Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Portable Museum: or, how is the Corcoran different from a hockey team?

Great headline: Dallas, Arlington pursuing College Football Hall of Fame, but Indiana museum say it's staying put.

Apparently two municipalities are rivals in courting the College Football HoF, each offering premium sites (in Dallas, next to the new convention center, in Arlington, adjacent to the Cowboys’ new stadium.) Isn’t this wonderful? Don’t you wish it were trend—that museums were seen as such hot commodities that they were wooed by various communities seeking to lure them to a new home?

And why not? It might be a better solution than what often happens today, when museums struggle to find a strategy for sustainability in a city where they just don’t seem to fit. Take, for example, Washington DC’s Corcoran Gallery. I love the Corcoran. It’s a great museum with great collections. However, it’s located in a city blessed with incomparable museums, many of which offer free admission (and many of which are subsidized by the federal government.) As a result, it has struggled financially for decades.

Attempting to solve this problem the Corcoran has tried several strategies, including, most recently, staff layoffs. The most creative was an aborted bid for distinction via an addition by Frank Gehry. (I admit I was rooting for this—the dissonance provoked by one of Gehry’s signature piles of wet noodles, rendered in sheet metal, standing practically across the street from the Second Empire wedding cake that is the Old Executive Office Building was irresistible.) In the public debate that followed the cancellation of those plans, one of the proposals fielded by a member of the public was that the Corcoran become, primarily, a museum of photography. The reasoning was (to paraphrase only slightly) “because Washington doesn’t have one of those yet.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for collections planning (in fact, I wrote "the book" on it), but seriously proposing to deaccession much of a glorious collection to force the museum to fit an empty cultural niche? Oh, the indignity.

I think it makes way more sense to move the museum to a niche that it already fits. I’ve already written about the fact that museums may need to be portable in the future. They may be forced to move for ecological reasons, such as rising sea levels, or for demographic reasons, such as the need for an ethnically specific museum founded in the city to follow its community to the suburbs in the third generation. So why not economics? Whether it is a museum in a formerly wealthy city like Detroit that is no longer able to support all the cultural organizations founded in its heyday, or a museum which is the weakest player in an oversaturated market such as in DC, there may be a case for simply picking up stakes and moving.

And there will be no shortage of vital new communities ready to receive them. Immigration, shifting patterns of economic growth, and changes to our basic infrastructure of energy, food and transportation will create new urban centers and cause some American cities to expand dramatically at the expense of others. These growing centers of population will need museums! Moving an established museum with a sound infrastructure (good collections, quality programming, solid management) might be a better that the usual “hey kids, let’s start a museum!” method of filling emerging niches.

There are precedents in other sectors. Bidding wars for sports teams are so common that it’s sometimes hard to remember whom one should be cheering for. And annual attendance at US museums is higher than all major league sporting events combined (I love this statistic.) So museums should be seen as equally desirable economic drivers. And what about institutes of higher learning? When James Buchanan Duke wanted a university named after his father he didn’t found one, dammit. He did it the old fashioned way—he bought one. (Though he did not insist that it relocate—it was, conveniently, already situated next to his tobacco warehouses).

Indeed, there are examples of museums that have moved, or considered moving, to entirely different communities. Before it closed in 1994, the Terra Museum of American Art, in Chicago, flirted with a move to Washington, DC. On the other hand, this proposal wasn’t impelled by any crying need for more art museums in the nation’s capital (or I wouldn’t be blogging about the Corcoran.) Rumor had it that the idea was motivated by the founder's widow’s desire to establish her presence in the Washington social scene. Perhaps a better example is the Heye Foundation’s Museum of the American Indian, which Ross Perot offered to buy and move from New York City (where the collection was moldering in unsuitable storage conditions) to Dallas. Instead the collection became the core of the National Museum of the American Indian and moved to…you guessed it, Washington DC. (Am I seeing some patterns here? DC and Dallas as gravitational wells of museum attraction?)

Of course it’s not that simple. For one thing, we seem to have a simple mental block against considering museums as portable cultural assets. They seem so, well, monumental, so immobile. It might be no coincidence that the news story that leads this post is about a sports museum—perhaps sports collections take on some of the free-market ways associated with their subject matter. Beyond cognitive barriers, some museums truly are place specific—you can’t just port the local historical society to a different state because it can’t balance its budget. And there may be other obligations to place and to community—it could be more responsible for a museum to downsize to fit a contracted economic niche than to abandon its old constituency for one that can offer more money.

