasons we chose this profession—we ourselves have personally experienced the ways museums make life better. But we need to prove this point to the general public. And we need to see how far we can take it. For example, can museum visits reduce your blood pressure? Can they increase your self esteem? If so, are certain types of museum experiences more effective at such outcomes than others? Can museums support well being across all socio-economic levels and stages of the life cycle, or do certain groups benefit more than others? What is the impact of cultural participation in well populations versus sick populations (i.e. does it have both preventative and therapeutic value)? And how does health and well being map in relation to other public goods that museums care about—inclusion, curiosity, informal learning, civic engagement, and creativity?

This is where Carol and other social scientists like her come in. They can help us study museums and document their impact in a way that matters outside the confines of our own, often isolated field. Not to knock the hard work and dedication of museum evaluators, but it’s not enough to publish audience studies in museum journals that are only read by museum workers. To make a stronger case for the role museums play in society, we need more research about museums published in peer-reviewed journals in social science and biomedical fields.

At the AAM conference in St. Louis next month, Carol will be sharing her research, and its implication for museums, as part of a session on Museums & Well Being that will take place on Monday, May 8 from 8:45 to 10:00. Our panel will also include two amazing Danish museum professionals: Karen Grøn and Line Chayder. Karen is Director of the Trapholt Museum of Modern Art and Design in Kolding, Denmark. Under her leadership, the Trapholt has been developing multiple initiatives to explore health & well being, including adapting Carol's measures of Psychological Well Being for use in museum evaluation and a “cultural prescription” program where doctors prescribe visits to the museum to improve their patients’ health. Line is Art Educator at the Louisiana Museum in Humlebæk, Denmark. Her project “Traveling with Art,” which works with refugee teens from Red Cross Schools to strengthen resilience, social connections, and identity through creative expression, won an ICOM Committee for Education and Cultural Action 2016 Best Practice Award.

During the session, we’ll look at what we know and what we still need to learn about museums and well being. We’ll also explore the practice side: if you want to experiment with projects that support well being at your museum, where do you start? We will discuss strengthening collaborations between museums and social scientists, and will try to synthesize it all into some larger understandings and takeaways about the future potential for museums and well being. Please join us.

Rainey Tisdale (@raineytisdale) is an independent museum professional who leads for change on a number of field-wide issues, including place-based interpretation, creative practice, collections stewardship, and museums & well being. With Linda Norris she is the author of Creativity in Museum Practice, and with colleagues Trevor Jones and Elee Wood she is a founder of Active Collections, a national effort to re-envision American museum collections stewardship. Her work on #BostonBetter, a partnership by 25 cultural institutions in response to the Boston Marathon bombing, has led her to further exploration of the role of museums in lifelong well being & resilience. She is currently collaborating with Boston colleagues—both museum educators and social scientists—to develop a local community of practice around these issues.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Wordless Wednesday: Check, Mate

#AAM2017 #StLouis @WorldChessHOF
You can still register!
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, April 25, 2017

Serving Incarcerated Youth

Next up in our #AAM2017 guest posts, Megan Bednarz previews the case study she will present on Sunday, May 7, from 1:45 – 2:15 pm. If you haven’t registered for the conference yet—this series of sneak peeks might just convince you to join us in St. Louis!

I work as an educator at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, a nonprofit in New York City that promotes the awareness and understanding of history, science and service. The Museum is centered on the aircraft carrier Intrepid, and my job is to bring content off-site to New Yorkers who are unable to visit. I developed Sketching It Up, a weeklong 3D design workshop for students ages 16–17 who are incarcerated on Rikers Island. The workshop, funded by the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs and created in partnership with the NYC Department of Correction, began in 2014. My work with these students relates to two TrendsWatch 2017 themes: empathy and criminal justice reform.

There are strict rules about what materials I carry in and out of jail, so I realized that success off-site would look different than success on-site. This is especially true for audiences who do not feel represented in museums. To connect the Museum’s aircraft collection to students’ lives, I encourage them to see themselves as the aircraft designers. My audience is transient, so I designed the program to fit this objective into one week.

