Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Pinky Show Cats’ Report on the Future

We, three cats from the Pinky Show, went to the future. We brought back notes & stuff.” Read the report .

Those of you who attended the AAM annual meeting this spring may have stumbled upon a curious exhibit in MuseumExpo—a set of cases (generously lent by Gaylord) filled with artifacts documenting the time travel expeditions of the Pinky Show cats.

You may be familiar with Kim’s interest in museums (documented in this wickedly accurate Pinky Show episode.) These recent expeditions resulted from Kim's desire to see how museums develop in the future. While not formally trained in futurism, the cats caught on fast to the fundamental principles of our practice:

One of the things we noticed when we first started time-traveling” reports Pinky, “was that often there seemed to be no obvious connections between the various moments-in-time we visited. In fact, many of the futures we experienced seemed wildly different - sometimes even apparently ‘opposite’ - from each other, even when separated by only a few years. We later learned ... that the reason for this is that the future, as it relates to the present, only exists as an infinite array of possibilities fanning outward.”

Cone of Plausability
This is great description of what futurists call the Cone of Plausibility (depicting the range of possible futures diverging from the present.)

Pinky and company visited six museums at times ranging from 2028 to 2098.. Being thorough researchers, they checked out the cafes and gift shops and observed how people use museums in the future. They discover both bright futures (where people hang out in the museum 24/7, “doing their own thing” 365 days a year), and dark futures (characterized by an over reliance on blockbuster exhibits, safe predictable programming and “edutainment.”)

I particularly like their interviews with cats they encountered in their travels, (Section V: 2028-2098 Voices from the Future). Margarita-cat offered (will offer?) the following words of wisdom: “You don’t have to be in a position of power in order to do good in this world. But you must be fearless... What does a fearless museum-worker look like?” Good question, and one I will think about a lot.

There are many ways to explore the future, and this was a pretty interesting experiment. I hope you check out the report—as Pinky says, “perhaps the diversity of artifacts presented here will serve as a reminder that a positive future can only be what we are willing to desire and fight for.”

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A (not so secret) Conspiracy for Good

My tweet and Fbook post earlier this week about an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) based in London generated some interest, so here are more details.

Conspiracy For Good is an “entertainment pilot” set up by creator of "Heroes" Tim Kring in conjunction with Nokia. CFG is an ARG that combines mobile technology with immersive theatre events. Participants embark on mobile scavenger hunts in the urban landscape to unlock clues.

My interest was piqued because this is an example of using ARGs to mobilize people for social good, capturing what 2008 CFM lecturer Jane McGonigal calls “heartshare and mindshare.” The designers describe CFG as a “movement as well as an entertainment experience, encouraging participants across the world to get involved and do good.” Partner causes include We Give Books, Room To Read, and the UK-based Kids Company. We Give Books is an interesting nonprofit. An initiative of the the Penguin Group and the Pearson Foundation, it donates a book to children’s literacy programs for every book “donors” read online. For example, CFG participants engaging in WGB will generate books donated to a school in Zambia.

CFG is also an interesting example of a corporation (Nokia) using gaming to drive use of their products while promoting philanthropic causes.

As with all ARGs, there is a convoluted back story driving the game. The main character, Nadirah, has made her way to London, with a legal document that proves the Zambian village where she teaches is the rightful owner of the land it sits on. Multinational corporation Blackwell Briggs intends to displace the village on August 7, to make way for a massive, industrial pipeline which would destroy Nadirah’s dream to build and stock a library for her schoolkids. The Conspiracy For Good must recruit around the world to succeed. You can catch up on the story in full here.

One of the game's live events kicks off in London this Saturday at 12pm around Brick Lane, and involves participants teaming up and getting a Nokia X6 handset to try out, in order to pick up clues and pass the assigned mission - an urban scavenger hunt. If any of CFM's UK readers decide to participate, sign up here, then write in and let us know how it went…

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Trendwatching! A Foodie Future

This article in today's New York Times takes a good look at how botanic gardens are adapting to several trends:
  • the growing appeal of the "locavore" and "slow food" movements.
  • increase in number of women in the workforce (and fewer at home spending obsessive amounts of time gardening)
  • decrease in interest in flower gardening among younger cohorts, and a swelling interest in growing their own food.
  • concern about fighting obesity (especially as it affects children)
  • increased value place on being "green". (Ironically, sustainability and environmental impact are big issues for public gardens as they have traditionally relied heavily on conventional pesticides and herbicides and are intensive users of water.)
So events that used to be garden festivals or flower shows are morphing into food-and-garden events; BGs are tapping into people's interests in sustainability, healthy eating and family activities; there is more emphasis on edible gardens and maybe less on exotic (and hard to maintain) ornamentals.

