Thursday, December 23, 2010

Where Might the Boston PILOT lead us?

When I leading forecasting exercises, helping people to question assumptions and imagine alternate futures, one scenario that participants repeatedly create is one in which museums no longer have nonprofit status.

Why does it come up so often? Because imagination, encouraged to run free, often turns dark, and this scenario strikes at the heart of who we are as a field. It not only points out the vulnerability of our financial model, it threatens our identity. Is there a potential future in which museums’ value as community assets are not tangibly valued through tax exemption, and people’s support of museums is not rewarded with deductions?

Probably, yes, this future exists in the cone of plausibility. One good indicator of its potential is that we see the early signs in the present. For example, President Obama’s deficit commission recently recommended the charitable deduction be eliminated and replaced with a 12-percent tax credit (available to those who had donated a certain percentage of their income.) While the final vote fell short of that needed to formalize the recommendations and send them to the House and Senate floors for an up or down vote, the 11-7 tally for the plan demonstrated substantial support for this approach.

Another example that has been quietly growing for years is the pressure on nonprofits to make Payments in Lieu of Taxes. (Note the ominous acronym PILOT—implying this phenomenon may be leading us into the world to come.)

Yesterday, the Boston PILOT Taskforce released their report with recommendations on how the payments should work in that city. Here is a good article covering the story.

Skimming the report, here are a couple of the things that struck me:
• One of the models the Taskforce considered (and rejected) would have calculated payments based on a fixed rate multiplied by the number of museum visitors. Such models are used elsewhere, designed primarily to apply to hospitals and colleges, where the “units” are beds and students, rather than visitors. What a nightmare that would have been, given that our sector has no standardized way to record admission numbers! And it would penalize museums that subsidize admission and do a good job of attracting robust audiences.

• The formula the Taskforce created for suggested payments is based on the value of city services (police, waste collection, etc.—set at 25% of the property value, since these services eat up 25% of the city budget). Against this, they propose to offset the monetized value of the benefits that a nonprofit provides to the city. Red flag! Flip to that section of the report: sure enough, the benefits so valued have to be ones the City would “support in its budget if the institution did not provide it,” and must be “quantifiable.” Why do I have a bad feeling that museums are not going to be able to make the case for having the benefits they provide to the city recognized in this way? (An instinct supported by the reference to the time the taskforce spent “reviewing the community benefit submissions by the major colleges and hospitals.” Did the museums not even try? I know that major colleges and hospitals are big compared to most museums, but still, the MFA is listed in the report as a property owner on par with some of the smaller city colleges such as Simmons and Emmanuel, and hospitals like Beth Israel Deaconess and Brigham and Women’s.)

I freely admit I am an amateur in tax law and city finance, and I welcome your collective wisdom to interpret developments such as the Boston PILOT program. Do you see other early indicators of threats to the public support we have grown accustomed to? Should we prepare for a future in which we have to quantify our value to society in order to earn this support? Please, weigh in.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Path to Sustainability—Working Together

This is part two of an essay by Sarah S. Brophy, co-chair of AAM’s PIC Green. You can read part one here.

For the museum field, the way to close the distance between activities like Seafood Watch and our present-day reality is to take the green team model from single museums and apply it to institutions: groups of historic houses, museums in design stage, children’s museums, or all the ones in the eastern part of the state. Build on the best concepts from the very valuable Green Museums Initiative of the California Association of Museums, or Chicago’s Climate Action groups, museums, hotels and restaurants, and work in a focused way to learn together and achieve together.

The Block, Peoria’s Riverfront Park didn’t happen by itself, it took The Lakeview Museum, Caterpillar Inc., Peoria officials and voters to get this huge green revitalization project going. And it started with someone reaching out. So ask your peers to help you convince museum suppliers to develop greener options; when you’re looking for more storage space, ask area museums first what their needs are. Band together for energy audits and weatherization en masse to learn together, save money, and make a greater environmental impact. Your neighbor may be having trouble getting started, too.

Making a Difference

I believe that museums must not become complacent. As community members, charitable institutions and educational resources, museums have a responsibility to behave sustainably, and to actively encourage others to do so. But I realize many people believe there is no need to change our present behaviors – individually or institutionally – or they believe that museums should not be advocates for environmental sustainability or any other issue. This is where the concept that “green is local” applies. That’s shorthand for saying green is highly situational. A good green decision for one museum may be totally inappropriate for another.

Programs like Seafood Watch, on a proportional scale, should be part of most museums’ strategic horizon, but that scope is appropriate only for museums with much experience in environmental sustainability, and the capacity to support such large-scale impact. Green goals will be different for smaller or younger museums, history or art museums, and ones in cities and ones in the country. The Pittsburgh Botanic Garden will be the model for reclaiming abandoned mine landscapes. Montgomery County Historical Society arranged an energy audit; SFMOMA has an amazing program combining art, food, San Francisco Bay, fisherman, scientists and community sites all around sustainability and food; and Strawbery Banke hosts community gardens, and promotes sustainable gardening.

Into the Future

Whatever you do, tell your family, staff, volunteers, members, board members, colleagues, neighbors, funders, suppliers and critics all about it. Explain what you’ve done, what you’re doing now, and what you’re going to do in the future. Then there’s zero room for criticism. There’s also zero opportunity for complacency: the journey unfolds ahead, for you, the public and other museums.

Seafood Watch didn’t start at every seafood counter in Whole Foods. It started with a wallet card at one aquarium. Then it grew. And then other zoos and aquariums joined the team to increase the impact. Seafood Watch can’t be effective at creating sustainable fisheries if the Aquarium doesn’t tell the public and all the rest of us all about it.

Thank goodness they do talk about it because their example gives the museum field a glimpse of the future.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Path to Sustainability—Just Get Started

This week’s guest blogger, Sarah S. Brophy, is principal of bMuse and co-chair of AAM’s Green Professional Interest Committee (PIC Green). Part two of this essay will go up later this week—stay tuned!

Earlier this month the CFM Blog looked into environmental sustainability in museums. Elizabeth asked if ‘good’ is ‘good enough’ or does the planet need each museum to do much more to truly help meet carbon-cutback goals or any other environmental impact goals? She commented that recycling is good and important, but that simple good activity might lull us into complacency; and that The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s SeaFood Watch program is really what we should emulate in our work.

I agree – almost. I believe fervently that those of us who can, must; but that it’s honest and reasonable to say that many of us have a long way to go to achieve that impact. To get there the rest of us must
  1. just start, no matter how small, and
  2. recognize that green is a team sport – doing it together has that bigger impact we need.
Museums are community resources. Our communities need many things right now, and increased environmental sustainability is one of the most important needs. Thankfully, it’s something museums can become very, very good at. Ten or fifteen years from now our new museums will be Living Buildings, existing buildings will be far more efficient, museums standards will have baseline sustainability practices in all areas, and all the staff, volunteers and visitors will speak green as a first language. Most museums will offer whiz-bang projects like the Seafood Watch/Whole Foods partnership because most museums will be very good at mission-critical work that simultaneously involve environmental sustainability, visitor engagement, and managing technology and media formats to achieve multiple internal and external goals.

For most of us, the way to close the distance between activities like Seafood Watch and our day-to-day reality, is to just get going any way we can. Start from where you are, and with an idea that you want to get someplace else. Educators know to meet visitors wherever they are – at the museum or in the community, as new learners or scholars, with opportunities for contemplation or engagement. Let’s use that lesson to start green practice wherever we can right at this moment: double-sided printing, an alternative to vinyl banners, choosing local food for events, or taking the Smithsonian’s SITES exhibit on environmental sustainability. Then take the next step and the next.

