Thursday, August 31, 2017

No Walls, New Ways: Giving up the Building to Connect and Create

Hi, Nicole here! When the Floating Museum project came across our scanning feeds, Elizabeth Merritt and I were both excited by the concept. We wanted to know more about the project and how it re-imagines where museums can do their work. The team at the Floating Museum asked  independent curator Leslie Guy to share her thoughts about the project with us. Here, Guy explores the power of responsiveness and the importance of believing in community wisdom.

The city as a museum: The Floating Museum on Chicago River
Since 2015, the Floating Museum has developed a series of temporary, site responsive installations around Chicago.  Working with local artists, historians, and organizations, this collective’s work critiques conventional museum ideology while fostering community engagement and dialogue. This Chicago-based artistic collaborative activates sites designed to elevate and enhance the cultural potential of its neighborhoods.  Each of these site-specific activations is an equal exchange of knowledges, insights, perspectives, and expertise between the artistic collaborative and local stakeholders.  Their work embraces the unknown at a time when the scarcity of funding incentivizes safe programming with predictable outcomes.  There is significant risk in being unconventional when the funding community is more apt to support traditional, amply-resourced and well-established organizations.  But, creativity and innovation flourish in spaces that can accept ambiguity and encourage the pursuit of the seemingly impossible.


   Stakeholder conversation: Planning meeting at Southside Community Art Center

         Stakeholder Conversation: Chicago Teacher’s Union

The Floating Museum is a collecting institution with holdings ranging from items donated by the community and  works made by contemporary artists to images of objects owned by other repositories.   The artifacts that comprise the Floating Museum’s collection are valued for the meanings that have accreted over time through their use and reinterpretation. The valuation of items in the collections is non-hierarchical; preference is given to the meaning conferred from the multiple exchanges and social interaction between the maker and the collector. Ultimately, the items in the collection are physical manifestations of the  social network that enables the collective’s project.    
Project Onward: Donation from artist Adam Elias Hines

The Floating Museum’s structures change in response to its environment.  Its forms have ranged from a barge floating on the Chicago River, to temporary  edifices in a local park, to a mutable  activation in a museum. Each of these was created to house the activities and knowledges peculiar to the given locale. The Museum’s projects resonate beyond the duration of the activation, as every interaction alters the collaborative. The team’s process of change, comparable to the formation of recombinant DNA, is precise, deliberate and intentional. Information gleaned from new, creative community partnerships is incorporated into the structure and knowledge base of the Floating Museum. The exact result of the each incorporation is not always clear. What is known is that incorporating new concepts and respecting seemingly divergent ways of knowing not only strengthens the collaborative’s work but also ensures that it remains viable and relevant.
Project expansion: Impact schematics  

In an effort to broaden their constituencies, many museums have relied heavily upon educational and public outreach programs designed to draw visitors to the museum building.  As an alternative to this strategy, mobile museums have offered methods of community outreach that can meet people where they are. But, while a mobile museum can successfully address geographic and economic barriers to access, the more complex issues of content, context and message can remain. The Floating Museum works to address these issues by embedding itself within community and by situating their practice at the nexus of challenges. And, this engagement in turn fuels the creative output of the collective.     

Imagining Structures: Illinois Institute of Technology students
in a class taught by Floating Museum Co-Director Faheem Majeed

Museums in Neighborhoods

“[The neighborhood museum]  encompasses the life of the people of the neighborhood -- people who are vitally concerned about who they are, where they come from, what they have accomplished, their values and their pressing needs.”   -- John Kincaid speaking on the formation of the Anacostia Museum in Storefront to Monument:  Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement by Andrea A. Burns

Chicago  is a complex and diverse city encompassing 237 square miles  and home to 2.6 million inhabitants living in 77 officially designated community areas. Despite the vastness of city, Chicago’s  major cultural institutions are concentrated in close proximity to its renowned lakefront.  The majority of the city’s 100 distinct neighborhoods exist beyond this narrow geographic region.        
Austin park: Youth engage in a building exercise
Inspired by the Black Museum Movement and models like the Kunstverlein, the Floating Museum began their first community activation in the Austin neighborhood of the city.  The impact of the work of Dr. Margaret Burroughs - a pivotal force in the Black Museum Movement, founder of two community-based institutions in Chicago,  and a mentor to two members of the Floating Museum - resonates within the work of this collective.    

In her writing about museums and location Sophie Forgan reflects, “While the respectability of institutional buildings, at least, lends credibility to the  knowledge embedded within museum displays and activities,  there are other aspects that may be examined.   A site may be acquired and a suitable edifice erected, but the resulting building is rarely isolated from its context and may be affected by the type and reputation of the neighboring urban elements.” Moving throughout Chicago and intentionally operating outside of the established cultural corridor, the work of the Floating Museum confronts conventional ideas about situational value and the primacy of locale in order to provide an innovative platform for the creative output of neighborhoods.

Austin park: Young residents use sticks and tape
to create a new museum structure

The Floating Museum collective includes Andrew Schachman, Avery R Young, Faheem Majeed and Jeremiah Hulsebos-Spofford. The Museum will be presenting a new installation in September 2017 for Singing Stones, a group exhibition curated by the Palais de Tokyo’s Katell Jaffres as part of the first Hors Les Murs in the United States.  