On Monday, we examine and compare aircraft diagrams from the Museum’s collection. On Tuesday, students draw scale diagrams of their own aircraft. On Wednesday, we turn these drawings into models using 123D Design. On Thursday night, using the Museum’s 3D printers, I print each model so that students can hold an artifact of their own creation. I collect addresses from each student and send their model to a loved one. It is heartwarming to see the students buzzing with creativity, feeling proud and calling home to talk about their work.

On Friday, my students receive copies of their drawings, screenshots of their models, certificates of completion, and letters recounting the skills they used, the good behaviors they showed and an invitation to visit the Museum when they are released. I also give them time to reflect.

Sketching It Up took two years of piloting, researching and networking. It was important to be clear about my intentions, to put the students’ needs first, to think realistically about the service I could provide, and to deepen my empathy so that I could better understand the challenges my students face. Talking to professionals who do similar work and to young people who’ve been through traumatic experiences was crucial.

I drew inspiration from all around me. I attended local lectures, panels and events; signed up for professional development at the Youth Development Institute; observed a friend teach at Doe Fund and asked her students what teaching styles they preferred; interviewed the founder of Voices Unbroken;brainstormed with peers at Children’s Museum of the Arts; set up conference calls with teachers at Rikers; and read about total strangers, like this one.

Here are some best practices I discovered along the way:
  • Identify the resources you have to offer.
  • Identify logistical challenges to work around.
  • Learn about and respect student stressors, boundaries and needs.
  • Adhere to clear, structured objectives that relate to the students’ lives.
  • Find advocates who can match your program with receptive participants.
  • When planning a lesson, build scenarios for students to practice healthy habits of mind.
  • When teaching, disconnect from your ego.
  • Maintain high expectations for student work and provide the support they need to meet those expectations.
  • Give students opportunities to be experts and to feel heard and seen.
  • Highlight student strengths through positive reinforcement.
  • Share hope and optimism by viewing students as museum-goers and lifelong learners.

If I ever begin to doubt the connection between cultural institutions and criminal justice reform, I think about what my students told me in their reflections and I remember to not give up and aim for great—because we are capable of stuff we never thought of. I hit my stride last summer, finally connecting everything I learned about my audience, myself and the social work of museums. This year, in addition to sharing this case study at the American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting, I will be presenting at the 100Kin10 Annual Partner Summit,  and New York City Museum Educators Roundtable Annual Conference. If you attend any of these conferences, please come by and say hello!

Megan Bednarz
Museum Educator for Community Engagement
Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum

Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum complex

Friday, April 21, 2017

TrendsWatch: Now Live On the Web

Each year there’s a fleeting instant when I’m more or less happy with TrendsWatch—the moment I hit “send” to transmit the text to my editor.

Then I open my news feed and see a great story related to one of TrendsWatch themes and IT’S TOO LATE TO SNEAK IT INTO THIS YEAR’S TEXT. #frustration.

I update my presentation about TrendsWatch before each new gig at a museum or conference, but that’s only partial comfort because most people consume the forecast through the PDF download or the print edition.

So I’m very happy that my talented digital colleagues at the Alliance (HT Liz Neely and Josh Morin) have created a web version of TrendsWatch to help you stay up-to-date with the trends as they play out across the year. This site supplements the print and PDF editions by aggregating content from across the Web—twitter feeds, blog posts, articles, breaking news. It enables you to be a digital reader over my shoulder, seeing stuff I discover in my daily scanning.

Some of you have already visited (or tried to visit) the TrendsWatch site because I shared the address——in the report itself. Jumped the gun on that a bit, I did. How convenient that one of the chapters this year is about the important of taking chances, rapid iteration, experimentation, and failure! I’m going to flaunt the development of TrendsWatch’s web version as an example of practicing what I preach. We came up with the idea of a web presence for TrendsWatch last year—we knew what we wanted it to do, and that it fit within our broader plan for experimenting with content on the web (it is a subset of the new Alliance Labs site). We had a general idea of how a web version would work, and committed to actually inventing it as we went along.

