Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Holidays with Class(es): St. Entropy Gets Schooled

This is #25 in a series that, I'm happy to say, looks like it won't end anytime soon. Enjoy a holiday break, and I look forward blogging with and for you in the new year.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, but I was not done;
Final grades for my students had yet to be run.
All of the essays, exams, and the rest
Had to be scored, as did every test.
All of the projects that took multiple tries
(Note: if you work in collections, learn to alphabetize),
And all of the classes they didn’t attend,
All the displays that fell down without end
(The labels with typos that made text obscene,
The objects glued firmly and wrongly—I mean!)
And all of the tours that they led the wrong way
Had to be graded—and all wanted an A.
And I? There I sat at my desk, tired and weary
From teaching my students museum learning theory.
I had Falked, I had Dierkinged, I had Heined and had Spocked,
But the students all seemed to be mentally blocked.
I musealized, made meaning, and drew them a map,
But all that they wanted was to download an app.
Whether online or offline, hook, line, or sinker,
It seemed that no student could be classed as a thinker.
When, down in exhibits, there arose such a clatter,
I leapt from my languor to see what was the matter
(Assuming displays were collapsing again,
But, no, they were stable.) Re-capping my pen,
Away to the window I flew in a flash,
Tore open the shutters, and threw up on the sash.
(A hint: never mix drinks when strange creatures are stirring,
If you don’t want to wind up with your brain all a-whirring.)
But the moon on the snow, now starting to fade,
Reminded me I still had essays to grade.
When, what to my slow-crossing eyes should appear
But an anachronistic red sleigh and reindeer?
With a lively old driver, with such vim and verve,
I knew in a moment he must grade on the curve.
With a nod and a twitch and a big puff of smoke,
St. Entropy popped in and gave me a poke.
His eyes, how they twinkled―he smiled with such zest!
I knew he could never have passed the drug test.
He flipped through the essays, sadly shaking his head:
I knew that my students had something to dread.
Whipping out his red pen that matched his face well,
He proceeded to write out what he had to tell.
“If you use 3-inch margins and 30-point font,
Santa is not going to give what you want.
No dashes! No danglers! No punctos! Must scan!
Use logic and reason whenever you can.
Make a case for each case, have a plan for each item;
Those who don’t find that things come back to bite ‘em.
If you depend for your image on Civil War re-enactors,
Then don’t include Elvis or John Wayne as factors.
No, you can’t sell your collection at yard sales around town
Or donate things to your skeet club to get crowding down.
The collection is not yours to sell or to barter
And you can’t fund the museum by using Kickstarter.”
He grumbled and groused and was one basic jerk,
Until finally, finally, he finished the work.
Then, raising the papers to check off each name,
He sputtered and asked me, “Hey, what is your game?
Your students were never the true perpetrators—
All their essays were cribbed from your genius curators.”
Alas, it was true—one might say heuristic
The students had merely been opportunistic.
Capitalizing on low curatorial pay,
And professional ethics (decidedly gray),
They hired out the work that they should have done,
Knowing money was something no curator would shun.
I was stunned nigh to silence by this ethical lapse,
So I took a quick quaff of my holiday schnapps.
The meaning of this leaves me haunted by specters.
Will all of my students become…gasp…directors?
As for St. Entropy, he was no help.
He just leaped in his sleigh and uttered a yelp.
As quick as he’d come, now he was gone,
His sleigh and his team just a speck on the lawn.
But I heard him exclaim, as the team rose away,
“Like all drama and trauma, we’ll end with an A!”

--John Simmons, Sally Shelton and Elizabeth Merritt know exactly what is going to be on the final.

Image from "Tacky Christmas" Blog

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: Glamorous Glucose

#wearabletech #diabetes #fashion

Follow the link in the photo caption to the associated story. You can find more glimpses of the future (and links) on CFM's Pinterest Boards

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Your 2014 CFM Guide to "Trendy" Gifts

As the year wraps up, here are a few suggestions for last-minute items to round out your trends-related gifting. This selection illustrates a number of the issues I’ve explored via the blog in the past year, with a range of price tags that should fit any budget.

