Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Wordless Wednesday: a #NeverBuilt Museum

#NeverBuiltMuseums #WomenAtWar

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, January 27, 2015

The Multi-dimensional Museum

I was delighted to hear this story over the weekend on NPR, on how the Pacific Science Center opens early, one Saturday each month, to provide an environment tailored to the needs of visitors with autism. For this time, they turn down the lights, tone down the noise and reduce the crowds, resulting in a quiet, calm experience that better suits the needs of children and young adults on the autism disorder spectrum.

From NPR story on the Pacific Science Center'sdedicated hours for families with ASD
photo credit: Jennifer Wing, KPLU 

Many of the trends I write about push museums in opposing directions: the rise of hand-held, internet connected devices opens the door to a proliferation of digital content; fatigue with digital overload results in visitors who just want to disconnect. Some visitors thrive on putting themselves into the museum picture (literally), while others are driven nuts by the antics of people taking cell-phone pics (with or without a selfie stick). Some people want a boisterous, gamified, participatory experience, many just want quiet (and if possible, solitary) contemplation.

What’s a museum to do?

Some, faced with these conflicting forces, will go all-in with one strategy or another: saturate the museum with opportunities for digital engagement, or go relentlessly offline (perhaps going so far as emulating the small but growing number of cafes that turn off the WiFi). But most museums are going to have to accommodate visitors with divergent needs and preferences through either spatial or temporal partitioning. Want to encourage parents to bring their babies to the museum? You could create “baby zones” throughout the museum, or you could set aside hours specifically for moms and dads to bring their babies to the museum, and not have to feel self-conscious about drool, poop, crying and other normal aspects of the whole baby experience.

In this case, PacSci (among other museums with similar programs) chose temporal partitioning as a way to tailor the museum experience to the needs of people with autism. Other museums are staying open late, sometimes all night, to attract new audiences. As Nina Simon has discussed, later hours can make the museum accessible to working people, create symbiotic experiences with other night-life events, and buffer the public from school tours.

The other dimension a museum can play with is space—either chunking out different parts of the museum building for different kinds of experiences (like the aforementioned baby zones), or co-opting other space. That’s what the Walker Art Center did when they started Open Field—dedicating the sloping lawn outside the museum to summer activities that embody the “creative spirit of our community.” (And birthing the awesome Internet Cat Video Festival.) That’s what the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh did with the Charm Bracelet Project, partnering with other local museums and community organizations to revitalize underutilized city spaces like the New Hazlett Theater and Buhl Community Park. The Detroit Institute of Arts has gone even farther afield, infiltrating communities up to 30 miles away with their Inside/Out installations.  

Infant and Toddler Playspace at the
Children's Museum of the Low Country

Both these strategies—temporal and spatial partitioning—are very much in the spirit of the sharing economy, which is based on milking value from underused resources. Looking outside the normal boundaries of a museum’s habits of operating inside its own walls, between 10-5 Tuesday through Sunday, can create the space and time to create tailored experiences for different user groups.

There are potential downsides—staying open later may cut down on the museum’s revenue from evening rentals (as well as increasing operating costs). People who encounter “distributed” events and installations may not connect them with the museum. But overall, erasing the traditional boundaries around time and space is relatively affordable way of creating a bigger pool of resources, so different groups can have experiences personalized to their needs.

And remember--if there's an unmet demand, , outside your open hours, for the kind of experience your museum provides; or if people want a kind of experience inside your museum that you aren't providing, some other business may well step in to fill that need and snatch that potential market out from under you. You might decide to pass on these opportunities (maybe they lie to far outside your mission. Maybe you'd rather partner with these entrepreneurs than compete), but it should be a conscious, considered choice. Don't miss the chance to make your museum accessible to people when they need you, how they need you, just because it takes you outside your cultural comfort zone.