Since green is addictive, you’ll just keep going. Recycling leads to composting and banner recycling; composting leads to research into waste-to-energy, and banner recycling triggers more sustainable banner design; the city and the energy provider join you in creating a community waste-to-energy site, and the banner project becomes a local artist opportunity and then a fundraiser for each exhibit. Along the way you gain knowledge, partners, supporters and good will, and it all began the day you started recycling.

Green is a journey, not a destination. You never ‘arrive’ because one green deed leads to another. Later this week I’ll offer some suggestions on how to take the first step along the road.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Culture Kettle, my new R&D organization — What’s in it for museums?

This week’s guest blogger is Peter Linett, Partner in Slover Linett Strategies, Inc., and member of the CFM Council.

Elizabeth Merritt was kind enough to give Culture Kettle a shout-out in this blog when I announced its founding back in October. She and I share an interest in all things innovative in the museum field, and she’s been an ideal provocateur and connector as I’ve developed this startup.

What is Culture Kettle? You can read more about it in my own blog post last week, although as you’ll see the concept is still coalescing. In a nutshell, it’s a new organization dedicated to R&D in the cultural sector. The “R” will be exploratory research studies that ask new questions about how arts and culture experiences work — and more importantly, could work — and for whom. The “D” will be the development and testing of new approaches, sometimes radical ones, with real audiences on an experimental basis. Those audiences will be conscious participants in the experiment, partners in the exploration and evaluation of new possibilities. Not all of those possibilities will work, of course; R&D runs on failure as well as on success. The idea is to close the circuit between research and innovation so we create an engine of new knowledge about people want to engage with cultural content.

By “culture” I mean more than museums. Later this month we’ll announce Culture Kettle’s first Innovator in Residence, someone who’s a visionary voice in the classical music world. We’ll also work with innovators in the museum field, of course, and have already benefitted from the wisdom of several great thinkers and do-ers. As some of them have pointed out, there’s already a good deal of innovation going on around the museum community, some of it in well-established institutions and some in “indie” venues and ventures led (mostly) by a younger generation of museum practitioners. One function of Culture Kettle could be to help document and evaluate those experiments — using new methods and asking new questions that fit the spirit and intentions of those experiments better than traditional evaluation approaches do — then aggregate and extrapolate from those findings and share the evolving picture with the field.

But there are also questions I’d like to investigate that aren’t currently being tackled by others. So we’ll develop some projects from scratch within the Kettle. That doesn’t preclude us working with creative museum people and risk-tolerant museums, although in some cases we’ll want to install an exhibit in a rented space rather than an existing museum — a storefront, an empty factory, a black-box theater. Working on neutral ground may have advantages in terms of both the preconceptions that audiences bring to the experience and the freedom that museum professionals bring to dreaming it up.

The conceptual freedom of museum people and institutions is on my mind a great deal these days. This is not a question about creativity, by the way. You can have all the ideas in the world but operate in an environment that licenses only certain directions and degrees of exploration, and tolerates only certain kinds of risks. There’s a reason that Peter Greenaway’s “Last Supper” vision, a multi-media, immersive, and theatrical installation currently at the Park Avenue Armory in New York, isn’t at the Met or MoMA. It breaks most of the unwritten rules of museum display, such as the one that says art museums offer direct, unmediated encounters with authentic works of art, the “real thing.” (There is no authentic object in Greenaway’s installation, at least not in the usual sense; Leonardo’s masterpiece is an obvious digital replica.) And the rule that says it’s the museum’s job to get out of the way of the artworks, interpreting them as unobtrusively and objectively as possible so that it’s the artist’s vision the visitors see, not the vision of the installation’s creators.

What if we took this Last Supper not just as a provocation about Leonardo’s masterwork but as a provocation about art museums? For years I’ve been wondering why museum curators, who often allow artists to come in and transform the gallery experience completely, rarely give themselves the same license to work intuitively, creatively, subjectively — the freedom to make it strange and therefore seen and felt afresh. In Culture Kettle, we can find out what happens when curators, exhibition designers, and other museum professionals work like artists, or rather play like artists.

That’s just one of many questions I’d like to stir around in the Kettle. I’d love to work in the science and history domains as well as art (although art may play a role in those projects, too). I’d love to tackle issues of participation, spirituality, politics, anger, humor, sex, and irony (something rare in museum exhibitions but essential to other forms in our culture). I’d like to play with exhibits that fall under no museum’s mission purview, because there’s more to life than what’s covered by the traditional museum categories of art, history, science, natural history, living collections, and so on, and exhibits could be a powerful expressive medium in other realms. (Experiment: open your favorite general-interest magazine, say, the New Yorker, and imagine each article as an exhibit.)

If any of this strikes you as exciting, please consider this a call for cronies and collaborators. I’d love to hear your ideas and suggestions: post a comment below or drop me a line.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Visit from the Loan Officer

For a decade or more I've had the privilege of co-authoring an annual Xmas poem with Sally Shelton, collections manager of the Museum of Geology at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, and John Simmons, principal of Museologica. This year we look at a potential future in which St. Nick has transitioned into a higher paying profession, and pays a visit to our fictional museum in his new capacity. May it not come to pass....

So, without further ado, led by red-nosed reindeer with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, and a hearty Hi-Yo Silver Futures! We bring you... the Loan Arranger!

On the night before Xmas, throughout the museum

‘Twas totally quiet, a damn mausoleum;

The offices empty, except for our claimants,

All because, gosh, we were late on some payments.

(OK, so we’d stretched when we took that last loan,

But it was so easy! Just pick up the phone,

And voila! A mortgage so big and so splendid,

More money than any trustee comprehended.

It bought us a curvy new Gehry addition

The pinnacle of our director’s ambition.

But now, stroke of midnight, the loan had come due,

And I knew that our mortgage wouldn’t pass peer review.

Hark! There was Loan Santa, cigar in hand,

Over the rooftop, preparing to land.

Skidding across our titanium curves,

I heard him cry out with great gusto and verve:

“Now Buffet! Now Volker! Now Merrill and Lehman!

Come on Fannie Mae! On Greenspan, and Krugman!”

Out he leapt, landing square on his Pucci-clad feet

“Hallo,” He called out “I’ve come straight from Wall Street!”

“Fear not!” he continued, “I’ll not let you default,”

And plunged down the vent with a grand somersault.

Scrambling inside I found him in collections,

Tallying objects, noting his selections.

The fluid collections provoked an epiphany:

“These could hasten your early return to liquidity!”

He poo pooed taxidermy; the conclusion was tacit:

Preserved with arsenic they were—toxic assets.

The fossils were tagged for early foreclosure

“We’ll sell them,” he cried, never losing composure.

“In China I know that they’ll fetch quite a penny,

So don’t ask which ones, just ask me ‘how many?’”

He explained that auctioning New Guinea weaponry

Would help to defray that negative equity.

He enthused over panthers whose shipment was pending:

“Now that’s what I call predatory lending!”

He gathered our registrars, deployed in swarms,

And put them to work auto-signing his forms.

“I know” he observed, “You’re all working part time”

“You should have been leery of that term ‘sub-prime.’

Curators linked arms, defending the vault.

“Oh really,” he sneered, “would you rather default?”

I cried that his moves were moral abrogation

“Nonsense,” he demurred, “financial innovation.”

“Would you rather have squatters lay claim to your foyer?

Be sued by your broker, not to mention your lawyer?”