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Provoking Proposals for Phoenix

 The call for proposals for AAM’s 2018 Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo is open! I hope you are busy working on ideas you want to present in Phoenix next May.

While I work on my own session proposal, I stop periodically to make notes on sessions I hope other people are putting together. Here’s are a few topics that I, personally, would love to hear about next year—one for each of the STEEP categories (social, technological, economic, ecological and policy/political) that guide futures scanning.

I’ll go in reverse order (PEETS?) so I can lead with a policy trend related to this year’s conference theme (how museums celebrate the ways that learning and innovative educational practices can bring people of all ages, ethnicities, and demographics together). Can anyone put together a panel sharing how museums are integrating with the increasing number of schools and school systems adopting personalized learning? That phrase—“personalized learning”—is being used in a variety of ways. Sometimes it refers to computer software that lets a student progress through content at their own pace. I’m interested in the broader concept—that schools should help students tailor their course of study to their own passions and to the ways they learn best. Sometimes this approach is implemented by individual schools (such as Canada’s Blue Sky School), sometime by chains (such as Wildflower Montessori micro-schools).  Some states, notably Vermont and Rhode Island, are embedding personalized learning into the public school system. I’m hoping for a future in which students incorporate museum resources into their personal learning plans, and I’d love to hear from museums already engaged in this work.

On to Ecology. Many communities in the US and around the world face significant threats from climate change—rising sea level, increasingly frequent and severe storm events, extreme heat, drought etc. etc. City planners have to grapple with how to adapt to these risks. Some communities (internationally, some whole populations) may need to relocate altogether. I would love to hear from museums taking a lead in helping their communities plan for that future, whether through exhibits, public forums, or participation in formal government planning teams.

Economy. Financial sustainability is one of three thematic areas of focus in the Alliance’s strategic plan. For that reason, I’ve been blogging and speaking about a number of innovative, mission-related income streams being developed by museums around the world: museums operating co-working spaces or business incubators, providing professional training to medical students or law enforcement personnel, building business models around research collections resources. Some museums are becoming developers, landlords, even hotel operators in pursuit of both mission and financial stability. I hope some sessions in Phoenix share other emerging business models.

My next pick looks at the potential ripple effects of the growing popularity of personal genomics. Companies such as 23&Me are creating business based on relatively affordable home “spit tests” to create personalized reports about an individual's DNA., which already has built a thriving business around genealogical research, has launched AncestryDNA, with the sales pitch “uncover your ethnic mix, discover distant relatives, and find new details about your unique family history.” I’ve always considered personal genealogical research as a way to hook people on history more broadly. Are there museums out there helping people use their personal genomic profiles to connect to stories, and objects, in the museum?

Wrapping up with a social/cultural issue, I would really like to attend a session that might be titled “Difficult Conversations in the Age of Social Media.” There are so many platforms now on which people share their concerns—this makes it extremely challenging for an organization to figure out when, and how, to respond. When is it effective to use Twitter to respond to tweeted complaints, and when it is better to pick up the phone? How can museums respond when a negative hashtag goes viral? I don’t know whether to classify this as part of the public relations track (and drop hints to the PR and Marketing Professional Network), or whether this is more a more fundamental issue regarding communications skills, and communication norms, in our digital age. I just know I could use some shared wisdom on the topic!

I asked my colleague Dr. Nicole Ivy, Director of Inclusion at the Alliance, and fellow museum futurist, whether there are any sessions she would like to instigate. She suggested Museums and the Future of Work. Nicole writes, “Futurists and other thought leaders describe a future workforce characterized by automation, distributed work sites, and increased freelancing and contingent work. Many people project that in this new and fundamentally changed workforce, the conventional educational path (college courses and degrees followed by graduate-level study) will give way to new forms of professional development. These new forms of training will enable workers to quickly learn new skills and practice them in globalized and evolving job markets. Has your museum witnessed signs of the changing work landscape? Have you utilized new tools—including open data and artificial intelligence—to transform your museum’s internal operations and/or visitor engagement? Have you recruited--or hired--staffs whose educational backgrounds lie outside of traditional museum studies professionalization? How have you, or your museum, initiated or responded to changes in the way the field does its work?”

Neither Nicole nor I sit on the National Program Committee, so we don’t get a vote on what is included in the final program. What we CAN do is offer feedback, advice, leads and encouragement if you want to develop any of these ideas into session proposals. Contact us at emerritt (at) and nivy (at) On
Twitter I am @futureofmuseums and Nicole is @nicotron3000. You can use the comment section, below, to search for collaborators, and/or start a discussion thread on Museum Junction. I look forward to seeing you in Phoenix!

Update as I publish: The Museum of International Folk Art and the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience are organizing a session proposal around the theme of working with people in prison and invite other organizations doing similar work to contact them about possibly joining that panel presentation. To take them up on this invitation, contact Tramia Jackson, Program Associate, Methodology and Practice, International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, tjackson (at)

Yours from the future,