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Scouting SOTUs

Someday I hope to hear a president of the U.S. stand up in the chamber of the House of Representatives in the Capitol and give a great big shout out to America’s museums. (Perhaps citing them as critical infrastructure--on a par with schools, and roads. I can dream, can't I?) Meanwhile, I listen for more subtle clues to how national policy will affect our field. Today on the blog, Gail Ravnitzky Silberglied, the Alliance’s vice president of government relations & advocacy, shares a few excerpts from the president’s speech that offer an opportunity for museums to be part of the debate:

Last night, President Obama delivered his State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol. In his 65-minute speech, the president outlined his priorities and proposals for 2015. Congress will now begin its work to set federal funding levels, develop tax policy and determine next steps for our nation’s education system.

“It’s all about building the most competitive economy anywhere…21st century businesses will rely on American science and technology, research and development.”

Museums are inspiring innovation, creativity and problem-solving, which form the framework for a competitive economy. Congress needs to know our tremendous economic impact.
“For far too long, lobbyists have rigged the tax code with loopholes [and] giveaways that the super-rich don’t need.”

Hopefully this wasn’t a reference to the charitable deduction, which is neither a loophole nor a giveaway but a vital lifeline accounting for one-third of museums’ operating budgets. (And we won’t take it personally that he knocked lobbyists.)
“We are demonstrating the power of American strength and diplomacy.”

We'll make the case that museums are making a valuable contribution to public diplomacy through traveling exhibitions, international exchange programs and the Museums Connect program.
Finally, the President said,
“It’s up to us to choose who we want to be and who we want to become.” 

Will museums be part of the equation?

“Museums have a golden opportunity to influence the Congressional agenda this year,” said the Alliance’s president, Ford W. Bell. “From job creation, education and public diplomacy to disaster relief, human rights and honoring our veterans, the issues raised last night are very much in line with what museums are doing every day. I invite everyone to join us in Washington, D.C. Feb. 23-24 to make the case for museums as part of Museums Advocacy Day.”

It’s up to us to choose whether we want to be at the table as museum advocates, or risk museums being on the table.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Lost Pleasures

“If you resolve to give up smoking, drinking and loving, you don't actually live longer; it just seems longer.” –Clement Freud

There was an interesting bit of math tucked into the calorie count regulations released by the FDA late last year. It was a type of calculation called a “lost-pleasure analysis,” and it factored into the overall cost analysis of the regulations the “sense of deprivation people may feel when they give up foods they enjoy.” (Note that one recursive effect of this provision is that the better a regulation is at curbing costly and damaging behavior, the higher the cost charged against it, as more pleasure is “lost.”)

This wasn’t the first time this calculation has been invoked: for example, in last year’s tobacco regulations, the enormous health benefits from reduced smoking were discounted by 70% to offset the pleasure smokers forgo when they smoke less.

Maybe Lost Pleasure can be seen as a (perverse) outgrowth of the trend towards factoring happiness into otherwise purely transactional economic measures. Bhutan, for example, acting on the truism that you get what you measure, has adopted the Gross National Happiness Index (GNHI) to combat the materialism of the Gross National Product as the undisputed measure of a nation’s health. GNHI tracks costs that are usually booted down the road to the next generation, such as pollution; factors that may result in costs at some point, such as attitudes towards the environment; and quality of life issues, such as time spent sleeping.

The GNHI (and the related Happy Museum project) measure happiness as it relates to actions that promote long-term well-being. The Lost Pleasure measure, by contrast, veers towards pure hedonism—valuing the pursuit of pleasure as the highest good. Once we accept pleasure per se as something to be valued, regardless of consequences, where do we stop? Will the cost of the war on drugs factor in the lost pleasure of addicts deprived of heroin or PCP? Will the cost of extending the school year incorporate a figure for the pleasure students would have gained from playing outside or hanging out with friends? Is this anything more than a blatantly cynical ploy on the part of established industries to manipulate economic analysis in a way that rewards them for their skill at addicting people to self-destructive behaviors?

