Wednesday, April 22, 2009

“MyCulture”: the salvation of museums or the end of excellence as we know it?

As promised, I have posted a summary of the discussions about the “myCulture” trend from the Crowdsourcing the Future game I led at the Museums in Conversation (MIC) conference in Tarrytown, NY earlier this month.

“MyCulture” is the term used in the CFM report Museums & Society 2034 to refer to the growing expectation on the part of young audiences that they should be able to shape their own experience. This generation expects to personalize their museum experience much the same way they personalize their cell phones. They don’t want to be presented with only static content, they want the opportunity to contribute, modify and share. Possibilities for the scope of this involvement run the gamut, including:
• Technologically gloried versions of the old comment book (e.g., opportunities to share photos on Flickr, or comments via a museum-sponsored blog)
• Social tagging (audience contribution to annotating and organizing information about the collections)
• Opportunities to create separate, parallel interpretation (via podcasts for example)
This is a very broad set of options, with huge differences in the implications for the kind of involvement being invited, and the kind of control being ceded by the museum. As Nina Simon points out there is a big difference between participatory design (audiences helping create exhibits) and design for participation (exhibits designed by museum staff to encourage user involvement.)

Let me see if I can summarize what I have heard so far, positive and negative, in reaction to this trend. (These summaries, including the extreme language, are largely taken verbatim from the Tarrytown discussions as well as commentaries on the CFM blog and “chatrooms.”)

“How wonderful that people want to be involved in interpreting the museum’s stuff! What a great way for museums to promote dialog and remain (or become) relevant. Yes it could be confusing, but exciting, to say the least. The value of collections will speak for themselves when visitors can have meaningful interactions. In the future, museums that survive will be all about dialogue—that is why they will survive.”

“Such practices will only create and extend shared ignorance. Opening interpretation and content to audience input will suck up vast amounts of curatorial time in weeding out what little value might be hidden in the dross contributed by the audience. History and the meaning of artworks, etc., will be revised by hackers and various other nefarious sorts whose only interest in museums is wreaking havoc and professional staff will be unable to clarify/provide “better” or more complete understanding of objects/art to the general public.”

It is clear that museums practitioners are very concerned about the effect of visitor-generated content on accuracy. However, one thing that we as a field are cultivating is a better appreciation of the expertise that visitors bring to the table. Many of the conversations in Tarrytown touched on this. A speaker on social tagging pointed out that users know how they describe and remember paintings, and how they would search for them in a database. (Which, by the way, has almost no overlap with the expert curatorial description.) Another attendee told of how an antique-car buff was able to help the museum pinpoint, within a two-year span, the date of an historic photo in their collection, based on the makes and models of autos in the scene.

And there are clear models for how such a synthesis of curatorial and user expertise can be brokered. A case in point is the Flickr Commons Project
. As I understand it, curators monitor and select comments that go into the official metadatabase in the Library of Congress. This takes advantage of broad input and highly specialized expertise hidden in “the crowd” but still exercises quality control. Now, this does imply a changing role for the curator, from author to editor. Museum subject specialists become moderators of the unruly but immensely valuable process of gathering, filtering and synthesizing user expertise. This might not be the career some people had in mind when they became curators, which, I think, is the source of much of the rancor swirling around this issue.

Good—so the visitors are experts about some things in their own realms. I think we can all agree to that, though we will debate how to identify and validate what levels of expertise. And there are ways for museums to apply quality control standards to user contributed content, if they allocate resources to do so. I want you to consider a more controversial point. How important is it that museums and museum content be right? A lot of the fears I hear about user generated content is that it may be “wrong,” inaccurate or simply unguided. Here is my heresy of the day: maybe it is better to be wrong but interesting than right but boring.

This thought, which had been percolating for some time, coalesced last Sunday as I watching my fencing coach teach the first class of a beginners group. I expected Vitali to demonstrate the correct classical and arcane elements of footwork, armwork, maybe lecture them a bit on the rules. Instead he floored me by suiting them up, putting foils in their hands and inviting them to fence each other…and him. “It will give them an intuitive understanding” he explained later. “They discover for themselves what works.” Almost everything they did in that first half hour was, in any traditional sense, wrong. But they sure were enthusiastic about trying. Maybe enthusiastic enough to plow through the boring and painful job of learning footwork…and getting it right eventually. For me, this demonstrates the importance of welcoming and inviting passion, creating a way to discover or flush out raw talent with the presumption that you can shape and refine it later.

So, call me on this. What are the various levels of “wrongness” or ambiguity that a museum might tolerate or welcome, as a by-product of embracing user-generated content? When are these valuable, or at least tolerable as side effects of winning hearts and minds, and when does it cross the line into mere mediocrity? Your turn…

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Crowdsourcing the Future of Museums

Crowdsourcing (n): the process of taking a task traditionally performed by an employee or contractor and outsourcing it to a large group of people or community in the form of an open call for input.