If you are getting all excited by drones, but want something a little more family-friendly, pre-order the new Bionic Bird. For only 99€ you can kill two birds with one stone (sorry--had to say that) by amusing the recipient AND your cat.


This year there was a lot of tech buzz about Oculus Rift—a head-mounted 3-D virtual reality display designed for gaming. The latest version of their “development kit” (as in, this is still in Beta, folks) sells for $350.  But if you want dead simple (and dead cheap) virtual reality try Google Cardboard instead—a DIY headset that turns any compatible smartphone into a virtual reality headset. There are several options, including “Unofficial Cardboard”—shown in this video

If you are shopping for the “quantified self” in your life, and are feeling a mite generous, why not gift them Narrative Clip? This little gadget is the ultimate in visual life-logging—a tiny camera that clips anywhere (Your lapel. Your skateboard. Your cat’s collar). It automatically takes 2 pictures every minute—storing up to 4,000 pictures that then upload to a personal library in the cloud. The associated app uses “smart” algorithms to organize the tsunami of images.

If you are jazzed by the idea of 3D printed food, but can’t shell out for an actual 3D printer, (much less muck about cleaning chocolate off the print head) how about these 3D Dinosaur Cookie Cutters? “Create the tastiest treats this side of the Jurassic period... then eat them into extinction”

For the person who has everything, how about Estonian e-Citizenship? For only $64 you can give them a government-guaranteed digital identity, including a digital signature that has the same legal forces as a hand-scrawled John Hancock, as well as the right to open a bank account and run a company out of that country.

If you and your loved one are finding that emojis alone aren’t enough to bring your passionate e-communications to life, consider re-igniting your relationship by exchanging Miranda July Somebody app, which recruits total strangers to lend their face and voice to your messaging.  

On the other hand, if you want to help someone “disconnect to reconnect” (as well as protecting their privacy), you can order the “UnPocket” for £18.00—a stylish waxed canvas cell-phone case that blocks all cell, WiFi, GPS and RFID signals to help people drop off the grid. The Affair, the tech/fashion firm that makes UnPocket, specializes in “fashion for an under-surveillance society. Because, let’s face it, Big Brother knows way too much already.”

Have a great holiday!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

In Memoriam: Tracy Hicks, 1946 - 2014

Tracy Hicks, Helix, AAM Annual Meeting 2011
photo by Susan Breitkopf
One of the blessings of this job is the wonderful, brilliant, generous people I have met in the course of my work for CFM. Tracy Hicks was all these things, and more. You may remember him as CFM’s “Artist Interpreting the Future of Museums” in 2011 at the AAM Annual Meeting in Houston, where he gave so generously of his time—sharing his concerns about the decline of amphibian species, and his appreciation of the beauty to be found in the work museums do to document that vanishing world. I first met Tracy through John Simmons, and in today’s post, I invited John to share his memories of our friend.  

In the early spring of 1999 I received an urgent message asking if I could help an artist whose installation of dozens of jars of goldfish preserved in alcohol had just been shut down by the fire marshal. That was my introduction to Tracy Hicks. When we spoke, I was impressed by how concerned Tracy was with authenticity in his art—he wanted the jars in his installation to be as similar to actual fluid-preserved museum specimens as he could make them.

Tracy and I connected immediately—we were about the same age, we had grown up in the same part of Texas, and he raised poison dart frogs in his studio. A few months later, Tracy drove up to the Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas (KU), where I was collections manager in the Division of Herpetology. Tracy was fascinated by museum collections, particularly the way that specimens were treated individually but valued as members of sets of similar objects—he was particularly enchanted by the seeming repetition in collections. Much of his art at that time dealt with his interpretation of what he called museum vaults, such as Correlation and Collection and Freedman’s Field, as well as the powerful Third Ward Archive which consists of hundreds of photographs exhibited in jars (these works can all be seen at www.tracyhicks.com under the heading “Stills—older works”). But when Tracy arrived at the museum at KU that day, he had something more profound in mind—he wanted to probe much deeper into the mystery and the beauty of collections. In 1994, he had participated in a field trip to Guatemala with a team of scientists from the University of Texas at Arlington, and returned intrigued by the details and processes of preparing scientific specimens, and worried about the disappearance of amphibians in the wild.