And opined, packing specimens into his crate

“You should have avoided ‘adjustable rate’”

When the shelves were all bare, file cabinets empty,

The museum pillaged from attic to entry,

He brushed himself off and leapt onto his sled

Checked the straps, grabbing one last axe head.

Looking me in the eye he sagely concluded

“Its your lust for grand space that left you denuded”

I heard him cry out, fleeing into the night:

“Here’s my advice to all--next time rent it outright!”

--Elizabeth Merritt, Sally Shelton and John Simmons wish that your holidays will never be sub-prime.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Hard Look at Sustainability, Part I: How Pretty Good is the Enemy of Good Enough

Since CFM first gleamed in AAM’s eye, I have had fascinating discussions with members of the Association’s Green Professional Interest Committee (PIC Green). After all, if we don’t figure out how to live sustainably, the future looks pretty bleak, right? After much thought, I conclude the most helpful role that futures studies can play in the dialog is to help people envision what futures their actions might create, extrapolated out to decades hence. That (after all) is when we find out whether the green steps we have taken are both appropriate and sufficient! So, this is the first post in a series designed (as my friend Pinky says) to “gently poke your brain” and encourage you to take a fresh look at what we think we know about green.
What could be bad about these little, everyday, sustainable actions?
  • Recycling office paper
  • Banishing bottled water from your vending machines and installing more water fountains
  • Turning up the thermostat for AC in collections storage by 2 degrees
  • Composting your food service waste
“Nothing,” (I bet you are saying), “these are all good things!”

Yah, they are pretty good. But are they good enough?

The problem with small, good things is they can make us feel good. And feeling good can make us complacent. Complacency can keep us from assessing whether what we are doing, overall, is enough to achieve the intended effect. Like stopping global warming, or reducing human-generated environmental toxins. Or (big picture) building a healthy, sustainable, equitable society that will still be here in a few hundred years.

I’m not arguing museums shouldn’t do these small, good things. I am saying that we in museums should consider, before diving into a recycling program or putting solar panels on the roof, the effect we want to have on the world, and assess how and whether our actions, overall, help reach that goal.

Reality Check!

How do we assess how we are affecting the future with the steps we choose to take? One way is extrapolation. Remember the classic admonition from childhood: “don’t do that! Just think, if everyone did that then….

Yah, just think…
If every museum in the United States turned off one office computer each night and over the weekend, the weekly savings in electricity costs for the country would be around $15,000 (a rough estimate using Department of Energy
statistics and assuming a typical cost of 10¢/KWH).
That’s about 195 thousand lbs of CO2.

To meet President Obama’s goal of reducing US carbon emissions 80% by 2050, the nation has to shed about 4,670,705 thousand metric tons a year.

Suddenly I feel small and powerless.

Before museums feel too good about our efforts to save energy, we should remember that, with only 20,000- some museums in America, the cumulative effect of what we can do is still pretty small.

But—(cue optimistic, upbeat music) collectively we serve over 800 million visitors annually, and that’s not counting the people who access our information over the web. If we can change their behavior…now we’re talking impact. Then the question becomes, how can we influence their behavior? What actions can museums take that effectively catalyze the crowd?

That’s a tough question to answer, but I’m pretty sure some of the factors that need to be weighed are:

  • Are our “green” actions visible to the public, and do we explain how and why we do it? Modesty isn’t a virtue when you are trying to set a good example.
  • How many people will we reach? Are we targeting a programmatic audience, all visitors, the broader physical community, or (potentially) any user of the web?
  • Is the behavior we want to encourage simple and doable enough to overcome people’s innate inertia, or (alternatively)
  • Is it fun and compelling enough to get them to do it anyway?
  • Will the sum total of behavior change significantly improve some aspect of societal/national/global sustainability? This could be through direct action (installing solar panels, choosing sustainable foods, driving less) or indirect action (donating to causes, supporting policies, voting for candidates.)
Case in Point
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s
SeaFood Watch program is a fantastic example of influencing huge numbers of people to make everyday choices that improve the sustainability of aquatic systems. Poor food choices have contributed to the near-extinction of many species (Chilean Sea Bass), collapse of entire fisheries (the Grand Banks), and created new threats to water quality (commercially farmed salmon). In 2009, Americans consumed 15.8 lbs of seafood per capita, for a total of 4.833 billion pounds. Since MoBA’s program is disseminated via the web, text messages, and a really cool iPhone app, it can influence not just its 1.8 million annual visitors, but users nationally and internationally who may never visit the museum. So (to measure it against the criteria above):
  • It is highly visible and accessible
  • It reaches tons of people
  • The behavior it encourages (ordering off a menu, making a purchase at a grocery store) is very low energy
  • It is both fun and compelling
  • The sum total of its effect is potentially very significant.
What about the rest of us?
“Sure,” I can hear you say, “give me $50M a year and I’ll change the world, too!” But I believe you don’t have to be a huge organization like MOBA to have a significant impact on your community. One of my absolutely favorite environmental activist organizations is a pretty small nonprofit called
Kanu Hawaii. With a budget of ~ 300k it has mustered almost 13,000 people to make personal commitments to “sustainable island living,” by creating a vibrant social network that functions both virtually and in the real world, and is visible, doable, fun and compelling. (I particularly love that they project the cumulative impacts of the commitments their community members have made.)

I would love to write up “small can be effective” examples about museums integrating “green” into their operating principles. I do know of a lot of individual projects like installing
solar panels or wind turbines, building green storage facilities, or helping other museums integrate green practices into their exhibit development. But I don’t enough about all the good green things being done in our field to profile them as they deserve. So here’s my challenge to you—tell me about what your museum doing to make us, as a society and a species, more sustainable. How does your suite of activities stack up against my proposed criteria? What is your goal for cumulative effect? Write in and share…

If you are interested in the work of PIC Green, please contact Luke Leyh at for general and membership information. And be sure to check ‘PIC Green’ on your AAM membership renewals.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Museums and the Future of Health

A few forecasts about the future:
By 2050 40% of Americans will be obese

By 2034 over 44 million people in the U.S. will be living with diabetes (compared with under 24 million in 2009.)

On a more upbeat note, according to a recent article in Wired Magazine we may be on the cusp of a revolution in tissue engineering (the use of stems cells to repair and rebuild damaged organs, from breasts to hearts.

Society is already starting to struggle with the practical and ethical implications of techno-medical advances such as cloning, genomics, gene therapy, novel means of imaging and testing, and new (and expensive) forms of treatment. Over the next few decades, we will be faced with choices that have massive implications for the health and well-being of individuals and their communities.

What role can museums play in this dialogue? I think this is an enormously important topic to explore, so I am delighted that Left Coast Press has issued a call for papers for a volume of Museums & Social Issues that will be devoted to “Health and Wellness.”

The editors want to examine questions such as: What is "wellness" in the 21st century? What is a healthy lifestyle today? How are ideas, knowledge, attitudes and personal choices changing towards the question of 'what is health'? How does the concept of wellness fit with the mission of museums?

Take a look at this call and see if your work is a natural fit. If so, I hope you will drop a note to Kris Morrissey ( or
by December 6, letting them know of your intent to submit a paper.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The “Realness” of Museums' Online Communities: A Platform for the Future

Colleen Dilenschneider’s posts on Know Your Own Bone are always a “first read” when they pop up on my blog feed. I suggested our recent guest poster, Jonathan Baskin, read her recent post on museums’ use of social media as he organized his own thoughts on the subject.