As it happened, some of our ideas were harder to implement than we anticipated. It wasn’t entirely obvious, for example, how make articles I tag in Diigo automatically feed into the site. And it took longer than expected to find a collection of Twitter feeds that I trust enough to show up in the site without human supervision. (A lot of promising feeds have a significant number of tweets that are personal, NSFW, or otherwise off topic.)

I know several hundred of you visited the site while it was in prep (we kept an eye on the traffic), but we waited until we were relatively happy with how it’s working to make a fuss over the launch. That would be now. Please, visit, browse, and tell us what you think! I would very much like to hear your opinion on its design and functionality. Would you rather read the text online, or do you prefer the downloadable PDF (or print edition) for consuming the report itself? We’ve packed a lot of content into each section—is that useful, or distracting? Are there things you would like to see on the web that aren’t there yet? Please give us your feedback via this short survey, and/or using the comment section, below. Thank you!

Yours from the future,


Thursday, April 20, 2017

Failing Forward: Prototyping, Mistakes, and What We Learned

Our next annual meeting preview comes from Linda Norris, Danielle Steinmann, and Maura Hallisey. At their session “Failing Forward” (11:15 am on Wednesday, May 10) they will share stories about rapid prototyping from the perspective of two historic house museums—The Olde Manse and the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. If you’re still waffling over your schedule, this teaser may convince you to put this session on your conference dance card. (Registration is still open!)
Linda: At our session we’ll share prototyping tales from our experiences in the most conservative of museum places, historic houses, and with our most conservative of audiences, our fellow staff members, including guides. We promise, the way to learn rapid prototyping is to rapidly prototype. Danielle, can you give CFM’s readers a preview of the lessons you will share in St. Louis?  
Danielle: When faced with an unfamiliar challenge, I often hesitate before taking the plunge. Trying new things doesn’t come naturally to me. As a kid, I was called, “over-achiever” and “type-A” because I stuck to things I knew was good at. Later on, I started to realize that sticking to my comfort-zone was holding me back. An article in Psychology Today –The Trouble with Bright Girls—was a revelation for me.   Turns out, I’m not alone, and, in fact, my gender may have played a part in making me this way. In brief,
“…bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice…And because bright girls are particularly likely to see their abilities as innate and unchangeable, they grow up to be women who are far too hard on themselves...and give up way too soon.”
Trustees Chief Marketing Officer Matt Montgomery
shares his team's prototype for understanding
an Aeolian harp at The Old Manse.
Linda: I was never one of those perfectionists--and I’m still not. It might stem from growing up in a big family, trying new things. As an independent museum professional, I know that perfection is the sure path to never quite getting paid for the work I do.
Danielle: How does this relate to our work in museums? The most recent AAM Trendswatch had this to say in the article Failing Toward Success: “Museums, as a sector, share a culture of perfection that places large bets on getting a product…right the first time. Museums that decide to move away from dysfunctional perfectionism have to work consciously to change an organizational culture that discourages risk taking.”
That’s a tall order, especially for those of us who are not in top leadership positions. Such a profound shift in the culture requires a great deal of support and practice.
Participants in the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center's
first prototype:  front parlor conversation. 
Linda:  Early in my career, I worked at a children’s museum where we tried new things all the time.  Those lessons have stuck with me, but the urge for rapid-prototyping gets stronger all the time.  Maura, can you share our very first Harriet Beecher Stowe House prototype--along with our fears?
Maura: Our first prototype in 2014 kicked off a shift in our organizational culture where we began to try new things, make mistakes, and learn. Our tour had been a traditional house tour--deeply biographical, lacking an overall thesis, and the stories were dictated by the objects or rooms in the house. Internally, some staff, from interpreters up to executive leadership recognized that our tour failed to convey the mission of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center: to connect the past to the present and inspire social justice and positive change. But other staff thought any shift would threaten the historic integrity of our tour and not satisfy the public. We began prototyping in a divided house with some staff on board and others not. We tried anyway and introduced new elements to the tour that shifted away from traditional tour techniques.
Fear was a fundamental part of the process. For staff tasked with leading the prototyping, there was a fear that failure would derail any attempts to further re-imagine the tour and would cause all staff to lose confidence in the process. For staff tasked with selling/marketing and delivering the tour, there was a fear that failure would cause the public to lose confidence in us and be unsatisfied with their experience. Both of these fears I think do arise from a type of perfectionism. No one on staff wanted to be wrong, either in front of colleagues or in front of the public. 