But still, as we think broadly about the future, the default assumption that all museums are tied to their present location is worth questioning. Try the exercise in your own institution. What is the projected future of your community, its needs and economic capacity? What is the projected future size, and focus, of your museum? Will you and your current audience and supporters continue to be a good fit? And, if you were free to pick any place in the US to be situated, what do you think is your natural home? Now…feel free to solicit bids.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Materials of the Future Museum--Vote Now!

Classic scene: Ben Braddock is being grilled by Mrs. Robinson’s posse about what he is going to do with his future, his life, when Mr. McGuire spirits him outside to the dark quiet by the suburban pool. “I just wanna say one word to you…just one word” he murmurs, “Plastics.”

It’s a funny line because plastic seems so…pedestrian, so mundane. So unsexy. But it has, in fact, had a profound effect on our economy, ecology and daily life. So Mr. McGuire, in addition to being a good comic foil, was being a good futurist. In the CFM lecture last fall, Dr. Jane McGonigal, of the Institute for the Future, explained her profession in this way: “Instead of seeing the future, we try to make the future…and the way we do that is by figuring out what the materials of the future will be like. What are the most important ideas, the most important technologies, the most important demographic trends, cultural shifts, climate changes, things that might have an impact across all sectors of society? If we can learn how to work with these materials, we can actually shape a future that we want to live in.”

Of course it can be really hard to accurately spot the next big thing, something that will shake up the world. Sometimes because it creeps in slowly (like museum audio guides, which I recently read were introduced, in a primitive format, way back in the 1950s) or because they represent saltatory, unpredictable change (like the invention of the internet.) A good way to prime your imagination for identifying the most promising materials of the future is to look into the past. What ideas, concepts, trends have shaped the way that museums look and behave now? Another way of asking this—if you could go back in time and prevent some thing from happening, some thing from being invented, when you came back to the present, what would be the difference? (Next time you find yourself with a museum crowd in a bar, trot this out. It starts some pretty interesting arguments.)

You might start with physical materials. Plate glass for example. Where would museums be without vitrines and display cases? This “barrier without a barrier” lets the visitor get up front and personal, without compromising preservation. (Sure, plexi is lighter and easier to work with, but I see it is a refinement of the form, not a transformative breakthrough.)

Then there are mechanical advancements, like air conditioning. You could argue that, since in a simplest form (cool water circulating in ducts through a house) air conditioning has been around since the time of ancient Rome, its eventual mechanization and large scale application was inevitable. But let’s say that in 1902 when Willis Haviland Carrier fired up his prototype it, I dunno, blew up and killed hundreds of people, leading to a ban on mechanical air-conditioning. Can you imagine modern museums without their current fixation on impeccable climate control? (Historic houses aside.) And what about visitation? I bet there would be a lot fewer museums in places like Louisiana and Florida if, for most of the summer, visitors had to contend with sweltering temperature and liquid air.

Move on to technological innovations, such as relational databases. Physical card catalogues and ledgers kept track of museum collections for centuries, but can you really imagine tracking the few million research specimens in any moderately large natural history museum (much less the 136 million objects in the Smithsonian) without such programs? Or the severe limitations on tagging and searching even much smaller collections?

Perhaps the most fun to analyze (and predict) are the trends in cultural norms and behavior. Two examples from the past, nominated by my cronies are:

  • The narrative exhibit. “Without it” observes Ann Fortescue, director of education at the Heinz History Center, “objects would be on view without the voice of the museum professional (educator, curator, exhibit developer, designer, etc.) linking them together or telling a story, and the visitor experience would be to make sense of a museum’s collections on their own”
  • Randy Delehanty (historian, Presidio Trust) on the other hand, cites the trend of “disenchantment with the so-called "master narrative" in history and art history and the call for its replacement by multiple points of view.”
Now that your brain is primed and focused on the problem, shift your gaze to the future. If you walk into a museum in 2034, what will be startling different, and what “material” made this change possible?

We posed a variant of this challenge to attendees at the recent AAM annual meeting in Philadelphia. Players of “FutureQuest” were invited to vote for the “most promising material of the future” from among the products, services and ideas presented by vendors in MuseumExpoÔ. There were some fringe votes (one player fingered the Chinese Association of Museums, pointing out “in 2034, there will be more museums in China than in the U.S.” Smartie pants.) But most players settled into a close examination of the products in the hall, and how they might be used by museums to effect change. The result? A three-way tie, actually, and I am counting on you blog readers to cast the deciding votes. The finalists are
Fentress Architects, specialists in sustainable architectural design
GestureTek , designers of no-touch virtual reality experiential environments
Green Guestbook, creators of a visitor-driven touchscreen data collection system

And weigh in with your comments on the blog about ideas, materials, technologies, and trends that will transform our field in the coming decade. (No, Phil, you can’t nominate personal jet-packs.)