As futurists, we can track these trends through research, observing popular culture (like books, more books, blogs and fad events such as 100-mile diets.

Now, where will it go from here? Which of these trends will accelerate, change direction, peter out? What disruptive events (perhaps a scare about local production and food safety) could derail this future? And how will these trends start affecting other kinds of museums as well? (Notice I say how, not whether!) 

If your museum is changing its operations to adapt to these trends, I would love to hear about it--write me at

Monday, July 26, 2010

Why Renovate when You Should Prepare for the Hurricane?

CFM guest blogger Robert Janes reviews the AAM forecasting report Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums. Robert is editor-in-chief of Museum Management and Curatorship, Chair of the Biosphere Institute of the Bow Valley and former president and CEO of the Glenbow Museum, Canada.

Overall, Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums is an excellent report – focused, rigorous, clear, accessible, and full of important insights and information. I am concerned, however, lest it encourage museums to perpetuate the status quo. Obsessing about the access of new immigrants to consumer opportunities, social position, status and power, for example, strikes me as “fiddling while Rome burns”.

The data from the NEA 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, summarized in the report, reaffirms the increasing irrelevance of museums. All museum workers should find this quite alarming--the drop in attendance is among the elites who are the predictable supporters of museums. But this has nothing to do with minority populations and, because of this, the decline in attendance should be alerting us to some fundamental concerns about the obvious contemporary relevance and value of museums.

While it raises a number of important issues, the report doesn’t address the unexpected barriers or obstacles that might change our society’s course, such as global warming, acidic oceans, catastrophic weather events, increasing population displacement, global poverty and the assault on the ethnosphere. Personally, I am not pessimistic or apocalyptic about the long-term consequences of our environmental-social irresponsibility, but I do listen to the science and believe that adopting the cautionary principal is the sensible thing to do. In light of this, I don’t see how this report, and the museum field, can afford to ignore the many large-scale issues we confront, all of which also have direct consequences for minority populations.

And I am dismayed to see the report perpetuate the discussion of museums as purveyors of entertainment or edutainment – “uniqueness and novelty”. I’m always hopeful that some day the museum community will be able to move beyond the idea of “entertaining ourselves to death” (Neil Postman). This report celebrates shopping, movies, and playing video games as important to youth and something museums should be paying attention to. It seems to me that museums, with their inherent value and unique perspective, should be thinking far beyond these materialistic trivialities. It’s high time for all museums to release the grip of consumer culture and start addressing those many issues which actually affect people’s lives.

There are other things in the report I wholeheartedly support. I totally agree with the idea of offering choice in museum exhibits and I wrote about this in detail in The Paradox of Change (1995 and 1997), wherein I discussed the concept of the “museum living room”. The typical museum exhibit has not changed for hundreds of years and it is moribund and ineffective.

The report’s discussion of the “First Globals” (a new demographic marker) is most interesting. Globalism has revealed its fundamental flaws (wealth disparity, exploitation of developing countries, destruction of cultural diversity, etc.) to all but the corporatists, so this demographic may prove to be completely irrelevant as the shift to the local/community becomes a necessity, as many pundits and experts are already predicting. Complex industrial and technocratic systems do not have the resilience to adapt to the socio-environmental changes already underway, as has been proven time and again (Katrina, BP oil blowout, destruction of the fisheries, Iraq war, etc.).

The New York Hall of Science, featured in the report as a case study, is a wonderful example of addressing the question of “why” – getting an introduction to science and attaining advanced education at a rate five times higher than the general population. Their Science Career Ladder has a much deeper purpose than entertaining culturally diverse youth and the youth are responding accordingly. This is an excellent example of a conscious and socially responsible museum program.