Museums of the future will continue to engage and inspire audiences through online communities. And museums are well on their way to melding virtual and physical communities to create this seamless visitor experience. I had the chance to speak with Jonathan Salem Baskin as he was working on his most recent
An Alternate Future for Museums post on this blog. We had a thought-provoking discussion about the “realness” of museums’ current online communities and their ability (or inability) to translate into direct admissions sales. By “real,” I mean significant and a thing to be treated as a serious resource. Baskin reminded readers in his post that on-site interaction is a key aspect that differentiates museums from other providers of content. This is certainly true. As things stand, however, online communities don’t always amount to physical communities and getting bodies in the door (hence the Brooklyn Museum’s turn toward But does that mean that the point of all online engagement should be to get bodies in the door? Does this currently-existing gap between the virtual and the physical make online communities less “real” and a less powerful tool to be taken seriously, I wondered?

The moment of wonder was brief. Online communities are increasingly “real” because they provide unique opportunities for museums to fulfill their mission, build fundraising potential through personal connections, and develop a relatable voice, among other things that will be critical for the future development of museums on the whole. Though we aren’t at the point where we are translating Twitter interactions directly into admission sales, online communities are arguably fulfilling different aspects of a museum’s long-term mission that will, in the future, provide another aspect of engagement that will differentiate museums from other providers of content.

A big part of getting to the future is having a good grasp on what’s happening right now. Here’s a brief overview of how organizations are utilizing online communities right now and in a real, significant way that will serve as platforms for the evolution of online engagement in museums:
  • Online communities meet the museum’s mission. Social media and online engagement do not belong solely to the marketing department. This is because online communities have an incredible capability to serve as tools to further the missions of museums. Generally, online communities can be created and strengthened based on a desire to be educated and inspired by a museum’s collection.
  • When a museum asks a Facebook user to click “like”, they are essentially asking, “Do you want updates from us that will educate and inspire you (or something else related to the mission)?” Let’s be honest: though informative, your fans likely aren’t very interested in updates on the museum’s new open hours. Individuals subscribing to museums’ online communities want to be educated and inspired. If the museum’s mission is to inspire and educate, then online communities provide an avenue for accomplishing just that.
  • Online communities create personal connections to the museum: Because online communities take place in a virtual realm in which interactions can be preserved, these interactions allow museums to listen to audiences so that they may better meet visitor needs. Preserved interactions provide the ability for museum professionals to respond to inquiries and meet the interests of certain demographics without alienating others. This kind of attention paid to the museum audience and individual fans and followers often results in the feeling of a personal relationship with the museum. It doesn’t hurt that engaging through social media increases oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone,” in the brain.
  • Online communities allow museums to grab onto those positive associations and build personal, potentially long-lasting relationships while fulfilling the museum’s mission and opening up potential opportunities for fundraising, corporate sponsorship, marketing, membership, and program enrollment, among other things.
  • Online communities shatter perceptions of museums as stale environments of the past: How strange it seems that even as initiatives like AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums engages forward-thinking museum aficionados, museums are still thought to be institutions of the past. I don’t think that simply having an online community puts a museum ahead of the game (though nonprofits originally paved the way in online engagement over for-profit companies). All organizations-- museums or otherwise-- have the ability to build an online community now. The museum advantage? Museums have a message and many, many stories to be told. Telling these stories and connecting audiences to museum collections gives museums a modern-day voice. Videos, pictures, podcasts, interactive sites (perfect for teaching purposes!)... was the Internet made for museum engagement?! Museum professionals have an opportunity to challenge tired perceptions of being “stuck in the past” by utilizing these tools.
As a society, we are still experimenting with online communities in order to provide statistical analysis on some of its greater long-term benefits. Almost without a doubt, the future of museums (and everything else) will be heavily connected to online communities. Blame it on society’s growing emphasis on soft skills or Generation Y’s desire for brand transparency, but social technology is sticking around- and it’s real. Armed with this information, the future of community engagement in museums is dependent upon where we go from here. Online communities are doing a lot more than building up brands; they are fundamentally changing up what a museum is and how people interact with these institutions.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

An Alternate Future for Museums: Part II

Global brand strategist Jonathan Salem Baskin contributes part two in his series of visions about the future of museums. You can read part one here.

Museums in 2020: When Communities Got Real

The siren call of Facebook and other social platforms back in the ‘00s suggested to museums that they should migrate their marketing efforts and content online in search of virtual engagement. Many institutions created long lists of people who were all too happy to click, view, and otherwise consume information as long as 1) it was free, and 2) didn’t require them to do anything.

Then in late 2010, the Brooklyn Museum took the extraordinary step of discontinuing its efforts to engage with faraway virtual consumers to focus on tools that got people together face-to-face and, more importantly, connected them to the physical reality of museum content. This radical move asserted that communities needed to move beyond online consumption and embrace physical participation in order to satisfy the goals of museum-goers and the institutions they might visit. We didn’t know it at the time, but getting people thus engaged built upon the only quality that truly differentiated museums from any other producers of content.

A tidal wave soon followed as more museums elevated their furtive online social experiments to more full-bodied engagement programs. A museum in St. Louis figured out that communities have always been dependent on purpose more than entertainment, so it keyed its ecology exhibit into the curriculum of the local public grade schools and encouraged kids and parents to join a community that would help them learn. A technology museum in San Francisco created weekly on-site events for computer programmers to discuss how to best adapt an ongoing exhibit on AI.

Now there are communities that participate in everything from genetic research and archeological digs, to oil painting restoration and poetry...all through engagement campaigns (both online and off) that create topical, timed, and purpose-driven reason for them to get involved and bring them into museums. It’s odd that less than a decade ago we celebrated Twitter subscriber lists as accomplishments of community, when now we have engaged consumers who are also participants in museum visits and purchasers of museum content.

What’s the future look like? Now that museum communities are real, the next decade will herald a new era of creativity. It’s possible that by 2030 we’ll see museums routinely involve their communities in the vetting of information, selection and design of exhibits, and other forms of mediated crowd-sourcing. Members could get engaged with what’s inside museums before it’s ever inside.

A Vision-Starter

The early rumblings of this development are already being felt in the museum community. If your museum is riding the early tail of this future, comment here and provide links to information on how you harness the energy and knowledge of your audience to create content...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

We Saw the Future, Now What?

Guzel duChateau is the CFM Coordinator and AAM’s New Media Specialist. She also leads the association’s Emerging Museum Professionals group. CFM works closely with the EMPs since (after all) they are the museum professionals of the future! Last week, futurist Garry Golden of Oliver Kaizen joined Guzel online to explore the basics of futures studies in the first national EMP webcast.

I'm sure that all of you have been waiting with bated breath to hear how the webcast went on Friday.

I would say, without a doubt, that it was a grand success. We had over 70 unique sites logged in, and as many of these were group viewings, giving more than 130 people watching and participating.

But what exactly did we learn?

Perhaps most importantly, we learned about "foresight." This is the ability to anticipate (and lead) change as well as the ability to construct compelling visions of plausible, possible and preferable futures. This idea of foresight is integral to futures forecasting. Futurists don't simply pluck ideas out of the ether—they are developed from something. Futurists look at what has been going on in the past to project where we might end up tomorrow.

Think about it, as Garry suggested, in terms of how far we've come when it relates to digital competency. How did we become more productive and make learning better? In the late 1908s and early 90's, digital competency was all about using things like Microsoft Word to become more productive. In the mid-90s e-mail and Web browsers started showing up. Browsers like Netscape, introduced many of us to the idea of the Internet and also made companies understand websites as a way to distribute information. Then we hit 2005 and suddenly "Web 2.0" and social networks were a big deal. You were expected to manage yourself within these online communities and the Web was not about getting information pushed out to you, but instead about communities.

So what does all this mean for the future?