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Resurrection of the Amateur Expert

Of all the conversations instigated by CFM so far, the one arousing the greatest passion is about the changing role of authority. The CFM report Museums & Society 2034 highlights a cultural shift in which people want museums to recognize and value the expertise they bring to the table, rather than just serving as providers of authoritative content. This points to a future in which museums (and in particular, curators) are moderators of conversations rather than lecturers, filters rather than point-sources.

This really, really upsets a lot of museum people. They sputter that it will lead to museums being purveyors of popular pabulum and perpetuators of misconception, brokering consensus rather than delivering truth.

But truly, I think in many ways presenting this as a new thing in museums is setting up a straw man. Isn’t it actually a long circle back to the culture that gave birth to many museums in the U.S. at the end of the 19th century? Many of these museums were founded by “amateurs” in the best sense of the word—individuals deeply learned in their fields, but who were not paid for acquiring or using that knowledge. I was vividly reminded of this last week at the Academy of Natural Science of Philadelphia, which was founded by “gentleman naturalists.”

Note the “gentleman.” Herein lies the rub—most of these amateurs were credentialed by their wealth, rather than their training or erudition (though they had plenty of that, too.) Today’s museum professionals have little wealth (unless they inherit it) or job security (unlike their tenured brethren in academe) and so they rely heavily on their educational credentials and professional authority to derive their status in society.

Amateurs never went away—they faded in importance as various fields (art, science, museology) became professionalized. Perhaps they dwindled in number for a time as mass produced culture (delivered via radio, TV and the internet) supplanted self-generated content—I am not sure. My father certainly was a passionate amateur in the best 19th century tradition. Born in 1919 to the classic penniless immigrant Jewish family that fled Russia during the Cossack pogroms of 1905, he studied hard and achieved the American dream of becoming a successful tax attorney, which he found financially rewarding but intellectually unfulfilling. So he became a self-trained scholar in archaeoastronomy and biblical studies, publishing in peer-reviewed journals in both fields. I was, early on, trained up as his designated translator in French (for his studies of Megalithic sites in Brittany) and ancient Greek (background for his exploration of the intersection of classical myths with stories in the old and new testaments.) As a teenager I found this to be an enormous and unreasonable burden, but now I treasure this side-effect of his passions.

Part of my father’s success in his amateur endeavors came from his utter confidence that anybody, no matter how famous or prominent in their field, would be willing to talk to him, based on their shared interests. This resulted in friendships or collegial relationships that encompassed Yigal Yadin (one time deputy minister of Israel but trained as an archaeologist), Immanual Velikovsky (the somewhat nutty Russian émigré who believed that Noah’s flood was caused by a proto-Nova explosion on the planet Saturn) and Charles Hapgood (regarding the authenticity or lack thereof of the Vinland Map—historic cartography was another of my father’s interests.) I remember playing under Buckminster Fuller’s desk as a little child as my father and he discussed utopian architecture.

In my experience many people have such enthusiasm for some subject—and such pools of self-assembled expertise. But few have the chutzpah to waltz into a museum and ask for access to the collections (as my father regularly did at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, to my deep mortification as an undergraduate—he always insisted I come along.) His position was that the collections were there for the public. He was right, and in fact the curator was always happy to accommodate him, but how many members of the public know they can do that?

One great quote I heard at the recent AAM annual meeting was “the future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed” (usually attributed to the science fiction writer William Gibson.) With regard to the need for museums to welcome and validate the “expert amateur” this is certainly true. Cincinnati Museum Center, where I worked before coming to AAM, relies heavily on amateur experts in collecting, preparing and caring for its collections particularly in natural history (cleaning fossils, reassembling potsherds, stuffing dead birds with cotton to create study specimens) and history of technology (c.f. the infamous “machine tool guys” who used to be machinists at Cincinnati Milacron.) There were pockets of snobbery (notably in the archives, where staff griped about amateur genealogists taking up their time) but on the whole, if you were “in the know” you had not only had access to the collections, you were in imminent danger of being press-ganged by the overworked staff.

So the question isn’t whether museums can behave like this, it is how to get more museums to behave like this, and let people know that they behave like this. I think there are segments of the museum community that have not adopted this culture of access and community input (notably fine art). And there are masses of knowledgeable, talented amateurs who, unlike my father, don’t realize that they can breeze in, ask to see the stuff and pick the brains of the certified experts.