Danielle: Inspired by Stowe and other innovative approaches we embarked on refreshing the interpretation at The Old Manse. It’s a site with layers of history. Over the years our tours had lost focus. For many staff, a big fear was letting go of particular stories and I tried to be sympathetic to that. Many had been there for a long time and had a great deal of ownership over those stories. They worried that visitors would miss out on something. It was difficult to honor that loyalty and passion while still moving forward.
Linda Norris is Global Networks Program Director at the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience (www.sitesofconscience.organd previously worked as an independent consultant focused on interpretive planning. Twitter and Instagram: @lindabnorris.  

Danielle Steinmann is Director of Visitor Interpretation at the Trustees. Twitter: @thetrustees.

Maura Hallisey is Priogram Coordinator at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center  @hbstowecenter.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Wordless Wednesday: See You in St. Louis?

#AAM2017 #StLouis @LaumeierArtStL @tonytasset
You can still register!
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, April 18, 2017

Effective Altruism

Today’s post by Susie Wilkening is the first in a series profiling sessions I picked for CFM’s annual “Guide to the Future at the Annual Meeting.” I hope these previews help you plan your schedule in St. Louis. Susie will be moderating the session Effective Altruism, Evidence-based Giving, and Museums at 10:30 am on Tuesday, May 9.  She and her panelists will be looking at a trend that may significantly disrupt traditional philanthropy over the next decade—I recommend it you to your attention!

Imagine you are in a museum, and you are standing in front of a masterpiece. Starry Night, perhaps. Or a Gutenberg Bible. A young child is standing beside you, also looking.

But disaster strikes. You have to make a choice … save the masterpiece or save the child. It is on you. No one else can help. Which do you choose?

Perhaps you think my scenario is fanciful. We are never presented with that kind of choice in real life.

Or are we? Are we making that kind of choice, a life or a masterpiece, every time we give money to a museum? Are we asking others to make that choice when we ask for funds?

Peter Singer, the Princeton philosopher and advocate of effective altruism, would say yes. That when someone gives money to a museum (he loves to single out museums specifically; my scenario is inspired by one he presents in his book The Life You Could Save), that individual's gift may have cost others their lives.

How? He estimates that it costs $1,000 to save a life in developing nations with inadequate food, shelter, and medical care. Since museums don't save lives, a $1,000 gift to a museum means the loss of one life. A gift of a $1,000,000 means 1,000 lives lost.

Thus, the moral choice, nay, the moral imperative, is to save lives, not donate to museums.

And he's right. At least when you paint it in such black-and-white terms. But is he?

Effective altruism is an evidence-based philosophy in which philanthropic gifts are given to organizations that are most effective at saving the most lives. By that measure, museums don't make their cut.

While relatively few people practice true effective altruism, it is influencing broader philanthropy. Increasingly, donors and foundations are looking for harder evidence of impact from the philanthropies they support. In practical terms, it means that a donor or foundation that, say, wants to support early childhood development is going to look much harder at the evidence a museum provides about their work in this area … and compare it against other organizations also working with young children. How will the museum's evidence stack up? Is it enough to say that you spark a love of learning? Probably not.

This shift in philanthropy, with that greater emphasis on evidence of impact, is something that all museums are facing. Heck, we are even facing it in the national budget and in many state and local budgets. Measuring impact has never been more important.