Now that we've gotten used to this idea of the Web as a social platform it's also gradually turning into a service platform. Think about cloud computing. We want information out in the "cloud" to be able to get to it easier and faster. Wanting these things can only lead to new tools and needing to learn how to leverage these changes and their growing importance.

So museums need to think about this, especially as the idea of museums as "third places" emerges and develops. We want museums to be more than simply buildings. We want museums to be considered part of a community; a place where you can go not only to learn but also to do things. This is why we've started seeing this evolution of applications like Scvngr and FourSquare which are pushing gaming mechanics and interactivity into museums.

This is just a little snippet of what we learned during this presentation. Did you miss the program? Never fear, LearningTimes recorded it and now you can watch it.

Also, did you enjoy this glimpse into what futures forecasting? That’s good to know, because Garry will be leading a day-long workshop at the American Association of Museums 2011 Annual Meeting! The program isn’t out yet, but we’ll keep you updated here.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mining MyCulture: serving the community of creative consumers

The CFM report Museums & Society 2034 explored a trend we dubbed “MyCulture”—a rising generation demonstrating an extraordinarily high level of creative output and creative consumption. This week’s guest blogger, Allison Thurman, shares her thoughts about how museums can fulfill their potential as repositories of knowledge and sources of inspiration for this creative community.

I like to make things. I’m a looker and a doer, too—I visit museums, I fence (both historical and modern sport.) But big part of my time and enthusiasm goes into creating historically accurate clothing. Happily I'm not the only one, and have found a number of good groups of people in the Society for Creative Anachronism, Costume Society of America, and International Costumers Guild to brainstorm and play with.

This is no casual hobby. My vacation time is spent going to different academic conferences, like the Florence, Italy costume colloquium in 2008, and the Kalamazoo Medieval Congress. At these events museum curators, academics and amateurs share research and trade notes on various aspects of costume and textile history, from details of construction and design to histories of manufacture and trade. I’ve given over a significant portion of my modest apartment to fabric, sewing machine and storage for my creations. I have an extensive book collection and seek more obscure sources, like inventories, when needed for a particular project. Of course, the primary sources for a lot of my interests are locked up in museums and archives, in storage, not on public view. From my point of view, it’s great that this material exists in public institutions, but only if it can be accessed by the public!

Since my teen years I've been particularly fascinated by Mariano Fortuny's pleated silk tea gowns. It's not just the luxe, timeless look, but the mystery behind the pleating process that intrigued me - patent documents exist but aren't entirely clear, and each gown had to be sent back to the Fortuny atelier in Venice for re-pleating every time it was cleaned.

Over the years I've read all of the readily available books on the designer, and have seen a few of the pleated gowns behind glass in museums but some of my questions regarding construction could only be answered by close examination inside and out. After discovering that the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History had one tea gown, I decided to ask if I could visit behind the scenes to satisfy my curiosity.

I was a museum volunteer in the past and have visited museum storage spaces before, but this was the first time I'd ever made an appointment to handle a delicate item and I wasn't sure they'd say yes. I'm not trained in museum studies nor do I have any "academic cred", but I figured it couldn't hurt to ask.

Finding who to ask was fairly easy. I looked up the dress on the NMAH website, and browsed backwards to find the curator in charge of the department that held it. My email was fairly formal but concise, simply asking if I could make an appointment and including the catalog number of the dress (taken from the website) to ensure we both knew what I was talking about.

Once the curator said a visit was permitted, I went about scheduling (a month in advance) and asking specifically what kind of handling, if any, would be allowed. Sketchbook with pencil and a cloth measuring tape were permitted, as was supervised handling with cotton gloves. Photography was permitted as well, as long as it was for research only.

The day of the actual appointment I was a bit nervous, but the curator, Nancy Davis, was friendly and informal, which put me at ease. She asked me about my research as she took me to get my visitors pass.

She had pulled the dress in advance, laying it flat under tissue paper on a muslin-covered table in one of the costume storage rooms. It was accompanied by two other gowns that were also pleated and hence derived in style from Fortuny's work. The curator had pulled them simply because she thought I might be interested!

There is truly nothing like The Real Thing. I was able to learn a great deal the light weight and "hand" of the silk even through cotton gloves, and examination of the inside neckline and seams revealed some of the coveted construction details. Even evidence of wear (frayed trim, faded, flattened sections) told a story about how the dress was worn and repaired - and when it wasn't. Measurement of the tiny pleats suggested that the pleating was done by industrial processes, rather than by hand.

The visit created as many questions as answers. As the Smithsonian's dress is sleeveless, I still don't know how the sleeved gowns were formed - were they pleated and added before or after construction? How wide were the fabric sections unpleated?

Though I'm not the only one of my fellow costumers to take advantage of museum collections, I think there could be so many more if it were more obvious that going behind the scenes was an option. I have some advice on how to win the hearts and minds of this corps of potential fans:

Make it easy for people to find what you have. What was most useful in my NMAH experience was the quality search on the Smithsonian site that helped me find exactly the item I was looking for - more museums should create lists (or preferably, photos and descriptions) of their collections online, especially those that aren't often/ever on display. If behind-the-scenes visits are allowed, contact information and requirements for appointments should be somewhere on the site linked from the collection pages.

Let us know if you allow researcher visits in the first place, and what you require/allow. In my limited experience, serious researchers will go the extra mile, but most of the general public isn't even aware that viewing items outside of an exhibition is possible. The curator I worked with mentioned that assisting researchers with garments is difficult with inadequate staff coverage. If you do allow appointments, make it clear how far in advance to request a visit and what kind of handling/photography (if any) will be permitted.

Tell us more. I was deeply flattered that Dr. Davis took time out of her busy schedule not only to pull the Fortuny out of storage and meet with me, but took extra time to present other garments and ask me about my research. After my time with the gown, I was also given access to the "additional information" files that the Smithsonian keeps on each designer, and these gave me leads for future research in other institutions. I recognize that no matter my enthusiasm for a subject, museum staff have more experience and knowledge of the history and context of their collections than I ever could. I valued Dr. Davis' expertise and additional information.

Ask what we can do for you. Even if my private research is never published in an academic journal, it may be of interest to you! Tap into the thousands of hours of work that amateurs undertake, for love, to add to your catalog records and supplement your work.

I'm sure some museum staff reading this post are thinking "yeah, but how would we accommodate hoards of amateurs wanting to look at stuff we have in storage?" I can't answer that question for you, and I'm sure it would be challenging. But really, wouldn't it be a nice problem to have?

Does your museum make collections in storage accessible to interested amateurs? Do you actively reach out to such users, or wait for them to come to you? Share your stories here in the comments sections. If you have questions for Allison, she can be reached at

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Challenging Assumptions: Who says “Entrepreneurial” = “for-profit?”

I want to spread the word about the Startup Open, a challenge issued in conjunction with Global Entrepreneurship Week (November 15-21).

The Kauffman Foundation has announced it will select the “50 most promising startups” launched during GE Week. The Open can be entered by anyone in the US who is “creating a business” and planning to have a “startup moment” during GE Week. Though they never say it explicitly, I’m betting the organizers assume these outstanding entrepreneurs are all starting traditional for-profit enterprises. I’d like to bust that assumption.

The Kaufmann Laboratories for Enterprise Creation, in case you haven’t heard of them (I hadn’t!) is dedicated to growing the American economy by catalyzing thousands of new entrepreneurs who will create “high growth ventures.” They are looking for “founders who want to make a huge difference. To build companies that create thousands of jobs, generate dramatic economic benefits, and transform lives.” I don’t know about “thousands of jobs,” but I can make a pretty good case that many museum enterprises do a damn fine job of meeting the other criteria.