Earlier this month I enlisted the help of some 200 of the best and brightest of the New York museum community to crowdsource the future of museums. Presented with the trend data extracted from Museums & Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures (M&S 2034) projecting radically higher energy prices in the next 25 years, attendees at the Museums in Conversation luncheon on March 30, 2009, in Tarrytown, N.Y., came up with some pretty creative scenarios.

This exercise was the Beta-test for a game “Crowdsourcing the Future” that we will run again at the AAM Annual Meeting next month at the session “Shaping the Future” on Sunday, May 3 at 9 am.

Nina Simon kicked off the conference with a brilliant keynote encouraging museum practitioners to be generous, greedy thieves who steal, adapt and share good ideas. I have gleefully embraced this philosophy, and freely admit I have stolen and adapted the format of this game from Jane McGonigal’s recent project Signtific and intend to share it broadly with you and others. Here is how the game works:

After absorbing some trend data (in this case taken from M&S 2034), players take a few minutes to create a “mini-forecast” of something they think will be true of museums in the future, in light of this trend. They write this on a big colored sticky note, slap it on top of a “game card” (an 8 ½ x 14 piece of paper) and pass it to the person on their left. That person responds by playing one of four response stickies:
• Challenge, explaining why they disagree with the forecast
• Support, agreeing and building on the idea
• Adapt, envisioning what this forecast would look like for themselves or their institution
• Question, asking for clarification

As the game cards are passed around the table, each player comments and expands on the mini-forecasts, building the physical equivalent of an on-line discussion thread. The ground rules are that all forecasts can be shared in forums such as this blog, unless they are marked “Private,” and that if people want to be credited they identify themselves on their forecast.

Here is a typical thread, taken from several hundred created at the luncheon:

Mini-forecast: In 2025, museums will serve as leaders in their communities for generating projects to create energy and foster plans for better energy consumption.
• “I don’t see any reason to believe that museums will be leaders in this—we’re traditionally energy hogs and are the last to adapt to new technologies.” Good point. Usually the best predictor of people’s future behavior is their past.
• “Museums could serve particularly well in partnering with other institutions that are positioned to lead in this area.”
• “We have to find ways to literally sustain our operations and teach our visitors to do the same.”
• “[At my museum] I will spend 4 hours a day shoveling @#$#! into furnaces, and the other 4 writing grants.” There always has to be a smartypants in the audience, yes?
• “How will this work for institutions that do not have technology/energy/etc. as part of their expertise or mission?”

A longer summary of content the energy forecasting in this exercise is posted on the CFM website.

Practiced on this scale, as a brief, provocative interlude, this exercise’s primary use is shifting peoples’ focus for an hour or two from dealing with short term problems on a small scale (“how will I staff the museum this Saturday with three volunteers out sick?”) to long term challenges on a broader scale (“Who will be volunteering in museums in 10, 20 years and how will that affect how we staff the museum and do our work?”) Both kinds of planning are necessary to run a successful museum, but all too often the first kind of thinking gets all our time and attention. Spending some time, on a regular basis, thinking about the longer term will inevitably leak into our planning and decision making, making it more likely we will steer towards the future we prefer to live in.

Practiced on a larger scale, I think that crowdsourcing the future of museums has great potential and power. CFM plans to summarize and deliver to the field the best forecasting we can find about a variety of trends that will affect museums in the future, from energy production to demographic and social trends. But no one can forecast the trends in museums—our culture and operations—better than the field itself. How can we best harness the wisdom of the crowd (and we have a large number of experienced experts in our crowd!) to see where we are headed?

My vision is to create a “National Museum Forecasting Network” to solicit and synthesize the predictions of a large number of expert museum practitioners nationally and internationally, and encourage an even broader group to comment and expand on these forecasts. Who would you nominate to be a “Museum Oracle,” generating the content for this network? Write and let me know…and don’t be surprised if you get a call from me recruiting you to join!

Next week I will blog about forecasts related to the “MyCulture” trend discussed in M&S 2034. This explores increasing expectations among our audience that they be involved in shaping their own experience at the museum, and contributing to the content.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Future of Carbon-based Conferences

As the AAM staff races to get ready for our annual meeting in Philadelphia at the end of the month, I am thinking a lot about the carbon footprint of such conferences and, more broadly, the environmental impact of the museum field. I think this is worth each of us thinking about—as individuals, organizations and collectively as a field.

As is common in most fields of professional endeavor, each year thousands of museum practitioners travel to dozens (hundreds?) of local, state, national and regional conferences. In the past these gatherings have served as the bedrock of professional development and networking. Is this sustainable in the future? I suspect not.