In the lab at KU, Tracy demonstrated the rapid alginate cold-casting method he had developed to make molds of fluid-preserved frogs without damaging the specimens. His goal was an exhibition that would interpret scientific collections, but in a radically different way than I then imagined. I introduced Tracy to Marjorie Swann, an English professor who taught a class on collecting in the KU Museum Studies Program and was the author of an insightful book on the history of collecting (Curiosities and Texts: The Culture of Collecting in Early Modern England). Marjorie immediately understood what Tracy’s work was about, and proposed that we find some means to get Tracy involved with our students and fund an exhibition. The result was two grants from the Museum Loan Network. The first was a travel grant to develop the concept. Tracy, Marjorie, a museum studies graduate student, and I went to the Field Museum in Chicago to select Asian frog specimens to compliment the New World species available at KU. The second grant provided nearly $45,000 to borrow the Field Museum specimens, pay for molding and casting materials, and support two graduate student assistants for Tracy’s work. The Hall Center for Humanities at KU provided an exhibit venue. The project melded our three distinct interests in collections. I thought of scientific specimens as tools to be used to understand evolution; Marjorie conceptualized collections as cultural constructs that shed light on the conflicted relationship between humans and nature; Tracy saw in the specimens the inherent beauty of nature, life, and death. The overarching concept was to demonstrate how scientific specimens, selected from the wild to be preserved as objects of cultural patrimony, reflected our efforts to interpret the diversity of life. Tracy derived the name of the project from C.P. Snow’s book, The Two Cultures, which addresses the communication gulf between scientists and artists.

Early in 2005, the Two Cultures: Collections exhibit opened as a walk-in installation containing around 1700 jars of glow-in-the-dark silicon casts of scientific specimens of frogs. After exposure to UV lights, the various casts would fluoresce for anywhere from a few minutes to nearly 24 hours before fading. I digitized some field recordings I had made of frog choruses from the Amazon basin for Tracy to play in the background. A computer in the exhibit displayed a database of the catalog information for the specimens. The student assistants planned programming related to the exhibit, conducted tours, and organized a mini-conference on art and science at the Hall Center. A splendid time was had by all.

Tracy had many circles of friends who he turned to for inspiration, information, and amusement. I was invited to join the group that Tracy called The Chorus, a name derived from a combination of a chorus of singing frogs and a critical Greek chorus. We kept in touch through frequent email messages. The idea was that The Chorus would comment on Tracy’s art, which we did, but we also became a very tight group of friends, sharing many intimate moments of our own and Tracy’s life.

The glowing silicon frogs reappeared in Tracy’s art from time to time over the next several years, but he was never content to repeat what he had already done. As his understanding of scientific collections and the disappearing amphibian crisis grew, Tracy’s art took some fascinating twists and turns through several other major installations. By 2009, when Tracy was invited to participate in a show called Reflections on Darwin at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio,  he had moved from storage vaults to a two-story high indoor scaffolding holding objects and specimens that he had collected on a trek across West Texas and mounted on heavy glass panels. It was a mesmerizing display that included a reassembled snake skeleton, rocks, fossils, a bat and a frog, butterfly wings, doll parts, plants, dozens of insects, laboratory glassware, animal skulls and bones, and bottles of strangely colored oils.

Tracy’s commitment to preserving amphibians was a constant current in most of his art and a driving force in his activities. He went to the tropics again, this time to Peru, with several friends, and played a role in putting together an organization called Tree Walkers International that awards grants for amphibian research and publishes a magazine called Leaf Litter.

Tracy had survived a massive heart attack in 1981, but suffered from severe angina the rest of his life. The scarring on his heart meant that nothing was easy for him—not the long hours he spent at work on his art, not the physical effort required for the astoundingly long drives to far-flung venues to set up his complex installations, not trekking around in the humid tropics, and not the daily awareness that he was living on borrowed time. Tracy once wrote that, “Since the early 1980s my work has been continually charged with the physical reminder of mortality.”

