Thursday, July 27, 2017

From Brown vs. Board to Ferguson: Fostering Dialogue on Education, Incarceration, and Civil Rights

In researching the chapter on criminal justice reform for TrendsWatch 2017, I was impressed and heartened by the number of museums working with incarcerated populations. Today’s post is by Patricia Sigala, Educator/Community Outreach Coordinator at the Museum of International Folk Art, who serves as the museum’s representative for the initiative From Brown vs. Board to Ferguson, organized by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.

In late Fall of 2015, the Gallery of Conscience (GoC) at the Museum of International Folk Art (MOIFA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, embarked on From Brown vs. Board to Ferguson. This three-year project, executed in partnership with eleven other museums and historic sites around the country, fostered much-needed community dialogues for youth on the intersectional connections between race, education equity and incarceration in the context of civil rights history.

Organized by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience and funded in part through the generous support of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, this program is designed to draw on the power of museums as safe, brave spaces for community youth to explore what has become known as the “school to prison pipeline” in their communities. Through intensive dialogue trainings, targeted civil rights education, and arts-based activities this program provides youth with the tools and the opportunity to amplify their voices, engage with their communities around these issues, and become leaders and advocates to fight systems of oppression that adversely affect youth communities of color in their communities

The first step for each of the participating museums and historic sites was to identify a community partner with which to develop and pilot a series of dialogue workshops around school to prison pipeline issues in their communities. MOIFA was lucky in this regard as we already had the perfect partner! For several years, MOIFA’s Education Outreach Coordinator had cultivated a strong relationship with the Gordon Bernell Charter School (GBCS) of Albuquerque, New Mexico, through the museum’s popular Folk Art To Go school program. GBCS is an innovative and nationally recognized high school tasked with providing opportunities for at-risk populations to complete their high school diplomas. It is housed both within the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) and at a downtown campus in the city.

As part of Folk Art to Go, MOIFA’s educator worked closely with the art and humanities teacher at the MDC to bring traditional, handmade examples of folk art into the male and female inmate classrooms and conduct workshops on the ways in which folk arts serve as inspiration and a bridge towards cultural understanding. Each tightly monitored 70-minute session also included a hands-on art making activity, often sparked by the inmates’ own cultural or religious traditions, including Hispanic Catholic-inspired retablo painting, amate bark painting, and Day of the Dead ofrendas. The activities also included paƱo (handkerchief) art--a tradition instigated among Hispanic prison populations to send messages home to their loved ones through paintings and messages drawn on handkerchiefs. These sessions were particularly relevant to the targeted students in New Mexico and the detention center, who were overwhelmingly Hispanic and Native American.

As a direct result of the trust built through this collaboration, MOIFA was able to garner support from GBCS to develop and pilot the Coalition’s latest project with female high school students—one of the most affected populations in the school-to prison pipeline. This project works primarily with women between the ages of 20 and 40 working to complete their high school diplomas who were currently incarcerated in the MDC.

Each museum in the From Brown vs. Board to Ferguson initiative developed dialogue programs based on the strength of their collections, exhibits, or missions. MOIFA’s program focused on folk and traditional arts to catalyze these conversations of conscience around these issues. Along with our community partners, we developed a curriculum that used traditional paintings and visual arts, contemporary poetry forms, folk music, and film to spark these conversations.

Over the course of two months in the fall of 2016, MDC women inmates participated in four facilitated dialogue workshops during which they explored their own experiences with the structural issues involving the school to prison pipeline in their communities, especially as they adversely affect women and young girls of color. Each workshop began with participants selecting and talking about samples of folk art that resonated with the their experiences at home, in school, or in encounters with the law; watching a documentary based on oral histories of at–risk youth in school; crafting poetry based on their reactions to the art; analyzing the lyrics to folk songs of protest; or exploring public art forms of protest such as wall murals and graffiti art around the world.

Once we completed the pilot program, we spent the following semester testing it with a group of at-risk youth in Santa Fe, who corresponded with inmate “mentors” through letters, poetry, and art.