AAM has been taking steps to “green” its meeting (for example, providing reusable water bottles, supplying handouts as downloads and choosing tote bags made from recycled materials.) The California Association of Museums looked at this issue very thoroughly at their 2008 meeting
. Maybe there are further steps to be taken at the AAM meeting as well—less “loot” given away in the vendor hall (much of which I suspect ends up in the landfill); totebags intended to be reused at the meeting year after year with “add a badge to your bag” provided for attendees who want to commemorate their attendance over the years; maybe even handheld devices that exchange contact information in lieu of physical business cards.

While these are, or would be, worthy steps I worry that they merely tiptoe around the edge of a much larger ethical dilemma. What is the impact of having such physical meetings at all?

I recently played with a cool carbon calculator at the Choose Climate website. Assuming the average participant’s trip for an average AAM meeting is from the center of the country to one or the other coast, the emissions per trip total .12 tons Carbon (as CO2) per attendee. Choose Climate proposes that to stabilize CO2 levels, we need to cut emissions by 60%, to .4 tons C per person. It this case, a trip to a national meeting (like AAM) eats up nearly a third of each attendee’s total sustainable carbon emissions budget for the year. Ouch! CAM addressed this issue by purchasing climate credits to offset the conference energy use, but they acknowledge the need to examine the long term effects of this method of managing carbon emissions.

Right now many people are reconsidering travel anyway because it is not affordable. This will continue to be a challenge—even though the economy will (eventually) rebound, energy prices will (eventually) soar as we pass peak production of oil. But even if we solve our money and oil supply woes and travel miraculously becomes inexpensive, we still have to face the deferred costs. Energy use is never cheap—it is simply that the price is charged to the future. The bill for affordable travel over the last fifty years is now coming due in the form of carbon buildup in the atmosphere, increased climate instability and rising sea levels. Mitigating or adapting to these risks will not be cheap, for museums or for society as a whole.

I think it is time we start considering the alternatives. One thing that immediately springs to mind is conferences in virtual worlds such as Second Life. My reaction is: eh, maybe, eventually. I have attended several and not been blown away by the results. Perhaps it will work better in a future when everyone shares an intuitive grasp of how to navigate virtual realms (the result of growing up using such environments and improved design.) And I certainly believe that the technology supporting such experiences will improve in ways we cannot yet imagine, as well as those we can - faster connection speeds, higher speeds in the average PC processor, better and more realistic graphics. What are the elements of the meeting that can be performed well virtually (e.g., content delivery) and which parts are harder, if not impossible, to recreate (e.g., schmoozing and socializing?)

My friend Nancy Lutz, from Tucson, Ariz. proposes a mix. “My thought is to move to a virtual meeting where people sign onto seminars (pay as you go) and participate via skype or something similar. Museums in a region could host these web-based sessions so that there's a component of people sharing ideas in the same room afterwards, sparked by the panel/experts, but a manageable number and not just large Q&A sessions. Then every other year there could be a big trade fair in Vegas where those who are interested could view/test the latest products.” (Note Nancy has cottoned on to the availability of cheap hotel rooms in Vegas. How appropriate. Aren’t museum people inherently, at heart, gamblers? I mean really, can one rationally expect to make our budget numbers work?)

How best to mix virtual and physical components of a meeting is one interesting question. Another is: What things are possible in a virtual conference that would be impossible in the real world? Perhaps we could hold workshops where attendees actually design and build virtual exhibits or whole museums. Perhaps speakers can lead attendees in tours of museums and cultural sites across the virtual equivalent of the real world to illustrate their points. Maybe hundreds or even thousands of attendees can give real time input to ideas, proposals or forecasts presented in a single session.

What are your ideas? What does the conference of the future look like, and would you go? Leave comments on this blog, or visit the AAM Annual Meeting Blog.

And a note to CFM Blog readers! CFM is running the real time interactive game FutureQuest at the annual meeting to help attendees explore a futurist theme and encourage them to push content out to colleagues who cannot attend. (And just to demonstrate that not all games require technology, players can earn points by sharing their insights through mechanisms as low tech as sending postcards and writing on the Wall of Ideas. Though use of blogs, Facebook, Flickr and Twitter are great, too!) If you are attending, I hope you will play. If you are not, recruit a colleague who is going to join FutureQuest and share what they learn at the meeting with you via the game.

For those of you who are coming to Philadelphia, I hope to see you at the CFM New Connections and Ideafest Reception we are holding from 5:30 – 7 pm on Friday, May 1 at the Loews Hotel. We museum folk will be joined by a contingent of interesting Philadelphians from other sectors eager to share their ideas for what museums can be in the future, and talk about what we can learn from their fields of endeavor. The reception is free, and open to all attendees.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Lost Generation

I am contemplating two trends that, taken together, are pretty grim.