And we need to encourage museum entrepreneurs to explore new ways of doing business, to find new best practices for "how to make a huge difference." This may involve vital new forms of the traditional nonprofit model, or it may venture into new territory. I’ve preached for years that “nonprofit is a tax status, not a business philosophy.” Some are fond of forecasting the demise of nonprofit status (yes, that would be you, Howard Taylor), forcing museums to survive without this source of government support. And now the boundaries are blurring anyway with the creation of hybrid models such as LC3, as alternatives to traditional nonprofit status. LC3s try to combine the best of both worlds (for and non-profit), encouraging the investment of private capital in organizations designed to achieve social objectives.

So here is my challenge to you—let’s make one of those 50 winners a museum, or museum-related enterprise.

Why not (for example), Culture Kettle? This newly launched LC3 enterprise will “conduct exploratory research and foster programmatic innovation in the arts and the public sciences and humanities.” It’s already announced an exciting research agenda, including study of the multiple audiences of campus art museums; alternate concert formats for young audiences, and (best of all!) "a multi-disciplinary study of how awe and wonder function in “peak experiences” of nature and art." (Hopefully they will bolster and expand on Reach Advisors’ findings on the kind of experiences that turn people into life-long museum fans!)

The incentive? (Besides the satisfaction of busting assumptions about nonprofits and museums, and bragging rights, of course). One entrepreneur will receive a free trip to Richard Branson's private island to network with experienced entrepreneurs. Two others will receive a two–day, customized experience at the Kauffman Labs in Kansas City to help them take the next giant step with their startup. Pretty cool, eh?

But we need to get on the ball here, folks.
  • Applications are due at noon, November 17th
  • Applicants have to expect to have a “startup moment” during the week of Nov 15-21) This “moment” could be, for example, getting incorporated; opening the doors for business; making a “first sale”; outside funding is secured (land your first donation?!); a final milestone is achieved in new product development; or anything else that can be interpreted as the company “opening for business”.
Help spread the word! Tweet, post to Fbook or your blog, send a link about the contest to any museum founders/entrepreneurs you know of and encourage them to enter. And tell them to let me know, too, ( so we can make our own “list o’ museum entrepreneurs” honoring the entrants, whether or not they get chosen for Kaufman’s 50.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Help Build the Collections of The Universal Museum of Creative Matter!

If you got up right now and walked around your workplace/house/campus/neighborhood, what evidence would you find of small, mundane, creative acts?

Why do I ask? I never thought I’d say this, but I am starting a museum. About "creativity." And boy do I need your help

Yes, I’m doing this despite all I have written about why to Think Twice (or three or four times) before starting a new museum.

I hasten to add, there are mitigating circumstances. The museum is:
  • virtual
  • temporary (I think)
  • in the service of a Good Cause
Let me explain the last point first. AAM has been invited to join over a thousand folks from around the world in Oklahoma City on November 15-17 at the Creativity World Forum. The organizers intend to position Oklahoma as a creative hub of commerce, education and culture. This being so, of course they wanted to hear about the museums of the future!

I can’t envision giving a dry old lecture, with PowerPoint slides (shudder), at a conference on creativity. So Ford Bell and I recruited Erika Kiessner, an exhibit prototyper from the Franklin Institute, and Dan Spock, director of the Minnesota History Center to help shake up the attendees and make them take note of the vast creative potential stored in the museums of their state.

(You may remember Erika from the 2009 AAM annual meeting—she ran a pop-up, samizdat Advice 5¢ Booth in the Philadelphia convention center until security shut her down. Appropriate, as she was the winner of that year’s Brookings Creativity Prize. And Dan was, briefly, an exhibit developer for a real-world Museum of Creativity—which never quite got off the ground.)

So here’s the plan: we are going to spread the word among conference participants about the MyCulture trend that is rocking museums--people wanting to make, “mod” (modify), “mashup” (combine) and otherwise actively engage with content. As museum users, they want to be contributors and active partners, rather than passive consumers. Eric Siegel just wrote a great post at Museum 2.0 on this theme—sharing how the New York Hall of Science recently hosted Maker Faire, and how that experience is transforming the museum.

After highlighting some museum projects incorporating participatory design (e.g., the Brooklyn Museum’s crowd-curated exhibit Click!, or the SF Mobile Museum’s Looking for Loci), we’re going to lead an exercise in which attendees evaluate potential acquisitions for the Universal Museum of Creative Matter. They will be challenged to consider--what best exemplifies and explores the creative process? How can a museum “collect” and interpret creativity in a broad sense, beyond just the realm of art? How can museums enable audiences to layer their own interpretations of collections?

Here’s where you come in. We need proposed material for their consideration. So, we invite to contribute to our collection by going to the Museum’s new Facebook page and upload:
  • Text
  • Video
  • Photos
  • Links
Documenting material for attendee’s consideration. Make your pitch! Include a line or two about why you think this material is destined to be in UnMuCM’s collections.

OK, so this may or may not work. But that is a key part of creativity and innovation, right—the willingness to risk failure? But it’s generally more satisfying when it works-so give us a hand! And I’ll report from the conference on how this creative experiment turns out…

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Museum Eras*—Creativaceous, CarbonNeutraliferous, Developonian?

My last posts on “Futurism 101” talked about the sneaky nature of change, and the constant need to scan for signs of change that is creeping up or waiting to spring upon us. This post introduces eras—patterns in time created by the interplay of these driving forces. For a compiled introduction to futures forecasting for museums, download “Tomorrow in the Golden State: Museums and the Future of California
Two types of change—incremental and disruptive—interact to weave the landscape of the future. Typically, any field of endeavor (medicine, for example, or transportation) is characterized by “eras” that start and end with transformative, innovative change. Within an era, people experiment with variations on the era’s dominant theme and change tends to be incremental. An era ends when the next great innovative leap leaves the last dominant innovation gasping in the dust.

Here’s an example of an era drawn from the field of medicine: Alexander Fleming launched the era of antibiotics in 1928. His discovery of penicillin ushered in a century in which drugs could effectively target bacterial infections. After a slow start the pace of discovering new drugs took off and now there are hundreds of antibiotics. Now the pace is tapering off as it becomes more and more difficult to find effective new antibiotics and bacteria become resistant to our old standbys. IMO, Watson, Crick and Franklin laid the groundwork for the next medical era, that of gene-based medicine, when they deduced the structure of DNA in 1953. Old eras don’t die, they just taper off and cease to be the dominant force in their field. We still depend on antibiotics, but we no longer pin our hopes on dramatic advances in health on these drugs—for that we look to breakthroughs in gene therapy and nano-technology guided by genetic targeting.

Futurists watch the interplay of incremental and disruptive change, trying to foresee how change will play out, and at what pace, within an era, and (more importantly) spotting the early signs of the slow petering out of one era, and disruptive change marking the beginning of a new era. This is particularly important because new eras usually call for new strategies, and radical disruption of existing plans.