Overall, this is an excellent report for what it attempts to do. To me, however, it is somewhat of a distraction from the task at hand—a bit like finalizing your home renovation plans when the hurricane is due to make landfall the day after tomorrow. If the bulk of museums were doing relevant and meaningful work that was truly engaged with their communities, demographics would be irrelevant. But museums continue to cling to their elitist support and internally driven agendas.

In the final analysis, Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums is valuable and important because it makes an indisputable case for dethroning the typical elitist museum. Cultural inclusivity is an essential first step in the long-term survival of museums, but time is growing short. It is no longer sufficient to be concerned with growing audiences – irrespective of their ethnic origin. It’s time to ask some important questions about why museums do what they do, and how their unique resources can be brought to bear on community interests and aspirations.

If you would like to comment on the Demographic Transformation report, please write me at We would love for you to share your opinions!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Future of Accessibility

Why is accessibility a futurist issue? Because, trends being what they are, we face a future in which a growing proportion of American society will have accessibility challenges. For example:
  • Today, 1in 8 Americans are older than 65. In 2034, the ratio will jump to 1 in 5. While we continue to make advances in healthy aging, this will mean a larger segment of our audience has limitations to mobility, vision, hearing and cognition.
  • The US obesity rate has doubled since 1980, with almost a third of our population currently classified as obese. While this trend is showing signs of leveling off, it will continue to lead to higher incidence of weight-related illness such as hypertension and diabetes, and secondary impairments such as glaucoma, cataracts,neuropathy, heart disease, hypertension and depression.
  • Autism appears to be increasing in recent decades, and this does not appear to be entirely due to changes in how it is diagnosed.
So, important as museum accessibility is now, it will be even more so in the future. For that reason, I would like to draw your attention to the upcoming LEAD conference on inclusion and culture. (LEAD=Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability.) As the conference description says:

"LEAD participants explore innovations in human-centered design and technologies, and influence the direction of future accessible cultural experiences. More importantly, LEAD participants advocate for theaters and museums as vital to the lives of all people in their communities by inclusion of people of all ages and all abilities. Nobody is left behind, nobody is left out when professional cultural administrators LEAD the future."

The conference will take place August 25-29, 2010, in San Diego (and the San Diego Zoo is a partner in the conference planning!) More information available from the Kennedy Center website here. And if you do go, how about contributing a guest post for this blog about what you learned?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Small Museums Modeling Excellence: Building Diverse Audiences

Continuing to build on the AAM forecasting report Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums, this week's guest post is contributed by Elizabeth Stewart, director of the Renton History Museum in Renton, Washington.

A recent series of posts (see here and here) on the CFM blog, as well as the CFM report Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums, encouraged me to share one of the Renton History Museum’s own efforts to reach out to our community. When an opportunity presented itself to collaborate with the local community college’s English as a Second Language (ESL) program, we were ready to take advantage of it. The result has been a very popular annual summer exhibit of art and writing projects by ESL students that has brought ethnic communities, the college, the museum and the wider community together.

As staff of a small local history museum with limited resources, we often feel intimidated by the challenges facing museums, the increasing ethnic diversity of our community being one of the most significant. Five years ago we acknowledged to ourselves that, with over 80 languages spoken in our local school district, the Renton History Museum’s exhibits and collections did not reflect our community. A dedicated group of white middle-class educators and librarians founded the museum in the 1970s, but that generation is now passing from the scene. Like small history museums around the country, we understand that ensuring the Museum’s future sustainability and relevancy—not to mention living up to our mission—requires change.

In 2006 Renton Technical College inaugurated an International Fair (later renamed the CommUNITY Festival) to showcase the college’s diverse student body and their accomplishments. The college represents an important transitional organization for new residents of the region. 36% of RTC students are enrolled in ESL classes; these students come from 57 countries and speak 45 different languages. The annual CommUNITY Festival, held on campus, gives ESL students an opportunity to participate in musical performances and a fashion show, share foods from around the world and display art and writing projects about their home countries and their experiences in the U.S.

