Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Christmas Carol for the Collaborative Economy

Subtitle: (St. Entropy has an app for that…)
‘Twas the night before Christmas in the Museum’s big hall,
And all through the building soft echoes did fall.
Not a creature was stirring, from microbe to ‘gator—
Not mice, and not people, not one stray curator.
The museum was peaceful from tail tip to snout,
'Cause most of the staff jobs had been parceled out.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care
By Millennials learning that "real" jobs are rare.
The curators were nestled, as was their sad habit,
But they all were gig workers assigned by TaskRabbit®.
And all of the creatures that had been in the cases
Were leased to retailers and other such places.
[Want a real live (dead) polar bear at your reception?
You can have it, no questions--for cash, no exception.
Deer, 'possums, frogs, each exquisitely posed,
For a nominal fee make great party tableaux.]
I was hunched at my desk with Jingle Bells blaring
Counting receipts for the loot from this "sharing"
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I quaked in my boots, my teeth started to chatter.
Away to the guard booth I flew just to see
What images appeared on the CCTV.
There, decked with a giant pink mustache (quite spiff)
Came a miniature sleigh, arranged via Lyft®.
With a jolly old driver, now drawing so near
I could see that his steeds were from Rent-A-Reindeer.
More rapid than updates his curses now came
As he whistled and shouted out dating app’s names,
“Not Grindr, not Tinder! And please not OKCupid.
I just want this iPhone to quit making me stupid.”
And then, in a twinkling, as I turned around,
Down the chimney Saint Nicholas came with a bound.
His eyes, how they glistened; his hair, what a mess.
I knew in a moment he had the wrong address.
“What’s this?” said Santa, waving our master key.
"This can't be the museum I leased through Airbnb®!
It was supposed to have specimens! Curators! Cases!
Instead it's impoverished, and lacking all graces.
You had dioramas. You had stories to tell.
You had magic and logic and that rare old book smell."
"Oh, well," he said, "Your lesson is learned,
"What was given away was worth more than was earned."
Then he pulled from his bag all the stuff we were missing:
Dinosaurs, preparators, even two interns, kissing.
From the dregs of the sack he fished out our director
(Who long had been absent, leased to a collector).
As the poor woman, dazed, looked around her in awe,
Santa leapt on his sleigh and let loose a guffaw,
And, putting his finger aside of his nose
(Not inside, thank goodness), through the ductwork he rose.
And I heard him exclaim, as he rose through the night,
“Take back what you own, and take care of it right!”

--Elizabeth Merritt, Sally Shelton, and John Simmons have never been leased out to anyone, though John did attempt to sell Sally once.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Entrepreneurship in Museums: The Spark!Lab National Network

Entrepreneur, \ˌäⁿn-trə-p(r)ə-ˈnər, (n) “a person who starts a business and is willing to risk loss in order to make money.” While “entrepreneurial” as applied to museums has usually focused on the “willing to take risk” part, in recent years, with traditional nonprofit business models tanking, attention has shifted to encompass the “making money” part as well. The 21st century is witnessing the rise of the “social entrepreneur” —individuals focused on achieving social good, whether through the agency of non-profit, for-profit, or hybrid businesses. Can museums find new ways of making money that also do good? In this week’s guest post Tricia Edwards and Michelle DelCarlo of the The Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation describe a project that may fit the bill.

Museum professionals are starting to think about new, entrepreneurial ways of approaching their work, driven by pressure to generate revenue, to compete with for-profit social entrepreneurship, and to create sustainable models of operation. Also, pursuing an entrepreneurial endeavor inside a museum is a compelling idea.

Our entrepreneurial endeavor is the Spark!Lab National Network. Here is the context in which it developed: The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation was founded in 1995 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, under the premise that invention has played – and continues to play – a central role in American history. Our mission is to study and interpret invention and innovation in American History and to foster inventive creativity in youth.