Probably not, but let’s see if we can’t get something good out of it anyway—making lemonade of political lemons, as it were. If we are going weigh the costs of pleasure lost to regulations promoting health, why not measure, and take into account, the costs of pleasures lost when we curb government spending? Over the last 25 years, the amount of support provided by local, state and federal funding dropped from 39% of museum operating costs, on average, to less than 25%, and I suspect that this figure dropped further since the recession of 2008 (though AAM doesn’t have hard numbers for the last six years). As I discussed in TrendsWatch 2012, we now live in an era in which many state and local governments, rather than funding nonprofit museums, seek ways to get money back from them via Payments in Lieu of Taxes and various fees.

It seems to me that that embracing Lost Pleasure is a way of combatting that trend. This approach could round out the arsenal of museums seeking to justify public support either through documenting economic impact (principally travel and tourism dollars flowing into their community due to museum visitation), or via outcomes-based evaluation documenting how their organization changes people’s knowledge, attitudes, skills and behavior. Putting a value on pleasure could bridge the gap between hard dollars and squishy consequences, as well as satisfying those who feel both those approaches miss the intangible benefits of art and culture.

Why not attach an economic number to the pleasure your museum provides to its community? Not just tourist dollars spent in local establishments, or facts drilled into little Susie’s head (in alignment with the Common Core, of course), but the sheer joy of seeing Calatrava’s Brise Soleil stretching out over the lake from the Milwaukee Art Museum, the peace of mind bestowed by walking Peter Santino’s meditation labyrinth All Happy Now at the Humbolt Botanical Gardens, or the happiness sparked by watching baby panda Bao Bao roll around in her first snowfall at the National Zoo.

I know that this is a leap. Lost pleasure wormed its way into the tobacco and calorie count regulations courtesy of a requirement established under President Clinton that every federal regulation with an effect on the economy greater than $100M be accompanied by a cost benefit calculation. I believe that, in turn, was a refinement of a 1981 executive order by Ronald Reagan mandating the use of cost benefit analysis in the federal regulatory process. There is no mandate requiring cities, states or the federal government to assess the impact of budget cuts on our shared culture and heritage. But there’s no reason museums can’t seize control of the dialog and start unilaterally factoring the pleasure we give society into our annual reports and online dashboards. How do we measure the pleasure people get from museums? I don’t know, but if the F.D.A. can quantify the pleasure people get from chowing down on a cheeseburger or puffing on a cigar, I think we can figure out how to put a number on the pleasure that comes from contemplating a Renoir. Let’s start working on it, people.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

On Cuba

While I spend a lot of my time reporting to you about trends—things that change quickly or slowly over time, in a traceable direction—disruptive events are equally important drivers of change. Disruptive events come to our attention as overnight, headline news, and one of the biggest disruptive headlines of 2015 was the first steps towards normalization of the U.S. relationship with Cuba. I invited Stuart Ashman, President & CEO of the Museum of Latin American Art (and former Accreditation Commissioner) to share his thoughts on how this event may shape the future, in particular the implications for museums.
Much is being written about President Obama’s announcements to take steps towards normalizing relations with Cuba. There are those who welcome the initiative and those who deplore the action.