The festival tends to be oriented toward students and their families, however; museum staff saw an opportunity both to bring ESL students’ experiences to a wider audience while inviting this ethnically diverse group, already organized by the college, to contribute content to the museum. Since 2006 the Renton History Museum has worked with administrators of the ESL program to bring a selection of student work into the museum for exhibit for 6 – 8 weeks every summer. Renton History Museum Education Coordinator Dorota Rahn works with Renton Technical College Curriculum and Technology Specialist Jenna Pollock throughout the year to suggest possible exhibit themes for instructors to shape to their needs. Instructors and students welcome the chance to work on issues relevant to the wider community. In 2009, for example, in conjunction with the Museum’s hosting the SITES exhibit Key Ingredients: America By Food, ESL students created projects ranging from a poster exhibit about food-related colloquialisms from other languages to a serious documentary piece by several students about holding down jobs in a fish-packing plant in nearby Seattle. Museum staff are minimally involved in the “curation” of the exhibit, preferring to stand aside and let the students’ work speak for itself, unmediated by any authoritative voice.

Now in its fifth year, the annual ESL exhibit has become an important way that the Museum addresses our responsibility to document and interpret Renton’s history in all its diversity. The exhibit opening is always our most well-attended reception, with ESL instructors, students and administrators, as well as dignitaries and museum members. Although this small effort has not yet resulted in changes to our collection, we have seen both our roster of volunteers and our visitors become more diverse, as word gets out that the Museum is a welcoming place.

Not only do these exhibits further our own internal strategic goals, for our typical group of white middle-class visitors the exhibits humanize “immigrants,” a group often demonized in media coverage, by conveying—in their own words—the complexity of their experiences, their aspirations, and their striving to build lives for themselves and their families in the U.S. While this collaboration represents a small step in a much longer process, we have found a successful way to draw together our increasingly diverse community.

Do you have stories to share about how your museum cultivates diverse audiences? Write me at to share your experiences with the field.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Windsock on Nonprofit Employment

The Johns Hopkins Listening Post Project has released a new report “Recession Pressures on Nonprofit Jobs.” The keys points about museums: 
  1. In the six months through March 2010, 30% of museums had a net loss in staffing
  2. 53% of museums in the survey said "we lack adequate staff to deliver our programs/services."
Overall, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a seasonally adjusted decline of just 0.5% from May 2009 to May 2010 and 3.0% from May 2008 to May 2010—but this may not capture the whole picture, as the BLS only identifies 130,000 workers in the museum sector.

Maybe more people should jump into the discussion at the "Museum Task Saturation Group" at the Society of Educational Resource Groups. (And let's hear it for euphemisms...)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Forecasting—The Future of Planning

Today’s guest post is from Angie Kim, Principal Project Specialist at the Getty Foundation. Angie joined about 40 other participants from various sectors in the daylong working session “Forecasting the Future of California Museums” at the 2010 Annual AAM Conference, co-hosted by AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums and the California Association of Museums. She shares how this session influenced her thinking about traditional strategic planning. The views expressed herein are entirely her own.

I am often frustrated by the inward nature of strategic planning, which asks institutional stakeholders to articulate their own values and goals and envision where they want to be in 5-10 years. SWOT exercises (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) explore how external forces could impact an organization’s strategic plan, but treat these forces as something to react to rather than as openings to redefine an organization’s entire mission or raise the existential question of the reason for existing. Forecasting offers an alternative method of planning for the future, one that the museum field would do well to add to its arsenal.

Our facilitator for the AAM/CAM working session, Garry Golden from the firm Oliver Kaizen, gave a crash course in futures forecasting, which projects plausible future scenarios based on known trends and potential disruptive events. Instead of starting with a SWOT analysis of the museum field, Golden focused on changes we see happening in the world (trends) and how those changes may impact our field (possibilities). Staying at the 30,000-foot level impressed upon us the inevitability of the changes that we could all agree are on our horizon (no one said that the next 25 years will look the same as today), and helped us accept that our institutions’ futures would not and could not be ‘business as usual’. I was immediately excited about the potential for forecasting to broaden the nonprofit strategic planning process.

Consider how different the forecasting approach is from our usual strategic planning process wherein plans do not alter significantly from one five-year period to another. Strategic planning as it stands now works best in stable times, aligning staff to common goals while the mission remains largely unchanged. But in an era when the entire nonprofit system is changing, traditional planning is showing its limitations. Considering that the next fifty years will be one of dramatic changes to the established nonprofit system, doesn’t it make sense to improve nonprofits’ primary governance and managerial tool—the strategic plan—to tackle the dramatic changes necessary? It’s time we foster a healthy disregard for and acknowledge the limitations of traditional planning.