To help us fulfill the second part of our mission (foster inventive creativity), we opened Spark!Lab at the Smithsonian in 2008. Spark!Lab is an innovation lab where kids and families can engage in the invention process, come up with solutions to problems through fun challenges, prototype their ideas, and have creative learning experiences. Spark!Lab is an interdisciplinary space, so we use history, art, science, math, and other subjects to create our activities. Like maker spaces, we provide support for visitors to use their own ideas as inspiration for their creations, but we also encourage them to direct their thinking towards solving problems, like real inventors do.

Shortly after we opened Spark!Lab at NMAH, we began to receive serious inquiries from other organizations wanting to know how they could get their own Spark!Lab. The first few phone calls were flattering and more than a little exciting. But when the calls continued and our floor staff began to relay similar messages from Spark!Lab visitors, we realized we were onto something. It seemed Spark!Lab might be able to fill the needs of communities beyond the Smithsonian, so we began to develop plans to take Spark!Lab outside of Washington, DC, and to create the Spark!Lab National Network.

The business model we developed for the Network involves charging a licensing fee to collaborators. In exchange, they receive licensed use of the Smithsonian, Spark!Lab, and Lemelson Center names and logos; a set of Spark!Lab activities to start-up; all physical materials needed to operate these activities for the first two years; in-person assistance to open; and consultation services for the life of the agreement. In essence, we are franchising Spark!Lab. But unlike a traditional franchise, our goal is to work extensively with Network collaborators to create activities, programming, and initiatives that are unique to their institutions and communities. The hope is that this will make each Spark!Lab a dynamic place that visitors—no matter the museum—want to return to again and again. We strive to turn this aspiration into reality with our first external collaboration at the Terry Lee Wells Discovery Museum in Reno, Nevada.

In for-profit entrepreneurship, profit is of course the bottom line, and if social good is also desired, it is a secondary goal. For us, the main goal of the Network is to create a meaningful impact focused on fostering inventive creativity in youth. However, we also want to sustain our operations, thus the desire to create a revenue stream through licensing. We continually grapple with the most balanced way to fulfill our mission, to serve our collaborator’s needs, and to be savvy entrepreneurs. We continue to ask ourselves tough questions about sustainability and search out ways to educate ourselves about entrepreneurial practices. We’re excited about the future of the Spark!Lab National Network, and about the future of entrepreneurship in the museum field.  

Tricia Edwards is Education Specialist and Michelle DelCarlo is Spark!Lab National Network Coordinator at The Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. You can follow their work at @SI_Invention.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Inspiring a New Generation

 Author Neal Stephenson recently launched the Hieroglyph project, to rally writers to reintroduce optimism into science fiction. That is pretty ironic, considering some of the dystopian visions he has painted of our future. But, as he notes, while dark futures are fun to write about, and film, they don’t motivate people to change. He wants to launch a new generation of creatives to envision worlds we want to exist, and inspire a new generation to “get big stuff done.”

Sometimes the act of imagining something is enough to conjure it into being. Consider all the technologies envisioned by writers long before they actually existed. Arthur C Clarke invented the idea of geostationary satellites for telecommunications back in 1945. In Neuromancer, William Gibson described a worldwide communications network using the Internet, long before the World Wide Web came into being (and Gibson was startlingly prescient about how we would use this new technology, and how it would shape our world.) Star Trek Next Generation outfitted blind engineer Geordi LaForge with a VISOR (Visual Instrument and Sensory Organ Replacement)—now we’re experimenting with bionic eyes that do basically the same thing.

So this is what I pin to CFM’s “Glimpses of the Future” board in Pinterest—snapshots of the imaginings of scientists, artists, designers, architects, technologists, illustrating their ideas for our future world. Sometimes somewhat silly little things (like an iPhone app that generates smells), sometimes dark futures (like Alexis Rothman’s awesome Manifest Destiny, depicting the Brooklyn waterfront a couple hundred years into global warming), but also as many inspiring visions as I can find.