Museums can be tremendous resources for incarcerated youth and can help to break the pipeline leading from school to prison. In case you are considering tackling this good work at your own institution, here is some advice based on MOIFA’s work with The Gordon Bernell Charter School Metropolitan Detention Center.
  • Identify and establish a relationship with a member of the prison facility’s staff to support your project, accompany, and supervise your approved visit(s). This individual will be invaluable in opening doors and guiding you in the prison system.
  • Become familiar with the procedures required by the facility you are working with, including forms you need to complete, lists of what you can and cannot bring into the facility (which may constrain your program materials!), what ID will be required, etc.
  • Ask about the procedures for photographing program participants. You may need advance permission from prison authorities, as well as from individual participants. (Some inmates may not give permission due to pending court cases, or other personal reasons.)
  • Eat before you enter the facility, as you may not have access to the staff cafeteria.
  • If you are working on a project that requires more than one visit and you want to reach the same inmate population, schedule your visits a week to two weeks in advance, in order to factor in the dates on which inmates will be released. Be prepared with substitute participants in case a participant is released before your program is complete.
  • Introduce yourself to the inmates and state clearly your objectives. In our dialogues, we collaboratively established ground rules, identified the purpose of and who was the note taker.
  • Be an active listener, taking into account all contributions.
  • Relax, respect and reflect on the unique opportunity you have to engage with incarcerated individuals.

The Gallery of Conscience is a participatory space within The Museum of International Folk Art which draws on the words and works of contemporary folk artists to catalyze conversations and engage communities in issues of conscience in our world. From Brown vs. Board to Ferguson is the second national initiative spearheaded by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience in which MOIFA’s Gallery of Conscience has participated in. The first, the National Dialogues on Immigration, coincided with the Gallery of Conscience’s exhibition Between Two Worlds: Folk Artists Reflect on the Immigrant Experience.

For more on our school-to-prison initiative from the perspective of our community co-facilitator, poet Hakim Bellamy, see the blog post “Changing Lives From the Inside Out.”

Thursday, July 20, 2017

AI and the Future of History

If you want to learn more about how artificial intelligence may shape the future of museums, join me on Wednesday, July 26 at 1 pm ET for a free webinar presented by Blackbaud, with special guests Jeffrey Inscho of The Studio at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh and Blackbaud’s Anthony Tomaino.

If you could chat with any historical figure, who would you choose?

That question (or a variants such as “who would you invite to dinner”) is used as a pick-up line, debated on the web, even used in in job interviews. Now, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, it’s close to becoming a practical question, one with disruptive implications for museums that strive to help audiences engage with the past. What if museums and archives could actually invite people to speak with the dead?

That thought was sparked by reading a recent Wired article in which James Vlahos recounts how he created a kind of digital immortality for his father in the form of a conversational artificial intelligence program. “Dadbot,” as he dubbed the project, draws on transcripts of interviews James recorded after his 80 year old father, John James Vlahos, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. In 2016, James began feeding that data into PullString, a program designed to create “conversational agents.” (James came across PullString when he was research a story for the New York Times about Hello Barbie, a “chatty, artificially intelligent update of the world’s most famous doll.”)

James spent hundreds of hours mining the recordings he’d made with his father (totaling 91,970 words) to create Dadbot.  At first the chatbot could only converse via text messages. Later he used PullString options that let Dadbot talk out loud via Amazon’s Alexa device, and to embed audio files of his father singing or telling stories into the text message threads. Here’s a short video showing Dadbot at work:

Dadbot is about more than content—it’s about capturing some element of personality.  In the article, James says “I don’t want it to only represent who my father is. The bot should showcase how he is as well. It should portray his manner (warm and self-effacing), outlook (mostly positive with bouts of gloominess), and personality (erudite, logical, and above all, humorous).”

When he proposed the Dadbot project to his parents, James explained that his motivation was to share his father’s life story in a dynamic way. His father, while not overly impressed, gave his approval, noting that he is comforted by the thought of Dadbot sharing his memories and stories with others, “My family, particularly. And the grandkids, who won’t know any of this stuff.”