And that's why Dean Phelus at AAM encouraged me to chair a session on effective altruism, impact-based philanthropy, and other shifts in philanthropy that matter to museums. I've pulled together three incisive women to discuss these shifts, and how museums can and should respond.
  • Laura Callanan: Founding partner of Upstart Co-Lab, which creates opportunities for artist innovators to deliver social impact at scale. In particular, she focuses on connecting artists with social entrepreneurs and impact investors to deliver significant impact in communities.
  • Kat Rosqueta: Founding executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy, which helps donors leverage evidence to achieve the greatest social impact. 
  • Putter Bert: President and CEO of KidsQuest Children's Museum, who has first-hand experience dealing with some tough questions about impact from local donors and foundations.
But here's the thing. This shift toward high-impact philanthropy is good for museums. It is good for our missions. And it is good for our audiences. If we want more individuals to value the role museums play in people's lives, we have to be as effective in our work as possible. This doesn't mean turning our backs on our missions, but instead doing our own hard work to understand the actual impact we are having in the lives of individuals, collecting that evidence, articulating it broadly, and focusing our efforts on the things that matter the most. Understanding, measuring, and maximizing impact only makes our work better.

And without such evidence of impact, museums will suffer. Greatly. So will our society. Because I happen to believe, and my most recent research underscores, that without the work of museums, it will be harder to raise new generations of empathetic, critical thinkers who understand the cultural challenges of real global change … and who will care about those issues in the first place.

I hope you can join us at our session in St. Louis! 

Susie Wilkening (@susiewilkening) is the principal of Wilkening Consulting. She has 20 years of experience in museums, including over ten years leading custom projects for museums as well as fielding groundbreaking national research on the role of museums in American society. She resides in Seattle, and is working hard to raise her two young children to be empathetic, creative, global citizens … by taking them to museums early and often.

Susie shares her latest research and data insights at The Data Museum blog and book and research reviews on The Curated Bookshelf.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Monday Musing: Impact Investing

Usually when I attend a conference, I hope to come away with a few good thoughts, maybe a lead on a person or resource I can look up afterwards. Rarely does a conference change the way I see the world.

I attended SxSW last month and one sentence, from one speaker, on one panel, did just that. Here is the line that rang my bell:

Every time you spend a dollar you are creating the world you live in.”

The speaker was Seth Miller, founder and partner at Fearless Ventures, and I’d gone to the session Investing to Change the World to learn more about the use of private investments to drive social change.

Though I’ve written about the growing tendency of people to parse the ethical implications of everything they do and buy (see “Ethical Everything” in TrendsWatch 2015) I hadn’t stepped back to consider the relative value of what I give to good causes versus all my other spending. Even supposing I virtuously decide to tithe, what is the impact of each dollar going to charity compared to the other nine I spend on myself? For example, what’s the impact of my donation to Environmental Defense Fund, compared to that of the money I spend on food, clothing, and transportation? All of those systems have a profound environmental impact.

Which brings me to today’s musing on the news. Last week the Ford Foundation announced it was committing $1 billion to investments that not only “earn attractive financial returns but concrete social returns as well.” Ford and a growing number of other foundations are beginning to realize that every dollar they invest creates the world they live in, and adjust their strategies accordingly.

The traditional financial model for charitable foundations is to manage their investments for maximum financial return, and then measure the good they do through the spending the legally mandated minimum 5% spending rate on their endowment. By adopting impact investing, foundations treat every dollar they manage as a lever to create change. An investment that offers great financial returns may produce results that are “anathema to the values of the foundation itself.” An alternate investment might offer modest financial returns, but create impact that advances the foundation’s mission. Foundations began divesting themselves of actively offensive investments (such as tobacco) some time ago. Through impact investing they actively seek companies that do good for people and the environment, AND offer a financial return. And, as several speakers at SxSW emphasized, investing in positive impact doesn’t have to mean sacrificing financial profits.