The first is our aging population. This trend by itself is not alarming. In fact, as a member of the baby boom expecting a welcome letter from the AARP within the year, I am delighted that my generation is entering its home stretch* in relatively robust health. We can expect to stay actively involved in work, sports, culture and life in general for years to come. Given our huge numbers, I enjoy the influence we wield on society as government and business scrambles to meet our needs (however much it makes my Gen X and Gen Y office mates grind their teeth). We’ve trained as activists our whole lives, dammit, and we are going to wield that experience to get attention now.

The second is the rotten economy. I know that any faint interest I had in early retirement was banished by contemplating my latest 401(k) statement. That typifies the experience of individuals my age, I think. And I count myself fortunate that a diminished 401(k) is all I currently face--museums are responding to the financial crisis by freezing hiring, downsizing or outsourcing functions whenever possible, and many respected colleagues are out of work.

Between boomers hanging onto existing jobs like grim death, and the spectacular lack of new job openings (confirmed by AAM JobHQ’s plummeting ad revenue) where does that leave today’s and tomorrows’ museum studies students? In a pretty bad spot, I fear.**

I am particularly empathetic to this situation because my husband faced an analagous scenario trying to break into academia after graduate school in the mid-1980’s. His training was in botany—seaweed ecology to be precise—and he had solid history of research and grants topped off by a Masters degree in public policy. Eminently employable, on the face of it. So what was the problem? In a nutshell, nobody was hiring. Old coots were hanging on to tenured faculty positions instead of retiring, so no one was being hired to replace them .

After a few stints as a post-doc (which trust me, gets old real fast) my husband gave up and went into consulting in the for-profit sector. Of his whole cadre of fellow students, very few ended up as practicing research scientists. I don’t think it did America much good to lose a whole generation of ecologists (see what a grand job we’ve done taking care of the environment without their help!) and I worry about the consequences of losing a generation of museum professionals.

This isn’t just altruistic sympathy for the many fine students I have met. I am also concerned what these trends mean for the future of museums as a whole. Consider, for example, the field’s legitimate obsession with diversifying our ranks. As Museums & Society 2034 points out, we face a future in which America is “majority minority” (African American, Latino, Asian, other.) Yet only one in ten core museum visitors today belongs to an ethnic minority. The consensus is that one key to attracting greater minority participation in museums is to “look like them.” In order to understand and serve the needs of our communities, in order to present a welcoming face (literally) we need to have staffs that reflect our community’s demographic composition. That’s certainly not true now-- and only one in five museum staff is minority. And the diversity that does exist tends to be concentrated in younger staff, not in the top ranks.

I hear over and over again the plaint from search committees that they want more a more ethnically diverse candidate pool for leadership positions. Well guess what, you can’t pull minority candidates out of a magic hat. If you want to hire from inside the museum field, the only answer to this dilemma is a long term solution via the pipeline of recruitment and training. And if today’s slightly more diverse students can’t get a job now, where does that leave us in 2034, when we are looking for museum leaders to navigate “minority majority” future?

So its time for some creative group thinking. Let’s figure out how to save this generation of museum professionals in training. Here are some questions to get the conversation started:

• How can we persuade individual museums to factor into hiring freezes and layoffs the need to nurture the next generation of professionals? How about a table of equivalents: 1 VP = 5 future professionals—invest in the future!

• How can we maintain connections with museum studies graduates forced to take jobs in other fields? They will be compiling experience in other sectors (private or public) that may make them even more valuable to museums when the economy turns around. Can we keep them engaged as volunteers or adjunct staff? Develop them as prospective board members? Can we solicit and value their input to our community discussions via on-line forums, blogs, wikis etc?

• What can we do to provide ongoing training to museum-professionals-in-waiting? I know one barrier to my friends reentering science, once forced into other lines of work, is how quickly they fell behind developments in their fields. Can we provide attractive, affordable on-going professional development geared to museum studies graduates waiting for opportunities to reenter museum work?

• What advice can we give museum studies graduates regarding alternate careers? Given their training and interests, to what other professions are they pre-adapted ? And what other fields would we like them to enter, in order to skim off the best ideas from those areas of endeavor, and bring them back to us!

Please, everyone, weigh in. If you are a museum studies student, or a recent graduate, what is your experience in looking for work? What alternate careers will you consider, if you can’t find a museum job? What would it take, in that circumstance, to keep you engaged in the field? If you are a museum administrator, making decisions about budgets and staff, what are your thoughts on how to retain the next generation? What value does this investment in the future have when weighed against the museum’s immediate needs?

*Indeed, if you believe the Transhumanists we face the prospect of radically longer lives, whether through biomedical breakthroughs or biomechanical enhancements.

**Especially as the museum staff crunch tends to disproportionately affect traditional entry level positions such as front line staff, and assistants to Head-Pooh Bah in (fill in the blank: administration, exhibits, collections.) This is both because these positions tend to turn over more often (and thus get snagged in a hiring freeze) and because, lets face it, how often do administrators and department heads lay themselves off?