As a budding museum futurist, I’ve been working on this question for awhile: what are the eras that define the museum field? Here is one possible nominee:
The Era of the Blockbuster Exhibit—late 20thcentury

“Treasures of Tutankhamen” debuted at the National Gallery of Art in November, 1976, eventually drawing 8.25 million visitors as it toured the country. “Tut” spawned a museum-going frenzy—in Riches, Rivals and Radicals, Marjorie Schwarzer writes of people queuing up all night for tickets to the exhibit, camping to get a spot, and fainting in line. The huge impact of “Tut”, cultural and financial, shaped exhibition planning in medium to large museums for decades to come. With time, the downside of reliance on blockbuster exhibits became clear. The pulses of income and visitation were addictive, but not necessarily sustainable, and a return to more conventional short-term, in-house exhibits could look like failure by comparison. Museums that used the income from blockbusters to expand or staff up needed ever larger and more popular exhibits to support swollen operating budgets. Now the blockbuster era is tailing off (if not yet quite moribund) further damaged by the increased costs of shipping and insurance and the logistics of international loans. Blockbuster exhibits are still with us, but they don’t define the landscape the way they once did. During this financial downturn, the trend is for museums to draw on their permanent collections, digging deep into storage to create high-quality, if not quite so glitzy, exhibitions.

I could really use your help creating the Geologic Chart of Museum Eras! Describe a time period you think constitutes a museum “era,” kicked off by a transformative innovation, which (if the era is over) petered out over time, superseded by the Next Big Thing. Post here, in comments, or email me at And yes, I will draw up the results in spiffy colors and post it to the Blog…

*and before some smart-alec paleontologist jumps all over this—yes I know these are periods, not eras. YOU try making geologic puns about museums.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

An Alternate Future for Museums: Part I

This week, global brand strategist Jonathan Salem Baskin contributes the first in a series of visions about the future of museums. His book Histories of Social Media will be coming out later this month. Jonathan connected with me when he wrote this post about how cabinets of curiosity may hold the key to museum futures. Jonathan, a museum enthusiast, was very disappointed not to be selected in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry’s recent contest to find someone to live in the museum for a month. So if you have an empty diorama case you want to offer him…

I spend my days exploring ways for corporate brands to be more credible, meaningful, and relevant to consumers, and recently it occurred to me that it might be interesting to apply the same analysis to museums. I’ve convinced myself that I’ve seen an alternate future.

First, the caveats: I’m not an expert on museums, just a lifelong fan. No, it’s more than that: I’m kinda nutty about museums...I visit them when I have down time on business trips and I’ve read a lot about how they evolved from the curious collections of fellow nutjobs Athanasius Kircher and P. T. Barnum. My second caveat is that these observations are necessarily as generic as they are uninformed, so bear with me. Maybe these things are already happening and I’m just channeling it.

Here is the first component of my vision of the future of museums:

The Future of Content

The shortage of quality content for which people are willing to pay is as dire in my fantasy as it is in real life. Hollywood studios are signing development deals for movies based on children’s board games such as “Battleship” and “Chutes & Ladders,” and popular books and songs resemble one another evermore closely because it takes too much money and risk to create stuff from scratch, only to hope that people will be interested in it (this is nightmare reality, actually).

Conversely, museums are effectively sitting on infinite, high quality content, much of which is already desired by would-be visitors. In the cases of school-aged children, such knowledge is often required of them.

In my vision, this realization has changed the very premise of purpose for most museums, which have redefined their mandate away from a focus on “education” and back to the principles of entertainment and engagement that drove the curiosity cabinets on which they were once based. They’re less focused on telling people what they should know, and more interested in getting them interested in learning.

In this future, museums become transmedia publishers, recasting their content so, for instance, kids no longer have to wait for a sequel to “Jurassic Park” to get more about dinosaurs...local natural history museums are producing ongoing adventure programs that can be watched online, read about in books, and experienced real-time at their facilities. Art museums offer design services to corporations. Science museums are all over every grade school science fair, and then repurpose the content into webisodes of “Young Scientists.” Science and art history literacy are up, so is museum attendance, and profits, too.

A Vision-Starter

Here is a link that got me thinking:

• Imagine an exhibit conceived somehow like this

Next up, I’ll offer some thoughts on the future of community…

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Are Museums Going in the Right Direction?

As you may remember, at the AAM annual meeting in L.A. this past May, the Pinky Show joined the CFM to ask museum professionals what they thought about the future of museums. The Pinky Show cats wrote a report on what they discovered and Elizabeth shared her thoughts.

Now it is time to see some of what came out of those interviews. This first segment includes several museums professionals and a service animal answering the question, "Do you think museums are going in the right direction?"

Fear not, there will be more of these clips (edited by the CFM) and hopefully, someday soon we'll see an official presentation from those Pinky Show cats. Until then, enjoy.

- Guzel duChateau, AAM New Media Specialist and CFM Program Coordinator

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Backstory on Blobby

CFM’s recent post on natural history specimens as social media was wildly popular, attracting over 1,300 hits within one week. Given the evident fan base for Blobby (and Sue) it seems worth delving deeper into the story behind these internet stars. Lynda Kelly, Head of Audience Research at the Australian Museum, shares a bit of the backstory behind Mr. Blobby, and how he came to be anointed “spokespecimen” for the Museum.

The Museum got interested in social media very early on. An Australian Research Council Grant, New Literacy, New Audiences (2004), was the first where we started looking at delivering content to audiences across digital media. This project was also used to train staff to think about modes of content delivery and to develop a series of digital stories (Australian Museum Stories). The Museum then received a further grant in 2008, Engaging with Social Media in Museums, which enabled us to play in the social spaces of the web. We used this grant to experiment and test our presence in sites such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter and learn together about what these spaces were like and how to engage our audiences within them. Parallel to this was the redevelopment of our website (since launched in June 2009) so the time was ripe for the Museum to work out where we wanted to be online and how best to achieve our goals and who best to do it (answer = everyone!).

Following the adventures of Mr Blobby has been a treat and a delight. Who would have thought that so many people could be taken with such an innocuous creature as a blobfish? One of the areas I am becoming interested in is the conjunction between physical museum sites and their online counterparts. We have (and will continue to) seen Mr Blobby as a way to connect with audiences wherever they are and somehow get them to actually visit the Museum. This I see is the next wave of what a museum should be – as George Brown Goode (a former Smithsonian Director) said “The people’s museum should be more than a house full of specimens in glass cases. It should be a house full of ideas”. Following this, I see the 21st century museum is a house full of ideas, yet at the same time a house without walls. Mr Blobby (and Gagali the Gecko and everything else we are doing in the online space) are small steps towards achieving that museum. More on these ideas will follow from various keynote speeches I am giving over the next two months so watch the Audience Research Blog and Museum 3 as I blog and post about my adventures!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Planning a Golden Tomorrow

Last spring, at the AAM annual meeting, the California Association of Museums enlisted CFM's help in a marvelous project. To celebrate CAM's 35th anniversary, we collaborated on a forecasting session to peer into the future of the Golden State, imagining what challenges the state's museums and their communities may face in the next 35 years.

You can read a bit more about that forecasting session here. Suffice to say, it rocked, and we are looking forward to offering a similar session at the AAM annual meeting in Houston next spring (open to all attendees!) 

Meanwhile, my co-presenter, futurist Garry Golden of Oliver Kaizen, and I created a resource guide that builds on all the great ideas explored in the LA session. The result is Tomorrow in the Golden State: Museums and the Future of Calfiornia, a resource guide that presents the basics of forecasting, an overview of trends shaping California and a set of provocative scenarios to stimulate discussion. It presents resources (sample agenda, invitiation, worksheets) to help museums host their forecasting session, bringing in members of their communities. And it offers tips on integrating the resulting insights into institutional planning.

I hope you check it out—even though it is geared to California, the general framework is applicable to museums anywhere in the country. If you'd like CFM's help presenting a forecasting session and creating a resource guide tailored to your state, region or community, drop me a line at We want to bring futures studies to you...