I recommend the article to your attention: it provides an overview of some of the legal developments supporting this shift and discusses some of the concerns foundations have (notably the risk of eating into the corpus of the endowment if the fund managers make bad bets). 

The author also lists a number of other foundations beginning to experiment with impact investing. Some of these—for example the Kresge Foundation and the Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation–-have historically been generous funders of museums. And this is where you should perk up and take notice. How will museums adapt to a future in which funders focus on the overall impact of their dollars, and actively seek out companies that produce both mission-related and financial returns?

Speakers in several sessions touched on the desire of foundations to create impact at scale—to make significant progress in solving gnarly problems, rather than simply mitigating harm. One attractive feature of impact investing is that large companies can leverage large, global change. What is the best way to eliminate poverty by 2030? Or meet any of the other United National social development goals for inequality, health, economics and the environment?  Many foundations are re-examining their vision of the world they want to live in, and concluding “philanthropy won’t get you there.” Or, like the MacArthur Foundation with its 100&Change competition last year, deciding to make big bets on projects that promise big impact, rather than making many small grants.

As one speaker said, “impact is not a category, it’s a mindset,” one focused on the mantra “is it good for people, is it good for the planet?” And as funders start applying that mindset to managing the bulk of their funds, they will begin to apply it to their grantmaking as well.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Wordless Wednesday: A Symphony of Smell

@LeGrandMuseeDuParfum #multisensory #perfume 
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, April 11, 2017

Honoring Curiosity

Emily Graslie, Chief Curiosity Correspondent at the Field Museum of Natural History, has been named as the 2017 recipient of the Nancy Hanks Memorial Award for Professional Excellence.

As a long-time fan of Emily’s YouTube series The Brain Scoop, this pleases me enormously. As a futurist, I think it highlights important shifts in how museums do their work, and on the evolution of our profession. Past recipients of the Nancy Hanks Award have included directors, educators, people working in collections and registration, even a chief bioscientist. I believe Emily is the first awardee, however, whose principal role is communicating the value of research collections to the public.

And an important role it is. To build the case for public support of the enormous collections museums care for behind the scenes, we have to let people know those collections exists, and explain what they are for. Ideally, we need to make them fall in love with museum collections—a courtship at which Emily excels. She makes specimen preparation fun and accessible, whether it’s clearing and staining fishes or skinning a wolf, and explains how science helps us understand our world. (Did you know bird vomit can help us reconstruct history?)

Emily is a role model for women in science by doing what she does so visibly—The Brain Scoop has over 393,900 subscribers—and by talking about what it’s like to be a woman doing science. (I wish I’d seen the Periods + Fieldwork episode before gearing up for my first trip overseas.) She also confronts sexism head on, asking Where My Ladies At? in science-related social media and shining a fierce light on the bullying women are subjected to when they become online content creators.

Emily was an undergraduate art major at the University of Montana when she started volunteering at the campus’ natural history museum. She made her first Brain Scoop video while working odd jobs that enabled her to keep volunteering after graduation. The Field Museum recruited her after she visited Chicago to film an early episode. I’ve blogged about notable people in our field who come from “non-traditional” backgrounds. I think Emily’s road to the Field Museum helps makes the case for museums taking an open-minded, agile approach to hiring.

While the title “Chief Curiosity Correspondent” may or may not become a thing, I hope we see more positions devoted to communicating the wonder, excitement, and day-to-day reality of the behind-the-scenes work at museums. That will be key to inspiring young people from all sorts of backgrounds to join our profession.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Monday Musing: Orphan Collections

A Facebook post the week before last from staff at the natural history museum at the University of Louisiana in Monroe caused a stir in the museum world. The post shared a directive from university administrators announcing that if an alternate location for the collection could not be found within 48 hours, it would be given away to a new institution, and if the collection wasn’t removed from campus by the end of July, it would be “destroyed.” (After having been displaced from several campus locations, the collections were being stored in an athletic facility, and the July deadline was triggered by plans to expand the running track.)