My latest pin falls in that last category:

Copyright pictures : Creations Jacques Rougerie / SeaOrbiter

It’s called the SeaOrbiter, and it’s the vision of architect Jacques Rougerie, who calls it the “Starship USS Enterprise of the Sea.” One hundred and ninety feet from top to bottom, 500 tons, the ship is a mobile underwater habitat designed to house 18 crew in 12 levels, as well as a diving drone capable of descending to 6000 meters to map the seafloor. It is intended for long term habitation and exploration of the ocean at all levels, the first of a planned fleet—one in each of the world’s oceans.

And Rougerie’s futuristic vision? “We must build a new social-economical model for the world, integrating in a responsible and sustainable way the ocean as a main source for innovations and solutions for the planet and therefore as a value of progress. A flagship for this Blue Society, SeaOrbiter also embodies the needs to explore those new resources to benefit humanity and respond to the main challenges of tomorrow.” Stephenson is right--it’s guys like Rougerie (or Jacques Cousteau, when I was growing up) who help people fall in love with the idea of saving the world.

I think it’s interesting that Rougerie invokes Enterprise (and in another place, compares SeaOrbiter to a space station). It seems like we are entering an age when large scale, ambitious exploration is driven and funded by idealistic individuals, rather than governments. Richard Branson and Elon Musk for manned space exploration, and now Rougerie for the ocean. Unlike Branson and Musk, who are bankrolling their visions with their personal wealth, Rougerie is turning to very modern fundraising technique to build SeaOrbiter—running a crowdfunding campaign to raise 325 000 euros to construct the “Eye” (or conning tower) of the ship. So if you feel inspired to help “get big stuff done,” you can support the creation of an Oceanic Enterprise.

Copyright Videos : SeaOrbiter

And keep your eyes open for other bright visions of the future, and see what “big stuff” they inspire you to do.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Sold out of science: embracing private collectors in natural history museums.

Is there such a thing as déjà prevu—the feeling of seeing something that you intended to write, but haven’t, yet? This feeling swept over me recently when I read a piece by Mark Carnall, curator at the Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy in London. Mark’s post on fossil specimens, private collectors, and museums, did a great job kicking off a long-needed debate on the whether it is possible OR desirable for museums to remain aloof from the marketplace, and I invited him to expand on his thoughts in today’s guest post. Thank you, Mark.

In a recent blog post, natural history under the hammer, over on UCL Museums and Collections blog I reflected on the differences between natural history museums’ relationship with collectors, auctions and the ethics of treating specimens as commercial commodities and how other types of museums embrace private and amateur collectors as part of the wider community. In the ‘art world’, you’re likely to find curators, collectors, patrons and donors mingling, networking and collaborating at auctions, through subject specialist networks, international professional networks and academic conferences. In the natural history context, private collectors in general are labelled as being unethical and criticized for taking important specimens away from science.

Fossils, taxidermy, entomology specimens and other natural history specimens have inspired or been a part of art from still life studies from the great masters through to Jan Fabre’s works composed of millions of beetle elytra and the Chapman brother’s puerile inter-species copulation dioramas. However, recently the high profile sales of what in a museum context would be considered natural history specimens have provoked a communal slow shaking of the head and tutting from the scientific community—for good reasons, too. Specimens that command a high price for their rarity are normally of huge potential scientific interest. The perception is that if these specimens pass into the hands of private collectors—who can afford to easily out-bid museums—the specimens are lost to science. Because they aren’t in a public institution, there is no guarantee that studies can be repeated on them to confirm or refute hypotheses. In addition, the provenance and legality of these sales is often questionable in the first place.

However, an important question raised by this response by the scientific community to private collecting is why is it ‘us vs. them’ in the first place? Other disciplines not only tolerate but are enriched by private collectors and enthusiasts. Art auctions and art conferences are attended by curators from all over the world, artists and private collectors. Art and art history specialist networks are subscribed to both by collectors, practitioners and museum professionals. Furthermore, many private collectors are patrons, donors and lobbyists that support art museums and galleries. By contrast, it’s doubtful you’ll find a natural history curator at an auction and in order to join a natural history-related professional network you have to have an institutional affiliation.

