Monday, October 26, 2009

Links for Green Rangers

Last week we introduced you to the (first) Green Ranger: Stephanie Almeida, who took up CFM's challenge to explore the environmental impact of museum conferences. She’s attending the Western Museums Association meeting in San Diego this week with CFM founding director Elizabeth Merritt (whose air passage across the continent generated more than a ton of CO2). Watch for updates here and on the WMA blog.

To help Stephanie and other museum professionals concerned about their carbon impact, we’ve gathered some background material and resources. This is a highly selective list, so please feel free to send us additional links.

Context: The best way to get a handle on the welter of data related to climate change is through graphics, so here are more than a dozen (the website in this link has a slightly naughty name, but completely safe for work). The blog “What’s Up With That?” even has a World Climate Widget you can add to your website or iPhone.

Carbon calculators: Carbon Fund and American Forests offer tools for calculating the size of your carbon impact (whether travelling or just sitting at home). Both sites have very good explanations of the underlying assumptions behind the calculations — and opportunities to purchase carbon offsets.

Should you be skeptical? The Christian Science Monitor tackles the “Top 10 green living myths” at Two of the myths deserve closer attention: “if you want to help alleviate global warming, plant trees” and “local food is always greener.”

Plant a tree? Back in 2003, “Straight Dope” columnist Cecil Adams pondered the question “How many trees should I plant to balance my yearly CO2 output?” (His conclusion: “Getting a handle on greenhouse gases is complicated, and we'd be foolish to think we've got it all figured out.”) Just this month, the Washington Post reported that the “Use of Forests as Carbon Offsets Fails to Impress In First Big Trial.” One of the article’s main sources: a recent Greenpeace report that “questions the premise of using forest conservation overseas to compensate for U.S. pollution.”

Eat local? Locavores offer many reasons for eating local foodstuffs, not just the environmental cost of the “food miles” between producers and dinner plates. In an unlikely piece of corporate sponsorship, Hellmann’s, the mayonnaise folks, have become active supporters of the eat local movement in Canada. The right-leaning National Post counters that “the ‘food mile’ perspective severely distorts the environmental impacts of agricultural production.” For a more nuanced view that tries to “balance [global] economic development priorities with an environmental agenda,” visit the World Resources Institute

Contributed by Phil Katz, Assistant Director, Research, American Association of Museums

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Hi-ho Green Ranger!

I have blogged about the ecological cost of conferences, speculating that in the future our consciences (not to mention our pocketbooks) will make us think three or four times before winging or wheeling our way across the country or the world for professional development. What are the unique, irreplaceable aspects of face-to-face training that webinars and other virtual training will never replace? When we do choose to travel, how can we reduce the environmental impact, while making the most of the unique benefits of such opportunities?

To explore this theme, Stephanie Almeida, an independent consultant specializing in establishing museums in virtual worlds, is preparing to don the cape and mask of the Green Ranger to attend the Western Museums Association meeting next week in San Diego. Trailing her bag of recyclables behind her, Stephanie will explore questions such as: what’s the best way to reduce your energy use in a hotel room? How do you hustle a low-impact cup o’ Joe? How do you choose a restaurant that contributes to the “greenness” of your trip?

I will help chronicle the Green Ranger's adventures—look for updates on this blog and on WestMuse. Join the conversation as we explore the pros/cons, myths and hype surrounding carbon offsets, “locavore” culture and green hotel practices.

If you are coming to the conference, you can join the experiment! Bring a coffee mug to personalize with a “Proud Greenie” sticker, and use it for the duration. (The sticker, and other Green Ranger products, are available at CafĂ© Press.) Estimate and share with us your own carbon cost for your trip. Whether or not you are coming, comment on this post for suggestions for Stephanie on what she should track or try—what are your tips for green travel? What do you think is the best use of her time in San Diego?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Meet Me in Houston, and Let's Aim for the Stars!

Want be a pioneer in the ranks of museum futurists? Read on.

CFM has on its to-do list starting a Museum Forecasting Network. The Network will draw on the experience of a diverse group of museum practitioners to preview trends within museums. To accomplish this, we need to train a cadre already conversant with museums in basic principles of futurism.
Such training will benefit the field as a whole, as well as being immensely useful to the organizations in which these individuals work.

In the long run, it is my hope that CFM will be able to sponsor professional development opportunities on futurism specifically for museum folk. For now, though, we will take advantage of existing training programs. So I am very excited that the University of Houston’s Futures Studies Program is offering museum professionals affiliated with CFM a 25% discount on their week-long certificate course in Strategic Foresight to be held Jan 11–15, 2010. (The discounted tuition is $1500.) This program is run by Dr. Peter Bishop, who is one of the founding members of the CFM Council. The project-based workshop will “teach participants to anticipate disruptive change and work towards the creation of transformational change in order to influence the future of their organizations, companies and communities.” (The course offers 4 CEUs for attendance and a certificate upon completion of a project after the workshop.)