While James created Dadbot to fill a personal need, I see the potential for museums to fill a public need by using conversational AI to bring history to life in a dynamic, engaging manner. I’m not the first to have that thought: James quotes PullString’s CEO, Oren Jacob as saying “I want to create technology that allows people to have conversations with characters who don’t exist in the physical world—because they’re fictional, like Buzz Lightyear, or because they’re dead, like Martin Luther King.”

Chatbots of historical figures, primed by published writings, archives and oral histories could engage with visitors inside the museum, and reach outside the museum to put history in the hands anyone who owns a smart phone. You could even deliver this kind of conversation AI via a robot, though until we get better at emulating human faces, that kind of embodiment is likely to tumble into the “uncanny valley” of looking just human enough to be creepy. (See, for example, this video in which the disembodied head of robot Bina 48 chats with the person her AI is designed to emulate.)

There are a number of compelling projects that use social media to bring historical records to life. From 2014- 2016, Cool Antarctica tweeted entries from the record of Ernest Shackleton’s expedition on the Endurance, transposed 100 years into the future. A coalition of organizations in Leicester, UK—Including the Imperial War Museum—are using the blog Captain J.D. Hills Letters from the Front to publish the letters of this WWI soldier 100 years to the day after they were written. These projects bring history to life by injecting individual voices into social feeds. Historical chatbots could turn this one-way push of content into a two-way conversation.

Are there potential downsides? Sure. For one thing, museums need to work through issues of consent. James sought his family’s permission before building Dadbot. In the future, will museums collecting oral histories routinely seek permission to adapt this content into an AI versions of the interviewee? What about the ethics of using AI to give voice to people who are already deceased—should their families be consulted first? Are figures from the distant past fair game?   

I suppose that when AI become sufficiently advanced, an historical chatbot might be a bit too convincing, leading users to forget they are interacting with an algorithmic emulation of what the real person might have thought, or said. Then again, immersive historic sites such as Colonial Williamsburg already face that danger. By complying with some basic modern standards of sanitation, do they leave visitors with a “sanitized” understanding of what it was like to live in the colonial era?

James, for one, thinks we will have to tackle the ethical and practical challenges presented by advanced AI, predicting that the bot of the future will be able to not only reproduce what people actually said, but “generate new utterances,” and be emotionally perceptive and responsive in a conversation.

So, maybe I will get to chat with Charles Darwin after all.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Bidding Farewell to CFM's First Fellow

In 2015 Dr. Nicole Ivy joined the Alliance as our first CFM Fellow, supported by a Public Fellowship from the Mellon Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies. Training with CFM director Elizabeth Merritt, Dr. Ivy chose museum labor as the focus of her work. In the past two years, she has led the Alliance on a fruitful exploration of issues related to the future of museum work, including the use of internships and emerging practices in unbiased hiring. Today, Dr. Ivy sums up her fellowship experience, and tells readers about her next challenge: joining the Alliance as our first Director of Inclusion.  

Change as a Constant
Octavia Butler as inspiration 

"All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is Change."--Octavia Butler

Strategic foresight is a bit like the organizational development principle of change management blown up on a bigger time scale; it offers us a means for shifting our thinking and actions toward the futures we might create. Futurists don’t predict the future. We work to map it and encourage others to think about how to shape it. We examine the plausible, possible, and preferred futures that we can potentially inhabit and help organizations and individuals create stories (or scenarios) about each of these. A constant in all of this work is change. It is happening all the time, all around us. Some researchers even argue that the pace of change is accelerating in our time.

Of the many, many things I’ve learned during my two years as a Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow at the American Alliance of Museum’s Center for the Future of Museums, perhaps the most transformative lesson I’ve received has been the importance of intentionally tracking this constant change, of scanning multiple sources for its traces and potential directions.  As a historical thinker, I tend to consider change over time as a way of understanding the impact of past actions and movements. Historians are trained to ask questions like: What were the motivations of historical actors at a given moment? How did these motivations change? What were the political, social, and economic drivers of change across a specific historical moment and how do we know? My work at CFM has taught me that engaging the future requires similar lines of inquiry: What are the signs or weak signals of people’s adaptations to current drivers of change? What push- or pull-factors seem to be shaping the direction of a given domain? How do we know? Scanning helps us get at these questions. 