Stuart Ashman, 2nd grade, Matanzas, Cuba
As someone who grew up in Cuba and returns there often leading licensed people-to-people cultural exchanges, I cannot begin to express my elation at the President’s unexpected good news. I say unexpected, because many of us who had been hoping for such a move, had become discouraged at any lack of action as we now applaud the President for his courage and his wisdom.
Anyone who travels to Cuba is puzzled by the fact that the United States lists Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism; that we don’t do business with Cuba, and that any transactions with Cuba are governed by the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control and the “Trading with the Enemy Act” –Please!!!
The Cuban people love Americans and American culture. They know about American culture, our cars, our baseball, our cities. They love American movies and rock and roll music. And we love Cuban music, and Cuban dancing and the whole romantic notion of that idealized paradise island – especially since it has been forbidden fruit for over five decades.
We have an important shared history. Cuba’s famous poet warrior José Martí who organized Cuba’s struggle for independence from the Spanish in 1895 spent most of his life writing and raising money for his efforts in New York. Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders from Las Vegas, New Mexico were key players in the battle of San Juan Hill in Santiago the Cuba during the Spanish/American war, or as the Cuban’s call it the Hispano – Cubano – Americano war. This was a joint effort between our two countries to release Cuba from the conquering Spanish; and the relationship continued in the next century, including Fidel’s fund raising activities for the revolution in New York’s Waldorf Astoria in 1955.
So now, we are going to restore diplomatic relations. Wow! I never thought I would live to see the day!
But what does it mean? It means we are going to start talking with each other in a new way with an effort towards normalizing, maybe even being friends! 
And what does this mean for the arts and museums?  Well, you need to know that AAM President Dr. Ford Bell traveled to Cuba in 2009 and experienced it first- hand. Subsequently, through our mutual efforts, we brought seven Cuban museum professionals to the AAM “Museums without Borders” conference in LA. So, AAM was working behind the scenes to “normalize” relationships – at least in the museum world several years ago.
Stuart with CUQUI  from the musical group
Tradisón at La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana
What it also means is that things will get a bit easier. There is no banking relationship with Cuba, so shipments of works of art and purchases of art usually have to go through companies in Madrid, Paris or Mexico City. I recently organized an exhibit for Cuban artists Esterio Segura and had to ship the works via Madrid to LA – talk about inefficiency and added cost – not to mention the additional risk to the works. Another thing that may be made easier is the Cuban artists’ ability to get a visa to come to the US. Though artists have had certain privileges from both the Cuban and the US governments, a normalized scenario could make it more like traveling between the US and Europe or the US and Mexico – both of which don’t require much bureaucratic maneuvering.
Also, only a select few Cuban artists have been able to market their work in the US. This initiative will open doors to hundreds of very capable and relevant Cuban artists who have had to rely on sales to visitors or the occasional show in Europe or Latin America. This is very exciting!
What is also exciting is how this will affect the artistic expression in Cuba, much of which has had to do with economic difficulty, issues of migration, and the concern about the unfriendly giant to the North. It will be very interesting to see how these artists manifest their new vision.
Cubans have suffered immeasurable economic difficulty and scarcity of material goods while we in the U.S. seem to have a surplus of everything. Walk into any supermarket and witness the myriad of cleaning supplies that are available; go to a hardware store and find any number of nails, screws and fasteners; go to any drugstore and choose from dozens of cold remedies and pain relief medications. Almost none of these  are available in Cuba, not to mention the most basic everyday items like shoestrings, scotch tape, ballpoint pens, writing paper – oh, and yes tools and art supplies? Hopefully these will be easily accessible to Cubans in the near future. This will relieve a measure of their unimaginable anxiety for the acquisition of these most basic necessities.
In the scientific arena, Cuba has been exporting doctors and medical personnel for years and has been developing vaccines for any number of diseases including Diabetes, certain cancers, and infectious diseases. This new opening will be a boon to scientists in the US and in Cuba. They have been hungering for this connection for decades.
In many ways, this historical action is akin to the takedown of the Berlin wall. There was a general feeling of euphoria around the world, but the greatest impact was felt by the peoples on both sides of the wall who now could be reunited with their families, their friends and their neighbors. I look forward to that same reuniting between the people of Cuba and the people of the United States of America.
President Obama hinted about visiting Cuba sometime in the future. He should go with First Lady Michelle and the girls. They can see the educational system in Cuba, the country’s racial diversity, the spirit and warmth of the Cuban people - if he ever has any doubt about his decision to open the doors, it will disappear after this visit.
¡¡¡ Que viva Cuba y que viva Barack Obama!!!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

2015--a Year for Reflection and Renewal

The theme across the museum blog-o-sphere this month is reflection and renewal. Jeff Inscho’s intentions for the coming year include making more things with his hands and “valuing tactile media and relationships over their virtual/digital counterparts.” Ed Rodley resolves to be more mindful and deliberate about his blogging practice and to give more attention to projects like Code|Words. (It’s an intimidating measure of Ed’s productivity that his shared responsibility for that marvelous compendium of essays on Medium is merely a “side project.” Yow.) If one of your resolutions for 2015 is to add some smart museum-related blogs to your feed you can find Jeff at Static Made, and Ed at Thinking about Museums.