I think the most productive way to pick away at these issues—museum culture and public image—is to identify and solicit input from potential collaborators. One such community is historic costumers and re-enactors. These folks have a strong interest in creating and wearing clothing from previous centuries. And in the process of reconstructing how clothing was made and worn, they generate loads of information, from the properties of materials to the influence of the resulting design on behavior. (I am assured you don’t really know what a pavan looked like until you see it attempted in corset and historically accurate footwear…)

Many historic costumers gathered this past summer in Florence at the Costume Colloquium: A Tribute To Janet Arnold where they mingled with everyone from museum curators and academics to amateur enthusiasts who go to academic conferences for fun. In addition to networking, they explored a variety of themes including the status of current costume research and education and the use of Janet Arnold’s historic costume patterns in theater and re-enactment. Through a friend who attended the conference (a fencing buddy, by the way, not a museum colleague) I have invited some of those attendees to comment on this post to start the discussion. So, tell us guys—what is your experience with accessing museum collections and expertise? What do you want from us and what can you contribute to our work? Do you encounter any barriers to getting what you need or giving what you can? Are there any museums that set good examples of how to make their resources accessible, and harness your expertise?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Beyond the Talking Heads: an experiment in format at the AAM annual meeting

You may have noticed, when submitting session proposals for conferences, that everyone seems to be encouraging something more creative and interactive than the usual “talking head” panel format. My favorite responses to this challenge are skits, a puppet show and (of course) audience exercises.

Sometimes, however, the delivery of content and commentary lends itself really well to the traditional panel format. Before the AAM annual meeting I pondered how we might layer some element on top of this approach to provide more opportunity for interaction between audience members. Hence the introduction, in the CFM session “A Glimpse of the Future,” of what I dubbed “physical Twitter.” (You can follow CFM on the “real” Twitter.)

In this session James Chung and Susie Wilkening of Reach Advisors presented a short overview of the CFM forecasting report, “Museums & Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures,” and directors Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko (General Lew Wallace Study & Museum) and Howard Taylor (San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts) offered commentary. Audience members were provided with notecards, encouraged to jot down their thoughts, questions and ideas—and then pass them around the room during the session.

I deem this experiment a success because it provoked strong reactions on either end of the spectrum. Some people loved it. Others hated it so much that they impounded the cards that passed in front of them, refusing to share the tweets with anyone else; or they twittered about how much they disliked the exercise. Sample comments:

  • It’s like, legal to pass notes in class now? Amazing!
  • Can you Twitter and listen? Not sure that I can!
  • Heck yeah. I prefer it!
  • If we are twittering instead of listening to the real person in front of us, we could do that with a CD and reduce our carbon footprint.

The results were more like discussion threads than individual tweets—the entries were often more than 140 characters (sometimes considerably longer) and people added many layers of responses to initial comments. A sample thread flying about the room:

When “minorities” are the majority, will there be less demand for ethnically-specific museums (as we enter a post-racial society) or more?

  • Interesting! I don’t know!
  • We will eventually all share all backgrounds
  • Or be irrelevant
  • The ultimate melting pot—so we get “closer” instead of fragmenting apart
  • Interesting messaging challenge to attract new audiences and have them stick to you!
  • Or, does it move from minority groups to individuals, with everyone wanting to have a say and see themselves reflected in museums?
  • On target with youth expectations that they are the drivers
  • Race relations today are very different than 40 years ago. 40 years hence they will be twice as different.

Re: James and Susie’s presentation: what will happen with the “baby bust” Gen Xers who are squeezed between aging Baby Boomers and the myCulture generation? What will be their role in museums?
  • They will be consultants/freelancers because of layoffs/downsizing & the need to care for their aging parents.
  • Will this generation be stuck taking care of aging parents with no retirement $? Where does this leave museums that used to inherit retirement money?
  • Go back to the older sociological model of multi-generational families that take care of each other and do social activities (like going to museums) together. We’ve separated our family units and sanitized our experiences (daycare, nursing homes), which has had critical effects on society
  • Create incentives for parents & grandparents to share history and culture w/ future generations.
  • I have seen “grandparent memberships” as a category
  • And “grandparents” programs for grandparents raising their [children’s] kids
Other threads explored the future of the “green museum,” the tension between the virtual and the real (a very popular topic), and which museum functions could be performed by robots in the future.

You might give physical Twitter a try if it complements material you are presenting. However, my recommendation, based on this experience, is to establish a “no tweeting” section for people who are really irritated by physical (or virtual) messaging when they are trying to listen to speakers.

What else? I am interested in hearing your ideas for low- or high-tech interactives to enhance the exchange of ideas during sessions. Apropos of which, session proposal forms are up for AAM 2010 in Los Angeles. I hope you submit some great ideas for future-related sessions, with some innovative formats.