In 2010, Tracy was selected for the Smithsonian Artists Research Fellowship (SARF) program, a prestigious award that gave him inside access to the largest natural history collections in the world, and the scientists who made them and care for them. His art continued to morph, now including fantastically mixed images of field notes written by scientists during their studies in the wild, superimposed with beautiful, touching photographs of specimens suspended in time in fluid and human skin (Tracy had been a commercial photographer before he became a full-time artist, and that experience shows in his images―he knew how to use light). The SARF project became a metaphorical comparison of human skin and amphibian skin, using close-ups of finely textured preserved frog and tadpole skin, young and old human skin, and particularly scars. At his request, I sent him images of cross-sections of amphibian skin and stories of how scientists found frogs in the wild.

In the midst of his SARF fellowship, Tracy came down with H1N1 flu. With his bad heart, the virus nearly killed him. For days, he lingered in a coma. We didn’t know if he would ever awake, or if he did, whether he would have lost some measure of cerebral function. To everyone’s relief, Tracy pulled through, weakened and exhausted, but alive, and eager to get back to work, which he did.

Tracy devoted considerable energies his last few years to the design and construction of the house he and his wife, Victoria Loe Hicks (an award-winning journalist) built in the mountains of North Carolina. It was their dream house, quiet and restful, with studio space amid acres of woods where Tracy walked daily. Last spring, they held the first of what was planned as an annual gathering of artists, musicians, and scientists, a converging of the Two Cultures around the theme of giant salamanders. Back in 2003, when we were at the Field Museum, Tracy became transfixed by a specimen of the giant Japanese salamander. Although the specimen did not fit the parameters of our project, we borrowed it anyway, and one afternoon I watched as Tracy made an alginate mold and then a plaster cast (which had to be poured within ten minutes of making the mold) in the lab at KU. The huge plaster salamander traveled with Tracy back home to Texas, moved with him to Atlanta, and then to North Carolina in 2010 before he found time to work on it. Giant Japanese salamanders (Andrias japonicas) grow to five feet long or more; its only living relatives are a similar Chinese species (Andrias davidianus) and the somewhat smaller hellbenders (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis) of the eastern United States. All of the giant salamanders live in cold water that flows down mountains; like all amphibians, they live through their porous skin; and like too many amphibians, they are gravely threatened with extinction. Tracy spent hours working with the plaster cast, transforming its dull white surface until it looked very much alive, its’ skin glistening, an astoundingly beautiful piece of art. Tracy, who liked to describe himself as a crazy old artist, frequently told people that Andrias was the only god he believed in, emblematic of the way he embraced the natural world with a childlike curiosity coupled with a fascination with science.

Tracy once wrote in a description of his SARF project that “Preserving life and death is universally personally charged with emotion.” The message that Tracy had suffered another massive heart attack came on a Friday evening, as Victoria was en route to Liberia for a reporting assignment on the Ebola outbreak. Via email, members of The Chorus shared a mixture of disbelief, loss, and consolation until late into the night. I wandered about the house, unable to sleep, never before realizing how much of Tracy’s art we had—a massive glass panel from Reflections on Darwin sits atop a bookcase, a brass apple rests by the window in the living room, a stack of custom-made books of Tracy’s SARF images sits on the floor, one of Tracy’s photographs from Two Cultures: Collections enlivens the cover of a book I published. I finally gave up and crawled into bed, only to lie awake watching several jars of glowing frogs slowly fade to black.

Aug 11, 2008 still/LIFE study, Tracy Hicks
All photos by John Simmons, unless otherwise noted

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Let’s Talk Money: How much do you make?

You’d probably feel massively uncomfortable if someone asked you that question at a dinner party. After all, money is one of the things (along with politics, sex and religion) that are simply not discussed in polite company. 

But that doesn’t mean we aren’t all massively curious about what everyone else gets paid.

Fortunately, there are ways to get at this other than personal and intrusive questions (or poking around on GuideStar for a nonprofit’s 990 statements, which include the salaries of key employees.)

I’m pleased to share the news that the Alliance, in collaboration with all six regional museum associations, has published the first field-wide museum salary survey. Massive thanks to the staff and volunteer leadership of the Association of Midwest Museums, Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums, Mountain Plains Museums Association, New England Museums Association, Southeastern Museums Conference and Western Museums Association for working with AAM to make this possible. The report includes information on salary, benefits and demographic information for 51 positions, in many cases broken out by geographic area, museum discipline, governance and operating budget.