My time as a fellow has also taught me to embrace change in all its messiness, to seek out experimentation and to resist being afraid of failure. The value of failing forward--of not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good--is central to the work of creating new paths toward equitable futures. On the first day of this January’s Future of Education Road Trip, my fellow fellow Sage Morgan-Hubbard and I encountered a Southern blizzard. It grounded us and made it impossible to connect with some of the museums and creatives who’d agreed to welcome us to their cities. Nevertheless, we steered our rented Jeep, Octavia, on down the line. I learned that museums across the Southeast are adapting to changing demographics, climate change, and economic  constraints with a grace and resiliency that we can all learn from. The failing—and, frankly, falling—at the trip’s outset shifted my perspective and prepared me to be open to seeing the innovations  all around me, from the collaborative economics of the group Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi, to the museum professionals in New Orleans who advocated for equity in the future of their museum workforces.

Nicole (l) and Sage (r) at the High Museum of Art

Innovative Thinking Can Lead Technology

I’ve also discovered that the technology of the future is less important than the problems we will solve—or create—with it. People who have known me for a long time are, today, surprised by how much I know about technological innovations after two years on the job. A self-proclaimed “analog girl in a digital world,” I grew up on the wrong side of the digital divide. Even now, my mother’s neighborhood in my home community of Jacksonville, Florida lacks the infrastructure for high-speed internet. Although she pays for wireless service, that service remains spotty and unreliable. Streaming a binge-able show or videoconferencing with colleauges is nearly impossible. I have remained somewhat skittish about early adoption of new tech tools (Alexa, I’m looking at you).

Part of the joy of technological innovation involves breaking things down into their component parts and building them up again. For people who cannot afford to purchase tech tools in the first place, the power of creative destruction can remain out-of-reach. I have come to understand, in my time as a Museum Futurist, that innovative thinking can lead technological innovation and envisioning the future doesn’t just require a fetishization of the tools that can help create it. With these ideas in the front of my mind, I dug into blockchain technology. I learned more about artificial intelligence and how it is currently being used to predict and automate repetitive processes. As a forever “museum person,” I have grown to understand more about how the profession can benefit from open data resources and other innovations to improve visitor experiences. Technological change needn’t exclude those who have less access to wealth.

Image by R. Black

The Future of Labor is an Equity Issue

During my first week as a fellow, CFM founding director Elizabeth Merritt and I talked at length about current issues in the field and how my work might engage some of these. Questions about museums and culuture change were real and inspring for both of us. Once we began to talk about the work that groups like #MuseumWorkersSpeak and #MuseumsRespondtoFerguson were doing, I knew that my fellowship would highlight the theme of labor in some way. In collaboration with the CFM team, I directed my efforts here around issues of museum and the future of work, with a focus on equity as a deliberate through-line. I connected with colleagues and new friends in the field and sought out innovative practices around unbiased hiring. I started this work with the FutureLab: Hiring Bias project in partnership with technology company, GapJumpers. I am honored to say that I will continue this focus on the future of the museum workforce in my new role as director of inclusion at the Alliance. I will remain committed for scanning for change and visioning a more equitable future, as I truly believe that the future of labor is an issue of diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion. As Y-Vonne Hutchinson has stated, "diversity and inclusion is really the labor policy issue of our time." I am grateful to the Mellon Foundation, the ACLS Public Fellowship, and the American Alliance of Museums for this opportunity. I am especially proud to have worked with Elizabeth Merritt and the CFM team and I am eternally thankful to all of you, dear readers, for supporting me on this journey. Onward!

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Portal: A Real-Time Conversation with People Forced to Flee Violence

In TrendsWatch 2017 I highlight Shared Studio’s Portals in the chapter on Empathy. These bi-directional video walls host virtual “face-to-face” conversations between people around the world, and have been used by a variety of institutions, including museums, to connect diverse communities and foster conversations. Today’s guest post, by Nancy Gillette, and Jackie Scutari of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, shares how their institution used a Portal to harness the power of human connections.