Wouldn’t it be great to get critical mass of museum folk at the seminar, resulting in a creative collision between the fields of museums and futurism? Think of the follow-up projects it could spawn! I’m game, and will be sending myself—how about joining me? We could become the legendary class of ’10, founders of museum futurism…

Write me at to tell me you are interested. Call staff of the University at (713) 743-1060 for more information or to register for the course at the CFM discount price of $1500.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Seeking a New Business Model for Museums

Read the news nowadays and it seems like museums are the blazing spud in a giant game of hot potato. Financial responsibility is being tossed in all directions.

League City, Tex., is trying to transfer the Butler Longhorn Museum, which has never quite got off the ground under city governance, to a private nonprofit group. On Long Island, the town of Islip, faced with a $10M budget shortfall, is trying to toss the municipal art museum to Dowling College. (Which is ironic, considering that many colleges and university are proving to be unreliable museum parents—think Brandeis University and the Rose Art Museum. So much so that
ACUMG, AAM and other associations recently felt compelled to issue a declaration that “museums are no more disposable assets [for colleges] than are libraries and archives.”)

The potato flies in the other direction in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, where the
Scarabocchio Museum is trying to give itself to the city. (This appears to be a classic case of “I want to start my own museum…hey wait, now I want to retire, who cares enough to keep it going?”)

Sometimes the spud is lobbed from museum to museum, for example to the Arizona Science Center which is taking on the failing Phoenix Museum of History (Their web domain, is now inactive. Always a bad sign.)

Other times the potato will simply fall, as may be the case of the Claremont Museu
m of Art in Calif. and the Legends of the Game Museum in Arlington Tex, which seem to be on the verge of closing. This happens to for-profit museums as well, such as the Sports Museum of America in NYC, which closed earlier this year.

These stories represent more than challenges to individual museums. They illustrate the fact that whole categories of funding are threatened right now. For example, government funding, which has shrunk gradually over the last decade from a mean of 40% of museum operating income to about 25%, now seems on the verge of collapse. Pennsylvania has not only cut funding, but narrowly defeated a proposal to extend the sales tax to museums to fund other social services. A recent article about budget cuts in Illinois
provides commentary on how this rollback has affected museums whether or not they have traditionally relied on state funding in the past.

On the national level, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) is questioning whether the Federal government should fund museums at all. This same article quotes Rep. John Campbell (R-Irvine) dissing federal support for local museum projects. "Is that what people elected me and my colleagues to do, to take their tax money and make charitable contributions with it?" (Personally I agree with Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., that what I buy with my taxes is civilization, and museums are a great addition to the shopping cart.) But museums are being weighed against other social goods, like health care, and sometimes found wanting.

All of which leads to a question I have been hearing frequently: “What is the new business model for museums?” People want a magic formula that will turn museums from something too hot to handle into desirable entrees.

This is a tough question. While the distribution of funding sources varies from museum to museum (see AAM’s new 2009 Museum Financial Information) the basic financial model for years has been nonprofit status supported by a mix of funding from earned income (admissions revenue, membership, space rental), philanthropy (individual, corporate), government (primarily local) and investments. Sure you can fiddle with the particular mix your museum relies on. You can get better at leveraging local support (like the Cincinnati Museum Center, master of the local tax levy.) You can assiduously court donations (Like the Norman Rockwell Museum, which despite the economic downturn recently announced that the quiet phase of its fundraising campaign has yielded $18 million—nearly three-fourths of their $25 million goal.) You can creatively explore more ways to earn money (like the LA Museum of Contemporary Art, whose recent auction of art donated by artists for the occasion grossed $650,000). But these aren’t revolutionary ideas, even if they can be hard to implement in the current economic climate. They don’t constitute a “new business model”—they are examples of getting maximum efficiency from the old model.

So what would a truly new business model look like? It may seem trite to say “nothing like the old one” but that’s actually a good place to start. To come up with a new model we need to shed assumptions that constrain our thinking about how museums operate. Want an example? Here’s the old model: museums need to be complete and independent entities. Just like a brain needs a body to keep it alive, museums need all sorts of appendages that enable it to survive, think and create.

What is the alternative? Be a disembodied brain. Only staff and deliver the things that museums do uniquely: build physical and intellectual resources and provide access to them through exhibits, programs, publications, research. Don’t just outsource some support functions, outsource everything you don’t have to be expert at. Let non-specialized commercial firms like Aramark supply services such as accounting, building maintenance, facilities management, IT, ticketing and housekeeping. Specialty firms will supply services that need to be more museum-specific: exhibit fabrication, security and HVAC maintenance for example. Local consortia will handle the collections support needs of geographically bundled institutions: storage, data management and shipping.