Here’s a link to the publication in the Alliance bookstore. It’s being provided free to all 736 museums that complete all or part of the survey and at a discount to members of the regions and the Alliance.

I anticipate this data will primarily be used by museums to benchmark salary ranges, and by people working in museums to bolster their own negotiations regarding compensation. I hope it will be used by people contemplating a career in museums to help with their financial planning and to set realistic goals. As a rule of thumb, student debt loan payments shouldn’t exceed 15% of graduate’s expected starting salary. So when a would-be museum educator contemplates a degree in museum studies, it would be relevant to note that his or her starting salary is likely to be in the mid-to-high 30ks. (That would mean a debt of no more than $5,000 or so—when average student debt on graduation from college now exceeds $30k.)

I’ve been blogging lately about the economics of museum pay, including the forces that drive salaries down (while suppressing diversity of our field) and lead many staff to feel undercompensated for their work. I’ve suggested one way to avoid this kind of resentment is to help museums and prospective employees agree on the fairmarket value for a given job: the compensation (cash + intangibles) an employer and a job applicant agree on when both parties are knowledgeable, willing and unpressured. While many factors go into creating a shared understanding of all those factors, one important piece is having sound data on what people in comparable positions typically earn. That way if a curator decides to trade off $18k of salary in order to work in rural rather than an urban museum, for example, perhaps that  conscious and well-considered decision is less likely to rankle later on.

I also hope this publication will provoke reflection on the part of the field as a whole—financials often tell the truth more clearly than obfuscating words. What social and economic factors drive the gender imbalance in museum pay and status? While two-thirds of the professionals represented in this survey are women, there are more men than women in directors in museums with budgets over $3M, and female directors earn only 71 cents for every dollar earned by male directors. True, this disparity reflects the pay gap in the American workplace as a whole, but does that make it acceptable? What are the biases, conscious or unconscious, acting on women’s museum careers that lead to this result, and how can we create systems and policies that eliminate such bias?

There is great information collected in this publication—and as I watched the salary project play out, I compiled a list of additional things it would be great to know and put them on my wish list for future research. Spurred, no doubt, by the theme of this year’s annual meeting, I find myself wondering: what is the ratio of highest to lowest salaries in museums, especially in the very biggest organizations? How many museums pay a living wage to their lowest paid workers (relative to the local cost of living), and have any museums committed to paying a living wage? You may have items to add to that list--what additional data would be useful to you, your museum or to the field? I look forward to hearing your thoughts in comments and discussions on Museum Junction and the CFM Blog. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Monday Musing: Making it Personal with Telepresence

This video caught my attention this morning: a crowdfunding pitch for what is billed as "the world's first social innovation telepresence experience."

This system, Omnipresenz, is designed to let you control a human "avatar" anywhere in the world, seeing and hearing through their internet-connected gear, and directing them to interact with the world. It's being pitch by developer Daniel Gonz├ílez Franco "as a tool for virtual tourism, as a sort of therapy for agoraphobics or bed bound people to leave their house, or even as a way to rethink the experience of charity." You can read more about it in Fast Company. 

It reminds me of the whack "Somebody" app by artist Miranda July that also facilitates recruitment of a human avatar, in this case for the very specific function of putting a human face and voice to your digital message. 

Both Omnipresenz and Somebody grapple with how to turn put a human face on remote, virtual engagement with the world. 

I'm intrigued with "telepresence avatars" as an alternative to "telepresence robots" (like those we demoed at the Alliance annual meeting this past spring.")  As museums begin to experiment with telepresence, whether for education, accessibility, or simply as a new form of engagement with the museum, it will be interesting to weigh the benefits of human over robot, robot over human.  One Suitable Technologies staffer piloting a BeamPro in Seattle noticed many attendees were shy about coming up and interacting with him via the robot--until he held his cat up to the screen (cats apparently being the universal language of internet relatability. See, #CatVidFest). Would people be more, or less shy about talking to someone with a helmet-mounted camera on their head? 

Food for some Monday thought. And if anyone wants to visit a DC museum remotely, I'm totally up for being your avatar, if we can work out the tech.