An update in Science magazine last week shared good news: the Monroe collections have been issued as a reprieve because “dozens and dozens” of other museum and academic institutions have offered to adopt the orphaned collections (details to be worked out). Cue cheers for our field, ever ready to find a good home for an orphaned collection.

But I’m troubled by the long term implications of this situation, which is only the latest example of university research collections at risk of being abandoned or destroyed. In the Science article Robert Gropp, policy director at the Natural Science Collections Alliance and interim director of the American Institute of Biological Sciences, observed that “[this] speaks to a broader problem of this country. We are not investing in research infrastructure in a coordinated or thoughtful way.” I agree, and we need to think long and hard about what that investment might look like, and where the money will come from.

One fundamental question we need to ask is what kind of institution will be most committed to the long-term success of the collection? It often seems that university museums and collections of any kind are inherently vulnerable. All too often administrators make decisions they feel are in the best interest of their academic institutions but are destructive to the museum or the collection. Museum standards are supposed to put a check on actions like selling a collection to pay operating expenses, or destroying a collection outright without regard for its value to the public. But presidents and provosts often argue they need to look at the greater good of the university, pointing out that they are not primarily in the business of running a museum or caring for collections. Research collections are particularly at risk. Often they were created as an integral part of the work of the faculty, and were seen as part and parcel of the business of being a university of a certain type. But research and funding has shifted away from traditional taxonomy, and institutions of higher education across the country are questioning just what purpose these collections serve. In fact, that question was explicitly raised at ULM, where the directive said staff could keep one room of “teaching collections.” (Don’t get me started on what that statement says about the writer’s understanding of teaching, taxonomy, and training researchers.)

I am profoundly relieved that other museums have stepped forward to save the ULM collections. However, over time, if situations like this continue to occur (and I fear they will), we will see the gradual consolidation of research collections into fewer, larger holdings. Maybe that scenario promises some benefits. Large, centralized collections might be more efficient to manage and make accessible. (The relocation of the ULM collection will interrupt an NSF-funded digitization project scheduled for completion in 2019.) Creating a few, national centers for research collections might magnify the impact of federal funding by alleviating the need to replicate infrastructure.

But centralization comes with significant disadvantages too. For one, this scenario would limit the opportunity for students to train in research collections. Many already fear that we are already losing the science of taxonomy just when it is more important than ever that we be able to identify species and document the effects of rapid ecological change. Consolidating collections also concentrates risk. Terrible as it is to lose relatively small research collections (LSU Monroes collection is reported to consist of 3-6 million fish specimens and 500,000 herbarium specimens), distributing collections among many institutions also partitions the risk. If we cultivate a future in which there are only a handful of major repositories for collections of a given type, the damage will be that much greater if one center is struck by natural or man-made disasters (including budget cuts).

Whether we support distributed research collections or choose to consolidate in a thoughtful manner, it will be more important than ever to help research collections create income streams that buffer them from the vagaries of support from other sources. Universities will always have competing priorities, and are themselves in a time of rapid economic and cultural change. Government funding is always vulnerable to the overall economy and to policy changes. Biological research collections have not generally attracted major individual philanthropic gifts or private foundations support. Earned income from membership, space rental, travelling exhibits etc. can always be directed to other uses.

To help build a sustainable future for research collections, the Alliance is exploring how such collections can develop income streams tied to their inherent strengths: the specimens themselves, associated data, expertise of their staff and the facilities created to house and use the collections. In an earlier post I blogged about a NSF-funded workshop that I helped teach last December. FutureProofing Natural History Collections: Creating Sustainable Models for Research Resources, co-organized by the Alliance, the Ecological Society of America and Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History was the beginning of what I am sure will be a long process of inventing new income streams for research collections that will help ensure that they do not become economic orphans. The May/June issue of Museum will feature my write-up of the workshop, and I’m working with ESA, staff at the Peabody and others to create more opportunities to explore this topic in depth. The need for stable financial models for biological research collections is real, urgent and growing. I’d love to hear about how you are finding new ways to fund your work.  
Entomology collection at NMNH. Now THAT'S
a research collection.  