As with many truly new models, the biggest barrier to giving this a try will probably be human nature and organizational culture—it is hard to erase the “self-image” held by a museum staff and board of their organization as a separate and independent entity, containing all the traditional functions.

I’m not saying that the “museum as disembodied brain” is the right new economic model, but it is certainly a different model (rather than squidging around the edges of “business as usual”) and might be worth a try.

So this is a call for dialogue: is your museum trying something truly new to secure its financial future? If so, share the news! Do you have an idea for what the “new business model” might look like? Throw it out there for comment and debate—maybe some enterprising organization will give it a try. And what do you think of museum as disembodied brain, relying on outside suppliers for the vast majority of its operations?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Brits discuss the future of museums

Two new internet sightings remind me that the future of museums is a lively topic of debate in the United Kingdom.
  • Vaughan Allen, director of the URBIS arts center in Manchester, looks at “the future of museums, galleries, citizenship and culture” for the website Culture24. Among other things, he’s worried that the current economic downturn has shaken the commitment of many museums to engage with their communities. (By the way, this is also a featured clipping in the October 14 edition of Dispatches from the Future of Museums, a new weekly briefing from CFM. Click here for information about subscribing.)
  • Planning to be in Birmingham on October 23? Then you might be interested in attending a Public Forum on Imagining Museums at the Ikon Gallery. Organizers describe it as “a debate on the future of museums in the light of the proposed new museum of contemporary art for Birmingham. With leading curators from the UK and around the world, our three panel sessions will explore issues of collecting in the 21st Century and developing innovative learning and research programmes.”
This is on top of a recent government summit devoted to the future of museums in Scotland (see here and here), a series of thoughtful reports by the Museums Association (on the future of collections, the workforce, and other topics), and Understanding the Future: Museums and the 21st Century, a 2005 report from the UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
This is hardly an exhaustive list—so let us know about similar work on the future of museums in Britain or anywhere else in the world.

Contributed by Phil Katz, assistant director, research, American Association of Museums

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Opportunity for Engagement: Volunteer to Listen for the Future

Even before the 2008 founding of the Center for the Future of Museums, AAM was helping the field detect the winds of change through partnership with the Johns Hopkins Nonprofit Listening Post Project. This project helps the nonprofit sector “know which way the wind blows” through periodic surveys of social service agencies (family and children services, homes for the aged, community development groups, etc.) and arts organizations (theatres, orchestras and museums). More than a thousand community-based organizations already serve as listening posts—windsocks for the sector, tracking the critical challenges to nonprofits and identifying creative, innovative responses from the field.

So far, the Listening Post Project has produced influential reports on internet technology use, costs of employee health care, volunteerism, economic stress and advocacy. The next sounding will be devoted to innovations and performance.

CFM is looking for 50 more museums to become Listening Posts—AAM membership not required. Participation is easy: all your museum has to do is respond to periodic soundings (short, on-line questionnaires—usually 20 minutes or less to complete) on topics ranging from governance, finances and operations to the role of nonprofits in American society. Participants receive an advance copy of any published analysis and, whenever possible, benchmarking reports about the museum field and their particular organization—plus the knowledge that they are helping both the museum field and the nonprofit sector in general prepare for the future.

For more information, contact Hillary Belzer at Johns Hopkins University: or Philip M. Katz at the American Association of Museums:

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

When Themes Collide: Newspapers, Gaming and Museums

Theme 1: Last spring James Chung of Reach Advisors hosted a conversation during the AAM meeting in Philadelphia exploring what museums can learn from the recent plight of the newspaper industry, and the collapse of their business model. Newspapers pegged their income to a service (advertising) unrelated to their core mission (investigative reporting.) When the web opened up direct, free ways like Craigslist to match people with products or services, advertising income collapsed. And newspapers have not trained people to recognize and pay for the value of investigative reporting to them personally and to society as a whole, so they are faced with having to invent a new economic model for themselves. Some newspapers are experimenting with becoming nonprofits and explicitly position themselves as public goods to be funded as such. (“Why should you read or support us?” writes Mother Jones Magazine, “Because you can count on us to take no prisoners, cleave to no dogma, and tell it like it is. Plus we're pretty damn fun.”)

How might this cautionary tale pertain to museums? I am badgering James to post at more length on this topic for this blog soon. For now, suffice to point out that the average museum-goer is not aware of the existence, or at least the extent of important core activities like collections care, research and conservation. They do not consciously choose to subsidize these activities with their memberships and ticket purchases. Museums’ traditional sources of income are eroding. And we are already nonprofits--what model do we come up with to pay for our “unfunded mandates” that benefit society?