And if you attend the WMA meeting in Portland next month, don't miss the futurist pas de deux as CAM's director, Celeste DeWald partners with me to present on the results of the California forecasting project. Wednesday, Oct. 20, at 2 p.m.—hope to see you there!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Natural History Specimens as Social Media Celebrities

The rise of social media is transforming the landscape of communication for all organizations, including museums. There are myriad new ways to connect directly with the public, and new spokespeople have stepped forth to fill these niches. Recently I interviewed two museum specimens that have become social media celebrities. Sue the TRex, (otherwise known as Specimen FMNH PR2081) tweets from the Field Museum of Natural History. Mr. Blobby the Blobfish, a Facebook phenom with over 800 fans, resides in the collections of the Australian Museum in Sydney when not making public appearances .

Dear Mr. Blobby and Sue,

Thank you very much for agreeing to be interviewed by the Center for the Future of Museums. In coming decades, museum objects may frequently speak for themselves, as well as for their museums, so you two are pioneers of things to come. I hope that by sharing your thoughts, you will help your colleagues in other museums consider whether a career in social media is appropriate for their future. With that in mind, I invite you to address the following questions:

What prompted you to venture into the world of social media? Was it a top-down initiative at your museum, or was did it emerge from the bottom up?

(Blobby) I happened to get onto social media by accident. I starred in a popular Australian television show about advertising called The Gruen Transfer. The brief to advertising agencies was to ‘sell the unsellable’, in this case what they purported was my ugliness. Just to prove them wrong I set myself up a Facebook Fan page the very next day and within one week had 500 people loving me! Overall, I guess you could say ours was a bottom-up initiative in all sense of the word!

(SUE) When you're fossilized in rock for millions and millions of years you have a pretty unique opportunity to form lots of opinions, but you have no one to share them with. The nice thing about social media is I can stay right where I'm at and thrust my opinions upon the world.

What advice would you give to museums that are seeking potential social media celebrities from amongst their collections? What qualities make for an effective museum spokespecimen?

(Blobby) My advent into social media was serendipitous and I think it is best this way rather than being too ‘try-hard’. That said, one of our Indigenous educators was so taken with the idea of me that she established Gagali the Gecko on Facebook as a way to connect with Indigenous people/community organisations and discuss Indigenous issues and collections. So far Gagali is going rather well! I guess the lesson here is to choose something that resonates with audiences, is a bit quirky and to definitely have a staff champion behind you.

(SUE) I think you need someone able to bite someone in half. People tend to listen to that person.

As accessioned collections, I imagine you usually work most closely with curators and collections managers. But now you’ve ventured into territory normally controlled by public relations staff. Tell me about how this works at your museum. How much independence do you have in your messaging? Do you pretty much toe the official museum line, or do you call it like you see it? (Sorry if that is insensitive, Blobby—I’m not sure you have toes…)

(Mr. Blobby) That’s OK Elizabeth. Not only do I not have toes I don’t have hands either so answering your questions has been a challenge! Now, at the Australian Museum we are a bit different. For starters we don’t have traditional curators but we do have Collection Managers. We also have staff who take responsibility for social media across the Museum – it isn’t the gamut of the PR/Marketing people. So I am completely independent, although I do subscribe to one rule – don’t say or do anything I would not like to see as a headline in the Sydney Morning Herald (or, in your case, The Washington Post!).

(SUE) Well, I have a brain the size of a cantaloupe, so I do need a proofreader from time to time. Mostly I just use common sense (No one likes a petty dinosaur who's negative all the time) but other than that...have you met the nice ladies from our public relations department? I doubt any of them even OWN a tranq gun. Who's going to tell a two-story tall horror lizard from Earth's brutal past what to do? As to independence, I see it like this: The Field Museum is the greatest place on the face of the planet and everyone should get down here and give me a high five. Also, they keep me well stocked in meat, and I don't want to spoil that gravy train.

You two could hardly be more different. For example: Blobby has no bones while you, Sue, are a big-boned, gal. (All bone, as a matter of fact.) How important do you think is for museum celebrities to have a spine? Might being spineless, in fact, make you more flexible in maneuvering through the complex world of public relations?

(Blobby) I know I don’t have a spine, but I do believe strongly in speaking my mind, taking a stand when need be and generally being an all-round jolly and informative fellow. And, yes, flexibility is the key!

(SUE) Are you making fun of my back injuries? I lived to be pretty old for a T.rex, you know. You get bumped around and jostled. And don't get me started on T.rex mating...

Has the museum set goals for your work? What is considered “success” and how do you measure it?

(SUE) I think "Don't devour museum visitors" was pretty much the only rule they gave me. Some days I'm successful. Some days I'm... less than successful.

(Blobby) Early on the Museum decided that I would be on Facebook for around two months (the same time my physical self was on display in the Museum’s College Street site). How were we to know the love that fans developed for a blobfish such as I? Now success factors are how many more fans I can engage and how I can continue to–reinvent myself and chat to fans about anything. We do have some big plans for the next few months…

What are your favorite things to discuss via your respective social media, and why?

(SUE) Dinosaur news, science-y things, stuff going on around the museum, meat, Chicago stuff, Star Wars, velociraptor hatin', the weather, sports, video games, chasing Jeff Goldblum in a speeding jeep in the rain...

(Blobby) Well, I am considered not only a scientific icon but somewhat of a popular culture commentator and raconteur. Not only did I predict the winner of the FIFA World Cup, I successfully predicted the winner of Australian Master Chef, participated in discussions about movies and TV, as well as other such cerebral worldly matters. I also attended the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes– Australia’s most glamorous and prestigious science awards event and reported live from the red carpet which was fun and informative!

What is the strangest question you've ever received? (Or, the oddest thing you've overheard in the museum)

(Blobby) I have someone continually asking me what I eat. Coz I’m a shy fellow, not much is known about me so I haven’t been able to answer that. Oh, the other comment was that I looked like a person someone once dated and I have had several marriage proposals…

(SUE) Someone asked me if I'd ever go vegetarian. THESE TEETH ARE NOT MADE FOR HUMMUS!

Just for HUMANS, eh? So Blobby and Sue, If Hollywood made a movie about you, who would play you and why?

(Blobby) Well, Elizabeth that was such a great question I just had to put it out to my fans. The variety of suggestions were terrific and some that resonated with me were Jimmy Durante (for obvious reasons), Orson Welles, Benny Hill, Brad Pitt and Ed Norton. However, who did I choose? Well, it just had to be Jack Black – an actor with a great sense of humour and comic timing, yet with an underlying manic, chaotic and cheeky personality somewhat like myself.

(SUE) Lindsay Lohan. She could use the work. I'm generous that way.

Let’s take it to the mat, here. Which of you is more charismatic, and why?

(Blobby) I think we both have our charismatic features. While I could never compete with such a magnificent creature as a T-Rex, the nature of my looks and personality shine through the so-called ugliness I believe. Like Sue, I am also here for the long haul and have important messages to send about biodiversity and conservation, as well as having a jolly old time!

(SUE) Let's put it this way... kids don't go to bed wearing blobfish pajamas in blobfish sheets after being read a story about blobfish.

Well thank you for your time, Mr. Blobby and Ms. Sue. You are truly role models for museum specimens across the globe, giving voice to the (usually) voiceless. I hope this interview encourages yet more people to follow you on your respective media.

Gentle Readers, does your museum have a spokespecimen, and if so, who is it and what social medium do they inhabit? Help me compile a list…

And if you happened to know the Great Blue Whale who tweets, poetically albeit unofficially, from the American Museum of Natural History, please broker an introduction!
Mr. Blobby photo ©NORFANZ Founding Parties