In any case—my turn to reflect. The timing is apt: CFM launched in 2008, and it’s high time to revisit and refresh the initiative’s business plan. Revisiting our original ambitions, where have we fallen short? What new opportunities have opened in the past few years? So, in 2015 my focus will be on creating strategies to:

Scale up CFM’s work in order to benefit more people and organizations around the world. The conventional way to accomplish this would be to hire more staff, fill more of the office space here in DC, etc., etc.. As head of the Alliance’s designated skunk works, I have to ask—is that the best way to do more and better work? What are the alternatives? Can we create a distributed network of organizations and individuals united by a shared quest for productive futures? How can we make the work of CFM something that takes place in many places, in many ways, rather than being dependent on and directed by just one organization?

Create a sustainable business model. Support for CFM is primarily provided by Alliance membership dues, together with a healthy chunk of earned income from speaking engagements, a modest (but much appreciated) amount of donor and grant support and a teeny bit of advertising revenue. Now that CFM is maturing, can it become more self-sufficient, freeing up income to fund the creation of new Alliance products and services for the field? Can we tap sources of income, both earned and philanthropic, that are not already flowing to museums or museum associations and in this way increase the size of the “pie” that feeds us all?

Move from ideas to action—translate the insights generated through CFM’s forecasting and thought leadership into real-world change. I think CFM has done a pretty good job establishing itself as a think-tank. It’s time to mature into the other role assigned to initiative by the Alliance board—that of research and design lab. How can CFM play an active role in testing and refining practical applications of our ideas? What does it mean to be a “lab,” and what form could CFM-instigated experiments take?

These are very broad, operational goals compared to the specific and personal intentions Jeff and Ed set forth, but I think they spring from common impulses: the realization that we only have so much time and attention to spend on the world; the desire to make that time and attention count for as much as possible; the understanding that this means deciding where to focus, and to what end.  Like Jeff, I want to do more work that makes a concrete, tangible mark on the real world, rather than leaving only an ephemeral trail of digital footprints. Like Ed, I want to be more mindful and deliberate about what I choose to take on. Maybe I will do less, in the coming year, if that’s measured by blog posts and speaking engagements, but I want what I do undertake to result in long-term improvements for CFM, the Alliance, and for museums.

As I travel the country this year I look forward to many productive discussions with friends, collaborators, critics and any interested parties about the design of CFM 2.0.  I’d love the chance to bounce ideas off of you and hear your thoughts on what we can accomplish, and how. Here are some places to find me in the next few months:

At the “Black Swan Ball” in Austin next week (January 13-15), joining diverse folks (many of them forecasters for the New Media Consortium’s Horizon Report) to explore “highly improbable, high-impact ideas.”

Speaking at the American Library Association in Chicago on Feb 2, helping lay the groundwork for ALA’s Center for the Future of Libraries.

Museums Advocacy Day in DC—where on Feb 23 I’ll give my annual update on how cultural, technological, economic and environmental trends may shape the policies that govern nonprofits in general and museums in particular.

At Brown University in Providence, RI on May 7th, where I am giving a keynote at the Lost Museums Colloquium, organized by Steven Lubar. The colloquium itself continues on May 8th, with a keynote by one of my favorite artists—Rosamond Wolff Purcell—which I will miss, dang it, because I’ll be rushing back to DC to speak at the Opera America conference on May 8th.

And of course I look forward to seeing you at the AAM annual meeting in Atlanta, April 26-29. I’ll be giving a presentation on TrendsWatch 2015 (which will be coming out next month, BTW), chairing a panel on museums as educational resources, and facilitating the second annual CEO Symposium. As usual, we are instigating a glimpse of the future in Museum Expo, with the help of industry partners and local museums. I don’t want to give away too much, yet, but here’s a hint.

In the background: a photo of the 19th annual
convention of the American Association of
Museums, May 13, 1924.

Happy New Year and Best Wishes for the Short Term Future in 2015.