Theme 2: Over the past year, CFM has encouraged museums to explore gaming as a way to reach out to new and younger audiences. So, I was particularly interested to see this story, about how the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle has teamed with Rochester Institute of Technology to create a new multi-player community-based game called Picture the Impossible to “attract and mobilize the young urban professionals that the newspaper wants to learn how to reach.” Players join a “faction” that determines which of three local charitable causes (a children’s hospital, a foodbank or a social service agency) receive funds generated through their participation. The game then assigns tasks that encourage them to explore the city of Rochester. Many of the challenges involve (of course) reading and extracting content from the newspaper but they also encompass creating and contributing content (e.g., inventing recipes based on ingredients from the local market) as well as playing more traditional web-based games.

So, we and our brethren in the newspaper industry face similar challenges*:

  • Meeting the expectations of generations who want to be active participants rather than passive consumers
  • Reaching out to new audiences who may at the moment see us as stuffy and boring, and take for granted (or don’t value) many of the things we do that benefit society
  • Experimenting with new modes of engagement, like gaming, to harness the energy and creativity of the people we want to serve and convince them we are “pretty damn fun.” Or at least that we tell it like it is…
To read more about what museums can learn from newspapers:
This post by Susie Wilkening

And this one by Leslie Madsen Brooks

To follow news from the field of journalism as it seeks to reinvent itself:

This blog by David Nordfors, who leads the School of Innovative Journalism at Stanford University
, and
Newspaper Death Watch
by technology journalist Paul Gillin

* I also note, with some amusement, that both professions face uncomfortable shifts in identity. Journalists are reshaping their role to facilitate input from readers who want to curate their own lives, while museum curators are being urged to behave more like editors—gathering, filtering and consolidating content contributed by the public. No one gets to sit still and be comfortable with the way things used to be.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Tomorrow’s News, Today: Museums without Walls

One of the assumptions that CFM questioned early on is that museums are necessarily tied to a particular place. I’ve speculated about whether and when a museum might want to migrate to a new city or community. On a more local scale, why assume that a museum is tied to or limited by a particular building?

The newly released 2009 Museum Financial Information reports that nearly 40 percent of museums answering the survey had begun a construction or renovation project in the last three years. In 2008, non-governmental museums spent $1.8 billion on construction, with a median cost of $1.5 million per project. These projects, especially those engaging name architects to create signature buildings, often lock the museum into inflexible space that may not meet its future (or current) needs, increase base operating costs (a fact often not taken into account in planning and financing the project) and may or may not yield long-term benefits in terms of visitation. See Ben Davis’s opinions on how expansionism has contributed to the current nonprofit financial meltdown.

I suspect that in the future museums on the whole will invest less heavily in bricks and mortar (especially fancy, expensive bricks and mortar) and put more into content delivery. Yes, I know—it’s harder to hang a donor plaque on a program or service than on a building. But I think we are moving, slowly and surely, in this direction. Listen to Phil Nowlen’s Voice of the Future video in which he contends that museums are becoming places “from which” services flow rather than places “to which” people go. Phil, who is director of the Getty Leadership Institute, challenges museums to “move beyond their comfortable street addresses the better to advance society's … sense of community and strength of democracy.”

Others are recognizing the power of this trend as well: I am happy to spread the word that the Scotia-Glenville Children’s Traveling Museum is being recognized by the Drucker Institute, whose recent newsletter highlights the museum’s outstanding submission for the Peter F. Drucker Award for Nonprofit Innovation.
The Scotia-Glenville Children’s Museum is all-traveling museum that visits communities within a 50-mile radius of its headquarters in Scotia, N.Y. Certainly this mobile model is easier for a hands-on children’s museum, with collections already designated for consumptive use, but other kinds of museums have shed their skins as well. Most recently, the SF Mobile Museum, which launched this August to be a “movable feast of local culture” with exhibits that are often “by the people and, of course, for the people.” (And props to SFMM for their witty logo.)

Museums can start as place-based institutions and then shed their skins. The McCormick Freedom Museum divorced itself from one physical location earlier this year. Now it accomplishes its mission to “inspire people to understand, value and protect freedom” via exhibits installed at other museums, in libraries and on the Web. (I also like the McCormick as an example of a museum that has very clear goals for influencing the real world behavior of its audience. Check out the Take Action section of its website.)

Traditional building-based museums are expanding past their physical boundaries as well. Such organizations as the Valentine Richmond History Center through its Historic Richmond Tours and the Montgomery Historical Society (through its Montgomery Connections, nicely described in this post on the Uncataloged Museum) are interpreting/curating entire neighborhoods in addition to their own collections.

I wryly note, however, that this news item can also be filed under the heading “the future has a long tail,” since the Scotia-Glenville CM is 31 years old. I guess sometimes it takes a few decades to recognize innovation…