I would like to propose that natural history museums stand to gain a great deal by embracing rather than shunning private collectors. First off there are obvious benefits to networking with multi-millionaires who are passionate about natural history. (I think it’s a bit reductive to suggest that someone who splashes millions of dollars on a fossil is always going to be a trophy hunter who couldn’t care less about science). Secondly, sitting on the sidelines and tutting about these auctions after the fact isn’t as constructive as working with auction houses and private collectors. By engaging with the commercial realm, museums can help clean up a notoriously ill-regulated and sparsely policed trade in illegal specimens.

There’s much less robust legislation and awareness of issues around illicitly, illegally and unethically collected material in the realm of natural history than in the world of art. From where I work in central London if you gave me $1000 I could go out and be back in a couple of hours having bought illicitly imported fossils, coral specimens and specimens of wild caught insects and spiders both dead and alive with no questions asked. As recent auctions have highlighted there’s a very poor safety net when it comes to investigating the due diligence and provenance of natural history specimens.(In one recent case covered even by the tabloids, Nicholas Cage’s purchase of a Tyrannosaurus skull was investigated.) The scientific community also falls foul of illicit specimens, resulting in papers on specimens which turn out to be forgeries or illicitly acquired, papers that are then retracted from journals or deliberately ignored by the wider community.

By working with private collectors and amateur collectors, museums are uniquely placed to raise the awareness of ethical collecting and hopefully to increase the patronage and support of natural history museums at the same time. In the UK this exact same issue in archaeology has been tackled with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) a reporting and recording scheme now a department of the British Museum. With thousands of amateur collectors, enthusiasts and metal dectectorists regularly finding archaeological material a scheme was needed to record these finds, flag up important finds to the wider community and ensure that key context information isn’t lost. The genius of the scheme is that registering finds generates prestige and collectors are properly credited. The data associated with finds, which is collected and edited by volunteer contributors, is uploaded to the web, the finds digitised, located on a map and the history and context fully recorded and made accessible in a way that puts most museum online catalogues to shame. Furthermore, the finds can then be returned to the collector rather than find its way to an already packed museum store to be discovered in 200 years’ time with a note ‘to be documented’ on it. The scheme only works with the combined effort of professional archaeologists, museums, collectors and volunteers. It builds trust between museums and collectors, raises the awareness of ethical and scientific collection and records all the important data almost at the point of collecting. There is a planned pilot project for fossil finds in the UK.

For natural history museums to thrive and remain relevant we need to shed some of the unfortunate downsides to working as scientists. For too long natural history museums have operated somewhere in the space between the museum and the science sectors and now risk finding themselves seated at  the “kid’s table” in both-- increasingly more distant from modern science and all but absence from discussions shaping the future of the museum sector. Natural history museums have a lot to learn from other kinds of museums when it comes to patronage, and working with private collectors and amateur enthusiasts they have a lot to share, too.

Mark Carnall is the curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL. You can follow the musings of Mark and his colleagues at the UCL Museums and Collections Blog.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Mining Data in Colorado

In the 1850’s, the Fifty-Niners flocked to Colorado to join the gold rush. In 1879, it was silver that drew adventurers to the state with visions of riches. Now the History Colorado is prospecting for a new kind of wealth—data. The museum’s chief operation officer, Kathryn Hill, shares the story of how this new, human-generated resource is enriching their operations.

In 2008, the admissions desk at the Colorado History Museum doubled as the security command center. Next to the security console sat a solitary cash register, used by the daily volunteer to ring up ticket sales for the few thousand annual visitors—primarily tourists and 3rd graders on field trips. Today, visitors to the History Colorado Center encounter paid guest services representatives who sell tickets and memberships via a point-of-sale system equipped with business intelligence software. Since 2008, attendance and membership have doubled, and History Colorado, a brand new 134 year-old institution, has taken the leap into the 21st century.