Friday, April 7, 2017

Futurist Friday: AI Takes Joy in Painting

What happens when artificial intelligence takes a deep look at art-teacher-cum-t.v.-star Bob Ross? Alexander Reben decided to find out, applying machine learning algorithms to video and audio tracks of Ross's shows. 

The result is the eerie mashup video Deeply Artificial Trees (embedded below). The soundtrack, generated by Wavenet, mimics the tone and rhythm of Ross's distinctive narrative, without real language. For the video, Reben feed original footage through "Deep Dream" algorithms. The system teaches itself to identify images in the original footage--Ross, the dog/person/deer etc he is painting--and then overlays images of what it "thinks" it sees. 

A little glimpse into how machines are teaching themselves to interpret our world...

(I found the video via this story in Engadget.)

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Wordless Wednesday: Checking out Empathy

#Empathy @TheHumanLibrary #TrendsWatch 2017
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, April 4, 2017

Tweeting about the Future

Hello future peeps. I’m enormously encouraged by the reception for TrendsWatch 2017. People have been sending me links to great articles related to this year’s topics (empathy, criminal justice reform, artificial intelligence, migration & refugees, and productive failure) and I’ve scheduled a super roster of guest posts about related work.

I’ve also been collecting Twitter accounts that consistently deliver good content around these trends. I embed some of the stories I find through these accounts into CFM's free weekly e-newsletter Dispatches from the Futureof Museums, and this week I created Twitter lists so you can follow these sources directly, if you like. I’ve chosen accounts that devote a large majority of their content to the relevant topic, tend to embed links to resources or highlight upcoming events, and retweet good stuff. I favor organizational over individual accounts to minimize the incidence of off-topic personal tweets.

Here are links to the lists, together with some highlights from each. I will expand and tailor these lists throughout the year—please please please use the comment section (below) or tweet me @futureofmuseums to suggest accounts you recommend I add to any of the themes!


This list is anchored by the tweets of the Empathy Museum, and includes a range of interesting programs around the world including the Center for Empathy in International Affairs, EmpathyLabUK, and a classroom program dedicated to reducing bullying and aggression called Roots of Empathy.

Criminal Justice Reform

I am a fan of the Equal Justice Initiative (their founder and director, Bryan Stevenson, will be a featured speaker at the AAM annual meeting in May.) I also find consistently good content in the feed of The Marshal Project, a nonprofit newsroom that covers the US criminal justice system. Criminal justice reform is a global issue,  and the list also includes the feeds of Penal Reform International and the International Commission of Jurists

Artificial Intelligence

There are a lot of Twitter accounts that mix interesting news about AI in with other tech and futurist topics, but I’ve found relatively few that are primarily about AI. This list includes the official feed of the IBM Watson project, as well as the AI Newsletter, The Coming Future and a few others. I hope you can help me identify some feeds I should add.

Migration and Refugees

Many rich, informative Twitter feeds focus on migration and refugees. I've picked a selection that take a variety of approaches to the topic: data and storytelling; US and international; news and policy. The list includes the feeds of the Migration Museum UK and the Migration Museum of South Australia, as well as several feeds associated with the United Nations. I've also added the official feed of the Refugee Olympic Team, which I have followed since they first competed in the Rio Olympics last year.  

Failing Forward (the rise of agile design)

I’m having a hard time building a good Twitter list around this topic, which encompasses the productive use of failure as well as practices such as design thinking and agile design that use small, rapid failures to improve outcomes. I started with the feed of Dana Mitroff Silvers, who does a lot of design thinking work with museums, and added a few groups such as the Stanford and OpenIdeo that work in this area, but the feed is still a little thin. I hope you can suggest some good feeds to beef up this list.

If you haven't got a Twitter account, I hope this post inspires you to dip a toe in the twittersphere. Used selectively, it's a great way to participate in conversations about a variety of topics and make connections around the globe.