Participants in LA did not all agree what the future will look like, but we were unanimous in believing it will look dramatically different from today. We discussed the tremendous impact of new technology, including medical breakthroughs; demographic shifts; increasing energy prices; the potential collapse of the American education system; and continuing reductions in governmental support. I was struck by how many people talked about these changes as exciting opportunities for our work to be even more relevant. Thinking ‘big picture’ encouraged us to explore big ideas about how museums could be different in the future. While many of these ideas were not new, what was new was the freedom and excitement with which they were uttered and accepted. Our exercise in forecasting turned around our thinking. We saw these changes as opportunities instead of compromises, which means the difference between being dragged into change or leading the way. Unlike strategic planning where you can keep doing what you’ve been doing but do it better, forecasting helped us take in a broader view of our world the dramatic changes taking place outside of our institutions, and offer commensurately bold solutions.

All of this is to say that forecasting, this field’s particular set of questions and methodologies, holds much promise in improving the traditional strategic planning process. Exercises for looking outward AND inward should BOTH be used in planning, but shift the sequence: Begin by examining what is happening in the outside world that will have implications for your field, your institution, and your work, and then consider your organization’s mission, goals, and approach. Hopefully, we will get away from investing so much of our precious resources on planning processes that end up being out of touch, and worse, unable to make the impact we want our institutions to have in the world. After all, our 501(c)3 status is a covenant with our fellow taxpayers, which includes people of all cultural, economic, geographic, and ethnic identities, that we will be a relevant and positive force in their lives. This is difficult to accomplish if we fail to consider and respond proactively to how the world is changing so dramatically around us.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Update on Empowering New Immigrants through Art

This week’s guest post is by Patricia Lannes, director of education at the Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn Harbor, N.Y. Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums briefly profiles NCMA’s work with new immigrants. Patricia provides an update on NCMA’s recent CALTA pilot institute.

As part of an Institute of Museum and Library Services funded National Leadership Grant, Nassau County Museum of Art (NCMA), in partnership with Queensborough Community College Literacy program, launched the CALTA pilot institute on June 14 at the Nassau County Museum of Art (NCMA), Roslyn Harbor, NY. The CALTA team (NCMA staff and QCC faculty) and a representative from Visual Understanding in Education (VUE) planned the four day pilot institute. Institute participants were selected among NCMA docents, Queensborough Community College (QCC) literacy ESL teachers, professors and professional developers from the City University of New York and other art museums’ teaching artists and students participating in the QCC adult literacy program. This diverse group was meant to represent a sample of the population of all the members that would be directly affected by such an institute. This community of learners came together to share best practices, challenges and future approaches to help develop a model teaching institute that can be replicated nationwide.

Although the program’s overarching goal was to pilot a model teaching institute, its content goals were to coach participants in Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) within the museum galleries, create pre and post visit extensions compatible with the VTS methodology, understand the specific strengths and needs of adult immigrant English language learners and discuss key curriculum design considerations.

After four rigorous days of training and discussions, the CALTA team confirmed some of the institute’s planning principles, discovered some new elements to add and some interesting points regarding docent training in museums. Some of the most salient findings are:

  • Richness added by the inclusion of multiple points of view while discussing works of art and literacy. This was achieved by having ALL attendees participate in small group activities. Their diverse constituencies allowed representation of the voice of different group interests. Participants learned from each other and got a better understanding on best practices and on immigrant communities. 
  • Importance of including adult immigrant English language learners in the process.
  • Realization of importance of creating multiple opportunities for docents to work with small groups of adult ESOL learners and their families.
  • Need to also recruit docents from urban communities who have experience working or living in a diverse community. 
  • Understanding that adult interest in going beyond VTS discussion will require creating extensions for further research on artists and artwork.
  • Criticality of image selection. Students were more vocal and responded passionately to art that addressed multicultural identity issues.

  • Need to revisit assigned readings and practicality of integrating those (and new) readings into the institute.

Our next steps involve finalizing the structure and content of the model institute and working on the curriculum, which will be centered on the concept of identity.

If your museum has worked successfully with communities of new immigrants, please contact to share your experiences!