"Speaking and connecting in real time makes quite clear my responsibility to do something. To share. To speak up. To give assistance.To speak truth to power.To challenge stereotypes. To act on my values.”
— reflection from Museum visitor

A visitor in the Portal at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum 
speaks with Omar and a friend in Berlin’s Tempelhof airport,
 which provides services to refugees.

The genocidal crimes of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS)
 in Northern Iraq and the war crimes of Syria’s Assad regime have created the greatest humanitarian crisis since the Holocaust and World War II and destabilized large regions of the Middle East as well as Europe. The sheer numbers of people impacted, and the drumbeat of media stories can have a numbing effect.

We at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum found ourselves asking, “How can we help visitors better understand the human consequences of mass atrocities and genocide?”

For three months, our answer was the Portal: an immersive, audio visual experience created and facilitated by Shared Studios that connects strangers across the world in real time. The Portal was part of the Museum’s exhibition, “Genocide: The Threat Continues,” which focuses on the work of the Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide to bring attention to people and places at risk today for genocide and mass atrocities.

The video screen is large, allowing participants to see each other in full scale. The Museum partnered with Shared Studios to connect our visitors with individuals who had fled the Assad regime in Syria or ISIS-occupied areas of Syria and Iraq and who are living in the Harsham internally displaced persons camp in Erbil, Iraq and at a refugee resettlement site in Berlin.

 The Portal with introductory text panel and map showing refugee transit routes.

Why focus on these conflicts?

The Museum has been deeply concerned for some time about the genocidal violence of ISIS in Iraq and the group targeted violence of the Assad regime in Syria. Millions of civilians have been displaced. People are being targeted for persecution and death on the basis of their religious, ethnic, and political identities.

We chose this technology to put people face-to-face in an intimate setting (a repurposed shipping container) and encourage conversation as a way of breaking down barriers and opening our ears, minds, and hearts—and to give voice to those many of us have only heard about in the news.

Thematic graphics panels.

Since meeting someone who has presumably suffered trauma can be daunting, questions were provided to break the ice and connect people along common threads, such as preferences for food and music. On site facilitators were also available on each end of the Portal—if needed—to help get the conversation going. Among our goals was to help people discover our common humanity; to give voice to those victims of group targeted hate; and reinforce the basic notion to our visitors that the problem of genocide did not end with the Holocaust.   

The conversations ranged from serious and moving to light-hearted, with many spontaneous moments. The impact they had on our visitors was undeniable. After speaking with Omar, a Syrian from Damascus now living in Berlin, an eleven-year-old boy visiting with his school summed up his thoughts this way: “He’s like a regular person!” Another visitor remarked: “It was very interesting to get to know someone.  It is harder to generalize or demonize the “other.” Thank you to the Portal project.”

Museum visitors inside the Portal
speaking with Rami in Harsham Camp, Erbil, Iraq.

Awareness and understanding can lead to  deeper reflection and potentially action. The visitor comment at the beginning of this post illustrates the power of the experience to move people to a higher level of caring and consideration of their own sense of agency. As one teacher shared: “As an educator, constantly opening my students’ eyes to current happenings in the world is something I consider one of my duties. Before I can do that, I need to open up my own. Thank you for such an eye opening experience.”

One of the most moving moments at the Portal was this conversation between a Johanna, a Holocaust survivor, and Omar, the aforementioned Syrian refugee in Berlin:

Johanna’s ability to connect with Omar through their shared experience of persecution and flight, and her solidarity and words of comfort to him was a truly profound moment. So many great moments and inspiring conversations took place over the course of the three months, thanks to some thoughtfully deployed technology and the power of human connection. 

Nancy Gillette is Special Exhibitions Manager for the Museum’s Levine Institute for Holocaust Education. Jackie Scutari is Program Manager for the Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention for Genocide.Through its Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, the Museum has worked to bring attention to those who have been targeted for mass violence and genocide by the Islamic State and the Syrian regime through bearing witness trips to the region, educational programming, exhibitions, and special projects, such as the Portal. You can follow the work of these initiatives on social media via  @CPG_USHMM @HolocaustMuseum @SharedStudios

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Wordless Wednesday: Programmable Para-parenting Pod

#babies #parenthood @m_hka @futuryst @dunagan23
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.