When the expansion of the Colorado State Justice Center precipitated the relocation of the Colorado History Museum in 2008, we recognized an opportunity to transform the institution and to embrace an audience-centered ethic to inform the new building design, the interpretive plan aimed at serving our community (especially families) and the ways in which we would do business. We made a commitment to improving all aspects of the service environment and to learning continuously about our audiences.

During the planning process, we made two important decisions. The first was to contract nearly all of the auxiliary services—retail, café, catering, guest services, custodial and landscaping—to a single vendor. Service Systems Associates (SSA) won the bid and became our partners in developing a seamless approach to visitor services and in selecting a single point-of-sale (POS) system for all of the revenue generating functions. SSA introduced us to Bright Star Partners, which prompted our second major decision:  to purchase a business intelligence system (BI) to sit on top of the POS.

 According to webopedia, ‘business intelligence’ refers to a single software system that tracks a lot of data that an organization has likely been  previously documenting via several programs. For example, education, membership, development and marketing departments in an organization typically maintain independent databases. The BI integrates those various databases, generating what is known as big data analytics. Where we had previously operated on gut instinct or anecdotal evidence, big data now helps to affirm or challenge our conclusions about visitors. A single swipe of the membership or credit card captures myriad data about who is visiting, whether they’re members or donors, whether they’re coming as families or in adult pairs or alone, and from where. The BI tracks whether those visitors eat in the café or shop in the store, what they ate and what they bought.  

From the outset, the three-way partnership between History Colorado, SSA and Bright Star has been critical. History Colorado’s primary interest in big data analytics stems from our mission to understand our audiences and to serve them effectively through our programs. Because their profitability is tied to our success, SSA has a vested interest in providing high-quality visitor services and in tracking the data to measure their progress. History Colorado and SSA share the expense of supporting a POS administrator, who works on site at the History Colorado Center. Bright Star provides the technological expertise that neither History Colorado nor SSA possesses and has worked with us to articulate our data needs and to configure the system to track and report the data in ways even non-technical decision-makers can easily absorb.

Sitting at our desks, in real time, we can access an array of data that inform our decision-making in a variety of ways. We imagined, for example, that our café would serve as a happy hour destination in a neighborhood long on local-area workers and short on local-area watering holes. What the BI data revealed, after a few short weeks, was a precipitous drop-off of café business after 3:00 PM on weekdays. To draw the after-work crowd, we would have to invest marketing dollars. We decided, instead, to offer the café as a rental venue for private gatherings, resulting is a new, much more lucrative revenue stream. We would have figured this out without BI, but it would have taken us much longer to gather the data, understand the trade-offs and make the decision.

Our advertising agency developed a geographic billboard plan to promote our latest exhibit. We were able to evaluate their map against the information we have about where our audiences live and make strategic decisions about advertising placement. Given the limited size of our marketing budget, we must make every dollar count.

History Colorado is far from expert in data mining. So far, we have exploited the data primarily to inform marketing and guest services. The Dallas Museum of Art uses BI to track audience use of specific exhibits. Business intelligence informs the Tate Museum’s collections use. The experiences of these museums inspire us, as we continue to mine our data in the interest of serving our audiences.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Access: No Longer About Unlocking the Front Door

I've blogged about my brief experience with Google Glass at the Tech@LEAD conference. Turns out @nealstimler loaned that same pair of specs to Nik Honeysett, head of administration at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Today Nik shares his musings on the implications of this new technology, prompted by his 'test drive."

It really is getting ridiculous. We’ve barely figured out iPads, we still regard browsing our museum websites from a desktop as our primary use case and now Google Glass is staring us down. Yes, I have purloined said shiny gadget (thanks @nealstimler). It’s been a while since total strangers have stopped me in the street (or galleries in this case), questioned me about what I’m wearing, and asked if they can try it on. It used to happen a lot, but that’s a different post. With my “recovering technologist” hat on, I’ll say that Glass has that intoxicating feel of new technology that’s going to be a big deal, still a little clunky, but significant. It smells disruptive.

However, the impending arrival of Glass begs the question, how do we keep up with technologies that will significantly disrupt how we deliver content to our audiences? And the disruption isn’t about something new or different, it’s about an addition, an added complexity. Just because Glass is arriving, doesn’t mean tablets are leaving. James Gleick, author of The Information (ISBN-10: 1400096235) said it far more elegantly:

“Hardly any information technology goes obsolete, each one throws its predecessors into relief”

It appears we’re on a three year cycle, iPhone (2007), iPad (2010) and now with Glass we’re already on to a totally different mode for delivery, really different. Responsive design gets us out of the hole for simultaneously delivering content to desktop, tablet and phone, but responsive design will not help us deliver to Glass.

In three years, we’re going from the convenience of a light-weight, hi-res, touchscreen computer with the natural gesture of pinch and zoom, to something we wear instead of carry, command by voice and even wink at to control. We’re competing for the attention of our audiences, and nothing gets closer to our audience or more personal than Glass’ “screen”. The only reason Google is inventing the driverless car is so that we can wear Glass while driving. You think I’m joking? Google’s revenue model is about eyes on ads, ads don’t get closer to your eyes than with Glass, and there’s no greater captive audience than a driver in a car.

So as I learn to interact with Glass, and apply a fake American accent to increase the success rate of my voice commands, it's brought into focus (enough with the puns already) what’s required of us as museums. The organisational simplicity of data and information that Glass requires informs a strategy to survive and scale up in the face of rapidly changing delivery technologies: Ignore the technology and focus on the trend. I’ll invoke Occam’s razor:

A scientific and philosophic rule that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily … the simplest of competing theories be preferred to the more complex … explanations of unknown phenomena be sought first in terms of known quantities.

("Occam's Razor." Merriam-Webster)

The strategy is simple enough: in the same way that a sound financial strategy says, “look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves”, we need an information strategy that provides for the simplest delivery, because the complex delivery technologies can take care of themselves. It will also let others, who do a far better job of presentation and who are far better equipped to deal with the sustainability issues, worry about the delivery. Rather than packaging our information, using our own resources to wrap it up into neat self-contained bundles, we need to become service-oriented, we need to get into the resource creation business where we provide the data and others provide the presentation. I’ll use two examples from my own institution, the Getty’s Open Content Program and our recent partnership with Khan Academy.

The focus of the Open Content Program is to make all public domain artworks in the Getty’s collections free to use, modify, and publish for any purpose and at high resolution. While we will continue to provide access by wrapping up our collection images in a convenient self-contained, collections-online subsite, so can anyone else. We created the resources, but we’re letting others do stuff with them, and we’ll be releasing more images over time (currently we’re at 10,000). Fortunately we have a Digital Asset Management system that allows us to manage and deploy these resources. But it is not just about images, our plans are to add data to the Program as well.

Our partnership with Khan Academy is where this concept of resource creation really takes off and demonstrates the power of this approach. Our first step with KA is to simply provide access to the video resources we have generated. In much the same way that we create playlists on our YouTube channel, KA has created similar playlists on their platform, but with this partnership we’ve doubled the return on our investment in terms of access—KA has 10 million unique users per month.Our partnership with KA will evolve to create and add more content around these resources, but we can use and deploy these resources anywhere.

The concept is not new. Creating Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to provide access to our collection information and images is exactly the same concept, we just need to extend it from collections information to education, conservation, research, and so on, creating discrete resources, efficiently managed, deployable and accessible that allow  anyone to aggregate, mix, re-mix, extend. Anyone in your museum got the time to add Glassware development to their developer’s burgeoning list of skills and then manage a project to deliver a Glass app? Probably not. Anyone got the time to reformat that descriptive or interpretive copy and add it to Wikipedia? Most likely.

Google Glass is clearly a new technology, but the trend is information delivery. In another three years’ time I could be posting about Google Implant—just another extension of the same trend. If I have done a good job of organizing and setting free my data and resources for Glass, my only worry will be about the surgeon’s blade.